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Tales From Two Hemispheres by Hjalmar Hjorth Boysen

Part 5 out of 5

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has its Neck, besides hosts of little water-sprites.
She had heard also that in the moonlight at
midsummer, one might chance to see them
rocking in bright little shells, playing among
the pebbles, or dancing on the large leaves of
the water-lily. And that they could sing also,
she doubted not; it was their voices she heard
through the murmuring of the brook. Aasa
eagerly bent forward and gazed down into the
water: the faint song grew louder, paused
suddenly, and sprang into life again; and its sound
was so sweet, so wonderfully alluring! Down
there in the water, where a stubborn pebble
kept chafing a precipitous little side current,
clear tiny pearl-drops would leap up from the
stream, and float half-wonderingly downward
from rapid to rapid, until they lost themselves
in the whirl of some stronger current. Thus
sat Aasa and gazed and gazed, and in one moment
she seemed to see what in the next moment
she saw not. Then a sudden great hush stole
through the forest, and in the hush she could
hear the silence calling her name. It was so
long since she had been in the forest, it seemed
ages and ages ago. She hardly knew herself;
the light seemed to be shining into her eyes as
with a will and purpose, perhaps to obliterate
something, some old dream or memory, or to
impart some new power--the power of seeing
the unseen. And this very thought, this fear of
some possible loss, brought the fading memory
back, and she pressed her hands against her
throbbing temples as if to bind and chain it
there forever; and it was he to whom her
thought returned. She heard his voice, saw
him beckoning to her to follow him, and she
rose to obey, but her limbs were as petrified,
and the stone on which she was sitting held her
with the power of a hundred strong arms. The
sunshine smote upon her eyelids, and his name
was blotted out from her life; there was nothing
but emptiness all around her. Gradually
the forest drew nearer and nearer, the water
bubbled and rippled, and the huge, bare-
stemmed pines stretched their long gnarled
arms toward her. The birches waved their
heads with a wistful nod, and the profile of the
rock grew into a face with a long, hooked nose,
and a mouth half open as if to speak. And the
word that trembled on his lips was, "Come."
She felt no fear nor reluctance, but rose to obey.
Then and not until then she saw an old man
standing at her side; his face was the face of
the rock, his white beard flowed to his girdle,
and his mouth was half open, but no word
came from his lips. There was something in
the wistful look of his eye which she knew so
well, which she had seen so often, although she
could not tell when or where. The old man
extended his hand; Aasa took it, and fearlessly
or rather spontaneously followed. They
approached the steep, rocky wall; as they drew
near, a wild, fierce laugh rang through the
forest. The features of the old man were twisted
as it were into a grin; so also were the features
of the rock; but the laugh blew like a mighty
blast through the forest.

Aasa clung to the old man's hand and followed
him--she knew not whither.

At home in the large sitting-room at Kvaerk
sat Lage, brooding over the wreck of his hopes
and his happiness. Aasa had gone to the woods
again the very first day after Vigfusson's
departure. What would be the end of all this?
It was already late in the evening, and she had
not returned. The father cast anxious glances
toward the door, every time he heard the latch
moving. At last, when it was near midnight, he
roused all his men from their sleep, and
commanded them to follow him. Soon the dusky
forests resounded far and near with the blast
of horns, the report of guns, and the calling and
shouting of men. The affrighted stag crossed
and recrossed the path of the hunters, but not a
rifle was leveled at its head. Toward morning--
it was before the sun had yet risen--Lage,
weary and stunned, stood leaning up against a
huge fir. Then suddenly a fierce, wild laugh
rang through the forest. Lage shuddered,
raised his hand slowly and pressed it hard
against his forehead, vainly struggling to clear
his thoughts. The men clung fearfully
together; a few of the more courageous ones drew
their knives and made the sign of the cross with
them in the air. Again the same mad laugh
shook the air, and swept over the crowns of the
pine-trees. Then Lage lifted his eyes toward
heaven and wrung his hands: for the awful
truth stood before him. He remained a long
while leaning against that old fir as in a dead
stupor; and no one dared to arouse him. A
suppressed murmur reached the men's ears.
"But deliver us from evil" were the last words
they heard.

When Lage and his servants came home to
Kvaerk with the mournful tidings of Aasa's
disappearance, no one knew what to do or say.
There could be no doubt that Aasa was "mountain-
taken," as they call it; for there were Trolds
and dwarfs in all the rocks and forests round
about, and they would hardly let slip the chance
of alluring so fair a maiden as Aasa was into
their castles in the mountains. Elsie, her
mother, knew a good deal about the Trolds,
their tricks, and their way of living, and when
she had wept her fill, she fell to thinking of
the possibility of regaining her daughter from
their power. If Aasa had not yet tasted of food
or drink in the mountain, she was still out of
danger; and if the pastor would allow the
church-bell to be brought up into the forest and
rung near the rock where the laugh had been
heard, the Trolds could be compelled to give
her back. No sooner had this been suggested
to Lage, than the command was given to muster
the whole force of men and horses, and before
evening on the same day the sturdy swains of
Kvaerk were seen climbing the tower of the
venerable church, whence soon the huge old bell
descended, to the astonishment of the throng
of curious women and children who had flocked
together to see the extraordinary sight. It was
laid upon four large wagons, which had been
joined together with ropes and planks, and
drawn away by twelve strong horses. Long
after the strange caravan had vanished in the
twilight, the children stood gazing up into the
empty bell-tower.

It was near midnight, when Lage stood at the
steep, rocky wall in the forest; the men were
laboring to hoist the church-bell up to a staunch
cross-beam between two mighty fir-trees, and
in the weird light of their torches, the wild
surroundings looked wilder and more fantastic.
Anon, the muffled noise and bustle of the work
being at an end, the laborers withdrew, and a
strange, feverish silence seemed to brood over
the forest. Lage took a step forward, and
seized the bell-rope; the clear, conquering toll
of the metal rung solemnly through the silence,
and from the rocks, the earth, and the tree-
tops, rose a fierce chorus of howls, groans, and
screams. All night the ringing continued; the
old trees swayed to and fro, creaked, and
groaned, the roots loosened their holds in the
fissures of the rock, and the bushy crowns
bowed low under their unwonted burden.

It was well-nigh morn, but the dense fog still
brooded over the woods, and it was dark as
night. Lage was sitting on the ground, his
head leaning on both his elbows; at his side lay
the flickering torch, and the huge bell hung
dumb overhead. In the dark he felt a hand
touch his shoulder; had it happened only a few
hours before, he would have shuddered; now
the physical sensation hardly communicated
itself to his mind, or, if it did, had no power to
rouse him from his dead, hopeless apathy.
Suddenly--could he trust his own ears?--the
church-bell gave a slow, solemn, quivering
stroke, and the fogs rolled in thick masses to
the east and to the west, as if blown by the
breath of the sound. Lage seized his torch,
sprang to his feet, and saw--Vigfusson. He
stretched his arm with the blazing torch closer
to the young man's face, stared at him with
large eyes, and his lip quivered; but he could
not utter a word.

"Vigfusson?" faltered he at last.

"It is I;" and the second stroke followed,
stronger and more solemn than the first. The
same fierce, angry voices chorused forth from
every nook of the rock and the woods. Then
came the third--the noise grew; fourth--and it
sounded like a hoarse, angry hiss; when the
twelfth stroke fell, silence reigned again in the
forest. Vigfusson dropped the bell-rope, and
with a loud voice called Lage Kvaerk and his
men. He lit a torch, held it aloft over his head,
and peered through the dusky night. The men
spread through the highlands to search for the
lost maiden; Lage followed close in Vigfusson's
footsteps. They had not walked far when they
heard the babbling of the brook only a few feet
away. Thither they directed their steps. On
a large stone in the middle of the stream the
youth thought he saw something white, like a
large kerchief. Quick as thought he was at
its side, bowed down with his torch, and--fell
backward. It was Aasa, his beloved, cold and
dead; but as the father stooped over his dead
child the same mad laugh echoed wildly throughout
the wide woods, but madder and louder
than ever before, and from the rocky wall came
a fierce, broken voice:

"I came at last."

When, after an hour of vain search, the men
returned to the place whence they had started,
they saw a faint light flickering between the
birches not fifty feet away; they formed a firm
column, and with fearful hearts drew nearer.
There lay Lage Kvaerk, their master, still
bending down over his child's pale features, and
staring into her sunken eyes as if he could not
believe that she were really dead. And at his
side stood Vigfusson, pale and aghast, with the
burning torch in his hand. The footsteps of
the men awakened the father, but when he
turned his face on them they shuddered and
started back. Then Lage rose, lifted the maiden
from the stone, and silently laid her in
Vigfusson's arms; her rich yellow hair flowed down
over his shoulder. The youth let his torch fall
into the waters, and with a sharp, serpent-like
hiss its flame was quenched. He crossed the
brook; the men followed, and the dark pine-trees
closed over the last descendant of Lage Ulfson's
mighty race.

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