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The winter was half gone; and in all this time Brita had hardly once seen Halvard. Yes, once,--it was Christmas-day,--she had ventured to peep over to his pew in the church, and had seen him, sitting at his father's side, and gazing vacantly out into the empty space; but as he had caught her glance, he had blushed, and began eagerly to turn the leaves of his hymn- book. It troubled her that he made no effort to see her; many an evening she had walked alone down at the river-side, hoping that he might come; but it was all in vain. She could not but believe that his father must have made some discovery, and that he was watched. In the mean time the black cloud thickened over her head; for a secret gnawed at the very roots of her heart. It was a time of terrible suspense and suffering--such as a man never knows, such as only a woman can endure. It was almost a relief when the cloud burst, and the storm broke loose, as presently it did.
One Sunday, early in April, Bjarne did not return at the usual hour from church. His daughters waited in vain for him with the dinner, and at last began to grow uneasy. It was not his habit to keep irregular hours. There was a great excitement in the valley just then; the America-fever had broken out. A large vessel was lying out in the fjord, ready to take the emigrants away; and there was hardly a family that did not mourn the loss of some brave-hearted son, or of some fair and cherished daughter. The old folks, of course, had to remain behind; and when the children were gone, what was there left for them but to lie down and die? America was to them as distant as if it were on another planet. The family feeling, too, has ever been strong in the Norseman's breast; he lives for his children, and seems to live his life over again in them. It is his greatest pride to be able to trace his blood back into the days of Sverre and St. Olaf, and with the same confidence he expects to see his race spread into the future in the same soil where once it has struck root. Then comes the storm from the Western seas, wrestles with the sturdy trunk, and breaks it; and the shattered branches fly to all the four corners of the heavens. No wonder, then, like a tree that has lost its crown, his strength is broken and he expects but to smoulder into the earth and die.
Bjarne Blakstad, like the sturdy old patriot that he was, had always fiercely denounced the America rage; and it was now the hope of his daughters that, perhaps, he had stayed behind to remind the restless ones among the youth of their duty toward their land, or to frighten some bold emigration agent who might have been too loud in his declamations. But it was already eight o'clock and Bjarne was not yet to be seen. The night was dark and stormy; a cold sleet fiercely lashed the window-panes, and the wind roared in the chimney. Grimhild, the younger sister, ran restlessly out and in and slammed the doors after her. Brita sat tightly pressed up against the wall in the darkest corner of the room. Every time the wind shook the house she started up; then again seated herself and shuddered. Dark forebodings filled her soul.
At last,--the clock had just struck ten,--there was a noise heard in the outer hall. Grimhild sprang to the door and tore it open. A tall, stooping figure entered, and by the dress she at once recognized her father.
"Good God," cried she, and ran up to him.
"Go away, child," muttered he, in a voice that sounded strangely unfamiliar, and he pushed her roughly away. For a moment he stood still, then stalked up to the table, and, with a heavy thump, dropped down into a chair. There he remained with his elbows resting on his knees, and absently staring on the floor. His long hair hung in wet tangles down over his face, and the wrinkles about his mouth seemed deeper and fiercer than usual. Now and then he sighed, or gave vent to a deep groan. In a while his eyes began to wander uneasily about the room; and as they reached the corner where Brita was sitting, he suddenly darted up, as if stung by something poisonous, seized a brand from the hearth, and rushed toward her.
"Tell me I did not see it," he broke forth, in a hoarse whisper, seizing her by the arm and thrusting the burning brand close up to her face. "Tell me it is a lie--a black, poisonous lie."
She raised her eyes slowly to his and gazed steadfastly into his face. "Ah," he continued in the same terrible voice, "it was what I told them down there at the church--a lie--an infernal lie. And I drew blood--blood, I say--I did--from the slanderer. Ha, ha, ha! What a lusty sprawl that was!"
The color came and departed from Brita's cheeks. And still she was strangely self possessed. She even wondered at her own calmness. Alas, she did not know that it was a calmness that is more terrible than pain, the corpse of a forlorn and hopeless heart.
"Child," continued Bjarne, and his voice assumed a more natural tone, "why dost thou not speak? They have lied about thee, child, because thou art fair, they have envied thee." Then, almost imploringly, "Open thy mouth, Brita, and tell thy father that thou art pure-- pure as the snow, child--my own--my beautiful child."
There was a long and painful pause, in which the crackling of the brand, and the heavy breathing of the old man were the only sounds to break the silence. Pale like a marble image stood she before him; no word of excuse, no prayer for forgiveness escaped her; only a convulsive quivering of the lips betrayed the life that struggled within her. With every moment the hope died in Bjarne's bosom. His visage was fearful to behold. Terror and fierce indomitable hatred had grimly distorted his features, and his eyes burned like fire-coals beneath his bushy brows.
"Harlot," he shrieked, "harlot!"
A cold gust of wind swept through the room. The windows shook, the doors flew open, as if touched by a strong invisible hand--and the old man stood alone, holding the flickering brand above his head.
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Tales From Two Hemispheres -by- Hjalmar Hjorth Boysen