The stiffening cold frost

It was a clear, cold afternoon in the mountain region. The air lay
blue with the frost, with light rose tints over all the sharp crests,
ravines, and peaks, which, like a series of gigantic drifts, tower
above tower, floated up towards the horizon. Below, hills and wooded
mountain slopes shut the region in with white walls, constantly
narrower and narrower, nearer and nearer, always more contracting.

The snow was late this year, but in return, now that the Christmas
season had come, lay so heavy on fir and spruce that it bent down both
needles and twigs. The groves of birches stood up to their waists
in snow; the small clusters of tile-roofed houses of the district
were half buried, with snow-drifts pressing down over the roofs. The
entrances to the farmyards were deeply dug paths, from which the gate
and fence posts stuck up here and there like the masts of sunken boats.

The snow-plough had recently gone through the highway, and on the steep
red-tiled roof of the captain’s house men were busy shovelling down the
great frozen snow-drifts, which hung threatening over the ends of the
roof.

The captain’s house was specially prominent in the district. It was
unpainted and built of square logs, like the greater part of that kind
of houses a generation ago.

Over the garden fence and almost up under the window-frames lay the
snow-drifts with tracks of sleds and skis in their icy crust, which
smoked a little in the frosty north wind under the sun.

It was the same cold, disagreeable north wind which, every time the
outer door was opened, blew against the kitchen door until that opened
too, and, if it was not closed again, soon after, one or another door
on the next floor,–and that made the captain come down from his
office, flushed and passionate, to make inquiries and fret and fume
over the whole house as to who had gone there first and who had gone
last. He could never understand why they did not keep the door shut,
though the matter was most easily to be understood,–for the latch was
old and loose, and the captain would never spend any money on the smith
for a new one.

In the common room below, between the sofa and the stove, the captain’s
wife, in an old brown linsey-woolsey dress, sat sewing. She had a
tall, stiff figure, and a strong, but gaunt, dried-up face, and had
the appearance of being anxiously occupied at present by an intricate
problem–the possibility of again being able to put a new durable patch
on the seat of Jörgen’s trousers; they were always bottomless–almost
to desperation.

She had just seized the opportunity for this, while Jäger was up in his
office, and the children were gone to the post-office; for she went
about all day long like a horse grinding clay in a brickyard.

The mahogany sewing-table inlaid with mother-of-pearl and several
different kinds of wood, which stood open before her, must have been a
family heirloom; in its condition of faded antiquity, it reminded one
not a little of her, and in any event did not at all correspond either
with the high-backed, rickety, leather armchair, studded with brass
nails, in which she sat, nor with the long birchen sofa covered with
green linsey-woolsey, which stood like a solitary deserted land against
the wall, and seemed to look longingly over to the brown, narrow
folding-table, which, with its leaves let down, stood equally solitary
and abandoned between the two windows.

The brown case with the four straight legs against the farther wall,
with a heap of papers, books, hats, and the spy-glass upon it, was an
old clavichord, which, with great trouble, she had had transported up
into the mountain region, out of the effects of her home, and on which
she had faithfully practised with her children the same pieces which
she herself had learned.

The immense every-day room, with the bare timber walls, the unpainted
sanded floor, and the small panes with short curtains fastened up in
the middle, was in its whole extent extremely scantily furnished;
it was half a mile from chair to chair, and everything had a rural
meagreness such as one could often see in the homes of officials in the
mountain districts in the forties. In the middle of the inner wall,
before the great white fire-wall, the antique stove with the Naes
iron-works stamp and the knotty wooden logs under it jutted out into
the room like a mighty giant. Indeed, nothing less than such a mass of
iron was needed to succeed in warming up the room; and in the woods of
the captain’s farm there was plenty of fuel.

Finally abandoning all more delicate expedients for the trousers, she
had laid on a great patch covering everything, and was now sewing
zealously. The afternoon sun was still shedding a pale yellow light
in the window-frames; it was so still in the room that her movements
in sewing were almost audible, and a spool of thread which fell down
caused a kind of echo.

All at once she raised herself like a soldier at an order and gave
attention. She heard her husband’s quick, heavy step creaking on the
stairs.

Was it the outside door again?

Captain Jäger, a red, round, and stout man in a threadbare uniform
coat, came hastily in, puffing, with the still wet quill-pen in his
mouth; he went straight to the window.

His wife merely sewed more rapidly; she wished to use the time, and
also prudently to assume the defensive against what might come.

He breathed on the frosty pane in order to enlarge the part that could
be seen through. “You will see there is something by the mail. The
children are running a race down there in the road,–they are running
away from Jörgen with the sled.”

The needle only flew still faster.

“Ah, how they run!–Thinka and Thea. But Inger-Johanna! Come here, Ma,
and see how she puts down her feet–isn’t it as if she was dancing?
Now she means to be the first in, and so she will be the first, that I
promise you. It is no story when I tell you that the lass is handsome,
Ma; that they all see. Ah, come and look how she gets ahead of Thinka!
Just come now, Ma!”

But “Ma” did not stir. The needle moved with forced nervous haste. The
captain’s wife was sewing a race with what was coming; it was even
possible that she might get the last of the patch finished before they
entered, and just now the sun disappeared behind the mountain crest;
they were short days it gave them up there.

The steps outside were taken in two or three leaps, and the door flew
open.

Quite right–Inger-Johanna.

She rushed in with her cloak unfastened and covered with snow. She had
untied the strings of her hood on the way up the steps, so that her
black hair fell down in confusion over her hot face. Breathless, she
threw her flowered Valders mittens on a chair. She stood a moment to
get her breath, brushed her hair under her hood, and shouted out:

“An order for post-horses at the station, for Captain Rönnow and
Lieutenant Mein. The horses are to be here at Gilje at six o’clock
to-morrow morning. They are coming here.”

“Rönnow, Ma!” roared the captain, surprised; it was one of the comrades
of his youth.

Now the others also came storming in with the details.

The mother’s pale face, with its marked features and smooth black hair
in loops down over her cheeks in front of her cap, assumed a somewhat
thoughtful, anxious expression. Should the veal roast be sacrificed
which she had reserved for the dean, or the pig? The latter had been
bought from the north district, and was fearfully poor.

“Well, well, I bet he is going to Stockholm,” continued the captain,
meditatively drumming on the window-frame. “Adjutant, perhaps; they
would not let that fellow stay out there in the West. Do you know, Ma,
I have thought of something of this sort ever since the prince had so
much to do with him at the drill-ground. I often said to him, ‘Your
stories, Rönnow, will make your fortune,–but look out for the general,
he knows a thing or two.’ ‘Pooh! that goes down like hot cakes,’ said
he. And it looks like it–the youngest captain!”

“The prince–” The captain’s wife was just through with the trousers,
and rose hastily. Her meagre, yellowish face, with its Roman nose,
assumed a resolute expression: she decided on the fatted calf.

“Inger-Johanna, see to it that your father has his Sunday wig on,” she
exclaimed hurriedly, and hastened out into the kitchen.

The stove in the best room was soon packed full, and glowing. It had
not been used since it had been rubbed up and polished with blacking
last spring, and smoked now so that they were obliged to open door and
windows to the cold, though it was below zero.

Great-Ola, the farm-hand, had been busy carrying large armfuls of long
wood into the kitchen, and afterwards with brushing the captain’s old
uniform coat with snow out on the porch; it must not look as if he had
dressed up.

The guest-chamber was made ready, with the beds turned down, and the
fire started, so that the thin stove snapped, and the flies suddenly
woke up and buzzed under the ceiling, while the wainscot was browned
outside of the fire-wall and smelled of paint. Jörgen’s hair was wet
and combed; the girls changed their aprons to be ready to go down and
greet the guests, and were set to work rolling up pipe-lighters for the
card-table.

They kept looking out as long as the twilight lasted, both from the
first and second story windows, while Great-Ola, with his red peaked
cap, made a path in the snow to the carriage-road and the steps.

And now, when it was dark, the children listened with beating hearts
for the slightest sound from the road. All their thoughts and longings
went out towards the strange, distant world which so rarely visited
them, but of which they heard so much that sounded grand and marvellous.

There are the bells!

But, no; Thinka was entirely wrong.

They had all agreed to that fact, when Inger-Johanna, who stood in the
dark by a window which she held a little open, exclaimed, “But there
they are!”

Quite right. They could hear the sleigh-bells, as the horse, moving by
fits and starts, laboriously made his way up the Gilje hills.

The outside door was opened, and Great-Ola stood at the stairs, holding
the stable lantern with a tallow candle in it, ready to receive them.

A little waiting, and the bells suddenly sounded plainly in the road
behind the wood-shed. Now you could hear the snow creaking under the
runners.

The captain placed the candlestick on the table in the hall, the floor
of which had been freshly scoured, washed, and strewn with juniper. He
went out on the stairs, while the children, head to head, peeped out of
the kitchen door, and kept Pasop, who growled and fretted behind them,
from rushing out and barking.

“Good-evening, Rönnow! Good-evening, Lieutenant! Welcome to Gilje!”
said the captain with his strong, cheerful voice, while the vehicle,
which at the last post-house was honored with the name of double
sleigh, swung into the yard and up to the steps. “You are elegantly
equipped, I see.”

“Beastly cold, Peter,–beastly cold, Peter,” came the answer from the
tall figure wrapped in furs, as he threw down the reins, and, now a
little stiff in his movements, stepped out of the sleigh, while the
steaming horse shook himself in his harness so that the bells rang
loudly. “I believe we are frozen stiff. And then this little rat we
have for a horse would not go. It is a badger dog they have harnessed
in order to dig our way through the snow-drifts. How are you, Peter? It
will be pleasant to get into your house. How goes it?” he concluded,
upon the steps, shaking the captain’s hand. “Bring in the case of
bottles, Lieutenant.”

While the two gentlemen took off their furs and travelling-boots in
the hall and paid for the horse, and Great-Ola carried the trunk up to
the guest-chamber, an odor of incense diffused itself from the large
room, which at once roused Captain Rönnow’s cavalier instinct to a
recollection of the lady, whom, in the joy of seeing his old comrade
once more, he had forgotten. His large, stately figure stopped before
the door, and he adjusted his stock.

“Do I look tolerably well, Peter, so I can properly appear before your
wife?” he said, running his hand through his black curly hair.

“Yes, yes, fine enough–devilish fine-looking fellow, Lieutenant.–If
you please, gentlemen. Captain Rönnow and Lieutenant Mein, Ma,” he
said, as he opened the door.

The mistress of the house rose from her place at the table, where she
was now sitting with fine white knitting-work. She greeted Captain
Rönnow as heartily as her stiff figure would allow, and the lieutenant
somewhat critically. It was the governor’s sister to whom the salaam
was made, as Captain Rönnow afterwards expressed it–an old, great
family.

She disappeared a little later into domestic affairs, to “get them
something for supper.”

Captain Rönnow rubbed his hands from the cold, wheeled around on one
leg on the floor, and thus placed himself with his back to the stove.
“I tell you we are frozen stiff, Peter,–but–Oh, Lieutenant, bring in
the case of bottles.”

When Lieutenant Mein came in again, Rönnow took a sealed bottle with a
label, and held it, swinging by the neck, before the captain.

“Look at it, Peter Jäger! Look well at it!” and he moved over towards
his friend. “Genuine arrack from Atschin in hither–farther–East–or
West India. I present it to you. May it melt your heart, Peter Jäger!”

“Hot water and sugar, Ma!” shouted the captain out into the kitchen,
“then we shall soon know whether you only mean to deceive us simple
country folks with stories. And out with the whist-table till we have
supper! We can play three-handed whist with a dummy.”

“Brrr-rr-whew, what kind of stuff is it you’ve got in your tobacco box,
Jäger?” said Captain Rönnow, who was filling his pipe at it; “powder,
sneezing powder, I believe! Smell it, Lieutenant. It must be tansy from
the nursery.”

“Tideman’s three crown, fellow! We can’t endure your leaf tobacco and
Virginia up here in the mountain districts,” came from Jäger, who was
pulling out and opening the card-table. “Only look at the next box
under the lead cover, and you will find some cut-leaf tobacco, Bremen
leaf, as black and high flavored as you want. Up here it is only to
the goats that we can offer that kind, and to the folk who come from
Bergen; they use strong tobacco there to dry out the wet fog.”

The door opened, and the three girls and their little brother came in,
carrying the tray with the glasses and the jug of hot water, which task
they seemed to have apportioned among themselves according to the rules
for the procession at the Duke of Marlborough’s funeral, where, as is
known, the fourth one carried nothing.

The tall, blond Kathinka marched at the head with the tray and glasses
with the clinking teaspoons in them. She attempted the feat of
curtseying, while she was carrying the tray, and blushed red when it
was ready to slip, and the lieutenant was obliged to take hold of it to
steady it.

He immediately noticed the next oldest, a brunette with long eyelashes,
who was coming with the smoking water-jug on a plate, while the
youngest, Thea, was immediately behind her with the sugar-bowl.

“But, my dear Peter Jäger,” exclaimed Rönnow, astonished at the
appearance of his friend’s almost grown-up daughters, “when have you
picked up all this? You wrote once about some girls,–and a boy who was
to be baptized.”

At the same moment Jörgen came boldly forward, strutting over the
floor, and made his best bow, while he pulled his bristly yellow locks
instead of his cap.

“What is your name?”

“Jörgen Winnecken von Zittow Jäger.”

“That was heavy! You are a perfect mountain boy, are you not? Let me
see you kick as high as your name.”

“No, but as high as my cap,” answered Jörgen, going back on the floor
and turning a cart-wheel.

“Bold fellow, that Jörgen!” And with that, as Jörgen had done his
part, he stepped back into obscurity. But while the gentlemen were
pouring out the arrack punch at the folding-table, he kept his eyes
uninterruptedly fastened on Lieutenant Mein. It was the lieutenant’s
regularly trimmed black moustache, which seemed to him like bits that
he had not got into his mouth properly.

“Oh, here, my girl!” said Rönnow, turning to one of the daughters, who
stood by his side while he was putting some sugar into the steaming
glass, “what is your name?”

“Inger-Johanna.”

“Yes, listen”–he spoke without seeing anything else than the arm he
touched to call her attention. “Listen, my little Inger-Johanna! In the
breast pocket of my fur coat out in the hall there are two lemons–I
didn’t believe that fruit grew up here in the mountains, Peter!–two
lemons.”

“No, let me! Pardon me!” and the lieutenant flew gallantly.

Captain Rönnow looked up, astonished. The dark, thin girl, in the
outgrown dress which hung about her legs, and the three thick, heavy,
black cables, braided closely for the occasion, hanging down her back,
stood distinct in the light before him. Her neck rose, delicately
shaped and dazzlingly fresh, from the blue, slightly low-cut,
linsey-woolsey dress, and carried her head proudly, with a sort of
swan-like curve.

The captain grasped at once why the lieutenant was so alert.

“Bombs and grenades, Peter!” he exclaimed.

“Do you hear that, Ma?” the captain grunted slyly.

“Up here among the peasants the children–more’s the pity–grow up
without any other manners than those that they learn of the servants,”
sighed the mother. “Don’t stand so bent over, Thinka, straighten up.”

Thinka straightened up her overgrown blond figure and tried to smile.
She had the difficult task of hiding a plaster on one side of her
chin, where a day or two before she had fallen down through the cellar
trap-door in the kitchen.

Soon the three gentlemen sat comfortably at their cards, each one
smoking his pipe and with a glass of hot arrack punch by his side.
Two moulded tallow candles in tall brass candlesticks stood on the
card-table and two on the folding-table; they illuminated just enough
so that you could see the almanac, which hung down by a piece of twine
from a nail under the looking-glass, and a part of the lady’s tall form
and countenance, while she sat knitting in her frilled cap. In the
darkness of the room the chairs farthest off by the stove could hardly
be distinguished from the kitchen door–from which now and then came
the hissing of the roasting meat.

“Three tricks, as true as I live–three tricks, and by those cards!”
exclaimed Captain Rönnow, eager in the game.

“Thanks, thanks,” turning to Inger-Johanna who brought a lighted
paper-lighter to his expiring pipe. “Th-a-nks”–he continued, drawing
in the smoke and puffing it out, his observant eyes again being
attracted by her. Her expression was so bright, the great dark eyes
moving to and fro under her eyebrows like dark drops, while she stood
following the cards.

“What is your name, once more, my girl?” he asked absently.

“Inger-Johanna,” she replied with a certain humor; she avoided looking
at him.

“Yes, yes.–Now it is my turn to deal! Your daughter puts a bee in my
bonnet, madam. I should like to take her with me to Christiania to the
governor’s, and bring her out. We would make a tremendous sensation,
that I am sure of.”

“At last properly dealt! Play.”

With her hands on the back of her father’s chair, Inger-Johanna gazed
intently on the cards; but her face had a heightened glow.

Rönnow glanced at her from one side. “A sight for the gods, a sight
for the gods!” he exclaimed, as he gathered together with his right
hand the cards he had just arranged, and threw them on the table.
“Naturally I mean how the lieutenant manages dummy–you understand,
madam,” nodding to her with significance. “Heavens! Peter, that was a
card to play.–Here you can see what I mean,” he continued. “Trump,
trump, trump, trump!” He eagerly threw four good spades on the table,
one after another, without paying any attention to what followed.

The expression of the lady’s face, as she sat there and heard her
innermost thoughts repeated so plainly, was immovably sealed; she
said, somewhat indifferently, “It is high time, children, you said
good-night; it is past your bed-time. Say good-night to the gentlemen.”

The command brought disappointment to their faces; not obeying was out
of the question, and they went round the table, and made curtsies and
shook hands with the captain and the lieutenant.

The last thing Jörgen noticed was that the lieutenant turned round,
stretched his neck, and gaped like Svarten as they went out.

Their mother straightened up over her knitting-work. “You used to visit
my brother’s, the governor’s, formerly, Captain Rönnow,” she ventured.
“They are childless folk, who keep a hospitable house. You will call on
them now, I suppose.”

“Certainly I shall! To refrain from doing that would be a crime! You
have, I should imagine, thought of sending one of your daughters there.
The governor’s wife is a person who knows how to introduce a young lady
into the world, and your Inger-Johanna–”

The captain’s wife answered slowly and with some stress; something of
a suppressed bitterness rose up in her. “That would be an entirely
unexpected piece of good fortune; but more than we out-of-the-way
country folk can expect of our grand, distinguished sister-in-law.
Small circumstances make small folk, more’s the pity; large ones ought
to make them otherwise.–My brother has made her a happy wife.”

“Done. Will you allow an old friend to work a little for your
attractive little Inger?” returned Captain Rönnow.

“I think that Ma will thank you. What do you say, Gitta? Then you will
have a peg to hang one of them on. It can’t be from one of us two
that Inger-Johanna has inherited her beauty, Ma!” said Captain Jäger,
coughing and warding off his wife’s admonitory look; “but there is
blood, both on her father’s and mother’s side. Her great-grandmother
was married off up in Norway by the Danish queen because she was too
handsome to be at court–it was your grandmother, Ma! Fröken von–”

“My dear Jäger,” begged his wife.

“Pshaw, Ma! The sand of many years has been strewed over that event.”

When the game was again started, the captain’s wife went with her
knitting-work to the card-table, snuffed first one candle and then the
other, leaned over her husband, and whispered something.

The captain looked up, rather surprised. “Yes, indeed, Ma! Yes,
indeed–‘My camel for your dromedary,’ said Peter Vangensten, when he
swapped his old spavined horse for Mamen’s blooded foal. If you come
with your arrack from Holland and farther India, then I put my red wine
direct from France against it–genuine Bordeaux, brought home and drawn
straight from the hogshead! There were just two dozen the governor sent
us with the wagon the autumn Jörgen was baptized.–The two farthest to
the left, Ma! You had better take Marit with you with the lantern. Then
you can tell the governor’s wife that we drank her health up here among
the snow-drifts, Rönnow.”

“Yes, she is very susceptible to that kind of thing, Peter Jäger.”

When the captain’s wife came in again, she had the stiff damask
tablecloth on her arm, and was accompanied by a girl who helped move
the folding-table out on the floor. It was to be set for supper, and
the card-table must be moved into the best room, across the hall, which
was now warm.

“Can you wait, Ma, till the rubber is played?”

Ma did not answer; but they felt the full pressure of her silence; her
honor was at stake–the roast veal.

And they played on silently, but at a tearing pace as with full steam.

Finally the captain exclaimed, while Ma stood immovable with the cloth
in the middle of the floor, “There, there, we must get away, Rönnow!”

In the chamber above, impatient hearts were hammering and beating.

While Jörgen went to sleep with the image before him of his lieutenant
who gaped like Svarten when he came out of the stable door into the
light, and after Torbjörg had put out the candle, the sisters stole out
into the great, cold, dark hall. There they all three stood, leaning
over the balustrade, and gazing down on the fur coats and mufflers,
which hung on the timber wall, and on the whip and the two sabre
sheaths and the case of bottles, which were dimly lighted by the stable
lantern on the hall table.

They smelt the odor of the roast as it came up, warm and appetizing,
and saw when the guests, each with his punch-glass in his hand and with
flickering candle, went across the hall into the large room. They heard
the folding-table moved out and set, and later caught the sound of the
clinking of glasses, laughter, and loud voices.

Every sound from below was given a meaning, every fragment of speech
was converted into a romance for their thirsty fancy.

They stood there in the cold till their teeth chattered and their limbs
shook against the wood-work, so that they were obliged to get into bed
again to thaw out.

They heard how the chairs made a noise when the guests rose
from the table, and they went out in the hall again, Thinka and
Inger-Johanna,–Thea was asleep. It helped a little when they put their
feet upon the lowest rail of the balustrade, or hung over it with their
legs bent double under them.

Thinka held out because Inger-Johanna held out; but finally she was
compelled to give up, she could not feel her legs any more. And now
Inger-Johanna alone hung down over the balustrade.

A sort of close odor of punch and tobacco smoke frozen together rose
up through the stairs in the cold, and every time the door was opened
and showed the heavy, smoky, blue gleam of light in the great room, she
could hear officers’ names, fragments of laughter, of violent positive
assertions, with profane imprecations by all possible and impossible
powers of the heavens above and the earth beneath, and between them her
father’s gay voice,–all chopped off in mince-meat every time the door
was shut.

When Inger-Johanna went to bed again, she lay thinking how Captain
Rönnow had asked her twice what her name was, and then again how at
the card-table he had said, “I should like to take her with me to the
governor’s wife; we would make a tremendous sensation.” And then what
came next, “Naturally I mean how the lieutenant plays dummy,”–which
they thought she did not understand.

The wind blew and howled around the corner of the house, and whistled
down through the great plastered chimney-pipe in the hall–and she
still, half in her dreams, heard Captain Rönnow’s “Trump! trump! trump!
trump!”

The next day Ma went about the house as usual with her bunch of keys;
she had hardly slept at all that night.

She had become old before her time, like so many other “mas,” in the
household affairs of that period–old by bearing petty annoyances, by
toil and trouble, by never having money enough, by bending and bowing,
by continually looking like nothing and being everything–the one on
whom the whole anxious care of the house weighed.

But–“One lives for the children.”

That was Ma’s pet sigh of consolation. And the new time had not yet
come to the “mas” with the question whether they were not also bound to
realize their own personal lives.

But for the children it was a holiday, and immediately after breakfast
they darted into the great room.

There stood the card-table, again moved against the wall, with the
cards thrown in a disorderly pile over the paper on which the score had
been kept. It had been folded up and burned on one end for a lighter;
and by its side, during a preliminary cleaning, the three pipes were
lying, shoved aside. One window was still open, notwithstanding the
wind blew in so that the fastening hook rattled.

There was something in the room–a pungent odor, which was not good;
no, but there was, nevertheless, something about it–something of an
actual occurrence.

Outside of the window Great-Ola stood with his hands on the shovel in
the steep snow-drift, listening to Marit’s account of how the captain
had left a broad two-kroner piece for drink money on the table up in
the guest-chamber and the lieutenant a shilling under the candlestick,
and how the mistress had divided them among the girls.

“The lieutenant was not so butter-fingered,” suggested Marit.

“Don’t you know that a lieutenant would be shot if he gave as much as
his captain, girl,” retorted Great-Ola, while she hurried in with the
keys of the storehouse and the meal-chest.

From the captain’s sleeping-room the sound of his snoring could be
heard for the whole forenoon. The guests did not go to bed, and
started at six o’clock in the morning, when the post-boy came to the
door–after the second bottle, also, of Rönnow’s Indian arrack had been
emptied, and a breakfast with whiskey, brawn, and the remnants of the
roast veal had strengthened them for the day’s journey.

But the thing to be done was to have a good time on the holiday. The
sisters bustled about in the hall with their skis, and Jörgen was
trying how the outer steps would do for a ski slide.

Soon they were out on the long steep hill behind the cow-barn–the
ski-staff in both hands in front for a balance, their comforters
streaming out behind their necks. In the jump Inger-Johanna lost her
balance and almost–no, she kept up!

It was because she looked up to the window of the sleeping-room to see
if her father appreciated her skill.

He was walking about and dressing. Ma had at last, about dinner time,
ventured to wake him up.

Two days before Christmas Great-Ola with Svarten and his load was
expected from Christiania, where he went twice a year, St. John’s Day
and Christmas, for the household supplies. To-day was the ninth day;
but in sleighing like this, when the horse’s feet struck through at
every step, no one could be sure of anything.

The load, met on the run, far down the slippery, slushy hill, by the
children and the barking, one-eyed Pasop, came along in the afternoon,
while Svarten, even in his exertions on the steep part of the hill,
neighed and whinnied with pleasure at being home again and longing to
get into the stall by the side of Brunen. He had had quite enough of
the journey, and worked himself into a foam in the harness to get over
the Gilje hill.

Marit, the cook, and Torbjörg were out in the porch before the kitchen;
the three girls and Jörgen stood wholly absorbed by the load and the
horse, and the captain himself came down the stairs.

“Well, Great-Ola, how has Svarten pulled through? Sweaty and tired,
I see! Did you get my uniform buttons? Ah, well! I hope you did
not forget the tobacco!–And my watch, could they do anything with
that?–Have you the bill?–Well, then, you must put up Svarten–he
shall have an extra feed of oats to-day. What? What have you got there?”

Besides the bill, Great-Ola had taken out of his inside vest pocket a
letter wrapped up in paper, blue postal paper, with a beautiful red
seal on it. The captain looked at it a moment with surprise. It was the
writing of the governor’s wife and her seal in the wax, and without
saying a word he hastened in to his wife.

The load from the city, the great event of the half year, occupied the
attention of the whole household. Its contents interested all, not the
children alone, and when Great-Ola, later in the evening, sat in the
kitchen, where he was treated as a guest on account of his return home,
and told about his trip to the city and about Svarten and himself, what
miracles they had wrought on such and such hills–and the load weighed
this time at least two hundred pounds more than the last–then there
was a sort of glamor about him and Svarten, too.

One evening he had even found his way in a snowstorm, and once the
salt-bag was forgotten, and then Svarten actually would not stir from
the inn-yard, but lashed his tail at every cut of the whip, and kept
looking back, until the boy came running out of the hall and shouted
out about the bag, then off he started willingly enough.

The captain had gone in and had wandered up and down in the room for
a while with the letter of the governor’s wife in blue postal paper
in his hand. He looked very much offended at Ma, when she seemed to
think more about the load from the city than about his letter. She only
suggested gently that they must talk about all that in the evening.

“All that–you say, Ma!–that Inger-Johanna is invited down there next
winter–and we have Rönnow to thank for it. That is short and clear
enough, I should think! What? What?” he roared out impatiently. “Is it
not plain?–or have you some notions about it?”

“No–no, dear Jäger!”

“Well, then you should not delay the whole unloading of the goods with
your quiet sigh, full of importance, and your secret meanings which
always make me mad. You know I hate it! I go straight to the point
always!”

“I was merely thinking about your uniform coat, whether the tailor has
sent the pieces with it, you know–”

“You are right, you are right, Gitta,” and out he rushed like a flash.

The unpacking went on in the kitchen, before the spice closet with its
numerous compartments, where raisins, prunes, almonds, the different
kinds of sugar, allspice, and cinnamon, were each put into their own
places. Now and then fell a tribute, a prune, two almonds, three
raisins, to each of the children; and it could not be denied that this
load from the city was like a foretaste of Christmas Eve.

At first the captain was intensely interested in getting hold of the
ink bottles, the tobacco, and the strong wares which were to be kept
in the cellar–everything else must be put aside for them. And then he
flew in and out, with one bill or another in his hand and a quill pen
full of ink, to compare with the general bill which his wife had nailed
up on the upper door of the spice closet.

“Ma, can you conceive such extortion?” stopping suddenly before the
bill, which still finally was always found to be right, and then
turning thoughtfully round again, while he dried his pen in his
chocolate-colored every-day wig.

His plethoric, vociferous, somewhat confused nature always became
furious when he saw a bill; it operated like a red cloth on a bull, and
when, as now, all the half year’s bills came storming down on him at
once, he both roared and bellowed. It was an old story for his wife,
who had acquired a remarkable skill in taking the bull by the horns.

The wrongs, which thus he did _not_ suffer, seemed nevertheless to
awaken an increasing storm of resentment in him. With a violent
tug at the door-latch, and his wig awry, he would come suddenly
in, exclaiming,–“Seventy-five dollars, three shillings, seventeen
pence!–seventy-five–dollars–three shillings–and seventeen
pence!–it is almost enough to make one crazy. And so you ordered
citron–citron,”–he put on a falsetto tone, and laughed out of pure
rage. “He, he, he, he!–now have we the means for that? And then, almond
soap for the guest-chamber!” This last came in a deep, suppressed,
gloomy bass. “I cannot understand how you could have hit on that!”

“My dear, that was thrown in. Don’t you see that it isn’t carried out
for anything?”

“Thrown in–oh, thrown in–yes, there you see how they cheat!
Seventy-five dollars, three shillings, and seventeen pence–plainly
that is enough to be frightened at. Where shall I find the money?”

“But you have already found it, Jäger!–Remember the servants,” she
whispered quickly. It was a quiet prayer to put off the rest of the
outburst till later in the afternoon, between themselves.

The captain’s various ecstatic flashes of passion about the bills
went over the house that afternoon like a refreshing and purifying
thunderstorm before Christmas. The children, cowed and tortured, took
refuge during the storm under the protection of their mother, who
warded off the blast; but when his step was again heard in the office,
they went on, just as persevering and inquisitive as before, peeping
into and shaking out the bags in order to find a raisin or two or a
currant that had been forgotten, collecting the twine, looking after
the weight, and cutting up the bar soap.

During all these anxieties the tall form of the mistress stood in
uninterrupted activity, bowed like a crane over the box with the city
wares, which had been lifted in on the kitchen floor. Jars, willow
baskets filled with hay, small bags, and an infinity of packages in
gray wrappers, tied up with twine, small and great, vanished by degrees
into their different resting-places, even to the last, the bag with the
fine wheat flour, which was brought in by Great-Ola and put by itself
in the meal-chest in the pantry.

When the spice closet was finally shut, the captain stood there for the
twentieth time. With the air of a man who had been made to wait and
been tormented long enough, he gently tapped her on the shoulder with
his fingers and said, rather reproachfully, “It really astonishes me,
Gitta, that you don’t pay more attention to the letter we have received
to-day.”

“I haven’t been able to think of anything else than your troubles with
the bills, Jäger. Now I think you might taste the French brandy this
evening, to see if it is good enough for the Christmas punch. Cognac is
so dear.”

“That’s a good idea, Gitta!–Yes, yes–only let us have supper soon.”

The plates with oatmeal porridge and the blue milk in the cold cups
were placed upon the table; they stood like black, dreary islands over
the cloth, and presented no temptation to linger over the evening meal.

After the necessary part of it was swallowed and the children were
sent upstairs, the captain sat, now quite cozy and comfortable, before
the table, which was still extended, with his tobacco and his taste of
toddy made of the French brandy, whose transformation into Christmas
punch was going on in the kitchen, from which there was also heard the
sizzling of the waffle-iron.

“Only strong, Ma,–only strong!–Then you can manage with the brown
sugar.–Yes, yes,” tasting of the wooden dipper which his wife brought
in, “you can treat the sheriff to that with pleasure.”

“Now Marit is coming in with the warm waffles,–and then it was this
about the letter of the governor’s wife.–You see, Jäger, we cannot
send the child there unless we have her suitably fitted out; she must
have a black silk confirmation dress, city boots and shoes, a hat, and
other things.”

“Black silk conf–”

“Yes, and some other dresses, which we must order in Christiania; there
is no help for it.”

Captain Jäger began to walk to and fro.

“So, so!–So, so! Well, if that is your idea, then I think we will
decline the invitation with thanks.”

“I knew that, Jäger! You would like to have the yolk, but as to
breaking the egg, you hesitate.”

“Break the egg? Break my purse, you mean.”

“I mean, you can call in a part of the six hundred dollars you got with
me. I have thought and reckoned it over. Inger-Johanna alone will cost
us over one hundred dollars this year, and when Thinka is going to
Ryfylke, we shall not get off with two hundred.”

“Over two hundred dollars!–Are you crazy? Are you crazy–really crazy,
Ma? I think you have a screw loose!” He made a sudden turn over the
floor. “The letter shall rather go at once into the stove.”

“Very well; you know that I think everything you do is sensible, Jäger.”

He stopped, with the letter in his hand and his mouth half open.

“And the slight chance Inger-Johanna might have of being provided for,
that perhaps is not so much to be taken into account. She is certainly
the nearest relation. There is nothing in the way to prevent her being
the heir also.–N-no, do as you will and as you like, Jäger. You
probably see more clearly in this than I do.–And then you will take
the responsibility yourself, Jäger,”–she sighed.

The captain crumpled the letter together, gave her a hasty glance like
a wounded lion, and then stood awhile and stared at the floor. Suddenly
he threw the letter on the table and broke out: “She must go!–But the
cost of the campaign–the cost of the campaign, Ma, that, I learned in
my strategy, must be borne by the enemy! And the governor’s wife must
naturally take care of her outfit there.”

“The governor’s wife, Jäger, must not pay for anything–not a
bit–before she has decided if she will keep her. We must not be
anxious to be rid of her; but _she_ shall be anxious to get her; and
she must ask us for her, both once and twice, you understand.”

That the winter was coming on was less noticed this year than usual.
Two children were to be fitted out. Soon spinning-wheel and reel
accompanied, in the short day and long evening, the murmur of the
stove. Ma herself spun all the fine woof for the linsey-woolsey
dresses. There was knitting, weaving, and sewing, nay, also embroidery
on linen–“twelve of everything for each one.” And in school hours
in the office the captain worked not less zealously with the French
grammar.

The stiffening cold frost, which blew about the house and cut like
ice from every crack; the cold so fierce that the skin was torn off
the hands when any one was unlucky enough to take hold of the latch
of the outer door or of the porch without mittens; complaints of nail
ache, when the children came in from out-of-doors; or else that the
drinking-water was frozen solid in the tubs and pails, that the meat
must be thawed out,–this was only what was usual in the mountain
region. The doleful, monotonous howling and the long, hungry yelling of
the wolves down on the ice could be heard from the Gilje hills both by
day and by night. The road on the lake lasted a long time. It was there
till long into the spring thaw, though worn, unsafe, and blue with its
dirt-brown mudstreak.

But when it did disappear, and the ice was melted by the heat of the
sun, there lay on the steep hill behind the house a long line of
bleaching linen, so shining white that it seemed as if the snow had
forgotten to go away there.