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Days of the Discoverers Part 1

Days of the Discoverers.

by L. Lamprey.

TO FORESTA

Upon the road to Faerie, O there are many sights to see,-- Small woodland folk may one discern Housekeeping under leaf and fern, And little tunnels in the grass Where caravans of goblins pass, And airy corsair-craft that float On wings transparent as a mote,-- All sorts of curious things can be Upon the road to Faerie!

Along the wharves of Faerie-- There all the winds of Christendie Are musical with hawk-bell chimes, Carillons rung to minstrels' rimes, And silver trumpets bravely blown From argosies of lands unknown, And the great war-drum's wakening roll-- The reveille of heart and soul-- For news of all the ageless sea Comes to the quays of Faerie!

Across the fields to Faerie There is no lack of company,-- The world is real, the world is wide, But there be many things beside.

Who once has known that crystal spring Shall not lose heart for anything.

The blessing of a faery wife Is love to sweeten all your life.

To find the truth whatever it be-- That is the luck of Faerie!

_Above the gates of Faerie There bends a wild witch-hazel tree.

The fairies know its elfin powers.

They wove a garland of the flowers, And on a misty autumn day They crowned their queen--and ran away!

And by that gift they made you free Of all the roads of Faerie!_

I

ASGARD THE BEAUTIFUL

A red fox ran into the empty church. In the middle of the floor he sat up and looked around. Nothing stirred--not the painted figures on the wooden walls, nor the boy who now stood in the doorway. This boy was gray-eyed and flaxen-haired, and might have been eleven or twelve years old. He was looking for the good old priest, Father Ansgar, and the wild shy animal eyeing him from the foot of the altar made it only too clear that the church, like the village, was deserted.

Father Ansgar was dead of the strange swift pestilence that was called in 1348 the Black Death. So also were the sexton, the cooper, the shoemaker, and almost all the people of the valley. A ship had come into Bergen with the plague on board, and it spread through Norway like a grass-fire. Only last week Thorolf Erlandsson[1] had had a father and mother, a grandmother, two younger sisters and a brother. Now he was alone. In the night the dairy woman and the plowmen at Ormgard farm had run away. Other farms and houses were already closed and silent, or plundered and burned. Ormgard being remote had at first escaped the sickness.

Thorolf turned away from the church door and began to climb the mountain. At the lane leading to his home he did not stop, but kept on into the woods. It was not so lonely there.

Up and up he climbed, the thrilling scent of fir-balsam in his nostrils, the small friendly noises of the forest all about him. Only a few months ago he had come down this very road with his father, driving the cattle and goats home from the summer pasture. All the other farmers were doing the same, and the clear notes of the lure, the long curving horn, used for calling the cattle and signaling across valleys, soared from slope to slope. There was laughter and shouting and joking all the way down.

Now the only persons abroad seemed to be thieving ruffians whose greed for plunder was more than their fear of the plague.

A thought came to the boy. How could he leave his father's cattle unfed and uncared for? What if he were to drive the cows himself to the saeter and tend them through the summer? He faced about, resolutely, and began to descend the hill.

Within sight of the familiar roofs he heard some one coming from the village, on horseback. It proved to be Nils the son of Magnus the son of Nils who was called the Bear-Slayer, with a sack of grain and a pair of saddlebags on a sedate brown pony. Nils was lame of one foot and no taller than a boy of nine, although he was thirteen this month and his head was nearly as large as a man's. He had been an orphan from baby-hood, and for the last three years had lived in the priest's house learning to be a clerk.

"Hoh!" called Nils, "where are you going?"

"To the farm to get our cattle and take them to the saeter. There is no one left to do it but me."

"Cattle?" queried the other interestedly, "She will be glad of that."

"She!" said Thorolf, "who?"

"The Wind-wife[2]--Mother Elle, who used to sell wind to the sailors--the Finnish woman from Stavanger. She has gathered up a lot of children who have no one to look after them and is leading them into the mountains. She has Nikolina Sven's daughter Larsson, and Olof and Anders Amundson, and half a score of younger ones from different villages. She says that if it is God's will for the plague to come to the saeter it will come, but it is not there now, and it is in the valleys and the towns. She has gone on with the small ones who cannot walk fast, and left Olof and Anders and me to bring along the ponies with the loads.

I'll help you drive your beasts."

Without trouble the lads got the animals out of the byres and headed them up the road. Norway is so sharply divided by precipitous mountain ranges and deeply-penetrating fiords, that it may be but a few miles from a farm near sea level to the high grassy pastures three or four thousand feet above it where the cattle are pastured in summer. The saeter maidens live there in their cottages from June to September, making butter and cheese, tending the herds and doing such other work as they can. The saeter belonging to Ormgard and its neighbors was the one chosen by Mother Elle as a refuge for her flock.

The forest of magnificent firs through which the road passed presently grew less somber, beginning to be streaked with white birches whose bright leaves twinkled in the sun. Then it reached the height at which evergreens cease to grow. The birches were shorter and sparser, and through the thinning woodland appeared glimpses of a treeless pasture dotted with scrubby low bushes and clumps of rushes. A glint of clear green water betrayed a small lake in a dip of the hills. And now were heard sounds most unusual in that lonely place, the high sweet voices of children.

Birch trees, little trees, dwarfed by sharp winds and poor soil, encircled a level space perhaps ten feet across, carpeted with new soft grass, reindeer moss and cupped lichens. Here sat seven or eight children eagerly listening to a story told by an older child as she divided the ration of fladbrod,[3] wild strawberries from a small basket of birchbark, and brown goat's-milk cheese.

"And Freya came from Asgard in her chariot drawn by two cats--"

Nikolina the daughter of Sven Larsson of the Trolle farm was known through all the valley, not only as the sole child of its richest farmer, but for the bright blonde hair that covered her shoulders with its soft abundance and hung to her waist. Her father would not have it cut or braided or even covered save by such a little embroidered cap as she wore now. Her scarlet bodice, and blue-black skirt bordered with bright woven bands, were of the finest wool; the full-sleeved white linen under-dress had been spun and woven and embroidered by skilful and loving fingers. Nikolina had lost the roof from over her head, and a great deal more than that. Now she was giving her whole mind to the little ones of all ages from four to eight, crowding close about her.

[Illustration: "'And Freya came from Asgard in her chariot drawn by two cats'"--_Page_ 4]

"Hi!" called Nils, "where is Mother Elle? See what Thorolf and I have got!"

The children scrambled to their feet and gazed with round eyes, their small hungry teeth munching their morsels of hard bread. Nikolina plucked a bunch of grass for Snow, the foremost cow, and patted her as she ate it.

"The little ones were so tired and hungry," she said, "that Mother Elle said they might have their supper now, while she and Olof and Anders went on to the saeter. This is wonderful! She was saying only this morning that she feared all the cattle were dead or stolen."

Within an hour they came in sight of the log huts with turf-covered roofs that sloped almost to the ground in the rear. A broad plain stretched away beyond, and the new grass was of that vivid green to be found in places which deep snow makes pure. Hills enclosed it, and beyond, a gleaming network of lake and stream ended in range above range of blue and silver peaks. The clear invigorating air was like some unearthly wine. The cows at the scent of fresh pasture moved more briskly; the pony tossed his head and whinnied. Not far from the cottages there came to meet them a little old woman, dark and wiry, with bright searching eyes. Her face was wrinkled all over in fine soft lines, but her hair was hardly gray at all. She wore a pointed hood and girdled tunic of tanned reindeer hide, with leggings and shoes of the same. A blanket about her shoulders was draped into a kind of pouch, in which she carried on her back a tow-headed, solemn-eyed baby.

"Welcome to you, Thorolf Erlandsson," she said, just as if she had been expecting him. "With this good milk we shall fare like the King."

No king, truly, could have supped on food more delicious than that enjoyed by Nils and Thorolf on this first night in the saeter. It is strange but true that the most exquisite delights are those that money cannot buy. No man can taste cold spring water and barley bread in absolute perfection who has not paid the poor man's price--hard work and keen hunger.

When Nikolina, Karen and Lovisa came up with the smaller children the place had already an inhabited, homelike look. There was even a wise old raven, almost as large as a gander, whom Nils had christened Munin, after Odin's bird. The little ones had all the new milk they could drink from their wooden bowls, and were put to bed in the movable wooden bed-places, on beds of hay covered with sheepskins and blankets. All were asleep before dark, for at that season the night lasted only two or three hours. The last thing that Thorolf heard was a happy little pipe from the five-year-old Ellida,--

"Now we shall live in Asgard forever and ever."

For all it had to do with the experience of many of the children the saeter might really have been Asgard, the Norse paradise. The youngest had never before been outside the narrow valley where they were born.

Ellida and Margit, Didrik and little Peder, could not be convinced that they were anywhere but in Asgard the Blest.

Norway had long since become Christian, but the old faith was not forgotten. The legends, songs and customs of the people were full of it.

In the sagas Asgard was described as being on a mountain at the top of the world. Around the base of this mountain lay Midgard, the abode of mankind. Beyond the great seas, in Utgard, the giants lived. Hel was the under-world, the home of evil ghosts and spirits. Tales were told in the long winter evenings, of Baldur the god of spring, Loki the crafty, Odin the old one-eyed beggar in a hooded cloak, with his two ravens and his two tame wolves, Freya the lovely lady of flowers, Elle-folk dancing in the moonlight, and little rascally Trolls.

The songs and legends repeated by the old people or chanted by minstrels or skalds were more than idle stories--they were the history of a race.

Children heard over and over again the family records telling in rude rhyme the story of centuries. In distant Iceland, Greenland, the Shetlands, the Faroes or the Orkneys, a Norseman could tell exactly what might be his udall right, or right of inheritance, in the land of his fathers.

On Nils and Thorolf, Anders, Olof, Nikolina, Karen and Lovisa, who were all over ten years old, rested great responsibility. Mother Elle always managed to solve her own problems and expected them to attend to theirs without constant direction from her. She told them what there was to be done and left them to attend to it.

All were hardy, active youngsters who took to fending for themselves as naturally as a day-old chick takes to scratching. In ordinary seasons the work at the saeter was heavy, for the maidens must not only follow the herds over miles of pasture land, but make butter and cheese for the winter from their milking. The few cows that were here now could be tethered near by; the milk, when the children had had all they wanted, was mostly used in soups, pudding or grot (porridge). A net or weir stretched across the outlet of the lake would fill with fish overnight.

The streams were full of trout. Mother Elle knew how to make fish-hooks of bone, bows and arrows, ropes, and baskets of bark, how to weave osiers, how to cure bruises and cuts, how to trap the wild hares, grouse and plover and cook them over an open fire. The children found plover's eggs and the eggs of other wild fowl. They raised pulse, leeks, onions and turnips in a little garden patch. They gathered strawberries, cranberries, crowberries, wild currants, black and red, the cloudberry and the delicious arctic raspberry which tastes of pineapple. Some stores of salt and grain were already at the saeter and the grain-fields had been sowed, before the pestilence appeared in the valley.

In the long summer days of these northern mountains, one has the feeling that they will never end, that life must go on in an infinite succession of still, sunshiny, fragrant hours, filled with the songs of birds, the chirr of insects and the distant lowing of cattle. There is time for everything. At night comes dreamless slumber, and the morning is like a birth into new life.

There was a great deal of singing and story-telling at odd times. A group of children making mats or baskets, gathering pease or going after berries would beg Nils or Nikolina to tell a story, or Karen would lead them in some old song with a familiar refrain. But some of the songs the Wind-wife crooned to the baby were not like any the children had heard.

They were not even in Norwegian.

Chapter end

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