The hoar-frost had turned the ownerless island into a silver wood; continuous mists had hung every twig with flowers of rime. Then came bright sunny days; they melted the rime into ice: every branch received a crystal cloak, as if the whole island were of glass. This glistening load bent down the boughs like those of a weeping-willow, and when the wind stirred the wood, the icicles struck together and rang like the silver bells in the fairy stories. Over the thickly frosted paths only one track led from the house, and that went to Therese’s resting-place. This was Noémi’s daily walk with little Dodi. Now there were only those two to go there; the third, Almira, lay at home at the last gasp: the ball had touched a vital part, and there was no hope of cure.
It was evening. Noémi lighted her lamp, brought out her wheel, and began to spin. Little Dodi sat by her and played at water-mills, holding a straw against the revolving wheel.
“Mother,” said the boy suddenly, “bend down a little; I want to whisper that Almira may not hear.”
“Say it aloud; she won’t understand, Dodi.”
“Oh, yes, she understands what we say — she knows everything. Tell me, will Almira die?”
“Yes, my little one.”
“And who will take care of us when Almira is dead?”
“Is God strong?”
“Stronger than all the world.”
“More than father?”
“Your father gets his strength from God.”
“And the wicked man with his eye bandaged, why does God make him strong? I am so afraid of his coming again; he will take me away.”
“Don’t be afraid; I won’t let you go.”
“If he kills us both?”
“Then we shall both go to heaven.”
“And Almira too?”
“No; not Almira.”
“Because she is an animal.”
“And my little bird?”
“No; not Louise.”
“Oh, don’t say that; she can fly up to heaven better than we can.”
“She can not fly as high as heaven.”
“Then there are no animals and no birds there? Well, then, I’d rather stop down here with papa and my little Louise.”
“Yes, stay, my sweetheart!”
“If papa were here he would kill the wicked man?”
“The bad man would run away from him.”
“But when is father coming back?”
“How do you know?”
“He said so.”
“Is everything true that father says? Does he never tell a story?”
“No, my boy; what he says is always true.”
“But it is winter now.”
“He will soon be here.”
“If only Almira does not die before he comes!”
The boy got up from his stool and went to the groaning dog.
“Dear Almira, do not die! Don’t leave us alone here! See, now, you can’t go with us to heaven; you can only be with us here. Do stay. I will build you a lovely house like the one father built for me, and give you half of all I have. Lay your head on my lap and look at me. Don’t be frightened; I won’t let the naughty man come and shoot you again. If I hear him coming, I will fasten the door-latch; and if he puts his hand in, I will cut it off with my ax. I will take care of you, Almira.”
The wise creature raised its beautiful eyes to the boy, and wagged its tail gently on the ground; then it sighed, as if understanding all that was said. Noémi stopped spinning, leaned her head on her hand, and looked into the flickering lamp.
When that dreadful man went raging away, he had yelled in at the window, “I shall come back and tell you what the man is whom you love.” That he should come again was threat enough, but what did he mean? Who can Michael be? Can he be other than he seems? What will that horrid phantom have to tell, which has turned up from the antipodes? Oh, why had Michael not done as Noémi said — if only three feet of earth lay between them!
Noémi was no feeble woman; she had grown up in the desert and learned to trust in herself; the enervating influences of the outer world had never affected her mind. The wolf knows how to defend her lair against the dogs with claws and teeth. Since that fearful visit she always carried Michael’s knife in her bosom, and — it is keen and sharp. At night she fastened a beam across the door.
As fate wills. If one comes first, she will be a happy and blessed woman; if the other, she will be a murderess — a child of wrath.
“Almira, what is the matter?”
The poor beast, struggling with death, raised its head painfully from the child’s lap, and began to sniff the air with outstretched neck. It whined and growled uneasily, but the sound was more like a hoarse rattle. Whether its tones were of pleasure or anger, it was hard to distinguish. The animal scented the approach of a visitor. Who is it? Is it the good or the bad man? the life-giver or the murderer? Out there in the silence of the night the sound of steps was heard on the frosty grass. Who comes?
Almira gasped heavily, struggling to get up, but fell back. She tried to bark, but could not. Noémi sprung from her seat, felt with her right hand under her shawl, and seized the handle of the knife.
All three listened silently — Noémi, Dodi, and the dog. The steps come quickly nearer. Ah, now all three recognize them!
“Papa!” cried Dodi, laughing.
Noémi hastened to cut the rope which fastened the door-bolt with her sharp knife, and Almira raised herself on her fore-feet and suddenly gave utterance to a bark.
The next moment Michael had Noémi and Dodi in his arms. Almira crawled to her beloved master, raised her head to him once again, licked his hand, then fell back dead.
“Will you never leave us again?” faltered Noémi.
“Don’t leave us alone any more,” begged little Dodi.
Michael pressed both to his breast, and his tears streamed over his dear ones. “Never — never — never!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10