« ForrigeFortsett »
thing but a naval engagement between the English and Dutch fleets at the entrance of the Zuyder-Zee. The crimson streak of sky became fainter and fainter, but the flashes of fire from the artillery grew more and more distinct. It was very exciting to listen to this distant roar that came from some unknown though suspected cause. With eyes wide open, they gazed out steadfastly into the darkness, as though they might possibly perceive something. It was the first actual sound of the war, that had been raging for the last ten years, which had ever reached the island.
The roar of the cannon had also been heard on the other side of the island, and curiosity had brought many of the villagers across, amongst them Uwen and Teda, both of them eager to learn the cause of so strange a sound. They stood together on the downs by the side of Freda, but Teda was evidently disappointed, as she had expected to discover something from this side of the island. Uwen's imagination and feelings were, on the contrary, powerfully excited; England's ships were for him friends, those of Holland were enemies; and with each roar of the cannon the question rose to his lips, Was it the messenger of good or of evil?
It had became so dark that the little group of anxious listeners could only be distinguished by faint outlines, but their voices could be distinctly heard. All at once the darkness was riven by a blinding glare; the storm had gathered from the east and darted a hissing flash of forked lightning into the sea. Uwen was turning at the moment with some remark towards Freda, and the rapid flash sufficed to reveal that his eyes were fixed upon her, while at the same time his hand clasped Teda's, who was standing at his side. The next moment all was again wrapped in deepest darkness, and one of the fishermen said: 'Let's goä hoäm. A reg'lar thunderstoärm be a-coomin'.' Another added: 'It spoots a'reädy.'
'Yes,' said Teda, 'it is beginning to rain, and I am tired of standing here. Let us go home.'
It was impossible to see anything. Uwen could only feel that she was trying to pull him along, but he said:
'The rain will overtake us; we must wait at Mother Walmot's until it is over.'
Heavy drops were, indeed, falling, and the loud claps of thunder quite overpowered the distant cannonade. So all repaired to the adjacent cottage, and most of them entered the
little parlour, where Walmot had already lighted the lamp. Freda, however, was still in the kitchen, where she was putting some dry sea-wrack and chips on the gleeds, and as the flames darted quickly forth, she was about to follow the rest. On turning round, however, her eyes met those of Uwen, who stood close by, gazing intently at her. There was something so strange, so searching, in his look, that she could not help asking: 'Why do you look at me like that?'
Apparently he had no very clear explanation to give; he stammered out :
The lightning-just now.'
'Did you think it had struck me? It seemed rather as if it had struck your tongue.'
By this time Uwen had found an answer.
'For a moment, in the flash of lightning, you looked to me exactly as you did the first time I saw you on the island; it must have been the dazzling light that caused the illusion.'
'The maiden forced a smile to her lips as she replied:
'That must indeed have been the cause, for in those days my hand could scarcely reach my mother's arm, and now I am taller than she is.'
They then entered the little parlour together.
All five sat down by the table, and poured forth their mutual conjectures about the sound that had reached them from the sea. Outside the cottage the thunder roared, and the rain came pelting down. It was just as it had been some ten years before, when they had for the first time quitted their playground on the downs, to take shelter here from the sudden storm. But they were no longer children sitting on wooden stools, but a well-built young man of twenty, and two tall girls of some seventeen summers. The little lamp gave but a faint light, yet anyone who had sat with them ten years before would at once have known Teda again, in spite of the obscurity, and most likely Freda too. It was strange, and very striking by this light, that Uwen's eyes had not altogether misled him a little while ago. Freda was still far too slim for her height, and her figure had an awkward angularity incompatible with beauty; but in her face might still be seen the old child-like charm. At all events, at the present moment no close inspection was needed in order to discover it; the charm was plainly manifest throughout her whole person. Not only did she possess the golden hair and blue eyes of child
hood's days, but the delicate rosy complexion had now returned to heighten the attraction of her sweet, refined features; the only difference was, that the child had been transformed into the maiden, or, rather, this process was still going on. It was, however, quite possible to look at Freda, and see nothing more in her than the eye had grown accustomed to during the stage of her development. The lightning flash undoubtedly recalled the former child much more clearly than did the steady light of day. When the blue and yellow flame darted forth outside, and for a moment overcame the light of the lamp within the room, Uwen turned irresistibly towards the place where Freda sat, as if to satisfy himself whether the last flash renewed the illusion produced by that first one, when they had stood upon the downs. There were not, indeed, many more, for the storm was passing rapidly away, and in a quarter of an hour the rain had ceased. Teda again urged their departure, and as they came out of doors stars were already shining. The storm had passed over to the west, rolling across the cannonade, if this had not yet ceased. Roeluf, looking round with the eye of an experienced seaman, observed that the morrow would be very fair. Walmot added that he would then be able to set out early in the morning for Emden, in order to ascertain what had been taking place at sea; whereupon Freda gladly declared that she, too, would go with father.
'Then,' said Uwen, 'I am not to come to the downs for our usual reading?'
He said this with a tone of regret, and, taking leave, he and Teda set out in the dark night for their home. They walked for some time side by side in silence. They knew perfectly well each step of the oft-traversed road, and of the pathless, grassy downs, so that there was no chance of losing their way in the gloom.
But when they reached the narrow neck of land, Teda said it was so dark she could not tell whether she was walking on land or in water, and she laid hold of Uwen's hand in order that he might guide her. She did not loose it when they had reached the other side, but they walked on together handin-hand; indeed, her fear of taking a false step seemed to increase, for her fingers clasped his so tightly that he could feel the beating of her pulse in their slender tips.
On the following day a favourable wind swelled the sails for the passage to and from Emden, so that Roeluf Hemmen and Freda were able to get back again before nightfall.
In the town, however, nothing more was known concerning the naval engagement than had been already surmised on the island; but the people were able to assert positively that a British fleet had set sail with a very large body of troops on board. In spite of this meagre intelligence, the eyes of Freda shone on her return with an unwonted expression of delight. She brought with her another piece of news of such a kind as brought back into Walmot's features for the first time for many years also a gleam of joy. It was nothing very important, but it awoke such unexpected hope that Walmot proposed Datya should go over at once to the parsonage, and impart the intelligence to Uwen. Freda hesitated, and thought the next day would be quite early enough for him to know; her manner betrayed a decided reluctance to pay the visit. Walmot, however, still persisted, saying that the walk would do her good, after having been confined in the boat all the day. She accordingly set out. All around her lay the solitary downs, lighted up by the last rays of the setting sun; but everywhere she seemed accompanied by a spectral illusion. Fancy plainly depicted to her Uwen and Teda walking hand in hand before her, just as the flash of lightning had revealed them to her on the beach the previous evening.
So vividly did her mind conjure up these imaginary forms, that when her eye fell upon a figure seated on the sand-bank, it was some moments before she could feel satisfied that it was really Uwen's very self. Surely he could not be walking on hand-in-hand with Teda, and sitting over there all alone on the downs at the same time. But it certainly was Uwen, seated at their usual place of meeting, with a book in his hand, so she turned towards him and, looking around, she asked: 'Where is Teda?'
He answered in surprise, as if he did not understand the meaning of her inquiry:
'Teda? I have not seen her.'
'Why are you here then?'
'I have been waiting to read with you.'
'But you knew very well I was going to Emden to-day.' Uwen answered hastily :
'True. I had forgotten all about it.'
They looked at each other for a few moments in silence. Freda's eyes were not yet quite free from their previous illusion. At length she began to comprehend that he really was alone here and had been waiting for her. She said :
'It is very late. Why did you stay so long? You must have thought that I'
He interrupted her.
'I thought you might possibly bring some good news, which I too might hear.'
In this there was an evident contradiction to what he had just before said-about having forgotten that she meant to go to Emden—and he was probably conscious of it, for with these last words he turned his eyes away with a slightly embarrassed air. Apparently he could not himself quite tell why he had come and waited there; but, overlooking the contradiction, Freda only noticed the one word and said:
'Yes; I do bring one piece of good news, and mother would have me come to you at once, that you too might hear it today.'
Then she told him the unexpected news. During the past few years they had occasionally heard the name of a certain Captain Ferdinand von Schill, who, during the late disastrous war, had raised a corps of volunteers, had taken the French commander, Marshal Victor, prisoner, had brilliantly defended the fortress of Kolberg, and, after the Treaty of Tilsit, had been raised by the King of Prussia to the rank of Major. Since then, without the knowledge of the Prussian Government, he had quietly planned a scheme, which, being favoured by the war that had since broken out between France and Austria, he had now suddenly begun to carry out.
The new kingdom of Westphalia, which Napoleon had raised for his brother Jerome, was by the war completely drained of its troops, and Schill had formed the sudden resolution to invade this territory with his regiment of hussars, in the hope of inciting the whole population of North Germany to revolt against the French yoke. The news had just reached Emden