LISTEN! The north wind is singing—the north wind and the wolf and the wide unpeopled prairie. Andy and Pink had heard the song a thousand times, but they had never thought there was much music in it—till Olafson joined the Happy Family, Olafson and his violin.
The door opened windily, and he came in, blinking at the sudden change from darkness to yellow lamplight. Big, black-browed, broodingly somber, with the poise of one who has many times faced—and swayed at will—the multitude, he bulked huge on the threshold, while the men in the hotel office stared at him curiously. In one hand he carried a large suit case thickly sprinkled with labels, in a strange language, many of them, which betrayed journeyings afar; under his left arm was a time-scarred violin case. He did not seem in the least embarrassed before the faces which stared; instead he stared back with a certain haughty appraisement of the place and the people before he closed the door against the whooping wind which the dusk had brought out of the west.
Pink, leisurely chalking a billiard cue in preparation of a nice shot which, if successful, should make for the complete discomfiture of his opponent—who was Andy Green—glanced at the stranger idly, smiled across at Andy, and looked again, more attentively. Andy Green's gray eyes, following Pink's glance, widened in recognition of the type, if not the man himself.
"By gracious, Pink, looks like we're due to listen at some grand opera," he murmured, sidling closer to the other. "Barring the open-front vest and swallowtail coat, and footlights, and flowers all over the place, you've got the whole show right there; billed six weeks ahead of himself; fifty cents, one dollar, two, and two-and-a-half, and all the boxes taken by sassiety's elected. I wish somebody'd tell me how he got to Dry Lake, though. He's just about as appropriate as a marble statue of Venus down in the blacksmith shop!"
The stranger walked over to the bar. Before he spoke a word, before he had moved, other than to close the door behind him, he dominated the place. When he had taken two steps forward, Mikey began feverishly wiping his hands on a corner of his bar-tender's apron, and to experience the internal fluttering of the housewife who sees unexpected company at her door on wash day.
"A room, if you please," said the stranger in a voice like the middle tones of a bass viol. "Weeth bath."
Mikey felt a chill along the spine. There was not, to his knowledge, a room with bath nearer than Great Falls; certainly none in Dry Lake. Mikey swallowed a nervous titter, rolled eyes at his fellows for moral support, and surprised himself by weakly apologising for the deficiencies of the hotel he represented.
"I can give you a room—the best we've got—though that ain't saying much for it either—by doubling up a couple of the boys. We're pretty full to-night. I'm sorry we ain't got any bathroom." He set his teeth defiantly upon further abjectness, and fumbled among the keys on a rack behind him. Mikey was a self-poised young man as a rule, and it was his boast that it took a good deal to feeze him. He pulled himself back to his habitual cynical indifference toward the traveling public, beckoned Missouk over to attend the bar in his absence, and led the way out with his chin as high and his back as stiff as that of his guest who stalked after. At the door there was a halt in the measured steps of the stranger.
"My luggage—you haff forgotten it, boy," he reminded gently. And Mikey, swallowing hard, went meekly back and picked up the suit case. He was a bartender primarily, and the guests who lodged oftenest in that hotel were the men of the range land all around. They waited upon themselves as a matter of course. The duties of a porter, therefore, went hard with Mikey, but he did not say anything; and though his ears were strained to catch the laugh of derision, there was silence—the silence with which men pay tribute to death, strange femininity, and greatness.
DRY LAKE, with all the self-sufficiency of little towns and little people, was not much given to paying homage to God, man, or devil. But whether it would or not, it paid homage to this big, dark man: the homage of ill-at-ease silence to his face, and of burning curiosity about him and all he did, so soon as he had turned his back. If they had been at all given to psychological analysis, the men of Dry Lake might have found the situation even more interesting.
This strange man did nothing and said nothing to arouse one's curiosity. He ate when the others ate, silently—with dainty habits and seeking glances for those niceties of service which Dry Lake had never possessed—and with a manifest desire to be unassuming and inconspicuous.
He sat much by the window in the barroom, with his hands—wonderful hands they were; long, white, supple-fingered, and nervously sensitive—drumming idly upon the whittled chair arms, and stared broodingly out upon the bleak, brown sweep of the hills to the west. The crowd was quieter when his big, black-clothed form was sitting there; there was not the slightest reason why it should be so, for he did not seem aware of his surroundings. He never talked to any man, nor did any man attempt speech with him beyond a tentative remark, now and then, upon the weather. His answer, then, was courteous—so courteous as to be alarming—and brief, and inattentive. He went back invariably to his brooding and to staring at the brown hills, .and the man who essayed speech with him went sheepishly away.
In a week they learned that his name was Olafson. One hardy soul asked him if he ever played the fiddle, and received a wince and a headshake for reply. And that was as much as Dry Lake knew of him.
ONE day Pink, and Weary, and that other irrepressible, Andy Green, were loitering in the hotel, dreading the long ride to the Flying U in the teeth of a chill east wind. Olafson was sitting by the window which faced the west and the hills, by his mere presence subduing somewhat the hilarious atmosphere which ever surrounded the boys of the Flying U when others greeted them after an absence.
Pink was sitting on the end of the billiard table, swinging his feet and smoking, while he watched Andy doing card tricks, when he became aware that a hand was laid upon his shoulder. He glanced up quickly, and found himself staring into the face of Olafson; and stare he did, without in the least knowing why he did so.
"I should like a little conversation weeth you, if you haff the leisure and wee! be so kind," said Olafson.
Pink slid off the table like an obedient child, and followed the other without a word. In the armchair by the window Olafson settled himself again and caressed abstractedly the whittled notches on the chair arm with those white, supple fingers, and gazed out at the hills. Pink pulled up a chair and sat down, and waited.
"It iss a wild, silent land," said Olafson, and turned his dark, unfathomable eyes upon Pink. "You know it well, do you not?"
"Yes," Pink answered docilely.
"Do you know of a place where it iss far from other places; where no person would come often; where one might live alone, and see no face, and hear no voice unless he should choose—do you know such a place?"
Pink dimpled briefly. "It's pretty much that way all over," he said candidly. "It keeps the rest of us busy riding around the lonesomeness."
"Ah!" For the first time since he appeared in Dry Lake, Olafson smiled, and Pink sat abashed before him. Like a gleam of sunlight on the storm reflections in a lake, it was. "Weel you tell me of a place—a hut—never mind how small and mean a hut, or cabin, if you like, where one might live in the midst of the solitude; alone weeth all the peopled wilderness—" He caught himself, as it were, from, rhapsodizing, and smiled again reassuringly at Pink. "I am not mad, young friend," he said gently, "i am weary; weary weeth the soul weariness which makes one sick for the great solitudes. Of peoples I am sick—sick unto death. There iss a cure; it's there." He lifted his right hand and, with a turn of the wrist, inexpressibly easy and graceful, indicated the hills beyond the little huddle of houses which was Dry Lake. "Weel you help me to find that cure?"
"Sure," said Pink, and for the first time in his life, perhaps, was keenly conscious of the crudity of the expression.
Olafson smiled again—one could see that there was a sweetly sunny quality in his big, rugged, brooding nature. "A hut far off from people," he stipulated, with some eagerness. "Lonely—oh, so very lonely and far away, where no one would come. Do you know a place like that?"
"A dozen, if you want them." The dimples stood in Pink's cheeks.
"But one iss sufficient; the loneliest of them all—where iss that one?"
Pink meditated for a moment. "If it's lonesomeness you want, and straight-up-and-down God-forsakenness, I'd say, try One-Man Coulee. I wintered there once, so I know. The shack there is pretty fair, considering nobody ever lives in it if he can help himself, and the water is good. But it's away off from the road, and except when we ride circle over there in. round-up, or the outfit uses it for a line camp, I don't suppose three men a year ever see the shack."
"That iss good!" The fingers of Olafson beat a nervous tattoo upon the chair. "I weel go to that hut and I weel find the cure for my sold weariness." His rugged face lighted briefly and settled again into the almost forbidding look of gloomy introspection. "There weel be matters to attend, what you call details. Your face I like; I do not like many—but you, yes. Weel you give me assistance with the details?" He held up a hand and inspected absently his finger tips. '"One must eat," he sighed, "and of the providing of food I know little."
Pink sensed his utter inability to cope with the practical side of his plan, and straightway set himself the task of attending to the details. Andy and Weary he would have enlisted also in the cause; but Weary wanted to catch the next train for Fort Benton, and so excused himself. Andy, however, bent his head over the list of supplies which Pink was painstakingly compiling, and offered now and then a suggestion, of value and otherwise. Olafson sat back in his chair, drummed nervously with his fingers, and watched the two abstractly, with now and then a wistful glance toward the hills for whose solitudes he yearned.
"Say, if he's got money enough to stand the extra cost," Andy suggested under his breath when the list seemed complete, "we better put down more canned stuff, and not so blame' much bacon and beans. He can't live on line-camp grub, Pink. Ask him how much he can spend on grub, why don't you?"
Pink hated to do that, and fidgeted over the list with his pencil. "I wonder if he can make sour-dough bread,
or anything like that?" he whispered anxiously. "If he can't, he's up against it. You ask him, Andy."
"Ask him yourself; he's your orphan, not mine." Andy licked his pencil and drew a heavy line through "Pruens, 10 lbs." "No gazabo that wears his hair like that, and a frock coat common, and that shines his finger nails every day of his life, is going to eat ten pounds of prunes in a thousand years," he chided in Pink's ear. "Nor any gallon of Honey-dew sirup. This is a dickens of a grubstake for a man with a sick soul!"
"Wish I knew how much he wants to spend," Pink whispered back in a harassed tone, too worried to resent the criticism.
"Well, ask him, why don't yuh? He don't look to me like he'd bite."
So Pink, for once in his life showing in his cheeks the flush of embarrassment, broached delicately the subject of expense. Olafson brought back his thoughts from far journeyings into the past, grasped the difficulty, and unbuttoned his black frock coat. From a leather bill folder with initials tooled intricately upon the side, he produced a couple of bank notes, laid them upon Pink's knee, and looked at Pink inquiringly.
"It iss enough?" he queried. "If hot—"
"It's a-plenty, and then some," Pink assured him, folding the bills together after he had surreptitiously shown Andy the denomination of them. "Two hundred for grub—we can turn ourselves loose on the canned stuff," he whispered jubilantly.
Straightway that list suffered revision as to plain necessities, and reckless expansion as to luxuries. Andy, drawing upon his fertile imagination rather freely, deduced a variety of eatables which seemed to him best fitted to find their way beneath that frock coat. He leaned rather strongly toward pickles, preserves, and condiments, and would have disdained such plebeian foodstuffs as coffee, bacon, and flour. But Pink was more practical. He stuck doggedly to the staple lines, standing pat on his twenty pounds of white beans and ten pounds of brown, with salt pork for seasoning.
Men sidled up curiously to see what it was all about, to be waved off by those two who wrote, scratched out the writing, sucked their pencils, and wrote again, arguing in undertones the while. They did not believe in doing things half-heartedly. Since they had taken upon themselves the responsibility of this strange man's physical comfort, their inclination was to discharge that responsibility with perfect satisfaction to themselves and, if possible, to Olafson himself.
When half a tablet had been consumed, and their tongues were blackened to their palates, and their nerves on edge with argument they took the many-times revised list to the store, and there added and subtracted items desperately as fresh labels on the shelves caught their eyes. It occurred to Pink that Olafson would need a bed, and a few cooking utensils. A stove stood in the cabin, he remembered. So they frugally curtailed the supply of luxuries somewhat—taking off, among other things, two bottles of chili sauce, one of Worcester, and some stuffed olives—that they might not be compelled to ask Olafson for more money.
They made arrangements for a team to haul him and his outfit to One-Man Coulee, bought an ax at the last minute, and, after that, a lamp and a case of coal oil, which they had overlooked, and then wondered if they had not forgotten matches, and so got another fifty cents' worth to make sure; after which they went over to the hotel and told Olafson they had everything ready, so that he could start next morning if he wanted to. And Pink, with a certain conscious pride, went down into his pockets and brought up a twenty-dollar gold piece and some silver, which he handed over, along with the store bill of goods.
"The team we didn't pay for; but don't yuh let Pat Morrisy stick you for more than fifteen dollars," he warned. "He ought to haul you out for ten—but he won't, most likely. And your bed and everything is on the bill, and we'll tell the Old Man about you using the shack. That'll be all right—he won't care."
Olafson looked from one brown face to the other, and at the money in his hand; looked again into their eyes, and thanked them with grave words spoken primly, after the manner of one who has learned his English from books. He did not make the blunder of offering them money, and they were more kindly disposed toward him because of the omission.
"Peoples I do not care to see," he said simply. "But you gentlemen weel be always welcome. Come, and I weel play for you." He smiled—and the smile was infinitely tired and sad. "I would not play for others, and that iss why I am here, perhaps; but for you I weel play."
"We'll sure come," they promised heartily, and wished him luck and left him, wondering vaguely at his paradoxical aloofness and reserve, and his childlike candor and helplessness.
IT was because of his helplessness that, without saying much about it to each other—and to the Happy Family nothing at all—they took occasion to ride next day to One-Man Coulee, They found the stovepipe pulled apart by many battering winds, and they joined it and braced it well with wire which they hunted a long while to find. They dragged up some posts from the old corral, and would have chopped a pile of wood if there had been an ax upon the place. They made shift, with a stub of broom, to sweep out the accumulation of dust and rats' nests—and it was when he was pushing the trash off the doorstep that Pink stopped with a look of tragedy.
"So help me Josephine, we never bought Ole Bull a broom!" he cried, and stared doubtfully at the wreck of one which he held before him.
"Gosh!" Andy ejaculated in dismay. "Are you sure, Pink?"
Pink nodded. "And we never put down a water bucket and dipper, either, did we? Nor soap, nor—"
"We got him a dozen cans of sauerkraut, anyway, and a big hunk of' limburger," soothed Andy. "Nobody but a Dutchman ever 'says 'iss.' And he don't look to me like he'd know how to use a broom if he had one. It kinda seems to me we did put down soap. Say, this sure is a lonesome hole!"
"Well, that's what he wanted," Pink retorted defensively. "He asked for the lonesomest place I could think of—and this is it."
"A good scrubbing wouldn't hurt that floor a blamed bit," Andy observed irrelevantly. "If I had a broom and a bucket—sure you didn't order a broom, Pink?"
Pink was listening to the far-off ka-chuck of a wagon bumping over the uneven prairie sod, with a rock here and there to accentuate the bumps. "He's coming," he announced, and gave a last glance around the bare little room, where the dust of his energetic sweeping had not yet settled. "1 don't envy him the winter none, and that's a cinch," he observed. "I don't believe a sheep-herder could stand more than a month here without going plumb loco."
"Ole's loco now," Andy asserted with conviction. "If he wasn't he wouldn't be out here at all. He'd be living up to his hair in some city, and ladies would be passing up flowers tied with wide ribbons when he quit playing."
"I don't know," said Pink, "why we take it for granted he can play; nobody's ever heard him."
"Well, he can, I'll gamble on that. Look at the way he wears his hair! And—did yuh take notice of his hands? I'll bet you money he can play!"
HE came, sitting aloft upon the high spring seat beside Pat Morrisy, with a dirty canvas horse blanket over his broadcloth-clothed knees, and the violin case cuddled in his arms like a sleeping child. His hair, like the mane of a lion dyed with India ink, fluttered in the stiff north wind. His face was as stonily calm as the Sphinx, his eyes sullen.
Pat pushed the brake forward to the last notch with a yank not far from vicious, and came skidding down the rough slope to the cabin. His "Whoa" was a menace to his team, and the very set of his shoulders betokened distaste for the journey and dislike for the man beside him.
"Good thing we're here," murmured Andy, apprehending the situation. "Pat's been trying to pump Ole Bull, and they don't love each other a little bit. He'd dump the stuff on the ground, and collect his money, and drive off, if he was here alone with him."
Pat came near doing that very thing, as it was. He regarded the two with a snort meant to express his scorn of their mission, unloaded as hurriedly as might be, gave another snort or two by way of reply to Andy's remark that it was a nice little drive out from town, pocketed the money which Olafson extended haughtily in his direction, climbed up to the high seat, released the brake with another yank, and yelled ferociously at his team.
"It iss good," said Olafson, when Pat had driven out of sight, standing before the cabin, with his eyes greedily fixed upon the barren coulee which seemed all there was of the world, so jealously did it hug its barrenness to itself. Only to the south did a twisted arm reach out coaxingly to the prairie beyond, so that one glimpsed the wide land as through a half-open doorway. "It iss good," he repeated, and walked slowly down into the bleak hollow, with his violin case still cuddled in his arms.
Pink and Andy carried in the supplies and unpacked them. Pink also made Olafson's bed upon the board bunk in one corner, while Andy chopped wood with the new ax, and started a fire, and put some coffee on to boil.
"Say," began Andy in the tone of' one who has worked out a problem to its logical conclusion, "a helpless son of a gun like him ain't going to make out very well alone, here. I'll bet he never made a bed in his life, or washed a tin plate, or boiled a pot of coffee. We can't hang around and be his hired girls all the time. What the deuce is he going to do?"
Pink flipped the last quilt over the bunk so that it lay smoothly, tucked in the end, and pushed his hat back off his curls.
"Search me," he said impatiently. "I was just thinking about that myself. It's the darned 'details,' as he calls them, that's going to stick him if he don't look out. He ought to be in here right now, learnin' a few things about cooking his own grub. Where's he at, anyway?"
Andy went to the door, looked out, and pointed an eloquent finger. Far down the coulee, seated upon an outcropping ledge of sandstone, his face upturned to the jagged coulee wall opposite him, and to a hawk circling slowly above it, was Olafson. From the lift and sweeping gestures of his arm they knew that he was playing his violin, and, as they listened, certain strains swept, thin, and sweet, and evanescent, to their ears.
For long minutes they stood there in the doorway and watched him, and listened for the vagrant strains which could penetrate the distance, detached, yet clearly defined, like jagged peaks thrusting nakedly up through a thick blanket of fog which hides all else.
They did not like to disturb him. Perhaps they vaguely understood that there is an intoxication of mood which sweeps one above and beyond the realities of life, and wipes out, for the time, the physical need of food, or warmth, or rest.
SINCE it was Sunday, and their time was their own, they spent the next hour in baking a supply of bread—baking-powder bread—sufficient to last Olafson for several days, and cooked what other food they thought necessary for his needs. They cut a generous supply of wood, and then, being hungry, and seeing no sign of Olafson's immediate return to the cabin, they ate, and afterward washed the dishes. Then they mounted their horses and rode down the coulee on their way home, meaning to speak to their strange protégé, and bring him back from his dreamings. But Olafson gave them no heed beyond a stare and a negligent nod as they rode past, so they left him alone upon the ledge and went their way.
"He ain't real nutty," Andy diagnosed shrewdly on the way home. "He's a genius, I take it; and there ain't anything much you can do for that. I guess he won't starve or freeze, anyway."
So, having done for him what their humane instincts demanded of them, they rewarded themselves by making a great tale for the ears of the Happy Family; a tale which was received with incredulous jeers, and set the bunk house buzzing with argument till bedtime.
ONCE after that Pink and Andy rode over to One-Man Coulee, and were received courteously enough. They saw that Olafson gave slight heed to the bothersome "details," and that his eating was desultory and of the kind to breed dyspepsia. They cooked a pot of beans, another supply of bread, washed his dishes, and swept his floor, and Olafson remembered his promise and played for them while they worked. It was sure great stuff, Pink said afterward, but there didn't seem to be much tune to it. He would greatly have preferred a two-step, though he did not like to tell Olafson so.
Andy, who had instincts for the bigger things of life, told him bluntly that he ought to go buy him another musical clock; it was, he accused, about as high a brand of music as he was equal to. For himself, he listened intently while Olafson played, and was silent long after the music ceased, looking at Olafson with something akin to awe in his gray eyes. And after that he frequently rode alone to One-Man Coulee, and sat quiet by the broken stove and listened to the wonderful music which Olafson drew from the violin he handled so tenderly, caressing the strings with the light touches a mother gives to the face of a sleeping child.
ONE Sunday when the sky and the leaden air promised snow, and wind, and biting cold, Andy bethought him of Olafson alone, and ignorant of weather signs and the ill they often foretell, and rode to One-Man Coulee alone. The sorrel team of Pat Morrisy stood before the door, with tails tucked between shivering hind legs; and because of their presence he went in distrustfully. Within were Pat and another—a thin man in a glossy fur coat. The thin man looked up, saw only a brown-faced young man with an unobtrusive manner, and went on talking, ignoring his presence. Olafson, hunched sullenly before the stove with the broken front grate, through which red coals fell now and then to the hearth, listened and said nothing in reply.
The thin man talked of a broken contract, and of big seasons, and of packed houses, and money being wasted by Olafson's insane flight from the world that clamored for his music.
"I weel not go," said Olafson doggedly, when the thin man came to an anxious pause.
"But you can't stop here, Olafson!" the other protested. "Think of what you owe the world! A talent like yours—you can't bury it here in this hole; and the squalor—man, it's suicide! Nothing more or less than suicide."
"It iss freedom!" Olafson raised his shaggy head and looked at his old manager with sullen defiance. "Always it iss money of which you speak. The peoples, they do not love the music—they love to sit weeth others and listen to Olafson, because Olafson iss the great violinist, and haff won much fame. All my life I haff played for money. All my life I haff hated that thing money. You would harness Olafson to the plow—you would make him vork for you—to deeg up money!" He sprang to his feet and towered over the other, and his eyes blazed with the hot rebellion that surged within him.
"It iss freedom!" he cried, flinging out a long arm so suddenly that he of the glossy fur coat shrank farther away. "Neffer pefore haff I been free. Always haff I been the slave—the slave that vorks for hire. Music—you would make of my music a slave. The great, beautiful music, you would haff it come for hire. Peoples they must pay money if they would listen! Bah! it iss that you make chains to bind me and my violin to the plow." He lifted his head, shaking back the mane of black hair with an unconscious gesture of scorn. "These hills, they do not pay. They hear the great music of my violin—"
He stopped as if his thoughts had grown too vague for speech.
"It iss enough," he said, with haughty finality. "I am not a slave. My violin, it iss not a slave. I weel not go."
He sat down again before the stove and brooded there, and gave no further heed to the expostulations of the man. So, finally, they drove away and left him there, the giant who refused longer to plow the furrow for hire.
When they had been gone for some time, Olafson raised his head and looked around the tiny cabin; saw Andy sitting there, and smiled vaguely upon him.
"It iss good. They are gone, and you remain; and the hills, they remain, and the freedom which I came to seek, it remains also." He fell to staring at the coals as they dropped through the broken grate. "So fall the years, and turn black and dead like the coals as they fall," he muttered dreamily.
The north wind, which had blown in half-hearted gusts all day, with periods of leaden quiet between, rose and whooed lonesomely around the cabin; the crooning wail of it won Olafson from his dreams of what had been, perhaps, and could never be again except in his dreaming.
"The north wind, it iss of those dead years it iss singing," he said to Andy, who sat quietly smoking on the other side of the stove, waiting until the impulse seized Olafson to play. He had learned that Olafson's music came of its own volition, or it came not at all, and he had learned also that silence and dreams were the conjurors to call it forth. So he waited, and smoked, and put more wood in the stove, and thought his own thoughts.
Down the bare, brown hills, came another song, the howl of the gray wolf as he sniffed the coming storm. Eerie it come, and mingled with the wailing of the wind. Olafson lifted his head and listened to the cry, and his eyes, though they still stared unseeingly, were no longer dreaming eyes; intent they were, seeing more than the ears could hear.
"That—it iss not of the dead years.' It iss of the ages to come. It iss the Song of the Ages. I weel play." He listened, lifted his huge body from the creaking old chair, and went into the shadows—for the storm was bringing an early night. When he came back he held his violin, and his hands trembled as they touched caressingly the strings.
"They sing," he murmured to himself, "They sing, the north wind, and the wolf, and the wide, unpeopled prairie! Great iss the song—they sing of the ages to come. To-night we, too, shall sing—what never pefore has been sung by the violin. We shall sing as they are singing, the north wind, and the prairie, and the wolf!"
He poised the bow above the strings and waited, for the wind had lulled for the moment and the wolf was silent. "It wass for this we came, my violin and I, and we did not know," he said, his eyes glowing toward Andy. "I knew only that we hungered to be free. But it wass for this song that we came."
They came again, rising mournfully—the north wind and the wolf, singing together as they had sung when the prairies were young. The bow dropped lightly upon the strings, and they, too, sang wonderfully, rising weirdly with the long-drawn howl of the wolf, falling and murmuring with the wind at the cabin's corner. Andy's cigarette dropped unnoticed from his fingers while he leaned forward and listened.
The eyes of Olafson stared straight before him. What they saw—or what Andy saw, and so thought that Olafson saw also—was a wide, wide land lying stark under a brooding night sky, with bars of faint moonlight stealing furtively into the hollows; with the north wind, a great, tangible shape, rushing wantonly after the moonbeams, singing, shrieking when they shrank away; and a lone wolf, buffeted upon a hilltop, his coat roughened by the wind's ungentle hands, pointing his nose to the bleak sky, and howling his challenge to all the world.
"It iss not the song of the ages to come," said Olafson, while he played. "It iss the world-old song—the folk song of the north wind, and the prairies, and the wolf!"
It was a wild, unearthly rhapsody that he played, and the minutes slid into hours with the sliding of his bow across the strings. It was a plaintive, wailing thing that he played, and Andy forgot to feed the fire, so that the room grew chill. But it was not the north wind that he played, nor the wolf, nor the whisper of the storm which now beat upon the cabin.
The fingers of Olafson hesitated, moved uncertainly. The wind, it mimicked the wailing strings, and then whooped off into a wild song of its own, where the violin could not follow. The wolf howled derision, and he could not catch the notes of its eerie cadences. The blizzard, heralded throughout the day by leaden skies and a fitful wind, buffeted the little cabin as Andy had fancied the wolf upon the hilltop, and shook clods of earth loose from the sod roof and sent them thudding upon the floor.
"This, it iss the storm wraith of the folk song," Olafson, listening, muttered. "The folk song of the wild! Never before haff I lived, never before haff I played, until now!"
Then—he played, did Olafson!, His long, lean fingers caught the visions his staring eyes saw, and carried them to the strings of his violin; while across the stove, in deep shadow, Andy Green held his breath and listened. Times he played as blew the north wind, as swept the blizzard, as howled the wolf. Tone for tone, sweeping waves to a passion of sound, shrieking, whistling eerily like drunken elves at revel, how he played—did Olafson!
Again he paused, his fingers groping for the tones to match a whining croon at the corner. His breath came in half sobs with his striving. Times he had almost caught the song, but even as the strings began to echo it exultantly, it eluded him like a mocking demon that could never be made a captive.
"Oh, to play the song!" He sprang to his feet, sobbing, still playing wildly. "They mock me—the north wind, and the prairie, and the wolf! But I shall play their song. They shall not say that Olafson, Olafson the master of the violin and of music—they shall not laugh among themselves and say that Olafson, he could not play their song! I shall play it! I shall triumph over the north wind, I shall laugh at the prairie, I shall send the wolf shrinking ashamed to his den! Ages have they sung the song, and they alone. But to-night I, the human thing, and this instrument which humans have made, we shall know their song!"
He paused just long enough to jerk open the door, and he stood there looking out. "I shall know their song. I shall go to the north wind, and to the prairie, and to the wolf, and they shall teach me their song, ages old—the folk song of the wind!"
Andy, sitting there under the spell of his playing, watched him while he stood a moment still, gazing into the night. Then he was gone, and after him went Andy, stung back to realization of what it all meant.
He heard afar off a high, sweet strain, like the wind singing in the treetops upon a mountain. Then the blizzard, a white wraith, came sweeping past, and muffled jealously the sound, so that Andy, stumbling blindly after, was bewildered and could not follow. Once again he heard faintly a single high, sweet, exultant note, long-drawn. Then the wind whooped anew, and the blizzard flung its burden of snow into the straining eyes of Andy Green, and when it lulled again the sweet, high note was still.
And though he searched and called through half that wild night, and with daybreak summoned help and searched anew, neither Andy nor any other human ever heard again the music of Olafson, the man who would play the north wind.