Solheim was about twenty miles from the city, and it was nine o'clock in the evening when the boys arrived there. The moon was shining brightly, and the Milky Way, with its myriad stars, looked like a luminous mist across the vault of the sky. The aurora borealis swept down from the north with white and pink radiations which flushed the dark blue sky for an instant, and vanished. The earth was white, as far as the eye could reach --splendidly, dazzlingly white. And out of the white radiance rose the great dark pile of masonry called Solheim, with its tall chimneys and dormer-windows and old-fashioned gables. Round about stood the tall leafless maples and chestnut-trees, sparkling with frost and stretching their gaunt arms against the heavens. The two horses, when they swung up before the great front-door, were so white with hoar-frost that they looked shaggy like goats, and no one could tell what was their original color. Their breath was blown in two vapory columns from their nostrils and drifted about their heads like steam about a locomotive.
The sleigh-bells had announced the arrival of the guests, and a great shout of welcome was heard from the hall of the house, which seemed alive with grownup people and children. Ralph jumped out of the sleigh, embraced at random half a dozen people, one of whom was his mother, kissed right and left, protesting laughingly against being smothered in affection, and finally managed to introduce his friend, who for the moment was feeling a trifle lonely.
"Here, father," he cried. "Biceps, this is my father; and, father, this is my Biceps----"
"What stuff you are talking, boy," his father exclaimed. "How can this young fellow be your biceps----"
"Well, how can a man keep his senses in such confusion?" said the son of the house. "This is my friend and classmate, Albert Grimlund, alias Biceps Grimlund, and the strongest man in the whole school. Just feel his biceps, mother, and you'll see."
"No, I thank you. I'll take your word for it," replied Mrs. Hoyer. "As I intend to treat him as a friend of my son should be treated, I hope he will not feel inclined to give me any proof of his muscularity."
When, with the aid of the younger children, the travellers had divested themselves of their various wraps and overcoats, they were ushered into the old-fashioned sitting-room. In one corner roared an enormous, many-storied, iron stove. It had a picture in relief, on one side, of Diana the Huntress, with her nymphs and baying hounds. In the middle of the room stood a big table, and in the middle of the table a big lamp, about which the entire family soon gathered. It was so cosey and homelike that Albert, before he had been half an hour in the room, felt gratefully the atmosphere of mutual affection which pervaded the house. It amused him particularly to watch the little girls, of whom there were six, and to observe their profound admiration for their big brother. Every now and then one of them, sidling up to him while he sat talking, would cautiously touch his ear or a curl of his hair; and if he deigned to take any notice of her, offering her, perhaps, a perfunctory kiss, her pride and pleasure were charming to witness.
Presently the signal was given that supper was ready, and various savory odors, which escaped, whenever a door was opened, served to arouse the anticipations of the boys to the highest pitch. Now, if I did not have so much else to tell you, I should stop here and describe that supper. There were twenty-two people who sat down to it; but that was nothing unusual at Solheim, for it was a hospitable house, where every wayfarer was welcome, either to the table in the servants' hall or to the master's table in the dining-room.