"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.
At the stroke of ten all the family arose, and each in turn kissed the father and mother good-night; whereupon Mr. Hoyer took the great lamp from the table and mounted the stairs, followed by his pack of noisy boys and girls. Albert and Ralph found themselves, with four smaller Hoyers, in an enormous low-ceiled room with many windows. In three corners stood huge canopied bedsteads, with flowered-chintz curtains and mountainous eiderdown coverings which swelled up toward the ceiling. In the middle of the wall, opposite the windows, a big iron stove, like the one in the sitting-room (only that it was adorned with a bunch of flowers, peaches, and grapes, and not with Diana and her nymphs), was roaring merrily, and sending a long red sheen from its draught-hole across the floor.
Around the big warm stove the boys gathered (for it was positively Siberian in the region of the windows), and while undressing played various pranks upon each other, which created much merriment. But the most laughter was provoked at the expense of Finn Hoyer, a boy of fourteen, whose bare back his brother insisted upon exhibiting to his guest; for it was decorated with a facsimile of the picture on the stove, showing roses and luscious peaches and grapes in red relief. Three years before, on Christmas Eve, the boys had stood about the red-hot stove, undressing for their bath, and Finn, who was naked, had, in the general scrimmage to get first into the bath-tub, been pushed against the glowing iron, the ornamentation of which had been beautifully burned upon his back. He had to be wrapped in oil and cotton after that adventure, and he recovered in due time, but never quite relished the distinction he had acquired by his pictorial skin.
It was long before Albert fell asleep; for the cold kept up a continual fusillade, as of musketry, during the entire night. The woodwork of the walls snapped and cracked with loud reports; and a little after midnight a servant came in and stuffed the stove full of birch-wood, until it roared like an angry lion. This roar finally lulled Albert to sleep, in spite of the startling noises about him.
The next morning the boys were aroused at seven o'clock by a servant, who brought a tray with the most fragrant coffee and hot rolls. It was in honor of the guest that, in accordance with Norse custom, this early meal was served; and all the boys, carrying pillows and blankets, gathered on Albert's and Ralph's bed and feasted right royally. So it seemed to them, at least; for any break in the ordinary routine, be it ever so slight, is an event to the young. Then they had a pillow-fight, thawed at the stove the water in the pitchers (for it was frozen hard), and arrayed themselves to descend and meet the family at the nine o'clock breakfast. When this repast was at an end, the question arose how they were to entertain their guest, and various plans were proposed. But to all Ralph's propositions his mother interposed the objection that it was too cold.