The Story of Gösta BerlingBySelma Lagerlöf
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The Story of Gösta Berling
Translator: Pauline Bancroft Flach
I. THE PRIEST
II. THE BEGGAR
CHAPTER I. THE LANDSCAPE
CHAPTER II. CHRISTMAS EVE
CHAPTER III. CHRISTMAS DAY
CHAPTER IV. GÖSTA BERLING, POET
CHAPTER V. LA CACHUCHA
CHAPTER VI. THE BALL AT EKEBY
CHAPTER VII. THE OLD VEHICLES
CHAPTER VIII. THE GREAT BEAR IN GURLITTA CLIFF
CHAPTER IX. THE AUCTION AT BJÖRNE
CHAPTER X. THE YOUNG COUNTESS
CHAPTER XI. GHOST-STORIES
CHAPTER XII. EBBA DOHNA’S STORY
CHAPTER XIII. MAMSELLE MARIE
CHAPTER I. COUSIN CHRISTOPHER
CHAPTER II. THE PATHS OF LIFE
CHAPTER III. PENITENCE
CHAPTER IV. THE IRON FROM EKEBY
CHAPTER V. LILLIECRONA’S HOME
CHAPTER VI. THE WITCH OF DOVRE
CHAPTER VII. MIDSUMMER
CHAPTER VIII. MADAME MUSICA
CHAPTER IX. THE BROBY CLERGYMAN
CHAPTER X. PATRON JULIUS
CHAPTER XI. THE PLASTER SAINTS
CHAPTER XII. GOD’S WAYFARER
CHAPTER XIII. THE CHURCHYARD
CHAPTER XIV. OLD SONGS
CHAPTER XV. DEATH, THE DELIVERER
CHAPTER XVI. THE DROUGHT
CHAPTER XVII. THE CHILD’S MOTHER
CHAPTER XVIII. AMOR VINCIT OMNIA
CHAPTER XIX. THE BROOM-GIRL
CHAPTER XX. KEVENHÜLLER
CHAPTER XXI. BROBY FAIR
CHAPTER XXII. THE FOREST COTTAGE
CHAPTER XXIII. MARGARETA CELSING
“The Story of Gösta Berling” was published in Sweden in 1894 and immediately brought its author into prominence.
The tales are founded on actual occurrences and depict the life in the province of Värmland at the beginning of this century. Värmland is a lonely tract in the southern part of Sweden, and has retained many of its old customs, while mining is the principal industry of its sparse population. It consists of great stretches of forest, sloping down to long, narrow lakes, connected by rivers.
Miss Lagerlöf has grown up in the midst of the wild legends of her country, and, deeply imbued with their spirit, interprets them with a living force all her own.
Her efforts have been materially encouraged by the Crown Prince of Sweden, and there is every reason to expect that her genius has not reached its fullest development.
Stockholm, May, 1898.
At last the minister stood in the pulpit. The heads of the congregation were lifted. Well, there he finally was. There would be no default this Sunday, as on the last and on many other Sundays before.
The minister was young, tall, slender, and strikingly handsome. With a helmet on his head, and girt with sword and shirt of mail, he could have been cut in marble and taken for an ideal of Grecian beauty.
He had a poet’s deep eyes, and a general’s firm, rounded chin; everything about him was beautiful, noble, full of feeling, glowing with genius and spiritual life.
The people in the church felt themselves strangely subdued to see him so. They were more used to see him come reeling out of the public house with his good friends, Beerencreutz, the Colonel with the thick, white moustaches, and the stalwart Captain Christian Bergh.
He had drunk so deeply that he had not been able to attend to his duties for many weeks, and the congregation had been obliged to complain, first to the dean, and then to the bishop and the chapters. Now the bishop had come to the parish to make a strict inquiry. He sat in the choir with the gold cross on his breast; the clergymen of the neighboring parishes sat round about him.
There was no doubt that the minister’s conduct had gone beyond the permissible limit. At that time, in the twenties, much in the matter of drinking was overlooked, but this man had deserted his post for the sake of drink, and now must lose it.
He stood in the pulpit and waited while the last verse of the psalm was sung.
A feeling came over him as he stood there, that he had only enemies in the church, enemies in all the seats. Among the gentry in the pews, among the peasants in the farther seats, among the little boys in the choir, he had enemies, none but enemies. It was an enemy who worked the organ-bellows, an enemy who played. In the churchwardens’ pews he had enemies. They all hated him, every one,—from the children in arms, who were carried into the church, to the sexton, a formal and stiff old soldier, who had been at Leipsic.
He longed to throw himself on his knees and to beg for mercy.
But a moment after, a dull rage came over him. He remembered well what he had been when, a year ago, he first stood in this pulpit. He was then a blameless man, and now he stood there and looked down on the man with the gold cross on his breast, who had come to pass sentence on him.
While he read the introduction, wave after wave of blood surged up in his face,—it was rage.
It was true enough that he had drunk, but who had a right to blame him for that? Had they seen the vicarage where he had to live? Pine forests grew dark and gloomy close up to his windows. The dampness dripped from the black roofs and ran down the mouldy walls. Was not brandy needed to keep the spirits up when rain and driving snow streamed in through the broken panes, when the neglected earth would not give bread enough to keep hunger away?
He thought that he was just such a minister as they deserved. For they all drank. Why should he alone control himself? The man who had buried his wife got drunk at the funeral feast; the father who had baptized his child had a carouse afterwards. The congregation drank on the way back from church, so that most of them were drunk when they reached home. A drunken priest was good enough for them.
It was on his pastoral visits, when he drove in his thin cloak over miles of frozen seas, where all the icy winds met, it was when his boat was tossed about on these same seas in storm and pouring rain, it was when he must climb out of his sledge in blinding snow to clear the way for his horse through drifts high as houses, or when he waded through the forest swamps,—it was then that he learned to love brandy.
The year had dragged itself out in heavy gloom. Peasant and master had passed their days with their thoughts on the soil, but at evening their spirits cast off their yokes, freed by brandy. Inspiration came, the heart grew warm, life became glowing, the song rang out, roses shed their perfume. The public-house bar-room seemed to him a tropical garden: grapes and olives hung down over his head, marble statues shone among dark leaves, songsters and poets wandered under the palms and plane-trees.
No, he, the priest, up there in the pulpit, knew that without brandy life could not be borne in this end of the world; all his congregation knew that, and yet they wished to judge him.
They wished to tear his vestments from him, because he had come drunken into God’s house. Oh, all these people, had they believed, did they want to believe, that they had any other God than brandy?
He had finished the exordium, and he kneeled to say the Lord’s Prayer.
There was a breathless silence in the church during the prayer. But suddenly the minister with both hands caught hold of the ribbons which held his surplice. It seemed to him as if the whole congregation, with the bishop at the head, were stealing up the pulpit steps to take his bands from him. He was kneeling and his head was turned away, but he could feel how they were dragging, and he saw them so plainly, the bishop and the deans, the clergymen, the churchwardens, the sexton, and the whole assemblage in a long line, tearing and straining to get his surplice off. And he could picture to himself how all these people who were dragging so eagerly would fall over one another down the steps when the bands gave way, and the whole row of them below, who had not got up as far as his cape, but only to the skirts of his coat, would also fall.
He saw it all so plainly that he had to smile as he knelt, but at the same time a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. The whole thing was too horrible.
That he should now become a dishonored man for the sake of brandy. A clergyman, dismissed! Was there anything on God’s earth more wretched?
He should be one of the beggars at the roadside, lie drunk at the edge of a ditch, go dressed in rags, with vagrants for companions.
The prayer was ended. He should read his sermon. Then a thought came to him and checked the words on his lips. He thought that it was the last time he should stand in the pulpit and proclaim the glory of God.
For the last time—that took hold of him. He forgot the brandy and the bishop. He thought that he must use the chance, and testify to the glory of God.
He thought that the floor of the church with all his hearers sank deep, deep down, and the roof was lifted off, so that he saw far into the sky. He stood alone, quite alone in his pulpit; his spirit took its flight to the heavens opened above him; his voice became strong and powerful, and he proclaimed the glory of God.
He was inspired. He left what he had written; thoughts came to him like a flock of tame doves. He felt, as if it were not he who spoke, but he felt too that it was the best earth had to give, and that no one could reach a greater height of brilliancy and splendor than he who stood there and proclaimed the glory of God.
As long as the flame of inspiration burned in him he continued to speak, but when it died out, and the roof sank down over the church, and the floor came up again from far, far below, he bowed his head and wept, for he thought that the best of life, for him, was now over.
After the service came the inspection and the vestry meeting. The bishop asked if the congregation had any complaints to make against their clergyman.
The minister was no longer angry and defiant as before the sermon. Now he was ashamed and hung his head. Oh, all the miserable brandy stories, which were coming now!
But none came. There was a deep silence about the long table in the parish-hall.
The minister looked first at the sexton,—no, he was silent; then at the churchwardens, then at the powerful peasants and mine-owners; they were all silent. They sat with their lips pressed close together and looked embarrassed down on the table.
“They are waiting for somebody to begin,” thought the minister.
One of the churchwardens cleared his throat.
“I think we’ve got a fine minister,” he said.
“Your Reverence has heard how he preaches,” interrupted the sexton.
The bishop spoke of repeated absences.
“The minister has the right to be ill, as well as another,” was the peasants’ opinion.
The bishop hinted at their dissatisfaction with the minister’s mode of life.
They defended him with one voice. He was so young, their minister; there was nothing wrong with him. No; if he would only always preach as he had done to-day they would not exchange him for the bishop himself.
There were no accusers; there could be no judge.
The minister felt how his heart swelled and how swiftly the blood flew through his veins. Could it be that he was no longer among enemies; that he had won them over when he had least thought of it; that he should still be their priest?
After the inspection the bishop and the clergymen of the neighborhood and the deans and the chief men of the parish dined at the vicarage. The wife of one of the neighbors had taken charge of the dinner; for the minister was not married. She had arranged it all so well that it made him open his eyes, for the vicarage was not so dreadful. The long dining-table was spread out under the pines and shone with its white cloth, with its blue and white china, its glittering glass and folded napkins. Two birches bent over the door, the floor of the entry was strewn with rushes, a wreath of flowers hung from the rafters, there were flowers in all the rooms; the mouldy smell was gone, and the green window-panes shone bravely in the sunshine.
He was glad to the bottom of his heart, the minister; he thought that he would never drink again.
There was not one who was not glad at that dinner-table. Those who had been generous and had forgiven were glad, and the priests in authority were glad because they had escaped a scandal.
The good bishop raised his glass and said that he had started on this journey with a heavy heart, for he had heard many evil rumors. He had gone forth to meet Saul, but lo, Saul was already changed to a Paul, who should accomplish more than any of them. And the worthy man spoke of the rich gifts which their young brother possessed, and praised them. Not that he should be proud, but that he should strain every nerve and keep a close watch over himself, as he must do who bears an exceedingly heavy and costly burden on his shoulders.
The minister was not drunk at that dinner, but he was intoxicated. All this great unlooked-for happiness went to his head. Heaven had let the flame of inspiration burn in him, and these people had given him their love. His blood was at fever heat, and at raging speed rushed through his veins still when the evening came and his guests departed. Far into the night he sat awake in his room, and let the night air stream in through the open window to cool this fever of happiness, this pleasant restlessness which would not let him sleep.
He heard a voice.
“Are you awake?”
A man came over the lawn up to the window. The minister looked out and recognized Captain Christian Bergh, one of his trusty boon-companions. He was a wayfarer without house or land, this Captain Bergh, and a giant in stature and strength; big was he as Goliath, malicious and stupid as a mountain goblin.
“Of course I am up, Captain Christian,” answered the minister. “Do you think I could sleep to-night?”
And hear now what this Captain Bergh says to him! The giant had guessed, he had understood, that the minister would now be afraid to drink. He would never have any peace, thought Captain Christian; for those priests from Karlstad, who had been here once, could come again and take his surplice from him if he drank.
But now Captain Christian had put his heavy hand to the good work; now he had arranged that those priests never should come again, neither they nor the bishop. Henceforth the minister and his friends could drink as much as they liked at the vicarage.
Hear what a deed he had done, he, Christian Bergh, the mighty Captain. When the bishop and the two deans had climbed into their closed carriage, and the doors had been shut tight on them, then he had mounted on the box and driven them ten miles or so in the light summer night.
And then had Christian Bergh taught the reverend gentlemen how loose life sits in the human body. He had let the horses run at the maddest pace. That was because they would not let an honorable man get drunk in peace.
Do you suppose he followed the road with them; do you believe he saved them from jolts? He drove over ditches and ploughed fields; he drove in a dizzy gallop down the hills; he drove along the water’s edge, till the waves covered the wheels; he almost stuck in a bog; he drove down over bare rocks, where the horses slid with legs held stiff.
And all the time the bishop and the priests sat with blanched faces behind the leather curtains and murmured prayers. It was the worst journey they had ever made.
And think how they must have looked when they came to Rissäter’s inn, living, but shaken like shot in a leather pouch.
“What does this mean, Captain Christian?” says the bishop, as he opens the door for them.
“It means that you shall think twice, bishop, before you make a new journey of inspection to Gösta Berling,” says Captain Christian; and he had thought that sentence well out beforehand, so as not to get it wrong.
“Tell Gösta Berling,” says the bishop, “that to him neither I nor any other bishop will ever come again.”
This exploit the mighty Captain Christian stands and relates at the open window in the summer night. For Captain Christian has only just left the horses at the inn, and has come directly to the minister with his news.
“Now you can be at rest, comrade,” he says.
Ah, Captain Christian, the clergymen sat with pale faces behind the leather curtains, but the priest at the window looks in the bright summer night far, far paler. Ah, Captain Christian!
The minister raised his arm and measured a terrible blow at the giant’s coarse, stupid face, but checked himself. He shut the window with a bang, and stood in the middle of the room, shaking his clenched fist on high.
He in whom the fire of inspiration had flamed, he who had been able to proclaim the glory of God, stood there and thought that God had made a fool of him.
Would not the bishop believe that Captain Christian had been sent by the minister? Would he not believe that he had dissembled and lied the whole day? Now he would investigate everything about him in earnest; now he would suspend him and dismiss him.
When the dawn broke the minister was far from his home. He did not care to stay and defend himself. God had mocked at him. God would not help him. He knew that he would be dismissed. God would have it. He might as well go at once.
All this happened in the beginning of the twenties in a far-a-way parish in Western Värmland.
It was the first misfortune which befell Gösta Berling; it was not the last.
For colts who cannot bear spur or whips find life hard. For every pain which comes to them they bolt down wild ways to yawning chasms. As soon as the road is stony and the way hard they know no other remedy than to cast off their load and rush away in frenzy.
One cold December day a beggar came wandering up the slopes of Broby. He was dressed in the most miserable rags, and his shoes were so worn that the cold snow wet his feet.
Löfven is a long, narrow lake in Värmland, intersected in several places by long narrow sounds. In the north it stretches up to the Finn forests, in the south down to the lake Väner. There are many parishes along its shores, but the parish of Bro is the largest and richest. It takes up a large part of the lake’s shores both on the east and west sides, but on the west side are the largest estates, such as Ekeby and Björne, known far and wide for wealth and beauty, and Broby, with its large village and inn, courthouse, sheriff-quarters, vicarage, and market-place.
Broby lies on a steep slope. The beggar had come past the inn, which lies at the foot of the hill, and was struggling up towards the parsonage, which lies at the top.
A little girl went in front of him up the hill; she dragged a sledge laden with a bag of meal. The beggar caught up with the child and began to talk to her.
“A little horse for such a heavy load,” he said.
The child turned and looked at him. She was a little creature about twelve years old, with sharp, suspicious eyes, and lips pressed together.
“Would to God the horse was smaller and the load larger; it might last longer,” answered the girl.
“Is it then your own food you are dragging home?”
“By God’s grace it is; I have to get my own food, although I am so little.”
The beggar seized the sled rope to drag it up.
The girl turned and looked at him.
“You needn’t think that you will get anything for this,” she said.
The beggar laughed.
“You must be the daughter of the Broby clergyman.”
“Yes, yes, I am indeed. Many have poorer fathers, but none have worse. That’s the Lord’s truth, although it’s a shame that his own child should have to say it.”
“I hear he is mean and ill-natured, your father.”
“Mean he is, and ill-natured he is, but they say his daughter will be worse if she lives so long; that’s what people say.”
“I fancy people are right. What I would like to know is, where you found this meal-bag.”
“It makes no difference if I tell you. I took the grain out of father’s store-house this morning, and now I have been to the mill.”
“May he not see you when you come dragging it behind you?”
“You have left school too early. Father is away on his parish visits, can’t you see?”
“Somebody is driving up the hill behind us; I hear the creaking of the runners. Think if it were he who is coming!”
The girl listened and peered down, then she burst into tears.
“It is father,” she sobbed. “He will kill me! He will kill me!”
“Yes, good advice is now precious, and prompt advice better than silver and gold,” said the beggar.
“Look here,” said the child, “you can help me. Take the rope and drag the sledge; then father will believe it is yours.”
“What shall I do with it afterwards?” asked the beggar, and put the rope round his shoulders.
“Take it where you like for the moment, but come up to the parsonage with it when it is dark. I shall be looking out for you. You are to come with the bag and the sledge, you understand.”
“I shall try.”
“God help you if you don’t come!” called the girl, while she ran, hurrying to get home before her father.
The beggar turned the sledge with a heavy heart and dragged it down to the inn.
The poor fellow had had his dream, as he went in the snow with half-naked feet. He had thought of the great woods north of lake Löfven, of the great Finn forests.
Here in the parish of Bro, where he was now wandering along the sound which connects the upper and lower Löfven,—in this rich and smiling country, where one estate joins another, factory lies near factory—here all the roads seemed to him too heavy, the rooms too small, the beds too hard. Here he longed for the peace of the great, eternal forests.
Here he heard the blows echoing in all the barns as they threshed out the grain. Loads of timber and charcoal-vans kept coming down from the inexhaustible forests. Endless loads of metal followed the deep ruts which the hundreds gone before had cut. Here he saw sleighs filled with travellers speed from house to house, and it seemed to him as if pleasure held the reins, and beauty and love stood on the runners. Oh, how he longed for the peace of the forest.
There the trees rise straight and pillarlike from the even ground, there the snow rests in heavy layers on the motionless pines, there the wind is powerless and only plays softly in the topmost leaves, there he would wander deeper and still farther in, until at last his strength would fail him, and he would drop under the great trees, dying of hunger and cold.
He longed for the great murmuring grave above the Löfven, where he would be overcome by the powers of annihilation, where at last hunger, cold, fatigue, and brandy should succeed in destroying his poor body, which had endured everything.
He came down to the inn to await the evening. He went into the bar-room and threw himself down on a bench by the door, dreaming of the eternal forests.
The innkeeper’s wife felt sorry for him and gave him a glass of brandy. She even gave him another, he implored her so eagerly.
But more she would not give him, and the beggar was in despair. He must have more of the strong, sweet brandy. He must once again feel his heart dance in his body and his thoughts flame up in intoxication. Oh, that sweet spirit of the corn!
The summer sun, the song of the birds, perfume and beauty floated in its white wave. Once more, before he disappears into the night and the darkness, let him drink sunshine and happiness.
So he bartered first the meal, then the meal-sack, and last the sledge, for brandy. On it he got thoroughly drunk, and slept the greater part of the afternoon on a bench in the bar-room.
When he awoke he understood that there was left for him only one thing to do. Since his miserable body had taken possession of his soul, since he had been capable of drinking up what a child had confided to him, since he was a disgrace to the earth, he must free it of the burden of such wretchedness. He must give his soul its liberty, let it go to its God.
He lay on the bench in the bar-room and passed sentence on himself: “Gösta Berling, dismissed priest, accused of having drunk up the food of a hungry child, is condemned to death. What death? Death in the snow-drifts.”
He seized his cap and reeled out. He was neither quite awake nor quite sober. He wept in pity for himself, for his poor, soiled soul, which he must set free.
He did not go far, and did not turn from the road. At the very roadside lay a deep drift, and there he threw himself down to die. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
No one knows how long he lay there; but there was still life in him when the daughter of the minister of Broby came running along the road with a lantern in her hand, and found him in the drift by the roadside. She had stood for hours and waited for him; now she had run down Broby hill to look for him.
She recognized him instantly, and she began to shake him and to scream with all her might to get him awake.
She must know what he had done with her meal-bag.
She must call him back to life, at least for so long a time that he could tell her what had become of her sledge and her meal-bag. Her father would kill her if she had lost his sledge. She bit the beggar’s finger and scratched his face, and at the same time she screamed madly.
Then some one came driving along the road.
“Who the devil is screaming so?” asked a harsh voice.
“I want to know what this fellow has done with my meal-bag and my sledge,” sobbed the child, and beat with clenched fists on the beggar’s breast.
“Are you clawing a frozen man? Away with you, wild-cat!”
The traveller was a large and coarse woman. She got out of the sleigh and came over to the drift. She took the child by the back of the neck and threw her on one side. Then she leaned over, thrust her arms under the beggar’s body, and lifted him up. Then she carried him to the sleigh and laid him in it.
“Come with me to the inn, wild-cat,” she called to the child, “that we may hear what you know of all this.”
An hour later the beggar sat on a chair by the door in the best room of the inn, and in front of him stood the powerful woman who had rescued him from the drift.
Just as Gösta Berling now saw her, on her way home from the charcoal kilns, with sooty hands, and a clay-pipe in her mouth, dressed in a short, unlined sheepskin jacket and striped homespun skirt, with tarred shoes on her feet and a sheath-knife in her bosom, as he saw her with gray hair combed back from an old, beautiful face, so had he heard her described a thousand times, and he knew that he had come across the far-famed major’s wife of Ekeby.
She was the most influential woman in all Värmland, mistress of seven iron-works, accustomed to command and to be obeyed; and he was only a poor, condemned man, stripped of everything, knowing that every road was too heavy for him, every room too crowded. His body shook with terror, while her glance rested on him.
She stood silent and looked at the human wretchedness before her, the red, swollen hands, the emaciated form, and the splendid head, which even in its ruin and neglect shone in wild beauty.
“You are Gösta Berling, the mad priest?” she said, peering at him.
The beggar sat motionless.
“I am the mistress of Ekeby.”
A shudder passed over the beggar’s body. He clasped his hands and raised his eyes with a longing glance. What would she do with him? Would she force him to live? He shook before her strength. And yet he had so nearly reached the peace of the eternal forests.
She began the struggle by telling him the minister’s daughter had got her sledge and her meal-sack again, and that she, the major’s wife, had a shelter for him as for so many other homeless wretches in the bachelor’s wing at Ekeby.
She offered him a life of idleness and pleasure, but he answered he must die.
Then she struck the table with her clenched fist and let him hear what she thought of him.
“So you want to die, that’s what you want. That would not surprise me, if you were alive. Look, such a wasted body and such powerless limbs and such dull eyes, and you think that there is something left of you to die. Do you think that you have to lie stiff and stark with a coffin-lid nailed down over you to be dead? Don’t you believe that I stand here and see how dead you are, Gösta Berling?
“I see that you have a skull for a head, and it seems to me as if the worms were creeping out of the sockets of your eyes. Do you not feel that your mouth is full of dust? Do you not hear how your bones rattle when you move?
“You have drowned yourself in brandy, Gösta Berling, and you are dead.
“That which now moves in you is only death spasms, and you will not allow them to live, if you call that life. It is just as if you grudged the dead a dance over the graves in the starlight.
“Are you ashamed that you were dismissed, since you wish to die now? It would have been more to your honor had you made use of your gifts and been of some use on God’s green earth, I tell you. Why did you not come directly to me? I should have arranged everything for you. Yes, now you expect much glory from being wrapped in a winding-sheet and laid on saw-dust and called a beautiful corpse.”
The beggar sat calm, almost smiling, while she thundered out her angry words. There was no danger, he rejoiced, no danger. The eternal forests wait, and she has no power to turn thy soul from them.
But the major’s wife was silent and walked a couple of times up and down the room; then she took a seat before the fire, put her feet on the fender, and leaned her elbows on her knees.
“Thousand devils!” she said, and laughed softly to herself. “It is truer, what I am saying, than I myself thought. Don’t you believe, Gösta Berling, that most of the people in this world are dead or half-dead? Do you think that I am alive? No! No, indeed!
“Yes, look at me! I am the mistress of Ekeby, and I am the most powerful in Värmland. If I wave one finger the governor comes, if I wave with two the bishop comes, and if I wave with three all the chapter and the aldermen and mine-owners in Värmland dance to my music in Karlstad’s market-place. A thousand devils! Boy, I tell you that I am only a dressed-up corpse. God knows how little life there is in me.”
The beggar leaned forward on his chair and listened with strained attention. The old woman sat and rocked before the fire. She did not look at him while she talked.
“Don’t you know,” she continued, “that if I were a living being, and saw you sitting there, wretched and deplorable with suicidal thoughts, don’t you believe that I should take them out of you in a second? I should have tears for you and prayers, which would turn you upside down, and I should save your soul; but now I am dead.
“Have you heard that I once was the beautiful Margareta Celsing? That was not yesterday, but I can still sit and weep my old eyes red for her. Why shall Margareta Celsing be dead, and Margareta Samzelius live? Why shall the major’s wife at Ekeby live?—tell me that, Gösta Berling.
“Do you know what Margareta Celsing was like? She was slender and delicate and modest and innocent, Gösta Berling. She was one over whose grave angels weep.
“She knew nothing of evil, no one had ever given her pain, she was good to all. And she was beautiful, really beautiful.
“There was a man, his name was Altringer. God knows how he happened to be travelling up there in Älfdal wildernesses, where her parents had their iron-works. Margareta Celsing saw him; he was a handsome man, and she loved him.
“But he was poor, and they agreed to wait for one another five years, as it is in the legend. When three years had passed another suitor came. He was ugly and bad, but her parents believed that he was rich, and they forced Margareta Celsing, by fair means and foul, by blows and hard words, to take him for her husband. And that day, you see, Margareta Celsing died.
“After that there was no Margareta Celsing, only Major Samzelius’s wife, and she was not good nor modest; she believed in much evil and never thought of the good.
“You know well enough what happened afterwards. We lived at Sjö by the Lake Löfven, the major and I. But he was not rich, as people had said. I often had hard days.
“Then Altringer came again, and now he was rich. He became master of Ekeby, which lies next to Sjö; he made himself master of six other estates by Lake Löfven. He was able, thrifty; he was a man of mark.
“He helped us in our poverty; we drove in his carriages; he sent food to our kitchen, wine to our cellar. He filled my life with feasting and pleasure. The major went off to the wars, but what did we care for that? One day I was a guest at Ekeby, the next he came to Sjö. Oh, it was like a long dance of delight on Löfven’s shores.
“But there was evil talk of Altringer and me. If Margareta Celsing had been living, it would have given her much pain, but it made no difference to me. But as yet I did not understand that it was because I was dead that I had no feeling.
“At last the tales of us reached my father and mother, as they went among the charcoal kilns up in Älfdal’s forest. My mother did not stop to think; she travelled hither to talk to me.
“One day, when the major was away and I sat dining with Altringer and several others, she arrived. I saw her come into the room, but I could not feel that she was my mother, Gösta Berling. I greeted her as a stranger, and invited her to sit down at my table and take part in the meal.
“She wished to talk with me, as if I had been her daughter, but I said to her that she was mistaken, that my parents were dead, they had both died on my wedding day.
“Then she agreed to the comedy. She was sixty years old; a hundred and twenty miles had she driven in three days. Now she sat without ceremony at the dinner-table and ate her food; she was a strong and capable woman.
“She said that it was very sad that I had had such a loss just on that day.
“‘The saddest thing was,’ I said, ‘that my parents did not die a day sooner; then the wedding would never have taken place.’
“‘Is not the gracious lady pleased with her marriage?’ she then asked.
“‘Oh, yes,’ said I, ‘I am pleased. I shall always be pleased to obey my dear parents’ wish!’
“She asked if it had been my parents’ wish that I should heap shame upon myself and them and deceive my husband. I did my parents little honor by making myself a byword in every man’s mouth.
“‘They must lie as they have made their bed,’ I answered her. And moreover I wished her to understand, that I did not intend to allow any one to calumniate my parents’ daughter.
“We ate, we two. The men about us sat silent and could not lift knife nor fork.
“She stayed a day to rest, then she went. But all the time I saw her, I could not understand that she was my mother. I only knew that my mother was dead.
“When she was ready to leave, Gösta Berling, and I stood beside her on the steps, and the carriage was before the door, she said to me:—
“‘Twenty-four hours have I been here, without your greeting me as your mother. By lonely roads I came here, a hundred and twenty miles in three days. And for shame for you my body is trembling, as if it had been beaten with rods. May you be disowned, as I have been disowned, repudiated as I have been repudiated! May the highway be your home, the hay-stack your bed, the charcoal-kiln your stove! May shame and dishonor be your reward; may others strike you, as I strike you!’
“And she gave me a heavy blow on the cheek.
“But I lifted her up, carried her down the steps, and put her in her carriage.
“‘Who are you, that you curse me?’ I asked; ‘who are you that you strike me? That I will suffer from no one.’
“And I gave her the blow again.
“The carriage drove away, but then, at that moment, Gösta Berling, I knew that Margareta Celsing was dead.
“She was good and innocent; she knew no evil. Angels had wept at her grave. If she had lived, she would not have struck her mother.”
The beggar by the door had listened, and the words for a moment had drowned the sound of the eternal forests’ alluring murmur. For see, this great lady, she made herself his equal in sin, his sister in perdition, to give him courage to live. For he should learn that sorrow and wrong-doing weighed down other heads than his. He rose and went over to the major’s wife.
“Will you live now? Gösta Berling?” she asked with a voice which broke with tears. “Why should you die? You could have been such a good priest, but it was never Gösta Berling whom you drowned in brandy, he as gleamingly innocent-white as that Margareta Celsing I suffocated in hate. Will you live?”
Gösta fell on his knees before her.
“Forgive me,” he said, “I cannot.”
“I am an old woman, hardened by much sorrow,” answered the major’s wife, “and I sit here and give myself as a prize to a beggar, whom I have found half-frozen in a snow-drift by the roadside. It serves me right. Let him go and kill himself; then at least he won’t be able to tell of my folly.”
“I am no suicide, I am condemned to die. Do not make the struggle too hard for me! I may not live. My body has taken possession of my soul, therefore I must let it escape and go to God.”
“And so you believe you will get there?”
“Farewell, and thank you!”
“Farewell, Gösta Berling.”
The beggar rose and walked with hanging head and dragging step to the door. This woman made the way up to the great forests heavy for him.
When he came to the door, he had to look back. Then he met her glance, as she sat still and looked after him. He had never seen such a change in any face, and he stood and stared at her. She, who had just been angry and threatening, sat transfigured, and her eyes shone with a pitying, compassionate love.
There was something in him, in his own wild heart, which burst before that glance; he leaned his forehead against the door-post, stretched his arms up over his head, and wept as if his heart would break.
The major’s wife tossed her clay-pipe into the fire and came over to Gösta. Her movements were as tender as a mother’s.
“There, there, my boy!”
And she got him down beside her on the bench by the door, so that he wept with his head on her knees.
“Will you still die?”
Then he wished to rush away. She had to hold him back by force.
“Now I tell you that you may do as you please. But I promise you that, if you will live, I will take to me the daughter of the Broby minister and make a human being of her, so that she can thank her God that you stole her meal. Now will you?”
He raised his head and looked her right in the eyes.
“Do you mean it?”
“I do, Gösta Berling.”
Then he wrung his hands in anguish. He saw before him the peering eyes, the compressed lips, the wasted little hands. This young creature would get protection and care, and the marks of degradation be effaced from her body, anger from her soul. Now the way up to the eternal forests was closed to him.
“I shall not kill myself as long as she is under your care,” he said. “I knew well enough that you would force me to live. I felt that you were stronger than I.”
“Gösta Berling,” she said solemnly, “I have fought for you as for myself. I said to God: ‘If there is anything of Margareta Celsing living in me, let her come forward and show herself, so that this man may not go and kill himself.’ And He granted it, and you saw her, and therefore you could not go. And she whispered to me that for that poor child’s sake you would give up your plan of dying. Ah, you fly, you wild birds, but our Lord knows the net which will catch you.”
“He is a great and wonderful God,” said Gösta Berling. “He has mocked me and cast me out, but He will not let me die. May His will be done!”
From that day Gösta Berling became a guest at Ekeby. Twice he tried to leave and make himself a way to live by his own work. The first time the major’s wife gave him a cottage near Ekeby; he moved thither and meant to live as a laborer. This succeeded for a while, but he soon wearied of the loneliness and the daily labor, and again returned as a guest. There was another time, when he became tutor at Borg for Count Henry Dohna. During this time he fell in love with the young Ebba Dohna, the count’s sister; but when she died, just as he thought he had nearly won her, he gave up every thought of being anything but guest at Ekeby. It seemed to him that for a dismissed priest all ways to make amends were closed.
I must now describe the long lake, the rich plains and the blue mountains, since they were the scene where Gösta Berling and the other knights of Ekeby passed their joyous existence.
The lake has its sources far up in the north, and it is a perfect country for a lake. The forest and the mountains never cease to collect water for it; rivulets and brooks stream into it the whole year round. It has fine white sand to stretch itself over, headlands and islands to mirror and to look at, river sprites and sea nymphs have free play room there, and it quickly grows large and beautiful. There, in the north, it is smiling and friendly; one needs but to see it on a summer morning, when it lies half awake under a veil of mist, to perceive how gay it is. It plays first for a while, creeps softly, softly, out of its light covering, so magically beautiful that one can hardly recognize it; but then it casts from it, suddenly, the whole covering, and lies there bare and uncovered and rosy, shining in the morning light.
But the lake is not content with this life of play; it draws itself together to a narrow strait, breaks its way out through the sand-hills to the south, and seeks out a new kingdom for itself. And such a one it also finds; it gets larger and more powerful, has bottomless depths to fill, and a busy landscape to adorn. And now its water is darker, its shores less varying, its winds sharper, its whole character more severe. It has become a stately and magnificent lake. Many are the ships and the rafts of timber which pass there; late in the year it finds time to take its winter rest, rarely before Christmas. Often is it in peevish mood, when it grows white with wrath and drags down sailing-boats; but it can also lie in a dreamy calm and reflect the heavens.
But still farther out into the world will the lake go, although the mountains become bolder and space narrower; still farther down it comes, so that it once again must creep as a narrow strait between sand-bound shores. Then it broadens out for the third time, but no longer with the same beauty and might.
The shores sink down and become tame, gentler winds blow, the lake takes its winter rest early. It is still beautiful, but it has lost youth’s giddiness and manhood’s strength—it is now a lake like any other. With two arms it gropes after a way to Lake Vänern, and when that is found it throws itself with the feebleness of old age over the slopes and goes with a last thundering leap to rest.
The plain is as long as the lake; but it has no easy time to find a place between sea and mountain, all the way from the valley of the basin at the lake’s northern end, where it first dares to spread itself out, till it lays itself to easy rest by the Vänern’s shore. There is no doubt that the plain would rather follow the shore of the lake, long as it is, but the mountains give it no peace. The mountains are mighty granite walls, covered with woods, full of cliffs difficult to cross, rich in moss and lichen,—in those old days the home of many wild things.
On the far-stretching ridges one often comes upon a wet swamp or a pool with dark water. Here and there is a charcoal kiln or an open patch where timber and wood have been cut, or a burnt clearing, and these all bear witness that there is work going on on the mountains; but as a rule they lie in careless peace and amuse themselves with watching the lights and shadows play over their slopes.
And with these mountains the plain, which is peaceful and rich, and loves work, wages a perpetual war, in a friendly spirit, however.
“It is quite enough,” says the plain to the mountains; “if you set up your walls about me, that is safety enough for me.”
But the mountains will not listen. They send out long rows of hills and barren table-lands way down to the lake. They raise great look-out towers on every promontory, and leave the shores of the lake so seldom that the plain can but rarely stretch itself out by the soft, broad sands. But it does not help to complain.
“You ought to be glad that we stand here,” the mountains say. “Think of that time before Christmas, when the icy fogs, day after day, rolled up from the Löfven. We do you good service.”
The plain complains that it has no space and an ugly view.
“You are so stupid,” answer the mountains; “if you could only feel how it is blowing down here by the lake. One needs at least a granite back and a fir-tree jacket to withstand it. And, besides, you can be glad to have us to look at.”
Yes, looking at the mountains, that is just what the plain is doing. It knows so well all the wonderful shiftings of light and shade, which pass over them. It knows how they sink down in the noon-day heat towards the horizon, low and a dim light-blue, and in the morning or evening light raise their venerable heights, clear blue as the sky at noon.
Sometimes the light falls so sharply over them that they look green or dark-blue, and every separate fir-tree, each path and cleft, is visible miles away.
There are places where the mountains draw back and allow the plain to come forward and gaze at the lake. But when it sees the lake in its anger, hissing and spitting like a wild-cat, or sees it covered with that cold mist which happens when the sea-sprite is busy with brewing or washing, then it agrees that the mountains were right, and draws back to its narrow prison again.
Men have cultivated the beautiful plain time out of mind, and have built much there. Wherever a stream in white foaming falls throws itself down the slope, rose up factories and mills. On the bright, open places, where the plain came down to the lake, churches and vicarages were built; but on the edges of the valley, half-way up the slope, on stony grounds, where grain would not grow, lie farm-houses and officers’ quarters, and here and there a manor.
Still, in the twenties, this district was not nearly so much cultivated as now. Many were the woods and lakes and swamps which now can be tilled. There were not so many people either, and they earned their living partly by carting and day labor at the many factories, partly by working at neighboring places; agriculture could not feed them. At that time they went dressed in homespun, ate oatcakes, and were satisfied with a wage of ten cents a day. Many were in great want; but life was often made easier for them by a light and glad temper, and by an inborn handiness and capability.
And all those three, the long lake, the rich plain, and the blue mountains, made the most beautiful scenery, and still do, just as the people are still to this day, strong, brave and intelligent. Great progress has been made, however, in prosperity and culture.
May everything go well with those who live far away by the long lake and the blue mountains! I shall now recall some of their memories.
Sintram is the name of the wicked master of the works at Fors, with his clumsy ape-body, and his long arms, with his bald head and ugly, grinning face,—he whose delight is to make mischief.
Sintram it is who takes only vagrants and bullies for workmen, and has only quarrelsome, lying maids in his service; he who excites dogs to madness by sticking pins in their noses, and lives happiest among evil people and fierce beasts.
It is Sintram whose greatest pleasure is to dress himself up in the foul fiend’s likeness, with horns, and tail, and cloven hoof, and hairy body, and suddenly appearing from dark corners, from behind the stove or the wood-pile, to frighten timid children and superstitious women.
It is Sintram who delights to change old friendship to new hate, and to poison the heart with lies.
Sintram is his name—and one day he came to Ekeby.
Drag the great wood-sledge into the smithy, put it in the middle of the floor, and lay a cart-bottom on the frame! There we have a table. Hurrah for the table; the table is ready!
Come now with chairs, with everything which will serve for a seat! Come with three-legged stools and empty boxes! Come with ragged old arm-chairs without any backs, and push up the runnerless sleigh and the old coach! Ha, ha, ha, up with the old coach; it shall be the speaker’s chair!
Just look; one wheel gone, and the whole bottom out! Only the coach-box is left. The cushion is thin and worn, its moss stuffing coming through, the leather is red with age. High as a house is the old wreck. Prop it up, prop it up, or down it will come!
Hurrah! Hurrah! It is Christmas eve at Ekeby.
Behind the broad bed’s silken curtains sleep the major and the major’s wife, sleep and believe that the bachelors’ wing sleeps. The men-servants and maids can sleep, heavy with feasting and the bitter Christmas ale; but not their masters in the bachelors’ wing. How can any one think that the bachelors’ wing sleeps?
Sleeps, sleeps (oh, child of man, sleeps!), when the pensioners are awake. The long tongs stand upright on the floor, with tallow candles in their claws. From the mammoth kettle of shining copper flames the blue fire of the burning brandy, high up to the dark roof. Beerencreutz’s horn-lantern hangs on the forge-hammer. The yellow punch glows in the bowl like a bright sun. The pensioners are celebrating Christmas eve in the smithy.
There is mirth and bustle. Fancy, if the major’s wife should see them!
What then? Probably she would sit down with them and empty a bumper. She is a doughty woman; she’s not afraid of a thundering drinking-song or to take a hand at kille. The richest woman in Värmland, as bold as a man, proud as a queen. Songs she loves, and sounding fiddles, and the hunting-horn. She likes wine and games of cards, and tables surrounded by merry guests are her delight. She likes to see the larder emptied, to have dancing and merry-making in chamber and hall, and the bachelors’ wing full of pensioners.
See them round about the bowl! Twelve are they, twelve men. Not butterflies nor dandies, but men whose fame will not soon die out in Värmland; brave men and strong.
Not dried-up parchment, nor close-fisted money-bags; poor men, without a care, gentlemen the whole day long.
No mother’s darlings, no sleepy masters on their own estates. Wayfaring men, cheerful men, knights of a hundred adventures.
Now for many years the bachelors’ wing has stood empty. Ekeby is no longer the chosen refuge of homeless gentlemen. Pensioned officers and impoverished noblemen no longer drive about Värmland in shaky one-horse vehicles. But let the dead live, let them rise up in their glad, careless, eternal youth!
All these notorious men could play on one or several instruments. All were as full of wit and humor and conceits and songs as an ant-hill is full of ants; but each one had his particular great quality, his much esteemed merit which distinguished him from the others.
First of all who sit about the bowl will I name Beerencreutz, the colonel with the great white moustaches, player of cards, singer of songs; and next to him, his friend and brother in arms, the silent major, the great bear hunter, Anders Fuchs; and, as the third in order, little Ruster, the drummer, who had been for many years the colonel’s servant, but had won the rank of pensioner through his skill in brewing punch and his knowledge of thorough-bass. Then may be mentioned the old ensign, Rutger von Örneclou, lady-killer, dressed in stock and wig and ruffles, and painted like a woman,—he was one of the most important pensioners; also Christian Bergh, the mighty captain, who was a stalwart hero, but as easy to outwit as a giant in the fairy story. In these two men’s company one often saw the little, round Master Julius, witty, merry, and gifted, speaker, painter, songster, and storyteller. He often had his joke with the gout-crippled ensign and the dull giant.
There was also the big German Kevenhüller, inventor of the automatic carriage and the flying-machine, he whose name still echoes in the murmuring forests,—a nobleman by birth and in appearance, with great curled moustaches, a pointed beard, aquiline nose, and narrow, squinting eyes in a net of intersecting wrinkles. There sat the great warrior cousin, Christopher, who never went outside the walls of the bachelors’ wing unless there was to be a bear-hunt or some foolhardy adventure; and beside him Uncle Eberhard, the philosopher, who had not come to Ekeby for pleasure and play, but in order to be able, undisturbed by concern for daily bread, to complete his great work in the science of sciences.
Last of all, and the best, the gentle Löwenborg, who sought the good in the world, and understood little of its ways, and Lilliecrona, the great musician, who had a good home, and was always longing to be there, but still remained at Ekeby, for his soul needed riches and variety to be able to bear life.
These eleven men had all left youth behind them, and several were in old age; but in the midst of them was one who was not more than thirty years old, and still possessed the full, undiminished strength of his mind and body. It was Gösta Berling, the Knight of Knights, who alone in himself was a better speaker, singer, musician, hunter, drinking companion and card-player than all of the others together. He possessed all gifts. What a man the major’s wife had made of him!
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