MARGARETA CELSING

It was many years before the pensioners’ reign at Ekeby.

The shepherd’s boy and girl played together in the wood, built houses
with flat stones, and picked cloud-berries. They were both born in the
wood. The wood was their home and mansion. They lived in peace with
everything there.

The children looked upon the lynx and the fox as their watch-dogs, the
weasel was their cat, hares and squirrels their cattle, owls and grouse
sat in their bird-cage, the pines were their servants, and the young
birch-trees guests at their feasts. They knew the hole where the viper
lay curled up in his winter rest; and when they had bathed they had seen
the water-snake come swimming through the clear water; but they feared
neither snake nor wild creature; they belonged to the wood and it was
their home. There nothing could frighten them.

Deep in the wood lay the cottage where the boy lived. A hilly wood-path
led to it; mountains closed it in and shut out the sun; a bottomless
swamp lay near by and gave out the whole year round an icy mist. Such a
dwelling seemed far from attractive to the people on the plain.

The shepherd’s boy and girl were some day to be married, live there
in the forest cottage, and support themselves by the work of their
hands. But before they were married, war passed over the land, and the
boy enlisted. He came home again without wound or injured limb; but he
had been changed for life by the campaign. He had seen too much of the
world’s wickedness and man’s cruel activity against man. He could no
longer see the good.

At first no one saw any change in him. With the love of his childhood he
went to the clergyman and had the banns published. The forest cottage
above Ekeby was their home, as they had planned long before; but it was
not a happy home.

The wife looked at her husband as at a stranger. Since he had come from
the wars, she could not recognize him. His laugh was hard, and he spoke
but little. She was afraid of him.

He did no harm, and worked hard. Still he was not liked, for he thought
evil of everybody. He felt himself like a hated stranger. Now the forest
animals were his enemies. The mountain, which shut out the sun, and the
swamp, which sent up the mist, were his foes. The forest is a terrible
place for one who has evil thoughts.

He who will live in the wilderness should have bright memories. Otherwise
he sees only murder and oppression among plants and animals, just as he
had seen it before among men. He expects evil from everything he meets.

The soldier, Jan Hök, could not explain what was the matter with him; but
he felt that nothing went well with him. There was little peace in his
home. His sons who grew up there were strong, but wild. They were hardy
and brave men, but they too lived at enmity with all men.

His wife was tempted by her sorrow to seek out the secrets of the
wilderness. In swamp and thicket she gathered healing herbs. She could
cure sickness, and give advice to those who were crossed in love. She won
fame as a witch, and was shunned, although she did much good.

One day the wife tried to speak to her husband of his trouble.

“Ever since you went to the war,” she said, “you have been so changed.
What did they do to you there?”

Then he rose up, and was ready to strike her; and so it was every time
she spoke of the war, he became mad with rage. From no one could he bear
to hear the word war, and it soon became known. So people were careful of
that subject.

But none of his brothers in arms could say that he had done more harm
than others. He had fought like a good soldier. It was only all the
dreadful things he had seen which had frightened him so that since then
he saw nothing but evil. All his trouble came from the war. He thought
that all nature hated him, because he had had a share in such things.
They who knew more could console themselves that they had fought for
fatherland and honor. What did he know of such things? He only felt that
everything hated him because he had shed blood and done much injury.

When the major’s wife was driven from Ekeby, he lived alone in his
cottage. His wife was dead and his sons away. During the fairs his house
was always full of guests. Black-haired, swarthy gypsies put up there.
They like those best whom others avoid. Small, long-haired horses climbed
up the wood path, dragging carts loaded with children and bundles of
rags. Women, prematurely old, with features swollen by smoking and
drinking, and men with pale, sharp faces and sinewy bodies followed the
carts. When the gypsies came to the forest cottage, there was a merry
life there. Brandy and cards and loud talking followed with them. They
had much to tell of thefts and horse-dealing and bloody fights.

The Broby Fair began on a Friday, and then Captain Lennart was killed.
Big Mons, who gave the death-blow, was son to the old man in the forest
cottage. When the gypsies on Sunday afternoon sat together there, they
handed old Jan Hök the brandy bottle oftener than usual, and talked to
him of prison life and prison fare and trials; for they had often tried
such things.

The old man sat on the chopping-block in the corner and said little. His
big lack-lustre eyes stared at the crowd which filled the room. It was
dusk, but the wood-fire lighted the room.

The door was softly opened and two women entered. It was the young
Countess Elizabeth followed by the daughter of the Broby clergyman.
Lovely and glowing, she came into the circle of light. She told them that
Gösta Berling had not been seen at Ekeby since Captain Lennart died. She
and her servant had searched for him in the wood the whole afternoon. Now
she saw that there were men here who had much wandered, and knew all the
paths. Had they seen him? She had come in to rest, and to ask if they had
seen him.

It was a useless question. None of them had seen him.

They gave her a chair. She sank down on it, and sat silent for a while.
There was no sound in the room. All looked at her and wondered at her. At
last she grew frightened at the silence, started, and tried to speak of
indifferent things. She turned to the old man in the corner, “I think I
have heard that you have been a soldier,” she said. “Tell me something of
the war!”

The silence grew still deeper. The old man sat as if he had not heard.

“It would be very interesting to hear about the war from some one who had
been there himself,” continued the countess; but she stopped short, for
the Broby clergyman’s daughter shook her head at her. She must have said
something forbidden. Everybody was looking at her as if she had offended
against the simplest rule of propriety. Suddenly a gypsy woman raised her
sharp voice and asked: “Are you not she who has been countess at Borg?”

“Yes, I am.”

“That was another thing than running about the wood after a mad priest.”

The countess rose and said farewell. She was quite rested. The woman who
had spoken followed her out through the door.

“You understand, countess,” she said, “I had to say something; for it
does not do to speak to the old man of war. He can’t bear to hear the
word. I meant well.”

Countess Elizabeth hurried away, but she soon stopped. She saw the
threatening wood, the dark mountain, and the reeking swamp. It must be
terrible to live here for one whose soul is filled with evil memories.
She felt compassion for the old man who had sat there with the dark
gypsies for company.

“Anna Lisa,” she said, “let us turn back! They were kind to us, but I
behaved badly. I want to talk to the old man about pleasanter things.”

And happy to have found some one to comfort, she went back to the cottage.

“I think,” she said, “that Gösta Berling is wandering here in the wood,
and means to take his own life. It is therefore important that he be
soon found and prevented. I and my maid, Anna Lisa, thought we saw him
sometimes, but then he disappeared. He keeps to that part of the mountain
where the broom-girl was killed. I happened to think that I do not need
to go way down to Ekeby to get help. Here sit many active men who easily
could catch him.”

“Go along, boys!” cried the gypsy woman. “When the countess does not hold
herself too good to ask a service of the forest people, you must go at
once.”

The men rose immediately and went out to search.

Old Jan Hök sat still and stared before him with lustreless eyes.
Terrifyingly gloomy and hard, he sat there. The young woman could think
of nothing to say to him. Then she saw that a child lay sick on a sheaf
of straw, and noticed that a woman had hurt her hand. Instantly she began
to care for the sick. She was soon friends with the gossiping women, and
had them show her the smallest children.

In an hour the men came back. They carried Gösta Berling bound into
the room. They laid him down on the floor before the fire. His clothes
were torn and dirty, his cheeks sunken, and his eyes wild. Terrible had
been his ways during those days; he had lain on the damp ground; he had
burrowed with his hands and face in bogs, dragged himself over rocks,
forced his way through the thickest underbrush. Of his own will he had
never come with the men; but they had overpowered and bound him.

When his wife saw him so, she was angry. She did not free his bound
limbs; she let him lie where he was on the floor. With scorn she turned
from him.

“How you look!” she said.

“I had never meant to come again before your eyes,” he answered.

“Am I not your wife? Is it not my right to expect you to come to me with
your troubles? In bitter sorrow I have waited for you these two days.”

“I was the cause of Captain Lennart’s misfortunes. How could I dare to
show myself to you?”

“You are not often afraid, Gösta.”

“The only service I can do you, Elizabeth, is to rid you of myself.”

Unspeakable contempt flashed from under her frowning brows at him.

“You wish to make me a suicide’s wife!”

His face was distorted.

“Elizabeth, let us go out into the silent forest and talk.”

“Why should not these people hear us?” she cried, speaking in a shrill
voice. “Are we better than any of them? Has any one of them caused more
sorrow and injury than we? They are the children of the forest, and of
the highway; they are hated by every man. Let them hear how sin and
sorrow also follows the lord of Ekeby, the beloved of all, Gösta Berling!
Do you think your wife considers herself better than any one of them—or
do you?”

He raised himself with difficulty onto his elbow, and looked at her with
sudden defiance. “I am not such a wretch as you think.”

Then she heard the story of those two days. The first day Gösta wandered
about in the wood, driven by remorse. He could not bear to meet any
one’s eye. But he did not think of dying. He meant to journey to far
distant lands. On Sunday, however, he came down from the hills and went
to the Bro church. Once more he wished to see the people: the poor,
hungry people whom he had dreamed of serving when he had sat by the Broby
clergyman’s pile of shame, and whom he had learned to love when he saw
them disappear into the night with the dead broom-girl.

The service had begun when he came to the church. He crept up to the
gallery, and looked down on the people. He had felt bitter agony. He
had wanted to speak to them, to comfort them in their poverty and
hopelessness. If he had only been allowed to speak in God’s house,
hopeless as he was, he would have found words of hope and salvation for
them all.

Then he left the church, went into the sacristy, and wrote the message
which his wife already knew. He had promised that work should be renewed
at Ekeby, and grain distributed to those in greatest need. He had hoped
that his wife and the pensioners would fulfil his promises when he was
gone.

As he came out, he saw a coffin standing before the parish-hall. It
was plain, put together in haste, but covered with black crape and
wreaths. He knew that it was Captain Lennart’s. The people had begged the
captain’s wife to hasten the funeral, so that all those who had come to
the Fair could be at the burial.

He was standing and looking at the coffin, when a heavy hand was laid on
his shoulder. Sintram had come up to him.

“Gösta,” he said, “if you want to play a regular trick on a person, lie
down and die. There is nothing more clever than to die, nothing which so
deceives an honest man who suspects no harm. Lie you down and die, I tell
you!”

Gösta listened with horror to what he said. Sintram complained of the
failure of well-laid plans. He had wanted to see a waste about the shores
of the Löfven. He had made the pensioners lords of the place; he had
let the Broby clergyman impoverish the people; he had called forth the
drought and the famine. At the Broby Fair the decisive blow was to have
fallen. Excited by their misfortunes, the people should have turned to
murder and robbery. Then there should have been lawsuits to beggar them.
Famine, riot, and every kind of misfortune should have ravaged them.
Finally, the country would have become so odious and detestable that no
one could have lived there, and it would all have been Sintram’s doing.
It would have been his joy and pride, for he was evil-minded. He loved
desert wastes and uncultivated fields. But this man who had known how to
die at the right moment had spoiled it all for him.

Then Gösta asked him what would have been the good of it all.

“It would have pleased me, Gösta, for I am bad. I am the grizzly bear on
the mountain; I am the snow-storm on the plain; I like to kill and to
persecute. Away, I say, with people and their works! I don’t like them.
I can let them slip from between my claws and cut their capers,—that is
amusing too for a while; but now I am tired of play, Gösta, now I want to
strike, now I want to kill and to destroy.”

He was mad, quite mad. He began a long time ago as a joke with those
devilish tricks, and now his maliciousness had taken the upper hand; now
he thought he really was a spirit from the lower regions. He had fed and
fostered the evil in him until it had taken possession of his soul. For
wickedness can drive people mad, as well as love and brooding.

He was furious, and in his anger he began to tear the wreaths from off
the coffin; but then Gösta Berling cried: “Let the coffin be!”

“Well, well, well, so I shall not touch it! Yes; I shall throw my friend
Lennart out on the ground and trample on his wreaths. Do you not see what
he has done to me? Do you not see in what a fine gray coach I am riding?”

And Gösta then saw that a couple of prison-vans with the sheriff and
constables of the district stood and waited outside the churchyard wall.

“I ought to send Captain Lennart’s wife thanks that she yesterday sat
herself down to read through old papers in order to find proof against me
in that matter of the powder, you know? Shall I not let her know that she
would have done better to occupy herself with brewing and baking, than
in sending the sheriff and his men after me? Shall I have nothing for
the tears I have wept to induce Scharling to let me come here and read a
prayer by my good friend’s coffin?”

And he began again to drag on the crape.

Then Gösta Berling came close up to him and seized his arms.

“I will give anything to make you let the coffin alone,” he said.

“Do what you like,” said the madman. “Call if you like. I can always
do something before the sheriff gets here. Fight with me, if you like.
That will be a pleasing sight here by the church. Let us fight among the
wreaths and palls.”

“I will buy rest for the dead at any price. Take my life, take
everything!”

“You promise much.”

“You can prove it.”

“Well, then, kill yourself!”

“I will do it; but first the coffin shall be safely under earth.”

And so it was. Sintram took Gösta’s oath that he would not be alive
twelve hours after Captain Lennart was buried. “Then I know that you can
never be good for anything,” he said.

It was easy for Gösta Berling to promise. He was glad to be able to give
his wife her liberty. Remorse had made him long for death. The only thing
which troubled him was, that he had promised the major’s wife not to die
as long as the Broby clergyman’s daughter was a servant at Ekeby. But
Sintram said that she could no longer be considered as servant, since
she had inherited her father’s fortune. Gösta objected that the Broby
clergyman had hidden his treasures so well that no one had been able to
find them. Then Sintram laughed and said that they were hidden up among
the pigeons’ nests in the church tower. Thereupon he went away. And Gösta
went back to the wood again. It seemed best to him to die at the place
where the broom-girl had been killed. He had wandered there the whole
afternoon. He had seen his wife in the wood; and then he had not had the
strength to kill himself.

All this he told his wife, while he lay bound on the floor of the cottage.

“Oh,” she said sadly, when he had finished, “how familiar it all is!
Always ready to thrust your hands into the fire, Gösta, always ready to
throw yourself away! How noble such things seemed to me once! How I now
value calmness and good sense! What good did you do the dead by such a
promise? What did it matter if Sintram had overturned the coffin and torn
off the crape? It would have been picked up again; there would have been
found new crape, new wreaths. If you had laid your hand on that good
man’s coffin, there before Sintram’s eyes, and sworn to live to help
those poor people whom he wished to ruin, that I should have commended.
If you had thought, when you saw the people in the church: ‘I will help
them; I will make use of all my strength to help them,’ and not laid that
burden on your weak wife, and on old men with failing strength, I should
also have commended that.”

Gösta Berling lay silent for a while.

“We pensioners are not free men,” he said at last. “We have promised one
another to live for pleasure, and only for pleasure. Woe to us all if one
breaks his word!”

“Woe to you,” said the countess, indignantly, “if you shall be the most
cowardly of the pensioners, and slower to improve than any of them.
Yesterday afternoon the whole eleven sat in the pensioners’ wing, and
they were very sad. You were gone; Captain Lennart was gone. The glory
and honor of Ekeby were gone. They left the toddy tray untouched; they
would not let me see them. Then the maid, Anna Lisa, who stands here,
went up to them. You know she is an energetic little woman who for years
has struggled despairingly against neglect and waste.

“‘To-day I have again been at home and looked for father’s money,’ she
said to the pensioners; ‘but I have not found anything. All the debts are
paid, and the drawers and closets are empty.’

“‘We are sorry for you, Anna Lisa,’ said Beerencreutz.

“‘When the major’s wife left Ekeby,’ continued Anna Lisa, ‘she told me
to see after her house. And if I had found father’s money, I would have
built up Ekeby. But as I did not find anything else to take away with me,
I took father’s shame heap; for great shame awaits me when my mistress
comes again and asks me what I have done with Ekeby.’

“‘Don’t take so much to heart what is not your fault, Anna Lisa,’ said
Beerencreutz again.

“‘But I did not take the shame heap for myself alone,’ said Anna Lisa. ‘I
took it also for your reckoning, good gentlemen. Father is not the only
one who has been the cause of shame and injury in this world.’

“And she went from one to the other of them, and laid down some of the
dry sticks before each. Some of them swore, but most of them let her go
on. At last Beerencreutz said, calmly:—

“‘It is well. We thank you. You may go now.’ When she had gone, he struck
the table with his clenched hand till the glasses rang.

“‘From this hour,’ he said, ‘absolutely sober. Brandy shall never again
cause me such shame.’ Thereupon he rose and went out.

“They followed him by degrees, all the others. Do you know where they
went, Gösta? Well, down to the river, to the point where the mill and
the forge had stood, and there they began to work. They began to drag
away the logs and stones and clear the place. The old men have had a
hard time. Many of them have had sorrow. Now they can no longer bear the
disgrace of having ruined Ekeby. I know too well that you pensioners
are ashamed to work; but now the others have taken that shame on them.
Moreover, Gösta, they mean to send Anna Lisa up to the major’s wife to
bring her home. But you, what are you doing?”

He found still an answer to give her.

“What do you want of me, of a dismissed priest? Cast off by men, hateful
to God?”

“I too have been in the Bro church to-day, Gösta. I have a message to you
from two women. ‘Tell Gösta,’ said Marianne Sinclair, ‘that a woman does
not like to be ashamed of him she has loved.’ ‘Tell Gösta,’ said Anna
Stjärnhök, ‘that all is now well with me. I manage my own estates. I do
not think of love, only of work. At Berga too they have conquered the
first bitterness of their sorrow. But we all grieve for Gösta. We believe
in him and pray for him; but when, when will he be a man?’

“Do you hear? Are you cast off by men?” continued the countess. “Your
misfortune is that you have been met with too much love. Women and men
have loved you. If you only jested and laughed, if you only sang and
played, they have forgiven you everything. Whatever it has pleased you to
do has seemed right to them. And you dare to call yourself an outcast! Or
are you hateful to God? Why did you not stay and see Captain Lennart’s
burial?

“As he had died on a Fair day, his fame had gone far and wide. After
the service, thousands of people came up to the church. The funeral
procession was formed by the town hall. They were only waiting for the
old dean. He was ill and had not preached; but he had promised to come
to Captain Lennart’s funeral. And at last he came, with head sunk on his
breast, and dreaming his dreams, as he is wont to do now in his old age,
and placed himself at the head of the procession. He noticed nothing
unusual. He walked on the familiar path and did not look up. He read the
prayers, and threw the earth on the coffin, and still noticed nothing.
But then the sexton began a hymn. Hundreds and hundreds of voices joined
in. Men, women, and children sang. Then the dean awoke from his dreams.
He passed his hand over his eyes and stepped up on the mound of earth to
look. Never had he seen such a crowd of mourners. All were singing; all
had tears in their eyes,—all were mourning.

“Then the old dean began to tremble. What should he say to these people?
He must say a word to comfort them.

“When the song ceased, he stretched out his arms over the people.

“‘I see that you are mourning,’ he said; ‘and sorrow is heavier to bear
for one who has long to live than for me who will soon be gone.’

“He stopped dismayed. His voice was too weak, and words failed him.

“But he soon began again. His voice had regained its youthful strength,
and his eyes glowed.

“First, he told all he knew of God’s wayfarer. Then he reminded us that
no outward polish nor great ability had made that man so honored as he
now was, but only that he had always followed God’s ways. And now he
asked us to do the same. Each should love the other, and help him. Each
should think well of the other. And he explained everything which had
happened this year. He said it was a preparation for the time of love and
happiness which now was to be expected.

“And we all felt as if we had heard a prophet speak. All wished to love
one another; all wished to be good.

“He lifted his eyes and hands and proclaimed peace in the neighborhood.
Then he called on a helper for the people. ‘Some one will come,’ he said.
‘It is not God’s will that you shall perish. God will find some one who
will feed the hungry and lead you in His ways.’

“Then we all thought of you, Gösta. We knew that the dean spoke of you.
The people who had heard your message went home talking of you. And you
wandered here in the wood and wanted to die! The people are waiting for
you, Gösta. In all the cottages they are sitting and saying that, as the
mad priest at Ekeby is going to help them, all will be well. You are
their hero, Gösta.

“Yes, Gösta, it is certain that the old man meant you, and that ought
to make you want to live. But I, Gösta, who am your wife, I say to you
that you shall go and do your duty. You shall not dream of being sent by
God,—any one can be that. You shall work without any heroics; you shall
not shine and astonish; you shall so manage that your name is not too
often heard on the people’s lips. But think well before you take back
your promise to Sintram. You have now got a certain right to die, and
life ought not to offer you many attractions. There was a time when my
wish was to go home to Italy, Gösta. It seemed too much happiness for
me, a sinner, to be your wife, and be with you through life. But now I
shall stay. If you dare to live, I shall stop; but do not await any joy
from that. I shall force you to follow the weary path of duty. You need
never expect words of joy or hope from me. Can a heart which has suffered
like mine love again? Tearless and joyless I shall walk beside you. Think
well, Gösta, before you choose to live. We shall go the way of penance.”

She did not wait for his answer. She nodded to Anna Lisa and went. When
she came out into the wood, she began to weep bitterly, and wept until
she reached Ekeby. Arrived there, she remembered that she had forgotten
to talk of gladder things than war to Jan Hök, the soldier.

In the cottage there was silence when she was gone.

“Glory and honor be to the Lord God!” said the old soldier, suddenly.

They looked at him. He had risen and was looking eagerly about him.

“Wicked, wicked has everything been,” he said. “Everything I have seen
since I got my eyes opened has been wicked. Bad men, bad women! Hate and
anger in forest and plain! But she is good. A good woman has stood in my
house. When I am sitting here alone, I shall remember her. She shall be
with me in the wood.”

He bent down over Gösta, untied his fetters, and lifted him up. Then he
solemnly took his hand.

“Hateful to God,” he said and nodded. “That is just it. But now you are
not any more; nor I either, since she has been in my house. She is good.”

The next day old Jan Hök came to the bailiff Scharling. “I will carry my
cross,” he said. “I have been a bad man, therefore I have had bad sons.”
And he asked to be allowed to go to prison instead of his son; but that
could not be.

The best of old stories is the one which tells of how he followed his
son, walking beside the prison van; how he slept outside his cell; how he
did not forsake him until he had suffered his punishment.

A few days before Christmas the major’s wife started on her journey down
to the Löfsjö district; but it was not till Christmas Eve that she came
to Ekeby. During the whole journey she was ill. Yet, in spite of cold and
fever, people had never seen her in better spirits nor heard her speak
more friendly words.

The Broby clergyman’s daughter, who had been with her in the Älfdal
forests ever since October, sat by her side in the sledge and wished to
hasten the journey; but she could not prevent the old woman from stopping
the horses and calling every wayfarer up to her to ask for news.

“How is it with you all here in Löfsjö?” she asked.

“All is well,” was the answer. “Better times are coming. The mad priest
there at Ekeby and his wife help us all.”

“A good time has come,” answered another. “Sintram is gone. The Ekeby
pensioners are working. The Broby clergyman’s money is found in the Bro
church-tower. There is so much that the glory and power of Ekeby can be
restored with it. There is enough too to get bread for the hungry.”

“Our old dean has waked to new life and strength,” said a third. “Every
Sunday he speaks to us of the coming of the Kingdom of God.”

And the major’s wife drove slowly on, asking every one she met: “How is
it here? Do you not suffer from want here?”

And the fever and the stabbing pain in her breast were assuaged, when
they answered her: “There are two good and rich women here, Marianne
Sinclair and Anna Stjärnhök. They help Gösta Berling to go from house to
house and see that no one is starving. And no more brandy is made now.”

It was as if the major’s wife had sat in the sledge and listened to
a long divine service. She had come to a blessed land. She saw old,
furrowed faces brighten, when they spoke of the time which had come. The
sick forgot their pains to tell of the day of joy.

“We all want to be like the good Captain Lennart,” they said. “We all
want to be good. We want to believe good of every one. We will not injure
any one. It shall hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom.”

She found them all filled with the same spirit. On the larger estates
free dinners were given to those who were in greatest need. All who had
work to be done had it done now.

She had never felt in better health than when she sat there and let the
cold air stream into her aching breast. She could not drive by a single
house without stopping and asking.

“Everything is well,” they all said. “There was great distress, but the
good gentlemen from Ekeby help us. You will be surprised at everything
which has been done there. The mill is almost ready, and the smithy is at
work, and the burned-down house ready for the roof.”

Ah, it would only last a short time! But still it was good to return
to a land where they all helped one another and all wished to do good.
The major’s wife felt that she could now forgive the pensioners, and she
thanked God for it.

“Anna Lisa,” she said, “I feel as if I had already come into the heaven
of the blessed.”

When she at last reached Ekeby, and the pensioners hurried to help her
out of the sledge, they could hardly recognize her, for she was as kind
and gentle as their own young countess. The older ones, who had seen her
as a young girl, whispered to one another: “It is not the major’s wife at
Ekeby; it is Margareta Celsing who has come back.”

Great was the pensioners’ joy to see her come so kind and so free from
all thoughts of revenge; but it was soon changed to grief when they found
how ill she was. She had to be carried immediately into the guest-room in
the wing, and put to bed. But on the threshold she turned and spoke to
them.

“It has been God’s storm,” she said,—“God’s storm. I know now that it has
all been for the best!”

Then the door to the sick-room closed, and they never saw her again.

There is so much to say to one who is dying. The words throng to the lips
when one knows that in the next room lies one whose ears will soon be
closed for always. “Ah, my friend, my friend,” one wants to say, “can you
forgive? Can you believe that I have loved you in spite of everything!
Ah, my friend, thanks for all the joy you have given me!”

That will one say and so much, much more.

But the major’s wife lay in a burning fever, and the voices of the
pensioners could not reach her. Would she never know how they had worked,
how they had taken up her work?

After a little while the pensioners went down to the smithy. There all
work was stopped; but they threw new coal and new ore into the furnace,
and made ready to smelt. They did not call the smith, who had gone home
to celebrate Christmas, but worked themselves at the forge. If the
major’s wife could only live until the hammer got going, it would tell
her their story.

Evening came and then night, while they worked. Several of them thought,
how strange it was that they should again celebrate the night before
Christmas in the smithy.

Kevenhüller, who had been the architect of the mill and the smithy, and
Christian Bergh stood by the forge and attended to the melting iron.
Gösta and Julius were the stokers. Some of the others sat on the anvil
under the raised hammer, and others sat on coal-carts and piles of
pig-iron. Löwenborg was talking to Eberhard, the philosopher, who sat
beside him on the anvil.

“Sintram dies to-night,” he said.

“Why just to-night?” asked Eberhard.

“You know that we made an agreement last year. Now we have done nothing
which has been ungentlemanly, and therefore he has lost.”

“You who believe in such things know very well that we have done a great
deal which has been ungentlemanly. First, we did not help the major’s
wife; second, we began to work; third, it was not quite right that Gösta
Berling did not kill himself, when he had promised.”

“I have thought of that too,” answered Löwenborg; “but my opinion is,
that you do not rightly comprehend the matter. To act with the thought of
our own mean advantage was forbidden us; but not to act as love or honor
or our own salvation demanded. I think that Sintram has lost.”

“Perhaps you are right.”

“I tell you that I know it. I have heard his sleigh-bells the whole
evening, but they are not real bells. We shall soon have him here.”

And the little old man sat and stared through the smithy door, which
stood open, out at the bit of blue sky studded with stars which showed
through it.

After a little while he started up.

“Do you see him?” he whispered. “There he comes creeping. Do you not see
him in the doorway?”

“I see nothing,” replied Eberhard. “You are sleepy, that is the whole
story.”

“I saw him so distinctly against the sky. He had on his long wolfskin
coat and fur cap. Now he is over there in the dark, and I cannot see him.
Look, now he is up by the furnace. He is standing close to Christian
Bergh; but Christian seems not to see him. Now he is bending down and is
throwing something into the fire. Oh, how wicked he looks! Take care,
friends, take care!”

As he spoke, a tongue of flame burst out of the furnace, and covered the
smiths and their assistants with cinders and sparks. No one, however, was
injured.

“He wants to be revenged,” whispered Löwenborg.

“You too are mad!” cried Eberhard. “You ought to have had enough of such
things.”

“Do you not see how he is standing there by the prop and grinning at us?
But, verily, I believe that he has unfastened the hammer.”

He started up and dragged Eberhard with him. The second after the hammer
fell thundering down onto the anvil. It was only a clamp which had given
way; but Eberhard and Löwenborg had narrowly escaped death.

“You see that he has no power over us,” said Löwenborg, triumphantly.
“But it is plain that he wants to be revenged.”

And he called Gösta Berling to him.

“Go up to the women, Gösta. Perhaps he will show himself to them too.
They are not so used as I to seeing such things. They may be frightened.
And take care of yourself, Gösta, for he has a special grudge against
you, and perhaps he has power over you on account of that promise.”

Afterwards they heard that Löwenborg had been right, and that Sintram had
died that night. Some said that he had hanged himself in his cell. Others
believed that the servants of justice secretly had him killed, for the
trial seemed to be going well for him, and it would never do to let him
out again among the people in Löfsjö. Still others thought that a dark
visitor had driven up in a black carriage, drawn by black horses, and
had taken him out of prison. And Löwenborg was not the only one who saw
him that night. He was also seen at Fors and in Ulrika Dillner’s dreams.
Many told how he had shown himself to them, until Ulrika Dillner moved
his body to the Bro churchyard. She also had the evil servants sent away
from Fors and introduced there good order. After that it was no longer
haunted.

It is said that before Gösta Berling reached the house, a stranger had
come to the wing and had left a letter for the major’s wife. No one knew
the messenger, but the letter was carried in and laid on the table beside
the sick woman. Soon after she became unexpectedly better; the fever
decreased, the pain abated, and she was able to read the letter.

The old people believe that her improvement depended on the influence
of the powers of darkness. Sintram and his friends would profit by the
reading of that letter.

It was a contract written in blood on black paper. The pensioners would
have recognized it. It was composed on the last Christmas Eve in the
smithy at Ekeby.

And the major’s wife lay there now and read that since she had been a
witch, and had sent pensioners’ souls to hell, she was condemned to lose
Ekeby. That and other similar absurdities she read. She examined the
date and signatures, and found the following note beside Gösta’s name:
“Because the major’s wife has taken advantage of my weakness to tempt
me away from honest work, and to keep me as pensioner at Ekeby, because
she has made me Ebba Dohna’s murderer by betraying to her that I am a
dismissed priest, I sign my name.”

The major’s wife slowly folded the paper and put it in its envelope. Then
she lay still and thought over what she had learned. She understood with
bitter pain that such was the people’s thought of her. She was a witch
and a sorceress to all those whom she had served, to whom she had given
work and bread. This was her reward. They could not believe anything
better of an adulteress.

Her thoughts flew. Wild anger and a longing for revenge flamed up in
her fever-burning brain. She had Anna Lisa, who with Countess Elizabeth
tended her, send a message to Hogfors to the manager and overseer. She
wished to make her will.

Again she lay thinking. Her eyebrows were drawn together, her features
were terribly distorted by suffering.

“You are very ill,” said the countess, softly.

“Yes, more ill than ever before.”

There was silence again, but then the major’s wife spoke in a hard, harsh
voice:—

“It is strange to think that you, too, countess, you whom every one
loves, are an adulteress.”

The young woman started.

“Yes, if not in deed, yet in thoughts and desire, and that makes no
difference. I who lie here feel that it makes no difference.”

“I know it!”

“And yet you are happy now. You may possess him you loved without sin.
That black spectre does not stand between you when you meet. You may
belong to one another before the world, love one another, go side by side
through life.”

“Oh, madame, madame!”

“How can you dare to stay with him?” cried the old woman, with increasing
violence. “Repent, repent in time! Go home to your father and mother,
before they come and curse you. Do you dare to consider Gösta Berling
your husband? Leave him! I shall give him Ekeby. I shall give him power
and glory. Do you dare to share that with him? Do you dare to accept
happiness and honor? I did not dare to. Do you remember what happened to
me? Do you remember the Christmas dinner at Ekeby? Do you remember the
cell in the bailiff’s house?”

“Oh, madame, we sinners go here side by side without happiness. I am here
to see that no joy shall find a home by our hearth. Do you think I do not
long for my home? Oh, bitterly do I long for the protection and support
of home; but I shall never again enjoy them. Here I shall live in fear
and trembling, knowing that everything I do leads to sin and sorrow,
knowing that if I help one, I ruin another. Too weak and foolish for the
life here, and yet forced to live it, bound by an everlasting penance.”

“With such thoughts we deceive our hearts,” cried the major’s wife; “but
it is weakness. You will not leave him, that is the only reason.”

Before the countess could answer, Gösta Berling came into the room.

“Come here, Gösta,” said the major’s wife instantly, and her voice grew
still sharper and harder. “Come here, you whom everybody praises. You
shall now hear what has happened to your old friend whom you allowed to
wander about the country, despised and forsaken.

“I will first tell you what happened last spring, when I came home to my
mother, for you ought to know the end of that story.

“In March I reached the iron-works in the Älfdal forest, Gösta. Little
better than a beggar I looked. They told me that my mother was in the
dairy. So I went there, and stood for a long while silent at the door.
There were long shelves round about the room, and on them stood shining
copper pans filled with milk. And my mother, who was over ninety years
old, took down pan after pan and skimmed off the cream. She was active
enough, the old woman; but I saw well enough how hard it was for her to
straighten up her back to reach the pans. I did not know if she had seen
me; but after a while she spoke to me in a curious, shrill voice.

“‘So everything has happened to you as I wished,’ she said. I wanted to
speak and to ask her to forgive me, but it was a waste of trouble. She
did not hear a word of it,—she was stone-deaf. But after a while she
spoke again: ‘You can come and help me,’ she said.

“Then I went in and skimmed the milk. I took the pans in order, and
put everything in its place, and skimmed just deep enough, and she was
pleased. She had never been able to trust any of the maids to skim the
milk; but I knew of old how she liked to have it.

“‘Now you can take charge of this work,’ she said. And then I knew that
she had forgiven me.

“And afterwards all at once it seemed as if she could not work any more.
She sat in her arm-chair and slept almost all day. She died two weeks
before Christmas. I should have liked to have come before, Gösta, but I
could not leave her.”

She stopped. She began to find breathing difficult; but she made an
effort and went on:—

“It is true, Gösta, that I wished to keep you near me at Ekeby. There is
something about you which makes every one rejoice to be with you. If you
had shown a wish to be a settled man, I would have given you much power.
I always hoped that you would find a good wife. First, I thought that it
would be Marianne Sinclair, for I saw that she loved you already, when
you lived as wood-cutter in the wood. Then I thought that it would be
Ebba Dohna, and one day I drove over to Borg and told her that if she
would have you for husband, I would leave you Ekeby in my will. If I did
wrong in that, you must forgive me.”

Gösta was kneeling by the bed with his face hidden in the blankets, and
was moaning bitterly.

“Tell me, Gösta, how you mean to live? How shall you support your wife?
Tell me that. You know that I have always wished you well.” And Gösta
answered her smiling, while his heart almost burst with pain.

“In the old days, when I tried to be a laborer here at Ekeby, you gave
me a cottage to live in, and it is still mine. This autumn I have put
it quite in order. Löwenborg has helped me, and we have whitewashed the
ceilings and hung the walls with paper and painted them. The inner little
room Löwenborg calls the countess’s boudoir, and he has gone through all
the farm-houses round about for furniture, which has come there from
manor-house auctions. He has bought them, so that there we have now
high-backed arm-chairs and chests of drawers with shining mountings. But
in the outer big room stands the young wife’s weaving-loom and my lathe.
Household utensils and all kinds of things are there, and there Löwenborg
and I have already sat many evenings and talked of how the young countess
and I will have it in the cottage. But my wife did not know it till now.
We wanted to tell her when we should leave Ekeby.”

“Go on, Gösta.”

“Löwenborg was always saying that a maid was needed in the house. ‘In the
summer it is lovely here in the birch grove,’ he used to say; ‘but in
winter it will be too lonely for the young wife. You will have to have a
maid, Gösta.’

“And I agreed with him, but I did not know how I could afford to keep
one. Then he came one day and carried down his music, and his table with
the painted keyboard, and put it in the cottage. ‘It is you, Löwenborg,
who are going to be the maid,’ I said to him. He answered that he would
be needed. Did I mean the young countess to cook the food, and to carry
wood and water? No, I had not meant her to do anything at all, as long
as I had a pair of arms to work with. But he still thought that it would
be best if there were two of us, so that she might sit the whole day on
her sofa and embroider. I could never know how much waiting upon such a
little woman needed, he said.”

“Go on,” said the major’s wife. “It eases my pain. Did you think that
your young countess would be willing to live in a cottage?”

He wondered at her scornful tone, but continued:

“No, I did not dare to think it; but it would have been so perfect if
she had been willing. It is thirty miles from any doctor. She, who has a
light hand and a tender heart, would have had work enough to tend wounds
and allay fevers. And I thought that everybody in trouble would find the
way to the lady mistress in the forest cottage. There is so much distress
among the poor which kind words and a gentle heart can help.”

“But you yourself, Gösta Berling?”

“I shall have my work at the carpenter’s bench and lathe. I shall
hereafter live my own life. If my wife will not follow me, I cannot help
it. If some one should offer me all the riches of the universe, it would
not tempt me. I want to live my own life. Now I shall be and remain a
poor man among the peasants, and help them with whatever I can. They
need some one to play the polka for them at weddings and at Christmas;
they need some one to write letters to their distant sons,—and that some
one I will be. But I must be poor.”

“It will be a gloomy life for you, Gösta.”

“Oh, no, it would not be if we were but two who kept together. The rich
and happy would come to us as well as the poor. It would be gay enough
in our cottage. Our guests would not care if the food was cooked right
before their eyes, or be shocked that two must eat from the same plate.”

“And what would be the good of it all, Gösta? What praise would you win?”

“Great would be my reward if the poor would remember me for a year or two
after my death. I should have done some good if I had planted a couple of
apple-trees at the house-corners, if I had taught the country fiddlers
some of the old tunes, and if the shepherd children could have learnt a
few good songs to sing in the wood-paths.

“You can believe me, I am the same mad Gösta Berling that I was before.
A country fiddler is all I can be, but that is enough. I have many sins
to atone for. To weep and to repent is not for me. I shall give the poor
pleasure, that is my penance.”

“Gösta,” said the major’s wife, “it is too humble a life for a man with
your powers. I will give you Ekeby.”

“Oh,” he cried in terror, “do not make me rich! Do not put such duties
upon me! Do not part me from the poor!”

“I will give Ekeby to you and the pensioners,” repeated the major’s wife.
“You are a capable man, Gösta, whom the people bless. I say like my
mother, ‘You shall take charge of this work!’”

“No, we could not accept it,—we who have misjudged you and caused you
such pain!”

“I will give you Ekeby, do you hear?”

She spoke bitterly and harshly, without kindness. He was filled with
dismay.

“Do not tempt the old men! It would only make them idlers and drunkards
again. God in Heaven, rich pensioners! What would become of us!”

“I will give you Ekeby, Gösta; but then you must promise to set your wife
free. Such a delicate little woman is not for you. She has had to suffer
too much here in the land of the bear. She is longing for her bright
native country. You shall let her go. That is why I give you Ekeby.”

But then Countess Elizabeth came forward to the major’s wife and knelt by
the bed.

“I do not long any more. He who is my husband has solved the problem, and
found the life I can live. No longer shall I need to go stern and cold
beside him, and remind him of repentance and atonement. Poverty and want
and hard work will do that. The paths which lead to the poor and sick I
can follow without sin. I am no longer afraid of the life here in the
north. But do not make him rich; then I do not dare to stay.”

The major’s wife raised herself in the bed.

“You demand happiness for yourselves,” she cried, and threatened them
with clenched fists,—“happiness and blessing. No, let Ekeby be the
pensioners’, that they may be ruined. Let man and wife be parted, that
they may be ruined! I am a witch, I am a sorceress, I shall incite you to
evil-doing. I shall be what my reputation is.”

She seized the letter and flung it in Gösta’s face. The black paper
fluttered out and fell on the floor. Gösta knew it too well.

“You have sinned against me, Gösta. You have misjudged one who has been
a second mother to you. Do you dare to refuse your punishment? You shall
accept Ekeby, and it shall ruin you, for you are weak. You shall send
home your wife, so that there will be no one to save you. You shall die
with a name as hated as mine. Margareta Celsing’s obituary is that of a
witch. Yours shall be that of a spendthrift and an oppressor of the poor.”

She sank back on the pillows, and all was still. Through the silence rang
a muffled blow, now one and then another. The sledge-hammer had begun its
far-echoing work.

“Listen,” said Gösta Berling, “so sounds Margareta Celsing’s obituary!
That is not a prank of drunken pensioners; that is the song of the
victory of labor, raised in honor of a good, old worker. Do you hear
what the hammer says? ‘Thanks,’ it says; ‘thanks for good work; thanks
for bread, which you have given the poor; thanks for roads, which you
have opened; thanks for districts, which you have cultivated! Thanks for
pleasure, with which you have filled your halls!’—‘Thanks,’ it says,
‘and sleep in peace! Your work shall live and continue. Your house shall
always be a home for happy labor.’—‘Thanks,’ it says, ‘and do not judge
us who have sinned! You who are now starting on the journey to the
regions of peace, think gentle thoughts of us who still live.’”

Gösta ceased, but the sledge-hammer went on speaking. All the voices
which had ever spoken kindly to the major’s wife were mingled with the
ring of the hammer. Gradually her features relaxed, as if the shadow of
death had fallen over her.

Anna Lisa came in and announced that the gentlemen from Hogfors had come.
The major’s wife let them go. She would not make any will.

“Oh, Gösta Berling, man of many deeds,” she said, “so you have conquered
once more. Bend down and let me bless you!”

The fever returned with redoubled strength. The death-rattle began. The
body toiled through dreary suffering; but the spirit soon knew nothing of
it. It began to gaze into the heaven which is opened for the dying.

So an hour passed, and the short death-struggle was over. She lay there
so peaceful and beautiful that those about her were deeply moved.

“My dear old mistress,” said Gösta, “so have I seen you once before. Now
has Margareta Celsing come back to life. Now she will never again yield
to the major’s wife at Ekeby.”

* * * * *

When the pensioners came in from the forge, they were met by the news of
Margareta Celsing’s death.

“Did she hear the hammer?” they asked.

She had done so, and they could be satisfied.

They heard, too, that she had meant to give Ekeby to them; but that
the will had never been drawn. That they considered a great honor, and
rejoiced over it as long as they lived. But no one ever heard them lament
over the riches they had lost.

It is also said that on that Christmas night Gösta Berling stood by his
young wife’s side and made his last speech to the pensioners. He was
grieved at their fate when they now must all leave Ekeby. The ailments
of old age awaited them. The old and worn-out find a cold welcome.

And so he spoke to them. Once more he called them old gods and knights
who had risen up to bring pleasure into the land of iron. But he lamented
that the pleasure garden where the butterfly-winged pleasure roves is
filled with destructive caterpillars, and that its fruits are withered.

Well he knew that pleasure was a good to the children of the earth, and
it must exist. But, like a heavy riddle, the question always lay upon the
world, how a man could be both gay and good. The easiest thing and yet
the hardest, he called it. Hitherto they had not been able to solve the
problem. Now he wanted to believe that they had learned it, that they
had all learned it during that year of joy and sorrow, of happiness and
despair.

* * * * *

You dear old people! In the old days you gave me precious gifts. But what
have I given you?

Perhaps it may gladden you that your names sound again in connection
with the dear old places? May all the brightness which belonged to your
life fall again over the tracts where you have lived! Borg still stands;
Björne still stands; Ekeby still lies by lake Löfven, surrounded by falls
and lake, by park and smiling meadows; and when one stands on the broad
terraces, legends swarm about one like the bees of summer.

But, speaking of bees, let me tell one more old story. The little Ruster,
who went as a drummer at the head of the Swedish army, when in 1813 it
marched into Germany, could never weary of telling stories of that
wonderful land in the south. The people there were as tall as church
towers, the swallows were as big as eagles, the bees as geese.

“Well, but the bee-hives?”

“The bee-hives were like our ordinary bee-hives.”

“How did the bees get in?”

“Well, that they had to look out for,” said the little Ruster.

Dear reader, must I say the same? The giant bees of fancy have now
swarmed about us for a year and a day; but how they are going to come
into the bee-hive of fact, that they really must find out for themselves.

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