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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The bishop hinted at their dissatisfaction with the minister’s mode of
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
“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
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
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
“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 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
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
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
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
“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
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 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
“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
“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
“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
“‘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
“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
“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
“‘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,
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
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
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
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
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!
Look at him now in the speaker’s chair! The darkness sinks from the black
roof in great festoons over him. His blond head shines through it like a
young god’s. Slender, beautiful, eager for adventure, he stands there.
But he is speaking very seriously.
“Gentlemen and brothers, the time passes, the feast is far advanced, it
is time to drink a toast to the thirteenth at the table!”
“Little brother Gösta,” cries Master Julius, “there is no thirteenth; we
are only twelve.”
“At Ekeby a man dies every year,” continues Gösta with a more and more
gloomy voice. “One of the guests of the bachelors’ wing dies, one of
the glad, the careless, the eternal youth dies. What of that? Gentlemen
should never be old. Could our trembling hands not lift a glass, could
our quenched eyes not distinguish the cards, what has life for us,
and what are we for life? One must die of the thirteen who celebrate
Christmas eve in the smithy at Ekeby; but every year a new one comes to
complete our number; a man, experienced in pleasure, one who can handle
violin and card, must come and make our company complete. Old butterflies
should know how to die while the summer sun is shining. A toast to the
“But, Gösta, we are only twelve,” remonstrate the pensioners, and do not
touch their glasses.
Gösta Berling, whom they called the poet, although he never wrote
verses, continues with unaltered calmness: “Gentlemen and brothers! Have
you forgotten who you are? You are they who hold pleasure by force in
Värmland. You are they who set the fiddle-bows going, keep up the dance,
make song and music resound through the land. You know how to keep your
hearts from the love of gold, your hands from work. If you did not exist
the dance would die, summer die, the roses die, card-playing die, song
die, and in this whole blessed land there would be nothing but iron and
owners of iron-works. Pleasure lives while you live. For six years have
I celebrated Christmas eve in the Ekeby smithy, and never before has any
one refused to drink to the thirteenth?”
“But, Gösta,” cry they all, “when we are only twelve how can we drink to
“Are we only twelve?” he says. “Why must we die out from the earth? Shall
we be but eleven next year, but ten the year after. Shall our name become
a legend, our company destroyed? I call upon him, the thirteenth, for
I have stood up to drink his toast. From the ocean’s depths, from the
bowels of the earth, from heaven, from hell I call him who shall complete
Then it rattled in the chimney, then the furnace-door opened, then the
He was hairy, with tail and cloven-hoof, with horns and a pointed beard,
and at the sight of him the pensioners start up with a cry.
But in uncontrollable joy Gösta Berling cries, “The thirteenth has come—a
toast to the thirteenth!”
Yes, he has come, the old enemy of mankind, come to these foolhardy men
who trouble the peace of the Holy Night. The friend of witches on their
way to hell, who signs his bargains in blood on coal-black paper, he who
danced with the countess at Ivarsnäs for seven days, and could not be
exorcized by seven priests,—he has come.
In stormy haste thoughts fly through the heads of the old adventurers at
the sight of him. They wonder for whose sake he is out this night.
Many of them were ready to hurry away in terror, but they soon saw that
the horned one had not come to carry them down to his dark kingdom, but
that the ring of the cups and their songs had attracted him. He wished
to enjoy a little human pleasure in this holy night, and cast aside his
burden during this glad time.
Oh, pensioners, pensioners, who of you now remembers it is the night
before Christmas; that even now angels are singing for the shepherds in
the fields? Children are lying anxious lest they sleep too soundly, that
they may not wake in time for the beautiful morning worship. Soon it will
be time to light the Christmas candles in the church at Bro, and far away
in the forest homes the young man in the evening has prepared a resin
torch to light his girl to church. In all the houses the mistress has
placed dip-lights in the windows, ready to light as the people go by to
church. The sexton takes up the Christmas psalm in his sleep, and the old
minister lies and tries if he has enough voice left to sing: “Glory be to
God on high, on earth peace, good-will towards men!”
Oh, pensioners, better had it been for you if you had spent this peaceful
night quietly in your beds than to trouble the company with the Prince of
But they greet him with cries of welcome, as Gösta had done. A goblet
filled with burning brandy is placed in his hand. They give him the place
of honor at the table, and they look upon him with gladness, as if his
ugly satyr face wore the delicate features of their youth’s first love.
Beerencreutz invites him to a game of cards, Master Julius sings his best
songs for him, and Örneclou talks to him of lovely women, those beautiful
creatures who make life sweet.
He enjoys everything, the devil, as with princely bearing he leans back
on the old coach-box, and with clawed hand lifts the brimming goblet to
his smiling mouth.
But Gösta Berling of course must make a speech in his honor.
“Your Grace,” he says, “we have long awaited you here at Ekeby, for you
have little access, we suppose, to any other paradise. Here one can
live without toiling or spinning, as your Grace perhaps knows. Here
roasted ortolans fly into one’s mouth, and the bitter ale and the sweet
brandy flow in brooks and rivulets. This is a good place, your Grace!
We pensioners have waited for you, I tell you, for we have never been
complete before. See, we are something finer than we seem; we are the
mighty twelve of the poet, who are of all time. We were twelve when we
steered the world, up there on Olympus’s cloud-veiled top, and twelve
when we lived like birds in Ygdrasil’s green crown. Wherever there has
been poetry there have we followed. Did we not sit twelve men strong
about King Arthur’s Round Table, and were there not twelve paladins at
Charlemagne’s court? One of us has been a Thor, a Jupiter; any one can
see that in us now. They can perceive the divine splendor under our rags,
the lion’s mane under the ass’s head. Times are bad with us, but if we
are there a smithy becomes Olympus and the bachelors’ wing Valhalla.
“But, your Grace, our number has not been complete. Every one knows that
in the poet’s twelve there must always be a Loki, a Prometheus. Him have
we been without.”
“Your Grace, I wish you welcome!”
“Hear, hear, hear!” says the evil one; “such a fine speech, a fine speech
indeed! And I, who have no time to answer. Business, boys, business.
I must be off, otherwise I should so gladly be at your service in any
rôle you like. Thanks for a pleasant evening, old gossips. We shall meet
Then the pensioners demand where he is going; and he answers that the
noble major’s wife, mistress of Ekeby, is waiting for him to get her
Great wonder seizes upon the pensioners.
A harsh and capable woman is she, the major’s wife at Ekeby. She can
lift a barrel of flour on her broad shoulders. She follows the loads of
ore from the Bergslagen mines, on the long road to Ekeby. She sleeps
like a waggoner on the stable floor, with a meal-bag under her head.
In the winter she will watch by a charcoal kiln, in the summer follow
a timber-raft down to the Löfven. She is a powerful woman. She swears
like a trooper, and rules over her seven estates like a king; rules her
own parish and all the neighboring parishes; yes, the whole of lovely
Värmland. But for the homeless gentlemen she had been like a mother, and
therefore they had closed their ears when slander had whispered to them
that she was in league with the devil.
So they ask him with wonder what kind of a contract she has made with him.
And he answers them, the black one, that he had given the major’s wife
her seven estates on the condition that she should send him every year a
Oh, the horror which compresses the pensioners’ hearts!
Of course they knew it, but they had not understood before.
At Ekeby every year, a man dies, one of the guests in the bachelors’
wing dies, one of the glad, the careless, the ever young dies. What of
that?—gentlemen may not be old! If their trembling fingers cannot lift
the glass, if their dulled eyes cannot see the cards, what has life for
them, and what are they to life? Butterflies should know how to die while
the sun is shining.
But now, now for the first time, they grasp its real meaning.
Woe to that woman! That is why she had given them so many good meals, why
she had let them drink her bitter ale and her sweet brandy, that they
might reel from the drinking-halls and the card-tables at Ekeby down to
the king of hell,—one a year, one for each passing year.
Woe to the woman, the witch! Strong men had come to this Ekeby, had come
hither to perish. For she had destroyed them here. Their brains were as
sponges, dry ashes their lungs, and darkness their spirit, as they sank
back on their death-beds and were ready for their long journey, hopeless,
Woe to the woman! So had those died who had been better men than they,
and so should they die.
But not long are they paralyzed by weight of terror.
“You king of perdition!” they cry, “never again shall you make a
blood-signed contract with that witch; she shall die! Christian
Bergh, the mighty captain, has thrown over his shoulder the heaviest
sledge-hammer in the smithy. He will bury it to the handle in the hag’s
head. No more souls shall she sacrifice to you.
“And you, you horned thing, we shall lay you on the anvil and let the
forge-hammer loose. We shall hold you quiet with tongs under the hammer’s
blows and teach you to go a-hunting for gentlemen’s souls.”
He is a coward, the devil, as every one knows of old, and all this talk
of the forge-hammer does not please him at all. He calls Christian Bergh
back and begins to bargain with the pensioners.
“Take the seven estates; take them yourselves, gentlemen, and give me the
“Do you think we are as base as she?” cries Master Julius. “We will
have Ekeby and all the rest, but you must look after the major’s wife
“What does Gösta say? what does Gösta say?” asks the gentle Löwenborg.
“Gösta Berling must speak. We must hear what he thinks of this important
“It is madness,” says Gösta Berling. “Gentlemen, don’t let him make fools
of you! What are you all against the major’s wife? It may fare as it
will with our souls, but with my consent we will not be such ungrateful
wretches as to act like rascals and traitors. I have eaten her food for
too many years to deceive her now.”
“Yes, you can go to hell, Gösta, if you wish! We would rather rule at
“But are you all raving, or have you drunk away your wits? Do you believe
it is true? Do you believe that that thing is the devil? Don’t you see
that it’s all a confounded lie?”
“Tut, tut, tut,” says the black one; “he does not see that he will soon
be ready, and yet he has been seven years at Ekeby. He does not see how
far advanced he is.”
“Begone, man! I myself have helped to shove you into the oven there.”
“As if that made any difference; as if I were not as good a devil as
another. Yes, yes, Gösta Berling, you are in for it. You have improved,
indeed, under her treatment.”
“It was she who saved me,” says Gösta. “What had I been without her?”
“As if she did not know what she was about when she kept you here at
Ekeby. You can lure others to the trap; you have great gifts. Once you
tried to get away from her; you let her give you a cottage, and you
became a laborer; you wished to earn your bread. Every day she passed
your cottage, and she had lovely young girls with her. Once it was
Marianne Sinclair; then you threw aside your spade and apron, Gösta
Berling, and came back as pensioner.”
“It lay on the highway, you fool.”
“Yes, yes, of course; it lay on the highway. Then you came to Borg,
were tutor there to Henrik Dohna, and might have been Countess Märta’s
son-in-law. Who was it who managed that the young Ebba Dohna should hear
that you were only a dismissed priest, so that she refused you? It was
the major’s wife, Gösta Berling. She wanted you back again.”
“Great matter!” says Gösta. “Ebba Dohna died soon afterwards. I would
never have got her anyway.”
Then the devil came close up to him and hissed right in his face: “Died!
yes, of course she died. Killed herself for your sake, did she? But they
never told you that.”
“You are not such a bad devil,” says Gösta.
“It was the major’s wife who arranged it all, I tell you. She wanted to
have you back in the bachelors’ wing.”
Gösta burst out laughing.
“You are not such a bad devil,” he cried wildly. “Why should we not make
a contract with you? I’m sure you can get us the seven estates if you
“It is well that you do not longer withstand your fate.”
The pensioners drew a sigh of relief. It had gone so far with them
that they could do nothing without Gösta. If he had not agreed to the
arrangement it could never have come to anything. And it was no small
matter for destitute gentlemen to get seven estates for their own.
“Remember, now,” says Gösta, “that we take the seven estates in order to
save our souls, but not to be iron-work owners who count their money and
weigh their iron. No dried-up parchments, no purse-proud money-bags will
we become, but gentlemen will we be and remain.”
“The very words of wisdom,” murmurs the black one.
“If you, therefore, will give us the seven estates for one year we will
accept them; but remember that if we do anything during that time which
is not worthy of a gentleman, if we do anything which is sensible, or
useful, or effeminate, then you may take the whole twelve of us when the
year is out, and give the estates to whom you will.”
The devil rubbed his hands with delight.
“But if we always behave like true gentlemen,” continues Gösta, “then you
may never again make any contract about Ekeby, and no pay do you get for
this year either from us or from the major’s wife.”
“That is hard,” says the devil. “Oh, dear Gösta, I must have one soul,
just one little, poor soul. Couldn’t I have the major’s wife? Why should
you spare the major’s wife?”
“I do not drive any bargains with such wares,” roars Gösta; “but if you
must have some one, you can take old Sintram at Fors; he is ready, I can
answer for that.”
“Well, well, that will do,” says the devil, without blinking. “The
pensioners or Sintram, they can balance one another. This will be a good
And so the contract was written, with blood from Gösta’s little finger,
on the devil’s black paper and with his quill-pen.
And when it was done the pensioners rejoiced. Now the world should belong
to them for a whole year, and afterwards there would always be some way.
They push aside the chairs, make a ring about the kettle, which stands in
the middle of the black floor, and whirl in a wild dance. Innermost in
the circle dances the devil, with wild bounds; and at last he falls flat
beside the kettle, rolls it over, and drinks.
Then Beerencreutz throws himself down beside him, and also Gösta Berling;
and after them all the others lay themselves in a circle round the
kettle, which is rolled from mouth to mouth. At last it is tipped over by
a push, and the hot, sticky drink pours over them.
When they rise up, swearing, the devil is gone; but his golden promises
float like shining crowns over the pensioners’ heads.
On Christmas day the major’s wife gives a great dinner at Ekeby.
She sits as hostess at a table laid for fifty guests. She sits there in
splendor and magnificence; here her short sheepskin jacket, her striped
woollen skirt, and clay-pipe do not follow her. She rustles in silk, gold
weighs on her bare arms, pearls cool her white neck.
Where are the pensioners? Where are they who on the black floor of the
smithy, out of the polished copper kettle, drank a toast to the new
masters of Ekeby?
In the corner by the stove the pensioners are sitting at a separate
table; to-day there is no room for them at the big table. To them the
food comes late, the wine sparingly; to them are sent no glances from
beautiful women, no one listens to Gösta’s jokes.
But the pensioners are like tamed birds, like satiated wild beasts. They
had had scarcely an hour’s sleep that night; then they had driven to
morning worship, lighted by torches and the stars. They saw the Christmas
candles, they heard the Christmas hymns, their faces were like smiling
children’s. They forgot the night in the smithy as one forgets an evil
Great and powerful is the major’s wife at Ekeby. Who dares lift his arm
to strike her; who his voice to give evidence against her? Certainly not
poor gentlemen who for many years have eaten her bread and slept under
her roof. She can put them where she will, she can shut her door to them
when she will, and they have not the power to fly from her might. God be
merciful to their souls! Far from Ekeby they cannot live.
At the big table there was rejoicing: there shone Marianne Sinclair’s
beautiful eyes; there rang the gay Countess Dohna’s low laugh.
But the pensioners are gloomy. Was it not just as easy to have put them
at the same table with the other guests? What a lowering position there
in the corner by the stove. As if pensioners were not fit to associate
with fine people!
The major’s wife is proud to sit between the Count at Borg and the Bro
clergyman. The pensioners hang their heads like shame-faced children, and
by degrees awake in them thoughts of the night.
Like shy guests the gay sallies, the merry stories come to the table in
the corner by the stove. There the rage of the night and its promises
enter into their minds. Master Julius makes the mighty captain, Christian
Bergh, believe that the roasted grouse, which are being served at the big
table, will not go round for all the guests; but it amuses no one.
“They won’t go round,” he says. “I know how many there are. But they’ll
manage in spite of it, Captain Christian; they have some roasted crows
for us here at the little table.”
But Colonel Beerencreutz’s lips are curved by only a very feeble smile,
under the fierce moustaches, and Gösta has looked the whole day as if he
was meditating somebody’s death.
“Any food is good enough for pensioners,” he says.
At last the dish heaped up with magnificent grouse reaches the little
But Captain Christian is angry. Has he not had a life-long hate of
crows,—those odious, cawing, winged things?
He hated them so bitterly that last autumn he had put on a woman’s
trailing dress, and had fastened a cloth on his head and made himself a
laughing-stock for all men, only to get in range when they ate the grain
in the fields.
He sought them out at their caucuses on the bare fields in the spring and
killed them. He looked for their nests in the summer, and threw out the
screaming, featherless young ones, or smashed the half-hatched eggs.
Now he seizes the dish of grouse.
“Do you think I don’t know them?” he cries to the servant. “Do I need to
hear them caw to recognize them? Shame on you, to offer Christian Bergh
crows! Shame on you!”
Thereupon he takes the grouse, one by one, and throws them against the
“Shame, shame!” he reiterates, so that the whole room rings,—“to offer
Christian Bergh crows! Shame!”
And just as he used to hurl the helpless young crows against the cliffs,
so now he sends grouse after grouse whizzing against the wall.
Sauce and grease spatter about him, the crushed birds rebound to the
And the bachelors’ wing rejoices.
Then the angry voice of the major’s wife penetrates to the pensioners’
“Turn him out!” she calls to the servants.
But they do not dare to touch him. He is still Christian Bergh, the
“Turn him out!”
He hears the command, and, terrible in his rage, he now turns upon the
major’s wife as a bear turns from a fallen enemy to meet a new attack. He
marches up to the horse-shoe table. His heavy tread resounds through the
hall. He stands opposite her, with the table between them.
“Turn him out!” cries the major’s wife again.
But he is raging; none dare to face his frowning brow and great clenched
hand. He is big as a giant, and as strong. The guests and servants
tremble, and dare not approach him. Who would dare to touch him now, when
rage has taken away his reason?
He stands opposite the major’s wife and threatens her.
“I took the crow and threw it against the wall. And I did right.”
“Out with you, captain!”
“Shame, woman! Offer Christian Bergh crows! If I did right I would take
you and your seven hell’s—”
“Thousand devils, Christian Bergh! don’t swear. Nobody but I swears here.”
“Do you think I am afraid of you, hag? Don’t you think I know how you got
your seven estates?”
“When Altringer died he gave them to your husband because you had been
“Will you be silent?”
“Because you had been such a faithful wife, Margareta Samzelius. And the
major took the seven estates and let you manage them and pretended not to
know. And the devil arranged it all; but now comes the end for you.”
The major’s wife sits down; she is pale and trembling. She assents in a
strange, low voice.
“Yes, now it is the end for me, and it is your doing, Christian Bergh.”
At her voice Captain Christian trembles, his face works, and his eyes are
filled with tears of anguish.
“I am drunk,” he cries. “I don’t know what I am saying; I haven’t said
anything. Dog and slave, dog and slave, and nothing more have I been for
her for forty years. She is Margareta Celsing, whom I have served my
whole life. I say nothing against her. What should I have to say against
the beautiful Margareta Celsing! I am the dog which guards her door, the
slave who bears her burdens. She may strike me, she may kick me! You see
how I hold my tongue and bear it. I have loved her for forty years. How
could I say anything against her?”
And a wonderful sight it is to see how he kneels and begs for
forgiveness. And as she is sitting on the other side of the table, he
goes on his knees round the table till he comes to her; then he bends
down and kisses the hem of her dress, and the floor is wet with his tears.
But not far from the major’s wife sits a small, strong man. He has shaggy
hair, small, squinting eyes, and a protruding under-jaw. He looks like a
bear. He is a man of few words, who likes to go his own quiet way and
let the world take care of itself. He is Major Samzelius.
He rises when he hears Captain Christian’s accusing words, and the
major’s wife rises, and all the fifty guests. The women are weeping in
terror of what is coming, the men stand dejected, and at the feet of
the major’s wife lies Captain Christian, kissing the hem of her dress,
wetting the floor with his tears.
The major slowly clenches his broad, hairy hands, and lifts his arm.
But the woman speaks first. Her voice sounds hollow and unfamiliar.
“You stole me,” she cried. “You came like a thief and took me. They
forced me, in my home, by blows, by hunger, and hard words to be your
wife. I have treated you as you deserved.”
The major’s broad fist is clenched. His wife gives way a couple of steps.
Then she speaks again.
“Living eels twist under the knife; an unwilling wife takes a lover. Will
you strike me now for what happened twenty years ago? Do you not remember
how he lived at Ekeby, we at Sjö? Do you not remember how he helped us
in our poverty? We drove in his carriages, we drank his wine. Did we
hide anything from you? Were not his servants your servants? Did not his
gold weigh heavy in your pocket? Did you not accept the seven estates?
You held your tongue and took them; then you should have struck, Berndt
Samzelius,—then you should have struck.”
The man turns from her and looks on all those present. He reads in their
faces that they think she is right, that they all believe he took the
estates in return for his silence.
“I never knew it!” he says, and stamps on the floor.
“It is well that you know it now!” she cries, in a shrill, ringing voice.
“Was I not afraid lest you should die without knowing it? It is well that
you know it now, so that I can speak out to you who have been my master
and jailer. You know now that I, in spite of all, was his from whom you
stole me. I tell you all now, you who have slandered me!”
It is the old love which exults in her voice and shines from her eyes.
Her husband stands before her with lifted hand. She reads horror and
scorn on the fifty faces about her. She feels that it is the last hour of
her power. But she cannot help rejoicing that she may speak openly of the
tenderest memory of her life.
“He was a man, a man indeed. Who were you, to come between us? I have
never seen his equal. He gave me happiness, he gave me riches. Blessed be
Then the major lets his lifted arm fall without striking her; now he
knows how he shall punish her.
“Away!” he cries; “out of my house!”
She stands motionless.
But the pensioners stand with pale faces and stare at one another.
Everything was going as the devil had prophesied. They now saw the
consequences of the non-renewal of the contract. If that is true, so is
it also true that she for more than twenty years had sent pensioners
to perdition, and that they too were destined for the journey. Oh, the
“Out with you!” continues the major. “Beg your bread on the highway! You
shall have no pleasure of his money, you shall not live on his lands.
There is no more a mistress of Ekeby. The day you set your foot in my
house I will kill you.”
“Do you drive me from my home?”
“You have no home. Ekeby is mine.”
A feeling of despair comes over the major’s wife. She retreats to the
door, he following close after her.
“You who have been my life’s curse,” she laments, “shall you also now
have power to do this to me?”
She leans against the door-post, clasps her hands, and holds them before
her face. She thinks of her mother and murmurs to herself:—
“‘May you be disowned, as I have been disowned; may the highway be your
home, the hay-stack your bed!’ It is all coming true.”
The good old clergyman from Bro and the judge from Munkerud came forward
now to Major Samzelius and tried to calm him. They said to him that it
would be best to let all those old stories rest, to let everything be as
it was, to forget and forgive.
He shakes the mild old hands from his shoulder. He is terrible to
approach, just as Christian Bergh had been.
“It is no old story,” he cries. “I never knew anything till to-day. I
have never been able before to punish the adulteress.”
At that word the major’s wife lifts her head and regains her old courage.
“You shall go out before I do. Do you think that I shall give in to
you?” she says. And she comes forward from the door.
The major does not answer, but he watches her every movement, ready to
strike if he finds no better way to revenge himself.
“Help me, good gentlemen,” she cries, “to get this man bound and carried
out, until he gets back the use of his senses. Remember who I am and who
he is! Think of it, before I must give in to him! I arrange all the work
at Ekeby, and he sits the whole day long and feeds his bears. Help me,
good friends and neighbors! There will be a boundless misery if I am no
longer here. The peasant gets his living by cutting my wood and carting
my iron. The charcoal burner lives by getting me charcoal, the lumber man
by bringing down my timber. It is I who give out the work which brings
prosperity. Smiths, mechanics, and carpenters live by serving me. Do you
think that man can keep my work going? I tell you that if you drive me
away you let famine in.”
Again are many hands lifted to help the major’s wife; again mild,
persuading hands are laid on the major’s shoulders.
“No,” he says, “away with you. Who will defend an adulteress? I tell you
that if she does not go of her own will I shall take her in my arms and
carry her down to my bears.”
At these words the raised hands are lowered.
Then, as a last resource, she turns to the pensioners.
“Will you also allow me to be driven from my home? Have I let you freeze
out in the snow in winter? Have I denied you bitter ale and sweet
brandy? Did I take any pay or any work from you because I gave you
food and clothes? Have you not played at my feet, safe as children at
their mother’s side? Has not the dance gone through my halls? Have not
merriment and laughter been your daily bread? Do not let this man, who
has been my life’s misfortune, drive me from my home, gentlemen! Do not
let me become a beggar on the highway!”
At these words Gösta Berling had stolen away to a beautiful dark-haired
girl who sat at the big table.
“You were much at Borg five years ago, Anna,” he says. “Do you know if it
was the major’s wife who told Ebba Dohna that I was a dismissed priest?”
“Help her, Gösta!” is the girl’s only answer.
“You must know that I will first hear if she has made me a murderer.”
“Oh, Gösta, what a thought! Help her, Gösta!”
“You won’t answer, I see. Then Sintram told the truth.” And Gösta goes
back to the other pensioners. He does not lift a finger to help the
Oh, if only she had not put the pensioners at a separate table off there
in the corner by the stove! Now the thoughts of the night awake in their
minds, and a rage burns in their faces which is not less than the major’s
In pitiless hardness they stand, unmoved by her prayers.
Did not everything they saw confirm the events of the night?
“One can see that she did not get her contract renewed,” murmurs one.
“Go to hell, hag!” screams another. “By rights we ought to hunt you from
“Fools,” cries the gentle old Uncle Eberhard to the pensioners. “Don’t
you understand it was Sintram?”
“Of course we understand; of course we know it,” answers Julius; “but
what of that? May it not be true, at any rate? Does not Sintram go on the
devil’s errands? Don’t they understand one another?”
“Go yourself, Eberhard; go and help her!” they mock. “You don’t believe
in hell. You can go!”
And Gösta Berling stands, without a word, motionless.
No, from the threatening, murmuring, struggling bachelors’ wing she will
get no help.
Then once again she retreats to the door and raises her clasped hands to
“‘May you be disowned, as I have been disowned,’” she cries to herself
in her bitter sorrow. “‘May the highway be your home, the hay-stack your
Then she lays one hand on the door latch, but the other she stretches on
“Know you all, who now let me fall, know that your hour is soon coming!
You shall be scattered, and your place shall stand empty. How can you
stand when I do not hold you up? You, Melchior Sinclair, who have a heavy
hand and let your wife feel it, beware! You, minister at Broby, your
punishment is coming! Madame Uggla, look after your house; poverty is
coming! You young, beautiful women—Elizabeth Dohna, Marianne Sinclair,
Anna Stjärnhök—do not think that I am the only one who must flee from
her home. And beware, pensioners, a storm is coming over the land. You
will be swept away from the earth; your day is over, it is verily over! I
do not lament for myself, but for you; for the storm shall pass over your
heads, and who shall stand when I have fallen? And my heart bleeds for my
poor people. Who will give them work when I am gone?”
She opens the door; but then Captain Christian lifts his head and says:—
“How long must I lie here at your feet, Margareta Celsing? Will you not
forgive me, so that I may stand up and fight for you?”
Then the major’s wife fights a hard battle with herself; but she sees
that if she forgives him he will rise up and attack her husband; and this
man, who has loved her faithfully for forty years will become a murderer.
“Must I forgive, too?” she says. “Are you not the cause of all my
misfortune, Christian Bergh? Go to the pensioners and rejoice over your
So she went. She went calmly, leaving terror and dismay behind her. She
fell, but she was not without greatness in her fall.
She did not lower herself to grieving weakly, but in her old age she
still exulted over the love of her youth. She did not lower herself to
lamenting and pitiable weeping when she left everything; she did not
shrink from wandering about the land with beggar’s bag and crutch. She
pitied only the poor peasants and the happy, careless people on the
shores of the Löfven, the penniless pensioners,—all those whom she had
taken in and cared for.
She was abandoned by all, and yet she had strength to turn away her last
friend that he should not be a murderer.
She was a woman great in strength and love of action. We shall not soon
see her like again.
The next day Major Samzelius moved from Ekeby to his own farm of Sjö,
which lies next to the large estate.
In Altringer’s will, by which the major had got the estates, it was
clearly stated that none of them should be sold or given away, but that
after the death of the major his wife and her heirs should inherit them
all. So, as he could not dissipate the hated inheritance, he placed the
pensioners to reign over it, thinking that he, by so doing, most injured
Ekeby and the other six estates.
As no one in all the country round now doubted that the wicked Sintram
went on the devil’s errands, and as everything he had promised had been
so brilliantly fulfilled the pensioners were quite sure that the contract
would be carried out in every point, and they were entirely decided not
to do, during the year, anything sensible, or useful, or effeminate,
convinced that the major’s wife was an abominable witch who sought their
The old philosopher, Eberhard, ridiculed their belief. But who paid any
attention to such a man, who was so obstinate in his unbelief that if he
had lain in the midst of the fires of hell and had seen all the devils
standing and grinning at him, would still have insisted that they did
not exist, because they could not exist?—for Uncle Eberhard was a great
Gösta Berling told no one what he thought. It is certain that he
considered he owed the major’s wife little thanks because she had made
him a pensioner at Ekeby; it seemed better to him to be dead than to have
on his conscience the guilt of Ebba Dohna’s suicide.
He did not lift his hand to be revenged on the major’s wife, but neither
did he to help her. He could not. But the pensioners had attained great
power and magnificence. Christmas was at hand, with its feasts and
pleasures. The hearts of the pensioners were filled with rejoicing; and
whatever sorrow weighed on Gösta Berling’s heart he did not show in face