THE PATHS OF LIFE

They had an old bird of prey up in the pensioners’ wing. He always sat
in the corner by the fire and saw that it did not go out. He was rough
and gray. His little head with the big nose and the sunken eyes hung
sorrowfully on the long, thin neck which stuck up out of a fluffy fur
collar. For the bird of prey wore furs both winter and summer.

Once he had belonged to the swarm who in the great Emperor’s train swept
over Europe; but what name and title he bore no one now can say. In
Värmland they only knew that he had taken part in the great wars, that he
had risen to might and power in the thundering struggle, and that after
1815 he had taken flight from an ungrateful fatherland. He found a refuge
with the Swedish Crown Prince, and the latter advised him to disappear in
far away Värmland.

And so it happened that one whose name had caused the world to tremble
was now glad that no one even knew that once dreaded name.

He had given the Crown Prince his word of honor not to leave Värmland
and not to make known who he was. And he had been sent to Ekeby with
a private letter to the major from the Crown Prince, who had given him
the best of recommendations. It was then the pensioners’ wing opened its
doors to him.

In the beginning people wondered much who he was who concealed his
identity under an assumed name. But gradually he was transformed into
a pensioner. Everybody called him Cousin Christopher, without knowing
exactly how he had acquired the name.

But it is not good for a bird of prey to live in a cage. One can
understand that he is accustomed to something different than hopping from
perch to perch and taking food from his keeper’s hand. The excitement of
the battle and of the danger of death had set his pulse on fire. Drowsy
peace disgusts him.

It is true that none of the pensioners were exactly tame birds; but in
none of them the blood burned so hot as in Cousin Christopher. A bear
hunt was the only thing which could put life into him, a bear hunt or a
woman, one single woman.

He had come to life when he, ten years ago, for the first time saw
Countess Märta, who was already then a widow,—a woman as changeable as
war, as inciting as danger, a startling, audacious creature; he loved her.

And now he sat there and grew old and gray without being able to ask her
to be his wife. He had not seen her for five years. He was withering and
dying by degrees, as caged eagles do. Every year he became more dried and
frozen. He had to creep down deeper into his furs and move nearer the
fire.

* * * * *

So there he is sitting, shivering, shaggy, and gray, the morning of the
day, on the evening of which the Easter bullets should be shot off and
the Easter witch burned. The pensioners have all gone out; but he sits
in the corner by the fire.

Oh, Cousin Christopher, Cousin Christopher, do you not know?

Smiling she has come, the enchanting spring.

Nature up starts from drowsy sleep, and in the blue sky butterfly-winged
spirits tumble in wild play. Close as roses on the sweet brier, their
faces shine between the clouds.

Earth, the great mother, begins to live. Romping like a child she rises
from her bath in the spring floods, from her douche in the spring rain.

But Cousin Christopher sits quiet and does not understand. He leans his
head on his stiffened fingers and dreams of showers of bullets and of
honors won on the field of battle.

One pities the lonely old warrior who sits there by the fire, without a
people, without a country, he who never hears the sound of his native
language, he who will have a nameless grave in the Bro churchyard. Is it
his fault that he is an eagle, and was born to persecute and to kill?

Oh, Cousin Christopher, you have sat and dreamed long enough in the
pensioners’ wing! Up and drink the sparkling wine of life. You must know,
Cousin Christopher, that a letter has come to the major this day, a royal
letter adorned with the seal of Sweden. It is addressed to the major, but
the contents concern you. It is strange to see you, when you read the
letter, old eagle. Your eye regains its brightness, and you lift your
head. You see the cage door open and free space for your longing wings.

* * * * *

Cousin Christopher is burrowing deep down to the bottom of his chest. He
drags out the carefully laid away gold-laced uniform and dresses himself
in it. He presses the plumed hat on his head and he is soon hastening
away from Ekeby, riding his excellent white horse.

This is another life than to sit shivering by the fire; he too now sees
that spring has come.

He straightens himself up in his saddle and sets off at a gallop. The
fur-lined dolman flutters. The plumes on his hat wave. The man has grown
young like the earth itself. He has awaked from a long winter. The old
gold can still shine. The bold warrior face under the cocked hat is a
proud sight.

It is a wonderful ride. Brooks gush from the ground, and flowers shoot
forth, as he rides by. The birds sing and warble about the freed
prisoner. All nature shares in his joy.

He is like a victor. Spring rides before on a floating cloud. And round
about Cousin Christopher rides a staff of old brothers-in-arms: there is
Happiness, who stands on tiptoe in the saddle, and Honor on his stately
charger, and Love on his fiery Arab. The ride is wonderful; wonderful is
the rider. The thrush calls to him:—

“Cousin Christopher, Cousin Christopher, whither are you riding? Whither
are you riding?”

“To Borg to offer myself, to Borg to offer myself,” answers Cousin
Christopher.

“Do not go to Borg, do not go to Borg! An unmarried man has no sorrow,”
screams the thrush after him.

But he does not listen to the warning. Up the hills and down the hills he
rides, until at last he is there. He leaps from the saddle and is shown
in to the countess.

Everything goes well. The countess is gracious to him. Cousin Christopher
feels sure that she will not refuse to bear his glorious name or to reign
in his palace. He sits and puts off the moment of rapture, when he shall
show her the royal letter. He enjoys the waiting.

She talks and entertains him with a thousand stories. He laughs at
everything, enjoys everything. But as they are sitting in one of the
rooms where Countess Elizabeth has hung up Mamselle Marie’s curtains, the
countess begins to tell the story of them. And she makes it as funny as
she can.

“See,” she says at last, “see how bad I am. Here hang the curtains now,
that I may think daily and hourly of my sin. It is a penance without
equal. Oh, those dreadful knitted curtains!”

The great warrior, Cousin Christopher, looks at her with burning eyes.

“I, too, am old and poor,” he says, “and I have sat for ten years by the
fire and longed for my mistress. Do you laugh at that too, countess?”

“Oh, that is another matter,” cries the countess.

“God has taken from me happiness and my fatherland, and forced me to eat
the bread of others,” says Cousin Christopher, earnestly. “I have learned
to have respect for poverty.”

“You, too,” cries the countess, and holds up her hands. “How virtuous
every one is getting!”

“Yes,” he says, “and know, countess, that if God some day in the future
should give me back riches and power, I would make a better use of them
than to share them with such a worldly woman, such a painted, heartless
monkey, who makes fun of poverty.”

“You would do quite right, Cousin Christopher.”

And then Cousin Christopher marches out of the room and rides home to
Ekeby again; but the spirits do not follow him, the thrush does not call
to him, and he no longer sees the smiling spring.

He came to Ekeby just as the Easter witch was to be burned. She is a big
doll of straw, with a rag face, on which eyes, nose, and mouth are drawn
with charcoal. She is dressed in old cast-off clothes. The long-handled
oven-rake and broom are placed beside her, and she has a horn of oil hung
round her neck. She is quite ready for the journey to hell.

Major Fuchs loads his gun and shoots it off into the air time after time.
A pile of dried branches is lighted, the witch is thrown on it and is
soon burning gayly. The pensioners do all they can, according to the old,
tried customs, to destroy the power of the evil one.

Cousin Christopher stands and looks on with gloomy mien. Suddenly he
drags the great royal letter from his cuff and throws it on the fire. God
alone knows what he thought. Perhaps he imagined that it was Countess
Märta herself who was burning there on the pile. Perhaps he thought that,
as that woman, when all was said, consisted only of rags and straw, there
was nothing worth anything any more on earth.

He goes once more into the pensioners’ wing, lights the fire, and puts
away his uniform. Again he sits down at the fire, and every day he gets
more rough and more gray. He is dying by degrees, as old eagles do in
captivity.

He is no longer a prisoner; but he does not care to make use of his
freedom. The world stands open to him. The battle-field, honor, life,
await him. But he has not the strength to spread his wings in flight.

Weary are the ways which men have to follow here on earth.

Paths through the desert, paths through the marshes, paths over the
mountains.

Why is so much sorrow allowed to go undisturbed, until it loses itself in
the desert or sinks in the bog, or falls on the mountain? Where are the
little flower-pickers, where are the little princesses of the fairy tale
about whose feet roses grow, where are they who should strew flowers on
the weary ways?

Gösta Berling has decided to get married. He is searching for a bride who
is poor enough, humble enough for a mad priest.

Beautiful and high-born women have loved him, but they may not compete
for his hand. The outcast chooses from among outcasts.

Whom shall he choose, whom shall he seek out?

To Ekeby a poor girl sometimes comes from a lonely forest hamlet far away
among the mountains, and sells brooms. In that hamlet, where poverty and
great misery exist, there are many who are not in possession of their
full intellect, and the girl with the brooms is one of them.

But she is beautiful. Her masses of black hair make such thick braids
that they scarcely find room on her head, her cheeks are delicately
rounded, her nose straight and not too large, her eyes blue. She is of a
melancholy, Madonna-like type, such as is still found among the lovely
girls by the shores of Löfven’s long lake.

Well, Gösta has found his sweetheart; a half-crazy broom-girl is just the
wife for a mad priest. Nothing can be more suitable.

All he needs to do is to go to Karlstad for the rings, and then they can
once more have a merry day by Löfven’s shore. Let them laugh at Gösta
Berling when he betroths himself to the broom-girl, when he celebrates
his wedding with her! Let them laugh! Has he ever had a merrier idea?

Must not the outcast go the way of the outcasts,—the way of anger, the
way of sorrow, the way of unhappiness? What does it matter if he falls,
if he is ruined? Is there any one to stop him? Is there any one who would
reach him a helping hand or offer him a cooling drink? Where are the
little flower-pickers, where are the little princesses of the fairy-tale,
where are they who should strew roses on the stony ways?

No, no, the gentle young countess at Borg will not interfere with Gösta
Berling’s plans. She must think of her reputation, she must think of her
husband’s anger and her mother-in-law’s hate, she must not do anything to
keep him back.

All through the long service in the Svartsjö church, she must bend her
head, fold her hands, and only pray for him. During sleepless nights she
can weep and grieve over him, but she has no flowers to strew on the way
of the outcast, not a drop of water to give one who is thirsting. She
does not stretch out her hand to lead him back from the edge of the
precipice.

Gösta Berling does not care to clothe his chosen bride in silk and
jewels. He lets her go from farm to farm with brooms, as her habit is,
but when he has gathered together all the chief men and women of the
place at a great feast at Ekeby, he will make his betrothal known. He
will call her in from the kitchen, just as she has come from her long
wanderings, with the dust and dirt of the road on her clothes, perhaps
ragged, perhaps with dishevelled hair, with wild eyes, with an incoherent
stream of words on her lips. And he will ask the guests if he has not
chosen a suitable bride, if the mad priest ought not to be proud of such
a lovely sweetheart, of that gentle Madonna face, of those blue, dreamy
eyes.

He intended that no one should know anything beforehand, but he did not
succeed in keeping the secret, and one of those who heard it was the
young Countess Dohna.

But what can she do to stop him? It is the engagement day, the eleventh
hour has come. The countess stands at the window in the blue cabinet
and looks out towards the north. She almost thinks that she can see
Ekeby, although her eyes are dim with tears. She can see how the great
three-storied house shines with three rows of lighted windows; she thinks
how the champagne flows in the glasses, how the toast resounds and how
Gösta Berling proclaims his engagement to the broom-girl.

If she were only near him and quite gently could lay her hand on his arm,
or only give him a friendly look, would he not turn back from the evil
way? If a word from her had driven him to such a desperate deed, would
not also a word from her check him?

She shudders at the sin he is going to commit against that poor,
half-witted child. She shudders at his sin against the unfortunate
creature, who shall be won to love him, perhaps only for the jest of a
single day. Perhaps too—and then she shudders even more at the sin he
is committing against himself—to chain fast to his life such a galling
burden, which would always take from his spirit the strength to reach the
highest.

And the fault was chiefly hers. She had with a word of condemnation
driven him on the evil way. She, who had come to bless, to alleviate, why
had she twisted one more thorn into the sinner’s crown?

Yes, now she knows what she will do. She will have the black horses
harnessed into the sledge, hasten over the Löfven and to Ekeby, place
herself opposite to Gösta Berling, and tell him that she does not despise
him, that she did not know what she was saying when she drove him from
her house. No, she could never do such a thing; she would be ashamed and
would not dare to say a word. Now that she was married, she must take
care. There would be such a scandal if she did such a thing. But if she
did not do it, how would it go with him?

She must go.

Then she remembers that such a plan is impossible. No horse can go again
this year over the ice. The ice is melting, it has already broken away
from the land. It is broken, cracked, terrible to see. Water bubbles
up through it, in some places it has gathered in black pools, in other
places the ice is dazzlingly white. It is mostly gray, dirty with melting
snow, and the roads look like long, black streaks on its surface.

How can she think of going? Old Countess Märta, her mother-in-law, would
never permit such a thing. She must sit beside her the whole evening in
the drawing-room and listen to those old stories which are the older
woman’s delight.

At last the night comes, and her husband is away; she is free.

She cannot drive, she does not dare to call the servants, but her anxiety
drives her out of her home. There is nothing else for her to do.

Weary are the ways men wander on earth; but that way by night over
melting ice, to what shall I compare it? Is it not the way which the
little flower-pickers have to go, an uncertain, shaking, slippery way,
the way of those who wish to make amends, the way of the light foot, the
quick eye, and the brave, loving heart?

It was past midnight when the countess reached the shores of Ekeby. She
had fallen on the ice, she had leaped over wide fissures, she had hurried
across places where her footprints were filled with bubbling water, she
had slipped, she had crept on all fours.

It had been a weary wandering; she had wept as she had walked. She was
wet and tired, and out there on the ice, the darkness and the loneliness
had given her terrible thoughts.

At the last she had had to wade in water over her ankles to reach land.
And when she had come to the shore, she had not had the courage to do
more than sit down on a rock and weep from fatigue and helplessness.

This young, high-born lady was, however, a brave little heroine. She had
never gone such ways in her bright mother country. She may well sit by
the edge of that terrible lake, wet, tired, unhappy as she is, and think
of the fair, flowery paths of her Southern fatherland.

Ah, for her it is not a question of South or North. She is not weeping
from homesickness. She is weeping because she is so tired, because she
will not come in time. She thinks that she has come too late.

Then people come running along the shore. They hurry by her without
seeing her, but she hears what they say.

“If the dam gives way, the smithy goes,” one says. “And the mill and the
work-shops and the smith’s house,” adds another.

Then she gets new courage, rises, and follows them.

* * * * *

Ekeby mill and smithy lay on a narrow point past which the Björksjö River
rushes. It comes roaring down towards the point, whipped white in the
mighty falls above, and to protect the land a great break-water was built
before the point. But the dam was old now, and the pensioners were in
power. In their day the dance filled all their thoughts, and no one took
the trouble to see how the current and the cold and time had worn the old
stone-dam.

Now with the spring-floods the dam begins to yield.

The falls at Ekeby are like mighty granite stairs, down which the waves
come rushing. Giddy with the speed, they tumble over one another and
rush together. They rise up in anger and dash in spray over one another,
fall again, over a rock, over a log, and rise up again, again to fall,
again and again, foaming, hissing, roaring.

And now these wild, raging waves, drunken with the spring air, dizzy with
their newly won freedom, storm against the old stone-wall. They come,
hissing and tearing, high up on to it and then fall back again, as if
they had hit their white heads. They use logs as battering-rams, they
strain, they beat, they rush against that poor wall, until suddenly,
just as if some one had called to them, “Look out!” they rush backwards,
and after them comes a big stone, which has broken away from the dam and
sinks thundering down in the stream.

But why are these wild waves allowed to rage without meeting any
resistance? Is every one dead at Ekeby?

No, there are people enough there,—a wild, perplexed, helpless crowd of
people. The night is dark, they cannot see one another, nor see where
they are going. Loud roars the falls, terrible is the din of the breaking
ice and the pounding logs; they cannot hear their own voices. They have
not a thought nor an idea. They feel that the end is coming. The dam is
trembling, the smithy is in danger, the mill is in danger, and their own
poor houses beloved in all their lowliness.

Message after message is sent up to the house to the pensioners.

Are they in a mood to think of smithy or mill? The hundred guests are
gathered in the wide walls. The broom-girl is waiting in the kitchen. The
hour has come. The champagne bubbles in the glasses. Julius rises to
make the speech. All the old adventurers at Ekeby are rejoicing at the
petrifying amazement which will fall upon the assembly.

Out on the ice the young Countess Dohna is wandering a terrible, perilous
way in order to whisper a word of warning to Gösta Berling. Down at the
waterfall the waves are storming the honor and might of Ekeby, but in the
wide halls only joy and eager expectation reign, wax-candles are shining,
wine is flowing; no one thinks of what is happening in the dark, stormy
spring night.

Now has the moment come. Gösta rises and goes out to bring in his
sweetheart. He has to go through the hall, and its great doors are
standing open; he stops, he looks out into the pitch dark night—and he
hears, he hears!

He hears the bells ringing, the falls roaring. He hears the thunder of
the breaking ice, the noise of the pounding logs, the rebellious waves’
rushing and threatening voice.

He hastens out into the night, forgetting everything. Let them inside
stand with lifted glasses till the world’s last day; he cares nothing for
them. The broom-girl can wait, Julius’s speech may die on his lips. There
would be no rings exchanged that night, no paralyzing amazement would
fall upon the shining assembly.

Now the waves must in truth fight for their freedom, for Gösta Berling
has come, the people have found a leader. Terrified hearts take courage,
a terrible struggle begins.

Hear how he calls to the people; he commands, he sets all to work.

“We must have light, light first of all; the miller’s horn-lantern is
not enough. See all those piles of branches; carry them up on the cliff
and set fire to them. That is work for the women and children. Only be
quick; build up a great flaming brush-pile and set fire to it! That will
light up our work; that will be seen far and wide and bring more to help
us. And let it never go out! Bring straw, bring branches, let the flames
stream up to the sky!”

“Look, look, you men, here is work for you. Here is timber, here are
planks; make a temporary dam, which we can sink in front of this breaking
wall. Quick, quick to work; make it firm and solid! Get ready stones and
sand-bags to sink it with! Quick! Swing your axes! To work! to work!”

“And where are the boys? Get poles, get boat-hooks, and come out here in
the midst of the struggle. Out on the dam with you, boys, right in the
waves. Keep off, weaken, drive back their attacks, before which the walls
are cracking. Push aside the logs and pieces of ice; throw yourselves
down, if nothing else helps, and hold the loosening stones with your
hands; bite into them, seize them with claws of iron. Out on the wall,
boys! We shall fight for every inch of land.”

Gösta himself takes his stand farthest out on the dam and stands there
covered with spray; the ground shakes under him, the waves thunder
and rage, but his wild heart rejoices at the danger, the anxiety, the
struggle. He laughs. He jokes with the boys about him on the dam; he has
never had a merrier night.

The work of rescue goes quickly forward, the fire flames, the axes
resound, and the dam stands.

The other pensioners and the hundred guests have come down to the
waterfall. People come running from near and far; all are working, at
the fires, at the temporary dam, at the sand-bags, out on the tottering,
trembling stone-wall.

Now the temporary dam is ready, and shall be sunk in front of the
yielding break-water. Have the stones and sand-bags ready, and boat-hooks
and rope, that it may not be carried away, that the victory may be for
the people, and the cowed waves return to their bondage.

It so happens that just before the decisive moment Gösta catches sight of
a woman who is sitting on a stone at the water’s edge. The flames from
the bonfire light her up where she sits staring out over the waves; he
cannot see her clearly and distinctly through the mist and spray, but his
eyes are continually drawn to her. Again and again he has to look at her.
He feels as if that woman had a special errand to him.

Among all these hundreds who are working and busy, she is the only one
who sits still, and to her his eyes keep turning, he can see nothing else.

She is sitting so far out that the waves break at her feet, and the
spray dashes over her. She must be dripping wet. Her dress is dark, she
has a black shawl over her head, she sits shrunk together, her chin on
her hand, and stares persistently at him out on the dam. He feels as if
those staring eyes were drawing and calling, although he cannot even
distinguish her face; he thinks of nothing but the woman who sits on the
shore by the white waves.

“It is the sea-nymph from the Löfven, who has come up the river to lure
me to destruction,” he thinks. “She sits there and calls and calls. I
must go and drive her away.”

All these waves with their white heads seem to him the black woman’s
hair; it was she who set them on, who led the attack against him.

“I really must drive her away,” he says.

He seizes a boat-hook, runs to the shore, and hurries away to the woman.

He leaves his place on the end of the dam to drive the sea-nymph away.
He felt, in that moment of excitement, as if the evil powers of the deep
were fighting against him. He did not know what he thought, what he
believed, but he must drive that black thing away from the stone by the
river’s edge.

Alas, Gösta, why is your place empty in the decisive moment? They are
coming with the temporary dam, a long row of men station themselves on
the break-water; they have ropes and stones and sand-bags ready to weight
it down and hold it in place; they stand ready, they wait, they listen.
Where is their leader? Is there no voice to command?

No, Gösta Berling is chasing the sea-nymph, his voice is silent, his
commands lead no one.

So the temporary dam has to be sunk without him. The waves rush back, it
sinks into the water and after it the stones and sand-bags. But how is
the work carried out without a leader? No care, no order. The waves dash
up again, they break with renewed rage against this new obstacle, they
begin to roll the sand-bags over, tear the ropes, loosen the stones; and
they succeed, they succeed. Threatening, rejoicing, they lift the whole
dam on their strong shoulders, tear and drag on it, and then they have it
in their power. Away with the miserable defence, down to the Löfven with
it. And then on once more against the tottering, helpless stone-wall.

But Gösta is chasing the sea-nymph. She saw him as he came towards her
swinging the boat-hook. She was frightened. It looked as if she was going
to throw herself into the water, but she changed her mind and ran to the
land.

“Sea-nymph!” cries Gösta, and brandishes the boat-hook. She runs in among
the alder-bushes, gets entangled in their thick branches, and stops.

Then Gösta throws away the boat-hook, goes forward, and lays his hand on
her shoulder.

“You are out late to-night, Countess Elizabeth,” he says.

“Let me alone, Herr Berling, let me go home!”

He obeys instantly and turns away from her.

But since she is not only a high-born lady, but a really kind little
woman, who cannot bear the thought that she has driven any one to
despair; since she is a little flower-picker, who always has roses enough
in her basket to adorn the barrenest way, she repents, goes after him and
seizes his hand.

“I came,” she says, and stammers, “I came to⸺ Oh, Herr Berling, you have
not done it? Say that you have not done it! I was so frightened when you
came running after me, but it was you I wanted to meet. I wanted to ask
you not to think of what I said the other day, and to come to see me as
usual.”

“How have you come here, countess?”

She laughs nervously. “I knew that I should come too late, but I did
not like to tell any one that I was going; and besides, you know, it is
impossible to drive over the ice now.”

“Have you walked across the lake, countess?”

“Yes, yes, of course; but, Herr Berling, tell me. Are you engaged? You
understand; I wish so you were not. It is so wrong, you see, and I felt
as if the whole thing was my fault. You should not have minded a word
from me so much. I am a stranger, who does not know the customs of the
country. It is so dull at Borg since you do not come any more, Herr
Berling.”

It seems to Gösta Berling, as he stands among the wet alder-bushes on the
marshy ground, as if some one were throwing over him armfuls of roses.
He wades in roses up to his knees, they shine before his eyes in the
darkness, he eagerly drinks in their fragrance.

“Have you done that?” she repeats.

He must make up his mind to answer her and to put an end to her anxiety,
although his joy is so great over it. It grows so warm in him and so
bright when he thinks what a way she has wandered, how wet she is, how
frozen, how frightened she must have been, how broken with weeping her
voice sounds.

“No,” he says, “I am not engaged.”

Then she takes his hand again and strokes it. “I am so glad, I am so
glad,” she says, and her voice is shaken with sobs.

There are flowers enough now on the poet’s way, everything dark, evil,
and hateful melts from his heart.

“How good you are, how good you are!” he says.

At their side the waves are rushing against all Ekeby’s honor and glory.
The people have no leader, no one to instill courage and hope into
their hearts; the dam gives way, the waves close over it, and then rush
triumphant forward to the point where the mill and smithy stand. No one
tries any longer to resist the waves; no one thinks of anything but of
saving life and property.

It seems quite natural to both the young people that Gösta should escort
the countess home; he cannot leave her alone in this dark night, nor let
her again wander alone over the melting ice. They never think that he is
needed up at the smithy, they are so happy that they are friends again.

One might easily believe that these young people cherish a warm love
for one another, but who can be sure? In broken fragments the glowing
adventures of their lives have come to me. I know nothing, or next to
nothing, of what was in their innermost souls. What can I say of the
motives of their actions. I only know that that night a beautiful young
woman risked her life, her honor, her reputation, her health, to bring
back a poor wretch to the right way. I only know that that night Gösta
Berling left the beloved Ekeby fall to follow her who for his sake had
conquered the fear of death, the fear of shame, the fear of punishment.

Often in my thoughts I have followed them over the ice that terrible
night, which ended so well for them. I do not think that there was
anything hidden or forbidden in their hearts, as they wandered over the
ice, gay and chatting of everything which had happened during their
separation.

He is once more her slave, her page, who lies at her feet, and she is his
lady.

They are only happy, only joyous. Neither of them speaks a word which can
denote love.

Laughing they splash through the water, they laugh when they find the
path, when they lose it, when they slip, when they fall, when they are
up again; they only laugh.

This blessed life is once more a merry play, and they are children who
have been cross and have quarrelled. Oh, how good it is to make up and
begin to play again.

Rumor came, and rumor went. In time the story of the countess’s
wanderings reached Anna Stjärnhök.

“I see,” she said, “that God has not one string only to his bow. I can
rest and stay where I am needed. He can make a man of Gösta Berling
without my help.”

Dear friends, if it should ever happen that you meet a pitiful wretch on
your way, a little distressed creature, who lets his hat hang on his back
and holds his shoes in his hand, so as not to have any protection from
the heat of the sun and the stones of the road, one without defence, who
of his own free will calls down destruction on his head,—well, pass him
by in silent fear! It is a penitent, do you understand?—a penitent on his
way to the holy sepulchre.

The penitent must wear a coarse cloak and live on water and dry bread,
even if he were a king. He must walk and not ride. He must beg. He must
sleep among thistles. He must wear the hard gravestones with kneeling.
He must swing the thorny scourge over his back. He can know no sweetness
except in suffering, no tenderness except in grief.

The young Countess Elizabeth was once one who wore the heavy cloak and
trod the thorny paths. Her heart accused her of sin. It longed for pain
as one wearied longs for a warm bath. Dire disaster she brought down on
herself while she descended rejoicing into the night of suffering.

Her husband, the young count with the old-man’s head, came home to Borg
the morning after the night when the mill and smithy at Ekeby were
destroyed by the spring flood. He had hardly arrived before Countess
Märta had him summoned in to her and told him wonderful things.

“Your wife was out last night, Henrik. She was gone many hours. She came
home with a man. I heard how he said good-night to her. I know too who
he is. I heard both when she went and when she came. She is deceiving
you, Henrik. She is deceiving you, the hypocritical creature, who hangs
knitted curtains in all the windows only to cause me discomfort. She has
never loved you, my poor boy. Her father only wanted to have her well
married. She took you to be provided for.”

She managed her affair so well that Count Henrik became furious. He
wished to get a divorce. He wished to send his wife home to her father.

“No, my friend,” said Countess Märta, “in that way she would be quite
given over to evil. She is spoiled and badly brought up. But let me take
her in hand, let me lead her to the path of duty.”

And the count called in his countess to tell her that she now was to obey
his mother in everything.

Many angry words the young man let the young woman hear. He stretched his
hands to heaven and accused it of having let his name be dragged in the
dirt by a shameless woman. He shook his clenched fist before her face and
asked her what punishment she thought great enough for such a crime as
hers.

She was not at all afraid. She thought that she had done right. She said
that she had already caught a serious cold, and that might be punishment
enough.

“Elizabeth.” says Countess Märta, “this is not a matter to joke about.”

“We two,” answers the young woman, “have never been able to agree about
the right time to joke and to be serious.”

“But you ought to understand, Elizabeth, that no honorable woman
leaves her home to roam about in the middle of the night with a known
adventurer.”

Then Elizabeth Dohna saw that her mother-in-law meant her ruin. She saw
that she must fight to the last gasp, lest Countess Märta should succeed
in drawing down upon her a terrible misfortune.

“Henrik,” she begs, “do not let your mother come between us! Let me tell
you how it all happened. You are just, you will not condemn me unheard.
Let me tell you all, and you will see that I only acted as you have
taught me.”

The count nodded a silent consent, and Countess Elizabeth told how she
had come to drive Gösta Berling into the evil way. She told of everything
which had happened in the little blue cabinet, and how she had felt
herself driven by her conscience to go and save him she had wronged. “I
had no right to judge him,” she said, “and my husband has himself taught
me that no sacrifice is too great when one will make amends for a wrong.
Is it not so, Henrik?”

The count turned to his mother.

“What has my mother to say about this?” he asked. His little body was now
quite stiff with dignity, and his high, narrow forehead lay in majestic
folds.

“I,” answered the countess,—“I say that Anna Stjärnhök is a clever girl,
and she knew what she was doing when she told Elizabeth that story.”

“You are pleased to misunderstand me,” said the count. “I ask what you
think of this story. Has Countess Märta Dohna tried to persuade her
daughter, my sister, to marry a dismissed priest?”

Countess Märta was silent an instant. Alas, that Henrik, so stupid, so
stupid! Now he was quite on the wrong track. Her hound was pursuing the
hunter himself and letting the hare get away. But if Märta Dohna was
without an answer for an instant, it was not longer.

“Dear friend,” she said with a shrug, “there is a reason for letting all
those old stories about that unhappy man rest,—the same reason which
makes me beg you to suppress all public scandal. It is most probable that
he has perished in the night.”

She spoke in a gentle, commiserating tone, but there was not a word of
truth in what she said.

“Elizabeth has slept late to-day and therefore has not heard that people
have already been sent out on to the lake to look for Herr Berling.
He has not returned to Ekeby, and they fear that he has drowned. The
ice broke up this morning. See, the storm has split it into a thousand
pieces.”

Countess Elizabeth looked out. The lake was almost open.

Then in despair she threw herself on her knees before her husband and
confession rushed from her lips. She had wished to escape God’s justice.
She had lied and dissembled. She had thrown the white mantle of innocence
over her.

“Condemn me, turn me out! I have loved him. Be in no doubt but that I
have loved him! I tear my hair, I rend my clothes with grief. I do not
care for anything when he is dead. I do not care to shield myself. You
shall know the whole truth. My heart’s love I have taken from my husband
and given to a stranger. Oh, I am one of them whom a forbidden love has
tempted.”

You desperate young thing, lie there at your judges’ feet and tell them
all! Welcome, martyrdom! Welcome, disgrace! Welcome! Oh, how shall you
bring the bolt of heaven down on your young head!

Tell your husband how frightened you were when the pain came over you,
mighty and irresistible, how you shuddered for your heart’s wretchedness.
You would rather have met the ghosts of the graveyard than the demons in
your own soul.

Tell them how you felt yourself unworthy to tread the earth. With prayers
and tears you have struggled.

“O God, save me! O Son of God, caster out of devils, save me!” you have
prayed.

Tell them how you thought it best to conceal it all. No one should know
your wretchedness. You thought that it was God’s pleasure to have it so.
You thought, too, that you went in God’s ways when you wished to save the
man you loved. He knew nothing of your love. He must not be lost for your
sake. Did you know what was right? Did you know what was wrong? God alone
knew it, and he had passed sentence upon you. He had struck down your
heart’s idol. He had led you on to the great, healing way of penitence.

Tell them that you know that salvation is not to be found in concealment.
Devils love darkness. Let your judges’ hands close on the scourge! The
punishment shall fall like soothing balm on the wounds of sin. Your heart
longs for suffering.

Tell them all that, while you kneel on the floor and wring your hands in
fierce sorrow, speaking in the wild accents of despair, with a shrill
laugh greeting the thought of punishment and dishonor, until at last your
husband seizes you and drags you up from the floor.

“Conduct yourself as it behooves a Countess Dohna, or I must ask my
mother to chastise you like a child.”

“Do with me what you will!”

Then the count pronounced his sentence:—

“My mother has interceded for you. Therefore you may stay in my house.
But hereafter it is she who commands, and you who obey.”

* * * * *

See the way of the penitent! The young countess has become the most
humble of servants. How long? Oh, how long?

How long shall a proud heart be able to bend? How long can impatient lips
keep silent; how long a passionate hand be held back?

Sweet is the misery of humiliation. When the back aches from the heavy
work the heart is at peace. To one who sleeps a few short hours on a hard
bed of straw, sleep comes uncalled.

Let the older woman change herself into an evil spirit to torture the
younger. She thanks her benefactress. As yet the evil is not dead in her.
Hunt her up at four o’clock every morning! Impose on the inexperienced
workwoman an unreasonable day’s work at the heavy weaving-loom! It is
well. The penitent has perhaps not strength enough to swing the scourge
with the required force.

When the time for the great spring washing comes,[3] Countess Märta has
her stand at the tub in the wash-house. She comes herself to oversee her
work. “The water is too cold in your tub,” she says, and takes boiling
water from a kettle and pours it over her bare arms.

The day is cold, the washerwomen have to stand by the lake and rinse out
the clothes. Squalls rush by and drench them with sleet. Dripping wet and
heavy as lead are the washerwomen’s skirts.

Hard is the work with the wooden clapper. The blood bursts from the
delicate nails.

But Countess Elizabeth does not complain. Praised be the goodness of God!
The scourge’s thorny knots fall softly, as if they were rose-leaves, on
the penitent’s back.

The young woman soon hears that Gösta Berling is alive. Her mother-in-law
had only wanted to cheat her into a confession. Well, what of that? See
the hand of God! He had won over the sinner to the path of atonement.

She grieves for only one thing. How shall it be with her mother-in-law,
whose heart God for her sake has hardened? Ah, he will judge her mildly.
She must show anger to help the sinner to win back God’s love.

She did not know that often a soul that has tried all other pleasures
turns to delight in cruelty. In the suffering of animals and men,
weakened emotions find a source of joy.

The older woman is not conscious of any malice. She thinks she is only
correcting a wanton wife. So she lies awake sometimes at night and broods
over new methods of torture.

One evening she goes through the house and has the countess light her
with a candle. She carries it in her hand without a candlestick.

“The candle is burned out,” says the young woman.

“When there is an end to the candle, the candlestick must burn,” answers
Countess Märta.

And they go on, until the reeking wick goes out in the scorched hand.

But that is childishness. There are tortures for the soul which are
greater than any suffering of the body. Countess Märta invites guests and
makes the mistress of the house herself wait on them at her own table.

That is the penitent’s great day. Strangers shall see her in her
humiliation. They shall see that she is no longer worthy to sit at her
husband’s table. Oh, with what scorn their cold eyes will rest on her!

Worse, much worse it is. Not an eye meets hers. Everybody at the table
sits silent and depressed, men and women equally out of spirits.

But she gathers it all to lay it like coals of fire on her head. Is her
sin so dreadful? Is it a disgrace to be near her?

Then temptation comes. Anna Stjärnhök, who has been her friend, and the
judge at Munkerud, Anna’s neighbor at the table, take hold of her when
she comes, snatch the dish from her, push up a chair, and will not let
her escape.

“Sit there, child, sit there!” says the judge. “You have done no wrong.”

And with one voice all the guests declare that if she does not sit down
at the table, they must all go. They are no executioners. They will
not do Märta Dohna’s bidding. They are not so easily deceived as that
sheep-like count.

“Oh, good gentlemen! Oh, beloved friends! Do not be so charitable. You
force me to cry out my sin. There is some one whom I have loved too
dearly.”

“Child, you do not know what sin is. You do not understand how guiltless
you are. Gösta Berling did not even know that you liked him. Take your
proper place in your home! You have done no wrong.”

They keep up her courage for a while and are themselves suddenly gay as
children. Laughter and jests ring about the board.

These impetuous, emotional people, they are so good; but still they are
sent by the tempter. They want to make her think that she is a martyr,
and openly scoff at Countess Märta as if she were a witch. But they do
not understand. They do not know how the soul longs for purity, nor how
the penitent is driven by his own heart to expose himself to the stones
of the way and the heat of the sun.

Sometimes Countess Märta forces her to sit the whole day long quietly in
the bay window, and then she tells her endless stories of Gösta Berling,
priest and adventurer. If her memory does not hold out, she romances,
only to contrive that his name the whole day shall sound in the young
woman’s ears. That is what she fears most. On those days she feels that
her penance will never end. Her love will not die. She thinks that she
herself will die before it. Her strength begins to give way. She is often
very ill.

“But where is your hero tarrying?” asks the countess, spitefully. “From
day to day I have expected him at the head of the pensioners. Why does
he not take Borg by storm, set you up on a throne, and throw me and your
husband, bound, into a dungeon cell? Are you already forgotten?”

She is almost ready to defend him and say that she herself had forbidden
him to give her any help. But no, it is best to be silent, to be silent
and to suffer.

Day by day she is more and more consumed by the fire of irritation. She
has incessant fever and is so weak that she can scarcely hold herself up.
She longs to die. Life’s strongest forces are subdued. Love and joy do
not dare to move. She no longer fears pain.

* * * * *

It is as if her husband no longer knew that she existed. He sits shut up
in his room almost the whole day and studies indecipherable manuscripts
and essays in old, stained print.

He reads charters of nobility on parchment, from which the seal of Sweden
hangs, large and potent, stamped in red wax and kept in a turned wooden
box. He examines old coats of arms with lilies on a white field and
griffins on a blue. Such things he understands, and such he interprets
with ease. And he reads over and over again speeches and obituary notices
of the noble counts Dohna, where their exploits are compared to those of
the heroes of Israel and the gods of Greece.

Those old things have always given him pleasure. But he does not trouble
himself to think a second time of his young wife.

Countess Märta has said a word which killed the love in him: “She took
you for your money.” No man can bear to hear such a thing. It quenches
all love. Now it was quite one to him what happened to the young woman.
If his mother could bring her to the path of duty, so much the better.
Count Henrik had much admiration for his mother.

This misery went on for a month. Still it was not such a stormy and
agitated time as it may sound when it is all compressed into a few
written pages. Countess Elizabeth was always outwardly calm. Once only,
when she heard that Gösta Berling might be dead, emotion overcame her.

But her grief was so great that she had not been able to preserve her
love for her husband that she would probably have let Countess Märta
torture her to death, if her old housekeeper had not spoken to her one
evening.

“You must speak to the count, countess,” she said. “Good heavens, you are
such a child! You do not perhaps know yourself, countess, what you have
to expect; but I see well enough what the matter is.”

But that was just what she could not say to her husband, while he
cherished such a black suspicion of her.

That night she dressed herself quietly, and went out. She wore an
ordinary peasant-girl’s dress, and had a bundle in her hand. She meant to
run away from her home and never come back.

She did not go to escape pain and suffering. But now she believed that
God had given her a sign that she might go, that she must preserve her
body’s health and strength.

She did not turn to the west across the lake, for there lived one whom
she loved very dearly; nor did she go to the north, for there many of her
friends lived; nor towards the south, for, far, far to the south lay her
father’s home, and she did not wish to come a step nearer; but to the
east she went, for there she knew she had no home, no beloved friend, no
acquaintance, no help nor comfort.

She did not go with a light step, for the thought that she had not yet
appeased God. But still she was glad that she hereafter might bear the
burden of her sin among strangers. Their indifferent glances should rest
on her, soothing as cold steel laid on a swollen limb.

She meant to continue her wandering until she found a lowly cottage at
the edge of the wood, where no one should know her. “You can see what has
happened to me, and my parents have turned me out,” she meant to say.
“Let me have food and a roof over my head here, until I can cam my bread.
I am not without money.”

So she went on in the bright June night, for the month of May had passed
during her suffering. Alas, the month of May, that fair time when the
birches mingle their pale green with the darkness of the pine forest, and
when the south-wind comes again satiated with warmth.

Ah, May, you dear, bright month, have you ever seen a child who is
sitting on its mother’s knee listening to fairy stories? As long as the
child is told of cruel giants and of the bitter suffering of beautiful
princesses, it holds its head up and its eyes open; but if the mother
begins to speak of happiness and sunshine, the little one closes its eyes
and falls asleep with its head against her breast.

And see, fair month of May, such a child am I too. Others may listen to
tales of flowers and sunshine; but for myself I choose the dark nights,
full of visions and adventures, bitter destinies, sorrowful sufferings of
wild hearts.

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