THE WITCH OF DOVRE

Spring had come, and the iron from all the mines in Värmland was to be
sent to Gothenburg.

But at Ekeby they had no iron to send. In the autumn there had been a
scarcity of water, in the spring the pensioners had been in power.

In their time strong, bitter ale foamed down the broad granite slope of
Björksjö falls, and Löfven’s long lake was filled not with water, but
with brandy. In their time no iron was brought to the forge, the smiths
stood in shirt-sleeves and clogs by the hearth and turned enormous roasts
on long spits, while the boys on long tongs held larded capons over the
coals. In those days they slept on the carpenter’s bench and played cards
on the anvil. In those days no iron was forged.

But the spring came and in the wholesale office in Gothenburg they began
to expect the iron from Ekeby. They looked up the contract made with the
major and his wife, where there were promises of the delivery of many
hundreds of tons.

But what did the pensioners care for the contract? They thought of
pleasure and fiddling and feasting.

Iron came from Stömne, iron from Sölje. From Uddeholm it came, and from
Munkfors, and from all of the many mines. But where is the iron from
Ekeby?

Is Ekeby no longer the chief of Värmland’s iron works? Does no one watch
over the honor of the old estate? Like ashes for the wind it is left in
the hands of shiftless pensioners.

Well, but if the Ekeby hammers have rested, they must have worked at our
six other estates. There must be there enough and more than enough iron.

So Gösta Berling sets out to talk with the managers of the six mines.

He travelled ten miles or so to the north, till he came to Lötafors. It
is a pretty place, there can be no doubt of that. The upper Löfven lies
spread out before it and close behind it has Gurlitta cliff, with steeply
rising top and a look of wildness and romance which well suits an old
mountain. But the smithy, that is not as it ought to be: the swing-wheel
is broken, and has been so a whole year.

“Well, why has it not been mended?”

“The carpenter, my dear friend, the carpenter, the only one in the whole
district who could mend it, has been busy somewhere else. We have not
been able to forge a single ton.”

“Why did you not send after the carpenter?”

“Send after! As if we had not sent after him every day, but he has not
been able to come. He was busy building bowling-alleys and summer-houses
at Ekeby.”

He goes further to the north to Björnidet. Also a beautiful spot, but
iron, is there any iron?

No, of course not. They had had no coal, and they had not been able to
get any money from Ekeby to pay charcoal-burners and teamsters. There had
been no work all winter.

Then Gösta turns to the south. He comes to Hån, and to Löfstafors, far
in in the woods, but he fares no better there. Nowhere have they iron,
and everywhere it seems to be the pensioners’ own fault that such is the
case.

So Gösta turns back to Ekeby, and the pensioners with gloomy looks take
into consideration the fifty tons or so, which are in stock, and their
heads are weighed down with grief, for they hear how all nature sneers at
Ekeby, and they think that the ground shakes with sobs, that the trees
threaten them with angry gestures, and that the grass and weeds lament
that the honor of Ekeby is gone.

But why so many words and so much perplexity? There is the iron from
Ekeby.

There it is, loaded on barges on the Klar River, ready to sail down
the stream, ready to be weighed at Karlstad, ready to be conveyed to
Gothenburg. So it is saved, the honor of Ekeby.

* * * * *

But how is it possible? At Ekeby there was not more than fifty tons of
iron, at the six other mines there was no iron at all. How is it possible
that full-loaded barges shall now carry such an enormous amount of iron
to the scales at Karlstad? Yes, one may well ask the pensioners.

The pensioners are themselves on board the heavy, ugly vessels; they
mean to escort the iron from Ekeby to Gothenburg. They are going to do
everything for their dear iron and not forsake it until it is unloaded on
the wharf in Gothenburg. They are going to load and unload, manage sails
and rudder. They are the very ones for such an undertaking. Is there a
shoal in the Klar River or a reef in the Väner which they do not know?

If they love anything in the world, it is the iron on those barges.
They treat it like the most delicate glass, they spread cloths over it.
Not a bit may lie bare. It it those heavy, gray bars which are going to
retrieve the honor of Ekeby. No stranger may cast indifferent glances on
them.

None of the pensioners have remained at home. Uncle Eberhard has left his
desk, and Cousin Christopher has come out of his corner. No one can hold
back when it is a question of the honor of Ekeby.

Every one knows that often in life occur such coincidences as that
which now followed. He who still can be surprised may wonder that the
pensioners should be lying with their barges at the ferry over the Klar
River just on the morning after when Countess Elizabeth had started
on her wanderings towards the east. But it would certainly have been
more wonderful if the young woman had found no help in her need. It now
happened that she, who had walked the whole night, was coming along the
highway which led down to the ferry, just as the pensioners intended
to push off, and they stood and looked at her while she talked to the
ferryman and he untied his boat. She was dressed like a peasant girl,
and they never guessed who she was. But still they stood and stared at
her, because there was something familiar about her. As she stood and
talked to the ferryman, a cloud of dust appeared on the highway, and in
that cloud of dust they could catch a glimpse of a big yellow coach. She
knew that it was from Borg, that they were out to look for her, and that
she would now be discovered. She could no longer hope to escape in the
ferryman’s boat, and the only hiding-place she saw was the pensioners’
barges. She rushed down to them without seeing who it was on board. And
well it was that she did not see, for otherwise she would rather have
thrown herself under the horses’ feet than have taken her flight thither.

When she came on board she only screamed, “Hide me, hide me!” And then
she tripped and fell on the pile of iron. But the pensioners bade her be
calm. They pushed off hurriedly from the land, so that the barge came
out into the current and bore down towards Karlstad, just as the coach
reached the ferry.

In the carriage sat Count Henrik and Countess Märta. The count ran
forward to ask the ferryman if he had seen his countess. But as Count
Henrik was a little embarrassed to have to ask about a runaway wife, he
only said:—

“Something has been lost!”

“Really?” said the ferryman.

“Something has been lost. I ask if you have seen anything?”

“What are you asking about?”

“Yes, it makes no difference, but something has been lost. I ask if you
have ferried anything over the river to-day?”

By these means he could find out nothing, and Countess Märta had to go
and speak to the man. She knew in a minute, that she whom they sought was
on board one of the heavily gliding barges.

“Who are the people on those barges?”

“Oh, they are the pensioners, as we call them.”

“Ah,” says the countess. “Yes, then your wife is in good keeping, Henrik.
We might as well go straight home.”

On the barge there was no such great joy as Countess Märta believed. As
long as the yellow coach was in sight, the frightened young woman shrank
together on the load motionless and silent, staring at the shore.

Probably she first recognized the pensioners when she had seen the yellow
coach drive away. She started up. It was as if she wanted to escape
again, but she was stopped by the one standing nearest, and she sank back
on the load with a faint moan.

The pensioners dared not speak to her nor ask her any questions. She
looked as if on the verge of madness.

Their careless heads began verily to be heavy with responsibility. This
iron was already a heavy load for unaccustomed shoulders, and now they
had to watch over a young, high-born lady, who had run away from her
husband.

When they had met this young woman at the balls of the winter, one and
another of them had thought of a little sister whom he had once loved.
When he played and romped with that sister he needed to handle her
carefully, and when he talked with her he had learned to be careful not
to use bad words. If a strange boy had chased her too wildly in their
play or had sung coarse songs for her, he had thrown himself on him with
boundless fury and almost pounded the life out of him, for his little
sister should never hear anything bad nor suffer any pain nor ever be met
with anger and hate.

Countess Elizabeth had been like a joyous sister to them all. When she
had laid her little hands in their hard fists, it had been as if she
had said: “Feel how fragile I am, but you are my big brother; you shall
protect me both from others and from yourself.” And they had been courtly
knights as long as they had been with her.

Now the pensioners looked upon her with terror, and did not quite
recognize her. She was worn and thin, her neck was without roundness, her
face transparent. She must have struck herself during her wanderings, for
from a little wound on her temple blood was trickling, and her curly,
light hair, which shaded her brow, was sticky with it. Her dress was
soiled from her long walk on the wet paths, and her shoes were muddy. The
pensioners had a dreadful feeling that this was a stranger. The Countess
Elizabeth they knew never had such wild, glittering eyes. Their poor
little sister had been hunted nearly to madness. It was as if a soul come
down from other spaces was struggling with the right soul for the mastery
of her tortured body.

But there was no need for them to worry over what they should do with
her. The old thought soon waked in her. Temptation had come to her again.
God wished to try her once more. See, she is among friends; does she
intend to leave the path of the penitent?

She rises and cries that she must go.

The pensioners try to calm her. They told her that she was safe. They
would protect her from all persecution.

She only begged to be allowed to get into the little boat, which was
towed after the barge, and row to the land, to continue her wandering.

But they could not let her go. What would become of her? It was better to
remain with them. They were only poor old men, but they would surely find
some way to help her.

Then she wrung her hands and begged them to let her go. But they could
not grant her prayer. She was so exhausted and weak that they thought
that she would die by the roadside.

Gösta Berling stood a short distance away and looked down into the water.
Perhaps the young woman would not wish to see him. He did not know it,
but his thoughts played and smiled. “Nobody knows where she is,” he
thought; “we can take her with us to Ekeby. We will keep her hidden
there, we pensioners, and we will be good to her. She shall be our queen,
our mistress, but no one shall know that she is there. We will guard
her so well, so well. She perhaps would be happy with us; she would be
cherished like a daughter by all the old men.”

He had never dared to ask himself if he loved her. She could not be his
without sin, and he would not drag her down to anything low and wretched,
that he knew. But to have her concealed at Ekeby and to be good to her
after others had been cruel, and to let her enjoy everything pleasant in
life, ah, what a dream, what a blissful dream!

But he wakened out of it, for the young countess was in dire distress,
and her words had the piercing accents of despair. She had thrown herself
upon her knees in the midst of the pensioners and begged them to be
allowed to go.

“God has not yet pardoned me,” she cried. “Let me go!”

Gösta saw that none of the others meant to obey her, and understood that
he must do it. He, who loved her, must do it.

He felt a difficulty in walking, as if his every limb resisted his will,
but he dragged himself to her and said that he would take her on shore.

She rose instantly. He lifted her down into the boat and rowed her to
the east shore. He landed at a little pathway and helped her out of the
boat.

“What is to become of you, countess?” he said.

She lifted her finger solemnly and pointed towards heaven.

“If you are in need, countess—”

He could not speak, his voice failed him, but she understood him and
answered:—

“I will send you word when I need you.”

“I would have liked to protect you from all evil,” he said.

She gave him her hand in farewell, and he was not able to say anything
more. Her hand lay cold and limp in his.

She was not conscious of anything but those inward voices which forced
her to go among strangers. She hardly knew that it was the man she loved
whom she now left.

So he let her go and rowed out to the pensioners again. When he came
up on the barge he was trembling with fatigue and seemed exhausted and
faint. He had done the hardest work of his life, it seemed to him.

For the few days he kept up his courage, until the honor of Ekeby was
saved. He brought the iron to the weighing-office on Kanike point; then
for a long time he lost all strength and love of life.

The pensioners noticed no change in him as long as they were on board. He
strained every nerve to keep his hold on gayety and carelessness, for it
was by gayety and carelessness that the honor of Ekeby was to be saved.
How should their venture at the weighing-office succeed if they came with
anxious faces and dejected hearts?

If what rumor says is true, that the pensioners that time had more sand
than iron on their barges, if it is true that they kept bringing up
and down the same bars to the weighing-office at Kanike point, until
the many hundred tons were weighed; if it is true that all that could
happen because the keeper of the public scales and his men were so well
entertained out of the hampers and wine cases brought from Ekeby, one
must know that they had to be gay on the iron barges.

Who can know the truth now? But if it was so, it is certain that Gösta
Berling had no time to grieve. Of the joy of adventure and danger he felt
nothing. As soon as he dared, he sank into a condition of despair.

As soon as the pensioners had got their certificate of weighing, they
loaded their iron on a bark. It was generally the custom that the captain
of the vessel took charge of the load to Gothenburg, and the Värmland
mines had no more responsibility for their iron when they had got their
certificate that the consignment was filled. But the pensioners would
do nothing by halves, they were going to take the iron all the way to
Gothenburg.

On the way they met with misfortune. A storm broke out in the night, the
vessel was disabled, drove on a reef, and sank with all her precious
load. But if one saw the matter rightly, what did it matter if the iron
was lost? The honor of Ekeby was saved. The iron had been weighed at
the weighing-office at Kanike point. And even if the major had to sit
down and in a curt letter inform the merchants in the big town that he
would not have their money, as they had not got his iron, that made no
difference either. Ekeby was so rich, and its honor was saved.

But if the harbors and locks, if the mines and charcoal-kilns, if the
schooners and barges begin to whisper of strange things? If a gentle
murmur goes through the forests that the journey was a fraud? If it is
asserted through the whole of Värmland that there were never more than
fifty miserable tons on the barges and that the shipwreck was arranged
intentionally? A bold exploit had been carried out, and a real pensioner
prank accomplished. By such things the honor of the old estate is not
blemished.

But it happened so long ago now. It is quite possible that the pensioners
bought the iron or that they found it in some hitherto unknown
store-house. The truth will never be made clear in the matter. The keeper
of the scales will never listen to any tales of fraud, and he ought to
know.

When the pensioners reached home they heard news. Count Dohna’s marriage
was to be annulled. The count had sent his steward to Italy to get proofs
that the marriage had not been legal. He had come back late in the summer
with satisfactory reports. What these were,—well, that I do not know with
certainty. One must treat old tales with care; they are like faded roses.
They easily drop their petals if one comes too near to them. People say
that the ceremony in Italy had not been performed by a real priest. I do
not know, but it certainly is true that the marriage between Count Dohna
and Elizabeth von Thurn was declared at the court at Borg never to have
been any marriage.

Of this the young woman knew nothing. She lived among peasants in some
out-of-the-way place, if she was living.

Among the pensioners was one whom I have often mentioned as a great
musician. He was a tall, heavily built man, with a big head and bushy,
black hair. He was certainly not more than forty years old at that time,
but he had an ugly, large-featured face and a pompous manner. This made
many think him old. He was a good man, but low-spirited.

One afternoon he took his violin under his arm and went away from Ekeby.
He said no farewell to any one, although he never meant to return. He
loathed the life there ever since he had seen Countess Elizabeth in her
trouble. He walked without resting the whole evening and the whole night,
until at early sunrise he came to a little farm, called Löfdala, which
belonged to him.

It was so early that nobody was as yet awake. Lilliecrona sat down on
the green bench outside the main building and looked at his estate. A
more beautiful place did not exist. The lawn in front of the house lay
in a gentle slope and was covered with fine, light-green grass. There
never was such a lawn. The sheep were allowed to graze there and the
children to romp there in their games, but it was always just as even
and green. The scythe never passed over it, but at least once a week
the mistress of the house had all sticks and straws and dry leaves
swept from the fresh grass. He looked at the gravel walk in front of
the house and suddenly drew his feet back. The children had late in the
evening raked it and his big feet had done terrible harm to the fine
work. Think how everything grew there. The six mountain-ashes which
guarded the place were high as beeches and wide-spreading as oaks. Such
trees had never been seen before. They were beautiful with their thick
trunks covered with yellow lichens, and with big, white flower-clusters
sticking out from the dark foliage. It made him think of the sky and its
stars. It was indeed wonderful how the trees grew there. There stood an
old willow, so thick that the arms of two men could not meet about it.
It was now rotten and hollow, and the lightning had taken the top off
it, but it would not die. Every spring a cluster of green shoots came up
out of the shattered trunk to show that it was alive. That hawthorn by
the east gable had become such a big tree that it overshadowed the whole
house. The roof was white with its dropping petals, for the hawthorn had
already blossomed. And the birches which stood in small clumps here and
there in the pastures, they certainly had found their paradise on his
farm. They developed there in so many different growths, as if they had
meant to imitate all other trees. One was like a linden, thick and leafy
with a wide-spreading arch, another stood close and tall like a poplar,
and a third drooped its branches like a weeping-willow. No one was like
another, and they were all beautiful.

Then he rose and went round the house. There lay the garden, so
wonderfully beautiful that he had to stop and draw a long breath. The
apple-trees were in bloom. Yes, of course he knew that. He had seen it
on all the other farms; but in no other place did they bloom as they did
in that garden, where he had seen them blossom since he was a child.
He walked with clasped hands and careful step up and down the gravel
path. The ground was white, and the trees were white, here and there
with a touch of pink. He had never seen anything so beautiful. He knew
every tree, as one knows one’s brothers and sisters and playmates. The
astrachan trees were quite white, also the winter fruit-trees. But the
russet blossoms were pink, and the crab-apple almost red. The most
beautiful was the old wild apple-tree, whose little, bitter apples nobody
could eat. It was not stingy with its blossoms; it looked like a great
snow-drift in the morning light.

For remember that it was early in the morning! The dew made every leaf
shine, all dust was washed away. Behind the forest-clad hills, close
under which the farm lay, came the first rays of the sun. It was as if
the tops of the pines had been set on fire by them. Over the clover
meadows, over rye and corn fields, and over the sprouting oat-shoots, lay
the lightest of mists, like a thin veil, and the shadows fell sharp as in
moonlight.

He stood and looked at the big vegetable beds between the paths. He knows
that mistress and maids have been at work here. They have dug, raked,
pulled up weeds and turned the earth, until it has become fine and light.
After they have made the beds even and the edges straight they have
taken tapes and pegs and marked out rows and squares. Then they have
sowed and set out, until all the rows and squares have been filled. And
the children have been with them and have been so happy and eager to be
allowed to help, although it has been hard work for them to stand bent
and stretch their arms out over the broad beds. And of great assistance
have they been, as any one can understand.

Now what they had sown began to come up.

God bless them! they stood there so bravely, both peas and beans with
their two thick cotyledons; and how thick and nice had both carrots and
beets come up! The funniest of all were the little crinkled parsley
leaves, which lifted a little earth above them and played bopeep with
life as yet.

And here was a little bed where the lines did not go so evenly and where
the small squares seemed to be an experiment map of everything which
could be set or sowed. That was the children’s garden.

And Lilliecrona put his violin hastily up to his chin and began to play.
The birds began to sing in the big shrubbery which protected the garden
from the north wind. It was not possible for anything gifted with voice
to be silent, so glorious was the morning. The fiddle-bow moved quite of
itself.

Lilliecrona walked up and down the paths and played. “No,” he thought,
“there is no more beautiful place.” What was Ekeby compared to Löfdala.
His home had a thatched roof and was only one story high. It lay at the
edge of the wood, with the mountain above it and the long valley below
it. There was nothing wonderful about it; there was no lake there, no
waterfall, no park, but it was beautiful just the same. It was beautiful
because it was a good, peaceful home. Life was easy to live there.
Everything which in other places caused bitterness and hate was there
smoothed away with gentleness. So shall it be in a home.

Within, in the house, the mistress lies and sleeps in a room which opens
on the garden. She wakes suddenly and listens, but she does not move. She
lies smiling and listening. Then the musician comes nearer and nearer,
and at last it sounds as if he had stopped under her window. It is indeed
not the first time she has heard the violin under her window. He was
in the habit of coming so, her husband, when they had done something
unusually wild there at Ekeby.

He stands there and confesses and begs for forgiveness. He describes to
her the dark powers which tempt him away from what he loves best,—from
her and the children. But he loves them. Oh, of course he loves them!

While he plays she gets up and puts on her clothes without quite knowing
what she is doing. She is so taken up with his playing.

“It is not luxury and good cheer, which tempt me away,” he plays “not
love for other women, nor glory, but life’s seductive changes: its
sweetness, its bitterness, its riches, I must feel about me. But now I
have had enough of it, now I am tired and satisfied. I shall never again
leave my home. Forgive me; have mercy upon me!”

Then she draws aside the curtain and opens the window, and he sees her
beautiful, kind face.

She is good, and she is wise. Her glances bring blessings like the sun’s
on everything they meet. She directs and tends. Where she is, everything
grows and flourishes. She bears happiness within her.

He swings himself up on to the window-sill to her, and is happy as a
young lover.

Then he lifts her out into the garden and carries her down under the
apple-trees. There he explains for her how beautiful everything is, and
shows her the vegetable beds and the children’s garden and the funny
little parsley leaves.

When the children awake, there is joy and rapture that father has come.
They take possession of him. He must see all that is new and wonderful:
the little nail-manufactory which pounds away in the brook, the
bird’s-nest in the willow, and the little minnows in the pond, which swim
in thousands near the surface of the water.

Then father, mother, and children take a long walk in the fields. He
wants to see how close the rye stands, how the clover is growing, and how
the potatoes are beginning to poke up their crumpled leaves.

He must see the cows when they come in from the pasture, visit the
new-comers in the barn and sheep-house, look for eggs, and give all the
horses sugar.

The children hang at his heels the whole day. No lessons, no work; only
to wander about with their father!

In the evening he plays polkas for them, and all day he has been such a
good comrade and playfellow that they fall asleep with a pious prayer
that father may always stay with them.

He stays eight long days, and is joyous as a boy the whole time. He
could stand it no longer, it was too much happiness for him. Ekeby was a
thousand times worse, but Ekeby lay in the midst of the whirl of events.
Oh, how much there was there to dream of and to play of! How could he
live separated from the pensioners’ deeds, and from Löfven’s long lake,
about which adventure’s wild chase rushed onward?

On his own estate everything went on in its calm, wonted way. Everything
flourished and grew under the gentle mistress’s care. Every one was
happy there. Everything which anywhere else could have caused discord
and bitterness passed over there without complaints or pain. Everything
was as it should be. If now the master of the house longed to live as
pensioner at Ekeby, what then? Does it help to complain of heaven’s sun
because it disappears every evening in the west, and leaves the earth in
darkness?

What is so unconquerable as submission? What is so certain of victory as
patience?

The witch of Dovre walks on Löfven’s shores. People have seen her there,
little and bent, in a leather skirt and a belt of silver plates. Why
has she come out of the wolf-holes to a human world? What does the old
creature of the mountains want in the green of the valley?

She comes begging. She is mean, greedy for gifts, although she is so
rich. In the clefts of the mountain she hides heavy bars of white silver;
and in the rich meadows far away on the heights feed her great flocks of
black cattle with golden horns. Still she wanders about in birch-bark
shoes and greasy leather skirt soiled with the dirt of a hundred years.
She smokes moss in her pipe and begs of the poorest. Shame on one who is
never grateful, never gets enough!

She is old. When did the rosy glory of youth dwell in that broad face
with its brown greasy skin, in the flat nose and the small eyes, which
gleam in the surrounding dirt like coals of fire in gray ashes? When did
she sit as a young girl on the mountain-side and answer with her horn
the shepherd-boy’s love-songs? She has lived several hundred years. The
oldest do not remember the time when she did not wander through the
land. Their fathers had seen her old when they were young. Nor is she yet
dead. I who write, myself have seen her.

She is powerful. She does not bend for any one. She can summon the hail,
she can guide the lightning. She can lead the herds astray and set wolves
on the sheep. Little good can she do, but much evil. It is best to be on
good terms with her! If she should beg for your only goat and a whole
pound of wool, give it to her; if you don’t the horse will fall, or the
cottage will burn, or the cow will sicken, or the child will die.

A welcome guest she never is. But it is best to meet her with smiling
lips! Who knows for whose sake the bearer of disaster is roaming through
the valley? She does not come only to fill her beggar’s-pouch. Evil omens
go with her; the army worm shows itself, foxes and owls howl and hoot in
the twilight, red and black serpents, which spit venom, crawl out of the
wood up to the very threshold.

Charms can she chant, philters can she brew. She knows all herbs.
Everybody trembles with fear when they see her; but the strong daughter
of the wilderness goes calmly on her way among them, protected by their
dread. The exploits of her race are not forgotten, nor are her own. As
the cat trusts in its claws, so does she trust in her wisdom and in the
strength of her divinely inspired prophecies. No king is more sure of his
might than she of the kingdom of fear in which she rules.

The witch of Dovre has wandered through many villages. Now she has come
to Borg, and does not fear to wander up to the castle. She seldom goes
to the kitchen door. Right up the terrace steps she comes. She plants
her broad birch-bark shoes on the flower-bordered gravel-walks as calmly
as if she were tramping up mountain paths.

Countess Märta has just come out on the steps to admire the beauty of
the June day. Below her two maids have stopped on their way to the
store-house. They have come from the smoke-house, where the bacon is
being smoked, and are carrying newly cured hams on a pole between them.
“Will our gracious Countess feel and smell?” say the maids. “Are the hams
smoked enough?”

Countess Märta, mistress at Borg at that time, leans over the railing and
looks at the hams, but in the same instant the old Finn woman lays her
hand on one of them.

The daughter of the mountains is not accustomed to beg and pray! Is it
not by her grace that flowers thrive and people live? Frost and storm and
floods are all in her power to send. Therefore she does not need to pray
and beg. She lays her hand on what she wants, and it is hers.

Countess Märta, however, knows nothing of the old woman’s power.

“Away with you, beggar-woman!” she says.

“Give me the ham,” says the witch.

“She is mad,” cries the countess. And she orders the maids to go to the
store-house with their burden.

The eyes of the old woman flame with rage and greed.

“Give me the brown ham,” she repeats, “or it will go ill with you.”

“I would rather give it to the magpies than to such as you.”

Then the old woman is shaken by a storm of rage. She stretches towards
heaven her runic-staff and waves it wildly. Her lips utter strange words.
Her hair stands on end, her eyes shine, her face is distorted.

“You shall be eaten by magpies yourself,” she screams at last.

Then she goes, mumbling curses, brandishing her stick. She turns towards
home. Farther towards the south does she not go. She has accomplished her
errand, for which she had travelled down from the mountains.

Countess Märta remains standing on the steps and laughs at her
extravagant anger; but on her lips the laugh will soon die away, for
there they come. She cannot believe her eyes. She thinks that she is
dreaming, but there they come, the magpies who are going to eat her.

From the park and the garden they swoop down on her, magpies by scores,
with claws ready to seize and bills stretched out to strike. They come
with wild screams. Black and white wings gleam before her eyes. She sees
as in delirium behind this swarm the magpies of the whole neighborhood
approaching; the whole heaven is full of black and white wings. In the
bright morning sun the metallic colors of the feathers glisten. In
smaller and smaller circles the monsters fly about the countess, aiming
with beaks and claws at her face and hands. She has to escape into the
hall and shut the door. She leans against it, panting with terror, while
the screaming magpies circle about outside.

From that time on she is shut in from the sweetness and green of the
summer and from the joy of life. For her were only closed rooms and
drawn curtains; for her, despair; for her, terror; for her, confusion,
bordering on madness.

Mad this story too may seem, but it must also be true. Hundreds will
recognize it and bear witness that such is the old tale.

The birds settled down on the railing and the roof. They sat as if they
only waited till the countess should show herself, to throw themselves
upon her. They took up their abode in the park and there they remained.
It was impossible to drive them away. It was only worse if they shot
them. For one that fell, ten came flying. Sometimes great flocks flew
away to get food, but faithful sentries always remained behind. And if
Countess Märta showed herself, if she looked out of a window or only
drew aside the curtain for an instant, if she tried to go out on the
steps,—they came directly. The whole terrible swarm whirled up to the
house on thundering wings, and the countess fled into her inner room.

She lived in the bedroom beyond the red drawing-room. I have often heard
the room described, as it was during that time of terror, when Borg was
besieged by magpies. Heavy quilts before the doors and windows, thick
carpets on the floor, softly treading, whispering people.

In the countess’s heart dwelt wild terror. Her hair turned gray. Her face
became wrinkled. She grew old in a month. She could not steel her heart
to doubt of hateful magic. She started up from her dreams with wild cries
that the magpies were eating her. She wept for days over this fate, which
she could not escape. Shunning people, afraid that the swarm of birds
should follow on the heels of any one coming in, she sat mostly silent
with her hands before her face, rocking backwards and forwards in her
chair, low-spirited and depressed in the close air, sometimes starting up
with cries of lamentation.

No one’s life could be more bitter. Can any one help pitying her?

I have not much more to tell of her now, and what I have said has not
been good. It is as if my conscience smote me. She was good-hearted
and cheerful when she was young, and many merry stories about her have
gladdened my heart, although there has been no space to tell them here.

But it is so, although that poor wayfarer did not know it, that the soul
is ever hungry. On frivolity and play it cannot live. If it gets no other
food, it will like a wild beast first tear others to pieces and then
itself.

That is the meaning of the story.

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