The Beggar

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 marketplace.

Broby lies on a steep slope. The beggar had come past the inn, which lies at the foot of the hill, and was struggling up towards the parsonage, which lies at the top.

A little girl went in front of him up the hill; she dragged a sledge laden with a bag of meal. The beggar caught up with the child and began to talk to her.

“A little horse for such a heavy load,” he said.

The child turned and looked at him. She was a little creature about twelve years old, with sharp, suspicious eyes, and lips pressed together.

“Would to God the horse was smaller and the load larger; it might last longer,” answered the girl.

“Is it then your own food you are dragging home?”

“By God’s grace it is; I have to get my own food, although I am so little.”

The beggar seized the sled rope to drag it up.

The girl turned and looked at him.

“You needn’t think that you will get anything for this,” she said.

The beggar laughed.

“You must be the daughter of the Broby clergyman.”

“Yes, yes, I am indeed. Many have poorer fathers, but none have worse. That’s the Lord’s truth, although it’s a shame that his own child should have to say it.”

“I hear he is mean and ill-natured, your father.”

“Mean he is, and ill-natured he is, but they say his daughter will be worse if she lives so long; that’s what people say.”

“I fancy people are right. What I would like to know is, where you found this meal-bag.”

“It makes no difference if I tell you. I took the grain out of father’s storehouse this morning, and now I have been to the mill.”

“May he not see you when you come dragging it behind you?”

“You have left school too early. Father is away on his parish visits, can’t you see?”

“Somebody is driving up the hill behind us; I hear the creaking of the runners. Think if it were he who is coming!”

The girl listened and peered down, then she burst into tears.

“It is father,” she sobbed. “He will kill me! He will kill me!”

“Yes, good advice is now precious, and prompt advice better than silver and gold,” said the beggar.

“Look here,” said the child, “you can help me. Take the rope and drag the sledge; then father will believe it is yours.”

“What shall I do with it afterwards?” asked the beggar, and put the rope round his shoulders.

“Take it where you like for the moment, but come up to the parsonage with it when it is dark. I shall be looking out for you. You are to come with the bag and the sledge, you understand.”

“I shall try.”

“God help you if you don’t come!” called the girl, while she ran, hurrying to get home before her father.

The beggar turned the sledge with a heavy heart and dragged it down to the inn.

The poor fellow had had his dream, as he went in the snow with half-naked feet. He had thought of the great woods north of lake Löfven, of the great Finn forests.

Here in the parish of Bro, where he was now wandering along the sound which connects the upper and lower Löfven⁠—in this rich and smiling country, where one estate joins another, factory lies near factory⁠—here all the roads seemed to him too heavy, the rooms too small, the beds too hard. Here he longed for the peace of the great, eternal forests.

Here he heard the blows echoing in all the barns as they threshed out the grain. Loads of timber and charcoal-vans kept coming down from the inexhaustible forests. Endless loads of metal followed the deep ruts which the hundreds gone before had cut. Here he saw sleighs filled with travellers speed from house to house, and it seemed to him as if pleasure held the reins, and beauty and love stood on the runners. Oh, how he longed for the peace of the forest.

There the trees rise straight and pillarlike from the even ground, there the snow rests in heavy layers on the motionless pines, there the wind is powerless and only plays softly in the topmost leaves, there he would wander deeper and still farther in, until at last his strength would fail him, and he would drop under the great trees, dying of hunger and cold.

He longed for the great murmuring grave above the Löfven, where he would be overcome by the powers of annihilation, where at last hunger, cold, fatigue, and brandy should succeed in destroying his poor body, which had endured everything.

He came down to the inn to await the evening. He went into the barroom and threw himself down on a bench by the door, dreaming of the eternal forests.

The innkeeper’s wife felt sorry for him and gave him a glass of brandy. She even gave him another, he implored her so eagerly.

But more she would not give him, and the beggar was in despair. He must have more of the strong, sweet brandy. He must once again feel his heart dance in his body and his thoughts flame up in intoxication. Oh, that sweet spirit of the corn!

The summer sun, the song of the birds, perfume and beauty floated in its white wave. Once more, before he disappears into the night and the darkness, let him drink sunshine and happiness.

So he bartered first the meal, then the meal-sack, and last the sledge, for brandy. On it he got thoroughly drunk, and slept the greater part of the afternoon on a bench in the barroom.

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 barroom 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 snowdrifts.”

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 someone came driving along the road.

“Who the devil is screaming so?” asked a harsh voice.

“I want to know what this fellow has done with my meal-bag and my sledge,” sobbed the child, and beat with clenched fists on the beggar’s breast.

“Are you clawing a frozen man? Away with you, wildcat!”

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, wildcat,” 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 ironworks, accustomed to command and to be obeyed; and he was only a poor, condemned man, stripped of everything, knowing that every road was too heavy for him, every room too crowded. His body shook with terror, while her glance rested on him.

She stood silent and looked at the human wretchedness before her, the red, swollen hands, the emaciated form, and the splendid head, which even in its ruin and neglect shone in wild beauty.

“You are Gösta Berling, the mad priest?” she said, peering at him.

The beggar sat motionless.

“I am the mistress of Ekeby.”

A shudder passed over the beggar’s body. He clasped his hands and raised his eyes with a longing glance. What would she do with him? Would she force him to live? He shook before her strength. And yet he had so nearly reached the peace of the eternal forests.

She began the struggle by telling him the minister’s daughter had got her sledge and her meal-sack again, and that she, the major’s wife, had a shelter for him as for so many other homeless wretches in the bachelor’s wing at Ekeby.

She offered him a life of idleness and pleasure, but he answered he must die.

Then she struck the table with her clenched fist and let him hear what she thought of him.

“So you want to die, that’s what you want. That would not surprise me, if you were alive. Look, such a wasted body and such powerless limbs and such dull eyes, and you think that there is something left of you to die. Do you think that you have to lie stiff and stark with a coffin-lid nailed down over you to be dead? Don’t you believe that I stand here and see how dead you are, Gösta Berling?

“I see that you have a skull for a head, and it seems to me as if the worms were creeping out of the sockets of your eyes. Do you not feel that your mouth is full of dust? Do you not hear how your bones rattle when you move?

“You have drowned yourself in brandy, Gösta Berling, and you are dead.

“That which now moves in you is only death spasms, and you will not allow them to live, if you call that life. It is just as if you grudged the dead a dance over the graves in the starlight.

“Are you ashamed that you were dismissed, since you wish to die now? It would have been more to your honor had you made use of your gifts and been of some use on God’s green earth, I tell you. Why did you not come directly to me? I should have arranged everything for you. Yes, now you expect much glory from being wrapped in a winding-sheet and laid on sawdust 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 marketplace. 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 ironworks. Margareta Celsing saw him; he was a handsome man, and she loved him.

“But he was poor, and they agreed to wait for one another five years, as it is in the legend. When three years had passed another suitor came. He was ugly and bad, but her parents believed that he was rich, and they forced Margareta Celsing, by fair means and foul, by blows and hard words, to take him for her husband. And that day, you see, Margareta Celsing died.

“After that there was no Margareta Celsing, only Major Samzelius’s wife, and she was not good nor modest; she believed in much evil and never thought of the good.

“You know well enough what happened afterwards. We lived at Sjö by the Lake Löfven, the major and I. But he was not rich, as people had said. I often had hard days.

“Then Altringer came again, and now he was rich. He became master of Ekeby, which lies next to Sjö; he made himself master of six other estates by Lake Löfven. He was able, thrifty; he was a man of mark.

“He helped us in our poverty; we drove in his carriages; he sent food to our kitchen, wine to our cellar. He filled my life with feasting and pleasure. The major went off to the wars, but what did we care for that? One day I was a guest at Ekeby, the next he came to Sjö. Oh, it was like a long dance of delight on Löfven’s shores.

“But there was evil talk of Altringer and me. If Margareta Celsing had been living, it would have given her much pain, but it made no difference to me. But as yet I did not understand that it was because I was dead that I had no feeling.

“At last the tales of us reached my father and mother, as they went among the charcoal kilns up in Älfdal’s forest. My mother did not stop to think; she travelled hither to talk to me.

“One day, when the major was away and I sat dining with Altringer and several others, she arrived. I saw her come into the room, but I could not feel that she was my mother, Gösta Berling. I greeted her as a stranger, and invited her to sit down at my table and take part in the meal.

“She wished to talk with me, as if I had been her daughter, but I said to her that she was mistaken, that my parents were dead, they had both died on my wedding day.

“Then she agreed to the comedy. She was sixty years old; a hundred and twenty miles had she driven in three days. Now she sat without ceremony at the dinner-table and ate her food; she was a strong and capable woman.

“She said that it was very sad that I had had such a loss just on that day.

“ ‘The saddest thing was,’ I said, ‘that my parents did not die a day sooner; then the wedding would never have taken place.’

“ ‘Is not the gracious lady pleased with her marriage?’ she then asked.

“ ‘Oh, yes,’ said I, ‘I am pleased. I shall always be pleased to obey my dear parents’ wish!’

“She asked if it had been my parents’ wish that I should heap shame upon myself and them and deceive my husband. I did my parents little honor by making myself a byword in every man’s mouth.

“ ‘They must lie as they have made their bed,’ I answered her. And moreover I wished her to understand, that I did not intend to allow anyone to calumniate my parents’ daughter.

“We ate, we two. The men about us sat silent and could not lift knife nor fork.

“She stayed a day to rest, then she went. But all the time I saw her, I could not understand that she was my mother. I only knew that my mother was dead.

“When she was ready to leave, Gösta Berling, and I stood beside her on the steps, and the carriage was before the door, she said to me:⁠—

“ ‘Twenty-four hours have I been here, without your greeting me as your mother. By lonely roads I came here, a hundred and twenty miles in three days. And for shame for you my body is trembling, as if it had been beaten with rods. May you be disowned, as I have been disowned, repudiated as I have been repudiated! May the highway be your home, the haystack your bed, the charcoal-kiln your stove! May shame and dishonor be your reward; may others strike you, as I strike you!’

“And she gave me a heavy blow on the cheek.

“But I lifted her up, carried her down the steps, and put her in her carriage.

“ ‘Who are you, that you curse me?’ I asked; ‘who are you that you strike me? That I will suffer from no one.’

“And I gave her the blow again.

“The carriage drove away, but then, at that moment, Gösta Berling, I knew that Margareta Celsing was dead.

“She was good and innocent; she knew no evil. Angels had wept at her grave. If she had lived, she would not have struck her mother.”

The beggar by the door had listened, and the words for a moment had drowned the sound of the eternal forests’ alluring murmur. For see, this great lady, she made herself his equal in sin, his sister in perdition, to give him courage to live. For he should learn that sorrow and wrongdoing 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 snowdrift by the roadside. It serves me right. Let him go and kill himself; then at least he won’t be able to tell of my folly.”

“I am no suicide, I am condemned to die. Do not make the struggle too hard for me! I may not live. My body has taken possession of my soul, therefore I must let it escape and go to God.”

“And so you believe you will get there?”

“Farewell, and thank you!”

“Farewell, Gösta Berling.”

The beggar rose and walked with hanging head and dragging step to the door. This woman made the way up to the great forests heavy for him.

When he came to the door, he had to look back. Then he met her glance, as she sat still and looked after him. He had never seen such a change in any face, and he stood and stared at her. She, who had just been angry and threatening, sat transfigured, and her eyes shone with a pitying, compassionate love.

There was something in him, in his own wild heart, which burst before that glance; he leaned his forehead against the doorpost, 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.