The Young Countess

The young countess sleeps till ten o’clock in the morning, and wants fresh bread on the breakfast-table every day. The young countess embroiders, and reads poetry. She knows nothing of weaving and cooking. The young countess is spoiled.

But the young countess is gay, and lets her joyousness shine on all and everything. One is so glad to forgive her the long morning sleep and the fresh bread, for she squanders kindness on the poor and is friendly to everyone.

The young countess’s father is a Swedish nobleman, who has lived in Italy all his life, retained there by the loveliness of the land and by one of that lovely land’s beautiful daughters. When Count Henrik Dohna travelled in Italy he had been received in this nobleman’s house, made the acquaintance of his daughters, married one of them, and brought her with him to Sweden.

She, who had always spoken Swedish and had been brought up to love everything Swedish, is happy in the land of the bear. She whirls so merrily in the long dance of pleasure, on Löfven’s shores, that one could well believe she had always lived there. Little she understands what it means to be a countess. There is no state, no stiffness, no condescending dignity in that young, joyous creature.

It was the old men who liked the young countess best. It was wonderful, what a success she had with old men. When they had seen her at a ball, one could be sure that all of them, the judge at Munkerud and the clergyman at Bro and Melchior Sinclair and the captain at Berga, would tell their wives in the greatest confidence that if they had met the young countess thirty or forty years ago⁠—

“Yes, then she was not born,” say the old ladies.

And the next time they meet, they joke with the young countess, because she wins the old men’s hearts from them.

The old ladies look at her with a certain anxiety. They remember so well Countess Märta. She had been just as joyous and good and beloved when she first came to Borg. And she had become a vain and pleasure-seeking coquette, who never could think of anything but her amusements. “If she only had a husband who could keep her at work!” say the old ladies. “If she only could learn to weave!” For weaving was a consolation for everything; it swallowed up all other interests, and had been the saving of many a woman.

The young countess wants to be a good housekeeper. She knows nothing better than as a happy wife to live in a comfortable home, and she often comes at balls, and sits down beside the old people.

“Henrik wants me to learn to be a capable housekeeper,” she says, “just as his mother is. Teach me how to weave!”

Then the old people heave a sigh: first, over Count Henrik, who can think that his mother was a good housekeeper; and then over the difficulty of initiating this young, ignorant creature in such a complicated thing. It was enough to speak to her of heddles, and harnesses, and warps, and woofs,2 to make her head spin.

No one who sees the young countess can help wondering why she married stupid Count Henrik. It is a pity for him who is stupid, wherever he may be. And it is the greatest pity for him who is stupid and lives in Värmland.

There are already many stories of Count Henrik’s stupidity, and he is only a little over twenty years old. They tell how he entertained Anna Stjärnhök on a sleighing party a few years ago.

“You are very pretty, Anna,” he said.

“How you talk, Henrik!”

“You are the prettiest girl in the whole of Värmland.”

“That I certainly am not.”

“The prettiest in this sleighing party at any rate.”

“Alas, Henrik, I am not that either.”

“Well, you are the prettiest in this sledge, that you can’t deny.”

No, that she could not.

For Count Henrik is no beauty. He is as ugly as he is stupid. They say of him that that head on the top of his thin neck has descended in the family for a couple of hundred years. That is why the brain is so worn out in the last heir.

“It is perfectly plain that he has no head of his own,” they say. “He has borrowed his father’s. He does not dare to bend it; he is afraid of losing it⁠—he is already yellow and wrinkled. The head has been in use with both his father and grandfather. Why should the hair otherwise be so thin and the lips so bloodless and the chin so pointed?”

He always has scoffers about him, who encourage him to say stupid things, which they save up, circulate, and add to.

It is lucky for him that he does not notice it. He is solemn and dignified in everything he does. He moves formally, he holds himself straight, he never turns his head without turning his whole body.

He had been at Munkerud on a visit to the judge a few years ago. He had come riding with high hat, yellow breeches, and polished boots, and had sat stiff and proud in the saddle. When he arrived everything went well, but when he was to ride away again it so happened that one of the low-hanging branches of a birch-tree knocked off his hat. He got off, put on his hat, and rode again under the same branch. His hat was again knocked off; this was repeated four times.

The judge at last went out to him and said: “If you should ride on one side of the branch the next time?”

The fifth time he got safely by.

But still the young countess cared for him in spite of his old-man’s head. She of course did not know that he was crowned with such a halo of stupidity in his own country, when she saw him in Rome. There, there had been something of the glory of youth about him, and they had come together under such romantic circumstances. You ought to hear the countess tell how Count Henrik had to carry her off. The priests and the cardinals had been wild with rage that she wished to give up her mother’s religion and become a Protestant. The whole people had been in uproar. Her father’s palace was besieged. Henrik was pursued by bandits. Her mother and sisters implored her to give up the marriage. But her father was furious that that Italian rabble should prevent him from giving his daughter to whomsoever he might wish. He commanded Count Henrik to carry her off. And so, as it was impossible for them to be married at home without its being discovered, Henrik and she stole out by side streets and all sorts of dark alleys to the Swedish consulate. And when she had abjured the Catholic faith and become a Protestant, they were immediately married and sent north in a swift travelling-carriage. “There was no time for banns, you see. It was quite impossible,” the young countess used to say. “And of course it was gloomy to be married at a consulate, and not in one of the beautiful churches, but if we had not Henrik would have had to do without me. Everyone is so impetuous down there, both papa and mamma and the cardinals and the priests, all are so impetuous. That was why everything had to be done so secretly, and if the people had seen us steal out of the house, they would certainly have killed us both⁠—only to save my soul; Henrik was of course already lost.”

The young countess loves her husband, ever since they have come home to Borg and live a quieter life. She loves in him the glory of the old name and the famous ancestors. She likes to see how her presence softens the stiffness of his manner, and to hear how his voice grows tender when he speaks to her. And besides, he cares for her and spoils her, and she is married to him. The young countess cannot imagine that a married woman should not care for her husband.

In a certain way he corresponds to her ideal of manliness. He is honest and loves the truth. He had never broken his word. She considers him a true nobleman.

On the 18th of March Bailiff Scharling celebrates his birthday, and many then drive up Broby Hill. People from the east and the west, known and unknown, invited and uninvited, come to the bailiff’s on that day. All are welcome, all find plenty of food and drink, and in the ballroom there is room for dancers from seven parishes.

The young countess is coming too, as she always does where there is to be dancing and merrymaking.

But she is not happy as she comes. It is as if she has a presentiment that it is now her turn to be dragged-in in adventure’s wild chase.

On the way she sat and watched the sinking sun. It set in a cloudless sky and left no gold edges on the light clouds. A pale, gray, twilight, swept by cold squalls, settled down over the country.

The young countess saw how day and night struggled, and how fear seized all living things at the mighty contest. The horses quickened their pace with the last load to come under shelter. The woodcutters hurried home from the woods, the maids from the farmyard. Wild creatures howled at the edge of the wood. The day, beloved of man, was conquered.

The light grew dim, the colors faded. She only saw chillness and ugliness. What she had hoped, what she had loved, what she had done, seemed to her to be also wrapped in the twilight’s gray light. It was the hour of weariness, of depression, of impotence for her as for all nature.

She thought that her own heart, which now in its playful gladness clothed existence with purple and gold, she thought that this heart perhaps sometime would lose its power to light up her world.

“Oh, impotence, my own heart’s impotence!” she said to herself. “Goddess of the stifling, gray twilight. You will one day be mistress of my soul. Then I shall see life ugly and gray, as it perhaps is, then my hair will grow white, my back be bent, my brain be paralyzed.”

At the same moment the sledge turned in at the bailiff’s gate, and as the young countess looked up, her eyes fell on a grated window in the wing, and on a fierce, staring face behind.

That face belonged to the major’s wife at Ekeby, and the young woman knew that her pleasure for the evening was now spoiled.

One can be glad when one does not see sorrow, only hears it spoken of. But it is harder to keep a joyous heart when one stands face to face with black, fierce, staring trouble.

The countess knows of course that Bailiff Scharling had put the major’s wife in prison, and that she shall be tried for the assault she made on Ekeby the night of the great ball. But she never thought that she should be kept in custody there at the bailiff’s house, so near the ballroom that one could look into her room, so near that she must hear the dance music and the noise of merrymaking. And the thought takes away all her pleasure.

The young countess dances both waltz and quadrille. She takes part in both minuet and contradance; but after each dance she steals to the window in the wing. There is a light there and she can see how the major’s wife walks up and down in her room. She never seems to rest, but walks and walks.

The countess takes no pleasure in the dance. She only thinks of the major’s wife going backwards and forwards in her prison like a caged wild beast. She wonders how all the others can dance. She is sure there are many there who are as much moved as she to know that the major’s wife is so near, and still there is no one who shows it.

But every time she has looked out her feet grow heavier in the dance, and the laugh sticks in her throat.

The bailiff’s wife notices her as she wipes the moisture from the windowpane to see out, and comes to her.

“Such misery! Oh, it is such suffering!” she whispers to the countess.

“I think it is almost impossible to dance tonight,” whispers the countess back again.

“It is not with my consent that we dance here, while she is sitting shut up there,” answers Madame Scharling. “She has been in Karlstad since she was arrested. But there is soon to be a trial now, and that is why she was brought here today. We could not put her in that miserable cell in the courthouse, so she was allowed to stay in the weaving-room in the wing. She should have had my drawing-room, countess, if all these people had not come today. You hardly know her, but she has been like a mother and queen to us all. What will she think of us, who are dancing here, while she is in such great trouble. It is as well that most of them do not know that she is sitting there.”

“She ought never to have been arrested,” says the young countess, sternly.

“No, that is a true word, countess, but there was nothing else to do, if there should not be a worse misfortune. No one blamed her for setting fire to her own haystack and driving out the pensioners, but the major was scouring the country for her. God knows what he would have done if she had not been put in prison. Scharling has given much offence because he arrested the major’s wife, countess. Even in Karlstad they were much displeased with him, because he did not shut his eyes to everything which happened at Ekeby; but he did what he thought was best.”

“But now I suppose she will be sentenced?” says the countess.

“Oh, no, countess, she will not be sentenced. She will be acquitted, but all that she has to bear these days is being too much for her. She is going mad. You can understand, such a proud woman, how can she bear to be treated like a criminal! I think that it would have been best if she had been allowed to go free. She might have been able to escape by herself.”

“Let her go,” says the countess.

“Anyone can do that but the bailiff and his wife,” whispers Madame Scharling. “We have to guard her. Especially tonight, when so many of her friends are here, two men sit on guard outside her door, and it is locked and barred so that no one can come in. But if anyone got her out, countess, we should be so glad, both Scharling and I.”

“Can I not go to her?” says the young countess. Madame Scharling seizes her eagerly by the wrist and leads her out with her. In the hall they throw a couple of shawls about them, and hurry across the yard.

“It is not certain that she will even speak to us,” says the bailiff’s wife. “But she will see that we have not forgotten her.”

They come into the first room in the wing, where the two men sit and guard the barred door, and go in without being stopped to the major’s wife. She was in a large room crowded with looms and other implements. It was used mostly for a weaving-room, but it had bars in the window and a strong lock on the door, so that it could be used, in case of need, for a cell.

The major’s wife continues to walk without paying any attention to them.

She is on a long wandering these days. She cannot remember anything except that she is going the hundred and twenty miles to her mother, who is up in the Älfdal woods, and is waiting for her. She never has time to rest She must go. A never-resting haste is on her. Her mother is over ninety years old. She would soon be dead.

She has measured off the floor by yards, and she is now adding up the yards to furlongs and the furlongs to half-miles and miles.

Her way seems heavy and long, but she dares not rest. She wades through deep drifts. She hears the forests murmur over her as she goes. She rests in Finn huts and in the charcoal-burner’s log cabin. Sometimes, when there is nobody for many miles, she has to break branches for a bed and rest under the roots of a fallen pine.

And at last she has reached her journey’s end, the hundred and twenty miles are over, the wood opens out, and the red house stands in a snow-covered yard. The Klar River rushes foaming by in a succession of little waterfalls, and by that well-known sound she hears that she is at home. And her mother, who must have seen her coming begging, just as she had wished, comes to meet her.

When the major’s wife has got so far she always looks up, glances about her, sees the closed door, and knows where she is.

Then she wonders if she is going mad, and sits down to think and to rest. But after a time she sets out again, calculates the yards and the furlongs, the half-miles and the miles, rests for a short time in Finn huts, and sleeps neither night nor day until she has again accomplished the hundred and twenty miles.

During all the time she has been in prison she has almost never slept.

And the two women who had come to see her looked at her with anguish.

The young countess will ever afterwards remember her, as she walked there. She sees her often in her dreams, and wakes with eyes full of tears and a moan on her lips.

The old woman is so pitifully changed, her hair is so thin, and loose ends stick out from the narrow braid. Her face is relaxed and sunken, her dress is disordered and ragged. But with it all she has so much still of her lofty bearing that she inspires not only sympathy, but also respect.

But what the countess remembered most distinctly were her eyes, sunken, turned inward, not yet deprived of all the light of reason, but almost ready to be extinguished, and with a spark of wildness lurking in their depths, so that one had to shudder and fear to have the old woman in the next moment upon one, with teeth ready to bite, fingers to tear.

They have been there quite a while when the major’s wife suddenly stops before the young woman and looks at her with a stern glance. The countess takes a step backwards and seizes Madame Scharling’s arm.

The features of the major’s wife have life and expression, her eyes look out into the world with full intelligence.

“Oh, no; oh, no,” she says and smiles; “as yet it is not so bad, my dear young lady.”

She asks them to sit down, and sits down herself. She has an air of old-time stateliness, known since days of feasting at Ekeby and at the royal balls at the governor’s house at Karlstad. They forget the rags and the prison and only see the proudest and richest woman in Värmland.

“My dear countess,” she says, “what possessed you to leave the dance to visit a lonely old woman? You must be very good.”

Countess Elizabeth cannot answer. Her voice is choking with emotion. Madame Scharling answers for her, that she had not been able to dance for thinking of the major’s wife.

“Dear Madame Scharling,” answers the major’s wife, “has it gone so far with me that I disturb the young people in their pleasure? You must not weep for me, my dear young countess,” she continued. “I am a wicked old woman, who deserves all I get. You do not think it right to strike one’s mother?”

“No, but⁠—”

The major’s wife interrupts her and strokes the curly, light hair back from her forehead.

“Child, child,” she says, “how could you marry that stupid Henrik Dohna?”

“But I love him.”

“I see how it is, I see how it is,” says the major’s wife. “A kind child and nothing more; weeps with those in sorrow, and laughs with those who are glad. And obliged to say ‘yes’ to the first man who says, ‘I love you.’ Yes, of course. Go back now and dance, my dear young countess. Dance and be happy! There is nothing bad in you.”

“But I want to do something for you.”

“Child,” says the major’s wife, solemnly, “an old woman lived at Ekeby who held the winds of heaven prisoners. Now she is caught and the winds are free. Is it strange that a storm goes over the land?

“I, who am old, have seen it before, countess. I know it. I know that the storm of the thundering God is coming. Sometimes it rushes over great kingdoms, sometimes over small out-of-the-way communities. God’s storm forgets no one. It comes over the great as well as the small. It is grand to see God’s storm coming.

“Anguish shall spread itself over the land. The small birds’ nests shall fall from the branches. The hawk’s nest in the pine-tree’s top shall be shaken down to the earth with a great noise, and even the eagle’s nest in the mountain cleft shall the wind drag out with its dragon tongue.

“We thought that all was well with us; but it was not so. God’s storm is needed. I understand that, and I do not complain. I only wish that I might go to my mother.”

She suddenly sinks back.

“Go now, young woman,” she says. “I have no more time. I must go. Go now, and look out for them who ride on the storm-cloud!”

Thereupon she renews her wandering. Her features relax, her glance turns inward. The countess and Madame Scharling have to leave her.

As soon as they are back again among the dancers the young countess goes straight to Gösta Berling.

“I can greet you from the major’s wife,” she says. “She is waiting for you to get her out of prison.”

“Then she must go on waiting, countess.”

“Oh, help her, Herr Berling!”

Gösta stares gloomily before him. “No,” he says, “why should I help her? What thanks do I owe her? Everything she has done for me has been to my ruin.”

“But Herr Berling⁠—”

“If she had not existed,” he says angrily, “I would now be sleeping up there in the forest. Is it my duty to risk my life for her, because she has made me a pensioner at Ekeby? Do you think much credit goes with that profession?”

The young countess turns away from him without answering. She is angry.

She goes back to her place thinking bitter thoughts of the pensioners. They have come tonight with horns and fiddles, and mean to let the bows scrape the strings until the horsehair is worn through, without thinking that the merry tunes ring in the prisoner’s miserable room. They come here to dance until their shoes fall to pieces, and do not remember that their old benefactress can see their shadows whirling by the misty windowpanes. Alas, how gray and ugly the world was! Alas, what a shadow trouble and hardness had cast over the young countess’s soul!

After a while Gösta comes to ask her to dance.

She refuses shortly.

“Will you not dance with me, countess?” he asks, and grows very red.

“Neither with you nor with any other of the Ekeby pensioners,” she says.

“We are not worthy of such an honor.”

“It is no honor, Herr Berling. But it gives me no pleasure to dance with those who forget the precepts of gratitude.”

Gösta has already turned on his heel.

This scene is heard and seen by many. All think the countess is right. The pensioners’ ingratitude and heartlessness had waked general indignation.

But in these days Gösta Berling is more dangerous than a wild beast in the forest. Ever since he came home from the hunt and found Marianne gone, his heart has been like an aching wound. He longs to do someone a bloody wrong and to spread sorrow and pain far around.

If she wishes it so, he says to himself, it shall be as she wishes. But she shall not save her own skin. The young countess likes abductions. She shall get her fill. He has nothing against adventure. For eight days he has mourned for a woman’s sake. It is long enough. He calls Beerencreutz the colonel, and Christian Bergh the great captain, and the slow Cousin Christopher, who never hesitates at any mad adventure, and consults with them how he shall avenge the pensioners’ injured honor.

It is the end of the party. A long line of sledges drive up into the yard. The men are putting on their fur cloaks. The ladies look for their wraps in the dreadful confusion of the dressing-room.

The young countess has been in great haste to leave this hateful ball. She is ready first of all the ladies. She stands smiling in the middle of the room and looks at the confusion, when the door is thrown open, and Gösta Berling shows himself on the threshold.

No man has a right to enter this room. The old ladies stand there with their thin hair no longer adorned with becoming caps; and the young ones have turned up their skirts under their cloaks, that the stiff ruffles may not be crushed on the way home.

But without paying any attention to the warning cries, Gösta Berling rushes up to the countess and seizes her.

He lifts her in his arms and rushes from the room out into the hall and then on to the steps with her.

The astonished women’s screams could not check him. When they hurry after, they only see how he throws himself into a sledge with the countess in his arms.

They hear the driver crack his whip and see the horse set off. They know the driver: it is Beerencreutz. They know the horse: it is Don Juan. And in deep distress over the countess’s fate they call their husbands.

And these waste no time in questions, but hasten to their sledges. And with the count at their head they chase after the ravisher.

But he lies in the sledge, holding the young countess fast. He has forgotten all grief, and mad with adventure’s intoxicating joy, he sings at the top of his voice a song of love and roses.

Close to him he presses her; but she makes no attempt to escape. Her face lies, white and stiffened, against his breast.

Ah, what shall a man do when he has a pale, helpless face so near his own, when he sees the fair hair which usually shades the white, gleaming forehead, pushed to one side, and when the eyelids have closed heavily over the gray eyes’ roguish glance?

What shall a man do when red lips grow pale beneath his eyes?

Kiss, of course, kiss the fading lips, the closed eyes, the white forehead.

But then the young woman awakes. She throws herself back. She is like a bent spring. And he has to struggle with her with his whole strength to keep her from throwing herself from the sledge, until finally he forces her, subdued and trembling, down in the corner of the sledge.

“See,” says Gösta quite calmly to Beerencreutz, “the countess is the third whom Don Juan and I have carried off this winter. But the others hung about my neck with kisses, and she will neither be kissed by me nor dance with me. Can you understand these women, Beerencreutz?”

But when Gösta drove away from the house, when the women screamed and the men swore, when the sleigh-bells rang and the whips cracked, and there was nothing but cries and confusion, the men who guarded the major’s wife were wondering.

“What is going on?” they thought. “Why are they screaming?”

Suddenly the door is thrown open, and a voice calls to them.

“She is gone. He is driving away with her.”

They rush out, running like mad, without waiting to see if it was the major’s wife or who it was who was gone. Luck was with them, and they came up with a hurrying sledge, and they drove both far and fast, before they discovered whom they were pursuing.

But Berg and Cousin Christopher went quietly to the door, burst the lock, and opened it for the major’s wife.

“You are free,” they said.

She came out. They stood straight as ramrods on either side of the door and did not look at her.

“You have a horse and sledge outside.”

She went out, placed herself in the sledge, and drove away. No one followed her. No one knew whither she went.

Down Broby hill Don Juan speeds towards the Löfven’s ice-covered surface. The proud courser flies on. Strong, ice-cold breezes whistle by their cheeks. The bells jingle. The stars and the moon are shining. The snow lies blue-white and glitters from its own brightness.

Gösta feels poetical thoughts wake in him.

“Beerencreutz,” he says, “this is life. Just as Don Juan hurries away with this young woman, so time hurries away with man. You are necessity, who steers the journey. I am desire, who fetters the will, and she is dragged helpless, always deeper and deeper down.”

“Don’t talk!” cries Beerencreutz. “They are coming after us.”

And with a whistling cut of the whip he urges Don Juan to still wilder speed.

“Once it was wolves, now it is spoils,” cries Gösta. “Don Juan, my boy, fancy that you are a young elk. Rush through the brushwood, wade through the swamps, leap from the mountain top down into the clear lake, swim across it with bravely lifted head, and vanish, vanish in the thick pine-woods’ rescuing darkness! Spring, Don Juan! Spring like a young elk!”

Joy fills his wild heart at the mad race. The cries of the pursuers are to him a song of victory. Joy fills his wild heart when he feels the countess’s body shake with fright, when he hears her teeth chatter.

Suddenly he loosens the grip of iron with which he has held her. He stands up in the sledge and waves his cap.

“I am Gösta Berling,” he cries, “lord of ten thousand kisses and thirteen thousand love-letters! Hurra for Gösta Berling! Take him who can!”

And in the next minute he whispers in the countess’s ear:⁠—

“Is not the pace good? Is not the course kingly? Beyond Löfven lies Lake Väner. Beyond Väner lies the sea, everywhere endless stretches of clear blue-black ice, and beyond all a glowing world. Rolling thunders in the freezing ice, shrill cries behind us, shooting stars above us, and jingling bells before us! Forward! Always forward! Have you a mind to try the journey, young, beautiful lady?”

He had let her go. She pushes him roughly away. The next instant finds him on his knees at her feet.

“I am a wretch, a wretch. You ought not to have angered me, countess. You stood there so proud and fair, and never thought that a pensioner’s hand could reach you. Heaven and earth love you. You ought not to add to the burden of those whom heaven and earth scorn.”

He draws her hands to him and lifts them to his face.

“If you only knew,” he says, “what it means to be an outcast. One does not stop to think what one does. No, one does not.”

At the same moment he notices that she has nothing on her hands. He draws a pair of great fur gloves from his pocket and puts them on her.

And he has become all at once quite quiet. He places himself in the sledge, as far from the young countess as possible.

“You need not be afraid,” he says. “Do you not see where we are driving? You must understand that we do not dare to do you any harm.”

She, who has been almost out of her mind with fright, sees that they have driven across the lake and that Don Juan is struggling up the steep hill to Borg.

They stop the horse before the steps of the castle, and let the young countess get out of the sledge at the door of her own home.

When she is surrounded by attentive servants, she regains her courage and presence of mind.

“Take care of the horse, Andersson!” she says to the coachman. “These gentlemen who have driven me home will be kind enough to come in for a while. The count will soon be here.”

“As you wish, countess,” says Gösta, and instantly gets out of the sledge. Beerencreutz throws the reins to the groom without a moment’s hesitation. And the young countess goes before them and ushers them into the hall with ill-concealed malicious joy.

The countess had expected that the pensioners would hesitate at the proposition to await her husband.

They did not know perhaps what a stern and upright man he was. They were not afraid of the inquiry he should make of them, who had seized her by force and compelled her to drive with them. She longed to hear him forbid them ever again to set their foot in her house.

She wished to see him call in the servants to point out the pensioners to them as men who thereafter never should be admitted within the doors of Borg. She wished to hear him express his scorn not only of what they had done to her, but also of their conduct toward the old major’s wife, their benefactress.

He, who showed her only tenderness and consideration, would rise in just wrath against her persecutors. Love would give fire to his speech. He, who guarded and looked after her as a creature of finer stuff than any other, would not bear that rough men had fallen upon her like birds of prey upon a sparrow. She glowed with thirst of revenge.

Beerencreutz, however, walked undaunted into the dining-room, and up to the fire, which was always lighted when the countess came home from a ball.

Gösta remained in the darkness by the door and silently watched the countess, while the servant removed her outer wraps. As he sat and looked at the young woman, he rejoiced as he had not done for many years. He saw so clearly it was like a revelation, although he did not understand how he had discovered it, that she had in her one of the most beautiful of souls.

As yet it lay bound and sleeping; but it would some day show itself. He rejoiced at having discovered all the purity and gentleness and innocence which was hidden in her. He was almost ready to laugh at her, because she looked so angry and stood with flushed cheeks and frowning brows.

“You do not know how gentle and good you are,” he thought.

The side of her being which was turned towards the outside world would never do her inner personality justice, he thought. But Gösta Berling from that hour must be her servant, as one must serve everything beautiful and godlike. Yes, there was nothing to be sorry for that he had just been so violent with her. If she had not been so afraid, if she had not thrust him from her so angrily, if he had not felt how her whole being was shaken by his roughness, he would never have known what a fine and noble soul dwelt within her.

He had not thought it before. She had only cared for pleasure-seeking and amusement. And she had married that stupid Count Henrik.

Yes, now he would be her slave till death; dog and slave as Captain Bergh used to say, and nothing more.

He sat by the door, Gösta Berling, and held with clasped hands a sort of service. Since the day when he for the first time felt the flame of inspiration burn in him, he had not known such a holiness in his soul. He did not move, even when Count Dohna came in with a crowd of people, who swore and lamented over the pensioners’ mad performance.

He let Beerencreutz receive the storm. With indolent calm, tried by many adventures, the latter stood by the fireplace. He had put one foot up on the fender, rested his elbow on his knee, and his chin on his hand, and looked at the excited company.

“What is the meaning of all this?” roared the little count at him.

“The meaning is,” he said, “that as long as there are women on earth, there will be fools to dance after their piping.”

The young count’s face grew red.

“I ask what that means!” he repeated.

“I ask that too,” sneered Beerencreutz. “I ask what it means when Henrik Dohna’s countess will not dance with Gösta Berling.”

The count turned questioning to his wife.

“I could not, Henrik,” she cried. “I could not dance with him or any of them. I thought of the major’s wife, whom they allowed to languish in prison.”

The little count straightened his stiff body and stretched up his old-man’s head.

“We pensioners,” said Beerencreutz, “permit no one to insult us. She who will not dance with us must drive with us. No harm has come to the countess, and there can be an end of the matter.”

“No,” said the count. “It cannot be the end. It is I who am responsible for my wife’s acts. Now I ask why Gösta Berling did not turn to me to get satisfaction when my wife had insulted him.”

Beerencreutz smiled.

“I ask that,” repeated the count.

“One does not ask leave of the fox to take his skin from him,” said Beerencreutz.

The count laid his hand on his narrow chest.

“I am known to be a just man,” he cried. “I can pass sentence on my servants. Why should I not be able to pass sentence on my wife? The pensioners have no right to judge her. The punishment they have given her, I wipe out. It has never been, do you understand, gentlemen. It has never existed.”

The count screamed out the words in a high falsetto. Beerencreutz cast a swift glance about the assembly. There was not one of those present⁠—Sintram and Daniel Bendix and Dahlberg and all the others who had followed in⁠—who did not stand and smile at the way he outwitted stupid Henrik Dohna.

The young countess did not understand at first. What was it which should not be considered? Her anguish, the pensioner’s hard grip on her tender body, the wild song, the wild words, the wild kisses, did they not exist? Had that evening never been, over which the goddess of the gray twilight had reigned?

“But, Henrik⁠—”

“Silence!” he said. And he drew himself up to chide her. “Woe to you, that you, who are a woman, have wished to set yourself up as a judge of men,” he says. “Woe to you, that you, who are my wife, dare to insult one whose hand I gladly press. What is it to you if the pensioners have put the major’s wife in prison? Were they not right? You can never know how angry a man is to the bottom of his soul when he hears of a woman’s infidelity. Do you also mean to go that evil way, that you take such a woman’s part?”

“But, Henrik⁠—”

She wailed like a child, and stretched out her arms to ward off the angry words. She had never before heard such hard words addressed to her. She was so helpless among these hard men, and now her only defender turned against her. Never again would her heart have power to light up the world.

“But, Henrik, it is you who ought to protect me.”

Gösta Berling was observant now, when it was too late. He did not know what to do. He wished her so well. But he did not dare to thrust himself between man and wife.

“Where is Gösta Berling?” asked the count.

“Here,” said Gösta. And he made a pitiable attempt to make a jest of the matter. “You were making a speech, I think, count, and I fell asleep. What do you say to letting us go home and letting you all go to bed?”

“Gösta Berling, since my countess has refused to dance with you, I command her to kiss your hand and to ask you for forgiveness.”

“My dear Count Henrik,” says Gösta, smiling, “it is not a fit hand for a young woman to kiss. Yesterday it was red with blood from killing an elk, today black with soot from a fight with a charcoal-burner. You have given a noble and high-minded sentence. That is satisfaction enough. Come, Beerencreutz!”

The count placed himself in his way.

“Do not go,” he said. “My wife must obey me. I wish that my countess shall know whither it leads to be self-willed.”

Gösta stood helpless. The countess was quite white; but she did not move.

“Go,” said the count.

“Henrik, I cannot.”

“You can,” said the count, harshly. “You can. But I know what you want. You will force me to fight with this man, because your whim is not to like him. Well, if you will not make him amends, I shall do so. You women love to have a man killed for your sake. You have done wrong, but will not atone for it. Therefore I must do it. I shall fight the duel, countess. In a few hours I shall be a bloody corpse.”

She gave him a long look. And she saw him as he was⁠—stupid, cowardly, puffed up with pride and vanity, the most pitiful of men.

“Be calm,” she said. And she became as cold as ice. “I will do it.”

But now Gösta Berling became quite beside himself.

“You shall not, countess! No, you shall not! You are only a child, a poor, innocent child, and you would kiss my hand. You have such a white, beautiful soul. I will never again come near you. Oh, never again! I bring death and destruction to everything good and blameless. You shall not touch me. I shudder for you like fire for water. You shall not!”

He put his hands behind his back.

“It is all the same to me, Herr Berling. Nothing makes any difference to me any more. I ask you for forgiveness. I ask you to let me kiss your hand!”

Gösta kept his hands behind his back. He approached the door.

“If you do not accept the amends my wife offers, I must fight with you, Gösta Berling, and moreover must impose upon her another, severer, punishment.”

The countess shrugged her shoulders. “He is mad from cowardice,” she whispered. “Let me do it! It does not matter if I am humbled. It is after all what you wanted the whole time.”

“Did I want that? Do you think I wanted that? Well, if I have no hands to kiss, you must see that I did not want it,” he cried.

He ran to the fire and stretched out his hands into it. The flames closed over them, the skin shrivelled up, the nails crackled. But in the same second Beerencreutz seized him by the neck and threw him across the floor. He tripped against a chair and sat down. He sat and almost blushed for such a foolish performance. Would she think that he only did it by way of boast? To do such a thing in the crowded room must seem like a foolish vaunt. There had not been a vestige of danger.

Before he could raise himself, the countess was kneeling beside him. She seized his red, sooty hands and looked at them.

“I will kiss them, kiss them,” she cried, “as soon as they are not too painful and sore!” And the tears streamed from her eyes as she saw the blisters rising under the scorched skin.

For he had been like a revelation to her of an unknown glory. That such things could happen here on earth, that they could be done for her! What a man this was, ready for everything, mighty in good as in evil, a man of great deeds, of strong words, of splendid actions! A hero, a hero, made of different stuff from others! Slave of a whim, of the desire of the moment, wild and terrible, but possessor of a tremendous power, fearless of everything.

She had been so depressed the whole evening she had not seen anything but pain and cruelty and cowardice. Now everything was forgotten. The young countess was glad once more to be alive. The goddess of the twilight was conquered. The young countess saw light and color brighten the world.

It was the same night in the pensioners’ wing.

There they scolded and swore at Gösta Berling. The old men wanted to sleep; but it was impossible. He let them get no rest. It was in vain that they drew the bed-curtains and put out the light. He only talked.

He let them know what an angel the young countess was, and how he adored her. He would serve her, worship her. He was glad that everyone had forsaken him. He could devote his life to her service. She despised him of course. But he would be satisfied to lie at her feet like a dog.

Had they ever noticed an island out in the Löfven? Had they seen it from the south side, where the rugged cliff rises precipitously from the water? Had they seen it from the north, where it sinks down to the sea in a gentle slope, and where the narrow shoals, covered with great pines wind out into the water, and make the most wonderful little lakes? There on the steep cliff, where the ruins of an old viking fortress still remain, he would build a palace for the young countess, a palace of marble. Broad steps, at which boats decked with flags should land, should be hewn in the cliff down to the sea. There should be glowing halls and lofty towers with gilded pinnacles. It should be a suitable dwelling for the young countess. That old wooden house at Borg was not worthy for her to enter.

When he had gone on so for a while, first one snore and then another began to sound behind the yellow-striped curtains. But most of them swore and bewailed themselves over him and his foolishness.

“Friends,” he then says solemnly, “I see the green earth covered with the works of man or with the ruins of men’s work. The pyramids weigh down the earth, the tower of Babel has bored through the sky, the beautiful temples and the gray castles have fallen into ruins. But of all which hands have built, what is it which has not fallen, nor shall fall? Ah, friends, throw away the trowel and the mortar! Spread your mason’s aprons over your heads and lay you down to build bright palaces of dreams! What has the soul to do with temples of stone and clay? Learn to build everlasting palaces of dreams and visions!”

Thereupon he went laughing to bed.

When, shortly after, the countess heard that the major’s wife had been set free, she gave a dinner for the pensioners.

And then began hers and Gösta Berling’s long friendship.