Oh, children of the present day!

I have nothing new to tell you, only what is old and almost forgotten. I have legends from the nursery, where the little ones sat on low stools about the old nurse with her white hair, or from the log-fire in the cottage, where the laborers sat and chatted, while the steam reeked from their wet clothes, and they drew knives from leather sheaths at their necks to spread the butter on thick, soft bread, or from the hall where old men sat in their rocking-chairs, and, cheered by the steaming toddy, talked of old times.

When a child, who had listened to the old nurse, to the laborers, to the old men, stood at the window on a winter’s evening, it saw no clouds on the horizon without their being the pensioners; the stars were wax-candles, which were lighted at the old house at Borg; and the spinning-wheel which hummed in the next room was driven by old Ulrika Dillner. For the child’s head was filled with the people of those old days; it lived for and adored them.

But if such a child, whose whole soul was filled with stories, should be sent through the dark attic to the storeroom for flax or biscuits, then the small feet scurried; then it came flying down the stairs, through the passage to the kitchen. For up there in the dark it could not help thinking of the wicked mill-owner at Fors⁠—of him who was in league with the devil.

Sintram’s ashes have been resting long in Svartsjö churchyard, but no one believes that his soul has been called to God, as it reads on his tombstone.

While he was alive he was one of those to whose home, on long, rainy Sunday afternoons, a heavy coach, drawn by black horses, used to come. A gentleman richly but plainly dressed gets out of the carriage, and helps with cards and dice to while away the long hours which with their monotony have driven the master of the house to despair. The game is carried on far into the night; and when the stranger departs at dawn he always leaves behind some baleful parting-gift.

As long as Sintram was here on earth he was one of those whose coming is made known by spirits. They are heralded by visions. Their carriages roll into the yard, their whip cracks, their voices sound on the stairs, the door of the entry is opened and shut. The dogs and people are awakened by the noise, it is so loud; but there is no one who has come, it is only an hallucination which goes before them.

Ugh, those horrible people, whom evil spirits seek out! What kind of a big black dog was it which showed itself at Fors in Sintram’s time? He had terrible, shining eyes, and a long tongue which dripped blood and hung far out of his panting throat. One day, when the menservants had been in the kitchen and eaten their dinner, he had scratched at the kitchen door, and all the maids had screamed with fright; but the biggest and strongest of the men had taken a burning log from the fire, thrown open the door, and hurled it into the dog’s gaping mouth.

Then he had fled with terrible howls, flames and smoke had burst from his throat, sparks whirled about him, and his footprints on the path shone like fire.

And was it not dreadful that every time Sintram came home from a journey he had changed the animals which drew him? He left with horses, but when he came home at night he had always black bulls before his carriage. The people who lived near the road saw their great black horns against the sky when he drove by, and heard the creatures’ bellowing, and were terrified by the line of sparks which the hoofs and wheels drew out of the dry gravel.

Yes, the little feet needed to hurry, indeed, to come across the big, dark attic. Think if something awful, if he, whose name one may not say, should come out of a dark corner! Who can be sure? It was not only to wicked people that he showed himself. Had not Ulrika Dillner seen him? Both she and Anna Stjärnhök could say that they had seen him.

Friends, children, you who dance, you who laugh! I beg you so earnestly to dance carefully, laugh gently, for there can be so much unhappiness if your thin slippers tread on sensitive hearts instead of on hard boards; and your glad, silvery laughter can drive a soul to despair.

It was surely so; the young people’s feet had trodden too hard on old Ulrika Dillner, and the young people’s laughter had rung too arrogantly in her ears; for there came over her suddenly an irresistible longing for a married woman’s titles and dignities. At last she said “yes” to the evil Sintram’s long courtship, followed him to Fors as his wife, and was parted from the old friends at Berga, the dear old work, and the old cares for daily bread.

It was a match which went quickly and gayly. Sintram offered himself at Christmas, and in February they were married. That year Anna Stjärnhök was living in Captain Uggla’s home. She was a good substitute for old Ulrika, and the latter could draw back without compunction, and take to herself married honors.

Without compunction, but not without regret. It was not a pleasant place she had come to; the big, empty rooms were filled with dreadful terrors. As soon as it was dark she began to tremble and to be afraid. She almost died of homesickness.

The long Sunday afternoons were the hardest of all. They never came to an end, neither they nor the long succession of torturing thoughts which travelled through her brain.

So it happened one day in March, when Sintram had not come home from church to dinner, that she went into the drawing-room, on the second floor, and placed herself at the piano. It was her last consolation. The old piano, with a flute-player and shepherdess painted on the white cover, was her own, come to her from her parents’ home. To it she could tell her troubles; it understood her.

But is it not both pitiful and ridiculous? Do you know what she is playing? Only a polka, and she who is so heartbroken!

She does not know anything else. Before her fingers stiffened round broom and carving-knife she had learned this one polka. It sticks in her fingers; but she does not know any other piece⁠—no funeral march, no impassioned sonata, not even a wailing ballad⁠—only the polka.

She plays it whenever she has anything to confide to the old piano. She plays it both when she feels like weeping and like smiling. When she was married she played it, and when for the first time she had come to her own home, and also now.

The old strings understand her: she is unhappy, unhappy.

A traveller passing by and hearing the polka ring could well believe that Sintram was having a ball for neighbors and friends, it sounds so gay. It is such a brave and glad melody. With it, in the old days, she has played carelessness in and hunger out at Berga; when they heard it everyone must up and dance. It burst the fetters of rheumatism about the joints, and lured pensioners of eighty years on to the floor. The whole world would gladly dance to that polka, it sounds so gay⁠—but old Ulrika weeps. Sintram has sulky, morose servants about him, and savage animals. She longs for friendly faces and smiling mouths. It is this despairing longing which the lively polka shall interpret.

People find it hard to remember that she is Madame Sintram. Everybody calls her Mamselle Dillner. She wants the polka tune to express her sorrow for the vanity which tempted her to seek for married honors.

Old Ulrika plays as if she would break the strings. There is so much to drown: the lamentations of the poor peasants, the curses of overworked cottagers, the sneers of insolent servants, and, first and last, the shame⁠—the shame of being the wife of a bad man.

To those notes Gösta Berling has led young Countess Dohna to the dance. Marianne Sinclair and her many admirers have danced to them, and the major’s wife at Ekeby has moved to their measure when Altringer was still alive. She can see them, couple after couple, in their youth and beauty, whirl by. There was a stream of gayety from them to her, from her to them. It was her polka which made their cheeks glow, their eyes shine. She is parted from all that now. Let the polka resound⁠—so many memories, so many tender memories to drown!

She plays to deaden her anguish. Her heart is ready to burst with terror when she sees the black dog, when she hears the servants whispering of the black bulls. She plays the polka over and over again to deaden her anguish.

Then she perceives that her husband has come home. She hears that he comes into the room and sits down in the rocking-chair. She knows so well the sound as the rockers creak on the deal floor that she does not even look round.

All the time she is playing the rocking continues; she soon hears the music no longer, only the rocking.

Poor old Ulrika, so tortured, so lonely, so helpless, astray in a hostile country, without a friend to complain to, without any consoler but a cracked piano, which answers her with a polka.

It is like loud laughter at a funeral, a drinking song in a church.

While the rocking-chair is still rocking she hears suddenly how the piano is laughing at her sorrows, and she stops in the middle of a bar. She rises and turns to the rocking-chair.

But the next instant she is lying in a swoon on the floor. It was not her husband who sat in the rocking-chair, but another⁠—he to whom little children do not dare to give a name, he who would frighten them to death if they should meet him in the deserted attic.

Can anyone whose soul has been filled with legends ever free himself from their dominion? The night wind howls outside, the trees whip the pillars of the balcony with their stiff branches, the sky arches darkly over the far-stretching hills, and I, who sit alone in the night and write, with the lamp lighted and the curtain drawn, I, who am old and ought to be sensible, feel the same shudder creeping up my back as when I first heard this story, and I have to keep lifting my eyes from my work to be certain that no one has come in and hidden himself in that further corner; I have to look out on the balcony to see if there is not a black head looking over the railing. This fright never leaves me when the night is dark and solitude deep; and it becomes at last so dreadful that I must throw aside my pen, creep down in my bed and draw the blanket up over my eyes.

It was the great, secret wonder of my childhood that Ulrika Dillner survived that afternoon. I should never have done so.

I hope, dear friends, that you may never see the tears of old eyes. And that you may not have to stand helpless when a gray head leans against your breast for support, or when old hands are clasped about yours in a silent prayer. May you never see the old sunk in a sorrow which you cannot comfort.

What is the grief of the young? They have strength, they have hope. But what suffering it is when the old weep; what despair when they, who have always been the support of your young days, sink into helpless wailing.

There sat Anna Stjärnhök and listened to old Ulrika, and she saw no way out for her.

The old woman wept and trembled. Her eyes were wild. She talked and talked, sometimes quite incoherently, as if she did not know where she was. The thousand wrinkles which crossed her face were twice as deep as usual, the false curls, which hung down over her eyes, were straightened by her tears, and her whole long, thin body was shaken with sobs.

At last Anna had to put an end to the wailings. She had made up her mind. She was going to take her back with her to Berga. Of course, she was Sintram’s wife, but she could not remain at Fors. He would drive her mad if she stayed with him. Anna Stjärnhök had decided to take old Ulrika away.

Ah, how the poor thing rejoiced, and yet trembled at this decision! But she never would dare to leave her husband and her home. He would perhaps send the big black dog after her.

But Anna Stjärnhök conquered her resistance, partly by jests, partly by threats, and in half an hour she had her beside her in the sledge. Anna was driving herself, and old Disa was in the shafts. The road was wretched, for it was late in March; but it did old Ulrika good to drive once more in the well-known sledge, behind the old horse who had been a faithful servant at Berga almost as long as she.

As she had naturally a cheerful spirit, she stopped crying by the time they passed Arvidstorp; at Hogberg she was already laughing, and when they passed Munkeby she was telling how it used to be in her youth, when she lived with the countess at Svaneholm.

They drove up a steep and stony road in the lonely and deserted region north of Munkeby. The road sought out all the hills it possibly could find; it crept up to their tops by slow windings, rushed down them in a steep descent, hurried across the even valley to find a new hill to climb over.

They were just driving down Vestratorp’s hill, when old Ulrika stopped short in what she was saying, and seized Anna by the arm. She was staring at a big black dog at the roadside.

“Look!” she said.

The dog set off into the wood. Anna did not see much of him.

“Drive on,” said Ulrika; “drive as fast as you can! Now Sintram will hear that I have gone.”

Anna tried to laugh at her terror, but she insisted.

“We shall soon hear his sleigh-bells, you will see. We shall hear them before we reach the top of the next hill.”

And when Disa drew breath for a second at the top of Elof’s hill sleigh-bells could be heard behind them.

Old Ulrika became quite mad with fright. She trembled, sobbed, and wailed as she had done in the drawing-room at Fors. Anna tried to urge Disa on, but she only turned her head and gave her a glance of unspeakable surprise. Did she think that Disa had forgotten when it was time to trot and when it was time to walk? Did she want to teach her how to drag a sledge, to teach her who had known every stone, every bridge, every gate, every hill for more than twenty years?

All this while the sleigh-bells were coming nearer.

“It is he, it is he! I know his bells,” wails old Ulrika.

The sound comes ever nearer. Sometimes it seems so unnaturally loud that Anna turns to see if Sintram’s horse has not got his head in her sledge; sometimes it dies away. They hear it now on the right, now on the left of the road, but they see no one. It is as if the jingling of the bells alone pursues them.

Just as it is at night, on the way home from a party, is it also now. These bells ring out a tune; they sing, speak, answer. The woods echo with their sound.

Anna Stjärnhök almost wishes that their pursuer would come near enough for her to see Sintram himself and his red horse. The dreadful sleigh-bells anger her.

“Those bells torture me,” she says.

The word is taken up by the bells. “Torture me,” they ring. “Torture me, torture, torture, torture me,” they sing to all possible tunes.

It was not so long ago that she had driven this same way, hunted by wolves. She had seen their white teeth, in the darkness, gleam in their gaping mouths; she had thought that her body would soon be torn to pieces by the wild beasts of the forest; but then she had not been afraid. She had never lived through a more glorious night. Strong and beautiful had the horse been which drew her, strong and beautiful was the man who had shared the joy of the adventure with her.

Ah, this old horse, this old, helpless, trembling companion. She feels so helpless that she longs to cry. She cannot escape from those terrible, irritating bells.

So she stops and gets out of the sledge. There must be an end to it all. Why should she run away as if she were afraid of that wicked, contemptible wretch?

At last she sees a horse’s head come out of the advancing twilight, and after the head a whole horse, a whole sledge, and in the sledge sits Sintram himself.

She notices, however, that it is not as if they had come along the road⁠—this sledge, and this horse, and their driver⁠—but more as if they had been created just there before her eyes, and had come forward out of the twilight as soon as they were made ready.

Anna threw the reins to Ulrika and went to meet Sintram.

He stops the horse.

“Well, well,” he says; “what a piece of luck! Dear Miss Stjärnhök, let me move my companion over to your sledge. He is going to Berga tonight, and I am in a hurry to get home.”

“Where is your companion?”

Sintram lifts his blanket, and shows Anna a man who is lying asleep on the bottom of the sledge. “He is a little drunk,” he says; “but what does that matter? He will sleep. It’s an old acquaintance, moreover; it is Gösta Berling.”

Anna shudders.

“Well, I will tell you,” continues Sintram, “that she who forsakes the man she loves sells him to the devil. That was the way I got into his claws. People think they do so well, of course; to renounce is good, and to love is evil.”

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?” asks Anna, quite disturbed.

“I mean that you should not have let Gösta Berling go from you, Miss Anna.”

“It was God’s will.”

“Yes, yes, that’s the way it is; to renounce is good, and to love is evil. The good God does not like to see people happy. He sends wolves after them. But if it was not God who did it, Miss Anna? Could it not just as well have been I who called my little gray lambs from the Dovre mountains to hunt the young man and the young girl? Think, if it was I who sent the wolves, because I did not wish to lose one of my own! Think, if it was not God who did it!”

“You must not tempt me to doubt that,” says Anna, in a weak voice, “for then I am lost.”

“Look here,” says Sintram, and bends down over the sleeping Gösta Berling; “look at his little finger. That little sore never heals. We took the blood there when he signed the contract. He is mine. There is a peculiar power in blood. He is mine, and it is only love which can free him; but if I am allowed to keep him he will be a fine thing.”

Anna Stjärnhök struggles and struggles to shake off the fascination which has seized her. It is all madness, madness. No one can swear away his soul to the odious tempter. But she has no power over her thoughts; the twilight lies so heavy over her, the woods stand so dark and silent. She cannot escape the dreadful terror of the moment.

“You think, perhaps,” continues Sintram, “that there is not much left in him to ruin. But don’t think that! Has he ground down the peasants, has he deceived poor friends, has he cheated at cards? Has he, Miss Anna, has he been a married woman’s lover?”

“I think you are the devil himself!”

“Let us exchange. You take Gösta Berling, take him and marry him. Keep him, and give them at Berga the money. I yield him up to you, and you know that he is mine. Think that it was not God who sent the wolves after you the other night, and let us exchange!”

“What do you want as compensation?”

Sintram grinned.

“I⁠—what do I want? Oh, I am satisfied with little. I only want that old woman there in your sledge, Miss Anna.”

“Satan, tempter,” cries Anna, “leave me! Shall I betray an old friend who relies on me? Shall I leave her to you, that you may torture her to madness?”

“There, there, there; quietly, Miss Anna! Think what you are doing! Here is a fine young man, and there an old, worn-out woman. One of them I must have. Which of them will you let me keep?”

Anna Stjärnhök laughed wildly.

“Do you think that we can stand here and exchange souls as they exchange horses at the market at Broby?”

“Just so, yes. But if you will, we shall put it on another basis. We shall think of the honor of the Stjärnhöks.”

Thereupon he begins to call in a loud voice to his wife, who is sitting in Anna’s sledge; and, to the girl’s unspeakable horror, she obeys the summons instantly, gets out of the sledge, and comes, trembling and shaking, to them.

“See, see, see!⁠—such an obedient wife,” says Sintram. “You cannot prevent her coming when her husband calls. Now, I shall lift Gösta out of my sledge and leave him here⁠—leave him for good, Miss Anna. Whoever may want to can pick him up.”

He bends down to lift Gösta up; but Anna leans forward, fixes him with her eyes, and hisses like an angry animal:⁠—

“In God’s name, go home! Do you not know who is sitting in the rocking-chair in the drawing-room and waiting for you? Do you dare to let him wait?”

It was for Anna almost the climax of the horrors of the day to see how these words affect him. He drags on the reins, turns, and drives homewards, urging the horse to a gallop with blows and wild cries down the dreadful hill, while a long line of sparks crackle under the runners and hoofs in the thin March snow.

Anna Stjärnhök and Ulrika Dillner stand alone in the road, but they do not say a word. Ulrika trembles before Anna’s wild eyes, and Anna has nothing to say to the poor old thing, for whose sake she has sacrificed her beloved.

She would have liked to weep, to rave, to roll on the ground and strew snow and sand on her head.

Before, she had known the sweetness of renunciation, now she knew its bitterness. What was it to sacrifice her love compared to sacrificing her beloved’s soul? They drove on to Berga in the same silence; but when they arrived, and the hall-door was opened, Anna Stjärnhök fainted for the first and only time in her life. There sat both Sintram and Gösta Berling, and chatted quietly. The tray with toddy had been brought in; they had been there at least an hour.

Anna Stjärnhök fainted, but old Ulrika stood calm. She had noticed that everything was not right with him who had followed them on the road.

Afterwards the captain and his wife arranged the matter so with Sintram that old Ulrika was allowed to stay at Berga. He agreed good-naturedly.

“He did not want to drive her mad,” he said.

I do not ask anyone to believe these old stories. They cannot be anything but lies and fiction. But the anguish which passes over the heart, until it wails as the floor boards in Sintram’s room wailed under the swaying rockers; but the questions which ring in the ears, as the sleigh-bells rang for Anna Stjärnhök in the lonely forest⁠—when will they be as lies and fiction?

Oh, that they could be!