Mamselle Marie

There is a buzzing over my head. It must be a bumblebee. And such a perfume! As true as I live, it is sweet marjoram and lavender and hawthorn and lilacs and Easter lilies. It is glorious to feel it on a gray autumn evening in the midst of the town. I only have to think of that little blessed corner of the earth to have it immediately begin to hum and smell fragrant about me, and I am transported to a little square rose-garden, filled with flowers and protected by a privet hedge. In the corners are lilac arbors with small wooden benches, and round about the flowerbeds, which are in the shapes of hearts and stars, wind narrow paths strewed with white sea-sand. On three sides of the rose-garden stands the forest, silent and dark.

On the fourth side lies a little gray cottage.

The rose-garden of which I am thinking was owned sixty years ago by an old Madame Moreus in Svartsjö, who made her living by knitting blankets for the peasants and cooking their feasts.

Old Madame Moreus was in her day the possessor of many things. She had three lively and industrious daughters and a little cottage by the roadside. She had a store of pennies at the bottom of a chest, stiff silk shawls, straight-backed chairs, and could turn her hand to everything, which is useful for one who must earn her bread. But the best that she had was the rose-garden, which gave her joy as long as the summer lasted.

In Madame Moreus’ little cottage there was a boarder, a little dry old maid, about forty years of age, who lived in a gable-room in the attic. Mamselle Marie, as she was always called, had her own ideas on many things, as one always does who sits much alone and lets her thoughts dwell on what her eyes have seen.

Mamselle Marie thought that love was the root and origin of all evil in this sorrowful world.

Every evening, before she fell asleep, she used to clasp her hands and say her evening prayers. After she had said “Our Father” and “The Lord bless us” she always ended by praying that God would preserve her from love.

“It causes only misery,” she said. “I am old and ugly and poor. No, may I never be in love!”

She sat day after day in her attic room in Madame Moreus’ little cottage, and knitted curtains and table-covers. All these she afterwards sold to the peasants and the gentry. She had almost knitted together a little cottage of her own.

For a little cottage on the side of the hill opposite Svartsjö church was what she wanted to have. But love she would never hear of.

When on summer evenings she heard the violin sounded from the cross roads, where the fiddler sat on the stile, and the young people swung in the polka till the dust whirled, she went a long way round through the wood to avoid hearing and seeing.

The day after Christmas, when the peasant brides came, five or six of them, to be dressed by Madame Moreus and her daughters, when they were adorned with wreaths of myrtle, and high crowns of silk, and glass beads, with gorgeous silk sashes and bunches of artificial roses, and skirts edged with garlands of taffeta flowers, she stayed up in her room to avoid seeing how they were being decked out in Love’s honor.

But she knew Love’s misdeeds, and of them she could tell. She wondered that he dared to show himself on earth, that he was not frightened away by the moans of the forsaken, by the curses of those of whom he had made criminals, by the lamentations of those whom he had thrown into hateful chains. She wondered that his wings could bear him so easily and lightly, that he did not, weighed down by pain and shame, sink into nameless depths.

No, of course she had been young, she like others, but she had never loved. She had never let herself be tempted by dancing and caresses. Her mother’s guitar hung dusty and unstrung in the attic; she never struck it to sentimental love-ditties.

Her mother’s rose bushes stood in her window. She gave them scarcely any water. She did not love flowers, those children of love. Spiders played among the branches, and the buds never opened.

There came a time when the Svartsjö congregation had an organ put into their church. It was the summer before the year when the pensioners reigned. A young organ-builder came there. He too became a boarder at Madame Moreus’.

That the young organ-builder was a master of his profession may be a matter of doubt. But he was a gay young blade, with sunshine in his eyes. He had a friendly word for everyone, for rich and poor, for old and young.

When he came home from his work in the evening, he held Madame Moreus’ skeins, and worked at the side of young girls in the rose-garden. Then he declaimed Axel and sang Frithiof. He picked up Mamselle Marie’s ball of thread as often as she dropped it, and put her clock to rights.

He never left any ball until he had danced with everybody, from the oldest woman to the youngest girl, and if an adversity befell him, he sat himself down by the side of the first woman he met and made her his confidante. He was such a man as women create in their dreams! It could not be said of him that he spoke of love to anyone. But when he had lived a few weeks in Madame Moreus’ gable-room, all the girls were in love with him, and poor Mamselle Marie knew that she had prayed her prayers in vain.

That was a time of sorrow and a time of joy. In the evening a pale dreamer often sat in the lilac arbor, and up in Mamselle Marie’s little room the newly strung guitar twanged to old love-songs, which she had learned from her mother.

The young organ-builder was just as careless and gay as ever, and doled out smiles and services to all these languishing women, who quarrelled over him when he was away at his work. And at last the day came when he had to leave.

The carriage stood before the door. His bag had been tied on behind, and the young man said farewell. He kissed Madame Moreus’ hand and took the weeping girls in his arms and kissed them on the cheek. He wept himself at being obliged to go, for he had had a pleasant summer in the little gray cottage. At the last he looked around for Mamselle Marie.

She came down the narrow attic-stairs in her best array. The guitar hung about her neck on a broad, green-silk ribbon, and in her hand she held a bunch of damask roses, for this year her mother’s rosebushes had blossomed. She stood before the young man, struck the guitar and sang:⁠—

“Thou goest far from us. Ah! welcome again!
Hear the voice of my friendship, which greets thee.
Be happy: forget not a true, loving friend
Who in Värmland’s forests awaits thee!”

Thereupon she put the flowers in his buttonhole and kissed him square on the mouth. Yes, and then she vanished up the attic stairs again, the old apparition.

Love had revenged himself on her and made her a spectacle for all men. But she never again complained of him. She never laid away the guitar, and never forgot to water her mother’s rosebushes.

She had learned to cherish Love with all his pain, his tears, his longing.

“Better to be sorrowful with him than happy without him,” she said.

The time passed. The major’s wife at Ekeby was driven out, the pensioners came to power, and it so happened, as has been described, that Gösta Berling one Sunday evening read a poem aloud to the countess at Borg, and afterwards was forbidden by her to show himself in her house.

It is said that when Gösta shut the hall-door after him he saw several sledges driving up to Borg. He cast a glance on the little lady who sat in the first sledge. Gloomy as the hour was for him, it became still more gloomy at the sight. He hurried away not to be recognized, but forebodings of disaster filled his soul. Had the conversation in there conjured up this woman? One misfortune always brings another.

But the servants hurried out, the shawls and furs were thrown on one side. Who had come? Who was the little lady who stood up in the sledge? Ah, it is really she herself, Märta Dohna, the far-famed countess!

She was the gayest and most foolish of women. Joy had lifted her on high on his throne and made her his queen. Games and laughter were her subjects. Music and dancing and adventure had been her share when the lottery of life was drawn.

She was not far now from her fiftieth year, but she was one of the wise, who do not count the years. “He whose foot is not ready to dance, or mouth to laugh,” she said, “he is old. He knows the terrible weight of years, not I.”

Pleasure had no undisturbed throne in the days of her youth, but change and uncertainty only increased the delight of his glad presence. His Majesty of the butterfly wings one day had afternoon tea in the court ladies’ rooms at the palace in Stockholm, and danced the next in Paris. He visited Napoleon’s camps, he went on board Nelson’s fleet in the blue Mediterranean, he looked in on a congress at Vienna, he risked his life at Brussels at a ball the night before a famous battle.

And wherever Pleasure was, there too was Märta Dohna, his chosen queen. Dancing, playing, jesting, Countess Märta hurried the whole world round. What had she not seen, what had she not lived through? She had danced over thrones, played écarté on the fate of princes, caused devastating wars by her jests! Gayety and folly had filled her life and would always do so. Her body was not too old for dancing, nor her heart for love. When did she weary of masquerades and comedies, of merry stories and plaintive ballads?

When Pleasure sometimes could find no home out in the struggling world, she used to drive up to the old manor by Löfven’s shores⁠—just as she had come there when the princes and their court had become too gloomy for her in the time of the Holy Alliance. It was then she had thought best to make Gösta Berling her son’s tutor. She always enjoyed it there. Never had Pleasure a pleasanter kingdom. There song was to be found and card-playing, men who loved adventure, and gay, lovely women. She did not lack for dances and balls, nor boating-parties over moonlit seas, nor sledging through dark forests, nor appalling adventures and love’s sorrow and pain.

But after her daughter’s death she had ceased to come to Borg. She had not been there for five years. Now she had come to see how her daughter-in-law bore the life up among the pine forests, the bears, and the snowdrifts. She thought it her duty to come and see if the stupid Henrik had not bored her to death with his tediousness. She meant to be the gentle angel of domestic peace. Sunshine and happiness were packed in her forty leather trunks, Gayety was her waiting-maid, Jest her coachman, Play her companion.

And when she ran up the steps she was met with open arms. Her old rooms on the lower floor were in order for her. Her manservant, her lady companion, and maid, her forty leather trunks, her thirty hatboxes, her bags and shawls and furs, everything was brought by degrees into the house. There was bustle and noise everywhere. There was a slamming of doors and a running on the stairs. It was plain enough that Countess Märta had come.

It was a spring evening, a really beautiful spring evening, although it was only April and the ice had not broken up. Mamselle Marie had opened her window. She sat in her room, played on the guitar, and sang.

She was so engrossed in her guitar and her memories that she did not hear that a carriage came driving up the road and stopped at the cottage. In the carriage Countess Märta sat, and it amused her to see Mamselle Marie, who sat at the window with her guitar on her lap, and with eyes turned towards heaven sang old forgotten love-songs.

At last the countess got out of the carriage and went into the cottage, where the girls were sitting at their work. She was never haughty; the wind of revolution had whistled over her and blown fresh air into her lungs.

It was not her fault that she was a countess, she used to say; but she wanted at all events to live the life she liked best. She enjoyed herself just as much at peasant weddings as at court balls. She acted for her maids when there was no other spectator to be had, and she brought joy with her in all the places where she showed herself, with her beautiful little face and her overflowing love of life.

She ordered a blanket of Madame Moreus and praised the girls. She looked about the rose-garden and told of her adventures on the journey. She always was having adventures. And at the last she ventured up the attic stairs, which were dreadfully steep and narrow, and sought out Mamselle Marie in her gable-room.

She bought curtains of her. She could not live without having knitted curtains for all her windows, and on every table should she have Mamselle Marie’s table-covers.

She borrowed her guitar and sang to her of pleasure and love. And she told her stories, so that Mamselle Marie found herself transported out into the gay, rushing world. And the countess’s laughter made such music that the frozen birds in the rose-garden began to sing when they heard it, and her face, which was hardly pretty now⁠—for her complexion was ruined by paint, and there was such an expression of sensuality about the mouth⁠—seemed to Mamselle Marie so lovely that she wondered how the little mirror could let it vanish when it had once caught it on its shining surface.

When she left, she kissed Mamselle Marie and asked her to come to Borg.

Mamselle Marie’s heart was as empty as the swallow’s-nest at Christmas. She was free, but she sighed for chains like a slave freed in his old age.

Now there began again for Mamselle Marie a time of joy and a time of sorrow; but it did not last long⁠—only one short week.

The countess sent for her continually to come to Borg. She played her comedy for her and told about all her lovers, and Mamselle Marie laughed as she had never laughed before. They became the best of friends. The countess soon knew all about the young organ-builder and about the parting. And in the twilight she made Mamselle Marie sit on the window-seat in the little blue cabinet. Then she hung the guitar ribbon round her neck and got her to sing love-songs. And the countess sat and watched how the old maid’s dry, thin figure and little plain head were outlined against the red evening sky, and she said that the poor old Mamselle was like a languishing maiden of the Middle Ages. All the songs were of tender shepherds and cruel shepherdesses, and Mamselle Marie’s voice was the thinnest voice in the world, and it is easy to understand how the countess was amused at such a comedy.

There was a party at Borg, as was natural, when the count’s mother had come home. And it was gay as always. There were not so many there, only the members of the parish being invited.

The dining-room was on the lower floor, and after supper it so happened that the guests did not go upstairs again, but sat in Countess Märta’s room, which lay beyond. The countess got hold of Mamselle Marie’s guitar and began to sing for the company. She was a merry person, Countess Märta, and she could mimic anyone. She now had the idea to mimic Mamselle Marie. She turned up her eyes to heaven and sang in a thin, shrill, child’s voice.

“Oh no, oh no, countess!” begged Mamselle Marie.

But the countess was enjoying herself, and no one could help laughing, although they all thought that it was hard on Mamselle Marie.

The countess took a handful of dried rose-leaves out of a potpourri jar, went with tragic gestures up to Mamselle Marie, and sang with deep emotion:⁠—

“Thou goest far from us. Ah! welcome again!
Hear the voice of my friendship, which greets thee.
Be happy: forget not a true, loving friend
Who in Värmland’s forests awaits thee!”

Then she strewed the rose-leaves over her head. Everybody laughed; but Mamselle Marie was wild with rage. She looked as if she could have torn out the countess’s eyes.

“You are a bad woman, Märta Dohna,” she said. “No decent woman ought to speak to you.”

Countess Märta lost her temper too.

“Out with you, mamselle!” she said. “I have had enough of your folly.”

“Yes, I shall go,” said Mamselle Marie; “but first I will be paid for my covers and curtains which you have put up here.”

“The old rags!” cried the countess. “Do you want to be paid for such rags? Take them away with you! I never want to see them again! Take them away immediately!”

Thereupon the countess threw the table-covers at her and tore down the curtains, for she was beside herself.

The next day the young countess begged her mother-in-law to make her peace with Mamselle Marie; but the countess would not. She was tired of her.

Countess Elizabeth then bought of Mamselle Marie the whole set of curtains and put them up in the upper floor. Whereupon Mamselle Marie felt herself redressed.

Countess Märta made fun of her daughter-in-law for her love of knitted curtains. She too could conceal her anger⁠—preserve it fresh and new for years. She was a richly gifted person.