Christmas Eve

Sintram is the name of the wicked master of the works at Fors, with his clumsy ape-body, and his long arms, with his bald head and ugly, grinning face⁠—he whose delight is to make mischief.

Sintram it is who takes only vagrants and bullies for workmen, and has only quarrelsome, lying maids in his service; he who excites dogs to madness by sticking pins in their noses, and lives happiest among evil people and fierce beasts.

It is Sintram whose greatest pleasure is to dress himself up in the foul fiend’s likeness, with horns, and tail, and cloven hoof, and hairy body, and suddenly appearing from dark corners, from behind the stove or the woodpile, to frighten timid children and superstitious women.

It is Sintram who delights to change old friendship to new hate, and to poison the heart with lies.

Sintram is his name⁠—and one day he came to Ekeby.

Drag the great wood-sledge into the smithy, put it in the middle of the floor, and lay a cart-bottom on the frame! There we have a table. Hurrah for the table; the table is ready!

Come now with chairs, with everything which will serve for a seat! Come with three-legged stools and empty boxes! Come with ragged old armchairs without any backs, and push up the runnerless sleigh and the old coach! Ha, ha, ha, up with the old coach; it shall be the speaker’s chair!

Just look; one wheel gone, and the whole bottom out! Only the coach-box is left. The cushion is thin and worn, its moss stuffing coming through, the leather is red with age. High as a house is the old wreck. Prop it up, prop it up, or down it will come!

Hurrah! Hurrah! It is Christmas eve at Ekeby.

Behind the broad bed’s silken curtains sleep the major and the major’s wife, sleep and believe that the bachelors’ wing sleeps. The menservants and maids can sleep, heavy with feasting and the bitter Christmas ale; but not their masters in the bachelors’ wing. How can anyone think that the bachelors’ wing sleeps?

Sleeps, sleeps (oh, child of man, sleeps!), when the pensioners are awake. The long tongs stand upright on the floor, with tallow candles in their claws. From the mammoth kettle of shining copper flames the blue fire of the burning brandy, high up to the dark roof. Beerencreutz’s horn-lantern hangs on the forge-hammer. The yellow punch glows in the bowl like a bright sun. The pensioners are celebrating Christmas eve in the smithy.

There is mirth and bustle. Fancy, if the major’s wife should see them!

What then? Probably she would sit down with them and empty a bumper. She is a doughty woman; she’s not afraid of a thundering drinking-song or to take a hand at kille.1 The richest woman in Värmland, as bold as a man, proud as a queen. Songs she loves, and sounding fiddles, and the hunting-horn. She likes wine and games of cards, and tables surrounded by merry guests are her delight. She likes to see the larder emptied, to have dancing and merrymaking in chamber and hall, and the bachelors’ wing full of pensioners.

See them round about the bowl! Twelve are they, twelve men. Not butterflies nor dandies, but men whose fame will not soon die out in Värmland; brave men and strong.

Not dried-up parchment, nor closefisted moneybags; poor men, without a care, gentlemen the whole day long.

No mother’s darlings, no sleepy masters on their own estates. Wayfaring men, cheerful men, knights of a hundred adventures.

Now for many years the bachelors’ wing has stood empty. Ekeby is no longer the chosen refuge of homeless gentlemen. Pensioned officers and impoverished noblemen no longer drive about Värmland in shaky one-horse vehicles. But let the dead live, let them rise up in their glad, careless, eternal youth!

All these notorious men could play on one or several instruments. All were as full of wit and humor and conceits and songs as an anthill is full of ants; but each one had his particular great quality, his much esteemed merit which distinguished him from the others.

First of all who sit about the bowl will I name Beerencreutz, the colonel with the great white moustaches, player of cards, singer of songs; and next to him, his friend and brother in arms, the silent major, the great bear hunter, Anders Fuchs; and, as the third in order, little Ruster, the drummer, who had been for many years the colonel’s servant, but had won the rank of pensioner through his skill in brewing punch and his knowledge of thorough-bass. Then may be mentioned the old ensign, Rutger von Örneclou, lady-killer, dressed in stock and wig and ruffles, and painted like a woman⁠—he was one of the most important pensioners; also Christian Bergh, the mighty captain, who was a stalwart hero, but as easy to outwit as a giant in the fairy story. In these two men’s company one often saw the little, round Master Julius, witty, merry, and gifted, speaker, painter, songster, and storyteller. He often had his joke with the gout-crippled ensign and the dull giant.

There was also the big German Kevenhüller, inventor of the automatic carriage and the flying-machine, he whose name still echoes in the murmuring forests⁠—a nobleman by birth and in appearance, with great curled moustaches, a pointed beard, aquiline nose, and narrow, squinting eyes in a net of intersecting wrinkles. There sat the great warrior cousin, Christopher, who never went outside the walls of the bachelors’ wing unless there was to be a bear-hunt or some foolhardy adventure; and beside him Uncle Eberhard, the philosopher, who had not come to Ekeby for pleasure and play, but in order to be able, undisturbed by concern for daily bread, to complete his great work in the science of sciences.

Last of all, and the best, the gentle Löwenborg, who sought the good in the world, and understood little of its ways, and Lilliecrona, the great musician, who had a good home, and was always longing to be there, but still remained at Ekeby, for his soul needed riches and variety to be able to bear life.

These eleven men had all left youth behind them, and several were in old age; but in the midst of them was one who was not more than thirty years old, and still possessed the full, undiminished strength of his mind and body. It was Gösta Berling, the Knight of Knights, who alone in himself was a better speaker, singer, musician, hunter, drinking companion and card-player than all of the others together. He possessed all gifts. What a man the major’s wife had made of him!

Look at him now in the speaker’s chair! The darkness sinks from the black roof in great festoons over him. His blond head shines through it like a young god’s. Slender, beautiful, eager for adventure, he stands there.

But he is speaking very seriously.

“Gentlemen and brothers, the time passes, the feast is far advanced, it is time to drink a toast to the thirteenth at the table!”

“Little brother Gösta,” cries Master Julius, “there is no thirteenth; we are only twelve.”

“At Ekeby a man dies every year,” continues Gösta with a more and more gloomy voice. “One of the guests of the bachelors’ wing dies, one of the glad, the careless, the eternal youth dies. What of that? Gentlemen should never be old. Could our trembling hands not lift a glass, could our quenched eyes not distinguish the cards, what has life for us, and what are we for life? One must die of the thirteen who celebrate Christmas eve in the smithy at Ekeby; but every year a new one comes to complete our number; a man, experienced in pleasure, one who can handle violin and card, must come and make our company complete. Old butterflies should know how to die while the summer sun is shining. A toast to the thirteenth!”

“But, Gösta, we are only twelve,” remonstrate the pensioners, and do not touch their glasses.

Gösta Berling, whom they called the poet, although he never wrote verses, continues with unaltered calmness: “Gentlemen and brothers! Have you forgotten who you are? You are they who hold pleasure by force in Värmland. You are they who set the fiddle-bows going, keep up the dance, make song and music resound through the land. You know how to keep your hearts from the love of gold, your hands from work. If you did not exist the dance would die, summer die, the roses die, card-playing die, song die, and in this whole blessed land there would be nothing but iron and owners of ironworks. Pleasure lives while you live. For six years have I celebrated Christmas eve in the Ekeby smithy, and never before has anyone refused to drink to the thirteenth?”

“But, Gösta,” cry they all, “when we are only twelve how can we drink to the thirteenth?”

“Are we only twelve?” he says. “Why must we die out from the earth? Shall we be but eleven next year, but ten the year after. Shall our name become a legend, our company destroyed? I call upon him, the thirteenth, for I have stood up to drink his toast. From the ocean’s depths, from the bowels of the earth, from heaven, from hell I call him who shall complete our number.”

Then it rattled in the chimney, then the furnace-door opened, then the thirteenth came.

He was hairy, with tail and cloven-hoof, with horns and a pointed beard, and at the sight of him the pensioners start up with a cry.

But in uncontrollable joy Gösta Berling cries, “The thirteenth has come⁠—a toast to the thirteenth!”

Yes, he has come, the old enemy of mankind, come to these foolhardy men who trouble the peace of the Holy Night. The friend of witches on their way to hell, who signs his bargains in blood on coal-black paper, he who danced with the countess at Ivarsnäs for seven days, and could not be exorcized by seven priests⁠—he has come.

In stormy haste thoughts fly through the heads of the old adventurers at the sight of him. They wonder for whose sake he is out this night.

Many of them were ready to hurry away in terror, but they soon saw that the horned one had not come to carry them down to his dark kingdom, but that the ring of the cups and their songs had attracted him. He wished to enjoy a little human pleasure in this holy night, and cast aside his burden during this glad time.

Oh, pensioners, pensioners, who of you now remembers it is the night before Christmas; that even now angels are singing for the shepherds in the fields? Children are lying anxious lest they sleep too soundly, that they may not wake in time for the beautiful morning worship. Soon it will be time to light the Christmas candles in the church at Bro, and far away in the forest homes the young man in the evening has prepared a resin torch to light his girl to church. In all the houses the mistress has placed dip-lights in the windows, ready to light as the people go by to church. The sexton takes up the Christmas psalm in his sleep, and the old minister lies and tries if he has enough voice left to sing: “Glory be to God on high, on earth peace, goodwill towards men!”

Oh, pensioners, better had it been for you if you had spent this peaceful night quietly in your beds than to trouble the company with the Prince of Darkness.

But they greet him with cries of welcome, as Gösta had done. A goblet filled with burning brandy is placed in his hand. They give him the place of honor at the table, and they look upon him with gladness, as if his ugly satyr face wore the delicate features of their youth’s first love.

Beerencreutz invites him to a game of cards, Master Julius sings his best songs for him, and Örneclou talks to him of lovely women, those beautiful creatures who make life sweet.

He enjoys everything, the devil, as with princely bearing he leans back on the old coach-box, and with clawed hand lifts the brimming goblet to his smiling mouth.

But Gösta Berling of course must make a speech in his honor.

“Your Grace,” he says, “we have long awaited you here at Ekeby, for you have little access, we suppose, to any other paradise. Here one can live without toiling or spinning, as your Grace perhaps knows. Here roasted ortolans fly into one’s mouth, and the bitter ale and the sweet brandy flow in brooks and rivulets. This is a good place, your Grace! We pensioners have waited for you, I tell you, for we have never been complete before. See, we are something finer than we seem; we are the mighty twelve of the poet, who are of all time. We were twelve when we steered the world, up there on Olympus’s cloud-veiled top, and twelve when we lived like birds in Ygdrasil’s green crown. Wherever there has been poetry there have we followed. Did we not sit twelve men strong about King Arthur’s Round Table, and were there not twelve paladins at Charlemagne’s court? One of us has been a Thor, a Jupiter; anyone can see that in us now. They can perceive the divine splendor under our rags, the lion’s mane under the ass’s head. Times are bad with us, but if we are there a smithy becomes Olympus and the bachelors’ wing Valhalla.

“But, your Grace, our number has not been complete. Everyone knows that in the poet’s twelve there must always be a Loki, a Prometheus. Him have we been without.”

“Your Grace, I wish you welcome!”

“Hear, hear, hear!” says the evil one; “such a fine speech, a fine speech indeed! And I, who have no time to answer. Business, boys, business. I must be off, otherwise I should so gladly be at your service in any role you like. Thanks for a pleasant evening, old gossips. We shall meet again.”

Then the pensioners demand where he is going; and he answers that the noble major’s wife, mistress of Ekeby, is waiting for him to get her contract renewed.

Great wonder seizes upon the pensioners.

A harsh and capable woman is she, the major’s wife at Ekeby. She can lift a barrel of flour on her broad shoulders. She follows the loads of ore from the Bergslagen mines, on the long road to Ekeby. She sleeps like a wagoner on the stable floor, with a meal-bag under her head. In the winter she will watch by a charcoal kiln, in the summer follow a timber-raft down to the Löfven. She is a powerful woman. She swears like a trooper, and rules over her seven estates like a king; rules her own parish and all the neighboring parishes; yes, the whole of lovely Värmland. But for the homeless gentlemen she had been like a mother, and therefore they had closed their ears when slander had whispered to them that she was in league with the devil.

So they ask him with wonder what kind of a contract she has made with him.

And he answers them, the black one, that he had given the major’s wife her seven estates on the condition that she should send him every year a human soul.

Oh, the horror which compresses the pensioners’ hearts!

Of course they knew it, but they had not understood before.

At Ekeby every year, a man dies, one of the guests in the bachelors’ wing dies, one of the glad, the careless, the ever young dies. What of that?⁠—gentlemen may not be old! If their trembling fingers cannot lift the glass, if their dulled eyes cannot see the cards, what has life for them, and what are they to life? Butterflies should know how to die while the sun is shining.

But now, now for the first time, they grasp its real meaning.

Woe to that woman! That is why she had given them so many good meals, why she had let them drink her bitter ale and her sweet brandy, that they might reel from the drinking-halls and the card-tables at Ekeby down to the king of hell⁠—one a year, one for each passing year.

Woe to the woman, the witch! Strong men had come to this Ekeby, had come hither to perish. For she had destroyed them here. Their brains were as sponges, dry ashes their lungs, and darkness their spirit, as they sank back on their deathbeds and were ready for their long journey, hopeless, soulless, virtueless.

Woe to the woman! So had those died who had been better men than they, and so should they die.

But not long are they paralyzed by weight of terror.

“You king of perdition!” they cry, “never again shall you make a blood-signed contract with that witch; she shall die! Christian Bergh, the mighty captain, has thrown over his shoulder the heaviest sledgehammer in the smithy. He will bury it to the handle in the hag’s head. No more souls shall she sacrifice to you.

“And you, you horned thing, we shall lay you on the anvil and let the forge-hammer loose. We shall hold you quiet with tongs under the hammer’s blows and teach you to go a-hunting for gentlemen’s souls.”

He is a coward, the devil, as everyone knows of old, and all this talk of the forge-hammer does not please him at all. He calls Christian Bergh back and begins to bargain with the pensioners.

“Take the seven estates; take them yourselves, gentlemen, and give me the major’s wife!”

“Do you think we are as base as she?” cries Master Julius. “We will have Ekeby and all the rest, but you must look after the major’s wife yourself.”

“What does Gösta say? what does Gösta say?” asks the gentle Löwenborg. “Gösta Berling must speak. We must hear what he thinks of this important matter.”

“It is madness,” says Gösta Berling. “Gentlemen, don’t let him make fools of you! What are you all against the major’s wife? It may fare as it will with our souls, but with my consent we will not be such ungrateful wretches as to act like rascals and traitors. I have eaten her food for too many years to deceive her now.”

“Yes, you can go to hell, Gösta, if you wish! We would rather rule at Ekeby.”

“But are you all raving, or have you drunk away your wits? Do you believe it is true? Do you believe that that thing is the devil? Don’t you see that it’s all a confounded lie?”

“Tut, tut, tut,” says the black one; “he does not see that he will soon be ready, and yet he has been seven years at Ekeby. He does not see how far advanced he is.”

“Begone, man! I myself have helped to shove you into the oven there.”

“As if that made any difference; as if I were not as good a devil as another. Yes, yes, Gösta Berling, you are in for it. You have improved, indeed, under her treatment.”

“It was she who saved me,” says Gösta. “What had I been without her?”

“As if she did not know what she was about when she kept you here at Ekeby. You can lure others to the trap; you have great gifts. Once you tried to get away from her; you let her give you a cottage, and you became a laborer; you wished to earn your bread. Every day she passed your cottage, and she had lovely young girls with her. Once it was Marianne Sinclair; then you threw aside your spade and apron, Gösta Berling, and came back as pensioner.”

“It lay on the highway, you fool.”

“Yes, yes, of course; it lay on the highway. Then you came to Borg, were tutor there to Henrik Dohna, and might have been Countess Märta’s son-in-law. Who was it who managed that the young Ebba Dohna should hear that you were only a dismissed priest, so that she refused you? It was the major’s wife, Gösta Berling. She wanted you back again.”

“Great matter!” says Gösta. “Ebba Dohna died soon afterwards. I would never have got her anyway.”

Then the devil came close up to him and hissed right in his face: “Died! yes, of course she died. Killed herself for your sake, did she? But they never told you that.”

“You are not such a bad devil,” says Gösta.

“It was the major’s wife who arranged it all, I tell you. She wanted to have you back in the bachelors’ wing.”

Gösta burst out laughing.

“You are not such a bad devil,” he cried wildly. “Why should we not make a contract with you? I’m sure you can get us the seven estates if you like.”

“It is well that you do not longer withstand your fate.”

The pensioners drew a sigh of relief. It had gone so far with them that they could do nothing without Gösta. If he had not agreed to the arrangement it could never have come to anything. And it was no small matter for destitute gentlemen to get seven estates for their own.

“Remember, now,” says Gösta, “that we take the seven estates in order to save our souls, but not to be ironwork owners who count their money and weigh their iron. No dried-up parchments, no purse-proud moneybags will we become, but gentlemen will we be and remain.”

“The very words of wisdom,” murmurs the black one.

“If you, therefore, will give us the seven estates for one year we will accept them; but remember that if we do anything during that time which is not worthy of a gentleman, if we do anything which is sensible, or useful, or effeminate, then you may take the whole twelve of us when the year is out, and give the estates to whom you will.”

The devil rubbed his hands with delight.

“But if we always behave like true gentlemen,” continues Gösta, “then you may never again make any contract about Ekeby, and no pay do you get for this year either from us or from the major’s wife.”

“That is hard,” says the devil. “Oh, dear Gösta, I must have one soul, just one little, poor soul. Couldn’t I have the major’s wife? Why should you spare the major’s wife?”

“I do not drive any bargains with such wares,” roars Gösta; “but if you must have someone, you can take old Sintram at Fors; he is ready, I can answer for that.”

“Well, well, that will do,” says the devil, without blinking. “The pensioners or Sintram, they can balance one another. This will be a good year.”

And so the contract was written, with blood from Gösta’s little finger, on the devil’s black paper and with his quill-pen.

And when it was done the pensioners rejoiced. Now the world should belong to them for a whole year, and afterwards there would always be some way.

They push aside the chairs, make a ring about the kettle, which stands in the middle of the black floor, and whirl in a wild dance. Innermost in the circle dances the devil, with wild bounds; and at last he falls flat beside the kettle, rolls it over, and drinks.

Then Beerencreutz throws himself down beside him, and also Gösta Berling; and after them all the others lay themselves in a circle round the kettle, which is rolled from mouth to mouth. At last it is tipped over by a push, and the hot, sticky drink pours over them.

When they rise up, swearing, the devil is gone; but his golden promises float like shining crowns over the pensioners’ heads.