Gösta Berling, Poet

It was Christmas, and there was to be a ball at Borg.

At that time, and it is soon sixty years ago, a young Count Dohna lived at Borg; he was newly married, and he had a young, beautiful countess. It was sure to be gay at the old castle.

An invitation had come to Ekeby, but it so happened that of them all who were there that year, Gösta Berling, whom they called “the poet,” was the only one who wished to go.

Borg and Ekeby both lie by the Löfven, but on opposite shores. Borg is in Svartsjö parish, Ekeby in Bro. When the lake is impassable it is a ten or twelve miles’ journey from Ekeby to Borg.

The pauper, Gösta Berling, was fitted out for the festival by the old men, as if he had been a king’s son, and had the honor of a kingdom to keep up.

His coat with the glittering buttons was new, his ruffles were stiff, and his buckled shoes shining. He wore a cloak of the finest beaver, and a cap of sable on his yellow, curling hair. They spread a bearskin with silver claws over his sledge, and gave him black Don Juan, the pride of the stable, to drive.

He whistled to his white Tancred, and seized the braided reins. He started rejoicing, surrounded by the glitter of riches and splendor, he who shone so by his own beauty and by the playful brilliancy of his genius.

He left early in the forenoon. It was Sunday, and he heard the organ in the church at Bro as he drove by. He followed the lonely forest road which led to Berga, where Captain Uggla then lived. There he meant to stop for dinner.

Berga was no rich man’s home. Hunger knew the way to that turf-roofed house; but he was met with jests, charmed with song and games like other guests, and went as unwillingly as they.

The old Mamselle Ulrika Dillner, who looked after everything at Berga, stood on the steps and wished Gösta Berling welcome. She courtesied to him, and the false curls, which hung down over her brown face with its thousand wrinkles, danced with joy. She led him into the dining-room, and then she began to tell him about the family, and their changing fortunes.

Distress stood at the door, she said; it was hard times at Berga. They would not even have had any horseradish for dinner, with their corned beef, if Ferdinand and the girls had not put Disa before a sledge and driven down to Munkerud to borrow some.

The captain was off in the woods again, and would of course come home with a tough old hare, on which one had to use more butter in cooking it than it was worth itself. That’s what he called getting food for the house. Still, it would do, if only he did not come with a miserable fox, the worst beast our Lord ever made; no use, whether dead or alive.

And the captain’s wife, yes, she was not up yet. She lay abed and read novels, just as she had always done. She was not made for work, that God’s angel.

No, that could be done by someone who was old and gray like Ulrika Dillner, working night and day to keep the whole miserable affair together. And it wasn’t always so easy; for it was the truth that for one whole winter they had not had in that house any other meat than bear-hams. And big wages she did not expect; so far she had never seen any; but they would not turn her out on the roadside either, when she couldn’t work any longer in return for her food. They treated a housemaid like a human being in that house, and they would one of these days give old Ulrika a good burial if they had anything to buy the coffin with.

“For who knows how it will be?” she bursts out, and wipes her eyes, which are always so quick to tears. “We have debts to the wicked Sintram, and he can take everything from us. Of course Ferdinand is engaged to the rich Anna Stjärnhök; but she is tired⁠—she is tired of him. And what will become of us, of our three cows, and our nine horses, of our gay young ladies who want to go from one ball to another, of our dry fields where nothing grows, of our mild Ferdinand, who will never be a real man? What will become of the whole blessed house, where everything thrives except work?”

But dinnertime came, and the family gathered. The good Ferdinand, the gentle son of the house, and the lively daughters came home with the borrowed horseradish. The captain came, fortified by a bath in a hole in the ice and a tramp through the woods. He threw up the window to get more air, and shook Gösta’s hand with a strong grip. And his wife came, dressed in silk, with wide laces hanging over her white hands, which Gösta was allowed to kiss.

They all greeted Gösta with joy; jests flew about the circle; gayly they asked him:⁠—

“How are you all at Ekeby; how is it in that promised land?”

“Milk and honey flow there,” he answered. “We empty the mountains of iron and fill our cellar with wine. The fields bear gold, with which we gild life’s misery, and we cut down our woods to build bowling-alleys and summer houses.”

The captain’s wife sighed and smiled at his answer, and her lips murmured the word⁠—


“Many sins have I on my conscience,” answered Gösta, “but I have never written a line of poetry.”

“You are nevertheless a poet, Gösta; that name you must put up with. You have lived through more poems than all our poets have written.”

Then she spoke, tenderly as a mother, of his wasted life. “I shall live to see you become a man,” she said. And he felt it sweet to be urged on by this gentle woman, who was such a faithful friend, and whose romantic heart burned with the love of great deeds.

But just as they had finished the gay meal and had enjoyed the corned beef and horseradish and cabbage and apple fritters and Christmas ale, and Gösta had made them laugh and cry by telling them of the major and his wife and the Broby clergyman, they heard sleigh-bells outside, and immediately afterward the wicked Sintram walked in.

He beamed with satisfaction, from the top of his bald head down to his long, flat feet. He swung his long arms, and his face was twisted. It was easy to see that he brought bad news.

“Have you heard,” he asked⁠—“have you heard that the banns have been called today for Anna Stjärnhök and the rich Dahlberg in the Svartsjö church? She must have forgotten that she was engaged to Ferdinand.”

They had not heard a word of it. They were amazed and grieved.

Already they fancied the home pillaged to pay the debt to this wicked man; the beloved horses sold, as well as the worn furniture which had come from the home of the captain’s wife. They saw an end to the gay life with feasts and journeyings from ball to ball. Bear-hams would again adorn the board, and the young people must go out into the world and work for strangers.

The captain’s wife caressed her son, and let him feel the comfort of a never-failing love.

But⁠—there sat Gösta Berling in the midst of them, and, unconquerable, turned over a thousand plans in his head.

“Listen,” he cried, “it is not yet time to think of grieving. It is the minister’s wife at Svartsjö who has arranged all this. She has got a hold on Anna, since she has been living with her at the vicarage. It is she who has persuaded her to forsake Ferdinand and take old Dahlberg; but they’re not married yet, and will never be either. I am on my way to Borg, and shall meet Anna there. I shall talk to her; I shall get her away from the clergyman’s, from her fiancé⁠—I shall bring her with me here tonight. And afterwards old Dahlberg shall never get any good of her.”

And so it was arranged. Gösta started for Borg alone, without taking any of the gay young ladies, but with warm good wishes for his return. And Sintram, who rejoiced that old Dahlberg should be cheated, decided to stop at Berga to see Gösta come back with the faithless girl. In a burst of goodwill he even wrapt round him his green plaid, a present from Mamselle Ulrika.

The captain’s wife came out on the steps with three little books, bound in red leather, in her hand.

“Take them,” she said to Gösta, who already sat in the sledge; “take them, if you fail! It is Corinne, Madame de Staël’s Corinne. I do not want them to go by auction.”

“I shall not fail.”

“Ah, Gösta, Gösta,” she said, and passed her hand over his bared head, “strongest and weakest of men! How long will you remember that a few poor people’s happiness lies in your hand?”

Once more Gösta flew along the road, drawn by the black Don Juan, followed by the white Tancred, and the joy of adventure filled his soul. He felt like a young conqueror, the spirit was in him.

His way took him past the vicarage at Svartsjö. He turned in there and asked if he might drive Anna Stjärnhök to the ball. And that he was permitted.

A beautiful, self-willed girl it was who sat in his sledge. Who would not want to drive behind the black Don Juan?

The young people were silent at first, but then she began the conversation, audaciousness itself.

“Have you heard what the minister read out in church today?”

“Did he say that you were the prettiest girl between the Löfven and the Klar River?”

“How stupid you are! but everyone knows that. He called the banns for me and old Dahlberg.”

“Never would I have let you sit in my sledge nor sat here myself, if I had known that. Never would I have wished to drive you at all.”

And the proud heiress answered:⁠—

“I could have got there well enough without you, Gösta Berling.”

“It is a pity for you, Anna,” said Gösta, thoughtfully, “that your father and mother are not alive. You are your own mistress, and no one can hold you to account.”

“It is a much greater pity that you had not said that before, so that I might have driven with someone else.”

“The minister’s wife thinks as I do, that you need someone to take your father’s place; else she had never put you to pull in harness with such an old nag.”

“It is not she who has decided it.”

“Ah, Heaven preserve us!⁠—have you yourself chosen such a fine man?”

“He does not take me for my money.”

“No, the old ones, they only run after blue eyes and red cheeks; and awfully nice they are, when they do that.”

“Oh, Gösta, are you not ashamed?”

“But remember that you are not to play with young men any longer. No more dancing and games. Your place is in the corner of the sofa⁠—or perhaps you mean to play cribbage with old Dahlberg?”

They were silent, till they drove up the steep hill to Borg.

“Thanks for the drive! It will be long before I drive again with you, Gösta Berling.”

“Thanks for the promise! I know many who will be sorry today they ever drove you to a party.”

Little pleased was the haughty beauty when she entered the ballroom and looked over the guests gathered there.

First of all she saw the little, bald Dahlberg beside the tall, slender, golden-haired Gösta Berling. She wished she could have driven them both out of the room.

Her fiancé came to ask her to dance, but she received him with crushing astonishment.

“Are you going to dance? You never do!”

And the girls came to wish her joy.

“Don’t give yourselves the trouble, girls. You don’t suppose that anyone could be in love with old Dahlberg. But he is rich, and I am rich, therefore we go well together.”

The old ladies went up to her, pressed her white hand, and spoke of life’s greatest happiness.

“Congratulate the minister’s wife,” she said. “She is gladder about it than I.”

But there stood Gösta Berling, the gay cavalier, greeted with joy for his cheerful smile and his pleasant words, which sifted gold-dust over life’s gray web. Never before had she seen him as he was that night. He was no outcast, no homeless jester; no, a king among men, a born king.

He and the other young men conspired against her. She should think over how badly she had behaved when she gave herself with her lovely face and her great fortune to an old man. And they let her sit out ten dances.

She was boiling with rage.

At the eleventh dance came a man, the most insignificant of all, a poor thing, whom nobody would dance with, and asked her for a turn.

“There is no more bread, bring on the crusts,” she said.

They played a game of forfeits. The fair-haired girls put their heads together and condemned her to kiss the one she loved best. And with smiling lips they waited to see the proud beauty kiss old Dahlberg.

But she rose, stately in her anger, and said:⁠—

“May I not just as well give a blow to the one I like the least!”

The moment after Gösta’s cheek burned under her firm hand. He flushed a flaming red, but he conquered himself, seized her hand, held it fast a second, and whispered:⁠—

“Meet me in half an hour in the red drawing-room on the lower floor!”

His blue eyes flashed on her, and encompassed her with magical waves. She felt that she must obey.

She met him with proud and angry words.

“How does it concern you whom I marry?”

He was not ready to speak gently to her, nor did it seem to him best to speak yet of Ferdinand.

“I thought it was not too severe a punishment for you to sit out ten dances. But you want to be allowed unpunished to break vows and promises. If a better man than I had taken your sentence in his hand, he could have made it harder.”

“What have I done to you and all the others, that I may not be in peace? It is for my money’s sake you persecute me. I shall throw it into the Löfven, and anyone who wants it can fish it up.”

She put her hands before her eyes and wept from anger.

That moved the poet’s heart. He was ashamed of his harshness. He spoke in caressing tones.

“Ah, child, child, forgive me! Forgive poor Gösta Berling! Nobody cares what such a poor wretch says or does, you know that. Nobody weeps for his anger, one might just as well weep over a mosquito’s bite. It was madness in me to hope that I could prevent our loveliest and richest girl marrying that old man. And now I have only distressed you.”

He sat down on the sofa beside her. Gently he put his arm about her waist, with caressing tenderness, to support and raise her.

She did not move away. She pressed closer to him, threw her arms round his neck, and wept with her beautiful head on his shoulder.

O poet, strongest and weakest of men, it was not about your neck those white arms should rest.

“If I had known that,” she whispered, “never would I have taken the old man. I have watched you this evening; there is no one like you.”

From between pale lips Gösta forced out⁠—


She silenced him with a kiss.

“He is nothing; no one but you is anything. To you will I be faithful.”

“I am Gösta Berling,” he said gloomily; “you cannot marry me.”

“You are the man I love, the noblest of men. You need do nothing, be nothing. You are born a king.”

Then the poet’s blood seethed. She was beautiful and tender in her love. He took her in his arms.

“If you will be mine, you cannot remain at the vicarage. Let me drive you to Ekeby tonight; there I shall know how to defend you till we can be married.”

That was a wild drive through the night. Absorbed in their love, they let Don Juan take his own pace. The noise of the runners was like the lamentations of those they had deceived. What did they care for that? She hung on his neck, and he leaned forward and whispered in her ear.

“Can any happiness be compared in sweetness to stolen pleasures?”

What did the banns matter? They had love. And the anger of men! Gösta Berling believed in fate; fate had mastered them: no one can resist fate.

If the stars had been the candles which had been lighted for her wedding, if Don Juan’s bells had been the church chimes, calling the people to witness her marriage to old Dahlberg, still she must have fled with Gösta Berling. So powerful is fate.

They had passed the vicarage and Munkerud. They had three miles to Berga and three miles more to Ekeby. The road skirted the edge of the wood; on their right lay dark hills, on their left a long, white valley.

Tancred came rushing. He ran so fast that he seemed to lie along the ground. Howling with fright, he sprang up in the sledge and crept under Anna’s feet.

Don Juan shied and bolted.

“Wolves!” said Gösta Berling.

They saw a long, gray line running by the fence. There were at least a dozen of them.

Anna was not afraid. The day had been richly blessed with adventure, and the night promised to be equally so. It was life⁠—to speed over the sparkling snow, defying wild beasts and men.

Gösta uttered an oath, leaned forward, and struck Don Juan a heavy blow with the whip.

“Are you afraid?” he asked. “They mean to cut us off there, where the road turns.”

Don Juan ran, racing with the wild beasts of the forest, and Tancred howled in rage and terror. They reached the turn of the road at the same time as the wolves, and Gösta drove back the foremost with the whip.

“Ah, Don Juan, my boy, how easily you could get away from twelve wolves, if you did not have us to drag.”

They tied the green plaid behind them. The wolves were afraid of it, and fell back for a while. But when they had overcome their fright, one of them ran, panting, with hanging tongue and open mouth up to the sledge. Then Gösta took Madame de Staël’s Corinne and threw it into his mouth.

Once more they had breathing-space for a time, while the brutes tore their booty to pieces, and then again they felt the dragging as the wolves seized the green plaid, and heard their panting breath. They knew that they should not pass any human dwelling before Berga, but worse than death it seemed to Gösta to see those he had deceived. But he knew that the horse would tire, and what should become of them then?

They saw the house at Berga at the edge of the forest. Candles burned in the windows. Gösta knew too well for whose sake.

But now the wolves drew back, fearing the neighborhood of man, and Gösta drove past Berga. He came no further than to the place where the road once again buried itself in the wood; there he saw a dark group before him⁠—the wolves were waiting for him.

“Let us turn back to the vicarage and say that we took a little pleasure trip in the starlight. We can’t go on.”

They turned, but in the next moment the sledge was surrounded by wolves. Gray forms brushed by them, their white teeth glittered in gaping mouths, and their glowing eyes shone. They howled with hunger and thirst for blood. The glittering teeth were ready to seize the soft human flesh. The wolves leaped up on Don Juan, and hung on the saddlecloth. Anna sat and wondered if they would eat them entirely up, or if there would be something left, so that people the next morning would find their mangled limbs on the trampled, bloody snow.

“It’s a question of our lives,” she said, and leaned down and seized Tancred by the nape of the neck.

“Don’t⁠—that will not help! It is not for the dog’s sake the wolves are out tonight.”

Thereupon Gösta drove into the yard at Berga, but the wolves hunted him up to the very steps. He had to beat them off with the whip.

“Anna,” he said, as they drew up, “God would not have it. Keep a good countenance; if you are the woman I take you for, keep a good countenance!”

They had heard the sleigh-bells in the house, and came out.

“He has her!” they cried, “he has her! Long live Gösta Berling!” and the newcomers were embraced by one after another.

Few questions were asked. The night was far advanced, the travellers were agitated by their terrible drive and needed rest. It was enough that Anna had come.

All was well. Only Corinne and the green plaid, Mamselle Ulrika’s prized gift, were destroyed.

The whole house slept. But Gösta rose, dressed himself, and stole out. Unnoticed he led Don Juan out of the stable, harnessed him to the sledge, and meant to set out. But Anna Stjärnhök came out from the house.

“I heard you go out,” she said. “So I got up, too. I am ready to go with you.”

He went up to her and took her hand.

“Don’t you understand it yet? It cannot be. God does not wish it. Listen now and try to understand. I was here to dinner and saw their grief over your faithlessness. I went to Borg to bring you back to Ferdinand. But I have always been a good-for-nothing, and will never be anything else. I betrayed him, and kept you for myself. There is an old woman here who believes that I shall become a man. I betrayed her. And another poor old thing will freeze and starve here for the sake of dying among friends, but I was ready to let the wicked Sintram take her home. You were beautiful, and sin is sweet. It is so easy to tempt Gösta Berling. Oh, what a miserable wretch I am! I know how they love their home, all those in there, but I was ready just now to leave it to be pillaged. I forgot everything for your sake, you were so sweet in your love. But now, Anna, now since I have seen their joy, I will not keep you; no, I will not. You could have made a man of me, but I may not keep you. Oh, my beloved! He there above mocks at our desires. We must bow under His chastising hand. Tell me that you from this day will take up your burden! All of them rely upon you. Say that you will stay with them and be their prop and help! If you love me, if you will lighten my deep sorrow, promise me this! My beloved, is your heart so great that you can conquer yourself, and smile in doing it?”

She accepted the renunciation in a sort of ecstasy.

“I shall do as you wish⁠—sacrifice myself and smile.”

“And not hate my poor friends?”

She smiled sadly.

“As long as I love you, I shall love them.”

“Now for the first time I know what you are. It is hard to leave you.”

“Farewell, Gösta! Go, and God be with you! My love shall not tempt you to sin.”

She turned to go in. He followed her.

“Will you soon forget me?”

“Go, Gösta! We are only human.”

He threw himself down in the sledge, but then she came back again.

“Do you not think of the wolves?”

“Just of them I am thinking, but they have done their work. From me they have nothing more to get this night.”

Once more he stretched his arms towards her, but Don Juan became impatient and set off. He did not take the reins. He sat backwards and looked after her. Then he leaned against the seat and wept despairingly.

“I have possessed happiness and driven her from me; I myself drove her from me. Why did I not keep her?”

Ah, Gösta Berling, strongest and weakest of men!