The Old Vehicles

If it should happen to you that you are sitting or lying and reading this at night, as I am writing it during the silent hours, then do not draw a sigh of relief here and think that the good pensioners were allowed to have an undisturbed sleep, after they had come back with Marianne and made her a good bed in the best guestroom beyond the big drawing-room.

They went to bed, and went to sleep, but it was not their lot to sleep in peace and quiet till noon, as you and I, dear reader, might have done, if we had been awake till four in the morning and our limbs ached with fatigue.

It must not be forgotten that the old major’s wife went about the country with beggar’s wallet and stick, and that it never was her way, when she had anything to do, to think of a poor tired sinner’s convenience. And now she would do it even less, as she had decided to drive the pensioners that very night from Ekeby.

Gone was the day when she sat in splendor and magnificence at Ekeby and sowed happiness over the earth, as God sows stars over the skies. And while she wandered homeless about the land, the authority and honor of the great estate was left in the pensioners’ hands to be guarded by them, as the wind guards ashes, as the spring sun guards the snowdrift.

It sometimes happened that the pensioners drove out, six or eight of them, in a long sledge drawn by four horses, with chiming bells and braided reins. If they met the major’s wife, as she went as a beggar, they did not turn away their heads.

Clenched fists were stretched against her. By a violent swing of the sledge, she was forced up into the drifts by the roadside, and Major Fuchs, the bear-killer, always took pains to spit three times to take away the evil effect of meeting the old woman.

They had no pity on her. She was as odious as a witch to them as she went along the road. If any mishap had befallen her, they would no more have grieved than he who shoots off his gun on Easter Eve, loaded with brass hooks, grieves that he has hit a witch flying by.

It was to secure their salvation that these unhappy pensioners persecuted the major’s wife. People have often been cruel and tortured one another with the greatest hardness, when they have trembled for their souls.

When the pensioners late at night reeled from the drinking-tables to the window to see if the night was calm and clear, they often noticed a dark shadow, which glided over the grass, and knew that the major’s wife had come to see her beloved home; then the bachelors’ wing rang with the pensioners’ scornful laughter, and gibes flew from the open windows down to her.

Verily, lovelessness and arrogance began to take possession of the penniless adventurers’ hearts. Sintram had planted hate. Their souls could not have been in greater danger if the major’s wife had remained at Ekeby. More die in flight than in battle.

The major’s wife cherished no great anger against the pensioners.

If she had had the power, she would have whipped them like naughty boys and then granted them her grace and favor again.

But now she feared for her beloved lands, which were in the pensioners’ hands to be guarded by them, as wolves guard the sheep, as crows guard the spring grain.

There are many who have suffered the same sorrow. She is not the only one who has seen ruin come to a beloved home and well-kept fields fall into decay. They have seen their childhood’s home look at them like a wounded animal. Many feel like culprits when they see the trees there wither away, and the paths covered with tufts of grass. They wish to throw themselves on their knees in those fields, which once boasted of rich harvests, and beg them not to blame them for the disgrace which befalls them. And they turn away from the poor old horses; they have not courage to meet their glance. And they dare not stand by the gate and see the cattle come home from pasture. There is no spot on earth so sad to visit as an old home in ruin.

When I think what that proud Ekeby must have suffered under the pensioners’ rule, I wish that the plan of the major’s wife had been fulfilled, and that Ekeby had been taken from them.

It was not her thought to take back her dominion again.

She had only one object⁠—to rid her home of these madmen, these locusts, these wild brigands, in whose path no grass grew.

While she went begging about the land and lived on alms, she continually thought of her mother; and the thought bit deep into her heart, that there could be no bettering for her till her mother lifted the curse from her shoulders.

No one had ever mentioned the old woman’s death, so she must be still living up there by the ironworks in the forest. Ninety years old, she still lived in unceasing labor, watching over her milk-pans in the summer, her charcoal-kilns in the winter, working till death, longing for the day when she would have completed her life’s duties.

And the major’s wife thought that her mother had lived so long in order to be able to lift the curse from her life. That mother could not die who had called down such misery on her child.

So the major’s wife wanted to go to the old woman, that they might both get rest. She wished to struggle up through the dark woods by the long river to the home of her childhood.

Till then she could not rest. There were many who offered her a warm home and all the comforts of a faithful friendship, but she would not stop anywhere. Grim and fierce, she went from house to house, for she was weighed down by the curse.

She was going to struggle up to her mother, but first she wanted to provide for her beloved home. She would not go and leave it in the hands of light-minded spendthrifts, of worthless drunkards, of good-for-nothing dispersers of God’s gifts.

Should she go to find on her return her inheritance gone to waste, her hammers silent, her horses starving, her servants scattered? Ah, no, once more she will rise in her might and drive out the pensioners.

She well understood that her husband saw with joy how her inheritance was squandered. But she knew him enough to understand, also, that if she drove away his devouring locusts, he would be too lazy to get new ones. Were the pensioners removed, then her old bailiff and overseer could carry on the work at Ekeby in the old grooves.

And so, many nights her dark shadow had glided along the black lanes. She had stolen in and out of the cottagers’ houses, she had whispered with the miller and the mill-hands in the lower floor of the great mill, she had conferred with the smith in the dark coal-house.

And they had all sworn to help her. The honor of the great estate should no longer be left in the hands of careless pensioners, to be guarded as the wind guards the ashes, as the wolf guards the flock of sheep.

And this night, when the merry gentlemen had danced, played, and drunk until they had sunk down on their beds in a dead sleep, this very night they must go. She has let them have their good time. She has sat in the smithy and awaited the end of the ball. She has waited still longer, until the pensioners should return from their nocturnal drive. She has sat in silent waiting, until the message was brought her that the last light was out in the bachelors’ wing and that the great house slept. Then she rose and went out.

The major’s wife ordered that all the workmen on the estate should be gathered together up by the bachelors’ wing; she herself went to the house. There she went to the main building, knocked, and was let in. The young daughter of the minister at Broby, whom she had trained to be a capable maidservant, was there to meet her.

“You are so welcome, madame,” said the maid, and kissed her hand.

“Put out the light!” said the major’s wife. “Do you think I cannot find my way without a candle?”

And then she began a wandering through the silent house. She went from the cellar to the attic, and said farewell. With stealthy step they went from room to room.

The major’s wife was filled with old memories. The maid neither sighed nor sobbed, but tear after tear flowed unchecked from her eyes, while she followed her mistress. The major’s wife had her open the linen-closet and silver-chest, and passed her hand over the fine damask tablecloths and the magnificent silver service. She felt caressingly the mighty pile of pillows in the store-closet. She touched all the implements, the looms, the spinning-wheels, and winding-bobbins. She thrust her hand into the spice-box, and felt the rows of tallow candles which hung from the rafters.

“The candles are dry,” she said. “They can be taken down and put away.”

She was down in the cellar, carefully lifted the beer-casks, and groped over the rows of wine bottles.

She went into the pantry and kitchen; she felt everything, examined everything. She stretched out her hand and said farewell to everything in her house.

Last she went through the rooms. She found the long broad sofas in their places; she laid her hand on the cool slabs of the marble tables, and on the mirrors with their frames of gilded dancing nymphs.

“This is a rich house,” she said. “A noble man was he who gave me all this for my own.”

In the great drawing-room, where the dance had lately whirled, the stiff-backed armchairs already stood in prim order against the walls.

She went over to the piano, and very gently struck a chord.

“Joy and gladness were no strangers here in my time, either,” she said.

She went also to the guestroom beyond. It was pitch-dark. The major’s wife groped with her hands and came against the maid’s face.

“Are you weeping?” she said, for she felt her hands were wet with tears.

Then the young girl burst out sobbing.

“Madame,” she cried, “madame, they will destroy everything. Why do you leave us and let the pensioners ruin your house?”

The major’s wife drew back the curtain and pointed out into the yard.

“Is it I who have taught you to weep and lament?” she cried. “Look out! the place is full of people; tomorrow there will not be one pensioner left at Ekeby.”

“Are you coming back?” asked the maid.

“My time has not yet come,” said the major’s wife. “The highway is my home, and the haystack my bed. But you shall watch over Ekeby for me, child, while I am away.”

And they went on. Neither of them knew or thought that Marianne slept in that very room. But she did not sleep. She was wide awake, heard everything, and understood it all. She had lain there in bed and sung a hymn to Love.

“You conqueror, who have taken me out of myself,” she said, “I lay in fathomless misery and you have changed it to a paradise. My hands stuck fast to the iron latch of the closed door and were torn and wounded; on the threshold of my home my tears lie frozen to pearls of ice. Anger froze my heart when I heard the blows on my mother’s back. In the cold snowdrift I hoped to sleep away my anger, but you came. O Love, child of fire, to one who was frozen by much cold you came. When I compare my sufferings to the glory won by them, they seem to me as nothing. I am free of all ties. I have no father nor mother, no home. People will believe all evil of me and turn away from me. It has pleased you to do this, O Love, for why should I stand higher than my beloved? Hand in hand we will wander out into the world. Gösta Berling’s bride is penniless; he found her in a snowdrift. We shall not live in lofty halls, but in a cottage at the edge of the wood. I shall help him to watch the kiln, I shall help him to set snares for partridges and hares, I shall cook his food and mend his clothes. Oh, my beloved, how I shall long and mourn, while I sit there alone by the edge of the wood and wait for you! But not for the days of riches, only for you; only you shall I look for and miss⁠—your footstep on the forest path, your joyous song, as you come with your axe on your shoulder. Oh, my beloved, my beloved! As long as my life lasts, I could sit and wait for you.”

So she lay and sang hymns to the heart-conquering god, and never once had closed her eyes in sleep when the major’s wife came in.

When she had gone, Marianne got up and dressed herself. Once more must she put on the black velvet dress and the thin satin slippers. She wrapped a blanket about her like a shawl, and hurried out once again into the terrible night.

Calm, starlit, and bitingly cold the February night lay over the earth; it was as if it would never end. And the darkness and the cold of that long night lasted on the earth long, long after the sun had risen, long after the snowdrifts through which Marianne wandered had been changed to water.

Marianne hurried away from Ekeby to get help. She could not let those men who had rescued her from the snowdrift and opened their hearts and home to her be hunted away. She went down to Sjö to Major Samzelius. It would be an hour before she could be back.

When the major’s wife had said farewell to her home, she went out into the yard, where her people were waiting, and the struggle began.

She placed them round about the high, narrow house, the upper story of which was the pensioners’ far-famed home⁠—the great room with the whitewashed walls, the red-painted chests, and the great folding-table, where playing-cards swim in the spilled brandy, where the broad beds are hidden by yellow striped curtains where the pensioners sleep.

And in the stable before full mangers the pensioners’ horses sleep and dream of the journeys of their youth. It is sweet to dream when they know that they never again shall leave the filled cribs, the warm stalls of Ekeby.

In a musty old carriage-house, where all the broken-down coaches and worn-out sledges were stored, was a wonderful collection of old vehicles.

Many are the pensioners who have lived and died at Ekeby. Their names are forgotten on the earth, and they have no longer a place in men’s hearts; but the major’s wife has kept the vehicles in which they came to Ekeby, she has collected them all in the old carriage-house.

And there they stand and sleep, and dust falls thick, thick over them.

But now in this February night the major’s wife has the door opened to the carriage-house, and with lanterns and torches she seeks out the vehicles which belong to Ekeby’s present pensioners⁠—Beerencreutz’s old gig, and Örneclou’s coach, painted with coat of arms, and the narrow cutter which had brought Cousin Christopher.

She does not care if the vehicles are for summer or winter, she only sees that each one gets his own.

And in the stable they are now awake, all the pensioners’ old horses, who had so lately been dreaming before full mangers. The dream shall be true.

You shall again try the steep hills, and the musty hay in the sheds of wayside inns, and drunken horse-dealers’ sharp whips, and the mad races on ice so slippery that you tremble only to walk on it.

The old beasts mouth and snort when the bit is put into their toothless jaws; the old vehicles creak and crack. Pitiful infirmity, which should have been allowed to sleep in peace till the end of the world, was now dragged out before all eyes; stiff joints, halting forelegs, spavin, and broken-wind are shown up.

The stable grooms succeed, however, in getting the horses harnessed; then they go and ask the major’s wife in what Gösta Berling shall be put, for, as everyone knows, he came to Ekeby in the coal-sledge of the major’s wife.

“Put Don Juan in our best sledge,” she says, “and spread over it the bearskin with the silver claws!” And when the grooms grumble, she continues: “There is not a horse in my stable which I would not give to be rid of that man, remember that!”

Well, now the vehicles are waked and the horses too, but the pensioners still sleep. It is now their time to be brought out in the winter night; but it is a more perilous deed to seize them in their beds than to lead out stiff-legged horses and shaky old carriages. They are bold, strong men, tried in a hundred adventures; they are ready to defend themselves till death; it is no easy thing to take them against their will from out their beds and down to the carriages which shall carry them away.

The major’s wife has them set fire to a haystack, which stands so near the house that the flames must shine in to where the pensioners are sleeping.

“The haystack is mine, all Ekeby is mine,” she says.

And when the stack is in flames, she cries: “Wake them now!”

But the pensioners sleep behind well-closed doors. The whole mass of people begin to cry out that terrible “Fire, fire!” but the pensioners sleep on.

The master-smith’s heavy sledgehammer thunders against the door, but the pensioners sleep.

A hard snowball breaks the windowpane and flies into the room, rebounding against the bed-curtains, but the pensioners sleep.

They dream that a lovely girl throws a handkerchief at them, they dream of applause from behind fallen curtains, they dream of gay laughter and the deafening noise of midnight feasts.

The noise of cannon at their cars, an ocean of ice-cold water were needed to awake them.

They have bowed, danced, played, acted, and sung. They are heavy with wine, exhausted, and sleep a sleep as deep as death’s.

This blessed sleep almost saves them.

The people begin to think that this quiet conceals a danger. What if it means that the pensioners are already out to get help? What if it means that they stand awake, with finger on the trigger, on guard behind windows or door, ready to fall upon the first who enters?

These men are crafty, ready to fight; they must mean something by their silence. Who can think it of them, that they would let themselves be surprised in their lairs like bears?

The people bawl their “Fire, fire!” time after time, but nothing avails.

Then when all are trembling, the major’s wife herself takes an axe and bursts open the outer door.

Then she rushes alone up the stairs, throws open the door to the bachelors’ wing, and calls into the room: “Fire!”

Hers is a voice which finds a better echo in the pensioners’ ears than the people’s outcry. Accustomed to obey that voice, twelve men at the same moment spring from their beds, see the flames, throw on their clothes, and rush down the stairs out into the yard.

But at the door stands the great master-smith and two stout mill-hands, and deep disgrace then befalls the pensioners. Each, as he comes down, is seized, thrown to the ground, and his feet bound; thereupon he is carried without ceremony to the vehicle prepared for him.

None escaped; they were all caught. Beerencreutz, the grim colonel, was bound and carried away; also Christian Bergh, the mighty captain, and Eberhard, the philosopher.

Even the invincible, the terrible Gösta Berling was caught. The major’s wife had succeeded.

She was still greater than the pensioners.

They are pitiful to see, as they sit with bound limbs in the mouldy old vehicles. There are hanging heads and angry glances, and the yard rings with oaths and wild bursts of powerless rage.

The major’s wife goes from one to the other.

“You shall swear,” she says, “never to come back to Ekeby.”

“Begone, hag!”

“You shall swear,” she says, “otherwise I will throw you into the bachelors’ wing, bound as you are, and you shall burn up in there, for tonight I am going to burn down the bachelors’ wing.”

“You dare not do that.”

“Dare not! Is not Ekeby mine? Ah, you villain! Do you think I do not remember how you spit at me on the highway? Did I not long to set fire here just now and let you all burn up? Did you lift a finger to defend me when I was driven from my home? No, swear now!”

And she stands there so terrible, although she pretends perhaps to be more angry than she is, and so many men armed with axes stand about her, that they are obliged to swear, that no worse misfortune may happen.

The major’s wife has their clothes and boxes brought down and has their hand-fetters loosened; then the reins are laid in their hands.

But much time has been consumed, and Marianne has reached Sjö.

The major was no late-riser; he was dressed when she came. She met him in the yard; he had been out with his bears’ breakfast.

He did not say anything when he heard her story. He only went in to the bears, put muzzles on them, led them out, and hurried away to Ekeby.

Marianne followed him at a distance. She was dropping with fatigue, but then she saw a bright light of fire in the sky and was frightened nearly to death.

What a night it was! A man beats his wife and leaves his child to freeze to death outside his door. Did a woman now mean to burn up her enemies; did the old major mean to let loose the bears on his own people?

She conquered her weariness, hurried past the major, and ran madly up to Ekeby.

She had a good start. When she reached the yard, she made her way through the crowd. When she stood in the middle of the ring, face to face with the major’s wife, she cried as loud as she could⁠—

“The major, the major is coming with the bears!”

There was consternation among the people; all eyes turned to the major’s wife.

“You have gone for him,” she said to Marianne.

“Run!” cried the latter, more earnestly. “Away, for God’s sake! I do not know what the major is thinking of, but he has the bears with him.”

All stood still and looked at the major’s wife.

“I thank you for your help, children,” she said quietly to the people. “Everything which has happened tonight has been so arranged that no one of you can be prosecuted by the law or get into trouble for it. Go home now! I do not want to see any of my people murder or be murdered. Go now!”

Still the people waited.

The major’s wife turned to Marianne.

“I know that you are in love,” she said. “You act in love’s madness. May the day never come when you must look on powerless at the ruin of your home! May you always be mistress over your tongue and your hand when anger fills the soul!”

“Dear children, come now, come!” she continued, turning to the people. “May God protect Ekeby! I must go to my mother. Oh, Marianne, when you have got back your senses, when Ekeby is ravaged, and the land sighs in want, think on what you have done this night, and look after the people!”

Thereupon she went, followed by her people.

When the major reached the yard, he found there no living thing but Marianne and a long line of horses with sledges and carriages⁠—a long dismal line, where the horses were not worse than the vehicles, nor the vehicles worse than their owners. Ill-used in the struggle of life were they all.

Marianne went forward and freed them.

She noticed how they bit their lips and looked away. They were ashamed as never before. A great disgrace had befallen them.

“I was not better off when I lay on my knees on the steps at Björne a couple of hours ago,” said Marianne.

And so, dear reader, what happened afterwards that night⁠—how the old vehicles were put into the carriage-house, the horses in the stable, and the pensioners in their house⁠—I shall not try to relate. The dawn began to appear over the eastern hills, and the day came clear and calm. How much quieter the bright, sunny days are than the dark nights, under whose protecting wings beasts of prey hunt and owls hoot!

I will only say that when the pensioners had gone in again and had found a few drops in the last punch-bowl to fill their glasses, a sudden ecstasy came over them.

“A toast for the major’s wife!” they cried.

Ah, she is a matchless woman! What better could they wish for than to serve her, to worship her?

Was it not sad that the devil had got her in his power, and that all her endeavors were to send poor gentlemen’s souls to hell?