The Great Bear in Gurlitta Cliff

In the darkness of the forests dwell unholy creatures, whose jaws are armed with horrible, glittering teeth or sharp beaks, whose feet have pointed claws, which long to sink themselves in a blood-filled throat, and whose eyes shine with murderous desires.

There the wolves live, who come out at night and hunt the peasant’s sledge until the wife must take her little child, which sits upon her knee, and throw it to them, to save her own and her husband’s life.

There the lynx lives, which the people call göpa, for in the woods at least it is dangerous to call it by its right name. He who speaks of it during the day had best see that the doors and windows of the sheep-house are well closed towards night, for otherwise it will come. It climbs right up the walls, for its claws are strong as steel nails, glides in through the smallest hole, and throws itself on the sheep. And göpa hangs on their throats, and drinks their blood, and kills and tears, till every sheep is dead. He does not cease his wild death-dance among the terrified animals as long as any of them show a sign of life.

And in the morning the peasant finds all the sheep lying dead with torn throats, for göpa leaves nothing living where he ravages.

There the great owl lives, which hoots at dusk. If one mimics him, he comes whizzing down with outspread wings and strikes out one’s eyes, for he is no real bird, but an evil spirit.

And there lives the most terrible of them all, the bear, who has the strength of twelve men, and who, when he becomes a devil, can be killed only with a silver bullet.

And if one should chance to meet him in the wood, big and high as a wandering cliff, one must not run, nor defend one’s self; one must throw one’s self down on the ground and pretend to be dead. Many small children have imagined themselves lying on the ground with the bear over them. He has rolled them over with his paw, and they have felt his hot breath on their faces, but they have lain quiet, until he has gone away to dig a hole to bury them in. Then they have softly raised themselves up and stolen away, slowly at first, then in mad haste.

But think, think if the bear had not thought them really dead, but had taken a bite, or if he had been very hungry and wanted to eat them right up, or if he had seen them when they moved and had run after them. O God!

Terror is a witch. She sits in the dimness of the forest, sings magic songs to people, and fills their hearts with frightful thoughts. From her comes that deadly fear which weighs down life and darkens the beauty of smiling landscapes. Nature is malignant, treacherous as a sleeping snake; one can believe nothing. There lies Löfven’s lake in brilliant beauty; but trust it not, it lures to destruction. Every year it must gather its tribute of the drowned. There lies the wood temptingly peaceful; but trust it not! The wood is full of unholy things, beset with evil spirits and bloodthirsty vagrants’ souls.

Trust not the brook with its gliding waters. It is sudden sickness and death to wade in it after sunset. Trust not the cuckoo, who sings so gayly in the spring. In the autumn he becomes a hawk with fierce eyes and terrible claws. Trust not the moss, nor the heather, nor the rock. Nature is evil, full of invisible powers, who hate man. There is no spot where you can set your foot in safety; it is wonderful that your weak race can escape so much persecution.

Terror is a witch. Does she still sit in the darkness of the woods of Värmland? Does she still darken the beauty of smiling places, does she still dampen the joy of living? Great her power has been. I know it well, who have put steel in the cradle and a red-hot coal in the bath; I know it, who have felt her iron hand around my heart.

But no one shall think that I now am going to relate anything terrible or dreadful. It is only an old story of the great bear in Gurlitta Cliff which I must tell; and anyone can believe it or not, as it always is with hunting stories.

The great bear has its home on the beautiful mountain summit which is called Gurlitta Cliff, and which raises itself precipitously from the shores of the Löfven.

The roots of a fallen pine between which tufts of moss are hanging make the walls and roof of his dwelling, branches and twigs protect it, the snow makes it warm. He can lie there and sleep a good quiet sleep from summer to summer.

Is he, then, a poet, a dreamer, this hairy monarch of the forest? Will he sleep away the cold winter’s chill nights and colorless days to be waked by purling brooks and the song of birds? Will he lie there and dream of blushing cranberry bogs, and of anthills filled with brown delicious creatures, and of the white lambs which graze on the green slopes? Does he want, happy one! to escape the winter of life?

Outside the snowstorm rages; wolves and foxes wander about, mad with hunger. Why shall the bear alone sleep? Let him get up and feel how the cold bites, how heavy it is to wade in deep snow.

He has bedded himself in so well. He is like the sleeping princess in the fairy tale; and as she was waked by love, so will he be waked by the spring. By a ray of sunlight which penetrates through the twigs and warms his nose, by the drops of melting snow which wet his fur, will he be waked. Woe to him who untimely disturbs him!

He hears, suddenly, shouts, noise, and shots. He shakes the sleep out of his joints, and pushes aside the branches to see what it is. It is not spring, which rattles and roars outside his lair, nor the wind, which overthrows pine-trees and casts up the driving snow, but it is the pensioners, the pensioners from Ekeby, old acquaintances of the forest monarch. He remembered well the night when Fuchs and Beerencreutz sat and dozed in a Nygård peasant’s barn, where they awaited a visit from him. They had just fallen asleep over their brandy-bottle, when he swung himself in through the peat-roof; but they awoke, when he was trying to lift the cow he had killed out of the stall, and fell upon him with gun and knife. They took the cow from him and one of his eyes, but he saved his life.

Yes, verily the pensioners and he are old acquaintances. He remembered how they had come on him another time, when he and his queen consort had just laid themselves down for their winter sleep in the old lair here on Gurlitta Cliff and had young ones in the hole. He remembered well how they came on them unawares. He got away all right, throwing to either side everything that stood in his path; but he must limp for life from a bullet in his thigh, and when he came back at night to the royal lair, the snow was red with his queen consort’s blood, and the royal children had been carried away to the plain, to grow up there and be man’s servants and friends.

Yes, now the ground trembles; now the snowdrift which hides his lair shakes; now he bursts out, the great bear, the pensioners’ old enemy. Look out, Fuchs, old bear-killer; look out now, Beerencreutz; look out, Gösta Berling, hero of a hundred adventures!

Woe to all poets, all dreamers, all heroes of romance! There stands Gösta Berling with finger on trigger, and the bear comes straight towards him. Why does he not shoot? What is he thinking of?

Why does he not send a bullet straight into the broad breast? He stands in just the place to do it. The others are not placed right to shoot. Does he think he is on parade before the forest monarch?

Gösta of course stood and dreamed of the lovely Marianne, who is lying at Ekeby dangerously ill, from the chill of that night when she slept in the snowdrift.

He thinks of her, who also is a sacrifice to the curse of hatred which overlies the earth, and he shudders at himself, who has come out to pursue and to kill.

And there comes the great bear right towards him, blind in one eye from the blow of a pensioner’s knife, lame in one leg from a bullet from a pensioner’s gun, fierce and shaggy, alone, since they had killed his wife and carried away his children. And Gösta sees him as he is⁠—a poor, persecuted beast, whom he will not deprive of life, all he has left, since people have taken from him everything else.

“Let him kill me,” thinks Gösta, “but I will not shoot.”

And while the bear breaks his way towards him, he stands quite still as if on parade, and when the forest monarch stands directly in front of him, he presents arms and takes a step to one side.

The bear continues on his way, knowing too well that he has no time to waste, breaks into the wood, ploughs his way through drifts the height of a man, rolls down the steep slopes, and escapes, while all of them, who had stood with cocked guns and waited for Gösta’s shot, shoot off their guns after him.

But it is of no avail; the ring is broken, and the bear gone. Fuchs scolds, and Beerencreutz swears, but Gösta only laughs.

How could they ask that anyone so happy as he should harm one of God’s creatures?

The great bear of Gurlitta Cliff got away thus with his life, and he is waked from his winter sleep, as the peasants will find. No bear has greater skill than he to tear apart the roofs of their low, cellar-like cow-barns; none can better avoid a concealed ambush.

The people about the upper Löfven soon were at their wits’ end about him. Message after message was sent down to the pensioners, that they should come and kill the bear.

Day after day, night after night, during the whole of February, the pensioners scour the upper Löfven to find the bear, but he always escapes them. Has he learned cunning from the fox, and swiftness from the wolf? If they lie in wait at one place, he is ravaging the neighboring farmyard; if they seek him in the wood, he is pursuing the peasant, who comes driving over the ice. He has become the boldest of marauders: he creeps into the garret and empties the housewife’s honey-jar; he kills the horse in the peasant’s sledge.

But gradually they begin to understand what kind of a bear he is and why Gösta could not shoot him. Terrible to say, dreadful to believe, this is no ordinary bear. No one can hope to kill him if he does not have a silver bullet in his gun. A bullet of silver and bell-metal cast on a Thursday evening at new moon in the church-tower without the priest or the sexton or anybody knowing it would certainly kill him, but such a one is not so easy to get.

There is one man at Ekeby who, more than all the rest, would grieve over all this. It is, as one can easily guess, Anders Fuchs, the bear-killer. He loses both his appetite and his sleep in his anger at not being able to kill the great bear in Gurlitta Cliff. At last even he understands that the bear can only be killed with a silver bullet.

The grim Major Anders Fuchs was not handsome. He had a heavy, clumsy body, and a broad, red face, with hanging bags under his cheeks and several double chins. His small black moustache sat stiff as a brush above his thick lips, and his black hair stood out rough and thick from his head. Moreover, he was a man of few words and a glutton. He was not a person whom women meet with sunny smile and open arms, nor did he give them tender glances back again. One could not believe that he ever would see a woman whom he could tolerate, and everything which concerned love and enthusiasm was foreign to him.

One Thursday evening, when the moon, just two fingers wide, lingers above the horizon an hour or two after the sun has gone down, Major Fuchs betakes himself from Ekeby without telling anyone where he means to go. He has flint and steel and a bullet-mould in his hunting-bag, and his gun on his back, and goes up towards the church at Bro to see what luck there may be for an honest man.

The church lies on the eastern shore of the narrow sound between the upper and lower Löfven, and Major Fuchs must go over a bridge to get there. He wends his way towards it, deep in his thoughts, without looking up towards Broby hill, where the houses cut sharply against the clear evening sky; he only looks on the ground, and wonders how he shall get hold of the key of the church without anybody’s knowing it.

When he comes down to the bridge, he hears someone screaming so despairingly that he has to look up.

At that time the little German, Faber, was organist at Bro. He was a slender man, small in body and mind. And the sexton was Jan Larsson, an energetic peasant, but poor, for the Broby clergyman had cheated him out of his patrimony, five hundred rix-dollars.

The sexton wanted to marry the organist’s sister, the little, delicate maiden Faber, but the organist would not let him have her, and therefore the two were not good friends. That evening the sexton has met the organist as he crossed the bridge and has fallen upon him. He seizes him by the shoulder, and holding him at arm’s length out over the railing tells him solemnly that he shall drop him into the sound if he does not give him the little maiden. The little German will not give in; he struggles and screams, and reiterates “No,” although far below him he sees the black water rushing between the white banks.

“No, no,” he screams; “no, no!”

And it is uncertain if the sexton in his rage would have let him down into the cold black water if Major Fuchs had not just then come over the bridge. The sexton is afraid, puts Faber down on solid ground, and runs away as fast as he can.

Little Faber falls on the major’s neck to thank him for his life, but the major pushes him away, and says that there is nothing to thank him for. The major has no love for Germans, ever since he had his quarters at Putbus on the Rügen during the Pomeranian war. He had never so nearly starved to death as in those days.

Then little Faber wants to run up to the bailiff Scharling and accuse the sexton of an attempt at murder, but the major lets him know that it is of no use here in the country, for it does not count for anything to kill a German.

Little Faber grows calmer and asks the major to come home with him to eat a bit of sausage and to taste his home-brewed ale.

The major follows him, for he thinks that the organist must have a key to the church-door; and so they go up the hill, where the Bro church stands, with the vicarage, the sexton’s cottage and the organist’s house round about it.

“You must excuse us,” says little Faber, as he and the major enter the house. “It is not really in order today. We have had a little to do, my sister and I. We have killed a cock.”

“The devil!” cries the major.

The little maid Faber has just come in with the ale in great earthen mugs. Now, everyone knows that the major did not look upon women with a tender glance, but this little maiden he had to gaze upon with delight, as she came in so neat in lace and cap. Her light hair lay combed so smooth above her forehead, the home-woven dress was so pretty and so dazzlingly clean, her little hands were so busy and eager, and her little face so rosy and round, that he could not help thinking that if he had seen such a little woman twenty-five years ago, he must have come forward and offered himself.

She is so pretty and rosy and nimble, but her eyes are quite red with weeping. It is that which suggests such tender thoughts.

While the men eat and drink, she goes in and out of the room. Once she comes to her brother, courtesies, and says⁠—

“How do you wish me to place the cows in the stable?”

“Put twelve on the left and eleven on the right, then they can’t gore one another.”

“Have you so many cows, Faber?” bursts out the major.

The fact was that the organist had only two cows, but he called one eleven and the other twelve, that it might sound fine, when he spoke of them.

And then the major hears that Faber’s barn is being altered, so that the cows are out all day and at night are put into the woodshed.

The little maiden comes again to her brother, courtesies to him, and says that the carpenter had asked how high the barn should be made.

“Measure by the cows,” says the organist, “measure by the cows!”

Major Fuchs thinks that is such a good answer. However it comes to pass, the major asks the organist why his sister’s eyes are so red, and learns that she weeps because he will not let her marry the penniless sexton, in debt and without inheritance as he is.

Major Fuchs grows more and more thoughtful. He empties tankard after tankard, and eats sausage after sausage, without noticing it. Little Faber is appalled at such an appetite and thirst; but the more the major eats and drinks, the clearer and more determined his mind grows. The more decided becomes his resolution to do something for the little maiden Faber.

He has kept his eyes fixed on the great key which hangs on a knob by the door, and as soon as little Faber, who has had to keep up with the major in drinking the home-brewed ale, lays his head on the table and snores, Major Fuchs has seized the key, put on his cap, and hurried away.

A minute later he is groping his way up the tower stairs, lighted by his little horn lantern, and comes at last to the bell-room, where the bells open their wide throats over him. He scrapes off a little of the bell-metal with a file, and is just going to take the bullet-mould and melting-ladle out of his hunting-bag, when he finds that he has forgotten what is most important of all: he has no silver with him. If there shall be any power in the bullet, it must be cast there in the tower. Everything is right; it is Thursday evening and a new moon, and no one has any idea he is there, and now he cannot do anything. He sends forth into the silence of the night an oath with such a ring in it that the bells hum.

Then he hears a slight noise down in the church and thinks he hears steps on the stairs. Yes, it is true, heavy steps are coming up the stairs.

Major Fuchs, who stands there and swears so that the bells vibrate, is a little thoughtful at that. He wonders who it can be who is coming to help him with the bullet-casting. The steps come nearer and nearer. Whoever it is, is coming all the way up to the bell-room.

The major creeps far in among the beams and rafters, and puts out his lantern. He is not exactly afraid, but the whole thing would be spoiled if anyone should see him there. He has scarcely had time to hide before the newcomer’s head appears above the floor.

The major knows him well; it is the miserly Broby minister. He, who is nearly mad with greed, has the habit of hiding his treasures in the strangest places. He comes now with a roll of banknotes which he is going to hide in the tower-room. He does not know that anyone sees him. He lifts up a board in the floor and puts in the money and takes himself off again.

The major is not slow; he lifts up the same board. Oh, so much money! Package after package of banknotes, and among them brown leather bags, full of silver. The major takes just enough silver to make a bullet; the rest he leaves.

When he comes down to the earth again, he has the silver bullet in his gun. He wonders what luck has in store for him that night. It is marvellous on Thursday nights, as everyone knows. He goes up towards the organist’s house. Fancy if the bear knew that Faber’s cows are in a miserable shed, no better than under the bare sky.

What! surely he sees something black and big coming over the field towards the woodshed; it must be the bear. He puts the gun to his cheek and is just going to shoot, but then he changes his mind.

The little maid’s red eyes come before him in the darkness; he thinks that he will help her and the sexton a little, but it is hard not to kill the great bear himself. He said afterwards that nothing in the world had ever been so hard, but as the little maiden was so dear and sweet, it had to be done.

He goes up to the sexton’s house, wakes him, drags him out, half dressed and half naked, and says that he shall shoot the bear which is creeping about outside of Faber’s woodshed.

“If you shoot the bear, he will surely give you his sister,” he says, “for then you will be a famous man. That is no ordinary bear, and the best men in the country would consider it an honor to kill it.”

And he puts into his hand his own gun, loaded with a bullet of silver and bell-metal cast in a church tower on a Thursday evening at the new moon, and he cannot help trembling with envy that another than he shall shoot the great forest monarch, the old bear of Gurlitta Cliff.

The sexton aims⁠—God help us! aims, as if he meant to hit the Great Bear, which high up in the sky wanders about the North Star, and not a bear wandering on the plain⁠—and the gun goes off with a bang which can be heard all the way to Gurlitta Cliff.

But however he has aimed, the bear falls. So it is when one shoots with a silver bullet. One shoots the bear through the heart, even if one aims at the Dipper.

People come rushing out from all the neighboring farmyards and wonder what is going on, for never had a shot sounded so loud nor waked so many sleeping echoes as this one, and the sexton wins much praise, for the bear had been a real pest.

Little Faber comes out too, but now is Major Fuchs sadly disappointed. There stands the sexton covered with glory, besides having saved Faber’s cows, but the little organist is neither touched nor grateful. He does not open his arms to him and greet him as brother-in-law and hero.

The major stands and frowns and stamps his foot in rage over such smallness. He wants to explain to the covetous, narrow-minded little fellow what a deed it is, but he begins to stammer, so that he cannot get out a word. And he gets angry and more angry at the thought that he has given up the glory of killing the great bear in vain.

Oh, it is quite impossible for him to comprehend that he who had done such a deed should not be worthy to win the proudest of brides.

The sexton and some of the young men are going to skin the bear; they go to the grindstone and sharpen the knives. Others go in and go to bed. Major Fuchs stands alone by the dead bear.

Then he goes to the church once more, puts the key again in the lock, climbs up the narrow stairs and the twisted ladder, wakes the sleeping pigeons, and once more comes up to the tower-room.

Afterwards, when the bear is skinned under the major’s inspection, they find between his jaws a package of notes of five hundred rix-dollars. It is impossible to say how it came there, but of course it was a marvellous bear; and as the sexton had killed him, the money is his, that is very plain.

When it is made known, little Faber too understands what a glorious deed the sexton has done, and he declares that he would be proud to be his brother-in-law.

On Friday evening Major Anders Fuchs returns to Ekeby, after having been at a feast, in honor of the lucky shot, at the sexton’s and an engagement dinner at the organist’s. He follows the road with a heavy heart; he feels no joy that his enemy is dead, and no pleasure in the magnificent bearskin which the sexton has given him.

Many perhaps will believe that he is grieving that the sweet little maiden shall be another’s. Oh no, that causes him no sorrow. But what goes to his very heart is that the old, one-eyed forest king is dead, and it was not he who shot the silver bullet at him.

So he comes into the pensioners’ wing, where the pensioners are sitting round the fire, and without a word throws the bearskin down among them. Let no one think that he told about that expedition; it was not until long, long after that anyone could get out of him the truth of it. Nor did he betray the Broby clergyman’s hiding-place, who perhaps never noticed the theft.

The pensioners examine the skin.

“It is a fine skin,” says Beerencreutz. “I would like to know why this fellow has come out of his winter sleep, or perhaps you shot him in his hole?”

“He was shot at Bro.”

“Yes, as big as the Gurlitta bear he never was,” says Gösta, “but he has been a fine beast.”

“If he had had one eye,” says Kevenhüller, “I would have thought that you had killed the old one himself, he is so big; but this one has no wound or inflammation about his eyes, so it cannot be the same.”

Fuchs swears over his stupidity, but then his face lights up so that he is really handsome. The great bear has not been killed by another man’s bullet.

“Lord God, how good thou art!” he says, and folds his hands.