Cousin Christopher

They had an old bird of prey up in the pensioners’ wing. He always sat in the corner by the fire and saw that it did not go out. He was rough and gray. His little head with the big nose and the sunken eyes hung sorrowfully on the long, thin neck which stuck up out of a fluffy fur collar. For the bird of prey wore furs both winter and summer.

Once he had belonged to the swarm who in the great Emperor’s train swept over Europe; but what name and title he bore no one now can say. In Värmland they only knew that he had taken part in the great wars, that he had risen to might and power in the thundering struggle, and that after 1815 he had taken flight from an ungrateful fatherland. He found a refuge with the Swedish Crown Prince, and the latter advised him to disappear in far away Värmland.

And so it happened that one whose name had caused the world to tremble was now glad that no one even knew that once dreaded name.

He had given the Crown Prince his word of honor not to leave Värmland and not to make known who he was. And he had been sent to Ekeby with a private letter to the major from the Crown Prince, who had given him the best of recommendations. It was then the pensioners’ wing opened its doors to him.

In the beginning people wondered much who he was who concealed his identity under an assumed name. But gradually he was transformed into a pensioner. Everybody called him Cousin Christopher, without knowing exactly how he had acquired the name.

But it is not good for a bird of prey to live in a cage. One can understand that he is accustomed to something different than hopping from perch to perch and taking food from his keeper’s hand. The excitement of the battle and of the danger of death had set his pulse on fire. Drowsy peace disgusts him.

It is true that none of the pensioners were exactly tame birds; but in none of them the blood burned so hot as in Cousin Christopher. A bear hunt was the only thing which could put life into him, a bear hunt or a woman, one single woman.

He had come to life when he, ten years ago, for the first time saw Countess Märta, who was already then a widow⁠—a woman as changeable as war, as inciting as danger, a startling, audacious creature; he loved her.

And now he sat there and grew old and gray without being able to ask her to be his wife. He had not seen her for five years. He was withering and dying by degrees, as caged eagles do. Every year he became more dried and frozen. He had to creep down deeper into his furs and move nearer the fire.

So there he is sitting, shivering, shaggy, and gray, the morning of the day, on the evening of which the Easter bullets should be shot off and the Easter witch burned. The pensioners have all gone out; but he sits in the corner by the fire.

Oh, Cousin Christopher, Cousin Christopher, do you not know?

Smiling she has come, the enchanting spring.

Nature up starts from drowsy sleep, and in the blue sky butterfly-winged spirits tumble in wild play. Close as roses on the sweet brier, their faces shine between the clouds.

Earth, the great mother, begins to live. Romping like a child she rises from her bath in the spring floods, from her douche in the spring rain.

But Cousin Christopher sits quiet and does not understand. He leans his head on his stiffened fingers and dreams of showers of bullets and of honors won on the field of battle.

One pities the lonely old warrior who sits there by the fire, without a people, without a country, he who never hears the sound of his native language, he who will have a nameless grave in the Bro churchyard. Is it his fault that he is an eagle, and was born to persecute and to kill?

Oh, Cousin Christopher, you have sat and dreamed long enough in the pensioners’ wing! Up and drink the sparkling wine of life. You must know, Cousin Christopher, that a letter has come to the major this day, a royal letter adorned with the seal of Sweden. It is addressed to the major, but the contents concern you. It is strange to see you, when you read the letter, old eagle. Your eye regains its brightness, and you lift your head. You see the cage door open and free space for your longing wings.

Cousin Christopher is burrowing deep down to the bottom of his chest. He drags out the carefully laid away gold-laced uniform and dresses himself in it. He presses the plumed hat on his head and he is soon hastening away from Ekeby, riding his excellent white horse.

This is another life than to sit shivering by the fire; he too now sees that spring has come.

He straightens himself up in his saddle and sets off at a gallop. The fur-lined dolman flutters. The plumes on his hat wave. The man has grown young like the earth itself. He has awaked from a long winter. The old gold can still shine. The bold warrior face under the cocked hat is a proud sight.

It is a wonderful ride. Brooks gush from the ground, and flowers shoot forth, as he rides by. The birds sing and warble about the freed prisoner. All nature shares in his joy.

He is like a victor. Spring rides before on a floating cloud. And round about Cousin Christopher rides a staff of old brothers-in-arms: there is Happiness, who stands on tiptoe in the saddle, and Honor on his stately charger, and Love on his fiery Arab. The ride is wonderful; wonderful is the rider. The thrush calls to him:⁠—

“Cousin Christopher, Cousin Christopher, whither are you riding? Whither are you riding?”

“To Borg to offer myself, to Borg to offer myself,” answers Cousin Christopher.

“Do not go to Borg, do not go to Borg! An unmarried man has no sorrow,” screams the thrush after him.

But he does not listen to the warning. Up the hills and down the hills he rides, until at last he is there. He leaps from the saddle and is shown in to the countess.

Everything goes well. The countess is gracious to him. Cousin Christopher feels sure that she will not refuse to bear his glorious name or to reign in his palace. He sits and puts off the moment of rapture, when he shall show her the royal letter. He enjoys the waiting.

She talks and entertains him with a thousand stories. He laughs at everything, enjoys everything. But as they are sitting in one of the rooms where Countess Elizabeth has hung up Mamselle Marie’s curtains, the countess begins to tell the story of them. And she makes it as funny as she can.

“See,” she says at last, “see how bad I am. Here hang the curtains now, that I may think daily and hourly of my sin. It is a penance without equal. Oh, those dreadful knitted curtains!”

The great warrior, Cousin Christopher, looks at her with burning eyes.

“I, too, am old and poor,” he says, “and I have sat for ten years by the fire and longed for my mistress. Do you laugh at that too, countess?”

“Oh, that is another matter,” cries the countess.

“God has taken from me happiness and my fatherland, and forced me to eat the bread of others,” says Cousin Christopher, earnestly. “I have learned to have respect for poverty.”

“You, too,” cries the countess, and holds up her hands. “How virtuous everyone is getting!”

“Yes,” he says, “and know, countess, that if God some day in the future should give me back riches and power, I would make a better use of them than to share them with such a worldly woman, such a painted, heartless monkey, who makes fun of poverty.”

“You would do quite right, Cousin Christopher.”

And then Cousin Christopher marches out of the room and rides home to Ekeby again; but the spirits do not follow him, the thrush does not call to him, and he no longer sees the smiling spring.

He came to Ekeby just as the Easter witch was to be burned. She is a big doll of straw, with a rag face, on which eyes, nose, and mouth are drawn with charcoal. She is dressed in old cast-off clothes. The long-handled oven-rake and broom are placed beside her, and she has a horn of oil hung round her neck. She is quite ready for the journey to hell.

Major Fuchs loads his gun and shoots it off into the air time after time. A pile of dried branches is lighted, the witch is thrown on it and is soon burning gayly. The pensioners do all they can, according to the old, tried customs, to destroy the power of the evil one.

Cousin Christopher stands and looks on with gloomy mien. Suddenly he drags the great royal letter from his cuff and throws it on the fire. God alone knows what he thought. Perhaps he imagined that it was Countess Märta herself who was burning there on the pile. Perhaps he thought that, as that woman, when all was said, consisted only of rags and straw, there was nothing worth anything any more on earth.

He goes once more into the pensioners’ wing, lights the fire, and puts away his uniform. Again he sits down at the fire, and every day he gets more rough and more gray. He is dying by degrees, as old eagles do in captivity.

He is no longer a prisoner; but he does not care to make use of his freedom. The world stands open to him. The battlefield, honor, life, await him. But he has not the strength to spread his wings in flight.