The Churchyard

It was a beautiful evening in August. The Löfven lay like a mirror, haze veiled the mountains, it was the cool of the evening.

There came Beerencreutz, the colonel with the white moustaches, short, strong as a wrestler, and with a pack of cards in his coat pocket, to the shore of the lake, and sat down in a flat-bottomed boat. With him were Major Anders Fuchs, his old brother-at-arms, and little Ruster, the flute-player, who had been drummer in the Värmland chasseurs, and during many years had followed the colonel as his friend and servant.

On the other shore of the lake lies the churchyard, the neglected churchyard, of the Svartsjö parish, sparsely set with crooked, rattling iron crosses, full of hillocks like an unploughed meadow, overgrown with sedges and striped grasses, which had been sowed there as a reminder that no man’s life is like another’s, but changes like the leaf of the grass. There are no gravel walks there, no shading trees except the big linden on the forgotten grave of some old priest. A stone wall, rough and high, encloses the miserable field. Miserable and desolate is the churchyard, ugly as the face of a miser, which has withered at the laments of those whose happiness he has stolen. And yet they who rest there are blessed, they who have been sunk into consecrated earth to the sound of psalms and prayers. Acquilon, the gambler, he who died last year at Ekeby, had had to be buried outside the wall. That man, who once had been so proud and courtly, the brave warrior, the bold hunter, the gambler who held fortune in his hand, he had ended by squandering his children’s inheritance, all that he had gained himself, all that his wife had saved. Wife and children he had forsaken many years before, to lead the life of a pensioner at Ekeby. One evening in the past summer he had played away the farm which gave them their means of subsistence. Rather than to pay his debt he had shot himself. But the suicide’s body was buried outside the moss-grown wall of the miserable churchyard.

Since he died the pensioners had only been twelve; since he died no one had come to take the place of the thirteenth⁠—no one but the devil, who on Christmas Eve had crept out of the furnace.

The pensioners had found his fate more bitter than that of his predecessors. Of course they knew that one of them must die each year. What harm was there in that? Pensioners may not be old. Can their dim eyes no longer distinguish the cards, can their trembling hands no longer lift the glass, what is life for them, and what are they for life? But to lie like a dog by the churchyard wall, where the protecting sods may not rest in peace, but are trodden by grazing sheep, wounded by spade and plough, where the wanderer goes by without slackening his pace, and where the children play without subduing their laughter and jests⁠—to rest there, where the stone wall prevents the sound from coming when the angel of the day of doom wakes with his trumpet the dead within⁠—oh, to lie there!

Beerencreutz rows his boat over the Löfven. He passes in the evening over the lake of my dreams, about whose shores I have seen gods wander, and from whose depths my magic palace rises. He rows by Lagön’s lagoons, where the pines stand right up from the water, growing on low, circular shoals, and where the ruin of the tumble-down Viking castle still remains on the steep summit of the island; he rows under the pine grove on Borg’s point, where one old tree still hangs on thick roots over the cleft, where a mighty bear had been caught and where old mounds and graves bear witness of the age of the place.

He rows to the other side of the point, gets out below the churchyard, and then walks over mowed fields, which belong to the count at Borg, to Acquilon’s grave.

Arrived there, he bends down and pats the turf, as one lightly caresses the blanket under which a sick friend is lying. Then he takes out a pack of cards and sits down beside the grave.

“He is so lonely outside here, Johan Fredrik. He must long sometimes for a game.”

“It is a sin and a shame that such a man shall lie here,” says the great bear-hunter, Anders Fuchs, and sits down at his side.

But little Ruster, the flute-player, speaks with broken voice, while the tears run from his small red eyes.

“Next to you, colonel, next to you he was the finest man I have ever known.”

These three worthy men sit round the grave and deal the cards seriously and with zeal.

I look out over the world, I see many graves. There rest the mighty ones of the earth, weighed down by marble. Funeral marches thunder over them. Standards are sunk over those graves. I see the graves of those who have been much loved. Flowers, wet with tears, caressed with kisses, rest lightly on their green sods. I see forgotten graves, arrogant graves, lying resting-places, and others which say nothing, but never before did I see the right-bower and the joker with the bells in his cap offered as entertainment to a grave’s occupant.

“Johan Fredrik has won,” says the colonel, proudly. “Did I not know it? I taught him to play. Yes, now we are dead, we three, and he alone alive.”

Thereupon he gathers together the cards, rises, and goes, followed by the others, back to Ekeby.

May the dead man have known and felt that not everyone has forgotten him or his forsaken grave.

Strange homage wild hearts bring to them they love; but he who lies outside the wall, he whose dead body was not allowed to rest in consecrated ground, he ought to be glad that not everyone has rejected him.

Friends, children of men, when I die I shall surely rest in the middle of the churchyard, in the tomb of my ancestors. I shall not have robbed my family of their means of subsistence, nor lifted my hand against my own life, but certainly I have not won such a love, surely will no one do as much for me as the pensioners did for that culprit. It is certain that no one will come in the evening, when the sun sets and it is lonely and dreary in the gardens of the dead, to place between my bony fingers the many-colored cards.

Not even will anyone come, which would please me more⁠—for cards tempt me little⁠—with fiddle and bow to the grave, that my spirit, which wanders about the mouldering dust, may rock in the flow of melody like a swan on glittering waves.