Death, the Deliverer

My pale friend, Death the deliverer, came in August, when the nights were white with moonlight, to the house of Captain Uggla. But he did not dare to go direct into that hospitable home, for they are few who love him, and he does not wish to be greeted with weeping, rather with quiet joy⁠—he who comes to set free the soul from the fetters of pain, he who delivers the soul from the burden of the body and lets it enjoy the beautiful life of the spheres.

Into the old grove behind the house, crept Death. In the grove, which then was young and full of green, my pale friend hid himself by day, but at night he stood at the edge of the wood, white and pale, with his scythe glittering in the moonlight.

Death stood there, and the creatures of the night saw him. Evening after evening the people at Berga heard how the fox howled to foretell his coming. The snake crawled up the sandy path to the very house. He could not speak, but they well understood that he came as a presage. And in the apple-tree outside the window of the captain’s wife the owl hooted. For everything in nature feels Death and trembles.

It happened that the judge from Munkerud, who had been at a festival at the Bro deanery, drove by Berga at two o’clock in the night and saw a candle burning in the window of the guestroom. He plainly saw the yellow flame and the white candle, and, wondering, he afterwards told of the candle which had burned in the summer night.

The gay daughters at Berga laughed and said that the judge had the gift of second sight, for there were no candles in the house, they were already burned up in March; and the captain swore that no one had slept in the guestroom for days and weeks; but his wife was silent and grew pale, for that white candle with the clear flame used to show itself when one of her family should be set free by Death.

A short time after, Ferdinand came home from a surveying journey in the northern forests. He came, pale and ill with an incurable disease of the lungs, and as soon as his mother saw him, she knew that her son must die.

He must go, that good son who had never given his parents a sorrow. He must leave earth’s pleasures and happiness, and the beautiful, beloved bride who awaited him, and the rich estates which should have been his.

At last, when my pale friend had waited a month, he took heart and went one night up to the house. He thought how hunger and privation had there been met by glad faces, so why should not he too be received with joy?

That night the captain’s wife, who lay awake, heard a knocking on the windowpane, and she sat up in bed and asked: “Who is it who knocks?”

And the old people tell that Death answered her:

“It is Death who knocks.”

Then she rose up, opened her window, and saw bats and owls fluttering in the moonlight, but Death she did not see.

“Come,” she said half aloud, “friend and deliverer! Why have you lingered so long? I have been waiting. I have called. Come and set my son free!”

The next day, she sat by her son’s sickbed and spoke to him of the blissfulness of the liberated spirit and of its glorious life.

So Ferdinand died, enchanted by bright visions, smiling at the glory to come.

Death had never seen anything so beautiful. For of course there were some who wept by Ferdinand Uggla’s deathbed; but the sick man himself smiled at the man with the scythe, when he took his place on the edge of the bed, and his mother listened to the death-rattle as if to sweet music. She trembled lest Death should not finish his work; and when the end came, tears fell from her eyes, but they were tears of joy which wet her son’s stiffened face.

Never had Death been so fêted as at Ferdinand Uggla’s burial.

It was a wonderful funeral procession which passed under the lindens. In front of the flower-decked coffin beautiful children walked and strewed flowers. There was no mourning-dress, no crape; for his mother had wished that he who died with joy should not be followed to the good refuge by a gloomy funeral procession, but by a shining wedding train.

Following the coffin, went Anna Stjärnhök, the dead man’s beautiful, glowing bride. She had set a bridal wreath on her head, hung a bridal veil over her, and arrayed herself in a bridal dress of white, shimmering satin. So adorned, she went to be wedded at the grave to a mouldering bridegroom.

Behind her they came, two by two, dignified old ladies and stately men. The ladies came in shining buckles and brooches, with strings of milk-white pearls and bracelets of gold. Ostrich feathers nodded in their bonnets of silk and lace, and from their shoulders floated thin silken shawls over dresses of many-colored satin. And their husbands came in their best array, in high-collared coats with gilded buttons, with swelling ruffles, and in vests of stiff brocade or richly-embroidered velvet. It was a wedding procession; the captain’s wife had wished it so.

She herself walked next after Anna Stjärnhök, led by her husband. If she had possessed a dress of shining brocade, she would have worn it; if she had possessed jewels and a gay bonnet, she would have worn them too to do honor to her son on his festival day. But she only had the black silk dress and the yellowed laces which had adorned so many feasts, and she wore them here too.

Although all the guests came in their best array, there was not a dry eye when they walked forward to the grave. Men and women wept, not so much for the dead, as for themselves. There walked the bride; there the bridegroom was carried; there they themselves wandered, decked out for a feast, and yet⁠—who is there who walks earth’s green pathways and does not know that his lot is affliction, sorrow, unhappiness, and death. They wept at the thought that nothing on earth could save them.

The captain’s wife did not weep; but she was the only one whose eyes were dry.

When the prayers were read, and the grave filled in, all went away to the carriages. Only the mother and Anna Stjärnhök lingered by the grave to bid their dead a last goodbye. The older woman sat down on the grave-mound, and Anna placed herself at her side.

“Anna,” said the captain’s wife, “I have said to God: ‘Let Death come and take away my son, let him take away him I love most, and only tears of joy shall come to my eyes; with nuptial pomp I will follow him to his grave, and my red rosebush, which stands outside my chamber-window, will I move to him in the graveyard.’ And now it has come to pass my son is dead. I have greeted Death like a friend, called him by the tenderest names; I have wept tears of joy over my son’s dead face, and in the autumn, when the leaves are fallen, I shall plant my red rosebush here. But do you know, you who sit here at my side, why I have sent such prayers to God?”

She looked questioningly at Anna Stjärnhök; but the girl sat silent and pale beside her. Perhaps she was struggling to silence inward voices which already there, on the grave of the dead, began to whisper to her that now at last she was free.

“The fault is yours,” said the captain’s wife.

The girl sank down as from a blow. She did not answer a word.

“Anna Stjärnhök, you were once proud and self-willed: you played with my son, took him and cast him off. But what of that? He had to accept it, as well as another. Perhaps too he and we all loved your money as much as you. But you came back, you came with a blessing to our home; you were gentle and mild, strong and kind, when you came again. You cherished us with love; you made us so happy, Anna Stjärnhök; and we poor people lay at your feet.

“And yet, and yet I have wished that you had not come. Then had I not needed to pray to God to shorten my son’s life. At Christmas he could have borne to lose you, but after he had learnt to know you, such as you now are, he would not have had the strength.

“You know, Anna Stjärnhök, who today have put on your bridal dress to follow my son, that if he had lived you would never have followed him in that attire to the Bro church, for you did not love him.

“I saw that you only came out of pity, for you wanted to relieve our hard lot. You did not love him. Do you not think that I know love, that I see it, when it is there, and understand when it is lacking. Then I thought: ‘May God take my son’s life before he has his eyes opened!’

“Oh, if you had loved him! Oh, if you had never come to us and sweetened our lives, when you did not love him! I knew my duty: if he had not died, I should have been forced to tell him that you did not love him, that you were marrying him out of pity. I must have made him set you free, and then his life’s happiness would have been gone. That is why I prayed to God that he might die, that I should not need to disturb the peace of his heart. And I have rejoiced over his sunken cheeks, exulted over his rattling breath, trembled lest Death should not complete his work.”

She stopped speaking, and waited for an answer; but Anna Stjärnhök could not speak, she was still listening to the many voices in her soul.

Then the mother cried out in despair:⁠—

“Oh, how happy are they who may mourn for their dead, they who may weep streams of tears! I must stand with dry eyes by my son’s grave, I must rejoice over his death! How unhappy I am!”

Then Anna Stjärnhök pressed her hands against her breast. She remembered that winter night when she had sworn by her love to be these poor people’s support and comfort, and she trembled. Had it all been in vain; was not her sacrifice one of those which God accepts? Should it all be turned to a curse?

But if she sacrificed everything would not God then give His blessing to the work, and let her bring happiness, be a support, a help, to these people?

“What is required for you to be able to mourn for your son?” she asked.

“That I shall not believe the testimony of my old eyes. If I believed that you loved my son, then I would grieve for his death.”

The girl rose up, her eyes burning. She tore off her veil and spread it over the grave, she tore off her wreath and laid it beside it.

“See how I love him!” she cried. “I give him my wreath and veil. I consecrate myself to him. I will never belong to another.”

Then the captain’s wife rose too. She stood silent for a while; her whole body was shaking, and her face twitched, but at last the tears came⁠—tears of grief.