The Child’s Mother

The child was born in a peasant’s house east of the Klar river. The child’s mother had come seeking employment one day in early June.

She had been unfortunate, she had said to the master and mistress, and her mother had been so hard to her that she had had to run away from home. She called herself Elizabeth Karlsdotter; but she would not say from whence she came, for then perhaps they would tell her parents that she was there, and if they should find her, she would be tortured to death, she knew it. She asked for no pay, only food and a roof over her head. She could work, weave or spin, and take care of the cows⁠—whatever they wanted. If they wished, she could also pay for herself.

She had been clever enough to come to the farmhouse barefoot, with her shoes under her arm; she had coarse hands; she spoke the country dialect; and she wore a peasant woman’s clothes. She was believed.

The master thought she looked sickly, and did not count much on her fitness for work. But somewhere the poor thing must be. And so she was allowed to stop.

There was something about her which made everyone on the farm kind to her. She had come to a good place. The people were serious and reticent. Her mistress liked her; when she discovered that she could weave, they borrowed a loom from the vicarage, and the child’s mother worked at it the whole summer.

It never occurred to anyone that she needed to be spared; she had to work like a peasant girl the whole time. She liked too to have much work. She was not unhappy. Life among the peasants pleased her, although she lacked all her accustomed conveniences. But everything was taken so simply and quietly there. Everyone’s thoughts were on his or her work; the days passed so uniform and monotonous that one mistook the day and thought it was the middle of the week when Sunday came.

One day at the end of August there had been haste with the oat crop, and the child’s mother had gone out with the others to bind the sheaves. She had strained herself, and the child had been born, but too soon. She had expected it in October.

Now the farmer’s wife stood with the child in the living room to warm it by the fire, for the poor little thing was shivering in the August heat. The child’s mother lay in a room beyond and listened to what they said of the little one. She could imagine how the men and maids came up and looked at him.

“Such a poor little thing,” they all said, and then followed always, without fail:⁠—

“Poor little thing, with no father!”

They did not complain of the child’s crying: they thought a child needed to cry; and, when everything was considered, the child was strong for its age; had it but a father, all would have been well.

The mother lay and listened and wondered. The matter suddenly seemed to her incredibly important. How would he get through life, the poor little thing?

She had made her plans before. She would remain at the farmhouse the first year. Then she would hire a room and earn her bread at the loom. She meant to earn enough to feed and clothe the child. Her husband could continue to believe that she was unworthy. She had thought that the child perhaps would be a better man if she alone brought it up, than if a stupid and conceited father should guide it.

But now, since the child was born, she could not see the matter in the same way. Now she thought that she had been selfish. “The child must have a father,” she said to herself.

If he had not been such a pitiful little thing, if he had been able to eat and sleep like other children, if his head had not always sunk down on one shoulder, and if he had not so nearly died when the attack of cramp came, it would not have been so important.

It was not so easy to decide, but decide she must immediately. The child was three days old, and the peasants in Värmland seldom wait longer to have the child baptized. Under what name should the baby be entered in the church-register, and what would the clergyman want to know about the child’s mother?

It was an injustice to the child to let him be entered as fatherless. If he should be a weak and sickly man, how could she take the responsibility of depriving him of the advantages of birth and riches?

The child’s mother had noticed that there is generally great joy and excitement when a child comes into the world. Now it seemed to her that it must be hard for this baby to live, whom everyone pitied. She wanted to see him sleeping on silk and lace, as it behoves a count’s son. She wanted to see him encompassed with joy and pride.

The child’s mother began to think that she had done its father too great an injustice. Had she the right to keep him for herself? That she could not have. Such a precious little thing, whose worth it is not in the power of man to calculate, should she take that for her own? That would not be honest.

But she did not wish to go back to her husband. She feared that it would be her death. But the child was in greater danger than she. He might die any minute, and he was not baptized.

That which had driven her from her home, the grievous sin which had dwelt in her heart, was gone. She had now no love for any other than the child.

It was not too heavy a duty to try to get him his right place in life.

The child’s mother had the farmer and his wife called and told them everything. The husband journeyed to Borg to tell Count Dohna that his countess was alive, and that there was a child.

The peasant came home late in the evening; he had not met the count, for he had gone away, but he had been to the minister at Svartsjö, and talked with him of the matter.

Then the countess heard that her marriage had been declared invalid, and that she no longer had a husband.

The minister wrote a friendly letter to her, and offered her a home in his house.

A letter from her own father to Count Henrik, which must have reached Borg a few days after her flight, was also sent to her. It was just that letter in which the old man had begged the count to hasten to make his marriage legal, which had indicated to the count the easiest way to be rid of his wife.

It is easy to imagine that the child’s mother was seized with anger more than sorrow, when she heard the peasant’s story.

She lay awake the whole night. The child must have a father, she thought over and over again.

The next morning the peasant had to drive to Ekeby for her, and go for Gösta Berling.

Gösta asked the silent man many questions, but could find out nothing. Yes, the countess had been in his house the whole summer. She had been well and had worked. Now a child was born. The child was weak; but the mother would soon be strong again.

Gösta asked if the countess knew that the marriage had been annulled.

Yes, she knew it now. She had heard it yesterday.

And as long as the drive lasted Gösta had alternately fever and chills.

What did she want of him? Why did she send for him?

He thought of the life that summer on Löfven’s shores. They had let the days go by with jests and laughter and pleasure parties, while she had worked and suffered.

He had never thought of the possibility of ever seeing her again. Ah, if he had dared to hope! He would have then come into her presence a better man. What had he now to look back on but the usual follies!

About eight o’clock in the evening he arrived, and was immediately taken to the child’s mother. It was dark in the room. He could scarcely see her where she lay. The farmer and his wife came in also.

Now you must know that she whose white face shone in the dimness was always the noblest and the purest he knew, the most beautiful soul which had ever arrayed itself in earthly dust. When he once again felt the bliss of being near her, he longed to throw himself on his knees and thank her for having again appeared to him; but he was so overpowered by emotion that he could neither speak nor act.

“Dear Countess Elizabeth!” he only cried.

“Good evening, Gösta.”

She gave him her hand, which seemed once more to have become soft and transparent. She lay silent, while he struggled with his emotion.

The child’s mother was not shaken by any violently raging feelings when she saw Gösta. It surprised her only that he seemed to consider her of chief importance, when he ought to understand that it now only concerned the child.

“Gösta,” she said gently, “you must help me now, as you once promised. You know that my husband has abandoned me, so that my child has no father.”

“Yes, countess; but that can certainly be changed. Now that there is a child, the count can be forced to make the marriage legal. You may be certain that I shall help you!”

The countess smiled. “Do you think that I will force myself upon Count Dohna?”

The blood surged up to Gösta’s head. What did she wish then? What did she want of him?

“Come here, Gösta,” she said, and again stretched out her hand. “You must not be angry with me for what I am going to say; but I thought that you who are⁠—who are⁠—”

“A dismissed priest, a drunkard, a pensioner, Ebba Dohna’s murderer; I know the whole list⁠—”

“Are you already angry, Gösta?”

“I would rather that you did not say anything more.”

But the child’s mother continued:⁠—

“There are many, Gösta, who would have liked to be your wife out of love; but it is not so with me. If I loved you I should not dare to speak as I am speaking now. For myself I would never ask such a thing, Gösta; but do you see, I can do it for the sake of the child. You must understand what I mean to beg of you. Of course it is a great degradation for you, since I am an unmarried woman who has a child. I did not think that you would be willing to do it because you are worse than others; although, yes, I did think of that too. But first I thought that you could be willing, because you are kind, Gösta, because you are a hero and can sacrifice yourself. But it is perhaps too much to ask. Perhaps such a thing would be impossible for a man. If you despise me too much, if it is too loathsome for you to give your name to another man’s child, say so! I shall not be angry. I understand that it is too much to ask; but the child is sick, Gösta. It is cruel at his baptism not to be able to give the name of his mother’s husband.”

He, hearing her, experienced the same feeling as when that spring day he had put her on land and left her to her fate. Now he had to help her to ruin her life, her whole future life. He who loved her had to do it.

“I will do everything you wish, countess,” he said.

The next day he spoke to the dean at Bro, for there the banns were to be called.

The good old dean was much moved by his story, and promised to take all the responsibility of giving her away.

“Yes,” he said, “you must help her, Gösta, otherwise she might become insane. She thinks that she has injured the child by depriving it of its position in life. She has a most sensitive conscience, that woman.”

“But I know that I shall make her unhappy,” cried Gösta.

“That you must not do, Gösta. You must be a sensible man now, with wife and child to care for.”

The dean had to journey down to Svartsjö and speak to both the minister there and the judge. The end of it all was that the next Sunday, the first of September, the banns were called in Svartsjö between Gösta Berling and Elizabeth von Thurn.

Then the child’s mother was carried with the greatest care to Ekeby, and there the child was baptized.

The dean talked to her, and told her that she could still recall her decision to marry such a man as Gösta Berling. She ought to first write to her father.

“I cannot repent,” she said; “think if my child should die before it had a father.”

When the banns had been thrice asked, the child’s mother had been well and up several days. In the afternoon the dean came to Ekeby and married her to Gösta Berling. But no one thought of it as a wedding. No guests were invited. They only gave the child a father, nothing more.

The child’s mother shone with a quiet joy, as if she had attained a great end in life. The bridegroom was in despair. He thought how she had thrown away her life by a marriage with him. He saw with dismay how he scarcely existed for her. All her thoughts were with her child.

A few days after the father and mother were mourning. The child had died.

Many thought that the child’s mother did not mourn so violently nor so deeply as they had expected; she had a look of triumph. It was as if she rejoiced that she had thrown away her life for the sake of the child. When he joined the angels, he would still remember that a mother on earth had loved him.

All this happened quietly and unnoticed. When the banns were published for Gösta Berling and Elizabeth von Thurn in the Svartsjö church, most of the congregation did not even know who the bride was. The clergyman and the gentry who knew the story said little about it. It was as if they were afraid that someone who had lost faith in the power of conscience should wrongly interpret the young woman’s action. They were so afraid, so afraid lest someone should come and say: “See now, she could not conquer her love for Gösta; she has married him under a plausible pretext.” Ah, the old people were always so careful of that young woman! Never could they bear to hear anything evil of her. They would scarcely acknowledge that she had sinned. They would not agree that any fault stained that soul which was so afraid of evil.

Another great event happened just then, which also caused Gösta’s marriage to be little discussed.

Major Samzelius had met with an accident. He had become more and more strange and misanthropic. His chief intercourse was with animals, and he had collected a small menagerie at Sjö.

He was dangerous too; for he always carried a loaded gun, and shot it off time after time without paying much attention to his aim. One day he was bitten by a tame bear which he had shot without intending it. The wounded animal threw itself on him, and succeeded in giving him a terrible bite in the arm. The beast broke away and took refuge in the forest.

The major was put to bed and died of the wound, but not till just before Christmas. Had his wife known that he lay ill, she could have resumed her sway over Ekeby. But the pensioners knew that she would not come before their year was out.