The Broom-Girl

No one knows the place in the lee of the mountain where the pines grow thickest and deep layers of moss cover the ground. How should anyone know it? No man’s foot has ever trodden it before; no man’s tongue has given it a name. No path leads to that hidden spot. It is the most solitary tract in the forest, and now thousands of people are looking for it.

What an endless procession of seekers! They would fill the Bro church⁠—not only Bro, but Löfviks and Svartsjö.

All who live near the road rush out and ask, “Has anything happened? Is the enemy upon us? Where are you going? Tell us where.”

“We are searching,” they answer. “We have been searching for two days. We shall go on today; but afterwards we can do no more. We are going to look through the Björne wood and the firclad heights west of Ekeby.”

It was from Nygård, a poor district far away among the eastern mountains, the procession had first started. The beautiful girl with the heavy, black hair and the red cheeks had disappeared a week before. The broom-girl, to whom Gösta Berling had wished to engage himself, had been lost in the great forests. No one had seen her for a week.

So the people started from Nygård to search through the wood. And everybody they met joined in the search.

Sometimes one of the newcomers asks⁠—

“You men from Nygård, how has it all happened? Why do you let that beautiful girl go alone in strange paths? The forest is deep, and God has taken away her reason.”

“No one disturbs her,” they answer; “she disturbs no one. She goes as safely as a child. Who is safer than one God himself must care for? She has always come back before.”

So have the searching crowd gone through the eastern woods, which shut in Nygård from the plain. Now on the third day it passes by the Bro church towards the woods west of Ekeby.

But wherever they go, a storm of wondering rages; constantly a man from the crowd has to stop to answer questions: “What do you want? What are you looking for?”

“We are looking for the blue-eyed, dark-haired girl. She has laid herself down to die in the forest. She has been gone a week.”

“Why has she laid herself down to die in the forest? Was she hungry? Was she unhappy?”

“She has not suffered want, but she had a misfortune last spring. She has seen that mad priest, Gösta Berling, and loved him for many years. She knew no better. God had taken away her wits.”

“Last spring the misfortune happened⁠—before that, he had never looked at her. Then he said to her that she should be his sweetheart. It was only in jest; he let her go again, but she could not be consoled. She kept coming to Ekeby. She went after him wherever he went. He wearied of her. When she was there last, they set their dogs on her. Since then no one has seen her.”

To the rescue, to the rescue! A human life is concerned! A human being has laid herself down to die in the wood! Perhaps she is already dead. Perhaps, too, she is still wandering there without finding the right way. The forest is wide, and her reason is with God.

Come everybody, men and women and children! Who can dare to stay at home? Who knows if God does not intend to use just him? Come all of you, that your soul may not some day wander helpless in dry places, seek rest and find none! Come! God has taken her reason, and the forest is wide.

It is wonderful to see people unite for some great object. But it is not hunger, nor the fear of God, nor war which has driven these out. Their trouble is without profit, their striving without reward; they are only going to find a fool. So many steps, so much anxiety, so many prayers it all costs, and yet it will only be rewarded by the recovery of a poor, misguided girl, whose reason is with God.

Those anxious searchers fill the highway. With earnest eyes they gauge the forest; they go forward sadly, for they know that they are more probably searching for the dead than the living.

Ah, that black thing at the foot of the cliff, it is not an anthill after all, but a fallen tree. Praised be Heaven, only a fallen tree! But they cannot see distinctly, the pines grow so thick.

It is the third day of the search; they are used to the work. They search under the sloping rock, on which the foot can slide, under fallen trees, where arm or leg easily could have been broken, under the thick growing pines’ branches, trailing over soft moss, inviting to rest.

The bear’s den, the fox’s hole, the badger’s deep home, the red cranberry slope, the silver fir, the mountain, which the forest fire laid waste a month ago, the stone which the giant threw⁠—all that have they found, but not the place under the rock where the black thing is lying. No one has been there to see if it is an anthill, or a tree-trunk, or a human being. Alas! it is indeed a human being, but no one has been there to see her.

The evening sun is shining on the other side of the wood, but the young woman is not found. What should they do now? Should they search through the wood once more? The wood is dangerous in the dark; there are bottomless bogs and deep clefts. And what could they, who had found nothing when the sun was shining, find when it was gone?

“Let us go to Ekeby!” cries one in the crowd.

“Let us go to Ekeby!” they all cry together.

“Let us ask those pensioners why they let loose the dogs on one whose reason God had taken, why they drove a fool to despair. Our poor, hungry children weep; our clothes are torn; the potatoes rot in the ground; our horses are running loose; our cows get no care; we are nearly dead with fatigue⁠—and the fault is theirs. Let us go to Ekeby and ask about this.

“During this cursed year we have had to suffer everything. The winter will bring us starvation. Whom does God’s hand seek? It was not the Broby clergyman. His prayers could reach God’s ear. Who, then, if not these pensioners? Let us go to Ekeby!

“They have ruined the estate, they have driven the major’s wife to beg on the highway. It is their fault that we have no work. The famine is their doing. Let us go to Ekeby!”

So the dark, embittered men crowd down to Ekeby; hungry women with weeping children in their arms follow them; and last come the cripples and the old men. And the bitterness spreads like an ever-increasing storm from the old men to the women, from the women to the strong men at the head of the train.

It is the autumn-flood which is coming. Pensioners, do you remember the spring-flood?

A cottager who is ploughing in a pasture at the edge of the wood hears the people’s mad cries. He throws himself on one of his horses and gallops down to Ekeby.

“Disaster is coming!” he cries; “the bears are coming, the wolves are coming, the goblins are coming to take Ekeby!”

He rides about the whole estate, wild with terror.

“All the devils in the forest are let loose!” he cries. “They are coming to take Ekeby! Save yourselves who can! The devils are coming to burn the house and to kill the pensioners!”

And behind him can be heard the din and cries of the rushing horde. Does it know what it wants, that storming stream of bitterness? Does it want fire, or murder, or plunder?

They are not human beings; they are wild beasts. Death to Ekeby, death to the pensioners!

Here brandy flows in streams. Here gold lies piled in the vaults. Here the storehouses are filled with grain and meat. Why should the honest starve, and the guilty have plenty?

But now your time is out, the measure is overflowing, pensioners. In the wood lies one who condemns you; we are her deputies.

The pensioners stand in the big building and see the people coming. They know already why they are denounced. For once they are innocent. If that poor girl has lain down to die in the wood, it is not because they have set the dogs on her⁠—that they have never done⁠—but because Gösta Berling, a week ago, was married to Countess Elizabeth.

But what good is it to speak to that mob? They are tired, they are hungry; revenge drives them on, plunder tempts them. They rush down with wild cries, and before them rides the cottager, whom fear has driven mad.

The pensioners have hidden the young countess in their innermost room. Löwenborg and Eberhard are to sit there and guard her; the others go out to meet the people. They are standing on the steps before the main building, unarmed, smiling, as the first of the noisy crowd reach the house.

And the people stop before that little group of quiet men. They had wanted to throw them down on the ground and trample them under their iron-shod heels, as the people at the Lund ironworks used to do with the manager and overseer fifty years ago; but they had expected closed doors, raised weapons; they had expected resistance and fighting.

“Dear friends,” say the pensioners; “dear friends, you are tired and hungry; let us give you a little food and first a glass of Ekeby’s own home-brewed brandy.”

The people will not listen; they scream and threaten. But the pensioners are not discouraged.

“Only wait,” they say; “only wait a second. See, Ekeby stands open. The cellar doors are open; the storerooms are open; the dairy is open. Your women are dropping with fatigue; the children are crying. Let us get them food first! Then you can kill us. We will not run away. The attic is full of apples. Let us go after apples for the children!”

An hour later the feasting is in full swing at Ekeby. The biggest feast the big house has ever seen is celebrated there that autumn night under the shining full moon.

Woodpiles have been lighted; the whole estate flames with bonfires. The people sit about in groups, enjoying warmth and rest, while all the good things of the earth are scattered over them.

Resolute men have gone to the farmyard and taken what was needed. Calves and sheep have been killed, and even one or two oxen. The animals have been cut up and roasted in a trice. Those starving hundreds are devouring the food. Animal after animal is led out and slaughtered. It looks as if the whole barn would be emptied in one night.

They had just baked that day. Since the young Countess Elizabeth had come, there had once more been industry indoors. It seemed as if the young woman never for an instant remembered that she was Gösta Berling’s wife. Neither he nor she acted as if it were so; but on the other hand she made herself the mistress of Ekeby. As a good and capable woman always must do, she tried with burning zeal to remedy the waste and the shiftlessness which reigned in the house. And she was obeyed. The servants felt a certain pleasure in again having a mistress over them.

But what did it matter that she had filled the rafters with bread, that she had made cheeses and churned and brewed during the month of September?

Out to the people with everything there is, so that they may not burn down Ekeby and kill the pensioners! Out with bread, butter, cheese! Out with the beer-barrels, out with the hams from the storehouse, out with the brandy-kegs, out with the apples!

How can all the riches of Ekeby suffice to diminish the people’s anger? If we get them away before any dark deed is done, we may be glad.

It is all done for the sake of her who is now mistress at Ekeby. The pensioners are brave men; they would have defended themselves if they had followed their own will. They would rather have driven away the marauders with a few sharp shots, but for her, who is gentle and mild and begs for the people.

As the night advances, the crowds become gentler. The warmth and the rest and the food and the brandy assuage their terrible madness. They begin to jest and laugh.

As it draws towards midnight, it looks as if they were preparing to leave. The pensioners stop bringing food and wine, drawing corks and pouring ale. They draw a sigh of relief, in the feeling that the danger is over.

But just then a light is seen in one of the windows of the big house. All who see it utter a cry. It is a young woman who is carrying the light.

It had only been for a second. The vision disappeared; but the people think they have recognized the woman.

“She had thick black hair and red cheeks!” they cry. “She is here! They have hidden her here!”

“Oh, pensioners, have you her here? Have you got our child, whose reason God has taken, here at Ekeby? What are you doing with her? You let us grieve for her a whole week, search for three whole days. Away with wine and food! Shame to us, that we accepted anything from your hands! First, out with her! Then we shall know what we have to do to you.”

The people are quick; quicker still are the pensioners. They rush in and bar the door. But how could they resist such a mass? Door after door is broken down. The pensioners are thrown one side; they are unarmed. They are wedged in the crowd, so that they cannot move. The people will come in to find the broom-girl.

In the innermost room they find her. No one has time to see whether she is light or dark. They lift her up and carry her out. She must not be afraid, they say. They are here to save her.

But they who now stream from the building are met by another procession.

In the most lonely spot in the forest the body of a woman, who had fallen over a high cliff and died in the fall, no longer rests. A child had found her. Searchers who had remained in the wood had lifted her on their shoulders. Here they come.

In death she is more beautiful than in life. Lovely she lies, with her long, black hair. Fair is the form since the eternal peace rests upon it.

Lifted high on the men’s shoulders, she is carried through the crowd. With bent heads all do homage to the majesty of death.

“She has not been dead long,” the men whisper. “She must have wandered in the woods till today. We think that she wanted to escape from us who were looking for her, and so fell over the cliff.”

But if this is the broom-girl, who is the one who has been carried out of Ekeby?

The procession from the wood meets the procession from the house. Bonfires are burning all over the yard. The people can see both the women and recognize them. The other is the young countess at Borg.

“Oh! what is the meaning of this? Is this a new crime? Why is the young countess here at Ekeby? Why have they told us that she was far away or dead? In the name of justice, ought we not to throw ourselves on the pensioners and trample them to dust under iron-shod heels?”

Then a ringing voice is heard. Gösta Berling has climbed up on the balustrade and is speaking. “Listen to me, you monsters, you devils! Do you think there are no guns and powder at Ekeby, you madmen? Do you think that I have not wanted to shoot you like mad dogs, if she had not begged for you? Oh, if I had known that you would have touched her, not one of you should have been left alive!

“Why are you raging here tonight and threatening us with murder and fire? What have I to do with your crazy girls? Do I know where they run? I have been too kind to that one; that is the matter. I ought to have set the dogs on her⁠—it would have been better for us both⁠—but I did not. Nor have I ever promised to marry her; that I have never done. Remember that!

“But now I tell you that you must let her whom you have dragged out of the house go. Let her go, I say; and may the hands who have touched her burn in everlasting fire! Do you not understand that she is as much above you as heaven is above the earth? She is as delicate as you are coarse; as good as you are bad.

“Now I will tell you who she is. First, she is an angel from heaven⁠—secondly, she has been married to the count at Borg. But her mother-in-law tortured her night and day; she had to stand at the lake and wash clothes like an ordinary maid; she was beaten and tormented as none of your women have ever been. Yes, she was almost ready to throw herself into the river, as we all know, because they were torturing the life out of her. I wonder which one of you was there then to save her life. Not one of you was there; but we pensioners, we did it.

“And when she afterwards gave birth to a child off in a farmhouse, and the count sent her the message: ‘We were married in a foreign land; we did not follow law and order. You are not my wife; I am not your husband. I care nothing for your child!’⁠—yes, when that was so, and she did not want the child to stand fatherless in the church register, then you would have been proud enough if she had said to one of you: ‘Come and marry me! I must have a father for the child!’ But she chose none of you. She took Gösta Berling, the penniless priest, who may never speak the word of God. Yes, I tell you, peasants, that I have never done anything harder; for I was so unworthy of her that I did not dare to look her in the eyes, nor did I dare say no, for she was in despair.

“And now you may believe what evil you like of us pensioners; but to her we have done what good we could. And it is thanks to her that you have not all been killed tonight. But now I tell you: let her go, and go yourselves, or I think the earth will open and swallow you up. And as you go, pray God to forgive you for having frightened and grieved one who is so good and innocent. And now be off! We have had enough of you!”

Long before he had finished speaking, those who had carried out the countess had put her down on one of the stone steps; and now a big peasant came thoughtfully up to her and stretched out his great hand.

“Thank you, and good night,” he said. “We wish you no harm, countess.”

After him came another and shook her hand. “Thanks, and good night. You must not be angry with us!”

Gösta sprang down and placed himself beside her. Then they took his hand too.

So they came forward slowly, one after another, to bid them good night before they went. They were once more subdued; again were they human beings, as they were when they left their homes that morning, before hunger and revenge had made them wild beasts.

They looked in the countess’s face, and Gösta saw that the innocence and gentleness they saw there brought tears into the eyes of many. There was in them all a silent adoration of the noblest they had ever seen.

They could not all shake her hand. There were so many, and the young woman was tired and weak. But they all came and looked at her, and could take Gösta’s hand⁠—his arm could stand a shaking.

Gösta stood as if in a dream. That evening a new love sprang up in his heart.

“Oh, my people,” he thought, “oh, my people, how I love you!” He felt how he loved all that crowd who were disappearing into the darkness with the dead girl at the head of the procession, with their coarse clothes and evil-smelling shoes; those who lived in the gray huts at the edge of the wood; those who could not write and often not read; those who had never known the fullness and richness of life, only the struggle for their daily bread.

He loved them with a painful, burning tenderness which forced the tears from his eyes. He did not know what he wanted to do for them, but he loved them, each and all, with their faults, their vices and their weaknesses. Oh, Lord God, if the day could come when he too should be loved by them!

He awoke from his dream; his wife laid her hand on his arm. The people were gone. They were alone on the steps.

“Oh, Gösta, Gösta, how could you!”

She put her hands before her face and wept.

“It is true what I said,” he cried. “I have never promised the broom-girl to marry her. ‘Come here next Friday, and you shall see something funny!’ was all I ever said to her. It is not my fault that she cared for me.”

“Oh, it was not that; but how could you say to the people that I was good and pure? Gösta, Gösta! Do you not know that I loved you when I had no right to do it? I was ashamed, Gösta! I was ready to die of shame!”

And she was shaken by sobs.

He stood and looked at her.

“Oh, my friend, my beloved!” he said quietly. “How happy you are, who are so good! How happy to have such a beautiful soul!”