The Paths of Life

Weary are the ways which men have to follow here on earth.

Paths through the desert, paths through the marshes, paths over the mountains.

Why is so much sorrow allowed to go undisturbed, until it loses itself in the desert or sinks in the bog, or falls on the mountain? Where are the little flower-pickers, where are the little princesses of the fairy tale about whose feet roses grow, where are they who should strew flowers on the weary ways?

Gösta Berling has decided to get married. He is searching for a bride who is poor enough, humble enough for a mad priest.

Beautiful and highborn women have loved him, but they may not compete for his hand. The outcast chooses from among outcasts.

Whom shall he choose, whom shall he seek out?

To Ekeby a poor girl sometimes comes from a lonely forest hamlet far away among the mountains, and sells brooms. In that hamlet, where poverty and great misery exist, there are many who are not in possession of their full intellect, and the girl with the brooms is one of them.

But she is beautiful. Her masses of black hair make such thick braids that they scarcely find room on her head, her cheeks are delicately rounded, her nose straight and not too large, her eyes blue. She is of a melancholy, Madonna-like type, such as is still found among the lovely girls by the shores of Löfven’s long lake.

Well, Gösta has found his sweetheart; a half-crazy broom-girl is just the wife for a mad priest. Nothing can be more suitable.

All he needs to do is to go to Karlstad for the rings, and then they can once more have a merry day by Löfven’s shore. Let them laugh at Gösta Berling when he betroths himself to the broom-girl, when he celebrates his wedding with her! Let them laugh! Has he ever had a merrier idea?

Must not the outcast go the way of the outcasts⁠—the way of anger, the way of sorrow, the way of unhappiness? What does it matter if he falls, if he is ruined? Is there anyone to stop him? Is there anyone who would reach him a helping hand or offer him a cooling drink? Where are the little flower-pickers, where are the little princesses of the fairytale, where are they who should strew roses on the stony ways?

No, no, the gentle young countess at Borg will not interfere with Gösta Berling’s plans. She must think of her reputation, she must think of her husband’s anger and her mother-in-law’s hate, she must not do anything to keep him back.

All through the long service in the Svartsjö church, she must bend her head, fold her hands, and only pray for him. During sleepless nights she can weep and grieve over him, but she has no flowers to strew on the way of the outcast, not a drop of water to give one who is thirsting. She does not stretch out her hand to lead him back from the edge of the precipice.

Gösta Berling does not care to clothe his chosen bride in silk and jewels. He lets her go from farm to farm with brooms, as her habit is, but when he has gathered together all the chief men and women of the place at a great feast at Ekeby, he will make his betrothal known. He will call her in from the kitchen, just as she has come from her long wanderings, with the dust and dirt of the road on her clothes, perhaps ragged, perhaps with dishevelled hair, with wild eyes, with an incoherent stream of words on her lips. And he will ask the guests if he has not chosen a suitable bride, if the mad priest ought not to be proud of such a lovely sweetheart, of that gentle Madonna face, of those blue, dreamy eyes.

He intended that no one should know anything beforehand, but he did not succeed in keeping the secret, and one of those who heard it was the young Countess Dohna.

But what can she do to stop him? It is the engagement day, the eleventh hour has come. The countess stands at the window in the blue cabinet and looks out towards the north. She almost thinks that she can see Ekeby, although her eyes are dim with tears. She can see how the great three-storied house shines with three rows of lighted windows; she thinks how the champagne flows in the glasses, how the toast resounds and how Gösta Berling proclaims his engagement to the broom-girl.

If she were only near him and quite gently could lay her hand on his arm, or only give him a friendly look, would he not turn back from the evil way? If a word from her had driven him to such a desperate deed, would not also a word from her check him?

She shudders at the sin he is going to commit against that poor, half-witted child. She shudders at his sin against the unfortunate creature, who shall be won to love him, perhaps only for the jest of a single day. Perhaps too⁠—and then she shudders even more at the sin he is committing against himself⁠—to chain fast to his life such a galling burden, which would always take from his spirit the strength to reach the highest.

And the fault was chiefly hers. She had with a word of condemnation driven him on the evil way. She, who had come to bless, to alleviate, why had she twisted one more thorn into the sinner’s crown?

Yes, now she knows what she will do. She will have the black horses harnessed into the sledge, hasten over the Löfven and to Ekeby, place herself opposite to Gösta Berling, and tell him that she does not despise him, that she did not know what she was saying when she drove him from her house. No, she could never do such a thing; she would be ashamed and would not dare to say a word. Now that she was married, she must take care. There would be such a scandal if she did such a thing. But if she did not do it, how would it go with him?

She must go.

Then she remembers that such a plan is impossible. No horse can go again this year over the ice. The ice is melting, it has already broken away from the land. It is broken, cracked, terrible to see. Water bubbles up through it, in some places it has gathered in black pools, in other places the ice is dazzlingly white. It is mostly gray, dirty with melting snow, and the roads look like long, black streaks on its surface.

How can she think of going? Old Countess Märta, her mother-in-law, would never permit such a thing. She must sit beside her the whole evening in the drawing-room and listen to those old stories which are the older woman’s delight.

At last the night comes, and her husband is away; she is free.

She cannot drive, she does not dare to call the servants, but her anxiety drives her out of her home. There is nothing else for her to do.

Weary are the ways men wander on earth; but that way by night over melting ice, to what shall I compare it? Is it not the way which the little flower-pickers have to go, an uncertain, shaking, slippery way, the way of those who wish to make amends, the way of the light foot, the quick eye, and the brave, loving heart?

It was past midnight when the countess reached the shores of Ekeby. She had fallen on the ice, she had leaped over wide fissures, she had hurried across places where her footprints were filled with bubbling water, she had slipped, she had crept on all fours.

It had been a weary wandering; she had wept as she had walked. She was wet and tired, and out there on the ice, the darkness and the loneliness had given her terrible thoughts.

At the last she had had to wade in water over her ankles to reach land. And when she had come to the shore, she had not had the courage to do more than sit down on a rock and weep from fatigue and helplessness.

This young, highborn lady was, however, a brave little heroine. She had never gone such ways in her bright mother country. She may well sit by the edge of that terrible lake, wet, tired, unhappy as she is, and think of the fair, flowery paths of her Southern fatherland.

Ah, for her it is not a question of South or North. She is not weeping from homesickness. She is weeping because she is so tired, because she will not come in time. She thinks that she has come too late.

Then people come running along the shore. They hurry by her without seeing her, but she hears what they say.

“If the dam gives way, the smithy goes,” one says. “And the mill and the workshops and the smith’s house,” adds another.

Then she gets new courage, rises, and follows them.

Ekeby mill and smithy lay on a narrow point past which the Björksjö River rushes. It comes roaring down towards the point, whipped white in the mighty falls above, and to protect the land a great breakwater was built before the point. But the dam was old now, and the pensioners were in power. In their day the dance filled all their thoughts, and no one took the trouble to see how the current and the cold and time had worn the old stone-dam.

Now with the spring-floods the dam begins to yield.

The falls at Ekeby are like mighty granite stairs, down which the waves come rushing. Giddy with the speed, they tumble over one another and rush together. They rise up in anger and dash in spray over one another, fall again, over a rock, over a log, and rise up again, again to fall, again and again, foaming, hissing, roaring.

And now these wild, raging waves, drunken with the spring air, dizzy with their newly won freedom, storm against the old stonewall. They come, hissing and tearing, high up on to it and then fall back again, as if they had hit their white heads. They use logs as battering-rams, they strain, they beat, they rush against that poor wall, until suddenly, just as if someone had called to them, “Look out!” they rush backwards, and after them comes a big stone, which has broken away from the dam and sinks thundering down in the stream.

But why are these wild waves allowed to rage without meeting any resistance? Is everyone dead at Ekeby?

No, there are people enough there⁠—a wild, perplexed, helpless crowd of people. The night is dark, they cannot see one another, nor see where they are going. Loud roars the falls, terrible is the din of the breaking ice and the pounding logs; they cannot hear their own voices. They have not a thought nor an idea. They feel that the end is coming. The dam is trembling, the smithy is in danger, the mill is in danger, and their own poor houses beloved in all their lowliness.

Message after message is sent up to the house to the pensioners.

Are they in a mood to think of smithy or mill? The hundred guests are gathered in the wide walls. The broom-girl is waiting in the kitchen. The hour has come. The champagne bubbles in the glasses. Julius rises to make the speech. All the old adventurers at Ekeby are rejoicing at the petrifying amazement which will fall upon the assembly.

Out on the ice the young Countess Dohna is wandering a terrible, perilous way in order to whisper a word of warning to Gösta Berling. Down at the waterfall the waves are storming the honor and might of Ekeby, but in the wide halls only joy and eager expectation reign, wax-candles are shining, wine is flowing; no one thinks of what is happening in the dark, stormy spring night.

Now has the moment come. Gösta rises and goes out to bring in his sweetheart. He has to go through the hall, and its great doors are standing open; he stops, he looks out into the pitch dark night⁠—and he hears, he hears!

He hears the bells ringing, the falls roaring. He hears the thunder of the breaking ice, the noise of the pounding logs, the rebellious waves’ rushing and threatening voice.

He hastens out into the night, forgetting everything. Let them inside stand with lifted glasses till the world’s last day; he cares nothing for them. The broom-girl can wait, Julius’s speech may die on his lips. There would be no rings exchanged that night, no paralyzing amazement would fall upon the shining assembly.

Now the waves must in truth fight for their freedom, for Gösta Berling has come, the people have found a leader. Terrified hearts take courage, a terrible struggle begins.

Hear how he calls to the people; he commands, he sets all to work.

“We must have light, light first of all; the miller’s horn-lantern is not enough. See all those piles of branches; carry them up on the cliff and set fire to them. That is work for the women and children. Only be quick; build up a great flaming brush-pile and set fire to it! That will light up our work; that will be seen far and wide and bring more to help us. And let it never go out! Bring straw, bring branches, let the flames stream up to the sky!”

“Look, look, you men, here is work for you. Here is timber, here are planks; make a temporary dam, which we can sink in front of this breaking wall. Quick, quick to work; make it firm and solid! Get ready stones and sandbags to sink it with! Quick! Swing your axes! To work! to work!”

“And where are the boys? Get poles, get boat-hooks, and come out here in the midst of the struggle. Out on the dam with you, boys, right in the waves. Keep off, weaken, drive back their attacks, before which the walls are cracking. Push aside the logs and pieces of ice; throw yourselves down, if nothing else helps, and hold the loosening stones with your hands; bite into them, seize them with claws of iron. Out on the wall, boys! We shall fight for every inch of land.”

Gösta himself takes his stand farthest out on the dam and stands there covered with spray; the ground shakes under him, the waves thunder and rage, but his wild heart rejoices at the danger, the anxiety, the struggle. He laughs. He jokes with the boys about him on the dam; he has never had a merrier night.

The work of rescue goes quickly forward, the fire flames, the axes resound, and the dam stands.

The other pensioners and the hundred guests have come down to the waterfall. People come running from near and far; all are working, at the fires, at the temporary dam, at the sandbags, out on the tottering, trembling stonewall.

Now the temporary dam is ready, and shall be sunk in front of the yielding breakwater. Have the stones and sandbags ready, and boat-hooks and rope, that it may not be carried away, that the victory may be for the people, and the cowed waves return to their bondage.

It so happens that just before the decisive moment Gösta catches sight of a woman who is sitting on a stone at the water’s edge. The flames from the bonfire light her up where she sits staring out over the waves; he cannot see her clearly and distinctly through the mist and spray, but his eyes are continually drawn to her. Again and again he has to look at her. He feels as if that woman had a special errand to him.

Among all these hundreds who are working and busy, she is the only one who sits still, and to her his eyes keep turning, he can see nothing else.

She is sitting so far out that the waves break at her feet, and the spray dashes over her. She must be dripping wet. Her dress is dark, she has a black shawl over her head, she sits shrunk together, her chin on her hand, and stares persistently at him out on the dam. He feels as if those staring eyes were drawing and calling, although he cannot even distinguish her face; he thinks of nothing but the woman who sits on the shore by the white waves.

“It is the sea-nymph from the Löfven, who has come up the river to lure me to destruction,” he thinks. “She sits there and calls and calls. I must go and drive her away.”

All these waves with their white heads seem to him the black woman’s hair; it was she who set them on, who led the attack against him.

“I really must drive her away,” he says.

He seizes a boat-hook, runs to the shore, and hurries away to the woman.

He leaves his place on the end of the dam to drive the sea-nymph away. He felt, in that moment of excitement, as if the evil powers of the deep were fighting against him. He did not know what he thought, what he believed, but he must drive that black thing away from the stone by the river’s edge.

Alas, Gösta, why is your place empty in the decisive moment? They are coming with the temporary dam, a long row of men station themselves on the breakwater; they have ropes and stones and sandbags ready to weight it down and hold it in place; they stand ready, they wait, they listen. Where is their leader? Is there no voice to command?

No, Gösta Berling is chasing the sea-nymph, his voice is silent, his commands lead no one.

So the temporary dam has to be sunk without him. The waves rush back, it sinks into the water and after it the stones and sandbags. But how is the work carried out without a leader? No care, no order. The waves dash up again, they break with renewed rage against this new obstacle, they begin to roll the sandbags over, tear the ropes, loosen the stones; and they succeed, they succeed. Threatening, rejoicing, they lift the whole dam on their strong shoulders, tear and drag on it, and then they have it in their power. Away with the miserable defence, down to the Löfven with it. And then on once more against the tottering, helpless stonewall.

But Gösta is chasing the sea-nymph. She saw him as he came towards her swinging the boat-hook. She was frightened. It looked as if she was going to throw herself into the water, but she changed her mind and ran to the land.

“Sea-nymph!” cries Gösta, and brandishes the boat-hook. She runs in among the alder-bushes, gets entangled in their thick branches, and stops.

Then Gösta throws away the boat-hook, goes forward, and lays his hand on her shoulder.

“You are out late tonight, Countess Elizabeth,” he says.

“Let me alone, Herr Berling, let me go home!”

He obeys instantly and turns away from her.

But since she is not only a highborn lady, but a really kind little woman, who cannot bear the thought that she has driven anyone to despair; since she is a little flower-picker, who always has roses enough in her basket to adorn the barrenest way, she repents, goes after him and seizes his hand.

“I came,” she says, and stammers, “I came to⁠—Oh, Herr Berling, you have not done it? Say that you have not done it! I was so frightened when you came running after me, but it was you I wanted to meet. I wanted to ask you not to think of what I said the other day, and to come to see me as usual.”

“How have you come here, countess?”

She laughs nervously. “I knew that I should come too late, but I did not like to tell anyone that I was going; and besides, you know, it is impossible to drive over the ice now.”

“Have you walked across the lake, countess?”

“Yes, yes, of course; but, Herr Berling, tell me. Are you engaged? You understand; I wish so you were not. It is so wrong, you see, and I felt as if the whole thing was my fault. You should not have minded a word from me so much. I am a stranger, who does not know the customs of the country. It is so dull at Borg since you do not come any more, Herr Berling.”

It seems to Gösta Berling, as he stands among the wet alder-bushes on the marshy ground, as if someone were throwing over him armfuls of roses. He wades in roses up to his knees, they shine before his eyes in the darkness, he eagerly drinks in their fragrance.

“Have you done that?” she repeats.

He must make up his mind to answer her and to put an end to her anxiety, although his joy is so great over it. It grows so warm in him and so bright when he thinks what a way she has wandered, how wet she is, how frozen, how frightened she must have been, how broken with weeping her voice sounds.

“No,” he says, “I am not engaged.”

Then she takes his hand again and strokes it. “I am so glad, I am so glad,” she says, and her voice is shaken with sobs.

There are flowers enough now on the poet’s way, everything dark, evil, and hateful melts from his heart.

“How good you are, how good you are!” he says.

At their side the waves are rushing against all Ekeby’s honor and glory. The people have no leader, no one to instill courage and hope into their hearts; the dam gives way, the waves close over it, and then rush triumphant forward to the point where the mill and smithy stand. No one tries any longer to resist the waves; no one thinks of anything but of saving life and property.

It seems quite natural to both the young people that Gösta should escort the countess home; he cannot leave her alone in this dark night, nor let her again wander alone over the melting ice. They never think that he is needed up at the smithy, they are so happy that they are friends again.

One might easily believe that these young people cherish a warm love for one another, but who can be sure? In broken fragments the glowing adventures of their lives have come to me. I know nothing, or next to nothing, of what was in their innermost souls. What can I say of the motives of their actions. I only know that that night a beautiful young woman risked her life, her honor, her reputation, her health, to bring back a poor wretch to the right way. I only know that that night Gösta Berling left the beloved Ekeby fall to follow her who for his sake had conquered the fear of death, the fear of shame, the fear of punishment.

Often in my thoughts I have followed them over the ice that terrible night, which ended so well for them. I do not think that there was anything hidden or forbidden in their hearts, as they wandered over the ice, gay and chatting of everything which had happened during their separation.

He is once more her slave, her page, who lies at her feet, and she is his lady.

They are only happy, only joyous. Neither of them speaks a word which can denote love.

Laughing they splash through the water, they laugh when they find the path, when they lose it, when they slip, when they fall, when they are up again; they only laugh.

This blessed life is once more a merry play, and they are children who have been cross and have quarrelled. Oh, how good it is to make up and begin to play again.

Rumor came, and rumor went. In time the story of the countess’s wanderings reached Anna Stjärnhök.

“I see,” she said, “that God has not one string only to his bow. I can rest and stay where I am needed. He can make a man of Gösta Berling without my help.”