The Forest Cottage

It was many years before the pensioners’ reign at Ekeby.

The shepherd’s boy and girl played together in the wood, built houses with flat stones, and picked cloudberries. They were both born in the wood. The wood was their home and mansion. They lived in peace with everything there.

The children looked upon the lynx and the fox as their watchdogs, the weasel was their cat, hares and squirrels their cattle, owls and grouse sat in their birdcage, the pines were their servants, and the young birch-trees guests at their feasts. They knew the hole where the viper lay curled up in his winter rest; and when they had bathed they had seen the water-snake come swimming through the clear water; but they feared neither snake nor wild creature; they belonged to the wood and it was their home. There nothing could frighten them.

Deep in the wood lay the cottage where the boy lived. A hilly wood-path led to it; mountains closed it in and shut out the sun; a bottomless swamp lay near by and gave out the whole year round an icy mist. Such a dwelling seemed far from attractive to the people on the plain.

The shepherd’s boy and girl were some day to be married, live there in the forest cottage, and support themselves by the work of their hands. But before they were married, war passed over the land, and the boy enlisted. He came home again without wound or injured limb; but he had been changed for life by the campaign. He had seen too much of the world’s wickedness and man’s cruel activity against man. He could no longer see the good.

At first no one saw any change in him. With the love of his childhood he went to the clergyman and had the banns published. The forest cottage above Ekeby was their home, as they had planned long before; but it was not a happy home.

The wife looked at her husband as at a stranger. Since he had come from the wars, she could not recognize him. His laugh was hard, and he spoke but little. She was afraid of him.

He did no harm, and worked hard. Still he was not liked, for he thought evil of everybody. He felt himself like a hated stranger. Now the forest animals were his enemies. The mountain, which shut out the sun, and the swamp, which sent up the mist, were his foes. The forest is a terrible place for one who has evil thoughts.

He who will live in the wilderness should have bright memories. Otherwise he sees only murder and oppression among plants and animals, just as he had seen it before among men. He expects evil from everything he meets.

The soldier, Jan Hök, could not explain what was the matter with him; but he felt that nothing went well with him. There was little peace in his home. His sons who grew up there were strong, but wild. They were hardy and brave men, but they too lived at enmity with all men.

His wife was tempted by her sorrow to seek out the secrets of the wilderness. In swamp and thicket she gathered healing herbs. She could cure sickness, and give advice to those who were crossed in love. She won fame as a witch, and was shunned, although she did much good.

One day the wife tried to speak to her husband of his trouble.

“Ever since you went to the war,” she said, “you have been so changed. What did they do to you there?”

Then he rose up, and was ready to strike her; and so it was every time she spoke of the war, he became mad with rage. From no one could he bear to hear the word war, and it soon became known. So people were careful of that subject.

But none of his brothers in arms could say that he had done more harm than others. He had fought like a good soldier. It was only all the dreadful things he had seen which had frightened him so that since then he saw nothing but evil. All his trouble came from the war. He thought that all nature hated him, because he had had a share in such things. They who knew more could console themselves that they had fought for fatherland and honor. What did he know of such things? He only felt that everything hated him because he had shed blood and done much injury.

When the major’s wife was driven from Ekeby, he lived alone in his cottage. His wife was dead and his sons away. During the fairs his house was always full of guests. Black-haired, swarthy gypsies put up there. They like those best whom others avoid. Small, long-haired horses climbed up the wood path, dragging carts loaded with children and bundles of rags. Women, prematurely old, with features swollen by smoking and drinking, and men with pale, sharp faces and sinewy bodies followed the carts. When the gypsies came to the forest cottage, there was a merry life there. Brandy and cards and loud talking followed with them. They had much to tell of thefts and horse-dealing and bloody fights.

The Broby Fair began on a Friday, and then Captain Lennart was killed. Big Mons, who gave the deathblow, was son to the old man in the forest cottage. When the gypsies on Sunday afternoon sat together there, they handed old Jan Hök the brandy bottle oftener than usual, and talked to him of prison life and prison fare and trials; for they had often tried such things.

The old man sat on the chopping-block in the corner and said little. His big lacklustre eyes stared at the crowd which filled the room. It was dusk, but the wood-fire lighted the room.

The door was softly opened and two women entered. It was the young Countess Elizabeth followed by the daughter of the Broby clergyman. Lovely and glowing, she came into the circle of light. She told them that Gösta Berling had not been seen at Ekeby since Captain Lennart died. She and her servant had searched for him in the wood the whole afternoon. Now she saw that there were men here who had much wandered, and knew all the paths. Had they seen him? She had come in to rest, and to ask if they had seen him.

It was a useless question. None of them had seen him.

They gave her a chair. She sank down on it, and sat silent for a while. There was no sound in the room. All looked at her and wondered at her. At last she grew frightened at the silence, started, and tried to speak of indifferent things. She turned to the old man in the corner, “I think I have heard that you have been a soldier,” she said. “Tell me something of the war!”

The silence grew still deeper. The old man sat as if he had not heard.

“It would be very interesting to hear about the war from someone who had been there himself,” continued the countess; but she stopped short, for the Broby clergyman’s daughter shook her head at her. She must have said something forbidden. Everybody was looking at her as if she had offended against the simplest rule of propriety. Suddenly a gypsy woman raised her sharp voice and asked: “Are you not she who has been countess at Borg?”

“Yes, I am.”

“That was another thing than running about the wood after a mad priest.”

The countess rose and said farewell. She was quite rested. The woman who had spoken followed her out through the door.

“You understand, countess,” she said, “I had to say something; for it does not do to speak to the old man of war. He can’t bear to hear the word. I meant well.”

Countess Elizabeth hurried away, but she soon stopped. She saw the threatening wood, the dark mountain, and the reeking swamp. It must be terrible to live here for one whose soul is filled with evil memories. She felt compassion for the old man who had sat there with the dark gypsies for company.

“Anna Lisa,” she said, “let us turn back! They were kind to us, but I behaved badly. I want to talk to the old man about pleasanter things.”

And happy to have found someone to comfort, she went back to the cottage.

“I think,” she said, “that Gösta Berling is wandering here in the wood, and means to take his own life. It is therefore important that he be soon found and prevented. I and my maid, Anna Lisa, thought we saw him sometimes, but then he disappeared. He keeps to that part of the mountain where the broom-girl was killed. I happened to think that I do not need to go way down to Ekeby to get help. Here sit many active men who easily could catch him.”

“Go along, boys!” cried the gypsy woman. “When the countess does not hold herself too good to ask a service of the forest people, you must go at once.”

The men rose immediately and went out to search.

Old Jan Hök sat still and stared before him with lustreless eyes. Terrifyingly gloomy and hard, he sat there. The young woman could think of nothing to say to him. Then she saw that a child lay sick on a sheaf of straw, and noticed that a woman had hurt her hand. Instantly she began to care for the sick. She was soon friends with the gossiping women, and had them show her the smallest children.

In an hour the men came back. They carried Gösta Berling bound into the room. They laid him down on the floor before the fire. His clothes were torn and dirty, his cheeks sunken, and his eyes wild. Terrible had been his ways during those days; he had lain on the damp ground; he had burrowed with his hands and face in bogs, dragged himself over rocks, forced his way through the thickest underbrush. Of his own will he had never come with the men; but they had overpowered and bound him.

When his wife saw him so, she was angry. She did not free his bound limbs; she let him lie where he was on the floor. With scorn she turned from him.

“How you look!” she said.

“I had never meant to come again before your eyes,” he answered.

“Am I not your wife? Is it not my right to expect you to come to me with your troubles? In bitter sorrow I have waited for you these two days.”

“I was the cause of Captain Lennart’s misfortunes. How could I dare to show myself to you?”

“You are not often afraid, Gösta.”

“The only service I can do you, Elizabeth, is to rid you of myself.”

Unspeakable contempt flashed from under her frowning brows at him.

“You wish to make me a suicide’s wife!”

His face was distorted.

“Elizabeth, let us go out into the silent forest and talk.”

“Why should not these people hear us?” she cried, speaking in a shrill voice. “Are we better than any of them? Has any one of them caused more sorrow and injury than we? They are the children of the forest, and of the highway; they are hated by every man. Let them hear how sin and sorrow also follows the lord of Ekeby, the beloved of all, Gösta Berling! Do you think your wife considers herself better than any one of them⁠—or do you?”

He raised himself with difficulty onto his elbow, and looked at her with sudden defiance. “I am not such a wretch as you think.”

Then she heard the story of those two days. The first day Gösta wandered about in the wood, driven by remorse. He could not bear to meet anyone’s eye. But he did not think of dying. He meant to journey to far distant lands. On Sunday, however, he came down from the hills and went to the Bro church. Once more he wished to see the people: the poor, hungry people whom he had dreamed of serving when he had sat by the Broby clergyman’s pile of shame, and whom he had learned to love when he saw them disappear into the night with the dead broom-girl.

The service had begun when he came to the church. He crept up to the gallery, and looked down on the people. He had felt bitter agony. He had wanted to speak to them, to comfort them in their poverty and hopelessness. If he had only been allowed to speak in God’s house, hopeless as he was, he would have found words of hope and salvation for them all.

Then he left the church, went into the sacristy, and wrote the message which his wife already knew. He had promised that work should be renewed at Ekeby, and grain distributed to those in greatest need. He had hoped that his wife and the pensioners would fulfil his promises when he was gone.

As he came out, he saw a coffin standing before the parish-hall. It was plain, put together in haste, but covered with black crape and wreaths. He knew that it was Captain Lennart’s. The people had begged the captain’s wife to hasten the funeral, so that all those who had come to the Fair could be at the burial.

He was standing and looking at the coffin, when a heavy hand was laid on his shoulder. Sintram had come up to him.

“Gösta,” he said, “if you want to play a regular trick on a person, lie down and die. There is nothing more clever than to die, nothing which so deceives an honest man who suspects no harm. Lie you down and die, I tell you!”

Gösta listened with horror to what he said. Sintram complained of the failure of well-laid plans. He had wanted to see a waste about the shores of the Löfven. He had made the pensioners lords of the place; he had let the Broby clergyman impoverish the people; he had called forth the drought and the famine. At the Broby Fair the decisive blow was to have fallen. Excited by their misfortunes, the people should have turned to murder and robbery. Then there should have been lawsuits to beggar them. Famine, riot, and every kind of misfortune should have ravaged them. Finally, the country would have become so odious and detestable that no one could have lived there, and it would all have been Sintram’s doing. It would have been his joy and pride, for he was evil-minded. He loved desert wastes and uncultivated fields. But this man who had known how to die at the right moment had spoiled it all for him.

Then Gösta asked him what would have been the good of it all.

“It would have pleased me, Gösta, for I am bad. I am the grizzly bear on the mountain; I am the snowstorm on the plain; I like to kill and to persecute. Away, I say, with people and their works! I don’t like them. I can let them slip from between my claws and cut their capers⁠—that is amusing too for a while; but now I am tired of play, Gösta, now I want to strike, now I want to kill and to destroy.”

He was mad, quite mad. He began a long time ago as a joke with those devilish tricks, and now his maliciousness had taken the upper hand; now he thought he really was a spirit from the lower regions. He had fed and fostered the evil in him until it had taken possession of his soul. For wickedness can drive people mad, as well as love and brooding.

He was furious, and in his anger he began to tear the wreaths from off the coffin; but then Gösta Berling cried: “Let the coffin be!”

“Well, well, well, so I shall not touch it! Yes; I shall throw my friend Lennart out on the ground and trample on his wreaths. Do you not see what he has done to me? Do you not see in what a fine gray coach I am riding?”

And Gösta then saw that a couple of prison-vans with the sheriff and constables of the district stood and waited outside the churchyard wall.

“I ought to send Captain Lennart’s wife thanks that she yesterday sat herself down to read through old papers in order to find proof against me in that matter of the powder, you know? Shall I not let her know that she would have done better to occupy herself with brewing and baking, than in sending the sheriff and his men after me? Shall I have nothing for the tears I have wept to induce Scharling to let me come here and read a prayer by my good friend’s coffin?”

And he began again to drag on the crape.

Then Gösta Berling came close up to him and seized his arms.

“I will give anything to make you let the coffin alone,” he said.

“Do what you like,” said the madman. “Call if you like. I can always do something before the sheriff gets here. Fight with me, if you like. That will be a pleasing sight here by the church. Let us fight among the wreaths and palls.”

“I will buy rest for the dead at any price. Take my life, take everything!”

“You promise much.”

“You can prove it.”

“Well, then, kill yourself!”

“I will do it; but first the coffin shall be safely under earth.”

And so it was. Sintram took Gösta’s oath that he would not be alive twelve hours after Captain Lennart was buried. “Then I know that you can never be good for anything,” he said.

It was easy for Gösta Berling to promise. He was glad to be able to give his wife her liberty. Remorse had made him long for death. The only thing which troubled him was, that he had promised the major’s wife not to die as long as the Broby clergyman’s daughter was a servant at Ekeby. But Sintram said that she could no longer be considered as servant, since she had inherited her father’s fortune. Gösta objected that the Broby clergyman had hidden his treasures so well that no one had been able to find them. Then Sintram laughed and said that they were hidden up among the pigeons’ nests in the church tower. Thereupon he went away. And Gösta went back to the wood again. It seemed best to him to die at the place where the broom-girl had been killed. He had wandered there the whole afternoon. He had seen his wife in the wood; and then he had not had the strength to kill himself.

All this he told his wife, while he lay bound on the floor of the cottage.

“Oh,” she said sadly, when he had finished, “how familiar it all is! Always ready to thrust your hands into the fire, Gösta, always ready to throw yourself away! How noble such things seemed to me once! How I now value calmness and good sense! What good did you do the dead by such a promise? What did it matter if Sintram had overturned the coffin and torn off the crape? It would have been picked up again; there would have been found new crape, new wreaths. If you had laid your hand on that good man’s coffin, there before Sintram’s eyes, and sworn to live to help those poor people whom he wished to ruin, that I should have commended. If you had thought, when you saw the people in the church: ‘I will help them; I will make use of all my strength to help them,’ and not laid that burden on your weak wife, and on old men with failing strength, I should also have commended that.”

Gösta Berling lay silent for a while.

“We pensioners are not free men,” he said at last. “We have promised one another to live for pleasure, and only for pleasure. Woe to us all if one breaks his word!”

“Woe to you,” said the countess, indignantly, “if you shall be the most cowardly of the pensioners, and slower to improve than any of them. Yesterday afternoon the whole eleven sat in the pensioners’ wing, and they were very sad. You were gone; Captain Lennart was gone. The glory and honor of Ekeby were gone. They left the toddy tray untouched; they would not let me see them. Then the maid, Anna Lisa, who stands here, went up to them. You know she is an energetic little woman who for years has struggled despairingly against neglect and waste.

“ ‘Today I have again been at home and looked for father’s money,’ she said to the pensioners; ‘but I have not found anything. All the debts are paid, and the drawers and closets are empty.’

“ ‘We are sorry for you, Anna Lisa,’ said Beerencreutz.

“ ‘When the major’s wife left Ekeby,’ continued Anna Lisa, ‘she told me to see after her house. And if I had found father’s money, I would have built up Ekeby. But as I did not find anything else to take away with me, I took father’s shame heap; for great shame awaits me when my mistress comes again and asks me what I have done with Ekeby.’

“ ‘Don’t take so much to heart what is not your fault, Anna Lisa,’ said Beerencreutz again.

“ ‘But I did not take the shame heap for myself alone,’ said Anna Lisa. ‘I took it also for your reckoning, good gentlemen. Father is not the only one who has been the cause of shame and injury in this world.’

“And she went from one to the other of them, and laid down some of the dry sticks before each. Some of them swore, but most of them let her go on. At last Beerencreutz said, calmly:⁠—

“ ‘It is well. We thank you. You may go now.’ When she had gone, he struck the table with his clenched hand till the glasses rang.

“ ‘From this hour,’ he said, ‘absolutely sober. Brandy shall never again cause me such shame.’ Thereupon he rose and went out.

“They followed him by degrees, all the others. Do you know where they went, Gösta? Well, down to the river, to the point where the mill and the forge had stood, and there they began to work. They began to drag away the logs and stones and clear the place. The old men have had a hard time. Many of them have had sorrow. Now they can no longer bear the disgrace of having ruined Ekeby. I know too well that you pensioners are ashamed to work; but now the others have taken that shame on them. Moreover, Gösta, they mean to send Anna Lisa up to the major’s wife to bring her home. But you, what are you doing?”

He found still an answer to give her.

“What do you want of me, of a dismissed priest? Cast off by men, hateful to God?”

“I too have been in the Bro church today, Gösta. I have a message to you from two women. ‘Tell Gösta,’ said Marianne Sinclair, ‘that a woman does not like to be ashamed of him she has loved.’ ‘Tell Gösta,’ said Anna Stjärnhök, ‘that all is now well with me. I manage my own estates. I do not think of love, only of work. At Berga too they have conquered the first bitterness of their sorrow. But we all grieve for Gösta. We believe in him and pray for him; but when, when will he be a man?’

“Do you hear? Are you cast off by men?” continued the countess. “Your misfortune is that you have been met with too much love. Women and men have loved you. If you only jested and laughed, if you only sang and played, they have forgiven you everything. Whatever it has pleased you to do has seemed right to them. And you dare to call yourself an outcast! Or are you hateful to God? Why did you not stay and see Captain Lennart’s burial?

“As he had died on a Fair day, his fame had gone far and wide. After the service, thousands of people came up to the church. The funeral procession was formed by the town hall. They were only waiting for the old dean. He was ill and had not preached; but he had promised to come to Captain Lennart’s funeral. And at last he came, with head sunk on his breast, and dreaming his dreams, as he is wont to do now in his old age, and placed himself at the head of the procession. He noticed nothing unusual. He walked on the familiar path and did not look up. He read the prayers, and threw the earth on the coffin, and still noticed nothing. But then the sexton began a hymn. Hundreds and hundreds of voices joined in. Men, women, and children sang. Then the dean awoke from his dreams. He passed his hand over his eyes and stepped up on the mound of earth to look. Never had he seen such a crowd of mourners. All were singing; all had tears in their eyes⁠—all were mourning.

“Then the old dean began to tremble. What should he say to these people? He must say a word to comfort them.

“When the song ceased, he stretched out his arms over the people.

“ ‘I see that you are mourning,’ he said; ‘and sorrow is heavier to bear for one who has long to live than for me who will soon be gone.’

“He stopped dismayed. His voice was too weak, and words failed him.

“But he soon began again. His voice had regained its youthful strength, and his eyes glowed.

“First, he told all he knew of God’s wayfarer. Then he reminded us that no outward polish nor great ability had made that man so honored as he now was, but only that he had always followed God’s ways. And now he asked us to do the same. Each should love the other, and help him. Each should think well of the other. And he explained everything which had happened this year. He said it was a preparation for the time of love and happiness which now was to be expected.

“And we all felt as if we had heard a prophet speak. All wished to love one another; all wished to be good.

“He lifted his eyes and hands and proclaimed peace in the neighborhood. Then he called on a helper for the people. ‘Someone will come,’ he said. ‘It is not God’s will that you shall perish. God will find someone who will feed the hungry and lead you in His ways.’

“Then we all thought of you, Gösta. We knew that the dean spoke of you. The people who had heard your message went home talking of you. And you wandered here in the wood and wanted to die! The people are waiting for you, Gösta. In all the cottages they are sitting and saying that, as the mad priest at Ekeby is going to help them, all will be well. You are their hero, Gösta.

“Yes, Gösta, it is certain that the old man meant you, and that ought to make you want to live. But I, Gösta, who am your wife, I say to you that you shall go and do your duty. You shall not dream of being sent by God⁠—anyone can be that. You shall work without any heroics; you shall not shine and astonish; you shall so manage that your name is not too often heard on the people’s lips. But think well before you take back your promise to Sintram. You have now got a certain right to die, and life ought not to offer you many attractions. There was a time when my wish was to go home to Italy, Gösta. It seemed too much happiness for me, a sinner, to be your wife, and be with you through life. But now I shall stay. If you dare to live, I shall stop; but do not await any joy from that. I shall force you to follow the weary path of duty. You need never expect words of joy or hope from me. Can a heart which has suffered like mine love again? Tearless and joyless I shall walk beside you. Think well, Gösta, before you choose to live. We shall go the way of penance.”

She did not wait for his answer. She nodded to Anna Lisa and went. When she came out into the wood, she began to weep bitterly, and wept until she reached Ekeby. Arrived there, she remembered that she had forgotten to talk of gladder things than war to Jan Hök, the soldier.

In the cottage there was silence when she was gone.

“Glory and honor be to the Lord God!” said the old soldier, suddenly.

They looked at him. He had risen and was looking eagerly about him.

“Wicked, wicked has everything been,” he said. “Everything I have seen since I got my eyes opened has been wicked. Bad men, bad women! Hate and anger in forest and plain! But she is good. A good woman has stood in my house. When I am sitting here alone, I shall remember her. She shall be with me in the wood.”

He bent down over Gösta, untied his fetters, and lifted him up. Then he solemnly took his hand.

“Hateful to God,” he said and nodded. “That is just it. But now you are not any more; nor I either, since she has been in my house. She is good.”

The next day old Jan Hök came to the bailiff Scharling. “I will carry my cross,” he said. “I have been a bad man, therefore I have had bad sons.” And he asked to be allowed to go to prison instead of his son; but that could not be.

The best of old stories is the one which tells of how he followed his son, walking beside the prison van; how he slept outside his cell; how he did not forsake him until he had suffered his punishment.