Margareta Celsing

A few days before Christmas the major’s wife started on her journey down to the Löfsjö district; but it was not till Christmas Eve that she came to Ekeby. During the whole journey she was ill. Yet, in spite of cold and fever, people had never seen her in better spirits nor heard her speak more friendly words.

The Broby clergyman’s daughter, who had been with her in the Älfdal forests ever since October, sat by her side in the sledge and wished to hasten the journey; but she could not prevent the old woman from stopping the horses and calling every wayfarer up to her to ask for news.

“How is it with you all here in Löfsjö?” she asked.

“All is well,” was the answer. “Better times are coming. The mad priest there at Ekeby and his wife help us all.”

“A good time has come,” answered another. “Sintram is gone. The Ekeby pensioners are working. The Broby clergyman’s money is found in the Bro church-tower. There is so much that the glory and power of Ekeby can be restored with it. There is enough too to get bread for the hungry.”

“Our old dean has waked to new life and strength,” said a third. “Every Sunday he speaks to us of the coming of the Kingdom of God.”

And the major’s wife drove slowly on, asking everyone she met: “How is it here? Do you not suffer from want here?”

And the fever and the stabbing pain in her breast were assuaged, when they answered her: “There are two good and rich women here, Marianne Sinclair and Anna Stjärnhök. They help Gösta Berling to go from house to house and see that no one is starving. And no more brandy is made now.”

It was as if the major’s wife had sat in the sledge and listened to a long divine service. She had come to a blessed land. She saw old, furrowed faces brighten, when they spoke of the time which had come. The sick forgot their pains to tell of the day of joy.

“We all want to be like the good Captain Lennart,” they said. “We all want to be good. We want to believe good of everyone. We will not injure anyone. It shall hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom.”

She found them all filled with the same spirit. On the larger estates free dinners were given to those who were in greatest need. All who had work to be done had it done now.

She had never felt in better health than when she sat there and let the cold air stream into her aching breast. She could not drive by a single house without stopping and asking.

“Everything is well,” they all said. “There was great distress, but the good gentlemen from Ekeby help us. You will be surprised at everything which has been done there. The mill is almost ready, and the smithy is at work, and the burned-down house ready for the roof.”

Ah, it would only last a short time! But still it was good to return to a land where they all helped one another and all wished to do good. The major’s wife felt that she could now forgive the pensioners, and she thanked God for it.

“Anna Lisa,” she said, “I feel as if I had already come into the heaven of the blessed.”

When she at last reached Ekeby, and the pensioners hurried to help her out of the sledge, they could hardly recognize her, for she was as kind and gentle as their own young countess. The older ones, who had seen her as a young girl, whispered to one another: “It is not the major’s wife at Ekeby; it is Margareta Celsing who has come back.”

Great was the pensioners’ joy to see her come so kind and so free from all thoughts of revenge; but it was soon changed to grief when they found how ill she was. She had to be carried immediately into the guestroom in the wing, and put to bed. But on the threshold she turned and spoke to them.

“It has been God’s storm,” she said⁠—“God’s storm. I know now that it has all been for the best!”

Then the door to the sickroom closed, and they never saw her again.

There is so much to say to one who is dying. The words throng to the lips when one knows that in the next room lies one whose ears will soon be closed for always. “Ah, my friend, my friend,” one wants to say, “can you forgive? Can you believe that I have loved you in spite of everything! Ah, my friend, thanks for all the joy you have given me!”

That will one say and so much, much more.

But the major’s wife lay in a burning fever, and the voices of the pensioners could not reach her. Would she never know how they had worked, how they had taken up her work?

After a little while the pensioners went down to the smithy. There all work was stopped; but they threw new coal and new ore into the furnace, and made ready to smelt. They did not call the smith, who had gone home to celebrate Christmas, but worked themselves at the forge. If the major’s wife could only live until the hammer got going, it would tell her their story.

Evening came and then night, while they worked. Several of them thought, how strange it was that they should again celebrate the night before Christmas in the smithy.

Kevenhüller, who had been the architect of the mill and the smithy, and Christian Bergh stood by the forge and attended to the melting iron. Gösta and Julius were the stokers. Some of the others sat on the anvil under the raised hammer, and others sat on coal-carts and piles of pig-iron. Löwenborg was talking to Eberhard, the philosopher, who sat beside him on the anvil.

“Sintram dies tonight,” he said.

“Why just tonight?” asked Eberhard.

“You know that we made an agreement last year. Now we have done nothing which has been ungentlemanly, and therefore he has lost.”

“You who believe in such things know very well that we have done a great deal which has been ungentlemanly. First, we did not help the major’s wife; second, we began to work; third, it was not quite right that Gösta Berling did not kill himself, when he had promised.”

“I have thought of that too,” answered Löwenborg; “but my opinion is, that you do not rightly comprehend the matter. To act with the thought of our own mean advantage was forbidden us; but not to act as love or honor or our own salvation demanded. I think that Sintram has lost.”

“Perhaps you are right.”

“I tell you that I know it. I have heard his sleigh-bells the whole evening, but they are not real bells. We shall soon have him here.”

And the little old man sat and stared through the smithy door, which stood open, out at the bit of blue sky studded with stars which showed through it.

After a little while he started up.

“Do you see him?” he whispered. “There he comes creeping. Do you not see him in the doorway?”

“I see nothing,” replied Eberhard. “You are sleepy, that is the whole story.”

“I saw him so distinctly against the sky. He had on his long wolfskin coat and fur cap. Now he is over there in the dark, and I cannot see him. Look, now he is up by the furnace. He is standing close to Christian Bergh; but Christian seems not to see him. Now he is bending down and is throwing something into the fire. Oh, how wicked he looks! Take care, friends, take care!”

As he spoke, a tongue of flame burst out of the furnace, and covered the smiths and their assistants with cinders and sparks. No one, however, was injured.

“He wants to be revenged,” whispered Löwenborg.

“You too are mad!” cried Eberhard. “You ought to have had enough of such things.”

“Do you not see how he is standing there by the prop and grinning at us? But, verily, I believe that he has unfastened the hammer.”

He started up and dragged Eberhard with him. The second after the hammer fell thundering down onto the anvil. It was only a clamp which had given way; but Eberhard and Löwenborg had narrowly escaped death.

“You see that he has no power over us,” said Löwenborg, triumphantly. “But it is plain that he wants to be revenged.”

And he called Gösta Berling to him.

“Go up to the women, Gösta. Perhaps he will show himself to them too. They are not so used as I to seeing such things. They may be frightened. And take care of yourself, Gösta, for he has a special grudge against you, and perhaps he has power over you on account of that promise.”

Afterwards they heard that Löwenborg had been right, and that Sintram had died that night. Some said that he had hanged himself in his cell. Others believed that the servants of justice secretly had him killed, for the trial seemed to be going well for him, and it would never do to let him out again among the people in Löfsjö. Still others thought that a dark visitor had driven up in a black carriage, drawn by black horses, and had taken him out of prison. And Löwenborg was not the only one who saw him that night. He was also seen at Fors and in Ulrika Dillner’s dreams. Many told how he had shown himself to them, until Ulrika Dillner moved his body to the Bro churchyard. She also had the evil servants sent away from Fors and introduced there good order. After that it was no longer haunted.

It is said that before Gösta Berling reached the house, a stranger had come to the wing and had left a letter for the major’s wife. No one knew the messenger, but the letter was carried in and laid on the table beside the sick woman. Soon after she became unexpectedly better; the fever decreased, the pain abated, and she was able to read the letter.

The old people believe that her improvement depended on the influence of the powers of darkness. Sintram and his friends would profit by the reading of that letter.

It was a contract written in blood on black paper. The pensioners would have recognized it. It was composed on the last Christmas Eve in the smithy at Ekeby.

And the major’s wife lay there now and read that since she had been a witch, and had sent pensioners’ souls to hell, she was condemned to lose Ekeby. That and other similar absurdities she read. She examined the date and signatures, and found the following note beside Gösta’s name: “Because the major’s wife has taken advantage of my weakness to tempt me away from honest work, and to keep me as pensioner at Ekeby, because she has made me Ebba Dohna’s murderer by betraying to her that I am a dismissed priest, I sign my name.”

The major’s wife slowly folded the paper and put it in its envelope. Then she lay still and thought over what she had learned. She understood with bitter pain that such was the people’s thought of her. She was a witch and a sorceress to all those whom she had served, to whom she had given work and bread. This was her reward. They could not believe anything better of an adulteress.

Her thoughts flew. Wild anger and a longing for revenge flamed up in her fever-burning brain. She had Anna Lisa, who with Countess Elizabeth tended her, send a message to Hogfors to the manager and overseer. She wished to make her will.

Again she lay thinking. Her eyebrows were drawn together, her features were terribly distorted by suffering.

“You are very ill,” said the countess, softly.

“Yes, more ill than ever before.”

There was silence again, but then the major’s wife spoke in a hard, harsh voice:⁠—

“It is strange to think that you, too, countess, you whom everyone loves, are an adulteress.”

The young woman started.

“Yes, if not in deed, yet in thoughts and desire, and that makes no difference. I who lie here feel that it makes no difference.”

“I know it!”

“And yet you are happy now. You may possess him you loved without sin. That black spectre does not stand between you when you meet. You may belong to one another before the world, love one another, go side by side through life.”

“Oh, madame, madame!”

“How can you dare to stay with him?” cried the old woman, with increasing violence. “Repent, repent in time! Go home to your father and mother, before they come and curse you. Do you dare to consider Gösta Berling your husband? Leave him! I shall give him Ekeby. I shall give him power and glory. Do you dare to share that with him? Do you dare to accept happiness and honor? I did not dare to. Do you remember what happened to me? Do you remember the Christmas dinner at Ekeby? Do you remember the cell in the bailiff’s house?”

“Oh, madame, we sinners go here side by side without happiness. I am here to see that no joy shall find a home by our hearth. Do you think I do not long for my home? Oh, bitterly do I long for the protection and support of home; but I shall never again enjoy them. Here I shall live in fear and trembling, knowing that everything I do leads to sin and sorrow, knowing that if I help one, I ruin another. Too weak and foolish for the life here, and yet forced to live it, bound by an everlasting penance.”

“With such thoughts we deceive our hearts,” cried the major’s wife; “but it is weakness. You will not leave him, that is the only reason.”

Before the countess could answer, Gösta Berling came into the room.

“Come here, Gösta,” said the major’s wife instantly, and her voice grew still sharper and harder. “Come here, you whom everybody praises. You shall now hear what has happened to your old friend whom you allowed to wander about the country, despised and forsaken.

“I will first tell you what happened last spring, when I came home to my mother, for you ought to know the end of that story.

“In March I reached the ironworks in the Älfdal forest, Gösta. Little better than a beggar I looked. They told me that my mother was in the dairy. So I went there, and stood for a long while silent at the door. There were long shelves round about the room, and on them stood shining copper pans filled with milk. And my mother, who was over ninety years old, took down pan after pan and skimmed off the cream. She was active enough, the old woman; but I saw well enough how hard it was for her to straighten up her back to reach the pans. I did not know if she had seen me; but after a while she spoke to me in a curious, shrill voice.

“ ‘So everything has happened to you as I wished,’ she said. I wanted to speak and to ask her to forgive me, but it was a waste of trouble. She did not hear a word of it⁠—she was stone-deaf. But after a while she spoke again: ‘You can come and help me,’ she said.

“Then I went in and skimmed the milk. I took the pans in order, and put everything in its place, and skimmed just deep enough, and she was pleased. She had never been able to trust any of the maids to skim the milk; but I knew of old how she liked to have it.

“ ‘Now you can take charge of this work,’ she said. And then I knew that she had forgiven me.

“And afterwards all at once it seemed as if she could not work any more. She sat in her armchair and slept almost all day. She died two weeks before Christmas. I should have liked to have come before, Gösta, but I could not leave her.”

She stopped. She began to find breathing difficult; but she made an effort and went on:⁠—

“It is true, Gösta, that I wished to keep you near me at Ekeby. There is something about you which makes everyone rejoice to be with you. If you had shown a wish to be a settled man, I would have given you much power. I always hoped that you would find a good wife. First, I thought that it would be Marianne Sinclair, for I saw that she loved you already, when you lived as woodcutter in the wood. Then I thought that it would be Ebba Dohna, and one day I drove over to Borg and told her that if she would have you for husband, I would leave you Ekeby in my will. If I did wrong in that, you must forgive me.”

Gösta was kneeling by the bed with his face hidden in the blankets, and was moaning bitterly.

“Tell me, Gösta, how you mean to live? How shall you support your wife? Tell me that. You know that I have always wished you well.” And Gösta answered her smiling, while his heart almost burst with pain.

“In the old days, when I tried to be a laborer here at Ekeby, you gave me a cottage to live in, and it is still mine. This autumn I have put it quite in order. Löwenborg has helped me, and we have whitewashed the ceilings and hung the walls with paper and painted them. The inner little room Löwenborg calls the countess’s boudoir, and he has gone through all the farmhouses round about for furniture, which has come there from manor-house auctions. He has bought them, so that there we have now high-backed armchairs and chests of drawers with shining mountings. But in the outer big room stands the young wife’s weaving-loom and my lathe. Household utensils and all kinds of things are there, and there Löwenborg and I have already sat many evenings and talked of how the young countess and I will have it in the cottage. But my wife did not know it till now. We wanted to tell her when we should leave Ekeby.”

“Go on, Gösta.”

“Löwenborg was always saying that a maid was needed in the house. ‘In the summer it is lovely here in the birch grove,’ he used to say; ‘but in winter it will be too lonely for the young wife. You will have to have a maid, Gösta.’

“And I agreed with him, but I did not know how I could afford to keep one. Then he came one day and carried down his music, and his table with the painted keyboard, and put it in the cottage. ‘It is you, Löwenborg, who are going to be the maid,’ I said to him. He answered that he would be needed. Did I mean the young countess to cook the food, and to carry wood and water? No, I had not meant her to do anything at all, as long as I had a pair of arms to work with. But he still thought that it would be best if there were two of us, so that she might sit the whole day on her sofa and embroider. I could never know how much waiting upon such a little woman needed, he said.”

“Go on,” said the major’s wife. “It eases my pain. Did you think that your young countess would be willing to live in a cottage?”

He wondered at her scornful tone, but continued:

“No, I did not dare to think it; but it would have been so perfect if she had been willing. It is thirty miles from any doctor. She, who has a light hand and a tender heart, would have had work enough to tend wounds and allay fevers. And I thought that everybody in trouble would find the way to the lady mistress in the forest cottage. There is so much distress among the poor which kind words and a gentle heart can help.”

“But you yourself, Gösta Berling?”

“I shall have my work at the carpenter’s bench and lathe. I shall hereafter live my own life. If my wife will not follow me, I cannot help it. If someone should offer me all the riches of the universe, it would not tempt me. I want to live my own life. Now I shall be and remain a poor man among the peasants, and help them with whatever I can. They need someone to play the polka for them at weddings and at Christmas; they need someone to write letters to their distant sons⁠—and that someone I will be. But I must be poor.”

“It will be a gloomy life for you, Gösta.”

“Oh, no, it would not be if we were but two who kept together. The rich and happy would come to us as well as the poor. It would be gay enough in our cottage. Our guests would not care if the food was cooked right before their eyes, or be shocked that two must eat from the same plate.”

“And what would be the good of it all, Gösta? What praise would you win?”

“Great would be my reward if the poor would remember me for a year or two after my death. I should have done some good if I had planted a couple of apple-trees at the house-corners, if I had taught the country fiddlers some of the old tunes, and if the shepherd children could have learnt a few good songs to sing in the wood-paths.

“You can believe me, I am the same mad Gösta Berling that I was before. A country fiddler is all I can be, but that is enough. I have many sins to atone for. To weep and to repent is not for me. I shall give the poor pleasure, that is my penance.”

“Gösta,” said the major’s wife, “it is too humble a life for a man with your powers. I will give you Ekeby.”

“Oh,” he cried in terror, “do not make me rich! Do not put such duties upon me! Do not part me from the poor!”

“I will give Ekeby to you and the pensioners,” repeated the major’s wife. “You are a capable man, Gösta, whom the people bless. I say like my mother, ‘You shall take charge of this work!’ ”

“No, we could not accept it⁠—we who have misjudged you and caused you such pain!”

“I will give you Ekeby, do you hear?”

She spoke bitterly and harshly, without kindness. He was filled with dismay.

“Do not tempt the old men! It would only make them idlers and drunkards again. God in Heaven, rich pensioners! What would become of us!”

“I will give you Ekeby, Gösta; but then you must promise to set your wife free. Such a delicate little woman is not for you. She has had to suffer too much here in the land of the bear. She is longing for her bright native country. You shall let her go. That is why I give you Ekeby.”

But then Countess Elizabeth came forward to the major’s wife and knelt by the bed.

“I do not long any more. He who is my husband has solved the problem, and found the life I can live. No longer shall I need to go stern and cold beside him, and remind him of repentance and atonement. Poverty and want and hard work will do that. The paths which lead to the poor and sick I can follow without sin. I am no longer afraid of the life here in the north. But do not make him rich; then I do not dare to stay.”

The major’s wife raised herself in the bed.

“You demand happiness for yourselves,” she cried, and threatened them with clenched fists⁠—“happiness and blessing. No, let Ekeby be the pensioners’, that they may be ruined. Let man and wife be parted, that they may be ruined! I am a witch, I am a sorceress, I shall incite you to evildoing. I shall be what my reputation is.”

She seized the letter and flung it in Gösta’s face. The black paper fluttered out and fell on the floor. Gösta knew it too well.

“You have sinned against me, Gösta. You have misjudged one who has been a second mother to you. Do you dare to refuse your punishment? You shall accept Ekeby, and it shall ruin you, for you are weak. You shall send home your wife, so that there will be no one to save you. You shall die with a name as hated as mine. Margareta Celsing’s obituary is that of a witch. Yours shall be that of a spendthrift and an oppressor of the poor.”

She sank back on the pillows, and all was still. Through the silence rang a muffled blow, now one and then another. The sledgehammer had begun its far-echoing work.

“Listen,” said Gösta Berling, “so sounds Margareta Celsing’s obituary! That is not a prank of drunken pensioners; that is the song of the victory of labor, raised in honor of a good, old worker. Do you hear what the hammer says? ‘Thanks,’ it says; ‘thanks for good work; thanks for bread, which you have given the poor; thanks for roads, which you have opened; thanks for districts, which you have cultivated! Thanks for pleasure, with which you have filled your halls!’⁠—‘Thanks,’ it says, ‘and sleep in peace! Your work shall live and continue. Your house shall always be a home for happy labor.’⁠—‘Thanks,’ it says, ‘and do not judge us who have sinned! You who are now starting on the journey to the regions of peace, think gentle thoughts of us who still live.’ ”

Gösta ceased, but the sledgehammer went on speaking. All the voices which had ever spoken kindly to the major’s wife were mingled with the ring of the hammer. Gradually her features relaxed, as if the shadow of death had fallen over her.

Anna Lisa came in and announced that the gentlemen from Hogfors had come. The major’s wife let them go. She would not make any will.

“Oh, Gösta Berling, man of many deeds,” she said, “so you have conquered once more. Bend down and let me bless you!”

The fever returned with redoubled strength. The death-rattle began. The body toiled through dreary suffering; but the spirit soon knew nothing of it. It began to gaze into the heaven which is opened for the dying.

So an hour passed, and the short death-struggle was over. She lay there so peaceful and beautiful that those about her were deeply moved.

“My dear old mistress,” said Gösta, “so have I seen you once before. Now has Margareta Celsing come back to life. Now she will never again yield to the major’s wife at Ekeby.”

When the pensioners came in from the forge, they were met by the news of Margareta Celsing’s death.

“Did she hear the hammer?” they asked.

She had done so, and they could be satisfied.

They heard, too, that she had meant to give Ekeby to them; but that the will had never been drawn. That they considered a great honor, and rejoiced over it as long as they lived. But no one ever heard them lament over the riches they had lost.

It is also said that on that Christmas night Gösta Berling stood by his young wife’s side and made his last speech to the pensioners. He was grieved at their fate when they now must all leave Ekeby. The ailments of old age awaited them. The old and worn-out find a cold welcome.

And so he spoke to them. Once more he called them old gods and knights who had risen up to bring pleasure into the land of iron. But he lamented that the pleasure garden where the butterfly-winged pleasure roves is filled with destructive caterpillars, and that its fruits are withered.

Well he knew that pleasure was a good to the children of the earth, and it must exist. But, like a heavy riddle, the question always lay upon the world, how a man could be both gay and good. The easiest thing and yet the hardest, he called it. Hitherto they had not been able to solve the problem. Now he wanted to believe that they had learned it, that they had all learned it during that year of joy and sorrow, of happiness and despair.

You dear old people! In the old days you gave me precious gifts. But what have I given you?

Perhaps it may gladden you that your names sound again in connection with the dear old places? May all the brightness which belonged to your life fall again over the tracts where you have lived! Borg still stands; Björne still stands; Ekeby still lies by lake Löfven, surrounded by falls and lake, by park and smiling meadows; and when one stands on the broad terraces, legends swarm about one like the bees of summer.

But, speaking of bees, let me tell one more old story. The little Ruster, who went as a drummer at the head of the Swedish army, when in 1813 it marched into Germany, could never weary of telling stories of that wonderful land in the south. The people there were as tall as church towers, the swallows were as big as eagles, the bees as geese.

“Well, but the beehives?”

“The beehives were like our ordinary beehives.”

“How did the bees get in?”

“Well, that they had to look out for,” said the little Ruster.

Dear reader, must I say the same? The giant bees of fancy have now swarmed about us for a year and a day; but how they are going to come into the beehive of fact, that they really must find out for themselves.