Dear friends, if it should ever happen that you meet a pitiful wretch on your way, a little distressed creature, who lets his hat hang on his back and holds his shoes in his hand, so as not to have any protection from the heat of the sun and the stones of the road, one without defence, who of his own free will calls down destruction on his head⁠—well, pass him by in silent fear! It is a penitent, do you understand?⁠—a penitent on his way to the holy sepulchre.

The penitent must wear a coarse cloak and live on water and dry bread, even if he were a king. He must walk and not ride. He must beg. He must sleep among thistles. He must wear the hard gravestones with kneeling. He must swing the thorny scourge over his back. He can know no sweetness except in suffering, no tenderness except in grief.

The young Countess Elizabeth was once one who wore the heavy cloak and trod the thorny paths. Her heart accused her of sin. It longed for pain as one wearied longs for a warm bath. Dire disaster she brought down on herself while she descended rejoicing into the night of suffering.

Her husband, the young count with the old-man’s head, came home to Borg the morning after the night when the mill and smithy at Ekeby were destroyed by the spring flood. He had hardly arrived before Countess Märta had him summoned in to her and told him wonderful things.

“Your wife was out last night, Henrik. She was gone many hours. She came home with a man. I heard how he said good night to her. I know too who he is. I heard both when she went and when she came. She is deceiving you, Henrik. She is deceiving you, the hypocritical creature, who hangs knitted curtains in all the windows only to cause me discomfort. She has never loved you, my poor boy. Her father only wanted to have her well married. She took you to be provided for.”

She managed her affair so well that Count Henrik became furious. He wished to get a divorce. He wished to send his wife home to her father.

“No, my friend,” said Countess Märta, “in that way she would be quite given over to evil. She is spoiled and badly brought up. But let me take her in hand, let me lead her to the path of duty.”

And the count called in his countess to tell her that she now was to obey his mother in everything.

Many angry words the young man let the young woman hear. He stretched his hands to heaven and accused it of having let his name be dragged in the dirt by a shameless woman. He shook his clenched fist before her face and asked her what punishment she thought great enough for such a crime as hers.

She was not at all afraid. She thought that she had done right. She said that she had already caught a serious cold, and that might be punishment enough.

“Elizabeth,” says Countess Märta, “this is not a matter to joke about.”

“We two,” answers the young woman, “have never been able to agree about the right time to joke and to be serious.”

“But you ought to understand, Elizabeth, that no honorable woman leaves her home to roam about in the middle of the night with a known adventurer.”

Then Elizabeth Dohna saw that her mother-in-law meant her ruin. She saw that she must fight to the last gasp, lest Countess Märta should succeed in drawing down upon her a terrible misfortune.

“Henrik,” she begs, “do not let your mother come between us! Let me tell you how it all happened. You are just, you will not condemn me unheard. Let me tell you all, and you will see that I only acted as you have taught me.”

The count nodded a silent consent, and Countess Elizabeth told how she had come to drive Gösta Berling into the evil way. She told of everything which had happened in the little blue cabinet, and how she had felt herself driven by her conscience to go and save him she had wronged. “I had no right to judge him,” she said, “and my husband has himself taught me that no sacrifice is too great when one will make amends for a wrong. Is it not so, Henrik?”

The count turned to his mother.

“What has my mother to say about this?” he asked. His little body was now quite stiff with dignity, and his high, narrow forehead lay in majestic folds.

“I,” answered the countess⁠—“I say that Anna Stjärnhök is a clever girl, and she knew what she was doing when she told Elizabeth that story.”

“You are pleased to misunderstand me,” said the count. “I ask what you think of this story. Has Countess Märta Dohna tried to persuade her daughter, my sister, to marry a dismissed priest?”

Countess Märta was silent an instant. Alas, that Henrik, so stupid, so stupid! Now he was quite on the wrong track. Her hound was pursuing the hunter himself and letting the hare get away. But if Märta Dohna was without an answer for an instant, it was not longer.

“Dear friend,” she said with a shrug, “there is a reason for letting all those old stories about that unhappy man rest⁠—the same reason which makes me beg you to suppress all public scandal. It is most probable that he has perished in the night.”

She spoke in a gentle, commiserating tone, but there was not a word of truth in what she said.

“Elizabeth has slept late today and therefore has not heard that people have already been sent out on to the lake to look for Herr Berling. He has not returned to Ekeby, and they fear that he has drowned. The ice broke up this morning. See, the storm has split it into a thousand pieces.”

Countess Elizabeth looked out. The lake was almost open.

Then in despair she threw herself on her knees before her husband and confession rushed from her lips. She had wished to escape God’s justice. She had lied and dissembled. She had thrown the white mantle of innocence over her.

“Condemn me, turn me out! I have loved him. Be in no doubt but that I have loved him! I tear my hair, I rend my clothes with grief. I do not care for anything when he is dead. I do not care to shield myself. You shall know the whole truth. My heart’s love I have taken from my husband and given to a stranger. Oh, I am one of them whom a forbidden love has tempted.”

You desperate young thing, lie there at your judges’ feet and tell them all! Welcome, martyrdom! Welcome, disgrace! Welcome! Oh, how shall you bring the bolt of heaven down on your young head!

Tell your husband how frightened you were when the pain came over you, mighty and irresistible, how you shuddered for your heart’s wretchedness. You would rather have met the ghosts of the graveyard than the demons in your own soul.

Tell them how you felt yourself unworthy to tread the earth. With prayers and tears you have struggled.

“O God, save me! O Son of God, caster out of devils, save me!” you have prayed.

Tell them how you thought it best to conceal it all. No one should know your wretchedness. You thought that it was God’s pleasure to have it so. You thought, too, that you went in God’s ways when you wished to save the man you loved. He knew nothing of your love. He must not be lost for your sake. Did you know what was right? Did you know what was wrong? God alone knew it, and he had passed sentence upon you. He had struck down your heart’s idol. He had led you on to the great, healing way of penitence.

Tell them that you know that salvation is not to be found in concealment. Devils love darkness. Let your judges’ hands close on the scourge! The punishment shall fall like soothing balm on the wounds of sin. Your heart longs for suffering.

Tell them all that, while you kneel on the floor and wring your hands in fierce sorrow, speaking in the wild accents of despair, with a shrill laugh greeting the thought of punishment and dishonor, until at last your husband seizes you and drags you up from the floor.

“Conduct yourself as it behooves a Countess Dohna, or I must ask my mother to chastise you like a child.”

“Do with me what you will!”

Then the count pronounced his sentence:⁠—

“My mother has interceded for you. Therefore you may stay in my house. But hereafter it is she who commands, and you who obey.”

See the way of the penitent! The young countess has become the most humble of servants. How long? Oh, how long?

How long shall a proud heart be able to bend? How long can impatient lips keep silent; how long a passionate hand be held back?

Sweet is the misery of humiliation. When the back aches from the heavy work the heart is at peace. To one who sleeps a few short hours on a hard bed of straw, sleep comes uncalled.

Let the older woman change herself into an evil spirit to torture the younger. She thanks her benefactress. As yet the evil is not dead in her. Hunt her up at four o’clock every morning! Impose on the inexperienced workwoman an unreasonable day’s work at the heavy weaving-loom! It is well. The penitent has perhaps not strength enough to swing the scourge with the required force.

When the time for the great spring washing comes,3 Countess Märta has her stand at the tub in the washhouse. She comes herself to oversee her work. “The water is too cold in your tub,” she says, and takes boiling water from a kettle and pours it over her bare arms.

The day is cold, the washerwomen have to stand by the lake and rinse out the clothes. Squalls rush by and drench them with sleet. Dripping wet and heavy as lead are the washerwomen’s skirts.

Hard is the work with the wooden clapper. The blood bursts from the delicate nails.

But Countess Elizabeth does not complain. Praised be the goodness of God! The scourge’s thorny knots fall softly, as if they were rose-leaves, on the penitent’s back.

The young woman soon hears that Gösta Berling is alive. Her mother-in-law had only wanted to cheat her into a confession. Well, what of that? See the hand of God! He had won over the sinner to the path of atonement.

She grieves for only one thing. How shall it be with her mother-in-law, whose heart God for her sake has hardened? Ah, he will judge her mildly. She must show anger to help the sinner to win back God’s love.

She did not know that often a soul that has tried all other pleasures turns to delight in cruelty. In the suffering of animals and men, weakened emotions find a source of joy.

The older woman is not conscious of any malice. She thinks she is only correcting a wanton wife. So she lies awake sometimes at night and broods over new methods of torture.

One evening she goes through the house and has the countess light her with a candle. She carries it in her hand without a candlestick.

“The candle is burned out,” says the young woman.

“When there is an end to the candle, the candlestick must burn,” answers Countess Märta.

And they go on, until the reeking wick goes out in the scorched hand.

But that is childishness. There are tortures for the soul which are greater than any suffering of the body. Countess Märta invites guests and makes the mistress of the house herself wait on them at her own table.

That is the penitent’s great day. Strangers shall see her in her humiliation. They shall see that she is no longer worthy to sit at her husband’s table. Oh, with what scorn their cold eyes will rest on her!

Worse, much worse it is. Not an eye meets hers. Everybody at the table sits silent and depressed, men and women equally out of spirits.

But she gathers it all to lay it like coals of fire on her head. Is her sin so dreadful? Is it a disgrace to be near her?

Then temptation comes. Anna Stjärnhök, who has been her friend, and the judge at Munkerud, Anna’s neighbor at the table, take hold of her when she comes, snatch the dish from her, push up a chair, and will not let her escape.

“Sit there, child, sit there!” says the judge. “You have done no wrong.”

And with one voice all the guests declare that if she does not sit down at the table, they must all go. They are no executioners. They will not do Märta Dohna’s bidding. They are not so easily deceived as that sheep-like count.

“Oh, good gentlemen! Oh, beloved friends! Do not be so charitable. You force me to cry out my sin. There is someone whom I have loved too dearly.”

“Child, you do not know what sin is. You do not understand how guiltless you are. Gösta Berling did not even know that you liked him. Take your proper place in your home! You have done no wrong.”

They keep up her courage for a while and are themselves suddenly gay as children. Laughter and jests ring about the board.

These impetuous, emotional people, they are so good; but still they are sent by the tempter. They want to make her think that she is a martyr, and openly scoff at Countess Märta as if she were a witch. But they do not understand. They do not know how the soul longs for purity, nor how the penitent is driven by his own heart to expose himself to the stones of the way and the heat of the sun.

Sometimes Countess Märta forces her to sit the whole day long quietly in the bay window, and then she tells her endless stories of Gösta Berling, priest and adventurer. If her memory does not hold out, she romances, only to contrive that his name the whole day shall sound in the young woman’s ears. That is what she fears most. On those days she feels that her penance will never end. Her love will not die. She thinks that she herself will die before it. Her strength begins to give way. She is often very ill.

“But where is your hero tarrying?” asks the countess, spitefully. “From day to day I have expected him at the head of the pensioners. Why does he not take Borg by storm, set you up on a throne, and throw me and your husband, bound, into a dungeon cell? Are you already forgotten?”

She is almost ready to defend him and say that she herself had forbidden him to give her any help. But no, it is best to be silent, to be silent and to suffer.

Day by day she is more and more consumed by the fire of irritation. She has incessant fever and is so weak that she can scarcely hold herself up. She longs to die. Life’s strongest forces are subdued. Love and joy do not dare to move. She no longer fears pain.

It is as if her husband no longer knew that she existed. He sits shut up in his room almost the whole day and studies indecipherable manuscripts and essays in old, stained print.

He reads charters of nobility on parchment, from which the seal of Sweden hangs, large and potent, stamped in red wax and kept in a turned wooden box. He examines old coats of arms with lilies on a white field and griffins on a blue. Such things he understands, and such he interprets with ease. And he reads over and over again speeches and obituary notices of the noble counts Dohna, where their exploits are compared to those of the heroes of Israel and the gods of Greece.

Those old things have always given him pleasure. But he does not trouble himself to think a second time of his young wife.

Countess Märta has said a word which killed the love in him: “She took you for your money.” No man can bear to hear such a thing. It quenches all love. Now it was quite one to him what happened to the young woman. If his mother could bring her to the path of duty, so much the better. Count Henrik had much admiration for his mother.

This misery went on for a month. Still it was not such a stormy and agitated time as it may sound when it is all compressed into a few written pages. Countess Elizabeth was always outwardly calm. Once only, when she heard that Gösta Berling might be dead, emotion overcame her.

But her grief was so great that she had not been able to preserve her love for her husband that she would probably have let Countess Märta torture her to death, if her old housekeeper had not spoken to her one evening.

“You must speak to the count, countess,” she said. “Good heavens, you are such a child! You do not perhaps know yourself, countess, what you have to expect; but I see well enough what the matter is.”

But that was just what she could not say to her husband, while he cherished such a black suspicion of her.

That night she dressed herself quietly, and went out. She wore an ordinary peasant-girl’s dress, and had a bundle in her hand. She meant to run away from her home and never come back.

She did not go to escape pain and suffering. But now she believed that God had given her a sign that she might go, that she must preserve her body’s health and strength.

She did not turn to the west across the lake, for there lived one whom she loved very dearly; nor did she go to the north, for there many of her friends lived; nor towards the south, for, far, far to the south lay her father’s home, and she did not wish to come a step nearer; but to the east she went, for there she knew she had no home, no beloved friend, no acquaintance, no help nor comfort.

She did not go with a light step, for the thought that she had not yet appeased God. But still she was glad that she hereafter might bear the burden of her sin among strangers. Their indifferent glances should rest on her, soothing as cold steel laid on a swollen limb.

She meant to continue her wandering until she found a lowly cottage at the edge of the wood, where no one should know her. “You can see what has happened to me, and my parents have turned me out,” she meant to say. “Let me have food and a roof over my head here, until I can earn my bread. I am not without money.”

So she went on in the bright June night, for the month of May had passed during her suffering. Alas, the month of May, that fair time when the birches mingle their pale green with the darkness of the pine forest, and when the south-wind comes again satiated with warmth.

Ah, May, you dear, bright month, have you ever seen a child who is sitting on its mother’s knee listening to fairy stories? As long as the child is told of cruel giants and of the bitter suffering of beautiful princesses, it holds its head up and its eyes open; but if the mother begins to speak of happiness and sunshine, the little one closes its eyes and falls asleep with its head against her breast.

And see, fair month of May, such a child am I too. Others may listen to tales of flowers and sunshine; but for myself I choose the dark nights, full of visions and adventures, bitter destinies, sorrowful sufferings of wild hearts.