The Iron from Ekeby

Spring had come, and the iron from all the mines in Värmland was to be sent to Gothenburg.

But at Ekeby they had no iron to send. In the autumn there had been a scarcity of water, in the spring the pensioners had been in power.

In their time strong, bitter ale foamed down the broad granite slope of Björksjö falls, and Löfven’s long lake was filled not with water, but with brandy. In their time no iron was brought to the forge, the smiths stood in shirtsleeves and clogs by the hearth and turned enormous roasts on long spits, while the boys on long tongs held larded capons over the coals. In those days they slept on the carpenter’s bench and played cards on the anvil. In those days no iron was forged.

But the spring came and in the wholesale office in Gothenburg they began to expect the iron from Ekeby. They looked up the contract made with the major and his wife, where there were promises of the delivery of many hundreds of tons.

But what did the pensioners care for the contract? They thought of pleasure and fiddling and feasting.

Iron came from Stömne, iron from Sölje. From Uddeholm it came, and from Munkfors, and from all of the many mines. But where is the iron from Ekeby?

Is Ekeby no longer the chief of Värmland’s iron works? Does no one watch over the honor of the old estate? Like ashes for the wind it is left in the hands of shiftless pensioners.

Well, but if the Ekeby hammers have rested, they must have worked at our six other estates. There must be there enough and more than enough iron.

So Gösta Berling sets out to talk with the managers of the six mines.

He travelled ten miles or so to the north, till he came to Lötafors. It is a pretty place, there can be no doubt of that. The upper Löfven lies spread out before it and close behind it has Gurlitta cliff, with steeply rising top and a look of wildness and romance which well suits an old mountain. But the smithy, that is not as it ought to be: the swing-wheel is broken, and has been so a whole year.

“Well, why has it not been mended?”

“The carpenter, my dear friend, the carpenter, the only one in the whole district who could mend it, has been busy somewhere else. We have not been able to forge a single ton.”

“Why did you not send after the carpenter?”

“Send after! As if we had not sent after him every day, but he has not been able to come. He was busy building bowling-alleys and summerhouses at Ekeby.”

He goes further to the north to Björnidet. Also a beautiful spot, but iron, is there any iron?

No, of course not. They had had no coal, and they had not been able to get any money from Ekeby to pay charcoal-burners and teamsters. There had been no work all winter.

Then Gösta turns to the south. He comes to Hån, and to Löfstafors, far in in the woods, but he fares no better there. Nowhere have they iron, and everywhere it seems to be the pensioners’ own fault that such is the case.

So Gösta turns back to Ekeby, and the pensioners with gloomy looks take into consideration the fifty tons or so, which are in stock, and their heads are weighed down with grief, for they hear how all nature sneers at Ekeby, and they think that the ground shakes with sobs, that the trees threaten them with angry gestures, and that the grass and weeds lament that the honor of Ekeby is gone.

But why so many words and so much perplexity? There is the iron from Ekeby.

There it is, loaded on barges on the Klar River, ready to sail down the stream, ready to be weighed at Karlstad, ready to be conveyed to Gothenburg. So it is saved, the honor of Ekeby.

But how is it possible? At Ekeby there was not more than fifty tons of iron, at the six other mines there was no iron at all. How is it possible that full-loaded barges shall now carry such an enormous amount of iron to the scales at Karlstad? Yes, one may well ask the pensioners.

The pensioners are themselves on board the heavy, ugly vessels; they mean to escort the iron from Ekeby to Gothenburg. They are going to do everything for their dear iron and not forsake it until it is unloaded on the wharf in Gothenburg. They are going to load and unload, manage sails and rudder. They are the very ones for such an undertaking. Is there a shoal in the Klar River or a reef in the Väner which they do not know?

If they love anything in the world, it is the iron on those barges. They treat it like the most delicate glass, they spread cloths over it. Not a bit may lie bare. It it those heavy, gray bars which are going to retrieve the honor of Ekeby. No stranger may cast indifferent glances on them.

None of the pensioners have remained at home. Uncle Eberhard has left his desk, and Cousin Christopher has come out of his corner. No one can hold back when it is a question of the honor of Ekeby.

Everyone knows that often in life occur such coincidences as that which now followed. He who still can be surprised may wonder that the pensioners should be lying with their barges at the ferry over the Klar River just on the morning after when Countess Elizabeth had started on her wanderings towards the east. But it would certainly have been more wonderful if the young woman had found no help in her need. It now happened that she, who had walked the whole night, was coming along the highway which led down to the ferry, just as the pensioners intended to push off, and they stood and looked at her while she talked to the ferryman and he untied his boat. She was dressed like a peasant girl, and they never guessed who she was. But still they stood and stared at her, because there was something familiar about her. As she stood and talked to the ferryman, a cloud of dust appeared on the highway, and in that cloud of dust they could catch a glimpse of a big yellow coach. She knew that it was from Borg, that they were out to look for her, and that she would now be discovered. She could no longer hope to escape in the ferryman’s boat, and the only hiding-place she saw was the pensioners’ barges. She rushed down to them without seeing who it was on board. And well it was that she did not see, for otherwise she would rather have thrown herself under the horses’ feet than have taken her flight thither.

When she came on board she only screamed, “Hide me, hide me!” And then she tripped and fell on the pile of iron. But the pensioners bade her be calm. They pushed off hurriedly from the land, so that the barge came out into the current and bore down towards Karlstad, just as the coach reached the ferry.

In the carriage sat Count Henrik and Countess Märta. The count ran forward to ask the ferryman if he had seen his countess. But as Count Henrik was a little embarrassed to have to ask about a runaway wife, he only said:⁠—

“Something has been lost!”

“Really?” said the ferryman.

“Something has been lost. I ask if you have seen anything?”

“What are you asking about?”

“Yes, it makes no difference, but something has been lost. I ask if you have ferried anything over the river today?”

By these means he could find out nothing, and Countess Märta had to go and speak to the man. She knew in a minute, that she whom they sought was on board one of the heavily gliding barges.

“Who are the people on those barges?”

“Oh, they are the pensioners, as we call them.”

“Ah,” says the countess. “Yes, then your wife is in good keeping, Henrik. We might as well go straight home.”

On the barge there was no such great joy as Countess Märta believed. As long as the yellow coach was in sight, the frightened young woman shrank together on the load motionless and silent, staring at the shore.

Probably she first recognized the pensioners when she had seen the yellow coach drive away. She started up. It was as if she wanted to escape again, but she was stopped by the one standing nearest, and she sank back on the load with a faint moan.

The pensioners dared not speak to her nor ask her any questions. She looked as if on the verge of madness.

Their careless heads began verily to be heavy with responsibility. This iron was already a heavy load for unaccustomed shoulders, and now they had to watch over a young, highborn lady, who had run away from her husband.

When they had met this young woman at the balls of the winter, one and another of them had thought of a little sister whom he had once loved. When he played and romped with that sister he needed to handle her carefully, and when he talked with her he had learned to be careful not to use bad words. If a strange boy had chased her too wildly in their play or had sung coarse songs for her, he had thrown himself on him with boundless fury and almost pounded the life out of him, for his little sister should never hear anything bad nor suffer any pain nor ever be met with anger and hate.

Countess Elizabeth had been like a joyous sister to them all. When she had laid her little hands in their hard fists, it had been as if she had said: “Feel how fragile I am, but you are my big brother; you shall protect me both from others and from yourself.” And they had been courtly knights as long as they had been with her.

Now the pensioners looked upon her with terror, and did not quite recognize her. She was worn and thin, her neck was without roundness, her face transparent. She must have struck herself during her wanderings, for from a little wound on her temple blood was trickling, and her curly, light hair, which shaded her brow, was sticky with it. Her dress was soiled from her long walk on the wet paths, and her shoes were muddy. The pensioners had a dreadful feeling that this was a stranger. The Countess Elizabeth they knew never had such wild, glittering eyes. Their poor little sister had been hunted nearly to madness. It was as if a soul come down from other spaces was struggling with the right soul for the mastery of her tortured body.

But there was no need for them to worry over what they should do with her. The old thought soon waked in her. Temptation had come to her again. God wished to try her once more. See, she is among friends; does she intend to leave the path of the penitent?

She rises and cries that she must go.

The pensioners try to calm her. They told her that she was safe. They would protect her from all persecution.

She only begged to be allowed to get into the little boat, which was towed after the barge, and row to the land, to continue her wandering.

But they could not let her go. What would become of her? It was better to remain with them. They were only poor old men, but they would surely find some way to help her.

Then she wrung her hands and begged them to let her go. But they could not grant her prayer. She was so exhausted and weak that they thought that she would die by the roadside.

Gösta Berling stood a short distance away and looked down into the water. Perhaps the young woman would not wish to see him. He did not know it, but his thoughts played and smiled. “Nobody knows where she is,” he thought; “we can take her with us to Ekeby. We will keep her hidden there, we pensioners, and we will be good to her. She shall be our queen, our mistress, but no one shall know that she is there. We will guard her so well, so well. She perhaps would be happy with us; she would be cherished like a daughter by all the old men.”

He had never dared to ask himself if he loved her. She could not be his without sin, and he would not drag her down to anything low and wretched, that he knew. But to have her concealed at Ekeby and to be good to her after others had been cruel, and to let her enjoy everything pleasant in life, ah, what a dream, what a blissful dream!

But he wakened out of it, for the young countess was in dire distress, and her words had the piercing accents of despair. She had thrown herself upon her knees in the midst of the pensioners and begged them to be allowed to go.

“God has not yet pardoned me,” she cried. “Let me go!”

Gösta saw that none of the others meant to obey her, and understood that he must do it. He, who loved her, must do it.

He felt a difficulty in walking, as if his every limb resisted his will, but he dragged himself to her and said that he would take her on shore.

She rose instantly. He lifted her down into the boat and rowed her to the east shore. He landed at a little pathway and helped her out of the boat.

“What is to become of you, countess?” he said.

She lifted her finger solemnly and pointed towards heaven.

“If you are in need, countess⁠—”

He could not speak, his voice failed him, but she understood him and answered:⁠—

“I will send you word when I need you.”

“I would have liked to protect you from all evil,” he said.

She gave him her hand in farewell, and he was not able to say anything more. Her hand lay cold and limp in his.

She was not conscious of anything but those inward voices which forced her to go among strangers. She hardly knew that it was the man she loved whom she now left.

So he let her go and rowed out to the pensioners again. When he came up on the barge he was trembling with fatigue and seemed exhausted and faint. He had done the hardest work of his life, it seemed to him.

For the few days he kept up his courage, until the honor of Ekeby was saved. He brought the iron to the weighing-office on Kanike point; then for a long time he lost all strength and love of life.

The pensioners noticed no change in him as long as they were on board. He strained every nerve to keep his hold on gayety and carelessness, for it was by gayety and carelessness that the honor of Ekeby was to be saved. How should their venture at the weighing-office succeed if they came with anxious faces and dejected hearts?

If what rumor says is true, that the pensioners that time had more sand than iron on their barges, if it is true that they kept bringing up and down the same bars to the weighing-office at Kanike point, until the many hundred tons were weighed; if it is true that all that could happen because the keeper of the public scales and his men were so well entertained out of the hampers and wine cases brought from Ekeby, one must know that they had to be gay on the iron barges.

Who can know the truth now? But if it was so, it is certain that Gösta Berling had no time to grieve. Of the joy of adventure and danger he felt nothing. As soon as he dared, he sank into a condition of despair.

As soon as the pensioners had got their certificate of weighing, they loaded their iron on a bark. It was generally the custom that the captain of the vessel took charge of the load to Gothenburg, and the Värmland mines had no more responsibility for their iron when they had got their certificate that the consignment was filled. But the pensioners would do nothing by halves, they were going to take the iron all the way to Gothenburg.

On the way they met with misfortune. A storm broke out in the night, the vessel was disabled, drove on a reef, and sank with all her precious load. But if one saw the matter rightly, what did it matter if the iron was lost? The honor of Ekeby was saved. The iron had been weighed at the weighing-office at Kanike point. And even if the major had to sit down and in a curt letter inform the merchants in the big town that he would not have their money, as they had not got his iron, that made no difference either. Ekeby was so rich, and its honor was saved.

But if the harbors and locks, if the mines and charcoal-kilns, if the schooners and barges begin to whisper of strange things? If a gentle murmur goes through the forests that the journey was a fraud? If it is asserted through the whole of Värmland that there were never more than fifty miserable tons on the barges and that the shipwreck was arranged intentionally? A bold exploit had been carried out, and a real pensioner prank accomplished. By such things the honor of the old estate is not blemished.

But it happened so long ago now. It is quite possible that the pensioners bought the iron or that they found it in some hitherto unknown storehouse. The truth will never be made clear in the matter. The keeper of the scales will never listen to any tales of fraud, and he ought to know.

When the pensioners reached home they heard news. Count Dohna’s marriage was to be annulled. The count had sent his steward to Italy to get proofs that the marriage had not been legal. He had come back late in the summer with satisfactory reports. What these were⁠—well, that I do not know with certainty. One must treat old tales with care; they are like faded roses. They easily drop their petals if one comes too near to them. People say that the ceremony in Italy had not been performed by a real priest. I do not know, but it certainly is true that the marriage between Count Dohna and Elizabeth von Thurn was declared at the court at Borg never to have been any marriage.

Of this the young woman knew nothing. She lived among peasants in some out-of-the-way place, if she was living.