A Day in Hälsingland

A Large Green Leaf


The following day the boy travelled over Hälsingland. It spread beneath him with new, pale-green shoots on the pine trees, new birch leaves in the groves, new green grass in the meadows, and sprouting grain in the fields. It was a mountainous country, but directly through it ran a broad, light valley from either side of which branched other valleys⁠—some short and narrow, some broad and long.

“This land resembles a leaf,” thought the boy, “for it’s as green as a leaf, and the valleys subdivide it in about the same way as the veins of a leaf are foliated.”

The branch valleys, like the main one, were filled with lakes, rivers, farms, and villages. They snuggled, light and smiling, between the dark mountains until they were gradually squeezed together by the hills. There they were so narrow that they could not hold more than a little brook.

On the high land between the valleys there were pine forests which had no even ground to grow upon. There were mountains standing all about, and the forest covered the whole, like a woolly hide stretched over a bony body.

It was a picturesque country to look down upon, and the boy saw a good deal of it, because the eagle was trying to find the old fiddler, Clement Larsson, and flew from ravine to ravine looking for him.

A little later in the morning there was life and movement on every farm. The doors of the cattle sheds were thrown wide open and the cows were let out. They were prettily coloured, small, supple and sprightly, and so surefooted that they made the most comic leaps and bounds. After them came the calves and sheep, and it was plainly to be seen that they, too, were in the best of spirits.

It grew livelier every moment in the farm yards. A couple of young girls with knapsacks on their backs walked among the cattle; a boy with a long switch kept the sheep together, and a little dog ran in and out among the cows, barking at the ones that tried to gore him. The farmer hitched a horse to a cart loaded with tubs of butter, boxes of cheese, and all kinds of eatables. The people laughed and chattered. They and the beasts were alike merry⁠—as if looking forward to a day of real pleasure.

A moment later all were on their way to the forest. One of the girls walked in the lead and coaxed the cattle with pretty, musical calls. The animals followed in a long line. The shepherd boy and the sheepdog ran hither and thither, to see that no creature turned from the right course; and last came the farmer and his hired man. They walked beside the cart to prevent its being upset, for the road they followed was a narrow, stony forest path.

It may have been the custom for all the peasants in Hälsingland to send their cattle into the forests on the same day⁠—or perhaps it only happened so that year; at any rate the boy saw how processions of happy people and cattle wandered out from every valley and every farm and rushed into the lonely forest, filling it with life. From the depths of the dense woods the boy heard the shepherd maidens’ songs and the tinkle of the cow bells. Many of the processions had long and difficult roads to travel; and the boy saw how they tramped through marshes, how they had to take roundabout ways to get past windfalls, and how, time and again, the carts bumped against stones and turned over with all their contents. But the people met all the obstacles with jokes and laughter.

In the afternoon they came to a cleared space where cattle sheds and a couple of rude cabins had been built. The cows mooed with delight as they tramped on the luscious green grass in the yards between the cabins, and at once began grazing. The peasants, with merry chatter and banter, carried water and wood and all that had been brought in the carts into the larger cabin. Presently smoke rose from the chimney and then the dairymaids, the shepherd boy, and the men squatted upon a flat rock and ate their supper.

Gorgo, the eagle, was certain that he should find Clement Larsson among those who were off for the forest. Whenever he saw a stock farm procession, he sank down and scrutinized it with his sharp eyes; but hour after hour passed without his finding the one he sought.

After much circling around, toward evening they came to a stony and desolate tract east of the great main valley. There the boy saw another outlying stock farm under him. The people and the cattle had arrived. The men were splitting wood, and the dairymaids were milking the cows.

“Look there!” said Gorgo. “I think we’ve got him.”

He sank, and, to his great astonishment, the boy saw that the eagle was right. There indeed stood little Clement Larsson chopping wood.

Gorgo alighted on a pine tree in the thick woods a little away from the house.

“I have fulfilled my obligation,” said the eagle, with a proud toss of his head. “Now you must try and have a word with the man. I’ll perch here at the top of the thick pine and wait for you.”

The Animals’ New Year’s Eve

The day’s work was done at the forest ranches, supper was over, and the peasants sat about and chatted. It was a long time since they had been in the forest of a summer’s night, and they seemed reluctant to go to bed and sleep. It was as light as day, and the dairymaids were busy with their needlework. Ever and anon they raised their heads, looked toward the forest and smiled. “Now we are here again!” they said. The town, with its unrest, faded from their minds, and the forest, with its peaceful stillness, enfolded them. When at home they had wondered how they should ever be able to endure the loneliness of the woods; but once there, they felt that they were having their best time.

Many of the young girls and young men from neighbouring ranches had come to call upon them, so that there were quite a lot of folk seated on the grass before the cabins, but they did not find it easy to start conversation. The men were going home the next day, so the dairymaids gave them little commissions and bade them take greetings to their friends in the village. This was nearly all that had been said.

Suddenly the eldest of the dairy girls looked up from her work and said laughingly:

“There’s no need of our sitting here so silent tonight, for we have two storytellers with us. One is Clement Larsson, who sits beside me, and the other is Bernhard from Sunnasjö, who stands back there gazing toward Black’s Ridge. I think that we should ask each of them to tell us a story. To the one who entertains us the better I shall give the muffler I am knitting.”

This proposal won hearty applause. The two competitors offered lame excuses, naturally, but were quickly persuaded. Clement asked Bernhard to begin, and he did not object. He knew little of Clement Larsson, but assumed that he would come out with some story about ghosts and trolls. As he knew that people liked to listen to such things, he thought it best to choose something of the same sort.

“Some centuries ago,” he began, “a dean here in Delsbo township was riding through the dense forest on a New Year’s Eve. He was on horseback, dressed in fur coat and cap. On the pommel of his saddle hung a satchel in which he kept the communion service, the Prayerbook, and the clerical robe. He had been summoned on a parochial errand to a remote forest settlement, where he had talked with a sick person until late in the evening. Now he was on his way home, but feared that he should not get back to the rectory until after midnight.

“As he had to sit in the saddle when he should have been at home in his bed, he was glad it was not a rough night. The weather was mild, the air still and the skies overcast. Behind the clouds hung a full round moon which gave some light, although it was out of sight. But for that faint light it would have been impossible for him to distinguish paths from fields, for that was a snowless winter, and all things had the same grayish-brown colour.

“The horse the dean rode was one he prized very highly. He was strong and sturdy, and quite as wise as a human being. He could find his way home from any place in the township. The dean had observed this on several occasions, and he relied upon it with such a sense of security that he never troubled himself to think where he was going when he rode that horse. So he came along now in the gray night, through the bewildering forest, with the reins dangling and his thoughts far away.

“He was thinking of the sermon he had to preach on the morrow, and of much else besides, and it was a long time before it occurred to him to notice how far along he was on his homeward way. When he did glance up, he saw that the forest was as dense about him as at the beginning, and he was somewhat surprised, for he had ridden so long that he should have come to the inhabited portion of the township.

“Delsbo was about the same then as now. The church and parsonage and all the large farms and villages were at the northern end of the township, while at the southern part there were only forests and mountains. The dean saw that he was still in the unpopulated district and knew that he was in the southern part and must ride to the north to get home. There were no stars, nor was there a moon to guide him; but he was a man who had the four cardinal points in his head. He had the positive feeling that he was travelling southward, or possibly eastward.

“He intended to turn the horse at once, but hesitated. The animal had never strayed, and it did not seem likely that he would do so now. It was more likely that the dean was mistaken. He had been far away in thought and had not looked at the road. So he let the horse continue in the same direction, and again lost himself in his reverie.

“Suddenly a big branch struck him and almost swept him off the horse. Then he realized that he must find out where he was.

“He glanced down and saw that he was riding over a soft marsh, where there was no beaten path. The horse trotted along at a brisk pace and showed no uncertainty. Again the dean was positive that he was going in the wrong direction, and now he did not hesitate to interfere. He seized the reins and turned the horse about, guiding him back to the roadway. No sooner was he there than he turned again and made straight for the woods.

“The dean was certain that he was going wrong, but because the beast was so persistent he thought that probably he was trying to find a better road, and let him go along.

“The horse did very well, although he had no path to follow. If a precipice obstructed his way, he climbed it as nimbly as a goat, and later, when they had to descend, he bunched his hoofs and slid down the rocky inclines.

“ ‘May he only find his way home before church hour!’ thought the dean. ‘I wonder how the Delsbo folk would take it if I were not at my church on time?’

“He did not have to brood over this long, for soon he came to a place that was familiar to him. It was a little creek where he had fished the summer before. Now he saw it was as he had feared⁠—he was in the depths of the forest, and the horse was plodding along in a southeasterly direction. He seemed determined to carry the dean as far from church and rectory as he could.

“The clergyman dismounted. He could not let the horse carry him into the wilderness. He must go home. And, since the animal persisted in going in the wrong direction, he decided to walk and lead him until they came to more familiar roads. The dean wound the reins around his arm and began to walk. It was not an easy matter to tramp through the forest in a heavy fur coat; but the dean was strong and hardy and had little fear of overexertion.

“The horse, meanwhile, caused him fresh anxiety. He would not follow but planted his hoofs firmly on the ground.

“At last the dean was angry. He had never beaten that horse, nor did he wish to do so now. Instead, he threw down the reins and walked away.

“ ‘We may as well part company here, since you want to go your own way,’ he said.

“He had not taken more than two steps before the horse came after him, took a cautious grip on his coat sleeve and stopped him. The dean turned and looked the horse straight in the eyes, as if to search out why he behaved so strangely.

“Afterward the dean could not quite understand how this was possible, but it is certain that, dark as it was, he plainly saw the horse’s face and read it like that of a human being. He realized that the animal was in a terrible state of apprehension and fear. He gave his master a look that was both imploring and reproachful.

“ ‘I have served you day after day and done your bidding,’ he seemed to say. ‘Will you not follow me this one night?’

“The dean was touched by the appeal in the animal’s eyes. It was clear that the horse needed his help tonight, in one way or another. Being a man through and through, the dean promptly determined to follow him. Without further delay he sprang into the saddle. ‘Go on!’ he said. ‘I will not desert you since you want me. No one shall say of the dean in Delsbo that he refused to accompany any creature who was in trouble.’

“He let the horse go as he wished and thought only of keeping his seat. It proved to be a hazardous and troublesome journey⁠—uphill most of the way. The forest was so thick that he could not see two feet ahead, but it appeared to him that they were ascending a high mountain. The horse climbed perilous steeps. Had the dean been guiding, he should not have thought of riding over such ground.

“ ‘Surely you don’t intend to go up to Black’s Ridge, do you?’ laughed the dean, who knew that was one of the highest peaks in Hälsingland.

“During the ride he discovered that he and the horse were not the only ones who were out that night. He heard stones roll down and branches crackle, as if animals were breaking their way through the forest. He remembered that wolves were plentiful in that section and wondered if the horse wished to lead him to an encounter with wild beasts.

“They mounted up and up, and the higher they went the more scattered were the trees. At last they rode on almost bare highland, where the dean could look in every direction. He gazed out over immeasurable tracts of land, which went up and down in mountains and valleys covered with sombre forests. It was so dark that he had difficulty in seeing any orderly arrangement; but presently he could make out where he was.

“ ‘Why of course it’s Black’s Ridge that I’ve come to!’ he remarked to himself. ‘It can’t be any other mountain, for there, in the west, I see Jarv Island, and to the east the sea glitters around Ag Island. Toward the north also I see something shiny. It must be Dellen. In the depths below me I see white smoke from Nian Falls. Yes, I’m up on Black’s Ridge. What an adventure!’

“When they were at the summit the horse stopped behind a thick pine, as if to hide. The dean bent forward and pushed aside the branches, that he might have an unobstructed view.

“The mountain’s bald plate confronted him. It was not empty and desolate, as he had anticipated. In the middle of the open space was an immense boulder around which many wild beasts had gathered. Apparently they were holding a conclave of some sort.

“Near to the big rock he saw bears, so firmly and heavily built that they seemed like fur-clad blocks of stone. They were lying down and their little eyes blinked impatiently; it was obvious that they had come from their winter sleep to attend court, and that they could hardly keep awake. Behind them, in tight rows, were hundreds of wolves. They were not sleepy, for wolves are more alert in winter than in summer. They sat upon their haunches, like dogs, whipping the ground with their tails and panting⁠—their tongues lolling far out of their jaws. Behind the wolves the lynx skulked, stiff-legged and clumsy, like misshapen cats. They were loath to be among the other beasts, and hissed and spat when one came near them. The row back of the lynx was occupied by the wolverines, with dog faces and bear coats. They were not happy on the ground, and they stamped their pads impatiently, longing to get into the trees. Behind them, covering the entire space to the forest border, leaped the foxes, the weasels, and the martens. These were small and perfectly formed, but they looked even more savage and bloodthirsty than the larger beasts.

“All this the dean plainly saw, for the whole place was illuminated. Upon the huge rock at the centre was the Wood-nymph, who held in her hand a pine torch which burned in a big red flame. The Nymph was as tall as the tallest tree in the forest. She wore a spruce-brush mantle and had spruce-cone hair. She stood very still, her face turned toward the forest. She was watching and listening.

“The dean saw everything as plain as plain could be, but his astonishment was so great that he tried to combat it, and would not believe the evidence of his own eyes.

“ ‘Such things cannot possibly happen!’ he thought. ‘I have ridden much too long in the bleak forest. This is only an optical illusion.’

“Nevertheless he gave the closest attention to the spectacle, and wondered what was about to be done.

“He hadn’t long to wait before he caught the sound of a familiar bell, coming from the depths of the forest, and the next moment he heard footfalls and crackling of branches⁠—as when many animals break through the forest.

“A big herd of cattle was climbing the mountain. They came through the forest in the order in which they had marched to the mountain ranches. First came the bell cow followed by the bull, then the other cows and the calves. The sheep, closely herded, followed. After them came the goats, and last were the horses and colts. The sheepdog trotted along beside the sheep; but neither shepherd nor shepherdess attended them.

“The dean thought it heartrending to see the tame animals coming straight toward the wild beasts. He would gladly have blocked their way and called ‘Halt!’ but he understood that it was not within human power to stop the march of the cattle on this night; therefore he made no move.

“The domestic animals were in a state of torment over that which they had to face. If it happened to be the bell cow’s turn, she advanced with drooping head and faltering step. The goats had no desire either to play or to butt. The horses tried to bear up bravely, but their bodies were all of a quiver with fright. The most pathetic of all was the sheepdog. He kept his tail between his legs and crawled on the ground.

“The bell cow led the procession all the way up to the Wood-nymph, who stood on the boulder at the top of the mountain. The cow walked around the rock and then turned toward the forest without any of the wild beasts touching her. In the same way all the cattle walked unmolested past the wild beasts.

“As the creatures filed past, the dean saw the Wood-nymph lower her pine torch over one and another of them.

“Every time this occurred the beasts of prey broke into loud, exultant roars⁠—particularly when it was lowered over a cow or some other large creature. The animal that saw the torch turning toward it uttered a piercing shriek, as if it had received a knife thrust in its flesh, while the entire herd to which it belonged bellowed their lamentations.

“Then the dean began to comprehend the meaning of what he saw. Surely he had heard that the animals in Delsbo assembled on Black’s Ridge every New Year’s Eve, that the Wood-nymph might mark out which among the tame beasts would that year be prey for the wild beasts. The dean pitied the poor creatures that were at the mercy of savage beasts, when in reality they should have no master but man.

“The leading herd had only just left when another bell tinkled, and the cattle from another farm tramped to the mountain top. These came in the same order as the first and marched past the Wood-nymph, who stood there, stern and solemn, indicating animal after animal for death.

“Herd upon herd followed, without a break in the line of procession. Some were so small that they included only one cow and a few sheep; others consisted of only a pair of goats. It was apparent that these were from very humble homes, but they too were compelled to pass in review.

“The dean thought of the Delsbo farmers, who had so much love for their beasts. ‘Did they but know of it, surely they would not allow a repetition of this!’ he thought. ‘They would risk their own lives rather than let their cattle wander amongst bears and wolves, to be doomed by the Wood-nymph!’

“The last herd to appear was the one from the rectory farm. The dean heard the sound of the familiar bell a long way off. The horse, too, must have heard it, for he began to shake in every limb, and was bathed in sweat.

“ ‘So it is your turn now to pass before the Wood-nymph to receive your sentence,’ the dean said to the horse. ‘Don’t be afraid! Now I know why you brought me here, and I shall not leave you.’

“The fine cattle from the parsonage farm emerged from the forest and marched to the Wood-nymph and the wild beasts. Last in the line was the horse that had brought his master to Black’s Ridge. The dean did not leave the saddle, but let the animal take him to the Wood-nymph.

“He had neither knife nor gun for his defence, but he had taken out the Prayerbook and sat pressing it to his heart as he exposed himself to battle against evil.

“At first it appeared as if none had observed him. The dean’s cattle filed past the Wood-nymph in the same order as the others had done. She did not wave the torch toward any of these, but as soon as the intelligent horse stepped forward, she made a movement to mark him for death.

“Instantly the dean held up the Prayerbook, and the torchlight fell upon the cross on its cover. The Wood-nymph uttered a loud, shrill cry and let the torch drop from her hand.

“Immediately the flame was extinguished. In the sudden transition from light to darkness the dean saw nothing, nor did he hear anything. About him reigned the profound stillness of a wilderness in winter.

“Then the dark clouds parted, and through the opening stepped the full round moon to shed its light upon the ground. The dean saw that he and the horse were alone on the summit of Black’s Ridge. Not one of the many wild beasts was there. The ground had not been trampled by the herds that had passed over it; but the dean himself sat with his Prayerbook before him, while the horse under him stood trembling and foaming.

“By the time the dean reached home he no longer knew whether or not it had been a dream, a vision, or reality⁠—this that he had seen; but he took it as a warning to him to remember the poor creatures who were at the mercy of wild beasts. He preached so powerfully to the Delsbo peasants that in his day all the wolves and bears were exterminated from that section of the country, although they may have returned since his time.”

Here Bernhard ended his story. He received praise from all sides and it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that he would get the prize. The majority thought it almost a pity that Clement had to compete with him.

But Clement, undaunted, began:

“One day, while I was living at Skansen, just outside of Stockholm, and longing for home⁠—” Then he told about the tiny midget he had ransomed so that he would not have to be confined in a cage, to be stared at by all the people. He told, also, that no sooner had he performed this act of mercy than he was rewarded for it. He talked and talked, and the astonishment of his hearers grew greater and greater; but when he came to the royal lackey and the beautiful book, all the dairymaids dropped their needlework and sat staring at Clement in open-eyed wonder at his marvellous experiences.

As soon as Clement had finished, the eldest of the dairymaids announced that he should have the muffler.

“Bernhard related only things that happened to another, but Clement has himself been the hero of a true story, which I consider far more important.”

In this all concurred. They regarded Clement with very different eyes after hearing that he had talked with the King, and the little fiddler was afraid to show how proud he felt. But at the very height of his elation someone asked him what had become of the midget.

“I had no time to set out the blue bowl for him myself,” said Clement, “so I asked the old Laplander to do it. What has become of him since then I don’t know.”

No sooner had he spoken than a little pine cone came along and struck him on the nose. It did not drop from a tree, and none of the peasants had thrown it. It was simply impossible to tell whence it had come.

“Aha, Clement!” winked the dairymaid, “it appears as if the tiny folk were listening to us. You should not have left it to another to set out that blue bowl!”