By Ronneby River


Neither the wild geese nor Smirre Fox had believed that they should ever run across each other after they had left Skåne. But now it turned out so that the wild geese happened to take the route over Blekinge and thither Smirre Fox had also gone.

So far he had kept himself in the northern parts of the province; and since he had not as yet seen any manor parks, or hunting grounds filled with game and dainty young deer, he was more disgruntled than he could say.

One afternoon, when Smirre tramped around in the desolate forest district of Mellanbygden, not far from Ronneby River, he saw a flock of wild geese fly through the air. Instantly he observed that one of the geese was white and then he knew, of course, with whom he had to deal.

Smirre began immediately to hunt the geese⁠—just as much for the pleasure of getting a good square meal, as for the desire to be avenged for all the humiliation that they had heaped upon him. He saw that they flew eastward until they came to Ronneby River. Then they changed their course, and followed the river toward the south. He understood that they intended to seek a sleeping-place along the riverbanks, and he thought that he should be able to get hold of a pair of them without much trouble. But when Smirre finally discovered the place where the wild geese had taken refuge, he observed they had chosen such a well-protected spot, that he couldn’t get near.

Ronneby River isn’t any big or important body of water; nevertheless, it is just as much talked of, for the sake of its pretty shores. At several points it forces its way forward between steep mountain-walls that stand upright out of the water, and are entirely overgrown with honeysuckle and bird-cherry, mountain-ash and osier; and there isn’t much that can be more delightful than to row out on the little dark river on a pleasant summer day, and look upward on all the soft green that fastens itself to the rugged mountainsides.

But now, when the wild geese and Smirre came to the river, it was cold and blustery spring-winter; all the trees were nude, and there was probably no one who thought the least little bit about whether the shore was ugly or pretty. The wild geese thanked their good fortune that they had found a sand-strip large enough for them to stand upon, on a steep mountain wall. In front of them rushed the river, which was strong and violent in the snow-melting time; behind them they had an impassable mountain rock wall, and overhanging branches screened them. They couldn’t have it better.

The geese were asleep instantly; but the boy couldn’t get a wink of sleep. As soon as the sun had disappeared he was seized with a fear of the darkness, and a wilderness-terror, and he longed for human beings. Where he lay⁠—tucked in under the goose-wing⁠—he could see nothing, and only hear a little; and he thought if any harm came to the goosey-gander, he couldn’t save him.

Noises and rustlings were heard from all directions, and he grew so uneasy that he had to creep from under the wing and seat himself on the ground, beside the goose.

Long-sighted Smirre stood on the mountain’s summit and looked down upon the wild geese. “You may as well give this pursuit up first as last,” he said to himself. “You can’t climb such a steep mountain; you can’t swim in such a wild torrent; and there isn’t the tiniest strip of land below the mountain which leads to the sleeping-place. Those geese are too wise for you. Don’t ever bother yourself again to hunt them!”

But Smirre, like all foxes, had found it hard to give up an undertaking already begun, and so he lay down on the extremest point of the mountain edge, and did not take his eyes off the wild geese. While he lay and watched them, he thought of all the harm they had done him. Yes, it was their fault that he had been driven from Skåne, and had been obliged to move to poverty-stricken Blekinge. He worked himself up to such a pitch, as he lay there, that he wished the wild geese were dead, even if he, himself, should not have the satisfaction of eating them.

When Smirre’s resentment had reached this height, he heard rasping in a large pine that grew close to him, and saw a squirrel come down from the tree, hotly pursued by a marten. Neither of them noticed Smirre; and he sat quietly and watched the chase, which went from tree to tree. He looked at the squirrel, who moved among the branches as lightly as though he’d been able to fly. He looked at the marten, who was not as skilled at climbing as the squirrel, but who still ran up and along the branches just as securely as if they had been even paths in the forest. “If I could only climb half as well as either of them,” thought the fox, “those things down there wouldn’t sleep in peace very long!”

As soon as the squirrel had been captured, and the chase was ended, Smirre walked over to the marten, but stopped two steps away from him, to signify that he did not wish to cheat him of his prey. He greeted the marten in a very friendly manner, and wished him good luck with his catch. Smirre chose his words well⁠—as foxes always do. The marten, on the contrary, who, with his long and slender body, his fine head, his soft skin, and his light brown neckpiece, looked like a little marvel of beauty⁠—but in reality was nothing but a crude forest dweller⁠—hardly answered him. “It surprises me,” said Smirre, “that such a fine hunter as you are should be satisfied with chasing squirrels when there is much better game within reach.” Here he paused; but when the marten only grinned impudently at him, he continued: “Can it be possible that you haven’t seen the wild geese that stand under the mountain wall? or are you not a good enough climber to get down to them?”

This time he had no need to wait for an answer. The marten rushed up to him with back bent, and every separate hair on end. “Have you seen wild geese?” he hissed. “Where are they? Tell me instantly, or I’ll bite your neck off!”

“No! you must remember that I’m twice your size⁠—so be a little polite. I ask nothing better than to show you the wild geese.”

The next instant the marten was on his way down the steep; and while Smirre sat and watched how he swung his snakelike body from branch to branch, he thought: “That pretty tree-hunter has the wickedest heart in all the forest. I believe that the wild geese will have me to thank for a bloody awakening.”

But just as Smirre was waiting to hear the geese’s death-rattle, he saw the marten tumble from branch to branch⁠—and plump into the river so the water splashed high. Soon thereafter, wings beat loudly and strongly and all the geese went up in a hurried flight.

Smirre intended to hurry after the geese, but he was so curious to know how they had been saved, that he sat there until the marten came clambering up. That poor thing was soaked in mud, and stopped every now and then to rub his head with his forepaws. “Now wasn’t that just what I thought⁠—that you were a booby, and would go and tumble into the river?” said Smirre, contemptuously.

“I haven’t acted boobyishly. You don’t need to scold me,” said the marten. “I sat⁠—all ready⁠—on one of the lowest branches and thought how I should manage to tear a whole lot of geese to pieces, when a little creature, no bigger than a squirrel, jumped up and threw a stone at my head with such force, that I fell into the water; and before I had time to pick myself up⁠—”

The marten didn’t have to say any more. He had no audience. Smirre was already a long way off in pursuit of the wild geese.

In the meantime Akka had flown southward in search of a new sleeping-place. There was still a little daylight; and, beside, the half-moon stood high in the heavens, so that she could see a little. Luckily, she was well acquainted in these parts, because it had happened more than once that she had been wind-driven to Blekinge when she travelled over the East sea in the spring.

She followed the river as long as she saw it winding through the moonlit landscape like a black, shining snake. In this way she came way down to Djupafors⁠—where the river first hides itself in an underground channel⁠—and then clear and transparent, as though it were made of glass, rushes down in a narrow cleft, and breaks into bits against its bottom in glittering drops and flying foam. Below the white falls lay a few stones, between which the water rushed away in a wild torrent cataract. Here mother Akka alighted. This was another good sleeping-place⁠—especially this late in the evening, when no human beings moved about. At sunset the geese would hardly have been able to camp there, for Djupafors does not lie in any wilderness. On one side of the falls is a paper factory; on the other⁠—which is steep, and tree-grown⁠—is Djupadal’s park, where people are always strolling about on the steep and slippery paths to enjoy the wild stream’s rushing movement down in the ravine.

It was about the same here as at the former place; none of the travellers thought the least little bit that they had come to a pretty and well-known place. They thought rather that it was ghastly and dangerous to stand and sleep on slippery, wet stones, in the middle of a rumbling waterfall. But they had to be content, if only they were protected from carnivorous animals.

The geese fell asleep instantly, while the boy could find no rest in sleep, but sat beside them that he might watch over the goosey-gander.

After a while, Smirre came running along the river-shore. He spied the geese immediately where they stood out in the foaming whirlpools, and understood that he couldn’t get at them here, either. Still he couldn’t make up his mind to abandon them, but seated himself on the shore and looked at them. He felt very much humbled, and thought that his entire reputation as a hunter was at stake.

All of a sudden, he saw an otter come creeping up from the falls with a fish in his mouth. Smirre approached him but stopped within two steps of him, to show him that he didn’t wish to take his game from him.

“You’re a remarkable one, who can content yourself with catching a fish, while the stones are covered with geese!” said Smirre. He was so eager, that he hadn’t taken the time to arrange his words as carefully as he was wont to do. The otter didn’t turn his head once in the direction of the river. He was a vagabond⁠—like all otters⁠—and had fished many times by Vomb Lake, and probably knew Smirre Fox. “I know very well how you act when you want to coax away a salmon-trout, Smirre,” said he.

“Oh! is it you, Gripe?”6 said Smirre, and was delighted; for he knew that this particular otter was a quick and accomplished swimmer. “I don’t wonder that you do not care to look at the wild geese, since you can’t manage to get out to them.” But the otter, who had swimming-webs between his toes, and a stiff tail⁠—which was as good as an oar⁠—and a skin that was waterproof, didn’t wish to have it said of him that there was a waterfall that he wasn’t able to manage. He turned toward the stream; and as soon as he caught sight of the wild geese, he threw the fish away, and rushed down the steep shore and into the river.

If it had been a little later in the spring, so that the nightingales in Djupafors had been at home, they would have sung for many a day of Gripe’s struggle with the rapid. For the otter was thrust back by the waves many times, and carried down river; but he fought his way steadily up again. He swam forward in still water; he crawled over stones, and gradually came nearer the wild geese. It was a perilous trip, which might well have earned the right to be sung by the nightingales.

Smirre followed the otter’s course with his eyes as well as he could. At last he saw that the otter was in the act of climbing up to the wild geese. But just then it shrieked shrill and wild. The otter tumbled backward into the water, and dashed away as if he had been a blind kitten. An instant later, there was a great crackling of geese’s wings. They raised themselves and flew away to find another sleeping-place.

The otter soon came on land. He said nothing, but commenced to lick one of his forepaws. When Smirre sneered at him because he hadn’t succeeded, he broke out: “It was not the fault of my swimming-art, Smirre. I had raced all the way over to the geese, and was about to climb up to them, when a tiny creature came running, and jabbed me in the foot with some sharp iron. It hurt so, I lost my footing, and then the current took me.”

He didn’t have to say any more. Smirre was already far away on his way to the wild geese.

Once again Akka and her flock had to take a night fly. Fortunately, the moon had not gone down; and with the aid of its light, she succeeded in finding another of those sleeping-places which she knew in that neighbourhood. Again she followed the shining river toward the south. Over Djupadal’s manor, and over Ronneby’s dark roofs and white waterfalls she swayed forward without alighting. But a little south of the city and not far from the sea, lies Ronneby health-spring, with its bath house and spring house; with its big hotel and summer cottages for the spring’s guests. All these stand empty and desolate in winter⁠—which the birds know perfectly well; and many are the bird-companies who seek shelter on the deserted buildings’ balustrades and balconies during hard storm-times.

Here the wild geese lit on a balcony, and, as usual, they fell asleep at once. The boy, on the contrary, could not sleep because he hadn’t cared to creep in under the goosey-gander’s wing.

The balcony faced south, so the boy had an outlook over the sea. And since he could not sleep, he sat there and saw how pretty it looked when sea and land meet, here in Blekinge.

You see that sea and land can meet in many different ways. In many places the land comes down toward the sea with flat, tufted meadows, and the sea meets the land with flying sand, which piles up in mounds and drifts. It appears as though they both disliked each other so much that they only wished to show the poorest they possessed. But it can also happen that, when the land comes toward the sea, it raises a wall of hills in front of it⁠—as though the sea were something dangerous. When the land does this, the sea comes up to it with fiery wrath, and beats and roars and lashes against the rocks, and looks as if it would tear the land-hill to pieces.

But in Blekinge it is altogether different when sea and land meet. There the land breaks itself up into points and islands and islets; and the sea divides itself into fjords and bays and sounds; and it is, perhaps, this which makes it look as if they must meet in happiness and harmony.

Think now first and foremost of the sea! Far out it lies desolate and empty and big, and has nothing else to do but to roll its gray billows. When it comes toward the land, it happens across the first obstacle. This it immediately overpowers; tears away everything green, and makes it as gray as itself. Then it meets still another obstacle. With this it does the same thing. And still another. Yes, the same thing happens to this also. It is stripped and plundered, as if it had fallen into robbers’ hands. Then the obstacles come nearer and nearer together, and then the sea must understand that the land sends toward it her littlest children, in order to move it to pity. It also becomes more friendly the farther in it comes; rolls its waves less high; moderates its storms; lets the green things stay in cracks and crevices; separates itself into small sounds and inlets, and becomes at last so harmless in the land, that little boats dare venture out on it. It certainly cannot recognise itself⁠—so mild and friendly has it grown.

And then think of the hillside! It lies uniform, and looks the same almost everywhere. It consists of flat grainfields, with one and another birch-grove between them; or else of long stretches of forest ranges. It appears as if it had thought about nothing but grain and turnips and potatoes and spruce and pine. Then comes a sea-fjord that cuts far into it. It doesn’t mind that, but borders it with birch and alder, just as if it was an ordinary freshwater lake. Then still another wave comes driving in. Nor does the hillside bother itself about cringing to this, but it, too, gets the same covering as the first one. Then the fjords begin to broaden and separate, they break up fields and woods and then the hillside cannot help but notice them. “I believe it is the sea itself that is coming,” says the hillside, and then it begins to adorn itself. It wreathes itself with blossoms, travels up and down in hills and throws islands into the sea. It no longer cares about pines and spruces, but casts them off like old every day clothes, and parades later with big oaks and lindens and chestnuts, and with blossoming leafy bowers, and becomes as gorgeous as a manor-park. And when it meets the sea, it is so changed that it doesn’t know itself. All this one cannot see very well until summertime; but, at any rate, the boy observed how mild and friendly nature was; and he began to feel calmer than he had been before, that night. Then, suddenly, he heard a sharp and ugly yowl from the bathhouse park; and when he stood up he saw, in the white moonlight, a fox standing on the pavement under the balcony. For Smirre had followed the wild geese once more. But when he had found the place where they were quartered, he had understood that it was impossible to get at them in any way; then he had not been able to keep from yowling with chagrin.

When the fox yowled in this manner, old Akka, the leader-goose, was awakened. Although she could see nothing, she thought she recognised the voice. “Is it you who are out tonight, Smirre?” said she.

“Yes,” said Smirre, “it is I; and I want to ask what you geese think of the night that I have given you?”

“Do you mean to say that it is you who have sent the marten and otter against us?” asked Akka.

“A good turn shouldn’t be denied,” said Smirre. “You once played the goose-game with me, now I have begun to play the fox-game with you; and I’m not inclined to let up on it so long as a single one of you still lives even if I have to follow you the world over!”

“You, Smirre, ought at least to think whether it is right for you, who are weaponed with both teeth and claws, to hound us in this way; we, who are without defence,” said Akka.

Smirre thought that Akka sounded scared, and he said quickly: “If you, Akka, will take that Thumbietot⁠—who has so often opposed me⁠—and throw him down to me, I’ll promise to make peace with you. Then I’ll never more pursue you or any of yours.”

“I’m not going to give you Thumbietot,” said Akka. “From the youngest of us to the oldest, we would willingly give our lives for his sake!”

“Since you’re so fond of him,” said Smirre, “I’ll promise you that he shall be the first among you that I will wreak vengeance upon.”

Akka said no more, and after Smirre had sent up a few more yowls, all was still. The boy lay all the while awake. Now it was Akka’s words to the fox that prevented him from sleeping. Never had he dreamed that he should hear anything so great as that anyone was willing to risk life for his sake. From that moment, it could no longer be said of Nils Holgersson that he did not care for anyone.