Osa, the Goose Girl, and Little Mats

The year that Nils Holgersson travelled with the wild geese everybody was talking about two little children, a boy and a girl, who tramped through the country. They were from Sunnerbo township, in Småland, and had once lived with their parents and four brothers and sisters in a little cabin on the heath.

While the two children, Osa and Mats, were still small, a poor, homeless woman came to their cabin one night and begged for shelter. Although the place could hardly hold the family, she was taken in and the mother spread a bed for her on the floor. In the night she coughed so hard that the children fancied the house shook. By morning she was too ill to continue her wanderings. The children’s father and mother were as kind to her as could be. They gave up their bed to her and slept on the floor, while the father went to the doctor and brought her medicine.

The first few days the sick woman behaved like a savage; she demanded constant attention and never uttered a word of thanks. Later she became more subdued and finally begged to be carried out to the heath and left there to die.

When her hosts would not hear of this, she told them that the last few years she had roamed about with a band of gipsies. She herself was not of gipsy blood, but was the daughter of a well-to-do farmer. She had run away from home and gone with the nomads. She believed that a gipsy woman who was angry at her had brought this sickness upon her. Nor was that all: The gipsy woman had also cursed her, saying that all who took her under their roof or were kind to her should suffer a like fate. She believed this, and therefore begged them to cast her out of the house and never to see her again. She did not want to bring misfortune down upon such good people. But the peasants refused to do her bidding. It was quite possible that they were alarmed, but they were not the kind of folk who could turn out a poor, sick person.

Soon after that she died, and then along came the misfortunes. Before, there had never been anything but happiness in that cabin. Its inmates were poor, yet not so very poor. The father was a maker of weavers’ combs, and mother and children helped him with the work. Father made the frames, mother and the older children did the binding, while the smaller ones planed the teeth and cut them out. They worked from morning until night, but the time passed pleasantly, especially when father talked of the days when he travelled about in foreign lands and sold weavers’ combs. Father was so jolly that sometimes mother and the children would laugh until their sides ached at his funny quips and jokes.

The weeks following the death of the poor vagabond woman lingered in the minds of the children like a horrible nightmare. They knew not if the time had been long or short, but they remembered that they were always having funerals at home. One after another they lost their brothers and sisters. At last it was very still and sad in the cabin.

The mother kept up some measure of courage, but the father was not a bit like himself. He could no longer work nor jest, but sat from morning till night, his head buried in his hands, and only brooded.

Once⁠—that was after the third burial⁠—the father had broken out into wild talk, which frightened the children. He said that he could not understand why such misfortunes should come upon them. They had done a kindly thing in helping the sick woman. Could it be true, then, that the evil in this world was more powerful than the good?

The mother tried to reason with him, but she was unable to soothe him.

A few days later the eldest was stricken. She had always been the father’s favourite, so when he realized that she, too, must go, he fled from all the misery. The mother never said anything, but she thought it was best for him to be away, as she feared that he might lose his reason. He had brooded too long over this one idea: that God had allowed a wicked person to bring about so much evil.

After the father went away they became very poor. For awhile he sent them money, but afterward things must have gone badly with him, for no more came.

The day of the eldest daughter’s burial the mother closed the cabin and left home with the two remaining children, Osa and Mats. She went down to Skåne to work in the beet fields, and found a place at the Jordberga sugar refinery. She was a good worker and had a cheerful and generous nature. Everybody liked her. Many were astonished because she could be so calm after all that she had passed through, but the mother was very strong and patient. When anyone spoke to her of her two sturdy children, she only said: “I shall soon lose them also,” without a quaver in her voice or a tear in her eye. She had accustomed herself to expect nothing else.

But it did not turn out as she feared. Instead, the sickness came upon herself. She had gone to Skåne in the beginning of summer; before autumn she was gone, and the children were left alone.

While their mother was ill she had often said to the children they must remember that she never regretted having let the sick woman stop with them. It was not hard to die when one had done right, she said, for then one could go with a clear conscience.

Before the mother passed away, she tried to make some provision for her children. She asked the people with whom she lived to let them remain in the room which she had occupied. If the children only had a shelter they would not become a burden to anyone. She knew that they could take care of themselves.

Osa and Mats were allowed to keep the room on condition that they would tend the geese, as it was always hard to find children willing to do that work. It turned out as the mother expected: they did maintain themselves. The girl made candy, and the boy carved wooden toys, which they sold at the farm houses. They had a talent for trading and soon began buying eggs and butter from the farmers, which they sold to the workers at the sugar refinery. Osa was the older, and, by the time she was thirteen, she was as responsible as a grown woman. She was quiet and serious, while Mats was lively and talkative. His sister used to say to him that he could outcackle the geese.

When the children had been at Jordberga for two years, there was a lecture given one evening at the schoolhouse. Evidently it was meant for grownups, but the two Småland children were in the audience. They did not regard themselves as children, and few persons thought of them as such. The lecturer talked about the dread disease called the White Plague, which every year carried off so many people in Sweden. He spoke very plainly and the children understood every word.

After the lecture they waited outside the schoolhouse. When the lecturer came out they took hold of hands and walked gravely up to him, asking if they might speak to him.

The stranger must have wondered at the two rosy, baby-faced children standing there talking with an earnestness more in keeping with people thrice their age; but he listened graciously to them. They related what had happened in their home, and asked the lecturer if he thought their mother and their sisters and brothers had died of the sickness he had described.

“Very likely,” he answered. “It could hardly have been any other disease.”

If only the mother and father had known what the children learned that evening, they might have protected themselves. If they had burned the clothing of the vagabond woman; if they had scoured and aired the cabin and had not used the old bedding, all whom the children mourned might have been living yet. The lecturer said he could not say positively, but he believed that none of their dear ones would have been sick had they understood how to guard against the infection.

Osa and Mats waited awhile before putting the next question, for that was the most important of all. It was not true then that the gipsy woman had sent the sickness because they had befriended the one with whom she was angry. It was not something special that had stricken only them. The lecturer assured them that no person had the power to bring sickness upon another in that way.

Thereupon the children thanked him and went to their room. They talked until late that night.

The next day they gave notice that they could not tend geese another year, but must go elsewhere. Where were they going? Why, to try to find their father. They must tell him that their mother and the other children had died of a common ailment and not something special brought upon them by an angry person. They were very glad that they had found out about this. Now it was their duty to tell their father of it, for probably he was still trying to solve the mystery.

Osa and Mats set out for their old home on the heath. When they arrived they were shocked to find the little cabin in flames. They went to the parsonage and there they learned that a railroad workman had seen their father at Malmberget, far up in Lapland. He had been working in a mine and possibly was still there. When the clergyman heard that the children wanted to go in search of their father he brought forth a map and showed them how far it was to Malmberget and tried to dissuade them from making the journey, but the children insisted that they must find their father. He had left home believing something that was not true. They must find him and tell him that it was all a mistake.

They did not want to spend their little savings buying railway tickets, therefore they decided to go all the way on foot, which they never regretted, as it proved to be a remarkably beautiful journey.

Before they were out of Småland, they stopped at a farm house to buy food. The housewife was a kind, motherly soul who took an interest in the children. She asked them who they were and where they came from, and they told her their story. “Dear, dear! Dear, dear!” she interpolated time and again when they were speaking. Later she petted the children and stuffed them with all kinds of goodies, for which she would not accept a penny. When they rose to thank her and go, the woman asked them to stop at her brother’s farm in the next township. Of course the children were delighted.

“Give him my greetings and tell him what has happened to you,” said the peasant woman.

This the children did and were well treated. From every farm after that it was always: “If you happen to go in such and such a direction, stop there or there and tell them what has happened to you.”

In every farm house to which they were sent there was always a consumptive. So Osa and Mats went through the country unconsciously teaching the people how to combat that dreadful disease.

Long, long ago, when the black plague was ravaging the country, ’twas said that a boy and a girl were seen wandering from house to house. The boy carried a rake, and if he stopped and raked in front of a house, it meant that there many should die, but not all; for the rake has coarse teeth and does not take everything with it. The girl carried a broom, and if she came along and swept before a door, it meant that all who lived within must die; for the broom is an implement that makes a clean sweep.

It seems quite remarkable that in our time two children should wander through the land because of a cruel sickness. But these children did not frighten people with the rake and the broom. They said rather: “We will not content ourselves with merely raking the yard and sweeping the floors, we will use mop and brush, water and soap. We will keep clean inside and outside of the door and we ourselves will be clean in both mind and body. In this way we will conquer the sickness.”

One day, while still in Lapland, Akka took the boy to Malmberget, where they discovered little Mats lying unconscious at the mouth of the pit. He and Osa had arrived there a short time before. That morning he had been roaming about, hoping to come across his father. He had ventured too near the shaft and been hurt by flying rocks after the setting off of a blast.

Thumbietot ran to the edge of the shaft and called down to the miners that a little boy was injured.

Immediately a number of labourers came rushing up to little Mats. Two of them carried him to the hut where he and Osa were staying. They did all they could to save him, but it was too late.

Thumbietot felt so sorry for poor Osa. He wanted to help and comfort her; but he knew that if he were to go to her now, he would only frighten her⁠—such as he was!

The night after the burial of little Mats, Osa straightway shut herself in her hut.

She sat alone recalling, one after another, things her brother had said and done. There was so much to think about that she did not go straight to bed, but sat up most of the night. The more she thought of her brother the more she realized how hard it would be to live without him. At last she dropped her head on the table and wept.

“What shall I do now that little Mats is gone?” she sobbed.

It was far along toward morning and Osa, spent by the strain of her hard day, finally fell asleep.

She dreamed that little Mats softly opened the door and stepped into the room.

“Osa, you must go and find father,” he said.

“How can I when I don’t even know where he is?” she replied in her dream.

“Don’t worry about that,” returned little Mats in his usual, cheery way. “I’ll send someone to help you.”

Just as Osa, the goose girl, dreamed that little Mats had said this, there was a knock at the door. It was a real knock⁠—not something she heard in the dream, but she was so held by the dream that she could not tell the real from the unreal. As she went on to open the door, she thought:

“This must be the person little Mats promised to send me.”

She was right, for it was Thumbietot come to talk to her about her father.

When he saw that she was not afraid of him, he told her in a few words where her father was and how to reach him.

While he was speaking, Osa, the goose girl, gradually regained consciousness; when he had finished she was wide awake.

Then she was so terrified at the thought of talking with an elf that she could not say thank you or anything else, but quickly shut the door.

As she did that she thought she saw an expression of pain flash across the elf’s face, but she could not help what she did, for she was beside herself with fright. She crept into bed as quickly as she could and drew the covers over her head.

Although she was afraid of the elf, she had a feeling that he meant well by her. So the next day she made haste to do as he had told her.