The Breaking Up of the Ice


The following day the weather was clear and beautiful. There was a strong west wind; people were glad of that, for it dried up the roads, which had been soaked by the heavy rains of the day before.

Early in the morning the two Småland children, Osa, the goose girl, and little Mats, were out on the highway leading from Sörmland to Närke. The road ran alongside the southern shore of Hjälmar Lake and the children were walking along looking at the ice, which covered the greater part of it. The morning sun darted its clear rays upon the ice, which did not look dark and forbidding, like most spring ice, but sparkled temptingly. As far as they could see, the ice was firm and dry. The rain had run down into cracks and hollows, or been absorbed by the ice itself. The children saw only the sound ice.

Osa, the goose girl, and little Mats were on their way North, and they could not help thinking of all the steps they would be saved if they could cut straight across the lake instead of going around it. They knew, to be sure, that spring ice is treacherous, but this looked perfectly secure. They could see that it was several inches thick near the shore. They saw a path which they might follow, and the opposite shore appeared to be so near that they ought to be able to get there in an hour.

“Come, let’s try!” said little Mats. “If we only look before us, so that we don’t go down into some hole, we can do it.”

So they went out on the lake. The ice was not very slippery, but rather easy to walk upon. There was more water on it than they expected to see, and here and there were cracks, where the water purled up. One had to watch out for such places; but that was easy to do in broad daylight, with the sun shining.

The children advanced rapidly, and talked only of how sensible they were to have gone out on the ice instead of tramping the slushy road.

When they had been walking a while they came to Vin Island, where an old woman had sighted them from her window. She rushed from her cabin, waved them back, and shouted something which they could not hear. They understood perfectly well that she was warning them not to come any farther; but they thought there was no immediate danger. It would be stupid for them to leave the ice when all was going so well!

Therefore they went on past Vin Island and had a stretch of seven miles of ice ahead of them.

Out there was so much water that the children were obliged to take roundabout ways; but that was sport to them. They vied with each other as to which could find the soundest ice. They were neither tired nor hungry. The whole day was before them, and they laughed at each obstacle they met.

Now and then they cast a glance ahead at the farther shore. It still appeared far away, although they had been walking a good hour. They were rather surprised that the lake was so broad.

“The shore seems to be moving farther away from us,” little Mats observed.

Out there the children were not protected against the wind, which was becoming stronger and stronger every minute, and was pressing their clothing so close to their bodies that they could hardly go on. The cold wind was the first disagreeable thing they had met with on the journey.

But the amazing part of it was that the wind came sweeping along with a loud roar⁠—as if it brought with it the noise of a large mill or factory, though nothing of the kind was to be found out there on the ice. They had walked to the west of the big island, Valen; now they thought they were nearing the north shore. Suddenly the wind began to blow more and more, while the loud roaring increased so rapidly that they began to feel uneasy.

All at once it occurred to them that the roar was caused by the foaming and rushing of the waves breaking against a shore. Even this seemed improbable, since the lake was still covered with ice.

At all events, they paused and looked about. They noticed far in the west a white bank which stretched clear across the lake. At first they thought it was a snowbank alongside a road. Later they realized it was the foam-capped waves dashing against the ice! They took hold of hands and ran without saying a word. Open sea lay beyond in the west, and suddenly the streak of foam appeared to be moving eastward. They wondered if the ice was going to break all over. What was going to happen? They felt now that they were in great danger.

All at once it seemed as if the ice under their feet rose⁠—rose and sank, as if someone from below were pushing it. Presently they heard a hollow boom, and then there were cracks in the ice all around them. The children could see how they crept along under the ice-covering.

The next moment all was still, then the rising and sinking began again. Thereupon the cracks began to widen into crevices through which the water bubbled up. By and by the crevices became gaps. Soon after that the ice was divided into large floes.

“Osa,” said little Mats, “this must be the breaking up of the ice!”

“Why, so it is, little Mats,” said Osa, “but as yet we can get to land. Run for your life!”

As a matter of fact, the wind and waves had a good deal of work to do yet to clear the ice from the lake. The hardest part was done when the ice-cake burst into pieces, but all these pieces must be broken and hurled against each other, to be crushed, worn down, and dissolved. There was still a great deal of hard and sound ice left, which formed large, unbroken surfaces.

The greatest danger for the children lay in the fact that they had no general view of the ice. They did not see the places where the gaps were so wide that they could not possibly jump over them, nor did they know where to find any floes that would hold them, so they wandered aimlessly back and forth, going farther out on the lake instead of nearer land. At last, confused and terrified, they stood still and wept.

Then a flock of wild geese in rapid flight came rushing by. They shrieked loudly and sharply; but the strange thing was that above the geese-cackle the little children heard these words:

“You must go to the right, the right, the right!” They began at once to follow the advice; but before long they were again standing irresolute, facing another broad gap.

Again they heard the geese shrieking above them, and again, amid the geese-cackle, they distinguished a few words:

“Stand where you are! Stand where you are!”

The children did not say a word to each other, but obeyed and stood still. Soon after that the ice-floes floated together, so that they could cross the gap. Then they took hold of hands again and ran. They were afraid not only of the peril, but of the mysterious help that had come to them.

Soon they had to stop again, and immediately the sound of the voice reached them.

“Straight ahead, straight ahead!” it said.

This leading continued for about half an hour; by that time they had reached Ljunger Point, where they left the ice and waded to shore. They were still terribly frightened, even though they were on firm land. They did not stop to look back at the lake⁠—where the waves were pitching the ice-floes faster and faster⁠—but ran on. When they had gone a short distance along the point, Osa paused suddenly.

“Wait here, little Mats,” she said; “I have forgotten something.”

Osa, the goose girl, went down to the strand again, where she stopped to rummage in her bag. Finally she fished out a little wooden shoe, which she placed on a stone where it could be plainly seen. Then she ran to little Mats without once looking back.

But the instant her back was turned, a big white goose shot down from the sky, like a streak of lightning, snatched the wooden shoe, and flew away with it.