The Old Peasant Woman


Three tired wanderers were out in the late evening in search of a night harbour. They travelled over a poor and desolate portion of northern Småland. But the sort of resting place which they wanted, they should have been able to find; for they were no weaklings who asked for soft beds or comfortable rooms.

“If one of these long mountain-ridges had a peak so high and steep that a fox couldn’t in any way climb up to it, then we should have a good sleeping-place,” said one of them.

“If a single one of the big swamps was thawed out, and was so marshy and wet that a fox wouldn’t dare venture out on it, this, too, would be a right good night harbour,” said the second.

“If the ice on one of the large lakes we travel past were loose, so that a fox could not come out on it, then we should have found just what we are seeking,” said the third.

The worst of it was that when the sun had gone down, two of the travellers became so sleepy that every second they were ready to fall to the ground. The third one, who could keep himself awake, grew more and more uneasy as night approached. “Then it was a misfortune that we came to a land where lakes and swamps are frozen, so that a fox can get around everywhere. In other places the ice has melted away; but now we’re well up in the very coldest Småland, where spring has not as yet arrived. I don’t know how I shall ever manage to find a good sleeping-place! Unless I find some spot that is well protected, Smirre Fox will be upon us before morning.”

He gazed in all directions, but he saw no shelter where he could lodge. It was a dark and chilly night, with wind and drizzle. It grew more terrible and disagreeable around him every second.

This may sound strange, perhaps, but the travellers didn’t seem to have the least desire to ask for houseroom on any farm. They had already passed many parishes without knocking at a single door. Little hillside cabins on the outskirts of the forests, which all poor wanderers are glad to run across, they took no notice of either. One might almost be tempted to say they deserved to have a hard time of it, since they did not seek help where it was to be had for the asking.

But finally, when it was so dark that there was scarcely a glimmer of light left under the skies and the two who needed sleep journeyed on in a kind of half-sleep, they happened into a farmyard which was a long way off from all neighbours. And not only did it lie there desolate, but it appeared to be uninhabited as well. No smoke rose from the chimney; no light shone through the windows; no human being moved on the place. When the one among the three who could keep awake, saw the place, he thought: “Now come what may, we must try to get in here. Anything better we are not likely to find.”

Soon after that, all three stood in the house-yard. Two of them fell asleep the instant they stood still, but the third looked about him eagerly, to find where they could get under cover. It was not a small farm. Beside the dwelling house and stable and smokehouse, there were long ranges with granaries and storehouses and cattlesheds. But it all looked awfully poor and dilapidated. The houses had gray, moss-grown, leaning walls, which seemed ready to topple over. In the roofs were yawning holes, and the doors hung aslant on broken hinges. It was apparent that no one had taken the trouble to drive a nail into a wall on this place for a long time.

Meanwhile, he who was awake had figured out which house was the cowshed. He roused his travelling companions from their sleep, and conducted them to the cowshed door. Luckily, this was not fastened with anything but a hook, which he could easily push up with a rod. He heaved a sigh of relief at the thought that they should soon be in safety. But when the cowshed door swung open with a sharp creaking, he heard a cow begin to bellow. “Are you coming at last, mistress?” said she. “I thought that you didn’t propose to give me any supper tonight.”

The one who was awake stopped in the doorway, absolutely terrified when he discovered that the cowshed was not empty. But he soon saw that there was not more than one cow, and three or four chickens; and then he took courage again. “We are three poor travellers who want to come in somewhere, where no fox can assail us, and no human being capture us,” said he. “We wonder if this can be a good place for us.”

“I cannot believe but what it is,” answered the cow. “To be sure the walls are poor, but the fox does not walk through them as yet; and no one lives here except an old peasant woman, who isn’t at all likely to make a captive of anyone. But who are you?” she continued, as she twisted in her stall to get a sight of the newcomers.

“I am Nils Holgersson from Vemminghög, who has been transformed into an elf,” replied the first of the incomers, “and I have with me a tame goose, whom I generally ride, and a gray goose.”

“Such rare guests have never before been within my four walls,” said the cow, “and you shall be welcome, although I would have preferred that it had been my mistress, come to give me my supper.”

The boy led the geese into the cowshed, which was rather large, and placed them in an empty manger, where they fell asleep instantly. For himself, he made a little bed of straw and expected that he, too, should go to sleep at once.

But this was impossible, for the poor cow, who hadn’t had her supper, wasn’t still an instant. She shook her flanks, moved around in the stall, and complained of how hungry she was. The boy couldn’t get a wink of sleep, but lay there and lived over all the things that had happened to him during these last days.

He thought of Osa, the goose-girl, and little Mats, whom he had encountered so unexpectedly; and he fancied that the little cabin which he had set on fire must have been their old home in Småland. Now he recalled that he had heard them speak of just such a cabin, and of the big heather-heath which lay below it. Now Osa and Mats had wandered back there to see their old home again, and then, when they had reached it, it was in flames.

It was indeed a great sorrow which he had brought upon them, and it hurt him very much. If he ever again became a human being, he would try to compensate them for the damage and miscalculation.

Then his thoughts wandered to the crows. And when he thought of Fumle-Drumle who had saved his life, and had met his own death so soon after he had been elected chieftain, he was so distressed that tears filled his eyes. He had had a pretty rough time of it these last few days. But, anyway, it was a rare stroke of luck that the goosey-gander and Dunfin had found him. The goosey-gander had said that as soon as the geese discovered that Thumbietot had disappeared, they had asked all the small animals in the forest about him. They soon learned that a flock of Småland crows had carried him off. But the crows were already out of sight, and whither they had directed their course no one had been able to say. That they might find the boy as soon as possible, Akka had commanded the wild geese to start out⁠—two and two⁠—in different directions, to search for him. But after a two days’ hunt, whether or not they had found him, they were to meet in northwestern Småland on a high mountain-top, which resembled an abrupt, chopped-off tower, and was called Taberg. After Akka had given them the best directions, and described carefully how they should find Taberg, they had separated.

The white goosey-gander had chosen Dunfin as travelling companion, and they had flown about hither and thither with the greatest anxiety for Thumbietot. During this ramble they had heard a thrush, who sat in a treetop, cry and wail that someone, who called himself Kidnapped-by-Crows, had made fun of him. They had talked with the thrush, and he had shown them in which direction that Kidnapped-by-Crows had travelled. Afterward, they had met a dove-cock, a starling and a drake; they had all wailed about a little culprit who had disturbed their song, and who was named Caught-by-Crows, Captured-by-Crows, and Stolen-by-Crows. In this way, they were enabled to trace Thumbietot all the way to the heather-heath in Sonnerbo township.

As soon as the goosey-gander and Dunfin had found Thumbietot, they had started toward the north, in order to reach Taberg. But it had been a long road to travel, and the darkness was upon them before they had sighted the mountain top. “If we only get there by tomorrow, surely all our troubles will be over,” thought the boy, and dug down into the straw to have it warmer. All the while the cow fussed and fumed in the stall.

Then, all of a sudden, she began to talk to the boy. “Everything is wrong with me,” said the cow. “I am neither milked nor tended. I have no night fodder in my manger, and no bed has been made under me. My mistress came here at dusk, to put things in order for me, but she felt so ill, that she had to go in soon again, and she has not returned.”

“It’s distressing that I should be little and powerless,” said the boy. “I don’t believe that I am able to help you.”

“You can’t make me believe that you are powerless because you are little,” said the cow. “All the elves that I’ve ever heard of, were so strong that they could pull a whole load of hay and strike a cow dead with one fist.”

The boy couldn’t help laughing at the cow. “They were a very different kind of elf from me,” said he. “But I’ll loosen your halter and open the door for you, so that you can go out and drink in one of the pools on the place, and then I’ll try to climb up to the hayloft and throw down some hay in your manger.”

“Yes, that would be some help,” said the cow.

The boy did as he had said; and when the cow stood with a full manger in front of her, he thought that at last he should get some sleep. But he had hardly crept down in the bed before she began, anew, to talk to him.

“You’ll be clean put out with me if I ask you for one thing more,” said the cow.

“Oh, no I won’t, if it’s only something that I’m able to do,” said the boy.

“Then I will ask you to go into the cabin, directly opposite, and find out how my mistress is getting along. I fear some misfortune has come to her.”

“No! I can’t do that,” said the boy. “I dare not show myself before human beings.”

“Surely you’re not afraid of an old and sick woman,” said the cow. “But you do not need to go into the cabin. Just stand outside the door and peep in through the crack!”

“Oh! if that is all you ask of me, I’ll do it of course,” said the boy.

With that he opened the cowshed door and went out in the yard. It was a fearful night! Neither moon nor stars shone; the wind blew a gale, and the rain came down in torrents. And the worst of all was that seven great owls sat in a row on the eaves of the cabin. It was awful just to hear them, where they sat and grumbled at the weather; but it was even worse to think what would happen to him if one of them should set eyes on him. That would be the last of him.

“Pity him who is little!” said the boy as he ventured out in the yard. And he had a right to say this, for he was blown down twice before he got to the house: once the wind swept him into a pool, which was so deep that he came near drowning. But he got there nevertheless.

He clambered up a pair of steps, scrambled over a threshold, and came into the hallway. The cabin door was closed, but down in one corner a large piece had been cut away, that the cat might go in and out. It was no difficulty whatever for the boy to see how things were in the cabin.

He had hardly cast a glance in there before he staggered back and turned his head away. An old, gray-haired woman lay stretched out on the floor within. She neither moved nor moaned; and her face shone strangely white. It was as if an invisible moon had thrown a feeble light over it.

The boy remembered that when his grandfather had died, his face had also become so strangely white-like. And he understood that the old woman who lay on the cabin floor must be dead. Death had probably come to her so suddenly that she didn’t even have time to lie down on her bed.

As he thought of being alone with the dead in the middle of the dark night, he was terribly afraid. He threw himself headlong down the steps, and rushed back to the cowshed.

When he told the cow what he had seen in the cabin, she stopped eating. “So my mistress is dead,” said she. “Then it will soon be over for me as well.”

“There will always be someone to look out for you,” said the boy comfortingly.

“Ah! you don’t know,” said the cow, “that I am already twice as old as a cow usually is before she is laid upon the slaughter-bench. But then I do not care to live any longer, since she, in there, can come no more to care for me.”

She said nothing more for a while, but the boy observed, no doubt, that she neither slept nor ate. It was not long before she began to speak again. “Is she lying on the bare floor?” she asked.

“She is,” said the boy.

“She had a habit of coming out to the cowshed,” she continued, “and talking about everything that troubled her. I understood what she said, although I could not answer her. These last few days she talked of how afraid she was lest there would be no one with her when she died. She was anxious for fear no one should close her eyes and fold her hands across her breast, after she was dead. Perhaps you’ll go in and do this?” The boy hesitated. He remembered that when his grandfather had died, mother had been very careful about putting everything to rights. He knew this was something which had to be done. But, on the other hand, he felt that he didn’t care go to the dead, in the ghastly night. He didn’t say no; neither did he take a step toward the cowshed door. For a couple of seconds the old cow was silent⁠—just as if she had expected an answer. But when the boy said nothing, she did not repeat her request. Instead, she began to talk with him of her mistress.

There was much to tell, first and foremost, about all the children which she had brought up. They had been in the cowshed every day, and in the summer they had taken the cattle to pasture on the swamp and in the groves, so the old cow knew all about them. They had been splendid, all of them, and happy and industrious. A cow knew well enough what her caretakers were good for.

There was also much to be said about the farm. It had not always been as poor as it was now. It was very large⁠—although the greater part of it consisted of swamps and stony groves. There was not much room for fields, but there was plenty of good fodder everywhere. At one time there had been a cow for every stall in the cowshed; and the oxshed, which was now empty, had at one time been filled with oxen. And then there was life and gayety, both in cabin and cowhouse. When the mistress opened the cowshed door she would hum and sing, and all the cows lowed with gladness when they heard her coming.

But the good man had died when the children were so small that they could not be of any assistance, and the mistress had to take charge of the farm, and all the work and responsibility. She had been as strong as a man, and had both ploughed and reaped. In the evenings, when she came into the cowshed to milk, sometimes she was so tired that she wept. Then she dashed away her tears, and was cheerful again. “It doesn’t matter. Good times are coming again for me too, if only my children grow up. Yes, if they only grow up.”

But as soon as the children were grown, a strange longing came over them. They didn’t want to stay at home, but went away to a strange country. Their mother never got any help from them. A couple of her children were married before they went away, and they had left their children behind, in the old home. And now these children followed the mistress in the cowshed, just as her own had done. They tended the cows, and were fine, good folk. And, in the evenings, when the mistress was so tired out that she could fall asleep in the middle of the milking, she would rouse herself again to renewed courage by thinking of them. “Good times are coming for me, too,” said she⁠—and shook off sleep⁠—“when once they are grown.”

But when these children grew up, they went away to their parents in the strange land. No one came back⁠—no one stayed at home⁠—the old mistress was left alone on the farm.

Probably she had never asked them to remain with her. “Think you, Rödlinna, that I would ask them to stay here with me, when they can go out in the world and have things comfortable?” she would say as she stood in the stall with the old cow. “Here in Småland they have only poverty to look forward to.”

But when the last grandchild was gone, it was all up with the mistress. All at once she became bent and gray, and tottered as she walked; as if she no longer had the strength to move about. She stopped working. She did not care to look after the farm, but let everything go to rack and ruin. She didn’t repair the houses; and she sold both the cows and the oxen. The only one that she kept was the old cow who now talked with Thumbietot. Her she let live because all the children had tended her.

She could have taken maids and farmhands into her service, who would have helped her with the work, but she couldn’t bear to see strangers around her, since her own had deserted her. Perhaps she was better satisfied to let the farm go to ruin, since none of her children were coming back to take it after she was gone. She did not mind that she herself became poor, because she didn’t value that which was only hers. But she was troubled lest the children should find out how hard she had it. “If only the children do not hear of this! If only the children do not hear of this!” she sighed as she tottered through the cowhouse.

The children wrote constantly, and begged her to come out to them; but this she did not wish. She didn’t want to see the land that had taken them from her. She was angry with it. “It’s foolish of me, perhaps, that I do not like that land which has been so good for them,” said she. “But I don’t want to see it.”

She never thought of anything but the children, and of this⁠—that they must needs have gone. When summer came, she led the cow out to graze in the big swamp. All day she would sit on the edge of the swamp, her hands in her lap; and on the way home she would say: “You see, Rödlinna, if there had been large, rich fields here, in place of these barren swamps, then there would have been no need for them to leave.”

She could become furious with the swamp which spread out so big, and did no good. She could sit and talk about how it was the swamp’s fault that the children had left her.

This last evening she had been more trembly and feeble than ever before. She could not even do the milking. She had leaned against the manger and talked about two strangers who had been to see her, and had asked if they might buy the swamp. They wanted to drain it, and sow and raise grain on it. This had made her both anxious and glad. “Do you hear, Rödlinna,” she had said, “do you hear they said that grain can grow on the swamp? Now I shall write to the children to come home. Now they’ll not have to stay away any longer; for now they can get their bread here at home.” It was this that she had gone into the cabin to do⁠—

The boy heard no more of what the old cow said. He had opened the cowhouse door and gone across the yard, and in to the dead whom he had but lately been so afraid of.

It was not so poor in the cabin as he had expected. It was well supplied with the sort of things one generally finds among those who have relatives in America. In a corner there was an American rocking chair; on the table before the window lay a brocaded plush cover; there was a pretty spread on the bed; on the walls, in carved-wood frames, hung the photographs of the children and grandchildren who had gone away; on the bureau stood high vases and a couple of candlesticks, with thick, spiral candles in them.

The boy searched for a matchbox and lighted these candles, not because he needed more light than he already had; but because he thought that this was one way to honour the dead.

Then he went up to her, closed her eyes, folded her hands across her breast, and stroked back the thin gray hair from her face.

He thought no more about being afraid of her. He was so deeply grieved because she had been forced to live out her old age in loneliness and longing. He, at least, would watch over her dead body this night.

He hunted up the psalm book, and seated himself to read a couple of psalms in an undertone. But in the middle of the reading he paused⁠—because he had begun to think about his mother and father.

Think, that parents can long so for their children! This he had never known. Think, that life can be as though it was over for them when the children are away! Think, if those at home longed for him in the same way that this old peasant woman had longed!

This thought made him happy, but he dared not believe in it. He had not been such a one that anybody could long for him.

But what he had not been, perhaps he could become.

Round about him he saw the portraits of those who were away. They were big, strong men and women with earnest faces. There were brides in long veils, and gentlemen in fine clothes; and there were children with waved hair and pretty white dresses. And he thought that they all stared blindly into vacancy⁠—and did not want to see.

“Poor you!” said the boy to the portraits. “Your mother is dead. You cannot make reparation now, because you went away from her. But my mother is living!”

Here he paused, and nodded and smiled to himself. “My mother is living,” said he. “Both father and mother are living.”