Thumbietot and the Bears

The Ironworks


When the wild geese and Thumbietot had helped Osa, the goose girl, and little Mats across the ice, they flew into Westmanland, where they alighted in a grain field to feed and rest.

A strong west wind blew almost the entire day on which the wild geese travelled over the mining districts, and as soon as they attempted to direct their course northward they were buffeted toward the east. Now, Akka thought that Smirre Fox was at large in the eastern part of the province; therefore she would not fly in that direction, but turned back, time and again, struggling westward with great difficulty. At this rate the wild geese advanced very slowly, and late in the afternoon they were still in the Westmanland mining districts. Toward evening the wind abated suddenly, and the tired travellers hoped that they would have an interval of easy flight before sundown. Then along came a violent gust of wind, which tossed the geese before it, like balls, and the boy, who was sitting comfortably, with no thought of peril, was lifted from the goose’s back and hurled into space.

Little and light as he was, he could not fall straight to the ground in such a wind; so at first he was carried along with it, drifting down slowly and spasmodically, as a leaf falls from a tree.

“Why, this isn’t so bad!” thought the boy as he fell. “I’m tumbling as easily as if I were only a scrap of paper. Morten Goosey-Gander will doubtless hurry along and pick me up.”

The first thing the boy did when he landed was to tear off his cap and wave it, so that the big white gander should see where he was.

“Here am I, where are you? Here am I, where are you?” he called, and was rather surprised that Morten Goosey-Gander was not already at his side.

But the big white gander was not to be seen, nor was the wild goose flock outlined against the sky. It had entirely disappeared.

He thought this rather singular, but he was neither worried nor frightened. Not for a second did it occur to him that folk like Akka and Morten Goosey-Gander would abandon him. The unexpected gust of wind had probably borne them along with it. As soon as they could manage to turn, they would surely come back and fetch him.

But what was this? Where on earth was he anyway? He had been standing gazing toward the sky for some sign of the geese, but now he happened to glance about him. He had not come down on even ground, but had dropped into a deep, wide mountain cave⁠—or whatever it might be. It was as large as a church, with almost perpendicular walls on all four sides, and with no roof at all. On the ground were some huge rocks, between which moss and lignon-brush and dwarfed birches grew. Here and there in the wall were projections, from which swung rickety ladders. At one side there was a dark passage, which apparently led far into the mountain.

The boy had not been travelling over the mining districts a whole day for nothing. He comprehended at once that the big cleft had been made by the men who had mined ore in this place.

“I must try and climb back to earth again,” he thought, “otherwise I fear that my companions won’t find me!”

He was about to go over to the wall when someone seized him from behind, and he heard a gruff voice growl in his ear: “Who are you?”

The boy turned quickly, and, in the confusion of the moment, he thought he was facing a huge rock, covered with brownish moss. Then he noticed that the rock had broad paws to walk with, a head, two eyes, and a growling mouth.

He could not pull himself together to answer, nor did the big beast appear to expect it of him, for it knocked him down, rolled him back and forth with its paws, and nosed him. It seemed just about ready to swallow him, when it changed its mind and called:

“Brumme and Mulle, come here, you cubs, and you shall have something good to eat!”

A pair of frowzy cubs, as uncertain on their feet and as woolly as puppies, came tumbling along.

“What have you got, Mamma Bear? May we see, oh, may we see?” shrieked the cubs excitedly.

“Oho! so I’ve fallen in with bears,” thought the boy to himself. “Now Smirre Fox won’t have to trouble himself further to chase after me!”

The mother bear pushed the boy along to the cubs. One of them nabbed him quickly and ran off with him; but he did not bite hard. He was playful and wanted to amuse himself awhile with Thumbietot before eating him. The other cub was after the first one to snatch the boy for himself, and as he lumbered along he managed to tumble straight down on the head of the one that carried the boy. So the two cubs rolled over each other, biting, clawing, and snarling.

During the tussle the boy got loose, ran over to the wall, and started to scale it. Then both cubs scurried after him, and, nimbly scaling the cliff, they caught up with him and tossed him down on the moss, like a ball.

“Now I know how a poor little mousie fares when it falls into the cat’s claws,” thought the boy.

He made several attempts to get away. He ran deep down into the old tunnel and hid behind the rocks and climbed the birches, but the cubs hunted him out, go where he would. The instant they caught him they let him go, so that he could run away again and they should have the fun of recapturing him.

At last the boy got so sick and tired of it all that he threw himself down on the ground.

“Run away,” growled the cubs, “or we’ll eat you up!”

“You’ll have to eat me then,” said the boy, “for I can’t run any more.”

Immediately both cubs rushed over to the mother bear and complained:

“Mamma Bear, oh, Mamma Bear, he won’t play any more.”

“Then you must divide him evenly between you,” said Mother Bear.

When the boy heard this he was so scared that he jumped up instantly and began playing again.

As it was bedtime, Mother Bear called to the cubs that they must come now and cuddle up to her and go to sleep. They had been having such a good time that they wished to continue their play next day; so they took the boy between them and laid their paws over him. They did not want him to move without waking them. They went to sleep immediately. The boy thought that after a while he would try to steal away. But never in all his life had he been so tumbled and tossed and hunted and rolled! And he was so tired out that he too fell asleep.

By and by Father Bear came clambering down the mountain wall. The boy was wakened by his tearing away stone and gravel as he swung himself into the old mine. The boy was afraid to move much; but he managed to stretch himself and turn over, so that he could see the big bear. He was a frightfully coarse, huge old beast, with great paws, large, glistening tusks, and wicked little eyes! The boy could not help shuddering as he looked at this old monarch of the forest.

“It smells like a human being around here,” said Father Bear the instant he came up to Mother Bear, and his growl was as the rolling of thunder.

“How can you imagine anything so absurd?” said Mother Bear without disturbing herself. “It has been settled for good and all that we are not to harm mankind any more; but if one of them were to put in an appearance here, where the cubs and I have our quarters, there wouldn’t be enough left of him for you to catch even a scent of him!”

Father Bear lay down beside Mother Bear. “You ought to know me well enough to understand that I don’t allow anything dangerous to come near the cubs. Talk, instead, of what you have been doing. I haven’t seen you for a whole week!”

“I’ve been looking about for a new residence,” said Father Bear. “First I went over to Vermland, to learn from our kinsmen at Ekshärad how they fared in that country; but I had my trouble for nothing. There wasn’t a bear’s den left in the whole forest.”

“I believe the humans want the whole Earth to themselves,” said Mother Bear. “Even if we leave people and cattle in peace and live solely upon lignon and insects and green things, we cannot remain unmolested in the forest! I wonder where we could move to in order to live in peace?”

“We’ve lived comfortably for many years in this pit,” observed Father Bear. “But I can’t be content here now since the big noise-shop has been built right in our neighbourhood. Lately I have been taking a look at the land east of Dal River, over by Garpen Mountain. Old mine pits are plentiful there, too, and other fine retreats. I thought it looked as if one might be fairly protected against men⁠—”

The instant Father Bear said this he sat up and began to sniff.

“It’s extraordinary that whenever I speak of human beings I catch that queer scent again,” he remarked.

“Go and see for yourself if you don’t believe me!” challenged Mother Bear. “I should just like to know where a human being could manage to hide down here?”

The bear walked all around the cave, and nosed. Finally he went back and lay down without a word.

“What did I tell you?” said Mother Bear. “But of course you think that no one but yourself has any nose or ears!”

“One can’t be too careful, with such neighbours as we have,” said Father Bear gently. Then he leaped up with a roar. As luck would have it, one of the cubs had moved a paw over to Nils Holgersson’s face and the poor little wretch could not breathe, but began to sneeze. It was impossible for Mother Bear to keep Father Bear back any longer. He pushed the young ones to right and left and caught sight of the boy before he had time to sit up.

He would have swallowed him instantly if Mother Bear had not cast herself between them.

“Don’t touch him! He belongs to the cubs,” she said. “They have had such fun with him the whole evening that they couldn’t bear to eat him up, but wanted to save him until morning.”

Father Bear pushed Mother Bear aside.

“Don’t meddle with what you don’t understand!” he roared. “Can’t you scent that human odour about him from afar? I shall eat him at once, or he will play us some mean trick.”

He opened his jaws again; but meanwhile the boy had had time to think, and, quick as a flash, he dug into his knapsack and brought forth some matches⁠—his sole weapon of defence⁠—struck one on his leather breeches, and stuck the burning match into the bear’s open mouth.

Father Bear snorted when he smelled the sulphur, and with that the flame went out. The boy was ready with another match, but, curiously enough, Father Bear did not repeat his attack.

“Can you light many of those little blue roses?” asked Father Bear.

“I can light enough to put an end to the whole forest,” replied the boy, for he thought that in this way he might be able to scare Father Bear.

“Oh, that would be no trick for me!” boasted the boy, hoping that this would make the bear respect him.

“Good!” exclaimed the bear. “You shall render me a service. Now I’m very glad that I did not eat you!”

Father Bear carefully took the boy between his tusks and climbed up from the pit. He did this with remarkable ease and agility, considering that he was so big and heavy. As soon as he was up, he speedily made for the woods. It was evident that Father Bear was created to squeeze through dense forests. The heavy body pushed through the brushwood as a boat does through the water.

Father Bear ran along till he came to a hill at the skirt of the forest, where he could see the big noise-shop. Here he lay down and placed the boy in front of him, holding him securely between his forepaws.

“Now look down at that big noise-shop!” he commanded. The great ironworks, with many tall buildings, stood at the edge of a waterfall. High chimneys sent forth dark clouds of smoke, blasting furnaces were in full blaze, and light shone from all the windows and apertures. Within hammers and rolling mills were going with such force that the air rang with their clatter and boom. All around the workshops proper were immense coal sheds, great slag heaps, warehouses, wood piles, and tool sheds. Just beyond were long rows of workingmen’s homes, pretty villas, schoolhouses, assembly halls, and shops. But there all was quiet and apparently everybody was asleep. The boy did not glance in that direction, but gazed intently at the ironworks. The earth around them was black; the sky above them was like a great fiery dome; the rapids, white with foam, rushed by; while the buildings themselves were sending out light and smoke, fire and sparks. It was the grandest sight the boy had ever seen!

“Surely you don’t mean to say you can set fire to a place like that?” remarked the bear doubtingly.

The boy stood wedged between the beast’s paws thinking the only thing that might save him would be that the bear should have a high opinion of his capability and power.

“It’s all the same to me,” he answered with a superior air. “Big or little, I can burn it down.”

“Then I’ll tell you something,” said Father Bear. “My forefathers lived in this region from the time that the forests first sprang up. From them I inherited hunting grounds and pastures, lairs and retreats, and have lived here in peace all my life. In the beginning I wasn’t troubled much by the human kind. They dug in the mountains and picked up a little ore down here, by the rapids; they had a forge and a furnace, but the hammers sounded only a few hours during the day, and the furnace was not fired more than two moons at a stretch. It wasn’t so bad but that I could stand it; but these last years, since they have built this noise-shop, which keeps up the same racket both day and night, life here has become intolerable. Formerly only a manager and a couple of blacksmiths lived here, but now there are so many people that I can never feel safe from them. I thought that I should have to move away, but I have discovered something better!”

The boy wondered what Father Bear had hit upon, but no opportunity was afforded him to ask, as the bear took him between his tusks again and lumbered down the hill. The boy could see nothing, but knew by the increasing noise that they were approaching the rolling mills.

Father Bear was well informed regarding the ironworks. He had prowled around there on many a dark night, had observed what went on within, and had wondered if there would never be any cessation of the work. He had tested the walls with his paws and wished that he were only strong enough to knock down the whole structure with a single blow.

He was not easily distinguishable against the dark ground, and when, in addition, he remained in the shadow of the walls, there was not much danger of his being discovered. Now he walked fearlessly between the workshops and climbed to the top of a slag heap. There he sat up on his haunches, took the boy between his forepaws and held him up.

“Try to look into the house!” he commanded. A strong current of air was forced into a big cylinder which was suspended from the ceiling and filled with molten iron. As this current rushed into the mess of iron with an awful roar, showers of sparks of all colours spurted up in bunches, in sprays, in long clusters! They struck against the wall and came splashing down over the whole big room. Father Bear let the boy watch the gorgeous spectacle until the blowing was over and the flowing and sparkling red steel had been poured into ingot moulds.

The boy was completely charmed by the marvellous display and almost forgot that he was imprisoned between a bear’s two paws.

Father Bear let him look into the rolling mill. He saw a workman take a short, thick bar of iron at white heat from a furnace opening and place it under a roller. When the iron came out from under the roller, it was flattened and extended. Immediately another workman seized it and placed it beneath a heavier roller, which made it still longer and thinner. Thus it was passed from roller to roller, squeezed and drawn out until, finally, it curled along the floor, like a long red thread.

But while the first bar of iron was being pressed, a second was taken from the furnace and placed under the rollers, and when this was a little along, a third was brought. Continuously fresh threads came crawling over the floor, like hissing snakes. The boy was dazzled by the iron. But he found it more splendid to watch the workmen who, dexterously and delicately, seized the glowing snakes with their tongs and forced them under the rollers. It seemed like play for them to handle the hissing iron.

“I call that real man’s work!” the boy remarked to himself.

The bear then let the boy have a peep at the furnace and the forge, and he became more and more astonished as he saw how the blacksmiths handled iron and fire.

“Those men have no fear of heat and flames,” he thought. The workmen were sooty and grimy. He fancied they were some sort of firefolk⁠—that was why they could bend and mould the iron as they wished. He could not believe that they were just ordinary men, since they had such power!

“They keep this up day after day, night after night,” said Father Bear, as he dropped wearily down on the ground. “You can understand that one gets rather tired of that kind of thing. I’m mighty glad that at last I can put an end to it!”

“Indeed!” said the boy. “How will you go about it?”

“Oh, I thought that you were going to set fire to the buildings!” said Father Bear. “That would put an end to all this work, and I could remain in my old home.”

The boy was all of a shiver.

So it was for this that Father Bear had brought him here!

“If you will set fire to the noise-works, I’ll promise to spare your life,” said Father Bear. “But if you don’t do it, I’ll make short work of you!” The huge workshops were built of brick, and the boy was thinking to himself that Father Bear could command as much as he liked, it was impossible to obey him. Presently he saw that it might not be impossible after all. Just beyond them lay a pile of chips and shavings to which he could easily set fire, and beside it was a wood pile that almost reached the coal shed. The coal shed extended over to the workshops, and if that once caught fire, the flames would soon fly over to the roof of the iron foundry. Everything combustible would burn, the walls would fall from the heat, and the machinery would be destroyed. “Will you or won’t you?” demanded Father Bear. The boy knew that he ought to answer promptly that he would not, but he also knew that then the bear’s paws would squeeze him to death; therefore he replied:

“I shall have to think it over.”

“Very well, do so,” assented Father Bear. “Let me say to you that iron is the thing that has given men the advantage over us bears, which is another reason for my wishing to put an end to the work here.”

The boy thought he would use the delay to figure out some plan of escape, but he was so worried he could not direct his thoughts where he would; instead he began to think of the great help that iron had been to mankind. They needed iron for everything. There was iron in the plough that broke up the field, in the axe that felled the tree for building houses, in the scythe that mowed the grain, and in the knife, which could be turned to all sorts of uses. There was iron in the horse’s bit, in the lock on the door, in the nails that held furniture together, in the sheathing that covered the roof. The rifle which drove away wild beasts was made of iron, also the pick that had broken up the mine. Iron covered the men-of-war he had seen at Karlskrona; the locomotives steamed through the country on iron rails; the needle that had stitched his coat was of iron; the shears that clipped the sheep and the kettle that cooked the food. Big and little alike⁠—much that was indispensable was made from iron. Father Bear was perfectly right in saying that it was the iron that had given men their mastery over the bears.

“Now will you or won’t you?” Father Bear repeated.

The boy was startled from his musing. Here he stood thinking of matters that were entirely unnecessary, and had not yet found a way to save himself!

“You mustn’t be so impatient,” he said. “This is a serious matter for me, and I’ve got to have time to consider.”

“Well, then, consider another moment,” said Father Bear. “But let me tell you that it’s because of the iron that men have become so much wiser than we bears. For this alone, if for nothing else, I should like to put a stop to the work here.”

Again the boy endeavoured to think out a plan of escape, but his thoughts wandered, willy nilly. They were taken up with the iron. And gradually he began to comprehend how much thinking and calculating men must have done before they discovered how to produce iron from ore, and he seemed to see sooty blacksmiths of old bending over the forge, pondering how they should properly handle it. Perhaps it was because they had thought so much about the iron that intelligence had been developed in mankind, until finally they became so advanced that they were able to build great works like these. The fact was that men owed more to the iron than they themselves knew.

“Well, what say you? Will you or won’t you?” insisted Father Bear.

The boy shrank back. Here he stood thinking needless thoughts, and had no idea as to what he should do to save himself.

“It’s not such an easy matter to decide as you think,” he answered. “You must give me time for reflection.”

“I can wait for you a little longer,” said Father Bear. “But after that you’ll get no more grace. You must know that it’s the fault of the iron that the human kind can live here on the property of the bears. And now you understand why I would be rid of the work.”

The boy meant to use the last moment to think out some way to save himself, but, anxious and distraught as he was, his thoughts wandered again. Now he began thinking of all that he had seen when he flew over the mining districts. It was strange that there should be so much life and activity and so much work back there in the wilderness.

“Just think how poor and desolate this place would be had there been no iron here!

“This very foundry gave employment to many, and had gathered around it many homes filled with people, who, in turn, had attracted hither railways and telegraph wires and⁠—”

“Come, come!” growled the bear. “Will you or won’t you?”

The boy swept his hand across his forehead. No plan of escape had as yet come to his mind, but this much he knew⁠—he did not wish to do any harm to the iron, which was so useful to rich and poor alike, and which gave bread to so many people in this land.

“I won’t!” he said.

Father Bear squeezed him a little harder, but said nothing.

“You’ll not get me to destroy the ironworks!” defied the boy. “The iron is so great a blessing that it will never do to harm it.”

“Then of course you don’t expect to be allowed to live very long?” said the bear.

“No, I don’t expect it,” returned the boy, looking the bear straight in the eye.

Father Bear gripped him still harder. It hurt so that the boy could not keep the tears back, but he did not cry out or say a word.

“Very well, then,” said Father Bear, raising his paw very slowly, hoping that the boy would give in at the last moment.

But just then the boy heard something click very close to them, and saw the muzzle of a rifle two paces away. Both he and Father Bear had been so engrossed in their own affairs they had not observed that a man had stolen right upon them.

“Father Bear! Don’t you hear the clicking of a trigger?” cried the boy. “Run, or you’ll be shot!”

Father Bear grew terribly hurried. However, he allowed himself time enough to pick up the boy and carry him along. As he ran, a couple of shots sounded, and the bullets grazed his ears, but, luckily, he escaped.

The boy thought, as he was dangling from the bear’s mouth, that never had he been so stupid as he was tonight. If he had only kept still, the bear would have been shot, and he himself would have been freed. But he had become so accustomed to helping the animals that he did it naturally, and as a matter of course.

When Father Bear had run some distance into the woods, he paused and set the boy down on the ground.

“Thank you, little one!” he said. “I dare say those bullets would have caught me if you hadn’t been there. And now I want to do you a service in return. If you should ever meet with another bear, just say to him this⁠—which I shall whisper to you⁠—and he won’t touch you.”

Father Bear whispered a word or two into the boy’s ear and hurried away, for he thought he heard hounds and hunters pursuing him.

The boy stood in the forest, free and unharmed, and could hardly understand how it was possible.

The wild geese had been flying back and forth the whole evening, peering and calling, but they had been unable to find Thumbietot. They searched long after the sun had set, and, finally, when it had grown so dark that they were forced to alight somewhere for the night, they were very downhearted. There was not one among them but thought the boy had been killed by the fall and was lying dead in the forest, where they could not see him.

But the next morning, when the sun peeped over the hills and awakened the wild geese, the boy lay sleeping, as usual, in their midst. When he woke and heard them shrieking and cackling their astonishment, he could not help laughing.

They were so eager to know what had happened to him that they did not care to go to breakfast until he had told them the whole story. The boy soon narrated his entire adventure with the bears, but after that he seemed reluctant to continue.

“How I got back to you perhaps you already know?” he said.

“No, we know nothing. We thought you were killed.”

“That’s curious!” remarked the boy. “Oh, yes!⁠—when Father Bear left me I climbed up into a pine and fell asleep. At daybreak I was awakened by an eagle hovering over me. He picked me up with his talons and carried me away. He didn’t hurt me, but flew straight here to you and dropped me down among you.”

“Didn’t he tell you who he was?” asked the big white gander.

“He was gone before I had time even to thank him. I thought that Mother Akka had sent him after me.”

“How extraordinary!” exclaimed the white goosey-gander. “But are you certain that it was an eagle?”

“I had never before seen an eagle,” said the boy, “but he was so big and splendid that I can’t give him a lowlier name!”

Morten Goosey-Gander turned to the wild geese to hear what they thought of this; but they stood gazing into the air, as though they were thinking of something else.

“We must not forget entirely to eat breakfast today,” said Akka, quickly spreading her wings.