Vermland and Dalsland


Today the boy took advantage of the rest hour, when Akka was feeding apart from the other wild geese, to ask her if that which Bataki had related was true, and Akka could not deny it. The boy made the leader-goose promise that she would not divulge the secret to Morten Goosey-Gander. The big white gander was so brave and generous that he might do something rash were he to learn of the elf’s stipulations.

Later the boy sat on the goose-back, glum and silent, and hung his head. He heard the wild geese call out to the goslings that now they were in Dalarne, they could see Städjan in the north, and that now they were flying over Österdal River to Horrmund Lake and were coming to Vesterdal River. But the boy did not care even to glance at all this.

“I shall probably travel around with wild geese the rest of my life,” he remarked to himself, “and I am likely to see more of this land than I wish.”

He was quite as indifferent when the wild geese called out to him that now they had arrived in Vermland and that the stream they were following southward was Klarälven.

“I’ve seen so many rivers already,” thought the boy, “why bother to look at one more?”

Even had he been more eager for sightseeing, there was not very much to be seen, for northern Vermland is nothing but vast, monotonous forest tracts, through which Klarälven winds⁠—narrow and rich in rapids. Here and there one can see a charcoal kiln, a forest clearing, or a few low, chimneyless huts, occupied by Finns. But the forest as a whole is so extensive one might fancy it was far up in Lapland.

A Little Homestead


The wild geese followed Klarälven as far as the big iron foundries at Monk Fors. Then they proceeded westward to Fryksdalen. Before they got to Lake Fryken it began to grow dusky, and they lit in a little wet morass on a wooded hill. The morass was certainly a good night quarter for the wild geese, but the boy thought it dismal and rough, and wished for a better sleeping place. While he was still high in the air, he had noticed that below the ridge lay a number of farms, and with great haste he proceeded to seek them out.

They were farther away than he had fancied and several times he was tempted to turn back. Presently the woods became less dense, and he came to a road skirting the edge of the forest. From it branched a pretty birch-bordered lane, which led down to a farm, and immediately he hastened toward it.

First the boy entered a farm yard as large as a city marketplace and enclosed by a long row of red houses. As he crossed the yard, he saw another farm where the dwelling-house faced a gravel path and a wide lawn. Back of the house there was a garden thick with foliage. The dwelling itself was small and humble, but the garden was edged by a row of exceedingly tall mountain-ash trees, so close together that they formed a real wall around it. It appeared to the boy as if he were coming into a great, high-vaulted chamber, with the lovely blue sky for a ceiling. The mountain-ash were thick with clusters of red berries, the grass plots were still green, of course, but that night there was a full moon, and as the bright moonlight fell upon the grass it looked as white as silver.

No human being was in sight and the boy could wander freely wherever he wished. When he was in the garden he saw something which almost put him in good humour. He had climbed a mountain-ash to eat berries, but before he could reach a cluster he caught sight of a barberry bush, which was also full of berries. He slid along the ash branch and clambered up into the barberry bush, but he was no sooner there than he discovered a currant bush, on which still hung long red clusters. Next he saw that the garden was full of gooseberries and raspberries and dog-rose bushes; that there were cabbages and turnips in the vegetable beds and berries on every bush, seeds on the herbs and grain-filled ears on every blade. And there on the path⁠—no, of course he could not mistake it⁠—was a big red apple which shone in the moonlight.

The boy sat down at the side of the path, with the big red apple in front of him, and began cutting little pieces from it with his sheath knife.

“It wouldn’t be such a serious matter to be an elf all one’s life if it were always as easy to get good food as it is here,” he thought.

He sat and mused as he ate, wondering finally if it would not be as well for him to remain here and let the wild geese travel south without him.

“I don’t know for the life of me how I can ever explain to Morten Goosey-Gander that I cannot go home,” thought he. “It would be better were I to leave him altogether. I could gather provisions enough for the winter, as well as the squirrels do, and if I were to live in a dark corner of the stable or the cow shed, I shouldn’t freeze to death.”

Just as he was thinking this, he heard a light rustle over his head, and a second later something which resembled a birch stump stood on the ground beside him.

The stump twisted and turned, and two bright dots on top of it glowed like coals of fire. It looked like some enchantment. However, the boy soon remarked that the stump had a hooked beak and big feather wreaths around its glowing eyes. Then he knew that this was no enchantment.

“It is a real pleasure to meet a living creature,” remarked the boy. “Perhaps you will be good enough to tell me the name of this place, Mrs. Brown Owl, and what sort of folk live here.”

That evening, as on all other evenings, the owl had perched on a rung of the big ladder propped against the roof, from which she had looked down toward the gravel walks and grass plots, watching for rats. Very much to her surprise, not a single grayskin had appeared. She saw instead something that looked like a human being, but much, much smaller, moving about in the garden.

“That’s the one who is scaring away the rats!” thought the owl. “What in the world can it be? It’s not a squirrel, nor a kitten, nor a weasel,” she observed. “I suppose that a bird who has lived on an old place like this as long as I have ought to know about everything in the world; but this is beyond my comprehension,” she concluded.

She had been staring at the object that moved on the gravel path until her eyes burned. Finally curiosity got the better of her and she flew down to the ground to have a closer view of the stranger.

When the boy began to speak, the owl bent forward and looked him up and down.

“He has neither claws nor horns,” she remarked to herself, “yet who knows but he may have a poisonous fang or some even more dangerous weapon. I must try to find out what he passes for before I venture to touch him.”

“The place is called Mårbacka,” said the owl, “and gentlefolk lived here once upon a time. But you, yourself, who are you?”

“I think of moving in here,” volunteered the boy without answering the owl’s question. “Would it be possible, do you think?”

“Oh, yes⁠—but it’s not much of a place now compared to what it was once,” said the owl. “You can weather it here I dare say. It all depends upon what you expect to live on. Do you intend to take up the rat chase?”

“Oh, by no means!” declared the boy. “There is more fear of the rats eating me than that I shall do them any harm.”

“It can’t be that he is as harmless as he says,” thought the brown owl. “All the same I believe I’ll make an attempt.⁠ ⁠…” She rose into the air, and in a second her claws were fastened in Nils Holgersson’s shoulder and she was trying to hack at his eyes.

The boy shielded both eyes with one hand and tried to free himself with the other, at the same time calling with all his might for help. He realized that he was in deadly peril and thought that this time, surely, it was all over with him!

Now I must tell you of a strange coincidence: The very year that Nils Holgersson travelled with the wild geese there was a woman who thought of writing a book about Sweden, which would be suitable for children to read in the schools. She had thought of this from Christmas time until the following autumn; but not a line of the book had she written. At last she became so tired of the whole thing that she said to herself: “You are not fitted for such work. Sit down and compose stories and legends, as usual, and let another write this book, which has got to be serious and instructive, and in which there must not be one untruthful word.”

It was as good as settled that she would abandon the idea. But she thought, very naturally, it would have been agreeable to write something beautiful about Sweden, and it was hard for her to relinquish her work. Finally, it occurred to her that maybe it was because she lived in a city, with only gray streets and house walls around her, that she could make no headway with the writing. Perhaps if she were to go into the country, where she could see woods and fields, that it might go better.

She was from Vermland, and it was perfectly clear to her that she wished to begin the book with that province. First of all she would write about the place where she had grown up. It was a little homestead, far removed from the great world, where many old-time habits and customs were retained. She thought that it would be entertaining for children to hear of the manifold duties which had succeeded one another the year around. She wanted to tell them how they celebrated Christmas and New Year and Easter and Midsummer Day in her home; what kind of house furnishings they had; what the kitchen and larder were like, and how the cow shed, stable, lodge, and bath house had looked. But when she was to write about it the pen would not move. Why this was she could not in the least understand; nevertheless it was so.

True, she remembered it all just as distinctly as if she were still living in the midst of it. She argued with herself that since she was going into the country anyway, perhaps she ought to make a little trip to the old homestead that she might see it again before writing about it. She had not been there in many years and did not think it half bad to have a reason for the journey. In fact she had always longed to be there, no matter in what part of the world she happened to be. She had seen many places that were more pretentious and prettier. But nowhere could she find such comfort and protection as in the home of her childhood.

It was not such an easy matter for her to go home as one might think, for the estate had been sold to people she did not know. She felt, to be sure, that they would receive her well, but she did not care to go to the old place to sit and talk with strangers, for she wanted to recall how it had been in times gone by. That was why she planned it so as to arrive there late in the evening, when the day’s work was done and the people were indoors.

She had never imagined that it would be so wonderful to come home! As she sat in the cart and drove toward the old homestead she fancied that she was growing younger and younger every minute, and that soon she would no longer be an oldish person with hair that was turning gray, but a little girl in short skirts with a long flaxen braid. As she recognized each farm along the road, she could not picture anything else than that everything at home would be as in bygone days. Her father and mother and brothers and sisters would be standing on the porch to welcome her; the old housekeeper would run to the kitchen window to see who was coming, and Nero and Freja and another dog or two would come bounding and jumping up on her.

The nearer she approached the place the happier she felt. It was autumn, which meant a busy time with a round of duties. It must have been all these varying duties which prevented home from ever being monotonous. All along the way the farmers were digging potatoes, and probably they would be doing likewise at her home. That meant that they must begin immediately to grate potatoes and make potato flour. The autumn had been a mild one; she wondered if everything in the garden had already been stored. The cabbages were still out, but perhaps the hops had been picked, and all the apples.

It would be well if they were not having house cleaning at home. Autumn fair time was drawing nigh, everywhere the cleaning and scouring had to be done before the fair opened. That was regarded as a great event⁠—more especially by the servants. It was a pleasure to go into the kitchen on Market Eve and see the newly scoured floor strewn with juniper twigs, the whitewashed walls and the shining copper utensils which were suspended from the ceiling.

Even after the fair festivities were over there would not be much of a breathing spell, for then came the work on the flax. During dog days the flax had been spread out on a meadow to mould. Now it was laid in the old bath house, where the stove was lighted to dry it out. When it was dry enough to handle all the women in the neighbourhood were called together. They sat outside the bath house and picked the flax to pieces. Then they beat it with swingles, to separate the fine white fibres from the dry stems. As they worked, the women grew gray with dust; their hair and clothing were covered with flax seed, but they did not seem to mind it. All day the swingles pounded, and the chatter went on, so that when one went near the old bath house it sounded as if a blustering storm had broken loose there.

After the work with the flax, came the big hardtack baking, the sheep shearing, and the servants’ moving time. In November there were busy slaughter days, with salting of meats, sausage making, baking of blood pudding, and candle steeping. The seamstress who used to make up their homespun dresses had to come at this time, of course, and those were always two pleasant weeks⁠—when the women folk sat together and busied themselves with sewing. The cobbler, who made shoes for the entire household, sat working at the same time in the menservants’ quarters, and one never tired of watching him as he cut the leather and soled and heeled the shoes and put eyelets in the shoestring holes.

But the greatest rush came around Christmas time. Lucia Day⁠—when the housemaid went about dressed in white, with candles in her hair, and served coffee to everybody at five in the morning⁠—came as a sort of reminder that for the next two weeks they could not count on much sleep. For now they must brew the Christmas ale, steep the Christmas fish in lye, and do their Christmas baking and Christmas scouring.

She was in the middle of the baking, with pans of Christmas buns and cooky platters all around her, when the driver drew in the reins at the end of the lane as she had requested. She started like one suddenly awakened from a sound sleep. It was dismal for her who had just dreamed herself surrounded by all her people to be sitting alone in the late evening. As she stepped from the wagon and started to walk up the long lane that she might come unobserved to her old home, she felt so keenly the contrast between then and now that she would have preferred to turn back.

“Of what use is it to come here?” she sighed. “It can’t be the same as in the old days!”

On the other hand she felt that since she had travelled such a long distance, she would see the place at all events, so continued to walk on, although she was more depressed with every step that she took.

She had heard that it was very much changed; and it certainly was! But she did not observe this now in the evening. She thought, rather, that everything was quite the same. There was the pond, which in her youth had been full of carp and where no one dared fish, because it was father’s wish that the carp should be left in peace. Over there were the menservants’ quarters, the larder and barn, with the farm yard bell over one gable and the weathervane over the other. The house yard was like a circular room, with no outlook in any direction, as it had been in her father’s time⁠—for he had not the heart to cut down as much as a bush.

She lingered in the shadow under the big mountain-ash at the entrance to the farm, and stood looking about her. As she stood there a strange thing happened; a flock of doves came and lit beside her.

She could hardly believe that they were real birds, for doves are not in the habit of moving about after sundown. It must have been the beautiful moonlight that had awakened these. They must have thought it was dawn and flown from their dovecotes, only to become confused, hardly knowing where they were. When they saw a human being they flew over to her, as if she would set them right.

There had been many flocks of doves at the manor when her parents lived there, for the doves were among the creatures which her father had taken under his special care. If one ever mentioned the killing of a dove, it put him in a bad humour. She was pleased that the pretty birds had come to meet her in the old home. Who could tell but the doves had flown out in the night to show her they had not forgotten that once upon a time they had a good home there.

Perhaps her father had sent his birds with a greeting to her, so that she would not feel so sad and lonely when she came to her former home.

As she thought of this, there welled up within her such an intense longing for the old times that her eyes filled with tears. Life had been beautiful in this place. They had had weeks of work broken by many holiday festivities. They had toiled hard all day, but at evening they had gathered around the lamp and read Tegner and Runeberg, “Fru” Lenngren7 and “Mamsell” Bremer. They had cultivated grain, but also roses and jasmine. They had spun flax, but had sung folk-songs as they spun. They had worked hard at their history and grammar, but they had also played theatre and written verses. They had stood at the kitchen stove and prepared food, but had learned, also, to play the flute and guitar, the violin and piano. They had planted cabbages and turnips, peas and beans in one garden, but they had another full of apples and pears and all kinds of berries. They had lived by themselves, and this was why so many stories and legends were stowed away in their memories. They had worn homespun clothes, but they had also been able to lead carefree and independent lives.

“Nowhere else in the world do they know how to get so much out of life as they did at one of these little homesteads in my childhood!” she thought. “There was just enough work and just enough play, and every day there was a joy. How I should love to come back here again! Now that I have seen the place, it is hard to leave it.”

Then she turned to the flock of doves and said to them⁠—laughing at herself all the while:

“Won’t you fly to father and tell him that I long to come home? I have wandered long enough in strange places. Ask him if he can’t arrange it so that I may soon turn back to my childhood’s home.”

The moment she had said this the flock of doves rose and flew away. She tried to follow them with her eyes, but they vanished instantly. It was as if the whole white company had dissolved in the shimmering air.

The doves had only just gone when she heard a couple of piercing cries from the garden, and as she hastened thither she saw a singular sight. There stood a tiny midget, no taller than a hand’s breadth, struggling with a brown owl. At first she was so astonished that she could not move. But when the midget cried more and more pitifully, she stepped up quickly and parted the fighters. The owl swung herself into a tree, but the midget stood on the gravel path, without attempting either to hide or to run away.

“Thanks for your help,” he said. “But it was very stupid of you to let the owl escape. I can’t get away from here, because she is sitting up in the tree watching me.”

“It was thoughtless of me to let her go. But to make amends, can’t I accompany you to your home?” asked she who wrote stories, somewhat surprised to think that in this unexpected fashion she had got into conversation with one of the tiny folk. Still she was not so much surprised after all. It was as if all the while she had been awaiting some extraordinary experience, while she walked in the moonlight outside her old home.

“The fact is, I had thought of stopping here over night,” said the midget. “If you will only show me a safe sleeping place, I shall not be obliged to return to the forest before daybreak.”

“Must I show you a place to sleep? Are you not at home here?”

“I understand that you take me for one of the tiny folk,” said the midget, “but I’m a human being, like yourself, although I have been transformed by an elf.”

“That is the most remarkable thing I have ever heard! Wouldn’t you like to tell me how you happened to get into such a plight?”

The boy did not mind telling her of his adventures, and, as the narrative proceeded, she who listened to him grew more and more astonished and happy.

“What luck to run across one who has travelled all over Sweden on the back of a goose!” thought she. “Just this which he is relating I shall write down in my book. Now I need worry no more over that matter. It was well that I came home. To think that I should find such help as soon as I came to the old place!”

Instantly another thought flashed into her mind. She had sent word to her father by the doves that she longed for home, and almost immediately she had received help in the matter she had pondered so long. Might not this be the father’s answer to her prayer?