With the Laplanders

One afternoon in July it rained frightfully up around Lake Luossajaure. The Laplanders, who lived mostly in the open during the summer, had crawled under the tent and were squatting round the fire drinking coffee.

The new settlers on the east shore of the lake worked diligently to have their homes in readiness before the severe Arctic winter set in. They wondered at the Laplanders, who had lived in the far north for centuries without even thinking that better protection was needed against cold and storm than thin tent covering.

The Laplanders, on the other hand, wondered at the new settlers giving themselves so much needless, hard work, when nothing more was necessary to live comfortably than a few reindeer and a tent.

They only had to drive the poles into the ground and spread the covers over them, and their abodes were ready. They did not have to trouble themselves about decorating or furnishing. The principal thing was to scatter some spruce twigs on the floor, spread a few skins, and hang the big kettle, in which they cooked their reindeer meat, on a chain suspended from the top of the tent poles.

While the Laplanders were chatting over their coffee cups, a row boat coming from the Kiruna side pulled ashore at the Lapps’ quarters.

A workman and a young girl, between thirteen and fourteen, stepped from the boat. The girl was Osa. The Lapp dogs bounded down to them, barking loudly, and a native poked his head out of the tent opening to see what was going on.

He was glad when he saw the workman, for he was a friend of the Laplanders⁠—a kindly and sociable man, who could speak their native tongue. The Lapp called to him to crawl under the tent.

“You’re just in time, Söderberg!” he said. “The coffee pot is on the fire. No one can do any work in this rain, so come in and tell us the news.”

The workman went in, and, with much ado and amid a great deal of laughter and joking, places were made for Söderberg and Osa, though the tent was already crowded to the limit with natives. Osa understood none of the conversation. She sat dumb and looked in wonderment at the kettle and coffee pot; at the fire and smoke; at the Lapp men and Lapp women; at the children and dogs; the walls and floor; the coffee cups and tobacco pipes; the multicoloured costumes and crude implements. All this was new to her.

Suddenly she lowered her glance, conscious that everyone in the tent was looking at her. Söderberg must have said something about her, for now both Lapp men and Lapp women took the short pipes from their mouths and stared at her in open-eyed wonder and awe. The Laplander at her side patted her shoulder and nodded, saying in Swedish, “bra, bra!” (good, good!) A Lapp woman filled a cup to the brim with coffee and passed it under difficulties, while a Lapp boy, who was about her own age, wriggled and crawled between the squatters over to her.

Osa felt that Söderberg was telling the Laplanders that she had just buried her little brother, Mats. She wished he would find out about her father instead.

The elf had said that he lived with the Lapps, who camped west of Lake Luossajaure, and she had begged leave to ride up on a sand truck to seek him, as no regular passenger trains came so far. Both labourers and foremen had assisted her as best they could. An engineer had sent Söderberg across the lake with her, as he spoke Lappish. She had hoped to meet her father as soon as she arrived. Her glance wandered anxiously from face to face, but she saw only natives. Her father was not there.

She noticed that the Lapps and the Swede, Söderberg, grew more and more earnest as they talked among themselves. The Lapps shook their heads and tapped their foreheads, as if they were speaking of someone that was not quite right in his mind.

She became so uneasy that she could no longer endure the suspense and asked Söderberg what the Laplanders knew of her father.

“They say he has gone fishing,” said the workman. “They’re not sure that he can get back to the camp tonight; but as soon as the weather clears, one of them will go in search of him.”

Thereupon he turned to the Lapps and went on talking to them. He did not wish to give Osa an opportunity to question him further about Jon Esserson.

The Next Morning

Ola Serka himself, who was the most distinguished man among the Lapps, had said that he would find Osa’s father, but he appeared to be in no haste and sat huddled outside the tent, thinking of Jon Esserson and wondering how best to tell him of his daughter’s arrival. It would require diplomacy in order that Jon Esserson might not become alarmed and flee. He was an odd sort of man who was afraid of children. He used to say that the sight of them made him so melancholy that he could not endure it.

While Ola Serka deliberated, Osa, the goose girl, and Aslak, the young Lapp boy who had stared so hard at her the night before, sat on the ground in front of the tent and chatted.

Aslak had been to school and could speak Swedish. He was telling Osa about the life of the “Samifolk,” assuring her that they fared better than other people.

Osa thought that they lived wretchedly, and told him so.

“You don’t know what you are talking about!” said Aslak curtly. “Only stop with us a week and you shall see that we are the happiest people on earth.”

“If I were to stop here a whole week, I should be choked by all the smoke in the tent,” Osa retorted.

“Don’t say that!” protested the boy. “You know nothing of us. Let me tell you something which will make you understand that the longer you stay with us the more contented you will become.”

Thereupon Aslak began to tell Osa how a sickness called “The Black Plague” once raged throughout the land. He was not certain as to whether it had swept through the real “Samiland,” where they now were, but in Jämtland it had raged so brutally that among the Samifolk, who lived in the forests and mountains there, all had died except a boy of fifteen. Among the Swedes, who lived in the valleys, none was left but a girl, who was also fifteen years old.

The boy and girl separately tramped the desolate country all winter in search of other human beings. Finally, toward spring, the two met. Aslak continued: “The Swedish girl begged the Lapp boy to accompany her southward, where she could meet people of her own race. She did not wish to tarry longer in Jämtland, where there were only vacant homesteads. ‘I’ll take you wherever you wish to go,’ said the boy, ‘but not before winter. It’s spring now, and my reindeer go westward toward the mountains. You know that we who are of the Samifolk must go where our reindeer take us.’ The Swedish girl was the daughter of wealthy parents. She was used to living under a roof, sleeping in a bed, and eating at a table. She had always despised the poor mountaineers and thought that those who lived under the open sky were most unfortunate; but she was afraid to return to her home, where there were none but the dead. ‘At least let me go with you to the mountains,’ she said to the boy, ‘so that I shan’t have to tramp about here all alone and never hear the sound of a human voice.’

“The boy willingly assented, so the girl went with the reindeer to the mountains.

“The herd yearned for the good pastures there, and every day tramped long distances to feed on the moss. There was not time to pitch tents. The children had to lie on the snowy ground and sleep when the reindeer stopped to graze. The girl often sighed and complained of being so tired that she must turn back to the valley. Nevertheless she went along to avoid being left without human companionship.

“When they reached the highlands the boy pitched a tent for the girl on a pretty hill that sloped toward a mountain brook.

“In the evening he lassoed and milked the reindeer, and gave the girl milk to drink. He brought forth dried reindeer meat and reindeer cheese, which his people had stowed away on the heights when they were there the summer before.

“Still the girl grumbled all the while, and was never satisfied. She would eat neither reindeer meat nor reindeer cheese, nor would she drink reindeer milk. She could not accustom herself to squatting in the tent or to lying on the ground with only a reindeer skin and some spruce twigs for a bed.

“The son of the mountains laughed at her woes and continued to treat her kindly.

“After a few days, the girl went up to the boy when he was milking and asked if she might help him. She next undertook to make the fire under the kettle, in which the reindeer meat was to be cooked, then to carry water and to make cheese. So the time passed pleasantly. The weather was mild and food was easily procured. Together they set snares for game, fished for salmon-trout in the rapids and picked cloudberries in the swamp.

“When the summer was gone, they moved farther down the mountains, where pine and leaf forests meet. There they pitched their tent. They had to work hard every day, but fared better, for food was even more plentiful than in the summer because of the game.

“When the snow came and the lakes began to freeze, they drew farther east toward the dense pine forests.

“As soon as the tent was up, the winter’s work began. The boy taught the girl to make twine from reindeer sinews, to treat skins, to make shoes and clothing of hides, to make combs and tools of reindeer horn, to travel on skis, and to drive a sledge drawn by reindeer.

“When they had lived through the dark winter and the sun began to shine all day and most of the night, the boy said to the girl that now he would accompany her southward, so that she might meet some of her own race.

“Then the girl looked at him astonished.

“ ‘Why do you want to send me away?’ she asked. ‘Do you long to be alone with your reindeer?’

“ ‘I thought that you were the one that longed to get away?’ said the boy.

“ ‘I have lived the life of the Samifolk almost a year now,’ replied the girl. I can’t return to my people and live the shut-in life after having wandered freely on mountains and in forests. Don’t drive me away, but let me stay here. Your way of living is better than ours.’

“The girl stayed with the boy for the rest of her life, and never again did she long for the valleys. And you, Osa, if you were to stay with us only a month, you could never again part from us.”

With these words, Aslak, the Lapp boy, finished his story. Just then his father, Ola Serka, took the pipe from his mouth and rose.

Old Ola understood more Swedish than he was willing to have anyone know, and he had overheard his son’s remarks. While he was listening, it had suddenly flashed on him how he should handle this delicate matter of telling Jon Esserson that his daughter had come in search of him.

Ola Serka went down to Lake Luossajaure and had walked a short distance along the strand, when he happened upon a man who sat on a rock fishing.

The fisherman was gray-haired and bent. His eyes blinked wearily and there was something slack and helpless about him. He looked like a man who had tried to carry a burden too heavy for him, or to solve a problem too difficult for him, who had become broken and despondent over his failure.

“You must have had luck with your fishing, Jon, since you’ve been at it all night?” said the mountaineer in Lappish, as he approached.

The fisherman gave a start, then glanced up. The bait on his hook was gone and not a fish lay on the strand beside him. He hastened to rebait the hook and throw out the line. In the meantime the mountaineer squatted on the grass beside him.

“There’s a matter that I wanted to talk over with you,” said Ola. “You know that I had a little daughter who died last winter, and we have always missed her in the tent.”

“Yes, I know,” said the fisherman abruptly, a cloud passing over his face⁠—as though he disliked being reminded of a dead child.

“It’s not worth while to spend one’s life grieving,” said the Laplander.

“I suppose it isn’t.”

“Now I’m thinking of adopting another child. Don’t you think it would be a good idea?”

“That depends on the child, Ola.”

“I will tell you what I know of the girl,” said Ola. Then he told the fisherman that around midsummer-time, two strange children⁠—a boy and a girl⁠—had come to the mines to look for their father, but as their father was away, they had stayed to await his return. While there, the boy had been killed by a blast of rock.

Thereupon Ola gave a beautiful description of how brave the little girl had been, and of how she had won the admiration and sympathy of everyone.

“Is that the girl you want to take into your tent?” asked the fisherman.

“Yes,” returned the Lapp. “When we heard her story we were all deeply touched and said among ourselves that so good a sister would also make a good daughter, and we hoped that she would come to us.”

The fisherman sat quietly thinking a moment. It was plain that he continued the conversation only to please his friend, the Lapp.

“I presume the girl is one of your race?”

“No,” said Ola, “she doesn’t belong to the Samifolk.”

“Perhaps she’s the daughter of some new settler and is accustomed to the life here?”

“No, she’s from the far south,” replied Ola, as if this was of small importance.

The fisherman grew more interested.

“Then I don’t believe that you can take her,” he said. “It’s doubtful if she could stand living in a tent in winter, since she was not brought up that way.”

“She will find kind parents and kind brothers and sisters in the tent,” insisted Ola Serka. “It’s worse to be alone than to freeze.”

The fisherman became more and more zealous to prevent the adoption. It seemed as if he could not bear the thought of a child of Swedish parents being taken in by Laplanders.

“You said just now that she had a father in the mine.”

“He’s dead,” said the Lapp abruptly.

“I suppose you have thoroughly investigated this matter, Ola?”

“What’s the use of going to all that trouble?” disdained the Lapp. “I ought to know! Would the girl and her brother have been obliged to roam about the country if they had a father living? Would two children have been forced to care for themselves if they had a father? The girl herself thinks he’s alive, but I say that he must be dead.”

The man with the tired eyes turned to Ola.

“What is the girl’s name, Ola?” he asked.

The mountaineer thought awhile, then said:

“I can’t remember it. I must ask her.”

“Ask her! Is she already here?”

“She’s down at the camp.”

“What, Ola! Have you taken her in before knowing her father’s wishes?”

“What do I care for her father! If he isn’t dead, he’s probably the kind of man who cares nothing for his child. He may be glad to have another take her in hand.”

The fisherman threw down his rod and rose with an alertness in his movements that bespoke new life.

“I don’t think her father can be like other folk,” continued the mountaineer. “I dare say he is a man who is haunted by gloomy forebodings and therefore can not work steadily. What kind of a father would that be for the girl?”

While Ola was talking the fisherman started up the strand.

“Where are you going?” queried the Lapp.

“I’m going to have a look at your foster-daughter, Ola.”

“Good!” said the Lapp. “Come along and meet her. I think you’ll say that she will be a good daughter to me.”

The Swede rushed on so rapidly that the Laplander could hardly keep pace with him.

After a moment Ola said to his companion:

“Now I recall that her name is Osa⁠—this girl I’m adopting.”

The other man only kept hurrying along and old Ola Serka was so well pleased that he wanted to laugh aloud.

When they came in sight of the tents, Ola said a few words more.

“She came here to us Samifolk to find her father and not to become my foster-child. But if she doesn’t find him, I shall be glad to keep her in my tent.”

The fisherman hastened all the faster.

“I might have known that he would be alarmed when I threatened to take his daughter into the Lapps’ quarters,” laughed Ola to himself.

When the man from Kiruna, who had brought Osa to the tent, turned back later in the day, he had two people with him in the boat, who sat close together, holding hands⁠—as if they never again wanted to part.

They were Jon Esserson and his daughter. Both were unlike what they had been a few hours earlier.

The father looked less bent and weary and his eyes were clear and good, as if at last he had found the answer to that which had troubled him so long.

Osa, the goose girl, did not glance longingly about, for she had found someone to care for her, and now she could be a child again.