The weeks following the death of the poor vagabond woman lingered in the minds of the children like a horrible nightmare. They knew not if the time had been long or short, but they remembered that they were always having funerals at home. One after another they lost their brothers and sisters. At last it was very still and sad in the cabin.
The mother kept up some measure of courage, but the father was not a bit like himself. He could no longer work nor jest, but sat from morning till night, his head buried in his hands, and only brooded.
Once—that was after the third burial—the father had broken out into wild talk, which frightened the children. He said that he could not understand why such misfortunes should come upon them. They had done a kindly thing in helping the sick woman. Could it be true, then, that the evil in this world was more powerful than the good?
The mother tried to reason with him, but she was unable to soothe him.
A few days later the eldest was stricken. She had always been the father's favourite, so when he realized that she, too, must go, he fled from all the misery. The mother never said anything, but she thought it was best for him to be away, as she feared that he might lose his reason. He had brooded too long over this one idea: that God had allowed a wicked person to bring about so much evil.
After the father went away they became very poor. For awhile he sent them money, but afterward things must have gone badly with him, for no more came.
The day of the eldest daughter's burial the mother closed the cabin and left home with the two remaining children, Osa and Mats. She went down to Skane to work in the beet fields, and found a place at the Jordberga sugar refinery. She was a good worker and had a cheerful and generous nature. Everybody liked her. Many were astonished because she could be so calm after all that she had passed through, but the mother was very strong and patient. When any one spoke to her of her two sturdy children, she only said: "I shall soon lose them also," without a quaver in her voice or a tear in her eye. She had accustomed herself to expect nothing else.
But it did not turn out as she feared. Instead, the sickness came upon herself. She had gone to Skane in the beginning of summer; before autumn she was gone, and the children were left alone.
While their mother was ill she had often said to the children they must remember that she never regretted having let the sick woman stop with them. It was not hard to die when one had done right, she said, for then one could go with a clear conscience.
Before the mother passed away, she tried to make some provision for her children. She asked the people with whom she lived to let them remain in the room which she had occupied. If the children only had a shelter they would not become a burden to any one. She knew that they could take care of themselves.
Osa and Mats were allowed to keep the room on condition that they would tend the geese, as it was always hard to find children willing to do that work. It turned out as the mother expected: they did maintain themselves. The girl made candy, and the boy carved wooden toys, which they sold at the farm houses. They had a talent for trading and soon began buying eggs and butter from the farmers, which they sold to the workers at the sugar refinery. Osa was the older, and, by the time she was thirteen, she was as responsible as a grown woman. She was quiet and serious, while Mats was lively and talkative. His sister used to say to him that he could outcackle the geese.
When the children had been at Jordberga for two years, there was a lecture given one evening at the schoolhouse. Evidently it was meant for grown-ups, but the two Smaland children were in the audience. They did not regard themselves as children, and few persons thought of them as such. The lecturer talked about the dread disease called the White Plague, which every year carried off so many people in Sweden. He spoke very plainly and the children understood every word.
After the lecture they waited outside the schoolhouse. When the lecturer came out they took hold of hands and walked gravely up to him, asking if they might speak to him.
The stranger must have wondered at the two rosy, baby-faced children standing there talking with an earnestness more in keeping with people thrice their age; but he listened graciously to them. They related what had happened in their home, and asked the lecturer if he thought their mother and their sisters and brothers had died of the sickness he had described.
"Very likely," he answered. "It could hardly have been any other disease."
If only the mother and father had known what the children learned that evening, they might have protected themselves. If they had burned the clothing of the vagabond woman; if they had scoured and aired the cabin and had not used the old bedding, all whom the children mourned might have been living yet. The lecturer said he could not say positively, but he believed that none of their dear ones would have been sick had they understood how to guard against the infection.
Osa and Mats waited awhile before putting the next question, for that was the most important of all. It was not true then that the gipsy woman had sent the sickness because they had befriended the one with whom she was angry. It was not something special that had stricken only them. The lecturer assured them that no person had the power to bring sickness upon another in that way.
Thereupon the children thanked him and went to their room. They talked until late that night.
The next day they gave notice that they could not tend geese another year, but must go elsewhere. Where were they going? Why, to try to find their father. They must tell him that their mother and the other children had died of a common ailment and not something special brought upon them by an angry person. They were very glad that they had found out about this. Now it was their duty to tell their father of it, for probably he was still trying to solve the mystery.
Osa and Mats set out for their old home on the heath. When they arrived they were shocked to find the little cabin in flames. They went to the parsonage and there they learned that a railroad workman had seen their father at Malmberget, far up in Lapland. He had been working in a mine and possibly was still there. When the clergyman heard that the children wanted to go in search of their father he brought forth a map and showed them how far it was to Malmberget and tried to dissuade them from making the journey, but the children insisted that they must find their father. He had left home believing something that was not true. They must find him and tell him that it was all a mistake.
They did not want to spend their little savings buying railway tickets, therefore they decided to go all the way on foot, which they never regretted, as it proved to be a remarkably beautiful journey.
Before they were out of Smaland, they stopped at a farm house to buy food. The housewife was a kind, motherly soul who took an interest in the children. She asked them who they were and where they came from, and they told her their story. "Dear, dear! Dear, dear!" she interpolated time and again when they were speaking. Later she petted the children and stuffed them with all kinds of goodies, for which she would not accept a penny. When they rose to thank her and go, the woman asked them to stop at her brother's farm in the next township. Of course the children were delighted.
"Give him my greetings and tell him what has happened to you," said the peasant woman.
This the children did and were well treated. From every farm after that it was always: "If you happen to go in such and such a direction, stop there or there and tell them what has happened to you."
In every farm house to which they were sent there was always a consumptive. So Osa and Mats went through the country unconsciously teaching the people how to combat that dreadful disease.
Long, long ago, when the black plague was ravaging the country, 'twas said that a boy and a girl were seen wandering from house to house. The boy carried a rake, and if he stopped and raked in front of a house, it meant that there many should die, but not all; for the rake has coarse teeth and does not take everything with it. The girl carried a broom, and if she came along and swept before a door, it meant that all who lived within must die; for the broom is an implement that makes a clean sweep.
It seems quite remarkable that in our time two children should wander through the land because of a cruel sickness. But these children did not frighten people with the rake and the broom. They said rather: "We will not content ourselves with merely raking the yard and sweeping the floors, we will use mop and brush, water and soap. We will keep clean inside and outside of the door and we ourselves will be clean in both mind and body. In this way we will conquer the sickness."
One day, while still in Lapland, Akka took the boy to Malmberget, where they discovered little Mats lying unconscious at the mouth of the pit. He and Osa had arrived there a short time before. That morning he had been roaming about, hoping to come across his father. He had ventured too near the shaft and been hurt by flying rocks after the setting off of a blast.
Thumbietot ran to the edge of the shaft and called down to the miners that a little boy was injured.
Immediately a number of labourers came rushing up to little Mats. Two of them carried him to the hut where he and Osa were staying. They did all they could to save him, but it was too late.
Thumbietot felt so sorry for poor Osa. He wanted to help and comfort her; but he knew that if he were to go to her now, he would only frighten her—such as he was!
The night after the burial of little Mats, Osa straightway shut herself in her hut.
She sat alone recalling, one after another, things her brother had said and done. There was so much to think about that she did not go straight to bed, but sat up most of the night. The more she thought of her brother the more she realized how hard it would be to live without him. At last she dropped her head on the table and wept.
"What shall I do now that little Mats is gone?" she sobbed.
It was far along toward morning and Osa, spent by the strain of her hard day, finally fell asleep.
She dreamed that little Mats softly opened the door and stepped into the room.
"Osa, you must go and find father," he said.
"How can I when I don't even know where he is?" she replied in her dream.
"Don't worry about that," returned little Mats in his usual, cheery way. "I'll send some one to help you."
Just as Osa, the goose girl, dreamed that little Mats had said this, there was a knock at the door. It was a real knock—not something she heard in the dream, but she was so held by the dream that she could not tell the real from the unreal. As she went on to open the door, she thought:
"This must be the person little Mats promised to send me."
She was right, for it was Thumbietot come to talk to her about her father.
When he saw that she was not afraid of him, he told her in a few words where her father was and how to reach him.
While he was speaking, Osa, the goose girl, gradually regained consciousness; when he had finished she was wide awake.
Then she was so terrified at the thought of talking with an elf that she could not say thank you or anything else, but quickly shut the door.
As she did that she thought she saw an expression of pain flash across the elf's face, but she could not help what she did, for she was beside herself with fright. She crept into bed as quickly as she could and drew the covers over her head.
Although she was afraid of the elf, she had a feeling that he meant well by her. So the next day she made haste to do as he had told her.
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, Soederberg!" 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 Soederberg 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 multi-coloured costumes and crude implements. All this was new to her.
Suddenly she lowered her glance, conscious that every one in the tent was looking at her. Soederberg 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 Soederberg 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 Soederberg 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, Soederberg, 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 some one that was not quite right in his mind.
She became so uneasy that she could no longer endure the suspense and asked Soederberg 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 to-night; 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 "Samefolk," 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 "Sameland," where they now were, but in Jaemtland it had raged so brutally that among the Samefolk, 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 Jaemtland, 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 Samefolk 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 sha'n'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 cloud-berries 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 Samefolk 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 any one 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 Samefolk."
"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 Samefolk 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 some one to care for her, and now she could be a child again.
THE FIRST TRAVELLING DAY
Saturday, October first.
The boy sat on the goosey-gander's back and rode up amongst the clouds. Some thirty geese, in regular order, flew rapidly southward. There was a rustling of feathers and the many wings beat the air so noisily that one could scarcely hear one's own voice. Akka from Kebnekaise flew in the lead; after her came Yksi and Kaksi, Kolme and Neljae, Viisi and Kuusi, Morten Goosey-Gander and Dunfin. The six goslings which had accompanied the flock the autumn before had now left to look after themselves. Instead, the old geese were taking with them twenty-two goslings that had grown up in the glen that summer. Eleven flew to the right, eleven to the left; and they did their best to fly at even distances, like the big birds.
The poor youngsters had never before been on a long trip and at first they had difficulty in keeping up with the rapid flight.
"Akka from Kebnekaise! Akka from Kebnekaise!" they cried in plaintive tones.
"What's the matter?" said the leader-goose sharply.
"Our wings are tired of moving, our wings are tired of moving!" wailed the young ones.
"The longer you keep it up, the better it will go," answered the leader-goose, without slackening her speed. And she was quite right, for when the goslings had flown two hours longer, they complained no more of being tired.
But in the mountain glen they had been in the habit of eating all day long, and very soon they began to feel hungry.
"Akka, Akka, Akka from Kebnekaise!" wailed the goslings pitifully.
"What's the trouble now?" asked the leader-goose.
"We're so hungry, we can't fly any more!" whimpered the goslings. "We're so hungry, we can't fly any more!"
"Wild geese must learn to eat air and drink wind," said the leader-goose, and kept right on flying.
It actually seemed as if the young ones were learning to live on wind and air, for when they had flown a little longer, they said nothing more about being hungry.
The goose flock was still in the mountain regions, and the old geese called out the names of all the peaks as they flew past, so that the youngsters might learn them. When they had been calling out a while:
"This is Porsotjokko, this is Saerjaktjokko, this is Sulitelma," and so on, the goslings became impatient again.
"Akka, Akka, Akka!" they shrieked in heart-rending tones.
"What's wrong?" said the leader-goose.
"We haven't room in our heads for any more of those awful names!" shrieked the goslings.
"The more you put into your heads the more you can get into them," retorted the leader-goose, and continued to call out the queer names.
The boy sat thinking that it was about time the wild geese betook themselves southward, for so much snow had fallen that the ground was white as far as the eye could see. There was no use denying that it had been rather disagreeable in the glen toward the last. Rain and fog had succeeded each other without any relief, and even if it did clear up once in a while, immediately frost set in. Berries and mushrooms, upon which the boy had subsisted during the summer, were either frozen or decayed. Finally he had been compelled to eat raw fish, which was something he disliked. The days had grown short and the long evenings and late mornings were rather tiresome for one who could not sleep the whole time that the sun was away.
Now, at last, the goslings' wings had grown, so that the geese could start for the south. The boy was so happy that he laughed and sang as he rode on the goose's back. It was not only on account of the darkness and cold that he longed to get away from Lapland; there were other reasons too.
The first weeks of his sojourn there the boy had not been the least bit homesick. He thought he had never before seen such a glorious country. The only worry he had had was to keep the mosquitoes from eating him up.
The boy had seen very little of the goosey-gander, because the big, white gander thought only of his Dunfin and was unwilling to leave her for a moment. On the other hand, Thumbietot had stuck to Akka and Gorgo, the eagle, and the three of them had passed many happy hours together.
The two birds had taken him with them on long trips. He had stood on snow-capped Mount Kebnekaise, had looked down at the glaciers and visited many high cliffs seldom tramped by human feet. Akka had shown him deep-hidden mountain dales and had let him peep into caves where mother wolves brought up their young. He had also made the acquaintance of the tame reindeer that grazed in herds along the shores of the beautiful Torne Lake, and he had been down to the great falls and brought greetings to the bears that lived thereabouts from their friends and relatives in Westmanland.
Ever since he had seen Osa, the goose girl, he longed for the day when he might go home with Morten Goosey-Gander and be a normal human being once more. He wanted to be himself again, so that Osa would not be afraid to talk to him and would not shut the door in his face.
Yes, indeed, he was glad that at last they were speeding southward. He waved his cap and cheered when he saw the first pine forest. In the same manner he greeted the first gray cabin, the first goat, the first cat, and the first chicken.
They were continually meeting birds of passage, flying now in greater flocks than in the spring.
"Where are you bound for, wild geese?" called the passing birds. "Where are you bound for?"
"We, like yourselves, are going abroad," answered the geese.
"Those goslings of yours aren't ready to fly," screamed the others. "They'll never cross the sea with those puny wings!"
Laplander and reindeer were also leaving the mountains. When the wild geese sighted the reindeer, they circled down and called out:
"Thanks for your company this summer!"
"A pleasant journey to you and a welcome back!" returned the reindeer.
But when the bears saw the wild geese, they pointed them out to the cubs and growled:
"Just look at those geese; they are so afraid of a little cold they don't dare to stay at home in winter."
But the old geese were ready with a retort and cried to their goslings:
"Look at those beasts that stay at home and sleep half the year rather than go to the trouble of travelling south!"
Down in the pine forest the young grouse sat huddled together and gazed longingly after the big bird flocks which, amid joy and merriment, proceeded southward.
"When will our turn come?" they asked the mother grouse.
"You will have to stay at home with mamma and papa," she said.
LEGENDS FROM HAeRJEDALEN
Tuesday, October fourth.
The boy had had three days' travel in the rain and mist and longed for some sheltered nook, where he might rest awhile.
At last the geese alighted to feed and ease their wings a bit. To his great relief the boy saw an observation tower on a hill close by, and dragged himself to it.
When he had climbed to the top of the tower he found a party of tourists there, so he quickly crawled into a dark corner and was soon sound asleep.
When the boy awoke, he began to feel uneasy because the tourists lingered so long in the tower telling stories. He thought they would never go. Morten Goosey-Gander could not come for him while they were there and he knew, of course, that the wild geese were in a hurry to continue the journey. In the middle of a story he thought he heard honking and the beating of wings, as if the geese were flying away, but he did not dare to venture over to the balustrade to find out if it was so.
At last, when the tourists were gone, and the boy could crawl from his hiding place, he saw no wild geese, and no Morten Goosey-Gander came to fetch him. He called, "Here am I, where are you?" as loud as he could, but his travelling companions did not appear. Not for a second did he think they had deserted him; but he feared that they had met with some mishap and was wondering what he should do to find them, when Bataki, the raven, lit beside him.
The boy never dreamed that he should greet Bataki with such a glad welcome as he now gave him.
"Dear Bataki," he burst forth. "How fortunate that you are here! Maybe you know what has become of Morten Goosey-Gander and the wild geese?"
"I've just come with a greeting from them," replied the raven. "Akka saw a hunter prowling about on the mountain and therefore dared not stay to wait for you, but has gone on ahead. Get up on my back and you shall soon be with your friends."
The boy quickly seated himself on the raven's back and Bataki would soon have caught up with the geese had he not been hindered by a fog. It was as if the morning sun had awakened it to life. Little light veils of mist rose suddenly from the lake, from fields, and from the forest. They thickened and spread with marvellous rapidity, and soon the entire ground was hidden from sight by white, rolling mists.
Bataki flew along above the fog in clear air and sparkling sunshine, but the wild geese must have circled down among the damp clouds, for it was impossible to sight them. The boy and the raven called and shrieked, but got no response.
"Well, this is a stroke of ill luck!" said Bataki finally. "But we know that they are travelling toward the south, and of course I'll find them as soon as the mist clears."
The boy was distressed at the thought of being parted from Morten Goosey-Gander just now, when the geese were on the wing, and the big white one might meet with all sorts of mishaps. After Thumbietot had been sitting worrying for two hours or more, he remarked to himself that, thus far, there had been no mishap, and it was not worth while to lose heart.
Just then he heard a rooster crowing down on the ground, and instantly he bent forward on the raven's back and called out:
"What's the name of the country I'm travelling over?"
"It's called Haerjedalen, Haerjedalen, Haerjedalen," crowed the rooster.
"How does it look down there where you are?" the boy asked.
"Cliffs in the west, woods in the east, broad valleys across the whole country," replied the rooster.
"Thank you," cried the boy. "You give a clear account of it."
When they had travelled a little farther, he heard a crow cawing down in the mist.
"What kind of people live in this country?" shouted the boy.
"Good, thrifty peasants," answered the crow. "Good, thrifty peasants."
"What do they do?" asked the boy. "What do they do?"
"They raise cattle and fell forests," cawed the crow.
"Thanks," replied the boy. "You answer well."
A bit farther on he heard a human voice yodeling and singing down in the mist.
"Is there any large city in this part of the country?" the boy asked.
"What—what—who is it that calls?" cried the human voice.
"Is there any large city in this region?" the boy repeated.
"I want to know who it is that calls," shouted the human voice.
"I might have known that I could get no information when I asked a human being a civil question," the boy retorted.
It was not long before the mist went away as suddenly as it had come. Then the boy saw a beautiful landscape, with high cliffs as in Jaemtland, but there were no large, flourishing settlements on the mountain slopes. The villages lay far apart, and the farms were small. Bataki followed the stream southward till they came within sight of a village. There he alighted in a stubble field and let the boy dismount.
"In the summer grain grew on this ground," said Bataki. "Look around and see if you can't find something eatable."
The boy acted upon the suggestion and before long he found a blade of wheat. As he picked out the grains and ate them, Bataki talked to him.
"Do you see that mountain towering directly south of us?" he asked.
"Yes, of course, I see it," said the boy.
"It is called Sonfjaellet," continued the raven; "you can imagine that wolves were plentiful there once upon a time."
"It must have been an ideal place for wolves," said the boy.
"The people who lived here in the valley were frequently attacked by them," remarked the raven.
"Perhaps you remember a good wolf story you could tell me?" said the boy.
"I've been told that a long, long time ago the wolves from Sonfjaellet are supposed to have waylaid a man who had gone out to peddle his wares," began Bataki. "He was from Hede, a village a few miles down the valley. It was winter time and the wolves made for him as he was driving over the ice on Lake Ljusna. There were about nine or ten, and the man from Hede had a poor old horse, so there was very little hope of his escaping.
"When the man heard the wolves howl and saw how many there were after him, he lost his head, and it did not occur to him that he ought to dump his casks and jugs out of the sledge, to lighten the load. He only whipped up the horse and made the best speed he could, but he soon observed that the wolves were gaining on him. The shores were desolate and he was fourteen miles from the nearest farm. He thought that his final hour had come, and was paralyzed with fear.
"While he sat there, terrified, he saw something move in the brush, which had been set in the ice to mark out the road; and when he discovered who it was that walked there, his fear grew more and more intense.
"Wild beasts were not coming toward him, but a poor old woman, named Finn-Malin, who was in the habit of roaming about on highways and byways. She was a hunchback, and slightly lame, so he recognized her at a distance.
"The old woman was walking straight toward the wolves. The sledge had hidden them from her view, and the man comprehended at once that, if he were to drive on without warning her, she would walk right into the jaws of the wild beasts, and while they were rending her, he would have time enough to get away.
"The old woman walked slowly, bent over a cane. It was plain that she was doomed if he did not help her, but even if he were to stop and take her into the sledge, it was by no means certain that she would be safe. More than likely the wolves would catch up with them, and he and she and the horse would all be killed. He wondered if it were not better to sacrifice one life in order that two might be spared—this flashed upon him the minute he saw the old woman. He had also time to think how it would be with him afterward—if perchance he might not regret that he had not succoured her; or if people should some day learn of the meeting and that he had not tried to help her. It was a terrible temptation.
"'I would rather not have seen her,' he said to himself.
"Just then the wolves howled savagely. The horse reared, plunged forward, and dashed past the old beggar woman. She, too, had heard the howling of the wolves, and, as the man from Hede drove by, he saw that the old woman knew what awaited her. She stood motionless, her mouth open for a cry, her arms stretched out for help. But she neither cried nor tried to throw herself into the sledge. Something seemed to have turned her to stone. 'It was I,' thought the man. 'I must have looked like a demon as I passed.'
"He tried to feel satisfied, now that he was certain of escape; but at that very moment his heart reproached him. Never before had he done a dastardly thing, and he felt now that his whole life was blasted.
"'Let come what may,' he said, and reined in the horse, 'I cannot leave her alone with the wolves!'
"It was with great difficulty that he got the horse to turn, but in the end he managed it and promptly drove back to her.
"'Be quick and get into the sledge,' he said gruffly; for he was mad with himself for not leaving the old woman to her fate.
"'You might stay at home once in awhile, you old hag!' he growled. 'Now both my horse and I will come to grief on your account.'
"The old woman did not say a word, but the man from Hede was in no mood to spare her.
"'The horse has already tramped thirty-five miles to-day, and the load hasn't lightened any since you got up on it!' he grumbled, 'so that you must understand he'll soon be exhausted.'
"The sledge runners crunched on the ice, but for all that he heard how the wolves panted, and knew that the beasts were almost upon him.
"'It's all up with us!' he said. 'Much good it was, either to you or to me, this attempt to save you, Finn-Malin!'
"Up to this point the old woman had been silent—like one who is accustomed to take abuse—but now she said a few words.
"'I can't understand why you don't throw out your wares and lighten the load. You can come back again to-morrow and gather them up.'
"The man realized that this was sound advice and was surprised that he had not thought of it before. He tossed the reins to the old woman, loosed the ropes that bound the casks, and pitched them out. The wolves were right upon them, but now they stopped to examine that which was thrown on the ice, and the travellers again had the start of them.
"'If this does not help you,' said the old woman, 'you understand, of course, that I will give myself up to the wolves voluntarily, that you may escape.'
"While she was speaking the man was trying to push a heavy brewer's vat from the long sledge. As he tugged at this he paused, as if he could not quite make up his mind to throw it out; but, in reality, his mind was taken up with something altogether different.
"'Surely a man and a horse who have no infirmities need not let a feeble old woman be devoured by wolves for their sakes!' he thought. 'There must be some other way of salvation. Why, of course, there is! It's only my stupidity that hinders me from finding the way.'
"Again he started to push the vat, then paused once more and burst out laughing.
"The old woman was alarmed and wondered if he had gone mad, but the man from Hede was laughing at himself because he had been so stupid all the while. It was the simplest thing in the world to save all three of them. He could not imagine why he had not thought of it before.
"'Listen to what I say to you, Malin!' he said. 'It was splendid of you to be willing to throw yourself to the wolves. But you won't have to do that because I know how we can all three be helped without endangering the life of any. Remember, whatever I may do, you are to sit still and drive down to Linsaell. There you must waken the townspeople and tell them that I'm alone out here on the ice, surrounded by wolves, and ask them to come and help me.'
"The man waited until the wolves were almost upon the sledge. Then he rolled out the big brewer's vat, jumped down, and crawled in under it.
"It was a huge vat, large enough to hold a whole Christmas brew. The wolves pounced upon it and bit at the hoops, but the vat was too heavy for them to move. They could not get at the man inside.
"He knew that he was safe and laughed at the wolves. After a bit he was serious again.
"'For the future, when I get into a tight place, I shall remember this vat, and I shall bear in mind that I need never wrong either myself or others, for there is always a third way out of a difficulty if only one can hit upon it.'"
With this Bataki closed his narrative.
The boy noticed that the raven never spoke unless there was some special meaning back of his words, and the longer he listened to him, the more thoughtful he became.
"I wonder why you told me that story?" remarked the boy.
"I just happened to think of it as I stood here, gazing up at Sonfjaellet," replied the raven.
Now they had travelled farther down Lake Ljusna and in an hour or so they came to Kolsaett, close to the border of Haelsingland. Here the raven alighted near a little hut that had no windows—only a shutter. From the chimney rose sparks and smoke, and from within the sound of heavy hammering was heard.
"Whenever I see this smithy," observed the raven, "I'm reminded that, in former times, there were such skilled blacksmiths here in Haerjedalen, more especially in this village—that they couldn't be matched in the whole country."
"Perhaps you also remember a story about them?" said the boy.
"Yes," returned Bataki, "I remember one about a smith from Haerjedalen who once invited two other master blacksmiths—one from Dalecarlia and one from Vermland—to compete with him at nail-making. The challenge was accepted and the three blacksmiths met here at Kolsaett. The Dalecarlian began. He forged a dozen nails, so even and smooth and sharp that they couldn't be improved upon. After him came the Vermlander. He, too, forged a dozen nails, which were quite perfect and, moreover, he finished them in half the time that it took the Dalecarlian. When the judges saw this they said to the Haerjedal smith that it wouldn't be worth while for him to try, since he could not forge better than the Dalecarlian or faster than the Vermlander.
"'I sha'n't give up! There must be still another way of excelling,' insisted the Haerjedal smith.
"He placed the iron on the anvil without heating it at the forge; he simply hammered it hot and forged nail after nail, without the use of either anvil or bellows. None of the judges had ever seen a blacksmith wield a hammer more masterfully, and the Haerjedal smith was proclaimed the best in the land."
With these remarks Bataki subsided, and the boy grew even more thoughtful.
"I wonder what your purpose was in telling me that?" he queried.
"The story dropped into my mind when I saw the old smithy again," said Bataki in an offhand manner.
The two travellers rose again into the air and the raven carried the boy southward till they came to Lillhaerdal Parish, where he alighted on a leafy mound at the top of a ridge.
"I wonder if you know upon what mound you are standing?" said Bataki.
The boy had to confess that he did not know.
"This is a grave," said Bataki. "Beneath this mound lies the first settler in Haerjedalen."
"Perhaps you have a story to tell of him too?" said the boy.
"I haven't heard much about him, but I think he was a Norwegian. He had served with a Norwegian king, got into his bad graces, and had to flee the country.
"Later he went over to the Swedish king, who lived at Upsala, and took service with him. But, after a time, he asked for the hand of the king's sister in marriage, and when the king wouldn't give him such a high-born bride, he eloped with her. By that time he had managed to get himself into such disfavour that it wasn't safe for him to live either in Norway or Sweden, and he did not wish to move to a foreign country. 'But there must still be a course open to me,' he thought. With his servants and treasures, he journeyed through Dalecarlia until he arrived in the desolate forests beyond the outskirts of the province. There he settled, built houses and broke up land. Thus, you see, he was the first man to settle in this part of the country."
As the boy listened to the last story, he looked very serious.
"I wonder what your object is in telling me all this?" he repeated.
Bataki twisted and turned and screwed up his eyes, and it was some time before he answered the boy.
"Since we are here alone," he said finally, "I shall take this opportunity to question you regarding a certain matter.
"Have you ever tried to ascertain upon what terms the elf who transformed you was to restore you to a normal human being?"
"The only stipulation I've heard anything about was that I should take the white goosey-gander up to Lapland and bring him back to Skane, safe and sound."
"I thought as much," said Bataki; "for when last we met, you talked confidently of there being nothing more contemptible than deceiving a friend who trusts one. You'd better ask Akka about the terms. You know, I dare say, that she was at your home and talked with the elf."
"Akka hasn't told me of this," said the boy wonderingly.
"She must have thought that it was best for you not to know just what the elf did say. Naturally she would rather help you than Morten Goosey-Gander."
"It is singular, Bataki, that you always have a way of making me feel unhappy and anxious," said the boy.
"I dare say it might seem so," continued the raven, "but this time I believe that you will be grateful to me for telling you that the elf's words were to this effect: You were to become a normal human being again if you would bring back Morten Goosey-Gander that your mother might lay him on the block and chop his head off."
The boy leaped up.
"That's only one of your base fabrications," he cried indignantly.
"You can ask Akka yourself," said Bataki. "I see her coming up there with her whole flock. And don't forget what I have told you to-day. There is usually a way out of all difficulties, if only one can find it. I shall be interested to see what success you have."
VERMLAND AND DALSLAND
Wednesday, October fifth.
To-day 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 Staedjan in the north, and that now they were flying over Oesterdal 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 Klaraelven.
"I've seen so many rivers already," thought the boy, "why bother to look at one more?"
Even had he been more eager for sight-seeing, there was not very much to be seen, for northern Vermland is nothing but vast, monotonous forest tracts, through which Klaraelven 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
Thursday, October sixth.
The wild geese followed Klaraelven 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 Marbacka," 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 hard-tack 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 men-servants' 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 men-servants' quarters, the larder and barn, with the farm yard bell over one gable and the weather-vane 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 dove-cotes, 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" Lenngren 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 care-free 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?
THE TREASURE ON THE ISLAND
ON THEIR WAY TO THE SEA
Friday, October seventh.
From the very start of the autumn trip the wild geese had flown straight south; but when they left Fryksdalen they veered in another direction, travelling over western Vermland and Dalsland, toward Bohuslaen.
That was a jolly trip! The goslings were now so used to flying that they complained no more of fatigue, and the boy was fast recovering his good humour. He was glad that he had talked with a human being. He felt encouraged when she said to him that if he were to continue doing good to all whom he met, as heretofore, it could not end badly for him. She was not able to tell him how to get back his natural form, but she had given him a little hope and assurance, which inspired the boy to think out a way to prevent the big white gander from going home.
"Do you know, Morten Goosey-Gander, that it will be rather monotonous for us to stay at home all winter after having been on a trip like this," he said, as they were flying far up in the air. "I'm sitting here thinking that we ought to go abroad with the geese."
"Surely you are not in earnest!" said the goosey-gander. Since he had proved to the wild geese his ability to travel with them all the way to Lapland, he was perfectly satisfied to get back to the goose pen in Holger Nilsson's cow shed.
The boy sat silently a while and gazed down on Vermland, where the birch woods, leafy groves, and gardens were clad in red and yellow autumn colours.
"I don't think I've ever seen the earth beneath us as lovely as it is to-day!" he finally remarked. "The lakes are like blue satin bands. Don't you think it would be a pity to settle down in West Vemminghoeg and never see any more of the world?"
"I thought you wanted to go home to your mother and father and show them what a splendid boy you had become?" said the goosey-gander.
All summer he had been dreaming of what a proud moment it would be for him when he should alight in the house yard before Holger Nilsson's cabin and show Dunfin and the six goslings to the geese and chickens, the cows and the cat, and to Mother Holger Nilsson herself, so that he was not very happy over the boy's proposal.
"Now, Morten Goosey-Gander, don't you think yourself that it would be hard never to see anything more that is beautiful!" said the boy.
"I would rather see the fat grain fields of Soederslaett than these lean hills," answered the goosey-gander. "But you must know very well that if you really wish to continue the trip, I can't be parted from you."
"That is just the answer I had expected from you," said the boy, and his voice betrayed that he was relieved of a great anxiety.
Later, when they travelled over Bohuslaen, the boy observed that the mountain stretches were more continuous, the valleys were more like little ravines blasted in the rock foundation, while the long lakes at their base were as black as if they had come from the underworld. This, too, was a glorious country, and as the boy saw it, with now a strip of sun, now a shadow, he thought that there was something strange and wild about it. He knew not why, but the idea came to him that once upon a time there were many strong and brave heroes in these mystical regions who had passed through many dangerous and daring adventures. The old passion of wanting to share in all sorts of wonderful adventures awoke in him.
"I might possibly miss not being in danger of my life at least once every day or two," he thought. "Anyhow it's best to be content with things as they are."
He did not speak of this idea to the big white gander, because the geese were now flying over Bohuslaen with all the speed they could muster, and the goosey-gander was puffing so hard that he would not have had the strength to reply.
The sun was far down on the horizon, and disappeared every now and then behind a hill; still the geese kept forging ahead.
Finally, in the west, they saw a shining strip of light, which grew broader and broader with every wing stroke. Soon the sea spread before them, milk white with a shimmer of rose red and sky blue, and when they had circled past the coast cliffs they saw the sun again, as it hung over the sea, big and red and ready to plunge into the waves.
As the boy gazed at the broad, endless sea and the red evening sun, which had such a kindly glow that he dared to look straight at it, he felt a sense of peace and calm penetrate his soul.
"It's not worth while to be sad, Nils Holgersson," said the Sun. "This is a beautiful world to live in both for big and little. It is also good to be free and happy, and to have a great dome of open sky above you."
THE GIFT OF THE WILD GEESE
The geese stood sleeping on a little rock islet just beyond Fjaellbacka. When it drew on toward midnight, and the moon hung high in the heavens, old Akka shook the sleepiness out of her eyes. After that she walked around and awakened Yksi and Kaksi, Kolme and Neljae, Viisi and Kuusi, and, last of all, she gave Thumbietot a nudge with her bill that startled him.
"What is it, Mother Akka?" he asked, springing up in alarm.
"Nothing serious," assured the leader-goose. "It's just this: we seven who have been long together want to fly a short distance out to sea to-night, and we wondered if you would care to come with us."
The boy knew that Akka would not have proposed this move had there not been something important on foot, so he promptly seated himself on her back. The flight was straight west. The wild geese first flew over a belt of large and small islands near the coast, then over a broad expanse of open sea, till they reached the large cluster known as the Vaeder Islands. All of them were low and rocky, and in the moonlight one could see that they were rather large.
Akka looked at one of the smallest islands and alighted there. It consisted of a round, gray stone hill, with a wide cleft across it, into which the sea had cast fine, white sea sand and a few shells.
As the boy slid from the goose's back he noticed something quite close to him that looked like a jagged stone. But almost at once he saw that it was a big vulture which had chosen the rock island for a night harbour. Before the boy had time to wonder at the geese recklessly alighting so near a dangerous enemy, the bird flew up to them and the boy recognized Gorgo, the eagle.
Evidently Akka and Gorgo had arranged the meeting, for neither of them was taken by surprise.
"This was good of you, Gorgo," said Akka. "I didn't expect that you would be at the meeting place ahead of us. Have you been here long?"
"I came early in the evening," replied Gorgo. "But I fear that the only praise I deserve is for keeping my appointment with you. I've not been very successful in carrying out the orders you gave me."
"I'm sure, Gorgo, that you have done more than you care to admit," assured Akka. "But before you relate your experiences on the trip, I shall ask Thumbietot to help me find something which is supposed to be buried on this island."
The boy stood gazing admiringly at two beautiful shells, but when Akka spoke his name, he glanced up.
"You must have wondered, Thumbietot, why we turned out of our course to fly here to the West Sea," said Akka.
"To be frank, I did think it strange," answered the boy. "But I knew, of course, that you always have some good reason for whatever you do."
"You have a good opinion of me," returned Akka, "but I almost fear you will lose it now, for it's very probable that we have made this journey in vain.
"Many years ago it happened that two of the other old geese and myself encountered frightful storms during a spring flight and were wind-driven to this island. When we discovered that there was only open sea before us, we feared we should be swept so far out that we should never find our way back to land, so we lay down on the waves between these bare cliffs, where the storm compelled us to remain for several days.
"We suffered terribly from hunger; once we ventured up to the cleft on this island in search of food. We couldn't find a green blade, but we saw a number of securely tied bags half buried in the sand. We hoped to find grain in the bags and pulled and tugged at them till we tore the cloth. However, no grain poured out, but shining gold pieces. For such things we wild geese had no use, so we left them where they were. We haven't thought of the find in all these years; but this autumn something has come up to make us wish for gold.
"We do not know that the treasure is still here, but we have travelled all this way to ask you to look into the matter."
With a shell in either hand the boy jumped down into the cleft and began to scoop up the sand. He found no bags, but when he had made a deep hole he heard the clink of metal and saw that he had come upon a gold piece. Then he dug with his fingers and felt many coins in the sand. So he hurried back to Akka.
"The bags have rotted and fallen apart," he exclaimed, "and the money lies scattered all through the sand."
"That's well!" said Akka. "Now fill in the hole and smooth it over so no one will notice the sand has been disturbed."
The boy did as he was told, but when he came up from the cleft he was astonished to see that the wild geese were lined up, with Akka in the lead, and were marching toward him with great solemnity.
The geese paused in front of him, and all bowed their heads many times, looking so grave that he had to doff his cap and make an obeisance to them.
"The fact is," said Akka, "we old geese have been thinking that if Thumbietot had been in the service of human beings and had done as much for them as he has for us they would not let him go without rewarding him well."
"I haven't helped you; it is you who have taken good care of me," returned the boy.
"We think also," continued Akka, "that when a human being has attended us on a whole journey he shouldn't be allowed to leave us as poor as when he came."
"I know that what I have learned this year with you is worth more to me than gold or lands," said the boy.
"Since these gold coins have been lying unclaimed in the cleft all these years, I think that you ought to have them," declared the wild goose.
"I thought you said something about needing this money yourselves," reminded the boy.
"We do need it, so as to be able to give you such recompense as will make your mother and father think you have been working as a goose boy with worthy people."
The boy turned half round and cast a glance toward the sea, then faced about and looked straight into Akka's bright eyes.
"I think it strange, Mother Akka, that you turn me away from your service like this and pay me off before I have given you notice," he said.
"As long as we wild geese remain in Sweden, I trust that you will stay with us," said Akka. "I only wanted to show you where the treasure was while we could get to it without going too far out of our course."
"All the same it looks as if you wished to be rid of me before I want to go," argued Thumbietot. "After all the good times we have had together, I think you ought to let me go abroad with you."
When the boy said this, Akka and the other wild geese stretched their long necks straight up and stood a moment, with bills half open, drinking in air.
"That is something I haven't thought about," said Akka, when she recovered herself. "Before you decide to come with us, we had better hear what Gorgo has to say. You may as well know that when we left Lapland the agreement between Gorgo and myself was that he should travel to your home down in Skane to try to make better terms for you with the elf."
"That is true," affirmed Gorgo, "but as I have already told you, luck was against me. I soon hunted up Holger Nilsson's croft and after circling up and down over the place a couple of hours, I caught sight of the elf, skulking along between the sheds.
"Immediately I swooped down upon him and flew off with him to a meadow where we could talk together without interruption.
"I told him that I had been sent by Akka from Kebnekaise to ask if he couldn't give Nils Holgersson easier terms.
"'I only wish I could!' he answered, 'for I have heard that he has conducted himself well on the trip; but it is not in my power to do so.'
"Then I was wrathy and said that I would bore out his eyes unless he gave in.
"'You may do as you like,' he retorted, 'but as to Nils Holgersson, it will turn out exactly as I have said. You can tell him from me that he would do well to return soon with his goose, for matters on the farm are in a bad shape. His father has had to forfeit a bond for his brother, whom he trusted. He has bought a horse with borrowed money, and the beast went lame the first time he drove it. Since then it has been of no earthly use to him. Tell Nils Holgersson that his parents have had to sell two of the cows and that they must give up the croft unless they receive help from somewhere."
When the boy heard this he frowned and clenched his fists so hard that the nails dug into his flesh.
"It is cruel of the elf to make the conditions so hard for me that I can not go home and relieve my parents, but he sha'n't turn me into a traitor to a friend! My father and mother are square and upright folk. I know they would rather forfeit my help than have me come back to them with a guilty conscience."
THE JOURNEY TO VEMMINGHOeG
Thursday, November third.
One day in the beginning of November the wild geese flew over Halland Ridge and into Skane. For several weeks they had been resting on the wide plains around Falkoeping. As many other wild goose flocks also stopped there, the grown geese had had a pleasant time visiting with old friends, and there had been all kinds of games and races between the younger birds.
Nils Holgersson had not been happy over the delay in Westergoetland. He had tried to keep a stout heart; but it was hard for him to reconcile himself to his fate.
"If I were only well out of Skane and in some foreign land," he had thought, "I should know for certain that I had nothing to hope for, and would feel easier in my mind."
Finally, one morning, the geese started out and flew toward Halland.
In the beginning the boy took very little interest in that province. He thought there was nothing new to be seen there. But when the wild geese continued the journey farther south, along the narrow coast-lands, the boy leaned over the goose's neck and did not take his glance from the ground.
He saw the hills gradually disappear and the plain spread under him, at the same time he noticed that the coast became less rugged, while the group of islands beyond thinned and finally vanished and the broad, open sea came clear up to firm land. Here there were no more forests: here the plain was supreme. It spread all the way to the horizon. A land that lay so exposed, with field upon field, reminded the boy of Skane. He felt both happy and sad as he looked at it.
"I can't be very far from home," he thought.
Many times during the trip the goslings had asked the old geese:
"How does it look in foreign lands?"
"Wait, wait! You shall soon see," the old geese had answered.
When the wild geese had passed Halland Ridge and gone a distance into Skane, Akka called out:
"Now look down! Look all around! It is like this in foreign lands."
Just then they flew over Soeder Ridge. The whole long range of hills was clad in beech woods, and beautiful, turreted castles peeped out here and there.
Among the trees grazed roe-buck, and on the forest meadow romped the hares. Hunters' horns sounded from the forests; the loud baying of dogs could be heard all the way up to the wild geese. Broad avenues wound through the trees and on these ladies and gentlemen were driving in polished carriages or riding fine horses. At the foot of the ridge lay Ring Lake with the ancient Bosjoe Cloister on a narrow peninsula.
"Does it look like this in foreign lands?" asked the goslings.
"It looks exactly like this wherever there are forest-clad ridges," replied Akka, "only one doesn't see many of them. Wait! You shall see how it looks in general."
Akka led the geese farther south to the great Skane plain. There it spread, with grain fields; with acres and acres of sugar beets, where the beet-pickers were at work; with low whitewashed farm- and outhouses; with numberless little white churches; with ugly, gray sugar refineries and small villages near the railway stations. Little beech-encircled meadow lakes, each of them adorned by its own stately manor, shimmered here and there.
"Now look down! Look carefully!" called the leader-goose. "Thus it is in foreign lands, from the Baltic coast all the way down to the high Alps. Farther than that I have never travelled."
When the goslings had seen the plain, the leader-goose flew down the Oeresund coast. Swampy meadows sloped gradually toward the sea. In some places were high, steep banks, in others drift-sand fields, where the sand lay heaped in banks and hills. Fishing hamlets stood all along the coast, with long rows of low, uniform brick houses, with a lighthouse at the edge of the breakwater, and brown fishing nets hanging in the drying yard.