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To tell the story of a child as you would tell the story of a grown-up would be to commit forgery, for once you are wide awake it costs you a great effort to describe a dream exactly as it occurred.
The tide of events flows remote from the child. Only occasionally do its eddies touch upon the consciousness of the child, and then the latter is unaware of their significance. It is precisely this inability to understand the connection between events which makes the realities of children so dream-like.
In the long dream of childhood there reigns a capricious, mysterious and yet irresistible Fate, beneficent like the fairy with its wand beside the princess’s cradle, or cruel like the wolf in Red Riding Hood. The shadow of that Fate still casts itself over our riper years. It haunts us, ghostlike, even when we have begun consciously to order our lives. Only a few chosen spirits are able to cast off the spell of these fairies and trolls.
This is a tale of people whose childhood was passed in the shadow of the wolf—and who never could escape from their childhood.
First let me tell you about that evening, many years ago, when Peter and Hedvig heard a strange cry coming from the window of their parents’ bedroom. The whole of that day it had been evident that something was in the air. The children were not allowed to go into the bedroom at all, nor even to play on the stairs. After lunch there arrived an old lady with a bag. And then an old man in spectacles drove
up in a small carriage. It was the doctor. Little Laura ran away immediately and hid herself, so that she should not have to show her tongue. But this time the doctor had not come to see her, for he went straight up to Mother, and beds were prepared for the children in the green room downstairs.
Stellan, Laura, and Tord had to go to bed at once, as they were so young. But Peter and Hedvig went out onto the kitchen steps. There old Kristin sat and told stories of former days at Selambshof when “Old Hök” was alive.
The most remarkable thing about Kristin was that she alone survived from the days of the old owner. She was grey, bent, tough, the incarnation of the everlasting ill-humoured peasant soul. Even if she only talked of a pair of grey stockings it still sounded like a fairy tale. And since, moreover, the fatalism of age is closely related to the helplessness of childhood, we can well understand that she had two attentive listeners in Peter and Hedvig. Just now the great and serious event that was about to occur plunged her into a gloomy, solemn mood. And just as her ancestors for hundreds of grey generations before her had huddled together by the hearth on dark stormy nights and had told tales of dangers past, so also she now sat in the autumn twilight on the kitchen stairs at Selambshof and told ghost stories to the maids and the cowherd about the old master. She still looked frightened as she talked of him. It really sounded as if she were talking of some great and notorious criminal.
Hedvig had slipped out as silently as a mouse. Her small face with its dark, hungry eyes was pale. Peter leaned sulkily in an awkward posture against the doorpost. But it is not to be supposed that the presence of the children disturbed Kristin in the very least. She just went on. She was talking now about the old pensioned couple down by the Hökar meadow:—You see the master, Old Hök, had made up his mind to starve out such encumbrances on the
estate. They received only some thin whey and a little dust that the miller swept up from the floor. But it is strange how little an old woman can live on. So the old master had to turn to vermin. He put a sofa that was crawling into old Kerstin’s cottage. But Kerstin thought, “If I must die, I shall at least die on his front step”—so one winter morning she trailed herself up to his house and began to take off her rags before the front door. And you may imagine she was not beautiful, because she had smeared tar over her whole body as a protection against lice. It was so awful that even Old Hök had to hurry to his cupboard and take a drop of something strong.
Here Kristin stopped suddenly and caught hold of Hedvig’s hand as it lay anxiously clenched in her lap. Yes, indeed, it clenched a sticky lump of sugar. The temptation had proven too strong as she stole through the empty kitchen. Kristin’s tone now became still more sinister and solemn: “Well, well, that’s what heredity does,” she mumbled. “Keep your fingers out of the sugar jar, Hedvig, otherwise the sugar knife will fall and cut off your hand. Or maybe the Bogey Man will come and take you.”
Hedvig turned quite white. A spasm passed over her face—but she did not cry. She cowered and went on listening to Kristin, who continued in her sombre manner: “Yes, as I always say, everything goes wrong here at Selambshof, both with human beings and with animals, since the old master drove away the good house spirits. And there are strange things both in the forest and in the lake. Would any of you like to be alone at night time in Enoch’s cave? And don’t bubbles rise even today by the big stone beyond the reeds? The master said that Matts fell in whilst he was trying to catch hold of an oar that he had lost. But I know what I know. They didn’t find Matts. But afterwards Old Hök always dropped his hooks just at that spot and caught lots of eels, and beat the young master because he wouldn’t eat them. Yes, he was like
that. And he has not gone from this place yet. Tell me, Andres, don’t the horses still jib down there by the grey stone at the corner of the avenue? They have done so ever since Old Hök died there. He sat quite straight with his hands on the knob of his stick and frowned, though he was stone dead. They had to bring four men to straighten him out and lay him in his coffin, so obstinate was he even after death. But he left lots of money.”
At this point, old Kristin lowered her voice and became humble in spite of herself. That was of course the people’s admiration for wealth. It was the unconditional surrender of the old peasant woman to the fact of possession. And both Andres and the maid, who had been peacefully dozing during this recital of well-known horrors, now leant forward with listening eyes as Kristin sat there and spun out her story of all the gold in the chest and all the corn in the barns— “Yes, he did look after the farm, did the old master. In those days there was something like a manure heap for a cock to stand on and crow. And nobody dared to steal even a potato then. Do you hear that, Andres? No, those were different days—for now you do nothing but idle about and steal. Well, I suppose everything will lie waste soon. Yes, yes, we have not seen the end yet—we have not seen the end. And there are lots of children to share it too—and more are coming. It is a real pity. Poor Peter, who is the eldest and will inherit it. Poor Peter, that’s what I say! Are you loafing about there with your hands in your pockets again? Take your hands out of your pockets—otherwise you will lose both house and land. You wait and see if I don’t speak the truth. And don’t climb on the rail and wear out your stockings.”
Kristin had come to this point when they heard a scream from the bedroom upstairs. The silence beneath the bare elms was suddenly and harshly torn asunder. Perhaps it sounded to Peter and Hedvig like one of those strange,
petrified screeches which sometimes fill the sleep of grown-ups with horror.
The little group dissolved instantly. The maid ran into the kitchen for the kettles. Anders strolled hesitatingly towards the lake, and Kristin pushed the children into the dining-room and turned the key. Peter and Hedvig were locked in with Old Hök, whose portrait hung there in the twilight over the leather-covered sofa. They were standing in the middle of the room and dared not look at the picture. They were expecting another scream that would make their hair stand on end again. They supposed it must come since they had been driven in here. But they heard no scream—for many long, long minutes all was still. By and by their eyes were irresistibly drawn to Old Hök. There he stood in a long, black coat. And his nose looked like a bird’s beak, and his fingers were clenched round his stick handle and looked like claws. But worst of all were his eyes, for wherever you stood they stared straight down at you, so that you felt that your blood ran cold. It had, of course, been horrid to listen to Kristin, but then, it was not altogether uncanny, for there was mixed with it a curiously pleasant sensation as when you step into a pool and the cold water oozes into your stockings. But this! Oh this was ever so much worse! Their childish fear, awakened out of its semi-sleep, now fluttered wildly round Old Hök—and Kristin’s superstition and her prophecies of woe hovered over them in new and terrifying shapes.
Peter was perhaps not so sensitive to the more remote horrors. His fears fastened on what was nearest to hand. Very small as he was, he stood there staring at the grey and tattered ghost of poverty. His anxiety was centred on a big signet ring that Old Hök was wearing on his finger. He wore it, of course, because he was awfully rich. But where was the ring now? Old Hök’s eyes pursued him with the question: Where is my ring now? Peter knew
nothing of it. His father had not worn it, and it was not in his mother’s jewel box. Supposing Anders had stolen it! Or fat Lotten in the kitchen? Fancy if they should steal everything at Selambshof, so that he, Peter, had to sit without any clothes in the forest and starve and shiver. Fancy if that was why Mamma lay up there and screamed so terribly. Yes, he knew it was Mamma who had screamed.
That was Peter’s fear. But Hedvig’s fear was different, deeper, vaguer. She was afraid of the Bogey Man with whom Kristin used to frighten her. And now he had suddenly assumed Old Hök’s features. Yes the Bogey Man was there in the room, just in front of her. But it never occurred to her to take Peter’s hand. Hedvig was not like that. She was alone from the beginning, alone in her fear and helpless with that complete and profound helplessness that grown-ups only experience in the dangers and horrors of a nightmare.
And now they heard another scream, fainter but just as dreadful. It came from all sides at once—from the stairs, from the door, from the walls themselves. Hedvig suddenly understood, the Bogey Man had come! He was taking somebody as he passed on his way. Because it was, of course, herself, Hedvig, that he really wanted. She shrank and closed her eyes. Then she looked up again, just for a second. He was no longer there above the sofa. He had climbed down—he was coming towards her! He was stretching out his claws!!
Hedvig dug her nails into the edge of the table and screamed, screamed wildly. She could not bear it. Peter also started screaming. He saw himself standing starving and naked in a big dark forest full of wolves. It is not to be wondered at then that they screamed. But that was not all. The younger children, who slept in the adjoining room, awoke in a fright and started to scream too.
So the whole chorus of children’s voices joined with the mother’s groans above.
Kristin suddenly appeared in the door with a candle: “Good gracious—you dreadful children to make such a noise when the mistress is ill!”
She packed Peter and Hedvig into the green room. Oh, what a wonderful, pleasant relief it was to feel Kristin’s bony hands in your back. They undressed with feverish haste, afraid lest she should go before they had had time to pull the bedclothes over their heads.
“Dearest Kristin, please leave the light burning.”—“Nonsense, go to sleep now.”
And the light was gone.
They lay huddled up in terrible darkness like two poor little orphans. Fear kept them long awake and pursued them ever in their dreams, when at last they had fallen asleep. The night of the earth is but a passing shadow, but the night of fear in the heart is evil and long. And for many it seems as if there will be no morning.
The following day the children at Selambshof lost their mother. Both she and the newborn baby died before their father reached home. He had been kept late during a shoot at Kolsnäs.