Over Refinement by August
Sten Ulffot, a youth of twenty years, the last scion of the ancient
family of Ulffot, who possessed property in Wäringe, Hofsta and
Löfsala, awoke one sunny May morning towards the end of the year 1460
in his bedroom at Hofsta in Upland. After some hours of dreamless sleep
his rested brain began to review the events of the previous day, which
had been of such decisive importance for him that, still benumbed by
the blow, be stood as it were outside the whole affair and regarded
it with wonder. The bailiff and sheriff's officer had been there,
had shown mortgage-deeds of the house and estate, had read various
parchment documents, and the upshot of it all was that Sten, because
of his father's and his own debts, was reduced to abject poverty. And
since his father in his lifetime had not been a merciful man, the young
man must leave the old house, which was no longer his, the very next
Sten, who had never taken life seriously, for the simple reason that
life had always been an easy matter for him, took this also very
easily. Poverty for him was simply an uttered word which as yet lacked
any corresponding reality. With a light heart he sprang out of bed,
and put on his only but handsome velvet jacket and his only pair of
breeches of Brabant cloth. He counted his few gold coins, and hid
them carefully in his bosom, for he had now caught some idea of their
importance. Then he went into the castle-room, which was quite empty.
The only impression this spacious room made on him was that he could
breathe more easily in it. Upon a table fastened to the wall were to be
seen damp rings—the traces left by the tankards of beer which the two
functionaries had used the day before; it occurred to him that there
would have been more rings if he had been with them himself—it looked
The sun threw the reflections of the painted windows on the floor, so
that they resembled beautiful mosaic work. His coat of arms, the wolf's
foot on a red ground, was repeated six times; he amused himself by
treading on the black foot, expecting to hear the wolf howl, but every
time he did so the reflection of the wolf's foot merely lay on his
yellow leather boots. When he took a step forward the reflection of
the foot flew up to his breast and on his white jacket the red shield
lay like a bleeding heart torn by the black paw with its outspread
claws. He felt his heart beat violently and left the room.
He climbed the narrow stone stairs to the upper story, which his
parents had occupied in their lifetime. There every possible movable
which makes a house into a home for living beings had been swept off
and carried away. The rooms looked like a series of burial chambers,
hewn out of one rock, intended for souls without bodies and without
corporeal needs. But signs of the life which had been there were still
remaining. Two grey spots on the floor showed where a bed had stood;
there were two dark lines where the table had been', and between them
were marks and scratches left by boots; a dark, irregular stain on the
white-washed wall showed where his father had been accustomed to rest
his head when he raised it from his work which lay on the table. Some
coals from the fire-place had fallen into the room and left dark spots
on the floor like those on a panther-skin.
In his mother's room was a stone image of the Virgin and Child fixed
to the wall; she regarded her Son with a look full of hope and without
any foreboding that she held a future condemned prisoner upon her
knees. Young Sten felt a vague depression and went on. Through a
secret door he mounted up into the attic and went out upon the roof.
Underneath him he saw the whole wide-stretching expanse of land which
till lately he had called his own: these green fields which once formed
the bottom of the sea, surrounded by small green hills once islands,
but lately wore their verdure on his account—to support the poor who
clothed him, brushed him, prepared his food, and tended his horses, his
hounds, his falcons and his cattle. In the previous autumn he had stood
here and watched them sow his corn; now others would come and cut and
gather it in. A little while ago it was his to decide when the fishes
in the streams should die, when the firs in the wood should be felled,
and when the game should be shot. Even the birds in this huge space of
air belonged to him, although they had flown hither from the realm of
the Emperor of Austria.
He could not yet grasp the fact that he possessed nothing more of all
this, for he had never missed anything and therefore did not know what
possession was; he only felt a huge emptiness and thought that the
landscape had a melancholy look. The swallows which had come that very
day flew screaming about him and sought their old nests in the eaves;
some found them, and others did not—the rains of autumn and snows
of winter had destroyed their little clay dwellings so that they had
fallen into the castle-moat.
But there was clay in the fields, water in the brooks and straw on
every hillock; as long as they were homeless they could find shelter in
every grove and under the thatch of every cottage. They hunted without
hindrance in their airy hunting grounds; they paired and wedded in the
blue spring weather which was full of the sweet scents of the newly
sprung birches, the honey-perfumed catkins of the osiers, and all the
invisible burgeonings of the spring. He went farther up on the roof
and stood by the pole that supported the dog-vane. As he looked up to
the white clouds of spring sailing by, it seemed to him as though he
stood on the aerial ship of a fairy-tale and were sailing among the
clouds, and when he looked down on the earth again it appeared like a
collection of mole-hills, a mere rubbish-heap cast out of heaven. But
he had a foreboding that he must go down and dig in the mole-hills in
order to find a living; he felt that his feet stood firm upon the
earth, although his glances wandered at will among the silver-gleaming
As he descended the narrow attic stairs it seemed to him as though an
enormous gimlet were screwing him deeper and deeper into the earth.
He entered the garden and looked at the apple trees in blossom. Who
would pluck the fruits of these trees which he had cultivated and
tended for years? He looked at the empty stable; all his horses were
gone except a sorry nag, which he had never thought worth riding. He
went into the dog-house and saw only ten empty leash-straps. Then
his heart grew heavy, for he felt that he had been parted from the
only living creatures who loved him. All others—friends, servants,
farm-hands, tenants—had, as his poverty increased, gradually changed
their demeanour, but these ten had always remained the same. He was
astonished that he did not feel the blank so bitterly up there in the
ancestral castle with its memories, for he forgot that that sense of
loss had long been obliterated by his tears.
He went into the courtyard of the castle. There a sight met his eyes
which made him realise his true situation. On a four-wheeled wagon,
to which three pairs of oxen were yoked, lay a heap of furniture
and household utensils; beneath all lay the great oak bedstead
splendidly carved, mighty clothes and linen chests constructed like
fortresses against thieves, his father's work-table, the family
dining-table, the chairs from the sitting-room with fragments of
torn-down, gaudy-coloured curtains, his mother's embroidery-frame,
his grandfather's chair with the cushioned arms and the high back,
and on the top of all his own cradle and the praying stool at which
his mother had so often prayed for her little one. Beside them were
bundles of lances, swords, and shields with which his forefathers had
once acquired and defended these goods which he must now leave behind
in order to go out into the world and earn his bread in the sweat of
his brow. All these dead things which, when in their places, had formed
parts of his own self lay there like corpses and up-torn trees showing
their roots; it was an enormous funeral pile of memories, which he
would have liked to set fire to.
Just then the gates grated on their hinges, the drawbridge was lowered,
the driver cracked his whip over the first pair of oxen, the ropes and
shafts of the cart creaked, and the heavily laden vehicle rattled away
on the stone-paved courtyard. As it rolled over the planks of the
wooden, bridge, there was a rumbling like the echo from a grave-vault.
"The last load?" called the driver to the gate-keeper.
"The last," came the answer from the vaulted gateway.
The word "last" made a deep impression on Sten, who felt himself to be
the last of his race, but he could not indulge in further reflections,
for a man whom he did not know stepped towards him holding the nag.
"The castle is to be shut up," he said.
"Why shut up?" asked Sten, merely to hear his own voice again.
"Because it is to be pulled down. The King does not wish to have so
many castles in the land."
Sten laid hold of the reins and mounted the nag; he pressed it with
his knees, and holding his head high, rode through the arched gateway.
There he took out his purse and threw a piece of gold behind him, which
the gate-keeper and the stable-man raced for.
When he had ridden over the drawbridge, he reined in his horse till
the cart with its load had disappeared from sight. Then he turned up a
narrow path and vanished among the birch trees.
"I wonder what he will do?" said the gate-keeper.
"Enlist," answered the stable-man.
"No, he is no good at that; he has learnt nothing but reading and
"Then he will become one of the King's secretaries."
"Not this King's; his father was in disfavour for refusing to bear
arms against his fellow-countrymen."
"Then let him become what the devil he likes."
"One cannot become what one likes, one must become what one can; and if
one can do nothing, one becomes nothing."
"Just so it is! Just so! But I don't know what one has to learn in
order to become a gate-keeper."
"Well, one must be strong enough for it, and keep awake at night; and
that the young gentleman cannot do."
"Yes, he can keep awake at night, for we have seen him do it; but
perhaps he is not strong enough to draw the heavy chain."
"Well, stable-man, he must look after himself. Meanwhile I will draw up
the bridge, and then we can go the backway to the tavern, and change
our piece of gold, and he can do what he likes!"
"What he can, gate-keeper; one cannot do what one likes."
"Quite true! Quite true!"
The chain rattled, the bridge was drawn up, and the gate fell to with a
Sten meantime had ridden for several hours without exactly knowing
whither. He only knew that the way led him out into the world, far
from the protection of home. He saw by the sun's position that it was
nearly afternoon, and by the nag's drooping head that it was tired; he
therefore dismounted, tied the reins loosely round one of the horse's
forelegs and led him up from the path to a fine upland meadow where he
left him loose to graze. Then he lay down under a wild apple tree to
rest, but since he felt that the ground was damp, he broke down some
young birches and made a bed out of their soft leaves; he also tore
off some long strips of bark and placed them under his head, knees and
elbows; then he went to sleep. But when he awoke he felt terrible pangs
of hunger, for he had eaten nothing during the last twenty-four hours;
he felt his tongue cleaving to his palate and a burning and tickling
feeling in his throat. The horse had disappeared. He did not know
where he was, could not see a human habitation, and had small hope of
finding an inn before nightfall. Then he fell on his knees and prayed
his patron-saint to help him. As he mentioned the name "St Blasius" it
occurred to him how the saint under similar circumstances had sustained
himself on roots and berries in the desert. Strengthened by prayer, he
looked round to see what there was to eat and drink. His eye first fell
on a birch. It was just the time of year when the sap flows. With his
knife he split off a piece of bark and fastened the corners together
with wood splinters so that it formed a water-tight basket; then he
bored a hole in the tree and from the hard wood trickled out the clear
sap resembling Rhine wine in colour. While it was trickling, he climbed
into the apple tree, where he had seen a large number of apples, which
had hung there all the winter and were certainly rotten but could at
any rate fill his stomach. When he had eaten some of them he began to
shake the tree, so that the apples fell on the ground. He was just on
the point of rejoicing at his discovery and looking forward to drink
the good birch wine when he heard a harsh voice calling from below;
"Hullo, Sir thief! what are you doing there?"
"I am no thief," answered Sten.
"He who steals is a thief," answered the voice. "Come down at once, or
you will spend the night in gaol."
Sten thought it belter to descend and try to explain himself. He found
himself before a man of authoritative appearance, who was accompanied
by a large dog.
"In the first place," said the man, "you have committed an outrage on
a fruit-bearing tree; punishment—three marks and forfeiture of the
axe—chapter seventeen of the forest laws."
"I thought one had a right to plunder wild trees," said Sten in a
shamefaced way, for he had never been addressed in this manner.
"There are no wild trees now, though it was certainly so in Adam and
Eve's time. Besides, I was purposely keeping the apples to flavour
cabbages with. Secondly, you have cut and extracted the sap from my
"Yes, I intended to make a carriage-pole of the birch tree. Then you
have peeled off birch bark in a wood that did not belong to you; fine
—three shillings, according to the same chapter in King Christopher's
"I thought I was in God's free world and had a right to support my
life," answered Sten mildly.
"God's free world? Where is that? I only know tax-free land, land that
is assessed, and crown lands. Thirdly, probably—I have no testimony
to that effect, but probably it is your horse which is feeding in my
"It is my horse, and I suppose it could not die of hunger while the
grass was growing round it."
"No one need die of hunger. Any animal can graze by the way-side,
everyone can pluck a handful of nuts, and every traveller can cut an
axle for his wheel when necessary. You are therefore convicted of
fourfold robbery, and I keep the horse."
"And leave me alone in the wood, where perhaps I cannot even kindle a
fire for the night."
"Whoever cuts dry wood on other people's land is liable to a fine of
three shillings each time. If it were not so, one could never be sure
of possessing anything."
"It never was so on my property. There we knew nothing of such laws and
paragraphs, and my manorial rights were never so niggardly as yours."
Here a great alteration took place in the bearing of the man of
authority. He took the horse by the rein, led it to Sten, held the
stirrup for him, bent one of his knees, and said:
"Sir, pardon me, I see you have ridden out for recreation and jest with
an old law-student. A few mouldy apples, I hope, will not make any
trouble between us."
Sten, who was a lover of sincerity, hesitated a moment before putting
his foot into the proffered stirrup, but as he was glad to be safely
out of the difficulty, he swung himself up on his saddle.
"Listen," he said in an authoritative tone, "where is the nearest inn?"
"Half a mile southwards, if your lordship is going to Stockholm."
"Good! Now I thank you for the amusement, and put a small question to
you. Tell me: if one steals out of necessity, then it is theft; and if
one steals to amuse oneself, what is that?"
"Good. But how is the judge to know whether it is a joke or earnest?"
"Oh, he can tell!"
Sten pressed his nag's sides with his legs, bent forward, and said:
"No, friend, he cannot."
The nag shot away like an arrow from the astonished law-student and his
The prospect of soon obtaining a meal, and the fortunate conclusion
of his adventure, had set Sten in a mood which banished gloomy
reflections. After a half-hour's trot he rode through the gate of the
inn, and was received like a gentleman of high rank. He sat down at a
table under a great hawthorn tree outside the house, and ordered a fowl
with sage stuffing and a jug of Travener beer. These the host promised
to get even if he had to run round the whole village for them.
The May evening was fine, and Sten ate and drank at his ease, though
he could not completely banish the alarm which the threatening attack
of hunger had just caused him. He could not get the scene with the
law-student out of his thoughts, and he felt that soon, when his fine
velvet jacket no more protected him, he would come under the hard laws
of necessity like any other ordinary man. He perceived that he must
certainly become a working member of human society, and join one of its
numerous classes if he wished to continue to live. The earth, with all
the products that she bore, was already fully occupied, so that one
of the lords of creation might lie on the ground and die of hunger
under a fruit-bearing tree if he did not wish to be hung, while the
birds of the air might eat their fill with impunity off the same tree.
He wondered that men let squirrels and jays plunder hazel bushes, and
preserve their freedom, while only in case of absolute need was a man
allowed to save his life with a handful of nuts. It seemed to him a
cruel contradiction; he might save his life, but not support it, and
every meal was as it were a recurrent saving of life. But on the other
hand his forefathers had founded these laws and he had himself employed
them. Who then was the proper object of his reproach? Was not the fault
partly his own, and were not the consequences quite natural?
While he was thus meditating, his eyes were fixed upon a figure which
was approaching the garden of the inn from the highway. As it came
nearer, Sten saw a man of about thirty with a dark complexion, long
arms, and knees and feet curving inwards as though he were afflicted
with spavin. Over his shoulder he carried a sack, and in his hand
a knotted stick. With a jerk he flung the sack on the table close
to Sten, sat down and struck on the table with the stick so sharply
that it sounded like a pistol-shot. At the same time he called into
the house, "Come out, Mr Innkeeper, and give a worthy member of the
worshipful company of blacksmiths in Stockholm a jug of beer."
The innkeeper, who thought that some important person had come,
hastened out, but when he saw the fellow he turned round and said to
Sten in a disdainful tone: "These fellows never have money. I will give
him nothing." "By St Michael, the archangel and St Loyus, innkeeper, if
you don't give me beer I will set my mark upon you," broke in the man,
and lifted his stick.
"If you threaten, you will be hung for compelling hospitality," said
the innkeeper; "you did not pay the last time you were here, so pick
up your sack and take yourself off, for the clerk of assize is sitting
"I will pay for his beer, innkeeper," interrupted Sten, who felt a
certain sympathy with the unmasked braggart.
"The gentleman is kind and understands a traveller's needs. As regards
payment, I think it is all the same who pays. To-day it is my turn,
to-morrow yours. In good company I never say 'no.' And a member of
the worshipful company of blacksmiths at Stockholm can be as good a
gentleman as any other, or any traveller, with your permission."
"You are right, sir; all things considered, we are all travellers, and
when we travel we are all alike."
The blacksmith, who had received his jug of beer, lifted it, took his
cap off, and said in a solemn voice, "Saint Michael and Saint Loyus!"
Then he threw back his head and took some tremendously deep draughts
of the beer, so that the muscles of his neck moved like the backs of
snakes. Then he collected his breath, raised the jug once more and
said, "Pledge me a toast, sir, with your permission." Then he drank for
some minutes so that his neck sinews were strained like harness-straps.
When he had finished, he emptied out the last drops, struck the table
with his stick, and called into the house, "Two full jugs! Now I am the
"And the young gentleman pays?" asked the host.
Sten nodded assent, and the blacksmith continued, "It is all the same
who pays. 'Commune bonum,' as we say in the shop. To-day it is my
turn, to-morrow yours."
"Sit down, sir, and let us talk," said Sten. "You are a blacksmith, I
"Banner-bearer to the worshipful company of blacksmiths in Stockholm,
thanks to St Michael and St Loyus, with your permission!"
"Tell me, is your trade hard?"
"Hard! Well, it is not for anyone. It is the hardest work there is.
It is a trade which the world cannot dispense with. No one can get on
without a blacksmith. Believe me when I say it. The Emperor of Rome
had a councillor whose name was Vulcant and it was he who invented the
blacksmith's art. And you ask if it is difficult!"
"Yes, but one could learn it," said Sten, who felt more amused than
"Learn it? No, sir, one cannot."
"But you have learnt it," insisted Sten.
"I! With me it is another matter," answered the blacksmith,
contemplating the bottom of his mug.
"Well, why cannot it be another matter with me also?" objected Sten.
"Show me your fists, if you please, sir."
Sten laid two small white hands on the table.
The smith grinned. "They are no use. Look at mine." He took the pewter
pot in a giant's grasp and squeezed it till it became as slender as an
Sten was still not convinced. "But you were not born with such fists,"
"Yes, sir, I was. I was born to be a blacksmith, just as you were
born—to do nothing, if you will allow me to say so. What do you expect
to do in the world with such mere pegs? You had better not depend on
them or you will be disappointed."
"And yet I am thinking of becoming a blacksmith," said Sten innocently.
"You must not make a jest of that worshipful fraternity, sir. Besides,
I should like to say that the times are different to what they were
formerly; a blacksmith may become mayor or councillor, and Sir Vulcan,
whom I mentioned just now, was one of the Emperor of Austria's
councillors. One should not be proud, even if one is of high birth.
King Karl Knutsson was King one day and the next day he was nothing. If
he had learnt something, he would have been something."
"That is just what I wanted to say, dear smith. And I may as well say
that I am not a gentleman though I have a velvet jacket."
"Is it a disguise? Aren't you a real gentleman?"
"I have been one, but now I am nothing."
The blacksmith drew up the corners of his mouth, came nearer, surveyed
Sten and continued: "Come down in the world? What! Downhill? Eh! Hard
times! When thieves fall out, honest folk come by their own. Yes, yes.
No relations. No fine friends. Alone in the world. Obliged to work. And
now you want to become a blacksmith, when you can't be anything else."
"If I can become one."
"No, you can become nothing. That is less than you are, Claus. (My
name is Claus.) Now you can be proud, Claus. But I am not proud, and
therefore I invite you again to the jug of beer to which I invited you
just now. Was the fowl there good; it looks to me lean." Claus made a
movement as though he were chewing something tough.
Sten answered: "The fowl was fat enough; will you have some?"
"If I can be quite sure that it is good; otherwise I don't care about
it, for if I spend money I want to have something really good for it."
Sten ordered a fowl and fresh jugs of beer, and recommenced the
conversation. "I hope you will recommend me to your guild or company."
"I will see what I can do, but one has to proceed warily with those
gentlemen. Congratulate yourself that you have made acquaintance with
the banner-bearer of the guild, for he is a powerful gentleman,
although he goes round with a sack when he is on his journeys."
Sten, who was not accustomed to so much beer, at any rate of the sort
which was served here, began to feel sleepy and rose up in order to go
to his bedroom. But Claus could by no means He induced to agree to this.
"No, stay sitting, my dear," he said, "and drink a glass of wine with
me. It is such a fine evening and you have not far to go to tied. If
you get sleepy, I will carry you up the stairs."
But Sten could not possibly drink any more. Claus was annoyed and asked
if he refused to drink with the guild's banner-bearer. Sten asked to
be excused, but Claus would not consent. He said that Sten was proud,
and should take care, for pride was always punished. Sten was so sleepy
that he could hardly understand what was said, and clambered up the
stairs to the attic where in the darkness he sought for a cushion, on
which he fell asleep at once.
He had, as he thought, slept for quite twenty-four hours when he felt a
burning sensation as though sparks of fire had fallen on his face. He
sat up and found that the whole room was full of the hateful humming
of a swarm of gnats which had gained admission. When he had somewhat
shaken off his sleep, he could distinguish men's voices, and loudest
among them the deep voice of his friend Claus.
"Oh, he is a devilish fine fellow. His father and I are very old
friends. He has been a little spoilt by wearing fine clothes and so
on, but we will soon drive it out of him. Innkeeper, more claret! Yes,
you see his father was in my debt, and I waited. Take what you like,
Sten sprang up and saw through a chink in the wall how Claus sat at the
end of the table and carried on a conversation with the innkeeper and a
stranger, who was probably the parish-clerk. The table was covered with
jugs and pots, and the party did not seem to have suffered from thirst.
The parish-clerk, who thought that the smith had talked long enough,
now led the conversation. "Listen, Claus; you say that he is nothing,
that he has no occupation and no money. Do you know what one calls such
"Well, one calls him a tramp. And do you know what the law says about
"It says that whoever chooses may take such a tramp by the collar
and put him in gaol. And that is right, thoroughly right. God, you
see, from the beginning, has created men to work, do service, and make
"Or to be rich," interrupted the innkeeper.
"Hush! Don't interrupt me—to make themselves useful in one way or
another. Suppose," continued he, "that there are men who will not work;
suppose that there are people who prefer to live at the expense of
Claus gave him a sharp look and seized his stick. But after taking a
drink, the parish-clerk continued: "Then I ask—what is one to do with
such people? Can anyone answer me?"
The innkeeper was about to answer, but the parish-clerk motioned him
away with his left hand.
"Can anyone answer this? No, I say, for we know in part and prophesy
in part. Cur tuus benevolentium." He finished his mug and got up in
order not to spoil the effect of his speech by a bad translation of the
Sten lay down again and put his head under his pillow. It seemed to him
that he had slept another four-and-twenty hours when he was aroused
by a foot pushing his bed very emphatically. He sat up and saw by the
light of the dawn, which fell through a crevice in the wall, that
his friend Claus, who apparently did not venture to stoop, stood on
one foot, and laying hold of a beam was feeling in the bed with his
foot for his sleeping friend. He accompanied this search with short
exclamations—"You! you!" When he caught sight of Sten's face in the
dim light he drew his foot back and said: "Do you know what you are,
you? Do you know that you are a tramp? Do you know that you will be put
into gaol if you do not eat someone else's bread, seeing you have none
of your own. I tell you the sheriff is after you, and if you are not
off by sunrise you will be imprisoned. Do you understand?"
Sten understood that there was a very good chance of it, as he had
already overheard their talk; but he did not understand that one could
not go one's own way to seek work, and Claus exerted himself in vain
in order to explain to him that one must have work or be the possessor
of such and such a sum. Sten, who feared imprisonment most of all, let
himself be easily persuaded to take his horse out of the stable and
to hand over some of his gold coins to Claus, who promised to settle
with the innkeeper. The latter was quite willing, for he himself was
liable to no less a punishment for having given lodging to a tramp.
Sten shook the good blacksmith's hand, and promised to look him up in
Now he rode again on his horse, shaken out of his sleep, chased out of
a casual lodging, flying from the danger of imprisonment, and firmly
resolved to seek no other shelter till he reached the capital.
Two days later, on a Saturday afternoon, Sten reined in his horse on
the top of the Brunkebergsasen ridge, on the side where it descends
towards the Norrstrom River. Beneath him he saw for the first time
the capital, the battle-field whereon struggles for power were waged.
On these little rocky islands between the two water-courses, closely
encircled by towers and walls, lived the population among whom he
wished to enrol himself. The battle between King Karl Knutsson and
Archbishop Jöns Bengtsson was at its height, but to Sten it was
a matter of indifference who won, for his father had fallen into
disfavour with the King, and his family had an old feud with the
Archbishop. As the evening sun cast its horizontal rays on the flag
which waved from the chief tower of the castle, he saw the arms of the
Bondes—the boat against a white background—and knew how the land lay.
Although peace seemed to have been concluded for the time, the
difficulty of entering the city gate was not less than before. He
would in any case be obliged to give his name and to be registered,
and perhaps have to say why he came and where he came from. In his
tired mood he fancied he saw a thousand difficulties rise and the walls
growing in height till they appeared insurmountable. He felt like a
besieger who was thinking of a stratagem by means of which to enter the
city. It was there he hoped to find the only place where he could earn
his bread by means of the book-learning which he had acquired.
As he was sitting on the hill, lost in these serious meditations, he
heard from the foot of it a sound of merry voices mingled with the
music of trumpets and flutes. At the angle of the walls before the
Klara Convent issued forth a gay stream of folk, disappearing and
reappearing from behind the kitchen-gardens on the slope of the Bill.
The procession drew nearer. At its head rode a youth, with a garland
on his brow and a long spear-shaft wreathed with green in his hand. He
was followed by pipers and trumpeters with gooseberry leaves in their
caps; after him came a whole crowd of people with black cloth masks and
red wooden masks, dressed in the most fantastic garb after Greek and
Roman patterns; last of all, riding backwards on a sorry jade, a youth
dressed in fur, with loosely streaming hair and beard, to represent
winter. It was the procession of the "May-lord," greeting the advent of
spring in the Klara district.
Sten seized the opportunity by the forelock, rode down the hill, and
joined the procession. He passed through the gateway without being
interfered with, although he thought he saw a pair of sharp eyes
fastened on him under the archway itself. Meanwhile he could not help
thinking how the guard's over-hasty inference "Cheerful people are not
dangerous"—had been of use to him, who felt anything but cheerful. He
felt easier in mind when he had passed through the gates of both the
The procession halted in the great market-place, where it broke up
in order to reassemble in the restaurant of the town hall. This had
received special permission to remain open all night, since the
postponed May festival was being celebrated now because of the late
spring and the King's victory.
Sten took up his quarters at an inn in the Dominicans' street, which
bore an image of St Laurence painted on its signboard. When his horse
had been placed in the stable he was shown up to the sleeping chamber.
There he found a great number of beds without any chairs, and as the
evening seemed too beautiful to remain indoors, he went out into the
city in order to take a bath.
When he came out into the street again, he became somewhat depressed
at seeing the narrow passages, called "streets," in which pale-faced
people walked, breathing unwholesome air and treading in the dirt and
kitchen offal thrown out of the doorways. The crowd kept streaming to
and fro, and he wondered that they never came to an end nor seemed
weary. The street itself, which was paved with rough cobbles, was
difficult to walk on, and he did not understand why men should have
gathered together these instruments of torture to make the way more
stony than it naturally was. Of the sky there was only a grey strip to
be seen between the rows of houses, and the high corbel-step gables
rose like Jacob's-ladders, on which souls sought in vain to rise to the
heights from their dark, evil-smelling dungeons.
He felt confused and astray. At one moment he was jostled by a porter,
at another trod on by a horse; then he knocked his head against a
window-board. All these people had crowded together on a little island
and built on each other like bees in a honeycomb. Why? For mutual aid?
He did not believe it.
After inquiring his way to the public baths in the Allmännings Gata,
he felt a keen desire to free himself by a bath from the sensation of
uncleanness which even the air he breathed oppressed him with. In the
undressing-room which was shared by all, he found a great number of
people of all classes, for it was Saturday evening. In the uncertain
light he could not see them distinctly, but the pungent odour of
perspiration exhaling from their bodies after severe physical labour,
made him shudder. He undressed, put on bathing-drawers, and entered the
In the midst of it stood an enormous walled fire-place in which a great
fire was burning; round it, up to the roof, ran wooden galleries where
men sat—some beating each other with rods, others drinking beer.
Great stalwart women with tucked-up skirts poured jugs of water on the
fire-place, which at once sent out clouds of steam. These the bathers
allowed to envelop them, amid loud shrieks and laughter. One caught
glimpses of naked bodies, matted beards and shining eyes. And what
bodies! They seemed to Sten like a number of wild beasts with hairy
breasts and limbs who did not need clothing, and those who, while
they waited for their bath, danced before the fire reminded him of
fairy-tales of distant lands where men walked with their heads under
their arms and with one eye in their foreheads. He could not make up
his mind to address any of them, though they were human beings like
himself, but with a difference. They did not talk like him; they did
not laugh like him; they were not shaped like him. The bones of their
backs looked like the letter X, and their feet were turned inwards
so that the toes met; nightwork and heat had rendered their faces
emaciated. Was it through willing sacrifice for their fellow-men that
they made themselves cripples, or were they compelled by necessity to
do so? These smiths with shoulder-blades like knapsacks, with arms as
long as the helve of a sledge-hammer, with the soles of their feet
flattened and distorted; these tailors with thin chests, crooked legs
as slender as sticks, and bent backs—were they conscious that their
deformity set off the handsome appearance of others?
For a moment his aesthetic Sense was offended and he wished to go,
but he was restrained by the thought that he must also soon perhaps
undergo some similar deformity in order to perform his duty in this
society into which he was now forced to enter as a retribution for his
ancestors' mistake in withdrawing him from the lot which all were born
to share. But the peasants, fishermen, and huntsmen he had formerly
known, did not look like these! The former were like the trees of
the wood, straight though knotted. Here in the working life of the
town some mistake had been made, but he could not say what. He shyly
approached one of the giantesses and asked if he could have a water
The old woman looked at his white skin and his small hands and pushed
him into a smaller room, where some empty bath-tubs stood on the ground.
"He is certainly a fine gentleman's son," she said, regarding him
critically. "He has evidently come to the wrong place, but that does
not matter." She laid the youth in the bath as though he were a child,
and began to rub his skin with a horsehair brush.
"No! that will make holes in his skin, one can see. Yes, men are so
different from each other. A foot like a girl's; one can see how the
blood runs in the veins. I am sure that these fine folk have not the
same blood as we. And such hands! Pure as those of St John which they
have made of wax in Our Lady's chapel. They are not made to lay hold of
When the bath was ended, the old woman set Sten on a stool and dried
him carefully, as though she were afraid of breaking one of his limbs.
Then she took a comb and began to do his fair hair, talking to herself
the while. "Pure silk and gold! One might weave a mass-robe for the
Bishop from this hair!"
Then a gnat flew in through the window-opening and settled on Sten's
bare shoulder; it had not long to look in order to find a place into
which to sink its sting, for his skin was milk-white and soft after the
The old woman stopped in her task, and observed almost with alarm how
the uninvited parasite bled the fine gentleman; she saw how the gnat's
transparent body filled itself with clear red blood, and how it lifted
its front leg as if to seize its prey firmly. Then the giantess seized
with the tips of her nails the little blood-letter by its wings and
held it against the light.
"What is that?" asked Sten, and made a movement.
The old woman was too deep in her contemplation to answer at once. At
last she said, "Ob, it was a gnat!"
"Which has got noble blood in its vein," broke in Sten. "Now do you
think, old woman, that it is better than the other gnats?"
"That one cannot exactly know," said the giantess, still examining her
captive. "Blood is thicker than water. I have seen many gnats in my
time, but this one is something unusual. I should like to let it live."
"And to see how it would give itself airs over the other gnats. You
would like to see it propagate young lord and lady gnats who would sit
on silk and let themselves be fed by others. No, you shall see that it
is just as plebeian as all the others, and that it has the same blood
as you and can die as easily as its companion gnats outside."
He struck the old woman's finger with his hand, and there appeared only
a bright red spot of blood upon it.
"Now was it not as I said?" she exclaimed. "It is as bright as red
"That is because it is thinner," said Sten, "therefore it will soon
be like pure water; and therefore you see the nobles will die and the
serfs will live."
The conversation was over and Sten rose up, thanked his attendant, and
went into the great bathroom where the noise was deafening owing to
the beer and the heat combined. He hastened by the bathers into the
undressing-room, where he found his clothes with difficulty under piles
of leather trousers, smocks, and vests.
When he came out into the street he directed his steps through the
Merchants' Gate to the Great Market. There he saw the town hall lit up;
the great door which led to the underground restaurant was decorated
with fir branches, weapons and flags. He descended the broad staircase,
attracted by the music of violins, flutes, and trumpets. Although he
did not think it reasonable that men should collect to enjoy themselves
underground, when the earth itself was so spacious and beautiful, yet
he felt bound to confess that the restaurant of the town hall presented
an imposing appearance with its huge pillars which this evening were
decked with garlands of fir twigs and bunches of liver-wort, anemones
and cowslips. Enormous beer and wine barrels, arranged in rows, formed
three great alleys running from the tap-room, which was adorned by a
huge figure of Bacchus riding on a cask. In tubs filled with sand stood
young firs and junipers, and the ground was strewn with cut fir twigs.
The musicians sat on a gigantic barrel, and from the vaulted roof
hung barrel-hoops with oil-lamps and wax-lights. An enormous number
of people, half in disguise, half in their holiday clothes, stood in
groups round the tables or walked down the tub-lined alleys. The joy
seemed universal and genuine, for it had a natural cause—the arrival
of spring, and a less natural one—the return of the King for the third
Sten wandered lonely among the festive groups, without the hope of
meeting a friend. He felt thirsty after his bath but was ashamed to ask
for anything, for he did want to drink alone. But as he walked he grew
suddenly conscious that someone was looking at him. He turned round
and saw a little yellow, dried-up, narrow-chested man who for want of
a table had sat down by an upturned barrel and taken a smaller one for
a seat. He had before him a stone jug filled with Rhenish wine and two
small green wine-glasses. He was alone and only drank out of one glass.
"Will the young gentleman sit down?" he asked in a weak, sibilant
voice, beginning at once to cough. "I see the young gentleman is alone,
and so am I."
Sten looked interrogatively at the empty glass, but the coughing man
answered his question by bringing an unoccupied barrel which he offered
him to sit on.
"I have a terrible cough," said the yellow man, "but don't let that
disturb you. The spring-time is always trying for those with weak
chests. It is now spring again," he added in the melancholy voice with
which one might say "It is now autumn again."
Sten felt obliged to say something. "You should drink sweet wine
instead of sour."
"My chest complaint is not of that kind," he answered, and began to
cough again by way of demonstrating the fact. "I am a clerk in the
cloth factory of the town, and there one gets this kind of cough. The
dust of the wool affects the lungs and the workers do not live beyond
thirty-six. I am now thirty-five," he added with caustic humour, and
emptied his glass.
"Why don't you choose another occupation?" asked Sten in a friendly
and child-like way.
"Choose? One doesn't choose, young sir. Society in the city is a
building in which each man is a stone fitted into its place; if he
moves, he disturbs the whole edifice. But society has committed an
oversight by not forbidding men in my position to marry. For if the
fathers cannot marry till they are thirty and die at thirty-six, the
children must go under." He pointed to the ground and continued: "You
see, it is a human instinct to climb up; by 'up' one means freedom
from work. That is what we climb and struggle for. There are two
methods of getting up—an honourable and a dishonourable. The latter is
the easier but may end with a crash. I have always been honest."
The drummer standing on the great barrel beat a roll-call on his drum,
which signified that someone was about to make a speech.
A heavily built man now mounted a decorated cask. He wore a tunic edged
with fur, with a red cloth lining and a round fur cap—a garb which was
more adapted for outward appearance than for warmth. It was the mayor.
"Now the King's health will be proposed," explained the factory clerk.
"This is the third time that he proposes it, and three times already
he has cursed the King and drunk to the health of the Archbishop and
the Danish King. A true citizen, you see, drinks to whichever power
is in the ascendant, for that power always protects trade, and a city
consists of tradesmen; the others do not count."
Sten caught isolated words of the mayor's speech while the clerk
continued to whisper in his ear:
"A middleman sits in a comfortable room. He has a letter written to
the seller and asks the price. Then he has a letter written to the
buyer and asks what he will give. And so the bargain is concluded
through him. If the buyer and seller could meet and do their business
directly, no middlemen would be necessary, but that they cannot,
for then there would be no so-called privileges. And privileges are
bestowed by the ruling power."
Outbursts of applause interrupted both the speech of the mayor and the
whisperings of the clerk. When the speech was ended all raised their
glasses and cried "Long live the King!"—all except the clerk, who
stood up and flung his glass against the barrel on which the speaker
An outcry, like a sudden outbreak of fire, rose from the whole company,
and in a few seconds the rebellious clerk was carried backwards
by strong arms towards the restaurant stairs. There Sten saw him
disappear, coughing violently the while. The shrill sound of his cough
pierced through the uproar and the roll of the drums which had struck
The mayor again desired permission to speak, this time through the city
trumpeter, and announced that on this joyous occasion of the King's
return, the town and the council would give wine freely. A barrel of
wine was rolled along, and placed on a seat amid universal approval.
But now there came a new diversion. From one of the many side-rooms
which were generally hired for marriages and other private festivities,
came a marriage procession with violin-players and torch-bearers at its
head, intending to pass through the great hall and accompany the newly
wedded pair home. But that was not possible. The excitement was too
great to allow such an opportunity to pass unchallenged.
"Dance the bride's crown off!" was the cry, and the next moment all the
young men had formed a circle round the bride, separating her from the
bridegroom. The bride was a blooming girl of twenty and the bridegroom
was a withered-looking man of thirty with the same sickly pallor as the
factory clerk, whom he otherwise somewhat resembled.
Sten's curiosity was directed towards the deserted bridegroom, and he
did not understand why he felt a certain sympathy with him, though it
was his happiest day. Meanwhile the bride had been blindfolded. Sten
was drawn into the ring of dancers, which at one moment circled with
dizzying rapidity and at another stood still. The bride stretched
out her arms and caught Sten round the neck; he fell on one knee,
blushing, kissed her hand, and entered the ring with a garland on his
head to dance with the bride, who seemed flattered by such unusual
attention. Then he stepped up to the bridegroom, paid him some
compliments about his bride, and asked permission to drink to his
prosperity. Although it was annoying to the latter to be stopped in
this way, he could not refuse, and briefly informed Sten that he also
was a clerk in the cloth factory. Sten could not resist giving a start
of sympathetic surprise, but had no time to observe the bridegroom more
closely, for the latter was now drawn into the ring and had to dance
with the bride. Sten underwent a strange sensation and thought of the
death-dance depicted on the walls of the chapel of his father's castle.
"Poor bridegroom!" he thought, "and poor girl!"
But the joy this evening was quite beyond all bounds, and now tables
and seats were cleared away, for the bride's-maids were about to dance
the torch-dance, which had been specially called for and which was
customary at weddings. The girls received the torches from the bride's
escort and invited their cavaliers to dance by handing the torches to
Sten had drawn back in order to rest after his exertions, and stood
with his back against the cold wall regarding the bridegroom in a
melancholy way, as the latter with wine-flushed cheeks fluttered
uneasily about the bride, who was surrounded by a number of young men.
He felt himself again so lonely among the excited crowd; the various
impressions he had undergone during the last twenty-four hours rose up
like shadows, and his tired senses began to give way. He closed his
eyes and it became dark; the ground seemed to sink under his feet,
and he felt a singing in his ears as though he were drowning. He made
a supreme effort to hold himself up, and opened his eyes, but saw at
first only a dark moving mass in front of him; gradually this was
reduced to order and a point of light was kindled against the dark
background. It broadened, came nearer, assumed a shape, and then, as
when a curtain is quickly drawn back from a picture, a radiant woman's
form appeared before him. She was pure light; her eyes were like the
Virgin Mary's, her hair resembled silver or gold—it was difficult
to say which, her small face was warm and white like newly washed wool.
In one hand she held a torch, which she reached to Sten, who took it
mechanically, while at the same time he took her free hand which she
extended to him. It was all like a vision. As he looked at her small
while hand, which lay so confidingly in his, the latter seemed to him,
in comparison, like that of the giantess in the bathroom.
Sten had to open the dance. Room was made for them, and he and his
partner began to thread the swaying crowd. At one moment they parted
from one another, then they met again; one instant he put his arm round
her and pressed her to his heart, then another cavalier came and took
her from him; but whatever happened, they always met again, and he
lighted her way with his uplifted torch. Every time they met again he
wished to say something complimentary, but he was dumb and could not
utter a word when he looked into her eyes. He was lost in wonder at the
whiteness of her hand and the smallness of her foot; the latter peeped
forth from under her looped-up dress, and with the well-arched instep
was so clearly visible throughout the thin silk shoe that her toes
might have been counted. A princess accustomed to walk on roses might
have envied the middle-class maiden her foot.
When the dance ceased and Sten had laid down his torch, his partner
hesitated for a moment, as though she wished to say something or to ask
Sten to speak. Sten, however, felt as though his tongue were paralysed;
but quick as lightning and without considering what he was doing, he
embraced her neck and kissed her on both cheeks as one kisses a sister.
There at once arose an uproar among the wedding-guests, and Sten found
himself surrounded by threatening hands and angry looks. But the other
guests thought the pair so handsome, and Sten looked so innocent as he
stood there blushing at his boldness, that they intervened and made
peace. The others insisted on a punishment. Then an elderly man, a
town-councillor of a cheerful disposition, stepped forward and declared
that the offender should be punished on the spot, but that, because of
the freedom allowed on this particular day, the law was willing to wink
at his offence. On the other hand the insulted maiden, the daughter of
a respectable clerk in the public weighing-house, should, if, he added
jestingly, she had really been so much insulted, herself adjudicate
in the matter. His proposal was accepted with unanimous applause; but
Sten felt discomposed to see his princess metamorphosed into a clerk's
The young girl was embarrassed to the verge of tears, and could not
utter a word. At last one of her young friends pressed forward and
whispered something in her ear. This advice, whispered at the moment
of need, seemed to revive the spirits of the despairing umpire, and
with almost inaudible voice she pronounced her verdict "The young
gentleman must sing!"
"A song! A song!" shouted the emotional throng, and Sten was condemned
to do so. He was lifted by strong arms on to the table and was handed
a tortoise-shell lute, which one of the Italian painters, who at that
time resided in the city, had brought with him. No one inquired whether
the victim could sing, for all assumed that a young man of good family
could do so.
Sten first played a prelude on the strings while he recovered himself
from his embarrassment and the crowd at his feet heaved like a troubled
sea. What should he sing? The smells of beer, wine and fir twigs,
mingled with fumes from the oil-lamps and wax-lights, filled the air
and made him half unconscious. Before his eyes loomed a chaos of red
faces, lamps, casks, instruments and flowers. His fingers wandered over
the chords but his ear could not find the tune he wanted. There was
silence at last, but the many-headed beast which was now looking up to
him so expectantly might, the next moment stir, lose patience, and tear
him in pieces. Then he saw the blue eyes and white cheeks which still
bore the red marks of his kisses; the strings of the lute sounded, and
he felt chorda in his breast which responded. After striking some loud
notes, he began, in a weak voice which grew stronger as he went on, a
song in the style of the old Minnesingers, and when he had concluded
it he was fully acquitted by the audience. Then the good-natured
councillor stepped up to him, thanked him, put his arm round his neck,
and walked with him into one of the side-rooms. Here he placed him on a
seat, and standing before him with folded arms, he assumed a judicial
tone and said: "That was the song, young gentleman; now let us have the
words! You have some trouble on your mind, you are not on the right
road, and you steal into the town without a pass—you see, we watch our
people and they are not too many to be counted."
Sten was beside himself with alarm, but the councillor quieted him,
asked him to relate his story, and promised to be his friend. When
Sten perceived that the facts must come out in any case, he chose the
present favourable opportunity to narrate them privately to a friendly
person, knowing that perhaps to-morrow, when the effects of wine had
ceased to work, his friendliness might have evaporated. Accordingly he
frankly told the councillor everything.
When he had ended, the latter said, "Well, you are looking for an
occupation which is suited to your strength and capacity. You can
write, and, as it happens, the city just needs a clerk, for a place
will be vacant this evening."
"In the cloth factory?" asked Sten, with a gloomy foreboding that the
answer would be in the affirmative.
"The unfortunate man has then been dismissed for his imprudence?"
"Naturally! The city is the key of the kingdom; those who guard the
key-cupboard must not be surrounded by traitors."
"I cannot accept the post," declared Sten, remembering the kindness
which the unfortunate man had shown him. "'One man dead gives another
"You are ashamed of walking over corpses? But what is our pilgrimage
here but a fight for life or death, or a lyke-wake where one sits and
waits till the body is carried out. How did I become a councillor? By
waiting for the deaths of six others. How shall I become mayor? By
waiting for the present mayor's death. And that may be a long time,"
he added with a sigh. "As regards the dismissed man, I am very sorry
for him, but am glad at the same time that you will be saved from going
"But he has wife and children."
"Very sad for them! But when a man has renounced his place, as he
has done, it is vacant; if you refuse to take it, you will be doing
neither him nor yourself a service. Between ourselves, we all thought
somewhat as he did, but, look you! one must not say so. I am an old
man, sir, and have seen life. It is a perverse and mad business, and
Satan himself cannot help one. At present your velvet jacket is white,
but to-morrow it will be dirty; the day after, it will be torn, and
then, do you know what you are? No longer a young gentleman, but an
adventurer and a tramp. Hear my advice, young man. Get bread for your
mouth so long as your velvet jacket lasts, and hold your tongue. Sleep
over the matter and come on Monday morning to the town hall. I wish you
good night and common sense."
Sten rose and returned to the great hall. But it seemed to him empty
and desolate now that the bridal procession had vanished. Tired and
exhausted by the various emotions he had undergone during the evening
and the past twenty-four hours, he resolved to go home.
When he came to the inn and entered his room, he took off his velvet
jacket and inspected it. Stained with wine, dirty with the dust of
the high road, browned with sweat under the arm-pits, it looked
wretched enough. He lay down and went to sleep wondering where the
weighing-house might be; he dreamt of death-dances and factory clerks,
fought with corpses, and awoke. Then he went to sleep again thinking of
the weighing-house and of a tender farewell to the velvet jacket, with
a firm resolve to earn bread, first for one month, and then for two.
The beautiful month of May did not keep its promises; snow fell while
the apple trees were in blossom, and the sun did not appear for
fourteen days. For fourteen dreadful days had Sten, the last scion of
the family of Ulffot at Wäringe, Hofsta and Löfsala, stood at his post
in the draughty, unwarmed factory by the harbour. From morning till
late in the evening he had stood there, with a pen in his half-frozen
fingers, registering the names of the kinds of cloth which had been
brought by the incoming vessels. He did not really understand why they
should be registered any more than if they had been so many stones of
the street, flakes of snow, or drops of water; but he obeyed the old
councillor's advice, and held his tongue whenever he felt tempted to
The room where he worked was continually being entered by porters and
merchants who left snow and dirt on the floor, and let the cold air
blow in freely. One bale of cloth after another was thrown upon an
enormous table and filled the air with a choking dust. He had not yet
begun to cough, but he felt that he breathed with more difficulty; and
to add to his troubles, the intense cold had burnt holes in his white
hands and made them quite red.
One day he went to a barber's and looked at himself in a mirror. He
thought it was another person he was looking at when he saw a lean
yellow face full of spots and fringed with an untidy beard. His feet
had become so swollen that he could not wear his ordinary boots, but
had to use Lapland shoes. He had changed his white jacket for a brown
frock-coat and his cap for a slouched hat. His scanty pay obliged him
to take his meals in third-rate restaurants where he only got salted
food, and the unaccustomed diet had brought on an attack of scurvy.
When he once ventured to complain to one of his senior fellow-workers,
the latter took him to task and said there were many who worked more
than Sten and got no food at all; he himself had had no fresh food
since Christmas. This man was the bridegroom whom Sten had met in the
restaurant of the town hall; he was envious of Sten because the latter,
while still so young, had obtained a post for which he had been waiting
for ten years.
"Many get everything given them in this life, and yet are not
satisfied," he often remarked when consoling Sten. The latter envied
hint because of his comparatively good health, his uninjured hands and
feet, and the indifference with which he took things. He on his part
declared that Sten suffered because he had been spoilt and had not
learned to work, and from this opinion he would not budge.
Sten felt that his bodily health was giving way under the struggle;
his friend said that it was a fall in an honourable battle of which no
knight need be ashamed. Sten thought that his soul was being injured by
the murderous work of perpetually writing figures; however, his friend
asserted it was not the fault of the work but because he had been badly
Badly educated! He who had had two nurses and a governess, he who
had had tutors in Greek and Latin, could play the lute, and make
fine verses! That he would not acknowledge. But he knew that he was
unhappy. He also knew now where the weighing-house was. But what was
the use of that? He had seen the young girl at a Mass in the city
church, but she had been shocked at his appearance; and his friend in
the cloth factory told him that she thought Sten looked degenerated.
His friend also told him that her father had some money, gave his
daughter an education, and hoped to get her well married, so that it
was not worth while for Sten to wear out his boots by going there, he
One day Sten, weary of copying figures, felt he had had enough of the
dark room. Better, he thought, any physical exertion than this eternal
writing in which there was no progress and no end. He resigned his
post. It was in the middle of a hot summer. He wandered up and down
the streets without object and without hope. Lost in thoughts, he
contemplated the houses and their signboards as though he expected to
find there the answer to the riddle of his life. His gaze was arrested
by a large horseshoe which hung on a pole; memories of a nag and a
highway began to stir in his brain. Then he heard the blows of a
hammer in the courtyard. He entered in and saw a giant who was forging
horseshoes. The work proceeded slowly and the giant panted and sweated
at each blow.
It brightened Sten up to see the sparks dancing round the anvil, and
the forge also diffused a cheerful glow. But the smith did not seem in
a cheerful mood, for he broke off his work, sat down on a log of wood,
and watched with gloomy looks the iron growing cold. Then as though
stung by an evil conscience he went into the smithy and came out again
with a piece of red-hot iron, but seemed to be still more depressed,
for he laid the iron on the anvil, and then sat down and watched it
as though he expected it to turn into horseshoes. Presently he turned
round, and Sten, seeing his face, recognised Claus. He went up to him
and greeted him as an old acquaintance. Claus at first regarded him
with astonishment, and after he had been obliged to recognise him,
maintained an air of severe coldness. Suddenly his face brightened, as
though a thought had struck him.
"Listen!" he said. "Are you free at present?"
Sten replied that he certainly was.
"By Saint Anschar, you shall become a smith! Now I see that you were
really born to be one. Strange what mistakes one may make sometimes!
You have developed a pair of fists since we last met, and one soon
learns how to grasp a hammer!"
"It is certainly too hard for me, since I did not begin it when I was
young," objected Sten.
"Hard? What the dickens! It is not harder than anything else—I mean
for one who has the capacity. Listen! We will be good friends and have
a fine time. The master sits the whole day in the beer-shop, and only
you and I will be here."
Sten thought the proposal as good as any he was likely to meet with,
and believed he would find a support in Claus. Accordingly he consented.
"Then we will go at once to the master of the guild of smiths at the
journeymen's inn," said Claus.
Sten reminded him that he had said he occupied this office of master,
but Claus replied he had given it up owing to having too much to do.
They went therefore to the master, whose reception of Claus was so
obviously disdainful that Sten on the spot lost a considerable amount
of the respect he had felt for him. Meanwhile he was enrolled as an
apprentice of the guild, and this new dignity of his was sealed by
their drinking a number of mugs of beer in a public-house, and in the
evening was ratified by Claus's master, who was the worse for drink.
Sten slept that night at the smithy.
The next morning, while the matin-bell was ringing in the Ave Maria
Convent, Sten was aroused by being violently shaken by Claus, who said:
"Light the fire in the forge and tell me when it burns. I am going to
doze a little longer."
Sten blew the fire and worked the bellows for half an hour. When at
last it burnt up brightly, he woke Claus.
"Now put the iron in, and tell me when it gets red, I want still to
have a wink or two," said Claus, turning to the wall.
When the iron was glowing as red as blood, Sten woke him again.
"Now hammer out the iron till it is as slender as a finger, while I
shake off my sleepiness," said Claus, yawning.
Sten went back to the smithy, but now the iron had become black. He
worked the bellows and made it red again. Then he took it up with the
tongs and carried it out to the anvil, but before he had seized the
sledge-hammer, it was once more black. This process was repeated till
Sten became tired. Then he returned to Claus, who was snoring loud, and
had drawn his leather apron over his head in order not to be disturbed
by the daylight.
Claus became impatient. "Well, you stupid, can't you take the hammer in
one hand and the tongs in the other?"
Sten replied he could not.
"Then you can go for a jug of beer."
Sten felt ashamed of going into the street with a tin can, but as Claus
began to search in a tool-chest for a hammer, he hurried out.
The morning was fine; the sun shone on the gable-roofs of the houses,
and women and girls were proceeding to market. When Sten came out of
the public-house with the beer, and was about to cross the street, he
suddenly stopped, as though riveted, before someone who gazed at him
in astonishment and sorrow. He wished to turn round, but the crowd
prevented him; he wanted to raise his cap, but the beer-jug required
both his black hands to hold it.
The girl went on her way, and Sten hastened, weeping, back to the
"What are you whimpering for?" said Claus, who had shaken off his sleep
and come out into the sunshine, where he drank his morning draught.
Sten did not answer. Claus took out a plank which he laid on the wooden
log against the wall of the house so that he had a support for his
"Now we will work," he said, crossing his arms and making himself as
comfortable as possible. "You will begin with the cold iron first, so
that you learn how to handle the hammer."
Sten lifted the hammer, which was very heavy for him. He struck on the
anvil while Claus counted "One and two! and one and two! and one and
"Yes, yes; now you see what a workman has to do. One and two! and one
and two! and—— That is something different from lying on eider-down
and eating roast-veal! And two and—— You think one gets accustomed
to have the sun on one's neck, the forge in one's face, and the smoke
in one's nose? No, look you, one never does. And what do you think a
pretty girl says when a smith comes with his black hands and wants to
put his arm round her waist? 'Let me alone, lout!' she says. A smith
can certainly marry when he has saved some money, but he must take
an ugly girl whom no one else will have. And two! and one!—— Are
you listening? Do you remember when you sat in the inn and ate fowl
with sage stuffing, and, I had a salted herring in my bag? And he had
a horse, the young devil, and a velvet jacket. Where is the horse
now? Perhaps he is standing in the stable in the Knacker's House, or
whatever your father's castle was called. Do you remember that I made
you believe that Sir Vulcan was councillor to the Emperor of Rome. Ha!
ha! No, a smith is a smith, that is all."
Sten was growing tired.
"Are you lazy, you devil?" said Claus.
"Stop calling me devil," said Sten, "I am not accustomed to it."
"Perhaps his Grace is used to being called 'angel'?" said Claus
Sten had been once used to it, but he refrained from saying so. He
went on with his hammer strokes.
"One and two! and one and two! and one—— No," said Claus, "you can
do that now. Beat out the iron rod now; it is harder to do when it is
cold, but still it can be done. I must go now to some business in the
town, and when the old man comes, tell him that I met my brother-in-law
from the country. But if you have not beaten out the iron rod by the
time I come back, I will weld your hind legs together, so that you will
be like a herring."
Sten felt quite exhausted and declared that he could not finish the
work alone. He also said openly that he had not come here to do
Claus's work while the latter sat in the ale-house.
Claus became furious. "Yes, you have, my young man," he shouted. "That
is just what you have come for. Look you! I have worked for thirty-five
years, and you have done nothing; now I am the nobleman and let you
work for me! Is it not so with the aristocracy?" Claus leant himself
against the plank with his arms folded and continued: "Yes, I am a
devilish fine nobleman, you can believe me! And you will see how I
shall flourish. I shall not be rich, but I shall be fat. You look
disapproving. You don't agree with my plan, nor understand it. The
upper class have invented it themselves, and a very excellent one it
Sten replied that in his opinion Claus was a bumpkin.
"Go and fetch the big hammer. You will do some extra work by way of
punishment," Claus replied haughtily.
Sten's blood boiled over and he raised the iron rod against Claus.
At the same moment he felt something give way in his body, and fell
senseless to the ground.
When Sten awoke to consciousness he was lying in a bed at the hospital,
and was condemned to inaction for several months, for he had broken a
blood-vessel, and his recovery was doubtful. In the large ward one bed
stood close to another, and as soon as it was empty there was always
someone waiting to occupy it. Here he saw every day instances how
those who did physical labour were exposed to accidents which other
classes escaped. At one time it was a carpenter who had cut his foot;
at another a mason who had fallen from a scaffolding. One day came
a breweress who had scalded herself when boiling wort; on another a
pewterer who had burnt his knee at the smelting oven.
Hitherto he had had no idea how widely spread human sufferings were,
and when he contrasted his past with his present, he began to guess how
the legend of the rich man, who could not enter heaven, had arisen.
Thus he lay the whole summer, without fresh air or seeing anything
green. He felt bitterly how the best time of the year was passing,
and imagined how it looked in the country, and what people were doing
every day. Numbers of monks came to the ward, and almost every day the
crucifix was lifted by some bed-side to comfort a sufferer.
Sten often talked with the monks and he could not help sharing their
view that the earth was a vale of tears. When his pains became severe
he felt relief in contemplating the Crucified Who writhed on the cross,
and he understood now why the Christian creed had been able to gain so
many disciples. One day, when he was especially suffering, he had a
visit from Claus, who had heard a report that Sten was dying. He felt
now compelled to see and speak with the sick man, and, if possible, to
comfort him; but in order to strengthen himself he went first into an
ale-shop, with the result that he reached the hospital in a somewhat
When he again met Sten, whose face had recovered its fair complexion
and his hands their delicacy, his former respect for him awoke, and
he confessed to himself that there were a finer and a coarser kind of
men. He called Sten "sir," and advised him to think about his soul
and to repent of his sins; he should not, he said, be sorry that he
had to die, for the smiths' company would carry him to the grave, and
afterwards hold such a funeral feast as had never been seen in the
city. Then he threw out some delicate hints that it was a pity for the
hospital to get Sten's clothes when he was dead, and at the same time
expressed his admiration of the excellent wool of which Sten's coat was
made; for the rest, he believed that old trousers could be altered,
and told Sten above all things to take care that nothing was left in
the pockets. Life, he said, was very troublesome, and parents who did
not teach their children to work with their hands were worse than
murderers, and to give children an education was to spoil them. Sten
would have made a good smith, if he had learnt to wield the hammer from
his childhood, and he might by this time have married the maiden from
the weighing-house. As it was, she had engaged herself to one of the
yeomen of the guard. Sten, however, should not be sad about that, for
he had not much longer to live, but Claus would carry the flag at his
funeral procession as a token that he had forgiven the young gentleman
all the wrong he had done him. As he uttered these last words, Claus
was so overcome by his noble sentiments that he wept as only a drunken
But Claus never carried the flag, because he was not the guild's
flag-bearer, and because Sten recovered. One fine autumn day he was
dismissed from the hospital and told that he was no longer ill, but
that he would never be strong enough to work. Now he realised the whole
terrible truth of what Claus had said: his education had robbed him of
the means of earning a livelihood. It was in vain that he went about
and sought a place in an already organised society; there was no place
for drones in this hive. The only thing remaining was to flee from this
hive and seek another where the working-bees supported the drones.
He thought of the convents where men did not work but lived very
comfortably and could devote their leisure to such refined enjoyments
as arts and sciences, and he wondered that he had not before this
enlisted in the armies of the Church.
With a light step he walked down to the convent of the Dominican monks
in the Osterlang-gata, and rang the bell. The little window in the gate
was opened and a monk asked Sten his name and address. He gave his name
and asked to speak to the prior with a view to entering the convent.
The gate was opened and Sten was admitted into the garden, where he was
told to wait.
Meanwhile the prior sat in the hall of the chapter going through the
estate and rent books with the steward. Various deficits in these
showed a serious diminution in the income of the convent. They were
just consulting how this might be increased to its highest possible
point again, as the General Chapter of the Dominican Order was
constantly demanding support for the war against the heretics, when
the gate-keeper's assistant announced Sten Ulffot's arrival, name, and
"Ulffot of Wäringe, Hofsta and Löfsala," the prior said to himself, and
made the sign of the cross. "He comes as opportunely as though he were
sent by St Dominic himself. I know Löfsala thoroughly; it is a splendid
estate—twelve hundred acres of open ground, besides saleable meadows
and woods, water-mills, saw-mills and a splendid eel-fishery. Let him
in! Let him in by all means! Bid the gentleman welcome in the name of
"Your Reverence," interposed the steward, "wait a minute. Löfsala is a
fine estate certainly, but sad to say the present owner has no taste
for the spiritual life."
"The present owner?"
"Yes, the Ulffot family," continued the steward, "has been obliged
to give up everything, and the last member of it is said to be an
adventurer who has tried a little of everything but carried nothing
out, and is quite come down in the world."
"What do you say? What do you say? H'm! Well, what shall we do with
"From him we shall get neither profit nor honour," said the steward.
"We have monks enough who eat our provisions, and this is not a
"Quite right!" said the prior. "Quite right! But who is to tell him
that? One of St Dominic's wisest and best rules is, never to send
anyone unsatisfied away. Will Brother Francis go into the garden and
speak a little with the young man? Speak a little with him, explain it
to him, you understand! Let us go on with our work, steward."
Brother Francis was a tall man, of alarming appearance, with a bearish
temper, who was employed to scare away such applicants as were not
"edible," in the phraseology of the industrious brotherhood; for the
Dominican Order was a powerful political corporation, which lived in
perpetual strife with princes, for power and property, and was by no
means an institution for exercising benevolence.
When Brother Francis saw Sten's insignificant appearance he thought he
could make short work with him. "What do you want in the convent?" he
asked without any preliminary remarks.
"I seek for the peace which the world cannot give," answered Sten.
"Then you have come to the wrong place," said Francis. "This is the
armoury of the Church Militant, and there is never peace here."
"Peace follows fighting," Sten ventured to object; but this irritated
the monk, who wished to get done with a thankless task.
"Say what you want and speak the truth—something like this: 'I cannot
dig and to beg I am ashamed; therefore I will come here and eat.' If
you say that, you will not be lying."
Sten felt that the monk had to a certain extent hit the mark, and
answered simply, "Alas, you are right!"
Surprised at this unexpected admission, and touched by Sten's
childlikeness, the monk took him farther into the garden and continued
his talk. "I know your history and understand the riddle of your
life. When Nature is left to herself, she produces masterpieces; but
when man interferes with her work, he makes a bungle of it. Look at
this pear tree; it is a descendant from a pear tree at Santa Lucia in
Spain, where it was cultivated for five hundred years. You think it
is an excellent thing that it can bring forth fine fruits to please
our palates? Nature does not think so, for she has produced the fruit
for the sake of the pipe which continue the species. Look at this pear
when I cat it in two! Do you see any pips? No! Over-cultivation has
done away with them. Look at this apple which glows so magnificently
with red and gold! It is an English pearmain. It has pips, but if I sow
them they produce crab-apples. When, however, a severe winter comes,
the pearmain trees are killed by frost, but the crab-apple trees are
not. Therefore one ought to give up over-cultivating people, especially
when it is done at the expense of others. Such cultivation is unsuited
to our country and our severe climate. Have I expressed myself
clearly? I am sorry for you, young man, but I cannot help you. Beati
possidentes—blessed are those who have succeeded. Your ancestors won
success, but they had not the skill to maintain it!"
He went on to talk of indifferent matters while he conducted Sten to
the gate. "There will be an early winter this year, if we may judge
by the ash-berries." Then he opened the gate, bowed politely and said
When the gate closed, Sten felt that he was shut out from society
once for all, and he rallied the small remainder of bodily and mental
strength which he possessed, to form a resolution. But his will and
thinking power bed collapsed. The twilight had fallen. He followed the
descent of the steep street which led to the sea, as though he were
obeying the law of gravitation. His feet led him into a narrow alley
which was quite dark and filled with an overpowering stench from the
offal which had been thrown away there; but he went on and on, guided
by a faint light which appeared at the bottom of the alley. Presently
he stood before a water-gate which had been left ajar and through which
a moonbeam pierced the darkness. He opened the gate and before him lay
the surface of the water lit by the moon which was rising over the
island of Sikla. The little waves danced and played in the path of the
moonlight and the sea breeze blew freshly shore-wards.
Sten stepped over the narrow threshold and let the gate close behind
him, without exactly thinking what he was doing. At the same moment
all the bells in the city began to ring for vespers, and the drummers
on the city walls beat the tattoo as a signal for the citizens to go
to bed. Sten took off his cap, fell on his knees, and said a prayer.
Then he stood up, turned his back towards the sea, folded his arms over
his breast, looked up at the stars and let himself fall backwards, as
though he were going to rest. The silvery water mirror opened like
a dark grave, which closed again at once, and a great ring, like a
halo, appeared on the surface; it widened into many more circles, which
dispersed and died away. Soon the little waves reappeared and danced
and played in the moonlight as though they had never been frightened.