THE LITTLE POST-BOY
By Bayard Taylor
Very few foreigners travel in Sweden in the winter, on account of
the intense cold. As you go northward from Stockholm, the capital,
the country becomes ruder and wilder, and the climate more severe.
In the sheltered valleys along the Gulf of Bothnia and the rivers
which empty into it, there are farms and villages for a distance
of seven or eight hundred miles, after which fruit-trees disappear,
and nothing will grow in the short, cold summers except potatoes
and a little barley. Farther inland, there are great forests
and lakes, and ranges of mountains where bears, wolves, and herds
of wild reindeer make their home. No people could live in such a
country unless they were very industrious and thrifty.
I made my journey in the winter, because I was on my way to Lapland,
where it is easier to travel when the swamps and rivers are frozen,
and the reindeer-sleds can fly along over the smooth snow. It wras
very cold indeed, the greater part of the time; the days were short
and dark, and if I had not found the people so kind, so cheerful,
and so honest, I should have felt inclined to turn back, more than
once. But I do not think there are better people in the world than
those who live in Norrland, which is a Swedish province, commencing
about two hundred miles north of Stockholm.
They are a hale, strong race, with yellow hair and bright blue
eyes, and the handsomest teeth I ever saw. They live plainly, but
very comfortably, in snug wooden houses, with double windows and
doors to keep out the cold; and since they cannot do much out-door
work, they spin and weave and mend their farming implements in
the large family room, thus enjoying the winter in spite of its
severity. They are very happy and contented, and few of them would
be willing to leave that cold country and make their homes in a
Here there are neither railroads nor stages, but the government has
established post-stations at distances varying from ten to twenty
miles. At each station a number of horses, and sometimes vehicles,
are kept, but generally the traveler has his own sled, and simply
hires the horses from one station to another. These horses are either
furnished by the keeper of the station or some of the neighboring
farmers, and when they are wanted a man or boy goes along with the
traveler to bring them back. It would be quite an independent and
convenient way of traveling, if the horses were always ready; but
sometimes you must wait an hour or more before they can be furnished.
I had my own little sled, filled with hay and covered with
reindeer-skins to keep me warm. So long as the weather was not too
cold, it was very pleasant to speed along through the dark forests,
over the frozen rivers, or past farm after farm in the sheltered
valleys up hill and down, until long after the stars came out, and
then to get a warm supper in some dark-red post cottage, while the
cheerful people sang or told stories around the fire. The cold
increased a little every day, to be sure, but I became gradually
accustomed to it, and soon began to fancy that the Arctic climate
was not so difficult to endure as I had supposed. At first the
thermometer fell to zero; then it went down ten degrees below; then
twenty, and finally thirty. Being dressed in thick furs from head
to foot, I did not suffer greatly; but I was very glad when the
people assured me that such extreme cold never lasted more than two
or three days. Boys of twelve or fourteen very often went with me
to bring back their father's horses, and so long as those lively,
red-cheeked fellows could face the weather, it would not do for me
to be afraid.
One night there was a wonderful aurora in the sky. The streamers
of red and blue light darted hither and thither, chasing each other
up the zenith and down again to the northern horizon with a rapidity
and a brilliance which I had never seen before. "There will be
a storm, soon," said my post-boy; "one always comes, after these
Next morning the sky was overcast, and the short day was as dark as
our twilight. But it was not quite so cold, and I travelled onward
as fast as possible. There was a long tract of wild and thinly-settled
country before me, and I wished to get through it before stopping
for the night. Unfortunately it happened that two lumber-merchants
were travelling the same way, and had taken the horses; so I was
obliged to wait at the stations until other horses were brought
from the neighbouring farms. This delayed me so much that at seven
o'clock in the evening I had still one more station of three Swedish
miles before reaching the village where I intended to spend the
night. Now a Swedish mile is nearly equal to seven English, so that
the station was at least twenty miles long.
I decided to take supper while the horse was eating his feed. They
had not expected any more travellers at the station, and were not
prepared. The keeper had gone on with the two lumber-merchants; but
his wife—a friendly, rosy-faced woman-prepared me some excellent
coffee, potatoes, and stewed reindeer-meat, upon which I made
an excellent meal. The house was on the border of a large, dark
forest, and the roar of the icy northern wind in the trees seemed
to increase while I waited in the warm room. I did not feel inclined
to go forth into the wintry storm, but, having set my mind on
reaching the village that night, I was loath to turn back.
"It is a bad night," said the woman, "and my husband will certainly
stay at Umea until morning. His name is Neils Petersen, and I think
you will find him at the post-office when you get there. Lars will
take you, and they can come back together."
"Who is Lars?" I asked.
"My son," said she. "He is getting the horse ready. There is nobody
else about the house to-night."
Just then the door opened, and in came Lars. He was about twelve
years old; but his face was so rosy, his eyes so clear and round
and blue, and his golden hair was blown back from his face in such
silky curls, that he appeared to be even younger. I was surprised
that his mother should be willing to send him twenty miles through
the dark woods on such a night.
"Come here, Lars," I said. Then I took him by the hand, and asked,
"Are you not afraid to go so far to-night?"
He looked at me with wondering eyes, and smiled; and his mother
made haste to say: "You need have no fear, sir. Lars is young; but
he'll take you safe enough. If the storm don't get worse, you'll
be at Umea by eleven o'clock."
I was again on the point of remaining; but while I was deliberating
with myself, the boy had put on his overcoat of sheep-skin, tied
the lappets of his fur cap under his chin, and a thick woolen scarf
around his nose and mouth, so that only the round blue eyes were
visible; and then his mother took down the mittens of hare's fur
from the stove, where they had been hung to dry. He put them on,
took a short leather whip, and was ready.
I wrapped myself in my furs, and we went out together. The driving
snow cut me in the face like needles, but Lars did not mind it in
the least. He jumped into the sled, which he had filled with fresh,
soft hay, tucked in the reindeer-skins at the sides, and we cuddled
together on the narrow seat, making everything close and warm before
we set out. I could not see at all, when the door of the house was
shut, and the horse started on the journey. The night was dark,
the snow blew incessantly, and the dark fir-trees roared all around
us. Lars, however, knew the way, and somehow or other we kept the
beaten track. He talked to the horse so constantly and so cheerfully,
that after a while my own spirits began to rise, and the way seemed
neither so long nor so disagreeable.
"Ho there, Axel!" he would say. "Keep to the road,—not too far to
the left. Well done. Here's a level; now trot a bit."
So we went on—sometimes up hill, sometimes down hill—for a long
time, as it seemed. I began to grow chilly, and even Lars handed
me the reins, while he swung and beat his arms to keep the blood
in circulation. He no longer sang little songs and fragments of
hymns, as when we first set out; but he was not in the least alarmed,
or even impatient. Whenever I asked (as I did about every five
minutes), "Are we nearly there?" he always answered, "A little
Suddenly the wind seemed to increase.
"Ah," said he, "now I know where we are; it's one mile more." But
one mile, you must remember, meant seven.
Lars checked the horse, and peered anxiously from side to side in
the darkness. I looked also, but could see nothing.
"What is the matter?" I finally asked.
"We have got past the hills, on the left," he said. "The country
is open to the wind, and here the snow drifts worse than anywhere
else on the road. If there have been no ploughs out to-night we'll
You must know that the farmers along the road are obliged to turn
out with their horses and oxen, and plough down the drifts, whenever
the road is blocked up by a storm.
In less than a quarter of an hour we could see that the horse was
sinking in the deep snow. He plunged bravely forward, but made
scarcely any headway, and presently became so exhausted that he
stood quite still. Lars and I arose from the seat and looked around.
For my part, I saw nothing except some very indistinct shapes
of trees; there was no sign of an opening through them. In a few
minutes the horse started again, and with great labour carried us
a few yards farther.
"Shall we get out and try to find the road?" said I.
"It's no use," Lars answered. "In these drifts we would sink to
the waist. Wait a little, and we shall get through this one."
It was as he said. Another pull brought us through the deep part of
the drift, and we reached a place where the snow was quite shallow.
But it was not the hard, smooth surface of the road: we could feel
that the ground was uneven, and covered with roots and bushes.
Bidding Axel stand still, Lars jumped out of the sled, and began
wading around among the trees. Then I got out on the other side,
but had not proceeded ten steps before I began to sink so deeply
into the loose snow that I was glad to extricate myself and return.
It was a desperate situation, and I wondered how we should ever
get out of it.
I shouted to Lars, in order to guide him, and it was not long
before he also came back to the sled. "If I knew where the road
is," said he, "I could get into it again. But I don't know; and I
think we must stay here all night."
"We shall freeze to death in an hour!" I cried. I was already
chilled to the bone. The wind had made me very drowsy, and I knew
that if I slept I should soon be frozen.
"Oh, no!" exclaimed Lars cheerfully. "I am a Norrlander, and
Norrlanders never freeze. I went with the men to the bear-hunt
last winter, up on the mountains, and we were several nights in
the snow. Besides, I know what my father did with a gentleman from
Stockholm on this very road, and we'll do it to-night."
"What was it?"
"Let me take care of Axel first," said Lars. "We can spare him some
hay and one reindeer-skin."
It was a slow and difficult task to unharness the horse, but
we accomplished it at last. Lars then led him under the drooping
branches of a fir-tree, tied him to one of them, gave him an armful
of hay, and fastened the reindeer-skin upon his back. Axel began
to eat, as if perfectly satisfied with the arrangement. The Norrland
horses are so accustomed to cold that they seem comfortable in a
temperature where one of ours would freeze.
When this was done, Lars spread the remaining hay evenly over the
bottom of the sled and covered it with the skins, which he tucked
in very firmly on the side toward the wind. Then, lifting them up
on the other side, he said: "Now take off your fur coat, quick,
lay it over the hay, and then creep under it."
I obeyed as rapidly as possible. For an instant I shuddered in the
icy air; but the next moment I lay stretched in the bottom of the
sled, sheltered from the storm. I held up the ends of the reindeer-skins
while Lars took off his coat and crept in beside me. Then he drew
the skins down and pressed the hay against them. When the wind seemed
to be entirely excluded Lars said we must pull off our boots, untie
our scarfs, and so loosen our clothes that they would not feel
tight upon any part of the body. When this was done, and we lay
close together, warming each other, I found that the chill gradually
passed out of my blood. My hands and feet were no longer numb; a
delightful feeling of comfort crept over me; and I lay as snugly
as in the best bed. I was surprised to find that, although my head
was covered, I did not feel stifled. Enough air came in under the
skins to prevent us from feeling oppressed. There was barely room
for the two of us to lie, with no chance of turning over or rolling
about. In five minutes, I think, we were asleep, and I dreamed
of gathering peaches on a warm August day, at home. In fact, I did
not wake up thoroughly during the night; neither did Lars, though
it seemed to me that we both talked in our sleep. But as I must have
talked English and he Swedish, there could have been no connection
between our remarks. I remember that his warm, soft hair pressed
against my chin, and that his feet reached no farther than my
knees. Just as I was beginning to feel a little cramped and stiff
from lying so still I was suddenly aroused by the cold wind on
my face. Lars had risen up on his elbow, and was peeping out from
under the skins.
"I think it must be near six o'clock," he said. "The sky is clear,
and I can see the big star. We can start in another hour."
I felt so much refreshed that I was for setting out immediately;
but Lars remarked very sensibly that is was not yet possible to
find the road. While we were talking, Axel neighed.
"There they are!" cried Lars, and immediately began to put on his
boots, his scarf, and heavy coat. I did the same, and by the time
we were ready we heard shouts and the crack of whips. We harnessed
Axel to the sled, and proceeded slowly in the direction of the
sound, which came, as we presently saw, from a company of farmers,
out thus early to plough the road. They had six pairs of horses
geared to a wooden frame, something like the bow of a ship, pointed
in front and spreading out to a breadth of ten or twelve feet.
This machine not only cut through the drifts but packed the snow,
leaving a good, solid road behind it. After it had passed, we sped
along merrily in the cold morning twilight, and in a little more
than an hour reached the post-house at Umeå, where we found Lars'
father prepared to return home. He waited, nevertheless, until Lars
had eaten a good warm breakfast, when I said good-bye to both, and
went on towards Lapland.
Some weeks afterwards, on my return to Stockholm, I stopped at the
same little station. This time the weather was mild and bright,
and the father would have gone with me to the next post-house; but
I preferred to take my little bed-fellow and sled-fellow. He was
so quiet and cheerful and fearless, that although I had been nearly
all over the world, and he had never been away from home,—although
I was a man and he a young boy,—I felt that I had learned a lesson
from him, and might probably learn many more if I should know him
better. We had a merry trip of two or three hours, and then I took
leave of Lars forever.