Mamsell Fredrika, by Selma Lagerlof
It was Christmas night, a real Christmas night.
The goblins raised the mountain roofs on lofty gold pillars and
celebrated the midwinter festival. The brownies danced around the
Christmas porridge in new red caps. Old gods wandered about the
heavens in gray storm cloaks, and in the ?terhaninge graveyard
stood the horse of Hel [Note: The goddess of death]. He pawed with
his hoof on the frozen ground; he was marking out the place for a
Not very far away, at the old manor of ?sta, Mamsell Fredrika was
lying asleep. ?sta is, as every one knows, an old haunted castle,
but Mamsell Fredrika slept a calm, quiet sleep. She was old now and
tired out after many weary days of work and many long journeys,?
she had almost traveled round the world,?therefore she had
returned to the home of her childhood to find rest.
Outside the castle sounded in the night a bold fanfare. Death
mounted on a gray charger had ridden up to the castle gate. His
wide scarlet cloak and his hat's proud plumes fluttered in the
night wind. The stern knight sought to win an adoring heart,
therefore he appeared in unusual magnificence. It is of no avail,
Sir Knight, of no avail! The gate is closed, and the lady of your
heart asleep. You must seek a better occasion and a more suitable
hour. Watch for her when she goes to early mass, stern Sir Knight,
watch for her on the church-road!
Old Mamsell Fredrika sleeps quietly in her beloved home. No one
deserves more than she the sweetness of rest. Like a Christmas
angel she sat but now in a circle of children, and told them of
Jesus and the shepherds, told until her eyes shone, and her
withered face became transfigured. Now in her old age no one
noticed what Mamsell Fredrika looked like. Those who saw the
little, slender figure, the tiny, delicate hands and the kind,
clever face, instantly longed to be able to preserve that sight in
remembrance as the most beautiful of memories.
In Mamsell Fredrika's big room, among many relics and souvenirs,
there was a little, dry bush. It was a Jericho rose, brought back
by Mamsell Fredrika from the far East. Now in the Christmas night
it began to blossom quite of itself. The dry twigs were covered
with red buds, which shone like sparks of fire and lighted the
By the light of the sparks one saw that a small and slender but
quite elderly lady sat in the big arm-chair and held her court. It
could not be Mamsell Fredrika herself, for she lay sleeping in
quiet repose, and yet it was she. She sat there and held a
reception for old memories; the room was full of them. People and
homes and subjects and thoughts and discussions came flying.
Memories of childhood and memories of youth, love and tears, homage
and bitter scorn, all came rushing towards the pale form that sat
and looked at everything with a friendly smile. She had words of
jest or of sympathy for them all.
At night everything takes its right size and shape. And just as
then for the first time the stars of heaven are visible, one also
sees much on earth that one never sees by day. Now in the light of
the red buds of the Jericho rose one could see a crowd of strange
figures in Mamsell Fredrika's drawing-room. The hard "ma ch?e
m?e" was there, the goodnatured Beata Hvardagslag, people from the
East and the West, the enthusiastic Nina, the energetic, struggling
Hertha in her white dress.
"Can any one tell me why that person must always be dressed in
white?" jested the little figure in the arm-chair when she caught
sight of her.
All the memories spoke to the old woman and said: "You have seen
and experienced so much; you have worked and earned so much! Are
you not tired? will you not go to rest?"
"Not yet," answered the shadow in the yellow arm-chair. "I have
still a book to write. I cannot go to rest before it is finished."
Thereupon the figures vanished. The Jericho rose went out, and the
yellow arm-chair stood empty.
In the ?terhaninge church the dead were celebrating midnight mass.
One of them climbed up to the bell-tower and rang in Christmas;
another went about and lighted the Christmas candles, and a third
began with bony fingers to play the organ. Through the open doors
others came swarming in out of the night and their graves to the
bright, glowing House of the Lord. Just as they had been in life
they came, only a little paler. They opened the pew doors with
rattling keys and chatted and whispered as they walked up the
"They are the candles she has given the poor that are now shining
in God's house."
"We lie warm in our graves as long as she gives clothes and wood
to the poor."
"She has spoken so many noble words that have opened the hearts of
men; those words are the keys of our pews.
"She has thought beautiful thoughts of God's love. Those thoughts
raise us from our graves."
So they whispered and murmured before they sat down in the pews and
bent their pale foreheads in prayer in their shrunken hands.
At ?sta some one came into Mamsell Fredrika's room and laid her
hand gently on the sleeper's arm.
"Up, my Fredrika! It is time to go to the early mass."
Old Mamsell Fredrika opened her eyes and saw Agathe, her beloved
sister who was dead, standing by the bed with a candle in her hand.
She recognized her, for she looked just as she had done on earth.
Mamsell Fredrika was not afraid; she rejoiced only at seeing her
loved one, at whose side she longed to sleep the everlasting sleep.
She rose and dressed herself with all speed. There was no time for
conversation; the carriage stood before the door. The others must
have gone already, for no one but Mamsell Fredrika and her dead
sister were moving in the house.
"Do you remember, Fredrika," said the sister, as they sat in the
carriage and drove quickly to the church, "do you remember how you
always in the old days expected some knight to carry you off on the
road to church?"
"I am still expecting it," said old Mamsell Fredrika, and laughed.
"I never ride in this carriage without looking out for my knight."
Even though they hurried, they came too late. The priest stepped
down from the pulpit as they entered the church, and the closing
hymn began. Never had Mamsell Fredrika heard such a beautiful song.
It was as if both earth and heaven joined in, in the song; as if
every bench and stone and board had sung too.
She had never seen the church so crowded: on the communion table
and on the pulpit steps sat people; they stood in the aisles, they
thronged in the pews, and outside the whole road was packed with
people who could not enter. The sisters, however, found places; for
them the crowd moved aside.
"Fredrika," said her sister, "look at the people!"
And Mamsell Fredrika looked and looked.
Then she perceived that she, like the woman in the saga, had come
to a mass of the dead. She felt a cold shiver pass down her back,
but it happened, as often before, she felt more curious than
She saw now who were in the church. There were none but women
there: grey, bent forms, with circular capes and faded mantillas,
with hats of faded splendor and turned or threadbare dresses. She
saw an unheard-of number of wrinkled faces, sunken mouths, dim eyes
and shrivelled hands, but not a single hand which wore a plain gold
Yes, Mamsell Fredrika understood it now. It was all the old maids
who had passed away in the land of Sweden who were keeping midnight
mass in the ?terhaninge church.
Her dead sister leaned towards her.
"Sister, do you repent of what you have done for these your sisters?"
"No," said Mamsell Fredrika. "What have I to be glad for if not
that it has been bestowed upon me to work for them? I once
sacrificed my position as an authoress to them. I am glad that I
knew what I sacrificed and yet did it."
"Then you may stay and hear more," said the sister.
At the same moment some one was heard to speak far away in the
choir, a mild but distinct voice.
"My sisters," said the voice, "our pitiable race, our ignorant and
despised race will soon exist no more. God has willed that we shall
die out from the earth.
"Dear friends, we shall soon be only a legend. The old Mamsells'
measure is full. Death rides about on the road to the church to
meet the last one of us. Before the next midnight mass she will be
dead, the last old Mamsell.
"Sisters, sisters! We are the lonely ones of the earth, the
neglected ones at the feast, the unappreciated workers in the
homes. We are met with scorn and indifference. Our way is weary and
our name is ridicule.
"But God has had mercy upon us.
"To one of us He gave power and genius. To one of us He gave
never-failing goodness. To one of us He gave the glorious gift of
eloquence. She was everything we ought to have been. She threw
light on our dark fate. She was the servant of the homes, as we had
been, but she offered her gifts to a thousand homes. She was the
caretaker of the sick, as we had been, but she struggled with the
terrible epidemic of habits of former days. She told her stories to
thousands of children. She lead her poor friends in every land. She
gave from fuller hands than we and with a warmer spirit. In her
heart dwelt none of our bitterness, for she has loved it away. Her
glory has been that of a queen's. She has been offered the treasures
of gratitude by millions of hearts. Her word has weighed heavily
in the great questions of mankind. Her name has sounded through the
new and the old world. And yet she is only an old Mamsell.
"She has transfigured our dark fate. Blessings on her name!"
The dead joined in, in a thousandfold echo: "Blessings on her name!"
"Sister," whispered Mamsell Fredrika, "can you not forbid them to
make me, poor, sinful being, proud?"
"But, sisters, sisters," continued the voice, "she has turned
against our race with all her great power. At her cry for freedom
and work for all, the old, despised livers on charity have died
out. She has broken down the tyranny that fenced in childhood.
She has stirred young girls towards the wide activity of life. She
has put an end to loneliness, to ignorance, to joylessness. No
unhappy, despised old Mamsells without aim or purpose in life will
ever exist again; none such as we have been."
Again resounded the echo of the shades, merry as a hunting-song in
the wood which is sung by a happy throng of children: "Blessed be
Thereupon the dead swarmed out of the church, and Mamsell Fredrika
wiped away a tear from the corner of her eye.
"I will not go home with you," said her dead sister. "Will you not
stop here now also?"
"I should like to, but I cannot. There is a book which I must make
"Well, good-night then, and beware of the knight of the church
road," said her dead sister, and smiled roguishly in her old way.
Then Mamsell Fredrika drove home. All ?sta still slept, and she
went quietly to her room, lay down and slept again.
A few hours later she drove to the real early mass. She drove in a
closed carriage, but she let down the window to look at the stars;
it is possible too that she, as of old, was looking for her knight.
And there he was; he sprang forward to the window of the carriage.
He sat his prancing charger magnificently. His scarlet cloak
fluttered in the wind. His pale face was stern, but beautiful.
"Will you be mine?" he whispered.
She was transported in her old heart by the lofty figure with the
waving plumes. She forgot that she needed to live a year yet.
"I am ready," she whispered.
"Then I will come and fetch you in a week at your father's house."
He bent down and kissed her, and then he vanished; she began to
shiver and tremble under Death's kiss.
A little later Mamsell Fredrika sat in the church, in the same
place where she had sat as a child. Here she forgot both the knight
and the ghosts, and sat smiling in quiet delight at the thought of
the revelation of the glory of God.
But either she was tired because she had not slept the whole night,
or the warmth and the closeness and the smell of the candles had a
soporific effect on her as on many another.
She fell asleep, only for a second; she absolutely could not help it.
Perhaps, too, God wished to open to her the gates of the land of
In that single second when she slept, she saw her stern father, her
lovely, beautifully-dressed mother, and the ugly, little Petrea
sitting in the church. And the soul of the child was compressed by
an anguish greater than has ever been felt by a grown person. The
priest stood in the pulpit and spoke of the stern, avenging God,
and the child sat pale and trembling, as if the words had been
axe-blows and had gone through its heart.
"Oh, what a God, what a terrible God!"
In the next second she was awake, but she trembled and shuddered,
as after the kiss of death on the church-road. Her heart was once
more caught in the wild grief of her childhood.
She wished to hurry from the church. She must go home and write her
book, her glorious book on the God of peace and love.
Nothing else that can be deemed worth mentioning happened to
Mamsell Fredrika before New Year's night. Life and death, like day
and night, reigned in quiet concord over the earth during the last
week of the year, but when New Year's night came, Death took his
sceptre and announced that now old Mamsell Fredrika should belong
Had they but known it, all the people of Sweden would certainly
have prayed a common prayer to God to be allowed to keep their
purest spirit, their warmest heart. Many homes in many lands where
she had left loving hearts would have watched with despair and
grief. The poor, the sick and the needy would have forgotten their
own wants to remember hers, and all the children who had grown up
blessing her work would have clasped their hands to pray for one
more year for their best friend. One year, that she might make all
fully clear and put the finishing-touch on her life's work.
For Death was too prompt for Mamsell Fredrika.
There was a storm outside on that New Year's night; there was a
storm within her soul. She felt all the agony of life and death
coming to a crisis.
"Anguish!" she sighed, "anguish!"
But the anguish gave way, and peace came, and she whispered softly:
"The love of Christ?the best love-the peace of God?the
Yes, that was what she would have written in her book, and perhaps
much else as beautiful and wonderful. Who knows? Only one thing we
know, that books are forgotten, but such a life as hers never is.
The old prophetess's eyes closed and she sank into visions.
Her body struggled with death, but she did not know it. Her family
sat weeping about her deathbed, but she did not see them. Her
spirit had begun its flight.
Dreams became reality to her and reality dreams. Now she stood, as
she had already seen herself in the visions of her youth, waiting
at the gates of heaven with innumerable hosts of the dead round
about her. And heaven opened. He, the only one, the Saviour, stood
in its open gates. And his infinite love woke in the waiting
spirits and in her a longing to fly to his embrace, and their
longing lifted them and her, and they floated as if on wings
The next day there was mourning in the land; mourning in wide parts
of the earth.
Fredrika Bremer was dead.