The Romance of A Fisherman's Wife, by Selma Lagerlof

Invisible Links

On the outer edge of the fishing-village stood a little cottage on a low mound of white sea sand. It was not built in line with the even, neat, conventional houses that enclosed the wide green place where the brown fish-nets were dried, but seemed as if forced out of the row and pushed on one side to the sand-hills. The poor widow who had erected it had been her own builder, and she had made the walls of her cottage lower than those of all the other cottages and its steep thatched roof higher than any other roof in the fishing-village. The floor lay deep down in the ground. The window was neither high nor wide, but nevertheless it reached from the cornice to the level of the earth. There had been no space for a chimney-breast in the one narrow room and she had been obliged to add a small, square projection. The cottage had not, like the other cottages, its fenced-in garden with gooseberry bushes and twining morning-glories and elder-bushes half suffocated by burdocks. Of all the vegetation of the fishing-village, only the burdocks had followed the cottage to the sand-hill. They were fine enough in summer with their fresh, dark-green leaves and prickly baskets filled with bright, red flowers. But towards the autumn, when the prickles had hardened and the seeds had ripened, they grew careless about their looks, and stood hideously ugly and dry with their torn leaves wrapped in a melancholy shroud of dusty cobwebs.

The cottage never had more than two owners, for it could not hold up that heavy roof on its walls of reeds and clay for more than two generations. But as long as it stood, it was owned by poor widows. The second widow who lived there delighted in watching the burdocks, especially in the autumn, when they were dried and broken. They recalled her who had built the cottage. She too had been shrivelled and dry and had had the power to cling fast and adhere, and all her strength had been used for her child, whom she had needed to help on in the world. She, who now sat there alone, wished both to weep and to laugh at the thought of it. If the old woman had not had a burr-like nature, how different everything would have been! But who knows if it would have been better?

The lonely woman often sat musing on the fate which had brought her to this spot on the coast of Skone, to the narrow inlet and among these quiet people. For she was born in a Norwegian seaport which lay on a narrow strip of land between rushing falls and the open sea, and although her means were small after the death of her father, a merchant, who left his family in poverty, still she was used to life and progress. She used to tell her story to herself over and over again, just as one often reads through an obscure book in order to try to discover its meaning.

The first thing of note which had happened to her was when, one evening on the way home from the dressmaker with whom she worked, she had been attacked by two sailors and rescued by a third. The latter fought for her at peril of his life and afterwards went home with her. She took him in to her mother and sisters, and told them excitedly what he had done. It was as if life had acquired a new value for her, because another had dared so much to defend it. He had been immediately well received by her family and asked to come again as soon and as often as he could.

His name was B?je Nilsson, and he was a sailor on the Swedish lugger "Albertina." As long as the boat lay in the harbor, he came almost every day to her home, and they could soon no longer believe that he was only a common sailor. He shone always in a clean, turned-down collar and wore a sailor suit of fine cloth. Natural and frank, he showed himself among them, as if he had been used to move in the same class as they. Without his ever having said it in so many words, they got the impression that he was from a respectable home, the only son of a rich widow, but that his unconquerable love for a sailor's profession had made him take a place before the mast, so that his mother should see that he was in earnest. When he had passed his examination, she would certainly get him his own ship.

The lonely family who had drawn away from all their former friends, received him without the slightest suspicion. And he described with a light heart and fluent tongue his home with its high, pointed roof, the great open fireplace in the dining-room and the little leaded glass panes. He also painted the silent streets of his native town and the long rows of even houses, built in the same style, against which his home, with its irregular buttresses and terraces, made a pleasant contrast. And his listeners believed that he had come from one of those old burgher houses with carved gables and with overhanging second stories, which give such a strong impression of wealth and venerable age.

Soon enough she saw that he cared for her. And that gave her mother and sisters great joy. The young, rich Swede came as if to raise them all up from their poverty. Even if she had not loved him, which she did, she would never have had a thought of saying no to his proposal. If she had had a father or a grown-up brother, he could have found out about the stranger's extraction and position, but neither she nor her mother thought of making any inquiries. Afterwards she saw how they had actually forced him to lie. In the beginning, he had let them imagine great ideas about his wealth without any evil intention, but when he understood how glad they were over it, he had not dared to speak the truth for fear of losing her.

Before he left they were betrothed, and when the lugger came again, they were married. It was a disappointment for her that he also on his return appeared as a sailor, but he had been bound by his contract. He had no greetings either from his mother. She had expected him to make another choice, but she would be so glad, he said, if she would once see Astrid.?In spite of all his lies, it would have been an easy matter to see that he was a poor man, if they had only chosen to use their eyes.

The captain offered her his cabin if she would like to make the journey in his vessel, and the offer was accepted with delight. B?je was almost exempt from all work, and sat most of the time on the deck, talking to his wife. And now he gave her the happiness of fancy, such as he himself had lived on all his life. The more he thought of that little house which lay half buried in the sand, so much the higher he raised that palace which he would have liked to offer her. He let her in thought glide into a harbor which was adorned with flags and flowers in honor of B?je Nilsson's bride. He let her hear the mayor's speech of greeting. He let her drive under a triumphal arch, while the eyes of men followed her and the women grew pale with envy. And he led her into the stately home, where bowing, silvery-haired servants stood drawn up along the side of the broad stairway and where the table laden for the feast groaned under the old family silver.

When she discovered the truth, she supposed at first that the captain had been in league with B?je to deceive her, but afterwards she found that it was not so. They were accustomed on board the boat to speak of B?je as of a great man. It was their greatest joke to talk quite seriously of his riches and his fine family. They thought that B?je had told her the truth, but that she joked with him, as they all did, when she talked about his big house. So it happened that when the lugger cast anchor in the harbor which lay nearest to B?je's home, she still did not know but that she was the wife of a rich man.

B?je got a day's leave to conduct his wife to her future home and to start her in her new life. When they were landed on the quay, where the flags were to have fluttered and the crowds to have rejoiced in honor of the newly-married couple, only emptiness and calm reigned there, and B?je noticed that his wife looked about her with a certain disappointment.

"We have come too soon," he had said. "The journey was such an unusually quick one in this fine weather. So we have no carriage here either, and we have far to go, for the house lies outside the town."

"That makes no difference, B?je," she had answered. "It will do us good to walk, after having been quiet so long on board."

And so they began their walk, that walk of horror, of which she could not think even in her old age without moaning in agony and wringing her hands in pain. They went along the broad, empty streets, which she instantly recognized from his description. She felt as if she met with old friends both in the dark church and in the even houses of timber and brick; but where were the carved gables and marble steps with the high railing?

B?je had nodded to her as if he had guessed her thoughts. "It is a long way still," he had said.

If he had only been merciful and at once killed her hope. She loved him so then. If he of his own accord had told her everything, there would never have been any sting in her soul against him. But when he saw her pain at being deceived, and yet went on misleading her, that had hurt her too bitterly. She had never really forgiven him that. She could of course say to herself that he had wanted to take her with him as far as possible so that she would not be able to run away from him, but his deceit created such a deadly coldness in her that no love could entirely thaw it.

They went through the town and came out on the adjoining plain. There stretched several rows of dark moats and high, green ramparts, remains from the time when the town had been fortified, and at the point where they all gathered around a fort, she saw some ancient buildings and big, round towers. She cast a shy look towards them, but B?je turned off to the mounds which followed the shore.

"This is a shorter way," he said, for she seemed to be surprised that there was only a narrow path to follow.

He had become very taciturn. She understood afterwards that he had not found it so merry as he had fancied, to come with a wife to the miserable little house in the fishing village. It did not seem so fine now to bring home a better man's child. He was anxious about what she would do when she should know the truth.

"B?je," she said at last, when they had followed the shelving, sandy hillocks for a long while, "where are we going?"

He lifted his band and pointed towards the fishing-village, where his mother lived in the house on the sand-hill. But she believed that he meant one of the beautiful country-seats which lay on the edge of the plain, and was again glad.

They climbed down into the empty cow-pastures, and there all her uneasiness returned. There, where every tuft, if one can only see it, is clothed with beauty and variety, she saw merely an ugly field. And the wind, which is ever shifting there, swept whistling by them and whispered of misfortune and treachery.

B?je walked faster and faster, and at last they reached the end of the pasture and entered the fishing village. She, who at the last had not dared to ask herself any questions, took courage again. Here again was a uniform row of houses, and this one she recognized Even better than that in the town. Perhaps, perhaps he had not lied.

Her expectations were so reduced that she would have been glad from the heart if she could have stopped at any of the neat little houses, where flowers and white curtains showed behind shining window-panes. She grieved that she had to go by them.

Then she saw suddenly, just at the outer edge of the fishing-village, one of the most wretched of hovels, and it seemed to her as if she had already seen it with her mind's eye before she actually had a glimpse of it.

"Is it here?" he said, and stopped just at the foot of the little sand-hill.

He bent his head imperceptibly and went on towards the little cottage.

"Wait," she called after him, "we must talk this over before I go into your home. You have lied," she went on, threateningly, when he turned to her. "You have deceived me worse than if you were my worst enemy. Why have you done it?"

"I wanted you for my wife," he answered, with a low, trembling voice.

"If you had only deceived me within bounds! Why did you make everything so fine and rich? What did you have to do with man-servants and triumphal arches and all the other magnificence? Did you think that I was so devoted to money? Did you not see that I cared enough for you to go anywhere with you? That you could believe you needed to deceive me! That you could have the heart to keep up your lies to the very last!"

"Will you not come in and speak to my mother?" he said, helplessly.

"I do not intend to go in there."

"Are you going home?"

"How can I go home? How could I cause them there at home such sorrow as to return, when they believe me happy and rich? But with you I will not stay either. For one who is willing to work there is always a livelihood."

"Stop!" he begged. "I did it only to win you."

"If you had told me the truth, I would have stayed."

"If I had been a rich man, who had pretended to be poor, then you would have stayed."

She shrugged her shoulders and turned to go, when the door of the cottage opened and B?je's mother came out. She was a little, dried-up old woman with few teeth and many wrinkles, but not so old in years or in feelings as in looks.

She had heard a part and guessed a part, for she knew what they were quarrelling about. "Well," she said, "that is a fine daughter-in-law you have got me, B?je. And you have been deceiving again, I can hear." But to Astrid she came and patted her kindly on the cheek. "Come in with me, you poor child! I know that you are tired and worn out. This is my house. He is not allowed to come in here. But you come. Now you are my daughter, and I cannot let you go to strangers, do you understand?"

She caressed her daughter-in-law and chatted to her and drew and pushed her quite imperceptibly forward to the door. Step by step she lured her on, and at last got her inside the house; but B?je she shut out. And there, within, the old woman began to ask who she was and how it had all happened. And she wept over her and made her weep over herself. The old woman was merciless about her son. She, Astrid, did right; she could not stay with such a man. It was true that he was in the habit of lying, it was really true.

She told her how it had been with her son. He had been so fair in face and limbs, even when he was small, that she had always marvelled that he was a poor man's child. He was like a little prince gone astray. And ever after it had always seemed as if he had not been in his right place. He saw everything on such a large scale. He could not see things as they were, when it concerned himself. His mother had wept many a time on that account. But never before had he done any harm with his lies. Here, where he was known, they only laughed at him.?But now he must have been so terribly tempted. Did she really not think, she, Astrid, that it was wonderful how the fisher boy had been able to deceive them? He had always known so much about wealth, as if he had been born to it. It must be that he had come into the world in the wrong place. See, that was another proof,?he had never thought of choosing a wife in his own station.

"Where will he sleep to-night?" asked Astrid, suddenly.

"I imagine he will lie outside on the sand. He will be too anxious to go away from here."

"I suppose it is best for him to come in," said Astrid.

"Dearest child, you cannot want to see him. He can get along out there if I give him a blanket."

She let him actually sleep out on the sand that night, thinking it best for Astrid not to see him. And with her she talked and talked, and kept her, not by force, but by cleverness, not by persuasion, but by real goodness.

But when she had at last succeeded in keeping her daughter-in-law for her son, and had got the young people reconciled, and had taught Astrid that her vocation in life was just to be B?je Nilsson's wife and to make him as happy as she could,?and that had not been the work of one evening, but of many days,?then the old woman had laid herself down to die.

And in that life, with its faithful solicitude for her son, there was some meaning, thought B?je Nilsson's wife.

But in her own life she saw no meaning. Her husband was drowned after a few years of married life, and her one child died young. She had not been able to make any change in her husband. She had not been able to teach him earnestness and truth. It was rather in her the change showed, after she had been more and more with the fishing people. She would never see any of her own family, for she was ashamed that she now resembled in everything a fisherman's wife. If it had only been of any use! If she, who lived by mending the fishermen's nets, knew why she clung so to life! If she had made any one happy or had improved anybody!

It never occurred to her to think that she who considers her life a failure because she has done no good to others, perhaps by that thought of humility has saved her own soul.