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