Read “Mamsell Fredrika,” a haunted Christmas tale by Selma Lagerlöf

“Mamsell Fredrika”


Selma Lagerlöf

translated by

Pauline Bancroft Flach

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 Österhaninge graveyard stood the horse of Hel. He pawed with his hoof on the frozen ground; he was marking out the place for a new grave.

Not very far away, at the old manor of Årsta, Mamsell Fredrika was lying asleep. Årsta 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 whole room.

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 chère mère” 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 Österhaninge 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 aisle.

“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 Årsta 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 frightened.

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 ring.

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 Österhaninge 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 her memory!”

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 ready first.”

“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 Årsta 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 dreams.

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 to him.

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 everlasting light!”

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 upwards, upwards.

The next day there was mourning in the land; mourning in wide parts of the earth.

Fredrika Bremer was dead.

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