NO one in Ullerud could say anything of fiddler Lars Larsson but that he was both meek and modest in his later years. But he had not always been thus, it seems. In his youth he had been so overbearing and boastful that people were in despair about him. It is said that he was changed and made over in a single night, and this is the way it happened.
Lars Larsson went out for a stroll late one Saturday night, with his fiddle under his arm. He was excessively gay and jovial, for he had just come from a party where his playing had tempted both young and old to dance. He walked along, thinking that while his bow was in motion no one had been able to sit still. There had been such a whirl in the cabin that once or twice he fancied the chairs and tables were dancing too! "I verily believe they have never before had a musician like me in these parts," he remarked to himself. "But I had a mighty rough time of it before I became such a clever chap!" he continued. "When I was a child, it was no fun for me when my parents put me to tending cows and sheep and when I forgot everything else to sit and twang my fiddle. And just fancy! they would n't so much as give me a real violin. I had nothing to play on but an old wooden box over which I had stretched some strings. In the daytime, when I could be alone in the woods, I fared rather well; but it was none too cheerful to come home in the evening when the cattle had strayed from me! Then I heard often enough, from both father and mother, that I was a good-for-nothing and never would amount to anything."
In that part of the forest where Lars Larsson was strolling a little river was trying to find its way. The ground was stony and hilly, and the stream had great difficulty in getting ahead, winding this way and that way, rolling over little falls and rapids and yet it appeared to get nowhere. The path where the fiddler walked, on the other hand, tried to go as straight ahead as possible. Therefore it was continually meeting the sinuous stream, and each time it would dart across it by using a little bridge. The musician also had to cross the stream repeatedly, and he was glad of it. He thought it was as though he had found company in the forest.
Where he was tramping it was light summer-night. The sun had not yet come up, but its being away made no difference, for it was as light as day all the same.
Still the light was not quite what it is in the daytime. Everything had a different color. The sky was perfectly white, the trees and the growths on the ground were grayish, but everything was as distinctly visible as in the daytime, and when Lars Larsson paused on any of the numerous bridges and looked down into the stream, he could distinguish every ripple on the water.
"When I see a stream like this in the wilderness," he thought, "I am reminded of my own life. As persistent as this stream have I been in forcing my way past all that has obstructed my path. Father has been my rock ahead, and mother tried to hold me back and bury me between moss-tufts, but I stole past both of them and got out in the world. Hay-ho, hi, hi! I think mother is still sitting at home and weeping for me. But what do I care! She might have known that I should amount to something some day, instead of trying to oppose me!"
Impatiently he tore some leaves from a branch and threw them into the river.
"Look! thus have I torn myself loose from everything at home," he said, as he watched the leaves borne away by the water. "I am just wondering if mother knows that I 'm the best musician in Vermland?" he remarked as he went farther.
He walked on rapidly until he came across the stream again. Then he stopped and looked into the water.
Here the river went along in a struggling rapid, creating a terrible racket. As it was night, one heard from the stream sounds quite different from those of the daytime, and the musician was perfectly astonished when he stood still and listened. There was no bird song in the trees and no music in the pines and no rustling in the leaves. No wagon wheels creaked in the road and no cow-bells tinkled in the wood. One heard only the rapid; but because all the other things were hushed, it could be heard so much better than during the day. It sounded as though everything thinkable and unthinkable was rioting and clamoring in the depths of the stream. First, it sounded as if some one were sitting down there and grinding grain between stones, and then it sounded as though goblets were clinking in a drinking-bout; and again there was a murmuring, as when the congregation had left the church and were standing on the church knoll after the service, talking earnestly together.
"I suppose this, too, is a kind of music," thought the fiddler, "although I can't find anything much in it! I think the air that I composed the other day was much more worth listening to."
But the longer Lars Larsson listened to the music of the rapid, the better he thought it sounded.
"I believe you are improving," he said to the rapid. "It must have dawned upon you that the best musician in Vermland is listening to you!"
The instant he had made this remark, he fancied he heard a couple of clear metallic sounds, as when some one picks a violin string to hear if it is in tune.
"But see, hark! The Water-Sprite himself has arrived. I can hear how he begins to thrum on the violin. Let us hear now if you can play better than I!" said Lars Larsson, laughing. "But I can't stand here all night waiting for you to begin," he called to the water. "Now I must be going; but I promise you that I will also stop at the next bridge and listen, to hear if you can cope with me."
He went farther and, as the stream in its winding course ran into the wood, he began thinking once more of his home.
"I wonder how the little brooklet that runs by our house is getting on? I should like to see it again. I ought to go home once in a while, to see if mother is suffering want and hardship since father's death. But busy as I am, it is almost impossible. As busy as I am just now, I say, I can't look after anything but the fiddle. There is hardly an evening in the week that I am at liberty."
In a little while he met the stream again, and his thoughts were turned to something else. At this crossing the river did not come rushing on in a noisy rapid, but glided ahead rather quietly. It lay perfectly black and shiny under the night-gray forest trees, and carried with it one and another patch of snow-white scum from the rapids above.
When the musician came down upon the bridge and heard no sound from the stream but a soft swish now and then, he began to laugh.
"I might have known that the Water-Sprite would n't care to come to the meeting," he shouted. "To be sure, I have always heard that he is considered an excellent performer, but one who lies still forever in a brook and never hears anything new can't know very much! He perceives, no doubt, that here stands one who knows more about music than he, therefore he does n't care to let me hear him."
Then he went farther and lost sight of the river again. He came into a part of the forest which he had always thought dismal and bleak to wander through. There the ground was covered with big stone heaps, and gnarled pine stumps lay uprooted among them. If there was anything magical or fearsome in the forest, one would naturally think that it concealed itself here.
When the musician came in among the wild stone blocks, a shudder passed through him, and he began to wonder if it had not been unwise of him to boast in the presence of the Water-Sprite. He fancied the large pine roots began to gesticulate, as if they were threatening him. "Beware, you who think yourself cleverer than the Water-Sprite!" it seemed as if they wanted to say.
Lars Larsson felt how his heart contracted with dread. A heavy weight bore down upon his chest, so that he could scarcely breathe, and his hands became ice-cold. Then he stopped in the middle of the wood and tried to talk sense to himself.
"Why, there's no musician in the waterfall!" said he. "Such things are only superstition and nonsense! It 's of no consequence what I have said or have n't said to him."
As he spoke, he looked around him, as if for some confirmation of the truth of what he said. Had it been daytime, every tiny leaf would have winked at him that there was nothing dangerous in the wood; but now, at night, the leaves on the trees were closed and silent and looked as though they were hiding all sorts of dangerous secrets.
Lars Larsson grew more and more alarmed. That which caused him the greatest fear was having to cross the stream once more before it and the road parted company and went in different directions. He wondered what the Water-Sprite would do to him when he walked across the last bridge if he might perhaps stretch a big black hand out of the water and drag him down into the depths.
He had worked himself into such a state of fright that he thought of turning back. But then he would meet the stream again. And if he were to turn out of the road and go into the wood, he would also meet it, the way it kept bending and winding itself!
He felt so nervous that he did n't know what to do. He was snared and captured and bound by that stream, and saw no possibility of escape.
Finally he saw before him the last bridge crossing. Directly opposite him, on the other side of the stream, stood an old mill, which must have been abandoned these many years. The big mill-wheel hung motionless over the water. The sluice-gate lay mouldering on the land; the mill-race was moss-grown, and its sides were lined with common fern and beard-moss.
"If all had been as formerly and there were people here," thought the musician, "I should be safe now from all danger."
But, at all events, he felt reassured in seeing a building constructed by human hands, and, as he crossed the stream, he was scarcely frightened at all. Nor did anything dreadful happen to him. The Water-Sprite seemed to have no quarrel with him. He was simply amazed to think he had worked himself into a panic over nothing whatever.
He felt very happy and secure, and became even happier when the mill door opened and a young girl came out to him. She looked like an ordinary peasant girl. She had a cotton kerchief on her head and wore a short skirt and full jacket, but her feet were bare.
She walked up to the musician and said to him without further ceremony, "If you will play for me, I 'll dance for you."
"Why, certainly," said the fiddler, who was in fine spirits now that he was rid of his fear. "That I can do, of course. I have never in my life refused to play for a pretty girl who wants to dance."
He took his place on a stone near the edge of the mill-pond, raised the violin to his chin, and began to play.
The girl took a few steps in rhythm with the music; then she stopped. "What kind of a polka are you playing?" said she. "There is no vim in it."
The fiddler changed his tune; he tried one with more life in it.
The girl was just as dissatisfied. "I can't dance to such a draggy polka," said she.
Then Lars Larsson struck up the wildest air he knew. "If you are not satisfied with this one," he said, "you will have to call hither a better musician than I am."
The instant he said this, he felt that a hand caught his arm at the elbow and began to guide the bow and increase the tempo. Then from the violin there poured forth a strain the like of which he had never before heard. It moved in such a quick tempo he thought that a rolling wheel could n't have kept up with it.
"Now, that's what I call a polka!" said the girl, and began to swing round.
But the musician did not glance at her. He was so astonished at the air he was playing that he stood with closed eyes, to hear better. When he opened them after a moment, the girl was gone. But he did not wonder much at this. He continued to play on, long and well, only because he had never before heard such violin playing.
"It must be time now to finish with this," he thought finally, and wanted to lay down the bow. But the bow kept up its motion; he could n't make it stop. It travelled back and forth over the strings and jerked the hand and arm with it; and the hand that held the neck of the violin and fingered the strings could not free itself, either.
The cold sweat stood out on Lars Larsson's brow, and he was frightened now in earnest.
"How will this end? Shall I sit here and play till doomsday?" he asked himself in despair.
The bow ran on and on, and magically called forth one tune after another. Always it was something new, and it was so beautiful that the poor fiddler must have known how little his own skill was worth. And it was this that tortured him worse than the fatigue.
"He who plays upon my violin understands the art. But never in all my born days have I been anything but a bungler. Now for the first time I 'm learning how music should sound."
For a few seconds he became so transported by the music that he forgot his evil fate; then he felt how his arm ached from weariness and he was seized anew with despair.
"This violin I cannot lay down until I have played myself to death. I can understand that the Water-Sprite won't be satisfied with less."
He began to weep over himself, but all the while he kept on playing.
"It would have been better for me had I stayed at home in the little cabin with mother. What is all the glory worth if it is to end in this way?"
He sat there hour after hour. Morning came on, the sun rose, and the birds sang all around him; but he played and he played, without intermission.
As it was a Sunday that dawned, he had to sit there by the old mill all alone. No human beings tramped in this part of the forest. They went to church down in the dale, and to the villages along the big highway.
Forenoon came along, and the sun stepped higher and higher in the sky. The birds grew silent, and the wind began to murmur in the long pine needles.
Lars Larsson did not let the summer day's heat deter him. He played and played. At last evening was ushered in, the sun sank, but his bow needed no rest, and his arm continued to move.
"It is absolutely certain that this will be the death of me!" said he. "And it is a righteous punishment for all my conceit."
Far along in the evening a human being came wandering through the wood. It was a poor old woman with bent back and white hair, and a countenance that was furrowed by many sorrows.
"It seems strange," thought the player, "but I think I recognize that old woman. Can it be possible that it is my mother? Can it be possible that mother has grown so old and gray?"
He called aloud and stopped her. "Mother, mother, come here to me!" he cried.
She paused, as if unwillingly. "I hear now with my own ears that you are the best musician in Vermland," said she. "I can well understand that you do not care any more for a poor old woman like me!"
"Mother, mother, don't pass me by!" cried Lars Larsson. "I 'm no great performer only a poor wretch. Come here that I may speak with you!"
Then the mother came nearer and saw how he sat and played. His face was as pale as death, his hair dripped sweat, and blood oozed out from under the roots of his nails.
"Mother, I have fallen into misfortune because of my vanity, and now I must play myself to death. But tell me, before this happens, if you can forgive me, who left you alone and poor in your old age!"
His mother was seized with a great compassion for the son, and all the anger she had felt toward him was as if blown away. "Why, surely I forgive you!" said she. And as she saw his anguish and bewilderment and wanted him to understand that she meant what she said, she repeated it in the name of God.
"In the name of God our Redeemer, I forgive you!"
And when she said this, the bow stopped, the violin fell to the ground, and the musician arose saved and redeemed. For the enchantment was broken, because his old mother had felt such compassion for his distress that she had spoken God's name over him.
The Wedding March
NOW I 'm going to tell a pretty story.
A good many years ago there was to be a very big wedding at Svartsjö parish in Vermland.
First, there was to be a church ceremony and after that three days of feasting and merrymaking, and every day while the festivities lasted there was to be dancing from early morning till far into the night.
Since there was to be so much dancing, it was of very great importance to get a good fiddler, and Juryman Nils Olafsson, who was managing the wedding, worried almost more over this than over anything else.
The fiddler they had at Svartsjö he did not care to engage. His name was Jan Öster. The Juryman knew, to be sure, that he had quite a big name; but he was so poor that sometimes he would appear at a wedding in a frayed jacket and without shoes to his feet. The Juryman did n't wish to see such a ragtag at the head of the bridal procession, so he decided to send a messenger to a musician in Jösse parish, who was commonly called Fiddler Mårten, and ask him if he would n't come and play at the wedding.
Fiddler Mårten did n't consider the proposition for a second, but promptly replied that he did not want to play at Svartsjö, because in that parish lived a musician who was more skilled than all others in Vermland. While they had him, there was no need for them to call another.
When Nils Olafsson received this answer, he took a few days to think it over, and then he sent word to a fiddler in Big Kil parish, named Olle in Säby, to ask him if he would n't come and play at his daughter's wedding.
Olle in Säby answered in the same way as Fiddler Mårten. He sent his compliments to Nils Olafsson, and said that so long as there was such a capable musician as Jan Öster to be had in Svartsjö, he did n't want to go there to play.
Nils Olafsson did n't like it that the musicians tried in this way to force upon him the very one he did not want. Now he considered that it was a point of honor with him to get another fiddler than Jan Öster.
A few days after he had the answer from Olle in Saby, he sent his servant to fiddler Lars Larsson, who lived at the game lodge in Ullerud parish. Lars Larsson was a well-to-do man who owned a fine farm. He was sensible and considerate and no hotspur, like the other musicians. But Lars Larsson, like the others, at once thought of Jan Öster, and asked how it happened that he was not to play at the wedding.
Nils Olafsson's servant thought it best to say to him that, since Jan Öster lived at Svartsjö, they could hear him play at any time. As Nils Olafsson was making ready to give a grand wedding, he wished to treat his guests to something a little better and more select.
"I doubt if you can get any one better," said Lars Larsson.
"Now you must be thinking of answering in the same way as fiddler Mårten and Olle in Säby did," said the servant. Then he told him how he had fared with them.
Lars Larsson paid close attention to the servant's story, and then he sat quietly for a long while and pondered. Finally he answered in the affirmative: "Tell your master that I thank him for his invitation and will come."
The following Sunday Lars Larsson journeyed down to Svartsjö. He drove up to the church knoll just as the wedding guests were forming into line to march to the church. He came driving in his own chaise and with a good horse and dressed in black broadcloth. He took out his fiddle from a highly polished box. Nils Olafsson received him effusively, thinking that here was a fiddler of whom he might be proud. Immediately after Lars Larsson's arrival, Jan Öster, too, came marching up to the church, with his fiddle under his arm. He walked straight up to the crowd around the bride, exactly as if he were asked to come and play at the wedding.
Jan Öster had come in the old gray homespun jacket which they had seen him wearing for ages. But, as this was to be such a grand wedding, his wife had made an attempt at mending the holes at the elbow by sewing big green patches over them. Jan Öster was a tall handsome man, and would have made a fine appearance at the head of the bridal procession, had he not been so shabbily dressed, and had his face not been so lined and seamed by worries and the hard struggle with misfortune.
When Lars Larsson saw Jan Öster coming, he seemed a bit displeased. "So you have called Jan Öster, too," he said under his breath to the Juryman Nils Olafsson, "but at a grand wedding there 's no harm in having two fiddlers."
"I did not invite him, that's certain!" protested Nils Olafsson. "I can't comprehend why he has come. Just wait, and I 'll let him know that he has no business here!"
"Then some practical joker must have bidden him," said Lars Larsson. "But if you care to be guided by my counsel, appear as if nothing were wrong and go over and bid him welcome. I have heard said that he is a quick-tempered man, and who knows but he may begin to quarrel and fight if you were to tell him that he was not invited?"
This the Juryman knew, too! It was no time to begin fussing when the bridal procession was forming on the church grounds; so he walked up to Jan Öster and bade him be welcome. Thereupon the two fiddlers took their places at the head of the procession. The bridal pair walked under a canopy, the bridesmaids and the groomsmen marched in pairs, and after them came the parents and relatives; so the procession was both imposing and long.
When everything was in readiness, a groomsman stepped up to the musicians and asked them to play the Wedding March. Both musicians swung their fiddles up to their chins, but beyond that they did not get. And thus they stood! It was an old custom in Svartsjö for the best fiddler to strike up the Wedding March and to lead the music.
The groomsman looked at Lars Larsson, as though he were waiting for him to start; but Lars Larsson looked at Jan Öster and said, "It is you, Jan Öster, who must begin."
It did not seem possible to Jan Öster that the other fiddler, who was as finely dressed as any gentleman, should not be better than himself, who had come in his old homespun jacket straight from the wretched hovel where there were only poverty and distress. "No, indeed!" said he. "No, indeed!"
He saw that the bridegroom put forth his hand and touched Lars Larsson. "Larsson shall begin," said he.
When Jan Öster heard the bridegroom say this, he promptly lowered his fiddle and stepped aside.
Lars Larsson, on the other hand, did not move from the spot, but remained standing in his place, confident and pleased with himself. Nor did he raise the bow. "It is Jan Öster who shall begin," he repeated stubbornly and resistingly, as one who is used to having his own way.
There was some commotion among the crowds over the cause of the delay. The bride's father came forward and begged Lars Larsson to begin. The sexton stepped to the door of the church and beckoned to them to hurry along. The parson stood waiting at the altar.
"You can ask Jan Öster to begin, then," said Lars Larsson. "We musicians consider him to be the best among us."
"That may be so," said a peasant, "but we peasants consider you the best one."
Then the other peasants also gathered around them. "Well, begin, why don't you?" they said. "The parson is waiting. We 'll become a laughing-stock to the church people."
Lars Larsson stood there quite as stubborn and determined as before. "I can't see why the people in this parish are so opposed to having their own fiddler placed in the lead."
Nils Olafsson was perfectly furious because they wished in this way to force Jan Öster upon him. He came close up to Lars Larsson and whispered: "I comprehend that it is you who have called hither Jan Öster, and that you have arranged this to do him honor. But be quick, now, and play up, or I 'll drive that ragamuffin from the church grounds in disgrace and by force!"
Lars Larsson looked him square in the face and nodded to him without displaying any irritation. "Yes, you are right in saying that we must have an end of this," said he.
He beckoned to Jan Öster to return to his place. Then he himself walked forward a step or two, and turned around that all might see him. Then he flung the bow far from him, pulled out his case-knife, and cut all four violin strings, which snapped with a sharp twang. "It shall not be said of me that I count myself better than Jan Öster!" said he.
It appears that for three years Jan Öster had been musing on an air which he could n't get out over the strings because at home he was bound down by dull, gray cares and worries, and nothing ever happened to him, either great or small, to lift him above the daily grind. But when he heard Lars Larsson's strings snap, he threw back his head and filled his lungs. His features were rapt, as though he were listening to something far away; and then he began to play. And the air which he had been musing over for three years became all at once clear to him, and as the tones of it vibrated he walked with proud step down to the church.
The bridal procession had never before heard an air like that! It carried them along with such speed that not even Nils Olafsson could think of staying back. And every one was so pleased both with Jan Öster and with Lars Larsson that the entire following entered the church, their eyes brimming with tears of joy.