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- In Midsummer Days and Other Tales - 10/20 -
"Leadsman, you're a braggart!" said the miller. "We've known that for a long time; we knew it when you wrote to the paper saying the Great Man was another Humboldt!"
Now another of the leadsman's weaknesses gained the upper hand.
"The Great Man is a humbug!" he exclaimed, which was not true.
This was too much for the assembly. They rose from their seats like one man, seized the fool, and with a leather strap bound him to a sack of flour. They covered him with flour until he was white from top to toe, and blackened his face with the wick from one of the lanterns. The millers' apprentice sewed him to the sack; they lifted him, sack and lantern, on to the cart, and amid shouting and laughter proceeded to the market-place.
There he was exhibited to the passers-by, and everybody laughed at him.
When they let him go at last, he went and sat on some stone stairs and cried. The big fellow sobbed like a little child; one might almost have felt sorry for him.
WHAT THE TREE-SWALLOW SANG IN THE BUCKTHORN TREE
If you are standing at the harbour where all the steamers call, and look out towards the sea, you will see a mountain on your left, covered with green trees, and behind the trees a large house built in the shape of a spider. For in the centre there is a round building from which radiate eight wings, that look very much like the eight legs on the round body of a spider. The people who enter the house do not leave it again at will, and some of them stay there for the rest of their life, for the house is a prison.
In the days of King Oscar I, the mountain was not green. On the contrary, it was grey and cold, for neither moss nor heart's-ease would grow there, although these plants generally thrive on the bare rock. There was nothing but grey stone and grey people, who looked as if they had been turned into stone, and who quarried stone, broke stone, and carried stone. And among these people there was one who looked stonier than all the others.
He was still a youth when, in the reign of King Oscar I., he was shut up in this prison because he had killed a man.
He was a prisoner for life, and sewn on his grey prison garb was a large black "L."
He was always on the mountain, in winter days and summer time, breaking stones. In the winter he had only the empty and deserted harbour to look at; the semicircular bridge with its poles had the appearance of a yawning row of teeth, and he could see the wood-shed, the riding-school, and the two gigantic, denuded lime trees. Sometimes an ice-yacht would sail past the islet; sometimes a few boys would pass on skates; otherwise it was quiet and forsaken.
In the summer time it was much jollier. For then the harbour was full of smart boats, newly painted and decorated with flags. And the lime trees, in the shade of which he had sat when he was a child, waiting for his father, who was an engineer on one of the finest boats, were green.
It was many years now since he had heard the rustling of the breeze in the trees, for nothing grew on his cliff, and the only thing in the world he longed for was to hear once again the whispering of the wind in the branches of the lime trees at Knightsholm.
Sometimes, on a summer's day, a steamer would pass the islet; then he heard the plashing of the waves, or, perhaps, snatches of music; and he saw bright faces which grew dark as soon as their eyes fell on the grey stone men on the mountain.
And then he cursed heaven and earth, his fate and the cruelty of men. He cursed, year in, year out. And he and his companions tormented and cursed each other day and night; for crime isolates, but misfortune draws men together.
In the beginning his fate was unnecessarily cruel, for the keepers ill-treated the prisoners, mercilessly and at their pleasure.
But one day there was a change; the food was better, the treatment was less harsh, and every prisoner was given a cell of his own to sleep in. The king himself had loosened the chains of the prisoners a little; but since hopelessness had petrified the hearts of these unfortunate men, they were unable to feel anything like gratitude, and so they continued to curse; and now they came to the conclusion that it was more pleasant to sleep together in one room, for then they could talk all night. And they continued to complain of the food, the clothes, and the treatment, just as before.
One fine day all the bells of the town were ringing, and those of Knightsholm rang louder than any of the others. King Oscar was dead, and the prisoners had a holiday. Since they could talk to one another now, they talked of murdering the guards and escaping from prison; and they also talked of the dead king, and they spoke evil of him.
"If he had been a just man, he would have set us free," said one of the prisoners.
"Or else he would have imprisoned all the criminals who are at large."
"Then he himself would have had to be Governor of the Prison, for the whole nation are criminals."
It is the way of prisoners to regard all men as criminals, and to maintain that they themselves were only caught because they were unlucky.
But it was a hot summer's day, and the stone man walked along the shore, listening to the tolling of the bells for Oscar the king. He raised the stones and looked for tadpoles and sticklebacks, but could find none; not a fish was visible in the water, and consequently there was not a sign of a sea-gull or a tern. Then he felt that a curse rested on the mountain, a curse so strong that it kept even the fishes and the birds away. He fell to considering the life he was leading. He had lost his name, both Christian and surname, and was no more now than No. 65, a name written in figures, instead of in letters. He was no longer obliged to pay taxes. He had forgotten his age. He had ceased to be a man, ceased to be a living being, but neither was he dead. He was nothing but something grey moving on the mountain and being terribly scorched by the sun. It burned on his prison garb and on his head with the close-cropped hair, which in days long passed had been curly, and was combed with a tooth-comb every Saturday by his mother's gentle hand. He was not allowed to wear a cap to-day, because it would have facilitated an attempt at escape. And as the sun scorched his head, he remembered the story of the prophet Jonah, to whom the Lord gave a gourd so that he might sit in its shade.
"A nice gift, that!" he sneered, for he did not believe in anything good; in fact, he did not believe in anything at all.
All at once he saw a huge birch branch tossed about in the surf. It was quite green and fresh and had a white stem; possibly it had fallen off a pleasure-boat. He dragged it ashore, shook the water off and carried it to a gully where he put it up, wedged firmly between three stones. Then he sat down and listened to the wind rustling through its leaves, which smelt of the finest resin.
When he had sat for a little while in the shade of the birch he fell asleep.
And he dreamed a dream.
The whole mountain was a green wood with lovely trees and odorous flowers. Birds were singing, bees and humble-bees buzzing, and butterflies fluttering from flower to flower. But all by itself and a little aside stood a tree which he did not know; it was more beautiful than all the rest; it had several stems, like a shrub, and the branches looked like lacework. And on one of its branches, half hidden by its foliage, sat a little black-and-white bird which looked like a swallow, but wasn't one.
In his dream he could interpret the language of the birds, and therefore he understood to some extent what the bird was singing. And it sang:
Mud, mud, mud, mud here! We'll throw, throw, throw here! In mud, mud, mud you died, From mud, mud, mud you'll rise.
It sang of mud, death, and resurrection; that much he could make out.
But that was not all. He was standing alone on the cliff in the scorching heat of the sun. All his fellows-in-misfortune had forsaken him and threatened his life, because he had refused to be a party to their setting the prison on fire. They followed him in a crowd, threw stones at him and chased him up the mountain as far as he could go.
And finally he was stopped by a stone wall.
There was no possibility of climbing over it, and in his despair he resolved to kill himself by dashing his head against the stones. He rushed down the mountain, and behold! a gate was opened at the same moment--a green garden gate ... and ... he woke up.
When he thought of his life and realised that the green wood was nothing but the branch of a birch tree, he grew very discontented in his heart.
"If at least it had been a lime tree," he grumbled. And as he listened he found that it was the birch which had sung so loudly; it sounded as if some one were sifting sand or gravel, and again he thought of the lime trees, which make the soft velvety sounds that touch the heart.
On the following day his birch was faded and gave little shade.
On the day after that the foliage was as dry as paper and rattled like teeth. And finally there was nothing left but a huge birch rod, which reminded him of his childhood.
He remembered the gourd of the prophet Jonah, and he cursed when
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