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Selma Lagerlöf: The mark of death was on them all


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Selma Lagerlöf: The Fifth Commandment. The Great Beast is War.


Selma Lagerlöf
From Mårbacka (1922)
Translated by Felma Swanston Howard


The Old Soldier

“Mind, Selma, you mustn’t say a word about war in Father’s hearing!”

The little girl was astonished at that. She knew that Back-Kaisa’s father was an old soldier who had fought with Napoleon at Leipsic. That one could not speak with him about war seemed unbelievable.

“Why can’t I talk to him about war?” she queried.

“That one must never do with them that’s been out in a real war,” Back-Kaisa told her.

The little girl stared and stared at the soldier who would not allow any one to speak of war in his hearing. To her there was nothing so delightful as to hear tales of battles or read stories of wars. She thought it a great pity that she could not ask him to tell her about the things he had been through. She felt that if she opened her mouth she would forget, and say something about war, and then the old man might kill her.

After a time she began to think he looked horrible. It was so incomprehensible, this, that one could not talk to him about war. There must be something dreadful back of it all which she did not understand…

Now, if he had been like other old soldiers, and had said that war was the greatest thing in the world; if he had boasted of killing hundreds of men and burning down whole cities and villages, then the little girl would not have been a bit afraid of him.


The Militia-Men

Along in August a company of poor soldiers came to Mårbacka. The men were ragged, famished, and ill. Their bodies were nothing but skin-and-bone and in their eyes was the look of the ravening wolf. The mark of death was on them all.

They were from Fryksände and other parishes in the northern part of Fryksdalen, they said. But now that they were nearing home they feared their own people would not recognize them. Only two years before they had gone forth as well, strong men. What would the folks at home think of getting them back in such a state that they were only fit to be put in the ground…

They were many thousand strong when they marched away, but one thousand after another had succumbed. Great numbers had been sent out on open barges on the raging sea in midwinter. How it had gone with these voyagers none knew; but when the boats drifted ashore the crews sat at their oars dead and literally encased in ice. These surviving militia-men, now returning on their own, had often been stoned away from farms and villages on their homeward tramp.

The militia-men rested at Mårbacka, and then went on, somewhat strengthened.

But they had left the bloody flux in their wake. Everyone on the place became desperately ill. All recovered save Grandmother’s two little children, who were of too tender an age to resist the virulence of the sickness.

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