The Silver Mine by Selma Lagerlöf

King Gustav the Third was making a hurried trip through Dalarna. Though the horses seemed to be fairly skimming the ground, the King was dissatisfied. He leaned out of the window continually urging the driver to make haste, and his courtiers expected any minute that the royal coach or harness would break.

Finally the carriage tongue did indeed break. The courtiers leaped from the coach and after a hasty inspection said that it would be impossible to continue the journey without repairs. Anxious for the King’s entertainment, they asked him if he would not like to attend the services in a little church which could be seen a short distance ahead.

The King agreed, and stepping into one of the other carriages, drove to the church. For hours he had been riding through large tracts of forest, so he was the more delighted to come out in view of green fields and small hamlets. The Dalelven sparkled forth, as it glided between masses of graceful willows.

The King, however, was unable to attend the service, for just as he stepped from the carriage to the churchyard, the sexton was ringing the bell for the closing. The worshippers came filing out of the church. As they passed the King, where he stood with one foot on the carriage step, he was impressed with their stalwart bearing and sturdy, wholesome appearance.

On the preceding day the King had remarked to his courtiers upon the poverty of the country they were passing through. “Apparently now,” he said, “I am driving through the poorest section of my domain.” When he saw these people, however, he forgot about the poverty of the country. His heart warmed within him and he said to himself, “The Swedish King is not in such poor circumstances as some of his enemies would believe. As long as my subjects remain as fine and wholesome as these are, I shall be able to defend successfully my crown and my land.”

Then he commanded a courtier to tell the people that the stranger among them was their King, and that he wished them to gather around in order that he might address them.

He spake to them, standing upon the top step that led into the sanctuary, and the step upon which he stood may be found there to this day.

The King first told his people how matters stood within the kingdom. Sweden had been attacked by both Russia and Denmark. Under ordinary circumstances this would not be alarming, but at present the army was so filled with traitors that he could hardly depend on it. He saw, therefore, no alternative but to go out himself to the small towns and ask his subjects whether they wished to side with the traitors or were willing to help the King with soldiers and money to save the Fatherland.

While he was making this earnest appeal, the sturdy peasants stood attentively before him, making no comment, nor giving any sign as to whether they agreed or not. Now the King had felt inwardly pleased at the forcefulness of his own appeal, so when the men stood silent, unable to give their answer, he frowned and showed his disappointment.

The farmers understood that the King was impatient for their reply, and at length one stepped forward. “Now you must know, King Gustav,” he said, “that we were not expecting a visit from our King here to-day. We are therefore not prepared to answer you immediately. I would suggest that you go into the sanctuary and speak with our minister while we discuss among ourselves this matter which you have presented to us.”

The King, perceiving that no better solution was possible, decided to take the farmer’s advice.

When he entered the study, he found no one there except an old farmer. He was tall and rough, with hands large and horny from hard work. He wore neither robe nor collar, but only leather breeches and a long white homespun coat, like the other peasants. He arose and bowed as the King entered.

“I believed that I should meet the minister here,” said the King.

The other reddened with embarrassment, for he realized that it might be annoying to the King to be told that he had mistaken the minister for a farmer.

“Yes,” he admitted, “the pastor is usually found here.”

The King seated himself in a large armchair that stood in the study at that time, and which still stands there with a single change; the congregation has placed upon the back a gold crown.

“Have you a good minister here?” asked the King, wishing to show interest in the people’s welfare.

When the King questioned him thus, the pastor felt that it was impossible to admit who he was. He decided that it was better to let the King think he was only a farmer, so he answered: “The minister is fair; he preaches the clear word of God, and he tries to live as he preaches.”

The King thought this a good recommendation. His sharp ear, however, had detected a certain hesitation in the tone of the man. He said, therefore, “It sounds, though, as if you are not entirely satisfied with your pastor.”

“He may be a bit hardheaded,” said the other, thinking inwardly, “If the King should later discover who I am, he will realize that I did not pour compliments over myself.” He decided, therefore, to come out with a bit of criticism. “There be those who would say that the minister is inclined to want to be the ruler in this hamlet,” he continued.

“Then he has surely directed and managed everything in the best possible way,” said the King. He was not pleased to have the farmer finding fault with some one placed over him. “It appears to me that everything here is ruled by good habit and old-fashioned simplicity.”

“The people are good,” said the minister, “because they live in a remote place in isolation and poverty. The people here would probably be no better than others if the trials and temptations of the world came nearer to them.”

“There is little chance that this will happen,” said the King with a shrug of his shoulder.

He said nothing further but began drumming on the table with his fingers. He felt that he had exchanged enough words with this farmer, and wondered when the people would be ready with their answer.

“Those peasants are not very eager about coming to their King with aid,” he thought. “If my coach were only ready, I would drive away from them and their deliberations.”

The minister, deeply troubled, strove within himself as to how he should act on an important question that must be settled quickly. He felt glad that he had not told the King who he was, for now he could discuss matters that otherwise he would have been unable to bring forward.

After a time he broke the embarrassing silence by asking the King if it really were true that enemies were besieging them and their kingdom was in danger.

The King, feeling that this person should have sense enough to leave him undisturbed, looked at him for a time without reply.

“I asked the question because, standing within the study here, I could not hear clearly what you said to the people. But in case it is true, I should like to state that the pastor of this parish might possibly be in a position to furnish the King as much money as he would need.”

“I thought you said that every one here was poor,” said the King, thinking that the farmer did not know what he was talking about.

“Yes, that is true,” agreed the pastor, “and the minister has no more than any other. But if the King will honor me by listening, I will explain how it is that the minister has power to help.”

“You may speak,” said King Gustav. “You seem to find it easier to express yourself than your friends and neighbors outside, who never will be ready with their answer.”

“It is not an easy matter to answer a King. I fear that, in the end, it will be necessary for their pastor to speak in their stead.”

The King crossed his knees, folded his arms, and dropped his head. “You may begin,” he said, with an air of preparing to fall asleep.

“Once upon a time the pastor and four men from his parish went elk hunting,” began the minister. “Besides the pastor, there were two soldiers, Olaf and Erik Svard, the landlord of the village, and a farmer named Isræls Pers Perssons.”

“Should not mention so many names,” grumbled the King, as he shifted his head a bit.

“The men were good hunters and usually had good luck, but this day they traveled far without getting any game. At last they gave up the hunt and sat down on the ground to talk. They remarked upon the strange fact that so large a section of the country should be unsuitable for cultivation. All was rocks, hills, or morass.

“‘Our Lord has not done right by us, when he has given us such poor land to live in,’ said one of them. ‘In other sections people have riches and plenty, but here in spite of all our efforts we can hardly get sufficient for our daily needs.’”

The minister stopped a moment as if uncertain whether the King had heard him. The King, however, moved his little finger as a sign that he was still awake.

“As the hunters were talking of their ill fortune, the minister noticed something glittering where he had overturned a bit of moss with his boot. ‘This is a remarkable mountain,’ he thought. Overturning more of the moss and picking up a piece of stone that clung to it, he exclaimed, ‘Can it be possible that this is lead ore!’

“The others came eagerly over to the speaker and began uncovering the rock with their rifle stocks. They thus exposed a broad mineral vein on the side of the mountain.

“‘What do you suppose this is?’ asked the minister.

“Each man broke loose a piece of the rock and, biting it as a crude test, said he thought it should be at least zinc or lead.

“‘And the whole mountain is full of it,’ eagerly ventured the landlord.”

When the minister had reached this stage of the story, the King slightly raised his head and partly opened one eye.

“Do you know if any of these persons had any knowledge of minerals or geology?”

“No, they did not,” answered the minister. Whereupon the King’s head sank and both eyes closed.

“The minister and those with him were highly pleased,” continued the pastor, undisturbed by the King’s indifference. “They believed that they had found something which would enrich not only themselves, but their posterity as well.

“‘Nevermore shall I need to work,’ said one of them. ‘I can do nothing the whole week through and on Sunday I shall ride to church in a gold chariot.’

“These were usually men of good sense, but their great discovery had gone to their heads, so that now they spoke like children. They had enough presence of mind, however, to lay the moss carefully back in place so as to hide the mineral vein. Then, after taking careful note of the location, they journeyed home.

“Before parting, they all agreed that the minister should go to Falun and ask the mineralogist there what kind of ore this might be. He was to return as soon as possible, and until then they all swore by a binding oath that they would not reveal to any person the location of the ore.”

The king slightly raised his head but did not interrupt the narrative. He began to believe apparently that the man really had something important to tell, though he did not permit himself to be aroused out of his indifference.

“The minister started upon his journey with a few samples of ore in his pocket. He was just as happy in the thought of becoming wealthy as any of the others were. He mused upon how he would repair the parsonage that now was no better than a cottage; and how he could marry the daughter of the bishop, as he had long desired. Otherwise he would be compelled to wait for her many years, for he was poor and obscure, and he knew it would be a long time before he would be assigned to a place that would enable him to marry the girl of his choice.

“The minister’s journey to Falun took him two days. There he was compelled to wait a day for the return of the mineralogist. When he finally showed the samples of the ore, the man took them in his hand, looked at them, and then at the stranger. The minister told the story of how he had found these samples in the vicinity of his home, and asked if they might be lead.

“‘No, it is not lead.’

“‘Zinc, then?’ faltered the minister.

“‘No, neither is it zinc.’

“All hope sank within the breast of the minister. He had not felt so downcast in many a day.

“‘Do you have many stones like these in your country?’ asked the mineralogist.

“‘We have a whole mountain,’ answered the minister.

“Then the man advanced toward the minister and slapping him on the shoulder said, ‘Let us see that you make such use of it that will bring great good both to you and to our Kingdom, for you have found silver.’”

“‘Is that true?’ said the minister rather dazed; ‘so it is silver?’

“The mineralogist explained to him what he should do in order to obtain legal rights to the mine, and gave him much good advice, also. The minister, however, stood bewildered and heard not a word that was said. He thought only of the wonderful news that back home in his poor neighborhood lay a whole mountain of silver ore waiting for him.”

The King raised his head so suddenly that the minister broke off the narrative. “I suppose when the minister came home and began working the mine he found that the mineralogist had misinformed him.”

“No,” said the minister, “it was as the man had said.”

“You may continue,” and the King settled himself again to listen.

“When the minister reached home, the first thing he did was to start out to tell his comrades of the value of their find. As he drove up to Landlord Stensson’s place, where he had intended to go in and inform his friend that they had found silver, he paused at the gate, for he saw that white sheets had been hung before the windows and a broad path of hemlock boughs led up to the door step.”

“‘Who has died here?’ inquired the minister of a little boy who stood leaning against the fence.

“‘It is the landlord himself.’ Then he told the minister that for a week past the landlord had been drinking ever and ever so much liquor, until he was drunk all the time.

“‘How can that be?’ asked the pastor. ‘The landlord never before drank to excess.’

“‘Well, you see,’ said the boy, ‘he drank because he was possessed with the idea that he had found a mine. He was so rich, he said, that he would never need to do anything now but drink. Last night he drove out, drunk as he was, and fell out of the carriage and was killed.’

“After the minister had heard all this, he started homeward, grieving over what he had learned. And only a moment before he had been so elated over the good news he had to tell his friends.

“When the minister had gone a short distance, he met Isræls Pers Persson walking along the road. He appeared as usual and the minister was glad that their good fortune had not turned his head. He would immediately gladden him with the news that he was now a rich man.

“‘Good-day!’ said the minister.

“‘Do you come now from Falun?’

“‘Yes, and I can tell you that things turned out better than we thought. The mineralogist said that it was silver ore.’

“Pers Persson looked as if the earth had opened to engulf him. ‘What is it you say? Is it silver?’

“‘Yes, we shall all be rich men now and able to live as royalty.’

“‘Oh, is it silver?’ repeated Pers Persson, in still greater dejection.

“‘It certainly is silver,’ said the minister. ‘Don’t think that I would deceive you. You should not be afraid of being glad.’

“‘Glad!’ said Pers Persson, ‘should I be glad? I thought it was fool’s gold, so it seemed better to take a certainty for an uncertainty. I sold my share in the mine to Olaf Svard for one hundred dollars.’

“He looked very downhearted, and the minister left him standing there with tears in his eyes.

“When the minister reached home, he sent a servant to Olaf Svard and his brother asking them to come to the manse that he might tell them the nature of their find. He felt that he had had enough of trying to spread the good news himself.

“But that evening, as the minister sat alone, joy again filled his heart. He went out and stood upon a hillock where he had decided to build the new parsonage. This, of course, should be very grand, as grand as the bishop’s home itself. He was not satisfied, moreover, with the idea of repairing the old church. It occurred to him that, as there was so much wealth in the hamlet, many people would find their way to the place, until finally a large town would probably be built around the mine. He reasoned that it would be necessary then to build a large new church in place of the old one, which would require a great portion of his riches. Neither could he stop here in his dreams, for he thought that when the time came to dedicate this grand new church, the King and many bishops would be there. The King would be glad to see such a church, but he would remark that there were not fit accommodations to be had in the town. It would be necessary, therefore, to build a castle in the city.”

At this point one of the King’s courtiers opened the door of the study and announced that the King’s coach had been repaired.

The King thought at first that he would depart immediately but, reconsidering, he said to the minister, “You may continue your story to the end, but make it shorter. We know how the man dreamed and thought; now we want to know what he did.”

“While the minister sat in the midst of his dreams,” went on the speaker, “word came to him that Isræls Pers Perrson had taken his life. He could not endure the thought of his folly in selling his share of the mine. He felt he would be unable to live and see from day to day another enjoy the wealth that might have been his.”

The King moved slightly in his chair. He now had both eyes wide open. “Methinks,” said he, “that had I been this minister, I should have had enough of that mine.”

“The King is a rich man; at least he has plenty. It was not so with the minister, who owned nothing. This poor man, when he saw that God’s blessing appeared not to be with his undertaking, thought: ‘I shall not dream further about making myself prosperous and useful with these riches. I cannot let the silver mine lie in the ground, however; I must take out the ore for the poor and needy. I will work the silver mine to help put the whole community on its feet.’

“One day the minister went over to Olaf Svard’s to talk with him and his brother about the best disposal of the mine. When he came near the soldier’s home, he met a cart surrounded by awe-stricken farmers. Within the cart sat a man, his feet bound with a rope and his hands behind him.

“As the minister passed, the cart stopped, giving the minister an opportunity to observe the prisoner more closely. His head was bound around so that it was hard to see him, but the minister thought he recognized Olaf Svard. He heard the prisoner pleading with the guards to let him speak with the minister.

“As he came closer to the cart, the prisoner turned towards him, saying, ‘You will soon be the only one who knows where the silver mine is.’

“‘What is that you say, Olaf?’

“‘You see, minister, since we heard that it is a silver mine we have found, my brother and I have not remained such good friends as formerly. We often have come to disputes, and last night we had an argument over which one of us five first found the mine. We came to blows, and I have killed my brother and he has given me a deep mark on my forehead. I shall hang now and you will then be the only one who knows the site of the mine. I should like to request something of you.’

“‘Speak up,’ said the minister. ‘I will do all in my power for you.’

“‘You know I shall leave several little children behind me,’ said the soldier.

“‘So far as that is concerned,’ interrupted the minister, ‘you may rest easy. Whatever is your share they shall have.’

“‘No,’ said Olaf, ‘it is another thing I wanted to ask of you. Do not let them have any part of that which comes out of the mine.’

“The minister fell back a few steps, then remained motionless, unable to reply.

“‘If you do not promise me this, I cannot die in peace.’

“The minister at last promised reluctantly, and the cart continued on its way, bearing the murderer to his doom.

“The minister stood there in the road, deliberating on how he should keep the promise he had just given. All the way home he thought over the riches which he had expected would bring such joy.

“‘If it should prove,’ he mused, ‘that the people of this parish are unable to endure wealth, since already four have died who had been strong practical men, ought I not to give up the idea of working the mine?’ He pictured his whole parish going to destruction because of the silver. Would it be right that he, who was placed as a guardian over the souls of these poor people, should put into their hands something which might be the cause of their ruin?”

The King raised himself upright in his chair and stared at the speaker. “I might say that you give me to understand that the pastor of this isolated community must be a real man.”

“But this that I have related was not all,” continued the minister, “for as soon as the news of the mine spread over the neighboring parishes, workers ceased to labor and went about light-heartedly, awaiting the time when the great riches should pour in on them. All idlers in that section roamed into the hamlet. Drunkenness, quarreling, and fighting became constant problems for the minister’s solution. Many people did nothing but wander around through fields and forest looking for the mine. The minister noted, also, that as soon as he left home, men spied upon him to see whether he visited the silver mine, so that they might steal the secret of its location from him.

“When things had come to this pass, the minister called the farmers to a meeting. He reminded them of the many tragedies that the discovery of the silver mine had brought to their community and asked if they were going to allow themselves to be ruined or if they wished to save themselves. And then he asked if they wanted him, who was their pastor, to contribute to their ruin. He himself had decided that he would not reveal to anyone the location of the mine, nor would he ever attempt to derive any wealth therefrom.

“He then asked the farmers how they would vote for the future. If they desired to continue seeking after the mine and awaiting riches, he intended to go so far from them that no news of their misery would ever reach him. If, on the other hand, they would give up thinking of the silver mine, he would remain among them. ‘But however you choose,’ repeated the minister, ‘remember that no one will ever hear from me any information about the location of the silver mine.’”

“Well,” said the King, “what did the farmers decide?”

“They did as the minister desired of them. They understood that he meant well for them when he was willing to remain in poverty for their sake. They urged him to go to the forest and take every precaution to conceal the vein so that no one would ever find it.”

“Since then the minister has remained here as poor as the others?”

“Yes, as poor as the others.”

“Has he, in spite of this, married and built a new parsonage?”

“No, he has not had the means. He lives in the same old place.”

“That is a beautiful story,” said the King, bending his head.

The minister stood silent before the King. In a few minutes the latter continued: “Was it of the silver mine that you were thinking when you said that the minister here could furnish me with as much money as I should need?”

“Yes,” said the other.

“But I can’t put thumb-screws on him; and how otherwise could I bring a man like him to show me the mine—a man who has forsaken his beloved and all material blessings?”

“That is another matter,” said the minister. “If it is the Fatherland that needs help, he will undoubtedly give up the secret.”

“Do I have your assurance for that?”

“Yes, I will answer for it.”

“Does he not care, then, how it goes with his parishioners?”

“That shall stand in God’s hands.”

The King arose from his chair and walked over to the window. He stood for a moment observing the people outside. The longer he stood, the clearer his large eyes glistened. His whole stature seemed to expand.

“You may present my compliments to the minister of this parish,” said the King, “and say to him that there is given no more beautiful sight to Sweden’s King than to see such a people as these.”

Thereupon the King turned from the window and looked smilingly at the minister. “Is it true that the minister of this parish is so poor that he takes off his black robe as soon as the service is over and dresses as one of the peasants?”

“Yes, he is as poor as that,” said the minister, and a flush of embarrassment spread over his rough but noble face.

The King again stepped to the window. He apparently was in his best mood. All that was great and noble within him had been awakened. “He shall let the silver mine rest in peace. Since through all his life he has starved and worked to perfect a people such as these, he shall be permitted to keep them as they are.”

“But if the kingdom is in danger——”

“The kingdom is better served with men than with money.” When he had said these words, the King shook hands with the minister and stepped out of the study.

Outside stood the people, as impassive as when he went in. But when the King came down the steps, one of the farmers approached him.

“Have you talked with our minister?”

“Yes, I have talked with him.”

“Then you have also received answer from us,” said the farmer.

“Yes, I have received your answer.”

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