A Christmas Guest by Selma Lagerlof
Editor’s Note: Written by the first woman and first Swedish writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, this Christmas tale reveals the paradoxical truth that humility and self-sacrifice are necessary for true festivity and joy. Originally published here.
This short story is one of several that are paired with the Bayley Bulletin Winter Quarter Short Story Contest.
One of those who had lived the life of a pensioner at Ekeby was little Ruster, who could transpose music and play the flute. He was of low origin and poor, without home and without relations. Hard times came to him when the company of pensioners were dispersed.
He then had no horse nor carriole, no fur coat nor red-painted luncheon-basket. He had to go on foot from house to house and carry his belongings tied in a blue striped cotton handkerchief. He buttoned his coat all the way up to his chin, so that no one should need to know in what condition his shirt and waistcoat were, and in its deep pockets he kept his most precious possessions: his flute taken to pieces, his flat brandy bottle and his music-pen.
His profession was to copy music, and if it bad been as in the old days, there would have been no lack of work for him. But with every passing year music was less practised in Vaermland. The guitar, with its mouldy, silken ribbon and its worn screws, and the dented horn, with faded tassels and cord were put away in the lumber-room in the attic, and the dust settled inches deep on the long, iron-bound violin boxes. Yet the less little Ruster had to do with flute and music-pen, so much the more must he turn to the brandy flask, and at last he became quite a drunkard. It was a great pity.
He was still received at the manor-houses as an old friend, but there were complaints when he came and joy when he went. There was an odor of dirt and brandy about him, and if he had only a couple of glasses of wine or one toddy, he grew confused and told unpleasant stories. He was the torment of the hospitable houses.
One Christmas he came to Loefdala, where Liljekrona, the great violinist, had his home. Liljekrona had also been one of the pensioners of Ekeby, but after the death of the major’s wife, he returned to his quiet farm and remained there. Ruster came to him a few days before Christmas, in the midst of all the preparations, and asked for work. Liljekrona gave him a little copying to keep him busy.
“You ought to have let him go immediately,” said his wife; “now he will certainly take so long with that that we will be obliged to keep him over Christmas.”
“He must be somewhere,” answered Liljekrona.
And he offered Ruster toddy and brandy, sat with him, and lived over again with him the whole Ekeby time. But he was out of spirits and disgusted by him, like every one else, although he would not let it be seen, for old friendship and hospitality were sacred to him.
In Liljekrona’s house for three weeks now they had been preparing to receive Christmas. They had been living in discomfort and bustle, had sat up with dip-lights and torches till their eyes grew red, had been frozen in the out-house with the salting of meat and in the brew-house with the brewing of the beer. But both the mistress and the servants gave themselves up to it all without grumbling.
When all the preparations were done and the holy evening come, a sweet enchantment would sink down over them. Christmas would loosen all tongues, so that jokes and jests, rhymes and merriment would flow of themselves without effort. Every one’s feet would wish to twirl in the dance, and from memory’s dark corners words and melodies would rise, although no one could believe that they were there. And then every one was so good, so good!
Now when Ruster came the whole household at Loefdala thought that Christmas was spoiled. The mistress and the older children and the old servants were all of the same opinion. Ruster caused them a suffocating disgust. They were moreover afraid that when he and Liljekrona began to rake up the old memories, the artist’s blood would flame up in the great violinist and his home would lose him. Formerly he had not been able to remain long sit home.
No one can describe how they loved their master on the farm, since they had had him with them a couple of years. And what he had to give! How much he was to his home, especially at Christmas! He did not take his place on any sofa or rocking-stool, but on a high, narrow wooden bench in the corner of the fireplace. When he was settled there he started off on adventures. He travelled about the earth, climbed up to the stars, and even higher. He played and talked by turns, and the whole household gathered about him and listened. Life grew proud and beautiful when the richness of that one soul shone on it.
Therefore they loved him as they loved Christmas time, pleasure, the spring sun. And when little Ruster came, their Christmas peace was destroyed. They had worked in vain if he was coming to tempt away their master. It was unjust that the drunkard should sit at the Christmas table in a happy house and spoil the Christmas pleasure.
On the forenoon of Christmas Eve little Ruster had his music written out, and he said something about going, although of course he meant to stay.
Liljekrona had been influenced by the general feeling, and therefore said quite lukewarmly and indifferently that Ruster had better stay where he was over Christmas.
Little Ruster was inflammable and proud. He twirled his moustache and shook back the black artist’s hair that stood like a dark cloud over his head. What did Liljekrona mean? Should he stay because he had nowhere else to go? Oh, only think how they stood and waited for him in the big ironworks in the parish of Bro! The guest-room was in order, the glass of welcome filled. He was in great haste. He only did not know to which he ought to go first.
“Very well,” answered Liljekrona, “you may go if you will.”
After dinner little Ruster borrowed horse and sleigh, coat and furs. The stable-boy from Loefdala was to take him to some place in Bro and drive quickly back, for it threatened snow.
No one believed that he was expected, or that there was a single place in the neighborhood where he was welcome. But they were so anxious to be rid of him that they put the thought aside and let him depart. “He wished it himself,” they said; and then they thought that now they would be glad.
But when they gathered in the dining room at five o’clock to drink tea and to dance round the Christmas-tree, Liljekrona was silent and out of spirits. He did not seat himself on the bench; he touched neither tea nor punch; he could not remember any polka; the violin was out of order. Those who could play and dance had to do it without him.
Then his wife grew uneasy; the children were discontented, everything in the house went wrong. It was the most lamentable Christmas Eve.
The porridge turned sour; the candles sputtered; the wood smoked; the wind stirred up the snow and blew bitter cold into the rooms. The stable-boy who had driven Ruster did not come home. The cook wept; the maids scolded.
Finally Liljekrona remembered that no sheaves had been put out for the sparrows, and he complained aloud of all the women about him who abandoned old customs and were new-fangled and heartless. They understood well enough that what tormented him was remorse that he had let little Ruster go away from his home on Christmas Eve.
After a while he went to his room, shut the door and began to play as he had not played since he had ceased roaming. It was full of hate and scorn, full of longing and revolt. You thought to bind me, but you must forge new fetters. You thought to make me as small-minded as yourselves, but I turn to larger things, to the open. Commonplace people, slaves of the home, hold me prisoner if it is in your power!
When his wife heard the music, she said: “Tomorrow he is gone, if God does not work a miracle in the night. Our inhospitableness has brought on just what we thought we could avoid.”
In the meantime little Ruster drove about in the snowstorm. He went from one house to the other and asked if there was any work for him to do, but he was not received anywhere. They did not even ask him to get out of the sledge. Some had their houses full of guests, others were going away on Christmas Day. “Drive to the next neighbor,” they all said.
He could come and spoil the pleasure of an ordinary day, but not of Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve came but once a year, and the children had been rejoicing in the thought of it all the autumn. They could not put that man at a table where there were children. Formerly they had been glad to see him, but not since he had become a drunkard. Where should they put the fellow, moreover? The servants’ room was too plain and the guest-room too fine.
So little Ruster had to drive from house to house in the blinding snow. His wet moustache hung limply down over his mouth; his eyes were bloodshot and blurred, but the brandy was blown out of his brain. He began to wonder and to be amazed. Was it possible, was it possible that no one wished to receive him?
Then all at once he saw himself. He saw how miserable and degraded he was, and he understood that he was odious to people. “It is the end of me,” he thought. “No more copying of music, no more flute-playing. No one on earth needs me; no one has compassion on me.”
The storm whirled and played, tore apart the drifts and piled them up again, took a pillar of snow in its arms and danced out into the plain, lifted one flake up to the clouds and chased another down into a ditch. “It is so, it is so,” said little Ruster; “while one dances and whirls it is play, but when one must be buried in the drift and forgotten, it is sorrow and grief.” But down they all have to go, and now it was his turn. To think that he had now come to the end!
He no longer asked where the man was driving him; he thought that he was driving in the land of death.
Little Ruster made no offerings to the gods that night. He did not curse flute-playing or the life of a pensioner; he did not think that it had been better for him if he had ploughed the earth or sewn shoes. But he mourned that he was now a worn-out instrument, which pleasure could no longer use. He complained of no one, for he knew that when the horn is cracked and the guitar will not stay in tune, they must go. He became all at once a very humble man. He understood that it was the end of him, on this Christmas Eve. Hunger and cold would destroy him, for he understood nothing, was good for nothing and had no friends.
The sledge stops, and suddenly it is light about him, and he hears friendly voices, and there is some one who is helping him into a warm room, and some one who is pouring warm tea into him. His coat is pulled off him, and several people cry that he is welcome, and warm hands rub life into his benumbed fingers.
He was so confused by it all that he did not come to his senses for nearly a quarter of an hour. He could not possibly comprehend that he had come back to Loefdala. He had not been at all conscious that the stable-boy had grown tired of driving about in the storm and had turned home.
Nor did he understand why he was now so well received in Liljekrona’s house. He could not know that Liljekrona’s wife understood what a weary journey he had made that Christmas Eve, when he had been turned away from every door where he had knocked. She felt such compassion on him that she forgot her own troubles.
Liljekrona went on with the wild playing up in his room; he did not know that Ruster had come. The latter sat meanwhile in the dining-room with the wife and the children. The servants, who used also to be there on Christmas Eve, had moved out into the kitchen away from their mistress’s trouble.
The mistress of the house lost no time in setting Ruster to work. “You hear, I suppose,” she said, “that Liljekrona does nothing but play all the evening, and I must attend to setting the table and the food. The children are quite forsaken. You must look after these two smallest.”
Children were the kind of people with whom little Ruster had had least intercourse. He had met them neither in the bachelor’s wing nor in the campaign tent, neither in wayside inns nor on the highways. He was almost shy of them, and did not know what he ought to say that was fine enough for them.
He took out his flute and taught them how to finger the stops and holes. There was one of four years and one of six. They had a lesson on the flute and were deeply interested in it. “This is A,” he said, “and this is C,” and then he blew the notes. Then the young people wished to know what kind of an A and C it was that was to be played.
Ruster took out his score and made a few notes.
“No,” they said, “that is not right.” And they ran away for an A B C book.
Little Ruster began to hear their alphabet. They knew it and they did not know it. What they knew was not very much. Ruster grew eager; he lifted the little boys up, each on one of his knees, and began to teach them. Liljekrona’s wife went out and in and listened quite in amazement. It sounded like a game, and the children were laughing the whole time, but they learned.
Ruster kept on for a while, but he was absent from what he was doing. He was turning over the old thoughts from out in the storm. It was good and pleasant, but nevertheless it was the end of him. He was worn .out. He ought to be thrown away. And all of a sudden he put his hands before his face and began to weep.
Liljekrona’s wife came quickly up to him.
“Ruster,” she said, “I can understand that you think that all is over for you. You cannot make a living with your music, and you are destroying yourself with brandy. But it is not the end, Ruster.”
“Yes,” sobbed the little flute-player.
“Do you see that to sit as to-night with the children, that would be something for you? If you would teach children to read and write, you would be welcomed everywhere. That is no less important an instrument on which to play, Ruster, than flute and violin. Look at them, Ruster!”
She placed the two children in front of him, and he looked up, blinking as if he had looked at the sun. It seemed as if his little, blurred eyes could not meet those of the children, which were big, clear and innocent.
“Look at them, Ruster!” repeated Liljekrona’s wife.
“I dare not,” said Ruster, for it was like a purgatory to look through the beautiful child eyes to the unspotted beauty of their souls.
Liljekrona’s wife laughed loud and joyously. “Then you must accustom yourself to them, Ruster. You can stay in my house as schoolmaster this year.”
Liljekrona heard his wife laugh and came out of his room.
“What is it?” he said. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” she answered, “but that Ruster has come again, and that I have engaged him as schoolmaster for our little boys.”
Liljekrona was quite amazed. “Do you dare?” he said, “do you dare? Has he promised to give up–”
“No,” said the wife; “Ruster has promised nothing. But there is much about which he must be careful when he has to look little children in the eyes every day. If it had not been Christmas, perhaps I would not have ventured; but when our Lord dared to place a little child who was his own son among us sinners, so can I also dare to let my little children try to save a human soul.”
Liljekrona could not speak, but every feature and wrinkle in his face twitched and twisted as always when he heard anything noble.
Then he kissed his wife’s hand as gently as a child who asks for forgiveness and cried aloud: “All the children must come and kiss their mother’s hand.”
They did so, and then they had a happy Christmas in Liljekrona’s house.