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Selma Lagerlöf

Swedish Writer

1858-1940


HIS MOTHER'S PORTRAIT

Narrated by Maggi-Meg Reed

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In one of the hundred houses of the fishing-village, where each is exactly like the other in size and shape, where all have just as many windows and as high chimneys, lived old Mattsson, the pilot.

In all the rooms of the fishing-village there is the same sort of furniture, on all the window-sills stand the same kinds of flowers, in all the corner-cupboards are the same collections of sea-shells and coral, on all the walls hang the same pictures. And it is a fixed old custom that all the inhabitants of the fishing-village live the same life. Since Mattsson, the pilot, had grown old, he had conformed carefully to the conditions and customs; his house, his rooms and his mode of living were like everybody else's.

On the wall over the bed old Mattsson had a picture of his mother. One night he dreamed that the portrait stepped down from its frame, placed itself in front of him and said with a loud voice: "You must marry, Mattson."

Old Mattsson then began to make clear to his mother that it was impossible. He was seventy years old.—But his mother's portrait merely repeated with even greater emphasis: "You must marry, Mattsson."

Old Mattsson had great respect for his mother's portrait. It had been his adviser on many debatable occasions, and he had always done well by obeying it. But this time he did not quite understand its behavior. It seemed to him as if the picture was acting in opposition to its already acknowledged opinions. Although he was lying there and dreaming, he remembered distinctly and clearly what had happened the first time he wished to be married. Just as he was dressing as a bridegroom, the nail gave way on which the picture hung and it fell to the floor. He understood then that the portrait wished to warn him against the marriage, but he did not obey it. He soon found that the portrait had been right. His short married life was very unhappy.

The second time he dressed as a bridegroom the same thing happened. The portrait fell to the ground as before, and he did not dare again to disobey it. He ran away from bride and wedding and travelled round the world several times before he dared come home again.—And now the picture stepped down from the wall and commanded him to marry! However good and obedient he was, he allowed himself to think that it was making a fool of him.

But his mother's portrait, which looked out with the grimmest face that sharp winds and salt sea-foam could carve, stood solemnly as before. And with a voice which had been exercised and strengthened for many years by offering fish in the town marketplace, it repeated: "You must marry, Mattsson."

Old Mattsson then asked his mother's portrait to consider what kind of a community it was they lived in.

All the hundred houses of the fishing-village had pointed roofs and whitewashed walls; all the boats of the fishing-village were of the same build and rig. No one there ever did anything unusual. His mother would have been the first to oppose such a marriage if she had been alive. His mother had held by habits and customs. And it was not the habit and custom of the fishing-village for old men of seventy years to marry.

His mother's picture stretched out her beringed hand and positively commanded him to obey. There had always been something excessively awe-inspiring in his mother when she came in her black silk dress with many flounces. The big, shining gold brooch, the heavy, rattling gold chain had always frightened him. If she had worn her market-clothes, in a striped head-cloth and with an oil-cloth apron, covered with fish-scales and fish eyes, he would not have been quite so overawed by her. The end of it was that he promised to get married. And then his mother's portrait crept up into the frame again.

The next morning old Mattsson woke in great trouble. It never occurred to him to disobey his mother's portrait; it knew of course what was best for him. But he shuddered nevertheless at the time that was now coming.

The same day he made an offer of marriage to the plainest daughter of the poorest fisherman, a little creature, whose head was drawn down between her shoulders and who had a projecting under-jaw. The parents said yes, and the day when he was to go to the town and publish the bans was appointed.

The road from the fishing-village to the town passes over windy marshes and swampy cow-pastures. It is two miles long, and there is a tradition that the inhabitants of the fishing-village are so rich that they could pave it with shining silver coins. It would give the road a strange attraction. Glimmering like a fish's belly, it would wind with its white scales through clumps of sedge and pools filled with water-bugs and melancholy bullfrogs. The daisies and almond-blossoms which adorn that forsaken ground would be mirrored in the shining silver coins; thistles would stretch out protecting thorns over them, and the wind would find a ringing sounding-board when it played on the thatched roof of the cow-barns and on telephone-wires.

Perhaps old Mattsson would have found some comfort if he could have set his heavy sea boots on ringing silver, for it is certain that he for a time had to go that way oftener than he liked.

He had not had "clean papers." The bans could not be published. It came from his having run away from his bride the last time. Some time passed before the clergyman could write to the consistory about him and get permission for him to contract a new marriage.

As long as this time of waiting lasted, old Mattsson came to the town every week. He sat by the door of the pastor's room and remained there in silent expectation until all had spoken in turn. Then he rose and asked if the clergyman had anything for him. No, he had nothing.

The pastor was amazed at the power that all-conquering love had acquired over that old man. There he sat in a thick, knitted jersey, high sea-boots and weather-beaten sou'wester with a sharp, clever face and long, gray hair, and waited for permission to get married. The clergyman thought it strange that the old fisherman should have been seized by so eager a longing.

"You are in a hurry with this marriage, Mattsson," said the clergyman.

"Oh yes, it is best to get it done soon."

"Could you not just as well give up the whole thing? You are no longer young, Mattsson."

The clergyman must not be too surprised. He knew well enough that he was too old, but he was obliged to be married. There was no help for it.

So he came again week after week for a half year, until at last the permission came.

During all that time old Mattsson was a persecuted man. Round the green drying-place, where the brown fish-nets were hung out, along the cemented walls by the harbor, at the fish-tables in the market, where cod and crabs were sold, and far out in the sound among the shoals of herring, raged a storm of wonder and laughter.

"So he is going to be married, he, Mattsson, who ran away from his own wedding!"

Neither bride nor groom were spared.

But the worst thing for him was that no one could laugh more at the whole thing than he himself. No one could find it more ridiculous. His mother's portrait was driving him mad.

***

It was the afternoon of the first time of asking. Old Mattsson, still pursued by talk and wonderings, went out on the long breakwater as far as the whitewashed lighthouse, in order to be alone. He found his betrothed there. She sat and wept.

He asked her whether she would have liked some one else better. She sat and pried little bits of mortar from the lighthouse wall and threw them into the water, answering nothing at first.

"Was there nobody you liked?"

"Oh no, of course not."

It is very beautiful out by the lighthouse. The clear water of the sound laps about it. The low-lying shore, the little uniform houses of the fishing-village, and the distant town are all shining in wonderful beauty. Out of the soft mist that hovers on the western horizon a fishing-boat comes gliding now and again. Tacking boldly, it steers towards the harbor. The water roars gaily past its bow as it shoots in through the narrow harbor entrance. The sail drops silently at the same moment. The fishermen swing their hats in joyous greeting, and on the bottom of the boat lies the glittering spoil.

A boat came into the harbor while old Mattsson stood out by the lighthouse. A young man sitting at the tiller lifted his hat and nodded to the girl. The old man saw that her eyes were shining.

"Well," he thought, "have you fallen in love with the handsomest young fellow in the fishing-village? Yes, you will never get him. You may just as well marry me as wait for him."

He saw that he could not escape his mother's picture. If the girl had cared for any one whom there was any possibility of getting, he would have had a good motive to be rid of the whole business. But now it was useless to set her free.

***

A fortnight later was the wedding, and a few days after came the big November gale. One of the boats of the fishing-village was swept out into the sound. It had neither rudder nor masts, so that it was quite unmanageable. Old Mattsson and five others were on board, and they drifted about without food for two days. When they were rescued, they were in a state of exhaustion from hunger and cold. Everything in the boat was covered with ice, and their wet clothes were stiff. Old Mattsson was so chilled that he never was well again. He lay ill for two years; then death came.

Many thought that it was strange that his idea of marrying came just before the unlucky adventure, for the little woman he had got took good care of him. What would he have done if he had been alone when lying so helpless? The whole fishing-village acknowledged that he had never done anything more sensible than marrying, and the little woman won great consideration for the tenderness with which she took care of her husband.

"She will have no trouble in marrying again," people said.

Old Mattsson told his wife, every day while he lay ill, the story of the portrait.

"You must take it when I am dead, just as you must take everything of mine," he said.

"Do not speak of such things."

"And you must listen to my mother's portrait when the young men propose to you. Truly there is no one in the whole fishing-village who understands getting married better than that picture."

More information about Selma Lagerlöf from Wikipedia

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