Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, by Mary Wollstonecraft

Letter XVI.

I set out from Fredericstadt about three o’clock in the afternoon, and expected to reach Stromstad before the night closed in; but the wind dying away, the weather became so calm that we scarcely made any perceptible advances towards the opposite coast, though the men were fatigued with rowing.

Getting amongst the rocks and islands as the moon rose, and the stars darted forward out of the clear expanse, I forgot that the night stole on whilst indulging affectionate reveries, the poetical fictions of sensibility; I was not, therefore, aware of the length of time we had been toiling to reach Stromstad. And when I began to look around, I did not perceive anything to indicate that we were in its neighbourhood. So far from it, that when I inquired of the pilot, who spoke a little English, I found that he was only accustomed to coast along the Norwegian shore; and had been only once across to Stromstad. But he had brought with him a fellow better acquainted, he assured me, with the rocks by which they were to steer our course, for we had not a compass on board; yet, as he was half a fool, I had little confidence in his skill. There was then great reason to fear that we had lost our way, and were straying amidst a labyrinth of rocks without a clue.

This was something like an adventure, but not of the most agreeable cast; besides, I was impatient to arrive at Stromstad, to be able to send forward that night a boy to order horses on the road to be ready, for I was unwilling to remain there a day without having anything to detain me from my little girl, and from the letters which I was impatient to get from you.

I began to expostulate, and even to scold the pilot, for not having informed me of his ignorance previous to my departure. This made him row with more force, and we turned round one rock only to see another, equally destitute of the tokens we were in search of to tell us where we were. Entering also into creek after creek which promised to be the entrance of the bay we were seeking, we advanced merely to find ourselves running aground.

The solitariness of the scene, as we glided under the dark shadows of the rocks, pleased me for a while; but the fear of passing the whole night thus wandering to and fro, and losing the next day, roused me. I begged the pilot to return to one of the largest islands, at the side of which we had seen a boat moored. As we drew nearer, a light through a window on the summit became our beacon; but we were farther off than I supposed.

With some difficulty the pilot got on shore, not distinguishing the landing-place; and I remained in the boat, knowing that all the relief we could expect was a man to direct us. After waiting some time, for there is an insensibility in the very movements of these people that would weary more than ordinary patience, he brought with him a man who, assisting them to row, we landed at Stromstad a little after one in the morning.

It was too late to send off a boy, but I did not go to bed before I had made the arrangements necessary to enable me to set out as early as possible.

The sun rose with splendour. My mind was too active to allow me to loiter long in bed, though the horses did not arrive till between seven and eight. However, as I wished to let the boy, who went forward to order the horses, get considerably the start of me, I bridled in my impatience.

This precaution was unavailing, for after the three first posts I had to wait two hours, whilst the people at the post-house went, fair and softly, to the farm, to bid them bring up the horses which were carrying in the first-fruits of the harvest. I discovered here that these sluggish peasants had their share of cunning. Though they had made me pay for a horse, the boy had gone on foot, and only arrived half an hour before me. This disconcerted the whole arrangement of the day; and being detained again three hours, I reluctantly determined to sleep at Quistram, two posts short of Uddervalla, where I had hoped to have arrived that night.

But when I reached Quistram I found I could not approach the door of the inn for men, horses, and carts, cows, and pigs huddled together. From the concourse of people I had met on the road I conjectured that there was a fair in the neighbourhood; this crowd convinced me that it was but too true. The boisterous merriment that almost every instant produced a quarrel, or made me dread one, with the clouds of tobacco, and fumes of brandy, gave an infernal appearance to the scene. There was everything to drive me back, nothing to excite sympathy in a rude tumult of the senses, which I foresaw would end in a gross debauch. What was to be done? No bed was to be had, or even a quiet corner to retire to for a moment; all was lost in noise, riot, and confusion.

After some debating they promised me horses, which were to go on to Uddervalla, two stages. I requested something to eat first, not having dined; and the hostess, whom I have mentioned to you before as knowing how to take care of herself, brought me a plate of fish, for which she charged a rix-dollar and a half. This was making hay whilst the sun shone. I was glad to get out of the uproar, though not disposed to travel in an incommodious open carriage all night, had I thought that there was any chance of getting horses.

Quitting Quistram I met a number of joyous groups, and though the evening was fresh many were stretched on the grass like weary cattle; and drunken men had fallen by the road-side. On a rock, under the shade of lofty trees, a large party of men and women had lighted a fire, cutting down fuel around to keep it alive all night. They were drinking, smoking, and laughing with all their might and main. I felt for the trees whose torn branches strewed the ground. Hapless nymphs! your haunts, I fear, were polluted by many an unhallowed flame, the casual burst of the moment!

The horses went on very well; but when we drew near the post-house the postillion stopped short and neither threats nor promises could prevail on him to go forward. He even began to howl and weep when I insisted on his keeping his word. Nothing, indeed, can equal the stupid obstinacy of some of these half-alive beings, who seem to have been made by Prometheus when the fire he stole from Heaven was so exhausted that he could only spare a spark to give life, not animation, to the inert clay.

It was some time before we could rouse anybody; and, as I expected, horses, we were told, could not be had in less than four or five hours. I again attempted to bribe the churlish brute who brought us there, but I discovered that, in spite of the courteous hostess’s promises, he had received orders not to go any father.

As there was no remedy I entered, and was almost driven back by the stench — a softer phrase would not have conveyed an idea of the hot vapour that issued from an apartment in which some eight or ten people were sleeping, not to reckon the cats and dogs stretched on the floor. Two or three of the men or women were on the benches, others on old chests; and one figure started half out of a trunk to look at me, whom might have taken for a ghost, had the chemise been white, to contrast with the sallow visage. But the costume of apparitions not being preserved I passed, nothing dreading, excepting the effluvia, warily amongst the pots, pans, milk-pails, and washing-tubs. After scaling a ruinous staircase I was shown a bed-chamber. The bed did not invite me to enter; opening, therefore, the window, and taking some clean towels out of my night-sack, I spread them over the coverlid, on which tired Nature found repose, in spite of the previous disgust.

With the grey of the morn the birds awoke me; and descending to inquire for the horses, I hastened through the apartment I have already described, not wishing to associate the idea of a pigstye with that of a human dwelling.

I do not now wonder that the girls lose their fine complexions at such an early age, or that love here is merely an appetite to fulfil the main design of Nature, never enlivened by either affection or sentiment.

For a few posts we found the horses waiting; but afterwards I was retarded, as before, by the peasants, who, taking advantage of my ignorance of the language, made me pay for the fourth horse that ought to have gone forward to have the others in readiness, though it had never been sent. I was particularly impatient at the last post, as I longed to assure myself that my child was well.

My impatience, however, did not prevent my enjoying the journey. I had six weeks before passed over the same ground; still it had sufficient novelty to attract my attention, and beguile, if not banish, the sorrow that had taken up its abode in my heart. How interesting are the varied beauties of Nature, and what peculiar charms characterise each season! The purple hue which the heath now assumed gave it a degree of richness that almost exceeded the lustre of the young green of spring, and harmonised exquisitely with the rays of the ripening corn. The weather was uninterruptedly fine, and the people busy in the fields cutting down the corn, or binding up the sheaves, continually varied the prospect. The rocks, it is true, were unusually rugged and dreary; yet as the road runs for a considerable way by the side of a fine river, with extended pastures on the other side, the image of sterility was not the predominant object, though the cottages looked still more miserable, after having seen the Norwegian farms. The trees likewise appeared of me growth of yesterday, compared with those Nestors of the forest I have frequently mentioned. The women and children were cutting off branches from the beech, birch, oak, &c, and leaving them to dry. This way of helping out their fodder injures the trees. But the winters are so long that the poor cannot afford to lay in a sufficient stock of hay. By such means they just keep life in the poor cows, for little milk can be expected when they are so miserably fed.

It was Saturday, and the evening was uncommonly serene. In the villages I everywhere saw preparations for Sunday; and I passed by a little car loaded with rye, that presented, for the pencil and heart, the sweetest picture of a harvest home I had ever beheld. A little girl was mounted a-straddle on a shaggy horse, brandishing a stick over its head; the father was walking at the side of the car with a child in his arms, who must have come to meet him with tottering steps; the little creature was stretching out its arms to cling round his neck; and a boy, just above petticoats, was labouring hard with a fork behind to keep the sheaves from falling.

My eyes followed them to the cottage, and an involuntary sigh whispered to my heart that I envied the mother, much as I dislike cooking, who was preparing their pottage. I was returning to my babe, who may never experience a father’s care or tenderness. The bosom that nurtured her heaved with a pang at the thought which only an unhappy mother could feel.

Adieu!

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30