The Little Post Boy

By Bayard Taylor

Very few foreigners travel in Sweden in the winter, on account of the intense cold. As you go northward from Stockholm, the capital, the country becomes ruder and wilder, and the climate more severe. In the sheltered valleys along the Gulf of Bothnia and the rivers which empty into it, there are farms and villages for a distance of seven or eight hundred miles, after which fruit-trees disappear, and nothing will grow in the short, cold summers except potatoes and a little barley. Farther inland, there are great forests and lakes, and ranges of mountains where bears, wolves, and herds of wild reindeer make their home. No people could live in such a country unless they were very industrious and thrifty.

I made my journey in the winter, because I was on my way to Lapland, where it is easier to travel when the swamps and rivers are frozen, and the reindeer-sleds can fly along over the smooth snow. It was very cold indeed, the greater part of the time; the days were short and dark, and if I had not found the people so kind, so cheerful, and so honest, I should have felt inclined to turn back, more than once. But I do not think there are better people in the world than those who live in Norrland, which is a Swedish province, commencing about two hundred miles north of Stockholm.

They are a hale, strong race, with yellow hair and bright blue eyes, and the handsomest teeth I ever saw. They live plainly, but very comfortably, in snug wooden houses, with double windows and doors to keep out the cold; and since they cannot do much out-door work, they spin and weave and mend their farming implements in the large family room, thus enjoying the winter in spite of its severity. They are very happy and contented, and few of them would be willing to leave that cold country and make their homes in a warmer climate.

Here there are neither railroads nor stages, but the government has established post-stations at distances varying from ten to twenty miles. At each station a number of horses, and sometimes vehicles, are kept, but generally the traveler has his own sled, and simply hires the horses from one station to another. These horses are either furnished by the keeper of the station or some of the neighbouring farmers, and when they are wanted a man or boy goes along with the traveler to bring them back. It would be quite an independent and convenient way of traveling, if the horses were always ready; but sometimes you must wait an hour or more before they can be furnished.

I had my own little sled, filled with hay and covered with reindeer-skins to keep me warm. So long as the weather was not too cold, it was very pleasant to speed along through the dark forests, over the frozen rivers, or past farm after farm in the sheltered valleys up hill and down, until long after the stars came out, and then to get a warm supper in some dark-red post cottage, while the cheerful people sang or told stories around the fire. The cold increased a little every day, to be sure, but I became gradually accustomed to it, and soon began to fancy that the Arctic climate was not so difficult to endure as I had supposed. At first the thermometer fell to zero; then it went down ten degrees below; then twenty, and finally thirty. Being dressed in thick furs from head to foot, I did not suffer greatly; but I was very glad when the people assured me that such extreme cold never lasted more than two or three days. Boys of twelve or fourteen very often went with me to bring back their father's horses, and so long as those lively, red-cheeked fellows could face the weather, it would not do for me to be afraid.

One night there was a wonderful aurora in the sky. The streamers of red and blue light darted hither and thither, chasing each other up the zenith and down again to the northern horizon with a rapidity and a brilliance which I had never seen before. "There will be a storm, soon," said my post-boy; "one always comes, after these lights."

Next morning the sky was overcast, and the short day was as dark as our twilight. But it was not quite so cold, and I travelled onward as fast as possible. There was a long tract of wild and thinly-settled country before me, and I wished to get through it before stopping for the night. Unfortunately it happened that two lumber-merchants were travelling the same way, and had taken the horses; so I was obliged to wait at the stations until other horses were brought from the neighbouring farms. This delayed me so much that at seven o'clock in the evening I had still one more station of three Swedish miles before reaching the village where I intended to spend the night. Now a Swedish mile is nearly equal to seven English, so that the station was at least twenty miles long.

I decided to take supper while the horse was eating his feed. They had not expected any more travellers at the station, and were not prepared. The keeper had gone on with the two lumber-merchants; but his wife--a friendly, rosy-faced woman-prepared me some excellent coffee, potatoes, and stewed reindeer-meat, upon which I made an excellent meal. The house was on the border of a large, dark forest, and the roar of the icy northern wind in the trees seemed to increase while I waited in the warm room. I did not feel inclined to go forth into the wintry storm, but, having set my mind on reaching the village that night, I was loath to turn back.

"It is a bad night," said the woman, "and my husband will certainly stay at Umea until morning. His name is Neils Petersen, and I think you will find him at the post-office when you get there. Lars will take you, and they can come back together."

"Who is Lars?" I asked.

"My son," said she. "He is getting the horse ready. There is nobody else about the house to-night."

Just then the door opened, and in came Lars. He was about twelve years old; but his face was so rosy, his eyes so clear and round and blue, and his golden hair was blown back from his face in such silky curls, that he appeared to be even younger. I was surprised that his mother should be willing to send him twenty miles through the dark woods on such a night.

"Come here, Lars," I said. Then I took him by the hand, and asked, "Are you not afraid to go so far to-night?"

He looked at me with wondering eyes, and smiled; and his mother made haste to say: "You need have no fear, sir. Lars is young; but he'll take you safe enough. If the storm don't get worse, you'll be at Umea by eleven o'clock."

I was again on the point of remaining; but while I was deliberating with myself, the boy had put on his overcoat of sheep-skin, tied the lappets of his fur cap under his chin, and a thick woollen scarf around his nose and mouth, so that only the round blue eyes were visible; and then his mother took down the mittens of hare's fur from the stove, where they had been hung to dry. He put them on, took a short leather whip, and was ready.

I wrapped myself in my furs, and we went out together. The driving snow cut me in the face like needles, but Lars did not mind it in the least. He jumped into the sled, which he had filled with fresh, soft hay, tucked in the reindeer-skins at the sides, and we cuddled together on the narrow seat, making everything close and warm before we set out. I could not see at all, when the door of the house was shut, and the horse started on the journey. The night was dark, the snow blew incessantly, and the dark fir-trees roared all around us. Lars, however, knew the way, and somehow or other we kept the beaten track. He talked to the horse so constantly and so cheerfully, that after a while my own spirits began to rise, and the way seemed neither so long nor so disagreeable.

"Ho there, Axel!" he would say. "Keep to the road,--not too far to the left. Well done. Here's a level; now trot a bit."

So we went on--sometimes up hill, sometimes down hill--for a long time, as it seemed. I began to grow chilly, and even Lars handed me the reins, while he swung and beat his arms to keep the blood in circulation. He no longer sang little songs and fragments of hymns, as when we first set out; but he was not in the least alarmed, or even impatient. Whenever I asked (as I did about every five minutes), "Are we nearly there?" he always answered, "A little farther."

Suddenly the wind seemed to increase.

"Ah," said he, "now I know where we are; it's one mile more." But one mile, you must remember, meant seven.

Lars checked the horse, and peered anxiously from side to side in the darkness. I looked also, but could see nothing.

"What is the matter?" I finally asked.

"We have got past the hills, on the left," he said. "The country is open to the wind, and here the snow drifts worse than anywhere else on the road. If there have been no ploughs out to-night we'll have trouble."

You must know that the farmers along the road are obliged to turn out with their horses and oxen, and plough down the drifts, whenever the road is blocked up by a storm.

In less than a quarter of an hour we could see that the horse was sinking in the deep snow. He plunged bravely forward, but made scarcely any headway, and presently became so exhausted that he stood quite still. Lars and I arose from the seat and looked around. For my part, I saw nothing except some very indistinct shapes of trees; there was no sign of an opening through them. In a few minutes the horse started again, and with great labour carried us a few yards farther.

"Shall we get out and try to find the road?" said I.

"It's no use," Lars answered. "In these drifts we would sink to the waist. Wait a little, and we shall get through this one."

It was as he said. Another pull brought us through the deep part of the drift, and we reached a place where the snow was quite shallow. But it was not the hard, smooth surface of the road: we could feel that the ground was uneven, and covered with roots and bushes. Bidding Axel stand still, Lars jumped out of the sled, and began wading around among the trees. Then I got out on the other side, but had not proceeded ten steps before I began to sink so deeply into the loose snow that I was glad to extricate myself and return. It was a desperate situation, and I wondered how we should ever get out of it.

I shouted to Lars, in order to guide him, and it was not long before he also came back to the sled. "If I knew where the road is," said he, "I could get into it again. But I don't know; and I think we must stay here all night."

"We shall freeze to death in an hour!" I cried. I was already chilled to the bone. The wind had made me very drowsy, and I knew that if I slept I should soon be frozen.

"Oh, no!" exclaimed Lars cheerfully. "I am a Norrlander, and Norrlanders never freeze. I went with the men to the bear-hunt last winter, up on the mountains, and we were several nights in the snow. Besides, I know what my father did with a gentleman from Stockholm on this very road, and we'll do it to-night."

"What was it?"

"Let me take care of Axel first," said Lars. "We can spare him some hay and one reindeer-skin."

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It was a slow and difficult task to unharness the horse, but we accomplished it at last. Lars then led him under the drooping branches of a fir-tree, tied him to one of them, gave him an armful of hay, and fastened the reindeer-skin upon his back. Axel began to eat, as if perfectly satisfied with the arrangement. The Norrland horses are so accustomed to cold that they seem comfortable in a temperature where one of ours would freeze.

When this was done, Lars spread the remaining hay evenly over the bottom of the sled and covered it with the skins, which he tucked in very firmly on the side toward the wind. Then, lifting them up on the other side, he said: "Now take off your fur coat, quick, lay it over the hay, and then creep under it."

I obeyed as rapidly as possible. For an instant I shuddered in the icy air; but the next moment I lay stretched in the bottom of the sled, sheltered from the storm. I held up the ends of the reindeer-skins while Lars took off his coat and crept in beside me. Then he drew the skins down and pressed the hay against them. When the wind seemed to be entirely excluded Lars said we must pull off our boots, untie our scarfs, and so loosen our clothes that they would not feel tight upon any part of the body. When this was done, and we lay close together, warming each other, I found that the chill gradually passed out of my blood. My hands and feet were no longer numb; a delightful feeling of comfort crept over me; and I lay as snugly as in the best bed. I was surprised to find that, although my head was covered, I did not feel stifled. Enough air came in under the skins to prevent us from feeling oppressed. There was barely room for the two of us to lie, with no chance of turning over or rolling about. In five minutes, I think, we were asleep, and I dreamed of gathering peaches on a warm August day, at home. In fact, I did not wake up thoroughly during the night; neither did Lars, though it seemed to me that we both talked in our sleep. But as I must have talked English and he Swedish, there could have been no connection between our remarks. I remember that his warm, soft hair pressed against my chin, and that his feet reached no farther than my knees. Just as I was beginning to feel a little cramped and stiff from lying so still I was suddenly aroused by the cold wind on my face. Lars had risen up on his elbow, and was peeping out from under the skins.

"I think it must be near six o'clock," he said. "The sky is clear, and I can see the big star. We can start in another hour."

I felt so much refreshed that I was for setting out immediately; but Lars remarked very sensibly that is was not yet possible to find the road. While we were talking, Axel neighed.

"There they are!" cried Lars, and immediately began to put on his boots, his scarf, and heavy coat. I did the same, and by the time we were ready we heard shouts and the crack of whips. We harnessed Axel to the sled, and proceeded slowly in the direction of the sound, which came, as we presently saw, from a company of farmers, out thus early to plough the road. They had six pairs of horses geared to a wooden frame, something like the bow of a ship, pointed in front and spreading out to a breadth of ten or twelve feet. This machine not only cut through the drifts but packed the snow, leaving a good, solid road behind it. After it had passed, we sped along merrily in the cold morning twilight, and in a little more than an hour reached the post-house at Umea, where we found Lars' father prepared to return home. He waited, nevertheless, until Lars had eaten a good warm breakfast, when I said good-bye to both, and went on towards Lapland.

Some weeks afterwards, on my return to Stockholm, I stopped at the same little station. This time the weather was mild and bright, and the father would have gone with me to the next post-house; but I preferred to take my little bed-fellow and sled-fellow. He was so quiet and cheerful and fearless, that although I had been nearly all over the world, and he had never been away from home,--although I was a man and he a young boy,--I felt that I had learned a lesson from him, and might probably learn many more if I should know him better. We had a merry trip of two or three hours, and then I took leave of Lars forever.

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