Famous Stories from Foreign Countries/My Traveling Companion

Pietari Päivärinta4025417Famous Stories From Foreign Countries — My Traveling Companion1921Edna Worthley Underwood




Päivärinta—who belongs to the new school of Finnish writers—although he was born much earlier—is the prose poet of the peasant and one of his strongest equipments for this aesthetic role which he was to play so well, is the greatness of his heart—a sort of tragic pity—which is found in everything he writes. He sees with his heart and nothing escapes this seeing. Sometimes it lifts him to just such dramatic heights as the “Homeric laughter” of Gógol, which, by the way, too, was full of tears. It is an x-ray vision that lays bare the soul. He lived the life of a peasant, so he knows at first hand the things of which he writes. He left the plowshare after he was forty to picture the humble companions among whom he had spent his days. Like Burns, he did manual labor with one hand while he held a book in the other. The date of his birth—1827—seems long ago for him to be of that new school of story tellers of Finnland, among whom are Frosterus, Pakkala, Raijonen, Aho. His parents were poor, day laborers. He was brought up to work, and to the observance of stern discipline. There were a number of other children. Pietari was the eldest. The parents fell ill, and he was obliged to go out begging as a child in order to procure bread enough for the others. When he was scarcely out of his teens he married a poor peasant girl and bought himself a little piece of forest land. Unable to make a living by farming he traveled from parish to parish and sang; he had a voice of great beauty and power which won him his first fame. At length he settled down as clerk of a parish. Later he represented his peasant community in the Finnish Parliament. His first book was Episodes of the Great War, and it was published with success the year he wrote it. This was followed by others among which was an account of his own life. The subjects were always the same, pictures of peasant life. Päivärinta is a Joseph Israel of the pen.


It was the last of March. The weather was fair and here and there one could see signs of approaching Spring. Birds were beginning to twitter in the branches. Sleighing, if not completely broken up, was bad; the roads were rough and muddy, and in several places the bare ground showed through. Brooks and rivers were filled with floating snow and ice and dirt, and only the sharp freezing at night kept them from overflowing their banks. In favored places many a little brook had burst through to freedom and was joyfully leaping down the declivities, and rushing noisily away to the breast of its mother—the ancient sea.

Such was the season and condition of traveling, when business forced me to take a journey outside my own parish.

Early that morning I came across a man, who like myself was forced to travel on business. He had one emaciated old horse and a heavy sleigh; indeed he went on foot and pushed the sleigh. When I overtook him I jumped out and trudged along beside him.

“Good morning, old man,” I began, as I reached his side.

“Good morning,” was the reply, without looking in my direction.

I had now opportunity to observe my companion at close range. His horse was really little more than a skeleton, and the load was two barrels of tar. In the sleigh I saw reeds and swamp-grass, evidently the horse’s food, and very likely for the same purpose was a sack filled with straw, which was placed on top of the tar barrels and stuck out over the front. In addition, in the sleigh, there was a small birch-bark basket which probably held food for the man. He wore an old and ragged coat, which was held tight at the hips by a worn leather strap. The coat had no buttons, and it was not provided with any means of fastening at the top. The strap about his hips had no effect upon holding the old coat together at the neck, so the man’s chest was bare.

His shoes were likewise old and they had been mended time and again. Now they were torn and wisps of straw which he had used to try to stuff the holes, stuck through. On his hands he wore tattered, often mended mittens, and on his head an ancient sheep skin cap.

As I said, the old man was trudging along behind the sleigh. He did not seem to have planned upon riding, because the two barrels of tar and the food* for the old mare filled it completely.

When he came to a place in the road where the snow was gone, the old man pushed the sleigh with all his strength, in attempt to help the feeble horse. Holes in the road, and furrows cut by sleighs, were filled with water, and this ice water went in through the holes in the old man’s shoes.

“Where are you going?” I inquired, in order to begin a conversation, after making the above observations.

“To the city!” was the curt and melancholy reply.

“You have chosen a bad time for your journey, because now sleighing is uncertain.”

He answered: “True; the road is bad but I couldn’t wait for a better one.”

“What could force you to make the journey now when it is so difficult to get along?”

“Threat of execution for debt. That doesn’t wait for weather,” said the old man sadly, looking up at me for the first time, with shy, grief-shadowed eyes.

This was my first glimpse of his face. It was wrinkled, and eaten out by misfortune, and made old before years had done so. Both his body and his manner indicated fewer years than his face.

“Who is such a cruel creditor as to drive you to the city in weather like this?”

“The parson!” said the old man sharply.

“The parson? You owe him so much then?” I inquired in astonishment.

“Only last year’s interest.”

“Only last year’s interest? Haven’t you been to him and asked him to wait?”

“Yes—several times.”

“Well, what does he say?”

“He was very angry and exclaimed: You’re stealing from me—you vagabond.” He didn’t have any pity when I begged him with tears in my eyes.

“I must say that you have a hard hearted parson. It wouldn’t hurt him to wait a little—anyway until the roads are dry,” I explained in ill temper, without knowing why I was so agitated.

“That’s just what I think—that he could wait. But I’m so ignorant I don’t suppose I know anything about such things—of course the pastor knows better than I do. He has great responsibility for all our souls, and I suppose that’s why he has to look after his interest. He’s a good preacher—though—does everything just right. Of course, I don’t like to blame the pastor—but I wouldn’t steal however much good it would do me. Some say the pastor is tight and thinks only of his share. But how could he carry such great responsibility—looking after our souls—if he didn’t get all that was coming to him?” observed the old man innocently.

This simplicity threw light upon the old man’s nature. Surely he had been tried severely by the hardships of life—far more than the pastor—about whose material welfare he was so concerned. All his life he had struggled with want, with suffering—with the bitter climate of our Finnland. And still he felt it his duty to give to others what was coming to them, no matter whether or not he had anything to live upon. The only thing that grieved him was his inability to meet his obligations punctually.

“I don’t think it was right for the pastor to call me a thief. I wouldn’t steal— but still I can’t pay,” continued the old man.

This utterance came from a heart that was honest—if worn out in the struggle.

“If I can haul these two barrels of tar to the city I can pay the pastor—and then there’ll be no danger of the execution,” he went on. He seemed to become more confidential. I was interested to know something more about the life of the old man, and observed indifferently:

“That mare of yours is pretty thin. How can you expect her to haul those two barrels of tar to the city?”

“Yes, true it is. The mare is lean. But how could the poor creature be fat, when fed upon swamp-grass and water?” confessed the old man.

“But the creature ought to be provided for first,” I suggested.

“So anyone would say, who observed from a distance and did not know. But when the cold has killed everything, you’d take what little you could get and put into the pot, to keep the family from starving. There’s very little difference between what we get to eat and the old mare. I guess you’d find the old mare fares just as well as we do,” the old man explained, looking up in surprise at my way of judging.

“At least you should have had these boots of yours mended. Your feet are wet.”

“Anyone would say so—who didn’t know. But if you had six hungry, naked children, and a wife, you wouldn’t have time to think about mending shoes. Besides, these shoes have been mended and mended—and now they can’t be mended any more. Of course I’d like to wear respectable clothes—but there’s no way,”—declared the old man with a peculiar intonation of melancholy.

“Where’s your home?”

“Just outside a village on the edge of this parish.”

“What’s your name?”

“Svältbacka Matti—they call me, and I’ve suffered hunger all my life on my “hunger field.”

“How’s that?”

“Well it’s true anyway. My hut is at the far end of a lonely village, between swamps on one side and marsh land on the other. I live there because it is not good enough for anyone else. My father built the place, but now every year the cold starves us out.”

“Can’t you get away from such a place? You could earn a better living somewhere else.”

“It is not so easy to get away as you think. If we tried to get away no one would buy the place, so how could we buy another? We’ve got to stay there. And it’s better there than tramping—and begging. If I could only get away from these payments!”

“Is it last year’s tar you are taking to the city?”

“No. How could I keep that so long? Everything goes from hand to mouth. That was used up long ago. Hardly was it in the barrels before away it went to the city.”

While we talked on we reached a farm, which at the same time was a rest-house, and the old man said he would stop and feed his horse. This was my intention, too, I had traveled so far that my horse needed food and rest. The sleigh of the old man began to grate on the harsh, bare ground in front of the farm, and the two of us then helped the old mare as best we could.

When we had unharnessed the horses and given them fodder, we took our food bags and started toward the house. We, too, felt need of breakfast. The old man picked up the little birch basket, took something from it and sat down upon a bench in the corner near the stove. I wanted to know what he had to eat and made believe that I had business in the same corner. Poor and needy was his lunch. It was only black bread and salt.

I turned away and took up my food box. I tried to appear calm and indifferent, although my heart was moved by strange emotions. When, outwardly, I had regained composure, I said to him:

“Come over here and eat with me!” The old man looked up in my face and did not answer. He did not seem to comprehend. Perhaps he did not hear or perhaps he wished to hold out on what he had to eat.

“Come! Come over and eat with me,” I asked again.

“Why should you be so good to me?” replied the old fellow, carefully packing away again his own food in the birch basket. He came across with slow steps, giving a hasty, searching glance at my face, in order to convince himself that the offer was genuine.

“We know each other so well now that we ought to be good to each other,” I answered.

“Sit down now and eat.”

Our roads separated. The old man went on toward the city. And while I jogged on again alone, I could not get the poor old fellow out of my mind. His lean mare, his scanty food, his ragged insufficient clothes, and his face which had grown old before its time, were constantly in my mind. And I kept on hearing his words: “Anyone would think so if he didn’t know!”

I travelled on one day, two days. Ahead now I saw a good sized, well built village and a church. The village extended considerable distance and the fields that stretched between the buildings, were extensive, too. This was no new village, the work of pioneers. The farms were old and well developed. Upon this land many struggles for existence had taken place, many a life had been sacrificed. Upon these unpromising fields even in ancient times the same struggle had been going on, for generations and generations, in order that people of today might enjoy the result. They who lived here now were reaping reward from the suffering, the tears, the want, the oppression of them who had struggled and died. Perhaps none of these who had died had paid their interest to the pastor.

The prosperous looking church stood upon a hill, on a thread of land, bordering a long, indented arm of the sea. Pine woods shadowed it on all sides. A little farther ahead, upon a piece of land projecting into the water stood the elegant home of the pastor, in the midst of a park. My business led me to call upon the pastor. He was a stately figure. And in his home there was every luxury that modem civilization can provide.

The pastor was sitting in an expensive, richly upholstered chair. He was tall, well built. No one could say that he had grown old before his time. He was pastor of the parish to which Matti’s “hunger-field” belonged, and it was because of him that Matti was trying to get to the city with two barrels of tar.

When I arrived the pastor was having a set-to with the clerk.

“You act like an honest man according to your own reckoning, and you have never once told me how many cows each person owns, and I know perfectly well that you have the number on most of the farms,” declared the pastor.

“Who? I?” answered the clerk.

“Of course—you,” was the reply, looking sharply at the clerk.

“How could I know just how many cows each one has?” objected the clerk. He seemed to wish to escape a violent attack of temper on the part of the pastor.

“You know well enough; and I know you do. But you try to conceal it from me. The wretches are all stealing from me—and who shields them shares the sin. Do you know clerk, what the punishment for theft is?” shrieked the pastor in a rage.

Red, of indignation and wounded honor dyed his cheeks, and he replied to this accusation, which according to my opinion had gone too far.

“I don’t think it my duty to run about the village, and count the cows, in order to report to the pastor. Neither do I think it my duty—to God or man— to report cows that do not exist. To be sure, upon earth there are two kinds of people; they who make their incomes as large as possible, and they who make it as small a possible. Who has visited the homes of the poor—and had dealings with them—he knows the conditions. The pastor—according to my opinion, has said things he has no right to say.”

Now it was the pastor’s turn to become red. Then he let all his anger loose upon the clerk.

“Do you know, clerk, whom you address?”

“I know very well. I speak with my lord, the pastor, but not with a gracious lord.”

With these words he went away. They did not take leave of each other. I now had opportunity to introduce my own business. The pastor was in a bad temper. The just reproach of the clerk had done its work.

“This Ignorant clown is loud mouthed, and doesn’t know better than to attack his superiors. He has always been obstinate and self-willed. Many a pastor has said to me: ‘If I had him, I’d send him going.’”

I had no answer to make to this, because it seemed to me the pastor had been the cause of what happened. I politely brought my own business to his attention. The pastor thought he understood the peasants and their customs better than anyone else. He cherished the belief, and gave expression of it to everyone, that the peasants did not show any gratitude toward their benefactors. He did not happen to mention just who their benefactors were, but he let it be understood that he, himself, was the most prominent among them. This speech of his sounded to me very like a preachment upon the subject of martyrdom.

I concluded my business as speedily as possible and went my way.

As it happened I still kept thinking of Svältbacka Matti and his two barrels of tar. I couldn’t get him out of my head. I compared his life and surroundings with that of the pastor. There was a great difference between them. But as human beings they were equal.

Business kept me several days in the little village. When I traveled on again, I went into a more remote part of the parish. Here the roads were so poor and confusing that I was forced to hire a guide. He was a young man and wholly untouched by the responsibilities and cares of this world. We scarcely exchanged two words on the trip.

About a mile and a half from the church, on the left at a little distance there was a farm, where a lot of people were assembled.

“What sort of farm is that?” I inquired of my guide.

“That is Svältbacka,” replied the young man carelessly. I started.

“What are all those people doing there?” I ventured, confused.

“O—that’s an auction sale—an execution. It’s because of a debt to the pastor,” he explained indifferently.

“Is the owner’s name Matti?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s it,” replied the young man with increasing indifference.

“I met him on the way to your village. He was going to the city. We went along together. How is this sale possible? I surely should have met him again.”

“That’s easy enough to understand. Matti took another road. There’s a detour here.”

“I suppose he is not back from the city, because he was going to the city to sell two barrels of tar to pay the interest,” I ventured.

“Probably so.”

Here the road turned toward Svältbacka.[1]

“Drive up to the house,” I ordered.

The guide obeyed.

When we came near I saw that the auction was all over. There hadn’t been much to sell. One or two lean cows was all! Besides the cows there were a few half naked, hungry little children, and a worn looking woman. But a creditor hasn’t any use for creatures of this kind.

The cows were outside the yard, tied together with willow twigs. The new owner held one end of the twigs. They were just in the act of being driven away. The woman, white and trembling, stood in the midst of the hungry children. She did not weep. She had wept all she could long ago, as her eyes bore witness. I went up to her and said:

“Did your husband not get back from the city? Is that the cause of the auction?”

“How do you know that Matti went to the city?” was the reply, looking at me searchingly.

“I went part of the way with him.”

“No, he hasn’t come back. And he said he was going to hasten all he could. I’m afraid something has happened. The road is bad. The old mare is so lean, too. But when Matti comes now it won’t do any good. Now everything’s gone. It’s all over. Even if the cows were not good for much, they gave a few drops for the children. They were sold for nothing, too. Who would pay for them when they were so lean? They didn’t bring enough to pay the pastor, let alone the costs of the auction.” Thus spoke the woman.

Yes, yes, the misfortune had come. Things had gone their way, and no one could say that a wrong had been done, for law is changeless and power is holy.

I had seen enough. I sought out my guide in the crowd, betook myself to my conveyance and again we set out. Traveling across the untenanted land that had just been cleared strange thoughts came to me, and we did not talk, my guide and I.

“What sort of man is the pastor? What do the villagers think of him?” at length I inquired of my guide.

“Oh, the pastor is a fine preacher. But he’s so mean and niggardly that he steals the very ashes from the hearths,” replied the young man indifferently, beginning to hum a song.

That day I reached the end of the journey. Here I tarried several days. Then again one Saturday I set out with my guide on the return. Sunday morning I was in the village. I put my horse up at a farm, and determined to go to church, since the opportunity presented itself. The church bells rang solemnly. They were summoning the people to listen to a message of love and peace.

When I reached the church they were carrying a dead man upon a bier. The pall bearers put their burden down, to wait for the pastor and the clerk. It looked as though the pastor was still quarreling with the clerk, and he said: “I tell you the rascals are stealing from me.”

“Whom are they burying?” I asked of some one near.

“Svältbacka Matti. He died driving to the city.”

Now I understood. A shudder ran over me. My old traveling companion was dead. He had put forth too great an effort to make the journey. That was the reason he could not return and prevent the auction.

The clerk read the psalm:

“Great suffering and sorrow in the valley of tears,” etc.—Probably Matti’s pastor chose this psalm. His sharp eyes and instinct had told him that it was appropriate.

When we reached the grave and the pastor began to bless the last place of rest, he took the shovel, stuck it in the ground, lifted up earth three times and threw it upon the coffin of the dead man. With great pathos then he exclaimed: “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” When he had thrown the wet and frozen earth upon Matti’s coffin, it seemed to me I could hear a voice saying: “He’s a fine preacher. I don’t blame the pastor—I wouldn’t steal—but I couldn’t pay.”

Among the mourners I looked for Matti’s wife. This woman who had been tried in sorrow was tragically white. With tearless, reddened eyes and hollow cheeks, she stood in the midst of the half naked children, who were shivering and looked at one point—the coffin. I went up to speak to her.

When the burial was over I asked some of the people about Matti. He was taken ill with pneumonia before he reached the city. He was ill-clothed, wet, underfed, and he could not struggle against it.

Now the bell summoned to church service. With others I entered the building. After the singing and the altar service, the pastor went to the pulpit. He chose for text: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Love,” he said, “was the fulfilling of the law.” With pathos and display of genuine ability he explained to his hearers this high and noble command.

During the most zealous part of his speech I heard again the words: “He is a good preacher.” The lengthy sermon seemed not to be lacking in effect. Here and there women wept.

After service he spoke of the dead man. “God in his mercy has taken from this vale of tears, the farmer Matti Antinporka of Svältbacka, aged forty-two years, three months and eight days.

What is wealth and what is gold?
Trash—that melt to dust and mold.
Care and sorrow here below
Both the rich and poor must know.

Thus the pastor bestowed the last earthly service upon Matti. And he did not do it in the cheap manner of a hireling, but with oratorical eloquence and fervor. When he read the hymn above, it seemed to his hearers that he scorned gold and riches, and that he really suffered for the companions in suffering of poor Matti.

But while he was reading the hymn in a loud and impressive voice, I heard another voice saying:

"I’m so stupid that of course I don’t understand such things. The Pastor—he knows more about it than I!"

  1. Svältbacka means Hunger Field.

 This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.


This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1961, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 62 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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