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A short story by Selma Lagerlof

The Animals' New Year's Eve

Title:     The Animals' New Year's Eve
Author: Selma Lagerlof [More Titles by Lagerlof]

Centuries ago, in Sweden, a dean was riding through the dense forest on a New Year's Eve. He was on horseback, dressed in a fur coat and cap. On the pommel of his saddle hung a satchel in which he carried his book of prayers. He had been with a sick person who lived in a far away forest settlement until late in the evening. Now he was on his way home but he feared that he should not get back to his house until after midnight.

The dean's horse was strong and sturdy, and quite as wise as a human being. He could find his way home from any part of the forest. So the dean rode along now in the gray night, through the bewildering woods, with the reins dangling and his thoughts far away. It was a long time before he noticed how far along he was on his homeward way. When he did glance up, he saw that the forest was as dense as it had been at the beginning.

He intended to turn the horse at once, but the animal had never strayed. Perhaps he, himself, was mistaken, the dean thought. But suddenly a big branch struck him and almost swept him from the horse.

They were riding over a soft marsh through which there was no beaten track, although the horse trotted along at a brisk pace and showed no uncertainty. The dean seized the reins and turned the horse about, guiding him back to the roadway. No sooner was he there than he turned again and made straight for the woods.

The dean decided to walk and lead the horse until they came to more familiar roads. He dismounted, wound the reins around his arm, and started along on foot. It was no easy matter to tramp through the forest in a heavy fur coat; and the horse refused to follow. He planted his hoofs firmly on the ground and balked.

At last the dean was angry. He had never beaten his horse, nor would he now. Instead he threw the reins down and walked away.

"We may as well part company, since you want to go your own way," he said.

He had not taken more than two steps before the horse came after him, took a cautious grip on his master's coat sleeve, and stopped him. Afterward the dean could not understand how it happened but, dark as it was, the horse looked straight in his eyes. He gave his master a look that was both pleading and reproachful.

"I have served you day after day and done your bidding," he seemed to say. "Will you not follow me this one night?"

Without further delay the dean sprang into the saddle.

"Go on!" he said. "I will not desert you when you are in trouble."

He let the horse go as he wished and it was a hazardous journey, uphill all the way. The forest grew so thick that he could not see two feet ahead, but it seemed as if they were climbing a high mountain. The horse took perilous steps.

"Surely you don't intend to go up Black's Ridge, do you?" asked the dean, who knew that was one of the highest peaks in Haelsingland.

They mounted up and up, and the higher they went the more scattering were the trees. At last they rode on bare highland where the dean could look in every direction. Great tracts of land went up and down in mountains and valleys covered with dark trees. He could make out where they were.

"Why, of course it's Black's Ridge!" he said. "What an adventure!"

When they were at the top the horse stopped behind a thick pine, as if to hide. The dean bent forward and pushed aside the branches that he might see.

The mountain's bald top was there. It was not empty, though. In the middle of the open space was an immense boulder around which many wild beasts were gathered. They were having a meeting of some sort.

Near to the big rock he saw bears, so firmly and heavily built that they seemed like fur-clad figures of stone. They were lying down and their little eyes blinked impatiently, for they had come from their winter sleep to attend court and could hardly keep awake. Behind the bears, in tight rows, were hundreds of wolves. They were not sleepy, for wolves are more alert in winter than in summer. They sat upon their haunches, like dogs, whipping the ground with their tails and panting--their tongues lolling far out of their jaws.

Behind the wolves, the lynx skulked, stiff-legged and clumsy, like misshapen cats. They hissed and spat when one came near them. The row back of the lynx was filled with wolverines; they had dog faces and bear coats. They were not happy on the ground, and they stamped their pads impatiently, longing to get into the trees. Behind them, covering the entire space of the forest border, leaped the foxes, the weasels, and the martens. They were small and perfectly formed, but they looked even more savage and blood thirsty than the larger beasts.

All this the dean plainly saw for the whole place was light. Upon the huge rock at the centre was the Wood-nymph, who held in her hand a pine torch which burned in a big red flame. The Nymph was as tall as the tallest tree in the forest. She wore a spruce-brush mantle, and had spruce-cone hair. She stood very still, her face turned toward the forest. She was watching and listening.

Suddenly the dean heard the sound of a familiar bell. The next moment he heard footfalls and crackling of branches, as of many animals breaking through the forest. A big herd of cattle was climbing the mountain. They came through the forest in the order in which they had marched to the mountain ranches. First came the bell cow followed by the bull, then the other cows and the calves. After them came the goats, and last were the horses and colts. The sheep-dog trotted along beside the sheep; but neither shepherd nor shepherdess was with them.

The domestic animals came in great terror, straight toward the wild beasts. The cattle came with faltering step; the goats had no desire to play or butt. The bodies of the horses were all a-quiver with fright. The most pathetic of all was the sheep-dog. He kept his tail between his legs and crawled on the ground.

As the creatures reached the summit and filed past the Wood-nymph, the dean saw her lower her pine torch over one and another of them.

Every time this happened the wild beasts broke into exultant roars, particularly when the Wood-nymph indicated a cow or some other large creature. The animal that saw the torch turned toward it, uttered a frightful cry, as if it had received a knife thrust in its flesh. Herd upon herd followed, without a break in the line of procession. It was the same with all.

Then the dean understood the meaning of what he saw. He had heard that the animals assembled on Black's Ridge every New Year's Eve that the Wood-nymph might mark out which of the tame beasts would that year be eaten by the wild beasts. It was terrible! He thought of the farmers who had so much love for their creatures.

"They would risk their own lives rather than let their cattle be doomed by the Wood-nymph," the dean thought.

The last herd to come was the dean's own, from the rectory farm. He heard the sound of his bell cow a long way off. The horse, too, must have heard it, for he began to shake in every limb and was bathed in sweat.

"So it is your turn to pass before the Wood-nymph and receive your sentence," the dean said to the horse. "Don't be afraid. Now I know why you brought me here, and I shall not leave you."

The beautiful cattle from the rectory farm came out of the forest and marched to the Wood-nymph and the wild beasts. Last in line was the horse. The dean did not leave the saddle, but let the animal take him to the Wood-nymph.

The dean had nothing for his defence, but he had taken out his book of prayers and sat pressing it to his heart. At first he seemed unnoticed, but his cattle filed by and the Wood-nymph did not lower her pine torch toward any of these. When the faithful horse stepped forward, though, she made a movement to mark him for death.

Instantly the dean held up his book of prayers, and the torch light fell on its cover. The Wood-nymph uttered a loud, shrill cry; and the torch dropped from her hand and fell to the ground.

Immediately the flame was extinguished, and all about was the profound stillness of a wilderness in winter. Then the dark clouds parted, and through the opening stepped the full round moon to shed its light upon the ground. Not one of the many wild beasts was there. The dean and his horse were alone on Black's Ridge, the horse trembling and foaming.

By the time the dean reached home he no longer knew if it had been a vision or reality--this that he had seen; but he took it as a warning to him to remember the poor creatures who are at the mercy of wild beasts. He preached so powerfully to the peasants that in his day all the wild beasts were exterminated in that part of the country.

[The end]
Selma Sherwin Lagerlof's short story: The Animals' New Year's Eve