Coming 16 December 2016!
On a lonely windswept island off the coast of Sweden, there is a place so desolate it feels abandoned by the fates. And yet, it possesses a strange beauty, which summons souls to awakening. This is the Alvar. Its very nature is a contradiction, and it is this ambiguity that calls to Ingrid, daughter to the vicar of Smedby.
Raised as God-fearing, she believes in charity, and when Kalle returns unexpectedly to the island community, her instinct is to help him. Considered a pariah by all due to his sordid past, one that saw him exiled for many years, he ventures into the Alvar to live, to escape the censure of the villagers. In this desolate place, how will he survive? Ingrid resolves to help him.
No one will tell Ingrid why Kalle was exiled. Her father commands her to stay away from the poacher. Their housekeeper warns her off. Her brother does not know what happened. Her French tutor, Max, is new to the island. The mystery is overwhelming and the only one who knows the truth is Kalle himself. In the spirit of charity, and also curiosity, Ingrid befriends Kalle, hoping to uncover the past, hoping also to help him survive the Alvar.
A gypsy reveals to Ingrid that she will lose everything, but the cossetted vicar’s daughter is headstrong. She enters the Alvar despite every warning … and meets her fate there.
Smedby Vicarage, Öland, July 1890
Ingrid Gunarsson was full of anticipation. Papa had finally yielded to her wish to throw a ball for her sixteenth birthday and turn their beloved prästgård into a scene of merriment once again.
There hadn’t been a party at Smedby Vicarage for five long years. Not after dear Mama had died, and Papa had considered it improper to organise any festive event. Although Ingrid missed her mother more than anything in the world, she begged her father for a birthday party. Just this once let her be a girl of sixteen summers! In the end, Ludvig Gunarsson had consented to her pleas, smiling inwardly at her joy. He was extremely fond of his only daughter and needed her gaiety like a pinch of salt in flavourless soup.
At present, Ingrid ran through the downstairs rooms in a state of utter excitement and agitation. Her tutor, the young Frenchman Maximilian Dupuis, tried in vain to draw her attention to le vocabulaire du français and, when that failed, to music, Ingrid’s passion, but today the vivacious girl’s attention span was as short as the strings of her apron.
Her big blue eyes kept darting out of the window to check for her brother Johan. Four years Ingrid’s senior, Johan was a second-year student of theology at Lund University. Today he was expected home for the summer holidays and, of course, Ingrid’s party. He was to arrive by coach from Kalmar. Erik, the family’s valet, had left early that morning to pick the young master up from the ferry in Färjestaden and was long expected back. At least, according to Ingrid’s calculations.
Ingrid imagined her brother a real gentleman now, clad in breeches and dressed in a fashionable dark-grey suit, even more elegant than when he had last been down at Christmas. Oh, how she longed to see the coach turn around the last bent of the driveway, drawn up by their two loyal horses, the beige Haflingers, Nor and Asgard.
What was detaining them so long? Ingrid checked the clock on the mantelpiece every other second. It was almost three in the afternoon and Papa had said Johan’s train would arrive in Kalmar at the clock of ten. Something must have gone wrong; from the ferry it was only a two-hour journey to Smedby.
Without Max’s permission Ingrid galloped once again from the dayroom to check the driveway from the front window. In despair, the French tutor threw his arms in the air, giving up on his pupil.
“Mademoiselle Ingrid, I suppose it iz almost teatime. Shall we call it a day?”
“Oh, yes, thank you, Mr Dupuis, you’re an angel. I would kiss both your cheeks if you shaved better.” She added with a mischievous smile, “If it weren’t for my brother and my party, I would have all my attention for you, but now, oh-oh-oh, I simply cannot concentrate on all your Frenchness. I am completely absorbed in the upcoming festivities. Oh, look, there’s farmer Jakobson with the poultry. I have to go and see if Mrs Magnusson is in the kitchen.”
To her disappearing back the young tutor called, “Allez, Mademoiselle, but on Monday we start ze lessons at nine! Amusez-vous!”
“But you are coming to my party tomorrow?” Ingrid cried, swivelling on her heels. “You are invited, Monsieur Max. It starts at four, so don’t be late. I’ll keep a dance for you!”
Hurrying to the kitchen at the back of the house with quick dancing steps, the fair girl with long blond locks cascading down her slender back, clad in a white dress with a blue apron over it, missed seeing how the tutor coloured under her invitation.
The young man from Paris, who had arrived on the Swedish island after applying for the tutoring post in the local Gazette, was very fond of this lively Swedish girl with her animated gestures and her funny ideas. She brought life and blood to his cheeks and – God forbid – to his heart, but at twenty-three he was only supposed to have these feelings in the privacy of his tiny room in the attic of the vicarage and not in the open; certainly not now all his employer’s relatives, friends and parishioners were coming to enjoy what was to be the most sophisticated party on Södra Öland in the last decade.
Young Ingrid, completely unaware of the turmoil in Max’s heart, entered the kitchen with hasty steps; the kitchen was a huge square room normally spotlessly clean and well-organised, but now looked as if all the shelves had collapsed. Mrs Magnusson, corpulent and sweating, and accustomed to holding sway over the Gunarsson’s kitchen all by herself, was in a state of complete frenzy. With fifty guests arriving at the house the next day, twenty of whom were stay-overs, her face was scarlet and puckered as she tried to order around three hired kitchen maids, and a young boy who was to arrange the furniture and decorate the garden.
Mrs Magnusson regarded it a personal challenge to give Ingrid the best party ever, as she loved the motherless girl with all her heart. She naturally fulfilled many of the duties the mother would have performed had she still been alive. Seeing Ingrid rush into the kitchen so happy and full of anticipation made the kind matron’s face light up, but her anxiety to meet her own high expectations and not disappoint Master and little Miss Ingrid was wearing.
It had been such a long time since all the lights had been on in this household that the housekeeper now doubted she was still capable of hosting a party at the same level of Elisabet’s time; those happy monthly events that had drawn guests from Södra Öland to the Smedby prästgård. After Elisabet had fallen ill with the Winter Fever and died a couple of months later, time stopped and the parties abruptly with it. Before that Smedby Vicarage had been a house full of light and laughter and now the heavy responsibility rested on Mrs Magnusson’s round shoulders to recreate the past, without the supervision of the well-organised Lady in charge.
“Miss Ingrid, stop running,” the matron scolded the girl while her busy hands kneaded a huge lump of dough, enough to form five loaves of bread. “If you trip over the hem of your dress, you’ll hurt yourself and will not be able to dance at your own party.”
Mrs Magnusson’s advice was instantly brushed aside by the overexcited girl.
“I can’t fall, Mrs Mags,” she cried as she danced around the big kitchen. “God’s giving me wings today.” She suddenly fell still anyway. With a sad face she sank down on a wooden chair at Mrs Mags working table. “Oh, but I’m sad now,” she exclaimed, her mood changing like a leaf in the wind. “How Mama would have loved to be present at my first ball. Oh, I miss her so much!”
Tears dripped down Ingrid’s smooth cheeks and wet the front of her blue apron. The friendly matron wiped her hands on her own smock, touching the golden hair with her sticky fingers while she hushed the girl with a lump in her own voice.
“There, there now, Miss Ingrid.”
Despite the fact that Mrs Magnusson worked long hours and did all sorts of jobs for the Gunarsson family, her white apron was always pristinely clean and starched. Ingrid turned her big blue eyes up to the corpulent lady with her kind grey eyes and instantly jumped up and into the big woman’s arms.
Comforted by the fleshy feel of the housekeeper’s arms, she stopped crying and retrieved her infectious laugh once again.
“Oh, Per,” she giggled, turning to their neighbour standing at the back door with three dead chickens in his hands, “you look all fluffy and feathery.”
The taciturn farmer, one of the vicar’s tenants, never knew how to respond to the girl’s unexpected reactions, and looked for help to Mrs Magnusson with a look of alarm in his shy eyes almost hidden by long, bushy eyebrows. Seeing that Ingrid was sufficiently comforted again, the matron went over to Per Jakobson to collect the chickens. The farmer was holding them up by their thin yellow legs.
“Thank you, Per,” she said, taking them from him. “Never mind Miss Ingrid. I’d say these are good, fat chicks. And how’s the wife?”
Per’s wife was about to deliver their second child after two stillborn. Mrs Magnusson, with no children of her own, sympathised with the sickly Anna Jakobson.
“She’ll be fine, Mrs Magnusson,” the shy farmer muttered, looking for a way to turn on his heels at the first opportunity. “Can be any day now. Tell me if you need more chickens.”
“No, that’ll be enough, Per. Thank you. But perhaps I’ll need an extra sack of potatoes for the potato salad.”
“I’ll bring them around after dinner.”
The farmer was already closing the door when Ingrid shouted, “Say hello to Anna from me, Per. Tell her I’ll come and play with little Lukas after my party.”
Per, however, had already scurried out of ear range.
For a while, the restless Ingrid watched Mrs Magnusson’s activities in the kitchen, but kept skipping to the window to see if the coach was finally arriving.
For the umpteenth time she asked, “What time is my brother expected again, Mrs Mags?”
“Any moment now, Miss Ingrid, but I told Erik to bring me some lard, white flour and raisins from Mörbylanga, so they might be a bit later.”
In the end Ingrid got fed up tiptoeing to and fro to the window, and went in search of her father. He was supposed to be writing his sermon in the library and Ingrid knew she was forbidden to go in, but she persuaded Mrs Magnusson to prepare his afternoon tea a little earlier than usual and to let her serve it.
Carefully putting the tray down on the side table in the hall, she knocked on his door.
The vicar appeared surprised to see his daughter come in, her blond hair hanging wildly down her back and with an elated look in her clear eyes. He smiled as she approached his desk, where she delivered the tray with an air of importance.
“My girl,” he said in his warm baritone, “why are you serving your old father today and why so early?”
Vicar Ludvig Gunarsson was a tall, erect man, with curly hair already greying at forty-four, and bushy side whiskers. His rather narrow nose and grey eyes gave him the impression of a stern owl, but he was a kind man with an inclination to dine and drink heartily.
Due to his grief over the early death of his wife, he found it improper to enjoy life now, and constantly reprimanded himself if he took a glass of port wine or enjoyed a leg of lamb. Secretly, he was as excited about the party as his daughter, looking forward to merriness and dancing after years of abstinence. Needing to uphold the impression of strictness and discipline, he presented the best example, in particular in front of his children.
“Mrs Magnusson is so busy right now she asked me to bring your tea, father. She just had one minute to prepare it and that was now.”
Her father bought her little white lie with a coy smile. “Have to done your lessons with Mr Dupuis today, my dear?”
“Oh yes, father, but it was so hard to concentrate. I can’t wait till Johan is here. He’s terribly late, and I’m so frightfully worried. Drink your tea, Papa, before it’s too cold.” She put two spoons of sugar in the delicate china cup laced with ivy leaves and handed him the cup and saucer.
“Won’t you have a cup with me, my dear?”
“May I?” Ingrid’s eyes lit up, “Are you not too busy, father?”
“No, no. I was trying to write my Sunday sermon, but I think I am also infected with your party virus. I have difficulty concentrating.”
“I’ll run to Mrs Mags for an extra cup. Straightaway!” Ingrid was already hoisting up her long skirt and running out of the library, leaving her father to shake his head in dismay.
His grey gaze went to the huge oil portrait over the chimney; a blond lady in a low-cut burgundy-red dress sat somewhat side-ways on a velvet-cushioned stool. Her hair was done up elegantly and her blue eyes looked out with a combination of slight irony and glee into the room. Her skin was a pale matted cream and she had perfectly arched eyebrows and a slightly turned-up nose. Her full mouth, with a hovering smile at the corner of her lips, seemed to say, enjoy life, it’s short and wonderful.
The lady in the portrait was the spitting image of her lively daughter. A beauty, whose character and wit had been a welcome and well-known asset to the whole of Södra Öland. Wherever Elisabet went, there was bustle and laughter. No one, only God, could have predicted how short-lived and explosive it would be.
“Oh, Elisabet,” Ludvig sighed, “how on earth am I going to reign in this little wild one?”
The portrait didn’t reply, although the vicar was almost sure Elisabet winked at him, telling him not to worry so much.
Before Ingrid had time to drink tea with her father, the bells jingling on Nor and Asgard’s harnesses could be heard coming up the drive-way.
The vicar got up from behind his desk, directing his feet in their moquette slippers hastily to the front porch. He heard the high cheers of his daughter as she run down the steps to greet her brother.
Johan, who seemed to have grown another inch, jumped off the coach box while Erik was still bringing the horses to a halt. Just in time Johan caught the girl in her white muslin dress in his arms before she landed in the dry mud. He swung her around high through the air, causing her to shriek with delight. Her white arms clung around his neck while she kissed both his cheeks.
Their father watched the scene with a warm glow in his eyes.
Mrs Magnusson, who had peeped out of the kitchen for an instant to greet the young master, stood grinning from ear to ear.
Upstairs, the white lace curtain was pushed a little to the side. The French tutor took in the enchanting family scene. His mouth twisted.
“Välkommen, son, welcome back to Smedby Vicarage,” Ludvig said, heartily shaking his son’s hand, the radiant Ingrid still hanging around his neck.
“Hello, Papa,” Johan replied with a broad smile. “Oh, it’s so good to see you and Ingrid again. I’ve missed you so much!”
Johan tossed his dark mane back, his grey eyes – exact copies of his father’s – first scanning his family and then the beloved house. He was a tall-built, good-looking young man, with similar features to his father’s, the black hair being the only distinctive difference. The tweed coat and plus fours Johan wore were of excellent quality and rather dandy-like to Oland customs. Clearly the young vicar-to-be’s clothing had been influenced by his big city life.
“Hello, Mrs Mags,” he greeted the housekeeper. “Here, Erik told me to give you this.” He handed her a paper bag with the groceries. “Jens, the shopkeeper in Mörbylanga, sends his greetings. He explicitly told me not to forget to give you his best wishes. I think one day he would like to make a pass on you, Mrs Mags.”
“Master Johan, watch that ready tongue of yours,” the round-cheeked housekeeper warned, but her eyes gleamed at the compliment.
“Will you be needing the horses and the coach again today, sir?” Erik cut in, “or can I unharness and dry them?”
“They’re not needed again today, Erik,” Ludvig replied. “Tomorrow, however, you will be picking up guests in Kastlösa, Mörbylanga and even in Ottenby, so make sure Nor and Asgard have a good night’s rest. Give them extra biscuits.”
Erik nodded and led the horses, steaming with sweat and shaking their heads forcefully as a sign of happy return, around the house to the stables at the back.
Meanwhile, Johan had put Ingrid back on her feet, and Ludvig, slinging his long his arms around his two children, walked between them up the stone steps, into their home.
“We’ll have tea in my library, Mrs Magnusson,” he announced. “Will you serve us some fresh tea, please?”
“Certainly, sir, and I’ll bring some sandwiches and cakes. The young Master must be starving after his long journey.”
“I am, Mrs Mags. Do you have my favourite meatballs and rysk salad, by any chance?”
“Of course, of course!” the broad woman beamed. “I prepared the herring salad specially for you this morning!”
“Excellent.” The starving student rubbed his hands with glee, proclaiming once more, “Oh, how good it is to be home again.”
That night Ingrid could hardly sleep for the excitement about her party, but forced herself to lie still until six. Exhausted from waiting, she slipped out of bed in her linen nightdress and tiptoed across the hallway to her brother’s bedroom. With much care not to make the handle creak, she turned the wooden knob and still on tiptoe went up to her sleeping brother.
He was lying on his back with his arms under his head, a lock of dark hair half over his face. The white skin of his cheeks contrasted with the stubble of his dark beard. A sun ray played with his eyelids while Ingrid watched her brother in silence.
He is the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen, she thought in awe as she slipped into bed next to him and sought his warmth.
He opened one eyelid and seeing it was his sister smiled and closed his eye again. He pulled her into his arms and was fast asleep again within seconds. Ingrid couldn’t understand how he could be sleepy on a beautiful day like this, but she enjoyed just lying there, engulfed in happiness, listening to her brother’s even breathing and feeling her own body rising and falling with his breath.
She was thinking of the pink dress hanging on the outside of her wardrobe, embroidered with tiny pink and white roses each with a red heart. It was made of real silk with a lace lining. Daddy had it specially made by the famous tailor Alexander Malkovitch in Kalmar.
Two weeks ago they went out for the afternoon to fit the dress and Ingrid had felt as if it was her wedding day, with seamstresses kneeling around her to take in a seam here and a hem there and she had to turn as slowly as she could so they could do their work. The body was tight fitting and it even had a bit of a low neckline to display her modest bosom.
Papa had been sitting on a plush chair in Mr Malkovitch’s shop and she had seen how proud he was of her. Today she would be wearing that dream of a dress that Johan hadn’t even seen yet. She was sure he would marvel at how grown-up she had become.
It seemed to take ages before Johan woke, but finally he stirred and opened his eyes. Ingrid had been waiting for that signal and, getting up quickly, she said in a loud voice so she was sure he wouldn’t fall asleep again, “Do get up, Johan, it is past eight! Let’s go downstairs and have breakfast in Mrs Mags’ kitchen.”
Some force seemed to glue Johan to the bed sheets, but in the end, far too slow for Ingrid’s liking, he struggled upright. Peaks of dark hair stood up in all directions and he yawned and stretched lazily. After more prodding, he got out of bed, took his dark-blue dressing gown from the peg and continuing to yawn, noisily dragging his feet downstairs after his sister, still without speaking one word.
As the first guests were expected to arrive in the early afternoon, Mrs Mags and her kitchen maids still had loads of cooking and baking to do. Although delighted to see her two favourite youngsters, they were in fact in her way. After a quick tea and a bowl of porridge, the busy cook bundled them off despite the fact that Ingrid wanted to see and taste and judge the gelatine puddings, the fluffy pies and the colourful punch.
“For heaven’s sake, Miss Ingrid, you won’t fit in your ball dress if you keep nibbling here and sipping there. Go on with you two. Out of my kitchen! Now!”
Johan pulled his sister away from the bubbling saucepan. “Come on, sis, let Mrs Mags do what Mrs Mags needs to do. We’re only a nuisance here.”
With nothing else to do for the next couple of hours, Ingrid and Johan decided to take a stroll along the Baltic seashore to kill time until the first guests arrived. Ingrid couldn’t relax and urged to go back to check on the decorations.
Garlands of flowers hung around the lawn at the back of the house and tables and chairs usually used in the vicarage’s meeting hall were placed at intervals. A string quartet tuned instruments on the terrace. The entire house shone with cleanliness and smelled of lemon furniture wax.
Indoors were huge bouquets, and the kitchen sounded like the headquarters of the barracks. Mrs Mags shouted orders and pots and pans clanged; scents and sounds completed the cacophony.
The vicar walked around inspecting the preparations, in particular the meeting hall, which had been altered into a ballroom with the remainder of the chairs and tables set along the sides. As the weather was sunny and dry, the larger part of the festivities could take place outdoors, but in the chill of the evening the guests could continue to enjoy themselves indoors.
A hired pianist was practising on a grand piano, which – for the occasion – had been transported from the music room to the meeting hall. Ludvig stood listening to the Chopin prelude the young man had just struck up, his long arms clutched behind his back. Seeing his children come in, he smiled and asked them what they thought of the preparations.
“Oh, father, it looks wonderful, wonderful,” Ingrid cried out. “Can I get dressed now?”
“Yes, yes, my darling, and Mathilde will be here any minute to help you with your hair. Do go upstairs and prepare yourself.”
Watching her happily fly up the stairs to her bedroom, he turned to his son and exchanged some information on the latter’s study before they too needed to dress to meet the first guests.