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Gustavus Vasa

      Three or four hundred years ago the little country of Denmark was of much greater importance than it is to-day. It had the mightiest navy in the world, and its rule over the seas was undisputed. Its appearance on the map was also very different then, for it not only extended over much of the German territory now surrounding it, but also held all Norway as a province. Sweden, too, though often rebelling, and being punished with terrible cruelty, was, up to the year 1523, a dependency of the Danish crown.

      Naturally the Danes rather looked down on the conquered Swedes, and made them the subject of many rude jests and taunts. There was in the beginning of the sixteenth century at the great Danish university at Upsala a Swedish boy, who with the rest of his countrymen must have suffered many such insults. His proud, brave, little heart rebelled against this treatment; and one day, when his teacher had driven him beyond endurance with his severe punishments and bitter sneers, the boy snatched out his little sword and plunged it straight through the master's book. "I will teach you something, too," he cried; "teach you that the Swedes are no cowards, for some day I will gather them together and treat every Dane in Sweden as I do your book." Then he rushed out of the school, never to return.

      Many lads have, in some moment of passion made big boasts of what they would do "some day." Few ever made so tremendous a vaunt; fewer still ever so completely fulfilled their threats; and, perhaps, no one ever struggled so patiently, so nobly, nor against such tremendous obstacles before the goal was reached, as did this angry little Swede, known to history as Gustavus Vasa. He was born in 1496, and was the oldest son of Sir Eric Johansson, governor of a little group of islands in the Gulf of Bothnia. Returning home after his precipitate flight from school, Gustavus grew up under the eye of his stalwart father, who trained him to be not only a strong and a shrewd man, but also a good one.

      Sent at the age of eighteen to the court of Svante Sture, the regent governing Sweden, he threw himself eagerly into the great war for freedom which his countrymen had begun under that mighty leader. This struggle was so far successful that four years later King Christian, of Denmark, utterly defeated on land and with his fleet in sore danger anchored off Stockholm, and proposed a peace. He asked that hostages be sent to remain on his ships, while he was on shore arranging the treaty. This was readily agreed to, and the hostages went on board without a thought of evil, the king having guaranteed their safe return. Young Vasa, although only twenty-two, had already gained such prominence among the patriots as to be one of those selected for this duty. Just as he and his companions reached the ships, the wind, which had hitherto blown from such a direction that King Christian was unable to leave the harbor, suddenly changed, and the king as promptly changing his plans, hoisted sail and fled from Stockholm, carrying with him, as prisoners, the hostages whom he was bound in honor to respect. But this grim and cruel old king never at any time let himself be checked by his promised word; and now he seriously considered slaying these men as rebels and traitors. Finally he concluded to hold them as prisoners.

      Gustavus was placed for safe keeping in the castle of Eric Bauer, a Jutland noble, where he remained for two years. He lived on the very poorest food, and far worse, had to endure taunts a hundred times more bitter than those of his old school days, from the young nobles about him. Worse still, he learned from them that King Christian was gathering another and greater army with which to utterly crush the rebellious Swedes; and he could neither warn his countrymen nor raise a finger to give them help. But his courage and patience never failed him. Through all that weary time he was always planning and watching for a chance to escape. At last it came. Deceived by his apparent indifference his jailers permitted him to ride, and even to hunt with them, but always under a careful watch. One day, however, the hunt grew so exciting that everyone forgot Gustavus and rode hard and fast after the game. He saw his opportunity, and rode hardest and fastest of all. Soon he was first in the race; but he did not stop when he reached the captured deer. There was no one in sight and he hurried on faster than ever. When his horse gave out he pressed forward on foot, and nightfall found him forty miles from the castle. He astonished a countryman by trading clothes with him; and the next day, thus disguised, he hired himself to a drover to help him drive a herd of cattle to the great German city of Lubeck. Probably no cattle had ever been so driven before. Our hero knew well that the pursuit would be fast and furious, and he kept the herd almost on a steady run. The old drover was in a perpetual state of amazement; he did not know whether to regard his new assistant as a madman or as the most valuable hand he had ever hired. Gustavus never let the poor old fellow rest a moment; he had to eat his meals as he walked, and even to totter along half asleep. At last animals and men reached Lubeck, all badly worn out, but safe, for Lubeck was a free city and a powerful one, and when, an hour later, the enraged Eric Bauer galloped up to its great gates, he knew that his prisoner was beyond his reach, and that unless he could persuade the citizens to give him up there was no chance of recapturing him.

Abdication of Gustavus Vasa.

      The citizens did not give Gustavus up. He and his jailer were brought face to face before the City Council to argue their case. When Eric said his prisoner had broken his word in escaping, Gustavus related how the king had broken his in the capture. When Eric threatened them all with his master's wrath, the shrewd old burghers laughed. They knew King Christian had other things to keep him busy enough, and that he would think twice before attacking their great league of cities. Besides, this young man had already shown that he could do great things, and, as one of the Council said, "Who knows what he may win if we send him home." So Eric was forced to leave without his captive; and after some delay, during which he was treated with high honor, Gustavus was sent home by the kind Lubeckers with the promise to help him, if need be, with both men and money.

      Indeed Sweden needed all the help she could get just then; but it did not seem as though one man could do much for her. King Christian had carried out his threats, and landing with a great army, defeated the brave Sture and spread terror and destruction through all the land. The tale of his cruelty and treacheries belongs rather to the history of Sweden than of Gustavus. Enough to say that, having by promises of peace and pardon got all the leading Swedes into his power, he had them murdered, and then he and his soldiers went on slaying the common people right and left in mere wanton savagery. All the surviving nobles were in his pay; the least suspicion of an uprising was crushed with an iron hand, the least murmur of discontent brought death. Never had Sweden seemed more helpless in the power of the Danes.

      To this unhappy country came Gustavus Vasa, and at once he was declared an outlaw, and a great price was offered for his head; for the king knew that here survived one man whom he could neither terrify nor bribe. One castle still held out against the besieging Danes, and for this Gustavus set out. But its defenders were disheartened by their hopeless position, and were almost on the point of surrender. They answered angrily to his brave words, and he left them to try and rouse the peasantry all over the land.

      Now began for him such a period of danger, sorrow, and privation, as few men could have endured and lived. The land was filled with Danes eager for his capture. The peasants were timid and disheartened. To his passionate patriotic appeal they answered only, "We have salt and herring still. If we rebel we will lose them too." Often they drove him away with stones. Sometimes his own countrymen would have slain him for the promised reward. At length it was no longer possible for him to remain in Southern Sweden, and with a single servant he fled to the highlands of Dalecarlia, a province in the north. From this on his life reads like some wild romance of adventure. He had the grim courage and grit and perseverance of a bull-dog. Nothing could dishearten him in his seemingly hopeless and insane resolve to raise the Swedes once more against Christian.

      He found as much devotion in some places, as he did treachery in others. Having crossed a ferry in advance of his servant, this latter rode off with their small stock of money. Gustavus plunged his horse into the river, and riding back after the faithless servitor, pursued him all day straight back into the enemy's country, until the terrified thief, abandoning horse and money and all, fled into the woods. Gustavus recovered his property and pursued his course. The Danes swarmed into Dalecarlia after him. He disguised himself as a woodcutter, and lived as such. One day he met in the woods a giant Dalesman named Liss Lars, and, as they were chatting together, a great bear attacked Gustavus. After a fierce battle Lars slew the brute with a blow of his axe. The two woodcutters became friends, and Lars got his companion a place under the same master as himself, where Gustavus remained a whole winter unsuspected. Often he himself was questioned by the Danish spies, hunting for the now famous Vasa.

      Once there was like to have been trouble between the two friends, for Lars loved a maiden at the farm, who out of coquetry often smiled at Gustavus, until the giant Dalesman became terribly jealous. One day when she brought them their noon-day ale, she handed it first to Gustavus, who, after drinking, returned it with a pleasant word and a pat on the cheek. With a roar like a mad bull, Lars rushed on his comrade and seized him in his giant arms. As he did so he saw around his neck the embroidered collar worn by the Swedish nobility. The astounded Dalesman staggered back, pointing to it. "Either thou art a thief, or the great Gustavus himself." "Ay, friend Lars, I am the outlaw Gustavus, son of Eric. Now, wilt thou hand me over to the Danes, or smash my head against the floor, as just now thou seemedest minded?" "I will swear eternal fealty to thee," cried Lars; "and if thou raisest the standard of revolt, I will be the first to join."

      Soon, however, even this retired spot became too unsafe, and Gustavus fled farther north. Once an old schoolmate offered him shelter, and then, while Gustavus slept, rode away to get help to capture him. But the housewife, suspecting her husband's treachery, roused Gustavus, who climbed through a window twenty feet from the ground, and escaped on a horse the good woman had provided.

      At another time, by burying himself in a load of hay he was carried past some Danish soldiers who were searching for him. They thrust their spears through the hay and then rode on. One of the spears wounded the hidden man, and, seeing the blood trickle down, the soldiers hurried back. But the driver had snatched out his knife and given a slight cut to one of his horses; and when he pointed to this, charging one of them with having done it, they rode away again laughing at their own suspicions. In a hundred other equally dangerous situations he escaped either by his own courage, or by the ready wit of the brave Dalecarlian peasants; and at last the Danish spies gave up the hunt for him, and returned to Stockholm.

      Then he came forth again, and in ringing words urged the people to revolt. But though they loved Gustavus, and loved Sweden, yet they held back in doubt and fear from his daring plans; and so the hero left them, and went on through the surrounding provinces, telling everywhere of King Christian's cruelty, and sowing seed which was to ripen later on. Yet nowhere could he rouse the peasants to action, until word came that the cruel king had sworn to cut a hand and foot from every man in Sweden, that they might never revolt again. Now all felt that there was nothing left but fight. In great haste the Dalecarlians sent after Gustavus and brought him back. They held a great meeting, and to it came Gustavus' wood-cutter friend, Liss Lars. He made a great homely speech, saying, "This Gustavus, son of Eric, is a man. He has threshed with me, and I know him. We can trust him, and sense has he, more than all of us put together. He must be our leader."

      All swore fealty to Gustavus; and he bade them make swords and spears and arrows on their own anvils, while he went on again to rouse the other provinces. King Christian had been called home by a rumor of rebellion there, but his lieutenants thought to crush this little uprising of the Dalecarlians as easily as they had a few others, and one of them marched promptly there with a large force. The brave peasants, led by Liss Lars and another, attacked him as he was crossing a river and defeated him with great slaughter. Gustavus heard rumors of the battle, and that his little army was destroyed. In wild haste he galloped back to Dalecarlia to find them celebrating their victory.

      Now did the men he had roused in every quarter come pouring in; and he drilled them, and trained them, and encouraged them, became head and hand and heart for them all, till soon he had such an army that he might fairly hope to match any force the Danes could bring against him. Then he sent out a proclamation declaring Christian deposed for his cruel and bloody tyranny, and calling all true Swedes to join him in making war upon the oppressor.

      Thus did this young man at twenty-five become the leader of a great rebellion, which he himself had created and controlled. He led his men against one fortress after another. There were long sieges and terrible battles; but Gustavus proved himself as great a general as he was a man; and two years later, in 1525, Stockholm, the last town remaining to the Danes in Sweden, surrendered to his army. Christian himself had been unable to leave Denmark, but he was in constant communication with his lieutenants, and wild was his rage at the continued success of his young opponent. Gustavus's mother and sister, with many other Swedish ladies, had fallen into the king's hands at the time of those wholesale murders; and he tried to frighten the hero with threats of what he would do to them; but poor Gustavus had learned only too surely that most of them were already dead from his cruel treatment. Finally this brute was deposed by his own subjects, and a new king chosen. This king made some faint attempts to recover Sweden, but he had small chance against such a man as Vasa.

      The hero and his army entered Stockholm in triumph; and such of the old nobles as were left, gathered in a council and offered him the crown which he had wrested from Denmark. He refused it, saying he had labored for his country, not himself, and bade the nobles choose from among themselves some older man. But the whole country cried out that they would submit to no man but him; he had freed them, he should rule them. So there was, what seldom has been in history, a free choice of a king by a united people; and Gustavus, son of Eric, became Gustavus I., King of Sweden. Five years before he had been carried off a helpless, almost friendless prisoner, by a mighty king. Now they had, by sheer force of character, changed places; the king was in a dungeon, Gustavus on a throne.

      Though the remainder of our hero's life was less adventurous, it was no less noble. He made, as all had foreseen, a great king, showing himself as wise and high-minded as he had already proven brave and patient. He found Sweden a petty province, he left it a mighty kingdom; he found it a wilderness, poor, thinly peopled, and semi-barbarous, he left it prosperous, populous, and civilized. He himself was the head and centre of all this, performing an amount of work which seems almost impossible for one man. His letters, some of which remain, are clear, minute in detail, and exact. He knew just how he wanted things done, and he had them done his way. His own life might be summed up in his advice to his two sons, given when, only a few months before his death, he resigned a crown grown too heavy for his failing strength. "Think carefully, execute promptly, never give up, never delay. Resolves not carried out are like clouds without rain in times of drought."

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