Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales/A Story
THE WIFE’S SPIRIT.
In a large garden grew a splendid apple-tree, which had been in such haste to bloom that it was covered with blossoms before the green leaves had unfolded themselves. The ducklings in the farm-yard were waddling with their mother to the pond, while the cat washed her silky fur with her paw in the sunshine.
A glance across the fields and meadows presented a pleasing sight, for even the corn was of a bright beautiful green as well as the hay, while the chirping and twittering of the little birds was as joyful as if they were keeping a great festival.
And, indeed, people could correctly speak of this day as a feast day, for it was Sunday, and the bells were chiming sweetly, while numbers of people, dressed in their Sunday clothes, were walking to the church in great comfort. The spring day was so bright and warm and dry, and everything looked so pleasant and cheerful that no wonder they said, “How good God is to grant us so many blessings!”
But within the church the preacher in the pulpit spoke in a loud and angry tone to the people, as if they were all Godless sinners.
He told them that God would certainly punish all the wicked when they died, by sending them to eternal torment in hell. He said, also, that in hell the consciences of the wicked never die, and the fire will never be extinguished, neither will they ever find rest or peace.
All this was very terrible to hear, but still the preacher went on as if the subject on which he spoke was quite true.
He pictured to them hell as a stagnant lake of fire, where all the impure and sinful in the whole world would meet, where no cooling breeze could temper the fierceness of the burning brimstone of that bottomless abyss, in which the wicked would sink deeper and deeper in eternal silence for ever!
All this was still more horrible to hear, but the congregation could see that the preacher was in earnest, and therefore his words made the more lasting impression.
Meanwhile, outside the church the birds sang joyously, and the blossoms and flowers fluttered in the warm sunshine and the gentle breeze. It was as if each little bird and flower was crying out.
“Nothing is so great as the loving-kindness of the Almighty.”
Therefore, outside the church were love and joy, but not inside, while the sermon was being preached.
On that evening, before the preacher retired to rest, he noticed that his wife sat silent and thoughtful.
“What is amiss, my dear?” he asked.
“Why,” she replied, “I cannot quite bring myself to agree with what you said to-day in your sermon. It does not appear right to assert that so many sinners will be condemned to everlasting fire for ever. For ever! Ah, what can it be? I am only a poor sinful creature myself, but I cannot from my heart believe that even the vilest sinner will be condemned to burn in torture for ever. And, as we know, the goodness of the Almighty is as great as His power; and He knows how people are tempted from without and from within by their own evil natures. I know what I mean myself, but I cannot explain it properly to you.”
Spring and summer have passed. It is autumn, and the trees are scattering their golden tinted leaves on the ground in showers. The severe but earnest preacher is seated by the bed on which lies, with her eyes closed in death, his pious and faithful wife.
“If any one can find peace and rest in the grave, through God’s mercy, it is thou!” sighed the preacher. Then he folded his hands, and knelt by the bed in prayer.
She was laid in the grave. Two large tears rolled down the cheeks of the earnest man on his return home, for the parsonage appeared so solitary and still. The sunshine of his home had vanished. She had departed.
It was night. A cold wind blew over the head of the preacher. With his eyes closed, he thought the moon was shining into the room, but it was no moonlight. A figure stood by his bedside. The spirit of his deceased wife shone upon him. She looked at him earnestly and sadly, as if she had something on her mind that she wished to say to him.
He half raised himself in the bed, stretched out his arms to her, and said,—
“Then, you are not permitted to rest in peace for ever! You! the best, the most pious!—”
And the dead bowed her head, and laid her hand upon her heart in silence.
“And can I give you rest and peace in the grave?” he asked.
“Yes,” was the distinct reply.
“Bring me a hair, only a single hair, from the head of even one sinner whom God will condemn to eternal torture in Hell.”
“I believe that a few will be saved,” he replied. “Yet thou! so pure, so pious, to be unredeemed!”
“Follow me, then,” replied the dead. “I have obtained permission for you to fly through the air by my side, wherever your thoughts are directed. To mankind we shall be invisible, and able to pass unseen through even the closed and barred doors of inner rooms. But you must be certain that the man you point out as eternally lost is really one whom God will condemn to be tormented in hell-fire for ever; and ere the cock crows he must be found.”
Swiftly as the flight of thought they arrived at the great town. On the walls of some of the houses shone forth in letters of flame the names of the deadly sins: Pride, Avarice, Drunkenness, Murder,—in short, the whole catalogue of the seven deeply-dyed sins.
“I know these houses,” said the preacher, “for in them dwell those who will be punished eternally.”
And then they found themselves before a brilliantly lighted porch. The broad steps were covered with richly coloured carpets and blooming flowers, while from a magnificent saloon issued sounds of music and dancing.
The porter, clad in velvet and silk, stood erect near the door, with his gold-mounted stick in his hand.
“Our ball is equal in splendour to those in the king’s palace,” said the owner haughtily, to the people outside who were gazing at the dome, which was one blaze of lamps from top to toe; and truly it was a sight to be remembered.
But presently the proud man exclaimed, “What a crowd of low rabble are staring in here. Compared to me you are altogether only canaille.”
“The proud man,” said the dead wife; “do you see him?”
“Clearly,” replied the preacher; “but this man is not only a fool, but a madman. He will not be condemned to everlasting fire or eternal torture.”
“Only a madman!” echoed through the whole house of the proud man, and was heard by every one.
Then they passed on swiftly into the room of a miser,—a cold, miserable place, which made the teeth chatter of those who entered; and when they thought of all the gold this man possessed, it made them hungry and thirsty for even a little of it.
He said that he had been ill with ague, owing to a broken place in the wall near his miserable straw bed. A loose stone had fallen down and left a large hole. On the floor lay a stocking stuck full of gold pieces, and he kept fumbling in his ragged pockets, where more gold had been sewn by his clumsy, trembling fingers.
“He is ill, insane, a friendless idiot,” said the preacher, “and suffering from anxiety and evil dreams. I cannot point him out as lost for ever.”
Hastily they escaped from the miser’s room, and stood before the dormitory of the House of Correction, where the prisoners were sleeping in long rows near to each other. Presently, like a wild beast, one of them started up in his sleep, and uttered a terrible cry. With his elbow, his bedfellow gave him a terrible blow in the ribs, and then turned round and was asleep again quickly. But others were not so overcome with sleep; the cry had awaked them, and one of them called out, “Hold your jaw and go to sleep; you go on like this every night.”
“Every night!” he exclaimed, “yes, every night he howls like this and torments me. Many times have I committed some wrong or other, owing to the passionate temper with which I was born. I have been brought here twice by this wicked temper, but I have felt that my punishment was just.”
“Only one sin have I not confessed. The last time I found myself free I was employed by a former master, who believed that I had at last learnt to control my wicked temper, and he was right, At least I thought so.”
“But one morning I lighted a match and carelessly threw it out on the thatched roof, under my window, for I thought it had burnt out, but the heat seized the straw, as it often seizes me, and the roof was soon in a blaze. With help I managed to rescue the house property and the animals, and no living creature was burnt as I thought, for my master and the family were absent, excepting a pigeon who flew right into the fire. I had forgotten the poor house dog, who was chained up, and when it was too late to save him, I heard his howls, and they sound in my ears still, whether I am asleep or awake. And sometimes in my sleep the dog comes to me. He is very large, with thick, shaggy fur, then he lies upon me, howls and squeezes me till I am nearly choked.”
“And now just listen to the end. You can all sleep and snore the whole night without waking, but I can sleep for only a short quarter of an hour at a time; and once when the dog came to me in that dreadful manner I was only half awake, and I thought it was my bedfellow choking me.”
“My hot blood was roused, I threw myself upon him and slew him with one blow of my bare fist in his face.”
“‘That dreadful, wicked rage again!’ cried every one, while the other prisoners threw themselves upon him, wrestled with him, bent him down in a curve till his head touched his knees, and then bound him so tightly that the blood seemed ready to burst from his eyes and from every pore.”
“You are murdering the unfortunate man!” cried the preacher, and stretched out his protecting hand over the sinner, over him who had already repented. And then the scene changed.—They glided unseen through rich and stately saloons, as well as the rooms of the poor, which had written over them the names of Luxury, Envy, and all the deadly sins, one after the other.
An angel from the judgment seat appeared and read to each of them their sins and their excuses. For he told them that God was omniscient and knew the smallest as well as the greatest sinner. God reads the heart and is acquainted with every hidden sin that dwells there. But He remembers also the temptations which present themselves from the outer world, as well as from our own hearts, and knows also when to show mercy and pitying love.
The preacher’s hand trembled, he dared not stretch it out now to pluck a single hair from the head of any sinner. The tears streamed from his eyes as he thought of the Fountain of mercy and love, by which even the everlasting fire of hell can be quenched.
And then the cock crew.
The preacher fell on his knees, and cried and prayed—
“All merciful God, grant I pray thee rest and peace in the grave to those whom I would have condemned.”
“They will find it now,” said the dead wife. “Yours were hard words, and a dark description of God’s dealings with his creatures. Yet mankind know that even in the wicked, the soul is a part of God himself, a part which will conquer death and the grave, and extinguish even hell-fire for ever and ever—.”
The preacher felt a kiss upon his lips, and in a moment there was light all around him. God’s bright sun shone into the room, and there stood his living wife, tender and full of love. She had awaked him from a dream which had been sent him by God.