Emanuel, or Children of the Soil/Book 1, Chapter 7

Emanuel, or Children of the Soil (1896)
by Henrik Pontoppidan, illustrated by Nelly Erichsen, translated by Alice Lucas
Book I; Chapter VII
Henrik Pontoppidan4503003Emanuel, or Children of the SoilBook I; Chapter VII1896Alice Lucas (1855-1935)

Skibberup lay in a hollow surrounded by high hills which only open out on the east, towards the near lying fiord. The curate was at once struck by the number of small houses, and shabby little farms of which the village consisted. There was hardly a single large holding to be seen, but there were about fifty cottages clustered round a large pond, which reflected the starry sky in its dark waters amidst the snow. They were grouped picturesquely under the hills, some nestling on the slopes like a "sæter village," round a mountain tarn. Moreover, the village was half hidden by enormous masses of snow, which had been driven in from the fiord. Only the top ridge and smoke blackened chimney of many of the cottages were visible. A glimmer of light was still shining from a few windows, and an old man stood on one of the doorsteps, resting on a crutch, and waving his cap gaily as they swept by.

The sledge stopped outside a small farm which lay a little way off the road in the southern outskirts. The tarred gates were open, and a dim lantern hung in the archway, turning slowly round at the end of a cord. The curate had to alight under this lantern, for the courtyard was so packed with snow, that the sledge couldn't go any further. He walked up a narrow path which had been cleared, through the drifts to a low dwelling house.

A dead silence reigned. Only the faint rattle of a chain was to be heard in the stable, and somewhere behind a wall a cat mewed. When he got to the entrance he heard a door open inside, and a soft woman's voice said quietly, "I thought I heard bells—th' Provst must hae come." He knocked at the door, and the next moment he found himself in a long, low room, with old-fashioned furniture, small windows, a timbered ceiling, and dark earthen floor. A thin tallow candle with a flaring wick, was burning on one end of a heavy oaken table, and, at his entrance, a little, middle-aged man got up. He had a shock head of iron-gray hair, and a pair of rusty brass spectacles were resting on a broad thick nose. The man had been reading a paper, which he now—visibly flustered—hastened to hide under the table, and, at the same moment, remembering his spectacles, he tore them off with embarrassment, as if he had been caught in some piece of folly.

As he was about to approach the expected Provst, he fell back in amazement, and stared open-mouthed at the stranger, who remained standing by the door, greeting him in a friendly voice.

"Pray, don't be alarmed," said the curate as he advanced. "I am the Provst's representative, his curate—and come to you by his request."

At this moment the door of an adjoining room was cautiously opened, and a heavily built, middle aged woman with iron-gray hair and large, prominent eyes came in. She also stopped in mute astonishment, and, for a moment, measured the strange clergyman with a not very friendly glance—— But suddenly a bright cheery smile lit up her face, and approaching the curate without any awkwardness, she offered him her fleshy hand, and said in a remarkably soft, childlike voice—

"It's surely never our new curate?… Nay then you're heartily welcome!… So you've really come at last! I'd never expected such a piece of luck.… Well I am glad, that I am!… So you're really the new priest, and this is what you look like! It's just what I might have expected.… I'm right down glad to see you and no mistake!"

She planted herself in front of him a little way off with her hands folded on her big stomach, and continued her outbursts of delight, while she eyed him from head to foot.

The curate, after a time, began to feel this inspection somewhat embarrassing, and asked after the sick person.

But she could not get over her joyous surprise, or tear herself away from her observation of him. Only when her husband anxiously pulled her skirt once or twice, from behind, did she answer the curate's enquiries.

"Oh, thank ye," she said, in a changed voice, looking towards the door, which she had left ajar behind her: "The Lord be thanked! There's a change for the better, but in the middle of the day she was cruel bad, an when the weather mended, we thought it as well to send a message to the Provst; may be we'd better have left it alone, now the danger's over, an it's no treat for the priest to come out o' nights with such bad roads."

"Oh don't think about that," the curate interrupted her; "there is nothing to be said on that account. You must send for me whenever you want me, I shall always be at your service. Don't you think, if all is ready in the patient's room, that we had better go in?"

The woman carefully opened the door of the side room, and all three stepped quietly down into an oblong, dimly lighted room, a step lower than the living room. A little table with a shaded lamp, a medicine bottle, and a prayerbook, stood at the head of a broad bed which took up the narrow wall. In the bed lay a brown-haired girl, with heavy, closed eyelids, and a dark fever flush on her cheek.

The young priest turned round hastily, and said in bewilderment:

"But what is this?"

"It is our daughter," answered the woman, looking at him in astonishment.

"What?… But the Provst said"… The curate began to stammer. In his shyness he kept his back to the bed, for the young girl lay peasant fashion, only in her chemise, and in her fever had thrown both her bare arms outside the quilt.

"But it was an elderly man who was ill.… The Provst said.… Let me see—wasn't his name Anders Jörgen?"

"Me!" burst out the man on hearing his name, and looked up confusedly with his small half blind eyes. "I'm beholden to ye for th' inquiry, but I'm all right."

"But then it is altogether a misunderstanding.…"

"Yes, it is our daughter Hansine," continued the woman quietly, and then she began to relate how the illness came on three days ago, with pains in the back and loins. At first they didn't think anything of it; but the pains went into the neck, and the night before, their daughter suddenly became so much worse that they had to send for the doctor. When he came, he shook his head, and even at mid-day he said it might turn to anything.… But now he thought the worst was over.

During this history the curate had time to recover somewhat from his first surprise. He was even a little ashamed of his perturbation; and forcing himself to concentrate his thoughts on the sacred rite he was about to administer, he approached the bed again.

At that moment the patient woke up, and opening her dark blue eyes, fixed them in feverish delirium on the stranger, with a rigid and reluctant expression. Her mother bent over her and told her who it was,… and then the young girl drew a long sigh of relief, and closed her eyes quietly, as much as to say she had been longing for this and was prepared.

Her mother carefully put the wadded quilt to rights about her, took the prayer-book from the table, and sat down on the chair at the head of the bed, to be at hand to help her when she had to take the cup. The old father solemnly took his stand at the foot of the bed; and at the last moment the light-haired boy crept fearfully in at the door, where he remained leaning against the doorpost, his lips quivering with suppressed crying. He stared uninterruptedly at the Sacramental Bread, and the little silver chalice, which, in the meantime, the curate had taken out of the case, and placed upon the table under the lamp.

All was reverently hushed. The only sound was the loud ticking of the tall old clock in the corner, and the laboured breathing of the patient.

The young priest stepped to the bedside, and folded his hands to pray.

Their First Meeting.

But whether the sight of the young girl, or the agitation he was thrown into by the sacred office … or perhaps the sudden change from the fresh, frosty air to the close sick room, was the cause,… his brain refused to put a single sentence together. A curious dizziness came over him, his tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth, and he felt a cold sweat breaking out on his forehead.

Then all at once a verse, an evening hymn, which his mother had taught him as a child, flashed across his mind. He had not thought of it for many years, now it came to him like an angel from heaven. He had a sensation as if some one were standing at his side, and taking him by the hand. Almost like listening to a stranger, he heard himself speaking fervent and heartfelt words, about the grace of God, the all-goodness of God, and the death of Jesus Christ for the sins of mankind.

Even the well-known sentences of the ritual became new and living in his mouth; and when at last he laid his hand on the girl's forehead to give the absolution, all his trembling soul was penetrated with the feeling that at this moment God's strengthening spirit was being imparted through him.