Emanuel, or Children of the Soil/Book 2, Chapter 1

Emanuel, or Children of the Soil (1896)
by Henrik Pontoppidan, illustrated by Nelly Erichsen, translated by Alice Lucas
Book II; Chapter I.
Henrik Pontoppidan4509882Emanuel, or Children of the SoilBook II; Chapter I.1896Alice Lucas (1855-1935)

Skibberup Church lay nearly a mile from Skibberup village—on the top of a bare, solitary hill, which jutted out into the Fiord. "Kirkness" was joined to the mainland by a low, narrow neck of land, on which only a little pale grass, heather, and a creeping thorn grew, among the sand and stones. The church itself was a very ancient and much dilapidated structure of rough hewn stone, with a brick tower of later date. The whole place made an uncanny impression from its desolation. Round about among the weather-beaten graves were strewn broken tiles, fragments of chalk, and bits of glass; and on entering the church one was met by an icy chill from the bare white-washed walls, which even in summer were green with damp. In winter the cold was so intense that the water in the font froze to solid ice, and the priest had to wear overshoes and thick mittens in the pulpit.

On week-days the church remained undisturbed except for the visits of the tall lean sexton, who went by the name of "Death." He used to wander out from the village, morning and evening, meditatively, with his long bony arms crossed behind his back, to ring out a few deep notes from the rusty bells, over the foxes prowling among the thorns, the parish clerk's sheep grazing sadly outside the churchyard walls, or, now and then, over a solitary fisherman catching bait in his boat under the steep cliffs.

But on Sundays—especially the great festivals—all was life and bustle. Then the road from Skibberup swarmed with pedestrians in holiday clothes and well-cleaned vehicles. The fishermen came sailing round the "Ness" and lay to by the big stone on the beach, whence the men carried the women ashore. The women all wore black church-going hoods, and many carried wreaths and crosses of moss and flowers, which they laid on the wind-swept graves, before going into church in single file. In the meantime "Death" stood at his look-out post, at one corner of the churchyard, whence he could see the clergyman's carriage coming along the Veilby road. As soon as he caught a glimpse of the hood among the hills, he hurried with his long strides across the graves into the tower; and while the men who had assembled in groups, talking outside the church door, slowly filed in and took their seats under the echoing arches, with much devout coughing and sniffing, the bells in the tower pealed out so lustily that all the walls shook.

But this was all a half-forgotten tale. Since Provst Tönnesen had come to the parish, the church had many a time stood empty even on Sundays; the rusty bells had pealed over deserted roads, and the only ones there to cough had been a few debtors for tithes, who dared not rouse the Provst's anger. And after all, it was by the Provst's directions that a stove had been placed in the church some few years ago, and the pews carpeted with thick rush matting.

But it was in the village of Skibberup that the revolutionary party were specially strong, and it was there also that Hansen, the notorious weaver, had his headquarters. The sight of the empty benches made Provst Tönnesen furious every Sunday. On one occasion he worked himself up into such a passion, and brought his hand down with such force on the pulpit, that St Peter, who, with the other apostles, was carved in wood on the sides of it, lost both nose and mouth from the shock. Since Pastor Hansted came to the parish, a change had taken place, and one Sunday in the end of March—the first spring-day—the sound of many voices again floated over the Fiord and mingled with the shriek of the gulls flying near the shore.

On the road by the churchyard wall a long row of conveyances with shining horses stood waiting for the service to come to an end. Some of the drivers sat on the seats half-asleep, resting their heads on their hands. Others lay in the ditches passing the time in smoking and gossip.

The Provst's hooded carriage was standing in front, by the gate, with the driver on the high box seat; he was an old-womanish sort of man in a big blue greatcoat.

The waiting lads were in the habit of poking fun at him, "Maren," as he was generally called, after his deceased wife, to whom in return (and not without reason) they had given his christian name, Rasmus. To-day, as usual, four or five lively fellows stood round with their hands in their pockets laughing at him.

"A' say, Maren!" said one of them, winking slyly, "whaat's it comin' to wi' the curate an' your young leddy? A' think they've looked long enough at one another to ha' made it oop be now!"

"A'll tell thee what," said another who was leaning carelessly against the gate-post. "It does na go so fast among fine folks; these ere young leddies are just like the hens—they allus hae to wriggle their tails a bit afore they gie theirsels oop. Isn't it true what a' say, Maren?"

The man sat immoveable on his box and did not answer. He thought it quite beneath his semi-clerical position to join in the gossip of such blasphemers who made fun of the Provst's coachman, and took Miss Ragnhild's name in vain.

At this moment the hymn came to an end in the church, the porch-door opened and the people streamed out.

Among the men who had been assembling by the entrance to await the parish meeting was one who was the object of unusual attention on all sides. He was a middle-aged man, in peasant's clothing, tall, thin, and somewhat bent, with long drooping arms and a remarkably small, flat head. His face was of a peculiar feline type, clever and alert, with small, red-rimmed eyes, and a thin red beard.

Most of the men went up to him with outstretched hand, and an enquiring glance, which he regularly answered by drawing up his mouth to a distorted smile, and drooping one eyelid.

Suddenly the cluster of people divided, and Pastor Hansted appeared in his gown and ruff.

Although he had preached several times before, both here and at Veilby, he looked pale and fatigued, and greeted the assembled people with visible embarrassment; they also uncovered somewhat unwillingly. The man with the cat's face did not touch his hat at all but remained standing, with his lip curled, while he followed the figure of the young priest with a contemptuous glance to the door of the carriage, where "Death" stood with his hat in his hand, bending to the dust like a worm.

As soon as the old coachman had set the horses going, the curate sank back in the corner of the carriage and pressed his hand to his forehead with an expression of pain. He threw his soft, wide-brimmed hat into the seat at once, as if it burnt his forehead; and as the carriage jolted and creaked along the uneven road, he remained for several minutes with closed eyes and compressed lips, as if he could hardly keep back his tears.