Emanuel, or Children of the Soil/Book 2, Chapter 5

Emanuel, or Children of the Soil (1896)
by Henrik Pontoppidan, illustrated by Nelly Erichsen, translated by Alice Lucas
Book II; Chapter V
Henrik Pontoppidan4509910Emanuel, or Children of the SoilBook II; Chapter V1896Alice Lucas (1855-1935)

Miss Ragnhild remained sitting a little while longer on the seat with her hands on her lap, looking thoughtfully before her. Then she rose and walked slowly towards the Parsonage. She was met by the old servant who was upset by the bustle of the day, and who had been quite unhappy at her long absence; she had a string of questions as to the preparation of the food and the setting out of the festive table. Miss Ragnhild gave her directions in a short, decided tone, and then went into the sitting room, where she sat down at the window, with a book, an English novel which she took hap-hazard out of the bookcase.

After reading for a quarter of an hour, she looked at the clock in the corner. It was three o'clock. She laid down her book, got up, and busied herself about the room, stood a moment looking at the parrot, which had gone to sleep in its cage, and at last sat down at the grand piano, where she began to play one of Chopin's preludes.

Again she looked at the clock. Ten minutes past three.

Then she once more struck a few chords, but broke off suddenly, rose and took up a newspaper from the heavy, round mahogany table in the middle of the room, and sat down by the window again. She remained sitting, with the paper unfolded on her knee, her chin resting in her slender, white hand, her glance wandering slowly over the big empty courtyard, and the thatched roofs of the stables—until the clock at last struck half-past three. Then she rose and went into her room to dress.

The visitors were expected at six o'clock, and as the ordinary dinner was to be passed over on account of the party, there was plenty of time for a careful toilet.

Even under ordinary circumstances, changing her dress was one of the chief events of the day to Miss Ragnhild. She regularly passed the two hours before dinner in her almost over-luxuriously furnished bedroom, in which there was always a delicate odour of the essence of violets.

It was one of her amusements to stand before her long glass, looking at herself as she dressed and undressed; she would admire her neck, her shoulders, her loosened hair, try a new way of doing it, or a new combination of colours for her costumes—all this not out of empty vanity, or love of display—who could she care to dazzle here?—but because it gave transient satisfaction to her longing for beauty, delicacy, and harmony.

Besides, what else was there for her to do?—She worked at her music every morning—and this was her happiest time. But the doctor had strictly forbidden her to spend more than three hours a day at the piano. She spent two hours in reading—preferably foreign languages—and at need she could kill two hours in household duties, although her personal help was quite superfluous. There remained eight long weary hours—what was she to do with them? Walk? but in the eight winter months the fields and roads were impassible morasses, or the snow lay round the Parsonage like an insurmountable wall. Even in the summer, the sight of the broad silent fields, the bare monotonous stone dykes, the everlasting grey or blue fiord, had a most depressing effect upon her. All this lifeless wilderness by which she was surrounded filled her with horror. And the living objects were worse than the inanimate. Worst of all, was to walk through the village, where she knew beforehand what people she would meet, in what places, and at what occupation; where she was obliged to return the obtrusive greetings of the peasants, and to answer the rambling speeches of the half-clad labourer's wives about the weather, harvest prospects, and night frosts. She therefore generally restricted her walks to a solitary path leading from the Parsonage to the sand banks. She would take a little brisk exercise here towards sundown—until the sound of a party of returning field-labourers, or the suffocating odour of a newly-manured field drove her home again.

She had lived in this solitude for eight years. She was born in a provincial town of Jutland, where her father was assistant schoolmaster. From her thirteenth year, when she lost her mother, till her confirmation, she stayed in Copenhagen with some aunts, to complete her education in a superior girl's school.

She only took up her permanent abode at the end of her sixteenth year.

She had come with her young heart swelling with bright hopes. She had learnt from her novels, and the theatres, that the flower of Danish womanhood was to be found in the daughters of the country Parsonages, whose charms had been sung by the poets, and whose possession all noble-minded young men desired. Nor was she entirely unconscious of her own advantages—her white skin and rippling auburn hair had already, as a schoolgirl, attracted attention in her native town in Jutland, so she went about every day in silent, sweet expectation, prepared to receive the homage which was her due.

She still remembered plainly, how in those days she wandered about the garden with her hair in a thick plait, hanging down her back, light kid mittens, and a fresh moss rose in her bosom.

At one time she would sit dreaming in the shade of a softly sighing tree, at another she would climb the dyke by the field, and shading her eyes with her hands, would look out into the sunlit landscape—as if every day she really expected two wandering "Students" to appear on the horizon.[1] She pictured to herself exactly what they looked like, how—dusty and sunburnt—they would peep inquisitively in at the garden gate, and how her father would appear on the verandah and ask them in; how at first they would be shy, but gradually become lively and frank, and would end by singing Bellman's Songs[2] in the garden by moonlight; how at last one of them,—not the merry and amusing one, but the one with the deep dark eyes—would, on taking leave, press her hand and stammer some agitated words about not forgetting him, and how in the following year he would come back, having taken his degree, and ask her father for her hand with earnest words.

But no tourists ever came to that desolate corner of the country, and summer after summer went by without the smallest sign of a romantic episode. Ragnhild Tönnesen used to smile when she looked back at her youthful dreams. She had often been troubled later by suitors among the beer-fattened Squire's sons, who evidently were quite unable to grasp that she—especially now that she was no longer in her first youth—did not gratefully accept their offers. But otherwise the years she had passed at her father's side had slipped by without any experiences of interest whatever. Now and then, when she looked back at her life, she could hardly believe that she was not more than four and twenty, and still in the height of her bloom. She felt certain that she must have begun to grow old. In short, there was nothing in the world which realized her anticipations except her music. Even her annual visit to Copenhagen, which in the first few years of her country life had been like one long fête lasting three weeks, and for which she had prepared herself for months with delight, no longer gave her any real pleasure. After a time she had become strange to city life, her old friends and acquaintances were scattered, her aunts were dead—and then after it, her home life seemed doubly empty, and nature around her doubly dismal in its mute stony lifelessness.

Therefore it was not at all agreeable to her when her father decided to take a curate. She did not want to be disturbed in the state of somnolency into which, by degrees, she had dropped. When, in addition, she perceived that people, even before the arrival of the curate, coupled their names, it did not dispose her more pleasantly towards him: on this account the relations between them were at first decidedly cool, not to say strained. But when she gradually saw that the new house-mate only wanted to live in the same undisturbed reserve as she herself, she became more easily reconciled to his daily presence. When, at the same time, she discovered his taste for music, and that he had made the acquaintance of some of the most renowned composers at his father's house, about whom it amused her to hear, he began little by little to rouse her interest. As Emanuel also felt an even greater need for some one to talk to, and in whom to confide, an unconstrained and half confidential relation arose between them little by little, and almost without their knowing it, which roused the Provst's attention and reflection.

When, however, the Provst—and others—laid plans for the future of the young people founded on this relationship, they rested on a complete misunderstanding. Although Miss Ragnhild was in reality the younger of the two, she considered herself the superior of the curate, both in age and experience. She looked upon him as a right-minded and warm-hearted, but slightly peculiar person, who had been driven by unfortunate circumstances at home to seek new worlds among strangers. Even his name, Emanuel, had from the first thrown a comic air over his personality. His youth and helplessness had later awakened her motherly instincts, and the more depressed and reserved he became in the course of the winter, the more she had seen him suffer under the disappointments she knew so well herself, so much the more she felt the necessity of winning his confidence, so as if possible to cheer and distract him a little.

From the very beginning there had not been the slightest trace of love on either side—and in this respect there was no misunderstanding between them either.

  1. This refers to one of Johan Ludwig Heiberg's (1791–1860) Vaudevilles, "The adventures of a walking tour," always much played in Denmark, in which the heroes are two students.
  2. Charles Michael Bellman's (1741–1795) "Swedish Student Songs."