Emanuel, or Children of the Soil/Book 2, Chapter 8

Emanuel, or Children of the Soil (1896)
by Henrik Pontoppidan, illustrated by Nelly Erichsen, translated by Alice Lucas
Book II; Chapter VIII
Henrik Pontoppidan4509921Emanuel, or Children of the SoilBook II; Chapter VIII1896Alice Lucas (1855-1935)

The new arrival was the tall, thin, and somewhat bent man, with the curious cat-like face, who had been the object of so much attention among Emanuel's audience in the morning. He remained standing a moment by the door, looking about him and smiling with his crooked, drawn-up mouth. Then he said "Good-day" in a drawling voice, and went round shaking hands.

Old Anders Jörgen, who rose from his chair immediately, became quite pale with consternation, and looked at the stranger with a bewildered, imploring glance, which the latter evidently tried to avoid. The whole bearing of the stranger made an unusually unpleasant impression on Emanuel. He remembered having seen the same face in church occasionally, where it had also inspired him with extraordinary repulsion. This feeling was not lessened when the stranger turned towards him, and, fixing him with a glance which was partly hidden by his red, swollen eyelids, introduced himself in these words:

"I am Hansen the weaver."

Emanuel had need of all his self-command not to lose his composure. He felt himself turning fiery red.

He just kept presence of mind enough to return the man's greeting with the right amount of cold reserve, after which he continued his conversation with Anders Jörgen. After a time, the weaver's presence even had the involuntary effect of adding a touch of high-bred clerical dignity to his bearing, with a fleeting resemblance to that of Provst Tönnesen.

In the meantime, it did not seem that the weaver had any evil intentions. He took a seat on the bench at the end of the table, and sat there leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, and both his big red hands over his mouth, as if he had only joined them as an attentive listener. But it was not long before his face began twitching and grimacing, while he first cleared his throat, then coughed in a forced manner, and looked about smilingly from the alcove to the window where Hansine sat with heightened colour and swelling bosom, stooping over her work and not daring to lift her eyes. Emanuel became paler and paler. The smothered anger which had come over him at the behaviour of the young men in the village, began to struggle forth in his bosom, and caused him to stammer. He still, however, kept the mastery over his wrath, but when the weaver began to mutter behind his hands, and to make half audible sarcastic remarks on his conversation, his patience gave way. With a mixture of youthful passion and clerical displeasure he turned towards him and exclaimed:

"I do not know if it is your intention to drive me from the room, but I may tell you that you will not succeed, and that I will not put up with your interruptions."

Anders Jörgen rose from his seat by the alcove in consternation and wished to make peace, but Emanuel's blood was up, and it was not easy to stop him. "I know you very well by hearsay, weaver Hansen," he continued with quivering lips. "Provst Tönnesen has told me a good deal about you, and I tell you that you had better take care. Neither the Provst nor I intend to tolerate your attempt to sow discord or dissension among the congregation any longer. As to what concerns myself, I warn you that my patience has limits, and that I will not put up with your continued efforts to thwart me in my work. I know that I have struggled to the best of my ability to form friendly relations with the congregation, and I have tried to win both parties, to smooth out their mutual difficulties. But if you are bent upon war—well, then, I am ready for you! We shall see who is the strongest!"

There was a dead silence in the room after his words. Even the weaver sat a moment holding his head as if he had had a blow. But soon the same distorted, irritating leer passed over his contracted countenance. It almost looked as if the young priest's anger was downright pleasing to him.

After a moment's silence he said in his slow imperturbable manner—

"You wrong me, sir, I'm sure. You say you know me; and know what a bad, reckless person I am, and that you have heard it from the Provst himself, so there must be reason in it. The Provst has so often condemned me to hell fire that I can't help thinkin' he's sincere. But you know very well, sir, that things don't always fall out exac'ly as the Provsts preach, and perhaps I'm not quite so black as the Provst would like to make me out. I won't deny, as far as that goes, that I came here to have a little talk with you, between four walls, as we say, for it has long been in my mind to pay you a visit. It seems to me that there might very well be a few things for us to talk about. When I heard that you had gone into Anders Jörgen's, it struck me it was best not to lose the chance."

"I am sure I do not see what we can have to talk about," exclaimed Emanuel shortly, in a voice still trembling with anger.

"Well, well, perhaps not," continued the weaver just as soberly, but in a changed tone, while the smile for a moment left his face, and he watched the curate narrowly as if to test him. "I believe all the same that you take us Skibberup folks in the wrong way. We always have our own way of taking things. We somehow speak plainly about everything, and because of that you're annoyed with me to-day, sir. All I can say is, that the last thing I should wish to do, would be to offend you."

"Well, then, I don't understand your behaviour," Emanuel answered in the same stand-off manner, although he was beginning to be calmer, and to be a little ashamed of his outburst.

"No, that's just it, sir! that's exac'ly what it is, you don't understand us. We've seen that all along, and we've been heartily sorry for it, I can tell you. And that's why we all thought it would be best to have a talk to you about it."

The sudden gravity with which he said these words, and the quiet self-confidence with which he spoke in the name of the congregation, made Emanuel hesitate. He looked at the weaver with an uncertain glance and said—

"If you really have anything to talk to me about, I am of course at your service, but it seems to me that the opportunity might have been better chosen."

"Look there now, isn't that just what I said, we Skibberup folk are just as awkward as a cat in getting through a chimney! All the same, sir, you'll allow me to tell you that it's not to be wondered at that we were a bit excited by having you here among us. You see, we never could leave off thinkin' of the woman who came to the Friends of the people in these parts, like the Holy Virgin herself; why, her memory lives now amongst us, as our purest an' best."

"I do not understand whom you mean," said Emanuel, looking at him in astonishment.

"Who I mean?" said the weaver, staring at him as if he could fix him in his chair by the power of his eye. "Well, who else should I mean than she, who of all people was nearest to you, Pastor Hansted, and who long since was freed from her sorrows and sufferings—your mother."

Emanuel started, had he heard aright?

"My mother?" he exclaimed in a low tone, and his eyes involuntarily sought the little collection of portraits on the wall between the windows.

"Well, it certainly was before she became your mother that she was to us Friends of the people what we never can forget, though we did have proofs that she didn't entirely throw us off when she became your father's wife. Now, I suppose you will understand, sir, what joy and pride arose among us when we heard that Mrs Hansted's son was coming to be our curate. We thought that must indeed be a minister after our own hearts. And we do need a man of that kind here; yes, we need him sorely, Pastor Hansted?"

Emanuel could not get over his astonishment at hearing his mother mentioned for the second time in the course of the day, and this time, too, as a never-to-be-forgotten protectress—the mother whose memory was already wiped out in his own home, and whose name was whispered there with bated breath, so as not to wake up recollections of the shame, which her unhappy end had thrown over the respected Hansted family.

"But see here now, you'll give me leave to tell you, sir," while he steadily watched the young priest. "You'll allow me to tell you honestly, Pastor Hansted, that we have not exac'ly found in you what we so much hoped to find, and I daresay you've perceived that yourself. Now there are your sermons, for example—don't be angry," he broke off with feigned anxiety, when at his last words he saw a cloud pass over the curate's face. "At any rate you won't mind my saying that, although we are glad you do not, as certain others do, speak to us as if we were a flock of dumb animals; and although we see that your sermons are carefully thought out, well expressed, poetical, and what you would call well delivered, still they are only the same as we have so often heard before. And what is it our good priests are always telling us peasants? It is that we are to be obedient and virtuous, neither to steal nor to swear, but to turn to the Lord in our sorrows, and trust in the grace of God, and so on. But we know all that by heart, and we shall not be better men even if we were to hear the whole catechism every Sunday in first rate poetry! No, if a man like you, Pastor Hansted, would tell us something about yourself, instead of about ourselves, because you can't tell us anything on that subject that we don't know better than you do; no, what we want is something really about yourself, and how you, with your reading and education have arrived at your views of Christianity and the life of the people, then we should learn something, and that's what we need, so as to see how other people live and think in their conditions of life. That's what we want our minister to help us to, you see. I don't know if you understand me, sir. I am only a working man, and I have never studied either for orders or even to be parish clerk, so I'm not up to picking and choosing my words perhaps."

Emanuel let him have his talk out. He felt keenly how humiliating it was for him to be obliged to listen to this harangue, especially in the presence of others. But he was not able to force out a word to stop it, because in his heart of hearts he was obliged to confess that the weaver was right. Yes, that this man had put into words the very thoughts which had latterly been troubling him so much. Only when the weaver stopped, and he perceived how all eyes were fixed expectantly on him, did he pull himself together and answered—

"Perhaps I have not, as you may suppose, altogether grasped your meaning, and I am possibly not able to agree with you entirely in all your views. But I appreciate the frankness with which you have mentioned them to me. Such mutual frankness is certainly the first condition towards a closer understanding becoming possible between us."

"Yes, that's our idea too," said the weaver with sudden eagerness. "And that's just why we thought it would be a good plan to talk things over. So far, we only know you in church—nor will I deny that we've several times liked what we heard there—but we always think we would like to get nearer to you than that; we country folk are an inquisitive set, we like to get to know our ministers well, so that we may go to them freely with all our difficulties and whatever we have on our minds. We peasants who labour in the same round day in and day out—we badly need some one among us who can give us information and teaching about things you can't exactly speak of from the pulpit. But that's what our good priests never really understand, and that's why we're often on such bad terms.

"See here now, for example, we've a sort of Meeting House, as we call it, in Skibberup. I daresay you've heard about it, sir, and know what sort of a 'den of iniquity' it is; for that's what the Provst calls it. But for all that, we don't do anything but meet in a friendly way, and talk over whatever we like, or we read aloud various books, either religious ones, or the "Readings for the People," as we call them. We think it must be just as good a pastime listening to good words as to lie snoozing on the benches all the winter evenings, or to spend time in gambling, and other dissipations—the custom in the good old days that the Provst talks so much about. It's easy to see that what we peasant folk can have to talk to each other about, can't be much to the purpose; no, if we could get a man like you, Mr Hansted, to visit us and talk to us in a homely way, and tell us anything you like, it would be another matter; that would be something that would give us real pleasure and that we should thank you for. We all think, when all's said and done, that you're an honest, civil-spoken gentleman that we could get to like very much. Then you're as like your mother as two peas, especially in your expression, as far as I can remember, having only seen her once, many a year ago, at one of our friendly meetings at Sandinge. So I'll promise you there'd be joy on the day it became known that the curate would visit us in the Meeting House, because then we'd know that we'd found what we so long and earnestly had wished for. It was only these few words I wanted to say to you, sir, and you mustn't be angry that I've made so free. I can assure you I've done it for the best."

Emanuel continued silent.

He was so curiously dazed by the weaver's words, which suddenly opened up to him a vista of the fulfilment of all the longings stored in his soul. He no longer knew what to believe. Was this man, about whom he had heard so much evil, really a friend? or was it all a cunning device to entrap him? And Anders Jörgen and his daughter? Were they secretly in league with him? He had accidentally caught the strained expectant expression with which the young girl along in the corner, at her work, watched him, as if by her glance she would steal the answer from his lips. Instead of answering he got up to go, he felt that he no longer had the mastery over his thoughts, and feared to lose his self-possession altogether before the strangers. With an apology that his time to-day did not permit him to continue the discussion, he took his hat and began to take leave. Amid a deep silence he went round shaking hands. When he left the room no one accompanied him.