Emanuel, or Children of the Soil/Book 4, Chapter 2

Emanuel, or Children of the Soil (1896)
by Henrik Pontoppidan, illustrated by Nelly Erichsen, translated by Alice Lucas
Book IV; Chapter II
Henrik Pontoppidan4527158Emanuel, or Children of the SoilBook IV; Chapter II1896Alice Lucas (1855-1935)

By this time several hundred people had assembled outside the lonely church at Skibberup. Seldom—if ever—had the bass tones of the old bells pealed out over such a numerous gathering; never, in any case, over a more solemn one. There was as much stir in that solitary churchyard as in a market place. People were encamped on the gravestones; they shouted to each other across the graves, and on every side there was so much noise and talk, that the bells could hardly be heard.

The weaver wandered about in this excited assemblage, smiling quietly like a cat in a dairy. He felt that he commanded the situation to-day. In every-day life the people of Skibberup might grumble at his peculiar ways; but in times of trouble, they gathered round him with unshakeable faith—and hitherto he had led them from victory to victory. Rumour had for once spoken the truth, and to-day he was prepared for a master-stroke.

At the first moment, when the Provst's announcement made it plain that he meant to open the battle fully accoutred, there had been some difference of opinion as to how he was to be met. The young people wished to keep away from church entirely, as they had done before, and leave the Provst to rage to empty benches; and then, after the service, meet him on the road and hoot. But at a meeting it was decided to adopt a proposal of the weaver's, to muster in numbers at the service so as to have as many witnesses as possible against the Provst, should he—as was thought probable—overstep the bounds of propriety. It was now their intention to listen to him with perfect calm and attention. But if he went too far, they were all, at a given signal, to rise in a body and leave the church; and later to send a complaint, signed by all present, to the Diocesan Council.

On the stroke of nine, "Death's" bony figure was seen hurrying with long strides over the graves, from his look-out post in the corner of the churchyard. The Provst was in sight.

A moment later the bells clanged out again, and the women began to straggle into church in Indian file. The men, on the other hand, ranged themselves according to plan on each side of the entrance to receive the Provst without saluting him.

This was also done at the weaver's instigation. "For," said he, "it is nowhere written that people must take off their hats to the priest."

However, this little opening skirmish fell flat. The Provst walked from his carriage into the church without looking either to the right or to the left, and apparently did not notice the demonstration. Certainly one or two old peasants, when it came to the point, lost their courage; and there were a few others whose right hands involuntarily went half way to their caps.

A few minutes later, before the men had all got inside the church, the hymns began, led by Johansen the assistant teacher. The singing did not sound badly, although the whole congregation sang at the tops of their voices. Whatever might be said of the dark old monkish church—and its musty cellar-like smell and mouldy arches had often been derided in the weaver's Meeting House—in any case it produced a softening effect on the rough voices of the singers.

After two hymns had been sung, Johansen withdrew to his high pew, and the Provst walked down from the altar and mounted the pulpit steps, which creaked under his weight.

At this moment a carriage was heard to stop at the gate; and just as the Provst began his prayer the church door was opened by an elderly man in black, carrying a white linen driving coat over his arm.

The sight of this person roused as much movement in the church as if the Almighty himself had appeared among them. Even the weaver, who had taken up his place against the middle pillar so that every one should see him, almost lost his self-command; his otherwise self-contained and clever little cat's face suddenly took an expression of open-mouthed astonishment.

At the first bench which the stranger approached, seven or eight men rose as stiff as statues to make way for him. But he motioned them to keep their seats with a friendly smile and a wave of the hand, and quietly sat down in the corner of the already crowded seat, next to a burly peasant.

The only person in the church who was unaware of the stranger's presence, or the stir created by his coming, was the Provst. At the end of the introductory prayer he took up his book and read the text for the day. When he raised his voice there was a heavy thrilling under-current in it like distant thunder.

Johansen immediately discovered the commotion, and by craning his head over the pew he could just see the stranger, and the effect was to make his curls almost stand on end. He looked up at the Provst with a startled glance as if to warn him, but he continued calmly reading the Gospel, and when it was over he leant with both hands on the front of the pulpit and began to speak.