A Story

A Story

All the apple-trees in the garden had sprung out. They had made haste to get blossoms before they got green leaves; and all the ducklings were out in the yard—and the cat too! He was, so to speak, permeated by the sunshine; he licked it from his own paws; and if one looked towards the fields, one saw the corn standing so charmingly green! And there was such a twittering and chirping amongst all the small birds, just as if it were a great feast. And that one might indeed say it was, for it was Sunday. The bells rang, and people in their best clothes went to church, and looked so pleased. Yes, there was something so pleasant in everything: it was indeed so fine and warm a day, that one might well say: "Our Lord is certainly unspeakably good towards us poor mortals!"

But the clergyman stood in the pulpit in the church, and spoke so loud and so angrily! He said that mankind was so wicked, and that God would punish them for it, and that when they died, the wicked went down into hell, where they would burn for ever; and he said that their worm would never die, and their fire never be extinguished, nor would they ever get rest and peace!

It was terrible to hear, and he said it so determinedly. He described hell to them as a pestilential hole, where all the filthiness of the world flowed together. There was no air except the hot, sulphurous flames; there was no bottom; they sank and sank into everlasting silence! It was terrible, only to hear about it; but the clergyman said it right honestly out of his heart, and all the people in the church were quite terrified. But all the little birds outside the church sang so pleasantly, and so pleased, and the sun shone so warm:—it was as if every little flower said: "God is so wondrous good to us altogether!" Yes, outside it was not at all as the clergyman preached.

In the evening, when it was bed-time, the clergyman saw his wife sit so still and thoughtful.

"What ails you?" said he to her.

"What ails me?" she replied; "what ails me is, that I cannot collect my thoughts rightly—that I cannot rightly understand what you said; that there were so many wicked, and that they should burn eternally!—eternally, alas, how long! I am but a sinful being; but I could not bear the thought in my heart to allow even the worst sinner to burn for ever. And how then should our Lord permit it? he who is so wondrously good, and who knows how evil comes both from without and within. No, I cannot believe it, though you say it."

It was autumn. The leaves fell from the trees; the grave, severe clergyman sat by the bedside of a dying person; a pious believer closed her eyes—it was the clergyman's own wife.

"If any one find peace in the grave, and grace from God, then it is thou," said the clergyman, and he folded her hands, and read a psalm over the dead body.

And she was borne to the grave: two heavy tears trickled down that stern man's cheeks; and it was still and vacant in the parsonage; the sunshine within was extinguished:—she was gone.

It was night. A cold wind blew over the clergyman's head; he opened his eyes, and it was just as if the moon shone into his room. But the moon did not shine. It was a figure which stood before his bed—he saw the spirit of his deceased wife. She looked on him so singularly afflicted; it seemed as though she would say something.

The man raised himself half erect in bed, and stretched his arms out towards her.

"Not even to thee is granted everlasting peace. Thou dost suffer; thou, the best, the most pious!"

And the dead bent her head in confirmation of his words, and laid her hand on her breast.

"And can I procure you peace in the grave?"

"Yes!" it sounded in his ear.

"And how?"

"Give me a hair, but a single hair of the head of that sinner, whose fire will never be quenched; that sinner whom God will cast down into hell, to everlasting torment."

"Yes; so easily thou canst be liberated, thou pure, thou pious one!" said he.

"Then follow me," said the dead; "it is so granted us. Thou canst be by my side, wheresoever thy thoughts will. Invisible to mankind, we stand in their most secret places; but thou must point with a sure hand to the one destined to eternal punishment, and ere the cock crow he must be found."

And swift, as if borne on the wings of thought, they were in the great city, and the names of the dying sinners shone from the walls of the houses in letters of fire: "Arrogance, Avarice, Drunkenness, Voluptuousness;" in short, sin's whole seven-coloured arch.

"Yes, in there, as I thought it, as I knew it," said the clergyman, "are housed those condemned to eternal fire."

And they stood before the splendidly-illumined portico, where the broad stairs were covered with carpets and flowers, and the music of the dance sounded through the festal saloons. The porter stood there in silk and velvet, with a large silver-headed stick.

"Our  ball can match with the King's," said he, and turned towards the crowd in the street—his magnificent thoughts were visible in his whole person. "Poor devils! who stare in at the portico, you are altogether ragamuffins, compared to me!"

"Arrogance," said the dead; "dost thou see him?"

"Him!" repeated the clergyman; "he is a simpleton—a fool only, and will not be condemned to eternal fire and torment."

"A fool only," sounded through the whole house of Arrogance.

And they flew into the four bare walls of Avarice, where skinny, meagre, shivering with cold, hungry and thirsty, the old man clung fast with all his thoughts to his gold. They saw how he, as in a fever, sprang from his wretched pallet, and took a loose stone out of the wall. There lay gold coins in a stocking-foot; he fumbled at his ragged tunic, in which gold coins were sewed fast, and his moist fingers trembled.

"He is ill: it is insanity; encircled by fear and evil dreams."

And they flew away in haste, and stood by the criminals' wooden couch, where they slept side by side in long rows. One of them started up from his sleep like a wild animal, and uttered a hideous scream: he struck his companion with his sharp elbow, and the latter turned sleepily round.

"Hold your tongue, you beast, and sleep! this is your way every night! Every night!" he repeated; "yes, you come every night, howling and choking me! I have done one thing or another in a passion; I was born with a passionate temper, and it has brought me in here a second time; but if I have done wrong, so have I also got my punishment. But one thing I have not confessed. When I last went out from here, and passed by my master's farm, one thing and another boiled up in me, and I directly stroked a lucifer against the wall: it came a little too near the thatch, and everything was burnt—hot-headedness came over it, just as it comes over me, I helped to save the cattle and furniture. Nothing living was burnt, except a flock of pigeons: they flew into the flames, and the yard dog. I had not thought of the dog. I could hear it howl, and that howl I always hear yet, when I would sleep; and if I do get to sleep, the dog comes also—so large and hairy! He lies down on me, howls, and strangles me! Do but hear what I am telling you. Snore—yes, that you can—snore the whole night through, and I not even a quarter of an hour!"

And the blood shone from the eyes of the fiery one; he fell on his companion, and struck him in the face with his clenched fist.

"Angry Mads has become mad again!" resounded on all sides, and the other rascals seized hold of him, wrestled with him, and bent him double, so that his head was forced between his legs, where they bound it fast, so that the blood was nearly springing out of his eyes, and all the pores.

"You will kill him!" said the clergyman,—"poor unfortunate!" and as he stretched his hands out over him, who had already suffered too severely, in order to prevent further mischief, the scene changed.

They flew through rich halls, and through poor chambers; voluptuousness and envy, all mortal sins strode past them. A recording angel read their sin and their defence; this was assuredly little for God, for God reads the heart; He knows perfectly the evil that comes within it and from without, He, grace, all-loving kindness. The hand of the clergyman trembled: he did not venture to stretch it out, to pluck a hair from the sinner's head. And the tears streamed down from his eyes, like the waters of grace  and love, which quenched the eternal fire of hell.

The cock then crowed.

"Merciful God! Thou wilt grant her that peace in the grave which I have not been able to redeem."

"That I now have!" said the dead; "it was thy hard words, thy dark, human belief of God and his creatures, which drove me to thee! Learn to know mankind; even in the bad there is a part of God—a part that will conquer and quench the fire of hell."

And a kiss was pressed on the clergyman's lips:—it shone around him. God's clear, bright sun shone into the chamber, where his wife, living, mild, and affectionate, awoke him from a dream, sent from God!

A Story

In the garden all the apple-trees were in blossom. They had hastened to bring forth flowers before they got green leaves, and in the yard all the ducklings walked up and down, and the cat too: it basked in the sun and licked the sunshine from its own paws. And when one looked at the fields, how beautifully the corn stood and how green it shone, without comparison! and there was a twittering and a fluttering of all the little birds, as if the day were a great festival; and so it was, for it was Sunday. All the bells were ringing, and all the people went to church, looking cheerful, and dressed in their best clothes. There was a look of cheerfulness on everything. The day was so warm and beautiful that one might well have said: "God's kindness to us men is beyond all limits." But inside the church the pastor stood in the pulpit, and spoke very loudly and angrily. He said that all men were wicked, and God would punish them for their sins, and that the wicked, when they died, would be cast into hell, to burn for ever and ever. He spoke very excitedly, saying that their evil propensities would not be destroyed, nor would the fire be extinguished, and they should never find rest. That was terrible to hear, and he said it in such a tone of conviction; he described hell to them as a miserable hole where all the refuse of the world gathers. There was no air beside the hot burning sulphur flame, and there was no ground under their feet; they, the wicked ones, sank deeper and deeper, while eternal silence surrounded them! It was dreadful to hear all that, for the preacher spoke from his heart, and all the people in the church were terrified. Meanwhile, the birds sang merrily outside, and the sun was shining so beautifully warm, it seemed as though every little flower said: "God, Thy kindness towards us all is without limits." Indeed, outside it was not at all like the pastor's sermon.

The same evening, upon going to bed, the pastor noticed his wife sitting there quiet and pensive.

"What is the matter with you?" he asked her.

"Well, the matter with me is," she said, "that I cannot collect my thoughts, and am unable to grasp the meaning of what you said to-day in church—that there are so many wicked people, and that they should burn eternally. Alas! eternally—how long! I am only a woman and a sinner before God, but I should not have the heart to let even the worst sinner burn for ever, and how could our Lord to do so, who is so infinitely good, and who knows how the wickedness comes from without and within? No, I am unable to imagine that, although you say so."

It was autumn; the trees dropped their leaves, the earnest and severe pastor sat at the bedside of a dying person. A pious, faithful soul closed her eyes for ever; she was the pastor's wife.

..."If any one shall find rest in the grave and mercy before our Lord you shall certainly do so," said the pastor. He folded her hands and read a psalm over the dead woman.

She was buried; two large tears rolled over the cheeks of the earnest man, and in the parsonage it was empty and still, for its sun had set for ever. She had gone home.

It was night. A cold wind swept over the pastor's head; he opened his eyes, and it seemed to him as if the moon was shining into his room. It was not so, however; there was a being standing before his bed, and looking like the ghost of his deceased wife. She fixed her eyes upon him with such a kind and sad expression, just as if she wished to say something to him. The pastor raised himself in bed and stretched his arms towards her, saying, "Not even you can find eternal rest! You suffer, you best and most pious woman?"

The dead woman nodded her head as if to say "Yes," and put her hand on her breast.

"And can I not obtain rest in the grave for you?"

"Yes," was the answer.

"And how?"

"Give me one hair—only one single hair—from the head of the sinner for whom the fire shall never be extinguished, of the sinner whom God will condemn to eternal punishment in hell."

"Yes, one ought to be able to redeem you so easily, you pure, pious woman," he said.

"Follow me," said the dead woman. "It is thus granted to us. By my side you will be able to fly wherever your thoughts wish to go. Invisible to men, we shall penetrate into their most secret chambers; but with sure hand you must find out him who is destined to eternal torture, and before the cock crows he must be found!" As quickly as if carried by the winged thoughts they were in the great city, and from the walls the names of the deadly sins shone in flaming letters: pride, avarice, drunkenness, wantonness—in short, the whole seven-coloured bow of sin.

"Yes, therein, as I believed, as I knew it," said the pastor, "are living those who are abandoned to the eternal fire." And they were standing before the magnificently illuminated gate; the broad steps were adorned with carpets and flowers, and dance music was sounding through the festive halls. A footman dressed in silk and velvet stood with a large silver-mounted rod near the entrance.

"Our ball can compare favourably with the king's," he said, and turned with contempt towards the gazing crowd in the street. What he thought was sufficiently expressed in his features and movements: "Miserable beggars, who are looking in, you are nothing in comparison to me."

"Pride," said the dead woman; "do you see him?"

"The footman?" asked the pastor. "He is but a poor fool, and not doomed to be tortured eternally by fire!"

"Only a fool!" It sounded through the whole house of pride: they were all fools there.

Then they flew within the four naked walls of the miser. Lean as a skeleton, trembling with cold, and hunger, the old man was clinging with all his thoughts to his money. They saw him jump up feverishly from his miserable couch and take a loose stone out of the wall; there lay gold coins in an old stocking. They saw him anxiously feeling over an old ragged coat in which pieces of gold were sewn, and his clammy fingers trembled.

"He is ill! That is madness—a joyless madness—besieged by fear and dreadful dreams!"

They quickly went away and came before the beds of the criminals; these unfortunate people slept side by side, in long rows. Like a ferocious animal, one of them rose out of his sleep and uttered a horrible cry, and gave his comrade a violent dig in the ribs with his pointed elbow, and this one turned round in his sleep:

"Be quiet, monster—sleep! This happens every night!"

"Every night!" repeated the other. "Yes, every night he comes and tortures me! In my violence I have done this and that. I was born with an evil mind, which has brought me hither for the second time; but if I have done wrong I suffer punishment for it. One thing, however, I have not yet confessed. When I came out a little while ago, and passed by the yard of my former master, evil thoughts rose within me when I remembered this and that. I struck a match a little bit on the wall; probably it came a little too close to the thatched roof. All burnt down—a great heat rose, such as sometimes overcomes me. I myself helped to rescue cattle and things, nothing alive burnt, except a flight of pigeons, which flew into the fire, and the yard dog, of which I had not thought; one could hear him howl out of the fire, and this howling I still hear when I wish to sleep; and when I have fallen asleep, the great rough dog comes and places himself upon me, and howls, presses, and tortures me. Now listen to what I tell you! You can snore; you are snoring the whole night, and I hardly a quarter of an hour!" And the blood rose to the head of the excited criminal; he threw himself upon his comrade, and beat him with his clenched fist in the face.

"Wicked Matz has become mad again!" they said amongst themselves. The other criminals seized him, wrestled with him, and bent him double, so that his head rested between his knees, and they tied him, so that the blood almost came out of his eyes and out of all his pores.

"You are killing the unfortunate man," said the pastor, and as he stretched out his hand to protect him who already suffered too much, the scene changed. They flew through rich halls and wretched hovels; wantonness and envy, all the deadly sins, passed before them. An angel of justice read their crimes and their defence; the latter was not a brilliant one, but it was read before God, Who reads the heart, Who knows everything, the wickedness that comes from within and from without, Who is mercy and love personified. The pastor's hand trembled; he dared not stretch it out, he did not venture to pull a hair out of the sinner's head. And tears gushed from his eyes like a stream of mercy and love, the cooling waters of which extinguished the eternal fire of hell.

Just then the cock crowed.

"Father of all mercy, grant Thou to her the peace that I was unable to procure for her!"

"I have it now!" said the dead woman. "It was your hard words, your despair of mankind, your gloomy belief in God and His creation, which drove me to you. Learn to know mankind! Even in the wicked one lives a part of God—and this extinguishes and conquers the flame of hell!"

The pastor felt a kiss on his lips; a gleam of light surrounded him—God's bright sun shone into the room, and his wife, alive, sweet and full of love, awoke him from a dream which God had sent him!