Higher Aims by August Strindberg

It was so cold in the little country church that the breath came like smoke from the mouths of the priest and the boys who sang in the choir. The congregation, who listened to the Mass standing, had been allowed to spread straw on the ground so that whenever they knelt at the ringing of the little bell, they should not be too chilled. To-day there were many people at Mass, because they were expecting an unaccustomed spectacle at the end of the service. The priest was going to admonish an ill-assorted couple, who would not keep the peace and could not divorce each other because no crime had been committed. Neither of them wished to leave their children and incur the disgrace of running away. The Mass was concluded and the litany, a "Miserere," sounded pathetically from the voices which trembled with cold. The sun shone redly through the frosted window-panes, and the burning wax candles gave no light at all, but looked merely like yellow blots over which the warmed air quivered.

"Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi," sang the priest; the boys answered "Miserere!" and the congregation joined in—deep clear men's voices and high soft women's voices—"Miserere—have mercy upon us!"

The last "Miserere" sounded like a cry of despair, for at the same moment the married pair stepped from the hidden place by the door, which had been appointed for them, and went up the central aisle to the altar. The man was tall, powerfully built, with a brown beard, and limped somewhat; the woman had a small, slender figure with pliant outlines and graceful movements. Her face was half hidden by a hood, so that one only saw a pair of pale blue eyes with a suffering expression, and the upper part of her white cheeks.

The priest said a low prayer and turned to the congregation. He was a young man, not yet thirty, whose fresh, good-natured face seemed to be out of keeping with his long robe and the solemn, severe words which he uttered. He had long ago received the confessions of each of the married pair, and only delivered his admonition at the bishop's command. The discordant couple had been to the bishop and had asked him to dissolve their marriage, but the latter had found no reason to grant their request since the canonical law and the Decretals only permitted divorce on account of sin, barrenness in certain cases, and the running away of husband or wife from hearth and home.

The priest began his admonishment in a dry, expressionless voice, as though he did not believe what he said. He declared that marriage had been established by God Himself, Who had created woman from the man's rib to be a help to him; but since the man was created first and the woman subsequently, the wife should be subject to the husband, and he should be her lord.

(Here the little hood made a movement as though the wearer wished to speak.)

The man on his side should treat his wife with respect because she was his honour, and by doing so he honoured himself in his wife. This was the teaching of St Paul in his Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter seven, verse four, on which passage the decree of Gratian was founded, declaring that the wife had not power over herself, but the husband.

(The little hooded figure shook from head to foot, and the man nodded approvingly at the priest's words. The priest, who now fastened his eyes on the woman, changed his tone.)

When the disciples came to Jesus and asked whether divorce was permissible for married people, be answered and said: "What God hath joined, let not man put asunder," and for this reason the Church did not allow the dissolution of marriage. The concessions made by earthly laws were only due to the wickedness of men and could not be approved by the Church.

Life was not a rose-garden, and we must not demand too much from it. The preacher himself was married (as at that time Catholic priests were allowed to be), he knew therefore how to judge in the matter; he knew that there must be give and take, if there was not to be quarrelling and strife. He had married this young couple and witnessed their first happiness; he had baptised their child and seen their love sanctified by parental joy. He reminded them of those unforgettable hours when life had given them its best and the future shone before them like a bright summer day. He adjured them by that recollection to reach each other their hands, and to forget all that had happened since the spirit of unrest had entered their hearts; he prayed them in the presence of that Christian congregation, to renew the tie which in their selfishness they had sought to dissolve.

There followed a moment of deep silence and expectation, while the congregation showed their impatience by pushing forward as far as the way they were packed together allowed. But the married pair remained motionless.

Then the priest seemed to become impatient, and in a voice trembling with annoyance and anger he again resumed. He spoke of the duties of parents towards their child, of God's wrath against an unforgiving temper, and said plainly that marriage was not meant to be merely a means of carnal indulgence or of increasing the population, but also—and he laid emphasis on this—of family education. He gave them till the following Sunday to think it over, and bade them depart in peace.

No sooner had he spoken the last word and made a gesture of dismissal with his hand, than the young wife turned and departed. Coldly and calmly she passed between the rows of the congregation, and disappeared through the great entrance. The man hesitated a moment, then he sought the smaller door at the end of the transept.

As the priest walked home with his wife, who had been present at Mass, she said to him in a gentle but reproachful tone: "Did you believe what you said?"

"You are my conscience, dear woman, and you know my thoughts; spare me therefore a little, for the spoken word smites like a scourge."

"Then let the scourge smite! You know by their confessions that the union of this married pair is no true marriage, you know that this woman is a martyr whose life can only be saved by her keeping away from this man; you know this, and yet you exhort her to go towards her destruction."

"The Church, you see, my friend, has higher aims than the well-being of ordinary people."

"I thought that the well-being of men, what you call their salvation, was the highest aim of the Church. What then is the Church's highest aim?"

"The increase of God's kingdom on earth," answered the priest after some reflection.

"Let us consider!" said his wife. "It is said that only the saved shall dwell in God's Kingdom. Then the Church is to save men."

"In the higher sense, yes!"

"In the higher sense; are there then two?"

"A little foolish woman can ask more questions than seven wise men can answer," said the priest, and pressed his wife's hand.

"Then it is a bad look-out for the wisdom of the wise, for what will they answer when an intelligent person asks—when all the intelligent people in the world come and ask?" continued the foolish little woman.

"They will answer that they do not know," whispered the priest.

"You ought to say that aloud, and should have said it to-day in the church. Your conscience is not pleased with you to-day."

"Then I will silence my dear conscience," said the priest, and kissed his wife, who was standing in the porch of their house.

"That you cannot," she answered, "as long as you love me; and certainly not in that way."

They stamped the snow from their feet and entered the little parsonage, where they were met by two small, healthy children, who wanted to kiss their father and mother. Not the least cause of the heartiness of their welcome was the good Sunday dinner which was cooking in the oven.

The priest took off his long clerical coat and put on one more like a layman's. In this, however, he never showed himself to any member of his congregation but only to his family and the old cook. The table was laid, the floor was clean and white, and the cut fir twigs smelt sweetly. The father said grace and they took their seats at the table as glad and as much at peace with the world and with each other as though a heart had never been broken for the sake of "higher aims."

The snow had melted and the earth reeked and fermented with creative power. The parsonage was situated on the unsightly plain in Uppland which is included in the ecclesiastical district of Rasbo. Wherever the eye looked there was only to be seen the stony ground, the clay soil, and some elder bushes which cowered like frightened hares before the never-ceasing wind. In the distance, on the horizon, were visible the tree-tops of the edge of a wood like the masts of a ship disappearing at sea. On the south side of the house the priest had planted some trees and hoed a little patch of ground where he cultivated flowers and vegetables, which in winter had to be covered with straw since they were not accustomed to this severe climate. A small stream which came from the woods in the north ran by the parsonage, and was large enough to row a punt on, if one kept exactly in the middle.

Dominus Peder in Rasbo had awakened at sunrise, kissed his wife and children, and gone to the church which lay a few stone's-throws from the parsonage. He had read the morning Mass, blessed the work of the day, and come home again beaming with joy and cheerfulness. The larks, which certainly did not understand the difference between beauty and ugliness, had sung over the stony fields as though they blessed the meagre crop. Water flowed murmuring in the ditches on whose edges gleamed yellow colt's-foot. The priest had come home, drunk his morning milk in the porch, and now he stood in his jerkin in the garden and released his flowers from their winter covering. He took a hoe and began to turn up the sleeping ground. The sun glowed; the work to which he was unaccustomed stirred his blood. He inhaled deep draughts of the strong spring air and felt as robust as though he had awakened to new life. His wife had opened the window-shutters on the sunny side of the house, and stood there dressing, while she watched her husband at work.

"That is better than sitting over books," he said.

"You ought to have been a peasant," she replied.

"I could not, my dear! Ah, how it does one's breast and back good! Why do people think God has given us two long arms if they are not to be used."

"Yes, one does not need them to read with."

"No! but to shovel snow, to hew wood, to dig the ground, to carry one's children, and to defend oneself—that's what they are for, and one is punished if one does not use them. We 'spiritual' men, we must not touch this sinful earth."

"Hush!" said his wife, and laid her finger on her mouth, "the children hear you."

Her husband took off his cap and wiped the perspiration from his brow.

"'In the sweat of thy brow thou shalt eat bread,' so it is written. Oh, how finely I sweat! That is something better than when anxiety at not being able to discover the sense of an obscure text makes one feel a cold sweat at the roots of one's hair, or when the spirits of doubt burn the goodness out of one's blood so that it creeps through the body like hot sand. Do you see how the flesh on my arm quivers for joy at being able to move? See how the blue veins swell like streamlets in spring when the ice melts, my chest feels so broad that the seams of the jerkin crack; that is really better——"

"Hush!" said his wife, warning him again, and added, in order to divert the dangerous current of his talk, "You have released your flowers from their strait-waistcoats, but you have forgotten the poor animals who have stood all through the winter in their dark stable."

"That is true," said the priest, and put the hoe aside; "but then the children must come out and see."

He went at once to the cattle-house which stood at the back of the row of buildings of which the farm consisted; there he set free the two cows, opened the sheep and the calf sheds, then went up the little acclivity behind and opened the door of the pigsty. First came out one cow and stood in the door of the cow-house. The light seemed to dazzle her as she stretched out her neck and became aware of the sun; then she stepped carefully on the bridge and drew some deep breaths so that her stomach swelled; then she smelt the ground and as though seized by joyful recollections of the previous year, she erected her tail and danced up the little hill, leapt over stones and bushes and went off at full gallop. Then followed the other cow, the calves and sheep, and lastly the pigs. But behind them came the priest with a stick, for he had forgotten to shut the garden gate, and now there was a race, in which the boys eagerly joined, to drive the animals out of the enclosure. But when the old cook saw her master run up the hill in his jerkin she was anxious what people would say and rushed out from the kitchen door, while his wife stood on the steps and laughed merrily. But the young priest was so boisterous and joyful and delighted as a child at witnessing the delight of the creatures at the end of their winter imprisonment, that he forgot both congregation and bishop and ran out on to the high-road in order to drive the animals on to the fallow ground.

Then he heard his wife call his name, and when he turned round he saw a woman standing by her in the porch. Feeling ashamed and annoyed, he pulled his clothes straight, put his hair under his cap, and turned homewards assuming a solemn expression of face.

As he came nearer he recognised the little woman whom he had exhorted in the charge regarding discord in marriage. He perceived that she wished for a conversation, and asked her to come in, saying he would follow as soon as he had changed his coat.

In another coat and another mind he entered, after a time, the room where the unruly wife awaited him, and asked her business. She declared that she had come to an understanding with her husband that she should leave his house deliberately, since the Church would not grant a divorce in any other way. The priest was impatient and wished straightway to quote the Decretals and the Epistle to the Corinthians, when through the open window he heard the sound of a foot on the sanded garden-walk. He knew so well the light, soft step, and the crunching of the sand made an impression on his conscience.

"The act you contemplate, woman," he said, "is courageous, but it is nevertheless a crime."

"It is no crime; you only call it so," answered the woman decidedly, as though she had spent days and nights of despair in considering her action.

The priest was irritated, and sought in his mind for some cutting words when he heard again the sound of sharp crunching on the sand outside.

"You set a bad example to the congregation," he said.

"A worse one, if I remain," said the woman.

"You will be disinherited."

"I know."

"You will lose your reputation."

"I know that too, but I will bear it for I am innocent."

"But your child?"

"I will take it with me."

"What does your husband say to that? You have no claim on your child if you leave your home."

"Haven't I? Not on my own child? Then Solomon's wisdom itself is not sufficient to solve this tangled knot. But I will tear it in two, if I can make an end by doing so. I came to you to ask for light and you lead me into a dark passage, where you put out the light and go your way. One thing I know: where love ceases, there only shame and humiliation remain; I will not live in sin, therefore I break off."

Outside deep breaths, as of suppressed feelings, were heard. The priest struggled with himself, then he said: "As the servant of the Church, I have only to hold to the word of the Lord, and that is hard as a rock. As a man, I can only say what my heart suggests but what is perhaps sin, for the human heart is a frail thing. Go in peace, and put not asunder what God has joined."

"No, not what God has joined, but what our parents arranged. Have you not a word of comfort to say to me on the difficult path I have to tread?"

The priest shook his head negatively.

"May you not receive stones some day when you want bread," said the woman with an almost threatening look, and went out.

The priest threw off his coat again, sighed, and tried to drive away the uncomfortable feelings which the interview had caused. When he came out, he approached his wife with the remark that he was sincerely sorry for the poor woman.

"Why didn't you tell her so?" broke in his wife, who seemed to be well posted in the matter.

"There are things which one cannot say," answered her husband.

"To whom cannot one say them?"

"To whom? The Church, like the State, my friend, are Divine ideas, but being reduced to reality by weak men, are only imperfectly realised. Therefore one cannot confess before ordinary mortals that these arrangements are imperfect, for then they would begin to doubt their Divine origin."

"But if one, seeing their imperfection, should doubt of their Divine origin, and it should be shown, on examination, that they have no Divine origin?"

"I believe, by all the saints, that the devil of doubt reigns in the air of this time. Do you not know that the first questioner plunged mankind into damnation? Certainly it was not without reason that the Papal Legate in the recent Church Assembly called our land corrupted."

His wife looked at him as if she wanted to see how far he was in earnest, whereon her husband answered with a smile, which showed that he was jesting.

"You must not joke like that," said his wife. "I can so easily believe what you say. Besides, I never know when you are serious or making fun. You believe partly what you say, but partly not. You are so wavering, as though you yourself had been possessed by those spirits in the air of which you spoke."

In order not to proceed further in discussing a question which he preferred to leave untouched, the priest proposed to make a boat excursion to a pleasant spot which had the advantage of some leafy trees, and eat their midday meal there.

Presently he was plying his oars and the green punt shot over the smooth surface of the water, while the children tried to pull up the old reeds of the previous year, through whose dry leaves the spring wind whispered of resurrection from the winter's sleep. The priest had taken off his long coat and put on his jerkin, which he called his "old man." He pulled the oars strongly, like a practised rower, the whole half-mile to the birch-planted height, which lay like an island in the stony waste around. While his wife prepared the meal, he ran about with the children and plucked anemones and primroses. He taught them to shoot with bow and arrow, and cut willow-whistles for them. He climbed the trees, rolled on the grass like a boy, and let himself be driven like a horse with a bit in his mouth by the loudly laughing children. He grew ever more boisterous, and when the boys took the long coat which he had hung on a birch tree as a mark to shoot at, he began to laugh till he was purple in the face. But his wife looked carefully round on all sides to see whether anyone was watching them. "Ah! let me be at any rate a man in God's free world of nature," he said. And she had no objection to make.

The meal was laid on the grass, and the priest was so hungry that he forgot to say grace, which drew a remark from the children.

"Father does not say grace at table," they said.

"I see no table," he answered, and stuck his thumb in the butter. This delighted the children immensely.

"Keep your feet still under the table, Peter! Don't lay your legs on the table, Nils," he said, and the little ones laughed till they nearly choked. Never had they been so jolly; never had they seen their father so cheerful, and he had constantly to repeat his jests, which they heard at each repetition with the same delight.

But evening was coming on and they had to think of their return home. They packed up the things and got into the boat. They were still cheerful for a while, but soon the laughter grew silent and the children went to sleep on their mother's lap. The father sat quiet and serious, as one is after laughing much, and the nearer they approached the house the more silent he became. He tried at intervals to say something cheerful, but it sounded quite melancholy. The sun threw slanting rays over the huge fields; the wind had fallen; there reigned a depressing silence and deep stillness in all nature, only broken now and then by the lowing of cattle or the passionate crying of the cuckoo.

"Cuckoo in the north brings sorrow forth," said the priest, as though he would thereby give a long-sought expression to his melancholy.

"That is only true of the first time one hears it," said his wife, comforting him.

The roof of the cattle-shed was now visible, and behind it stood the church tower. They moored the punt by the bridge and the father took the two sleeping children and carried them into the house. Then he kissed his wife and thanked her for the pleasant day; he would now go to church, he said, and read vespers.

He took his book and went. When he came on the road the Angelus was ringing. He hastened his steps. From a good distance he saw people moving in the churchyard. Something unusual must be going on, as no one besides the sacristan generally attended vespers. He thought that someone had perhaps seen him on the island, and heard his conversation with his wife. He felt seriously anxious when he approached the church door, for there he perceived two horses with gorgeous trappings and an archdeacon with his retinue from Upsala, where the Archbishop lived. The archdeacon seemed to have been waiting, for he went immediately towards the priest and said that he wished to make a communication to him when vespers were over. Never had the priest read the evening service so fervently, and with deep anxiety he invoked the protection of all the saints against unknown dangers. He cast a glance now and then at the door, where he saw the archdeacon standing like an executioner waiting for his victim, and when he had said "Amen" he went with heavy steps to receive the blow, for now he was certain that a misfortune was impending.

"I did not wish to visit you in your house," began the Archbishop's messenger, "because my business is of such a nature that it demands a quiet place and the proximity of the holy things which strengthen our hearts. I have a message from the Church council to deliver which will deeply affect the intimacies of your private life."

Here he broke off, for he saw his victim's anxiety, and handed over a parchment which the young priest unrolled and read:

"Dilectis in Christo fratribus (dear brothers in Christ), Episcopus, Sabinensis, apostolicae sedis legatis (the Bishop of Sabina, Legate of the Roman Chair)——"

His eyes flew over the crowded letters, till they stopped all at once at a line which seemed to be written in fire, for the young man's features became as pale as ashes.

The archdeacon seemed to feel sympathy with him and said: "It appears that the demands of the Church are severe: before the close of the year the marriages of all priests are to be dissolved, for a true servant of the Lord cannot live united to a wife without defiling the holy things which he handles, and his heart cannot be divided between Christ and a sinful descendant of the first woman."

"'What God hath joined, that shall not man put asunder,'" answered the priest as soon as he came to himself.

"That is only true for ordinary people; but when the higher aims of the Church of Christ demand it, then what would otherwise be wrong becomes lawful. And mark well the distinction—'Man shall not put asunder.' The saying, therefore, simply refers to man acting as the divider; but here God acts through His servant, and sunders what God has united, therefore it does not apply here."

"But God has ordained marriage Himself," objected the broken man.

"Just what I say, and therefore He has a right to dissolve it."

"But the Lord does not desire this sacrifice from his weak servant."

"The Lord commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son."

"But our hearts will break."

"Just so; hearts ought to break—that makes them more ardent in piety."

"I That can never be the wish of a loving God."

"The 'loving' God caused His own Son to be slain on the Cross. The world is no pleasure-garden, but merely vain and transient, and you may comfort yourself with the thought that the Decretals——"

"No, for God's sake, don't talk to me of Decretals! Archdeacon, in heaven's name give me a spark of hope; dip the tip of your finger in water and quench this fire of despair which you have kindled. Say that it is not possible; try to believe that it was only a proposal which was not adopted."

The archdeacon pointed to his seal and said, "Presentibus consulentibus et consentientibus (it is already decided and confirmed). And as regards the Decretals, my young friend, there are in them such treasures of wisdom that they may well serve to clear up a clouded mind, and if I want to give a good friend a piece of good advice, I say, 'Read the Decretals; read them early and late, and you will find that they make you feel calm and happy.'"

The unhappy priest thought of the stones which he had given on the morning of the same day to the despairing woman, and bowed his head to the blow.

"Therefore," concluded the archdeacon, "enjoy the short time left; the summer wind has blown, the flowers have sprung up in the field, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. On St Sylvester's Day ultimo mensis Decembris I come here again, and then must your house be swept and garnished, as though Christ the Lord was about to enter, under penalty of excommunication. Till then you can study the decree more closely. Farewell, and forget not to read the Decretals."

He mounted his white horse and rode away in order to reach the next parish before night and to spread grief and misery there, like the rider in the Apocalypse.

Dominus Peder in Rasbo was crushed. He did not venture to go home at once but rushed into the church, where he fell down by the altar. The doors of the gilded altar-triptych stood open, and the Saviour's progress to Calvary was illumined by the red rays of the evening sun. The priest was at this moment not the justiciary of a minatory and threatening Lord, but he lay like one of the chastised flock and prayed for mercy. He looked up to the image of Christ but found no sympathy there. The Saviour took His cup from the hand that offered it and emptied it to the dregs; He carried His cross on His mangled back up the steep hill where He was to be crucified, but over the Crucified heaven opened. There was then something over and beyond all these sorrows. The priest began to examine into the reasons of these great human sacrifices which were about to take place all over the country. The Church had seen how men began to doubt in the priest's right to be judge and executioner, for they had found their judges full of human weaknesses. Now the priests must show that for Christ's sake they could tear their hearts out of their breasts and lay them on the altar.

"But," continued his rebellious reason, "Christianity has done away with human sacrifices." He went on thinking, and the idea occurred to him that perhaps there was something underlying the old heathen sacrifices. Abraham was a heathen, for he did not know Christ, and he was ready to offer his son at God's command. Christ was sacrificed; all holy martyrs are sacrificed—why should he be spared? There was no reason why he should, and he had to acknowledge that if people were to continue to believe in his preaching they could also demand that, he should sacrifice his dearest himself, for he and his wife were one. He had to acknowledge this, and he felt a peculiar new enjoyment in the thought of the terrible sufferings which awaited him. Pride also came to his support and pointed to the martyr's crown which would elevate him above this congregation, on whom he was accustomed to look down from the high altar, but who had begun to raise their heads and defiantly threatened to storm this lofty position.

Strengthened and elevated by this thought, he rose and passed within the altar-rails. He was, in his own eyes, no more the crushed sinner, but the righteous man who deserved to stand by Christ's side for he had suffered as much as He. He looked proudly down on the praying-stools which in the twilight resembled penitents kneeling, and he hurled the denunciations of a prophet on their heads because they would not believe in his preaching. He tore his coat open and showed them his bleeding breast in which an empty gap showed that he had given God his heart. He bade those of little faith to put their hands in his side and let themselves be carried over by him. He felt himself grow during his suffering, and his over-excited imagination transported him into an ecstasy, so that the operations of thought seemed momentarily suspended and he believed that he was one with Christ. Further than that he could not go, and he collapsed like a sail which has been split by the wind, when the sexton came in to close the church.

On the way home be felt unhappy because his ecstasy was over, and he would have gladly returned to the church had not an indefinite something, which expressed itself as a faint sense of duty, summoned him home. The nearer he approached the more his religious emotions cooled, and the smaller therefore he felt himself. But when he entered the door, his wife received him with open arms, asking him uneasily why he had remained out so long; and when he felt the friendly glow of his hearth, and saw the children peacefully asleep with rosy cheeks, he realised the preciousness of what he had now to surrender. He felt all his young blood well up in his opened heart, and was conscious of the reawakening of the omnipotent force of first love which can bear everything. He swore never to leave the beloved of his heart, and the married pair felt themselves young again. They sat together till midnight talking of the future and how to escape the danger which threatened them.

The summer passed for the happy pair like a beautiful dream, during which they forgot the wakening which awaited them. Meanwhile the papal decree had become known to the congregation, who heard of it with a sort of malicious satisfaction—partly because they did not grudge their spiritual superiors a little purgatorial fire, and partly because they hoped to get their priests more cheaply when they had to live as celibates. Moreover, there were in the congregation a number of pious people who received whatever came from Bishop and Pope as though it came from heaven. They discussed the question thoroughly and adhered to the view that a priest's marriage was sinful. These pious people, who had expected to see the parsonage purified immediately after the promulgation of the decree, began to murmur when they saw that their pastor gave no signs whatever of intending to obey it. The murmuring grew in strength when the church-tower happened to be struck by lightning. This was followed by a failure in the harvest. The voices of complaint became louder and the pious party sent a deputation to the parsonage to declare that they did not intend to receive the sacrament at the hands of a priest who lived in sin. They demanded that he should separate from his wife, because any more children which might be born would be illegitimate, and they threatened to purify the parsonage with fire if it were not pure by the end of the year.

For a long time after that the pair were left in peace, but a marked change began to be observable in the priest. He went oftener into the church than he needed to, and remained there till late in the evening. He was reserved and cold towards his wife, and seemed as though he were nervous to meet her. He would take his children for hours on his lap and caress them without saying a word.

At Martinmas, in November, the archdeacon from the cathedral city came on a visit and had a long talk with the priest. That night the latter slept in the attic and continued to sleep there. His wife said nothing, but saw the course of events without the prospect of being able to alter anything. Her pride forbade her to make any advance, and as her husband began to take his meals alone, they met seldom. He was as pale as ashes, and his eyes were sunken in his head; he never ate in the evening, and slept on the bare ground under a sealskin rug.

Then came Christmas-time. Two days before Christmas the priest came into the house and sat by the oven. His wife was mending the children's clothes. For some time there was a dreadful silence; at last the man said: "The children must have something for Christmas; who will go to the town?"

"I will," answered his wife, "but I take the children with me. Do you agree?"

"I have prayed the Lord that this cup might pass from me, but He has not willed it, and I have answered, 'Let not my will but Thine be done!'"

"Are you sure that you know the Lord's will?" said his wife submissively.

"As sure as my soul lives!"

"I will go to-morrow to my father and mother, who are expecting me," said his wife in a sad but firm voice.

The priest stood up and went out hastily, as though he had heard his death-sentence. The evening sky was sparkling and cold, the stars glimmered in the blue-grey depths, and the boundless expanse of the snow-covered plain lay before the despairing wanderer, whose way seemed to point towards the lowest stars of the sky, which seemed as though they had risen out of the white earth. He wandered and wandered on and on; he felt like a tethered horse which runs but is pulled back by the rope whenever it thinks itself free. He passed by houses brightly lit up, and saw how people scoured and swept and baked and cooked in preparation for the approaching Christmas. Thoughts of his own approaching Christmas awoke in him. He imagined his house unheated, unlighted, without her, without the children. His feet were burning but his body felt freezing. He went on and on without knowing whither.

At last he stood before a house. The shutters were fastened, but a ray of light shone out and threw a yellow gleam upon the snow. He went nearer and put his eye to the chink. He saw into a room in which the seats and tables were covered with clothes—little children's shirts, stockings and coats. A large box stood open; on the cover of it hung a white dress whose graceful shape attracted his attention; it evidently belonged to a young woman, and on one shoulder was fastened a green garland. Was it a shroud or a bridal dress? He wondered with himself why corpses and brides were dressed in the same way. He saw a shadow thrown upon the wall—sometimes it was so large that it was broken by the ceiling and vanished in it; sometimes it crept down to the floor. At last it remained stationary on the upper part of the white dress. A small head wearing a cap was thrown into sharp relief against the bright background. This forehead, this nose, this mouth was familiar to him. Where was he? The shadow sank into the box, and into the light there came a face which could belong to no living person, so pale and unspeakably suffering did it appear. It looked him in the eyes so that they smarted, and he felt the tears roll down his cheeks and melt the snow on the window-ledge. The eyes of the face were so soft and pleading that he thought he saw St Katherine on the wheel, praying the Emperor Decius for mercy. Yes, that was she, and he was the Emperor. Should he grant her mercy? No; "give that which is Csar's unto Csar," says the Scripture. No mercy! But he could not endure these looks, if he was to continue to be strong; therefore he must go.

He now went into the garden, where the snow lay deep on his straw-covered flower-beds so that they looked like little children's graves. Who lay in them? His children. His happy, rosy-cheeked children, whom God had commanded him to sacrifice, as Abraham sacrificed Isaac. But Abraham escaped with only a fright. That must be a God of hell, Who could be so inhuman. It must be a bad God Who preached love to men but Himself behaved like an executioner. He would go at once and seek Him; seek Him in His own house, speak with Him, and demand an explanation.

He left the garden and waded through the snow-drifts till he reached a little fir tree by the wood-shed, and laid hold of it. That was a Christmas-tree like one the children would have danced round had they lived. Now he remembered that he wanted to seek the God Who had taken his children in order to bring him to account. The church was not far, but when he came to it it was closed. Then he became frantic. He scraped away the snow till he got hold of a large stone, and with that he began to hammer the door till the echoes from the church sounded like thunder, while he shouted loudly: "Come out, Moloch, child-devourer! I will split up your stomach! Come out, St Katharine and all saints and devils! You must fight with the Emperor Decius in Rasbo! Oho! You come from behind, legions of the abyss!" He turned round to the churchyard, and with the strength of a madman he broke down a young lime tree, and using it as a weapon he attacked the crowd of little grave-crosses which with out-stretched arms seemed to be marching against him. They did not flinch, and he mowed them down like Death with his scythe, not stopping till he had laid every one flat and the ground was covered with splinters of wood.

But his strength was not yet exhausted. Now he would plunder the corpses of his enemies and collect the dead and wounded. Load after load he carried to the wall of the church and piled them under a window. When he had finished he climbed on the pile, broke a pane of glass, and got into the church. The inside was quite lit up by the northern lights which had hitherto been hidden from him by the high roof of the church. He made a new raid on the threatening prayer-stools, which he battered into a heap of fragments. His eyes now rested on the high altar, where throned above the pictures of the Passion a figure sat on a cloud with the lightnings of the law in his hand. The priest crossed his arms and regarded defiantly the severe figure on the cloud. "Come down!" he shrieked. "Come down! We will wrestle together!" When he saw that his challenge was not accepted, he seized a block of wood and hurled it at his enemy. It crashed on a plaster ornament, which fell down and raised a cloud of dust.

He took another piece of wood and then another and hurled them with the mounting rage of disappointment. The clouds fell piece by piece, while he laughed loudly, the lightnings were torn out of the hand of the figure; at last the heavy piece of carving fell with a terrible crash on the altar and smashed the candlesticks in its fall.

But then the blasphemer was seized with a panic and sprang out of the window.

On the morning of the day before Christmas a parishioner had seen a strange sight by the hedge of the parsonage garden. A sledge came out of the enclosure containing a woman, two children, and a servant, and was driven westwards. At about a quarter of a mile distant it was followed by the priest running and calling out for the sledge to stop. But it had continued to proceed till it vanished round a bend of the high-road. Then the priest had fallen into a snow-drift, shaking his clenched fist against the sky. Later information came to the effect that the priest lay very ill with fever, and that the devil, in anger that he had not overcome the servant of the Lord in the battle waged for the dissolution of his marriage, had raged in the most terrible way in the church. But in order to enter it, and to exercise his power there, he had first broken down all the crosses in the churchyard. All this restored the priest's reputation and even gave him an appearance of sanctity, which especially pleased the pious party who had been the instigators of the purification of the parsonage.

The priest lay ill for three months and could not go out till April. He had become old. His face was full of angles, his eyes had lost their brightness, his mouth was half open, his back was bent. On the south side of the house he had a seat where he could sit in the warmth of the sun, buried in dreams of the past which hardly possessed any reality for him, especially as he had received no news from those whom he had once called his own.

Then the month of May returned with flowers and the song of birds. The priest went into his garden and saw how it was overgrown with weeds; his precious flowers were killed by the frost because no one had seen to their being covered, and they now lay mouldering like rags upon the earth. It never occurred to him for a moment to break up the soil round the flower-beds or to do anything else of the kind, since he had no one for whom to work and there would be no tending hand to protect the young growths. He stood by the fence and looked out over the landscape. The plain stretched away in the sunlight and the little brook rippled merrily and invited his eyes to follow the little wavelets, which danced by and aroused his longing to follow them southwards, where they met the river. He unmoored his boat, sat in it without touching the rudder, and let it drift with the stream, gliding on thus for about two hours.

Suddenly he was aware of the fresh scent of budding birches and spring flowers. He looked round; the plain had ceased, and he found himself at the beginning of the little birch wood. Memories of the previous year rose in him; bright, phantom-like images hovered above the primroses and anemones. He stepped on shore and went up the hill. Here they had eaten their lunch; here on this branch hung the coat at which the boys had shot with their bows. He saw the hole which he had bored in the birch tree to draw off the sap, which the little ones had drunk. The willow still bore scars from the knife with which he had cut arrows. He found an arrow in the grass; how they had hunted for it—the best he had ever cut, which flew above the top of the highest birch tree! He hunted in the grass and bushes like a pointer; he upturned the stones, bent back the branches, raised up the previous year's grass, scratched away the leaves. What he sought for exactly he did not know, but he wished to find something which might remind him of her. Finally he stood by a hawthorn bush; there hung a small fragment of a piece of red woollen cloth on a thorn. It was set in motion by the wind and fluttered like a pretty butterfly between the white hawthorn blossoms—a butterfly pierced by a needle. Then there came a second gust of wind and turned it round, so that it looked like a bleeding heart—a heart that was torn from a victim's breast and hung on a tree. He took it down from the bush, held it to his mouth, breathed on it, kissed it, and hid it in his hand. Here she had played "soldiers" with the children, and they had trodden on her dress.

He lay down on the grass and wept; he called her name and the children's. So long did he weep that he fell asleep from exhaustion.

When he awoke he remained lying as he was for a time and looked with half-closed eyes over the grass meadow. His eyes fell on a large willow bush whose yellow tassels hung like golden ears of corn in the sunshine. His tears had calmed him and produced a certain peace in his mind; sorrow and joy had ceased, and his soul felt in equipoise. The reason that his eye rested on the willow bush was that it was directly in his line of sight. A gentle wind swayed the branches lightly, and their movement seemed to soothe his tear-reddened eyes. Suddenly the branches of the bush stopped swaying with a jerk; there was a rustling, and a hand bent the boughs to one side; a sunlit female figure appeared framed in the gold of the willow tassels and the green of the tender leafage.

He still lay a while watching the beautiful sight, as when one looks at a picture. Then his eyes met hers, which looked out of the bush like two stars; they kindled, as it were, flame in his expiring spirit. His body rose from the earth and his feet carried him forward; he stretched out his arms, and the next moment he felt a small warm creature nestle on his stony bosom, which was again filled with the breath of life, and a long kiss melted the ice which had so long held his spirit imprisoned.

Eight days later the archdeacon came on a visit to the parsonage at Rasbo. He found the priest happy and contented. The archdeacon had a commission which made him somewhat embarrassed, and he found he had to express himself suitably. Rumours, he said, had been heard in the congregation which had reached to the Archbishop's chair. One should not certainly believe all reports, but the mere fact of a report arising was itself half a proof. The priest, to speak plainly, was said to be having assignations with a woman. The Archbishop was fully aware of the storm which the Papal Bull regarding priests' marriages had occasioned. The Holy Father himself had recognised the cruelty involved in the new law, and had therefore thought it advisable through a special "licentia occulta" (a secret permission) to make the lives of the clergy less difficult. Woman, it must be admitted, was the presiding genius of home life.

Here the current of his eloquence stopped, and in a low, scarcely audible voice the messenger of Christ whispered the secret sanction.

The priest answered, "Then the Church does not allow a priest to have a wife, but only a mistress?"

"Don't use such strong words! We call it a 'housekeeper.'"

"Well then," said the priest, "if I take my wife as a housekeeper, the Church has nothing against it?"

"No! No! Take any other, but not her. The aims of the Church! Remember!"

"The higher aims of the Church," you said. "So it was to annul the right of inheritance and to get possession of land that the Church insisted on divorce, not in order to check sin! You consider therefore the unlawful seizure of other people's property as 'higher aims.' Very well then! I will have nothing to do with the Church. Excommunicate me, and I will consider it an honour to be excluded from the fellowship of the noble Church. Depose me from my office, and I will be so far away before you have been able to write your proclamation that you will never be able to find a trace of me. Greet the Holy Father from me, archdeacon, and tell him that I do not accept his dirty offer. Greet him and say that the gods whom our forefathers worshipped above the clouds and in the sun were greater and much purer than these Roman and Semitic cattle-drivers whom you have foisted upon us. Greet him and say that you have met a man who will devote his whole future life to converting Christians to heathenism, and that a day will come when the new heathen will undertake crusades against the vicegerent of Christ and His followers who wish to introduce the custom of sacrificing men alive, whereas the heathen contented themselves with killing them. And now, archdeacon, take your Decretals and go away before I flog you soundly. You have nearly killed two people here with your invisible 'higher aims,' and the whole land calls down a curse on you. Go with my curse; break your legs on the high-road; die in a ditch; may the lightning strike you and robbers plunder you; may the ghosts of your dead relations haunt you; may incendiaries set your house on fire—for I excommunicate you from the society of all honourable men, as I excommunicate myself from the Holy Church! Get out!" The archdeacon did not remain long in the parsonage; nor did the priest, for his wife and children were waiting for him by the hill planted with birch trees on the way to the wood on the border of Vestmanland, where he was going to plant a settlement.