The Kyrkegrim Turned Preacher

by Juliana Horatio Ewing


It is said that in Norway every church has its own Niss, or Brownie.

They are of the same race as the Good People, who haunt farm houses, and do the maids' work for a pot of cream. They are the size of a year-old child, but their faces are the faces of aged men. Their common dress is of gray home-spun, with red peaked caps; but on Michaelmas Day they wear round hats.

The Church Niss is called Kyrkegrim. His duty is to keep the church clean, and to scatter the marsh-marigold flowers on the floor before service. He also keeps order in the congregation, pinches those who fall asleep, cuffs irreverent boys, and hustles mothers with crying children out of church as quickly and decorously as possible.

But his business is not with church-brawlers alone.

When the last snow avalanche has slipped from the high-pitched roof, and the gentian is bluer than the sky, and Baldur's Eyebrow blossoms in the hot Spring sun, pious folk are wont to come to church some time before service, and to bring their spades, and rakes, and watering-pots with them, to tend the graves of the dead. The Kyrkegrim sits on the Lych Gate and overlooks them.

At those who do not lay by their tools in good time he throws pebbles, crying to each, "Skynde dig!" (Make haste!), and so drives them in. And when the bells begin, should any man fail to bow to the church as the custom is, the Kyrkegrim snatches his hat from behind, and he sees it no more.

Nothing displeases the Kyrkegrim more than when people fall asleep during the sermon. This will be seen in the following story.

Once upon a time there was a certain country church, which was served by a very mild and excellent priest, and haunted by a most active Kyrkegrim.

Not a speck of dust was to be seen from the altar to the porch, and the behavior of the congregation was beyond reproach.

But there was one fat farmer who slept during the sermon, and do what the Kyrkegrim would, he could not keep him awake. Again and again did he pinch him, nudge him, or let in a cold draught of wind upon his neck. The fat farmer shook himself, pulled up his neck-kerchief, and dozed off again.

"Doubtless the fault is in my sermons," said the priest, when the Kyrkegrim complained to him. For he was humble-minded.

But the Kyrkegrim knew that this was not the case, for there was no better preacher in all the district.

And yet when he overheard the farmer's sharp-tongued little wife speak of this and that in the discourse, he began to think it might be so. No doubt the preacher spoke somewhat fast or slow, a little too loud or too soft. And he was not "stirring" enough, said the farmer's wife; a failing which no one had ever laid at her door.

"His soul is in my charge," sighed the good priest, "and I cannot even make him hear what I have got to say. A heavy reckoning will be demanded of me!"

"The sermons are in fault, beyond a doubt," the Kyrkegrim said. "The farmer's wife is quite right. She's a sensible woman, and can use a mop as well as myself."

"Hoot, hoot!" cried the church owl, pushing his head out of the ivy-bush. "And shall she be Kyrkegrim when thou art turned preacher, and the preacher sits on the judgment seat? Not so, little Miss! Dust thou the pulpit, and leave the parson to preach, and let the Maker of souls reckon with them."

"If the preacher cannot keep the people awake, it is time that another took his place," said the Kyrkegrim.

"He is not bound to find ears as well as arguments," retorted the owl, and he drew back into his ivy-bush.

But the Kyrkegrim settled his red cap firmly on his head, and betook himself to the priest, whose meekness (as is apt to be the case) encouraged the opposite qualities in those with whom he had to do.

"The farmer must be roused somehow," said he. "It is a disgrace to us all, and what, in all the hundreds of years I have been Kyrkegrim, never befell me before. It will be well if next Sunday you preach a stirring sermon on some very important subject."

So the preacher preached on Sin--fair of flower, and bitter of fruit!--and as he preached his own cheeks grew pale for other men's perils, and the Kyrkegrim trembled as he sat listening in the porch, though he had no soul to lose.

"Was that stirring enough?" he asked, twitching the sleeve of the farmer's wife as she flounced out after service.

"Splendid!" said she, "and must have hit some folk pretty hard too."

"It kept your husband awake this time, I should think," said the Kyrkegrim.

"Heighty teighty!" cried the farmer's wife. "I'd have you to know my good man is as decent a body as any in the parish, if he does take a nap on Sundays! He is no sinner if he is no saint, thank Heaven, and the parson knows better than to preach at him."

"Next Sunday," said the Kyrkegrim to the priest, "preach about something which concerns every one; respectable people as well as others."

So the preacher preached of Death--whom tears cannot move, nor riches bribe, nor power defy. The uncertain interruption and the only certain end of all life's labors! And as he preached, the women sitting in their seats wept for the dead whose graves they had been tending, and down the aged cheeks of the Kyrkegrim there stole tears of pity for poor men, whose love and labors are cut short so soon.

But the farmer slept as before.

"Do you not expect to die?" asked the Kyrkegrim.

"Surely," replied the farmer, "we must all die some day, and one does not need a preacher to tell him that. But it was a funeral sermon, my wife thinks. There has been bereavement in the miller's family."

"Men are a strange race," thought the Kyrkegrim; but he went to the priest and said--"The farmer is not afraid of death. You must find some subject of which men really stand in awe."

So when Sunday came round again, the preacher preached of judgment--that dread Avenger who dogs the footsteps of trespass, even now! That awful harvest of whirlwind and corruption which they must reap who sow to the wind and to the flesh! Lightly regarded, but biding its time, till a man's forgotten follies find him out at last.

But the farmer slept on. He did not wake when the preacher spoke of judgment to come, the reckoning that cannot be shunned, the trump of the Archangel, and the Day of Doom. "On Michaelmas Day I shall preach myself," said the Kyrkegrim, "and if I cannot rouse him, I shall give up my charge here."

This troubled the poor priest, for so good a Kyrkegrim was not likely to be found again.

Nevertheless he consented, for he was very meek, and when Michaelmas Day came the Kyrkegrim pulled a preacher's gown over his homespun coat, and laid his round hat on the desk by the iron-clamped Bible, and began his sermon.

"I shall give no text," said he, "but when I have said what seems good to me, it is for those who hear to see if the Scriptures bear me out."

This was an uncommon beginning, and most of the good folk pricked their ears, the farmer among them, for novelty is agreeable in church as elsewhere.

"I speak," said the Kyrkegrim, "of that which is the last result of sin, the worst of deaths, and the beginning of judgment--hardness of heart."

The farmer looked a little uncomfortable, and the Kyrkegrim went bravely on.

"Let us seek examples in Scripture. We will speak of Pharaoh."

But when the Kyrkegrim spoke of Pharaoh the farmer was at ease again. And by-and-bye a film stole gently before his eyes, and he nodded in his seat.

This made the Kyrkegrim very angry, for he did not wish to give up his place, and yet a Niss may not break his word.

"Let us look at the punishment of Pharaoh," he cried. But the farmer's eyes were still closed and the Kyrkegrim became agitated, and turned hastily over the leaves of the iron-clamped Bible before him.

"We will speak of the plagues," said he. "The plague of blood, the plague of frogs, the plague of lice, the plague of flies--"

At this moment the farmer snored.

For a brief instant, anger and dismay kept the Kyrkegrim silent. Then shutting the iron clamps he pushed the Book on one side, and scrambling on to a stool, stretched his little body well over the desk, and said, "But these flies were as nothing to the fly that is coming in the turnip-crop!"

The words were hardly out of his mouth when the farmer sat suddenly upright, and half rising from his place, cried anxiously, "Eh, what sir? What does he say, wife? A new fly among the turnips?"

"Ah, soul of clay!" yelled the indignant Kyrkegrim, as he hurled his round hat at the gaping farmer. "Is it indeed for such as thee that Eternal Life is kept in store?"

And drawing the preacher's gown over his head, he left it in the pulpit, and scrambling down the steps hastened out of church.

As he had been successful in rousing the sleepy farmer the Kyrkegrim did not abandon his duties; but it is said that thenceforward he kept to them alone, and left heavier responsibilities in higher hands.