A Fallen King, by Selma Lagerlof
Mine was the kingdom of fancy, now I am a fallen king.
The wooden shoes clattered in uneasy measure on the pavements. The
street boys hurried by. They shouted, they whistled. The houses
shook, and from the courts the echo rushed out like a chained dog
from his kennel.
Faces appeared behind the window-panes. Had anything happened? Was
anything going on? The noise passed on towards the suburbs. The
servant girls hastened after, following the street boys. They
clasped their hands and screamed: "Preserve us, preserve us! Is it
murder, is it fire?" No one answered. The clattering was heard far
After the maids came hurrying wise matrons of the town. They asked:
"What is it? What is disturbing the morning calm? Is it a wedding?
Is it a funeral? Is it a conflagration? What is the watchman doing?
Shall the town burn up before he begins to sound the alarm?"
The whole crowd stopped before the shoemaker's little house in the
suburbs, the little house that had vines climbing about the doors
and windows, and in front, between street and house, a yard-wide
garden. Summer-houses of straw, arbors fit for a mouse, paths for a
kitten. Everything in the best of order! Peas and beans, roses and
lavender, a mouthful of grass, three gooseberry bushes and an
The street boys who stood nearest stared and consulted. Through the
shining, black window-panes their glances penetrated no further
than to the white lace curtains. One of the boys climbed up on the
vines and pressed his face against the pane. "What do you see?"
whispered the others. "What do you see?" The shoemaker's shop and
the shoemaker's bench, grease-pots and bundles of leather, lasts
and pegs, rings and straps. "Don't you see anybody?" He sees the
apprentice, who is repairing a shoe. Nobody else, nobody else? Big,
black flies crawl over the pane and make his sight uncertain. "Do
you see nobody except the apprentice?" Nobody. The master's chair
is empty. He looked once, twice, three times; the master's chair
The crowd stood still, guessing and wondering. So it was true; the
old shoemaker had absconded. Nobody would believe it. They stood
and waited for a sign. The cat came out on the steep roof. He
stretched out his claws and slid down to the gutter. Yes, the
master was away, the cat could hunt as he pleased. The sparrows
fluttered and chirped, quite helpless.
A white chicken looked round the corner of the house. He was almost
full-grown. His comb shone red as wine. He peered and spied, crowed
and called. The hens came, a row of white hens at full speed,
bodies rocking, wings fluttering, yellow legs like drumsticks. The
hens hopped among the stacked peas. Battles began. Envy broke out.
A hen fled with a full pea-pod. Two cocks pecked her in the neck.
The cat left the sparrow nests to look on. Plump, there he fell
down in the midst of the flock. The hens fled in a long, scurrying
line. The crowd thought: "It must be true that the shoemaker has
run away. One can see by the cat and the hens that the master is
The uneven street, muddy from the autumn rains, resounded with
talk. Doors stood open, windows swung. Heads were put together in
wondering whisperings. "He has run off." The people whispered, the
sparrows chirped, the wooden shoes clattered: "He has run away. The
old shoemaker has run away. The owner of the little house, the
young wife's husband, the father of the beautiful child, he has
run away. Who can understand it? who can explain it?"
There is an old song: "Old husband in the cottage; young lover in
the wood; wife, who runs away, child who cries; home without a
mistress." The song is old. It is often sung. Everybody understands it.
This was a new song. The old man was gone. On the workshop table
lay his explanation, that he never meant to come back. Beside it a
letter had also lain. The wife had read it, but no one else.
The young wife was in the kitchen. She was doing nothing. The
neighbors went backwards and forwards, arranging busily, set out
the cups, made up the fire, boiled the coffee, wept a little and
wiped away the tears with the dish-towel.
The good women of the quarter sat stiffly about the walls. They
knew what was suitable in a house of mourning. They kept silent by
force, mourned by force. They celebrated their holiday by
supporting the forsaken wife in her grief. Coarse hands lay quiet
in their laps, weather-beaten skin lay in deep wrinkles, thin lips
were pressed together over toothless jaws.
The wife sat among the bronze-hued women, gently blonde, with a
sweet face like a dove. She did not weep, but she trembled. She was
so afraid, that the fear was almost killing her. She bit her teeth
together, so that no one should hear how they chattered. When steps
were heard, when the clattering sounded, when some one spoke to
her, she started up.
She sat with her husband's letter in her pocket. She thought of now
one line in it and now another. There stood: "I can bear no longer
to see you both." And in another place: "I know now that you and
Erikson mean to elope." And again: "You shall not do that, for
people's evil talk would make you unhappy. I shall disappear, so
that you can get a divorce and be properly married. Erikson is a
good workman and can support you well." Then farther down: "Let
people say what they will about me. I am content if only they do
not think any evil of you, for you could not bear it."
She did not understand it. She had not meant to deceive him. Even
if she had liked to chat with the young apprentice, what had her
husband to do with that? Love is an illness, but it is not mortal.
She had meant to bear it through life with patience. How had her
husband discovered her most secret thoughts?
She was tortured at the thought of him! He must have grieved and
brooded. He had wept over his years. He had raged over the young
man's strength and spirits. He had trembled at the whisperings, at
the smiles, at the hand pressures. In burning madness, in glowing
jealousy, he had made it into a whole elopement history, of which
there was as yet nothing.
She thought how old he must have been that night when he went. His
back was bent, his hands shook. The agony of many long nights had
made him so. He had gone to escape that existence of passionate
She remembered other lines in the letter: "It is not my intention
to destroy your character. I have always been too old for you." And
then another: "You shall always be respected and honored. Only be
silent, and all the shame will fall on me!"
The wife felt deeper and deeper remorse. Was it possible that
people would be deceived? Would it do to lie so too before God? Why
did she sit in the cottage, pitied like a mourning mother, honored
like a bride on her wedding day? Why was it not she who was
homeless, friendless, despised? How can such things be? How can God
let himself be so deceived?
Over the great dresser hung a little bookcase. On the top shelf
stood a big book with brass clasps. Behind those clasps was hidden
the story of a man and a woman who lied before God and men. "Who
has suggested to you, woman, to do such things? Look, young men
stand outside to lead you away."
The woman stared at the book, listened for the young men's
footsteps. She trembled at every knock, shuddered at every step.
She was ready to stand up and confess, ready to fall down and die.
The coffee was ready. The women glided sedately forward to the
table. They filled their cups, took a lump of sugar in their mouths
and began to sip their boiling coffee, silently and decently, the
wives of mechanics first, the scrub-women last. But the wife did
not see what was going on. Remorse made her quite beside herself.
She had a vision. She sat at night out in a freshly ploughed field.
Round about her sat great birds with mighty wings and pointed
beaks. They were gray, scarcely perceptible against the gray
ground, but they held watch over her. They were passing sentence
upon her. Suddenly they flew up and sank down over her head. She
saw their sharp claws, their pointed beaks, their beating wings
coming nearer and nearer. It was like a deadly rain of steel. She
bent her head and knew that she must die. But when they came near,
quite near to her, she had to look up. Then she saw that the gray
birds were all these old women.
One of them began to speak. She knew what was proper, what was
fitting in a house of mourning. They had now been silent long
enough. But the wife started up as from a blow. What did the woman
mean to say? "You, Matts Wik's wife, Anna Wik, confess! You have
lied long enough before God and before us. We are your judges. We
will judge you and rend you to pieces."
No, the woman began to speak of husbands. And the others chimed in,
as the occasion demanded. What was said was not in the husbands'
praise. All the evil husbands had done was dragged forward. It was
as consolation for a deserted wife.
Injury was heaped upon injury. Strange beings these husbands! They
beat us, they drink up our money, they pawn our furniture. Why on
earth had Our Lord created them?
The tongues became like dragons' fangs; they spat venom, they
spouted fire. Each one added her word. Anecdotes were piled upon
anecdotes. A wife fled from her home before a drunken husband.
Wives slaved for idle husbands. Wives were deserted for other
women. The tongues whistled like whip lashes. The misery of homes
was laid bare. Long litanies were read. From the tyranny of the
husband deliver us, good Lord!
Illness and poverty, the children's death, the winter's cold,
trouble with the old people, everything was the husband's fault.
The slaves hissed at their masters. They turned their stings
against them, before whose feet they crept.
The deserted wife felt how it cut and stabbed in her ears. She
dared to defend the incorrigible ones. "My husband," she said, "is
good." The women started up, hissed and snorted. "He has run away.
He is no better than anybody else. He, who is an old man, ought to
know better than to run away from wife and child. Can you believe
that he is better than the others?"
The wife trembled; she felt as if she was being dragged through
prickly bramble-bushes. Her husband considered a sinner! She
flushed with shame, wished to speak, but was silent. She was
afraid; she had not the power. But why did God keep silent? Why
did God let such things be?
If she should take the letter and read it aloud, then the stream
of poison would be turned. The venom would sprinkle upon her. The
horror of death came over her. She did not dare. She half wished
that an insolent hand had been thrust into her pocket and had drawn
out the letter. She could not give herself as a prize. Within the
workshop was heard a shoemaker's hammer. Did no one hear how it
hammered in triumph? She had heard that hammering and had been
vexed by it the whole day. But none of the women understood it.
Omniscient God, hast Thou no servant who could read hearts? She
would gladly accept her sentence, if only she did not need to
confess. She wished to hear some one say: "Who has given you the
idea to lie before God?" She listened for the sound of the young
men's footsteps in order to fall down and die.
Several years after this a divorced woman was married to a
shoemaker, who had been apprentice to her husband. She had not
wished it, but had been drawn to it, as a pickerel is drawn to the
side of a boat when it has been caught on the line. The fisherman
lets it play. He lets it rush here and there. He lets it believe it
is free. But when it is tired out, when it can do no more, then he
drags with a light pull, then he lifts it up and jerks it down into
the bottom of the boat before it knows what it is all about.
The wife of the absconded shoemaker had dismissed her apprentice
and wished to live alone. She had wished to show her husband that
she was innocent. But where was her husband? Did he not care for
her faithfulness. She suffered want. Her child went in rags. How
long did her husband think that she could wait? She was unhappy
when she had no one upon whom she could depend.
Erikson succeeded. He had a shop in the town. His shoes stood on
glass shelves behind broad plate-glass windows. His workshop grew.
He hired an apartment and put plush furniture in the parlor.
Everything waited only for her. When she was too wearied of
poverty, she came.
She was very much afraid in the beginning. But no misfortunes
befell her. She became more confident as time went on and more
happy. She had people's regard, and knew within herself that she
had not deserved it. That kept her conscience awake, so that she
became a good woman.
Her first husband, after some years, came back to the house in the
suburbs. It was still his, and he settled down again there and
wished to begin work. But he got no work, nor would anybody have
anything to do with him. He was despised, while his wife enjoyed
great honor. It was nevertheless he who had done right, and she who
had done wrong.
The husband kept his secret, but it almost suffocated him. He felt
how he sank, because everybody considered him bad. No one had any
confidence in him, no one would trust any work to him. He took what
company he could get, and learned to drink.
While he was going down hill, the Salvation Army came to the town.
It hired a big hall and began its work. From the very first evening
all the loafers gathered at the meetings to make a disturbance.
When it had gone on for about a week, Matts Wik came too to take
part in the fun.
There was a crowd in the street, a crowd in the door-way. Sharp
elbows and angry tongues were there; street boys and soldiers,
maids and scrub-women; peaceable police and stormy rabble. The
army was new and the fashion. The well-to-do and the wharf-rats,
everybody went to the Salvation Army. Within, the hall was
low-studded. At the farthest end was an empty platform; unpainted
benches, borrowed chairs, an uneven floor, blotches on the ceiling,
lamps that smoked. The iron stove in the middle of the floor gave
out warmth and coal gas. All the places were filled in a moment.
Nearest the platform sat the women, demure as if in church, and
back of them workmen and sewing-women. Farthest away sat the boys
on one another's knees, and in the door-way there was a fight among
those who could not get in.
The platform was empty. The clock had not struck, the entertainment
had not begun. One whistled, one laughed. The benches were kicked
to pieces. "The War-cry" flew like a kite between the groups. The
public were enjoying themselves.
A side-door opened. Cold air streamed into the room. The fire flamed
up. There was silence. Attentive expectation filled the hall. At
last they came, three young women, carrying guitars and with faces
almost hidden by broad-brimmed hats. They fell on their knees as
soon as they had ascended the steps of the platform.
One of them prayed aloud. She lifted her head, but closed her eyes.
Her voice cut like a knife. During the prayer there was silence.
The street-boys and loafers had not yet begun. They were waiting
for the confessions and the inspiring music.
The women settled down to their work. They sang and prayed, sang
and preached. They smiled and spoke of their happiness. In front of
them they had an audience of ruffians. They began to rise, they
climbed upon the benches. A threatening noise passed through the
throng. The women on the platform caught glimpses of dreadful faces
through the smoky air. The men had wet, dirty clothes, which smelt
badly. They spat tobacco every other second, swore with every word.
Those women, who were to struggle with them, spoke of their happiness.
How brave that little army was! Ah, is it not beautiful to be brave?
Is it not something to be proud of to have God on one's side? It
was not worth while to laugh at them in their big hats. It was most
probable that they would conquer the hard hands, the cruel faces,
the blaspheming lips.
"Sing with us!" cried the Salvation Army soldiers; "sing with us!
It is good to sing." They started a well-known melody. They struck
their guitars and repeated the same verse over and over. They got
one or two of those sitting nearest to join in, but now sounded
down by the door a light street song. Notes struggled against
notes, words against words, guitar against whistle. The women's
strong, trained voices contested with the boys' hoarse falsetto,
with the men's growling bass. When the street song was almost
conquered, they began to stamp and whistle down by the door. The
Salvation Army song sank like a wounded warrior. The noise was
terrifying. The women fell on their knees.
They knelt as if powerless. Their eyes were closed. Their bodies
rocked in silent pain. The noise died down. The Salvation Army
captain began instantly: "Lord, all these Thou wilt make Thine own.
We thank Thee, Lord, that Thou wilt lead them all into Thy host! We
thank Thee, Lord, that it is granted to us to lead them to Thee!"
The crowd hissed, howled, screamed. It was as if all those throats
had been tickled by a sharp knife. It was as if the people had been
afraid to be won over, as if they had forgotten that they had come
there of their own will.
But the woman continued, and it was her sharp, piercing voice which
conquered. They had to hear.
"You shout and scream; the old serpent within you is twisting and
raging. But that is just the sign. Blessings on the old serpent's
roarings! It shows that he is tortured, that he is afraid. Laugh at
us! Break our windows! Drive us away from the platform! To-morrow
you will belong to us. We shall possess the earth. How can you
withstand us? How can you withstand God?"
Then the captain commanded one of her comrades to come forward and
make her confession. She came smiling. She stood brave and undaunted
and told the story of her sin and her conversion to the mockers.
Where had that kitchen-girl learned to stand smiling under all that
scorn? Some of those who had come to scoff grew pale. Where had
these women found their courage and their strength? Some one stood
The third woman stepped forward. She was a beautiful child,
daughter of rich parents, with a sweet, clear voice. She did not
tell of herself. Her testimony was one of the usual songs.
It was like the shadow of a victory. The audience forgot itself and
listened. The child was lovely to look at, sweet to hear. But when
she ceased, the noise became even more dreadful. Down by the door
they built a platform of benches, climbed up and confessed.
It became worse and worse in the hall. The stove became red hot,
devoured air and belched heat. The respectable women on the front
benches looked about for a way to escape, but there was no possibility
of getting out. The soldiers on the platform perspired and wilted.
They cried and prayed for strength. Suddenly a breath came through
the air, a whisper reached their ear. They knew not from where, but
they felt a change. God was with them. He fought for them.
To the struggle again! The captain stepped forward and lifted the
Bible over her head. Stop, stop! We feel that God is working among
us. A conversion is near. Help us to pray! God will give us a soul.
They fell on their knees in silent prayer. Some in the hall joined
in the prayer. All felt an intense expectation. Was it true? Was
something great taking place in a fellow-creature's soul, here, in
their midst? Should it be granted to them to see it? Could it be
influenced by these women?
For the moment the crowd was won. They were now just as eager for a
miracle as lately for blasphemy. No one dared to move. All panted
from excitement, but nothing happened. "O God, Thou forsakest us!
Thou forsakest us, O God!"
The beautiful salvation soldier began to sing. She chose the
mildest of melodies: "Oh, my beloved, wilt Thou not come soon?"
Touching as a praying child, the song entered their souls?like a
caress, like a blessing.
The crowd was silent, wrapped in those notes. "Mountains and
forests long, heaven and earth languish. Man, everything in the
world, thirsts that you shall open your soul to the light. Then
glory will spread over the earth, then the beasts will rise up from
"Oh, my beloved, wilt thou not come soon?"
"It is not true that thou dost linger in lofty halls. In the dark
wood, in miserable hovels thou dwellest. And thou wilt not come. My
bright heaven does not tempt thee.
"Oh, my beloved, wilt thou not come soon?"
In the hall more and more began to sing the burden. Voice after
voice joined in. They did not rightly know what words they used.
The tune was enough. All their longing could sing itself free in
those tones. They sang, too, down by the door. Hearts were bursting.
Wills were subdued. It no longer sounded like a pitiful lament, but
strong, imperative, commanding.
"Oh, my beloved, wilt thou not come soon?"
Down by the door, in the worst of the crowd, stood Matts Wik. He
looked much intoxicated, but that evening he had not drunk. He
stood and thought. "If I might speak, if I might speak!"
It was the strangest room he had ever seen, the most wonderful
chance. A voice seemed to say to him: "These are the rushes to
which you can whisper, the waves which will bear your voice."
The singers started. It was as if they had heard a lion roar in
their ears. A mighty, terrible voice spoke dreadful words.
It scoffed at God. Why did men serve God? He forsook all those who
served him. He had failed his own son. God helped no one.
The voice grew louder, more like a roar every minute. No one could
have believed that human lungs could have such strength. No one had
ever heard such ravings burst from bruised heart. All bent their
heads like wanderers in the desert, when the storm beats on them.
Terrible, terrible words! They were like thundering hammer strokes
against God's throne. Against Him who had tortured Job, who had let
the martyrs suffer, who let those who professed his faith burn at
A few had at first tried to laugh. Some of them had thought that it
was a joke. But now they heard, quaking, that it was in earnest.
Already some rose up to flee to the platform. They asked the
protection of the Salvation Army from him who drew down upon them
the wrath of God.
The voice asked them in hissing tones what rewards they expected
for their trouble in serving God. They need not count on heaven.
God was not freehanded with His heaven. A man, he said, had done
more good than was needed to be blessed. He had brought greater
offerings than God demanded. But then he had been tempted to sin.
Life is long. He paid out his hard-earned grace already in this
world. He would go the way of the damned.
The speech was the terrifying north-wind, which drives the ship
into the harbor. While the scoffer spoke, women rushed up to the
platform. The Salvation Army soldiers' hands were embraced and
kissed; they were scarcely able to receive them all. The boys and
the old men praised God.
He who spoke continued. The words intoxicated him. He said to
himself: "I speak, I speak, at last I speak. I tell them my secret,
and yet I do not tell them." For the first time since he made the
great sacrifice he was free from care.
It was a Sunday afternoon in the height of the summer. The town
looked like a desert of stones, like a moon landscape. There was
not a cat to be seen, nor a sparrow, hardly a fly on the sunny
wall. Not a chimney smoked. There was not a breath of air in the
sultry streets. The whole was only a stony field, out of which grew
Where were the dogs and the people? Where were the young ladies in
narrow skirts and wide sleeves, long gloves and red sunshades?
Where were the soldiers and the fine people, the Salvation Army and
the street boys?
Whither had all those gay picnickers gone in the dewy cool of the
morning, all the baskets and accordions and bottles, which the
steamer landed? And what had happened to the procession of Good
Templars? Banners fluttered, drums thundered, boys swarmed,
stamped, and hurrahed. Or what had happened to the blue awnings
under which the little ones slept while father and mother pushed
them solemnly up the street.
All were on their way out to the wood. They complained of the long
streets. It seemed as if the stone houses followed them. At last,
at last they caught a glimpse of green. And just outside of the
town, where the road wound over flat, moist fields, where the song
of the lark sounded loudest, where the clover steamed with honey,
there lay the first of those left behind; heads in the moss, noses
in the grass. Bodies bathed in sunshine and fragrance, souls
refreshed with idleness and rest.
On the way to the wood toiled bicyclists and bearers of luncheon
baskets. Boys came with trowels and shiny knapsacks. Girls danced
in clouds of dust. Sky and banners and children and trumpets.
Mechanics and their families and crowds of laborers. The rearing
horses of an omnibus waved their forelegs over the crowd. A young
man, half drunk, jumped up on the wheel. He was pulled down, and
lay kicking on his back in the dust of the road.
In the wood a nightingale trilled and sang, piped and gurgled. The
birches were not thriving, their trunks were black. The beeches
built high temples, layer upon layer of streaky green. A toad sat
and took aim with its tongue. It caught a fly at every shot. A
hedgehog trotted about in the dried, rustling beech leaves. Dragonflies
darted about with glittering wings. The people sat down around the
luncheon-baskets. The piping, chirping crickets tried to make their
Sunday a glad one.
Suddenly the hedgehog disappeared, terrified he rolled himself up
in his prickles. The crickets crept into the grass, quite silenced.
The nightingale sang as if its throat would burst. It was guitars,
guitars. The Salvation Army marched forward under the beeches. The
people started up from their rest under the trees. The dancing-green
and croquet-ground were deserted. The swings and merry-go-rounds
had an hour's rest. Everybody followed to the Salvation Army's
camp. The benches filled, and listeners sat on every hillock. The
army had waxed strong and powerful. About many a fair cheek was
tied the Salvation Army hat. Many a strong man wore the red shirt.
There was peace and order in the crowd. Bad words did not venture
to pass the lips. Oaths rumbled harmlessly behind teeth. And Matts
Wik, the shoemaker, the terrible blasphemer, stood now as standard-bearer
by the platform. He, too, was one of the believers. The red flag
caressed his gray head.
The Salvation Army soldiers had not forgotten the old man. They had
him to thank for their first victory. They had come to him in his
loneliness. They washed his floor and mended his clothes. They did
not refuse to associate with him. And at their meetings he was
allowed to speak.
Ever since he had broken his silence he was happy. He stood no
longer as an enemy of God. There was a raging power in him. He was
happy when he could let it out. When souls were shaken by his lion
voice, he was happy.
He spoke always of himself. He always told his own story. He
described the fate of the misjudged. He spoke of sacrifices of life
itself, made without a hope of reward, without acknowledgment. He
disguised what he related. He told his secret and yet did not tell it.
He became a poet. He had the power of winning hearts. For his sake
crowds gathered in front of the Salvation Army platform. He drew
them by the fantastic images which filled his diseased brain. He
captivated them with the words of affecting lament, which the
oppression of his heart had taught him.
Perhaps his spirit in days of old had visited this world of death
and change. Perhaps he had then been a mighty skald, skilful in
playing on heartstrings. But for some evil deed he had been
condemned to begin again his earthly life, to live by the work of
his hands, without the knowledge of the strength of his spirit. But
now his grief had broken his spirit's chains. His soul was a newly
released bird. Timid and confused, but still rejoicing in its
freedom, it flew onward over the old battlefields.
The wild, ignorant singer, the black thrush, which had grown among
starlings, listened diffidently to the words which came to his
lips. Where did he get the power to compel the crowd to listen in
ecstasy to his speech? Where did he get the power to force proud
men down upon their knees, wringing their hands? He trembled before
he began to speak. Then a quiet confidence came over him. From the
inexhaustible depths of his suffering rose ever torrents of
Those speeches were never printed. They were hunting-cries, ringing
trumpet-notes, rousing, animating, terrifying, urgent; not to
capture, not to give again. They were lightning flashes and rolling
thunder. They shook hearts with terrible alarms. But they were
transient, never could they be caught. The cataract can be measured
to its last drop, the dizzy play of foam can be painted, but not
the elusive, delirious, swift, growing, mighty stream of those
That day in the wood he asked the gathering if they knew how they
should serve God??as Uria served his king.
Then he, the man in the pulpit, became Uria. He rode through the
desert with the letter of his king. He was alone. The solitude
terrified him. His thoughts were gloomy. But he smiled when he
thought of his wife. The desert became a flowering meadow when he
remembered his wife. Springs gushed up from the ground at the
thought of her.
His camel fell. His soul was filled with forebodings of evil.
Misfortune, he thought, is a vulture, which loves the desert. He
did not turn, but went onward with the king's letter. He trod upon
thorns. He walked among serpents and scorpions. He thirsted and
hungered. He saw caravans drag their dark length through the sands.
He did not join them. He dared not seek strangers. He, who bears a
royal letter, must go alone. He saw at eventide the white tents of
shepherds. He was tempted, as if by his wife's smiling dwelling. He
thought he saw white veils waving to him. He turned away from the
tents out into solitude. Woe to him if they had stolen the letter
of his king!
He hesitates when he sees searching brigands pursuing him. He
thinks of the king's letter. He reads it in order to then destroy
it. He reads it, and finds new courage. Stand up, warrior of Judah!
He does not destroy the letter. He does not give himself up to the
robbers. He fights and conquers. And so onward, onward! He bears
his sentence of death through a thousand dangers. ?
It is so God's will shall be obeyed through tortures unto death. ?
While Wik spoke, his divorced wife stood and listened to him. She
had gone out to the wood that morning, beaming and contented on her
husband's arm, most matron-like, respectable in every fold. Her
daughter and the apprentice carried the luncheon basket. The maid
followed with the youngest child. There had been nothing but
content, happiness, calm.
There they had lain in a thicket. They had eaten and drunk, played
and laughed. Never a thought of the past! Conscience was as silent
as a satisfied child. In the beginning, when her first husband had
slunk half drunk by her window, she had felt a prick in her soul.
Then she had heard that he had become the idol of the Salvation
Army. She was, therefore, quite calm. Now she had come to hear him.
And she understood him. He was not speaking of Uria; he was telling
about himself. He was writhing at the thought of his own sacrifice.
He tore bits from his own heart and threw them out among the
people. She knew that rider in the desert, that conqueror of
brigands. And that unappeased agony stared at her like an open
Night came. The wood was deserted. Farewell, grass and flowers!
Wide heaven, a long farewell! Snakes began to crawl about the tufts
of grass. Turtles crept along the paths. The wood was ugly.
Everybody longed to be back in the stone desert, the moon
landscape. That is the place for men.
Dame Anna Erikson invited all her old friends. The mechanics' wives
from the suburbs and the poorer scrub-women came to her for a cup
of coffee. The same were there who had been with her on the day of
her desertion. One was new, Maria Anderson, the captain of the
Anna Erikson had now been many times to the Salvation Army. She had
heard her husband. He always told about himself. He disguised his
story. She recognized it always. He was Abraham. He was Job. He was
Jeremiah, whom the people threw into a well. He was Elisha, whom
the children at the wayside reviled.
That pain seemed bottomless to her. His sorrow seemed to her to
borrow all voices, to make itself masks of everything it met. She
did not understand that her husband talked himself well, that
pleasure in his power of fancy played and smiled in him.
She had dragged her daughter with her. The daughter had not wished
to go. She was serious, modest, and conscientious. Nothing of youth
played in her veins. She was born old.
She had grown up in shame of her father. She walked upright,
austere, as if saying: "Look, the daughter of a man who is despised!
Look if my dress is soiled! Is there anything to blame in my
conduct?" Her mother was proud of her. Yet sometimes she sighed.
"Alas! if my daughter's hands were less white, perhaps her caresses
would be warmer!"
The girl sat scornfully smiling. She despised theatricals. When her
father rose up to speak, she wished to go. Her mother's hand seized
hers, fast as a vice. The girl sat still. The torrent of words
began to roar over her. But that which spoke to her was not so much
the words as her mother's hand.
That hand writhed, convulsions passed through it. It lay in hers
limp, as if dead; it caught wildly about, hot with fever. Her
mother's face betrayed nothing; only her hand suffered and
The old speaker described the martyrdom of silence. The friend of
Jesus lay ill. His sisters sent a message to him; but his time had
not come. For the sake of God's kingdom Lazarus must die.
He now let all doubting, all slander be heaped upon Christ. He
described his suffering. His own compassion tortured him. He passed
through the agony of death, he as well as Lazarus. Still he had to
Only one word had he needed to say to win back the respect of his
friends. He was silent. He had to hear the lamentations of the
sisters. He told them the truth in words which they did not
understand. Enemies mocked at him.
And so on always more and more affecting.
Anna Erikson's hand still lay in that of her daughter. It confessed
and acknowledged: "The man there bears the martyr's crown of
silence. He is wrongly accused. With a word he could set himself
The girl followed her mother home. They went in silence. The girl's
face was like stone. She was pondering, searching for everything
which memory could tell her. Her mother looked anxiously at her.
What did she know?
The next day Anna Erikson had her coffee party. The talk turned on
the day's market, on the price of wooden shoes, on pilfering maids.
The women chatted and laughed. They poured their coffee into the
saucer. They were mild and unconcerned. Anna Erikson could not
understand why she had been afraid of them, why she had always
believed that they would judge her.
When they were provided with their second cup, when they sat
delighted with the coffee trembling on the edge of their cups, and
their saucers were filled with bread, she began to speak. Her words
were a little solemn, but her voice was calm.
"Young people are imprudent. A girl who marries without thinking
seriously of what she is doing can come to great grief. Who has met
with worse than I?"
They all knew it. They had been with her and had mourned with her.
"Young people are imprudent. One holds one's tongue when one ought
to speak, for shame's sake. One dares not to speak for fear of what
people will say. He who has not spoken at the right time may have
to repent it a whole lifetime."
They all believed that this was true.
She had heard Wik yesterday as well as many times before. Now she
must tell them all something about him. An aching pain came over
her when she thought of what he had suffered for her sake. Still
she thought that he, who had been old, ought to have had more sense
than to take her, a young girl, for his wife.
"I did not dare to say it in my youth. But he went away from me out
of pity, for he thought that I wanted to have Erikson. I have his
letter about it."
She read the letter aloud for them. A tear glided demurely down her
"He had seen falsely in his jealousy. Between Erikson and me there
was nothing then. It was four years before we were married; but I
will say it now, for Wik is too good to be misjudged. He did not
run away from wife and child from light motives, but with good
intention. I want this to be known everywhere. Captain Anderson
will perhaps read the letter aloud at the meeting. I wish Wik to be
redressed. I know, too, that I have been silent too long, but one
does not like to give up everything for a drunkard. Now it is
The women sat as if turned to stone. Anna Erikson, her voice
trembling a little, said with a faint smile,?
"Now perhaps you will never care to come to see me again?"
"Oh, yes indeed! You were so young! It was nothing which you could
help.?It was his fault for having such ideas."
She smiled. These were the hard beaks which would have torn her to
pieces. The truth was not dangerous nor lying either. The young men
were not waiting outside her door.
Did she know or did she not know that her eldest daughter had that
very morning left her home and had gone to her father?
The sacrifice which Matts Wik had made to save his wife's honor
became known. He was admired; he was derided. His letter was read
aloud at the meeting. Some of those present wept with emotion.
People came and pressed his hands on the street. His daughter moved
to his house.
For several evenings after he was silent at the meetings. He felt
no inspiration. At last they asked him to speak. He mounted the
platform, folded his hands together and began.
When he had said a couple of words he stopped, confused. He did not
recognize his own voice. Where was the lion's roar? Where the
raging north wind? And where the torrent of words? He did not
understand, could not understand.
He staggered back. "I cannot," he muttered. "God gives me no
strength to speak yet." He sat down on a bench and buried his head
in his hands. He gathered all his powers of thought to discover
first what he wanted to talk about. Did he have to consider so in
the old days? Could he consider now? His head whirled.
Perhaps it would go if he should stand up again, place himself
where he was accustomed to stand, and begin with his usual prayer.
He tried. His face turned ashy-gray. All glances were turned
towards him. A cold sweat trickled down his forehead. He found not
a word on his lips.
He sat down in his place and wept, moaning heavily. The gift was
taken from him. He tried to speak, tried silently to himself. What
should he talk about. His sorrow was taken from him. He had nothing
to say to people which he was not allowed to tell them. He had no
secret to disguise. He did not need to romance. Romance left him.
It was the agony of death; it was a struggle for life. He wished to
hold fast that which was already gone. He wished to have his grief
again in order to be able again to speak. His grief was gone; he
could not get it back.
He staggered forward like a drunken man to the platform again and
again: He stammered out a few meaningless words. He repeated like a
lesson learned by heart what he had heard others say. He tried to
imitate himself. He looked for devotion in the glances, for trembling
silence, quickening breaths. He perceived nothing. That which had
been his joy was taken from him.
He sank back into the darkness. He cursed, that he by his discourse
had converted his wife and daughter. He had possessed the most
precious of gifts and lost it. His pain was extreme.?But it is
not by such grief that genius lives.
He was a painter without hands, a singer who had lost his voice. He
had only spoken of his sorrow. What should he speak of now?
He prayed: "O God, when honor is dumb, and misjudgment speaks, give
me back misjudgment! When happiness is dumb, but sorrow speaks,
give me back sorrow!"
But the crown was taken from him. He sat there, more miserable than
the most miserable, for he had been cast down from the heights of
life. He was a fallen king.