The Big Shadow

Translated from the Danish "Det Store Spøgelse" (1907) by Margaret Byskov, Geneva, January 2008


Taking a stroll on a beautiful summer evening, you sit down to rest up on the slope of a hill where you can hear a distant church ringing the evening in. The very stillness of nature, the homebound cattle, a golden Fata Morgana on the horizon and the sound of the bells coming and going, fill you with a peculiar melancholy, a languorous loneliness permeated by a vague suggestion of guilt. Soon you are convinced you are blameworthy. You start searching your brain for some hidden or forgotten or overlooked peccadillo. Each day's wrong-doings, the carelessly uttered word, the duty not fulfilled and the stupidity not redressed take on fantastic proportions here in the still of the twilight, and strain and trouble the heart.

But then a swallow flying by catches your attention. Your mind clears and you sit for a moment and enjoy the bold figures of eight that the little bird draws in the air in his nervous flight. But as soon as it is out of sight, dejection floods over you again churning up all kinds of sinister fears from the depths of the soul.

Until another diversion disturbs your ruminations and releases you from your nightmarish reflections. This time it is a small herd boy yelling loudly somewhere nearby as he drives his cows across the fields. And again you sit and smile to yourself, but your smile is forced, bitter. An anxiety, a dark feeling of powerlessness remains. How you envy that bare-legged little fellow as you watch him walking along down there without a care cracking his whip. For all that you yourself less than half an hour ago were walking along the path happily humming and swishing the wayside flowers with your stick.

And the sun's red is fading and night creeps in. One by one the stars come out like heavenly guides. The earth is grey and barren and faintly steamy in the cool of the evening. The cold reaches you too but you can't quite get up yet and go home. A spell of powerlessness has been cast and you are at the mercy of your mood. The evening star glimmering in the pale green sky seems to call to you so intimately from up there in Eternity. "Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden", it seems to say comfortingly. "Up here is rest and peace".

But darkness moves in, and in your state of depressed hopelessness, death's wheedling voice is all you hear. Who knows? Maybe one does go home and hang oneself.

– – Here under the Northern pale sky there is a basilisk that stalks our unguarded thoughts. Creeping stealthily over us as we drift into our most precious reveries, the beast paralyses us with its sting. At first we may only be aware of a little shiver in the soul, a passing heaviness of thought. But soon darkness envelops us and before we know it, we are cradled in Death's shadowy arms.


On an isolated smallholding near the parish boundary lived Soeren Kousted and his wife.

Soeren was a god-fearing man, of a quiet and introspective nature who to outsiders could give the impression of being somewhat gloomy, but who at home was rather a patriarchal authority ruling the roost with biblical severity. Mariane, his wife, was a simple soul, subdued and dulled by a life of servitude. Both were dwarflike creatures, with shrunken bodies and big faces passively empty of expression, typical in old people when the fight for survival is behind them and life no longer presents difficulties to overcome.

One Saturday evening in September, Soeren had gone to bed early as he was accustomed. He had already lain a couple of hours on his side of the wide bed and slept with his face towards the wall, when the clock showed ten and the Bornholmer over in the corner struck with a rusty whirring, like an old man needing to clear his throat before he can speak. Mariane at that time was still shuffling about half-undressed in the living room and in the adjoining little kitchen with a candle. She had just set the candlestick on the kitchen table between the windows and was busy covering the back of her big almost bald head with a scarf, fixing the ends on the top of her head with a couple of pins.

This nightly tarrying stemmed from an old habit of hers from the time the children were home and she had to sit up half the night mending their clothes. There was so much then that needed patching and darning and Soeren allowed no waste. Now all the children were gone, each to his own out in the wide world. Only the youngest daughter, Grethe, was still in the parish and worked in the vicarage. Of the others, one was a corporal in Randers, the other a dairymaid in Herning, the third worked as a carpenter in Viborg, and it was all these foreign and distant places that the old woman tried to imagine as she pottered about alone with her thoughts.

At last she was ready for the night, and licking two fingers pinched out the light. The blue-white light of the moon cast two bright window squares of light on the dark clay floor. She sat on the edge of the bed, pulled the legs of her stockings half down over her knotted veiny legs, tied an old woollen band around her stomach and crawled into bed. With much puffing and panting she managed to get her stiff limbs comfy under the duvet, folded her wrinkled hands over her chest and said her evening prayer:

"I thank thee, Lord, for health and our daily bread. Deliver us from sin and lead us not into temptation. Amen! Rule my heart and free my hands from evil. For the sake of thy beloved son Jesus Christ. Amen! And I say the same for thee, Per; for thee, Sofie; for thee, Hans Joergen, and for thee, little Grethe. God in Heaven receive us all into thy care."

Halfway through this barely audible mumbled supplication a dark figure had jumped down from the end of the bed. It was the cat which had lain and got warm on the duvet and now felt a need to stretch. With arched back and stiff tail it stood in one of the moonlit squares and flashed its green eyes like some devilish revelation.

Mariane shushed it. Soeren had given an impatient grunt in his sleep. But the cat was hungry for mice. The moonlight outside called and awakened in it a hunger for blood. It sat by the door and remained there with its tail resolutely wrapped round its paws mewling pitifully.

No amount of threatening helped. Mariane had to get out of bed and let it out.

With all of this, another hour had passed. The Bornholmer over in the corner began again to wheeze like an old man and coughed up eleven tired strokes. Outside all was still. The high road was a long way away, and there was no wind.

Mariane had once more settled herself in bed and, her annoyance with the cat forgotten, tucking her bound head safely against the man's back, as if there were its natural resting place, she soon fell asleep to her dreary dreams.


At the same time, a couple of young sweethearts, their arms round each other's waist, were walking down a footpath alongside an overgrown wayside: a handsome well-built young man with a certain bearing from soldier days and a chatty young girl, who in a spirited way had lengthened her own stride unnaturally in order to keep up with him.

It was Grethe, Soeren Kousted's youngest child who was in service in the vicarage, and a farmhand from the town there whose name was Niels Hald.

Grethe had taken off her kerchief and swung it in her hand as she looked up lovingly into her sweetheart's face, chattering and laughing all the while. They were newly betrothed and for certain reasons they had to keep it secret, and now they hadn't seen each other for 3 days so there was so much to tell and so much tenderness to impart.

On both sides stretched fields of stubble looking frosty under the white moonlight. Hawthorn bushes bordering the path however cast shadows where they walked so they could be here without being seen by anyone coming along the high road. If necessary, they could also hide in the bushes. For they did have to be careful. They knew how strict the vicar was about going out at night.

Niels Hald was one of the parish's best-looking young men and Grethe had secretly been in love with him for a long time. She was broken-hearted each time she heard that now he was friends with the one girl and now with the other, of that kind who are always eager to push themselves forward. Even though she knew it was blasphemous and in fact didn't even believe that it could help, she could not in her heart's anguish keep from asking God to make him look her way. When Niels came back from military service, the incredible happened. His bright eyes of their own accord glanced off the other girls and came to rest on her. One day, as they happened to meet outside the grocer's shop, he told her how he felt.

Niels explained that he was now mature and was no longer taken in by physical beauty. The prettiest girls often made the worst wives, he said openly; and Grethe was not even annoyed. All her life she had had to hear so many comments about her carroty hair and her freckles that she was beginning to think herself a complete monster. Her one good point, she knew, was that she was a decent girl and a good worker.

In fairness, she was no beauty and nature and fate had been quite hard on her. She had inherited her mother's simple and submissive temperament and up to now knew more about life's miseries than its delights. She could still not express her happiness and gratefulness in a natural way but often giggled and acted a little silly in Niels's presence.

That their betrothal had not been announced immediately was her own wish. She did indeed look forward to her enviable triumph over the local girls but she was also uneasy about what her parents and particularly what the vicar would say. Niels did not have the best reputation. She had therefore considered it proper that he should attend the Wednesday meetings in the vicarage a few times so that people could see that he was serious about making good. And they had that very evening agreed that it was time to buy rings.

Quite suddenly she jumped and stood stock still. She thought she had heard footsteps nearby.

"Someone's coming", she said and ducked into the bushes.

Niels looked around him.

"There isn't anybody".

"Jiminy, I got a fright", she said and laughed nervously.

They walked on a little further but Grethe was pensive.

"It's strange .. because I could have sworn I heard someone wearing clogs" she said after a longer pause. And a little later, when Niels had already been talking about other things for some while, she added, "Do you know what they say, that Jesper's ghost walks?"

" Who says that?"

"Hans Madsen's Trine. She was supposed to have seen him last Saturday night walk across Per Ousen's croft in his death robes."

"Ah, stuff and nonsense. You don't believe that kind of thing, do you?"

"No, no, I don't."

"Because it's only because of that that Jesper done himself in. All the old crones' tittle-tattle."

They were talking about the town's blacksmith who had died recently and who had been the centre of gossip locally. He had been married to a disreputable woman who took to the bottle and since he was a sober hardworking man they lived in constant strife. Then the wife died and from that day on he had become melancholy and finally took to drink himself. People said it was his bad conscience pricking him because at times he had spoken very harshly to his wife and had probably boxed her ears a few times. One morning they found the smithy closed. He had hanged himself over in Vedkasten.1

They had now been walking up and down in the shadows along the wayside. For maybe the twentieth time they had reached the end of the path by the main road. But now Grethe stopped. The moon had moved into the western sky; she did not dare stay out longer. They must separate here.

"I must go home now, Niels", she said sadly.

"Is there such a hurry"? he asked.

"Yes, I must go."

"Alright then, if it has to be."

But it was hard to leave him. She had put both her arms round his neck and he pulled her close in to him like village sweethearts do without hiding what he burned for.

" Oh, sweet Niels," she said. " I will soon be able to make you happy."

They finally bade each other a last goodnight. Niels waited on the path while Grethe hurried over the main road and along the wayside over on the other side to then be able to slip back to the vicarage via a shortcut without being seen. She ventured once out into the field in the moonlight to wave to him with her kerchief, and Niels replied by swinging his clog which he had just taken off to shake some soil out.

Only when she was completely out of sight did he take the road home to the farm where he was in service. Grethe heard his firm soldier footsteps getting fainter on the hard road. She stopped to follow them until they disappeared and her heart sang with gratitude and joy.

But misfortune was out that night.


The vicarage lay in a hollow to the west of the town. It was one of those kind of old manor farms which are now dying out, a home farm with rambling stables and barns, with sheep pens and pigsties, with stalls and sheds the whole surrounded by a country park of several acres.

Quite a lot of land went with the vicarage; but its present occupant had leased out the fields to two of the town's farmers. The big outbuildings were either empty or were used by the leaseholders as storage rooms. The vicar and his wife were alone without children at home so the only servants were Grethe and an old man who looked after the garden, chopped wood and the like.

Grethe's room was tucked away behind the kitchen. The window looked onto the kitchen garden or "cabbage yard" as it was called, and it was that way that she of late often slipped away in the evening to meet her sweetheart. It had been very difficult for her in that respect. She was very fond of the vicar and his wife for they had never been other than kind to her and she kept promising herself that this would be the last time. Now she was even afraid that the vicar's wife suspected something. Recently when she had forgotten to put salt in the stew ma'am had said " A penny for your thoughts, Grethe." Those words had scared her so much that everything went black before her eyes.

That evening she had been gone since half past nine. She had come to her room holding a candle and had heard Niels's low whistle beyond the garden fence - the arranged signal that she dreaded and yet listened out for longingly every evening.

She was just finished with her evening chores and had also been into the living room to say Goodnight - it was therefore impossible for her to resist the temptation. To let him know that she had heard him and would be coming, she quickly blew out the light; and a few minutes later climbed out of the window. So that no-one should see them together, they each took a different path to the end of the field to their usual meeting place and here she gradually forgot her uneasiness so much so that she could even talk about the vicar and his wife and the vicarage without the trace of a cloud on the horizon.

But now, being by herself, her conscience took the upper hand. At the same time as Niels' footsteps disappeared down the high road, she felt her legs heavy. She walked slowly over the ploughed field, which adjoined the vicarage garden and sneaked along the fence on the side that was furthest from the vicar and his wife's bedroom. As soon as she could see the long white moonlit walls between the trees she stopped to listen. But all was quiet, there were no lights anywhere. No sound could be heard other than the gentle clapping of the flag rope on the flagpole in the big flowerbed in front of the garden room.

She breathed again and climbed over the fence. Yes, she was so bold now as to walk softly in her stockinged feet right into the garden to where there was a tree with summer apples. She stood quietly for a long time and looked at the big yellow fruit. By rights she was not allowed to touch them. But she selected the biggest and the ripest of the ones she could reach and put it in her pocket. That one was for Niels. For herself she took one lying in the grass. She was hungry, she realized, and started to eat it straightaway.

Hidden by the moon shadow which moved across the lawns, she slowly made her way back the way she had come, walking softly through the kitchen garden to her window which she had left on the latch. Her heart missed a beat. She was about to cry out in horror. The window was shut and latched down from the inside.

Terror hit her like a cramp. She stood for a moment completely stiff, her elbows pressed in to her body and staring wide-eyed straight in front of her. She always knew it would happen one day. It really came as no surprise. She had just never prepared herself for the consequences of being caught, because of late she had had no reason to think about it.

When she had pulled herself together a few minutes later she moved away softly – first past the closed driveway gate and then along the stable wing. The thought suddenly came to her that the vicar and his wife might even be sitting up waiting for her to come home. She would check. From a passageway between the outbuildings from where she could see across the farmyard, she saw that the light was still burning in the living room.

She had in her panic clung to an unreasonable hope that it could be old Jens Madsen – the farmhand – who had been out and by chance seen that the window was open and had wanted to play a trick on her. But these two windows, from which the light shone out towards her with a blood red gleam through the curtains, brought her back to earth. Both the vicar and his wife usually went to bed on the stroke of ten. And it must be past midnight.

In despair she made her way out to the field and started walking in a circle groaning deeply. Oh God. What was she to do?. What was she to do? She could not go to Niels and ask him to help her because he shared a room with another farmhand. And she simply did not dare to go home to her parents. What would her father say?

She could picture now how he had spoken to her a year ago when she had been hired by the vicar. In his peculiar way he had put his hand on her shoulder and said: " The Lord has shown you a kindness, Grethe. Make sure you are deserving of it!". She could remember having been a bit hurt by those words. She did not think she needed a reprimand. But she had thought herself beyond reproach and that was punishable. Now misfortune had arrived.

How could she have behaved so shamefully. She did not understand any longer. The vicar and his wife had always been extremely good towards her. Just recently for no particular reason they had given her worsted for a dress. She had never heard an unkind word from them. The other day when she had accidentally broken the handle off the vicar's favourite cup, Ma'am was cross, it was true, and gave her a proper telling off; but the vicar himself had not said a word and just looked at her with deep sorrow in his kind eyes. Could you wish for better people? And this is how she had repaid their goodness to her.

In her confusion she had strayed further and further from the vicarage. Without her realizing, the half-eaten apple was still in her hand. In shame, she threw it away sobbing. Yes, she was a thief too!

She sat down on a bank and covered her eyes with her pinny. She must be the guiltiest person in the world. What was she to do! She did not want to go back to the vicarage.

What would that help anyway? They would chase her away at once, of course. How many times had she heard Ma'am say, when there was talk about a girl who stayed out till late that she would not tolerate such a person in her house for one minute. She would be chased from her job in shame. By tomorrow even, people will be going round talking about her. The women in the town would be very busy doing errands for each other in order to catch up on the latest. Oline and the tall Joergine and the other girls, who were jealous of her getting the job, would now have fun. She could just see them standing outside the farm gates and putting their heads together and roaring with laughter.

But all that could be as it must. It was much worse in respect of her parents and siblings. When she thought about them, she was cut to the quick. She especially dreaded it for her father who was so respectable and had such pride in his children for how well they had all done. Now that glory was gone!

And it was almost even worse that it was Sunday. When the vicar came home from the annex, he always brought a greeting for her from her parents. What would the greeting be this time? She could imagine exactly what would happen out there that morning, when the last psalm was sung and the vicar, as he usually did, stood out in the porch to shake hands with all the churchgoers as they left. Last of all would come her parents, her father with the big psalm book under his arm and behind him her mother in her green worsted dress and fringed shawl. And the vicar would look at them sadly and say: " Dear Friends! It grieves me deeply to have to tell you that your daughter has not been worthy of the trust we have shown her. We can therefore no longer keep her in our house." She could also clearly see her parents' faces. Her father would raise his thick eyebrows; his mouth would tremble and he would not be able to utter a single word. And behind him would be her mother, her head bowed, crushed in sorrow and shame.

She jumped up weeping loudly and walked on, drifting randomly over the fields. She wished she were dead. She felt that she would never again be happy. And what would Niels say? This would affect him as well. And so maybe he would disown her and he was well within his rights to. For she had even wickeder sins on her conscience. She had suddenly stopped again, struck by a new, even worse fear.

She had suddenly remembered how she had secretly lured Niels to her by praying to God for his love. But was it not true that he who turned to God with a presumptuous prayer sold himself to the Devil? Yes! She knew that she had once heard or read something about that. And now here was the punishment. Now the Devil had got his pay.


The bewildered girl strayed over the fields for several hours without daring to go home. Twice though she returned to the vicarage to see if the light was still on in the living room. The first time she had turned tail and fled at the sight of the two red lit windows although in truth she had found some comfort and relief to know that someone was still waiting up for her. The second time, an hour or so later, the lights were all out and at once it made her feel that she had been shut out of society for ever. The long row of dark windows, the big silent white moonlit yard worked upon her like a judgment.

She stood still a moment and stared round her. Without being aware of it herself, she took leave of it all. She walked quietly away and continued walking until, quite drained of strength, she stopped to rest on an over-turned plough somewhere in the outlying fields. The moon was setting. Blood-red and swollen it hung over the steaming marsh out there in the west. Darkness would soon come. The sky was already full of stars.

Tired and heavy, half in a dream, she sat there with her head between her hands and stared out over the low land. Out there in the mist lived her parents. She could in fact make out the dark roof ridge of her childhood home above the smoke. She could also see the poplar willow and she remembered that behind it was the hole with the black marsh water which she had been so scared of when she was a child. Now for the first time she understood that peculiar fear. It had been a premonition of how she would end up.

She sat there quite calmly and decided to die. What else should she do? Rejected by God and man made it impossible to live. But also for her parents' and siblings' sake it would be best if she did away with herself. Then people would not be cruel to them and delight in their disgrace but be supportive and speak words of solace. And Niels, he would probably soon forget her. He was so easy-going and there were of course more than plenty who would have him. What happiness could there have been for them anyway? What other than unhappiness could come out of such sinful love!

If only she was not so scared of water! But the whole thing was only a question of a moment or two. She had heard that you only had to count slowly to 35. Then the blood rushed up in front of your eyes and it was over. Quite over. For there was no Hell, the vicar had said so himself. There was only eternal obliteration for the damned. And it was exactly that that she wished for.

She had not moved her eyes from the dark roof ridge out there in the marsh mist. But her look was glazed. She already felt like someone who no longer belonged to this world. Eternity had already begun for her. Even physically she had the feeling of not existing any more.

But while she was now trying to pull herself together for the last farewell with her home and her parents, little by little she came to herself again. So many half-forgotten things from her happy childhood days were in these moments again so strangely vivid for her and brought her back to life. She saw herself as a little girl sitting out on the flagstone in front of the door and playing with her snail shells. She thought back to her first day in school which she had looked forward to so much but which was a great disappointment for her because the big boys had called her "fox cub" because of her red hair and asked her if she wasn't afraid it would catch fire. She could remember that she had gone home crying; but her mother had comforted her with a yoghurt cake. Then she thought back to the time she lay ill with fever and everyone thought she would die. But every evening her father had said prayers by her bedside and she got better.

In this way picture after picture passed before her eyes. Memories brought a guardian angel to calm her wild thoughts. And suddenly she lay her head in her hands and began to weep again. She did not really want to die.

Quite suddenly she jumped. She thought she heard footsteps behind her. She lifted her head but dared not turn around. They were the same ghostly steps of someone wearing clogs she thought she had heard earlier that night. "Jesper Blacksmith" she stuttered inside her.

She wanted to leap up but she could not move. She sat hunched up, her teeth chattering, and heard the footsteps come nearer and her mesmerized eyes nearly popped out of her head.


Over in the parents' little smallholding living room the moon's light through the windows had moved in the course of the night from the floor up to the wall and from here on to the window itself. Its last dull gleam disappeared just above the windowsill. Over in the bed slept the two old ones with much wheezing and snorting. Mariane's bound head was still tucked safely against Soeren's back even though he had begun to sleep restlessly and frequently scratched himself here and there.

Around three o'clock Mariane woke up; she thought she had heard a moaning. She turned over onto her back and lay for a moment listening. But since she was now aware of a bluebottle buzzing in the window, she decided that it was that noise that had entered her dreams and she had confused it with weeping. So she turned over and slept again.

But it was in fact no flight of fancy. Outside on the flagstone in front of the house crouched a shivering figure. It was Grethe who had sought refuge here from death's hallucinations. She sat here with her pinny pressed against her mouth; but she did not always manage to smother her sobs. A couple of times she even called out to her mother - very quietly it is true, just a whisper up against the wall with the tiniest hope that she might be heard, although at the same time ready to leap up and run away at the slightest noise from inside.

Up from the house gables crept the cat. She did not notice it until it rubbed against her leg with trusting affection. At first she stared with wild fear and dared not touch it. She was not sure to begin with if it was another evil apparition. But when the cat started to purr, she lifted it into her lap and pressed her cheek to its warm body, yes, in her need for a living creature's companionship she started to talk to it as to a little child, whispered that it should ask her parents and siblings not to be angry with her, said that it should say hallo to all of them and tell them that she had been so unhappy.

Suddenly she threw the animal off her. She had heard her father cough inside. Shortly afterwards the bed creaked and she was suddenly running frantically away from the house. Soeren Kousted was woken regularly at this time of the night by a call of nature which made him get up. In just his shirt, with only his clogs on, he rolled out of the living room and stood outside the door. Woozy with sleep he looked up into the sky to check the weather. Seeing the many stars almost woke him up and he gazed up at the beautiful night.

Then he went in again with the cat, shot the bolt across the door and returned to his warm bed in the pleasant knowledge that it was not daylight for another couple of hours.

Already at the second cock crow, even before it was light, Mariane felt restless and got up ready to make a start on the long day's chores. Soeren however stayed in bed because it was Sunday. He obeyed to the letter the Good Book's commandment of holding the day of rest holy and had of late even allowed himself to have his morning coffee brought to his bed.

He did not get up until seven o' clock. When he had shaved and combed his hair, he dressed in his Sunday best to go to church. On the stroke of nine he left the house with the big psalm book under his arm.

Mariane could not go with him this time, because she had a shank of pork cooking. Moreover her legs hurt her these days; the walk to the church was beginning to be difficult for her and she tried to find an excuse for staying home. Soeren on the other hand was the parish's most conscientious churchgoer. He was proud to be able to say that in thirty years he had not missed one church service.

Shortly after he left, Mariane had a little job to do that she kept for herself. From the house which lay isolated between the big boggy meadows was a path which led to a half overgrown little lake, only about 15 metres away. In a cutting in the bank of high reeds and rushes a little washing area had been set up and Mariane at that moment came with some clothes to be rinsed when she suddenly stopped. Something was moving in among the rushes. It was as if a big animal had been startled in there and bolted.

The old woman turned without a word and went back to the house with her washing. She was always a little uneasy when she was home alone. She never talked about it because naturally she didn't want to be considered superstitious; and afterwards she was also ashamed of being afraid. But on her own she often mumbled a quick prayer or a supplication when she saw or heard something she could not explain.

When Soeren came home he asked about Grethe as soon as he stepped into the house.

Mariane looked at him blankly. Grethe? What was he talking about? It was her Sunday off, she said, but the child didn't come home before the afternoon.

"No, I thought so too. Strange," said Soeren, saying that it was the vicar who had asked about her and seemed to be surprised that they had seen nothing of her.

Mariane was sure the vicar had got mixed up.

"He must have thought he was giving the last service".

"Yes, it must be that," said Soeren. "So let's have something to eat, in God's name".


After the meal, Soeren had a short nap. Then they drank another cup of coffee and when Mariane had finished in the kitchen and tidied herself up, it was time for the usual family Sunday prayers. With rehearsed ceremony, Soeren took his place at the head of the table where various books lay open in front of him: the Bible, the psalm book and Malling's collection of sermons. Mariane sat on the bench under the windows knitting a sock.

Soeren Kousted was by no means a hypocrite. His piety was genuine and quite sincere. But in all truth the little man was immensely proud of being the reader of the holy word in the home. And therefore he felt a little miffed that Grethe had not yet arrived. In the old days when all the children were home and filled up the living room he had felt quite edified. It was rather different having only Mariane as his audience.

He stroked his bearded chin and began to read out the verse of the day from the psalm book. For this he took on a round affected voice which he had copied from the previous vicar in office whom he had revered as the ideal reader. His thick eyebrows moved constantly up and down as he read, and after every full stop he closed his eyes briefly as if saying a silent " Amen". Sometimes however he slipped from his role for example to blow his nose into his fingers or make an involuntary pause to belch. But such interruptions bothered neither him nor Mariane, nor even the cat who sat between the flower pots on the window sill soaking up the evening sun and seemingly listening with a look of deep concentration on its inscrutable face.

Soeren put the book aside and folded his hands to recite a prayer. At the same moment footsteps could be heard outside. Mariane turned to look out of the window and saw that it was the vicar.

"God save us!" she cried. "Something's wrong with Grethe."

The vicar was a small darkish man whose face appeared to be all beard and glasses. He stood in the doorway with his hand on the latch and looked in with worried searching eyes.

"Is Grethe not here?" he asked in a low voice.

Soeren had got to his feet.

"No, she hasn't come", he said not letting any sign of emotion show in his voice. "Come in. Will Vicar not take a seat?"

There was a moment's silence in the room. The vicar went over to a chair and sat down heavily. Now he had to tell all!

It was not easy for him to say this. He was himself so afflicted that he found it very difficult to pull himself together and give a clear account. Furthermore he only knew what he had got out of the young man who had been pointed out to him as Grethe's sweetheart. First thing in the morning, Niels Hald had been called to the vicarage; he had admitted that he and Grethe were courting and was to be believed when he said that at around midnight they had parted ways the best of friends. It was – he said – to all appearances the fear of having to make the news public and what might follow that had provoked her disappearance.

He tried, as well as he could, to comfort the two old folk who had received the bad news without a word. He said that Grethe may possibly have gone to one of her friends. However wrongly she had behaved, because of her youth, her offence was not of the kind that could not be forgiven - Grethe knew that too.

"When her first fright has settled, hopefully she will see sense", he said and by this meant the reflection and reason that come after moments of fear and repentance although he normally never advised people to pin their faith on this.

The old couple no longer heard what he was saying. Expressionless they sat sunk in silence It was only when the vicar got up to leave that they stirred. Soeren said:

"Won't vicar have a drink of beer? Mariane, jump up and bring .."

But the vicar declined with thanks. He shook them gravely by the hand and hastened on his way, saying that he would soon come back and visit them.

In truth he had no great hope of finding Grethe alive. This was one of the questions that, in his role as saver of souls, he could still not answer, why people had such a feeble resistance to death. He did not understand it. Especially in the apparently stalwart and contented Danish people where there was no particular daily hardship. Why should suicide be part of the day's agenda as it were: it was an enigma he struggled in vain to solve. Even here in his own friendly and productive parish where no-one was needy in the material sense, in fact most had more than enough, even here there were not many homes where there was not a hook in a loft or in an outhouse from which people averted their eyes, it being a gruesome reminder of someone's unhappy lot. Just as recently with Jesper, the smith. A hardworking and respected man, still relatively young whom God had recently released from an unhappy marriage. Suddenly he ups and takes his own life in a most ghastly way in his forge. Why? No-one understood it.

He stopped a moment on the ridge of the hill and looked sadly out over the countryside. It was now evening. In the east and west his two churches rang the evening in. What peace! he thought. What contentment! To cheerful shouting, the cattle were being driven up from the meadows. Smoke from the village's many chimneypots wafted welcomingly to greet the homecoming field workers. – And yet!

Over in that large prosperous farm where the many windows blazed like a row of shiny gold coins lived for many years the happiest of married couples. They were fit and healthy and had many children who all turned out well. But all of a sudden the wife went into a strange brooding and one evening she went down to the milk cellar and cut her throat with a bread knife. And why? No-one understood it.


When the vicar got back home, a search party was immediately organized to go and look for Grethe. That same evening all the marl-pits and other small ponds were explored with fire hooks. Next morning the investigations continued and a flowered kerchief, found near her parents' house, turned out to be hers. It hung in between the rushes near the edge of the lake as if it had been left hanging there in someone's rush to get away.

Footprints of her shoes were also now found in the clayey mud. These tracks led out over the fields on both sides and it was clear that she had circled the house for quite a time and had made a hiding place near the washing area where the rushes had been completely trodden down for quite a stretch.

The lake was thoroughly explored and Grethe's sweetheart himself led the work. The big strong farmhand wept like a child. He was quite inconsolable and kept saying that he would himself follow Grethe wherever she had gone.

The whole day in the little living room in the smallholding there was a coming and a going of acquaintances who came to show their concern and offer their help in the search. Some also came simply out of curiosity or because they thought that in such circumstances there must be "something to be had". Despite their sorrow and shame Soeren and Mariane did not forget what such an occasion demanded. The coffee pot and the pack of tobacco were always out on the table. Soeren was taciturn and awkward while Mariane lurched around strangely as if she were drunk.

In the meantime an itinerant wool seller arrived in town and said that just that morning a demented girl had been sighted over in the neighbouring parish. At first it was a couple of eel fishermen who had caught sight of her during the night in the moonlight wandering along the stream; but when they tried to get close to her she fled. Then a man caught a glimpse of her over in the woods where she was running frantically, her hair flying out behind her, as if someone was after her.

Immediately a group of men was sent over to the neighbouring parish and they organized a hunt checking all hedgerows and bushes. But that day too passed without result. It was only the next morning that Grethe's body was found in a little lake deep in the wood. She lay there in the shallow water and had thrown her pinny up over her face before throwing herself in.

At her burial some days later the vicar gave a speech which made a great impression on all the large following. He was deeply moved and spoke gently and compassionately as he always did. As he himself said: he did not belong to those dark preachers of damnation who in every sinner's grave see the descent into hell. He rarely mentioned this place of anguish since it could no longer have any effect on a modern enlightened community.

Instead he talked a lot about the conscience and about the horror of the awareness of sin. With thoughtful allusion to the unfortunate girl's last days of suffering he sought to bring alive for his audience the hell that people make for themselves in their hearts by not listening to the divine laws, not listening to that inner voice that is God's own urgent voice and that alone can keep us from straying from the path of righteousness.

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