The Priest

At last the minister stood in the pulpit. The heads of the congregation were lifted. Well, there he finally was. There would be no default this Sunday, as on the last and on many other Sundays before.

The minister was young, tall, slender, and strikingly handsome. With a helmet on his head, and girt with sword and shirt of mail, he could have been cut in marble and taken for an ideal of Grecian beauty.

He had a poet’s deep eyes, and a general’s firm, rounded chin; everything about him was beautiful, noble, full of feeling, glowing with genius and spiritual life.

The people in the church felt themselves strangely subdued to see him so. They were more used to see him come reeling out of the public house with his good friends, Beerencreutz, the Colonel with the thick, white moustaches, and the stalwart Captain Christian Bergh.

He had drunk so deeply that he had not been able to attend to his duties for many weeks, and the congregation had been obliged to complain, first to the dean, and then to the bishop and the chapters. Now the bishop had come to the parish to make a strict inquiry. He sat in the choir with the gold cross on his breast; the clergymen of the neighboring parishes sat round about him.

There was no doubt that the minister’s conduct had gone beyond the permissible limit. At that time, in the twenties, much in the matter of drinking was overlooked, but this man had deserted his post for the sake of drink, and now must lose it.

He stood in the pulpit and waited while the last verse of the psalm was sung.

A feeling came over him as he stood there, that he had only enemies in the church, enemies in all the seats. Among the gentry in the pews, among the peasants in the farther seats, among the little boys in the choir, he had enemies, none but enemies. It was an enemy who worked the organ-bellows, an enemy who played. In the churchwardens’ pews he had enemies. They all hated him, everyone⁠—from the children in arms, who were carried into the church, to the sexton, a formal and stiff old soldier, who had been at Leipzig.

He longed to throw himself on his knees and to beg for mercy.

But a moment after, a dull rage came over him. He remembered well what he had been when, a year ago, he first stood in this pulpit. He was then a blameless man, and now he stood there and looked down on the man with the gold cross on his breast, who had come to pass sentence on him.

While he read the introduction, wave after wave of blood surged up in his face⁠—it was rage.

It was true enough that he had drunk, but who had a right to blame him for that? Had they seen the vicarage where he had to live? Pine forests grew dark and gloomy close up to his windows. The dampness dripped from the black roofs and ran down the mouldy walls. Was not brandy needed to keep the spirits up when rain and driving snow streamed in through the broken panes, when the neglected earth would not give bread enough to keep hunger away?

He thought that he was just such a minister as they deserved. For they all drank. Why should he alone control himself? The man who had buried his wife got drunk at the funeral feast; the father who had baptized his child had a carouse afterwards. The congregation drank on the way back from church, so that most of them were drunk when they reached home. A drunken priest was good enough for them.

It was on his pastoral visits, when he drove in his thin cloak over miles of frozen seas, where all the icy winds met, it was when his boat was tossed about on these same seas in storm and pouring rain, it was when he must climb out of his sledge in blinding snow to clear the way for his horse through drifts high as houses, or when he waded through the forest swamps⁠—it was then that he learned to love brandy.

The year had dragged itself out in heavy gloom. Peasant and master had passed their days with their thoughts on the soil, but at evening their spirits cast off their yokes, freed by brandy. Inspiration came, the heart grew warm, life became glowing, the song rang out, roses shed their perfume. The public-house barroom seemed to him a tropical garden: grapes and olives hung down over his head, marble statues shone among dark leaves, songsters and poets wandered under the palms and plane-trees.

No, he, the priest, up there in the pulpit, knew that without brandy life could not be borne in this end of the world; all his congregation knew that, and yet they wished to judge him.

They wished to tear his vestments from him, because he had come drunken into God’s house. Oh, all these people, had they believed, did they want to believe, that they had any other God than brandy?

He had finished the exordium, and he kneeled to say the Lord’s Prayer.

There was a breathless silence in the church during the prayer. But suddenly the minister with both hands caught hold of the ribbons which held his surplice. It seemed to him as if the whole congregation, with the bishop at the head, were stealing up the pulpit steps to take his bands from him. He was kneeling and his head was turned away, but he could feel how they were dragging, and he saw them so plainly, the bishop and the deans, the clergymen, the churchwardens, the sexton, and the whole assemblage in a long line, tearing and straining to get his surplice off. And he could picture to himself how all these people who were dragging so eagerly would fall over one another down the steps when the bands gave way, and the whole row of them below, who had not got up as far as his cape, but only to the skirts of his coat, would also fall.

He saw it all so plainly that he had to smile as he knelt, but at the same time a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. The whole thing was too horrible.

That he should now become a dishonored man for the sake of brandy. A clergyman, dismissed! Was there anything on God’s earth more wretched?

He should be one of the beggars at the roadside, lie drunk at the edge of a ditch, go dressed in rags, with vagrants for companions.

The prayer was ended. He should read his sermon. Then a thought came to him and checked the words on his lips. He thought that it was the last time he should stand in the pulpit and proclaim the glory of God.

For the last time⁠—that took hold of him. He forgot the brandy and the bishop. He thought that he must use the chance, and testify to the glory of God.

He thought that the floor of the church with all his hearers sank deep, deep down, and the roof was lifted off, so that he saw far into the sky. He stood alone, quite alone in his pulpit; his spirit took its flight to the heavens opened above him; his voice became strong and powerful, and he proclaimed the glory of God.

He was inspired. He left what he had written; thoughts came to him like a flock of tame doves. He felt, as if it were not he who spoke, but he felt too that it was the best earth had to give, and that no one could reach a greater height of brilliancy and splendor than he who stood there and proclaimed the glory of God.

As long as the flame of inspiration burned in him he continued to speak, but when it died out, and the roof sank down over the church, and the floor came up again from far, far below, he bowed his head and wept, for he thought that the best of life, for him, was now over.

After the service came the inspection and the vestry meeting. The bishop asked if the congregation had any complaints to make against their clergyman.

The minister was no longer angry and defiant as before the sermon. Now he was ashamed and hung his head. Oh, all the miserable brandy stories, which were coming now!

But none came. There was a deep silence about the long table in the parish-hall.

The minister looked first at the sexton⁠—no, he was silent; then at the churchwardens, then at the powerful peasants and mine-owners; they were all silent. They sat with their lips pressed close together and looked embarrassed down on the table.

“They are waiting for somebody to begin,” thought the minister.

One of the churchwardens cleared his throat.

“I think we’ve got a fine minister,” he said.

“Your Reverence has heard how he preaches,” interrupted the sexton.

The bishop spoke of repeated absences.

“The minister has the right to be ill, as well as another,” was the peasants’ opinion.

The bishop hinted at their dissatisfaction with the minister’s mode of life.

They defended him with one voice. He was so young, their minister; there was nothing wrong with him. No; if he would only always preach as he had done today they would not exchange him for the bishop himself.

There were no accusers; there could be no judge.

The minister felt how his heart swelled and how swiftly the blood flew through his veins. Could it be that he was no longer among enemies; that he had won them over when he had least thought of it; that he should still be their priest?

After the inspection the bishop and the clergymen of the neighborhood and the deans and the chief men of the parish dined at the vicarage. The wife of one of the neighbors had taken charge of the dinner; for the minister was not married. She had arranged it all so well that it made him open his eyes, for the vicarage was not so dreadful. The long dining-table was spread out under the pines and shone with its white cloth, with its blue and white china, its glittering glass and folded napkins. Two birches bent over the door, the floor of the entry was strewn with rushes, a wreath of flowers hung from the rafters, there were flowers in all the rooms; the mouldy smell was gone, and the green windowpanes shone bravely in the sunshine.

He was glad to the bottom of his heart, the minister; he thought that he would never drink again.

There was not one who was not glad at that dinner-table. Those who had been generous and had forgiven were glad, and the priests in authority were glad because they had escaped a scandal.

The good bishop raised his glass and said that he had started on this journey with a heavy heart, for he had heard many evil rumors. He had gone forth to meet Saul, but lo, Saul was already changed to a Paul, who should accomplish more than any of them. And the worthy man spoke of the rich gifts which their young brother possessed, and praised them. Not that he should be proud, but that he should strain every nerve and keep a close watch over himself, as he must do who bears an exceedingly heavy and costly burden on his shoulders.

The minister was not drunk at that dinner, but he was intoxicated. All this great unlooked-for happiness went to his head. Heaven had let the flame of inspiration burn in him, and these people had given him their love. His blood was at fever heat, and at raging speed rushed through his veins still when the evening came and his guests departed. Far into the night he sat awake in his room, and let the night air stream in through the open window to cool this fever of happiness, this pleasant restlessness which would not let him sleep.

He heard a voice.

“Are you awake?”

A man came over the lawn up to the window. The minister looked out and recognized Captain Christian Bergh, one of his trusty boon-companions. He was a wayfarer without house or land, this Captain Bergh, and a giant in stature and strength; big was he as Goliath, malicious and stupid as a mountain goblin.

“Of course I am up, Captain Christian,” answered the minister. “Do you think I could sleep tonight?”

And hear now what this Captain Bergh says to him! The giant had guessed, he had understood, that the minister would now be afraid to drink. He would never have any peace, thought Captain Christian; for those priests from Karlstad, who had been here once, could come again and take his surplice from him if he drank.

But now Captain Christian had put his heavy hand to the good work; now he had arranged that those priests never should come again, neither they nor the bishop. Henceforth the minister and his friends could drink as much as they liked at the vicarage.

Hear what a deed he had done, he, Christian Bergh, the mighty Captain. When the bishop and the two deans had climbed into their closed carriage, and the doors had been shut tight on them, then he had mounted on the box and driven them ten miles or so in the light summer night.

And then had Christian Bergh taught the reverend gentlemen how loose life sits in the human body. He had let the horses run at the maddest pace. That was because they would not let an honorable man get drunk in peace.

Do you suppose he followed the road with them; do you believe he saved them from jolts? He drove over ditches and ploughed fields; he drove in a dizzy gallop down the hills; he drove along the water’s edge, till the waves covered the wheels; he almost stuck in a bog; he drove down over bare rocks, where the horses slid with legs held stiff.

And all the time the bishop and the priests sat with blanched faces behind the leather curtains and murmured prayers. It was the worst journey they had ever made.

And think how they must have looked when they came to Rissäter’s inn, living, but shaken like shot in a leather pouch.

“What does this mean, Captain Christian?” says the bishop, as he opens the door for them.

“It means that you shall think twice, bishop, before you make a new journey of inspection to Gösta Berling,” says Captain Christian; and he had thought that sentence well out beforehand, so as not to get it wrong.

“Tell Gösta Berling,” says the bishop, “that to him neither I nor any other bishop will ever come again.”

This exploit the mighty Captain Christian stands and relates at the open window in the summer night. For Captain Christian has only just left the horses at the inn, and has come directly to the minister with his news.

“Now you can be at rest, comrade,” he says.

Ah, Captain Christian, the clergymen sat with pale faces behind the leather curtains, but the priest at the window looks in the bright summer night far, far paler. Ah, Captain Christian!

The minister raised his arm and measured a terrible blow at the giant’s coarse, stupid face, but checked himself. He shut the window with a bang, and stood in the middle of the room, shaking his clenched fist on high.

He in whom the fire of inspiration had flamed, he who had been able to proclaim the glory of God, stood there and thought that God had made a fool of him.

Would not the bishop believe that Captain Christian had been sent by the minister? Would he not believe that he had dissembled and lied the whole day? Now he would investigate everything about him in earnest; now he would suspend him and dismiss him.

When the dawn broke the minister was far from his home. He did not care to stay and defend himself. God had mocked at him. God would not help him. He knew that he would be dismissed. God would have it. He might as well go at once.

All this happened in the beginning of the twenties in a far-a-way parish in Western Värmland.

It was the first misfortune which befell Gösta Berling; it was not the last.

For colts who cannot bear spur or whips find life hard. For every pain which comes to them they bolt down wild ways to yawning chasms. As soon as the road is stony and the way hard they know no other remedy than to cast off their load and rush away in frenzy.