The Drought

If dead things love, if earth and water distinguish friends from enemies, I should like to possess their love. I should like the green earth not to feel my step as a heavy burden. I should like her to forgive that she for my sake is wounded by plough and harrow, and willingly to open for my dead body. And I should like the waves, whose shining mirror is broken by my oars, to have the same patience with me as a mother has with an eager child when it climbs up on her knee, careless of the uncrumpled silk of her dress.

The spirit of life still dwells in dead things. Have you not seen it? When strife and hate fill the earth, dead things must suffer too. Then the waves are wild and ravenous; then the fields are niggardly as a miser. But woe to him for whose sake the woods sigh and the mountains weep.

Memorable was the year when the pensioners were in power. If one could tell of everything which happened that year to the people by Löfven’s shores a world would be surprised. For then old love wakened, then new was kindled. Old hate blazed up, and long cherished revenge seized its prey.

From Ekeby this restless infection went forth; it spread first through the manors and estates, and drove men to ruin and to crime. It ran from village to village, from cottage to cottage. Everywhere hearts became wild, and brains confused. Never did the dance whirl so merrily at the crossroads; never was the beer-barrel so quickly emptied; never was so much grain turned into brandy. Never were there so many balls; never was the way shorter from the angry word to the knife-thrust. But the uneasiness was not only among men. It spread through all living things. Never had wolf and bear ravaged so fiercely; never had fox and owl howled so terribly, and plundered so boldly; never did the sheep go so often astray in the wood; never did so much sickness rage among the cattle.

He who will see how everything hangs together must leave the towns and live in a lonely hut at the edge of the forest; then he will learn to notice nature’s every sign and to understand how the dead things depend on the living. He will see that when there is restlessness on the earth, the peace of the dead things is disturbed. The people know it. It is in such times that the wood-nymph puts out the charcoal-kiln, the sea-nymph breaks the boat to pieces, the river-sprite sends illness, the goblin starves the cow. And it was so that year. Never had the spring freshets done so much damage. The mill and smithy at Ekeby were not the only offerings. Never had the lightning laid waste so much already before midsummer⁠—after midsummer came the drought.

As long as the long days lasted, no rain came. From the middle of June till the beginning of September, the country was bathed in continual sunshine.

The rain refused to fall, the earth to nourish, the winds to blow. Sunshine only streamed down on the earth. The grass was not yet high and could not grow; the rye was without nourishment, just when it should have collected food in its ears; the wheat, from which most of the bread was baked, never came up more than a few inches; the late sowed turnips never sprouted; not even the potatoes could draw sustenance from that petrified earth.

At such times they begin to be frightened far away in the forest huts, and from the mountains the terror comes down to the calmer people on the plain.

“There is someone whom God’s hand is seeking!” say the people.

And each one beats his breast and says: “Is it I? Is it from horror of me that the rain holds back? Is it in wrath against me that the stern earth dries up and hardens?⁠—and the perpetual sunshine⁠—is it to heap coals of fire on my head? Or if it is not I, who is it whom God’s hand is seeking?”

It was a Sunday in August. The service was over. The people wandered in groups along the sunny roads. On all sides they saw burned woods and ruined crops. There had been many forest fires; and what they had spared, insects had taken.

The gloomy people did not lack for subjects of conversation. There were many who could tell how hard it had been in the years of famine of eighteen hundred and eight and nine, and in the cold winter of eighteen hundred and twelve, when the sparrows froze to death. They knew how to make bread out of bark, and how the cows could be taught to eat moss.

There was one woman who had tried a new kind of bread of cranberries and cornmeal. She had a sample with her, and let the people taste it. She was proud of her invention.

But over them all floated the same question. It stared from every eye, was whispered by every lip: “Who is it, O Lord, whom Thy hand seeks?”

A man in the gloomy crowd which had gone westward, and struggled up Broby hill, stopped a minute before the path which led up to the house of the mean Broby clergyman. He picked up a dry stick from the ground and threw it upon the path.

“Dry as that stick have the prayers been which he has given our Lord,” said the man.

He who walked next to him also stopped. He took up a dry branch and threw it where the stick had fallen.

“That is the proper offering to that priest,” he said.

The third in the crowd followed the others’ example.

“He has been like the drought; sticks and straw are all that he has let us keep.”

The fourth said: “We give him back what he has given us.”

And the fifth: “For a perpetual disgrace I throw this to him. May he dry up and wither away like this branch!”

“Dry food to the dry priest,” said the sixth.

The people who came after see what they are doing and hear what they say. Now they get the answer to their long questioning.

“Give him what belongs to him! He has brought the drought on us.”

And each one stops, each one says his word and throws his branch before he goes on.

In the corner by the path there soon lies a pile of sticks and straw⁠—a pile of shame for the Broby clergyman.

That was their only revenge. No one lifted his hand against the clergyman or said an angry word to him. Desperate hearts cast off part of their burden by throwing a dry branch on the pile. They did not revenge themselves. They only pointed out the guilty one to the God of retribution.

“If we have not worshipped you rightly, it is that man’s fault. Be pitiful, Lord, and let him alone suffer! We mark him with shame and dishonor. We are not with him.”

It soon became the custom for everyone who passed the vicarage to throw a dry branch on the pile of shame.

The old miser soon noticed the pile by the roadside. He had it carried away⁠—some said that he heated his stove with it. The next day a new pile had collected on the same spot, and as soon as he had that taken away a new one was begun.

The dry branches lay there and said: “Shame, shame to the Broby clergyman!”

Soon the people’s meaning became clear to him. He understood that they pointed to him as the origin of their misfortune. It was in wrath at him God let the earth languish. He tried to laugh at them and their branches; but when it had gone on a week, he laughed no more. Oh, what childishness! How can those dry sticks injure him? He understood that the hate of years sought an opportunity of expressing itself. What of that?⁠—he was not used to love.

For all this he did not become more gentle. He had perhaps wished to improve after the old lady had visited him; now he could not. He would not be forced to it.

But gradually the pile grew too strong for him. He thought of it continually, and the feeling which everyone cherished took root also in him. He watched the pile, counted the branches which had been added each day. The thought of it encroached upon all other thoughts. The pile was destroying him.

Every day he felt more and more the people were right. He grew thin and very old in a couple of weeks. He suffered from remorse and indisposition. But it was as if everything depended on that pile. It was as if his remorse would grow silent, and the weight of years be lifted off him, if only the pile would stop growing.

Finally he sat there the whole day and watched; but the people were without mercy. At night there were always new branches thrown on.

One day Gösta Berling passed along the road. The Broby clergyman sat at the roadside, old and haggard. He sat and picked out the dry sticks and laid them together in rows and piles, playing with them as if he were a child again. Gösta was grieved at his misery.

“What are you doing, pastor?” he says, and leaps out of the carriage.

“Oh, I am sitting here and picking. I am not doing anything.”

“You had better go home, and not sit here in the dust.”

“It is best that I sit here.”

Then Gösta Berling sits down beside him.

“It is not so easy to be a priest,” he says after a while.

“It is all very well down here where there are people,” answers the clergyman. “It is worse up there.”

Gösta understands what he means. He knows those parishes in Northern Värmland where sometimes there is not even a house for the clergyman, where there are not more than a couple of people in ten miles of country, where the clergyman is the only educated man. The Broby minister had been in such a parish for over twenty years.

“That is where we are sent when we are young,” says Gösta. “It is impossible to hold out with such a life; and so one is ruined forever. There are many who have gone under up there.”

“Yes,” says the Broby clergyman; “a man is destroyed by loneliness.”

“A man comes,” says Gösta, “eager and ardent, exhorts and admonishes, and thinks that all will be well, that the people will soon turn to better ways.”

“Yes, yes.”

“But soon he sees that words do not help. Poverty stands in the way. Poverty prevents all improvement.”

“Poverty,” repeats the clergyman⁠—“poverty has ruined my life.”

“The young minister comes up there,” continues Gösta, “poor as all the others. He says to the drunkard: Stop drinking!”

“Then the drunkard answers,” interrupts the clergyman: “Give me something which is better than brandy! Brandy is furs in winter, coolness in summer. Brandy is a warm house and a soft bed. Give me those, and I will drink no more.”

“And then,” resumes Gösta, “the minister says to the thief: You shall not steal; and to the cruel husband: You shall not beat your wife; and to the superstitious: You shall believe in God and not in devils and goblins. But the thief answers: Give me bread; and the cruel husband says: Make us rich, and we will not quarrel; and the superstitious say: Teach us better. But who can help them without money?”

“It is true, true every word,” cried the clergyman. “They believed in God, but more in the devil, and most in the mountain goblin. The crops were all turned into the still. There seemed to be no end to the misery. In most of the gray cottages there was want. Hidden sorrow made the women’s tongues bitter. Discomfort drove their husbands to drink. They could not look after their fields or their cattle. They made a fool of their minister. What could a man do with them? They did not understand what I said to them from the pulpit. They did not believe what I wanted to teach them. And no one to consult, no one who could help me to keep up my courage.”

“There are those who have stood out,” says Gösta. “God’s grace has been so great to some that they have not returned from such a life broken men. They have had strength; they have borne the loneliness, the poverty, the hopelessness. They have done what little good they could and have not despaired. Such men have always been and still are. I greet them as heroes. I will honor them as long as I live. I was not able to stand out.”

“I could not,” added the clergyman.

“The minister up there thinks,” says Gösta, musingly, “that he will be a rich man, an exceedingly rich man. No one who is poor can struggle against evil. And so he begins to hoard.”

“If he had not hoarded he would have drunk,” answers the old man; “he sees so much misery.”

“Or he would become dull and lazy, and lose all strength. It is dangerous for him who is not born there to come thither.”

“He has to harden himself to hoard. He pretends at first; then it becomes a habit.”

“He has to be hard both to himself and to others,” continues Gösta; “it is hard to amass. He must endure hate and scorn; he must go cold and hungry and harden his heart: it almost seems as if he had forgotten why he began to hoard.”

The Broby clergyman looked startled at him. He wondered if Gösta sat there and made a fool of him. But Gösta was only eager and earnest. It was as if he was speaking of his own life.

“It was so with me,” says the old man quietly.

“But God watches over him,” interrupts Gösta. “He wakes in him the thoughts of his youth when he has amassed enough. He gives the minister a sign when His people need him.”

“But if the minister does not obey the sign, Gösta Berling?”

“He cannot withstand it,” says Gösta, and smiles. “He is so moved by the thought of the warm cottages which he will help the poor to build.”

The clergyman looks down on the little heaps he had raised from the sticks of the pile of shame. The longer he talks with Gösta, the more he is convinced that the latter is right. He had always had the thought of doing good some day, when he had enough⁠—of course he had had that thought.

“Why does he never build the cottages?” he asks shyly.

“He is ashamed. Many would think that he did what he always had meant to do through fear of the people.”

“He cannot bear to be forced, is that it?”

“He can however do much good secretly. Much help is needed this year. He can find someone who will dispense his gifts. I understand what it all means,” cries Gösta, and his eyes shone. “Thousands shall get bread this year from one whom they load with curses.”

“It shall be so, Gösta.”

A feeling of transport came over the two who had so failed in the vocation they had chosen. The desire of their youthful days to serve God and man filled them. They gloated over the good deeds they would do. Gösta would help the minister.

“We will get bread to begin with,” says the clergyman.

“We will get teachers. We will have a surveyor come, and divide up the land. Then the people shall learn how to till their fields and tend their cattle.”

“We will build roads and open new districts.”

“We will make locks at the falls at Berg, so that there will be an open way between Löfven and Väner.”

“All the riches of the forest will be of double blessing when the way to the sea is opened.”

“Your head shall be weighed down by blessings,” cries Gösta.

The clergyman looks up. They read in one another’s eyes the same burning enthusiasm.

But at the same moment the eyes of both fall on the pile of shame.

“Gösta,” says the old man, “all that needs a young man’s strength, but I am dying. You see what is killing me.”

“Get rid of it!”

“How, Gösta Berling?”

Gösta moves close up to him and looks sharply into his eyes. “Pray to God for rain,” he says. “You are going to preach next Sunday. Pray for rain.”

The old clergyman sinks down in terror.

“If you are in earnest, if you are not he who has brought the drought to the land, if you had meant to serve the Most High with your hardness, pray God for rain. That shall be the token; by that we shall know if God wishes what we wish.”

When Gösta drove down Broby hill, he was astonished at himself and at the enthusiasm which had taken hold of him. But it could be a beautiful life⁠—yes, but not for him. Up there they would have none of his services.

In the Broby church the sermon was over and the usual prayers read. The minister was just going to step down from the pulpit, but he hesitated, finally he fell on his knees and prayed for rain.

He prayed as a desperate man prays, with few words, without coherency.

“If it is my sin which has called down Thy wrath, let me alone suffer! If there is any pity in Thee, Thou God of mercy, let it rain! Take the shame from me! Let it rain in answer to my prayer! Let the rain fall on the fields of the poor! Give Thy people bread!”

The day was hot; the sultriness was intolerable. The congregation sat as if in a torpor; but at these broken words, this hoarse despair, everyone had awakened.

“If there is a way of expiation for me, give rain⁠—”

He stopped speaking. The doors stood open. There came a violent gust of wind. It rushed along the ground, whirled into the church, in a cloud of dust, full of sticks and straw. The clergyman could not continue; he staggered down from the pulpit.

The people trembled. Could that be an answer?

But the gust was only the forerunner of the thunderstorm. It came rushing with an unheard-of violence. When the psalm was sung, and the clergyman stood by the altar, the lightning was already flashing, and the thunder crashing, drowning the sound of his voice. As the sexton struck up the final march, the first drops were already pattering against the green windowpanes, and the people hurried out to see the rain. But they were not content with that: some wept, others laughed, while they let the torrents stream over them. Ah, how great had been their need! How unhappy they had been! But God is good! God let it rain. What joy, what joy!

The Broby clergyman was the only one who did not come out into the rain. He lay on his knees before the altar and did not rise. The joy had been too violent for him. He died of happiness.