The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf
I daresay you have heard of the girl who stepped on a loaf; so as not to soil her shoes, and all the misfortunes that befel her in consequence. At any rate the story has been written and printed too.
She was a poor child, of a proud and arrogant nature, and her disposition was bad from the beginning. When she was quite tiny, her greatest delight was to catch flies and pull their wings off, to make creeping insects of them. Then she would catch chafers and beetles and stick them on a pin, after which she would push a leaf or a bit of paper close enough for them to seize with their feet; for the pleasure of seeing them writhe and wriggle in their efforts to free themselves from the pins.
"The chafer is reading now," said little Inger; "look at it turning over the page!"
She got worse rather than better as she grew older; but she was very pretty and that no doubt was her misfortune, or she might have had many a beating which she never got.
"It will take a heavy blow to bend that head," said her own mother. "As a child you have often trampled on my apron, I fear when you are grown up you will trample on my heart!"
This she did with a vengeance.
She was sent into service in the country with some rich people. They treated her as if she had been their own child, and dressed her in the same style. She grew prettier and prettier but her pride grew too.
When she had been with them a year, her employers said to her, "You ought to go home to see your parents, little Inger!"
So she went, but she went to show herself only, so that they might see how grand she was. When she got to the town gates, and saw the young men and maids gossiping round the pond, and her mother sitting among them with a bundle of sticks she had picked up in the woods, Inger turned away. She was ashamed that one so fine as herself should have such a ragged old woman who picked up sticks for her mother. She was not a bit sorry that she had turned back, only angry.
Another half year passed.
"Little Inger, you really ought to go and see your old parents," said her mistress. "Here is a large loaf of wheaten bread, you may take to them. They will be pleased to see you."
Inger put on all her best clothes, and her fine new shoes; she held up her skirts and picked her steps carefully so as to keep her shoes nice and clean. Now no one could blame her for this; but when she came to the path through the marsh a great part of it was wet and muddy, and she threw the loaf into the mud for a stepping-stone, to get over with dry shoes. As she stood there with one foot on the loaf and was lifting up the other for the next step, the loaf sank deeper and deeper with her till she entirely disappeared. Nothing was to be seen but a black bubbling pool.
Now this is the story.
But what had become of her? She went down to the Marsh-wife who has a brewery down there. The Marsh-wife is own sister to the Elf-king, and aunt to the Elf-maidens who are well enough known. They have had verses written about them and pictures painted; but all that people know about the Marsh-wife is, that when the mist rises over the meadows in the summer, she is at her brewing. It was into this brewery that little Inger fell, and no one can stand being there long. A scavenger's cart is sweet compared to the Marsh-wife's brewery. The smell from the barrels is enough to turn people faint, and the barrels are so close together that no one can pass between them, but wherever there is a little chink it is filled up with noisome toads and slimy snakes. Little Inger fell among all this horrid living filth; it was so icy cold that she shuddered from head to foot, and her limbs grew quite stiff: The loaf stuck fast to her feet and it drew her down just as an amber button draws a bit of straw.
The Marsh-wife was at home. Old Bogey and his great-grandmother were paying her a visit. The great-grandmother is a very venomous old woman, and she is never idle. She never goes out without her work, and she had it with her to-day too. She was busily making gad-about leather to put into people's shoes, so that the wearer might have no rest. She embroidered lies, and strung together all the idle words which fell to the ground, to make mischief of them. Oh yes, old great-grandmother can knit and embroider in fine style.
As soon as she saw little Inger, she put up her eye-glass and looked at her through it. "That girl has got something in her," she said; "I should like to have her as a remembrance of my visit. She would make a very good statue in my great-grandson's outer corridor."
So Inger was given to her and this was how she got to Bogey-land. People don't always get there by such a direct route, though it is easy enough to get there in more roundabout ways.
What a never-ending corridor that was to be sure; it made one giddy to look either backwards or forwards. Here stood an ignominous crew waiting for the door of mercy to be opened, but long might they wait. Great fat, sprawling spiders spun webs of a thousand years round and round their feet; and these webs were like footscrews and held them as in a vice, or as though bound with a copper chain. Besides, there was such everlasting unrest in every soul; the unrest of torment. The miser had forgotten the key of his money chest, he knew he had left it sticking in the lock. But it would take far too long to enumerate all the various tortures here. Inger experienced the torture of standing like a statue with a loaf tied to her feet.
"This is what comes of trying to keep one's feet clean!" said she to herself. "Look how they stare at me." They did indeed stare at her, all their evil passions shone out of their eyes and spoke without words from their lips. They were a terrible sight. "It must be a pleasure to look at me "thought Inger, "for I have a pretty face and nice clothes," and then she turned her eyes to look at them, her neck was too stiff. But, oh, how dirty, she had got in the Marsh-wife's brewery; she had never thought of that. Her clothes were covered with slime, a snake had got among her hair, and hung dangling down her back. A toad looked out of every fold in her dress, croaking like an asthmatic pug-dog. It was most unpleasant. "But all the others down here look frightful too," was her consolation.
Worse than anything was the terrible hunger she felt, and she could not stoop down to break a bit of bread off the loaf she was standing on. No; her back had stiffened, her arms and hands had stiffened, and her whole body was like a pillar of stone. She could only turn her eyes, but she could turn them right round, so as to look backwards; and a horrid sight it was. And then came the flies, they crept upon her eyes, and however much she winked they would not fly away; they could not, for she had pulled off their wings and made creeping insects of them. That was indeed a torment added to her gnawing hunger; she seemed at last to be absolutely empty.
"If this is to go on long I shan't be able to bear it," said she; but it did go on, and bear it she must.
Then a scalding tear fell upon her forehead, it trickled over her face and bosom right down to the loaf; then another fell, and another, till there was a perfect shower.
Who was crying for little Inger! Had she not a mother on earth? Tears of sorrow shed by a mother for her child will always reach it; but they do not bring healing, they burn and make the torment fifty times worse. Then this terrible hunger again, and she not able to get at the bread under her feet. She felt at last as if she had been feeding upon herself, and had become a mere hollow reed which conducts every sound. She distinctly heard everything that was said on earth about herself, and she heard nothing but hard words.
Certainly her mother wept bitterly and sorrowfully, but at the same time she said, "Pride goes before a fall! There was your misfortune, Inger!I How you have grieved your mother."
Her mother and everyone on earth knew all about her sin, how she had stepped upon the loaf, and sunk down under the earth, and so was lost. The cow-herd had told them so much; he had seen it himself from the hillock where he was standing.
"How you have grieved your mother, Inger," said the poor woman. "But then I always said you would!"
"Oh, that I had never been born!" thought Inger then. "I should have been much better off. My mother's tears are no good now."
She heard the good people, her employers, who had been like parents to her, talking about her. "She was a sinful child," they said. "She did not value the gifts of God, but trod them under foot. She will find it hard to open the door of mercy."
"They ought to have brought me up better!" thought Inger; "they should have knocked the nonsense out of me if it was there."
She heard that a song had been written about her and sung all over the country, "The arrogant girl who trod on a loaf to keep her shoes clean."
"That I should hear that old story so often, and have to suffer so much for it!" thought Inger.
"The others ought to be punished for their sins, too," said Inger; "there would be plenty to punish. Oh, how I am being tormented!"
And her heart grew harder than her outer shell.
"Nobody will ever get any better in this company! and I won't be any better. Look, how they are all staring at me!"
Her heart was full of anger and malice towards everybody.
"Now they have got something to talk about up there! Oh, this torture!"
She heard people telling her story to children, and the little ones always called her "wicked Inger,"—"she was so naughty that she had to be tormented." She heard nothing but hard words from the children's mouths.
But one day when anger and hunger were gnawing at her hollow shell, she heard her name mentioned, and her story being told to an innocent child, a little girl, and the little creature burst into tears at the story of proud, vain Inger.
"But will she never come up here again?" asked the child, and the answer was, "She will never come up again."
"But if she was to ask pardon, and promise never to do it again?"
"She won't ask pardon," they said.
"But I want her to do it," said the little girl who refused to be comforted. "I will give my doll's house if she may only come up again, it is so dreadful for poor Inger."
These words reached down into Inger's heart, and they seemed to do her good. It was the first time that anyone said "Poor Inger," without adding anything about her misdeeds. A little innocent child was weeping and praying for her, and it made her feel quite odd: she would have liked to cry herself, but she could not shed a tear, and this was a further torment.
As the years passed above, so they went on below without any change: she seldomer heard sounds from above, and she was less talked about. But one day she was aware of a sigh. "Inger, Inger, what a grief you have been to me, but I always knew you would." It was her mother who was dying. Occasionally she heard her name mentioned by her old employers, and the gentlest words her mistress used were, "shall I ever see you again, Inger? One never knows whither one may go!"
But Inger knew very well that her good kindly mistress could never come to the place where she was.
Again a long bitter period passed. Then Inger again heard her name pronounced, and saw above her head what seemed to be two bright stars; they were in fact two kind eyes which were closing on earth. So many years had gone by since the little girl had cried so bitterly at the story of "Poor Inger," that the child had grown to be an old woman whom the Lord was now calling to Himself. In the last hour when one's whole life comes back to one, she remembered how as a little child she had wept bitter tears at the story of Inger. The impression was so clear to the old woman in the hour of death, that she exclaimed aloud, "Oh Lord, may I not, like Inger, have trodden on thy blessed gifts without thinking; and may I not also have nourished pride in my heart, but in Thy mercy Thou didst not let me fall! Forsake me not now in my last hour!"
The old woman's eyes closed, and the eyes of her soul were opened to see the hidden things, and as Inger had been so vividly present in her last thoughts, she saw now how deep she had sank and at the sight she burst into tears. Then she stood in the Kingdom of Heaven, as a child, weeping for poor Inger. Her tears and prayers echoed into the hollow, empty shell which surrounded the imprisoned, tortured soul, and it was quite overwhelmed by all this unexpected love from above. An angel of God weeping over her! Why was this vouchsafed to her? The tortured soul recalled every earthly action it had ever performed, and at last it melted into tears, in a way Inger had never done. She was filled with grief for herself; it seemed as though the gate of mercy could never be opened to her. But as in humble contrition she acknowledged this, a ray of light shone into the gulf of destruction. The strength of the ray was far greater than that of the sunbeam which melts the snow-man built up by the boys in the garden; and sooner, much sooner, than a snowflake melts on the warm lips of a child, did Inger's stony form dissolve before it, and a little bird with lightning speed winged its way to the upper world. It was terribly shy and afraid of everything. It was ashamed of itself and afraid to meet the eye of any living being, so it hastily sought shelter in a chink in the wall. There it cowered, shuddering in every limb; it could not utter a sound for it had no voice. It sat for a long time before it could survey calmly all the wonders around. Yes, they were wonders indeed, the air was so sweet and fresh, the moon shone so brightly, the trees and bushes were so fragrant; and then the comfort of it all, its feathers were so clean and dainty. How all creation spoke of love and beauty! The bird would gladly have sung aloud all these thoughts stirring in its breast, but it had not the power. Gladly would it have carolled as do the cuckoos and nightingales in summer. The good God who hears the Voiceless hymn of praise even of a worm, was also aware of this psalm of thanksgiving trembling in the breast of the bird, as the psalms of David echoed in his heart before they shaped themselves into words and melody. These thoughts, and these voiceless songs grew, and swelled for weeks they must have an outlet, and at the first attempt at a good deed this would be found.
Then came the holy Christmas Feast. The peasants raised a pole against a wall, and tied a sheaf of oats on to the top, so that the little birds might have a good meal on the happy Christmas day.
The sun rose bright and shone upon the sheaf of oats, and the twittering birds surrounded the pole. Then from the chink in the wall came a feeble tweet-tweet; the swelling thoughts of the bird had found a voice, and this faint twitter was its hymn of praise. The thought of a good deed was awakened, and the bird flew out of its hiding-place; in the Kingdom of Heaven this bird was well known.
It was a very hard winter, and all the water had thick ice over it. The birds and wild creatures had great difficulty in finding food. The little bird flew along the highways finding here and there in the tracks of the sledges a grain of corn. At the baiting places it also found a few morsels of bread, of which it would only eat a crumb, and gave the rest to the other starving sparrows which it called up. Then it flew into the towns and peeped about. Wherever a loving hand had strewn bread crumbs for the birds, it only ate one crumb and gave the rest away.
In the course of the winter the bird had collected and given away so many crumbs of bread, that they equalled in weight the whole loaf which little Inger had stepped upon to keep her shoes clean. When the last crumbs were found and given away, the bird's grey wings became white and spread themselves wide.
"A tern is flying away over the sea," said the children who saw the white bird. Now it dived into the sea, and now it soared up into the bright sunshine. It gleamed so brightly that it was not possible to see what became of it; they said it flew right into the sun.