The story of the girl who trod on the loaf to avoid soiling her shoes, and of the misfortune that befell this girl, is well known. It has been written, and even printed.
She was a poor child, but proud and presumptuous ; there was a bad foundation in her, as the saying is. When she was quite a little child, it was her delight to catch flies and tear off their wings, so as to make them into creeping things. She would take cockchafers and beetles, and spit them on pins. Then she pushed a green leaf or a little scrap of paper towards their feet, and the poor creatures seized it, and held it fast, and turned it over and over, struggling to get free from the pin.
‘ The cockchafer is reading, said little Inger. ‘ See how he turns the leaf ! ‘
With years she grew worse rather than better ; but she was pretty, and that was her misfortune ; otherwise she would have been more sharply reproved than she was.
‘ Your headstrong will requires something strong to break it ! ‘ her own mother often said. ‘ As a little child, you used to trample on my apron ; but I fear you will one day trample on my heart.’
And that is what she really did.
She was sent into the country, into service in the house of rich people, who treated her as their own child, and dressed her accordingly. She looked well, and her presumption increased.
When she had been there about a year, her mistress said to her, ‘ You ought now to visit your parents, Inger.
And she went too, but it was only to show herself, that they might see how grand she had become ; but when she came to the entrance of the village, and the young husbandmen and maids stood there chatting, and her own mother appeared among them, sitting on a stone to rest, and with a faggot of sticks before her that she had picked up in the wood, then Inger turned back, for she felt ashamed that she, who was so finely dressed, should have for a mother a ragged woman, who picked up wood in the forest. She did not in the least feel sorry for having turned back, she was only annoyed.
And another half-year went by, and her mistress said again, ‘ You ought to go to your home, and visit your old parents, Inger. I’ll make you a present of a great wheaten loaf that you may give to them : they will certainly be glad to see you again.’
And Inger put on her best clothes, and her new shoes, and drew her skirts around her, and set out, stepping very carefully, that she might be clean and neat about the feet ; and there was no harm in that. But when she came to the place where the footway led across the marsh, and where there was mud and puddles, she threw the loaf into the mud, and trod upon it to pass over without wetting her feet. But as she stood there with one foot upon the loaf and the other uplifted to step farther, the loaf sank with her, deeper and deeper, till she disappeared altogether, and only a great puddle, from which the bubbles rose, remained where she had been.
And that ‘s the story.
But whither did Inger go ? She went down to the marsh woman, who is always brewing there. The marsh woman is cousin to the elf maidens, who are w r ell enough known, of whom songs are sung, and of whom pictures are painted ; but concerning the marsh woman it is only known that when the meadows steam in summertime it is because she is brewing. Into the marsh woman’s brewery did Inger sink down ; and no one can endure that place long. A box of mud is a palace compared with the marsh woman’s brewery. Every barrel there had an odour that almost takes away one’s senses ; and the barrels stand close to each other ; and wherever there is a little opening among them, through which one might push one’s way, then one cannot get through for the number of damp toads and fat snakes who are all in a tangle there. Among this company did Inger fall ; and all the horrible mass of living creeping things was so icy cold, that she shuddered in all her limbs , and became stark and stiff. She continued fastened to the loaf, and the loaf drew her down as an amber button draws a fragment of straw.
The marsh woman was at home, and on that day the Devil and his grandmother had come to inspect the brewery ; and she is a venomous old woman, who is never idle : she never rides out to pay a visit without taking her work with her ; she also had it here. She sewed gadding leather to be worked into men’s shoes, and that makes them wander about unable to settle anywhere. She wove webs of lies, and strung together hastily-spoken words that had fallen to the ground ; and all this was done for the injury and ruin of mankind. Yes, indeed, she knew how to sew, to weave, and to string, did this old grandmother !
Catching sight of Inger, she put up her double eye-glass, and took another look at the girl.
1 That ‘s a girl who has ability ! ‘ she observed, ‘ and I beg you will give me the little one as a memento of my visit here . She ‘I make a capital statue to stand in my grandson ‘s antechamber.’
And Inger was given up to her, and this is how Inger came into Hell. People don’t always go there by the direct path, but they can get there by roundabout routes if they have a tendency in that direction.
That was a never-ending antechamber. The visitor became giddy who looked forward, and doubly giddy when he looked back, and saw a whole crowd of people, almost utterly exhausted, waiting till the gate of mercy should be opened to them they had to wait a long time ! Great fat waddling spiders spun webs of a thousand years over their feet, and these webs cut like wire, and bound them like bronze fetters ; and, moreover, there was an eternal unrest working in every heart a miserable Unrest. The miser stood there, and had forgotten the key of his strong box, and he knew the key was sticking in the lock. It would take too long to describe the various sorts of torture that were found there together. Inger felt a terrible pain while she had to stand there as a statue, for she was tied fast to the loaf.
‘ That ‘s the fruit of wishing to keep one’s feet neat and tidy she said to herself. ‘ Just look how they’re all staring at me ! ‘
Yes, certainly, the eyes of all were fixed upon her, and their evil thoughts gleamed forth from their eyes, and they spoke to one another, moving their lips, from which no sound whatever came forth : they were very horrible to behold.
‘ It must be a great pleasure to look at me ! ‘ thought Inger, ‘ and indeed I have a pretty face and fine clothes.’ And she turned her eyes ; her neck was too stiff to turn. But she had not considered how her clothes had been soiled in the marsh woman’s brewhouse. Her garments were covered with mud ; a snake had fastened in her hair, and dangled down her back ; and out of each fold of her frock a great toad looked forth, croaking like an asthmatic poodle. That was very unpleasant. ‘ But all the rest of them down here also look horrible,’ she observed to herself, and derived consolation from the thought.
The worst of all was the terrible hunger that tormented her. But could she not stoop and break off a piece of the loaf on which she stood ? No, her back was too stiff, her hands and arms were benumbed, and her whole body was like a pillar of stone ; she was only able to turn her eyes in her head, to turn them quite round, so that she could see backwards : it was an ugly sight. And then the flies came up, and crept to and fro over her eyes, and she blinked her eyes, but the flies would not go away, for they could not fly : their wings had been pulled out, so that they were converted into creeping insects : it was horrible torment added to the hunger,forshe felt empty, quite, entirely empty.
‘ If this lasts much longer,’ she said, ‘ I shall not be able to bear it.’
But she had to bear it, and it lasted on and on.
Then a hot tear fell down upon her head, rolled over her face and neck, down on to the loaf on which she stood ; and then another tear rolled down, followed by many more. Who might be weeping for Inger ? Had she not still a mother in the world ? The tears of sorrow which a mother weeps for her child always make their way to the child ; but they do not relieve it, they only increase its torment. And now to bear this unendurable hunger, and yet not to be able to touch the loaf on which she stood ! She felt as if she had been feeding on herself, and had become
like a thin hollow reed that takes in every sound, for she heard everything that was said of her up in the world, and all that she heard was hard and evil. Her mother, indeed, wept much and sorrowed for her, but for all that she said, ‘ A haughty spirit goes before a fall. That was thy ruin, Inger. Thou hast sorely grieved thy mother.’
Her mother and all on earth knew of the sin she had committed ; knew that she had trodden upon the loaf, and had sunk and disappeared ; for the cowherd had seen it from the hill beside the marsh.
1 Greatly hast thou grieved thy mother, Inger said the mother ; ‘ yes, yes, I thought it would be thus.’
‘ Oh that I had never been born ! ‘ thought Inger ; ‘ it would have been far better. But what use is my mother’s weeping now ? ‘
And she heard how her master and mistress, who had kept and cherished her like kind parents, now said she was a sinful child, and did not value the gifts of God, but trampled them under her feet, and that the gates of mercy would only open slowly to her.
‘ They should have punished me,’ thought Inger, ‘ and have driven out the whims I had in my head.’
She heard how a complete song was made about her, a song of the proud girl who trod upon the loaf to keep her shoes clean, and she heard how the song was sung everywhere.
‘ That I should have to bear so much evil for that ! ‘ thought Inger ; ‘ the others ought to be punished, too, for their sins. Yes, then there would be plenty of punishing to do. Ah, how I’m being tortured ! ‘
And her heart became harder than her outward form.
‘ Here in this company one can’t even become better she said, ‘ and I don’t want to becom better ! Look, how they’re all staring at me ! ‘ And her heart was full of anger and malice against all men. ‘ Now they’ve something to talk about at last up yonder. Ah, how I’m being tortured ! ‘
And then she heard how her story was told to the little children, and the little ones called her the godless Inger, and said she was so naughty and ugly that she must be well punished
Thus even the children’s mouths spoke hard words of her.
But one day, while grief arid hunger gnawed her hollow frame, and she heard her name mentioned and her story told to an innocent child, a little girl, she became aware that the little one burst into tears at the tale of the haughty, vain Inger.
‘ But will Inger never coine up here again ? ‘ asked the little girl.
And the reply was, ‘ She will never come up again.’
‘ But if she were to beg for forgiveness, and say she would never do so again ? ‘
‘ But she will not beg for forgiveness,’ was the reply.
‘ I should be so glad if she would,’ said the little girl ; and she was quite inconsolable. ‘ I’ll give my doll and all my playthings if she may only come up. It ‘s too dreadful poor Inger ! ‘
And these words penetrated to Inger’s heart, and seemed to do her good. It was the first time any one had said, ‘ Poor Inger,’ without adding anything about her faults : a little innocent child was weeping and praying for her. It made her feel quite strangely, and she herself would gladly have wept, but she could not weep, and that was a torment in itself.
While years were passing above her, for where she was there was no change, she heard herself spoken of more and more seldom. At last one day a sigh struck on her ear : ‘ Inger, Inger, how you have grieved me ! I said how it would be ! ‘ It was the last sigh of her dying mother.
Occasionally she heard her name spoken by her former employers, and they were pleasant words when the woman said, ‘ Shall I ever see thee again, Inger ? One knows not what may happen.’
But Inger knew right well that her good mistress would never come to the place where she was.
And again time went on a long, bitter time. Then Inger heard her name pronounced once more, and saw two bright stars that seemed gleaming above her. They were two gentle eyes closing upon earth. So many years had gone by since the little girl had been inconsolable and wept about ‘ poor Inger ‘, that the child had become an old woman, who was now to be called home to heaven ; and in the last hour of existence, when the events of the whole life stand at once before us, the old woman remembered how as a child she had cried heartily at the story of Inger.
That time and that impression came so clearly before the old woman in her last hour, that she called out quite loud : ‘ Have not I also, like Inger, often trod upon the gifts of heaven without thinking ? have not I also gone about with pride at my heart ? Yet Thou in Thy mercy hast not let me sink, but hast held me up. Leave me not in my last hour ! ‘
And the eyes of the old woman closed, and the eye of her soul was opened to look upon the hidden things. She, in whose last thoughts Inger had been present so vividly, saw how deeply the poor girl had sunk, and burst into tears at the sight ; in heaven she stood like a child, and wept for poor Inger. And her tears and prayers sounded like an echo in the dark empty space that surrounded the tormented captive soul, and the unhoped-for love from above conquered her, for an angel was weeping for her. Why was this vouchsafed to her ? The tormented soul seemed to gather in her thoughts every deed she had done on earth, and she, Inger, trembled and wept such tears as she had never yet wept. She was filled with sorrow about herself : it seemed as though the gate of mercy could never open to her ; and while in deep penitence she acknowledged this, a beam of light shot radiantly down into the depths to her ; with a greater force than that of the sunbeam which melts the snow man the boys have built up ; and quicker than the snow-flake .melts, and becomes a drop of water that falls on the warm lips of a child, the stony form of Inger was changed to mist, and a little bird soared with the speed of lightning upward into the world of men. But the bird was timid and shy towards all things around ; it was ashamed of itself, ashamed to encounter any living thing, and hurriedly sought to conceal itself in a dark hole in an old crumbling wall ; there it sat cowering, trembling through its whole frame, and unable to utter a sound, for it had no voice. Long it sat there before it could rightly see all the beauty around it ; for beauty there was. The air was fresh and mild, the moon shone so clear ; trees and bushes exhaled fragrance, and it was right pleasant where it sat, and its coat of feathers was clean and pure. How all creation seemed to speak of beneficence and love ! The bird wanted to sing of the thoughts that stirred in its breast, but it could not ; gladly would it have sung as the cuckoo and the nightingale sang in spring-time. But Heaven, that hears the mute song of praise of the worm, could hear the notes of praise which now trembled in the breast of the bird, as David’s psalms were heard before they had fashioned themselves into words and song.
For weeks these toneless songs stirred within the bird ; at last, the holy Christmas -time approached. The peasant who dwelt near set up a pole by the old wall, with some ears of corn bound to the top, that the birds of heaven might have a good meal, and rejoice in the happy, blessed time.
And on Christmas morning the sun arose and shone upon the ears of corn, which were surrounded by a number of twittering birds. Then out of the hole in the wall streamed forth the voice of another bird, and the bird soared forth from its hiding-place ; and in heaven it was well known what bird this was.
It was a hard winter. The ponds were covered with ice, and the beasts of the field and the birds of the air were stinted for food. Our little bird flew away over the high road, and in the ruts of the sledges it found here and there a grain of corn, and at the halting-places some crumbs. Of these it ate only a few, but it called all the other hungry sparrows around it, that they, too, might have some food. It flew into the towns, and looked round about ; and whereever a kind hand had strewn bread on the window-sill for the birds, it only ate a single crumb itself, and gave all the rest to the other birds.
In the course of the winter, the bird had collected so many bread crumbs, and given them to the other birds, that they equalled the weight of the loaf on which Inger had trod to keep her shoes clean ; and when the last bread crumb had been found and given, the grey wings of the bird became white, and spread far out.
‘ Yonder is a sea-swallow, flying away across the water,’ said the children when they saw the white bird. Now it dived into the sea, and now it rose again into the clear sunlight. It gleamed white ; but no one could tell whither it went, though some asserted that it flew straight into the sun.