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Selma Lagerlöf: The Fifth Commandment. The Great Beast is War.


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Selma Lagerlöf: The mark of death was on them all


Selma Lagerlöf
From The Outcast (1918)
Translated by Felma Swanston Howard

The Fifth Commandment

While the crowd still waited for the conclusion of the sermon, a voice was heard, not from the graveside, but from somewhere farther out. A woman’s voice, thin and shrill, yet strangely audible and distinct.

They gathered round the speaker, and saw a young woman on her knees, with arms outstretched, head thrown back, and eyes closed. She seemed unconscious of herself, and spoke as in a trance.

“I see the dead,” she said. “I see those whom we have buried here. I see them move toward the land of Death, and enter in. And now, after they have gone a little way, I see them coming toward a building, like a schoolhouse, and asking admittance there.

“‘We are souls that have passed through the school of earth,’ they say to the keeper at the gate, ‘and we have come hither to show what we have learned of knowledge there.’

“But the keeper of the gate shakes his head. He tells them that they have ended their schooling too quickly. But all the same he opens the gate and lets them in.

“And I see them go into a great hall. I can see their fear. They are afraid and trembling, like all who are to be questioned so.

“Then a man comes forward to meet them. He wears a long robe, and his hair lies in smooth locks about his head.

‘”Ye souls that have passed through the school of earth,’ says the man to them, ‘can you say my Ten Commandments as they are said on earth to-day?’

“I see the souls of the dead rejoicing that no harder question is asked than this. And all together answer:

“‘Thou shalt not worship false gods.

“‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

“‘Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath day.

“‘Thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother.’

“I hear them say this, but haltingly, and with great difficulty. And they are wondering in their minds why it should be so hard to say the words. They do not know themselves what makes them stammer and speak so faintly.

“‘You have learned this in some manner, albeit with faults and errors,’ says the teacher. ‘Now say the rest!’

“And then the souls of the dead speak out clearly and without difficulty:

“‘Thou shalt kill!

“‘Thou shalt commit adultery.

“‘Thou shalt steal.

“‘Thou shalt bear false witness.

“‘Thou shalt covet they neighbour’s house.

“‘Thou shalt lay waste they neighbour’s field, and his wife and his servant, his goods and all that is his.’

“And when all this is said, I can see that the dead are glad to have passed the test so well.

“But the teacher asks them:

“‘Who has taught you so to misread my law, that I had set to be a guard about the sacredness of human life?’

“And they answer him:

“‘We are soldiers. We are the subjects and servants of Death.’

“Then the teacher cries to them:

“‘Wake up, ye dead, and see who is this that ye honour, and who is your master!’

“And I see them waken up out of the error of earthly life as from a long dream. And they see then with dread that they are immortal souls, whose place is in heaven, and they begin to sorrow for all that they have done on earth, and to fear for the punishment to come.

“But then the teacher speaks to them again:

“‘I am he that is Lord of Death and of Life.

“‘And I sent Death upon earth to be the servant of Life.

“‘I let the withered leaves fall to the ground, that new fresh leaves may grow again next year.

“‘I let the stars in the firmament burn out and die that new stars may arise in their stead.

“‘I let the bodies of those who have lived their life be laid in the grave, that new life may bloom upon earth.

“‘But since Death has made himself master instead of servant, I will pursue him.

“‘For it is not my will that the harvest should be reaped before its time, nor the young fowl bird be taken by the fowler before it has built its nest and brought forth its young.

“‘And I will set a boundary and a landmark between the time that is now and the time that is to come; in a few years I will mark it. And this time shall be called the time of darkness.

“‘But ye souls, go back again to earth, and teach mankind to keep my Fifth Commandment, which is the Commandment to love thy neighbour, and is the key to all the rest.

“‘Tell them that my Millennium hangs in the east like a dawn. But how shall it rise in the sky and give light to the world, as long as ye let Death take the Great Beast in his service?

“‘For the Great Beast is War…'”

Lotta Hedman came to herself. She looked round and saw a close circle of people. Many faces shone with a great content.

“Where have I been?” she said. “What have I said? Has God at last spoken through my mouth?”

Tears of joy and thankfulness flowed from her eyes.

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