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In this short Easter story, an elderly woman brings the healing love of Christ to a dying Emperor. A beautiful narrative of the traditional Christian story by world-famed author Selma Lagerlöf presented in a refined digital edition.
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First published 1904
Published by Ali Ribelli Edizioni.
www.aliribelli.com - [email protected]
Saint Veronica’s Kerchief
by Selma Lagerlöf
During one of the latter years of Emperor Tiberius’s reign, a poor vinedresser and his wife came and settled in a solitary hut among the Sabine mountains. They were strangers and lived in absolute solitude, without ever receiving a visit from a human being. But one morning when the laborer opened his door, he found, to his astonishment, that an old woman sat huddled up on the threshold. She was wrapped in a plain gray mantle and looked very poor. Nevertheless, she impressed him as compelling so much respect, as she rose and came to meet him, that it made him think of what the legends had to say about goddesses who, in the form of old women, had visited mortals.
“My friend,” said the old woman to the vinedresser, “you must not wonder that I have slept this night on your threshold. My parents lived in this hut, and here I was born nearly ninety years ago. I expected to find it empty and deserted. I did not know that people still occupied it.”
“I do not wonder that you thought a hut which lies so high up among these desolate hills should stand empty and deserted,” said the vinedresser. “But my wife and I come from a foreign land, and as poor strangers we have not been able to find a better dwelling place. But to you, who must be tired and hungry after the long journey which you at your extreme age have undertaken, it is perhaps more welcome that the hut is occupied by people than by Sabine mountain wolves. You will at least find a bed within to rest on, and a bowl of goats’ milk, and a bread-cake, if you will accept them.”
The old woman smiled a little, but this smile was so fleeting that it could not dispel the expression of deep sorrow which rested upon her countenance.
“I spent my entire youth up here among these mountains,” she said. “I have not yet forgotten the trick of driving a wolf from his lair.”
And she actually looked so strong and vigorous that the laborer didn’t doubt that she still possessed strength enough, despite her great age, to fight with the wild beasts of the forest.
He repeated his invitation, and the old woman stepped into the cottage. She sat down to the frugal meal and partook of it without hesitancy. Although she seemed to be well satisfied with the fare of coarse bread soaked in goats’ milk, both the man and his wife thought: “Where can this old wanderer come from? She has certainly eaten pheasants served on silver plates oftener than she has drunk goats’ milk from earthen bowls.”
Now and then she raised her eyes from the food and looked around – as if attempting to realize that she was back in the hut. The poor old home with its bare clay walls and its earth floor was certainly not much changed. She pointed out to her hosts that on the walls there were still visible some traces of dogs and deer which her father had sketched there to amuse his little children. And on a shelf, high up, she thought she saw fragments of an earthen dish which she herself had used to measure milk in.
The man and his wife thought to themselves, “It must be true that she was born in this hut, but she has surely had much more to attend to in this life than milking goats and making butter and cheese.”
They observed also that her thoughts were often far away, and that she sighed heavily and anxiously every time she came back to herself.
Finally she rose from the table. She thanked them graciously for the hospitality she had enjoyed, and walked toward the door.
But then it seemed to the vinedresser that she was pitifully poor and lonely, and he exclaimed, “If I am not mistaken, it was not your intention, when you dragged yourself up here last night, to leave this hut so soon. If you are actually as poor as you seem, it must have been your intention to remain here for the rest of your life. But now you wish to leave because my wife and I have taken possession of the hut.”
The old woman did not deny that he had guessed rightly. “But this hut, which for many years has been deserted, belongs to you as much as to me,” she said. “I have no right to drive you from it.”
“It is still your parents’ hut,” said the laborer, “and you surely have a better right to it than we have. Besides, we are young and you are old; therefore, you shall remain and we will go.”
When the old woman heard this, she was greatly astonished. She turned around on the threshold and stared at the man, as though she had not understood what he meant by his words.
But now the young wife joined in the conversation.
“If I might suggest,” said she to her husband, “I should beg you to ask this old woman if she won’t look upon us as her own children, and permit us to stay with her and take care of her. What service would we render her if we gave her this miserable hut and then left her? It would be terrible for her to live here in this wilderness alone! And what would she live on? It would be just like letting her starve to death.”
The old woman went up to the man and his wife and regarded them carefully. “Why do you speak thus?” she asked. “Why are you so merciful to me? You are strangers.”
Then the young wife answered: “It is because we ourselves once met with great mercy.”
This is how the old woman came to live in the vinedresser’s hut. And she conceived a great friendship for the young people. But, for all that, she never told them whence she had come or who she was, and they understood that she would not have taken it in good part had they questioned her.
But one evening when the day’s work was done and all three sat on the big, flat rock which lay before the entrance, and partook of their evening meal, they saw an old man coming up the path.
He was a tall and powerfully built man, with shoulders as broad as a gladiator’s. His face wore a cheerless and stern expression. The brows jutted far out over the deep-set eyes, and the lines around the mouth expressed bitterness and contempt. He walked with erect bearing and quick movements.
The man wore a simple dress, and the instant the vinedresser saw him he said, “He is an old soldier, one who has been discharged from service and is now on his way home.”
When the stranger came directly before them he paused, as if in doubt. The laborer, who knew that the road terminated a short distance beyond the hut, laid down his spoon and called out to him, “Have you gone astray, stranger, since you come hither? Usually, no one takes the trouble to climb up here unless he has an errand to one of us who live here.”
When he questioned in this manner, the stranger came nearer. “It is as you say,” said he. “I have taken the wrong road, and now I know not whither I shall direct my steps. If you will let me rest here a while, and then tell me which path I shall follow to get to some farm, I shall be grateful to you.”
As he spoke he sat down upon one of the stones which lay before the hut. The young woman asked him if he wouldn’t share their supper, but this he declined with a smile. On the other hand, it was very evident that he was inclined to talk with them while they ate. He asked the young folks about their manner of living, and their work, and they answered him frankly and cheerfully.
Suddenly the laborer turned toward the stranger and began to question him. “You see in what a lonely and isolated way we live,” said he. “It must be a year at least since I have talked with anyone except shepherds and vineyard laborers. Cannot you, who must come from some camp, tell us something about Rome and the emperor?”
Hardly had the man said this than the young wife noticed that the old woman gave him a warning glance, and made with her hand the sign which means, Have a care what you say.
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