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The Old Gravestone


In one of our small trading towns, at that time of year when folk say "The evenings grow long," a whole family was assembled together. The air was still mild and warm; the lamp was lighted, the long curtains hung down before the windows, and bright moonlight prevailed without. They were talking about a big old stone that lay down in the yard, close by the kitchen door, where the servants often placed the kitchen utensils, after they had been cleaned, to dry in the sun, and where the children were fond of playing; it was, in fact, an old gravestone.

"Yes," said the master of the house, "I believe it comes from the old ruined convent chapel; pulpit and gravestones, with all their epitaphs, were sold; my late father bought several of these; the others were broken into paving-stones, but this one was left unused, lying in the yard."

"It is easy to know it for a gravestone," said the eldest of the children. "You can still see on it an mountain-sides and a piece of an angel, but the inscription is almost quite worn out, except the name 'Preben,' and a capital 'S' a little further on, and underneath it 'Martha,' but it is impossible to make out any more, and that you can only read after if has been raining, or when we have washed it."

"Why, then, it must be the gravestone of Preben Swan and his wife!" exclaimed an old man, who by his age might appear the grandfather of everybody in the room. "To be sure, they were among the last that were buried in the old convent churchyard--the grand old couple! Everybody knew them, everybody loved them; they were like king and queen in the town. Folk said they had more than a barrelful of gold, and yet they went about simply clad, in the coarsest cloth, only their linen was always of dazzling whiteness. Yes, that was a charming old pair, Preben and Martha. One was always so glad to see them, sitting together on the bench at the top of their stone staircase, under the old lime-tree's shade. They were so good to the poor! they feasted them, clothed them, and there was good sense and a true Christian spirit in all their benevolence.

"The wife died first; I remember the day quite well; I was then a little boy, and went with my father to see old Preben: the old man was so grieved, he cried like a child. The corpse still lay in her bedroom, close to the chamber where we sat; she looked as if she had just fallen asleep. And the old man told my father how he should now be so lonely, and how many years, they had spent together, and how they had first made acquaintance and came to love each other. As I said before, I was a child, but it moved me strangely to listen to the old man, and watch how he grew more animated as he went on speaking, a faint color coming into his cheeks as he talked of their youthful days, how pretty she had been, how many little innocent tricks he had played, in order to meet her. And when he spoke of his wedding-day his eyes quite sparkled; he seemed to be living his happy time over again--and all the while she was lying dead in the next chamber, an old lady, and he was an old man--ah, how time passes! I was a child then, and now I am as old as Preben Swan. Yes, time and change come to all. I remember as well as possible the funeral-day, and Preben Swan following the coffin. They had had their gravestone carved with names and inscriptions, all except the dates of their death, some years before; that same evening the stone was taken to the grave, and put into its place. The next year the grave had to be reopened, and old Preben rejoined his wife. They did not turn out to be so rich as people had fancied, and what they did leave went to distant relations very far off. The old wooden house, with the bench at the top of the high stone staircase under the lime-tree, was ordered to be pulled down, for it was too ruinous to stand any longer. And afterward, when the convent chapel and cemetery were destroyed, the gravestone of Preben and Martha was sold, like others, to whomsoever chose to buy it. And so now it lies in the yard for the little ones to roll over, and to make a shelf for the kitchen pots and pans. And the paved street now covers the resting-place of old Preben and his wife, and nobody thinks of them any more."

And the old man who related all this shook his head sadly. "Forgotten! All things are forgotten!"

And the rest began to speak of other matters; but the youngest boy, a child with large, grave eyes, crept up on a chair behind the curtains, and looked out into the yard, where the moon shone brightly on the big stone that before had seemed to him flat and uninteresting enough, but now had become to him like a page of a large-sized story-book. For all that the boy had heard concerning Preben and his wife, the stone seemed to contain within it; and he looked first at the stone, and then at the brilliant moon, which looked to him like a bright kind face looking down through the pure still air upon the earth.

"Forgotten! all shall be forgotten!" these words came to his ears from the room; but at that very moment an invisible angel kissed the boy's forehead and softly whispered, "Keep the seed carefully, keep it till the time for ripening. Through thee, child as thou art, shall the half-erased inscription, the crumbling gravestone, stand out in clear, legible characters for generations to come! Through thee shall the old couple again walk arm-in-arm through the ancient gateways, and sit with smiling faces on the bench under the lime tree, greeting rich and poor. The good and the beautiful perish never; they live eternally in tale and song."

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