A Novel Excerpt
Constance seethed with hatred for Ring. That lecherous, deceitful man—she had condescended to listen to his apologies and promises; she had felt sorry for him and started to believe in him again.
Of course the despicable wretch would beg her to forgive him again. He would fall on his knees and take God as his witness that he loved her, that the other thing meant nothing. Involuntarily she clenched her fists.
Dear God in heaven, what a fluke it was that she had learned the truth. She could have clasped Alette’s hand in gratitude.
If only she knew how to go about getting a divorce. She stood with her hands folded, pondering. The minister would know, she was sure of it—she would hurry over to see him.
She put on her hat and coat in feverish haste. Trembling with dread that she might meet Ring on the stairs, she slipped out unhindered and walked rapidly down the street. The minister lived in a corner house on Holbergsplass. Soon she was at her destination, making her way up the gaslit stairway. His door was on the second floor. The shiny brass plate read: The Reverend F. B. Huhn, Visiting Hours 9-10 and 4-5. So he was probably not at home, or not receiving visitors, at any rate. Her knees were trembling and her heart was beating so violently that she could feel the pulse in her throat; she felt as if her soul were leaping out of her body with every breath she took.
She lifted her hand to ring the bell, but then let it drop again. What should she say? She tried to make a start, but her wits failed, her thoughts skittered away. Everything was whirling around in her head, whirling endlessly; that was why she couldn’t find the words. If only this pounding in her left side would subside a bit—it was going to drown out the sound of her voice, or choke it off from inside. Finally, almost mechanically, she pressed the doorbell and then jumped back, startled by the noise. A dreadful fear seized her. Her pulse raced wildly and for a moment she thought of running. Gathering her skirts, she was starting down the stairs when she heard someone coming; she turned around quickly and stood her ground.
In a dry thin voice hardly recognizable as her own, she asked if Reverend Huhn was at home.
“No,” came the uncertain reply.
Constance was relieved, and with relief came a grain of courage.
“He isn’t receiving callers right now?”
The maid looked at her curiously.
“I’ll speak to Mrs. Huhn,” she said with some hesitation; she took a few steps and turned back.
“May I ask for your card?”
Again a sense of dread seized Constance, but in some way she felt that the maid had taken charge of her.
“I don’t have one,” she stammered. “Just say a lady—my name is Mrs. Ring.”
The whisper of muffled voices reached her. She heard a distinct “yes, it seems important,” then footsteps moving away and coming back again, then a brief answer, and the maid reappeared to say, “Come this way, please.”
In a moment she was standing just inside the door of a small room jammed with large bookcases; there was a small pattern in the carpet, and all around the room were quantities of faded needlepoint on chairs, pillows, footstools and pipe racks. Over by the window on the left was a writing desk littered with journals and papers. The room was full of tobacco smoke, and the stove burned with a loud roaring sound.
Constance saw everything through a mist. The minister’s voice reached her ears from an immense distance.
“Please sit down, madam,” said the kindly old man, placing a chair directly in front of the rocker from which he had just risen.
A moment later Constance was astonished to hear someone say, “I’m sorry to bother you outside your visiting hours.” She couldn’t believe that the voice belonged to her.
“Not at all, not at all—I’m glad to be of service, but there are so many who come here on every kind of mission—I have to limit myself. One must have time for one’s sermons, too.”
Constance twitched nervously in her chair and did not answer; she looked very peculiar, the minister noted. “Do you have something particular on your mind?” he asked sympathetically. “Can I help or advise you in some way?”
The sincerity of his tone encouraged Constance; she held her handkerchief to her eyes for a second, collecting herself, then said firmly, “I’ve come to tell you that I want to divorce my husband.”
The minister jumped as if he had been struck.
“Oh no, don’t say that. Perhaps I didn’t hear you correctly,” he said almost imploringly.
“Yes, I’ve made up my mind.” She looked directly at him. “Would you please tell me how to go about it?”
“First, I must hear your reasons, and after that, it’s my duty as a counselor and fellow human being—and, of course, as a representative of the church—to advise you to give up your plan.”
“But that would be quite useless, Reverend. No power on earth can make me do that,” Constance said calmly.
“But what man cannot do, the Lord of Heaven and Earth may still accomplish. You don’t want to oppose Him, do you, Mrs. Ring?”
“I want to be divorced from my husband,” she continued more intensely, “no matter who or what opposes it.” She was twisting her muff in her hands and it dropped to the floor.
“Remember the Scriptures—” he began.
“I don’t care about the Scriptures,” she interrupted, her forehead wrinkling as if she were going to cry.
“You don’t mean that,” the minister admonished.
“And besides, divorce isn’t against God’s commandments,” she went on nervously, gripping the wooden arms of her chair.
“Oh, yes,” he interrupted mildly. “How can you get away from the words: ‘What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.’”
“But surely you wouldn’t say that all married people have been joined by God,” Constance exclaimed.
“You’ve been infected by the skepticism of the modern age, Mrs. Ring! God’s ways are not our ways. Marriage is made by God—when the servant of the Lord stands at the holy altar and administers the sacrament to the bridal couple, the binding words of God are heard. The unworthiness of man does not detract one particle from the holiness of the institution—just as the sacrament of communion is still Christ’s body and blood even when it is taken by the most unrepentant sinner. Because of the hardness of your heart, remember what Moses told the Jews.”
“Moses and the Jews have nothing to do with this,” she interrupted.
“Another sign of skepticism. As long as the Lord’s church exists in the world, the laws of Moses will apply to us. But if you won’t submit to Moses, perhaps the words of our Savior will find their way into your heart. Listen to what He says about marriage.” He took the Bible, which was open on the table, flipped through it, and then began to read Matthew, chapter 19, verses 5 through 10.
Constance had difficulty restraining herself enough to sit still while he read. Her temples were throbbing, her ears ringing. This irrelevant talk exasperated her. In her inmost soul she knew that what she wanted was right; she had not come here to ask him that. Trying to stop her was a shabby trick; he was making himself part of the filth she was trying to escape.
“There you are! It explicitly says that divorce is permitted,” she said, as the minister laid the book aside; her eyes were flashing, her voice cracking with emotion.
“Yes, for adultery, but for that reason only,” he replied, raising his hands.
“That’s precisely why I want a divorce,” she said.
Reverend Huhn bent forward with a sudden jerk of his head.
“What are you saying! Poor, poor woman—can it be possible, can it really be possible?”
The deep compassion in his tone struck a note in Constance’s heart that could not be touched without an answering chord. She abruptly put her hands to her face and wept bitterly.
“Poor woman, go ahead and cry, cry it all out—it will ease your burden. How can such things happen in a congregation of the Lord? Ah, the sins of mankind have grown alarmingly among us.
“But are you certain your judgments aren’t based on mere suspicion?” he asked when Constance had become calm again.
“You are making a terrible charge against your husband,” he added quickly, when he saw her shake her head in impatience.
“And even if appearances were strongly against him,” he continued, “they could still be wrong. Women have a tendency to be jealous, and being jealous is like being struck blind.” The minister’s voice had the exasperated ring of a man defending himself.
“Our housemaid is expecting a child, and it’s—well—it’s his,” she blurted.
He flinched, then stared at her in speechless horror.
“Long-suffering God, are Your eyes to be spared nothing?” He sighed and folded his hands. “How sore Your paternal heart must be! And you are certain,” he said, turning to Constance, “that there is no possibility of a mistake.”
“She told me herself,” came the response.
“What a calamity,” the minister mumbled to himself, rubbing his fingers as if he were washing his hands.
“It’s really not that unusual, I’m told,” Constance said, staring emptily in front of her.
“No, no, you mustn’t talk like that—it shows a moral deficiency in your thinking that is fundamentally unchristian.”
“But what if it’s the truth! To behave that way is surely more unchristian than to know or talk about it.”
“You mustn’t lose faith in goodness, Mrs. Ring. Keep thy heart with all diligence, the Scriptures tell us.”
Reverend Huhn was lost in thought. Constance sat quietly waiting for him to speak.
“This is a terrible chastisement,” he began, after pausing for a moment. His voice was mildly admonitory. “Now it’s a matter of turning it to the good of your eternal soul.”
She squirmed uncomfortably in her chair.
“It’s difficult for flesh and blood, to do what God demands of us,” he went on, “but nothing else can bring peace to our souls.”
Constance remained still; the minister regarded her attentively.
“Be merciful, just as our Father in Heaven is merciful.”
“You mean that I should forgive him,” she cried, her attitude suddenly defiant.
“Yes—no matter how strong your reasons, you should not destroy your marriage.”
“I haven’t destroyed it—he’s taken care of that!”
“A Christian woman never abandons her husband. You would have cold justice on your side, of course, but not the love that forgives all, bears all, believes all, hopes all. Believe me, it is blessed to forgive.”
“It’s despicable, outrageous, and immoral,” she burst out, trembling with indignation.
“Suppose our Lord answered us like that when we begged Him for mercy,” Reverend Huhn said with a quiet smile. His tone indicated that he had found the right words at last. “What if in our final moments, when we cried out to Him for forgiveness for the sins of an entire lifetime, He treated us as we deserved?”
“But the two relationships are not the same at all,” Constance said vehemently. “First, there is no marriage between God and man, and second, He is the One who made us as we are.”
“You frighten me, Mrs. Ring. You are mocking God with your sinful talk.” His voice was stern.
“Is it mocking God to speak the truth?” she said, standing up.
“The spirit of skepticism is speaking through you,” he said, shaking his head dejectedly. “My warnings are obviously useless. Only God can help you. I’ve done my duty by begging you to show Christian gentleness and mercy. If you won’t let yourself be guided by the Scriptures, I have nothing more to say.”
“Tell me, Reverend Huhn,” Constance said in a lower tone, “suppose it had been a man whose wife were going to have a child—by his office boy, for instance. Would you say the same thing then: that no Christian husband abandons his wife?” She looked at him almost belligerently.
“That’s a different matter. When a woman falls into that path it is a sign of such degradation, such moral depravity, that we must view her presence in the home as a contamination.”
“Yes, that’s what we always hear, but I no longer believe there’s such a great difference,” Constance said defiantly.