ONE OF LIFE'S SLAVES
Author of "The Visionary," etc. etc.
Translated from the Norwegian by Jessie Muir
London Hodder Brothers 13 New Bridge Street, D.C. Printed by Ballantyne, Hanson & Co., London & Edinburgh
In a review which appeared in the Athenaeum, of a translation of one of Jonas Lie's earlier works—"Den Fremsynte" ("The Visionary")—the reviewer expressed a hope that I would follow up that translation with "an English version of Lie's 'Livsslaven,' that intensely tragic and pathetic story of suffering and wrong." It is in accordance with this suggestion that the present volume makes its appearance.
In taking Christiania life for the subject of "Livsslaven," Jonas Lie attempted for the second time to break down the preconceived opinion of critics, that such a subject did not come within his province. They were accustomed to have tales of sea-life from his pen, and could not readily be persuaded that another sphere of life might afford equal scope for his talent. "Thomas Ross," published in 1878, had treated of Christiania life, and had attracted but little attention; and now, in the spring of 1883, appeared this "story of a smith's apprentice, with his struggles for existence and his ultimate final failure owing to the irresistible indulgence of a passionate physical instinct." At first this too seemed to be a failure. To use the words of Arne Garborg, a Norwegian author and critic, Lie "had spoken—cried out in the passion or agony of his soul, and people stood there quite calm and as if they had heard nothing;" there seemed to be a total lack of sympathetic comprehension on the part of the public. In the end, however, the book found its way to the hearts of its readers, and, to quote Mr. Gosse's words on the subject, "achieved a very great success; it was realistic and modern in a certain sense and to a discreet degree, and it appealed, as scarcely any Norwegian novel had done before, to all classes of Scandinavian society."
Lie himself, in speaking of this work, says that a writer should "aim at presenting his subject in such a way that the reader may see, hear, feel, and comprehend it with the utmost possible intensity." This precept he has certainly put into practice in the present instance, for the subject is treated with such power and so full a grasp, that in reading the book one feels an actual anxiety, an oppression as of approaching disaster. This, at any rate, is the case with the original, and I trust that its power has not been altogether lost in the process of rendering into another language, but that the stamp of genuineness, the author's leading characteristic, may to some extent be found also in this translation.
November 10, 1894.
I. NEGLECTED RESPONSIBILITIES
II. A STRICT DISCIPLINARIAN
III. A FIGHT AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
IV. A STOLEN INTERVIEW
V. AMONG THE UNEMPLOYED
VI. THE FACTORY GIRLS
VII. "THE WORLD IS RIGHT ENOUGH AFTER ALL"
VIII. AN UNEXPECTED ARRIVAL
IX. AN IMPORTANT STEP TAKEN
X. A RISE IN LIFE
XI. THE WEDDING POSTPONED AGAIN
XII. THE FAIR AND THE CONVICT
"Like a prince in his cradle," you say, "with invisible fairies and the innocent peace of childhood over him!"
What fairy stood by the cradle of Barbara's Nikolai it would be difficult to say. Out at the tinsmith's, in the little house with the cracked and broken window-panes in the outskirts of the town, there was often a run of visitors, generally late at night, when wanderers on the high road were at a loss for a night's lodging. Many a revel had been held there, and it was not once only that the cradle had been overturned in a fight, or that a drunken man had fallen full length across it.
Nikolai's mother was called Barbara, and came from Heimdalhoegden, somewhere far up in the country—a genuine mountain lass, shining with health, red and white, strong and broad-shouldered, and with teeth like the foam in the milk pail. She had heard so much about the town from cattle-dealers that came over the mountain, that a longing and restlessness had taken possession of her.
And then she had gone out to service in the town.
She was about as suitable there as a tumble-down haystack in a handsome town street, or as a cow on a flight of stairs—that is to say, not at all.
She used to waste her time on the market-place by all the hay loads. She must see and feel the hay—that was not at all like mountain grass. "No indeed! Mountain grass was so soft, and then, how it smelt! Oh dear no!"
But her mistress had other uses for her servant than letting her spend the morning talking to hay-cart drivers. So she went from place to place, each time descending both as regarded wages and mistress. Barbara was good-natured and honest; but she had one fault—the great one of being totally unfit for all possible town situations.
Yet Society has, as we know, a wonderful faculty for making use of, assimilating and reconstructing everything, even the apparently most meaningless and useless, for its own purpose. And the way it took, quickly enough, with poor Barbara was that she became the only thing in which she could be of any service in the town—namely, a nurse.
It was a sad time and a hard struggle while the shame lasted, almost enough to kill her; and after that, she never thought of returning to the Heimdal mountains again.
But things were to be still harder.
The various social claims, which an age of progress increasingly lays upon the lady of the house in the upper classes of society, asserted themselves here in the town by an ever increasing demand for nurses.
"The reason," as Dr. Schneibel explained, "was simply a law of Nature—you can't be a milch-cow and an intelligent human being at the same time. The renovation of blood and nerves must be artificially conveyed from that class of society which stands nearer to Nature."
And now the thing was to find an extra-healthy, thoroughly strong nurse for Consul-General Veyergang's two delicate, newly-arrived, little ones.
Dr. Schneibel had very thoughtfully kept a nurse in reserve for Mrs. Veyergang—"a really remarkable specimen of the original healthiness in the common stock. One might say—h'm, h'm—that if Mrs. Veyergang could not get to the mountains, the mountains were so courteous as to come to her. The girl still had an odour of the cowshed about her perhaps; but when all's said and done, that was only a stronger assurance of originality. And that is an important factor in our day, madam, when milk is adulterated even from the very cows themselves.—Quite young, scarcely twenty!"
Barbara Hoegden had not the faintest suspicion, as she carried water and wood, or stood at the edge of the ice beating linen, or did any drudgery she could find to do, in order to earn a little money to pay for herself and her baby at the tinsmith's, that, from her deepest degradation, she had risen at one step to the rank of an exceptionally sought-after and esteemed person in the town.
For a nurse is an esteemed person. Indeed, she is on the expectancy list to become respected.
After having nursed her mistress's child, and been a correspondingly unnatural mother to her own, she ends by sleeping on down, and being considered in every way, until a new nurse for a new heir deposes her from her dynasty.
Should she prefer to give her own little baby the only treasure she possesses, her healthy breast, should she really be so blind to her own interests, why then the case is different, and (to use Dr. Schneibel's words) not altogether unmerited, only a result of the social economy to which she does not know how to be intelligently subordinate, and which will reduce her, with the inexorable logic of the laws of civilisation, to a useless superfluity, which Society's organism rejects. Or, vulgarly speaking, she is left with shame, contempt and poverty resting upon both her and her illegitimate offspring. As a private individual, she is in a sense right; but socially, as a member of society——!
At first poor Barbara was quite blind on this point, utterly obstinate, rigid as a mountain pony that could not be got to stir.
Dr. Schneibel was standing for the third time at the tinsmith's, with his stick under his nose, while his gig waited down in the road. Each time he had added to both wages and arguments, and had again and again pointed out how bad it would be both for her and her boy if she continued so obstinate. He appealed to her own good sense. How could she expect to bring him up in such poor, narrow circumstances, and with all this toiling and moiling? She would only need to give up a part of her large wages to the tinsmith, and they would look well after the boy. Besides she could often come out and see him, at least once a month!—he could promise her that on the Veyergangs' behalf, and it was very kind of them now they lived such a long way out of town.
Dr. Schneibel talked both kindly and severely, both good-naturedly and sharply: he was almost like a father.
Barbara felt a pang of fear every time she saw him come down the street, and turn in by the rotten, mouldy wooden fence. She watched him like a bird that is afraid for her nest, and was sitting close to the wall in the darkest corner with the cradle behind her, when he opened the door. It was impossible for her to answer except by a sob. The tinsmith's wife did all the talking with: "Why, bless me, yes!" and "Bless me, no!" and "Just so, doctor!" in garrulous superabundance, while Barbara only sat and meditated on taking her baby on her back and departing.
But to-day the doctor had talked so very kindly to her and offered her so much money. He had appealed so directly to her conscience, patted the child, and said that when it came to the point, he was sure she was not the mother who could be so cruel as to bring misery upon such a pretty little fellow, let him suffer want, let his pretty little feet be cold, when he might lie both comfortable and warm and like a little prince in his cradle!
It was not possible to resist, and in her emotion something like a half promise escaped her.
Afterwards a neighbour came in and was of exactly the same opinion, and told of all the little children whom she had known that had died of want and neglect, only in the houses round about, during the last two years, because their mothers had had to go out and work all day and could not pay any one to look after them. And she and the tinsmith's wife both spoke at once about the same thing—only the same thing.
Barbara sat listening and tending her child. Her heart felt like breaking. For a moment she thought of going, not to Hoegden, but in another way, home with him at once.
It was a temptation.
That night she broke into sobs so ungovernable, that, in order not to disturb the household in their slumbers, she went out into the soft, drizzling rain: it quieted and cooled her.
As she was standing the next morning, helping a neighbour's wife to rinse and wring the clothes by the brook, a pony-carriage stopped in the road. The coachman—he had gold lace on his hat and coat—got down and went in to the tinsmith's.
"You must wring that sheet right out, Barbara," said the neighbour's wife; "it'll be the last you'll wring here, for that's the Consul's carriage."
And Barbara wrung the sheet until there was not a drop of water in it. It had come now!
She went in and dressed the child; she hardly knew what she was doing, and hardly felt it under her hands.
She saw the man give six dollars to the tinsmith's wife. He was so stiff and tall and distinguished-looking, with such a big, aristocratic nose, and he made a kind of bend every time she happened to look at him, and assured her that there was no hurry—not the least! They never woke before nine at the Consul's, so there was still plenty of time. And then he looked at his watch.
And every time he looked at his watch, she looked at her boy: there were now orders and a time fixed for her to leave him.
He had fallen asleep again. If he were to wake, she did not know what would happen—she was sure she could not leave him then.
"No hurry, no hurry!" and he took the thick silver watch out of his pocket once more.
But now it was she who was in a hurry, and so eager that she gave herself no time to look round before she was seated in the carriage, and the long, stiff-necked, braided coachman was driving her away along the road of her appointed destiny.
In the summer she accompanied the Consul-General's family to a bathing-place. There Barbara wheeled the perambulator with the two children in it along the shore, and more than once the Veyergangs were flattered by the exclamations of passers-by: "What a fine-looking nurse!"
But there were difficulties with her, too—fits of melancholy to which she completely gave way. She would sit by the cradle, her eyes red with weeping, longing for her child, and would neither eat nor drink.
This was a matter of no little importance. A nurse must be kept in good spirits; her frame of mind has such an immense influence on her health, and that again on the health of the child.
Mrs. Veyergang had all sorts of good things brought in from the pastry-cook's to enliven her; silk handkerchiefs and aprons abounded, and the servants at home received injunctions to inquire after Barbara's boy at the tinsmith's.
There was praise and nothing but praise to be given every time the Consul-General's Lars stopped there in driving past, and when Barbara only received a message of that kind, she could be happy and contented the whole month.
She was made much of, as she very soon felt. If she said or wanted anything, she was obeyed as if she were the mistress herself. And handsome clothes with constant change of fine underclothing, not to mention meat and drink—hardly anything of what she was accustomed to call work, her hands had already become quite soft and supple. And she felt that she was beginning to be attached to the two little ones whom she tended day and night.
* * * * *
One day, after the Consul's family had returned from the bathing-place, Barbara set out for the tinsmith's. It was late in the autumn. She could hardly ever remember the road out there so bad and muddy as it was now. Both her boots and the bottom of her dress would need cleaning and washing when she got back again.
The thought that she would soon see her boy put her in a cold perspiration; but of course things were best as they were, now that she could pay so well for him.
When she turned in by the wooden fence and saw the cottage with its familiar cracked windows in front of her, she slackened her pace a little. A feeling of apprehension suddenly came over her.
And then the neighbour's wife, whom she had so often helped, came out and began to talk and give her information, rattling on like a steam-engine. There had been war among the neighbours in the tinsmith's alley, and now that she saw Barbara herself, the truth should out, the real, actual truth.
The tinsmith's people need not imagine that other people hadn't got eyes in their head! Everything they possessed had gone to the pawnbroker's; there was barely enough of the tin-ware left to put in his cracked windows. And what they lived on, nobody round there could imagine, unless it was the payment they got for that poor little ill-used boy, that they gave lager-beer to, to keep him quiet. For no one would put up there now that the police had begun to keep an eye on the company, not even certain people who were not generally so particular about their quarters.
"But if you take my advice, Barbara, you'll take the boy to blockmaker Holman's down at the wharf. They are such nice, respectable people, and have pitied the boy so when I told them how they were treating him out here."
Blockmaker Holman, blockmaker Holman! The name rang in her ears as, heavy-hearted, she entered the tinsmith's.
There he lay among the ragged, dirty clothes, pale, thin and neglected, with frightened eyes. He began to cry when she took him up; he did not know her, and she scarcely knew him.
The disappointment—all that she felt—found vent in a rising torrent of angry words against the tinsmith and his wife.
But at the same time, while she was washing the boy, she felt how big, coarse and clumsy his face and body were, compared to the two delicate ones she was accustomed to. She saw now for the first time how impossible it would be to keep him herself.
But he should go to the blockmaker's, poor boy! Her name wasn't Barbara if she didn't get her mistress to see to that at once—as early as to-morrow.
She returned home with a face red and swollen with crying, and was inconsolable the whole evening until her mistress came down from the office with the promise that the matter should be arranged.
And thus it was that Nikolai came to blockmaker Holman's.
A STRICT DISCIPLINARIAN
It is in some ways a blessing that those who have suffered hardship and been neglected in their babyhood, do not remember anything about it—and yet perhaps something clings to them.
So, at any rate, Mrs. Holman declared. From the very first day the boy came into the house, she could see he had been brought up in a thieves' nest. His eyes were so wise and watchful, and he could be so craftily cunning and refractory, long before he could speak. She declared that he was positively malicious, so drowsy and quiet as he would be until she had just fallen asleep, when he would begin to shout as loud as a watchman.
But every one who knew anything about the Holmans, said that if they had not been fortunate in getting the boy, he had at any rate been fortunate in having found his way to them. There were not two opinions as to what an orderly woman Mrs. Holman was, and how strict in the fulfilment of her duty. Tall, thin and neat in her person, even her small, liver-coloured face, with the pale blue expressionless eyes, told you at once that she was not the woman to allow herself to be carried away by rash impetuosity.
And on the few occasions in the year that Barbara visited the boy—it was not so easy for her to come now that the Veyergangs lived in their country house all the year round—she could see for herself how well-cared-for and clean he was, and how strictly he was kept. From the time she got there to the time she left, she heard nothing except how difficult it was to straighten out all the tinsmith's dents, all that had been wrongly and improperly dealt with from the very first, especially his obstinate temper! Now he really could walk quite a good way, but he would do nothing but crawl, and so quickly, that no sooner had she, Mrs. Holman, taken her eyes off him than he might be anywhere, either at the saucepans and pots, or in the water-bucket, or else at the plummets on the bell. And he upset things, and got himself in a mess, wherever he went; yesterday the cat's food lay all over the floor! So now she had hung the birch-rod low down on the wall, so that it might be before his eyes; for it was necessary to frighten him, and vigilance and punishment must positively be used. And Barbara must know herself, that it wasn't so easy to manage other people's children, and especially such a stray creature, come into the world in such a manner!
It was all just, as Barbara was obliged to acknowledge to herself, from beginning to end, however much it might sting her, and therefore she was always in a hurry to get away again.
It cannot be denied that she learnt something from it too, namely, what she, on her side, might have reason and right to say to Mrs. Veyergang about all the toil she had had with her two, if they ever had a difference.
But the same spirit of disobedience remained in the boy as he grew older. It was impossible to cure him of it, for all that Mrs. Holman could do, and Holman had to help too sometimes. This did not happen, however, until his wife had duly impressed on him the moral necessity of taking upon himself his share of the duties of the house.
Holman was a silent man with a pair of quiet, shining eyes. He went and came, morning and evening, rubbed and dried his shoes, and stood hesitating at the door with some tool or other, or the tail of a block in his hand, before he went in. What he might think of his married life there was little opportunity of seeing in his face. One thing was certain—a wife like Mrs. Holman was a treasure, which could not be sufficiently prized; and if there was not quite so much left of Holman, if, in fact, he had become—with all reverence be it said—something of a fool, yet every one was sensible that in that union it must be so, if the balance was to be kept. Any one who had only seen or spoken to Mrs. Holman once, understood it immediately, but what was not so easy to understand was that, after all, it was Holman who made the blocks down in the workshop, by which the household lived.
It was still more remarkable that he had sometimes been met in the gateway in an irresponsible condition, such as no one would have expected in a man so happily married as he was.
After the miracle of Mrs. Holman's having a little girl herself had happened—after that great and important change in the household, it was deliberated whether it would not be better to rid the room of other people's progeny. But then it was good regular money to have, and in time the boy could be made use of at the cradle.
It was the lightest work in the world—just made for a little boy, sitting and rocking the cradle with his foot—nothing but a little practice for him.
But here, too, she was to have sad experience. She left him by the cradle went she went out, but when she came home, he would be standing gazing out of the window or from the top of the cellar stairs at the children playing in the square. She had even caught him right outside with the door open behind him—it was all the same to him, as long as he could get out of the cellar and away from his duty.
Well, the young rogue would have to pay for it, as much as his mortal back could bear!
And she assured the servant upstairs, who put in her head to hear what the little imp had done now, as he was screaming so—that all the punishment she gave him, and all her attempts, both by letting him have no supper and by locking him in, were equally useless: he was just as defiant and unreliable as ever!
She had frightened him now by saying that the devil sat in the corner behind the bed and watched to see if he left the cradle!
He was almost beside himself with terror, and fancied all the time that he could see the aforesaid sinister personage putting up his head over Mrs. Holman's pillow. He could not help looking now and again towards the window—there was some one playing outside in the square. And, somehow or other, he came to be standing there, and stood until he once more remembered what was behind him. Then he darted back like an arrow, and sat staring in mortal fear into the corner.
From being made useful beside the cradle, Nikolai was advanced in course of time to mind the Holman's daughter Ursula, outside the cellar steps. To move farther, only as far as the trees over on the other side of the street, was a capital offence. The idea of what overstepping the bounds meant, was impressed upon him with full force. How could Mrs. Holman be sure otherwise that he did not take Silla right up to the basin round the fountain, where all the naughty boys played with their ships, and shouted and made a noise? His poor little body had received so many black and blue marks every time he had fallen into temptation that at last the limits stood instinctively before his frightened perception like an invisible iron grating. A foot's breadth beyond was, in his imagination, the blackest crime, an enormity which would draw down the fiercest retribution upon him.
That Silla was an uncommon and remarkable being of a higher order, so to speak, than himself, had been driven into him in so many ways ever since she came into the world, that he looked upon the assertion as raised above all doubt.
Notwithstanding everything that he had endured for her sake, or perhaps, by a strange contradiction, just because of these sufferings, the feeling that she was under his care was most highly developed. His admiration of her was unqualified; he thought her more than remarkable in her blue bow and an old red stuff rose in her hat, and he submitted to a wilfulness which was quite as despotic as even Mrs. Holman's. When he had sat long enough and let her fill his hair with dust, she would order him to pull off her shoes and stockings. If he did it, he got a beating; if he did not do it, she screamed, and then he got a beating too.
Insecurity was, so to speak, the soil on which he lived, and the hurried, shrinking glances he continually cast, as if from habit, towards the cellar door—even when his often guilt-laden conscience felt itself most guiltless—were only the fruit of daily experience.
"You could see the bad conscience in his face, a long way off," said Mrs. Holman; and it was true—the quick, watchful look up with the grey eyes was to see what sins he was guilty of now.
"Good neighbours and other good things," the catechism says. But in our times we have no neighbours; you do not know who lives on the floor above you or on the floor below, or even on the other side of the passage. And so it was that no one in the house had any ear to speak of for Nikolai's various untoward fortunes below in the cellar, although their character often asserted itself with no uncertain sound during their execution.
The neighbours had become accustomed to the continual screaming and howling of that naughty boy, just as one accustoms one's self to piano practising or the din of a factory; perhaps too, they comforted themselves with the thought that it was most fortunate that such a morally depraved child had come under discipline and correction.
When Nikolai and Silla wandered as usual up and down the pavement outside the cellar, the people of the house might often in passing give the little girl a friendly nod. To give Nikolai any encouragement in that way would have been a mistake.
Maren, the cook, who had come to the floor above last hiring-day, had naturally no conception of Mrs. Holman's strict, conscientious character, and was therefore to be excused in what now took place.
[Footnote 1: The days for changing servants in Norway are in the spring and autumn. In Christiania they are the second Friday after Easter, and the second Friday after Michaelmas.]
She went down into the cellar with the lantern one evening to fetch coal and wood, panting and puffing down the stairs as she used to do; she had a bend in both hips from rheumatism, and rocked from one side to the other like a boat's mast in rough weather.
From the wood-cellar she all at once heard a sound as of wailing in the darkness within. It was as though some one were crying, and now and again sobbing convulsively for some time without being able to produce a distinct sound.
The voice sounded so utterly broken-hearted that Maren stopped putting the wood into her apron and stood by the chopping-block listening. It seemed to come from one of the coal cellars up the dark passage. At last she seized the lantern and groped her way in; she must come to the bottom of this.
"Is any one here?" she cried at the door whence the sobbing came.
There was a sudden complete silence.
She knocked hard with a bit of wood, but then from within there came a terrified scream, which made Maren drop the wood from her apron and pull open the hasp of the door which was fastened with a piece of wood.
"But who has put the poor little boy in here—in the pitch black darkness?"
By the light of the lantern she saw Nikolai staring at her in wild terror.
"I thought it was the devil, I did. Yes, for he does knock on the wall."
"Oh, you'd frighten any one out of their senses, boy, with those ugly words!"
"Mrs. Holman says so;" and with a quick, inquiring glance up at Maren he added, "but do you think she only says it so that I shan't touch her sugar?"
"Is that what you are here for?"
"I haven't taken anything from her, but I will, if she says it whether I do or not! It was only that Monday when I put my tongue down into the bag and licked when I'd gone for half a pound. But now I'll crunch it so that she'll only have the empty bag left! I'll take! I'll steal!" he added and ground his teeth. "Don't—don't go!" he sobbed, catching hold of her dress, "for when it's dark again, he'll come and take me!"
What was Maren to do? She stood hesitating and considering; she dare not let the boy out.
She might try and beg him off from Mrs. Holman.
"Only get me another beating for that, too!" was the answer.
There was nothing else for it; she could not let the poor little frightened thing stay there in the coal-hole. So, with eyes closed to the consequences of her own determination, she exclaimed: "Then you must come up into the kitchen with me, and sleep on the bench there to-night."
This time, Nikolai did not weigh the probabilities of what Mrs. Holman would say or do; he only took hold of her skirt with both hands. And with the boy close in her wake, Maren sailed up the kitchen stairs again.
While she was looking out some of her old shawls and skirts to put under him, taking some of the clothes from her own bed, and making it as comfortable and warm as she could for him on the bench, Nikolai seemed to have forgotten all his troubles.
There was so much that was new up here. There were such a number of shining tin things hanging all over the wall, and then the cat was an old friend. He had seen it many a time down in the yard, and now he had to squeeze himself together to get hold of it, it had crept so far under the bed.
There! He had knocked down the tin kettle with his back!
He fled in terror to the door. But Maren picked it up quite quietly; there was not a word of scolding, a thing he wondered more at than either the tin things or the cat.
Maren had at last fallen asleep after all the aching and pain of the rheumatism in her weary joints, with which she always had to contend at the beginning of the night. She was awakened by a wild shriek.
"What is it—what is it, Nikolai? Nikolai!"
She lighted the bit of candle. He was sitting up, fencing with his arms.
"I thought they were going to take my head off," he explained, when he at length collected himself.
When she lay down again, Maren could not help thinking how glad she was that she had no child to be responsible for. Every one has his trouble, and now she had this rheumatism.
But it was a shock to her, when, on the kitchen stairs next morning, in the presence of the servants both from the other side of the passage and from the first floor, Mrs. Holman called her to account for having interfered in what was none of her business. She then received such full information, once for all, both as to why Mrs. Holman had shut him in, and what they had to go through daily with that boy, that Maren was completely nonplussed. For this Mrs. Holman could stake her life upon, that if there was any one in the house who could not stand disorder or unseemly behaviour, it was she. She could not imagine a worse punishment than to have it said of her that she allowed shame and depravity to flourish in her sight.
But when Maren sat down there in the evening by the lantern on the chopping-block, and could hear the boy screaming right from the Holmans' room, she was not capable of going upstairs until the worst was over. She thought she had never heard anything so heart-rending, even though it was in the cause of justice.
Up with Maren was a kind of harbour of refuge for the boy. He would sit there as quiet as a mouse in the corner by the wood-box, carving himself boats, which he put under his blouse when he carried Holman's dinner down to the workshop near the quay.
To represent, however, that Nikolai's existence was passed, so to speak, in the coal-cellar, or under blows on back and ear from Mrs. Holman's warm hands, would be an exaggeration. He had also his palmy days, when Mrs. Holman overflowed with words of praise—praise, if not exactly of him, yet of everything that she had accomplished in her daily toil for his moral improvement.
Twice a year she had to call for the payment for him at the Consul-General's office in the town. Nikolai, too, often had leave to go out to the country house with the kitchen cart, which had come in to make the morning purchases.
And there he would sit, while the cart rumbled and jolted along the road, smart and clean, head and body respectively combed and scoured like a copper kettle that has been cleaned with sand and lye. He could not sit still a minute; he talked and asked questions—always about the horse, the wonderful brown horse—whether it was the best or the second best, if it could go faster than the railway train, or who and what it could beat.
Then the cart turned—so much too soon—into the yard in front of the kitchen door, and he was led through the passage by the man-servant to the nursery.
"I hope you have rubbed your shoes? You might have had the sense, Lars, not to bring the boy in that way, with such shoes as those!" His mother took him and set him on a chair.
And then he was given bread-and-butter and cracknels and milk. But he must wait now until she came in again, for she was busy to-day washing Lizzie's and Ludvig's clothes.
In rushed the aforesaid children, his equals in point of age; the one was drawing a large saddled horse after him, the other was carrying two large, dressed dolls. They had been sent out by their mother to play with Nikolai. And they were soon in full gallop round the nursery. Gee-up! gee-up!—Nikolai drew, and Ludvig rode—hi! gee-up! And at last Nikolai wanted to ride too; he had been drawing for such a long time. But Ludvig would not get down, so Nikolai dropped the bridle and pulled him off the horse by one leg.
"You ragged boy! How dare you?"
"Ragged boy! Ragged boy yourself!" It ended with a fling up on to the bed, behind which Ludvig entrenched himself howling, while his sister took his part and joined in.
"What is the matter, what is the matter, dears?" cried Barbara, hurrying in. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself, Nikolai, behaving like that to the Consul's children! You'd better try it on! There Ludvig—there, there, Lizzie—he shan't hurt you! Just do what they want, do you hear, Nikolai!"
And then Barbara had to lament over Ludvig's starched collar, which had got crumpled.
"Come here, my precious boy. Come now, and then you shall play again directly."
She took him up on her knee. "It's my own precious boy, it is, who's so good! There, hold his blouse, Nikolai, and you shall see such a fine boy, and so good, so good!"
"Show him my Sunday clothes, Barbara, and the patent leather shoes!" And Nikolai was allowed to look into the drawers at all Ludvig's and Lizzie's dresses and sashes and fine underclothes, and to peep into the toy-cupboard to be bewildered by all the old drums and trumpets and headless men and horses, and tin soldiers, and Noah's arks, with their belongings, all of which, Barbara said, they had been given because they were so good.
There was a pile of things in the lower part of the cupboard, so that Nikolai could understand that they must have been very, very good, and that his mother, too—and at this he felt a bitter disappointment—must, in return, be very, very fond of them. They must be very different children to what he was, if they never deserved a whipping, but always playthings. He became quite tired and downcast, as he stood there. If he ever met Ludvig anywhere, he would pay him out about the horse.
At last the hour of departure arrived, when he was to go with the pony-carriage that fetched the Consul from town at three o'clock. The two children both clung to his mother's skirt when she followed him out.
"Good-bye, Nikolai!" and she patted him in such a way on the cheek and head that he looked at her half doubtingly, "and give my respects to Holman and Mrs. Holman. Do you hear? Whatever you do, don't forget Mrs. Holman. And—I declare you're kicking the varnish now! You must sit quite still, Nikolai, the whole way. Don't you know that you mustn't come near those fine carriage-cushions with your boots? You should just see how nicely Ludvig and Lizzie sit, when they go for a drive—don't you, dears?"
And off he set.
It had indeed been a gala day, and he had been given a large, sugared twist to take with him, and it tasted delicious; but somehow or other he began to cry all at once on the way home.
The next day he had full confirmation of how delightful it had been.
While he was going up and down the pavement in his daily occupation of taking care of Silla, he caught fragments of Mrs. Holman's remarks to the housekeeper up stairs, as they stood under the archway; he never for a moment lost sight of her tall figure.
"You may well say so, Miss Damm. Take him into the room with their own children; there aren't many grand folks that would have done such an honour to one like him." ... "We must do so many things in this world, Miss Damm—we must scour the boards over the gutter, so to speak, and put up with them—and I don't mind saying that he showed that he was well cared-for from top to toe." ... "Such an honour! It might have been some respectable child they had asked there. He ought to remember it the whole of his life!" ... "So grand as she is now, she doesn't much care about coming out here and acknowledging the boy. It's nothing for those that can pay to get rid of their shame!"
Nikolai crushed with all his might an old decapitated cock's head, which lay in the gutter, with the heel of his boot, until it was as flat as a penny.
When the terror of bogies and the devil in the coal-cellar had lost its power, one of Mrs. Holman's most powerful means of keeping Nikolai in order was a threat of sending him to the parish school—an institution which stood before her imagination as a publicly authorised house of correction for youth, and a daily training-ground in the fulfilment of one's duty.
He never obtained any very clear idea of what would happen when he went to school; but that it was something quite indeterminably dreadful was evident from the constantly renewed disguised hints, and the repressed, mystical groans and nods by which they were accompanied.
One day the threat was really carried out: he was to go next Monday morning.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, he counted on his fingers—he had all those days left. And how he took care of and played with Silla during them, and darted on errands like an arrow!
At last there was only the Sunday afternoon left.
He sat at tea-time with Silla and tried to take comfort from her opinions about school, heard that he was to have his Sunday clothes on to-morrow too, because it was the first time, and fell asleep that night with drops of perspiration on his forehead.
In the morning Nikolai was not to be found.
Mrs. Holman inquired, and sought, and called, promising liberally both torments and pardon if he would only come at once; but it was all of no use, he had vanished.
After dinner Maren upstairs was startled by seeing him emerge from under her bed. She gave him some food and asked him to promise to go home; and Nikolai said he would, only not before it was dark.
In the twilight he made an excursion down to the quay, where he amused himself for an hour by sitting and rocking in a ship's boat; then in the wet October darkness he slunk through the narrow, dripping passages between the warehouses, until he was sure that there was no longer any light on the square, and spent the rest of the evening lying peeping over the paling at the light in the two cellar windows at home. He noticed how Holman came slinking cautiously up and stood a little while at the door before going in, and how they put Silla to bed. The light from the windows told him, like two dimly-glaring, merciless eyes, that if he came home now, the well-merited sentence of justice would most certainly be carried out.
Then the light was put out.
Through the drizzling rain late that night the gleam of a lantern glanced among the stacks of wet planks, and behind it was a pair of eyes which were accustomed to look in the dark for all kinds of persons who might think fit to hide themselves in the yard. The lantern wandered about among the narrow rows, sometimes standing still, while it threw its searching, reddish light as far as possible in between the planks.
No one was discovered that night. Among the many square spaces which could give shelter, Nikolai, with a certain inborn instinct, had chosen the foremost and most unsuspicious looking one, which stood half built with a sloping plank-roof over it. There he lay wedged into the farthest corner, close wrapped in the happy Nirvana of self-forgetfulness—school zero, and Mrs. Holman a cipher—his body bent down over his knees, his coat pulled up about his neck to keep out the drips, and his boots down in the wet mud.
But that night under the wet sky, with Trondsen's planks for his bed-posts, brought something new into his mind, a feeling—showing certainly the greatest insensibility to all Mrs. Holman's solicitous care—that the timber-yard was really his home, a certain independent, free savage's consciousness in relation to everything that they might afterwards think fit to screw him into, the school no less than Mrs. Holman's cellar steps; the planks in the timber-yard shone so white in bright weather, and when it grew dark, they stood there like his oft-tried, secret friends, who could screen him from the terrors at home.
He was taken to school, however, and one of his first timid, inquiring glances was to discover the thrashing-block with which Mrs. Holman had threatened him. He had pictured it to himself giving blow after blow with a rod, and beating incessantly, like the chicory factory at the bottom of the square.
Strangely enough there was no such block. But there were other things into which he was to be squeezed and forced like a last into a boot; and he was a hard last, which often would not go farther than the leg, and had to be hammered and knocked the rest of the way, where others more pliable glided smoothly down like eels.
There were things he understood, and things he did not understand. The former did not often happen to be explained to him, the latter he did not understand however many explanations were given; the result was a painful consciousness, a continual difference or falling short both in relation to his lessons and his teachers, which had to be adjusted by the cane and detention, while the majority of his schoolmates, in this particular also, more supple, worked themselves out like true virtuosi.
But what was even a whole day at school, with its full measure of misfortunes, in comparison to the endlessly long, dull hours of the evening, when Mrs. Holman, with her own eyes, "watched over him, to see that he learnt his lessons," and he hardly dared so much as to glance across at Silla.
As to Holman, experience had taught them that his fixed and staring eyes saw nothing: he sat mute and quiet the whole evening. In Mrs. Selvig's tap-room he found a remedy which made him insensible to moral lectures even the most reasonable and impressive. There he stood every evening a quarter of an hour after working-hours, as regular as clockwork, and when the hands of the clock drew near to eight, he just as regularly set off homewards, a punctuality which, be it said in passing, had gained for him in the tap-room the title of General with order.
A FIGHT AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
That was a dangerous corner, where the wide street leading to the grammar school crossed the narrow one that led to the board school; and, on the days when the afternoon hours for the latter began just when the grammar school's long morning was over, it might happen that the free, exuberant spirits of those who were leaving school came into collision with the heavier and more bitter mood of those who were on their way to it.
Ludvig Veyergang, with his sealskin satchel on his back, had already travelled this road for several years. He had been nicknamed the Ostrich, because of his little head with the bird-like nose, his long bare neck, and the way he walked. When he met Nikolai, he pretended not to know him, and Nikolai whistled and clattered with his shoes on the pavement.
The board school's new slide ran along the gutter a good way out into the grammar school street. It was the product of the joint work of many for a whole week, and fate willed that Nikolai, at the head of a string of comrades, should come full speed down it, hallooing and shouting, just as Ludvig Veyergang and a few others came round the corner. Young Veyergang received a push that made him drop his pencil-case; and pens, lead and slate pencils lay strewn over the ground.
"Pick them up, you beggar!" he cried to Nikolai, for it was he who had knocked up against him. "I shall tell about you at home, you may be pretty sure. Pick them up, or—"
A kick sent a few loose lumps of snow in answer.
"You shall be made to bend soon enough, if that's what you want. Father shall be told, this very day, that you are the leader of the street cads in the town; and if no one else will tell your mother about it, I'll tell her myself, however much she cries!"
"Do you want to have your ostrich-beak pulled?"
"You'd better try it on! Perhaps you don't know that we pay for you at the blockmaker's. But I'll take care that you get thrashed until you beg my pardon: a fellow who doesn't even know who his father is, and his mother only wishes he had never been born!"
The last words were hardly out of his mouth when Nikolai sprang upon him with both fists like a pair of sledge-hammers, and for a few blissful seconds hammered out every trace of difference in birth and position. Now he should feel "both his father and his mother!"
It was one of the board school's memorable and famous days, when the wine was tapped from Ludvig Veyergang's nose in the snow; and even the next day at dinner-time, two or three school classes of interested spectators were searching for traces of red spots in the snow by the lamp-post.
But, though he enjoyed great honour and admiration during the whole afternoon at school, Nikolai knew that at home he would meet with an utterly different interpretation of the event, news of which the Holmans must already have received, surely and promptly, from the Veyergangs.
As he neared home, he went slower and slower. The thought of what might await him, made his feet grow heavier and heavier, and when he had separated from his last companion, he suddenly stopped and turned down by the chandler's, where the street led away from, and not towards his home.
* * * * *
It was now the third night Nikolai had been away, explained Mrs. Holman to the policeman outside; and it was not much wonder if he expected the reward he deserved, and felt his back smart. Lay hands on better people's children! And the son of Consul Veyergang, his own benefactor, too!
But where could he be? He could not possibly be in the timber-yard now, at this time of year.
His stronghold was not easy to hit upon either, for it was something very like looking in her own pocket. In common with other evil-doers, Nikolai was driven by an irresistible desire—like moths that flutter round a candle—to hide himself as near as possible to the place of his fear and dread, where Mrs. Holman was, and where he could catch a glimpse of Silla.
Holman lay at night and felt, through his intoxication, that things were going wrong with Nikolai. He heard it dripping and dripping in the thaw outside—splash, splash! The sound came in a monotonous chant: Ni-ko-lai, Ni-ko-lai.
He would ruin his health out there!
With sudden energy he sat up in bed. Where else would Nikolai be than under the old carriage hood that stood in the loft over the coach-house, mouldy and dropping to pieces with its opening towards the wall?
It was in the light of this idea that he rushed out.
Nikolai never felt the blockmaker's hand; he still slept on happily, as it lifted him up by the coat collar.
It was only when he stood erect on both feet that he grasped the situation, and threw himself down again, kicking and screaming. He would not go home, they might kill him first, or take off his head!
The heels of his boots made it evident both to sight and feeling that he meant it: he was utterly beside himself.
Only let Holman get him inside the door, and the strap should dance! Holman had worked himself up into a state of excitement.
Mrs. Holman was waiting in the doorway with a candle. By its light she saw an ashy pale face, with eyes staring at her, and at the same time heard the words: "You won't get me in! If I was born in the street, I can live in the street!" She caught a glance from the sharp, defiant grey eyes—then out of the blockmaker's hands, out of the gate, and he was gone!
The blows on Ludvig's nose had gone to Barbara's heart. But when she heard that Nikolai had run away from the Holmans' and that there was some talk of getting him into an institute for morally depraved children, there was crying and weeping. She had had shame enough with the boy, and this she could not survive! Her mistress must prevent it. She was conscious of having done her duty and more than her duty all these years that she had been Ludvig and Lizzie's nurse, but she could not put up with this! Her mistress must prevent it, or she did not know what she might do, or what might happen: she felt quite capable of leaving them.
Barbara sat sighing and weeping in the nursery, until the children were almost afraid to go in.
Such attacks generally lasted, at the most, one day; but this one had now been going on for three, and was disturbing the comfort of the house. Then Mrs. Veyergang got one of her headaches, and was going to have an afternoon nap, her accustomed cure, during which everything must be kept perfectly quiet around her.
It was Barbara who generally guarded her slumbers by going hushing and quieting right out into the kitchen, and keeping watch at the door into the passage. But now she only sat in her room sobbing.
It did surprise her a little that her mistress lay so quiet all the time without calling her. On the other hand, she rather enjoyed the sentence she was carrying out. Her mistress should know what opposing her meant, even if it were to last the whole week.
It grew dark, and still her mistress lay there. She lay until the Consul came driving home towards evening; and she did not even ring for lights when she got up.
It was with a shawl about her head and a face red with weeping, that Mrs. Veyergang received her husband that evening; she was in a violently excited state of mind, and her voice quite trembled.
She wanted nothing less than that he should give Barbara warning.
A tyranny existed in the house that was quite unparalleled—had existed for several years—and if she had put up with it without complaining—her husband knew that she had never complained—it was for the children's sake. But it was really unnecessary now, and "it may be just as well to seize the opportunity; she has become far, far too overbearing in the house!"
It was a matter of course that the warning was given in the most appreciative and considerate, although firmly decisive manner. The whole circle of Mrs. Veyergang's acquaintance agreed that they had all expected that the Veyergangs would really one day part with that pampered creature!
The only person who was thoroughly astonished and quite stunned, as if by a thunder-clap, was Barbara herself; and for a long time she could not understand that she, the Veyergangs' Barbara, had actually received warning to leave Ludvig and Lizzie and the house where she had been so indispensable.
She went about with a solemn, injured air, and expected that a change of decision would some day take place. Then she became humble to her mistress, and wept before the children.
But there was always only the same kindness, which ever clenched the dismissal more firmly.
And now her mistress began to talk about a substantial acknowledgement of her services with which the Consul would present her on her departure.
In indignation Barbara tied the strings of her best bonnet beneath her chin, and with offended dignity requested permission to go into town.
Her mistress was to know the meaning of this when she returned later in the day. It was nothing less than that it was her fixed, resolute purpose to offer herself to others who would appreciate her better than the Veyergangs did.
She directed her wrathful steps straight to Scheele, the magistrate's house: they had four children, and were looking for a nurse. They were the Consul's most intimate friends, where she would only need to present herself, and they would jump at the opportunity. How often the magistrate's wife had praised her management, and talked condescendingly to her, when they had dined at the Veyergangs on Sundays! She had more than once thought Mrs. Veyergang fortunate in having such a treasure in the house, and sighed over her own inability to find just such another.
But—how unfortunate it was—Mrs. Scheele was extremely sorry—they had just engaged another nurse!
"Fancy!" exclaimed Mrs. Scheele, when her husband came down from his office, "there is a revolution at the Veyergangs', and that high and mighty Nurse Barbara has got her dismissal. She has been here and offered herself to us. I wouldn't have that pampered creature at any price!"
Barbara walked a long way that day and to the best houses. On a large sheet of paper, folded in three, she had the Consul-General's long and excellent testimonial to exhibit; moreover she was fully conscious of the extent to which she was known. But though she stood so large and erect and smart at the door, and comported herself so well, there was no one who could make any use of her!
And late in the evening, later than was needful, as she did not wish to show herself, she came home again, disappointed and weary.
It really seemed as if all the celebrity she had acquired during all these years, all her fidelity, all her prestige as nurse at the Veyergangs, was to vanish at one stroke into thin air!
Deeply hurt as she was after her unlucky expedition, it was remarkable that no one in the house asked her how she had got on—though there were plenty of mischievous glances from her fellow-servants, whose standing with their mistress had depended for so many years upon her. And whenever she tried to broach the subject with Mrs. Veyergang, the latter always turned the conversation—indeed, once she even dismissed the subject, saying that Barbara must know that she never meddled with such things.
But the kindness increased as the day of her departure approached. Barbara began to perceive how this screw of kindness, that turned so gently, was screwing her farther and farther out of the house. The Consul had Nikolai placed on trial as apprentice in a smithy down by the crane, and from Mrs. Veyergang she received one thing after another, as remembrances. But when, one day, the Consul—very thoughtfully—made her a present of one of his old travelling trunks, she let her large, heavy person sink down upon its lid, completely overwhelmed. She could not bring herself to think, had never believed, that the day would come when she must part from her mistress and Ludvig and Lizzie—it would kill her!
This was a direct appeal to the Consul himself, but the answer was not exactly as Barbara wished. He patted her on the shoulder, saying:
"I'm glad, my dear Barbara, that you feel that you have been well off."
When she went into the Consul's office for a settlement and to receive her savings-bank book—the amount it contained was a hundred and fourteen specie-dollars, a result, the Consul said, with which she ought to be thoroughly satisfied, when she considered the great expense she had been put to with Nikolai—she declared her intention of resting for a time before she went out to service again, and had made arrangements to lodge with a farmer out in the country: she had now been toiling for others for fourteen years!
The last evening, which she had dreaded so, went more easily than she had expected. The Consul and his wife were invited to the Willocks' country-house in the afternoon with the children, so the farewell could only be a short one, before they got into the carriage.
She was left standing with the feeling of Lizzie's soft fur, which she had stroked, in her fingers.
A STOLEN INTERVIEW
Holman made his usual turn into Selvig's public-house every evening to brace himself for his return home. When the ale-bottle had been emptied, and a proper number of drams consumed, his at first hurried, restless look was stiffened into a dull, staring, fixed mask. It was the crust about his heart, far within the unconscious, degraded man, who enjoyed his daily hour of oblivion to that life-struggle which he had taken upon himself when he chose to unite his lot inseparably with that of his duty-breathing wife, that life-struggle in which he continually declared "pass," and turned aside. When he sat there silently staring over his glass, it was felt that he was brooding over something, possibly only the number of drams he had drunk, possibly his bill, possibly, too, a remote world of thought, where, like a philosopher, he gazed silently down into unfathomable depths. Or possibly he was musing in silent resignation upon the problem of matrimony, and the strange law of consequence which had set him down here in the public-house.
But regularity in all things, said Holman, and when the clock struck eight, with his tools in his hand and his head bent, he turned his faltering steps homewards.
On Saturday evenings, when work was over at the workshop, a tall, active young girl, with large wrists, thin arms and a stooping figure, would often come down to fetch him. She had a basket, and a piece of paper on which was written what she was to buy with the week's wages.
The two would then go up the street together, walking slower and slower as they went. Time after time he would stop, and look thoughtfully about him with one hand in his pocket, and an occasionally ejaculated "H'm, h'm!"—until they arrived at Mrs. Selvig's steps and green door, when he would suddenly declare that he had some "things" lying in there: he would be out again directly.
Silla knew by experience what "directly" meant, and meanwhile went her own way over the yards.
Through the lovely August evening, one troop of workmen after another came over the bridge near the mouth of the river, several of them with the same sort of escort as her father, of wife or child. It was so usual and its meaning so self-evident, that no one ever gave it a thought.
While the different gates and yards were emitting their streams of workmen, Silla had approached one of the narrow passages with which the loading places are furrowed. On each side was a wooden hoarding, and there were stacks of timber within. The irregularly cut up, black muddy roadway led into a forge and implement yard.
Just at the corner lay a heap of rubbish, full of broken bottles and pottery. She stood there with her basket, every now and then taking a step backwards, up the heap, to make room for passers-by. In this way she gained the top of the heap, and could see over the hoarding into the yard.
They were still busy receiving wages in there in a crowd round a little shed which did duty as an office.
With outstretched neck, and her two shining dark eyes turned almost like a bird's, she stood and looked eagerly in. There was no mistake about her object.
"Well, lass! are you looking for your sweetheart?" said a voice below.
But, as she at that moment caught sight of Nikolai, and he signalled to her, she took no notice of the voice, and waved her basket vigorously.
He came out down the passage, unwashed and sooty, straight from his work.
"He's gone now!"
"He had red hair, and had on blue braces and a sailmaker's cap. I think it was the man from Groenlien they call Ottersnake; and he accused me of standing here and looking for my sweetheart!"
"I'll sweetheart him! If I only get hold of him, I'll hammer him into nails! And then I'll pull his red hair to oakum, so that his father will only need to put it into the pitch-kettle!"
He looked about; but as the Ottersnake, who was doomed to so cruel and terrible a fate, was nowhere to be seen, his wrath suddenly subsided, and with an upward movement of the head, he proposed:
"Baker Ring's, Silla?"
He had his week's wages in his pocket, so they made a short cut through two or three muddy back yards, which had planks laid down across the worst places, up to the baker's shop.
Oh, how they bought, and how they did eat!
There were some specially delicious expensive cakes with jam inside. And it was the two collars, that he had thought of buying for himself next week, that they ate up!
With a great feeling of his own importance Nikolai related how he had now forged six large iron hooks with links to them; and she must not imagine that they wanted nothing but hammering—no, they had to be hammered out and beaten and bent at the right time! Down there they only made stakes and picks and tires; but he meant to be either a locksmith or a brazier.
This did not interest Silla very much; she wanted to hear about the picnic on Sunday, when he had gone to the woods with the journeymen. It must have been awfully jolly! And didn't they dance too?
"I should just think they did. Anders Berg is a capital fellow; he's going to set up for himself in Svelvig soon, and get married."
"And were the others engaged, too?"
"What's the matter with you? Can't you tell me?"
"Why, it's nothing—only nonsense! There's not one of them that'll make a smith's wife—creatures that have larks now with one fellow and now with another?"
"And did you dance?"
"Oh, the 'prentices have only to run after beer; but when I'm a journeyman—but, Silla, the time—we must hurry!" he broke off suddenly.
"Oh, it's not late yet. One more nice one with jam—do go in and buy it! Oh, do, Nikolai!" she begged, and as he ran in to get what she wanted, she called after him:
"And some sweets to eat on the way home—some of those at four for a halfpenny."
"Can't you eat it as you go along, Silla?" he urged, when he came out again; "you must make haste! Just think if she heard at home that you had been with me."
"Pooh, there's no hurry," and she leaned against the wall, and regaled herself—"for you see," she mumbled, "father won't be out of Mrs. Selvig's yet a-while, and I'll say first of all that that has kept me: I can reckon at least half an hour for that. And then to mother I have the excuse that it's Saturday evening, and there were so many people in the shop that I could hardly get to the counter. And when I won't have any supper, you know, I'll only say I've got such a headache with standing and waiting in the shop: it was so stifling in there. I think mother's nose would be very fine, if she could guess that I had met you. Well, what are you looking so solemn about?"
"She at home"—he never named her mother in any other fashion—"forces you into lies every single day; no one has a right to speak the truth but her!"
"Oh!" she tossed her head impatiently; she had heard this so often.
"She eats up all the honesty in the room by herself, you know, for it's quite impossible to act honestly by her, for very terror. She keeps discipline, and much or little, it's all the same. Any one who wants to speak the truth without using his fists to back it up will get thrashed as I did! It doesn't matter for me; but when I think of you going home and making up all those lies again, and that you are so frightened, and haven't the strength to stand against them, Silla!"
She tried to laugh and make light of it; but her face fell sadly. She could not bear this unpleasant subject, for she was obliged to tell lies, however angry he might be.
And then she suddenly began to hurry.
"No, no, we must go home, Nikolai. I daren't stand here any longer."
Nikolai was starting off, but stopped suddenly at sight of Silla's dismayed countenance. She had turned her pocket inside out, and stood holding it while she gazed and searched on the ground round her. Then, in feverish haste, she unfastened her bodice, and searched there.
"The money! Oh, the money, Nikolai!" she cried anxiously, and went on shaking her skirt and looking about her, almost beside herself. "The silver was wrapped up in the two dollar notes, just as father gave them to me, and I put them into my pocket at once."
"What shall I do, Nikolai?" She began to cry, but all at once, with a sudden thought, she flew to the basket. But it was not there.
They searched and searched.
Of course it must be at the corner by the rubbish-heap, for she had stood there and waved her basket. It would be lying among the broken bottles.
The pale, thin rim of the autumn moon had risen over the yards while they were searching there step by step, Silla every now and then uttering a despondent, monotonous "Suppose I don't find it!" and Nikolai plunging his arm up to the elbow into puddles in which the roll of money might have fallen.
They had been by the bridge, they had searched the rubbish-heap, they had looked up and down and everywhere; it was not to be found.
It was beginning to be late, and Mrs. Holman was waiting at home. She would be really waiting now.
Silla began to cry.
Nikolai had only asked her once or twice to be quiet, and he would find the money. Now he suddenly said:
"I should like to give you another good feed of cakes to-day, and then throw myself into the sea with you, Silla. It would be no lie that we lay there."
Whether his proposition was meant seriously or not, it did not gain a hearing with her. She sat hopeless and despairing on a log while the big tears ran down her cheeks.
The seventeen-year-old workshop apprentice stood thoughtfully, with his flat cap pushed back over his rough hair, blackened by the week's work. He was gazing intently into an old rotten hole in the log. The hole became more and more rotten, more and more hollow, more and more empty while his busy thoughts were trying to find an expedient. But none came.
Fully aware of her fate, Silla rose, took her basket, and started homewards with her eyes fixed on the ground. She was going to the scaffold. Nikolai accompanied her as far as he dared, reiterating in different ways: "Don't be afraid, Silla, they can't kill you!"
Something like a low wail said that she heard him.
When she disappeared round the corner, he made a short cut which only he and one or two old yard cats knew of; and from the hoarding at the bottom of the square he saw her go, with bent head and the same quiet step, without stopping, down the cellar stairs.
When it was dark, he stood outside the window and listened. He heard her still sobbing quietly, after the storm that had passed over her.
Mrs. Holman had examined and cross-examined, and at last extracted from Silla the confession that she had been with Nikolai. That she, Mrs. Holman's daughter, in spite of all prohibitions, sought the society of that misled prodigal, who had rewarded her with such ingratitude, was enough to bring her to her grave. And no one would persuade her either that Holman's hardly-earned week's wages could vanish like steam from a kettle. A half-starved apprentice-boy, walking beside a well-filled pocket—any one could understand what the result of that would be. Master Nikolai had only carefully and craftily watched his time, when he knew that Silla had her father's money in her pocket, to get it shuffled into his own.
Matters were not improved by Silla in her obstinacy declaring that he had not so much as seen the money—as if Nikolai would take a farthing from her!
This last remark sealed his fate—there should be no concealment of his conduct on Mrs. Holman's part.
There was a commotion in the forge-yard, when the nest day a police-officer came and arrested Nikolai. He was to be taken to the police-station for having defrauded a young girl on Saturday evening of the whole of her father's week's wages.
But when they were gone, Anders Berg swore, as he brought the sledge-hammer down on the anvil, that that Nikolai had never done. The others—Jan Peter, and Katrinus, and Bernt Johan Jakobsen and Petter Evensen—they thought nothing; but to bring the police into a respectable work-yard! He had better get work in some other place after this!
For the first moment Nikolai had only one sensation—the paralysing fear by which a first acquaintance with the police is always accompanied. The feeling that he had a good conscience did indeed leap up within him, but only to die away again immediately. He had so often had that, and it had always proved to be too thin a sheet of ice to stand upon in the hour of trial. That kind of self-esteem was a plant which had too often been trodden under Mrs. Holman's heel to be able to bloom now as a fragrant, full-blown flower within him.
The outcome of his reflections was a sudden twist and a violent jerk, by which he hoped to escape from his inconvenient companion, the sole result, however, being that he immediately had a constable at each arm.
When brought up for examination before the police superintendent, a dark, unwilling defiance glowed in his face, and the sharp glance—too sharp for a lad of his age—did not prepossess any one in his favour.
Silla? He had not been with any Silla on Saturday.
It would never occur to him to betray her, and it was only when he was confronted with her and her mother, and heard that she had confessed, that he admitted it.
Silla continued to maintain, in a voice choked with tears, that he had not taken the money, but this proved nothing either for or against him. On the other hand what had more weight were the facts that had been elucidated on ransacking and examining the room in which he lodged—he lived in a garret at glazier Olsen's with three other apprentices—for they all agreed in saying that on the Saturday in question he had come home late, after they were asleep, and had gone out again very early on the Sunday morning.
The assertion of the accused that this was to renew the search for the lost money down by the yard did not seem very credible. But it was impossible to get any nearer to him.
A hardened young rascal. This was his foster-mother's testimony too.
Nikolai stood with his cap in his hand, looking down at the floor. He had a habit of drawing the skin of his forehead up and down when he was meditating. In the broad, young face with the large features, the grey eyes into which there sometimes came a peculiar look, and the cock's comb, of a tinge between zinc and copper, the police inspector's penetrating and—after many year's practice—not easily deceived eye saw the marks of one who would probably in the future often give occupation to the police.
"In order to exclude the possibility of conferences with the other apprentices in his room," he dictated for the record, "considering that the accused has manifested mala fides by an attempt to escape, as well as by his untruthful conduct and denials under examination, he will, for the present, be placed under arrest."
As the words of the order were read out, there were a few involuntary contractions of the muscles in Nikolai's face, which was damp with perspiration; there quivered in it the poor man's curse, at never having a way of escape; a false step, and he is caught, a lost dollar, and he comes before the court.
After another examination Nikolai was acquitted for want of evidence.
The morning when the prison door closed behind him, he slunk down the street with a feeling that all the windows on both sides were looking at him; it was anything but the gait of one who can let his honesty's sun shine once more.
Down at his lodging at Mrs. Olsen's he found his few things put ready in the cupboard under the stairs to be fetched away, and a message was left that his place in the garret was occupied by some one else.
He did not ask why. Mrs. Olsen's silence hurt him more than if she had cried aloud about people who drew on her "an examination and search of the house, and other disturbances."
And then he had to go down and show himself at the forge again—to Haegberg the master, and Anders Berg, and the journeymen, and all the apprentices.
It was with uncertain steps and stopping time after time. What did Anders Berg think, he wondered.
In a fit of despondency he half turned. But he must do it. So he held up his head and began to whistle. But as he neared the coal-begrimed wooden palings of the work-yard the whistling ceased, and he was in a cold perspiration when he entered the gate.
Without saying a word he went to the coal-bin and began to lift some bars of pig-iron which had to be moved aside. While he did so, no one either greeted or spoke to him.
Anders Berg had an iron in the furnace, and it was not until he and another man had finished hammering it out, that he came up to Nikolai and said:
"I was sure you would come back again. Here's some work for you; you can file these three keys."
Whereupon Nikolai was placed at one of the vices, and was soon busily at work with both coarse and fine files.
Anders Berg's words had done him such good, had placed him at once as it were on his feet before the whole workshop, and in his heart he made a vow of friendship and devotion to Anders Berg for ever.
There were showers of sparks and a ringing from the sledge-hammers in the large smithy, and sharp blows of hammers, while the files shrieked and whistled and set one's teeth on edge. The work went on and Nikolai thought he had never known until to-day how splendid it was to be a smith. He might as well do the key-bit with the fine file at once, while the key was on that side of the vice; and he filed the notch as neatly and smoothly as if it had been intended for a chest of drawers, and not a great pipeless key for a wooden gate.
Now came the handle. He worked away with the coarse file, until he could scarcely hear the sledge-hammer for its shrieking.
At the anvil stood a man making clincher nails, while one of the apprentices pulled the bellows and occasionally gathered the nails together. They were talking and laughing, and now and again some loud exclamation penetrated to Nikolai. It was only when the boy made a grimace at him, that it occurred to Nikolai that he was the subject of the conversation, and instantly the large file became quite light in his hand, and he had suddenly eyes and ears only for what was going on around him.
They were standing talking and nodding over there by the vices; Jan Peter ran and repeated what this one said and what the other one said. It was easy to see what the meaning of it all was, and that he now stood there like any show animal; no, like something much worse—like one who was capable of going to the pockets of any one of them!
There was not one of the apprentices who would share his night's lodging with him now. He could see that.
He stood straining his ears, with a feeling that they were killing him in all the work-yards round—they were filing him down at the vices, hammering him flat with the small hammers, and crushing him with the sledge-hammers. He guessed and understood glances and looks.
"Well, you know, Matthias," he heard from away there by the nails which the man was now gathering into his apron, "there are many easier trades than standing in a smithy: make a good pick out of your fists, lad!"
"He-he-he!" laughed the boy addressed.
"Or make yourself pincers that you can get down into skirt-pockets with—all the lassies in the town, lad, that have any pence."
Nikolai heard every word and the hoarse laughter that followed; he was very pale.
Coarse merriment shone in the man's sooty face, and, as their eyes met, he made a contemptuous grimace.
Soon after he came past with his apron full of nails. Their eyes met again; the scornful ones grew more scornful; Nikolai seemed to see them in a haze, and then the journeyman received a blow full in the face which laid him on his back, scattering the nails as he fell.
There was a short pause of surprise before they all rushed upon him.
But Nikolai swung the big file about him like a madman. He felt with frenzied pleasure, how he would strike—strike down the whole smithy one by one until justice was done him. Wait a little, he had only begun yet—a hammer was lying on the block.
But the men in the smithy did not wait, and the next moment it was he who lay on his back, his eyes blinded by blue and yellow sparks, and as many of his adversaries around and upon him as there was room for; he should be held fast and sent about his business now—he had used a weapon!
He felt a powerful grasp on his coat collar, a grasp that included the skin, felt himself dragged up and, without a pause, half carried, half flung, out of the smithy door.
It was Anders Berg, who had exerted his power to rescue him, and who—still only slightly relaxing his hold—led him out of the gate.
It was his farewell to the smithy.
"I'll just tell you something," exclaimed Anders Berg later, when the commotion had subsided; he was still red in the face and spoke loudly, while he hammered cold.
"There's come a wrong bend in Nikolai; but it isn't his fault!"
The hammer rang on the iron.
Nikolai did not take a lodging anywhere that evening; he was too bruised and dirty for that, his clothes too torn and ragged, and, more than anything else, he felt too sore to meet people now that he had left the smithy in such a way.
When night fell, he had once more taken up his familiar quarters in one of the stacks of planks down at the timber-yard. There, in one of the deep square spaces he lay and looked up at the stars and thought how entertaining the world had become!
AMONG THE UNEMPLOYED
Nikolai was out of work, that was very certain.
It never entered his head to present himself at any other smithy: they all knew each other too well for that. And even at barge-builder Hansen's, where he got a lodging up in the tool-loft, and his food on the days when he got a chance of doing something useful, they wanted to know now why he had left his trade. As if that were any business of theirs!
So Nikolai suddenly disappeared.
On the quay, the harbour and the steamers, a fellow with his hands could surely get on just as well as any other.
It was with fresh and dauntless courage, though with a stomach not overladen with food during the last few days, that he went down there.
He was received with a certain appreciative admiration. He found that it was a well-known fact that he had had an encounter with the police, and had been sufficiently dexterous to get off without their being able to fix anything upon him; the news of such an exploit travels like wild-fire in that world, and spreads a halo around its subject.
And as long as he was supposed to be only an idler, or an apprentice who was airing himself and taking a day or two's holiday from the smithy, the shareholders in the different businesses down there were both agreeable and talkative. But when—and that not once only—he suddenly turned to, and darted over the landing-stage from the steamer with a large trunk on his back and a traveller at his heels, past the cabs up to the hotel, they quite changed their tone. Had he a badge? Or did he think perhaps, that it would do to take other people's business? They knew very well what sort of a fellow he was!
He was well aware that he could not get a badge, so he must get along as he best could by working and toiling and fighting for an empty stomach, and make his way by threats and with his fists, and—when it was a case of being entrusted with a burden, or getting first hold of a trunk—by being deaf, stone-deaf, to everything they might think of calling out about him.
There were ten men to every job requiring one, and, as it were, a wall or circle drawn round every road to earning something. Some small jobs he might now and then chance to be alone in—when the lock of a door had slipped, or the door came off its hinges, or some kind of smithcraft was required at a moment's notice. But he gained no more than a bare subsistence, often only a dram or two by way of thanks.
And now that it had been such a long winter, he was both hungry and cold. The nights especially were so long. He often took spirits for his supper to get them to pass. And then he had to think over what he would try his hand at the next day—cutting the ice, work on the quay, clearing away snow or carrying planks in the yard.
Thinly-clad and with no overcoat, and rather red with the cold, he clattered down in a coat that was in holes at the elbows, and his old scarf that had taken its hue from the smithy, pulled high up about his ears. It was not difficult to see in him the smith's apprentice. Whenever he met any of Haegberg's men, he burst into a scornful laugh. Did they think, perhaps, that he was slovenly clad? It was just as he was now, that he wanted to be. He wanted to be free and have neither master nor journeyman nor any one over him, and to care for nobody.
If the forge-yard was one point that he preferred to keep away from, there were also other places in the town that he made a round to avoid—namely, that part of the quay where the blockmaker's workshop lay, and the Holmans' house up in the square.
Whatever the reason might be, he had no wish to meet Silla.
The last time he had spoken to her—the day after he had left the smithy—he noticed that she was looking about in a frightened way the whole time, and wanted him to stand first in one place and then in another. It could not be fear of any one at home, and then it suddenly dawned upon him that she was ashamed that people should see her standing and talking to him, so with a "Good-bye, Silla!" he darted from her.
Afterwards he thoroughly enjoyed seeing her look so unhappy and so eager to show him that she did not care what people thought. What did she care about him, when he had nothing to treat her with? It was not fit for her to stand talking to a fellow like him.
There is a splendid friend and ally for every one who has thin, ragged clothes, and that is the sun. He distributes overcoats in the shape of warm, sunny walls, brings life and movement with him, and then there need no longer be any uncertainty about a midday-meal.
Nikolai had had work on the quay the whole morning, and was now standing, in the midday rest, baking himself against the sunny wall, and yawning.
He stopped in the middle of a yawn. That slight figure in the faded cotton dress, that was running with her body bent forwards, and a handkerchief over the little, dark head, to keep off the sun—it was no other than Silla!
She was darting along among the baskets and traffic on the fish-quay; there was a searching haste in her like that of a frightened corn-crake, that turns its head now to one side now to the other as it runs. She had caught sight of him, and now she began calling:
"Nikolai!"—she almost choked in her hurry to speak—"Nikolai, just think! Mother, when she was unpicking my old blue dress to-day, she found the money in the lining, inside the lining, both the notes, and the silver too. I ran down to tell you directly I had taken father's dinner to the workshop. And now I'm going to the smithy, and they shall hear what they have done to you. Could you believe it! Inside the lining! I am so awfully, awfully glad"—and her eyes did look almost wild—You can't think what a grave face mother put on!"
"Just tell them at home that it's all the same to me!" said he bitterly and unmelted. But she did not notice it; she wanted to go to the smithy, and away she went.
He had no objection. But now that Anders Berg had set up for himself in Svelvig, there was no one there he cared about, to hear it. For he was a free man now!
He stood with his hands in his trouser pockets, gazing over the edge of the quay at a sunken sugar-loaf, which a crowd of small boys, amid noise and clamour, were labouring to get up. It lay already half melted on the green bottom, on which the sun drew wavy lines.
Silla might try all she could to get him into the smithy. Since they had tacked the word thief on to him, he had got soaked through with salt water, just like the sugar-loaf. And besides, to stand there and slave, when he could be his own——
"Hi, you boys! I'll show you how to get the sugar-loaf up, but you will have to eat it yourselves."
* * * * *
The public-house—the one at Mrs. Selvig's, with the green door and white window frames, farthest down the street—had seen Holman's quiet, subdued, stooping figure come and go for many years. His grasp on the door-handle was just as precise, his walk up to the brown counter after having laid down his tools, exactly the same, though his face had a little more colour in it. He had a certain reputation there, which had allowed of his "chalking up" for several years past, and there was a regular proportion of his account, about which his inexorably correct wife had not the faintest idea—"for Holman had his weekly pocket-money."
And as usual on Saturday evenings, Silla was walking about outside with the basket, waiting for him.
She was really quite nicely dressed in her cotton gown with a little white handkerchief tied round her neck; but clothes did not seem to set her off. The slight, overgrown figure seemed to show through everywhere.
She made a quick turn, when she thought she caught a glimpse of Nikolai at the bottom of the street. She had fancied the same thing last Saturday evening. She had not really spoken to him since early in the summer, when he got so angry because she wanted him to go into the smithy again.
She went quickly down the street—she was quite certain that it was he!
She hurried on farther, down to the bridge; but it was the same as last time—he was not to be seen. So she turned back again, disappointed, keeping constant watch on Mrs. Selvig's green door. She knew her father would appear as the clock struck eight.
She went up towards it and down again: she began to grow impatient. It must be past the time. They were beginning to shut the shops here and there, and if she was to get anything bought this evening, it would be impossible to wait any longer.
She must really go up and see whether her father were sitting there still—whether he had not perhaps gone when she was down at the bridge: he never mistook the time.
She had gone up the street as far as the place where the stone pavement began, when she saw the green door open and slam quickly to again, as a bare-headed, half-dressed servant-girl ran out. Immediately after, a man came out in similar haste, and through the door which he left standing open behind him, a number of people, with and without hats, streamed out on to the steps.
Something was the matter!
Now a window was also opened, or rather hammered open, so that the pane clashed down on to the pavement.
Probably some drunken man or other, who could not stand any longer—it was Saturday evening, you know—and who was making a row, and must be taken by the police.
She had often seen such sights before, and was quite accustomed to them. She was not anxious about her father either: he never interfered in such matters.
But why did he not come out? Every one else had come out.
A faint, slanting gleam of evening light had fallen in through the empty square of window. Her father generally sat at the table just inside; he always kept the same place. And she went up and peered in between the flower-pots,—some half-stifled, dirty geraniums and hydrangeas, saturated with public-house effluvia.
Who was that—that man who was lying on the dirty counter, with his necktie and shirt unfastened and one arm hanging down—was it her father?
"If only some one had a lancet!—he moved just now—a lancet!"
What more they said on the steps she did not notice, except that some wanted to deny her entrance, and others again said that she was Holman's daughter.
She awoke, as if after a fall from a great height during which she had lost consciousness, to find herself sitting by the counter supporting her father's head. She thought she remembered clinging to his neck and begging him to answer her: but there was no rattling in his throat now.
They had placed an old, worn sofa-pillow and the seat of a chair under his head. Behind stood quart and pint measures, dram-glasses, tin funnels and beer-bottles pushed right up to the wall to make room. His wide-open eyes stared up at the once white-washed beams of the ceiling, and one side of his face was drawn up into a grin, which made him look as if he were unspeakably disgusted with the dirty ceiling.
A big man sat at the door. Silla knew him: he was the public-house bear, as he was called; he who turned people out for Mrs. Selvig. He was sitting silent on the bench.
There was perfect stillness in the room; she heard only the drip from the tap of the brandy-cask down into the dish beneath, and saw, through the half-open door to the inner room, Mrs. Selvig and her two daughters bustling about on tiptoe.
A young man in spectacles entered. He asked a few rapid questions, while he opened a case of instruments on the counter at the feet of the prostrate figure. He listened at its chest with the stethoscope and without it, and shook his head, pulled out a lancet, and pushed the shirt sleeve up the hanging arm.
"Hold the sleeve, so that it doesn't slip down!" he said with a glance up at Silla; he took her to be a member of the household.
The lancet pierced and pierced again. The ashen grey face of the girl looked into his, as if she would beg him for only one drop of that which was the life.
There came out something like a thick, dark syrup.
He listened again, felt again; one more trial with the lancet, and it was with an air of superiority, and a mouth drawn up like his professor's, that the young bachelor of medicine turned to those assembled and pronounced his concise verdict:
"Stone dead! The man's stone dead!—from drink!"
His words were followed by a cry from Silla, who threw herself upon her father.
"Is that his daughter?" asked the young doctor. He carefully wiped his lancet at the light, and put his instruments together preparatory to going, but gazed at the same time over his spectacles at her. Heedless of everything, she cried incessantly over the body.
"You aren't dead, are you, father? Father!"
It was a wild sorrow, without consideration or bashfulness, and the young doctor felt that he was witnessing an unpleasant scene from life in the outskirts of the town. He had done his duty and hastened out.
A twenty-year-old workshop apprentice, pale and overcome, was standing behind Silla, trying to recall her to herself. He took her by the shoulder, and whispered repeatedly, as loudly as respect for the dead would allow:
"Silla! Silla! don't you hear? It's me—Nikolai!"
And he tried in vain two or three times to lift her up from the body.
Meanwhile a policeman stood and examined Mrs. Selvig and the girls. He made notes, and took down the particulars of the death.
Just finished his usual quantity, a bottle of ale and four drams. The girl at the bar saw him quickly stretch out his hand—had the impression that he wanted another dram—and when he slowly sank down from his chair, supposed that he was drunk. Used never to be so drunk that he could not walk or stand, at any rate by supporting himself or holding on to convenient, firm things.