Winter had set in — a raw, wet winter, almost without snow. A foggy, dark, and everlasting night, without a single blast of fresh wind the whole week through. The gas was lighted almost all the day in the streets, and yet people jostled one another in the fog. Every sound, the clang of the church bells, the jingling of the harness of the droske horses, the people’s voices, the beat of the hoofs, everything, sounded choked and jangling through the close air, that penetrated and muffled everything.
Week followed week, and the weather was, and remained, still the same.
And I stayed steadily down in Vaterland. I grew more and more closely bound to this inn, this lodging-house for travellers, where I had found shelter, in spite of my starving condition. My money was exhausted long since; and yet I continued to come and go in this place as if I had a right to it, and was at home there. The landlady had, as yet, said nothing; but it worried me all the same that I could not pay her. In this way three weeks went by. I had already, many days ago, taken to writing again; but I could not succeed in putting anything together that satisfied me. I had not longer any luck, although I was very painstaking, and strove early and late; no matter what I attempted, it was useless. Good fortune had flown; and I exerted myself in vain.
It was in a room on the second floor, the best guest-room, that I sat and made these attempts. I had been undisturbed up there since the first evening when I had money and was able to settle for what I got. All the time I was buoyed up by the hope of at last succeeding in getting together an article on some subject or another, so that I could pay for my room, and for whatever else I owed. That was the reason I worked on so persistently. I had, in particular, commenced a piece from which I expected great things — an allegory about a fire — a profound thought upon which I intended to expend all my energy, and bring it to the “Commander” in payment. The “Commandor” should see that he had helped a talent this time. I had no doubt but that he would eventually see that; it only was a matter of waiting till the spirit moved me; and why shouldn’t the spirit move me? Why should it not come over me even now, at a very early date? There was no longer anything the matter with me. My landlady gave me a little food every day, some bread and butter, mornings and evenings, and my nervousness had almost flown. I no longer used cloths round my hands when I wrote; and I could stare down into the street from my window on the second floor without getting giddy. I was much better in every way, and it was becoming a matter of astonishment to me that I had not already finished my allegory. I couldn’t understand why it was. . . .
But a day came when I was at last to get a clear idea of how weak I had really become; with what incapacity my dull brain acted. Namely, on this day my landlady came up to me with a reckoning which she asked me to look over. There must be something wrong in this reckoning, she said; it didn’t agree with her own book; but she had not been able to find out the mistake.
I set to work to add up. My landlady sat right opposite and looked at me. I added up these score of figures first once down, and found the total right; then once up again, and arrived at the same result. I looked at the woman sitting opposite me, waiting on my words. I noticed at the same time that she was pregnant; it did not escape my attention, and yet I did not stare in any way scrutinizingly at her.
“The total is right,” said I.
“No; go over each figure now,” she answered. “I am sure it can’t be so much; I am positive of it.”
And I commenced to check each line — 2 loaves at 2 1/2d., 1 lamp chimney, 3d., soap, 4d., butter, 5d. . . . It did not require any particularly shrewd head to run up these rows of figures — this little huckster account in which nothing very complex occurred. I tried honestly to find the error that the woman spoke about, but couldn’t succeed. After I had muddled about with these figures for some minutes I felt that, unfortunately, everything commenced to dance about in my head; I could no longer distinguish debit or credit; I mixed the whole thing up. Finally, I came to a dead stop at the following entry —“3. 5/16ths of a pound of cheese at 9d.” My brain failed me completely; I stared stupidly down at the cheese, and got no farther.
“It is really too confoundedly crabbed writing,” I exclaimed in despair. “Why, God bless me, here is 5/16ths of a pound of cheese entered — ha, ha! did any one ever hear the like? Yes, look here; you can see for yourself.”
“Yes,” she said; “it is often put down like that; it is a kind of Dutch cheese. Yes, that is all right — five-sixteenths is in this case five ounces.”
“Yes, yes; I understand that well enough,” I interrupted, although in truth I understood nothing more whatever.
I tried once more to get this little account right, that I could have totted up in a second some months ago. I sweated fearfully, and thought over these enigmatical figures with all my might, and I blinked my eyes reflectingly, as if I was studying this matter sharply, but I had to give it up. These five ounces of cheese finished me completely; it was as if something snapped within my forehead. But yet, to give the impression that I still worked out my calculation, I moved my lips and muttered a number aloud, all the while sliding farther and farther down the reckoning as if I were steadily coming to a result. She sat and waited. At last I said:
“Well, now, I have gone through it from first to last, and there is no mistake, as far as I can see.”
“Isn’t there?” replied the woman, “isn’t there really?” But I saw well that she did not believe me, and she seemed all at once to throw a dash of contempt into her words, a slightly careless tone that I had never heard from her before. She remarked that perhaps I was not accustomed to reckon in sixteenths; she mentioned also that she must only apply to some one who had a knowledge of sixteenths, to get the account properly revised. She said all this, not in any hurtful way to make me feel ashamed, but thoughtfully and seriously. When she got as far as the door, she said, without looking at me:
“Excuse me for taking up your time then.”
Off she went.
A moment after, the door opened again, and she re-entered. She could hardly have gone much farther than the stairs before she had turned back.
“That’s true,” said she; “you mustn’t take it amiss; but there is a little owing to me from you now, isn’t there? Wasn’t it three weeks yesterday since you came?” Yes, I thought it was. “It isn’t so easy to keep things going with such a big family, so that I can’t give lodging on credit, more’s the. . . . ”
I stopped her. “I am working at an article that I think I told you about before,” said I, “and as soon as ever that is finished, you shall have your money; you can make yourself quite easy. . . . ”
“Yes; but you’ll never get that article finished, though.”
“Do you think that? Maybe the spirit will move me tomorrow, or perhaps already, tonight; it isn’t at all impossible but that it may move me some time tonight, and then my article will be completed in a quarter of an hour at the outside. You see, it isn’t with my work as with other people’s; I can’t sit down and get a certain amount finished in a day. I have just to wait for the right moment, and no one can tell the day or hour when the spirit may move one — it must have its own time. . . . ”
My landlady went, but her confidence in me was evidently much shaken.
As soon as I was left alone I jumped up and tore my hair in despair. No, in spite of all, there was really no salvation for me — no salvation! My brain was bankrupt! Had I then really turned into a complete dolt since I could not even add up the price of a piece of Dutch cheese? But could it be possible I had lost my senses when I could stand and put such questions to myself? Had not I, into the bargain, right in the midst of my efforts with the reckoning, made the lucid observation that my landlady was in the family way? I had no reason for knowing it, no one had told me anything about it, neither had it occurred to me gratuitously. I sat and saw it with my own eyes, and I understood it at once, right at a despairing moment where I sat and added up sixteenths. How could I explain this to myself?
I went to the window and gazed out; it looked out into Vognmandsgade. Some children were playing down on the pavement; poorly dressed children in the middle of a poor street. They tossed an empty bottle between them and screamed shrilly. A load of furniture rolled slowly by; it must belong to some dislodged family, forced to change residence between “flitting time.” [Footnote: In Norway, l4th of March and October.] This struck me at once. Bed-clothes and furniture were heaped on the float, moth-eaten beds and chests of drawers, red-painted chairs with three legs, mats, old iron, and tin-ware. A little girl — a mere child, a downright ugly youngster, with a running cold in her nose — sat up on top of the load, and held fast with her poor little blue hands in order not to tumble off. She sat on a heap of frightfully stained mattresses, that children must have lain on, and looked down at the urchins who were tossing the empty bottle to one another. . . .
I stood gazing at all this; I had no difficulty in apprehending everything that passed before me. Whilst I stood there at the window and observed this, I could hear my landlady’s servant singing in the kitchen right alongside of my room. I knew the air she was singing, and I listened to hear if she would sing false, and I said to myself that an idiot could not have done all this.
I was, God be praised, all right in my senses as any man.
Suddenly, I saw two of the children down in the street fire up and begin to abuse one another. Two little boys; I recognized one of them; he was my landlady’s son. I open the window to hear what they are saying to one another, and immediately a flock of children crowded together under my window, and looked wistfully up. What did they expect? That something would be thrown down? Withered flowers, bones, cigar ends, or one thing or another, that they could amuse themselves with? They looked up with their frost-pinched faces and unspeakably wistful eyes. In the meantime, the two small foes continued to revile one another.
Words like great buzzing noxious insects swarm out of their childish mouths; frightful nicknames, thieves’ slang, sailors’ oaths, that they perhaps had learnt down on the wharf; and they are both so engaged that they do not notice my landlady, who rushes out to see what is going on.
“Yes,” explains her son, “he catched me by the throat; I couldn’t breaths for ever so long,” and turning upon the little man who is the cause of the quarrel, and who is standing grinning maliciously at him, he gets perfectly furious, and yells, “Go to hell, Chaldean ass that you are! To think such vermin as you should catch folk by the throat. I will, may the Lord. . . . ”
And the mother, this pregnant woman, who dominates the whole street with her size, answers the ten-year-old child, as she seizes him by the arm and tries to drag him in:
“Sh — sh. Hold your jaw! I just like to hear the way you swear, too, as if you had been in a brothel for years. Now, in with you.”
“No, I won’t.”
“Yes, you will.”
“No, I won’t.”
I stand up in the window and see that the mother’s temper is rising; this disagreeable scene excites me frightfully. I can’t endure it any longer. I call down to the boy to come up to me for a minute; I call twice, just to distract them — to change the scene. The last time I call very loudly, and the mother turns round flurriedly and looks up at me. She regains her self-possession at once, looks insolently at me, nay, downright maliciously, and enters the house with a chiding remark to her offspring. She talks loudly, so that I may hear it, and says to him, “Fie, you ought to be ashamed of yourself to let people see how naughty you are.”
Of all this that I stood there and observed not one thing, not even one little accessory detail, was lost on me; my attention was acutely keen; I absorbed carefully every little thing as I stood and thought out my own thought, about each thing according as it occurred. So it was impossible that there could be anything the matter with my brain. How could there, in this case, be anything the matter with it?
Listen; do you know what, said I all at once to myself, that you have been worrying yourself long enough about your brain, giving yourself no end of worry in this matter? Now, there must be an end to this tomfoolery. Is it a sign of insanity to notice and apprehend everything as accurately as you do? You make me almost laugh at you, I reply. To my mind it is not without its humorous side, if I am any judge of such a case. Why, it happens to every man that he once in a way sticks fast, and that, too, just with the simplest question. It is of no significance, it is often a pure accident. As I have remarked before, I am on the point of having a good laugh at your expense. As far as that huckster account is concerned, that paltry five-sixteenths of beggar-man’s cheese, I can happily dub it so. Ha, ha! — a cheese with cloves and pepper in it; upon my word, a cheese in which, to put the matter plainly, one could breed maggots. As far as that ridiculous cheese is concerned, it might happen to the cleverest fellow in the world to be puzzled over it! Why, the smell of the cheese was enough to finish a man; . . . and I made the greatest fun of this and all other Dutch cheeses. . . . No; set me to reckon up something really eatable, said I— set me, if you like, at five-sixteenths of good dairy butter. That is another matter.
I laughed feverishly at my own whim, and found it peculiarly diverting. There was positively no longer anything the matter with me. I was in good form — was, so to say, still in the best of form; I had a level head, nothing was wanting there, God be praised and thanked! My mirth rose in measure as I paced the floor and communed with myself. I laughed aloud, and felt amazingly glad. Besides, it really seemed, too, as if I only needed this little happy hour, this moment of airy rapture, without a care on any side, to get my head into working order once more.
I seated myself at the table, and set to work at my allegory; it progressed swimmingly, better than it had done for a long time; not very fast, ’tis true, but it seemed to me that what I did was altogether first-rate. I worked, too, for the space of an hour without getting tired.
I am sitting working at a most crucial point in this Allegory of a Conflagration in a Bookshop. It appears to me so momentous a point, that all the rest I have written counted as nothing in comparison. I was, namely, just about to weave in, in a downright profound way, this thought. It was not books that were burning, it was brains, human brains; and I intended to make a perfect Bartholomew’s night of these burning brains.
Suddenly my door was flung open with a jerk and in much haste; my landlady came sailing in. She came straight over to the middle of the room, she did not even pause on the threshold.
I gave a little hoarse cry; it was just as if I had received a blow.
“What?” said she, “I thought you said something. We have got a traveller, and we must have this room for him. You will have to sleep downstairs with us tonight. Yes; you can have a bed to yourself there too.” And before she got my answer, she began, without further ceremony, to bundle my papers together on the table, and put the whole of them into a state of dire confusion.
My happy mood was blown to the winds; I stood up at once, in anger and despair. I let her tidy the table, and said nothing, never uttered a syllable. She thrust all the papers into my hand.
There was nothing else for me to do. I was forced to leave the room. And so this precious moment was spoilt also. I met the new traveller already on the stairs; a young man with great blue anchors tattooed on the backs of his hands. A quay porter followed him, bearing a sea-chest on his shoulders. He was evidently a sailor, a casual traveller for the night; he would therefore not occupy my room for any lengthened period. Perhaps, too, I might be lucky tomorrow when the man had left, and have one of my moments again; I only needed an inspiration for five minutes, and my essay on the conflagration would be completed. Well, I should have to submit to fate.
I had not been inside the family rooms before, this one common room in which they all lived, both day and night — the husband, wife, wife’s father, and four children. The servant lived in the kitchen, where she also slept at night. I approached the door with much repugnance, and knocked. No one answered, yet I heard voices inside.
The husband did not speak as I stepped in, did not acknowledge my nod even, merely glanced at me carelessly, as if I were no concern of his. Besides, he was sitting playing cards with a person I had seen down on the quays, with the by-name of “Pane o’ glass.” An infant lay and prattled to itself over in the bed, and an old man, the landlady’s father, sat doubled together on a settle-bed, and bent his head down Over his hands as if his chest or stomach pained him. His hair was almost white, and he looked in his crouching position like a poke-necked reptile that sat cocking its ears at something.
“I come, worse luck, to beg for house-room down here tonight,” I said to the man.
“Did my wife say so?” he inquired.
“Yes; a new lodger came to my room.”
To this the man made no reply, but proceeded to finger the cards. There this man sat, day after day, and played cards with anybody who happened to come in — played for nothing, only just to kill time, and have something in hand. He never did anything else, only moved just as much as his lazy limbs felt inclined, whilst his wife bustled up and down stairs, was occupied on all sides, and took care to draw customers to the house. She had put herself in connection with quay-porters and dock-men, to whom she paid a certain sum for every new lodger they brought her, and she often gave them, in addition, a shelter for the night. This time it was “Pane o’ glass” that had just brought along the new lodger.
A couple of the children came in — two little girls, with thin, freckled, gutter-snipe faces; their clothes were positively wretched. A while after the landlady herself entered. I asked her where she intended to put me up for the night, and she replied that I could lie in here together with the others, or out in the ante-room on the sofa, as I thought fit. Whilst she answered me she fussed about the room and busied herself with different things that she set in order, and she never once looked at me.
My spirits were crushed by her reply.
I stood down near the door, and made myself small, tried to make it appear as if I were quite content all the same to change my room for another for one night’s sake. I put on a friendly face on purpose not to irritate her and perhaps be hustled right out of the house.
“Ah, yes,” I said, “there is sure to be some way I . . .,” and then held my tongue.
She still bustled about the room.
“For that matter, I may as well just tell you that I can’t afford to give people credit for their board and lodging,” said she, “and I told you that before, too.”
“Yes; but, my dear woman, it is only for these few days, until I get my article finished,” I answered, “and I will willingly give you an extra five shillings — willingly.”
But she had evidently no faith in my article, I could see that; and I could not afford to be proud, and leave the house, just for a slight mortification; I knew what awaited me if I went out.
A few days passed over.
I still associated with the family below, for it was too cold in the ante-room where there was no stove. I slept, too, at night on the floor of the room.
The strange sailor continued to lodge in my room, and did not seem like moving very quickly. At noon, too, my landlady came in and related how he had paid her a month in advance, and besides, he was going to take his first-mate’s examination before leaving, that was why he was staying in town. I stood and listened to this, and understood that my room was lost to me for ever.
I went out to the ante-room, and sat down. If I were lucky enough to get anything written, it would have perforce to be here where it was quiet. It was no longer the allegory that occupied me; I had got a new idea, a perfectly splendid plot; I would compose a one-act drama —“The Sign of the Cross.” Subject taken from the Middle Ages. I had especially thought out everything in connection with the principal characters: a magnificently fanatical harlot who had sinned in the temple, not from weakness or desire, but for hate against heaven; sinner right at the foot of the altar, with the altar-cloth under her head, just out of delicious contempt for heaven.
I grew more and more obsessed by this creation as the hours went on. She stood at last, palpably, vividly embodied before my eyes, and was exactly as I wished her to appear. Her body was to be deformed and repulsive, tall, very lean, and rather dark; and when she walked, her long limbs should gleam through her draperies at every stride she took. She was also to have large outstanding ears. Curtly, she was nothing for the eye to dwell upon, barely endurable to look at. What interested me in her was her wonderful shamelessness, the desperately full measure of calculated sin which she had committed. She really occupied me too much, my brain was absolutely inflated by this singular monstrosity of a creature, and I worked for two hours, without a pause, at my drama. When I had finished half-a score of pages, perhaps twelve, often with much effort, at times with long intervals, in which I wrote in vain and had to tear the page in two, I had become tired, quite stiff with cold and fatigue, and I arose and went out into the street. For the last half-hour, too, I had been disturbed by the crying of the children inside the family room, so that I could not, in any case, have written any more just then. So I took a long time up over Drammensveien, and stayed away till the evening, pondering incessantly, as I walked along, as to how I would continue my drama. Before I came home in the evening of this day, the following happened:
I stood outside a shoemaker’s shop far down in Carl Johann Street, almost at the railway square. God knows why I stood just outside this shoemaker’s shop. I looked into the window as I stood there, but did not, by the way, remember that I needed shoes then; my thoughts were far away in other parts of the world. A swarm of people talking together passed behind my back, and I heard nothing of what was said. Then a voice greeted me loudly:
It was “Missy” who bade me good-evening! I answered at random, I looked at him, too, for a while, before I recognized him.
“Well, how are you getting along?” he inquired.
“Oh, always well . . . as usual.”
“By the way, tell me,” said he, “are you, then, still with Christie?”
“I thought you once said you were book-keeper at Christie’s?”
“Ah, yes. No; that is done with. It was impossible to get along with that fellow; that came to an end very quickly of its own accord.”
“Well, I happened to make a mis-entry one day, and so —”
“A false entry, eh?”
False entry! There stood “Missy,” and asked me straight in the face if I had done this thing. He even asked eagerly, and evidently with much interest. I looked at him, felt deeply insulted, and made no reply.
“Yes, well, Lord! that might happen to the best fellow,” he said, as if to console me. He still believed I had made a false entry designedly.
“What is it that, ‘Yes, well, Lord! indeed might happen to the best fellow’?” I inquired. “To do that. Listen, my good man. Do you stand there and really believe that I could for a moment be guilty of such a mean trick as that? I!”
“But, my dear fellow, I thought I heard you distinctly say that.”
“No; I said that I had made a mis-entry once, a bagatelle; if you want to know, a false date on a letter, a single stroke of the pen wrong — that was my whole crime. No, God be praised, I can tell right from wrong yet a while. How would it fare with me if I were, into the bargain, to sully my honour? It is simply my sense of honour that keeps me afloat now. But it is strong enough too; at least, it has kept me up to date.”
I threw back my head, turned away from “Missy,” and looked down the street. My eyes rested on a red dress that came towards us; on a woman at a man’s side. If I had not had this conversation with “Missy,” I would not have been hurt by his coarse suspicion, and I would not have given this toss of my head, as I turned away in offence; and so perhaps this red dress would have passed me without my having noticed it. And at bottom what did it concern me? What was it to me if it were the dress of the Hon. Miss Nagel, the lady-in-waiting? “Missy” stood and talked, and tried to make good his mistake again. I did not listen to him at all; I stood the whole time and stared at the red dress that was coming nearer up the street, and a stir thrilled through my breast, a gliding delicate dart. I whispered in thought without moving my lips:
Now “Missy” turned round also and noticed the two — the lady and the man with her — raised his hat to them, and followed them with his eyes. I did not raise my hat, or perhaps I did unconsciously. The red dress glided up Carl Johann, and disappeared.
“Who was it was with her?” asked “Missy.”
“The Duke, didn’t you see? The so-called ‘Duke.’ Did you know the lady?”
“Yes, in a sort of way. Didn’t you know her?”
“No,” I replied.
“It appears to me you saluted profoundly enough.”
“Ha, ha! perhaps you didn’t,” said “Missy.” “Well, that is odd. Why, it was only at you she looked, too, the whole time.”
“When did you get to know her?” I asked. He did not really know her. It dated from an evening in autumn. It was late; they were three jovial souls together, they came out late from the Grand, and met this being going along alone past Cammermeyer’s, and they addressed her. At first she answered rebuffingly; but one of the jovial spirits, a man who neither feared fire nor water, asked her right to her face if he might not have the civilized enjoyment of accompanying her home? He would, by the Lord, not hurt a hair on her head, as the saying goes — only go with her to her door, reassure himself that she reached home in safety, otherwise he could not rest all night. He talked incessantly as they went along, hit upon one thing or another, dubbed himself Waldemar Atterdag, and represented himself as a photographer. At last she was obliged to laugh at this merry soul who refused to be rebuffed by her coldness, and it finally ended by his going with her.
“Indeed, did it? and what came of it?” I inquired; and I held my breath for his reply.
“Came of it? Oh, stop there; there is the lady in question.”
We both kept silent a moment, both “Missy” and I.
“Well, I’m hanged, was that ‘the Duke’? So that’s what he looks like,” he added, reflectively. “Well, if she is in contact with that fellow; well, then, I wouldn’t like to answer for her.”
I still kept silent. Yes, of course “the Duke” would make the pace with her. Well, what odds? How did it concern me? I bade her good-day with all her wiles: a good-day I bade her; and I tried to console myself by thinking the worst thoughts about her; took a downright pleasure in dragging her through the mire. It only annoyed me to think that I had doffed my hat to the pair, if I really had done so. Why should I raise my hat to such people? I did not care for her any longer, certainly not; she was no longer in the very slightest degree lovely to me; she had fallen off. Ah, the devil knows how soiled I found her! It might easily have been the case that it was only me she looked at; I was not in the least astounded at that; it might be regret that began to stir in her. But that was no reason for me to go and lower myself and salute, like a fool, especially when she had become so seriously besmirched of late. “The Duke” was welcome to her; I wish him joy! The day might come when I would just take into my head to pass her haughtily by without glancing once towards her. Ay, it might happen that I would venture to do this, even if she were to gaze straight into my eyes, and have a blood-red gown on into the bargain. It might very easily happen! Ha, ha! that would be a triumph. If I knew myself aright, I was quite capable of completing my drama during the course of the night, and, before eight days had flown, I would have brought this young woman to her knees — with all her charms, ha, ha! with all her charms. . . .
“Good-bye,” I muttered, shortly; but “Missy” held me back. He queried:
“But what do you do all day now?”
“Do? I write, naturally. What else should I do? Is it not that I live by? For the moment, I am working at a great drama, ‘The Sign of the Cross.’ Theme taken from the Middle Ages.”
“By Jove!” exclaimed “Missy,” seriously. “Well, if you succeed with that, why. . . . ”
“I have no great anxiety on that score,” I replied. “In eight days’ time or so, I think you and all the folks will have heard a little more of me.”
With that I left him.
When I got home I applied at once to my landlady, and requested a lamp. It was of the utmost importance to me to get this lamp; I would not go to bed tonight; my drama was raging in my brain, and I hoped so surely to be able to write a good portion of it before morning. I put forward my request very humbly to her, as I had noticed that she made a dissatisfied face on my re-entering the sitting-room. I said that I had almost completed a remarkable drama, only a couple of scenes were wanting; and I hinted that it might be produced in some theatre or another, in no time. If she would only just render me this great service now. . . .
But madam had no lamp. She considered a bit, but could not call to mind that she had a lamp in any place. If I liked to wait until twelve o’clock, I might perhaps get the kitchen lamp. Why didn’t I buy myself a candle?
I held my tongue. I hadn’t a farthing to buy a candle, and knew that right well. Of course I was foiled again! The servant-girl sat inside with us — simply sat in the sitting-room, and was not in the kitchen at all; so that the lamp up there was not even lit. And I stood and thought over this, but said no more. Suddenly the girl remarked to me:
“I thought I saw you come out of the palace a while ago; were you at a dinner party?” and she laughed loudly at this jest.
I sat down, took out my papers, and attempted to write something here, in the meantime. I held the paper on my knees, and gazed persistently at the floor to avoid being distracted by anything; but it helped not a whit; nothing helped me; I got no farther. The landlady’s two little girls came in and made a row with the cat — a queer, sick cat that had scarcely a hair on it; they blew into its eyes until water sprang out of them and trickled down its nose. The landlord and a couple of others sat at a table and played cent et un. The wife alone was busy as ever, and sat and sewed at some garment. She saw well that I could not write anything in the midst of all this disturbance; but she troubled herself no more about me; she even smiled when the servant-girl asked me if I had been out to dine. The whole household had become hostile towards me. It was as if I had only needed disgrace of being obliged to resign my room to a stranger to be treated as a man of no account. Even the servant, a little, brown-eyed, street-wench, with a big fringe over her forehead, and a perfectly flat bosom, poked fun at me in the evening when I got my ration of bread and butter. She inquired perpetually where, then, was I in the habit of dining, as she had never seen me picking my teeth outside the Grand? It was clear that she was aware of my wretched circumstances, and took a pleasure in letting me know of it.
I fall suddenly into thought over all this, and am not able to find a solitary speech for my drama. Time upon time I seek in vain; a strange buzzing begins inside my head, and I give it up. I thrust the papers into my pocket, and look up. The girl is sitting straight opposite me. I look at her — look at her narrow back and drooping shoulders, that are not yet fully developed. What business was it of hers to fly at me? Even supposing I did come out of the palace, what then? Did it harm her in any way? She had laughed insolently in the past few days at me, when I was a bit awkward and stumbled on the stairs, or caught fast on a nail and tore my coat. It was not later than yesterday that she gathered up my rough copy, that I had thrown aside in the ante-room — stolen these rejected fragments of my drama, and read them aloud in the room here; made fun of them in every one’s hearing, just to amuse herself at my expense. I had never molested her in any way, and could not recall that I had ever asked her to do me a service. On the contrary, I made up my bed on the floor in the ante-room myself, in order not to give her any trouble with it. She made fun of me, too, because my hair fell out. Hair lay and floated about in the basin I washed in the mornings, and she made merry over it. Then my shoes, too, had grown rather shabby of late, particularly the one that had been run over by the bread-van, and she found subject for jesting in them. “God bless you and your shoes!” said she, looking at them; “they are as wide as a dog’s house.” And she was right; they were trodden out. But then I couldn’t procure myself any others just at present.
Whilst I sit and call all this to mind, and marvel over the evident malice of the servant, the little girls have begun to tease the old man over in the bed; they are jumping around him, fully bent on this diversion. They both found a straw, which they poked into his ears. I looked on at this for a while, and refrained from interfering. The old fellow did not move a finger to defend himself; he only looked at his tormentors with furious eyes each time they prodded him, and jerked his head to escape when the straws were already in his ears. I got more and more irritated at this sight, and could not keep my eyes away from it. The father looked up from his cards, and laughed at the youngsters; he also drew the attention of his comrades at play to what was going on. Why didn’t the old fellow move? Why didn’t he fling the children aside with his arms? I took a stride, and approached the bed.
“Let them alone! let them alone! he is paralysed,” called the landlord.
And out of fear to be shown the door for the night, simply out of fear of rousing the man’s displeasure by interfering with this scene, I stepped back silently to my old place and kept myself quiet. Why should I risk my lodging and my portion of bread and butter by poking my nose into the family squabbles? No idiotic pranks for the sake of a half-dying old man, and I stood and felt as delightfully hard as a flint.
The little urchins did not cease their plaguing; it amused them that the old chap could not hold his head quiet, and they aimed at his eyes and nostrils. He stared at them with a ludicrous expression; he said nothing, and could not stir his arms. Suddenly he raised the upper part of his body a little and spat in the face of one of the little girls, drew himself up again and spat at the other, but did not reach her. I stood and looked on, saw that the landlord flung the cards on the table at which he sat, and sprang over towards the bed. His face was flushed, and he shouted:
“Will you sit and spit right into people’s eyes, you old boar?”
“But, good Lord, he got no peace from them!” I cried, beside myself.
But all the time I stood in fear of being turned out, and I certainly did not utter my protest with any particular force; I only trembled over my whole body with irritation. He turned towards me, and said:
“Eh, listen to him, then. What the devil is it to you? You just keep your tongue in your jaw, you — just mark what I tell you, ’twill serve you best.”
But now the wife’s voice made itself heard, and the house was filled with scolding and railing.
“May God help me, but I think you are mad or possessed, the whole pack of you!” she shrieked. “If you want to stay in here you’ll have to be quiet, both of you! Humph! it isn’t enough that one is to keep open house and food for vermin, but one is to have sparring and rowing and the devil’s own to-do in the sitting-room as well. But I won’t have any more of it, not if I know it. Sh — h! Hold your tongues, you brats there, and wipe your noses, too; if you don’t, I’ll come and do it. I never saw the like of such people. Here they walk in out of the street, without even a penny to buy flea-powder, and begin to kick up rows in the middle of the night and quarrel with the people who own the house, I don’t mean to have any more of it, do you understand that? and you can go your way, every one who doesn’t belong home here. I am going to have peace in my own quarters, I am.”
I said nothing, I never opened my mouth once. I sat down again next the door and listened to the noise. They all screamed together, even the children, and the girl who wanted to explain how the whole disturbance commenced. If I only kept quiet it would all blow over sometime; it would surely not come to the worst if I only did not utter a word; and what word after all could I have to say? Was it not perhaps winter outside, and far advanced into the night, besides? Was that a time to strike a blow, and show one could hold one’s own? No folly now! . . . So I sat still and made no attempt to leave the house; I never even blushed at keeping silent, never felt ashamed, although I had almost been shown the door. I stared coolly, case-hardened, at the wall where Christ hung in an oleograph, and held my tongue obstinately during all the landlady’s attack.
“Well, if it is me you want to get quit of, ma’am, there will be nothing in the way as far as I am concerned,” said one of the card-players as he stood up. The other card-players rose as well.
“No, I didn’t mean you — nor you either,” replied the landlady to them. “If there’s any need to, I will show well enough who I mean, if there’s the least need to, if I know myself rightly. Oh, it will be shown quick enough who it is. . . . ”
She talked with pauses, gave me these thrusts at short intervals, and spun it out to make it clearer and clearer that it was me she meant. “Quiet,” said I to myself; “only keep quiet!” She had not asked me to go — not expressly, not in plain words. Just no putting on side on my part — no untimely pride! Brave it out! . . . That was really most singular green hair on that Christ in the oleograph. It was not too unlike green grass, or expressed with exquisite exactitude thick meadow grass. Ha! a perfectly correct remark — unusually thick meadow grass. . . . A train of fleeting ideas darts at this moment through my head. From green grass to the text, Each life is like unto grass that is kindled; from that to the Day of Judgment, when all will be consumed; then a little detour down to the earthquake in Lisbon, about which something floated before me in reference to a brass Spanish spittoon and an ebony pen handle that I had seen down at Ylajali’s. Ah, yes, all was transitory, just like grass that was kindled. It all ended in four planks and a winding-sheet. “Winding-sheets to be had from Miss Andersen’s, on the right of the door. . . . ” And all this was tossed about in my head during the despairing moment when my landlady was about to thrust me from her door.
“He doesn’t hear,” she yelled. “I tell you, you’ll quit this house. Now you know it. I believe God blast me, that the man is mad, I do! Now, out you go, on the blessed spot, and so no more chat about it.”
I looked towards the door, not in order to leave — no, certainly not in order to leave. An audacious notion seized me — if there had been a key in the door, I would have turned it and locked myself in along with the rest to escape going. I had a perfectly hysterical dread of going out into the streets again.
But there was no key in the door.
Then, suddenly my landlord’s voice mingled with that of his wife, and I stood still with amazement. The same man who had threatened me a while ago took my part, strangely enough now. He said:
“No, it won’t do to turn folk out at night; do you know one can be punished for doing that?”
“I didn’t know if there was a punishment for that; I couldn’t say, but perhaps it was so,” and the wife bethought herself quickly, grew quiet, and spoke no more.
She placed two pieces of bread and butter before me for supper, but I did not touch them, just out of gratitude to the man; so I pretended that I had had a little food in town.
When at length I took myself off to the anteroom to go to bed, she came out after me, stopped on the threshold, and said loudly, whilst her unsightly figure seemed to strut out towards me:
“But this is the last night you sleep here, so now you know it.”
“Yes, yes,” I replied.
There would perhaps be some way of finding a shelter tomorrow, if I tried hard for it. I would surely be able to find some hiding-place. For the time being I would rejoice that I was not obliged to go out tonight.
I slept till between five and six in the morning — it was not yet light when I awoke — but all the same I got up at once. I had lain in all my clothes on account of the cold, and had no dressing to do. When I had drunk a little cold water and opened the door quietly, I went out directly, for I was afraid to face my landlady again.
A couple of policemen who had been on watch all night were the only living beings I saw in the street. A while after, some men began to extinguish the lamps. I wandered about without aim or end, reached Kirkegaden and the road down towards the fortress. Cold and still sleepy, weak in the knees and back after my long walk, and very hungry, I sat down on a seat and dozed for a long time. For three weeks I had lived exclusively on the bread and butter that my landlady had given me morning and evening. Now it was twenty-four hours since I had had my last meal. Hunger began to gnaw badly at me again; I must seek a help for it right quickly. With this thought I fell asleep again upon the seat. . . .
I was aroused by the sound of people speaking near me, and when I had collected myself a little I saw that it was broad day, and that every one was up and about. I got up and walked away. The sun burst over the heights, the sky was pale and tender, and in my delight over the lovely morning, after the many dark gloomy weeks, I forgot all cares, and it seemed to me as if I had fared worse on other occasions. I clapped myself on the chest and sang a little snatch for myself. My voice sounded so wretched, downright exhausted it sounded, and I moved myself to tears with it. This magnificent day, the white heavens swimming in light, had far too mighty an effect upon me, and I burst into loud weeping.
“What is the matter with you?” inquired a man. I did not answer, but hurried away, hiding my face from all men. I reached the bridge. A large barque with the Russian flag lay and discharged coal. I read her name, Copégoro, on her side. It distracted me for a time to watch what took place on board this foreign ship. She must be almost discharged; she lay with IX foot visible on her side, in spite of all the ballast she had already taken in, and there was a hollow boom through the whole ship whenever the coal-heavers stamped on the deck with their heavy boots.
The sun, the light, and the salt breath from the sea, all this busy, merry life pulled me together a bit, and caused my blood to run lustily. Suddenly it entered my head that I could work at a few scenes of my drama whilst I sat here, and I took my papers out of my pocket.
I tried to place a speech into a monk’s mouth — a speech that ought to swell with pride and intolerance, but it was of no use; so I skipped over the monk and tried to work out an oration — the Deemster’s oration to the violator of the Temple — and I wrote half-a-page of this oration, upon which I stopped. The right local colour would not tinge my words, the bustle about me, the shanties, the noise of the gangways, and the ceaseless rattle of the iron chains, fitted in so little with the atmosphere of the musty air of the dim Middle Ages, that was to envelop my drama as with a mist.
I bundled my papers together and got up.
All the same, I got into a happy vein — a grand vein — and I felt convinced that I could effect something if all went well.
If I only had a place to go to. I thought over it — stopped right there in the street and pondered, but I could not bring to mind a single quiet spot in the town where I could seat myself for an hour. There was no other way open; I would have to go back to the lodging-house in Vaterland. I shrank at the thought of it, and I told myself all the while that it would not do. I went ahead all the same, and approached nearer and nearer to the forbidden spot. Of course it was wretched. I admitted to myself that it was degrading — downright degrading, but there was no help for it. I was not in the least proud; I dared make the assertion roundly, that I was one of the least arrogant beings up to date. I went ahead.
I pulled up at the door and weighed it over once more. Yes, no matter what the result was, I would have to dare it. After all said and done, what a bagatelle to make such a fuss about. For the first it was only a matter of a couple of hours; for the second, the Lord forbid that I should ever seek refuge in such a house again. I entered the yard. Even whilst I was crossing the uneven stones I was irresolute, and almost turned round at the very door. I clenched my teeth. No! no pride! At the worst I could excuse myself by saying I had come to say good-bye, to make a proper adieu, and come to a clear understanding about my debt to the house. . . .
I took forth my papers once more, and determined to thrust all irrelevant impressions aside. I had left off right in the middle of a sentence in the inquisitor’s address —“Thus dictate God and the law to me, thus dictates also the counsel of my wise men, thus dictate I and my own conscience. . . . ” I looked out of the window to think over what his conscience should dictate to him. A little row reached me from the room inside. Well, it was no affair of mine anyway; it was entirely and totally indifferent to me what noise arose. Why the devil should I sit thinking about it? Keep quiet now! “Thus dictate I and my own conscience. . . . ” But everything conspired against me. Outside in the street, something was taking place that disturbed me. A little lad sat and amused himself in the sun on the opposite side of the pavement. He was happy and in fear of no danger — just sat and knotted together a lot of paper streamers, and injuring no one. Suddenly he jumps up and begins to curse; he goes backwards to the middle of the street and catches sight of a man, a grown-up man, with a red beard, who is leaning out of an open window in the second storey, and who spat down on his head. The little chap cried with rage, and swore impatiently up at the window; and the man laughed in his face. Perhaps five minutes passed in this way. I turned aside to avoid seeing the little lad’s tears.
“Thus dictate I and my own conscience. . . . ” I found it impossible to get any farther. At last everything began to get confused; it seemed to me that even that which I had already written was unfit to use, ay, that the whole idea was contemptible rubbish. How could one possibly talk of conscience in the Middle Ages? Conscience was first invented by Dancing-master Shakespeare, consequently my whole address was wrong. Was there, then, nothing of value in these pages? I ran through them anew, and solved my doubt at once. I discovered grand pieces — downright lengthy pieces of remarkable merit — and once again the intoxicating desire to set to work again darted through my breast — the desire to finish my drama.
I got up and went to the door, without paying any attention to my landlord’s furious signs to go out quietly; I walked out of the room firmly, and with my mind made up. I went upstairs to the second floor, and entered my former room. The man was not there, and what was to hinder me from sitting here for a moment? I would not touch one of his things. I wouldn’t even once use his table; I would just seat myself on a chair near the door, and be happy. I spread the papers hurriedly out on my knees. Things went splendidly for a few minutes. Retort upon retort stood ready in my head, and I wrote uninterruptedly. I filled one page after the other, dashed ahead over stock and stone, chuckled softly in ecstasy over my happy vein, and was scarcely conscious of myself. The only sound I heard in this moment was my own merry chuckle.
A singularly happy idea had just struck me about a church bell — a church bell that was to peal out at a certain point in my drama. All was going ahead with overwhelming rapidity. Then I heard a step on the stairs. I tremble, and am almost beside myself; sit ready to bolt, timorous, watchful, full of fear at everything, and excited by hunger. I listen nervously, just hold the pencil still in my hand, and listen. I cannot write a word more. The door opens and the pair from below enter.
Even before I had time to make an excuse for what I had done, the landlady calls out, as if struck of a heap with amazement:
“Well, God bless and save us, if he isn’t sitting here again!”
“Excuse me,” I said, and I would have added more, but got no farther; the landlady flung open the door, as far as it would go, and shrieked:
“If you don’t go out, now, may God blast me, but I’ll fetch the police!”
I got up.
“I only wanted to say good-bye to you,” I murmured; “and I had to wait for you. I didn’t touch anything; I only just sat here on the chair. . . . ”
“Yes, yes; there was no harm in that,” said the man. “What the devil does it matter? Let the man alone; he —”
By this time I had reached the end of the stairs. All at once I got furious with this fat, swollen woman, who followed close to my heels to get rid of me quickly, and I stood quiet a moment with the worst abusive epithets on my tongue ready to sling at her. But I bethought myself in time, and held my peace, if only out of gratitude to the stranger man who followed her, and would have to hear them. She trod close on my heels, railing incessantly, and my anger increased with every step I took.
We reached the yard below. I walked very slowly, still debating whether I would not have it out with her. I was at this moment completely blinded with rage, and I searched for the worst word — an expression that would strike her dead on the spot, like a kick in her stomach. A commissionaire passes me at the entrance. He touches his hat; I take no notice; he applies to her; and I hear that he inquires for me, but I do not turn round. A couple of steps outside the door he overtakes and stops me. He hands me an envelope. I tear it open, roughly and unwillingly. It contains half-a-sovereign — no note, not a word. I look at the man, and ask:
“What tomfoolery is this? Who is the letter from?”
“Oh, that I can’t say!” he replies; “but it was a lady who gave it to me.”
I stood still. The commissionaire left.
I put the coin into the envelope again, crumple it up, coin and envelope, wheel round and go straight towards the landlady, who is still keeping an eye on me from the doorway, and throw it in her face. I said nothing; I uttered no syllable — only noticed that she was examining the crumpled paper as I left her. . . . Ha! that is what one might call comporting oneself with dignity. Not to say a word, not to mention the contents, but crumple together, with perfect calmness, a large piece of money, and fling it straight in the face of one’s persecutor! One might call that making one’s exit with dignity. That was the way to treat such beasts I. . . .
When I got to the corner of Tomtegaden and the railway place, the street commenced suddenly to swim around before my eyes; it buzzed vacantly in my head, and I staggered up against the wall of a house. I could simply go no farther, couldn’t even straighten myself from the cramped position I was in. As I fell up against it, so I remained standing, and I felt that I was beginning to lose my senses. My insane anger had augmented this attack of exhaustion. I lifted my foot, and stamped on the pavement. I also tried several other things to try and regain my strength: I clenched my teeth, wrinkled my brows, and rolled my eyes despairingly; it helped a little. My thoughts grew more lucid. It was clear to me that I was about to succumb. I stretched out my hands, and pushed myself back from the wall. The street still danced wildly round me. I began to hiccough with rage, and I wrestled from my very inmost soul with my misery; made a right gallant effort not to sink down. It was not my intention to collapse; no, I would die standing. A dray rolls slowly by, and I notice there are potatoes in it; but out of sheer fury and stubbornness, I take it into my head to assert that they are not potatoes, but cabbages, and I swore frightful oaths that they were cabbages. I heard quite well what I was saying, and I swore this lie wittingly; repeating time after time, just to have the vicious satisfaction of perjuring myself. I got intoxicated with the thought of this matchless sin of mine. I raised three fingers in the air, and swore, with trembling lips, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, that they were cabbages.
Time went. I let myself sink down on the steps near me, and dried the sweat from my brow and throat, drew a couple of long breaths, and forced myself into calmness. The sun slid down; it declined towards the afternoon. I began once more to brood over my condition. My hunger was really something disgraceful, and, in a few hours more, night would be here again. The question was, to think of a remedy while there was yet time. My thoughts flew again to the lodging-house from which I had been hunted away. I could on no account return there; but yet one could not help thinking about it. Properly speaking, the woman was acting quite within her rights in turning me out. How could I expect to get lodging with any one when I could not pay for it? Besides, she had occasionally given me a little food; even yesterday evening, after I had annoyed her, she offered me some bread and butter. She offered it to me out of sheer good nature, because she knew I needed it, so I had no cause to complain. I began, even whilst I sat there on the step, to ask her pardon in my own mind for my behaviour. Particularly, I regretted bitterly that I had shown myself ungrateful to her at the last, and thrown half-a-sovereign in her face. . . .
Half-a-sovereign! I gave a whistle. The letter the messenger brought me, where did it come from? It was only this instant I thought clearly over this, and I divined at once how the whole thing hung together. I grew sick with pain and shame. I whispered “Ylajali” a few times, with hoarse voice, and flung back my head. Was it not I who, no later than yesterday, had decided to pass her proudly by if I met her, to treat her with the greatest indifference? Instead of that, I had only aroused her compassion, and coaxed an alms from her. No, no, no; there would never be an end to my degradation! Not even in her presence could I maintain a decent position. I sank, simply sank, on all sides — every way I turned; sank to my knees, sank to my waist, dived under in ignominy, never to rise again — never! This was the climax! To accept half-a-sovereign in alms without being able to fling it back to the secret donor; scramble for half-pence whenever the chance offered, and keep them, use them for lodging money, in spite of one’s intense inner aversion. . . .
Could I not regain the half-sovereign in some way or another? To go back to the landlady and try to get it from her would be of no use. There must be some way, if I were to consider — if I were only to exert myself right well, and consider it over. It was not, in this case, great God, sufficient to consider in just an ordinary way! I must consider so that it penetrated my whole sentient being; consider and find some way to procure this half-sovereign. And I set to, to consider the answer to this problem.
It might be about four o’clock; in a few hours’ time I could perhaps meet the manager of the theatre; if only I had my drama completed.
I take out my MSS. there where I am sitting, and resolve, with might and main, to finish the last few scenes. I think until I sweat, and re-read from the beginning, but make no progress. No bosh! I say — no obstinacy, now! and I write away at my drama — write down everything that strikes me, just to get finished quickly and be able to go away. I tried to persuade myself that a new supreme moment had seized me; I lied right royally to myself, deceived myself knowingly, and wrote on, as if I had no need to seek for words.
That is capital! That is really a find! whispered I, interpolatingly; only just write it down! Halt! they sound questionable; they contrast rather strongly with the speeches in the first scenes; not a trace of the Middle Ages shone through the monk’s words. I break my pencil between my teeth, jump to my feet, tear my manuscript in two, tear each page in two, fling my hat down in the street and trample upon it. I am lost! I whisper to myself. Ladies and gentlemen, I am lost! I utter no more than these few words as long as I stand there, and tramp upon my hat.
A policeman is standing a few steps away, watching me. He is standing in the middle of the street, and he only pays attention to me. As I lift my head, our eyes meet. Maybe he has been standing there for a long time watching me. I pick up my hat, put it on, and go over to him.
“Do you know what time it is?” I ask. He pauses a bit as he hauls out his watch, and never takes his eyes off me the whole time.
“About four,” he replies.
“Accurately,” I say, “about four, perfectly accurate. You know your business, and I’ll bear you in mind.” Thereupon I left him. He looked utterly amazed at me, stood and looked at me, with gaping mouth, still holding his watch in his hand.
When I got in front of the Royal Hotel I turned and looked back. He was still standing in the same position, following me with his eyes.
Ha, ha! That is the way to treat brutes! With the most refined effrontery! That impresses the brutes — puts the fear of God into them. . . . I was peculiarly satisfied with myself, and began to sing a little strain. Every nerve was tense with excitement. Without feeling any more pain, without even being conscious of discomfort of any kind, I walked, light as a feather, across the whole market, turned round at the stalls, and came to a halt — sat down on a bench near Our Saviour’s Church. Might it not just as well be a matter of indifference whether I returned the half-sovereign or not? When once I received it, it was mine; and there was evidently no want where it came from. Besides, I was obliged to take it when it was sent expressly to me; there could be no object in letting the messenger keep it. It wouldn’t do, either, to send it back — a whole half-sovereign that had been sent to me. So there was positively no help for it.
I tried to watch the bustle about me in the market, and distract myself with indifferent things, but I did not succeed; the half-sovereign still busied my thoughts. At last I clenched my fists and got angry. It would hurt her if I were to send it back. Why, then, should I do so? Always ready to consider myself too good for everything — to toss my head and say, No, thanks! I saw now what it led to. I was out in the street again. Even when I had the opportunity I couldn’t keep my good warm lodging. No; I must needs be proud, jump up at the first word, and show I wasn’t the man to stand trifling, chuck half-sovereigns right and left, and go my way. . . . I took myself sharply to task for having left my lodging and brought myself into the most distressful circumstances.
As for the rest, I consigned the whole affair to the keeping of the yellowest of devils. I hadn’t begged for the half-sovereign, and I had barely had it in my hand, but gave it away at once — paid it away to utterly strange people whom I would never see again. That was the sort of man I was; I always paid out to the last doit whatever I owed. If I knew Ylajali aright, neither did she regret that she had sent me the money, therefore why did I sit there working myself into a rage? To put it plainly, the least she could do was to send me half-a-sovereign now and then. The poor girl was indeed in love with me — ha! perhaps even fatally in love with me; . . . and I sat and puffed myself up with this notion. There was no doubt that she was in love with me, the poor girl.
It struck five o’clock! Again I sank under the weight of my prolonged nervous excitement. The hollow whirring in my head made itself felt anew. I stared straight ahead, kept my eyes fixed, and gazed at the chemist’s under the sign of the elephant. Hunger was waging a fierce battle in me at this moment, and I was suffering greatly. Whilst I sit thus and look out into space, a figure becomes little by little clear to my fixed stare. At last I can distinguish it perfectly plainly, and I recognize it. It is that of the cake-vendor who sits habitually near the chemist’s under the sign of the elephant. I give a start, sit half-upright on the seat, and begin to consider. Yes, it was quite correct — the same woman before the same table on the same spot! I whistle a few times and snap my fingers, rise from my seat, and make for the chemist’s. No nonsense at all! What the devil was it to me if it was the wages of sin, or well-earned Norwegian huckster pieces of silver from Kongsberg? I wasn’t going to be abused; one might die of too much pride. . . .
I go on to the corner, take stock of the woman, and come to a standstill before her. I smile, nod as to an acquaintance, and shape my words as if it were a foregone conclusion that I would return sometime.
“Good-day,” say I; “perhaps you don’t recognize me again.”
“No,” she replied slowly, and looks at me.
I smile still more, as if this were only an excellent joke of hers, this pretending not to know me again, and say:
“Don’t you recollect that I gave you a lot of silver once? I did not say anything on the occasion in question; as far as I can call to mind, I did not; it is not my way to do so. When one has honest folk to deal with, it is unnecessary to make an agreement, so to say, draw up a contract for every trifle. Ha, ha! Yes, it was I who gave you the money!”
“No, then, now; was it you? Yes, I remember you, now that I come to think over it. . . . ”
I wanted to prevent her from thanking me for the money, so I say, therefore, hastily, whilst I cast my eye over the table in search of something to eat:
“Yes; I’ve come now to get the cakes.”
She did not seem to take this in.
“The cakes,” I reiterate; “I’ve come now to get them — at any rate, the first instalment; I don’t need all of them today.”
“You’ve come to get them?”
“Yes; of course I’ve come to get them,” I reply, and I laugh boisterously, as if it ought to have been self-evident to her from the outset that I came for that purpose. I take, too, a cake up from the table, a sort of white roll that I commenced to eat.
When the woman sees this, she stirs uneasily inside her bundle of clothes, makes an involuntary movement as if to protect her wares, and gives me to understand that she had not expected me to return to rob her of them.
“Really not?” I say, “indeed, really not?” She certainly was an extraordinary woman. Had she, then, at any time, had the experience that some one came and gave her a heap of shillings to take care of, without that person returning and demanding them again? No; just look at that now! Did she perhaps run away with the idea that it was stolen money, since I slung it at her in that manner? No; she didn’t think that either. Well, that at least was a good thing — really a good thing. It was, if I might so say, kind of her, in spite of all, to consider me an honest man. Ha, ha! yes indeed, she really was good!
But why did I give her the money, then? The woman was exasperated, and called out loudly about it. I explained why I had given her the money, explained it temperately and with emphasis. It was my custom to act in this manner, because I had such a belief in every one’s goodness. Always when any one offered me an agreement, a receipt, I only shook my head and said: No, thank you! God knows I did.
But still the woman failed to comprehend it. I had recourse to other expedients — spoke sharply, and bade a truce to all nonsense. Had it never happened to her before that any one had paid her in advance in this manner? I inquired — I meant, of course, people who could afford it — for example, any of the consuls? Never? Well, I could not be expected to suffer because it happened to be a strange mode of procedure to her. It was a common practice abroad. She had perhaps never been outside the boundaries of her own country? No? Just look at that now! In that case, she could of course have no opinion on the subject; . . . and I took several more cakes from the table.
She grumbled angrily, refused obstinately to give up any more of her stores from off the table, even snatched a piece of cake out of my hand and put it back into its place. I got enraged, banked the table, and threatened to call the police. I wished to be lenient with her, I said. Were I to take all that was lawfully mine, I would clear her whole stand, because it was a big sum of money that I had given to her. But I had no intention of taking so much, I wanted in reality only half the value of the money, and I would, into the bargain, never come back to trouble her again. Might God preserve me from it, seeing that that was the sort of creature she was. . . . At length she shoved some cakes towards me, four or five, at an exorbitant price, the highest possible price she could think of, and bade me take them and begone. I wrangled still with her, persisted that she had at least cheated me to the extent of a shilling, besides robbing me with her exorbitant prices. “Do you know there is a penalty for such rascally trickery,” said I; “God help you, you might get penal servitude for life, you old fool!” She flung another cake to me, and, with almost gnashing teeth, begged me to go.
And I left her.
Ha! a match for this dishonest cake-vendor was not to be found. The whole time, whilst I walked to and fro in the market-place and ate my cakes, I talked loudly about this creature and her shamelessness, repeated to myself what we both had said to one another, and it seemed to me that I had come out of this affair with flying colours, leaving her nowhere. I ate my cakes in face of everybody and talked this over to myself.
The cakes disappeared one by one; they seemed to go no way; no matter how I ate I was still greedily hungry. Lord, to think they were of no help! I was so ravenous that I was even about to devour the last little cake that I had decided to spare, right from the beginning, to put it aside, in fact, for the little chap down in Vognmandsgade — the little lad who played with the paper streamers. I thought of him continually — couldn’t forget his face as he jumped and swore. He had turned round towards the window when the man spat down on him, and he had just looked up to see if I was laughing at him. God knows if I should meet him now, even if I went down that way.
I exerted myself greatly to try and reach Vognmandsgade, passed quickly by the spot where I had torn my drama into tatters, and where some scraps of papers still lay about; avoided the policeman whom I had amazed by my behaviour, and reached the steps upon which the laddie had been sitting.
He was not there. The street was almost deserted — dusk was gathering in, and I could not see him anywhere. Perhaps he had gone in. I laid the cake down, stood it upright against the door, knocked hard, and hurried away directly. He is sure to find it, I said to myself; the first thing he will do when he comes out will be to find it. And my eyes grew moist with pleasure at the thought of the little chap finding the cake.
I reached the terminus again.
Now I no longer felt hungry, only the sweet stuff I had eaten began to cause me discomfort. The wildest thoughts, too surged up anew in my head.
Supposing I were in all secretness to cut the hawser mooring one of those ships? Supposing I were to suddenly yell out “Fire”? I walk farther down the wharf, find a packing-case and sit upon it, fold my hands, and am conscious that my head is growing more and more confused. I do not stir; I simply make no effort whatever to keep up any longer. I just sit there and stare at the Copégoro, the barque flying the Russian flag.
I catch a glimpse of a man at the rail; the red lantern slung at the port shines down upon his head, and I get up and talk over to him. I had no object in talking, as I did not expect to get a reply, either.
“Do you sail tonight, Captain?”
“Yes; in a short time,” answered the man. He spoke Swedish.
“Hem, I suppose you wouldn’t happen to need a man?”
I was at this instant utterly indifferent as to whether I was met by a refusal or not; it was all the same to me what reply the man gave me, so I stood and waited for it.
“Well, no,” he replied; “unless it chanced to be a young fellow.”
“A young fellow!” I pulled myself together, took off my glasses furtively and thrust them into my pocket, stepped up the gangway, and strode on deck.
“I have no experience,” said I; “but I can do anything I am put to. Where are you bound for?”
“We are in ballast for Leith, to fetch coal for Cadiz.”
“All right,” said I, forcing myself upon the man; “it’s all the same to me where I go; I am prepared to do my work.”
“Have you never sailed before?” he asked.
“No; but as I tell you, put me to a task, and I’ll do it. I am used to a little of all sorts.”
He bethought himself again.
I had already taken keenly into my head that I was to sail this voyage, and I began to dread being hounded on shore again.
“What do you think about it, Captain?” I asked at last. “I can really do anything that turns up. What am I saying? I would be a poor sort of chap if I couldn’t do a little more than just what I was put to. I can take two watches at a stretch, if it comes to that. It would only do me good, and I could hold out all the same.”
“All right, have a try at it. If it doesn’t work, well, we can part in England.”
“Of course,” I reply in my delight, and I repeated over again that we could part in England if it didn’t work.
And he set me to work. . . .
Out in the fjord I dragged myself up once, wet with fever and exhaustion, and gazed landwards, and bade farewell for the present to the town — to Christiania, where the windows gleamed so brightly in all the homes.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09