I came from my fishing as usual, and appeared at the “ball” with the gun and bag — only I had put on my best leather suit. It was late when I got to Sirilund; I heard them dancing inside. Someone called out: “Here’s the hunter, the Lieutenant.” A few of the young people crowded round me and wanted to see my catch; I had shot a brace of seabirds and caught a few haddock. Edwarda bade me welcome with a smile; she had been dancing, and was flushed.
“The first dance with me,” she said.
And we danced. Nothing awkward happened; I turned giddy, but did not fall. My heavy boots made a certain amount of noise; I could hear it myself, the noise, and resolved not to dance any more; I had even scratched their painted floor. But how glad I was that I had done nothing worse!
Herr Mack’s two assistants from the store were there, laboriously and with a solemn concentration. The Doctor took part eagerly in the set dances. Besides these gentlemen, there were four other youngish men, sons of families belonging to the parish, the Dean, and the district surgeons. A stranger, a commercial traveller, was there too; he made himself remarked by his fine voice, and tralala’ed to the music; now and again he relieved the ladies at the piano.
I cannot remember now what happened the first few hours, but I remember everything from the latter part of the night. The sun shone redly in through the windows all the time, and the seabirds slept. We had wine and cakes, we talked loud and sang, Edwarda’s laugh sounded fresh and careless through the room. But why had she never a word for me now? I went towards where she was sitting, and would have said something polite to her, as best I could; she was wearing a black dress, her confirmation dress, perhaps, and it was grown too short for her, but it suited her when she danced, and I thought to tell her so.
“That black dress . . . ” I began.
But she stood up, put her arm round one of her girl friends, and walked off with her. This happened two or three times. Well, I thought to myself, if it’s like that . . . But then why should she stand looking sorrowfully after me from the window when I go? Well, ’tis her affair!
A lady asked me to dance. Edwarda was sitting near, and I answered loudly:
“No; I am going home directly.”
Edwarda threw a questioning glance at me, and said: “Going? Oh, no, you mustn’t go.”
I started, and felt that I was biting my lip. I got up.
“What you said then seemed very significant to me, Edwarda,” I said darkly, and made a few steps towards the door.
The Doctor put himself in my way, and Edwarda herself came hurrying up.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” she said warmly. “I meant to say I hoped you would be the last to go, the very last. And besides, it’s only one o’clock . . . Listen,” she went on with sparkling eyes, “you gave our boatmen five daler for saving my shoe. It was too much.” And she laughed heartily and turned round to the rest.
I stood with open mouth, disarmed and confused.
“You are pleased to be witty,” I said. “I never gave your boatman five daler at all.”
“Oh, didn’t you?” She opened the door to the kitchen, and called the boatmen in. “Jakob, you remember the day you rowed us out to Korholmerne, and you picked up my shoe when it fell into the water?”
“Yes,” answered Jakob.
“And you were given five daler for saving it?”
“Yes, you gave me . . . ”
“Thanks, that will do, you can go.”
Now what did she mean by that trick? I thought she was trying to shame me. She should not succeed; I was not going to have that to blush for. And I said loudly and distinctly:
“I must point out to all here that this is either a mistake or a lie. I have never so much as thought of giving the boatman five daler for your shoe. I ought to have done so, perhaps, but up to now it has not been done.”
“Whereupon we shall continue the dance,” she said, frowning. “Why aren’t we dancing?”
“She owes me an explanation of this,” I said to myself, and watched for an opportunity to speak with her. She went into a side room, and I followed her.
“Skaal,” I said, and lifted a glass to drink with her.
“I have nothing in my glass,” she answered shortly.
But her glass was standing in front of her, quite full.
“I thought that was your glass.”
“No, it is not mine,” she answered, and turned away, and was in deep conversation with someone else.
“I beg your pardon then,” said I.
Several of the guests had noticed this little scene.
My heart was hissing within me. I said offendedly: “But at least you owe me an explanation . . . ”
She rose, took both my hands, and said earnestly:
“But not to-day; not now. I am so miserable. Heavens, how you look at me. We were friends once . . . ”
Overwhelmed, I turned right about, and went in to the dancers again.
A little after, Edwarda herself came in and took up her place by the piano, at which the travelling man was seated, playing a dance; her face at that moment was full of inward pain.
“I have never learned to play,” she said, looking at me with dark eyes. “If I only could!”
I could make no answer to this. But my heart flew out towards her once more, and I asked:
“Why are you so unhappy all at once, Edwarda? If you knew how it hurts me to see —”
“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “Everything, perhaps. I wish all these people would go away at once, all of them. No, not you — remember, you must stay till the last.”
And again her words revived me, and my eyes saw the light in the sun-filled room. The Dean’s daughter came over, and began talking to me; I wished her ever so far away, and gave her short answers. And I purposely kept from looking at her, for she had said that about my eyes being like an animal’s. She turned to Edwarda and told her that once, somewhere abroad — in Riga I think it was — a man had followed her along the street.
“Kept walking after me, street after street, and smiling across at me,” she said.
“Why, was he blind, then?” I broke in, thinking to please Edwarda. And I shrugged my shoulders as well.
The young lady understood my coarseness at once, and answered:
“He must have been blind indeed, to run after any one so old and ugly as I am.”
But I gained no thanks from Edwarda for that: she drew her friend away; they whispered together and shook their heads. After that, I was left altogether to myself.
Another hour passed. The seabirds began to wake out on the reefs; their cries sounded in through the open windows. A spasm of joy went through me at this first calling of the birds, and I longed to be out there on the islands myself . . .
The Doctor, once more in good humor, drew the attention of all present. The ladies were never tired of his society. Is that thing there my rival? I thought, noting his lame leg and miserable figure. He had taken to a new and amusing oath: he said Död og Pinsel, [Footnote: A slight variation of the usual Död og Pine (death and torture).] and every time he used that comical expression I laughed aloud. In my misery I wished to give the fellow every advantage I could, since he was my rival. I let it be “Doctor” here and “Doctor” there, and called out myself: “Listen to the Doctor!” and laughed aloud at the things he said.
“I love this world,” said the Doctor. “I cling to life tooth and nail. And when I come to die, then I hope to find a corner somewhere straight up over London and Paris, where I can hear the rumble of the human cancan all the time, all the time.”
“Splendid!” I cried, and choked with laughter, though I was not in the least bit drunk.
Edwarda too seemed delighted.
When the guests began to go, I slipped away into the little room at the side and sat down to wait. I heard one after another saying good-bye on the stairs; the Doctor also took his leave and went. Soon all the voices had died away. My heart beat violently as I waited.
Edwarda came in again. At sight of me she stood a moment in surprise; then she said with a smile:
“Oh, are you there? It was kind of you to wait till the last. I am tired out now.”
She remained standing.
I got up then, and said: “You will be wanting rest now. I hope you are not displeased any more, Edwarda. You were so unhappy a while back, and it hurt me.”
“It will be all right when I have slept.”
I had no more to add. I went towards the door.
“Thank you,” she said, offering her hand. “It was a pleasant evening.” She would have seen me to the door, but I tried to prevent her.
“No need,” I said; “do not trouble, I can find my way . . . ”
But she went with me all the same. She stood in the passage waiting patiently while I found my cap, my gun, and my bag. There was a walking-stick in the corner; I saw it well enough; I stared at it, and recognized it — it was the Doctor’s. When she marked what I was looking at, she blushed in confusion; it was plain to see from her face that she was innocent, that she knew nothing of the stick. A whole minute passed. At last she turned, furiously impatient, and said tremblingly:
“Your stick — do not forget your stick.”
And there before my eyes she handed me the Doctor’s stick.
I looked at her. She was still holding out the stick; her hand trembled. To make an end of it, I took the thing, and set it back in the corner. I said:
“It is the Doctor’s stick. I cannot understand how a lame man could forget his stick.” “You and your lame man!” she cried bitterly, and took a step forward towards me. “You are not lame — no; but even if you were, you could not compare with him; no, you could never compare with him. There!”
I sought for some answer, but my mind was suddenly empty; I was silent. With a deep bow, I stepped backwards out of the door, and down on to the steps. There I stood a moment looking straight before me; then I moved off.
“So, he has forgotten his stick,” I thought to myself. “And he will come back this way to fetch it. He would not let me be the last man to leave the house . . . ” I walked up the road very slowly, keeping a lookout either way, and stopped at the edge of the wood. At last, after half an hour’s waiting, the Doctor came walking towards me; he had seen me, and was walking quickly. Before he had time to speak I lifted my cap, to try him. He raised his hat in return. I went straight up to him and said:
“I gave you no greeting.”
He came a step nearer and stared at me.
“You gave me no greeting . . .?”
“No,” said I.
“Why, it is all the same to me what you did,” he said, turning pale. “I was going to fetch my stick; I left it behind.” I could say nothing in answer to this, but I took my revenge another way; I stretched out my gun before him, as if he were a dog, and said:
And I whistled, as if coaxing him to jump over.
For a moment he struggled with himself; his face took on the strangest play of expression as he pressed his lips together and held his eyes fixed on the ground. Suddenly he looked at me sharply; a half smile lit up his features, and he said:
“What do you really mean by all this?”
I did not answer, but his words affected me.
Suddenly he held out his hand to me, and said gently:
“There is something wrong with you. If you will tell me what it is, then perhaps . . . ”
I was overwhelmed now with shame and despair; his calm words made me lose my balance. I wished to show him some kindness in return, and I put my arm round him, and said:
“Forgive me this! No, what could be wrong with me? There is nothing wrong; I have no need of your help. You are looking for Edwarda, perhaps? You will find her at home. But make haste, or she will have gone to bed before you come; she was very tired, I could see it myself. I tell you the best news I can, now; it is true. You will find her at home — go, then!” And I turned and hurried away from him, striking out with a long stride up through the woods and back to the hut.
For a while I sat there on the bed just as I had come in, with my bag over my shoulder and my gun in my hand. Strange thoughts passed through my mind. Why ever had I given myself away so to that Doctor? The thought that I had put my arm round him and looked at him with wet eyes angered me; he would chuckle over it, I thought; perhaps at that very moment he might be sitting laughing over it, with Edwarda. He had set his stick aside in the hall. Yes, even if I were lame, I could not compare with the Doctor. I could never compare with him — those were her words . . .
I stepped out into the middle of the floor, cocked my gun, set the muzzle against my left instep, and pulled the trigger. The shot passed through the middle of the foot and pierced the floor. Æsop gave a short terrified bark.
A little after there came a knock at the door.
It was the Doctor.
“Sorry to disturb you,” he began. “You went off so suddenly, I thought it might do no harm if we had a little talk together. Smell of powder, isn’t there . . .?”
He was perfectly sober. “Did you see Edwarda? Did you get your stick?” I asked.
“I found my stick. But Edwarda had gone to bed . . . What’s that? Heavens, man, you’re bleeding!”
“No, nothing to speak of. I was just putting the gun away, and it went off; it’s nothing. Devil take you, am I obliged to sit here and give you all sorts of information about that . . .? You found your stick?”
But he did not heed my words; he was staring at my torn boot and the trickle of blood. With a quick movement he laid down his stick and took off his gloves.
“Sit still — I must get that boot off. I thought it was a shot I heard.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51