A faint, golden, metallic rim appears in the east where the sun is rising. The city is beginning to stir; already can be heard an occasional distant rumble of trucks rolling into the streets from the country, large farm-wagons heavily loaded with supplies for the markets—with hay and meat and cordwood. And these wagons make more noise than usual because the pavements are still brittle from nightly frosts. It is the latter part of March.
Everything is quiet around the harbour. Here and there a sleepy sailor tumbles out of a forecastle; smoke is curling from the galleys. A skipper puts his head out of a companionway and sniffs toward the weather; the sea stretches in undisturbed calm; all the winches are at rest.
The first wharf gate is thrown open. Through it one catches a glimpse of sacks and cases piled high, of cans and barrels; men with ropes and wheelbarrows are moving around, still half asleep, yawning openly with angular, bearded jaws. And barges are warped in alongside the docks; another army begins the hoisting and stowing of goods, the loading of wagons, and the moving of freight.
In the streets one door after another is opened; blinds are raised, office-boys are sweeping floors and dusting counters. In the H. Henriksen office the son is sitting at a desk, all alone; he is sorting mail. A young gentleman is strolling, tired and sleepy, toward the railway square; he comes from a late party given in some comrade’s den and is taking the morning air. At Fire Headquarters he runs across an acquaintance who has also been celebrating.
“Abroad so early, Ojen?” asks the first stroller.
“Yes—that is to say, I haven’t been in bed yet!”
“Neither have I,” laughs the first. “Good night!”
And he wanders on, smiling in amusement over that good night on a bright and sunny morning. He is a young and promising man; his name had suddenly become famous two years ago when he published a lyric drama. His name is Irgens; everybody knows him. He wears patent-leather shoes and is good-looking, with his curled moustache and his sleek, dark hair.
He drifts from one market square to another; it amuses him, sleepy as he is, to watch the farmers who are invading the public squares with their trucks. The spring sun has browned their faces; they wear heavy mufflers around their necks, and their hands are sinewy and dirty. They are in such a hurry to sell their wares that they even hail him, a youth of twenty-four without a family, a lyric writer who is simply loitering at random in order to divert himself.
The sun climbs higher. Now people begin to swarm in all directions; shrill whistles are heard, now from the factories in the city suburbs, now from the railway stations and docks; the traffic increases. Busy workers dart hither and thither—some munching their breakfast from newspaper parcels. A man pushes an enormous load of bundles on a push-cart, he is delivering groceries; he strains like a horse and reads addresses from a note-book as he hurries along. A child is distributing morning papers; she is a little girl who has Saint Vitus’s dance; she jerks her angular body in all directions, twitches her shoulders, blinks, hustles from door to door, climbs the stairs in the high-storied houses, presses bells, and hurries on, leaving papers on every doorstep. A dog follows her and makes every trip with her.
Traffic and noise increase and spread; beginning at the factories, the wharves, the shipyards, and the sawmills, they mingle with wagon rumblings and human voices; the air is rent by steam-whistles whose agonising wails rise skyward, meeting and blending above the large squares in a booming diapason, a deep-throated, throbbing roar that enwraps the entire city. Telegraph messengers dart hither and yon, scattering orders and quotations from distant markets. The powerful, vitalising chant of commerce booms through the air; the wheat in India, the coffee in Java promise well; the Spanish markets are crying for fish—enormous quantities of fish during Lent.
It is eight o’clock; Irgens starts for home. He passes H. Henriksen’s establishment and decides to drop in a moment. The son of the house, a young man in a business suit of cheviot, is still busy at his desk. His eyes are large and blue, although his complexion is rather dark otherwise; a stray wisp of hair sags untidily over his forehead. The tall, somewhat gaunt and taciturn fellow looks about thirty years old. His comrades value him highly because he helps them a good deal with money and articles of commerce from the firm’s cellars.
“Good morning!” calls Irgens.
The other looks up in surprise.
“What—you? Are you abroad so early?”
“Yes. That is to say, I haven’t been to bed yet.”
“Oh—that’s different. I have been at my desk since five; I have cabled to three countries already.”
“Good Lord—you know I am not the least interested in your trading! There is only one thing I want to discuss with you, Ole Henriksen; have you got a drink of brandy?”
The two men leave the office and pass through the store down into the cellar. Ole Henriksen pulls a cork hurriedly; his father is expected any moment, and for this reason he is in haste. The father is old, but that is no reason why he should be ignored.
Irgens drinks and says: “Can I take the bottle along?” And Ole Henriksen nods.
On their way back through the store he pulls out a drawer from the counter, and Irgens, who understands the hint, takes something from the drawer which he puts in his mouth. It is coffee, roasted coffee; good for the breath.
At two o’clock people swarm up and down the promenade. They chat and laugh in all manner of voices, greet each other, smile, nod, turn around, shout. Cigar smoke and ladies’ veils flutter in the air; a kaleidoscopic confusion of light gloves and handkerchiefs, of bobbing hats and swinging canes, glides down the street along which carriages drive with ladies and gentlemen in stylish attire.
Several young gentlemen have taken their accustomed stand at “The Corner.” They form a circle of acquaintances—a couple of artists, a couple of authors, a business man, an undefinable—comrades all. They are dressed variously: some have already dispensed with their overcoats, others wear long ulsters with turned-up collars as in midwinter. Everybody knows “the clique.”
Some join it while others depart; there remain a young, corpulent artist by the name of Milde, and an actor with a snub nose and a creamy voice; also Irgens, and Attorney Grande of the prominent Grande family. The most important, however, is Paulsberg, Lars Paulsberg, the author of half a dozen novels and a scientific work on the Atonement. He is loudly referred to as the Poet, even though both Irgens and Ojen are present.
The Actor buttons his ulster tightly and shivers.
“No—spring-time is a little too chilly to suit me,” he says.
“The contrary here!” exclaims the Attorney. “I could shout all the time; I am neighing inwardly; my blood sings a hunting chorus!” And the little stooping youth straightens his shoulders and glances secretly at Paulsberg.
“Listen to that!” says the Actor sarcastically. “A man is a man, as the eunuch said.”
“What does that remark signify?”
“Nothing, God bless you! But you in your patent leathers and your silk hat hunting wolves—the idea appealed to my sense of humour.”
“Ha, ha! I note the fact that Norem has a sense of humour! Let us duly appreciate it.”
They spoke with practised ease about everything, had perfect control over their words, made quick sallies, and were skilled in repartee.
A number of cadets were passing.
“Did you ever see anything as flabby as these military youths!” said Irgens. “Look at them; they do not walk past like other mortals, they stalk past!”
Both Irgens and the Artist laughed at this, but the Attorney glanced quickly at Paulsberg, whose face remained immovable. Paulsberg made a few remarks about the Art Exhibition and was silent.
The conversation drifted to yesterday’s performance in Tivoli, and from there to political subjects. Of course, they could refuse to pass all financial bills, but—And perhaps there was not even a sufficient majority to defeat the government budget. It certainly looked dubious— rotten—They cited quotations from leading parliamentarians, they proposed to put the torch to the Castle and proclaim the republic without delay. The Artist threatened a general revolt of the labouring classes. “Do you know what the Speaker told me in confidence? That he never, never would agree to a compromise—rather let the Union sink or swim! ‘Sink or swim,’ these were his very words. And when one knows the Speaker—”
Still Paulsberg did not say anything, and as the comrades were eager to hear his opinion, the Attorney finally ventured to address him:
“And you, Paulsberg, you don’t say a word?”
Paulsberg very seldom spoke; he had kept to himself and to his studies and his literary tasks, and lacked the verbal facility of his comrades. He smiled good-naturedly and answered:
“‘Let your communication be Yea, yea, and Nay, nay,’ you know!” At this they all laughed loudly. “But otherwise,” he added, “apart from that I am seriously considering going home to my wife.”
And Paulsberg went. It was his wont to go when he said he would.
But after Paulsberg’s departure it seemed as if they might as well all go; there was no reason to remain now. The Actor saluted and disappeared; he hurried off in order to catch up with Paulsberg. The Painter threw his ulster around himself without buttoning it, drew up his shoulders, and said:
“I feel rotten! If a fellow could only afford a little dinner!”
“You must try and strike a huckster,” said Irgens. “I struck one for a brandy this morning.”
“I am wondering what Paulsberg really meant by that remark,” said the Attorney. “‘Your communication shall be Yea, yea, and Nay, nay’; it is evident it had a deeper meaning.”
“Yes, very evident,” said Milde. “Did you notice, he laughed when he said it; something must have amused him.”
A crowd of promenaders were sauntering continually up and down the street, back and forth, laughing and talking.
“I have often wished that we had just one more head like Paulsberg’s here in Norway.”
“And why, pray?” asked Irgens stiffly.
Milde stared at him, stared at the Attorney, and burst into a surprised laugh.
“Listen to that, Grande! He asks why we need another head like Paulsberg’s in this country!”
“I do,” said Irgens.
But Grande did not laugh either, and Milde was unable to understand why his words failed to provoke mirth. He decided to pass it off; he began to speak about other things.
“You said you struck a huckster for brandy; you have got brandy, then?”
“As for me, I place Paulsberg so high that I consider him alone able to do what is needed,” said Irgens with thinly veiled sarcasm.
This took Milde by surprise; he was not prepared to contradict Irgens; he nodded and said:
“Certainly—exactly. I only thought it might accelerate matters to have a little assistance, so to speak—a brother in arms. But of course I agree with you.”
Outside the Grand Hotel they were fortunate enough to run across Tidemand, a huckster also, a wholesaler, a big business man, head of a large and well-known business house.
“Have you dined?” called the Artist to him.
“Lots of times!” countered Tidemand.
“Now, no nonsense! Are you going to take me to dinner?”
“May I be permitted to shake hands first?”
It was finally arranged that they should take a run up to Irgens’s rooms to sample the brandy, after which they were to return to the Grand for dinner. Tidemand and the Attorney walked ahead.
“It is a good thing that we have these peddlers to fall back on,” said Milde to Irgens. “They are useful after all.”
Irgens replied with a shrug of the shoulders which might mean anything.
“And they never consider that they are being imposed upon,” continued Milde. “On the contrary, they think they are highly favoured; it flatters them. Treat them familiarly, drink their health, that is sufficient. Ha, ha, ha! Isn’t it true?”
The Attorney had stopped; he was waiting.
“While we remember it, we have got to make definite arrangements about that farewell celebration for Ojen,” he said.
Of course, they had almost forgotten about that. Certainly, Ojen was going away; something had to be done.
The situation was this: Ojen had written two novels which had been translated into German; now his nerves were bothering him; he could not be allowed to kill himself with work—something had to be done to procure him a highly needed rest. He had applied for a government subsidy and had every expectation of receiving it; Paulsberg himself had recommended him, even if a little tepidly. The comrades had therefore united in an effort to get him to Torahus, to a little mountain resort where the air was splendid for neurasthenics. Ojen was to go in about a week; the money had been raised; both Ole Henriksen and Tidemand had been exceedingly generous. It now only remained to arrange a little celebration to speed the parting comrade.
“But where shall we find a battle-ground?” asked Milde. “At your house, Grande? You have plenty of room?”
Grande was not unwilling; it might be arranged; he would speak to his wife about it. For Grande was married to Mrs. Liberia, and Mrs. Liberia simply had to be consulted. It was agreed to invite Paulsberg and his wife; as contributors Mr. and Mrs. Tidemand and Ole Henriksen were coming as a matter of course. That was settled.
“Ask whom you like, but I refuse to open my doors to that fellow Norem,” said the Attorney. “He always gets drunk and sentimental; he is an awful bore. My wife wouldn’t stand for him.”
Then the affair could not be held at Grande’s house. It would never do to slight Norem. In the perplexity Milde offered his studio.
The friends considered. It was not a bad idea; a better place would be hard to find. The studio was big and roomy as a barn, with two cosy adjoining rooms. Milde’s studio, then—settled.
The affair was coming off in a few days.
The four gentlemen stopped at Irgens’s place, drank his brandy, and went out again. The Attorney was going home; this decision about the studio did not suit him; he felt slighted. He might decide to stay away altogether. At any rate, he said good-bye now and went his own way.
“What about you, Irgens—I hope you will join us?”
Irgens did not say no; he did not at all refuse this invitation. To tell the truth, he was not unduly eager to return to the Grand; this fat artist vexed him considerably with his familiar manners. However, he might be able to get away immediately after the dinner was over.
In this desire Tidemand himself unconsciously assisted him; he left as soon as he had paid the check. He was going somewhere.
Tidemand made his way to H. Henriksen’s large warehouse on the wharf where he knew that Ole could be found at this time.
Tidemand had passed thirty and was already getting a little grey around the temples. He, too, was dark of hair and beard, but his eyes were brown and had a listless expression. When he was sitting still and silent, blinking slowly, these heavy lids of his would rise and sink almost as if they were exhausted by much watching. He was beginning to get a little bit stout. He was considered an exceedingly able business man.
He was married and had two children; he had been married four years. His marriage had begun auspiciously and was still in force, although people were at a loss to understand how it could possibly last. Tidemand himself did not conceal his astonishment over the fact that his wife had managed to tolerate him so long. He had been a bachelor too long, had travelled too much, lived too much in hotels; he admitted it himself. He liked to ring whenever he wanted anything; he preferred his meals served at all hours, whenever he took a notion, no matter if it happened to be meal-time or not. And Tidemand went into details: he could not bear to have his wife serve him his soup, for instance—was it possible for a woman, even with the best intention in the world, to divine how much soup he might want?
And, on the other side, there was Mrs. Hanka, an artistic nature, two and twenty, fond of life and audacious as a boy. Mrs. Hanka was greatly gifted and warmly interested in many things; she was a welcome guest wherever the youthful assembled, whether in homes or bachelor dens; nobody could resist her. No, she did not greatly care for home life or house drudgery. She could not help that; unfortunately she had not inherited these tastes. And this unbearable blessing, of a child every year two years running, drove her almost to distraction. Good Lord! she was only a child herself, full of life and frivolity; her youth was ahead of her. But pursuant to the arrangement the couple had made last year, Mrs. Hanka now found it unnecessary to place any restraint upon herself....
Tidemand entered the warehouse. A cool and tart smell of tropical products, of coffee and oils and wines, filled the atmosphere. Tall piles of tea-boxes, bundles of cinnamon sewn in bast, fruits, rice, spices, mountains of flour-sacks—everything had its designated place, from floor to roof. In one of the corners a stairway led to the cellar, where venerable hogsheads of wine with copper bands could be glimpsed in the half-light and where enormous metal tanks rested in massive repose.
Tidemand nodded to the busy warehousemen, walked across the floor, and peeped through the pane into the little office. Ole was there. He was revising an account on a slate.
Ole put the slate down immediately and rose to meet his friend.
These two men had known each other since childhood, had gone through the business college together, and shared with each other their happiest moments. Even now, when they were competitors, they continued to visit each other as often as their work would permit. They did not envy each other; the business spirit had made them broad-minded and generous; they toyed with ship-loads, dealt in large amounts, had daily before their eyes enormous successes or imposing ruin.
Once Tidemand had expressed admiration for a little yacht which Ole Henriksen owned. It was two years ago, when it was known that the Tidemand firm had suffered heavy losses in a fish exportation. The yacht lay anchored just outside the Henriksen warehouse and attracted much attention because of its beautiful lines. The masthead was gilded.
“This is the most beautiful little dream I have ever seen, upon my word!”
Ole Henriksen answered modestly:
“I do not suppose I could get a thousand for her if I were to sell her.”
“I’ll give you a thousand,” offered Tidemand.
Pause. Ole smiled.
“Cash?” he asked.
“Yes; I happen to have it with me.”
And Tidemand took out his pocketbook and paid over the money.
This occurred in the warehouse. The clerks laughed, whispered, and wondered.
A few days later Ole went over to Tidemand’s office and said:
“I don’t suppose you would take two thousand for the yacht?”
“Have you got the money with you?”
“Yes; it just happens that I have.”
“All right,” said Tidemand.
And the yacht was Ole’s once more....
Tidemand had called on Ole now in order to pass away an hour or so. The two friends were no longer children; they treated each other with the greatest courtesy and were sincerely fond of each other.
Ole got hold of Tidemand’s hat and cane, which he put away, at the same time pointing his friend to a seat on the little sofa.
“What may I offer you?” he asked.
“Thanks—nothing,” said Tidemand. “I have just had my dinner at the Grand.”
Ole placed the flat box with Havanas before him and asked again:
“A little glass? An 1812?”
“Well, thank you, yes. But never mind; it is too much trouble; you have to go down-stairs for it.”
“Nonsense; no trouble at all!”
Ole brought the bottle from the cellar; it was impossible to tell what it was; the bottle appeared to be made of some coarse cloth, so deeply covered with dust was it. The wine was chilled and sparkling, it beaded in the glass, and Ole said:
“Here you are; drink hearty, Andreas!”
They drank. A pause ensued.
“I have really come to congratulate you,” said Tidemand. “I have never yet made a stroke like that last one of yours!”
It was true that Ole had turned a trick lately. But he insisted that there really was nothing in it that entitled him to any credit; it was just a bit of luck. And if there was any credit to bestow, then it belonged to the firm, not to him. The operations in London had succeeded because of the cleverness of his agent.
The affair was as follows:
An English freight-steamer, the Concordia, had left Rio with half a cargo of coffee; she touched at Bathurst for a deck-load of hides, ran into the December gales on the north coast of Normandy, and sprung a leak; then she was towed into Plymouth. The cargo was water-soaked; half of it was coffee.
This cargo of damaged coffee was washed out and brought to London; it was put on the market, but could not be sold; the combination of sea-water and hides had spoiled it. The owner tried all sorts of doctorings: he used colouring matter—indigo, kurkuma, chrome, copper vitriol—he had it rolled in hogsheads with leaden bullets. Nothing availed; he had to sell it at auction. Henriksen’s agent bid it in for a song.
Ole went to London; he made tests with this coffee, washed out the colouring matter, flushed it thoroughly, and dried it again. Finally he had the entire cargo roasted and packed in hermetically sealed zinc boxes. These boxes were brought to Norway after a month of storing; they were unloaded, taken to the warehouse, opened, and sold. The coffee was as good as ever. The firm made a barrel of money out of this enterprise.
“I only learned the particulars a couple of days ago; I must confess that I was proud of you!”
“My part of the business was simply the idea of roasting the coffee— making it sweat out the damage, so to speak. But otherwise, really—”
“I suppose you were a little anxious until you knew the result?”
“Yes; I must admit I was a little anxious.”
“But what did your father say?”
“Oh, he did not know anything until it was all over. I was afraid to tell him; he might have disinherited me, cast me off, you know. Ha, ha!”
Tidemand looked at him.
“Hm. This is all very well, Ole. But if you want to give your father, the firm, half the credit, then you should not at the same time tell me that your father knew nothing until it was all over. I have you there!”
A clerk entered with another account on a slate; he bowed, placed the slate on the desk, and retired. The telephone rang.
“One moment, Andreas; it is probably only an order. Hello!”
Ole took down the order, rang for a clerk, and gave it to him..
“I am detaining you,” said Tidemand. “Let me take one of the slates; there is one for each now!”
“Not much!” said Ole; “do you think I will let you work when you come to see me?”
But Tidemand was already busy. He was thoroughly familiar with these strange marks and figures in the many columns, and made out the account on a sheet of paper. They stood at the desk opposite each other and worked, with an occasional bantering remark.
“Don’t let us forget the glasses altogether!”
“No; you are right!”
“This is the most enjoyable day I have had in a long time,” said Ole.
“Do you think so? I was just going to say the same. I have just left the Grand—By the way, I have an invitation for you; we are both going to the farewell celebration for Ojen—quite a number will be there.”
“Is that so? Where is it going to be?”
“In Milde’s studio. You are going, I hope?”
“Yes; I will be there.”
They went back to their accounts.
“Lord! do you remember the old times when we sat on the school bench together?” said Tidemand. “None of us sported a beard then. It seems as if it were only a couple of months ago, I remember it so distinctly.”
Ole put down his pen. The accounts were finished.
“I should like to speak to you about something—you mustn’t be offended, Andreas—No; take another glass, old fellow, do! I’ll get another bottle; this wine is really not fit for company.”
And he hurried out; he looked quite confused.
“What is the matter with him?” thought Tidemand.
Ole returned with another bottle, downy as velvet, with trailing cobwebs; he pulled the cork.
“I don’t know how you’ll like this,” he said, and sniffed the glass. “Try it, anyhow; it is really—I am sure you’ll like it; I have forgotten the vintage, but it is ancient.”
Tidemand sniffed, sipped, put down his glass, and looked at Ole.
“It isn’t half bad, is it?”
“No,” said Tidemand, “it is not. You should not have done this, Ole.”
“Ho! don’t be silly—a bottle of wine!”
“I thought you wanted to speak to me about something,” asked Tidemand.
“Yes, well—I don’t know that I do, exactly.” Ole went over and locked the door. “I thought that, as you cannot possibly know anything about it, I had perhaps better tell you that people are talking about you, calumniating you, blackening your reputation, so to speak. And you hear nothing, of course.”
“Are they blackening me? What are they saying?”
“Oh, you can feel above anything they say. Never mind what they say. The gossip is that you neglect your wife; that you frequent restaurants although you have a home of your own; that you leave her to herself while you enjoy life single-handed. You are above such insinuations, of course. But, anyway, why do you eat away from home and live so much in restaurants? Not that I have any business to—Say, this wine is not half bad, believe me! Take another glass; do me the favour—”
Tidemand’s eyes had suddenly become clear and sharp. He got up, made a few turns across the floor, and went back to the sofa.
“I am not at all surprised that people are talking,” he said. “I myself have done what I could to start the gossip; I know that only too well. But I have ceased to care about anything any more.” Tidemand shrugged his shoulders and got up again. Drifting back and forth across the floor, staring fixedly straight ahead, he murmured again that he had ceased to care about anything.
“But listen, old friend, I told you you need not pay the slightest attention to such contemptible gossip,” objected Ole.
“It is not true that I neglect Hanka, as people think,” said Tidemand; “the fact is that I don’t want to bother her. You understand, she must be allowed to do as she pleases; it is an agreement, otherwise she will leave me.” During the following sentences Tidemand got up and sat down again; he was in a state of deep emotion. “I want to tell you this, Ole; it is the first time I have ever mentioned it to anybody, and no one will ever hear me repeat it. But I want you to know that I do not go to restaurants because I like to. Where else can I go? Hanka is never at home; there is no dinner, not a soul in the whole house. We have had a friendly understanding; we have ceased to keep house. Do you understand now why I am often seen in restaurants? I am not wanted; I keep to my office and go to the Grand, I meet friends of whom she is one, we sit at a table and have a good time. What should I do at home? Hanka is more likely to be at the Grand; we sit at the same table, perhaps opposite each other; we hand each other a glass, a carafe. ‘Andreas,’ she says, ‘please order a glass for Milde, too.’ And, of course, I order a glass for Milde. I like to do it; don’t believe anything else! ‘I have hardly seen you to-day,’ she sometimes says; ‘you left very early this morning. Oh, he is a fine husband!’ she tells the others and laughs. I am delighted that she is in good spirits; I help her along and say: ‘Who in the world could wait until you have finished your toilet; I have business to attend to!’ But the truth is that perhaps I haven’t seen her for a couple of days. Do you understand why I go to restaurants? I go in order to meet her after not having seen her for a couple of days; I go to spend a few moments with her and with my friends, who all are exceedingly nice to me. But, of course, everything has been arranged in the friendliest manner possible; don’t think otherwise. I am sure it is all for the best; I think the arrangement excellent. It is all a matter of habit.”
Ole Henriksen sat with open mouth. He said in surprise:
“Is that how matters stand? I had no idea it was that way with you two— that it was that bad.”
“Why not? Do you find it strange that she prefers the clique? All of them are famous men, artists and poets, people who count for something. When you come to look at it they are not like you and me, Ole; we like to be with them ourselves. Bad, you say? No, understand me rightly, it is not at all bad. It is a good arrangement. I couldn’t always get home on time from the office, and so I went to a restaurant, naturally. Hanka could not make herself ridiculous and preside at table in solitary state, and so she went to a restaurant. We do not go to the same place always; sometimes we miss each other. But that is all right.”
There was a pause. Tidemand leaned his head in his hands. Ole asked:
“But who started this? Who proposed it?”
“Ha, do you think for a moment it was I? Would I be likely to say to my wife: ‘You will have to go to a restaurant, Hanka, so I can find the house empty when I get home to dinner!’ Hardly. But all the same, things are not so bad as you might think—What would you say if I were to tell you that she does not even regard herself as being married? Of course, you cannot realise that. I reasoned with her, said this and that, a married woman, house and home, and she answered: ‘Married, did you say? That is rather an exaggeration, don’t you think?’ How does that strike you? For this reason I am careful not to say anything to her; she isn’t married; that is her affair. She lives occasionally where I live, we visit the children, go in and out, and part again. It is all right as long as she is satisfied.”
“But this is ridiculous!” exclaimed Ole suddenly. “I can’t imagine—Does she think you are an old glove she can throw away when she is through with it? Why haven’t you put your foot down?”
“Of course, I have said something like that. Then she wanted a divorce. Twice. What could I do then? I am not made so that I can tear everything up all at once; I need a little time; it will come later. She is right about the divorce; it is I who am against it; she is justified in blaming me for that. Why haven’t I played the part of a man, showed her her place, made her behave? But, my dear man, she would have left me! She said so plainly; there was no misunderstanding possible; it has happened twice. What could I do?”
The two men sat awhile in silence. Ole asked quietly:
“But has your wife, then—I mean, do you think she is in love with somebody else?”
“Of course,” answered Tidemand. “Such things are bound to happen; not intentionally, of course, but—”
“And you do not know who it is?”
“Don’t you think I know? That is, I don’t know really; how could I know for sure? I am almost certain she is not really in love with anybody; it is hard to say. Do you think that I am jealous, perhaps? Don’t for a moment imagine anything, Ole; I am glad to say that I have a little sense left; not much, perhaps, but a little. In short, she is not in love with anybody else, as people suspect; it is simply a whim, a fancy. In a little while she will probably come and propose that we shall begin housekeeping again and live together; it is not at all impossible, I tell you, for I know her thoroughly. She is, at any rate, very fond of the children; I have never seen anybody so fond of children as she has been lately. You ought to come and see us some time—Do you remember when we were married?”
“I certainly do.”
“She was a somewhat passable bride, what? Not at all one to be ashamed of, don’t you think? Ha, ha, ha, not at all, Ole! But you ought to see her now, I mean at home, now that she is so very fond of the children again. I cannot describe her. She wears a black velvet gown—Be sure and come over some time. Sometimes she is in red, a dark red velvet—This reminds me— perhaps she is at home now; I am going to drop in; I might be able to do something for her.”
The two friends emptied their glasses and stood facing each other.
“I hope everything will come out all right,” said Ole.
“Oh, yes, it will,” said Tidemand. “I am grateful to you, Ole; you have been a good friend to me. I haven’t had such a pleasant hour as long as I can remember.”
“Listen!” Tidemand turned in the doorway and said: “What we have discussed here remains between us, eh? Not a hint on Thursday; everything is as it should be as far as we are concerned, what? We are no mopes, I hope!”
And Tidemand departed.
Evening falls over the town. Business rests, stores are closed, and lights are lowered. But old, grey-haired business men shut themselves in their offices, light their lamps, take out papers, open heavy ledgers, note some figures, a sum, and think. They hear the noise from the docks where steamers load and unload all night long.
It gets to be ten, eleven; the cafés are crowded and the traffic is great. All sorts of people roam the streets in their best attire; they follow each other, whistle after girls, and dart in and out from gateways and basement stairs. Cabbies stand at attention on the squares, on the lookout for the least sign from the passers-by; they gossip between themselves about their horses and smoke idly their vile pipes.
A woman hurries past—a child of night whom everybody knows; after her a sailor and a gentleman in silk hat, both eagerly stepping out to reach her first. Then two youths with cigars at an impertinent angle, hands in pockets, speaking loudly. Behind them another woman; finally, a couple of men hurrying to catch up with her.
But now one tower-clock after another booms forth the twelve solemn strokes all over the city; the cafés empty themselves, and from the music-halls crowds of people swarm into the streets. The winches are still groaning along the docks; cabs roll through the streets. But inside the hidden offices one old business chief after another has finished his accounts and his planning; the grey-headed gentlemen close their ledgers, take their hats from the rack, put out the lights, and go home.
And the last guests depart from the Grand, a crowd that has stuck to the end, young fellows, joyful souls. They saunter down the street with coats wide open, canes held jauntily under the arms, and hats slightly askew. They talk loudly, hum the latest popular air, call jestingly to a lonely, forgotten girl in a boa and white veil.
The company wanders toward the university. The conversation is about literature and politics, and, although nobody contradicts them, they are loud and eager: Was Norway a sovereign state or not? Was Norway perhaps not entitled to the rights and privileges of a sovereign state? Just wait a moment, the Speaker had promised to attend to things; besides, there were the elections.... All were agreed, the elections would decide.
Three of the gentlemen part from the group when the university is reached; the remaining two take another turn down the street, stop outside the Grand, and exchange opinions. It is Milde and Ojen. Milde is highly indignant.
“I repeat: If Parliament yields this time, it is me for Australia. In that case it will be unbearable here.”
Ojen is young and nervous; his little, round, girlish face is pale and void of expression; he squints as if he were near-sighted, although his eyes are good, and his voice is soft and babyish.
“I am unable to understand that all this can interest you so greatly. It is all one to me.” And Ojen shrugs his shoulders; he is tired of politics. His shoulders slope effeminately.
“Oh well, I won’t detain you,” says Milde. “By the way, have you written anything lately?”
“A couple of prose poems,” replies Ojen, brightening at once. “I am waiting to get off to Torahus so I can start in in earnest. You are right —this town is unbearable!”
“Well—I had the whole country in mind, though—Say, don’t forget next Thursday evening in my studio. By the way, old fellow, have you got a crown or so you could spare?”
Ojen unbuttons his coat and finds the crown.
“Thanks, old man. Thursday evening, then. Come early so that you can help me a little with the arrangements—Good Lord, silk lining! And I who asked you for a miserable crown! I hope I did not offend you.”
Ojen smiles and pooh-poohs the joke.
“As if one sees anything nowadays but silk-lined clothes!”
“By Jove! What do they soak you for a coat like that?” And Milde feels the goods appraisingly.
“Oh, I don’t remember; I never can remember figures; that is out of my line. I put all my tailor bills away; I come across them whenever I move.”
“Ha, ha, ha! that is certainly a rational system, most practical. For I do not suppose you ever pay them!”
“In God’s own time, as the Bible says—Of course, if I ever get rich, then—But I want you to go now. I must be alone.”
“All right, good night. But listen, seriously speaking: if you have another crown to spare—”
And once more Ojen unbuttons his coat.
“A thousand thanks! Oh, you poets, you poets! Where, for instance, may you be going now?”
“I think I’ll walk here awhile, and look at houses. I can’t sleep, so I count the windows; it is not such a bad occupation at times. I take an exquisite pleasure in satiating my vision with squares and rectangles, with pure lines. Of course, you cannot understand such things.”
“I should say I did understand—no one better! But I prefer human beings. Don’t you at times—flesh and blood, humans, eh—they have their attraction, don’t you think?”
“I am ashamed to say it, but people weary me. No; take for instance the sweep of a solitary, deserted street—have you never noticed the charm of such a view?”
“Haven’t I? I am not blind, not entirely. A desolate street, of course, has its own beauty, its own charm, in its kind the highest charm imaginable. But everything in its place—Well, I must not detain you! Au revoir—Thursday!”
Milde saluted with his cane, turned, and strolled up the street. Ojen continued alone. He proved a few moments afterward that he had not lost all his interest in human beings; he had calumniated himself. To the very first hussy who hailed him he gave, absent-mindedly, every penny he had left, and continued his way in silence. He had not spoken a word; his slender, nervous figure disappeared in the darkness before the girl could even manage to thank him—
And at last everything is still; the winches fall to rest along the wharves; the town has turned in. From afar, nobody knows from where, comes the sound of a single footfall; the gas flames flicker in the street lamps; two policemen talk to each other, occasionally stamping their feet to keep warm.
Thus the night passes. Human footsteps here and there; now and then a policeman who stamps his feet to keep warm.
A barnlike room with blue walls and sliding windows, a sort of drying-loft with a stove in the middle, and with stovepipes hanging in wires along the ceiling. The walls are decorated with a number of sketches, painted fans, and palettes; several framed pictures lean against the wainscoting. Smell of paints and tobacco smoke; brushes, tubes, overcoats which the guests had thrown aside; an old rubber shoe filled with nails and junk; on the easel in the corner a large, half-finished portrait of Paulsberg.
This was Milde’s studio.
When Ole Henriksen entered about nine o’clock all the guests were assembled, also Tidemand and his wife. There were altogether ten or twelve people. The three lamps were covered with opaque shades, and the heavy tobacco smoke did not make the room any lighter. This obscurity was evidently Mrs. Hanka’s idea. A couple of very young gentlemen, beardless students with bachelor degrees, were of the party; they were poets who had put aside their studies last year. Their heads were so closely cropped as to be almost entirely naked. One of them carried a small compass on his watch-chain. They were Ojen’s comrades, his admirers and pupils; both wrote verses.
Besides these, one noticed a man from the Gazette, Journalist Gregersen, the literary member of the staff. He was a man who did his friends many a favour and published in his paper many an item concerning them. Paulsberg showed him the greatest deference, and conversed with him about his series, “New Literature,” which he found admirable; and the Journalist was happy and proud because of this approbation. He had a peculiar habit of twisting words so that they sounded odd and absurd, and nobody could turn this trick as smartly as he.
“It is rather difficult to write such a series within reasonable limits,” he says. “There are so many authors that have to be included—a veritable choas!”
He makes Paulsberg smile over this “choas,” and they talk on in the best of harmony.
Attorney Grande and his wife were absent.
“So the Attorney is not coming,” says Mrs. Hanka Tidemand, without referring to his wife. Mrs. Liberia never came, anyway.
“He sulks,” said Milde, and drank with Norem, the Actor. “He did not want to come because Norem was invited.”
Nobody felt the least constraint; they chatted about everything, drank, and made plenty of noise. It was a splendid place, Milde’s studio; as soon as one got inside the door one felt free to do or say anything one’s inclination prompted.
Mrs. Hanka is seated on the sofa; Ojen sits beside her. On the other side of the table sits Irgens; the light falls across his narrow chest. Mrs. Hanka hardly glances at him.
She is in her red velvet gown; her eyes have a greenish sheen. Her upper lip is slightly raised. One glimpses her teeth and marvels at their whiteness. The face is fresh and the complexion clear. Her beautiful forehead is not hidden beneath her hair; she carries it sweetly and candidly, like a nun. A couple of rings flash on her fingers. She breathes deeply and says to Irgens, across the table:
“How hot it is here, Irgens!”
Irgens gets up and goes over to open a window, but a voice is raised in protest; it is Mrs. Paulsberg’s. “For Heaven’s sake, no open windows. Come away from the sofa; it is cooler further back!”
And Mrs. Hanka gets up. Her movements are undulating. When she stands up she is like a young girl, with bold shoulders. She does not glance into the large, cracked mirror as she passes; she exhales no odours of perfumes; she takes, accidentally, her husband’s arm and walks up and down with him while the conversation and the refreshments keep the other guests at the table.
Tidemand is talking, with somewhat forced liveliness, about a cargo of grain, a certain Fürst in Riga, a raise in customs duties somewhere. Suddenly he says, bending toward her:
“Yes; I am very happy to-day. But, pardon me, you are hardly interested in these things—Did you see Ida before you left? Wasn’t she sweet in her white dress? We’ll get her a carriage when spring comes!”
“Yes; in the country! I am beginning to long for it already!” Mrs. Hanka herself is animated. “You must get the garden and the grove fixed up. It will be fine.”
And Tidemand, who already has arranged to have the country-house put in order, although it is not April yet, is delighted because of his wife’s sudden interest. His sombre eyes brighten and he presses her arm.
“I want you to know, Hanka, I am very happy to-day,” he exclaims. “Everything will be all right soon, I am sure.”
“Are you—What will be all right, by the way?”
“Oh, nothing,” he says quickly. He turns the subject, looks down, and continues: “Business is booming; I have given Fürst orders to buy!”
Fool that he was! There he had once more made a mistake and bothered his wife with his shop talk. But Mrs. Hanka was good enough to overlook it; nobody could have answered more patiently and sweetly than did she:
“I am very glad to hear it!”
These gentle words embolden him; he is grateful and wants to show it as best he can; he smiles with dewy eyes and says in a low voice:
“I should like to give you a little present if you care—a sort of souvenir of this occasion. If there is anything you would like—”
Mrs. Hanka glances at him.
“No, my dear. What are you thinking of? Though, perhaps—you might let me have a couple of hundred crowns. Thanks, very much!” Suddenly she spies the old rubber shoe with nails and junk, and she cries, full of curiosity: “Whatever is this?” She lets go her husband’s arm and brings the rubber over to the table. “Whatever have you got here, Milde?” She rummages in the rubbish with her white fingers, calls Irgens over, finds one strange thing after another, and asks questions concerning them. “Will somebody please tell me what this is good for?”
She has fished out an umbrella-handle which she throws aside at once; then a lock of hair enclosed in paper. “Look—a lock of somebody’s hair! Come and see!”
Milde joined her.
“Leave that alone!” he said and took his cigar out of his mouth. “However did that get in there? Did you ever—hair from my last love, so to speak!”
This was sufficient to make everybody laugh. The Journalist shouted:
“But have you seen Milde’s collection of corsets? Out with the corsets, Milde!”
And Milde did not refuse; he went into one of the side rooms and brought forth his package. There were both white and brown ones; the white ones were a little grey, and Mrs. Paulsberg asked in surprise:
“But—have they been used?”
“Of course; why do you think Milde collects them? Where would be their sentimental value otherwise?” And the Journalist laughed heartily, happy to be able to twist even this word around.
But the corpulent Milde wrapped his corsets together and said:
“This is a little specialty of mine, a talent—But what the dickens are you all gaping at? It is my own corsets; I have used them myself—don’t you understand? I used them when I began to grow stout; I laced and thought it would help. But it helped like fun!”
Paulsberg shook his head and said to Norem:
“Your health, Norem! What nonsense is this I hear, that Grande objects to your company?”
“God only knows,” says Norem, already half drunk. “Can you imagine why? I have never offended him in my life!”
“No; he is beginning to get a little chesty lately.”
Norem shouted happily:
“You hear that? Paulsberg himself says that Grande is getting chesty lately.”
They all agreed. Paulsberg very seldom said that much; usually he sat, distant and unfathomable, and listened without speaking; he was respected by all. Only Irgens thought he could defy him; he was always ready with his objections.
“I cannot see that this is something Paulsberg can decide,” he said.
They looked at him in surprise. Was that so? So Paulsberg could not decide that? He! he! so that was beyond him? But who, then, could decide it?
“Irgens,” answered Paulsberg caustically.
Irgens looked at him; they gazed fixedly at each other. Mrs. Hanka stepped between them, sat down on a chair, and began to speak to Ojen.
“Listen a moment!” she called after a while. “Ojen wants to read his latest—a prose poem.”
And they settled down to listen.
Ojen brought forth his prose poem from an inside pocket; his hands trembled.
“I must ask your indulgence,” said he.
But at this the two young students, the close-cropped poets, laughed loudly, and the one with the compass in his fob said admiringly:
“And you ask for our indulgence? What about us, then?”
“The title of this is ‘Sentenced to Death,’” said Ojen, and began:
For a long time I have wondered: What if my secret guilt were known?...
For then I should be sentenced to death.
And I would sit in my prison and know that I should be calm and indifferent when the supreme moment should arrive.
I would ascend the steps of the scaffold, I would smile and humbly beg permission to say a word.
And then I would speak. I would implore everybody to learn something good from my death. A speech from my inmost heart, and my last farewell should be like a breath of flame....
Now my secret guilt is known.
And I am sentenced to death. And I have languished in prison so long that my spirit is broken.
I ascend the steps to the scaffold; but to-day the sun is shining and my eyes fill with tears.
For I have languished so long in prison that I am weak. And then the sun is shining so—I haven’t seen it for nine months, and I haven’t heard the birds sing for nine months—until to-day.
I smile in order to hide my tears and I ask humbly if my guards will permit me to speak a word.
But they will not permit me.
Still I want to speak—not to show my courage, but really I want to say a few words from my heart so as not to die mutely—innocent words that will harm nobody, a couple of hurried sentences before they clap their hands across my lips: Friends, see how God’s sun is shining....
And I open my lips, but I cannot speak.
Am I afraid? Does my courage fail? Alas, no, I am not afraid. But I am weak, that I am, and I cannot speak because I look upon God’s sun and the trees for the last time....
What now? A horseman with a white flag?
Peace, my heart, do not tremble so!
No, it is a woman with a white veil, a handsome woman of my own age. Her neck is bare like my own.
And I do not understand it, but I weep because of this white veil, too, because I am weak and the white veil flutters beautifully against the green background of the forest. But in a little while I shall see it no more....
Perhaps, though, after my head has fallen I may still be able to see the blessed sky for a few moments with my eyes. It is not impossible, if I only open my eyes widely when the axe falls. Then the sky will be the last I see.
But don’t they tie a bandage across my eyes? Or won’t they blindfold me because I am so weak and tearful? But then everything will be dark, and I shall lie blindly, unable even to count the threads in the cloth before my eyes.
How stupidly mistaken I was when I hoped to be able to turn my eyes upward and behold the blessed vault of heaven. They will turn me over, on my stomach, with my neck in a clamp. And I shall be able to see nothing because of my bandaged eyes.
Probably there will be a small box suspended below me; and I cannot even see the little box which I know will catch my severed head.
Only night—a seething darkness around me. I blink my eyes and believe myself still alive—I have life in my fingers, even—I cling stubbornly to life. If they would only take off the bandage so I could see something—I might enjoy looking at the dust grains in the bottom of the box and see how tiny they were....
Silence and Darkness. Mute exhalations from the crowds....
Merciful God! Grant me one supplication—take off the bandage! Merciful God! I am Thy creature—take off the bandage!
Everybody was silent when he was through. Ojen drank; Milde was busy with a spot on his vest, and did not understand a word of what he had heard; he lifted his glass to the Journalist and whispered:
Mrs. Hanka spoke first; she smiled to Ojen and said, out of the goodness of her heart:
“Oh, you Ojen, you Ojen! How everything you write seems evanescent, ethereal! ‘Mute exhalations from the crowds’—I can hear it; I can feel it! It is thrilling!”
Everybody thought so, too, and Ojen was happy. Happiness was very becoming to his girlish face.
“Oh, it is only a little thing, a mood,” he said. He would have liked to hear Paulsberg’s opinion, but Paulsberg remained sphinxlike and silent.
“How do you think of such things? These prose poems are really exquisite!”
“It is my temperament, I suppose. I have no taste for fiction. In me everything turns to poetry, with or without rhymes; but verses always. I have entirely ceased to use rhymes lately.”
“But tell me—in what manner does your nervousness really affect you?” asked Mrs. Hanka in her gentle voice. “It is so very sad; you must really try to get well again.”
“Yes, I’ll try. It is hard to explain; at times I will suddenly become excited without the slightest reason. I shudder; I simply tear myself to pieces. Then I cannot bear to walk on carpets; if I should lose anything I should never find it again. I should not hear it drop, and consequently I should never think of looking for it. Can you imagine anything more distracting than to have something you have lost lying there without your knowing it? It tortures me, therefore, to walk on carpets; I am in constant fear and I keep my hands over my pockets; I look at my vest buttons to be sure of them. I turn around again and again to make sure that I haven’t by chance lost something or other—And there are other annoyances: I have the strangest ideas, the most peculiar hallucinations. I place a glass on the very edge of the table and imagine I have made a bet with some one—a bet involving enormous amounts. Then I blow on the glass; if it falls I lose—lose an amount large enough to ruin me for life; if it remains I have won and can build myself a castle on the Mediterranean. It is the same whenever I go up a strange stairway: should there be sixteen steps I win, but if there are eighteen I lose. Into this, though, there enter other intricate possibilities: Suppose there should be twenty steps, have I lost or won? I do not yield; I insist on my rights in the matter; I go to law and lose my case—Well, you mustn’t laugh; it is really annoying. Of course these are only minor matters. I can give other examples: Let somebody sit in a room next to yours and sing a single verse of a certain song, sing it endlessly, without ceasing, sing it through and begin again; tell me—would this not drive you crazy? Where I live there is such a person, a tailor; he sits and sings and sews, and his singing is unceasing. You cannot stand it; you get up in a fury and go out. Then you run into another torture. You meet a man, an acquaintance, with whom you enter into a conversation. But during this conversation you suddenly happen to think of something pleasant, something good that is in store for you, perhaps—something you wish to return to later and thoroughly enjoy. But while you stand there talking you forget that pleasant thought, forget it cleanly and cannot recall it at any cost! Then comes the pain, the suffering; you are racked on the wheel because you have lost this exquisite, secret enjoyment to which you could have treated yourself at no cost or trouble.”
“It must be strange! But you are going to the country, to the pine woods now; you will get well again,” says Mrs. Hanka, and feels like a mother.
Milde chimes in:
“Of course you will. And think of us when you are in your kingdom.”
Ole Henriksen had remained quietly in his chair; he said little and smoked his cigar. He knew Torahus; he gave Ojen a hint about visiting the house of the county judge, which was a mile away. He had only to row across a lake; pine woods all around—the house looked like a little white marble palace in the green surroundings.
“How do you know all this?” asked Irgens, quite surprised to hear Ole speak.
“I went through there on a walking trip,” answered Ole, embarrassed. “We were a couple of boys from the college. We stopped at the house and had a glass of milk.”
“Your health, Mr. College Man!” called the Journalist sarcastically.
“Be sure and row over,” said Ole. “County Judge Lynum’s family is charming. There is even a young girl in the house if you care to fall in love,” he added smilingly.
“He, he! No; whatever else one can accuse Ojen of, the ladies he leaves severely alone!” said Norem, good-natured and tipsy.
“Your health, Mr. College Man!” shouted Gregersen again.
Ole Henriksen looked at him.
“Do you mean me?” he asked.
“Of course, I mean you, certainly I do! Haven’t you attended college? Well, aren’t you a college man, then?”
The Journalist, too, was a little tipsy.
“It was only a business college,” said Ole quietly.
“Of course, you are a peddler, yes. But there is no reason why you should be ashamed of that. Is there, Tidemand? I say there is no reason whatever! Does anybody feel called upon to object?”
Tidemand did not answer. The Journalist kept obstinately to the question; he frowned and thought of nothing else, afraid to forget what he had asked about. He began to lose his temper; he demanded a reply in a loud voice.
Mrs. Hanka said suddenly:
“Silence, now. Ojen is going to read another poem.”
Both Paulsberg and Irgens made secretly a wry face, but they said nothing; on the contrary, Paulsberg nodded encouragingly. When the noise had subsided a little Ojen got up, stepped back, and said:
“I know this by heart. It is called ‘The Power of Love.’”
We rode in a railway carriage through a strange landscape—strange to me, strange to her. We were also strangers to each other; we had never met before. Why is she sitting so quietly? I wondered. And I bent toward her and said, while my heart hammered:
“Are you grieving for somebody, madam? Have you left a friend where you come from—a very dear friend?”
“Yes,” she answered, “a very dear friend.”
“And now you sit here unable to forget this friend?” I asked.
And she answered and shook her head sadly:
“No, no—I can never forget him.”
She was silent. She had not looked at me while she spoke.
“May I lift your braid?” I asked her. “What a lovely braid—how very beautiful it is!”
“My friend has kissed it,” she said, and pushed back my hand.
“Forgive me,” I said then, and my heart pounded more and more. “May I not look at your ring—it shines so golden and is also so very beautiful. I should like to look at it and admire it for your sake.”
But to this she also said no and added:
“My friend has given it to me.”
Then she moved still further away from me.
“Please forgive me,” I said....
Time passes, the train rolls on, the journey is so long, so long and wearisome, there is nothing we can do except listen to the rumbling of the wheels. An engine flares past, it sounds like iron striking iron, and I start, but she does not; she is probably entirely absorbed in thoughts about her friend. And the train rolls on.
Then, for the first time, she glances at me, and her eyes are strangely blue.
“It grows darker?” she says.
“We are approaching a tunnel,” I answer.
And we rode through the tunnel.
Some time passes. She glances at me, a trifle impatiently, and says:
“It seems to me it grows dark again?”
“We are drawing near the second tunnel, there are three altogether,” I answer. “Here is a map—do you want to see?”
“It frightens me,” she says and moves closer to me. I say nothing. She asks me smilingly:
“Did you say three tunnels? Is there one more besides this one?”
We enter the tunnel; I feel that she is very close to me, her hand touches mine. Then it grows light again and we are once more in the open.
We ride for a quarter of an hour. She is now so close to me that I feel the warmth from her.
“You are welcome to lift my braid if you wish to,” she says, “and if you care to look at my ring—why, here it is!”
I held her braid and did not take her ring because her friend had given it to her. She smiled and did not offer it to me again.
“Your eyes are so bright, and how white your teeth!” she said and grew confused. “I am afraid of that last tunnel—please hold my hand when we get to it. No—don’t hold my hand; I didn’t mean that, I was jesting; but talk to me.”
I promised to do what she asked me to.
A few moments later she laughed and said:
“I was not afraid of the other tunnels; only this one frightens me.”
She glanced at my face to see how I might answer, and I said:
“This is the longest, too; it is exceedingly long.”
Her confusion was now at its highest.
“But we are not near any tunnel,” she cried. “You are deceiving me; there is no tunnel!”
“Yes, there is, the last one—look!”
And I pointed to my map. But she would see nothing and listen to nothing.
“No, no,—there is no tunnel, I tell you there is none! But speak to me if there be one!” she added.
She leaned back against the cushions, and smiled through half-closed lids.
The engine whistled; I looked out; we were approaching the black opening. I remembered that I had promised to speak to her; I bent towards her, and in the darkness I felt her arms around my neck.
“Speak to me, please do! I am so frightened!” she whispered with beating heart. “Why don’t you speak to me?”
I felt plainly how her heart was beating, and I placed my lips close to her ears and whispered:
“But now you are forgetting your friend!”
She heard me, she trembled and let me go quickly; she pushed me away with both hands, and threw herself down in the seat. I sat there alone. I heard her sobs through the darkness.
“This was The Power of Love,” Ojen said.
Everybody listened attentively; Milde sat with open mouth.
“Well—what more?” he asked, evidently thinking there must be a climax yet to come. “Is that all? But Heaven preserve us, man, what is it all about? No; the so-called poetry you young writers are dishing out nowadays—I call it arrant rot!”
They all laughed loudly. The effect was spoiled; the poet with the compass in his fob arose, pointed straight at Milde, and said furiously:
“This gentleman evidently lacks all understanding of modern poetry.”
“Modern poetry! This sniffing at the moon and the sun, these filigree phrases and unintelligible fancies—There must, at least, be a point, a climax, to everything!”
Ojen was pale and furious.
“You have then not the slightest understanding of my new intentions,” said the poor fellow, trembling with excitement. “But, then, you are a brute, Milde; one could not expect intelligent appreciation from you.”
Only now did the fat painter realise how much he had offended; he had hardly expected this when he spoke.
“A brute?” he answered good-naturedly. “It seems we are beginning to express ourselves very plainly. I did not mean to insult you, anyway. Don’t you think I enjoyed the poem? I did, I tell you; enjoyed it immensely. I only thought it a little disembodied, so to speak, somewhat ethereal. Understand me correctly: it is very beautiful, exceedingly artistic, one of the best things you have produced yet. Can’t you take a joke any more?”
But it was of no avail that Milde tried to smooth things over; the seriousness of the moment had gone, they laughed and shouted more than ever, and cut loose in earnest. Norem opened one of the windows and sang to the street below.
To mend matters a little and make Ojen feel better, Mrs. Hanka placed her hand on his shoulder and promised to come and see him off when he started on his trip. Not she alone—they would all come. When was he going?
She turned to Ole Henriksen: “You’ll come, won’t you, and see Ojen off when he goes?”
Ole Henriksen then gave an unexpected reply which surprised even Mrs. Hanka: He would not only go with Ojen to the station, he would go with him all the way to Torahus. Yes, he had suddenly made up his mind, he would make this little trip; he had, in fact, a sort of reason for going—And he was so much in earnest that he buttonholed Ojen at once and arranged the day for the departure.
The Journalist drank with Mrs. Paulsberg, who held her glass in a peculiar masculine fashion. They moved over to the sofa on account of the draught, and told each other amusing anecdotes. Mrs. Paulsberg knew a story concerning Grande and one of Pastor B.‘s daughters. She had reached the climax when she paused.
“Well—go on!” the Journalist exclaimed eagerly.
“Wait a moment!” answered Mrs. Paulsberg smilingly, “you must at least give me time to blush a little!”
And she recounted merrily the climax.
Norem had retired to a corner and was fast asleep.
“Does anybody know the time?” asked Mrs. Paulsberg.
“Don’t ask me,” said Gregersen, and fumbled at his vest pocket. “It is many a day since I carried a watch!”
It turned out that it was one o’clock.
About half-past one Mrs. Hanka and Irgens had disappeared. Irgens had asked Milde for roasted coffee, and since then had not been seen. Nobody seemed to think it strange that the two had sneaked away, and no questions were asked; Tidemand was talking to Ole Henriksen about his trip to Torahus.
“But have you time to run off like this?” he asked.
“I’ll take time,” answered Ole. “By the way, I want to tell you something by and by.”
Around Paulsberg’s table the political situation was being discussed. Milde once more threatened to banish himself to Australia. But, thank Heaven, it now looked as if Parliament would do something before it was dissolved, would refuse to yield.
“It is a matter of indifference to me what it does,” said Gregersen of the Gazette. “As things have been going, Norway has assumed the character of a beaten country. We are decidedly poverty-stricken, in every respect; we lack power, both in politics and in our civic life. How sad to contemplate the general decline! What miserable remnants are left of the intellectual life that once flamed up so brightly, that called loudly to Heaven in the seventies! The aged go the way of the flesh; who is there to take their places? I am sick of this decadence; I cannot thrive in low intellectual altitudes!”
Everybody looked at the Journalist; what was the matter with the ever-merry chap? He was not so very drunk now; he spoke passably clearly, and did not twist any words. What did he mean? But when the witty dog reached the declaration that he could only thrive in a high spiritual altitude, then the guests broke into peals of merriment and understood that it was a capital hoax. The merry blade—hadn’t he almost fooled them all! “Poor remnants of the intellectual life of the seventies!” Didn’t we have Paulsberg and Irgens, and Ojen and Milde, and the two close-cropped poets, and an entire army of first-class, sprouting talents besides!
The Journalist himself laughed and wiped his forehead and laughed again. It was generally believed that this fellow was possessed of a literary talent which had not entirely stagnated in his newspaper. A book might be expected from him some day, a remarkable work.
Paulsberg forced a smile. In reality he was offended because nobody had alluded to his novels or to his work on the Atonement during the entire evening. When therefore the Journalist asked him his opinion concerning the intellectual life of the nation, his reply was brief:
“It seems to me I have had occasion to express an opinion somewhere in my works.”
Of course, of course; when they came to think of it they certainly remembered it. It was true; a speech somewhere or other. Mrs. Paulsberg quoted from book and page.
But Paulsberg made up his mind to leave now.
“I’ll come and sit for you to-morrow,” he said to Milde, with a glance at the easel. He got up, emptied his glass, and found his overcoat. His wife pressed everybody’s hand vigorously. They met Mrs. Hanka and Irgens in the door.
From now on the merriment knew no bounds; they drank like sponges; even the two young poets kept up as well as they could, and talked with bloodshot eyes about Baudelaire. Milde demanded to know why Irgens had asked him for coffee. Why did he need coffee? He hoped he had not been making preparations to kiss Mrs. Hanka? Damn him, he would hate to trust him.... Tidemand hears this and he laughs with the others, louder than the others, and he says: “You are right, he is not to be trusted, the sly dog!” Tidemand was sober as always.
They did not restrain themselves; the conversation was free and they swore liberally. When all was said and done, it was prudery that was Norway’s curse and Norway’s bane; people preferred to let their young girls go to the dogs in ignorance rather than enlighten them while there was time. Prudery was the nourishing vice of the moment. So help me, there ought to be public men appointed for the sole purpose of shouting obscenity on the streets just to make young girls acquainted with certain things while there was still time. What, do you object, Tidemand?
No, Tidemand did not object, and Ole Henriksen did not object. The idea was original, to say the least. Ha, ha!
Milde got Tidemand over in a corner.
“It is like this,” he said, “I wonder if you have got a couple of crowns?”
Yes; Tidemand was not entirely stripped. How much? A ten-spot?
“Thanks, old man, I’ll give it back to you shortly,” said Milde in all seriousness. “Very soon, now. You are a brick! It is not more than a couple of days since I said that you hucksters were great fellows. That is exactly what I said. Here is my hand!”
Mrs. Hanka got up at last; she wanted to leave. It was beginning to grow light outside.
Her husband kept close by her.
“Yes, Hanka, that is right—let us be going,” he said. He was on the point of offering her his arm.
“Thank you, my friend, but I have an escort,” she said with an indifferent glance.
It took him a moment to recover himself.
“Oh, I see,” he said with a forced smile. “It is all right; I only thought—”
He walked over to the window and remained standing there.
Mrs. Hanka said good night to everybody. When she came to Irgens she whispered eagerly, breathlessly: “To-morrow, then, at three.” She kept Ojen’s hand in hers and asked him when he was going. Had he remembered to make reservations at Torahus? No; she might have known it; these poets were always forgetting the most essential. He would have to telegraph at once. Good-bye! And get well soon.... She was maternal to the last.
The Journalist accompanied her.
“You said there was something you wanted to tell me,” said Tidemand.
“Yes; so there is—You were surprised that I wanted to go along to Torahus. Of course, I said that I had business there. That is not so; I just said that. I know nobody there except Lynums; that is all there is to it. I did really visit their house once. You never heard anything so ridiculous; we came there, two thirsty tourists, and they gave us milk; since then I have met the family when they came to town last fall and this winter. It is quite a family—seven altogether, including the tutor. The oldest daughter’s name is Aagot. I’ll tell you more about them later. Aagot was eighteen the 7th of December; ha, ha! she is in her nineteenth year; I happen to remember that she told me. In short, we are not exactly engaged; I don’t mean to say that; we have only written to each other once in a while. But there is no telling what may happen—What do you say to that?”
Tidemand was more than surprised; he stopped.
“But I had not the slightest idea; you haven’t said a word to me about it!”
“No; I was hardly in a position to say anything yet. There is nothing definite; she is very young, you know. Suppose she had changed her mind? She may tell me she has other intentions when I get there. In that case nothing can be said against her; the execution will take place without witnesses; her reputation will have suffered nothing—I want you to see her, Andreas; I have a picture of her. I won’t say that she gave it to me; I almost took it forcibly; but—”
They stopped a moment and looked at the photograph.
“Charming!” said Tidemand.
“Isn’t she? I am glad you think so. I am sure you will like her.”
They walked on.
“I want to congratulate you!” said Tidemand and stopped again.
“Thanks!” Ole added a moment afterward: “Yes, I thank you. I may as well tell you that it is really decided, practically, that is. I am going up to bring her to town with me.”
They had almost reached the Railway Square when Tidemand suddenly stared straight ahead and whispered:
“But isn’t that my wife there ahead of us?”
“Yes; so it is,” whispered Ole. “I have noticed this lady ahead of us a long while; it is only now I see who it is.”
Mrs. Hanka walked home alone; the Journalist had not accompanied her at all.
“Thank God!” exclaimed Tidemand involuntarily. “She told me she had an escort, and now she goes home all alone. Isn’t she a darling? She is going straight home. But tell me—why did she say she had an escort?”
“Oh, you mustn’t take such things too literally,” answered Ole. “She probably did not want anybody to go with her, neither you nor I nor anybody else. Couldn’t she feel that way inclined, perhaps? Young ladies have their moods, just like you or me.”
“Of course, that is perfectly true.” Tidemand accepted this explanation. He was happy because his wife was alone and was making straight for home. He said, nervously glad: “Do you know, to judge by a few words I had with her this evening it seems as if things were coming around more and more. She even asked about the business, about the Russian customs duty; honest, she wanted to know everything about Fürst. You should have seen how delighted she was because business is looking up again. We spoke about our summer vacation, our country house. Yes, it is getting a little better every day.”
“There you are—didn’t I tell you? It certainly would be a pity otherwise.”
“There is something I am at a loss to explain, though,” continued Tidemand, worried again. “Here lately she has been talking about what a woman like herself should do with her life. She must have a career, something to do and accomplish. I must confess it astonished me a little, a woman with two children and a large household—She has also begun to use her former name again, Hanka Lange Tidemand, just as if her name still were Lange.”
Mrs. Hanka had stopped outside her own entrance; she was evidently waiting for her husband. She called to him jestingly that he had better hurry—she was almost freezing to death. And she lifted her finger banteringly and asked:
“What plots and conspiracies are you two wholesalers now hatching? Where is the price of wheat now, and what are you going to put it up to? God have mercy on you on the day of judgment!”
Tidemand answered in kind: What in the world had she done with the Journalist? So she had not wanted company, not even her own husband’s; she had been in a sentimental mood? But how could she be so cruel as to let this poor fellow Gregersen ramble home all alone, drunk as he was? It was simply heartless—
In about a week Ole Henriksen had returned from Torahus. Ojen had remained, but Ole had brought back a young lady, his fiancée, Aagot Lynum. With them had come a third person, a somewhat peculiar fellow.