Milde and Gregersen walked down the street together. They talked about Milde’s portrait of Paulsberg which had been bought by the National Galleries; about the Actor Norem, who, together with a comrade, had been found drunk in a gutter and had been arrested; about Mrs. Hanka, who was said at last to have left her husband. Was anything else to be expected? Hadn’t she endured it for four long years down in that shop? They asked each other for her address; they wanted to congratulate her; she must know that they fully sympathised with her. But none of them knew her address.
They were deeply interested in the situation. It had come to this that Parliament had been dissolved without having said the deciding word, without having said anything, in fact. The Gazette had advised against radical action at the last moment. The paper had talked about the seriousness of assuming responsibilities, about the unwisdom of a straightforward challenge.
“What the devil can we do—with our army and navy?” said Gregersen with deep conviction. “We shall simply have to wait.”
They went into the Grand. Ojen was there with his two close-cropped poets. He was speaking about his latest prose poems: “A Sleeping City,” “Poppies,” “The Tower of Babel.” Imagine the Tower of Babel—its architecture! And with a nervous gesture he drew a spiral in the air.
Paulsberg and his wife arrived; they moved the tables together and formed a circle. Milde stood treat; he still had money left from the first half of the subsidy. Paulsberg attacked Gregersen at once because of the Gazette’s change of front. Hadn’t he himself, a short time ago, written a rather pointed article in the paper? Had they entirely forgotten that? How could he reconcile this with their present attitude? It would soon be a disgrace for an honest man to see his name in that sheet. Paulsberg was indignant and said so without mincing words.
Gregersen had no defence. He simply answered that the Gazette had fully explained its position, had given reasons....
“What kind of reasons?” Paulsberg would show them how shallow they were. “Waiter, the Gazette for to-day!”
While they waited for the paper even Milde ventured to say that the reasons were anything but convincing. They consisted of vague vapourings about the easterly boundary, the unpreparedness of the army, even mentioning foreign intervention....
“And fifteen minutes ago you yourself agreed with the Gazette unqualifiedly,” said Gregersen.
Paulsberg commenced reading from the Gazette, paragraph after paragraph. He laughed maliciously. Wasn’t it great to hear a paper like the Gazette mention the word responsibility? And Paulsberg threw the paper aside in disgust. No; there ought to be at least a trace of honesty in our national life! This sacrifice of principle for the sake of expediency was degrading, to say the least.
Grande and Norem entered, with Coldevin between them. Coldevin was talking. He nodded to the others and finished what he was saying before he paused. The Attorney, this peculiar nonentity, who neither said nor did anything himself, took a wicked pleasure in listening to this uncouth person from the backwoods. He had happened upon Coldevin far up in Thranes Road; he had spoken to him, and Coldevin had said that he was going away soon, perhaps to-morrow. He was going back to Torahus; he was mainly going in order to resign his position; he had accepted a situation farther north. But in that case Grande had insisted that they empty a glass together, and Coldevin had finally come along. They had met Norem outside.
Coldevin, too, spoke about the situation; he accused the young because they had remained silent and accepted this last indignity without a protest. God help us, what kind of a youth was that? Was our youth, then, entirely decadent?
“It looks bad for us again,” said Milde in a stage whisper.
“You will have to grin and bear it—Let us get toward home, Nikoline. I am not equal to this.”
And Paulsberg and his wife left.
Coldevin looked very shabby indeed. He was in the same suit he wore when he came to town; his hair and beard were shaggy and unkempt.
The Journalist brought him over to the table. What did he want? Only a glass of beer?
Coldevin glanced around him indifferently. It would seem that he had had a hard time. He was thin to emaciation and his eyes shone through dark, shadowy rings. He drank his beer greedily. He even said it was a long time since a glass of beer had tasted better. Perhaps he was hungry, too.
“To return to the matter under discussion,” said the Attorney. “One cannot affirm offhand that we are floating on the battered hull. One must not forget to take the young Norway into consideration.”
“No,” answered Coldevin, “one should never affirm anything offhand. One must try to reach the basic reason for every condition. And this basic reason might just be—as I have said—our superstitious faith in a power which we do not possess. We have grown so terribly modest in our demands; why is it? Might this not lie at the very root of our predicament? Our power is theoretical; we talk, we intoxicate ourselves in words, but we do not act. The fancy of our youth turns to literature and clothes; its ambition goes no further, and it is not interested in other things. It might, for instance, profitably take an interest in our business life.”
“Dear me, how you know everything!” sneered the Journalist.
But Milde nudged him secretly and whispered: “Leave him alone! Let him talk. He, he! He really believes what he says; he trembles with eagerness and conviction. He is a sight in our day and generation!”
The Attorney asked him:
“Have you read Irgens’s latest book?”
“Yes, I have read it. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, simply because I am at a loss to understand how you can have such a poor opinion of our youth when you know its production. We have writers of rank—”
“Yes—but, on the other hand, there is in your circle a young man who has lost heavily in rye,” answered Coldevin. “I am more interested in him. Do you know what this man is doing? He is not crushed or broken by his loss. He is just now creating a new article of export; he has undertaken to supply a foreign enterprise with tar, Norwegian tar. But you do not mention his name.”
“No; I must confess that my knowledge of Norwegian tar is limited, but—”
“There may be nothing lacking in your knowledge, Mr. Attorney, but you have possibly too little sympathy for commerce and the creation of values. On the other hand, you are thoroughly up to date as far as the aesthetic occurrences are concerned; you have heard the latest prose poem. We have so many young writers; we have Ojen, and we have Irgens, and we have Paulsberg, and we have many more. That is the young Norway. I see them on the streets occasionally. They stalk past me as poets should stalk past ordinary people. They are brimful of new intentions, new fashions. They are fragrant with perfume—in brief, there is nothing lacking. When they show up everybody else is mute: ‘Silence! The poet speaks.’ The papers are able to inform their readers that Paulsberg is on a trip to Honefos. In a word—”
But this was too much for Gregersen. He himself had written the news notes about Paulsberg’s trip to Honefos. He shouted:
“But you have the most infernal way of saying insolent things! You look as if you were saying nothing of consequence—”
“I simply cannot understand why you lose your temper,” said Milde tranquilly, “when Paulsberg himself told us to grin and bear it!”
“In a word,” resumed Coldevin, “the people do their duty, the papers do their duty. Our authors are not ordinary, readable talents; no, they are flaming pillars of fire; they are being translated into German! They assume dimensions. This, of course, can be repeated so often that people at last believe it; but such a self-delusion is very harmful. It makes us complacent, it perpetuates our insignificance.”
Gregersen plays a trump card:
“But tell me, you—I don’t remember your name:—do you know the story of Vinje and the potato? I always think of that when I hear you speak. You are so immensely unsophisticated; you are from the country, and you think you can amaze us. You have not the slightest suspicion that your opinions are somewhat antiquated. Your opinions are those of the self-taught man. Once Vinje began to ponder over the ring in a newly cut, raw potato; being from the country, you, at least, must know that there in springtime, often, is a purple figure in a potato. And Vinje was so interested in this purple outline that he sat down and wrote a mathematical thesis about it. He took this to Fearnley in the fond belief that he had made a great discovery. ‘This is very fine,’ said Fearnley; ‘it is perfectly correct. You have solved the problem. But the Egyptians knew this two thousand years ago—’ They knew it ages ago, ha, ha, ha! And I am always reminded of this story when I hear you speak! Don’t be offended, now!”
“No, I am not offended in the least,” said Coldevin. “But if I understand you correctly, then we agree. I am only saying what you already know?”
But Gregersen shook his head in despair and turned to Milde.
“He is impossible,” he said. He emptied his glass and spoke again to Coldevin, spoke in a louder voice than necessary; he bent toward him and shouted: “For Heaven’s sake, man, don’t you understand that your opinions are too absurd—the opinions of the self-taught man? You think that what you say is news to us. We have heard it for ages; we know it, and we think it ridiculous. Isch! I don’t want to talk to you!”
And Gregersen got up and walked unsteadily away. It was six o’clock. The three men who remained at the table sat silently a few moments. At last Coldevin said:
“There goes Journalist Gregersen. That man has my unqualified pity and sympathy.”
“He would hardly accept it,” said Milde with a laugh.
“But he cannot avoid it. I think often of these writers for the daily press, these faithful workers who accomplish more in a month than the poets wring from themselves during a year. They are often married men in poor circumstances; their fate is not too pleasant at best. They have probably dreamed about a freer and richer life than this slavery in an office where their best efforts are swallowed up in anonymity, and where they often have to repress themselves and their convictions in order to keep their jobs. It might be well if these men were given the approbation they deserved; it might even be profitable; it might bear fruit in a free and honest newspaper literature. What have we at present? An irresponsible press, lacking convictions and clearly defined principles, its policy dictated by personal preferences—by even worse motives. No; a truly great journalist ranks far higher than a poet.”
Just then the door opened and Irgens and Miss Aagot entered. They stopped by the door and looked around; Aagot showed no sign of embarrassment, but when she caught sight of Coldevin, she stepped forward quickly, with a smile on lips that were already opened as if to speak. Suddenly she stopped. Coldevin stared at her and fumbled mechanically at his buttons.
This lasted a few moments. Irgens and Aagot went over to the table, shook hands, and sat down. Aagot gave Coldevin her hand. Milde wanted to know what they would have. He happened to be flush. “Order anything you like—”
“You come too late,” he said smilingly. “Coldevin has entertained us splendidly.”
Irgens looked up. He shot a swift glance at Coldevin and said, while he lit a cigar:
“I have enjoyed Mr. Coldevin’s entertainment once before in Tivoli, I believe. This will have to satisfy me for the present.”
It was only with difficulty that Irgens succeeded in hiding his displeasure. This was the second time to-day he had seen Coldevin; he had observed him outside his lodgings in Thranes Road No. 5. He had not been able to get Aagot out until this infernal fellow had disappeared. By a happy chance Grande had passed by; otherwise he would probably have been there still. And how had he acted? He had stood like a guard, immovable; Irgens had been furious. He had had the greatest difficulty in keeping Aagot from the windows. If she had happened to glance out she must have discovered him. He had made no effort to conceal himself. One would think he had stood there with the avowed intention of being seen, in order to keep the couple in a state of siege.
Now he appeared slightly embarrassed. He fingered his glass nervously and looked down. But suddenly it seemed as if Irgens’s insolence had roused him; he said bluntly and without connection with what had been discussed before:
“Tell me one thing—Or, let me rather say it myself: These poets are turning everything upside down; nobody dares to grumble. An author might owe in unsecured debts his twenty thousand—what of it? He is unable to pay, that is all. What if a business man should act in this manner? What if he were to obtain wine or clothes on false promises of payment? He would simply be arrested for fraud and declared bankrupt. But the authors, the artists, these talented superbeings who suck the country’s blood like vampires to the nation’s acclaim—who would dare take such measures with them? People simply discuss the scandal privately and laugh and think it infernally smart that a man can owe his twenty thousand—”
Milde put his glass down hard and said:
“My good man, this has gone far enough!”
That splendid fellow Milde seemed all at once to have lost his patience. While he was sitting alone with the Attorney and the Actor he had found the miserable Tutor’s bitter sarcasms amusing, but no sooner had one of the Authors appeared than he felt outraged and struck his fist on the table. It was Milde’s excellent habit always to await reinforcements.
Coldevin looked at him.
“Do you think so?” he said.
“I’ll be damned if I don’t.”
Coldevin had undoubtedly spoken intentionally. He had even addressed his remarks very plainly. Irgens bit his moustache occasionally.
But now Norem woke up. He understood that something was happening before his dull eyes, and he began to mix in, to declaim about business morals. It was the rottenest morality on earth, usury—a morality for Jews! Was it right to demand usurious interest? Don’t argue with him. He knew what he was talking about. Ho! business morals! The rottenest morals on earth....
Meanwhile the Attorney was talking across the table to Irgens and Miss Aagot. He told them how he had come across Coldevin.
“I ran across him a moment ago up your way, Irgens, in Thranes Road, right below your windows. I brought him along. I couldn’t let the fellow stand there alone—”
Aagot asked quickly, with big, bewildered eyes:
“Thranes Road, did you say? Irgens, he was standing below your windows!”
Her heart was fluttering with fear. Coldevin observed her fixedly; he made sure that she should notice he was staring straight at her.
Meanwhile Norem continued his impossible tirade. So it was charged that the people as a whole was corrupt, that its men and women were debased because they honoured literature and art. “Ho! you leave art alone, my good man, and don’t you bother about that! Men and women corrupt!—”
Coldevin seized this chance remark by the hair and replied. He did not address Norem; he looked away from him. He spoke about something that evidently was vitally important in his eyes. He addressed himself to nobody in particular, and yet his words were meant for some one. It was hardly correct to say that men and women were corrupt; they had simply reached a certain degree of hollowness; they had degenerated and grown small. Shallow soil, anaemic soil, without growth, without fertility! The women carried on their surface existence. They were not tired of life, but they did not venture much either. How could they put up any stakes? They had none to put up. They darted around like blue, heatless flames; they nibbled at everything, joys and sorrows, and they did not realise that they had grown insignificant. Their ambitions did not soar; their hearts did not suffer greatly; they beat quite regularly, but they did not swell more for one thing than for another, more for one person than for another. What had our young women done with their proud eyes? Nowadays they looked on mediocrity as willingly as on superiority. They lost themselves in admiration over rather every-day poetry, over common fiction. Some time ago greater and prouder things were needed to conquer them. There was a page here and there in Norway’s history to prove that. Our young women had modified their demands considerably; they couldn’t help it; their pride was gone, their strength sapped. The young woman had lost her power, her glorious and priceless simplicity, her unbridled passion, her brand of breed. She had lost her pride in the only man, her hero, her god. She had acquired a sweet tooth. She sniffed at everything and gave everybody the willing glance. Love to her was simply the name for an extinct feeling; she had read about it and at times she had been entertained by it, but it had never sweetly overpowered her and forced her to her knees; it had simply fluttered past her like an outworn sound. “But the young woman of our day does not pretend to all this; alas, no! She is honestly shorn. There is nothing to do about it; the only thing is to keep the loss within limits. In a few generations we shall probably experience a renaissance; everything comes in cycles. But for the present we are sadly denuded. Only our business life beats with a healthy, strong pulse. Only our commerce lives its deed-filled life. Let us place our faith in that! From it will the newer Norway spring!”
These last words seemed to irritate Milde; he took out of his pocketbook a ten-crown bill which he threw across the table to Coldevin. He said furiously:
“There—take your money! I had almost forgotten that I owed you this money, but I trust you understand that you can go now!”
Coldevin coloured deeply. He took the bill slowly.
“You do not thank me very politely for the loan,” he said.
“And who has told you that I am a polite man? The main thing is that you have got your money and that we hope now to be rid of you.”
“Well, I thank you; I need it,” said Coldevin. The very way in which he picked up the bill showed plainly that he was not used to handling money. Suddenly he looked straight at Milde and added:
“I must confess I had not expected you ever to repay this loan.”
Milde blazed up, but only for a moment. Even this direct insult did not make him lose his temper. He swallowed it, mumbled a reply, said finally that he had not intended to be rude; he would apologise....
But Norem, who sat there drunk and dull, could no longer repress his amusement. He only saw the comical side of the incident and cried laughingly:
“Have you touched this fellow, too, Milde? So help me, you can borrow money from anybody! You are inimitable. Ha, ha! from him, too!”
Aagot got up simultaneously and ran over to him. She took his hand, a prey to the greatest excitement. She began whispering to him. She led him over to a window and continued speaking earnestly, in a low voice. They sat down. There was nobody else around, and she said:
“Yes, yes, you are right; it is true. You were speaking to me; I understood it only too well; you are right, right, right! Oh, but it is going to be different! You said that I couldn’t, that it was not within my power; but I can; I will show you! I understand it all now; you have opened my eyes. Dear, do not be angry with me. I have done a great wrong, but—”
She wept with dry eyes. She swallowed hard. She sat on the very edge of the chair in her excitement. He injected a word now and then, nodded, shook his head when she appeared too disconsolate, and in his confusion he called her “Aagot, dearest Aagot.” She must not apply everything he had said to herself, not at all. Of course, he had thought of her, too, that was true; but then he had been mistaken—thank God for that! He had simply wanted to warn her. She was so young; he, who was older, knew better from where danger threatened. But now she must forget it and be cheerful.
They continued to speak. Irgens grew impatient and rose. He stretched himself and yawned as if to indicate that he was going. Suddenly he remembered something he had forgotten. He walked quickly over to the bar and got some roasted coffee which he put in his vest pocket.
Milde settled the checks. He flung money around with the greatest unconcern; then he said good-bye and left. A moment afterward they saw him bow to a lady outside. He spoke a few words and they walked away through a side-street. The lady wore a long boa which billowed behind her in the breeze.
And still Aagot and Coldevin sat there.
“Won’t you take me home? Excuse me a moment, I want to—”
She ran over to Irgens’s table and took her coat from the chair.
“Are you going?” he asked her in amazement.
“Yes. Ugh—I won’t do this any more. Goodbye!”
“What won’t you do any more? Don’t you want me to take you home?”
“No. And not later either; not to-morrow. No, I am through for good.” She gave Irgens her hand and said good-bye quickly. All the time she looked at Coldevin and seemed impatient to be off.
“Remember our engagement for to-morrow,” Irgens said.
Aagot and Coldevin walked together down the street. He said nothing about his going away, and she didn’t know of his intention. She was happy to be with Coldevin, this phenomenon who irritated everybody with his impossible harangues. She walked close beside him; her heart was fluttering.
“Forgive me!” she pleaded. “Yes, you must forgive me everything, both that which has happened before and to-day. A while ago I should have been afraid to ask you, but no sooner am I with you than I become bold again. You never reprove me, never. But I haven’t done anything wrong to-day—I mean to-day when I was far up-town; you understand what I mean.” And she looked at him with an open, straightforward glance.
“Are you going back home soon, Miss Aagot?”
“Yes, I am going back at once—Forgive me, Coldevin, and believe me, believe me—I have done nothing wrong to-day; but I am so sorry, I repent everything—Blue, heatless flames, without much pride—I am not so stupid that I do not know whom you had in mind when you said this.”
“But, dearest Aagot,” he exclaimed in his perplexity, “it was not meant for you—I didn’t mean it at all! And besides, I was mistaken, greatly mistaken; thank God, you are entirely different. But promise me one thing, Aagot; promise that you will be a little careful, do! It is none of my business, of course; but you have fallen in with a crowd—believe me, they are not your kind of people. Mrs. Tidemand has gained bitter experience through them.”
She glanced at him inquiringly.
“I thought it best to tell you. Mrs. Tidemand, one of the few sterling personalities in the clique, even she! One from that crowd has destroyed her, too.”
“Is that true?” said Aagot. “Well, I don’t care in the least for them; alas, no! I don’t want to remember any of them.” And she seized Coldevin’s arm and pressed close to him as if in fear.
This embarrassed him still more. He slowed up a little, and she said with a smile as she let go his arm:
“I suppose I mustn’t do that?”
“H’m. What are you going to do when you get back home? By the way, have you heard from your fiancÚ?”
“No, not yet. But I suppose it is too early. Are you afraid of anything happening to him? Dear me, tell me if you are!”
“No; don’t worry! He will get back safe enough.”
They stopped at her door and said good-bye. She ascended the few steps hesitatingly, without even lifting her dress; suddenly she turned, ran downstairs again, and seized Coldevin’s hand.
Without another word she hurried up-stairs and through the door.
He stood still a moment. He heard her steps from inside, then they died down. And he turned and drifted down the street. He saw and heard nothing of what happened around him.
Instinctively he walked toward the basement restaurant where he usually took his meals. He went down and ordered something. Hurriedly he ate everything that was placed before him; apparently he had not eaten for a long while. And when he was through he took out the ten-crown bill and paid his check from that. At the same time he felt in his waistcoat pocket for a little package, a few crowns in silver—the small amount he had put aside for his railway ticket, and which he had not dared to touch.
The following day, around five, Aagot was walking down toward the docks, toward the same place where she had walked the day before. Irgens was already waiting for her.
She hurried toward him and said:
“I came after all, but only to tell you—I won’t meet you any more. I haven’t time to talk to you now, but I did not want you to come here and wait for me.”
“Listen, Miss Aagot,” he said boldly, “you can’t back out now, you know.”
“I am not going home with you any more, never. I have learned something. Why don’t you get Mrs. Tidemand to go with you? Why don’t you?” Aagot was pale and excited.
“Mrs. Tidemand?” he asked, startled.
“Yes, I know everything. I have asked questions—Yes, I have thought of it all night long. Go to Mrs. Tidemand, why don’t you?”
He stepped close to her.
“Mrs. Tidemand has not existed for me since I saw you. I haven’t seen her for weeks. I don’t even know where she lives.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “I suppose you can look her up. I won’t go home with you, but I can walk with you a few moments.”
They walked on. Aagot was quiet now.
“I said I have thought of it all night,” she continued. “Of course, not all night. All day, I meant. Not all the time, I mean—You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Married ladies! You don’t defend yourself very warmly, Irgens.”
“What is the use?”
“No, I suppose you love her.” And when he was silent she grew violently jealous. “You might at least tell me if you love her!”
“I love you,” he answered, “I do not lie; it is you and nobody else I love, Aagot. You can do with me what you like, but it is you.” He did not look at her. He gazed down on the pavement and he wrung his hands repeatedly.
She felt that his emotion was genuine and she said gently:
“All right, Irgens, I’ll believe you. But I won’t go home with you.”
“What has made you so hostile toward me all of a sudden?” he asked. “Is it this—? He has been your tutor, but I must frankly say that he disgusts me, dirty and unkempt as he is.”
“You will be good enough to speak civilly of Coldevin,” she said coldly.
“Well, he is going away to-night, so we shall be rid of him,” he said.
“Is he going this evening?”
“So I heard. On the night train.”
Was he going? He hadn’t mentioned that to her. Irgens had to tell her how he knew. She was so taken up with this news about Coldevin that she forgot everything else; perhaps she even felt a sense of relief at the thought that henceforth she would be free from his espionage. When Irgens touched her arm lightly she walked mechanically ahead. They went straight to his rooms. When they stood by the entrance she suddenly recoiled. She said “No!” repeatedly while she looked at him with staring, bewildered eyes. But he pleaded with her. Finally he took her arm and led her firmly inside.
The door slammed behind them....
On the corner Coldevin stood and watched. When the couple disappeared he stepped forward and walked over to the entrance. He stood there awhile. He bent forward stiffly as if he were listening. He was much changed. His face was fearfully drawn and his lips were frozen in a ghastly smile. Then he sat down on the steps, close by the wall, waiting.
An hour passed by. A tower-clock boomed. His train was not due to leave for another hour. Half an hour went by. He heard somebody on the stairs. Irgens came first. Coldevin did not stir; he sat motionless with his back to the door. Then Aagot appeared. Suddenly she cried out loudly. Coldevin arose and walked away. He had not looked at her nor had he said a word; he had simply shown himself—he had been on the spot. He swayed like a man in a stupor. He turned the very first corner, the frozen smile still on his lips.
Coldevin walked straight down to the railway station. He bought his ticket and was ready. The doors were thrown open. He walked out to the train-shed; a porter came after him with his trunk. His trunk? All right; he had almost forgotten it. Put it in there, in this empty compartment! He entered after it had been stowed away; then he collapsed utterly. He sat in the corner; his gaunt, emaciated body shivered convulsively. In a few moments he took from his pocketbook a tiny silken bow in the Norwegian colours and began to tear it to pieces. He sat there quietly and plucked the threads apart. When he had finished he stared at the shreds with a fixed, vacant stare. The engine gave a hoarse blast; the train started. Coldevin opened the window slowly and emptied his hand. And the tiny bits of red and blue whirled away behind the train, fluttered and sank to the gravel, to be ground in the dust beneath every man’s foot.
It was several days later before Aagot went home. Irgens had not persisted in vain. He had succeeded, and now he reaped the reward of all his labour. Aagot was with him continually. She was as much in love with him as she could be. She clung to his neck.
The days passed by.
Finally a telegram arrived from Ole, and Aagot woke from her trance. The wire had been sent to Torahus. It reached her after much delay. Ole was in London.
Well, what was to be done? Ole was in London, but he was not here yet. She did not remember clearly how he looked. Dark, with blue eyes; tall, with a stray wisp of hair which always fell across his forehead. Whenever she thought of him he seemed to belong to an age long past. How long, long it was since he went away!
The telegram stirred to life again her dormant feelings for the absent one. She trembled with the old sense of possession. She whispered his name and blessed him for his goodness. She called him to her, blushing breathlessly. No, nobody was like him! He did not wrong anybody. He walked his straightforward way, guileless and upright. How he loved her! Little mistress, little mistress! His breast was so warm! She grew warm herself when she nestled close to him. How he could look up from a row of figures and smile!... Oh, she had not forgotten!...
She packed her belongings resolutely and wanted to go home in spite of everything. The evening before she left she said good-bye to Irgens, a protracted good-bye which rent her heart. She was his now, and Ole would probably get over it. She made up her mind. She would go home and she would cancel her engagement as soon as Ole returned. What would he say when he read her letter with the ring enclosed? She writhed at the thought that she wouldn’t be near him to comfort him. She had to strike him from afar! And thus it had to end!
Irgens was full of tenderness and cheered her as much as he could. They should not be separated for long. If nothing else turned up he would walk up to her on his feet! Besides, she could get back to town; she wasn’t a pauper exactly; she even owned a yacht, a real yacht—what more did she want? And Aagot smiled at this jest and felt relieved.
The door was locked; they were alone. Everything was quiet; they heard their hearts beat. And they said farewell to each other.
Irgens would not take her to the train. It might give rise to too much gossip; the town was so small and he was, unfortunately, so well known. But they would write, write every day; otherwise she would never be able to endure the separation....
Tidemand was the only one who knew of Aagot’s departure and who followed her to the train. He was paying his usual call to Henriksen’s office during the afternoon and was having his daily chat with the old man. As he left he met Aagot outside: she was ready to go. Tidemand accompanied her and carried her valise; her trunk had been sent ahead.
It had rained and the streets were muddy. Aagot said several times:
“What a disagreeable, mournful day!”
They hardly spoke. Aagot simply said:
“It was very kind of you to come with me; otherwise I should have been altogether alone.” And Tidemand noticed that she tried to appear unconcerned. She smiled, but her eyes were moist.
He, too, smiled and said comfortingly that he was glad she was going to leave all this mud and filth; now she was going to the country, to cleaner roads, to purer air. These few words were all they spoke. They stood in the train-shed beneath the glass vault. It had begun to rain, and they heard the drops beating on the roof while the engine stood wheezing on the track. Aagot entered her compartment and gave Tidemand her hand. And in a sudden desire to be forgiven, to be judged charitably, she said to this stranger, whom she knew so slightly:
“Good-bye—And do not judge me too harshly!” and she coloured deeply.
“But, child!” he said amazed. He had no time to say more.
She put her fair little face out of the window and nodded as the train moved along. Her eyes were wet, and she struggled not to break down. She looked at Tidemand as long as she could see him, then she waved a tiny handkerchief.
The strange girl! Her unaffected simplicity moved him. He did not stop waving until the train was out of sight. Not judge her too harshly? He certainly wouldn’t! And if he ever had been tempted to, he would know better in the future. She had waved to him—almost a stranger! He would be sure and tell Ole—how that would please him!...
Tidemand walked toward his own wharf. He was very busy. He was altogether taken up with his affairs. His business was steadily growing. He had been forced to take on several of his old employees. At present he was shipping tar.
When he had given his orders in the warehouse, he walked over to the restaurant where he usually took his meals. It was late. He ate hurriedly and spoke to no one. He was engrossed in thought about a new enterprise he had in mind. His tar was going to Spain. The rye held firm, with good prices; he sold steadily, his business began to stretch forth new arms. There was that new tannery near Torahus. How would it do if one gave a little thought to a tar-manufacturing plant alongside? He really was going to speak to Ole about that. He had had it in mind several weeks. He had even consulted an engineer about it. There were the cuttings and the tops. If the tannery took the bark, why shouldn’t the tar plant take the wood?
Tidemand walked home. It rained steadily.
A few steps from his office entrance he stopped abruptly; then he sidled quietly into an area-way. He stared straight ahead. His wife was standing out there in the rain, outside his office. She was gazing, now at his office windows, now up to the second story. There she stood. He could not be mistaken, and his breath came in gasps. Once before he had seen her there. She had circled around in the shadows beneath the street lamps, just as now. He had called her name in a low voice, and she had immediately hurried around the street corner without looking back. This happened a Sunday evening three weeks ago. And now she was here again.
He wanted to step forward. He made a movement and his raincoat rustled. She glanced around quickly and hurried away. He stood immovable where he was until she had disappeared.
Ole Henriksen returned a week later. He had become uneasy. He had telegraphed to Aagot again and again, but could get no reply. He finished up his business in a hurry and returned. But so far was he from suspecting the true condition of affairs that on the very last afternoon in London he bought her a little present, a carriage for her fiord pony on Torahus.
And on his desk he found Aagot’s letter with her ring enclosed.
Ole Henriksen read the letter almost without grasping its meaning. His hands commenced to tremble, and his eyes were staring. He went over and locked the office door, and read the letter once more. It was brief and to the point; it could not be misunderstood; she gave him back his “freedom.” And there was the ring, wrapped in tissue-paper. No, he could hardly be uncertain as to the meaning of that letter.
And Ole Henriksen drifted back and forth in his office for several hours. He placed the letter on his desk and walked with hands tightly clasped behind him. He took the letter again and read it once more. He was “free”!
He must not think that she did not love him, she had written. She thought of him as much as ever; yes, more even. She begged his forgiveness a hundred times every day. But what good was it if she thought of him ever so much? she continued. She was his no more, it had come to that. But she had not surrendered at once, nor without a struggle; God knows that she had loved him so dearly, and that she did not want to belong to anybody but to him. However, it had gone entirely too far now; she would only ask him to judge her kindly, though she did not deserve it, and not to grieve over her.
The letter was dated twice. She had not noticed that. It was written in Aagot’s large, childish hand, and was touching in its simplicity; she had made several corrections.
Yes, he had understood it clearly; and, besides, there was the ring. After all, what did he amount to? He was no prominent man, known all over the country; he was no genius who could interest a girl greatly; he was just an ordinary toiler, a business man—that was all. He should have known better than imagine he would be allowed to keep Aagot’s heart for himself. Just see how he had fooled himself! Of course, he attended to his business and worked conscientiously early and late, but that could not make people fond of him. There was nothing to say to that. Anyhow, he knew now why his telegrams had remained unanswered. He ought to have understood it at once, but he hadn’t.... She had gone entirely too far. She said goodbye and loved somebody else. Nothing could be done about that. If she loved somebody else, then.... It was probably Irgens—he would get her after all. Tidemand had been right. It was dangerous with these many boat-rides and walks; Tidemand had had experience. Well, it was too late to think of that now. However, one’s love could not have been so very firmly rooted if a walk or two had been enough to break it down....
And suddenly the anger blazed up in the poor fellow. He walked more rapidly and his forehead flamed. She had gone entirely too far. That was his reward for the love he had lavished on her! He had knelt before a hussy. He had let that miserable lover of hers cheat him openly for years! He could prove it by the ledger—look here—now Aagot’s fine friend had been hard up for ten, now for fifty crowns! And he, Ole Henriksen, had even been afraid that Aagot some day might chance to see the poet’s account in his books. He had finally put away the ledger, entirely out of regard for the great man’s feelings. It was a most suitable partnership; they were worthy of each other. The poet had something to write about now, a splendid subject! Ha, he must not grieve too much over her; she could not stand that; she might even lose sleep over it! Think of that! But who had said that he would grieve? She was mistaken. He might have knelt before her, but he hadn’t licked her boots; no, he would hardly be compelled to take to his bed on account of this. She need not worry; she need not weep scalding tears on his account. So she had jilted him; she returned his ring. What of it? But why had she dragged the ring all the way up to Torahus? Why hadn’t she simply left it on his desk and saved the postage? Good-bye; good riddance! Go to the devil with your silk-lined deceiver, and never let me hear of you again!...
He wrung his hands in anguish and paced back and forth with long, furious strides. He would take it like a man. He would fling his own ring in her face and end the comedy quickly. He stopped at the desk and tore the ring off his finger, wrapped it up, and put it in an envelope. He wrote the address in large, brutal letters; his hand trembled violently. Somebody knocked. He flung the letter into a drawer and closed it hastily.
It was one of his clerks who came to remind him that it was late. Should he close up?
“Yes, close up. But wait; I am through now; I am going, too. Bring me the keys.”
Nobody should be able to say that he broke down because of a shabby trick like this. He would show people that he could keep his composure. He might go to the Grand and celebrate his return with a plain glass of beer! That would be just the thing. He had no intention of avoiding people. He had a revolver lying in a desk drawer; but had he wanted to use that, even for the briefest moment? Had he thought of it even? Not at all. It just occurred to him now that it might be getting rusty. No, thank God! one was not exactly weary of life....
Ole Henriksen went to the Grand.
He sat down at a table and ordered his glass of beer. A moment later he felt somebody slap him on the shoulder. He looked up; it was Milde.
“Good old boy!” shouted Milde. “Are you sitting here without saying a word? Welcome back! Come over to the window; you will find a couple of the fellows there.”
Ole went over to the window. There were Ojen, Norem, and Gregersen, all of them with half-empty wine-glasses in front of them. Ojen jumped up and said pleasantly:
“Welcome home, old man! I am glad to see you again. I have missed you a good deal. I am coming down to-morrow to see you. There is something I want to see you about.”
Gregersen gave him a finger. Ole took it, sat down, and told the waiter to bring him his beer.
“What! are you drinking beer? No, beer will never do on this occasion; it must be wine!”
“Well, drink what you want to. I am drinking beer.”
Just then Irgens arrived, and Milde called to him: “Ole is drinking beer, but we are not going to do that. What do you say?”
Irgens did not show the least sign of embarrassment when he faced Ole; he barely nodded and said indifferently: “Welcome home!” And Ole looked at him and noticed that his cuffs were not entirely clean; as a matter of fact, his dress was not quite up to his usual standard.
But Milde repeated his question: wasn’t it a little too commonplace to drink beer at a double celebration?
“A double celebration?” asked Gregersen.
“Exactly—yes. In the first place, Ole has returned, and that is of the greatest importance to us at present; I frankly admit that. But I have, in the second place, just been dispossessed from my studio, and that has also a certain solemn significance. What do you think? The landlady came and wanted money. ‘Money?’ I asked in amazement, and so on and so on. But the outcome was that I was put out, without notice—only a couple of hours’. Ha, ha! I have never heard of such a notice. Of course, she had already given me her ultimatum a month ago; still—I had to leave a couple of finished canvases. But I think this ought to be celebrated in wine, for Ole does not care what we drink.”
“Of course not; why should I care?” asked Ole.
And the gentlemen drank industriously. They grew well disposed and cheerful before they took their departure. Irgens was first to leave; then Ojen followed. Ole remained until they had all gone, all except Norem, who sat there as usual and slumbered. He had listened to the talk. Occasionally he had injected a word. He had grown weary and subdued; a bitter disgust had taken possession of him and made him dully indifferent to everything.
At last he got up and paid his check.
The waiter halted him.
“Pardon me,” he said, “but the wine—”
“The wine?” asked Ole. “I have only had a couple of glasses of beer.”
“Yes, but the wine isn’t paid for.”
So the gentlemen hadn’t paid their checks? For a moment the hot anger blazed up in him again; he was on the point of saying that if they would send the bill to Torahus it would be paid instantly. But he said: “All right; I can pay it, I suppose.”
But what should he do at home? Go to bed and sleep? If he only could! He turned into the darkest streets in order to be alone. He was going homeward, but he swung aside and walked toward the Fortress.
Here he suddenly came across Tidemand. He was standing in front of a dark gateway gazing at the house opposite. What could Tidemand be doing there?
Ole walked over to him. They looked at each other in surprise.
“I am taking a walk, a little walk,” said Tidemand somewhat sheepishly. “I came by here by accident—Thank goodness, you are back, Ole! Welcome home! Let us get away from here!”
Tidemand could not get over his surprise. He had not known that Ole was back. Everything was all right at the office; he had called on the old man regularly, as he had promised.
“And your sweetheart has gone away,” he continued. “I went with her to the train. She is a darling girl! She was a little upset because she was going away; she stood there and looked at me with real shining eyes; you know how she is. And as the train went off she took out her handkerchief and waved to me—waved so sweetly, just because I had come with her. You ought to have seen her; she was lovely.”
“Well, I am not engaged any more,” said Ole in a hollow voice.
Ole went into his office. It was late at night. He had walked with Tidemand a long time and told him everything. He was going to write a letter to Aagot’s parents, respectful and dignified, without reproaches. He felt he ought to do that.
When he had finished this letter he read Aagot’s once more. He wanted to tear it to pieces and burn it up, but he paused and placed it in front of him on the desk. It was at least a letter from her, the last. She had sat there and written to him and thought of him while she wrote. She had held the paper with her tiny hands, and there her pen had scratched. She had probably wiped it on something and dipped it and written on. That letter was for him, for no one else. Everybody had probably been in bed while she wrote.
He took the ring out of its wrapping and looked at it for a long time. He was sorry that he had lost his temper and said words which he now regretted. He took them back, every one. Good-bye, then, Aagot....
And he placed Aagot’s last letter with the others.
Ole began to work hard again; he spent practically all his time in his office. He lost flesh; he did not get out enough; his eyes became absent and flickering. He was hardly off the wharves or outside the warehouses for several weeks. Nobody should say that he pined and drooped because his engagement was cancelled! He worked and minded his own business and was getting on nicely.
He was getting thin; that was simply because he worked too hard. He hoped nobody would think it might be due to other causes. There were so many things to be done since his return from England; he had explained it all to Tidemand. But he was going to take it a little easier now. He wanted to get out a little, observe what was doing, amuse himself.
And he dragged Tidemand to theatres and to Tivoli. They took long walks in the evenings. They arranged to start the tannery and the tar works this coming spring. Ole was even more enthusiastic than Tidemand; he threw himself so eagerly into the project that nobody could for a moment harbour any mistaken notions about his being grief-stricken. He never mentioned Aagot; she was dead and forgotten.
And Tidemand, too, was getting along comfortably. He had lately re-engaged his old cook and he took his meals at home now. It was a little lonely. The dining-room was too large, and there was an empty chair; but the children carried on and made the most glorious noise throughout the house; he heard them sometimes clear down in his office. They disturbed him often, took him away from his work at times; for whenever he heard their little feet patter on the floors up-stairs and their merry shouts echo through the rooms he simply had to put down his pen and run up for a moment. In a few minutes he would come back and throw himself into his work like an energetic youth.... Yes, Tidemand was getting along famously; he couldn’t deny it. Everything had begun to turn out well for him.
On his way home one evening Tidemand happened to drop in at a grocery store he supplied with goods. It was entirely by accident. He entered the store and walked over to the owner who stood behind the counter. Suddenly he saw his wife at the counter; in front of her he noticed some parcels.
Tidemand had not seen her since that evening outside his office. He had fortunately caught sight of her ring in a jewellery window as he passed by one day and had immediately bought it and sent it to her. On a card she had written a few words of thanks. She had not missed the ring, but it was another matter now; she would keep it always.
She stood there at the counter in a black dress; it was a little threadbare. For a moment he wondered if perhaps she was in need, if he did not give her enough money? Why did she wear such old dresses? But he had sent her a good deal of money. Thank God, he was able to do that. In the beginning, when he was still struggling, he hadn’t sent her such large amounts, it was true. He had grieved over it and written to her not to be impatient; it would be better soon. And she had thanked him and answered that he was sending her altogether too much; how was she going to use it all? She had lots and lots of money left.
But why did she dress so shabbily, then?
She had turned around; she recognised his voice when he spoke to the owner. He grew confused; he bowed smilingly to her as he had to the grocer, and she blushed deeply as she returned his bow.
“Never mind about the rest,” she said to the clerk in a low voice. “I’ll get that some other time.” And she paid hurriedly and gathered up her bundles. Tidemand followed her with his eyes. She stooped as she walked and looked abashed until she disappeared.
And the days passed by. The town was quiet; everything was quiet.
Irgens was still capable of surprising people and attracting everybody’s attention. He had looked a little careworn and depressed for some time; his debts bothered him; he earned no money and nobody gave him any. Fall and winter were coming; it did not look any too bright for him. He had even been obliged to make use of a couple of last year’s suits.
Then all of a sudden he amazed everybody by appearing on the promenade, rehabilitated from top to toe in an elegant fall suit, with tan gloves and money in his pockets, distinguished and elegant as the old and only Irgens. People looked at him admiringly. Devil of a chap—he was unique! What kind of a diamond mine had he discovered? Oh, there was a head on these shoulders, a superior talent! He had been obliged to move from his former apartments on Thranes Road. Certainly; but what of it? He had taken other apartments in the residential district—elegant apartments, fine view, furniture upholstered in leather! He simply couldn’t have stood it much longer in the old lodgings; his best moods were constantly being spoiled; he suffered. It was necessary to pay a little attention to one’s surroundings if one cared to produce good work. Miss Lynum had come to town a week ago and was going to remain awhile; she made him feel like a new man. How the whole town burst into bloom and colour when Aagot returned!
It had all been decided: they were going to get married next spring and pin their faith to next year’s subsidy. It would seem that he must be recognised sometime, especially now when he was going to found a family and was publishing a new collection of poems. They couldn’t starve him to death entirely; hardly that! And Irgens had approached Attorney Grande, who had approached the Minister personally in regard to next year’s subsidy. “You know my circumstances,” he had said to Grande. “I am not well off, but if you will speak to the Minister I shall be much obliged to you. Personally, I will do nothing. I cannot stoop to that!” Grande was a man whom Irgens otherwise honoured with his contempt. But it could not be helped; this brainless Attorney began to have influence; he had been appointed on a royal commission and had even been interviewed by the Gazette.
When Tidemand told Ole that he had seen Aagot on the street it gave him a fearful shock. But he recovered himself quickly and said with a smile:
“Well, how does that concern me? Let her be here as much as she likes; I have no objections. I have other things to worry about.” He forced himself to renewed interest in the conversation, talked about Tidemand’s new orders for tar, and said repeatedly: “Be sure to have the cargo well insured; it never hurts!” He was a little nervous but otherwise normal.
They drank a glass of wine as of old. A couple of hours went by while they chatted cosily, and when Tidemand left Ole said, full of gratitude:
“I am awfully glad that you came to see me. I know you have enough to do besides this—Listen,” he continued; “let us go to the farewell performance of the opera this evening; I want you to come!” And the serious young man with the hollow eyes looked as if he were exceedingly anxious to attend that performance. He even said he had looked forward to it for several days.
Tidemand promised to come; Ole said that he would get the tickets.
No sooner had Tidemand left the office than Ole telephoned for the tickets he wanted—three tickets together, 11, 12, and 13. He was going to take No. 12 to Mrs. Hanka, to her room near the Fortress. She would surely want to come, for nobody could be fonder of the opera than she used to be. He rubbed his hands in satisfaction as he walked along—No. 12; she should sit between them. He would keep No. 13 for himself; that was a proper number for him, a most unlucky number.
He walked faster and faster and forgot his own misery. He was done and through with it all; his sufferings lay behind; he had recovered fully. Had he been so very much shaken because Aagot had come to town? Not at all; it had not affected him in the least.
And Ole walked on. He knew Mrs. Hanka’s address well; more than once had he taken her home when she had called on him secretly, asking for news about the children. And had he not found Tidemand outside her windows that night he returned from England? How their thoughts were ever busy with each other! With him it was different; he had forgotten his experience and did not think of such things any more.
But when he inquired for Mrs. Hanka he was told that she had gone away for a couple of days; she had gone to the country house. She would be back to-morrow.
He listened and did not understand at once. The country house? Which country house?
Of course, yes; Tidemand’s country house. Ole glanced at his watch. No; it was too late to try and get Mrs. Hanka back to-day. What reason could he have given, anyway? He had wanted to surprise them both with his little scheme, but now it had become impossible. Alas, how everything turned out badly for him of late!
Ole turned back.
To the country house! How she haunted the old places! She had been unable to resist; she had to see once more that house and these grounds, although the leaves were almost gone and the garden was desolate. Oh! Aagot had intended to spend the summer there if everything had turned out all right. Well, that was another matter, something that did not concern him in the least.
Ole was weary and disappointed. He decided to go to Tidemand at once and tell him everything. He had meant it for the best.
“We shall have to go alone after all,” he said. “I really have a ticket for your wife, though.”
Tidemand changed colour.
“You have?” he simply said.
“Yes, I had planned to have her sit between us; perhaps I ought to have told you beforehand; but any way, she has gone away and won’t be back till to-morrow.”
“Is that so?” said Tidemand as before.
“Listen, you mustn’t be angry with me because of this! If you only knew— Your wife has called on me quite frequently of late; she asks about you and the children—”
“That is all right.”
“I say, that is all right. But why do you tell me this?”
Then Ole’s anger blazed forth; he stuck his face close up to Tidemand’s and shouted furiously, in a shrill voice:
“I want to tell you something, damn you—you don’t understand your own welfare! You are a fool, you are killing her—that will be the end of it. And you are doing your very best to go the same way yourself—don’t you think I see it? ‘That is all right’—so it is all right for her to steal down to me when darkness falls and ask about you and the children with the tears dripping from her eyes? Do you for a moment imagine it is for your sake I have been inquiring about your health these last months? Why should I ask if not for her? You personally can go to the devil as far as I am concerned. You say nothing; you cannot understand that she is wearing her heart away for you. I saw her outside your office once at midnight, saying good night to you and to the children. She wept and blew kisses to Johanna and Ida; she tiptoed up-stairs and caressed the door-knob because your hand had held it a moment before. I have seen this several times from the corner. I suppose you will say that ‘that is all right,’ too; for your heart must be petrified—Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say that your heart is exactly petrified,” added Ole repentantly when at last he noticed Tidemand’s terrible face. “But you need not expect any apology from me, either. You are hardened; that’s what you are! I tell you, Hanka wants to come back!”
“I wish to God she wanted to come back—I mean—Back, you say? But how? Do you know what has happened? I do. I have wanted to go to Hanka and beg her to come back—beg her on my knees, if necessary; but how would she come back—how would she come back? She told me herself—Of course, it is nothing much; you mustn’t think it is anything bad, anything very bad; don’t think that of Hanka. But, anyway, I am not so sure that she wants to come back. From where have you got that idea?”
“Well, perhaps I ought not to have tried to interfere,” said Ole. “But think of it anyway, Andreas; and pardon my violence; I take it all back. I don’t know how it is; I am getting to be so hot-tempered lately. But think it over. And let us be ready in an hour or so.”
“So she still asks for the children,” said Tidemand. “Think of that!”
Ole Henriksen stood in his office a few days later. It was in the afternoon, about three; the weather was clear and calm; the docks were busy as ever.
Ole walked over to the window and looked out. An enormous coal-steamer was gliding in from the fiord; masts and rigging pointed skyward everywhere; cargoes were being unloaded along the wharves. Suddenly he started; the yacht was gone! He opened his eyes wide. Among all the hundreds of mastheads none were golden.
He wanted to go out and look into this, but paused at the door. He went back to his desk again, leaned his head on his hands, and reflected. In reality the yacht did not belong to him any more; it was hers, Miss Lynum’s; he had given it to her, and the papers were in her keeping. She had not returned these papers together with the ring; she might have forgotten it—how could he know? Anyway, the yacht was hers; he had nothing to do with it. But if it had been stolen? Well, even that was no affair of his.
Ole took up his pen again, but only for a few moments. Dear me, she used to sit there on the sofa and sew so busily on the little cushions! They had been so cute and tiny that it was almost absurd. There she used to sit; he could see her still....
And Ole wrote again.
Then he opened the door and called out to the clerks that the yacht had disappeared; what had happened?
One of the clerks informed him that the yacht had been removed this morning by two men from a lawyer’s office; she was anchored outside the Fortress now.
“Which lawyer?” asked Ole.
The clerk didn’t know.
Ole grew curious. The yacht was not his any more, of course; but Miss Lynum had no business with a lawyer either; there must be a misunderstanding somewhere. And straightway he went down to the Fortress landing and made inquiries for a couple of hours. Finally he learned the name of the lawyer and went to his office.
He saw a man of his own age and asked a few guarded questions.
Yes, it was quite true; he had orders to sell the yacht; as a matter of fact, he had already advanced a thousand crowns on it. Here were the papers; Irgens had left them with him, the poet Irgens. He hoped there were no objections?
None at all.
The lawyer grew more and more polite and cordial; he probably knew everything about the whole matter, but he did not betray his knowledge. How much was the yacht worth, did Mr. Henriksen think? Irgens had come to him with a request that he take charge of this transaction; he had said that he needed some money at once, and of course one had to stretch a point where a man like Irgens was concerned. Unfortunately, our men of talent were not rewarded any too liberally, as a rule; but if there was the least objection to this sale he would try his best to arrange everything satisfactorily.
And Ole said again that there was none; he had simply missed the yacht and wondered what had become of it. And he left.
Now it had become clear why Irgens suddenly had blossomed forth in gay plumage, rejuvenated from top to toe! The whole town was talking about it; however, nobody knew the real source of his affluence. That she should do such a thing! Didn’t she understand that this was dishonourable, disgraceful? On the other hand, why was it so disgraceful? Her possessions were his; they shared lovingly; there was nothing to say to that. In God’s name, let her act as she thought right and proper. She was in town now; she was going to take a course in the School of Industries. It was quite natural that she should realise on that bit of a yacht. Could anybody blame her because she helped her fiancÚ? On the contrary, it reflected credit on her.... But she might not even know that the yacht had been put on the market. Perhaps she had forgotten both yacht and documents and did not care what became of them. At any rate, she had not wanted to sell the yacht simply to raise money on her own account—never; he knew her too well. She had done it for somebody else’s sake; that was she. And that was the important point.
He remembered her so distinctly: her fair curls, her nose, her dimple; she would be nineteen on the seventh of December. Never mind the yacht; that didn’t matter. He might have wished to save the cushions, but it would probably be too late for that.
He returned to his office, but could only concentrate his attention on what was absolutely necessary. He paused frequently and gazed straight ahead, lost in reflection. What if he should buy back the yacht? Would she mind, perhaps? God knows; she might think it was done spitefully, with malice aforethought. It might be better to remain neutral. Yes, that would be best; what was the use of making a fool of himself?—Miss Lynum and he were through with each other for ever. Nobody should say that he collected souvenirs of her.
He closed the office as usual and went out. The street lamps were burning brightly; the evening was calm. He saw a light in Tidemand’s office and started to go in; but he paused on the stairs and reflected. Tidemand might be busy; he had better go on.
Hour after hour passed by; he wandered around as in a stupor. How tired and weary he was! His eyes were half-closed. He found himself in the vicinity of the park. He turned and strode toward the hills behind the city. He sat down on a stoop to rest. By and by he looked at his watch; it was half past eleven. And he sauntered down toward the city again. His mind was almost a blank.
He turned aside and passed by Tivoli and Sara. What a walk this had been! To-night he was going to sleep—at last! Outside Sara he stopped abruptly. He drew back in the shadows slowly, four, six steps; his eyes were staring fixedly toward the entrance to the cafe. A cab was standing outside.
He had heard Aagot’s voice; she came out with Irgens. Irgens appeared first. Aagot had been delayed by something on the stairs.
“Hurry up, now!” called Irgens.
“Just a moment, Mr. Irgens,” said the driver; “the lady is not quite ready.”
“Do you know me?” asked Irgens in surprise.
“I certainly do,” said the cabman.
“He knows you! he knows you!” cried Aagot as she stumbled down the steps. She had not put on her wrap yet; it was dragging after her and she tripped in it. Her eyes were expressionless and staring. Suddenly she laughed. “That nasty fellow, Gregersen; he was kicking me on the leg all the time! I am sure I am black and blue! Imagine, Irgens, the cabby knows you!”
“You are drunk,” said Irgens brutally, and helped her into the carriage.
Her hat was awry, she tried to get into her coat and she babbled incoherently.
“No, I am not drunk; I am only a little cheerful—Won’t you see if my leg is bruised? I am sure I am dripping blood! It hurts, too; but that doesn’t matter; nothing matters now. Drunk, you say? What if I am? It is your fault. I do everything for your sake—do it gladly—Ha, ha, ha! I have to laugh when I think of that wretched Gregersen. He told me he would write the most beautiful article about me if I would only let him see where he had kicked me. It is different if you see it—That was an awful strong wine; it makes my head swim—And all those cigarettes!”
“Drive on, damn you!” cried Irgens.
And the carriage rolled off.
Ole stood there and stared after the carriage; his knees shook under him. He fumbled convulsively with his hands up and down his clothes, around his chest. So that was Aagot! How they had corrupted her! how they had spoiled her! Aagot—his Aagot....
Ole sat down on a stoop. A long time passed by.
The lamps outside Sara were extinguished; it grew very dark. An officer tapped him on the shoulder and said that he could not sit there and sleep. Ole looked up bewildered. Of course not; he was going now. Thanks! And he swayed down the street as if he were intoxicated.
He reached home about two o’clock and entered his office. He lit the lamp and hung his hat mechanically on the rack; his face was drawn and void of expression. A long hour went by while he strode up and down. Then he walked over to his desk and commenced to write—letters, documents, brief lines on various papers which he sealed and filed away. He looked at his watch; it was half past three. He wound it up mechanically while he held it. He went out and mailed a letter to Tidemand which he had just written. Upon his return he took Aagot’s letters from the safe and loosened the string that bound them together.
He did not read any of these letters; he carried them over to the fireplace and burned them one by one. The last, the very last one, he pulled halfway-out of its envelope and looked at it a moment; then he burned also that, without taking out the ring.
The little clock on the wall struck four. A steamer’s whistle sounded. Ole went away from the fireplace. His face was full of anguish; every feature was distorted; the veins around his temples were swollen. And slowly he pulled out a little drawer in his desk.
They found Ole Henriksen dead in the morning; he had shot himself. The lamp was burning on the desk; a few sealed letters were lying on the blotter; he himself lay stretched on the floor.
In the letter to Tidemand he had asked to be forgiven because he could not come for the last time and thank him for his friendship. He had to finish it all now; he could not live another day; he was sick unto death. The country house he gave to Tidemand in memory of everything. “It will probably bring you more pleasure than it brought me,” he wrote; “it is yours, my friend; accept it from me. Mrs. Hanka will be glad to have it; remember me to her. And if you ever should find Miss Lynum in need of help, be good to her; I saw her this evening, but she did not see me. I cannot collect my thoughts and write to you as I would like to. One thing only is clear to me, and that thing I will have to do in half an hour.”
A picture of Aagot was still in his pocketbook; he had probably forgotten to burn it. He had also forgotten to send the two or three telegrams he had carried in his pocket since the previous afternoon; they were found on him. He had spoken truly: to him only one thing was clear!
Part of September had passed; the weather was cool, the sky clear and high; the city was free from dust and dirt; the city was beautiful. As yet no snow had fallen on the mountains.
Event had followed event; Ole Henriksen’s suicide had only caused a passing sensation. The shot down there in the young business man’s office had not been followed by a very loud or reverberating echo; days and weeks had come and gone, and nobody mentioned it any more. Only Tidemand could not forget.
Tidemand was busier than ever. He had to assist Ole’s father for a while; the old man did not want to retire, but he made the chief assistant his partner and carried on the business as before; he did not allow his sorrow to break him down. Old man Henriksen proved that he was not too old to work when circumstances required it.
And Tidemand was unceasing in his efforts. His rye was at last dwindling; he sold heavily at advancing prices now winter was approaching; his losses were diminishing. He had to take back still more of his old employees; he was shipping tar; to-morrow a new cargo was to sail.
He had finished the preparations, made out the papers, taken out his insurance; it was all done. Before he turned to something else he lit a cigar and reflected. It was about four in the afternoon. He went over to the window and looked out. While he stood there a gentle knock was heard; his wife entered. She asked if she disturbed him; it was only a small matter of business....
She wore a heavy veil.
Tidemand threw away his cigar. He had not seen her for weeks, long, weary weeks; one evening he had thought he recognised her in a lady whose walk was somewhat similar to hers; he had followed this lady a long time before he discovered that he was mistaken. He had never objected to her coming, and she knew it; still, she did not come. She had probably forgotten both him and the children; it looked that way. And, although he had strolled around the streets near the Fortress many a night when it was too lonely at home and at times seen a light in her window, her he had never seen. What could she be doing? He had sent her money occasionally in order to hear from her.
Now she stood there before him, only a few steps away.
“So you have come?” he said at last.
“Yes, I have come,” she answered. “I had—I wanted to—” And suddenly she commenced to fumble with her hand-bag; she brought forth a package of money which she placed before him on the desk. Her hands trembled so violently that she disarranged the bills, she even dropped a few; she stooped down and picked them up and stammered: “Take it, please; don’t say no! It is money which I have used for—which I have put to unworthy uses. Spare me from saying what I have used it for; it is too degrading. There ought to be much more, but I couldn’t delay any longer; there ought to be twice as much, but I was too impatient to wait until I could bring it all. Take it, please! I shall bring you the rest later; but I simply had to come to-day!”
He interrupted her, much annoyed:
“But will you never understand? You bring up this subject of money for ever! Why are you saving money for me? I have all I need; the business is very profitable, increasingly so; I don’t need it, I tell you—”
“But this money is altogether a different matter,” she said timidly. “It is for my own sake I give it to you. If I hadn’t been able to think that I might repay it I never could have endured life. I have counted and counted every day and waited until I should have enough. I was wrong in saying that it was only half; it is at least three-fourths—Oh, how I have suffered under the disgrace—”
And suddenly he understood why she had wanted to bring him this money. He took it and thanked her. He did not know what to say except that it was a lot of money, quite a lot. But could she spare it? Surely? For he really would be glad if she would let him have it for the present; he could use it in the business. As a matter of fact, it was most fortunate that she had come just now; he needed some money, he was not ashamed to confess it....
He watched her closely and saw the joy well up in her; her eyes sparkled beneath her veil, and she said:
“God, how happy I am that I came to-day, after all!”
This voice! Oh, this voice! He remembered it so well from their first delightful days. He had walked around the edge of the desk; now he stepped back again, bewildered by her proximity, her lovely form, her radiant eyes beneath the veil. He dropped his own.
“And how are you?” she asked, “and the children?”
“Fine, thank you. The children are growing out of their clothes. We are all well. And you?”
“I have heard nothing from you for so long. I had intended to wait until I could bring it all to you, but it was beyond my strength. While Ole lived he told me about you; but since I cannot go to him any more I have been very impatient. I was here yesterday, but I didn’t come in; I turned back—”
Should he ask her to go up to the children a moment?
“Perhaps you would like to go up-stairs a moment?” he asked. “The children will be delighted. I don’t know how the house looks, but if you don’t mind—”
“I thank you!”
He saw how deeply she was moved, although she said nothing more. She gave him her hand in farewell. “I hope they will know me,” she said.
“I’ll be up in a moment,” he remarked. “I haven’t much to do just now. Perhaps you would like to stay awhile? Here is the key; you need not ring. But be careful of their shoes if you take them on your lap. Well, don’t laugh; God knows if their shoes aren’t muddy!”
Hanka went. He opened the door for her and followed her to the foot of the stairs; then he returned to his office.
He walked over to the desk, but he did not work. There she had stood! She wore her black velvet dress to-day; she was up-stairs. Could he go up now? He did not hear the children; they were probably in her lap. He hoped they had on their red dresses.
He walked up-stairs, a prey to the strangest emotions. He knocked on the door as if it were somebody else’s home he was entering. Hanka got up at once when she saw him.
She had taken off her veil; she flushed deeply. He could see now why she used a veil. The joyless days in her solitary room had not left her unmarked; her face spoke plainly of her sufferings. Johanna and Ida stood beside her and clung to her dress; they did not remember her clearly; they looked at her questioningly and were silent.
“They don’t know me,” said Mrs. Hanka, and sat down again. “I have asked them.”
“Yes, I know you,” said Johanna, and crawled up into her lap. Ida did the same.
Tidemand looked at them unsteadily.
“You mustn’t crawl all over mamma, children,” he said. “Don’t bother mamma now.”
They didn’t hear him; they wanted to bother mamma. She had rings on her fingers and she had the strangest buttons on her dress; that was something to interest them! They began to chatter about these buttons; they caught sight of the mother’s brooch and had many remarks to make about that.
“Put them down when you are tired of them,” said Tidemand.
Tired? She? Let them be, let them be!
They spoke about Ole; they mentioned Aagot. Tidemand wanted to look her up some day. Ole had asked him to do it; he felt, in a way, responsible for her. But the nurse came and wanted to put the children to bed.
However, the children had no idea of going to bed; they refused pointblank. And Hanka had to come along, follow them into their bed-room, and get them settled for the night. She looked around. Everything was as it used to be. There were the two little beds, the coverlets, the tiny pillows, the picture-books, the toys. And when they were in bed she had to sing to them; they simply wouldn’t keep still but crawled out of bed continually and chattered on.
Tidemand watched this awhile with blinking eyes; then he turned quickly away and went out.
In half an hour or so Hanka came back.
“They are asleep now,” she said.
“I was wondering if I might ask you to stay,” said Tidemand. “We live rather informally here; we keep house in a way, but nothing seems to go right for us. If you would like to have dinner with us—I don’t know what they are going to give us to eat, but if you will take things as they are?”
She looked at him shyly, like a young girl; she said: “Thank you.”
After dinner, when they had returned to the drawing-room, Hanka said suddenly:
“Andreas, you mustn’t think I came here to-day thinking that everything could be well again with us. Don’t think that. I simply came because I couldn’t wait any longer; I had to see you again.”
“I have not thought of that at all,” he said. “But it seems the children don’t want to let you go.”
“I have no thought of asking you again what I asked you for once,” she said. “That would be impossible; I know it too well. But perhaps you would allow me to come and visit you at times?”
Tidemand bowed his head. She had no thought of coming back; it was all over.
“Come whenever you like; come every day,” he said. “You are not coming to see me.”
“Oh, yes, to see you also. I think of you with every breath. Ever since that sail last summer; it began then. You have changed and so have I. But that is neither here nor there. I have seen you on the streets oftener than you know; I have followed you at times.”
He rose and went in his confusion over to the barometer on the wall; he examined it carefully and tapped the tube.
“But in that case—I don’t understand why it is necessary to live apart. I mean—Things are in a sad state of disorder here; and then there are the children—”
“I didn’t come for that!” she exclaimed. “Yes, I did, in a way; of course I did; but—I am afraid you will never be able to forget—Oh, no. I cannot expect that—”
She took her wraps.
“Don’t go!” he called. “You have never been out of my thoughts, either. As far as that goes, I am as much to blame as you, and it is true that I have changed. I am, perhaps, a little different now. But here is your room just as before. Come and see! We haven’t touched a single thing. And if you would stay—By the way, I am afraid I shall have to stay in the office all night. I am almost sure there is a lot of mail to attend to. But your room is just as when you left it. Come and see!”
He had opened the door. She came over and peeped in. The lamp was lit. She looked at everything and entered. He really wanted to, after all, after all! She could stay; he had said so; he took her back! She stood there timidly and said nothing; then their eyes met. He flung his arms around her and kissed her, as he had kissed her the first time, all these many years ago. Her eyes closed and he felt suddenly the pressure of her arms around his neck.
And morning came.
The city woke up and the hammers danced their ringing dance along the shipyards. Through the streets the farmers’ wagons rolled in a slow procession. It is the same story. The squares are filling with people and supplies, stores are opened, the roar increases, and up and down the stairs skips a slip of a girl with her papers and her dog.
It is the same story.
It is twelve before people begin to group themselves on the “corner,” young and carefree gentlemen who can afford to sleep late and do what they feel like. There are a few from the well-known clique, Milde and Norem and Ojen. It is cold, and they are shivering. The conversation is not very lively. Even when Irgens appears, in high spirits and elegant attire, as befits the best-dressed man in town, nobody grows very enthusiastic. It is too early and too chilly; in a few hours it will be different. Ojen had said something about his latest prose poem; he had half-finished it last night. It was called “A Sleeping City.” He had begun to write on coloured paper; he had found this very soothing. Imagine, he says, the heavy, ponderous quiet over a city asleep; only its breathing is heard like an open sluice miles away. It takes time; hours elapse, a seeming eternity; then the brute begins to stir, to wake up. Wasn’t this rather promising?
And Milde thinks it very promising; he has made his peace with Ojen long ago. Milde is busy on his caricatures to “Norway’s Dawn.” He had really drawn a few very funny caricatures and made ruinous fun of the impossible poem.
Norem said nothing.
Suddenly Lars Paulsberg bobs up; with him is Gregersen. The group is growing; everybody takes notice; so much is gathered here in a very small space. Literature is in the ascendant; literature dominates the entire sidewalk. People turn back in order to get a good look at these six gentlemen in ulsters and great-coats. Milde also attracts attention; he has been able to afford an entirely new outfit. He says nothing about Australia now.
At two the life and traffic has risen to its high-water mark; movement everywhere, people promenade, drive in carriages, gossip; engines are breathing stertorously in the far distance. A steamer whistles in the harbour, another steamer answers with a hoarse blast; flags flutter, barges swim back and forth; sails rattle aloft and sails are furled. Here and there an anchor splashes; the anchor-chains tear out of the hawse-holes in a cloud of rust. The sounds mingle in a ponderous harmony which rolls in over the city like a jubilant chorus.
Tidemand’s tar steamer was ready to weigh anchor. He had come down himself to see it off. Hanka was with him; they stood there quietly arm in arm. They glanced at each other every few moments with eyes that were filled with youth and happiness; the harbour saluted them with a swirl of flags. When the steamer at last was under way, Tidemand swung his hat in the air and Hanka waved with her handkerchief. Somebody on the ship waved back a greeting. The steamer slid quietly out into the fiord.
“Shall we go?” he asked.
And she clung to him closer, and said: “As you will.”
Just then another steamer entered the harbour, an enormous leviathan from whose funnels smoke poured in billowy masses. Tidemand had goods aboard; he had been waiting for this steamer the last two days, and he said in great good humour:
“She is also bringing us goods!”
“Yes?” she answered quietly. But he felt, as she looked into his face, that a quivering joy shot through her being; her arm trembled in his.
And they went home.