One of Life's Slaves
"Like a prince in his cradle," you say, "with invisible fairies and the innocent peace of childhood over him!"
What fairy stood by the cradle of Barbara's Nikolai it would be difficult to say. Out at the tinsmith's, in the little house with the cracked and broken window-panes in the outskirts of the town, there was often a run of visitors, generally late at night, when wanderers on the high road were at a loss for a night's lodging. Many a revel had been held there, and it was not once only that the cradle had been overturned in a fight, or that a drunken man had fallen full length across it.
Nikolai's mother was called Barbara, and came from Heimdalhögden, somewhere far up in the country—a genuine mountain lass, shining with health, red and white, strong and broad-shouldered, and with teeth like the foam in the milk pail. She had heard so much about the town from cattle-dealers that came over the mountain, that a longing and restlessness had taken possession of her.
And then she had gone out to service in the town.
She was about as suitable there as a tumble-down haystack in a handsome town street, or as a cow on a flight of stairs—that is to say, not at all.
She used to waste her time on the market-place by all the hay loads. She must see and feel the hay—that was not at all like mountain grass. "No indeed! Mountain grass was so soft, and then, how it smelt! Oh dear no!"
But her mistress had other uses for her servant than letting her spend the morning talking to hay-cart drivers. So she went from place to place, each time descending both as regarded wages and mistress. Barbara was good-natured and honest; but she had one fault—the great one of being totally unfit for all possible town situations.
Yet Society has, as we know, a wonderful faculty for making use of, assimilating and reconstructing everything, even the apparently most meaningless and useless, for its own purpose. And the way it took, quickly enough, with poor Barbara was that she became the only thing in which she could be of any service in the town—namely, a nurse.
It was a sad time and a hard struggle while the shame lasted, almost enough to kill her; and after that, she never thought of returning to the Heimdal mountains again.
But things were to be still harder.
The various social claims, which an age of progress increasingly lays upon the lady of the house in the upper classes of society, asserted themselves here in the town by an ever increasing demand for nurses.
"The reason," as Dr. Schneibel explained, "was simply a law of Nature—you can't be a milch-cow and an intelligent human being at the same time. The renovation of blood and nerves must be artificially conveyed from that class of society which stands nearer to Nature."
And now the thing was to find an extra-healthy, thoroughly strong nurse for Consul-General Veyergang's two delicate, newly-arrived, little ones.
Dr. Schneibel had very thoughtfully kept a nurse in reserve for Mrs. Veyergang—"a really remarkable specimen of the original healthiness in the common stock. One might say—h'm, h'm—that if Mrs. Veyergang could not get to the mountains, the mountains were so courteous as to come to her. The girl still had an odour of the cowshed about her perhaps; but when all's said and done, that was only a stronger assurance of originality. And that is an important factor in our day, madam, when milk is adulterated even from the very cows themselves.—Quite young, scarcely twenty!"
Barbara Högden had not the faintest suspicion, as she carried water and wood, or stood at the edge of the ice beating linen, or did any drudgery she could find to do, in order to earn a little money to pay for herself and her baby at the tinsmith's, that, from her deepest degradation, she had risen at one step to the rank of an exceptionally sought-after and esteemed person in the town.
For a nurse is an esteemed person. Indeed, she is on the expectancy list to become respected.
After having nursed her mistress's child, and been a correspondingly unnatural mother to her own, she ends by sleeping on down, and being considered in every way, until a new nurse for a new heir deposes her from her dynasty.
Should she prefer to give her own little baby the only treasure she possesses, her healthy breast, should she really be so blind to her own interests, why then the case is different, and (to use Dr. Schneibel's words) not altogether unmerited, only a result of the social economy to which she does not know how to be intelligently subordinate, and which will reduce her, with the inexorable logic of the laws of civilisation, to a useless superfluity, which Society's organism rejects. Or, vulgarly speaking, she is left with shame, contempt and poverty resting upon both her and her illegitimate offspring. As a private individual, she is in a sense right; but socially, as a member of society——!
At first poor Barbara was quite blind on this point, utterly obstinate, rigid as a mountain pony that could not be got to stir.
Dr. Schneibel was standing for the third time at the tinsmith's, with his stick under his nose, while his gig waited down in the road. Each time he had added to both wages and arguments, and had again and again pointed out how bad it would be both for her and her boy if she continued so obstinate. He appealed to her own good sense. How could she expect to bring him up in such poor, narrow circumstances, and with all this toiling and moiling? She would only need to give up a part of her large wages to the tinsmith, and they would look well after the boy. Besides she could often come out and see him, at least once a month!—he could promise her that on the Veyergangs' behalf, and it was very kind of them now they lived such a long way out of town.
Dr. Schneibel talked both kindly and severely, both good-naturedly and sharply: he was almost like a father.
Barbara felt a pang of fear every time she saw him come down the street, and turn in by the rotten, mouldy wooden fence. She watched him like a bird that is afraid for her nest, and was sitting close to the wall in the darkest corner with the cradle behind her, when he opened the door. It was impossible for her to answer except by a sob. The tinsmith's wife did all the talking with: "Why, bless me, yes!" and "Bless me, no!" and "Just so, doctor!" in garrulous superabundance, while Barbara only sat and meditated on taking her baby on her back and departing.
But to-day the doctor had talked so very kindly to her and offered her so much money. He had appealed so directly to her conscience, patted the child, and said that when it came to the point, he was sure she was not the mother who could be so cruel as to bring misery upon such a pretty little fellow, let him suffer want, let his pretty little feet be cold, when he might lie both comfortable and warm and like a little prince in his cradle!
It was not possible to resist, and in her emotion something like a half promise escaped her.
Afterwards a neighbour came in and was of exactly the same opinion, and told of all the little children whom she had known that had died of want and neglect, only in the houses round about, during the last two years, because their mothers had had to go out and work all day and could not pay any one to look after them. And she and the tinsmith's wife both spoke at once about the same thing—only the same thing.
Barbara sat listening and tending her child. Her heart felt like breaking. For a moment she thought of going, not to Högden, but in another way, home with him at once.
It was a temptation.
That night she broke into sobs so ungovernable, that, in order not to disturb the household in their slumbers, she went out into the soft, drizzling rain: it quieted and cooled her.
As she was standing the next morning, helping a neighbour's wife to rinse and wring the clothes by the brook, a pony-carriage stopped in the road. The coachman—he had gold lace on his hat and coat—got down and went in to the tinsmith's.
"You must wring that sheet right out, Barbara," said the neighbour's wife; "it'll be the last you'll wring here, for that's the Consul's carriage."
And Barbara wrung the sheet until there was not a drop of water in it. It had come now!
She went in and dressed the child; she hardly knew what she was doing, and hardly felt it under her hands.
She saw the man give six dollars to the tinsmith's wife. He was so stiff and tall and distinguished-looking, with such a big, aristocratic nose, and he made a kind of bend every time she happened to look at him, and assured her that there was no hurry—not the least! They never woke before nine at the Consul's, so there was still plenty of time. And then he looked at his watch.
And every time he looked at his watch, she looked at her boy: there were now orders and a time fixed for her to leave him.
He had fallen asleep again. If he were to wake, she did not know what would happen—she was sure she could not leave him then.
"No hurry, no hurry!" and he took the thick silver watch out of his pocket once more.
But now it was she who was in a hurry, and so eager that she gave herself no time to look round before she was seated in the carriage, and the long, stiff-necked, braided coachman was driving her away along the road of her appointed destiny.
In the summer she accompanied the Consul-General's family to a bathing-place. There Barbara wheeled the perambulator with the two children in it along the shore, and more than once the Veyergangs were flattered by the exclamations of passers-by: "What a fine-looking nurse!"
But there were difficulties with her, too—fits of melancholy to which she completely gave way. She would sit by the cradle, her eyes red with weeping, longing for her child, and would neither eat nor drink.
This was a matter of no little importance. A nurse must be kept in good spirits; her frame of mind has such an immense influence on her health, and that again on the health of the child.
Mrs. Veyergang had all sorts of good things brought in from the pastry-cook's to enliven her; silk handkerchiefs and aprons abounded, and the servants at home received injunctions to inquire after Barbara's boy at the tinsmith's.
There was praise and nothing but praise to be given every time the Consul-General's Lars stopped there in driving past, and when Barbara only received a message of that kind, she could be happy and contented the whole month.
She was made much of, as she very soon felt. If she said or wanted anything, she was obeyed as if she were the mistress herself. And handsome clothes with constant change of fine underclothing, not to mention meat and drink—hardly anything of what she was accustomed to call work, her hands had already become quite soft and supple. And she felt that she was beginning to be attached to the two little ones whom she tended day and night.
One day, after the Consul's family had returned from the bathing-place, Barbara set out for the tinsmith's. It was late in the autumn. She could hardly ever remember the road out there so bad and muddy as it was now. Both her boots and the bottom of her dress would need cleaning and washing when she got back again.
The thought that she would soon see her boy put her in a cold perspiration; but of course things were best as they were, now that she could pay so well for him.
When she turned in by the wooden fence and saw the cottage with its familiar cracked windows in front of her, she slackened her pace a little. A feeling of apprehension suddenly came over her.
And then the neighbour's wife, whom she had so often helped, came out and began to talk and give her information, rattling on like a steam-engine. There had been war among the neighbours in the tinsmith's alley, and now that she saw Barbara herself, the truth should out, the real, actual truth.
The tinsmith's people need not imagine that other people hadn't got eyes in their head! Everything they possessed had gone to the pawnbroker's; there was barely enough of the tin-ware left to put in his cracked windows. And what they lived on, nobody round there could imagine, unless it was the payment they got for that poor little ill-used boy, that they gave lager-beer to, to keep him quiet. For no one would put up there now that the police had begun to keep an eye on the company, not even certain people who were not generally so particular about their quarters.
"But if you take my advice, Barbara, you'll take the boy to blockmaker Holman's down at the wharf. They are such nice, respectable people, and have pitied the boy so when I told them how they were treating him out here."
Blockmaker Holman, blockmaker Holman! The name rang in her ears as, heavy-hearted, she entered the tinsmith's.
There he lay among the ragged, dirty clothes, pale, thin and neglected, with frightened eyes. He began to cry when she took him up; he did not know her, and she scarcely knew him.
The disappointment—all that she felt—found vent in a rising torrent of angry words against the tinsmith and his wife.
But at the same time, while she was washing the boy, she felt how big, coarse and clumsy his face and body were, compared to the two delicate ones she was accustomed to. She saw now for the first time how impossible it would be to keep him herself.
But he should go to the blockmaker's, poor boy! Her name wasn't Barbara if she didn't get her mistress to see to that at once—as early as to-morrow.
She returned home with a face red and swollen with crying, and was inconsolable the whole evening until her mistress came down from the office with the promise that the matter should be arranged.
And thus it was that Nikolai came to blockmaker Holman's.