One of Life's Slaves
A RISE IN LIFE
Since Mrs. Holman had seen what Silla could busy herself with—she was quite struck with amazement at her own blindness—she had become far more strictly attentive, and also much more on the lookout and watch against Nikolai.
The fruits of idleness had unfortunately revealed themselves, and there was no other remedy for them than to watch conscientiously and see that Silla worked. She must really set about something that there was some use and help in, all through the long light spring evenings, and not just run for the milk, or out when any one came and asked if she might.
Nikolai soon found that the situation was far from being improved after he was acknowledged in the quality of wooer. But notwithstanding that he saw no more of her than a short glimpse now and then, a great step in advance had actually been made. He had now only to work hard, and that he did manfully; the hammer worked, in his hands, as if by steam.
In some ways, too, he was re-assured, for if Mrs. Holman watched against him so carefully, this same watchfulness was a security against others, too. It was well to know that she was no longer to be found up there among those giddy girls in the evening. A cold shiver ran down his back when he one day met young Veyergang coming out of his mother's. He only looked indifferently at Nikolai with half-closed eyes, when they met in the doorway, as if he did not quite remember him, and then asked Barbara over his shoulder, with a nod at Nikolai: "Is that the fellow?" and went out:
"What's he been doing here, mother?"
"Have you been borrowing money of him?" he continued sharply.
"Of course not. Not a penny, though I do need it so badly."
"What was he talking about?"
"He wanted to light his cigar, as he so often does when he goes down this way. Surely that can't do you any harm! And it wouldn't be much good forbidding him to do it either, I should think—either for me or for you!" She added the last words red with anger.
"No, I certainly can't forbid him, mother. But remember, if you borrow of him, everything is at an end between us!"
"Oh, Nikolai, you are so quick-tempered. No, of course not; I shouldn't think of borrowing!" As she spoke she turned round and pushed something she had in her hand into her bosom. "No, of course not!"
"I could hear he had been talking about me."
"No, indeed, how could you think so?"
"Yes he was, mother," he persisted, gloomily.
"About you? Oh, well, I was telling him a little about how hard you were working now to get together those few shillings for Mrs. Holman." Barbara talked rather confusedly.
"And perhaps about Silla, too?" he asked searchingly.
"Oh, no! he knew all about that before. I'm not the only one who knows about it in this gossiping place, and, upon my honour, Nikolai, it didn't come from me—not to-day," she added.
"I wouldn't have minded if you had said it then; it would be a good thing for that fellow to know that she is an engaged girl."
"Isn't that just what I said? Only he didn't believe it."
"No, I dare say not!" Nikolai stood at the window reflecting. This visit of Veyergang's!
He had enough noise and worry just now down at the smithy. It was just a question whether he should not be made a foreman. Old Mrs. Ellingsen had sent for him several times on this account, and it looked as if it were almost settled.
Things had been in this condition for some time; there was no great need of hurry in coming to a determination, as the situation was not to be filled until the autumn.
Lately, however, it had seemed to Nikolai that Mrs. Ellingsen was behaving rather strangely. He noticed, too, that they were talking and making a great deal of fuss in the smithy; but it did not strike him that it might be Mrs. Ellingsen's intention to draw back, until one day when one of the men remarked scornfully that he did not suppose there was any one in the smithy who would think of supplanting Olaves. If any one did, he would have to look out for himself, for they would all stick to Olaves.
Nikolai knew well that they frowned at him because he was always hard at work, saved up his pence, and firmly refused to join the others in a glass of beer or a dram.
He was without a companion. And now, when this foreman's question hung in the balance, he noticed that the whole of his past life was stirred and dug up again till it was as thick as the grounds in a coffee-cup—from the old police and fighting story right back to his childhood's days among the timber-stacks.
These old stories were Nikolai's smarting wounds. He was always thinking they were forgotten, and they were always coming up again, and now it was insupportable suffering. He endeavoured not to betray it by a look; but he was by no means in a good temper as he stood there.
The sooner he got to know from Mrs. Ellingsen how it was to end the better; and Nikolai was soon standing with his cap in his hand in her room, to ask what he might depend upon.
It took a long time, with many "h'ms" and "ha's" before she managed to get her spectacles off and the wires put properly into her hair again. Then at last it came out with some hesitation. She meant no offence; she knew he was a good smith enough; but there were so many who knew Olaves to be such an honest, good fellow, and she was an old woman who needed some one whom she could thoroughly trust—no offence meant to Nikolai—but she must consider the matter.
That was the answer he received, and with it his prospects, that he had counted upon and shown to Mrs. Holman when he asked for Silla's hand, were destroyed.
The next day when he came into the smithy they all smiled and tittered. They knew he had been to Mrs. Ellingsen and had got his answer. But if they thought they could tease or frighten him into giving it up, they were very much mistaken.
Olaves behaved as if nothing was the matter, and even civilly offered a helping-hand in breaking the bar-iron.
Nikolai only turned his back on him.
"I never meddle with any other man's work, and I don't advise any one to worm himself into my affairs," he said, "unless he wants a dressing that will make his back as hot as that red iron there!" he added, with a glance at Olaves.
There was a general silence.
But at dinner-time there was a great deal of talking and fuss about this affair. Every one had heard how Nikolai had threatened Olaves, and Olaves, as a precaution, found witnesses for his words.
"He looked as if he could use the sledge-hammer to something besides forging bolts, that fellow, if he could do it without witnesses!"
They might talk as much as they liked for all that Nikolai cared; he did his work, and never heard that Hægberg had anything to complain of. He was prepared for a disappointment now.
There was one thing, though, that he would do before he gave in—go straight to Hægberg and speak out, and then the master could give his testimony as to which he wanted, if Mrs. Ellingsen asked him.
The final answer from Mrs. Ellingsen was delayed week after week: at last it was two months.
What could the old woman mean? The whole smithy wondered—she must have a foreman by the autumn.
At last, one morning it appeared in the shape of a message.
It was drawing on towards evening one broiling hot summer day. In both floors of the grey wooden house in which Mrs. Holman lived, the small-paned windows stood open, drinking in the slight coolness there was in the air, while the dwellers within went about their occupations more or less lightly clothed. A faint breath only now and again stirred the half transparent curtains, or the white clothes hanging on lines across the yard.
At the window on the ground floor just above the entrance to the cellar, stood a slender, dark-eyed young girl with turned-up sleeves, busy at the water tap under which she had a wash-tub full of clothes. Her head could be seen now above, now below the short blind, cooled and refreshed by the cold rush of water.
Suddenly she stopped in surprise.
Nikolai entered with his flat cap pushed triumphantly on one side.
"The world's right enough, I can tell you, Silla. The only thing is to see that everything is properly in order from the very beginning. He who hasn't got a father, must be his own father, you know!"
"But Nikolai! Did you know mother was out?"
"Pooh! What is there that I don't know! My mother told me just now that it was one of the washing days at Antonisens. But you see, Silla, it's beginning to get late, and—if you'd like to know—I've been invited to-day to be foreman at Mrs. Ellingsen's. That'll be only ten dollars a month more!"
"Foreman? Is it true, Nikolai?" She retreated from the wash-tub, looking doubtfully at him. "Come here with your smutty face!" she said, hastily pulling the clothes out of the tub. "You are so awfully black! Foreman, did you say? No, is it really true? Oh, you must put up with a little splashing; I can't see the foreman for coal-soot! Then Mrs. Ellingsen didn't ask Olaves first?"
"No, she didn't."
"And no one put out their tongue or made Mrs. Ellingsen afraid of you, as they did before?"
"Oh, Hægberg must have let her know that he hadn't taken any harm from me."
"If only they don't begin again and do what they can. For your getting in front of them stings and chafes and torments every one of them, ever since that time when you had to do those wheel pivots over again for Olaves. And then they dig up all the old stories they can find."
"Oh no! The world's right enough, I tell you, and Mrs. Ellingsen must take the smith who works her smithy best. Besides it's as fixed as a vice, and the contract signed this morning. And it's pretty badly needed, for the money that mother borrowed last, it—it—whu!"—he whistled—"has gone the same way as the rest. It disappears like smoke with her. It seems to me she trades backwards instead of forwards, and that the profits go the wrong way."
"Now you're so nice and clean, that you shine. That way with your hair or else the cock's-comb will stand up too much."
"I rushed straight out of the smithy, you see, to come up here and cram it into you. I went in to mother first, and then I promised her to go down and buy some mackerel for supper. Two smacks have come in to-day, they say."
Silla's face showed that this was a great piece of news. They were both natives of the town, and the arrival of the mackerel brought with it a number of pleasant recollections and pictures from the time when they lived in the square down by the wharves.
She looked a little undecided.
"What if I put on my shawl and went with you!" she exclaimed. "Wait for me down below, Nikolai, so that we don't go together in the street up here!"
It was a proposal that it was not easy to resist, she was so eager about it. And then he had been made foreman to-day!
She was not long in putting on her blue-striped dress and a shawl over her head and following him.
They hastened down together; she chattering gaily as in the old days when they had stolen out, he quite taken up with looking at and listening to her. They walked in the middle of the road, anything but carefully; clouds of dust arose at every step, but Nikolai only saw Silla, dark-eyed, warm and gay in the middle of it all.
Down in the town that warm summer evening, the streets were unusually busy about the fish-place. There was evidently something that occasioned more life and movement than usual. The bridge was full of people hanging over the railings and looking down at all those who were pushing their way forwards amid noise, shouts and cries to get a mackerel for their supper.
This greenish-blue, shining fish, so round and strong and quick, sea-built for lightning speed, its head formed for cleaving the water, and an elastic arrow-feather as the termination to an almost dangerously slender tail—it had already been glittering for two days on the stalls in the fish-market.
Even as late as yesterday morning it was a rarity, and only for the tables of the wealthier, but later in the afternoon another smack came in,—there had been a large haul out by the Hval Islands—and to-day two more loaded vessels, so that the market was over-stocked.
Yes, indeed, the mackerel had come—that is to say, the mackerel that the working-man can buy. It was to be had now for two-pence or two-pence halfpenny apiece, both on the fish-market and up the river here. The women, who speculated, carried them in baskets up to all the most out-of-the-way parts of the town.
It found its way now everywhere, where there was only a hole for it to slip into, a kettle or a pan for it to be boiled or fried in—into all the galleys in the harbour, from the large, superior steamship or full-rigged vessel, down to the cooking-stoves on the timber sloops and the little decked barges, where people were resting, and broiling it in the summer evening, into all the back blocks and small streets from the cellars to the garrets. Workmen and small tradesmen, husbands and wives were going that sultry evening with one, two, or three in their hand, according to the number of mouths there were at home. There was a smell of fried and broiled mackerel over whole quarters of the town.
It must be sold, it was so confoundedly hot!
"Yes, indeed, it is a blessed warmth," answered deaf Mother Andersen, "that sends all this mackerel over the town."
This fish has had a prejudice to overcome, although in all modesty it has solicited nothing but the favour of being allowed to escape being eaten. It has the reputation of being the cannibal of the North Sea—in plain words, a man-eater, and that the dark part of its flesh comes from drowned sailors.
Nikolai and Silla were also down at the boats to seize their share of the glory of the evening. Silla had not lived near the wharves in her childhood for nothing, and to pick out the best fish from under the very nose of the old women, was an easy matter for her. She stood eagerly bargaining and stretching out over the boat.
"Thanks very much, mother, but you won't fool me into taking that sunburnt mackerel skin! Take some of those that are lying behind there under the thwart—those two—yes, just those."
She weighed them in her hand to see if they were firm and stiff.
Nikolai's hand was already in his pocket; but Silla threw the mackerel contemptuously into the boat again.
"Why, they're as old as the hills! Eyes as dead as horn!"
"Be quiet, Nikolai! If we are to be satisfied with these for supper, mother, you'll have to take off a farthing or two."
In the end they went for two-pence a piece.
"What a fine trader you are, Nikolai!" she said to tease him, on the way home. "But do you see how big and fresh they are?"
Barbara was standing on the steps, shading her eyes with her hand, and looking to see if Nikolai were not soon coming with the fish.
The person she did see coming quietly and sedately up the road was Silla, and she chatted with her from the steps until Nikolai also at last appeared with the two mackerel.
Of course Silla must come in and see how they tasted; there was no question of Barbara's honour and superabundant hospitality putting up with anything else.
In there on Barbara's cooking-stove the mackerel hissed and broiled that light evening. The peculiar, rather pungent smell of frying grew stronger and more appetising as it went on.
Then the pieces had to be turned with fresh fat in the pan—fresh hissing!
The scent floated out through the open window, and far into the street.
Barbara was big and slow in turning, while Silla, quick and ready, put now one thing, now another into her hands, and hurried away, and was over the fish both with her face and her opinions, long before Barbara could collect herself.
Nikolai's broad, pleased face followed the whole of the frying process with deeply interested attention.
"That mackerel's the right sort of fellow for frying!"
And then at last to take the pieces straight from the pan on to the bread!
The evening breeze began to blow cool between the warm house walls. The three who sat there enjoying the mackerel, felt as if it were a festive night.
And foreman too!