One of Life's Slaves
A FIGHT AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
That was a dangerous corner, where the wide street leading to the grammar school crossed the narrow one that led to the board school; and, on the days when the afternoon hours for the latter began just when the grammar school's long morning was over, it might happen that the free, exuberant spirits of those who were leaving school came into collision with the heavier and more bitter mood of those who were on their way to it.
Ludvig Veyergang, with his sealskin satchel on his back, had already travelled this road for several years. He had been nicknamed the Ostrich, because of his little head with the bird-like nose, his long bare neck, and the way he walked. When he met Nikolai, he pretended not to know him, and Nikolai whistled and clattered with his shoes on the pavement.
The board school's new slide ran along the gutter a good way out into the grammar school street. It was the product of the joint work of many for a whole week, and fate willed that Nikolai, at the head of a string of comrades, should come full speed down it, hallooing and shouting, just as Ludvig Veyergang and a few others came round the corner. Young Veyergang received a push that made him drop his pencil-case; and pens, lead and slate pencils lay strewn over the ground.
"Pick them up, you beggar!" he cried to Nikolai, for it was he who had knocked up against him. "I shall tell about you at home, you may be pretty sure. Pick them up, or—"
A kick sent a few loose lumps of snow in answer.
"You shall be made to bend soon enough, if that's what you want. Father shall be told, this very day, that you are the leader of the street cads in the town; and if no one else will tell your mother about it, I'll tell her myself, however much she cries!"
"Do you want to have your ostrich-beak pulled?"
"You'd better try it on! Perhaps you don't know that we pay for you at the blockmaker's. But I'll take care that you get thrashed until you beg my pardon: a fellow who doesn't even know who his father is, and his mother only wishes he had never been born!"
The last words were hardly out of his mouth when Nikolai sprang upon him with both fists like a pair of sledge-hammers, and for a few blissful seconds hammered out every trace of difference in birth and position. Now he should feel "both his father and his mother!"
It was one of the board school's memorable and famous days, when the wine was tapped from Ludvig Veyergang's nose in the snow; and even the next day at dinner-time, two or three school classes of interested spectators were searching for traces of red spots in the snow by the lamp-post.
But, though he enjoyed great honour and admiration during the whole afternoon at school, Nikolai knew that at home he would meet with an utterly different interpretation of the event, news of which the Holmans must already have received, surely and promptly, from the Veyergangs.
As he neared home, he went slower and slower. The thought of what might await him, made his feet grow heavier and heavier, and when he had separated from his last companion, he suddenly stopped and turned down by the chandler's, where the street led away from, and not towards his home.
It was now the third night Nikolai had been away, explained Mrs. Holman to the policeman outside; and it was not much wonder if he expected the reward he deserved, and felt his back smart. Lay hands on better people's children! And the son of Consul Veyergang, his own benefactor, too!
But where could he be? He could not possibly be in the timber-yard now, at this time of year.
His stronghold was not easy to hit upon either, for it was something very like looking in her own pocket. In common with other evil-doers, Nikolai was driven by an irresistible desire—like moths that flutter round a candle—to hide himself as near as possible to the place of his fear and dread, where Mrs. Holman was, and where he could catch a glimpse of Silla.
Holman lay at night and felt, through his intoxication, that things were going wrong with Nikolai. He heard it dripping and dripping in the thaw outside—splash, splash! The sound came in a monotonous chant: Ni-ko-lai, Ni-ko-lai.
He would ruin his health out there!
With sudden energy he sat up in bed. Where else would Nikolai be than under the old carriage hood that stood in the loft over the coach-house, mouldy and dropping to pieces with its opening towards the wall?
It was in the light of this idea that he rushed out.
Nikolai never felt the blockmaker's hand; he still slept on happily, as it lifted him up by the coat collar.
It was only when he stood erect on both feet that he grasped the situation, and threw himself down again, kicking and screaming. He would not go home, they might kill him first, or take off his head!
The heels of his boots made it evident both to sight and feeling that he meant it: he was utterly beside himself.
Only let Holman get him inside the door, and the strap should dance! Holman had worked himself up into a state of excitement.
Mrs. Holman was waiting in the doorway with a candle. By its light she saw an ashy pale face, with eyes staring at her, and at the same time heard the words: "You won't get me in! If I was born in the street, I can live in the street!" She caught a glance from the sharp, defiant grey eyes—then out of the blockmaker's hands, out of the gate, and he was gone!
The blows on Ludvig's nose had gone to Barbara's heart. But when she heard that Nikolai had run away from the Holmans' and that there was some talk of getting him into an institute for morally depraved children, there was crying and weeping. She had had shame enough with the boy, and this she could not survive! Her mistress must prevent it. She was conscious of having done her duty and more than her duty all these years that she had been Ludvig and Lizzie's nurse, but she could not put up with this! Her mistress must prevent it, or she did not know what she might do, or what might happen: she felt quite capable of leaving them.
Barbara sat sighing and weeping in the nursery, until the children were almost afraid to go in.
Such attacks generally lasted, at the most, one day; but this one had now been going on for three, and was disturbing the comfort of the house. Then Mrs. Veyergang got one of her headaches, and was going to have an afternoon nap, her accustomed cure, during which everything must be kept perfectly quiet around her.
It was Barbara who generally guarded her slumbers by going hushing and quieting right out into the kitchen, and keeping watch at the door into the passage. But now she only sat in her room sobbing.
It did surprise her a little that her mistress lay so quiet all the time without calling her. On the other hand, she rather enjoyed the sentence she was carrying out. Her mistress should know what opposing her meant, even if it were to last the whole week.
It grew dark, and still her mistress lay there. She lay until the Consul came driving home towards evening; and she did not even ring for lights when she got up.
It was with a shawl about her head and a face red with weeping, that Mrs. Veyergang received her husband that evening; she was in a violently excited state of mind, and her voice quite trembled.
She wanted nothing less than that he should give Barbara warning.
A tyranny existed in the house that was quite unparalleled—had existed for several years—and if she had put up with it without complaining—her husband knew that she had never complained—it was for the children's sake. But it was really unnecessary now, and "it may be just as well to seize the opportunity; she has become far, far too overbearing in the house!"
It was a matter of course that the warning was given in the most appreciative and considerate, although firmly decisive manner. The whole circle of Mrs. Veyergang's acquaintance agreed that they had all expected that the Veyergangs would really one day part with that pampered creature!
The only person who was thoroughly astonished and quite stunned, as if by a thunder-clap, was Barbara herself; and for a long time she could not understand that she, the Veyergangs' Barbara, had actually received warning to leave Ludvig and Lizzie and the house where she had been so indispensable.
She went about with a solemn, injured air, and expected that a change of decision would some day take place. Then she became humble to her mistress, and wept before the children.
But there was always only the same kindness, which ever clenched the dismissal more firmly.
And now her mistress began to talk about a substantial acknowledgement of her services with which the Consul would present her on her departure.
In indignation Barbara tied the strings of her best bonnet beneath her chin, and with offended dignity requested permission to go into town.
Her mistress was to know the meaning of this when she returned later in the day. It was nothing less than that it was her fixed, resolute purpose to offer herself to others who would appreciate her better than the Veyergangs did.
She directed her wrathful steps straight to Scheele, the magistrate's house: they had four children, and were looking for a nurse. They were the Consul's most intimate friends, where she would only need to present herself, and they would jump at the opportunity. How often the magistrate's wife had praised her management, and talked condescendingly to her, when they had dined at the Veyergangs on Sundays! She had more than once thought Mrs. Veyergang fortunate in having such a treasure in the house, and sighed over her own inability to find just such another.
But—how unfortunate it was—Mrs. Scheele was extremely sorry—they had just engaged another nurse!
"Fancy!" exclaimed Mrs. Scheele, when her husband came down from his office, "there is a revolution at the Veyergangs', and that high and mighty Nurse Barbara has got her dismissal. She has been here and offered herself to us. I wouldn't have that pampered creature at any price!"
Barbara walked a long way that day and to the best houses. On a large sheet of paper, folded in three, she had the Consul-General's long and excellent testimonial to exhibit; moreover she was fully conscious of the extent to which she was known. But though she stood so large and erect and smart at the door, and comported herself so well, there was no one who could make any use of her!
And late in the evening, later than was needful, as she did not wish to show herself, she came home again, disappointed and weary.
It really seemed as if all the celebrity she had acquired during all these years, all her fidelity, all her prestige as nurse at the Veyergangs, was to vanish at one stroke into thin air!
Deeply hurt as she was after her unlucky expedition, it was remarkable that no one in the house asked her how she had got on—though there were plenty of mischievous glances from her fellow-servants, whose standing with their mistress had depended for so many years upon her. And whenever she tried to broach the subject with Mrs. Veyergang, the latter always turned the conversation—indeed, once she even dismissed the subject, saying that Barbara must know that she never meddled with such things.
But the kindness increased as the day of her departure approached. Barbara began to perceive how this screw of kindness, that turned so gently, was screwing her farther and farther out of the house. The Consul had Nikolai placed on trial as apprentice in a smithy down by the crane, and from Mrs. Veyergang she received one thing after another, as remembrances. But when, one day, the Consul—very thoughtfully—made her a present of one of his old travelling trunks, she let her large, heavy person sink down upon its lid, completely overwhelmed. She could not bring herself to think, had never believed, that the day would come when she must part from her mistress and Ludvig and Lizzie—it would kill her!
This was a direct appeal to the Consul himself, but the answer was not exactly as Barbara wished. He patted her on the shoulder, saying:
"I'm glad, my dear Barbara, that you feel that you have been well off."
When she went into the Consul's office for a settlement and to receive her savings-bank book—the amount it contained was a hundred and fourteen specie-dollars, a result, the Consul said, with which she ought to be thoroughly satisfied, when she considered the great expense she had been put to with Nikolai—she declared her intention of resting for a time before she went out to service again, and had made arrangements to lodge with a farmer out in the country: she had now been toiling for others for fourteen years!
The last evening, which she had dreaded so, went more easily than she had expected. The Consul and his wife were invited to the Willocks' country-house in the afternoon with the children, so the farewell could only be a short one, before they got into the carriage.
She was left standing with the feeling of Lizzie's soft fur, which she had stroked, in her fingers.