One of Life's Slaves
A STOLEN INTERVIEW
Holman made his usual turn into Selvig's public-house every evening to brace himself for his return home. When the ale-bottle had been emptied, and a proper number of drams consumed, his at first hurried, restless look was stiffened into a dull, staring, fixed mask. It was the crust about his heart, far within the unconscious, degraded man, who enjoyed his daily hour of oblivion to that life-struggle which he had taken upon himself when he chose to unite his lot inseparably with that of his duty-breathing wife, that life-struggle in which he continually declared "pass," and turned aside. When he sat there silently staring over his glass, it was felt that he was brooding over something, possibly only the number of drams he had drunk, possibly his bill, possibly, too, a remote world of thought, where, like a philosopher, he gazed silently down into unfathomable depths. Or possibly he was musing in silent resignation upon the problem of matrimony, and the strange law of consequence which had set him down here in the public-house.
But regularity in all things, said Holman, and when the clock struck eight, with his tools in his hand and his head bent, he turned his faltering steps homewards.
On Saturday evenings, when work was over at the workshop, a tall, active young girl, with large wrists, thin arms and a stooping figure, would often come down to fetch him. She had a basket, and a piece of paper on which was written what she was to buy with the week's wages.
The two would then go up the street together, walking slower and slower as they went. Time after time he would stop, and look thoughtfully about him with one hand in his pocket, and an occasionally ejaculated "H'm, h'm!"—until they arrived at Mrs. Selvig's steps and green door, when he would suddenly declare that he had some "things" lying in there: he would be out again directly.
Silla knew by experience what "directly" meant, and meanwhile went her own way over the yards.
Through the lovely August evening, one troop of workmen after another came over the bridge near the mouth of the river, several of them with the same sort of escort as her father, of wife or child. It was so usual and its meaning so self-evident, that no one ever gave it a thought.
While the different gates and yards were emitting their streams of workmen, Silla had approached one of the narrow passages with which the loading places are furrowed. On each side was a wooden hoarding, and there were stacks of timber within. The irregularly cut up, black muddy roadway led into a forge and implement yard.
Just at the corner lay a heap of rubbish, full of broken bottles and pottery. She stood there with her basket, every now and then taking a step backwards, up the heap, to make room for passers-by. In this way she gained the top of the heap, and could see over the hoarding into the yard.
They were still busy receiving wages in there in a crowd round a little shed which did duty as an office.
With outstretched neck, and her two shining dark eyes turned almost like a bird's, she stood and looked eagerly in. There was no mistake about her object.
"Well, lass! are you looking for your sweetheart?" said a voice below.
But, as she at that moment caught sight of Nikolai, and he signalled to her, she took no notice of the voice, and waved her basket vigorously.
He came out down the passage, unwashed and sooty, straight from his work.
"He's gone now!"
"He had red hair, and had on blue braces and a sailmaker's cap. I think it was the man from Grönlien they call Ottersnake; and he accused me of standing here and looking for my sweetheart!"
"I'll sweetheart him! If I only get hold of him, I'll hammer him into nails! And then I'll pull his red hair to oakum, so that his father will only need to put it into the pitch-kettle!"
He looked about; but as the Ottersnake, who was doomed to so cruel and terrible a fate, was nowhere to be seen, his wrath suddenly subsided, and with an upward movement of the head, he proposed:
"Baker Ring's, Silla?"
He had his week's wages in his pocket, so they made a short cut through two or three muddy back yards, which had planks laid down across the worst places, up to the baker's shop.
Oh, how they bought, and how they did eat!
There were some specially delicious expensive cakes with jam inside. And it was the two collars, that he had thought of buying for himself next week, that they ate up!
With a great feeling of his own importance Nikolai related how he had now forged six large iron hooks with links to them; and she must not imagine that they wanted nothing but hammering—no, they had to be hammered out and beaten and bent at the right time! Down there they only made stakes and picks and tires; but he meant to be either a locksmith or a brazier.
This did not interest Silla very much; she wanted to hear about the picnic on Sunday, when he had gone to the woods with the journeymen. It must have been awfully jolly! And didn't they dance too?
"I should just think they did. Anders Berg is a capital fellow; he's going to set up for himself in Svelvig soon, and get married."
"And were the others engaged, too?"
"What's the matter with you? Can't you tell me?"
"Why, it's nothing—only nonsense! There's not one of them that'll make a smith's wife—creatures that have larks now with one fellow and now with another?"
"And did you dance?"
"Oh, the 'prentices have only to run after beer; but when I'm a journeyman—but, Silla, the time—we must hurry!" he broke off suddenly.
"Oh, it's not late yet. One more nice one with jam—do go in and buy it! Oh, do, Nikolai!" she begged, and as he ran in to get what she wanted, she called after him:
"And some sweets to eat on the way home—some of those at four for a halfpenny."
"Can't you eat it as you go along, Silla?" he urged, when he came out again; "you must make haste! Just think if she heard at home that you had been with me."
"Pooh, there's no hurry," and she leaned against the wall, and regaled herself—"for you see," she mumbled, "father won't be out of Mrs. Selvig's yet a-while, and I'll say first of all that that has kept me: I can reckon at least half an hour for that. And then to mother I have the excuse that it's Saturday evening, and there were so many people in the shop that I could hardly get to the counter. And when I won't have any supper, you know, I'll only say I've got such a headache with standing and waiting in the shop: it was so stifling in there. I think mother's nose would be very fine, if she could guess that I had met you. Well, what are you looking so solemn about?"
"She at home"—he never named her mother in any other fashion—"forces you into lies every single day; no one has a right to speak the truth but her!"
"Oh!" she tossed her head impatiently; she had heard this so often.
"She eats up all the honesty in the room by herself, you know, for it's quite impossible to act honestly by her, for very terror. She keeps discipline, and much or little, it's all the same. Any one who wants to speak the truth without using his fists to back it up will get thrashed as I did! It doesn't matter for me; but when I think of you going home and making up all those lies again, and that you are so frightened, and haven't the strength to stand against them, Silla!"
She tried to laugh and make light of it; but her face fell sadly. She could not bear this unpleasant subject, for she was obliged to tell lies, however angry he might be.
And then she suddenly began to hurry.
"No, no, we must go home, Nikolai. I daren't stand here any longer."
Nikolai was starting off, but stopped suddenly at sight of Silla's dismayed countenance. She had turned her pocket inside out, and stood holding it while she gazed and searched on the ground round her. Then, in feverish haste, she unfastened her bodice, and searched there.
"The money! Oh, the money, Nikolai!" she cried anxiously, and went on shaking her skirt and looking about her, almost beside herself. "The silver was wrapped up in the two dollar notes, just as father gave them to me, and I put them into my pocket at once."
"What shall I do, Nikolai?" She began to cry, but all at once, with a sudden thought, she flew to the basket. But it was not there.
They searched and searched.
Of course it must be at the corner by the rubbish-heap, for she had stood there and waved her basket. It would be lying among the broken bottles.
The pale, thin rim of the autumn moon had risen over the yards while they were searching there step by step, Silla every now and then uttering a despondent, monotonous "Suppose I don't find it!" and Nikolai plunging his arm up to the elbow into puddles in which the roll of money might have fallen.
They had been by the bridge, they had searched the rubbish-heap, they had looked up and down and everywhere; it was not to be found.
It was beginning to be late, and Mrs. Holman was waiting at home. She would be really waiting now.
Silla began to cry.
Nikolai had only asked her once or twice to be quiet, and he would find the money. Now he suddenly said:
"I should like to give you another good feed of cakes to-day, and then throw myself into the sea with you, Silla. It would be no lie that we lay there."
Whether his proposition was meant seriously or not, it did not gain a hearing with her. She sat hopeless and despairing on a log while the big tears ran down her cheeks.
The seventeen-year-old workshop apprentice stood thoughtfully, with his flat cap pushed back over his rough hair, blackened by the week's work. He was gazing intently into an old rotten hole in the log. The hole became more and more rotten, more and more hollow, more and more empty while his busy thoughts were trying to find an expedient. But none came.
Fully aware of her fate, Silla rose, took her basket, and started homewards with her eyes fixed on the ground. She was going to the scaffold. Nikolai accompanied her as far as he dared, reiterating in different ways: "Don't be afraid, Silla, they can't kill you!"
Something like a low wail said that she heard him.
When she disappeared round the corner, he made a short cut which only he and one or two old yard cats knew of; and from the hoarding at the bottom of the square he saw her go, with bent head and the same quiet step, without stopping, down the cellar stairs.
When it was dark, he stood outside the window and listened. He heard her still sobbing quietly, after the storm that had passed over her.
Mrs. Holman had examined and cross-examined, and at last extracted from Silla the confession that she had been with Nikolai. That she, Mrs. Holman's daughter, in spite of all prohibitions, sought the society of that misled prodigal, who had rewarded her with such ingratitude, was enough to bring her to her grave. And no one would persuade her either that Holman's hardly-earned week's wages could vanish like steam from a kettle. A half-starved apprentice-boy, walking beside a well-filled pocket—any one could understand what the result of that would be. Master Nikolai had only carefully and craftily watched his time, when he knew that Silla had her father's money in her pocket, to get it shuffled into his own.
Matters were not improved by Silla in her obstinacy declaring that he had not so much as seen the money—as if Nikolai would take a farthing from her!
This last remark sealed his fate—there should be no concealment of his conduct on Mrs. Holman's part.
There was a commotion in the forge-yard, when the nest day a police-officer came and arrested Nikolai. He was to be taken to the police-station for having defrauded a young girl on Saturday evening of the whole of her father's week's wages.
But when they were gone, Anders Berg swore, as he brought the sledge-hammer down on the anvil, that that Nikolai had never done. The others—Jan Peter, and Katrinus, and Bernt Johan Jakobsen and Petter Evensen—they thought nothing; but to bring the police into a respectable work-yard! He had better get work in some other place after this!
For the first moment Nikolai had only one sensation—the paralysing fear by which a first acquaintance with the police is always accompanied. The feeling that he had a good conscience did indeed leap up within him, but only to die away again immediately. He had so often had that, and it had always proved to be too thin a sheet of ice to stand upon in the hour of trial. That kind of self-esteem was a plant which had too often been trodden under Mrs. Holman's heel to be able to bloom now as a fragrant, full-blown flower within him.
The outcome of his reflections was a sudden twist and a violent jerk, by which he hoped to escape from his inconvenient companion, the sole result, however, being that he immediately had a constable at each arm.
When brought up for examination before the police superintendent, a dark, unwilling defiance glowed in his face, and the sharp glance—too sharp for a lad of his age—did not prepossess any one in his favour.
Silla? He had not been with any Silla on Saturday.
It would never occur to him to betray her, and it was only when he was confronted with her and her mother, and heard that she had confessed, that he admitted it.
Silla continued to maintain, in a voice choked with tears, that he had not taken the money, but this proved nothing either for or against him. On the other hand what had more weight were the facts that had been elucidated on ransacking and examining the room in which he lodged—he lived in a garret at glazier Olsen's with three other apprentices—for they all agreed in saying that on the Saturday in question he had come home late, after they were asleep, and had gone out again very early on the Sunday morning.
The assertion of the accused that this was to renew the search for the lost money down by the yard did not seem very credible. But it was impossible to get any nearer to him.
A hardened young rascal. This was his foster-mother's testimony too.
Nikolai stood with his cap in his hand, looking down at the floor. He had a habit of drawing the skin of his forehead up and down when he was meditating. In the broad, young face with the large features, the grey eyes into which there sometimes came a peculiar look, and the cock's comb, of a tinge between zinc and copper, the police inspector's penetrating and—after many year's practice—not easily deceived eye saw the marks of one who would probably in the future often give occupation to the police.
"In order to exclude the possibility of conferences with the other apprentices in his room," he dictated for the record, "considering that the accused has manifested mala fides by an attempt to escape, as well as by his untruthful conduct and denials under examination, he will, for the present, be placed under arrest."
As the words of the order were read out, there were a few involuntary contractions of the muscles in Nikolai's face, which was damp with perspiration; there quivered in it the poor man's curse, at never having a way of escape; a false step, and he is caught, a lost dollar, and he comes before the court.
After another examination Nikolai was acquitted for want of evidence.
The morning when the prison door closed behind him, he slunk down the street with a feeling that all the windows on both sides were looking at him; it was anything but the gait of one who can let his honesty's sun shine once more.
Down at his lodging at Mrs. Olsen's he found his few things put ready in the cupboard under the stairs to be fetched away, and a message was left that his place in the garret was occupied by some one else.
He did not ask why. Mrs. Olsen's silence hurt him more than if she had cried aloud about people who drew on her "an examination and search of the house, and other disturbances."
And then he had to go down and show himself at the forge again—to Hægberg the master, and Anders Berg, and the journeymen, and all the apprentices.
It was with uncertain steps and stopping time after time. What did Anders Berg think, he wondered.
In a fit of despondency he half turned. But he must do it. So he held up his head and began to whistle. But as he neared the coal-begrimed wooden palings of the work-yard the whistling ceased, and he was in a cold perspiration when he entered the gate.
Without saying a word he went to the coal-bin and began to lift some bars of pig-iron which had to be moved aside. While he did so, no one either greeted or spoke to him.
Anders Berg had an iron in the furnace, and it was not until he and another man had finished hammering it out, that he came up to Nikolai and said:
"I was sure you would come back again. Here's some work for you; you can file these three keys."
Whereupon Nikolai was placed at one of the vices, and was soon busily at work with both coarse and fine files.
Anders Berg's words had done him such good, had placed him at once as it were on his feet before the whole workshop, and in his heart he made a vow of friendship and devotion to Anders Berg for ever.
There were showers of sparks and a ringing from the sledge-hammers in the large smithy, and sharp blows of hammers, while the files shrieked and whistled and set one's teeth on edge. The work went on and Nikolai thought he had never known until to-day how splendid it was to be a smith. He might as well do the key-bit with the fine file at once, while the key was on that side of the vice; and he filed the notch as neatly and smoothly as if it had been intended for a chest of drawers, and not a great pipeless key for a wooden gate.
Now came the handle. He worked away with the coarse file, until he could scarcely hear the sledge-hammer for its shrieking.
At the anvil stood a man making clincher nails, while one of the apprentices pulled the bellows and occasionally gathered the nails together. They were talking and laughing, and now and again some loud exclamation penetrated to Nikolai. It was only when the boy made a grimace at him, that it occurred to Nikolai that he was the subject of the conversation, and instantly the large file became quite light in his hand, and he had suddenly eyes and ears only for what was going on around him.
They were standing talking and nodding over there by the vices; Jan Peter ran and repeated what this one said and what the other one said. It was easy to see what the meaning of it all was, and that he now stood there like any show animal; no, like something much worse—like one who was capable of going to the pockets of any one of them!
There was not one of the apprentices who would share his night's lodging with him now. He could see that.
He stood straining his ears, with a feeling that they were killing him in all the work-yards round—they were filing him down at the vices, hammering him flat with the small hammers, and crushing him with the sledge-hammers. He guessed and understood glances and looks.
"Well, you know, Matthias," he heard from away there by the nails which the man was now gathering into his apron, "there are many easier trades than standing in a smithy: make a good pick out of your fists, lad!"
"He-he-he!" laughed the boy addressed.
"Or make yourself pincers that you can get down into skirt-pockets with—all the lassies in the town, lad, that have any pence."
Nikolai heard every word and the hoarse laughter that followed; he was very pale.
Coarse merriment shone in the man's sooty face, and, as their eyes met, he made a contemptuous grimace.
Soon after he came past with his apron full of nails. Their eyes met again; the scornful ones grew more scornful; Nikolai seemed to see them in a haze, and then the journeyman received a blow full in the face which laid him on his back, scattering the nails as he fell.
There was a short pause of surprise before they all rushed upon him.
But Nikolai swung the big file about him like a madman. He felt with frenzied pleasure, how he would strike—strike down the whole smithy one by one until justice was done him. Wait a little, he had only begun yet—a hammer was lying on the block.
But the men in the smithy did not wait, and the next moment it was he who lay on his back, his eyes blinded by blue and yellow sparks, and as many of his adversaries around and upon him as there was room for; he should be held fast and sent about his business now—he had used a weapon!
He felt a powerful grasp on his coat collar, a grasp that included the skin, felt himself dragged up and, without a pause, half carried, half flung, out of the smithy door.
It was Anders Berg, who had exerted his power to rescue him, and who—still only slightly relaxing his hold—led him out of the gate.
It was his farewell to the smithy.
"I'll just tell you something," exclaimed Anders Berg later, when the commotion had subsided; he was still red in the face and spoke loudly, while he hammered cold.
"There's come a wrong bend in Nikolai; but it isn't his fault!"
The hammer rang on the iron.
Nikolai did not take a lodging anywhere that evening; he was too bruised and dirty for that, his clothes too torn and ragged, and, more than anything else, he felt too sore to meet people now that he had left the smithy in such a way.
When night fell, he had once more taken up his familiar quarters in one of the stacks of planks down at the timber-yard. There, in one of the deep square spaces he lay and looked up at the stars and thought how entertaining the world had become!