One of Life's Slaves



Nikolai was out of work, that was very certain.

It never entered his head to present himself at any other smithy: they all knew each other too well for that. And even at barge-builder Hansen's, where he got a lodging up in the tool-loft, and his food on the days when he got a chance of doing something useful, they wanted to know now why he had left his trade. As if that were any business of theirs!

So Nikolai suddenly disappeared.

On the quay, the harbour and the steamers, a fellow with his hands could surely get on just as well as any other.

It was with fresh and dauntless courage, though with a stomach not overladen with food during the last few days, that he went down there.

He was received with a certain appreciative admiration. He found that it was a well-known fact that he had had an encounter with the police, and had been sufficiently dexterous to get off without their being able to fix anything upon him; the news of such an exploit travels like wild-fire in that world, and spreads a halo around its subject.

And as long as he was supposed to be only an idler, or an apprentice who was airing himself and taking a day or two's holiday from the smithy, the shareholders in the different businesses down there were both agreeable and talkative. But when—and that not once only—he suddenly turned to, and darted over the landing-stage from the steamer with a large trunk on his back and a traveller at his heels, past the cabs up to the hotel, they quite changed their tone. Had he a badge? Or did he think perhaps, that it would do to take other people's business? They knew very well what sort of a fellow he was!

He was well aware that he could not get a badge, so he must get along as he best could by working and toiling and fighting for an empty stomach, and make his way by threats and with his fists, and—when it was a case of being entrusted with a burden, or getting first hold of a trunk—by being deaf, stone-deaf, to everything they might think of calling out about him.

There were ten men to every job requiring one, and, as it were, a wall or circle drawn round every road to earning something. Some small jobs he might now and then chance to be alone in—when the lock of a door had slipped, or the door came off its hinges, or some kind of smithcraft was required at a moment's notice. But he gained no more than a bare subsistence, often only a dram or two by way of thanks.

And now that it had been such a long winter, he was both hungry and cold. The nights especially were so long. He often took spirits for his supper to get them to pass. And then he had to think over what he would try his hand at the next day—cutting the ice, work on the quay, clearing away snow or carrying planks in the yard.

Thinly-clad and with no overcoat, and rather red with the cold, he clattered down in a coat that was in holes at the elbows, and his old scarf that had taken its hue from the smithy, pulled high up about his ears. It was not difficult to see in him the smith's apprentice. Whenever he met any of Hægberg's men, he burst into a scornful laugh. Did they think, perhaps, that he was slovenly clad? It was just as he was now, that he wanted to be. He wanted to be free and have neither master nor journeyman nor any one over him, and to care for nobody.

If the forge-yard was one point that he preferred to keep away from, there were also other places in the town that he made a round to avoid—namely, that part of the quay where the blockmaker's workshop lay, and the Holmans' house up in the square.

Whatever the reason might be, he had no wish to meet Silla.

The last time he had spoken to her—the day after he had left the smithy—he noticed that she was looking about in a frightened way the whole time, and wanted him to stand first in one place and then in another. It could not be fear of any one at home, and then it suddenly dawned upon him that she was ashamed that people should see her standing and talking to him, so with a "Good-bye, Silla!" he darted from her.

Afterwards he thoroughly enjoyed seeing her look so unhappy and so eager to show him that she did not care what people thought. What did she care about him, when he had nothing to treat her with? It was not fit for her to stand talking to a fellow like him.

There is a splendid friend and ally for every one who has thin, ragged clothes, and that is the sun. He distributes overcoats in the shape of warm, sunny walls, brings life and movement with him, and then there need no longer be any uncertainty about a midday-meal.

Nikolai had had work on the quay the whole morning, and was now standing, in the midday rest, baking himself against the sunny wall, and yawning.

He stopped in the middle of a yawn. That slight figure in the faded cotton dress, that was running with her body bent forwards, and a handkerchief over the little, dark head, to keep off the sun—it was no other than Silla!

She was darting along among the baskets and traffic on the fish-quay; there was a searching haste in her like that of a frightened corn-crake, that turns its head now to one side now to the other as it runs. She had caught sight of him, and now she began calling:

"Nikolai! Nikolai!

"Nikolai!"—she almost choked in her hurry to speak—"Nikolai, just think! Mother, when she was unpicking my old blue dress to-day, she found the money in the lining, inside the lining, both the notes, and the silver too. I ran down to tell you directly I had taken father's dinner to the workshop. And now I'm going to the smithy, and they shall hear what they have done to you. Could you believe it! Inside the lining! I am so awfully, awfully glad"—and her eyes did look almost wild—You can't think what a grave face mother put on!"

"Just tell them at home that it's all the same to me!" said he bitterly and unmelted. But she did not notice it; she wanted to go to the smithy, and away she went.

He had no objection. But now that Anders Berg had set up for himself in Svelvig, there was no one there he cared about, to hear it. For he was a free man now!

He stood with his hands in his trouser pockets, gazing over the edge of the quay at a sunken sugar-loaf, which a crowd of small boys, amid noise and clamour, were labouring to get up. It lay already half melted on the green bottom, on which the sun drew wavy lines.

Silla might try all she could to get him into the smithy. Since they had tacked the word thief on to him, he had got soaked through with salt water, just like the sugar-loaf. And besides, to stand there and slave, when he could be his own——

"Hi, you boys! I'll show you how to get the sugar-loaf up, but you will have to eat it yourselves."

The public-house—the one at Mrs. Selvig's, with the green door and white window frames, farthest down the street—had seen Holman's quiet, subdued, stooping figure come and go for many years. His grasp on the door-handle was just as precise, his walk up to the brown counter after having laid down his tools, exactly the same, though his face had a little more colour in it. He had a certain reputation there, which had allowed of his "chalking up" for several years past, and there was a regular proportion of his account, about which his inexorably correct wife had not the faintest idea—"for Holman had his weekly pocket-money."

And as usual on Saturday evenings, Silla was walking about outside with the basket, waiting for him.

She was really quite nicely dressed in her cotton gown with a little white handkerchief tied round her neck; but clothes did not seem to set her off. The slight, overgrown figure seemed to show through everywhere.

She made a quick turn, when she thought she caught a glimpse of Nikolai at the bottom of the street. She had fancied the same thing last Saturday evening. She had not really spoken to him since early in the summer, when he got so angry because she wanted him to go into the smithy again.

She went quickly down the street—she was quite certain that it was he!

She hurried on farther, down to the bridge; but it was the same as last time—he was not to be seen. So she turned back again, disappointed, keeping constant watch on Mrs. Selvig's green door. She knew her father would appear as the clock struck eight.

She went up towards it and down again: she began to grow impatient. It must be past the time. They were beginning to shut the shops here and there, and if she was to get anything bought this evening, it would be impossible to wait any longer.

She must really go up and see whether her father were sitting there still—whether he had not perhaps gone when she was down at the bridge: he never mistook the time.

She had gone up the street as far as the place where the stone pavement began, when she saw the green door open and slam quickly to again, as a bare-headed, half-dressed servant-girl ran out. Immediately after, a man came out in similar haste, and through the door which he left standing open behind him, a number of people, with and without hats, streamed out on to the steps.

Something was the matter!

Now a window was also opened, or rather hammered open, so that the pane clashed down on to the pavement.

Probably some drunken man or other, who could not stand any longer—it was Saturday evening, you know—and who was making a row, and must be taken by the police.

She had often seen such sights before, and was quite accustomed to them. She was not anxious about her father either: he never interfered in such matters.

But why did he not come out? Every one else had come out.

A faint, slanting gleam of evening light had fallen in through the empty square of window. Her father generally sat at the table just inside; he always kept the same place. And she went up and peered in between the flower-pots,—some half-stifled, dirty geraniums and hydrangeas, saturated with public-house effluvia.

Who was that—that man who was lying on the dirty counter, with his necktie and shirt unfastened and one arm hanging down—was it her father?

"If only some one had a lancet!—he moved just now—a lancet!"

What more they said on the steps she did not notice, except that some wanted to deny her entrance, and others again said that she was Holman's daughter.

She awoke, as if after a fall from a great height during which she had lost consciousness, to find herself sitting by the counter supporting her father's head. She thought she remembered clinging to his neck and begging him to answer her: but there was no rattling in his throat now.

They had placed an old, worn sofa-pillow and the seat of a chair under his head. Behind stood quart and pint measures, dram-glasses, tin funnels and beer-bottles pushed right up to the wall to make room. His wide-open eyes stared up at the once white-washed beams of the ceiling, and one side of his face was drawn up into a grin, which made him look as if he were unspeakably disgusted with the dirty ceiling.

A big man sat at the door. Silla knew him: he was the public-house bear, as he was called; he who turned people out for Mrs. Selvig. He was sitting silent on the bench.

There was perfect stillness in the room; she heard only the drip from the tap of the brandy-cask down into the dish beneath, and saw, through the half-open door to the inner room, Mrs. Selvig and her two daughters bustling about on tiptoe.

A young man in spectacles entered. He asked a few rapid questions, while he opened a case of instruments on the counter at the feet of the prostrate figure. He listened at its chest with the stethoscope and without it, and shook his head, pulled out a lancet, and pushed the shirt sleeve up the hanging arm.

"Hold the sleeve, so that it doesn't slip down!" he said with a glance up at Silla; he took her to be a member of the household.

The lancet pierced and pierced again. The ashen grey face of the girl looked into his, as if she would beg him for only one drop of that which was the life.

There came out something like a thick, dark syrup.

He listened again, felt again; one more trial with the lancet, and it was with an air of superiority, and a mouth drawn up like his professor's, that the young bachelor of medicine turned to those assembled and pronounced his concise verdict:

"Stone dead! The man's stone dead!—from drink!"

His words were followed by a cry from Silla, who threw herself upon her father.

"Is that his daughter?" asked the young doctor. He carefully wiped his lancet at the light, and put his instruments together preparatory to going, but gazed at the same time over his spectacles at her. Heedless of everything, she cried incessantly over the body.

"You aren't dead, are you, father? Father!"

It was a wild sorrow, without consideration or bashfulness, and the young doctor felt that he was witnessing an unpleasant scene from life in the outskirts of the town. He had done his duty and hastened out.

A twenty-year-old workshop apprentice, pale and overcome, was standing behind Silla, trying to recall her to herself. He took her by the shoulder, and whispered repeatedly, as loudly as respect for the dead would allow:

"Silla! Silla! don't you hear? It's me—Nikolai!"

And he tried in vain two or three times to lift her up from the body.

Meanwhile a policeman stood and examined Mrs. Selvig and the girls. He made notes, and took down the particulars of the death.

Just finished his usual quantity, a bottle of ale and four drams. The girl at the bar saw him quickly stretch out his hand—had the impression that he wanted another dram—and when he slowly sank down from his chair, supposed that he was drunk. Used never to be so drunk that he could not walk or stand, at any rate by supporting himself or holding on to convenient, firm things.

This last piece of evidence was deposed to by several of the regular customers, or as they were described in the police report—"Several of the regular visitors to the refreshment-room, whose testimony may be considered as thoroughly reliable."

Several of these silent, somewhat tottering, figures who had been thus aroused from their dull, Saturday evening drowsiness, had already disappeared from the scene. Bottles and glasses remained standing with their contents.

"Might there not possibly be some other direct or indirect cause?"

It was at first hesitatingly that Mrs. Selvig could think of anything of the sort.

Unwilling as she was to go to extremes with an old, regular customer, she yet had been obliged this evening to give him to understand that whatever he required in future must be paid for in cash. His bill had now, after all the years he had enjoyed credit in the tap-room, grown so enormous, that she, a widow with two daughters, could no longer feel justified in letting it run on. During all the years he had frequented her house, she had faithfully kept her word never to send a bill home to his house. But a bill cannot lie for ever on the threshold, as the police know. That is the way of the world: it is the same for one as it is for the other—so it must just be got by a distress warrant. That was what she had said to him, unwilling though she had been to do so, and so unpleasant, she could truthfully say, as it was to disturb such a quiet, decent man.

It was high time to rid the bar of its encumbrance. The public-house bear had hunted up a hand-barrow, but had to get a couple more men to help carry. And they must have a proper contrivance with a cloth over, so that the whole thing would look like a hospital stretcher—a dead man with nothing but a tablecloth over him would make too great a commotion out in the street!

It was something of this kind that Mrs. Selvig and her daughters were busy looking out and putting together, out of some green bed-hangings. One's good name is dear to every one, and Mrs. Selvig felt that what had just taken place was a blow to the house.

It was now nearly dark in the tap-room. Holman's dark figure had been moved on to the stretcher, which stood on the floor ready to be lifted, and a message had been sent to Mrs. Holman.

Perhaps they delayed purposely; a little later in the evening when it was darker, and an undesirable sensation in the street would be avoided.

Silla's face was stiff with crying. There was no one in the room but her and Nikolai.

He stood by the counter, and she was sitting with her back to the window; there was no sound but the humming of a gnat in the half-darkness up under the curtain.

At last he broke the silence.

"He was kind, both to you and to me, as often as he dared be, you know."

Silla did not answer.

"He always dreaded going home at night so, you know. He'll be spared that now, and setting his foot inside this public-house again, too!"

"Father! Father!" broke from Silla, followed by a fit of violent sobbing.

"Listen, Silla!" he said, interrupted by the repressed weight on his own breast. "If you have no father, you have some one here who will take care of you, and knows what it is—I have never had any father either, nor ever seen any. And I will be a smith, as there won't be any more block-making for you now. I only wanted to tell you, so that you can remember it afterwards," he added softly—it did not look as if Silla were listening to him.

"And this evening I'll follow you right to the corner, and I'll stand there until everything is in, and I shall be outside to-night; so you know it, if anything is wanted."

"Yes, stay outside, Nikolai!" she whispered.

The public-house bear and the two bearers came in. They lifted the stretcher out through the door, and, with a little difficulty at the turn, down the steps, where a few spectators stood.

And so they went up the street—the dead with the two bearers and the public-house bear in front, and Silla and Nikolai behind.

At the place where they were to part, he pressed the basket, which she had forgotten, into her hand, and then stood looking after them.

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