One of Life's Slaves



What becomes of all the swarm of orphan children down in the by-streets and outskirt alleys of the capital—children of whom no one has any account, and no one takes any account, who swarm down there only one floor higher, so to speak, than the spawn and small fry which are floating below in the sea among the quay piles, and which will one day become large male and female fish?

Disease wields a broad broom in the earliest age. The harbour takes them into its embrace; the streets with their stray livelihoods, or a wandering vagabond life, takes them; refuges, police-stations, prisons and the house of correction take them. In later years, labour also, on a great scale, has taken them into its embrace—the factory doors stand wide open.

People who now and then have an attack of conscientious scruples about existences to which they may possibly stand in original relationship, can draw a sigh of relief. The responsibility is at any rate diminished, as the chances now are that they will be drawn into Labour's educating wheel; and then, too, the matter is in certain respects carried over into moral territory.

There they sat, the more ripely-developed youth of the town, in rows up in the rooms of the Veyergang firm's great factory, and minded the whirring shuttles, balls and rollers—Swedish Lena, and Stina, and Kristofa, and Kalla, and Josefa and Gunda, and all the rest of them. Had any one asked them about their parents, they would now and then have been hard put to it for an answer.

The conversation went on very busily at the top of the room; it was even continued with nods and glances whenever one or other of the controlling authorities turned his steps in that direction. They had to gesticulate, nod, talk in a loud voice, but they got on best with their faces close up to one another in all this whizzing, where the band-wheels each whirred away for their little sub-division of power, the boards of the floor quivered and shook with the movement of the engines, and the waterfall outside in the sun, with a thundering and deafening roar, buried the great water-wheel beneath its creamy, powerful splendour.

They were for the most part quite young vagabond girls of from barely sixteen to twenty, who were making the noise up there: new-comers, more or less, without practice, who were still striving to acquire the knack. And that was Silla Holman, she with the dark hair, slender and freckled, with heelless slippers and a large spot of paraffine on the front of her dress, who coughed and questioned, and questioned and coughed, while her eyes looked like two little round, black fire-balls, and her weak, flat chest went up and down with the mere exertion of making herself heard. She sat there among the youngest; her fingers worked among the spools, and now and then she looked up like a bird.

They had got over the angry dispute about Josefa's new braided jacket. She need not try to persuade any one that she had got the money from her stepmother; no, let any one who liked believe that, but neither Gunda nor Jakobina did! Then Kristofa had related her wonderful adventure of last Sunday—she was always passing through remarkable occurrences, most wonderfully interesting, if not true to quite a corresponding degree, in which fine ladies and gentlemen played the principal parts, and she chanced to be the initiated one.

And now the conversation had turned upon something so interesting that Silla listened with both her ears. There was to be dancing on Sunday evening up at the Letvindt, and the talk was of handkerchiefs, bows, and finery—which some possessed and others had to borrow—and of who danced best and treated most liberally. Kristofa was able to inform them that there was to be a violin and a clarionet, and that both students and ordinary people and ships' officers were to be there!

Some strangers who were going over the factory came up the room, and stopped and questioned and examined. And the young workwomen sat each in her place, with head bent over her work, as if she had no thought for anything but her reels.

The morning light shone with a kind of dizzy stillness in from the great windows high up in the wall, over human beings, machinery and bales.

It was nearly twelve. The last hour always dragged so slowly, and the smell of oil and the heat from the engines seemed to increase and become almost stupifying.

Still a few more long stifling minutes. At last the bell rang.

And dressed, as if by a stroke of magic, the factory girls swarmed down the steps, with their breakfast-tins in their hands, in their neat aprons, handkerchiefs nicely tied under their chins, and knitted shawls crossed over their chests.

Oh, the bright spring air!—to take a good breath of it! Silla, hot and thirsty, knocked off a bit of frozen snow from the fence with her tin and ate it.

With her head full of all that Kristofa had held out to her about the dance at the Letvindt, she wandered down arm-in-arm with a long row of her companions. The road out from the factory was quite crowded; lower down it widened out, with a street-like pavement.

"Look, look, Kristofa! Veyergang has come back from England already!" The young girls nudged each other, highly interested. "New topcoat; light, light brown!"

"Pooh! I saw him come by the steamer yesterday, him and a whole heap of English people. They were all brown together; I counted exactly seven different kinds of dirt-colour!" It was Josefa who was using her tongue; she had had practice at a milliner's.

"He'll have to take care of the oil!" tittered one.

"He's awfully handsome! Look what a grand forehead! Oh, what a lovely red silk handkerchief in his breast-pocket!" whispered Kristofa to Silla.

The row squeezed themselves up against the fence. The person in question came by humming carelessly, with his head held high and swinging his walking-stick. All the young girls stared respectfully and stupidly straight in front of them, though not without a glance out of the corner of their eye. He disappeared up the stream, cleaving it like a salmon.

"He parts his hair at the back of his head!"—"His hat is like a pudding-basin!"—"Don't breathe upon him, he is so thin!"—"He is his own father's son!"—"Oh, what a conceited stick!"

They had turned to look after him.

"He isn't nearly so stern as he walks there; but in the factory, you know, he has to be as firm as a rock. Johanna Sjoberg, who does clear starching, recognised him down at the masked ball at the fair; she told me so herself."

"You can just fancy," struck in Jakobina, "what a number of fine people come to the rooms in that way. You think you are only waltzing with a common man, and perhaps it is the son of the richest man in the town! But if you are a little careful you can easily tell by the way they dance, or by their watch, or their shirt-collar, or because they chew such fine tobacco."

"He looked at us, did you notice?" whispered Kristofa eagerly into Silla's ear.

"Yes, because he knows me," said Silla, a little confused at his having fixed his eyes on her.

There was a burst of laughter.

"Is that young crow going to caw too?"

The young crow grew hot beneath her handkerchief, but she did not answer. She knew quite well, that he did know her; he had been in the office when she went out with her mother to the Consul-General's to apply for a place in the factory.

A stream of girls from another factory fell like a tributary into theirs, and then through ramifications of streets and lanes, the whole flowed out into the irregular part of the town that was built of wood, below—through narrow entrances and up narrow flights of steps, into brown, red, white or grey houses, houses with slate roofs, with turf roofs, with tile roofs, and new houses that had barely been roofed.

Silla slipped into a narrow, damp entry. The sun shone through the cracks in the rotten woodwork full of bent rusty nails, and from time to time a dirty stream issued from beneath the gate, and disappeared into the gutter.

She stopped a moment as she heard her mother's righteous indignation venting itself within, in the familiar, dry, measured tones; and it was hesitatingly and with a depressed look that she opened the gate, behind which stood Mrs. Andersen's servant-maid, furiously red, and incapable of defending herself, while Mrs. Holman, her skirts fastened up, and her feet astride over the gutter-board, was rinsing and wringing out clothes. She was working calmly and deliberately; nothing in her cold grey eyes betrayed agitation.

"Mrs. Andersen ought at least to have the good sense to understand that clothes that had been used so long couldn't be got ready in one week. For that matter, you're welcome to tell her so from me. And I haven't been accustomed either, even in my humble position, to send clothes to the wash not patched or mended; and I can tell you that both Mother Nilsen next door and the people in this house have wondered to see the things that a person, who calls herself a chandler's wife, lets her husband and children wear! No, you needn't contradict me, my good girl; when I say a thing, it's the truth. And the stockings—we'll say nothing about them; for one heel was gathered up with a piece of twine, so that it was a disgrace to stand and wash them. People may look as high and mighty as they like—the wash speaks out!"

With slow, crushing significance she turned to her daughter.

"If you had come a little sooner, Silla, you might have saved me a great deal of work. But it's of no consequence; the sooner I'm dead and gone, the better. I've never wanted to live either, since your father went away."

"I'll help you wring, mother."

"Now it's all done? Many thanks! But it would have shown a little forethought, if you, who have only been sitting up in the factory, had hurried yourself a little to help your mother, who's had to stand and work hard all the morning."

"Thanks for the information, Mrs. Holman." It was Mrs. Andersen's servant, who had at last recovered her voice. "But I think you won't need to trouble yourself any more about our washing. It's much too plain and humble for such grand sentiments."

She dropped a curtsey, and then added, as she vanished quickly out of the gate:

"If only your soap-lye was half as sharp as your tongue!"

It was always Mrs. Holman's strong point, and one on which she prided herself, that she was always hungering and thirsting after righteousness in this world—in others. Inasmuch as part of this sentence also points inwards towards one's self, she was fortunate in finding her own doorstep well swept. She was also in the favourable position of being able to lay down both the law and the exceptions.

To every one comes a time when he is surrounded by a lustre, and that blockmaker Holman had existed was something which was really properly understood—perhaps by his wife too—only after he had disappeared from the scene.

The fact is, that it makes a great difference to a household whether it has the husband's work and weekly wages to subsist upon or not, and as a further aggravation of the situation, her dead husband's bill at Mrs. Selvig's thrust its extremely unexpected, unwelcome face into Mrs. Holman's room. Mrs. Holman could never get into her head that that bill was correct—why, Holman had had his fixed, regular pocket-money!

Mrs. Holman's bitter observations were numerous when she found herself compelled to choose between want and seeking work.

She had known to a pin's point how she would employ her husband's earnings in her own room, and occupied herself also with the way in which others might have things in theirs. During all these years, she had, so to speak, sat comfortably on the top of the load and driven; but now, unfortunately, the day had come when she herself must get down and draw—and that she felt herself less fitted for.

It was when brought into this critical situation that Mrs. Holman thought that if an exertion was ever to be made, it must be made now—by whom, she left unsaid. To this end she availed herself of her acquaintance with Consul Veyergang to get her daughter Silla taken into his factory. Unemployed hands must have something to do, and it would, at any rate, yield some small compensation for the weekly money lost with her husband. If she then stayed at home and kept house well, and in addition mended and took in washing when it came in her way, no one would venture to charge Mrs. Holman with not knowing how to do her duty during these hard days.

And she still discharged this duty of hers by strictly keeping Silla from passing her leisure time in idleness, which was dangerous for young people. Sewing and darning and patching all the evening—there could be no better way of being trained in steadiness.

But it was just while Silla sat and sewed and darned and patched in the evening by the low oil-lamp that the dancing and gaiety were best carried on in her head, and that all Kristofa's and her friends' word-pictures transformed themselves into actual experiences. Bubble after bubble, the one more wonderful than the other, floated up or burst right in front of Mrs. Holman's nose, while she sat knitting. She saw nothing, only wondered a little sometimes what there could be to smile and laugh at in the heel of a stocking.

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