One of Life's Slaves
"THE WORLD IS RIGHT ENOUGH AFTER ALL"
Down in Hægberg's smithy it looked as if it were going to be not only blue Monday, but blank Tuesday too. With the exception of one solitary figure, it was black and empty. Outside the door a row of iron picks, spades and crowbars, were waiting to be sharpened for the navvies on the new harbour works.
[Footnote 2: An extra day's holiday taken by workmen after the lawful bank holiday is called "blue Monday"; if still another follows, it is called "blank Tuesday."]
Hægberg was going about with his leather apron hanging down over one shoulder, as furious as a Berserk. There were no respectable men and apprentices to be had nowadays; but he would give them notice man by man, as sure as his name was Hægberg!
One was standing there grinding. And he had stood there quite alone, filing with all his might at his journeyman's probation work, the whole of St. John's day yesterday. That's how it is: one goes on the spree, and another pinches and is so stingy about his money, that he would willingly lay his soul in the fire for it. The fellow was a good enough workman, to be sure, and if he had not had that affair with the police, then—yes, no—no, yes, to be sure, he was acquitted of that, so he was!
The person in question was Nikolai, who had entered Hægberg's smithy again to complete his years of apprenticeship.
Ah, at last! There came two men sauntering over the yard to the smithy.
Hægberg turned round and pretended not to see them; on consideration, it was not the time to part with one's men. He only went up himself and took one of the crowbars out of the forge; and when the two culprits arrived, he stood there, tall, lean, strong, and grey-haired, hammering so that the sparks flew.
This piece of work, unworthy of the master, spoke louder than the angriest reproaches, and when in silence he flung the crowbar down, and began sharpening a pick, it was sufficiently evident that there was thunder in the air.
By degrees during the morning they arrived, with staring eyes, beating temples, and faces either pale or red from being up all night, one with a swollen eye, another with a plaster across his nose. Their voices were hoarse, and they each went silently to work. They must exert themselves if they were to get through all the tool-work that remained.
Work went on uninterruptedly almost the whole afternoon, without a word being spoken over the whole smithy. By that time most of the work had been got through, and Hægberg himself went out to do business in the town.
Those who were left at work shone with perspiration, and either because work had been the best cure for the excesses of the preceding Midsummer Day and Midsummer Eve, or it was the general relief at the departure of the master, one man began suddenly to sing, a couple more to yawn and stretch themselves lazily in the enjoyment of their pleasant recollections; and then the talk began about the way they had each spent their holiday.
Only Nikolai went on undisturbed; he cared more about a screw-hole in the hinge on his probation work than all their Midsummer Eve outings, and if he only worked away now, it would be finished by the end of the month.
His small hammer sounded above their talk,—the tar-barrels, wood-stacks and old house-walls that they had burnt, and their drinking and merriment until they had not a penny left,—haw-haw!
The hammer rang above it all.
Jan Peter had gone in a boat over to the islands, and seen so many bonfires, both there and on the hills round, that it was impossible to count them.
[Footnote 3: It is the custom in Norway on Midsummer Eve to burn large bonfires, which can be seen for many miles round.]
Yes, when a fellow's drunk!
The hammer went on again.
One man stretched himself and yawned with the whole Midsummer holiday in his jaws. "Up on Grefsen ridge, cold punch had flowed down the hill as good as free. Veyergang's son had given the girls at the factory an old boat from Maridal Lake and half a barrel of pitch; heard the cuckoo and had larks all night—came down again when it was nearly eight o'clock."
The hammer rang no longer.
"Veyergang's son—the girls at Veyergang's factory!" Nikolai stood, anxious and uncertain, listening, and now and again glancing quickly and sharply over at the man who was speaking.
Then he washed off the soot, and disappeared.
Silla had been down to the Valsets' cottage to fetch the customary evening pint of milk, when at the gate she met Nikolai. He said he had seen her go in, but she knew quite well that he had been watching for her.
"You can't think what fun I had on Midsummer Eve, Nikolai!" she said, holding out the can by the handle towards him. "If you only knew! No, never in all my life!"
"Up on Grefsen ridge?"
"How did you know; tell me, how did you know?"
"Oh, I—one of the smiths was up there. But I can't understand how you could get away from her at home."
"No, it was a near chance, too, I can tell you!" She looked round, and said in a cautious whisper: "Mother doesn't know but that I lay and turned over in my bed at home all Midsummer night. She went to eat St. John's porridge with aunt out at Asker, and I was to stay at home, and iron; but at nine o'clock, I said good-bye and went my way. Oh Nikolai!"—she clapped her hands, laughing—"you should have heard how she scolded yesterday morning when she came back, because I was still in bed! Did you hear that we were treated to punch, too?"
"Who gave it you?"
"Ah, wouldn't you like to know! But, Nikolai, you won't tell. It was a certain person who treated us."
"He came up to see that they did not light the bonfire too near the wood. Yes, you must know, Nikolai, that it was no less a person than young Veyergang! There was a Midsummer party at his father's, and they were to see the fire from the stairs at exactly half-past eleven.
"And then he treated them to punch? You too?"
"It was just me! 'Her with the black eyes,' he said."
"Perhaps he has spoken to you before, too?"
"Yes, indeed; he knows perfectly well that my name is Silla. I meet him every single day, you must know."
Nikolai made a movement as if he were bringing down a hammer on the hillside. "Indeed!"
"Last Saturday in the office, when he had reckoned a krone too much in the pass-book, he said I could keep it and spend it on cakes."
"Ha! ha! Did he say that? Wonderful, how kind he is!" Nikolai said this with something that was meant for laughter. "The cook is very kind, too, when she feeds the goose so as to get hold of it!"
He stood with one arm round the gate-post, looking at her; she had grown so pretty and elegant, and almost taller since he had seen her last. "A young girl who doesn't even know that she is pretty."
Silla pouted; her whole expression was one of supercilious disavowal.
"If they offer her a cake, or a handkerchief, or a little fun, she stretches out her neck and runs up. I should think you might understand that, Silla, from all you see round you! How many of them, I should like to know, will ever come to be the wife of an honest working-man? They manage to dance a few times, and then it's all over. And they wanted to be just as kind to you now, Silla! That Veyergang is on the watch for you! If I'm not on the watch for him——" He suddenly looked pale and ugly.
"What are you thinking of, Nikolai? Don't go on like that!"
"You may well say what was I thinking of, to stand there grinding and filing away the whole month at my probation work, and then let you go up there among that pack of wolves. But I was born like that—that everything should go wrong with me!"
Silla stood, as she always did when Nikolai put on this tone, downcast and dispirited, her slender figure bending forwards, and her eyes on the ground.
"We two, Silla," he continued at length, with a shake as if of resolution, but his voice trembled—"we two have been, as it were, brought up together. And with things as they were, if they could make me go wrong, it would have been still easier for you to be twisted by them, for I was strong, you see; but you were weak, and had always to creep like a cat among lies and difficulties. And so—so—I thought that we two—who have always stood by one another—and I haven't had anyone else I could trust, as you know, Silla, and neither have you—that we should join hands. And if you're of the same mind, then——"
He had clasped his broad hands round the gate-post, and was squeezing it with all the strength of his square-set figure, while he waited for her answer. He gazed at her bent head, but she did not look up; and he drew a deep breath, for he felt that he must go on.
"And now I've got together a little money, and not bought anything, and have filed and filed away at my probation work; because when I become journeyman, and another year has passed, and I've laid by a little, then—then it might be that you could get away from the factory dirt and the ordering at home both at once, and be a real smith's wife, Silla. You've never had any one to take care of you as I've done, you know; and you don't know how good I'll be to you! For a fellow who hasn't had either father or mother, and since I was up at the police-station I haven't had many companions either—" But here his emotion overpowered him.
"Such an uncommonly pretty smith's wife you would make, Silla! If any one has eyes for a smith, it's you; they are like sparks in the fire! And then to come home and see only the top of your pretty little black head at the room door! In spite of having always been treated like a dog, and worse than that—like a thief, it would all be nothing at all, if that was how it could end. One's own room with a lock on the door and the chest, that would be something better than being dragged round a dancing-hall, Silla, by fine fellows and sailors."
The last words, which were uttered in warm excitement, would have been better left unsaid; for, from standing melted and overcome, with tears in her eyes, she suddenly fired up against the accusation.
"Do you want to deny me a little pleasure, too, Nikolai? I'm not to see any one, not to go anywhere. Oh no! I'm to be a girl who has never danced, a regular queer bird, that's first been kept in a cage by her mother, and then by——" her voice quivered, and she began to cry. "Is that what you call being kind to me, Nikolai? You must be trying to make me afraid of you, too!"
"Afraid of me?—of me, Silla?"
"Don't they all look upon me as a baby that's tied to her mother's apron-strings? And now you come and want to help her, Nikolai. That's right! That's right! Only keep me in! Oh yes, you and mother! It's only a question of who gets the power over me. But you'd better take care, Nikolai!"
She began to cry bitterly in impotent rage.
"Oh, well, cry away! I won't say anything. You've got some one else to comfort you for a little while," he added moodily.
She suddenly sprang up, went up to him, and laid her arm confidingly on his shoulder.
"Don't you know that I'll be your wife, Nikolai?" she said, looking full and ardently into his eyes; there were still tears on her dark, freckled face.
"Well, if you will, Silla, you shall see who can work."
"But mother, Nikolai! Oh, I'm so frightened—so frightened only that she'll get to know that we sometimes meet. She looks at me so hard every time I've been an errand, and I've always been gone so long. But when I sit darning and patching of an evening, I sometimes imagine that you come in so fine and rich, and that you own the whole of Hægberg's smithy, so that mother has to give in."
"No, do you think about that, Silla? Then I will come. She'll have to give in like smoke, if I come only with my credentials, and my honest trade as well."
What was it that had happened that light, hazy, summer evening, when the waterfall thundered out beneath the bridge, when the trees seemed to swell with new budding leaves, and the sun glittered on the windows here and there? Was he intoxicated, or was it the evening that had taken an extra Midsummer carouse? The last he saw of Silla was that she hurried homewards with her can, and that she had looked round at him, as she turned into the road among the houses.
The world was right enough after all. When he reckoned it up properly, it was not at all so unreasonable, even if the lock did sometimes get out of order; and then—well, then one had to be both strong and neat-handed to get it open again.
No, it was right enough. You only see that when you get inside, and so there must be police and masters and order in everything, so that it can lock.
Nikolai stood riveting and meditating down in the smithy. He had now got his journeyman's credentials, and everything was rose-colour. The fact that he and the world were becoming reconciled showed in shining characters over the whole of his broad face. His short, strong figure moved with a newly-acquired, quick confidence at his work.
He worked now for journeyman's wages, and could save up a nice little sum each week. One fortunate circumstance in the case was that he never dared make Silla a present of anything, neither handkerchiefs nor anything else, because of Mrs. Holman. A penny saved is a penny gained, and she should have it all in good time.
On Saturday evenings, as soon as he had had a little wash in the cooling-water, he took his way up towards the manufacturing part of the town. He carried his hammer and pincers, and an iron plate or a lock in his hand; he must look as if he were engaged in his lawful work. And then came the chance whether on his way up or down he caught a glimpse of Silla.
It was quite a chance, and it sometimes happened that he just met Mrs. Holman instead. He must put up with that; at any rate, he looked right into the street there, in the cluster of houses where Silla walked several times a day. But what he found more difficult to put up with was, that on those occasions when he was fortunate, she was walking arm-in-arm with two or three other factory-girls, so that he scarcely got more than the one glimpse and short nod from her before they turned in now here, now there.
What did she want to go loitering about in the evening with those dissipated girls for? Was that the sort of thing for Silla? She was neither old enough nor wise enough to understand what she was getting mixed up in, and what a fine gentleman meant who nodded to her—for the sake of her pretty eyes. Amuse themselves? Yes, go round in the mill, until they come out crushed and ground!
No! She must come out of this.
And so he must work away with his file, and add one week's earnings to another, until he had made the silver hook large enough to draw her to him.
Yes, once she was with him!—he forgot himself in thoughts about house-rent and wedding outlay.