One of Life's Slaves



Some time after Nikolai had got his credentials, he was pleasantly surprised by a visitor—he could hardly believe his own eyes—none other than his mother, who was watching for him one Saturday afternoon, outside the basement where he dined.

She had heard that he had become a journeyman, and could not rest until she got a lift on one of the plank-loads which was going in to town, and paid him a visit. She was so glad. If he knew how many sighs she had heaved for his sake, and how many bitter tears she had shed—the big, handsome, half peasant-clad woman was red in the face, and wept and dried her eyes incessantly on her folded pocket-handkerchief, while she gave expression to her emotion and joy over the way in which everything had turned out, as if by special guidance.

She had been so unfortunate for a long time; but now that she had got her son again, everything looked different for her. Oh, how big and broad and fine he had grown—a regular smith! He had a frock-coat now for Sundays, hadn't he? And he must have a hat, too. He must let her advise him; she knew all about it from what she had seen in the world.

It was with quite strange, at first almost mixed, feelings that Nikolai thus suddenly saw a mother fall down to him—some day a father might come tumbling down too!

It was so many years since he had thought of her, and the picture he really had of her was buried in the bitter salt slough of tears in the depths of his recollections, which he was far from being in the mood to stir up. There were things within him, which he avoided from an instinctive feeling of safety in the whole of his new, happy existence; but such a thing as finding his mother again must surely belong to the happiness of the new Nikolai, the journeyman smith! Yes, of course, he was fond of her, and it was immensely affecting.

And while he walked beside her, and was glad too, and kind and obliging, and gave up his Saturday afternoon with half a day's pay, he had, without exactly intending it, spent on a present—an exceedingly large, gay, flowered silk handkerchief—as much as it had taken him a fortnight to scrape together; and, besides that, had paid for some fine bread and a ham, which she had to take back with her, and of which she even tried a few goodly slices down in the town by way of afternoon refreshment.

She had an appetite, and she could not be very much accustomed to economising either;—this was about the sum of the happy, filial comments that Nikolai made to himself after the meeting. In addition to this, he felt himself unexpectedly lightened of a good deal of money; and it was in a rather dispirited mood that he went up in the evening in the hope of seeing Silla, and telling her of his new happiness.

The whole of that side of the town up under the hill already lay in shadow, and in the oppressively warm evening, labourers were walking with their coats over their shoulders, while sounds of life and noise rose here and there from the shops in the manufacturing district below.

Nikolai had traversed in vain the district surrounding the Valsets' cottage, keeping constant watch at the same time down the broad high-road, which went past the gate, and the footpath that crept straight across the field down behind it. Silla was not to be seen. A girl went with a bucket from the cowshed into the pent-house. She looked up towards him and laughed, and the consequence was that Nikolai continued his way towards the factory without once turning round. They must be able to see through the walls in there! And they had already begun to wonder at his coming there so often.

The waterfall was turned off, so that only a white streak ran over the dam and fell drop by drop upon the wheel. A cart was rattling along the road in front of him. Now it stopped to unload; the load was tumbled off with one tilt. It was mould that they were driving to the garden outside the office building at the factory.

Within the fence were a number of women and girls busily at work. They were raking, pulling up and planting, while a man followed with a hose; and out of the open window, with his straw hat on his head, hung young Veyergang, and talked.

There stood Mrs. Holman, with arms akimbo, beside one of the black flower-beds, inspecting some plant that she had patted down with her hand; and—Silla! on her knees, pulling up weeds into her apron from a bed close to the house. It was with her Veyergang was joking from the window, and she shook her head and laughed, and looked up for a moment—she dared not answer because of Mrs. Holman.

It was as if a pair of pincers with many claws had suddenly taken hold of Nikolai's heart, and he all at once remembered so vividly the day when he had had Ludvig Veyergang under his fists.

He went back with a weight like lead upon his breast, and sat down on the edge of a ditch in the field, whence he could, unseen, keep an eye upon all who came down the road.

She had looked so much too pretty when she raised her head with that suppressed merriment in her glance. This was what his thoughts would return to, and he only saw before him what he suffered from.

An hour had passed. Almost stupidly he had watched one after another come down the road; but all at once his face changed colour. Ludvig Veyergang was sauntering past, dashing and easy, with his stick held loosely in his hand. He had red cheeks like a girl, and fine black whiskers beneath the straw hat, and he half closed his grey eyes to look about him, while he hummed softly.

Nikolai gazed despondently after him, as he disappeared down the road.

Again this same old hopelessness before a superior force, this feeling for which he could never find words and vent, unless it some day happened that—he closed his eyes, and there was a compressed, violent expression about his mouth and chin.

There came Silla by Mrs. Holman's side, with bent head, like a willow that is bowed by its growth. Sometimes she stole a glance around, like a school-girl who avoids her teacher's eye.

They separated at the Valsets' cottage; Silla went in after the evening's milk.

She came out again with the can, and took the path over the meadow. She went quickly, smiling to herself, and an almost frightened expression came into her face when Nikolai rose out of the bush by the ditch.

"Do you start when you see me, Silla?"

"How fierce you look!" she answered jestingly.

"You did say you'd be my wife, didn't you, Silla?"

"What makes you say that now, Nikolai? It's such a long time to then."

"I may need to hear it once more. When you aren't more sure than I am, you like to feel twice whether the strap you are holding on to is firmly fastened, or if it will give way. You have got so much into your head since you came up here to the factory."

"Take care! Just you take care, Nikolai. You have become so dreadfully afraid for me lately," she said, laughing saucily; "but I've become a little grown-up too. It's only you who don't see it, and stand there like a post! But you can't think how awfully busy I am now. As soon as ever I've swallowed my supper, I go up to the factory again. I and Kristofa and Kalla and Josefa have got the whole of the weeding and tidying up in the office garden, down all the peas and carrots, and cabbage-beds as well; and when it grows over in the autumn, we shall have that too."

Nikolai only stood reckoning. Twenty-seven dollars, subtracting what he had spent on his mother to-day—the ham, too, for he would not get that back—that was what he owned, and he needed at least twice as much again before he could get the most necessary things for his room. Only to get her out of this, even if he had to work day and night.

Aloud he only said cautiously: "If we are only wise, and careful, and look well ahead, perhaps we may be sitting in our own room by next spring, Silla. But so many things may happen in between," he added huskily, with a deep-drawn sigh.

"I really believe there'll be neither life nor courage in you until you're married, Nikolai," she said, laughing; "you're so horrid to meet now, that it's enough to make one quite sad and uncomfortable the whole evening. A nice sweetheart you are!" She swung roguishly round on her heel, with the can extended, and ran down the road, nodding a farewell.

He had not got so far as to tell her what he had originally gone up there for—the news about his mother, and, to tell the truth, he had completely forgotten it; but it would be time enough next time he met her. And it must not be too long to that, things looking as they did now.

A few weeks afterwards some one inquired for him.

A peasant carter, in a state of great uncertainty about his load, had stopped outside the eating-house. Part of the load was made up of his mother's big chest, which the man had undertaken to drive to town, and leave for the meantime at Nikolai's. Barbara herself was to follow in a day or two.

She must have some project in her head! Perhaps she was thinking of going out to service again.

And one evening when he came home he found a red wooden box and a pair of laced boots upon the chest. His mother must have been there!

Half an hour later she appeared. She had only been out to buy a little new rye-bread, cheese, and butter to take up to her lodgings this evening.

In the meantime she cut some for herself and offered some to him.

Her ample figure, in addition to her effects, almost filled Nikolai's narrow little bedroom. She had become rather short of breath, and acquired a double-chin with so much sitting indoors; the lower part of her face, which, in the brilliancy of youth, had been covered with pure, healthy mountain roses, now, as it moved in the process of eating, gave only the impression of powerful crushing with still solid teeth, in which, however, toothache, from many scalding cups of coffee, had made here and there serious inroads. While she sat on the chest and he on the bed, she gave expression to the following:

The farmer with whom she had bargained to live—for eighteen dollars a year and help at the busy seasons, while she found herself in coffee—was so pinching and mean about the board, that she had been obliged to buy one thing and another herself; well, he had seen the ham himself, and knew what she had been accustomed to at the Veyergangs'. She could truly say that she had swallowed her food with tears many a time, when she thought of all that she had done for Ludvig and Lizzie, that she had carried them in her arms and been more to them than their own mother. And then to think that the reward of all this should be hard work in the hay and corn harvest! No, she was praised by too many mouths for that!

She had waited patiently, too, thinking they would remember old Barbara. Oh no! one would have to remind them one's self, if that were to be!

But now that she had Nikolai there, she had thought and meditated and reflected about setting up a little shop in the town. And she had been out to the Consul's to-day.

He was cross when she went into the office, and snappish; but she knew him, and began talking cleverly:

"How is mistress and Mr. Ludvig and Miss Lizzie, might I be so bold as to ask? Bless me, they must have grown so tall and so grand now, that they couldn't be expected to know a poor servant again!"

"'Thin—thin as laths,' he laughed. 'You might easily hold them one in each arm now! But you must have eaten up the whole barn up there; I didn't remember that you were so big, Barbara. I should think he's had to give up house and lands, that farmer?' he said, to tease me.

"'Thank you, I wasn't accustomed to cattle fodder at the Consul's house,' said I; 'and it's me, rather, that's in such circumstances that I must leave. That man takes pretty good care that he is not cheated.'

"And then I talked about Ludvig and Lizzie until I began to cry.

"'And that harum-scarum boy of yours?' he asked.

"'Thank you,' said I, 'my son Nikolai is now a finished journeyman smith in this city.'

"And then I told him my thoughts of coming to town to go into trade. 'I have always noticed that it has been better to be behind the counter than in front of it,' I said.

"Then he laughed. 'You want to make yourself a new storehouse in town, I see, Barbara.'

"'Yes, sir, when it can be done honestly, and with a little help; every one aims at their own maintenance.'

"And then he promised me right down a free room and kitchen in one of the houses up in the manufacturing part of the town for a whole year!"

As mother and son sat opposite to one another, they were not without a certain similarity; but where the leading of fate had turned the features of his broad, intelligent face into muscle and energy, it had in Barbara relaxed all the springs into dull, ponderous fat.

It was not, however, without a certain amount of enthusiasm that she now unfolded her plans for the little business, and how she should procure credit, a little at each place; she still had acquaintances at the shops in the neighbourhood, from the time she was at the Veyergangs'. Afterwards it was only to sell out, pay for the old, get new again; it all went round like a winch!

But she must have a little more ready money, for hers would not go far enough. Now, if Nikolai could help her with a little; it would all lie in the goods, so that, for that matter, it was the same whether he put his pence there or in his pocket—the same to a T!

Could he tell her where she could buy a counter cheap! Or rather, get it on credit; if there was anything she was hard up for now, it was ready money. Perhaps she might as well try to take out a little more at the carpenter's at once, only a fair-sized folding-table, two beds, and a few chairs. She had thought that when once she had got it started and into order, Nikolai might live with her. If she prepared all his meals for him besides, the one thing might be set off against the other, and part of his wages go towards it—he must himself reckon up and say how much he thought.

Barbara continued more eagerly to build up in her own mind, and emphasising now and then with a smack of her hand, how everything was to be.

But as she waxed warmer and more elated over her visions of the future, Nikolai sat doubtful, and softly beating a measure with his foot. All this about the shop might be right enough. His mother must surely understand it, she who had been at the Veyergangs', and had now, moreover, talked to the Consul himself. But the more she initiated him into her plans, and in them appropriated him entirely to herself, and talked away as if there could be no obstacle in any corner of the heavens, the wider did the gulf between their wills and interests open before him. She came with a mother's long-dispensed-with right, and just now he knew in his heart that he belonged still more to another, and must go his own way.

She could not know that she was coming upon nails the whole time in the wall, so he would have to speak out.

"Well, you see, mother"—he looked down at the floor—"you're welcome to my money, if only it's certain I get it back again by the new year, so there's nothing to hinder that. But, you know, why I must have it again is—is because I and Mrs. Holman's Silla have agreed to marry and settle down. And I'm quite determined about it, for I've worked and toiled for that, ever since Holman died; and it would be ill for me if I had to be without her."

His sharp, grey eyes shot a glance up at her, and the mother instinctively felt that here was a will that had escaped from her hands.

This was something that had never entered into her plans.

In order to remove her dissatisfaction, he let her have his thirty dollars before she went.

There is a branch of trade in the narrow streets and outskirts, whose position is one storey higher than the stall-woman. It sells its wares from a house, comprises, according to legislation, a great many more effects, and allows the individual concerned to lead a more comfortable existence, with a step farther from hand to mouth; that is to say, it gains, instead of a day's credit or a weekly settlement, a week's credit or a monthly settlement.

It was in this small trade that Barbara wanted to start, and if it can be said of America that whole towns and undertakings arise in a moment of time, something of the same kind might well be said of Barbara's shop.

Barely a week later she was in her house, and had in the window an exhibition of balls of cotton, bread, twists, sweets, stay-laces, needle-cases, snuff, clay pipes, steel pens, matches, etc., etc., while she herself sat behind the counter—which was a packing-case disguised under some print—and ground coffee, which she roasted in the kitchen beyond. In a drawer that would lock, which Nikolai had overlooked, stood the cigar-box that did duty as a cash-box, with a few coppers in it.

The acquaintance between Mrs. Holman and Barbara, too, was already renewed, with the secret about Silla preserved on Barbara's side.

Mrs. Holman—she lived only in the street below—had come up, while Barbara was standing on her steps in the evening, to look at her new surroundings by the light of the just completed shop-window. And then she must not pass an old acquaintance's door. She must come in and have a cup of coffee—it was standing clearing on the hob, if she would condescend.

Mrs. Holman might very well have had her own opinion about a good deal that she saw in there, but she preferred, while she drank her coffee, to give Barbara some idea of the series of dispensations which she had passed through since Holman died.

"Oh no, don't turn your cup up yet! One more, Mrs. Holman."

Mrs. Holman drank a third cup too, without becoming at all less melancholy. Her quiet, cold grey eyes had looked and explored while she talked, and sucked in observations of Barbara's open-handed, profuse management, like pipe-clayed fat. But when she left, she had, with many cautious reservations, and in the hope that Barbara's wares would stand the test in the long run, expressed her inclination to remove her custom to Barbara.

Mrs. Holman's Silla was just standing at the counter—she wanted a pint of groats to take home with her—when Barbara, who was measuring them out, suddenly saw Ludvig Veyergang at the door.

He had seen Barbara before, and as he passed the door twice a day now, he nodded to her whenever she showed herself on the steps. But so friendly as he was to-day! Barbara was quite softened, and very nearly called him Ludvig, he was so lively and playful about her shop. He stood looking with half-closed eyes, and laughing at Silla, who grew redder and more bashful, and only tried in her confusion to get the bag of groats out of Barbara's hand. He had taken his straw hat off his curly hair for the heat, and looked so nice and handsome.

Silla hardly dared look up at him, and only heard something about freckles not being anything to mind when one had such dark eyes, when, with head in advance, she rushed out of the door.

Barbara's opinion afterwards about Silla's behaviour—her having all at once turned crimson, and rushed away at a few innocent words from such a well-meaning and handsome man as Ludvig Veyergang—her son heard the same evening. A young girl ought to stand modestly, and not go on like that: if she did, it was a sure way of getting all that could be called man-folk at her heels.

Was she anything for Nikolai—that awkward, dark, long girl, who ran about in that bodice that was too short for her, looking like a half-peeled, bent prawn in the back, and went balancing along the edge of the gutter, as if she were going to be a tightrope dancer—without any education? Upon her word, if it had been any other than Ludvig Veyergang, she would have had him peeping after her at every corner.

"But, do you know, Nikolai, it suddenly came into my head while he stood there, that here was the person who both could and would help me with those fifteen dollars I still want so badly. But he was gone before I could collect myself."

"Him? N—no, mother! I'll get them for you, if you'll only wait a little; and I think you can use my money as well as his."

"Well, if I hadn't got you, Nikolai!" sighed Barbara, moved; "and now you shall have some coffee that's good, and new cinnamon-sticks with it, that I didn't get sold to-day."

"No, thanks all the same, mother," he answered, gloomily: he was already at the door.

Later in the evening he succeeded in meeting Silla. She was so merry and laughing this evening.

"I ran away; didn't look at him at all. Would you have liked me to stay, perhaps?" she said, playfully.

He was disarmed for the moment, she laughed so confidingly.

But as he went down, he still saw Veyergang's insolent, half-closed eyes, and the curl coming out beneath his hat, and—he could not help it—he felt as if it were twined round his finger!

That she chattered so gaily did not please him, nor yet that whenever he made time to go up in the evening she came down breathless from the garden, and was always full of whether young Veyergang had been there or not, what he had said, and what she had thought, and whether Kristofa had afterwards agreed or disagreed with her. It was as if she could not talk of anything else!

Yet it was not so bad, he supposed, so long as it was she herself who chattered and talked about it to him.

But the perspiration would stream from him in the smithy, when he stood and thought about it all up there. He felt as though he were under a screw.

Why should not the poor man's possession be left in peace? Here he was toiling away, and would give every drop of blood in his body to be able to marry; and that other one, who had his pockets full, and could have any fine lady for the asking—they were worse than wild beasts and murderers! And amidst all this the time was passing.

He had blessed both the autumn mud and darkness, which put an end to all the running about in the evening; and now winter days and snow had come. When he reckoned up—and he was always reckoning—he found that by the New Year he would be worth seventy-five specie-dollars—what he had almost starved himself to save—and of these his mother had had forty-five, and since then thirteen more. He had made a half bargain about a room with a kitchen at a fair price per month, and what he wanted for the house, too. The last time he had lent his mother money, she had said that he need not be afraid, she was selling the goods and sweeping in the profits.

Everything was in order, so the battle with Mrs. Holman had better be fought at once. And when he laid before her his journeyman's credentials, his seventy-five dollars, and his regular earnings, with the advance he was to have from the New Year at Hćgberg's, she would have to be so kind as to give in.

It was on one of the days between Christmas and the New Year that he went up to his mother to let her know that he must have his money out in February. Then he would go to Mrs. Holman.

It struck him that his mother was rather confused and forgetful while she made the coffee.

She thought she was half crazy to-day, she said; but he should have his coffee, and Christmas should not pass without his having something good; it had not been the custom where she was brought up.

Oh, dear! So Nikolai wanted his money back already. She had grown so forgetful, that she had not remembered that it was so soon. And just before Christmas she had had to settle a bill for coffee and sugar which, upon her word, she had not thought or known would come in until after the fair or at Midsummer! But he need not be afraid; she knew well enough where she could get the money, if she liked to tie on her bonnet and go out after it.

"So drink, Nikolai; it's as strong as a rock. It isn't Christmas more than once a year, as they say in the country. I believe you're afraid. For your money? Oh, no; never you fear! If your mother, Barbara, has promised anything, she'll keep it; so you may be easy. So nice as Ludvig was to me the last time he was in here—it was only the afternoon of Little Christmas Eve.[4] Barbara needn't be at a loss for a few pence when I say my son wants them. Oh, dear no! Now, Nikolai, don't look like that. Don't you hear you shall have it? My goodness, how you do look at me!"

[Footnote 4: The day before Christmas Eve proper.]

He said nothing, only sat still a long time, and Barbara thought it was getting oppressively quiet. She tried first one thing and then another.

"I'll try it directly after New Year. I would never have borrowed your money if I'd known it would be like this."

"No, mother. You must pay me the money when you can; I won't press you for it. But if you try to beg it from Ludvig Veyergang, we are parted for this world, and as far as I get into the next, too! So now you know, mother. And many thanks for the wedding this time, both from me and Silla!" and he pulled open the door.

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