One of Life's Slaves
AN IMPORTANT STEP TAKEN
If Silla had not come like a wedge between the bark and the wood, how comfortably and free from care Barbara could have lived now. She had no one but Silla to thank that she was now deprived of all the help she might and—it was her firm conviction—ought to have had in her son Nikolai, with the regular earnings he might have put, every single week, into the till; which, for some reason or other, never would exhibit the amount it ought to have done.
It was not improbable that Barbara, after the fashion of country people, forgot to take into account the articles that went towards the nourishment of her own weighty person. On the other hand her ever ready hospitality with the coffee-pot was not without its savour of trade-policy—what she gave away was only to be looked upon as seed which would bring forth a hundredfold in the shape of customers.
Barbara's room was thus becoming the meetingplace for all the gossiping forces of the neighbourhood.
The posts in the fences had snow hats on, and snow-drifts lay by the roadside and on the fields.
One afternoon, when the sledges were creaking outside in the cold, and the door too, whenever anybody came in, Mother Taraldsen, who cupped people and applied leeches, and tall Mother Bækken were sitting and enjoying a cup of steaming hot coffee with loaf-sugar.
Mother Taraldsen was holding forth on the subject of bad liquids and ruined times, and how every trade was going down-hill, while Mother Bækken, getting more and more full of objections, put her head on one side, and stirred up her cup.
"I can remember a little of the old times too, and I don't know if they were any better, though every one is welcome to have his opinion, of course," here the long, yellow face with the eyes blinking with their own meaning, was laid almost across the cup; "but the day has grown longer for workmen now. Just think how they sat in the dark in the farms and cottages with pine-torches in the fireplace to cut and spin by; and there lay the lads the whole long winter through, and idled and yawned in their beds from three or four in the afternoon until they had to go out with a lantern and see to the horses for the night. But paraffine has got them out of their beds. It's as if we had the sun the whole winter now, and people can see to earn a few pence."
"Yes, but everything hasn't got right in that way either, when they sit and play cards and gamble and drink at the public-houses."
"That's not oil, that's gas! But that's good for something, too, both in the street lamps and up in the factory."
"And for drunkenness and dancing and wickedness."
Mother Bækken made a bend down to her cup with the side of her cheek and her chin, and up again in order to contradict in her most ingenious manner. But just then Anne Graves came in to the counter—it was she who kept the churchyard in order—and then one must be careful what one says.
Thank you kindly! She had no objection to a warm cup of coffee in this cold. She had had a busy day to-day with the big funeral; they must have heard all the ringing at dinner-time. He was an excellent man. She enlarged, by the plundering of diverse fragments of the funeral sermon, upon his worth and importance as a man and a citizen of the town. There had been speeches and such countless black hats and flowers, that the coffin was quite hidden. Yes, that was the third they had taken in since the New Year, she uttered with a sigh.
"You never know what sort of people you have among you, until they are dead," remarked Mother Bækken. "If he had been the poor man's friend, they could have sung and trumpeted a little about it while he lived. Perhaps that's turned the wrong way, but—" she slowly, and with increasing expression, bent her face over her cup.
Mother Bækken must always have her own interpretations, so Mother Taraldsen discreetly warded off a disturbance of the peace by striking into the very middle of the manufacturing part of the town. She had come up the streets yesterday evening with a covered cup containing leeches, and you might really think that if, all that long way up from the chemist's, you had escaped rogues and robbers, you ought to go free up here. But there came those great, grown-up girls, flying one after another along a slide down the street, screaming and shouting, so that it was enough to knock people down. So she had dropped the cup with all five leeches in it, and if it had not been moonlight so that she could see to pick them up again on the snow, she would have lost every single one. It was that Josefa and Gunda and Kalla down the street, and that long Silla—she came along like a ghost. Ah, Mrs. Holman, who is so particular, should see what sort of a daughter she has, when it gets dark.
Barbara nodded to herself, and thought that Nikolai should just hear what people said.
"I must really go out and look at them one evening, yes indeed. Well, that about the leeches I disapprove of entirely and altogether, I must confess. But young blood must have movement in some way, and may I ask,"—here Mother Bækken laid one fore-finger upon the other—"have they any way of amusing themselves, if they must not dance, and not slide, and not toboggan?"
But now Mother Taraldsen grew angry.
"If it's proper for respectable young girls to tear about and make a row, it must be the new fashion that Mother Bækken's preaching about. If you kept a careful watch at the corners, you might perhaps see that there were those who were out to meet the flock of geese."
"Then it would be better if you came down on them instead of the poor girls," replied Mother Bækken obstinately; "a man like that clerk down at the contractor's, and him at the Stores, and then that fine clerk, that Veyergang up at the factory and his friends."
Barbara was standing at the counter with a customer.
Nobody must say anything against her Ludvig. She knew him; she had been with him day and night for fourteen years. If she only had a halfpenny for every time he had cried and screamed for Barbara!
She would have enlarged upon the subject, if it had not been for the man at her back who was calling out for his soft soap.
So cup-and-leech-Mother Taraldsen went on, saying that the girls stood poking their heads out of every single gate the whole way up the street; she saw it so well when she came home from applying leeches of an evening.
She and Anne Graves then began to review the young people more closely. There were some they would not even mention, and some they named with all sorts of interesting doubts and opinions, and lastly some they only stopped to wonder that they had nothing whatever to say either about or against.
As to Barbara, she noticed carefully what was said about Silla, and made up her mind that Nikolai should be warned; he should at any rate know what he was doing when he went and took that girl.
And neither was it with a diminishing-glass she let him see it, as time after time she referred to all the dangers the young factory-girls up there were exposed to. She had sufficient instinct not to mention Silla, so that he should not think she was speaking against her. But every time she touched upon it, she saw well, that it went into Nikolai, and had fully the effect she wished.
Barbara had made some of these remarks this evening too, and Nikolai was sitting gloomily listening to the noise outside.
One party after another was flying past down the high-road on sledges, like shadows in the moonlight, with shouts and cries—half-grown lads and lassies, and now and then a party of fine people from the town below. One tall lad, with the rope over his shoulder and his heels digging into the hillside, was dragging a wood-sledge up, with a heavy load of girls upon it.
Nikolai could not help keeping watch through the kitchen window, and left his mother, who sat inside by the paraffins lamp, without any answer.
They were Kristofa and Kalla, those two who were standing there in the street talking, while they slid backwards and forwards the whole time on a little bit of ice. They were waiting for somebody—Silla perhaps; they were standing close by her street. It was a question which of them would dare to venture in and be so bold as to ask Mrs. Holman with many "dear, kind, goods" if she would allow Silla to go over to her for a little while this evening—always untruthfulness and disorder!
There was another sledge party with fine hats and glowing cigars standing laughing just outside.
Barbara stopped her knitting-pins to listen.
"We have this noise every evening till quite late," she remarked, "as long as the moon shines on the road."
He turned hot all over. If Silla were to get into this, then he might as well lay both himself and his hammer down.
Yes, there she was looking about at the corner for her two friends.
"Good evening, old lady," said he, suddenly coming out of the door.
"Is that you, Nikolai?" exclaimed Silla, in surprise. "Have you seen anything of Kristofa and Kalla? I did so want to speak to them! Haven't you? Do you know how I got out? I was only going to get the cat in for the night. I chased it out myself, and hid it so nicely under the wooden tub out in the shed. If only it doesn't mew."
She looked round again eagerly, while the elongated shadow across the snow imitated her slender figure and swaying movements.
"Oh, and they promised to wait for me!"
"Well, I suppose they've only gone."
"Only? They thought I was going out with them this evening, and if they haven't been here already, they may perhaps stand and wait, for I must go in, you see, or else I shall have mother coming out into the street after me. Listen, Nik! If you were nice "—she took hold of his jacket, and pushed him backwards and forwards—"you would find them and tell them—can you tell them properly?—that I must be good and stay at home this evening, but hurrah for a holiday to-morrow and the day after! Say that mother will be washing at the Antonisens' the whole of the end of the week, and they'll quite understand it. But be sure you find them, Nikolai, so that they won't blame me."
Nikolai was not insensible to her amiability, nor yet to her liveliness and prettiness; but it had just the opposite effect. While she stood pulling his jacket, he heard the voices on the high-road all the time.
"That's it, that's it! You want to get quite free now, Silla. Well, just let them drag you out among them! But that a respectable girl will let herself be drawn into such goings on!" he added, out of humour.
"A respectable girl? Respectable girl! May I ask what sort of fun she is to have then? I really wonder, Nikolai, that you didn't find a respectable girl for yourself who would walk with her back like a poker, and her arms under her shawl, and who only lets herself slide by accident as it were, when she comes to a slide—daren't even look out of the corner of her eye at a hand-sledge, because she's so well-behaved! It was a respectable one like that you ought to have had. And then, when you were standing hammering all day in the smithy, and she was deep in her work standing on all fours with her head behind the wash-tub at home, I suppose that would be as you would like to have it. But I can tell you, Nikolai, that if there isn't to be any fun in this world, then good-bye and be rid of it. I've had to sit shut up long enough at home."
He shook his head. "If only there weren't all those wolves howling away there on the road. But you see, they want to amuse themselves too; and—and the insignificant ones have to take care of what they have, it seems to me—and if you're of the same mind, Silla, we'll go in to your mother at once—this very moment." He took her by the hand to carry out his intention.
"You must be mad, Nikolai," she exclaimed in terror; the resolution was as terrible as it was unexpected. "No, no, let it be," she begged in an eager whisper. "Think of mother! Have you quite forgotten what mother is like? It will be time enough when we've got something to marry on."
"Time enough? No, it's not time enough for me, Silla. I must try and get it said now."
"And what will happen to me at home afterwards? And you're not dressed for it either, this evening."
"Oh, don't be afraid, Mr. Nikolai. I may as well see with my own eyes how highly my daughter condescends to respect her mother who is left a poor defenceless widow."
It was Mrs. Holman's own voice; she was standing in the gateway, looking preternaturally large.
"I thought I had gone through the worst that could be, when Holman died, and that I should be spared the pain of catching my own flesh and blood out, without leave, in conversation in the street, in the middle of the snow. Neither should I have thought that that person would ever presume to come so near my house. Just you come in with me, Silla. Come in, do you hear—at once!"
If any one could have gathered up the component parts of Mrs. Holman's last screaming treble, he would have found a wealth of emotions: injured motherly dignity, wrath, contempt, hatred, and something heavy, which was meant to have a crushing effect, and really did almost make Silla fall on her knees; she stood there without moving.
Nikolai had become a little hardened, however, since the old days; he knew now that there were others of whom he was more afraid than he was of Mrs. Holman. He was not affected by her.
"I must ask to be allowed to come in, however, ma'am, for I didn't come here this evening to stand out in the snow. It is to you yourself I want to speak."
"Perhaps it's no longer than can be said here where we stand," answered Mrs. Holman, rudely. "Come here, Silla!"
"Oh no, it's not very long; but then I must explain one or two things that belong to it."
As Mrs. Holman still continued to bar the gateway and only beckoned again to her daughter, Silla, in her despair and terror, suddenly made her choice. There was nothing for it but to shut her eyes and stand by Nikolai, and she took his arm boldly.
"Yes, ma'am, that's it, as you see. We hold together as we have done ever since we were little. And I came this evening to ask for her, and to ask if we could have the benefit of your leave and consent. For with my credentials and good wages, and when I never drink and—"
Silla now acted with the courage of despair; she pushed Nikolai so that they all three—Mrs. Holman yielding half involuntarily—came through the gate and from thence into the room where the battle was then fought.
While Silla sat with her hands before her face on a chair in the dark and Nikolai, with quiet persistency continued to plead his case, and make as manifest as possible how he now had a prospect of becoming foreman and could provide for Silla, Mrs. Holman assumed a mightily offended, repellant attitude. She employed her whole power; she bridled, and she was wrathful, and she exhibited the most extreme astonishment. It almost looked as if he thought he could really take her daughter from her, whether she said yes or no. What was there left for an elderly woman to live on, when her husband was dead, and her daughter who could keep her, refused, because she thought of marrying a smith who could not so much as show that he had a wedded father?
She was on the point of rising in defence to the death of her maternal rights, when a light suddenly dawned upon her. Her eyes began to gaze into a perspective of the future. If Nikolai ever came to justify the great words and promises he was now making, she might, in case of the worst, when the time came, claim an asylum with them.
This thought, however, did not prevent her from selling every concession, with deep sighs, as dearly as possible.
She must say she had thought of something quite different for Silla. And, however it might be, she would not hear of any gadding about or sweet-hearting until Nikolai could show as much ready money as Holman had done.
He had had a hundred dollars and his good wages, and when Nikolai could lay as much money on the table in front of her eyes, it would be time to talk about it.
A hundred dollars—that was something decided at last. He held her in a vice with that.
That was the feeling which filled him when, a little while after, he sprang right across the snowdrift to shorten the way, and knocked at Barbara's door. He must have some one to tell it to—that Mrs. Holman had acquiesced in Silla's having in this way promised herself to him.
It was exactly the same view of her well-considered advantage that occurred to Barbara while she lay that night collecting herself after the news. She raised her large person up in bed under the influence of the brilliant idea:
Why, then, she could live with Nikolai!
This grocery business was completely eating her up—it did not enter her head that she was eating it up.
She suddenly felt quite clear as to her whole position; how it would be best both for her and Nikolai that she should give up the shop in time, and how instead she could be of unspeakable use in helping the totally inexperienced Silla to manage the house, and perhaps earn a few pence at other houses. And she had never heard but that a son was bound to provide for his mother.
The following Sunday Mrs. Holman drank coffee at Barbara's; but as Mrs. Holman was silent about what had taken place, Barbara was silent too. Only once she led the conversation up to her son Nikolai, and thought that possibly in the autumn, when the room next door was empty, he might move into it. It would not be too much, when it was remembered how they had always been separated.
Why Mrs. Holman at that moment became thoughtful, pursed up her mouth and said: "Thank you," she would not have any more coffee! and somewhat unexpectedly shortened her visit, shall be left untold. It can only be stated, that from that moment, a silent contest began between them under water—under the most friendly form, it must be added, for Mrs. Holman's sake if for nothing else.
The coffee visits continued, if possible, with greater frequency, and Barbara as well as Mrs. Holman discussed and talked over every possible subject, except the one that lay nearest to their hearts—their own personal plans in connection with Nikolai and Silla. On that point they watched each other in diplomatic silence, like two chess-players of whom the one dare not move until he has seen through the other one's intention; Mrs. Holman, in the middle of some strictly reserved opinion, taking in everything with her precise, little face and cold grey eyes, and seeing it all clear and small as if through the bottom of a tumbler; and Barbara, round, hospitable, large and fat, with great, overflowing features, and generally talking about her time at the Consul's.
But during all this, there was one thing upon which each of them became always more and more decided—if she could not live with them herself, she would at any rate put a stop to the other coming and filling up the house.
The two future mothers-in-law were each occupied to the best of their ability in making it impossible for the other; but of this quietly calculated conflict which was going on in the ground far below them, Nikolai and Silla had no suspicion.