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One of Life's Slaves By Jonas Lie Characters: 27069

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

It is in some ways a blessing that those who have suffered hardship and been neglected in their babyhood, do not remember anything about it-and yet perhaps something clings to them.

So, at any rate, Mrs. Holman declared. From the very first day the boy came into the house, she could see he had been brought up in a thieves' nest. His eyes were so wise and watchful, and he could be so craftily cunning and refractory, long before he could speak. She declared that he was positively malicious, so drowsy and quiet as he would be until she had just fallen asleep, when he would begin to shout as loud as a watchman.

But every one who knew anything about the Holmans, said that if they had not been fortunate in getting the boy, he had at any rate been fortunate in having found his way to them. There were not two opinions as to what an orderly woman Mrs. Holman was, and how strict in the fulfilment of her duty. Tall, thin and neat in her person, even her small, liver-coloured face, with the pale blue expressionless eyes, told you at once that she was not the woman to allow herself to be carried away by rash impetuosity.

And on the few occasions in the year that Barbara visited the boy-it was not so easy for her to come now that the Veyergangs lived in their country house all the year round-she could see for herself how well-cared-for and clean he was, and how strictly he was kept. From the time she got there to the time she left, she heard nothing except how difficult it was to straighten out all the tinsmith's dents, all that had been wrongly and improperly dealt with from the very first, especially his obstinate temper! Now he really could walk quite a good way, but he would do nothing but crawl, and so quickly, that no sooner had she, Mrs. Holman, taken her eyes off him than he might be anywhere, either at the saucepans and pots, or in the water-bucket, or else at the plummets on the bell. And he upset things, and got himself in a mess, wherever he went; yesterday the cat's food lay all over the floor! So now she had hung the birch-rod low down on the wall, so that it might be before his eyes; for it was necessary to frighten him, and vigilance and punishment must positively be used. And Barbara must know herself, that it wasn't so easy to manage other people's children, and especially such a stray creature, come into the world in such a manner!

It was all just, as Barbara was obliged to acknowledge to herself, from beginning to end, however much it might sting her, and therefore she was always in a hurry to get away again.

It cannot be denied that she learnt something from it too, namely, what she, on her side, might have reason and right to say to Mrs. Veyergang about all the toil she had had with her two, if they ever had a difference.

But the same spirit of disobedience remained in the boy as he grew older. It was impossible to cure him of it, for all that Mrs. Holman could do, and Holman had to help too sometimes. This did not happen, however, until his wife had duly impressed on him the moral necessity of taking upon himself his share of the duties of the house.

Holman was a silent man with a pair of quiet, shining eyes. He went and came, morning and evening, rubbed and dried his shoes, and stood hesitating at the door with some tool or other, or the tail of a block in his hand, before he went in. What he might think of his married life there was little opportunity of seeing in his face. One thing was certain-a wife like Mrs. Holman was a treasure, which could not be sufficiently prized; and if there was not quite so much left of Holman, if, in fact, he had become-with all reverence be it said-something of a fool, yet every one was sensible that in that union it must be so, if the balance was to be kept. Any one who had only seen or spoken to Mrs. Holman once, understood it immediately, but what was not so easy to understand was that, after all, it was Holman who made the blocks down in the workshop, by which the household lived.

It was still more remarkable that he had sometimes been met in the gateway in an irresponsible condition, such as no one would have expected in a man so happily married as he was.

After the miracle of Mrs. Holman's having a little girl herself had happened-after that great and important change in the household, it was deliberated whether it would not be better to rid the room of other people's progeny. But then it was good regular money to have, and in time the boy could be made use of at the cradle.

It was the lightest work in the world-just made for a little boy, sitting and rocking the cradle with his foot-nothing but a little practice for him.

But here, too, she was to have sad experience. She left him by the cradle went she went out, but when she came home, he would be standing gazing out of the window or from the top of the cellar stairs at the children playing in the square. She had even caught him right outside with the door open behind him-it was all the same to him, as long as he could get out of the cellar and away from his duty.

Well, the young rogue would have to pay for it, as much as his mortal back could bear!

And she assured the servant upstairs, who put in her head to hear what the little imp had done now, as he was screaming so-that all the punishment she gave him, and all her attempts, both by letting him have no supper and by locking him in, were equally useless: he was just as defiant and unreliable as ever!

She had frightened him now by saying that the devil sat in the corner behind the bed and watched to see if he left the cradle!

He was almost beside himself with terror, and fancied all the time that he could see the aforesaid sinister personage putting up his head over Mrs. Holman's pillow. He could not help looking now and again towards the window-there was some one playing outside in the square. And, somehow or other, he came to be standing there, and stood until he once more remembered what was behind him. Then he darted back like an arrow, and sat staring in mortal fear into the corner.

From being made useful beside the cradle, Nikolai was advanced in course of time to mind the Holman's daughter Ursula, outside the cellar steps. To move farther, only as far as the trees over on the other side of the street, was a capital offence. The idea of what overstepping the bounds meant, was impressed upon him with full force. How could Mrs. Holman be sure otherwise that he did not take Silla right up to the basin round the fountain, where all the naughty boys played with their ships, and shouted and made a noise? His poor little body had received so many black and blue marks every time he had fallen into temptation that at last the limits stood instinctively before his frightened perception like an invisible iron grating. A foot's breadth beyond was, in his imagination, the blackest crime, an enormity which would draw down the fiercest retribution upon him.

That Silla was an uncommon and remarkable being of a higher order, so to speak, than himself, had been driven into him in so many ways ever since she came into the world, that he looked upon the assertion as raised above all doubt.

Notwithstanding everything that he had endured for her sake, or perhaps, by a strange contradiction, just because of these sufferings, the feeling that she was under his care was most highly developed. His admiration of her was unqualified; he thought her more than remarkable in her blue bow and an old red stuff rose in her hat, and he submitted to a wilfulness which was quite as despotic as even Mrs. Holman's. When he had sat long enough and let her fill his hair with dust, she would order him to pull off her shoes and stockings. If he did it, he got a beating; if he did not do it, she screamed, and then he got a beating too.

Insecurity was, so to speak, the soil on which he lived, and the hurried, shrinking glances he continually cast, as if from habit, towards the cellar door-even when his often guilt-laden conscience felt itself most guiltless-were only the fruit of daily experience.

"You could see the bad conscience in his face, a long way off," said Mrs. Holman; and it was true-the quick, watchful look up with the grey eyes was to see what sins he was guilty of now.

"Good neighbours and other good things," the catechism says. But in our times we have no neighbours; you do not know who lives on the floor above you or on the floor below, or even on the other side of the passage. And so it was that no one in the house had any ear to speak of for Nikolai's various untoward fortunes below in the cellar, although their character often asserted itself with no uncertain sound during their execution.

The neighbours had become accustomed to the continual screaming and howling of that naughty boy, just as one accustoms one's self to piano practising or the din of a factory; perhaps too, they comforted themselves with the thought that it was most fortunate that such a morally depraved child had come under discipline and correction.

When Nikolai and Silla wandered as usual up and down the pavement outside the cellar, the people of the house might often in passing give the little girl a friendly nod. To give Nikolai any encouragement in that way would have been a mistake.

Maren, the cook, who had come to the floor above last hiring-day[1], had naturally no conception of Mrs. Holman's strict, conscientious character, and was therefore to be excused in what now took place.

[Footnote 1: The days for changing servants in Norway are in the spring and autumn. In Christiania they are the second Friday after Easter, and the second Friday after Michaelmas.]

She went down into the cellar with the lantern one evening to fetch coal and wood, panting and puffing down the stairs as she used to do; she had a bend in both hips from rheumatism, and rocked from one side to the other like a boat's mast in rough weather.

From the wood-cellar she all at once heard a sound as of wailing in the darkness within. It was as though some one were crying, and now and again sobbing convulsively for some time without being able to produce a distinct sound.

The voice sounded so utterly broken-hearted that Maren stopped putting the wood into her apron and stood by the chopping-block listening. It seemed to come from one of the coal cellars up the dark passage. At last she seized the lantern and groped her way in; she must come to the bottom of this.

"Is any one here?" she cried at the door whence the sobbing came.

There was a sudden complete silence.

She knocked hard with a bit of wood, but then from within there came a terrified scream, which made Maren drop the wood from her apron and pull open the hasp of the door which was fastened with a piece of wood.

"But who has put the poor little boy in here-in the pitch black darkness?"

By the light of the lantern she saw Nikolai staring at her in wild terror.

"I thought it was the devil, I did. Yes, for he does knock on the wall."

"Oh, you'd frighten any one out of their senses, boy, with those ugly words!"

"Mrs. Holman says so;" and with a quick, inquiring glance up at Maren he added, "but do you think she only says it so that I shan't touch her sugar?"

"Is that what you are here for?"

"I haven't taken anything from her, but I will, if she says it whether I do or not! It was only that Monday when I put my tongue down into the bag and licked when I'd gone for half a pound. But now I'll crunch it so that she'll only have the empty bag left! I'll take! I'll steal!" he added and ground his teeth. "Don't-don't go!" he sobbed, catching hold of her dress, "for when it's dark again, he'll come and take me!"

What was Maren to do? She stood hesitating and considering; she dare not let the boy out.

She might try and beg him off from Mrs. Holman.

"Only get me another beating for that, too!" was the answer.

There was nothing else for it; she could not let the poor little frightened thing stay there in the coal-hole. So, with eyes closed to the consequences of her own determination, she exclaimed: "Then you must come up into the kitchen with me, and sleep on the bench there to-night."

This time, Nikolai did not weigh the probabilities of what Mrs. Holman would say or do; he only took hold of her skirt with both hands. And with the boy close in her wake, Maren sailed up the kitchen stairs again.

While she was looking out some of her old shawls and skirts to put under him, taking some of the clothes from her own bed, and making it as comfortable and warm as she could for him on the bench, Nikolai seemed to have forgotten all his troubles.

There was so much that was new up here. There were such a number of shining tin things hanging all over the wall, and then the cat was an old friend. He had seen it many a time down in the yard, and now he had to squeeze himself together to get hold of it, it had crept so far under the bed.

There! He had knocked down the tin kettle with his back!

He fled in terror to the door. But Maren picked it up quite quietly; there was not a word of scolding, a thing he wondered more at than either the tin things or the cat.

Maren had at last fallen asleep after all the aching and pain of the rheumatism in her weary joints, with which she always had to contend at the beginning of the night. She was awakened by a wild shriek.

"What is it-what is it, Nikolai? Nikolai!"

She lighted the bit of c

andle. He was sitting up, fencing with his arms.

"I thought they were going to take my head off," he explained, when he at length collected himself.

When she lay down again, Maren could not help thinking how glad she was that she had no child to be responsible for. Every one has his trouble, and now she had this rheumatism.

But it was a shock to her, when, on the kitchen stairs next morning, in the presence of the servants both from the other side of the passage and from the first floor, Mrs. Holman called her to account for having interfered in what was none of her business. She then received such full information, once for all, both as to why Mrs. Holman had shut him in, and what they had to go through daily with that boy, that Maren was completely nonplussed. For this Mrs. Holman could stake her life upon, that if there was any one in the house who could not stand disorder or unseemly behaviour, it was she. She could not imagine a worse punishment than to have it said of her that she allowed shame and depravity to flourish in her sight.

But when Maren sat down there in the evening by the lantern on the chopping-block, and could hear the boy screaming right from the Holmans' room, she was not capable of going upstairs until the worst was over. She thought she had never heard anything so heart-rending, even though it was in the cause of justice.

Up with Maren was a kind of harbour of refuge for the boy. He would sit there as quiet as a mouse in the corner by the wood-box, carving himself boats, which he put under his blouse when he carried Holman's dinner down to the workshop near the quay.

To represent, however, that Nikolai's existence was passed, so to speak, in the coal-cellar, or under blows on back and ear from Mrs. Holman's warm hands, would be an exaggeration. He had also his palmy days, when Mrs. Holman overflowed with words of praise-praise, if not exactly of him, yet of everything that she had accomplished in her daily toil for his moral improvement.

Twice a year she had to call for the payment for him at the Consul-General's office in the town. Nikolai, too, often had leave to go out to the country house with the kitchen cart, which had come in to make the morning purchases.

And there he would sit, while the cart rumbled and jolted along the road, smart and clean, head and body respectively combed and scoured like a copper kettle that has been cleaned with sand and lye. He could not sit still a minute; he talked and asked questions-always about the horse, the wonderful brown horse-whether it was the best or the second best, if it could go faster than the railway train, or who and what it could beat.

Then the cart turned-so much too soon-into the yard in front of the kitchen door, and he was led through the passage by the man-servant to the nursery.

"I hope you have rubbed your shoes? You might have had the sense, Lars, not to bring the boy in that way, with such shoes as those!" His mother took him and set him on a chair.

And then he was given bread-and-butter and cracknels and milk. But he must wait now until she came in again, for she was busy to-day washing Lizzie's and Ludvig's clothes.

In rushed the aforesaid children, his equals in point of age; the one was drawing a large saddled horse after him, the other was carrying two large, dressed dolls. They had been sent out by their mother to play with Nikolai. And they were soon in full gallop round the nursery. Gee-up! gee-up!-Nikolai drew, and Ludvig rode-hi! gee-up! And at last Nikolai wanted to ride too; he had been drawing for such a long time. But Ludvig would not get down, so Nikolai dropped the bridle and pulled him off the horse by one leg.

"You ragged boy! How dare you?"

"Ragged boy! Ragged boy yourself!" It ended with a fling up on to the bed, behind which Ludvig entrenched himself howling, while his sister took his part and joined in.

"What is the matter, what is the matter, dears?" cried Barbara, hurrying in. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself, Nikolai, behaving like that to the Consul's children! You'd better try it on! There Ludvig-there, there, Lizzie-he shan't hurt you! Just do what they want, do you hear, Nikolai!"

And then Barbara had to lament over Ludvig's starched collar, which had got crumpled.

"Come here, my precious boy. Come now, and then you shall play again directly."

She took him up on her knee. "It's my own precious boy, it is, who's so good! There, hold his blouse, Nikolai, and you shall see such a fine boy, and so good, so good!"

"Show him my Sunday clothes, Barbara, and the patent leather shoes!" And Nikolai was allowed to look into the drawers at all Ludvig's and Lizzie's dresses and sashes and fine underclothes, and to peep into the toy-cupboard to be bewildered by all the old drums and trumpets and headless men and horses, and tin soldiers, and Noah's arks, with their belongings, all of which, Barbara said, they had been given because they were so good.

There was a pile of things in the lower part of the cupboard, so that Nikolai could understand that they must have been very, very good, and that his mother, too-and at this he felt a bitter disappointment-must, in return, be very, very fond of them. They must be very different children to what he was, if they never deserved a whipping, but always playthings. He became quite tired and downcast, as he stood there. If he ever met Ludvig anywhere, he would pay him out about the horse.

At last the hour of departure arrived, when he was to go with the pony-carriage that fetched the Consul from town at three o'clock. The two children both clung to his mother's skirt when she followed him out.

"Good-bye, Nikolai!" and she patted him in such a way on the cheek and head that he looked at her half doubtingly, "and give my respects to Holman and Mrs. Holman. Do you hear? Whatever you do, don't forget Mrs. Holman. And-I declare you're kicking the varnish now! You must sit quite still, Nikolai, the whole way. Don't you know that you mustn't come near those fine carriage-cushions with your boots? You should just see how nicely Ludvig and Lizzie sit, when they go for a drive-don't you, dears?"

And off he set.

It had indeed been a gala day, and he had been given a large, sugared twist to take with him, and it tasted delicious; but somehow or other he began to cry all at once on the way home.

The next day he had full confirmation of how delightful it had been.

While he was going up and down the pavement in his daily occupation of taking care of Silla, he caught fragments of Mrs. Holman's remarks to the housekeeper up stairs, as they stood under the archway; he never for a moment lost sight of her tall figure.

"You may well say so, Miss Damm. Take him into the room with their own children; there aren't many grand folks that would have done such an honour to one like him." ... "We must do so many things in this world, Miss Damm-we must scour the boards over the gutter, so to speak, and put up with them-and I don't mind saying that he showed that he was well cared-for from top to toe." ... "Such an honour! It might have been some respectable child they had asked there. He ought to remember it the whole of his life!" ... "So grand as she is now, she doesn't much care about coming out here and acknowledging the boy. It's nothing for those that can pay to get rid of their shame!"

Nikolai crushed with all his might an old decapitated cock's head, which lay in the gutter, with the heel of his boot, until it was as flat as a penny.

When the terror of bogies and the devil in the coal-cellar had lost its power, one of Mrs. Holman's most powerful means of keeping Nikolai in order was a threat of sending him to the parish school-an institution which stood before her imagination as a publicly authorised house of correction for youth, and a daily training-ground in the fulfilment of one's duty.

He never obtained any very clear idea of what would happen when he went to school; but that it was something quite indeterminably dreadful was evident from the constantly renewed disguised hints, and the repressed, mystical groans and nods by which they were accompanied.

One day the threat was really carried out: he was to go next Monday morning.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, he counted on his fingers-he had all those days left. And how he took care of and played with Silla during them, and darted on errands like an arrow!

At last there was only the Sunday afternoon left.

He sat at tea-time with Silla and tried to take comfort from her opinions about school, heard that he was to have his Sunday clothes on to-morrow too, because it was the first time, and fell asleep that night with drops of perspiration on his forehead.

In the morning Nikolai was not to be found.

Mrs. Holman inquired, and sought, and called, promising liberally both torments and pardon if he would only come at once; but it was all of no use, he had vanished.

After dinner Maren upstairs was startled by seeing him emerge from under her bed. She gave him some food and asked him to promise to go home; and Nikolai said he would, only not before it was dark.

In the twilight he made an excursion down to the quay, where he amused himself for an hour by sitting and rocking in a ship's boat; then in the wet October darkness he slunk through the narrow, dripping passages between the warehouses, until he was sure that there was no longer any light on the square, and spent the rest of the evening lying peeping over the paling at the light in the two cellar windows at home. He noticed how Holman came slinking cautiously up and stood a little while at the door before going in, and how they put Silla to bed. The light from the windows told him, like two dimly-glaring, merciless eyes, that if he came home now, the well-merited sentence of justice would most certainly be carried out.

Then the light was put out.

Through the drizzling rain late that night the gleam of a lantern glanced among the stacks of wet planks, and behind it was a pair of eyes which were accustomed to look in the dark for all kinds of persons who might think fit to hide themselves in the yard. The lantern wandered about among the narrow rows, sometimes standing still, while it threw its searching, reddish light as far as possible in between the planks.

No one was discovered that night. Among the many square spaces which could give shelter, Nikolai, with a certain inborn instinct, had chosen the foremost and most unsuspicious looking one, which stood half built with a sloping plank-roof over it. There he lay wedged into the farthest corner, close wrapped in the happy Nirvana of self-forgetfulness-school zero, and Mrs. Holman a cipher-his body bent down over his knees, his coat pulled up about his neck to keep out the drips, and his boots down in the wet mud.

But that night under the wet sky, with Trondsen's planks for his bed-posts, brought something new into his mind, a feeling-showing certainly the greatest insensibility to all Mrs. Holman's solicitous care-that the timber-yard was really his home, a certain independent, free savage's consciousness in relation to everything that they might afterwards think fit to screw him into, the school no less than Mrs. Holman's cellar steps; the planks in the timber-yard shone so white in bright weather, and when it grew dark, they stood there like his oft-tried, secret friends, who could screen him from the terrors at home.

He was taken to school, however, and one of his first timid, inquiring glances was to discover the thrashing-block with which Mrs. Holman had threatened him. He had pictured it to himself giving blow after blow with a rod, and beating incessantly, like the chicory factory at the bottom of the square.

Strangely enough there was no such block. But there were other things into which he was to be squeezed and forced like a last into a boot; and he was a hard last, which often would not go farther than the leg, and had to be hammered and knocked the rest of the way, where others more pliable glided smoothly down like eels.

There were things he understood, and things he did not understand. The former did not often happen to be explained to him, the latter he did not understand however many explanations were given; the result was a painful consciousness, a continual difference or falling short both in relation to his lessons and his teachers, which had to be adjusted by the cane and detention, while the majority of his schoolmates, in this particular also, more supple, worked themselves out like true virtuosi.

But what was even a whole day at school, with its full measure of misfortunes, in comparison to the endlessly long, dull hours of the evening, when Mrs. Holman, with her own eyes, "watched over him, to see that he learnt his lessons," and he hardly dared so much as to glance across at Silla.

As to Holman, experience had taught them that his fixed and staring eyes saw nothing: he sat mute and quiet the whole evening. In Mrs. Selvig's tap-room he found a remedy which made him insensible to moral lectures even the most reasonable and impressive. There he stood every evening a quarter of an hour after working-hours, as regular as clockwork, and when the hands of the clock drew near to eight, he just as regularly set off homewards, a punctuality which, be it said in passing, had gained for him in the tap-room the title of General with order.

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