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One of Life's Slaves By Jonas Lie Characters: 18678

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Confined as she was, and made to work through the long evenings, while her mother watched her like an eagle, Silla's only chance of indemnifying herself was up at the factory.

She went about there with a suppressed longing and eager interest, her eyes sparkling, in the midst of all the chattering, whispering and gossiping among her different ideals-Kristofa and Gunda, active Swedish Lena, and pert Jakobina. If she could not be with them herself, she might at any rate hear what fun they had had, and all that had happened. In this way she could live their life at second hand.

It was of course Kristofa who knew how to put everything in a captivating, magic light. A little walk, a possible engagement, an evening at a dance, everything was moulded by her busy imaginative power into events that never wanted a hero, that interesting, mystic being, who was seen, now with a cigar, now without one, who sometimes pretended he did not know them, sometimes nodded, or only smiled. The person in question might be some town gentleman or other, or some one from one of the offices up there, who often had not the faintest suspicion that his coming and going was seen in Bengal illumination, or that it caused such a flutter in their hearts; though this did not preclude others from both suspecting and taking advantage of it.

These, through Kristofa's habit of spinning, grew into little romances, which Silla took in with wide-open eyes, and afterwards continued at home.

Silla herself had a little romance which she kept to herself: she would not dare to tell it to Nikolai.

She had to take care, when she went at dinner-time to buy anything for her mother at Barbara's, that Veyergang had not gone in there on his way down to light his cigar.

The last time she had met him there, he laughed and asked whether the black-eyed maid wanted to run away from him? He was not so very terrible! She had completely vanished lately. He had heard that her mother kept her in a cage for the sake of a dangerous smith-was that true? When a young girl had two such black eyes, she ought not to hide them away.

And yet it was not altogether a warlike condition; but he knew very well that she watched and waited, however long it might be, until he had left the shop.

All this was like a ray of sunlight through the high, barred paling.

In other respects, one day passed like another, from the hum of the factory into the work at home, and Mrs. Holman was quite satisfied with the help she really must say she had of Silla this summer. That her daughter grew more large-eyed, pale and thin, it was not in her nature to attach much importance to; it only showed that Silla was not accustomed to systematic work.

On the rare occasions when Nikolai had an opportunity of speaking to her, Silla complained sadly.

She talked herself into such exasperation that she cried over everything that the others-all the others-had leave to do, and only she had not. To begin with, in her childhood, and all the time she was growing up, she had been bottled up in that cellar in the square, and now, when she was grown up, she had got into a regular workhouse!

After having thought gloomily and sadly over this for a time, her reflections took another course, and she began to anticipate impetuously how they would amuse themselves, she and Nikolai, when once she got away from home. She would have fun like all other young people, even if they had to give a dance in their own room. And go out in a boat in the evening and row and fish, and on Sundays take their dinner out into the woods, and shout so loud that the hills would ring again.

She was almost wild, and her eyes burned with all the pressure and work that was put upon her.

When she did not get excited with talking, she looked depressed-more so every time, Nikolai thought. Her face seemed to him to wear such a plaintive expression.

There was nothing to be done but to set his teeth and hammer away, and hope for release by the winter.

Georgina Korneliussen in the next house but one, who sewed uppers for the shoemaker-she was such a nice, quiet girl. Silla should make friends with her, Mrs. Holman thought; it began to dawn upon her that there are limits to being trained in one's duty. On Sundays they might take it in turns to visit one another, for then they would be under surveillance in both places. And Mrs. Holman even allowed Silla one Sunday to go for a walk with Georgina down in the town. Young people must have a little pleasure now and then.

Silla had looked forward all the week to this Sunday with the passionate impatience of a bird that is to be let out of its cage, and the morning rose on great expectations of what the day would bring with it.

It seemed as if the soup with swedes in it would never be ready, so that they could have dinner. And afterwards there was endless waiting for Georgina, who could not finish adorning herself.

At last she came out, tightly laced, and with a strip of crochet in the neck of her dress. What sort of oil or fatty substance she had plastered down her hair with may be left unsaid; but Silla in her brown straw hat and a plain white collar, felt for a moment insignificant beside her. But she quickly took her friend's arm; now they were off to amuse themselves!

Down to the town they went, Silla impatiently champing the bit in her desire to get there in time to take part in the day's pleasures.

In the streets and the park at this respectable time in the afternoon, crowds of people clad in their best were strolling up and down looking at one another, and for a long time Silla and Georgina had enough to do in directing one another's attention to the finest and most fashionable dresses, and especially the long white flowing scarfs wound under the chin and thrown over the shoulder. These, and white straw hats with light blue or pink ribbons and roses, were the objects of their vehement admiration.

They went up and down, lost sight of and met again the same dresses, and the same stiff quiet Sunday faces.

This was repeated until it became wearisome, and Silla proposed that they should go somewhere else, which, under Georgina's guidance, led to a walk round the fortress.

Nature was not their object; and they only met one or two tired, bored individuals who evidently did not know what to do with themselves on Sunday afternoon: now and then they stopped and looked up at the trees.

A sentry called his long-drawn "Relieve guard!" It sounded like a mighty yawn in the afternoon. Out on the calm, shining fjord lay boats and vessels drifting in the breathless heat.

There was nothing here, so they made their way down to the harbour.

Here, too, was emptiness and Sunday desolation, the vessels seemed to have died out.

Another cruise up the street.

On the market-place stood some unemployed forces, who had found a Sunday amusement in exchanging watches,[5] while the bells of the church behind them were ringing in the congregation to evening service.

[Footnote 5: In Norway this is a pastime often resorted to by men on holidays, when time hangs heavy on their hands. I have seen even old men deeply absorbed in the examination of each other's watches, with a view to their exchange.-Trans.]

Tired, wearied, and thirsty, they continued their walk up the street until they came into the motley stream of people who were wending their way down to the piers, where the steamers were constantly coming in and going out with passengers from and to the islands.

Here a difference of opinion arose.

Georgina thought there were so many people, and perhaps it was not proper to go by the steamer, as it was beginning to grow late.

But Silla thought that they had swallowed dust in the streets long enough, and that they must make use of the little time they had. Was Georgina going home satisfied with the pleasure she had already had?

It was cool and airy sitting in the wind in the front of the boat and resting themselves after the fruitless roaming in the heat.

They went on shore from the crowded steamboat to the island, where the people gradually dispersed along the various shady walks.

Close to the way up from the pier, and commanding a view of the bay, stood the great place of amusement, with all its gates invitingly open, and the sound of dance-music floating out. Within was life and merriment.

Silla stopped to look in and listen to the music, but Georgina, highly scandalised, pulled her on.

Was that the place for a respectable girl to stop?

Silla followed slowly; there was inspiriting dance-music brightening all the path within the wooden paling, and she drank it in with both ears, while the rhythm rocked in her veins.

A little higher up, where the path turned off, she stopped again; she could not leave the music, and scandalised Georgina by going right up to the paling and trying to see in.

Georgina would leave her that very minute! She ought to have so much respect for herself as not to stand there! She had, at any rate, and cared too much for her good name even to want to listen to such a noise, and would go a long way round to avoid it.

She was extremely indignant.

Silla could really not comprehend how it could take the gloss off either of them if they stood there a li

ttle and listened; nor yet what they had come out for. Just where there was a little life and gaiety they were to shut their eyes and put their fingers in their ears. But where it was so "nice and proper" it had not been particularly amusing; and she would give her a new sixpence if Georgina could tell her of a "proper" amusement when they had a holiday: they had been searching for one now both long and carefully.

She sauntered on.

According to Georgina, there was still nice time before the evening traffic to the place of amusement began, and they spent it in diverse walks in the roads, though never so far that they could not keep an eye on the steamers and be standing in good time among the crowd that was thronging the pier.

Tired, cross and footsore, they at last reached home late in the evening, where Silla, in the middle of the account she was giving her mother of all the places they had been to, fell asleep in her chair.

The music was running in her head, and she dreamt she was at a ball.

* * *

There was a pleasant crackling in the stove at Barbara's in the chilly autumn days, when people who could not afford it so well were loth to begin fires.

It was, therefore, very comfortable to stand about at her counter talking, and still more so for the chosen few who were fortunate enough to be invited to partake of a cup of coffee.

But of late Barbara had not been nearly so even-tempered as formerly. She suffered from changeableness of spirits, was sometimes unnaturally stingy, so that it looked as if she wanted to count the groats or the coffee-beans, at other times in a different mood, open-handed and liberal to both guests and customers.

Whatever the reason might be, it was certain that now and then in quiet moments she would fall into a brown study. The bill for sugar, meal, flour and coffee had come in again.

The till was anything but prepared for such an achievement; it groaned and rattled whatever time in the day she pulled it out or pushed it in.

Time, however, went on inexorably, notwithstanding that the stove roared so cheerfully as if nothing were the matter.

And it had now gone so far that the day after to-morrow was the day for payment.

Barbara was in a-for her-most unnatural state of excitement. In the hope of obtaining a very last, further postponement, she had this afternoon carried out her long contemplated attack on the salesman down in his office, but had met with a decided refusal. If she did not pay now, after all she had promised, then-well, then, after the answer she received, it looked as if the wheel would suddenly come to a standstill.

It was this that Barbara, going feverishly in and out, with her best bonnet still loosely tied upon her head, was explaining to Nikolai, who was sitting in the kitchen.

Nikolai's face did not look as if he saw any help for it. On the contrary, he sat bending forward with compressed lips, looking down at the floor and twirling his thumbs. His hair as well as the position of his shoulders and his whole expression looked combative.

Barbara sat down by the cooking-stove; she drew a heavy breath, and sighed out of an oppressed breast.

It would come to an execution as sure as she lived-and it was for thirty-eight dollars!

Nikolai knew well what she was coming to, and that she was only waiting for him to give her a word that she could hang on to; but this money that he had scraped together was held much faster. He knew what he wanted, and this trade was only going farther and farther backwards, in any case.

Barbara groaned. She might as well go into the black ground at once.

Nikolai only snapped his fingers and looked down, doubly decided, at the crack in the floor.

When the pause had become unbearable any longer, and she saw clearly that no answer was coming, she began to cry softly.

She had thought, she sobbed, that when she had a son who was a smith's foreman, she would not stand quite helpless in the world.

"You know, mother, how badly I am in want of money myself."

Again an obstinate silence, with continued sobbing and drying of eyes on Barbara's side.

"It might be as well to consider whether the shop really paid?" suggested Nikolai at last cautiously.

"Would he like her to give up like a cow to be slaughtered before Christmas," she exclaimed angrily-"and no more money than that was!"

"I only meant it would be better to stop in time."

But these words had the effect of fire on gunpowder. She got up, as red as a tile. Just so! Now he wanted her to close!

She rushed-in a manner somewhat recalling the useful animal just mentioned by herself, when it is trying to get loose-into the shop and back again.

If Nikolai thought that she would give up and go bankrupt to be jeered at by everybody, when she only needed to go down and borrow that little of Ludvig, he was very much mistaken.

Barbara was quite flushed.

She would not let herself be ruined a second time for Nikolai's sake. It was quite enough that he had injured her welfare once before in this world. Yes, he need not sit and look at her with open mouth. What else was she turned out of the Veyergangs' house for, where she had been so important, if it was not because Nikolai had lifted his hand against the Consul-General's Ludvig. Oh yes, he might wonder as much as he liked, but that was why she had been driven out helpless into the world, from comfortable circumstances. And then when an opportunity came for Nikolai to support her a little, he had some one else to spend his money upon.

But the most vexatious part of it was that Nikolai also wanted to forbid her to apply to one who was as good as her own child, when there was the necessity for it.

She would pay no attention to that however. If he would not help her, he must put up with her going to one who could, now that it was a question of closing the shop and the whole business.

No, she swore she would not go bankrupt. And she struck the table so that the coppers danced in the drawer.

It was a good thing that it was this week, for next week he was going abroad for two or three months; he had said so himself yesterday, so that both she and Silla heard it.

Nikolai sat quite pale. His mouth moved as if it were trembling, and he wiped his forehead once or twice with his sleeve.

He looked slowly up at his mother; it was as if he were afraid of getting to hate her.

"You shall have the money."

He felt he was on the point of bursting into tears, and must get away to have his rage out.

It was another postponement for him and Silla until the spring. And where was the end of it to be?

His hand shook and fumbled with the door-handle.

This fresh piece of information, which his mother had so unexpectedly given Nikolai, that it was he who had destroyed her well-being, was like yet another stone weighing him down.

It crushed him like a moral defeat. He could not rid himself of the thought that there was something in it. He felt his courage was weakened, and he went about disheartened.

He had lost another quarter as to his prospects of getting married, and if his mother required or rather claimed money from him again for her down-hill trade, what could he do?

It was like work without hope, and despondency began to take hold of him.

When he put his shillings away in the tin box on Saturday, it was with bitter thoughts. At any moment his mother might come and swallow the whole of it-as she, of course, had a right to do, since he in his time had wasted all hers.

He had always thought that when it came to the point, it was he who had a reckoning to demand of his mother, because she had brought him into the world without being able to give him a father, and then let him go.

But now it seemed to be just the other way. His mother, with her all-consuming business, was the great, lawful gulf for all his happiness.

He began to be weary of it all.

Amid all this there sometimes dawned and smouldered a faint glow of rebellion within him, although, in his honest endeavour to come to the bottom of the truth, it was some time before it blazed up.

Should he let Silla go, too, into this same gulf?

The answer blazed up clearly, so that the flames shone and flickered:

"Not while there was a rag left of what was called Nikolai!"

And with reference to his mother, and his having perhaps brought misfortune upon her, should he not have hit out, but just let himself be insulted and trampled upon, as he was going to be again now? His mother, tall and big, would just squeeze them to death with that shop, both he and Silla. They were not even to have leave or the right to sigh.

But he would not have that.

He had thrashed Veyergang, and only repented that he had not hit harder. As he had come into the world, he would be a human being, even if he were to have his head cut off for it afterwards.

The shop up there should not be fattened with another penny out of the tin box. If his mother ever came to want for food, she would always find a place in his room; but that she should put a stop to his ever getting a room of his own-no, thank you!

He was like another man when he had at last made this clear to himself. Yes, his name was Nikolai, and he was foreman at Mrs. Ellingsen's.

* * *

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