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One of Life's Slaves By Jonas Lie Characters: 25787

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

The winter was passing.

It was at the time of the fair in the beginning of February. The streets swarmed with people and the snow in the thaw had turned to powdered sugar with the traffic.

A motley row of stalls stretched from market-place to market-place. Trumpets brayed, buffoons shouted, the lottery-wheel went round, the cryers howled. Music filled the air in volleys of blustering flourishes, and amidst it all, over the whole town, pleasure-seeking, dancing and merriment, until far on into the night.

Dull noise and the sound of music penetrated up to the manufacturing part of the town. In the evenings the town lay beneath it in increased illumination.

There was a kind of intoxication in the air, and there was many an impatient, longing soul up there of such as look severely upon themselves, while plenty of the looser sort streamed down.

From year to year the accounts grew of the large fair-balls, of the trumpets, the coloured lamps in the garden, and the matadores who stood treat. It was tempting and attractive.

As early as the second day Kristofa came, excited and eager, with a solution of the question as far as she and Gunda and Silla were concerned-money for tickets and cakes too, for all three!

She behaved most mysteriously, talked all the time of a certain person, whom she dared not, for all the world, mention.

Silla had never before been to anything of the kind, the most she had ever done was to stand outside among the longing crowd, who had to content themselves with looking at the coloured lamps and listening to the music. Now at last there was a chance for her too.

Oh, if she dared!

She was restless the whole morning, and had two round red spots of colour on her cheeks.

At dinner-time her mother came up tired and out of breath from the town.

She had had to promise the Antonisens to stand at their cake-stall on the market-place through the fair-week and help sell. It was hardly-earned money in the cold there and in the middle of all that shouting and bawling; but she would do her duty, and not swerve from it when there was a penny to earn. It would not be closed and packed up before midnight, so she must stay down there these few nights.

There was a buzzing and singing in Silla's ears; it was as if the door were opening to her of itself. She could go now if she liked.

She was almost frightened.

As she was taking some washing home in the afternoon, down the street, young Veyergang suddenly brushed close by her.

She almost screamed; then he had come back!

She dared not look up, and felt herself turn red, but had a momentary impression that he smiled and looked steadily at her and then nodded.

She knew the delicate scent of his cigar, and had a feeling that his clothes creaked, as it were, when he moved-a peculiarity which was connected with the romantic ideas of distinguished gentlemen that Kristofa had awakened in her.

It was he, she was quite sure now, who had given them the tickets.

Her heart beat and fluttered within her like a disturbed and frightened bird.

She went home in a reverie, so that at last Mrs. Holman had to ask if she were out of her mind.

She stole a glance into the looking-glass over the drawers.

Her eyes, were they so very black? The freckles were still there. There was a cure for freckles-but there were not so many as there looked to be; the old glass was so full of spots and holes in the quicksilver.

Mrs. Holman, to her surprise, saw Silla standing and rubbing, breathing on and polishing the mirror. Her daughter must have been seized with a new zeal.

On the evening of the third day of the fair, Nikolai strolled up to the factory district by lamplight.

He had been fairing on his own account, and had bought a workbox as a surprise for Silla-one with looking-glass inside the lid-and this afternoon he had put some mounting and a nice lock upon it.

He could surely in some way succeed in meeting her and showing it to her-so easily and with such a spring the lock went! And scissors and needle case he had put inside. She should have the key in her own keeping, and he would keep the box.

He had tied it in a handkerchief and put two cakes on the top, so that the person who could guess that it was anything but a workman's bundle that he was carrying would be more than clever.

He passed close beneath his mother's windows where there was a light, and peeped in to see if Silla might happen to be standing at the counter, and then strolled about indifferently up and down the streets.

It was so strangely deserted and empty here this evening.

And, look as he would through the gate and the paling, it was not possible for him to discover a light in Mrs. Holman's window.

After having exhausted every artifice, he stationed himself on the watch for a long time where the roads crossed and one went up to the Valsets' cottage.

But fortune did not favour him this evening; he remained standing there with his workbox.

It was dark all down the street except near the lamp-post.

There was somebody! There she was!

He hurried up.

No, it was that Jakobina Silla had been so much with in the summer.

There would at any rate be no harm in asking her.

"Isn't Mrs. Holman at home this evening?" he asked, taking off his cap.

"No; she's down at the fair, helping sell."

The inference flashed with a passionate joy upon Nikolai; then he would be able to go in and see Silla.

"And so, when the cat's away the mice will play," continued Jakobina. It was pretty well known that the smith came there for Silla's sake, and her vexation at her three friends having got tickets, and not her, filled her with spiteful gaiety. "Silla has taken a little trip into the town, too!" she added, laughing.


"Yes, why shouldn't she? Mrs. Holman is sitting in the cold down there at a stall, kicking and stamping her feet; why shouldn't her daughter do the same at the fair ball?"-Jakobina was great at saying witty things-"especially when she perhaps has some one who will both dance with her and treat her," she said, letting off another shot, as Nikolai seemed to be struck dumb.

"Who's put that lie into your head, girl?"

"If I'm lying, so's Kristofa; and that Silla went down with her and Gunda a couple of hours ago I saw with my own eyes. The one I mean can afford to give fair-tickets to either three or six. But perhaps they were going to a prayer-meeting," she added, winking with one eye.

"What nonsense are you talking! You'd better take care what you say!" he exclaimed angrily.

"Ha, ha!" she laughed; "you're not such a stranger to him-he's almost related. We're so grand, we are! We heard enough of that from your mother last summer, when she got him to pay for that fine black dress, and they wouldn't let her have credit for any more sewing materials for her shop."

Nikolai had heard enough.

His mother had wrung his very blood from him, and then-deceived him in spite of it.

He suddenly saw her before him in the cold light of indifference.

She had never been a mother to him, had never cared a pin's head about him! All this about a mother had only been something he had imagined.

He made a movement with his hands as if he were done with her. The one she cared about, and had a mother's feeling for, was this-

He did not know whether he had thought the name himself, or whether Jakobina had said it; but it rang in his ears like the stroke of a hammer on a shining anvil, as he rushed down:

"Ludvig Veyergang!"

He had robbed him of his mother from his earliest childhood. Was he going to drag Silla away from him too?

The thought at last became too impossible, and he slackened his pace.

That Jakobina was always so full of gossip and lies! This about Silla was all nonsense! There was nothing so dreadful in the three girls having taken a trip down to see a little of the fair; and they made that sharp-tongued Jakobina, whom they did not want to have with them, think they were all three going to the ball.

He, he, he! it was Silla who had thought of that! He would tell her he had seen that at once as soon as she told him.

He shook his head; for a moment he felt immensely re-assured, and relapsed into the bitter thoughts about his mother.

But-it would not be so out of the way if he went and looked for them; they might have taken it into their heads to stand outside and listen to the music.

The kettle-drums at the place of amusement were rattling out delight far into the air. From the menagerie close by brayed a shrieking trumpet, and the street outside was black with people.

It is not easy to say why it should have been so, but uneasiness again took possession of him.

In the illuminated entrance the strings and lines of lamps shone with an uncertain light in the raw gusty evening air; whole and half lines grew dim and almost went out, and then flared up again with a glare over the snow and the inpouring streams of people.

He could only advance at a foot's pace here; but while he slowly worked his way in, he looked all round. He only needed to see the outline of the figure he was looking for.

She was not among the people standing outside.

It was almost tiresome, now he had made up his mind he should see her.

He began to think of going to the booths to look for her there, and his glance wandered indifferently over the people.

She?-that rosy, laughing girl in there in the garden, with the round hat and the bit of boa round her neck over her jacket, was no other than Gunda!

He held his breath, as if he expected the next moment to see others in the crowd there among the lamps.

"Have you a ticket? Garden or ball?" he was asked at the entrance.

Nikolai would like to have taken tickets for the whole thing; but the pence he had about him were only enough for the garden.

The row of lamps lighted up the snowy road to a crowded restaurant, from the first floor windows of which came the shrieks of a woman's soprano, followed every now and then by a storm of applause. Farther on, a roundabout, crammed with people, was going round under an illuminated roof to the accompaniment of shrill music.

On both sides was a moving and, as regards the male portion, very miscellaneous and mixed crowd of fair-frequenters.

He searched the garden through, but in the darker paths outside the principal one, only a few loitering, shivering figures were to be seen, who seemed hovering like longing moths about the light.

It was down in that building, from which came sounds of music, the one to which all the people streamed and stood in a dense crowd outside, that the ball was going on.

All the blood in him seemed suddenly to stand still, and he approached slowly and hesitatingly, his face grey with apprehension.

He stood outside for a long time, gazing in at the large, lighted windows. Dark shadows passed behind the blinds, an unceasing variety of heads and shoulders.

There where the blind was pulled a little to one side he saw the round-headed Gunda again; the back of her head was so near him that he would have liked to push the pane in and ask her where Silla was?

He felt the shaking of the floor and the music twice as much where he was standing; it was as if the whole ball had got into his head.

Now he caught a glimpse of a sloping shoulder and half a back in an overcoat, with a cane sticking out of the owner's pocket-and part of a fashionable hat-brim.

The figure was smoking a cigar and bending down as if to talk.

To whom?-To whom?

For it was Ludvig Veyergang's, that narrow, straight back, that seemed in its pride as if it could not bend above the hips.

And then that way with his arm and his eye-glass.

Now he was gone; he must be dancing.

The clear glimpse he could get through the little opening in the blind was dimmed by moisture. Only when a heavy drop ran down the pane in the heat inside, could he catch a fraction of a glimpse through the streak.

There came Veyergang's shadow, with stick and hat again, and lower down the crooked outline of a woman's head in lively gesticulation.

Again the figure with the stick disappeared, and Nikolai prepared to watch for it.

A drop just wept a smooth streak down the pane, and the next moment he caught a glimpse of a dancing figure-only a bent head and a half-hidden face.

He had seen enough-more than if he had had a hundred chandeliers to see by.

Immediately after, Nikolai was in the stream in front of the door.

It opened and closed incessantly to admit those who gave up tickets, and disclosed, in misty perspective, a miscellaneous confusion of hot, flushed faces.

Now and then a pair came out and hastened up to the large restaurant.

He heard both exclamations and taunts.

"Now then! now then!" came from the crowd


Nikolai only worked his way towards the door. If once he stood there-!


Nikolai did not answer.

"Ticket, man? Ticket?"

Nikolai only pressed boldly a step nearer.

The police-constable made a movement, but met a look in Nikolai's face which made him feel justified in restraining himself. This pertinacious, silent working man looked as though he could strike.

The door continued to open and shut as incessantly as before, and both the constable and the ticket collector had become in a measure reconciled to the man who stood there so persistently-it almost looked as if he had a lawful business there, with that bundle in his hand-when Nikolai suddenly put his smith's shoulder to the door and pressed violently against it.

The ticket collector resisted in vain with his body; his hands were occupied.

Through the opening Nikolai had seen Silla, red, laughing, and out of breath with dancing, coming down the room with Ludvig Veyergang; he was looking about short-sightedly, with his hat pressed down sideways over his forehead and his eye-glass in one eye, with light arrogance, as if he were only going about his lawful business, when he was ruining a young girl.

There was a noise and disturbance down at the door.

"Turn him out! Turn him out!"

At last the cry sounded over the whole room. It was an interlude, during which the audience climbed up on to tables and benches to try to see.

Nikolai would blindly and roughly have forced his way in, had not the police officer met him at the door, and with his own and the constable's united efforts managed to drag the strong, unruly smith out.

His one thought, while with a certain cool, temperate leniency they dragged him out into the half-darkness, was to keep so near that he could have an eye on the door. He felt with suppressed rage that if they drove him to it, he would sooner die than leave the garden now.

The music ceased. A number of people, hot and breathless, streamed out during a pause in the dancing.

There came Veyergang-and Silla, bashful and half-resisting, with him. They took the way up to the restaurant.

Nikolai suddenly disengaged himself with a jerk, and the next moment, emerging from the darkness, thrust himself between them.

Silla uttered a cry of terror, but Nikolai only gave her a half-glance, and flung her behind him-and thus stood face to face with Veyergang.

The young lion changed colour and retreated a step before the expression of violent hatred confronting him; but, recognising the old enemy of his school days, he curled his lip scornfully.

That look made Nikolai rush upon him, and Veyergang, with a cry of "You cowardly ruffian!" returned the blow with his walking-stick right across Nikolai's face, so that the stick snapped.

"Help! help! Police!"

Nikolai had struck his fist into Veyergang's chest so that the buttons of his coat were torn open, when he was surrounded by three policemen.

A young girl suddenly rushed wildly in among them.

Spectators collected in greater numbers around.

This was a fair-fight of the first sort; and that tall, dark girl too!

"A mad bull-dog of a smith! Put him under arrest!" exclaimed Veyergang furiously, when he felt himself in safety. "You may meditate there in the meantime. You are not at all indispensable, my friend!" he went on in a coolly teasing tone. "The black-eyed lassie shall enjoy herself at the fair all the same."

The words were hardly spoken before Nikolai had wrenched himself free. He swung the bundle, with the box in it, about him so that nobody could come near him, and darted like a flash of lightning upon Veyergang, exclaiming between his teeth: "It's the last time in your life that you'll say that!"

One hand fumbled with Veyergang's coat, and the other dealt him a blow with the full weight of the box, so that he fell backwards on to the snow.

He did not get up again-did not stir.

There were cries and a tumult among the spectators. Some cried "Murder," others for a doctor. And all the while the music clashed and jingled in three directions.

A high police functionary attempted to quiet the excitement, and discreet hands bore the unconscious man out to a sledge, and drove him to the hospital. All the excited wrath of the crowd was turned against the perpetrator of the deed, who was led out strongly guarded.

For safety's sake, out in the gate, irons were put on both his hands and his feet, and this was done in the midst of an ever-increasing crowd from the street.

But when there was a mention of taking him into the sledge, the girl threw herself upon him, and clung so tightly that it was impossible to tear her away. She still cried and clung to him, much to the delight and amusement of the assembled crowd of boys, after they had got him into the sledge.

It was impossible for them to start, although they dragged and pulled at her till the gathers of her dress gave way.

The boys shouted.

"Pull-tear-drag the clothes off my back!"

"There, have a little common-sense, lass!" said one of the constables.

"You mustn't take him! You sha'n't take him!"

She wrenched and pulled at his handcuffs.

"It's my fault! Can't you tell them so, Nikolai?" she cried piercingly, and the policemen took the opportunity to detach her hands.

The sledge dashed off, and Silla, without a shawl, after it, followed by a swarm of boys.

She saw the door of the police-station open for Nikolai without being able to reach him or hinder it; hour after hour she passed outside, listening and waiting, while the constables again and again intimated to her that she must go home.

When at length she wandered away in despair, she kept stopping; but up on the bridge over the waterfall she stood still a long while.

It roared so strangely down there in the dark. It seemed as if in some way or other she belonged to it.

All night she lay with a dull feeling of what had happened, and writhed under an unspeakable terror for the result of Nikolai's act.

Now and then she groaned out a suffering sigh.

She could not get rid of the sight of the handcuffs, and in her delirium felt the cold iron still in her hands, until at last the bitter feeling came over her of how miserably she had behaved to him. She felt as though the thought of her must make Nikolai sick.

She lay staring at herself as in a vision-how she had gone about and never thought or cared about anything but her own pleasure, while Nikolai, her smith boy, with the strong arms and the true eyes, who now sat behind the prison bolts, had striven and toiled, and saved, and worked for both of them, so that they might be together.

And she could see too, now, all at once, as if scales had fallen from her eyes, that he had been terribly afraid for her.

If only he still cared for her! He had said: "Go home, Silla"-twice-so kindly and gently, that she began to cry when she thought of it.

Had she known or understood what it was to love anybody before just now? And perhaps it was too late!

The thought filled her with despair again, and wild pictures arose in her mind-Veyergang falling and lying stretched upon the snow, and then Nikolai's arms with the handcuffs on them stretching up out of the factory waterfall.

She lay awake until the morning and saw the same things-the handcuffs in the waterfall, and Veyergang turning away from the blow and falling; and then the whole thing over again-and again.

She sat there the whole day until dusk. Then her restlessness drove her down to the police-station.

There the gas was already lighted in the passages, and there were so many doors through which busy men in uniform were going in and out. At the entrances several people were standing waiting.

She had not the courage to ask.

For a long time she walked restlessly in the thickly-falling snow round the building.

At last she felt that she must go in; and in a condition which made her blind to her surroundings, she at length stood patiently, white and covered with snow, at the gate of the prison.

When at length it opened, she wanted to go in.

"What do you want?"

"To hear about Nikolai."

"Nikolai? What Nikolai?"

"He who came in here last night."

"You don't mean him, the murderer? Are you his sister?"


"That's a good thing, for the bad fellow hasn't got long to live." He made an expressive movement with his hand across his throat. "The man he attacked is dead-died at midday, and the murderer is now sitting in chains."

Silla did not know how it was that the door was shut behind her again, and did not feel that it was snowing thickly and silently, while the light from the lamps shone through a veil of snow-did not know how she had reached the bridge again.

That was where she ought to be.

Nikolai was sitting down there with handcuffs on, and stretching up his hands, and crying-crying to her!

* * *

The next morning a bit of a dress was seen sticking up out of the loose snow in the dam. Her skull had been broken in the high fall from the bridge against the edge of the ice.

* * *

It was proved that young Veyergang's death had been caused directly by the blow that had been dealt him which had penetrated to the brain.

And the impression was not to be softened by Nikolai's behaviour before the court. He stood there with wild sorrow in his heart over Silla's death, and answered that if Veyergang had had seven lives, he would have taken them all.

When questioned as to his parents, he at first declared that he had never known any; but when pressed further, he exclaimed, pointing at a large-boned woman who was sitting, crying on a bench:

"Her name is Barbara. They say she is my mother; but he who took away my happiness in this world got both her affection and her mother's milk."

Barbara wailed.

His father? It might be the whole town!-he looked round on the officials of the court.

This was an answer which fully confirmed the opinion which had been general from the first in this horrible, sensational murder case-that the court had here before it a bold criminal nature, early hardened in the dregs of town life.

The police still had a pretty clear remembrance of this individual from his violent conduct and other doubtful circumstances under a charge of theft. And it appeared from his past life, which was thoroughly sifted, that from his earliest childhood he had evinced dangerous tendencies, so that there had even been talk of placing him in an asylum for depraved children.

There were repeated facts brought forward from the time of his apprenticeship in H?gberg's smithy, which proved that he was an individual given to fighting and violence.

Not longer ago than last year he had threatened Olaves' life, or so the witnesses interpreted it; and it appeared in the examination in court, that on the evening in question he had persistently plotted against the deceased, and had, just before the perpetration of the deed, declared his murderous intention in the threat: "It's the last time in your life that you'll say that!"

There was undeniably an extenuating circumstance in the fact that there was a love-story connected with the affair, and that the act seemed to be prompted by jealousy. On the other hand, it was clearly shown that it might also be considered as the outcome of an old hatred existing even in the years of their childhood.

The sentence of imprisonment with hard labour for life was passed.

* * *

There was rifle-practice going on, puff after puff, down in the moat. Further along, on the green, some soldiers were being drilled, and now and again a trumpet signal sounded out on the still morning air.

Under a guard of overseers a little band of fettered prisoners was being conducted, with a clanking echo at every step, along the ramparts from their work towards the inner building of the convict prison.

At a hole in the wall the last of the prisoners slackened his pace a little. He cast a lingering glance through the opening.

The fjord lay shining blue beneath, with its many white sails and a steamer leaving a thick trail of smoke behind it on the water.

He drew a deep breath, his nostrils expanded, and there were signs of great agitation in his broad face.

The others were already five or six steps in advance, and the overseer began to roar at Number 66, exclaiming morosely:

"You'd give something to be able to fly out now, Nikolai!"

"I think that's the way we're all made!" he answered quickly.

"Then you should try and behave so as to get a remission."

Nikolai shook his head bitterly; a gleam shot from his grey eyes.

"If I got out, it would only be to come in again. For either the world ought to go to prison or I ought, and I suppose it may as well be the last!"

The clanking went on again.

* * *

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