They had been married for six years, but they were still more like lovers than husband and wife. He was a captain in the navy, and every summer he was obliged to leave her for a few months; twice he had been away on a long voyage. But his short absences were a blessing in disguise, for if their relations had grown a little stale during the winter, the summer trip invariably restored them to their former freshness and delightfulness.
During the first summer he wrote veritable love-letters to her and never passed a sailing ship without signalling: “Will you take letters?” And when he came in sight of the landmarks of the Stockholm Archipelago, he did not know how to get to her quickly enough. But she found a way. She wired him to Landsort that she would meet him at Dalaro. When he anchored, he saw a little blue scarf fluttering on the verandah of the hotel: then he knew that it was she. But there was so much to do aboard that it was evening before he could go ashore. He saw her from his gig on the landing-stage as the bow held out his oar to fend off; she was every bit as young, as pretty and as strong as she had been when he left her; it was exactly as if they were re-living the first spring days of their love. A delicious little supper waited for him in the two little rooms she had engaged. What a lot they had to talk about! The voyage, the children, the future! The wine sparkled in the glasses and his kisses brought the blood to her cheeks.
Tattoo went on the ship, but he took no notice of it, for he did not intend to leave her before one o’clock.
“What? He was going?”
“Yes; he must get back aboard, but it would do if he was there for the morning watch.”
“When did the morning watch begin?”
“At five o’clock.”
“Oh!… As early as that!”
“But where was she going to stay the night?”
“That was her business!”
He guessed it and wanted to have a look at her room; but she planted herself firmly on the threshold. He covered her face with kisses, took her in his arms as if she were a baby and opened the door.
“What an enormous bed! It was like the long boat. Where did the people get it from?”
She blushed crimson.
“Of course, she had understood from his letter that they would stay at the hotel together.”
Well, and so they would, in spite of his having to be back aboard for the morning watch. What did he care for the stupid morning prayers!”
“How could he say such a thing!”
“Hadn’t they better have some coffee and a fire? The sheets felt damp! What a sensible little rogue she was to provide for his staying, too! Who would have thought that she had so much sense? Where did she get it from?”
“She didn’t get it from anywhere!”
“No? Well, he might have known! He might have known everything!”
“Oh! But he was so stupid!”
“Indeed, he was stupid, was he?”
And he slipped his arm round her waist.
“But he ought to behave himself!”
“Behave himself? It was easy to talk!”
“The girl was coming with the wood!”
When it struck two, and sea and Skerries were flaming in the east, they were sitting at the open window.
“They were lovers still, weren’t they? And now he must go. But he would be back at ten, for breakfast, and after that they would go for a sail.”
He made some coffee on her spirit lamp, and they drank it while the sun was rising and the seagulls screamed. The gunboat was lying far out at sea and every now and then he saw the cutlasses of the watch glinting in the sunlight. It was hard to part, but the certainty of meeting again in a few hours’ time helped them to bear it. He kissed her for the last time, buckled on his sword and left her.
When he arrived at the bridge and shouted: “boat ahoy!” she hid herself behind the window curtains as if she were ashamed to be seen. He blew kisses to her until the sailors came with the gig. Then a last: “Sleep well and dream of me” and the gig put off. He watched her through his glasses, and for a long time he could distinguish a little figure with black hair. The sunbeams fell on her nightdress and bare throat and made her look like a mermaid.
The reveille went. The longdrawn bugle notes rolled out between the green islands over the shining water and returned from behind the pine woods. The whole crew assembled on deck and the Lord’s Prayer and “Jesus, at the day’s beginning” were read. The little church tower of Dalaro answered with a faint ringing of bells, for it was Sunday. Cutters came up in the morning breeze: flags were flying, shots resounded, light summer dresses gleamed on the bridge, the steamer, leaving a crimson track behind her, steamed up, the fishers hauled in their nets, and the sun shone on the blue, billowy water and the green islands.
At ten o’clock six pairs rowed the gig ashore from the gunboat. They were together again. And as they sat at breakfast in the large dining-room, the hotel guests watched and whispered: “Is she his wife?” He talked to her in an undertone like a lover, and she cast down her eyes and smiled; or hit his fingers with her dinner napkin.
The boat lay alongside the bridge; she sat at the helm, he looked after the foresail. But he could not take his eyes off her finely shaped figure in the light summer dress, her determined little face and proud eyes, as she sat looking to windward, while her little hand in its strong leather glove held the mainsheet. He wanted to talk to her and was purposely clumsy in tacking; then she scolded him as if he were a cabin boy, which amused him immensely.
“Why didn’t you bring the baby with you?” he asked her teasingly.
“Where should I have put it to sleep?”
“In the long boat, of course?”
She smiled at him in a way which filled his heart with happiness.
“Well, and what did the proprietress say this morning?”
“What should she say?”
“Did she sleep well last night?”
“Why shouldn’t she sleep well?”
“I don’t know; she might have been kept awake by rats, or perhaps by the rattling of a window; who can tell what might not disturb the gentle sleep of an old maid!”
“If you don’t stop talking nonsense, I shall make the sheet fast and sail you to the bottom of the sea.”
They landed at a small island and ate their luncheon which they had brought with them in a little basket. After lunch they shot at a target with a revolver. Then they pretended to fish with rods, but they caught nothing and sailed out again into the open sea where the eidergeese were, through a strait where they watched the carp playing about the rushes. He never tired of looking at her, talking to her, kissing her.
In this manner they met for six summers, and always they were just as young, just as mad and just as happy as before. They spent the winter in Stockholm in their little cabins. He amused himself by rigging boats for his little boys or telling them stories of his adventures in China and the South Sea Islands, while his wife sat by him, listening and laughing at his funny tales. It was a charming room, that could not be equalled in the whole world. It was crammed full of Japanese sunshades and armour, miniature pagodas from India, bows and lances from Australia, nigger drums and dried flying fish, sugar cane and opium pipes. Papa, whose hair was growing thin at the top, did not feel very happy outside his own four walls. Occasionally he played at draughts with his friend, the auditor, and sometimes they had a game at Boston and drank a glass of grog. At first his wife had joined in the game, but now that she had four children, she was too busy; nevertheless, she liked to sit with the players for a little and look at their cards, and whenever she passed Papa’s chair he caught her round the waist and asked her whether she thought he ought to be pleased with his hand.
This time the corvette was to be away for six months. The captain did not feel easy about it, for the children were growing up and the responsibility of the big establishment was too much for Mama. The captain himself was not quite so young and vigorous as he had been, but–it could not be helped and so he left.
Directly he arrived at Kronborg he posted a letter to her.
“My darling Topmast,” it began.
“Wind moderate, S.S.E. by E. + 10 C. 6 bells, watch below. I cannot express in words what I feel on this voyage during which I shall not see you. When we kedged out (at 6 p.m. while a strong gale blew from N.E. by N.) I felt as if a belaying pin were suddenly being driven into my chest and I actually had a sensation as if a chain had been drawn through the hawsepipes of my ears. They say that sailors can feel the approach of misfortune. I don’t know whether this is true, but I shall not feel easy until I have had a letter from you. Nothing has happened on board, simply because nothing must happen. How are you all at home? Has Bob had his new boots, and do they fit? I am a wretched correspondent as you know, so 111 stop now. With a big kiss right on this x.
“Your old Pal.
“P.S. You ought to find a friend (female, of course) and don’t forget to ask the proprietress at Dalaro to take care of the long boat until my return. The wind is getting up; it will blow from the North to-night.”
Off Portsmouth the captain received the following letter from his wife:
“Dear old Pal,
“It’s horrible here without you, believe me. I have had a lot of worry, too, for little Alice has got a new tooth. The doctor said it was unusually early, which was a sign of (but I’m not going to tell you that). Bob’s boots fit him very well and he is very proud of them.
“You say in your letter that I ought to find a friend of my own sex. Well, I have found one, or, rather, she has found me. Her name is Ottilia Sandegren, and she was educated at the seminary. She is rather grave and takes life very seriously, therefore you need not be afraid, Pal, that your Topmast will be led astray. Moreover, she is religious. We really ought to take religion a little more seriously, both of us. She is a splendid woman. She has just arrived and sends you her kind regards.
The captain was not overpleased with this letter. It was too short and not half as bright as her letters generally were. Seminary, religion, grave, Ottilia: Ottilia twice! And then Gurli! Why not Gulla as before? H’m!
A week later he received a second letter from Bordeaux, a letter which was accompanied by a book, sent under separate cover.
“Dear William!”–“H’m! William! No longer Pal!”–“Life is a struggle” –“What the deuce does she mean? What has that to do with us?”–“from beginning to end. Gently as a river in Kedron”–“Kedron! she’s quoting the Bible!”–“our life has glided along. Like sleepwalkers we have been walking on the edge of precipices without being aware of them”–“The seminary, oh! the seminary!”–“Suddenly we find ourselves face to face with the ethical”–“The ethical? Ablative!”–“asserting itself in its higher potencies!”–“Potencies?”–“Now that I am awake from my long sleep and ask myself: has our marriage been a marriage in the true sense of the word? I must admit with shame and remorse that this has not been the case. For love is of divine origin. (St. Matthew xi. 22, 24.)”
The captain had to mix himself a glass of rum and water before he felt able to continue his reading.–“How earthly, how material our love has been! Have our souls lived in that harmony of which Plato speaks? (Phaidon, Book vi. Chap. ii. Par. 9). Our answer is bound to be in the negative. What have I been to you? A housekeeper and, oh! The disgrace! your mistress! Have our souls understood one another? Again we are bound to answer ‘No.’”–“To Hell with all Ottilias and seminaries! Has she been my housekeeper? She has been my wife and the mother of my children!”–“Read the book I have sent you! It will answer all your questions. It voices that which for centuries has lain hidden in the hearts of all women! Read it, and then tell me if you think that our union has been a true marriage. Your Gurli.”
His presentiment of evil had not deceived him. The captain was beside himself; he could not understand what had happened to his wife. It was worse than religious hypocrisy.
He tore off the wrapper and read on the title page of a book in a paper cover: Et Dukkehjem af Henrik Ibsen. A Doll’s House? Well, and–? His home had been a charming doll’s house; his wife had been his little doll and he had been her big doll. They had danced along the stony path of life and had been happy. What more did they want? What was wrong? He must read the book at once and find out.
He finished it in three hours. His brain reeled. How did it concern him and his wife? Had they forged bills? No! Hadn’t they loved one another? Of course they had!
He locked himself into his cabin and read the book a second time; he underlined passages in red and blue, and when the dawn broke, he took “A well-meant little ablative on the play A Doll’s House, written by the old Pal on board the Vanadis in the Atlantic off Bordeaux. (Lat. 45 Long. 16 .)
“1. She married him because he was in love with her and that was a deuced clever thing to do. For if she had waited until she had fallen in love with someone, it might have happened that he would not have fallen in love with her, and then there would have been the devil to pay. For it happens very rarely that both parties are equally in love.”
“2. She forges a bill. That was foolish, but it is not true that it was done for the husband’s sake only, for she has never loved him; it would have been the truth if she had said that she had done it for him, herself and the children. Is that clear?”
“3. That he wants to embrace her after the ball is only a proof of his love for her, and there is no wrong in that; but it should not be done on the stage. “Il y a des choses qui se font mais que ne se disent point,’ as the French say, Moreover, if the poet had been fair, he would also save shown an opposite case. ‘La petite chienne veut, mais le grand chien ne veut pas,’ says Ollendorf. (Vide the long boat at Dalaro.)”
“4. That she, when she discovers that her husband is a fool (and that he is when he offers to condone her offence because it has not leaked out) decides to leave her children ‘not considering herself worthy of bringing them up,’ is a not very clever trick of coquetry. If they have both been fools (and surely they don’t teach at the seminary that it is right to forge bills) they should pull well together in future in double harness.”
“Least of all is she justified in leaving her children’s education in the hands of the father whom she despises.”
“5. Nora has consequently every reason for staying with her children when she discovers what an imbecile her husband is.”
“6. The husband cannot be blamed for not sufficiently appreciating her, for she doesn’t reveal her true character until after the row.”
“7. Nora has undoubtedly been a fool; she herself does not deny it.”
“8. There is every guarantee of their pulling together more happily in future; he has repented and promised to turn over a new leaf. So has she. Very well! Here’s my hand, let’s begin again at the beginning. Birds of a feather flock together. There’s nothing lost, we’ve both been fools! You, little Nora, were badly brought up. I, old rascal, didn’t know any better. We are both to be pitied. Pelt our teachers with rotten eggs, but don’t hit me alone on the head. I, though a man, am every bit as innocent as you are! Perhaps even a little more so, for I married for love, you for a home. Let us be friends, therefore, and together teach our children the valuable lesson we have learnt in the school of life.”
Is that clear? All right then!
This was written by Captain Pal with his stiff fingers and slow brain!
And now, my darling dolly, I have read your book and given you my opinion. But what have we to do with it? Didn’t we love one another? Haven’t we educated one another and helped one another to rub off our sharp corners? Surely you’ll remember that we had many a little encounter in the beginning! What fads of yours are those? To hell with all Ottilias and seminaries!
The book you sent me is a queer book. It is like a watercourse with an insufficient number of buoys, so that one might run aground at any moment. But I pricked the chart and found calm waters. Only, I couldn’t do it again. The devil may crack these nuts which are rotten inside when one has managed to break the shell. I wish you peace and happiness and the recovery of your sound common sense.
“How are the little ones? You forgot to mention them. Probably you were thinking too much of Nora’s unfortunate kiddies, (which exist only in a play of that sort). Is my little boy crying? My nightingale singing, my dolly dancing? She must always do that if she wants to make her old pal happy. And now may God bless you and prevent evil thoughts from rising between us. My heart is sadder than I can tell. And I am expected to sit down and write a critique on a play. God bless you and the babies; kiss their rosy cheeks for your faithful old Pal.”
When the captain had sent off his letter, he went into the officers’ mess and drank a glass of punch. The doctor was there, too.
“Have you noticed a smell of old black breeches?” he asked. “I should like to hoist myself up to the cat block and let a good old N.W. by N. blow right through me.”
But the doctor did not understand what he was driving at.
“Ottilia, Ottilia!… What she wants is a taste of the handspike. Send the witch to the quarterdeck and let the second mess loose on her behind closed hatches. One knows what is good for an old maid.”
“What’s the matter with you, old chap?” asked the doctor.
“Plato! Plato! To the devil with Plato! To be six months at sea makes one sick of Plato. That teaches one ethics! Ethics? I bet a marlinspike to a large rifle: if Ottilia were married she would cease talking of Plato.”
“What on earth is the matter?”
“Nothing. Do you hear? You’re a doctor. What’s the matter with those women? Isn’t it bad for them to remain unmarried? Doesn’t it make them…? What?”
The doctor gave him his candid opinion and added that he was sorry that there were not enough men to go round.
“In a state of nature the male is mostly polygamous; in most cases there is no obstacle to this, as there is plenty of food for the young ones (beasts of prey excepted): abnormalities like unmated females do not exist in nature. But in civilised countries, where a man is lucky if he earns enough bread, it is a common occurrence, especially as the females are in preponderance. One ought to treat unmarried women with kindness, for their lot is a melancholy one.”
“With kindness! That’s all very well; but supposing they are anything but kind themselves!”
And he told the doctor the whole story, even confessing that he had written a critique on a play.
“Oh! well, no end of nonsense is written,” said the doctor, putting his hand on the lid of the jug which contained the punch. “In the end science decides all great questions! Science, and nothing else.”
When the six months were over and the captain, who had been in constant, but not very pleasant, correspondence with his wife, (she had sharply criticised his critique), at last landed at Dalaro, he was received by his wife, all the children, two servants and Ottilia. His wife was affectionate, but not cordial. She held up her brow to be kissed. Ottilia was as tall as a stay, and wore her hair short; seen from the back she looked like a swab. The supper was dull and they drank only tea. The long boat took in a cargo of children and the captain was lodged in one of the attics.
What a change! Poor old Pal looked old and felt puzzled.
“To be married and yet not have a wife,” he thought, “it’s intolerable!”
On the following morning he wanted to take his wife for a sail. But the sea did not agree with Ottilia. She had been ill on the steamer. And, moreover, it was Sunday. Sunday? That was it! Well, they would go for a walk. They had a lot to talk about. Of course, they had a lot to say to each other. But Ottilia was not to come with them!
They went out together, arm in arm. But they did not talk much; and what they said were words uttered for the sake of concealing their thoughts more than for the sake of exchanging ideas.
They passed the little cholera cemetery and took the road leading to the Swiss Valley. A faint breeze rustled through the pine trees and glimpses of the blue sea flashed through the dark branches.
They sat down on a stone. He threw himself on the turf at her feet. Now the storm is going to burst, he thought, and it did.
“Have you thought at all about our marriage?” she began.
“No,” he replied, with every appearance of having fully considered the matter, “I have merely felt about it. In my opinion love is a matter of sentiment; one steers by landmarks and makes port; take compass and chart and you are sure to founder.”
“Yes, but our home has been nothing but a doll’s house.”
“Excuse me, but this is not quite true. You have never forged a bill; you have never shown your ankles to a syphilitic doctor of whom you wanted to borrow money against security in natura; you have never been so romantically silly as to expect your husband to give himself up for a crime which his wife had committed from ignorance, and which was not a crime because there was no plaintiff; and you have never lied to me. I have treated you every bit as honestly as Helmer treated his wife when he took her into his full confidence and allowed her to have a voice in the banking business; tolerated her interference with the appointment of an employee. We have therefore been husband and wife according to all conceptions, old and new-fashioned.”
“Yes, but I have been your housekeeper!”
“Pardon me, you are wrong. You have never had a meal in the kitchen, you have never received wages, you have never had to account for money spent. I have never scolded you because one thing or the other was not to my liking. And do you consider my work: to reckon and to brace, to ease off and call out ‘Present arms,’ count herrings and measure rum, weigh peas and examine flour, more honourable than yours: to look after the servants, cater for the house and bring up the children?”
“No, but you are paid for your work! You are your own master! You are a man!”
“My dear child, do you want me to give you wages? Do you want to be my housekeeper in real earnest? That I was born a man is an accident. I might almost say a pity, for it’s very nearly a crime to be a man now-a-days, but it isn’t my fault. The devil take him who has stirred up the two halves of humanity, one against the other! He has much to answer for. Am I the master? Don’t we both rule? Have I ever decided any important matter without asking for your advice? What? But you–you bring up the children exactly as you like! Don’t you remember that I wanted you to stop rocking them to sleep because I said it produced a sort of intoxication? But you had your own way! Another time I had mine, and then it was your turn again. There was no compromise possible, because there was no middle course to steer between rocking and not rocking. We got on very well until now. But you have thrown me over for Ottilia’s sake!”
“Ottilia! always Ottilia! Didn’t you yourself send her to me?”
“No, not her personally! But there can be no doubt that it is she who rules now.”
“You want to separate me from all I care for!”
“Is Ottilia all you care for? It almost looks like it!”
“But I can’t send her away now that I have engaged her to teach the girls pedagogics and Latin.”
“Latin! Great Scott! Are the girls to be ruined?”
“They are to know everything a man knows, so that when the time comes, their marriage will be a true marriage.”
“But, my love, all husbands don’t know Latin! I don’t know more than one single word, and that is ‘ablative.’ And we have been happy in spite of it. Moreover, there is a movement to strike off Latin from the plan of instruction for boys, as a superfluous accomplishment. Doesn’t this teach you a lot? Isn’t it enough that the men are ruined, are the women to be ruined, too? Ottilia, Ottilia, what have I done to you, that you should treat me like this!”
“Supposing we dropped that matter.–Our love, William, has not been what it should be. It has been sensual!”
“But, my darling, how could we have had children, if it hadn’t? And it has not been sensual only.”
“Can a thing be both black and white? Tell me that!”
“Of course, it can. There’s your sunshade for instance, it is black outside and white inside.”
“Listen to me, sweetheart, tell me in your own way the thoughts which are in your heart; don’t talk like Ottilia’s books. Don’t let your head run away with you; be yourself again, my sweet, darling little wife.”
“Yours, your property, bought with your labour.”
“Just as I am your property, your husband, at whom no other woman is allowed to look if she wants to keep her eyes in her head; your husband, who made a present of himself to you, or rather, gave himself to you in exchange. Are we not quits?”
“But we have trifled away our lives! Have we ever had any higher interests, William?”
“Yes, the very highest, Gurli; we have not always been playing, we have had grave hours, too. Have we not called into being generations to come? Have we not both bravely worked and striven for the little ones, who are to grow up into men and women? Have you not faced death four times for their sakes? Have you not robbed yourself of your nights’ rest in order to rock their cradle, and of your days’ pleasures, in order to attend to them? Couldn’t we now have a large six-roomed flat in the main street, and a footman to open the door, if it were not for the children? Wouldn’t you be able to wear silk dresses and pearls? And I, your old Pal, wouldn’t have crows’ nests in my knees, if it hadn’t been for the kiddies. Are we really no better than dolls? Are we as selfish as old maids say? Old maids, rejected by men as no good. Why are so many girls unmarried? They all boast of proposals and yet they pose as martyrs! Higher interests! Latin! To dress in low neck dresses for charitable purposes and leave the children at home, neglected! I believe that my interests are higher than Ottilia’s, when I want strong and healthy children, who will succeed where we have failed. But Latin won’t help them! Goodbye, Gurli! I have to go back on board. Are you coming?”
But she remained sitting on the stone and made no answer. He went with heavy footsteps, very heavy footsteps. And the blue sea grew dark and the sun ceased shining.
“Pal, Pal, where is this to lead to?” he sighed, as he stepped over the fence of the cemetery. “I wish I lay there, with a wooden cross to mark my place, among the roots of the trees. But I am sure I couldn’t rest, if I were there without her! Oh! Gurli! Gurli!
“Everything has gone wrong, now, mother,” said the captain on a chilly autumn day to his mother-in-law, to whom he was paying a visit.
“What’s the matter, Willy, dear?”
“Yesterday they met at our house. On the day before yesterday at the Princess’s. Little Alice was suddenly taken ill. It was unfortunate, of course, but I didn’t dare to send for Gurli, for fear she might think that it was done on purpose to annoy her! Oh! when once one has lost faith…. I asked a friend at the Admiralty yesterday whether it was legal in Sweden to kill one’s wife’s friends with tobacco smoke. I was told it wasn’t, and that even if it were it was better not to do it, for fear of doing more harm than good. If only it happened to be an admirer! I should take him by the neck and throw him out of the window. What am I to do?”
“It’s a difficult matter, Willy, dear, but we shall be able to think of a way out of it. You can’t go on living like a bachelor.”
“No, of course, I can’t.”
“I spoke very plainly to her, a day or two ago. I told her that she would lose you if she didn’t mend her ways.”
“And what did she say?”
“She said you had a right to do as you liked with your body.”
“Indeed! And she, too? A fine theory! My hair is fast turning grey, mother!”
“It’s a good old scheme to make a wife jealous. It’s generally kill or cure, for if there is any love left, it brings it out.”
“There is, I know, there is!”
“Of course, there is. Love doesn’t die suddenly; it gets used up in the course of the years, perhaps. Have a flirtation with Ottilia, and we shall see!”
“Flirt with Ottilia? With Ottilia?”
“Try it. Aren’t you up in any of the subjects which interest her?”
“Well, yes! They are deep in statistics, now. Fallen women, infectious diseases. If I could lead the conversation to mathematics! I am well up in that!”
“There you are! Begin with mathematics–by and by put her shawl round her shoulders and button her overshoes. Take her home in the evening. Drink her health and kiss her when Gurli is sure to see it. If necessary, be a little officious. She won’t be angry, believe me. And give her a big dose of mathematics, so big that Gurli has no option but to sit and listen to it quietly. Come again in a week’s time and tell me the result.”
The captain went home, read the latest pamphlets on immorality and at once started to carry out his scheme.
A week later he called on his mother-in-law, serene and smiling, and greatly enjoying a glass of good sherry. He was in high spirits.
“Now tell me all about it,” said the old woman, pushing her spectacles up on her forehead.
“It was difficult work at first,” he began, “for she distrusted me. She thought I was making fun of her. Then I mentioned the effect which the computation of probabilities had had on the statistics of morality in America. I told her that it had simply been epoch-making. She knew nothing about it, but the subject attracted her. I gave her examples and proved in figures that it was possible to calculate with a certain amount of probability the percentage of women who are bound to fall. She was amazed. I saw that her curiosity was aroused and that she was eager to provide herself with a trump-card for the next meeting. Gurli was pleased to see that Ottilia and I were making friends, and did everything to further my scheme. She pushed her into my room and closed the door; and there we sat all afternoon, making calculations. The old witch was happy, for she felt that she was making use of me, and after three hours’ work we were fast friends. At supper my wife found that such old friends as Ottilia and I ought to call one another by their Christian names. I brought out my good old sherry to celebrate the occasion. And then I kissed her on the lips, may God forgive me for my sins! Gurli looked a little startled, but did not seem to mind. She was radiant with happiness. The sherry was strong and Ottilia was weak. I wrapped her in her cloak and took her home. I gently squeezed her arm and told her the names of the stars. She became enthusiastic! She had always loved the stars, but had never been able to remember their names. The poor women were not allowed to acquire any knowledge. Her enthusiasm grew and we parted as the very best of friends who had been kept apart through misunderstanding each other for such a long, long time.
“On the next day more mathematics. We worked until supper time. Gurli came in once or twice and gave us an encouraging nod. At supper we talked of nothing but stars and mathematics, and Gurli sat there, silently, listening to us. Again I took her home. On my way back I met a friend. We went to the Grand Hotel and drank a glass of punch. It was one o’clock when I came home. Gurli was still up waiting for me.
“‘Where have you been all this time, William?’ she asked.
“Then the devil entered into my soul and I replied:
“‘We had such a lot to talk about that I forgot all about the time.’
“That blow struck home.
“‘I don’t think it’s nice to run about half the night with a young woman,’ she said.
“I pretended to be embarrassed and stammered:
“‘If one has so much to say to one another, one forgets sometimes what is nice and what is not.’
“‘What on earth did you talk about?’ asked Gurli, pouting. “‘I really can’t remember.’
“You managed very well, my boy,” said the old woman. “Go on!”
“On the third day,” continued the captain, “Gurli came in with her needlework and remained in the room until the lesson in mathematics was over. Supper was not quite as merry as usual, but on the other hand, very astronomical. I assisted the old witch with her overshoes, a fact which made a great impression on Gurli. When Ottilia said good-night, she only offered her cheek to be kissed. On the way home I pressed her arm and talked of the sympathy of souls and of the stars as the home of the souls. I went to the Grand Hotel, had some punch and arrived home at two o’clock. Gurli was still up; I saw it, but I went straight to my room, like the bachelor I was, and Gurli did not like to follow me and ply me with questions.
“On the following day I gave Ottilia a lesson in astronomy. Gurli declared that she was much interested and would like to be present; but Ottilia said we were already too far advanced and she would instruct her in the rudiments later on. This annoyed Gurli and she went away. We had a great deal of sherry for supper. When Ottilia thanked me for a jolly evening, I put my arm round her waist and kissed her. Gurli grew pale. When I buttoned her overshoes, I … I….”
“Never mind me,” said the old lady, “I am an old woman.”
He laughed. “All the same, mother, she’s not so bad, really she isn’t. But when I was going to put on my overcoat, I found to my astonishment the maid waiting in the hall, ready to accompany Ottilia home. Gurli made excuses for me; she said I had caught a cold on the previous evening, and that she was afraid the night air might do me harm. Ottilia looked self-conscious and left without kissing Gurli.
“I had promised to show Ottilia some astronomical instruments at the College at twelve o’clock on the following day. She kept her appointment, but she was much depressed. She had been to see Gurli, who had treated her very unkindly, so she said. She could not imagine why. When I came home to dinner I found a great change in Gurli. She was cold and mute as a fish. I could see that she was suffering. Now was the time to apply the knife.
“‘What did you say to Ottilia?’ I commenced. ‘She was so unhappy.’
‘What did I say to her? Well, I said to her that she was a flirt. That’s what I said.’
‘How could you say such a thing?’ I replied. ‘Surely, you’re not jealous!’
‘I! Jealous of her!’ she burst out.
‘Yes, that’s what puzzles me, for I am sure an intelligent and sensible person like Ottilia could never have designs on another woman’s husband!’
‘No,’ (she was coming to the point) ‘but another woman’s husband might have designs on her.’
‘Huhuhu!’ she went for me tooth and nail. I took Ottilia’s part; Gurli called her an old maid; I continued to champion her. On this afternoon Ottilia did not turn up. She wrote a chilly letter, making excuses and winding up by saying she could see that she was not wanted. I protested and suggested that I should go and fetch her. That made Gurli wild! She was sure that I was in love with Ottilia and cared no more for herself. She knew that she was only a silly girl, who didn’t know anything, was no good at anything, and–huhuhu!–could never understand mathematics. I sent for a sleigh and we went for a ride. In a hotel, overlooking the sea, we drank mulled wine and had an excellent little supper. It was just as if we were having our wedding day over again, and then we drove home.”
“And then–?” asked the old woman, looking at him over her spectacles.
“And then? H’m! May God forgive me for my sins! I seduced my own little wife. What do you say now, granny?”
“I say that you did very well, my boy! And then?”
“And then? Since then everything has been all right, and now we discuss the education of the children and the emancipation of women from superstition and old-maidishness, from sentimentality and the devil and his ablative, but we talk when we are alone together and that is the best way of avoiding misunderstandings. Don’t you think so, old lady?”
“Yes, Willy, dear, and now I shall come and pay you a call.”
“Do come! And you will see the dolls dance and the larks and the woodpeckers sing and chirrup; you will see a home filled with happiness up to the roof, for there is no one there waiting for miracles which only happen in fairy tales. You will see a real doll’s house.”