A Duel by August Strindberg

She was plain and therefore the coarse young men who don’t know how to appreciate a beautiful soul in an ugly body took no notice of her. But she was wealthy, and she knew that men run after women for the sake of their wealth; whether they do it because all wealth has been created by men and they therefore claim the capital for their sex, or on other grounds, was not quite clear to her. As she was a rich woman, she learned a good many things, and as she distrusted and despised men, she was considered an intellectual young woman.

She had reached the age of twenty. Her mother was still alive, but she had no intention to wait for another five years before she became her own mistress. Therefore she quite suddenly surprised her friends with an announcement of her engagement.

“She is marrying because she wants a husband,” said some.

“She is marrying because she wants a footman and her liberty,” said others.

“How stupid of her to get married,” said the third; “she doesn’t know that she will be even less her own mistress than she is now.”

“Don’t be afraid,” said the fourth, “she’ll hold her own in spite of her marriage.”

What was he like? Who was he? Where had she found him?

He was a young lawyer, rather effeminate in appearance, with broad hips and a shy manner. He was an only son, brought up by his mother and aunt. He had always been very much afraid of girls, and he detested the officers on account of their assurance, and because they were the favourites at all entertainments. That is what he was like.

They were staying at a watering place and met at a dance. He had come late and all the girls’ programmes were full. A laughing, triumphant “No!” was flung into his face wherever he asked for a dance, and a movement of the programme brushed him away as if he were a buzzing fly.

Offended and humiliated he left the ball-room and sat down on the verandah to smoke a cigar. The moon threw her light on the lime-trees in the Park and the perfume of the mignonette rose from the flower beds.

He watched the dancing couples through the windows with the impotent yearning of the cripple; the voluptuous rhythm of the waltz thrilled him through and through.

“All alone and lost in dreams?” said a voice suddenly. “Why aren’t you dancing?”

“Why aren’t you?” he replied, looking up.

“Because I am plain and nobody asked me to,” she answered.

He looked at her. They had known each other for some time, but he had never studied her features. She was exquisitely dressed, and in her eyes lay an expression of infinite pain, the pain of despair and vain revolt against the injustice of nature; he felt a lively sympathy for her.

“I, too, am scorned by everybody,” he said. “All the rights belong to the officers. Whenever it is a question of natural selection, right is on the side of the strong and the beautiful. Look at their shoulders and epaulettes….”

“How can you talk like that!”

“I beg your pardon! To have to play a losing game makes a man bitter! Will you give me a dance?”

“For pity’s sake?”

“Yes! Out of compassion for me!”

He threw away his cigar.

“Have you ever known what it means to be marked by the hand of fate, and rejected? To be always the last?” he began again, passionately.

“I have known all that! But the last do not always remain the last,” she added, emphatically. “There are other qualities, besides beauty, which count.”

“What quality do you appreciate most in a man?”

“Kindness,” she exclaimed, without the slightest hesitation. “For this is a quality very rarely found in a man.”

“Kindness and weakness usually go hand in hand; women admire strength.”

“What sort of women are you talking about? Rude strength has had its day; our civilisation has reached a sufficiently high standard to make us value muscles and rude strength no more highly than a kind heart.”

“It ought to have! And yet–watch the dancing couples!”

“To my mind true manliness is shown in loftiness of sentiment and intelligence of the heart.”

“Consequently a man whom the whole world calls weak and cowardly….”

“What do I care for the world and its opinion!”

“Do you know that you are a very remarkable woman?” said the young lawyer, feeling more and more interested.

“Not in the least remarkable! But you men are accustomed to regard women as dolls….”

“What sort of men do you mean? I, dear lady, have from my childhood looked up to woman as a higher manifestation of the species man, and from the day on which I fell in love with a woman, and she returned my love, I should be her slave.”

Adeline looked at him long and searchingly.

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“You are a remarkable man,” she said, after a pause.

After each of the two had declared the other to be a remarkable specimen of the species man, and made a good many remarks on the futility of dancing, they began to talk of the melancholy influence of the moon. Then they returned to the ball-room and took their place in a set of quadrilles.

Adeline was a perfect dancer and the lawyer won her heart completely because he “danced like an innocent girl.”

When the set was over, they went out again on the verandah and sat down.

“What is love?” asked Adeline, looking at the moon as if she expected an answer from heaven.

“The sympathy of the souls,” he replied, and his voice sounded like the whispering breeze.

“But sympathy may turn to antipathy; it has happened frequently,” objected Adeline.

“Then it wasn’t genuine! There are materialists who say that there would be no such thing as love if there weren’t two sexes, and they dare to maintain that sensual love is more lasting than the love of the soul. Don’t you think it low and bestial to see nothing but sex in the beloved woman?”

“Don’t speak of the materialists!”

“Yes, I must, so that you may realise the loftiness of my feelings for a woman, if ever I fell in love. She need not be beautiful; beauty soon fades. I should look upon her as a dear friend, a chum. I should never feel shy in her company, as with any ordinary girl. I should approach her without fear, as I am approaching you, and I should say: ‘Will you be my friend for life?’ I should be able to speak to her without the slightest tremor of that nervousness which a lover is supposed to feel when he proposes to the object of his tenderness, because his thoughts are not pure.”

Adeline looked at the young man, who had taken her hand in his, with enraptured eyes.

“You are an idealist,” she said, “and I agree with you from the very bottom of my heart. You are asking for my friendship, if I understand you rightly. It shall be yours, but I must put you to the test first. Will you prove to me that you can pocket your pride for the sake of a friend?”

“Speak and I shall obey!”

Adeline took off a golden chain with a locket which she had been wearing round her neck.

“Wear this as a symbol of our friendship.”

“I will wear it,” he said, in an uncertain voice; “but it might make the people think that we are engaged.”

“And do you object?”

“No, not if you don’t! Will you be my wife?”

“Yes, Axel! I will! For the world looks askance at friendship between man and woman; the world is so base that it refuses to believe in the possibility of such a thing.”

And he wore the chain.

The world, which is very materialistic at heart, repeated the verdict of her friends:

“She marries him in order to be married; he marries her because he wants a wife.”

The world made nasty remarks, too. It said that he was marrying her for the sake of her money; for hadn’t he himself declared that anything so degrading as love did not exist between them? There was no need for friends to live together like married couples.

The wedding took place. The world had received a hint that they would live together like brother and sister, and the world awaited with a malicious grin the result of the great reform which should put matrimony on another basis altogether.

The newly married couple went abroad.

When they returned, the young wife was pale and ill-tempered. She began at once to take riding-lessons. The world scented mischief and waited. The man looked as if he were guilty of a base act and was ashamed of himself. It all came out at last.

“They have not been living like brother and sister,” said the world.

“What? Without loving one another? But that is–well, what is it?”

“A forbidden relationship!” said the materialists.

“It is a spiritual marriage!”

“Or incest,” suggested an anarchist.

Facts remained facts, but the sympathy was on the wane. Real life, stripped of All make-believe, confronted them and began to take revenge.

The lawyer practised his profession, but the wife’s profession was practised by a maid and a nurse. Therefore she had no occupation. The want of occupation encouraged brooding, and she brooded a great deal over her position. She found it unsatisfactory. Was it right that an intellectual woman like her should spend her days in idleness? Once her husband had ventured to remark that no one compelled her to live in idleness. He never did it again.

“She had no profession.”

“True; to be idle was no profession. Why didn’t she nurse the baby?”

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“Nurse the baby? She wanted a profession which brought in money.”

“Was she such a miser, then? She had already more than she knew how to spend; why should she want to earn money?”

“To be on an equal footing with him.”

“That could never be, for she would always be in a position to which he could never hope to attain. It was nature’s will that the woman was to be the mother, not the man.”

“A very stupid arrangement!”

“Very likely! The opposite might have been the case, but that would have been equally stupid.”

“Yes; but her life was unbearable. It didn’t satisfy her to live for the family only, she wanted to live for others as well.”

“Hadn’t she better begin with the family? There was plenty of time to think of the others.”

The conversation might have continued through all eternity; as it was it only lasted an hour.

The lawyer was, of course, away almost all day long, and even when he was at home he had his consulting hours. It drove Adeline nearly mad. He was always locked in his consulting-room with other women who confided information to him which he was bound to keep secret. These secrets formed a barrier between them, and made her feel that he was more than a match for her.

It roused a sullen hatred in her heart; she resented the injustice of their mutual relationship; she sought for a means to drag him down. Come down he must, so that they should be on the same level.

One day she proposed the foundation of a sanatorium. He said all he could against it, for he was very busy with his practice. But on further consideration he thought that occupation of some sort might be the saving of her; perhaps it would help her to settle down.

The sanatorium was founded; he was one of the directors.

She was on the Committee and ruled. When she had ruled for six months, she imagined herself so well up in the art of healing that she interviewed patients and gave them advice.

“It’s easy enough,” she said.

Then it happened that the house-surgeon made a mistake, and she straightway lost all confidence in him. It further happened that one day, in the full consciousness of her superior wisdom, she prescribed for a patient herself, in the doctor’s absence. The patient had the prescription made up, took it and died.

This necessitated a removal to another centre of activity. But it disturbed the equilibrium. A second child, which was born about the same time, disturbed it still more and, to make matters worse, a rumour of the fatal accident was spreading through the town.

The relations between husband and wife were unlovely and sad, for there had never been any love between them. The healthy, powerful natural instinct, which does not reflect, was absent; what remained was an unpleasant liaison founded on the uncertain calculations of a selfish friendship.

She never voiced the thoughts hatched behind her burning brow after she had discovered that she was mistaken in believing that she had a higher mission, but she made her husband suffer for it.

Her health failed; she lost her appetite and refused to go out. She grew thin and seemed to be suffering from a chronic cough. The husband made her repeatedly undergo medical examinations, but the doctors were unable to discover the cause of her malady. In the end he became so accustomed to her constant complaints that he paid no more attention to them.

“I know it’s unpleasant to have an invalid wife,” she said.

He admitted in his heart that it was anything but pleasant; had he loved her, he would neither have felt nor admitted it.

Her emaciation became so alarming, that he could not shut his eyes to it any longer, and had to consent to her suggestion that she should consult a famous professor.

Adeline was examined by the celebrity. “How long have you been ill?” he asked.

“I have never been very strong since I left the country,” she replied. “I was born in the country.”

“Then you don’t feel well in town?”

“Well? Who cares whether I feel well or not?” And her face assumed an expression which left no room for doubt: she was a martyr.

“Do you think that country air would do you good?” continued the professor.

“Candidly, I believe that it is the only thing which could save my life.”

“Then why don’t you live in the country?”

“My husband couldn’t give up his profession for my sake.”

“He has a wealthy wife and we have plenty of lawyers.”

“You think, then, that we ought to live in the country?”

“Certainly, if you believe that it would do you good. You are not suffering from any organic disease, but your nerves are unstrung; country air would no doubt benefit you.”

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Adeline returned home to her husband very depressed.


“The professor had sentenced her to death if she remained in town.”

The lawyer was much upset. But since the fact that his distress was mainly caused by the thought of giving up his practice was very apparent, she held that she had absolute proof that the question of her health was a matter of no importance to him.

“What? He didn’t believe that it was a matter of life and death? Didn’t he think the professor knew better than he? Was he going to let her die?”

He was not going to let her die. He bought an estate in the country and engaged an inspector to look after it.

As a sheriff and a district-judge were living on the spot, the lawyer had no occupation. The days seemed to him as endless as they were unpleasant. Since his income had stopped with his practice, he was compelled to live on his wife’s money. In the first six months he read a great deal and played “Fortuna.” In the second six months he gave up reading, as it served no object. In the third he amused himself by doing needle-work.

His wife, on the other hand, devoted herself to the farm, pinned up her skirts to the knees and went into the stables. She came into the house dirty, and smelling of the cow-shed. She felt well and ordered the labourers about that it was a pleasure to hear her, for she had grown up in the country and knew what she was about.

When her husband complained of having nothing to do, she laughed at him.

“Find some occupation in the house. No one need ever be idle in a house like this.”

He would have liked to suggest some outside occupation, but he had not the courage.

He ate, slept, and went for walks. If he happened to enter the barn or the stables, he was sure to be in the way and be scolded by his wife.

One day, when he had grumbled more than usual, while the children had been running about, neglected by the nurse, she said:

“Why don’t you look after the children? That would give you something to do.”

He stared at her. Did she really mean it?

“Well, why shouldn’t he look after the children? Was there anything strange in her suggestion?”

He thought the matter over and found nothing strange in it. Henceforth he took the children for a walk every day.

One morning, when he was ready to go out, the children were not dressed. The lawyer felt angry and went grumbling to his wife; of the servants he was afraid.

“Why aren’t the children dressed?” he asked.

“Because Mary is busy with other things. Why don’t you dress them? You’ve nothing else to do. Do you consider it degrading to dress your own children?”

He considered the matter for a while, but could see nothing degrading in it. He dressed them.

One day he felt inclined to take his gun and go out by himself, although he never shot anything.

His wife met him on his return.

“Why didn’t you take the children for a walk this morning?” she asked sharply and reproachfully.

“Because I didn’t feel inclined to do so.” “You didn’t feel inclined? Do you think I want to work all day long in stable and barn? One ought to do something useful during the day, even if it does go against one’s inclination.”

“So as to pay for one’s dinner, you mean?”

“If you like to put it that way! If I were a big man like you, I should be ashamed to be lying all day long on a sofa, doing nothing.”

He really felt ashamed, and henceforth he established himself the children’s nurse. He never failed in his duties. He saw no disgrace in it, yet he was unhappy. Something was wrong, somewhere, he thought, but his wife always managed to carry her point.

She sat in the office and interviewed inspector and overseer; she stood in the store-room and weighed out stores for the cottagers. Everybody who came on the estate asked for the mistress, nobody ever wanted to see the master.

One day he took the children past a field in which cattle were grazing. He wanted to show them the cows and cautiously took them up to the grazing herd. All at once a black head, raised above the backs of the other animals, stared at the visitors, bellowing softly.

The lawyer picked up the children and ran back to the fence as hard as he could. He threw them over and tried to jump it himself, but was caught on the top. Noticing some women on the other side, he shouted:

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“The bull! the bull!”

But the women merely laughed, and went to pull the children, whose clothes were covered with mud, out of the ditch.

“Don’t you see the bull?” he screamed.

“It’s no bull, sir,” replied the eldest of the women, “the bull was killed a fortnight ago.”

He came home, angry and ashamed and complained of the women to his wife. But she only laughed.

In the afternoon, as husband and wife were together in the drawing-room, there was a knock at the door.

“Come in!” she called out.

One of the women who had witnessed the adventure with the bull came in, holding in her hand the lawyer’s gold chain.

“I believe this belongs to you, M’m,” she said hesitatingly.

Adeline looked first at the woman and then at her husband, who stared at the chain with wide-open eyes.

“No, it belongs to your master,” she said, taking the proffered chain. “Thank you! Your master will give you something for finding it.”

He was sitting there, pale and motionless.

“I have no money, ask my wife to give you something,” he said, taking the necklet.

Adeline took a crown out of her big purse and handed it to the woman, who went away, apparently without understanding the scene.

“You might have spared me this humiliation!” he said, and his voice plainly betrayed the pain he felt.

“Are you not man enough to take the responsibility for your words and actions on your own shoulders? Are you ashamed to wear a present I gave you, while you expect me to wear yours? You’re a coward! And you imagine yourself to be a man!”

Henceforth the poor lawyer had no peace. Wherever he went, he met grinning faces, and farm-labourers and maid-servants from the safe retreat of sheltered nooks, shouted “the bull! the bull!” whenever he went past.

Adeline had resolved to attend an auction and stay away for a week. She asked her husband to look after the servants in her absence.

On the first day the cook came and asked him for money for sugar and coffee. He gave it to her. Three days later she came again and asked him for the same thing. He expressed surprise at her having already spent what he had given her.

“I don’t want it all for myself,” she replied, “and mistress doesn’t mind.”

He gave her the money. But, wondering whether he had made a mistake, he opened his wife’s account book and began to add up the columns.

He arrived at a strange result. When he had added up all the pounds for a month, he found it came to a lispound.

He continued checking her figures, and the result was everywhere the same. He took the principal ledger and found that, leaving the high figures out of the question, very stupid mistakes in the additions had been made. Evidently his wife knew nothing of denominate quantities or decimal fractions. This unheard of cheating of the servants must certainly lead to ruin.

His wife came home. After having listened to a detailed account of the auction, he cleared his throat, intending to tell his tale, but his wife anticipated his report:

“Well, and how did you get on with the servants?”

“Oh! very well, but I am certain that they cheat you.”

“Cheat me!”

“Yes; for instance the amount spent on coffee and sugar is too large.”

“How do you know?”

“I saw it in your account book.”

“Indeed! You poked your nose into my books?”

“Poked my nose into your books? No, but I took it upon me to check your….”

“What business was it of yours?”

“And I found that you keep books without having the slightest knowledge of denominate quantities or decimal fractions.”

“What? You think I don’t know?”

“No, you don’t! And therefore the foundations of the establishment are shaky. Your book-keeping is all humbug, old girl!”

“My book-keeping concerns no one but myself.”

“Incorrect book-keeping is an offence punishable by law; if you are not liable, then I am.”

“The law? I care a fig for the law!”

“I daresay! But we shall get into its clutches, if not you, then most certainly I! And therefore I am going to be book-keeper in the future.”

“We can engage a man to do it.”

“No, that’s not necessary! I have nothing else to do.”

And that settled the matter.

But once the husband occupied the chair at the desk and the people came to see him, the wife lost all interest in farming and cattle-breeding.

A violent reaction set in; she no longer attended to the cows and calves, but remained in the house. There she sat, hatching fresh plots.

But the husband had regained a fresh hold on life. He took an eager interest in the estate and woke up the people. Now he held the reins; managed everything, gave orders and paid the bills.

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One day his wife came into the office and asked him for a thousand crowns to buy a piano.

“What are you thinking of?” said the husband. “Just when we are going to re-build the stables! We haven’t the means to buy a piano.”

“What do you mean?” she replied. “Why haven’t we got the means? Isn’t my money sufficient?”

“Your money?”

“Yes, my money, my dowry.”

“That has now become the property of the family.”

“That is to say yours?”

“No, the family’s. The family is a small community, the only one which possesses common property which, as a rule, is administered by the husband.”

“Why should he administer it and not the wife?”

“Because he has more time to give to it, since he does not bear children.”

“Why couldn’t they administer it jointly?”

“For the same reason that a joint stock company has only one managing director. If the wife administered as well, the children would claim the same right, for it is their property, too.”

“This is mere hair-splitting. I think it’s hard that I should have to ask your permission to buy a piano out of my own money.”

“It’s no longer your money.”

“But yours?”

“No, not mine either, but the family’s. And you are wrong when you say that you ‘have to ask for my permission’; it’s merely wise that you should consult with the administrator as to whether the position of affairs warrants your spending such a large sum on a luxury.”

“Do you call a piano a luxury?”

“A new piano, when there is an old one, must be termed a luxury. The position of our affairs is anything but satisfactory, and therefore it doesn’t permit you to buy a new piano at present, but I, personally, can or will have nothing to say against it.”

“An expenditure of a thousand crowns doesn’t mean ruin.”

“To incur a debt of a thousand crowns at the wrong time may be the first step towards ruin.”

“All this means that you refuse to buy me a new piano?”

“No, I won’t say that. The uncertain position of affairs….”

“When, oh! when will the day dawn on which the wife will manage her own affairs and have no need to go begging to her husband?”

“When she works herself. A man, your father, has earned your money. The men have gained all the wealth there is in the world; therefore it is but just that a sister should inherit less than her brother, especially as the brother is born with the duty to provide for a woman, while the sister need not provide for a man. Do you understand?”

“And you call that justice? Can you honestly maintain that it is? Ought we not all to share and share alike?”

“No, not always. One ought to share according to circumstances and merit. The idler who lies in the grass and watches the mason building a house, should have a smaller share than the mason.”

“Do you mean to insinuate that I am lazy?”

“H’m! I’d rather not say anything about that. But when I used to lie on the sofa, reading, you considered me a loafer, and I well remember that you said something to that effect in very plain language.”

“But what am I to do?”

“Take the children out for walks.”

“I’m not constituted to look after the children.”

“But there was a time when I had to do it. Let me tell you that a woman who says that she is not constituted to look after children, isn’t a woman. But that fact doesn’t make a man of her, by any means. What is she, then?”

“Shame on you that you should speak like that of the mother of your children!”

“What does the world call a man who will have nothing to do with women? Isn’t it something very ugly?”

“I won’t hear another word!”

And she left him and locked herself into her room.

She fell ill. The doctor, the almighty man, who took over the care of the body when the priest lost the care of the soul, pronounced country air and solitude to be harmful.

They were obliged to return to town so that the wife could have proper medical treatment.

Town had a splendid effect on her health; the air of the slums gave colour to her cheeks.

The lawyer practised his profession and so husband and wife had found safety-valves for their temperaments which refused to blend.

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