Autumn by August Strindberg

They had been married for ten years. Happily? Well, as happily as circumstances permitted. They had been running in double harness, like two young oxen of equal strength, each of which is conscientiously doing his own share.

During the first year of their marriage they buried many illusions and realised that marriage was not perfect bliss. In the second year the babies began to arrive, and the daily toil left them no time for brooding.

He was very domesticated, perhaps too much so; his family was his world, the centre and pivot of which he was. The children were the radii. His wife attempted to be a centre, too, but never in the middle of the circle, for that was exclusively occupied by him, and therefore the radii fell now on the top of one another, now far apart, and their life lacked harmony.

In the tenth year of their marriage he obtained the post of secretary to the Board of Prisons, and in that capacity he was obliged to travel about the country. This interfered seriously with his daily routine; the thought of leaving his world for a whole month upset him. He wondered whom he would miss more, his wife or his children, and he was sure he would miss them both.

On the eve of his departure he sat in the corner of the sofa and watched his portmanteau being packed. His wife was kneeling on the She brushed his black suit and folded it carefully, so that it should take up as little space as possible. He had no idea how to do these things.

She had never looked upon herself as his housekeeper, hardly as his wife, she was above all things mother: a mother to the children, a mother to him. She darned his socks without the slightest feeling of degradation, and asked for no thanks. She never even considered him indebted to her for it, for did he not give her and the children new stockings whenever they wanted them, and a great many other things into the bargain? But for him, she would have to go out and earn her own living, and the children would be left alone all day.

He sat in the sofa corner and looked at her. Now that the parting was imminent, he began to feel premature little twinges of longing. He gazed at her figure. Her shoulders were a little rounded; much bending over the cradle, ironing board and kitchen range had robbed her back of its straightness. He, too, stooped a little, the result of his toil at the writing-table, and he was obliged to wear spectacles. But at the moment he really was not thinking of himself. He noticed that her plaits were thinner than they had been and that a faint suggestion of silver lay on her hair. Had she sacrificed her beauty to him, to him alone? No, surely not to him, but to the little community which they formed; for, after all, she had also worked for herself. His hair, too, had grown thin in the struggle to provide for all of them. He might have retained his youth a little longer, if there hadn’t been so many mouths to fill, if he had remained a bachelor; but he didn’t regret his marriage for one second.

“It will be a good thing for you to get away for a bit,” said his wife; “you have been too much at home.”

“I suppose you are glad to get rid of me,” he replied, not without bitterness; “but I–I shall miss you very much.”

“You are like a cat, you’ll miss your cosy fireside, but not me; you know you won’t.”

“And the kiddies?”

“Oh, yes! I daresay you’ll miss them when you are away, for all your scolding when you are with them. No, no, I don’t mean that you are unkind to them, but you do grumble a lot! All the same I won’t be unjust, and I know that you love them.”

At supper he was very tired and depressed. He didn’t read the evening paper, he wanted to talk to his wife. But she was too busy to pay much attention to him; she had no time to waste; moreover, her ten years’ campaign in kitchen and nursery had taught her self-control.

He felt more sentimental than he cared to show, and the topsy-turvydom of the room made him fidgety. Scraps of his daily life lay scattered all over chairs and chests of drawers; his black portmanteau yawned wide-open like a coffin; his white linen was carefully laid on the top of his black suit, which showed slight traces of wear and tear at the knees and elbows. It seemed to him that he himself was lying there, wearing a white shirt with a starched front. Presently they would close the coffin and carry it away.

On the following morning–it was in August–he rose early and dressed hurriedly. His nerves were unstrung. He went into the nursery and kissed the children who stared at him with sleepy eyes. Then he kissed his wife, got into a cab, and told the driver to drive him to the station.

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The journey, which he made in the company of his Board, did him good; it really was a good thing for him to get out of his groove; domesticity lay behind him like a stuffy bedroom, and on the arrival of the train at Linkoping he was in high spirits.

An excellent dinner had been ordered at the best hotel and the remainder of the day was spent in eating it. They drank the health of the Lord Lieutenant; no one thought of the prisoners on whose behalf the journey had been undertaken.

Dinner over, he had to face a lonely evening in his solitary room. A bed, two chairs, a table, a washing-stand and a wax candle, which threw its dim light on bare walls. He couldn’t suppress a feeling of nervousness. He missed all his little comforts,–slippers, dressing-gown, pipe rack and writing table; all the little details which played an important part in his daily life. And the kiddies? And his wife? What were they doing? Were they all right? He became restless and depressed. When he wanted to wind up his watch, he found that he had left his watch-key at home. It was hanging on the watch-stand which his wife had given him before they were married. He went to bed and lit a cigar. Then he wanted a book out of his portmanteau and he had to get up again. Everything was packed so beautifully, it was a pity to disturb it. In looking for the book, he came across his slippers. She had forgotten nothing. Then he found the book. But he couldn’t read. He lay in bed and thought of the past, of his wife, as she had been ten years ago. He saw her as she had been then; the picture of her, as she now was, disappeared in the blue-grey clouds of smoke which rose in rings and wreaths to the rain-stained ceiling. An infinite yearning came over him. Every harsh word he had ever spoken to her now grated on his ears; he thought remorsefully of every hour of anguish he had caused her. At last he fell asleep.

The following day brought much work and another banquet with a toast to the Prison-Governor–the prisoners were still unremembered. In the evening solitude, emptiness, coldness. He felt a pressing need to talk to her. He fetched some notepaper and sat down to write. But at the very outset he was confronted by a difficulty. How was he to address her? Whenever he had sent her a few lines to say that he would not be home for dinner, he had always called her “Dear Mother.” But now he was not going to write to the mother, but to his fiancee, to his beloved one. At last he made up his mind and commenced his letter with “My Darling Lily,” as he had done in the old days. At first he wrote slowly and with difficulty, for so many beautiful words and phrases seemed to have disappeared from the clumsy, dry language of every-day life; but as he warmed to his work, they awakened in his memory like forgotten melodies, valse tunes, fragments of poems, elder-blossoms, and swallows, sunsets on a mirror-like sea. All his memories of the springtime of life came dancing along in clouds of gossamer and enveloped her. He drew a cross at the bottom of the page, as lovers do, and by the side of it he wrote the words: “Kiss here.”

When the letter was finished and he read it through, his cheeks burnt and he became self-conscious. He couldn’t account for the reason.

But somehow he felt that he had shown his naked soul to a stranger.

In spite of this feeling he posted the letter.

A few days elapsed before he received a reply. While he was waiting for it, he was a prey to an almost childish bashfulness and embarrassment.

At last the answer came. He had struck the right note, and from the din and clamour of the nursery, and the fumes and smell of the kitchen, a song arose, clear and beautiful, tender and pure, like first love.

Now an exchange of love-letters began. He wrote to her every night, and sometimes he sent her a postcard as well during the day. His colleagues didn’t know what to think of him. He was so fastidious about his dress and personal appearance, that they suspected him of a love affair. And he was in love–in love again. He sent her his photograph, without the spectacles, and she sent him a lock of her hair.

Their language was simple like a child’s, and he wrote on coloured paper ornamented with little doves. Why shouldn’t they? They were a long way off forty yet, even though the struggle for an existence had made them feel that they were getting old. He had neglected her during the last twelvemonth, not so much from indifference as from respect–he always saw in her the mother of his children.

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The tour of inspection was approaching its end. He was conscious of a certain feeling of apprehension when he thought of their meeting. He had corresponded with his sweetheart; should he find her in the mother and housewife? He dreaded a disappointment. He shrank at the thought of finding her with a kitchen towel in her hand, or the children clinging to her skirts. Their first meeting must be somewhere else, and they must meet alone. Should he ask her to join him at Waxholm, in the Stockholm Archipelago, at the hotel where they had spent so many happy hours during the period of their engagement? Splendid idea! There they could, for two whole days, re-live in memory the first beautiful spring days of their lives, which had flown, never to return again.

He sat down and made the suggestion in an impassioned love-letter. She answered by return agreeing to his proposal, happy that the same idea had occurred to both of them.

* * * * *

Two days later he arrived at Waxholm and engaged rooms at the hotel. It was a beautiful September day. He dined alone, in the great dining-room, drank a glass of wine and felt young again. Everything was so bright and beautiful. There was the blue sea outside; only the birch trees on the shore had changed their tints. In the garden the dahlias were still in full splendour, and the perfume of the mignonette rose from the borders of the flower beds. A few bees still visited the dying calyces but returned disappointed to their hives. The fishing boats sailed up the Sound before a faint breeze, and in tacking the sails fluttered and the sheets shook; the startled seagulls rose into the air screaming, and circled round the fishermen who were fishing from their boats for small herring.

He drank his coffee on the verandah, and began to look out for the steamer which was due at six o’clock.

Restlessly, apprehensively, he paced the verandah, anxiously watching fiord and Sound on the side where Stockholm lay, so as to sight the steamer as soon as she came into view.

At last a little cloud of smoke showed like a dark patch on the horizon. His heart thumped against his ribs and he drank a liqueur. Then he went down to the shore.

Now he could see the funnel right in the centre of the Sound, and soon after he noticed the flag on the fore-topmast…. Was she really on the steamer, or had she been prevented from keeping the tryst? It was only necessary for one of the children to be ill, and she wouldn’t be there, and he would have to spend a solitary night at the hotel. The children, who during the last few weeks had receded into the background, now stepped between her and him. They had hardly mentioned them in their last letters, just as if they had been anxious to be rid of all eyewitnesses and spoil-sports.

He stamped on the creaking landing-stage and then remained standing motionless near a bollard staring straight at the steamer which increased in size as she approached, followed in her wake by a river of molten gold that spread over the blue, faintly rippled expanse. Now he could distinguish people on the upper deck, a moving crowd, and sailors busy with the ropes, now a fluttering speck of white near the wheel-house. There was no one besides him on the landing-stage, the moving white speck could only be meant for him, and no one would wave to him but her. He pulled out his handkerchief and answered her greeting, and in doing so he noticed that his handkerchief was not a white one; he had been using coloured ones for years for the sake of economy.

The steamer whistled, signalled, the engines stopped, she came alongside, and now he recognised her. Their eyes met in greeting; the distance was still too great for words. Now he could see her being pushed slowly by the crowd across the little bridge. It was she, and yet it wasn’t.

Ten years stretched between her and the picture of her which he had had in his mind. Fashion had changed, the cut of the clothes was different. Ten years ago her delicate face with its olive complexion was framed by the cap which was then worn, and which left the forehead free; now her forehead was hidden by a wicked imitation of a bowler hat. Ten years ago the beautiful lines of her figure were clearly definable under the artistic draperies of her cloak which playfully now hid, now emphasised the curve of her shoulders and the movement of her arms; now her figure was completely disguised by a long driving coat which followed the lines of her dress but completely concealed her figure. As she stepped off the landing-bridge, he caught sight of her little foot with which he had fallen in love, when it was encased in a buttoned boot, shaped on natural lines; the shoe which she was now wearing resembled a pointed Chinese slipper, and did not allow her foot to move in those dancing rhythms which had bewitched him.

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It was she and yet it was not she! He embraced and kissed her. She enquired after his health and he asked after the children. Then they walked up the strand.

Words came slowly and sounded dry and forced. How strange! They were almost shy in each other’s presence, and neither of them mentioned the letters.

In the end he took heart of grace and asked:

“Would you like to go for a walk before sunset?”

“I should love to,” she replied, taking his arm.

They went along the high-road in the direction of the little town. The shutters of all the summer residences were closed; the gardens plundered. Here and there an apple, hidden among the foliage, might still be found hanging on the trees, but there wasn’t a single flower in the flower beds. The verandahs, stripped of their sunblinds, looked like skeletons; where there had been bright eyes and gay laughter, silence reigned.

“How autumnal!” she said.

“Yes, the forsaken villas look horrible.”

They walked on.

“Let us go and look at the house where we used to live.”

“Oh, yes! It will be fun.”

They passed the bathing vans.

Over there, squeezed in between the pilot’s and the gardener’s cottages, stood the little house with its red fence, its verandah and its little garden.

Memories of past days awoke. There was the bedroom where their first baby had been born. What rejoicing! What laughter! Oh! youth and gaiety! The rose-tree which they had planted was still there. And the strawberry-bed which they had made–no, it existed no longer, grass had grown over it. In the little plantation traces of the swing which they had put up were still visible, but the swing itself had disappeared.

“Thank you so much for your beautiful letters,” she said, gently pressing his arm.

He blushed and made no reply.

Then they returned to the hotel, and he told her anecdotes, in connection with his tour.

He had ordered dinner to be served in the large dining-room at the table where they used to sit. They sat down without saying grace.

It was a tete-a-tete dinner. He took the bread-basket and offered her the bread. She smiled. It was a long time since he had been so attentive. But dinner at a seaside hotel was a pleasant change and soon they were engaged in a lively conversation. It was a duet in which one of them extolled the days that had gone, and the other revived memories of “once upon a time.” They were re-living the past. Their eyes shone and the little lines in their faces disappeared. Oh! golden days! Oh! time of roses which comes but once, if it comes at all, and which is denied to so many of us–so many of us.

At dessert he whispered a few words into the ear of the waitress; she disappeared and returned a few seconds later with a bottle of champagne.

“My dear Axel, what are you thinking of?”

“I am thinking of the spring that has past, but will return again.”

But he wasn’t thinking of it exclusively, for at his wife’s reproachful words there glided through the room, catlike, a dim vision of the nursery and the porridge bowl.

However–the atmosphere cleared again; the golden wine stirred their memories, and again they lost themselves in the intoxicating rapture of the past.

He leaned his elbow on the table and shaded his eyes with his hand, as if he were determined to shut out the present–this very present which, –after all, had been of his own seeking.

The hours passed. They left the dining-room and went into the drawing-room which boasted a piano, ordering their coffee to be brought there.

“I wonder how the kiddies are?” said she, awakening to the hard facts of real life.

“Sit down and sing to me,” he answered, opening the instrument.

“What would you like me to sing? You know I haven’t sung a note for many days.”

He was well aware of it, but he did want a song.

She sat down before the piano and began to play. It was a squeaking instrument that reminded one of the rattling of loose teeth.

“What shall I sing?” she asked, turning round on the music-stool.

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“You know, darling,” he replied, not daring to meet her eyes.

“Your song! Very well, if I can remember it.” And she sang: “Where is the blessed country where my beloved dwells?”

But alas! Her voice was thin and shrill and emotion made her sing out of tune. At times it sounded like a cry from the bottom of a soul which feels that noon is past and evening approaching. The fingers which had done hard work strayed on the wrong keys. The instrument, too, had seen its best days; the cloth on the hammers had worn away; it sounded as if the springs touched the bare wood.

When she had finished her song, she sat for a while without turning round, as if she expected him to come and speak to her. But he didn’t move; not a sound broke the deep silence. When she turned round at last, she saw him sitting on the sofa, his cheeks wet with tears. She felt a strong impulse to jump up, take his head between her hands and kiss him as she had done in days gone by, but she remained where she was, immovable, with downcast eyes.

He held a cigar between his thumb and first finger. When the song was finished, he bit off the end and struck a match.

“Thank you, Lily,” he said, puffing at his cigar, “will you have your coffee now?”

They drank their coffee, talked of summer holidays in general and suggested two or three places where they might go next summer. But their conversation languished and they repeated themselves.

At last he yawned openly and said: “I’m off to bed.”

“I’m going, too,” she said, getting up. “But I’ll get a breath of fresh air first, on the balcony.”

He went into the bed-room. She lingered for a few moments in the dining-room, and then talked to the landlady for about half an hour of spring-onions and woollen underwear.

When the landlady had left her she went into the bedroom and stood for a few minutes at the door, listening. No sound came from within. His boots stood in the corridor. She opened the door gently and went in. He was asleep.

He was asleep!

* * * * *

At breakfast on the following morning he had a headache, and she fidgeted.

“What horrible coffee,” he said, with a grimace.

“Brazilian,” she said, shortly.

“What shall we do to-day?” he asked, looking at his watch.

“Hadn’t you better eat some bread and butter, instead of grumbling at the coffee?” she said.

“Perhaps you’re right,” he answered, “and I’ll have a liqueur at the same time. That champagne last night, ugh!”

He asked for bread and butter and a liqueur and his temper improved.

“Let’s go to the Pilot’s Hill and look at the view.”

They rose from the breakfast table and went out.

The weather was splendid and the walk did them good. But they walked slowly; she panted, and his knees were stiff; they drew no more parallels with the past.

They walked across the fields. The grass had been cut long ago, there wasn’t a single flower anywhere. They sat down on some large stones.

He talked of the Board of Prisons and his office. She talked of the children.

Then they walked on in silence. He looked at his watch.

“Three hours yet till dinner time,” he said. And he wondered how they could kill time on the next day.

They returned to the hotel. He asked for the papers. She sat down by the side of him with a smile on her lips.

They talked little during dinner. After dinner she mentioned the servants.

“For heaven’s sake, leave the servants alone!” he exclaimed.

“Surely we haven’t come here to quarrel!”

“Am I quarrelling?”

“Well, I’m not!”

An awkward pause followed. He wished somebody would come. The children! Yes! This tete-a-tete embarrassed him, but he felt a pain in his heart when he thought of the bright hours of yesterday.

“Let’s go to Oak Hill,” she said, “and gather wild strawberries.”

“There are no wild strawberries at this time of the year, it’s autumn.”

“Let’s go all the same.”

And they went. But conversation was difficult. His eyes searched for some object on the roadside which would serve for a peg on which to hang a remark, but there was nothing. There was no subject which they hadn’t discussed. She knew all his views on everything and disagreed with most of them. She longed to go home, to the children, to her own fireside. She found it absurd to make a spectacle of herself in this place and be on the verge of a quarrel with her husband all the time.

After a while they stopped, for they were tired. He sat down and began to write in the sand with his walking stick. He hoped she would provoke a scene.

“What are you thinking of?” she asked at last.

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“I?” he replied, feeling as if a burden were falling off his shoulders, “I am thinking that we are getting old, mother: our innings are over, and we have to be content with what has been. If you are of the same mind, we’ll go home by the night boat.”

“I have thought so all along, old man, but I wanted to please you.”

“Then come along, we’ll go home. It’s no longer summer, autumn is here.”

They returned to the hotel, much relieved.

He was a little embarrassed on account of the prosaic ending of the adventure, and felt an irresistible longing to justify it from a philosophical standpoint.

“You see, mother,” he said, “my lo–h’m” (the word was too strong) “my affection for you has undergone a change in the course of time. It has developed, broadened; at first it was centred on the individual, but later on, on the family as a whole. It is not now you, personally, that I love, nor is it the children, but it is the whole….

“Yes, as my uncle used to say, children are lightning conductors!”

After his philosophical explanation he became his old self again. It was pleasant to take off his frock coat; he felt, as if he were getting into his dressing-gown.

When they entered the hotel, she began at once to pack, and there she was in her element.

They went downstairs into the saloon as soon as they got on board. For appearance sake, however, he asked her whether she would like to watch the sunset; but she declined.

At supper he helped himself first, and she asked the waitress the price of black bread.

When he had finished his supper, he remained sitting at the table, lingering over a glass of porter. A thought which had amused him for some time, would no longer be suppressed.

“Old fool, what?” he said, lifting his glass and smiling at his wife who happened to look at him at the moment.

She did not return his smile but her eyes, which had flashed for a second, assumed so withering an expression of dignity that he felt crushed.

The spell was broken, the last trace of his old love had vanished; he was sitting opposite the mother of his children; he felt small.

“No need to look down upon me because I have made a fool of myself for a moment,” she said gravely. “But in a man’s love there is always a good deal of contempt; it is strange.”

“And in the love of a woman?”

“Even more, it is true! But then, she has every cause.”

“It’s the same thing–with a difference. Probably both of them are wrong. That which one values too highly, because it is difficult of attainment, is easily underrated when one has obtained it.”

“Why does one value it too highly?”

“Why is it so difficult of attainment?”

The steam whistle above their heads interrupted their conversation.

They landed.

When they had arrived home, and he saw her again among her children, he realised that his affection for her had undergone a change, and that her affection for him had been transferred to and divided amongst all these little screamers. Perhaps her love for him had only been a means to an end. His part had been a short one, and he felt deposed. If he had not been required to earn bread and butter, he would probably have been cast off long ago.

He went into his study, put on his dressing-gown and slippers, lighted his pipe and felt at home.

Outside the wind lashed the rain against the window panes, and whistled in the chimney.

When the children had been put to bed, his wife came and sat by him.

“No weather to gather wild strawberries,” she said.

“No, my dear, the summer is over and autumn is here.”

“Yes, it is autumn,” she replied, “but it is not yet winter, there is comfort in that.”

“Very poor comfort if we consider that we live but once.”

“Twice when one has children; three times if one lives to see one’s grandchildren.”

“And after that, the end.”

“Unless there is a life after death.”

“We cannot be sure of that! Who knows? I believe it, but my faith is no proof.”

“But it is good to believe it. Let us have faith! Let us believe that spring will come again! Let us believe it!”

“Yes, let us believe it,” he said, gathering her to his breast.

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