Punctually at half past nine on a winter evening he appears at the door leading to the glass-roofed verandah of the restaurant. While, with mathematical precision, he takes off his gloves, he peers over his dim spectacles, first to the right, then to the left, to find out whether any of his acquaintances are present. Then he hangs up his overcoat on its special hook, the one to the right of the fireplace. Gustav, the waiter, an old pupil of his, flies to his table and, without waiting for an order, brushes the crumbs off the tablecloth, stirs up the mustard, smooths the salt in the salt-cellar and turns over the dinner napkin. Then he fetches, still without any order, a bottle of Medhamra, opens half a bottle of Union beer and, merely for appearance sake, hands the schoolmaster the bill of fare.
“Crabs?” he asks, more as a matter of form than because there is any need of the question.
“Female crabs,” answers the schoolmaster.
“Large, female crabs,” repeats Gustav, walks to the speaking tube which communicates with the kitchen, and shouts: “Large female crabs for Mr. Blom, and plenty of dill.”
He fetches butter and cheese, cuts two very thin slices of rye-bread, and places them on the schoolmaster’s table. The latter has in the meantime searched the verandah for the evening papers, but has only found the official Post. To make up for this very poor success, he takes the Daily Journal, which he had not had time to finish at lunch, and after first opening and refolding the Post, and putting it on the top of the bread basket on his left, sits down to read it. He ornaments the rye-bread with geometrical butter hieroglyphics, cuts off a piece of cheese in the shape of a rectangle, fills his liqueur glass three quarters full and raises it to his lips, hesitates as if the little glass contained physic, throws back his head and says: Ugh!
He has done this for twelve years and will continue doing it until the day of his death.
As soon as the crabs, six of them, have been put before him, he examines them as to their sex, and everything being as it should be, makes ready to enjoy himself. He tucks a corner of his dinner napkin into his collar, places two slices of thin bread and cheese by the side of his plate and pours out a glass of beer and half a glass of liqueur. Then he takes the little crab-knife and business begins. He is the only man in Sweden who knows how to eat a crab, and whenever he sees anybody else engaged in the same pursuit, he tells him that he has no idea how to do it. He makes an incision all round the head, and a hole against which he presses his lips and begins to suck.
“This,” he says, “is the best part of the whole animal.”
He severs the thorax from the lower part, puts his teeth to the body and drinks deep draughts; he sucks the little legs as if they were asparagus, eats a bit of dill, and takes a drink of beer and a mouthful of rye-bread. When he has carefully taken the shell off the claws and sucked even the tiniest tubes, he eats the flesh; last of all he attacks the lower part of the body. When he has eaten three crabs, he drinks half a glass of liqueur and reads the promotions in the Post.
He has done this for twelve years and will continue doing it until he dies.
He was just twenty years old when he first began to patronise the restaurant, now he is thirty-two, and Gustav has been a waiter for ten years in the same place. Not one of its frequenters has known the restaurant longer than the school-master, not even the proprietor who took it over eight years ago. He has watched generations of diners come and go; some came for a year, some for two, some for five years; then they disappeared, went to another restaurant, left the town or got married. He feels very old, although he is only thirty-two! The restaurant is his home, for his furnished room is nothing but the place where he sleeps.
It is ten o’clock. He leaves his table and goes to the back room where his grog awaits him. This is the time when the bookseller arrives. They play a game of chess or talk about books. At half-past ten the second violin from the Dramatic Theatre drops in. He is an old Pole who, after 1864, escaped to Sweden, and now makes a living by his former hobby. Both the Pole and the bookseller are over fifty, but they get on with the schoolmaster as if he were a contemporary.
The proprietor has his place behind the counter. He is an old sea captain who fell in love with the proprietress and married her. She rules in the kitchen, but the sliding panel is always open, so that she can keep an eye on the old man, lest he should take a glass too much before closing time. Not until the gas has been turned out, and the old man is ready to go to bed, is he allowed a nightcap in the shape of a stiff glass of rum and water.
At eleven o’clock the young bloods begin to arrive; they approach the counter diffidently and ask the proprietor in a whisper whether any of the private rooms upstairs are disengaged, and then there is a rustling of skirts in the hall and cautious footsteps are creeping upstairs.
“Well,” says the bookseller, who has suddenly found a topic of conversation, “when are you going to be married, Blom, old man?”
“I haven’t the means to get married,” answered the school-master. “Why don’t you take a wife to your bosom yourself?”
“No woman would have me, now that my head looks like an old, leather-covered trunk,” says the bookseller. “And, moreover, there’s my old Stafva, you know.”
Stafva was a legendary person in whom nobody believed. She was the incarnation of the bookseller’s unrealised dreams.
“But you, Mr. Potocki?” suggested the schoolmaster.
“He’s been married once, that’s enough,” replies the bookseller.
The Pole nods his head like a metrometer.
“Yes, I was married very happily. Ugh!” he says and finishes his grog.
“Well,” continues the schoolmaster, “if women weren’t such fools, one might consider the matter; but they are infernal fools.”
The Pole nods again and smiles; being a Pole, he doesn’t understand what the word fool means.
“I have been married very happily, ugh!”
“And then there is the noise of the children, and children’s clothes always drying near the stove; and servants, and all day long the smells from the kitchen. No, thank you! And, perhaps, sleepless nights into the bargain.”
“Ugh!” added the Pole, completing the sentence.
“Mr. Potocki says ‘ugh’ with the malice of the bachelor who listens to the complaints of the married man,” remarked the bookseller.
“What did I say?” asks the astonished widower. “Ugh!” says the bookseller, mimicking him, and the conversation degenerates into a universal grinning and a cloud of tobacco smoke.
It is midnight. The piano upstairs, which has accompanied a mixed choir of male and female voices, is silent. The waiter has finished his countless journeys from the speaking tube to the verandah; the proprietor enters into his daybook the last few bottles of champagne which have been ordered upstairs. The three friends rise from their chairs and go home, two to their “virgin couches,” and the bookseller to his Stafva.
When schoolmaster Blom had reached his twentieth year, he was compelled to interrupt his studies at Upsala and accept a post as assistant teacher at Stockholm. As he, in addition, gave private lessons, he made quite a good income. He did not ask much of life. All he wanted was peace and cleanliness. An elderly lady let him a furnished room and there he found more than a bachelor finds as a rule. She looked after him and was kind to him; she gave him all the tenderness which nature had intended her to bestow on the new generation that was to spring from her. She mended his clothes and looked after him generally. He had lost his mother when he was a little boy and had never been accustomed to gratuitous kindness; therefore he was inclined to look upon her services as an interference with his liberty, but he accepted them nevertheless. But all the same the public house was his real home. There he paid for everything and ran up no bills.
He was born in a small town in the interior of Sweden; consequently he was a stranger in Stockholm. He knew nobody; was not on visiting terms with any of the families and met his acquaintances nowhere but at the public-house. He talked to them freely, but never gave them his confidence, in fact he had no confidence to give. At school he taught the third class and this gave him a feeling of having been stunted in his growth. A very long time ago he had been in the third class himself, had gradually crept up to the seventh, and had spent a few terms at the University; now he had returned to the third; he had been there for twelve years without being moved. He taught the second and third books of Euclid; this was the course of instruction for the whole year. He saw only a fragment of life; a fragment without beginning or end; the second and third books. In his spare time he read the newspapers and books on archaeology. Archaeology is a modern science, one might almost say a disease of the time. And there is danger in it, for it proves over and over again that human folly has pretty nearly always been the same.
Politics was to him nothing but an interesting game of chess–played for the king, for he was brought up like everybody else; it was an article of faith with him that nothing which happened in the world, concerned him, personally; let those look to it whom God had placed in a position of power. This way of looking at things filled his soul with peace and tranquillity; he troubled nobody and nothing troubled him. When he found, as he did occasionally, that an unusually foolish event had occurred, he consoled himself with the conviction that it could not have been helped. His education had made him selfish, and the catechism had taught him that if everybody did his duty, all things would be well, whatever happened. He did his duty towards his pupils in an exemplary fashion; he was never late; never ill. In his private life, too, he was above reproach; he paid his rent on the day it fell due, never ran up bills at his restaurant, and spent only one evening a week on pleasure. His life glided along like a railway train to the second and, being a clever man, he managed to avoid collisions. He gave no thought to the future; a truly selfish man never does, for the simple reason that the future belongs to him for no longer than twenty or thirty years at the most.
And thus his days passed.
* * * * *
Midsummer morning dawned–radiant and sunny as mid-summer morning should be. The schoolmaster was still in bed, reading a book on the Art of Warfare in ancient Egypt, when Miss Augusta came into his room with his breakfast. She had put on his tray some slices of saffron bread, in honour of the festival, and on his dinner-napkin lay a spray of elder blossoms. On the previous night she had decorated his room with branches of the birch-tree, put clean sand and some cowslips in the spittoon, and a bunch of lilies-of-the-valley on the dressing table.
“Aren’t you going to make an excursion to-day, sir?” she asked, glancing at the decorations, anxious for a word of thanks or approval.
But Mr. Blom had not even noticed the decorations, and therefore he answered dryly:
“Haven’t you realised yet that I never make excursions? I hate elbowing my way through a crowd, and the noise of the children gets on my nerves.”
“But surely you won’t stay in town on such a lovely day! You’ll at least go to the Deer Park?”
“That would be the very last place I should go to, especially to-day, when it will be crowded. Oh! no, I’m better off in town, and I wish to goodness that this holiday nuisance would be stopped.”
“There are plenty of people who say that there aren’t half enough holidays these days when everybody has to work so hard,” said the old woman in a conciliatory tone. “But is there anything else you wish, sir? My sister and I are making an excursion by steamer, and we shan’t be back until ten o’clock to-night.”
“I hope you’ll enjoy yourselves, Miss Augusta. I want nothing, and am quite able to look after myself. The caretaker can do my room when I have gone out.”
Miss Augusta left him alone with his breakfast. When he had eaten it, he lit a cigar and remained in bed with his Egyptian Warfare. The open window shook softly in the southern breeze. At eight o’clock the bells, large and small, of the nearest church began to ring, and those of the other churches of Stockholm, St. Catherine’s, St. Mary’s and St. Jacob’s, joined in; they tinkled and jingled, enough to make a heathen tear his hair in despair. When the church bells stopped, a military band on the bridge of a steamer began to play a set of quadrilles from The Weak Point. The schoolmaster writhed between his sheets, and would have got out of bed and shut the window if it had not been so hot. Next there came a rolling of drums, which was interrupted by the strains of a brass quintet which played, on another steamer, the Hunter’s Chorus from the Freischutz. But the cursed rolling of drums approached. They were marching at the head of the Riflemen on their way to camp. Now he was subjected to a medley of sounds: the Riflemen’s march, the signals, the bells and the brass bands on the steamers, until at last the whole crash and din was drowned by the throbbing of the screw.
At ten o’clock he lit his spirit lamp and boiled his shaving water. His starched shirt lay on his chest of drawers, white and stiff as a board. It took him a quarter of an hour to push the studs through the button-holes. He spent half-an-hour in shaving himself. He brushed his hair as if it were a matter of the utmost importance. When he put on his trousers, he was careful that the lower ends should not touch the floor and become dusty.
His room was simply furnished, extremely plain and tidy. It was impersonal, neutral, like the room in a hotel. And yet he had spent in it twelve years of his life. Most people collect no end of trifles during such a period; presents, little superfluous nothings, ornaments. Not a single engraving, not a supplement to an illustrated magazine even, which at some time or other had appealed to him, hung on the walls; no antimacassar, no rug worked by a loving sister, lay on the chairs; no photograph of a beloved face stood on his writing-table, no embroidered pen-wiper lay by the side of the ink-stand. Everything had been bought as cheaply as possible with a view to avoiding unnecessary expense which might have hampered the owner’s independence.
He leaned out of the window which gave him a view of the street and, across Artillery Place, of the harbour. In the house opposite a woman was dressing. He turned away as if something ugly had met his gaze, or something which might disturb his peace of mind. The harbour was gay with the fluttering flags on the steamers and sailing-ships, and the water glittered in the sunshine. A few old women, prayer-book in hand, passed his window on their way to church. A sentinel with drawn sword was walking up and down before the Artillery Barracks, glancing discontentedly at the clock on the tower every now and then to see how much longer he would have to wait until the relieving guard arrived. Otherwise the street lay empty and grey in the hot sunshine. His eyes wandered back to the woman opposite. She was standing before her looking-glass, powder puff in hand, intent on powdering the corners of her nose, with a grimace which made her look like a monkey. He left the window and sat down in his rocking chair.
He made his programme for the day, for he had a vague dread of solitude. On week days he was surrounded by the school-boys, and although he had no love for those wild beasts whose taming, or rather whose efficient acquisition of the difficult art of dissembling, was his life task, yet he felt a certain void when he was not with them. Now, during the long summer vacations, he had established a holiday school, but even so he had been compelled to give the boys short summer holidays, and, with the exception of meal times when he could always count on the bookseller and the second violin, he had been alone for several days.
“At two o’clock,” he mused, “when the guard has been relieved, and the crowds have dispersed, I’ll go to my restaurant to dine; then I’ll invite the bookseller to Stromsborg; there won’t be a soul to-day; we can have coffee there and punch, and stay till the evening when we’ll return to town and to Rejner’s.” (Rejner’s was the name of his restaurant in Berzelius Place.)
Punctually at two o’clock he took his hat, brushed himself carefully and went out.
“I wonder whether there’ll be stewed perch to-day,” he thought. “And mightn’t one treat oneself to asparagus, as it’s midsummer-day?”
He strolled past the high wall of the Government Bakery. In Berzelius Park the seats which were usually occupied by the nursemaids of the rich and their charges, were crowded with the families of the labourers who had appeared in great numbers with their perambulators. He saw a mother feeding her baby. She was a large, full-breasted woman, and the baby’s dimpled hand almost disappeared in her bosom. The schoolmaster turned away with a feeling of loathing. He was annoyed to see these strangers in his park. It was very much like the servants using the drawing-room when their master and mistress had gone out; moreover, he couldn’t forgive them their plainness.
He arrived at the glass verandah, and put his hand on the door handle, thinking once more of the stewed perch “with lots of parsley,” when his eyes fell on a notice on the door. There was no necessity to read it, he knew its purport: the restaurant was closed on midsummer-day; he had forgotten it. He felt as if he had run with his head into a lamp-post. He was furious; first of all with the proprietor for closing, then with himself for having forgotten that the restaurant would be closed. It seemed to him so monstrous that he could have forgotten an incident of such importance, that he couldn’t believe it and racked his brain to find someone on whom he could lay the blame. Of course, it was the fault of the proprietor. He had run off the lines, come into collision. He was done. He sat down on the seat and almost shed tears of rage.
Thump! a ball hit him right in the middle of his starched shirt front. Like an infuriated wasp he rose from his seat to find the criminal; a plain little girl’s face laughed into his; a labourer in his Sunday clothes and straw hat appeared, took her by the hand and smilingly expressed a hope that the child had not hurt him; a laughing crowd of soldiers and servant girls stared at him. He looked round for a constable for he felt that his rights as a human being had been encroached upon. But when he saw the constable in familiar conversation with the child’s mother, he dropped the idea of making a scene, went straight to the nearest cab-stand, hired a cab, and told the driver to drive him to the bookseller’s; he could not bear to be alone any longer.
In the safe shelter of the cab he took out his handkerchief and flicked the dust from his shirt front.
He dismissed the cab in Goten Street, for he felt sure that he would find his friend at home. But as he walked upstairs his assurance left him. Supposing he were out after all!
He was out. Not one of the tenants was at home. His knock sounded through an empty house; his footsteps re-echoed on the deserted stairs.
When he was again in the street he was at a loss to know what to do. He did not know Potocki’s address, and where was he to find an address book on a day when all the shops were closed?
Without knowing where he was going, he went down the street, past the harbour, across the bridge. He did not meet a single man he knew. The presence of the crowd which occupied the town during the absence of their betters annoyed him, for, like the rest of us, the education which he had received at school had made an aristocrat of him.
In his first anger he had forgotten his hunger, but now it re-asserted itself. A new, terrible thought occurred to him, a thought which up to now he had put away from him out of sheer cowardice: Where was he to dine? He had started out with plenty of vouchers in his pocket, but only one crown and fifty ore in coin. The vouchers were only used at Rejner’s, for convenience sake, and he had spent a crown on his cabfare.
He found himself again in Berzelius Park. Everywhere he met labourers and their families, eating what they had brought with them in baskets; hard-boiled eggs, crabs, pancakes. And the police did not interfere. On the contrary, he saw a policeman with a sandwich in one hand and a glass of beer in the other. But what irritated him more than anything else was the fact that these people whom he despised had the advantage of him. But why couldn’t he go into a dairy and appease his hunger? Yes, why not? The very thought of it made him shudder.
After some little reflection he went down to the harbour, intending to cross over to the Deer Park. He was bound to find acquaintances there from whom he could borrow money (hateful thought!) for his dinner. And if so, he would dine at “Hazelmount,” the best restaurant.
The steamer was so crowded that schoolmaster Blom had to stand close to the engine; the heat at his back was intolerable; his morning coat was being covered with grease spots, while he stood, with his gaze rivetted on the untidy head of a servant girl and endured the rancid smell of the hair-oil. But he did not see a single face he knew.
When he entered the restaurant in the Deer Park, he squared his shoulders and tried to look as distinguished as possible.
The space before the restaurant was like the auditorium of a theatre and seemed to serve the same purpose: that is to say, it was a place where one met one’s friends and showed off. The verandah was occupied by officers, blue in the face with eating and drinking; with them were representatives of the foreign Powers, grown old and grey in their strenuous efforts to protect fellow-countrymen who had got mixed up with sailors and fishermen in drunken brawls, or assist at Gala performances, christenings, weddings and funerals. So much for the aristocracy. In the centre of a large space Mr. Blom suddenly discovered the chimney sweep of his quarter, the proprietor of a small inn, the chemist’s assistant and others of the same standing. He watched the game-keeper in his green coat and silver lace, with his gilt staff, walking up and down and casting contemptuous glances at the assembled crowd, as if he were wondering why they were here? The schoolmaster felt self-conscious under the stare of all those eyes which seemed to say: “Look at him! there he goes, wondering how to get dinner!” But there was nothing else for it. He went on to the verandah where the people sat eating perch and asparagus, and drinking Sauternes and Champagne.
All of a sudden he felt the pressure of a friendly hand on his shoulder, and as he turned round, he found himself face to face with Gustav, the waiter, who seized his hand and exclaimed with undisguised pleasure:
“Is that really you, Mr. Blom? How are you?”
But Gustav, the waiter, who was so pleased to find himself for a few moments the equal of his master, held a piece of wood in his warm hand and met a pair of eyes which pierced his soul like gimlets. And yet this same hand had given him ten crowns only yesterday, and the owner of it had thanked him for six months’ service and attention in the way one thanks a friend. The waiter went back to his companions and sat down amongst them, embarrassed and snubbed. But Mr. Blom left the verandah with bitter thoughts and pushed his way through the crowd; he fancied that he could hear a mocking: “He hasn’t been able to get dinner, after all!”
He came to a large open space. There was a puppet-show, and Jasper was being beaten by his wife. A little further off a sailor was showing servant girls, soldiers and apprentices their future husband or wife in a wheel of fortune. They all had had dinner and were enjoying themselves; for a moment he believed himself their inferior, but only for a moment; then he remembered that they had not the vaguest idea of how an Egyptian camp was fortified. The thought gave him back his self-respect, and he wondered how it was possible that people could be so degraded as to find pleasure in such childishness.
In the meantime he had lost all inclination to try the other restaurants; he passed the Tivoli and went further into the heart of the park. Young men and women were dancing on the grass to the strains of a violin: a little further off a whole family was camping under an old oak; the head of the family was kneeling down, in his shirt sleeves, with bare head, a glass of beer in one hand, a sandwich in the other; his fat, jolly, clean-shaven face beamed with pleasure and good-nature as he invited his guests, who were evidently his wife, parents-in-law, brothers, shop-assistants and servants, to eat, drink and be merry, for to-day was Midsummer day, all day long. And the jovial fellow made such droll remarks that the whole party writhed on the grass with amusement. After the pancake had been produced and eaten with the fingers, and the port bottle been round, the senior shop-assistant made a speech which was at once so moving and so witty that the ladies at one moment pressed their handkerchiefs to their eyes, while the head of the family bit his lips, and at the next interrupted the speaker with loud laughter and cheers.
The schoolmaster’s mood became more and more morose, but instead of going away he sat down on a stone under a pinetree and watched “the animals.”
When the speech was finished and father and mother had been toasted with cheers and a flourish of trumpets, executed on a concertina, accompanied by the rattling of all cups and saucers that happened to be empty, the party rose to play “Third Man,” while mother and mother-in-law attended to the babies.
“Just like the beasts in the field,” thought the schoolmaster, turning away, for all that was natural was ugly in his eyes, and only that which was unnatural could lay any claim to beauty in his opinion, except, of course, the paintings of “well-known” masters in the National Museum.
He watched the young men taking off their coats, the young girls slipping off their cuffs and hanging them on the blackthorn bushes; then they took up their positions and the game began.
The girls picked up their skirts and threw up their legs so that their garters, made of blue and red braid such as the grocers sell for tying up pots, were plainly visible, and whenever the cavalier caught his lady, he took her in his arms and swung her round so that her skirts flew; and young and old shrieked so with laughter that the park re-echoed.
“Is this innocence or corruption?” wondered the schoolmaster.
But evidently the party did not know what the learned word “corruption” meant, and that was the reason why they were so merry.
By the time they were tired of playing “Third Man” tea was ready. The schoolmaster was puzzled to know where the cavaliers had learnt their fine manners, for they moved about on all fours to offer the girls sugar and cake; and the straps of their waistcoats stood out like handles.
“The males showing off before the females!” thought the schoolmaster. “They don’t know what they are in for.”
He noticed how the head of the family, the jolly fellow, waited on father and mother-in-law, wife, shop-assistants and servant girls: and whenever one of them begged him to help himself first, he invariably answered that there was plenty of time for that.
He watched the father-in-law peeling a willow branch to make a flute for the little boy; he watched the mother-in-law wash up as if she had been one of the servants. And he thought that there was something strange about selfishness, since it could be so cleverly disguised that it looked as if no one gave more than he received; for it must be selfishness, it couldn’t be anything else.
They played at forfeits and redeemed every forfeit with kisses, true, genuine, resounding kisses on the lips; and when the jolly book-keeper was made to kiss the old oak-tree, his conduct was too absurd for anything; he embraced and caressed the gnarled trunk as if it had been a girl whom he had met secretly; everybody shouted with laughter, for all knew how to do it, although none of them would have liked to be caught doing it.
The schoolmaster who had begun by watching the spectacle with critical eyes, fell more and more under the spell of it; he almost believed himself to be one of the party. He smiled at the sallies of the shop-assistants, and before an hour was gone the head of the family had won his whole sympathy. No one could deny that the man was a comedian of the first rank. He could play “Skin-the-cat”; he could “walk backwards,” “lie” on the tree-trunks, swallow coins, eat fire, and imitate all sorts of birds. And when he extracted a saffron cake from the dress of one of the girls and made it disappear in his right ear, the schoolmaster laughed until his empty inside ached.
Then the dancing began. The schoolmaster had read in Rabe’s grammar: Nemo saltat sobrius, nisi forte insanit, and had always looked upon dancing as a species of insanity. True, he had watched puppies and calves dancing when they felt frisky, but he did not believe that Cicero’s maxim applied to the animal world, and he was in the habit of drawing a sharp line between men and animals. Now, as he sat watching these young people who were quite sober, and neither hungry nor thirsty, moving round and round to the slow measures of the concertina, he felt as if his soul were in a swing which was being kept going by his eyes and ears, and his right foot beat time gently on the springy turf.
He spent three hours musing and watching, then he rose. He found it almost difficult to tear himself away; it was just as if he were leaving a merry party to which he had been invited; but his mood had changed; he felt more reconciled. He was at peace with the world and pleasantly tired, as if he had been enjoying himself.
It was evening. Smart carriages passed him, the lady-occupants lolling on the back seats and looking in their long, white theatre wraps like corpses in their shrouds; it was fashionable then to look as if one had been exhumed. The schoolmaster, whose thoughts were running in another direction, was sure that the ladies must be bored to death and felt no trace of envy. Below the dusty highroad, far out on the sea, the steamers with their flags and brass bands were returning from their pleasure trips; cheers, strains of music and snatches of song were wafted by the sea breezes to the mountains and the Deer Park.
The schoolmaster had never felt so lonely in his life as he did this evening in the moving throng. He fancied that everybody was looking at him compassionately as he made his solitary way through the crowd, and almost gave way to self-pity. He would have liked to talk to the first comer, for the mere pleasure of hearing his voice, for in his loneliness he felt as if he were walking by the side of a stranger. And now his conscience smote him. He remembered the waiter Gustav, who had been unable to hide his pleasure at meeting him. Now he had arrived at a point when he would have given worlds if anybody had met him and shown any pleasure at the fact. But nobody came.
Yes, somebody did, after all. As he was sitting by himself on the steamer, a setter, who had lost his master, came to him and put its head on his knee. The schoolmaster was not particularly fond of dogs, but he allowed it to stay; he felt it pressing its soft warm body against his leg, he saw the eyes of the forsaken brute looking at him in dumb appeal, as if it were asking him to find its master.
But as soon as they landed, the setter ran away. “It needed me no longer,” thought the schoolmaster, and he walked home and went to bed.
These trifling incidents of Midsummer day had robbed the schoolmaster of his assurance. They taught him that all foresight, all precautions, all the clever calculations in the world availed nothing. He felt a certain instability in his surroundings. Even the public house, his home, was not to be counted on. It might be closed any day. Moreover, a certain reserve on the part of Gustav troubled him. The waiter was as civil as before, more attentive even, but his friendship was gone; he had lost confidence. It afforded the schoolmaster food for thought, and whenever a tough piece of meat, or too small a dish of potatoes was set before him he thought:
“Haha! He’s paying me out!”
It was a bad summer for the schoolmaster: the second violin was out of town and the book-seller frequented “Mosesheight,” a garden restaurant in his own district, situated on a hill.
On an evening in autumn the bookseller and the second violin were sitting at their favourite table, drinking a glass of punch, when the schoolmaster entered, carrying under his arm a parcel which he carefully hid in an empty hamper in a cupboard used for all sorts of lumber. He was ill-tempered and unusually irritable.
“Well, old boy,” the bookseller began for the hundredth time, “and when are you going to be married?”
“Confound your ‘when are you going to be married!’ As if a man hadn’t enough trouble without it! Why don’t you get married yourself?” growled the schoolmaster.
“Oh! because I have my old Stafva,” answered the bookseller, who always had a number of stereotyped answers in readiness.
“I was married very happily,” said the Pole, “but my wife is dead, now, ugh!”
“Is she?” mimicked the schoolmaster; “and the gentleman is a widower? How am I to reconcile these facts?”
The Pole nodded, for he did not in the least understand what the schoolmaster was driving at.
The latter felt bored by his friends; their topic of conversation was always the same; he knew their replies by heart.
Presently he went into the corridor for a few moments to fetch his cigar-case which he had left in the pocket of his overcoat. The bookseller instantly raided the cupboard and returned with the mysterious parcel. As it was not sealed, he opened it quickly; it contained a beautiful American sleeping-suit; he hung it carefully over the back of the schoolmaster’s chair.
“Ugh!” said the Pole, grinning, as if he were looking at something unsightly.
The proprietor of the restaurant who loved a practical joke, bent over the counter, laughing loudly; the waiter stood rooted to the spot, and one of the cooks peeped through the door which communicated with the kitchen.
When the schoolmaster came back and realised the trick played on him, he grew pale with anger; he immediately suspected the bookseller; but when his eyes fell on Gustav who was standing in a corner of the room, laughing, his old obsession returned to him: “He’s paying me out!” Without a word he seized his property, threw a few coins on the counter and left the restaurant.
Henceforth the schoolmaster avoided Rejner’s. The bookseller had heard that he dined at a restaurant in his own district. This was true. But he was very discontented! The food was not actually bad, but it was not cooked to his liking. The waiters were not attentive. He often thought of returning to Rejner’s, but his pride would not let him. He had been turned out of his home; in five minutes a bond of many years’ standing had been severed.
A short time after fate struck him a fresh blow. Miss Augusta had inherited a little fortune in the provinces and had decided to leave Stockholm on the first of October. The schoolmaster had to look out for new lodgings.
But he had been spoilt, and there was no pleasing him. He changed his room every month. There was nothing wrong with the rooms, but they were not like his old room. It had become such a habit with him to walk through certain streets, that he often found himself before his old front door before he realised his mistake. He was like a lost child.
Eventually he went to live in a boarding house, a solution which he had always loathed and dreaded. And then his friends lost sight of him altogether.
One evening, as the Pole was sitting alone over his grog, smoking, drinking, and nodding with the capacity of the oriental to lapse into complete stupor, the bookseller burst in on him like a thunderstorm, flung his hat on the table, and shouted:
“Confound him! Has anybody ever heard anything like it?”
The Pole roused himself from his brandy-and-tobacco Nirvana, and rolled his eyes.
“I say, confound it! Has anybody ever heard anything like it? He’s going to be married!”
“Who’s going to be married?” asked the Pole, startled by the bookseller’s violence and emphatic language.
The bookseller expected a glass of grog in exchange for his news. The proprietor left the counter and came to their table to listen.
“Has she any money?” he asked acutely.
“I don’t think so,” replied the bookseller, conscious of his temporary importance and selling his wares one by one.
“Is she beautiful?” asked the Pole. “My wife was very beautiful. Ugh!”
“No, she’s not beautiful either,” answered the bookseller, “but nice-looking.”
“Have you seen her?” enquired the proprietor. “Is she old?” His eyes wandered towards the kitchen door.
“No, she’s young!”
“And her parents?” continued the proprietor.
“I heard that her father was a brass founder in Orebro.”
“The rascal! Well, I never!” said the proprietor.
“Haven’t I always said so? The man is a born husband,” said the bookseller.
“We all of us are,” said the proprietor, “and take my word for it, no one escapes his fate!”
With this philosophical remark he closed the subject and returned to the counter.
When they had settled that the schoolmaster was not marrying for money, they discussed the problem of “what the young people were going to live on.” The bookseller made a guess at the schoolmaster’s salary and “what he might earn besides by giving private lessons.” When that question, too, had been settled, the proprietor, who had returned to the table, asked for details.
“Where had he met her? Was she fair or dark? Was she in love with him?”
The last question was by no means out of the way; the bookseller “thought she was,” for he had seen them together, arm in arm, looking into shop windows.
“But that he, who was such a stick, could fall in love! It was incredible!”
“And what a husband he would make!” The proprietor knew that he was devilish particular about his food, and that, he said, was a mistake when one was married.
“And he likes a glass of punch in the evening, and surely a married man can’t drink punch every evening of his life. And he doesn’t like children! It won’t turn out well,” he whispered. “Take my word for it, it won’t turn out well. And, gentlemen, there’s another thing,” (he rose from his seat, looked round and continued in a whisper), “I believe, I’m hanged if I don’t, that the old hypocrite has had a love affair of some sort. Do you remember that incident, gentlemen, with the–hihihi –sleeping suit? He’s one of those whom you don’t find where you leave them! Take care, Mrs. Blom! Mind what you are about! I’ll say no more!”
It was certainly a fact that the schoolmaster was engaged to be married and that the wedding was to take place within two months.
What happened after, does not belong to this story, and, moreover, it is difficult to know what goes on behind the convent walls of domesticity when the vow of silence is being kept.
It was also a fact that the schoolmaster, after his marriage, was never again seen at a public house.
The bookseller, who met him by himself in the street one evening, had to listen to a long exhortation on getting married. The schoolmaster had inveighed against all bachelors; he had called them egotists, who refused to do their duty by the State; in his opinion they ought to be heavily taxed, for all indirect taxes weighed most cruelly on the father of a family. He went so far as to say that he wished to see bachelorhood punished by the law of the land as a “crime against nature.”
The bookseller had a good memory. He said that he doubted the advisability of taking a fool into one’s house, permanently. But the schoolmaster replied that his wife was the most intelligent woman he had ever met.
Two years after the wedding the Pole saw the schoolmaster and his wife in the theatre; he thought that they looked happy; “ugh!”
Another three years went by. On a Midsummer day the proprietor of the restaurant made a pleasure trip on the Lake of Malar to Mariafred. There, before Castle Cripsholm, he saw the schoolmaster, pushing a perambulator over a green field, and carrying in his disengaged hand a basket containing food, while a whole crowd of young men and women, “who looked like country folk,” followed in the rear. After dinner the schoolmaster sang songs and turned somersaults with the youngsters. He looked ten years younger and had all the ways of a ladies’ man.
The proprietor, who was quite close to the party while they were having dinner, overheard a little conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Blom. When the young wife took a dish of crabs from the basket, she apologised to Albert, because she had not been able to buy a single female crab in the whole market. Thereupon the schoolmaster put his arm round her, kissed her and said that it didn’t matter in the least, because male or female crabs, it was all the same to him. And when one of the babies in the perambulator began to cry, the schoolmaster lifted it out and hushed it to sleep again.
Well, all these things are mere details, but how people can get married and bring up a family when they have not enough for themselves while they are bachelors, is a riddle to me. It almost looks as if babies brought their food with them when they come into this world; it really almost does look as if they did.