Compensation by August Strindberg

He was considered a genius at College, and no one doubted that he would one day distinguish himself. But after passing his examinations, he was obliged to go to Stockholm …

He was considered a genius at College, and no one doubted that he would one day distinguish himself. But after passing his examinations, he was obliged to go to Stockholm and look out for a berth. His dissertation, which was to win him the doctor’s degree, had to be postponed. As he was very ambitious, but had no private means, he resolved to marry money, and with this object in view, he visited only the very best families, both at Upsala where he studied for the bar, and later on at Stockholm. At Upsala he always fraternised with the new arrivals, that is to say, when they were members of aristocratic families, and the freshers felt flattered by the advances made by the older man. In this way he formed many useful ties, which meant invitations to his friends’ country houses during the summer.

The country houses were his happy hunting ground. He possessed social talents, he could sing and play and amuse the ladies, and consequently he was a great favourite. He dressed beyond his means; but he never borrowed money from any of his friends or aristocratic acquaintances. He even went to the length of buying two worthless shares and mentioning on every possible occasion that he had to attend a General Meeting of the shareholders.

For two summers he had paid a great deal of attention to a titled lady who owned some property, and his prospects were the general topic, when he suddenly disappeared from high life and became engaged to a poor girl, the daughter of a cooper, who owned no property whatever.

His friends were puzzled and could not understand how he could thus stand in his own light. He had laid his plans so well, he “had but to stretch out his hand and success was in his grasp”; he had the morsel firmly stuck on his fork, it was only necessary for him to open his mouth and swallow it. He himself was at a loss to understand how it was that the face of a little girl whom he had met but once on a steamer could have upset all his plans of many years’ standing. He was bewitched, obsessed.

He asked his friends whether they didn’t think her beautiful?

Frankly speaking they didn’t.

“But she is so clever! Just look into her eyes! What expressive eyes she has!”

His friends could see nothing and hear less, for the girl never opened her lips.

But he spent evening after evening with the cooper’s family; to be sure, the cooper was a very intelligent man! On his knees before her (a trick often practised at the country houses) he held her skeins of wool; he played and sang to her, talked about religion and the drama, and he always read acquiescence in her eyes. He wrote poetry about her, and sacrificed at her shrine his laurels, his ambitious dreams, even his dissertation.

And then he married her.

The cooper drank too much at the wedding and made an improper speech about girls in general. But the son-in-law found the old man so unsophisticated, so amiable, that he egged him on instead of shutting him up. He felt at his ease among these simple folk; in their midst he could be quite himself.

“That’s being in love,” said his friends. “Love is a wonderful thing.”

And now they were married. One month–two months. He was unspeakably happy. Every evening they spent together and he sang a song to her about the Rose in the Wood, her favourite song. And he talked about religion and the drama, and she sat and listened eagerly. But she never expressed an opinion; she listened in silence and went on with her crochet work.

In the third month he relapsed into his old habit of taking an afternoon nap. His wife, who hated being by herself, insisted on sitting by him. It irritated him, for he felt an overwhelming need to be alone with his thoughts.

Sometimes she met him on his way home from his office, and her heart swelled with pride when he left his colleagues and crossed the street to join her. She took him home in triumph: he was her husband!

In the fourth month he grew tired of her favourite song. It was stale now! He took up a book and read, and neither of them spoke.

One evening he had to attend a meeting which was followed by a banquet. It was his first night away from home. He had persuaded his wife to invite a friend to spend the evening with her, and to go to bed early, for he did not expect to be home until late.

The friend came and stayed until nine o’clock. The young wife sat in the drawing-room, waiting, for she was determined not to go to bed until her husband had returned. She felt too restless to go to sleep.

She sat alone in the drawing-room. What could she do to make the time pass more quickly? The maid had gone to bed; the grandfather’s clock ticked and ticked. But it was only ten o’clock when she put away her crochet work. She fidgeted, moved the furniture about and felt a little unstrung.

So that was what being married meant! One was torn from one’s early surroundings, and shut up in three solitary rooms to wait until one’s husband came home, half intoxicated.–Nonsense! he loved her, and he was out on business. She was a fool to forget that. But did he love her still? Hadn’t he refused a day or two ago to hold a skein of wool for her?–a thing he loved to do before they were married. Didn’t he look rather annoyed yesterday when she met him before lunch? And–after all–if he had to attend a business meeting to-night, there was no necessity for him to be present at the banquet.

It was half-past ten when her musing had reached this point. She was surprised that she hadn’t thought of these things before. She relapsed into her dark mood and the dismal thoughts again passed through her mind, one by one. But now reinforcements had arrived. He never talked to her now! He never sang to her, never opened the piano! He had told her a lie when he had said that he couldn’t do without his afternoon nap, for he was reading French novels all the time.

He had told her a lie!

It was only half-past eleven. The silence was oppressive. She opened the window and looked out into the street. Two men were standing down below, bargaining with two women. That was men’s way! If he should ever do anything like that! She should drown herself if he did.

She shut the window and lighted the chandelier in the bedroom. “One ought to be able to see what one is about,” he had once said to her on a certain occasion.–Everything was still so bright and new! The green coverlet looked like a mown lawn, and the little pillows reminded her of two white kittens curled up on the grass. The polish of her dressing-table reflected the light: the mirror had as yet none of those ugly stains which are made by the splashing of water. The silver on the back of her hair-brush, her powder-box, her tooth-brush, all shone and sparkled. Her bedroom slippers were still so new and pretty that it was impossible to picture them down-at-heel. Everything looked new, and yet everything seemed to have lost some of its freshness. She knew all his songs, all his drawing-room pieces, all his words, all his thoughts. She knew before-hand what he would say when he sat down to lunch, what he would talk about when they were alone in the evening.

She was sick of it all. Had she been in love with him? Oh, yes! Certainly! But was this all then? Was she realising all the dreams of her girlhood? Were things to go on like this until she died? Yes! But–but–but–surely they would have children! though there was no sign of it as yet. Then she would no longer be alone! Then he might go out as often as he liked, for she would always have somebody to talk to, to play with. Perhaps it was a baby which she wanted to make her happy. Perhaps matrimony really meant something more than being a man’s legitimate mistress. That must be it! But then, he would have to love her, and he didn’t do that. And she began to cry.

When her husband came home at one o’clock, he was quite sober. But he was almost angry with her when he found her still up.

“Why didn’t you go to bed?” were the words with which he greeted her.

“How can I go to sleep when I am waiting for you?”

“A fine look out for me! Am I never to go out then? I believe you have been crying, too?”

“Yes, I have, and how can I help it if you–don’t–love–me–any–more?”

“Do you mean to say I don’t love you because I had to go out on business?”

“A banquet isn’t business!”

“Good God! Am I not to be allowed to go out? How can women be so obtrusive?”

“Obtrusive? Yes, I noticed that yesterday, when I met you. I’ll never meet you again.”

“But, darling, I was with my chief–“

“Huhuhu!”

She burst into tears, her body moved convulsively.

He had to call the maid and ask her to fetch the hot-water bottle.

He, too, was weeping. Scalding tears! He wept over himself, his hardness of heart, his wickedness, his illusions over everything.

Surely his love for her wasn’t an illusion? He did love her! Didn’t he? And she said she loved him, too, as he was kneeling before her prostrate figure, kissing her eyes. Yes, they loved one another! It was merely a dark cloud which had passed, now. Ugly thoughts, born of solitude and loneliness. She would never, never again stay alone. They fell asleep in each other’s arms, her face dimpled with smiles.

But she did not go to meet him on the following day. He asked no questions at lunch. He talked a lot, but more for the sake of talking than to amuse her; it seemed as if he were talking to himself.

In the evening he entertained her with long descriptions of the life at Castle Sjostaholm; he mimicked the young ladies talking to the Baron, and told her the names of the Count’s horses. And on the following day he mentioned his dissertation.

One afternoon he came home very tired. She was sitting in the drawing-room, waiting for him. Her ball of cotton had fallen on the floor. In passing, his foot got entangled in the cotton; at his next step he pulled her crochet work out of her hand and dragged it along; then he lost his temper and kicked it aside.

She exclaimed at his rudeness.

He retorted that he had no time to bother about her rubbish, and advised her to spend her time more profitably. He had to think of his dissertation, if he was to have a career at all. And she ought to consider the question of how to limit their household expenses.

Things had gone far indeed!

On the next day the young wife, her eyes swollen with weeping, was knitting socks for her husband. He told her he could buy them cheaper ready-made. She burst into tears. What was she to do? The maid did all the work of the house, there was not enough work in the kitchen for two. She always dusted the rooms. Did he want her to send the maid away?

“No, no!”

“What did he want, then?”

He didn’t know himself, but he was sure that something was wrong. Their expenses were too high. That was all. They couldn’t go on living at their present rate, and then–somehow he could never find time to work at his dissertation.

Tears, kisses, and a grand reconciliation! But now he started staying away from home in the evening several times a week. Business! A man must show himself! If he stays at home, he will be overlooked and forgotten!

A year had passed; there were no signs of the arrival of a baby. “How like a little liaison I once had in the old days,” he thought; “there is only one difference: this one is duller and costs more.” There was no more conversation, now; they merely talked of household matters. “She has no brain,” he thought. “I am listening to myself when I am talking to her, and the apparent depths of her eyes is a delusion, due to the size of her pupils–the unusual size of her pupils.–“

He talked openly about his former love for her as of something that was over and done with. And yet, whenever he did so, he felt a pain in his heart, an irritating, cruel pain, a remorseless pain that could never die.

“Everything on earth withers and dies,” he mused, “why should her favourite song alone be an exception to this? When one has heard it three hundred and sixty-five times, it becomes stale; it can’t be helped. But is my wife right when she says that our love, also, has died? No, and yet–perhaps she is. Our marriage is no better than a vulgar liaison, for we have no child.”

One day he made up his mind to talk the matter over with a married friend, for were they not both members of the “Order of the Married”?

“How long have you been married?”

“Six years.”

“And does matrimony bore you?”

“At first it did; but when the children came, matters improved.”

“Was that so? It’s strange that we have no child.”

“Not your fault, old man! Tell your wife to go and see a doctor about it.”

He had an intimate conversation with her and she went.

Six weeks after what a change!

What a bustle and commotion in the house! The drawing-room table was littered with baby-clothes which were quickly hidden if anybody entered unexpectedly, and reappeared as quickly if it was only he who had come in. A name had to be thought of. It would surely be a boy. The midwife had to be interviewed, medical books had to be bought, and a cradle and a baby’s outfit.

The baby arrived and it really was a boy! And when he saw the “little monkey that smelled of butter” clasped to her bosom, which until then had but been his plaything, he reverently discovered the mother in his little wife; and “when he saw the big pupils looking at the baby so intently that they seemed to be looking into the future”, he realised that there were depths in her eyes after all; depths more profound than he could fathom for all his drama and religion. And now all his old love, his dear old love, burst into fresh flames, and there was something new added to it, which he had dimly divined, but never realised.

How beautiful she was when she busied herself about the house again! And how intelligent in all matters concerning the baby!

As for him, he felt a man. Instead of talking of the Baron’s horses and the Count’s cricket matches, he now talked, too much almost, of his son.

And when occasionally he was obliged to be out of an evening, he always longed for his own fireside; not because his wife sat there waiting for him, like an evil conscience, but because he knew that she was not alone. And when he came home, both mother and child were asleep. He was almost jealous of the baby, for there had been a certain charm in the thought that while he was out, somebody was sitting alone at home, eagerly awaiting his return.

Now he was allowed his afternoon nap. And as soon as he had gone back to town, the piano was opened and the favourite song of the Rose in the Wood was sung, for it was quite new to Harold, and had regained all its freshness for poor little Laura who hadn’t heard it for so many days.

She had no time now for crochet work, but there were plenty of antimacassars in the house. He, on his part, could not spare the time for his dissertation.

“Harold shall write it,” said the father, for he knew now that his life would not be over when he came to die.

Many an evening they sat together, as before, and gossiped, but now both took a share in the conversation, for now she understood what they were talking about.

She confessed that she was a silly girl who knew nothing about religion and the drama; but she said that she had always told him so, and that he had refused to believe it.

But now he believed it less than ever.

They sang the old favourite song, and Harold crowed, they danced to the tune and rocked the baby’s cradle to it, and the song always retained its freshness and charm.

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