His father died early and from that time forth he was in the hands of a mother, two sisters and several aunts. He had no brother. They lived on an estate in the Swedish province, Soedermanland, and had no neighbours with whom they could be on friendly terms. When he was seven years old, a governess was engaged to teach him and his sisters, and about the same time a girl cousin came to live with them.
He shared his sisters’ bedroom, played their games and went bathing with them; nobody looked upon him as a member of the other sex. Before long his sisters took him in hand and became his schoolmasters and tyrants.
He was a strong boy to start with, but left to the mercy of so many doting women, he gradually became a helpless molly-coddle.
Once he made an attempt to emancipate himself and went to play with the boys of the cottagers. They spent the day in the woods, climbed the trees, robbed the birds’ nests and threw stones at the squirrels. Frithiof was as happy as a released prisoner, and did not come home to dinner. The boys gathered whortle-berries, and bathed in the lake. It was the first really enjoyable day of his life.
When he came home in the evening, he found the whole house in great commotion. His mother though anxious and upset, did not conceal her joy at his return; Aunt Agatha, however, a spinster, and his mother’s eldest sister, who ruled the house, was furious. She maintained that it would be a positive crime not to punish him. Frithiof could not understand why it should be a crime, but his aunt told him that disobedience was a sin. He protested that he had never been forbidden to play with the children of the cottagers. She admitted it but said that, of course, there could never have been two questions about it. And she remained firm, and regardless of his mother’s pleading eyes, took him away to give him a whipping in her own room. He was eight years old and fairly big for his age.
When the aunt touched his waist-belt to unbutton his knickers, a cold shiver ran down his back; he gasped and his heart thumped against his ribs. He made no sound, but stared, horror-struck, at the old woman who asked him, almost caressingly, to be obedient and not to offer any resistance. But when she laid hands on his shirt, he grew hot with shame and fury. He sprang from the sofa on which she had pushed him, hitting out right and left. Something unclean, something dark and repulsive, seemed to emanate from this woman, and the shame of his sex rose up in him as against an assailant.
But the aunt, mad with passion, seized him, threw him on a chair and beat him. He screamed with rage, pain he did not feel, and with convulsive kicks tried to release himself; but all of a sudden he lay still and was silent.
When the old woman let him go, he remained where he was, motionless.
“Get up!” she said, in a broken voice.
He stood up and looked at her. One of her cheeks was pale, the other crimson. Her eyes glowed strangely and she trembled all over. He looked at her curiously, as one might examine a wild beast, and all of a sudden a supercilious smile raised his upper lip; it seemed to him as if his contempt gave him an advantage over her. “She-devil!” He flung the word, newly acquired from the children of the cottagers, into her face, defiantly and scornfully, seized his clothes and flew downstairs to his mother, who was sitting in the dining-room, weeping.
He wanted to open his heart to her and complain of his aunt’s treatment, but she had not the courage to comfort him. So he went into the kitchen where the maids consoled him with a handful of currants.
From this day on he was no longer allowed to sleep in the nursery with his sisters, but his mother had his bed removed to her own bedroom. He found his mother’s room stuffy and the new arrangement dull; she frequently disturbed his sleep by getting up and coming to his bed in the night to see whether he was covered up; then he flew into a rage and answered her questions peevishly.
He was never allowed to go out without being carefully wrapped up by someone, and he had so many mufflers that he never knew which one to put on. Whenever he tried to steal out of the house, someone was sure to see him from the window and call him back to put on an overcoat.
By and by his sisters’ games began to bore him. His strong arms no longer wanted to play battledore and shuttlecock, they longed to throw stones. The squabbles over a petty game of croquet, which demanded neither muscle nor brain, irritated him.
The governess was another one of his trials. She always spoke to him in French and he invariably answered her in Swedish. A vague disgust with his whole life and surroundings began to stir in him.
The free and easy manner in which everybody behaved in his presence offended him, and he retaliated by heartily loathing all with whom he came in contact. His mother was the only one who considered his feelings to a certain extent: she had a big screen put round his bed.
Ultimately the kitchen and the servants’ hall became his refuge; there everything he did was approved of. Occasionally, of course, matters were discussed there which might have aroused a boy’s curiosity, but for him there were no secrets. On one occasion, for instance, he had accidentally come to the maids’ bathing-place. The governess, who was with him, screamed, he could not understand why, but he stopped and talked to the girls who were standing or lying about in the water. Their nudity made no impression upon him.
He grew up into a youth. An inspector was engaged to teach him farming for he was, of course, to take over the management of the estate in due time. They chose an old man who held the orthodox faith. The old man’s society was not exactly calculated to stimulate a young man’s brain, but it was an improvement on the old conditions. It opened new points of view to him and roused him to activity. But the inspector received daily and hourly so many instructions from the ladies, that he ended by being nothing but their mouth-piece.
At the age of fifteen Frithiof was confirmed, received a present of a gold watch and was allowed to go out on horseback; he was not permitted, however, to realise his greatest ambition, namely to go shooting. True, there was no longer any fear of a whipping from his arch-enemy, but he dreaded his mother’s tears. He always remained a child, and never managed to throw off the habit of giving way to the judgment of other people.
The years passed; he had attained his twentieth year. One day he was standing in the kitchen watching the cook, who was busy scaling a perch. She was a pretty young woman with a delicate complexion. He was teasing her and finally put his hand down her back.
“Do behave yourself, now, Mr. Frithiof,” said the girl.
“But I am behaving myself,” he replied, becoming more and more familiar.
“If mistress should see you!”
“Well supposing she did?”
At this moment his mother passed the open kitchen door; she instantly turned away and walked across the yard.
Frithiof found the situation awkward and slunk away to his bed-room.
A new gardener entered their service. In their wisdom, anxious to avoid trouble with the maids, the ladies had chosen a married man. But, as misfortune would have it, the gardener had been married long enough to be the father of an exceedingly pretty young daughter.
Frithiof quickly discovered the sweet blossom among the other roses in the garden, and poured out all the good-will which lay stored up in his heart for that half of humanity to which he did not belong, on this young girl, who was rather well developed and not without education.
He spent a good deal of his time in the garden and stopped to talk to her whenever he found her working at one of the flower-beds or cutting flowers. She did not respond to his advances, but this only had the effect of stimulating his passion.
One day he was riding through the wood, haunted, as usual, by visions of her loveliness which, in his opinion, reached the very pinnacle of perfection. He was sick with longing to meet her alone, freed from all fear of incurring some watcher’s displeasure. In his heated imagination the desire of being near her had assumed such enormous proportions, that he felt that life without her would be impossible.
He held the reins loosely in his hand, and the horse picked his way leisurely while its rider sat on its back wrapped in deep thought. All of a sudden something light appeared between the trees and the gardener’s daughter emerged from the underwood and stepped out on the footpath.
Frithiof dismounted and took off his hat. They walked on, side by side, talking, while he dragged his horse behind him. He spoke in vague words of his love for her; but she rejected all his advances.
“Why should we talk of the impossible?” she asked.
“What is impossible?” he exclaimed.
“That a wealthy gentleman like you should marry a poor girl like me.”
There was no denying the aptitude of her remark, and Frithiof felt that he was worsted. His love for her was boundless, but he could see no possibility of bringing his doe safely through the pack which guarded house and home; they would tear her to pieces.
After this conversation he gave himself up to mute despair.
In the autumn the gardener gave notice and left the estate without giving a reason. For six weeks Frithiof was inconsolable, for he had lost his first and only love; he would never love again.
In this way the autumn slowly passed and winter stood before the door. At Christmas a new officer of health came into the neighbourhood. He had grown-up children, and as the aunts were always ill, friendly relations were soon established between the two families. Among the doctor’s children was a young girl and before long Frithiof was head over ears in love with her. He was at first ashamed of his infidelity to his first love, but he soon came to the conclusion that love was something impersonal, because it was possible to change the object of one’s tenderness; it was almost like a power of attorney made out on the holder.
As soon as his guardians got wind of this new attachment, the mother asked her son for a private interview.
“You have now arrived at that age,” she began, “when a man begins to look out for a wife.”
“I have already done that, my dear mother,” he replied.
“I’m afraid you’ve been too hasty,” she said. “The girl of whom, I suppose, you are thinking, doesn’t possess the moral principles which an educated man should demand.”
“What? Amy’s moral principles! Who has anything to say against them?”
“I won’t say a word against the girl herself, but her father, as you know, is a freethinker.”
“I shall be proud to be related to a man who can think freely, without considering his material interests.”
“Well, let’s leave him out of the question; you are forgetting, my dear Frithiof, that you are already bound elsewhere.”
“What? Do you mean….”
“Yes; you have played with Louisa’s heart.”
“Are you talking of cousin Louisa?”
“I am. Haven’t you looked upon yourselves as fiances since your earliest childhood? Don’t you realise that she has put all her faith and trust in you?”
“It’s you who have played with us, driven us together, not I!” answered the son.
“Think of your old mother, think of your sisters, Frithiof. Do you want to bring a stranger into this house which has always been our home, a stranger who will have the right to order us about?”
“Oh! I see; Louisa is the chosen mistress!”
“There’s no chosen mistress, but a mother always has a right to choose the future wife of her son; nobody is so well fitted to undertake such a task. Do you doubt my good faith? Can you possibly suspect me, your mother, of a wish to injure you?” “No, no! but I–I don’t love Louisa; I like her as a sister, but….”
“Love? Nothing in all the world is so inconstant as love! It’s folly to rely on it, it passes away like a breath; but friendship, conformity of views and habits, similar interests and a long acquaintanceship, these are the surest guarantees of a happy marriage. Louisa is a capable girl, domesticated and methodical, she will make your home as happy as you could wish.”
Frithiof’s only way of escape was to beg his mother for time to consider the matter.
Meanwhile all the ladies of the household had recovered their health, so that the doctor was no longer required. Still he called one day, but he was treated like a burglar who had come to spy out the land. He was a sharp man and saw at once how matters stood. Frithiof returned his call but was received coldly. This was the end of their friendly relations.
Frithiof came of age.
Frantic attempts were now made to carry the fortress by storm. The aunts cringed before the new master and tried to prove to him that they could not be dispensed with, by treating him as if he were a child. His sisters mothered him more than ever, and Louisa began to devote a great deal of attention to her dress. She laced herself tightly and curled her hair. She was by no means a plain girl, but she had cold eyes and a sharp tongue.
Frithiof remained indifferent; as far as he was concerned she was sexless; he had never looked at her with the eyes of a man. But now, after the conversation with his mother, he could not help a certain feeling of embarrassment in her presence, especially as she seemed to seek his society. He met her everywhere; on the stairs, in the garden, in the stables even. One morning, when he was still in bed, she came into his room to ask him for a pin; she was wearing a dressing-jacket and pretended to be very shy.
He took a dislike to her, but nevertheless she was always in his mind.
In the meantime the mother had one conversation after another with her son, and aunt and sisters never ceased hinting at the anticipated wedding.
Life was made a burden to him. He saw no way of escape from the net in which he had been caught. Louisa was no longer his sister and friend, though he did not like her any the better for it; his constant dwelling on the thought of marrying her had had the result of making him realise that she was a woman, an unsympathetic woman, it was true, but still a woman. His marriage would mean a change in his position, and, perhaps, delivery from bondage. There were no other girls in the neighbourhood, and, after all, she was probably as good as any other young woman.
And so he went one day to his mother and told her that he had made up his mind. He would marry Louisa on condition that he should have an establishment of his own in one of the wings of the house, and his own table. He also insisted that his mother should propose for him, for he could not bring himself to do it.
The compromise was accepted and Louisa was called in to receive Frithiof’s embrace and timid kiss. They both wept for reasons which neither of them understood. They felt ashamed of themselves for the rest of the day. Afterwards everything went on as before, but the motherliness of aunts and sisters knew no bounds. They furnished the wing, arranged the rooms, settled everything; Frithiof was never consulted in the matter.
The preparations for the wedding were completed. Old friends, buried in the provinces, were hunted up and invited to be present at the ceremony.
The wedding took place.
On the morning after his wedding day Frithiof was up early. He left his bed-room as quickly as possible, pretending that his presence was necessary in the fields.
Louisa, who was still sleepy, made no objection. But as he was going out she called after him:
“You won’t forget breakfast at eleven!”
It sounded like a command.
He went to his den, put on a shooting coat and waterproof boots and took his gun, which he kept concealed in his wardrobe. Then he went out into the wood.
It was a beautiful October morning. Everything was covered with hoar frost. He walked quickly as if he were afraid of being called back, or as if he were trying to escape from something. The fresh air had the effect of a bath. He felt a free man, at last, and he used his freedom to go out for a morning stroll with his gun. But this exhilarating feeling of bodily freedom soon passed. Up to now he had at least had a bedroom of his own. He had been master of his thoughts during the day and his dreams at night. That was over. The thought of that common bedroom tormented him; there was something unclean about it. Shame was cast aside like a mask, all delicacy of feeling was dispensed with, every illusion of the “high origin” of man destroyed; to come into such close contact with nothing but the beast in man had been too much for him, for he had been brought up by idealists. He was staggered by the enormity of the hypocrisy displayed in the intercourse between men and women; it was a revelation to him to find that the inmost substance of that indescribable womanliness was nothing but the fear of consequences. But supposing he had married the doctor’s daughter, or the gardener’s little girl? Then to be alone with her would be bliss, while to be alone with his wife was depressing and unlovely; then the coarse desire to satisfy a curiosity and a want would be transformed into an ecstasy more spiritual than carnal.
He wandered through the wood without a purpose, without an idea of what he wanted to shoot; be only felt a vague desire to hear a shot and to kill something; but nothing came before his gun. The birds had already migrated. Only a squirrel was climbing about the branches of a pine-tree, staring at him with brilliant eyes. He raised the gun and pulled the trigger; but the nimble little beast was already on the other side of the trunk when the shot hit the tree. But the sound impressed his nerves pleasantly.
He left the footpath and went through the undergrowth. He stamped on every fungus that grew on his way. He was in a destructive mood. He looked for a snake so as to trample on it or kill it with a shot.
Suddenly he remembered that he ought to go home and that it was the morning after his wedding day. The mere thought of the curious glances to which he would be exposed had the effect of making him feel like a criminal, about to be unmasked and shown up for having committed a crime against good manners and, what was worse, against nature. Oh! that he could have left this world behind him! But how was he to do that?
His thoughts grew tired at last of revolving round and round the same problem and he felt a craving for food.
He decided to return home and have some breakfast.
On entering the gate which led to the court yard, he saw the whole house-party standing before the entrance hall. As soon as they caught sight of him they began to cheer. He crossed the yard with uncertain footsteps and listened with ill-concealed irritation to the sly questions after his health. Then he turned away and went into the house, never noticing his wife, who was standing amongst the group waiting for him to go up to her and kiss her.
At the breakfast table he suffered tortures; tortures which he knew would be burnt into his memory for all times. The insinuations of his guests offended him and his wife’s caresses stung him. His day of rejoicing was the most miserable day of his life.
In the course of a few months the young wife, with the assistance of aunts and sisters, had established her over-rule in the house. Frithiof remained, what he had always been, the youngest and dullest member of the household. His advice was sometimes asked for, but never acted upon; he was looked after as if he were still a child. His wife soon found it unbearable to dine with him alone, for he kept an obstinate silence during the meal. Louisa could not stand it; she must have a lightning conductor; one of the sisters removed into the wing.
Frithiof made more than one attempt to emancipate himself, but his attempts were always frustrated by the enemy; they were too many for him, and they talked and preached until he fled into the wood.
The evenings held terror for him. He hated the bedroom, and went to it as to a place of execution. He became morose and avoided everybody.
They had been married for a year now, and still there was no promise of a child; his mother took him aside one day to have a talk to him.
“Wouldn’t you like to have a son?” she asked.
“Of course, I would,” he replied.
“You aren’t treating your wife very kindly,” said the mother as gently as possible.
He lost his temper.
“What? What do you say? Are you finding fault with me? Do you want me to toil all day long? H’m! You don’t know Louisa! But whose business is it but mine? Bring your charge against me in such a way that I can answer it!”
But the mother was not disposed to do that.
Lonely and miserable, he made friends with the inspector, a young man, addicted to wine and cards. He sought his company and spent the evenings in his room; he went to bed late, as late as possible.
On coming home one night, he found his wife still awake and waiting for him.
“Where have you been?” she asked sharply.
“That’s my business,” he replied.
“To be married and have no husband is anything but pleasant,” she rejoined. “If we had a child, at least!”
“It isn’t my fault that we haven’t!”
“It isn’t mine!”
A quarrel arose as to whose fault it was, and the quarrel lasted for two years.
As both of them were too obstinate to take medical advice, the usual thing happened. The husband cut a ridiculous figure, and the wife a tragic one. He was told that a childless woman was sacred because, for some reason or other, “God’s” curse rested on her. That “God” could also stoop to curse a man was beyond the women’s comprehension.
But Frithiof had no doubt that a curse rested on him for his life was dreary and unhealthy. Nature has created two sexes, which are now friends, now enemies. He had met the enemy, an overwhelming enemy.
“What is a capon?” he was asked by one of his sisters one day. She was busy with her needlework and asked the question a propos of nothing.
He looked at her suspiciously. No, she did not know the meaning of the word; she had probably listened to a conversation and her curiosity was aroused.
But the iron had entered his soul. He was being laughed at. He grew suspicious. Everything he heard and saw he connected with that charge. Beside himself with rage, he seduced one of the maids.
His act had the desired result. In due time he was a father.
Now Louisa was looked upon as a martyr and he as a blackguard. The abuse left him indifferent, for he had vindicated his honour–if it was an honour and not merely a lucky chance to be born without defects.
But the incident roused Louisa’s jealousy and–it was a strange thing–awakened in her a sort of love for her husband. It was a love which irritated him, for it showed itself in unremitting watchfulness and nervous obtrusiveness; sometimes even in maternal tenderness and solicitude which knew no bounds. She wanted to look after his gun, see whether it was charged; she begged him on her knees to wear his overcoat when he went out…. She kept his home with scrupulous care, tidied and dusted all day long; every Saturday the rooms were turned inside out, the carpets beaten and his clothes aired. He had no peace and never knew when he would be turned out of his room so that it could be scrubbed.
There was not sufficient to do to occupy him during the day, for the women looked after everything. He studied agriculture and attempted to make improvements, but all his efforts were frustrated. He was not master in his own house.
Finally he lost heart. He had grown taciturn because he was always contradicted. The want of congenial company and fellows-in-misfortune gradually dulled his brain; his nerves went to pieces; he neglected his appearance and took to drink.
He was hardly ever at home now. Frequently he could be found, intoxicated, at the public house or in the cottages of the farm labourers. He drank with everybody and all day long. He stimulated his brain with alcohol for the sake of the relief he found in talking. It was difficult to decide whether he drank in order to be able to talk to somebody who did not contradict him, or whether he drank merely in order to get drunk.
He sold privileges and farm produce to the cottagers to provide himself with money, for the women held the cash. Finally he burgled his own safe and stole the contents.
There was an orthodox, church-going inspector on the premises now; the previous one had been dismissed on account of his intemperate habits. When at last, through the clergyman’s influence, the proprietor of the inn lost his license Frithiof took to drinking with his own farm labourers. Scandal followed on scandal.
He developed into a heavy drinker who had epileptic fits whenever he was deprived of alcohol.
He was ultimately committed to an institution where he remained as an incurable patient.
At lucid intervals, when he was capable of surveying his life, his heart was filled with compassion for all women who are compelled to marry without love; his compassion was all the deeper because he had suffered in his own flesh the curse which lies on every violation of nature; and yet he was only a man.
He saw the cause of his unhappiness in the family–the family as a social institution, which does not permit the child to become an independent individual at the proper time.
He brought no charge against his wife, for was she not equally unhappy, a victim of the same unfortunate conditions which are honoured by the sacred name of Law?