The assistant had not thought of studying the price of wheat before he called on the major to ask him for the hand of his daughter; but the major had studied it.
“I love her,” said the assistant.
“What’s your salary?” said the old man.
“Well, twelve hundred crowns, at present; but we love one another….”
“That has nothing to do with me; twelve hundred crowns is not enough.”
“And then I make a little in addition to my salary, and Louisa knows that my heart….”
“Don’t talk nonsense! How much in addition to your salary?”
He seized paper and pencil.
“And my feelings….”
“How much in addition to your salary?”
And he drew hieroglyphics on the blotting paper.
“Oh! We’ll get on well enough, if only….”
“Are you going to answer my question or not? How much in addition to your salary? Figures! figures, my boy! Facts!”
“I do translations at ten crowns a sheet; I give French lessons, I am promised proof-correcting….”
“Promises aren’t facts! Figures, my boy! Figures! Look here, now, I’ll put it down. What are you translating?”
“What am I translating? I can’t tell you straight off.”
“You can’t tell me straight off? You are engaged on a translation, you say; can’t you tell me what it is? Don’t talk such rubbish!”
“I am translating Guizot’s History of Civilisation, twenty-five sheets.”
“At ten crowns a sheet makes two hundred and fifty crowns. And then?”
“And then? How can I tell beforehand?”
“Indeed, can’t you tell beforehand? But you ought to know. You seem to imagine that being married simply means living together and amusing yourselves! No, my dear boy, there will be children, and children require feeding and clothing.”
“There needn’t be babies directly, if one loves as we love one another.”
“How the dickens do you love one another?”
“As we love one another.” He put his hand on his waistcoat.
“And won’t there be any children if people love as you love? You must be mad! But you are a decent, respectable member of society, and therefore I’ll give my consent; but make good use of the time, my boy, and increase your income, for hard times are coming. The price of wheat is rising.”
The assistant grew red in the face when he heard the last words, but his joy at the old man’s consent was so great that he seized his hand and kissed it. Heaven knew how happy he was! When he walked for the first time down the street with his future bride on his arm, they both radiated light; it seemed to them that the passers-by stood still and lined the road in honour of their triumphal march; and they walked along with proud eyes, squared shoulders and elastic steps.
In the evening he called at her house; they sat down in the centre of the room and read proofs; she helped him. “He’s a good sort,” chuckled the old man. When they had finished, he took her in his arms and said: “Now we have earned three crowns,” and then he kissed her. On the following evening they went to the theatre and he took her home in a cab, and that cost twelve crowns.
Sometimes, when he ought to have given a lesson in the evening, he (is there anything a man will not do for love’s sake?) cancelled his lesson and took her out for a walk instead.
But the wedding-day approached. They were very busy. They had to choose the furniture. They began with the most important purchases. Louisa had not intended to be present when he bought the bedroom furniture, but when it came to the point she went with him. They bought two beds, which were, of course, to stand side by side. The furniture had to be walnut, every single piece real walnut. And they must have spring mattresses covered with red and white striped tick, and bolsters filled with down; and two eiderdown quilts, exactly alike. Louisa chose blue, because she was very fair.
They went to the best stores. They could not do without a red hanging-lamp and a Venus made of plaster of Paris. Then they bought a dinner-service; and six dozen differently shaped glasses with cut edges; and knives and forks, grooved and engraved with their initials. And then the kitchen utensils! Mama had to accompany them to see to those.
And what a lot he had to do besides! There were bills to accept, journeys to the banks and interviews with tradespeople and artisans; a flat had to be found and curtains had to be put up. He saw to everything. Of course he had to neglect his work; but once he was married, he would soon make up for it.
They were only going to take two rooms to begin with, for they were going to be frightfully economical. And as they were only going to have two rooms, they could afford to furnish them well. He rented two rooms and a kitchen on the first floor in Government Street, for six hundred crowns. When Louisa remarked that they might just as well have taken three rooms and a kitchen on the fourth floor for five hundred crowns, he was a little embarrassed; but what did it matter if only they loved one another? Yes, of course, Louisa agreed, but couldn’t they have loved one another just as well in four rooms at a lower rent, as in three at a higher? Yes, he admitted that he had been foolish, but what did it matter so long as they loved one another?
The rooms were furnished. The bed-room looked like a little temple. The two beds stood side by side, like two carriages. The rays of the sun fell on the blue eiderdown quilt, the white, white sheets and the little pillow-slips which an elderly maiden aunt had embroidered with their monogram; the latter consisted of two huge letters, formed of flowers, joined together in one single embrace, and kissing here and there, wherever they touched, at the corners. The bride had her own little alcove, which was screened off by a Japanese screen. The drawing-room, which was also dining-room, study and morning-room, contained her piano, (which had cost twelve hundred crowns) his writing-table with twelve pigeon-holes, (every single piece of it real walnut) a pier-glass, armchairs; a sideboard and a dining-table. “It looks as if nice people lived here,” they said, and they could not understand why people wanted a separate dining-room, which always looked so cheerless with its cane chairs.
The wedding took place on a Saturday. Sunday dawned, the first day of their married life. Oh! what a life it was! Wasn’t it lovely to be married! Wasn’t marriage a splendid institution! One was allowed one’s own way in everything, and parents and relations came and congratulated one into the bargain.
At nine o’clock in the morning their bedroom was still dark. He wouldn’t open the shutters to let in daylight, but re-lighted the red lamp which threw its bewitching light on the blue eiderdown, the white sheets, a little crumpled now, and the Venus made of plaster of Paris, who stood there rosy-red and without shame. And the red light also fell on his little wife who nestled in her pillows with a look of contrition, and yet so refreshed as if she had never slept so well in all her life. There was no traffic in the street to-day for it was Sunday, and the church-bells were calling people to the morning service with exulting, eager voices, as if they wanted all the world to come to church and praise Him who had created men and women.
He whispered to his little bride to shut her eyes so that he might get up and order breakfast. She buried her head in the pillows, while he slipped on his dressing-gown and went behind the screen to dress.
A broad radiant path of sunlight lay on the sitting-room floor; he did not know whether it was spring or summer, autumn or winter; he only knew that it was Sunday!
His bachelor life was receding into the background like something ugly and dark; the sight of his little home stirred his heart with a faint recollection of the home of his childhood, and at the same time held out a glorious promise for the future.
How strong he felt! The future appeared to him like a mountain coming to meet him. He would breathe on it and the mountain would fall down at his feet like sand; he would fly away, far above gables and chimneys, holding his little wife in his arm.
He collected his clothes which were scattered all over the room; he found his white neck-tie hanging on a picture frame; it looked like a big white butterfly.
He went into the kitchen. How the new copper vessels sparkled, the new tin kettles shone! And all this belonged to him and to her! He called the maid who came out of her room in her petticoat. But he did not notice it, nor did he notice that her shoulders were bare. For him there was but one woman in all the world. He spoke to the girl as a father would to his daughter. He told her to go to the restaurant and order breakfast, at once, a first-rate breakfast. Porter and Burgundy! The manager knew his taste. She was to give him his regards.
He went out of the kitchen and knocked at the bed-room door.
“May I come in?”
There was a little startled scream.
“Oh, no, darling, wait a bit!”
He laid the breakfast table himself. When the breakfast was brought from the restaurant, he served it on her new breakfast set. He folded the dinner napkins according to all the rules of art. He wiped the wine-glasses, and finally took her bridal-bouquet and put it in a vase before her place.
When she emerged from her bed-room in her embroidered morning gown and stepped into the brilliant sunlight, she felt just a tiny bit faint; he helped her into the armchair, made her drink a little liqueur out of a liqueur glass and eat a caviare sandwich.
What fun it all was! One could please oneself when one was married. What would Mama have said if she had seen her daughter drinking liqueurs at this hour of the morning!
He waited on her as if she were still his fiancee. What a breakfast they were having on the first morning after their wedding! And nobody had a right to say a word. Everything was perfectly right and proper, one could enjoy oneself with the very best of consciences, and that was the most delightful part of it all. It was not for the first time that he was eating such a breakfast, but what a difference between then and now! He had been restless and dissatisfied then; he could not bear to think of it, now. And as he drank a glass of genuine Swedish porter after the oysters, he felt the deepest contempt for all bachelors.
“How stupid of people not to get married! Such selfishness! They ought to be taxed like dogs.”
“I’m sorry for those poor men who haven’t the means to get married,” replied his demure little wife kindly, “for I am sure, if they had the means they would all get married.”
A little pang shot through the assistant’s heart; for a moment he felt afraid, lest he had been a little too venturesome. All his happiness rested on the solution of a financial problem, and if, if…. Pooh! A glass of Burgundy! Now he would work! They should see!
“Game? With cranberries and cucumbers!” The young wife was a little startled, but it was really delicious.
“Lewis, darling,” she put a trembling little hand on his arm, “can we afford it?”
Fortunately she said “we.”
“Pooh! It doesn’t matter for once! Later on we can dine on potatoes and herrings.”
“Can you eat potatoes and herrings?”
“I should think so!”
“When you have been drinking more than is good for you, and expect a beefsteak after the herring?”
“Nonsense! Nothing of the kind! Your health, sweetheart! The game is excellent! So are these artichokes!”
“No, but you are mad, darling! Artichokes at this time of the year! What a bill you will have to pay!”
“Bill! Aren’t they good? Don’t you think that it is glorious to be alive? Oh! It’s splendid, splendid!”
At six o’clock in the afternoon a carriage drove up to the front door. The young wife would have been angry if it had not been so pleasant to loll luxuriously on the soft cushions, while they were being slowly driven to the Deer Park.
“It’s just like lying on a couch,” whispered Lewis.
She playfully hit his fingers with her sunshade. Mutual acquaintances bowed to them from the footpath. Friends waved their hands to him as if they were saying:
“Hallo! you rascal, you have come into a fortune!”
How small the passers-by looked, how smooth the street was, how pleasant their ride on springs and cushions!
Life should always be like that.
It went on for a whole month. Balls, visits, dinners, theatres. Sometimes, of course, they remained at home. And at home it was more pleasant than anywhere else. How lovely, for instance, to carry off one’s wife from her parents’ house, after supper, without saying as much as “by your leave,” put her into a closed carriage, slam the door, nod to her people and say: “Now we’re off home, to our own four walls! And there we’ll do exactly what we like!”
And then to have a little supper at home and sit over it, talking and gossiping until the small hours of the morning.
Lewis was always very sensible at home, at least in theory. One day his wife put him to the test by giving him salt salmon, potatoes boiled in milk and oatmeal soup for dinner. Oh! how he enjoyed it! He was sick of elaborate menus.
On the following Friday, when she again suggested salt salmon for dinner, Lewis came home, carrying two ptarmigans! He called to her from the threshold:
“Just imagine, Lou, a most extraordinary thing happened! A most extraordinary thing!”
“Well, what is it?”
“You’ll hardly believe me when I tell you that I bought a brace of ptarmigans, bought them myself at the market for–guess!”
His little wife seemed more annoyed than curious.
“Just think! One crown the two!”
“I have bought ptarmigans at eightpence the brace; but–” she added in a more conciliatory tone, so as not to upset him altogether, “that was in a very cold winter.”
“Well, but you must admit that I bought them very cheaply.”
Was there anything she would not admit in order to see him happy?
She had ordered boiled groats for dinner, as an experiment. But after Lewis had eaten a ptarmigan, he regretted that he could not eat as much of the groats as he would have liked, in order to show her that he was really very fond of groats. He liked groats very much indeed–milk did not agree with him after his attack of ague. He couldn’t take milk, but groats he would like to see on his table every evening, every blessed evening of his life, if only she wouldn’t be angry with him.
And groats never again appeared on his table.
When they had been married for six weeks, the young wife fell ill. She suffered from headaches and sickness. It could not be anything serious, just a little cold. But this sickness? Had she eaten anything which had disagreed with her? Hadn’t all the copper vessels new coatings of tin? He sent for the doctor. The doctor smiled and said it was all right.
“What was all right? Oh! Nonsense! It wasn’t possible. How could it have been possible? No, surely, the bed-room paper was to blame. It must contain arsenic. Let us send a piece to the chemist’s at once and have it tested.”
“Entirely free from arsenic,” reported the chemist.
“How strange! No arsenic in the wall papers?”
The young wife was still ill. He consulted a medical book and whispered a question in her ear. “There now! a hot bath!”
Four weeks later the midwife declared that everything was “as it should be.”
“As it should be? Well, of course! Only it was somewhat premature!”
But as it could not, be helped, they were delighted. Fancy, a baby! They would be papa and mama! What should they call him? For, of course, it would be a boy. No doubt, it would. But now she had a serious conversation with her husband! There had been no translating or proof-correcting since their marriage. And his salary alone was not sufficient.
“Yes, they had given no thought to the morrow. But, dear me, one was young only once! Now, however, there would be a change.”
On the following morning the assistant called on an old schoolfriend, a registrar, to ask him to stand security for a loan.
“You see, my dear fellow, when one is about to become a father, one has to consider how to meet increasing expenses.”
“Quite so, old man,” answered the registrar, “therefore I have been unable to get married. But you are fortunate in having the means.”
The assistant hesitated to make his request. How could he have the audacity to ask this poor bachelor to help him to provide the expenses for the coming event? This bachelor, who had not the means to found a family of his own? He could not bring himself to do it.
When he came home to dinner, his wife told him that two gentlemen had called to see him.
“What did they look like? Were they young? Did they wear eye-glasses? Then there was no doubt, they were two lieutenants, old friends of his whom he had met at Vaxholm.”
“No, they couldn’t have been lieutenants; they were too old for that.”
“Then he knew; they were old college friends from Upsala, probably P. who was a lecturer, and O. who was a curate, now. They had come to see how their old pal was shaping as a husband.”
“No, they didn’t come from Upsala, they came from Stockholm.”
The maid was called in and cross-examined. She thought the callers had been shabbily dressed and had carried sticks.
“Sticks! I can’t make out what sort of people they can have been. Well, we’ll know soon enough, as they said they would call again. But to change the subject, I happened to see a basket of hothouse strawberries at a really ridiculous price; it really is absurd! Just imagine, hothouse strawberries at one and sixpence a basket! And at this time of the year!”
“But, my darling, what is this extravagance to lead to?”
“It’ll be all right. I have got an order for a translation this very day.”
“But you are in debt, Lewis?”
“Trifles! Mere nothings! It’ll be all right when I take up a big loan, presently.”
“A loan! But that’ll be a new debt!”
“True! But there’ll be easy terms! Don’t let’s talk business now! Aren’t these strawberries delicious? What? A glass of sherry with them would be tip-top. Don’t you think so? Lina, run round to the stores and fetch a bottle of sherry, the best they have.”
After his afternoon nap, his wife insisted on a serious conversation.
“You won’t be angry, dear, will you?”
“Angry? I! Good heavens, no! Is it about household expenses?”
“Yes! We owe money at the stores! The butcher is pressing for payment; the man from the livery stables has called for his money; it’s most unpleasant.”
“Is that all? I shall pay them to the last farthing to-morrow. How dare they worry you about such trifles? They shall be paid to-morrow, but they shall lose a customer. Now, don’t let’s talk about it any more. Come out for a walk. No carriage! Well, we’ll take the car to the Deer Park, it will cheer us up.”
They went to the Deer Park. They asked for a private room at the restaurant, and people stared at them and whispered.
“They think we are out on a spree,” he laughed. “What fun! What madness!”
But his wife did not like it.
They had a big bill to pay.
“If only we had stayed at home! We might have bought such a lot of things for the money.”
Months elapsed. The great event was coming nearer and nearer. A cradle had to be bought and baby-clothes. A number of things were wanted. The young husband was out on business all day long. The price of wheat had risen. Hard times were at hand. He could get no translations, no proof-correcting. Men had become materialists. They didn’t spend money on books, they bought food. What a prosaic period we were living in! Ideals were melting away, one after the other, and ptarmigans were not to be had under two crowns the brace. The livery stables would not provide carriages for nothing for the cab-proprietors had wives and families to support, just as everybody else; at the stores cash had to be paid for goods, Oh! what realists they all were!
The great day had come at last. It was evening. He must run for the midwife. And while his wife suffered all the pangs of childbirth, he had to go down into the hall and pacify the creditors.
At last he held a daughter in his arms. His tears fell on the baby, for now he realised his responsibility, a responsibility which he was unable to shoulder. He made new resolutions. But his nerves were unstrung. He was working at a translation which he seemed unable to finish, for he had to be constantly out on business.
He rushed to his father-in-law, who was staying in town, to bring him the glad news.
“We have a little daughter!”
“Well and good,” replied his father-in-law; “can you support a child?”
“Not at present; for heaven’s sake, help us, father!”
“I’ll tide you over your present difficulties. I can’t do more. My means are only sufficient to support my own family.”
The patient required chickens which he bought himself at the market, and wine at six crowns the bottle. It had to be the very best.
The midwife expected a hundred crowns.
“Why should we pay her less than others? Hasn’t she just received a cheque for a hundred crowns from the captain?”
Very soon the young wife was up again. She looked like a girl, as slender as a willow, a little pale, it was true, but the pallor suited her.
The old man called and had a private conversation with his son-in-law.
“No more children, for the present,” he said, “or you’ll be ruined.”
“What language from a father! Aren’t we married! Don’t we love one another? Aren’t we to have a family?”
“Yes, but not until you can provide for them. It’s all very fine to love one another, but you musn’t forget that you have responsibilities.”
His father-in-law, too, had become a materialist. Oh! what a miserable world it was! A world without ideals!
The home was undermined, but love survived, for love was strong, and the hearts of the young couple were soft. The bailiff, on the contrary, was anything but soft. Distraint was imminent, and bankruptcy threatened. Well, let them distrain then!
The father-in-law arrived with a large travelling coach to fetch his daughter and grand-child. He warned his son-in-law not to show his face at his house until he could pay his debts and make a home for his wife and child. He said nothing to his daughter, but it seemed to him that he was bringing home a girl who had been led astray. It was as if he had lent his innocent child to a casual admirer and now received her back “dishonoured.” She would have preferred to stay with her husband, but he had no home to offer her.
And so the husband of one year’s standing was left behind to watch the pillaging of his home, if he could call it his home, for he had paid for nothing. The two men with spectacles carted away the beds and bedclothes; the copper kettles and tin vessels; the dinner set, the chandelier and the candlesticks; everything, everything!
He was left alone in the two empty, wretched rooms! If only she had been left to him! But what should she do here, in these empty rooms? No, she was better off where she was! She was being taken care of.
Now the struggle for a livelihood began in bitter earnest. He found work at a daily paper as a proof-corrector. He had to be at the office at midnight; at three in the morning his work was done. He did not lose his berth, for bankruptcy had been avoided, but he had lost all chance of promotion.
Later on he is permitted to visit wife and child once a week, but he is never allowed to see her alone. He spends Saturday night in a tiny room, close to his father-in-law’s bedroom. On Sunday morning he has to return to town, for the paper appears on Monday morning…. He says good-bye to his wife and child who are allowed to accompany him as far as the garden gate, he waves his hand to them once more from the furthest hillock, and succumbs to his wretchedness, his misery, his humiliation. And she is no less unhappy.
He has calculated that it will take him twenty years to pay his debts. And then? Even then he cannot maintain a wife and child. And his prospects? He has none! If his father-in-law should die, his wife and child would be thrown on the street; he cannot venture to look forward to the death of their only support.
Oh! How cruel it is of nature to provide food for all her creatures, leaving the children of men alone to starve! Oh! How cruel, how cruel! that life has not ptarmigans and strawberries to give to all men. How cruel! How cruel!