Prolificacy by August Strindberg

He was a supernumerary at the Board of Trade and drew a salary of twelve hundred crowns. He had married a young girl without a penny; for love, as he himself said, to be no longer compelled to go to dances and run about the streets, as his friends maintained. But be that as it may, the life of the newly-wedded couple was happy enough to begin with.

“How cheaply married people can live,” he said one day, after the wedding was a thing of the past. The same sum which had been barely enough to cover the wants of the bachelor now sufficed for husband and wife. Really, marriage was an excellent institution. One had all one’s requirements within one’s four walls: club, cafe, everything; no more bills of fare, no tips, no inquisitive porter watching one as one went out with one’s wife in the morning.

Life smiled at him, his strength increased and he worked for two. Never in all his life had he felt so full of overflowing energy; he jumped out of bed as soon as he woke up in the morning, buoyantly, and in the highest spirits, he was rejuvenated.

When two months had elapsed, long before his new circumstances had begun to pall, his wife whispered a certain piece of information into his ear. New joys! New cares! But cares so pleasant to bear! It was necessary, however, to increase their income at once, so as to receive the unknown world-citizen in a manner befitting his dignity. He managed to obtain an order for a translation.

Baby-clothes lay scattered about all over the furniture, a cradle stood waiting in the hall, and at last a splendid boy arrived in this world of sorrows.

The father was delighted. And yet he could not help a vague feeling of uneasiness whenever he thought of the future. Income and expenditure did not balance. Nothing remained but to reduce his dress allowance.

His frock coat began to look threadbare at the seams; his shirt front was hidden underneath a large tie, his trousers were frayed. It was an undeniable fact that the porters at the office looked down on him on account of his shabbiness.

In addition to this he was compelled to lengthen his working day.

“It must be the first and last,” he said. But how was it to be done?

He was at a loss to know.

Three months later his wife prepared him in carefully chosen words that his paternal joys would soon be doubled. It would not be true to say that he rejoiced greatly at the news. But there was no alternative now; he must travel along the road he had chosen, even if married life should prove to be anything but cheap.

“It’s true,” he thought, his face brightening, “the younger one will inherit the baby-clothes of his elder brother. This will save a good deal of expense, and there will be food enough for them–I shall be able to feed them just as well as others.”

And the second baby was born.

“You are going it,” said a friend of his, who was a married man himself, but father of one child only.

“What is a man to do?”

“Use his common-sense.”

“Use his common-sense? But, my dear fellow, a man gets married in order to … I mean to say, not only in order to … but yet in order to…. Well, anyhow, we are married and that settles the matter.”

“Not at all. Let me tell you something, my dear boy; if you are at all hoping for promotion it is absolutely necessary that you should wear clean linen, trousers which are not frayed at the bottom, and a hat which is not of a rusty brown.”

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And the sensible man whispered sensible words into his ear. As the result, the poor husband was put on short commons in the midst of plenty.

But now his troubles began.

To start with his nerves went to pieces, he suffered from insomnia and did his work badly. He consulted a doctor. The prescription cost him three crowns; and such a prescription! He was to stop working; he had worked too hard, his brain was overtaxed. To stop work would mean starvation for all of them, and to work spelt death, too!

He went on working.

One day, as he was sitting at his desk, stooping over endless rows of figures, he had an attack of faintness, slipped off his chair and fell to the ground.

A visit to a specialist–eighteen crowns. A new prescription; he must ask for sick leave at once, take riding exercise every morning and have steak and a glass of port for breakfast.

Riding exercise and port!

But the worst feature of the whole business was a feeling of alienation from his wife which had sprung up in his heart–he did not know whence it came. He was afraid to go near her and at the same time he longed for her presence. He loved her, loved her still, but a certain bitterness was mingled with his love.

“You are growing thin,” said a friend.

“Yes, I believe I’ve grown thinner,” said the poor husband.

“You are playing a dangerous game, old boy!”

“I don’t know what you mean!”

“A married man in half mourning! Take care, my friend!”

“I really don’t know what you’re driving at.”.

“It’s impossible to go against the wind for any length of time. Set all sails and run, old chap, and you will see that everything will come right. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. You understand me.”

He took no notice of the advice for a time, fully aware of the fact that a man’s income does not increase in proportion to his family; at the same time he had no longer any doubt about the cause of his malady.

It was summer again. The family had gone into the country. On a beautiful evening husband and wife were strolling along the steep shore, in the shade of the alder trees, resplendent in their young green. They sat down on the turf, silent and depressed. He was morose and disheartened; gloomy thoughts revolved behind his aching brow. Life seemed a great chasm which had opened to engulf all he loved.

They talked of the probable loss of his appointment; his chief had been annoyed at his second application for sick leave. He complained of the conduct of his colleagues, he felt himself deserted by everyone; but the fact which hurt him more than anything else was the knowledge that she, too, had grown tired of him.

“Oh! but she hadn’t! She loved him every bit as much as she did in those happy days when they were first engaged. How could he doubt it?”

“No, he didn’t doubt it; but he had suffered so much, he wasn’t master of his own thoughts.”

He pressed his burning cheek against hers, put his arm round her and covered her eyes with passionate kisses.

The gnats danced their nuptial dance above the birch tree without a thought of the thousands of young ones which their ecstasy would call into being; the carp laid their eggs in the reed grass, careless of the millions of their kind to which they gave birth; the swallow made love in broad daylight, not in the least afraid of the consequences of their irregular liaisons.

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All of a sudden he sprang to his feet and stretched himself like a sleeper awakening from a long sleep, which had been haunted by evil dreams, he drank in the balmy air in deep draughts.

“What’s the matter?” whispered his wife, while a crimson blush spread over her face.

“I don’t know. All I know is that I live, that I breathe again.”

And radiant, with laughing face and shining eyes, he held out his arms to her, picked her up as if she were a baby and pressed his lips to her forehead. The muscles of his legs swelled until they looked like the muscles of the leg of an antique god, he held his body erect like a young tree and intoxicated with strength and happiness, he carried his beloved burden as far as the footpath where he put her down.

“You will strain yourself, sweetheart,” she said, making a vain attempt to free herself from his encircling arms.

“Never, you darling! I could carry you to the end of the earth, and I shall carry you, all of you, no matter how many you are now, or how many you may yet become.”

And they returned home, arm in arm, their hearts singing with gladness.

“If the worst comes to the worst, sweet love, one must admit that it is very easy to jump that abyss which separates body and soul!”

“What a thing to say!”

“If I had only realised it before, I should have been less unhappy. Oh! those idealists!”

And they entered their cottage.

The good old times had returned and had, apparently, come to stay. The husband went to work to his office as before. They lived again through love’s spring time. No doctor was required and the high spirits never flagged.

After the third christening, however, he came to the conclusion that matters were serious and started playing his old game with the inevitable results: doctor, sick-leave, riding-exercise, port! But there must be an end of it, at all costs. Every time the balance-sheet showed a deficit.

But when, finally, his whole nervous system went out of joint, he let nature have her own way. Immediately expenses went up and he was beset with difficulties.

He was not a poor man, it is true, but on the other hand he was not blest with too many of this world’s riches.

“To tell you the truth, old girl,” he said to his wife, “it will be the same old story over again.”

“I am afraid it will, my dear,” replied the poor woman, who, in addition to her duties as a mother, had to do the whole work of the house now.

After the birth of her fourth child, the work grew too hard for her and a nursemaid had to be engaged.

“Now it must stop,” avowed the disconsolate husband. “This must be the last.”

Poverty looked in at the door. The foundations on which the house was built were tottering.

And thus, at the age of thirty, in the very prime of their life, the young husband and wife found themselves condemned to celibacy. He grew moody, his complexion became grey and his eyes lost their lustre. Her rich beauty faded, her fine figure wasted away, and she suffered all the sorrows of a mother who sees her children growing up in poverty and rags.

One day, as she was standing in the kitchen, frying herrings, a neighbour called in for a friendly chat.

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“How are you?” she began.

“Thank you, I’m not up to very much. How are you?”

“Oh! I’m not at all well. Married life is a misery if one has to be constantly on one’s guard.”

“Do you think you are the only one?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you know what my husband said to me the other day? One ought to spare the draught cattle! And I suffer under it all, I can tell you. No, there’s no happiness in marriage. Either husband or wife is bound to suffer. It’s one or the other!”

“Or both!”

“But what about the men of science who grow fat at the expense of the Government?”

“They have to think of so many things, and moreover, it is improper to write about such problems; they must not be discussed openly.”

“But that would be the first necessity!” And the two women fell to discussing their bitter experiences.

In the following summer they were compelled to remain in town; they were living in a basement with a view of the gutter, the smell of which was so objectionable that it was impossible to keep the windows open.

The wife did needlework in the same room in which the children were playing; the husband, who had lost his appointment on account of his extreme shabbiness, was copying a manuscript in the adjoining room, and grumbling at the children’s noise. Hard words were bandied through the open door.

It was Whitsuntide. In the afternoon the husband was lying on the ragged leather sofa, gazing at a window on the other side of the street. He was watching a woman of evil reputation who was dressing for her evening stroll. A spray of lilac and two oranges were lying by the side of her looking-glass.

She was fastening her dress without taking the least notice of his inquisitive glances.

“She’s not having a bad time,” mused the celibate, suddenly kindled into passion. “One lives but once in this world, and one must live one’s life, happen what will!”

His wife entered the room and caught sight of the object of his scrutiny. Her eyes blazed; the last feeble sparks of her dead love glowed under the ashes and revealed themselves in a temporary flash of jealousy.

“Hadn’t we better take the children to the Zoo?” she asked.

“To make a public show of our misery? No, thank you!”

“But it’s so hot in here. I shall have to pull down the blinds.”

“You had better open a window!”

He divined his wife’s thoughts and rose to do it himself. Out there, on the edge of the pavement, his four little ones were sitting, in close proximity of the waste pipes. Their feet were in the dry gutter, and they were playing with orange peels which they had found in the sweepings of the road. The sight stabbed his heart, and he felt a lump rising in his throat. But poverty had so blunted his feelings that he remained standing at the window with his arms crossed.

All at once two filthy streams gushed from the waste pipes, inundated the gutter and saturated the feet of the children who screamed, half suffocated by the stench.

“Get the children ready as quickly as you can,” he called, giving way at the heart-rending scene.

The father pushed the perambulator with the baby, the other children clung to the hands and skirts of the mother.

They arrived at the cemetery with its dark-stemmed lime-trees, their usual place of refuge; here the trees grew luxuriantly, as if the soil were enriched by the bodies which lay buried underneath it.

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The bells were ringing for evening prayers. The inmates of the poorhouse flocked to the church and sat down in the pews left vacant by their wealthy owners, who had attended to their souls at the principal service of the day, and were now driving in their carriages to the Royal Deer Park.

The children climbed about the shallow graves, most of which were decorated with armorial bearings and inscriptions.

Husband and wife sat down on a seat and placed the perambulator, in which the baby lay sucking at its bottle, by their side. Two puppies were disporting themselves on a grave close by, half hidden by the high grass.

A young and well dressed couple, leading by the hand a little girl clothed in silk and velvet, passed the seat on which they sat. The poor copyist raised his eyes to the young dandy and recognised a former colleague from the Board of Trade who, however, did not seem to see him. A feeling of bitter envy seized him with such intensity that he felt more humiliated by this “ignoble sentiment” than by his deplorable condition. Was he angry with the other man because he filled a position which he himself had coveted? Surely not. But of a sense of justice, and his suffering was all the deeper because it was shared by the whole class of the disinherited. He was convinced that the inmates of the poorhouse, bowed down under the yoke of public charity, envied his wife; and he was quite sure that many of the aristocrats who slept all around him in their graves, under their coats of arms, would have envied him his children if it had been their lot to die without leaving an heir to their estates. Certainly, nobody under the sun enjoyed complete happiness, but why did the plums always fall to the lot of those who were already sitting in the lap of luxury? And how was it that the prizes always fell to the organisers of the great lottery? The disinherited had to be content with the mass said at evening prayers; to their share fell morality and those virtues which the others despised and of which they had no need because the gates of heaven opened readily enough to their wealth. But what about the good and just God who had distributed His gifts so unevenly? It would be better, indeed, to live one’s life without this unjust God, who had, moreover, candidly admitted that the “wind blew where it listed”; had He not himself confessed, in these words, that He did not interfere in the concerns of man? But failing the church, where should we look for comfort? And yet, why ask for comfort? Wouldn’t it be far better to strive to make such arrangements that no comfort was needed? Wouldn’t it?

His speculations were interrupted by his eldest daughter who asked him for a leaf of the lime-tree, which she wanted for a sunshade for her doll. He stepped on the seat and raised his hand to break off a little twig, when a constable appeared and rudely ordered him not to touch the trees. A fresh humiliation. At the same time the constable requested him not to allow his children to play on the graves, which was against the regulations.

“We’d better go home,” said the distressed father. “How carefully they guard the interests of the dead, and how indifferent they are to the interests of the living.”

And they returned home.

He sat down and began to work. He had to copy the manuscript of an academical treatise on over-population.

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The subject interested him and he read the contents of the whole book.

The young author who belonged to what was called the ethical school, was preaching against vice.

“What vice?” mused the copyist. “That which is responsible for our existence? Which the priest orders us to indulge in at every wedding when he says: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth?”

The manuscript ran on: Propagation, without holy matrimony, is a destructive vice, because the fate of the children, who do not receive proper care and nursing, is a sad one. In the case of married couples, on the other hand, it becomes a sacred duty to indulge one’s desires. This is proved, among other things, by the fact that the law protects even the female ovum, and it is right that it should be so.

“Consequently,” thought the copyist, “there is a providence for legitimate children, but not for illegitimate ones Oh! this young philosopher! And the law which protects the female ovum! What business, then, have those microscopic things to detach themselves at every change of the moon? Those sacred objects ought to be most carefully guarded by the police!”

All these futilities he had to copy in his best handwriting.

They overflowed with morality, but contained not a single word of enlightenment.

The moral or rather the immoral gist of the whole argument was: There is a God who feeds and clothes all children born in wedlock; a God in His heaven, probably, but what about the earth? Certainly, it was said that He came to earth once and allowed himself to be crucified, after vainly trying to establish something like order in the confused affairs of mankind; He did not succeed.

The philosopher wound up by screaming himself hoarse in trying to convince his audience that the abundant supply of wheat was an irrefutable proof that the problem of over-population did not exist; that the doctrine of Malthus was not only false, but criminal, socially as well as morally.

And the poor father of a family who had not tasted wheaten bread for years, laid down the manuscript and urged his little ones to fill themselves with gruel made of rye flour and bluish milk, a dish which satisfied their craving, but contained no nourishment.

He was wretched, not because he considered water gruel objectionable, but because he had lost his precious sense of humour, that magician who can transform the dark rye into golden wheat; almighty love, emptying his horn of plenty over his poor home, had vanished. The children had become burdens, and the once beloved wife a secret enemy despised and despising him.

And the cause of all this unhappiness? The want of bread! And yet the large store houses of the new world were breaking down under the weight of the over-abundant supply of wheat. What a world of contradictions! The manner in which bread was distributed must be at fault.

Science, which has replaced religion, has no answer to give; it merely states facts and allows the children to die of hunger and the parents of thirst.

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