It was during the time I wandered about and starved in Christiania: Christiania, this singular city, from which no man departs without carrying away the traces of his sojourn there.
I was lying awake in my attic and I heard a clock below strike six. It was already broad daylight, and people had begun to go up and down the stairs. By the door where the wall of the room was papered with old numbers of the Morgenbladet, I could distinguish clearly a notice from the Director of Lighthouses, and a little to the left of that an inflated advertisement of Fabian Olsens’ new-baked bread.
The instant I opened my eyes I began, from sheer force of habit, to think if I had anything to rejoice over that day. I had been somewhat hard-up lately, and one after the other of my belongings had been taken to my “Uncle.” I had grown nervous and irritable. A few times I had kept my bed for the day with vertigo. Now and then, when luck had favoured me, I had managed to get five shillings for a feuilleton from some newspaper or other.
It grew lighter and lighter, and I took to reading the advertisements near the door. I could even make out the grinning lean letters of “winding- sheets to be had at Miss Andersen’s” on the right of it. That occupied me for a long while. I heard the clock below strike eight as I got up and put on my clothes.
I opened the window and looked out. From where I was standing I had a view of a clothes-line and an open field. Farther away lay the ruins of a burnt-out smithy, which some labourers were busy clearing away. I leant with my elbows resting on the window-frame and gazed into open space. It promised to be a clear day–autumn, that tender, cool time of the year, when all things change their colour, and die, had come to us. The ever-increasing noise in the streets lured me out. The bare room, the floor of which rocked up and down with every step I took across it, seemed like a gasping, sinister coffin. There was no proper fastening to the door, either, and no stove. I used to lie on my socks at night to dry them a little by the morning. The only thing I had to divert myself with was a little red rocking-chair, in which I used to sit in the evenings and doze and muse on all manner of things. When it blew hard, and the door below stood open, all kinds of eerie sounds moaned up through the floor and from out the walls, and the Morgenbladet near the door was rent in strips a span long.
I stood up and searched through a bundle in the corner by the bed for a bite for breakfast, but finding nothing, went back to the window.
God knows, thought I, if looking for employment will ever again avail me aught. The frequent repulses, half-promises, and curt noes, the cherished, deluded hopes, and fresh endeavours that always resulted in nothing had done my courage to death. As a last resource, I had applied for a place as debt collector, but I was too late, and, besides, I could not have found the fifty shillings demanded as security. There was always something or another in my way. I had even offered to enlist in the Fire Brigade. There we stood and waited in the vestibule, some half-hundred men, thrusting our chests out to give an idea of strength and bravery, whilst an inspector walked up and down and scanned the applicants, felt their arms, and put one question or another to them. Me, he passed by, merely shaking his head, saying I was rejected on account of my sight. I applied again without my glasses, stood there with knitted brows, and made my eyes as sharp as needles, but the man passed me by again with a smile; he had recognized me. And, worse than all, I could no longer apply for a situation in the garb of a respectable man.
How regularly and steadily things had gone downhill with me for a long time, till, in the end, I was so curiously bared of every conceivable thing. I had not even a comb left, not even a book to read, when things grew all too sad with me. All through the summer, up in the churchyards or parks, where I used to sit and write my articles for the newspapers, I had thought out column after column on the most miscellaneous subjects. Strange ideas, quaint fancies, conceits of my restless brain; in despair I had often chosen the most remote themes, that cost me long hours of intense effort, and never were accepted. When one piece was finished I set to work at another. I was not often discouraged by the editors’ “no.” I used to tell myself constantly that some day I was bound to succeed; and really occasionally when I was in luck’s way, and made a hit with something, I could get five shillings for an afternoon’s work.
Once again I raised myself from the window, went over to the washing- stand, and sprinkled some water on the shiny knees of my trousers to dull them a little and make them look a trifle newer. Having done this, I pocketed paper and pencil as usual and went out. I stole very quietly down the stairs in order not to attract my landlady’s attention (a few days had elapsed since my rent had fallen due, and I had no longer anything wherewith to raise it).
It was nine o’clock. The roll of vehicles and hum of voices filled the air, a mighty morning-choir mingled with the footsteps of the pedestrians, and the crack of the hack-drivers’ whips. The clamorous traffic everywhere exhilarated me at once, and I began to feel more and more contented. Nothing was farther from my intention than to merely take a morning walk in the open air. What had the air to do with my lungs? I was strong as a giant; could stop a dray with my shoulders. A sweet, unwonted mood, a feeling of lightsome happy-go-luckiness took possession of me. I fell to observing the people I met and who passed me, to reading the placards on the wall, noted even the impression of a glance thrown at me from a passing tram-car, let each bagatelle, each trifling incident that crossed or vanished from my path impress me.
If one only had just a little to eat on such a lightsome day! The sense of the glad morning overwhelmed me; my satisfaction became ill-regulated, and for no definite reason I began to hum joyfully.
At a butcher’s stall a woman stood speculating on sausage for dinner. As I passed her she looked up at me. She had but one tooth in the front of her head. I had become so nervous and easily affected in the last few days that the woman’s face made a loathsome impression upon me. The long yellow snag looked like a little finger pointing out of her gum, and her gaze was still full of sausage as she turned it upon me. I immediately lost all appetite, and a feeling of nausea came over me. When I reached the market- place I went to the fountain and drank a little. I looked up; the dial marked ten on Our Saviour’s tower.
I went on through the streets, listlessly, without troubling myself about anything at all, stopped aimlessly at a corner, turned off into a side street without having any errand there. I simply let myself go, wandered about in the pleasant morning, swinging myself care-free to and fro amongst other happy human beings. This air was clear and bright and my mind too was without a shadow.
For quite ten minutes I had had an old lame man ahead of me. He carried a bundle in one hand and exerted his whole body, using all his strength in his endeavours to get along speedily. I could hear how he panted from the exertion, and it occurred to me that I might offer to bear his bundle for him, but yet I made no effort to overtake him. Up in Graendsen I met Hans Pauli, who nodded and hurried past me. Why was he in such a hurry? I had not the slightest intention of asking him for a shilling, and, more than that, I intended at the very first opportunity to return him a blanket which I had borrowed from him some weeks before.
Just wait until I could get my foot on the ladder, I would be beholden to no man, not even for a blanket. Perhaps even this very day I might commence an article on the “Crimes of Futurity,” “Freedom of Will,” or what not, at any rate, something worth reading, something for which I would at least get ten shillings…. And at the thought of this article I felt myself fired with a desire to set to work immediately and to draw from the contents of my overflowing brain. I would find a suitable place to write in the park and not rest until I had completed my article.
But the old cripple was still making the same sprawling movements ahead of me up the street. The sight of this infirm creature constantly in front of me, commenced to irritate me–his journey seemed endless; perhaps he had made up his mind to go to exactly the same place as I had, and I must needs have him before my eyes the whole way. In my irritation it seemed to me that he slackened his pace a little at every cross street, as if waiting to see which direction I intended to take, upon which he would again swing his bundle in the air and peg away with all his might to keep ahead of me. I follow and watch this tiresome creature and get more and more exasperated with him, I am conscious that he has, little by little, destroyed my happy mood and dragged the pure, beautiful morning down to the level of his own ugliness. He looks like a great sprawling reptile striving with might and main to win a place in the world and reserve the footpath for himself. When we reached the top of the hill I determined to put up with it no longer. I turned to a shop window and stopped in order to give him an opportunity of getting ahead, but when, after a lapse of some minutes, I again walked on there was the man still in front of me–he too had stood stock still,–without stopping to reflect I made three or four furious onward strides, caught him up, and slapped him on the shoulder.
He stopped directly, and we both stared at one another fixedly. “A halfpenny for milk!” he whined, twisting his head askew.
So that was how the wind blew. I felt in my pockets and said: “For milk, eh? Hum-m–money’s scarce these times, and I don’t really know how much you are in need of it.”
“I haven’t eaten a morsel since yesterday in Drammen; I haven’t got a farthing, nor have I got any work yet!”
“Are you an artisan?”
“Yes; a binder.”
“A shoe-binder; for that matter, I can make shoes too.”
“Ah, that alters the case,” said I, “you wait here for some minutes and I shall go and get a little money for you; just a few pence.”
I hurried as fast as I could down Pyle Street, where I knew of a pawnbroker on a second-floor (one, besides, to whom I had never been before). When I got inside the hall I hastily took off my waistcoat, rolled it up, and put it under my arm; after which I went upstairs and knocked at the office door. I bowed on entering, and threw the waistcoat on the counter.
“One-and-six,” said the man.
“Yes, yes, thanks,” I replied. “If it weren’t that it was beginning to be a little tight for me, of course I wouldn’t part with it.”
I got the money and the ticket, and went back. Considering all things, pawning that waistcoat was a capital notion. I would have money enough over for a plentiful breakfast, and before evening my thesis on the “Crimes of Futurity” would be ready. I began to find existence more alluring; and I hurried back to the man to get rid of him.
“There it is,” said I. “I am glad you applied to me first.”
The man took the money and scrutinized me closely. At what was he standing there staring? I had a feeling that he particularly examined the knees of my trousers, and his shameless effrontery bored me. Did the scoundrel imagine that I really was as poor as I looked? Had I not as good as begun to write an article for half-a-sovereign? Besides, I had no fear whatever for the future. I had many irons in the fire. What on earth business was it of an utter stranger if I chose to stand him a drink on such a lovely day? The man’s look annoyed me, and I made up my mind to give him a good dressing-down before I left him. I threw back my shoulders, and said:
“My good fellow, you have adopted a most unpleasant habit of staring at a man’s knees when he gives you a shilling.”
He leant his head back against the wall and opened his mouth widely; something was working in that empty pate of his, and he evidently came to the conclusion that I meant to best him in some way, for he handed me back the money. I stamped on the pavement, and, swearing at him, told him to keep it. Did he imagine I was going to all that trouble for nothing? If all came to all, perhaps I owed him this shilling; I had just recollected an old debt; he was standing before an honest man, honourable to his finger-tips–in short, the money was his. Oh, no thanks were needed; it had been a pleasure to me. Good-bye!
I went on. At last I was freed from this work-ridden plague, and I could go my way in peace. I turned down Pyle Street again, and stopped before a grocer’s shop. The whole window was filled with eatables, and I decided to go in and get something to take with me.
“A piece of cheese and a French roll,” I said, and threw my sixpence on to the counter.
“Bread and cheese for the whole of it?” asked the woman ironically, without looking up at me.
“For the whole sixpence? Yes,” I answered, unruffled.
I took them up, bade the fat old woman good-morning, with the utmost politeness, and sped, full tilt, up Castle Hill to the park.
I found a bench to myself, and began to bite greedily into my provender. It did me good; it was a long time since I had had such a square meal, and, by degrees, I felt the same sated quiet steal over me that one feels after a good long cry. My courage rose mightily. I could no longer be satisfied with writing an article about anything so simple and straight-ahead as the “Crimes of Futurity,” that any ass might arrive at, ay, simply deduct from history. I felt capable of a much greater effort than that; I was in a fitting mood to overcome difficulties, and I decided on a treatise, in three sections, on “Philosophical Cognition.” This would, naturally, give me an opportunity of crushing pitiably some of Kant’s sophistries … but, on taking out my writing materials to commence work, I discovered that I no longer owned a pencil: I had forgotten it in the pawn-office. My pencil was lying in my waistcoat pocket.
Good Lord! how everything seems to take a delight in thwarting me today! I swore a few times, rose from the seat, and took a couple of turns up and down the path. It was very quiet all around me; down near the Queen’s arbour two nursemaids were trundling their perambulators; otherwise, there was not a creature anywhere in sight. I was in a thoroughly embittered temper; I paced up and down before my seat like a maniac. How strangely awry things seemed to go! To think that an article in three sections should be downright stranded by the simple fact of my not having a pennyworth of pencil in my pocket. Supposing I were to return to Pyle Street and ask to get my pencil back? There would be still time to get a good piece finished before the promenading public commenced to fill the parks. So much, too, depended on this treatise on “Philosophical Cognition”–mayhap many human beings’ welfare, no one could say; and I told myself it might be of the greatest possible help to many young people. On second thoughts, I would not lay violent hands on Kant; I might easily avoid doing that; I would only need to make an almost imperceptible gliding over when I came to query Time and Space; but I would not answer for Renan, old Parson Renan….
At all events, an article of so-and-so many columns has to be completed. For the unpaid rent, and the landlady’s inquiring look in the morning when I met her on the stairs, tormented me the whole day; it rose up and confronted me again and again, even in my pleasant hours, when I had otherwise not a gloomy thought.
I must put an end to it, so I left the park hurriedly to fetch my pencil from the pawnbroker’s.
As I arrived at the foot of the hill I overtook two ladies, whom I passed. As I did so, I brushed one of them accidentally on the arm. I looked up; she had a full, rather pale, face. But she blushes, and, becomes suddenly surprisingly lovely. I know not why she blushes; maybe at some word she hears from a passer-by, maybe only at some lurking thought of her own. Or can it be because I touched her arm? Her high, full bosom heaves violently several times, and she closes her hand tightly above the handle of her parasol. What has come to her?
I stopped, and let her pass ahead again. I could, for the moment, go no further; the whole thing struck me as being so singular. I was in a tantalizing mood, annoyed with myself on account of the pencil incident, and in a high degree disturbed by all the food I had taken on a totally empty stomach. Suddenly my thoughts, as if whimsically inspired, take a singular direction. I feel myself seized with an odd desire to make this lady afraid; to follow her, and annoy her in some way. I overtake her again, pass her by, turn quickly round, and meet her face-to-face in order to observe her well. I stand and gaze into her eyes, and hit, on the spur of the moment, on a name which I have never heard before–a name with a gliding, nervous sound–Ylajali! When she is quite close to me I draw myself up and say impressively:
“You are losing your book, madam!” I could hear my heart beat audibly as I said it.
“My book?” she asks her companion, and she walks on.
My devilment waxed apace, and I followed them. At the same time, I was fully conscious that I was playing a mad prank without being able to stop myself. My disordered condition ran away with me; I was inspired with the craziest notions, which I followed blindly as they came to me. I couldn’t help it, no matter how much I told myself that I was playing the fool. I made the most idiotic grimaces behind the lady’s back, and coughed frantically as I passed her by. Walking on in this manner–very slowly, and always a few steps in advance–I felt her eyes on my back, and involuntarily put down my head with shame for having caused her annoyance. By degrees, a wonderful feeling stole over me of being far, far away in other places; I had a half-undefined sense that it was not I who was going along over the gravel hanging my head.
A few minutes later, they reached Pascha’s bookshop. I had already stopped at the first window, and as they go by I step forward and repeat:
“You are losing your book, madam!”
“No; what book?” she asks affrightedly. “Can you make out what book it is he is talking about?” and she comes to a stop.
I hug myself with delight at her confusion; the irresolute perplexity in her eyes positively fascinates me. Her mind cannot grasp my short, passionate address. She has no book with her; not a single page of a book, and yet she fumbles in her pockets, looks down repeatedly at her hands, turns her head and scrutinizes the streets behind her, exerts her sensitive little brain to the utmost in trying to discover what book it is I am talking about. Her face changes colour, has now one, now another expression, and she is breathing quite audibly–even the very buttons on her gown seem to stare at me, like a row of frightened eyes.
“Don’t bother about him!” says her companion, taking her by the arm. “He is drunk; can’t you see that the man is drunk?”
Strange as I was at this instant to myself, so absolutely a prey to peculiar invisible inner influences, nothing occurred around me without my observing it. A large, brown dog sprang right across the street towards the shrubbery, and then down towards the Tivoli; he had on a very narrow collar of German silver. Farther up the street a window opened on the second floor, and a servant-maid leant out of it, with her sleeves turned up, and began to clean the panes on the outside. Nothing escaped my notice; I was clear-headed and ready-witted. Everything rushed in upon me with a gleaming distinctness, as if I were suddenly surrounded by a strong light. The ladies before me had each a blue bird’s wing in their hats, and a plaid silk ribbon round their necks. It struck me that they were sisters.
They turned, stopped at Cisler’s music-shop, and spoke together. I stopped also. Thereupon they both came back, went the same road as they had come, passed me again, and turned the corner of University Street and up towards St. Olav’s place. I was all the time as close at their heels as I dared to be. They turned round once, and sent me a half-fearful, half-questioning look, and I saw no resentment nor any trace of a frown in it.
This forbearance with my annoyance shamed me thoroughly and made me lower my eyes. I would no longer be a trouble to them; out of sheer gratitude I would follow them with my gaze, not lose sight of them until they entered some place safely and disappeared.
Outside No. 2, a large four-storeyed house, they turned again before going in. I leant against a lamp-post near the fountain and listened for their footsteps on the stairs. They died away on the second floor. I advanced from the lamp-post and looked up at the house. Then something odd happened. The curtains above were stirred, and a second after a window opened, a head popped out, and two singular-looking eyes dwelt on me. “Ylajali!” I muttered, half-aloud, and I felt I grew red.
Why does she not call for help, or push over one of these flower-pots and strike me on the head, or send some one down to drive me away? We stand and look into one another’s eyes without moving; it lasts a minute. Thoughts dart between the window and the street, and not a word is spoken. She turns round, I feel a wrench in me, a delicate shock through my senses; I see a shoulder that turns, a back that disappears across the floor. That reluctant turning from the window, the accentuation in that movement of the shoulders was like a nod to me. My blood was sensible of all the delicate, dainty greeting, and I felt all at once rarely glad. Then I wheeled round and went down the street.
I dared not look back, and knew not if she had returned to the window. The more I considered this question the more nervous and restless I became. Probably at this very moment she was standing watching closely all my movements. It is by no means comfortable to know that you are being watched from behind your back. I pulled myself together as well as I could and proceeded on my way; my legs began to jerk under me, my gait became unsteady just because I purposely tried to make it look well. In order to appear at ease and indifferent, I flung my arms about, spat out, and threw my head well back–all without avail, for I continually felt the pursuing eyes on my neck, and a cold shiver ran down my back. At length I escaped down a side street, from which I took the road to Pyle Street to get my pencil.
I had no difficulty in recovering it; the man brought me the waistcoat himself, and as he did so, begged me to search through all the pockets. I found also a couple of pawn-tickets which I pocketed as I thanked the obliging little man for his civility. I was more and more taken with him, and grew all of a sudden extremely anxious to make a favourable impression on this person. I took a turn towards the door and then back again to the counter as if I had forgotten something. It struck me that I owed him an explanation, that I ought to elucidate matters a little. I began to hum in order to attract his attention. Then, taking the pencil in my hand, I held it up and said:
“It would never have entered my head to come such a long way for any and every bit of pencil, but with this one it was quite a different matter; there was another reason, a special reason. Insignificant as it looked, this stump of pencil had simply made me what I was in the world, so to say, placed me in life.” I said no more. The man had come right over to the counter.
“Indeed!” said he, and he looked inquiringly at me.
“It was with this pencil,” I continued, in cold blood, “that I wrote my dissertation on ‘Philosophical Cognition,’ in three volumes.” Had he never heard mention of it?
Well, he did seem to remember having heard the name, rather the title.
“Yes,” said I, “that was by me, so it was.” So he must really not be astonished that I should be desirous of having the little bit of pencil back again. I valued it far too highly to lose it; why, it was almost as much to me as a little human creature. For the rest I was honestly grateful to him for his civility, and I would bear him in mind for it. Yes, truly, I really would. A promise was a promise; that was the sort of man I was, and he really deserved it. “Good-bye!” I walked to the door with the bearing of one who had it in his power to place a man in a high position, say in the fire-office. The honest pawnbroker bowed twice profoundly to me as I withdrew. I turned again and repeated my good-bye.
On the stairs I met a woman with a travelling-bag in her hand, who squeezed diffidently against the wall to make room for me, and I voluntarily thrust my hand in my pocket for something to give her, and looked foolish as I found nothing and passed on with my head down. I heard her knock at the office door; there was an alarm over it, and I recognized the jingling sound it gave when any one rapped on the door with his knuckles.
The sun stood in the south; it was about twelve. The whole town began to get on its legs as it approached the fashionable hour for promenading. Bowing and laughing folk walked up and down Carl Johann Street. I stuck my elbows closely to my sides, tried to make myself look small, and slipped unperceived past some acquaintances who had taken up their stand at the corner of University Street to gaze at the passers-by. I wandered up Castle Hill and fell into a reverie.
How gaily and lightly these people I met carried their radiant heads, and swung themselves through life as through a ball-room! There was no sorrow in a single look I met, no burden on any shoulder, perhaps not even a clouded thought, not a little hidden pain in any of the happy souls. And I, walking in the very midst of these people, young and newly-fledged as I was, had already forgotten the very look of happiness. I hugged these thoughts to myself as I went on, and found that a great injustice had been done me. Why had the last months pressed so strangely hard on me? I failed to recognize my own happy temperament, and I met with the most singular annoyances from all quarters. I could not sit down on a bench by myself or set my foot any place without being assailed by insignificant accidents, miserable details, that forced their way into my imagination and scattered my powers to all the four winds. A dog that dashed by me, a yellow rose in a man’s buttonhole, had the power to set my thoughts vibrating and occupy me for a length of time.
What was it that ailed me? Was the hand of the Lord turned against me? But why just against me? Why, for that matter, not just as well against a man in South America? When I considered the matter over, it grew more and more incomprehensible to me that I of all others should be selected as an experiment for a Creator’s whims. It was, to say the least of it, a peculiar mode of procedure to pass over a whole world of other humans in order to reach me. Why not select just as well Bookseller Pascha, or Hennechen the steam agent?
As I went my way I sifted this thing, and could not get quit of it. I found the most weighty arguments against the Creator’s arbitrariness in letting me pay for all the others’ sins. Even after I had found a seat and sat down, the query persisted in occupying me, and prevented me from thinking of aught else. From the day in May when my ill-luck began I could so clearly notice my gradually increasing debility; I had become, as it were, too languid to control or lead myself whither I would go. A swarm of tiny noxious animals had bored a way into my inner man and hollowed me out.
Supposing God Almighty simply intended to annihilate me? I got up and paced backwards and forwards before the seat.
My whole being was at this moment in the highest degree of torture, I had pains in my arms, and could hardly bear to hold them in the usual way. I experienced also great discomfort from my last full meal; I was oversated, and walked backwards and forwards without looking up. The people who came and went around me glided past me like faint gleams. At last my seat was taken up by two men, who lit cigars and began to talk loudly together. I got angry and was on the point of addressing them, but turned on my heel and went right to the other end of the Park, and found another seat. I sat down.
The thought of God began to occupy me. It seemed to me in the highest degree indefensible of Him to interfere every time I sought for a place, and to upset the whole thing, while all the time I was but imploring enough for a daily meal.
I had remarked so plainly that, whenever I had been hungry for any length of time, it was just as if my brains ran quite gently out of my head and left me with a vacuum–my head grew light and far off, I no longer felt its weight on my shoulders, and I had a consciousness that my eyes stared far too widely open when I looked at anything.
I sat there on the seat and pondered over all this, and grew more and more bitter against God for His prolonged inflictions. If He meant to draw me nearer to Him, and make me better by exhausting me and placing obstacle after obstacle in my way, I could assure Him He made a slight mistake. And, almost crying with defiance, I looked up towards Heaven and told Him so mentally, once and for all.
Fragments of the teachings of my childhood ran through my memory. The rhythmical sound of Biblical language sang in my ears, and I talked quite softly to myself, and held my head sneeringly askew. Wherefore should I sorrow for what I eat, for what I drink, or for what I may array this miserable food for worms called my earthy body? Hath not my Heavenly Father provided for me, even as for the sparrow on the housetop, and hath He not in His graciousness pointed towards His lowly servitor? The Lord stuck His finger in the net of my nerves gently–yea, verily, in desultory fashion–and brought slight disorder among the threads. And then the Lord withdrew His finger, and there were fibres and delicate root-like filaments adhering to the finger, and they were the nerve-threads of the filaments. And there was a gaping hole after the finger, which was God’s finger, and a wound in my brain in the track of His finger. But when God had touched me with His finger, He let me be, and touched me no more, and let no evil befall me; but let me depart in peace, and let me depart with the gaping hole. And no evil hath befallen me from the God who is the Lord God of all Eternity.
The sound of music was borne up on the wind to me from the Students’ Allée. It was therefore past two o’clock. I took out my writing materials to try to write something, and at the same time my book of shaving-tickets 1 fell out of my pocket. I opened it, and counted the tickets; there were six. “The Lord be praised,” I exclaimed involuntarily; “I can still get shaved for a couple of weeks, and look a little decent”; and I immediately fell into a better frame of mind on account of this little property which still remained to me. I smoothed the leaves out carefully, and put the book safely into my pocket.
But write I could not. After a few lines nothing seemed to occur to me; my thought ran in other directions, and I could not pull myself together enough for any special exertion.
Everything influenced and distracted me; everything I saw made a fresh impression on me. Flies and tiny mosquitoes stick fast to the paper and disturb me. I blow at them to get rid of them–blow harder and harder; to no purpose, the little pests throw themselves on their backs, make themselves heavy, and fight against me until their slender legs bend. They are not to be moved from the spot; they find something to hook on to, set their heels against a comma or an unevenness in the paper, or stand immovably still until they themselves think fit to go their way.
These insects continued to busy me for a long time, and I crossed my legs to observe them at leisure. All at once a couple of high clarionet notes waved up to me from the bandstand, and gave my thoughts a new impulse.
Despondent at not being able to put my article together, I replaced the paper in my pocket, and leant back in the seat. At this instant my head is so clear that I can follow the most delicate train of thought without tiring. As I lie in this position, and let my eyes glide down my breast and along my legs, I notice the jerking movement my foot makes each time my pulse beats. I half rise and look down at my feet, and I experience at this moment a fantastic and singular feeling that I have never felt before–a delicate, wonderful shock through my nerves, as if sparks of cold light quivered through them–it was as if catching sight of my shoes I had met with a kind old acquaintance, or got back a part of myself that had been riven loose. A feeling of recognition trembles through my senses; the tears well up in my eyes, and I have a feeling as if my shoes are a soft, murmuring strain rising towards me. “Weakness!” I cried harshly to myself, and I clenched my fists and I repeated “Weakness!” I laughed at myself, for this ridiculous feeling, made fun of myself, with a perfect consciousness of doing so, talked very severely and sensibly, and closed my eyes very tightly to get rid of the tears.
As if I had never seen my shoes before, I set myself to study their looks, their characteristics, and, when I stir my foot, their shape and their worn uppers. I discover that their creases and white seams give them expression–impart a physiognomy to them. Something of my own nature had gone over into these shoes; they affected me, like a ghost of my other I– a breathing portion of my very self.
I sat and toyed with these fancies a long time, perhaps an entire hour. A little, old man came and took the other end of the seat; as he seated himself he panted after his walk, and muttered:
“Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay; very true!”
As soon as I heard his voice, I felt as if a wind had swept through my head. I let shoes be shoes, and it seemed to me that the distracted phase of mind I had just experienced dated from a long-vanished period, maybe a year or two back, and was about to be quietly effaced from my memory. I began to observe the old fellow.
Did this little man concern me in any way? Not in the least, not in the very slightest degree! Only that he held a newspaper in his hand, an old number (with the advertisement sheet on the outside), in which something or other seemed to be rolled up; my curiosity was aroused, and I could not take my eyes away from this paper. The insane idea entered my head that it might be a quite peculiar newspaper–unique of its kind. My curiosity increased, and I began to move backwards and forwards on the seat. It might contain deeds, dangerous documents stolen from some archive or other; something floated before me about a secret treaty–a conspiracy.
The man sat quietly, and pondered. Why did he not carry his newspaper as every other person carries a paper, with its name out? What species of cunning lurked under that? He did not seem either to like letting his package out of his hands, not for anything in the world; perhaps he did not even dare trust it into his own pocket. I could stake my life there was something at the bottom of that package–I considered a bit. Just the fact of finding it so impossible to penetrate this mysterious affair distracted me with curiosity. I searched my pockets for something to offer the man in order to enter into conversation with him, took hold of my shaving-book, but put it back again. Suddenly it entered my head to be utterly audacious; I slapped my empty breast-pocket, and said:
“May I offer you a cigarette?”
“Thank you!” The man did not smoke; he had to give it up to spare his eyes; he was nearly blind. Thank you very much all the same. Was it long since his eyes got bad? In that case, perhaps, he could not read either, not even a paper?
No, not even the newspaper, more’s the pity. The man looked at me; his weak eyes were each covered with a film which gave them a glassy appearance; his gaze grew bleary, and made a disgusting impression on me.
“You are a stranger here?” he said.
“Yes.” Could he not even read the name of the paper he held in his hand?
“Barely.” For that matter, he could hear directly that I was a stranger. There was something in my accent which told him. It did not need much; he could hear so well. At night, when every one slept, he could hear people in the next room breathing….
“What I was going to say was, ‘where do you live?'”
On the spur of the moment a lie stood, ready-made, in my head. I lied involuntarily, without any object, without any arrière pensée, and I answered–
“St. Olav’s Place, No. 2.”
“Really?” He knew every stone in St. Olav’s Place. There was a fountain, some lamp-posts, a few trees; he remembered all of it. “What number do you live in?”
Desirous to put an end to this, I got up. But my notion about the newspaper had driven me to my wit’s end; I resolved to clear the thing up, at no matter what cost.
“When you cannot read the paper, why–”
“In No. 2, I think you said,” continued the man, without noticing my disturbance. “There was a time I knew every person in No. 2; what is your landlord’s name?”
I quickly found a name to get rid of him; invented one on the spur of the moment, and blurted it out to stop my tormentor.
“Happolati!” said I.
“Happolati, ay!” nodded the man; and he never missed a syllable of this difficult name.
I looked at him with amazement; there he sat, gravely, with a considering air. Before I had well given utterance to the stupid name which jumped into my head the man had accommodated himself to it, and pretended to have heard it before.
In the meantime, he had laid his package on the seat, and I felt my curiosity quiver through my nerves. I noticed there were a few grease spots on the paper.
“Isn’t he a sea-faring man, your landlord?” queried he, and there was not a trace of suppressed irony in his voice; “I seem to remember he was.”
“Sea-faring man? Excuse me, it must be the brother you know; this man is namely J. A. Happolati, the agent.”
I thought this would finish him; but he willingly fell in with everything I said. If I had found a name like Barrabas Rosebud it would not have roused his suspicions.
“He is an able man, I have heard?” he said, feeling his way.
“Oh, a clever fellow!” answered I; “a thorough business head; agent for every possible thing going. Cranberries from China; feathers and down from Russia; hides, pulp, writing-ink–”
“He, he! the devil he is?” interrupted the old chap, highly excited.
This began to get interesting. The situation ran away with me, and one lie after another engendered in my head. I sat down again, forgot the newspaper, and the remarkable documents, grew lively, and cut short the old fellow’s talk.
The little goblin’s unsuspecting simplicity made me foolhardy; I would stuff him recklessly full of lies; rout him out o’ field grandly, and stop his mouth from sheer amazement.
Had he heard of the electric psalm-book that Happolati had invented?
“With electric letters that could give light in the dark! a perfectly extraordinary enterprise. A million crowns to be put in circulation; foundries and printing-presses at work, and shoals of regular mechanics to be employed; I had heard as many as seven hundred men.”
“Ay, isn’t it just what I say?” drawled out the man calmly.
He said no more, he believed every word I related, and for all that, he was not taken aback. This disappointed me a little; I had expected to see him utterly bewildered by my inventions.
I searched my brain for a couple of desperate lies, went the whole hog, hinted that Happolati had been Minister of State for nine years in Persia. “You perhaps have no conception of what it means to be Minister of State in Persia?” I asked. It was more than king here, or about the same as Sultan, if he knew what that meant, but Happolati had managed the whole thing, and was never at a loss. And I related about his daughter Ylajali, a fairy, a princess, who had three hundred slaves, and who reclined on a couch of yellow roses. She was the loveliest creature I had ever seen; I had, may the Lord strike me, never seen her match for looks in my life!
“So–o; was she so lovely?” remarked the old fellow, with an absent air, as he gazed at the ground.
“Lovely? She was beauteous, she was sinfully fascinating. Eyes like raw silk, arms of amber! Just one glance from her was as seductive as a kiss; and when she called me, her voice darted like a wine-ray right into my soul’s phosphor. And why shouldn’t she be so beautiful?” Did he imagine she was a messenger or something in the fire brigade? She was simply a Heaven’s wonder, I could just inform him, a fairy tale.
“Yes, to be sure!” said he, not a little bewildered. His quiet bored me; I was excited by the sound of my own voice and spoke in utter seriousness; the stolen archives, treaties with some foreign power or other, no longer occupied my thoughts; the little flat bundle of paper lay on the seat between us, and I had no longer the smallest desire to examine it or see what it contained. I was entirely absorbed in stories of my own which floated in singular visions across my mental eye. The blood flew to my head, and I roared with laughter.
At this moment the little man seemed about to go. He stretched himself, and in order not to break off too abruptly, added: “He is said to own much property, this Happolati?”
How dared this bleary-eyed, disgusting old man toss about the rare name I had invented as if it were a common name stuck up over every huckster-shop in the town? He never stumbled over a letter or forgot a syllable. The name had bitten fast in his brain and struck root on the instant. I got annoyed; an inward exasperation surged up in me against this creature whom nothing had the power to disturb and nothing render suspicious.
I therefore replied shortly, “I know nothing about that! I know absolutely nothing whatever about that! Let me inform you once for all that his name is Johann Arendt Happolati, if you go by his own initials.”
“Johannn Arendt Happolati!” repeated the man, a little astonished at my vehemence; and with that he grew silent.
“You should see his wife!” I said, beside myself. “A fatter creature … Eh? what? Perhaps you don’t even believe she is really fat?”
Well, indeed he did not see his way to deny that such a man might perhaps have a rather stout wife. The old fellow answered quite gently and meekly to each of my assertions, and sought for words as if he feared to offend and perhaps make me furious.
“Hell and fire, man! Do you imagine that I am sitting here stuffing you chock-full of lies?” I roared furiously. “Perhaps you don’t even believe that a man of the name of Happolati exists! I never saw your match for obstinacy and malice in any old man. What the devil ails you? Perhaps, too, into the bargain, you have been all this while thinking to yourself I am a poverty-stricken fellow, sitting here in my Sunday-best without even a case full of cigarettes in my pocket. Let me tell you such treatment as yours is a thing I am not accustomed to, and I won’t endure it, the Lord strike me dead if I will–neither from you nor any one else, do you know that?”
The man had risen with his mouth agape; he stood tongue-tied and listened to my outbreak until the end. Then he snatched his parcel from off the seat and went, ay, nearly ran, down the patch, with the short, tottering steps of an old man.
I leant back and looked at the retreating figure that seemed to shrink at each step as it passed away. I do not know from where the impression came, but it appeared to me that I had never in my life seen a more vile back than this one, and I did not regret that I had abused the creature before he left me.
The day began to decline, the sun sank, it commenced to rustle lightly in the trees around, and the nursemaids who sat in groups near the parallel bars made ready to wheel their perambulators home. I was calmed and in good spirit. The excitement I had just laboured under quieted down little by little, and I grew weaker, more languid, and began to feel drowsy. Neither did the quantity of bread I had eaten cause me any longer any particular distress. I leant against the back of the seat in the best of humours, closed my eyes, and got more and more sleepy. I dozed, and was just on the point of falling asleep, when a park-keeper put his hand on my shoulder and said:
“You must not sit here and go to sleep!”
“No?” I said, and sprang immediately up, my unfortunate position rising all at once vividly before my eyes. I must do something; find some way or another out of it. To look for situations had been of no avail to me. Even the recommendations I showed had grown a little old, and were written by people all too little known to be of much use; besides that, constant refusals all through the summer had somewhat disheartened me. At all events, my rent was due, and I must raise the wind for that; the rest would have to wait a little.
Quite involuntarily I had got paper and pencil into my hand again, and I sat and wrote mechanically the date, 1848, in each corner. If only now one single effervescing thought would grip me powerfully, and put words into my mouth. Why, I had known hours when I could write a long piece, without the least exertion, and turn it off capitally, too.
I am sitting on the seat, and I write, scores of times, 1848. I write this date criss-cross, in all possible fashions, and wait until a workable idea shall occur to me. A swarm of loose thoughts flutter about in my head. The feeling of declining day makes me downcast, sentimental; autumn is here, and has already begun to hush everything into sleep and torpor. The flies and insects have received their first warning. Up in the trees and down in the fields the sounds of struggling life can be heard rustling, murmuring, restless; labouring not to perish. The down-trodden existence of the whole insect world is astir for yet a little while. They poke their yellow heads up from the turf, lift their legs, feel their way with long feelers and then collapse suddenly, roll over, and turn their bellies in the air.
Every growing thing has received its peculiar impress: the delicately blown breath of the first cold. The stubbles straggle wanly sunwards, and the falling leaves rustle to the earth, with a sound as of errant silkworms.
It is the reign of Autumn, the height of the Carnival of Decay, the roses have got inflammation in their blushes, an uncanny hectic tinge, through their soft damask.
I felt myself like a creeping thing on the verge of destruction, gripped by ruin in the midst of a whole world ready for lethargic sleep. I rose, oppressed by weird terrors, and took some furious strides down the path. “No!” I cried out, clutching both my hands; “there must be an end to this,” and I reseated myself, grasped the pencil, and set seriously to work at an article.
There was no possible use in giving way, with the unpaid rent staring me straight in the face.
Slowly, quite slowly, my thoughts collected. I paid attention to them, and wrote quietly and well; wrote a couple of pages as an introduction. It would serve as a beginning to anything. A description of travel, a political leader, just as I thought fit–it was a perfectly splendid commencement for something or anything. So I took to seeking for some particular subject to handle, a person or a thing, that I might grapple with, and I could find nothing. Along with this fruitless exertion, disorder began to hold its sway again in my thoughts. I felt how my brain positively snapped and my head emptied, until it sat at last, light, buoyant, and void on my shoulders. I was conscious of the gaping vacuum in my skull with every fibre of my being. I seemed to myself to be hollowed out from top and toe.
In my pain I cried: “Lord, my God and Father!” and repeated this cry many times at a stretch, without adding one word more.
The wind soughed through the trees; a storm was brewing. I sat a while longer, and gazed at my paper, lost in thought, then folded it up and put it slowly into my pocket. It got chilly; and I no longer owned a waistcoat. I buttoned my coat right up to my throat and thrust my hands in my pockets; thereupon I rose and went on.
If I had only succeeded this time, just this once. Twice my landlady had asked me with her eyes for payment, and I was obliged to hang my head and slink past her with a shamefaced air. I could not do it again: the very next time I met those eyes I would give warning and account for myself honestly. Well, any way, things could not last long at this rate.
On coming to the exit of the park I saw the old chap I had put to flight. The mysterious new paper parcel lay opened on the seat next him, filled with different sorts of victuals, of which he ate as he sat. I immediately wanted to go over and ask pardon for my conduct, but the sight of food repelled me. The decrepit fingers looked like ten claws as they clutched loathsomely at the greasy bread and butter; I felt qualmish, and passed by without addressing him. He did not recognize me; his eyes stared at me, dry as horn, and his face did not move a muscle.
And so I went on my way.