The Red Room by August Strindberg



It was an evening in the beginning of May. The little garden on “Moses
Height,” on the south side of the town had not yet been thrown open to
the public, and the flower-beds were still unturned. The snowdrops had
worked through the accumulations of last year’s dead leaves, and were
on the point of closing their short career and making room for the
crocuses which had found shelter under a barren pear tree; the elder
was waiting for a southerly wind before bursting into bloom, but the
tightly closed buds of the limes still offered cover for love-making to
the chaffinches, busily employed in building their lichen-covered nests
between trunk and branch. No human foot had trod the gravel paths since
last winter’s snow had melted, and the free and easy life of beasts and
flowers was left undisturbed. The sparrows industriously collected all
manner of rubbish, and stowed it away under the tiles of the Navigation
School. They burdened themselves with scraps of the rocket-cases of
last autumn’s fireworks, and picked the straw covers off the young
trees, transplanted from the nursery in the Deer Park only a year
ago–nothing escaped them. They discovered shreds of muslin in the
summer arbours; the splintered leg of a seat supplied them with tufts
of hair left on the battlefield by dogs which had not been fighting
there since Josephine’s day. What a life it was!

The sun was standing over the Liljeholm, throwing sheaves of rays
towards the east; they pierced the columns of smoke of Bergsund,
flashed across the Riddarfjörd, climbed to the cross of the Riddarholms
church, flung themselves on to the steep roof of the German church
opposite, toyed with the bunting displayed by the boats on the pontoon
bridge, sparkled in the windows of the chief custom-house, illuminated
the woods of the Liding Island, and died away in a rosy cloud far, far
away in the distance where the sea was. And from thence the wind came
and travelled back by the same way, over Vaxholm, past the fortress,
past the custom-house and along the Sikla Island, forcing its way in
behind the Hästarholm, glancing at the summer resorts; then out again
and on, on to the hospital Daniken; there it took fright and dashed
away in a headlong career along the southern shore, noticed the smell
of coal, tar and fish-oil, came dead against the city quay, rushed up
to Moses Height, swept into the garden and buffeted against a wall.

The wall was opened by a maid-servant, who, at the very moment, was
engaged in peeling off the paper pasted over the chinks of the double
windows; a terrible smell of dripping, beer dregs, pine needles, and
sawdust poured out and was carried away by the wind, while the maid
stood breathing the fresh air through her nostrils. It plucked the
cotton-wool, strewn with barberry berries, tinsel and rose leaves, from
the space between the windows and danced it along the paths, joined by
sparrows and chaffinches who saw here the solution of the greater part
of their housing problem.

Meanwhile, the maid continued her work at the double windows; in a few
minutes the door leading from the restaurant stood open, and a man,
well but plainly dressed, stepped out into the garden. There was
nothing striking about his face beyond a slight expression of care and
worry which disappeared as soon as he had emerged from the stuffy room
and caught sight of the wide horizon. He turned to the side from whence
the wind came, opened his overcoat, and repeatedly drew a deep breath
which seemed to relieve his heart and lungs. Then he began to stroll up
and down the barrier which separated the garden from the cliffs in the
direction of the sea.

Far below him lay the noisy, reawakening town; the steam cranes whirred
in the harbour, the iron bars rattled in the iron weighing machine, the
whistles of the lock-keepers shrilled, the steamers at the pontoon
bridge smoked, the omnibuses rumbled over the uneven paving-stones;
noise and uproar in the fish market, sails and flags on the water
outside; the screams of the sea-gulls, bugle-calls from the dockyard,
the turning out of the guard, the clattering of the wooden shoes of the
working-men–all this produced an impression of life and bustle, which
seemed to rouse the young man’s energy; his face assumed an expression
of defiance, cheerfulness and resolution, and as he leaned over the
barrier and looked at the town below, he seemed to be watching an
enemy; his nostrils expanded, his eyes flashed, and he raised his
clenched fist as if he were challenging or threatening the poor town.

The bells of St. Catherine’s chimed seven; the splenetic treble of St.
Mary’s seconded; the basses of the great church, and the German church
joined in, and soon the air was vibrating with the sound made by the
seven bells of the town; then one after the other relapsed into
silence, until far away in the distance only the last one of them could
be heard singing its peaceful evensong; it had a higher note, a purer
tone and a quicker tempo than the others–yes, it had! He listened and
wondered whence the sound came, for it seemed to stir up vague memories
in him. All of a sudden his face relaxed and his features expressed the
misery of a forsaken child. And he was forsaken; his father and mother
were lying in the churchyard of St. Clara’s, from whence the bell could
still be heard; and he was a child; he still believed in everything,
truth and fairy tales alike.

The bell of St. Clara’s was silent, and the sound of footsteps on the
gravel path roused him from his reverie. A short man with side-whiskers
came towards him from the verandah; he wore spectacles, apparently more
for the sake of protecting his glances than his eyes, and his malicious
mouth was generally twisted into a kindly, almost benevolent,
expression. He was dressed in a neat overcoat with defective buttons, a
somewhat battered hat, and trousers hoisted at half-mast. His walk
indicated assurance as well as timidity. His whole appearance was so
indefinite that it was impossible to guess at his age or social
position. He might just as well have been an artisan as a government
official; his age was anything between twenty-nine and forty-five
years. He was obviously flattered to find himself in the company of the
man whom he had come to meet, for he raised his bulging hat with
unusual ceremony and smiled his kindliest smile.

“I hope you haven’t been waiting, assessor?”

“Not for a second; it’s only just struck seven. Thank you for coming. I
must confess that this meeting is of the greatest importance to me; I
might almost say it concerns my whole future, Mr. Struve.”

“Bless me! Do you mean it?”

Mr. Struve blinked; he had come to drink a glass of toddy and was very
little inclined for a serious conversation. He had his reasons for

“We shall be more undisturbed if we have our toddy outside, if you
don’t mind,” continued the assessor.

Mr. Struve stroked his right whisker, put his hat carefully on his head
and thanked the assessor for his invitation; but he looked uneasy.

“To begin with, I must ask you to drop the ‘assessor,'” began the young
man. “I’ve never been more than a regular assistant, and I cease to be
even that from to-day; I’m Mr. Falk, nothing else.”


Mr. Struve looked as if he had lost a distinguished friend, but he kept
his temper.

“You’re a man with liberal tendencies….”

Mr. Struve tried to explain himself, but Falk continued:

“I asked you to meet me here in your character of contributor to the
liberal _Red Cap_.”

“Good heavens! I’m such a very unimportant contributor….”

“I’ve read your thundering articles on the working man’s question, and
all other questions which nearly concern us. We’re in the year three,
in Roman figures, for it is now the third year of the new Parliament,
and soon our hopes will have become realities. I’ve read your excellent
biographies of our leading politicians in the _Peasant’s Friend_, the
lives of those men of the people, who have at last been allowed to
voice what oppressed them for so long; you’re a man of progress and
I’ve a great respect for you.”

Struve, whose eyes had grown dull instead of kindling at the fervent
words, seized with pleasure the proffered safety-valve.

“I must admit,” he said eagerly, “that I’m immensely pleased to find
myself appreciated by a young and–I must say it–excellent man like
you, assessor; but, on the other hand, why talk of such grave, not to
say sad things, when we’re sitting here, in the lap of nature, on the
first day of spring, while all the buds are bursting and the sun is
pouring his warmth on the whole creation! Let’s snap our fingers at
care and drink our glass in peace. Excuse me–I believe I’m your
senior–and–I venture–to propose therefore….”

Falk, who like a flint had gone out in search of steel, realized that
he had struck wood. He accepted the proposal without eagerness. And the
new brothers sat side by side, and all they had to tell each other was
the disappointment expressed in their faces.

“I mentioned a little while ago,” Falk resumed, “that I’ve broken
to-day with my past life and thrown up my career as a government
employé. I’ll only add that I intend taking up literature.”

“Literature? Good Heavens! Why? Oh, but that _is_ a pity!”

“It isn’t; but I want you to tell me how to set about finding work.”

“H’m! That’s really difficult to say. The profession is crowded with so
many people of all sorts. But you mustn’t think of it. It really is a
pity to spoil your career; the literary profession is a bad one.”

Struve looked sorry, but he could not hide a certain satisfaction at
having met a friend in misfortune.

“But tell me,” he continued, “Why are you throwing up a career which
promises a man honours as well as influence?”

“Honours to those who have usurped the power, and influence to the most

“Stuff! It isn’t really as bad as all that?”

“Isn’t it? Well, then I must speak more plainly. I’ll show you the
inner working of one of the six departments for which I had put down.
The first five I left at once for the very simple reason that there was
no room for me. Whenever I went and asked whether there was anything
for me to do, I was told No! And I never saw anybody doing anything.
And that was in the busy departments, like the Committee on Brandy
Distilleries, the Direct Taxation Office and The Board of
Administration of Employés’ Pensions. But when I noticed the swarming
crowd of officials, the idea struck me that the department which had to
pay out all the salaries must surely be very busy indeed. I therefore
put my name down for the Board of Payment of Employés’ Salaries.”

“And did you go there?” asked Struve, beginning to feel interested.

“Yes. I shall never forget the great impression made on me by my visit
to this thoroughly well-organized department. I went there at eleven
o’clock one morning, because this is supposed to be the time when the
offices open. In the waiting-room I found two young messengers
sprawling on a table, on their stomachs, reading the _Fatherland_.”

“The ‘_Fatherland_’?”

Struve, who had up to the present been feeding the sparrows with sugar,
pricked up his ears.

“Yes. I said ‘good morning.’ A feeble wriggling of the gentlemen’s
backs indicated that they accepted my good morning without any decided
displeasure; one of them even went to the length of waggling the heel
of his right foot, which might have been intended as a substitute for a
handshake. I asked whether either of the gentlemen were disengaged and
could show me the offices. Both of them declared that they were unable
to do so, because their orders were not to leave the waiting-room. I
inquired whether there were any other messengers. Yes, there were
others. But the chief messenger was away on a holiday; the first
messenger was on leave; the second was not on duty; the third had gone
to the post; the fourth was ill; the fifth had gone to fetch some
drinking water; the sixth was in the yard ‘where he remained all day
long’; moreover, no official ever arrived before one o’clock. This was
a hint to me that my early, inconvenient visit was not good form, and
at the same time a reminder that the messengers, also, were government

“But when I stated that I was firmly resolved on seeing the offices, so
as to gain an idea of the division of labour in so important and
comprehensive a department, the younger of the two consented to come
with me. When he opened the door I had a magnificent view of a suite of
sixteen rooms of various sizes. There must be work here, I thought,
congratulating myself on my happy idea of coming. The crackling of
sixteen birchwood fires in sixteen tiled stoves interrupted in the
pleasantest manner the solitude of the place.”

Struve, who had become more and more interested fumbled for a pencil
between the material and lining of his waistcoat, and wrote “16” on his
left cuff.

“‘This is the adjuncts’ room,’ explained the messenger.

“‘I see! Are there many adjuncts in this department?’ I asked.

“‘Oh, yes! More than enough!'”

“‘What do they do all day long?'”

“‘Oh! They write, of course, a little….'”

“He was speaking familiarly, so that I thought it time to interrupt
him. After wandering through the copyists’, the notaries’, the clerk’s,
the controller’s and his secretary’s, the reviser’s and his
secretary’s, the public prosecutor’s, the registrar of the exchequer’s,
the master of the rolls’ and the librarian’s, the treasurer’s, the
cashier’s, the procurator’s, the protonotary’s, the keeper of the
minutes’, the actuary’s, the keeper of the records’, the secretary’s,
the first clerk’s, and the head of the department’s rooms, we came to a
door which bore in gilt letters the words: ‘The President.’ I was going
to open the door but the messenger stopped me; genuinely uneasy, he
seized my arm and whispered: ‘Shsh!’–‘Is he asleep?’ I asked, my
thoughts busy with an old rumour. ‘For God’s sake, be quiet! No one may
enter here unless the president rings the bell.’ ‘Does he often ring?’
‘No, I’ve never heard him ringing in my time, and I’ve been here twelve
months.’ He was again inclined to be familiar, so I said no more.

“About noon the adjuncts began to arrive, and to my amazement I found
in them nothing but old friends from the Committee on Brandy
Distilleries, and the Board of Administration of Employés’ Pensions. My
amazement grew when the registrar from the Inland Revenue Office
strolled into the actuary’s room, and made himself as comfortable in
his easy-chair as he used to do in the Inland Revenue Office.

“I took one of the young men aside and asked him whether it would not
be advisable for me to call on the president. ‘Shsh!’ was his
mysterious reply, while he took me into room No. 8. Again this
mysterious shsh!

“The room which we had just entered was quite as dark as the rest of
them, but it was much dirtier. The horsehair stuffing was bursting
through the leather covering of the furniture; thick dust lay on the
writing-table; by the side of an inkstand, in which the ink had dried
long ago, lay an unused stick of sealing-wax with the former owner’s
name marked on it in Anglo-Saxon letters; in addition there was a pair
of paper shears whose blades were held together by rust; a date rack
which had not been turned since midsummer five years ago; a State
directory five years old; a sheet of blotting-paper with Julius Cæsar,
Julius Cæsar, Julius Cæsar written all over it, a hundred times at
least, alternating with as many Father Noahs.

“‘This is the office of the Master of the Rolls; we shall be
undisturbed here,’ said my friend.

“‘Doesn’t the Master of the Rolls come here, then?’ I asked.

“‘He hasn’t been here these five years, and now he’s ashamed to turn

“‘But who does his work?’

“‘The librarian.’

“‘But what is his work in a department like the Board of Payment of
Employés’ Salaries?’

“‘The messengers sort the receipts, chronologically and alphabetically,
and send them to the book-binders; the librarian supervises their being
placed on shelves specially adapted for the purpose.'”

The conversation now seemed to amuse Struve; he scribbled a word every
now and then on his cuff, and as Falk paused he thought it incumbent on
him to ask an important question.

“But how did the Master of the Rolls get his salary?”

“It was sent to his private address. Wasn’t that simple enough?
However, my young friend advised me to present myself to the actuary
and ask him to introduce me to the other employés who were now dropping
in to poke the fires in their tiled stoves and enjoy the last glimmer
of the glowing wood. My friend told me that the actuary was an
influential and good-natured individual, very susceptible to little

“I, who had come across him in his character as Registrar of the
Exchequer, had formed a different opinion of him, but believing that my
friend knew better, I went to see him.

“The redoubtable actuary sat in a capacious easy-chair with his feet on
a reindeer skin. He was engaged in seasoning a real meerschaum pipe,
sewn up in soft leather. So as not to appear idle, he was glancing at
yesterday’s _Post_, acquainting himself in this way with the wishes of
the Government.

“My entrance seemed to annoy him; he pushed his spectacles on to his
bald head; hiding his right eye behind the edge of the newspaper, he
shot a conical bullet at me with the left. I proffered my request. He
took the mouthpiece of his meerschaum into his right hand and examined
it to find out how far he had coloured it. The dreadful silence which
followed confirmed my apprehensions. He cleared his throat; there was a
loud, hissing noise in the heap of glowing coal. Then he remembered the
newspaper and continued his perusal of it. I judged it wise to repeat
my request in a different form. He lost his temper. ‘What the devil do
you want? What are you doing in my room? Can’t I have peace in my own
quarters? What? Get out, get out, get out! sir, I say! Can’t you see
that I’m busy. Go to the protonotary if you want anything! Don’t come
here bothering me!’

“I went to the protonotary.

“The Committee of Supplies was sitting; it had been sitting for three
weeks already. The protonotary was in the chair and three clerks were
keeping the minutes. The samples sent in by the purveyors lay scattered
about on the tables, round which all disengaged clerks, copyists and
notaries were assembled. In spite of much diversity of opinion, it had
been agreed to order twenty reams of Lessebo paper, and after
repeatedly testing their cutting capacity, the purchase of forty-eight
pairs of Grantorp scissors, which had been awarded a prize, had been
decided on. (The actuary held twenty-five shares in this concern.) The
test writing with the steel nibs had taken a whole week, and the
minutes concerning it had taken up two reams of paper. It was now the
turn of the penknives, and the committee was intent on testing them on
the leaves of the black table.

“‘I propose ordering Sheffield doubleblades No. 4, without a
corkscrew,’ said the protonotary, cutting a splinter off the table
large enough to light a fire with. ‘What does the first notary say?’

“The first notary, who had cut too deeply into the table, had come
across a nail and damaged an Eskilstuna No. 2, with three blades,
suggested buying the latter.

“After everybody had given his opinion and alleged reasons for holding
it, adding practical tests, the chairman suggested buying two gross of

“But the first notary protested, and delivered a long speech, which was
taken down on record, copied out twice, registered, sorted
(alphabetically and chronologically), bound and placed by the
messenger–under the librarian’s supervision–on a specially adapted
shelf. This protest displayed a warm, patriotic feeling; its principal
object was the demonstration of the necessity of encouraging home

“But this being equivalent to a charge brought against the
Government–seeing that it was brought against one of its employés–the
protonotary felt it his duty to meet it. He started with a historical
digression on the origin of the discount on manufactured goods–at the
word discount all the adjuncts pricked up their ears–touched on the
economic developments of the country during the last twenty years, and
went into such minute details that the clock on the Riddarholms church
struck two before he had arrived at his subject. At the fatal stroke of
the clock the whole assembly rushed from their places as if a fire had
broken out. When I asked a colleague what it all meant, the old notary,
who had heard my question, replied: ‘The primary duty of a Government
employé is punctuality, sir!’ At two minutes past two not a soul was
left in one of the rooms.

“‘We shall have a hot day to-morrow,’ whispered a colleague, as we went
downstairs. ‘What in the name of fortune is going to happen?’ I asked
uneasily. ‘Lead pencils,’ he replied. There were hot days in store for
us. Sealing-wax, envelopes, paper-knives, blotting-paper, string.
Still, it might all be allowed to pass, for every one was occupied. But
a day came when there was nothing to do. I took my courage in my hands
and asked for work. I was given seven reams of paper for making fair
copies at home, a feat by which ‘I should deserve well of my country.’
I did my work in a very short time, but instead of receiving
appreciation and encouragement, I was treated with suspicion;
industrious people were not in favour. Since then I’ve had no work.

“I’ll spare you the tedious recital of a year’s humiliations, the
countless taunts, the endless bitterness. Everything which appeared
small and ridiculous to me was treated with grave solemnity, and
everything which I considered great and praiseworthy was scoffed at.
The people were called ‘the mob,’ and their only use was to be shot at
by the army if occasion should arise. The new form of government was
openly reviled and the peasants were called traitors.[A]”

[A] Since the great reorganization of the public offices, this
description is no longer true to life.

“I had to listen to this sort of thing for seven months; they began to
suspect me because I didn’t join in their laughter, and challenged me.
Next time the ‘opposition dogs’ were attacked, I exploded and made a
speech, the result of which was that they knew where I stood, and that
I was henceforth impossible. And now I shall do what so many other
shipwrecks have done: I shall throw myself into the arms of

Struve, who seemed dissatisfied with the truncated ending, put the
pencil back, sipped his toddy and looked absent-minded. Nevertheless,
he thought he ought to say something.

“My dear fellow,” he remarked at last, “you haven’t yet learned the art
of living; you will find out how difficult it is to earn bread and
butter, and how it gradually becomes the main interest. One works to
eat and eats to be able to work. Believe me, who have wife and child,
that I know what I’m talking about. You must cut your coat according to
your cloth, you see–according to your cloth. And you’ve no idea what
the position of a writer is. He stands outside society.”

“His punishment for aspiring to stand above it. Moreover, I detest
society, for it is not founded on a voluntary basis. It’s a web of
lies–I renounce it with pleasure.”

“It’s beginning to grow chilly,” said Struve.

“Yes; shall we go?”

“Perhaps we’d better.”

The flame of conversation had flickered out.

Meanwhile the sun had set; the half moon had risen and hung over the
fields to the north of the town. Star after star struggled with the
daylight which still lingered in the sky; the gas-lamps were being
lighted in the town; the noise and uproar was beginning to die away.

Falk and Struve walked together in the direction of the north, talking
of commerce, navigation, the crafts, everything in fact which did not
interest them; finally, to each other’s relief, they parted.

Falk strolled down River Street towards the dockyard, his brain
pregnant with new thoughts. He felt like a bird which had flown against
a window-pane and now lay bruised on the ground at the very moment when
it had spread its wings to fly towards freedom. He sat down on a seat,
listening to the splashing of the waves; a light breeze had sprung up
and rustled through the flowering maple trees, and the faint light of
the half moon shone on the black water; twenty, thirty boats lay moored
on the quay; they tore at their chains for a moment, raised their
heads, one after the other, and dived down again, underneath the water;
wind and wave seemed to drive them onward; they made little runs
towards the bridge like a pack of hounds, but the chain held them in
leash and left them kicking and stamping, as if they were eager to
break loose.

He remained in his seat till midnight; the wind fell asleep, the waves
went to rest, the fettered boats ceased tugging at their chains; the
maples stopped rustling, and the dew was beginning to fall.

Then he rose and strolled home, dreaming, to his lonely attic in the
north-eastern part of the town.

That is what young Falk did; but old Struve, who on the same day had
become a member of the staff of the _Grey Bonnet_, because the _Red
Cap_ had sacked him, went home and wrote an article for the notorious
_People’s Flag_, on the Board of Payment of Employés’ Salaries, four
columns at five crowns a column.