Produced by Nicole Apostola, Charlie Kirschner and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
THE SOUL OF A CHILD
The oldest part of Stockholm is a little rocky island. Once it was the whole city. Popularly it is still spoken of as “The City.” At one end of it stands the huge square-cut pile of the Royal Palace, looking with solemn indifference toward the more modern quarters across the ever hurried waters of the North River. Nearer the centre, and at the very top of the island, lies an open place called Great Square, which used to play a most important part in Swedish history, but which now serves no better purpose than to house the open-air toy market that operates the last week before Christmas.
Long narrow streets loop concentrically about Great Square. They are lined with massive structures of stone and brick, four and five stories high, that used to be the homes of court and government officials, of army and navy officers, of burghers made prosperous by an extensive domestic and foreign trade, while on the ground floors were located the choicest shops of the country’s capital. The shops are still there, but they have grown dingy and cheap, and they administer only to the casual needs of the humble middle-class people crowded into the old-fashioned, gloomy apartments above.
From the square to the water-fronts radiate a number of still more narrow and squalid lanes, harbouring a population which is held inferior to that of the streets in social rank without yet being willing to have itself classed with the manual toilers of the suburbs. Halfway down the slope of such a lane, and almost within the shadow of the palace, stood the house where Keith first arrived at some sort of consciousness of himself and the surrounding world.
On the fourth floor his parents occupied a three-room flat. The parlour and the living-room had two windows each, looking into the lane. The kitchen in the rear opened a single window on the narrowest, barest, darkest courtyard you ever saw, its one redeeming feature being a glimpse of sky above the red-tiled roof of the building opposite.
In such surroundings Keith spent the better part of his first sixteen years.
He was an only son, much loved, and one of his first conscious realizations was a sharp sense of restraint, as if he had been tied to a string by which he was pulled back as soon as anything promised to become interesting.
At first he thought the world made up entirely of those three rooms, where he, his parents, Granny–his maternal grandmother–and a more or less transient servant girl had lived for ever. Visitors drifted in, of course, but he seemed to think that they had come from nowhere and would return to the same place. What instilled the first idea of a wider outside world in his mind was leaning out through one of the windows, with his mother’s arm clutched tightly about his waist.
There was something symbolic in that clutch, for his mother was always full of fear that dire things befall him. She was afraid of many other things besides, and the need of being constantly worried was probably his second clear realization.
But the clasp of his mother’s arm was soft and tender for all that. Her inclination to humour him in sundry respects not implying too much freedom of movement contrasted favourably with the sterner restraint exercised by his father. And so it was only natural that, to begin with, he should cling no less closely to her than she to him.
Leaning out of the front windows was one of the favorite pursuits of his earliest childhood, and during the summer it could be indulged to a reasonable extent.
Across the lane, not more than twenty-five feet distant, was another building, the upper parts of which he could see even when the windows were closed. It was much darker of aspect than their own house, and he knew that no people lived in it. He called it the distillery, just as he heard his parents do, without knowing what the word meant. Staring as he might into its dark windows, he could as a rule see nothing but the grimy panes, because in the back of it there was no courtyard at all–nothing but a solid wall without a single opening in it.
Now and then however, he would spy the flickering light of an open-wick lamp move about on the floor level with their own. In the fitful, smoke-enshrouded glow of that lamp he would catch fleeting glimpses of clumsy figures and spooklike faces bending over huge round objects, while at the same time, if the windows were open, he would hear much mysterious tapping and knocking. It was all very puzzling and not quite pleasant, so that on midwinter afternoons, when he was still awake after dark, he would not care to look very long at the house opposite, and the drawing of the shades came as an actual relief.
Letting his glance drop straight down from one of their windows, he saw, at a dizzying depth, the cobbles of the lane, lined on either side by a gutter made out of huge smooth stones. There was often water in the gutter even on dry days, when the intense blueness of the sky-strip overhead showed that the sun must be shining brightly. Sometimes the water was thick and beautifully coloured, and then he yearned to get down and put his hands into it. But to do so, he gathered from his mother, would not only be dangerous and contrary to her will and wish, but quite out of the question for some other reason that he could not grasp. His mother’s standing expression for it was:
“No _nice_ little boy would ever do that.”
Keith’s third realization in the way of self-consciousness was an uneasy doubt of his own inherent nicety, for he soon discovered that whatever was thus particularly forbidden seemed to himself particularly desirable.
At times he saw children playing down there–perhaps in the very gutter for which he was longing. To him they appeared entirely like himself, but to his mother’s eye they were evidently objectionable in the same way as the gutter. There were not many of them, however, and it was a long time before two or three of them began to return with sufficient regularity to assume a distinct identity in his mind.
Older people came and went, but never many of them, and hardly ever more than one or two at a time. Nor did he care very much. More attractive was the sight of long, horse-drawn carts with narrow bodies resting on two small wheels set about the centre. Generally they stopped in front of the distillery to load or unload heavy casks or barrels of varying size. The loading was more exciting by far, especially when the barrels were large, for then the men had to use all their strength to roll them up the gangway of two loose beams laid from the pavement to the cart, and to time their efforts they shouted or chanted noisily–much to Keith’s joy and the disgust of his mother. On such occasions the air of the lane was apt to take on a special pungency, and as he sniffed it, he would have a sensation of mixed pleasure and revulsion. At other times when the carts stopped in front of the warehouse below the distillery, odours of an exclusively enjoyable character would tickle his nostrils–odours that later he might encounter in their own kitchen and identify with matters pleasing to the palate as well as to the nose.
There were in all only eight houses on both sides of the lane. Four of these were the rear parts of the corner houses facing respectively on the Quay, at the foot of the lane and on East Long Street, at its head. Beyond the latter there was nothing but another wall full of windows, just like the walls flanking the lane itself. The traffic on the street was more lively and varied, but there was not much about it to catch and hold his interest.
Almost invariably Keith turned his head in the other direction the moment he had poked it out of the window and been pulled back by his mother to a position of greater safety. There, at the foot of the lane, only a stone’s throw distant, opened the stony expanse of the quay across which surged a veritable multitude of men and animals and vehicles at all hours of the day. At the end of the Quay, silhouetted against blue or grey or green water, appeared commonly the blunt nose or the flag-draped stern of a big steamer, but hardly ever the middle part of a hull with bridge or masts. And Keith could never recall whether the complete shape of a full-sized vessel was finally revealed to him by reality or by that reflection of it which, at an uncannily premature age, he began to find in books.
The main feature of the view, however–a sort of narrow Japanese panel where childish eyes perceived everything as on a flat surface–was that it continued upwards: first, a lot of water, ripped and curled by busily scurrying steam launches and tugs, streaked by plodding rowboats, and, at rare times, adorned by a white-sailed yacht; then, still higher up, a shore with many trees that drew the soul magnetically by their summer verdure; and, finally, a brightly red, toylike fort, crowned by a small embattled tower flying the blue and yellow Swedish flag at the top. Here was another world, indeed, larger and brighter by far, and more richly varied, than that of his home and the lane below and the dingy courtyard in the back.
So he began to ask questions, and one of the first things he learned, to his great astonishment, was that he had not always lived in the same place–that he had been born, whatever that meant, in another and unmistakably more desirable part of the city.
“But why did we come here,” he asked, trying instinctively to keep his voice from sounding regretful or petulant.
“Because the bank owns this house,” his mother replied. “And because papa acts as landlord for it, and we don’t have to pay any rent here.”
Out of this confusing answer he retained a single idea: the bank. It was in the home air, so to speak. Evidently his father was closely connected with it, and this was good for the whole family. For a little while the boy imagined that his father was the bank. Later he began to think of it as some sort of superlatively powerful being that, alone in the whole world, ranked above his father even. Still later–much later–he began to suspect a relationship between the bank and his father resembling that between his father and himself. And he read out of his father’s words and miens a sense of dissatisfaction not unlike the one he felt when he was forced to do what he did not want, or prevented from doing what he wanted.
This was his fourth fundamental realization: of powers beyond those directly represented within the home; powers of compelling importance that might, or might not, be kindly; powers before which all and everything within his own narrow world had to bow down in helpless submission. In the end this one undoubtedly became the most significant of all his early realizations. It tended gradually to lessen his awe of parental authority so that, at a very early age, he developed the courage to shape his own life and opinions regardless of his immediate surroundings. At the same time, strange as it may seem, it inspired him with a general respect for established authority from which he could never quite free himself.
“Why don’t I remember when we came here,” Keith asked his mother one day after she had let out the startling fact of his being born elsewhere.
“Because it happened before you began to remember things,” she said a little warily.
As frequently was the case, her reply puzzled him more than the fact it was meant to explain, and so he asked no more questions that time.
On the whole, he lived completely in the present, and rather on the edge nearest the future, so that a teacher later said of him that he was in constant danger of “falling off forward.” Highstrung and restless, sitting still did not come naturally until he had learned to read books all by himself, and he could hardly be called introspective. While prone to futile regrets, largely under the influence of his mother’s morbid attitude, he gave little attention as a rule to what was past and gone.
Here was an exception, however–something concerning the past that stirred his curiosity powerfully–and it became his first subject for brooding.
He could remember all sorts of things, of course. And it seemed that he had always remembered them. Yet his mother was able to tell him things of which he knew nothing at all, although they had happened to himself. There might be any number of such things. What were they? Could he recall any of them by thinking hard enough?
When this problem laid hold of his mind he would retire to the corner between the big bureau and the right-hand window in the living-room, which, by formal conferment, was reserved for him as his own “play-room.” The space in that nook was large enough to hold a small chair, a table to match, and a few toy boxes. There he would sit staring blindly at his toys until his mother anxiously inquired what was the matter with him.
The great question taking precedence of all the rest was: what was the very first thing he could remember?
With puckered brows and peering pupils he would send his gaze back into the misty past, and out of it emerged invariably the same image.
He saw himself seated on a small wooden horse fastened to a little platform with wheels under it. The horse was black with white spots, and possessed a nobly curved neck, a head with ears on top of it, and a pair of fiercely red nostrils.
The next thing recurring to his mind was a sense of swift, exhilarating movement. His father stood at one end of the living-room, his mother at the other, and the horse with himself on it was being pushed rapidly back and forth between them.
He could even hear his own joyous shouts as his father sent the horse careering across the floor by an extra strong push. The general impression left behind by the whole scene was one of happiness so acute that nothing else in his life compared with it.
Was it a real memory? If so, when did it happen? And what had become of the horse?
Finally the pressure from within became too strong and he blurted out the whole story to his mother in order to make sure of what it meant.
“You never had a horse large enough to sit on,” she declared emphatically.
“You have been dreaming, child,” Granny put in.
“What would the neighbours below have said,” his mother continued. “And the rag carpets on the floor would have caught the wheels, anyhow.”
Removing the rag carpets except for purposes of cleaning was one of the unforgivable sins, by the bye.
“And it isn’t like your father either,” Granny added after a while, not without a suggestion of bitterness in her voice.
“Carl is always tired when he comes home,” Keith’s mother rejoined in a tone that put an end to further discussion.
Granny’s point made an impression on Keith’s mind nevertheless. As far as he could actually remember, his father had on no occasion showed such a jolly spirit or done anything that could be used as basis for a belief in that one questionable recollection.
At all times of the day Keith was enjoined to keep quiet–because his mother was not well, or because of the neighbours, or just because “nice children should not make a noise”–but it was only after his father’s return home that these injunctions must be taken quite seriously. The father’s appearance brought an instantaneous change in the atmosphere of the place, the boy strove instinctly to be as little noticeable as possible. If his mercurial temperament lured him into temporary forgetfulness, a single stern word from the father sent him back into silence and the refuge of his own corner–or into bed.
But the more he considered and conceded the unlikeliness of the scene projected by some part of his mind with such persistency, the more passionately he craved it to be a real memory of something that had really happened to himself.
Perhaps it was merely a dream, as Granny had suggested. Perhaps it was something he had wished….
Anyhow, he did wish that his father would let him come a little closer to himself at times–not in the same way his mother did, but as he did in the dream–or whatever it was….
Once more he fell into a deep study of when he had begun to remember so hard that he could still remember it. Out of this he was awakened by his mother’s voice:
“What _is_ the matter, Keith?”
“I don’t know what to play,” he replied out of policy, as it might bring him something either in the way of a diversion or a treat. There were still some of mother’s delectable ginger snaps left over from the Christmas baking.
“Your soldiers are right in front of you,” his mother said in a voice holding out no hope.
So Keith returned to the tin soldiers that were his most cherished toys–perhaps because they drew fewer protests from above than anything else, as being least conductive to outbursts of youthful vivacity. Judging by the earnest attention with which he manoeuvred them on his own little table or, in moments of special dispensation, on the collapsible dining table placed against the wall between the two windows in the living-room, he ought to have ended as a general.
All through his life Keith retained a queer inclination to arrange furniture very precisely at right angles to the wall as close to it as possible. It was a direct outcome of his first and most deeply rooted impressions, received in that parental living-room, where every inch of space had been carefully calculated, and where the smallest nook was filled by a chair, or a footstool, or some other minor object. In later years he often wondered how a single room of modest proportions could hold so much of furniture and of life.
It was bedroom and study, dining-room and nursery, workroom and parlour. There the morning toilet was made, and there his first lessons were learned. There the father did his reading, of which he was very fond, and there the mother sewed, darned, embroidered, wrote letters, gave household orders, told fairy tales, and received visitors. There the simple daily meals were served for all but Granny, who clung obstinately to the kitchen, and there friends were feasted and cards played at nameday and birthday parties. And there three people slept every night.
Of course, excursions could be made, particularly to the kitchen where Granny was always restlessly waiting for “one more kiss,” and once in a great while to the “best room” which mostly was occupied by some stranger whose small weekly rent paid the servant’s wages. But to the living-room one always returned in the end, and during his first years this narrow confinement did not strike Keith as a hardship.
The room seemed quite large to him at that time, with distances and vistas and diversions sufficient for his childish fancy. It was a pleasant room, with brightly striped rag carpets on the floor and two pretty large windows framed by snow-white lace curtains. Crammed as it was with objects needed for its many different uses, it was always kept in a state of the most scrupulous order and instant disaster followed any attempt as a disarrangement.
It was a whole world by itself, full of interesting things for a small boy to puzzle over. It was also a world in evolution. Every so often a piece of furniture would disappear and a better one take its place, to be studied and admired and tried out again and again. Back of every improvement lay a unifying ambition. Its key-word was mahogany. The superior social respectability of this wood could not be disputed, and it had a sort of natural dignity that harmonized with the father’s solid taste–though the mother might have preferred something lighter and brighter. And a microcosm of mahogany might, after all, be worth living for when loftier illusions had gone on the scrap heap.
Practically everything in the room had a history as well as a special place. There was the main chest of drawers, for instance, known as “mamma’s bureau” and placed near one of the windows, where a good light fell on the swinging mirror forming a separate piece on top of it. A journeyman carpenter had made that chest to prove himself a master of his trade under the old gild rules. Then he put it up at lottery to raise money with which to open a shop of his own. Keith’s father bought a lot while still engaged, and won the prize which became the chief wedding present of his bride–to be cherished above all other objects to her dying day.
It was really a fine piece of work, of mahogany, with daintily carved and twisted columns along the front corners, and so highly polished that Keith could see his own face in the rich brown glimmer of its surfaces. It had four drawers. The three lower ones were divided between the parents and held all sorts of things, from shirts and socks to mother’s mahogany yard stick, which had a turned handle and a tapering blade that made it pass excellent muster as a sword. The top drawer could only be pulled out halfway, but then the front of it came down and it changed into a writing desk, with an intriguing array of small drawers and pigeonholes at the back of it, and a suspicion of alluring and unattainable treasures in every separate receptacle. To ransack all of these was Keith’s most audacious dream, but when the dream came true at last, it was fraught with no ecstasy of realization, for he was a middle-aged man, and in the room behind him his mother lay dead….
The mirror was flanked by two small square mahogany boxes, one holding medicines and the other tobacco. Little mats, some crocheted and some wonderfully composed of differently coloured glass beads, were used to protect the boxes as well as the top of the bureau from being scratched, and on them stood several small groups and figures of porcelain. One of these was Keith’s special favourite and his first introduction to that world where beauty takes precedence of goodness and truth. It showed a lady and a gentleman in dresses of a colour and cut wholly unlike anything seen by Keith on the real persons coming within his ken. They were seated on a richly ornamented sofa before a tea table, and there was something about the manner in which they looked at each other that spoke more loudly than their bright costumes of things lying beyond ordinary existence.
There was also a nice little girl with a doll viewing herself complacently in a real mirror, and a lady in bloomers, apparently of Oriental pattern, who rowed a boat hardly larger than herself, that was raised almost on end by terrific waves. All three groups had this in common, that when you removed the ornamental upper part, a previously unsuspected inkstand was revealed. There was a period when Keith seriously believed that all specimens of the keramic art were inkstands in disguise.
Art not represented on the bureau alone, however. The walls contained a number of steel engravings in gilt frames, quaint old coloured prints, family photographs, and pink-coloured reliefs of various Swedish kings made out of wax and mounted under convex glass panes on highly polished black boards. But all of those objects were flat and distant and colourless in comparison with the things on the bureau that could be touched as well as seen. As for the group with the lady and the gentlemen, it had only one rival in the boy’s mind, and that was the big clock in a wooden case that hung on the wall between the windows over the dining table. The hide-and-seek of the restless pendulum with its shining brass disc was a constant source of fascination in itself, and so were the strange operations performed by the father in front of the clock every Sunday morning, when diversions were particularly welcome on account of the extra restrictions on play. But its main charm rested in the strangely pleasing sounds it produced every so often, preceded by a funny rattle that warned small folk and big of what was going to happen. It was Keith’s first acquaintance with music.
The parents’ bed occupied the centre of the right-hand wall, between mamma’s bureau and another chest of drawers known as “Granny’s bureau.” It was all wood and made in two parts that slid into each other, reducing the daytime width of the bed by one-half. It stood parallel to the wall, instead of at right angles, and the extension took place sideways. At night it looked like an ordinary double bed. In the day it almost disappeared beneath a rectangular pile of bed-clothing, covered by a snow-white spread that was pulled and smoothed and tucked until it hung straight as a wall.
Granny’s bureau, old-fashioned and clumsy, but made of some native wood that glimmered like gold, was largely devoted to linen ware for bed and table. At the top it had two small drawers instead of a long, and one of these constituted the first storage place set aside for Keith’s special use. His impression was that it had always been his, and once he asked his mother if it really had been his before he was born.
“Of course it was,” she said with a sly smile, “but we took the liberty to use it for other purposes until you arrived”
At first glance this seemed quite reasonable to Keith, though nothing to smile at so far as he could see. Later he became conscious of a vague sense of annoyance. It would have been more pleasant if no one else had ever used that drawer.
Across the room from Granny’s bureau, in the corner just inside the door to the kitchen, towered the characteristic Swedish oven–a round column of white glazed bricks, with highly polished brass shutters in front of the small cubical fire-place, where nothing but birchwood was burned. In the narrow crack between the oven and the wall rested always a birch rod, which was often referred to at critical moments. A new rod, with brightly coloured feathers attached to the tip of every twig, appeared regularly on Shrove Tuesday and tended slightly to spoil that otherwise glorious day, when large cross buns stuffed with a mixture of crushed almond and sugar were served in hot milk for dinner. Though the rod was little more than a symbol of family discipline, Keith always disliked its presence as a threat to his dignity if not to his hide.
A double washstand, looking like a document chest in the daytime, the chaiselongue on which Keith slept at night, and the door to the best room occupied all the rest of that wall except a corner by the window, where stood his mother’s high-backed easy chair, with the little work-table beside it and a hassock in front of it. To that chair she would retire whenever her household duties permitted, and thither Keith would be drawn even more powerfully than to his own “play-room” at the opposite corner–especially when his mother seemed in a happy mood. There he would kneel on the hassock, with his head in her lap, and if he could think of nothing else, he would say:
“Tell me about the time you were in London.”
While still in her early twenties, Keith’s mother had spent two years with an English family living in Sweden. She always described her position as that of “lady companion” to the mistress of the house. As a little boy, Keith did not know enough to ask any embarrassing questions. Having learned more of life, he began to suspect that his mother’s place might have been little better than that of a servant, and the thought of it made his soul shrink and wither.
When the family moved back to England, Keith’s mother went along and spent a whole year in London. It was her great adventure, the phase of her past of which she spoke most eagerly and lovingly. She had formed a passionate liking for the English language, of which she had picked up a good deal, as well as for English character and English manners. She never tired of telling about the great city of London, and Keith never tired of listening.
“I was so homesick when I first got there,” she would say, “that I cried day and night. Then, one night, I heard a cat mewing on the roof outside my window. It was the first Swedish sound I had heard since I came to England, and after that I felt much better.”
“Why didn’t you stay,” asked Keith.
“Because then there would have been no little Keith,” she explained, her face lighting up with the kind of grown-up smile that always provoked and perplexed the boy.
“Are there no boys in England,” he persisted.
“Yes, plenty of them, and fine ones at that. But I wanted no one but you, and you were here, and so I had to come back to get you.”
“Here,” he repeated. “Where here?”
“In Sweden, of course,” his mother rejoined, and then she started hurriedly to describe the wonders of London shopping.
“But why did you go at all,” he interrupted after listening a while to what seemed less interesting to him than certain other points. “I might have been lost while you were away.”
“You might,” she assented, “but I had to take the risk because I had to get a name for you and I could never have found the one you have in Sweden.”
“Because it is English. And it should be pronounced _Keeth_ instead of _Kite_ as they say here. I found it in a book over there, and I fell in love with it the moment I saw it, and I made up my mind that if I ever had a boy, that would be his name.”
“_If_ you had a boy,” Keith took her up. “But you knew I was here?”
“Of course, I knew,” said his mother in the tone that always warned him that a change of occupation would be in order. “Run along and play in your own corner now. I must get some work done.”
At other times, when the talk didn’t drift off into dangerous by-paths, his mother would tell little anecdotes in English learned from her former mistress, and generally end up by singing a little song about a ball–probably one that had something to do with cricket. And Keith would exultantly repeat the last line, which was the only one he could remember:
“And then she _popped_, and then she died.”
It was the word _popped_ that caught his fancy, partly because it was so funny in itself, and partly because it had to be uttered with a sort of explosion on a very high note. As far as his rendering of the rest was concerned–well, it was early discovered and reluctantly admitted that, like his father, he could not even sing “Old Man Noah,” which is the simplest melody imaginable to a musical mind in Sweden.
His failure in this respect gave his mother a slight pang every time it was brought home to her, although she made fun of it and pretended she didn’t care. Music had been her young heart’s dream. It was the only art for which she showed a genuine regard. And two of her pet grievances were that she didn’t have a piano, and that, if she had one, she could not play on it.
But his father used to say that the only instrument he cared to hear was a drum.
His mother’s chief grievance was her health. She was rarely quite well, and they had a family physician who would appear from time to time without being sent for. Yet her illness seemed, as a rule, not to prevent her from being about and attending to her household duties.
Once, however, while Keith was still too small to receive clear impressions, she had to keep in bed for a long time and during much of that time she seemed to have forgotten him entirely. The father was more taciturn and reserved than usual, and even the boy could see that he was worried. Friends and relatives came and went with a quite uncommon frequency, and all of them spoke to Keith in a strange manner that, although not unpleasant, had a tendency to make him choke. A hundred times a day he was told that he must keep quiet for his mother’s sake, and that it was no time for boisterous playing–if he really must play at all. Most of the time he was in the kitchen, and on a few occasions he was even permitted to stay all by himself in the parlour, where there were all sorts of big books with any number of pictures on the fine oval table standing in front of an old sofa so huge that to crawl up on its seat was almost like going off into another room.
Finally he was taken to the home of Aunt Brita, his father’s married sister, in another part of the town and kept there, a bewildered prisoner in a strange land, until one day his aunt told him that his mother was well and wanted him to come home, but that he would have to be a more than usually good boy for a long time yet, unless he wanted to lose his mother forever.
When, at last, he was home again, his mother pulled him up to herself in the bed, embraced him passionately and sobbed as if it had been a farewell instead of a greeting. He wept, too, and clung to his mother as if in fright, while she told him that he must always do just what she told him and, above all, not scare her by going off so that she did not know where he was.
The father stood beside the bed watching them. And as Keith happened to look up once, he saw that his father’s eyes were moist with tears. The boy could hardly believe it, and a little later he wondered whether he had been mistaken, for his father spoke just then in his sternest tone, and all he said was:
“Yes, I hope you will behave a little better after this than you have done before.”
Many more weeks went before his mother was herself again. Even then a difference remained. She was more given to worry than before and clung to husband and child with a concern that frequently became oppressive.
Then, one fine day, she was all gay and smiling again, and bustled about the home with new eagerness, and told Keith a lot of things about England, and once actually danced across the floor while he was vainly trying to keep step with her. And the father tried hard to look his grouchiest when he returned home that night, but failed. And Keith was allowed to stay up quite late, and when he was in bed at last, and almost asleep, he thought he saw his father in the big easy chair by the window, with the mother seated on his lap kissing him. And just as he was dropping off, he heard, as if in a dream, his father’s voice saying:
“Look out! I think the Crown Prince is still awake!”
Some persons said that Keith looked like his father, others that he was the very image of his mother.
“He has my light hair and Carl’s brown eyes,” said his mother often when that topic was under discussion, and saying it seemed to make her happy.
“As a baby he was so pretty that people would stop us on the street to ask whose child he was,” Granny might put in, if she happened to be within hearing. Then she would add with a glance at Keith: “But that is all gone now.”
Keith himself never gave much thought to his looks, but any comparison with his mother struck him as quite foolish.
He liked to look at her, especially at her hair, which was very plentiful and in colour like beaten copper with glints of gold in it. Her skin was very fair and soft as the softest velvet. Her eyes were blue, and in bright moments they had the softness of the sky of a Swedish summer night. But when the clouds of depression closed in upon her, they grew pale and light less and disturbingly furtive, so that Keith’s glance found it hard to meet them.
Her gaiety sparkled when she was herself, and she had a passionate love of everything that was bright and pleasant. Once she had always been that way and at times she would tell Keith what a wonderful time she had as a girl, and how she used to be the centre and inspiration of every social gathering in which she took part. She had a quick mind, too, and a heart full of impulsive generosity. But from one extreme she would go to another, so that, when the dark moments came, she would even regret kindnesses conferred while the sun was still shining. In such moments she would sometimes speak to the boy of her ailment as if he were in some mysterious way responsible for it.
Yet she loved the boy to distraction and became filled with unreasoning anxiety the moment he was out of sight. Her attitude toward her husband was the same. He could never leave the home or return to it without being kissed. The moment he was outside the kitchen door, she hastened to the window and leaned out of it so that she might watch him until he vanished about the corner at the head of the lane. And there she generally lay waiting for him when he came home. If he was late, which happened almost every day, she would be the victim of a thousand fears as she made more and more frequent trips between the kitchen and the living-room window. When he finally came, she acted as if she had not seen him for months while he pretended to be more or less bored by her attentions.
But there were moments, too, when her tenderness flared into startling outbursts of bleak, cutting anger, giving way in the end to floods of hysterical tears. A couple of such tempests formed part of Keith’s earliest reliable memories.
As a rule Keith slept far too soundly to be aroused by anything. One night, however, there was so much loud talking in the room that he woke up completely. For a while he lay quite still, but with wide-open eyes and ears.
The big lamp had been placed on the washstand back of the chaiselongue on which he was lying, evidently in order to prevent its light from falling on his face.
His mother was seated, fully dressed, on the edge of the bed across the room. Her face was white as snow. Her eyes blazed with a sort of cold fire. Her whole body seemed to tremble with a feeling so tense that he could not find words for it.
The father was leaning far backwards on an ordinary chair, with his outstretched right arm resting on the dining table. His face was flushed and the thick fringe of black hair about the bald top of his head was slightly disordered. He tried to smile, but the smile turned into a grin. When he spoke, his voice was a little thick.
“I can’t keep entirely away from my comrades.” he said. “They think already that I am too stuck up to associate with them. I haven’t been out for two weeks. I haven’t had a drop more tonight than I can stand. And it isn’t twelve o’clock yet.”
All of a sudden Keith saw the cold, angry light go out of his mother’s eyes. Her face twisted convulsively. She sank into a heap on the bed, sobbing as if her heart would break then and there.
“Carl,” she screamed between two sobs. “You’ll kill me if you talk like that to me!”
“Like that,” he repeated in a stunned toneless voice. Then his face flushed almost purple. A hard look came into his eyes, and he rose so abruptly that the chair upset behind him. At the same time he brought down his fist with such violence that the table nearly toppled over.
“I’ll be damned if I stand this kind of thing one moment longer,” he shouted hoarsely.
But even as he spoke, his eyes fell on the boy. As if by magic, his self-control returned.
“The boy is awake,” he said in his usual tone of stern reserve.
There was a moment’s silence. A few more sobs came from the mother. Then she sat up, wiped her eyes, and spoke in a tone that was almost calm:
“Go to sleep again, Keith. Your father and I were merely talking about some things that you don’t understand yet.”
When she saw that the boy was crying, she came over to him, kneeled down beside him and put her arms about him. Soon her kisses and her soothing words had their wonted effect, and he dropped off once more into the deep, deathlike slumber of childhood.
The air remained tense in the household for several days, but nothing further happened until one night when the father arrived a little later than usual from his work, looking just as he did the night of the quarrel. Again his speech was a little thick, and the mother’s face assumed an ominous look. She said nothing about what was nearest her heart, however, she started instead to complain of some petty disobedience on the part of Keith.
“If you spanked him a little more and humoured him la little less, he would obey more readily,” said the father.
His words carried no particular menace, and there seemed no reason why the boy should be scared. But perhaps there was something else in the atmosphere that affected his sensitive nerves and sent him unexpectedly into a paroxysm of weeping.
“Stop it,” cried his father dark with sudden anger. “Stop it, I tell you.”
“You leave the boy alone,” cried the mother, her face as white as the father’s was red.
“We’ll see whether he’ll obey or not!”
As he spoke, the father sat down on the nearest chair, picked up the boy and put him face down across his knees.
Keith’s heart seemed to stop. He even ceased weeping. Then he heard his mother cry out:
“If you touch the boy, I’ll throw myself out of the window!”
“Oh, hell!” came back from the father. With that he half dropped and half flung the boy to the floor, so that the latter rolled across the room and landed under the chaiselongue.
There Keith lay, still as a mouse, until he was pulled out by his mother. He didn’t begin to cry again, and he was no longer scared or upset. A few moments later he was undressing and going to bed as if nothing had happened.
Another week had hardly passed, when Keith was waked up again at night, but this time by a noise as if the house was falling. As he sat up in bed, staring wildly about him, his nostrils became filled with a smell that was quite new to him. It was like smoke, but more pungent.
The living-room was dark, but the door to the parlour stood open, and light came through it. Not a sound could be heard for a few moments.
Then his mother came running into the room and flung herself on her knees beside the chaiselongue.
“Oh, my boy, my boy, my boy!” she cried over and over again as she pressed Keith to her breast, rocking him back and forth.
A few seconds later the father also came in carrying the lamp in one hand. Having put it on the dining table, he dropped down on a chair as if too exhausted to stand up.
His face showed a pallor quite strange to it and for the first and only time in his life Keith thought that his father looked scared.
“Don’t, Anna,” the father said after a while, sitting up straight on the chair. “It’s all right now–“
Then a thought or a memory seemed to recur to him, and he said in a voice that nearly broke:
“God, but it was a close call for both of us! And if it had happened to you, I would have followed you on the spot!”
“Carl, Carl!” cried the mother, letting Keith go and throwing her arms about her husband instead. “What would have become of Keith?”
It was the first time the boy was taken into his parents’ confidence to some extent. He was still too young to grasp all the implications, but the main facts were plain enough even to him.
The parlour was rented as usual, but the man occupying it was not at home. The parents had gone in there together on some errand. Seeing a small pistol hanging on the wall above the big sofa, the father took it down and began to play with it, never for a moment suspecting it of being loaded.
First he pointed it at himself, then at Keith’s mother. Each time he was about to pull the trigger, and each time something seemed to hold him back. Finally he turned the weapon toward the wall and pressed down with his finger. As he did so, the shot rang out that waked the boy.
The next day Keith was permitted to examine the mark made by the bullet in the wall. It was all very exciting. But the final result of that incident was as unforeseen as the shot itself.
The whole affair evidently made a deep impression on Keith’s father. He ceased almost completely to go out by himself at night. In fact he became so averse to leaving his home that it was hard to get him out when the mother wanted him to go. And never again did Keith hear his parents quarrel openly.
But now and then when his father came home from work, Keith would notice that same slight thickness of speech which had forced itself on his attention on two extraordinary occasions.
He was a man himself before he realized what that thickness signified in his father’s life.
“Oh, mamma, you mustn’t!” cried Keith’s mother one day when she came out into the kitchen and found the boy munching a slice of white bread with butter on it.
“He likes it so much,” replied Granny easily.
“But you know what Carl has said,” the mother rejoined rather impatiently. “He’ll find out sooner or later if you disregard it, and then he’ll be furious.”
“So he will anyhow,” muttered Granny.
“Mamma!” protested the mother. “It’s for the boy’s own good. He should only eat hard bread except on Sundays and when we have company. It is much better for his teeth. And it makes him stronger too. You want to be big and strong, don’t you Keith?”
“It’s a wonder his father lets him have anything at all to eat,” Granny put in before Keith had a chance to answer.
“You must not talk like that, mamma,” said the mother sharply. “Least of all when the boy hears it.” Then she turned to Keith again: “Don’t you believe what Granny says. Your father is merely thinking of what is good for you. He loves you just as much as I do–or your grandmother. But he thinks we are spoiling you. And he wants you to grow up and be a real man. That’s why he hates to see you cry.”
There was a pause while Keith pondered the matter–not seriously concerned on the whole, as long as the tidbit was not taken away from him.
“Don’t you love your father,” his mother asked suddenly.
“Ye-es,” Keith answered mechanically.
Then he began to ponder again. His feelings toward his father were far too complicated for utterance. They seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with love, if that was what he felt for his mother. There was undoubtedly a great deal of fear in his attitude toward the father, and also resentment that at times would flare into something bordering on hatred. But this attitude was combined with a lot of respect, not to say admiration. At times it would also be tinged with a longing that he could not explain or express. And if ever the father gave him the slightest evidence of friendliness, he would be thrown into a rapture of happiness that nothing done by his mother could equal.
He adored his mother, and clung to her, and relied on her and wheedled her, but it was an open question whether, at heart, he felt any particular respect for her–although he was quite proud of certain things about her. And as for Granny, whom, in a way, he loved more than anybody else, because she petted him and indulged his slightest whims, there could simply be no talk about respecting her. Even Keith realized that she was not in the respected class.
His father was, on the other hand. There could be no doubt about that. If he had only been willing to unbend a little now and then….
The kitchen had other attractions than Granny, though she ranked foremost.
As Keith came out from the living-room, he had on his right the huge, old-fashioned fire-place–a regular fortress of brick, with a modern cook stove of iron set into one corner of it. It was entirely covered by a smoke-hood of painted metal sheeting, with a flange on its outside edge along which were placed a number of lids.
On his left was a set of shelves filled from top to bottom with pots and pans and kettles of every possible size and shape, including a cauldron so huge and heavy that it took two people to get it out with ease from its place on the bottom shelf. An overwhelming majority of these utensils were of copper and so highly polished that they shone like suns setting through a fog bank. Some of them made good toys, but “things for use and not for play” was an old maxim often quoted by both parents and grudgingly repeated by Granny herself.
A big sofa, in which the grandmother slept at night stood along the centre of the wall on the left. The corner beyond held a wall-fast cupboard so large that it looked like a closet built into the room. It serves both as pantry and buffet, and was full of things tempting to a young palate.
In the opposite corner, beyond the window and right by the outside door, stood an open water barrel holding about twenty gallons. There was no running water above the ground floor. Every drop had to be carried three flights of stairs from the courtyard. What was needed for drinking and cooking was kept in a copper can, two feet high, with a lid on top and a spout in front that made it look like a badly overgrown tea kettle. Water for all other uses had to come out of the barrel. To keep both vessels filled was a heavy task, and waste of water was regarded as little short of a crime. The sacredness of the barrel and its contents was a mystery to Keith until he grew old enough to do some of the carrying. Then he began to understand.
Most of the water went to the stove, where operations of one kind or another were carried on from morning till night, tempting the boy with their mysteries or their promises. In the uppermost corner of the hood was a square opening covered by an iron lid. When the lid was down and you crawled right up into the fire-place, you could see the sky through the chimney.
One day, when Keith had sneaked into the kitchen uninvited, he noticed something unusual going on in the fire-place. All the paraphernalia had been cleared away. The lid was open, and from the chimney issued strange noises. Then soot began to fall in masses, and finally appeared a pair of human feet, quite bare and all black.
It was very funny and very disconcerting. Keith watched with bulging eyes and trembling heart, until at last a whole big man came out of the chimney. As he crouched for a moment on the fire-place before getting down on the floor, he turned on Keith a pair of eyes that seemed to be all white and big as moons.
At that moment fear got the better of curiosity, and Keith made haste to bury his face in Granny’s lap.
“Yes, Keith had better look out,” grinned the servant girl, “for the chimney sweep takes all bad little boys.”
“I’ll take you, if you talk like that,” the black figure in the fire-place shot back at her.
The tone of his voice made Keith steal another glance at him. The white eyes shone right at him in a rather friendly fashion, and further down a huge red slit in the black face framed two rows of teeth no less white than the eyes. Keith guessed that the dark visitor from the chimney was smiling at him in a fashion that seemed to bode no harm.
In another minute the man was gone, and Keith hurried back to the living-room to ask a question of his mother:
“Could he really take me?”
“Not unless we gave him leave,” she replied. “But sometimes, when little boys are very, _very_ bad, their parents turn them over to the sweep as apprentices, because they are not good for anything else.”
Keith thought long and hard.
“I ain’t bad,” he declared at last.
“Not exactly,” his mother remarked diplomatically “But you could be a great deal better. What were you doing in the kitchen just now? I have told you not to run out there all the time. Lena does not like you to get in her way, you know.”
“But Granny is there,” Keith protested.
“Yes, of course, and you must be nice to her, but….”
As his mother did not go on, Keith asked: “Why does Granny always stay in the kitchen?”
“Because she wants to,” his mother answered.
“But why does she want to?”
“It is her way–a sort of pride she has. And I have long ago given up trying to persuade her.”
Her tone indicated clearly that further discussion of the subject was not desirable.
Keith was playing in his own corner that very evening, trying to keep as quiet as possible while his father had an unusually late dinner. His mother had gone out into the kitchen a few moments earlier. Thence she returned suddenly with a half empty bottle in her hand and a look of extreme annoyance on her face.
“Carl,” she said, “look what I just found in a corner of the cupboard.”
“Humph,” the father grunted with a sideglance at the bottle. “Ours is locked up, is it not?”
“Yes, but that is neither here nor there. She would rather die, she says, than touch a drop of ours.”
“Where does she get it?”
“I can’t make it out. Somebody must bring it in, of course. I fear it is Mrs. Karlgren, and I am simply going to tell her to keep away hereafter. The idea of her coming here practically begging, and then doing such a thing, after all I have done for her!”
“But you are not sure,” the father objected earnestly, and Keith paid special notice to his objection because he had already learned, or divined, that his father could not bear the sight of the poor woman in question.
“No, it is impossible to be sure,” the mother admitted. Then she added after a pause: “What puzzles me more than anything else is where she gets the money.”
Though no name was mentioned, Keith knew perfectly well that they were speaking of Granny. And he recalled having laughed at her in the kitchen earlier in the evening before the father came home. Her eyes had a funny look and seemed a little inflamed. Her still thick braids were loosened and about to come entirely undone. She was talking more than usual and in a tone that suggested defiance.
As he recalled all this, Keith forgot to listen to his parents, who went on discussing so intently that he was able to leave his corner and reach the door to the kitchen unnoticed. An irresistible desire to see Granny at once had seized him. Back of it lay a vaguely sensed mixture of curiosity and sympathy.
Granny was in her favourite place beside the kitchen sofa, seated on a footstool almost as large as an ordinary chair, but somewhat lower. That stool was the one bone of contention between her and Keith, because he was carrying it off as often as he could get at it. Turned upside down, with Keith seated snugly between its four legs, it became a sleigh drawn across icy plains by a team of swift reindeer, or a ship rocking mightily on the high seas.
The kitchen was full of a peculiar sweetish smell, by which Keith knew without looking that Granny was dressing the old wound on her left leg that had developed “the rose” and would not heal. She was leaning far over, busy with a bandage which she wound tightly about her leg, from the ankle to the knee. The boy sniffed the familiar smell with a vague sense of discomfort, which, however, did not prevent him from going up to the grandmother and putting one arm about her neck.
“Old hurt is hard to mend,” she muttered quoting one of the old saws always on her lips. Then without raising her head, she added in the peevish, truculent tone of a thwarted child: “You had better go back in there before they come and get you. I am nothing but a servant, and as such I know my place and keep it. I am less than a servant, for they wouldn’t dare do to Lena what they do to me.”
“Oh, yes, they would,” Lena put in from across the room. “And they would have a right, too.”
As if she had not heard at all, Granny sat up straight and looked hard at the boy.
“Whatever you do, Keith,” she said, and he noticed that her voice sounded a little strange, “see that you make a lot of money when you grow up. To be poor is to have no rights, and the worst thing of all is to be dependent on others, no matter how near they are to you.”
“I think Mrs. Carlsson is very ungrateful,” said Lena. “There are thousands of old people who would give anything to have a nice home and nothing to worry over.”
“Anybody can talk, but it takes a head to keep silent,” said Granny impersonally, quoting another old saw. Then her manner changed abruptly and she turned to Keith effusively.
“Give me a kiss! You love your old Granny, don’t you? You don’t despise her, do you, because she has nothing and is nothing? And can be sure she loves you more than anybody else.”
The boy’s feelings were so mixed that he really could not feel anything at all. His arm was still about the grandmother’s neck, mechanically he gave her the kiss she asked for, but it was with real relief he saw his mother open the door to the living-room and responded to her demand that he go to bed at once.
Hardly any memory left behind by Keith’s childhood was more acute than the image of Granny seated in the centre of the kitchen, her stolid, yet pleasant old face bent over some household task, and her whole figure instinct with a passive protest against her enforced dependency or, maybe against life’s arbitrariness in general. One moment she seemed to be brooding deeply, and the next she looked as if there was not a thought in her head. For one reason or another, her anomalous position and peculiar attitude occupied Keith’s mind a great deal, and many of the questions with which he plied his mother were concerned with Granny. They were fairly discreet as a rule, but on the morning after the scene just described, some impulse of which he had no clear understanding made him perplex his mother with the abrupt question:
“Why does Granny drink?”
They were alone in the living-room at the time, she seated in her big easy chair by the window and he, as usual, kneeling on the hassock at her feet.
She looked up at him with as much surprise as if he had hit her viciously. A deeper red flowed into her cheeks that kept their soft pinkness even when she was thought at death’s door and lost it only under the pressure of extreme anger.
At the same time a look came into her eyes that gave Keith a momentary scare. It was only a flash, however, and changed quickly into something like the helplessness that used to characterize her glance in moments of heavy depression. Her voice trembled a little as she spoke:
“Because Granny’s life has been very hard, and not very happy.”
“Tell me about it,” urged the boy.
There was a long pause during which he watched his mother’s face closely. Gradually its expression changed into one of resignation, and then into determination, as if she had made up her mind to be done once for all with a task that could not be avoided indefinitely. It was a long story she told, at first hesitatingly, then with an eagerness that betrayed an awakening purpose. Everything she said stuck deeply in the boy’s mind, and whenever he thought of Granny’s life afterwards, he had the impression of having learned all about it at that one time, although the likelihood is that many details were picked up by degrees and dovetailed into the memory of that first narrative as integral parts of it.
“Your grandmother was not born to be a servant,” his mother began. “She was a rich man’s daughter, and there was not a thing her father didn’t want to do for her. Yet he left her in the hands of strangers who cheated her of her rights and treated her as if she had been a beggar….”
“Why did they do it,” the boy asked, quite unable to grasp the idea of such a thing.
“Because they could make a little more money that way, and because they cared for nothing but money. Promise me, Keith, that whatever happens to you, and whatever the temptation be, you will never put money above everything else.”
Keith shook his head earnestly, meaning it to be sign of assent. He was a highly impressible child, and when his mother spoke to him like that, he used literally to choke with a feeling that he could never, never do anything but what she asked, but when another rush of feeling swept over him, the old promises were also likely to be swept out of his mind.
“Those people did the worst thing any one can do to anybody else. They twisted Granny’s life so that it could never be set right again. And so she became what you see her now….”
“You mean she just couldn’t help herself,” Keith put in.
“Yes, that’s what I mean,” she agreed. Then she stopped as if struck by another thought, and said very slowly:
“Although, if she had been really strong….”
Once more she stopped and returned abruptly to her story:
“Your great-grandfather made and sold hats, and he earned a lot of money, and they made him a City Councillor….”
“Where,” Keith broke in again.
“In Skara,” his mother explained, “which is a city that lies a long way from here, and when you begin to learn geography, you will know where it is…. Everybody liked your great-grandfather….”
“What was his name,” Keith couldn’t help asking.
“Lack,” she said, “and now you mustn’t interrupt me any more if you want me to go on.”
“Please,” Keith pleaded. “I won’t!”
“The reason they liked him,” she resumed, “was that he was so good-hearted that he couldn’t say no to anybody or anything. He didn’t seem to care for money at all, and he used to say: ‘What’s money between friends?’ Everybody wanted to be friends with him in those days, and everybody borrowed from him, until he didn’t have enough left for his business, and then they laughed at him. He tried in his turn to borrow, but no one could spare a penny, and when things went entirely wrong with him, one of those who had got most from him made a funny saying about him: ‘Now Lack lacks everything because everybody has what Lack lacks.’ So, you see, you mustn’t think too little of money either, but learn to be careful and keep what you have.”
Keith nodded dutifully, but where the right road lay, he could not see.
“The worst thing was,” the mother went on, “that your great-grandmother died when Granny was only nine. There were brothers and sisters, too, and she was the youngest. And it was then that her father got the idea to send her to some farmer people he knew, quite some distance from where he lived. He did it partly for the sake of Granny’s health, and partly because he was too worried about other things to look after her properly himself. And he paid a lot of money for her board, and sent her fine clothes, and arranged that she was to be taught by the pastor of the parish, and he sent friends to ask about her, but he never came himself. The people who were to take care of Granny kept the money and the clothes, and put her to work as if she had been a servant, and didn’t let her get the least bit of schooling. And when her father’s friends came and asked about her, they told all sorts of tales about how well she was doing, but she was so shy, they said, that she always ran away when any visitor came to the place.”
“Did she,” asked Keith.
“Yes, she really did,” the mother admitted. “She was ashamed of the way she looked and was dressed, and yet she was quite pretty, and she had the most wonderful hair that reached to her feet when she let it down.”
“But, why didn’t she tell somebody?” Keith insisted, his blood running hot with wrath at the injustice to which Granny had been submitted.
“Oh, because …” said his mother wearily, “because your grandmother has always been peculiar in that way when she knew she was being wronged. ‘What is the use?’ she says. And then word came that her father had gone bankrupt and had died soon after. No one seemed to pay the least attention to her. She stayed where she was, and she couldn’t work any harder than she had done all the time. But when she was to be confirmed, and had to go to church every week with all the other children of her own age, she was the poorest of them all, both in fact and in appearance, she didn’t have one person in the world to whom she could turn. She has told me that she used to lie awake nights crying and thinking of running away, but she couldn’t make up her mind to that either.”
She stopped, and Keith waited in vain for the rest of the story.
“And then,” he urged.
“Oh, then she came to Stockholm and married your grandfather–my papa, you know. And now Lena is waiting for me to tell her what we are to have for dinner.”
Keith went back to his own corner for a while. Then he made a dash for the kitchen, where he found Granny seated in her usual place peeling potatoes. Having placed a smaller foot-stool beside the large one in which she was seated, he got up on it so that he could put both arms about her neck. Pressing his own soft cheek against hers, he asked brokenly:
“Are you very unhappy, Granny?”
“No,” she answered placidly, “not when you are willing to give me a kiss.”
“All right,” he said without enthusiasm as he complied with her request. At the same time he recalled suddenly that he had not played a single game with his tin soldiers that whole morning.
The boy had a logical mind. He knew that Granny’s story had not been finished, and he wanted all of it. At the first opportune moment he asked his mother:
“Was Granny a little girl when she came to Stockholm?”
“No,” said his mother unsuspectingly, “she was already a young woman.”
“What did she do before?”
“I told you,” the mother replied, now on her guard.
“You told me what she did as a little girl, but not afterwards. I want to know.”
“Oh, she worked, I suppose.”
There was evidently nothing more to be had in that direction.
“And what did she do in Stockholm,” Keith pushed on.
“She married your grandfather, as I told you, and then I was born.”
“What was he?”
The mother remained silent for a good long while, and Keith repeated his question, not yet having learned that unanswered questions generally are unwelcome questions.
“He was a _vaktmaestare_,” she said finally, and Keith knew that, for some reason, she found the word unpleasant.
The boy reflected a while before he observed:
“That’s what papa is.”
“Your father’s position is quite different,” his mother rejoined sharply. “It’s a shame that he and his comrades in the bank have no other title–although some of them deserve nothing better.”
“What should they be called?”
“I don’t know exactly–collectors, I think, because they go around and collect the money that is due to the bank.”
“And what are real _vaktmaestare_ doing?”
“The real ones work in government departments–not as officials, but just as attendants–it’s something you can’t understand yet.”
Keith nodded. He didn’t understand, but the words stuck and the understanding came later.
“And those that are not real,” he persisted.
His mother laughed and patted him on the head.
“There is a lot of them,” she said. “They look after coats and hats in theatres and restaurants, and wait at dinners, and do all sorts of things.”
“Was that what grandfather was doing?”
A queer look came into his mother’s eyes and sent a glow of self-satisfaction through his whole being. The look was familiar to him and meant that his mother was annoyed by the question but pleased with his cleverness in thinking of it.
“No,” she answered, “not exactly….”
“What did he do,” asked Keith, and as he spoke he sent a look of anticipation toward his own corner.
“He was an attendant in the big club where all the rich business-men go to spend their evenings, and he died when I was a little girl … have you nothing else to ask about?”
“What was papa’s father,” Keith ventured after a pause.
“He worked in the royal palace.” Again the mother’s tone served as a warning, but also as a goad to the boy’s curiosity.
“What did he do there,” he demanded eagerly.
The lines about his mother’s mouth grew tighter and harder, and she spoke as if the words hurt her–but she did not refuse to answer, and she did not send him away:
“He was a lackey.”
From the moment he began to speak, Keith had showed an unusual sense for the value and peculiarities of words. They interested him for their own sake, one might say. He treasured them, and he gave more thought to them than to people. The word lackey he had heard before, and he had formed a distinct opinion about it as not desirable.
“Then he was a servant,” he blurted out.
“In a way,” his mother admitted. “And we are all servants, for that matter. But working in the king’s palace is not like–working as Lena does here, for instance.”
The last part of her remark went by unheeded by Keith. His thoughts leapt instead to his paternal grandmother–a strict and unapproachable little lady who visited them at rare intervals dressed in a quaint old shawl and a lace-trimmed cap. A great wonder, not unmixed with pleasure, rose in his mind at the thought that her husband had been a sort of servant after all. For some reason utterly beyond him, there was solace as well as humiliation in the consciousness of a stigma, if such it be, that attached equally to both his grandfathers, and not only to his mother’s parent. Then a new idea prompted a new question.
“Was Granny a servant when she came to Stockholm?”
“She was obliged to take service in order to live,” his mother replied very gently. “There is nothing about that to be ashamed of…. I have known fine ladies who started in the kitchen. But, of course, one doesn’t like to talk of it to everybody.”
Keith recognized the hint in her final words, but thought it needless. He was already on his way back to his own corner, tired for the time of asking questions, when he suddenly turned and said:
“We are just as good as anybody else, are we not?”
It was a phrase he had overheard sometime. Now it seemed to fit the occasion, and it sounded good to him.
“There is the royal family,” his mother rejoined enigmatically. “But one of Granny’s cousins was a lieutenant-colonel in the army.”
“Where is he now,” Keith demanded, agog with interest.
“He is dead, and–and we have never had anything to do with his family.”
The inquisitiveness of Keith with regard to his ancestors and the past life of his parents continued for quite a while. Other family connections seemed unreal and did not interest him. Having no sister or brother of his own, relationships of that kind were meaningless to him. Parents, on the other hand, constituted a tangible personal experience, and the presence of Granny taught that this experience was common to grown-up people as well as children.
The curiosity he evinced was queerly impersonal, however, and might well be called intellectual. The information he received had no power over his own life. He could have been told anything, and he would have accepted it calmly as something not affecting himself. The only thing that influenced him was the manner of the person answering his questions. To that manner he was almost morbidly sensitive, and from it he concluded whether the various details related should please or disturb him.
Instinctively he pressed his inquiries at points eliciting marked resistance. And it was not what he actually learned, but the evasions encountered, that produced the sensitiveness about his own backgrounds which later often influenced his attitude harmfully at moments when he most needed complete self-assurance. It was the reluctance with which certain parts of the family history were told, and the total withholding of others, that taught him to be ashamed of things for which he could not be held personally responsible. The effect of this lesson on his character was the more fatal because it remained unconscious so long. Having become doubtful as to the worth of the roots of the tree, it was only natural that he should also feel doubts about the fruit.
Concerning the real character of his forbears he learned next to nothing. All that he heard related to external circumstances that were, or were not, judged respectable and presentable. One fact in particular was subject to the most rigid exclusion from all family conversations, and yet it leaked down to Keith at a time when he was utterly incapable of appreciating its significance. It piqued him mightily without disturbing him.
One day they were visited by his father’s married sister, who was lacking in sentimentality and had a disturbing way of calling a spade a spade. The inevitable testing of the boy’s cleverness by making him tell his own name led to a discussion of family names in general, Keith’s mother expressing a great admiration for that of Wellander.
“Oh, yes, it’s good enough,” remarked her sister-in-law, “but it is not the right one, you know, and the old one was much finer.”
“I know,” said the mother, “but I don’t know what the name used to be.”
“Cederskjoeld, and I think it was recognized as noble. I never knew the inside of it, but it looks peculiar. Carl’s and my father and his brother and two sisters took common action to get the family name changed to Wellander. I am sure my grandfather must have been up to some rather striking deviltry, and for all I know he might have been hanged.”
“Hush,” cried Keith’s mother with a quick glance at the boy who was taking in everything with wide-open eyes and ears.
Keith did not wait for anything more, but sneaked off by himself to think. The change of the name seemed nothing at the time, but the suggestion that his great-grandfather had been hanged was startling enough to give food for many meditations. Fortunately, or unfortunately, his aunt’s manner had been too nonchalant to give him any clues. And from the manner of his mother he gathered merely that the asking of questions would be useless. So it came about that Keith for the first time in his life regretted the premature death of his paternal grandfather, from whom, otherwise, he might have elicited some more satisfactory information.
Both grandfathers were dead long before Keith was born. He never saw a portrait of either of them, or had an idea of how they looked. He could not even recall having heard their Christian names. The personality of his paternal grandfather always remained a total blank to him. Of the other one he knew a little more. The fashionable club where his mother’s father served was notorious for its conviviality and reckless gambling, and the men were like the masters to some extent. This one of his grandfathers used to love wine, women, cards and everything else that helped to modify life’s general drabness. He must have been something of a wit, too, in his own circles, having any number of boon companions. Keith never heard what kind of a man he was at home. He made good money while he lived and spent it as carelessly as he earned it. At forty-two he died, leaving a penniless widow to look after a daughter still in her early teens. Keith’s paternal grandfather died in the same way, but his widow, who was a hard-headed little woman of old peasant stock–the best in Sweden–did better with four children than the other grandmother with one.
There were gaps in the stories of his mother and Granny concerning which he never got a direct reply from them, but by degrees he picked up many missing details from other sources. What he learned in this way indicated merely that they had been very poor at times, and poverty had forced them to earn a living by work that was quite honest and decent, but not “socially respectable.” At one time, before her daughter was old enough to assume a share of the burden, Granny had actually had to fall back on the coarsest and humblest menial work–scrubbing and washing by the day in strange houses. Yet she and her daughter appeared throughout that ordeal to have remained on terms of pleasant intimacy with friends of the class to which they regarded themselves as properly belonging.
Another problem never solved for Keith was what kind of schooling his mother had had. Her own failure to tell suggested that it must have been of the slightest. Yet Keith never thought of her as ignorant. She had a bright, eager mind that, when not clouded, acted as a goad on his own. It was she who taught him to read and filled him with an awe for books and book-learning that was, perhaps, not entirely wholesome. She herself read eagerly, though fitfully, her interest in all such matters varying greatly with her mood and condition. Her day-dreaming was to a large extent directed toward matters literary and artistic. Sometimes, when she had read some novel with a markedly sentimental appeal, she talked vaguely of old ambitions to write, but as a rule it was her ignorance of music that she deplored. In the meantime her lace-making and her embroidery proved an artistic sense not wholly confined to dreams. She was always busy with some work of that kind, but her longings went far beyond it, and it happened more than once that she let her work drop in her lap while she looked at Keith with an expression he could not understand.
“If only I had had your chance in life,” she exclaimed on one occasion of that kind.
“What do you mean,” asked the boy, snuggling close to her.
“I mean that you will study and be able to do things,” she answered, bending down to kiss him.
At that very moment the father entered and heard what she said.
“Nonsense,” he broke in. “The boy is going to learn a trade, and I think we’ll ask Uncle Granstedt to make a carpenter of him.”
To Keith it was all meaningless, and his mother said nothing at the time, but a slight stiffening of her face warned him that his father’s remark pointed in a direction not held desirable by her. And from that sign the boy took his cue.
The outside door stood open and no one was in the kitchen but Granny. The temptation to explore was irresistible.
“When the cat’s away, the rats dance on the tray,” the old grandmother muttered as if to herself.
“I’ll just have a peep,” Keith explained, turning to her for a moment. Then he made for the open door again.
The landing with its bare stone floor was familiar to him and quite barren of interest. What drew him magnetically was the tall archway leading to the mysterious upper regions known as the garret, where strange old women lived in hermit cells, and whence disturbing noises issued day and night. Even as he looked up there, he could hear a spookish grating that seemed to symbolize the spirit of the place. He shuddered a little, but not unpleasantly, for he knew what caused it.
In the brick wall ending the upward vista, he could see a square open hole with an iron shutter held open at right angles by an iron rod. As the wind shook the shutter, the rod scraped against the socket that held its hooked end. That was all–but on dark winter afternoons the effect was most disturbing.
“I’m not afraid,” Keith announced, sensing his own bravery rather keenly.
“Why should you be,” asked Granny.
Then he noticed the tall iron door fastened to one side of the arch in front of it. Now it was doubled up length-wise and folded back so as to leave the passage free.
“What’s that for,” he asked, pointing to the door.
“In case of fire,” said Granny. “If it should begin to burn up there, they would close that door to keep the flames from the rest of the house.”
“Would it burn much,” Keith wondered.
“Your father has five cords of good birch wood stored in the top attic, so I think the whole city would see the blaze.”
“And the people up there?”
“They would have to come before we closed the doors, but God have mercy on us if it ever gets that far. Remember, boy, there is nothing worse than fire so you must always be careful never play with matches.”
“I know,” said Keith, nodding sagely.
But he really did not know what fire meant until a few nights later. The whole family was sound asleep, Keith on the chaiselongue, his father and mother in the big bed on the other side of the room. While still half asleep he could hear his mother crying his father’s name in a strangely agitated voice.
Then he woke fully and looked up. Every object in the room was clearly visible, but the light coming through the windows was not daylight. It was reddish and glaring, and the very reflection of it within the room filled the boy with vague uneasiness.
The father jumped out of bed and ran to the window.
“It is fire,” he said. “Something terrible. My Lord, half the town must be burning. The whole sky is a mass of flames. And it’s in the direction of the bank.”
Suddenly he turned back and began to dress in wordless haste.
“Must we get out,” asked the mother.
“No, it is not very close yet, but you had better get up and dress–and get everybody dressed.”
By that time he was putting on his overcoat.
“Where are you going, Carl,” demanded the mother, evidently more scared by his going out than by the fire.
“To the bank,” answered the father, grimly.
“You mustn’t, Carl! I won’t let you go out! Think if anything should happen to you!”
“Nonsense,” he said. “I am in no danger–but I must see what’s happening to the bank, and help if things have to be taken out.”
“Carl, Carl….” was all the mother could get over her lips.
“Don’t worry, Ann,” he pleaded, bending over her for a minute, and his voice took on a tenderness Keith seemed never to have heard before. “I shall be careful, but I must go. If the fire should come this way, I’ll be back in time to help you all out.”
She tried to cling to him, but he freed himself with gentle firmness. In a minute more he was gone, and in the next second Keith’s mother was at the window looking out, though she had only her night-linen on and it was late autumn. Unobserved and unrebuked, Keith joined her, and when he looked up at the sky, his heart almost stopped beating.
A ghastly stillness reigned outside–except when it was merely accentuated by the occasional sound of hurried steps along the street at the top of the lane. Finally some one was heard passing through the lane itself.
“Please,” Keith’s mother cried at the top of her voice. “What is it?”
“It’s the German Church,” a voice responded from below. “The whole spire is flaming like a torch.”
“Are we in danger down here?”
“Hard to tell. It depends on which way the spire falls. If it falls outward, I fear the whole city will go.”
Then he walked off.
By that time the servant girl had come in weeping as if she had just heard her death-doom announced, and from the Granny was calling to them:
“You’ll freeze to death, all of you, if you don’t put on some clothes.”
So they dressed, though difficulty, and then there was nothing to do but to wait. The mother was at the window all the time, every few minutes she said to the boy:
“Oh, I hope nothing happens to your father!”
At first it scared him more than did the light. But after a while it began to have an opposite effect. He seemed to grow stiff and hard. The excitement of the fire was still there, but it was overlaid and almost neutralized by a vast impatience that seemed to take possession of his whole being. He felt that if his mother made the same remark once more, he should yell with rage and agony, and to save himself, he joined Granny in the kitchen, where the girl had started a fire in order to make some coffee.
The sky in that quarter was just as bright as in front, and no light was needed in the room.
Suddenly he heard his mother cry out:
At the same time the brightness seemed to increase to something more than daylight.
A quick change took place in the boy’s heart. He ran into the living-room and put his arm about his mother who was still lying in the window.
“Don’t worry, mamma,” he whispered to her. “I’ll take care of you.”
There was something in his voice that brought the mother to herself. She closed the window and took him in her arms and kissed him as she had never kissed him before, he thought.
“It was the spire that fell just now,” she said, “and if there is any danger, your father will be here in a minute.”
Almost as she spoke, the glare outside began to die down, though the sky remained red and threatening until daybreak.
Then they had coffee, Keith being allowed an extra dose in his milk. And soon afterwards the father returned to tell the story of the fire and inform them that all danger was over as far as they were concerned.
For days afterwards the experiences of that night occupied Keith’s mind. The joy of excitement was probably uppermost in spite of all other considerations, Beneath it was a vivid conception of the horrors of fire that remained a live thing in his mind until he was well on in years, sometimes waking him out of his sleep at night and setting his heart palpitating wildly at the mere idea of danger. Lastly, however, there was left from that momentous night a new attitude toward the mother that implied a direct criticism–the first one that had ever broken into clear consciousness. It did not make him love her less, but it changed the character of his love in some subtle way. The father, on the other hand, had gained by that night. There was something heroic about the quiet way in which he walked off to take care of the bank, pushing all other considerations aside until that duty had been filled.
Gradually Keith learned to know the old house from top to bottom. The garret and the cellar remained of excitement for a long time. The rest of it offered little to hold the attention or feed the imagination.
It covered three sides of a rectangle, with the courtyard in the centre. The wall of the adjoining house; formed the fourth side–a sheer cliff of plastered brick that towered two whole stories higher, its dreary expanse unbroken by a single window. Along the foot of it ran a long low structure with innumerable doors opening on the courtyard. Thither men, women and children had to descend regardless of weather or hour or season, and every visitor could be watched from the windows opening on the yard.
The rear part of the house constituted practically a building by itself, with a stairway of its own, and the people living there seemed to form a world apart, with which Keith never became very well acquainted. But on the ground-floor of that part was the laundry, used in turn by every household in the entire house and regarded by the boy as a far-off, adventurous place until he had been allowed to visit it a couple of times.
The building facing the lane and that running along the courtyard had a stairway in common at the corner where they joined. Its stairs and landings were of stone, uncarpeted, and lighted in the day by a window on each floor and at night by a single gas jet on each landing. At the foot of the lowermost flight of stairs was a long and dark passage that turned at a right angle and finally reached the lane after what seemed a long walk. Branching to the right, at the foot of the stairs, was another passage from which the cellar was reached after you had used all your strength to push open a huge iron door that squeaked uncannily on its stiff hinges.
The flats on the second and third floors ran straight through from the lane to the rear building, but on the fourth floor, where Keith lived, another family occupied the rooms looking upon the courtyard. And there lived Jonas, the only other child in the house during Keith’s earliest years.
Jonas’ father was a compositor–a tall, lank, hollow-eyed man with a bad cough. His mother was a woman of the people, angular and taciturn. Jonas himself was pale and gawky and shy.
Those two families, living within a few feet of each other and meeting daily on the common landing, had little more intercourse than if they had been parted by miles of desert. The reserved and slightly eccentric character of the neighbours had something to do with this separation, but social distinctions counted for more. A compositor was, after all, a mere workman, and Keith felt instinctively that his mother looked with kindly contempt at the more primitive ways of the adjoining household. Now and then he was permitted to go and play for a little while with Jonas, who was a year older, but the other boy hardly ever entered Keith’s home. Nor was their playing much of a success. Jonas was slow-witted and reserved, while alertness and frankness were among Keith’s most characteristic traits. But differences of temperament accounted only in part for their failure to come together. Keith felt as if a wall of some kind stood between them, and as if the eyes watching from the other side of that wall were distinctly hostile at times. It exasperated him as if it had implied terrible injustice, but it was only in moments of extreme boredom he really cared. At such moments he would also develop a passionate desire for a brother or sister. He might have wished for a dog or a cat even, but the idea of such a disturbing element in his parental home seemed too preposterous for serious contemplation. In fact, so foreign was that idea to the home atmosphere, that Keith went through the rest of his life envying other people’s pets without ever giving earnest thought to the acquisition of one for himself.
Just as the parental attitude toward the nearest neighbours suggested a kindly but unsentimental tolerance of inferiors, so it became unmistakably tinged with a slightly jealous but unprotesting submission to superiors whenever the lower floors were reached. A bachelor official of some kind lived on the floor immediately below, with no one but his housekeeper to share his spacious apartment. As deputy landlord, Keith’s father had to see this tenant like all the rest, but of social intercourse there was none, while on the other hand, Keith’s mother kept up a gossiping acquaintance with the housekeeper. As far as Keith himself was concerned, there was nothing more awe-inspiring than a chance meeting on the stairs with the monocle, side-whiskers, precise manners and doled-out civility of Mr. Bureau-Chief Brostroem. The distance was so immense that even aspirations were precluded on the part of the boy. He could imagine being king, but not a duly appointed government official with a salary enabling him to occupy half a dozen rooms practically by himself.
Of course, there were rumours afloat about a more intimate relationship between the bureau chief and his fairly good-looking housekeeper, who nominally had for her own that part of the flat which faced the courtyard, and these rumours did not escape the boy’s keen ears. While their true inwardness was incomprehensible to him, they made him look wonderingly at the housekeeper whenever he met her, and when he accepted her gingersnaps and other tempting delicacies, he did so with a sense of wickedness that limited his gratefulness.
A retired dry goods dealer and his good-hearted old wife lived on the second floor. The Fernbloms were the aristocracy of the house in the lane, having the best rooms, paying the highest rent and giving the biggest parties, but even Keith guessed quite early that they were simple souls, risen by thrift from very humble origins. They had a single daughter, a girl of delicate health and looks with whom Keith probably would have fallen in love hopelessly if she had stayed in the house. But she married early, moved to some other city and was rarely seen in her old home. Reports of her progress were received, of course, and passed on in the hearing of Keith, but like so many other things not touching his own life closely, it carried no real meaning to his mind. The parties continued, and Keith’s parents were often invited, partly because the old couple was too simple-minded to think of social distinctions, and partly because they both came from the same district as Keith’s Granny. Keith would be allowed to come along at times, and he liked the idea of going and the good food, but otherwise he found it dull business watching a lot of grown-up people seated solemnly about square tables playing cards. Then, one day, the old lady died, and Keith attended a part of the funeral, and from the window he saw the coffin taken away in a hearse buried in flowers. It made him ask many questions of his mother, but none of her answers brought death any closer to his mind. After all, the old lady had been nothing to him, and if the parties should cease as he heard was likely, the loss did not seem great to him. The only thing that made a real difference to him was his discovery that there would be no more of those ball-shaped gingersnaps that the old lady used to bake herself and keep in an earthen jar almost as tall as Keith.
The front part of the ground floor was used as an office of some kind in those early days, but the middle part facing the long row of outhouses was a human habitation. The rooms were so dark that a lamp had to be used most of the day, and the principal entrance was direct from the courtyard. An old workman and his wife lived there until the office in front was changed into a coffee-house and those rooms toward the courtyard became the kitchen. When it happened, some one told Keith’s mother a story which she in her turn conveyed to the boy.
History repeated itself, she said, and Keith already knew that history was something that had happened before he was born. One hundred years ago, when Gustavus III was king of Sweden and things were more exciting than in these later days of outward and inward peace, there used also to be a coffee-house on the ground floor, and a widely known one at that. It occupied the floor above too, but this floor was in reality used as a club, and the club was political and the men who frequented it were conspiring against the government. This the police knew, and every so often a lot of armed and uniformed men would surround the house and make prisoners of those caught in the clubrooms on the second floor. But as a rule no one was found there but a couple of sleepy and grouchy attendants who cursed their luck at having to spend their lives in such a dull place.
“But,” Keith interrupted when the story got that far “you just told me that the rooms had a lot of conspirators in them.”
“So they had.”
“And yet they were empty when the police came there? Do you really mean that the people could make themselves invisible?”
“That’s where the real story comes in,” his mother explained. “You know there is a long passageway between the front rooms of the Fernbloms and their kitchen in the rear. It runs back of the stairs. The next time you go through it, stamp your foot very hard, and you will hear that it sounds hollow in one place. At that spot there used to be a trap door in the floor. Now it is nailed down hard, but in the old days it could be opened any time, and then you found a stairway below. It led into our part of the cellar, where you still can find a couple of stone steps at one end. Then the conspirators went down into the main cellar, and at the back of it there was a tunnel leading under the rear part of the house and the lane beyond to a house on the other side. That’s the way they escaped, and that’s why the police never found anybody in the club.”
“What did the conspirators want,” asked Keith after he had pondered the matter for a while.
“I don’t know exactly,” his mother admitted, “but the king was killed by one of them at last.”
“I wish I had been there to defend the king,” said Keith. Then a new thought seized him suddenly: “I want to go down and see those steps.”
“All right,” his mother answered to his astonishment and joy. “Lena will soon go down to get potatoes for dinner, and then you can go along, if you only promise to come right up again.”
Shortly afterwards the momentous expedition actually took place. Keith had been as far as the outer cellar door before, but he had never cared to go further. When you opened that door, you were met by an air so cold and damp that it struck your face like a wet sheet, and the stairs fell away into a black abyss that seemed bottomless.
The door was of iron, rounded at the top to fit the arch, and covered with rust. It looked as if it had been in its place since the house was built, and Keith had heard that the house could not be less than two hundred years old. The key, which Keith had been permitted to carry