Tales of Two Countries/Romance and Reality

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"Just you get married as soon as you can," said Mrs. Olsen.

"Yes, I can't understand why it shouldn't be this very autumn," exclaimed the elder Miss Ludvigsen, who was an enthusiast for ideal love.

"Oh, yes!" cried Miss Louisa, who was certain to be one of the bridesmaids.

"But Sören says he can't afford it," answered the bride elect, somewhat timidly.

"Can't afford it!" repeated Miss Ludvigsen. "To think of a young girl using such an expression! If you're going to let your new-born love be overgrown with prosaic calculations, what will be left of the ideal halo which love alone can cast over life? That a man should be alive to these considerations I can more or less understand—it's in a way his duty; but for a sensitive, womanly heart, in the heyday of sentiment!—No, no, Marie; for heaven's sake, don't let these sordid money-questions darken your happiness."

"Oh, no!" cried Miss Louisa.

"And, besides," Mrs. Olsen chimed in, "your fiancée is by no means so badly off. My husband and I began life on much less—I know you'll say that times were different then. Good heavens, we all know that! What I can't understand is that you don't get tired of telling us so. Don't you think that we old people, who have gone through the transition period, have the best means of comparing the requirements of to-day with those of our youth? You can surely understand that with my experience of house-keeping, I'm not likely to disregard the altered conditions of life; and yet I assure you that the salary your intended receives from my husband, with what he can easily earn by extra work, is quite sufficient to set up house upon."

Mrs. Olsen had become quite eager in her argument, though no one thought of contradicting her. She had so often, in conversations of this sort, been irritated to hear people, and especially young married women, enlarging on the ridiculous cheapness of everything thirty years ago. She felt as though they wanted to make light of the exemplary fashion in which she had conducted her household.

This conversation made a deep impression on the fiancée, for she had great confidence in Mrs. Olsen's shrewdness and experience. Since Marie had become engaged to the Sheriff's clerk, the Sheriff's wife had taken a keen interest in her. She was an energetic woman, and, as her own children were already grown up and married, she found a welcome outlet for her activity in busying herself with the concerns of the young couple.

Marie's mother, on the other hand, was a very retiring woman. Her husband, a subordinate government official, had died so early that her pension was extremely scanty. She came of a good family, and had learned nothing in her girlhood except to play the piano. This accomplishment she had long ceased to practice, and in the course of time had become exceedingly religious.—

—"Look here, now, my dear fellow, aren't you thinking of getting married?" asked the Sheriff, in his genial way.

"Oh, yes," answered Sören, with some hesitation, "when I can afford it."

"Afford it!" the Sheriff repeated; "Why, you're by no means so badly off. I know you have something laid by—"

"A trifle," Sören put in

"Well, so be it; but it shows, at any rate, that you have an idea of economy, and that's as good as money in your pocket. You came out high in your examination; and with your family influence and other advantages at headquarters, you needn't wait long before applying for some minor appointment; and once in the way of promotion, you know, you go ahead in spite of yourself."

Sören bit his pen and looked interested.

"Let us assume," continued his principal, "that, thanks to your economy, you can set up house without getting into any debt worth speaking of. Then you'll have your salary clear, and whatever you can earn in addition by extra work. It would be strange, indeed, if a man of your ability could not find employment for his leisure time in a rising commercial centre like ours."

Sören reflected all forenoon on what the Sheriff had said. He saw, more and more clearly, that he had over-estimated the financial obstacles to his marriage; and, after all, it was true that he had a good deal of time on his hands out of office hours.

He was engaged to dine with his principal; and his intended, too, was to be there. On the whole, the young people perhaps met quite as often at the Sheriff's as at Marie's home. For the peculiar knack which Mrs. Möller, Marie's mother, had acquired, of giving every conversation a religious turn, was not particularly attractive to them.

There was much talk at table of a lovely little house which Mrs. Olsen had discovered; "A perfect nest for a newly-married couple," as she expressed herself. Sören inquired, in passing, as to the financial conditions, and thought them reasonable enough, if the place answered to his hostess's description.

—Mrs. Olsen's anxiety to see this marriage hurried on was due in the first place, as above hinted, to her desire for mere occupation, and, in the second place to a vague longing for some event, of whatever nature, to happen—a psychological phenomenon by no means rare in energetic natures, living narrow and monotonous lives.

The Sheriff worked in the same direction, partly in obedience to his wife's orders, and partly because he thought that Sören's marriage to Marie, who owed so much to his family, would form another tie to bind him to the office—for the Sheriff was pleased with his clerk.

After dinner the young couple strolled about the garden. They conversed in an odd, short-winded fashion, until at last Sören, in a tone which was meant to be careless, threw out the suggestion: "What should you say to getting married this autumn?"

Marie forgot to express surprise. The same thought had been running in her own head; so she answered, looking to the ground: "Well, if you think you can afford it, I can have no objection."

"Suppose we reckon the thing out," said Sören, and drew her towards the summer-house.

Half an hour afterwards they came out, arm-in-arm, into the sunshine. They, too, seemed to radiate light—the glow of a spirited resolution, formed after ripe thought and serious counting of the cost.

Some people might, perhaps, allege that it would be rash to assume the absolute correctness of a calculation merely from the fact that two lovers have arrived at exactly the same total; especially when the problem happens to bear upon the choice between renunciation and the supremest bliss.

In the course of the calculation Sören had not been without misgivings. He remembered how, in his student days, he had spoken largely of our duty towards posterity; how he had philosophically demonstrated the egoistic element in love, and propounded the ludicrous question whether people had a right, in pure heedlessness as it were, to bring children into the world.

But time and practical life had, fortunately, cured him of all taste for these idle and dangerous mental gymnastics. And, besides, he was far too proper and well-bred to shock his innocent lady-love by taking into account so indelicate a possibility as that of their having a large family. Is it not one of the charms of young love that it should leave such matters as these to heaven and the stork?[1]

There was great jubilation at the Sheriff's, and not there alone. Almost the whole town was thrown into a sort of fever by the intelligence that the Sheriff's clerk was to be married in the autumn. Those who were sure of an invitation to the wedding were already looking forward to it; those who could not hope to be invited fretted and said spiteful things; while those whose case was doubtful were half crazy with suspense. And all emotions have their value in a stagnant little town.

—Mrs. Olsen was a woman of courage; yet her heart beat as she set forth to call upon Mrs. Möller. It is no light matter to ask a mother to let her daughter be married from your house. But she might have spared herself all anxiety.

For Mrs. Möller shrank from every sort of exertion almost as much as she shrank from sin in all its forms. Therefore she was much relieved by Mrs. Olsen's proposition, introduced with a delicacy which did not always characterize that lady's proceedings. However, it was not Mrs. Möller's way to make any show of pleasure or satisfaction. Since everything, in one way or another, was a "cross" to be borne, she did not fail, even in this case, to make it appear that her long-suffering was proof against every trial.

Mrs. Olsen returned home beaming. She would have been baulked of half her pleasure in this marriage if she had not been allowed to give the wedding party; for wedding parties were Mrs. Olsen's speciality. On such occasions she put her economy aside, and the satisfaction she felt in finding an opening for all her energies made her positively amiable. After all, the Sheriff's post was a good one, and the Olsens had always had a little property besides, which, however, they never talked about.

—So the wedding came off, and a splendid wedding it was. Miss Ludvigsen had written an unrhymed song about true love, which was sung at the feast, and Louisa eclipsed all the other bridesmaids.

The newly-married couple took up their quarters in the nest discovered by Mrs. Olsen, and plunged into that half-conscious existence of festal felicity which the English call the "honeymoon," because it is too sweet; the Germans, "Flitterwochen," because its glory departs so quickly; and we "the wheat-bread days," because we know that there is coarser fare to follow.

But in Sören's cottage the wheat-bread days lasted long; and when heaven sent them a little angel with golden locks, their happiness was as great as we can by any means expect in this weary world.

As for the incomings—well, they were fairly adequate, though Sören had, unfortunately, not succeeded in making a start without getting into debt; but that would, no doubt, come right in time.—

Yes, in time! The years passed, and with each of them heaven sent Sören a little golden-locked angel. After six years of marriage they had exactly five children. The quiet little town was unchanged. Sören was still the Sheriff's clerk, and the Sheriff's household was as of old; but Sören himself was scarcely to be recognized.

They tell of sorrows and heavy blows of fate which can turn a man's hair grey in a night. Such afflictions had not fallen to Sören's lot. The sorrows that had sprinkled his hair with grey, rounded his shoulders, and made him old before his time, were of a lingering and vulgar type. They were bread-sorrows.

Bread-sorrows are to other sorrows as toothache to other disorders. A simple pain can be conquered in open fight; a nervous fever, or any other "regular" illness, goes through a normal development and comes to a crisis. But while toothache has the long-drawn sameness of the tape-worm, bread-sorrows envelop their victim like a grimy cloud: he puts them on every morning with his threadbare clothes, and he seldom sleeps so deeply as to forget them.

It was in the long fight against encroaching poverty that Sören had worn himself out; and yet he was great at economy.

But there are two sorts of economy: the active and the passive. Passive economy thinks day and night of the way to save a half-penny; active economy broods no less intently on the way to earn a dollar. The first sort of economy, the passive, prevails among us; the active in the great nations—chiefly in America.

Sören's strength lay in the passive direction. He devoted all his spare time and some of his office hours to thinking out schemes for saving and retrenchment. But whether it was that the luck was against him, or, more probably, that his income was really too small to support a wife and five children—in any case, his financial position went from bad to worse.

Every place in life seems filled to the uttermost, and yet there are people who make their way everywhere. Sören did not belong to this class. He sought in vain for the extra work on which he and Marie had reckoned as a vague but ample source of income. Nor had his good connections availed him aught. There are always plenty of people ready to help young men of promise who can help themselves; but the needy father of a family is never welcome.

Sören had been a man of many friends. It could not be said that they had drawn back from him, but he seemed somehow to have disappeared from their view. When they happened to meet, there was a certain embarrassment on both sides. Sören no longer cared for the things that interested them, and they were bored when he held forth upon the severity of his daily grind and the expensiveness of living.

And if, now and then, one of his old friends invited him to a bachelor party, he did as people are apt to do whose every-day fare is extremely frugal: he ate and drank too much. The lively but well-bred and circumspect Sören declined into a sort of butt, who made rambling speeches, and around whom the young whelps of the party would gather after dinner to make sport for themselves. But what impressed his friends most painfully of all, was his utter neglect of his personal appearance.

For he had once been extremely particular in his dress; in his student days he had been called "the exquisite Sören." And even after his marriage he had for some time contrived to wear his modest attire with a certain air. But after bitter necessity had forced him to keep every garment in use an unnaturally long time, his vanity had at last given way. And when once a man's sense of personal neatness is impaired, he is apt to lose it utterly. When a new coat became absolutely necessary, it was his wife that had to awaken him to the fact; and when his collars became quite too ragged at the edges, he trimmed them with a pair of scissors.

He had other things to think about, poor fellow. But when people came into the office, or when he was entering another person's house, he had a purely mechanical habit of moistening his fingers at his lips, and rubbing the lapels of his coat. This was the sole relic of "the exquisite Sören's" exquisiteness—like one of the rudimentary organs, dwindled through lack of use, which zoologists find in certain animals.—

Sören's worst enemy, however, dwelt within him. In his youth he had dabbled in philosophy, and this baneful passion for thinking would now attack him from time to time, crushing all resistance, and, in the end, turning everything topsy-turvy.

It was when he thought about his children that this befell him.

When he regarded these little creatures, who, as he could not conceal from himself, became more and more neglected as time went on, he found it impossible to place them under the category of golden-locked angels sent him by heaven. He had to admit that heaven does not send us these gifts without a certain inducement on our side; and then Sören asked himself: "Had you any right to do this?" He thought of his own life, which had begun under fortunate conditions. His family had been in easy circumstances; his father, a government official, had given him the best education to be had in the country; he had gone forth to the battle of life fully equipped—and what had come of it all?

And how could he equip his children for the fight into which he was sending them? They had begun their life in need and penury, which had, as far as possible, to be concealed; they had early learned the bitter lesson of the disparity between inward expectations and demands and outward circumstances; and from their slovenly home they would take with them the most crushing inheritance, perhaps, under which a man can toil through life; to wit, poverty with pretensions.

Sören tried to tell himself that heaven would take care of them. But he was ashamed to do so, for he felt it was only a phrase of self-excuse, designed to allay the qualms of conscience.

These thoughts were his worst torment; but, truth to tell, they did not often attack him, for Sören had sunk into apathy. That was the Sheriff's view of his case. "My clerk was quite a clever fellow in his time," he used to say. "But, you know, his hasty marriage, his large family, and all that—in short, he has almost done for himself."

Badly dressed and badly fed, beset with debts and cares, he was worn out and weary before he had accomplished anything. And life went its way, and Sören dragged himself along in its train. He seemed to be forgotten by all save heaven, which, as aforesaid, sent him year by year a little angel with locks of gold.

Sören's young wife had clung faithfully to her husband through these six years, and she, too, had reached the same point.

The first year of her married life had glided away like a dream of dizzy bliss. When she held up the little golden-locked angel for the admiration of her lady friends, she was beautiful with the beauty of perfect maternal happiness; and Miss Ludvigsen said: "Here is love in its ideal form."

But Mrs. Olsen's "nest" soon became too small; the family increased while the income stood still. She was daily confronted by new claims, new cares, and new duties. Marie set stanchly to work, for she was a courageous and sensible woman.

It is not one of the so-called elevating employments to have charge of a houseful of little children, with no means of satisfying even moderate requirements in respect of comfort and well-being. In addition to this, she was never thoroughly robust; she oscillated perpetually between having just had, and being just about to have, a child. As she toiled from morning to night, she lost her buoyancy of spirit, and her mind became bitter. She sometimes asked herself: "What is the meaning of it all?"

She saw the eagerness of young girls to be married, and the air of self-complacency with which young men offer to marry them; she thought of her own experience, and felt as though she had been befooled.

But it was not right of Marie to think thus, for she had been excellently brought up.

The view of life to which she had from the first been habituated, was the only beautiful one, the only one that could enable her to preserve her ideals intact. No unlovely and prosaic theory of existence had ever cast its shadow over her development; she knew that love is the most beautiful thing on earth, that it transcends reason and is consummated in marriage; as to children, she had learned to blush when they were mentioned.

A strict watch had always been kept upon her reading. She had read many earnest volumes on the duties of woman; she knew that her happiness lies in being loved by a man, and that her mission is to be his wife. She knew how evil-disposed people will often place obstacles between two lovers, but she knew, too, that true love will at last emerge victorious from the fight. When people met with disaster in the battle of life, it was because they were false to the ideal. She had faith in the ideal, although she did not know what it was.

She knew and loved those poets whom she was allowed to read. Much of their erotics she only half understood, but that made it all the more lovely. She knew that marriage was a serious, a very serious thing, for which a clergyman was indispensable; and she understood that marriages are made in heaven, as engagements are made in the ball-room. But when, in these youthful days, she pictured to herself this serious institution, she seemed to be looking into an enchanted grove, with Cupids weaving garlands, and storks bringing little golden-locked angels under their wings; while before a little cabin in the background, which yet was large enough to contain all the bliss in the world, sat the ideal married couple, gazing into the depths of each other's eyes.

No one had ever been so ill-bred as to say to her: "Excuse me, young lady, would you not like to come with me to a different point of view, and look at the matter from the other side? How if it should turn out to be a mere set-scene of painted pasteboard?"

Sören's young wife had now had ample opportunities of studying the set-scene from the other side.

Mrs. Olsen had at first come about her early and late, and overwhelmed her with advice and criticism. Both Sören and his wife were many a time heartily tired of her; but they owed the Olsens so much.

Little by little, however, the old lady's zeal cooled down. When the young people's house was no longer so clean, so orderly, and so exemplary that she could plume herself upon her work, she gradually withdrew; and when Sören's wife once in a while came to ask her for advice or assistance, the Sheriff's lady would mount her high horse, until Marie ceased to trouble her. But if, in society, conversation happened to fall upon the Sheriff's clerk, and any one expressed compassion for his poor wife, with her many children and her miserable income, Mrs. Olsen would not fail to put in her word with great decision: "I can assure you it would be just the same if Marie had twice as much to live on and no children at all. You see, she's—" and Mrs. Olsen made a motion with her hands, as if she were squandering something abroad, to right and left.

Marie seldom went to parties, and if she did appear, in her at least ten-times-altered marriage dress, it was generally to sit alone in a corner, or to carry on a tedious conversation with a similarly situated housewife about the dearness of the times and the unreasonableness of servant-girls.

And the young ladies who had gathered the gentlemen around them, either in the middle of the room or wherever they found the most comfortable chairs to stretch themselves in, whispered to each other: "How tiresome it is that young married women can never talk about anything but housekeeping and the nursery."

In the early days, Marie had often had visits from her many friends. They were enchanted with her charming house, and the little golden-locked angel had positively to be protected from their greedy admiration. But when one of them now chanced to stray in her direction it was quite a different affair. There was no longer any golden-locked angel to be exhibited in a clean, embroidered frock with red ribbons. The children, who were never presentable without warning, were huddled hastily away—dropping their toys about the floor, forgetting to pick up half-eaten pieces of bread-and-butter from the chairs, and leaving behind them that peculiar atmosphere which one can, at most, endure in one's own children.

Day after day her life dragged on in ceaseless toil. Many a time, when she heard her husband bemoaning the drudgery of his lot, she thought to herself with a sort of defiance: "I wonder which of us two has the harder work?"

In one respect she was happier than her husband. Philosophy did not enter into her dreams, and when she could steal a quiet moment for reflection, her thoughts were very different from the cogitations of the poor philosopher.

She had no silver plate to polish, no jewellery to take out and deck herself with. But, in the inmost recess of her heart, she treasured all the memories of the first year of her marriage, that year of romantic bliss; and these memories she would furbish and furbish afresh, till they shone brighter with every year that passed.

But when the weary and despondent housewife, in all secrecy, decked herself out with these jewels of memory, they did not succeed in shedding any brightness over her life in the present. She was scarcely conscious of any connection between the golden-locked angel with the red ribbons and the five-year-old boy who lay grubbing in the dark back yard. These moments snatched her quite away from reality; they were like opium dreams.

Then some one would call for her from an adjoining room, or one of the children would be brought in howling from the street, with a great bump on its forehead. Hastily she would hide away her treasures, resume her customary air of hopeless weariness, and plunge once more into her labyrinth of duties and cares.

—Thus had this marriage fared, and thus did this couple toil onward. They both dragged at the same heavy load; but did they drag in unison? It is sad, but it is true: when the manger is empty, the horses bite each other.—

—There was a great chocolate-party at the Misses Ludvigsen's—all maiden ladies.

"For married women are so prosaic," said the elder Miss Ludvigsen.

"Ugh, yes!" cried Louisa.

Every one was in the most vivacious humour, as is generally the case in such company, and on such an occasion; and, as the gossip went the round of the town, it arrived in time at Sören's door. All were agreed that it was a most unhappy marriage, and a miserable home; some pitied, others condemned.

Then the elder Miss Ludvigsen, with a certain solemnity, expressed herself as follows: "I can tell you what was at fault in that marriage, for I know the circumstances thoroughly. Even before her marriage there was something calculating, something almost prosaic in Marie's nature, which is entirely foreign to true, ideal love. This fault has since taken the upperhand, and is avenging itself cruelly upon both of them. Of course their means are not great, but what could that matter to two people who truly loved each other? for we know that happiness is not dependent on wealth. Is it not precisely in the humble home that the omnipotence of love is most beautifully made manifest?—And, besides, who can call these two poor? Has not heaven richly blessed them with healthy, sturdy children? These—these are their true wealth! And if their hearts had been filled with true, ideal love, then—then—"

Miss Ludvigsen came to a momentary stand-still.

"What then?" asked a courageous young lady.

"Then," continued Miss Ludvigsen, loftily, "then we should certainly have seen a very different lot in life assigned to them."

The courageous young lady felt ashamed of herself.

There was a pause, during which Miss Ludvigsen's words sank deep into all hearts. They all felt that this was the truth; any doubt and uneasiness that might perhaps have lurked here and there vanished away. All were confirmed in their steadfast and beautiful faith in true, ideal love; for they were all maiden ladies.

  1. The stork, according to common nursery legends, brings babies under its wing.