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The Mystery of the Tobacco Shed by August Strindberg

 

Listen to the story of a young opera-singer who was so beautiful that the people in the street turned round to stare at her when she passed. And she was not only very beautiful, but she had a better voice than most singers.

The conductor of the orchestra, who was also a composer, came and laid his heart and all his possessions at her feet. She took his possessions, but left his heart lying in the dust.

Now she was famous, more famous than any other singer; she drove through the streets in her elegant victoria, and nodded to her portrait, which greeted her from all the stationers' and booksellers' shop windows.

And as her fame grew, her picture appeared on post-cards, soap and cigar boxes. Finally her portrait was hung up in the foyer of the theatre, amongst all the dead immortals; and as a result her head began to swell.

One day she was standing on a pier, the sea was very rough and there was a strong current. The conductor, of course, stood by her side, and a great many young men were present, paying her court. The beauty was playing with a rose; all the cavaliers coveted the flower, but she said that it should become the property of him who knew how to earn it, and she flung it far out into the sea. The cavaliers looked at it with longing glances, but the conductor jumped off the pier without a moment's hesitation, swam like a sea-gull on the crests of the waves and soon held the flower between his lips.

The cavaliers cheered, and the swimmer could read the promise of love in his lady's eyes. But when he struck out for the shore, he found that he could not move from the spot. He had been caught in the current. The singer on the pier did not realise his danger, but merely thought he was fooling, and therefore she laughed. But the conductor, who saw death staring him in the face, misunderstood her laughter; a bitter pang shot through his heart, and then his love for her was dead.

However, he came ashore at last, with bleeding hands, for he had cut them at the pier in many places.

“I will marry you,” said the beauty.

“No, thank you,” replied the conductor; turned, and walked away.

This was an offence for which she swore that she would be revenged.

Only the people connected with the theatre, who understand these things, know how it happened that the conductor lost his post. He had been firmly established, and it took two years to get rid of him.

But he was got rid of; she watched the downfall of her benefactor and triumphed, and her head swelled still more, in fact it swelled so much that everybody noticed it. The public, who realised that the heart underneath the beautiful form was wicked, ceased to be touched by her singing, and no longer believed in her smiles and tears.

She soon became aware of it, and it embittered her. But she continued ruling at the theatre, suppressed all young talents, and used her influence with the press to ruin their careers.

She lost the love and respect of her audiences, but she did not mind that as long as she remained in power; and as she was wealthy, influential, and contented, she throve and prospered.

Now, when people are prosperous, they do not lose flesh; on the contrary, they are inclined to grow stout; and she really began to grow corpulent. It came so gradually that she had no idea of it until it was too late. Bang! The downhill journey is ever a fast journey, and in her case it was accom-plished with startling rapidity. She tried every remedy—in vain! She kept the best table in the whole town, but she starved herself, and the more she starved, the stouter she grew.

One more year, and she was no longer a great star, and her pay was reduced. Two more years and she was half forgotten, and her place was filled by others. After the third year she was not re-engaged, and she went and rented an attic.

“She is suffering from an unnatural corpulency,” said the stage-manager to the prompter.

“It's not corpulency at all,” replied the prompter, “she's just puffed up with pride.”

***

Now she lived in the attic and looked out on a large plantation. In the middle of this plantation stood a tobacco shed, which pleased her, because it had no windows behind which curious people could sit and stare at her. Sparrows had built their nests under the eaves, but the shed was no longer used for drying or storing tobacco, which was not, now, grown on the plantation.

There she lived during the summer, looking at the shed and wondering what purpose it could possibly serve, for the doors were locked with large padlocks, padlocks, and nobody ever went in or out.

She knew that it contained secrets, and what these secrets were, she was to learn sooner than she expected.

A few little shreds of her great reputation, to which she clung desperately, and which helped her to bear her life, were still left: the memory of her best parts, Carmen and Aida, for which no successor had yet been found; the public still remembered her impersonation of these parts, which had been beyond praise.

Very well, August came; the street lamps were again lighted in the evenings, and the theatres were reopened.

The singer sat at her window and looked at the tobacco shed, which had been painted a bright red, and, moreover, had just received a new red-tiled roof.

A man walked across the potato field; he carried a large rusty key, with which he opened the shed and went in.

Then two other men arrived; two men whom she thought she had seen before; and they, too, disappeared in the shed.

It began to be interesting.

After a while the three men reappeared, carrying large, strange objects, which looked like the bottom of a bed or a big screen.

When they had passed the gate, they turned the screens round and leaned them against the wall; one of them represented a badly painted tiled stove, another the door of a country cottage, perhaps a forester's cottage. Others a wood, a window, and a library.

She understood. It was the scenery of a play. And after a while she recognised the rose tree from Faust.

The shed was used by the theatre for storing scenes and stage properties; she herself had more than once stood by the side of the rose tree, singing “Gentle flowers in the dew.”

The thought that they were going to play Faust wrung her heart, but she had one little comfort: she had never sung the principal part in it, for the principal part is Margaret's.

“I don't mind Faust; but I shall die if they play Carmen or Aida.”

And she sat and watched the change in the repertoire. She knew a fortnight before the papers what was going to be played next. It was amusing in a way. She knew when the Freischuetz was going to be played, for she saw the wolves' den being brought out; she knew when they were going to put on the Flying Dutchman, for the ship and the sea came out of the shed; and Tannhaeuser, and Lohengrin, and many others.

But the inevitable day dawned—for the inevitable must happen. The men had again gone into the shed (she remembered that the name of one of them was Lindquist, and that it was his business to look after the pulleys), and presently reappeared with a Spanish market-place. The scene was not standing straight up, so that she could not see at once what it was, but one of the men turned it slowly over, and when he stood it up on its side she could see the back, which is always very ugly. And one after the other, slowly, as if they warded to prolong the torture, huge, black letters appeared: CARMEN. It was Carmen!

“I shall die,” said the singer.

But she did not die, not even when they played Aida. But her name was blotted out from the memory of the public, her picture disappeared from the stationers' windows, and from the post-cards; finally her portrait was removed from the foyer of the theatre by an unknown hand.

She could not understand how men could forget so quickly. It was quite inexplicable! But she mourned for herself as if she were mourning a friend who had died; and wasn't it true, that the singer, the famous singer, was dead?

One evening she was strolling through a deserted street. At one end of the street was a rubbish shoot. Without knowing why, she stood still, and then she had an object lesson on the futility of all earthly things. For on the rubbish heap lay a post-card, and on the post-card was her picture in the part of Carmen.

She walked away quickly, suppressing her tears. She came to a little side street, and stopped before a stationer's shop. It had been her custom to look at the shop windows to see whether her portrait was exhibited. But it was not exhibited here; instead of that her eyes fell on a text and she read it, unconsciously:

“The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.”

Them that do evil! That was the reason why her memory was blotted out. That was the explanation of the forgetfulness of men.

“But is it not possible to undo the wrong I have done?” she moaned. “Have I not been sufficiently punished?”

And she wandered in the direction of the wood, where she was not likely to meet anybody. And as she was walking along, crushed, humiliated, her heart full of despair, she met another lonely being, who stopped her as she was going to pass him. His eyes begged permission to speak to her.

It was the conductor. But his eyes did not reproach her, nor did they pity her, they only expressed admiration, admiration and tenderness.

“How beautiful and slender you have grown, Hannah,” he said.

She looked at herself, and she could not help admitting that he was right. Grief had burnt all her superfluous fat and she was more beautiful than she had ever been.

“And you look as young as ever! Younger!”

It was the first kind word which she had heard for many a day; and since it had been spoken by him whom she had wronged, she realised what a splendid character he had, and said so.

“I hope you haven't lost your voice?” asked the conductor, who could not bear flattery.

“I don't know,” she sobbed.

“Come to me to-morrow ... yes, come to the Opera-house, and then we shall see. I am conducting there. ...”

The singer went, not once or twice, but many times, and regained her former position.

The public had forgiven and forgotten all the evil she had done. And she became greater and more famous than she had been before.

Isn't that an edifying story?

 
 
 

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