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Conquering Hero and Fool by August Strindberg

 

It was on the evening of a spring day in 1880 (a day which will never be forgotten in Sweden, because it is the day of commemoration of a national event), when an old couple, simple country people, were standing on the headland at the entrance to the harbour of Stockholm, looking at the dark watercourse under the dim stars, and watching a man who was busy with a dark, undefinable object on the landing bridge. They stood there for a long, long time, now gazing at the dark watercourse, now looking at the brilliant lights of the town.

At last a light appeared on the fjord, then another, then many lights. The old man seized the woman's hand and pressed it, and in silence, under the stars, they thanked God for having safely brought home their son whom they had mourned as dead for a whole year.

It is true, he had not been the leader of the expedition, but he had been one of the crew. And now he was to dine with the long, receive an order, and, in addition to a sum of money from the nation, which Parliament had voted for the purpose, an appointment which would mean bread and butter for the rest of his life.

The lights grew in size as they approached; a small steamer was towing a big dark craft, which, seen close by, looked as plain and simple as most great things do.

And now the man on the bridge, who had been very busy about the dark object, struck a match.

“Whatever is it?” said the old man, much puzzled. “It looks like huge wax candles.”

They went nearer to examine it more closely.

“It looks like a frame for drying fishes,” said the old woman, who had been born on the coast.

Ratsh! It-sh! Si-si-si-si! it said, and the old people were instantly surrounded by fire and flames.

Great fiery globes rose up to the skies and, bursting, lit up the night with a shower of stars; an astronomer, observing the heavens with a telescope, might have come to the conclusion that new stars had been born. And he would not have been altogether wrong, for in the year 1880 new thoughts were kindled in new hearts, and new light and new discoveries vouchsafed to mankind. Doubtless, there were weeds, too, growing up together with the splendid wheat; but weeds have their uses, also; shade and moisture depend on their presence, and they will be separated from the wheat at harvest time. But there must be weeds, they are as inseparable from wheat as chaff is from corn.

What had puzzled the old couple, however, was a rocket frame, and when all the smoke had cleared away—for there is no fire without smoke—not a trace of all the magnificence was left.

“It would have been jolly to have been in town with them to-night,” said the old woman.

“Oh, no!” replied the man. “We should have been in the way, poor people like we ought never to push themselves to the front. And there's plenty of time to-morrow for seeing the boy, after he has left his sweetheart, who is dearer to him than we are.”

It was a very sensible speech for the old man to make; but who in the world is to have sense, if old people have not?

And then they continued their way to the town.

***

Now, let us see what happened to the son.

He was the leadsman, that is to say, it was his business to sound the depths of the sea; he had plumbed the profound abysses of the ocean, calculated the elevation of the land and the apparent motion of the sky; he knew the exact time by looking at the sun, and he could tell from the stars how far they had travelled. He was a man of importance; he believed that he held heaven and earth in his hand, measured time and regulated the clock of eternity. And after he had been the king's guest and received an order to wear on his breast, he fancied that he was made of finer stuff than most men; he was not exactly haughty when he met his poor parents and his sweetheart, but, although they said nothing, they felt that he thought himself their superior. Possibly he was a little stiff, he was built that way.

Well, the official ceremonies were over, but the students also had decided to pay homage to the heroes, who had returned home after a prolonged absence. And they went to the capital in full force.

Students are queer people, who read books and study under Dr. Know-all; consequently they imagine that they know more than other people. They are also young, and therefore they are thoughtless and cruel.

The respectful and sensible speeches which the old professors had been making all the afternoon in honour of the explorers had come to an end, and the procession of the students had started.

The leadsman and his sweetheart were sitting on a balcony in the company of the other great men. The ringing of the church bells and the booming of the guns mingled with the sound of the bugles and the rolling of the drums; flags were waving and fluttering in the breeze. And then the procession marched by.

It was headed by a ship, with sailors and everything else belonging to it; next walruses came and polar bears, and all the rest of it; then students in disguise, representing the heroes; the Great Man himself was represented in his fur coat and goggles. It wasn't quite respectful, of course; it wasn't a very great honour to be impersonated in this way; but there it was! It was well meant, no doubt. And gradually every member of the expedition passed by, one after the other, all represented by the students.

Last of all came the leadsman. It was true, nobody could ever have dreamt of calling him handsome, but there is no need for a man to be handsome, as long as he is an able leadsman, or anything else able. The students had chosen a hideous old grumbler to impersonate him. That alone would not have mattered; but nature had made one of his arms shorter than the other, and his representative had made a feature of this defect. And that was too bad; for a defect is something for which one ought not to be blamed.

But when the fool who played the leadsman approached the balcony, he said a few words with a provincial accent, intended to cast ridicule on the leadsman, who was born in one of the provinces. It was a silly thing to do, for every man speaks the dialect which his mother has taught him; and it is nothing at all to be ashamed of.

Everybody laughed, more from politeness than anything else, for the entertainment was gratuitous, but the girl was hurt, for she hated to see her future husband laughed at. The leadsman frowned and grew silent. He no longer enjoyed the festivities. But he carefully hid his real feelings, for otherwise he would have been laughed at for a fool unable to appreciate a joke. But still worse things happened, for his impersonator danced and cut all sorts of ridiculous antics, in the endeavour to act the leadsman's name in dumb charade; first his surname, which he had inherited from his father, and then his Christian name, which his mother had chosen for him at his baptism. These names were sacred to him, and although there may have been a little boastful sound about them, he had always scorned to change them.

He wanted to rise from his chair and leave, but his sweetheart caught hold of his hand, and he stayed where he was.

When, the procession was over and everybody who had been sitting on the balcony had risen, the great man laid a friendly hand on the girl's shoulder, and said, with his kindly smile:—

“They have a strange way here of celebrating their heroes, one mustn't mind it!”

In the evening there was a garden party and the leadsman was present, but his pleasure was gone; he had been laughed at, and he had grown small in his own estimation, smaller than the fool, who had made quite a hit as a jester. Therefore he was despondent, felt uneasy at the thought of the future and doubtful of his own capability. And wherever he went he met the fool who was caricaturing him. He saw his faults enlarged, especially his pride and his boastfulness; all his secret thoughts and weaknesses were made public.

For three painful hours he examined the account book of his conscience; what no man had dared to tell him before, the fool had told him. Perfect knowledge of oneself is a splendid thing, Socrates calls it the highest of all goods. Towards the end of the evening the leadsman had conquered himself, admitted his faults, and resolved to turn over a new leaf.

As he was passing a group of people he heard a voice behind a hedge saying:—

“It's extraordinary, how the leadsman has improved. He's really quite a delightful fellow!”

These words did him good; but what pleased him more than anything else were a few whispered words from his sweetheart.

“You are so nice to-night,” she said, “that you look quite handsome.”

He handsome? It must have been a miracle then, and miracles don't happen nowadays. Yet he had to believe in a miracle, for he knew himself to be a very plain man.

Finally the Great Man touched his glass with his knife, and immediately there was silence, for every body wanted to hear what he had to say.

“When a Roman conqueror was granted a triumphal procession,” he began, “a slave always stood behind him in the chariot and incessantly called out, 'Remember that you are but a man!' while senate and people paid him homage. And at the side of the triumphal car, which was drawn by four horses, walked a fool, whose business it was to dim the splendour of his triumph by shouting insults, and casting suspicion on the hero's character by singing libellous songs. This was a good old custom, for there is nothing so fatal to a man than to believe that he is a god, and there is nothing the gods dislike so much as the pride of men. My dear young friends! The success which we, who have just returned home, have achieved, has perhaps been overrated, our triumph went to our heads, and therefore it was good for us to watch your antics to-day! I don't envy the jester his part—far from it; but I thank you for the somewhat strange homage which you have done us. It has taught me that I have still a good deal to learn, and whenever my head is in danger of being turned by flattery, it will remind me that I am nothing but an ordinary man!”

“Hear! Hear!” exclaimed the leadsman, and the festivities continued, undisturbed even by the fool, who had felt a little ashamed of himself and had quietly withdrawn from the scene.

So much for the Great Man and the leadsman. Now let us see what happened to the fool.

As he was standing close to the table during the Great Man's speech, he received a glance from the leadsman, which, like a small fiery arrow, was capable of setting a fortress aflame. And as he went out into the night, he felt beside himself, like a man who is clothed in sheets of fire. He was not a nice man. True, fools and jailers are human beings, like the rest of us, but they are not the very nicest specimen. Like everybody else he had many faults and weaknesses, but he knew how to cloak them. Now something extraordinary happened. Through having mimicked the leadsman all day long, and also, perhaps, owing to all the drink he had consumed, he had become so much the part which he had played that he was unable to shake it off; and since he had brought into prominence the faults and weaknesses of the leadsman, he had, as it were, acquired them, and that flash from the leadsman's eye had rammed them down to the very bottom of his soul, just as a ramrod pushes the powder into the barrel of a gun. He was charged with the leadsman, so to speak, and therefore, as he stepped out into the street he at once began to shout and boast. But this time luck was against him. A policeman ordered him to be quiet. The fool said something funny, imitating the leadsman's provincial accent. But the policeman, who happened to be a native of the same province, was annoyed and wanted to arrest the fool. Now it is just as difficult for a fool to take a thing seriously as it is for a policeman to understand a joke; therefore the fool resisted and created such a disturbance that the policeman struck him with his truncheon.

He received a sound beating, and then the policeman let him go.

You would think that he had had enough trouble now—far from it!

The chastisement which he had received had only embittered him, and he went on the warpath, like a red Indian, to see on whom he might avenge his wrongs.

Accident, or some other power, guided his footsteps to a locality mainly frequented by peasants and labourers. He entered a brewery and found a number of millers and farmer's labourers sitting round a table, drinking the health of the explorers. When they saw the fool they took him for the leadsman, and were highly delighted when he condescended to take a glass in their company.

Now the demon of pride entered into the soul of the fool. He boasted of his great achievements; he told them that it was he who had led the expedition, for would they not have foundered if he had not sounded the depth of the sea? Would they ever have returned home if he had not read the stars?

Smack! an egg hit him between the eyebrows.

“Leadsman, you're a braggart!” said the miller. “We've known that for a long time; we knew it when you wrote to the paper saying the Great Man was another Humboldt!”

Now another of the leadsman's weaknesses gained the upper hand.

“The Great Man is a humbug!” he exclaimed, which was not true.

This was too much for the assembly. They rose from their seats like one man, seized the fool, and with a leather strap bound him to a sack of flour. They covered him with flour until he was white from top to toe, and blackened his face with the wick from one of the lanterns. The millers' apprentice sewed him to the sack; they lifted him, sack and lantern, on to the cart, and amid shouting and laughter proceeded to the market-place.

There he was exhibited to the passers-by, and everybody laughed at him.

When they let him go at last, he went and sat on some stone stairs and cried. The big fellow sobbed like a little child; one might almost have felt sorry for him.

 
 
 

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