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The Sluggard by August Strindberg

 

Conductor Crossberg was fond of lying in bed in the morning, firstly, because he had to conduct the orchestra in the evening, and secondly, because he drank more than one glass of beer before he went home and to bed. He had tried once or twice to get up early, but had found no sense in it. He had called on a friend, but had found him asleep; he had wanted to pay money into the bank, but had found it still closed; he had gone to the library to borrow music, but it was not yet open; he had wanted to use the electric trams, but they had not yet started running. It was impossible to get a cab at this hour of the morning; he could not even buy a pinch of his favourite snuff; there was nothing at all for him to do. And so he had eventually formed the habit of staying in bed until late; and after all, he had no one to please but himself.

He loved the sun and flowers and children; but he could not live on the sunny side of the street on account of his delicate instruments, which were out of tune almost as soon as they were put into a sunny room.

Therefore, on the 1st of April, he took rooms which faced north. He was quite sure that there was no mistake about this, for he carried a compass on his watch-chain, and he could find the Great Bear in the evening sky.

So far, so good; but then the spring came, and it was so warm that it was really pleasant to live in rooms with a northern aspect. His bedroom joined the sitting-room; he always kept his bedroom in pitch-black darkness by letting down the Venetian blinds; there were no Venetian blinds in the sitting-room, because they were not wanted there.

And the early summer came and everything grew green. The conductor had dined at the restaurant “Hazelmount,” and had drunk a bottle of Burgundy with his dinner, and therefore he slept long and soundly, especially as the theatre was closed on that day.

He slept well, but while he slept it grew so warm in the room that he woke up two or three times, or, at any rate, he thought he did. Once he fancied that his wall-paper was on fire, but that was probably the effect of the Burgundy; another time he felt as if something hot had touched his face, but that was certainly the Burgundy; and so he turned over and fell asleep again.

At half-past nine he got up, dressed, and went into the sitting-room to refresh himself with a glass of milk which always stood ready for him in the morning.

It was anything but cool in the sitting-room this morning; it was almost warm, too warm. And the cold milk was not cold; it was lukewarm, unpleasantly lukewarm.

The conductor was not a hot-tempered man, but he liked order and method in everything. Therefore he rang for old Louisa, and since he made his first fifty remonstrances always in a very mild tone, he spoke kindly but firmly to her, as she put her head through the door.

“Louisa,” he said, “you have given me lukewarm milk.”

“Oh! no, sir,” replied Louisa, “it was quite cold, it must have got warm in standing.”

“Then you must have had a fire in the room; it's very warm here this morning.”

No, Louisa had not had a fire; and she retired into the kitchen, very much hurt.

He forgave her for the milk. But a look round the sitting-room made him feel very depressed. I must tell you that he had built a little private altar in a corner, near the piano, which consisted of a small table with two silver candlesticks, a large photograph of a young woman, and a tall, gold-edged champagne glass. This glass—it was the glass he had used on his wedding-day, and he was a widower now—always contained a red rose in memory of and as an offering to her who once had been the sunshine of his life. Whether it was summer or winter, there was always a rose; and in the winter time it lasted a whole week, that is to say if he trimmed the stem occasionally and put a little salt into the water. Now, he had put a fresh rose into the glass only last night, and to-day it was faded, shrivelled up, dead, with its head drooping. This was a bad omen. He knew what sensitive creatures flowers are, and had noticed that they thrive with some people and not with others. He remembered how sometimes, in his wife's lifetime, her rose, which always stood on her little work-table, had faded and died quite unexpectedly. And he had also noticed that this always happened when his sun was hiding behind a cloud, which after a while would dissolve in large drops to the accompaniment of a low rumbling. Roses must have peace and kind words; they can't bear harsh voices. They love music, and sometimes he would play to the roses and they opened their buds and smiled.

Now Louisa was a hard woman, and often muttered and growled to herself when she turned out the room. There were days when she was in a very bad temper, so that the milk curdled in the kitchen, and the whole dinner tasted of discord, which the conductor noticed at once; for he was himself like a delicate instrument, whose soul responded to moods and influences which other people did not feel.

He concluded that Louisa had killed the rose; perhaps if she had scolded the poor thing, or knocked the glass, or breathed on the flower angrily, a treatment which it could not bear. Therefore he rang again; and when Louisa put in her head, he said, not unkindly, but more firmly than before:

“What have you done to my rose, Louisa?”

“Nothing, sir!”

“Nothing? Do you think the flower died without a very good reason? You can see for yourself that there is no water in the glass! You must have poured it away!”

As Louisa had done no such thing, she went into the kitchen and began to cry, for it is disagreeable to be blamed when one is innocent.

Conductor Crossberg, who could not bear to see people crying, said no more, but in the evening he bought a new rose, one which had only just been cut, and, of course, was not wired, for his wife had always had an objection to wired flowers.

And then he went to bed and fell asleep. And again he fancied in his sleep that the wall-paper was on fire, and that his pillow was very hot; but he went on sleeping.

On the following morning, when he came into the sitting-room, to say his morning prayers before the little altar—alas! there lay his rose, all the pink petals scattered by the side of the stem. He was just stretching out his hand to touch the bell, when he saw the photograph of his beloved, half rolled up, lying by the side of the champagne glass. Louisa could not have done that!

“She, who was my all, my conscience and my muse,” he thought in his childlike mind, “she is dissatisfied and angry with me; what have I done?”

Well, when he put this question to his conscience, he found, as usual, more than one little fault, and he resolved to eradicate his faults, gradually, of course.

Then he had the portrait framed and a glass shade put over the rose, hoping that now things would be all right, but secretly fearing that they would not.

After that he went on a week's journey; he returned home late at night and went straight to bed. He woke up once, imagining that the hanging lamp was burning.

When he entered the sitting-room late on the following morning, it was downright hot there, and everything looked frightfully shabby. The blinds were faded; the cover on the piano had lost its bright colours; the bound volumes of music looked as if they were deformed; the oil in the hanging-lame had evaporated and hung in a trembling drop under the ornament, where the flies used to dance; the water in the water-bottle was warm.

But the saddest thing of all was that her portrait, too, was faded, as faded as autumn leaves. He was very unhappy, and whenever he was very unhappy he went to the piano, or took up his violin, as the case might be . ...

This time he sat down at the piano, with a vague notion of playing the sonata in E minor, Grieg's, of course, which had been her favourite, and was the best and finest, in his opinion, after Beethoven's sonata in D minor; not because E comes after D, but because it was so.

But the piano was very refractory to-day. It was out of tune, and made all sorts of difficulties, so that he began to believe that his eyes and fingers were in a bad temper. But it was not their fault. The piano, quite simply, was out of tune, although a very clever tuner had only just tuned it. It was like a piano bewitched, enchanted.

He seized his violin; he had to tune it, of course. But when he wanted to tighten the E string, the screw refused to work. It had dried up; and when the conductor tried to use force, the string snapped with a sharp sound, and rolled itself up like a dried eel-skin.

It was bewitched!

But the fact that her photograph had faded was really the worst blow, and therefore he threw a veil over the altar.

In doing this, he threw a veil over all that was most beautiful in his life; and he became depressed, began to mope, and stopped going out in the evening.

It would be Midsummer soon. The nights were shorter than the days, but since the Venetian blinds kept his bedroom dark, the conductor did not notice it.

At last, one night—it was Midsummer night—he awoke, because the clock in the sitting-room struck thirteen. There was something uncanny about this, firstly, because thirteen is an unlucky number, and secondly, because no well-behaved clock can strike thirteen. He did not fall asleep again, but he lay in his bed, listening. There was a peculiar ticking noise in the sitting-room, and then a loud bang, as if a piece of furniture had cracked. Directly afterwards he heard stealthy footsteps, and then the clock began to strike again; and it struck and struck, fifty times—a hundred times. It really was uncanny!

And now a luminous tuft shot into his bedroom and threw a figure on the wall, a strange figure, something like a fylfot, and it came from the sitting-room. There was a light, then, in the sitting-room? But who had lit it? And there was a tinkling of glasses, just as if guests were there; champagne glasses of cut-crystal; but not a word was uttered. And now he heard more sounds, sounds of canvas being furled, or clothes passed through a mangle, or something of that sort.

The conductor felt compelled to get up and look, and he went, commending his soul into the hands of the Almighty.

Well, first of all he saw Louisa's print-dress disappearing through the kitchen door; then he saw blinds, but blinds which had been pulled up; he saw the dining-table covered with flowers, arranged in glasses; as many flowers as there had been on his wedding-day when he had brought his bride home.

And behold! The sun, the sun shone right into his face, shone on blue fjords and distant woods; it was the sun which had illuminated the sitting-room and played all the little tricks. He blessed the sun which had been up so early in the morning and made a game of the sluggard. And he blessed the memory of her whom he called the sun of his life. It was not a new name, but he could not think of a better one, and as it was, it was good enough.

And on his altar stood a rose, quite fresh, as fresh as she had been before the never-ending work had tired her. Tired her! Yes, she had not been one of the strong ones; and life with its blows and knocks had been too brutal for her! He had not forgotten how, after a day's cleaning or ironing, she would throw herself on the sofa and say in a complaining little voice, “I am so tired!” Poor little thing, this earth had not been her home, she had only played once, on tour, as it were, and then had gone far away.

“She lacked sunshine,” the doctor had said, for at that time they couldn't afford sun, because rooms on the sunny side are so expensive.

But now he had sun without having known it; he stood right in the sunlight, but it was too late. Midsummer was past, and soon the sun would disappear again, stay away for a year and then come back. Things are very strange in this world!

 
 
 

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