"Afternoon coffee," generally accompanied by some form of sweet bread or cake, "happened" about 5:30, and at 8 supper was served. The final meal was commonly made up of sandwiches with porridge and milk, or perhaps, when fate was remarkably propitious, thin pancakes with cranberry jam. There might be an extra snack of food at a still later hour in case of unexpected callers, but such visits were not frequent and Keith would be asleep by that time anyhow.
It was different when parties were given to formally invited company. Then Keith had to stay up—or pretend to do so—as long as the guests remained, and he must have a share of whatever the house had to offer. To such occasions he looked forward with feverish joy, not so much on account of the good things dispensed as for the sake of feeling the ordinary strict rules relaxed. Apart from Christmas, the principal celebrations took place on his parents' birthdays and "namedays." Every day in the Swedish calendar carries a name, and all those bearing it have a right to expect felicitations and presents from their relations and more intimate friends. In return they are expected to celebrate the occasion with a party that gives an excuse for showing what the house can do in the way of hospitality. The same thing applies to the birthday anniversaries, only in a higher degree. Not to celebrate one's birthday can only be a sign of poverty, miserliness or misanthropy, and to overlook the birthday anniversary of a close relative is to risk an immediate breach of connections.
Nothing was more familiar to Keith than his mother's open worries about money and his father's occasional stern reference to the need of saving. To the boy those complaints and warnings meant merely that the parents were in a depressed and unfaourable mood, tending to draw the usual constraint a little tighter about him. He was intensely sensitive to atmosphere, and too often that of his home had the same effect on his young soul as the low-hanging, leaden skies of a Swedish December day before the first snow has fallen. It made him long for sunlight, and the parties brought it to some extent. Then care and caution were forgotten, although his father might grumble before and after. Then the daily routine was broken, and Granny became cynically but actively interested, bent above all on seeing that "the house would not be shamed."
When the great day came, the home, always scrupulously neat, shone with cleanliness. Every one worked up to the last minute. Cupboards and pantries were full of unfamiliar and enticing supplies. The dining table, opened to its utmost length, groaned under the burden of innumerable cold dishes of tempting appearance, while from the kitchen came the odours of more substantial courses still in the making. A one end of Granny's bureau stood a battery of multicoloured bottles. The other end was jammed with desserts and goodies meant to be served while the guests were waiting for supper or during the card game that generally followed it. Better than anything else, however, was the father's loud laugh and eager talk, so rarely heard in the course of their regular daily existence. Even then he might be displeased by some slight slip of the boy's, and a sharp rebuke might follow, but it seemed forgotten as soon as uttered, and of other consequences there were none to be feared. Therefore, Keith wished that there might be a party every day, and while there was one going on he sometimes caught himself wondering whether, after all, he did not like his father as much as his mother, or more.
From his own experiences with food as well as from his parents' attitude toward it, both on special and on ordinary occasions, Keith distilled a sort of philosophy that it took him several decades to outlive. To him eating became a good thing in itself, rather than a means to an end. His parents were neither gluttons nor gourmets, but they liked good food, and, what was of still greater importance, good eating represented the principal source of enjoyment open to them. The same seemed true of their friends, and when company arrived no topic was more in favour than a comparison of past culinary enjoyments. Keith's father, for instance, never grew tired of telling about the time when he was still the chief clerk in a fashionable grocery and the owner gave him permission to dispose freely of a keg of Holland oysters that threatened to "go bad" before they could be sold. Four or five friends were drummed together. The feast took place at night in the store itself. Bread, butter, salt, pepper, liquor, beer and cards were the only things added to the oysters.
"And when morning came, and I had to open the store, there was nothing left but a keg full of empty shells," the father used to shout, laughing at the same time so that it was hard to catch what he said. Then he would smack his lips and add with earnest conviction: "I have never tasted anything better unless it be the Russian caviar we used to import for the Court."
Always it was a matter of quantity as well as quality. A feast was not a feast without more than plenty. Eating was always in order. An offer of a dish was as good as a command to partake. A refusal bordered on the offensive. Pressing a reluctant guest was the highest form of hospitality. Dietary precautions were apparently unheard of except in the case of certain chronic ailments, and then they were accepted as one of life's worst evils. To eat well was to be well, and the natural conclusion was that the best cure in case of trouble was to eat. Lack of appetite was a misfortune as well as a dangerous symptom, and to eat when not hungry was not only a necessity but a virtue.
Yet Keith longed for other things and he learned early that even eating has its drawbacks.
Except on Sundays, the father rarely ate with the rest of the family. He left in the morning before Keith was up and never came home for breakfast. His dinner often had to wait until five or six or even later, so he seldom cared to eat again when the others had their supper.
One afternoon, however, he appeared just as Keith and his mother were to sit for dinner. It put her in a flutter and she couldn't get an additional cover laid quick enough.
"I heard that mother was coming," he remarked as he seated himself at the table.
Instantly Keith's mother shot an apprehensive glance at the boy and exclaimed:
"Please try to be a real nice boy now, so that your grandmother does not get a bad impression of you." Then she added, turning to her husband: "She never says anything, but she always looks as if I spoiled Keith hopelessly."
"Well," the father rejoined thoughtfully, "she brought up four children of her own without anybody else to help her, and there was not one among us who dared to disregard her slightest word."
"How about Henrik," the mother suggested a little tartly.
"Yes, the one spared is the one spoiled," admitted the father with a sigh. "He was the youngest, and while he was licked like all of us, her hand never seemed quite as firm with him as with the rest. The worst thing parents can do to children is to let them have their own will."
Keith was listening with one ear only. His thoughts were on Uncle Henrik, who would put in an unheralded appearance now and then, always when the father was away and always to the consternation of the whole household. Although hustled out of the kitchen as soon as the unbidden visitor arrived, Keith had had a good look at him several times and had also overheard the parents discussing him. He was still comparatively young. Yet he looked like animated waste matter. His face seemed to hang on him. His mouth was loose and void of expression. His eyes were bleared and ever on the move. He spoke mostly in a toneless drawl, that sometimes turned into a shrill whine, but also at rare intervals could change into a soft, heart-winning purr. His clothing was poorer and coarser than that of any other person seen by Keith. Once or twice it seemed to the boy like a repulsive uniform, and he heard his parents speak with mingled disgust and relief of some house or institution that was never fully named.
"No one has a better heart than Henrik," Keith heard his father say once, "but he has no more spine than a cucumber, and he can't keep away from drink."
Then the food was brought in, and Uncle Henrik was forgotten. As usual, there was a meat course to begin with, and Keith ate what for him was a big portion. Nor did he get into any trouble beyond having an extra large piece of hard bread put beside his plate by the father and finding the disposal of it rather difficult.
The meat was followed by a large bowl of soup, and the very sight of it made Keith look unhappy—a fact that did not escape his father.
Keith cared little for soups, while both parents liked them, and he had a particular dislike of soups made on a meat stock, like the one just brought in. For some reason that Keith might have thought funny under other circumstances, it was called Carpenter Soup, and it contained a lot of rather coarse vegetables. Among these were green celery and parsnips, both of which filled the boy with an almost morbid disgust.
While the mother was serving and Keith was waiting in dumb agony, it flashed through his mind that Uncle Granstedt might be eating that kind of soup. If so, the boy thought, he would rather let himself be killed than made a carpenter.
As the turn came to his own plate, Keith tried to catch his mother's eye with a signalled appeal to put in as little as possible, but she was talking to her husband and not noticing the boy at all. And so, at last, he found himself confronted with a plate filled to the brim.
The first few spoonfuls went down without much resistance, chiefly because he confined himself to the fluid part of the soup. Then it seemed of a sudden as if one more mouthful would choke him, and his eating became a mere dallying with his spoon.
"Go on and finish your soup," the father urged sternly.
"I have eaten all I can."
"That does not matter," rejoined his father. "One must always finish what is on one's plate."
"But I don't like it," Keith blurted out in a moment of desperation—which was unfortunate.
"Children have no likings of their own," said the father, putting down his spoon. "They must like what their parents give them. And you will finish that soup—if I have to feed you myself to make you do it."
Two more spoonfuls went down by an heroic effort. Then Keith burst into tears, and his father's face grew still darker as he asked scornfully:
"Are you a boy or a girl?"
Keith did not care at that moment. In fact, he thought that if girls had a right to cry, he would rather be one.
His mother was trying to coax him with kind words, and he actually raised the filled spoon to his lips once more, but the sensation within him was such that he let it drop again with a splash. That was the crowning offence, and the feeding process began at once. His father took him by the neck with one hand and administered the spoon with the other. It was done firmly and perhaps harshly, but in such a manner that the boy was not hurt.
Keith cried and coughed and swallowed—and in the midst of that ordeal he noticed the wonderful softness of his father's hands. But his heart was full of bitter resentment, and he wished that he could grow up on the spot.
What the end might have been is hard to tell, had not a slight commotion been heard from the kitchen at that juncture.
"There is mother now," said the father, letting go his hold on Keith's neck. "Wipe your eyes and try to act like a boy. Some day we'll put you into skirts."
Keith did not care. He knew now that he would not have to eat the rest of the soup. That was the one thing in the world that seemed to matter to him. His tears ceased. But now his body was shaken by a convulsive sob. On the whole his mood was one of hopeless resignation.
"I am glad to see you, mother," said Keith's father, rising quickly as a little old woman appeared in the kitchen doorway. His tone surprised the boy. There was warmth in it, but still more of reverence bordering on awe, and also something of pride. Thus might a queen be greeted, but only by those nearest and dearest to her. What struck the boy most of all, however, was the world of difference lying between that tone and the one in which the father addressed his wife even in moments of closest understanding. It gave Keith his first clear glimpse of the distinction between love and respect, between sympathy and trust.
"So you are home, Carl," the grandmother remarked in her usual quiet, matter-of-fact manner. Then she turned to her daughter-in-law, who had also risen to her feet: "Is your head as bad as usual, Anna?"
"Thank you," answered Keith's mother, and the boy could sense that she was not at her ease although she smiled pleasantly. "Those new powders I got from Dr. Skoeld helped a great deal."
"Hm," grunted the older woman as she walked across the room and sat down on a chair not far from Keith. "I had no time or money to bother with powders at your age, but times have changed."
She was taking in every detail of the room as she spoke, without looking pointedly at anything in particular. Suddenly Keith, who followed her every movement as if hypnotized, was startled by meeting the hard gaze of her calm, pale-blue eyes. Those eyes illuminated her small, wrinkled face so completely that the boy saw nothing else. Gone were her trimmed wig, her black shawl, her wide skirt of a checkered grey. Gone were even her thin, tight lips that used to close with the firm grip of a vice. Nothing was left but the eyes that looked him through and through until it was impossible for him to stand still any longer.
"What is the matter with Keith," she asked. "Sick, too?"
"No, thank heaven," the mother blurted out. "We have nothing to complain of his health—"
"No," the father broke in with a suggestion of grim humour, "not about his health, but—"
"Of course," the old lady said with a nod of comprehension. "I don't wish to criticize anybody or anything, but I don't think Keith is very obedient. He wants to pick and choose, I suppose, as if the food were not good enough for him."
"Well, he can't," the father rejoined.
"Children should eat anything and be glad to get it at that. Mine never thought of refusing what I gave them. If they ever had...."
She didn't finish the sentence, but it made Keith feel that he would never have dared one word of protest about the soup if the grandmother had been there a little earlier. Yet she spoke without marked feeling, without hardness, almost kindly. It was plain as she went on, that she believed intensely in what she said, and that it touched the very foundations of existence as she saw it:
"Children owe everything to their parents, and the least they can do in return is to accept thankfully what they get. That is what I did in my childhood, and I never dreamt of anything else. I had no will but that of my parents, and I knew that I could not and should not have any will of my own."
Everybody but the grandmother was still standing. The mother's face bore clear evidence of conflicting tendencies to accept and reject. Looking at her, Keith felt, as he often did, that there was something within her that gave his view of matters a fighting chance. The father, on the other hand, seemed of a sudden to have become a child himself, listening obediently and with absorbed approval. It looked almost as if he were still afraid of that white-haired, fragile, tight-lipped little woman, and the sight of him filled Keith with a vague uneasiness.
"Please sit down," said the grandmother at last. "I did not mean to disturb you, and Keith looks as if he might fall in a heap any moment."
"Why don't you stand up straight, Keith," asked his mother. "You will never grow up unless you do, and your grandmother will think worse of you than she already does."
"I am not blaming the child," the old lady began in the same passive, quietly assured tone. But before she got further, the father broke in:
"I think Keith had better go and play in his own corner—and please keep quiet, for grandmother and I have important things to talk of."
Keith retired as directed, and at that moment growing up seemed to him a more unreal and impossible thing than ever.
Not long afterwards the grandmother left, both parents escorting her to the outside door. When they returned to the living-room, Keith heard his mother say:
"I don't see why she should always find fault with Keith. He's not a bit worse than Brita's Carl, whom she is helping to spoil just as fast as she can."
"Well, that's her way," replied the father, paying no attention to the latter part of the remark. "She was brought up that way herself, and that's the way she brought up the four of us."
He was evidently in high good-humour and did what Keith had never seen him do before when no company was present. He got out a cigar from one of the little drawers in the upper part of mamma's bureau and sat down at the still covered dining table to smoke it. This made Keith feel almost as if they were having a party, and soon he sneaked out of his corner and joined the parents at the table. First he stood hesitatingly beside his mother, but little by little he edged over to the father until he actually was leaning against the latter's knee without being rebuffed. The father even put his hand on Keith's head, and the soup episode became very distant and dim.
"She used to lick us mercilessly," the father said as if speaking chiefly to himself, and as he spoke there was a reminiscent smile on his face and not a trace of resentment in his voice. "But she was absolutely just about it—so just that she used to lick all four of us whenever one had earned it. That was to keep the rest from thinking themselves any better, she said, and also because she felt sure that all of us had deserved it, although she had not happened to find it out."
"I think it hard and unjust," Keith's mother protested. "And I don't believe in beating children all the time."
"Those were hard days," the father mused on, "and everybody did it, and children seemed to know their place better then. I don't think we suffered very much from the beatings we got, they certainly did not make us think less of mother. She had her hands full, too, and not much time to think of nice distinctions. We were all small when father died, and Henrik was just a baby. There was no one but her to look after us, and how she did it, God only knows. But I have never heard her speak one word of complaint, and she always managed. Sometimes there was little enough, and we were mighty glad to get what there was, as she told you herself, but she always had something for us. Then we had to go to work just as soon as we could. I was thirteen when I began to add my share to the common heap."
"Did you go to school," Keith ventured, having recently overheard some talk of his parents that seemed to bear on his own immediate future.
"I did," the father replied, "but not long. I wanted to study, and my teacher was so anxious that I should go on that he promised to get me free admission to the higher school. But mother wouldn't listen. And I suppose it was not to be."
"Did you like school," asked Keith, not having the slightest idea of what a school might be like.
"Yes, I liked all about it but one thing. There was a big boy who bullied all the rest, and no one cared to fight him. He went for me the very first day of the term, and when I fought back, he gave me such a licking that I could hardly walk into the schoolroom afterwards. The next day he asked if I had had enough, and I told him I meant to go on till he had enough. So we started right in again, and he licked me worse than the day before. But I just couldn't give in. For three whole months we fought every day, and each day I made it harder for him. And one day I got the upper hand of him at last, and gave it to him until he began to cry and begged for mercy. Then I let him go, but no sooner had I turned my back on him, than he picked up a small sapling that was lying around and struck me over the head with it. There was a piece of root standing straight out, and it hit me right on top of my head so that the blood squirted out and I fainted on the spot. Then he had to leave school, and the last thing I heard of him was that the police had got him for something still worse."
"Oh, Carl," the mother cried with a shudder, "you should have complained to the teacher!"
"The teacher was watching us all the time, although I didn't know it. He told me afterwards that he would have helped me any time I asked, but that he would have thought less of me for asking."
Keith stared hard at his father and tried to imagine himself doing the same thing, but his fancy did not seem to work well in that direction. Later, when he was in bed, the father's story came back to him. Somehow it made him feel very proud, but also uneasy. He felt that there nothing more wonderful than to fight some one stronger than oneself and win, and soon he was busy slaying giants and dragons and bears and other monsters that he had heard Granny tell about. But he tried to think of himself as fighting a real boy in the way as his father, his dreams seemed to peter out ignominiously.
Then his mother came to in to tuck him in and make him say his prayers and kiss him good-night. Suddenly he flung his arms about her neck in a passion of craving for tenderness and protection. Putting his mouth close to her ear, he whispered a question that had nothing to do with the father's story or his fancies of a few moments ago.
"Why must I eat things I don't want?"
The next Sunday morning found Keith more than usually restless. Half a dozen times in quick succession he appealed to the mother for suggestions as to what to do. Finally she turned to the father, who was preparing to go out:
"Can't you take him along, Carl? He has never seen the bank, and he really should get out a little."
For a little while the father said nothing. Then he spoke directly to Keith:
"Put on your coat and cap."
The boy who had been looking and listening with open mouth and a heart that hardly dared to beat, became wildly excited.
"Now, Keith," the father admonished, "you can't go unless you behave."
"Where's my coat, mother," asked Keith eagerly and unheedingly.
"Don't you know that yourself," growled the father. "You are a big boy already, and you should keep your own things in order."
"I have hung it up where he cannot reach it," the mother interceded. "I'll get it for him."
The coat and the cap were on at last, but then began the struggle about the muffler and the mittens. The mother had crocheted them herself for Keith and insisted that they should be worn whenever he went outdoors during autumn and winter. The muffler was long and white, with blue rings two inches apart, and in shape more like a boa.
Keith wanted the mittens, because his hands got cold easily, but not the muffler, which, he thought, made him look like a girl.
The father objected to everything of that kind, which he said, tended to make the boy soft and susceptible to colds. He himself did not put on an overcoat until the weather grew very severe, and he never buttoned it, no matter how cold it grew. His throat was always bare, and he never wore gloves of any kind. Nor did he ever put his hands in his pockets while walking. He had a favourite trick of picking up a handful of snow, which he rolled into a ball and carried in his hand until it became hard as ice. His hands were milk-white, beautifully shaped and well cared for. It was impossible to believe that for many years they had done the hardest kind of work, often outdoors and generally in a poorly heated drafty shop. He was proud of them, although he pretended not to care when anybody spoke of them, and they filled Keith with admiration and envy. He tried to follow the father's example, but with the result that his hands grew red as boiled crawfish and began to ache under the nails until he had to cry.
"You bring him up a woman," the father muttered, when Keith was ready at last.
Then they left, having been kissed several times each by the mother, who warned Keith not to let go of his father's hand under any circumstances while they were on the streets.
Down in the passageway on the ground floor, Keith started to take off the muffler.
"No," said the father. "Now you keep it on. Your mother has told you to wear it, and you must not take it off behind her back."
"But you didn't want me to have it on," Keith protested in genuine surprise.
"No, I didn't, because I want you to be hardened and grow up like a man. But there is something I want still more, and that is for you to obey your mother, first because children should always obey their parents, and secondly because it makes your mother very unhappy if you don't do as she tells you."
His tone changed slightly during the last part of his remark. Something of an appeal came into it and went straight to Keith's heart, filling it with a glow of righteous determination. It was always that way with him. A word spoken kindly made him eager to comply, and that was particularly the case if it came from some person not given to sentimentality.
In the lane they turned and saw the mother lying in the window to watch them. As usual, kisses were thrown back and forth as they passed up the lane, but Keith felt rather impatient about it, and it was with a marked sense of relief he turned the corner into East Long Street. He was eager to push ahead into unknown regions and did not care to look back.
Although he spoke little enough, the father proved a more genial companion than Keith had dared to expect. In fact, he had been a little oppressed at the thought of being entirely alone with the father, which was quite a new experience to him. But now he found it a pleasure, and their communion seemed more easy than when the mother was with them. He walked sedately enough, clinging to one of his father's soft, white hands, but every so often he ventured a skip and a jump without being rebuked, and on the whole he felt the kind of happiness that used to come on Christmas Eve, after the father had started to distribute the presents.
Keith had frequently accompanied his mother as far as the little square at the end of the street, and he pointed proudly to the grocery store where he had helped to buy things.
"Yes," responded the father, and again his tone seemed strangely unfamiliar to the boy. "I might have had such a store myself, if luck had been with me."
The idea was more than Keith could digest at once. It was too overwhelming, and once more he looked at his father with the feeling of wonder and awe that sometimes took hold of him almost against his will—a feeling that clashed hopelessly with the nervous shyness commonly inspired by the father's stern manners.
"Why didn't you get it," the boy ventured at last.
"Because I was born under the Monkey Star," replied the father grimly.
The boy wondered what kind of star that was, but still more he wondered at the father's mood which appeared to indicate a displeasure not directed at the questioner. Before Keith could ask anything more, they had started across one of the open market places that line the fresh-water side of the old City.
The place was empty except for a few closed and abandoned booths. But at the foot of it lay rows of one-masted sailing vessels loaded halfway up their masts with piles of fire-wood. In the background, beyond a small sheet of water crossed by a low iron bridge, rose abruptly the rocky walls of the South End, with funny old houses perched precariously along their edges. Keith stared so hard at all the new things that not a single question had a chance to escape him before they entered another street and stopped in front of a stone house that to him looked like a castle.
It had a real portal instead of an ordinary doorway, and the inside was still more impressive. Keith had been to church once or twice, and for a moment he thought himself in one. But he saw no seats, and his father did not look solemn at all. The walls were of stone curiously streaked and coloured. The ceiling was so far up that Keith had to bend far backwards to see it. It was full of ornaments and supported by two rows of tall round stone pillars so thick that Keith could not get his arms halfway around one of them. In the background rose a very broad and seemingly endless stairway of white stone. While they climbed it step by step, Keith wondered if the king in his palace had anything like it.
Arrived at the top at last, they turned into a sort of lobby—a rather bare room with several plain desks by the windows and many hooks along the inner wall. There the father took off both his coats and armed himself with a huge feather duster and a rag.
"Remember, Keith," he said in his ordinary tone, "that you may look as much as you please, but that you must not touch anything. If you do, you can never come here again."
Having passed through several smaller rooms, they emerged finally into a hall so bright and spacious that Keith stopped with a gasp and for a moment thought himself in the open air again. It was as wide as the building itself and three sides were full of large windows A counter of mahogany that looked miles long ran from one end to the other. The place behind it contained many desks so tall that Keith could not have reached the tops of them with his raised hand. But from a distance he could see that they were full of tempting things—paper and pens and pencils, red bars of sealing wax, glue-pots and rulers and glistening shears.
Two men, also in their shirt-sleeves, were busy at the desks, dusting them and arranging the things on top of them. And the father quickly went to work in the same way.
It seemed interesting to Keith, who would have liked to try his hand at it. But it also disconcerting for some reason he could not explain and for a while he watched the father as if unwilling to believe his own eyes. Somehow it did not tally with certain notions formed in Keith's head on the night when the church was burning. At last he up to his father and asked:
"Is this where you always work?"
"No," was the answer given with a peculiar grimness. "This is for the officials."
"What are they?"
"Oh, tellers and cashiers and bookkeepers."
Keith noted the words for future inquiries. For the moment they meant nothing to him.
"Why are you not here too," he persisted.
"Because I am only an attendant—a mere vaktmaestare. That is a fact you had better fix in your mind once for all, my boy."
"Is that your little boy, Wellander," one of the other men called out at that moment. "Let us have a look at him."
Hand-shakings and head-pattings followed as Keith was presented to "Uncle" This and "Uncle" That. He didn't object and he didn't care. They looked nice enough, and their talk was friendly, but somehow he felt that his parents did not care for them. Some of the glamour had left the place. In spite of its magnificence, he did not like it, although he was glad to have seen it.
Discovering a wastepaper basket full of envelopes with brightly coloured marks on them, he regained his interest a little. He knew those marks for stamps and they had pictures on them which attracted him very much. So he made a bee-line for the basket and proceeded to pick out what he liked best.
"Have you forgotten what I told you," he heard his father shout to him.
"They have been thrown away," he said going toward the father.
"That is neither here nor there," was the sharp answer he got. "You know they are not yours, and so you must not touch them. Put them back at once."
Keith did as he was told, wondering if he really had done anything wrong or if his father merely objected for some reason of his own.
Then he walked around uninterested and forlorn until they were ready to go home again. The stairway seemed shorter as they descended, but the pillars were tall and thick as before. And on the way home his father found a little shop open and bought him a few oere's worth of hard candy.
It was the only time Keith could ever remember his having done such a thing.
The lodger happened to be away when they got home, and the mother had opened the door to the parlour in order to get a little more air and light into the living-room. After dinner the father went into the parlour to take a nap on the big sofa, while the mother settled down comfortably in her easy chair, a piece of handiwork on her lap as usual. Keith took up his customary position on the footstool to tell her what he had seen and done during his morning excursion.
She was eager to hear everything and helped him along with questions, and yet there ran through her very eagerness a subtle inner resistance which the boy felt vaguely. It as if she never really cared for anything concerning him in which she herself had not taken part.
The original glamour had returned to every aspect of his new experience, and he tried excitedly to describe the wonders of the vestibule, the stairway and the big hall. In the midst of it he paused suddenly and fell to staring into vacancy.
"Was that all," she asked, puzzled by his silence.
"Lena dusts our rooms, doesn't she," was his rather startling counter-question.
"Mostly," the mother replied with a searching glance at his puckered brows. "Although I sometimes ..."
"You don't have to," the boy broke in.
"No" she admitted, "but then I am sure it is properly done."
"Is that why papa dusts the tables in the bank?"
A pause followed during which it was the mother's turn to stand the boy's intense scrutiny.
"No," she said at last. "He does it because it is a part of his work, and a shame it is that he has to. Scrub-women come in and do the rest of the cleaning, but they are not trusted with the desks, and so the attendants have to take turns doing that part of it. That's why your father has to leave so very early in the morning."
Mother and son lapsed into silence once more. It was broken by another question from the boy.
"Why couldn't I take some stamps that had been thrown away?"
"Had your father said anything about it before you took them?"
"He told me not to touch anything."
"Then you couldn't because he had told you to leave things alone. He is so careful in all such matters. Sometimes he goes a little too far, perhaps, but you can be sure that he means right. Other people want the stamps, and there is a lot of gossip and envy about everything, and he is too proud to be dragged into that sort of thing. It is always better, Keith, to leave alone what you know is not your own. Honesty endures beyond all else."
Keith made no direct response, but sprang one more irrelevant question:
"Why didn't papa get the grocery store?"
"How do you know," the mother demanded with a quick glance at him.
"Papa told me."
"Well," she drawled as if thinking. Then she settled back in the chair, her mind made up. "Listen, and I will tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a rich old man who owned a grocery store."
"That's where they sell prunes and raisins and sugar," the boy put in.
"And the store was so fine," she went on unheedingly, "that the old man was permitted to sell all those things to the king's own kitchen. The old man had many assistants, but at the head of them all was a young man who knew just what to do, because he had worked in such stores ever since he was a little boy. And he was so honest and able and polite that the people liked him very much and came to the store for his sake, but the old man liked him more anybody else."
"Was the old man nice," Keith asked.
"Yes, indeed, but he was also very peculiar, and the most peculiar thing about him was that he hated all women and thought that a man who married was lost for ever."
"Did he have any children?"
"No, men who want no wives get no children. That is a part of their punishment. And so when the owner of the store got older and older, and began to feel tired, he didn't know to whom he should leave the store. You may be sure that he thought it over many times, because he was exceedingly proud of the store and wanted it to go on. The result of his thinking was that he decided to give it to the young man whom he trusted and liked so much."
"How did the young man look," Keith broke in.
"Something like your father, I should say. But while all this was going on, the young man had met a princess and fallen in love with her...."
"A real princess," asked the boy with wide-open eyes.
"All princesses are real in their own opinion. And she and the young man had promised to marry each other, and this the old man learned at last. Then he was very, very angry and told the young man that he was a fool. And when the young man answered that there were many of his kind, and that he had pledged his word, the old man told him that he would not get the store unless he promised to have nothing more to do with the princess. But the young man loved her and would not give her up, and so, you see—he didn't get the store. Don't you think that was nobly done, Keith?"
"Ye-es," the boy assented without particular enthusiasm, "but if he had got the store, we should have been rich now?"
"We," repeated the mother in a funny tone. "Why, then there would have been no we."
"Why not," he demanded.
"Or it might have been worse still," she whispered as if momentarily forgetful of the boy's presence.
"There is your father now," she said a moment later, when a slight stir was heard in the adjoining room. "Don't say anything more about the store.... Do you know what your father wanted to be most of all?"
Keith looked up speculatively as his father appeared at the doorway to the parlour—a man of medium height, who stooped because he was nearsighted, and so looked shorter than he was, but also stronger because of the great width of his shoulders.
"I can tell you," the father put in. "When I couldn't study, I wanted to be a sailor, and I tried to take hire on a ship whose master knew me and wished to help me. Then they found out that I was too nearsighted to steer by the compass, and that was the end of it. Didn't I tell that I was born under the Monkey Star?"
"Don't talk like that, Carl," the mother protested, rising to give him a kiss. "You have done very well, and there is no man in the bank more respected than you."
"Yes," he admitted with something like a grin. "They know I wouldn't steal even if I had a chance, and they let me collect four million crowns, as I did the other day, but I shall never get beyond where I am today. So there you are—what's struck for a farthing will never be a dollar."
Keith's head was still full of what he had heard when he went to bed that night, and he didn't know whether to feel happy or unhappy about it. His father had grown bigger and more interesting in some ways, and yet the boy's chief impression was of a failure and a fall. It was this impression that stuck most deeply in his mind.
Keith's home was not one of those hospitable places with the doors always wide open, to which people are drawn almost against their will and from which they come away with difficulty. Perhaps it was, above all, the spirit of the father that settled this matter. To him, more than to any Englishman, his home was his castle, and he liked to keep the drawbridge raised against unwelcome company. And most company seemed unwelcome, although at times, when the right persons appeared at the right moment, he could be happy as a child and unbend in a manner that made Keith gape with wonder. When her good mood prevailed, the mother, too, was touchingly eager for the diversion provided by a chance visit, but when the dark moments came, she shunned everybody, while at the same time she watched any prolonged failure to call with morbid suspiciousness, ascribing it promptly to a sense of superiority toward herself and her family. Granny was glad enough to talk to anybody, but she would never ask any one to call, and if no one came, she was apt to dig out some particularly bitter proverb, like "money alone has many friends."
Both parents could be hospitable enough when occasion so demanded, but it was a formal thing with them, exercised only after due preparation. In many ways, they were large-heartedly generous, but only in a serious manner, when actual need required it. They might give freely beyond what they could well afford, but the father could be out of humour for days if some little thing regarded as particularly his own had been touched or used by another member of the family.
As it was, people came and went a good deal, but they came formally or because some specific errand brought them, and most of the errands, Keith soon realized, were connected with a desire for help. The old women living like nightbirds in the garret, would drop in frequently, and almost invariably with some tale of woe that sooner or later drew from the mother relief in one form or another. And one of Keith's earliest tasks, half coveted and half feared, was to walk up to one of the attics with a plate of soup or a saucer full of jam or some other tidbit. Others would come from the outside, and they, too, were mostly old women. They always wanted to pat Keith, and he objected passionately to all of them. His especial aversion was a gaunt old woman with a big hooked nose and a pair of startlingly large, sad-looking eyes. She always smiled, and her smile was hopelessly out of keeping with the rest of her face. The very sight of her made Keith forget all his manners. Time and again his mother rebuked him and tried to bring him around by telling the old woman's story—a story of wonderful self-sacrifice and heroic struggle—but it made no difference to him. There was something about the sight of poverty and unhappiness and failure that provoked him beyond endurance, and sometimes he would turn to his mother with a reckless cry of:
"Why do you let them come here at all?"
For the friends of the family, who came there on an equal footing, he showed more respect, and for a few of them he felt a real liking. As a rule, however, they inspired him with nothing but indifference, and his one reason for greeting them with some approach at cordiality was that they brought a change into the general monotony of the home, and that their coming might lead to the distribution of some dainties out of the ordinary. Some of his parents' friends were poor and growing poorer. Others had the appearance of doing well and hoping for more. It made no difference to Keith. They were all middle-aged, sedate and preoccupied with their own little affairs. They tried to be nice to him, but they did not interest him, and his main grievance against them—not clearly understood by any means—was that they brought nothing into his life of what he wanted.
Had he been asked what he wanted, he would have answered unhesitatingly:
"Some one to play with."
Having whined and nagged until his mother no longer could bear it, Keith at last obtained the cherished permission to go and play in the lane.
"But look out for horses," warned his mother as he stood in the doorway ready to run. "And don't run out of sight, and you must come when I call, and—you had better keep away from other boys, or you may come home quite naked this time."
"What do you mean," asked Keith, turning to see whether the mother was joking or talking seriously.
"Don't you recall when those boys took your coat from you, and you came up here crying?"
There could be no mistake about her meaning just what she said. Keith stood still thinking very hard. Here was another memory that he could not remember at all. There was not a trace of it left in his mind, and yet it must have happened. It sounded exciting, too, and he wished to know all about it.
"You had better close the door," his mother suggested.
"All right," said Keith, hastening to close the door from the outside and make a dive for the stairway. There would be plenty of time to ask about the loss of his coat later. He was halfway down the first flight when he heard the kitchen door open behind him, and his heart leapt into his throat.
"You must go down the stairs quietly," his mother called out from above, whereupon Keith's heart resumed its normal position.
He descended the rest of that flight on tip-toe. The second one was taken more rapidly, and down the last one he went two steps at a time, the little iron plates under his heels hitting the stones with a ring that echoed through the old house.
In the lane he found them loading a dray in front of the distillery, and he started across to watch the men straining at the next barrel. He had hardly taken a step in that direction, however, when a loud pop was heard from the black cave forming the entrance to the distillery. It was followed first by a single cry, and then by a hubbub of voices. A second later a young man came running out and threw himself prone into the gutter, where a trickle of water was to be seen.
Keith was too astonished to be frightened at once. He could not understand what made the man act in this way. Then another man came out in a rush and began to beat the legs of the man in the gutter with his hands, and Keith suddenly noticed that little blue flames were dancing up and down the grimy leathern trousers of the first man.
The memory of the night when the church burned leaped into his mind, making him turn instinctively toward the passageway and his mother's lap.
At that moment a third man appeared carrying a big tank full of water which he poured over the man in the gutter. The latter got on his feet and limped back into the distillery, supported by his two comrades.
Keith was left behind, trembling a little and gazing curiously at the hanging head of the dray-horse which had not made the slightest movement during the previous excitement.
"He'll have to go to bed," said a sleepy voice at his shoulder just then.
Keith swung around as if touched by an electric shock. Before him he saw another small boy, apparently of his own age, but a little taller, and light-haired like himself.
"What's your name," asked Keith as soon as he caught his breath.
"Johan," answered the other stolidly, but not unfriendly.
"Have you got another name like me?"
"My name is Johan Peter Gustafsson," was the reply given in the tone of a lesson painfully learned.
"Where do you live?"
"Not in our house," Keith protested.
"No, down there," Johan explained, pointing to the little side door leading into the courtyard of one of the corner houses at the Quay.
"What's your father?" Keith continued his cross-examination.
"Vaktmaestare" said Johan indifferently.
"So is mine," Keith cried eagerly. "Have you got a bank, too?"
Johan shook his head as if unable to grasp what Keith meant.
"My popsey works in the office down there," he said, "and we live beside it, and at night I go with popsey when he carries all the mail to the postoffice."
"Why do you call him popsey," inquired Keith, fascinated by the new word and wondering if he would dare use it to his own father.
"Because that's what he is," Johan declared.
A few minutes later they were playing together as if they had known each other for ever. They had just discovered an unusually large and tempting pin in a crack at the bottom of the gutter, when Keith heard his mother calling from the window above:
"What are you doing, Keith?"
"Oh, just playing," he replied without looking up, forgetful of everything but the pin that would not come out of the crack.
"Who is that with you?"
"That is Johan," Keith shouted back triumphantly, "and his papa is a vaktmaestare, too."
"Come right up and let me speak to you," was the insistant rejoinder from above.
"Oh, please, mamma," the boy pleaded, his voice breaking a little, "can't I stay just a little longer?"
"You must come at once," his mother commanded.
"Is that your mumsey," Johan asked.
"It is my mamma," Keith retorted, his attention momentarily diverted by Johan's most peculiar way of referring to his parents.
"Then you had better go," advised the new friend sagely, "or she will tell your popsey, and then you know what happens to you."
"I think I can come down again, if you wait for me," cried Keith as he ran into the long dark passageway.
At that moment a cry of "Johan" rose from the lower part of the lane, and Keith had to come back once more to look.
"There's my mumsey now," said Johan philosophically, pointing to an open window on the ground floor of the corner house. With that he slouched off in a manner that Keith half envied and half resented.
The sudden emergence of Johan had filled Keith's heart with a new hope. Here was a possible playmate at last. The fact that his father was a vaktmaestare like Keith's ought to settle all paternal opposition, the boy thought. But to his great surprise, he found this not to be the case.
A severe cross-examination followed his return home. In the midst of it, Keith made a grievous strategic mistake, lured on by his insatiable curiosity about strange words.
"Why does Johan call his mamma 'mumsey' and his papa 'popsey,'" he asked unexpectedly. "It sounds funny."
"Because he does not know any better," his mother rejoined with unmistakable disapproval. "It doesn't sound nice, and it isn't nice."
"But his papa and mamma don't care," Keith objected.
"That's the worst of it," said the mother. "It shows they are not very nice people, and I wish to talk to your father before you can play with Johan any more."
"I have heard of them," the grandmother piped up, making them both turn towards her, one hopefully and the other doubtfully.
The grandmother never left the kitchen. She walked from the sofa to the big foot-stool, from the foot-stool to the table by the window, and from the table back to the sofa. Sometimes she would not be seen talking to another person for days. And yet she had a miraculous way of surprising the rest of the family with pieces of gossip picked out of the air, one might think. There was apparently not a person in the neighbourhood of whom she had not heard, and about whom she could not give some more or less intimate piece of information. They were all perfect strangers to her, but she followed their lives with as much keenness for minute details as if they had been her nearest kin or dear friends.
"She was a cook in the house of the man whose office Gustafsson works in," the grandmother went on. "He used to do odd jobs for the family, cutting wood and such things, and in that way he met her in the kitchen, and one fine day they decided to get married. She is older than him, and I guess it was her last chance. But the family was crazy about her, and when they heard of it, they gave him the place of attendant in the office downstairs and the two rooms back of the office to live in. He was just a peasant boy, and she reads the Bible all day and goes to prayer-meeting at night."
"How do you know all that," wondered Keith's mother, having learned by this time that the old woman's gossip was generally well founded on truth.
"Oh," the grandmother said with a queer smile particular to such occasions, "a little bird sang it to me."
"I think they must be rather low people," Keith's mother concluded.
"Perhaps," the grandmother said, "but they have plenty of religion at least, and I don't think the boy can do much harm to Keith."
Keith ran up to the grandmother and kissed her impulsively.
That night there was a great family council. Keith's father was told about Johan and the Gustafssons.
"I think they are about as good as ourselves," was his verdict, given in a tone suggesting contempt for his own position rather than respect for that of Johan's father. "But Keith has his toys, and that ought to be enough for him."
"It is rather lonely for him," the mother rejoined, "and he should get out a little, I suppose, but I hate to have him playing about the streets, and I fear Johan's manners are not very good."
"The best thing is to send him to school," said the father.
"What are you talking of, Carl," the mother cried. "The idea—when he is barely five!"
"He knows more about the letters than I did when I began school at seven," the father came back unperturbed.
"I don't think it would be very bad for him to play a little with Johan now and then," said the mother evasively, bending down to kiss Keith, who had snuggled up to her during the preceding talk. Then she put her hand through his waves of almost flaxen hair, bent his head slightly backward, looked straight into his eyes, and asked:
"You don't want to leave me, do you?"
"No," said Keith, hugging her passionately, "but I think I should like to go to school."
The idea carried no distinct image to his mind, and he felt a little timid toward all those unknown possibilities implied by the word school, but this slight feeling of hesitation was swamped by a longing so restless and so irresistible that it sent tears to his eyes, although he could not tell himself what it was he longed for.
It was true that Keith knew a good deal for his age. In fact, he had mastered the whole alphabet and was making good progress in spelling under his mother's guidance. He was eager and quick to learn. Generally his interest was rather fitful, but along this one line it showed no wavering. It was as if the boy had known that the art of reading would offer him an escape of some sort.
He might have advanced still more rapidly if his mother had been more steady in her teaching. She was very proud of him, and she spoke of reading and studying as if there were nothing finer in the world.
"No better burden bears any man than much wisdom," she quoted one day from the old Eddas—probably without knowing the source. "I know, if any one does, what lack of money means, but I want you rather to have learning than wealth. Then, when the whole world is listening to you with bated breath, I shall walk across North Bridge resting on your arm, and I shall be repaid for all that my own life has not brought me. We shall walk arm in arm, you and I, at four o'clock, when the King goes for a walk, too, and all Stockholm is there to see.... Will you do that, Keith?"
"Of course," he cried, his eyes shining.
But sometimes she was helpless in the grip of one of her depressed moods, and then days might go by without a lesson. Far from being made happy by that respite, he would plead with her to be taught "one more little letter," and finally she would bring down the book from the hanging book shelf on the wall back of her easy chair. There stood the a-b-c book she had bought for him, and her favourite hymn-book, and the New Testament given to the father when he left school to begin earning his own living, and the miniature copy of Luther's catechism presented to him at the time of his confirmation. There, too, rested the big Bible which Keith's mother treasured as much as her wedding ring and the bureau that was her chief wedding present. It was a gift from her father when she was confirmed, and on its fly-leaf he had written:
"Belongs to Anna Margareta Carlsson."
It was this Bible rather than the a-b-c book that became the principal means of instruction. Keith loved it, and he could not have been much more than three years old when he first began to pore over its quaint old illustrations. The first of these showed an old man with a long beard and a trailing white garment floating over a sheet of water out of which rose two ragged pieces of rock. At one corner a pallid sun emerged out of the fleeing mists, while, at the opposite corner, a tiny moon crescent seemed about to disappear beneath the stilled waters.
"Who is that," asked Keith not once, but many times.
"That is God creating the world," explained his mother.
"But I don't see the world."
"It is just coming out," she said, pointing to the rocks.
"Who's God," was Keith's next question as a rule.
"He is the father of the whole universe," the mother said reverently.
"Papa's too," asked the boy once, and seeing his mother nod assent, he cried jubilantly:
"Then he must be my grandfather, whose portrait you haven't got!"
More frequently he stopped short as soon as he heard about the universal fatherhood. That was grown-up talk to him, and like much else, it carried no meaning to his mind. Nor did he waste much thought on it after having asked once if he could see God and been told that no man could do that and live. His mind was occupied with food and clothes and toys and people and things. What could never be seen was easily dismissed—much more easily than the spook that one of the servant girls insisted on having seen, thus making Keith's father so angry that he nearly discharged her on the spot. And from that first picture in the Bible the boy turned impatiently to another further on, where a small boy with a sword almost as big as himself was cutting the head off a man much taller than Keith's father. And at the top of each page appeared big black letters which he could recognize almost as easily as those in the a-b-c book, although they were differently shaped and much more pretty to look at.
To Keith this opening up of a new world was exclusively pleasant at first, and so it was to his mother, but other people seemed to be troubled by it at times. One day his free-spoken aunt was visiting with them, and, as usual, disagreeing with Keith's mother, who evidently felt one of her dark spells approaching. Wishing to express her disagreement at some particular point quite forcibly, but wishing also to keep the listening boy from enriching his vocabulary with a term of doubtful desirability, she took the precaution to spell out the too picturesque word:
"R-o-t!" Just then she caught a gleam of aroused interest in Keith's eyes, and to make assurance doubly sure, she hastened to add: "Says rod!"
"No," Keith objected promptly. "It says rot, and I want to know what it means."
"I knew that small pigs also have ears, but I didn't know they could spell," was her amused comment, uttered in a tone that touched something in Keith's inside most pleasantly. Then, however, she went on in a manner grown quite serious:
"You had better send him to school, Anna."
"Yes," replied the mother to Keith's intense surprise, "Carl and I have been talking it over and practically decided to do so. He certainly needs some better guidance than he gets from his poor, good-for-nothing mother."
"Good-for-nothing fiddlesticks!" sputtered the aunt. "You'll make me say something much worse than rot. Anna, if you keep talking like that when the boy hears it."
Keith had heard, but his mind was absorbed by the new idea.
"Well," said his mother, "I cannot take care of him properly. He is running down to that Gustafsson boy all time and most of the time I can't get him home again except by going for him."
"Johan's mother said yesterday that I hadn't been there half an hour when you called for me," Keith broke in. "And then she said that I had better not come back if you don't think Johan good enough for to play with."
"I don't say we are better than anybody else," said the mother, addressing herself to the aunt rather than to Keith. "But I don't know what he is doing when he is down there, and Johan seems such a clod that I can't see why Keith wants to play with him."
"Why can't Johan come up here," asked Keith.
"Because ...," said his mother, and got no further.
"Yes," the aunt declared in a tone of absolute finality, "you must send him to school."
No sooner had the aunt taken her leave than Keith assailed his mother with excited demands for further information. She took his head between her both hands and looked at him as if she would never see him again.
"Only five," she said at last, "and already he wants to get away. A few years more—a few short years—and you will be gone for good, I suppose."
"Oh, mamma," he protested, "you know that I shall never leave you!"
"No, never entirely," she cried, kissing him fervently. "Promise me you won't, Keith!"
He promised, and then he wanted to know what they did in school. But she began to talk about difficulties and dangers and temptations and all sorts of things he couldn't grasp. She spoke with intense feeling, and as always when she was deeply moved, his whole being was set vibrating in tune with her mood. His cheeks flushed, his throat choked, his eyes brimmed over with tears, and at last he began to wonder whether he had not better stay right where he was. Her eyes were dim with tears, too, and once more she took his head between her hands and looked an endless time before she said:
"Now you are beginning life in earnest, Keith!"
One day in the early autumn Keith's mother dressed him with unusual care and kissed him several times before they left the house. Granny had to be kissed, too, and even Lena came forward to shake hands and say good-bye. It was a very solemn affair.
Hand in hand Keith and his mother walked clear across the old City, past Great Church, until they came to a very broad lane at the foot of which was a square with a statue in it. At the other end of the square lay a very large, red building.
"That's the House of Knights where all the nobility hang up their coats-of-arms," said the mother.
But Keith was too excited to ask any questions at that moment.
They entered a house much finer and neater than their own and stopped in front of a door on the second floor. A hubbub of shrill voices could be heard from within. Keith gripped his mother's hand more firmly.
Then the door was opened by a white-haired lady with spectacles and they were admitted to a large room, containing a score of little boys and girls. A dead silence fell on the room as they appeared, and every eye turned toward Keith, who blushed furiously as was his wont whenever he found himself observed.
After a brief talk with the teacher, Keith's mother to him:
"This is Aunt Westergren, whom you must obey as you obey me. And now be a good boy and don't cry."
As the mother tarried by the door for a moment to exchange a last word with the teacher, and perhaps also to cast one more lingering glance at the boy, a little girl ran up to Keith, put her right fore-finger on top of his head and cried out:
All the other children giggled. Keith blushed more deeply than ever, but did not say a word or stir a limb. A moment later the teacher began to cross-question him about his knowledge of letters and spelling, and he found it much easier to answer her than to face the children. But, of course, after a while he was quite at home among them without knowing how it had happened.
That afternoon his mother came for him. The next morning he had to start out alone under direct orders from the father, and alone he made his way home again, his bosom swelling with a sense of wonderful independence. Years passed before he learned that his mother had watched over him for days before she was fully convinced of his ability to find the way by himself.
The autumn passed. Winter and spring came and went. It was summer again. The little school closed. Keith could read the head-lines at the tops of the pages in the big Bible without help. But of the school where he had learned it hardly a memory remained. It was as if the place had made no impression whatsoever on his mind. And the children with whom he studied and played nearly a whole year might as well have been dreams, forgotten at the moment of waking—all but one of them.
Harald alone seemed a real, living thing, a part of Keith's own life, but not a part of the school where the two met daily. He was a year older than Keith, a little slow mentally, but rather unusually advanced in other ways. His father was a merchant of some sort, with an office of his own and half a dozen clerks at his command, and Harald had been taught to regard himself as a young gentleman. They lived a few houses from the school, in the same street, and their home was a revelation to Keith.
Houses less fortunate than his own were familiar to him, but he had never seen a better one until he was asked to visit Harald for the first time, and the comparisons made on that occasion stuck deeply in his mind.
They entered through a hallway where caps and coats were left behind, and from there they went into a room where every piece of furniture was of mahogany. Between the windows hung a mirror in a gilded frame that was as tall as the room itself, so that Keith could see himself from head to foot. The object that caught the boy's attention most of all, however, was a chandelier suspended from the middle of the ceiling and made up of hundreds of little rods of glass. As Harald slammed the door on entering, some of the rods were set in motion and struck against each other with a tiny twinkle that seemed to Keith the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.
That room, Harald said, was used only to receive visitors, and he gave Keith to understand that there were any number of other rooms on both sides of it. One of these was Harald's own and used by nobody else. He could even lock the door of it on the inside, if he wanted. There they played with tin soldiers several inches high, and Harald had a little cannon out of which they could shoot dry peas, so that it was possible to fight a real battle by dividing the soldiers and taking turns of using the cannon. Finally Harald's mother appeared with a bowl of fruit and greeted the visitor with a certain searching kindness that made him a little uneasy in the midst of all his enjoyment.
Keith returned home that day much later than unusual to find his mother in a state of frantic worry. At first she declared that he must not go anywhere without her knowing about it in advance, but after a while she became quite interested and palpably elated by Keith's tale of all the glories he had seen. She explained that the glass rods on the chandeliers were prisms that showed the whole rainbow when you held them in front of a light, and she asked him eagerly if he had been invited to come again. But when the father heard of it that night, he said:
"I don't think Keith should go there at all. He can't ask such a boy over here, and the next thing we know, Keith's own home will no longer be good enough for him."
Keith could hardly believe his ears. He had never felt such resentment against his father, and just before going to bed, while his father was out of the room for a moment, he whispered to his mother:
"I think papa does not want me to have any fun!"
"You don't understand," she retorted. "He means well. Remember what Granny says: Equals make the best playmates."
Three or four times Keith went home with Harald. Then the gates of paradise were suddenly slammed in his face. One day, as they were leaving school together, Harald remarked quite calmly:
"You can't come home with me any more."
"Why," gasped Keith, his throat choking.
"Because mamma says I must find some one else to play with," Harald explained. Then he softened a little: "I can't help it, and I like you."
"But why," insisted Keith on the verge of tears.
"You look like a nice boy, mamma says, but your father is nothing but a vaktmaestare, and mine is a grosshandlare (wholesale dealer)."
Keith walked home in a stupor and began to cry the moment he saw his mother. Her lips tightened and her face grew white as she listened to the story he sobbed forth.
"Now you can see that your father was right," she said at last. "Of course, we are just as good as anybody else, but others don't think so—because we are poor. But we have our pride, and you had better stay and play with your own soldiers hereafter. Then I don't have to worry about you either."
But Keith had very little pride. He continued to seek Harald's company as before, and twice, as they about to part in front of the latter's house, Keith asked if he couldn't come up and play for a little while.
"Don't you understand," Harald asked the second time, "that my mamma does not think you good enough for me to play with?"
Keith had not thought of it in that way. He had learned that there were people who looked down on his parents, just as they, in their turn, looked down on the parents of Johan, but the idea that he himself might be regarded equally inferior was entirely new to him. It was so strange to him that it took him years to grasp it. And when it came into his mind, he felt as if some one had raised a heavy stick to strike him, and he cowered under the impending blow.
Christmas was approaching.
The days grew shorter and shorter, until at last a scant four hours of daylight remained around noon. Even then a lamp was often needed for reading.
The lead-coloured sky nearly touched the roofs. The drizzle that filled the air most of the time seemed to enter men's minds, too, sapping their vigour until life became a burden. Meeting on the streets, they would cry in irritable tones:
"When will the snow come?"
It was always a tedious time for Keith. The incident with Harald made it worse this year. Except for the daily attendance at school, he was virtually a prisoner. Johan was to be seen only from the window, whence Keith enviously watched him prowling about the lane, his hands buried in the side-pockets of an old coat much too long—apparently inherited from someone else—and his shoulders hunched as if fore-destined to support loads of wood like those his father used to carry. If no one was in the living-room, Keith might shout a greeting to his playmate below, but it was not much fun, and Johan had a contemptuous way of asking why he did not come out and play.
Yet the season was not without its compensations. Stores of every kind were laid in to last through the winter. One might have thought that a severance of communications with the outside world was feared. Keith marvelled at the magnificence of it, and once in a while he asked why it had to be done. The answers were unsatisfactory. The main reason was that it had always been done, but he gathered also that, while it was perfectly respectable to live from day to day during the summer, to do so during the winter would be a distinct proof of social and economic inferiority.
The fire wood came first—a mighty load of birch logs piled along the house front in the lane. Two men were busy all day with saw and ax, reducing those logs into pieces matching the fire-places in the kitchen stove and the two glazed brick ovens in the living-room and the parlour. Two more men piled the pieces into huge sacks and staggered with those on their backs up the five flights of stairs to the top garret under the peak of the house, which belonged to the Wellanders.
Keith would stand in the kitchen door watching them. First he heard the slow clamp-clamp of ascending foot-steps. Then the man's heavy breathing became audible, and Keith felt as if the load was resting on his own shoulders. Finally the open top of the bag, with its bright stuffing of newly cut birch wood, showed at the corner of the landing quite a long time before the head beneath it came into sight. As the man crossed the landing in front of Keith, bent almost double under his burden, a dew of pungent perspiration would drop on the slate-coloured stones, leaving behind a curious path of round spots. Not a word was said at that time, but coming down the men would sometimes throw a crude jest to the bright-eyed watcher or stop to refill their mouths with snuff out of a little thin brass box with a mirror fitted to the inside of its cover. The sight of the snuff filled Keith with a sense of loathing, although his father used to put a pinch of it into his nostrils now and then, and more than anything else it seemed to mark a distinction between himself and those people from a world far beneath his own. Theirs was a racking job, heavier than any other known to the boy, and one day he asked his mother:
"Why do they care to carry all that wood for us?"
"Because we pay them, and because they are mighty glad to get the money. Otherwise they couldn't live."
"And where does the wood come from?"
"The bank sends it as part of papa's pay."
Once more Keith was so impressed with the miraculous power of that mysterious being which his father served and cursed and worshipped that his mother's previous answer was lost for the time being. But it recurred to his mind later and connected with his father's talk of making him a carpenter. A strong prejudice against manual labour was shaping itself in his mind.
After the wood came the victuals: a tub of butter reaching Keith to the chin; bags of flour; barrels of potatoes and apples; hams and haunches of dried mutton and smoked reindeer meat; and lastly packages of smaller size and sundry contents that the mother promptly carried to the pantry inside the parlour without letting Keith touch them.
This year—it was the winter following the Franco-Prussian war—the preparations were rendered uncommonly impressive by the addition of a cheese large as the moon at full. There was always plenty of cheese of various kinds in the house: whole milk cheese carefully aged until its flavour was like that of English Stilton or Italian Gorgonzola; skim milk cheese stuffed with cloves and cardamom seeds; and dark brown goat milk cheese of a cloying sweetness that Keith detested.
Cheese was more than a taste with Keith's father. It was a hobby, and one of his few pastimes was to skirmish in strange little shops for some particularly old and strong-smelling piece at a reasonable price. When he brought home a bargain of that kind, he acted like a bibliophile having just captured a rare first edition for a song, and the mother tried hard to share his enthusiasm. But, she said once, she had to draw the line at cheese that walked by itself. Half in jest and half in earnest, the father maintained that the maggots were the very essence of the cheese, and that to remove them was to lose the finest flavour. This year the father had bought a whole fresh cheese in order to age it at home and thus save money in two ways, the price being proportionate to the age.
The same large-handed system prevailed in other things, though the parents often spoke of their poverty, and though their resources undoubtedly were very limited. Shirts, table-ware, bed-linen, china, etc., must needs be acquired in round numbers. To have less than a dozen of anything was to have nothing at all. The breaking of a cup was a family disaster if it could not be replaced. Everything had to be in sets, and to preserve these intact, the utmost care was preached and exercised. It bred thrift and orderliness, but also an undue regard for property.
Finally came the time for baking and other direct preparations for a holiday season that in the good old days used to last from Christmas Eve to January 13th known as the Twentieth Christmas Day, when everybody "danced the Yule out." What interested Keith most in this part of the proceedings was the making of gingersnaps according to a recipe transmitted to his mother from bygone generations and cherished by her as a precious family secret. A whole day was set aside for the purpose and at the end of it they had a big, bulging earthen jar filled to the brim. Keith used to boast to other children of those dainties that, in addition to their taste, had the fascination of many different shapes—hearts, crowns, lilies, clubs, diamonds, baskets, and so on. They really deserved all the praise they got, and he had so little to boast of on the whole. The jar stood on the floor in the pantry back of the parlour, and once in a while Keith found his way to it without maternal permission, although, as a rule, he was little given to lawbreaking.
One morning three or four days before Christmas Lena was heard calling from the kitchen:
"Keith, Keith, come and look!"
Eager as always when the slightest excitement was promised, the boy started so suddenly that his little table was upset with its whole population of tin soldiers and his mother was moved to remark that "it was no use behaving as if the house were on fire."
"Look at the snow," said Lena, pointing to the window when Keith reached the kitchen, relieved at not having had to pick up the spilled toys before he could go.
Huge, wet, feathery flakes were dropping lazily from the sky. Little by little they increased in numbers and fell more quickly. At last they formed a moving veil through which the building at the other end of the courtyard could barely be seen.
Later in the day Keith was permitted to look out through one of the front windows. The whole world had changed and looked much brighter in spite of the failing light. The Quay was covered by a carpet of white that made the waters beyond look doubly dark and cold. The trees on the opposite shore looked as if they had been painted from the topmost twig to the root. Down in the lane, two of the workers in the distillery were pelting each other with snowballs while a third one was shouting at the top of his voice:
"We'll have a white Christmas this year, thank heaven."
That same evening Keith's long cherished dream of visiting the open-air Christmas Fair at Great Square was to come true at last. Like other affairs of its kind, it had been reduced by the modern shop to a mere shadow of its former glorious self, and it was kept up only out of regard for ancient tradition. Keith had been told that it was nothing but a lot of open booths displaying cheap toys and cheaper candy. To Keith toys were toys and candy candy, no matter what the price and quality, and so he kept on begging leave to go, until the night in question his parents, who were going out with friends, deemed it better to let him see for himself. And so Lena was ordered to take charge of the expedition.
Lena and Keith were dressed and ready to start when the mother came into the kitchen to give the boy a farewell kiss as usual. He was in high spirits, but fidgety with some unexpressed wish.
"What is it, Keith," asked the mother, recognizing the symptoms.
"I want some money," he whispered into her ear.
"Go and ask papa."
"No, you ask him."
That was what always happened, and in the end the mother voiced the boy's plea to the father, who just then appeared in the door to the living-room. He was in a good humour and promptly reached into his pocket. Unfortunately Keith discovered at that crucial moment that one of his shoe laces had become untied.
"Please, mamma, help me," he said, putting his foot on a chair to enable her to reach it more easily.
"That settles it," exclaimed the father with a darkening face as he handed Keith a few small copper coins. "That is all you will get now. A boy of five who makes his mother tie his shoe strings ought not to have anything at all."
Keith took the coins silently and went with Lena to the fair, but he saw nothing worth seeing, and he never wanted to go again. Uneasily he prowled among the booths trying as a matter of duty to find something so cheap that his scant hoard would buy it. At last he succeeded in getting a little box of tin soldiers of poorest quality for one-third less than the price put on it It was one of the few times in his life when he found himself able to haggle over the cost of a thing.
From the first he found fault with the new addition to his army, and one day not long afterwards he charged the whole regiment with cowardice in the face of the enemy. A drumhead court martial was held on the spot, and the verdict was a foregone conclusion. The culprits were found guilty in a body and sentenced to immediate execution. Then Keith possessed himself surreptitiously of the family hammer, and when his mother came to investigate the noise he was making the whole offensive regiment had been reduced to scraps. Never before or after did Keith as a general go to such extremes on behalf of military morale.
But many, many years later, when he stopped for the first time at a typical English hotel, he found himself horribly embarrassed by the assistance forced on him by the obligatory valet.
In Sweden the principal celebration with its distribution of gifts takes place late on Christmas Eve.
Long before that day Keith began to watch every package brought into the house. Soon he noticed several that disappeared quickly without having been opened. Nor did it take his shrewd little mind long to figure out that they must have been stowed away on the upper shelf of the pantry back of the parlour. This was an excellent hiding-place because the shelf in question was fully six feet above the floor and on a level with the lintel of the doorway, so that its contents seemed as much out of reach as they were out sight from below.
One day, however, Keith succeeded in getting into the parlour when both parents were out. The night before his father had come home with an unusually large and queerly shaped package under his arm and had taken it straight into the parlour. The boy's curiosity was at fever heat and got the better of his customary inertia in the face of explicit prohibitions. Having dragged a heavy wooden chair into the pantry, he placed its tall back directly against the shelves. The crosspieces in the back of the chair formed rungs on which he climbed up to the top shelf. It was quite a feat for a very small boy, but the slight timidity that characterized him as a rule was totally forgotten for the time.
There was the mystifying package together with many others. He could even touch it with his hand. In spite of its size, it was very light. It was wider at the bottom than at the top, and it sounded hollow when he knocked at it. His little brain worked at high pressure, but not a guess came out of it that was at all plausible. Finally Keith had to climb down no wiser than he was before. His failure had one advantage. It freed him from all of guilt. It served also to keep his expectations at an unusually high pitch, so that when the morning of the great day arrived at last, it seemed as if he were facing twelve long hours of actual torture.
Every one was very busy preparing not only for the feast of the evening, but for the two coming holidays. Christmas Day in Sweden being followed by a Second Christmas Day, equal to the first one in leisure if not in sanctity. No one had any time to spare for the boy, who found himself in the way wherever he turned. In the end he was ordered pointblank out of the kitchen, where his mother, Granny and the servant girl needed all the space at their disposal. The door to the parlour was closed although the lodger had left town for the holidays, and so nothing but the living-room remained. There Keith whiled away the long hours in vain speculation on the contents of the mysterious package.
He tried to recall what things he had wished for during the year. He felt sure that nothing of the kind could be in the package. Any desire openly expressed was disregarded by his father, Keith thought, if not actually resented. The reason given was that a Christmas present should be a complete surprise, and if the recipient had openly asked for it, there could be no talk of surprising him. Of course, Keith could whisper what he wanted into his mother's ear now and then but always with the provision that she must convey the proper information to the father as coming from herself.
Even this process of elimination failed, however, and so the day dragged on interminably, with no help from without for a mind weary of waiting. The customary dinner was passed up. Everybody snatched a bite off the kitchen table without breaking away from the work. Three or four times people arrived with packages from relatives or friends. Each visitor had to be treated, even though he be a stranger of the humblest character. Then dull monotony reigned once more, and Keith resumed his fidgeting back and forth between the kitchen door and his own corner. The old toys were simply unendurable....
It had long been dark when the father returned home at last, laden with parcels and tired out by personal delivery of Christmas gifts to the various members of the family. His face was slightly flushed and he talked with unusual eagerness. An atmosphere of reckless good-will surrounded him, and when he made a remark about there being no presents, even Keith knew it to be facetious.
The last hour was the longest. The father and the mother had withdrawn to the parlour and closed the door behind them. The girl was setting the table and couldn't be disturbed. Granny was nervous and irritable because she knew that she would be forced to join the rest at the table that night. Keith felt like a disembodied soul let loose in infinite space without goal or purpose.
Toward eight o'clock the parlour door opened and Keith was called in. A tiny Christmas tree stood on a table in a corner, glistening with lights and multicoloured paper festoons. It represented a great concession, because neither one of the parents cared much for the trouble involved. If there had been a number of children in the family, they said, then it would have been another matter. The truth was that Keith didn't care very much either. He clapped hands and shouted excitedly, of course, but his glances went sideways to the big sofa, where stood a huge hamper piled to twice its own height with parcels, all wrapped in snow-white paper and sealed with red sealing wax. The air of the room was charged with the rich smell of newly melted wax, and to Keith that smell was always the essence of Christmas, its chief symbol and harbinger.
During those few minutes in the parlour a dozen tall candles had been lighted in the living-room, transforming the place that a moment before seemed so dreary. The dining table was opened to its full length and placed across the middle of the room, at right angles to the chaiselongue where Keith slept nights. Cut glass dishes and silver-ware shone in the light reflected from the spotlessly white table cloth. In the centre stood the Christmas layer cake, its body four inches thick and its top glistening with red and yellow and green pieces of candied fruit.
Then began the little comedy regularly enacted every Christmas.
"Isn't Granny coming," the father asked. Then he turned to Lena. "Tell her we are ready."
"She says she doesn't want to come in," Lena reported after a hasty visit to the kitchen.
"You go and ask her for me, Keith," was the father's next suggestion.
"Thank you, dear," Granny said when Keith came to her with his message. "But you tell your father that I think the kitchen is a much better place for a useless old hag like myself."
"Suppose you go," the father said to his wife on hearing Keith's modified version of Granny's reply.
"She says she really won't come in," the mother explained a minute later. "You had better go out and ask her yourself, Carl. It is the one thing she cannot resist."
The father went with a broad grin on his face. Keith laughed loudly and nervously, his eyes on the huge cake. But the mother said apologetically to Lena:
"Mamma is so funny about coming in here, although she knows how much we want her."
"Here she is now," said Lena.
And the father appeared with Granny on his arm, and Granny was all dressed up in her best skirt of black silk thick as cloth, with a cap of black lace on her head.
"Really, I can't see what you want with an old thing like me in here," she continued protesting as she was being led to her seat beside Keith. The girl sat opposite Granny, and the mother beside the girl, facing Keith. The father, on that one occasion, always occupied the chaiselongue at the short end of the table, with the mother on his right and Keith on his left. Beside him stood the hamper with its mountainous pile of parcels.
Keith said grace with folded hands and bent head, and, of course, he had to say it twice because the first time he swallowed half the words in his eagerness to get through quickly. Then the meal began.
It opened with a light smoergasbord, hors d'oeuvres, literally rendered sandwich-table: caviar, anchovy, sardines, shavings of smoked salmon, slices of bologna, and so on. With it the father took a snaps of Swedish gin or braennvin, and after much pressing Granny consented to take one, too. The main course consisted of lutfisk: dried and salted codfish that had been soaked in water for twenty-four hours to take out the salt and then boiled until it was tender as cranberry jelly. It was served with boiled potatoes and a gravy made of cream and chopped hard-boiled eggs. It was followed by risgrynsgroet: rice cooked in milk and served with a cover of sugar and cinnamon. Wherever Swedes go, they must have those two dishes on Christmas Eve. They have had them since the days when Christmas was a pagan celebration of the winter solstice, when dried codfish was the staple winter food, and when rice was the rarest of imported delicacies.
Keith did not become interested until the rice appeared and the father declared that no one could taste it until he or she had "rhymed over the rice." Lena had to begin, and blushingly she read:
"To cook rice is a great feat, especially to get it sweet."
Whereupon everybody applauded, and the mother followed:
"Those who don't like rice are worse than little mice."
The father made them all laugh by saying:
"The rice is sweet and looks very neat, but now I want to eat."
The cutting of the cake, with its coating of sugar and its many layers of custard ... the wine, port and sherry, poured from tall glass decanters with silver labels hung about their necks to show which was which ... the blushing native apples and the figs from distant sunlit shores ... the almonds and raisins that tested best when eaten together ... the candy and the caramels ... the absence of restraint and reproof ... the freedom to indulge one's utmost appetite ... the smiles and the pleasant words and the jokes sprung by the father ... and in the midst of it all a pause laden with rose-coloured melancholy....
"Why can it not be Christmas every day," asked Keith suddenly.
"Because Christmas then would be like any other day," the father replied, reaching for the first parcel which was always for Keith.
One by one they were handed out. Each one was elaborately addressed and furnished with a rhymed or unrhymed tag that often hid a sting beneath its clownish exterior. The father read the inscription aloud before he handed each parcel to its recipient, who had to open it and let its contents be admired by all before another gift was distributed.
The table became crowded. The floor was a litter of paper. Lena giggled. Granny's cap was down on one ear. Keith could not sit still on his chair.
"To Master Keith Wellander," the father read out. "A friendly warning, to be remembered in the morning and all through the day. He who slops at meals is a pig that squeals and hurts his parents alway."
Keith took the parcel with less than usual zest. It was rectangular and very heavy. For a moment he hesitated to open it. There was something about its inscription that puzzled and bothered him.
At last the wrapper came off, and he gazed uncomprehendingly at a large piece of wood hollowed out like a canoe.
"A boat ..." he stammered.
"A trough," rejoined his father, a strange, almost embarrassed look appearing on his face. "This is Christmas and I want you to be happy, but you must learn to eat decently, and I thought this might serve you as a lesson and a reminder."
Keith said nothing. He sat looking at that piece of wood as if it were a dragon that had swallowed the whole Christmas in a single gulp. He wanted to cry, but for the first time he seemed to feel a pride that forbade him to do so....
"Master Keith Wellander," the father read out again with evident haste and in a voice which he tried to make very jolly, "When beaten in the open field, this will be my trusty shield."
It was the package—and the trough was forgotten.
The boy trembled with excitement. His hands tore vainly at the paper cover, which, in the end, had to be removed by the father.
On the table, fully revealed at last, stood a real fortress of cardboard, with a drawbridge that could be raised, and a tower in the centre, and at the top of it a flagstaff flying the Swedish colours.
It was his heart's most cherished desire, the thing that had seemed so unattainable that he had deemed it useless to whisper it into his mother's ear.
For a long while he did not move at all, but just looked and looked, seemingly afraid to touch the new toy. Then a warm flood of joy shot through him, and suddenly he was seized by an irresistible impulse to kiss his father—which was a most unusual endearment between them. As he put his hand on the table to get off the chair, it touched the trough, and once more his mood changed. He seemed to stiffen, and all he could do was to hold out his hand and whisper: