"Thank you very much, papa!"
On Christmas Day morning everybody rose while it was still pitch dark outside. After a hasty cup of coffee, the parents and Keith set off for Great Church to attend julotta—yule matins—an early service held only that one day of the year.
More snow had fallen, and now it was freezing, so that every step they took produced a peculiar, almost metallic crunching. From every quarter silent crowds in their holiday best streamed toward the old church. They seemed very solemn, but Keith sensed the happy spirit underlying their outward sedateness. It filled him with a wild desire to romp, and it was merely the awe of his father's presence that kept him in check.
The church was packed, but they found good seats. Keith had eyes for one thing only: the Star of Bethlehem that blazed above the screen of darkly green spruces surrounding the altar. All the rest of it was lost on him.
Then the organ music burst forth, and for a moment he cowered as under a blow. It was too much of a novelty, and the vibrations touched his supersensitive nerves annoyingly. After a while he grew more accustomed to it, but he did not like it, and he said so loudly enough to bring him a stern glance from his father and smiles from some of the people in the pew ahead. During the brief sermon he slept peacefully.
As soon as they were home again, the fortress was brought out and preparations made for a great siege. In the midst of it he left his corner to put a question to the mother, who was dozing over a book in her easy chair.
"How could papa know that I wanted it," he asked, and she knew what he was thinking of.
"Don't you remember," she answered smiling slyly, "how you came home one day last summer and talked about something you had seen in a window on West Long Street, and papa was listening."
"So long ago," mused Keith, "and I didn't know he heard it."
"Oh, yes, he heard, and he remembered. You don't understand papa. He doesn't want you to ask for things because he finds it such a pleasure to figure out what you want and give it to you unexpectedly."
Keith returned to his corner thinking hard, as was his wont at times. The siege was postponed. He took out the trough and studied it carefully. It would make a good boat. Then he put it down and sat for a while looking at the little fortress—so like the one he could see when he looked out of their front windows. His heart swelled, and with a rush that nearly upset his little table, he made for his father in the parlour, crawled up on his lap, put both arms about his neck, and kissed him. And to his surprise he was not repelled. But a moment later his father put him down on the floor and said in a voice that sounded a little choked:
"Go back and play with your soldiers now."
Then came dinner, always the same on Christmas Day: smoergasbord; roasted fresh ham with mashed potatoes and tiny cubes of Swedish turnips fried in butter; rice and milk; cake and wine.
And the day ended as it had begun, happily and peacefully. Never had the boy felt more warmly toward his father. But at dinner the next day, which was also a holiday so that the father was at home, Keith happened to spill something on the table cloth.
"Remember your Christmas present," said the father sharply. "You are old enough to behave properly at table, and if you won't, we shall let you eat in your own corner and eat out of the trough."
During the rest of that day Keith could not play with his fortress. Once he took the trough to the window that happened to be open and contemplated the possibility of dropping it into the lane. But his courage failed him.
It stayed with him as part of his little stock of toys, and gradually it came to be viewed with a certain amount of indifference. But on the rare occasions when he was permitted to have a playmate at home, he always managed to hide the trough under his mother's bureau. And even the mere consciousness of its presence there would sometimes set his cheeks burning.
It was summer again. The school was closed. Keith's pleas to be allowed to play with Johan became impassioned. Consequently his parents were pleased when Aunt Brita asked if Keith could spend a few weeks with them in a little cottage they had hired on an island halfway between Stockholm and the open sea.
To Keith this was a tremendous adventure—his first excursion from home, and almost his first acquaintance with real country life. In fact, the impressions of the journey itself were so many and so novel that his mind couldn't retain anything at all. The same thing happened over and over again during the earlier part of his life, so that out of that epoch-making summer visit, for instance, only a single slight incident took up a lasting abode in his memory.
The cottage stood in the middle of the island, which was so small that a fifteen-minute walk took them down to the nearest shore. Thither they went one afternoon not long after his arrival to bathe—his aunt, his cousin Carl who was a year younger than himself, Keith, a couple of other children of the same age, and Mina, an eighteen-year old girl living with Keith's uncle and aunt in a position halfway between ward and servant. Across the fields and along shaded wood paths they ran joyously to a sheltered bay with a sandy beach from which the open fjord could be seen in the distance. The children stripped helter-skelter and went into the shallow water as nature had made them, but Mina, who was to assist them, had for want of bathing suit put on a starched white petticoat. The upper part of her body was bare, showing two beautifully pointed breasts.
Keith looked and looked at those breasts until Mina noticed him and actually began to blush. As if embarrassed, she picked up one of the other children and began to swing it around in a circle. Her movement turned Keith's attention to the petticoat, and suddenly he could think of nothing else.
The children were naked. Why should Mina wear a piece of clothing that even Keith could see was quite unfitted for such a use. There must be something to hide. What could it be? At last he could contain himself no longer, but blurted out:
"Why does Mina wear that silly skirt?"
"Because she is afraid of catching cold," replied his aunt from the shore with a slight jeer in her voice and one of her shrewd smiles.
"Why shouldn't we catch cold, too," was his next question.
There was no direct answer, but he could hear his aunt mutter between her teeth:
"Drat that boy!"
Then she burst into open laughter, while Mina rushed ashore and hastily began to dress behind a close screen of undergrowth.
After that Mina did not go in bathing with the children.
Many years later Keith could still visualize the whole scene as if it had happened only a few days ago, while all his efforts to recall the cottage where they lived, or anything else seen that summer, were vain.
In the autumn of that year Keith was sent to a "real" school, selected after much inquiry by his parents as combining a reasonable degree of efficiency and social standing with an equally reasonable cost of tuition. It was private like the first one, kept by two middle-aged spinster sisters, one of whom was tall, angular and firm, while the other was short, fat and sentimental. It held about two scores of pupils, most of whom were girls. These girls ranged in years to the near-marriageable age, while none of the boys was more than eight years old. Thus the atmosphere was distinctly feminine, which in the eyes of Keith's mother marked an added advantage.
The only thing that excited Keith about the new school was that it took him farther from home than he had ever been allowed to wander unattended before, into a hitherto unexplored region of the city known as the South End. It was a poor man's neighbourhood on the whole, but of that Keith knew nothing at the time. The school occupied a few large and sunny rooms in the rear part of a sprawling old stone structure built like a palace around an enormous cobble-stoned courtyard, with a tall arched gateway providing entrance from the street under the front part of the house. For a while it was quite impressive and a little disturbing, but like everything else it soon became familiar and commonplace.
To get there from his own part of town, Keith had to cross the Sluice—a lock enabling vessels to pass safely from Lake Maelaren to the salt waters of the Bay in spite of the frequently sharp difference of level. At either end of the lock was a drawbridge in two sections raised from the centre to let the larger vessels through. The place was full of interesting sights, and Keith loved in particular to press right up against the edge of the raised bridge as some steamer or small sailing vessel glided leisurely in or out of the ever shifting waters of the lock.
At first it never occurred to him that he might walk around by the other bridge when the one right in his way happened to be open, and so he was late at school several times in quick succession. The first time he was warned. The second he was placed in a corner of the room with his face to the wall and kept there for about one quarter of an hour. The third time the elder Miss Ahlberg applied a ruler to the finger-tips of his left hand, which she held in a firm grasp within one of her own.
The physical sensation gave the boy a terrible shock. No one had ever really hurt him before. The spankings administered at home once in a very great while were like thunderstorms, with a great deal of noise and small harm done. This was something else, and more intimidating than the pain was the manifest intention of the teacher to inflict it. Her face was tense and her eyes flashed fire. Worst of all, however, was the shame of it, for the punishment was applied in front of the whole school.
When Keith retired to his own seat sobbing bitterly, he felt that he could never look the other children in the face, and that they probably would shun him as a pariah. The only thing would be to tell his mother that he could not go back to school again. He was still shaking with sobs, when he heard a boy on the chair behind him whisper into his ear:
"Oh, that's nothing. You just wait till she pulls your hair. She pulls it right out by the roots. I'll show you a bare spot on my head during the next pause."
And so he did when the lesson came to an end and they were permitted to play for a few minutes. Other children joined them, and no one seemed to think less of Keith for what had happened to him. It was a revelation to him and opened vistas of considerable interest. But the memory of the physical and mental shock received was more powerful, and after that he took care to reach school in time regardless of what might be the temptations along his path or the effort it might cost him to get there.
In fact, the incident became to some extent determining for his whole career in school. He never voluntarily did anything that might expose him to punishment, and rarely was he able to forget himself to the extent of incurring reproof. He turned out a docile pupil, and on the whole, docility did not come hard to him. In spite of the vitality with which he overflowed, there was a certain timidity attaching to him.
It would be wrong to conclude that the little school of the Misses Ahlberg was characterized by any reign of terror. As a rule, the atmosphere was peaceful and kindly, and the teaching was rather good. Keith was eager to learn, and learning came easy to him. In those early days, of course, there was no studying to be done at home, but even in later years he never knew what it was to "plug." In fact, he could not do it. Either his interest was aroused, and then he absorbed the matter at hand in the way he breathed, without the least conscious effort; or his interest remained unstirred, in which case no amount of mechanical application would help. Learning by rote offered no escape in the latter case, for his memory operated in the same way as the rest of his mind, sucking up what fitted it as a blotter sucks the ink, and presenting a surface of polished marble to any matter not germane according to its own mysterious standards.
Soon he could read without any effort whatsoever—anything. Reckoning came easy, too, but writing came hard. It seemed so much easier to take in than to give out in any form. Grammar gave him no difficulty, because it dealt with words, and words possessed a magic charm that always held him. Gradually he began to dip into history and geography—wonderful realms into which his imagination plunged headlong. He took almost as eagerly to the old stories out of the Bible—stories of which he had caught more than a glimpse at home—but the Catechism was like washing in the morning: it had to be done because higher powers so decreed.
Yes, he learned a good deal for a little boy of his age, but he never knew how it happened. The school was never quite real to him. His home was real, and his play at home. So was his daily walk to and from school with its innumerable opportunities for observation in the raw. There were people in the streets, and shops along the road, and many different kinds of vessels in the harbour. There was the guardhouse on the little square halfway to school, kept by a small detachment of soldiers that were relieved every noon and that never belonged to the same regiment two days in succession. Watching them gave him many suggestions for handling his own tin soldiers in a more business-like fashion.
But at school.... He was never absentminded or unattentive, for that might have brought the quick clutch of the elder Miss Ahlberg's bony hand into his own supersensitive crop of hair, and most of what was going on had enough interest in itself to prevent his mind from straying far afield. He knew the names of his fellow pupils. He played with those of his own age, and he had likes and dislikes, as was natural. But through it all he moved as through a mist, seeing only the thing immediately at hand, and losing sight of everything the moment he had passed it. The three years spent in that school seemed to telescope into each other so that soon afterwards he found himself unable to tell if a thing had happened during the first or last of those years. Nor did the things he remembered have any connection with the school as a rule, and out of all the boys and girls he met there not one remained distinct in his memory as did the figure of Harald from the first school. When he left the school to go home for the day, he was done with it, and nothing followed him but what was stored in his head. And that, too, seemed forgotten at the time, to be re-discovered later with a sense of pleasant surprise.
And all that time things were happening to him at home and elsewhere that, as far as importance went, stood in curious contrast to his quickly forgotten experiences at school—things that burnt themselves into his mind as a part of its permanent contents....
There was not a private bathroom to be found in Stockholm in those days. One washed hands and face and neck whenever compelled to, and some people, like Keith's father, splashed the upper part of their bodies with water every morning regardless of weather and temperature. Once a week every self-respecting person went to a public bath for a thorough steaming and scrubbing.
Keith's mother did like the rest, and generally she took the boy along as he was admitted without extra charge. Then mother and son would get into a tremendous tub full of hot water—so large and so full that Keith had to sit up in order to keep his head above water. He always enjoyed it very much, and especially he enjoyed feeling his mother's soft body close to his own.
On an occasion of this kind he had already finished his bath and was sitting on a wooden bench beside the tub wrapped in a big sheet. The old woman attendant stood ready with a similar sheet for his mother, who was just stepping out of the tub facing the boy.
She was still young, and her skin, always beautiful, was aglow with the heat of the bath and the friction of the scrubbing.
Keith stared open-eyed at her, unconscious of any particular interest, and yet filled with a vague, slightly disturbing sense of pleasure.
Then his mother caught his glance. Their eyes met. A slight flush spread over her face.
Grabbing the sheet from the old woman, she flung it about herself. As she did so, he heard her say to the attendant:
"That young gentleman will have to bathe with his father hereafter, I guess."
At first he was conscious of a rebuke, and the cause of it left him quite at sea. He would probably have puzzled over it a great deal more than he did, had not his mind become preoccupied with the idea that he would be allowed to accompany his father to the men's part of the establishment. It was an idea that filled him with a sort of shrinking pride.
Among the less intimate friends of his mother was a young widow with a little girl about a year younger than Keith. For some reason unknown to the boy, those two came to see his mother several times that Spring. It was the first time in his life Keith met a girl on familiar terms.
Clara was slender and elfish, with a wealth of yellow tresses falling down her back. She was tender and gay, too, and Keith liked to hear her laugh. When they played, she was always ready to fall in with any whim of Keith's.
One afternoon, when the days were growing longer, Clara's mother asked permission to leave her with the Wellanders while she attended to some business in the neighbourhood. Keith's mother was occupied in the kitchen in some manner making her wish to have the door to the living-room closed. Thus the two children were left to play by themselves.
He never could remember how it began, and he could not tell what put the idea in his head....
It was a new game, and she played it as readily as any other he might have proposed. They had crawled so far into his own corner by the window that they were almost hidden behind mamma's bureau.
At first they whispered to each other, eagerly as children do, but only with the eagerness they might have shown if playing hide-and-seek. Then he raised her little dress, and she didn't seem to mind. He also undid his own dress, and they studied each other's bodies, noting the differences.
The end of it was that they laid down together on the floor. He put his mouth to hers and hugged her just as tightly as he could. When they had been lying in way for a while, he whispered to her:
"Isn't it nice?"
And she dutifully whispered back: "It is!"
A few minutes later they were playing with his tin soldiers, and soon after Clara's mother returned to take her away.
During their entire play both doors had remained closed. Keith was quite sure of that. He had looked before he started the new game, although he was not aware of trespassing on prohibited territory.
Afterwards he felt rather uneasy. There was a distinct sense of risk attaching to that game, and he wondered whether Clara might tell her mother. At the same time the thought of what he had done filled him with inexplicable satisfaction, as if, in some way, he had put something over on the grown-ups.
As for his own mother—she seemed to be watching him with unusual concern during the next few days, and he could not escape a suspicion that she knew. Closed doors did not seem to prevent grown-up people from knowing what children did.
At the same time he wondered why he and Clara should not be playing as they had done. There was really nothing to it. And the comparisons they had made took no hold of his imagination. The differences revealed he accepted as he accepted anything that had no direct bearing on his own happiness.
As far as he could recall afterwards, he never saw Clara again. Nor did he seem to miss her.
The incident with Clara was forgotten. Yet Keith had a sense of being watched a little more closely than usual. He was rarely permitted to go out alone after his return from school. And he was scolded if he ever was late in coming home.
There was mystery in the air. The parents talked together a good deal in a way that made Keith understand they were talking about him and did not want to be overheard.
As soon as school closed the secret became revealed. He would be sent into the real country for the summer to board with perfect strangers.
"Any children," was Keith's first question. Yes, a couple of sons in the house, and probably one or two more boys from the city, boarders like Keith.
It seemed the thing had been planning for a long time. The mother said something about the necessity for Keith of going where everything was clean and wholesome—the air, the food, the people. The boy knew that she had been worrying about him for some reason he could not guess.
An advertisement in a newspaper had led his mother on the track of what she wanted. She read it to him—"a religious family with children of their own would take a few well-behaved boys of good family for the summer months and give them a real home and as good as parental care."
It turned out to be the sexton of a country parish on the northern shore of Lake Maelaren who had devised this means of eking out his probably limited professional income. The ensuing correspondence had proved quite satisfactory. The mother was evidently pleased. It was almost as good as staying with the pastor himself, she said.
Keith knew what a pastor was. He had several times heard one preach from a funny hanging box in Great Church, and he thought of him as a man who was always dressed in black and who was even more serious than the father. But it did not bother him, partly because he realized that, after all, a sexton was not the same as a pastor, and partly because his mind was full of something else. It was not the country, although his previous experience of it, when he was staying with his aunt, had given him a rather favourable impression. No, what occupied him to the exclusion of everything else was the thought that he would be able to play with other children all day long, and that there would be no one to pull him away just as a game was becoming really interesting.
Exciting days of preparation followed. And finally the day of departure dawned.
The greater part of the journey was to be made by boat to the little town of Enkoeping, where Mr. Swensson, the sexton, would be waiting with a team. The mother could not go along, and so Keith was placed in the hands of some people going the same way, who promised to look after him and see that he did not fall into wrong hands when the steamer landed.
Keith had to stand in the stern of the boat and wave his handkerchief as long as his mother remained visible. Then he was free, at last, to surrender himself to the novelty of his situation. And as always upon such occasions, when new impressions came crowding in upon him, the record became too blurred for clear remembrance. This was true not only of the trip on the steamer, the arrival at Enkoeping with its little old-fashioned red houses, the meeting with Mr. Swanson, the drive of thirty miles or more inland, the arrival at the sexton's house not far from a white spired church, and the introduction to a seemingly endless number of new faces, but of the whole long summer. A couple of months sufficed to wipe out of his memory everything but a few comparatively trivial incidents and impressions.
Only one name escaped the general oblivion—that of the sexton himself. Only one view left a lasting image behind—that of a tremendously large boulder, a memento of the glacial period, that rose like a crude monument right in the centre of a tilled field almost, but not quite out of sight of the house. Only one face would come back in recognizable shape when he tried to recall that rather momentous summer—that of a boy a few years older than himself, who was the leader of all the games played around the big rock in the open field.
Quite a gang of boys gathered daily about the big rock, generally on the farther side of it where they could not be seen from the house. Beyond the rock in that direction was nothing but an open field, and then the woods, rarely disturbed by a visitor. Thus they were really more safe than indoors as no one could approach them without being detected while still far away.
The two sons of the sexton were there, and a couple of boys from the city besides Keith, and three or four sons of neighbouring farmers. They ranged in ages from eight to eleven or twelve. Keith was the baby, but this was never held up against him. He was commonly treated as an equal, which raised his self-confidence tremendously, but it had also a somewhat embarrassing effect when the others seemed to take for granted that he knew as much as they concerning the matters that most occupied their minds—to judge by their talk at least.
The oldest of the lot, and their undisputed leader, was a peasant boy of remarkable ugliness, squint-eyed and snub-nosed, with tufts of yellow hair always falling over his face and several teeth missing. His clothes were in rags and he never wore shoes. He boasted of never washing unless "the old one" stood over him with a stick, and his language was worse than both his manners and his looks. An unbroken stream of profanity and obscenity poured from his rarely silent mouth, and he heaped withering scorn on any attempt at decent speech.
Keith had now and then picked up questionable words while playing in the lane where he lived. Johan sported some of them in moments of furious rebellion against his mother's "holiness," as he called it. Once or twice Keith had repeated such words at home and suffered for it. Soon he learned to know the type at first hearing, and he disliked this part of the vocabulary even when he could use it without danger to himself. He developed a greater daintiness in words than in anything else, but this summer formed an exception. The force of suggestion brought to bear on him was too overwhelming, and he strove boldly to vie with the rest in foulness of tongue and thought. As soon as he was back in the city, this habit dropped off him as the soap lather is washed off a bather when he dives into the clear waters of a lake. But the game he had learned to play back of the big rock could not be unlearned in the same way.
This game was in itself a revelation to Keith. He was not shocked or startled, because he had no standards in the matter, but at first he experienced a distinct revulsion. This wore off quickly, however, and soon he accepted what he saw as a natural thing. The boy whose face stuck in Keith's mind with such strange persistency set the pace, and everybody seemed to hold him a hero on that account. Even the other city boys surrendered after a brief resistance and tried humbly to emulate the acknowledged leader.
Everything took place openly in the most brazen fashion, as if they had been playing leap-frog or hide-and-seek. Every one boasted of his own achievements and tried to outdo the rest in unashamed performance. Yet it was not so much a question of companionship in indulgence as of sportsmanlike competition. Pleasure had little to do with it. What they did, and still more what they pretended to have done, was an assertion and a proof of manliness, and so was the language they used among themselves. If they hid from the older people, that was not because they regarded themselves as engaged in any sinful pursuits, but because the grown-ups to them appeared jealous of all childish pleasures, and particularly jealous of the pleasures most treasured by themselves.
Outwardly Keith played the part of an interested but passive observer. When taunted for his timidity, or as being a mere infant, he parried by using a number of nasty words, some of which he did not know the meaning of. When by himself, he soon found that he could play the game as well as the rest, and it increased his sense of self-importance very much, but of this he said nothing to any one. Something within his own nature protested against the flaunting of such an act, though the act itself carried no offence to his childish mind. The inner protest was not strong enough to break into words or to make the companionship of the other boys seem repulsive to him. Nor was it concerned with anything Keith did by himself.
The summer went very fast. Keith was sorry when told that it was time for him to go home. He would come back, of course, but his regrets were only momentary. No sooner was he started than the idea of seeing his mother, Granny, and his tin soldiers again, put everything else out of his mind.
His mother was overjoyed to see him and revelled in his healthy looks. She made him tell her at great length, over and over again, about everything he had seen and done, about the place and the people, about the food and the games he had played. Keith talked and talked, eagerly and freely, but of the game played behind the big rock he never said a word.
He was then not quite seven years old.
That autumn and winter he was permitted to play a good deal with Johan, and always in Johan's home. His mother had a bad spell of depression, and while it made her fret and worry more than ever about Keith, as well as about everything else, she was either too weak to resist his pleas, or she felt his absence as a relief.
To his intense surprise, Keith found that Johan already knew all about the new game, and that he was quite willing to play it. And for a couple of years it became an important part of what they had in common. Chances were not lacking, for Johan's mother was too wrapt up in her postils and religious speculations to watch them closely, and there was always the outhouse to which they could retire for privacy.
Their relationship was a peculiar one. Although the younger by a few months and the smaller by several inches, Keith was the leader and the aggressor. Johan remained passive—too passive, Keith often thought.
There was nothing of love in Keith's feelings toward Johan, nothing emotional. The tenderness that was such a marked feature of his character did not come into play at all. In fact, he rather looked down on Johan, who frequently annoyed him by his dullness and his lack of personal neatness. The truth of it was that he played with Johan merely because he was the only other boy in sight, and in so far as that particular game was concerned, Johan was simply an accessory to it in same way as his tin soldiers and his toy fort.
In playing it, Keith had always a sense of seeking something else, but he had not the slightest idea of what this something might be. It must have some relation to girls, he felt vaguely, but beyond that vague feeling he could not get. Clara remained forgotten.
Gradually Johan became more and more indifferent and reluctant as far as that game was concerned. Dull as he was, he seemed to have some sort of scruples that Keith couldn't understand. More and more Keith was thrown back on himself. Once more a new set of interests began to take the lion's share of his attention, although the game learned behind the big rock would reassert its puzzling fascination from time to time.
His eagerness to read and his lack of reading matter had for some time presented a growing problem. The books of his father—and there were quite a number of them—were taboo for a double reason: first, because they were not held safe for him to read, and, secondly, because his father regarded them as his particularly private property that must not be touched by any one else.
So he fell back on the old Bible and chance pickings. The stirring and bloodcurdling stories in the Books of the Maccabees were his favourites. He read them over and over, and he tried to dramatize that unbroken record of battles with the help of his tin soldiers. But the reason he could return to those stories so often was that he began studying them while reading was still a partly mastered art, and half the time he was more interested in the game of reading, so to speak, than in what he read.
A year in the new school had made a great change. He read anything with ease, and while he read rather slowly without ever skipping, his mind took in what he read quickly and thoroughly so that going back over a thing once perused became less and less attractive. He wanted new material for his mind, and he wanted it in steadily increasing quantities.
One day he made a great discovery. Books could be borrowed from other people. One of his schoolmates came to school with a wonderful illustrated copy of "Don Quixote" arranged for children. Keith went into ecstasies over it. The mail-clad figure of the Knight of the Rueful Countenance on the front cover was to him the beckoning guardian of a world of wonders, the very existence of which he had never before suspected. Tears came into his eyes at last as he stared hopelessly at the object of his newly born desire. As a rule he blurted out any wish he might have, but the thing was clearly too precious to ask as a gift or acquire by bartering, and he had never heard of any other way of getting it.
"Mercy," cried the other boy after having watched him for a while. "You can take it home and read it, if you only promise to bring it back."
For a moment Keith was too overcome to speak. Then he became hysterical with joy. The rest of the school day passed in a trance. He ran a good part of the way home. Arrived there, he almost forgot to give his mother and Granny the inevitable kiss of greeting. And he might even have refused to be bothered by such a thing but for his fear of being put under some discipline that might prevent him from plunging straightway into the unexplored country of make-believe.
On seeing the book, his mother hesitated for a moment, but soon she was delighted with the results it produced. Keith had no thought of asking leave to see Johan that day. He was lost to the world around him. Not a sound was heard from him. There was no nervous running about in futile search for "something to do." The home was as quiet as if he had been away, and yet there he was, safely ensconced in his own corner, where his mother could watch him all the time.
Everybody was happy until the father returned home and heard of what had happened. Having looked the book over for a moment, while the boy watched him with a shrinking heart, he said at last:
"You must return it tomorrow, and I don't want you to borrow any more books. You may spoil it in some way, and then you will have to pay for it, and where are you to get the money?"
Keith tried hard not to cry, but the blow was too overwhelming. He was driven out of his new paradise after a tantalizing glimpse at it. And he could not understand why. So his tears must needs flow freely and his throat contracted convulsively with half-choked sobs, and the final result of it was that he was ordered to bed at once. That ended his last chance of abstracting a few more thrills from the borrowed treasure.
Of course, the book was returned the next day. Keith had not yet arrived at the point where the evasion of a parental decree seemed conceivable. And to the sorrow of missing the promised enjoyment was added the humiliation of confessing what had happened at home. To lie about it was another thing that never occurred to him, and to act without explanation was quite foreign to his nature.
A few sad days followed. Then his life resumed its customary tone, and it was as if the lank, but to him far from ludicrous, shape of Don Quixote had never crossed his horizon. And soon after Christmas recurred once more.
Among the many packages falling to his share, there were two of a shape that suggested the possibility of more tin soldiers. But when he held them in his hand, they failed to yield to pressure as would a cardboard box. Curiosity turned into genuine suspense. And when at last two books lay in front of him as his own, with the implied permission that he could read them to his heart's content whenever he chose, a pang of something like real love for his father shot through his heart.
Those two little volumes became at once his most priceless possession and the foundation of his first library. To others they might appear quite commonplace books, without much value from any point of view. To him they were passports to a realm of action and freedom and colour, where he could roam at will in search of everything he missed in real life. One was bound in white with the picture of an African lion hunt on the front cover. The other one had a plain brown binding. Both had coloured illustrations and contained stories of hunting and travelling adventures in all sorts of out-of-the-way places. There were tales of lion hunting with Arabs and tiger hunting in the jungles of India, of whaling in the Arctic and hair-breadth escapes from giant snakes in South America, of cruises in southern seas and caravaning across the high plateaus of Central Asia.
One story in particular stuck in his mind, and more particularly one little detail out of that story. It was one of comparative repose and few sensational incidents relating the perfectly peaceful, but nevertheless strange and interesting experiences of a European traveller through some desert region back of the Caspian Sea. Arriving at a nomad camp far away from all civilization, this traveller was met with touching hospitality. During a formal visit to the chieftain of the tribe, he was offered tea. With the tea was handed him a bowl containing a single lump of sugar. In European fashion he picked up this and dropped it into his cup. Not a word was said, but something told him that he had committed some dreadful mistake. By and by, as he watched the others, he understood. Sugar was so rare that to use it in ordinary fashion was out of question, and so the solitary lump served was meant to be licked in turn by each, and he, as the guest of honour, had been given the first chance. To Keith's mind that story seemed as clearly realized as if he had played a part in it himself. And what occupied him more than anything else was the pitiful existence of those poor nomads to whom even such a common thing as sugar was an almost unattainable luxury. It was his first lesson in human sympathy, and it was typical of his own existence and bent that it should have come out of a book.
From that day one of his main objects in life was to acquire books. He had little pride as a rule, in spite of all his sensitiveness, and when books were concerned he had none at all. Having discovered that a friend of the family, who until then had been regarded with supreme indifference, held some sort of clerical position in a publishing house, his devotion to Uncle Lander suddenly became effusive and he begged so shamelessly and so successfully that at last his father had to intercede. Out of a half-hour sermon on things that must not be done, Keith grasped only that, as usual, he could not do what he wanted. Money was still a mystery to him, and he never suspected that Uncle Lander would have to pay his employers for every book taken out of the stock.
The sole check to his passion sprang logically from the very fervor of that passion: a book being such a precious object to himself, he could not dream of taking it away from somebody else. As in a flash the true spirit of his father's objection to borrowed books was revealed to him. That objection became his own and stuck to him through life: if he liked a borrowed book, the inescapable duty of returning it was too painful to be faced, and if he didn't like it, there was no reason for borrowing it. Books became sacred things to him, to be cherished and protected as nothing else. The loss of one was a catastrophe.
Soon he had a small library of his own, kept on a shelf in the huge wardrobe that stood in the vestibule leading to the parlour. Made up at first of odds and ends bearing no real relation to his desire for reading matter, it gradually acquired a certain homogeneity reflecting the boy's state of mind. Books of travel and adventure continued to prevail for a long while. Equally favoured were stories dealing with Norse Mythology and the heroic legends of his race. The grim record of the Niebelungs was familiar to him at the age of eight, and the first heroes of his worship were young Siegfried of divine aspect and Dietrich of Bern, who seemed to the boy the final embodiment of worldly wisdom. To these should be added Garibaldi, of whose South American campaigns, so touchingly shared by the faithful Anita, he read graphic accounts in an odd volume of an illustrated weekly. The word liberty first came to him from the lips of the picturesque Italian, while Anita and the women of the old Germanic sagas struck him by their contrast to his mother.
In the main, all his reading made for escape and compensation. He read to get away from his own surroundings, and he revelled in characters of fiction and legend and history that possessed qualities lacking in himself. By nature he was a queer mixture of rashness and timidity, but through his mother's anxiety on his behalf the latter quality was constantly being nursed at the expense of all tendency to action. And so, in order to keep the balance, he revelled in the imaginary or real deeds of men whose very life-breath was danger. The more the books gave him of what he craved, the less he thought of looking for it in life.
Consequently his new passion seemed a godsend to his mother, who encouraged him in every possible way. It brought a solution of many difficulties and worries by keeping him at home and quiet. The only resistance came, as usual, from the father, who repeatedly counselled moderation and often made the boy drop his book and turn to something else—which seemed to Keith the worst of all the tyrannies to which he found himself exposed. But most of the time the father was powerless because of his absence from home, and soon Keith learned that his reading formed the only exception to his mother's general refusal to permit any circumvention of his father's explicit command.
It also became plain to Keith that the mother favoured his love for the books not only as a means of relief to herself. Evidently she held it admirable in itself and a promise bearing in some mysterious manner on his future. His mother's approval flattered him, but otherwise her attitude was a riddle which he did not care to solve as long as it brought him permission to explore at will this newly discovered world of perfectly safe enjoyment. In the end, however, that strange reverence shown by his mother combined with his own increasing ability to live the cherished life of his dreams at second hand into an influence that more or less warped his entire outlook on life. It robbed to some extent of his sense of proportion.
His father noticed his timidity and seemed to view it with a sense of humiliation. Once, in the presence of company, he threatened to put him into skirts "like any other girl." Keith had played too little with other children to have acquired the usual male consciousness of superiority, but his father's words cut him to the quick nevertheless, because he knew them to be meant for an insult. He resolved then and there to show his mettle in some striking way, and promptly be began to dream of such ways, but chance being utterly lacking for even a normal display of boyish daring, it merely served to plunge him more deeply into the sham life of his books.
Yet he was not without courage, and it was not physical pain, or the fear of it, that brought the tears so quickly into flowing. Once, when returning home with an uncovered bowl full of molasses from the grocery, he stumbled at the foot of the stairs and fell so his forehead struck the edge of the lowest step and his scalp was cut open to the width of nearly an inch. The blood blinded him so that he could barely make his way upstairs. When he reached the kitchen at last, his mother was scared almost out of her wits, and her fright was augmented by the manner in which he sobbed as if his heart were breaking. When at last the flow of blood was partly stenched and his crying still continued, his mother tried to tell him that there was no cause to be scared.
"I am not scared," he sputtered to her surprise. "I didn't know I was hurt, but ... but ... I spilled all the molasses."
That night his father gave him a shining new silver coin without telling him why, and the boy couldn't guess it at the time, though later he learned the reason from his mother.
A favourite method employed by the father to test and to develop his courage was to send him alone after dark on some errand into the cellar or up into the attic, and the boy went without protest, no matter how much he might dread the task at heart. Even the servant girls felt reluctant about visiting the cellar at night, and the occasional discovery of a drunken man asleep in front of the cellar door made the danger far from imaginary.
Going down to the cellar, Keith was permitted to bring a candle along, but the danger of fire made this out of the question when the attic was his goal. One night on his way up there, he discovered a white, fluttering shape by the square opening in the outer wall. He stopped on the spot, and his heart almost stopped, too—but only for a moment. Driven by some necessity he could not explain to himself, he picked himself together and pushed on, only to find that the intimidating spectre consisted of some white clothing hung for drying on the iron rod of the shutter and kept moving by a high wind. It was a lesson that went right home and stuck.
During that one moment of hesitation, the idea of a ghost tried to take form in his more or less paralysed consciousness. He had read of ghosts, and overheard stories told by the servant girls in apparent good faith, and that whitish, almost luminous thing in front of him, stirring restlessly with a faint hissing sound, looked and acted the part of a ghost to perfection. But the idea was rejected before it had taken clear shape and without any reasoning, instinctively, automatically. His father always became scornful at the mere mention of ghosts, and that settled it.
When it was all over, and he was safe within the kitchen door once more, he told no one what had happened. He thought that, in spite of his initial scare, he had acted decidedly well, and he was eager for approval, but he was kept from telling by an uneasy feeling that his father would laugh at him if he did.
The boy's timidity took quite different forms. One day the whole family was astir. His parents had in some way obtained tickets to that evening's performance at the Royal Opera. As the custom of the place was to permit the holders of two adjoining seats to bring in a child with them, it was decided after much discussion that Keith might go along. His mother tried to explain the nature and purpose of a theatrical performance, but what she said made no impression on the boy, who was more excited by the thought of accompanying his parents than by what he might hear or see.
Their seats were in a box in the third tier. It was like being suspended halfway between the top and the bottom of a gigantic well. The depth of that well affected the boy unpleasantly, while the strong light and the hum of talk confused him. He clung closely to his mother with averted face. Suddenly the light went out, and he heard his mother whisper:
Glancing up, he found that a new room full of people had appeared where before was nothing but a flat wall.
"What became of the wall, mamma," he asked aloud. She hushed him with a smile, and he heard some one in another box titter.
"Now keep very quiet and try to follow what happens on the stage," his mother admonished in another whisper.
They were giving Auber's "Crown Diamonds." The rich dresses appealed somewhat to him, but not strongly. The music made no impression on him whatsoever. The general effect on his mind was one of bewilderment, that soon lapsed into bored indifference. Then he discovered that most of the men on the stage were armed, and that some of them acted as if they might put their weapons into use at any moment. And he, the ardent participant in all the bloody deeds of Siegfried and Dietrich and Kriemhild, he, the passionate hunter of big game on five continents, became so nervous that nothing but fear of his father kept him from burying his head in his mother's lap in order not to see any more. When, at last, a shot rang out on the stage, even that fear could no longer restrain him, and there was nothing for his mother to do but to escort him out of the box into the corridor. There, under the care of a friendly doorkeeper who treated him to candy out of a paper bag, he stayed in perfect contentment until his parents were ready to go home.
"Oh, we must go again, Carl," he heard his mother cry in a tone of high exultation.
"All right, you go," said the father with a yawn, Keith and I don't care—do we, Keith?"
"No," Keith replied mechanically, but even as he spoke he became conscious of a desire to share his mother's enthusiasm rather than his father's indifference. If they would only promise not to shoot! ...
Three years he remained in the school of the Misses Ahlberg. Three times fall and winter and spring were followed by that painfully delicious period of almost unbroken daylight, when the very books seemed to lose some of their magic, when even the air of the old lane became fraught with some mystic urge, and when life within stone walls turned into an unbearable burden.
He rose by degrees from mere spelling to the study of a foreign language, German. He learned his Catechism by heart—or rather by rote, for the time-worn phrases dropped from his lips at demand very much as water runs down a mill sluice, without leaving any trace. In fact, little of what he learned appeared to touch his real life at all. Nor could he be made to take it very seriously, although, on the whole, he was counted a good pupil.
He used schoolbooks, of course, but he was rarely caught reading one of them. His mind seemed to master the offered knowledge by some mysterious process of absorption of which he himself was never aware. Study in the sense of close and painful application was quite foreign to him. Yet he seemed capable of mastering anything that aroused his interest—or that stirred his vanity, for he loved to shine. Unfortunately most of his schoolmates were dull plodders who had not yet reached a stage where plodding counted, and so his triumphs came easy and there was nothing to spur him into serious effort.
At the end of the third year he had practically exhausted the possibilities of the little school in the South End, and it was understood that he would not return in the fall, when he would be nine years old. But nothing had been decided about what he was to do instead.
He had not been unhappy with the Misses Ahlberg and his leave-taking lacked none of the expected emotional colouring. Yet he left without a pang, without regrets. It was as if he had passed through that school in his sleep, waking up only when he reached home and his books. He had made no friends and formed no ties at school, and outside of it he had never associated with any of his schoolmates. Not one of them left a mark on his memory as Harald had done. In a place full of girls, his little heart never was betrayed into a single quickened beat of anticipation. Nor did he make any new connections outside of the school during those years. One might almost say that he had ceased to realize the existence of things or persons except in so far as they administered to some immediate need within himself.
Summer came early that year, and with it came a marked change. His restlessness grew almost morbid, so that his mother found it nearly impossible to keep him indoors. He was every minute pleading for leave to play with Johan, and on several occasions when permission had been granted, he and Johan left the quiet lane to play with strange boys on the Quay. It drove his mother almost to despair, and she tried one thing after another to keep him at home.
She was doing some embroidery at that particular time and the work seemed to interest the boy a great deal. Sometimes, when he had given up all hope of getting out, he could stand for many minutes at a time watching the needle with its tail of brightly coloured yarn pass in and out through the wide meshes of the fabric. Finally his mother suggested that he try his hand at it, and he grabbed eagerly at that chance of diversion. For about three days he was as devoted to his needle as any girl. By that time he had filled a small square with a sort of design of his own, and when his father returned home in the evening of the third day, Keith displayed his achievement with considerable pride.
"Fine," remarked the father dryly. "Now we know what to do with him if Uncle Granstedt does not think good him enough for a carpenter. We'll apprentice him to a tailor. He'll make a good one, I am sure, as it takes nine tailors to make a man, he need not have as much courage as a woman even."
That disposed of the embroidery once for all, but it seemed also to bring matters to a head. As soon as the father was done with his meal, the mother made him accompany her into the parlour, and there they stayed an endless time. When they returned to the living-room, Keith could see that his mother had been crying, but she was smiling brightly at that moment, and her voice had a ring of triumph when she said:
"Papa has something to tell you, Keith."
"Yes," the father drawled. "Your mother, as usual, has persuaded me to do what I doubt is right. Because she has pleaded for you, I'll let you enter the public school in the fall. That will cost money, and I am not sure it is good for a poor man's son like you, but we'll see. It means that you will have to do some studying at last, for if you don't—well, then you'll have to learn a trade."
As always on such occasions, Keith took his cue from the mother, and her mien told him that he ought to be pleased. It was a new departure anyhow, and it implied evidently an advance that would administer to his rather undernourished sense of self-importance. For anything doing so he had a passionate craving, and so he was ready to rejoice.
The new school was still far off, however, and in the meantime there was close at hand a problem that piqued him annoyingly. Had his father really meant to make a carpenter or a tailor of him if his mother had not interceded, or was the talk about it merely an expression of the father's peculiar unwillingness to admit any sort of tender feeling toward the son?
That was not the way Keith put it, in so far as he attempted any formulation at all, but it was in substance what his momentary speculations amounted to, and the solution of the problem lay quite beyond him. He never could make out just what his father meant or thought or felt in regard to himself.
Then several developments followed each other in quick succession. First of all his father bought him a season ticket at the public baths in the North River and made him join a class of small boys for instruction in the manly art of swimming. The world was opening up, Keith felt, and his father was lured to the verge of openly expressed satisfaction at finding that the boy's timidity did not extend to cold water.
No sooner, however, had he mastered the mechanics of the thing sufficiently to graduate from the board-walk onto a cork pillow in the water, than he had to quit because the whole family was "going into the country" for the summer. To Keith this meant a chance of playing with other children without having to ask permission every time and rarely getting it. To his mother it meant a distinct social advance, as no family staying in town all summer could be held really respectable.
The "country" was located on one of the numerous islands forming the outskirts of the city and could be reached by the father after he finished work by a fifteen-minute ride on one of the innumerable little steamboats running back and forth like so many busy shuttles across every sheet of water in the vicinity of Stockholm. Even then it was a suburb, but the houses were called villas, and there were plenty of trees between the buildings, and the roads meandering whimsically among miniature lawns and gardens had no pavements, and the lake came right up to the door.
There the father had rented a single room from some acquaintances who made their home on the island all the year round. The man was a German who had recently returned to Sweden after serving as a noncommissioned officer in the Franco-Prussian war—a stocky Bavarian with a tremendous black beard, a fondness for top-boots and long-stemmed pipes, and a startling tendency to shout every communication in the form of a command. He was a good-natured soul nevertheless, in spite of his appearance, his occasional bursts of temper, and his exaggerated regard for discipline, and he was full of stories about real fighting that differed puzzlingly from what Keith had read about such matters. Uncle Laube had a pet phrase that stuck in the boy's mind and exercised a corroding influence on some of his most cherished sentiments:
"A man must be able to fight, but it is black hell when he has to."
There were three children in the family—a boy two or three years older than Keith, a girl of his own age and a baby sister. The boy was named Adolph and the elder girl Marie. All three of them, but especially the boy, were being brought up in strict Teutonic fashion, which made a sort of super-religion out of obedience. At the mere sound of his father's voice, Adolph trembled and stiffened up like a recruit under training. Once the two boys and Marie strayed beyond bounds to a place where some timber rafts were tied up along the shore. Adolph led the way onto the rafts and the two others followed. It was great fun jumping from log to log where two rafts met, until Marie suddenly slipped into the water and began to sink like a stone. Quick as a flash Adolph dropped on his knees on a log that was partly under water, grabbed the girl by her hair and pulled her out. On their return home, Adolph was licked until he could not stand on his feet for leading the smaller children into mischief. Then he got a crown for the pluck shown in saving his sister's life.
This even balancing of justice made a deep impression on Keith. He thought and thought of it, and his reason, which already was very active, appreciated the logic of such a dispensation, but his heart rebelled strangely and turned for a while to his own father as a paragon of mildness, while the black-bearded Uncle Laube became an object of repulsion bordering on hatred. Fortunately the disciplinarian was away most of the day and Keith was running wild around the island. This was not possible without some protests from his mother, who regarded all water outside of a tub with deep distrust. He nevertheless maintained an unusual degree of independence until one day, while playing in one of the rowboats lying outside a small pier near their house, he, too, fell in and was pulled out by Adolph.
The children were alone at the time. Keith had no consciousness of having been in danger, but he was in a funk because of his wet clothing. Instead of going home at once, he ran to an open spot at the other end of the island and played in the sun to get dry. After a while his mother appeared, disturbed by his long absence. There was nothing to do but to respond to her call, although he did so most reluctantly, his clothing still being damp. His slow movements aroused her suspicion, and in another moment the awful truth was out.
"You might have drowned," his mother cried, too frightened to scold. "Or you might have caught cold and died of that. Perhaps ... you had better come home at once."
"No," protested Keith. "Adolph was there, and it hasn't been cold at all."
"But think, Keith," his mother remonstrated, her eyes dim with tears, "you wouldn't care to die and leave me?"
"I don't want to leave you," the boy said, "and I was not going to."
She took his head between her two hands and looked long into his eyes before she asked at last:
"Are you not scared of death?"
"I don't know," he stammered, wincing slightly under her stare. He could not grasp what she was driving at. Death carried no clear meaning to him. It had never touched his real inner life, and he never thought of it. No matter how frightened he became, it never occurred to him that he might cease to exist. Even his dreams had no colouring of that kind.
In spite of his mother's anxiety, he learned to swim that summer. He liked it and did it rather well for his age. But he never ventured very far out. Rebel as he might against the check on his movements, his mother's attitude had left a lasting mark on him, and avoiding needless risks seemed a natural thing to him. As a result of this inhibition, all his outdoor playing lacked that complete abandon which is the soul of it. He been made an indoor child beyond retrieve.
Being so much in the open air and moving about as a child should, his nights during that summer passed mostly without dreams of any kind, and also without other disturbances worth speaking of. He was too healthily tired for anything but sleep.
The winter nights, following days spent largely indoors with little company and less exercise, were quite different. Then the passing from wakefulness to sleep took him through a dangerous twilight period, when games of the kind learned behind the big rock seemed not only natural, but the most enticing thing in the world. And the more he was thrown back on his own resources, the more tempting those games became. They represented, besides, something that was entirely his own, with which no one else could interfere. It was a secret that would have been the sweeter for being shared with some one else, he felt, but Johan's peculiar attitude in this matter had filled him with a shyness not his own by nature.
Then, with the sleep, came also the dreams. At first they were, or seemed to be, mere plays of fancy—shadowy repetitions of daylight experiences in clownish distortion. Then they began to change. An element of unrest, and finally of dread, began to fill them. This did not happen, however, until the same elements had found a place in his waking life, and particularly not until the hours of that twilight period had developed into a source of increasingly acute conflict.
Nothing palpable had happened. Nothing had been said openly to convince him that his secret was known and that it was evil. Yet the air about him seemed full of suspicion and suspense and menace. The mere way in which his mother looked at him at times filled his soul with sinister misgivings. And she was always talking about temptations and dangers that walk in the dark. Or else she dropped mysterious warnings about the duty of keeping one's soul and body clean and pure.
It was all very disturbing, and he should have liked to ask questions, but always some imperious force within himself kept him back. He felt that his sweet secret would never bear open discussion, but the more desperately he clung to it, the more his mind was poisoned with doubts out of which soon grew fears.
Thus began the new dream life.
He was as a rule the only living being in those dreams. Everything else consisted of lifeless things, and mostly of spaces and dimensions rather than of objects. The dominant characteristic was an increase of size proportional to the increase of distance from himself. He found himself, for instance, in the midst of a vast space laid out in squares. Where he stood at the centre, those squares were just large enough to hold him. Then, as his glance passed outward, the squares became larger and larger, until at last their dimensions became gigantic. Soon they began to move toward him, growing smaller as they approached, and yet filling his soul with a horror based entirely on the monstrous size of those squares that were still miles away. Or he walked down a corridor built of stones that, as it opened out in front of him, expanded indefinitely until it assumed proportions that filled him with a sickening sense of his own smallness. As he moved forward, the corridor automatically contracted, but always the horror of those immeasurable vastnesses still ahead of him continued dominant and inevitable. At other times sums of figures came moving toward him from every direction, and the farther away from him they were, the more enormous they grew, until his mind no longer could take them in, and his heart quaked at the thought that sooner or later one of them would reach him in its original awe-inspiring immensity.
He tried once to tell his mother about those dreams, but found it impossible to express what he wished to describe. Not long afterwards he was aroused in the middle of the night by his mother calling him by name. Her voice betrayed worry.
"What's the matter, Keith," she asked when at last he woke up sufficiently to answer her call. "Were you dreaming?"
"I don't know," replied the boy, and at that moment he didn't know.
"I thought first you were crying," explained the mother, "and then I heard that you were counting something."
"He was probably repeating his multiplication table," muttered the father. "I wish he would learn his lessons in the daytime, so that we could sleep in peace at night."
The next morning Keith had forgotten all about it but his mother reminded him of what had happened during the night in order to find out whether he had any bad dreams. Keith shook his head. Then a thought flashed through his mind.
"Do I often talk in my sleep," he asked.
"Hardly ever," said his mother. "But the other night you read the Lord's Prayer from beginning to end, and I wish you would read it as nicely when are saying your prayers before going to sleep."
"He is studying too much," Granny put in from the kitchen. "His nose is always buried in a book. That's the whole trouble, I tell you."
"No, mamma, I don't think reading does him any harm," said Keith's mother, and for some reason Keith felt relieved by the diversion.
Even Keith could not escape a feeling about this time of having arrived at some sort of station or landmark on his road through life.
He was frightfully self-centred. He seemed to be thinking about nothing but himself. In reality, however, he was not reflecting at all on the character and probable course of his life. It was all a matter of feeling and what concerned him was merely the comforts or discomforts, pleasures or pains, exhilarations or boredoms of the passing moment. The future was a word that, at the most, implied things that might happen a few days after tomorrow. The convinced visioning of events a year or more distant was still utterly beyond him. And the past seemed to vanish with the setting sun of the day just ended.
Yet he was dimly aware of facing a transition that, somehow, must make a great change in his entire life. Something that he could not define was drawing to an end, and something else, equally indefinable, was about to begin. The "school for small children" which he had left, and the "school for boys" into which he would soon enter, were the symbols used by his mind to express the passing out of one phase of life into another, but as such they suggested the actual change without revealing it. And there were moments when Keith's vague efforts to look ahead were accompanied by a sense of crushing dread, while at other times they might fill him with a never before tasted fervor of existence.
He was near the completion of his ninth year. It seemed quite an age, but this appearance was contradicted by troublesome facts. He was very small for his age and hopelessly tied to the apron strings of his mother in spite of all his father's efforts to pry him loose. The reason for this failure was that his father lacked the time or the capacity for winning the boy's whole-hearted attention and affection.
The one thing the father seemed to care for on his return home was to be left alone with his own preoccupations, and these did not include the boy. He could not unbend. He could not subordinate his own momentary desire or disinclination to an interest essentially foreign to his own self. In other words, he was just as self-centred as Keith, and just as unreflecting on the whole. Both lived completely in the present, and both wished to escape from it. The only difference between them was that while Keith sought his escape in space, so to speak, by means of his books, the father's only road of escape led him into a past of which the boy formed no part.
Either through some fault of his own nature, or through the restrictive policy of his parents, Keith at nine had formed no real attachments outside of his immediate surroundings, and no life of his own that was not enclosed by the walls of his childhood home. This state of affairs tended always to throw him back on the mother as his most satisfactory source of inspiration and the magnetic pole of his emotional compass. And she on her part left no effort untried that could help to fasten his affections more closely to her.
Unconsciously but increasingly she worked to cut the boy off from all the rest of the world in order that she might have him the more exclusively to herself. She expressed openly the wish that he might be a girl, because girls in those days were so much less likely to escape the parental protection.
The boy was pleased by her attempts at monopolization. There was something flattering and softly reassuring about her passionate pleas for the uppermost place in his heart. And yet he rebelled with increasing violence against the closeness of her clutch on him. He seemed to choke at times, and a blind hatred rose within him without ever revealing itself as in any way related to his mother. One of the dominant emotions of this and the following period of his life was one of intense impatience that seemed to be directed toward no particular object. Once in a great while he turned toward his father with an expectation of relief, but this expectation was always foiled, and so he was plunged back again and again into an inner life of his own that fed almost exclusively on books and had little or nothing in common with the reality to which the new school was supposed to form a gateway.
The new school was located in another part of the South End, separated only by the churchyard from the old church of St. Mary Magdalene. It was a state institution demanding an entrance fee, which, although quite reasonable, yet sufficed to keep out the children of mere wage earners. It was a school for the offspring of the "better classes" and good enough for all but the most select who must needs turn to certain private institutions of still greater exclusiveness for instruction.
Its official title was St. Mary's Elementary School and it had only five grades or classes, as they were called, being supplemented by a "gymnasium," from which the pupils passed on to the university. No boy was admitted under nine, but there seemed to be no limit at the other end, for at the time of Keith's entrance the upper grades still held a few youngsters with well developed moustaches who, from the viewpoint of Keith's own peach-skinned diminutiveness, looked like veritable patriarchs. Stories were afloat about their actually being addressed as "mister" by the teachers.
Admission was conditioned by examinations held in the school itself, and thither Keith was escorted by his mother one late August day. All novelties stimulated him, and to his inexperience the rather dingy old school seemed enormously impressive. The mere fact that it occupied a whole building all by itself was enough. In addition, however, it had an assembly hall large enough to hold several hundred boys, and there were numerous rooms capable of holding thirty or forty boys. Every pupil had a seat and a small desk of his own. Seeing these desks, with inkstands sunk into their tops, and special grooves for the penholders, and lids that could be raised, Keith knew that he must pass the examinations or die from a broken heart.
The officiating teachers were stern but not unkind. Keith was nervous from eagerness, but neither frightened nor embarrassed. The questions asked were ridiculously easy, he thought. When his turn came, he answered triumphantly, as if he had been playing a game in which he was quite skilled. Finding him willing and well prepared, the examiners felt themselves challenged and pressed him more and more. Still he held his own. It ended with a sense of triumph on his part, but nothing was said about his having passed.
The wait that followed until all the boys had been questioned was the only difficult part of the ordeal. Waiting patiently was not a strong point with Keith. Finally his mother appeared to take him home, and the moment he looked at her he knew. She was in such high spirits that she had to try a joke.
"Too bad you couldn't pass," she said in a voice she vainly tried to make sad.
He knew it was a joke, and yet his heart leaped into his throat and his eyes filled with tears. Then she had to console him, and to do so, she let out the whole story. The teachers had told her that he knew enough to go right into the third grade, but on account of his age they had advised her not to let him start above the second grade. It was a whole year saved, but that was not what she was thinking of. Her son had distinguished himself by giving proof of a brightness that had aroused unusual attention among the teachers. Her pride in this fact was such that Keith really began to think that a new life was about to begin for him.
And that night, when his father came home, the whole story had to be told over again with new details, and Keith had the pleasure of seeing an expression of undisguised satisfaction on his father's face. It did not last very long, but it was sweet to watch while it lasted. Then the father resumed his usual manner of stern indifference as he turned to the boy:
"That's all very well, Keith, but it means also that they will expect more of you than of the other boys, and so you have to study harder than ever in order to make good with them."
Keith didn't care. It had been a wonderful day, he felt. He had had his first taste of public approval, and he had noticed the effect of it on his father and mother. As for the need of studying—that was easy. And he didn't have to begin his studies at once anyhow.
After the opening of the term, it took Keith only a day or two to realize that, literally, he had entered a new world, quite different, in spirit as well as in appearance, from anything previously experienced.
The first shock came as soon as he had taken his place in the class and the first lesson had begun. He was no longer Keith. Christian names were not at all in use. Everybody was addressed by his family name both by the teachers and by his fellow pupils. Keith had become Wellander, and the first time he heard himself called by that name he blushed as deeply as if his most intimate privacy had suddenly been violated. In a few hours, however, the unfamiliarity of the name as a standing appellation had worn off, and then the pride of the thing sent a pleasant glow through his whole body, making him for a brief, dizzy moment glimpse the glory of manhood.
His next discovery went far deeper. He had attended school four years in succession, but only as you drop into a strange room on a visit. He had never belonged in or to the school, and the school had neither limited nor extended his individuality. Now he found himself completely taken possession of and made a part of something larger than himself, a carefully correlated and guarded system of ranks and rules and traditions. In retrospect the former school seemed as accidental and fleeting as a street crowd, while the new one was an institution with a jealously preserved and deeply revered history to which each new pupil was expected to add more lustre. But most remarkable of all seemed the fact that this collective body added something to the stature of every boy that became a part of it.
Membership was as onerous as it was honourable, not only within the school precints but anywhere. To belong to "Old Mary" was to carry a sacred duty along wherever one went. She was like an ambitious parent, never jealous of the reputation of her children. Mostly it was a question of refraining from this or that thing which less conspicuously placed boys might venture at will, but at times it might imply the performance of fierce deeds of bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. There was the rival school of St. Catherine and several "popular" schools that had no social standing whatsoever, but contained pupils with harder fists and less generous ideas of fighting than any boy within Old Mary. When certain words of derision were flung upon the air by members of those inferior institutions, there was nothing left for a pupil of St. Mary's but to fight.
Little by little these strange facts penetrated Keith's subconsciousness and set up a never ending conflict between pride and precaution, between his wish to rise to a new ideal and his instinctive tendency to obey his mother's almost hysterical injunctions against fighting of any kind. Fortunately his road to and from school permitted him to follow the principal streets where the traffic was sufficient to act as a check on combative youngsters, and an additional protection was derived from his small size which caused the hostile elements to overlook his existence unless he appeared in the company of more developed schoolmates. And as he mostly walked alone, his comings and goings were uneventful as a rule. But that did not prevent him from imagining dangers and to suffer from them almost as much as if they had been real. There were times when he could not help thinking of himself as a coward.
Such estimates of himself were not wholly checked by an incident that occurred within the school precincts early in the first term. There was another boy in the same class named Bauer, who seemed the living counterpart of Keith—just as undersized and lonely and nervous. From the first there was a hostile tension between those two, and soon it came to open war. It broke out in a pause between two lessons when practically all the boys were gathered in the schoolyard. Before Keith quite knew what had happened, he found himself fighting Bauer. First they used their fists and then they wrestled. The rest of the boys formed a ring about them and egged them on.
They were well matched in their common weaknesses and both developed a certain courage during the stress of conflict. The difference between them was that Bauer apparently wanted to lick Keith, while the latter thought of nothing but to defend himself. The idea of inflicting pain on another human being was so foreign to Keith that it never took tangible form in his mind. The result was that Bauer's greater aggressiveness carried the day, and soon Keith found himself prone on his back with a triumphant Bauer straddling his chest.
At that moment both boys became guilty of serious breaches against time-honoured school etiquette. Bauer struck the defenceless Keith square in the face with his clenched fist, and Keith burst into tears. Quick as a flash one of the older boys grabbed Bauer by the scruff of his neck and hurled him halfway across the yard, while another one plucked Keith from the ground and shoved him toward the stairway with a contemptuous:
"The classroom for cry-babies."
The humiliation felt by Keith was so intense that he wondered whether he could stay in the school. Nothing but the thought of his father kept him from returning home. But the cloud had a silver lining. Though no one else knew, he knew that he had started crying from rage, and not from fear. And this fact in connection with his realization of not having had any thought of running away during the fight made him hesitate in his final judgment upon himself. But he felt quite sure that fighting was not his chosen field. The effect on his nerves was too damaging.
In the lower three grades, a single teacher with the title of Class Principal had complete charge of the morals, manners and instruction of the children in his grade. Keith had the luck of falling into the hands of one of the kindest and shrewdest men in the school—a man who seemed to understand that his mission was to guide rather than to drive, and who, in addition to his broad, human sympathy, possessed a genuine sense of humour.
His name was Lector Dahlstroem, but everybody spoke of him as Dally, and little did he care. He was large of body and large of mind, with a most impressive girth and a voice that commanded attention without grating on supersensitive nerves. He had very rarely to assert his authority, but if ever the need arose, no one remained long in doubt as to who was the master, and a recurrence of the offense was unheard of. Even on such occasions he never used corporal punishment, although at that time the right of such administration still remained with him. He simply appealed to the self-respect and the sense of fairness in his pupils, asking no one to render what lay beyond his capacity. The main secret of his hold on the boys, however, lay in his ability to keep them interested, and to do so he frequently broke away from the text books and time-worn pedagogical methods. If there was anything he deposed, it was learning things by rote.
The boys sat in rows of four and were placed with regard to scholarship and behaviour, so that the best pupils were farthest away from the teacher and the least reliable ones right in front of him. Keith found himself number two in the class, and that position at first tickled his pride considerably. Later, as the term went by, and boys now and then were shifted up or down, he began to wonder why he always remained number two. It was reassuring in a way, as showing that he held his own, but he failed to see why another boy should always remain primus, although his performances during lessons did not surpass those of Keith. Once he dared even give utterance to some such speculation in his father's hearing, but was promptly put down with a stern:
"If the teacher puts another boy above you, he has probably some very good reason for doing so, and you had better feel thankful for being where you are in the class."
"Humph," said his mother. "You forget, Carl, that the father of that boy is one of the richest bankers in the city."