It was a beautiful autumn day towards the end of the thirties. There was in Upsala at that time a high, yellow, two-storied house, which stood quite alone in a little meadow on the outskirts of the town. It was a rather desolate and dismal-looking house, but was rendered less so by the Virginia-creepers which grew there in profusion, and which had crept so high up the yellow wall on the sunny side of the house that they completely surrounded the three windows on the upper story.
At one of these windows a student was sitting, drinking his morning coffee. He was a tall, handsome fellow, of distinguished appearance. His hair was brushed back from his forehead; it curled prettily, and a lock was continually falling into his eyes. He wore a loose, comfortable suit, but looked rather smart all the same.
His room was well furnished. There was a good sofa and comfortable chairs, a large writing-table, a capital bookcase, but hardly any books.
Before he had finished his coffee another student entered the room. The new-comer was a[Pg 4] totally different-looking man. He was a short, broad-shouldered fellow, squarely built and strong, ugly, with a large head, thin hair, and coarse complexion.
'Hede,' he said, 'I have come to have a serious talk with you.'
'Has anything unpleasant happened to you?'
'Oh no, not to me,' the other answered; 'it is really you it concerns.' He sat silent for a while, and looked down. 'It is so awfully unpleasant having to tell you.'
'Leave it alone, then,' suggested Hede.
He felt inclined to laugh at his friend's solemnity.
'I can't leave it alone any longer,' said his visitor. 'I ought to have spoken to you long ago, but it is hardly my place. You understand? I can't help thinking you will say to yourself: "There's Gustaf Alin, son of one of our cottagers, thinks himself such a great man now that he can order me about."'
'My dear fellow,' Hede said, 'don't imagine I think anything of the kind. My father's father was a peasant's son.'
'Yes, but no one thinks of that now,' Alin answered. He sat there, looking awkward and stupid, resuming every moment more and more of his peasant manners, as if that could help him out of his difficulty. 'When I think of the difference there is between your family and mine, I feel as if I ought to keep quiet; but when I remember that it was your father who, by his help in days gone by, enabled me to study, then I feel that I must speak.'
Hede looked at him with a pleasant smile.
'You had better speak out and have done with it,' he said.
'The thing is,' Alin said, 'I have heard people say that you don't do any work. They say you have hardly opened a book during the four terms you have been at the University. They say you don't do anything but play on the violin the whole day; and that I can quite believe, for you never wanted to do anything else when you were at school in Falu, although there you were obliged to work.'
Hede straightened himself a little in his chair. Alin grew more and more uncomfortable, but he continued with stubborn resolution:
'I suppose you think that anyone owning an estate like Munkhyttan ought to be able to do as he likes—work if he likes, or leave it alone. If he takes his exam., good; if he does not take his exam., what does it matter? for in any case you will never be anything but a landed proprietor and iron-master. You will live at Munkhyttan all your life. I understand quite well that is what you must think.'
Hede was silent, and Alin seemed to see him surrounded by the same wall of distinction which in Alin's eyes had always surrounded his father, the Squire, and his mother.
'But, you see, Munkhyttan is no longer what it used to be when there was iron in the mine,' he continued cautiously. 'The Squire knew that very well, and that was why it was arranged before his death that you should study. Your poor mother knows it, too, and the whole parish knows[Pg 6] it. The only one who does not know anything is you, Hede.'
'Don't you think I know,' Hede said a little irritably, 'that the iron-mine cannot be worked any longer?'
'Oh yes,' Alin said, 'I dare say you know that much, but you don't know that it is all up with the property. Think the matter over, and you will understand that one cannot live from farming alone at Vesterdalarne. I cannot understand why your mother has kept it a secret from you. But, of course, she has the sole control of the estate, so she need not ask your advice about anything. Everybody at home knows that she is hard up. They say she drives about borrowing money. I suppose she did not want to disturb you with her troubles, but thought that she could keep matters going until you had taken your degree. She will not sell the estate before you have finished, and made yourself a new home.'
Hede rose, and walked once or twice up and down the floor. Then he stopped opposite Alin.
'But what on earth are you driving at, Alin? Do you want to make me believe that we are not rich?'
'I know quite well that, until lately, you have been considered rich people at home,' Alin said. 'But you can understand that things must come to an end when it is a case of always spending and never earning anything. It was a different thing when you had the mine.'
Hede sat down again.
'My mother would surely have told me if there were anything the matter,' he said. 'I am grateful[Pg 7] to you, Alin; but you have allowed yourself to be frightened by some silly stories.'
'I thought that you did not know anything,' Alin continued obstinately. 'At Munkhyttan your mother saves and works in order to get the money to keep you at Upsala, and to make it cheerful and pleasant for you when you are at home in the vacations. And in the meantime you are here doing nothing, because you don't know there is trouble coming. I could not stand any longer seeing you deceiving each other. Her ladyship thought you were studying, and you thought she was rich. I could not let you destroy your prospects without saying anything.'
Hede sat quietly for a moment, and meditated. Then he rose and gave Alin his hand with rather a sad smile.
'You understand that I feel you are speaking the truth, even if I will not believe you? Thanks.'
Alin joyfully shook his hand.
'You must know, Hede, that if you will only work no harm is done. With your brains, you can take your degree in three or four years.'
Hede straightened himself.
'Do not be uneasy, Alin,' he said; 'I am going to work hard now.'
Alin rose and went towards the door, but hesitated. Before he reached it he turned round.
'There was something else I wanted,' he said. He again became embarrassed. 'I want you to lend me your violin until you have commenced reading in earnest.'
'Lend you my violin?'
'Yes; pack it up in a silk handkerchief, and put it in the case, and let me take it with me, or otherwise you will read to no purpose. You will begin to play as soon as I am out of the room. You are so accustomed to it now you cannot resist if you have it here. One cannot get over that kind of thing unless someone helps one; it gets the mastery over one.'
Hede appeared unwilling.
'This is madness, you know,' he said.
'No, Hede, it is not. You know you have inherited it from the Squire. It runs in your blood. Ever since you have been your own master here in Upsala you have done nothing else but play. You live here in the outskirts of the town simply not to disturb anyone by your playing. You cannot help yourself in this matter. Let me have the violin.'
'Well,' said Hede, 'before I could not help playing, but now Munkhyttan is at stake; I am more fond of my home than of my violin.'
But Alin was determined, and continued to ask for the violin.
'What is the good of it?' Hede said. 'If I want to play, I need not go many steps to borrow another violin.'
'I know that,' Alin replied, 'but I don't think it would be so bad with another violin. It is your old Italian violin which is the greatest danger for you. And besides, I would suggest your locking yourself in for the first few days—only until you have got fairly started.'
He begged and begged, but Hede resisted; he would not stand anything so unreasonable as being a prisoner in his own room.
Alin grew crimson.
'I must have the violin with me,' he said, 'or it is no use at all.' He spoke eagerly and excitedly. 'I had not intended to say anything about it, but I know that it concerns more than Munkhyttan. I saw a young girl at the Promotion Ball in the spring who, people said, was engaged to you. I don't dance, you know, but I liked to watch her when she was dancing, looking radiant like one of the lilies of the field. And when I heard that she was engaged to you, I felt sorry for her.'
'Because I knew that you would never succeed if you continued as you had begun. And then I swore that she should not have to spend her whole life waiting for one who never came. She should not sit and wither whilst waiting for you. I did not want to meet her in a few years with sharpened features and deep wrinkles round her mouth——'
He stopped suddenly; Hede's glance had rested so searchingly upon him.
But Gunnar Hede had already understood that Alin was in love with his fiancée. It moved him deeply that Alin under these circumstances tried to save him, and, influenced by this feeling, he yielded and gave him the violin.
When Alin had gone, Hede read desperately for a whole hour, but then he threw away his book.
It was not of much good his reading. It would be three or four years before he could be finished, and who could guarantee that the estate would not be sold in the meantime?
He felt almost with terror how deeply he loved the old home. It was like witchery. Every room, every tree, stood clearly before him. He felt he could not part with any of it if he were to be happy. And he was to sit quietly with his books whilst all this was about to pass away from him.
He became more and more restless; he felt the blood beating in his temples as if in a fever. And then he grew quite beside himself because he could not take his violin and play himself calm again.
'My God!' he said, 'Alin will drive me mad. First to tell me all this, and then to take away my violin! A man like I must feel the bow between his fingers in sorrow and in joy. I must do something; I must get money, but I have not an idea in my head. I cannot think without my violin.'
He could not endure the feeling of being locked in. He was so angry with Alin, who had thought of this absurd plan, that he was afraid he might strike him the next time he came.
Of course he would have played, if he had had the violin, for that was just what he needed. His blood rushed so wildly, that he was nearly going out of his mind.
Just as Hede was longing most for his violin a wandering musician began to play outside. It was an old blind man. He played out of tune and without expression, but Hede was so overcome by hearing a violin just at this moment that he listened with tears in his eyes and with his hands folded.
The next moment he flung open the window and climbed to the ground by the help of the creepers. He had no compunction at leaving his work. He thought the violin had simply come to comfort him in his misfortune.
Hede had probably never before begged so humbly for anything as he did now, when he asked the old blind man to lend him his violin. He stood the whole time with his cap in his hand, although the old man was blind.
The musician did not seem to understand what he wanted. He turned to the young girl who was leading him. Hede bowed to the poor girl and repeated his request. She looked at him, as if she must have eyes for them both. The glance from her big eyes was so steady that Hede thought he could feel where it struck him. It began with his collar, and it noticed that the frills of his shirt were well starched, then it saw that his coat was brushed, next that his boots were polished.
Hede had never before been subjected to such close scrutiny. He saw clearly that he would not pass muster before those eyes.
But it was not so, all the same. The young girl had a strange way of smiling. Her face was so serious, that one had the impression when she smiled that it was the first and only time she had ever looked happy; and now one of these rare smiles passed over her lips. She took the violin from the old man and handed it to Hede.
'Play the waltz from "Freischütz," then,' she said.
Hede thought it was strange that he should have to play a waltz just at that moment, but, as a matter of fact, it was all the same to him what he played, if he could only have a bow in his hand. That was all he wanted. The violin at once began to comfort him; it spoke to him in faint, cracked tones.
'I am only a poor man's violin,' it said; 'but such as I am, I am a comfort and help to a poor blind man. I am the light and the colour and the brightness in his life. It is I who must comfort him in his poverty and old age and blindness.'
Hede felt that the terrible depression that had cowed his hopes began to give way.
'You are young and strong,' the violin said to him. 'You can fight and strive; you can hold fast that which tries to escape you. Why are you downcast and without courage?'
Hede had played with lowered eyes; now he threw back his head and looked at those who stood around him. There was quite a crowd of children and people from the street, who had come into the yard to listen to the music. It appeared, however, that they had not come solely for the sake of the music. The blind man and his companion were not the only ones in the troupe.
Opposite Hede stood a figure in tights and spangles, and with bare arms crossed over his chest. He looked old and worn, but Hede could not help thinking that he looked a devil of a fellow with his high chest and long moustaches. And beside him stood his wife, little and fat, and[Pg 13] not so very young either, but beaming with joy over her spangles and flowing gauze skirts.
During the first bars of the music they stood still and counted, then a gracious smile passed over their faces, and they took each other's hands and began to dance on a small carpet. And Hede saw that during all the equilibristic tricks they now performed the woman stood almost still, whilst her husband did all the work. He sprang over her, and twirled round her, and vaulted over her. The woman scarcely did anything else but kiss her hand to the spectators.
But Hede did not really take much notice of them. His bow began to fly over the strings. It told him that there was happiness in fighting and overcoming. It almost deemed him happy because everything was at stake for him. Hede stood there, playing courage and hope into himself, and did not think of the old tight-rope dancers.
But suddenly he saw that they grew restless. They no longer smiled; they left off kissing their hands to the spectators; the acrobat made mistakes, and his wife began to sway to and fro in waltz time.
Hede played more and more eagerly. He left off 'Freischütz' and rushed into an old 'Nixie Polka,' one which generally sent all the people mad when played at the peasant festivals.
The old tight-rope dancers quite lost their heads. They stood in breathless astonishment, and at last they could resist no longer. They sprang into each other's arms, and then they began to dance a waltz in the middle of the carpet.
How they danced! dear me, how they danced! They took small, tripping steps, and whirled round in a small circle; they hardly went outside the carpet, and their faces beamed with joy and delight. There was the happiness of youth and the rapture of love over these two old people.
The whole crowd was jubilant at seeing them dance. The serious little companion of the blind man smiled all over her face, and Hede grew much excited.
Just fancy what an effect his violin could have! It made people quite forget themselves. It was a great power to have at his disposal. Any moment he liked he could take possession of his kingdom. Only a couple of years' study abroad with a great master, and he could go all over the world, and by his playing earn riches and honour and fame.
It seemed to Hede that these acrobats must have come to tell him this. That was the road he should follow; it lay before him clear and smooth. He said to himself: 'I will—I will become a musician! I must be one! This is better than studying. I can charm my fellow-men with my violin; I can become rich.'
Hede stopped playing. The acrobats at once came up and complimented him. The man said his name was Blomgren. That was his real name; he had other names when he performed. He and his wife were old circus people. Mrs. Blomgren in former days had been called Miss Viola, and had performed on horseback; and although they had now left the circus, they were still true artists—artists body and soul. That he[Pg 15] had probably already noticed; that was why they could not resist his violin.
Hede walked about with the acrobats for a couple of hours. He could not part with the violin, and the old artists' enthusiasm for their profession appealed to him. He was simply testing himself. 'I want to find out whether there is the proper stuff for an artist in me. I want to see if I can call forth enthusiasm. I want to see whether I can make children and idlers follow me from house to house.'
On their way from house to house Mr. Blomgren threw an old threadbare mantle around him, and Mrs. Blomgren enveloped herself in a brown cloak. Thus arrayed, they walked at Hede's side and talked.
Mr. Blomgren would not speak of all the honour he and Mrs. Blomgren had received during the time they had performed in a real circus; but the directeur had given Mrs. Blomgren her dismissal under the pretence that she was getting too stout. Mr. Blomgren had not been dismissed: he had himself resigned his position. Surely no one could think that Mr. Blomgren would remain with a directeur who had dismissed his wife!
Mrs. Blomgren loved her art, and for her sake Mr. Blomgren had made up his mind to live as a free artist, so that she could still continue to perform. During the winter, when it was too cold to give performances in the street, they performed in a tent. They had a very comprehensive repertoire. They gave pantomimes, and were jugglers and conjurers.
The circus had cast them off, but Art had not, said Mr. Blomgren. They served Art always. It was well worth being faithful to Art, even unto death. Always artists—always. That was Mr. Blomgren's opinion, and it was also Mrs. Blomgren's.
Hede walked quietly and listened. His thoughts flew restlessly from plan to plan. Sometimes events happen which become like symbols, like signs, which one must obey. There must be some meaning in what had now happened to him. If he could only understand it rightly, it might help him towards arriving at a wise resolution.
Mr. Blomgren asked the student to notice the young girl who was leading the blind man. Had he ever before seen such eyes? Did he not think that such eyes must mean something? Could one have those eyes without being intended for something great?
Hede turned round and looked at the little pale girl. Yes, she had eyes like stars, set in a sad and rather thin face.
'Our Lord knows always what He is about,' said Mrs. Blomgren; 'and I also believe that He has some reason for letting such an artist as Mr. Blomgren perform in the street. But what was He thinking about when He gave that girl those eyes and that smile?'
'I will tell you something,' said Mr. Blomgren; 'she has not the slightest talent for Art. And with those eyes!'
Hede had a suspicion that they were not talking to him, but simply for the benefit of the[Pg 17] young girl. She was walking just behind them, and could hear every word.
'She is not more than thirteen years old, and not by any means too old to learn something; but, impossible—impossible, without the slightest talent! If one does not want to waste one's time, sir, teach her to sew, but not to stand on her head. Her smile makes people quite mad about her,' Mr. Blomgren continued. 'Simply on account of her smile she has had many offers from families wishful to adopt her. She could grow up in a well-to-do home if she would only leave her grandfather. But what does she want with a smile that makes people mad about her, when she will never appear either on horseback or on a trapeze?'
'We know other artists,' said Mrs. Blomgren, 'who pick up children in the street and train them for the profession when they cannot perform any longer themselves. There is more than one who has been lucky enough to create a star and obtain immense salaries for her. But Mr. Blomgren and I have never thought of the money; we have only thought of some day seeing Ingrid flying through a hoop whilst the whole circus resounded with applause. For us it would have been as if we were beginning life over again.'
'Why do we keep her grandfather?' said Mr. Blomgren. 'Is he an artist fit for us? We could, no doubt, have got a previous member of a Hofkapell if we had wished. But we love that child; we cannot do without her; we keep the old man for her sake.'
'Is it not naughty of her that she will not allow us to make an artist of her?' they said.
Hede turned round. The little girl's face wore an expression of suffering and patience. He could see that she knew that anyone who could not dance on the tight-rope was a stupid and contemptible person.
At the same moment they came to another house, but before they began their performance Hede sat down on an overturned wheelbarrow and began to preach. He defended the poor little girl. He reproached Mr. and Mrs. Blomgren for wishing to hand her over to the great, cruel public, who would love and applaud her for a time, but when she grew old and worn out, they would let her trudge along the streets in rain and cold. No; he or she was artist enough, who made a fellow-being happy. Ingrid should only have eyes and smiles for one, should keep them for one only; and this one should never leave her, but give her a safe home as long as he lived.
Tears came into Hede's eyes whilst he spoke. He spoke more to himself than to the others. He felt it suddenly as something terrible to be thrust out into the world, to be severed from the quiet home-life. He saw that the great, star-like eyes of the girl began to sparkle. It seemed as if she had understood every single word. It seemed as if she again felt the right to live.
But Mr. Blomgren and his wife had become very serious. They pressed Hede's hand and promised him that they would never again try and persuade the little girl to become an artist. She should be allowed to lead the life she wished. He had touched them. They were artists—artists[Pg 19] body and soul; they understood what he meant when he spoke of love and faithfulness.
Then Hede parted from them and went home. He no longer tried to find any secret meaning in his adventure. After all, it had meant nothing more than that he should save this poor sorrowful child from always grieving over her incapacity.
You can read this item using any of the following Kobo apps and devices: