Home  »  Skipper Worse  »  Chapter I

Alexander L. Kielland (1849–1906). Skipper Worse.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Chapter I

“HERE, Lauritz, you young scamp, go aloft and clear the dogvane.”

Skipper Worse was standing on his quarter-deck, a fresh north wind was blowing in the fjord, and the old brig was gliding along quietly under easy sail.

A chopping sea, caused by the ebbing tide, was breaking outside the cape which marked the entrance to Sandsgaard Bay.

As the Hope of the Family rounded the point, she seemed to feel that she was safe at home. Captain Worse winked at the helmsman, and declared that the old thing knew well enough where she was now that they were round.

The Hope of the Family was not quite like other ships. It might be that some looked smarter and lighter; indeed, it was not entirely beyond the range of possibility—though, as for Jacob Worse, he had never yet seen such a one—that, amongst the new-fangled English craft, one or two might be found that could sail just the least trifle better.

No further admission, however, would he make. Anything stronger, more seaworthy, or more complete than the Hope did not, and never would, float upon the sea. The sun shone brightly upon the buildings at Sandsgaard, on the garden and the wharf, and over all the pleasant bay, where the summer ripples chased each other to the land, hurrying on with the news that Jacob Worse had entered the fjord.

Zacharias, the man at the wharf, had, however, already announced the fact.

“Are you so sure about it?” asked Consul Garman sharply.

“We’ve made her out with the telescope, Herr Consul, and I’m as sure it’s the Hope as that I am a living sinner. She is steering right in for Sandsgaard Bay.”

Morten W. Garman rose up from his armchair. He was a tall, ponderous man, with crisp white hair and a heavy underlip.

As he took his hat and stick, his hand trembled a little, for the Hope had been away a very long time at sea. In the outer office the book-keeper was standing by the little outlook window; taking the telescope from his hand, the Consul spied out over the fjord, and then closing the glass, said:

“All right; Jacob Worse is a man one can depend upon.”

It was the first time that a ship from those parts had sailed to Rio de Janeiro, and the perilous voyage had been due entirely to Jacob Worse’s enterprise.

He had, however, been away so long that the Consul had given up the Hope, as he had given up so many other ships of late years.

Although he was now relieved of all anxiety on account of the ship and his trusty Captain Worse, his footstep was heavy, and resounded sadly as he left the office and strode through the entrance hall, whence a broad staircase led up to the next story.

Much more, indeed, than merely a profitable voyage would be required in order to console the embarrassed merchant, for his home at Sandsgaard was empty and desolate. Youth and social pleasures had fled, and little remained but bygone memories of gay friends and brilliant ladies; a faint odour of the past lingering in out-of-the-way corners, and causing his heart to beat again.

Ever since the death of his wife in the past summer, all the reception-rooms had been closed. Both his sons were abroad, Christian Frederik in London, and Richard in Stockholm; and Consul Garman, who had always been accustomed to gay company, found that living alone with the sisters of his deceased wife—two elderly spinsters who quarrelled over the management of his domestic affairs—was not very exhilarating.

As Jacob Worse, standing on the deck of his good ship, gazed at the stir along the wharves and round about the bay, his heart swelled with pride.

All the boats in the place came rowing out towards the brig. The relatives of his men, the mothers and the sweet-hearts, waved handkerchiefs and wept for joy. Many of them had, indeed, long since given up the Hope as lost.

No relations came out to welcome Skipper Worse. He was a widower, and his only son was away at a commercial school in Lübeck. What he looked forward to was talking about Rio with the other captains at his club, but the chief pleasure in store for him was the yarns he would spin with Skipper Randulf.

What would Randulf’s much-boasted voyage to Taganrog be, compared with Rio? Would not he—Worse—just lay it on thickly?

In his younger days Jacob Worse had been a little wild, and was now a jovial middle-aged man, about fifty years of age.

His body was thickset and short, his face that of a seaman—square, ruddy, frank, and pleasant. If any one could have counted the hairs upon his head, the result would have been surprising, for they were as close as on an otter’s skin, and growing in a peculiar manner. They looked as if a whirlwind had first attacked the crown of his head from behind, twisting up a spiral tuft in the centre, and laying the remainder flat, pointing forwards, along the sides. It seemed as if his hair had remained fixed and unmoved ever since. About his ears there were rows of small curls, like the ripple-marks on sand after a breeze of wind.

When Jacob Worse saw the “ladies’ boat” waiting, ready manned, alongside the quay, he rubbed his hands with delight, for this preparation betokened a singular distinction; and when he saw the Consul step into this boat, he skipped round the deck in boyish glee. It was, in fact, unusual for the Consul to come on board to welcome the arrival of a ship. Generally some one was sent from the office, if neither of the sons was at home; for both Christian Frederik, and especially Richard, liked to board the ships far out of the fjord, that they might have a sail homewards and drink marsala in the cabin.

When the brig came to anchor, the ladies’ boat was still a little way off; Skipper Worse, however, could no longer restrain himself. Laying hold of a shroud, he swung himself on the top rail and waving his hat, cried out, in a voice that rang out all over Sandsgaard, “We come late, Herr Consul, but we come safely.”

Consul Garman smiled as he returned the salute, at the same time quietly removing the rings from the fingers of his right hand; for he dreaded the grip of Jacob Worse on his return from a voyage.

The delighted captain stood on deck, hat in hand, in a respectful attitude, whilst the Consul, with stiff and cautious steps, ascended the accommodation ladder.

“Welcome, Jacob Worse.”

“Many thanks, Herr Consul.”

The Consul surrendered his hand to be duly squeezed.

The crew stood round in a respectful circle to receive the friendly salute of the owner; they were already cleaned up and in their shore-going clothes, for so many friends and relations had boarded the brig as she was standing in, that there was no necessity for them to lend a hand in mooring the brig.

The manly, sunburnt faces bore a somewhat strange aspect here in the cool early summer time, and one or two wore a red shirt, or a blue Scotch bonnet brought from that wonderful Rio.

Their beaming faces showed what heroes they considered themselves, and they longed to get on shore to recount their adventures.

“Here’s a young scamp,” said Captain Worse, “who went out a cabin boy, but now we have given him the rating of an apprentice. The Consul must know that we had two deaths at Rio—the devil’s own climate.—Come, Lauritz, step forward and show yourself.”

A lad of about seventeen was at last shoved forward, awkward and blushing; much soaping had made his chubby red face shine like an apple.

“What is his name?” said the Consul.

“Lauritz Seehus,” answered the lad.

“Lauritz Boldemand Seehus,” added the captain, giving the name in full.

The men tittered at this, for they were in the habit of calling him “Bollemand,” or “The Baker.”

“We always give special attention to Captain Worse’s recommendations, and if the young man will but follow the example of such a worthy officer”—here the Consul made a low bow to the captain—“the firm will advance him according to his merits. Moreover, when we come to pay off, the crew will receive a bonus, in consideration of the long and perilous voyage. The firm offers its best thanks to all for good and faithful service.”

The Consul bowed to them all, and went below with the captain.

The men were much pleased, both on account of the bonus, and because it was unusual for shipowners thus to come on board and speak to common folk. It was not the habit of Consul Garman to trouble himself much about the persons in his employ. Not that he was a hard master—on the contrary, he always returned a salute with courtesy, and had a word or two for everybody; but his manner was so extremely distant and lofty, that the least demonstration of friendliness on his part was a condescension accepted with gratitude and wonder.

Half an hour later, when he entered his boat again to go on shore, the men cheered him. Standing up, he raised his hat to them; he was, in fact, much moved, and was anxious to get home, and to be alone in his office.

The Consul took the ship’s papers and a bag of gold on shore with him, for the venture had been a prosperous one. The firm “C.F. Garman” had not done so good a business for a long time. So far it was satisfactory, but it was not enough; for in spite of all Morten Garman’s efforts during the years that had elapsed since his father’s death, he had never succeeded in bringing life and vigour to the large and widely extended business.

The firm had suffered so much during the period of war, and from a reduction in the currency, that it was paralyzed for many years, and at one time indeed seemed past recovery.

The fact was that from the first its means were locked up in landed property to an extent which was out of all proportion to its diminished available capital. Besides this, there were debts which pressed heavily upon it.

Time brought no improvement; Morten W. Garman, who was an exceptionally able man of business, was compelled to put forth all his energy and diligence to maintain the ancient reputation of his firm.

So long as he remained young, the concern struggled on; but now that he was advanced in years, his wife dead, and his home desolate, it pained him to think that he might leave the business which had been his joy and pride, and which he had hoped to make so great and so enduring, bereft of its vitality and in a feeble and disorganized condition.

The household expenditure at Sandsgaard had always been considerable, for his attractive and vivacious wife had been fond of parties, masquerades, and entertainments, and her tastes had been fully shared by her husband.

The freer mode of life which came in with the century, as well as his position as the eldest son of a large mercantile family, had encouraged somewhat extravagant views of life, and in the town his ostentation had given rise to not a little derision and offence. Of this, however, nothing reached his ears.

Owing to his foreign education, and to his frequent journeys abroad, he brought back a peculiar atmosphere which pervaded his whole life, his views, and his opinions—which latter were, indeed, very different from those prevailing in the frugal little town, which at this period found itself in a state of fermentation, owing on the one hand to commercial progress, and on the other to a strong religious movement.

As yet, however, the old-fashioned mode of entertainment prevailed at Sandsgaard, where the civil and military personages of the grander sort kept up their ancient traditions at festivals where they ate well and drank deeply. Freedom and courtesy were so well balanced in this society, that little restraint was put upon conversation. A risqué word, the stray touch of a too daring hand or foot, or a whisper behind a fan, which was in truth a furtive kiss, with a hundred other trifling liberties, were permitted. Frivolity enveloped the company as with a silken veil, and yet everything moved as politely and as sedately as a minuet.

In this sort of life Consul Garman carried himself as easily and as adroitly as a fish in its native element.

When he sat in his office on the mornings of his great dinner parties, his pen flew over the paper, and on such occasions he indited his ablest letters.

His thoughts were so clear, and his mind so prompt and unembarrassed, that everything was arranged and ordered with the utmost precision.

In the same despatch in which he bespoke a cargo of coffee, he would not forget twelve packets of sealing-wax and two hampers of Dutch tobacco pipes for his store. He would descend without difficulty from instructions to a captain who had lost his ship, to the most minute details respecting certain stove pipes which he had seen in London, and which he wished to introduce into the town hospital.

But when the post had been despatched, and the hour of three—the usual hour for dinner parties—approached, and when the Consul had shaved himself carefully, and had applied himself to sundry pots and flasks of pomades and essences, he stepped up the broad staircase, dressed in a long-skirted blue coat with bright buttons, a closely fitting waistcoat, and a frilled shirt with a diamond breast-pin, his comely iron-grey hair slightly powdered and curled. Perhaps, too, he would be humming some French ditty of questionable propriety, thinking of the gallantries of his youth; and as he stepped daintily forward with his shapely legs, he would sometimes indulge in a hope that knee breeches would again come into fashion.

In spite of his gallantries, however, Consul Garman had been an exemplary husband, according to the standard of the times; and when his wife died he really grieved for her, placing sundry tablets with affectionate inscriptions in those parts of the garden which were her special favourites.

After her death he gave up society, so that this item of expenditure diminished perceptibly. Two other items, however, showed a tendency to increase—the expenses connected with his sons, especially Richard.

His affections were now bestowed upon these sons. Richard was at once his pride and his weakness; a handsome exterior and easy temperament were a reflection of his own youth; and when Richard took his best horse and saddle, as well as his riding whip, which no one else was allowed to touch, he stole from window to window, as long as his son was in sight, pleased to observe his bearing and his seat on horseback.

With his eldest son, Christian Frederik, the Consul was, however, more strict.

He would write to Richard somewhat after the following fashion, when his extravagance became serious:

  • “I can well understand that the carrière which you, with the sanction of your parents, have adopted, involves you in sundry expenses, which, although apparently unnecessary, may on a closer scrutiny be found, to a certain extent, warranted by circumstances. On the other hand, however, I would have you to consider whether you could not, at a perceptibly less cost, attain the same results as regards your future in the diplomatic profession.
  • “Especially would I exhort you to keep regular accounts. Not so much that I desire to limit your expenditure, as that, according to my own experience, such accounts are an aid to self-control.”
  • But accounts, and especially regular ones, were not to Richard’s liking. Sometimes, indeed, he pretended to render them; but the letter soon drifted into jests and amusing stories, which diverted his father, and made him forget all about the money.

    Christian Frederik, however, had sent regular monthly extracts from his account book ever since he had been at the Institute in Christiania, and these extracts were scrutinized by his father with unfailing rigour.

    If there was any error in the address, not to mention any mistake in the posting up, or if any item appeared which seemed unusual or excessive, the son received a sharp admonition, warning him that inaccuracy or extravagance were absolutely unpardonable in a man of business.

    This kept Christian Frederik in constant dread of his father, and sometimes he felt much hurt; but he would have been consoled had he known with what satisfaction the Consul examined these well-kept accounts, and with what care they were filed and laid aside in a certain drawer.

    Christian Frederik, however, was the only person whom the Consul admitted to his confidence, and in the copious letters which he wrote to him at least once a month, he kept him informed upon business matters. Latterly, too, he had sometimes asked him his opinion upon one thing or another. The Consul was much interested, and to some degree disturbed, by the development of the town during the last two years. Moneyed strangers, who bought and cured herrings on their own account, shipping them off by thousands of barrels in the spring season, began to appear.

    Large fortunes were made by the Haugians and others, who interlarded their business letters with Scripture phrases, and who had not the least idea of book-keeping.

    The town was alive with stir and business, mixed up with religion, to the unceasing astonishment of the old merchant. Money, too, was abundant among these new folks.

    At this period the anxieties of the Consul were revived, but he kept them to himself. On no account should Christian Frederik know what difficulties he often had to encounter.

    The Hope lay safely moored, with her ensign at the peak, and flying the distinguished flag of the firm. Whilst the crew went on shore, a constant stream of visitors came on board, both from Sandsgaard and from the town.

    The captain’s white gig having been manned, he seated himself in the stern sheets, a large flag trailing in the water behind him. Lauritz Seehus, creeping in behind him, took the yoke lines, so that everything should be done man-of-war fashion. The six men pulled with a long stroke, their oars dipping along the surface of the sea as they feathered them.

    It was in this style that Captain Worse had always looked forward to making his appearance on his return, and as he neared the quay he became highly elated.

    It would never have suited him to be landed at Sandsgaard and to go on foot thence to the town, although it was the shortest and quickest way. It was one of his fancies to look upon Sandsgaard as an island, and, however bad the weather, he always went by boat to and from the town.

    He could see that a flag was displayed at his own warehouse by the market quay—for he owned a straggling old building which occupied one side of the market, and ended in a large five-storied structure projecting into the sea. Jacob Worse was, in fact, a rich man, partly from his own savings during many years as a captain, and partly from successful speculations of his own.

    But when he was at home for the winter season, he busied himself with the fishery from the moment it began, buying, selling, and curing on his own account. The firm “C. F. Garman” did not trouble itself with the herring fishery; it traded directly and by commission in salt and grain, in addition to its banking and discounting business.

    Captain Worse had in the course of years become a comparatively wealthy man, and when, as on this occasion, he had been away for a long time, he was anxious to learn how the persons in his employ had conducted themselves in his absence.

    But his chief desire was to meet Captain Randulf; and every time he thought of it he slapped his leg and laughed aloud.

    As it was summer, there were but few vessels in the harbour; most of these, however, hoisted their colours when they saw Jacob Worse’s boat approaching. His acquaintances hailed him from wharf and warehouse on each side of the bay, and he saluted in return, beaming with pride and pleasure.

    “Where are you going to lodge, Lauritz?” said he, as they approached the wharf, for Lauritz Seehus’s home was away at Flekkefjord.

    “I think I shall stay with Madame Torvestad, where I always used to lodge,” said the lad.

    “Oh, bother!” said Skipper Worse; “now that you are grown up you cannot stay with that old bundle of tracts.”

    Observing, however, a certain expression on the countenances of his men, he remembered himself, and added, “Ah, you scamp, it is for the girls’ sake that you wish to go to Madame Torvestad’s. Mind what you are about; remember that I command that ship too.”

    This was his joke, for Madame Torvestad rented a portion of the back of his house.

    When Skipper Worse reached the market quay he met with a sad disappointment. Captain Randulf was away in the Baltic with a cargo of herrings.