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

Chapter II

“SARAH, are you going to the meeting this afternoon?” said Madame Torvestad to her eldest daughter.

“Yes, mother.”

“Captain Worse has returned; I shall step across and welcome him home. The poor man is probably still in his sins. Only think, Sarah, if it should be granted to one of us to recover this wanderer from the fold!”

Madame Torvestad looked hard at her daughter as she said this, but Sarah, who stood at the kitchen dresser washing up the dinner plates, did not raise her eyes, which were dark and large, with long eyelashes, and heavy black eyebrows.

“You can just inquire among the friends if any would like to drop in and talk over the subjects discussed at this meeting, that we may strengthen and encourage one another.”

“Yes, mother.”

Madame Torvestad went into the sitting-room, which was rather dark, being at the back part of the building. For the rest, it was well and solidly furnished, very clean and orderly, but withal a little formal. She was the widow of an elder among the Brethren, and after her husband’s death no other person had been forthcoming to supply his place. The number of the genuine Herrnhutters was neither large nor increasing, for the prevailing religious movement was rather in the direction of Haugianism.

There was, however, so much conformity of doctrine, and such a similarity in outward conduct, that the ordinary public could hardly see a shade of difference between the Herrnhutters and the Haugians; and, in truth, there was a gradual amalgamation of the two sects.

Originally there was no small difference between the Brethren and the followers of Hauge. Hauge sought and found his earliest and most devoted disciples among the peasants. The Brethren, on the other hand, consisted chiefly of well-to-do townspeople, who, under their German leaders, and by their frequent visits to Christiansfeldt and other stations of the Herrnhutters, had attained a higher degree both of intellectual and social culture.

But at a later period, when Hans Nilsen Hauge’s revivals had overrun the land, and had emerged from innumerable troubles; especially, too, when Hauge’s long imprisonment and subsequent death became known, as well as the disgraceful persecution which blameless and God-fearing people had undergone at the hands of the authorities—the movement gained adherents among those who had hitherto looked with contempt and aversion upon the peasant fanatics and visionaries.

All this contributed to an amalgamation of the two sects; Hauge’s followers were, moreover, always inclined to tolerance and brotherly love when they met with living Christian faith. The Herrnhutters, on their part, were neither strong nor numerous enough to maintain a completely independent position, even had they desired it.

It was for such reasons that Madame Torvestad sent her daughter to the new Haugian meeting-house; and in the same way the converts of both persuasions came to her own small meetings. She retained certain words and phrases which reminded those who frequented them of her long residence in Gnadau, and she was also in the habit of reading aloud to her guests certain small tracts which she herself had partly translated from the German.

Madame Torvestad passed from the parlour to the workroom, where the servant girl sat weaving steadily and skilfully. Distaffs and reels of yarn lay about, and on the table by the window materials for dressmaking; for this was a house where devotion was mixed up with constant and useful work.

“Where is Henrietta?” asked Madame Torvestad.

“She went out to learn why the vessels in port have hoisted their colours,” said the girl.

“Ah, Martha, how the hearts of the young are drawn to worldly follies!”

In the mean time, Sarah continued her work, humming a psalm tune. This week it was her turn to manage the kitchen; she took it turn about with the girl, for Henrietta was as yet too young.

Sarah was twenty-six years of age. Although a laborious and regular life had made her strong and robust, she was very pale, for she seldom went out of doors, and never farther than the church or meeting. Her comely face contrasted pleasantly with the full chin, which bore a trace of the commanding expression of her mother. She wore her hair quite smooth, with plaits coiled round the back of her head.

The charm of Sarah’s face and figure was not such as is apparent one year and vanishes the next; on the contrary, there was something about her soft rounded features, pale clear complexion, and steadfast eyes resulting in a calm, attractive beauty which promised to be lasting.

Standing at the dresser amid the clatter of plates and cups, humming her psalm tune, she did not hear the footsteps of a man ascending the kitchen stairs; but when the door opened, she turned round, then blushed a little, and cast her eyes down upon the ground.

The man in the doorway, who was tall and broad-shouldered, also cast his eyes down, and said: “Look here, Sarah, I bring you ‘Life in Death,’ the book we were speaking of. I hope you will like it.”

“Thanks, Hans Nilsen,” answered Sarah, without looking up from her work. She could not take the book in her hands because they were wet, so he laid it on the bench by her side and went away.

She listened to his step as he went up the stairs to the attic, for Hans Nilsen Fennefos was one of Madame Torvestad’s lodgers. Sarah dried her hands hastily, and took up the book, dipping into it here and there with evident interest and pleasure.

It was written by Hauge himself, of whom Fennefos often spoke, but for whom her mother did not seem to care much; at all events she possessed none of his works.

Sarah had, however, something else to do than to read; so she laid the precious little volume, which Fennefos had bound with his own hands, upon the window seat by her side, and renewed her work and her hymn, a little more vigorously than before.

Sometimes she leant forward, and as she turned her head on one side, gazing up at the narrow streak of blue sky which was visible between the roofs, her dark eyes shone with a guileless, rapturous light, as if they were piercing the vault of heaven itself.

Soon, however, another footstep became audible on the stairs below, and this time Sarah heard it distinctly. It was Henrietta—there could be no mistake about that. Two or three careless hasty steps, then a stumble, and then much clatter, then more steps; just as young girls blunder up a staircase when they first wear long gowns.

Henrietta, who entered heated, radiant, and out of breath, with her hair in a tangle, exclaimed; “Oh, Sarah, you should have seen it! Do you know who has come back?”

“Hush, hush! Henrietta,” said Sarah, chiding her; “only think if our mother were to see you such a figure.”

Upon this Henrietta began to smooth her unruly hair but, unable to restrain herself, she whispered with portentous eagerness: “I was in the market, right down by the quay—don’t tell it to mother—and Skipper Worse came rowing—Skipper Worse has arrived from Rio, you know—came rowing in with a six-oared boat and a flag, and behind him sat Lauritz. I did not recognize him till he jumped on shore; he has grown so tall”—raising her hand up. “He saw me; indeed, I think he is following me here.”

“Oh, Henrietta!” said Sarah, somewhat severely, knitting her eyebrows.

But the graceless Henrietta stuck her tongue out and stole into the passage, whence she hoped to reach the workroom unobserved. Sarah’s look grew anxious; she could not comprehend her unruly sister. She herself had never been like this. Such a worldly disposition must needs be subdued.

Nevertheless, she sometimes felt touched when Henrietta boiled over with youthful animation, and almost felt a wish to share her high spirits.

There was the old Adam in her, which ought to be suppressed and overcome; but yet—but yet——

Presently she was again disturbed by the appearance of a round, sunburnt, smiling face at the kitchen door. But the smile vanished as Lauritz, looking sheepish and awkward, walked in. He had evidently expected to see some one else.

“Welcome home, Lauritz,” said Sarah, in a friendly voice.

“Thank you,” said Lauritz, in his deepest tones, as he stood rubbing his hands together in the doorway.

“Do you wish to see my mother?”

“Yes; I want to know if I can lodge here.”

“My mother is in the sitting-room.”

Lauritz Seehus was almost like a younger brother to Sarah, for he had boarded at Madame Torvestad’s ever since his school days. His own home at Flekkefjord was not a happy one; his father drank, and there was a swarm of small children.

In a few moments Lauritz reappeared, crestfallen and wretched.

“What, Lauritz,” said Sarah, “are you going away so soon?”

“Yes,” said he, hurrying out, “I could not manage it.”

As he descended the old well-known kitchen stairs, he thought himself the most unfortunate creature in the world; in fact, he wept—for the first time since his boyhood.

During the whole of the voyage he had dreamt of securing his old attic room again, of being constantly near Henrietta, and of presenting her with all the wonderful things he had brought back in his sea chest. He had dreamt of stealing out with her in a boat, or of gliding with her on a hand sledge on the moonlight winter evenings when Madame Torvestad was at meeting.

All these glorious plans had been carefully cherished and pondered over a hundred times, and pictured down to the smallest detail, as he paced the deck in the long and lonely night watches.

Now, however, it seemed as if there was no more hope or pleasure for him, either in this world or the next.

Sarah seemed to take pity on him. Her mother came out and said:

“You saw Lauritz, Sarah?”

“Yes, mother.”

“Did you speak to him?”

“No; I merely gave him a welcome.”

“Do you think that he is changed?”

Sarah hardly knew what to answer, but her mother added with severity: “Say no, my child; repentant sinners have a very different appearance.”

In her heart Sarah could not but allow that her mother was in the right, especially when it occurred to her that Lauritz and Henrietta were no longer children, and that sinful affections might take the place of the old companionship.

Since she had entered the room she had also come to the conclusion that it was her duty to confide her misgivings to her mother. Now, however, she was spared this, and she was satisfied that it would be better for the young people that they should be separated.

But then, again, she remembered how miserable he looked, as he crept out of the kitchen, and she thought how disappointed Henrietta would be; for had he not always lodged there?

No doubt it would be for the good of both that temptation should be removed—but nevertheless—

By five o’clock Jacob Worse had returned home from the club; he could stand it no longer. Everything had gone wrong, and nothing had happened as he wished, from the time that he had set his foot on shore.

At the club he had met two Finn captains, whose ships were detained in the harbour, quite young fellows, who had lately arrived from America.

One of them, a mere puppy, with a beard of English cut and a gold chain, had been at Rio—and twice!

Oh! Randulf, Randulf, why were you away in the Baltic?

It happened to Skipper Worse as it happens to all easy temperaments. The slightest pleasure would put him in good humour, and help him over the greatest difficulties; but if, on the other hand, he encountered any trifling annoyance, everything seemed to go wrong, misfortune seemed to accumulate upon his head, and he thought that no one was ever so persecuted and maltreated by fate as himself—but for one day only. A night’s rest generally restored his equanimity.

This was just one of his unlucky days from the moment when he heard of Randulf’s absence. Nothing had satisfied him, either at the club, at the office, or at his warehouse; although there was absolutely nothing to complain of in the management of his affairs during his absence.

The people in his employ had, in fact, deserved much more praise than he had vouchsafed to them.

Grumbling and dispirited, he traversed the well-kept rooms. The sun was low in the north-west, and in the sunset glow he could distinguish the Hope’s top-gallant yards over the point of land that separated the harbour from Sandsgaard Bay.

Nothing, however, could cheer him up. Moreover, after a while he bethought him how old Harbour-master Snell had led him aside into a corner at the club, and had whispered, as he laid his finger to his long red nose; “Pop—pop—Jacob, it was about time that you brought the old one some cash; they say—pop—pop—that he is in want of it just now.”

“What in the world did he mean?” thought Skipper Worse, as he recalled the conversation. “Does the old swindler think to persuade me that C. F. Garman is in want of cash?”

“What do you want, Lauritz!” cried he suddenly, seeing the lad at the door.

“Nothing, captain,” said Lauritz, meekly, going out again.

But Worse following him, caught him in the passage, and pulled him back into the room.

That Lauritz did not want anything was true; but when in his sorrow and despondency he saw the captain, who had always been so good to him, passing the window to and fro, he ventured to approach him on the chance of meeting with some comfort.

Worse gripped him by the neck and looked at him.

“H’m! so there’s another who has found little satisfaction in coming home. Come, let us have a drop of something together, my son, and you shall then tell me what is the matter.”

Skipper Worse opened a door in the corner cupboard, produced two round Dutch glasses, and poured out some cherry brandy for Lauritz and some old Jamaica rum for himself.

“Now, then,” said Worse, when they had emptied their glasses, “let’s hear all about your troubles.”

But instead of beginning his story, Lauritz suddenly replaced his glass on the shelf, seized the captain’s, put it away also, slammed to the cupboard, and seated himself on a wooden chair near the door.

Worse thought the lad was going out of his senses; but before his wrath had time to break out, there was a knock at the door, and Madame Torvestad entered.

Lauritz had seen her pass the window, and respect for her was so thoroughly ingrained in him, that her appearance drove everything else out of his head.

Anything rather than that she should see they were drinking. Even Worse himself would not have wished Madame Torvestad to find him hob-nobbing with the young man, and comprehending the position of affairs, he winked amiably at Lauritz, as he conducted Madame Torvestad to a seat upon the sofa.

She wore a black silk cloak, a dark grey hat with a wide brim, and a broad satin ribbon under her chin.

Her dress and bearing gave the impression of solid well-being, and steadfast purpose.

The somewhat full double chin, and the carriage of her head, gave her a masterful look. In this she differed from others of her sect, who strove to convey the idea of humility both outwardly and inwardly. Moreover, it had become the fashion among the Haugians of the west country to speak in a soft, lisping tone.

Madame Torvestad never allowed herself to forget that she was the widow of an elder among the Brethren, and it was her ambition to constitute both herself and her house a centre of the religious movement. She therefore thought much of her own small meetings, which were half-religious, half-social. For the same reason she took in lodgers, although as far as money was concerned there was no need to do so.

Lauritz had not been admitted upon these grounds; she took him at the earnest request of friends in Flekkefjord. Generally, her lodgers were spiritually minded young men, often wandering lay-preachers, who came and went, remaining a few days among the Brethren in order to exhort and edify one another.

By such means as these, Madame Torvestad had succeeded in making her house a place of rendezvous for the Brethren in the town, and herself one of its most influential matrons, one whom the elders often consulted.

She was always a little less austere with Skipper Worse than with others, either because she had been his tenant for so many years, or that she considered such behaviour more likely to win him over, or perhaps, for some other reason.

At all events, it was strange how seldom she brought Scripture phrases into her conversation with him. She tolerated, indeed she sometimes even smiled at the gallant captain’s pleasantries, when they were of a harmless sort.

After she had spoken a few words of welcome, and chatted with him on sundry matters which had occurred during his absence, she concluded by asking whether, as he was alone, he would come to supper at her house. It would greatly please her daughters.

“Anybody else coming?” inquired Worse, suspiciously. “Possibly two or three of the Brethren might drop in on their way back from meeting.”

“Thank you, indeed,” muttered the skipper, with some signs of irritation; “but you know that I am not fit for such company, madame.”

“Do not say so, Captain Worse; let us rather hope that you may be fitted for company where the word of God is heard.” This she said with much cordiality, at the same time watching him closely.

Skipper Worse was a little embarrassed, and paced round the room. It was not easy to give an answer; he could not abide her meetings, but he was at a loss for a decent excuse.

At this moment Lauritz rose from his chair, and made as if he would take his departure.

“No, no, Lauritz!” cried the captain; “you can’t leave yet. We must have a word or two together. Where are you bound?”

“I must go to the town and seek lodgings for the night,” answered Lauritz, gloomily, but still a little emboldened by the cherry brandy he had drunk.

“What! aren’t you going to lodge at Madame Torvestad’s? Can’t he, madame?”

“No,” she replied drily. “You know that those who lodge with me are chiefly religious persons. I do not take in sailors.”

“Yes; but your house has hitherto been like a home to Lauritz. It is hard for the poor lad on his return to find himself turned out into the street.”

Worse now understood the young man’s troubles, and, in his good nature, would willingly endeavour to help him. But Madame Torvestad made no response; she gathered up the folds of her cloak and prepared to depart.

“Well, good-bye, Captain Worse,” said she; “I am heartily glad to welcome you home again. In half an hour or so I expect Sarah and a few friends from the meeting. Do you feel no inclination to join them, and to offer thanks to Him who has protected you in the tempest, and has brought you home unhurt over the stormy sea?”

“Yes, yes—of course, madame; you see—but—” and Jacob Worse stood and fidgeted about.

“Come now, you will not refuse,” said she, holding out her hand, and looking at him with an expression of kindness.

But Worse still held back, and said, half in jest: “I am sorry to seem so obstinate; but I think that you too, Madame Torvestad, are also a little obstinate in your refusal to give house room to this poor lad. Come, let us make a bargain. I will attend your meeting if you will allow Lauritz to lodge with you. Will you say ‘done,’ Madame Torvestad?”

“I would willingly do more than that, Captain Worse, if it would tend to satisfy you,” said she, offering him her hand. Then, turning to Lauritz, she added, in her usual tone: “Mind, I do this for the captain’s sake. I trust that you will so conduct yourself that I may not have to repent of it. You can have your old room; it is quite ready for you.”

Saying this, she left the room.

But the captain and Lauritz paid another visit to the cupboard. This exhilarated Worse, and when he saw with what unbounded glee Lauritz rushed off towards the wharf, in order to bring up his sea chest, containing all his treasures, he forgot for a moment how dearly he had paid for his young friend’s little loft in the attic.