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

Chapter VII

MADAME TORVESTAD was really in earnest when she declared how much she valued Hans Nilsen’s presence in her house, and that she grieved at his departure.

That his removal at this juncture was extremely convenient was a fact that, on the other hand, she carefully concealed.

She was scheming to the utmost to secure Skipper Worse for her daughter.

Her motives were very complicated. She would talk of her interest in the poor erring soul that could only be saved by such means. Those, however, who knew her best, knew well that her strongest passion was a constantly increasing desire for power and influence.

From her point of view Jacob Worse was well worth capturing, especially since he had entered into partnership with Garman. Not only would such an alliance strengthen the Brethren outwardly, but—what was more important in her eyes—it would greatly enhance her own position if this new and wealthy brother should be added to them by her efforts.

That she would succeed in making a brother of Jacob Worse, Madame Torvestad never for a moment doubted. She had some experience of the world, and she had known many elderly men who had married even younger women. She would work upon him through her daughter, and her influence would extend itself from her humble apartments over the whole house.

The Brethren would be grateful to her, and the cause of religion would be furthered.

Sarah foresaw all that was coming; after those words about the vine, she was in no doubt as to what was in store for her.

When Hans Nilsen left, he presented her with his greatest treasure, an autograph letter from Hauge to his mother.

The paper was old and worn, and the ink had faded. Fennefos, who was a skilful bookbinder, had himself made a handsome case, in which to keep it, and had printed her name and a text on the cover.

The womenfolk talked about this. It seemed strange that Hans Nilsen should part with such a treasure.

Those who made any allusion to the affair in Madame Torvestad’s presence, met with such an icy reception that they were not encouraged to pursue the subject.

Sarah was in a distracted state, pleased with the gift and with the kind words he had spoken to her when he left, but otherwise she was wretched, hopelessly wretched. At night when she lay in bed, she wept, and prayed for strength to control herself.

One night her mother entered her bed-chamber; it was dark, and Sarah, who was bathed in tears, heard nothing until she spoke. “You can see now that I was right, my child. Thank the Lord that your eyes were opened in time to the danger.”

She said this in such an imperious and reproachful tone that Sarah started up in her bed, and continued to sit up for some time without weeping, whilst harsh and bitter thoughts took possession of her.

It was the old Adam! but she could not struggle against it. She allowed the evil thoughts to take their course—wherever they would, over all the faults she had detected among the Brethren or suspected in her own mother; over Skipper Worse, with his oaths and his flavour of stale tobacco-smoke, until he seemed quite unbearable—away, far away into forbidden regions, where there was sunshine and joy, where she was alone with a tall, strong man.

She threw herself back on the bed, dreaming and drowsy. When she awoke in the morning, a mountain of misery seemed to weigh upon her.

At first, Jacob Worse was unaware of the happiness in store for him. Many hints from Madame Torvestad were necessary before it dawned upon him that the fair Sarah, whom he had seen grow up from childhood, might be the wife for him.

But when he was awake to it, the sentiment which both blinds and invigorates old men took possession of him.

There was a successful fishing that year, and Jacob Worse was indefatigable and in high spirits. Thoughts of the snug room at Madame Torvestad’s, his comfortable place by the side of Sarah, the soft white hands which brought him his tea—in which, as a great favour, Madame Torvestad permitted a few drops of rum—all tended to make him happy; and even when he was most actively engaged among the herrings, a quiet almost dreamy smile, which few observed and none understood, would steal over his weather-beaten face.

Never before had he been so enterprising or so successful. This year he salted on account of the firm and for himself, and brought a quantity of herrings. Brisk and cheerful, he brought life and gaiety with him wherever he went, and all agreed that Jacob Worse was a fine old fellow.

It was not safe, however, to call him old to his face. “Old, forsooth!” he would say, pushing his glass from him, when any one was so ill-advised as to propose the health of “Old Worse.”

Whenever during the fishing season he could find an opportunity for going into the town with a cargo of herrings, he would hasten to finish his work at the warehouse, and to wash himself.

He scrubbed himself with soap, and changed from top to toe. At the same time, he was not quite certain that a little of the flavour of the herring might not cling to him, and so—if Randulf should but hear of it!—he sprinkled himself with scent, which Lauritz in all secrecy had purchased for him.

Dressed, shaved, washed, and combed, with his grizzled hair sticking up stiffly from above his ears—in such guise Captain Worse, of the firm of Garman and Worse, sallied forth across the yard to woo.

On these occasions there was something almost chivalrous about him, which became him well, and would have become him even better had he been paying his attentions to the mother instead of to the daughter.

But to marry a serious, elderly widow was something which had never occurred to the gay captain, and of this Madame Torvestad had long been conscious.

Now that she had got him on the track, and had observed the youthful ardour with which he followed it, madame changed her tactics, began to hold back, would not understand his hints, and, when they became obvious, raised innumerable objections.

Sarah should be purchased dearly. First, there was the great difference of age; she must say it was greater than she had any idea of; she never could have believed that Captain Worse was so much over fifty.

That, however, was of comparatively little consequence. The most important point was his religious state, his habit of swearing, his worldly mindedness, manifested in his devotion to all things pertaining to this life.

Worse admitted that he was not one of the best of men, but, at the same time, he protested that he was very far from being the worst; moreover, he might improve.

He would indeed have to improve, if it came to a question of marrying Sarah. He would have to change many of his ways.

Worse promised everything; he felt certain that he could submit to any number, even of the longest meetings, if he could but have Sarah by his side, and could take her home with him afterwards.

The affair, however, made no progress. Worse hardly knew whether it moved backwards or forwards. In the meantime he was completely infatuated, and trotted about after Sarah like an old turkey cock.

What Sarah’s own feelings might be was not much discussed by her mother and her admirer. Madame Torvestad “knew her daughter;” and Jacob Worse, the elderly gallant, fancied that when Sarah blushed, was constrained when she was alone with him, and refused his presents, it was only girlish prudishness, of which he had seen instances, both in the Baltic and in the Mediterranean.

Although Consul Garman seemed to keep up such slight intercourse with the town, he had his feelers out, and all that happened there, both small and great, was pretty well known at Sandsgaard. The two sisters, Birgitte and Mette, especially interested themselves in everything without exception.

It came, therefore, to the Consul’s ears that Jacob Worse was courting, and it both displeased and made him anxious. That his partner should enter upon any new matrimonial alliance was very distasteful to him, as it would tend to complicate matters; and his especial fear was that these good people—he knew the family well—would be the ruin of his excellent captain.

Consul Garman almost hated the sectaries, although he knew but little about them. It revolted him to think that religion, which was given to man for enlightenment and instruction in virtue and rational conduct, should be so misused by ignorant fanatics and enthusiasts as to pervert and distract the lower classes, who were rather in need of sound and practical guidance.

He therefore sent a boat for Captain Worse, as soon as he learnt from his sisters-in-law that he was likely to marry Madame Torvestad’s daughter.

When Worse arrived, the Consul began to talk with much eagerness about a certain vessel which was for sale at Bremen. They got hold of the register, looked into dimensions, discussed age and value, and finally came to the conclusion that it might prove fit for the business of the firm.

The one became infected with the eagerness of the other. It was not often that the Consul plunged so deeply into a novel scheme; but before Worse knew what he was about, it was proposed that he should leave either to-morrow or the day after, in a Bremen schooner, which lay in the roads waiting for a fair wind, in order to purchase the vessel, if it answered the description given, and if there were no other reason to the contrary.

Having done this, he was to navigate it to Sandsgaard, or, if an opportunity offered, he should take a good cargo on board and sail—no matter where.

Full of zeal and energy, Worse departed, in order to make his preparations for the voyage. When he found himself again in the boat it occurred to him, all of a sudden, that he would be separated from Sarah. The good ship lost its interest, and the affair assumed a doubtful aspect. His zeal cooled, and he conjured up a thousand difficulties as they rowed across the bay.

Consul Garman, however, rubbed his hands; he had taken matters in time. He sat down and proceeded to make calculations about this Bremen ship, wondering whether the venture would prove successful.

In the afternoon, Madame Torvestad observed that Worse’s servant-girls were very busy in the yard, brushing his clothes and preparing his kit.

“Is the captain going away, Martha?” she inquired, in a friendly tone, speaking from the verandah, which ran round the portion of the building which she occupied.

“Yes,” answered Martha, rather sulkily. Madame Torvestad was no favourite with the servants.

“Ah, indeed! and do you know whither?”

“No; but it is going to be a long voyage, longer even than the last, I believe.”

Martha had a suspicion that this would annoy Madame Torvestad, and she was right. Madame was in a state of the utmost consternation, still she maintained her composure, returning to her apartments, and standing for some time, in order to consider what she should do.

“Sarah, put the kettle on. Captain Worse is going away. Martha says so, but I think she must be mistaken. What is your opinion?”

“Mine, Mother!”

Madame Torvestad would have said more, but the expression of Sarah’s face was so peculiar that she desisted. “Sarah is prudent,” she thought to herself. “It is not necessary.”

Upon this she smoothed her hair, took her cloak, and left the room. She went out the back way, and so round to the front door; she did not care to pass through the yard, where Martha was.

Jacob Worse was in an irritable condition; he was talking with the head man at the warehouse, who managed for him during his absence. His own private business in the town was not affected by his admission into the firm.

Sandsgaard, with all its various branches of business, remained as before, entirely under the control of the Consul. The partnership, in fact, confined itself to certain departments in which Jacob Worse’s capital was actually employed, especially to those pertaining to their business as shipowners.

When Jacob Worse saw Madame Torvestad, he dismissed the warehouseman, and saluted her in an excited manner.

“I come to wish you a prosperous and happy voyage, Captain Worse.”

“Thanks—h’m—many thanks, madame. I would otherwise—”

“Will it be a long voyage?”

“It is impossible to say. He wishes me to—”

“Who did you say?”

“The Consul—Consul Garman; he is sending me to Bremen to purchase a ship.”

“Sending!” said Madame Torvestad, with an incredulous smile. “I did not know that one partner could ‘send’ another.”

“Partner! oh yes! You see, he is Consul Garman, and I am Skipper Worse; and it will never be otherwise. Moreover, when it comes to purchasing a ship, it is just the job for me.”

“You surprise me, and it distresses me that you do not tell me the real reason of your departure. I think we might have expected it of you.”

He stared at her with his mouth open.

“You must know this, Captain Worse,” she continued, “that I am satisfied you would not undertake this voyage unless you wished to get out of your engagement with us altogether.”

She was about to proceed in this somewhat menacing manner, but the captain sprang up, excited, and red in the face.

“No, Madame Torvestad! I tell you what it is—you do me a confounded injustice. Pardon me, I should not have sworn, but I cannot help it. From the very first I have worried and schemed until I was black in the face, in order to escape this voyage; and then you come and tell me that I am behaving with deceit and devilry. I think everybody is mad to-day.”

He stamped round the room, clawing at his hair; but Madame Torvestad eyed him with satisfaction—a weight had been removed from her heart.

A certain nervousness and uneasiness which had oppressed her when she entered vanished at once, and she resumed her usual imperious manner, as a mother should who has to deal with a wavering suitor.

“After all we have talked of lately, I must say I was much surprised on hearing of this sudden voyage.”

“Do you suppose that I have not thought of this? I assure you, Madame Torvestad, that when I think that I am about to leave without so much as a definite promise, it almost drives me mad. The devil may take the Bremen ship, if I can find an excuse or some way out of it.”

“Ah, twenty years ago, Jacob Worse would have found some way out in such a case, I am sure.”

This was to attack him on his weakest side. That any one should consider him too old, touched him to the quick; and he proceeded to give Madame Torvestad so warm a description of his feelings, that she was constrained to stop him in all haste.

“Good, good, Captain Worse! Yes, yes; I don’t doubt it!” she kept on exclaiming. “But more than earthly love is necessary, however real it may be. The man to whom I could with confidence entrust my child, my Sarah, must also be joined to her in the love of God; and, you know, I have often told you that your life as a seaman is full of temptations, and little likely to bring forth good fruits.”

“Ah, yes, madame, the flesh is weak in many respects,” answered Captain Worse, who fancied he was quoting Scripture.

“Yes, that it is, Captain Worse—some of us more, some less; but just for that reason we should avoid a life which especially leads us to temptation. Fancy, if I had given you my daughter, and you had suddenly left her like this soon after the marriage!”

“No, madame; there would have been nothing of the sort, you may take your oath of that.”

“If I were now—I merely put the case before you—if I were now to give my consent, do you believe that the Consul—that your partner would permit you to put off the voyage?”

“Of course, of course; that is understood.” He was becoming excited at the prospect before him.

“Could I depend upon you?”

“Yes, by—”

“Stop; don’t swear! I can believe you better without it. Sit down again, and listen to what I have to say.

“I have thought much of all this of late; a voice within me seems to say that an alliance with my daughter would be for the good of your soul. Yes, after much anxiety and deliberation, I had thought of fixing the wedding for next Sunday—”

“I beg your par—What do you say?” cried Worse, jumping up from his chair. “Ah, madame, you are a devil of a woman!”

“But now, when I find that a sudden order to go to sea can tear you away from your family, and expose you to danger and to temptations, which can easily—we know how easily—choke the good seed, I cannot think of entrusting my child, my beloved Sarah, to you.”

“But, Madame Torvestad, I won’t go! I will tell the Consul that he must get some other person. I swear to you I won’t go!”

“Not this time, perhaps; but the next time that your partner wants—”

“Never! If I get Sarah, I promise—”

He stopped, and, as he looked out of the window, he caught sight of the Hope’s top-gallant yards away out in Sandsgaard Bay.

Madame Torvestad, smiling somewhat sourly, proceeded. “Do not promise that which you cannot perform and do not allow any consideration for our feelings to prevent your drawing back. No doubt Sarah would be prepared, but as yet she knows nothing with certainty. I have merely talked of the affair with some friends, and I had thought of celebrating the wedding very quietly, as is the custom with us; just the pastor and a couple of the Brethren. Your house is ready, and you would simply bring her to it.”

“I promise you that I will give up the sea from the day that I marry your daughter,” said Jacob Worse, giving her his hand.

He was beginning to think of bringing Sarah to his house, and having her there always, by his side.

But madame said: “It is a perplexing affair. I have heard of many sailors who were unable to give up the see, although advanced in years, and possessed of worldly goods, as well as of wife and children. It is difficult to understand it. I should have thought that, on the contrary, a sailor would be grateful for a haven of rest after a stormy life.”

“You are quite right, madame. It is just so; I see it now. Give me your daughter, and you will see how I shall improve in every way, just as you wish.”

They shook hands, and Worse proposed that they should at once go across to Sarah. But when they reached the yard, where Martha received orders to put the clothes back into the house, he began to hesitate.

“What do you think she will say to it?” he inquired, in a low voice.

“Sarah will be faithful and affectionate to the man whom her mother, prayerfully, has chosen for her,” said Madame Torvestad, in such a positive tone that he was much comforted.

Sarah heard them approaching. She had long expected them; and when they came, there was no trace of the tears she had been shedding. Pale as usual, and with downcast eyes, she entered the room, whither her mother called her.

“Sarah, here is a man who seeks you as his wife. I have promised on your behalf that you will be a good and faithful helpmate to him before God and man. Am I not right my child? You will comply with your mother’s wish, and so obey the mandate of God.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Take each other’s hands, then. In God’s name, Amen.” Jacob Worse was much affected. He tried to say a few words about being a father to her, but when he reached the middle of the sentence, it struck him that it was not appropriate. When he essayed to utter something more suitable, there was no sense in it.

He therefore squeezed the hand of Madame Torvestad somewhat severely; and then, taking that of his betrothed more tenderly, was pleased to find how soft and delicate it was.

He comported himself very awkwardly all the evening; but he was so thoroughly happy, that he never noticed the expression of Sarah’s pale face.

When he returned to his own house, he paced up and down in ecstasy. It was Tuesday—only four days to Sunday. He must put his house to rights; it was not half smart enough.

When he had left, madame sent Henrietta to bed; Sarah would have gone also, but her mother detained her.

“You should thank God for all His loving-kindness, Sarah.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Will you not also thank me?”

Sarah stood silent and unmoved.

Her mother felt as if she had been pierced through.

“Sarah!” she said, sharply.

But when Sarah looked up, there was a something in her steadfast eyes which made her mother recoil; she said no more, except to bid her “Good night,” and upon this her daughter left.

Madame Torvestad fell into a reverie. The memories of her own youth rose up before her, and they were not very pleasant. She, too, had been given to a man whom she did not know; he, too, was older than she was, but he had known how to deal with her in the right way. She remembered the tears she had shed at the first, and how in time all went well with her. She had been saved from worldly vanities, and from these she would now protect her daughter.

But in that look of Sarah’s there was something which made her shrink, and which stung her deeply. She, who was generally so confident about herself and all that she did, felt a painful misgiving.

All these newly revived memories, and a vague feeling that she did not fully comprehend this impassive daughter, made her slumbers uneasy, and troubled her with evil dreams.

Henrietta, who heard Sarah sobbing, crept into her bed, and strove to comfort her.