Home  »  Skipper Worse  »  Chapter XI

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

Chapter XI

THE LITTLE white house of Skipper Randulf stood on an elevation, looking over the bay and the fjord.

The two friends, who had dined, and dined well, were now enjoying their after-dinner nap, the host in his usual place on the sofa, the guest in a large armchair.

The window stood open, there was a warm sun, and the town lay still in the quiet summer afternoon. The flies buzzed in and out, and the window curtains moved gently in the breeze.

Large drops of perspiration stood on Jacob Worse’s nose, as he lay back in his chair, with his mouth open, snoring frightfully.

Randulf snored also, but not quite so loudly. Over his eyes was spread a yellow silk handkerchief, which his old housekeeper always tied round his head, for without it he could not get his nap.

On the slope in front of the house, some boys, who were playing, noticed the strange noise made by the two sleepers, and collected, laughing and skylarking, under the window.

Suddenly Randulf’s housekeeper fell upon them with a broom, and the boys scampered away, amidst shouts and laughter. Worse half opened his eyes for a moment, and then laid his head back again on the other side.

All was still again, until the snoring recommenced. The sound of oars, and the cries of sea-gulls out on the fjord, could be heard in the distance. The housekeeper stood sentry with the broom, and the worthy captains slept on for another half-hour.

At last, Randulf moved, lifted the handkerchief from his eyes, and yawned.

Upon this, Worse—half awake—said, with an assumption of superiority; “Well, you have slept! I began to think you would never wake up.”

“Wake!” said Randulf, scornfully, “why, I could not get a wink of sleep for your snoring.”

“I never snore,” said Worse decisively; “besides, I have been awake all the time you were sleeping.”

“Sleeping! I tell you I never slept.”

“Come, I am the best judge of that, I who sat here and—“And snored; yes, that you did, and like a hero.”

They wrangled on for a few moments, until they were both thoroughly awake.

Upon this they lit their pipes, and put on their coats—at Randulf’s they always sat in their shirt sleeves, which was a treat to Worse. At home it was never allowed.

Afterwards the two old skippers sauntered about the wharves, peeped into the warehouses and the rope-walk, discussed the vessels in the harbour, and, with highly disparaging comments, examined a ship which was building by the wharf.

At every point they fell in with acquaintances, with whom they gossiped. Randulf was in excellent spirits, and Worse also roused himself, although he was not as he had been in old days.

Such a tour as this through the town was something new and unusual to him, for of late he had never been much beyond his own warehouse.

There was something strange about him, which he himself was unable to comprehend; but from the moment when he gave up the Hope to others, he had nearly lost all interest in his old calling.

Indeed, it was almost painful to him now to see a vessel in the fjord under full sail; formerly such a sight was the finest he knew.

To-day, however, Randulf had quite thawed him; he became lively, and even swore twice without being aware of it. This greatly comforted his friend. Like Consul Garman, Randulf grieved that Jacob Worse had, as he termed it, stranded himself.

He teased him no longer; it would be of no use. At the club, over a tumbler of warm toddy, Randulf would confide to his friends how sad it was to see so splendid a seaman as Jacob Worse spoilt by a pack of women.

He used to wind up his lamentations with “that confounded tub of a ship from Rostock,” alluding to the Rostock trader, with which he had been in collision at Bolderaa.

It was his firm belief that if he, Randulf, had been at home, they should never have trapped Jacob Worse.

At seven o’clock they turned back to Randulf’s little house, in high spirits, and ravenously hungry.

When they had again eaten—and Worse had not had such an appetite for many a day—they took their steaming tumblers of toddy to the open window, and the blue smoke of their pipes came puffing out like cannon shots, first from the one and then from the other, like two frigates saluting.

After they had smoked on awhile in silence, Worse said: “The sea can be very fine on such a summer evening. Your health.”

“The sea is always fine, Jacob. Your health.”

“Well, as long as one is young.”

“Young! why, you are not more than three years my senior; and that Thomas Randulf has no idea of sneaking to the shore for the next ten years, you may be certain.”

“It is otherwise with me. There is something wrong in my inside, you must know.”

“Oh, nonsense!” said Randulf. “I don’t know much about liver and lungs, and all the trash they say we have in our insides, but what I do know is, that a seafaring man is never well on shore, just as a landsman is as sick as a cat when he comes on board. That is a fact, and it is not to be gainsaid.”

Jacob Worse had nothing to say in answer to this speech, he only grumbled, and rubbed his hands across his stomach, “Have you tried Riga balsam?” inquired Randulf.

“Are you out of your senses? It is my inside that is bad.”

“Don’t you suppose that Riga balsam is good for the inside, too? If you only get the right sort, it is good for everything, inboard and outboard. I ought to know that. However, it is not your stomach that is wrong,” added Randulf, profoundly, “it is rather your heart. It is these women who play the mischief with you, when they get you in tow; I have noticed it both in the Mediterranean and the Baltic.

This last affair, however, has been the worst. These pious ones, you see——”

“Mind what you say about Sarah. She has been a real blessing to me. What should I, an ailing old man, have been without her?”

“You would not have become an old man but for her,” Randulf blurted out. But at this Worse looked so ferocious, that his friend took a long sip, and followed it by a fit of coughing.

“No, no,” said Worse, when he, too, had refreshed himself. “She has been a good wife to me, both as regards body and soul. I have learnt much from her of which I was ignorant before.”

“Yes, that’s true, Jacob. You have learnt to sit behind the stove like an old crone, and to dangle at the apronstrings of the women. You have been dragged to meeting as tamely as a Spanish monk’s mule; that is what you have learnt.”

“Gently, Thomas,” said Worse, nodding significantly. “You are proving the truth of my words. Such as you are, I was; but now I have learnt to feel differently, as you will, too, when the time comes. You will then understand what sinners we are.”

“Sinners! Oh yes! But I am not so bad as many others, nor are you, Jacob. I have known you, known you well, for forty years, and a better man by land or sea is not to be found in all Norway. Now, you know it,” he said, bringing his fist down on the window-ledge.

Worse was not entirely impervious to this flattery, but he muttered, as he shook the ashes of his pipe into the stove; “Yes, but much more than this is required, very much more.”

“Listen to me seriously, Jacob Worse. You know Sivert Jespersen, also called Gesvint?”

“Yes, I should think I did.”

“Perhaps you remember a certain two hundred barrels of salt which you bought of him?”

“Yes. I shan’t forget them in a hurry.”

“Answer me one thing, just one little thing; did he, or did he not, cheat you?”

“Horribly!” answered Worse, without hesitation.

“Now, then, answer me another thing. Which do you suppose the Almighty likes best, an honest seaman who holds his tongue and looks after his ship, or a hypocrite who cheats his fellow-creatures, and then sings hymns? Hey! Which do you think He prefers?”

“Neither you nor I can say, Randulf. Judgment is of the Lord, who searches the hearts and reins.”

“Reins!” cried Randulf, scornfully. “Sivert Jespersen’s reins—a pretty thing to search. The Lord is not one to be cheated.”

Jacob Worse smiled. Theology was now put aside, and they mixed a fresh tumbler.

“But there is one thing you cannot get over, Jacob. It was a sin and shame that you gave up the sea so early. Everybody who inquires about you says so.”

“Does any one inquire about me?”

“Inquire about you! why, they talk about you from Copenhagen to Kronstadt. Do you remember the stout damsel at the ‘Drei Norweger’ in Pillau?”

“Was that where we danced?”

“No; that was at Königsberg. Good gracious!” said Randulf, compassionately, “have you forgotten it already? No; the stout individual at Pillau wept salt tears when she heard you were married. ‘Ach du lieber,’ said she. ‘Was soll now the arme Minchen machen when the lustige Jacob Worse has gegiftet sich.’”

“Did she really say that?” cried Worse, touched. “However, it is not correct as you repeat it. I wonder, Thomas, you never learnt to speak German.”

“I tell you what: I can get on well enough. I soon find out when they are trying to cheat me; then they come smirking and smiling with ‘Guten Abis.’ But when they say ‘Das gloobis,’ look out for yourself, for then they are most deceitful.”

“Just let them try me. I know how to manage them,” said Worse, boastingly. “Old Bencke in Dantzic learnt the truth of that. At first they cheated me in herrings, as they always do.”

“Always,” said Randulf, assentingly.

“In rye, too.”

“Don’t talk about it.”

“But at last they introduced some new devilry into the bills of lading.”

“What was that?”

“How in the world could I tell! I saw it was something new and out of the regular course, and so I would not sign it.”

“No, of course not.”

“The clerk, who was some sort of a Dane, stood ready with the pen, and tried to persuade me that it meant nothing, that it was for the benefit of the ship, and so on; all of which one could see was a lie.

“So it ended by my swearing that I would only have the bills of lading to which I was accustomed, and that rather than sign, the brig and the rye should remain in Dantzic Roads until they both rotted.”

“Of course,” said Randulf.

“But whilst we stood and disputed about this, old Bencke himself came out into the office, and the Dane explained the case to him. The old man became dreadfully angry, you may guess, and began to scold and curse in German. I, too, got angry, and so I turned round and said to him, in German, you understand—I spoke just like this to him: ‘Bin Bencke bös, bin Worse also bös.’ When he saw that I knew German, he did not say another word, but merely, turning round on his heel, bundled out of the room. Some one got another bill of lading, and that person was me.”

“That was clever, Jacob,” cried Randulf. It was a long time since he had heard that story.

They drank a tumbler in memory of old times, and for a while meditated in silence.

They were both very red in the face, and Worse looked quite fresh and well. The sallowness of his complexion was gone, but the short locks of hair about his ears were as white as froth.

At last Jacob Worse said: “When I look at such a table as that by the sofa, I cannot understand how it could be broken. You remember that night in Königsberg?”

“Yes; but you see, Jacob, we danced right against the table at full swing.”

“Yes, you are right; it was at full swing,” said Worse, smiling.

“But, good Heavens! how we ran away afterwards!” said Randulf, shaking with laughter.

“And how pitch dark it was before we found the boat! I wonder what that table cost?”

“You may well ask, Jacob. I have never been in the house since.”

“Nor have I.”

They now fell to talking of the wild doings of their mad youth, telling their stories only half way, or by allusions; for did they not both know them all by heart?

“What do you say to just another drop, Jacob?”

“Well, it must be a little one.”

The host was of opinion that they might take just enough for a nightcap, and so went after the hot water.

It was now past ten o’clock, and as Worse had permission to stay till eleven, his conscience was perfectly clear. As he warmed up under the influence of Randulf’s old Jamaica rum, he forgot both his internal malady and his anxieties for his soul.

At the third tumbler, Randulf proposed that they should talk English, which they proceeded to do with much gravity, but after their own fashion.

The last rays of the sun from behind the cloud banks, caused by the north wind, made the faces of the two friends look redder than ever, as they sat at the open window and talked their English.

The fjord below lay as smooth as a mirror, the outermost headlands and islands seeming to stand out of the water. Nearer the town, on the larger islands, and here and there to the eastward up in the mountains, the young people had lit St. John’s Day bonfires, whose smoke went straight up, while the flames were paled by the twilight of the summer evening.

Boats full of boys and girls moved about. A sailor, who had brought an accordion with him, was playing; “While the North Sea roars,” and other popular airs. A procession of boats followed him, and at times some of the people joined in with their voices.

Most, however, were silent, listening to the music, and gazing over the fjord out towards that “roaring North Sea,” which woke up memories of hope and sorrow, of longings, uncertainty, love, and bereavement.

The Haugians had long since left their meeting-house. Some of Sivert Jespersen’s guests had returned to sup at his house, others went straight home. Sarah and Fennefos met in the passage; both were conscious that there was some slight mistrust of them among the others. It was natural, therefore, that they should meet and keep together; indeed, when they reached the market-place, they turned off to the left, instead of going home, and strolled along the road leading to Sandsgaard.

Neither of them had an eye for the beauties of nature; they had always been taught that temptations lurk in everything which surrounds the Christian here below.

Sarah had not seen much; but Fennefos himself, who had journeyed throughout the land in all directions, had no higher conception of the beauty of nature than that a beautiful country was one that was fertile, and that an ugly one was one which was full of fields, lakes, and precipices, and devoid of rich pastures.

Nevertheless, the calm, pleasant summer evening was not without its effect upon them. They had again discussed the chief defects of their community, and how desirable it was that some one should take them seriously in hand.

But now the conversation flagged. They stopped and gazed over the fjord, where the fires were being lighted up. Boats rowed about, and song and music reached their ears. Sarah unconsciously heaved a deep sigh, and turned to go back to the town.

Hans Nilsen was about to say something about the sinfulness of the children of this world, but was unable to frame words. He abandoned the attempt, and, before he knew what he was doing, asked her if she was pleased with the letter he had given her when they last separated.

“Oh yes, Hans Nilsen!” she said, turning her face towards him, her colour heightened. She said no more, and he, too, became quite confused.

They turned towards the town. At the street door Sarah asked him if he would not come in for a moment. He followed unconsciously, and, when they entered the room, sat down on a chair.

He was glad to rest, he said, for he was weary. The evening rays lit half the room, but the back part was already dark. Sarah went out into the kitchen to see if the door was shut. The servants had gone upstairs, and the house was still and deserted, for it was nearly ten o’clock.

She brought some water and raspberry syrup, and Hans Nilsen, contrary to his custom, took a long draught. He was both tired and thirsty, he said.

Sarah sat at the other end of the sofa, and neither of them spoke. After a minute or two, the silence grew oppressive, and they began to converse again, but soon again lapsed into silence.

“What were you going to say?” inquired Hans Nilsen.

“I—I only asked if you would have some more syrup and water,” said she, with some embarrassment.

“No, thank you. I ought to be going.”

He got up and walked across the room. His hat lay on the table; but Fennefos moved, as if he hardly knew where he was, towards the window, and looked out on the pale evening sky.

Sarah got up also, and went to the cupboard, which was between the windows, where she began to busy herself with one thing or another.

Observing that she was behind him, he turned round and went back to his seat.

“It has been fine, warm weather to-day,” he said; but his voice was thick and strange, and, in spite of what he had drunk, his throat was dry.

Sarah answered somewhat unintelligibly, took up the tumbler he had used, and placed it on the sideboard, her hand shaking so that the glass clinked as she put it down.

Hans Nilsen got up again, moving about as if he were in a stupor, and at last stood opposite her, as if he were about to speak.

She turned her face towards him, and the light fell upon it.

His lips moved, but no sound issued forth, until at last he said: “You are very pale.”

“What do you say?” she whispered. His voice was so indistinct that she could not understand him.

He essayed once more to speak, and then, suddenly taking her in his arms, kissed her.

She made no attempt to release herself; but he relaxed his hold, crying; “Lord, help us; what are we doing!”

When the door closed behind him, she hastened across the room, and listened. She heard him stumbling along the passage, heard the house door shut, and heard him pass by the window with a hurried step.

She turned towards the light, her hands were pressed against her heart, the corners of her mouth quivered as with a bitter smile, and young and vigorous though she was, she sank down upon the floor, sobbing.

When Jacob Worse, cheerful and rather “fresh,” came groping his way home an hour later, he found his wife reading the Bible, with two candles on the table, and the curtains drawn.

“Good evening,” said he, pleasantly. “Is the little wife still sitting up? Is it not bed-time, little Sarah?”

She continued to read, without looking up. Worse laid his hat down, faltering a little as he crossed the floor.

“We have had a very jolly day, Sarah.”

“All three?”

“Three!” exclaimed Worse, stopping short; “why, there was only Randulf and I.”

“You lie; there were three,” said Sarah, calmly.

Jacob Worse was now seized with the unlucky idea that she was joking with him.

He approached her, smiling, and with boozy eyes, in order to put his arm round her neck.

“Hey! so you know more about it than I do. Where did you go to school that you are so wise? Who was the third? Hey!”

“The devil,” answered Sarah, lifting her eyes suddenly. “The loathsome fiend was sitting between you.”

Jacob Worse started back.

“You may be sure that it is he who has had the pleasantest day. He rejoiced when he heard your oaths, the foul words, and all the corruption of your hearts. Did you not see his crooked claws when he set the bowl before you, that you might wallow in the debasing drink? Did you not hear him laugh, when you sat befouling yourselves in the mire of your sin, ripening for the pains of hell?”

Worse involuntarily began to rub his stomach. He felt the old complaint there again.

“Oh, Sarah, don’t say that!” he cried. But she continued fixing her large cold eyes upon him the while, in such a way that he held up his hand to shade himself from her gaze.

“How long, old man, will you trifle with the Lord? Have you no fear of the doom of the impenitent, or have you heard and learnt nothing of the terrors of the outer darkness?”

Worse crept, terrified, towards his room. Half drunk as he was, he could not make it all out; he only heard the fearful words, and knew that two flashing eyes were pursuing him.

Twice he piteously begged her to desist, but each time he got a new scare, until at last, crushed and wretched, he slunk away to his room, and crept into bed.