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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

August Strindberg (1849–1912)

Love and Bread

FALK, the royal secretary, was certainly not informed as to the market-price of wheat when he rode out to the major’s to ask his daughter’s hand.

“I love Louisa,” began the secretary.

“How much do you earn?” asked the old man.

“A trifle less than twelve hundred crowns. But then we love each other so devotedly, dear uncle.”

“That does not concern me. Twelve hundred crowns is not enough.”

“I have some extra work besides. Louisa knows my heart.”

“Don’t speak so childishly! How much do you earn by this extra work?”

“We met first at Boo, on the island Lidingö.”

“How much do you earn outside?” said the major, gesticulating with his lead-pencil as if he would stab him with it.

“And our feelings, which——”

“How much do you earn outside?” The major began to scrawl something on his blotting-paper.

“Oh! that surely will not fail, if we only first——”

“Will you answer me or not? How much do you earn outside? Figures are what I want—figures and facts.”

“I make translations at ten crowns per folio. I give French lessons, too, and some proof-reading is promised me.”

“Promises are not facts. Figures, my young man, figures. So! I am putting it down. How much translating have you to do?”

“How much? Ah! that I cannot say exactly.”

“What! you cannot say? Well, then, will you tell me what it is?”

“I am translating Guizot’s ‘History of Civilization,’ twenty-five folios thick, into Swedish.”

“Ten crowns each folio makes all together two hundred and fifty crowns. And then——”

“Then—then— That no one can tell beforehand.”

“What! one cannot know beforehand? But one should know exactly. You seem to think that marriage is only for passing the time as pleasantly as possible! No, young man; in a year the children begin to come, and children must have food and clothing.”

“But the children do not always come so quickly, and when one loves as we love——”

“How the devil do you love, then?”

“How do we love each other?” At this Gustav Falk laid his hand on his heart and rolled up his eyes.

“Do no children come when one loves as you do, you rascal? That is really delicious! However, you are a good enough sort of fellow, and so I give my consent to the betrothal. Make use of your engagement time, though, so that you may earn something, for hard times are facing us. The price of wheat is going up.”

Secretary Falk became quite red in the face as he heard this conclusion, yet his joy at obtaining Louisa was so great that he was moved to kiss the old man’s hand. God in heaven, how happy he was! And how happy his Louisa! As they walked for the first time in the street arm in arm, every one looked at them. You would suppose that every one halted to form a guard of honor for their triumphal procession. On they swept, with glances uplifted proudly.

In the evening he came to her. They sat down in the middle of the drawing-room and read proof. The old man thought he was a capable fellow; and when the work was done the bridegroom said to the bride, “Now we have earned three crowns!” A kiss sealed the deed. But on the next evening they went to the theater, and drove home. That cost ten crowns. Sometimes, when he had evening lessons to give—what will one not do for love?—he excused himself from the lessons and went to see his Louisa. Then they went out and took a walk.

The wedding-day drew near; all was changed then. They betook themselves to Brunkeberger Square to choose furniture. They began with the most important. Louisa did not wish to be present when the beds were being bought; but as it turned out she went, all the same. They must be of walnut—each piece of solid walnut. And they must have red-bordered mattresses, with springs, of course, and the pillows filled with eider-down. Each must have its especial eider-down quilt too. Louisa wanted a blue one, because she was blonde. Then they went to the house-furnisher’s. First, of course, they chose a red-shaded night-lamp and a bisque Venus; then table service of every variety; fine knives and forks—a couple of dozen; and cut glass, with monogram. At last came the turn for the kitchen dishes, and in that mama must help. Lord! how fearfully busy the bridegroom was! making out checks, running to the bank, going after workmen, looking up houses, and putting up curtains. He became in arrears with his work. Once he was married, however, he would make all that up. So he thought. They would only rent two rooms to start with. They had resolved to be “reasonable.” And if it was only two rooms, they could furnish them so much the more prettily. So he found a dwelling of two rooms, with kitchen and pantry, in the Regierung Strasse, on the first floor, for six hundred crowns. When Louisa let fall the remark that she would just as soon have three rooms and a kitchen on the fourth floor, he grew embarrassed. But what mattered it when one was fond of another? Louisa thought so, too, finally.

The rooms were soon furnished. The bedroom was like a little temple. The beds stood near each other like two chariots in which life’s journey was to be made. And the sun shone on the blue coverlid, the snow-white sheets, and the pillows with their monograms embroidered by an old aunt. These were large letters of brier-rose, intertwined as if in embrace, and whenever they met in a knot they kissed each other. A little alcove was arranged for the wife, with a Japanese screen, and in the drawing-room, which was dining-room, study, and reception-room as well, stood her upright piano, which had cost twelve hundred crowns. There also was his writing-desk of old walnut, a large plate-glass mirror, sofa, reading-table, and dining-table. It looked as if people who knew how to lead a comfortable and cozy life lived there.

At last came the wedding. It was on a Saturday evening. Thereupon followed Sunday morning. What a life! Oh, how delightful it is to be married! What a glorious invention marriage is! Then one may do what one pleases.

In the morning, at nine o’clock, the bedroom was still dark. The young groom did not wish to open the shutters yet. He lighted the red lamp again and threw its magical light on the blue coverlid and upon the somewhat rumpled white sheets. The bisque Venus stood saucy and inviting in the rosy glow. There lay the pretty young wife, so delightfully languid, and as happy as if this were the first night of her life in which she had slept well. No wagons were to be heard on the streets, for the day was Sunday, and the bells rang so cheerily, so joyfully, as if they would call all mankind together to give thanks that man and wife were created. He whispered in her ear. She should turn over, so that he could go out and order breakfast. She buried her little head in the pillows, while he went behind the screen in order to put on the absolutely necessary things. He entered the drawing-room, where the sun threw a broad, beaming ray upon the floor. At first, for a moment, he did not know whether it was spring, summer, autumn, or winter. He only knew that it was Sunday. His bachelor days seemed to him like a dark shadow from which he had escaped, and in his new dwelling he breathed the breath of his old home and his future family. Oh, how strong he felt! His future loomed up before him like a tottering hill. He rushed at it; it broke in sand beneath his feet, and he set forward upon his way over chimney and housetop with his pure young bride in his arms.

Then he picked up his clothes, lying scattered on the floor; his white cravat he found perched on a picture-frame, like a butterfly. He went into the kitchen. Oh, how splendidly the new copper utensils glimmered and glistened! And the tin cooking-kettles! All that belonged to him and to her! He called the cook. She received the direction to order a breakfast from the Restaurant of the Three Romans at once. It must be fine. The host already knew; she need only tell him.

He then returned to the bedroom door and knocked. “May I come in?” A little shriek; then, “No, my love; wait just a minute.”

Now he lays the table himself. When the breakfast came he filled the new plates, folded the napkins beautifully, and wiped the wine-glasses. The bridal bouquet paraded in front of his wife’s plate. And now out she comes in her embroidered morning-gown, and the sunbeams meet her. She is a little faint, only a little, so he pushes her in an easy chair up to the table. Quick! a little Kümmel in a liqueur-glass; a bit of bread with caviar. That helps. Oh, how glorious! One may do everything one chooses, if one is but married. Only to think what mama would say if she saw her daughter drinking Schnaps! He waits on her; runs and springs as if he still were her betrothed. But the breakfast after such a night! And no one had the right to criticize him! Often enough already had he had such breakfasts. But what a difference! Discontent, restlessness, he puts behind him; and as he drinks a glass of real porter with his oysters he cannot despise bachelors enough. Just to think of the stupid men who do not marry! Such egoists should be taxed, like dogs. The young wife ventured to demur, yet as gently and lovingly as possible, that the poor fellows who do not wish to marry are rather to be pitied. If they could, surely they would, all of them. That gave the secretary a little stab at the heart. He became meditative for a moment. He had been so overflowing with spirits. All his happiness was based on a question of economics. And when—when— Bah! a glass of Burgundy! Work will soon begin. Then we shall see. Next comes the roast pheasant, and with it delicious cranberries and cucumbers.

The young wife, a little concerned about the luxurious meal, laid her trembling hand upon his arm, and said, “Dear heart, can we allow ourselves all this?” Luckily she said “we.”

“One day is not every day,” he replied. “Herring and potatoes we can eat later, and often enough.”

“Do you really eat herring and potatoes?”

“Well, I should think so.”

“Yes, when you have been out and come in with a heavy head, and a beefsteak à la Chateaubriand follows.”

“Do not talk about it. Your health! That was faultless, that pheasant, and such artichokes!”

“No, Gustav; you are quite reckless. Artichokes at this time of year! What will that cost?”

“Are they not good? That is the main point. And now a little glass of wine! More wine! Don’t you think life is beautiful? Oh, glorious! glorious!”

Exactly at six o’clock, before the door stood an elegant carriage in livery. The young wife scarcely believed her eyes. And how lovely that was—half lying side by side, and gently rocked, to ride to the park! Acquaintances they met on the way greeted them, and comrades waved their hands and seemed to say, “Ha-ha, you sly dog! You have married money.” Oh, how small people looked down below there! And however uneven the road, how easy the ride on the upholstered springs! So it should always be.

It lasted so a whole month—balls, companies, dinners, suppers, theaters. Betweenwhiles they were at home. That was really the best of all. How delightful after the supper to take his wife away from papa and mama; to put her in a closed carriage right before their faces; to nod to the dear parents and bid them good-by; and then to say, “We will go home, and do there just as we please!” At home a little supper followed, and then they sat and talked until morning. At home Gustav was always prudent—that is, in principle. One day the young wife wished to attempt smoked salmon, boiled potatoes, and oat soup. How good it tasted! Still Gustav was somewhat out of humor over this menu. On the next Friday, when it was to be salmon again, he came home with a brace of partridges. He stood in the doorway, exclaiming, “Can you imagine anything so unheard-of, Louisa?”

“Why, what?”

“You will scarcely believe when I tell you. I bought both of these partridges at the market. Guess for how much?”

The young wife was so angry that she scarcely wished to guess.

“Only think, a crown for the pair!”

Louisa had once bought a pair of partridges at eighty öre, but she did not mention it, so as not to hurt her husband’s feelings.

“But, anyhow, you will admit that they are cheap?”

She must agree, if only to please him. For the evening there was oatmeal just for a trial. After Gustav had eaten a partridge, he was sorry not to eat as much oatmeal as he had really meant to. He would gladly have shown that the porridge pleased him. He really liked oatmeal, only he could not endure milk with it. He would eat oatmeal every evening, if only his wife would not be displeased with him. After this, of course, there was an end to oatmeal. He never had it served to him again. Six weeks passed, and the young wife grew ill. She had headaches and nausea, probably in consequence of a cold. But the nausea did not stop. Hm! Had she by any chance poisoned herself? Was it the fault of the copper kettles? The doctor was called. He laughed, and said it was all in order. What was in order? Something suspicious! How was that possible? No; it came from the bedroom paper. There was certainly arsenic in it. Send it to the chemist at once, and let it be analyzed. “Free from arsenic,” wrote the chemist. That was remarkable—no arsenic in the wall-paper. The young wife’s sickness continued. Gustav studied a medical book, and whispered something in her ear. Yes, that’s it; now we have it. Ha-ha! Only a warm foot-bath. Four weeks afterward the nurse declared that all was safe. Safe—horrible! That is clear. But it came so quick. Still, now it was settled, and how lovely it would be! Think, a child! Hurrah! They would be papa and mama. What should they call it? It would be a boy, of course; that was certain. But now Louisa took her husband aside and spoke earnestly to him. Since his marriage he had not busied himself with translating or proof-reading. His salary alone was not sufficient. “Yes, yes! they had lived in riot and revel.” Lord! one is never young but once. However, now all should be different.”

On the next day the secretary went to his old friend the notary and begged him to go security for a loan. “When one is about to become a father, my dear sir, one must think of the increase in expenses.”

“I agree with you perfectly,” answered the notary; “on that account I have never ventured to marry. You are indeed a lucky fellow. You were able to do so.”

The secretary was ashamed to press his request. How could he have the face to ask this bachelor, who had not ventured to marry on account of his small income, for a loan for himself and his child? No, that he could not do.

When he came home in the evening his wife told him two men had been there looking for him. “How did they look? Were they young? Did they wear eye-glasses? They surely were two lieutenants, good old friends from Vaxholm.”

“They were not lieutenants. They looked much older.”

“Indeed!” Now he knew. They were old friends from Upsala. Probably Dr. P. and Deputy O., who wished to see how the old fellow bore married life.

“No, they were not from Upsala. They were Stockholmers.”

The maid was called. She thought they looked suspicious, and they had sticks.

“Sticks! Hm! Who could that be? We shall soon learn when they come again.”

In the meantime he had been to the market, and had bought a can of strawberries at a bargain—at a really absurd price. “Only think, a can of pineapple strawberries for a crown and a half, now, at this time of year!”

“Gustav! Gustav! What is going to become of us?”

“Don’t be anxious. I have arranged for a new piece of work to-day.”

“But the debts, Gustav?”

“Trifles! Only wait till I secure a large loan.”

“A loan? Then that will be a new debt.”

“Yes, but at what terms! Let us not talk of such things. Were not the strawberries good? What? Would not a little glass of sherry go well afterward? What do you say? Lina, go to the wine-dealer for a bottle of sherry—genuine, mind.”

After the midday nap on the sofa his wife begged to be allowed to say two words, but he must not be angry. Angry! He? God forbid! Probably money for the house.

“Well, then. The grocer is not paid. The butcher gives us warning. The liveryman wants his money. All that is, in a word, extremely disagreeable.”

“Nothing more? They shall have their money, every crown, to-morrow morning. What impudence to give warning for such trifles! But to-morrow they shall be paid everything. Moreover, they will lose a customer. But now we will talk no more of that. We will take a little walk. No carriage? We will go in the tram to the park to get a little fresh air.”

So they rode to the park, and took a private room in the Alhambra. The young men in the dining-room whispered. They thought it was a pair out for a lark. So jolly, so exciting! But the wife did not quite like it. And then the bill. What could they not have had at home for that money?

Months pass. The time draws near. A cradle is needed—underclothing and dresses for the little one, and so much of everything. The secretary is busy all day. The price of grain had really risen. Hard times were at hand. No translations, no proof-reading. The world had grown so material. They do not buy books any more. They use their money for bread. In what prosaic times we live! The ideal vanishes. Partridges cannot be bought under two crowns a pair. The liveryman will not drive for nothing any more, for he also has a wife and children; and even the grocer wants money for his goods. Oh, what realists! At last the eventful day arrives. The moment is near. He must run and fetch the nurse. From the sick-bed he must go out into the hall to receive his creditors. He carries his daughter in his arms. Tears come to his eyes. He feels the responsibilities weighing upon him more heavily than his strength can bear, and he makes new resolutions. But his nerves are upset. He had secured a translation, but he could not stick to it, for he had to go out continually on errands.

He rushed with the joyful tidings to his father-in-law, who had come into the city. “I am a father!”

“Good! Have you bread, too, for your child?”

“At present, no. Father-in-law must help.”

“This time, yes; this time, but never again in the future. I have little more than you, and, besides, the other children must have something.”

The invalid must have chicken to eat now, which he himself buys at the market, and genuine Johannisberger at six crowns a bottle. The nurse receives a hundred crowns. Why should they give less than others do? The captain gave a hundred crowns too. The young wife is soon on her feet again. Like a young girl once more, slender as a willow, a little pale; but that is becoming to her. The father-in-law comes and takes Gustav aside. “Now be so good as not to come to me for a while with any more children,” said he, “or otherwise you will be ruined.”

“What a speech for a father! Are we not man and wife? Do we not love each other, and are we not to have children?”

“Yes, but also bread for your children. All young people love easily. But the responsibility!”

The father-in-law is a materialist too. Wretched times without any ideality!

The life of the house was undermined; but love did not allow itself to be repressed, for it was strong, and young intentions are weak. But creditors are not weak. Bankruptcy threatened. An attachment was imminent. The father-in-law came with a large wagon and carried off his daughter and grandchild. He forbade the son-in-law to show himself until he had bread for them, and had paid his debts. To his daughter he said nothing. But as he rode away it seemed to him as if he had brought home a ruined maiden. He had lent out his pure child to a young man for a year, and now he had received her back again. Louisa would gladly have remained with her husband, but she could not live with her child upon the street. So Gustav must remain behind, and look on while his home was made desolate. Even that did not belong to him, for it was not paid for. The two men with the eye-glasses took beds, copper and pewter, china, chandeliers—everything, everything. And as he stood there alone in the empty room, how disheartening it was for him! If she had only stayed! But what could she do in those empty rooms? It was better so.

The bitter earnest of life began. He obtained a position on a morning paper as proof-reader. He had to be at the office at midnight, and stay there three hours. He retained his official position, because he had not yet come to bankruptcy, but he was cut off from advancement. At last he was granted permission to see his wife and daughter once a week, but even then not in private. At night he slept in a little room near his father-in-law’s. Sunday evening he had to go back to the city, for the paper was published early on Monday morning. Then he took leave of wife and child, who accompanied him to the garden-gate, and he waved to them from afar, and felt so unhappy, so miserable, so humiliated. And she?

He had reckoned that it would take him twenty years to pay his debts. After that? After that he would still be unable to provide for wife and child. Upon what, then, was any hope to be based? On nothing. If his father-in-law should die, wife and child would have nothing at all. He did not venture, therefore, to curse his only prop.

Oh, how pitiless is life! It provides no sustenance for the children of men, while it gives food to all other created beings. And that this life does not offer all men partridges and strawberries—really, it is too hard!