Edwin Björkman.

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the chimney.

One day, when Keith had sneaked into the kitchen uninvited, he noticed
something unusual going on in the fire-place. All the paraphernalia had
been cleared away. The lid was open, and from the chimney issued strange
noises. Then soot began to fall in masses, and finally appeared a pair
of human feet, quite bare and all black.

It was very funny and very disconcerting. Keith watched with bulging
eyes and trembling heart, until at last a whole big man came out of the
chimney. As he crouched for a moment on the fire-place before getting
down on the floor, he turned on Keith a pair of eyes that seemed to be
all white and big as moons.

At that moment fear got the better of curiosity, and Keith made haste to
bury his face in Granny's lap.

"Yes, Keith had better look out," grinned the servant girl, "for the
chimney sweep takes all bad little boys."

"I'll take you, if you talk like that," the black figure in the
fire-place shot back at her.

The tone of his voice made Keith steal another glance at him. The white
eyes shone right at him in a rather friendly fashion, and further down a
huge red slit in the black face framed two rows of teeth no less white
than the eyes. Keith guessed that the dark visitor from the chimney was
smiling at him in a fashion that seemed to bode no harm.

In another minute the man was gone, and Keith hurried back to the
living-room to ask a question of his mother:

"Could he really take me?"

"Not unless we gave him leave," she replied. "But sometimes, when little
boys are very, _very_ bad, their parents turn them over to the sweep as
apprentices, because they are not good for anything else."

Keith thought long and hard.

"I ain't bad," he declared at last.

"Not exactly," his mother remarked diplomatically "But you could be a
great deal better. What were you doing in the kitchen just now? I have
told you not to run out there all the time. Lena does not like you to
get in her way, you know."

"But Granny is there," Keith protested.

"Yes, of course, and you must be nice to her, but...."

As his mother did not go on, Keith asked: "Why does Granny always stay
in the kitchen?"

"Because she wants to," his mother answered.

"But why does she want to?"

"It is her way - a sort of pride she has. And I have long ago given up
trying to persuade her."

Her tone indicated clearly that further discussion of the subject was
not desirable.


Keith was playing in his own corner that very evening, trying to keep as
quiet as possible while his father had an unusually late dinner. His
mother had gone out into the kitchen a few moments earlier. Thence she
returned suddenly with a half empty bottle in her hand and a look of
extreme annoyance on her face.

"Carl," she said, "look what I just found in a corner of the cupboard."

"Humph," the father grunted with a sideglance at the bottle. "Ours is
locked up, is it not?"

"Yes, but that is neither here nor there. She would rather die, she
says, than touch a drop of ours."

"Where does she get it?"

"I can't make it out. Somebody must bring it in, of course. I fear it
is Mrs. Karlgren, and I am simply going to tell her to keep away
hereafter. The idea of her coming here practically begging, and then
doing such a thing, after all I have done for her!"

"But you are not sure," the father objected earnestly, and Keith paid
special notice to his objection because he had already learned, or
divined, that his father could not bear the sight of the poor woman
in question.

"No, it is impossible to be sure," the mother admitted. Then she added
after a pause: "What puzzles me more than anything else is where she
gets the money."

Though no name was mentioned, Keith knew perfectly well that they were
speaking of Granny. And he recalled having laughed at her in the kitchen
earlier in the evening before the father came home. Her eyes had a funny
look and seemed a little inflamed. Her still thick braids were loosened
and about to come entirely undone. She was talking more than usual and
in a tone that suggested defiance.

As he recalled all this, Keith forgot to listen to his parents, who went
on discussing so intently that he was able to leave his corner and reach
the door to the kitchen unnoticed. An irresistible desire to see Granny
at once had seized him. Back of it lay a vaguely sensed mixture of
curiosity and sympathy.

Granny was in her favourite place beside the kitchen sofa, seated on a
footstool almost as large as an ordinary chair, but somewhat lower. That
stool was the one bone of contention between her and Keith, because he
was carrying it off as often as he could get at it. Turned upside down,
with Keith seated snugly between its four legs, it became a sleigh
drawn across icy plains by a team of swift reindeer, or a ship rocking
mightily on the high seas.

The kitchen was full of a peculiar sweetish smell, by which Keith knew
without looking that Granny was dressing the old wound on her left leg
that had developed "the rose" and would not heal. She was leaning far
over, busy with a bandage which she wound tightly about her leg, from
the ankle to the knee. The boy sniffed the familiar smell with a vague
sense of discomfort, which, however, did not prevent him from going up
to the grandmother and putting one arm about her neck.

"Old hurt is hard to mend," she muttered quoting one of the old saws
always on her lips. Then without raising her head, she added in the
peevish, truculent tone of a thwarted child: "You had better go back in
there before they come and get you. I am nothing but a servant, and as
such I know my place and keep it. I am less than a servant, for they
wouldn't dare do to Lena what they do to me."

"Oh, yes, they would," Lena put in from across the room. "And they would
have a right, too."

As if she had not heard at all, Granny sat up straight and looked hard
at the boy.

"Whatever you do, Keith," she said, and he noticed that her voice
sounded a little strange, "see that you make a lot of money when you
grow up. To be poor is to have no rights, and the worst thing of all is
to be dependent on others, no matter how near they are to you."

"I think Mrs. Carlsson is very ungrateful," said Lena. "There are
thousands of old people who would give anything to have a nice home and
nothing to worry over."

"Anybody can talk, but it takes a head to keep silent," said Granny
impersonally, quoting another old saw. Then her manner changed abruptly
and she turned to Keith effusively.

"Give me a kiss! You love your old Granny, don't you? You don't despise
her, do you, because she has nothing and is nothing? And can be sure she
loves you more than anybody else."

The boy's feelings were so mixed that he really could not feel anything
at all. His arm was still about the grandmother's neck, mechanically he
gave her the kiss she asked for, but it was with real relief he saw his
mother open the door to the living-room and responded to her demand that
he go to bed at once.


Hardly any memory left behind by Keith's childhood was more acute than
the image of Granny seated in the centre of the kitchen, her stolid, yet
pleasant old face bent over some household task, and her whole figure
instinct with a passive protest against her enforced dependency or,
maybe against life's arbitrariness in general. One moment she seemed to
be brooding deeply, and the next she looked as if there was not a
thought in her head. For one reason or another, her anomalous position
and peculiar attitude occupied Keith's mind a great deal, and many of
the questions with which he plied his mother were concerned with Granny.
They were fairly discreet as a rule, but on the morning after the scene
just described, some impulse of which he had no clear understanding made
him perplex his mother with the abrupt question:

"Why does Granny drink?"

They were alone in the living-room at the time, she seated in her big
easy chair by the window and he, as usual, kneeling on the hassock
at her feet.

She looked up at him with as much surprise as if he had hit her
viciously. A deeper red flowed into her cheeks that kept their soft
pinkness even when she was thought at death's door and lost it only
under the pressure of extreme anger.

At the same time a look came into her eyes that gave Keith a momentary
scare. It was only a flash, however, and changed quickly into something
like the helplessness that used to characterize her glance in moments of
heavy depression. Her voice trembled a little as she spoke:

"Because Granny's life has been very hard, and not very happy."

"Tell me about it," urged the boy.

There was a long pause during which he watched his mother's face
closely. Gradually its expression changed into one of resignation, and
then into determination, as if she had made up her mind to be done once
for all with a task that could not be avoided indefinitely. It was a
long story she told, at first hesitatingly, then with an eagerness that
betrayed an awakening purpose. Everything she said stuck deeply in the
boy's mind, and whenever he thought of Granny's life afterwards, he had
the impression of having learned all about it at that one time, although
the likelihood is that many details were picked up by degrees and
dovetailed into the memory of that first narrative as integral parts
of it.

"Your grandmother was not born to be a servant," his mother began. "She
was a rich man's daughter, and there was not a thing her father didn't
want to do for her. Yet he left her in the hands of strangers who
cheated her of her rights and treated her as if she had been a

"Why did they do it," the boy asked, quite unable to grasp the idea of
such a thing.

"Because they could make a little more money that way, and because they
cared for nothing but money. Promise me, Keith, that whatever happens to
you, and whatever the temptation be, you will never put money above
everything else."

Keith shook his head earnestly, meaning it to be sign of assent. He was
a highly impressible child, and when his mother spoke to him like that,
he used literally to choke with a feeling that he could never, never do
anything but what she asked, but when another rush of feeling swept over
him, the old promises were also likely to be swept out of his mind.

"Those people did the worst thing any one can do to anybody else. They
twisted Granny's life so that it could never be set right again. And so
she became what you see her now...."

"You mean she just couldn't help herself," Keith put in.

"Yes, that's what I mean," she agreed. Then she stopped as if struck by
another thought, and said very slowly:

"Although, if she had been really strong...."

Once more she stopped and returned abruptly to her story:

"Your great-grandfather made and sold hats, and he earned a lot of
money, and they made him a City Councillor...."

"Where," Keith broke in again.

"In Skara," his mother explained, "which is a city that lies a long way
from here, and when you begin to learn geography, you will know where it
is.... Everybody liked your great-grandfather...."

"What was his name," Keith couldn't help asking.

"Lack," she said, "and now you mustn't interrupt me any more if you want
me to go on."

"Please," Keith pleaded. "I won't!"

"The reason they liked him," she resumed, "was that he was so
good-hearted that he couldn't say no to anybody or anything. He didn't
seem to care for money at all, and he used to say: 'What's money between
friends?' Everybody wanted to be friends with him in those days, and
everybody borrowed from him, until he didn't have enough left for his
business, and then they laughed at him. He tried in his turn to borrow,
but no one could spare a penny, and when things went entirely wrong with
him, one of those who had got most from him made a funny saying about
him: 'Now Lack lacks everything because everybody has what Lack lacks.'
So, you see, you mustn't think too little of money either, but learn to
be careful and keep what you have."

Keith nodded dutifully, but where the right road lay, he could not see.

"The worst thing was," the mother went on, "that your great-grandmother
died when Granny was only nine. There were brothers and sisters, too,
and she was the youngest. And it was then that her father got the idea
to send her to some farmer people he knew, quite some distance from
where he lived. He did it partly for the sake of Granny's health, and
partly because he was too worried about other things to look after her
properly himself. And he paid a lot of money for her board, and sent her
fine clothes, and arranged that she was to be taught by the pastor of
the parish, and he sent friends to ask about her, but he never came
himself. The people who were to take care of Granny kept the money and
the clothes, and put her to work as if she had been a servant, and
didn't let her get the least bit of schooling. And when her father's
friends came and asked about her, they told all sorts of tales about how
well she was doing, but she was so shy, they said, that she always ran
away when any visitor came to the place."

"Did she," asked Keith.

"Yes, she really did," the mother admitted. "She was ashamed of the way
she looked and was dressed, and yet she was quite pretty, and she had
the most wonderful hair that reached to her feet when she let it down."

"But, why didn't she tell somebody?" Keith insisted, his blood running
hot with wrath at the injustice to which Granny had been submitted.

"Oh, because ..." said his mother wearily, "because your grandmother
has always been peculiar in that way when she knew she was being
wronged. 'What is the use?' she says. And then word came that her father
had gone bankrupt and had died soon after. No one seemed to pay the
least attention to her. She stayed where she was, and she couldn't work
any harder than she had done all the time. But when she was to be
confirmed, and had to go to church every week with all the other
children of her own age, she was the poorest of them all, both in fact
and in appearance, she didn't have one person in the world to whom she
could turn. She has told me that she used to lie awake nights crying and
thinking of running away, but she couldn't make up her mind to
that either."

She stopped, and Keith waited in vain for the rest of the story.

"And then," he urged.

"Oh, then she came to Stockholm and married your grandfather - my papa,
you know. And now Lena is waiting for me to tell her what we are to have
for dinner."

Keith went back to his own corner for a while. Then he made a dash for
the kitchen, where he found Granny seated in her usual place peeling
potatoes. Having placed a smaller foot-stool beside the large one in
which she was seated, he got up on it so that he could put both arms
about her neck. Pressing his own soft cheek against hers, he
asked brokenly:

"Are you very unhappy, Granny?"

"No," she answered placidly, "not when you are willing to give me a

"All right," he said without enthusiasm as he complied with her
request. At the same time he recalled suddenly that he had not played a
single game with his tin soldiers that whole morning.


The boy had a logical mind. He knew that Granny's story had not been
finished, and he wanted all of it. At the first opportune moment he
asked his mother:

"Was Granny a little girl when she came to Stockholm?"

"No," said his mother unsuspectingly, "she was already a young woman."

"What did she do before?"

"I told you," the mother replied, now on her guard.

"You told me what she did as a little girl, but not afterwards. I want
to know."

"Oh, she worked, I suppose."

There was evidently nothing more to be had in that direction.

"And what did she do in Stockholm," Keith pushed on.

"She married your grandfather, as I told you, and then I was born."

"What was he?"

The mother remained silent for a good long while, and Keith repeated his
question, not yet having learned that unanswered questions generally
are unwelcome questions.

"He was a _vaktmästare_," she said finally, and Keith knew that, for
some reason, she found the word unpleasant.

The boy reflected a while before he observed:

"That's what papa is."

"Your father's position is quite different," his mother rejoined
sharply. "It's a shame that he and his comrades in the bank have no
other title - although some of them deserve nothing better."

"What should they be called?"

"I don't know exactly - collectors, I think, because they go around and
collect the money that is due to the bank."

"And what are real _vaktmästare_ doing?"

"The real ones work in government departments - not as officials, but
just as attendants - it's something you can't understand yet."

Keith nodded. He didn't understand, but the words stuck and the
understanding came later.

"And those that are not real," he persisted.

His mother laughed and patted him on the head.

"There is a lot of them," she said. "They look after coats and hats in
theatres and restaurants, and wait at dinners, and do all sorts
of things."

"Was that what grandfather was doing?"

A queer look came into his mother's eyes and sent a glow of
self-satisfaction through his whole being. The look was familiar to him
and meant that his mother was annoyed by the question but pleased with
his cleverness in thinking of it.

"No," she answered, "not exactly...."

"What did he do," asked Keith, and as he spoke he sent a look of
anticipation toward his own corner.

"He was an attendant in the big club where all the rich business-men go
to spend their evenings, and he died when I was a little girl ... have
you nothing else to ask about?"

"What was papa's father," Keith ventured after a pause.

"He worked in the royal palace." Again the mother's tone served as a
warning, but also as a goad to the boy's curiosity.

"What did he do there," he demanded eagerly.

The lines about his mother's mouth grew tighter and harder, and she
spoke as if the words hurt her - but she did not refuse to answer, and
she did not send him away:

"He was a lackey."

From the moment he began to speak, Keith had showed an unusual sense for
the value and peculiarities of words. They interested him for their own
sake, one might say. He treasured them, and he gave more thought to them
than to people. The word lackey he had heard before, and he had formed a
distinct opinion about it as not desirable.

"Then he was a servant," he blurted out.

"In a way," his mother admitted. "And we are all servants, for that
matter. But working in the king's palace is not like - working as Lena
does here, for instance."

The last part of her remark went by unheeded by Keith. His thoughts
leapt instead to his paternal grandmother - a strict and unapproachable
little lady who visited them at rare intervals dressed in a quaint old
shawl and a lace-trimmed cap. A great wonder, not unmixed with pleasure,
rose in his mind at the thought that her husband had been a sort of
servant after all. For some reason utterly beyond him, there was solace
as well as humiliation in the consciousness of a stigma, if such it be,
that attached equally to both his grandfathers, and not only to his
mother's parent. Then a new idea prompted a new question.

"Was Granny a servant when she came to Stockholm?"

"She was obliged to take service in order to live," his mother replied
very gently. "There is nothing about that to be ashamed of.... I have
known fine ladies who started in the kitchen. But, of course, one
doesn't like to talk of it to everybody."

Keith recognized the hint in her final words, but thought it needless.
He was already on his way back to his own corner, tired for the time of
asking questions, when he suddenly turned and said:

"We are just as good as anybody else, are we not?"

It was a phrase he had overheard sometime. Now it seemed to fit the
occasion, and it sounded good to him.

"There is the royal family," his mother rejoined enigmatically. "But one
of Granny's cousins was a lieutenant-colonel in the army."

"Where is he now," Keith demanded, agog with interest.

"He is dead, and - and we have never had anything to do with his family."


The inquisitiveness of Keith with regard to his ancestors and the past
life of his parents continued for quite a while. Other family
connections seemed unreal and did not interest him. Having no sister or
brother of his own, relationships of that kind were meaningless to him.
Parents, on the other hand, constituted a tangible personal experience,
and the presence of Granny taught that this experience was common to
grown-up people as well as children.

The curiosity he evinced was queerly impersonal, however, and might well
be called intellectual. The information he received had no power over
his own life. He could have been told anything, and he would have
accepted it calmly as something not affecting himself. The only thing
that influenced him was the manner of the person answering his
questions. To that manner he was almost morbidly sensitive, and from it
he concluded whether the various details related should please or
disturb him.

Instinctively he pressed his inquiries at points eliciting marked
resistance. And it was not what he actually learned, but the evasions
encountered, that produced the sensitiveness about his own backgrounds
which later often influenced his attitude harmfully at moments when he
most needed complete self-assurance. It was the reluctance with which
certain parts of the family history were told, and the total
withholding of others, that taught him to be ashamed of things for which
he could not be held personally responsible. The effect of this lesson
on his character was the more fatal because it remained unconscious so
long. Having become doubtful as to the worth of the roots of the tree,
it was only natural that he should also feel doubts about the fruit.

Concerning the real character of his forbears he learned next to
nothing. All that he heard related to external circumstances that were,
or were not, judged respectable and presentable. One fact in particular
was subject to the most rigid exclusion from all family conversations,
and yet it leaked down to Keith at a time when he was utterly incapable
of appreciating its significance. It piqued him mightily without
disturbing him.

One day they were visited by his father's married sister, who was
lacking in sentimentality and had a disturbing way of calling a spade a
spade. The inevitable testing of the boy's cleverness by making him tell
his own name led to a discussion of family names in general, Keith's
mother expressing a great admiration for that of Wellander.

"Oh, yes, it's good enough," remarked her sister-in-law, "but it is not
the right one, you know, and the old one was much finer."

"I know," said the mother, "but I don't know what the name used to be."

"Cederskjöld, and I think it was recognized as noble. I never knew the
inside of it, but it looks peculiar. Carl's and my father and his
brother and two sisters took common action to get the family name
changed to Wellander. I am sure my grandfather must have been up to
some rather striking deviltry, and for all I know he might have
been hanged."

"Hush," cried Keith's mother with a quick glance at the boy who was
taking in everything with wide-open eyes and ears.

Keith did not wait for anything more, but sneaked off by himself to
think. The change of the name seemed nothing at the time, but the
suggestion that his great-grandfather had been hanged was startling
enough to give food for many meditations. Fortunately, or unfortunately,
his aunt's manner had been too nonchalant to give him any clues. And
from the manner of his mother he gathered merely that the asking of
questions would be useless. So it came about that Keith for the first
time in his life regretted the premature death of his paternal
grandfather, from whom, otherwise, he might have elicited some more
satisfactory information.

Both grandfathers were dead long before Keith was born. He never saw a
portrait of either of them, or had an idea of how they looked. He could
not even recall having heard their Christian names. The personality of
his paternal grandfather always remained a total blank to him. Of the
other one he knew a little more. The fashionable club where his mother's
father served was notorious for its conviviality and reckless gambling,
and the men were like the masters to some extent. This one of his
grandfathers used to love wine, women, cards and everything else that

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Online LibraryEdwin BjörkmanThe Soul of a Child → online text (page 3 of 19)