Fair Haven and Foul Strand

Fair Haven and Foul Strand

August Strindberg
August Strindberg

Author: Strindberg, August, 1849-1912
Short stories
Swedish — Translations into English
Swedish fiction — Translations into English
Fair Haven and Foul Strand










The quarantine doctor was a man of five-and-sixty, well-preserved, short, slim and elastic, with a military bearing which recalled the fact that he had served in the Army Medical Corps. From birth he belonged to the eccentrics who feel uncomfortable in life and are never at home in it. Born in a mining district, of well-to-do but stern parents, he had no pleasant recollections of his childhood. His father and mother never spoke kindly, even when there was occasion to do so, but always harshly, with or without cause. His mother was one of those strange characters who get angry about nothing. Her anger arose without visible cause, so that her son sometimes thought she was not right in her head, and sometimes that she was deaf and could not hear properly, for occasionally her response to an act of kindness was a box on the ears. Therefore the boy became mistrustful towards people in general, for the only natural bond which should have united him to humanity with tenderness, was broken, and everything in life assumed a hostile appearance. Accordingly, though he did not show it, he was always in a posture of defence.
At school he had friends, but since he did not know how sincerely he wished them well, he became submissive, and made all kinds of concessions in order to preserve his faith in real friendship. By so doing he let his friends encroach so much that they oppressed him and began to tyrannise over him. When matters came to this point, he went his own way without giving any explanations. But he soon found a new friend with whom the same story was repeated from beginning to end. The result was that later in life he only sought for acquaintances, and grew accustomed to rely only upon himself. When he was confirmed, and felt mature and responsible through being declared ecclesiastically of age, an event happened which proved a turning-point in his life. He came home too late for a meal and his mother received him with a shower of blows from a stick. Without thinking, the young man raised his hand, and gave her a box on the ear. For a moment mother and son confronted each other, he expecting the roof to fall in or that he would be struck dead in some miraculous way. But nothing happened. His mother went out as though nothing had occurred, and behaved afterwards as though nothing unusual had taken place between them.
Later on in life when this affair recurred to his memory, he wondered what must have passed through her mind. She had cast one look to the ceiling as though she sought there for something—an invisible hand perhaps, or had she resigned herself to it, because she had at last seen that it was a well-deserved retribution, and therefore not called him to account? It was strange, that in spite of desperate efforts to produce pangs of conscience, he never felt any self-reproach on the subject. It seemed to have happened without his will, and as though it must happen.
Nevertheless, it marked a boundary-line in his life. The cord was cut and he fell out in life alone, away from his mother and domesticity. He felt as though he had been born without father and mother. Both seemed to him strangers whom he would have found it most natural to call Mr and Mrs So-and-so. At the University he at once noticed the difference between his lot and that of his companions. They had parents, brothers, and sisters; there was an order and succession in their life. They had relations to their fellow-men and obeyed secret social laws. They felt instinctively that he did not belong to their fold.
When as a young doctor he acted on behalf of an army medical officer for some time, he felt at once that he was not in his proper place, and so did the officers. The silent resistance which he offered from the first to their imperiousness and arbitrary ways marked him out as a dissatisfied critic, and he was left to himself.
In the hospital it was the same. Here he perceived at once the fateful predestination of social election, those who were called and those who were not called. It seemed as though the authorities could discern by scent those who were congenial to them. And so it was everywhere. He started a practice as a ladies’ doctor, but had no luck, for he demanded straightforward answers to his questions, and those he never received. Then he became impatient, and was considered brutal. He became a Government sanitary officer in a remote part of the country, and since he was now independent of his patients’ favour, he troubled himself still less about pleasing them. Presently he was transferred to the quarantine service, and was finally stationed at Skamsund.
When he had come here, now seventeen years ago, he at once began to be at variance with the pilots, who, as the only authorities on the island, indulged themselves in many acts of arbitrariness towards the inhabitants. The quarantine doctor loved peace and quietness like other men, but he had early learnt that warfare is necessary; and that it is no use simply to be passive as regards one’s rights, but that one must defend them every day and every hour of the day. Since he was a new-comer they tried to curtail his authority and deprive him of his small privileges. The chief pilot had a prescriptive right to half the land, but the quarantine doctor had in his bay a small promontory where the pilots used to moor their private boats and store their fishing implements. The doctor first ascertained his legal rights in the matter, and when he found out that he had the sole right of using the promontory and that the pilots could store their fishing-tackle elsewhere, he went to the chief pilot and gave them a friendly notice to quit. When he saw that mere politeness was of no avail, he took stronger measures, had the place cleared and fenced off by his servants, turned it into a garden, and erected a simple pavilion in it. The pilots hailed petitions on the Government, but the matter was decided in his favour. The result was a lifelong enmity between him and the pilots. The quarantine doctor was shut in on his promontory and himself placed in quarantine. There he had now remained for seventeen years, but not in peace, for there was always strife. Either his dog fought with the pilots’ dog, or their fowls came into his garden, or they ran their boats ashore on each other’s ground. Thus he was kept in a continual state of anger and excitement, and even if there ever was quiet for a moment outside the house, inside there was the housekeeper. They had quarrelled for seventeen years, and once every week she had packed her things in order to go. She was a tyrant and insisted that her master should have sugar in all his sauces, even with fresh cod. During all the seventeen years she had not learnt how to boil an egg but wished the doctor to learn to eat half-raw eggs, which he hated. Sometimes he got tired of quarrelling, and then everything went on in Kristin’s old way. He would eat raw potatoes, stale bread, sour cream and such-like for a whole week and admire himself as a Socrates; then his self-respect awoke and he began to storm again. He had to storm in order to get the salt-cellar placed on the table, to get the doors shut, to get the lamps filled with oil. The lamp-chimneys and wicks he had to clean himself, for that she could not learn.
“You are a cow, Kristin! You are a wretch who cannot value kindness. Do you like me to storm? Do you know that I abominate myself when I am obliged to get so excited. You make me bad, and you are a poisonous worm. I wish you had never been born, and lay in the depths of the earth. You are not a human being for you cannot learn; you are a cow, that you are! You will go? Yes, go to the deuce, where you came from!”
But Kristin never went. Once indeed she got as far as the steamer bridge, but turned round and entered the wood, whence the doctor had to fetch her home.
The doctor’s only acquaintance was the postmaster at Fagervik, an old comrade of his student days, who came over every Saturday evening. Then the two drank and gossiped till past midnight and the postmaster remained till Sunday morning. They certainly did not look at life and their fellow-men from the same point of view, for the postmaster was a decided member of the Left Party, and the doctor was a sceptic, but their talk suited each other so well, that their conversation was like a part-song, or piece of music, for two voices, in which the voices, although varying, yet formed a harmony. The doctor, with his wider, mental outlook, sometimes expressed disapproval of his companion’s sentiments somewhat as follows:
“You party-men are like one-eyed cats. Some see only with the left eye, others with the right, and therefore you can never see stereoscopically, but always flat and one-sidedly.”
They were both great newspaper readers and followed the course of all questions with eagerness. The most burning question, however, was the religious one, for the political ones were settled by votes in the Reichstag and came to an end, but the religious questions never ended. The postmaster hated pietists and temperance advocates.
“Why the deuce do you hate the pietists?” the doctor would say. “What harm have they done you? Let them enjoy themselves; it doesn’t affect me.”
“They are all hypocrites,” said the postmaster dogmatically.
“No,” answered the doctor, “you cannot judge, for you have never been a pietist, but I have, and I was—deuce take me—no hypocrite. But I don’t do it again. That is to say—one never knows, for it comes over one, or does not—it all depends on——”
“On what?”
“Hard to say. Pietism, for the rest, is a kind of European Buddhism. Both regard the world as an unclean place of punishment for the soul. Therefore they seek to counteract material influences, and in that they are not so wrong. That they do not succeed is obvious, but the struggle itself deserves respect. Their apparent hypocrisy results from the fact that they do not reach the goal they aim at, and their life always halts behind their teaching. That the priests of the church hate them is clear, for our married dairy farmers, card players and good diners do not love these apostles who show their unnecessariness and their defects. You know our clergy out there on the islands; I need not gossip about them, for you know. There you have the hypocrites, especially among the unfortunates, who after going through their examination have lost faith in all doctrines.”
“Yes, but the pietists are enemies to culture.”
“No, I don’t find that. When I came to this island it was inhabited by three hundred besotted beasts who led the life of devils. And now—you see for yourself. They are not lovable nor lively, but they are, at any rate, quiet, so that one can sleep at night; and they don’t fight, so that one can walk about the island without fear for one’s life and limbs. In a word, the simplest blessings of civilisation were the distinct result of the erection of the prayer-house.”
“The prayer-house which you never enter!”
“No, I don’t belong to that fold. But have you ever been there?”
“I? No!”
“You should hear them once at any rate.”
“You daren’t!”
“Daren’t! Is it dangerous?”
“So they say!”
“Not for me.”
“Shall we wager a barrel of punch?”
The postmaster reflected an instant, not so much on the punch as on the doctor’s suspecting him of cowardice.
“Done! I will go there on Friday. And you can carry the punch home in a boat, if you see anything go wrong with me.”
The day came and the postmaster ate his dinner with the doctor, before he took his way, as agreed, to the prayer-house. He had told no one of his intention, partly because he feared that the preacher might aim at him, partly because he did not wish to get the reputation of being a pietist. After dinner he borrowed a box of snuff to keep himself awake, in spite of the doctor’s assurance that he would not have any chance of sleeping. And so he went.
The doctor walked about his garden waiting for the result of the experiment to which many a stronger man than the postmaster had succumbed. He waited for an hour and a half; he waited two hours; he waited three. Then at last he saw the congregation coming out—a sign that it was over. But the postmaster did not appear. The doctor became uneasy. Another hour passed, and at last he saw his friend coming out of the wood. He came with a somewhat artificial liveliness and there was something forced in the springiness of his gait. When he saw the doctor, he made a slight wriggling movement with his legs, and shrugged his shoulders as though his clothes were too tight for him.
“Well?” asked the doctor. “It was tedious, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” was the only answer.
They went down to the pavilion and took their seats opposite each other, although the postmaster was shy of showing his face, into which a new expression had come.
“Give me a pinch of snuff,” said the doctor slyly.
The postmaster drew out the snuff-box, which had been untouched.
“You did not sleep?” resumed the doctor.
The postmaster felt embarrassed.
“Well, old fellow, you are not cheerful! What is the matter? Stop a minute!” The doctor indicated with his forefinger the space between his friend’s eyes and nose as though he wished to show him something, “I believe … you have been crying!”
“Nonsense!” answered the postmaster, and straightened himself up. “But, at any rate, you know I am not easily befooled, but as I said that fellow is a wizard.”
“Tell us, tell us! Fancy your believing in wizards!”
“Yes, it was so strange.” He paused for a while and continued:
“Can you imagine it? He preached, as was to be expected, especially to me. And in the middle of his preaching he told me all the secrets which, like everyone else, I have kept most jealously hidden from my childhood’s days and earlier. I felt that I reddened, and that the whole congregation looked at me as though they knew it also, which is quite impossible. They nodded, keeping time with his words and looking at me simultaneously. Yes, they turned round on their seats. Even regarded as witchcraft it was——”
“Yes, yes, I know it, and therefore I take care. What it is I don’t know, but it is something which I keep at arm’s length. And it is the same with Swedenborg. I sat once in an ante-room waiting for admission. Behind me stood a book-case from which a book projected and prevented me from leaning my head back. I took the book down and it was part of Swedenborg’s ‘Arcana Coelestia.’ I opened it at random and—can you imagine it? in two minutes a subject which just then occupied my thoughts was explained to me in such detail and with an almost alarming amount of expert knowledge, that it was quite uncanny. In two minutes I was quite clear regarding myself and my concerns.”
“Well, tell us about it.”
“No, I won’t. You know yourself that the life we live in thought is secret, and what we experience in secret…. Yes, we are not what we seem.”
“No.” His friend broke in hastily. “No; our actions are very easy to control, but our thoughts … ugh!”
“And thoughts are the deeds of the mind, as I have read somewhere. With our silent, evil thoughts we can infect others; we can transfer our evil purposes to others who execute them. Do you remember the case of the child murderess here ten years ago?”
“No, I was away then.”
“She was a young children’s nurse, innocent, fond of children, and had always been kind, as was elicited in examination. During the summer she was in the service of an actress up there in Fagervik. In August she was arrested for child murder. I was present in court when she was examined. She could not assign any reason for her action. But the judge wished to find out the reason, since she had no personal motive for it. The witnesses declared that she had loved the child, and she admitted it. At her second examination she was beside herself with remorse and horror at the terrible deed, but still behaved as though she were not really guilty, although she assumed the responsibility for the crime. At the third examination the judge tried to help her, and put the question, ‘How did the idea come to you of murdering an innocent child whom you loved? Think carefully!’ The girl cast a look of despair round the court, but when her eyes rested on the mother of the child, the actress, who was present for the first time, she answered the judge simply and naturally. ‘I believe that my mistress wished it.’ You should have seen the woman’s face as these words were uttered. It seemed to me that her clothes dropped from her and she stood there exposed, and for the first time I thought of the abysmal depths of the human soul, over which a judge must walk with bandaged eyes, for he has no right to punish us in our interior life of thought; there we punish ourselves and that is what the pietists do.”
“What you say is true enough, but I know also that my inner life is sometimes higher and purer than my outward life.”
“I grant it. I have also an idea of my better ego, which is the best I know…. But tell me, what have you been doing for a whole hour in the wood?”
“I was thinking.”
“You are not going to be a pietist, I suppose,” broke in the doctor as he filled his glass.
“No, not I.”
“But you no longer think the pietists are humbugs?”
To this the postmaster made no reply. But the drinking did not go briskly that evening, and the conversation was on higher topics than usual. Towards ten o’clock a terrible howling like that of wild beasts came over the Sound. It was from the garden of the hotel in Fagervik. Both the philosophers glanced in that direction.
“They are the crews of the cutters, of course,” said the postmaster. “They are certainly fighting too. Yes, Fagervik is going down because of the rows at night. The holiday visitors run away for they cannot sleep, and they have thought of closing the beer-shops.” “And of opening a prayer-house, perhaps?”
This question also remained unanswered, and they parted without knowing exactly how they stood with each other.
Meanwhile the report spread in Fagervik that the postmaster had been to the prayer-house, and when the next afternoon he found himself in his little circle at the hotel with the custom-house officer and the chief pilot, they greeted him with the important news:
“So! you have become a pietist!”
The postmaster parried the thrust with a jest, swore emphatically that it was untrue, and as a proof emptied his glass more thoroughly than usual.
“But you have been there.”
“I was curious.”
“Well, what did they say?”
The postmaster’s face darkened, and as they continued to jest it occurred to him that it was cowardly and contemptible to mock at what in his opinion did not deserve mockery. Therefore he said seriously and decidedly: “Leave me in peace! I am not a pietist, but I think highly of them.”
That was tantamount to a confession, and like an iron curtain something fell between him and his friends. The expression of their faces changed, and they seemed all at once strange to him. It was the most curious experience he had had, and it was painful at the same time.
He kept away for a few days and seemed to be in an introspective mood. After that, by degrees, he resumed his old relations to them, came again to the hotel, and was gradually the same as before, but not quite. For he had “pricked up his ears” as the phrase goes.
The Saturday evening tête-à-tête were resumed as before. Now that the postmaster had become more serious, and showed interest in the deeper things of life, the doctor considered the time had come to communicate to him some of the stock of observations which he had made on human life, without any reference to his own particular experience. It was reported that he had been married and had children but no one knew exactly the facts of the case.
After he had satisfied himself that the postmaster liked being read to aloud, he ventured to suggest to him that they should spend the Saturday evenings in this higher form of recreation, after they had first exchanged opinions on the

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