Author: Strindberg, August, 1849-1912
Islands — Fiction
Baltic Sea Region — Fiction
On the Seaboard: A Novel of the Baltic Islands
ON THE SEABOARD
A NOVEL OF THE BALTIC ISLANDS
FROM THE SWEDISH OF
EASTER, LUCKY PEHR, ETC.
ELIZABETH CLARKE WESTERGREN
GROSSET & DUNLAP
August Strindberg’s first literary productions were warmly received, and would have aroused lasting enthusiasm and admiration had the young author’s prolific pen been less aggressive, in this, for his country, a totally new style of novel. His intrepid sarcasm which emanated from a physical disability, known only to a few of his most intimate friends, called forth severe criticism from the old aristocrats and the conservative element, which drove the gifted dramatist from his own country to new spheres. Life’s vicissitudes at Vierwaldstätter See, and Berlin, also later on at Paris from whence his fame spread rapidly over Europe, changed his realism to pessimism.
After years of ceaseless work, during which he dipped into almost every branch of science, he suddenly determined to transfer his activities to this side of the Atlantic, where he was desirous of becoming known. For this purpose his most singular novel was chosen for translation; meantime some invisible power drew him back to his birthplace, Stockholm, and a new generation cheered his coming.
Later on critics called him “A demolisher and a reformer that came like a cyclone, with his daring thought and daring words, which broke in upon the everlasting tenets and raised Swedish culture.”
His delineations are photographical exactness without retouch, bearing always a strong reflection of his personality.
A fishing boat lay one May evening to beam-wind, out on Goosestone bay. “Rokarna,” known to all on the coast by their three pyramids, were changing to blue, while upon the clear sky clouds were forming just as the sun began to sink. Already there was dashing outside the points, and a disagreeable flapping in the mainsail signified that the land-breeze would soon break against newborn currents of air, from above, from the sea and from aft.
At the tiller sat the Custom House Surveyor of the East Skerries, a giant with black long full beard. Occasionally he exchanged a look with two subordinates who were sitting in the bow, one of whom was tending the clutch-pole, keeping the big square sail to the wind.
Sometimes the steersman cast a searching look at the little gentleman who was crouching at the mast seemingly afraid and frozen, now and then drawing his shawl closer round his body.
The surveyor must have found him ridiculous, for frequently he turned leeward with a pretense of spitting tobacco juice to conceal a rising laugh.
The little gentleman was dressed in a beaver-colored spring coat under which a pair of wide moss-green pants peeped out, flaring at the bottom round a pair of crocodile shagreen shoes topped with brown cloth and black buttons. Nothing of his under dress was visible, but round his neck was twisted a cream-colored foulard, while his hands were well protected in a pair of salmon-colored three-button glacé-gloves, and the right wrist was encircled by a gold bracelet carved in the form of a serpent biting its tail. Ridges upon the gloves showed that rings were worn beneath. The face, as much as could be seen, was thin and haggard; a small black mustache with ends curled upwards increased the paleness and gave it a foreign expression. The hat was turned back, exposing a black closely cut bang resembling a calotte.
What seemed most to attract the indefatigable attention of the steersman was the bracelet, mustache and bang.
During the long voyage from Dalaro this man, who was a great humorist, had tried to get up a cheery conversation with the Fish Commissioner, whom he had in charge to take to the station at the East Skerries, but the young doctor had shown an injured unsusceptibility to his witty importunities which convinced the surveyor that the “instructor” was insolent.
Meanwhile the wind freshened as they passed Hanstone to windward and the dangerous sail began to flutter. The fish commissioner, who had been sitting with a navy chart in his hand, noting the answers to his questions, placed it in his pocket and turned toward the man at the tiller saying in a voice more like a woman’s than a man’s:
“Please sail more carefully!”
“Is the instructor afraid?” asked the helmsman scornfully.
“Yes, I am careful of my life and keep close hold of it,” answered the commissioner.
“But not of other’s lives?” asked the helmsman.
“At least not so much as my own,” returned the commissioner, “and sailing is a dangerous occupation, especially with a square sail.”
“So, sir, you have often sailed before with a square sail?”
“Never in my life, but I can see where the wind directs its power and can reckon how much resistance the weight of the boat can make and well judge when the sail will jibe.”
“Well, take the tiller yourself then!” snubbingly remarked the surveyor.
“No! that is your place! I do not ride on the coachman’s box when I travel on the Crown’s errands.”
“Oh, you cannot manage a boat, of course.”
“If I could not, it is certainly easy to learn, since every other schoolboy can do it and every custom house subordinate, therefore I need not be ashamed that I cannot, only sail carefully now as I would not willingly have my gloves spoiled and get wet.”
It was an order, and the surveyor, who was cock of the walk at the East Skerries, felt himself degraded. After a movement on the tiller the sail filled and the boat sped onward steadily towards the rock, with its white custom house cottage brightly shining in the rays of the setting sun.
The seaboard was vanishing, there was a feeling that all kindly protection was left behind, when venturing out on the open boundless water, with darkness threatening toward the east. There was no prospect of crawling to leeward of islands or rocks, no possibility in case of storm to lay up to and reef, out right into the middle of destruction, over the black gulf, out to that little rock that looks no larger than a buoy cast into the middle of the sea. The fish commissioner, as signified before, held fast to his only life and was intelligent enough to count his insignificant resistance against nature’s superiority. Now he felt depressed. He was too clear-sighted with his thirty-six years to overestimate the insight and daring of the man at the tiller. He did not look with reliance at his brown and whiskered visage, nor would he believe that a muscular arm was equal to a wind which blew with thousands of pounds pressure against a rocking sail. He viewed such courage as founded upon faulty judgment. What stupidity, thought he, to risk one’s life in a little open boat when there exist deckers and steamers. What incredible folly to hoist such a big sail on a spruce mast, which bends like a bow when a strong wind strikes it. The lee-shroud was hanging slack, likewise the forestay, and the whole wind pressure was lying on the windward-shroud, which seemed rotten. Trust to such an uncertain residue as a few flax ropes more or less cohesive, he would not, and therefore he turned with the next gust of wind to the subordinate who was sitting close to the halyard, and in a short penetrating voice commanded, “Let the sail run!”
The two Inferiors looked toward the stern, awaiting the helmsman’s orders, but the fish commissioner repeated his command instantly and with such emphasis that the sail sank.
The surveyor in the stern shrieked.
“Who the Devil commands the maneuvering of my boat?”
“I,” answered the commissioner.
Whereupon he turned to the subordinates with the order.
“Put out the oars!”
The oars were put out and the boat gave a few rolls, for the surveyor had left the tiller angrily at the command, exclaiming,
“Yes, then he can take the helm himself!”
The commissioner at once took his place in the stern and the tiller was under his arm before the surveyor had ceased swearing.
The glacé-glove cracked instantly at the thumb, but the boat made even speed while the surveyor sat with laughter in his whiskers, and one oar ready to push out to give course to the boat. The commissioner had no attention to bestow upon the doubting seaman, but stared attentively windward and could soon discern a heaving sea with its swell many meters long, from the surge with its short water fall, then after a hasty glance astern he measured the leeway, and in the wake noted the setting of the currents, it was perfectly clear what course must be held not to drift past the East Skerries.
The surveyor, who had searched long to meet the black burning glances that they might mark his laughter, became tired, for it looked as though they would have no contact with anything that could soil or disturb them. After a moment’s beseeching the surveyor becoming absent and dejected began to observe the maneuvering.
The sun had reached the horizon, the waves were breaking purple black at the base, deep green at the side, and where the crests rose highest they lighted up grass green. The foam sprouted and hissed red champagne colored in the sun. The boat and men were now low down in the dusk, or the next moment, on the crest of a wave, the four faces glowed and instantly faded away.
Not every wave broke so high, some were only rocking slowly and cradling the boat, lifting and sucking it forward. It seemed as though the little man at the tiller could from a distance judge when a gigantic wave would come, and with a slight push at the tiller held firm or sneaked between the dreadful green walls, which threatened to spring and form an arch over the boat.
The fact was that the danger had really increased through the sail being furled, for the driving power had diminished and the sail’s lifting ability must be dispensed with, therefore the surveyor’s astonishment at the incredible fine maneuvering began to change to admiration.
He looked at the changing expression on the pale face and the movement in the black eyes, and felt that inside there was a combined calculation. Then not to seem superfluous himself he put out his oar, for he felt the time had come, and acknowledged willingly the superiority before it was wrung from him, thus:
“Oh, he has been at sea before!”
The fish commissioner, who was deeply occupied, and would have no intercourse whatever, as he was afraid of being surprised and deceived in a moment’s weakness by the apparent external superiority of the giant, made no response.
His right glove had cracked round the thumb, and the bracelet had fallen over the hand. When the flame faded from the crest of the waves and the day closed, he took out with his left hand a lorgnette and placed it in his right eye, moving his head quickly to several points of the compass as though he would sight land, where no land was to be seen, and then threw this brief question forward.
“Have you no lighthouse on the East Skerries?”
“God knows we have not,” answered the surveyor.
“Have we any shoals?”
“Shall we sight Landsort or Sandham’s lighthouse?”
“Not much of Sandham but more to Landsort,” replied the surveyor.
“Sit still at your places and we shall come out all right,” finished the commissioner, who seemed to have taken a bearing by the heads of the three men and some unknown firm point in the distance.
The clouds had flocked together and the May dusk had given place to obscurity. It was like a swing forwards into some thin impenetrable material, without light. The sea was rising only as darker shadows against the shadowy sky, the heads of the waves struck the bottom of the boat and lifting it up on their backs dived down on the other side and rolled out. But now to separate friend from foe was difficult and the calculation more uncertain. Two oars were out to leeward and one to windward, which if applied with more or less power at the right moment would keep the boat buoyant.
The commissioner, who soon could not see more than the two lighthouses in north and south, must now compensate the loss of sight by the ear and before he could become used to the sea’s roaring, sighing, hissing and spouting, or distinguish between a dashing or a surging wave, the water had already come into the boat, so that to save his fine shoes he placed his feet on a thwart.
Soon he had studied the harmony of the waves, and could even hear from the regular beating of the swell the danger approaching, and feel on the right ear-drum when the wind pressed the harder and threatened to toss the water higher. It was as though he had improvised nautical and meteorological instruments out of his susceptible senses from which the conductors connected with his big brain battery, hidden by that little ridiculous hat and the black bang.
The men who at the moment of the water’s intrusion muttered rebellious words, became silenced when they felt how the boat shot forward, and at each word of command, windward, or leeward, they knew which way to pull.
The commissioner had taken his bearings on the two lighthouses and used the lorgnette quadrangle glass as a distance measure, but the difficulty of holding the course was that no light could be seen from the windows of the cottages since they were in the lee of the hillock. When the dangerous voyage had been continued an hour or more, a dark rise was observed forward against the horizon. The helmsman, who would not, to gain doubtful advice, disturb his own intuitions on which he relied most, bore down on what he supposed to be the East Skerries or some of their points, consoling himself that arriving at a firm object, whatever it might be, was always better than hovering between air and water. The dark wall approached with a speed greater than that of the boat so that suspicion dawned in the commissioner’s mind that everything was not right in their course. In order to ascertain what it could be and at the same time give a signal in case the obscure object should be a vessel which had neglected to put its lights out, he took up his box of storm matches and lighting them all, held them up in the air a moment, then threw them up so that they illuminated a few meters around the boat. The light penetrated the darkness for only, a second, but the picture which appeared like a magic-lantern view was fixed before his eyes for several seconds, and he saw drifting ice heaved upon a rock, against which a wave broke like a cave over a gigantic rock of limespar, and a flock of long-tailed ducks and sea-gulls that arose with numerous shrieks and were drowned in the darkness. The sight of the breaking wave affected the commissioner as it does the condemned to look upon the coffin in which his decapitated body shall rest, and he felt in a moment of imagination the double pang of cold and smothering, but the agony which paralyzed his muscles awoke on the other hand all the concealed powers of the soul, so that he, in a fraction of a second, could make a sure estimate of how great the danger was, and count out the only way of escape, whereupon he cried out, “Hold all!”
The men who had been sitting with their backs toward the wave and had not observed it, rested on their oars, and the boat was sucked into the wave which might have been three or four meters high. It broke over the boat, forming a green cupola and fell on the other side with all its mass of water. The boat was disgorged half filled with water and the occupants half smothered from the dreadful compression of air. Three outcries as from sleepers who have the nightmare were heard at a time, but the fourth, the man at the tiller, was silent. He made only a gesture with his hand toward the rock where now a light was shimmering, only a few cable lengths to leeward, and then sank in the stern sheets and lay there.
The boat ceased pitching for it had come into smooth water, the oarsmen were all sitting as if intoxicated, dipping the oars, which were now unnecessary for the boat was slowly wafted into harbor by the fair wind.
“What have you in the boat, good folks?” greeted an old fisherman after he had said “Good evening,” which the wind swept away.
“It should be a fish instructor!” whispered the surveyor as he pulled the boat upon the beach.
“So it is such a one who comes to spy out the nets! Well, he shall be treated as he seeks to be,” said fisherman Oman, who seemed to be head man for the few poor population of the island.
The custom house surveyor waited for the instructor to go on shore, but he saw no sign of movement in that little bundle which lay in the stern so he climbed uneasily into the boat and clasped both arms round the prostrate body and carried it to the beach.
“Is he gone?” asked Oman, not without a certain tremor of hope.
“There isn’t much of him left,” answered the surveyor as he carried his wet load up to the cottage.
The sight reminded of a giant and a lilliputian when the imposing surveyor entered his brother’s kitchen where his sister-in-law stood at the fire, and as he laid down the little body on the sofa an expression of compassion for the weaker man gleamed from the low-browed, dark-whiskered visage.
“Here we have the fish inspector, Mary,” he greeted his sister-in-law, placing his arm round her waist. “Help us now to get something dry upon him and something wet into him and then let him go to his room.”
The commissioner made a wretched and ridiculous figure as he lay on the hard wooden sofa. The white standing collar twisted around his neck like a dirty rag, all of the fingers of the right hand peeped out of the cracked glove over which the softened cuffs hung sticking with the dissolved starch. The small crocodile shoes had lost all shine and shape, and it was with the greatest effort that the surveyor and his sister-in-law could pull them off the feet.
When he was finally deprived of most of his clothing and covered with quilts, they carried him boiled milk and schnapps, each shaking an arm, after which the surveyor raised the little body and slowly poured the milk into it. Beneath the closed eyes the mouth gaped, but when the sister-in-law would give him a dram, the smell seemed to act like a quick poison; with a gesture of the hand he pushed the glass back, and opening his eyes wide awake as though just finishing a refreshing sleep, he asked for his room.
Of course it was not in order but it would be in about an hour if he would only lie still and wait.
The commissioner was lying there spending an intolerable hour with his eyes flitting over the tiresome arrangements of the chamber and its occupants. It was the government’s cottage for the surveyor of that little department of the custom house on the East Skerries. Everything was scanty, merely a roof over the head. The white, bare walls were as narrow as the Crown’s ideas, four white rectangles which enclosed a room covered by a white rectangle. Strange, hard as a hotel room, which is not to dwell in, only for lodging. To put on wall papers for his successor or for the Crown, neither the surveyor nor his predecessors had the heart. In the midst of this dead whiteness stood dark, poor, factory-made furniture, with half modern shapes. A round dining table of knotted pine stained with walnut and marked with white rings from dishes, chairs of the same material with high backs, and tilting on three legs, a bed-sofa, manufactured like ready-made men’s clothing, from the cheapest and least possible material. Nothing seemed to fulfill its purpose of inviting rest and comfort, everything was useless, and therefore unsightly, notwithstanding its ornaments of papier maché.
The surveyor placed his broad buttock on a rattan chair and rested his mighty back against it, the maneuver was followed by annoying creaks and a morose exhortation from the sister-in-law, to be careful of other folk’s things, whereupon the surveyor answered with an impudent patting followed by a look which left no doubt as to the relations existing between them.
The oppression which the whole room had caused in the commissioner was increased by the discovery of this discord. As naturalist he had n