Jacob Worse's mother was regarded as quite a character in the town. When her husband died, he was about as insolvent as a man could be. For several years he had only kept his business going by means of unlimited credit, but up to the very last he managed to keep one of the gayest houses in the town. Nothing was left but a mass of bills and liabilities when he was gone. People shook their heads, and went one and all to the widow to condole with her. There were both friends and enemies among them, but all alike were creditors. Some were for selling her up at once, and others wished to keep the business going, while one wished to buy the horses privately. The "Boston-parti" to which the deceased belonged, agreed to give the widow a monthly allowance. For a few days Mrs. Worse was quite bewildered and broken down by the ruin she had so little expected. She had never had the slightest knowledge of her husband's affairs, but she was quite convinced that he was very rich. On the evening after the funeral she was sitting alone with her son Jacob, who was a boy of about seven or eight, when a little wizened, grey-haired man came into the room, who, after respectfully wishing Mrs. Worse good evening, laid on the table some account books and papers. The old man was well known to Mrs. Worse: it was Mr. Peter Samuelsen, commonly known as Pitter Nilken, the manager of the small shop in the back premises. Worse's property had consisted of an entire building, of which the front looked out towards the sea and the quay where the steamers were moored, and at the back was a little dark lane, where Pitter Nilken had his shop. Worse never liked anybody to allude to the shop; he considered that he was far too respectable a man of business for anything of the sort. He used to say that it was mostly for old Samuelsen's sake, that he kept the little shop going; it could have no importance in a concern like his.
Mrs. Worse had also believed this story; but that afternoon she learnt to think otherwise. It was quite clear to her, after hearing Mr. Samuelsen's figures and calculations, that the shop was not at all to be despised, and she came at last to perceive that this was what had really so long kept everything going.
The two sat over their figures far into the night. At first comprehension seemed quite hopeless to Mrs. Worse. The explanations she had heard from her husband's friends and creditors during the last few days were so complicated, and couched in terms beyond her understanding; but with Peter Samuelsen it was quite otherwise. He never went on until he was quite sure that she comprehended what he said. At length it all began to dawn upon her, and she kept on repeating, "I declare, it is all as clear as daylight."
Next morning she ordered her carriage and drove off alone. The scandal this excited in the town was beyond description. To think that she, who scarcely owned the very clothes on her back, should have the audacity to drive in a carriage and pair before the very noses of those whom her husband had swindled! The general feeling towards her had hitherto been favourable, and several people could not help feeling a mischievous delight at the idea of seeing the haughty Mrs. Worse live on a monthly allowance. But now all were as hard as stone. Mrs. Worse herself did not seem to be so nervous as she was the day before, and when she entered Consul Garman's office, with Pitter Nilken's papers under her arm, her step was as firm and confident as a man's.
It was now several years since Worse had left the firm, but some ill-feeling had long remained on both sides, and the deceased and Mr. Garman had never got on well together. It was thus no light matter for the widow to betake herself to Consul Garman; but Mr. Samuelsen had assured her that it was quite out of the question to think of keeping the business going without a guarantee from Garman and Worse.
When the Consul saw Mrs. Worse come into the room, he imagined that she was bringing a subscription-list to raise the means for educating her son, or something of that sort; and, as he offered her a chair on the opposite side of the table, he turned over in his mind how much he should subscribe. But when Mrs. Worse began to give an explanation of her affairs, according to the calculations of Pitter Nilken, the Consul's manner changed, and he got up, walked round the table, and seated himself near her. He calmly and patiently examined each paper, went through the calculations and figures, and at last read the draught of a guarantee which Samuelsen had made, with the greatest attention.
"Who has assisted you with all this, Mrs. Worse?" he asked.
"Mr. Samuelsen," she answered, somewhat anxiously.
"Samuelsen? Samuelsen?" repeated the Consul.
"Yes, that is to say, Pitter Nilken. Perhaps you know him better by that name."
"Ah yes! the little man in the shop. H'm! Does Mr. Samuelsen wish to go into partnership with you?"
"No. I have asked him, but he prefers to remain in his present position, and give me his assistance in the business."
The Consul got up with the guarantee in his hand. It was one of his peculiarities that he could not write the signature of the firm except when he was sitting in his usual place. But as soon as he had seated himself in the old wooden armchair, he wrote in a large and bold hand, "Garman and Worse," taking care to adorn the signature with several flourishes, which he had inherited from his predecessors.
Armed with this document, Mrs. Worse and Mr. Samuelsen set to work at the rams. The first thing they did was to sell everything there was to sell; but, with the assistance of Mr. Garman, they managed to save the whole of the valuable premises. The front of the house was let, and the old lady moved over to the back, where she took turns in the shop with Mr. Samuelsen. She was at her post from early in the morning till late in the evening, gossiping with her customers, and selling tobacco, tallow candles, salt, coffee, tar-twine, herrings, train oil, paraffin, tarpaulins, paint, and many other commodities.
In the course of a few years Mrs. Worse quite lost her manners. People in polite society had never forgiven her her drive, but still less were they willing to look over the fact that she, a lady, had not more self-respect than to sink down into the position of a common shop-woman. The lower orders, on the other hand, had quite a fellow-feeling for Mrs. Worse, and the dingy little shop was just to their taste; and thus, contrary to all expectation, Mrs. Worse's business, common little retail affair as it was, went on capitally.
The trustworthy Mr. Samuelsen did the work of three. He was a little grey shrivelled man, with a face like a dried fig. He might be forty, or he might be sixty, it was not easy to tell. In his monotonous life there had only been one single event which he particularly remembered, and that was the afternoon when he had taken his books and calculations in to Mrs. Worse, and since that time he had, with the greatest honesty, helped her to overcome her many difficulties. Mr. Samuelsen had also his own private enemies to contend against, and these consisted of nearly all the school children in the town. It had always been, and was still, a favourite amusement for the children to "Sing for Pitter Nilken." The game was carried on in the following manner. Boys and girls all assembled, the more the merrier, generally in the dusk of the evening, and sneaked quietly down into the alley at the back of the Worses' house, and when they got under Samuelsen's shop-window, they began singing, to a well-known air—
"Little Pitter Nilken, Sitting on his chair! He's always growing smaller, The longer he sits there."
This couplet was repeated again and again, each time in a louder tone, until the tormented man seized his iron ruler and sprang over the counter. Then off flew the crowd, screaming and shouting along the narrow lane, for there was an old tradition that the iron ruler had a rusty stain of blood on it. Samuelsen would then retire quietly to his desk. In the course of years the episode had been of constant occurrence, and he well knew that the only way of getting a little peace was to make this sally with the ruler.
No one could blame Mrs. Worse for making an idol of her son; he was all she had to care for. Although Jacob was a good son, and grew up strong and healthy, he had cost his mother many tears when he came home from school bruised and untidy after a fight. The boy had almost too much spirit, as the principal said, and when he was roused he did not mind tackling the biggest and strongest boys in the school. But he got better as time went on, and when he came home from abroad to take his place in the business, he was, and not only in his mother's opinion, one of the best looking and most agreeable young men in the town.
Jacob Worse took his father's old office in the front of the house, which looked on to the market and the quay. He carried on a business partly on commission and partly on his own account. He did a good deal of trade, particularly in corn, which had hitherto been almost entirely in the hands of Garman and Worse. The old firm had established itself so securely on every side, that he seemed to meet them whichever way he turned.
Morten wished that Garman and Worse should at once use their strength, and crush their tiny rival before he had had time to become dangerous, but Consul Garman would not hear of it. He seemed to have an extraordinary liking for Worse, and even went out of his way to help him, and latterly "the rival" had become a constant Sunday guest at Sandsgaard.
At first Jacob Worse did not like leaving his mother on Sunday, but Mrs. Worse said, "Go along, you great stupid! do you suppose that Samuelsen and I care to have you sitting and laughing at us when we are playing draughts; and besides," said she, giving him a sly poke with her finger, "don't you know there is somebody out there that expects you?"
"Ah, mother, do stop those insinuations of yours; you know perfectly well nothing will ever come of it."
"Now, Jacob," said Mrs. Worse, with her arms akimbo, "you think yourself very clever, but I tell you you are as stupid as an owl, a barn-door owl, when it is anything to do with women. You ought to see it must all come right some day. I dare say Miss Rachel is a little bit singular, but she is not quite cracked. You see, it will all get straight in the end; it will still all come right some day."
This was the refrain of all Mrs. Worse's observations on this head, and her son saw plainly it was of no use to contradict her. It was of no use either to advise her to give up her shop, or, at any rate, to give up the management to somebody else.
"Why, I should die of dropsy," said she, "and Samuelsen would dry up to nothing in about a fortnight, if we had not got the shop to attend to."
"Yes," suggested Jacob, "but still you need not work any longer: you have earned some rest for your old days; besides, your legs are not so young as they were."
"As to my legs," cried Mrs. Worse, with a gesture of impatience, "my legs are quite good enough for a shop-woman."
"Well, why not get a horse and carriage? You have every right to have one."
"I took a drive once that made stir enough," answered his mother; "I hope to take another some day, but that won't be before everything comes right."
It was no use trying to persuade her, and so she and Samuelsen remained in the back premises they were so fond of, and Jacob set up his establishment in the front.
When Mrs. Worse was in her son's rooms, she used to play the fine lady to her own great edification; but when she got him into her own apartments, her behaviour entirely changed, and her laughter was coarse and noisy. Her manners had really quite gone.
One Saturday afternoon Delphin came into Jacob Worse's office with some books he had borrowed.
"Have you heard that I have bought a horse?" asked he, in a merry tone.
"No," answered Worse. "What new folly now?"
"Well, you see, I have got an idea that it will make a favourable impression on Miss Madeleine if she sees me on horseback. Just fancy me on a horse with a long mane and tail, like the picture of General Prim; there!" and he went cantering round the room, and pulled up suddenly before Worse—"there, like that: a good fierce expression. Is not that it? I believe that will do the business."
Worse could not help laughing, although he did not think much of the frivolous way Delphin had of paying his addresses to Madeleine.
"You are not going to ride up to Sandsgaard this morning?"
"No, not exactly; it would not do. I can't very well go up there dressed for riding, and if I were to ride in these clothes I should look absurd. But I thought of riding out there this evening, somewhere about seven o'clock. Just fancy me coming in over the garden wall with a flying salute, and lighted by the last rays of the evening sun! Why, it would be irresistible."
"Well, I am afraid, or perhaps I ought rather to say I hope, that Miss Madeleine will not fully appreciate your novel way of paying her your addresses," said Worse, half-seriously.
"Ah, my most respected friend, you know very little of woman's heart; and how should you, when your ideal is a woman who goes in for her rights? a tall bony creature with a moustache under her nose, and 'Woman's wrongs' under her arm."
"Leave off, will you?" cried Worse. "You are just in your most disagreeable vein. You had better go off to young Mrs. Garman. She will find you most amusing to-day."
"A good idea, which I was already thinking of," answered Delphin, as he took his hat; "and at the same time I will take a place for myself in her carriage for to-morrow."
"Won't you drive with me?" cried Worse after him.
"No, thanks; I would rather go with Mrs. Garman, if for nothing else than to have the pleasure of seeing her worthy husband on the box," said he, as he went out of the door.
Jacob Worse stood watching him. At first he had been very glad to make Delphin's acquaintance. There were not many young men in the town with whom he could associate. Delphin was intelligent, well read on different subjects, and when alone was good company enough. But by-and-by he showed more of the frivolous side of his character, and Worse began to get a little tired of his friend.
Fanny was sitting all this time in a state of absolute boredom. Little Christian Frederick had gone out with his nurse, and the street was uninteresting, dusty, hot, and thronged by country people making their Saturday purchases. She did not care to look out of the window, but sat leaning back in her most comfortable armchair, yawning in front of the glass. Would it be better to send for Madeleine? it was several days since she had paid her a visit. But then she would have to play the part of go-between again. Or should she begin on her own account? Yes; why not? But then he never came except when Madeleine was there. It really was too tiresome.
When he now came unexpectedly into the room it gave her quite a start, but she still remained leaning back in her armchair, and gave him her left hand, which was the nearest, as she said, "I am glad to see you. I was just thinking of you as I was sitting here all alone."
"It was very kind of you, I am sure," answered he, as he sat down in a chair in front of her.
"Yes; all sorts of foolish things come into one's head when one is sitting alone."
"I hope I was not the most foolish thing that could come into your thoughts," answered Delphin, jestingly, "But it is quite true; you have been left a great deal alone lately."
"Yes; but perhaps I have my own reasons for it."
"May I venture to ask what these reasons are?"
"Perhaps it would be better if I were to tell you," said she, regarding attentively the point of her shoe, which projected from her dress as she lay back in her chair. She had tiny pointed French shoes with straps across the instep, through which appeared a blue silk stocking.
"I assure you I shall be very thankful, and at the same time most discreet."
"Well, then, Madeleine is so young," said Fanny, as if following the tram of her own thoughts, "that I feel it to a certain extent my duty to look after her, and——"
"I scarcely see that it is absolutely necessary," answered he.
"Yes; but when a girl so inexperienced as Madeleine is brought into contact with gentlemen who are—well, who are so clever as, for instance, yourself, Mr. Delphin, you see——" She looked at him as she paused in her sentence.
"You are paying me too great a compliment," said he, laughing; "and besides, you can never imagine that I would take advantage——"
"Nonsense!" rejoined Fanny; "I know all about that. You are just like all the rest. You would never hesitate to take advantage of even the slightest opportunity; would you, now? Tell me frankly."
"Well," answered he, rising, "if you really wish for an honest answer, I must confess that when I see a strawberry that nobody else seems to notice, I generally pick it."
"Yes; it is just that greediness that all men have, and which I find, at the same time, so dangerous and incomprehensible."
"Yes; but, Mrs. Garman, strawberries are really so delicious."
"Yes, when they are ripe," answered Fanny.
The words fell from her lips as smoothly as butter. Delphin had taken a few paces across the room, and just turned in time to see the last glimpse of a look which must have been resting on him while she spoke. It was not very often that he lost his self-possession in a conversation of this kind, but the discovery he had made, or thought that he had made, with all its uncertainty, and the feeling of pleased vanity it brought with it, confused him, and he stood stammering and blushing before her. She still lay stretched in the armchair, a position which displayed to the best advantage the lines of her lovely form. Her beauty was fully matured, and showed freedom and elegance in every movement. She could see that she had said enough for the present, and she got up with out apparently taking any notice of his confusion.
"You must think," said she quickly, with a smile, "that it is absurd for me to preach you a sermon. We all have to attend to our own affairs; and if you will excuse me, I have to go and try on a dress. Good-bye, Mr. Delphin; I hope you will find your strawberries to your taste."
Delphin was quite confounded; but before he had had time to get his hat she put her head in at the door, still smiling, and cried, "You will drive over with me to-morrow?" and, without waiting for an answer, she nodded her head and disappeared.
Delphin had hardly recovered himself when he went for his ride to Sandsgaard, and he quite forgot about the flying salute over the garden wall, for there was no one to be seen either at the window or in front of the house. The fact was, his adventure had made such an impression on him that he did not take very much notice.
Fanny at first repelled his advances haughtily; but he accepted his fate with resignation. George Delphin was not the man to lose his time or his temper, in a hopeless pursuit. There are many respectable prizes in a lottery without aiming at the first. But now here was the chance of winning the great prize, the charming Fanny, the admiration of all. His heart swelled with pride, and if Jacob Worse could have seen the look with which he regarded the passers-by, it would certainly have reminded him of General Prim.
The next day at Sandsgaard, Fanny and Madeleine were together during the whole afternoon. Delphin could not manage to get an opportunity of talking to either separately. Just once he came upon Fanny in the morning-room at the piano, but she got up and went out hurriedly as he entered. As they drove home that evening scarcely a word passed between them. Fanny kept gazing the whole time over the fjord, of which they caught glimpses from time to time through the trees of the avenue. It was a still, peaceful autumn evening, and Delphin was in an excited mood. Each time he moved he felt the rustle of her silk dress, the folds of which nearly filled the carriage. Both sat quite silent to the end of the drive.
During the next few days Madeleine was again staying with her cousin, whom she found more gracious than ever. Delphin came even more frequently than before; but she did not meet him during her walks, a fact which she related to Fanny. Fanny said with a smile that Delphin was perfectly right, and his conduct was only proper, now that people had begun to talk about their frequent walks together.
Madeleine thought with regret upon how much there is to be careful of in this world; but a short time afterwards she met Mr. Delphin, and during the pleasant walk they had together he was most attentive, and in the best of spirits.
Fanny was now more beaming than ever. When ever she saw her own and Madeleine's reflection in the glass, which, to tell the truth, was very often the case, a smile of satisfaction would pass over her features. Without Madeleine having a suspicion, the rôles had been changed, and the play was ready to begin, now that Fanny had made up her mind that the parts were in the right hands.
1 - "Boston" is a game of cards, and the "Boston-parti" is a club, the members of which meet and play at each other's houses.