Old Dances


Old Dances was published in Kielland's short story collection, Norse Tales and Sketches (1896), translated by R.L. Cassie. "Come, boy; inside with you, and move your legs. Don't stand there like a snivelling chamberlain, but show what kind of fellow you are with those long pipe-stalks that our Lord has sent you out upon."

We really strove honestly, swung ourselves and swung our ladies, although many were stiff enough to get round. We were not invited to a ball; this dance was merely a surprise frolic.

We had dined in all good faith—at least, the stranger cousin had; and while I stood thinking of coffee, and dreading no danger, the house began to swarm with young folks who had dined upstairs or downstairs, or at home, or not at all, or God knows where. The dining-room doors were thrown open again, the floor was cleared as if by magic, partners caught hold of each other, two rushed to the piano, and—one, two, three, they were in the middle of a galop before I could recover my wits.

They immediately forsook me again, when I received a frightful blow in the region of the heart. It was Uncle Ivar himself, who shouted:

'Come, boy; inside with you, and move your legs. Don't stand there like a snivelling chamberlain, but show what kind of fellow you are with those long pipe-stalks that our Lord has sent you out upon.'

Thus the dance began; and although I did not at all like uncle's way of arranging matters, I good-naturedly set to work, and we strove honestly, that I can say, with the cousins as well as the lighter of the aunts.

By degrees we even became lively; and everything might have passed off in peace and joy if uncle had not taken it into his head that we were not doing our utmost in the dance, especially we gentlemen.

'What kind of dancing is that to show to people?' he exclaimed contemptuously. 'There they go, mincing and tripping, as spindle-shanked as pencils and parasols. No, there was another kind of legs in my time! Pooh, boys, that was dancing, that was!'

We held up our heads and footed it until our ears tingled. But every time that Uncle Ivar passed the ball-room door, his jeers became more aggravating, until we were almost exhausted, each one trying to be nimbler than another.

But what was the use? Every time uncle came back from his round through the smoking-room, where he cooled his head in an enormous ale-bowl, he was bolder and bolder, and at last he had aled so long in the cooling bowl that his boldness was not to be repressed.

'Out of the way with these long-shanked flamingoes!' he cried. 'Now, boys, you are going to see a real national dance. Come, Aunt Knoph, we two old ones will make these miserable youngsters of nowadays think shame.'

'Oh, no, my dear, do let me alone,' begged respectable Mrs. Knoph; 'remember, we are both old.'

'The devil is old,' laughed uncle merrily; 'you were the smartest of the lasses, and I was not the greatest lout among the boys, that I know. So come along, old girl!'

'Oh no, my dear Ivaren; won't you excuse me?' pleaded Mrs. Knoph. But what was the use? The hall was cleared, room had to be made, and we miserable flamingoes were squeezed up against the walls, so that we might be out of the way, at all events.

All the young ladies were annoyed at the interruption, and we gentlemen were more or less sulky over all the affronts that we had endured. But the lady who had to play was quite in despair. She had merely received orders to play something purely national; and no matter how often she asked what dance it was to be, uncle would only stare politely at her over his spectacles, and swear that this would be another kind of dance.

As far as Uncle Ivar was concerned, 'Sons of Norway' was no doubt good enough for any or every dance; and as to the dance itself, the music was really not so very important; for, you see, it happened in this way:

Uncle Ivar came swinging in with one arm by his side, and tall, respectable Mrs. Knoph on the other. He placed her with a chivalrous sweep in the middle of the floor, bowed in the fashion of elderly gallants, with head down between his legs and arms hanging in front, but quickly straightened himself up again and looked about with a provoking smile.

Uncle Ivar, without a coat and with vest unbuttoned, was a sight to see in a ball-room. A flaming red poll, one of the points of his collar up and one down, his false shirtfront thrust under a pair of home-made braces, which were green, two white bands of tape hanging down, a tuft of woollen shirt visible here and there.

But one began to respect the braces when one saw what they carried—a trousers-button as big as a square-sail, and another behind—I am sure that one could have written 'Constantinople' in full across it in a large hand.

'Tush, boys!' cried uncle, clapping his hands, 'now, by Jove, you shall see a dance worth looking at!' And then it began—at least, I think that it began here, but, as will presently appear, this is not quite certain. It happened in this way:

The pianist struck up some national tune or other; uncle swung his arms and shuffled a little with his feet, amorously ogling old Mrs. Knoph over his spectacles.

All attention was now concentrated upon Uncle Ivar's legs; it was clear that after the little preliminary steps he would let himself go! I stood and wondered whether he would spring into the air clear over Mrs. Knoph, or only kick the cap off her head.

That would have been quite like him, and it is not at all certain whether he himself did not think of performing some such feat, for, as will presently appear, we cannot know; it happened, you see, in this way:

As Uncle Ivar, after some little pattering, collected his energies for the decisive coup, he violently stamped his feet upon the floor.

But, as if he had trodden upon soft soap, like lightning his heels glided forward from under him. The whole of Uncle Ivar fell backward upon Constantinople, his legs beat the air, and the crown of his head struck the floor with a boom that resounded through the whole house.

Yes, there he lay stretched in all his rondeur, with the square-sail just in front of the feet of respectable Mrs. Knoph, who resembled a deserted tower in the desert.

I was irreverent enough to let the others gather him up. Of course he would not fall to pieces; I knew the Constantinople architecture. I slipped out into the corridor and laughed until I was quite exhausted.

But since then I have often wondered what kind of dance it could have been.


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