The rocket

Issue 3/1988 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Raketen (‘The rocket’), a novella from the collection Den segrande Eros (‘Eros triumphant’), 1912. Introduction by George C. Schoolfield

The sun shone straight in through the veranda’s little windows that made the whole ‘villa’ resemble a hothouse. With a sigh, Elsa let the morning paper fall to the floor; she had gotten halfway through the classified ads: ‘Three lads wish to correspond with likeminded lasses.’ ‘If Mr Söders-m does not fetch his effects, left as bond for unpaid rent, within a week, they will be regarded as our property, and his name will be published in toto.’ Now she could stand no more. The air seemed to come from a bakeoven. Listlessly, she watched two flies as they flicked the ceiling paper in their humming dance of love. It seemed as though knives were being thrust into the back of her head; that was the way her sick headaches began. A long walk might stop it, she knew, but she felt too tired.

At last, she was able to make herself get up and open the door for some fresh air. But with the air she got a powerful smell of roasting pork from the baker’s villa; the yells of the children playing cops and robbers up on the rock were doubled in force. A nasty stabbing sensation began in Elsa ears. And so she decided to take a walk after all, but only to the steamboat jetty.

The Sunday morning’s bloated peace hovered over the throng of little villas that lay a stone’s throw from one another. Sahlberg the baker was out in his yard, playing croquet with his oldest sons. Croquet was his great passion, and he abandoned himself to it with a terrible earnestness. Every time his turn came, he bent over at right angles, and in the process a remarkable development of musculature was visible beneath the shiny wool of his trousers; he seized the mallet in the middle of the shaft, gauging the distance as though his very well-being were at stake. His sure, strong blows sounded like pistol shots.

‘Good morning, little miss,’ was his greeting. ‘How’s your health and your love life?’

The baker was an urbane man who had served the better sort of people all the days of his life.

‘Thank you,’ Elsa answered sharply. ‘I have my usual headache.’

‘If you’re out of sorts, little miss, you can stop for a while and listen to Mr Johansson’s clarinet, and then you’ll feel better again.’

Mr Johansson from the customs service was the baker’s mortal enemy. It had begun with Mrs Sahlberg’s cat being bitten to death by Mr Johansson’s dog. Subsequently, the war went through various phases that provided the villa-dwellers with their chief topic of conversation during the long summer evenings. The struggle’s most dramatic moment came when the baker moved his sanitary convenience over to the other side of his property, directly beside Mr Johansson’s well. Following this clever stroke, no quarter was given on either side.

‘Look out, he’s starting again,’ the baker said, and leaned on his mallet in order to give the matter his full attention.

In just a little more than three years Mr Johansson had managed to learn a patriotic march tolerably well, but then it ceased to interest him altogether, and now he was wrestling with the waltz from The Count of Luxemburg. ‘Oh, could it possibly be happiness floating past me …’

He played the first notes with masterful enthusiasm, but by the time he got to ‘floating’ a certain lack of confidence became apparent, and by ‘past’ the tune was past, no doubt about it. The last wrong note sounded like the distress signal of a sinking steamer. Then Mr Johansson began again with the same result, once, twice, and thrice, until the baker interrupted him with audible cries of bravo.

Choking with laughter, as he had almost every summer Sunday for the last four years, the baker smote his fat thighs.

‘That fellow ought to join the circus and demand extra high prices,’ he shouted, and it could be heard as far as Mr Johansson’s villa, at least. ‘That fellow ought to be stuffed and sent to the museum!’

His delight was so unadulterated and deep that Elsa had to smile. Now Mr Johansson began again: ‘Oh, could it possibly be happiness…’

Yes, happiness. Who knows where it’s hidden…!

Slowly, Elsa continued her walk. At the top of the knoll she stopped once more and sat down on a comfortable stone. Now it was only a short way downhill to the steamboat jetty, but she felt tired to death, and depressed.

Below, the bay lay dead calm. Her gaze went over the forest-covered points of land and the greening glades where the villas, the real ones, the fine ones, could be seen with their flower beds and paths of yellow sand. Far away, a little steam sloop slipped in and out of the inlets and channels like a dog on the hunt. Its wake passed over the shining water, washed up on the little skerry where some half-naked boys were fishing for perch, tugged at the moorings of restaurant-owner Durdin’s motorboat, made Mr Welin’s cruiser bob up and down a bit, and pushed the low prows of the line of rowboats against the steamboat jetty, so that its cracked wood creaked and groaned.

Elsa saw nothing of all this. She had beheld the same picture so often that it had long ago stopped making any impression on her. Today had been like last Sunday and most of the summer Sundays she could remember. Not a single number in the familiar program was missing. There, the Salvation Army sailed by on its excursion; the dull thud of the drums was mixed with the thin twang of the guitars. There, the boat whose motor had failed lay in the middle of the bay; a torrent of curses was carried over the water.

Yet far away, beyond the forest, the twin towers of St John’s Church loomed on high, Uspensky Cathedral raised its golden onions aloft, and the star-strewn cupolas of St Nicholas glittered in the August sun. There lay the city, a lure and a magnet.

Elsa thought of her companions in the shop who always envied her because she could go out to the country every day, while they had to stay in the hot, dead city. She would have gladly traded with any one of them. For in there, in the city, was the world she longed for as a bird longs for the dawn – the city with its restaurants and its circus and its operettas.

It struck her that the birch leaves had turned very yellow these last days, a clear warning that the summer soon would die. Another couple of weeks and she’d see them again, Birger, Mikael, Åke Holm, and all their lighthearted friends. She smiled at the memory of what they’d done last spring, that long, shifting series of dinners and masquerades and automobile trips and all the world’s splendors which had come to an abrupt end when Elsa’s father, Lundberg, commissionaire at the Senate, stern and brimming with authority, forbade her expressly ever to be seen together with those young gentlemen again. He knew damned well what they wanted with her, he asserted, and he’d see to it that she never came home after nine. Before his first violent anger after the discovery had subsided, he very seriously considered making her stop working in the shop, where she did nothing but learn stupid things from the other girls. Thank God he was paid enough that her salary wasn’t necessary. Finally, though, he contented himself with expressing his opinion of Elsa’s best friend in plain language – that frivolous slut Anna – and he promised to beat them both black and blue if he ever caught them together outside the shop.

During the first days it was terribly hard for Elsa. The evenings grew endlessly long and empty. She couldn’t stand needlework and she didn’t have the slightest notion of household chores. At the shop, Anna went around all morning half asleep, but she was supremely happy, and while her pretty face was contorted by yawns, she told about the events of the day before. It was almost always the same story, Åke Holm had sung and Birger had played, Mikael had been so silly that she almost laughed herself to death and, besides, she had drunk too much liqueur, as usual. But every time, a stab of bitterness and envy went through Elsa’s breast. Gradually she found a weak and artificial consolation in thinking of the peril she had escaped: of taking the primrose path and becoming a bad girl, like Anna. Her manner toward Anna became markedly unfriendly, every day she let her know that a chasm lay between them, a chasm that could not be crossed.

And yet, how close she had been to ‘falling’! A word from Birger would have sufficed; she had realised that almost from the beginning. Once, by accident, she had heard a conversation between Mikael and Birger: ‘My dear cousin, do you intend to take her?’ ‘No, you know very well I don’t want to.’ ‘But you ought to. Not doing it is the same as owning a writer’s collected works with the last volume missing. And you can never finish the set afterwards.’

Despite Birger’s words she had waited, day after day, for the decisive step. And when nothing happened, she felt – almost with surprise and almost with resentment – that she was terribly disappointed. Was she so unattractive that he would never catch fire and lose control of himself? After all, many others had shown that they would give a great deal for what she longed, burningly, to bestow on Birger. Well, that sudden break followed, and since then she had only seen him a few times, in passing, on her way to the shop. Soon the summer had spread the happy group to the four winds. Only Anna was left chewing the cud of her memories as she looked around for some suitable summertime diversion. Lacking better, she made do for a while with one of the gentlemen in the shop who had sighed in vain all winter long.

Naturally, Elsa could not help noticing both this and a good many other things; she was seized by a violent aversion to Anna. But at the same time she felt desperately alone; she didn’t have any other girl friends. Sometimes she caught herself thinking how it would have been if she had not waited in vain for Birger to take the initiative, but had given one of the others a little encouragement instead. For example, Åke Holm was a good­looking boy and certainly wouldn’t have said no.

By July she secretly wished she was dead, a frame of mind that lasted for some time, and the thought filled her with a strange pleasure. But then she collapsed into utter apathy and let the days pass by as they wished. At home, everyone kept nagging at her; sometimes, in the evenings, Mrs Lundberg sat weeping, full of laments about Elsa’s thoughtlessness and ingratitude: how many girls were as well off as she was? The old grandmother sighed and prayed to God that He, who bends the hearts of men like streams of water, might have mercy on Elsa’s hardened spirit.

It was misery without compare.

Absentmindedly, Elsa started to descend the hill to the steamboat jetty. The water shone between the planks of the dock and played with the green beards that dangled from the venerable pilings. An old habit made Elsa cast a glance into the mailbox. Among ancient newspapers, which had lain there rotting for weeks, she found a letter, wrong side up. The envelope was pink and smelled of patchouli. Some servant girl’s letter, Elsa thought, and, still quite uninterested, turned it over. She could scarcely believe her eyes; it was addressed to her. But nothing was wrong with her sight, it was Anna’s handwriting, no question about it; after all, nobody could imitate that big, vulgar scrawl of hers.

Dear Elsa,

Mikael W. and Holm are in town I bumped into them yesterday evening on the Esplanade we were at the Apollo it was an awful lot of fun. They’d like so terribly much to meet you can’t you come into town this evening and we’ll go out to the Cliff We’ll wait for you till ten at M’s come if you can for they’re leaving again tomorrow. Of course I know that you’ve been mad at me since last spring but you shouldn’t.

Anna

Elsas wrinkled her nose at every mistake. Good heavens, how impudent of her, she thought. But her pulse was throbbing and she sensed that her cheeks were very hot.

She went home with the letter carefully hidden inside her blouse. At the bend by the Bible-bookstore owner’s villa a crowd of people came into view. Elsa stopped to listen to their loud chatter. She could discern her father’s peremptory, authoritative, official-sounding tones and restaurant owner Durdin’s gibberish, with Russian syllables stuck into all the honest Swedish words, something that made them have an oily, greasy air. Mrs Durdin’s shrill voice soared high above all the rest, almost wiping out Mrs Lundberg’s timid remarks completely.

Alexander Durdin led the van with the Bible-bookstore dealer at his side, all the while whistling a frivolous tune. He was a man in his thirties with black, frizzy hair; he wore the sailing club’s uniform from the day the clubhouse opened until it closed in the autumn, for his father was the proud owner of a motorboat. He was known for his unusual success with women, which to a good extent stemmed from his being a good catch. Mr Durdin senior’s Cafe de Paris on Fredrik’s Street was a gold mine, as everyone knew, even much better than Mr Malmström’s Bible-bookstore, which wasn’t any slouch either. Mr Malmström was skinny and bilious and looked like an old man, although he was in the prime of life. Just as his insides were rent by a severe case of gallstones, his soul was torn by a constant battle between a highly developed sense of thrift and a yearning for womankind that was never sufficiently stilled.

Indecisive, Elsa stood in. the middle of the road until it was too late to escape.

‘There you have her, Sasha, grab her so she can’t run away!’ Mr Durdin burst out gaily, and straightway Mr Lundberg added: ‘It’s good we caught you, the Durdins were kind enough to invite us for a ride in their motorboat.’

Alexander Durdin made an elegant gesture with his uniform cap, and his eyes licked Elsa’s bare arms and throat.

‘Well, Miss, we’ll have a good time now!’

‘Thank you,’ Elsa answered briskly. ‘But I can’t come along, I have such a terrible headache today.’

‘Elsa!’, Mr Lundberg shouted, and his voice had the same crushing sound as when he set a younger commissionaire to rights at the Senate.

‘Yes, I can’t help it,’ Elsa stuttered, ‘I have to go home and lie down… and… and now I have to go home.’

‘That’s not what’s going to happen,’ Mr Lundberg said bluntly, for the was really angry now. ‘Have you ever heard the like – that’s ingratitude for you! Here we come along, or I should say my dear friend Durdin comes along and invites her to do something that’s fun, and she answers that she’d rather go home and lie down!’

Mrs Lundberg looked at Elsa nervously and found that tears weren’t far away.

‘But August, maybe she feels so bad that she simply can’t. Maybe it’s better for her to go home and see to it that the crayfish get properly boiled. We’re having guests this evening,’ she added for lack of anything better to say, and as an explanation to Elsa.

‘She’ll come with us, damn it! She’s not going to boil the crayfish, she knows about as much about the household as a pig does about a rifle.’

As a rule, Commissionaire Lundberg expressed himself in a particularly cultured fashion, but when he was in the grip of violent emotions, reminiscences of that language arose which had been his natural mode of expression once upon a time, in the modest position he had formerly occupied.

But now defiance awakened in Elsa.

‘Have a nice ride, I’m going now,’ she said, and marched quickly past the astonished company.

She kept her back straight until she got inside the villa, and then it was over. She burst out in a fit of crying that seemed never to end. Finally, the old grandmother came out of the bedroom where she had sat cutting gaudy patches which would then be sent to Mr Lundberg’s paternal home in Karis, to be woven into rag rugs. The old woman was still good enough for that, although she was blind in both eyes.

‘What kind of a fuss are you making now, Elsa?’

Elsa did not answer. She had thrown herself full length on the daybed and lay there, biting a pillow.

The old woman stared at her with her dead eyes, as if she could see straight through her.

‘Why do you keep crying all the time nowadays?’ Elsa lifted her head from the pillow.

‘Everything’s so ugly and tiresome here, and everybody’s so mean to me. I just wish I could die.’

The old woman lifted her rheumatic, bony hands as if to ward off something terrible.

‘It’s a great sin to talk such nonsense, you must ask the Lord for forgiveness and seek consolation in Him.’

Elsa shrugged her shoulders impatiently.

‘You’re always talking about God. He can’t help me, or maybe He doesn’t want to.’

‘Oh Jesus, the way you talk, you good-for-nothing.’ Hesitating, the old woman stood there and tugged at her apron; yet then she lowered her voice to an intimate, cunning whisper:

‘Are you crying because you don’t want that Duldin or whatever his name is? But you’re stupid if you don’t want him, he’s supposed to be so goodlooking…’

‘Ugh, I can’t stand him!’

‘All right, he doesn’t have to be goodlooking, but a man’s a man in any case, and you can get both useful and pleasant things out of them. Do you think my Gustafsson had such a handsome face? Oh no, I’ve seen better. And then, besides, that Duldin is a fine gentleman and well-off. I think it’s sinful to scorn the gifts of God, you must accept them with a humble and grateful spirit. I’m talking like an old-fashioned person now, and you naturally think that you know everything better; but I tell you that an old sow has sense enough not to roll over on her young and kill them, but a young foal can hop around so much that it breaks its legs.’

When Elsa didn’t even begin to answer, the old woman went her way, closing the bedroom door firmly behind her.

Elsa didn’t eat dinner, because she started crying all over again. At first, Mr Lundberg meant to drag her to the table, but gave way to Mrs Lundberg’s pleas and allowed Elsa to do what she wanted. But in the evening she had to take part in the crayfish party, he’d swear she would. If Sasha Durdin really wanted her, then he’d have his wish, even if Elsa tried to get the devil himself to help.

That was the piece of information he presented to Elsa in the evening, when the guests were coming. Confused, staggering as though she were drunk, she went to the mirror and smoothed out the snarls in her hair. Her skirt was terribly wrinkled, that couldn’t be helped now, she tugged impatiently at her blouse, and straightened her belt. Then a paper crackled – Anna’s letter that she’d almost forgotten. She read it anew, fast as she could. And, as she did, the thought emerged.

The table actually bent beneath the weight of the mighty crayfish platter. The bloodred shells of the crayfish and the juicy dark-green dill shone very prettily against the brilliant white of the table linen.

‘One drink for each claw and two for the tail!’ said Commissionaire Lundberg for the fourth time and lifted his glass of snaps. The light burning on his cheeks was brighter by far than what the battered, old hanging lamp provided.

‘Two for the tail,’ grunted Mr Durdin, ‘That’s much too little for my wife’s, it’s certainly worth three.’

Everybody except Elsa burst out in loud laughter. Almost appalled, she sat gazing at Mrs Durdin’s laugh: it began with a trembling in her whole body, a dreadful earthquake somewhere under the table which was gradually transmitted to the huge loose masses of flesh higher up. Her face stayed nearly immobile, but an unarticulated, wholly improbable sound was squeezed out between her thick lips.

Elsa sat beside Sasha Durdin. They were eating on the veranda, and quarters were so tight that a fly could scarcely have crept between the chairbacks and the wall. Elsa felt Sasha Durdin’s leg press more and more tightly against her own, but she couldn’t move any farther in the other direction; for there the Bible-bookstore owner sat, looking as if he had nothing at all against a little foot flirtation. The lighting was so weak that no one noticed Elsa’s swollen eyes, on the contrary, Sasha thought he had never seen her looking lovelier than she did just now.

Mr Durdin plunged his wrestler’s hands into the pile of crayfish in order to get hold of the females.

‘Yes, Brother Durdin,’ Mr Lundberg said, ‘You’ve always been on the trail of the ladies.’

He gave Mrs Durdin a gaze of secret understanding that made her succumb to a new fit of laughter. Mr Durdin looked as if he were about to have a stroke. Wheezing, he struggled a long time for air.

‘You’re clever as hell, Brother Lundberg,’ he cried with the very deepest admiration in his voice, once he had gotten control of it again. ‘We’ll drink to that – a real drink!’

When the drink had been taken, Commissionaire Lundberg let his somewhat unsteady glance linger on Sasha and Elsa.

‘Look how prettily they’re sitting there together! Aren’t they a handsome couple! Sasha, go ahead and pop the question! Don’t worry about her acting a little standoffish at the start, that’s what women always do so it will taste better later on. And there are a lot of high-and-mighty gentlemen who’ll envy you my Elsa, just ask Mr Weydel – excuse me, I’m wrong, Baron Weydel, heaven help me!’

Weydel. Elsa suddenly saw Birger’s face before her, his fine, slender face, which sometimes could look like a dead person’s and yet did not frighten her. She also gazed down at the clumsy knife she held in her hand and thought of the silver knives with the Weydels’ scutcheon, the ones she had used to peel fruit at Mikael’s. And she could do that this evening once again, it still wasn’t too late.

Mr Lundberg’s unmistakable words of encouragement went to Sasha Durdin’s head together with the fumes of alcohol. Suddenly Elsa felt his hand on her knee. She grew quite pale, but sat still and let him keep on, until he leaned back and looked at her with his hazy eyes; she caught the smell from his hair and was seized by disgust and gave him an awful kick in the shin that made him jump with pain.

‘Very well, ladies and gentlemen,’ the host said at long last. ‘We’ll go into the bedroom and wash our hands. Usually you need to after a feast like this, and mother doesn’t like having her napkins ruined.’

Pair by pair they marched into the bedroom. Their path went through the dining room, where old Mrs Gustafsson lay on her sofa. Her empty eyes followed the noisy band, without comprehending.

‘Sleep on, old lady,’ Mr Lundberg said as he went past. ‘It’s only the young people having fun.’

Sasha Durdin had stayed on the veranda beside Elsa. After receiving the kick, he had grown unsure of himself again.

‘Now look here, Elsa, why are you making trouble?’, he said, testing.

‘Am I the one making trouble? I think you’re the one who’s gotten out of line.’

‘Oh, I naturally don’t mean that you’re making that sort of trouble, but you know very well what I mean.’

‘No, I don’t, and I don’t want to know, either.’

‘But your daddy does, sweetie, and that’s what counts.’

‘Never!’ She almost shrieked the word. His term of endearment bothered her more than the physical approach he had made. ‘Never in all the world! I’d sooner – don’t know what.’

She got up and threw the veranda door wide open. A thick mist lay brooding over the meadow like a huge monster on its slimy belly. Out in the channel a steamboat blew a signal: it was the last boat going out to the end of the line. In a quarter of an hour it would return, on its route to the city. Elsa looked at the clock; the boat would certainly be back in its harbor before ten.

Mr Lundberg came out with a bundle of rockets under his arm. ‘I hope you’re not doing anything foolish out here by yourselves,’ he said, trying to urge them on.

And, turning to his guests he continued: ‘Now we’re going to have a real celebration. Maybe we can hold a little engagement party, after a fashion – I think the young folks look as though they have something on their conscience. See how she’s blushing! I have some fireworks here, left over from Midsummer, we’ll set them off immediately.’

He strode out to the teeter-totter and set the rockets up in a row on it.

‘Get your overcoats and come outside, otherwise you can’t really enjoy it. And put out the lamp on the veranda, it has to be completely dark.’

The first rocket rose hissing over the forest’s black, jagged silhouette. A loop of fire, a muted explosion, some slowly sinking stars, blue as electric sparks, and then it was all over.

The Durdins applauded frantically, but the Bible-bookstore owner stood with his hands behind his back.

‘Don’t you think it’s pretty, Mr Malmström?’

‘Pretty – I’m not sure. After all, it’s exactly like throwing your money out into the air, but, good heavens, if you can afford it, go ahead.’

‘That’s what I think too,’ Mrs Lundberg dared to interject. ‘Of course it’s pretty on the way up, but it flies so fast that you hardly have a chance to see it, and then there’s nothing left but a stick and a little bit of soiled paper. You don’t get very much for your money, but August likes it.’

‘How can you stand there and talk about money when we’re supposed to be having fun,’ Mr Lundberg said disapprovingly. ‘I think that fireworks are damned pretty on these autumn evenings. And if the pleasure doesn’t go on especially long, it’s all the greater while it lasts.’

‘Yes,’ Elsa said suddenly, ‘I think you’re right. Besides, I’ve heard that from somebody else before.’

Each new rocket climbed higher than the last. The final one shot like a comet high up toward the stars, and when it exploded at last, three balls of light floated slowly away over the forest, like sailing birds. Elsa could follow them for a long time before they became one with the darkness.

Lundberg lit a match and led his guests back into the villa. Elsa stayed outside, watching their figures move behind the frosted panes. Now she knew that if she never saw any of this again, there was nothing she would miss.

The steamboat’s signal sounded once more, three times. Three spadefuls of earth onto the past.

The gravel rattled beneath Elsa’s feet as she hurried toward the gate. The cold, damp metal of the latch made her shudder. On the road she began to run like mad, she had a notion they were pursuing her. Panting, she stood on the jetty and watched the portside lanterns of the steamboat, ruby-red, draw near.

Inside the salon, she curled up in a corner; she was chilled, but quite calm.

Here nothing was to be added or taken away any longer, it had come as it must, and with joy she watched her fate go toward its fulfilment.

Translated by George C. Schoolfield

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