Read PART I: CHAPTER VIII of The Home , free online book, by Fredrika Bremer, on ReadCentral.com.

THE IMPROVISED DINNER.

You housewives who know the important meaning of a roast, who know the difficulties which sometimes overwhelm you, especially when you must improvise a dinner; you who know that notwithstanding all inspiration, both of understanding and inclination yet inspiration is necessary to all improvisation one cannot inspire either chickens or heath-cocks to come flying into the important dish, when the crust is ready to put on it; you housewives who have spent many a long morning in thoughts of cookery and in anguish, without daring to pray the Lord for help, although continually tempted to do so; you can sympathise in Elise’s troubles, as she, on the morning of this important dinner, saw the finger of the clock approach twelve without having been able to improvise a roast.

It is true that an improvised dinner might do without a roast: this we grant as a general law; but in the case of this particular dinner, we deny it altogether, in proof of which we might easily give the arrangement of the whole dinner, did we not flatter ourselves that we are believed on our bare word. Beyond this, the Judge was a declared lover of a roast, and of all kinds of animal food, which circumstance increased still more Elise’s difficulty; and as if to make difficulty still greater, Elise, on this very day, was remarkably in want of assistants, for her husband had sent out, on his own business, those servants who, on extraordinary occasions, Elise found very good help. The cook, too, was confused to-day in a remarkable manner; the children were in a fermentation; Eva and Leonore quarrelled; Petrea tore a hole in her new frock; Henrik broke a water-bottle and six glasses; the baby cried and screamed for nothing; the clock was on the stroke of twelve, and no roast would come!

Elise was just on the point of falling into despair over roasts, cooks, the dinner, the child, nay, over the whole world, when the door opened, and the words, “your most devoted servant,” were spoken out shrilly and joyously, and the widow of the Court Chamberlain to Elise she seemed an angel of light from heaven stood in the room, with her beaming friendly countenance, took out of her monstrous reticule one chicken after another, and laid them upon the table, fixing her eye on Elise, and making with each one a little curtsey to her, upon which she laughed heartily. Enraptured by the sight, Elise embraced first the lady Chamberlain, then the chickens, with which she hastily sprang into the kitchen, and returning, poured forth her thanks and all her cares to this friend in need.

“Well, well, patience!” exhorted Mrs. Gunilla, kindly and full of cordial sympathy, and somewhat touched by Elise’s communication. “Best-beloved, one should not take it so much to heart such troubles as these soon pass away yes, indeed, they soon pass. Now listen, and I’ll tell you something, ‘when need is greatest, help is nearest.’ Yes, yes, remember that! As for the chickens, I saw them in a peasant’s cart, as I crossed the market, and as I knew what was going on here, I lost no time in buying them and bringing them, under my cloak, and I have nearly run myself out of breath, in my haste. He, he, he! And so now I must go, for the dear lady must dress herself nicely, and so must I too. Adieu, dear Elise; I wish you the happiness of getting both the dinner and the young folks in order. He, he, he!”

Gunilla went, dinner-time came, and with it the guests and the Judge, who had spent the whole morning in the business of his own office, out of the house.

Emelie, the Colonel’s widow, was elegant in the highest degree; looked handsome, and distinguished, and almost outdid herself in politeness; but still Elise, spite even of herself, felt stiff and stupid by the side of her husband’s “old flame.” Beyond this, she had now a great distraction.

“Oh, that the chickens may be nicely done!” was the incessant master-thought of Elise’s soul; and it prevailed over the Pope, the Church of St. Peter’s, Thorwaldsen and Pasta, and over every subject on which they talked.

The hour of dinner was come, and yet the dinner kept the company waiting. The Judge, who expected from everybody else the punctuality which he himself practised, began to suffer from what Elise called his “dinner-fever,” and threw uneasy glances first at the dining-room door, and then at his wife, whose situation, it must be confessed, was not a very enviable one. She endeavoured to look quite calm, but often whispered something to the little Louise, which sent her very importantly in and out of the room. Elise’s entertainment, both that part which was audible, and that which was inaudible, was probably at the moment carried on something after the following fashion:

“It must be inexpressibly pleasant to know,” (ah, how unbearably long it is!) “it must be very interesting.” (I wish Ernst would fire again on his “old flame,” and forget dinner.) “Yes, indeed, that was very remarkable.” (Now are those chickens not roasted!) “Poor Spain!” (Now, thank goodness, dinner is ready at last if the chickens are only well done!)

And now to dinner! A word which brightens all countenances, and enlivens all tempers. Elise began to esteem the Colonel’s widow very highly, because she kept up such a lively conversation, and she hoped this would divert attention from any of the dishes which were not particularly successful. The Judge was a polite and agreeable host, and he was particularly fond of dinner-time, when he would willingly have made all men partakers of his good appetite, good humour, and even of his good eating N. B. if this really was good but if the contrary happened to be the case, his temper could not well sustain it.

During the dinner Elise saw now and then little clouds come over her husband’s brow, but he himself appeared anxious to disperse them, and all went on tolerably till the chickens came. As the Judge, who adhered to all old customs, was cutting them up, he evidently found them tough, whereupon a glance was sent across the table to his wife which went to her heart like the stab of a knife; but no sooner was the first pang over than this reproachful glance aroused a degree of indignation in her which determined her to steel herself against a misfortune which in no case was her fault; she, therefore, grew quite lively and talkative, and never once turned her eyes to her husband, who, angry and silent, sate there with a very hot brow, and the knife sticking still in the fowls.

But, after all, she felt as if she could again breathe freely when the dinner was over, and on that very account longed just to speak one word of reconciliation with her husband; but he now seemed to have only eyes and ears for Emelie; nor was it long before the two fell into a lively and most interesting conversation, which certainly would have given Elise pleasure, and in which she might have taken part, had not a feeling of depression stolen over her, as she fancied she perceived a something cold and depreciating in the manners of her husband towards her. She grew stiller and paler; all gathered themselves round the brilliant Emelie; even the children seemed enchanted by her. Henrik presented her with a beautiful flower, which he had obtained from Louise by flattery. Petrea seemed to have got up a passion for her father’s “old flame,” took a footstool and sat near her, and kissed her hand as soon as she could possess herself of it.

The lady devoted herself exclusively to her old worshipper, cast the beams of her beautiful eyes upon him, and smiled bewitchingly.

“This is a great delight!” thought Elise, as she wiped away a traitorous tear; “but I will keep a good face on it!”

The Candidate, who perceived all this, quickly withdrew from the lady’s enchanted circle, in which he also had been involved, and taking “the baby” on his knee, began to relate a story which was calculated as much to interest the mother as the child. The children were soon around him: Petrea herself forsook her new flame to listen, and even Elise for the moment was so amused by it that she forgot everything else. That was precisely what Jacobi wanted, but it was not that which pleased the Judge. He rose for a moment, in order to hear what it was which had so riveted the attention of his wife.

“I cannot conceive,” said he to her in a half-whisper, “how you can take delight in such absurdity; nor do I think it good for the children that they should be crammed with such nonsense!”

At length Emelie rose to take her leave, overwhelming Elise with a flood of polite speeches, which she was obliged to answer as well as she could, and the Judge, who had promised to show her the lions of the place, accompanied her; on which the rest of the guests dispersed themselves. The elder children accompanied the Candidate to the school-room to spend an hour in drawing; the younger went to play; Petrea wished to borrow Gabriele, who at the sight of a gingerbread heart could not resist, and as a reward received a bit of it; Elise retired to her own chamber.

Poor Elise! she dared not at this moment descend into her own heart; she felt a necessity to abstain from thought a necessity entirely to forget herself and the troubling impressions with which to-day had overwhelmed her soul. A full hour was before her, an hour of undisturbed repose, and she hastened to her manuscript, in order to busy herself with those rich moments of life which her pen could call up at pleasure, and to forget the poor and weary present in one word, to lose the lesser in the higher reality. The sense of suffering, of which the little annoyances of life gave her experience, made her alive to the sweet impressions of that beauty and that harmonious state of existence which was so dear to her soul.

She wrote and wrote and wrote, her heart was warm, her eyes filled with tears, the words glowed upon her page, life became bright, the moments flew. An hour and a half passed. Her husband’s tea-time came; he had such delight in coming home at this hour to find his wife and his children all assembled round the tea-table in the family room. It very rarely happened that Elise had not all in readiness for him; but now the striking of seven o’clock roused her suddenly from her writing; she laid down her pen, and was in the act of rising when her husband entered.

A strong expression of displeasure diffused itself over his countenance as he saw her occupation.

“You gave us to-day a very bad dinner, Elise,” said he, going up to her and speaking with severity; “but when this novel-writing occupies so much of your time, it is no wonder that you neglect your domestic duties; you get to care really just as little about these, as you trouble yourself about my wishes.”

It would have been easy for Elise to excuse herself, and make all right and straight; but the severe tone in which her husband spoke, and his scornful glance, wounded her deeply. “You must have patience with me, Ernst,” said she, not without pride and some degree of vexation; “I am not accustomed to renounce all innocent pleasures; my education, my earlier connexions, have not prepared me for this.”

This was like pricking the Judge in the eye, and with more bitterness and severity than usual he replied:

“You should have thought about that before you gave me your hand; before you had descended into so humble and care-full a circle. It is too late now. Now I will ” but he did not finish his sentence, for he himself perceived a storm rising within him, before which he yielded. He went to the door, opened it, and said in a calm voice, yet still with an agitated tone and glance, “I would just tell you that I have taken tickets for the concert to-morrow, if you would wish to go. I hoped to have found you at the tea-table; but I see that is not at all thought of it is just as desolate and deserted there as if the plague were in the house. Don’t give yourself any trouble, I shall drink my tea at the club!” and thus saying he banged the door and went away.

Elise seated herself she really could not stand and hid her face in her trembling hands. “Good heavens! is it come to this? Ernst, Ernst! What words! what looks! And I, wretched being, what have I said?”

Such were Elise’s broken and only half-defined thoughts, whilst tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Words, words, words!” says Hamlet, disparagingly. But God preserve us from the destructive power of words! There are words which can separate hearts sooner than sharp swords there are words whose sting can remain in the heart through a whole life!

Elise wept long and violently; her whole soul was in excitement.

In moments of violent struggle, bad and good spirits are at hand; they surrounded Elise and spoke to her thus:

Bad Spirits. “Think on that which thou hast given up! think on thy own merits! Recollect the many little acts of injustice which thou hast had to bear, the bitter moments which the severity of thy husband has occasioned thee! Why shouldst thou humbly crawl in the dust? Raise thyself, depressed one! raise thyself, offended wife! think of thy own worth, of thy own rights! Do not allow thyself to be subjected; show some character. Requite that which thou hast endured. Thou also canst annoy; thou also canst punish! Take refuge in thy nerves, in unkindness; make use of thy power, and enjoy the pleasure of revenge!”

Good Spirits. “Think on thy wants, on thy faults! Recollect all the patience, all the kindness, all the tenderness which has been shown thee! Think on the many beautiful moments! Think on thy husband’s worth, on his beautiful noble qualities! Think also on life, how short it is; how much unavoidable bitterness it possesses; how much which it is easy either to bear or to chase away; and think on the all-rectifying power of affection. Tremble before the chains of selfish feeling; free thyself from them by a new sacrifice of love, and purify the heaven of home. Ascending clouds can easily expand into a destructive tempest, or can disperse and leave not a trace in the air. Oh, chase them hence with the powerful breath of love!”

The happiness of a long life depends, not unfrequently, upon which of these invisible counsellors in such moments we give ear to. On this it depends whether the gates of heaven or of hell shall be opened upon earth to men. Elise listened to the good counsellors; she conversed long with them, and the more pure recollections they sent into her soul the lighter it became therein. The light of love was kindled in her, and in its light she became clear-sighted in many directions. She saw now what it was right for her to do respecting her novel, and this revelation warmed her heart. She knew also that this was the only one she should ever write, and that her husband should never again miss her from the tea-table, and therefore be obliged to drink his tea at the club (but he should be reconciled sometime with the sinner the novel); and she would, moreover, prepare a dinner for the Colonel’s widow, which should compensate for the unlucky one of this day; and “Would that Ernst would but come home soon,” thought she, “I would endeavour to banish all his displeasure, and make all right between us.”

It was the bathing-day of the children, and the message that the hour of bathing was come interrupted Elise’s solitude. She ordered Brigitta to commence her preparations, and when she had somewhat composed herself, and washed away the traces of her tears with rose-water, she herself went down into the chamber.

“God be praised for water!” thought Elise, at the first view of the scene which presented itself. The soft glowing young forms in the clear warm water, the glimmering of the open fire, the splashing and jubileering of the children in their unspeakable comfort, their innocent sport one with another in the peaceful little lake of the bath, in which they had no fear of raising stormy waves; nay, even Brigitta’s happy face, under her white cap, her lively activity, amid the continual phrases of “best-beloved,” “little alabaster arm,” “alabaster foot,” “lily-of-the-valley bosom,” and such like, whilst over the lily-of-the-valley bosom, and the alabaster arm, she spread soap-foam scarcely less white, or wrapped them in snowy cloths, out of which nothing but little lively, glowing, merry faces peeped and played with one another at bo-peep all this united to present a picture full of life and pleasure.

Elise, however, could not fully enjoy it; the thought of what had just occurred, longings for reconciliation with her husband, fear that he might remain long, that he might return too much displeased for her easily to make all straight again these thoughts occupied her mind; yet still she could not help smiling as Gabriele, who had sunk down into the bath alone, exclaimed, almost beside herself for fright, “I am drowning! I am drowning!” In order to re-assure her, her mother stretched out her white hands to her, and under their protection she laughed and splashed about like a little fish in water.

A shower of flowers streamed suddenly over both mother and child, and Gabriele screamed aloud for joy, and stretched forth her little arms to catch gilly-flowers, roses, and carnations, which fell upon and around her. Elise turned herself round in surprise, and her surprise changed itself into the most delightful sensation of joy, as the lips of her husband were pressed to her forehead.

“Ah, you!” exclaimed Elise, and threw her arms round his neck, and caressingly stroked his cheek.

“I shall get wet through with all this,” said he, laughing, yet without leaving the bath, nay, he even stooped down his head to little Gabriele, kissed her, and allowed her to splash him with water.

“Thank God! all is right again! and perhaps it will be best to take no further notice of this unpleasant affair!” thought she, and prepared to follow her husband into the parlour.

The Judge had, probably, during his bad tea at the club, held with the invisible speakers the same conversation, with some variations, as his wife during his absence, the consequence whereof was his visit to the bathing-room, and the shower of flowers from the nosegay he had brought with him for her, and the kiss of reconciliation which effaced every thoughtless and wounding word. He felt now quite pleased that everything was as it should be, and that the gentle and yielding temper of his wife would require nothing further. But, perhaps, on that very account, he was dissatisfied with himself, her eyes red with weeping grieved him, especially as they beamed so kindly upon him, he felt that he misused the power which circumstances had given him over his wife; he felt that he had behaved harshly to her, and therefore he had no peace with himself, therefore he felt a necessity to pronounce one word one word, which it is so hard for the lips of a man to pronounce, yet, which Ernst Frank was too manly, too firm to shrink from.

When, therefore, his wife entered, he offered her his hand; “Forgive me, Elise,” said he, with the deepest feeling; “I have behaved severely, nay, absurdly to-day!”

“Oh, forgive me, Ernst!” said Elise, deeply affected, whilst she pressed his hand to her heart and

Accursed be all disturbers of peace in this world! Such a one entered at that moment, and undid that which would otherwise have bound them so closely to each other. It was a messenger from the Colonel’s widow with a note, together with a book for the Judge, and two little bottles of select Eau de rose for Elise, “of which, I know,” said the note, “she is very fond.”

The Judge’s cheek grew crimson as he read the note, which he did not show to his wife.

“An extremely polite and interesting person,” said he; “I will immediately answer it.”

“Ernst,” said Elise, “should we not invite her to dinner to-morrow? I thought of something very nice, which is sure to succeed; then we could go altogether to the concert, and afterwards she might sup with us.”

“Now that is a good idea, and I thank you for it, my sweet Elise,” said he, extremely pleased.

Yes, if the Colonel’s widow had not been there if the Candidate had not been there and if there had been no if in the case, all might have gone on quite smoothly. But it was quite otherwise.