PELLE THE CONQUEROR - VOL 3
PELLE THE CONQUEROR - VOL 3
MARTIN ANDERSON NEXO
TRANSLATED FROM THE DANISH
By Bernard Miall.
III. THE GREAT STRUGGLE
A swarm of children was playing on the damp floor of the shaft. They
hung from the lower portions of the timber-work or ran in and out
between the upright supports humming tunes with bread-and-dripping in
their hands; or they sat on the ground and pushed themselves forward
across the sticky flagstones. The air hung clammy and raw as it does in
an old well and already it had made the little voices husky and had
marked their faces with the scars of scrofula. Yet out of the tunnel-
like passage which led to the street there blew now and again a warm
breath of air and the fragrance of budding trees--from the world that
lay behind those surrounding walls.
They had finished playing "Bro-bro-brille" for the last rider had
entered the black cauldron; and Hansel and Gretel had crept safely out
of the dwarf Vinslev's den across the sewer-grating and had reached
the pancake-house which marvelously enough had also a grating in
front of the door through which one could thrust a stick or a cabbage-
stalk in order to stab the witch. Sticks of wood and cabbage-stalks
were to be found in plenty in the dustbins near the pancake-house and
they knew very well who the witch was! Now and again she would pop up
out of the cellar and scatter the whole crowd with her kitchen tongs! It
was almost a little too lifelike; even the smell of pancakes came
drifting down from where the well-to-do Olsens lived so that one could
hardly call it a real fairy tale. But then perhaps the dwarf Vinslev
would come out of his den and would once again tell them the story of
how he had sailed off with the King's gold and sunk it out yonder in
the King's Deep when the Germans were in the land. A whole ship's crew
took out the King's treasure but not one save Vinslev knew where it was
sunk and even he did not know now. A terrible secret that such as well
might make a man a bit queer in the head. He would explain the whole
chart on his double-breasted waistcoat; he had only to steer from this
button to that and then down yonder and he was close above the
treasure. But now some of the buttons had fallen off and he could no
longer make out the chart. Day by day the children helped him to trace
it; this was an exciting bit of work for the King was getting
There were other wonderful things to do; for instance one could lie
flat down on the slippery flagstones and play Hanne's game--the "Glory"
game. You turned your eyes from the darkness down below looking up
through the gloomy shaft at the sky overhead which floated there
blazing with light and then you suddenly looked down again so that
everything was quite dark. And in the darkness floated blue and yellow
rings of color where formerly there had been nothing but dustbins and
privies. This dizzy flux of colors before the eyes was the journey far
out to the land of happiness in search of all the things that cannot be
told. "I can see something myself and I know quite well what it is but
I'm just not going to tell" they murmured blinking mysteriously up
into the blue.
However one could have too much of a good thing.... But the round
grating under the timbers yonder where Hanne's father drowned himself
was a thing one never grew weary of. The depths were forever bubbling
upward filling the little children with a secret horror; and the half-
grown girls would stand a-straddle over the grating shuddering at the
cold breath that came murmuring up from below. The grating was sure
enough the way down to hell and if you gazed long enough you could see
the faintest glimmer of the inky stream that was flowing down below.
Every moment it sent its putrid breath up into your face; that was the
Devil who sat panting down there in a corner. If you turned your eyes
away from the depths the twilight of the well had turned to brightest
day so you could make the world light or dark just as you wished.
A few children always lay there on all fours gazing down with anxious
faces; and all summer through directly over the grating hung a cloud
of midges swaying in the breath of the depths. They would rise to a
certain height then suddenly fall and rise again just like a
juggler's balls. Sometimes the breathing from below sucked the whole
swarm right down but it rose up again veering hither and thither like
a dancing wraith in the draught from the tunnel-like entry. The little
girls would gaze at it lift their petticoats and take a few graceful
steps. Olsen's Elvira had learned her first dance-steps here and now
she was dancing respectable citizens into the poor-house. And the
furniture broker's daughter was in Petersburg and was _almost_ a
On the walls of the narrow shaft projecting porches hung crazily so
that they left only a small free space and here the clothes-lines ran
to and fro loaded with dishclouts and children's clothing. The decaying
wooden staircases ran zig-zag up the walls disappearing into the
projecting porches and coming out again until they reached the very
From the projecting porches and the galleries doors led into the
various tenements or to long corridors that connected the inner
portions of the house. Only in Pipman's side there were neither porches
nor galleries from the second story upward; time had devoured them so
that the stairs alone remained in place. The ends of the joists stuck
out of the wall like decaying tooth stumps and a rope hung from above
on which one could obtain a hold. It was black and smooth from the grip
of many hands.
On one of those hot June days when the heavens shone like a blazing fire
above the rift overhead the heavy mouldering timbers came to life
again as if their forest days had returned. People swarmed in and out
on the stairs shadows came and went and an incessant chattering filled
the twilight. From porch to porch dropped the sour-smelling suds from
the children's washing until at last it reached the ground where the
children were playing by the sluggish rivulets which ran from the
gutters. The timbers groaned continually like ancient boughs that rub
together and a clammy smell as of earth and moist vegetation saturated
the air while all that one touched wore a coating of slime as in token
of its exuberant fertility.
One's gaze could not travel a couple of steps before it was checked by
wooden walls but one felt conscious of the world that lay behind them.
When the doors of the long passages opened and shut one heard the rumor
of the innumerable creatures that lived in the depths of the "Ark"; the
crying of little children the peculiar fidgeting sound of marred
eccentric individuals for many a whole life's history unfolded itself
within there undisturbed never daring the light of day. On Pipman's
side the waste-pipes stuck straight out of the wall like wood-goblins
grinning from the thicket with wide-open mouths and long gray beards
which bred rose-pink earthworms and from time to time fell with a heavy
smack into the yard. Green hanging bushes grew out of holes in the wall.
The waste water trickled through them and dripped continually as though
from the wet locks of the forest. Inside in the greenish dripping
darkness sat curiously marked toads like little water-nymphs each in
her grotto shining with unwholesome humidity. And up among the timbers
of the third story hung Hanne's canary singing quite preposterously
its beak pointing up toward the spot of fiery light overhead. Across the
floor of the courtyard went an endless procession of people light-shy
creatures who emerged from the womb of the "Ark" or disappeared into it.
Most of them were women weirdly clad unwholesomely pale but with a
layer of grime as though the darkness had worked into their skins with
drowsy steps and fanatical glittering eyes.
Little old men who commonly lay in their dark corners waiting for
death came hobbling out on the galleries lifted their noses toward the
blazing speck of sky overhead and sneezed three times. "That's the
sun!" they told one another delighted. "Artishu! One don't catch cold
so easy in winter!"
High up out of Pipman's garret a young man stepped out onto the
platform. He stood there a moment turning his smiling face toward the
bright heavens overhead. Then he lowered his head and ran down the
break-neck stairs without holding on by the rope. Under his arm he
carried something wrapped in a blue cloth.
"Just look at the clown! Laughing right into the face of the sun as
though there was no such thing as blindness!" said the women thrusting
their heads out of window. "But then of course he's from the country.
And now he's going to deliver his work. Lord how long is he going to
squat up there and earn bread for that sweater? The red'll soon go from
his cheeks if he stops there much longer!" And they looked after him
The children down in the courtyard raised their heads when they heard
his steps above them.
"Have you got some nice leather for us to-day Pelle?" they cried
clutching at his legs.
He brought out of his pockets some little bits of patent-leather and red
"That's from the Emperor's new slippers" he said as he shared the
pieces among the children. Then the youngsters laughed until their
throats began to wheeze.
Pelle was just the same as of old except that he was more upright and
elastic in his walk and had grown a little fair moustache. His
protruding ears had withdrawn themselves a little as though they were
no longer worked so hard. His blue eyes still accepted everything as
good coin though they now had a faint expression that seemed to say
that all that happened was no longer to their liking. His "lucky curls"
still shone with a golden light.
The narrow streets lay always brooding in a dense unbearable atmosphere
that never seemed to renew itself. The houses were grimy and crazy;
where a patch of sunlight touched a window there were stained bed-
clothes hung out to dry. Up one of the side streets was an ambulance
wagon surrounded by women and children who were waiting excitedly for
the bearers to appear with their uneasy burden and Pelle joined them;
he always had to take part in everything.
It was not quite the shortest way which he took. The capital was quite a
new world to him; nothing was the same as at home; here a hundred
different things would happen in the course of the day and Pelle was
willing enough to begin all over again; and he still felt his old
longing to take part in it all and to assimilate it all.
In the narrow street leading down to the canal a thirteen-year-old girl
placed herself provocatively in his way. "Mother's ill" she said
pointing up a dark flight of steps. "If you've got any money come
along!" He was actually on the point of following her when he
discovered that the old women who lived in the street were flattening
their noses against their windowpanes. "One has to be on one's guard
here!" he told himself at least for the hundredth time. The worst of it
was that it was so easy to forget the necessity.
He strolled along the canal-side. The old quay-wall the apple-barges
and the granaries with the high row of hatchways overhead and the
creaking pulleys right up in the gables awakened memories of home.
Sometimes too there were vessels from home lying here with cargoes of
fish or pottery and then he was able to get news. He wrote but seldom.
There was little success to be reported; just now he had to make his
way and he still owed Sort for his passage-money.
But it would soon come.... Pelle hadn't the least doubt as to the
future. The city was so monstrously large and incalculable; it seemed to
have undertaken the impossible; but there could be no doubt of such an
obvious matter of course as that he should make his way. Here wealth was
simply lying in great heaps and the poor man too could win it if only
he grasped at it boldly enough. Fortune here was a golden bird which
could be captured by a little adroitness; the endless chances were like
a fairy tale. And one day Pelle would catch the bird; when and how he
left confidingly to chance.
In one of the side streets which ran out of the Market Street there was
a crowd; a swarm of people filled the whole street in front of the iron-
foundry shouting eagerly to the blackened iron-workers who stood
grouped together by the gateway looking at one another irresolutely.
"What's up here?" asked Pelle.
"This is up--that they can't earn enough to live on" said an old man.
"And the manufacturers won't increase their pay. So they've taken to
some new-fangled fool's trick which they say has been brought here from
abroad where they seem to have done well with it. That's to say they
all suddenly chuck up their work and rush bareheaded into the street and
make a noise and then back to work again just like school children in
play-time. They've already been in and out two or three times and now
half of them's outside and the others are at work and the gate is
locked. Nonsense! A lot that's going to help their wages! No; in my time
we used to ask for them prettily and we always got something too. But
anyhow we're only working-folks and where's it going to come from? And
now what's more they've lost their whole week's wages!"
The workmen were at a loss as to what they should do; they stood there
gazing mechanically up at the windows of the counting-house from which
all decisions were commonly issued. Now and again an impatient shudder
ran through the crowd as it made threats toward the windows and
demanded what was owing it. "He won't give us the wages that we've
honestly earned the tyrant!" they cried. "A nice thing truly when
one's got a wife and kids at home and on a Saturday afternoon too!
What a shark to take the bread out of their mouths! Won't the gracious
gentleman give us an answer--just his greeting so that we can take it
home with us?--just his kind regards or else they'll have to go hungry
to bed!" And they laughed a low snarling laugh spat on the pavement
and once more turned their masterless faces up to the counting-house
Proposals were showered upon them proposals of every kind; and they
were as wise as they were before. "What the devil are we to do if
there's no one who can lead us?" they said dejectedly and they stood
staring again. That was the only thing they knew how to do.
"Choose a few of your comrades and send them in to negotiate with the
manufacturer" said a gentleman standing by.
"Hear hear! Forward with Eriksen! He understands the deaf-and-dumb
alphabet!" they shouted. The stranger shrugged his shoulders and
A tall powerful workman approached the group. "Have you got your killer
with you Eriksen?" cried one and Eriksen turned on the staircase and
exhibited his clenched fist.
"Look out!" they shouted at the windows. "Look out we don't set fire to
the place!" Then all was suddenly silent and the heavy house-door was
Pelle listened with open mouth. He did not know what they wanted and
they hardly knew themselves; none the less there was a new note in all
this! These people didn't beg for what they wanted; they preferred to
use their fists in order to get it and they didn't get drunk first
like the strong man Eriksen and the rest at home. "This is the capital!"
he thought and again he congratulated himself for having come thither.
A squad of policemen came marching up. "Room there!" they cried and
began to hustle the crowd in order to disperse it. The workmen would not
be driven away. "Not before we've got our wages!" they said and they
pressed back to the gates again. "This is where we work and we're going
to have our rights that we are!" Then the police began to drive the
onlookers away; at each onset they fell back a few steps hesitating
and then stood still laughing. Pelle received a blow in the back; he
turned quickly round stared for a moment into the red face of a
policeman and went his way muttering and feeling his back.
"Did he hit you?" asked an old woman. "Devil take him the filthy lout!
He's the son of the mangling-woman what lives in the house here and now
he takes up the cudgels against his own people! Devil take him!"
"Move on!" ordered the policeman winking as he pushed her aside with
his body. She retired to her cellar and stood there using her tongue to
such purpose that the saliva flew from her toothless mouth.
"Yes you go about bullying old people who used to carry you in their
arms and put dry clouts on you when you didn't know enough to ask....
Are you going to use your truncheon on me too? Wouldn't you like to
Fredrik? Take your orders from the great folks and then come yelping at
us because we aren't fine enough for you!" She was shaking with rage;
her yellowish gray hair had become loosened and was tumbling about her
face; she was a perfect volcano.
The police marched across the Knippel Bridge escorted by a swarm of
street urchins who yelled and whistled between their fingers. From time
to time a policeman would turn round; then the whole swarm took to its
heels but next moment it was there again. The police were nervous:
their fingers were opening and closing in their longing to strike out.
They looked like a party of criminals being escorted to the court-house
by the extreme youth of the town and the people were laughing.
Pelle kept step on the pavement. He was in a wayward mood. Somewhere
within him he felt a violent impulse to give way to that absurd longing
to leap into the air and beat his head upon the pavement which was the
lingering result of his illness. But now it assumed the guise of
insolent strength. He saw quite plainly how big Eriksen ran roaring at
the bailiff and how he was struck to the ground and thereafter
wandered about an idiot. Then the "Great Power" rose up before him
mighty in his strength and was hurled to his death; they had all been
like dogs ready to fall on him and to fawn upon everything that smelt
of their superiors and the authorities. And he himself Pelle had had a
whipping at the court-house and people had pointed the finger at him
just as they pointed at the "Great Power." "See there he goes loafing
the scum of humanity!" Yes he had learned what righteousness was and
what mischief it did. But now he had escaped from the old
excommunication and had entered a new world where respectable men
never turned to look after the police but left such things to the
street urchins and old women. There was a great satisfaction in this;
and Pelle wanted to take part in this world; he longed to understand it.
It was Saturday and there was a crowd of journeymen and seamstresses in
the warehouse who had come to deliver their work. The foreman went
round as usual grumbling over the work and before he paid for it he
would pull at it and crumple it so that it lost its shape and then he
made the most infernal to-do because it was not good enough. Now and
again he would make a deduction from the week's wages averring that the
material was ruined; and he was especially hard on the women who stood
there not daring to contradict him. People said he cheated all the
seamstresses who would not let him have his way with them.
Pelle stood there boiling with rage. "If he says one word to me we
shall come to blows!" he thought. But the foreman took the work without
glancing at it--ah yes that was from Pipman!
But while he was paying for it a thick-set man came forward out of a
back room; this was the court shoemaker Meyer himself. He had been a
poor young man with barely a seat to his breeches when he came to
Copenhagen from Germany as a wandering journeyman. He did not know much
about his craft but he knew how to make others work for him! He did not
answer the respectful greetings of the workers but stationed himself
before Pelle his belly bumping against the counter wheezing loudly
through his nose and gazing at the young man.
"New man?" he asked at length. "That's Pipman's assistant" replied the
foreman smiling. "Ah! Pipman--he knows the trick eh? You do the work
and he takes the money and drinks it eh?" The master shoemaker laughed
as at an excellent joke.
Pelle turned red. "I should like to be independent as soon as possible"
"Yes yes you can talk it over with the foreman; but no unionists here
mind that! We've no use for those folks."
Pelle pressed his lips together and pushed the cloth wrapper into the
breast of his coat in silence. It was all he could do not to make some
retort; he couldn't approve of that prohibition. He went out quickly
into Kobmager Street and turned out of the Coal Market into Hauser
Street where as he knew the president of the struggling Shoemakers'
Union was living. He found a little cobbler occupying a dark cellar.
This must be the man he sought; so he ran down the steps. He had not
understood that the president of the Union would be found in such a
Under the window sat a hollow-cheeked man bowed over his bench in the
act of sewing a new sole on to a worn-out shoe. The legs of the passers-
by were just above his head. At the back of the room a woman stood
cooking something on the stove; she had a little child on her arm while
two older children lay on the ground playing with some lasts. It was
frightfully hot and oppressive.
"Good day comrade!" said Pelle. "Can I become a member of the Union?"
The man looked up astonished. Something like a smile passed over his
"Can you indulge yourself so far?" he asked slowly. "It may prove a
costly pleasure. Who d'you work for if I may ask?"
"For Meyer in Kobmager Street."
"Then you'll be fired as soon as he gets to know of it!"
"I know that sure enough; all the same I want to join the Union. He's
not going to tell me what I can and what I can't do. Besides we'll soon
settle with him."
"That's what I thought too. But there's too few of us. You'll be
starved out of the Union as soon as you've joined."
"We must see about getting a bit more numerous" said Pelle cheerfully
"and then one fine day we'll shut up shop for him!"
A spark of life gleamed in the tired eyes of the president. "Yes devil
take him if we could only make him shut up shop!" he cried shaking his
clenched fist in the air. "He tramples on all those hereabouts that make
money for him; it's a shame that I should sit here now and have come down
to cobbling; and he keeps the whole miserable trade in poverty! Ah what
a revenge comrade!" The blood rushed into his hollow cheeks until they
burned and then he began to cough. "Petersen!" said the woman anxiously
supporting his back. "Petersen!" She sighed and shook her head while she
helped him to struggle through his fit of coughing. "When the talk's about
the Court shoemaker Petersen always gets like one possessed" she said
when he had overcome it. "He really don't know what he's doing. No--if
everybody would only be as clever as Meyer and just look after his own
business then certain people would be sitting there in good health and
earning good money!"
"Hold your tongue!" said Petersen angrily. "You're a woman--you know
nothing about the matter." At which the woman went back to her cooking.
Petersen filled out a paper and Pelle signed his name to it and paid
his subscription for a week. "And now you must try to break away from
that bloodsucker as soon as possible!" said Petersen earnestly. "A
respectable workman can't put up with such things!"
"I was forced into it" said Pelle. "And I learned nothing of this at
home. But now that's over and done with."