The Sluggard by August Strindberg
Conductor Crossberg was fond of lying in bed in the morning,
firstly, because he had to conduct the orchestra in the evening, and
secondly, because he drank more than one glass of beer before he went
home and to bed. He had tried once or twice to get up early, but had
found no sense in it. He had called on a friend, but had found him
asleep; he had wanted to pay money into the bank, but had found it
still closed; he had gone to the library to borrow music, but it was
not yet open; he had wanted to use the electric trams, but they had not
yet started running. It was impossible to get a cab at this hour of the
morning; he could not even buy a pinch of his favourite snuff; there
was nothing at all for him to do. And so he had eventually formed the
habit of staying in bed until late; and after all, he had no one to
please but himself.
He loved the sun and flowers and children; but he could not live on
the sunny side of the street on account of his delicate instruments,
which were out of tune almost as soon as they were put into a sunny
Therefore, on the 1st of April, he took rooms which faced north. He
was quite sure that there was no mistake about this, for he carried a
compass on his watch-chain, and he could find the Great Bear in the
So far, so good; but then the spring came, and it was so warm that
it was really pleasant to live in rooms with a northern aspect. His
bedroom joined the sitting-room; he always kept his bedroom in
pitch-black darkness by letting down the Venetian blinds; there were no
Venetian blinds in the sitting-room, because they were not wanted
And the early summer came and everything grew green. The conductor
had dined at the restaurant “Hazelmount,” and had drunk a bottle of
Burgundy with his dinner, and therefore he slept long and soundly,
especially as the theatre was closed on that day.
He slept well, but while he slept it grew so warm in the room that
he woke up two or three times, or, at any rate, he thought he did. Once
he fancied that his wall-paper was on fire, but that was probably the
effect of the Burgundy; another time he felt as if something hot had
touched his face, but that was certainly the Burgundy; and so he turned
over and fell asleep again.
At half-past nine he got up, dressed, and went into the sitting-room
to refresh himself with a glass of milk which always stood ready for
him in the morning.
It was anything but cool in the sitting-room this morning; it was
almost warm, too warm. And the cold milk was not cold; it was lukewarm,
The conductor was not a hot-tempered man, but he liked order and
method in everything. Therefore he rang for old Louisa, and since he
made his first fifty remonstrances always in a very mild tone, he spoke
kindly but firmly to her, as she put her head through the door.
“Louisa,” he said, “you have given me lukewarm milk.”
“Oh! no, sir,” replied Louisa, “it was quite cold, it must have got
warm in standing.”
“Then you must have had a fire in the room; it's very warm here this
No, Louisa had not had a fire; and she retired into the kitchen,
very much hurt.
He forgave her for the milk. But a look round the sitting-room made
him feel very depressed. I must tell you that he had built a little
private altar in a corner, near the piano, which consisted of a small
table with two silver candlesticks, a large photograph of a young
woman, and a tall, gold-edged champagne glass. This glass—it was the
glass he had used on his wedding-day, and he was a widower now—always
contained a red rose in memory of and as an offering to her who once
had been the sunshine of his life. Whether it was summer or winter,
there was always a rose; and in the winter time it lasted a whole week,
that is to say if he trimmed the stem occasionally and put a little
salt into the water. Now, he had put a fresh rose into the glass only
last night, and to-day it was faded, shrivelled up, dead, with its head
drooping. This was a bad omen. He knew what sensitive creatures flowers
are, and had noticed that they thrive with some people and not with
others. He remembered how sometimes, in his wife's lifetime, her rose,
which always stood on her little work-table, had faded and died quite
unexpectedly. And he had also noticed that this always happened when
his sun was hiding behind a cloud, which after a while would
dissolve in large drops to the accompaniment of a low rumbling. Roses
must have peace and kind words; they can't bear harsh voices. They love
music, and sometimes he would play to the roses and they opened their
buds and smiled.
Now Louisa was a hard woman, and often muttered and growled to
herself when she turned out the room. There were days when she was in a
very bad temper, so that the milk curdled in the kitchen, and the whole
dinner tasted of discord, which the conductor noticed at once; for he
was himself like a delicate instrument, whose soul responded to moods
and influences which other people did not feel.
He concluded that Louisa had killed the rose; perhaps if she had
scolded the poor thing, or knocked the glass, or breathed on the flower
angrily, a treatment which it could not bear. Therefore he rang again;
and when Louisa put in her head, he said, not unkindly, but more firmly
“What have you done to my rose, Louisa?”
“Nothing? Do you think the flower died without a very good reason?
You can see for yourself that there is no water in the glass! You must
have poured it away!”
As Louisa had done no such thing, she went into the kitchen and
began to cry, for it is disagreeable to be blamed when one is innocent.
Conductor Crossberg, who could not bear to see people crying, said
no more, but in the evening he bought a new rose, one which had only
just been cut, and, of course, was not wired, for his wife had always
had an objection to wired flowers.
And then he went to bed and fell asleep. And again he fancied in his
sleep that the wall-paper was on fire, and that his pillow was very
hot; but he went on sleeping.
On the following morning, when he came into the sitting-room, to say
his morning prayers before the little altar—alas! there lay his rose,
all the pink petals scattered by the side of the stem. He was just
stretching out his hand to touch the bell, when he saw the photograph
of his beloved, half rolled up, lying by the side of the champagne
glass. Louisa could not have done that!
“She, who was my all, my conscience and my muse,” he thought in his
childlike mind, “she is dissatisfied and angry with me; what have I
Well, when he put this question to his conscience, he found, as
usual, more than one little fault, and he resolved to eradicate his
faults, gradually, of course.
Then he had the portrait framed and a glass shade put over the rose,
hoping that now things would be all right, but secretly fearing that
they would not.
After that he went on a week's journey; he returned home late at
night and went straight to bed. He woke up once, imagining that the
hanging lamp was burning.
When he entered the sitting-room late on the following morning, it
was downright hot there, and everything looked frightfully shabby. The
blinds were faded; the cover on the piano had lost its bright colours;
the bound volumes of music looked as if they were deformed; the oil in
the hanging-lame had evaporated and hung in a trembling drop under the
ornament, where the flies used to dance; the water in the water-bottle
But the saddest thing of all was that her portrait, too, was faded,
as faded as autumn leaves. He was very unhappy, and whenever he was
very unhappy he went to the piano, or took up his violin, as the case
might be . ...
This time he sat down at the piano, with a vague notion of playing
the sonata in E minor, Grieg's, of course, which had been her
favourite, and was the best and finest, in his opinion, after
Beethoven's sonata in D minor; not because E comes after D, but because
it was so.
But the piano was very refractory to-day. It was out of tune, and
made all sorts of difficulties, so that he began to believe that his
eyes and fingers were in a bad temper. But it was not their fault. The
piano, quite simply, was out of tune, although a very clever tuner had
only just tuned it. It was like a piano bewitched, enchanted.
He seized his violin; he had to tune it, of course. But when he
wanted to tighten the E string, the screw refused to work. It had dried
up; and when the conductor tried to use force, the string snapped with
a sharp sound, and rolled itself up like a dried eel-skin.
It was bewitched!
But the fact that her photograph had faded was really the worst
blow, and therefore he threw a veil over the altar.
In doing this, he threw a veil over all that was most beautiful in
his life; and he became depressed, began to mope, and stopped going out
in the evening.
It would be Midsummer soon. The nights were shorter than the days,
but since the Venetian blinds kept his bedroom dark, the conductor did
not notice it.
At last, one night—it was Midsummer night—he awoke, because the
clock in the sitting-room struck thirteen. There was something uncanny
about this, firstly, because thirteen is an unlucky number, and
secondly, because no well-behaved clock can strike thirteen. He did not
fall asleep again, but he lay in his bed, listening. There was a
peculiar ticking noise in the sitting-room, and then a loud bang, as if
a piece of furniture had cracked. Directly afterwards he heard stealthy
footsteps, and then the clock began to strike again; and it struck and
struck, fifty times—a hundred times. It really was uncanny!
And now a luminous tuft shot into his bedroom and threw a figure on
the wall, a strange figure, something like a fylfot, and it came from
the sitting-room. There was a light, then, in the sitting-room? But who
had lit it? And there was a tinkling of glasses, just as if guests were
there; champagne glasses of cut-crystal; but not a word was uttered.
And now he heard more sounds, sounds of canvas being furled, or clothes
passed through a mangle, or something of that sort.
The conductor felt compelled to get up and look, and he went,
commending his soul into the hands of the Almighty.
Well, first of all he saw Louisa's print-dress disappearing through
the kitchen door; then he saw blinds, but blinds which had been pulled
up; he saw the dining-table covered with flowers, arranged in glasses;
as many flowers as there had been on his wedding-day when he had
brought his bride home.
And behold! The sun, the sun shone right into his face, shone on
blue fjords and distant woods; it was the sun which had illuminated the
sitting-room and played all the little tricks. He blessed the sun which
had been up so early in the morning and made a game of the sluggard.
And he blessed the memory of her whom he called the sun of his life. It
was not a new name, but he could not think of a better one, and as it
was, it was good enough.
And on his altar stood a rose, quite fresh, as fresh as she
had been before the never-ending work had tired her. Tired her! Yes,
she had not been one of the strong ones; and life with its blows and
knocks had been too brutal for her! He had not forgotten how, after a
day's cleaning or ironing, she would throw herself on the sofa and say
in a complaining little voice, “I am so tired!” Poor little thing, this
earth had not been her home, she had only played once, on tour, as it
were, and then had gone far away.
“She lacked sunshine,” the doctor had said, for at that time they
couldn't afford sun, because rooms on the sunny side are so expensive.
But now he had sun without having known it; he stood right in the
sunlight, but it was too late. Midsummer was past, and soon the sun
would disappear again, stay away for a year and then come back. Things
are very strange in this world!