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The Soul of a Child

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The oldest part of Stockholm is a little rocky island. Once it was the whole city. Popularly it is still spoken of as "The City." At one end of it stands the huge square-cut pile of the Royal Palace, looking with solemn indifference toward the more modern quarters across the ever hurried waters of the North River. Nearer the centre, and at the very top of the island, lies an open place called Great Square, which used to play a most important part in Swedish history, but which now serves no better purpose than to house the open-air toy market that operates the last week before Christmas.

Long narrow streets loop concentrically about Great Square. They are lined with massive structures of stone and brick, four and five stories high, that used to be the homes of court and government officials, of army and navy officers, of burghers made prosperous by an extensive domestic and foreign trade, while on the ground floors were located the choicest shops of the country's capital. The shops are still there, but they have grown dingy and cheap, and they administer only to the casual needs of the humble middle-class people crowded into the old-fashioned, gloomy apartments above.

From the square to the water-fronts radiate a number of still more narrow and squalid lanes, harbouring a population which is held inferior to that of the streets in social rank without yet being willing to have itself classed with the manual toilers of the suburbs. Halfway down the slope of such a lane, and almost within the shadow of the palace, stood the house where Keith first arrived at some sort of consciousness of himself and the surrounding world.

On the fourth floor his parents occupied a three-room flat. The parlour and the living-room had two windows each, looking into the lane. The kitchen in the rear opened a single window on the narrowest, barest, darkest courtyard you ever saw, its one redeeming feature being a glimpse of sky above the red-tiled roof of the building opposite.

In such surroundings Keith spent the better part of his first sixteen years.

He was an only son, much loved, and one of his first conscious realizations was a sharp sense of restraint, as if he had been tied to a string by which he was pulled back as soon as anything promised to become interesting.

At first he thought the world made up entirely of those three rooms, where he, his parents, Granny--his maternal grandmother--and a more or less transient servant girl had lived for ever. Visitors drifted in, of course, but he seemed to think that they had come from nowhere and would return to the same place. What instilled the first idea of a wider outside world in his mind was leaning out through one of the windows, with his mother's arm clutched tightly about his waist.

There was something symbolic in that clutch, for his mother was always full of fear that dire things befall him. She was afraid of many other things besides, and the need of being constantly worried was probably his second clear realization.

But the clasp of his mother's arm was soft and tender for all that. Her inclination to humour him in sundry respects not implying too much freedom of movement contrasted favourably with the sterner restraint exercised by his father. And so it was only natural that, to begin with, he should cling no less closely to her than she to him.

Leaning out of the front windows was one of the favorite pursuits of his earliest childhood, and during the summer it could be indulged to a reasonable extent.

Across the lane, not more than twenty-five feet distant, was another building, the upper parts of which he could see even when the windows were closed. It was much darker of aspect than their own house, and he knew that no people lived in it. He called it the distillery, just as he heard his parents do, without knowing what the word meant. Staring as he might into its dark windows, he could as a rule see nothing but the grimy panes, because in the back of it there was no courtyard at all--nothing but a solid wall without a single opening in it.

Now and then however, he would spy the flickering light of an open-wick lamp move about on the floor level with their own. In the fitful, smoke-enshrouded glow of that lamp he would catch fleeting glimpses of clumsy figures and spooklike faces bending over huge round objects, while at the same time, if the windows were open, he would hear much mysterious tapping and knocking. It was all very puzzling and not quite pleasant, so that on midwinter afternoons, when he was still awake after dark, he would not care to look very long at the house opposite, and the drawing of the shades came as an actual relief.

Letting his glance drop straight down from one of their windows, he saw, at a dizzying depth, the cobbles of the lane, lined on either side by a gutter made out of huge smooth stones. There was often water in the gutter even on dry days, when the intense blueness of the sky-strip overhead showed that the sun must be shining brightly. Sometimes the water was thick and beautifully coloured, and then he yearned to get down and put his hands into it. But to do so, he gathered from his mother, would not only be dangerous and contrary to her will and wish, but quite out of the question for some other reason that he could not grasp. His mother's standing expression for it was:

"No nice little boy would ever do that."

Keith's third realization in the way of self-consciousness was an uneasy doubt of his own inherent nicety, for he soon discovered that whatever was thus particularly forbidden seemed to himself particularly desirable.

At times he saw children playing down there--perhaps in the very gutter for which he was longing. To him they appeared entirely like himself, but to his mother's eye they were evidently objectionable in the same way as the gutter. There were not many of them, however, and it was a long time before two or three of them began to return with sufficient regularity to assume a distinct identity in his mind.

Older people came and went, but never many of them, and hardly ever more than one or two at a time. Nor did he care very much. More attractive was the sight of long, horse-drawn carts with narrow bodies resting on two small wheels set about the centre. Generally they stopped in front of the distillery to load or unload heavy casks or barrels of varying size. The loading was more exciting by far, especially when the barrels were large, for then the men had to use all their strength to roll them up the gangway of two loose beams laid from the pavement to the cart, and to time their efforts they shouted or chanted noisily--much to Keith's joy and the disgust of his mother. On such occasions the air of the lane was apt to take on a special pungency, and as he sniffed it, he would have a sensation of mixed pleasure and revulsion. At other times when the carts stopped in front of the warehouse below the distillery, odours of an exclusively enjoyable character would tickle his nostrils--odours that later he might encounter in their own kitchen and identify with matters pleasing to the palate as well as to the nose.

There were in all only eight houses on both sides of the lane. Four of these were the rear parts of the corner houses facing respectively on the Quay, at the foot of the lane and on East Long Street, at its head. Beyond the latter there was nothing but another wall full of windows, just like the walls flanking the lane itself. The traffic on the street was more lively and varied, but there was not much about it to catch and hold his interest.

Almost invariably Keith turned his head in the other direction the moment he had poked it out of the window and been pulled back by his mother to a position of greater safety. There, at the foot of the lane, only a stone's throw distant, opened the stony expanse of the quay across which surged a veritable multitude of men and animals and vehicles at all hours of the day. At the end of the Quay, silhouetted against blue or grey or green water, appeared commonly the blunt nose or the flag-draped stern of a big steamer, but hardly ever the middle part of a hull with bridge or masts. And Keith could never recall whether the complete shape of a full-sized vessel was finally revealed to him by reality or by that reflection of it which, at an uncannily premature age, he began to find in books.

The main feature of the view, however--a sort of narrow Japanese panel where childish eyes perceived everything as on a flat surface--was that it continued upwards: first, a lot of water, ripped and curled by busily scurrying steam launches and tugs, streaked by plodding rowboats, and, at rare times, adorned by a white-sailed yacht; then, still higher up, a shore with many trees that drew the soul magnetically by their summer verdure; and, finally, a brightly red, toylike fort, crowned by a small embattled tower flying the blue and yellow Swedish flag at the top. Here was another world, indeed, larger and brighter by far, and more richly varied, than that of his home and the lane below and the dingy courtyard in the back.

So he began to ask questions, and one of the first things he learned, to his great astonishment, was that he had not always lived in the same place--that he had been born, whatever that meant, in another and unmistakably more desirable part of the city.

"But why did we come here," he asked, trying instinctively to keep his voice from sounding regretful or petulant.

"Because the bank owns this house," his mother replied. "And because papa acts as landlord for it, and we don't have to pay any rent here."

Out of this confusing answer he retained a single idea: the bank. It was in the home air, so to speak. Evidently his father was closely connected with it, and this was good for the whole family. For a little while the boy imagined that his father was the bank. Later he began to think of it as some sort of superlatively powerful being that, alone in the whole world, ranked above his father even. Still later--much later--he began to suspect a relationship between the bank and his father resembling that between his father and himself. And he read out of his father's words and miens a sense of dissatisfaction not unlike the one he felt when he was forced to do what he did not want, or prevented from doing what he wanted.

This was his fourth fundamental realization: of powers beyond those directly represented within the home; powers of compelling importance that might, or might not, be kindly; powers before which all and everything within his own narrow world had to bow down in helpless submission. In the end this one undoubtedly became the most significant of all his early realizations. It tended gradually to lessen his awe of parental authority so that, at a very early age, he developed the courage to shape his own life and opinions regardless of his immediate surroundings. At the same time, strange as it may seem, it inspired him with a general respect for established authority from which he could never quite free himself.


"Why don't I remember when we came here," Keith asked his mother one day after she had let out the startling fact of his being born elsewhere.

"Because it happened before you began to remember things," she said a little warily.

As frequently was the case, her reply puzzled him more than the fact it was meant to explain, and so he asked no more questions that time.

On the whole, he lived completely in the present, and rather on the edge nearest the future, so that a teacher later said of him that he was in constant danger of "falling off forward." Highstrung and restless, sitting still did not come naturally until he had learned to read books all by himself, and he could hardly be called introspective. While prone to futile regrets, largely under the influence of his mother's morbid attitude, he gave little attention as a rule to what was past and gone.

Here was an exception, however--something concerning the past that stirred his curiosity powerfully--and it became his first subject for brooding.

He could remember all sorts of things, of course. And it seemed that he had always remembered them. Yet his mother was able to tell him things of which he knew nothing at all, although they had happened to himself. There might be any number of such things. What were they? Could he recall any of them by thinking hard enough?

When this problem laid hold of his mind he would retire to the corner between the big bureau and the right-hand window in the living-room, which, by formal conferment, was reserved for him as his own "play-room." The space in that nook was large enough to hold a small chair, a table to match, and a few toy boxes. There he would sit staring blindly at his toys until his mother anxiously inquired what was the matter with him.

The great question taking precedence of all the rest was: what was the very first thing he could remember?

With puckered brows and peering pupils he would send his gaze back into the misty past, and out of it emerged invariably the same image.

He saw himself seated on a small wooden horse fastened to a little platform with wheels under it. The horse was black with white spots, and possessed a nobly curved neck, a head with ears on top of it, and a pair of fiercely red nostrils.

The next thing recurring to his mind was a sense of swift, exhilarating movement. His father stood at one end of the living-room, his mother at the other, and the horse with himself on it was being pushed rapidly back and forth between them.

He could even hear his own joyous shouts as his father sent the horse careering across the floor by an extra strong push. The general impression left behind by the whole scene was one of happiness so acute that nothing else in his life compared with it.

Was it a real memory? If so, when did it happen? And what had become of the horse?

Finally the pressure from within became too strong and he blurted out the whole story to his mother in order to make sure of what it meant.

"You never had a horse large enough to sit on," she declared emphatically....