The Rat Trap
Introduction … This story by the Swedish story teller Selma Lagerlof has an ending that can silence even a diehard cynic to look within and rediscover the sparks of goodness and compassion that lie under a heap of frustration and negative emotions. In a way, the act resembles the benignancy of the Bishop in Victor Hugho’s Les Miserables. A drifter with no shelter, no steady earning is the protagonist of the story. Through his misery and humiliation, he brings into light the innate goodness of humans, no matter how harsh or kind fortune has been to them.
The story … A tramp scratches a living by making and peddling rat traps. So measly is his earning that he can ill afford to buy the wires needed for the rat traps. He scrounges them from shops and farms. The rough and grind of this mundane profession often pushes him to small acts of stealing. In the eyes of the society, he is a misfit, a petty criminal.
The tramp trudges on along the street, lost in his thought of despondency and resignation. One day, while reflecting on his miserable fate, a delusory idea struck him. He felt, the whole world is a huge rat trap. Humans, drawn by its comforts and joy, enter it, only to be trapped inside for life. For these captives, misery and sorrow become a part of life. There is no deliverance for them. The rat trap is a world in miniature. The rats, enticed by the bread crumbs and sausage bits inside, enter it to find the door shut on them. What follows for them is incarceration leading to death.
The tramp drew comfort from this intuitive thought. ‘After all, everyone in the world is doomed, like him’, he concluded. The thought proved to be a boon for him, as it came to his rescue when the cruelty of the world proved to be unendurable.
One day, when darkness had descended on earth, he found himself walking alone in the cold lonely road. He had nowhere to go. His eyes fell on a roadside grey cottage. With heart alternating between trepidation and hope, he knocked at the door. He was mentally ready to be rudely turned away, but a very pleasant surprise awaited him. The owner of the cottage was a lone old man with no wife, nor children. He ushered the tramp in despite his shabby looks. The host was happy to see a companion for the night with whom he could chat his loneliness away. The tramp was relieved to see a welcoming host. The deadly prospect of waiting out the cold night outside had gone.
The host was charming and friendly. He offered his tired guest hot porridge, other items of food and tobacco to fight the cold and revamp his tired limbs. It emerged that the cottage owner had worked in the nearby Ramsjo Ironworks during his youth. After retirement, he made his living by rearing a cow and selling its milk. Quite proudly, the host showed the three ten-kroner notes he had collected on selling the milk. The cottage owner had pulled out the three notes from inside a leather bag that he hung from a nail fixed on the wall. The glass pane below made the bag visible from outside.
The duo sat down to play cards till bedtime. For the tramp, nothing could have been better, but he had clearly marked the position of the leather bag and how only the glass pane separated it from outside. It was a sinister gaze.
Next morning the two men got up early. The guest hurried to milk his cow, locking his house. The tramp said a warm goodbye and left on his errands. The garland of rat traps hung from his shoulders.
Now, the Devil gripped the rat trap peddler’s mind. In half an hour, he retraced his steps, returned to the house where he had rested so comfortably the night before, and decided to give full play to his thievery instincts. He broke the glass pane, put his hand inside, clutched the three ten-kroner notes from inside the hung bag, and decamped swiftly. No regret, no remorse came to his mind. He had made a princely sum of thirty kroners.
The tramp was unrepentant for having robbed his kind host. Instead, he felt a sense of accomplishment. He knew the crofter would soon find out the loss and would call in the police. He felt the highway was no longer safe as the police might be looking around for him. He turned off to a patch of woods to throw the police off his trails. But, the wood was a vast swathe of trees, with confusing pathways. Soon, he got lost, as his limbs lost power. He prodded on regardless, as he had no other way to come out of the forest. The rat trap he had conjured many times to pity others came to haunt him. He had been trapped. ‘The thirty kroners bait had trapped him in the wild woods’, he rued.
It was December. The interior of the woods was cold and the darkness was foreboding. He felt very miserable. At this time, he heard the distant rhythmic sound. He guessed it came from a nearby hammer mill. He felt hopeful again. Mustering all his strength, he plodded towards the place from where the sound emanated. ‘There must be human beings in the mill’, he surmised. He can ask them for help.
He headed towards the source of the sound. He was right. There was the Ramsjo Ironworks that had been a flourishing steel mill in its happier days. Now, it operated in a truncated scale.
It was Christmas Eve. The tramp saw the hammer mill operator and his helper heating iron slabs in a furnace to make them ready for forging. Occasionally, the operator and helper got up to turn the iron slabs inside the furnace. The heat made them drip with sweat. The heat of the furnace gave them a respite from the outside chill.
The tramp had sneaked in unnoticed as the clutter of the heating and turning of slabs drowned the sound of his entry.
A stranger coming in was never unusual for the mechanic and is helper. Vagabonds did come in at times to enjoy the warmth of the hot furnace. So, the tramp’s coming in didn’t unusually alarm the two workers. After all, the tramp really looked like one living in the rough. He had the garland of rat traps hung from his shoulders. His unshaven beard and his tattered clothes didn’t merit too much attention. So, when he asked for permission to stay for the night, the mechanic gave him a perfunctory assent.
The tramp was shivering in cold under his wet clothes dripping with water. He impulsively edged close to the furnace to draw its heat onto himself. The heat made steam to come out of his wet rags.
The owner of the iron works was a dedicated entrepreneur. He took keen interest in the working of his plant and visited it quite frequently. On that evening, he came in on his regular rounds. Soon his eyes fell on the uncouth shabby looking stranger seated near the furnace.
Due to some inexplicable reason, the owner mistook the tramp to be Nils Olof, a regimental comrade of his. He concluded that his colleague had fallen in bad times to land up like this in his mill. But, he was his regimental colleague, after all – his comrade in arms. Agog with excitement, he welcomed the tramp and asked him to accompany him to his home.
The tramp had a guilt to hide. He dreaded the idea of going to the mill owner’s mansion and expose himself to the prying eyes of everyone there. He treasured his booty, and didn’t want the law to catch up with him. So, he persisted to decline the mill owner’s invites. But, the latter couldn’t leave an ex regimental comrade to be left behind in the mill. He kept on pleading with the sulking tramp to accompany him. He disclosed that he had no wife. His grown-up daughter was the only other inmate of the large house. On the Christmas eve, he wanted company, and his regimental comrade could be the right choice.
Appearing to be a little disappointed, he left for his house leaving the tramp (now known as Captain von Stahle) with the master smith, Stjernstrom.
The owner of the mill had other plans. The master smith knew his boss well.
After about half an hour, a carriage arrived with the daughter of the mill owner. She was Edla Willamson. A valet accompanied her holding a jacket. The generous father had sent her to fetch Captain von Stahle (the tramp). He was lying on the factory floor with his hat covering half of his face. He had kept a pig iron piece as his pillow.
She coaxed him to go to their mansion. The tramp had no option but to relent. Thus, escorted by the lady, the tramp (Captain von Stahle to the host and hostess) reached the mansion. He was quite ill at ease in the new abode. ‘Will he be finally caught?’, he brooded.
Edla had been quite intrigued at the sight of the stranger, at first. She was both kind and incredulous towards him. Her father brushed aside her concerns, and ordered the valet to give the guest a thorough wash, and dress him up like a gentleman – like an ex army officer. The tramp got a thorough make-over at the hands of the valet, and wore a nice suit offered by his host. With a nice well-shaven face and a haircut, he looked true to his appearance. But, the new smart look proved to be his undoing.
His host was shocked to discover that he had mistaken a stranger to be his army comrade. He seethed in resentment. Rather rudely, he told his guest that he has been tricked. Quite apologetically, the tramp stated that he had no intention to come in, in the first place.
The ironmaster was not mollified a bit. He told that he would call in the sheriff (the police chief). A chill ran down the tramp’s spine. But, he composed himself. Quite unabashedly, he began to propound his rat trap theory, and how, everyone including his angry host, fall into this trap unknowingly. It was a silly stand to take when danger of arrest stared him in his eyes. He dared to say that one day, a similar tragedy would befall his host. This was his prophesy.
The Ironmaster was not the least amused. Nevertheless, he no longer wanted the sheriff to be summoned. Instead, he ordered the tramp to get out of his house instantly.
Edla had a kind heart. She interceded on behalf of the beleaguered tramp, and pleaded with her father to let the guest (now disgraced) to stay over for a day more.
She didn’t want the pleasant atmosphere of the Christmas to be marred by the chicanery of the tramp.
The master of the house was as irate as before. He pulled up his daughter for being so benign to the undeserving deceitful vagabond. However, he agreed to Edla’s suggestions.
Edla offered the mischief maker the food kept ready on the table. He sat down and began to eat greedily ignoring the taunts of the host. He wondered if some nasty things awaited him.
The Christmas was as quiet for the tramp as possible. He slept the whole day without bothering what else was going on. In the evening, the Christmas tree was lighted. The tramp was woken up from his sleep. He showed no excitement and fell off to sleep again. After about two hours, he was woken up again. He went to the dining rom and ate the fish and porridge.
Quite gracefully, the tramp went to all the guests present and thanked each of them. When he came to the kindly daughter, he was courteously told by her that he could retain her father’s suit for his use. With her heart aglow with Christmas spirit, she told him that he could drop in the next Christmas if he had nowhere else to go. The rat trap man was clearly overwhelmed, but he didn’t show his feelings.
The next morning the father daughter duo went to the Church rather early. The tramp was asleep.
On the way back from church, Edla sat in the carriage sad and sullen. She had come to know while in church that a robber peddling rat traps had robbed a man of the community the day before. The robber was still at large. She was utterly dejected for her misjudgment. Her father chided her, adding to her misery. He feared for his silver spoons kept in the cabinet.
When the carriage reached their home, the Ironmaster enquired from the valet if the tramp (now, a confirmed thief) was still around. The valet informed him that he had already left taking with him nothing. Instead, he had left a crumpled packet as gift for Ms. Williamson. Opened it with curiousity. Inside, there was a rat trap, three ten kroner notes, and a clumsily written note that read, “The rat trap is a gift from a rat caught in this world’s rat trap if he had not raised to captain, because in that way he got power to clear himself.
“Written with friendship and high regard,
Captain von Stahle.”
Questions invited from readers.