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Paul Selmer's introduction to Catholics

From Sigrid Undset's The Wild Orchid. While studying geology at university, Paul decides to move into the city from his mother Julie's country house. After several unhappy experiences, he chances upon the Gotaas family who have a room to let on account of their son's death.

A statue of St Vincent de Paul. a tireless apostle to the poor of Paris.

QUITE by chance he saw one day an advertisement of a room to let in Schwensens gate; the name was Gotaas. And at haphazard he went to look at it.

The little woman who let him in had grey curly hair and was rather hunchbacked—her back was quite deformed, Paul saw, when they entered the sitting room from the dark hall. She dried her hands on a blue apron, had evidently been washing up.

The room took his attention away from her—its appearance was fairly amazing. There was the usual plush furniture and the round table with books and albums under the hanging lamp and pedestals with pots of flowers in the windows. But the walls were decorated in a way that roused Paul’s liveliest curiosity: above the sofa between the windows hung a colossal oleograph of Jesus pointing to his heart, which he wore outside his clothes, and flames were coming out of it through a little chimney. Below the picture hung a crucifix. On the other walls there were oleographs of the Madonna della Sedia and of Joseph with the Child Jesus and a lily and a carpenter’s rule in his arms, and then there were innumerable other pictures, representing Catholic saints, Paul guessed, and on shelves in the corners stood plaster figures of the Madonna and Joseph with the Child Jesus and the Child Jesus with a lamb in his arms.

They must be Catholics—that was rum. Somehow he had never imagined that there might be Catholics right in the thick of Christiania. Of course he knew the Catholic church quite well, they had lived close to it, in Keysers gate, when he was a child, but it had never occurred to him to wonder who went there. Some of the boys in the street went there to make a row—then a priest came and drove them off, he had been told. Paul had a sudden desire to lodge here—to try what it was like.

Fru Gotaas showed him the room; it was next to the sitting room and had a door leading straight on to the stairs. It looked inviting—like a monk’s cell, thought Paul. There was an old-fashioned wooden bedstead which reminded one of a country parsonage, it was so piled up with pillows under the white crocheted coverlet, and above the bed hung a crucifix and a picture of a strange Byzantine-looking madonna, black on a gold ground. There was a corner-shelf with another figure of the madonna, without child this time, blue and white, and a rosary beside it. Then there were four or five more pictures of the same sort, and a crucifix standing on the top of the desk; and on the chest of drawers stood a figure of an old man in a black cassock; he carried an infant on his arm and two ragged children clung to him. Paul went over and took a look at it.

“Yes, this room belonged to our son who is dead,” explained Fru Gotaas. “His name was Vincent—so that’s Saint Vincent de Paul over there—but you know, we can take away all this, if you don’t like it, and if you think of taking the room—”

“No, not at all, not on my account,” said Paul. “I think it’s cosy—”

He had already decided to try how it would be to live in this pious-looking cell. It certainly ought to inspire him to work, and the old green armchair was just made to read in. The place was clean and light too, and Fru Gotaas looked pleasant.

So Paul took the room. His last days at the boarding house were largely taken up with liquidating his friendship with Audhild—he maintained that it was unfair to Birger who was waiting so faithfully at Tromsø.—Audhild hinted that it couldn’t exactly be said that they were properly engaged, but Paul refused to see this. He gave her to understand that the studies he had taken up were a slow business, and the position of a scientific man in Norway was so uncertain—and when Audhild shed tears and cuddled up to him, he didn’t find it so very difficult to put on a melancholy face. And they agreed to meet now and then. That would not be too often, he knew very well—Audhild was the sort of girl who had to have the object of her affections about her every day, and there were at least two men in the boarding house who were ready to take over his part.

He moved to the Gotaases and installed himself and his belongings among the deceased Vincent’s household gods. The pictures of Madame Recamier and one that Audhild said was Beethoven—a group of people listening to music, framed in “Jugend” style—looked pretty dreadful in with all the rest. Paul couldn’t quite make it out; for certainly the late Vincent’s collection was at least as hideous in its own way. But Audhild’s gifts would have to hang there for the present—as long as he had to be prepared for her coming to see him now and then.

“Schwensens gate?” asked Fru Selmer; “where on earth is that, Paul?”

He explained that it was up in the direction of Saint Hans’ Hill.

“Oh yes,” she said. “At any rate you’ll be able to work in peace there—I don’t suppose you know anybody in that part of the town.” She asked what sort of people these Gotaases were.

The husband was something in a shipping business, said Paul—he came from Trondhjem. The woman was decent and seemed very kind. “They are Catholics, by the way—”

“What are they?” said his mother. “How funny!”

The Wild Orchid (Cluny Edition) pp. 35-38

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