Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter X

The news has leaked out that the master of the homestead here owes a huge debt, and that because he needs cash he has sold new, valuable plots of land to his cotters. I am finding out many things now. Mrs. Brede with the handsome, well-modeled head knows something about everything, for her many summers at the farm have given her knowledge. When she talks about conditions here, she need not grope for words.

The master has taken a large mortgage.

No one would believe that all is not well here; the many new buildings and flagpoles, the curtains at the windows and the red-painted well house — all give an impression of great prosperity. The rooms, too, make a good impression. I shall not speak of the piano, but here are pictures on the walls and photographs of the farm seen from all angles; good newspapers are kept and there is a selection of novels on the tables; though guests sometimes take books away with them, the books are never missed. Or take a thing like this: you get your bill on a handsomely printed paper, with a picture at the top of the farm and the Tore range in the background. In short, no one would doubt for a moment that there is a fortune here. And why not, after twenty years as a kind of resort for tourists and pensioners?

Nevertheless, the truth is that this homestead with all its interior and exterior furnishings costs more than the business is worth. Manufacturer Brede, too, has put money into it, and that is why Mrs. Brede comes here every year with her children, to get their dividends in board and lodging.

No wonder she has a house to herself; after all, it’s her own house.

“It was a good place in the old days,” says Mrs. Brede. “Travelers stopped here and had a meal and a bed for the night; it cost nothing to run the place then. But the tourist traffic has forced him to make improvements and enlargements. You have to keep pace with development, and be as good as other such places in the country; they’re all competing. And probably the master here is not the right man to carry on such an irregular and capricious business; he has learned to like idleness too much, and lets the farm take care of itself. But the two cotters are hard-working fellows. They’re nephews of his, and bit by bit they’re buying the farm from him and cultivating it. My husband often says it will end with the cotters or their children buying this whole place of his, Paul’s.”

“How can the cotters get power to do that?”

“They work hard; they’re peasants. They started in the forest with three or four goats each, first one of them, then the other one, working down in the village and coming home with food and money, and all the time clearing their own ground. The goats grew more numerous, a cow was added, they bought more virgin land, and they acquired still more livestock. They sowed grain and planted potatoes and cultivated pasture land; the owner here buys root vegetables from his cotters; he hasn’t time to toil with such things himself; there’s a great deal of work in it. Oh, no, they don’t sow anything but green fodder for the stock here; Paul says it’s not worth-while. And in a way he’s right. He’s tried hiring enough men to run the farm too, but it won’t work. It’s just in the spring season that the tourists start coming, and then the men are constantly being interrupted in their work on the farm to pilot tourists across the fjeld, or to do this or that for the guests. And this goes on all through the short summer months; for several years, they haven’t even found the time to spread all their manure. But the worst time is really the autumn, when the tourists are all rushing to get home again, and it’s quite impossible to do the harvesting undisturbed. It’s almost become a custom here now, my husband says, for the cotters to get half the harvest of the farm’s outlying fields.”

On my wondering at Mrs. Brede’s knowledge of farming, she told me with a shake of the head that she herself knew very little about it, and had all her information from her husband. The fact was that every time these cotters wanted to buy a fresh piece of land from Paul, her husband had to give his consent. This was because of the mortgage, and this, too, was how they had learned of these matters. Manufacturer Brede, as a matter of fact, was most anxious to be released from his undertaking, but this was by no means easy. It was with great apprehensions that he now regarded the new automobile route.

Mrs. Brede was full of a maternal gentleness; she played with her little girls, and seemed to enjoy an admirable balance of mind. One day, for example, a goat came home with one of its hind legs broken, and all the guests hurried out with brandy and lanolin and bandages for the wound; but Mrs. Brede remained quietly where she was, experienced, wise, and a little surprised at all the excitement.

“All you can do with such a goat,” she said, “is to slaughter it.”

The lady, I understood, must have married early, for her two little girls were twelve and ten. Her husband seemed to deal in important business, for he spent a large part of the year in Iceland, and traveled a good deal elsewhere as well. This, too, the lady bore quietly. And yet she was still young and handsome, a little plump, perhaps, for her height, but with a lovely, unwrinkled skin. She was quite unlike Miss Torsen, the only other good-looking lady at the farm; Miss Torsen was tall and dark.

But perhaps Mrs. Brede was not always so calm as she seemed. One evening when she went down to the men’s hut and asked Solem to do her a service, I saw that her face was strange and covered with blushes. Would Solem come to her room and repair a window-blind that had fallen down? It was late in the evening, and the lady seemed to have been in bed already, and to have risen again. Solem did not appear very willing. Suddenly their eyes met, and clung for a moment. Yes, certainly, of course he would come. . . .

What an iron face he had, and what a rogue he was!

Mrs. Brede departed.

But a moment later she returned to say that she had changed her mind. Never mind, thank you, she would fix the blind in position herself.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38