Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter II

On stormy days I sit indoors and find something to occupy my time. Perhaps I write letters to some acquaintance or other telling him I am well, and hope to hear the same from him. But I cannot post the letters, and they grow older every day. Not that it matters. I have tied the letters to a string that hangs from the ceiling to prevent Madame from gnawing at them.

One day a man came to the hut. He walked swiftly and stealthily; his clothes were ordinary and he wore no collar, for he was a laboring man. He carried a sack, and I wondered what could be in it.

“Good morning,” we said to each other. “Fine weather in the woods.”

“I didn’t expect to find anybody in the hut,” said the man. His manner was at once forceful and discontented; he flung down the sack without humility.

“He may know something about me,” I thought, “since he is such a man.”

“Have you lived here long?” he asked. “And are you leaving soon?”

“Is the hut yours, perhaps?” I asked in my turn.

Then he looked at me.

“Because if the hut is yours, that’s another matter,” I said. “But I don’t intend like a pickpocket to take it with me when I leave.”

I spoke gently and jestingly to avoid committing a blunder by my speech.

But I had said quite the right thing; the man at once lost his assurance. Somehow I had made him feel that I knew more about him than he knew about me.

When I asked him to come in, he was grateful and said:

“Thank you, but I’m afraid I’ll get snow all over your floor.”

Then he took special pains to wipe his boots clean, and bringing his sack with him, crawled in.

“I could give you some coffee,” I said.

“You shouldn’t trouble on my account,” he replied, wiping his face and panting with the heat, “though I’ve been walking all night.”

“Are you crossing the fjeld?”

“That depends. I don’t suppose there’s work to be got on a winter day on the other side, either.”

I gave him coffee.

“Got anything to eat?” he said. “It’s a shame to ask you. A round of crisp-bread? I had no chance to bring food with me.”

“Yes, I’ve got bread, butter, and reindeer cheese. Help yourself.”

“It’s not so easy for a lot of people in the winter,” said the man as he ate.

“Could you take some letters to the village for me?” I asked. “I’ll pay you for it.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t do that,” the man replied. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. I must cross the fjeld now. I’ve heard there’s work in Hilling, in the Hilling Forest. So I can’t.”

“Must get his back up a bit again,” I thought. “He just sits now there without any guts at all. In the end he’ll start begging for a few coppers.”

I felt his sack and said:

“What’s this you’re lugging about with you? Heavy things?”

“Mind your own business!” was his instant retort, as he drew the sack closer to him.

“I wasn’t going to steal any of it; I’m no thief,” I said, jesting again.

“I don’t care what you are,” he muttered.

The day wore on. Since I had a visitor, I had no desire to go to the woods, but wanted to sit and talk to him and ask him questions. He was a very ordinary man, of no great interest to the irons in my fire, with dirty hands, uneducated and uninteresting in his speech; probably he had stolen the things in his sack. Later I learned that he was quick in much small knowledge that life had taught him. He complained that his heels felt cold, and took off his boots. And no wonder he felt cold, for where the heels of his stockings should have been there were only great holes. He borrowed a knife to cut away the ragged edges, and then drew on the stockings again back to front, so that the torn soles came over his instep. When he had put on his boots again, he said, “There, now it’s nice and warm.”

He did no harm. If he took down the saw and the ax from their hooks to inspect them, he put them back again where he had found them. When he examined the letters, trying perhaps to read the addresses, he did not let them go carelessly, leaving them to swing back and forth, but held the string so that it hung motionless. I had no reason to complain about him.

He had his midday meal with me, and when he had eaten, he said:

“Do you mind if I cut myself some pine twigs to sit on?”

He went out to cut off some soft pine, and we had to move Madame’s straw to make room for the man inside the hut. Then we lay on our twigs, burning resin and talking.

He was still there in the afternoon, still lying down as though to postpone the time of his leaving. When it began to grow dark, he went to the low doorway and looked out at the weather. Then, turning his head back, he asked:

“Do you think there’ll be snow tonight?”

“You ask me questions and I ask you questions,” I said, “but it looks like snow; the smoke is blowing down.”

It made him uneasy to think it might snow, and he said he had better leave that night. Suddenly he flew into a rage. For as I lay there, I stretched, so that my hand accidentally touched his sack again.

“You leave me alone!” he shouted, tearing the sack from my grasp. “Don’t you touch that sack, or I’ll show you!”

I replied that I had meant nothing by it, and had no intention of stealing anything from him.

“Stealing, eh! What of it? I’m not afraid of you, and don’t you go thinking I am! Look, here’s what I’ve got in the bag,” said the man, and began to rummage in it and to show me the contents: three pairs of new mittens, some sort of thick cloth for garments, a bag of barley, a side of bacon, sixteen rolls of tobacco, and a few large lumps of sugar candy. In the bottom of the bag was perhaps half a bushel of coffee beans.

No doubt it was all from the general stores, with the exception of a heap of broken crisp-bread, which might have been stolen elsewhere.

“So you’ve got crisp-bread after all,” I said.

“If you knew anything about it, you wouldn’t talk like that,” the man replied. “When I’m crossing the fjeld on foot, walking and walking, don’t I need food to put in my belly? It’s blasphemy to listen to you!”

Neatly and carefully he put everything back into the sack, each article in its turn. He took pains to build up the rolls of tobacco round the bacon, to protect the cloth from grease stains.

“You might buy this cloth from me,” he said. “I’ll let you have it cheap. It’s duffle. It only gets in my way.”

“How much do you want for it?” I asked.

“There’s enough for a whole suit of clothes, maybe more,” he said to himself as he spread it out.

I said to the man:

“Truly you come here into the forest bringing with you life and the world and intellectual values and news. Let us talk a little. Tell me something: are you afraid your footprints will be visible tomorrow if there’s fresh snow tonight?”

“That’s my business. I’ve crossed the field before and I know many paths,” he muttered. “I’ll let you have the cloth for a few crowns.”

I shook my head, so the man again neatly folded the cloth and put it back in the bag exactly as though it belonged to him.

“I’ll cut it up into material for trousers; then the pieces won’t be so large, and I’ll be able to sell it.”

“You’d better leave enough for a whole suit in one piece,” I said, “and cut up the rest for trousers.”

“You think so? Yes, maybe you’re right.”

We calculated how much would be necessary for a grown man’s suit, and took down the string from which the letters hung to measure our own clothes, so as to be sure to get the measurements right. Then we cut into the edge of the cloth, and tore it across. In addition to one complete suit, there was enough left for two good-sized pairs of trousers.

Then the man offered to sell me other things out of his sack, and I bought some coffee and a few rolls of tobacco. He put the money away in a leather purse, and I saw how empty the purse was, and the circumstantial and poverty-stricken fashion in which he put the money away, afterward feeling the outside of his pocket.

“You haven’t been able to sell me much,” I said, “but I don’t need any more than that.”

“Business is business,” said he. “I don’t complain.”

It was quite decent of him.

While he was making ready to depart and clearing his bed of pine needles out of the way, I thought pityingly of his sordid little theft. Stealing because he was needy — a side of bacon and a length of cloth which he was trying to sell in the forest! Theft has indeed ceased to be a matter of great moment. This is because legal punishment for misdemeanors of all kinds has also ceased to be of great moment. It is only a dull, human punishment; the religious element has been removed from the law, and a local magistrate is no longer a man of mystic power.

I well remember the last time I heard a judge explain the meaning of the oath as it should be explained. It chilled us all to the bone to hear him. We need some witchcraft again, and the Sixth Book of Moses, and the sin against the Holy Ghost, and signing your name in the blood of a newly baptized child! Steal a sack of money and silver treasure, if you like, and hide the sack in the hills where on autumn evenings a blue flame will hover over the spot. But don’t come to me with three pairs of mittens and a side of household bacon!

The man no longer worried about the sack; leaving it behind, he crawled out of the hut to study the weather. The coffee and tobacco I had bought I put back into the sack, for I did not need them. When he returned, he said:

“I think after all I’d better stop the night here with you, if you don’t mind.”

In the evening he gave no indication of being prepared to contribute any of his own food. I cooked some coffee and gave him some dry bread to eat with it.

“You shouldn’t have expenses for me,” he said.

Then he began to rummage in his sack again, pushing the bacon well down so that the cloth might not be stained by it; after this he took off his leather belt and put it round the sack, with a loop to carry over one shoulder.

“Now if I take the neck of the sack over the other shoulder, I’ll find it easier to carry,” he said.

I gave him my letters to post on the other side of the fjeld and he stowed them away safely, slapping the outside of his pocket afterward; I also gave him a special envelope in which to keep the money for the stamps, and tied it to the neck of the sack.

“Where do you live?” I asked him.

“Where can a poor man live? Of course I live by the sea. I’m sorry to say I have a wife and children — no use denying it.”

“How many children have you?”

“Four. One’s got a crippled arm and the others — there’s something wrong with all of them. It’s not easy for a poor devil. My wife’s ill, and a few days ago she thought she was dying and wanted Communion.”

A sad note crept into his voice. But the note was false. He was telling me a pack of lies. When they came to look for him from the village, no Christian would have the heart to accuse a man with such a large and sick family. This, no doubt, was his meaning.

Man, oh man, thou art worse than a mouse!

I questioned him no further, but asked him to sing something, a ballad or a song, since we had nothing else to do.

“I’ve no heart to sing now,” he replied. “Except possibly a hymn.”

“All right; sing a hymn, then.”

“Not now. I’d like to do you a favor, but —”

His uneasiness was rising. A little later he took his sack and went out.

“Well, he’s gone,” I thought, “but he hasn’t said the customary peace-be-with-you. I’m glad I’ve come into the forest,” I thought. “This is my home, and from this day forth, no mother’s son shall come within my walls again.”

I made an elaborate agreement with myself that I should have no more truck with men.

“Madame, come here,” I said. “I esteem you highly, and herewith, Madame, I undertake to enter upon a union with you for life!”

Half an hour later, the man returned. He carried no sack.

“I thought you’d gone,” I said.

“Gone? I’m not a dog,” he replied. “I’ve met people before this, and I say good morning when I come and peace-be-with-you when I go. You shouldn’t sneer at me, you know.”

“What have you done with the sack?”

“I’ve carried it part of the way.”

His concealing the sack in case anyone should come proved he had forethought, for it was easier to get away scot-free without a burden on one’s back. To stop him from telling me any more lies about his poverty, I said:

“I expect you’ve raised plenty of dust in your day? Still do, for that matter?”

“Well, I do what I can,” he replied cheerfully. “I can lift a barrel easier than most, and nobody was able to dance me off the floor last Christmas! Hush — is that someone coming?”

We listened. His eyes darted toward the entrance, and in a moment he had chosen to meet danger halfway. He was taut and splendid; I could see his jaw working.

“It’s nothing,” I said.

Resolute and strong as a bull, he crawled out of the hut and was gone for a few minutes. When he returned, breathing heavily, he said:

“It’s nothing.”

We lay down for the night.

“In God’s name!” he said, as he settled himself on his pine bed. I fell asleep at once, and for some time slept deeply. But during the night restlessness seized on the man again. “Peace be with you!” I heard him mutter as he crawled out of the hut.

In the morning I burned the man’s bed of pine needles; it made a lively fire of crackling pine in the hut.

Outside, the ground was covered with new-fallen snow.

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