Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXIV

When it grew light, Solem went to the kitchen, had his breakfast, settled his business with Paul and the women, and returned to his room. He was in no hurry; though it was no longer early in the day, he took his time about tying his bundles, preparatory to leaving. Lingeringly he looked into the windows of the south wing as he passed.

Then Solem was gone.

A little later Miss Torsen came in to breakfast. She asked at once about Solem. And why might she be so interested in Solem? She had certainly stopped in her room intentionally so as to give him time to leave; if she wanted to see him she could have been here long ago. But was it not safest to seem a little angry? Supposing, night owl that I was, that I had seen something!

“Where is Solem?” she asked indignantly.

“Solem has gone now,” Josephine replied.

“Lucky for him!”

“Why?” asked Josephine.

“Oh, he’s a dreadful creature!”

How agitated she was! But in the course of the day she calmed down. Her anger dissolved, and there was neither weeping nor a scene; only she did not walk proudly, as was her habit, but preferred to sit in silence.

That passed too; she roused herself briskly soon after Solem’s departure, and in a few days she was the same as ever. She took walks, she talked and laughed with us, she made the actor swing her in the children’s swing, as in the lawyer’s day. . . .

I went out one evening, for there was good weather and darkness for walking; there was neither a moon nor stars. The gentle ripple of the little Reisa river was all the sound I heard; there were God and Goethe and über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’ that night. On my return, I was in the mood to walk softly and on tiptoe, so I undressed and went to bed in the dark.

Then they came again to my window, those two lunatics, the lady and the actor. What next? But it was not he that chose this spot; of that I was sure. She chose it because she was convinced I had returned. There was something she wanted me to hear.

Why should I listen to him still pleading with her?

“I’ve had enough of this,” he said. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“Oh, well. . . . ” she said. “No, let’s not tonight,” she added suddenly; “some other time. Yes? In a few days? We’ll talk about it tomorrow. Good night.”

For the first time it struck me: she wants to rouse you, too, settled man though you are; she wants to make you as mad as the others! That’s what she’s after!

And now I remember, before the lawyer arrived, when there was Tradesman Batt — I remember how during his first few days here, she would give me a kind word or a look that was quite out of the picture, and as unmistakable as her pride would permit. No, she had no objections to seeing old age wriggle. And listen to this: before this she had been intent to show a well-behaved indifference to sex, but that was finished; was she not at this moment resisting only faintly, and raising definite hopes? “Not tonight, but some other time,” she had said. Yes, a half-refusal, a mere postponement, that I was meant to hear. She was corrupt, but she was also cunning, with the cunning of a madman. So corrupt.

Dear child, Pharaoh laughs before his pyramids; standing before his pyramids he laughs. He would laugh at me, too.

Next day we three remaining guests were sitting in the living room. The lady and the actor read one book; I read another.

“Will you,” she says to him, “do me a great favor?”

“With pleasure.”

“Would you go out in the grounds where we sat yesterday and fetch my galoshes?”

So he went out to do her this great favor. He sang a well-known popular song as he crossed the yard, cheerful in his own peculiar way.

She turned to me.

“You seem silent.”

“Do I?”

“Yes, you’re very silent.”

“Listen to this,” I said, and began to read to her from the book I held in my hands. I read a longish bit.

She tried to interrupt me several times, and at length said impatiently:

“What is this you want me to listen to?”

“The Musketeers. You must admit it’s entertaining.”

“I’ve read it,” she said. And then she began to clasp her hands and drag them apart again.

“Then you must hear something you haven’t read before,” I replied, and went across to my room to fetch a few pages I had written. They were only a few poems — nothing special, just a few small verses. Not that I am in the habit of reading such things aloud, but I seized on this for the moment because I wanted to prevent her from humbling herself, and telling me anything more.

While I was reading the poems to her, the actor returned.

“I couldn’t find any galoshes there,” he said.

“No?” she replied absently.

“No, I really looked everywhere, but. . . . ”

She got up and left the room.

He looked after her in some surprise, and sat still for a moment. Then it occurred to him.

“I believe her galoshes are in the passage outside her door,” he said, and hurried after her.

I sat back, thinking it over. There had been a sweetness in her face as she said, “Yes, you’re very silent.” Had she seen through me and my pretext for reading to her? Of course she had. She was no fool. I was the fool, nobody else. I should have driven a sportsman to despair. Some practice the sport of making conquests and the sport of making love, because they find it so agreeable; I have never practiced sport of any kind. I have loved and raged and suffered and stormed according to my nature — that is all; I am an old-fashioned man. And here I sit in the shadow of evening, the shadow of the half-century. Let me have done!

The actor returned to the living room confused and dejected. She had turned him out; she had wept.

I was not surprised, for it was the mode of expression of her type.

“Have you ever heard the like of it? She told me to get out! I shall leave tomorrow.”

“Have you found the galoshes?” I asked.

“Of course,” he replied. “They were right in the passage. ‘Here they are,’ I said to her. ‘Yes, yes,’ she said. ‘Right under your nose,’ I said. ‘Yes, yes, go away,’ she said, and began to cry. So I went away.”

“She’ll get over it.”

“Do you think so? Yes, I expect she will. Oh, well, it’s my opinion nobody can understand women, anyhow. But they’re a mighty sex, the women, a mighty sex. They certainly are.”

He sat on a while, but he had no peace of mind, and soon went out again.

That evening the lady was in the dining room before us; she was there when we came in, and we all nodded slightly in greeting. To the actor she was very kind, quite making up for her petulance of the afternoon.

When he sat down he found a letter in his table napkin: a written note folded into the napkin. He was so surprised that he dropped everything he was doing to unfold and read it. With an exclamation and a smile, his blue, delighted eyes splashed over her; but she was looking down into her lap with her forehead wrinkled, so he put the note away in his vest pocket.

Then it probably dawned on him that he had betrayed her, and he tried to cover it up somehow.

“Well, here goes for food!” he said, as though he were going to require all his energy for the task of eating.

Why had she written? There was nothing to prevent her speaking to him. He had, after all, been sitting on the doorstep when she emerged from her room and passed him. Had she foreseen that the good comedian could not contain himself, but would surely let a third person into the secret?

Why probe or question further? The actor did not eat much, but he looked very happy. So the note must have said yes, must have been a promise; perhaps she would not tantalize him further.

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