Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXV

A few days later, they were going to leave. They would travel together, and that would be the end.

I might have pitied them both, for though life is good, life is stern. One result at any rate was accomplished. She had not sent for him in vain, nor had he come in vain.

That was the end of the act. But there were more acts to come — many more.

She had lost much: having been ravished, she gave herself away; why be niggardly now? And this is the destiny of her type, that they lose increasingly much, retaining ever less; what need to hold back now? The ground has been completely shifted: from half-measures to the immolation of all virtue. The type is well-known, and can be found at resorts and boarding-houses, where it grows and flourishes.

In spite of her wasted adolescence, her examination and her “independence,” she has been coming home from her office stool or her teacher’s desk more or less exhausted; suddenly she finds herself in the midst of a sweet and unlimited idleness, with quantities of tinned food for her meals. The company round her is continually changing, tourists come and go, and she passes from hand to hand for walks and talks; the tone is “country informality.” This is sheer loose living; this is a life stripped of all purpose. She does not even sleep enough because she hears through the thin wall every sound made by her neighbor in the next room, while arriving or departing Englishmen bang doors all night. In a short time she has become a neurotic, sated with company, surfeited with herself and the place. She is ready to go off with the next halfway respectable organ grinder that happens along. And so she pairs off with the most casual visitors, flirts with the guide, hovering about him and making bandages for his fingers, and at last throws herself into the arms of a nameless nobody who has arrived at the house today.

This is the Torsen type.

And now, at this very moment, she retires to her room to collect the fragments of herself, in preparation for her departure — at the end of the summer. It takes time; there are so many fragments, one in every corner. But perhaps it consoles her to think that she knows the genitive of mensa.

Things are not quite so bad for the actor. He has staked nothing, is committed to nothing. No part of his life is destroyed, nor anything within him. As he came, so he goes, cheerful, empty, nice. In fact he is even something more of a man because he has really made a conquest. He has no wish but to spend some pleasant hours with the Torsen type.

He strolled about the garden waiting for her to get ready. Once she was visible through the doorway, and he called to her:

“Aren’t you coming soon? Don’t forget we’ve got to cross the mountain!”

“Well, I can’t go bareheaded,” she replied.

He was impatient.

“No, you’ve got to put your hat on, and what a lot of time that takes! Ugh!”

She measured him coldly and said:

“You’re very — familiar.”

If he had paid her back in the same coin there would have been weeping and gnashing of teeth and cries of “Go away! Go alone!” and an hour’s delay, and reconciliation and embraces. But the actor’s manner changed at once, and he replied docilely, as his nature was,

“Familiar? Well — perhaps. Sorry!”

Then he strolled about the garden again, humming occasionally and swinging his stick. I took note of the oddly feminine shape of his knees, and the unusual plumpness of his thighs; there was something unnatural about this plumpness, as though it did not belong to his sex.

His shoes were down at the heel, and his collar was open. His raincoat hung regally from his shoulders and flapped in the wind, though it was not raining. He was a proud and comical sight. But why speak harsh words about a raincoat? It was not he, the owner, that had abused it, and it hung from his shoulders as innocently as a bridal veil.

Why speak harsh words about anyone? Life is good, but life is stern. Perhaps when she comes out, I think to myself, the following scene will take place: I stand here waiting only for this departure. So she gives me her hand and says good-bye.

“Why don’t you say something?” she asks in order to seem bright and easy in her mind.

“Because I don’t want to hurt you in the great error of your ways.”

“Ha, ha, ha,” she laughs, too loudly and in a forced tone; “the great error of my ways! Well, really!”

And her anger grows, while I am assured and fatherly, standing on the firm ground of conscious virtue. Yet I say an unworthy thing like this:

“Don’t throw yourself away, Miss Torsen!”

She raises her head then; yes, the Torsen type would raise her head and reply, pale and offended:

“Throw myself away? — I don’t understand you.”

But it is possible, too, that Miss Torsen, at heart a fine, proud girl, would have a lucid moment and see things in their true light:

“Why not, why shouldn’t I throw myself away? What is there to keep? I am thrown away, wasted ever since my school days, and now I am seven and twenty. . . . ”

My own thoughts run away with me as I stand there wishing I were somewhere else. Perhaps she, too, in her room wishes me far away.

“Good-bye,” I say to the actor. “Will you remember me to Miss Torsen? I must go now.”

“Good-bye,” says he, shaking hands in some surprise. “Can’t you wait a few minutes? Well, all right, I’ll give her your greeting. Good-bye, good-bye.”

I take a short cut to get out of the way, and as I know every nook and corner, I am soon outside the farm, and find a good shelter. From here I shall see when these two leave. She has only to say good-bye now to the people of the farm.

It struck me that yesterday was the last time I spoke to her. We spoke only a few insignificant words that I have forgotten, and today I have not spoken to her. . . .

Here they come.

Curious — they seemed somehow to have become welded together; though they walked separately up the mountain track, yet they belonged together. They did not speak; the essential things had probably already been said. Life had grown ordinary for them; it still remained to them to be of use to each other. He walked first, while she followed many paces behind; it was lonely to look at against the rugged background of the mountain. Where had her tall figure gone to? She seemed to have grown shorter because she had hitched up her skirt and was carrying her knapsack on her back. They each carried one, but he carried hers and she his, probably because, owing to the greater number of her clothes, hers was the heavier sack. Thus had they shifted their burdens; what burdens would they carry in the future? She was, after all, no longer a schoolmistress, and perhaps he was no longer with the theater or the films.

I watched those two crossing rocky, mountainous ground, bare ground, with not a tree anywhere except a few stunted junipers; far away near the ridge murmured the little Reisa. Those two had put their possessions together, were walking together; at the next halt they would be man and wife, and take only one room because it was cheaper.

Suddenly I started up and, moved by some impulse of human sympathy — nay, of duty — I wanted to run across to her, talk to her, say a word of warning: “Don’t go on!” I could have done it in a few minutes — a good deed, a duty. . . .

They disappeared behind the shoulder of the hill.

Her name was Ingeborg.


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