Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXVII

A large house, with and upper story of planks built on later, displayed a new signboard on the wall: Room and Board. The barn, as usual, was a peat hut.

As I did not know which was Eilert and which Olaus, and had stopped to consider which road to take, a man came hurrying toward me. Ah, well, the world is a small place; we meet friends and acquaintances everywhere. Here am I, meeting an old acquaintance, the thief of last winter, the pork thief. What luck, what a satisfaction!

This was Eilert. He took in paying guests now.

At first he pretended not to recognize me, but he soon gave that up. Once he had done so, however, he carried the thing off in style:

“Well, well,” he said, “what a nice surprise! You are most welcome under my humble roof, and such it is!”

My own response was rather less jaunty, and I stood still collecting my thoughts. When I had asked a few questions, he explained that since the motor traffic had started in Stordalen, many visitors came through this way, and sometimes they wanted to stop over at his house before being rowed across to the steamer. They always came down in the evenings, and it might be fine, or it might not, and at night the fjord was often wild. He had therefore had to arrange to house them, because after all, you can’t expect people to spend the night outdoors.

“So you’ve turned into a hotelkeeper,” I said.

“Well, you can joke about it,” he returned, “but all I do is to give shelter to the people who come here. That’s all the hotel there is to it. My neighbor Olaus can’t do any more either, even if he builds a place that’s ten times as big. Look over there — now he’s building another house — a shed, I’d call it — and he’s got three grown men working on it so he can get it done by next summer. But it won’t be much bigger than my place at that, and anyhow, the gentry don’t want to be bothered walking all that distance to his place when here’s my house right at the car stop. And besides it was me that started it, and if I was Olaus I wouldn’t have wanted to imitate me like a regular monkey and started keeping boarders which I didn’t know the first thing about. But he can’t make himself any different from what he is, so he puts up a few old bits of canvas and rugs and cardboard inside his barn and gets people to sleep there. But I’d never ask the gentry to sleep in a barn, a storehouse for fodder and hay for dumb beasts, if you’ll excuse my mentioning it! But of course if you’ve no shame in you and don’t know how to behave in company —”

“Lucky I’ve met you,” I said. “Why, I might have gone on down the road to his place!”

We walked on together, with Eilert talking and explaining all the way, and assuring me over and over again that Olaus was a good-for-nothing for copying him as he did.

If I had known what was awaiting me, I should certainly have passed by Eilert’s house. But I did not know. I was innocent, though I may not have appeared so. It cannot be helped.

“It’s too bad I’ve got somebody in the best room,” said Eilert. “They’re gentlefolk from the city. They came down here through Stordalen, and they had to walk because the cars have stopped for the season. They’ve been in my house for quite some days, and I think they’ll be staying on a while yet. I think they’re out now, but of course it means I can’t let you have my best room.”

I looked up, and saw a face in the window. A shiver ran through me — no, of course not a shiver, far from it, but certainly this was a fresh surprise. What a coincidence! As we were about to enter the door, there was the actor, too — standing there looking at me: the actor from the Tore Peak resort. It was his knees, his coat, and his stick. So I was right — I had recognized her face at an upper window. Yes, indeed, the world is small.

The actor and I greeted each other and began to talk. How nice to see me again! And how was Paul, the good fellow — still soaking himself in liquor, he supposed? Funny effect it has sometimes; Paul seemed to think the whole inn was an aquarium and we visitors the goldfish! “Ha, ha, ha, goldfish; I wish we were, I must say! — Well, Eilert, are we getting some fresh haddock for supper? Good! — Really, we like it here very much; we’ve already been here several days; we want to stay and get a good rest.”

As we stood there, a rather stout girl came down from the loft and addressed the actor:

“The missis wants you to come right upstairs.”

“Oh? Very well, at once. . . . Well, see you later. You’ll be stopping here, too, I expect?”

He hurried up the stairs.

Eilert and I followed to my room.

As a matter of fact, I went out again with Eilert at once. He had a great deal to tell me and explain to me, and I was not unwilling to listen to him then. Really, Eilert was not too bad, a fine fellow with four ragged, magnificent youngsters by his first wife, who had died two years before, and another child by his second wife. He must have forgotten, as he told me this, the yarn about the sick wife and the ailing children that he had spun for me last winter. The girl who had come down the stairs with the message from the “missis” was no servant, but Eilert’s young wife. And she, too, was all right — strong and good, handy about the stables, and pregnant again.

It all looks good to me, Eilert: your wife and everything you tell me about your family.

No one will understand my strange contentment, then; I had been full of an obscure happiness from the moment I came to this house. Probably a mere coincidence, but that did not detract from my satisfactory state of mind; I was pleased with everything, and all things added to my cheerful frame of mind. There were some pigs by the barn, very affectionate pigs, because they were used to the children playing with them and kissing them and riding on their backs. And there was one of the goats, up on the roof of course, standing so far out along the edge that it was a wonder he didn’t grow dizzy. Seagulls flew criss-cross over the fields, screaming their own language to one another, and being friends or enemies to the best of their ability. Down by the mouth of the river, just beneath the sunset, began the great road that winds up through the woods and the valley. There is something of the friendliness of a living being about such a forest road.

Eilert was going out in his boat to fish haddock, and I went with him. Actually he should have been getting some meat for us; but he had promised the gentry from the city some fish, and fish was one of the gifts of God. Besides, if he lacked meat, he could always slaughter one of the pigs.

There was a slight wind; but then we wanted some wind, Eilert said, as long as there was not too much of it.

“Not reliable tonight though,” he said, looking up into the sky; “the bigger the wind, the stronger the current.”

At first I was very brave, and sat on the thwart thinking of Eilert’s French words: travali, prekevary, sutinary, mankémang, and many others. They’ve had a long way to travel, coming here by ancient routes via Bergen, and now they’re common property.

And then suddenly I lost all interest in French words, and felt extremely ill. It was much too windy, and we got no haddock.

“Pity she’s come up so quick,” said Eilert; “let’s try inshore for a while.”

But we got nothing there either, and as the wind increased and the sea rose, “We’d better go home,” said Eilert.

The sea had been just right before, remarkably so, but now there was entirely too much of it. Why on earth did I feel so bad? An inner exhaustion, some emotional excitement, would have explained it. But I had experienced no emotional excitement.

We rowed in the foam and feathery jets of spray. “She’s rising fast!” cried Eilert, rowing with all his might.

I felt so wretched that Eilert told me to ship my oars; he would manage by himself. But for all my wretchedness, I remembered that they could see me from the shore, and I would not put down my oars. Eilert’s wife might see me and laugh at me.

What a revolting business, this seasickness that forced me to put my head over the gunwale and make a pig of myself! I had a moment’s relief, and then it began all over again. Charming! I felt as though I were in labor; the wrong way up, of course, through my throat, but it was a delivery nonetheless. It moved up, then stopped, came on again and stopped, came on and stopped once more. It was a lump of iron — iron, did I say? No, steel; I had never felt anything like it before; it was not something I was born with. All my internal mechanism was stopped by it. Then I took a running start far down inside me and began, strangely, to howl with all my strength; but a howl, however successful, cannot break down a lump of steel. The pains continued. My mouth filled with bile. Soon, thank heaven, my chest would burst. O— oh — oh. . . . Then we rowed inside the islands that served as a breakwater, and I was saved.

Quite suddenly I was well again, and began to play the clown, imitating my own behavior in order to deceive the people ashore. And I assured Eilert, too, that this was the first time I had ever been seasick, so that he should understand it was nothing to gossip about. After all, he had not heard about the great seas I had sailed without the slightest discomfort; once I had been four-and-twenty days on the ocean, with most of the passengers in bed, and even the captain sick in cascades; but not me!

“Yes, I get seasick sometimes, too,” says Eilert.

That evening I sat eating alone in the dining room. Since we had not brought back any haddock, the visitors upstairs had no desire to come down. All they wanted, Eilert’s wife said, was some bread and butter and milk to be sent up.

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