Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXIX

Once more I was run into a party of English, the last for this year.

They arrived by steamer in the morning and stopped at the trading station for a few hours, meanwhile sending up a detachment through the valley to order a car to meet them. Stordalen, Stordalen, they said. So they had apparently not yet seen Stordalen — an omission they must repair at once.

And what a sensation they made!

They came across by rowboat from the trading station; we could hear them a long way off, an old man’s voice drowning out all the others. Eilert dropped everything he had in hand, and ran down to the landing place in order to be the first on the spot. From Olaus’s house, too, a man and a few half-grown boys went down, and from all the houses round swarmed curious and helpful crowds. There were so many spectators at the landing place that the old man with the loud voice drew himself up to his full height in the boat and majestically shouted his English at us, as though his language must of course be ours as well:

“Where’s the car? Bring the car down!”

Olaus, who was sharp, guessed what he meant and at once sent his two boys up the valley to meet the car and hurry it on, for the Englishmen had arrived.

They disembarked, they were in a great hurry, they could not understand why the car had not come to meet them: “What was the meaning of this?” There were four of them. “Stordalen!” they said. As they came up past Eilert’s house, they looked at their watches and swore because so many minutes were being wasted. Where the devil was the car? The populace followed at some distance, gazing with reverence on these dressed-up fools.

I remember a couple of them: an old man — the one with the loud voice — who wore a pleated kilt on each thigh and a jacket of green canvas with braid and buckles and straps and innumerable pockets all over it. What a man, what a power! His beard, streaming out from under his nose like the northern lights, was greenish-white, and he swore like a madman. Another of the party was tall and bent, a flagpole of sorts, astonishing, stupendous, with sloping shoulders, a tiny cap perched above extravagantly arched eyebrows; he was an upended Roman battering ram, a man on stilts. I measured him with my eyes, and still there was something left over. Yet he was bent and broken, old before his time, quite bald; but his mouth was tight as a tiger’s, and he had a madness in his head that kept him on the move.

“Stordalen!” he cried.

England will soon have to open old people’s homes for her sons. She desexes her people with sport and obsessive ideas: were not other countries keeping her in perpetual unrest, she would in a couple of generations be converted to pederasty. . . .

Then the horn of the car was heard tooting in the woods, and everyone raced to meet it.

Of course Olaus’s two boys had done an honest day’s work in meeting the car so far up the road, and urging the driver to hurry; were they not to get any reward? True, they were allowed to sit in the back seat for their return journey and thus enjoyed the drive of a lifetime; but money! They had acquired enough brazenness in the course of the summer not to hesitate, and approached the loud-voiced old man, holding out their palms and clamoring: “Money!” But that did not suit the old man, who entered the car forthwith, urging his companions to hurry. The driver, no doubt thinking of his own tips, felt he would serve his passengers best by driving off with them at once. So off he went. A toot of the horn, and a rapid fanfare — tara-ra-boom-de-ay!

The spectators turned homeward, talking about the illustrious visitors. Foreign lands — ah, no, this country will not bear comparison with them! “Did you see how tall the younger lord was?” “And did you see the other one, the one with the skirts and the northern lights?”

But some of the homeward-turning bumpkins, such as the Olaus family, had more serious matters on their minds. Olaus for the first time understood what he had read in the paper so many times, that the Norwegian elementary school is a worthless institution because it does not teach English to the children of the lower orders. Here were his boys, losing a handsome tip merely because they could not swear back intelligibly at the gentleman with the northern lights. The boys themselves had also something to think about: “That driver, that scoundrel, that southerner! But just wait!” They had heard that bits of broken bottle were very good for tires. . . .

I return to her knapsack and her clothes, and the reason why I do so is that Eilert is so little to be trusted. I want to count her clothes to make sure none of them disappear; it was a mistake not to have done so at once.

It may seem as though I kept returning to these clothes and thinking about them; but why should I do that? At any rate it is now evident that I was right in suspecting Eilert, for I heard him going upstairs, and when I came in, he was turning out the bag and going through the clothes.

“What are you doing?” I said.

At first he tried to brazen it out.

“Never you mind,” he replied. But my knowing something about him was so much to my advantage that he soon drew in his horns. How I wronged him, he complained, and exploited him:

“You haven’t bought these clothes,” he said. “I could have got more for them if I’d sold them.” He had been paid, but he still wanted more, like the stomach, which goes on digesting after death. That was Eilert. Yet he was not too bad; he had never been any better, and he certainly had grown no worse with his new livelihood.

May no one ever grow worse with a new livelihood!

So I moved the knapsack and the clothes into my own room in order to take better care of them. It was a slow job to tidy everything up for the second time, but it had to be done. Later that evening I would resume my journey, taking the knapsack with me. I had done with the place, and the nights were moonlit again.

Enough of these clothes!

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