Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXXI

What now?

I didn’t know at first. The winter stood before me, my summer behind me — no task, no yearning, no ambition. As it made no difference where I stayed, I remembered a town I knew, and thought I might as well go there — why not? A man cannot forever sit by the sea, and it is not necessary to misunderstand him if he decides to leave it. So he leaves his solitude — others have done so before him — and a mild curiosity drives him to see the ships and the horses and the tiny frostbitten gardens of a certain town. When he arrives there, he begins to wonder in his idleness if he does not know someone in this town, in this terrifyingly large town. The moonlight is bright now, and it amuses him to give himself a certain address to visit evening after evening, and to take up his post there as though something depended on it. He is not expected anywhere else, so he has the time. Then one evening someone finds him reading under a lamppost, stops suddenly and stares, takes a few steps toward him, and bends forward searchingly.

“Isn’t it —? Oh, no, excuse me, I thought —”

“Yes, it is. Good evening, Miss Torsen.”

“Why, good evening. I thought it looked like you. Good evening. Yes, thank you, very well. And thanks for the knapsack; I understood all at once — I quite understand —”

“Do you live here? What a strange coincidence!”

“Yes, I live here; those are my windows. You wouldn’t like to come up, would you? No, perhaps you wouldn’t.”

“But I know where there are some benches down by the shore. Unless you’re cold?” I suggested.

“No, I’m not cold. Yes, thank you, I’d like to.”

We went down to a bench, looking like a father and daughter out walking. There was nothing striking about us, and we sat the whole evening undisturbed. Later we sat undisturbed on other evenings all through a cold autumn month.

Then she told me first the short chapter of her journey home, some of it only hinted, suggested, and some of it in full; sometimes with her head deeply bowed, sometimes, when I asked a question, replying by a brief word or a shake of the head. I write it down from memory; it was important to her, and it became important for others as well.

Besides — in a hundred years it will all be forgotten. Why do we struggle? In a hundred years someone will read about it in memoirs and letters and think: “How she wriggled, how she fussed — dear me!” There are others about whom nothing at all will be written or read; life will close over them like a grave. Either way. . . .

What sorrows she had — dear, dear, what sorrows! The day she had been unable to pay the bill, she thought herself the center of the universe; everybody stared at her, and she was at her wits’ end. Then she heard a man’s voice outside saying: “Haven’t you watered Blakka yet?” That was his preoccupation. So she was not the center of the universe after all.

Then she and her companion had left the house, and set out on their tour. The center? Not at all. Day after day they walked across fields, and through valleys, had meals in houses by the way, and water from the brooks. If they met other travelers, they greeted them, or they did not greet them; no one was less a center of attention than they, and no one more. Her companion walked in vacant thoughtlessness, whistling as he went.

At one place they stopped for food.

“Will you pay for mine for the time being?” he said.

She hesitated and then said briefly that she could not pay “for the time being” all the way.

“Of course not, by no means,” said he. “Just for the moment. Perhaps we can get a loan further down the valley.”

“I don’t borrow.”

“Ingeborg!” said he, pretending playfully to whimper.

“What is it?”

“Nothing. Can’t I say ‘Ingeborg’ to my own wife?”

“I’m not your own wife,” she said, getting up.

“Pish! We were man and wife last night. It says so in the visitors’ book.”

She was silent at this. Yes, last night they had been man and wife; that was to save getting two rooms, and travel economically. But she had been very foolish to agree to it.

“‘Miss Torsen,’ then?” he whimpered.

And to put an end to the game, she paid for both of them and took her knapsack on her back.

They walked again. At the next stop she paid for them both without discussion — for the evening meal, for bed and breakfast. It grew to be a habit. They walked on once more. They reached the end of the valley by the sea, and here she revolted again.

“Go away — go on by yourself; I don’t want you in my room any more!”

The old argument no longer held good. When he repeated that they saved money by it, she replied that she for her part required no more than one room, and was quite able to pay for it. He joked again, whimpered, “Ingeborg!” and left her. He was beaten, and his back was bent.

She ate alone that evening.

“Isn’t your husband coming in?” asked the woman of the house.

“Perhaps he doesn’t want anything,” she replied.

There he stood, away by the tiny barn pretending to be interested in the roof, in the style of building, and walked round looking at it, pursing his lips and whistling. But she could see perfectly well from the window that his face was blue and dejected. When she had eaten, she walked down to the shore, calling as she passed him:

“Go in and eat!”

But he had not sunk quite so low; he would not go in to eat, and slept under no roof that night.

It ended as such things usually end: when she found him at last next morning, regretting her action and shaken by his appearance, everything slipped back again to where it had been.

They stopped at this place a few days, waiting for the mail boat, when one evening an elderly man came to the house. She knew him, and he knew them both; she was thrown into a state of the greatest excitement, made ready to leave at once, wept and beat her breast, and wanted to go home, immediately, at once. It ended as such things usually end: when she had calmed down, she went to bed for the night. She was not the center of the universe, and the old acquaintance who had happened to pass that way did not appear to be looking only at her. Nevertheless, she staged a sort of flight early next morning, in the gray dawn, before other people were up. This much she did.

Aboard the mail boat she met no more acquaintances, and had leisure to think things over calmly. She now broke with her companion in earnest. She had a minor disagreement with him again, for he had no ticket, and one word gave rise to the next. It was all very well for her, he said; she had her return ticket in her pocket. Besides, had he not got himself involved in all these trials and tribulations because of her letter last summer, and was she not ashamed of herself? He would not have moved a foot outside the town had it not been for that letter of hers. Then she gave him her purse and all her money and asked him to leave her. There was probably enough to buy him a ticket, and now she would be rid of him.

“Of course I shouldn’t accept this, but there’s no other way,” he said, and left her.

She stood gazing across the water, and wondering what to do. She was in a bad way now, so very different from what she had once thought; what shame, what utter futility she had wandered into! She brooded till she was worn out; then she began to listen to what people about her were saying. Two men were huddled on benches trying to shelter from the wind; she heard one of them say he was a schoolmaster, and the other that he was an artisan. The schoolmaster did not remain seated long, but got up and swaggered toward her. She passed him in silence and took his place on the bench.

It was a raw autumn day, and it did her good to get out of the wind. The artisan probably thought this tall, well-dressed lady had a berth, but when she sat down, he moved over on his own bench. He was on the point of lighting his pipe, but stopped.

“Go on, don’t mind me,” she said.

So he lit it, but he was careful not to blow the smoke into her face.

He was only a youngster, a little over twenty, with thick reddish hair under his cap, and whitish eyebrows high up on his forehead. His chest was broad and flat, but his back was round and his hands massive. A great horse.

Then a tray was brought him, sandwiches and coffee, which he had evidently been waiting for; he paid, but went on smoking and let the food stand.

“Please eat,” she said. “You don’t mind my sitting here?”

“Not at all,” he replied. He knocked out his pipe slowly, taking plenty of time over it; then sat still again.

“I don’t really need anything to eat yet, either,” he said.

“Oh — haven’t you come far?”

“No, only last night. Where do you come from, lady?”

“From the town. I’ve been on holiday.”

“That’s what I thought,” he said, nodding his head.

“I’ve been up at the Tore Peak farm,” she added.

“The Tore Peak? So.”

“Do you know it?”

“No, but I know some of the people there.”

A pause.

“Josephine’s there,” he resumed.

“Yes. Do you know her?”

“Oh, no.”

They talked a little more. The boat sailed on, and they sat there talking; it was all they had to do. She asked where he came from and what his trade was, and it seemed he was nothing important, only a paltry carpenter, and his mother had a small farm. Would the lady like a simple cup of coffee?

“Why, yes, thank you.” Could she have a little of his, “just a little in the saucer?”

She poured some of the coffee into the saucer and asked for a bite of food as well. Never had food tasted so good, and when she had finished, she thanked him for that, too.

“Haven’t you a berth?” he asked.

“Yes, but I’d rather stay here,” she said. “If I go below, I’ll be sick.”

“That’s what I thought. Well, now I wonder —”

With that he got up and walked slowly and heavily away. She watched his back disappearing down the companion to the lower deck.

She waited for him a long time, fearing that someone else might come and take his place. Coffee from the saucer, a good-sized sandwich with the carpenter: nothing wily or unnatural about that; this sheltered corner seemed to her like a tiny foothold in life.

There he was, coming back with more food and coffee, a whole tray in his big hands. He laughed good-naturedly at himself for walking so carefully.

She threw up her hands and overdid things a little:

“Great heavens! Really, you’re much, much too kind!”

“Well, I thought since you were sitting here anyhow —”

They both ate; she grew warm and sleepy, and leaned back half-dozing. Every time she opened her eyes, she saw the carpenter lighting his pipe; he struck two or three matches at once, but he was in no hurry; they were always half burned before he put his pipe in his mouth and began to suck at it. The schoolmaster called something to him, drew his attention to something far inland, but the carpenter merely nodded and said nothing.

“I wonder if he’s afraid he’ll wake me,” she thought.

At one stop, her former traveling companion turned up again; he had been below in the cabin.

“Aren’t you coming down, Ingeborg?” he asked.

She did not reply.

The carpenter looked from one to the other.

“Miss Torsen, then!” whimpered the traveling companion playfully. He stood waiting a moment, and finally went away.

“Ingeborg,” the carpenter was probably thinking. “Miss Torsen,” he was thinking.

“How long will you be in the town?” she asked, getting up.

“Oh, I’ll be there some time.”

“What are you doing there?”

He was a little embarrassed, and since his skin was so fair, she could see at once that he reddened. He bent forward, planting his elbows on his knees before he replied.

“I want to learn a little more in my trade, be an apprentice, maybe. It all depends.”

“Oh, I see.”

“What do you think of it?” he asked.

“I think it’s a good idea.”

“Do you?”

They were on deck nearly the whole of the day, but toward evening it turned bitter cold and windy. When she had grown stiff with sitting, she got up and stamped her feet, and when she had stamped till she was tired, she sat down again. Once when she was standing a little distance away, she saw the carpenter place a parcel on the bench as though to keep her seat for her.

Her quondam traveling companion stuck his head out of a doorway, the wind blowing his hair forward over his forehead, and cried:

“Ingeborg, go below, will you!”

“Oh,” she groaned. Suddenly she was seized with fury. The ship heeled over on its side as she walked toward him, and she had to take a few skips to keep her balance.

“I don’t want you to talk to me again,” she hissed at him. “Do you hear? I mean it, by all that’s holy!”

“Good gracious!” he exclaimed and disappeared.

At about three o’clock, the carpenter turned up with coffee and sandwiches again.

“Really you mustn’t be doing this all the time,” she said.

He merely laughed good-naturedly again, and told her to eat if she thought it was good enough.

“We’ll soon be there now,” she said as she ate. “Have you someone to go to?”

“Oh, yes, I have a sister.”

Slowly and thoughtfully he took another sandwich and turned it over, looking at it absently before he took a bite out of it. When he had finished one mouthful, he took another. And when he had finished that one, too, he said:

“I thought that as I’m going to stay in town over the winter, I’d better learn something. And what with the farm as well —”

“Yes, indeed.”

“You think so too?”

“Oh, yes. I think so.”

Why did he tell her about his private affairs? She had private affairs of her own. She thanked him for the sandwiches and got up.

As the boat drew alongside the pier, he offered her his hand and said:

“My name is Nikolai.”

“Oh, yes?”

“I thought in case we meet again — Nikolai Palm — but I expect the town’s too big —”

“Yes, I expect it is. Well, thanks ever so much for all your kindness. Good-bye.”

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