Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXXII

I ask Miss Torsen:

“Have you met the carpenter since?”

“What carpenter? Oh — no, I haven’t. I only told you about him because he’s a sort of mutual acquaintance.”

“Acquaintance?”

“Yes, of yours and mine. Only indirectly, of course. He happens to be the brother of that schoolmistress Miss Palm that was at the Tore Peak farm last summer.”

“Well, the world’s a small place. We all belong to the same family.”

“And that’s why I’ve told you all this about him.”

“But you didn’t find out about this relationship on the boat, did you? So you must have met him since.”

“Yes — well, no, that is to say I’ve seen him a few times, but not to speak to. We just said good morning and how are you and so on. Then he said he was her brother.”

“Ha, ha, ha!”

“It was just in passing, quite by accident.”

This gave me a good opportunity for saying: “What a lot of things are accidental! It was an accident that I should have stopped under a particular lamppost to look up something, to read a few lines. And then you happened to live there.”

“That’s right.”

“I expect you and the carpenter will be getting married,” I said.

“Ha, ha! No, indeed, I shan’t marry anyone.”

“No?”

“You have to be pretty naïve to marry.”

“Well, I don’t know that being naïve does any harm — being not quite so clever. Where does your cleverness lead you? Only to being cheated. Because there isn’t anybody who’s quite clever enough.”

“I should have thought being clever is just the thing to protect you against being cheated. What else would it do?”

“Exactly. What else? But the trouble is we trust our cleverness so much that we get cheated that way. Or else we let things go from bad to worse, because why should we worry? After all we’ve got our cleverness to help get us out of the mess!”

“Well, in that case it’s pretty hopeless!”

“Relying on your cleverness — yes. That was your own opinion last summer, you know.”

“Yes, I remember that. I thought — oh, I don’t know. But when I came back to town again it was as though —”

A pause.

“I don’t know what to think,” she said.

“And I do because I’m old and wise. You see, Miss Torsen, in the old days people didn’t think so much about cleverness and secondary schools and the right to vote; they lived their lives on a different plane, they were naïve. I wonder if that wasn’t a pretty good way to live. Of course people were cheated in those days, too, but they didn’t smart under it so; they bore it with greater natural strength. We have lost our healthy powers of endurance.”

“It’s getting cold,” she said. “Shall we go home? — Yes, of course that’s all quite true, but we’re living in modern times. We can’t change the times; I can’t, at any rate; I’ve got to keep up with the times.”

“Yes, that’s what it says in the Oslo morning paper. Because it used to say so in the Neue Freie Presse. But a person with character goes his own way up to a point, even if the majority go a different way.”

“Yes — well, I’m really going to tell you something now,” she said, stopping. “I go to a really sensible school during the day.”

“Do you?” I said.

“Only this time I’m learning housekeeping; isn’t that a good thing?”

“You mean you’re learning to cut sandwiches for yourself?”

“Ha, ha!”

“Well, you said you weren’t going to marry!”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“Very well. You marry; you settle down in his valley. But first you have to learn housekeeping so that you can make an omelette or possibly a pudding for tourists or Englishmen that pass through.”

“His valley? Whose valley?”

“You’d much better go to his mother’s and learn all the housekeeping you’re going to need from her.”

“Really, really,” she said smiling as she walked on again, “you’re quite on the wrong track. It isn’t he — it isn’t anybody.”

“So much the worse for you. There ought to be somebody.”

“Yes, but suppose it’s not the one I want.”

“Oh, yes, it will be the one you want. You’re big enough and handsome enough and capable enough.”

“Thank you very much, but — well. Thanks so much. Good night.”

Why did she break off so suddenly and leave me so hurriedly, almost at a run? Was she crying? I should have liked to have said more, to have been wise and circumstantial and made useful suggestions, but I was left standing in a kind of stupid surprise.

Then something happened.

“We haven’t seen each other for such a long time,” she said, the next time we met. “I’m so glad to see you again. Shall we take a short walk? I was just —”

“Going to post a letter, I see.”

“Yes, I was going to post a letter. It’s only — it’s not —”

We went to a newspaper office with the letter. It was evidently an advertisement; perhaps she was trying to find a situation.

As she came out of the office a gentleman greeted her. She turned a deep red, and stopped for a moment at the top of the two stone steps leading from the entrance. Her head was bent almost to her chest, as though she were looking very carefully at the steps before venturing to come down them. They greeted each other again; the stranger shook her hand, and they began to talk.

He was a man of her own age, good-looking, with a soft, fair beard, and dark eyebrows that looked as though he had blacked them. He wore a top hat, and his overcoat, which was open, was lined with silk.

I heard them mention an evening of the previous week on which they had enjoyed themselves; it had been a relaxation. There had been quite a party, first out driving, then at supper together. It was a memory they had in common. Miss Torsen didn’t say much. She seemed a little embarrassed, but smiling and beautiful. I began to look at the illustrated papers displayed in the window, when suddenly the thought struck me: “Good God, she’s in love!”

“Look, I have a suggestion,” he said. Then they discussed something, agreed about something, and she nodded. After that he left her.

She came toward me slowly and in silence. I spoke to her about some of the pictures in the window. “Yes,” she said, “just think!” But she gazed at them without seeing anything. Silently we walked on, and for several minutes, at least, she said nothing.

“Hans Flaten never changes,” she said finally.

“Is that who it was?” I asked.

“His name’s Flaten.”

“Yes, I remember you mentioned the name last summer. Who is he?”

“His father’s a merchant.”

“But he himself?”

“His father owns the big shop in Almes Street, you know.”

“Yes, but what about him; what does he do?”

“I don’t know if he does anything special; he just studies. His father’s so rich, you know.”

I recalled old Flaten’s shop in Almes Street, a good, solid countryman’s shop; in the mornings the yard was always full of horses, while the owners were busy making purchases in the shop.

“He’s such a man of the world,” she went on. “He simply throws money about — banknotes. When he goes anywhere, the people all whisper, ‘That’s Flaten!’”

“He dresses as though he were a baron,” I said.

“Yes,” she replied, rather offended. “Yes, he dresses well — always has.”

“Is that the man you want?” I asked lightly.

She was silent a moment, and then said with a resolute nod:

“Yes.”

“What — that dandy?”

“Why not? We’re old friends, we’ve gone to school together, spent a lot of time together. It’s really based on a firm foundation. He’s the only man I’ve ever been in love with in all my life, and it’s lasted many years. Sometimes, I’ll admit, I forget him, but the moment I see him again, I’m as much in love as ever. I’ve told him so, and we both laugh about it, but that doesn’t change it. It’s queer.”

“Then I suppose he’s too rich to marry her,” I thought, and asked nothing more.

When we parted, I said:

“Where does Carpenter Nikolai work?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Oh, yes, I do know. We’re near there, and I can show you if you like. What do you want to see him for?”

“Nothing. I just wondered if he’s at a good place, with a competent master.”

Why did I, indeed, want to see Carpenter Nikolai, the artisan? Yet I have visited him and made his acquaintance. He is a bull in stature, strong and plain-featured, a man of few words. Last Saturday we saw the town together; why, I don’t know, but I suggested it myself.

I made friends with the carpenter for my own sake, because of my loneliness. I no longer went to the benches by the shore, as the weather was a little too cold, and Miss Torsen interested me very little now; she had changed so much since returning to the town. She had become more the ordinary type of girl, not in any one thing, but in general. She thought of nothing but vanities and nonsense, and seemed quite to have forgotten her last summer’s wholesome, bitter view of life. Now she was back at school again, in her leisure hours meeting the gentleman named Flaten, and this occupied all of her time. Either she had no depths, or she had been vitiated in the vital years of adolescence.

“What do you expect me to do?” she asked. “Of course I’m going to school again; I’ve been going to school ever since I was a child. I’m no good at anything else. I can only learn — that’s what I’m used to. There isn’t much I can think or do on my own, and I don’t enjoy it either. So what do you expect?”

No, what could I expect?

Carpenter Nikolai went to the circus. He was not much surprised at anything he saw there, or he pretended not to be. The acrobatics on horseback —“Well, not bad, but after all —!” The tiger —“I thought tigers were much bigger!” Besides, his big, heavy head seemed preoccupied with other thoughts, and he paid little attention to the women riders who were doing their tricks.

On the way home he said:

“I ought not to ask you, I expect, but would you go to the Krone with me tomorrow evening?”

“The Krone — what’s that?”

“It’s a place where they dance.”

“A dance hall, in other words. Where is it? Do you feel so much like dancing?”

“No, not much.”

“You want to see what goes on there?”

“Yes.”

“All right, I’ll go.”

It was on a Sunday evening, the girls’ and boys’ own evening, that the carpenter and I went to the dance.

He had decked himself out in a starched collar and a heavy watch chain. But he was very young, and when you are young, you look well in anything. He had such remarkable strength that it was never necessary for him to give way; this had lent him assurance and authority. If you spoke to him, he was slow to reply, and if you slapped him on the shoulder, he was slow in turning round to see who had greeted him. He was a pleasant, good-humored companion.

We went to the booking office; there was no one there, and the window was closed. Moreover a notice on the wall announced that the hall was let to a private club for the first two hours of the evening.

A few young people came along as we were standing there, read the notice, and went away again. The carpenter was unwilling to go, looked round, and went in through the gate as though looking for someone.

“We can’t do anything about it,” I called after him.

“No,” he said. “But I wonder —?”

He crossed the yard and began to look up at all the windows.

A man came down the stairs.

“What is it?” he asked.

“My friend wanted to buy a ticket,” I replied. The carpenter still showed no inclination to return from the yard.

The man approached me, and proved to be the landlord. He explained, like the notice, that a club had rented the hall for the first two hours.

“Come along, we can’t get in!” I called to my companion.

But he was in no hurry, so I chatted with the landlord while waiting for him.

“Yes, it’s rather an exclusive club. Only eight couples, but just the same they’ve hired a full orchestra — rich people, you see.”

They had refreshments and plenty of champagne, and then they danced as though their lives depended on it. Why they did it? Oh, well, young people, rich and fashionable, bored by Sunday evening at home; they wanted to work off the week’s idleness in two hours, so they danced. Not unusual, really.

“And of course,” said the landlord, “I earn more in those two hours than in the whole of the evening otherwise. Liberal people — they don’t count the pennies. And yet there’s no wear and tear, because of course people like that don’t dance on their heels.”

The carpenter, who had come halfway back, stood listening to us.

“What sort of people are they, generally speaking?” I inquired. “Businessmen, officers, or what?”

“Excuse me, but I can’t tell you that,” replied the landlord. “It’s a private party; that’s all I can say. To-night, for instance, I don’t even know who they are. The money just came by special messenger.”

“It’s Flaten,” said the carpenter.

“Flaten — is it?” said the landlord, as though he did not know it. “Mr. Flaten has been here before; he’s a fine gentleman, always in fashionable company. So it’s Mr. Flaten, is it? Well, excuse me, I must have another look round the hall —”

The landlord left us.

But the carpenter followed him.

“Couldn’t we look on?” he asked.

“What, at the dancing? Oh, no.”

“In a corner somewhere?”

“No, I couldn’t allow that. I don’t even let my own wife and daughter in — nobody, not a soul. They wouldn’t like it.”

“Are you coming or —?” I called, as though for the last time.

“Yes, I’m coming,” said the carpenter, turning back.

“So you knew about this party?” I said.

“Yes,” he replied. “She talked about it last Friday.”

“Who talked about it? Miss Torsen?”

“Yes. She said I might sit in the gallery.”

We walked on down the street, each busy with his own thoughts — or perhaps with the same thought. I, at least, was furious.

“Really, my good Nikolai, I have no desire to buy tickets in order to look at Mr. Flaten and his ladies!”

“No.”

Curious idea of hers, inviting this man to watch her dance. It was preposterous, but like her. Last summer, too — did she not like a third party within hearing whenever she sailed close to the wind? A thought struck me, and I asked the carpenter as calmly as I could:

“Did Miss Torsen want me to sit in the gallery, too — did she say anything about that?”

“No,” he replied.

“Didn’t she say anything about me?”

“No.”

“You’re lying,” I thought, “and I daresay she’s told you to lie!” I was highly incensed, but I could not squeeze the truth out of the carpenter.

Cars rolled up behind us and stopped at the Krone. Nikolai turned and wanted to go back, but when he saw that I kept straight on, he hesitated a moment and then followed me. I heard him once sighing heavily.

We strolled the streets for an hour, while I cooled off and made myself agreeable to my companion again. We had a glass of beer together, then went to a cinema, and afterward to a shooting gallery. Finally we went to a skittle ground, where we stayed for some time. Nikolai was the first to want to leave; he looked at his watch, and was suddenly in a tearing hurry. He was hardly even willing to finish the game.

We had to pass the Krone again. The cars had gone.

“Just as I thought,” said the carpenter, looking very disappointed. I believe he would have liked to be present when the party came out to enter their cars. He looked up and down the empty street and repeated, “Just as I thought!” He was suddenly anxious to go home.

“No, let’s go inside,” I said.

It was a big, handsome hall with a platform for the orchestra, and a throng of people on the great floor. We sat in the gallery looking on.

There was a very mixed crowd: seamen, artisans, hotel staff, shop assistants, casual workers; the ladies were apparently seamstresses, servant girls, and shopgirls, with a sprinkling of light-footed damsels who had no daytime occupation. The floor was crowded with dancers. In addition to a constable whose duty it was to intervene if necessity arose, the establishment had its own commissionaire, who walked about the hall with a stick, keeping an eye on the assembled company. As soon as a dance was finished, the gentlemen all crowded to the platform and paid ten öre. If anyone seemed to be trying to cheat, the commissionaire would tap him politely on the arm with his stick. Gentlemen who had to be tapped many times were regarded as suspicious characters, and might, as a last resource, even be expelled. Order was admirably maintained.

Waltz, mazurka, schottische, square dance, waltz. I soon noticed a man who was dancing with great assiduity, never stopping once — tall, swarthy, lively — a heartbreaker. The ladies clustered round him.

“Can that be Solem down there dominating the crowd?” I thought.

“Wouldn’t you like to dance?” I asked Carpenter Nikolai.

“Oh, no,” he replied with a smile.

“Then we can leave any time you like.”

“All right,” he said and remained seated.

“Your thoughts seem to be far away.”

A long pause.

“I was thinking that I haven’t a horse on my farm. I have to carry all the manure and the wood myself.”

“So that’s why you’re so strong.”

“I’ll have to go home in a few days and chop wood for the winter.”

“Yes, of course you will.”

“I was going to say — ” he persisted, and then fell silent.

“Yes?”

“No, it’s no use suggesting it. I’d have liked you to come with me this winter, though — I’ve got a small spare room.”

“Why should I go there?” Still — it wasn’t a bad idea.

“It would be nice if you could,” said the carpenter.

Just then I heard the name of Solem mentioned in the hall. Yes, there he was, swaggering as usual, the self-same Solem from Tore Peak. He was standing alone, in high spirits, announcing that he was Solem —“Solem, my lad.” He appeared not to be in the company of any one lady, for I saw him choosing partners indiscriminately. Then he chose the wrong lady, and her partner shook his head and said no. Solem remembered that. He allowed the couple to dance the next dance, and when it was finished, approached again and bowed to the lady. Once more he was refused.

The lady’s appearance was striking — sophisticated or innocent, who could tell? Ash-blonde, tall, Grecian, in a black frock without trimming. How quiet and retiring she was! Of course she was a tart, but what a gentle one — a nun of vice, with a face as pure as that of a repentant sinner. Peerless!

This was a woman for Solem.

It was after he had received his second “No” from the gentleman that he began to talk, to tell everyone that he was “Solem, my lad.” But his boasts were dull: Something was going to happen; he would show them an image of sin! There was no sting in it; just old, familiar rubbish these people had heard before. The commissionaire crossed over to him and asked him to be quiet, pointing at the same time to the constable by the door. This pouring of oil on the waters was successful, for Solem himself said: “Hush, we mustn’t make trouble.” But he did not lose sight of the Grecian and her partner.

He allowed a few dances to pass again, himself engaging other partners to dance with. There was now a huge crowd, all the late-comers having by this time arrived. Many were crowded off the floor and had to wait, rushing to get first place in the next dance instead.

Then something happened.

A couple slipped and fell. It was Solem and his partner. As he was getting up again, he tripped up another couple — the Grecian and her partner, both of whom fell down. And Solem was so strangely clumsy as he rose that his long arms and legs brought down a third couple. In a few minutes there was a squirming heap on the floor; screams and oaths were heard, people grew angry and kicked one another, while Solem skillfully directed the disaster with sincere and wholehearted malevolence. Couple after couple met their Waterloo over those already fallen. The commissionaire poked them with his stick, exhorting them to get up; the constable himself assisted him, and the music stopped. In the meantime, Solem, acting with the better part of valor, slipped out of the room and did not return.

Gradually the fallen couples got to their feet again, rubbing their shins, dusting off their clothes, some laughing, others swearing. The Grecian lady’s partner had a bleeding wound on his temple, and put his hands to his head in a daze. Questions were being asked about that — what was his name? — that tall fellow who had started all the trouble. “Solem,” said some of the ladies. Threats were uttered against Solem: he was the one. “Go and find him, somebody — we’ll show him!”—“Why, he couldn’t help it,” said the ladies.

Ah, Solem, Solem — how the ladies loved him!

But the Grecian rose from the dust as from a bath. The sand from the floor clung to her black dress, making it look as though spangled with stardust. Submissively she accepted the lot of lying under all the others, entwined in their legs, and smiled when someone pointed out to her that the comb in her Grecian knot was crushed.

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