Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXXIII

Today, the first of October forty years ago, we drove the snowplow at home. Yes, I regret to say that I remember forty years ago.

Nothing escapes my attention yet, but everything moves past me. I sit in the gallery looking on. If Nikolai the carpenter had been observant, he would have seen my fingers closing and opening again, my absurdity augmented by affectation and grimacing. Fortunately he was a child. In the end I left it all behind me, and took my proper seat. My address is the chimney corner.

Now it is winter again, with snow over the north, and Anglo-Saxon claptrap in the town. This is my desolate period; my wheels stop, my hair stops growing, my nails stop growing, everything stops growing but the days of my life. And it is well that my days increase — from now on it is well.

Not much happens during the winter. Well, of course, Nikolai has got an overcoat for the first time in his life. He didn’t really need it, he says, but he bought it because of the advertisement; and it was dear, twenty kroner, but he got it for eighteen! I am sure Nikolai is much happier about his overcoat than Flaten is about his.

But let me not forget Flaten, for something has happened to him. His friends have given him a farewell party and drunk him out of bachelordom, for he is going to marry. It is Miss Torsen who told me this; I met her by accident again under her own lamppost, and she told me then.

“And you’re not wearing mourning?” I said.

“Oh, no,” she said, smiling. “No, it’s something I’ve known a long time. Besides, perhaps I’m not very faithful; I don’t know.”

“I think you’ve hit the truth there.”

She looked startled.

“What do you mean?”

“I think you’ve changed very much since last summer. You were straight and competent then, you saw clearly, you knew what you wanted. What’s happened to your tinge of bitterness? Or have you no longer reason to be bitter?”

This was all too gravely spoken, but I was like a father and meant well.

She began to walk on, her head bent in thought. Then she said something very sensible:

“Last summer I had just lost my livelihood. I’m telling you things exactly as they were. I lost my post, which was a very serious matter. This made me reflect for a time; that’s true. But then — I don’t know — I’m quite adult, but not adult enough. I have two sisters who are really steady; they’re married and quite settled, though they’re younger than I. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“Would you like to go to a concert with me?” I asked.

“Now? No, thank you, I’m not dressed for it.”

A pause.

“But it’s kind of you to ask me!” she said with sudden pleasure. “It might have been very nice, but — well, you must let me tell you about the dinner party, the banquet; what a lot of pranks they thought of!”

She was right about that; these jolly young people had played a great many pranks, some of them childish and stupid, others not too bad. First they had drunk wine of the vintage of 1812. No, first of all, Flaten was sent an invitation, of course, and it consisted of a painting, a very emancipated painting in a frame, the only written words being the date and the place, and the legend: Ballads, Bachiads, Offenbachiads, Bacchanales. Then there were speeches for him who was about to leave them, and generally speaking a most deafening shouting over the wineglasses. And there was music, with someone of the company playing all the time.

But as the evening wore on, this sort of thing was not enough, and girls with their faces masked were brought in to dance. As there had been a great deal of champagne, however, this part of the program tended to deteriorate into something different, and the girls had to be sent away. Then the gentlemen went down to the hotel lobby and stood at the door watching for “opportunities.”

There — a young woman approached carrying a baby and a bundle of clothes. Great, wet flakes of snow were drifting down, and she bent forward over the child to shelter it as she walked.

“Whoa!” said the gentleman and caught hold of her. “Is that your child!”

“Yes, he’s mine.”

“What, a boy?”

“Yes.”

They talked more with her; she was thin and young, evidently a servant girl. They also looked at the child, and Helgesen and Lind, who were both short-sighted, polished their glasses and inspected it carefully.

“Are you going off to drown the child?” somebody says.

“No,” says the girl in confusion.

That was a nasty question, all the others agreed, and the first one admitted it. He went off to fetch his raincoat, and hung it over the girl’s shoulders. Then he tickled the child under the chin and made it smile — a marvel of a child, human bones and rags and dirt all in one little bundle.

“Poor bastard,” he said. “Born of a maiden!”

“That’s better!” the others remarked. “Now let’s do something,” they said. “Where do you live?” to the girl.

“I’ve lived at such and such places,” she replied. “Have lived; very well, this is what we’ll do,” one of them said, taking out his pocketbook. The others followed suit, and a great deal of money was pushed into the girl’s hand.

“Wait a minute — wait — I haven’t given her enough; I asked her such a nasty question,” said the first of them.

“Neither have I,” said another, “because we all thought the same thing, but now we’re going to settle some money on this son of a maiden!”

A collection was taken up, with Helgesen as the cashier. Then Bengt hailed a cab, invited the girl to enter, and got in after her.

“Go ahead — I want to go to Langes Street!” he called to the driver.

Bengt was taking the child home to his mother, the others said. The group were rather silent after this.

“Your eyes are so ridiculously wet, Bolt; are you crying about the money?”

“What about you?” Bolt replied. “You’re as sentimental as an old woman!”

They grew cheerful again, and there were further “opportunities.” A peasant came down the street with a cow he was taking to the butcher’s.

“What will you charge for letting our guest of honor ride your cow?” young Rolandsen asked him. The peasant smiled and shook his head. So they bought the cow from him, paying cash for it. “Wait a minute,” they said to the peasant. Then they put a label on the cow, addressed to a lady they knew.

“Take it to this address,” they said to the peasant.

By the time they had finished with this, Bengt had returned.

“Where have you been?” they asked in surprise.

“The old lady said yes,” was all he replied.

“Hurrah!” they all shouted. “Let’s drink to the baby! Here, let’s go to the bar. Did she really say yes? Hurrah for the old lady, too! What are we standing here for? Let’s walk into the bar!”

“Walk!” someone mocks. “No, indeed, we’ll drive-waiter, cars!”

The waiter rushed inside to telephone. It took some time, as it was getting late, but the gentlemen waited. It was already closing time and people were streaming out of the bar. At length the cars arrived, ten of them, one for each man. The gentlemen entered them.

“Where to?” asked the drivers.

“Next door,” they said.

So the cars drove up to the next door of the same house, that being the bar, and there the gentlemen gravely got out and paid the drivers.

The bar was closed.

“Shall we break in?” they said.

“Of course,” they said.

So they all ran against the door together, till it said ump! and flew open. The night watchman rushed at them, shouting, and they caught hold of him, slapped him on the back, and embraced him. Then they went behind the counter and got out bottles for him and for themselves, drinking and shouting hurrah for the baby, for Bengt’s mother, for the baby’s mother, for the night watchman, for love and for life. When they had done, they put some banknotes over the night watchman’s mouth and tied a handkerchief over them. Then they went back to the dining room.

The supper was served. Flaten’s plate was a red silk bedroom slipper lined with glass. They ate and drank and rollicked as long as they had the strength; the hours passed, and dawn approached. Then Flaten began to distribute souvenirs among them. One got his watch, another his pocketbook (which was empty), a third his tie pin. After this he went on to his shoes, giving one to each of two friends, his trousers to another, and his shirt to still another, till at length he sat there in the nude. Next they collected quilts from the hotel bedrooms to wrap him up in — red silk eiderdown quilts. Flaten fell asleep and the other nine watched over him. He slept for an hour; it was morning then, and they woke him up. He started up from the quilts, found he was naked, and sent home for some more clothes. And then the party began all over again. . . .

Later we were discussing Miss Torsen’s story; she had forgotten one or two details which she filled in afterwards.

“Anyhow, it was lucky for the girl with the baby,” she said.

“And for the baby itself,” I said.

“Yes. But what an idea! Poor old lady, to be told such a tale!”

“Some day perhaps you’ll change your mind about that.”

“You think so? But it would have been nicer still if I’d got the money they settled on the child.”

“You’ll change your mind about that, too.”

“Shall I? Why? When?”

“When you yourself have a baby that smiles at you.”

“Ugh, how can you say such things!”

She must have misunderstood my meaning, for she was childishly offended. To restore her to good humor I asked at random:

“What sort of food did you get at the party?”

“Don’t know,” she replied.

“Don’t you know?”

“Good lord, no — I wasn’t there,” she returned in the greatest amazement.

“Well, no, of course not, I only thought —”

“Oh, so that’s it. That’s what you thought!” she said, still more offended. And she clasped her hands as she had done in the summer, and tore them apart again.

“Really and truly, I do assure you — look here, honestly — I only thought you were taking a culinary interest. After all, you do learn cooking and such in the daytime.”

“Oh, so you just make conversation with me; you adapt your speech to suit my narrow outlook!”

A pause.

“Anyhow, perhaps you’re right up to a point; I might have asked about the food, only I forgot.”

She seemed very irritable that evening. Would it interest her to talk about Flaten? A little apprehensively, I ventured:

“But you haven’t told me whom Flaten is going to marry.”

“She’s not pretty at all,” she replied suddenly. “What do you want to know for? You don’t know her.”

“I suppose Flaten will be entering his father’s firm now?” I persisted.

“Oh, damn Flaten! You seem to care about him a lot more than I do! Flaten, Flaten, Flaten — how should I know if he’s going to enter his father’s firm!”

“I only thought once he’s married —”

“But she’s got money, too. No, I don’t think he’s going into his father’s firm. He said once he wanted to edit a paper. Well, what’s so funny about that?”

“I’m not laughing.”

“Yes, you were. Anyhow, Flaten wants to edit a paper. And since Lind publishes a kennel journal, Flaten wants to publish a human journal, he says.”

“A human journal?”

“Yes. And you ought to subscribe to it,” she added suddenly, almost throwing the words into my face.

She was now in a state of excitement the cause of which I did not understand, so I remained silent, merely replying, “Ought I? Yes, perhaps I ought.” Then she began to cry.

“Dear child, don’t cry. I shan’t torment you any more.”

“You’re not tormenting me.”

“Yes, by talking nonsense; I don’t seem to strike the right note.”

“Yes, go on talking — that isn’t it — I don’t know —”

What could I say to her? But since there is, after all, nothing so interesting as a question about oneself, I said:

“You’re nervous about something, but it will pass. Perhaps — well, not at once, of course — but perhaps it has hurt you that — well, that he’s going his own way now. But remember —”

“You’re wrong,” she said, shaking her head. “That doesn’t really mean anything to me; I was just slightly attracted to him.”

“But you said he was the only one!”

“Oh — you know, you think that sort of thing sometimes. Of course I’ve been in love with other people, too; I can’t deny that. Flaten was very nice, and took me out driving sometimes, or to a dance or something like that. And of course I was proud of his paying attention to me in spite of my having lost my post. I think I could have got a job in his father’s shop but — anyhow, I’m looking for a job now.”

“Are you? I hope you’ll find a good one.”

“That’s just the point. But I’m not getting any job at all. That is, I shall in the end, of course, but — well, for instance, in old Flaten’s shop — I shouldn’t fit in there.”

“Not very good pay either, I expect?”

“I’m sure it’s not. And then — I don’t know; I feel I know too much for it. That wretched academic training of mine does nothing but harm. Oh, well, let’s not talk any more about me. It must be late; I’d better go.”

I saw her to her door, said good night, and went home. I thought about her ceaselessly. It was wintry weather, with raw streets and an invisible sky. No, really, she’s not suited for marriage. No man is served with a wife who is nothing but a student. Why has no one in the country noticed what the young women are coming to! Miss Torsen’s tale of the wild party proved how accustomed she was to sitting and listening, and then herself disgorging endless tales. She had done it very well and not omitted much, but she paid attention only to the fun. A grown-up, eternal schoolgirl, one who had studied her life away.

When I reached my own door, Miss Torsen arrived there at the same time; she had been close at my heels all the way. I guessed this from the fact that she was not in the least breathless as she spoke.

“I forgot to ask you to forgive me,” she said.

“My dear girl —?”

“Oh, for saying what I did. You mustn’t subscribe. I’m so sorry about that. Please be kind and forgive me.”

She took my hand and shook it.

In my amazement I stammered:

“It was really a very witty remark: a human journal — ha, ha! Now don’t stand there and get cold; put your gloves on again. Are you walking back?”

“Yes. Good night. Forgive me for the whole evening.”

“Let me take you home; why not stay a few minutes —”

“No, thank you.”

She pressed my hand firmly and left me.

I suppose she wanted to spare my aging legs, damn them! Nevertheless I stole after her to see that she got home safely.

It happened that Josephine came to the town — Josephine, that spirit of labor from the Tore Peak farm. I saw her, too, for she came to pay me a visit. She had looked up my address, and I joked with her again and called her Joséfriendly.

How was everybody at Tore Peak? Josephine had good news about all of them, but she shook her head over Paul. Not that he drank much now; but he did little of anything else either, and had definitely lost interest in his work. He wanted to sell the farm. He wanted to try carting and delivery by horse cart in Stordalen. I asked if he had any prospective purchaser. Yes; Einar, one of the cotters, had had rather an eye on the farm. It all depended on Manufacturer Brede, who had put so much money into it.

I remembered her father, the old man from another world, the man with mittens, who had to be spoon-fed on porridge because he was ninety, who smelled like an unburied corpse. I remembered him and asked Josephine:

“Well, I expect your old father is dead by now?”

“No, praise be,” she replied. “Father is better than we dared hope. We must be thankful he’s still on his feet.”

I took Josephine to the cinema and the circus, and she thought it all quite delightful. But she was shocked at the behavior of the ladies who rode with so little clothing on. She wanted to go to one of the great churches, too, and found her way there alone. For several days she was in the town and did a good deal of shopping. I never once saw her dejected or brooding about anything, and at length she said good-bye, because she was going back next day.

Oh, so she was going home?

Yes, she had done what she had come to do. She had also been to see Miss Torsen and got the money for the actor, because of course he had never sent it.

“Poor Miss Torsen! She was furious with him for not sending it, and turned quite red and ashamed, too. She didn’t seem to find it very easy either, because she asked me to wait till next day, but she gave it to me then.”

So Josephine had nothing more to do in the town. She had just visited Miss Palm, but she had not, on this occasion, met Miss Palm’s brother, Nikolai, who was apprenticed to a master carpenter. Not that it mattered, Josephine said, because the last time she had seen him, nothing came of it, anyhow. So that was that. Because she was not a one to beg — she had some money of her own and livestock as well. As far as that was concerned, she had some woolen blankets, and two beds complete with bedding, too, nor did she lack clothes: she had many changes, both underthings and top ones. Yet in spite of that she had started some more weaving.

I asked in some surprise whether they had been engaged. I had had no inkling —

No, but —. Well, not exactly engaged with a ring, and plighting the troth and all. But that had been their intention. Because otherwise why should that schoolmistress, that sister of his, Sophie Palm, have come up and stayed for nothing at the Tore Peak farm for two whole summers, and behaved as though she were a lady? No, thank you, that was the end of that. Anyhow, that was what she, Josephine, had thought once, but it was a Providence that it wasn’t going to happen, because there would never have been anything but trouble. So it was just as well.

Suddenly Josephine caught herself up:

“Good gracious — I nearly forgot to buy the indigo. It’s for my weaving. Lucky I remembered it! Well — thanks for your hospitality.”

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