Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXXIV

It was between Christmas and the New Year, and I had accompanied Nikolai to his home. Since the town workshop was closed in any case, he had decided to go home and fell timber in the woods.

It was a big farmhouse, enlarged from the old cottage by Nikolai’s father, while Nikolai himself had moved up the roof and built on a second story. He has plenty of room for me; I have a small room to myself.

His mother is hard-working and honest; she has a few animals to see to, and usually she is washing something or other, even if it is nothing more than some empty potato sacks. She cooks on the kitchen stove, and keeps her pots and pans shining. She is cleanly, and strains her milk through a muslin cloth, which she afterward washes and rinses twice. But she picks food remnants from between the prongs of forks with a hairpin!

A mirror, pictures of the German Kaiser’s family, and a crucifix hang on the walls of the living room; in one corner are two shelves with oddments, including a hymnbook and a book of sermons. They are still simple and orthodox in these parts. The rest of the furniture in the house, the chairs and tables and cupboards and a cleverly constructed chest, have all been made by Nikolai himself.

Nikolai is just as slow and speechless here as in the town; the day after we arrived he went out to the woods without telling his mother. When I asked for him, she said:

“I saw him take the sleigh, so I expect he’s gone to the woods.”

His mother’s name is Petra, and judging from her appearance she cannot be much over forty; like her son, she is ruddy and big-muscled, with a fair complexion and thick, graying hair, a veritable lion’s mane. Her eyes are good companions to her hair — dark, and a little worn now, but still good enough to see far and sharply across the fjord. She, too, is taciturn, like all the peasants here, and usually keeps her large mouth shut.

I ask her how long she has been a widow, and she says, “For nearly a generation — no, don’t let me tell a lie,” she corrects herself. “Sophie is four and twenty now, and it was the year after her birth that he died.”

They had only been married a couple of years. Nikolai is six and twenty.

I ponder over this arithmetic, but as I am old and incapable, I cannot make it tally.

Petra was very proud of her children, especially Sophie, who had gone to school and passed an examination, and now held such an important post. Of course her inheritance was used up, but she had her learning instead. Nobody could ever take that from her. A big, handsome girl, Sophie — look, here is her portrait.

I said I had met her at Tore Peak.

At Tore Peak? Oh, yes, she spent her summers there so as to be among her equals; you couldn’t blame her for that. But she came home every year, too, as sure as the year came round itself. So I had met her at Tore Peak?

Sometimes I went with Nikolai to the forest for timber, and made myself slightly useful. He is as strong as an ox, and has endurance almost to the point of insensibility — a cut, black eye — nothing. And now it becomes evident that his brain works well, too. He should have had a horse, yes, but he cannot keep a horse till he can provide more fodder. But he cannot buy more pasture land till he has more money. But he was learning more about his trade in the town, and when he had finished his course of training, he would earn more money. After that he would buy a horse.

I visited the neighbors, too. The farms were small, but the farmers cultivated as much land as they required, and there was no poverty. Here were no flowerpots in the windows or pictures on the walls, as at Petra’s; but good, thick furs with woven backs hung over the doors, and the children looked healthy and well-fed. The neighbors all knew I lived at Petra’s house; every visitor to this district lived at Petra’s house — had done so as long as they could remember. I could sense no hostility to Petra in these silent people, but the old schoolmaster was more talkative, and he was quite ready to spread gossip about her. This man was a bachelor; he had his own house and did his own housework. Had he, perhaps, at some time felt a secret desire for the widow Petra?

The schoolmaster gossiped thus:

People who had visited the village in Petra’s girlhood always used to live at her parents’ house. There was a room and a loft, and the engineer that planned the big road lived there, and so did the two traveling preachers, to say nothing of the itinerant peddlers who toured the district all the year round. So it went on for many a year, with the children growing up, and Petra getting big and hearty. Then Palm came; he was a Swede, a big merchant — a wholesale merchant, one might almost say, for that period, with his own boat and even a boy to carry his wares. Well, there were glass panes again in the windows of Petra’s parents’ house, and there was meat on Sundays, for Palm liked things done in style. He gave Petra presents of dress materials and sweets. Then he was finished with Petra, and went away to do business elsewhere. But it happened that the child Petra gave birth to was a boy, and when Palm returned and saw him, he stayed, and traveled no more. They married, and Palm added two rooms to the house, for it was his intention to open a shop there. But when he had built honestly and well, he died. His widow was left with two small children, but she had means enough, for Palm had had plenty of money. Then why did not Petra remarry? She could have got a man in spite of the handicap of two small children, for Petra herself was still a young girl. But from her childhood days, said the schoolmaster, she had been spoiled by this love of roving company, and again housed itinerant tramps and Swedes and peddlers, and thoroughly disgraced herself. Some of them stayed there for weeks, eating and drinking and idling. It was shameful. Her parents saw nothing wrong in this because it had always been their way of living, and besides it brought them a little money. So the years went by. When the children were grown and Sophie was out of the way, she might have married even then, for she still had half her money left, and being childless again, it was not too late. But no, Petra didn’t want to, and it was too late, she said; it was the children’s turn to marry now, she said.

“Well, she’s pretty old now, isn’t she?” I said.

“Yes, time passes,” the schoolmaster replied. “I don’t know whether anyone has asked her this year, but last year there was someone — one person — or so I’ve heard, so I’ve been told. But Petra didn’t want to. If I could only guess what she’s waiting for.”

“Perhaps she’s not waiting at all.”

“Well, it’s all the same to me,” says the schoolmaster. “But she takes in all these tramps and peddlers and carries on and makes a public nuisance of herself. . . . ”

As I walked home from the schoolmaster’s, I found I understood Petra’s arithmetic much better.

Nikolai has gone back to his workshop in the town, but I have remained behind. It matters little where I am, for the winter makes a dead man of me in any case.

To pass the time, I carefully measure the piece of land that Nikolai is going to break up when he can afford it, and I calculate what it will cost him, with drainage and everything: a bare two hundred kroner. Then he could keep a horse. It would have been an act of charity to give him this money in case his mother could not. He could have added another field to his land then.

“Look here, Petra — why don’t you give Nikolai the two hundred kroner he needs for fodder for a horse?”

“And four hundred to buy the horse,” she muttered.

“That makes six.”

“I haven’t got such a lot of six hundred kroners lying about.”

“But wouldn’t the horse be useful for plowing?”

A pause. Then:

“He can break the ground himself.”

I was not unfamiliar with this line of reasoning. Everyone has his own problems, and Petra had hers. But the strange thing is that each one of us struggles for himself as though he had a hundred years to live. I once knew two brothers named Martinsen who owned a large farm, the produce of which they sold. Both were well-to-do bachelors without heirs. But both had diseased lungs, the younger brother’s much worse than the elder’s. In the spring, the younger brother became permanently bedridden, but though he approached his end, he still maintained an interest in everything that went on at the farm. He heard strangers talking in the kitchen and called his brother in.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Only someone to buy eggs.”

“What’s the price per score now?”

His brother told him.

“Then give him the small eggs,” he cautioned.

A few days later he was dead. His brother lived till his sixty-seventh year, though his lungs were diseased. When anybody came to buy eggs, he always gave him the smallest. . . .

“But,” I insisted to Petra, “Nikolai doesn’t want to waste time breaking his ground himself, does he? Surely if he works at his trade he’ll earn more!”

“They don’t pay for joinery here,” Petra replied. “People buy their chairs and tables from the shops now; it’s cheaper.”

“Then why is Nikolai working as an apprentice?”

“I’ve asked him the same question,” she replied. “Nikolai just wants to be a carpenter, but it won’t get him anywhere. Still, he can do as he likes.”

“Well, what else could he do?”

A pause. Petra’s big mouth is closed. But at length she says:

“There’s plenty of traffic now and a lot of tourists in the summer, both at Tore Peak and down here on the headland. One time we had two Danes living here; they had traveled on foot. ‘If you had a horse, you could have driven us here,’ they said to me.”

“Ah,” I thought to myself, “the cat sticking its nose out of the bag!”

“‘You’ve got a big house and four rooms,’ the Danes said, and ‘There are high mountains and big woods,’ they said, ‘and fish in the fjord and fish in the river; there are lots of things here, and there’s a broad road here,’ they said. Nikolai was standing next to them and heard it all, too. ‘Now we’re here,’ they said, ‘but we can’t get away again unless we walk.’”

Just to say something, I asked her:

“Four rooms — I thought you only had three?”

“Yes, but the workshop could be turned into a room, too,” the big mouth replied.

“So that’s it!” I thought. With hardly a pause, I continued:

“But if Nikolai were going to deal with tourists, he’d have to get a horse, wouldn’t he?”

“Well, I suppose we could have managed it,” Petra replied.

“It’s four hundred kroner.”

“Yes,” she said, “and the carriage a hundred and fifty.”

“But this land won’t feed a horse!”

“What do other people feed horses on?” she asked. “They buy sacks of oats on the headland.”

“That’s eighteen kroner a sack.”

“No, seventeen. And you earn as much as that on your first tourist.”

Yes, Petra had it all figured out; she was the born landlady, and had grown up in a lodginghouse. She could cook, too, for had she not put two snakes of Italian macaroni in the barley broth? The money for coffee, for the bed at night and waffles in the morning, had grown so dear to her that she hid it away, watched it increase, and grew rich on it. She did not produce like other peasant women, but no one can do everything at one time, and Petra was a parasite. She did not want to live by earning something; she wanted to live on the tourists who earned enough themselves, and could afford to come.

Splendor and Englishmen, no doubt, in these parts! If it all works out as it should — and it probably will.

It is February. I have an idea, a vagrant idea that comes to me, and I harbor it: now that there is a little snow, and its crust is hard, I shall walk across the fields into Sweden. That is what I shall do.

But before I can do it, I must wait for my laundry, and Petra, who is cleanly, washes in many waters. So I pass the time in Nikolai’s workshop, where there are many kinds of planes and saws and drills and lathes, and there I fashion strange things. For the small boys of the neighboring farm, I make a windmill that will really turn in the wind. It whirls and rattles well, and I remember my own childhood when we called this apparatus onomatopoeically a windwhirr.

Besides this, I go out walking, and use my winter head as well as I can, which is not very well. I do not blame the winter, nor do I blame anything. But where are the red-hot irons and the youth of omnipotence? For hours sometimes I walk along a path in the woods with my hands folded on my back, an old man, my mind gilded for a moment by an occasional memory; I stop, and raise my eyebrows in surprise. Can this be an iron in the fire? It is not, for it fades again, and I am left behind in a quiet melancholy.

But in order to recall my young days, I pretend to be filled with a heaven-sent energy. It is by no means all pretense, and pictures rise in my mind, fragmentary flageolet tones:

We came from the meadow

and downy heather;

we came from friendship,

too-loo-loo-lay!

A star that watched

saw lips meet lips.

None else so dear,

so sweet as you.

Those youthful days,

those happy days,

unmatched since then!

but what am I now?

The bees once swarmed,

the swan once played.

There’s no play now,

yet too-loo-loo-lay!

I break off, and put the pencil in my pocket with a tone still resounding within me. I walk on with some pleasure to myself, at least.

There is a letter for me. Who on earth has found me out here? The letter is as follows:

Forgive me for writing you, but I should like to talk to you about something that has happened. I should like to see you as soon as you come back. There’s nothing the matter. Please don’t say no.

Yours,

Ingeborg Torsen

I reread it many times. “Something that has happened.” But I’m going to Sweden, I’m going to move about a little, and stop losing myself in the affairs of others. Do they think I am mankind’s old uncle, that I can be summoned hither and thither to give advice? Excuse me, but I am going to assert myself and become quite inaccessible; the snow is just right, and I have planned a big journey — a business tour, I might almost call it, very important to me — I have a great deal at stake. . . . How composite is the mind of man! As I sit talking drivel to myself, and even sometimes saying an angry word aloud in order that Petra may hear it, I am not at all displeased at having received this letter; in fact secretly I am so pleased that I feel ashamed. It is merely because I shall soon see the town again — the town with its frostbitten gardens and its ships.

But what on earth can this mean? Has she been to my landlady’s and got my address? Or has she met Nikolai?

I left at once.

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