Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXXVI

You get used to everything; you even get used to the passage of two years.

And now it is spring again. . . .

It is market day in the frontier town; my room is noisy, for there is music down in the fields, the roundabout is whirling, the tightrope walker is gossiping outside his tent, and people of every sort throng the village. The crowds are great, and there is even a sprinkling of Norwegians from across the border. Horses snort and whinny, cows low, and trading is brisk.

In the display window of the goldsmith across the road, a great cow of silver has made its appearance, a handsome breeder that the local farmers stop to admire.

“She’s too smart for my crags,” says one of them with a laugh.

“What do you think’s her price?” says another with a laugh.

“Why, do you want to buy her?”

“No, haven’t got fodder enough this year.”

A man trudges placidly down the road and also stops in front of this window. I see him from behind, and take note of his massive back. He stands there a long time, trying to make up his mind, no doubt, for now and then he scratches his beard. There he goes, sure enough, entering the shop with a ponderous tread. I wonder if he intends to buy the silver cow!

It takes him an age, and still he hasn’t come out. What on earth is he doing in there? Now that I have begun to watch him, I might as well go the whole hog. So I put on my hat and cross to the goldsmith’s window myself, mingling with the other spectators, and watching the door.

At last the man re-emerges — yes, it is Nikolai. It was his back and hands, but he has got a beard now, too. He looks splendid. Imagine Carpenter Nikolai being here!

We greet each other, and we talk as he shakes me slowly and ponderously by the hand. Our conversation is halting, but we get on. Yes, of course, he has gone into the shop on business, in a kind of way.

“You’ve not bought the silver cow, have you?”

“Oh, no, not that. It didn’t amount to anything, really. In fact, I didn’t buy anything.”

By degrees, I discover that he is buying a horse. And he tells me that he has dug that piece of land of his, and is turning it into pasture, and his wife — oh, yes, thank you for asking — she lives in health to this day.

“By the way,” he said, “have you come here over the fjeld?”

“Yes, I came last winter. In December.”

“What a pity I didn’t know!”

I explained that I hadn’t had the time to visit his home then; I was in a hurry, there was some business —

“Yes, I understand,” he said.

We said little more, for Nikolai was as taciturn as ever. Besides, he had other business to attend to; he cannot absent himself from the farm for long, and had to return next day.

“Have you bought your horse yet?”

“Well, no, I haven’t.”

“Do you think you will?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m trying to split a difference of five and twenty kroner.”

Later I saw Nikolai going to the goldsmith’s again. He seemed to do a great deal of business there.

“I could have company across the fjeld now,” I thought. “It’s spring, and do I not always travel in the spring?”

I began to pack my knapsack.

Nikolai emerged once more, apparently as empty-handed as he had entered. I opened my window and called to him to ask if he had bought the horse.

“N-no — the man won’t meet my price.”

“Well, can’t you meet his?”

“Y-yes, I could,” he replied slowly. “But I don’t think I’ve got enough money on me.”

“I could lend you some.”

At this Nikolai smiled and shook his head as though my offer were a fairy tale.

“Thank you just the same,” he said, turning to walk away.

“Where are you going now?” I asked.

“To look at another horse. It’s old and small, still —”

Was I thrusting myself on the man? I? Nonsense! I don’t see that at all. He felt offended because I had passed his door last winter without stopping and now I wanted to make him friendly again. That was all. But as I wanted no cause for self-reproach, I stopped packing, nor would I ask Nikolai if I might go back with him. But I went out for a walk in the town. I had as much right to do that as anyone.

I met Nikolai in the street with a colt, and we stopped to exchange a few words.

“Is it yours?”

“Yes, I’ve bought her; the man met me halfway after all,” he replied with a smile.

We walked along to the stable together and fed and petted the horse. She was a mare, two and a half years old, with a tawny coat and an off-white mane and tail — a perfect little lady.

That evening Nikolai came over to my room of his own accord for a chat about the mare and the state of the roads. When he was saying good-bye at the door, he seemed struck by a sudden thought.

“By the way,” he said, “I suppose it’s no good asking you, but you could get a lift for your knapsack, you know. We could be there day after tomorrow,” he added.

How could I offend him again?

We walked all next day, spent the night in the mountain hut at the frontier, and then went on again. Nikolai carried my knapsack all the way, as well as his own smaller parcels. When I suggested that we should share the burden, he said it was no weight at all. I think Nikolai wanted to spare the little tawny lady.

At noon we saw the fjord beneath us. Nikolai stopped and carefully rubbed down the mare once more. As our path sloped downward, I felt a pressure, a contraction in my chest; it was the sea air. Nikolai asked me what was the matter, but it was nothing.

On reaching his home, we found the yard well swept, and in the doorway a woman on her knees with her back toward us, scrubbing the floor. It was the Saturday cleaning day.

“Hullo!” Nikolai roared in a tremendously loud voice, stopping dead in his tracks as he did so.

The woman in the doorway looked round; her hair was gray, but it was she, Miss Ingeborg, Fru1 Ingeborg.

1 Mrs. (Translator’s note.)

“Good heavens!” she exclaimed, hastily mopping up the rest of the floor.

“Look at all the cleaning that goes on here!” Nikolai said, laughing. “That’s her idea of fun!”

And I had believed Carpenter Nikolai incapable of lightheartedness! Yet I had seen how content he had been all the way home, how deeply content, and proud of the little lady he was bringing with him. Even now he was still stroking her.

Fru Ingeborg rose to her feet, her skirts dark with the damp. It all seemed strange to me; her hair was so gray. I needed a little time, a moment, to collect myself, and turned away to give her time, too.

“What a lovely horse!” I heard her exclaim.

Nikolai went on stroking the mare.

“I’ve brought a visitor with me,” he said.

I went to her and perhaps — I don’t know — perhaps I rather overdid my unconcern. I greeted her and insisted on shaking her wet hand, which she hesitated to give me. I was anxious to appear quite formal with her, and shook her hand as I repeated my greeting.

“Well, of all people!” she replied.

I persisted in my formal attitude.

“You must blame your husband,” I said. “It’s his fault that I’m here.”

“I wish you heartily welcome,” she returned. “How lucky I’ve just got through the cleaning!”

A slight pause. We looked at each other; two years had passed since our last meeting. To break the silence, we all began to admire the mare, Nikolai swelling with pride. Then we heard a child calling from within the house, and the young mother ran off.

“Come in, won’t you!” she called back over her shoulder.

As soon as I entered, I saw that the room had been changed. There was too much middle-class frippery: white curtains at the windows, numerous pictures on the walls, a lamp pendent from the ceiling, underneath it in the center of the room a round table and chairs, knickknacks in a china cupboard, a pink-painted spinning wheel, flowers in pots — in short, the room was crowded. This, no doubt, was the sort of thing Fru Ingeborg had been used to and considered in good taste. But in Petra’s day, this had been a light and spacious room.

“How’s your mother?” I asked Nikolai.

As usual he was slow to reply. His wife answered for him:

“She’s very well.”

I wanted to ask, “Where is she?” but I refrained.

“Look, I want to show you something,” said Fru Ingeborg.

It was the child in his bed — a boy, big and handsome, about a year old. He frowned at me at first, but only for a moment. As soon as he was on his mother’s arm, he looked at me without fear.

How happy and beautiful the young mother looked! Peerless, indeed, with her eyes full of an inscrutable graciousness she had not possessed before.

“What a fine little man!“ I said, admiring the boy.

“I should think he was!” said the mother.

You get used to everything. The sea air no longer oppresses me; I can speak without losing my breath to the woman who is now the mistress of this house. She likes to talk, too, pouring out her words nervously, as though it had been a long time since she last opened her mouth. What we talked about? Well, we neither asked nor answered questions about measuring angles or analyzing Shakespeare’s grammar.

Had she ever thought her matriculation would land her up here, amid livestock and Saturday cleaning?

Oh, that parody of an education! She had taken the first toddling steps in a dozen sciences, but if she met someone with fully adult knowledge she was lost. She had other things to think about now, her home and her family and the farm. Of course there wasn’t much livestock, now that Nikolai’s mother had taken half of it with her —

“Has Petra gone away?”

Married — to the schoolmaster. No, Petra hadn’t wanted to stay when the young wife took possession. One evening a strange man had come to the house, and Petra had wanted to admit him, but Fru Ingeborg would not. She knew who he was and wanted him to leave. So there were quarrels between the older woman and the young one.

Petra was also dissatisfied with the young wife’s work in the barn. It was true she was not very skillful, but she was learning all the time, and enjoyed improving her skill. She never asked questions; that, she saw, would have been foolish, but she worked things out by herself, and kept her eyes open when she visited neighboring farms. That didn’t mean to say she could learn everything. There were things she never learned properly because she was not “to the manner born.” Often the wives of rural officials are from small towns, and have not learned the ways of the country, though they must learn them in time. But they never learn them well. They know only just enough for their daily needs. To set up a weave, you must have grown up with the sound of the shuttle in your ears; to tend the cattle as they should be tended, you must have helped your mother since childhood. You can learn from others, but it will not be in your blood.

Not everyone has a man like Nikolai to live with, either. The young wife is very fond of her Nikolai, this sound, hearty bear who loves her in return. Besides, Nikolai is not exacting; his wife seems to him peerless in all she does. Of course she has taken great pains; it has left its mark on her, too, and she is not gray for nothing. A few months ago she lost a front tooth, too — broke it on some bird shot left in the breast of a ptarmigan she was eating. She hardly dared look in the mirror now — didn’t recognize herself. But what did it matter as long as Nikolai. . . .

Look what he’d brought her, this brooch, bought at the goldsmith’s at the market: wasn’t it lovely? Oh, Nikolai was mad; but she would do anything in the world for him, too. Imagine using some of the money for the horse on a brooch! Where is he now, where’s he gone to? She’ll bet anything he’s stroking the mare again.

“Nikolai!” she called.

“Yes,” his reply came from the stable.

She sat down again, crossing her legs. Her face had turned pink; perhaps a thought, a memory, passed through her mind. She was suffused with excitement and beauty. Her dress clung to her body, outlining its contours. She began gently to stroke her knee.

“Is the child asleep?” I asked. I had to say something.

“Yes, he’s asleep. And think of him!” she exclaimed. “Can you imagine anything more wonderful? Excuse my talking like this, but. . . . You know he’s not a year old yet. I never knew children were such a blessing.”

“Well, you see they are.”

“Yes, I thought differently once; I remember that perfectly well, and you contradicted me. Of course it was stupid of me. Children? Miracles! And when you’re old, they’re the only happiness — the last happiness. I shall have more; I shall have many of them, a whole row of them, like organ pipes, each taller than the last. They’re lovely. . . . But I wish I hadn’t lost my tooth; it leaves such a black gap. I really feel quite bad about it, on Nikolai’s account. I suppose a false one could be put in, but I shouldn’t dream of it. Besides, I understand it’s quite dear. But I’ve given up using any arts; I only wish I’d stopped earlier — I’ve gone on much too long. Think of all I’ve missed by it: all my childhood, all my youth. Haven’t I idled away whole summers at resorts, even as a grown woman? I needed a holiday from my school work, a rest, and immediately turned it into sheer futility, every day a disgrace. I could cry with regret. I should have been married ten years ago, and had my husband all that time, and a home and many children. Now I’m already old, cheated out of ten years of my life, with gray hair and one tooth gone —”

“Well, you’ve lost one tooth, but I’ve hardly got one left!”

No sooner had I consoled her thus than I regretted it. Why should I make myself worse than I am? Things were bad enough anyhow. I was sick with fury at myself, and grinned and grimaced to show her my teeth: “Here, don’t miss them, have a good look!” But I’m afraid she saw what a fool I was making of myself; everything I did was wrong.

Then she consoled me in her turn, as people do when they can well afford it:

“What, you old? Nonsense!”

“Have you met the schoolmaster?” I asked abruptly.

“Of course. I remember what you told me about him: a horse and a man came riding along the road. . . . But he’s got sense, and he’s terribly stingy. Oh, he’s cunning; he borrows our harrow because ours is new and good. They’ve built a house at the end of the valley, and take in travelers — quite a big hotel, in fact, with the waitresses dressed in national costume. Of course Nikolai and I both went to the wedding; Petra really looked a charming and lovely bride. You mustn’t think she and I are still unfriendly; she likes me better now that I’m more competent, and last summer they sent for me several times to interpret for some English people and that sort of thing — at least I know how to say soap and food and conveyance and tips in other languages!

“But I don’t think I should ever have had any serious trouble with Petra in the first place if Sophie hadn’t come home — you know, the schoolmistress in the town. She’s always found plenty to criticize in me, so I never liked her very much, I must admit. But when she came here, she was very arrogant toward me, and lorded it over me, showing off all her knowledge. I was busy trying to learn what I needed to know for the life up here, and then she came along and made me look small, talking about the Seven Years’ War all the time. She was terribly learned about the Seven Years’ War, because that’s what she had in her examination. And our way of talking wasn’t elegant enough for her; Nikolai used rough country expressions sometimes, and she didn’t like that. But Nikolai speaks quite well enough, and I can’t see what that fool of a sister of his has got to put on airs for! And on top of that she came home to stay — for six months, anyhow. She’d been engaged, so then she had to take a six months’ holiday. The baby’s with Petra, with his grandmother, so he’s well taken care of. It’s a boy, too, but he’s hardly got any hair; mine has plenty of hair. Well, in a way, of course, it’s a pity about Sophie, because she’d used up her legacy and her youth studying to be a schoolmistress, and then she comes home like that. But she really was insufferable, thinking she was a lot better than I because she hadn’t been discharged, like me. So I asked her to leave. And then they both left, Sophie and her mother. Anyhow, her mother and I are quite reconciled.

“But you mustn’t think we’ve had any help from her to buy the horse. Nothing of the kind! We borrowed the money from the bank. But we’ll manage, because it’s our only debt. Nikolai has made all the furniture in here himself, the table and china cupboard and everything; we haven’t bought a thing. He’s dug up the new field himself, too. And we’ll be getting more cattle; you ought to see what a handsome heifer we’ve got. . . .

“Even the food wasn’t good enough for Sophie. Tins saved such a lot of trouble, she said; we ought to buy tinned food. It was enough to make you sick to listen to her. I was just beginning to knit, too; I’d got one of my neighbors to teach me, and I was knitting stockings for myself. But of course Lady Sophie — well, she bought her stockings in the city. Oh, she was charming. ‘Get out!’ I said to her. So they left.”

Nikolai entered the room.

“Did you want me?”

“No — oh, yes, I wanted you to come upstairs with me. I need something to hang things on in front of the fire, a clotheshorse — come along —”

I stayed behind, thinking:

“If only it lasts, if only it lasts! She’s so overwrought; living on her nerves. And pregnant again. But what splendid resolution she shows, and how she’s matured in these two years! But it has cost her a great deal, too.

“Good luck to you, Ingeborg, good luck!”

At all events, she had triumphed over Schoolmistress Sophie, who had once tried so hard to set Nikolai against her. “Get out!” How content Fru Ingeborg must be — what delight in this small triumph! Life had changed so much that such things were important to her; she grew heated again when she mentioned it, and pulled at her fingers as she had done in her schooldays. And why should she not be content? A small triumph now had the rank of a bigger one in the old days. Proportions were changed, but her satisfaction was no less.

Listen — she has begun to read upstairs; there’s the sound of a steady hum. Yes, it’s Sunday today, and she, being the best educated of them, naturally reads the service. Bravo! Magnificent! She has extended her self-discipline even to this, for they are all orthodox Christians in this neighborhood. Believing? No, but not hostile, either. One reads Scripture. Rather a clever ruse, that of the clotheshorse.

She has become an excellent cook, too, in the peasant style. Delicious broth, without noodles, but otherwise just as it should be, with barley, carrots, and thyme. I doubt whether she has learned this at the domestic science school. I consider all the things she has learned, and find them numerous. Had she, perhaps, been a little overstrung in her talk about children like organ pipes? I don’t know, but her nostrils dilated like a mare’s as she spoke. She must have known how unwillingly middle-class couples have children, and how short is the love between them: in the daytime they are together so that people might not talk, but the night separates them. She was different, for she would make hers a house of fruitfulness: often she and her husband were apart during the day, when their separate labors called them, but the night united them.

Bravo, Fru Ingeborg!

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