Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXXVII

Really, it was time I was leaving; at least I could have moved across to Petra and the Schoolmaster, who take in travelers. Really I ought to do that. . . .

Nikolai has got his tawny lady working on the farm; she’s harnessed to a neat cart that he has made himself and banded with iron. And now the lady carts manure. The tiny farm with its few head of cattle doesn’t yield too much of this precious substance, so it is soon spread. Then the lady draws the plow, and looks as though it were no more than the heavy train of a ball dress behind her! Nikolai has never heard of such a horse before, and neither has his wife.

I take a walk down to the newly dug field and look at it from every angle. Then I take soil in my hand and feel it and nod, exactly as though I knew something about it. Rich, black soil — sheer perfection.

I walk so far that I can see the gargoyles on Petra’s hotel — and suddenly turn off the path into the woods, to sheltered groves and catkins and peace. The air is still; spring will soon be here.

And so the days wear on.

I am comfortable and feel very much at home; how I should like to stay here! I should pay well for my keep, and make myself useful and popular; I shouldn’t harm a fly. But that evening I tell Nikolai that I must think of moving on; this will not do. . . . And perhaps he will mention it. . . .

“Can’t you stop a while longer?” he says. “But I suppose it isn’t the kind of place —”

“God bless you, Nikolai; it is the kind of place, but — well, it’s spring now, and I always travel in the spring. I should have to be very low before I gave that up. And besides, I expect you’re both pretty tired of me, at least your wife.”

This, too, I hoped he would mention.

Then I packed my knapsack and waited. No — no one came to take the knapsack out of my hand and forbid me to pack any farther. So perhaps Nikolai hasn’t mentioned it. The man never does open his mouth. So I placed the knapsack on a chair in the middle of the room, all packed and ready, for everyone to see that we’re leaving. And I waited for the morning of the next day, and this time the knapsack was observed. No, it wasn’t. So I had to wait till the housewife called us to the midday meal, and tell her then, pointing to what was in the middle of the room:

“I’m afraid I shall have to be leaving today.”

“No! Really? Why do you want to go away?” she said.

“Why? Well, don’t you think I should?”

“Well, of course — But you might have stayed on a bit longer; the cows will be going out to spring pasture now, and we should have had more milk.”

That was all we said about it, and then she went back to her work.

Bravo, Fru Ingeborg. You’re true-blue. It struck me then, as it had done already on several occasions, that she had grown very like Josephine at Tore Peak, both in her way of thinking and her mode of expression. Twelve years of school had laid no foundations in her young mind, though it had loosened much that was firm within her. But that did not matter, as long as she kept a firm hold now.

Nikolai is going down to the trading center, and since he will be bringing back some sacks of flour, he intends to drive. I know very well that I ought to go with him, because then I could catch the mail packet next day but one. I explain this to Nikolai and pay my bill. While he is harnessing the horse, I finish packing my bag.

Oh, these eternal journeys! Hardly am I settled in one place than I am again unsettled in another — no home, no roots. What are those bells I hear? Ah, yes — Fru Ingeborg lets the cows out. They are going to pasture for the first time this spring, so that they shall give more milk. . . . Here comes Nikolai to tell me he is ready. Yes, here is the knapsack. . . .

“Nikolai, isn’t it a bit early to let the cows out?”

“Yes, but they’re getting restless in the cow houses.”

“Yesterday I was in the woods and wanted to sit down, but I cannot sit in the snow. No, I cannot, though I could ten years ago. I must wait till there is really something to sit on. A rock is good enough, but you can’t sit on a rock for very long in May.”

Nikolai looks uneasily at the mare through the window.

“Yes, let’s go. . . . And there were no butterflies, either. You know those butterflies that have wings exactly like pansies — there weren’t any. And if happiness lives in the forest, I mean if God himself — well, He hasn’t moved out yet; it’s too early.”

Nikolai does not reply to my nonsense. After all, it is only the incoherent expression of a vague feeling, a gentle melancholy.

We go outside together.

“Nikolai, I’m not going.”

He turns around and looks at me, his eyes smiling good-humoredly.

“You see, Nikolai, I think I have got an idea; I feel exactly as though an idea had come to me that may turn into a great, red-hot iron. So I mustn’t disturb myself. I’m staying.”

“Well, I’m very glad to hear that,” says Nikolai. “As long as you like being here. . . . ”

And a quarter of an hour later, I can see Nikolai and the mare trotting briskly down the road. Fru Ingeborg stands in the yard with the boy on her arm to watch the gamboling calves.

And here stand I. A fine old specimen, I am!

Nikolai returned with my mail; quite a little pile had accumulated in the past few weeks.

“I thought you’re not in the habit of reading your letters,” said Fru Ingeborg banteringly. Nikolai sat listening to us.

“No,” I returned. “Just say the word, and I’ll burn them unread.”

Suddenly she turned pale; she had put her hand with a smile on the letters, brushing my hand as she did so. I felt a great ardor, a moment’s miraculous blood heat, more than blood heat — only for a moment — then she withdrew her hand and said:

“Better read them.”

She was deeply flushed now.

“I saw him burn his letters once,” she explained to Nikolai. Then she found something to do at the stove, while she asked her husband about his journey, about the road, whether the mare had behaved well — which she had.

A minor occurrence, of no importance to anyone. Perhaps I should not have mentioned it.

A few days later.

The weather has grown warm, my window is open, my door to the living room is open, all is still; I stand at the window looking out.

A man entered the courtyard carrying an unshapely burden. I could not see his face very well, but thought it was Nikolai carrying something, so I went back to my table to work again.

A little later I heard someone say “Good morning” in the living room.

Fru Ingeborg did not return the greeting. Instead, I heard her ask in loud, hostile tones:

“What do you want?”

“I’ve come to pay you a visit.”

“My husband isn’t in — he’s in the field.”

“Never mind.”

“I do mind,” she cried. “Go away!”

I don’t know what her face looked like then, but her voice was gray — gray with tears and indignation. In a moment I was in the living room.

The stranger was Solem. Another meeting with Solem. He was everywhere. Our eyes met.

“I think you were asked to leave?” I said.

“Take it easy, take it easy,” he said, in a kind of half-Norwegian, half-Swedish. “I trade in hides; I go round to the farms buying up hides. Have you got any?”

“No!” she cried out. Her voice broke. She was completely distracted, and suddenly dipped a ladle into a pot that was boiling on the stove: Perhaps she was on the point of flinging it at him. . . .

At this juncture, Nikolai entered the house.

He was a slow-moving man, but his eyes suddenly quickened as he took in the situation. Did he know Solem, and had he seen him coming to the farm? He laughed a little. “Ha, ha, ha,” he said, and went on smiling — left his smile standing. It looked horrible; he was quite white, and his mouth seemed to have stiffened in a smiling cramp. Here was an equal for Solem, a sexual colleague, a stallion in strength and stubbornness. And still he went on smiling.

“Well, if you haven’t any hides — ” said Solem, finding the door. Nikolai followed him, still smiling. In the yard he helped Solem raise his burden to his back.

“Oh, thank you,” said Solem in an uncomfortable tone. The bale of furs and skins was a large one; Nikolai picked it up and put it on Solem’s back, swung it to his back in a curious fashion, with needless emphasis. Solem’s knees gave way under him, and he fell on his face. We heard a groan of pain, for the paved yard was hard as the face of the mountain. Solem lay still for a moment, then he rose to his feet. His face had struck the ground in falling, and the blood was running down into his eyes. He tried to hoist his burden higher up his back, but it remained hanging slack. He began to walk away, with Nikolai behind him, still smiling. Thus they walked down the road, one behind the other, and disappeared into the woods.

Well, let us be human. That fall to the ground was bad. The heavy burden hanging down so uncomfortably from one shoulder looked bad.

Indoors I heard a sound of sobbing; Fru Ingeborg was in a state of collapse in a chair. And in her condition, too!

Well, give it time — it will pass off. Gradually we begin to talk, and by asking her questions, I force her to collect herself.

“He — that man — that beast — oh, you don’t know how dreadful he is — I could murder him. He was the one — he was the first, but now he’s getting it all back, he’s getting more than his own back — you’ll see. He was the first; I was all right till then, but he was the first. Not that it meant a great deal to me; I don’t want to seem any better than I am — it was all the same to me. But afterward I began to understand. And it drew so much evil in its train, I fell so low; I was on my knees. It was his fault. And afterward it all grew clear to me. I want that man to leave me alone; I don’t ever want to see him again. That’s not unreasonable, is it? — Oh, where’s Nikolai? You don’t think he’ll do anything to him, do you? They’ll put him in prison. Please, run after them, stop him! He’ll kill him —”

“No, no. He has too much sense. Besides, he doesn’t know, does he, that Solem has done anything to you?”

She looked up at me then.

“Are you asking on your own account?”

“What do you mean? — I don’t understand —”

“I want to know if you’re asking on your own account! Sometimes you seem as though you were trying to find me out. No, I haven’t told my husband. You can think what you please about my honesty. I’ve only told him part of it, just a little — that the man wouldn’t leave me alone. He’s been here once before; he was the man Petra wanted to admit that I wouldn’t have in. I said to Nikolai, ‘I won’t have that man coming in here!’ And I told him a little more. But I didn’t tell him about myself; so now what do you think of my honesty? But I don’t want to tell him now either; I don’t ever want to tell him. Why? Well, I don’t owe you any explanation. But I don’t mind your knowing — yes, I want to tell you, please! You see, it’s not because I’m afraid of Nikolai’s anger, but of his forgiveness — I couldn’t bear to go on living as though nothing had happened. I’m sure he’d try to find excuses for me, because that’s his nature; he’s fond of me, and he’s a peasant, too, and peasants don’t take these things so seriously. But if he did find excuses for me, he wouldn’t be much good, and I don’t want him to be no good; I swear I don’t — I’d rather be no good myself! Oh, we both have faults to forgive in each other, but we need all of what’s left. We don’t want to be animals; we want to be human beings, and I’m thinking of the future and our children. . . . But you oughtn’t to make me talk so much. Why did you ask me that?”

“All I meant was that if Nikolai doesn’t know, then it couldn’t occur to him to kill the man, and that was what you were worried about. I just wanted to reassure you.”

“Yes, you’re always so clever; you turn me inside out. I wish now I hadn’t told you — I wish you didn’t know; I should have kept it to myself till I died. Now you just think I’m thoroughly dishonest.”

“On the contrary.”

“Really? Don’t you think that?”

“Quite the contrary. What you’ve told me is absolutely right, entirely true and right. And not only that — it’s fine.”

“God bless you,” she said, and began to sob again.

“There now, you mustn’t cry. Here comes Nikolai walking up the road as good and placid as ever.”

“Is he? Oh, thank God. You know, I haven’t really any fault to find with him; I was too hasty when I said that. Even if I tried to find something, I couldn’t. Of course he uses expressions sometimes — I mean he says some words differently, but it was only his sister that put that into my head. I must go out and meet him now.”

She began to look around for something to slip over her shoulders, but it took her a few minutes because she was still quite shaken. Before she had found anything, Nikolai trudged into the yard.

“Oh, there you are! You haven’t done anything rash, have you?”

Nikolai’s features were still a little drawn as he replied:

“No, I just took him over to see his son.”

“Has Solem got a son here?” I asked.

Neither of them replied. Nikolai turned to go back to his work, and his wife went with him across the field.

Suddenly I understood: Sophie’s child.

How well I remember that day at Tore Peak, when Schoolmistress Sophie Palm came in to tell us the latest news about Solem, about the bandage on his finger, the finger he never had time to get rid of — stout fellow! They made each other’s acquaintance then, and probably met again later in the town. Solem was everywhere.

The ladies at the Tore Peak resort — well, Solem was no angel, but they did little to improve him. And so he met this woman who had learned nothing but to teach. . . .

I ought to have understood before this. I don’t understand anything any more.

But something has happened to me now.

At last I’m beginning to suspect that their chief reason for wanting to keep me here is simply that they need money; my board and rent are to pay for the mare. That’s all it amounts to.

I should have known it long ago, but I am old. Perhaps I may add without being misunderstood that the brain withers before the heart. You can see it in all grandparents.

At first I said “Bravo!” to my discovery, “Bravo! Fru Ingeborg,” I said, “you are priceless once again!” But human nature is such that I began to feel hurt. How much better it would be to pay for the mare once and for all and depart; I should have been more than pleased to do so. But I should not have succeeded. Nikolai would have shaken his head as though it were a fairy tale. Then I began to calculate that in fact there couldn’t be much to pay for the mare now — perhaps nothing, perhaps she was paid for. . . .

Fru Ingeborg labors and slaves — I’m afraid she works too hard. She seldom sits down, though her pregnancy is far advanced now and she needs rest. She makes beds, cooks, sees to the animals, sews, mends, and washes. Often a lock of gray hair falls down on either side of her face, and she is so busy that she lets it hang; it’s too short to be fastened back with a pin. But she looks charming and motherly, with her fine skin and her well-shaped mouth; she and the child together are sheer beauty. Of course I help to carry wood and water, but I make more work for her just the same. When I think of that, I grow hot about the ears.

But how could I have imagined that anyone would want to keep me for my own sake? I should not have had all these years too many then, and these ardors too few. A good thing I’ve found it out at last.

In a way the discovery made it easier for me to leave them, and this — time when I packed my knapsack, I meant it. But at least the child, her boy, had some love for me, and liked to sit on my arm because I showed him so much that was strange. It was the child’s instinct for the peerless grandfather.

At about this time, a sister of Fru Ingeborg’s came to the farm to help with the housework. I began to pack then; overcome with grief, I packed. To spare Nikolai and the mare, I decided to make my way down to the steamship landing on foot. I shall also arrange to relieve all of us of the need for farewells and handshakes and au revoirs, believe me!

But in spite of my resolution, I could not, after all, avoid taking them both by the hand and thanking them for their hospitality. That was all that was necessary. I stood in the doorway with my knapsack already on my back, smiling a little, and behaving splendidly.

“Yes, indeed,” I said, “I must begin to move about again.”

“Are you really going?” said Fru Ingeborg.

“Why not?”

“But so suddenly?”

“Didn’t I tell you yesterday?”

“Yes, of course, but — would you like Nikolai to drive you?”

“No, thank you.”

The boy was interested now, for I had a knapsack on my back and a coat with entirely unfamiliar buttons; he wanted me to carry him. Very well, then — just for a moment. But it was for more than a moment, more than a few moments, too. The knapsack had to be opened and investigated, of course. Then Nikolai entered the room.

Fru Ingeborg said to me:

“I’m afraid you think that just because my sister’s here now — but we’ve got another room. And besides, now that it’s summer, she could easily sleep in the loft.”

“But, my dear child, I must leave some time — I have work to do, too, you know.”

“Well, of course,” said Fru Ingeborg, giving it up.

Nikolai offered to drive me, but did not press me when I thanked him and refused.

They came to the gate with me, and watched me walk away, the boy sitting on his mother’s arm.

At the bend of the road, I turned round to wave — to the child, of course, not to anyone else — only to the child. But there was no longer anyone there.

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