Shallow Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Ripening

I

Irgens had published his book. This superior soul, who never took anybody into his confidence, had, to the great surprise of everybody, put out a charming volume of poems just when spring was in full blow. Was that not a surprise? True, it was two years since his drama had appeared; but it was now proven that he had not been idle; he had conceived one poem after another, and quietly put them away, and when the heap had grown big enough he had given it to the printer. It was thus a proud man should act; nobody exceeded Irgens in strong and warm discretion.

His book was exhibited in the bookstore windows; people discussed it and predicted it would attract much attention; the ladies were enraptured with the gently glowing love stanzas scattered through it. There were also many bold and courageous words, full of manliness and will: poems to Justice, to Liberty, to the Kings — God knows he did not spare the kings. But Irgens noticed no more than ever that people admired him when he strolled down the promenade. Gracious! if they enjoyed looking at him, that was their affair. He was frigidly indifferent, as ever.

“I must admit you are a foxy fellow!” exclaimed even Norem, the Actor, when he ran across him on the street. “Here you go along quietly and say nothing, and all of a sudden you set off a rocket right under our very noses. You are unique!”

The Attorney, however, could not help giving him a little dig; he laughed and said: “But you have enemies, Irgens. I was talking to a man today who refused to see anything gigantic in the publishing of a small volume after a lapse of nearly two years and a half!”

Then Irgens flung back the haughty reply: “I take a pride in a limited production. The quantity does not matter.”

Later on, however, he inquired concerning the identity of this detractor. He was not tortured by curiosity; people knew fortunately that he was quite indifferent to public opinion. But anyhow — was it Paulsberg?

No, it was not Paulsberg.

Irgens made a few more questions and guesses, but the pretentious Attorney refused to betray his critic. He made a secret out of it, and irritated Irgens as much as he could. “It seems you are not so altogether indifferent,” he teased and chuckled gleefully.

Irgens murmured contemptuously: “Nonsense!” But he was evidently considerably bothered by this defamer, this jealous fellow who had criticised him, and tried to belittle his exploit. If not Paulsberg, who then? Who among them had done better during the last two and a half years? Irgens knew nobody; among the younger writers he was absolutely paramount. Suddenly something struck him, and he said indifferently:

“Of course, it is a matter of absolute indifference to me who the person is; but if it is that lout Coldevin — Lord, man! do you really pay any attention to what such a freak says? A man who carries a cigar-holder and a dirty comb in the same pocket! Well, I must be going; so long!”

Irgens walked off. If the enemy was this barbarian from the backwoods, well and good! His mind was again relieved; he nodded to acquaintances and looked quite cheerful. He had for a moment felt aggrieved that anybody should be grumbling behind his back, but that was now forgotten; it would be foolish to take offence at this old bushwhacker.

Irgens intended to take a walk around the harbour so as to be left in peace; this more or less stupid talk about his book had really got on his nerves. Were people now beginning to prate about working hours and quantity in connection with poetry? In that case his book would be found wanting; it was not so very ponderous; it did not outweigh one of Paulsberg’s novels, thank God!

When he reached the harbour he suddenly caught a glimpse of Coldevin’s head behind a pile of packing-cases. Irgens noticed the direction of his glance, but this told him nothing; the old imbecile was evidently lost in some crazy meditation or other. It was amusing to see him so altogether unconscious of his surroundings, standing there agape with his nose in the air. His eyes were almost in a direct line with the little office window at the end of Henriksen’s warehouse; he stared unblinkingly and apparently unseeingly at that particular spot. Irgens was on the point of going over in order to inquire if he perhaps wanted to see Ole Henriksen; he would then be able to turn the conversation to his book and get the old man to express an opinion. It would be quite entertaining; the oaf would be forced to admit that he valued poetry according to weight. But was it worth while? It was really of no account whatever what this person might think. Irgens made a turn across the docks; he looked up — Coldevin had not moved. Irgens sauntered past, crossed the street on his way up-town. Suddenly Ole Henriksen and Aagot came out of the warehouse and caught sight of him.

“Good day, good day, Irgens!” called Ole with outstretched hand. “Glad to see you. I want to thank you for the book you sent us. You are a wonder; you surprise your very best friends even — poet, master!”

Ole talked on, pleased and happy over his friend’s accomplishment, admiring now one stanza, now another, and thanking Irgens over and over.

“Aagot and I have read it with beating hearts!” he said. “I really believe Aagot wept a little now and then — Yes; you did; no use denying it, Aagot. You need not feel ashamed of that — What I wanted to say — come along to the telegraph office, Irgens; then we’ll drop in at Sara’s afterward, if you like. I have a little surprise for you.”

Aagot said nothing.

“You can walk up and down a little while I telegraph,” said Ole. “But don’t get impatient if it takes some time. I have got to catch a ship before it leaves Arendal!”

And Ole ran up the stairs and disappeared; Irgens looked after him.

“Listen — I want to thank you for your book!” said Aagot quickly in a low voice. “You will never know how I have enjoyed it.”

“Really? Truly? It is good to hear you say that,” he replied, full of gratitude. That she should have waited until Ole had left in order to thank him was a charming and delicate tribute; she had done it now much more genuinely and warmly; her words meant so much more now. She told him what had especially stirred her; it was that wonderful “Song to Life”; never had she read anything so beautiful. Then, as if she feared she had spoken too warmly and laid herself open to misunderstanding, she added in an ordinary tone of voice that Ole had been just as enchanted as she; he had read most of it aloud to her.

Irgens made a wry face. Did she care to have things read to her? Really?

It was intentionally that Aagot had mixed Ole’s name into the conversation. This afternoon he had once more asked her about the wedding, and she had left everything to him; there was no reason for delay. It had been decided to have the wedding after Ole had returned from London this coming fall. Ole was as good as the day was long; he never grew impatient with her and was almost absurdly fond of her. He had said that perhaps she had better spend a little time in the house occasionally. She had flushed; she could not help it; it was disgraceful not to have stirred a finger to make herself a little useful instead of hanging around the office early and late. Suppose she began to think a little about their house, said Ole; she might make up her mind about things they wanted, furniture and such. Of course, she should have all the help she needed, but — Yes, it was only too true; she had not given her new home a thought; she had simply hung about the office with him. She had begun to cry, and had told him how silly and useless she really was; she was a goose, a stupid little goose. But Ole had taken her in his arms and had sat down with her on the sofa and told her that she was only a child, a charming, wonderful child, but she was getting older and more sensible right along; time and life were before them. How he loved her! His eyes, too, were wet; he looked like a child himself. Above all, there was no hurry; she had free hands to decide and arrange, just as she pleased. Yes; they were fully agreed. . . .

“I must confess I feared you had lost interest in us poets,” said Irgens. “I was afraid we had forfeited your good-will in some way.”

She woke up and looked at him.

“Why do you say that?”

“I had come to that conclusion. You remember that evening at Tivoli when your old tutor was quite severe on us poor scribblers? You looked as if you heartily approved of everything he said.”

“No, you are mistaken.”

Pause.

“I am very glad that I have met you, anyway,” said Irgens as indifferently as he could. “Only to see you is enough to put me in good spirits. It must be wonderful to be able to bring happiness to others simply by appearing.”

She had not the heart to show displeasure over that; perhaps he really meant it, strange though it sounded, and she answered smilingly:

“It would be hard on you if you depended on me to bring you good spirits.” God knows she had not meant to pain him; she had said it in all innocence, without any veiled thought or ulterior motive; but when Irgens’s head drooped and he said quietly, “Yes, I understand!” it occurred to her that several interpretations might be placed upon this sentence, and she added hurriedly: “For you do not see me very often. By the way, I am going to the country this summer; I shall probably be away until fall.”

He stopped.

“Are you going to the country?”

“Yes. I am going with Mrs. Tidemand. I shall be with her until fall.”

Irgens was silent and thoughtful a few moments.

“Has it been decided that Tidemands are going to the country, then?” he asked. “I understood it was not settled yet.”

Aagot nodded and said that it had been decided.

“That pleasure has been denied me,” he said with a wistful smile. “No country joys for me.”

“Why not?”

She regretted her question immediately; of course, he could not afford it. She was always so indelicate and awkward! She added a few meaningless words to save him the humiliation of a reply.

“When I want to go to the country I hire a boat and row over to the island,” he said with his sad smile. “Anyway, it is better than nothing.”

The island? She grew ‘attentive. “Of course, the island! I haven’t been there yet. Is it pretty?”

“Beautiful! There are some wonderful places. I know them all. If I only dared I would ask you to let me row you over some time?”

This was not said in simple courtesy; it was a request. She understood it perfectly. But she said, all the same, that she was not sure she had time; it would be interesting, but —

Pause.

“I wrote many of my poems there,” continued Irgens. “I should like to show you the place.”

Aagot was silent.

“Come, please!” he exclaimed suddenly, and wanted to take her hand.

Just then Ole Henriksen appeared on the stairs and came toward them. Irgens remained in his pleading attitude; he said with outstretched hand:

“Do, please!”

She glanced at him hurriedly.

“Yes,” she whispered.

Ole joined them; he had not been able to get hold of Arendal at once; he could not get a reply until to-morrow. Off to Sara now! He really had a surprise for them — he carried in his pocket Ojen’s latest work. They just ought to hear it!

II

Quite a number of the clique were ensconced at Sara’s, drinking and gossiping. Tidemand was there, happy and contented with everything. He had been all smiles since his success with that enormous enterprise in rye. The grain had begun to arrive and was being stored in his warehouses, thousands upon thousands of sacks. They grew into mountains; there was no room for anything else; even Ole Henriksen had been obliged to let him have space for storing. Tidemand walked around and viewed this wealth with pride; even he had accomplished something above the ordinary. Never for an instant did he regret that he had given such unlimited orders.

Journalist Gregersen offered Ole one finger and said: “You have something on your conscience, Ole?”

“Oh, nothing sensational, exactly,” said Ole. “I had a letter from Ojen; he sends me his latest poem. Do you want to hear it?”

“Does he send you his — Has he sent you a manuscript?” exclaimed Milde in astonishment. “I have never heard anything like it!”

“Now, no personalities!” warned the Journalist.

“Yes, but excuse me — why in the world did he send it to you, Ole?” asks Milde again and does not give in.

Irgens glanced at Aagot. She did not appear to be listening, but was talking eagerly with Mrs. Hanka. Irgens turned to Milde and told him curtly that there were certain impertinences which even friends were not supposed to submit to — was that clear enough?

Milde burst out laughing. He had never heard anything funnier. Did they get offended? He had not meant anything of a harmful nature, nothing offensive, mentally or physically! The idea simply had tickled his sense of humour. But if it wasn’t funny, all right. . . .

Ole took out his manuscript.

“It is something out of the ordinary,” he said. “Ojen calls it ‘Memories.’”

“Let me read it,” said Norem quickly. “I am, at any rate, supposed to know a little about reading.”

Ole handed him the manuscript.

“Jehovah is very busy —” began Norem. “Ojen has expressly stated in a marginal note that it is not to be Jahve; now you know it!”

Jehovah is very busy; Jehovah has much to attend to. He was with me one night when I wandered in the forest; He descended to me while I lay on my face in prayer.

I lay there praying in the night, and the forest was silent.

The night oppressed me like an unbending, disjointed absurdity, and the night was like a silence in which something breathing and mute was abroad.

Then Jehovah descended to me.

When Jehovah came the air rushed away from Him like a wake; birds were blown away like chaff, and I clung to the sod and the trees and the rocks.

“You are calling me?” said Jehovah.

“I call out in my distress!” I answered.

And Jehovah spoke: “You want to know what to choose in life, Beauty or Love or Truth?” And Jehovah said: “You want to know?”

And when He said: “You want to learn that?” I did not answer, but was silent; for He knew my thoughts.

Then Jehovah touched my eyes, and I beheld:

I saw a tall woman against the skies. She wore no garments, and when she moved her body shimmered like white silk, and she wore no garments; for her body quivered toward me in rapture.

And she stood against the skies in a sunrise, yes, in a crimson dawn; and the sun shone upon her, and a scarlet light streamed up through the skies, yes, a light of blood surrounded her.

And she was tall and white, and her eyes were like two blue flowers which brushed my soul when she looked at me; and when she spoke to me she entreated me and urged me toward her, and her voice was like a sweet phosphorescence with a taste of the sea.

I rose from the earth and stretched forth my arms toward her, and when I stretched both my arms toward her she again implored me, and her body was odorous with rapture. And I was gloriously stirred in my inmost being, and I rose and gave her my lips in the morning glow, and my eyes fell.

When I looked up again the woman was old. And the woman was old and hoary with years, and her body had shrunk with age, and she had very little life left. But when I looked up the sky was darkling toward night, yes dark like night, and the woman was without hair. I looked to her and knew her not and knew not the sky, and when I looked toward the woman she was gone.

“This was Beauty!” said Jehovah. “Beauty wanes. I am Jehovah!”

And Jehovah touched my eyes again, and I beheld:

I saw a terrace, high, beneath a castle. There were two people there, and the two people on the terrace were young and full of joy. And the sun shone on the castle, and on the terrace, and the sun shone on the two people and on the gravel deep, deep down the abyss, on the hard driveway. And the people were two, a man and a woman in the springtide of youth, and both were speaking honeyed words, and both were tender toward each other with desire.

“See the flower on my breast!” he said; “can you hear what it is saying?” And he leaned backward toward the railing on the terrace and said: “This flower which you gave me stands here and murmurs and whispers toward you, and it murmurs: ‘Beloved, Queen, Alvilde, Alvilde!’ Do you hear it?”

And she smiled and looked down, and she took his hand and placed his hand against her heart and answered: “But do you hear what my heart says to you? My heart throbs toward you and it blushes with emotion for your sake. And my heart babbles in joyful confusion and says: ‘Beloved, I pause before you and almost perish when you look at me, Beloved!’”

He leaned toward the terrace-railing and gloriously his breast heaved with love. And deep, deep below was the abyss and the hard driveway. And he pointed his finger down the depths and said: “Throw down your fan, and I will follow it!” And when he had spoken his breast rose and sank, and he placed his hands on the railing and made ready for the leap.

Then I cried out and closed my eyes. . . .

But when I looked up I saw again the two people, and they were both older and both in their prime. And the two did not speak to each other, but were silent with their thoughts. And when I looked up the sky was grey, and the two walked up the white castle-stairway, and she was full of indifference, yes full of hate in her steely eyes, and when I looked for the third time I saw also anger and hate in his glance, and his hair was grey like the grey skies.

And as they ascended the stairs she dropped her fan, one step down it dropped, and she said with quivering lips and pointed downward: “I dropped my fan — there it lies on the lower step — please hand it to me, dear!”

And he did not answer, but walked on and called a servant to pick up the fan.

“This was Love,” said Jehovah. “Love perishes. I am Jehovah!”

And Jehovah touched my eyes for the last time, and I beheld:

I saw a town and a public square, and I saw a scaffold. And when I listened I heard a seething sound of voices, and when I looked I saw many people who talked and gritted their teeth with joy. And I saw a man who was being bound, a malefactor who was being bound with leather thongs, and the malefactor’s countenance was haughty and proud, and his eyes shone like stars. But his garment was torn and his feet stood naked on the ground, and his clothes were almost gone, yes his cloak was worn to almost nothing.

And I listened and heard a voice, and when I looked I saw that the malefactor was speaking, and the malefactor spoke proudly and gloriously. And they bade him be silent, but he spoke, he testified, he shouted, and when they bade him be silent he did not cease with fear. And when the malefactor spoke the mob ran up and silenced his lips, and when he mutely pointed to the sky and to the sun, and when he pointed to his heart which still beat warmly, the mob ran up and struck him. And when the mob struck him the malefactor fell to his knees, and he knelt and clasped his hands and testified mutely, without words, in spite of the cruel blows.

And I looked at the malefactor and saw his eyes like stars, and I saw the mob throw him down and hold him on the scaffold with their hands. And when once more I looked I saw an axe-blade write in the air, and when I listened I heard the stroke of the axe against the scaffolding and the people joyfully shouting. And while I listened a single-throated cry rose toward heaven from people groaning with ecstasy.

But the malefactor’s head rolled in the dirt and the mob ran up and seized it and lifted it high by the hair. And the malefactor’s head still spoke, and it testified with unquenchable voice and spoke loudly all the words it uttered. And the malefactor’s head was not silent even in death.

But the mob ran up and took hold of the malefactor’s head by the tongue and lifted it high by the tongue. And the vanquished tongue was mute, and the tongue spoke no more. But the eyes were like stars, yes, like gleaming stars to be seen by everybody. . . .

Then Jehovah said: “This was Truth. And Truth speaks even after its head is severed. And with its tongue bound its eyes shine like stars. I am Jehovah!”

When Jehovah had spoken I fell on my face and spoke not, but was silent with much thought. And I thought that Beauty was lovely ere it waned and Love was sweet ere it perished, and I thought that Truth endured like stars everlasting. And tremblingly I thought of Truth.

And Jehovah said: “You wanted to know what to choose in life?” And Jehovah said then: “Have you chosen?”

I lay on my face and answered, full of many thoughts:

“Beauty was lovely and Love was very sweet; and if I choose Truth, it is like the stars, eternal.”

And Jehovah spake once more and asked me:

“Have you chosen?”

And my thoughts were many, my thoughts warred mightily within me, and I answered:

“Beauty was like a morning glow.” And when I had said this I whispered and said: “Love was also sweet and glorious like a little star in my soul.”

But then I felt Jehovah’s eye on me, and Jehovah’s eye read my thoughts. And for the third time Jehovah asked and said:

“Have you chosen?”

And when He said for the third time: “Have you chosen?” my eyes stared with terror, yes, all my strength had left me. And when He said for the last time: “Have you chosen?” I remembered Beauty and Love and remembered them both, and I answered Jehovah:

“I choose Truth!”

* * * * *

But I still remember. . . .

“Well, that’s all,” concluded Norem.

Everybody was silent for a moment; then the Journalist said:

“I refrain from expressing an opinion; I notice Milde is going to say something.”

And Milde did not refrain; far from it; on the contrary, he had a remark to make. Could anybody tell him what it was all about? He admired Ojen as much as anybody, but was there any sense to all this “Jehovah said” and “Jehovah said”? He wanted to be enlightened.

“But why are you always so unkind to Ojen?” asked Mrs. Hanka. “Memories — can’t you understand? To me it seemed beautiful and full of feeling; don’t spoil it for me now.” And she turned to Aagot and said: “Didn’t you find it so, too?”

“But, dear Mrs. Hanka,” exclaimed Milde, “don’t say that I am always unkind to Ojen! Do I not wish him success with his application for the subsidy, contrary to my own interests? But this blessed new ‘intention’ is beyond me. Memories — all right. But where, in Heaven’s name, is the point? Jehovah has never visited him; it is an invention. And, furthermore, why didn’t he choose both Youth and Beauty, and Truth as well? That is what I should have done. The point, I say!”

“But that is just it — there is no definite point,” replied Ole Henriksen. “So Ojen says in a letter to me. Its effect lies in its euphony, he says.”

“He does? No, that fellow is the same wherever he goes. That is the trouble. Not even the mountains can do anything for him. Goats’ milk and pine woods and peasant girls have not the slightest effect on him, as it were — I am still at a loss to understand why he sent you his manuscript, Ole; but if it is an offence to ask, of course, then —”

“I really don’t know why he sent it to me,” said Ole quietly. “He tells me that he wanted me to see that he was doing something and not wasting his time altogether. He is anxious to get back, though; he cannot stand Torahus any longer.”

Milde whistled.

“I understand! He asked you for carfare!”

“I do not suppose he has much money left. That could hardly be expected,” answered Ole, and put the manuscript in his pocket. “As for me, I think it is a remarkable poem, irrespective of your opinion.”

“Surely, old fellow; but please don’t talk about poetry,” interrupted Milde. And as it dawned on him that he had been a little too rude to the poor peddler in Aagot’s presence, he added hurriedly: “I mean — Isn’t it too much of a bore to talk about poetry and poetry all the time? Give us, for a change, a little fishery talk, a little railway politics — Isn’t it a fierce lot of rye you are storing, Tidemand?”

As Tidemand saw many eyes upon him, he could not entirely ignore the Artist’s question, and he answered:

“Yes, I have tried to strike a modest blow; I cannot deny it. It all depends now on how things turn out in Russia. If, in spite of everything that had been forecasted, the crops should prove even middling, it does not look any too bright for me and my rye. Rains in Russia now would mean —”

“Rains are falling now,” said Gregersen. “The English papers have been informed of a sufficient rainfall in the larger provinces. Are you selling your rye already?”

Of course, Tidemand had bought to sell if he could get his price.

Milde had moved over to Paulsberg, and spoke to him in a low whisper. Ojen’s prose poem had caused him some anxiety. Perhaps, after all, there was something to this fellow, this competitor in the matter of the subsidy. What was Paulsberg’s opinion?

“You know I don’t care to speak for or against in such a matter,” said Paulsberg. “But I have called at the ministry a few times and expressed my preference. I hope it may carry some weight.”

“Of course, of course, I didn’t mean — Well, the Exhibition closes to-morrow. We ought to get busy and finish that picture of yours. Can you sit tomorrow?”

Paulsberg nodded and turned away.

Irgens had gradually lost his good spirits; it irritated him that no one had mentioned his book. It was the latest event; why wasn’t it even referred to? Everybody was only too familiar with Ojen’s filigree fancies. Irgens shrugged his shoulders. Paulsberg had not indicated approval of his book by a single word. Perhaps he was waiting to be asked? But Irgens could get along without Paulsberg’s opinion.

Irgens rose.

“Are you going?” asked Mrs. Hanka.

Irgens said good night to her and to Miss Aagot, nodded to the others, and left Sara’s.

He had only gone a few steps when he heard somebody call him. Mrs. Hanka was hurrying after him; she had left her wraps in the cafe and had followed in order to say good night properly. Wasn’t that nice of her? She smiled and was very happy.

“I have hardly seen you since I got your book. How I have enjoyed every word!” she exclaimed, and put her hand in his coat pocket in order to be close to him. He felt that she left an envelope in his pocket. “Oh, your verses, your verses!” she said again and again.

He could not remain impassive in the presence of this warm admiration. He wanted to return it, to show her how fond he was of her, and while in this mood he confided to her that he, too, had applied for the subsidy. What did she think of that? He had really applied, briefly and without enclosing any recommendations, simply sending his book. That ought to be sufficient.

Mrs. Hanka did not answer at once.

“You have suffered, then,” she said; “you have lacked — I mean, you have had to apply like the others —”

“Well, good Lord,” he answered, and laughed, “what are the subsidies for, anyway? I have not suffered want; but why not apply when one can do it without loss of prestige? And I did not humble myself; be sure of that. ‘I hereby apply for the subsidy and enclose my last book’— that was all. There was no kowtowing whatever. And when I survey my fellow applicants I hardly think I shall be entirely eclipsed. What is your opinion?”

She smiled and said:

“No, you will not be eclipsed.”

He put his arm around her and said:

“Now, Hanka, you must go back — I can endure it all as long as you are in town, but when you go away it will look very dark for me! I shan’t know what to do with myself then.”

“I am only going to the country,” she said.

“Isn’t that enough? We shall be separated just the same, for you know I cannot leave the city. When are you going?”

“I imagine in about a week.”

“I wish you wouldn’t go away, Hanka!” he exclaimed, and stood still.

Mrs. Hanka reflected.

“Would it really please you so much if I stayed?” she asked. “All right; then I’ll stay. Yes, I will. It will be hard on the children, but — Anyway, it is enough for me that I make you glad.”

They had reached Sara’s once more.

“Good night,” he said happily. “Thank you, Hanka! When shall I see you again? I am longing —”

III

Three days later Irgens received a note from Mrs. Hanka.

He was down-town; he had met a few acquaintances; he did not say much, but was in a satisfied frame of mind. He had taken a look at Paulsberg’s great portrait which was now exhibited in the Arrow, in the large window which everybody had to pass; people crowded in front of it continually. The painting was elegant and obtrusive; Paulsberg’s well-groomed form looked very distinguished in the plain cane-bottomed chair, and people wondered if that was the chair in which he had written his books. All the newspapers had mentioned the picture in flattering terms.

Irgens had a glass of wine in front of him and listened abstractedly to the conversation. Tidemand was still optimistic; that bit of rain in Russia had not depressed his hopes. The prices were not soaring as yet, but they surely would. Suddenly Irgens pricked up his ears: Tidemand was talking about their summer plans.

“We are not going to the country after all,” he said; “Hanka thought — In fact, I told her plainly that if she wanted to go she would have to go alone; I was too busy to think of getting off. Hanka was very nice about it; she agreed to stay in the city.”

The door opened and Milde entered. The corpulent chap beamed happily and shouted, full of the great sensation he was going to spring:

“Congratulate me, good people, I have won the prize! Imagine, in its inscrutable wisdom the ministry has chosen to bestow the subsidy upon me!”

“Have you received the subsidy?” asked Irgens slowly.

“Yes, can you understand it? How it happened I am at a loss to know. I got it from under your very noses! I hear that you, too, applied, Irgens?”

Silence fell upon the crowd at the table. Nobody had expected that, and they were all wondering what influence had been brought to bear. Milde had got the subsidy — what next?

“Well, I congratulate you!” said Tidemand, and gave Milde his hand.

“Thank you,” Milde replied. “I want you to lend me some money now, so that I can celebrate properly; you’ll get it back when I cash in.”

Irgens looked at his watch as if he suddenly remembered something and got up.

“I, too, congratulate you,” he said. “I am sorry to have to leave at once; I have to — No; my object in applying was an entirely different one; I’ll tell you about it later,” he added in order to hide his disappointment.

Irgens went home. So Milde had been chosen! That was the way Norway rewarded her talents. Here he had hurled his inspired lyric in their faces, and they did not even know what it was! Whom had they preferred? None other than oil-painter Milde, collector of ladies’ corsets!

Of course, he knew how it had happened; Paulsberg was behind it. Paulsberg had supported Milde’s application, and Milde had painted Paulsberg’s picture. A simon-pure advertising conspiracy! And when Irgens passed the Arrow and saw the painting he spat contemptuously on the pavement. He had seen through this hypocritical scurviness. However, he would find means to make himself felt.

But why in the world should Lars Paulsberg be allowed to dispose of these subsidies? True, he had never let slip an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the newspapers; he had his press-agents; he took good care that his name shouldn’t be forgotten. But apart from that? Alas, a few novels in the style of the seventies, a popular and amateurish criticism of such a moss-grown dogma as the Atonement! What did it amount to when one looked at it critically? But the fact that he had the press behind him made his words carry weight. Yes, he was certainly a shrewd and thrifty soul, a real backwoods bargain-hunter. He knew what he was doing when he even allowed his wife to accept Journalist Gregersen’s beer-perfumed attentions! Faugh, what a sordid mess!

Well, he was not going to gain success by employing such methods; he hoped he would manage to get along without unfairness. He had one weapon — his pen. That was the kind of man he was.

He went home and locked his door. There would still be time to regain his composure before Mrs. Hanka’s arrival. He tried to write, but found it impossible. He paced back and forth furiously, pale with anger, bitter and vindictive because of this defeat. He would, by Heaven, avenge this wrong; no gentle words were to flow from his pen henceforth!

At last Mrs. Hanka arrived.

No matter how often she had entered this apartment, she always felt a certain embarrassment at first, and she usually said in order to hide it: “Does Mr. Irgens live here?”

But she noticed at once that Irgens was not in a playful mood to-day, and she asked what was the matter. When he had told her of the great calamity she, too, was indignant: “How unjust! What a scandal! Had Milde been selected?”

“In payment for Paulsberg’s portrait,” said Irgens. “Well, it cannot be helped; don’t let it irritate you; I am reconciled.”

“You take it beautifully; I don’t see how you can.”

“The only effect it has on me is to make me a little bitter; it does not break my spirit.”

“I simply cannot understand it; no, I can’t. Did you send your book with your application?”

“Certainly — Oh, my book! I might as well not have written it; so far nobody seems to have noticed it. There has been no review of it so far in any of the papers.” And, angry because of this newspaper neglect of his work, he gritted his teeth and walked up and down.

She looked sadly at him.

“Now, don’t allow this to embitter you,” she said. “You have great provocation, but all the same — You can live without that miserable subsidy. You know that nobody is your equal!”

“And what good does that do me? Judge for yourself; my book has not been mentioned in a single newspaper!”

Mrs. Hanka had for the first time — yes, for the very first time — a feeling that her hero was not the superior being she had imagined. A shuddering thought pierced her heart: he did not carry his disappointment with more than ordinary pride. She looked at him a little closer. His eyes were not so clear, his mouth was drawn and his nostrils dilated. But it was only a shuddering thought.

Then he added: “You might do me the favour to try to interest Gregersen in my book, and see if he won’t review it in the Gazette.” And as he noticed that she grew more and more thoughtful, that she even looked interrogatingly straight into his eyes, he added: “Of course, you need not ask him directly — only give him a little hint, a reminder.”

Could this be Irgens? But she remembered at once his painful position, alone as he was, fighting a conspiracy single-handed; and she excused him. She ought to have thought of giving Gregersen a little hint herself and spared her Poet this humiliation. Yes, she certainly would speak to Gregersen at once.

And Irgens thanked her; his bitterness vanished slowly. They sat silently on the sofa some time; then she said:

“Listen! An awful thing happened with that red tie of yours — you remember the one I took from you once? He saw it!”

“How could you be so careless? What did he say?”

“Nothing; he never says anything. It fell out as I opened my dress. Well, don’t let that worry you; it doesn’t matter. When can I see you again?”

Ever, ever her tenderness was the same! Irgens took her hand and caressed it. How fortunate he was to have her! She was the only one in all the world who understood him, who was good to him — How about that stay in the country? Had she given it up?

Yes; she was not going. She told him frankly that she had had no trouble changing her husband’s mind; he had given in at once. But she was sorry for the children.

“Yes,” answered Irgens sympathetically. And suddenly he asked in a whisper:

“Did you lock the door as you came in?”

She glanced at him, lowered her eyes and whispered: “Yes.”

IV

On the 17th of May,† in the morning, the birds are singing over the city.

[&38224; Norway’s Independence Day.]

A coal-heaver, tired from a night of toil, wanders up through the docks with his shovel across his shoulder; he is black, weary, and athirst; he is going home. And as he walks along, the city begins to stir; a shade is raised here and there; flags are flung from the windows. It is the 17th of May.

All stores and schools are closed; the roar from the wharves and factories is stilled. Only the winches rattle; they shatter the air with their cheerful noise this bright morning. Departing steamers blow white clouds of steam from their exhausts; the docks are busy, the harbour is alive.

And letter-carriers and telegraph messengers have already commenced their rounds, bringing news, scattering information through the doors, whirling up in the hearts of men emotions and feelings like leaves in an autumn wind.

A stray dog with his nose on the pavement lopes through the streets, hot on a scent and without a thought for anything else. Suddenly he stops, jumps up and whines; he has found a little girl who is leaving on every stoop newspapers full of 17th-of-May freedom and bold, ringing phrases. The little girl jerks her tiny body in all directions, twitches her shoulders, blinks and hurries from door to door. She is pale and emaciated; she has Saint Vitus’s dance.

The coal-heaver continues his walk with a heavy, long stride. He has earned a good night’s wage; these enormous English coal-steamers and the many merchantmen from all over the world are indeed a blessing to such as he! His shovel is shiny with wear; he shifts it to his other shoulder and it glitters with every step he takes, signals to heaven with gleaming flashes; it cuts the air like a weapon and shines like silver. The coal-heaver runs foul of a gentleman coming out of a gateway; the gentleman smells of liquor and looks a little shaky; his clothes are silk-lined. As soon as he has lit a cigar he saunters down the street and disappears.

The gentleman’s face is small and round, like a girl’s; he is young and promising; it is Ojen, leader and model for all youthful poets. He has been in the mountains to regain his health, and since his return he has had many glorious nights; his friends have acclaimed him without ceasing.

As he turns toward the fortress he meets a man he seems to know; they both stop.

“Pardon me, but haven’t we met before?” asks Ojen politely.

The stranger answers with a smile:

“Yes, on Torahus. We spent an evening together.”

“Of course; your name is Coldevin. I thought I knew you. How are you?”

“Oh, so so — But are you abroad so early?”

“Well, to tell the truth, I haven’t been to bed yet.”

“Oh, I see!”

“The fact of the matter is that I have hardly been in bed a single night since my return. I am in the hands of my friends. And that means that I am in my element once more — It is strange, Mr. Coldevin, how I need the city; I love it! Look at these houses, these straight, pure lines! I only feel at home here. The mountains — Lord preserve us! And yet, I expected much when I went there.”

“How did you get on? Did you get rid of your nervousness?”

“Did I? To tell you the truth, my nervousness is part of myself; it belongs to me, as the Doctor says; there is nothing to be done about it.”

“So you have been to the mountains and substantiated the fact that your nervousness is chronic? Poor young talent, to be afflicted with such a weakness!”

Ojen looked at him in amazement. But Coldevin smiled and continued to talk innocently. So he did not like the country? But did he not feel that his talent had been benefited by the mountain air?

“Not at all. I have never noticed that my talent stood in need of bracing.”

“Of course not.”

“I have written a lengthy prose poem while I was away, so you see I have not altogether wasted my time. Well, you will pardon me for renewing our acquaintance so abruptly; but I must get home and get a little sleep now. Very pleased to have met you again.”

And Ojen walked off.

Coldevin shouted after him:

“But it is the 17th of May to-day!”

Ojen turned and looked surprised.

“Well, what of it?”

Coldevin shook his head and laughed shortly.

“Nothing. Nothing at all. I only wanted to see if you remembered it. And I see that you remembered it perfectly.”

“Yes,” said Ojen, “one does not altogether forget the teachings of childhood days.”

Coldevin stood there and looked after him. He was only waiting for the processions to start. His coat was beginning to be rather shiny; it was carefully brushed, but shabby; in the left lapel was fastened securely a little silk bow in the Norwegian colours.

He shivered, for the air was still chilly; he walked rapidly in order to get down to the harbour whence sounded the energetic rattle of anchor chains. He nodded and glanced at the waving flags, counted them, and followed their graceful billowing against the blue sky. Here and there a few pale theatre bills were posted on pillars; he went from one to another and read great and famous names — masterpieces from earlier periods. He happened to think of Irgens’s lyric drama, but he looked for it in vain. And he turned his face toward the sea; the rattle of chains reached his ears refreshingly.

The ships were dressed in bunting; the entire harbour scintillated with these bright colours against the blue. Coldevin breathed deeply and stood still. The odour of coal and tar, of wine and fruit, of fish and oils; the roar from engines and traffic, the shouts, the footfalls on the decks, the song from a young sailor who was shining shoes in his shirtsleeves — it all stirred him with a violent joy which almost made his eyes moisten. What a power was here! What ships! The harbour gleamed; far away he saw Miss Aagot’s little yacht with the shining masthead.

He lost himself in this spectacle. Time passed; suddenly he dived into a basement restaurant that had opened up and asked for a sandwich for breakfast. When he emerged a little later there were many people in the streets; it was getting along toward the time for the boys’ parade to start. He had to hurry; it would never do to miss the processions.


Along toward three o’clock a few members of the clique had occupied a vantage-point at the corner, in order to see the big procession pass by toward the Royal Castle. None of them marched in the parade. Suddenly one of them called out:

“Look, there is Coldevin!”

They saw him march now under one, now under another banner; it was as if he wanted to belong to them all; he was almost too enthusiastic to keep in step. Attorney Grande crossed over and joined the procession; he caught up with Coldevin and started a conversation.

“And where is the young Norway?” asked Coldevin, “the poets, the artists — why aren’t they marching? They ought to; it would not hurt their talent. It might not help it much, either; I don’t say that, but I am sure it would never hurt. The trouble is, they don’t care! They are indifferent; but it is surely wrong to be so indifferent.”

Coldevin had grown still more absurd, although he spoke with his usual calm deliberation. He was obstinate; he talked about the suffrage movement, and even hinted that it would be better if women should be a little more anxious to make their homes attractive. It was wrong, he said, that women should think too little of their home life and prefer a hall-room in order to become what they called “independent.” They had to “study” until they, too, could wear glasses; they went to a business school if they could do no better. And they did their things so excellently that they were graduated, and if they were lucky they would finally secure a position at twenty crowns a month. Fine! But they had to pay twenty-seven for the hall-room and meals. Then they were “independent”!

“But you cannot say that it is the fault of the women if their work is paid so poorly,” objected the Attorney, whose wife was liberal.

Certainly, these arguments were familiar; they were old and tried. They had been answered, but. . . . In fact, they had been riddled several thousand times. But the worst of it was that the home was simply destroyed by the corroding influence of these ideas. Coldevin accentuated this. He had noticed that a great many people here in the city mainly lived in the restaurants. He had looked for acquaintances in their homes, but in vain; however, he met them when he occasionally went to a café. He did not want to speak about artists and authors; they simply did not have nor did they want any other home than the cafés, and he did not understand how they could accomplish anything under these circumstances. But women nowadays were lacking in ambition and heart; they were satisfied with the mixed company they found in these hang-outs. They did not extend themselves in any one direction; they were not occupied with any single idea; they became simply roundheaded. God, how rarely one nowadays saw real race!

Somebody in the procession called for cheers and was answered with scattering hurrahs. Coldevin cheered enthusiastically, although he did not hear what the cheers were for. He looked resentfully down the ranks and swung his hat, urging the marchers to shout still louder.

“These people don’t know how to cheer!” he said. “They shout in a whisper; nobody can hear them. Help me, Mr. Attorney, and we’ll liven them up!”

The Attorney thought it fun and shouted with him until they succeeded in stirring up the dying hurrahs.

“Once again!” shouted Coldevin.

And again the cheers rolled down the ranks.

The Attorney said smilingly:

“That you should care to do this!”

Coldevin looked at him. He said seriously:

“You should not say that. We should all care to do this; it would not hurt us. Of course, this parading has not in itself great significance; but there will be opportunities to cheer for Norway, for the flag, and then we ought to be present. Who knows — these booming cheers may have their effect on Parliament; it may be reminded of a few things it has begun to forget — a little loyalty, a little steadfastness. People should not be so unconcerned; now is the time for the young to step forward. Perhaps, if the youth of the country had shown up occasionally and met together and hurrahed at times, Parliament might have settled a few things differently lately. And, if you had cared to take a walk along the docks to-day and witnessed the nation’s life throb so mightily, then, by Heaven, you would have felt that the country is worth our cheers —”

The Attorney spied Ojen on the sidewalk; he excused himself and stepped out of the procession. He looked back a moment later and saw that Coldevin had changed places again; he was marching under the business-men’s banner, erect, grey-bearded, and shabby, with the glint of the Norwegian colours on his lapel.

V

Aagot was dressed for the excursion; she pulled on her gloves and was ready.

It had not been at all difficult to arrange this little trip; Ole had only requested that she be careful and dress warmly; it was only May.

And they started.

It was calm, warm, and bright; not a cloud in the skies. Irgens had the boat ready; they had only to go aboard. He spoke intentionally about indifferent matters; he wanted to make her forget that she had originally agreed to this island trip with a whispered yes, a sudden submission right before Ole’s very eyes. She was reassured. Irgens had not invested her sudden consent with a deeper significance than she had intended; he walked along as unconcernedly as possible and talked about the weather and almost had to be hurried along. Just as they were on the verge of starting she caught a glimpse of Coldevin, who stood on the dock half hidden behind a pile of boxes. She jumped out of the boat and called:

“Coldevin! I want to see you!”

It was impossible to avoid her; he stepped forward and took off his hat.

She gave him her hand. Where in the world had he kept himself all this time? Dear me, why was he never to be seen? It began to look a little strange — really it did.

He stammered an excuse, spoke about library work, a translation from a book, an absolutely necessary bit of work. . . .

But she interrupted and asked where he lived now. She had looked for him at the hotel but was told that he had left; nobody knew where he had gone. She had also had a glimpse of him on the seventeenth; she was in the Grand and saw him march by in the parade.

He repeated his excuses and trotted out the old joke about the impropriety of disturbing sweethearts too much. He smiled good-naturedly as he spoke.

She observed him carefully. His clothes were threadbare, his face had become thinner, and she wondered suddenly if he were in want. Why had he left the hotel, and where did he live? He said something about a friend, a college chum — honest, a teacher, a splendid fellow.

Aagot asked when he was going back to Torahus, but he did not know exactly; he was unable to say. As long as he had this library work and was so busy. . . .

Well, he simply must promise to come before he went away; she insisted. And she asked suddenly: “When I saw you on the seventeenth, didn’t you have a bow in your buttonhole?”

Certainly, he had a bow; one had to show the colours on such a day! Didn’t she remember that she had given it to him herself? She had wanted him to be decorated last year, when he was going to speak to the peasants at Torahus, and she had given him the bow. Didn’t she remember?

Aagot recalled it. She asked:

“Was it really the same bow?”

“Yes; isn’t it strange? I happened to come across it; I must have brought it along with some clothes; I found it by accident.”

“Imagine! I thought at once it was my bow. It made me glad; I don’t know why,” she said and bowed her head.

Irgens shouted and asked her if she were coming.

“No!” she called bluntly and without thinking. She did not even turn her head. But when she realised how she had answered she grew confused and cried to Irgens: “Pardon me just a moment!” And she turned to Coldevin again: “I would have loved to stay and talk with you, but I have no time; I am going to the island.” She offered Coldevin her hand and said: “Anyway, I hope everything will turn out for the best; don’t you think it will, too? I am sorry to have to hurry off. So long; be sure and come up soon!”

She skipped down the steps and into the boat. Again she apologised for keeping Irgens waiting.

And Irgens rowed out. They talked about the sea, the far journeys, the strange countries; he had been abroad only in his dreams, and he supposed that would be the extent of his travellings. He looked sad and listless. Suddenly he said:

“I hear you are not going to the country after all.”

“No. The Tidemands have changed their plans.”

“So I am told. It is a pity; I am sorry for your sake, in a way.” And, resting on his oars, he added bluntly: “But I am glad for my own sake; I admit it frankly.”

Aagot skipped up the stone jetty when they landed. The trees delighted her; it was ages since she had seen a real forest — such great big trees, just like home. She sniffed the pungent, pine-laden air, she looked at stones and flowers with a feeling of recognition; memories from home surged through her, and she was for an instant on the verge of tears.

“But here are other people!” she exclaimed suddenly.

Irgens laughed: “What did you expect? This is not a jungle, exactly.”

They explored the island thoroughly, saw the changing views, and had refreshments. Aagot beamed. The walk in the bracing air had flushed her cheeks, her lips, her ears, even her nose; her eyes were sparkling gaily. She suddenly remembered that she had almost pouted in disappointment when she saw other people; what must Irgens have thought?

“I was at first a little surprised to find so many people here,” she said. “The reason was that you told me you had written some of your poems here, and I did not think you could have done that unless you had been entirely undisturbed.”

How she remembered! He gazed at her exultantly and answered that he had his own restful nook where nobody ever came. It was on the other side; should they go over?

They went. It was certainly a restful place, a regular wilderness of rocks and heather and junipers, enclosed on two sides. Far in the distance could be seen a little glade. They sat down.

“So this is where you sit and write!” she exclaimed. “It is strange to think of. Were you sitting here?”

“About here. Do you know, it is refreshing to meet such a spontaneous interest as yours?”

“Tell me, how do you write your things? Do the thoughts come to you without conscious effort?”

“Yes, in a way. Things affect one pleasantly or otherwise, and the mood is there. But the trouble then is to make the words reflect the love or hate one’s heart feels at the moment. Often it is useless even to try; one can never find words adequately to express that languid gesture of your hand, to define that evanescent thrill your laughter sends through one —”

Slowly the sun sank; a tremor quivered through the trees, and all was still.

“Listen,” he said, “do you hear the noise boiling away yonder in the city?”

He noted how her dress tightened across her knee; he followed the curving outline of her figure, saw how her bosom rose and sank, observed her face with the darling dimple and the somewhat irregular nose; his blood stirred and he moved closer to her. He spoke in fumbling, broken sentences:

“This is now the Isle of the Blest, and its name is Evenrest. The sun is sinking; we are here — the world far off; it is exactly my dream of dreams. Tell me, does my voice disturb you? You seem so far away — Miss Lynum, it is useless to continue the struggle; I surrender to you. I lie at your feet and tell you this, although I have not moved —”

The swift change in his expression, the low, vibrant, fervent voice, his nearness — for a moment she was completely, stupidly stunned. She looked at him for an instant without answering. Then her cheeks began to flame; she started to get up and said quickly:

“But isn’t it time to go?”

“No!” he exclaimed. “No, don’t go!” He took hold of her dress, flung his arm around her, and held her back. She struggled with face aglow, laughing uncertainly, making vain efforts to free herself.

“You must be crazy,” she said again and again; “have you completely forgotten yourself?”

“Please, let me at least tell you something!”

“Well, what is it?” she asked and sat still; she turned her face away, but she listened.

And he began speaking rapidly and incoherently; his heart-beats trembled in his voice, which was persuasive and full of tenderness. She could see that all he wanted was to make her understand how unspeakably he loved her; how he had been conquered, subdued as never before. She must believe him; it had lain dormant and grown in his heart since the very first time he met her. He had fought and struggled to keep his feelings within bounds; but it was true — such a struggle was not very effective. It was too sweet to yield, and so one yielded. One fought on with a steadily slipping grip. And now the end had come; he could not fight any more, he was entirely disarmed. . . . “I believe my breast will burst asunder.” . . .

Still leaning away from him, she had turned her face and was gazing at him while he spoke. Her hands had ceased their ineffectual efforts and were now resting on his, tightly clasped around her waist; she saw the blood leap through the veins along his throat. She straightened up and sat erect; his hands were still around her, but she did not seem to notice it now. She seized her gloves and said with quivering lips:

“But, Irgens, you should not say such things to me. You know you shouldn’t. It is sad, but I cannot help it now.”

“No, you are right; I don’t suppose I ought to have said it, but —” He gazed at her; his lips were trembling too. “But, Miss Aagot, what would you do if your love made you weak and powerless; if it robbed you of your senses and blinded you to everything else? I mean —”

“Yes, but say nothing more!” she interrupted. “I understand you in a way, but — You know, I cannot listen to this.” She looked at the arms around her waist, and with a sudden jerk she moved away and got up.

She was still so confused that she remained standing immobile; she did not even brush the heather from her dress. And when he got up she made no effort to go, but remained where she was.

“Listen, I want you to promise not to tell this to anybody. I am afraid — And you must not think of me any more. I had no idea that you really cared; of course, I thought that you liked me very much — I had begun to think that; but I never thought —‘How could he care for me?‘ I always thought. If you want me to I will go back to Torahus and stay there awhile.”

He was deeply moved; he swallowed hard and his eyes grew moist. This delicious simplicity, these candid words, her very attitude, which was free from fear and entirely unaffected — his feelings flared up in him like a consuming flame: No, no, not to Torahus — only stay! He would control himself, would show her that he could control himself; she must not go away. Even should he lose his mind and perish altogether — rather that, if she would only stay!

He continued talking while he was brushing off her dress. She must pardon him; he was not like everybody else, he was a poet; when it came over him he must yield. But he would give her no further cause for complaint if she would only stay. . . . Wouldn’t she mind going away the least little bit, though? No, of course, he had no false illusions.

Pause. He was waiting for her to answer, to contradict him; perhaps she would go to Torahus a little regretfully after all? But she remained silent. Did she, then, hold him in so slight regard? Impossible! Still, the thought began to worry him; he felt aggrieved, hurt, almost slighted. He repeated his question: Did all his love for her not call forth the tiniest responsive spark in her heart?

She answered gently and sorrowfully:

“Please do not ask. What do you think Ole would say if he heard you?”

Ole? He had not given him a thought. Did he really play the role of competitor to Ole Henriksen? It was too ridiculous. He could not believe that she meant what she had said. Ole might be all right as far as that went; he bought and sold, went his peddler rounds through life, paid his bills and added dollars to his hoard. That was all. Did money really matter so much to her? God knows, perhaps even this girlish little head had its concealed nook where thoughts were figuring in crowns and pennies!

Irgens was silent for an instant; he felt the pangs of jealousy. Ole might be able to hold her; he was tall and blue-eyed — perhaps she even preferred him?

“Ole?” he said. “I do not care in the least what he would say. Ole does not exist for me; it is you I love.”

She seemed startled for the first time; she frowned a little and began to walk away.

“This is too contemptible!” she said. “I wish you hadn’t said that. So it is me you love? Well, don’t tell me any more about it.”

“Miss Aagot — one word only. Don’t you care the least little bit for me?”

He had seized her arm; she had to look at him. He was too violent; he did not control himself as he had promised; he was not very handsome now.

She answered: “I love Ole; I hope you understand that.”

The sun sank deeper. People had left the island; only an occasional late straggler was still seen walking along the road toward the city. Irgens did not ask questions any more; he spoke only when necessary. Aagot tried in vain to start a conversation; she had all she could do to keep her heart under control.

When they were in the boat again he said: “Perhaps you would have preferred to drive back alone? I may be able to find a hackman for you, if you like.”

“Now don’t be angry any more!” she said.

She could hardly keep her eyes from brimming over; she forced herself to think of indifferent matters in order to regain control over herself; she gazed back toward the island, followed the flight of a bird that sailed gracefully above the water. She asked:

“Is that water over there?”

“No,” he answered; “it is a meadow; the dew makes it look dark.”

“Imagine! To me it looked like water.” But as it was impossible to talk further about this green meadow they were both silent.

He was rowing hard; they approached the docks. He landed and jumped out to help her ashore. Neither of them had gloves on; her warm hand rested in his, and she took the opportunity of thanking him for the trip.

“I want to ask you to forget that I have bothered you with my heart troubles,” he said.

And he lifted his hat, without waiting for an answer, jumped into the boat, and pushed off.

She had stopped at the head of the steps. She saw that he went back into the boat, and wanted to call to him and ask where he was going; but she gave it up. He saw her fair form disappear across the jetty.

He had in reality not intended to do this; he acted on the spur of the moment, embarrassed as he was, hardly knowing what he was doing. He seized the oars and rowed out again, towards the island. The evening was wondrously calm. Now, when he was alone, he realised how deep was his despair; another disappointment, another fall, the very worst! And not a star in the murky night! He suddenly remembered Hanka, who probably had looked for him to-day; who perhaps was seeking him even now. No; Hanka was not fair; Hanka was dark; she did not radiate, but she allured. But how was it — didn’t she walk a little peculiarly? No, Hanka did not have Aagot’s carriage. And why was it her laugh no longer made his blood tingle?

He rested on the oars and let the boat drift. It grew darker. Fragmentary thoughts drifted through his brain: a rudderless ship on the buffeting waves, an emperor in defeat, King Lear, thoughts and thoughts. He went aft and began to write on the back of some envelopes, verse upon verse. Thank God, nothing could rob him of his talent! And this thought sent a thrill of warm happiness coursing through his veins.

VI

Tidemand was still optimistic; his ice business in England was very profitable. He did not place much faith in the reports that extensive rains throughout Russia had greatly improved the prospects for a normal harvest. It had rained, of course, but the fact remained that Russia was still closed; not a sack of grain could be smuggled out if one were to offer for it its weight in gold. Tidemand stuck to his price; occasionally he would sell small quantities throughout the country, but his enormous stores were hardly affected by this; he needed a panic, a famine, before he could unload. But there was no hurry; only wait until winter!

As usual, Tidemand was eagerly sought by business solicitors of every description; subscription lists and all kinds of propositions were placed before him; his name was in demand everywhere. Nothing could be started without the support of the business element; and it was especially the younger business men, the energetic and self-made men who conducted the large enterprises, who commanded money and credit and knew and recognised opportunities, whose interest had to be enlisted. There was the electric street-car proposition, the new theatre, the proposed pulp-mills in Vardal, the whale-oil factories in Henningsvaer — everything had to have the business men’s stamp of approval. Both Tidemand and Ole Henriksen became share-owners in everything as a matter of course.

“My father should have known this!” Tidemand would often say when he gave his signature. His father had a reputation for miserly thrift which had survived him; he was one of the old-fashioned tradesmen, who went around in his shirt-sleeves and apron, and weighed out soap and flour by the pound. He had no time to dress decently; his shoes were still a byword; the toes were sticking out, and when he walked it looked as if his toes were searching for pennies on the flagstones. The son did not resemble the father much; for him the old horizons had been broken, cracked wide, and opened large views; his optimistic business courage was recognised.

Ole Henriksen had just dropped in on him in his office and was talking about the projected tannery for which an ideal site had been found near Torahus. This enterprise was bound to amount to something in the near future; the great forests were being cut rapidly; the lumber was sold here and abroad. But two and three inch cuttings and the tops were left and went to waste. What a lack of foresight! Pine bark contained nearly twenty per cent tannin; why not utilise it and make money out of it?

“We will see what can be done next spring.”

Ole Henriksen looked a little overworked. He had not sufficient help; when he went to England that autumn he would have to give his head assistant power of attorney and leave everything to him. Since Aagot came Ole’s work had been only fun; but now she was a little indisposed and had kept up-stairs for a couple of days. Ole missed her. She must have been careless on this excursion day before yesterday and have caught a cold. He had wanted to take her out in the little yacht, but this had now been postponed until Sunday. He asked Tidemand to come along; there would be a few more; they would sail out to some reef and have coffee.

“Are you sure Miss Aagot will be well by Sunday?” asked Tidemand. “These boat-rides are dangerous so early in the year. What I was going to say was: Won’t you please ask Hanka yourself? I am not sure I can make her come — In regard to this tannery proposition, I think I shall have to hold the matter in abeyance for the present. It will also depend on the lumber quotations to some extent.”

Ole returned after he had looked up Hanka and invited her. He wondered a little over Tidemand’s remark about boat-rides being dangerous; Tidemand had given the remark a subtle meaning, and Ole had looked at him interrogatingly.

Ole found Aagot in her own room; she was reading. When he entered she threw down her book and ran to him. She was well again, entirely well — just feel the pulse, not a trace of fever! How she looked forward to Sunday! Ole warned her again about being careful; she would have to dress properly. Even Tidemand had spoken about these risky boat-rides so early in the season.

“And you are going to be the hostess!” he chaffed her. “What a darling little mistress! By the way, what are you reading?”

“Oh, that is only Irgens’s poems,” she answered.

“Don’t say ‘only’ Irgens’s poems,” he chided her playfully. “By the way, I ran across Coldevin a moment ago; he said he was looking for somebody. I couldn’t get him to come up — he simply wouldn’t.”

“Did you invite him to our excursion?” asked Aagot quickly. She seemed very much disappointed because Ole had forgotten to ask him. He had to promise her to try his best to find Coldevin before Sunday.


Tidemand rang Henriksen’s bell late Saturday evening and asked for Ole. He did not want to come in; it was only a small matter, he would keep Ole only a minute.

When Ole came out he saw at once that something serious had happened. He asked whether they should go down to the office or take a walk; Tidemand did not care which. They went downstairs to the office.

Tidemand took out a telegram and said:

“I fancy my rye speculation isn’t going to turn out very well. The prices are normal at present; Russia has lifted the ban.”

It was true that Russia had recalled her decree against rye exportations. The favourable prospects had not proved disappointing, and this, in connection with large amounts of grain stored in the elevators from previous years, had made further restrictions superfluous. The famine ghost had been laid; Russian and Finnish harbours were once more open. Such was the purport of the telegraphic message.

Ole sat there silent. This was an awful blow! His brain was awhirl with thoughts: could the telegram be a hoax, a piece of speculative trickery, a bribed betrayal? He glanced at the signature; no, it was out of the question to suspect this reliable agent. But had anything like that ever happened before? A world-power had fooled itself and taken self-destructive measures for no apparent reason! It was even worse than in fifty-nine when a similar edict had been lifted and had caused the world-markets wreck and ruin. But there had been war then.

The clock on the wall ticked and ticked in the unbroken silence.

Finally Ole asked: “Are you sure the wire is authentic?”

“It is authentic enough, I fancy,” said Tidemand. “My agent wired me twice yesterday to sell, and I sold what I could, sold even below the day’s quotations; but what did that amount to? I lost heavily yesterday, I tell you.”

“Well, don’t do anything hastily now; let us consider this carefully. But why did you not come to me yesterday? I had a right to expect that from you.”

“I ought hardly to have brought you such a piece of news this evening, even, but —”

“Once and for all,” Ole interrupted him, “understand that I will help you all I possibly can. With everything I have, you understand. And that is not so very little, either.”

Pause.

“I thank you, Ole — for everything. I knew I shouldn’t go to you in vain. You could help me a good deal if you would take over some of my obligations — I mean those that are non-speculative, of course.”

“Nonsense — anybody will take such things! I am taking rye. We will date the papers day before yesterday — for the sake of the old man.”

Tidemand shook his head.

“I am not going to pull you under, too.”

Ole looked at him; the veins in his temples were swelling. “You are a damn fool!” he exclaimed angrily.

“Do you for a moment think you can so easily pull me under?” And Ole swore, with blazing eyes, right into Tidemand’s face: “By God, I’ll show you how easily you can pull me under!”

But Tidemand was immovable; not even Ole’s anger made him yield. He understood Ole; his means were perhaps not so insignificant, but it was no use making out that he could do everything. Ole boasted only because he wanted to help him, that was all. But from to-morrow on the bottom would simply drop out of the market; it wasn’t right to sell rye even to one’s enemies at yesterday’s prices.

“But what are you going to do? Are you going into a receiver’s hands?” asked Ole in a temper.

“No,” answered Tidemand, “I think I can skin through without that. The ice in England and Australia is quite a help now; not much, but crowns are money to me now. I shall have to retrench, to sell what I can in order to raise cash. I thought that perhaps you would care to buy — you might use it when you are going to marry, you know, and we don’t need it at all; we are never there any more —”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, I thought that you might want to buy my country estate now — You are going to be married soon, so —” “Your country house? Are you going to sell it?”

“What good is it to us?”

Pause. Ole noticed that Tidemand’s composure began to fail him.

“All right. I’ll take it. And whenever you want it back it will be for sale. I have a premonition that it will not be mine so very long.”

“Well, God only knows. Anyway, I am doing what I can and should. I am glad the place will be yours. It is beautiful; it is not my fault we have not been there this summer. Well, this will help some; as for the rest, we’ll see. I trust I can manage without closing up; that would be hard indeed. And worst for the sake of the children!”

Again Ole offered his assistance.

“I appreciate your help, and I will avail myself of it within reasonable limits. But a loss is a loss, and even if I weather the storm without going into bankruptcy I shall be a poor man all the same. I don’t know whether I own a penny now or not — I am only glad that you didn’t join me in that unhappy speculation, Ole; that is a blessing, anyway. Well, we’ll see.”

Ole asked:

“Does your wife know about this?”

“No; I’ll tell her after the trip to-morrow.”

“The trip? I’ll cancel that, of course.”

“No,” said Tidemand, “I will ask you not to do that. Hanka is looking forward to it; she has spoken of it a good deal. No, I would rather ask you to act as if nothing has happened; be as cheerful as you can. I really would appreciate it. Don’t mention my misfortune at all, please.”

And Tidemand put the fatal wire back in his pocket.

“I am sorry I had to come and bother you with this. But I go home with a lighter heart, now I know you will take the country house.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23s/chapter3.html

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