Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XV

Our dark beauty, Miss Torsen, was now seriously considering taking her departure. She was healthy enough in any case, so she did not need a stay in the mountains on that account, and if she was bored, why should she stay?

But a minor event caused her to stay.

In their lack of occupation, the ladies at the resort began to cultivate Solem. They ate so much and grew so fat and healthy that they felt a need to busy themselves with something, and to find someone to make a fuss over. And here was the lad Solem. They got into the habit of telling one another what Solem had said and what Solem believed, and they all listened with great interest. Solem himself had grown spoiled, and joked disrespectfully with the ladies; he called himself a great chap, and once he had even bragged in a most improper way, saying:

“Look, here’s a sinful devil for you!”

“Do you know what Solem said to me?” asked Miss Palm. “He’s chopping wood and he’s got a bandage on his finger, and it keeps getting caught in the wood and bothers him, poor fellow. So he said: ‘I wish I had time to stop so I could chop this blasted finger right off my hand!’”

“Tough, isn’t he?” said the other ladies. “He’s quite capable of doing it, too!”

A little later I passed the woodshed and saw Mrs. Brede there, tying a fresh bandage on Solem’s finger. . . . Poor lady! She was chaste, but young.

The days have been oppressively warm for some time now, with the heat coming down in waves from the mountain and robbing us of all our strength. But in the evenings we recovered somewhat, and busied ourselves in various ways: some of us wrote letters or played forfeit games in the garden, while others were so far restored that they went for a walk “to look at nature.”

Last Sunday evening I stood talking to Solem outside his room. He had on his Sunday clothes, and seemed to have no intention of going to bed.

Miss Torsen came by, stopped, and said:

“I hear you’re going for a walk with Mrs. Brede?”

Solem removed his cap, which left a red ring round his forehead.

“Who, me?” he said. “Well, maybe she said something about it. There was a path through the woods she wanted me to show her, she said.”

Miss Torsen was filled with madness now; handsome and desperate, she paced back and forth; you could almost see the sparks flying. Her red felt hat was held on the back of her head by a pin, the brim turned up high in front. Her throat was bare, her frock thin, her shoes light.

It was extraordinary to watch her behavior; she had opened a window onto her secret desires. What cared she for Tradesman Batt! Had she not toiled through her youth and gained school knowledge? But no reality! Poor Miss Torsen. Solem must not show a path to any other lady tonight.

As nothing more was said, and Solem was preparing to depart, Miss Torsen cleared her throat.

“Come with me instead!” she said.

Solem looked round quickly and said, “All right.”

So I left them; I whistled as I walked away with exaggerated indifference, as though nothing on earth were any concern of mine.

“Come with me instead,” she said. And he went. They were already behind the outhouses, then behind the two great rowan trees; they hurried lest Mrs. Brede should see them. Then they were gone.

A door wide open, but where did it lead? I saw no sweetness in her, nothing but excitement. She had learned grammar, but no language; her soul was undernourished. A true woman would have married; she would have been a man’s wife, she would have been a mother, she would have been a benediction to herself. Why pounce on a pleasure merely to prevent others from having it? And she so tall and handsome!

The dog stands growling over a bone. He waits till another dog approaches. Then suddenly he is overcome with gluttony, pounces on the bone and crushes it between his teeth. Because the other dog is approaching.

It seemed as though this small event had to happen before my mind was ready for the night. I awoke in the dark and felt within me the nursery rhyme I had dawdled over so long: four rollicking verses about the juniper tree.

To the top of the steepest mountains,

where the little juniper stands,

no other tree can follow

from all the forest lands.

Halfway to the hilltop

the shivering pine catches hold;

the birch has actually passed him,

though sneezing with a cold.

But a little shrub outstrips them,

a sturdy fellow he,

and stands quite close to the summit,

though he measures barely a yard.

They look like a train from the valley below

with the shortest one for the guard.

Or else perhaps he’s a coachman now —

why, it’s only a juniper tree.

Down dale there’s summer lightning,

green leaves and St. John’s feast,

with songs and games of children,

and a dozen dances at least.

But high on the empty mountain

stands a shrub in lonely glory,

with only the trolls that prowl about,

just like in a story.

The wind with the juniper’s forelock

is making very free;

it sweeps across the world beneath

that lies there helpless and bare,

but the air on the heights is fresher

than you’ll ever find it elsewhere.

None can see so far around

as such a juniper tree.

There hovers over the mountain

for a moment summer’s breath;

at once eternal winter

brings back his companion, death.

Yet sturdy stands the juniper

with needles ever green.

I wonder how the little chap

can bear a life so lean.

He’s hard as bone and gristle,

as anyone can see;

when every other tree is stripped,

his berries are scarlet and sleek,

and every berry’s plainly marked

with a cross upon its cheek.

So now we know what he looks like too,

this jolly juniper tree.

At times I think he sings to himself

a cheerful little song:

“I’ve got a bright blue heaven

to look at all day long!”

Sometimes to his juniper brothers

he calls that they need not fear

the trolls that are prowling and peering

about them far and near.

Gently the winter evening

falls over the copse on the height,

and a thousand stars and candles

are lit in the plains of the sky.

The juniper trees grow weary

and nod their heads on the sly;

before we know it they’re fast asleep,

so we say: “Good night, good night!”

I got up and wrote out these rhymes on a sheet of paper, which I sent to a little girl, a child with whom I had walked much in the country, and she learned them at once. Then I read them to Mrs. Brede’s little girls, who stood still like two bluebells, listening. Then they tore the paper out of my hand and ran to their mother with it. They loved their mother very much. And she loved them too; they had the most delightful fun together at bedtime.

Brave Mrs. Brede with her children! She might have committed a madness, but could not find it in her heart to do so. Yet did anyone prize her for that? Who? Her husband?

A man should take his wife to Iceland with him. Or risk the consequences of her being left behind for endless days.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55