Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter IX

A tourist arrived at the farm: the first tourist. And the master of the house himself went with him across the fjeld, and as for Solem, why, he, too, went with him so that he might know the way for later tourists. We found the fat, short, and thin-haired stranger standing in the yard, an elderly, well-to-do man who walked for the sake of his health and the last twenty years of his life. Josephine, the dear girl, made her feet a breeze beneath her skirts, and got him into the living room, with its piano and its earthenware bowls with beaded edges. When he was leaving, he brought out his small change, which Josephine received in her gray, young-girl’s fingers. On the other side of the fjeld, Solem was given two crowns for acting as guide, and that was good pay. All went so well that the master himself was content.

“Now they’ll be coming,” he said. “If only they would leave us in peace,” he added.

By this he meant he regretted the good, carefree days that he and his household had enjoyed till now; but in a few weeks a motor road would be opened in the neighboring valley, and then it was a question whether the tourist traffic might not be deflected there. His wife and Josephine were a little afraid it would be; but he himself had held as long as possible to the opinion that all their regular visitors who had come again year after year would remain faithful. No matter how many roads and motor cars they might have in other places, they could not get the peaks of the Tore range anywhere but here.

The master of the house had felt so confident that once more he had much timber lying by the wall of the barn, ready to be built into new cottages, with six new guestrooms, a great hall with reindeer horns and log chairs, and a bathroom. But what was the matter with him today; was he beginning to doubt? “If only they would leave us in peace,” he said.

A week later Mrs. Brede arrived with her children; she had a cottage to herself, as in previous summers. So she must be rich and fashionable, this Mrs. Brede, since she had a cottage to herself. She was a charming lady, and her little daughters were well-grown, handsome children. They curtsied to me, making me feel, I don’t know why, as though they were giving me flowers. A strange feeling.

Then came Miss Torsen and Mrs. Molie, who were both to stay for the summer. They were followed by Schoolmaster Staur, who would stay a week. Later came two schoolmistresses, the Misses Johnsen and Palm, and still later Associate Schoolmaster Höy and several others — tradesmen, telephone operators, a few people from Bergen, one or two Danes. There were many of us at table now, and the talk was lively. When Schoolmaster Staur was asked if he wanted more soup, he replied: “No, thank you; I require no more!” and then rolled his eyes at us to show that this was the correct thing to say. Between meals we made up small parties, going this way and that on the sides of the fjeld and in the woods. But of transient guests there were few or none at all, and it was really on these that the house would earn well — on rooms for a night, on single meals, on cups of coffee. Josephine seemed to be worrying lately, and her young fingers grew more greedy as they counted silver coins.

Lean brook trout, goat’s-meat stew, and tinned foods. Some of the guests were dissatisfied people who spoke of leaving; others praised both the food and the wild mountain scenery. Schoolmistress Torsen wanted to leave. She was tall and handsome and wore a red hat on her dark hair; but there were no suitable young men here, and in the long run it was a bore to waste her holidays so completely. Tradesman Batt, who had been in both Africa and America, was the only possibility, for even the Bergensians amounted to nothing.

“Where’s Miss Torsen?” Batt would ask us.

“Here I am; I’m coming,” the lady answered.

They did not care for walks up the fjeld, but preferred to go to the woods together, where they talked for hours. But Tradesman Batt did not amount to much either; he was short and freckled, and talked of nothing but money and trade. Besides, he had only a small shop in the town, and dealt in tobacco and fruit. No, he did not amount to much.

One day, during a long spell of rain, I sat talking with Miss Torsen. She was an extraordinary girl, ordinarily proud and reserved, but sometimes talkative, lively, and perhaps a little inconsiderate, too. We sat in the living room, with people coming and going continually, but she did not let that disturb her, and talked in high, clear tones; in her eagerness she sometimes clasped her hands, and then dragged them apart again. After we had been sitting there for some time, Tradesman Batt came in, listened to her for a moment, and then said:

“I’m going out now, Miss Torsen; are you coming?”

She swept him once with her eyes from head to foot; then she turned away and went on talking, looking very proud and determined as she did so. No doubt she had many good qualities; she was twenty-seven, she said, and sick and tired of a teacher’s life.

But why had she ever entered on such a life in the first place?

“Oh, just doing what everybody else did,” she replied. “The girls next door were also going to walk the road of scholarship; to study languages, as they called it, study grammar; it all sounded so fine. We were going to be independent and earn a lot of money. That’s what I thought! Have a home, however small, that was quite my own. How we slogged away all through school! Some of the girls had money, but those of us who were poor couldn’t dress like them, and we hadn’t well-kept hands like theirs. And so we came to avoid all work at home for the sake of our hands.

“And we played up to the boys at school, too. We thought them such fine gentlemen; one of them had a riding horse, bit of a fool, of course, but he was a millionaire’s son and awfully decent, gave us banknotes — me, anyhow — and he kissed me many times. His name was Flaten; his father was a merchant. Of course, he being so handsome and dashing, we wanted to be nice to him too. I should have done anything he asked; I used to pray to God for him.

“I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wanted to be smart and pretty. That was how we passed the time. Washing and cooking and mending fell to the lot of my mother and sisters; we students wouldn’t do anything but sit round being very learned and getting seraphic hands. We were quite mad, as I don’t mind admitting. It was in the course of those years that we acquired all the distorted ideas we’ve been burdened with since; we grew dull with school wisdom, anaemic, unbalanced: sometimes terribly unhappy about our sad lot, sometimes hysterically happy, and pluming ourselves on our examinations and our importance. We were the pride of the family.

“And of course we were independent. We got jobs in offices, at forty kroner a month. Because now there was no longer anything in the least extraordinary about us students — we were no rarity, there were hundreds of us — forty kroner was the most they gave us. Thirty went to Father and Mother for our keep, and ten for ourselves. It wasn’t enough. We had to have pretty clothes for the office, and we were young, we liked to walk out; but everything was too dear for us, we went into debt, and some of us got engaged to poor devils like ourselves. The narrow school life during our years of development did more than hurt our intelligence; we wanted to show spirit, too, and not recoil before any experience, so some of us went to the bad, others married — and with such antecedents, of course, there was first-rate mismanagement in the home; others disappeared to America. But probably all of them are still boasting their languages and their examinations. It’s all they have left — not happiness or health or innocence, but their matriculation. Good God!”

“But surely some of you have become schoolmistresses with good salaries?”

“Good salaries! Anyhow, first we had to start studying all over again. As though Father and Mother and brothers and sisters hadn’t sacrificed enough for our sakes already! There was cramming again for long periods, and then we began life in the schoolroom — to give to others the same unnatural upbringing we had had ourselves. Oh, yes, ours was a noble vocation; it was almost like being missionaries. But now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to talk about something besides this exalted position. Anything else you please.”

Tradesman Batt opened the door and said:

“Are you coming, Miss Torsen? It’s stopped raining now.”

“Oh, leave me alone,” she replied.

Tradesman Batt withdrew.

“Why do you turn him away like that?” I asked.

“Because . . . well, the weather is bad,” she said, looking out of the window. “Besides, he’s such a fool. And he takes such liberties.”

How sure of herself she looked, and how right she seemed!

Poor Miss Torsen! True or not, the news gradually spread that Miss Torsen had recently lost her post at the school, where indulgence had been exercised for a long time toward her eccentric methods of teaching.

So that was it.

But certainly what she had told me was nonetheless true.


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