Part 4 out of 4
training, he would earn more money. After that he would buy a horse.
I visited the neighbors, too. The farms were small, but the farmers
cultivated as much land as they required, and there was no poverty. Here
were no flowerpots in the windows or pictures on the walls, as at Petra's;
but good, thick furs with woven backs hung over the doors, and the
children looked healthy and well-fed. The neighbors all knew I lived at
Petra's house; every visitor to this district lived at Petra's house--had
done so as long as they could remember. I could sense no hostility to
Petra in these silent people, but the old schoolmaster was more talkative,
and he was quite ready to spread gossip about her. This man was a
bachelor; he had his own house and did his own housework. Had he, perhaps,
at some time felt a secret desire for the widow Petra?
The schoolmaster gossiped thus:
People who had visited the village in Petra's girlhood always used to live
at her parents' house. There was a room and a loft, and the engineer that
planned the big road lived there, and so did the two traveling preachers,
to say nothing of the itinerant peddlers who toured the district all the
year round. So it went on for many a year, with the children growing up,
and Petra getting big and hearty. Then Palm came; he was a Swede, a big
merchant--a wholesale merchant, one might almost say, for that period,
with his own boat and even a boy to carry his wares. Well, there were
glass panes again in the windows of Petra's parents' house, and there was
meat on Sundays, for Palm liked things done in style. He gave Petra
presents of dress materials and sweets. Then he was finished with Petra,
and went away to do business elsewhere. But it happened that the child
Petra gave birth to was a boy, and when Palm returned and saw him, he
stayed, and traveled no more. They married, and Palm added two rooms to
the house, for it was his intention to open a shop there. But when he had
built honestly and well, he died. His widow was left with two small
children, but she had means enough, for Palm had had plenty of money. Then
why did not Petra remarry? She could have got a man in spite of the
handicap of two small children, for Petra herself was still a young girl.
But from her childhood days, said the schoolmaster, she had been spoiled
by this love of roving company, and again housed itinerant tramps and
Swedes and peddlers, and thoroughly disgraced herself. Some of them stayed
there for weeks, eating and drinking and idling. It was shameful. Her
parents saw nothing wrong in this because it had always been their way of
living, and besides it brought them a little money. So the years went by.
When the children were grown and Sophie was out of the way, she might have
married even then, for she still had half her money left, and being
childless again, it was not too late. But no, Petra didn't want to, and it
_was_ too late, she said; it was the children's turn to marry now,
"Well, she's pretty old now, isn't she?" I said.
"Yes, time passes," the schoolmaster replied. "I don't know whether anyone
has asked her this year, but last year there was someone--one person--or
so I've heard, so I've been told. But Petra didn't want to. If I could
only guess what she's waiting for."
"Perhaps she's not waiting at all."
"Well, it's all the same to me," says the schoolmaster. "But she takes in
all these tramps and peddlers and carries on and makes a public nuisance
As I walked home from the schoolmaster's, I found I understood Petra's
arithmetic much better.
* * * * *
Nikolai has gone back to his workshop in the town, but I have remained
behind. It matters little where I am, for the winter makes a dead man of
me in any case.
To pass the time, I carefully measure the piece of land that Nikolai is
going to break up when he can afford it, and I calculate what it will cost
him, with drainage and everything: a bare two hundred _kroner_. Then
he could keep a horse. It would have been an act of charity to give him
this money in case his mother could not. He could have added another field
to his land then.
"Look here, Petra--why don't you give Nikolai the two hundred
_kroner_ he needs for fodder for a horse?"
"And four hundred to buy the horse," she muttered.
"That makes six."
"I haven't got such a lot of six hundred _kroners_ lying about."
"But wouldn't the horse be useful for plowing?"
A pause. Then:
"He can break the ground himself."
I was not unfamiliar with this line of reasoning. Everyone has his own
problems, and Petra had hers. But the strange thing is that each one of us
struggles for himself as though he had a hundred years to live. I once
knew two brothers named Martinsen who owned a large farm, the produce of
which they sold. Both were well-to-do bachelors without heirs. But both
had diseased lungs, the younger brother's much worse than the elder's. In
the spring, the younger brother became permanently bedridden, but though
he approached his end, he still maintained an interest in everything that
went on at the farm. He heard strangers talking in the kitchen and called
his brother in.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Only someone to buy eggs."
"What's the price per score now?"
His brother told him.
"Then give him the small eggs," he cautioned.
A few days later he was dead. His brother lived till his sixty-seventh
year, though his lungs were diseased. When anybody came to buy eggs, he
always gave him the smallest....
"But," I insisted to Petra, "Nikolai doesn't want to waste time breaking
his ground himself, does he? Surely if he works at his trade he'll earn
"They don't pay for joinery here," Petra replied. "People buy their chairs
and tables from the shops now; it's cheaper."
"Then why is Nikolai working as an apprentice?"
"I've asked him the same question," she replied. "Nikolai just wants to be
a carpenter, but it won't get him anywhere. Still, he can do as he likes."
"Well, what else could he do?"
A pause. Petra's big mouth is closed. But at length she says:
"There's plenty of traffic now and a lot of tourists in the summer, both
at Tore Peak and down here on the headland. One time we had two Danes
living here; they had traveled on foot. 'If you had a horse, you could
have driven us here,' they said to me."
"Ah," I thought to myself, "the cat sticking its nose out of the bag!"
"'You've got a big house and four rooms,' the Danes said, and 'There are
high mountains and big woods,' they said, 'and fish in the fjord and fish
in the river; there are lots of things here, and there's a broad road
here,' they said. Nikolai was standing next to them and heard it all, too.
'Now we're here,' they said, 'but we can't get away again unless we
Just to say something, I asked her:
"Four rooms--I thought you only had three?"
"Yes, but the workshop could be turned into a room, too," the big mouth
"So that's it!" I thought. With hardly a pause, I continued:
"But if Nikolai were going to deal with tourists, he'd have to get a
horse, wouldn't he?"
"Well, I suppose we could have managed it," Petra replied.
"It's four hundred _kroner_."
"Yes," she said, "and the carriage a hundred and fifty."
"But this land won't feed a horse!"
"What do other people feed horses on?" she asked. "They buy sacks of oats
on the headland."
"That's eighteen _kroner_ a sack."
"No, seventeen. And you earn as much as that on your first tourist."
Yes, Petra had it all figured out; she was the born landlady, and had
grown up in a lodginghouse. She could cook, too, for had she not put two
snakes of Italian macaroni in the barley broth? The money for coffee, for
the bed at night and waffles in the morning, had grown so dear to her that
she hid it away, watched it increase, and grew rich on it. She did not
produce like other peasant women, but no one can do everything at one
time, and Petra was a parasite. She did not want to live by earning
something; she wanted to live on the tourists who earned enough
themselves, and could afford to come.
Splendor and Englishmen, no doubt, in these parts! If it all works out as
it should--and it probably will.
* * * * *
It is February. I have an idea, a vagrant idea that comes to me, and I
harbor it: now that there is a little snow, and its crust is hard, I shall
walk across the fields into Sweden. That is what I shall do.
But before I can do it, I must wait for my laundry, and Petra, who is
cleanly, washes in many waters. So I pass the time in Nikolai's workshop,
where there are many kinds of planes and saws and drills and lathes, and
there I fashion strange things. For the small boys of the neighboring
farm, I make a windmill that will really turn in the wind. It whirls and
rattles well, and I remember my own childhood when we called this
apparatus onomatopoeically a _windwhirr_.
Besides this, I go out walking, and use my winter head as well as I can,
which is not very well. I do not blame the winter, nor do I blame
anything. But where are the red-hot irons and the youth of omnipotence?
For hours sometimes I walk along a path in the woods with my hands folded
on my back, an old man, my mind gilded for a moment by an occasional
memory; I stop, and raise my eyebrows in surprise. Can this be an iron in
the fire? It is not, for it fades again, and I am left behind in a quiet
But in order to recall my young days, I pretend to be filled with a
heaven-sent energy. It is by no means all pretense, and pictures rise in
my mind, fragmentary flageolet tones:
We came from the meadow
and downy heather;
we came from friendship,
A star that watched
saw lips meet lips.
None else so dear,
so sweet as you.
Those youthful days,
those happy days,
unmatched since then!
but what am I now?
The bees once swarmed,
the swan once played.
There's no play now,
I break off, and put the pencil in my pocket with a tone still resounding
within me. I walk on with some pleasure to myself, at least.
There is a letter for me. Who on earth has found me out here? The letter
is as follows:
Forgive me for writing you, but I should like to talk to you about
something that has happened. I should like to see you as soon as you come
back. There's nothing the matter. Please don't say no.
I reread it many times. "Something that has happened." But I'm going to
Sweden, I'm going to move about a little, and stop losing myself in the
affairs of others. Do they think I am mankind's old uncle, that I can be
summoned hither and thither to give advice? Excuse me, but I am going to
assert myself and become quite inaccessible; the snow is just right, and I
have planned a big journey--a business tour, I might almost call it, very
important to me--I have a great deal at stake.... How composite is the
mind of man! As I sit talking drivel to myself, and even sometimes saying
an angry word aloud in order that Petra may hear it, I am not at all
displeased at having received this letter; in fact secretly I am so
pleased that I feel ashamed. It is merely because I shall soon see the
town again--the town with its frostbitten gardens and its ships.
But what on earth can this mean? Has she been to my landlady's and got my
address? Or has she met Nikolai?
I left at once.
My landlady was surprised.
"Why, good evening. How well and happy you look! Here's your mail."
"Let it lie. I must tell you, Madame Henriksen, that you are a jewel."
"Ha, ha, ha!"
"Yes, you are. You are a very kind woman. But you have given my address to
"No, indeed; I swear I haven't."
"No? Well, then someone else must have done so. Yes, you're right, I am
happy, and tomorrow morning I shall get up very early and walk down by the
"But I did send a message," said my landlady. "I hope it wasn't wrong of
me. To a lady who wanted to know as soon as you arrived."
"A lady? You sent a message just now?"
"A little while ago, as soon as you came in. A young, handsome lady; she
might have been your daughter, you know."
"Well, I'm only saying what's so. She said she would come at once, because
she had to see you about something."
The landlady left me.
So Miss Torsen was coming this very evening; something must have happened.
She had never visited me before. I looked round; yes, everything was neat
and tidy. I washed and made myself ready. There, she can have that chair;
I'd better light the other lamp, too. It might not be a bad idea to sit
down to my correspondence; that would make a good impression, and if I put
some letters in a small, feminine hand on top, it might even make her a
little jealous--hee, hee. Oh, God, ten or fifteen years ago one could play
such tricks; it's too late now....
Then she knocked and came in.
I made no move to shake hands, and neither did she; I merely drew out a
chair for her.
"Excuse my coming like this," she said. "I asked Mrs. Henriksen to send me
a message; it's nothing serious, and now I feel a little embarrassed about
I saw that it was something serious, and my heart began to pound. Why
should my heart be affected?
"This is the first time you've been in my rooms," I said, expectant and on
"Yes. It's very nice," she said, without looking round. She began to clasp
her hands and pull them apart again till the tips of her gloves projected
beyond her finger tips. She was in a state of great excitement.
"Perhaps _now_ I've done something you'll approve of?" she said,
suddenly pulling off her glove.
She had a ring on her finger.
"Good," I said. It didn't affect me immediately; I was to understand more
later, and merely asked:
"Are you engaged?"
"Yes," she replied. And she looked at me with a smile, though her mouth
I looked back at her, and I believe I said something like, "Well, now,
well, well!" Then I nodded in a fatherly fashion, bowed formally, and
said: "My heartiest congratulations!"
"Yes, that's what it's come to," she said. "I think it was the best thing
to do. Perhaps you think it's a bit unreliable of me or rash or--well,
"Oh, I don't know--"
"But it was absolutely the best thing. And I just thought I'd tell you."
I got up. She started, evidently in a very nervous state. But I had only
risen to turn down the lamp behind her, which had begun to smoke.
A pause. She said nothing more, so what could I say? But as the minutes
passed and I saw she was distressed, I said:
"Why did you want to tell me this?"
"Yes--why did I?"
"Perhaps for a moment you thought you were the center of the world again,
"Yes, I expect so."
She looked about her with great, roving eyes. Then she got up; she had
been sitting all this time as though about to spring at me. I rose, too.
An unhappy woman--I saw that plainly enough; but good heavens, what could
I do? She had come to tell me she was engaged, and at the same time looked
very unhappy. Was that a way to behave? But as she got up, I could see her
face better under her hat--I could see her hair--the hair that was
beginning to show silken and silver at the temples--how beautiful it was!
She was tall and handsome, and her breast was rising and falling--her
great breast--what a great breast she had, rising and falling! Her face
was brown, and her mouth open, just a little open, dry, feverishly dry--
It was the first time I called her this. And I moved my hand toward her
slightly, longing to touch her, perhaps to fondle her--I don't know--
But she had collected herself now, and stood erect and hard. Her eyes had
grown cold; they looked at me, putting me in my place again, as she walked
toward the door. A cry of "No!" escaped me.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"Don't go, not yet, not at once; sit down again and talk to me more."
"No, you're quite right," she said. "I'm not the center of the universe.
Here I come to bother you with my unimportant troubles, and you--well, of
course, you're busy with your extensive correspondence."
"Look here, sit down again, won't you? I shan't even read the letters;
they're nothing, only two or three letters perhaps, probably from complete
strangers. Now sit down; tell me everything; you owe me that much. Look, I
shan't even read the letters."
And with that I swept them up and threw them into the fire.
"Oh--what are you doing?" she cried, and ran to the fireplace, trying to
"Don't bother," I said. "I expect no happiness to come to me through the
post, and sorrows I do not seek."
She stood so close to me that I found myself again on the point of
touching her, just for a moment, touching her arm; but I caught myself in
time. I had already gone too far, so I said as gently and sympathetically
as I could:
"Dear child, you must not be unhappy; it will all turn out for the best;
you'll see. Now sit down--there, that's better."
No doubt she had been taken aback by my violence, for she sank into her
chair almost absently.
"I'm not unhappy," she said.
"Aren't you? So much the better!"
I began to chatter away at top speed, though I tried to restrain myself,
to show that I was nothing more than an uncle to her. I talked to distract
her, to distract us both; I let my tongue wag--I could hear it buzzing.
What could I say? A little of everything--a great deal, in fact:
"Well, well, child. And whom are you marrying, who is the lucky man? Nice
of you to come and tell me before anyone, really very nice; thank you very
much. You see I've only just come home and I haven't slept much on the
journey. I was anxious to know--well, perhaps not anxious exactly--but
still--You know what such a homecoming is: lots of people, noise, brr!--I
hardly got any sleep. Then I came home, and then you came along--thank you
for coming, Miss Ingeborg--I might be your father and you're just a
child; that's why I say 'Ingeborg.' But when you told me all this, I
hadn't had any sleep, I wasn't quite balanced--not enough to give you
advice; I mean, I hadn't quite appreciated--But now you can quite safely--
I'd like to know, of course--Is he old? Is he young? Young, of course. I
am imagining what will happen to you now, Miss Ingeborg, in your new
condition. I mean, it will be so entirely different from what you've been
accustomed to, but God bless you, it will all turn out for the best, I'm
sure of that--"
"But you don't even know who it is!" she interrupted, looking at me
"No, I don't, and I needn't if you'd rather not tell me yet. Who is it? A
dapper little man, I can see that from his ring, a schoolmaster perhaps, a
clever young schoolmaster--"
She shook her head.
"Then a big, good-natured man who wants to dance with you--"
"Yes, perhaps," she said slowly.
"There you are--you see I've guessed it. A bear who will carry you on his
paws. On your birthday--do you know what he'll give you for your
But perhaps I was getting too childish; I bored her, and for the first
time she looked away from me, looked at a picture on the wall, then at
another picture. But it was not easy for me to stop now, after having
spoken hardly at all for several weeks, and feeling profoundly excited
besides--heaven only knows why.
"How did you like the country?" she asked suddenly. As I could not see the
drift of this question, I merely looked at her.
"Weren't you at Nikolai's mother's house?" she persisted.
"What is she like?"
"Are you interested in her?"
"No, I don't suppose so. Oh dear!" she sighed wearily.
"Come, come, you mustn't sound like that when you're newly engaged! What
the country was like? Well, there was a schoolmaster--you know, an old
bachelor, sly, and amusing. Said he knew me, and put on the most
extraordinary airs the first day. And of course I returned the compliment
and said I had come exclusively to meet him. 'Impossible!' he said. 'Why
should it be?' I said; 'forty years a schoolmaster, a respected man,
permanent churchman, chairman, indispensable everywhere!' Well, then I
attended his class. Most impressive. He talked continually; for once he
had an audience, almost like a school inspection. 'You there, Peter!
Ahem,' he said. 'There was a horse and a man, and one of them was riding
on the other's back. Which one was riding, Peter?' 'The man,' Peter
replies. A pause. 'Well, maybe you're right, Peter--maybe the man was
riding. Just like sin, like the devil riding us....'"
But she was looking at the wall again, drifting away from me again. I
changed the subject clumsily:
"Of course you'd rather hear about people you know--about Tore Peak, for
instance. Josephine has been in town."
"Yes, I know," she said, nodding her head.
"Remember the old man at Tore Peak? I don't think I'll ever forget him. In
a certain number of years I shall be like him--perhaps not quite so old.
Then I shall be a child again with age. One day he came out, and went down
to the field. I saw him; he had mittens on. You know he eats all sorts of
things, and I saw him lie down and eat the hay."
She stared at me foolishly.
"But I must say he didn't look as though he had ever eaten hay
before--possibly because it was rotting. It was the hay that had been
left, you know--rotting down for next year--for the next tourist year."
"You seem to think," she said smiling, "that you have to cheer me up,
because I'm terribly unhappy. I'm quite the reverse. Perhaps he's too good
for me; that's what his sister seems to think, anyhow, because she tried
to stop it. But I'm going to enjoy snubbing that sister of his. Anyhow,
I'm not unhappy, and that isn't the reason I've come. I'd really much
rather have him than anyone else--since I can't get the one I really
"You've told me this before, child--last winter, in fact. But the man you
want has gone his way--besides, you said yourself that you didn't belong
with him, or rather, that he didn't with you--I mean--"
"Belong? Do I belong anywhere? Do you think I belong in the place I'm
going to now? I'm afraid I'm not really suitable for anybody--at least I
can't think of anyone I'd suit. I wonder how I'll manage. I wonder if
he'll be able to stand me. But I'll do my very best; I've made up my mind
"Well, who is it--do I know him? Of course you suit each other. I can't
believe you don't. He must be in love with you, quite madly in love, and
you must love him in return. I'm sure you'll come through with flying
colors, Miss Ingeborg, because you're capable and intelligent."
"Oh, well," she said, rising suddenly to her feet. But she hesitated over
something, and seemed about to speak, then changed her mind again. At the
door, she stood with her back to me, pulling on her gloves, and said:
"So you think I ought to do it?"
I was taken aback by the question, and replied:
"Ought to do it? Haven't you done it already?"
"Yes. That is--well, yes, I've done it, I'm engaged. And I can tell from
your manner that I've done the right thing."
"Well, I don't know. I can't tell."
I crossed the room to her.
"Who is it?"
"Oh, God, no; let's drop it. I can't bear any more now. Good night."
She stretched her hand out fumblingly, but since she was looking at the
floor, she could not find mine, and both our hands circled helplessly
round each other for a moment. Then she opened the door and was gone. I
called to her, begging her to wait, seized my hat, and hurried after her.
An empty staircase. I rushed down and opened the street door. An empty
street. She must have run.
"I'll try to see her tomorrow," I thought.
* * * * *
One day, two days, but I did not see her, though I went to all the usual
places. Another day--nothing. Then I thought I would go up to her home and
inquire about her. At first this did not seem to me too improper, but when
it came to the point, I hesitated. There is, after all, something to be
lost by making a fool of oneself. But was I not a kind of uncle? No--yes,
of course, but still--
A week passes, two weeks, three. The girl has quite disappeared; I hope
she hasn't had an accident. I mount the stairs to her home and ring the
She's already gone away; they left as soon as they were married, last
week. She's married to Nikolai, Carpenter Nikolai.
* * * * *
March--what a month! The winter is over, yet there's no telling how much
longer it may still last. That's what March is for.
I have lived through another winter and seen the nigger entertainment at
the Anglo-Saxon theater. You were there too, my friend. You saw how
cleverly we all turned somersaults. Why, you even took part yourself, and
you carry about a broken rib as a cherished little memento of the
occasion. I saw it all from a slight distance away, ten miles, to be
exact; no people were near me, but there were seven heavens above.
And pretty soon I shall be reading what the officials have to say about
the year's harvest in our country; that is to say, the harvest at the
theater--in dollars, and in sterling.
The waggish professor is enjoying himself, quite in his element. There he
goes, self-assured and complacent, Sir Mediocrity in all his glory. By
next year, he will have dragged other progressive people in his wake; he
will have dressed up Norway still more, and made it still more attractive
to the Anglo-Saxons. More dollars, and more sterling.
What, do I hear someone objecting?
Well, then, we shall invite Switzerland to dinner and toast her thus:
"Colleague, our great aim is to resemble you. Who else can squeeze so much
profit out of their mountains? Who else can file at such clockwork?
Switzerland, make yourself at home; we don't want to rob you; there are no
pickpockets at this table. Here's to you!"
But if that doesn't help, we shall have to roll up our sleeves and fight.
There are still Norwegians left in good old Norway, and our rival--is
* * * * *
Mrs. Henriksen brings catkins in a vase into my room.
"What, is it spring?"
"Oh, it's getting on."
"Then I shall be going away. You see, Mrs. Henriksen, I should very much
have liked to stay, because this is really where I belong; but what more
can I do here? I don't work; I merely idle. Do you understand me? I grieve
continually, and my heart sits wrinkled. My most brilliant achievement is
spinning coins: I toss a coin into the air and wait. When I came here last
autumn I wasn't so bad, not nearly so bad. I was only half a year younger
then, yet I was ten years younger. What has happened to me since? Nothing.
Only--I'm not a better man than I was last autumn."
"But you've been all right all winter, haven't you? And three weeks ago,
when you came back from the country, you were so happy!"
"Was I? I don't remember that. Ah, well, things don't move so fast, and
nothing has happened to me in these three weeks. Well, never mind; at all
events, I shall go away. I must travel when the spring comes. I have
always done so in the past, and I want to do the same thing now. Sit down,
"No, thank you, I'm too busy."
Too busy! Yes, you work--you're not ten years older than you were last
autumn. You think it's hard work to rest on Sundays, don't you? Dear
Madame Henriksen! You and your little daughter knit stockings for the
whole family, you let your rooms, you keep your family together like a
mother. But you mustn't let your little Louise sit for twelve years on a
school form. If you do, you'll hardly ever see her all through her youth,
those formative years of her life. And then she can't be like you or learn
from you. She'll learn to have children easily enough, but she won't learn
to be a mother, and when the time comes for her to keep her home and
family together, she will not be able to do it. She'll only know
"languages" and mathematics and the story of Bluebeard, but that is not
food for the heart of a woman. That is twelve years of continual famine
for her soul.
"Excuse my asking, but where are you going to?"
"I don't know, but I'm going. Why, where should I go? I shall go aboard a
steamship and sail, and when I have sailed long enough, I will go ashore.
If I find, on looking about me, that I have traveled too far or not far
enough, I shall board a ship again and sail on. Once I walked across into
Sweden as far as Kalmar and even Oeland, but that was too far, so I turned
back. No one cares to know where I am, least of all myself."
You get used to everything; you even get used to the passage of two years.
And now it is spring again....
It is market day in the frontier town; my room is noisy, for there is
music down in the fields, the roundabout is whirling, the tightrope walker
is gossiping outside his tent, and people of every sort throng the
village. The crowds are great, and there is even a sprinkling of
Norwegians from across the border. Horses snort and whinny, cows low, and
trading is brisk.
In the display window of the goldsmith across the road, a great cow of
silver has made its appearance, a handsome breeder that the local farmers
stop to admire.
"She's too smart for my crags," says one of them with a laugh.
"What do you think's her price?" says another with a laugh.
"Why, do you want to buy her?"
"No, haven't got fodder enough this year."
A man trudges placidly down the road and also stops in front of this
window. I see him from behind, and take note of his massive back. He
stands there a long time, trying to make up his mind, no doubt, for now
and then he scratches his beard. There he goes, sure enough, entering the
shop with a ponderous tread. I wonder if he intends to buy the silver cow!
It takes him an age, and still he hasn't come out. What on earth is he
doing in there? Now that I have begun to watch him, I might as well go the
whole hog. So I put on my hat and cross to the goldsmith's window myself,
mingling with the other spectators, and watching the door.
At last the man re-emerges--yes, it _is_ Nikolai. It was his back and
hands, but he has got a beard now, too. He looks splendid. Imagine
Carpenter Nikolai being here!
We greet each other, and we talk as he shakes me slowly and ponderously by
the hand. Our conversation is halting, but we get on. Yes, of course, he
has gone into the shop on business, in a kind of way.
"You've not bought the silver cow, have you?"
"Oh, no, not that. It didn't amount to anything, really. In fact, I didn't
By degrees, I discover that he is buying a horse. And he tells me that he
has dug that piece of land of his, and is turning it into pasture, and his
wife--oh, yes, thank you for asking--she lives in health to this day.
"By the way," he said, "have you come here over the fjeld?"
"Yes, I came last winter. In December."
"What a pity I didn't know!"
I explained that I hadn't had the time to visit his home then; I was in a
hurry, there was some business---
"Yes, I understand," he said.
We said little more, for Nikolai was as taciturn as ever. Besides, he had
other business to attend to; he cannot absent himself from the farm for
long, and had to return next day.
"Have you bought your horse yet?"
"Well, no, I haven't."
"Do you think you will?"
"I don't know yet. I'm trying to split a difference of five and twenty
Later I saw Nikolai going to the goldsmith's again. He seemed to do a
great deal of business there.
"I could have company across the fjeld now," I thought. "It's spring, and
do I not always travel in the spring?"
I began to pack my knapsack.
Nikolai emerged once more, apparently as empty-handed as he had entered. I
opened my window and called to him to ask if he had bought the horse.
"N-no--the man won't meet my price."
"Well, can't you meet his?"
"Y-yes, I could," he replied slowly. "But I don't think I've got enough
money on me."
"I could lend you some."
At this Nikolai smiled and shook his head as though my offer were a fairy
"Thank you just the same," he said, turning to walk away.
"Where are you going now?" I asked.
"To look at another horse. It's old and small, still--"
Was I thrusting myself on the man? I? Nonsense! I don't see that at all.
He felt offended because I had passed his door last winter without
stopping and now I wanted to make him friendly again. That was all. But as
I wanted no cause for self-reproach, I stopped packing, nor would I ask
Nikolai if I might go back with him. But I went out for a walk in the
town. I had as much right to do that as anyone.
I met Nikolai in the street with a colt, and we stopped to exchange a few
"Is it yours?"
"Yes, I've bought her; the man met me halfway after all," he replied with
We walked along to the stable together and fed and petted the horse. She
was a mare, two and a half years old, with a tawny coat and an off-white
mane and tail--a perfect little lady.
That evening Nikolai came over to my room of his own accord for a chat
about the mare and the state of the roads. When he was saying good-bye at
the door, he seemed struck by a sudden thought.
"By the way," he said, "I suppose it's no good asking you, but you could
get a lift for your knapsack, you know. We could be there day after
tomorrow," he added.
How could I offend him again?
We walked all next day, spent the night in the mountain hut at the
frontier, and then went on again. Nikolai carried my knapsack all the way,
as well as his own smaller parcels. When I suggested that we should share
the burden, he said it was no weight at all. I think Nikolai wanted to
spare the little tawny lady.
At noon we saw the fjord beneath us. Nikolai stopped and carefully rubbed
down the mare once more. As our path sloped downward, I felt a pressure, a
contraction in my chest; it was the sea air. Nikolai asked me what was the
matter, but it was nothing.
On reaching his home, we found the yard well swept, and in the doorway a
woman on her knees with her back toward us, scrubbing the floor. It was
the Saturday cleaning day.
"Hullo!" Nikolai roared in a tremendously loud voice, stopping dead in his
tracks as he did so.
The woman in the doorway looked round; her hair was gray, but it was she,
Miss Ingeborg, _Fru_ [Footnote: Mrs. (Translator's note.)] Ingeborg.
"Good heavens!" she exclaimed, hastily mopping up the rest of the floor.
"Look at all the cleaning that goes on here!" Nikolai said, laughing.
"That's her idea of fun!"
And I had believed Carpenter Nikolai incapable of lightheartedness! Yet I
had seen how content he had been all the way home, how deeply content, and
proud of the little lady he was bringing with him. Even now he was still
Fru Ingeborg rose to her feet, her skirts dark with the damp. It all
seemed strange to me; her hair was so gray. I needed a little time, a
moment, to collect myself, and turned away to give her time, too.
"What a lovely horse!" I heard her exclaim.
Nikolai went on stroking the mare.
"I've brought a visitor with me," he said.
I went to her and perhaps--I don't know--perhaps I rather overdid my
unconcern. I greeted her and insisted on shaking her wet hand, which she
hesitated to give me. I was anxious to appear quite formal with her, and
shook her hand as I repeated my greeting.
"Well, of all people!" she replied.
I persisted in my formal attitude.
"You must blame your husband," I said. "It's his fault that I'm here."
"I wish you heartily welcome," she returned. "How lucky I've just got
through the cleaning!"
A slight pause. We looked at each other; two years had passed since our
last meeting. To break the silence, we all began to admire the mare,
Nikolai swelling with pride. Then we heard a child calling from within the
house, and the young mother ran off.
"Come in, won't you!" she called back over her shoulder.
As soon as I entered, I saw that the room had been changed. There was too
much middle-class frippery: white curtains at the windows, numerous
pictures on the walls, a lamp pendent from the ceiling, underneath it in
the center of the room a round table and chairs, knickknacks in a china
cupboard, a pink-painted spinning wheel, flowers in pots--in short, the
room was crowded. This, no doubt, was the sort of thing Fru Ingeborg had
been used to and considered in good taste. But in Petra's day, this had
been a light and spacious room.
"How's your mother?" I asked Nikolai.
As usual he was slow to reply. His wife answered for him:
"She's very well."
I wanted to ask, "Where is she?" but I refrained.
"Look, I want to show you something," said Fru Ingeborg.
It was the child in his bed--a boy, big and handsome, about a year old. He
frowned at me at first, but only for a moment. As soon as he was on his
mother's arm, he looked at me without fear.
How happy and beautiful the young mother looked! Peerless, indeed, with
her eyes full of an inscrutable graciousness she had not possessed before.
"What a fine little _man!_" I said, admiring the boy.
"I should think he was!" said the mother.
* * * * *
You get used to everything. The sea air no longer oppresses me; I can
speak without losing my breath to the woman who is now the mistress of
this house. She likes to talk, too, pouring out her words nervously, as
though it had been a long time since she last opened her mouth. What we
talked about? Well, we neither asked nor answered questions about
measuring angles or analyzing Shakespeare's grammar.
Had she ever thought her matriculation would land her up here, amid
livestock and Saturday cleaning?
Oh, that parody of an education! She had taken the first toddling steps in
a dozen sciences, but if she met someone with fully adult knowledge she
was lost. She had other things to think about now, her home and her family
and the farm. Of course there wasn't much livestock, now that Nikolai's
mother had taken half of it with her--
"Has Petra gone away?"
Married--to the schoolmaster. No, Petra hadn't wanted to stay when the
young wife took possession. One evening a strange man had come to the
house, and Petra had wanted to admit him, but Fru Ingeborg would not. She
knew who he was and wanted him to leave. So there were quarrels between
the older woman and the young one.
Petra was also dissatisfied with the young wife's work in the barn. It was
true she was not very skillful, but she was learning all the time, and
enjoyed improving her skill. She never asked questions; that, she saw,
would have been foolish, but she worked things out by herself, and kept
her eyes open when she visited neighboring farms. That didn't mean to say
she could learn everything. There were things she never learned properly
because she was not "to the manner born." Often the wives of rural
officials are from small towns, and have not learned the ways of the
country, though they must learn them in time. But they never learn them
well. They know only just enough for their daily needs. To set up a weave,
you must have grown up with the sound of the shuttle in your ears; to tend
the cattle as they should be tended, you must have helped your mother
since childhood. You can learn from others, but it will not be in your
Not everyone has a man like Nikolai to live with, either. The young wife
is very fond of her Nikolai, this sound, hearty bear who loves her in
return. Besides, Nikolai is not exacting; his wife seems to him peerless
in all she does. Of course she has taken great pains; it has left its mark
on her, too, and she is not gray for nothing. A few months ago she lost a
front tooth, too--broke it on some bird shot left in the breast of a
ptarmigan she was eating. She hardly dared look in the mirror now--didn't
recognize herself. But what did it matter as long as Nikolai....
Look what he'd brought her, this brooch, bought at the goldsmith's at the
market: wasn't it lovely? Oh, Nikolai was mad; but she would do anything
in the world for him, too. Imagine using some of the money for the horse
on a brooch! Where is he now, where's he gone to? She'll bet anything he's
stroking the mare again.
"Nikolai!" she called.
"Yes," his reply came from the stable.
She sat down again, crossing her legs. Her face had turned pink; perhaps a
thought, a memory, passed through her mind. She was suffused with
excitement and beauty. Her dress clung to her body, outlining its
contours. She began gently to stroke her knee.
"Is the child asleep?" I asked. I had to say something.
"Yes, he's asleep. And think of him!" she exclaimed. "Can you imagine
anything more wonderful? Excuse my talking like this, but.... You know
he's not a year old yet. I never knew children were such a blessing."
"Well, you see they are."
"Yes, I thought differently once; I remember that perfectly well, and you
contradicted me. Of course it was stupid of me. Children? Miracles! And
when you're old, they're the only happiness--the last happiness. I shall
have more; I shall have many of them, a whole row of them, like organ
pipes, each taller than the last. They're lovely.... But I wish I hadn't
lost my tooth; it leaves such a black gap. I really feel quite bad about
it, on Nikolai's account. I suppose a false one could be put in, but I
shouldn't dream of it. Besides, I understand it's quite dear. But I've
given up using any arts; I only wish I'd stopped earlier--I've gone on
much too long. Think of all I've missed by it: all my childhood, all my
youth. Haven't I idled away whole summers at resorts, even as a grown
woman? I needed a holiday from my school work, a rest, and immediately
turned it into sheer futility, every day a disgrace. I could cry with
regret. I should have been married ten years ago, and had my husband all
that time, and a home and many children. Now I'm already old, cheated out
of ten years of my life, with gray hair and one tooth gone--"
"Well, you've lost one tooth, but I've hardly got one left!"
No sooner had I consoled her thus than I regretted it. Why should I make
myself worse than I am? Things were bad enough anyhow. I was sick with
fury at myself, and grinned and grimaced to show her my teeth: "Here,
don't miss them, have a good look!" But I'm afraid she saw what a fool I
was making of myself; everything I did was wrong.
Then she consoled me in her turn, as people do when they can well afford
"What, you old? Nonsense!"
"Have you met the schoolmaster?" I asked abruptly.
"Of course. I remember what you told me about him: a horse and a man came
riding along the road.... But he's got sense, and he's terribly stingy.
Oh, he's cunning; he borrows our harrow because ours is new and good.
They've built a house at the end of the valley, and take in travelers--
quite a big hotel, in fact, with the waitresses dressed in national
costume. Of course Nikolai and I both went to the wedding; Petra really
looked a charming and lovely bride. You mustn't think she and I are still
unfriendly; she likes me better now that I'm more competent, and last
summer they sent for me several times to interpret for some English people
and that sort of thing--at least I know how to say soap and food and
conveyance and tips in other languages!
"But I don't think I should ever have had any serious trouble with Petra
in the first place if Sophie hadn't come home--you know, the
schoolmistress in the town. She's always found plenty to criticize in me,
so I never liked her very much, I must admit. But when she came here, she
was very arrogant toward me, and lorded it over me, showing off all her
knowledge. I was busy trying to learn what I needed to know for the life
up here, and then she came along and made me look small, talking about the
Seven Years' War all the time. She was terribly learned about the Seven
Years' War, because that's what she had in her examination. And our way of
talking wasn't elegant enough for her; Nikolai used rough country
expressions sometimes, and she didn't like that. But Nikolai speaks quite
well enough, and I can't see what that fool of a sister of his has got to
put on airs for! And on top of that she came home to stay--for six months,
anyhow. She'd been engaged, so then she had to take a six months' holiday.
The baby's with Petra, with his grandmother, so he's well taken care of.
It's a boy, too, but he's hardly got any hair; mine has plenty of hair.
Well, in a way, of course, it's a pity about Sophie, because she'd used up
her legacy and her youth studying to be a schoolmistress, and then she
comes home like that. But she really was insufferable, thinking she was a
lot better than I because she hadn't been discharged, like me. So I asked
her to leave. And then they both left, Sophie and her mother. Anyhow, her
mother and I are quite reconciled.
"But you mustn't think we've had any help from her to buy the horse.
Nothing of the kind! We borrowed the money from the bank. But we'll
manage, because it's our only debt. Nikolai has made all the furniture in
here himself, the table and china cupboard and everything; we haven't
bought a thing. He's dug up the new field himself, too. And we'll be
getting more cattle; you ought to see what a handsome heifer we've got....
"Even the food wasn't good enough for Sophie. Tins saved such a lot of
trouble, she said; we ought to buy tinned food. It was enough to make you
sick to listen to her. I was just beginning to knit, too; I'd got one of
my neighbors to teach me, and I was knitting stockings for myself. But of
course Lady Sophie--well, she bought her stockings in the city. Oh, she
was charming. 'Get out!' I said to her. So they left."
Nikolai entered the room.
"Did you want me?"
"No--oh, yes, I wanted you to come upstairs with me. I need something to
hang things on in front of the fire, a clotheshorse--come along--"
I stayed behind, thinking:
"If only it lasts, if only it lasts! She's so overwrought; living on her
nerves. And pregnant again. But what splendid resolution she shows, and
how she's matured in these two years! But it has cost her a great deal,
"Good luck to you, Ingeborg, good luck!"
At all events, she had triumphed over Schoolmistress Sophie, who had once
tried so hard to set Nikolai against her. "Get out!" How content Fru
Ingeborg must be--what delight in this small triumph! Life had changed so
much that such things were important to her; she grew heated again when
she mentioned it, and pulled at her fingers as she had done in her
schooldays. And why should she not be content? A small triumph now had the
rank of a bigger one in the old days. Proportions were changed, but her
satisfaction was no less.
Listen--she has begun to read upstairs; there's the sound of a steady hum.
Yes, it's Sunday today, and she, being the best educated of them,
naturally reads the service. Bravo! Magnificent! She has extended her
self-discipline even to this, for they are all orthodox Christians in this
neighborhood. Believing? No, but not hostile, either. One reads Scripture.
Rather a clever ruse, that of the clotheshorse.
She has become an excellent cook, too, in the peasant style. Delicious
broth, without noodles, but otherwise just as it should be, with barley,
carrots, and thyme. I doubt whether she has learned this at the domestic
science school. I consider all the things she has learned, and find them
numerous. Had she, perhaps, been a little overstrung in her talk about
children like organ pipes? I don't know, but her nostrils dilated like a
mare's as she spoke. She must have known how unwillingly middle-class
couples have children, and how short is the love between them: in the
daytime they are together so that people might not talk, but the night
separates them. She was different, for she would make hers a house of
fruitfulness: often she and her husband were apart during the day, when
their separate labors called them, but the night united them.
Bravo, Fru Ingeborg!
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
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
"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
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
* * * * *
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."
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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.
"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
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
I have written this story for you.
Why have I written thus? Because my soul cries out with boredom before
every Christmas, boredom with all the books that are all written the same
way. I had even the intention of writing in dialect, so as to be truly
Norwegian; but when I saw you understood the country's language also, I
gave up writing in dialect because, for one thing, it is becoming
But why have I gathered so many incongruities within a single framework?
My friend, one of the most celebrated literary creations was written
during a plague, _because_ of a plague--this is my answer. And, my
friend, when you have lived for a long time away from the human beings you
know inside and out, then you indulge once more in the iniquity of speech;
your powers have been so little used that your head is filled with a
thousand sermons. This is my defense.
If I know you at all, you will revel in one or other of my outspoken
passages; especially where there is a nocturnal episode, you will lick
your chops. But to others you will shake your head and say: "Think of his
writing such things!" Alas, small, vulgar soul, retire into solitude and
try to understand that episode! It has cost me much to surrender it to
Perhaps, too, you will be interested in myself and ask about my irons?
Well, I may give you their greeting. They are the irons of one who is half
a century old--he has no other kind. But the distinction between myself
and my brother travelers is that I freely admit: I have none but these.
They were planned so big and so red; yet they are small irons, and they
hardly glow. This is the truth. They congregate with the painstaking works
of others round the Christmas table. This is the truth. It is the truth
even though, in spite of everything, they are distinct from the
nothingness of others. You cannot judge this, for you are the modern
spirit in Norway, and this is the spirit I scorn.
One thing you will admit: you have not wasted your time in "cultured
company"; I have not tried to quench your little upstart heart with a
"lady." I have written about human beings. But within the speech that is
spoken, another lies concealed, like the veins under the skin, like a
story within a story. I have followed the septuagenarian of literature
step by step, and reported the progress of his disintegration. I should
have written this description long ago, but I had not years enough; only
now am I entering upon them, directly and indirectly. I should have done
it while the country was groping for long periods under the shadow of
superannuated incompetence. Instead I do it now, when I myself am being
accused of a tendency to cast shadows. "Sensationalism," you will say,
"chasing after fame!" My dear, chaste friend, I have fame enough for the
last twenty years of my life, and after that I shall be dead. And you? May
you live long; you deserve it. May you almost survive me--in the flesh.
I have just read what a man on the pinnacle of culture has said:
"Experience shows that when culture spreads, it grows thin and colorless."
Then one must not raise an outcry against the bearers of a new
renaissance. I can no longer herald a renaissance; it is too late now.
Once, when I had the power to do much and the desire to do more,
mediocrity everywhere was too strong. I was the giant with the feet of
clay--the lot of many youths. But now, my small, small friend, look about
you: there has appeared, within even your field of vision, a figure here
and a figure there, a shining crest, lavish with its bounty, geniuses
beneath the open sky--you and I should bid them welcome. I walk in the
evening of life and, trembling, recognize myself in them; they are youth
with jeweled eyes. Yet you begrudge them your recognition; yes, you
begrudge them fame. Because you are nobody.
To you--to the modern spirit of Norway! I have written this during a
plague, and because of the plague. I cannot stop the rot; no, it is
unassailable now, it flourishes under national protection,
tarara-boom-de-ay. But one day no doubt it will stop. Meanwhile I do what
I can to fight it; you do the reverse.
Of course I have shouted in the marketplace; perhaps that is why my voice
is hoarse now, cracked at times. There are worse things. A worse thing
would have been if it had not obeyed me. Is there any danger of that? No,
my friend, not for you; you will live till you die, be assured.
Why have I written to you, of all people? Why do you think? You refused to
be convinced of the truth and integrity of my conclusions; but I shall yet
force you to recognize that I am close to the truth. Not until then shall
I make allowance for the fool in you.