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LOOK BACK ON HAPPINESS
Translated from the Norwegian
By PAULA WIKING
LOOK BACK ON HAPPINESS
I have gone to the forest.
Not because I am offended about anything, or very unhappy about men’s evil ways; but since the forest will not come to me, I must go to it. That is all. I have not gone this time as a slave and a vagabond. I have money enough and am overfed, stupefied with success and good fortune, if you understand that. I have left the world as a sultan leaves rich food and harems and flowers, and clothes himself in a hair shirt.
Really, I could make quite a song and dance about it. For I mean to roam and think and make great irons red-hot. Nietzsche no doubt would have spoken thus: The last word I spake unto men achieved their praise, and they nodded. But it was my last word; and I went into the forest. For then did I comprehend the truth, that my speech must needs be dishonest or foolish…. But I said nothing of the kind; I simply went to the forest.
* * * * *
You must not believe that nothing ever happens here. The snowflakes drift down just as they do in the city, and the birds and beasts scurry about from morning till night, and from night till morning. I could send solemn stories from this place, but I do not. I have sought the forest for solitude and for the sake of my great irons; for I have great irons which lie within me and grow red-hot. So I deal with myself accordingly. Suppose I were to meet a buck reindeer one day, then I might say to myself:
“Great heavens, this is a buck reindeer, he’s dangerous!”
But if then I should be too frightened, I might tell myself a comforting lie and say it was a calf or some feathered beast.
You say nothing happens here?
One day I saw two Lapps meet. A boy and a girl. At first they behaved as people do. “_Boris!_” they said to each other and smiled. But immediately after, both fell at full length in the snow and were gone from my sight. After a quarter of an hour had passed, I thought, “You’d better see to them; they may be smothered in the snow.” But then they got up and went their separate ways.
In all my weatherbeaten days, I have never seen such a greeting as that.
* * * * *
Day and night I live in a deserted hut of peat into which I must crawl on my hands and knees. Someone must have built it long ago and used it, for lack of a better,–perhaps a man who was in hiding, a man who concealed himself here for a few autumn days. There are two of us in the hut, that is if you regard Madame as a person; otherwise there is only one. Madame is a mouse I live with, to whom I have given this honorary title. She eats everything I put aside for her in the nooks and corners, and sometimes she sits watching me.
When I first came, there was stale straw in the hut, which Madame by all means was allowed to keep; for my own bed I cut fresh pine twigs, as is fitting. I have an ax and a saw and the necessary crockery. And I have a sleeping bag of sheepskin with the wool inside. I keep a fire burning in the fireplace all night, and my shirt, which hangs by it, smells of fresh resin in the morning. When I want coffee, I go out, fill the kettle with clean snow, and hang it over the fire till the snow turns to water.
Is this a life worth living?
There you have betrayed yourself. This is a life you do not understand. Yes, your home is in the city, and you have furnished it with vanities, with pictures and books; but you have a wife and a servant and a hundred expenses. Asleep or awake you must keep pace with the world and are never at peace. I have peace. You are welcome to your intellectual pastimes and books and art and newspapers; welcome, too, to your bars and your whisky that only makes me ill. Here am I in the forest, quite content. If you ask me intellectual questions and try to trip me up, then I will reply, for example, that God is the origin of all things and that truly men are mere specks and atoms in the universe. You are no wiser than I. But if you should go so far as to ask me what is eternity, then I know quite as much in this matter, too, and reply thus: Eternity is merely unborn time, nothing but unborn time.
My friend, come here to me and I will take a mirror from my pocket and reflect the sun on your face, my friend.
You lie in bed till ten or eleven in the morning, yet you are weary, exhausted, when you get up. I see you in my mind’s eye as you go out into the street; the morning has dawned too early on your blinking eyes. I rise at five quite refreshed. It is still dark outdoors, yet there is enough to look at–the moon, the stars, the clouds, and the weather portents for the day. I prophesy the weather for many hours ahead. In what key do the winds whistle? Is the crack of the ice in the Glimma light and dry, or deep and long? These are splendid portents, and as it grows lighter, I add the visible signs to the audible ones, and learn still more.
Then a narrow streak of daylight appears far down in the east, the stars fade from the sky, and soon light reigns over all. A crow flies over the woods, and I warn Madame not to go outside the hut or she will be devoured.
But if fresh snow has fallen, the trees and copses and the great rocks take on giant, unearthly shapes, as though they had come from another world in the night. A storm-felled pine with its root torn up looks like a witch petrified in the act of performing strange rites.
Here a hare has sprung by, and yonder are the tracks of a solitary reindeer. I shake out my sleeping bag and after hanging it high in a tree to escape Madame, who eats everything, I follow the tracks of the reindeer into the forest. It has jogged along without haste, but toward a definite goal–straight east to meet the day. By the banks of the Skiel, which is so rapid that its waters never freeze, the reindeer has stopped to drink, to scrape the hillside for moss, to rest a while, and then moved on.
And perhaps what this reindeer has done is all the knowledge and experience I gain that day. It seems much to me. The days are short; at two, I am already strolling homeward in the deep twilight, with the good, still night approaching. Then I begin to cook. I have a great deal of meat stored in three pure-white drifts of snow. In fact I have something even better: eight fat cheeses of reindeer milk, to eat with butter and crisp-bread.
While the pot is boiling I lie down, and gaze at the fire till I fall asleep. I take my midday nap before my meal. And when I waken, the food is cooked, filling the hut with an aroma of meat and resin. Madame darts back and forth across the floor and at length gets her share. I eat, and light my cutty-pipe.
The day is at an end. All has been well, and I have had no unpleasantness. In the great silence surrounding me, I am the only adult, roaming man; this makes me bigger and more important, God’s kin. And I believe the red-hot irons within me are progressing well, for God does great things for his kin.
I lie thinking of the reindeer, the path it took, what it did by the river, and how it continued on its journey. There under the trees it has nibbled, and its horns have rubbed against the bark, leaving their marks; there an osier bed has forced it to turn aside; but just beyond, it has straightened its path and continued east once more. All this I think of.
And you? Have you read in a newspaper, which disagrees with another newspaper, what the public in Norway is thinking of old-age insurance?
On stormy days I sit indoors and find something to occupy my time. Perhaps I write letters to some acquaintance or other telling him I am well, and hope to hear the same from him. But I cannot post the letters, and they grow older every day. Not that it matters. I have tied the letters to a string that hangs from the ceiling to prevent Madame from gnawing at them.
One day a man came to the hut. He walked swiftly and stealthily; his clothes were ordinary and he wore no collar, for he was a laboring man. He carried a sack, and I wondered what could be in it.
“Good morning,” we said to each other. “Fine weather in the woods.”
“I didn’t expect to find anybody in the hut,” said the man. His manner was at once forceful and discontented; he flung down the sack without humility.
“He may know something about me,” I thought, “since he is such a man.”
“Have you lived here long?” he asked. “And are you leaving soon?”
“Is the hut yours, perhaps?” I asked in my turn.
Then he looked at me.
“Because if the hut is yours, that’s another matter,” I said. “But I don’t intend like a pickpocket to take it with me when I leave.”
I spoke gently and jestingly to avoid committing a blunder by my speech.
But I had said quite the right thing; the man at once lost his assurance. Somehow I had made him feel that I knew more about him than he knew about me.
When I asked him to come in, he was grateful and said:
“Thank you, but I’m afraid I’ll get snow all over your floor.”
Then he took special pains to wipe his boots clean, and bringing his sack with him, crawled in.
“I could give you some coffee,” I said.
“You shouldn’t trouble on my account,” he replied, wiping his face and panting with the heat, “though I’ve been walking all night.”
“Are you crossing the fjeld?”
“That depends. I don’t suppose there’s work to be got on a winter day on the other side, either.”
I gave him coffee.
“Got anything to eat?” he said. “It’s a shame to ask you. A round of crisp-bread? I had no chance to bring food with me.”
“Yes, I’ve got bread, butter, and reindeer cheese. Help yourself.”
“It’s not so easy for a lot of people in the winter,” said the man as he ate.
“Could you take some letters to the village for me?” I asked. “I’ll pay you for it.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t do that,” the man replied. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. I must cross the fjeld now. I’ve heard there’s work in Hilling, in the Hilling Forest. So I can’t.”
“Must get his back up a bit again,” I thought. “He just sits now there without any guts at all. In the end he’ll start begging for a few coppers.”
I felt his sack and said:
“What’s this you’re lugging about with you? Heavy things?”
“Mind your own business!” was his instant retort, as he drew the sack closer to him.
“I wasn’t going to steal any of it; I’m no thief,” I said, jesting again.
“I don’t care what you are,” he muttered.
The day wore on. Since I had a visitor, I had no desire to go to the woods, but wanted to sit and talk to him and ask him questions. He was a very ordinary man, of no great interest to the irons in my fire, with dirty hands, uneducated and uninteresting in his speech; probably he had stolen the things in his sack. Later I learned that he was quick in much small knowledge that life had taught him. He complained that his heels felt cold, and took off his boots. And no wonder he felt cold, for where the heels of his stockings should have been there were only great holes. He borrowed a knife to cut away the ragged edges, and then drew on the stockings again back to front, so that the torn soles came over his instep. When he had put on his boots again, he said, “There, now it’s nice and warm.”
He did no harm. If he took down the saw and the ax from their hooks to inspect them, he put them back again where he had found them. When he examined the letters, trying perhaps to read the addresses, he did not let them go carelessly, leaving them to swing back and forth, but held the string so that it hung motionless. I had no reason to complain about him.
He had his midday meal with me, and when he had eaten, he said:
“Do you mind if I cut myself some pine twigs to sit on?”
He went out to cut off some soft pine, and we had to move Madame’s straw to make room for the man inside the hut. Then we lay on our twigs, burning resin and talking.
He was still there in the afternoon, still lying down as though to postpone the time of his leaving. When it began to grow dark, he went to the low doorway and looked out at the weather. Then, turning his head back, he asked:
“Do you think there’ll be snow tonight?”
“You ask me questions and I ask you questions,” I said, “but it looks like snow; the smoke is blowing down.”
It made him uneasy to think it might snow, and he said he had better leave that night. Suddenly he flew into a rage. For as I lay there, I stretched, so that my hand accidentally touched his sack again.
“You leave me alone!” he shouted, tearing the sack from my grasp. “Don’t you touch that sack, or I’ll show you!”
I replied that I had meant nothing by it, and had no intention of stealing anything from him.
“Stealing, eh! What of it? I’m not afraid of you, and don’t you go thinking I am! Look, here’s what I’ve got in the bag,” said the man, and began to rummage in it and to show me the contents: three pairs of new mittens, some sort of thick cloth for garments, a bag of barley, a side of bacon, sixteen rolls of tobacco, and a few large lumps of sugar candy. In the bottom of the bag was perhaps half a bushel of coffee beans.
No doubt it was all from the general stores, with the exception of a heap of broken crisp-bread, which might have been stolen elsewhere.
“So you’ve got crisp-bread after all,” I said.
“If you knew anything about it, you wouldn’t talk like that,” the man replied. “When I’m crossing the fjeld on foot, walking and walking, don’t I need food to put in my belly? It’s blasphemy to listen to you!”
Neatly and carefully he put everything back into the sack, each article in its turn. He took pains to build up the rolls of tobacco round the bacon, to protect the cloth from grease stains.
“You might buy this cloth from me,” he said. “I’ll let you have it cheap. It’s duffle. It only gets in my way.”
“How much do you want for it?” I asked.
“There’s enough for a whole suit of clothes, maybe more,” he said to himself as he spread it out.
I said to the man:
“Truly you come here into the forest bringing with you life and the world and intellectual values and news. Let us talk a little. Tell me something: are you afraid your footprints will be visible tomorrow if there’s fresh snow tonight?”
“That’s my business. I’ve crossed the field before and I know many paths,” he muttered. “I’ll let you have the cloth for a few crowns.”
I shook my head, so the man again neatly folded the cloth and put it back in the bag exactly as though it belonged to him.
“I’ll cut it up into material for trousers; then the pieces won’t be so large, and I’ll be able to sell it.”
“You’d better leave enough for a whole suit in one piece,” I said, “and cut up the rest for trousers.”
“You think so? Yes, maybe you’re right.”
We calculated how much would be necessary for a grown man’s suit, and took down the string from which the letters hung to measure our own clothes, so as to be sure to get the measurements right. Then we cut into the edge of the cloth, and tore it across. In addition to one complete suit, there was enough left for two good-sized pairs of trousers.
Then the man offered to sell me other things out of his sack, and I bought some coffee and a few rolls of tobacco. He put the money away in a leather purse, and I saw how empty the purse was, and the circumstantial and poverty-stricken fashion in which he put the money away, afterward feeling the outside of his pocket.
“You haven’t been able to sell me much,” I said, “but I don’t need any more than that.”
“Business is business,” said he. “I don’t complain.”
It was quite decent of him.
While he was making ready to depart and clearing his bed of pine needles out of the way, I thought pityingly of his sordid little theft. Stealing because he was needy–a side of bacon and a length of cloth which he was trying to sell in the forest! Theft has indeed ceased to be a matter of great moment. This is because legal punishment for misdemeanors of all kinds has also ceased to be of great moment. It is only a dull, human punishment; the religious element has been removed from the law, and a local magistrate is no longer a man of mystic power.
I well remember the last time I heard a judge explain the meaning of the oath as it should be explained. It chilled us all to the bone to hear him. We need some witchcraft again, and the Sixth Book of Moses, and the sin against the Holy Ghost, and signing your name in the blood of a newly baptized child! Steal a sack of money and silver treasure, if you like, and hide the sack in the hills where on autumn evenings a blue flame will hover over the spot. But don’t come to me with three pairs of mittens and a side of household bacon!
The man no longer worried about the sack; leaving it behind, he crawled out of the hut to study the weather. The coffee and tobacco I had bought I put back into the sack, for I did not need them. When he returned, he said:
“I think after all I’d better stop the night here with you, if you don’t mind.”
In the evening he gave no indication of being prepared to contribute any of his own food. I cooked some coffee and gave him some dry bread to eat with it.
“You shouldn’t have expenses for me,” he said.
Then he began to rummage in his sack again, pushing the bacon well down so that the cloth might not be stained by it; after this he took off his leather belt and put it round the sack, with a loop to carry over one shoulder.
“Now if I take the neck of the sack over the other shoulder, I’ll find it easier to carry,” he said.
I gave him my letters to post on the other side of the fjeld and he stowed them away safely, slapping the outside of his pocket afterward; I also gave him a special envelope in which to keep the money for the stamps, and tied it to the neck of the sack.
“Where do you live?” I asked him.
“Where can a poor man live? Of course I live by the sea. I’m sorry to say I have a wife and children–no use denying it.”
“How many children have you?”
“Four. One’s got a crippled arm and the others–there’s something wrong with all of them. It’s not easy for a poor devil. My wife’s ill, and a few days ago she thought she was dying and wanted Communion.”
A sad note crept into his voice. But the note was false. He was telling me a pack of lies. When they came to look for him from the village, no Christian would have the heart to accuse a man with such a large and sick family. This, no doubt, was his meaning.
Man, oh man, thou art worse than a mouse!
I questioned him no further, but asked him to sing something, a ballad or a song, since we had nothing else to do.
“I’ve no heart to sing now,” he replied. “Except possibly a hymn.”
“All right; sing a hymn, then.”
“Not now. I’d like to do you a favor, but–“
His uneasiness was rising. A little later he took his sack and went out.
“Well, he’s gone,” I thought, “but he hasn’t said the customary peace-be-with-you. I’m glad I’ve come into the forest,” I thought. “This is my home, and from this day forth, no mother’s son shall come within my walls again.”
I made an elaborate agreement with myself that I should have no more truck with men.
“Madame, come here,” I said. “I esteem you highly, and herewith, Madame, I undertake to enter upon a union with you for life!”
Half an hour later, the man returned. He carried no sack.
“I thought you’d gone,” I said.
“Gone? I’m not a dog,” he replied. “I’ve met people before this, and I say good morning when I come and peace-be-with-you when I go. You shouldn’t sneer at me, you know.”
“What have you done with the sack?”
“I’ve carried it part of the way.”
His concealing the sack in case anyone should come proved he had forethought, for it was easier to get away scot-free without a burden on one’s back. To stop him from telling me any more lies about his poverty, I said:
“I expect you’ve raised plenty of dust in your day? Still do, for that matter?”
“Well, I do what I can,” he replied cheerfully. “I can lift a barrel easier than most, and nobody was able to dance me off the floor last Christmas! Hush–is that someone coming?”
We listened. His eyes darted toward the entrance, and in a moment he had chosen to meet danger halfway. He was taut and splendid; I could see his jaw working.
“It’s nothing,” I said.
Resolute and strong as a bull, he crawled out of the hut and was gone for a few minutes. When he returned, breathing heavily, he said:
We lay down for the night.
“In God’s name!” he said, as he settled himself on his pine bed. I fell asleep at once, and for some time slept deeply. But during the night restlessness seized on the man again. “Peace be with you!” I heard him mutter as he crawled out of the hut.
In the morning I burned the man’s bed of pine needles; it made a lively fire of crackling pine in the hut.
Outside, the ground was covered with new-fallen snow.
There is nothing like being left alone again, to walk peacefully with oneself in the woods. To boil one’s coffee and fill one’s pipe, and to think idly and slowly as one does it.
There, now I’ll fill the kettle with snow, I think, and now I’m crushing the coffee beans with a stone; later I must beat my sleeping bag well in the snow and get the wool white again. There is nothing in this of literature or great novels or public opinion; does it matter? But then I haven’t been toiling just to get this coffee into my life. Literature? When Rome ruled the world, she was no more than Greece’s apprentice in literature. Yet Rome ruled the world. Let us look too at another country we know: it fought a war of independence the glory of which still shines, and it brought forth the greatest school of painting in the world. Yet it had no literature, and has none today….
Day by day I grow more knowing in the ways of the trees and the moss and the snow on the ground, and all things are my friends. The stump of a fir tree stands thawing in the sun; I feel my familiarity with it grow, and sometimes I stand there loving it, for there is something in it that moves my soul. The bark is badly broken. One winter in the deep snow, the tree must have been crippled, and now it points upward long and naked. I put myself in its place, and look at it with pity. My eyes perhaps have the simple, animal expression that human eyes had in the age of the mastodons.
No doubt you will seize this opportunity to mock me, for there are many amusing things you can say about me and this stump of a fir. Yet in your heart, you know that I am superior to you in this as in everything else, with the single exception that I have not your conventional accomplishments, nor have I passed examinations. About the forest and the earth you can teach me nothing, for here I feel what no man else has felt.
Sometimes I take the wrong direction and lose my way. Yes, truly this may happen sometimes. But I do not begin to twist and lose myself outside my very door, like the children of the city. I am twelve miles out, far up the opposite bank of the Skjel River, before I begin to get lost, and then only on a sunless day, with perhaps thick, wild snow coming down, and no north or south in the sky. Then you must know the special marks of this kind of tree and that, the galipot of the pine, the bark of deciduous trees, the moss that grows at their roots, the angle of the south and north-pointing branches, the stones that are moss-covered and those that are bare, and the pattern of the network of veins in the leaves. From all these things while there is daylight I can find my way.
But if the dusk falls, I know it will be impossible for me to get home till the next day. “How shall I pass this night?” I say to myself. And I roam about till I find a sheltered spot; the best is a crag standing with its back to the wind. Here I collect a few armfuls of pine needles, button my jacket tight, and take a long time to settle. No one who has not tried it knows anything of the fine pleasure that streams through the soul as one sits in a snug shelter on such a night. I light my pipe to pass the time, but the tobacco doesn’t agree with me because I haven’t eaten, so I put some resin in my mouth to chew as I lie thinking of many things. The snow continues to fall outside; if I have been lucky enough to find a shelter facing the right way, the snowdrifts will close in over me and form a crest like a roof above my retreat. Then I am quite safe, and may sleep or wake as I please; there will be no danger of freezing my feet.
* * * * *
Two men came to my hut; they were in a great hurry, and one of them called to me:
“Good morning. Has a man passed this way?”
I didn’t like his face. I was not his servant and his question was too stupid.
“Many people may have passed this way. Do you mean have I _seen_ a man go by?”
So much for him!
“I meant what I said,” the man replied surlily. “I’m asking you in the name of the law.”
I had no desire for further conversation, and crawled into my hut.
The two men followed me. The constable grinned and said:
“Did you _see_ a man pass by here yesterday?”
“No,” I said.
They looked at each other, and took counsel together; then they left the hut and returned to the village.
I thought: What zeal this policeman showed in the execution of his duties, how he shone with public spirit! There will be bonuses for the capture and transport of the criminal; there will be honor in having carried out the deed. All mankind should adopt this man because he is its son, created in its image! Where are the irons? He would rattle the links a little and lift them on his arm like the train of a riding skirt, to make me feel his terrifying power to put people in irons … I feel nothing.
And what tradesmen–what kings of trade–we have today! They instantly miss what a man can carry off in a sack, and notify the police.
From now on I begin to long for the spring. My peat hut lies still too near to mankind, and I will build myself another when the frost has gone out of the ground. On the other side of the Skjel, I have chosen a spot in the forest which I think I shall like. It is twenty-four miles from the village and eighteen across the fjeld.
Have I said that I was too near men? Heaven help me, for some days in succession I have been taking strolls in the forest, saying good morning and pretending I was in human company. If it was a man I imagined beside me, we carried on a long, intelligent conversation, but if it was a woman, I was polite: “Let me carry your parcel, miss.” Once it must have been the Lapp’s daughter I seemed to meet, for I flattered her most lavishly and offered to carry her fur cloak if she would take it off and walk in her skin; tut, tut.
Heaven help me, I am no longer too near men. And probably I will not build that peat hut still further away from them.
The days grow longer, and I do not mind. The truth is that in the winter I suffered privation and learned much in order to master myself. It has taken time and sometimes a resolute will, so it cannot be denied that I am paying for my education rather dearly. Sometimes I have been needlessly stern with myself.
“There is a loaf of bread,” I said. “It doesn’t surprise me, it doesn’t interest me; I am used to it. But if you see no bread for twelve hours, it will mean something to you,” I said, and hid the bread away.
That was in the winter.
Were they dreary days? No, good days. My liberty was so great that I could do and think as I pleased; I was alone, the bear of the forest. But even in the heart of the forest no man dares speak aloud without looking round; rather, he walks in silence. For a time you console yourself that it’s typically English to be silent, it’s regal to be silent. But suddenly you find this has gone too far, your mouth begins to wake, to stretch, and suddenly to shout nonsense.
“Bricks for the palace! The calf is much stronger today!”
Perhaps if your voice is strong, the sound will carry for a quarter of a mile–but then you feel a sting as though after a slap. If only you had kept your regal silence! One day the postman who crosses the fjeld once a month came on me just as I had shouted.
“What?” he called from the wood.
“Careful below!” I called back to save my face. “I’ve put out a trap.”
But with the longer days, my courage grows; it must be the spring that causes this mysterious revival within me, and I no longer fear a shout more or less. I needlessly rattle my pots and pans as I cook, and I sing at the top of my voice. It is spring.
Yesterday I stood on a hillock and looked out across the wintry woods. They have a different expression now; they have gone gray and bedraggled, and the midday sun has thawed down the snow and diminished it. There are catkins everywhere, drifts of them in the underbrush, looking like letters of the alphabet piled in a heap. The moon rises, the stars break forth. I am cold and shiver a little, but I have nothing to do in the hut, and prefer to shiver as long as possible. In the winter I did nothing so foolish, but went home if I was cold. Now I’m tired of that, too. It is the spring.
The sky is pure and cool, lying wide open to all the stars. There is a great flock of worlds up in that endless meadow, tiny, teeming worlds, so tiny that they are like the sound of a tinkling bell; as I look at them, I can hear thousands of tiny bells. Yes, certainly I am being drawn more and more toward the grassy slopes of spring.
I fill the fireplace with pine wood, hoist my belongings to my back, and leave the hut. “Farewell, Madame.”
That was the end.
I feel no pleasure at leaving my shelter, but a touch of sadness–as I always do on leaving a place that has been my home for some time. But all the world stands outside calling to me. Indeed I am like all lovers of the woods and fields; wordlessly we had agreed to meet, and as I sat there last night, I felt my eyes being drawn to the door.
Several times I look back at the hut, with the smoke rising up from the chimney; the smoke billows and waves to me, and I wave back.
The silky pallor of the morning refreshes me; in a long blue haze over the forest, a slow dawn rises. It looks like a cheerful piratical coast in the sky before me. The mountains are all on my left.
After a few hours’ march I am like new from top to toe, and I press on swiftly. I beat the air with my stick, and it says “hoo” as it swishes; whenever I think I deserve it, I sit down and give myself food.
No, you have not my pleasures in the town.
I beat my legs with my stick from the sheer exuberance of living, and nearly cry out. I behave as though the burden on my back had no weight, taking needless leaps, and overexerting myself a little; but an overexertion to which one is driven by inner content is easy to bear. In my solitude, many miles from men and houses, I am in a childishly happy and carefree state of mind, which you are incapable of understanding unless someone explains it to you. I play a little game with myself, pretending to have discovered a remarkable kind of tree. At first I pay little attention, then I stretch my neck and contract my eyelids and gaze.
“What!” I say to myself. “Surely it couldn’t be–“
I throw down my burden and approach, inspect the tree and nod sagely, saying it is a strange, fabled tree that I have discovered. And I take out my notebook and describe it.
Merely jest and happiness, a queer little impulse to play. Children have done it before me. And here comes no postman to surprise me. As suddenly as I have begun the game, I end it again, as children do. But for a moment I was transported back to the dear, foolish bliss of childhood.
Perhaps it was the anticipation of soon seeing men again that made me playful and happy!
Next day, just as a raw mist descends on mountain and forest, I reach the Lapp’s house. I enter. But though I meet with nothing but kindness, a Lapp hut contains little that is interesting. There are spoons and knives of bone on the peat wall, and a small paraffin lamp hangs from the roof. The Lapp himself is a dull nonentity who can neither tell fortunes nor conjure. His daughter has gone across the field; she has learned to read, but not to write, at the village school. The two old people, husband and wife, are fools. The whole family share a sort of animal dumbness; if I ask them a question, I may or may not get half a reply: “Mm-no, mm-yes.” I am not a Lapp, and so they distrust me.
All the afternoon the mist lay white on the forest. I slept a while. In the evening, the sky was clear again, and there were a few degrees of frost. I left the hut. The moon stood full and silent above the earth.
Heigh-ho–what untuned strings!
But where are the birds all gone away, and what kind of place is this?
Here where I stand nothing moves or stirs, in this world that is dead, no event occurs; I stand in a silvermine.
My eyes sweep round, but I sorely miss a homely, well-known outline.
And so he came to a silver wood–
thus ran an ancient tale.
Here rests a song of shimmering fire as though it were sung by a starry choir. And swift in my youth, I leap
to bind fast the troll, the cunning male, and awaken a maid from her sleep.
Today I smile at childish tales,
old age has made me wise.
Once proudly in prodigal youth I trod, now by age my foot is heavily shod;
yet my heart–my heart would fly.
I am driven by fire and bound by ice, no rest nor repose have I.
A shuddering chill falls on the night, like a cloud from the lungs in the cold. There passed a great gust through the silver lace of the woods, like a lion’s royal pace
on paws that are soundless and still. It may be a god on his evening stroll.
The roots of the forest thrill.
When I returned to the hut, the daughter had also returned home, and sat eating after her long march. Olga the Lapp, tiny and queer, conceived in a snowdrift, in the course of a greeting. “_Boris_!” they said and fell on their noses.
She had bought red and blue pieces of cloth at the draper’s shop in the village, and no sooner had she finished eating than she pushed the cups and plates away and began to embroider her Sunday jacket with pretty strips of the cloth. All the while she never spoke a word, because a stranger was in the room.
“You know me, Olga, don’t you?”
“But you look so angry.”
“How’s the snow track across the fjeld?”
I knew there was a deserted hut the family had once lived in, and asked:
“How far is it to your old hut?”
“Not far,” said Olga.
Olga Lapp has someone to smile at surely, even if she will not smile at me. Here she sits in the great forest, pandering to her vanity and sewing wonderful scrolls on her jacket. On Sunday, no doubt, she will wear it to church and meet the man whose eyes it is meant to gladden.
I was not anxious to stay any longer with these small beings, these human grains of sand. As I had slept enough in the afternoon and the moon was bright, I prepared to leave. After laying in a further supply of reindeer cheese and whatever other food I could get, I left the hut. But what a surprise: the bright moonlight was gone, and the sky was overcast; there was no frost, only mild weather and wet woods. It was spring.
When Olga Lapp saw this, she advised me against leaving; but why should I listen to her chatter? She came with me a little way into the woods to direct me, then turned and went back, tiny and queer, her feathers ruffled like a hen’s.
It was difficult to advance. Never mind. A few hours later I found myself high up on the fjeld; I must have strayed from the path. What is that dark shape there? A mountain peak. And that over there? Another peak. Let us pitch camp on the spot, then.
There was a deep goodness and tenderness about this mild night. I sat in the dark recalling forgotten memories of my childhood, and many experiences in this place and that. And what a satisfaction it is, too, to have money in one’s pocket, even if one sleeps in the open!
During the night I woke up; I found it growing too warm for me under my crag, and loosened my sleeping bag. It seemed to me, too, that a sound still hummed in my ear, as though I had called out or sung in my sleep. Suddenly I felt completely rested, and turned to look about me. It was dark and mild, a stone-still world. The sky was paler than the ring of mountains round me; I lay in the center of a city of peaks, at the foot of a great cliff, huge to the point of deformity. The wind began to blow, and suddenly there was a booming in the distance. Then came a streak of lightning, and immediately after the thunder rolled down like a gigantic avalanche between the most distant peaks. It was matchless to lie there listening, and a supernatural delight, a thrill of enjoyment, ran through me. A stranger madness filled me than I had ever felt before, and I gave it expression by laughing aloud in wanton and humorous abandon. Many a thought ran through my mind, witticisms alternating with moments of such great sorrow that I lay sighing deeply. The lightning and thunder came closer, and it began to rain–a torrential rain. The echoes were overpowering; all nature was an uproar, a hullabalooing. I tried to conquer the night by shouting at it, lest mysteriously it should rob me of my strength and leave me without a will. These mountains, I thought, are sheer incantations against my journey, great planted curses that block my path. Or perhaps I have only strayed into a mountains’ trade union? But I nod my head repeatedly. That means I am brave and happy. Perhaps after all they are only stuffed mountains.
More lightning and thunder and torrential rain; it felt as though the near-by echo had slapped me, reverberating a hundred times through me. Never mind. I have read about many battles and been in a rain of bullets before this. Yet in a moment of sadness and humility in the presence of the powers about me, I weep and think:
“Who am I now among men? Or am I lost already? Am I nothing already?”
And I cry out and call my name to hear if it still lives.
A wheel of gold turned before my eyes, and the thunder clapped over my very head, on my own fjeld. Instantly I started out of the sleeping bag and left my shelter. The thunder rolled on, there was lightning and more thunder, worlds were uprooted. Why had I not listened to Olga’s advice and remained in the hut? Is it the Lapps whose magic powers are doing this? The Lapps? Those human mites, those mountain dwarfs! What is all this noise to me? I made a feeble effort to walk against it, but stopped again, for I was among giants, and saw the foolishness of trying to battle with the thunder.
I leaned against the side of the mountain: no longer did I stand shouting and hurling challenges at my opponent, but looked at him with milk-blue eyes. And now that I have yielded, none but a mountain would be so hard. But I am not rhymes and rhythms alone; did you think I should waste my good brain chasing such rainbows? You lie. Here I lean against the whole world, and you, perhaps, believe the blue of my eyes….
At that, the lightning struck me. This was a miracle, and it happened to me. It ran down my left elbow, scorching the sleeve of my jacket. The lightning seemed like a ball of wool that dropped to the ground. I felt a sensation of heat, and saw that the ground farther down the mountain was struck a loud blow and then split. A great oppression held me down; a spear of darkness shot through me. And then it thundered beyond all measure, not long and rumbling, but firm and clear and rattling.
The storm passed on.
Next day I arrived at the deserted hut, drenched to the skin, struck by lightning, but in a strangely gentle and yielding mood, as after a punishment. My good fortune in the midst of my ill-luck made me overfriendly to everything; I tramped on without hurting the ground, and I avoided sinful thoughts, though it was spring. I was not even out of temper when I had to retrace my steps across the fjeld to find my way again to the hut. I had time; there was no hurry. I was the first tourist of the spring season, and far too early.
So I remained at my ease in the hut for a few days. Sometimes at night verses and small poems blossomed in my mind as though I had become a real poet. At any rate there were signs that great changes had taken place within me since the winter, when I had desired nothing but to lie blinking my eyes and be left in peace.
One day when everything was thawing in the sun, I left the hut and walked about the mountains for some hours. I had lately been thinking of writing some children’s verses, addressed to a certain little girl, but nothing had come of it. Now as I walked on the mountainside, I felt again a desire for this pastime, and worked at it on several occasions, but could not get it into shape. The night, when one has slept an hour or two, is the time when such things come to one.
So I went straight on to the village and bought myself a good store of food. There were many people in this district, and it did me good to hear human speech and laughter again; but there was no place here where I could stay, and in any case I had come too early. I had much to carry on my way home to my hut again. About halfway I met a man, a casual laborer, a vagabond, whose name was Solem. Later I heard that he was the bastard son of a telegraph operator who had been in Rosenlund nearly a generation before.
That this man should have stepped off the path to let me pass with my burden was a good trait in him, and I thanked him and said, “I shouldn’t have run over you in any case, ha, ha!”
He asked me if there was much snow on the way to the village. I told him it was much the same as here. “I see,” he said, and turned away. I thought that perhaps he had come a long way, and since he carried nothing that looked like provisions, I offered him some of mine in order to make him talk a little. He thanked me and accepted.
He was above middle height, and quite young, not more than in his twenties, possibly just on thirty–a fine fellow. After the swaggering fashion of wanderers, he had a lock of hair escaping from under the peak of his cap; but he wore no beard. This full-grown man still shaved without growing tired of doing so, and this, together with his fringe of hair and his general manner, gave me the impression that he wished to seem younger than he was.
We talked while he ate; he laughed readily and was in a cheerful mood, and since his face was beardless and hard, it looked like a laughing iron mask. But he was sensible and pleasant. There was only one thing: I had been silent for so long that I talked now perhaps too readily; and if it happened that both this boy Solem and I spoke at once, he would stop immediately to let me have my say. When this had happened several times, I grew tired of winning, and stopped too. But that merely made him nod and say: “Go ahead.”
I explained to him that I idled in solitude, studying strange trees, and writing a thing or two about them, that I lived in a hut, but that today I had finished my stock of provisions and had had to go to the village. When he heard about the hut, he stopped chewing, and sat as though he were listening; then he said hastily: “Yes, in a way I know these telegraph poles across the mountains very well. Not these particular poles, but others. I was a linesman till not long ago.”
“Were you?” I said. “Haven’t you passed my hut today?” I added.
He hesitated a moment, but when he saw that I was not trying to put him in the wrong, he admitted that he had been in the hut and rested, and found my crisp-bread there.
“It wasn’t easy to sit there without taking some of it,” he said.
We spoke of many things. His language was hardly coarse at all, nor did he dawdle over his food. My own manners had run wild to such an extent that I valued his good behavior.
He offered to help me carry my pack as a mark of his gratitude for the food, and I accepted his offer. It was in this way that the stranger returned to the hut with me. As soon as I came in I saw a note on the table, a sort of thanks for the bread; it was an extremely ill-mannered epistle, full of obscene expressions. When Solem saw what I was reading, his iron face broke into a smile. I pretended not to understand the note and threw it back on the table; he picked it up and tore it to shreds.
“I’m sorry you’ve seen it,” he said. “We linesmen have a way of doing that sort of thing, and I’d forgotten I’d left it here.”
Soon after this he went out.
He stayed that night and next day, and found a means of repaying me by washing some of my clothes and making himself useful in other ways. There was a large tub outside the hut–had been since the Lapps lived there– which was cracked and leaked abundantly, but Solem stopped the cracks with bacon fat and boiled my clothes in it. It was very funny to watch him imperturbably skimming off the fat that floated up.
He seemed to want to stay till we had finished the provisions again, and then to go with me to the village; but when he heard I was going the other way, to the mountain farm somewhere under the great peaks of the Tore, where summer visitors stayed and many travelers passed, he wanted to go there, too. He was a bird of passage.
“Can’t I come with you and help you carry?” he asked me. “I’m used to farm work, too, and perhaps I can get a job there.”
The bustle of spring season had already started at the great farm; men and animals were awake, the barn re-echoed with lowing the whole day long, and the goats had long since been let out to pasture.
It was a long way between neighbors here; one or two cotters had cleared an area in the forest, which they had then bought; apart from that, all the land in sight belonged to the farm. Many new houses had been built here as the traffic over the fjelds increased, and gargoyles, homelike and Norwegian, sat on the gable ends, while the sound of a piano came from the living-room. Do you know the place? You have been here, and the people of the farm have asked after you.
Good days, nothing but good days: a suitable transition from solitude. I speak to the young people who own the homestead now, and to the husband’s old father and young sister Josephine. The old man leaves his room to look at me. He is terrifyingly old, perhaps ninety; his eyes are worn and half-crazed, and his figure has shrunk to nothing. He toils with both hands to drag himself into the day, and each time it is as though he left his mother’s womb anew and found a world before him:
“Look, how strange, there are houses on the farm,” he thinks as he gazes at them. And when the barn doors stand open, he looks at them, too, and thinks:
“Just like a doorway; what can it be? Looks exactly like a doorway….”
And he stands still a long time staring at it.
But Josephine, the daughter of his latest marriage, is young and plays the piano for me. Ah, Josephine! As she runs through the garden, her feet are like a breeze under her skirt. How kind she is to the visitors! Surely she has seen us coming a long way off, Solem and myself, and sat down to play the piano. She has gray, pathetic, young girl’s hands–hands which confirm an old observation of mine that one’s hands reveal one’s sexual character, showing chastity, indifference, or passion.
It is pleasant to watch Josephine crouch down to milk the goat. But she is only doing this now to charm and please the stranger. Ordinarily she has no time for such work, for she is too busy at her indoor tasks, waiting at table and watering the flowers and chatting with me about who climbed the Tore Peak last summer, and who did it the summer before that. These are Josephine’s tasks.
Refreshed and rejuvenated, I idle about, stand for a while watching Solem, who has been put to carting manure, then drift on down through the wood to the cotters’ houses. Neat, compact houses, barns with room for two cows and a couple of goats in each, half-naked children playing homemade games outside the barns, quarrels and laughter and tears. The men at both places cart manure on sleighs, seeking a path where the snow and ice still lie on the ground, and doing very well with it. I do not descend to the houses, but watch the work from my point of vantage. Well do I know the life of labor, and well do I like it.
It was no small area these cotters had broken up; the homesteads were tiny but the fences surrounding the land included a good section of forest. When the ground was cleared all the way to the fence, this would be a farm with five cows and a horse. Good luck!
The days pass, the windowpanes have thawed, the snow is melting away, green things grow against south walls, and the leaves break out in the woods. My original intention to make great irons hot within me is unchanged; but if I ever thought this an easy task I must be an incredible fool. I do not even know with any certainty if there are irons in me still, or whether I can shape them if there are. Since the winter, life has made me lonely and small; I idle and loiter here, remembering that once things were different. Now that I have reached daylight and men again, I begin to understand all this. I was a different person once. The wave has its feathered crest, and so had I; wine has its fire, and so had I. Neurasthenia, the ape of all the diseases, pursues me.
What then? No, I do not mourn this. Mourn? It is for women to mourn. Life is only a loan, and I am grateful for the loan. At times I have had gold and silver and copper and iron and other small metals; it was a great delight to live in the world, much greater than an endless life away from the world; but pleasure cannot last. I know of no one who has not been through the same thing; but I know of no one who will admit it. How they have declined! But they themselves have said:
“See how everything is better!”
At their first jubilee, they left life behind and began a vegetating existence; once one is fifty, the seventies begin. And the irons were no longer red-hot; there were no irons. But by heaven, how stubbornly Simplicity insisted the irons were there, insisted that they were red.
“See the irons!” Simplicity said. “See how red they are!”
As though it mattered that death can be kept off for another twenty years from one who has already begun to perish! I have no use for such a way of thinking; but you have, no doubt, you with your cheerful mediocrity and school education. A one-armed man can still walk; a one-legged man can lie down. Has the forest taught you nothing, then? What have I learned in the forest? _That young trees grow there_.
In my footsteps walks youth, youth that is shamelessly, barbarously scorned, merely because it is young, scorned by stupidity and degeneration. I have seen this for many years. I know nothing more despicable than your school education and your school-education standards. Whether you have a catechism or a compass by which to guide your life is all the same; come here, my friend, and I will give you a compass made of my latest iron.
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 Hoey 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.
The news has leaked out that the master of the homestead here owes a huge debt, and that because he needs cash he has sold new, valuable plots of land to his cotters. I am finding out many things now. Mrs. Brede with the handsome, well-modeled head knows something about everything, for her many summers at the farm have given her knowledge. When she talks about conditions here, she need not grope for words.
The master has taken a large mortgage.
No one would believe that all is not well here; the many new buildings and flagpoles, the curtains at the windows and the red-painted well house–all give an impression of great prosperity. The rooms, too, make a good impression. I shall not speak of the piano, but here are pictures on the walls and photographs of the farm seen from all angles; good newspapers are kept and there is a selection of novels on the tables; though guests sometimes take books away with them, the books are never missed. Or take a thing like this: you get your bill on a handsomely printed paper, with a picture at the top of the farm and the Tore range in the background. In short, no one would doubt for a moment that there is a fortune here. And why not, after twenty years as a kind of resort for tourists and pensioners?
Nevertheless, the truth is that this homestead with all its interior and exterior furnishings costs more than the business is worth. Manufacturer Brede, too, has put money into it, and that is why Mrs. Brede comes here every year with her children, to get their dividends in board and lodging.
No wonder she has a house to herself; after all, it’s her own house.
“It was a good place in the old days,” says Mrs. Brede. “Travelers stopped here and had a meal and a bed for the night; it cost nothing to run the place then. But the tourist traffic has forced him to make improvements and enlargements. You have to keep pace with development, and be as good as other such places in the country; they’re all competing. And probably the master here is not the right man to carry on such an irregular and capricious business; he has learned to like idleness too much, and lets the farm take care of itself. But the two cotters are hard-working fellows. They’re nephews of his, and bit by bit they’re buying the farm from him and cultivating it. My husband often says it will end with the cotters or their children buying this whole place of his, Paul’s.”
“How can the cotters get power to do that?”
“They work hard; they’re peasants. They started in the forest with three or four goats each, first one of them, then the other one, working down in the village and coming home with food and money, and all the time clearing their own ground. The goats grew more numerous, a cow was added, they bought more virgin land, and they acquired still more livestock. They sowed grain and planted potatoes and cultivated pasture land; the owner here buys root vegetables from his cotters; he hasn’t time to toil with such things himself; there’s a great deal of work in it. Oh, no, they don’t sow anything but green fodder for the stock here; Paul says it’s not worth-while. And in a way he’s right. He’s tried hiring enough men to run the farm too, but it won’t work. It’s just in the spring season that the tourists start coming, and then the men are constantly being interrupted in their work on the farm to pilot tourists across the fjeld, or to do this or that for the guests. And this goes on all through the short summer months; for several years, they haven’t even found the time to spread all their manure. But the worst time is really the autumn, when the tourists are all rushing to get home again, and it’s quite impossible to do the harvesting undisturbed. It’s almost become a custom here now, my husband says, for the cotters to get half the harvest of the farm’s outlying fields.”
On my wondering at Mrs. Brede’s knowledge of farming, she told me with a shake of the head that she herself knew very little about it, and had all her information from her husband. The fact was that every time these cotters wanted to buy a fresh piece of land from Paul, her husband had to give his consent. This was because of the mortgage, and this, too, was how they had learned of these matters. Manufacturer Brede, as a matter of fact, was most anxious to be released from his undertaking, but this was by no means easy. It was with great apprehensions that he now regarded the new automobile route.
Mrs. Brede was full of a maternal gentleness; she played with her little girls, and seemed to enjoy an admirable balance of mind. One day, for example, a goat came home with one of its hind legs broken, and all the guests hurried out with brandy and lanolin and bandages for the wound; but Mrs. Brede remained quietly where she was, experienced, wise, and a little surprised at all the excitement.
“All you can do with such a goat,” she said, “is to slaughter it.”
The lady, I understood, must have married early, for her two little girls were twelve and ten. Her husband seemed to deal in important business, for he spent a large part of the year in Iceland, and traveled a good deal elsewhere as well. This, too, the lady bore quietly. And yet she was still young and handsome, a little plump, perhaps, for her height, but with a lovely, unwrinkled skin. She was quite unlike Miss Torsen, the only other good-looking lady at the farm; Miss Torsen was tall and dark.
But perhaps Mrs. Brede was not always so calm as she seemed. One evening when she went down to the men’s hut and asked Solem to do her a service, I saw that her face was strange and covered with blushes. Would Solem come to her room and repair a window-blind that had fallen down? It was late in the evening, and the lady seemed to have been in bed already, and to have risen again. Solem did not appear very willing. Suddenly their eyes met, and clung for a moment. Yes, certainly, of course he would come….
What an iron face he had, and what a rogue he was!
Mrs. Brede departed.
But a moment later she returned to say that she had changed her mind. Never mind, thank you, she would fix the blind in position herself.
An occasional tourist came or went, Solem accompanied him across the fjeld, and he was gone. But where were all the foreigners this year? Bennett’s and Cook’s conducted tours, the hordes that would “do” the mountain peaks of Norway–where were they?
At last two solitary Englishmen turned up. They were middle-aged, unshaven and ill-groomed altogether, two engineers or something of that sort, but quite as speechless and uncivil as the grandest of the traveling British clowns. “Guide! Guide!” they called. “You the guide?” Nothing about them was any different from what we had grown to expect; these two traveled brainlessly and solemnly to the mountain tops, were in a hurry, had a purpose, behaved as though they were running to catch a doctor. Solem went with them to the top and down the other side, and they offered him a fifty-_oere_ bit. Solem held out the palm of his hand, he told me afterwards, for he thought they would put more in it, but nothing came of that. So he created a disturbance–Solem has grown spoiled and insolent from all his idling with tourists.
_”Mehr,_ more,” said he.
No, they would not. Solem flung the coin on the ground and struck his hands together repeatedly. This had the required effect, and one _krone_ made its appearance. But on Solem’s taking the noble lord by the shoulder and exerting a little pressure, two _kroner_ were at last forthcoming.
At length a conducted party arrived. Many tongues, both sexes, huntsmen, fishermen, dogs, mountaineers, porters. There was a tremendous commotion at the farm; the flag was run up, Paul bent double under all the orders he received, and Josephine ran, flew at every call. Mrs. Brede had to give up her sitting room to three English ladies, and the rest of us were crowded together as close as possible. I, for my part, was to be allowed to keep my bed because of my settled age; but I said, “By no means, let this English solicitor or whatever he is have my bed; what does it matter for a night!”
Then I went out.
If one keeps one’s eyes open, one may see a great deal at such a resort in the daytime. And one may see much at night, too. What is the meaning of all this bleating of goats in the shed? Why are the animals not at rest? The door is closed; none of the visiting dogs has got in. Or–_have_ some of the visiting dogs got in? Vice, like virtue, walks in rings and circles; nothing is new, all returns to its beginnings and repeats itself. The Romans ruled the world, yes. They were so mighty, the Romans, so invincible, that they could permit themselves a vice or two, they could afford to live at the arena, they had their fun with young boys and animals. Then one day retribution overtook them, their children’s children lost battles everywhere, and their children’s children again only sat–sat and looked backward. The ring was closed; none were less rulers of the world than the Romans.
They paid no attention to me, the two Englishmen in the goats’ shed; I was merely one of the natives, a Norwegian, who had but to accept the ways of the mighty tourists. But they themselves belonged to that nation of gamblers, coachmen, and vice which one day the wholesome Gothic soul will castigate to death….
The disturbance continued all night, and very early, the dogs began to bark. The caravan awoke; it was six in the morning, and doors began to bang in all the houses. They were in a great hurry, these travelers; they were running to catch the doctor. They had breakfast in two sessions, but though the household was bent double before them and gave of its best, they were not satisfied. “If we had only known a little earlier,” said Paul. But they muttered that we should just wait; there were motor cars in other places. Then Paul spoke–Paul, the master of the farm, the man who lived under the Tore peaks:
“But I’m going to enlarge; don’t you see all the timber outside? And I’m planning to get a telephone….”
The caravan paid the exact amount of their small bill and departed, accompanied by the master and Solem, both carrying trunks.
Peace descended on us again.
Schoolmaster Staur left now, too. He had been busy collecting plants round the Tore peaks, and talked about his plants at table in a very learned fashion, giving the Latin names, and pointing out their peculiarities. Yes, indeed, he had learned a great deal at school.
“Here you see an _Artemis cotula_,” he said.
Miss Torsen, who had also imbibed much learning, recognized the name and said:
“Yes, take plenty of it with you.”
“It’s insect powder.”
Schoolmaster Staur knew nothing of that, and there was a good deal of discussion in which Associate Master Hoey had to take a hand.
No, Schoolmaster Staur knew nothing of that. But he could classify plants and learn their names by heart. He enjoyed that. The peasant children in his neighborhood were ignorant of these classes and names, and he could teach them. He enjoyed that so much.
But was the spirit of the soil his friend? The plant that is cut down one year, yet grows again the next–did this miracle make him religious and silent? The stones, and the heather, and the branches of trees, and the grass, and the woods, and the wind, and the great heaven of all the universe–were these his friends?
When I get tired of Associate Master Hoey and the ladies…. Sometimes I think of Mrs. Molie. She sits sewing while the Associate Master gravely keeps her company; they talk about the servants at home whose only desire is to stay out all night. Mrs. Molie is a thin, flat-chested lady, but probably she has at one time been less plain; her bluish teeth look as though they were cold, as though they were made of ice, but perhaps a few years ago, her full lips and the dark down at the corners of her mouth seemed to her husband the most beautiful thing he knew. Her husband–well, he was a seafaring man, a ship’s captain; he only came home on rare occasions, just often enough to increase the family; usually he was in Australia, China, or Mexico. It was hail and farewell with him. And here is his wife now for the sake of her health. I wonder–is it only for her health, or are she and the Associate Master possibly children of the same provincial town?
When I get tired of Associate Master Hoey and the ladies, I leave them and go out. And then I stay out all day long and nobody knows where I keep myself. It is fitting that a settled man should be different from the Associate Master, who is very far from being so settled. So I go out. It is a bright day with just the right amount of warmth, and my summer woods are filled with the fragrance of plants. I rest frequently, not because I need to, but because the ground is full of caresses. I go so far that no one can find me; only then am I released. No sound reaches me from farms or men, no one is in sight; only this overgrown little goat track, which is green at the edges and lovely. Only a bit of a goat track which looks as though it had fallen asleep in the woods, lying there so thin and lonely.
You who read this feel nothing, but I who sit here writing feel a kind of sweetness at the memory of a mere track in the woods. It was like meeting a child.
With my hands under my neck and my nose in the air, my eyes flit across the sky. High up above the peaks of Tore, a clustering mist sways in slow rhythm, breaks apart and presses close again, fluctuates and strains to give birth to something. But when I rise to walk on, the end is not yet in sight.
I meet a line of ants, a procession of ants, busy travelers. They neither toil nor carry anything; they simply move. I retrace my steps to see if I can find their leader, but it is useless: farther and farther I retreat, I begin to run, but the procession is endless before and behind me. Perhaps they started a week ago. So I go on my way, and the other insects go on theirs.
Surely this is not a mountainside I walk on; this is a bosom, an embrace, in its softness. I tread gently, for I do not wish to stamp or weigh it down, and I marvel: a mountain so tender and defenseless, indulgent like a mother. To think of an ant walking on this! Here and there lie stones, half-covered with moss, not because they have fallen there, but because this is their home, and they have lived here long. This is peerless.
When I reach the top and look back, it is high noon. Far away on another peak walks one of the cows of the cotters, a strange little cow with red and white flanks. A crow sits on a high cliff above me and caws down at me in a voice like an iron rasp scraping against the stone. A warm thrill runs through me, and I feel, as I have done in the woods so many times before, that someone has just been here, and has stepped to one side. Someone is with me here, and a moment later I see his back disappearing into the woods. “It is God,” I think. There I stand, neither speaking nor singing. I only see. I feel all my face being filled with the sight. “It was God,” I think.
“A vision,” you say. “No, a little insight into things,” I reply. “Am I making a god of nature? Do not you? Have not the Mohammedans their god, the Jews theirs, the Hindus theirs? No one knows God, my friend; man knows only gods. And sometimes I meet mine.”
I go home by a different route, which forms a vast arc with the one I came by. The sun is warmer now and the ground less smooth. I reach a great ruin, the remnant of a landslide, and here, to amuse myself, I pretend to be tired, flinging myself on the ground exactly as though someone were watching me and saw how exhausted I am. It is only for my amusement, because my brain has been idle so long. The sky is clear everywhere; the clusters of mist over the Tore peaks are gone, heaven knows where, but they have stolen away. In their place, an eagle swings in great circles over the valley. Huge, black, and inaccessible, he traces ring after ring as though held on a rail in the air, moving with voluptuous languor, a thick-necked male, a winged stallion exulting. It is like music to watch him. At length he disappears behind the peaks.
And here are only myself and the ruin and the little juniper trees. What miracles all things are! These stones in the ruin perhaps hold some meaning; they have lain here for thousands of years, but perhaps they, too, roam, and make an inexpressible journey. The glaciers move, the land rises, and the land falls; there is no hurry here. But since my consciousness cannot associate fact with such a conception, it grows blind with fury and revolts: The ruin cannot move; these are mere words, a game!
This ruin is a town; here and there lie scattered buildings of stone. It’s a peaceable gathering, without sensations or suicides, and perhaps a well-shaped soul sits in each of these stones. But heaven protect me just the same from the inhabitants of these towns! Rolling stones cannot bark, neither do they attract thieves; they are mere ballast. Quiet behavior: that is what I hold against them, that they make no fiery gestures; it would become them to roll a little, but there they lie, with even their sex unknown. But you saw the eagle instead! Be still….
A gentle wind begins to blow, swaying the bracken a little, the flowers and the straw; but the straw cannot sway, it only trembles.
I walk on along my great arc and come down by the first cotter’s house.
“Well, I expect you’ll end up by building a summer resort too,” I tell him in the course of our conversation.
“Oh, no; we couldn’t venture on anything like that,” he replies cunningly. In his heart I daresay he has no desire to, for he has seen what it leads to.
I didn’t like him; his eyes were fawning and rested on the ground. He thought of nothing but land; he was land-greedy, like an animal that sought to escape its padlock. The other cotter had bought a slightly larger piece of land than he, a marsh that would feed one cow more; but he himself had only got this bit of a field. Still, this would amount to something, too, as long as he kept his health to work it.
He gripped his spade again.
Solem was being discussed at dinner; I don’t know who began it, but some of the ladies thought he was good-looking, and they nodded and said, Yes, he was the right sort.
“What do you mean by the right sort?” Associate Master Hoey asked, looking up from his plate.
No one answered.
Then Associate Master Hoey could not help smiling broadly, and said:
“Well, well! I must have a look at this Solem some time. I’ve never paid any attention to him.”
Associate Master Hoey might look at Solem all he pleased; he would grow no bigger for that, nor Solem smaller. The good Mr. Hoey was annoyed, and that was the truth. It is catching for a woman to discover that a man is “the right sort”; the other women grow curious, and stick their noses into it: “So-o-o, is he?” And a few days later the whole flock of them are of one opinion: “Yes, indeed, he’s the right sort!”
Pity the poor, left-over associate masters then!
Poor Mr. Hoey; there was Mrs. Molie, too, nodding her head for Solem. To tell the truth, she had no appearance of knowing much about the matter, but she could not lag behind the others.
“So, Mrs. Molie is nodding, too!” said Mr. Hoey, and smiled again. He was intensely annoyed. Mrs. Molie turned pink and pretty.
At the next meal, Mr. Hoey could contain himself no longer.
“Ladies,” he said, “mine eyes have now beheld Master Solem.”
“You must admit he has a brazen look on his face. No beard. Blue chin, a perfect horse-face….”
“There’s no harm in that,” said Mrs. Molie.
Mrs. Molie doesn’t seem to have gone quite out of circulation after all, I thought. In fact, she had lately been developing quite a little cushion over her chest, and no longer looked so hunched up. She had eaten well and slept well, and improved at this resort. Mrs. Molie, I suspect, still has plenty of life left in her.
This proved true a few days later. Once again: poor Associate Master Hoey! For now we had a new visitor at the farm, a gay dog of a lawyer, and he talked more to Mrs. Molie than to anyone else. Had there been anything between her and Mr. Hoey? True, he was not much to look at, but then neither was she.
The young lawyer was a sportsman, yet he was learned in the social sciences, too, had been in Switzerland and studied the principle of the referendum. At first he had worked a few years in an architect’s office, he told us, but then he had changed to the law instead, which in its turn had led him into social problems. No doubt he was a rich and unselfish man to be able to change his vocation and to travel in this way. “Ah, Switzerland!” he said, and his eyes watered. None of us could understand his fervor.
“Yes, it must be a wonderful country,” Mrs. Molie said.
The Associate Master looked ready to burst, and was quite incapable of restraining himself.
Speaking of Solem, he said suddenly, “I’ve changed my mind about him lately. He’s ten times better than many another.”
“There, you see!”
“Yes, he is. And he doesn’t pretend to be anything more than he is. And what he is, is of some use. I saw him slaughter the lame goat.”
“Did you stop to watch that?”
“I happened to be passing. It was the work of a moment for him. And later I saw him in the woodshed. He knows his job, that fellow. I can well understand that the ladies see something in him.”
How the Associate Master clowned! He finished by imploring the wife of the captain who was sailing the China seas to be sure and remain faithful to her Chinaman.
“Do be quiet and let the lawyer tell us about Switzerland,” said Mrs. Molie.
Witch! Did she want to drive her fellow-being the Associate Master into jumping off the highest peak of the Tore tonight?
But then Mrs. Brede took a hand. She understood Mr. Hoey’s torment and wanted to help him. Had not this same Mr. Hoey just expressed himself kindly about Solem, and was not Solem the lad who one fine evening had caused her to tear down her window blind? There is cause and effect in all things.
“Switzerland,” said Mrs. Brede in her gentle fashion, and then she reddened and laughed a little. “I don’t know anything about Switzerland; but once I bought some dress material that was Swiss, and I’ve never in my life been so cheated.”
The lawyer only smiled at this.
Schoolmistress Johnsen talked about what she had learned, watchmakers and the Alps and Calvin—
“Yes, those are the only three things in a thousand years,” said the Associate Master, his face quite altered and pale with suppressed rage.
“Really, really, Associate Hoey!” exclaimed Schoolmistress Palm with a smile.
But the lawyer focused everyone’s admiration on himself by telling them all about Switzerland, that wonderful country, that model for all small countries of the world. What social conditions, what a referendum, what planning in the exploitation of the country’s natural wonders! There they had sanatoriums; there they knew how to deal with tourists! Tremendous!
“Yes, and what Swiss cheese,” said the Associate Master. “It smells like tourists’ feet.”
Dead silence. So Associate Master Hoey was prepared to go to such lengths!
“Well, what about Norwegian old-milk cheese?” said a Danish voice mildly.
“Yes, that’s filthy stuff, too,” Mr. Hoey replied. “Just the thing for Schoolmaster Staur pontificating in his armchair.”
Since matters were now smoothed over again, the lawyer could safely continue:
“If we could only make such Swiss cheese here,” he said, “we should not be so poor. Generally speaking, I found after my modest investigations in that country that they are ahead of us in every respect. We have everything to learn from them: their frugality, their diligence, their long working hours, the small home industries–“
“And so on,” interrupted Associate Master Hoey. “All trifles, nothingness, negativity! A country that exists thanks only to the mercy of its neighbors ought not to be a model for any other country on earth. We must try to rise above the wretched stench of it, which only makes us ill. The big countries and big circumstances should be our model. Everything grows, even the small things, unless they’re predestined to a Lilliput existence. A child can learn from another child, of course, but the model is the adult. Some day the child will be an adult itself. A pretty state of affairs it would be if an eternal child, a born pygmy, were to be its model! But that’s what all this rubbish about Switzerland really amounts to. Why on earth should we, of all people, take the smallest and meanest country as our model? Things are small enough here anyhow. Switzerland is the serf of Europe. Have you ever heard of a young South American country of Norway’s size trying to be on a level with Switzerland? Why do you think Sweden is taking such great strides forward now? Not because it looks to Switzerland, or to Norway, but to Germany! Honor to Sweden for that! But what about us? We don’t want to be a piddling little nation stuck up in our mountains, a nation that brings forth peace conferences, ski-runners, and an Ibsen once every thousand years; we have potentialities for a thousand times more–“
The lawyer had for some time been holding up his hand to indicate that he wanted to reply; now he shouted at the top of his voice:
“Just a moment!”
The Associate Master stopped.
“Just one question–a small, trifling question,” said the lawyer, preparing his ground well. “Have you ever once set foot in the country you speak of?”
“I should think I have,” replied the Associate Master.
There! The lawyer got nothing for his trifling question. And then it all came out what a heartless jilt Mrs. Molie was. She had known all the time that Mr. Hoey had been on a traveling scholarship in Switzerland, but she had never mentioned it. What a snake in the grass! She had even encouraged the lawyer, but no one else, to talk about Switzerland.
“Oh, yes, of course Associate Master Hoey has been in Switzerland” she said, as though to clinch the matter.
“In that case, the Associate Master and I have looked on the country with different eyes; that’s all,” said the lawyer, suddenly anxious to end the controversy.
“They haven’t even folk tales there,” said the Associate Master, who seemed unable to stop. “There they sit, generation after generation, filing watch springs and piloting Englishmen up their mountains. But it’s a country without folk music or folk tales. I suppose you think we ought to work hard to resemble the Swiss in that, too?”
“What about William Tell?” asked Miss Johnsen.
Several of the ladies nodded, or at any rate Miss Palm did.
At this point Mrs. Molie turned her head and looked out of the window as she said:
“You really had a very different opinion about Switzerland before, Mr. Associate Master.”
This was a hit below the belt. He wanted to reply, wanted to annihilate her, but he restrained himself and remained silent.
“Don’t you remember?” she asked, goading him.
“No,” he replied. “You mistook my meaning. Really, I can’t understand it, I usually make myself quite clear; after all, I’m accustomed to explaining to children.”
Another foul. Mrs. Molie said no more, merely smiling patiently.
“I can only say that my opinion is diametrically opposed to yours,” the lawyer repeated. “But I did think,” he went on, “that this was one thing I knew something about, however….”
Mrs. Molie got up and went out with her head bent, seemingly on the point of bursting into tears. The Associate Master sat still for a moment, and then followed her, whistling and putting on as brave a manner as though he felt quite easy in his mind.
“What’s your opinion?” asked Mrs. Brede, turning to the doyen of the company, namely myself.
And as becomes a man of settled years, I replied:
“Probably there has been a little exaggeration on both sides.”
Everybody agreed with this. But I could never have acted as a mediator, for I thought the Associate Master was right. In one’s early seventies, one still has many pathetically young ideas.
The lawyer rounded off the discussion thus:
“Well, when all’s said and done we have Switzerland to thank for being able to sit here at our ease in this comfortable mountain resort. We get tourists into the country on the Swiss model, and earn money and pay off our debts. Ask this man if he would have been willing to do without all we have learned from Switzerland….”
That evening Mrs. Brede asked,
“Why did you make Mr. Hoey look so unreasonable today, Mrs. Molie?”
“I?” said Mrs., Molie innocently. “Well, really–!”
As a matter of fact, it seemed as though Mrs. Molie had really been innocent, for the very next morning she and the Associate Master set off up the fjeld together in a very gay mood, and remained away till midday. If they had the matter out between them, then no doubt the lady spoke to her much-tried friend as follows:
“Surely you can see I’m not interested in that lawyer-person! What an idea! I only drew him out so you’d have the chance to give him a good dressing down–don’t you understand that? Really, you’re the silliest, sweetest–come here, let me kiss you….”
Since the departure of the great caravan, there have been no other visitors. Some of us cannot understand it; others have in a manner of speaking got a whiff of what is wrong; but all of us still believe there will be more visitors, because after all we’re the only ones that have the Tore peaks!
But no one appears.
The women of the house do their daily work for the inmates and do not complain, but they are not happy. Paul still takes things quietly; he sleeps a great deal in his room behind the kitchen, but once or twice I have seen him walking away from the house at night, walking in deep thought toward the woods.
From the neighboring valley comes the rumor that the motor traffic has started there now. So this is the explanation of the quiet in our valley! Then one day a Dane came down to us from the fjeld. He had climbed the Tore peaks from the other side, something that had been thought impossible till now. He had simply driven in a car to the foot of the mountains and walked across!
So we no longer had the Tore peaks to ourselves, either.
I wonder whether, after all, Paul is not going to try to sow green-fodder in the long strip of land down by the river. That, at any rate, had been his original intention, but then came the great caravan, and he neglected it. Now, of course, the season is too far advanced for sowing, and there will be nothing but docks and chickweed. Could not the field be turfed, at least, and sown? Why didn’t Paul think of such things instead of walking the woods at night?
But Paul has many thoughts. At an early age, his interest in farming was diverted to the tourist traffic, and there it has remained. He hears that our lawyer is also an architect and asks him to draw a plan for the big new house with the six rooms, the hall and the bathroom. Paul has already ordered the log chairs and the reindeer horns for the hall.
“If you weren’t alone up here, you might have got some of the cars coming here too,” said the lawyer.
“I’ve thought of that,” Paul replied. “It’s not impossible I can do something about it. But I must have the house first. And I must have a road.”
The lawyer promised to draw a plan of the house, and went round to look at the site. The house was to cost such and such a sum. Paul was already quite convinced that three or four good tourist summers would pay it off.
Paul was not worrying. As we looked over the site together, I discovered that he smelled of brandy.
Finally a small party of Norwegians and foreigners arrived, travelers who were out to walk, and not to drive in cars. Everyone’s spirits rose; the strangers stayed a few days and nights, and were guided across the fjeld by Solem, who earned a fair penny. Paul, too, was visibly cheered, and strolled about the farm in his Sunday clothes. He had a few things to discuss with the lawyer about the house.
“If there’s anything to consult about, we had better do it now,” he said. “I shall be away for a couple of days.”
So they attended to a few minor matters.
“Are you going to town?” asked the lawyer.
“No,” Paul replied; “only down to the village. I want to see if I can get the people there to co-operate on a few ideas of mine: a telephone and