Translated from the Norwegian of
by W. W. Worster
With an Introduction by Edwin Bjorkman
Alfred A. Knopf
Published July, 1921 Second printing August, 1921 Third printing September, 1921 Fourth printing February, 1922 Fifth printing January, 1927
Knut Hamsun: From Hunger to Harvest
Between "Hunger" and "Growth of the Soil" lies the time generally allotted to a generation, but at first glance the two books seem much farther apart. One expresses the passionate revolt of a homeless wanderer against the conventional routine of modern life. The other celebrates a root-fast existence bounded in every direction by monotonous chores. The issuance of two such books from the same pen suggests to the superficial view a complete reversal of position. The truth, however, is that Hamsun stands today where he has always stood. His objective is the same. If he has changed, it is only in the intensity of his feeling and the mode of his attack. What, above all, he hates and combats is the artificial uselessness of existence which to him has become embodied in the life of the city as opposed to that of the country.
Problems do not enter into the novels of Hamsun in the same manner as they did into the plays of Ibsen. Hamsun would seem to take life as it is, not with any pretense at its complete acceptability, but without hope or avowed intention of making it over. If his tolerance be never free from satire, his satire is on the other hand always easily tolerant. One might almost suspect him of viewing life as something static against which all fight would be futile. Even life's worst brutalities are related with an offhandedness of manner that makes you look for the joke that must be at the bottom of them. The word reform would seem to be strangely eliminated from his dictionary, or, if present, it might be found defined as a humorous conception of something intrinsically unachievable.
Hamsun would not be the artist he is if he were less deceptive. He has his problems no less than Ibsen had, and he is much preoccupied with them even when he appears lost in ribald laughter. They are different from Ibsen's, however, and in that difference lies one of the chief explanations of Hamsun's position as an artist. All of Ibsen's problems became in the last instance reducible to a single relationship—that between the individual and his own self. To be himself was his cry and his task. With this consummation in view, he plumbed every depth of human nature. This one thing achieved, all else became insignificant.
Hamsun begins where Ibsen ended, one might say. The one problem never consciously raised by him as a problem is that of man's duty or ability to express his own nature. That is taken for granted. The figures populating the works of Hamsun, whether centrally placed or moving shadowlike in the periphery, are first of all themselves—agressively, inevitably, unconsciously so, In other words, they are like their creator. They may perish tragically or ridiculously as a result of their common inability to lay violent hand on their own natures. They may go through life warped and dwarfed for lack of an adjustment that to most of us might seem both easy and natural. Their own selves may become more clearly revealed to them by harsh or happy contacts with life, and they may change their surfaces accordingly. The one thing never occurring to them is that they might, for the sake of something or some one outside of themselves, be anything but what they are.
There are interferences, however, and it is from these that Hamsun's problems spring. A man may prosper or suffer by being himself, and in neither case is the fault his own. There are factors that more or less fatally influence and circumscribe the supremely important factor that is his own self. Roughly these fall into three groups suggestive of three classes of relationships: (1) between man and his general environment; (2) between man and that ever-present force of life which we call love; and (3) between man and life in its entirety, as an omnipotence that some of us call God and others leave unnamed. Hamsun's deceptive preference for indirectness is shown by the fact that, while he tries to make us believe that his work is chiefly preoccupied with problems of the second class, his mind is really busy with those of the first class. The explanation is simple. Nothing helps like love to bring out the unique qualities of a man's nature. On the other hand, there is nothing that does more to prevent a man from being himself than the ruts of habit into which his environment always tends to drive him. There are two kinds of environment, natural and human. Hamsun appears to think that the less you have of one and the more of the other, the better for yourself and for humanity as a whole. The city to him is primarily concentrated human environment, and as such bad. This phase of his attitude toward life almost amounts to a phobia. It must be connected with personal experiences of unusual depth and intensity. Perhaps it offers a key that may be well worth searching for. Hamsun was born in the country, of and among peasants. In such surroundings he grew up. The removal of his parents from the central inland part of Norway to the rocky northern coast meant a change of natural setting, but not a human contact. The sea must have come into his life as a revelation, and yet it plays an astonishingly small part in his work. It is always present, but always in the distance. You hear of it, but you are never taken to it.
At about fifteen, Hamsun had an experience which is rarely mentioned as part of the scant biographical material made available by his reserve concerning his own personality. He returned to the old home of his parents in the Gudbrand Valley and worked for a few months as clerk in a country store—a store just like any one of those that figure so conspicuously in almost every one of his novels. The place and the work must have made a revolutionary impression on him. It apparently aroused longings, and it probably laid the basis for resistances and resentments that later blossomed into weedlike abundance as he came in contact with real city life. There runs through his work a strange sense of sympathy for the little store on the border of the wilderness, but it is also stamped as the forerunner and panderer of the lures of the city.
As a boy of eighteen, when working in a tiny coast town as a cobbler's apprentice, he ventured upon his first literary endeavors and actually managed to get two volumes printed at his own cost. The art of writing was in his blood, exercising a call and a command that must have been felt as a pain at times, and as a consecration at other times. Books and writing were connected with the city. Perhaps the hatred that later days developed, had its roots in a thwarted passion. Even in the little community where his first scribblings reached print he must have felt himself in urban surroundings, and perhaps those first crude volumes drew upon him laughter and scorn that his sensitive soul never forgot. If something of the kind happened, the seed thus sown was nourished plentifully afterwards, when, as a young man, Hamsun pitted his ambitions against the indifference first of Christiania and then of Chicago. The result was a defeat that seemed the more bitter because it looked like punishment incurred by straying after false gods.
Others have suffered in the same way, although, being less rigidly themselves, they may not, like Hamsun, have taken a perverse pleasure in driving home the point of the agony. Others have thought and said harsh things of the cities. But no one that I can recall has equalled Hamsun in his merciless denunciation of the very principle of urbanity. The truth of it seems to be that Hamsun's pilgrimage to the bee hives where modern humanity clusters typically, was an essential violation of something within himself that mattered even more than his literary ambition to his soul's integrity. Perhaps, if I am right, he is the first genuine peasant who has risen to such artistic mastery, reaching its ultimate heights through a belated recognition of his own proper settings. Hamsun was sixty when he wrote "Growth of the Soil." It is the first work in which he celebrates the life of the open country for its own sake, and not merely as a contrast to the artificiality and selfishness of the cities. It was written, too, after he had definitely withdrawn himself from the gathering places of the writers and the artists to give an equal share of his time and attention to the tilling of the soil that was at last his own. It is the harvest of his ultimate self-discovery.
The various phases of his campaign against city life are also interesting and illuminating. Early in his career as a writer he tried an open attack in full force by a couple of novels, "Shallow Soil" and "Editor Lynge", dealing sarcastically with the literary Bohemia of the Norwegian capital. They were, on the whole, failures—artistically rather than commercially. They are among his poorest books. The attack was never repeated in that form. He retired to the country, so to speak, and tried from there to strike at what he could reach of the ever expanding, ever devouring city. After that the city, like the sea, is always found in the distance. One feels it without ever seeing it. There is fear as well as hatred in his treatment of it.
In the country it is represented not so much by the store, which, after all, fills an unmistakable need on the part of the rural population, as by the representatives of the various professions. For these Hamsun entertains a hostile feeling hardly less marked than that bestowed on their place of origin, whither, to his openly declared disgust, they are always longing. It does not matter whether they are ministers or actors, lawyers or doctors—they are all tarred with the same brush. Their common characteristic is their rootlessness. They have no real home, because to Hamsun a home is unthinkable apart from a space of soil possessed in continuity by successive generations. They are always despising the surroundings in which they find themselves temporarily, and their chief claim to distinction is a genuine or pretended knowledge of life on a large scale. Greatness is to them inseparably connected with crowdedness, and what they call sophistication is at bottom nothing but a wallowing in that herd instinct which takes the place of mankind's ancient antagonist in Hamsun's books. Above all, their standards of judgment are not their own.
From what has just been said one might conclude that the spirit of Hamsun is fundamentally unsocial. So it is, in a way, but only in so far as we have come to think of social and urban as more or less interchangeable terms. He has a social consciousness and a social passion of his own, but it is decentralized, one might say. He knows of no greater man than his own Isak of "Growth of the Soil"—a simple pioneer in whose wake new homes spring up, an inarticulate and uncouth personification of man's mastery of nature. When Hamsun speaks of Isak passing across the yearning, spring-stirred fields, "with the grain flung in fructifying waves from his reverent hands," he pictures it deliberately in the light of a religious rite—the oldest and most significant known to man. It is as if the man who starved in Christiania and the western cities of the United States—not figuratively, but literally—had once for all conceived a respect for man's principal food that has colored all subsequent life for him and determined his own attitude toward everything by a reference to its connection or lack of connection with that substance.
Taking it all in all, one may well call Hamsun old-fashioned. The virtues winning his praise and the conditions that stir his longings are not of the present day. There is in him something primitive that forms a sharp contrast to the modernity of his own style. Even in his most romantic exaggerations, as in "Hunger" and "Mysteries," he is a realist, dealing unrelentingly with life as it appears to us. It would hardly be too much to call his method scientific. But he uses it to aim tremendous explosive charges at those human concentrations that made possible the forging of the weapons he wields so skilfully. Nor does he stop at a wish to see those concentrations scattered. The very ambitions and Utopias bred within them are anathema to his soul, that places simplicity above cleanliness in divine proximity. Characteristically we find that the one art treated with constant sympathy in his writings is that of music, which probably is the earliest and certainly the one least dependent on the herding of men in barracks. In place of what he wishes to take away he offers nothing but peace and the sense of genuine creation that comes to the man who has just garnered the harvests of his own fields into his bulging barns. He is a prophet of plenty, but he has no answer ready when we ask him what we are going to do with it after we have got it. Like a true son of the brooding North, he wishes to set us thinking, but he has no final solutions to offer.
These last few days I have been thinking and thinking of the Nordland summer, with its endless day. Sitting here thinking of that, and of a hut I lived in, and of the woods behind the hut. And writing things down, by way of passing the time; to amuse myself, no more. The time goes very slowly; I cannot get it to pass as quickly as I would, though I have nothing to sorrow for, and live as pleasantly as could be. I am well content withal, and my thirty years are no age to speak of.
A few days back someone sent me two feathers. Two bird's feathers in a sheet of note-paper with a coronet, and fastened with a seal. Sent from a place a long way off; from one who need not have sent them back at all. That amused me too, those devilish green feathers.
And for the rest I have no troubles, unless for a touch of gout now and again in my left foot, from an old bullet-wound, healed long since.
Two years ago, I remember, the time passed quickly—beyond all comparison more quickly than time now. A summer was gone before I knew. Two years ago it was, in 1855. I will write of it just to amuse myself—of something that happened to me, or something I dreamed. Now, I have forgotten many things belonging to that time, by having scarcely thought of them since. But I remember that the nights were very light. And many things seemed curious and unnatural. Twelve months to the year—but night was like day, and never a star to be seen in the sky. And the people I met were strange, and of a different nature from those I had known before; sometimes a single night was enough to make them blossom out from childhood into the full of their glory, ripe and fully grown. No witchery in this; only I had never seen the like before. No.
In a white, roomy home down by the sea I met with one who busied my thoughts for a little time. I do not always think of her now; not any more. No; I have forgotten her. But I think of all the other things: the cry of the sea-birds, my hunting in the woods, my nights, and all the warm hours of that summer. After all, it was only by the merest accident I happened to meet her; save for that, she would never have been in my thoughts for a day.
From the hut where I lived, I could see a confusion of rocks and reefs and islets, and a little of the sea, and a bluish mountain peak or so; behind the hut was the forest. A huge forest it was; and I was glad and grateful beyond measure for the scent of roots and leaves, the thick smell of the fir-sap, that is like the smell of marrow. Only the forest could bring all things to calm within me; my mind was strong and at ease. Day after day I tramped over the wooded hills with Asop at my side, and asked no more than leave to keep on going there day after day, though most of the ground was covered still with snow and soft slush. I had no company but Asop; now it is Cora, but at that time it was Asop, my dog that I afterwards shot.
Often in the evening, when I came back to the hut after being out shooting all day, I could feel that kindly, homely feeling trickling through me from head to foot—a pleasant little inward shivering. And I would talk to Asop about it, saying how comfortable we were. "There, now we'll get a fire going, and roast a bird on the hearth," I would say; "what do you say to that?" And when it was done, and we had both fed, Asop would slip away to his place behind the hearth, while I lit a pipe and lay down on the bench for a while, listening to the dead soughing of the trees. There was a slight breeze bearing down towards the hut, and I could hear quite clearly the clutter of a grouse far away on the ridge behind. Save for that, all was still.
And many a time I fell asleep there as I lay, just as I was, fully dressed and all, and did not wake till the seabirds began calling. And then, looking out of the window, I could see the big white buildings of the trading station, the landing stage at Girilund, the store where I used to get my bread. And I would lie there a while, wondering how I came to be there, in a hut on the fringe of a forest, away up in Nordland.
Then Asop over by the hearth would shake out his long, slender body, rattling his collar, and yawning and wagging his tail, and I would jump up, after those three or four hours of sleep, fully rested and full of joy in everything ... everything.
Many a night passed just that way.
Rain and storm—'tis not such things that count. Many a time some little joy can come along on a rainy day, and make a man turn off somewhere to be alone with his happiness—stand up somewhere and look out straight ahead, laughing quietly now and again, and looking round. What is there to think of? One clear pane in a window, a ray of sunlight in the pane, the sight of a little brook, or maybe a blue strip of sky between the clouds. It needs no more than that.
At other times, even quite unusual happenings cannot avail to lift a man from dulness and poverty of mind; one can sit in the middle of a ballroom and be cool, indifferent, unaffected by anything. Sorrow and joy are from within oneself.
One day I remember now. I had gone down to the coast. The rain came on suddenly, and I slipped into an open boathouse to sit down for a while. I was humming a little, but not for any joy or pleasure, only to pass the time. Asop was with me; he sat up listening, and I stopped humming and listened as well. Voices outside; people coming nearer. A mere chance—nothing more natural. A little party, two men and a girl, came tumbling in suddenly to where I sat, calling to one another and laughing:
"Quick! Get in here till it stops!"
I got up.
One of the men had a white shirt front, soft, and now soaked with rain into the bargain, and all bagging down; and in that wet shirt front a diamond clasp. Long, pointed shoes he wore, too, that looked somewhat affected. I gave him good-day. It was Mack, the trader; I knew him because he was from the store where I used to get my bread. He had asked me to look in at the house any time, but I had not been there yet.
"Aha, it's you, is it?" said Mack at sight of me. "We were going up to the mill, but had to turn back. Ever see such weather—what? And when are you coming up to see us at Sirilund, Lieutenant?"
He introduced the little black-bearded man who was with him; a doctor, staying down near the church.
The girl lifted her veil the least little bit, to her nose, and started talking to Asop in a whisper. I noticed her jacket; I could see from the lining and the buttonholes that it had been dyed. Mack introduced me to her as well; his daughter, Edwarda.
Edwarda gave me one glance through her veil, and went on whispering to the dog, and reading on its collar:
"So you're called Asop, are you? Doctor, who was Asop? All I can remember is that he wrote fables. Wasn't he a Phrygian? I can't remember."
A child, a schoolgirl. I looked at her—she was tall, but with no figure to speak of, about fifteen or sixteen, with long, dark hands and no gloves. Like as not she had looked up Asop in the dictionary that afternoon, to have it ready.
Mack asked me what sport I was having. What did I shoot mostly? I could have one of his boats at any time if I wanted—only let him know. The Doctor said nothing at all. When they went off again, I noticed that the Doctor limped a little, and walked with a stick.
I walked home as empty in mind as before, humming all indifferently. That meeting in the boathouse had made no difference either way to me; the one thing I remembered best of all was Mack's wet shirt front, with a diamond clasp—the diamond all wet, too, and no great brilliance about it, either.
There was a stone outside my hut, a tall grey stone. It looked as if it had a sort of friendly feeling towards me; as if it noticed me when I came by, and knew me again. I liked to go round that way past the stone, when I went out in the morning; it was like leaving a good friend there, who I knew would be still waiting for me when I came back.
Then up in the woods hunting, sometimes finding game, sometimes none...
Out beyond the islands, the sea lay heavily calm. Many a time I have stood and looked at it from the hills, far up above. On a calm day, the ships seemed hardly to move at all; I could see the same sail for three days, small and white, like a gull on the water. Then, perhaps, if the wind veered round, the peaks in the distance would almost disappear, and there came a storm, the south-westerly gale; a play for me to stand and watch. All things in a seething mist. Earth and sky mingled together, the sea flung up into fantastic dancing figures of men and horses and fluttering banners on the air. I stood in the shelter of an overhanging rock, thinking many things; my soul was tense. Heaven knows, I thought to myself, what it is I am watching here, and why the sea should open before my eyes. Maybe I am seeing now the inner brain of earth, how things are at work there, boiling and foaming. Asop was restless; now and again he would thrust up his muzzle and sniff, in a troubled way, with legs quivering uneasily; when I took no notice, he lay down between my feet and stared out to sea as I was doing. And never a cry, never a word of human voice to be heard anywhere; nothing; only the heavy rush of the wind about my head. There was a reef of rocks far out, lying all apart; when the sea raged up over it the water towered like a crazy screw; nay, like a sea-god rising wet in the air, and snorting, till hair and beard stood out like a wheel about his head. Then he plunged down into the breakers once more.
And in the midst of the storm, a little coal-black steamer fighting its way in...
When I went down to the quay in the afternoon, the little coal-black steamer had come in; it was the mail-packet. Many people had gathered on the quayside to see the rare visitor; I noticed that all without exception had blue eyes, however different they might be in other ways. A young girl with a white woolen kerchief over her head stood a little apart; she had very dark hair, and the white kerchief showed up strangely against it. She looked at me curiously, at my leather suit, my gun; when I spoke to her, she was embarrassed, and turned her head away. I said:
"You should always wear a white kerchief like that; it suits you well."
Just then a burly man in an Iceland jersey came up and joined her; he called her Eva. Evidently she was his daughter. I knew the burly man; he was the local smith, the blacksmith. Only a few days back he had mended the nipple of one of my guns...
And rain and wind did their work, and thawed away the snow. For some days a cheerless cold hovered over the earth; rotten branches snapped, and the crows gathered in flocks, complaining. But it was not for long; the sun was near, and one day it rose up behind the forest.
It sends a strip of sweetness through me from head to foot when the sun comes up; I shoulder my gun with quiet delight.
I was never short of game those days, but shot all I cared to—a hare, a grouse, a ptarmigan—and when I happened to be down near the shore and came within range of some seabird or other, I shot it too. It was a pleasant time; the days grew longer and the air clearer; I packed up things for a couple of days and set off up into the hills, up to the mountain peaks. I met reindeer Lapps, and they gave me cheese—rich little cheeses tasting of herbs. I went up that way more than once. Then, going home again, I always shot some bird or other to put in my bag. I sat down and put Asop on the lead. Miles below me was the sea; the mountainsides were wet and black with the water running down them, dripping and trickling always with the same little sound. That little sound of the water far up on the hills has shortened many an hour for me when I sat looking about. Here, I thought to myself, is a little endless song trickling away all to itself, and no one ever hears it, and no one ever thinks of it, and still it trickles on nevertheless, to itself, all the time, all the time! And I felt that the mountains were no longer quite deserted, as long as I could hear that little trickling song. Now and again something would happen: a clap of thunder shaking the earth, a mass of rock slipping loose and rushing down towards the sea, leaving a trail of smoking dust behind. Asop turned his nose to the wind at once, sniffing in surprise at the smell of burning that he could not understand. When the melting of the snow had made rifts in the hillside, a shot, or even a sharp cry, was enough to loosen a great block and send it tumbling down...
An hour might pass, or perhaps more—the time went so quickly. I let Asop loose, slung my bag over the other shoulder, and set off towards home. It was getting late. Lower down in the forest, I came unfailingly upon my old, well-known path, a narrow ribbon of a path, with the strangest bends and turns. I followed each one of them, taking my time—there was no hurry. No one waiting for me at home. Free as a lord, a ruler, I could ramble about there in the peaceful woods, just as idly as I pleased. All the birds were silent; only the grouse was calling far away—it was always calling.
I came out of the wood and saw two figures ahead, two persons moving. I came up with them. One was Edwarda, and I recognized her, and gave a greeting; the Doctor was with her. I had to show them my gun; they looked at my compass, my bag; I invited them to my hut, and they promised to come some day.
It was evening now. I went home and lit a fire, roasted a bird, and had a meal. To-morrow there would be another day...
All things quiet and still. I lay that evening looking out the window. There was a fairy glimmer at that hour over wood and field; the sun had gone down, and dyed the horizon with a rich red light that stood there still as oil. The sky all open and clean; I stared into that clear sea, and it seemed as if I were lying face to face with the uttermost depth of the world; my heart beating tensely against it, and at home there. God knows, I thought to myself, God knows why the sky is dressed in gold and mauve to-night, if there is not some festival going on up there in the world, some great feast with music from the stars, and boats gliding along river ways. It looks so!—And I closed my eyes, and followed the boats, and thoughts and thoughts floated through my mind...
So more than one day passed.
I wandered about, noting how the snow turned to water, how the ice loosed its hold. Many a day I did not even fire a shot, when I had food enough in the hut—only wandered about in my freedom, and let the time pass. Whichever way I turned, there was always just as much to see and hear—all things changing a little every day. Even the osier thickets and the juniper stood waiting for the spring. One day I went out to the mill; it was still icebound, but the earth around it had been trampled through many and many a year, showing how men and more men had come that way with sacks of corn on their shoulders, to be ground. It was like walking among human beings to go there; and there were many dates and letters cut in the walls.
Shall I write more? No, no. Only a little for my own amusement's sake, and because it passes the time for me to tell of how the spring came two years back, and how everything looked then. Earth and sea began to smell a little; there was a sweetish, rotting smell from the dead leaves in the wood, and the magpies flew with twigs in their beaks, building their nests. A couple of days more, and the brooks began to swell and foam; here and there a butterfly was to be seen, and the fishermen came home from their stations. The trader's two boats came in laden deep with fish, and anchored off the drying grounds; there was life and commotion all of a sudden out on the biggest of the islands, where the fish were to be spread on the rocks to dry. I could see it all from my window.
But no noise reached the hut; I was alone, and remained so. Now and again someone would pass. I saw Eva, the blacksmith's girl; she had got a couple of freckles on her nose.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"Out for firewood," she answered quietly. She had a rope in her hand to carry the wood, and her white kerchief on her head. I stood watching her, but she did not turn round.
After that I saw no one for days.
The spring was urging, and the forest listened; it was a great delight to watch the thrushes sitting in the tree-tops staring at the sun and crying; sometimes I would get up as early as two in the morning, just for a share of the joy that went out from bird and beast at sunrise.
The spring had reached me too, maybe, and my blood beat at times as if it were footsteps. I sat in the hut, and thought of overhauling my fishing rods and lines and gear, but moved never a finger to any work at all, for a glad, mysterious restlessness that was in and out of my heart all the while. Then suddenly Asop sprang up, stood and stiffened, and gave a short bark. Someone coming to the hut! I pulled off my cap quickly, and heard Edwarda's voice already at the door. Kindly and without ceremony she and the Doctor had come to pay me a visit, as they had said.
"Yes," I heard her say, "he is at home." And she stepped forward, and gave me her hand in her simple girlish way. "We were here yesterday, but you were out," she said.
She sat down on the rug over my wooden bedstead and looked round the hut; the Doctor sat down beside me on the long bench. We talked, chatted away at ease; I told them things, such as what kinds of animals there were in the woods, and what game I could not shoot because of the closed season. It was the closed season for grouse just now.
The Doctor did not say much this time either, but catching sight of my powder-horn, with a figure of Pan carved on it, he started to explain the myth of Pan.
"But," said Edwarda suddenly, "what do you live on when it's closed season for all game?"
"Fish," I said. "Fish mostly. But there's always something to eat."
"But you might come up to us for your meals," she said. "There was an Englishman here last year—he had taken the hut—and he often came to us for meals."
Edwarda looked at me and I at her. I felt at the moment something touching my heart like a little fleeting welcome. It must have been the spring, and the bright day; I have thought it over since. Also, I admired the curve of her eyebrows.
She said something about my place; how I had arranged things in the hut. I had hung up skins of several sorts on the walls, and birds' wings; it looked like a shaggy den on the inside. She liked it. "Yes, a den," she said.
I had nothing to offer my visitors that they would care about; I thought of it, and would have roasted a bird for them, just for amusement—let them eat it hunter's fashion, with their fingers. It might amuse them.
And I cooked the bird.
Edwarda told about the Englishman. An old man, an eccentric, who talked aloud to himself. He was a Roman Catholic, and always carried a little prayer-book, with red and black letters, about with him wherever he went.
"Was he an Irishman then?" asked the Doctor.
"Yes—since he was a Roman Catholic."
Edwarda blushed, and stammered and looked away.
"Well, yes, perhaps he was an Irishman."
After that she lost her liveliness. I felt sorry for her, and tried to put matters straight again. I said:
"No, of course you are right: he was an Englishman. Irishmen don't go travelling about in Norway."
We agreed to row over one day and see the fish-drying grounds...
When I had seen my visitors a few steps on their way, I walked home again and sat down to work at my fishing gear. My hand-net had been hung from a nail by the door, and several of the meshes were damaged by rust; I sharpened up some hooks, knotted them to lengths of line, and looked to the other nets. How hard it seemed to do any work at all to-day! Thoughts that had nothing to do with the business in hand kept coming and going; it occurred to me that I had done wrong in letting Edwarda sit on the bed all the time, instead of offering her a seat on the bench. I saw before me suddenly her brown face and neck; she had fastened her apron a little low down in front, to be long-waisted, as was the fashion; the girlish contour of her thumb affected me tenderly, and the little wrinkles above the knuckle were full of kindliness. Her mouth was large and rich.
I rose up and opened the door and looked out. I could hear nothing, and indeed there was nothing to listen for. I closed the door again; Asop came up from his resting-place and noticed that I was restless about something. Then it struck me that I might run after Edwarda and ask her for a little silk thread to mend my net with. It would not be any pretence—I could take down the net and show her where the meshes were spoiled by rust. I was already outside the door when I remembered that I had silk thread myself in my fly-book; more indeed than I wanted. And I went back slowly, discouraged—to think that I had silk thread myself.
A breath of something strange met me as I entered the hut again; it seemed as if I were no longer alone there.
A man asked me if I had given up shooting; he had not heard me fire a shot up in the hills, though he had been out fishing for two days. No, I had shot nothing; I had stayed at home in the hut until I had no more food in the place.
On the third day I went out with my gun. The woods were getting green; there was a smell of earth and trees. The young grass was already springing up from the frozen moss. I was in a thoughtful mood, and sat down several times. For three days I had not seen a soul except the one fisherman I had met the day before. I thought to myself, "Perhaps I may meet someone this evening on the way home, at the edge of the wood, where I met the Doctor and Edwarda before. Perhaps they may be going for a walk that way again—perhaps, perhaps not." But why should I think of those two in particular? I shot a couple of ptarmigan, and cooked one of them at once; then I tied up the dog.
I lay down on the dry ground to eat. The earth was quiet—only a little breath of wind and the sound of a bird here and there. I lay and watched the branches waving gently in the breeze; the little wind was at its work, carrying pollen from branch to branch and filling every innocent bloom; all the forest seemed filled with delight. A green worm thing, a caterpillar, dragged itself end by end along a branch, dragging along unceasingly, as if it could not rest. It saw hardly anything, for all it had eyes; often it stood straight up in the air, feeling about for something to take hold of; it looked like a stump of green thread sewing a seam with long stitches along the branch. By evening, perhaps, it would have reached its goal.
Quiet as ever. I get up and move on, sit down and get up again. It is about four o'clock; about six I can start for home, and see if I happen to meet anyone. Two hours to wait; a little restless already, I brush the dust and heather from my clothes. I know the places I pass by, trees and stones stand there as before in their solitude; the leaves rustle underfoot as I walk. The monotonous breathing and the familiar trees and stones mean much to me; I am filled with a strange thankfulness; everything seems well disposed towards me, mingles with my being; I love it all. I pick up a little dry twig and hold it in my hand and sit looking at it, and think my own thoughts; the twig is almost rotten, its poor bark touches me, pity fills my heart. And when I get up again, I do not throw the twig far away, but lay it down, and stand liking it; at last I look at it once more with wet eyes before I go away and leave it there.
Five o'clock. The sun tells me false time today; I have been walking westward the whole day, and come perhaps half an hour ahead of my sun marks at the hut. I am quite aware of all this, but none the less there is an hour yet before six o'clock, so I get up again and go on a little. And the leaves rustle under foot. An hour goes that way.
I look down at the little stream and the little mill that has been icebound all the winter, and I stop. The mill is working; the noise of it wakes me, and I stop suddenly, there and then. "I have stayed out too long," I say aloud. A pang goes through me; I turn at once and begin walking homewards, but all the time I know I have stayed out too long. I walk faster, then run; Asop understands there is something the matter, and pulls at the leash, drags me along, sniffs at the ground, and is all haste. The dry leaves crackle about us.
But when we come to the edge of the wood there was no one there. No, all was quiet; there was no one there.
"There is no one here," I said to myself. And yet it was no worse than I had expected.
I did not stay long, but walked on, drawn by all my thoughts, passed by my hut, and went down to Sirilund with Asop and my bag and gun—with all my belongings.
Herr Mack received me with the greatest friendliness, and asked me to stay to supper.
I fancy I can read a little in the souls of those about me—but perhaps it is not so. Oh, when my good days come, I feel as if I could see far into others' souls, though I am no great or clever head. We sit in a room, some men, some women, and I, and I seem to see what is passing within them, and what they think of me. I find something in every swift little change of light in their eyes; sometimes the blood rises to their cheeks and reddens them; at other times they pretend to be looking another way, and yet they watch me covertly from the side. There I sit, marking all this, and no one dreams that I see through every soul. For years past I have felt that I could read the souls of all I met. But perhaps it is not so...
I stayed at Herr Mack's house all that evening. I might have gone off again at once—it did not interest me to stay sitting there—but had I not come because all my thoughts were drawing me that way? And how could I go again at once? We played whist and drank toddy after supper; I sat with my back turned to the rest of the room, and my head bent down; behind me Edwarda went in and out. The Doctor had gone home.
Herr Mack showed me the design of his new lamps—the first paraffin lamps to be seen so far north. They were splendid things, with a heavy leaden base, and he lit them himself every evening—to prevent any accident. He spoke once or twice of his grandfather, the Consul.
"This brooch was given to my grandfather, Consul Mack, by Carl Johan with his own hands," he said, pointing one finger at the diamond in his shirt. His wife was dead; he showed me a painted portrait of her in one of the other rooms—a distinguished looking woman with a lace cap and a winsome smile. In the same room, also, there was a bookcase, and some old French books, no less, that might have been an heirloom. The bindings were rich and gilded, and many owners had marked their names in them. Among the books were several educational works; Herr Mack was a man of some intelligence.
His two assistants from the store were called in to make up the party at whist. They played slowly and doubtfully, counted carefully, and made mistakes all the same. Edwarda helped one of them with his hand.
I upset my glass, and felt ashamed, and stood up.
"There—I have upset my glass," I said.
Edwarda burst out laughing, and answered:
"Well, we can see that."
Everyone assured me laughingly that it did not matter. They gave me a towel to wipe myself with, and we went on with the game. Soon it was eleven o'clock.
I felt a vague displeasure at Edwarda's laugh. I looked at her, and found that her face had become insignificant, hardly even pretty. At last Herr Mack broke off the game, saying that his assistants must go to bed; then he leaned back on the sofa and began talking about putting up a sign in front of his place. He asked my advice about it. What colour did I think would be best? I was not interested, and answered "black," without thinking at all. And Herr Mack at once agreed:
"Black, yes—exactly what I had been thinking myself. 'Salt and barrels' in heavy black letters—that ought to look as nice as anything... Edwarda, isn't it time you were going to bed?"
Edwarda rose, shook hands with us both, said good-night, and left the room. We sat on. We talked of the railway that had been finished last year, and of the first telegraph line. "Wonder when we shall have the telegraph up here."
"It's like this," said Herr Mack. "Time goes on, and here am I, six-and-forty, and hair and beard gone grey. You might see me in the daytime and say I was a young man, but when the evening comes along, and I'm all alone, I feel it a good deal. I sit here mostly playing patience. It works out all right as a rule, if you fudge a little. Haha!"
"If you fudge a little?" I asked.
I felt as if I could read in his eyes...
He got up from his seat, walked over to the window, and looked out; he stooped a little, and the back of his neck was hairy. I rose in my turn. He looked round and walked towards me in his long, pointed shoes, stuck both thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, waved his arms a little, as if they were wings, and smiled. Then he offered me his boat again if ever I wanted one, and held out his hand.
"Wait a minute—I'll go with you," he said, and blew out the lamps. "Yes, yes, I feel like a little walk. It's not so late."
We went out.
He pointed up the road towards the blacksmith's and said:
"This way—it's the shortest."
"No," I said. "Round by the quay is the shortest way."
We argued the point a little, and did not agree. I was convinced that I was right, and could not understand why he insisted. At last he suggested that we should each go his own way; the one who got there first could wait at the hut.
We set off, and he was soon lost to sight in the wood.
I walked at my usual pace, and reckoned to be there a good five minutes ahead. But when I got to the hut he was there already. He called out as I came up:
"What did I say? I always go this way—it is the shortest."
I looked at him in surprise; he was not heated, and did not appear to have been running. He did not stay now, but said good-night in a friendly way, and went back the way he had come.
I stood there and thought to myself: This is strange! I ought to be some judge of distance, and I've walked both those ways several times. My good man, you've been fudging again. Was the whole thing a pretence?
I saw his back as he disappeared into the wood again.
Next moment I started off in track of him, going quickly and cautiously; I could see him wiping his face all the way, and I was not so sure now that he had not been running before. I walked very slowly now, and watched him carefully; he stopped at the blacksmith's. I stepped into hiding, and saw the door open, and Herr Mack enter the house.
It was one o'clock; I could tell by the look of the sea and the grass.
A few days passed as best they could; my only friend was the forest and the great loneliness. Dear God! I had never before known what it was to be so alone as on the first of those days. It was full spring now; I had found wintergreen and milfoil already, and the chaffinches had come (I knew all the birds). Now and again I took a couple of coins from my pocket and rattled them, to break the loneliness. I thought to myself: "What if Diderik and Iselin were to appear!"
Night was coming on again; the sun just dipped into the sea and rose again, red, refreshed, as if it had been down to drink. I could feel more strangely on those nights than anyone would believe. Was Pan himself there, sitting in a tree, watching me to see what I might do? Was his belly open, and he sitting there bent over as if drinking from his own belly? But all that he did only that he might look up under his brows and watch me; and the whole tree shook with his silent laughter when he saw how all my thoughts were running away with me. There was a rustling everywhere in the woods, beasts sniffing, birds calling one to another; their signals filled the air. And it was flying year for the Maybug; its humming mingled with the buzz of the night moths, sounded like a whispering here and a whispering there, all about in the woods. So much there was to hear! For three nights I did not sleep; I thought of Diderik and Iselin.
"See now," I thought, "they might come." And Iselin would lead Diderik away to a tree and say:
"Stand here, Diderik, and keep guard; keep watch; I will let this huntsman tie my shoestring."
And the huntsman is myself, and she will give me a glance of her eyes that I may understand. And when she comes, my heart knows all, and no longer beats like a heart, but rings as a bell. I lay my hand on her.
"Tie my shoe-string," she says, with flushed cheeks. ...
The sun dips down into the sea and rises again, red and refreshed, as if it had been to drink. And the air is full of whisperings.
An hour after, she speaks, close to my mouth:
"Now I must leave you."
And she turns and waves her hand to me as she goes, and her face is flushed still; her face is tender and full of delight. And again she turns and waves to me.
But Diderik steps out from under the tree and says:
"Iselin, what have you done? I saw you."
"Diderik, what did you see? I have done nothing."
"Iselin, I saw what you did," he says again; "I saw you."
And then her rich, glad laughter rings through the wood, and she goes off with him, full of rejoicing from top to toe. And whither does she go? To the next mortal man; to a huntsman in the woods.
* * * * *
It was midnight. Asop had broken loose and been out hunting by himself; I heard him baying up in the hills, and when at last I got him back it was one o'clock. A girl came from herding goats; she fastened her stocking and hummed a tune and looked around. But where was her flock? And what was she doing in the woods at midnight? Ah, nothing, nothing. Walking there for restlessness, perhaps, for joy; 'twas her affair. I thought to myself, she had heard Asop in the woods, and knew that I was out.
As she came up I rose and stood and looked at her, and I saw how slight and young she was. Asop, too, stood looking at her.
"Where do you come from?" I asked.
"From the mill," she answered.
But what could she have been doing at the mill so late at night?
"How can you venture into the woods so late?" I said—"you so slight and young?"
She laughed, and said:
"I am not so young—I am nineteen."
But she could not be nineteen; I am certain she was lying by at least two years, and was only seventeen. But why should she lie to seem older?
"Sit down," I said, "and tell me your name."
And she sat down, blushing, by my side, and told me her name was Henriette.
Then I asked her:
"Have you a lover, Henriette, and has he ever taken you in his arms?"
"Yes," she said, smiling shyly.
"How many times?"
She was silent.
"How many times?" I asked her again.
"Twice," she answered softly.
I drew her to me and said:
"How did he do it? Was it like this?"
"Yes," she whispered, trembling.
I had some talk with Edwarda.
"We shall have rain before long," I said.
"What time is it?" she asked.
I looked at the sun and answered:
"Can you tell so nearly by the sun?"
"Yes," I answered; "I can."
"But when you can't see the sun, how do you tell the time then?"
"Then I can tell by other things. There's high tide and low tide, and the grass that lies over at certain hours, and the song of the birds that changes; some birds begin to sing when others leave off. Then, I can tell the time by flowers that close in the afternoon, and leaves that are bright green at some times and dull green at others—and then, besides, I can feel it."
Now I was expecting rain, and for Edwarda's sake I would not keep her there any longer on the road; I raised my cap. But she stopped me suddenly with a new question, and I stayed. She blushed, and asked me why I had come to the place at all? Why I went out shooting, and why this and why that? For I never shot more than I needed for food, and left my dog idle...
She looked flushed and humble. I understood that someone had been talking about me, and she had heard it; she was not speaking for herself. And something about her called up a feeling of tenderness in me; she looked so helpless, I remembered that she had no mother; her thin arms gave her an ill-cared-for appearance. I could not help feeling it so.
Well, I did not go out shooting just to murder things, but to live. I had need of one grouse to-day, and so I did not shoot two, but would shoot the other to-morrow. Why kill more? I lived in the woods, as a son of the woods. And from the first of June it was closed time for hare and ptarmigan; there was but little left for me to shoot at all now. Well and good: then I could go fishing, and live on fish. I would borrow her father's boat and row out in that. No, indeed, I did no go out shooting for the lust of killing things, but only to live in the woods. It was a good place for me; I could lie down on the ground at meals, instead of sitting upright on a chair; I did not upset my glass there. In the woods I could do as I pleased; I could lie down flat on my back and close my eyes if I pleased, and I could say whatever I liked to say. Often one might feel a wish to say something, to speak aloud, and in the woods it sounded like speech from the very heart...
When I asked her if she understood all this, she said, "Yes."
And I went on, and told her more, because her eyes were on me. "If you only knew all that I see out in the wilds!" I said. "In winter, I come walking along, and see, perhaps, the tracks of ptarmigan in the snow. Suddenly the track disappears; the bird has taken wing. But from the marks of the wings I can see which way the game has flown, and before long I have tracked it down again. There is always a touch of newness in that for me. In autumn, many a time there are shooting stars to watch. Then I think to myself, being all alone, What was that? A world seized with convulsions all of a sudden? A world going all to pieces before my eyes? To think that I—that I should be granted the sight of shooting stars in my life! And when summer comes, then perhaps there may be a little living creature on every leaf; I can see that some of them have no wings; they can make no great way in the world, but must live and die on that one little leaf where they came into the world.
"Then sometimes I see the blue flies. But it all seems such a little thing to talk about—I don't know if you understand?"
"Yes, yes, I understand."
"Good. Well, then sometimes I look at the grass, and perhaps the grass is looking at me again—who can say? I look at a single blade of grass; it quivers a little, maybe, and thinks me something. And I think to myself: Here is a little blade of grass all a-quivering. Or if it happens to be a fir tree I look at, then maybe the tree has one branch that makes me think of it a little, too. And sometimes I meet people up on the moors; it happens at times."
I looked at her; she stood bending forward, listening. I hardly knew her. So lost in attention she was that she took no heed of herself, but was ugly, foolish looking; her underlip hung far down.
"Yes, yes," she said, and drew herself up.
The first drops of rain began to fall.
"It is raining," said I.
"Oh! Yes, it is raining," she said, and went away on the instant.
I did not see her home; she went on her way alone; I hurried up to the hut. A few minutes passed. It began to rain heavily. Suddenly I heard someone running after me. I stopped short, and there was Edwarda.
"I forgot," she said breathlessly. "We were going over to the islands—the drying grounds, you know. The Doctor is coming to-morrow; will you have time then?"
"To-morrow? Yes, indeed. I shall have time enough."
"I forgot it," she said again, and smiled.
As she went, I noticed her thin, pretty calves; they were wet far above the ankle. Her shoes were worn through.
There was another day which I remember well. It was the day my summer came. The sun began shining while it was still night, and dried up the wet ground for the morning. The air was soft and fine after the last rain.
In the afternoon I went down to the quay. The water was perfectly still; we could hear talking and laughter away over at the island, where men and girls were at work on the fish. It was a happy afternoon.
Ay, was it not a happy afternoon? We took hampers of food and wine with us; a big party we were, in two boats, with young women in light dresses. I was so happy that I hummed a tune.
And when we were in the boat, I fell to thinking where all these young people came from. There were the daughters of the Lensmand and the district surgeon, a governess or so, and the ladies from the vicarage. I had not seen them before; they were strangers to me; and yet, for all that, they were as friendly as if we had known each other for years. I made some mistakes! I had grown unaccustomed to being in society, and often said "Du" [Footnote: "Du"=thou, the familiar form of address (tutoyer), instead of "De"=you.] to the young ladies, but they did not seem offended. And once I said "dear," or "my dear," but they forgave me that as well, and took no notice of it.
Herr Mack had his unstarched shirt front on as usual, with the diamond stud. He seemed in excellent spirits, and called across to the other boat:
"Hi, look after the hamper with the bottles, you madcaps there. Doctor, I shall hold you responsible for the wine."
"Right!" cried the Doctor. And just those few words from one boat to another seemed to me pleasant and merry to hear.
Edwarda was wearing the same dress she had, worn the day before, as if she had no other or did not care to put on another. Her shoes, too, were the same. I fancied her hands were not quite clean; but she wore a brand new hat, with feathers. She had taken her dyed jacket with her, and used it to sit on.
At Herr Mack's request I fired a shot just as we were about to land, in fact, two shots, both barrels—and they cheered. We rambled up over the island, the workers greeted us all, and Herr Mack stopped to speak to his folk. We found daisies and corn marigolds and put them in our button-holes; some found harebells.
And there was a host of seabirds chattering and screaming, in the air and on the shore.
We camped out on a patch of grass where there were a few stunted birches with white stems. The hampers were opened, and Herr Mack saw to the bottles. Light dresses, blue eyes, the ring of glasses, the sea, the white sails. And we sang a little.
And cheeks were flushed.
* * * * *
An hour later, my whole being was joy; even little things affected me. A veil fluttering from a hat, a girl's hair coming down, a pair of eyes closing in a laugh—and it touched me. That day, that day!
"I've heard you've such a queer little hut up there, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, a nest. And the very thing for me. Come and see me there one day; there's no such hut anywhere else. And the great forest behind it."
Another came up and said kindly:
"You have not been up here in the north before?"
"No," I answered. "But I know all about it already, ladies. At night I am face to face with the mountains, the earth, and the sun. But I will not try to use fine words. What a summer you have here! It bursts forth one night when everyone is asleep, and in the morning there it is. I looked out of my window and saw it myself. I have two little windows."
A third came up. She was charming by reason of her voice and her small hands. How charming they all were! This one said:
"Shall we change flowers? It brings luck, they say."
"Yes," I answered, holding out my hand, "let us change flowers, and I thank you for it. How pretty you are! You have a lovely voice; I have been listening to it all the time."
But she drew back her harebells and said curtly:
"What are you thinking about? It was not you I meant."
It was not me she meant! It hurt me to feel that I had been mistaken; I wished myself at home again, far away in my hut, where only the wind could speak to me. "I beg your pardon," I said; "forgive me." The other ladies looked at one another and moved away, so as not to humiliate me.
Just at that moment someone came quickly over towards us. All could see her—it was Edwarda. She came straight to me. She said something, and threw her arms round my neck; clasped her arms round my neck and kissed me again and again on the lips. Each time she said something, but I did not hear what it was. I could not understand it all; my heart stood still; I had only a feeling of her burning look. Then she slipped away from me; her little breast beat up and down. She stood there still, with her brown face and brown neck, tall and slender, with flashing eyes, altogether heedless. They were all looking at her. For the second time I was fascinated by her dark eyebrows, that curved high up into her forehead.
But, Heavens—the girl had kissed me openly in sight of them all!
"What is it, Edwarda?" I asked, and I could hear my blood beating; hear it as it were from down in my throat, so that I could not speak distinctly.
"Nothing," she answered. "Only—that I wanted to. It doesn't matter."
I took off my cap and brushed back my hair mechanically as I stood looking at her. "Doesn't matter...?"
Herr Mack was saying something, a good way off; we could not hear his words from where we were. But I was glad to think that Herr Mack had seen nothing, that he knew nothing of this. It was well indeed that he had been away from the party just then. I felt relieved at that, and I stepped over to the others and said with a laugh, and seeming quite indifferent:
"I would ask you all to forgive my unseemly behavior a moment ago; I am myself extremely sorry about it. Edwarda kindly offered to change flowers with me, and I forgot myself. I beg her pardon and yours. Put yourself in my place; I live all alone, and am not accustomed to the society of ladies; besides which, I have been drinking wine, and am not used to that either. You must make allowances for that."
And I laughed, and showed great indifference to such a trifle, that it might be forgotten; but, inwardly, I was serious. Moreover, what I had said made no impression on Edwarda. She did not try to hide anything, to smooth over the effect of her hasty action: on the contrary, she sat down close to me and kept looking at me fixedly. Now and again she spoke to me. And afterwards, when we were playing "Enke," she said:
"I shall have Lieutenant Glahn. I don't care to run after anyone else."
"Saa for Satan, [Footnote: Expletive, equivalent to "The Devil!" or "Damnation!"] girl, be quiet!" I whispered, stamping my foot.
She gave me a look of surprise, made a wry face as if it hurt, and then smiled bashfully. I was deeply moved at that; the helpless look in her eyes and her little thin figure were more than I could resist; I was drawn to her in that moment, and I took her long, slight hand in mine.
"Afterwards," I said, "No more now. We can meet again to-morrow."
In the night I heard Asop get up from his corner and growl; I heard it through my sleep, but I was dreaming just then of shooting, the growl of the dog fitted into the dream, and it did not wake me, quite. When I stepped out of the hut next morning there were tracks in the grass of a pair of human feet; someone had been there—had gone first to one of my windows, then to the other. The tracks were lost again down on the road.
She came towards me with hot cheeks, with a face all beaming.
"Have you been waiting?" she said. "I was afraid you would have to wait."
I had not been waiting; she was on the way before me.
"Have you slept well?" I asked. I hardly knew what to say.
"No, I haven't. I have been awake," she answered. And she told me she had not slept that night, but had sat in a chair with her eyes closed. And she had been out of the house for a little walk.
"Someone was outside my hut last night," I said. "I saw tracks in the grass this morning."
And her face colored; she took my hand there, on the road, and made no answer. I looked at her, and said:
"Was it you, I wonder?"
"Yes," she answered, pressing close to me. "It was I. I hope I didn't wake you—I stepped as quietly as I could. Yes, it was I. I was near you again. I am fond of you!"
Every day, every day I met her. I will tell the truth: I was glad to meet her; aye, my heart flew. It is two years ago this year; now, I think of it only when I please, the whole story just amuses and distracts me. And as for the two green feathers, I will tell about them in good time.
There were several places where we could meet—at the mill, on the road, even in my hut. She came wherever I would. "Goddag!" she cried, always first, and I answered "Goddag!"
"You are happy to-day," she says, and her eyes sparkle.
"Yes, I am happy," I answer. "There is a speck there on your shoulder; it is dust, perhaps, a speck of mud from the road; I must kiss that little spot. No—let me—I will. Everything about you stirs me so! I am half out of my senses. I did not sleep last night."
And that was true. Many a night I lay and could not sleep.
We walk side by side along the road.
"What do you think—am I as you like me to be?" she asks. "Perhaps I talk too much. No? Oh, but you must say what you really think. Sometimes I think to myself this can never come to any good..."
"What can never come to any good?" I ask.
"This between us. That it cannot come to any good. You may believe it or not, but I am shivering now with cold; I feel icy cold the moment I come to you. Just out of happiness."
"It is the same with me," I answer. "I feel a shiver, too, when I see you. But it will come to some good all the same. And, anyhow, let me pat you on the back, to warm you."
And she lets me, half unwillingly, and then I hit a little harder, for a jest, and laugh, and ask if that doesn't make her feel better.
"Oh, please, don't when I ask you; please," says she.
Those few words! There was something so helpless about her saying it so, the wrong way round: "Please don't when I ask you."...
Then we went on along the road again. Was she displeased with me for my jest, I wondered? And thought to myself: Well, let us see. And I said:
"I just happened to think of something. Once when I was out on a sledge party, there was a young lady who took a silk kerchief from her neck and fastened it round mine. In the evening, I said to her: 'You shall have your kerchief again to-morrow; I will have it washed.' 'No,' she said, 'give it to me now; I will keep it just as it is, after you have worn it.' And I gave it to her. Three years after, I met the same young lady again. 'The kerchief,' I said. And she brought it out. It lay in a paper, just as before; I saw it myself."
Edwarda glanced up at me.
"Yes? And what then?"
"That is all," I said. "There was nothing more. But I thought it was nice of her."
"Where is that lady now?"
We spoke no more of that. But when it was time for her to go home, she said:
"Well, good-night. But you won't go thinking of that lady any more, will you? I don't think of anyone but you."
I believed her. I saw that she meant what she said, and it was more than enough for me that she thought of no one else. I walked after her.
"Thank you, Edwarda," I said. And then I added with all my heart: "You are all too good for me, but I am thankful that you will have me; God will reward you for that. I'm not so fine as many you could have, no doubt, but I am all yours—so endlessly yours, by my eternal soul.—- What are you thinking of now, to bring tears to your eyes?"
"It was nothing," she answered. "It sounded so strange—that God would reward me for that. You say things that I ... Oh, I love you so!"
And all at once she threw her arms round my neck, there in the middle of the road, and kissed me.
When she had gone, I stepped aside into the woods to hide, to be alone with my happiness. And then I hurried eagerly back to the road to see if anyone had noticed that I had gone in there. But I saw no one.
Summer nights and still water, and the woods endlessly still. No cry, no footsteps from the road. My heart seemed full as with dark wine.
Moths and night-flies came flying noiselessly in through my window, lured by the glow from the hearth and the smell of the bird I had just cooked. They dashed against the roof with a dull sound, fluttered past my ears, sending a cold shiver through me, and settled on my white powder-horn on the wall. I watched them; they sat trembling and looked at me—moths and spinners and burrowing things. Some of them looked like pansies on the wing.
I stepped outside the hut and listened. Nothing, no noise; all was asleep. The air was alight with flying insects, myriads of buzzing wings. Out at the edge of the wood were ferns and aconite, the trailing arbutus was in bloom, and I loved its tiny flowers... Thanks, my God, for every heather bloom I have ever seen; they have been like small roses on my way, and I weep for love of them... Somewhere near were wild carnations; I could not see them, but I could mark their scent.
But now, in the night hours, great white flowers have opened suddenly; their chalices are spread wide; they are breathing. And furry twilight moths slip down into their petals, making the whole plant quiver. I go from one flower to another. They are drunken flowers. I mark the stages of their intoxication.
Light footsteps, a human breathing, a happy "Godaften."
And I answer, and throw myself down on the road.
"Godaften, Edwarda," I say again, worn out with joy.
"That you should care for me so!" she whispers.
And I answered her: "If you knew how grateful I can be! You are mine, and my heart lies still within me all the day, thinking of you. You are the loveliest girl on earth, and I have kissed you. Often I go red with joy, only to think that I have kissed you."
"Why are you so fond of me this evening?" she asks.
I was that for endless reasons; I needed only to think of her to feel so. That look of hers, from under the high-arched brows, and her rich, dark skin!
"Should I not be fond of you?" I say again. "I thank every tree in my path because you are well and strong. Once at a dance there was a young lady who sat out dance after dance, and they let her sit there alone. I didn't know her, but her face touched me, and I bowed to her. Well? But no, she shook her head. Would she not dance, I asked her? 'Can you imagine it?' she said. 'My father was a handsome man, and my mother a perfect beauty, and my father won her by storm. But I was born lame.'"
Edwarda looked at me.
"Let us sit down," she said.
And we sat down in the heather.
"Do you know what my friend says about you?" she began. "Your eyes are like an animal's, she says, and when you look at her, it makes her mad. It is just as if you touched her, she says."
A strange joy thrilled me when I heard that, not for my own sake, but for Edwarda's, and I thought to myself: There is only one whom I care for: what does that one say of the look in my eyes? And I asked her:
"Who was that, your friend?"
"I will not tell you," she said. "But it was one of those that were out on the island that day."
"Very well, then."
And then we spoke of other things.
"My father is going to Russia in a few days," she said. "And I am going to have a party. Have you been out to Korholmerne? We must have two hampers of wine; the ladies from the vicarage are coming again, and father has already given me the wine. And you won't look at her again, will you? My friend, I mean. Please, you won't, will you? Or I shall not ask her at all."
And with no more words she threw herself passionately about my neck, and looked at me, gazing into my face and breathing heavily. Her glance was sheer blackness.
I got up abruptly, and, in my confusion, could only say:
"So your father is going to Russia?"
"What did you get up like that for, so quickly?" she asked.
"Because it is late, Edwarda," I said. "Now the white flowers are closing again. The sun is getting up; it will soon be day."
I went with her through the woodland and stood watching her as long as I could; far down, she turned round and softly called good-night. Then she disappeared.
At the same moment the door of the blacksmith's house opened. A man with a white shirt front came out, looked round, pulled his hat down farther over his forehead, and took the road down to Sirilund.
Edwarda's good-night was still in my ears.
A man can be drunk with joy. I fire off my gun, and an unforgettable echo answers from hill to hill, floats out over the sea and rings in some sleepy helmsman's ears. And what have I to be joyful about? A thought that came to me, a memory; a sound in the woods, a human being. I think of her, I close my eyes and stand still there on the road, and think of her; I count the minutes.
Now I am thirsty, and drink from the stream; now I walk a hundred paces forward and a hundred paces back; it must be late by now, I say to myself.
Can there be anything wrong? A month has passed, and a month is no long time; there is nothing wrong. Heaven knows this month has been short. But the nights are often long, and I am driven to wet my cap in the stream and let it dry, only to pass the time, while I am waiting.
I reckoned my time by nights. Sometimes there would be an evening when Edwarda did not come—once she stayed away two evenings. Nothing wrong, no. But I felt then that perhaps my happiness had reached and passed its height.
And had it not?
"Can you hear, Edwarda, how restless it is in the woods to-night? Rustling incessantly in the undergrowth, and the big leaves trembling. Something brewing, maybe—but it was not that I had in mind to say. I hear a bird away up on the hill—only a tomtit, but it has sat there calling in the same place two nights now. Can you hear—the same, same note again?"
"Yes, I hear it. Why do you ask me that?"
"Oh, for no reason at all. It has been there two nights now. That was all... Thanks, thanks for coming this evening, love. I sat here, expecting you this evening, or the next, looking forward to it, when you came."
"And I have been waiting too. I think of you, and I have picked up the pieces of the glass you upset once, and kept them—do you remember? Father went away last night. I could not come, there was so much to do with the packing, and reminding him of things. I knew you were waiting here in the woods, and I cried, and went on packing."
But it is two evenings, I thought to myself. What was she doing the first evening? And why is there less joy in her eyes now than before?
An hour passed. The bird up in the hills was silent, the woods lay dead. No, no, nothing wrong; all as before; she gave me her hand to say good-night, and looked at me with love in her eyes.
"To-morrow?" I said.
"No, not to-morrow," she answered.
I did not ask her why.
"To-morrow is our party," she said with a laugh. "I was only going to surprise you, but you looked so miserable, I had to tell you at once. I was going to send you an invitation all on paper."
And my heart was lightened unspeakably.
She went off, nodding farewell.
"One thing more," said I, standing where I was. "How long is it since you gathered up the pieces of that glass and put them away?"
"Why—a week ago, perhaps, or a fortnight. Yes, perhaps a fortnight. But why do you ask? Well, I will tell you the truth—it was yesterday."
Yesterday! No longer ago than yesterday she had thought of me. All was well again now.
The two boats lay ready, and we stepped on board. Talking and singing. The place, Korholmerne, lay out beyond the islands; it took a good while to row across, and on the way we talked, one party with another, from boat to boat. The Doctor wore light things, as the ladies did; I had never seen him so pleased before; he talked with the rest, instead of listening in silence. I had an idea he had been drinking a little, and so was in good humor to-day. When we landed, he craved the attention of the party for a moment, and bade us welcome. I thought to myself: This means that Edwarda has asked him to act as host.
He fell to entertaining the ladies in the most amiable manner. To Edwarda he was polite and kind, often fatherly, and pedantically instructive, as he had been so many times before. She spoke of some date or other, saying: "I was born in '38," and he asked, "Eighteen hundred and thirty-eight, I suppose you mean?" And if she had answered, "No, in nineteen hundred and thirty-eight," he would have shown no embarrassment, but only corrected her again, and said, "I think you must be mistaken." When I said anything myself, he listened politely and attentively, and did not ignore me.
A young girl came up to me with a greeting. I did not recognize her; I could not remember her at all, and I said a few words in surprise, and she laughed. It was one of the Dean's daughters. I had met her the day we went to the island before, and had invited her to my hut. We talked together a little.
An hour or so passed by. I was feeling dull, and drank from the wine poured out for me, and mixed with the others, chatting with them all. Again I made a mistake here and there: I was on doubtful ground, and could not tell at the moment how to answer any little civility; now and then I talked incoherently, or even found nothing at all to say, and this troubled me. Over by the big rock which we were using as a table sat the Doctor, gesticulating.
"Soul—what is the soul?" he was saying. The Dean's daughter had accused him of being a free-thinker—well, and should not a man think freely? People imagined hell as a sort of house down under the ground, with the devil as host—or rather as sovereign lord. Then he spoke of the altar picture in the chapel, a figure of the Christ, with a few Jews and Jewesses; water into wine—well and good. But Christ had a halo round His head. And what was a halo? Simply a yellow hoop fixed on three hairs.
Two of the ladies clasped their hands aghast, but the Doctor extricated himself, and said jestingly:
"Sounds horrible, doesn't it? I admit it. But if you repeat it and repeat it again to yourself seven or eight times, and then think it over a little, it soon sounds easier... Ladies, your very good health!"
And he knelt on the grass before the two ladies, and instead of taking his hat off and laying it before him he held it straight up in the air with one hand, and emptied his glass with his head bent back. I was altogether carried away by his wonderful ease of manner, and would have drunk with him myself but that his glass was empty.
Edwarda was following him with her eyes. I placed myself near her, and said:
"Shall we play 'Enke' to-day?"
She started slightly, and got up.
"Be careful not to say 'Du' to each other now," she whispered.
Now I had not said "Du" at all. I walked away.
Another hour passed. The day was getting long; I would have rowed home alone long before if there had been a third boat; Asop lay tied up in the hut, and perhaps he was thinking of me. Edwarda's thoughts must surely be far away from me; she talked of how lovely it would be to travel, and see strange places; her cheeks flushed at the thought, and she even stumbled in her speech:
"No one could be more happier than I the day ..."
"'More happier'...?" said the Doctor.
"What?" said she.
"I don't understand."
"You said 'more happier,' I think."
"Did I? I'm sorry. No one could be happier than I the day I stood on board the ship. Sometimes I long for places I do not know myself."
She longed to be away; she did not think of me. I stood there, and read in her face that she had forgotten me. Well, there was nothing to be said—but I stood there myself and saw it in her face. And the minutes dragged so miserably slowly by! I asked several of the others if we ought not to row back now; it was getting late, I said, and Asop was tied up in the hut. But none of them wanted to go back.
I went over again to the Dean's daughter, for the third time; I thought she must be the one that had said I had eyes like an animal's. We drank together; she had quivering eyes, they were never still; she kept looking at me and then looking away, all the time.
"Froken," I said, "do you not think people here in these parts are like the short summer itself? In their feeling, I mean? Beautiful, but lasting only a little while?"
I spoke loudly, very loudly, and I did so on purpose. And I went on speaking loudly, and asked that young lady once more if she would not like to come up one day and see my hut. "Heaven bless you for it," I said in my distress, and I was already thinking to myself how, perhaps, I might find something to give her as a present if she came. Perhaps I had nothing to give her but my powder-horn, I thought.
And she promised to come.
Edwarda sat with her face turned away and let me talk as much as I pleased. She listened to what the others said, putting in a word herself now and again. The Doctor told the young ladies' fortunes by their hands, and talked a lot; he himself had small, delicate hands, with a ring on one finger. I felt myself unwanted, and sat down by myself awhile on a stone. It was getting late in the afternoon. Here I am, I said to myself, sitting all alone on a stone, and the only creature that could make me move, she lets me sit. Well, then, I care no more than she.
A great feeling of forsakenness came over me. I could hear them talking behind me, and I heard how Edwarda laughed; and at that I got up suddenly and went over to the party. My excitement ran away with me.
"Just a moment," I said. "It occurred to me while I was sitting there that perhaps you might like to see my fly-book." And I took it out. "I am sorry I did not think of it before. Just look through it, if you please; I should be only too delighted. You must all see it; there are both red and yellow flies in it." And I held my cap in my hand as I spoke. I was myself aware that I had taken off my cap, and I knew that this was wrong, so I put it on again at once.
There was deep silence for a moment, and no one offered to take the book. At last the Doctor reached out his hand for it and said politely:
"Thanks very much; let us look at the things. It's always been a marvel to me how those flies were put together."
"I make them myself," I said, full of gratitude. And I went on at once to explain how it was done. It was simple enough: I bought the feathers and the hooks. They were not well made, but they were only for my own use. One could get ready-made flies in the shops, and they were beautiful things.
Edwarda cast one careless glance at me and my book, and went on talking with her girl friends.
"Ah, here are some of the feathers," said the Doctor. "Look, these are really fine."
Edwarda looked up.
"The green ones are pretty," she said; "let me look, Doctor."
"Keep them," I cried. "Yes, do, I beg you, now. Two green feathers. Do, as a kindness, let them be a keepsake."
She looked at them and said:
"They are green and gold, as you turn them in the sun. Thank you, if you will give me them."
"I should be glad to," I said.
And she took the feathers.
A little later the Doctor handed me the book and thanked me. Then he got up and asked if it were not nearly time to be getting back.
I said: "Yes, for Heaven's sake. I have a dog tied up at home; look you, I have a dog, and he is my friend; he lies there thinking of me, and when I come home he stands with his forepaws at the window to greet me. It has been a lovely day, and now it is nearly over; let us go back. I am grateful to you all."
I waited on the shore to see which boat Edwarda chose, and made up my mind to go in the other one myself. Suddenly she called me. I looked at her in surprise; her face was flushed. Then she came up to me, held out her hand, and said tenderly:
"Thank you for the feathers. You will come in the boat with me, won't you?"
"If you wish it," I said.
We got into the boat, and she sat down beside me on the same seat, her knee touching mine. I looked at her, and she glanced at me for a moment in return. I began to feel myself repaid for that bitter day, and was growing happy again, when she suddenly changed her position, turned her back to me, and began talking to the Doctor, who was sitting at the rudder.
For a full quarter of an hour I did not exist for her. Then I did something I repent of, and have not yet forgotten. Her shoe fell off: I snatched it up and flung it far out into the water, for pure joy that she was near, or from some impulse to make myself remarked, to remind her of my existence—I do not know. It all happened so suddenly I did not think, only felt that impulse.
The ladies set up a cry. I myself was as if paralyzed by what I had done, but what was the good of that? It was done. The Doctor came to my help; he cried "Row," and steered towards the shoe. And the next moment the boatman had caught hold of the shoe just as it had filled with water and was sinking; the man's arm was wet up to the elbow. Then there was a shout of "Hurra" from many in the boats, because the shoe was saved.
I was deeply ashamed, and felt that my face changed color and winced, as I wiped the shoe with my handkerchief. Edwarda took it without a word. Not till a little while after did she say:
"I never saw such a thing!"
"No, did you ever?" I said. And I smiled and pulled myself together, making as if I had played that trick for some particular reason—as if there were something behind it. But what could there be? The Doctor looked at me, for the first time, contemptuously.
A little time passed; the boats glided homeward; the feeling of awkwardness among the party disappeared; we sang; we were nearing the land. Edwarda said:
"Oh, we haven't finished the wine: there is ever so much left. We must have another party, a new party later on; we must have a dance, a ball in the big room."
When we went ashore I made an apology to Edwarda.
"If you knew how I wished myself back in my hut!" I said. "This has been a long and painful day."
"Has it been a painful day for you, Lieutenant?"
"I mean," said I, trying to pass it off, "I mean, I have caused unpleasantness both to myself and others. I threw your shoe into the water."
"Yes—an extraordinary thing to do."
"Forgive me," I said.
What worse things might still happen? I resolved to keep calm, whatever might come; Heaven is my witness. Was it I who had forced myself on her from the first? No, no; never! I was but standing in her way one week-day as she passed. What a summer it was here in the north! Already the cockchafers had ceased to fly, and people were grown more and more difficult to understand, for all that the sun shone on them day and night. What were their blue eyes looking for, and what were they thinking behind their mysterious lashes? Well, after all, they were all equally indifferent to me. I took out my lines and went fishing for two days, four days; but at night I lay with open eyes in the hut...