Hunger is a novel by the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun and was published in its final form in 1890. Parts of it had been published anonymously in the Danish magazine Ny Jord in 1888. The novel is hailed as the literary opening of the 20th century and an outstanding example of modern, psychology-driven literature.
It was during the time I wandered about and starved in Christiania: Christiania, this singular city, from which no man departs without carrying away the traces of his sojourn there.
I was lying awake in my attic and I heard a clock below strike six. It was already broad daylight, and people had begun to go up and down the stairs. By the door where the wall of the room was papered with old numbers of the Morgenbladet, I could distinguish clearly a notice from the Director of Lighthouses, and a little to the left of that an inflated advertisement of Fabian Olsens' new-baked bread.
The instant I opened my eyes I began, from sheer force of habit, to think if I had anything to rejoice over that day. I had been somewhat hard-up lately, and one after the other of my belongings had been taken to my "Uncle." I had grown nervous and irritable. A few times I had kept my bed for the day with vertigo. Now and then, when luck had favoured me, I had managed to get five shillings for a feuilleton from some newspaper or other.
It grew lighter and lighter, and I took to reading the advertisements near the door. I could even make out the grinning lean letters of "winding- sheets to be had at Miss Andersen's" on the right of it. That occupied me for a long while. I heard the clock below strike eight as I got up and put on my clothes.
I opened the window and looked out. From where I was standing I had a view of a clothes-line and an open field. Farther away lay the ruins of a burnt-out smithy, which some labourers were busy clearing away. I leant with my elbows resting on the window-frame and gazed into open space. It promised to be a clear day--autumn, that tender, cool time of the year, when all things change their colour, and die, had come to us. The ever-increasing noise in the streets lured me out. The bare room, the floor of which rocked up and down with every step I took across it, seemed like a gasping, sinister coffin. There was no proper fastening to the door, either, and no stove. I used to lie on my socks at night to dry them a little by the morning. The only thing I had to divert myself with was a little red rocking-chair, in which I used to sit in the evenings and doze and muse on all manner of things. When it blew hard, and the door below stood open, all kinds of eerie sounds moaned up through the floor and from out the walls, and the Morgenbladet near the door was rent in strips a span long.
I stood up and searched through a bundle in the corner by the bed for a bite for breakfast, but finding nothing, went back to the window.
God knows, thought I, if looking for employment will ever again avail me aught. The frequent repulses, half-promises, and curt noes, the cherished, deluded hopes, and fresh endeavours that always resulted in nothing had done my courage to death. As a last resource, I had applied for a place as debt collector, but I was too late, and, besides, I could not have found the fifty shillings demanded as security. There was always something or another in my way. I had even offered to enlist in the Fire Brigade. There we stood and waited in the vestibule, some half-hundred men, thrusting our chests out to give an idea of strength and bravery, whilst an inspector walked up and down and scanned the applicants, felt their arms, and put one question or another to them. Me, he passed by, merely shaking his head, saying I was rejected on account of my sight. I applied again without my glasses, stood there with knitted brows, and made my eyes as sharp as needles, but the man passed me by again with a smile; he had recognized me. And, worse than all, I could no longer apply for a situation in the garb of a respectable man.
How regularly and steadily things had gone downhill with me for a long time, till, in the end, I was so curiously bared of every conceivable thing. I had not even a comb left, not even a book to read, when things grew all too sad with me. All through the summer, up in the churchyards or parks, where I used to sit and write my articles for the newspapers, I had thought out column after column on the most miscellaneous subjects. Strange ideas, quaint fancies, conceits of my restless brain; in despair I had often chosen the most remote themes, that cost me long hours of intense effort, and never were accepted. When one piece was finished I set to work at another. I was not often discouraged by the editors' "no." I used to tell myself constantly that some day I was bound to succeed; and really occasionally when I was in luck's way, and made a hit with something, I could get five shillings for an afternoon's work.
Once again I raised myself from the window, went over to the washing- stand, and sprinkled some water on the shiny knees of my trousers to dull them a little and make them look a trifle newer. Having done this, I pocketed paper and pencil as usual and went out. I stole very quietly down the stairs in order not to attract my landlady's attention (a few days had elapsed since my rent had fallen due, and I had no longer anything wherewith to raise it).
It was nine o'clock. The roll of vehicles and hum of voices filled the air, a mighty morning-choir mingled with the footsteps of the pedestrians, and the crack of the hack-drivers' whips. The clamorous traffic everywhere exhilarated me at once, and I began to feel more and more contented. Nothing was farther from my intention than to merely take a morning walk in the open air. What had the air to do with my lungs? I was strong as a giant; could stop a dray with my shoulders. A sweet, unwonted mood, a feeling of lightsome happy-go-luckiness took possession of me. I fell to observing the people I met and who passed me, to reading the placards on the wall, noted even the impression of a glance thrown at me from a passing tram-car, let each bagatelle, each trifling incident that crossed or vanished from my path impress me.
If one only had just a little to eat on such a lightsome day! The sense of the glad morning overwhelmed me; my satisfaction became ill-regulated, and for no definite reason I began to hum joyfully.
At a butcher's stall a woman stood speculating on sausage for dinner. As I passed her she looked up at me. She had but one tooth in the front of her head. I had become so nervous and easily affected in the last few days that the woman's face made a loathsome impression upon me. The long yellow snag looked like a little finger pointing out of her gum, and her gaze was still full of sausage as she turned it upon me. I immediately lost all appetite, and a feeling of nausea came over me. When I reached the market- place I went to the fountain and drank a little. I looked up; the dial marked ten on Our Saviour's tower.
I went on through the streets, listlessly, without troubling myself about anything at all, stopped aimlessly at a corner, turned off into a side street without having any errand there. I simply let myself go, wandered about in the pleasant morning, swinging myself care-free to and fro amongst other happy human beings. This air was clear and bright and my mind too was without a shadow.
For quite ten minutes I had had an old lame man ahead of me. He carried a bundle in one hand and exerted his whole body, using all his strength in his endeavours to get along speedily. I could hear how he panted from the exertion, and it occurred to me that I might offer to bear his bundle for him, but yet I made no effort to overtake him. Up in Graendsen I met Hans Pauli, who nodded and hurried past me. Why was he in such a hurry? I had not the slightest intention of asking him for a shilling, and, more than that, I intended at the very first opportunity to return him a blanket which I had borrowed from him some weeks before.
Just wait until I could get my foot on the ladder, I would be beholden to no man, not even for a blanket. Perhaps even this very day I might commence an article on the "Crimes of Futurity," "Freedom of Will," or what not, at any rate, something worth reading, something for which I would at least get ten shillings.... And at the thought of this article I felt myself fired with a desire to set to work immediately and to draw from the contents of my overflowing brain. I would find a suitable place to write in the park and not rest until I had completed my article.
But the old cripple was still making the same sprawling movements ahead of me up the street. The sight of this infirm creature constantly in front of me, commenced to irritate me--his journey seemed endless; perhaps he had made up his mind to go to exactly the same place as I had, and I must needs have him before my eyes the whole way. In my irritation it seemed to me that he slackened his pace a little at every cross street, as if waiting to see which direction I intended to take, upon which he would again swing his bundle in the air and peg away with all his might to keep ahead of me. I follow and watch this tiresome creature and get more and more exasperated with him, I am conscious that he has, little by little, destroyed my happy mood and dragged the pure, beautiful morning down to the level of his own ugliness. He looks like a great sprawling reptile striving with might and main to win a place in the world and reserve the footpath for himself. When we reached the top of the hill I determined to put up with it no longer. I turned to a shop window and stopped in order to give him an opportunity of getting ahead, but when, after a lapse of some minutes, I again walked on there was the man still in front of me--he too had stood stock still,--without stopping to reflect I made three or four furious onward strides, caught him up, and slapped him on the shoulder.
He stopped directly, and we both stared at one another fixedly. "A halfpenny for milk!" he whined, twisting his head askew.
So that was how the wind blew. I felt in my pockets and said: "For milk, eh? Hum-m--money's scarce these times, and I don't really know how much you are in need of it."
"I haven't eaten a morsel since yesterday in Drammen; I haven't got a farthing, nor have I got any work yet!"
"Are you an artisan?"
"Yes; a binder."
"A shoe-binder; for that matter, I can make shoes too."
"Ah, that alters the case," said I, "you wait here for some minutes and I shall go and get a little money for you; just a few pence."
I hurried as fast as I could down Pyle Street, where I knew of a pawnbroker on a second-floor (one, besides, to whom I had never been before). When I got inside the hall I hastily took off my waistcoat, rolled it up, and put it under my arm; after which I went upstairs and knocked at the office door. I bowed on entering, and threw the waistcoat on the counter.
"One-and-six," said the man.
"Yes, yes, thanks," I replied. "If it weren't that it was beginning to be a little tight for me, of course I wouldn't part with it."
I got the money and the ticket, and went back. Considering all things, pawning that waistcoat was a capital notion. I would have money enough over for a plentiful breakfast, and before evening my thesis on the "Crimes of Futurity" would be ready. I began to find existence more alluring; and I hurried back to the man to get rid of him.
"There it is," said I. "I am glad you applied to me first."
The man took the money and scrutinized me closely. At what was he standing there staring? I had a feeling that he particularly examined the knees of my trousers, and his shameless effrontery bored me. Did the scoundrel imagine that I really was as poor as I looked? Had I not as good as begun to write an article for half-a-sovereign? Besides, I had no fear whatever for the future. I had many irons in the fire. What on earth business was it of an utter stranger if I chose to stand him a drink on such a lovely day? The man's look annoyed me, and I made up my mind to give him a good dressing-down before I left him. I threw back my shoulders, and said:
"My good fellow, you have adopted a most unpleasant habit of staring at a man's knees when he gives you a shilling."
He leant his head back against the wall and opened his mouth widely; something was working in that empty pate of his, and he evidently came to the conclusion that I meant to best him in some way, for he handed me back the money. I stamped on the pavement, and, swearing at him, told him to keep it. Did he imagine I was going to all that trouble for nothing? If all came to all, perhaps I owed him this shilling; I had just recollected an old debt; he was standing before an honest man, honourable to his finger-tips--in short, the money was his. Oh, no thanks were needed; it had been a pleasure to me. Good-bye!
I went on. At last I was freed from this work-ridden plague, and I could go my way in peace. I turned down Pyle Street again, and stopped before a grocer's shop. The whole window was filled with eatables, and I decided to go in and get something to take with me.
"A piece of cheese and a French roll," I said, and threw my sixpence on to the counter.
"Bread and cheese for the whole of it?" asked the woman ironically, without looking up at me.
"For the whole sixpence? Yes," I answered, unruffled.
I took them up, bade the fat old woman good-morning, with the utmost politeness, and sped, full tilt, up Castle Hill to the park.
I found a bench to myself, and began to bite greedily into my provender. It did me good; it was a long time since I had had such a square meal, and, by degrees, I felt the same sated quiet steal over me that one feels after a good long cry. My courage rose mightily. I could no longer be satisfied with writing an article about anything so simple and straight-ahead as the "Crimes of Futurity," that any ass might arrive at, ay, simply deduct from history. I felt capable of a much greater effort than that; I was in a fitting mood to overcome difficulties, and I decided on a treatise, in three sections, on "Philosophical Cognition." This would, naturally, give me an opportunity of crushing pitiably some of Kant's sophistries ... but, on taking out my writing materials to commence work, I discovered that I no longer owned a pencil: I had forgotten it in the pawn-office. My pencil was lying in my waistcoat pocket.
Good Lord! how everything seems to take a delight in thwarting me today! I swore a few times, rose from the seat, and took a couple of turns up and down the path. It was very quiet all around me; down near the Queen's arbour two nursemaids were trundling their perambulators; otherwise, there was not a creature anywhere in sight. I was in a thoroughly embittered temper; I paced up and down before my seat like a maniac. How strangely awry things seemed to go! To think that an article in three sections should be downright stranded by the simple fact of my not having a pennyworth of pencil in my pocket. Supposing I were to return to Pyle Street and ask to get my pencil back? There would be still time to get a good piece finished before the promenading public commenced to fill the parks. So much, too, depended on this treatise on "Philosophical Cognition"--mayhap many human beings' welfare, no one could say; and I told myself it might be of the greatest possible help to many young people. On second thoughts, I would not lay violent hands on Kant; I might easily avoid doing that; I would only need to make an almost imperceptible gliding over when I came to query Time and Space; but I would not answer for Renan, old Parson Renan....
At all events, an article of so-and-so many columns has to be completed. For the unpaid rent, and the landlady's inquiring look in the morning when I met her on the stairs, tormented me the whole day; it rose up and confronted me again and again, even in my pleasant hours, when I had otherwise not a gloomy thought.
I must put an end to it, so I left the park hurriedly to fetch my pencil from the pawnbroker's.
As I arrived at the foot of the hill I overtook two ladies, whom I passed. As I did so, I brushed one of them accidentally on the arm. I looked up; she had a full, rather pale, face. But she blushes, and, becomes suddenly surprisingly lovely. I know not why she blushes; maybe at some word she hears from a passer-by, maybe only at some lurking thought of her own. Or can it be because I touched her arm? Her high, full bosom heaves violently several times, and she closes her hand tightly above the handle of her parasol. What has come to her?
I stopped, and let her pass ahead again. I could, for the moment, go no further; the whole thing struck me as being so singular. I was in a tantalizing mood, annoyed with myself on account of the pencil incident, and in a high degree disturbed by all the food I had taken on a totally empty stomach. Suddenly my thoughts, as if whimsically inspired, take a singular direction. I feel myself seized with an odd desire to make this lady afraid; to follow her, and annoy her in some way. I overtake her again, pass her by, turn quickly round, and meet her face-to-face in order to observe her well. I stand and gaze into her eyes, and hit, on the spur of the moment, on a name which I have never heard before--a name with a gliding, nervous sound--Ylajali! When she is quite close to me I draw myself up and say impressively:
"You are losing your book, madam!" I could hear my heart beat audibly as I said it.
"My book?" she asks her companion, and she walks on.
My devilment waxed apace, and I followed them. At the same time, I was fully conscious that I was playing a mad prank without being able to stop myself. My disordered condition ran away with me; I was inspired with the craziest notions, which I followed blindly as they came to me. I couldn't help it, no matter how much I told myself that I was playing the fool. I made the most idiotic grimaces behind the lady's back, and coughed frantically as I passed her by. Walking on in this manner--very slowly, and always a few steps in advance--I felt her eyes on my back, and involuntarily put down my head with shame for having caused her annoyance. By degrees, a wonderful feeling stole over me of being far, far away in other places; I had a half-undefined sense that it was not I who was going along over the gravel hanging my head.
A few minutes later, they reached Pascha's bookshop. I had already stopped at the first window, and as they go by I step forward and repeat:
"You are losing your book, madam!"
"No; what book?" she asks affrightedly. "Can you make out what book it is he is talking about?" and she comes to a stop.
I hug myself with delight at her confusion; the irresolute perplexity in her eyes positively fascinates me. Her mind cannot grasp my short, passionate address. She has no book with her; not a single page of a book, and yet she fumbles in her pockets, looks down repeatedly at her hands, turns her head and scrutinizes the streets behind her, exerts her sensitive little brain to the utmost in trying to discover what book it is I am talking about. Her face changes colour, has now one, now another expression, and she is breathing quite audibly--even the very buttons on her gown seem to stare at me, like a row of frightened eyes.
"Don't bother about him!" says her companion, taking her by the arm. "He is drunk; can't you see that the man is drunk?"
Strange as I was at this instant to myself, so absolutely a prey to peculiar invisible inner influences, nothing occurred around me without my observing it. A large, brown dog sprang right across the street towards the shrubbery, and then down towards the Tivoli; he had on a very narrow collar of German silver. Farther up the street a window opened on the second floor, and a servant-maid leant out of it, with her sleeves turned up, and began to clean the panes on the outside. Nothing escaped my notice; I was clear-headed and ready-witted. Everything rushed in upon me with a gleaming distinctness, as if I were suddenly surrounded by a strong light. The ladies before me had each a blue bird's wing in their hats, and a plaid silk ribbon round their necks. It struck me that they were sisters.
They turned, stopped at Cisler's music-shop, and spoke together. I stopped also. Thereupon they both came back, went the same road as they had come, passed me again, and turned the corner of University Street and up towards St. Olav's place. I was all the time as close at their heels as I dared to be. They turned round once, and sent me a half-fearful, half-questioning look, and I saw no resentment nor any trace of a frown in it.
This forbearance with my annoyance shamed me thoroughly and made me lower my eyes. I would no longer be a trouble to them; out of sheer gratitude I would follow them with my gaze, not lose sight of them until they entered some place safely and disappeared.
Outside No. 2, a large four-storeyed house, they turned again before going in. I leant against a lamp-post near the fountain and listened for their footsteps on the stairs. They died away on the second floor. I advanced from the lamp-post and looked up at the house. Then something odd happened. The curtains above were stirred, and a second after a window opened, a head popped out, and two singular-looking eyes dwelt on me. "Ylajali!" I muttered, half-aloud, and I felt I grew red.
Why does she not call for help, or push over one of these flower-pots and strike me on the head, or send some one down to drive me away? We stand and look into one another's eyes without moving; it lasts a minute. Thoughts dart between the window and the street, and not a word is spoken. She turns round, I feel a wrench in me, a delicate shock through my senses; I see a shoulder that turns, a back that disappears across the floor. That reluctant turning from the window, the accentuation in that movement of the shoulders was like a nod to me. My blood was sensible of all the delicate, dainty greeting, and I felt all at once rarely glad. Then I wheeled round and went down the street.
I dared not look back, and knew not if she had returned to the window. The more I considered this question the more nervous and restless I became. Probably at this very moment she was standing watching closely all my movements. It is by no means comfortable to know that you are being watched from behind your back. I pulled myself together as well as I could and proceeded on my way; my legs began to jerk under me, my gait became unsteady just because I purposely tried to make it look well. In order to appear at ease and indifferent, I flung my arms about, spat out, and threw my head well back--all without avail, for I continually felt the pursuing eyes on my neck, and a cold shiver ran down my back. At length I escaped down a side street, from which I took the road to Pyle Street to get my pencil.
I had no difficulty in recovering it; the man brought me the waistcoat himself, and as he did so, begged me to search through all the pockets. I found also a couple of pawn-tickets which I pocketed as I thanked the obliging little man for his civility. I was more and more taken with him, and grew all of a sudden extremely anxious to make a favourable impression on this person. I took a turn towards the door and then back again to the counter as if I had forgotten something. It struck me that I owed him an explanation, that I ought to elucidate matters a little. I began to hum in order to attract his attention. Then, taking the pencil in my hand, I held it up and said:
"It would never have entered my head to come such a long way for any and every bit of pencil, but with this one it was quite a different matter; there was another reason, a special reason. Insignificant as it looked, this stump of pencil had simply made me what I was in the world, so to say, placed me in life." I said no more. The man had come right over to the counter.
"Indeed!" said he, and he looked inquiringly at me.
"It was with this pencil," I continued, in cold blood, "that I wrote my dissertation on 'Philosophical Cognition,' in three volumes." Had he never heard mention of it?
Well, he did seem to remember having heard the name, rather the title.
"Yes," said I, "that was by me, so it was." So he must really not be astonished that I should be desirous of having the little bit of pencil back again. I valued it far too highly to lose it; why, it was almost as much to me as a little human creature. For the rest I was honestly grateful to him for his civility, and I would bear him in mind for it. Yes, truly, I really would. A promise was a promise; that was the sort of man I was, and he really deserved it. "Good-bye!" I walked to the door with the bearing of one who had it in his power to place a man in a high position, say in the fire-office. The honest pawnbroker bowed twice profoundly to me as I withdrew. I turned again and repeated my good-bye.
On the stairs I met a woman with a travelling-bag in her hand, who squeezed diffidently against the wall to make room for me, and I voluntarily thrust my hand in my pocket for something to give her, and looked foolish as I found nothing and passed on with my head down. I heard her knock at the office door; there was an alarm over it, and I recognized the jingling sound it gave when any one rapped on the door with his knuckles.
The sun stood in the south; it was about twelve. The whole town began to get on its legs as it approached the fashionable hour for promenading. Bowing and laughing folk walked up and down Carl Johann Street. I stuck my elbows closely to my sides, tried to make myself look small, and slipped unperceived past some acquaintances who had taken up their stand at the corner of University Street to gaze at the passers-by. I wandered up Castle Hill and fell into a reverie.
How gaily and lightly these people I met carried their radiant heads, and swung themselves through life as through a ball-room! There was no sorrow in a single look I met, no burden on any shoulder, perhaps not even a clouded thought, not a little hidden pain in any of the happy souls. And I, walking in the very midst of these people, young and newly-fledged as I was, had already forgotten the very look of happiness. I hugged these thoughts to myself as I went on, and found that a great injustice had been done me. Why had the last months pressed so strangely hard on me? I failed to recognize my own happy temperament, and I met with the most singular annoyances from all quarters. I could not sit down on a bench by myself or set my foot any place without being assailed by insignificant accidents, miserable details, that forced their way into my imagination and scattered my powers to all the four winds. A dog that dashed by me, a yellow rose in a man's buttonhole, had the power to set my thoughts vibrating and occupy me for a length of time.
What was it that ailed me? Was the hand of the Lord turned against me? But why just against me? Why, for that matter, not just as well against a man in South America? When I considered the matter over, it grew more and more incomprehensible to me that I of all others should be selected as an experiment for a Creator's whims. It was, to say the least of it, a peculiar mode of procedure to pass over a whole world of other humans in order to reach me. Why not select just as well Bookseller Pascha, or Hennechen the steam agent?
As I went my way I sifted this thing, and could not get quit of it. I found the most weighty arguments against the Creator's arbitrariness in letting me pay for all the others' sins. Even after I had found a seat and sat down, the query persisted in occupying me, and prevented me from thinking of aught else. From the day in May when my ill-luck began I could so clearly notice my gradually increasing debility; I had become, as it were, too languid to control or lead myself whither I would go. A swarm of tiny noxious animals had bored a way into my inner man and hollowed me out.
Supposing God Almighty simply intended to annihilate me? I got up and paced backwards and forwards before the seat.
My whole being was at this moment in the highest degree of torture, I had pains in my arms, and could hardly bear to hold them in the usual way. I experienced also great discomfort from my last full meal; I was oversated, and walked backwards and forwards without looking up. The people who came and went around me glided past me like faint gleams. At last my seat was taken up by two men, who lit cigars and began to talk loudly together. I got angry and was on the point of addressing them, but turned on my heel and went right to the other end of the Park, and found another seat. I sat down.
The thought of God began to occupy me. It seemed to me in the highest degree indefensible of Him to interfere every time I sought for a place, and to upset the whole thing, while all the time I was but imploring enough for a daily meal.
I had remarked so plainly that, whenever I had been hungry for any length of time, it was just as if my brains ran quite gently out of my head and left me with a vacuum--my head grew light and far off, I no longer felt its weight on my shoulders, and I had a consciousness that my eyes stared far too widely open when I looked at anything.
I sat there on the seat and pondered over all this, and grew more and more bitter against God for His prolonged inflictions. If He meant to draw me nearer to Him, and make me better by exhausting me and placing obstacle after obstacle in my way, I could assure Him He made a slight mistake. And, almost crying with defiance, I looked up towards Heaven and told Him so mentally, once and for all.
Fragments of the teachings of my childhood ran through my memory. The rhythmical sound of Biblical language sang in my ears, and I talked quite softly to myself, and held my head sneeringly askew. Wherefore should I sorrow for what I eat, for what I drink, or for what I may array this miserable food for worms called my earthy body? Hath not my Heavenly Father provided for me, even as for the sparrow on the housetop, and hath He not in His graciousness pointed towards His lowly servitor? The Lord stuck His finger in the net of my nerves gently--yea, verily, in desultory fashion--and brought slight disorder among the threads. And then the Lord withdrew His finger, and there were fibres and delicate root-like filaments adhering to the finger, and they were the nerve-threads of the filaments. And there was a gaping hole after the finger, which was God's finger, and a wound in my brain in the track of His finger. But when God had touched me with His finger, He let me be, and touched me no more, and let no evil befall me; but let me depart in peace, and let me depart with the gaping hole. And no evil hath befallen me from the God who is the Lord God of all Eternity.
The sound of music was borne up on the wind to me from the Students' Allée. It was therefore past two o'clock. I took out my writing materials to try to write something, and at the same time my book of shaving-tickets 1 fell out of my pocket. I opened it, and counted the tickets; there were six. "The Lord be praised," I exclaimed involuntarily; "I can still get shaved for a couple of weeks, and look a little decent"; and I immediately fell into a better frame of mind on account of this little property which still remained to me. I smoothed the leaves out carefully, and put the book safely into my pocket.
But write I could not. After a few lines nothing seemed to occur to me; my thought ran in other directions, and I could not pull myself together enough for any special exertion.
Everything influenced and distracted me; everything I saw made a fresh impression on me. Flies and tiny mosquitoes stick fast to the paper and disturb me. I blow at them to get rid of them--blow harder and harder; to no purpose, the little pests throw themselves on their backs, make themselves heavy, and fight against me until their slender legs bend. They are not to be moved from the spot; they find something to hook on to, set their heels against a comma or an unevenness in the paper, or stand immovably still until they themselves think fit to go their way.
These insects continued to busy me for a long time, and I crossed my legs to observe them at leisure. All at once a couple of high clarionet notes waved up to me from the bandstand, and gave my thoughts a new impulse.
Despondent at not being able to put my article together, I replaced the paper in my pocket, and leant back in the seat. At this instant my head is so clear that I can follow the most delicate train of thought without tiring. As I lie in this position, and let my eyes glide down my breast and along my legs, I notice the jerking movement my foot makes each time my pulse beats. I half rise and look down at my feet, and I experience at this moment a fantastic and singular feeling that I have never felt before--a delicate, wonderful shock through my nerves, as if sparks of cold light quivered through them--it was as if catching sight of my shoes I had met with a kind old acquaintance, or got back a part of myself that had been riven loose. A feeling of recognition trembles through my senses; the tears well up in my eyes, and I have a feeling as if my shoes are a soft, murmuring strain rising towards me. "Weakness!" I cried harshly to myself, and I clenched my fists and I repeated "Weakness!" I laughed at myself, for this ridiculous feeling, made fun of myself, with a perfect consciousness of doing so, talked very severely and sensibly, and closed my eyes very tightly to get rid of the tears.
As if I had never seen my shoes before, I set myself to study their looks, their characteristics, and, when I stir my foot, their shape and their worn uppers. I discover that their creases and white seams give them expression--impart a physiognomy to them. Something of my own nature had gone over into these shoes; they affected me, like a ghost of my other I-- a breathing portion of my very self.
I sat and toyed with these fancies a long time, perhaps an entire hour. A little, old man came and took the other end of the seat; as he seated himself he panted after his walk, and muttered:
"Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay; very true!"
As soon as I heard his voice, I felt as if a wind had swept through my head. I let shoes be shoes, and it seemed to me that the distracted phase of mind I had just experienced dated from a long-vanished period, maybe a year or two back, and was about to be quietly effaced from my memory. I began to observe the old fellow.
Did this little man concern me in any way? Not in the least, not in the very slightest degree! Only that he held a newspaper in his hand, an old number (with the advertisement sheet on the outside), in which something or other seemed to be rolled up; my curiosity was aroused, and I could not take my eyes away from this paper. The insane idea entered my head that it might be a quite peculiar newspaper--unique of its kind. My curiosity increased, and I began to move backwards and forwards on the seat. It might contain deeds, dangerous documents stolen from some archive or other; something floated before me about a secret treaty--a conspiracy.
The man sat quietly, and pondered. Why did he not carry his newspaper as every other person carries a paper, with its name out? What species of cunning lurked under that? He did not seem either to like letting his package out of his hands, not for anything in the world; perhaps he did not even dare trust it into his own pocket. I could stake my life there was something at the bottom of that package--I considered a bit. Just the fact of finding it so impossible to penetrate this mysterious affair distracted me with curiosity. I searched my pockets for something to offer the man in order to enter into conversation with him, took hold of my shaving-book, but put it back again. Suddenly it entered my head to be utterly audacious; I slapped my empty breast-pocket, and said:
"May I offer you a cigarette?"
"Thank you!" The man did not smoke; he had to give it up to spare his eyes; he was nearly blind. Thank you very much all the same. Was it long since his eyes got bad? In that case, perhaps, he could not read either, not even a paper?
No, not even the newspaper, more's the pity. The man looked at me; his weak eyes were each covered with a film which gave them a glassy appearance; his gaze grew bleary, and made a disgusting impression on me.
"You are a stranger here?" he said.
"Yes." Could he not even read the name of the paper he held in his hand?
"Barely." For that matter, he could hear directly that I was a stranger. There was something in my accent which told him. It did not need much; he could hear so well. At night, when every one slept, he could hear people in the next room breathing....
"What I was going to say was, 'where do you live?'"
On the spur of the moment a lie stood, ready-made, in my head. I lied involuntarily, without any object, without any arrière pensée, and I answered--
"St. Olav's Place, No. 2."
"Really?" He knew every stone in St. Olav's Place. There was a fountain, some lamp-posts, a few trees; he remembered all of it. "What number do you live in?"
Desirous to put an end to this, I got up. But my notion about the newspaper had driven me to my wit's end; I resolved to clear the thing up, at no matter what cost.
"When you cannot read the paper, why--"
"In No. 2, I think you said," continued the man, without noticing my disturbance. "There was a time I knew every person in No. 2; what is your landlord's name?"
I quickly found a name to get rid of him; invented one on the spur of the moment, and blurted it out to stop my tormentor.
"Happolati!" said I.
"Happolati, ay!" nodded the man; and he never missed a syllable of this difficult name.
I looked at him with amazement; there he sat, gravely, with a considering air. Before I had well given utterance to the stupid name which jumped into my head the man had accommodated himself to it, and pretended to have heard it before.
In the meantime, he had laid his package on the seat, and I felt my curiosity quiver through my nerves. I noticed there were a few grease spots on the paper.
"Isn't he a sea-faring man, your landlord?" queried he, and there was not a trace of suppressed irony in his voice; "I seem to remember he was."
"Sea-faring man? Excuse me, it must be the brother you know; this man is namely J. A. Happolati, the agent."
I thought this would finish him; but he willingly fell in with everything I said. If I had found a name like Barrabas Rosebud it would not have roused his suspicions.
"He is an able man, I have heard?" he said, feeling his way.
"Oh, a clever fellow!" answered I; "a thorough business head; agent for every possible thing going. Cranberries from China; feathers and down from Russia; hides, pulp, writing-ink--"
"He, he! the devil he is?" interrupted the old chap, highly excited.
This began to get interesting. The situation ran away with me, and one lie after another engendered in my head. I sat down again, forgot the newspaper, and the remarkable documents, grew lively, and cut short the old fellow's talk.
The little goblin's unsuspecting simplicity made me foolhardy; I would stuff him recklessly full of lies; rout him out o' field grandly, and stop his mouth from sheer amazement.
Had he heard of the electric psalm-book that Happolati had invented?
"With electric letters that could give light in the dark! a perfectly extraordinary enterprise. A million crowns to be put in circulation; foundries and printing-presses at work, and shoals of regular mechanics to be employed; I had heard as many as seven hundred men."
"Ay, isn't it just what I say?" drawled out the man calmly.
He said no more, he believed every word I related, and for all that, he was not taken aback. This disappointed me a little; I had expected to see him utterly bewildered by my inventions.
I searched my brain for a couple of desperate lies, went the whole hog, hinted that Happolati had been Minister of State for nine years in Persia. "You perhaps have no conception of what it means to be Minister of State in Persia?" I asked. It was more than king here, or about the same as Sultan, if he knew what that meant, but Happolati had managed the whole thing, and was never at a loss. And I related about his daughter Ylajali, a fairy, a princess, who had three hundred slaves, and who reclined on a couch of yellow roses. She was the loveliest creature I had ever seen; I had, may the Lord strike me, never seen her match for looks in my life!
"So--o; was she so lovely?" remarked the old fellow, with an absent air, as he gazed at the ground.
"Lovely? She was beauteous, she was sinfully fascinating. Eyes like raw silk, arms of amber! Just one glance from her was as seductive as a kiss; and when she called me, her voice darted like a wine-ray right into my soul's phosphor. And why shouldn't she be so beautiful?" Did he imagine she was a messenger or something in the fire brigade? She was simply a Heaven's wonder, I could just inform him, a fairy tale.
"Yes, to be sure!" said he, not a little bewildered. His quiet bored me; I was excited by the sound of my own voice and spoke in utter seriousness; the stolen archives, treaties with some foreign power or other, no longer occupied my thoughts; the little flat bundle of paper lay on the seat between us, and I had no longer the smallest desire to examine it or see what it contained. I was entirely absorbed in stories of my own which floated in singular visions across my mental eye. The blood flew to my head, and I roared with laughter.
At this moment the little man seemed about to go. He stretched himself, and in order not to break off too abruptly, added: "He is said to own much property, this Happolati?"
How dared this bleary-eyed, disgusting old man toss about the rare name I had invented as if it were a common name stuck up over every huckster-shop in the town? He never stumbled over a letter or forgot a syllable. The name had bitten fast in his brain and struck root on the instant. I got annoyed; an inward exasperation surged up in me against this creature whom nothing had the power to disturb and nothing render suspicious.
I therefore replied shortly, "I know nothing about that! I know absolutely nothing whatever about that! Let me inform you once for all that his name is Johann Arendt Happolati, if you go by his own initials."
"Johannn Arendt Happolati!" repeated the man, a little astonished at my vehemence; and with that he grew silent.
"You should see his wife!" I said, beside myself. "A fatter creature ... Eh? what? Perhaps you don't even believe she is really fat?"
Well, indeed he did not see his way to deny that such a man might perhaps have a rather stout wife. The old fellow answered quite gently and meekly to each of my assertions, and sought for words as if he feared to offend and perhaps make me furious.
"Hell and fire, man! Do you imagine that I am sitting here stuffing you chock-full of lies?" I roared furiously. "Perhaps you don't even believe that a man of the name of Happolati exists! I never saw your match for obstinacy and malice in any old man. What the devil ails you? Perhaps, too, into the bargain, you have been all this while thinking to yourself I am a poverty-stricken fellow, sitting here in my Sunday-best without even a case full of cigarettes in my pocket. Let me tell you such treatment as yours is a thing I am not accustomed to, and I won't endure it, the Lord strike me dead if I will--neither from you nor any one else, do you know that?"
The man had risen with his mouth agape; he stood tongue-tied and listened to my outbreak until the end. Then he snatched his parcel from off the seat and went, ay, nearly ran, down the patch, with the short, tottering steps of an old man.
I leant back and looked at the retreating figure that seemed to shrink at each step as it passed away. I do not know from where the impression came, but it appeared to me that I had never in my life seen a more vile back than this one, and I did not regret that I had abused the creature before he left me.
The day began to decline, the sun sank, it commenced to rustle lightly in the trees around, and the nursemaids who sat in groups near the parallel bars made ready to wheel their perambulators home. I was calmed and in good spirit. The excitement I had just laboured under quieted down little by little, and I grew weaker, more languid, and began to feel drowsy. Neither did the quantity of bread I had eaten cause me any longer any particular distress. I leant against the back of the seat in the best of humours, closed my eyes, and got more and more sleepy. I dozed, and was just on the point of falling asleep, when a park-keeper put his hand on my shoulder and said:
"You must not sit here and go to sleep!"
"No?" I said, and sprang immediately up, my unfortunate position rising all at once vividly before my eyes. I must do something; find some way or another out of it. To look for situations had been of no avail to me. Even the recommendations I showed had grown a little old, and were written by people all too little known to be of much use; besides that, constant refusals all through the summer had somewhat disheartened me. At all events, my rent was due, and I must raise the wind for that; the rest would have to wait a little.
Quite involuntarily I had got paper and pencil into my hand again, and I sat and wrote mechanically the date, 1848, in each corner. If only now one single effervescing thought would grip me powerfully, and put words into my mouth. Why, I had known hours when I could write a long piece, without the least exertion, and turn it off capitally, too.
I am sitting on the seat, and I write, scores of times, 1848. I write this date criss-cross, in all possible fashions, and wait until a workable idea shall occur to me. A swarm of loose thoughts flutter about in my head. The feeling of declining day makes me downcast, sentimental; autumn is here, and has already begun to hush everything into sleep and torpor. The flies and insects have received their first warning. Up in the trees and down in the fields the sounds of struggling life can be heard rustling, murmuring, restless; labouring not to perish. The down-trodden existence of the whole insect world is astir for yet a little while. They poke their yellow heads up from the turf, lift their legs, feel their way with long feelers and then collapse suddenly, roll over, and turn their bellies in the air.
Every growing thing has received its peculiar impress: the delicately blown breath of the first cold. The stubbles straggle wanly sunwards, and the falling leaves rustle to the earth, with a sound as of errant silkworms.
It is the reign of Autumn, the height of the Carnival of Decay, the roses have got inflammation in their blushes, an uncanny hectic tinge, through their soft damask.
I felt myself like a creeping thing on the verge of destruction, gripped by ruin in the midst of a whole world ready for lethargic sleep. I rose, oppressed by weird terrors, and took some furious strides down the path. "No!" I cried out, clutching both my hands; "there must be an end to this," and I reseated myself, grasped the pencil, and set seriously to work at an article.
There was no possible use in giving way, with the unpaid rent staring me straight in the face.
Slowly, quite slowly, my thoughts collected. I paid attention to them, and wrote quietly and well; wrote a couple of pages as an introduction. It would serve as a beginning to anything. A description of travel, a political leader, just as I thought fit--it was a perfectly splendid commencement for something or anything. So I took to seeking for some particular subject to handle, a person or a thing, that I might grapple with, and I could find nothing. Along with this fruitless exertion, disorder began to hold its sway again in my thoughts. I felt how my brain positively snapped and my head emptied, until it sat at last, light, buoyant, and void on my shoulders. I was conscious of the gaping vacuum in my skull with every fibre of my being. I seemed to myself to be hollowed out from top and toe.
In my pain I cried: "Lord, my God and Father!" and repeated this cry many times at a stretch, without adding one word more.
The wind soughed through the trees; a storm was brewing. I sat a while longer, and gazed at my paper, lost in thought, then folded it up and put it slowly into my pocket. It got chilly; and I no longer owned a waistcoat. I buttoned my coat right up to my throat and thrust my hands in my pockets; thereupon I rose and went on.
If I had only succeeded this time, just this once. Twice my landlady had asked me with her eyes for payment, and I was obliged to hang my head and slink past her with a shamefaced air. I could not do it again: the very next time I met those eyes I would give warning and account for myself honestly. Well, any way, things could not last long at this rate.
On coming to the exit of the park I saw the old chap I had put to flight. The mysterious new paper parcel lay opened on the seat next him, filled with different sorts of victuals, of which he ate as he sat. I immediately wanted to go over and ask pardon for my conduct, but the sight of food repelled me. The decrepit fingers looked like ten claws as they clutched loathsomely at the greasy bread and butter; I felt qualmish, and passed by without addressing him. He did not recognize me; his eyes stared at me, dry as horn, and his face did not move a muscle.
And so I went on my way.
As customary, I halted before every newspaper placard I came to, to read the announcements of situations vacant, and was lucky enough to find one that I might try for.
A grocer in Groenlandsleret wanted a man every week for a couple of hours' book-keeping; remuneration according to agreement. I noted my man's address, and prayed to God in silence for this place. I would demand less than any one else for my work; sixpence was ample, or perhaps fivepence. That would not matter in the least.
On going home, a slip of paper from my landlady lay on my table, in which she begged me to pay my rent in advance, or else move as soon as I could. I must not be offended, it was absolutely a necessary request. Friendlily Mrs. Gundersen.
I wrote an application to Christy the grocer, No. 13 Groenlandsleret, put it in an envelope, and took it to the pillar at the corner. Then I returned to my room and sat down in the rocking-chair to think, whilst the darkness grew closer and closer. Sitting up late began to be difficult now.
I woke very early in the morning. It was still quite dark as I opened my eyes, and it was not till long after that I heard five strokes of the clock down-stairs. I turned round to doze again, but sleep had down. I grew more and more wakeful, and lay and thought of a thousand things.
Suddenly a few good sentences fitted for a sketch or story strike me, delicate linguistic hits of which I have never before found the equal. I lie and repeat these words over to myself, and find that they are capital. Little by little others come and fit themselves to the preceding ones. I grow keenly wakeful. I get up and snatch paper and pencil from the table behind my bed. It was as if a vein had burst in me; one word follows another, and they fit themselves together harmoniously with telling effect. Scene piles on scene, actions and speeches bubble up in my brain, and a wonderful sense of pleasure empowers me. I write as one possessed, and fill page after page, without a moment's pause.
Thoughts come so swiftly to me and continue to flow so richly that I miss a number of telling bits, that I cannot set down quickly enough, although I work with all my might. They continue to invade me; I am full of my subject, and every word I write is inspired.
This strange period lasts--lasts such a blessedly long time before it comes to an end. I have fifteen--twenty written pages lying on my knees before me, when at last I cease and lay my pencil aside, So sure as there is any worth in these pages, so sure am I saved. I jump out of bed and dress myself. It grows lighter. I can half distinguish the lighthouse director's announcement down near the door, and near the window it is already so light that I could, in case of necessity, see to write. I set to work immediately to make a fair copy of what I have written.
An intense, peculiar exhalation of light and colour emanates from these fantasies of mine. I start with surprise as I note one good thing after another, and tell myself that this is the best thing I have ever read. My head swims with a sense of satisfaction; delight inflates me; I grow grandiose.
I weigh my writing in my hand, and value it, at a loose guess, for five shillings on the spot.
It could never enter any one's head to chaffer about five shillings; on the contrary, getting it for half-a-sovereign might be considered dirt- cheap, considering the quality of the thing.
I had no intention of turning off such special work gratis. As far as I was aware, one did not pick up stories of that kind on the wayside, and I decided on half-a-sovereign.
The room brightened and brightened. I threw a glance towards the door, and could distinguish without particular trouble the skeleton-like letters of Miss Andersen's winding-sheet advertisement to the right of it. It was also a good while since the clock has struck seven.
I rose and came to a standstill in the middle of the floor. Everything well considered, Mrs. Gundersen's warning came rather opportunely. This was, properly speaking, no fit room for me: there were only common enough green curtains at the windows, and neither were there any pegs too many on the wall. The poor little rocking-chair over in the corner was in reality a mere attempt at a rocking-chair; with the smallest sense of humour, one might easily split one's sides with laughter at it. It was far too low for a grown man, and besides that, one needed, so to speak, the aid of a boot- jack to get out of it. To cut it short, the room was not adopted for the pursuit of things intellectual, and I did not intend to keep it any longer. On no account would I keep it. I had held my peace, and endured and lived far too long in such a den.
Buoyed up by hope and satisfaction, constantly occupied with my remarkable sketch, which I drew forth every moment from my pocket and re-read, I determined to set seriously to work with my flitting. I took out my bundle, a red handkerchief that contained a few clean collars and some crumpled newspapers, in which I had occasionally carried home bread. I rolled my blanket up and pocketed my reserve white writing-paper. Then I ransacked every corner to assure myself that I had left nothing behind, and as I could not find anything, went over to the window and looked out.
The morning was gloomy and wet; there was no one about at the burnt-out smithy, and the clothesline down in the yard stretched tightly from wall to wall shrunken by the wet. It was all familiar to me, so I stepped back from the window, took the blanket under my arm, and made a low bow to the lighthouse director's announcement, bowed again to Miss Andersen's winding-sheet advertisement, and opened the door. Suddenly the thought of my land-lady struck me; she really ought to be informed of my leaving, so that she could see she had had an honest soul to deal with.
I wanted also to thank her in writing for the few days' overtime in which I occupied the room. The certainty that I was now saved for some time to come increased so strongly in me that I even promised her five shillings. I would call in some day when passing by.
Besides that, I wanted to prove to her what an upright sort of person her roof had sheltered.
I left the note behind me on the table.
Once again I stopped at the door and turned round; the buoyant feeling of having risen once again to the surface charmed me, and made me feel grateful towards God and all creation, and I knelt down at the bedside and thanked God aloud for His great goodness to me that morning.
I knew it; ah! I knew that the rapture of inspiration I had just felt and noted down was a miraculous heaven-brew in my spirit in answer to my yesterday's cry for aid.
"It was God! It was God!" I cried to myself, and I wept for enthusiasm over my own words; now and then I had to stop and listen if any one was on the stairs. At last I rose up and prepared to go. I stole noiselessly down each flight and reached the door unseen.
The streets were glistening from the rain which had fallen in the early morning. The sky hung damp and heavy over the town, and there was no glint of sunlight visible. I wondered what the day would bring forth? I went as usual in the direction of the Town Hall, and saw that it was half-past eight. I had yet a few hours to walk about; there was no use in going to the newspaper office before ten, perhaps eleven. I must lounge about so long, and think, in the meantime, over some expedient to raise breakfast. For that matter, I had no fear of going to bed hungry that day; those times were over, God be praised! That was a thing of the past, an evil dream. Henceforth, Excelsior!
But, in the meanwhile, the green blanket was a trouble to me. Neither could I well make myself conspicuous by carrying such a thing about right under people's eyes. What would any one think of me? And as I went on I tried to think of a place where I could have it kept till later on. It occurred to me that I might go into Semb's and get it wrapped up in paper; not only would it look better, but I need no longer be ashamed of carrying it.
I entered the shop, and stated my errand to one of the shop boys.
He looked first at the blanket, then at me. It struck me that he shrugged his shoulders to himself a little contemptuously as he took it; this annoyed me.
"Young man," I cried, "do be a little careful! There are two costly glass vases in that; the parcel has to go to Smyrna."
This had a famous effect. The fellow apologized with every movement he made for not having guessed that there was something out of the common in this blanket. When he had finished packing it up I thanked him with the air of a man who had sent precious goods to Smyrna before now. He held the door open for me, and bowed twice as I left.
I began to wander about amongst the people in the market place, kept from choice near the woman who had potted plants for sale. The heavy crimson roses--the leaves of which glowed blood-like and moist in the damp morning--made me envious, and tempted me sinfully to snatch one, and I inquired the price of them merely as an excuse to approach as near to them as possible.
If I had any money over I would buy one, no matter how things went; indeed, I might well save a little now and then out of my way of living to balance things again.
It was ten o'clock, and I went up to the newspaper office. "Scissors" is running through a lot of old papers. The editor has not come yet. On being asked my business, I delivered my weighty manuscript, lead him to suppose that it is something of more than uncommon importance, and impress upon his memory gravely that he is to give it into we editor's own hands as soon as he arrives.
I would myself call later on in the day for an answer.
"All right," replied "Scissors," and busied himself again with his papers.
It seemed to me that he treated the matter somewhat too coolly; but I said nothing, only nodded rather carelessly to him, and left.
I had now time on hand! If it would only clear up! It was perfectly wretched weather, without either wind or freshness. Ladies carried their umbrellas, to be on the safe side, and the woollen caps of the men looked limp and depressing.
I took another turn across the market and looked at the vegetables and roses. I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn round--"Missy" bids me good morning! "Good-morning!" I say in return, a little questioningly. I never cared particularly for "Missy."
He looks inquisitively at the large brand-new parcel under my arm, and asks:
"What have you got there?"
"Oh, I have been down to Semb and got some cloth for a suit," I reply, in a careless tone. "I didn't think I could rub on any longer; there's such a thing as treating oneself too shabbily."
He looks at me with an amazed start.
"By the way, how are you getting on?" He asks it slowly.
"Oh, beyond all expectation!"
"Then you have got something to do now?"
"Something to do?" I answer and seem surprised. "Rather! Why, I am book- keeper at Christensen's--a wholesale house."
"Oh, indeed!" he remarks and draws back a little.
"Well, God knows I am the first to be pleased at your success. If only you don't let people beg the money from you that you earn. Good-day!"
A second after he wheels round and comes back and, pointing with his cane to my parcel, says:
"I would recommend my tailor to you for the suit of clothes. You won't find a better tailor than Isaksen--just say I sent you, that's all!"
This was really rather more than I could swallow. What did he want to poke his nose in my affairs for? Was it any concern of his which tailor I employed? The sight of this empty-headed dandified "masher" embittered me, and I reminded him rather brutally of ten shilling he had borrowed from me. But before he could reply I regretted that I had asked for it. I got ashamed and avoided meeting his eyes, and, as a lady came by just then, I stepped hastily aside to let her pass, and seized the opportunity to proceed on my way.
What should I do with myself whilst I waited? I could not visit a cafe with empty pockets, and I knew of no acquaintance that I could call on at this time of day. I wended my way instinctively up town, killed a good deal of time between the marketplace and the Graendsen, read the Aftenpost, which was newly posted up on the board outside the office, took a turn down Carl Johann, wheeled round and went straight on to Our Saviour's Cemetery, where I found a quiet seat on the slope near the Mortuary Chapel.
I sat there in complete quietness, dozed in the damp air, mused, half- slept and shivered.
And time passed. Now, was it certain that the story really was a little masterpiece of inspired art? God knows if it might not have its faults here and there. All things well weighed, it was not certain that it would be accepted; no, simply not even accepted. It was perhaps mediocre enough in its way, perhaps downright worthless. What security had I that it was not already at this moment lying in the waste-paper basket?... My confidence was shaken. I sprang up and stormed out of the graveyard.
Down in Akersgaden I peeped into a shop window, and saw that it was only a little past noon. There was no use in looking up the editor before four. The fate of my story filled me with gloomy forebodings; the more I thought about it the more absurd it seemed to me that I could have written anything useable with such suddenness, half-asleep, with my brain full of fever and dreams. Of course I had deceived myself and been happy all through the long morning for nothing!... Of course!... I rushed with hurried strides up Ullavold-sveien, past St. Han's Hill, until I came to the open fields; on through the narrow quaint lanes in Sagene, past waste plots and small tilled fields, and found myself at last on a country road, the end of which I could not see.
Here I halted and decided to turn.
I was warm from the walk, and returned slowly and very downcast. I met two hay-carts. The drivers were lying flat upon the top of their loads, and sang. Both were bare-headed, and both had round, care-free faces. I passed them and thought to myself that they were sure to accost me, sure to fling some taunt or other at me, play me some trick; and as I got near enough, one of them called out and asked what I had under my arm?
"What o'clock is it?" he asked then.
"I don't know rightly; about three, I think!" Whereupon they both laughed and drove on. I felt at the same moment the lash of a whip curl round one of my ears, and my hat was jerked off. They couldn't let me pass without playing me a trick. I raised my hand to my head more or less confusedly, picked my hat out of the ditch, and continued on my way. Down at St. Han's Hill I met a man who told me it was past four. Past four! already past four! I mended my pace, nearly ran down to the town, turned off towards the news office. Perhaps the editor had been there hours ago, and had left the office by now. I ran, jostled against folk, stumbled, knocked against cars, left everybody behind me, competed with the very horses, struggled like a madman to arrive there in time. I wrenched through the door, took the stairs in four bounds, and knocked.
"He has left, he has left," I think. I try the door which is open, knock once again, and enter. The editor is sitting at his table, his face towards the window, pen in hand, about to write. When he hears my breathless greeting he turns half round, steals a quick look at me, shakes his head, and says:
"Oh, I haven't found time to read your sketch yet."
I am so delighted, because in that case he has not rejected it, that I answer:
"Oh, pray, sir, don't mention it. I quite understand--there is no hurry; in a few days, perhaps--"
"Yes, I shall see; besides, I have your address."
I forgot to inform him that I no longer had an address, and the interview is over. I bow myself out, and leave. Hope flames up again in me; as yet, nothing is lost--on the contrary, I might, for that matter, yet win all. And my brain began to spin a romance about a great council in Heaven, in which it had just been resolved that I should win--ay, triumphantly win ten shillings for a story.
If I only had some place in which to take refuge for the night! I consider where I can stow myself away, and am so absorbed in this query that I come to a standstill in the middle of the street. I forget where I am, and pose like a solitary beacon on a rock in mid-sea, whilst the tides rush and roar about it.
A newspaper boy offers me The Viking.
"It's real good value, sir!"
I look up and start; I am outside Semb's shop again. I quickly turn to the right-about, holding the parcel in front of me, and hurry down Kirkegaden, ashamed and afraid that any one might have seen me from the window. I pass by Ingebret's and the theatre, turn round by the box-office, and go towards the sea, near the fortress. I find a seat once more, and begin to consider afresh.
Where in the world shall I find a shelter for the night?
Was there a hole to be found where I could creep in and hide myself till morning? My pride forbade my returning to my lodging--besides, it could never really occur to me to go back on my word; I rejected this thought with great scorn, and I smiled superciliously as I thought of the little red rocking-chair. By some association of ideas, I find myself suddenly transported to a large, double room I once occupied in Haegdehaugen. I could see a tray on the table, filled with great slices of bread-and- butter. The vision changed; it was transformed into beef--a seductive piece of beef--a snow-white napkin, bread in plenty, a silver fork. The door opened; enter my landlady, offering me more tea....
Visions; senseless dreams! I tell myself that were I to get food now my head would become dizzy once more, fever would fill my brain, and I would have to fight again against many mad fancies. I could not stomach food, my inclination did not lie that way; that was peculiar to me--an idiosyncrasy of mine.
Maybe as night drew on a way could be found to procure shelter. There was no hurry; at the worst, I could seek a place out in the woods. I had the entire environs of the city at my disposal; as yet, there was no degree of cold worth speaking of in the weather.
And outside there the sea rocked in drowsy rest; ships and clumsy, broad- nosed prams ploughed graves in its bluish surface, and scattered rays to the right and left, and glided on, whilst the smoke rolled up in downy masses from the chimney-stacks, and the stroke of the engine pistons pierced the clammy air with a dull sound. There was no sun and no wind; the trees behind me were almost wet, and the seat upon which I sat was cold and damp.
Time went. I settled down to doze, waxed tired, and a little shiver ran down my back. A while after I felt that my eyelids began to droop, and I let them droop....
When I awoke it was dark all around me. I started up, bewildered and freezing. I seized my parcel and commenced to walk. I went faster and faster in order to get warm, slapped my arms, chafed my legs--which by now I could hardly feel under me--and thus reached the watch-house of the fire brigade. It was nine o'clock; I had been asleep for several hours.
Whatever shall I do with myself? I must go to some place. I stand there and stare up at the watch-house, and query if it would not be possible to succeed in getting into one of the passages if I were to watch for a moment when the watchman's back was turned. I ascend the steps, and prepare to open a conversation with the man. He lifts his ax in salute, and waits for what I may have to say. The uplifted ax, with its edge turned against me, darts like a cold slash through my nerves. I stand dumb with terror before this armed man, and draw involuntarily back. I say nothing, only glide farther and farther away from him. To save appearances I draw my hand over my forehead, as if I had forgotten something or other, and slink away. When I reached the pavement I felt as much saved as if I had just escaped a great peril, and I hurried away.
Cold and famished, more and more miserable in spirit, I flew up Carl Johann. I began to swear out aloud, troubling myself not a whit as to whether any one heard me or not. Arrived at Parliament House, just near the first trees, I suddenly, by some association of ideas, bethought myself of a young artist I knew, a stripling I had once saved from an assault in the Tivoli, and upon whom I had called later on. I snap my fingers gleefully, and wend my way to Tordenskjiolds Street, find the door, on which is fastened a card with C. Zacharias Bartel on it, and knock.
He came out himself, and smelt so fearfully of ale and tobacco that it was horrible.
"Good-evening!" I say.
"Good-evening! is that you? Now, why the deuce do you come so late? It doesn't look at all its best by lamplight. I have added a hayrick to it since, and have made a few other alterations. You must see it by daylight; there is no use our trying to see it now!"
"Let me have a look at it now, all the same," said I; though, for that matter, I did not in the least remember what picture he was talking about.
"Absolutely impossible," he replied; "the whole thing will look yellow; and, besides, there's another thing"--and he came towards me, whispering: "I have a little girl inside this evening, so it's clearly impracticable."
"Oh, in that case, of course there's no question about it."
I drew back, said good-night, and went away.
So there was no way out of it but to seek some place out in the woods. If only the fields were not so damp. I patted my blanket, and felt more and more at home at the thought of sleeping out. I had worried myself so long trying to find a shelter in town that I was wearied and bored with the whole affair. It would be a positive pleasure to get to rest, to resign myself; so I loaf down the street without thought in my head. At a place in Haegdehaugen I halted outside a provision shop where some food was displayed in the window. A cat lay there and slept beside a round French roll. There was a basin of lard and several basins of meal in the background. I stood a while and gazed at these eatables; but as I had no money wherewith to buy, I turned quickly away and continued my tramp. I went very slowly, passed by Majorstuen, went on, always on--it seemed to me for hours,--and came at length at Bogstad's wood.
I turned off the road here, and sat down to rest. Then I began to look about for a place to suit me, to gather together heather and juniper leaves, and make up a bed on a little declivity where it was a bit dry. I opened the parcel and took out the blanket; I was tired and exhausted with the long walk, and lay down at once. I turned and twisted many times before I could get settled. My ear pained me a little--it was slightly swollen from the whip-lash--and I could not lie on it. I pulled off my shoes and put them under my head, with the paper from Semb on top.
And the great spirit of darkness spread a shroud over me ... everything was silent--everything. But up in the heights soughed the everlasting song, the voice of the air, the distant, toneless humming which is never silent. I listened so long to this ceaseless faint murmur that it began to bewilder me; it was surely a symphony from the rolling spheres above. Stars that intone a song....
"I am damned if it is, though," I exclaimed; and I laughed aloud to collect my wits. "They're night-owls hooting in Canaan!"
I rose again, pulled on my shoes, and wandered about in the gloom, only to lay down once more. I fought and wrestled with anger and fear until nearly dawn, then fell asleep at last.
It was broad daylight when I opened my eyes, and I had a feeling that it was going on towards noon.
I pulled on my shoes, packed up the blanket again, and set out for town. There was no sun to be seen today either; I shivered like a dog, my feet were benumbed, and water commenced to run from my eyes, as if they could not bear the daylight.
It was three o'clock. Hunger began to assail me downright in earnest. I was faint, and now and again I had to retch furtively. I swung round by the Dampkökken, 2 read the bill of fare, and shrugged my shoulders in a way to attract attention, as if corned beef or salt port was not meet food for me. After that I went towards the railway station.
A singular sense of confusion suddenly darted through my head. I stumbled on, determined not to heed it; but I grew worse and worse, and was forced at last to sit down on a step. My whole being underwent a change, as if something had slid aside in my inner self, or as if a curtain or tissue of my brain was rent in two.
I was not unconscious; I felt that my ear was gathering a little, and, as an acquaintance passed by, I recognized him at once and got up and bowed.
What sore of fresh, painful perception was this that was being added to the rest? Was it a consequence of sleeping in the sodden fields, or did it arise from my not having had any breakfast yet? Looking the whole thing squarely in the face, there was no meaning in living on in this manner, by Christ's holy pains, there wasn't. I failed to see either how I had made myself deserving of this special persecution; and it suddenly entered my head that I might just as well turn rogue at once and go to my "Uncle's" with the blanket. I could pawn it for a shilling, and get three full meals, and so keep myself going until I thought of something else. 'Tis true I would have to swindle Hans Pauli. I was already on my way to the pawn-shop, but stopped outside the door, shook my head irresolutely, then turned back. The farther away I got the more gladsome, ay, delighted I became, that I had conquered this strong temptation. The consciousness that I was yet pure and honourable rose to my head, filled me with a splendid sense of having principle, character, of being a shining white beacon in a muddy, human sea amidst floating wreck.
Pawn another man's property for the sake of a meal, eat and drink one's self to perdition, brand one's soul with the first little scar, set the first black mark against one's honour, call one's self a blackguard to one's own face, and needs must cast one's eyes down before one's self? Never! never! It could never have been my serious intention--it had really never seriously taken hold of me; in fact, I could not be answerable for every loose, fleeting, desultory thought, particularly with such a headache as I had, and nearly killed carrying a blanket, too, that belonged to another fellow.
There would surely be some way or another of getting help when the right time came! Now, there was the grocer in Groenlandsleret. Had I importuned him every hour in the day since I sent in my application? Had I rung the bell early and late, and been turned away? Why, I had not even applied personally to him or sought an answer! It did not follow, surely, that it must needs be an absolutely vain attempt.
Maybe I had luck with me this time. Luck often took such a devious course, and I started for Groenlandsleret.
The last spasm that had darted through my head had exhausted me a little, and I walked very slowly and thought over what I would say to him.
Perhaps he was a good soul; if the whim seized him he might pay me for my work a shilling in advance, even without my asking for it. People of that sort had sometimes the most capital ideas.
I stole into a doorway and blackened the knees of my trousers with spittle to try and make them look a little respectable, left the parcel behind me in a dark corner at the back of a chest, and entered the little shop.
A man is standing pasting together bags made of old newspaper.
"I would like to see Mr. Christie," I said.
"That's me!" replied the man.
"Indeed!" Well, my name was so-and-so. I had taken the liberty of sending him an application, I did not know if it had been of any use.
He repeated my name a couple of times and commenced to laugh.
"Well now, you shall see," he said, taking my letter out of his breast- pocket, "if you will just be good enough to see how you deal with dates, sir. You dated your letter 1848," and the man roared with laughter.
"Yes, that was rather a mistake," I said, abashed--a distraction, a want of thought; I admitted it.
"You see I must have a man who, as a matter of fact, makes no mistakes in figures," said he. "I regret it, your handwriting is clear, and I like your letter, too, but--"
I waited a while; this could not possibly be the man's final say. He busied himself again with the bags.
"Yes, it was a pity," I said; "really an awful pity, but of course it would not occur again; and, after all, surely this little error could not have rendered me quite unfit to keep books?"
"No, I didn't say that," he answered, "but in the meantime it had so much weight with me that I decided at once upon another man."
"So the place is filled?"
"A--h, well, then there's nothing more to be said about it!"
"No! I'm sorry, but--"
"Good-evening!" said I.
Fury welled up in me, blazing with brutal strength. I fetched my parcel from the entry, set my teeth together, jostled against the peaceful folk on the footpath, and never once asked their pardon.
As one man stopped and set me to rights rather sharply for my behaviour, I turned round and screamed a single meaningless word in his ear, clenched my fist right under his nose, and stumbled on, hardened by a blind rage that I could not control.
He called a policeman, and I desired nothing better than to have one between my hands just for one moment. I slackened my pace intentionally in order to give him an opportunity of overtaking me; but he did not come. Was there now any reason whatever that absolutely every one of one's most earnest and most persevering efforts should fail? Why, too, had I written 1848? In what way did that infernal date concern me? Here I was going about starving, so that my entrails wriggle together in me like worms, and it was, as far as I knew, not decreed in the book of fate that anything in the shape of food would turn up later on in the day.
I was becoming mentally and physically more and more prostrate; I was letting myself down each day to less and less honest actions, so that I lied on each day without blushing, cheated poor people out of their rent, struggled with the meanest thoughts of making away with other men's blankets--all without remorse or prick of conscience.
Foul places began to gather in my inner being, black spores which spread more and more. And up in Heaven God Almighty sat and kept a watchful eye on me, and took heed that my destruction proceeded in accordance with all the rules of art, uniformly and gradually, without a break in the measure.
But in the abysses of hell the angriest devils bristled with range because it lasted such a long time until I committed a mortal sin, an unpardonable offence for which God in His justice must cast me--down....
I quickened my pace, hurried faster and faster, turned suddenly to the left and found myself, excited and angry, in a light ornate doorway. I did not pause, not for one second, but the whole peculiar ornamentation of the entrance struck on my perception in a flash; every detail of the decoration and the tiling of the floor stood clear on my mental vision as I sprang up the stairs. I rang violently on the second floor. Why should I stop exactly on the second floor? And why just seize hold of this bell which was some little way from the stairs?
A young lady in a grey gown with black trimming came out and opened the door. She looked for a moment in astonishment at me, then shook her head and said:
"No, we have not got anything today," and she made a feint to close the door.
What induced me to thrust myself in this creature's way? She took me without further ado for a beggar.
I got cool and collected at once. I raised my hat, made a respectful bow, and, as if I had not caught her words, said, with the utmost politeness:
"I hope you will excuse me, madam, for ringing so hard, the bell was new to me. Is it not here that an invalid gentleman lives who has advertised for a man to wheel him about in a chair?"
She stood awhile and digested this mendacious invention and seemed to be irresolute in her summing up of my person.
"No!" she said at length; "no, there is no invalid gentleman living here."
"Not really? An elderly gentleman--two hours a day--sixpence an hour?"
"Ah! in that case, I again ask pardon," said I. "It is perhaps on the first floor. I only wanted, in any case, to recommend a man I know, in whom I am interested; my name is Wedel-Jarlsberg," 3 and I bowed again and drew back. The young lady blushed crimson, and in her embarrassment could not stir from the spot, but stood and stared after me as I descended the stairs.
My calm had returned to me, and my head was clear. The lady's saying that she had nothing for me today had acted upon me like an icy shower. So it had gone so far with me that any one might point at me, and say to himself, "There goes a beggar--one of those people who get their food handed out to them at folk's back-doors!"
I halted outside an eating-house in Möller Street, and sniffed the fresh smell of meat roasting inside; my hand was already upon the door-handle, and I was on the point of entering without any fixed purpose, when I bethought myself in time, and left the spot. On reaching the market, and seeking for a place to rest for a little, I found all the benches occupied, and I sought in vain all round outside the church for a quiet seat, where I could sit down.
Naturally, I told myself, gloomily--naturally, naturally; and I commenced to walk again. I took a turn round the fountain at the corner of the bazaar, and swallowed a mouthful of water. On again, dragging one foot after the other; stopped for a long time before each shop window; halted, and watched every vehicle that drove by. I felt a scorching heat in my head, and something pulsated strangely in my temples. The water I had drunk disagreed with me fearfully, and I retched, stopping here and there to escape being noticed in the open street. In this manner I came up to Our Saviour's Cemetery.
I sat down here, with my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands. In this cramped position I was more at ease, and I no longer felt the little gnawing in my chest.
A stone-cutter lay on his stomach on a large slab of granite, at the side of me, and cut inscriptions. He had blue spectacles on, and reminded me of an acquaintance of mine, whom I had almost forgotten.
If I could only knock all shame on the head and apply to him. Tell him the truth right out, that things were getting awfully tight with me now; ay, that I found it hard enough to keep alive. I could give him my shaving- tickets.
Zounds! my shaving-tickets; tickets for nearly a shilling. I search nervously for this precious treasure. As I do not find them quickly enough, I spring to my feet and search, in a sweat of fear. I discover them at last in the bottom of my breast-pocket, together with other papers--some clean, some written on--of no value.
I count these six tickets over many times, backwards and forwards; I had not much use for them; it might pass for a whim--a notion of mine--that I no longer cared to get shaved.
I was saved to the extent of sixpence--a white sixpence of Kongsberg silver. The bank closed at six; I could watch for my man outside the Opland Café between seven and eight.
I sat, and was for a long time pleased with this thought. Time went. The wind blew lustily through the chestnut trees around me, and the day declined.
After all, was it not rather petty to come slinking up with six shaving- tickets to a young gentleman holding a good position in a bank? Perhaps, he had already a book, maybe two, quite full of spick and span tickets, a contrast to the crumpled ones I held.
Who could tell? I felt in all my pockets for anything else I could let go with them, but found nothing. If I could only offer him my tie? I could well do without it if I buttoned my coat tightly up, which, by the way, I was already obliged to do, as I had no waistcoat. I untied it--it was a large overlapping bow which hid half my chest,--brushed it carefully, and folded it up in a piece of clean white writing-paper, together with the tickets. Then I left the churchyard and took the road leading to the Opland.
It was seven by the Town Hall clock. I walked up and down hard by the café, kept close to the iron railings, and kept a sharp watch on all who went in and came out of the door. At last, about eight o'clock, I saw the young fellow, fresh, elegantly dressed, coming up the hill and across to the cafe door. My heart fluttered like a little bird in my breast as I caught sight of him, and I blurted out, without even a greeting:
"Sixpence, old friend!" I said, putting on cheek; "here is the worth of it," and I thrust the little packet into his hand.
"Haven't got it," he exclaimed. "God knows if I have!" and he turned his purse inside out right before my eyes. "I was out last night and got totally cleared out! You must believe me, I literally haven't got it."
"No, no, my dear fellow; I suppose it is so," I answered, and I took his word for it. There was, indeed, no reason why he should lie about such a trifling matter. It struck me, too, that his blue eyes were moist whilst he ransacked his pockets and found nothing. I drew back. "Excuse me," I said; "it was only just that I was a bit hard up." I was already a piece down the street, when he called after me about the little packet. "Keep it! keep it," I answered; "you are welcome to it. There are only a few trifles in it--a bagatelle; about all I own in the world," and I became so touched at my own words, they sounded so pathetic in the twilight, that I fell a-weeping....
The wind freshened, the clouds chased madly across the heavens, and it grew cooler and cooler as it got darker. I walked, and cried as I walked, down the whole street; felt more and more commiseration with myself, and repeated, time after time, a few words, an ejaculation, which called forth fresh tears whenever they were on the point of ceasing: "Lord God, I feel so wretched! Lord God, I feel so wretched!"
An hour passed; passed with such strange slowness, such weariness. I spent a long time in Market Street; sat on steps, stole into doorways, and when any one approached, stood and stared absently into the shops where people bustled about with wares or money. At last I found myself a sheltered place, behind a deal hoarding, between the church and the bazaar.
No; I couldn't go out into the woods again this evening. Things must take their course. I had not strength enough to go, and it was such an endless way there. I would kill the night as best I could, and remain where I was; if it got all too cold, well, I could walk round the church. I would not in any case worry myself any more about that, and I leant back and dozed.
The noise around me diminished; the shops closed. The steps of the pedestrians sounded more and more rarely, and in all the windows about the lights went out. I opened my eyes, and became aware of a figure standing in front of me. The flash of shining buttons told me it was a policeman, though I could not see the man's face.
"Good-night," he said.
"Good-night," I answered and got afraid.
"Where do you live?" he queried.
I name, from habit, and without thought, my old address, the little attic.
He stood for a while.
"Have I done anything wrong?" I asked anxiously.
"No, not at all!" he replied; "but you had perhaps better be getting home now; it's cold lying here."
"Ay, that's true; I feel it is a little chilly." I said good-night, and instinctively took the road to my old abode. If I only set about it carefully, I might be able to get upstairs without being heard; there were eight steps in all, and only the two top ones creaked under my tread. Down at the door I took off my shoes, and ascended. It was quiet everywhere. I could hear the slow tick-tack of a clock, and a child crying a little. After that I heard nothing. I found my door, lifted the latch as I was accustomed to do, entered the room, and shut the door noiselessly after me.
Everything was as I had left it. The curtains were pulled aside from the windows, and the bed stood empty. I caught a glimpse of a note lying on the table; perhaps it was my note to the landlady--she might never have been up here since I went away.
I fumbled with my hands over the white spot, and felt, to my astonishment, that it was a letter. I take it over to the window, examine as well as it is possible in the dark the badly-written letters of the address, and make out at least my own name. Ah, I thought, an answer from my landlady, forbidding me to enter the room again if I were for sneaking back.
Slowly, quite slowly I left the room, carrying my shoes in one hand, the letter in the other, and the blanket under my arm. I draw myself up, set my teeth as I tread on the creaking steps, get happily down the stairs, and stand once more at the door. I put on my shoes, take my time with the laces, sit a while quietly after I'm ready, and stare vacantly before me, holding the letter in my hand. Then I get up and go.
The flickering ray of a gas lamp gleams up the street. I make straight for the light, lean my parcel against the lamp-post and open the letter. All this with the utmost deliberation. A stream of light, as it were, darts through my breast, and I hear that I give a little cry--a meaningless sound of joy. The letter was from the editor. My story was accepted--had been set in type immediately, straight off! A few slight alterations.... A couple of errors in writing amended.... Worked out with talent ... be printed tomorrow ... half-a-sovereign.
I laughed and cried, took to jumping and running down the street, stopped, slapped my thighs, swore loudly and solemnly into space at nothing in particular. And time went.
All through the night until the bright dawn I "jodled" about the streets and repeated--"Worked out with talent--therefore a little masterpiece--a stroke of genius--and half-a-sovereign."