The cock under the wash tub
"Sixteen months is a long time," said Erling, "but with you time seems to have stood still; you haven't looked so young since the war ended."
She felt her heart beat faster; she leaned back and stole a glance at him, where he sat stooped with his arms round his knees. Erling had a deep tan. She looked for gray hairs but didn't see any. "You have been away two birthdays," she said. "I hope you'll stay home a while now."
He kept on inspecting his hands as he replied: "No need to walk around the hot porridge, Felicia. It was quite natural we didn't speak of this yesterday or last night, but I have been away on only this one long journey since before the war, and I feel no need to repeat it. For me there will be no more journeys except in Scandinavia."
A long silence ensued. Felicia felt uneasy and wondered if she should break the ice, but wasn't quite clear where she had him now. He could be unpredictable. Perhaps she had hoped the subject now brought up might never have been mentioned. And then she herself had happened to say something silly that might drag everything out into daylight.
When Erling spoke it was obvious he was trying to weigh his words and wanted to arrive at some agreement without exaggeration: "You know very well I didn't leave Norway of my own free will, but most unwillingly when the journey had to be in the direction of the equator. I [p. 15] was caught up by all your nonsense-talk that I must once more get out and see the world, and then, half-committed, I had this extremely advantageous stay in Las Palmas suggested to me. What business had I there? Of myself I would never have dreamed of going. If you had told me honestly what it was all about I would willingly have gone, and, not being entirely ignorant or almost in the dark, I would have agreed to be sent to Las Palmas. You said yourself you got the idea because I had once been there, but only when I was a boy, and I can't see it was a particularly brilliant idea to send a grown man to some place just because he had been there before. I was nearing fifty when I left and I'm past fifty-one on my return. It might have seemed less of an exile to me if I myself had chosen the place in which to spend my time while you got yourself another child. The farmers are said to put a brooding hen under a wash tub, but this must be something new to put the rooster there when he isn't wanted. Things were enjoyable enough in the Canary Islands, but I would rather have seen the pyramids or Mexico."
"Don't be unfair," whispered Felicia. "You mustn't exaggerate."
"Your strong need to arrange things for others probably played a part; and I must say you usually do it sensibly and effectively—sometimes too sensibly and effectively; this puts matters in a somewhat better light. You were born to be self-willed in matters concerning other people, even when there is nothing to be gained for yourself. But you must realize how I feel—a victim of white slave trade in reverse at the age of fifty!"
Felicia squirmed, her eyes flashing; she half opened her mouth but said nothing.
Erling kept staring at the ground before him and continued in a low voice, "I wish I hadn't said that. I don't mean it."
She didn't reply. Erling went on, calmly, "I have had plenty of time to think this over. And now I'm back. I am terribly happy to be with you again. And I look forward to being at Venhaug soon. I also know why you acted as you did. You couldn't make yourself tell me in advance why I couldn't be closer to you than near the equator. Shall we make fun of the whole thing and express it this way: Caesar's wife must be above suspicion? You've always been drastic in your rules of conduct."
"And who taught me that, Erling? It was you first—and then the Germans!"
"Felicia! Now it's your turn to be just and not to exaggerate. Can you never free yourself of things that happened—well, many years ago. It's 1950 now, no longer 1934."
"Yes, Erling, I did promise to forget, but now—"
"Fine, Felicia! May I go on? You know what happened to me once, [p. 16] something I am not happy to be reminded of. You weren't responsible for that, but when you poke into other people's lives you never know what you might turn up. I was once madly in love with a girl who didn't want me around while she was pregnant. She didn't want me to see her that way, she said, and she meant it. It was pretty hard on me but I felt it was right for her to decide what she wanted. I went on a journey. Much later, when she and I were arguing bitterly, it was not pleasant to have it hurled at me that I had left her in the lurch because I didn't enjoy the way she looked while pregnant!"
"But, Erling, that was something entirely different!"
"The one situation must of necessity remind me of the other. If I can't tell you how I have felt and still feel, it'll always stand between us."
He noticed her right hand, on the bench beside her. It was clenched and the knuckles white.
"You have succeeded in all you had in mind, Felicia. You wished to have one more child. Like the first one it must have Jan for the father, and there must be no doubts; neither in your mind, nor in his, nor in anyone else's. Your second daughter was born, as God and everyone knows, one whole year after I had left for Las Palmas."
She said, in a low, hard voice, "And when the village tailor's son discovered that no one would suspect him of being the father to my child—then he felt he had been made a cuckold of!"
Erling rose and took a few steps away from the bench. She remained sitting, looking at his hair, so sun-bleached, the sinews in his neck, his shoulders, almost black tanned, his brown, solid back. He wore white shorts, held up by a belt she had lent him. She was furious with him for making her lose her temper. Now he had her!
He turned slowly toward her, his eyes narrow slits. When he spoke there was a vibration in his voice she had heard before: "Is that all you have to say? I was frank. I told you exactly how it was. We must get this cleared up if possible. Is there nothing else you have to say?"
He repeated what he had said, and this time she thought his voice was different, milder, even though he added a word that made it sound coarse: "Is that all you have to say—society-bitch!"
"Erling—come and sit down."
He would rather not, because he was so anxious to. Always a woman used weapons not available to a man. It was unfair. He sat down.
Felicia was using, at least this time, regular weapons. "Listen, Erling, you're right in saying I wasn't fair with you before you left. Can't you write it off as a regrettable mistake—if it was unjust? It is true I wanted a child, and perhaps laid some unfortunate plans—but no one sent you [p. 17] to Las Palmas under guard, and I did nothing, I believe, except use some old connections of my father's to make your journey and stay inexpensive. And you've paid with your own money. You say I lured you away, or however you expressed it, but in such cases it's never just black or white. I was playing with the thought of having another child; then one evening at Venhaug you were saying it was time you had a long journey abroad. Possibly you weren't very serious about it. But it would have been a problem for me, this with Jan and you; it couldn't have been anything else if I had another child. As a consequence I never thought of another child very seriously. Of course there must be no doubt as to who the father was. Then you got to talking about a foreign journey. Silly, silly Erling! At first I was suspicious—did you perhaps want to get away from me? Then I took hold of myself and realized that that wasn't it; probably there was nothing more to your plans than you would forget in the morning; in fact, you had been drinking. Suddenly it struck me that here was the solution—and I took your loose talk seriously, because it suited me. I spun out your plans; your objections—which seemed less and less important—I wouldn't listen to because I was beginning to realize how immensely I wanted this child. As far as your trip was concerned, well, I believe I fooled even myself—for a while I thought I was working for you only. I learned you could live cheaply in Las Palmas, and—God forgive me—I felt sure you had no greater wish than to go to Las Palmas. It was all stupid, but it was you yourself who had started it from the beginning."
Erling wanted to interrupt her, but she held his arm firmly and continued: "And you must realize, Erling, that—that there must be some balance in what people do—we must arrange life's weights and measures sensibly: no one except Jan must be the father of the child, if there was to be one. You two are friends; the way you have come and gone at Venhaug for years—don't you see, Erling, the balance would have come to an end."
She rushed on: "And then the fact that you already have a daughter at Venhaug, even though everybody knows the truth that I couldn't possibly be her mother. Am I not right in what I have done with what I call the balance? You fooled me when I was seventeen, and then, so to speak, walked round the corner and had a child with another woman. This you must admit! You mustn't try to make out I am the one to do everything wrong; that time you came with the charm of a grown man, and your name, and made an impression on a schoolgirl—"
Erling rose; he pulled her up from the bench and said, "Enough, Felicia. Let's go inside."
Copyright © 1958 by H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo, Norway. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1966 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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