Woe unto him who falls into the hands of the Almighty
Shortly before Midsummer, 1946, Erling was in Oslo when he received a telephone call from Felicia, saying that she and Jan would arrive by train from Kongsberg that evening. He invited them for dinner and said he would wait for them at the Bristol, where he called and made a reservation. Then in the evening he walked over rather early, ordered some wine, and sat down at their table to wait for them. Like the guards at the Holy Sepulcher he thought all was in good order, if he thought anything at all. He began to read the evening paper.
Presently someone stopped at his table, and he looked up to see a lady he didn't recognize—or did he after all? In a moment she might feel offended if he didn't. She might be forty-five, perhaps fifty; it wasn't easy to tell, for when a woman becomes masculine she seems to lose her age, and this lady unmistakably wore the pants. Sometimes he would have a painful dream about a woman called Midwife, a composite of all the women he had known who looked stern. Now he was actually experiencing the dream in reverse as it were: this lady reminded him of the apocryphal Midwife in his dreams and made him squirm. There wasn't the slightest doubt but that this woman knew what she wanted, and insisted on getting it; strong and authoritative, dependable when she got her way, accustomed to issuing orders. Yet he was not sure why she made him think of the head laundress in a resort hotel.
"You don't recognize me, Erling Vik?"
He rose. "I'm sorry—I'm unable to place you."
But something stirred within him. Who could she be?
"Then I must inform you that you are speaking to Mrs. Superintendent Kortsen."
"Oh?" he replied, waiting.
Each person has his own secret taboo-words; to Erling, one of them [p. 50] was "superintendent," had been ever since he was sixteen; but this Mrs. Kortsen couldn't know, for no one knew it. School superintendent to him was not only a word evoking memories of senseless humiliation and senseless punishment, it also covered shame, disappointment, defeat, sorrow, and it might recall that he once had imagined he could become intimate with superintendents, for he had never doubted who it was that had come up to him in the alley-way at the girls' school and asked if he lived in the neighborhood: it had been Gulnare's fearsome father, the man to this day frightening him in his dreams.
She smiled stiffly. "My name perhaps doesn't tell you something?"
Erling was slightly irritated. "No, Mrs. Kortsen," he said, "I am sorry to say, your name doesn't tell me a thing."
His irritation grew as he vaguely recalled others who had pursued this infantile sport of asking him what their names were, at, last divulging some impossible name he could never have heard of. "You don't recognize me, Erling Vik? Well, I think you might, if you try!" The sort of people one runs into in the men's room, extending a hand in greeting and insisting on old-time friendship at a moment when one is unable to extend one's own hand because one is busy buttoning one's trousers—amazing the number that pursue one in there. Also sweet voices over the telephone: "Please, do try to guess!"
Mrs. Kortsen didn't seem to be hurt but her look was sharp and suspicious. Something not easy to interpret smouldered in her eyes. She thought for a moment before she asked, "Do you really mean to say you never knew that Gulnare Svare was married to Superintendent Kortsen, later Translator Kortsen, and that you don't know me?"
Erling stood glued to the floor and stared at her, overwhelmed. Was that Gulnare standing there, she who once could have demanded anything of him and who had changed his whole life? How long ago was that actually?
His confusion was so obvious that she couldn't misunderstand it, and this did not make her any more lovely. She said, sharply, "I see you're expecting guests and I won't disturb you for long; I'm expecting company myself. But I would like to sit down just for a moment."
He did not reply, but she sat down quickly. Nothing had happened according to her expectations, that was obvious, but what had she expected? Apparently she had taken for granted that he must have known who she was as soon as he saw her. He remained standing, looking at her, and now there was no doubt in his mind: this must be something that once had been Gulnare, no, something that had attached itself to the dream of his youth, some being who knew it as well as he [p. 51] did, but had no right to know that dream. This female brute had never been Gulnare, because then all must be a lie, all that had happened once. She had no right whatsoever to say that she was Gulnare, that was a conceited, repugnant fraud. There should be a paragraph in the criminal code against this. Nor has she the slightest reason, he mused, to believe that she is confronting the person who, more than thirty years ago, was Erling Vik. I have never seen her before, nor she me—this is an outrage! What is it to me that we once shared a holy mystery when she now is preaching sacrilege? It isn't hers, it isn't mine . . . .
"Sit down, if you please! People are looking at us," she said.
Yes, people were beginning to stare. He remembered the girl he had almost hit in the entranceway. Well, so people were looking; he remembered his first visit to a whorehouse with a crushed dream of Gulnare. Let people look at them!
He sat down and kept staring at her, still sure he had been right that time, right in his supposition that the upper-class girl had only wanted to play with the errand boy, one of the lowest class, only a slave to practice on, who could never openly accuse her—but he had felt it couldn't be so. And it was so long ago. He was beginning to wonder if she would stay there when Jan and Felicia arrived; perhaps cause trouble, she looked capable of it. But what did she want of him? He was more curious than he seemed, and immensely relieved that this Gulnare had gone out of his life long ago. He recalled everything, as if in a film, the summer evening they had met, in 1915. Their walks. A Sunday at Nesodden, glittering sunshine, buzzing bees. And those months following, while he still lived with Uncle Oddvar and, with trembling heart read the obituaries in the paper.
Mrs. Kortsen looked at him and said nothing for some time. One couldn't discern a spark of sympathy in her hard, domineering eyes. She had come to attack, in one way or another, but had so far only suffered defeat through a stupid disclosure and had not been able to discover the weak points in the armor of the one she hoped to crush. Instead, she had warned him so that he wisely kept silent. He thought: What is happening now could just as well have been an episode in our marriage.
It seemed she must further pursue her theme: "I have kept track of you. Since 1925 or so. I had naturally thought that you were settled where you belonged, with a wife and children. Then I happened to read a book by someone called Erling Vik. Norway is full of people with that name, and it never dawned on me it was you, until I saw a picture—"
She was watching him steadily with her cold eyes, and in a moment she added, "I couldn't believe my eyes."[p. 52]
Erling did not answer; how could he get rid of her before Felicia arrived?
"I have seen you often. With girls."
He was ready for anything; not a muscle moved in his face.
"Ridiculous playboy! I just happened to read one of your books. It was as could be expected."
He turned to look at the clock. What did she want of him?
"My husband didn't know of our episode. Of course not. But as you undoubtedly know, a few times he felt duty bound to go after you. He despised you."
Erling had no memory of pro-Nazi Kortsen; there had been too many of those, and all had despised him.
Except for the time of his feverish activity, when he became generally known, Erling had never kept what he himself had written, much less what others wrote. And once he had answered another writer in the newspaper he might forget him as completely as if he had never heard his name. Nowadays there was much talk about suppression and repression, but he was quite sure many people had a sounder and better mechanism for dismissing irrelevancies from the consciousness, in the same way as a splinter works itself out from a finger and is forgotten for ever.
Since this lady now was using the past tense for her Kortsen, was she divorced from him, or was he dead? Her stress on what Kortsen had despised probably meant he was a beloved departed with opinions agreeable to her own. Erling noticed that something was near the breaking point in her. No, this had in no respect turned out the way she had thought it would; she was getting closer and closer to a breakdown. Then she might drop her whole arsenal on the floor. Well, never mind, as long as she didn't make too much noise.
"Imagine, dragging me into a thing like that!" she hissed. "And then pretending you didn't know anything! Perhaps you didn't know anything when you took off to Sweden either?"
It must have been something that happened in 1941 then, before he escaped to Sweden in the beginning of October. Well, there had been so much in those days that one had neither time nor opportunity to look into; and afterward one was tired and fed up with anything pertaining to war. There was also something else here, something he recognized; he had come up against it time and again: there were people who believed one knew everything about them. At this very moment he had a letter in his pocket, from a farmer in Minnesota, who wrote as if they had parted the day before yesterday, but it must have been many years ago, for [p. 53] Erling had not the slightest recollection of the man; yet he wrote as if Erling would be interested in the most inconsequential happenings right up to the last few weeks. This Gulnare must be one of those who never doubted that all watched every step she took and were more interested in her than in anyone else; one who never wondered how others might have obtained such information, or why they might wish to have it, but was convinced that the whole city as well as the country in general followed all her activities, and received revelations about matters they didn't wish to know. He did not suspect the reason for Gulnare Kortsen's anger, and he acted as if he didn't care. Felicia and Jan might come any moment; how to get rid of her?
"Have you lost your power of speech?"
He replied, shortly, "What do you want of me, Mrs. Kortsen?"
She was a little less sure of herself again and a little flustered. She said, "It may be you didn't know what happened that other time either, although I consider it quite unlikely. That time in 1915. Even a child-defiler must have some curiosity. Well, it is probably correct that you didn't care what happened to me."
He would so have liked to have a talk with Gulnare, if she hadn't come like that. Hadn't he always dreamed of it: at last to have an explanation, and to tell her how he had felt. But he could understand now that she had no desire in that direction. He had dreamed to find Gulnare as she still lived in his heart, and he had thought: It will be mawkishly sentimental but I don't care.
But that person there!
When she now started to talk he felt convinced she wasn't saying what she had intended to say, but got onto it because she had lost control of herself:
"Many a time I've thanked God for my good parents. I didn't wish to confess what I had been up to when Mother took me to her room that Sunday evening when I came home. They had discovered all my lies and were crushed in sorrow, but I was saucy and stubborn. So they took me into Father's den and there they beat me."
Erling felt his face turn white. Had they beaten Gulnare? The inexplicable was that the person sitting opposite him agreed that they had been right; she had said so with as pleased and proud an emphasis as if she had won a luxury car in the Good Lord's lottery.
"I can thank them that none of my children have strayed."
Quickly, he looked away; how did she know that? Indeed, her children must be astray in the worst way.[p. 54]
"At last I had to confess the whole thing. First our meetings. Then that I had to pay for you, when you saw how much money I had—"
"Pay for me?"
"Well—didn't I? Didn't I pay many times? From my own savings. They wanted to get to the bottom of the whole matter and kept beating me, again and again, and so all must out—those indecent swims of ours, and everything—"
"They got more out of me than actually had happened—well, so it is when one is beaten—but they had first tried in kindness. And I'll tell you one thing—you, with all your sweet talk—I would soon have skidded deep down with your help if I hadn't had my parents; and I had already gone quite far, as you well know, and when it was over I realized how just they had been in beating me until the blood ran, and me dirtying my pants—and I felt it wasn't important if I had exaggerated a little. Well, as far as that goes, it was cleared up when they sent for a doctor to examine me, for naturally they feared I might be pregnant. Any little girl who acts the way I did has no right to complain, and—God be praised—my parents put an end to my evil ways."
She rushed on, cold, fanatical: "I've always felt ashamed, for all these years, that I didn't see through you at once, for what you are. A dog-whip might have been good for you too, but I doubt it. Someone ought to have tried, though."
The possibility that perhaps someone had tried must not have entered her thoughts. Beatings on different objects, or individuals, do not have the same result. Some break, some hold, some harden, some crack, some die, and the devil is right in one point only—that his medicine is nothing but evil.
Her eyes filled with tears. "Mother was as good as the day is long while they kept me in bed, and we found each other again. We had gotten so far apart while that business with you went on. And you can sit here and have no idea what trouble you got me into—or pretend you don't—oh!"
Again she boiled over in anger: "To be lured by your kind of people, and only fourteen, and parents who had done more than their duty—a lowly errand boy!"
Parents who have done more than their duty, thought Erling, and looked down again. I would have liked to meet them; they think it is a question of duty above all. In love there is no duty, there is nothing except love, and the moment duty enters one is lost. But when it is a question of love we have only thick and vulgar law books about duty.[p. 55]
"Mamma took me to Haugesund where her sister lived. I stayed there a year, and was watched carefully, thank the Lord! Having children myself now I understand."
They had done more than their duty: they had crushed Gulnare. He felt he was beginning to understand what she wanted of him, but she knew so little about it herself that she had difficulty in expressing it. She had been tortured to the point where the victim hangs on to the tormentor; Erling himself appeared as Sin personified to her, but also as one of the tormentors. A wise man had once said to him, "Children will love their parents more if they are treated roughly, and if such children are away from their parents for some time, they miss them more than other children would." Erling had for years known the truth in this: homesickness more persistently plagues those children who have unsolved conflicts at home.
"Skipping over to Sweden when you should have faced it! What kind of man are you? And return when there was peace and no danger, and orate loudly against us who stayed behind and saw to it that our people got food, and little thanks did we get and—"
Deep in his consciousness something was beginning to stir about the name Kortsen.
"And my wonderful husband—gone, without a trace."
Erling had caught a glimpse of Felicia and Jan at the door. He rose: "I'm sorry, Mrs. Kortsen, but—"
"Yes, I noticed her, I too," spluttered Gulnare Kortsen. "That—"
Erling cut her short: "Your side killed both her brothers."
"Well, then they must have done something they shouldn't," she replied in a low, furious voice, "While my husband—while she and you—a gigolo—"
She hit at him but struck his hand which he had quickly raised. Then she rushed off. The headwaiter came running, but Felicia stopped him, smiling and, joking, pretending she hadn't seen anything. The headwaiter looked quickly about, realized that it was perhaps only one of those situations which solve themselves, thank God, and everything would be all right now that Mrs. Venhaug had arrived.
Felicia sat down and adjusted her hair. "Who was that person, Erling? Imagine, trying to hit our dear little boy!"
Jan too sat down and said, "Sshh, Felicia, she is looking at us with murder in her eyes. What have you got yourself into now, Erling?"
"She's a Mrs. Kortsen—I'll tell you about her later."
Felicia lowered her mirror and powder puff. "Kortsen?" she asked. "Was she married to Superintendent Kortsen?"[p. 56]
Jan quickly took hold of her arm but she pushed him aside; there was no one within hearing. She studied her face in the mirror and flipped away some speck from her cheek: "Had she discovered that it was I who liquidated her husband?"
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.
TEI markup and other features Copyright © 2000 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.
To buy the paperback book, see: http://www.wisc.edu/wisconsinpress/books/1693.htm