The society girl and the tailor's son
Erling leaned on his elbow and watched Felicia standing there smoking, a far-away look in her eyes. "I was thinking of the war," he said. "It's almost like telling lies when we talk of it now. As if recalling a dream and trying to pretend it was real. Take Jan, for example, trying to tell us about that mission of his. It sounds today as if it had emanated from a distorted mind. At times I have actually wondered if anything of all that really happened. Incidentally, not long ago I dreamed that I was dreaming and woke up and realized that all this business with atomic weapons was something I had made up while asleep. What a relief that no bombs [p. 99] had ever fallen over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and no more worries about the little boys the Rosenbergs left behind."
Felicia inhaled deeply; she said in a husky voice, thick smoke rising slowly from her mouth, "It's good you woke up to remember them."
"Don't stand there so far away," said Erling.
"I only wanted to cool off a little, Erling dearest."
He started; she had never called him that before.
"Something happened Friday night," he said, "something that made me come here just now, and not in three weeks for example. Come here, Felicia."
She crushed the cigarette against the hearth and crept down beside him. He put his arm around her shoulder and said, "I had a caller Friday evening. Torvald Ørje—you remember, the little Goebbels at Os?"
"Why would one of the unhanged like him call on you?"
She lay quite still and did not interrupt him while he told her the story. He concluded: "I became terribly upset. Something happened to me; I felt ashamed that he had dared to come, standing there contaminating my house. Yes, above all I felt terribly insulted, but there was so much that was unclear also. There stood this repulsive person, a murderer of the stupidest kind, and yet I was reminded of the thing we have so often talked about—our share in the blame. These people were the product of Norwegian surroundings, children of Norwegian parents, Norwegians like you and me. We have created them ourselves. Rehabilitation for the traitors? Nonsense! Never for their base actions which cannot ever be forgiven. But we should recognize that we also are not entirely blameless because of the existence of so many of that kind in our country. Why did they fall into the obvious trap? Quisling, as you know, wasn't insane, but he was nuts, he had a screw loose somewhere. How had it ever been possible for him, with his background, to have been placed in a Norwegian cabinet? Neither the Germans nor the Norwegian Nazis had placed him there. And this Torvald Ørje with his dog-head—a worthy representative of thousands of these lost souls—coming to me, trying to bargain with me and pay me with my own belongings! For a few hours after I had thrown him out, there seemed to me no solid ground in anything. I didn't even want to stay at home; and then I called you. Strangely enough, Felicia, I tried to find comfort in our meeting that time when I returned from the Canary Islands—no, not in that way, there would be nothing strange in seeking comfort in that memory—but it was strange that you should be here and know about it, and relive the same thing in your mind. I suddenly saw your face shining above and [p. 100] beyond all melancholy I felt this morning. I came here to get help, and I have already found it. I intend to stay only a few days, but I told the lawyer I would be here, and to send my stolen belongings here. Did you know—those pictures hung in Ellen's and my home. You are not involved with them in the same way as I, and you may keep them, sell them, or give them away. Torvald Ørje at any rate must not have them."
Felicia was kissing him and said nothing for a long time. When at last she spoke he wasn't surprised, perhaps rather a little disappointed, at the conclusion she had reached: "What you say about his having contaminated your house brings up the idea I have toyed with so often—you should come and live here. Not that I feel he has dirtied your house, no more anyway than if someone else had broken in and messed it up—that seems to be a special joy of burglars. I can't agree with your notion about that, but it struck me again that here stands Old Venhaug empty, which makes a house deteriorate. Ordinary tenants I don't want. Think it over, Erling. Move in with us. You can't buy the house—Jan would never let it go; it's his childhood home; the family has lived here for untold generations, and besides it's located in the center of his beloved farm lands. Jan is a sort of farm-estate snob, God bless him. But you can take over Old Venhaug, as if it were your own, and you can keep your house in Lier—in that case you would have a retreat if it didn't work out here; a place to run to when you tire of me, and get hold of someone else, which I couldn't stand here at Old Venhaug. And then there is Julie—"
"You shouldn't have taken this opportunity to bring it up again, Felicia. We have threshed it out so many times that neither one of us can have anything new to add. I'll always leave here with a bad conscience, and each time you imagine I'm up to something worse than before. There are many things I won't repeat now, but if I moved in here I'm afraid something might come between you and me. And between Jan and me. Between Venhaug and me. I have for long been accustomed to being alone when I work. You are jealous of my aloneness, Felicia, and nothing good will come from it if you rob me of it."
"Yes, we have talked a lot about it," replied Felicia, "but actually we've never come to the bottom of it. The only valid argument you use against living at Venhaug might be my interference with your work. But I don't believe this either. I'm sure it could be arranged so you could work as well as you do now. I think the whole reason is quite simple: for long periods of your life you have had miserable living quarters, perhaps even none; when you were young you were forced to live with people you despised; this led to a desperate wish to live alone with no one around; there mustn't be the slightest hint of interference. It has come to [p. 101] a point where you see ghosts at high noon if you can't be entirely alone in the house. You are so afraid one might come and disturb you that you bite in advance. Don't be angry with me now, but this is the tailor's son from Rjukan that shines through—and deep inside, you are more afraid of interference from me than from anyone else, because I'm the society girl, the kind who least of all must have anything to say. I think you should throw overboard those last remnants of the plebeian. I doubt if you can do it completely, and in a way I don't want you any different from what you are. All of us love you. You haven't a soul in the world who is closer to you. Nor will you ever have. When we suggest you move in with us and live here at Old Venhaug, I'm sure you can have it exactly as you wish. Your freedom will never be curtailed because we live on the place."
He did not reply. He kept caressing her, while he thought: The net gets stronger and the mesh smaller. One day I won't be able to move a hand.
Stroking her forehead, he said: "Perhaps another ten years, surely not more. Then I'm old. You are twenty years younger. You don't look ahead far enough, Felicia."
"Much further than you think! Where else could you live as an old man?"
She pressed herself close to him: "I love you as you are. You might try to love me a little, the me that I am, without all your reservations. No one chooses his place of birth. You have a burning needle somewhere in your body—but now I think it is time you let the tailor's boy give up the ghost."
Erling withdrew a little. "Don't you think we are talking about exceedingly unimportant matters? I have adjusted myself to the fact that things went as they did in Sweden. That's the important thing as far as I'm concerned—I've adjusted myself. I was trying to get you away from Steingrim, and felt I might succeed if I got you into bed. I was wrong. You fell for Jan and married him. I was at your wedding. Perhaps you remember that I didn't touch a drink that day, only raised the many glasses to my lips. I was on guard against myself, although I wasn't really afraid anything would happen just there—at the triangle-wedding. However, never has there been a more ill-natured guest at a wedding feast. I kept watching you—and reciting Welhaven to myself—his Asgardsreie. I think it was well I wasn't drinking, reciting that poem; it might have lighted a fire in a drunken brain. I could have made quite a show of myself. And—as in the poem—been pulled by the hair up through the chimney and vanished, all the women surrounding the [p. 102] bloody groom. I was wondering if you were all sane; there were only two sober men and one woman when the party broke up—you and Jan and I. Then you had a child with him. I've always suspected you didn't want one with me because—"
"Because I was sick. Because you thought I was crazy. Because you were wrong in analyzing a neurosis that might mean a little of anything, and you took it to mean insanity. But things were also so mixed up that you took me back because I was sick. You rejected me and accepted me for the same reason—but it was Jan you married."
"Must we dig up all that again? That about sickness you haven't held against me before. I wasn't wrong, but you weren't crazier than hundreds of other Norwegians in Sweden at that time. It wasn't your sickness that decided me. It was simply that Steingrim and I had agreed to live together. I was tired, and confused also. All that killing along the border, investigations and searches everywhere; I needed a place to bathe, to sleep—and I had given you up many years before. Your sickness might have been added to all the rest, but it was never the deciding factor."
She started to sob. "With Jan I could get peace. He wasn't demanding every moment, the way most men are. What you have just said is so unworthy of you. I and that little French girl (what became of her, by the way?) were the only ones to look after you and keep you from going under with sickness and drinking—and you mustn't think it was easy. But I would never have married you, even if Jan hadn't come along. Never, never. Because you are an unlucky bird with women. It is simple enough to figure out why: first you were scared to death of women for many years; then they just fell for you for many years. Either situation was equally bad. And I was involved in both situations. When you took me as a young girl and I fell madly in love with you, then you were only a Martin Leire—"
"Then you were only a Martin Leire! And when my turn came again, in Sweden, during a different period, then you only wanted me as a trophy. You were sick, that is true, but there was enough of the devil in you that you wanted to take a short cut instead of getting well. You yourself refused any serious attempt to get well. You wanted Felicia Ormsund, so people could say: 'He still has got it, has Erling Vik—there he is with Felicia Ormsund.' But that was out of the question. She didn't want you as long as you—in one guise or another—acted like the son of the tailor. She wanted a healthy and grown Erling who no longer took all the hopeless short cuts. And yet—she didn't wish to become dependent [p. 103] on that Erling either. For this I must tell you—I knew what I had done for you once before: when I was very young I gave you courage to meet women; that time when you were exactly twice as old as I—you were thirty-four. I was very young and full of expectation. You crushed everything in me after I had helped you. You went to other women with what you had become through me. He?—anybody would have thought had they heard it—should he be afraid of women? Yes, you were, and you left, and misused the chance you had been given, you misused it like an ape. Then all those years went by and we met again in Sweden, and in your sickness and blindness you wanted to misuse me once more. But it didn't work out, Erling. You say you adjust yourself to circumstances as they are and that is all. Well, I've done the same, but to me it isn't all. I have been able to forgive because I could see the background and because I was in love with you. But if you are honest with yourself you must realize you have never forgiven me for what I did in pure self-defense. Perhaps it was you I wanted. I won't argue about that any longer. Anyway, you have a daughter at Venhaug, and she is crazy about you. It's only reasonable that you also live here."
Erling decided not to speak, but it was difficult. A long pause followed. They studied each other's faces. She stroked him gently over the cheek: "Erling," she said, in a voice half-choked with pain, "do you know, in high school I was called Felicia the Chaste? And I wanted to live up to the name they teased me with. I didn't want to be like the others. One day I said angrily to another girl, I didn't intend to imitate anyone except myself. She spread it about and they all laughed at me, but I did mean it even though I had expressed it poorly. It wasn't any purity or virginal ideal I had in mind; I was—and I am not afraid to say it—I was proud. No stain on Felicia Ormsund! And by the time I met you I had gained my end—I was the queen in that damned hen-house, and the girls knew I could have had any boy I'd liked. Now you know it, you silly Erling, who came like a bull in a china shop and took the maidenhead from the society girl, and then forgot her for years. I could never rid myself of you. There is something wrong with you, Erling, something completely out of line. All the women you have known you have made unhappy. But that was not your object—you didn't have anything in mind at all; I don't even think you ever realized that it was the stupid revenge of an upstart. But you became my great love. Whether near or far away—you were always there. Actually you haven't made all women you met unhappy, for the exception lies here beside you. Yes, you were always there. It burned my soul when you cheated me. For a long time I thought I had become another person, but it was only that I was growing [p. 104] up and didn't know what it was all about. For this I must tell you, Erling, I am the only woman you have met who is strong-willed. I remember the day I cut out Cecilie Skog—I must have since I am the one lying here. I was and remain Proud Felicia, and your evil spirit couldn't break me. For there is an evil spirit possessing you, the Werewolf you have talked so much about. The Werewolf is after your soul—I have felt it for years. You didn't make your victims unhappy, but they became unhappy. I also see it this way—one day a pyromaniac got into your forest, and you discovered him too late. I'll show you sometime the thirty acres of our forest that was burned down in June. Somewhere within you there grows such a forest. I became aware of it in time, and took care. Other women got lost in your burned forest, where no birds were singing and no heart beating. There lay only the decayed corpse of a lame and smoke-blackened tailor. Erling, I have the most intense desire to take care of you. I have always had it, and you know your society girl is kind. Mayn't I give you Old Venhaug and look after you? You can always take off and stay away as long as you wish and carry on somewhere else. I know so well what you think, in part at least—what will people say—which always lies there and smoulders within you. But that I understand better than you, and you needn't pretend it is me you want to shield. People in a place like this imagine many things which they don't really believe. It would never dawn on them—as is written—that anyone could sin with a glad heart and smiling lips. They know our way of life is different from theirs, and if they see anything they can't draw logical conclusions from by their own rules, then it just doesn't exist. I knew what I was doing when I hugged you so wildly in the yard when you arrived and Jan was watching—I wanted to give a demonstration of sisterly love."
"It would be different if I lived here?"
"Better, yes. No one would think anything any more, even if some had tried before. They don't think one can change the laws of nature, and what they possibly think seems to them so unnatural that—"
"You talk like a child."
"Don't speak condescendingly about children—and if it's Jan you are thinking of you know how he is; if people only are peaceful, his forgiveness knows no limits. 'Let's be decent,' he says, and you know as well as I, Erling, how much there is behind his simple words. The art of living he knows better than either one of us."
Erling said, with a forced smile, "Yes, I remember the report he delivered to the gang when he had dutifully liquidated Jan Husted, according to his own thorough and philosophical turn of mind."[p. 105]
Felicia snuggled up against him: "Since you mention it I'll tell you how he happened to be chosen: Jan himself asked me to suggest him. He knew I was going to volunteer, and he didn't think that would look good. Now I know why he had figured out that it would be best both for him and for me if he once took a chance instead of letting me go a second time: he already had his eyes on me and hoped he could catch me for his wife.
Erling lay silent a moment, then he climbed out of bed and fetched a bottle of wine. "The glasses might not look crystal clear," he said, "but I did rinse them."
"You should let me take care of those things."
"There you go again. I would never have any peace here."
She dug her nails into his thighs until he yelled. When he had filled the glasses he sat down on the edge of the bed, but discovered to his annoyance that she suddenly had fallen asleep. This was one of her peculiarities. He sat down in the easy chair and kept drinking wine until he fell asleep where he sat. A pale dawn was breaking as he awakened. Again the rain was splashing. He jumped up and said, "Get up, Felicia! It's almost daylight!"
At once she was wide awake, and he wished he could fall asleep and wake up like that. She made a few grimaces, trying to make him smile; he would have liked to give her a good spanking. "Well," she said, "there isn't much fun having a man who looks like one on his way to the gallows when one wants him!" She recited:
Ride, ride to church,
Decked in gold and silk,
Gold and silk and a cape so blue,
And a little horse for the rider too,
In summer, in summer,
He sat on the edge of the bed and watched her pull on a pair of panties so thin he could have rolled them up and pushed them down into his vest pocket; then, in spite of his sleepiness, he must tell her the most pornographic story he had ever read. Everything was relative, depending on age and circumstances. He had been about twelve or thirteen when he had read something in the local paper about beards. It had caught his interest, for all the men in the neighborhood had long beards, and he was hoping that boys might grow voluminous beards the day they returned from church after confirmation. He wasn't sure how this would take [p. 106] place, and he suspected some boys might keep it back if they didn't want it right away; he wasn't going to do that.
What he had read was a news item from the great world. A number of prominent ladies had been interviewed concerning their opinions about beards. One was an actress and to Erling's consternation she insisted that she preferred clean-shaven men. What was the use in growing up then? Yet, this great actress had not been fanatical on the subject; she agreed a man might wear a small mustache, if it were well perfumed. "All women know why," she had said, with an infatuating, mischievous smile.
He had guessed the meaning of mustache, but not what all women knew, and his pondering upon this had given him voluptuous moments when alone. Since then he hadn't bothered with pornography, he said; it always had to do with garments half on and half off. Nowadays nudity was called pornography. It seemed no one liked it that hints and shady allusions had disappeared; everyone needed them.
It disturbed Erling that it was full daylight, even though not clear; it was raining heavily again. But at last he listened to her departing steps down the stairway, so sure and definite, the swishing of her raincoat. Through the window he watched her cross the yard between the tall white birches, saw her climb the broad steps at New Venhaug, enter the open veranda with its rain-reflecting slate floor, open the front door. He went to bed and pulled the down comforter over him, entirely weightless, it seemed. He lay for a while and recalled the many nights here with Felicia, over a dozen or so years, even before New Venhaug had been built. He succumbed to sleep, and dreamt that he was walking from Old to New Venhaug with her youngest daughter by the hand. They walked the same way as Felicia had done a few moments ago, and it was raining like then. Jan was standing on the glittering veranda slates and smiled at them, and behind him at a window he saw Felicia's face. Her eyes were burning. He became frightened; Jan took the child by the hand and remained standing where he was, but Erling disintegrated, evaporated as it were. He woke up groaning, with a feeling of complete impotence and imminent tragedy. Not to live, not to die, only to be blotted out as from a blackboard. And now he remembered how Felicia had stopped a moment at the door before leaving: "Erling, you have convinced me that you must live at Venhaug," she had said.
In the open door she had stopped again, turned half around toward him, chuckled to herself, showing her broad teeth: "Of course you must live here! Why should you men have the prerogative of seeing the Werewolf?"[p. 107]
And this became yet another dream, more portentous than the first one, though he suppressed it quickly as soon as he became fully awake, and dared not recall it until later in the day.
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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