Jan was twenty when he fell in love with Vigdis Lauge, who was of the same age as he and the daughter of a shopkeeper in Kongsberg. They met one evening when there was a dance in the barn at one of Venhaug's neighbors. She was living for the summer with her parents and two of their younger children at an abandoned cotter's place belonging to that farm. Guest-Haug it was called and had, according to tradition, once belonged to Venhaug.
Already during the first dance Vigdis complained because she could not anticipate any real summer vacation when she must look after her brother and sister constantly. The parents spent a great deal of time in Kongsberg taking care of the shop; then she had to work for three. Jan sympathized with her courteously, but after five minutes' acquaintance he noticed her turn sulky when he made the mistake of asking her if it could be such heavy work to look after a sister of seventeen and a brother of fifteen. Couldn't they more or less take care of themselves? He soon discovered that there was some truth in her summer being ruined and what part the children played in this: she was ruining her disposition by picking on them and trying to make them wait on her. Moreover, when her harassed mother wasn't there to wait on her she might have to lift her hand herself. Vigdis destroyed everything around her and terrorized everyone. The younger children were in revolt and paid back in the same coin; they took care of themselves. She could do the same or shut up. The power she once had had slipped through her fingers, and this she could never forgive. Two years later Jan realized he ought to have fallen for the younger sister, but by then he had turned philosophical and it was Vigdis he remembered. It had turned out as it often does with the first hot love: he never forgot her completely. She remained a long-ago picture of youth and light summer nights that clung to some deep corner of his heart. It was a severe blow to him when the affair broke up, but he couldn't forever sit and mope over it—and he began to run after other girls as a sort of distraction. Besides it is embarrassing for anyone to be so terribly unhappy.
In the beginning it had been with him as with most young men in that situation—there were no visible faults; later one might discover some unfortunate trait, later still, many more; and then the whole thing bursts, and it appears she had nothing but shortcomings. After not seeing [p. 226] her for a long time, and meanwhile discovering there are other girls in the world, the whole episode settles, and she becomes a woman one used to know once. Four or five years later Vigdis was living in Kongsberg, married to a railroad man, and Jan had heard she was happy—or could have been. The fly in the ointment was that she would remind her husband time and again that she could have been mistress at Venhaug had she been so inclined.
Jan wasn't so sure of this; her disdain of farmers had been obvious. They had no shops, it might be far to a movie. Fortunately it had been dark when she suggested that perhaps some time in the future they might dispose of Venhaug. Jan still shook his head at the memory. Only after stupid Vigdis discovered it would not have been a social disgrace had she married the heir to Venhaug did she boast she could have had him. By now he realized that had she happened to come to Venhaug she would forever have held the disgrace over him. Once when he and Felicia were waiting for the bus he had espied her ogling Felicia (stupidity never stays young! it had struck him). It was a stare filled with gaping hatred. He quickly looked in another direction, reflecting that he had always escaped the worst disasters. He felt her thoughts like an announcement on the bus's timetable—if they could be called thoughts: this Felicia Ormsund who had become a farm-wife in spite of her good looks and elegance, how stupid of her with a big house in Oslo and money, plenty of money people said, enough money without that big house, such a shame, the way she carried on and put on airs out here, when she could have gone to the theater whenever she wished and could have married anyone she had wanted, and then to marry a farmer, so far out in the country, far away even from Kongsberg, and far too young for Jan Venhaug, though really she wasn't so young, at that.
Felicia had been interested in some children playing about them, and now she said, "Silly how some women never learn the simple trick of staring at people without staring at them. Did you notice that fat woman over there on the corner? One would think the most common wench would learn how to act in youth—and she must be at least fifty-five."
"She'll be forty-six in a few months," said Jan.
"Well, I suppose you know everyone here."
In the midst of his annoyance at the staring Jan still recognized his old gratitude to Vigdis. Not that she in the least deserved such a feeling. She had quite involuntarily and unawares changed his life twenty-five years ago. Poor creature, there she stood and felt herself cheated, cheated the way stupid people feel cheated when things take a turn not to their liking, whether it is a matter of importance to them or not, and whoever [p. 227] is to be blamed. Jan was infinitely far from feeling any triumph—not only that he had escaped a woman who could let her body go to ruin thus; a man like Jan felt gratitude toward a woman who in her simplicity had taught him something, gratitude that she, with her little mind, had belittled his love and kept him on this silly and repulsive plane until he realized it and escaped. When all turned out for the best Jan Venhaug felt neither triumph nor grudge.
Felicia had heard of Vigdis but did not know who had been staring at her. It amused Jan that Felicia once had so looked down on Vigdis that she now didn't recognize her. It had been on the train. Felicia had returned from the ladies' room and sat down beside him with her book. Then Vigdis happened by, sulky and red in the face. Jan and she had never recognized each other with a greeting over the many years. "Did you notice that character?" asked Felicia. "I almost felt she would pursue me to the toilet. It was Mrs. Venhaug this, and Mrs. Venhaug that, but I didn't have time for her. 'How lovely it would be to see Venhaug again!' she blew after me as I slammed the door in her face."
In his mind he could see Vigdis at Felicia's Venhaug and he managed to change his laugh into a yawn. The always curious Felicia had not even cared enough to ask what sort of character it was who had wanted to be invited to Venhaug. He held her hand and she squeezed it while she read on in the book. What had she taken Vigdis to be, if indeed she had taken her for anything? It was then he understood better than ever one of Erling's reactions to Felicia. Erling had thoroughly experienced being looked down on by what he considered to be society girls, even back in Skien and in Rjukan. It must have been worst in his sensitive years, when he was about thirteen and the family moved to Rjukan. His father had imagined it was some sort of gold-rush camp there in the year 1912. The Vik caravan had arrived and evoked laughter and derision which Erling never had got over—it had been bad enough before they moved there. His limping, bald father with his wild beard, his deaf mother with her crooked neck, and his mother's father who lived with them and who had no hands; and that immense flock of brats—"pale as corpses to show the dirt the better," Erling had expressed it in his drunkenness, telling about the migration from Skien to the dangerous and foreign Rjukan where for the first time he had seen an established upper class.
Undoubtedly Erling had said more than he had intended that time—and more than he could remember the following day. Jan had met people who knew the family, even if not present at the arrival in Rjukan. They had been most deeply impressed with that hairy, dirty parody of a [p. 228] human being without hands, holding the liquor bottle with the stumps of arms when he quenched his thirst. The peculiarities of the family were soon on everybody's tongue. Vik the Tailor used an amazing book-language, interspersed with many home-made words. People would bring him garments to patch; and when they emerged from the little cubbyhole where he sat looking so important they would spread his political observations about. Some of his statements still survived in Rjukan.
When Jan had met Vigdis he wasn't blindly in love at first, and according to his reckoning it wasn't quite proper for a girl to be so easily had after only a few hours acquaintance.
But then, he had actually been aggressive. It was only the following morning this dawned on him, as he lazed in bed—because it was Sunday he might have said, but knew better. He used to rise at the same time every day and had done so all his life. When little, unlike other children, he felt no desire to sleep longer because of something mysterious called Sunday, and when he grew older and understood what a Sunday was, he had already his own animals to look after—the play had become reality. Each morning he would tend to the animals before he had breakfast. Yet he knew that nothing would happen if he stayed in bed and took it easy. His father would automatically tend them if Jan didn't show up; or any one of the hired help who had been trained by the early-rising father and son. There was no danger that any beast need wait beyond the expected time.
Jan had a feeling of overwhelming well-being, a sating of all senses, completely rested after only three hours' sleep. He pushed his elbows into the mattress, closed his fists, stretched himself, and yawned loudly. His blood worked and sang, and never before had he been so conscious of his own body as this morning, every bone and fiber in it. He put his hands under his hips, lifted his lower body until the toes pointed at the ceiling, he enjoyed looking at his well-shaped feet, legs and thighs with taut muscles. He parted his legs until they formed a large V through which he looked out the window at the swaying birch tops. Here I lie and watch the birches between my legs on the morning of July 2, 1931. I feel I could go out and push the barn off its foundation. He started swaying the outstretched legs in rhythm with a song he suddenly remembered—but he didn't sing too loud, one mustn't make a fool of oneself:
My lass and I go dancing
Out in the fields in spring.
My cap I raise to her
[p. 229] And we join arms and swing.
My song is for my lass alone
In the summer evening clear.
Sing fallen, sing fallera!
Come, rest with me, my dear.
When Jan during the past years looked at Julie, his thoughts had sometimes gone to that young and long-ago Vigdis. God help me, he would think, if that creature should suspect my thoughts ever came near her!
He knew Vigdis believed so, but believing is one thing and knowing is another. Jan had learned that a woman once worshiped had difficulty realizing she might not still be. In really serious cases she creates dream-like myths that the man lives in greatest misery with the wife he has, and this can become a fixation that leads her to the most ridiculous speculations if she isn't too happy with her own lot. If Vigdis knew he was thinking of those old days, she would never understand that although she was involved it had nothing to do with her; it was something that remained built-in as in a niche, a remembrance with a name, as certain poisons might accumulate in a skeleton unable to escape from the body. Now all was distant and diffused but it might awaken a dream-like desire to repeat that pattern, make a secret arch over the past years, over Vigdis of today—that horrible scarecrow!—back to the Vigdis of 1934.
He remembered best his aching jealousy, but not as something bad. He must suppress feelings of today to recall how painful it had been. Now all had changed into something peaceful, sun-sated and summer-like, reminding one of a Midsummer bonfire in a distant, hazy night. That far-away Vigdis had not even been left her own face, nor could he have recalled it with assurance of correctness. She had now assumed Julie's features. This she actually didn't deserve.
There remained with Jan a sort of shame-feeling about that love story. People might wonder how this one or that one could have fallen for such a one, but they refrain from mentioning what they themselves have fallen for.
Jan had told Erling about most of the story. It wasn't exactly like him but he wanted to put it in words for once. Nor had Erling referred to it again. How love also could be degradation and shame! It could be all sorts of things.
He had told Erling unemotionally and monotonously. How much in love he had been. Helpless, eager, completely in the hands of a girl who had lowered herself to a peasant boy. Jan was not one to enjoy cheap [p. 230] triumphs, but he had wondered what went on in Vigdis' rumpled head when he returned from Sweden with Felicia. And Vigdis had, even before the war, changed her mind about farm-boys: one could stay away from the barns and all it meant and Jan had bought a car. He could recall her words of twenty-three years ago: At least you might discard your dialect-talk when my girl-friends are around.
"Were you rough in your talk in those days?" Erling asked, suspiciously.
"Rough? I talked my inherited tongue, that's all!"
Erling did not look up when Jan said she had misgivings about marrying below her class but fancied that Venhaug could be sold. Those words made Erling prick up his ears: Had she really meant anything serious to Jan?
"Excuse me," he said, "but what was her father, then? Postmaster General or something?"
"He had a grocery store, you know, one of those little stores in Kongsberg. They had one girl to help them behind the counter."
"Did they have money?"
"Money? You mean a fortune? They had nothing."
"And she said marry below her class, or is that an expression you've invented?"
"It is word for word what she said."
Jan told about his consuming jealousy, nights without sleep, derision and broken promises. "Why don't you give her a good beating, that must be what she wants," one of his friends had said. Jan had looked down, unable to reply.
Erling asked outright, "Were you afraid of not getting anyone else if you gave her up?"
Jan laughed gloomily. "Far from it. I've never been afraid of girls the way some are, the way you have told me. I could've had my pick, they all knew I was the heir of Venhaug. If it had been a question of just any girl. But Vigdis was good-looking. Of course some others were too. That her face was completely empty I couldn't see. Or maybe, I don't know. It was that other business, you know—I burned for her. Like a lit Christmas tree. If she only hadn't talked so—so unkemptly, if that's the word. And not been so vulgar-genteel. I have some appreciation for form and language, wherever I got it from, more than you have. Well, as to form—she was worse than Viktoria. When one falls in love not everything fits right with body and soul. Body, yes, but the soul of Vigdis was worthless."[p. 231]
"In other words, it was all strictly animal?"
"Strictly animal. You hit it right, and there is something wrong when a woman is useful only for mounting. But the Vigdis affair makes one wonder. For although that was all, and although each time I got up I wondered what in the world I was doing there—"
Jan pondered. "Well, in spite of it being so, a dream remained from it. Of course erotically colored, but a dream nevertheless. Where had it come from? A dream one might have about somebody one has been deeply in love with and who had been given both body and soul. When it was all over I couldn't get away from the fact that all that business about the erotic—even apart from the soul—yet had something in it, all by itself—the stuff old Pontoppidan writes about. I can imagine that the sexual part amounts to sixty or seventy percent of the value, as a matter of fact. But the other thirty percent should also be there. Otherwise a person's thinking apparatus must be very low. Even if only five percent is left for the soul, it's got to be a mighty big five percent.
"By and by the shame and the embarrassment took over. One can not forever go about and blush for shame over the one one loves. I broke abruptly, almost the way one decapitates someone. This didn't suit her. I realized it should have been she who did it, if it must be done, but I couldn't wait for that. Although she has made a few attempts we have never spoken to each other since. She sent a close friend of hers to see me, one of her kind. I looked at her but didn't reply with a single syllable. She wrote. I managed to burn the letter unopened. She telephoned. I put down the receiver. Every minute of the day I was near giving in. It was pure hell. A hell of jealousy. As hot as the real one. Until I saw it through. I've told you before I dared see it through. So however I turn it I am under some sort of obligation to her and I enjoy my ungratefulness."
Jan was silent a moment. Then he laughed: "She never managed to grow up anyway, she had nothing to grow with, she only grew older. Someone must have told her she had been silly not to get her talons into Venhaug. I dare say many people have enjoyed telling her so. I know of at least one case where she became furious at someone because this person had failed to tell her earlier that a farm might be something after all. It's incredible—well, I mean I have been incredible, to her. She was after me every way she could think of, and I heard a story of how unhappy I was supposed to be, and that I had misunderstood—
"Well, that's how stupid and disgusting it was from the beginning to the end, in every way. But the jealousy finally burnt itself out. When one has held the devil by the throat and looked him in the eyes, well—"
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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