Some are more fortunate
It was Saturday and Erling left early, hoping to get something done that day. He took the underground with Jasper. The packed train filled him with horror as he thought of what he had escaped in his life. He was [p. 292] hanging on to a strap, trying to figure out how many trips back and forth in this herring-barrel it would have taken to make up forty years. By the time they arrived at the National Theater station he was almost pious with gratitude. As they emerged into the open, Jasper said, "I had nothing to eat before I left, and neither did you, I noticed. I'll run up to the office, to make an appearance, and in twenty minutes I'll meet you for a bite to eat. I know where I'll find you now that you are awake."
When Jasper returned, Erling had satisfied his morning-after thirst with a pint of beer and ordered one more. Jasper too thought he would try a beer.
Erling said, "This must make you feel like a real bohemian?"
"I don't think," replied Jasper, "I ever would dare let loose on a weekday during office hours. I mean, sitting here talking away the day over several beers. The mere thought of such an experiment frightens me. Not much, but it makes me feel a little shaky. Well, really not fright, I guess, but the feeling comes over me that nothing so meaningless actually could happen to me. Perhaps the same sort of feeling you might get if the thought should strike you that—that you might kill someone. That you actually could think such a thought. A few years ago I happened to come into Majorstuen between eleven and twelve in the morning, on my way to a meeting. I ran into a business-friend—did you ever hear such a horrible word?—and he was drunk. I don't believe anyone at the meeting noticed the shock I had received; indeed, I'm sure they didn't—you know, because of this affable mask one assumes. But I had shivers as if I were coming down with pneumonia. I could picture myself drunk on a weekday at twelve, stumbling along the street, a policeman looking after me hesitatingly: 'Is he going to make it, or must I bring him in?' And perhaps he would bring me in. Help me into the police car. And I would emerge from the jail some hours later, pale, ruffled, unshaven, clothes wrinkled—yet take the chance and hurry down to the East Station district to find a bar."
"I think you are joking," said Erling.
"I do that too," said Jasper, and picked up another sandwich. "I also know what you're thinking now—if not exactly, at least something along this line. You think this reminds you of the interest decent women take in prostitutes—or used to in our grandmothers' time."
"In your grandmother's time."
Jasper threw a quick look at Erling. "Well, yes, in my grandmother's time. I know they were consumed with interest in the uncaged birds."
"Because they got so little themselves," said Erling, rather brutally. "I really feel sorry for both sexes; each had to be equally frigid. Well, even [p. 293] if people know little about each other—this much I know, that you live neither with your grandmother nor with a prostitute."
Jasper stretched his arms into the air, folded his broad hands behind his head and leaned back. He laughed heartily and showed all his white teeth. "No," he said, "nothing is wrong with me. Only when I meet you, perhaps my thoughts stray to closed doors. I know one thing for sure: it'll never go wrong with me—I exclude sickness and death, of course—it'll never go wrong with me as long as I don't let go my hold on my work. Therefore I'll never let go."
"But you are frightened when you see someone who has let go?"
"Yes, and then I take a stronger hold. After I had seen that man in Majorstuen I made more money than ever before."
"Then maybe I can help you to make more money, I too?"
Jasper eyed him a moment, uncomprehending, before he replied, "Don't tell me you ever let go of your hold?"
Now it was Erling's turn to laugh. He pushed back his chair and signaled with his glass for more beer. "Have you never seen me ruin a day?"
"No. That's something else. You are as frightened as I am of slipping. Only, you've drawn the line in a way that has no mathematical meaning. I'm a mathematician. My line is drawn with knowledge. To tell the truth, I believe yours is drawn from moral points in your mental landscape. To me it seems most confusing that it works. I've very little interest in morality; you fight with it like Jacob with the Lord. But right behind you now sits an older man I meet at times; I can read in his closed face a tremendous question mark: 'How come Jasper Arndt is sitting here with that depraved, amoral Erling Vik?' I, Jasper Arndt, who yesterday signed a fully legal and advantageous deal you never would have dreamed of signing. A chess-move so correct and legal and watertight it's almost embarrassing, but with one little beauty-fault which has nothing to do with legal or accepted business methods. If I hadn't chosen to haul in that fish, all the experts would have realized within a few months that I was blind. No one would dream that I should reject an honest agreement because it had the beauty-fault I mentioned. Morality never enters in, because an advantageous and legal contract is in itself a piece of morality, in the same way as a cube undeniably is a cube. But bear in mind, in the same way as we have something called a business-friend we also have something called business-morality. It is good enough morality for church and community affairs, at courts of law, and for the speech at my funeral; but at home, or among friends, or for all I care, together with Our Lord, one ought to shed it in the vestibule. [p. 294] Among one's own it is not moral for the clever to fleece the less clever."
For the second time he looked at his watch: "Now I must go."
When Jasper Arndt had said he must go, he went. Erling looked after the rough, heavy man, with his springy steps, and wondered how much his skeleton alone might weigh. His shoulders were immense, and the gorilla-arms swung as balance weights. People turned aside at his approach. He was Israel crossing the Red Sea. Erling recalled what had happened to Jasper's face when he said he must go: it had hardened and cleared. Three-quarters of an hour ago it had been Jasper arriving; the man rising to leave was Managing Director Arndt, of Salvesen Steel Company.
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