A messenger from Venhaug
Two weeks had passed since Felicia disappeared. Erling shuffled about in his room at Old Venhaug. Dusk was falling and, as was his custom when not working, he lit a candle; his sight had grown weaker during the last years; he needed strong light when he worked but couldn't stand it for long. Thus he made short interruptions from time to time when he lighted a candle and sat in the dark. After the tragedy with Felicia he had managed with a candle or the dark. The thought of work seemed as distant to him as the memory of a legend; one that was as difficult to interpret as the fragments of a lost religion on a papyrus scroll. All values had sunk to bottom prices or nothing. He did not listen to the newscasts, read no newspapers. All his mail remained unopened; he threw it into an old bag to escape the sight of it. Was it sorrow? How answer when the question means nothing? He left the bottle untouched. He managed to eat a little, but food had no taste; yet, it was easier to eat than be plagued by Julie or Aunt Gustava. He thought that such must life be for robots, for one couldn't make souls for them synthetically. Without the necessary soul—or ghost, as he thought of it—they could not love, hate, enjoy, or detest anything. He was sure our first parents never comprehended what suddenly got into Our Lord. I have lost my ghost and must have become what is known as a materialistic person, completely neutralized and without higher interests. I don't care if I get back my ghost, it may wander about as a ghost wishes. It will be its own problem to get back home again. Stay away, ghost of mine! I don't wish to have any dealings with thoughts or geist. You can find yourself a home in someone who doesn't have a soul, then we'll see what happens. Get yourself right into John Foster Dulles. Only, keep away from me, I've had enough of such. Move into the Archbishop of Canterbury and promise to stay there. Or still better, if he has room for a human soul, move into my brother Gustav. Then Elfride might be allowed to attend prayer meetings and feel at home. Oh, to remain without one's ghost, insensible. But my ghost will find its way home, never fear, just as sick people get their ghosts back and start yelling the moment the anesthetic wears off.
Outside it was still light enough to see. He recognized Tor Anderssen in the yard. He must not have much of a soul, not wishing to be called Haukas. Hope my ghost gets into him and stays there.[p. 352]
Tor Anderssen started to busy himself with the car. Why did he bother? To look at all that dirty snow? Why bother? There came Jan down the veranda steps. Why did he bother?
Jan stopped and said something to Tor Anderssen, who replied something. Why bother to talk about anything? Just as well stop.
He sat down on his bed. There it occurred to him that he had also stopped smoking.
He turned his hands this way and that, studying them. Actually repulsive instruments, hands. All the silliness one had done with them, whether it was to wave after a train which, thank heaven, was leaving, or to feel about in girls' clothing, or to hit people without making them worse or better, or to pick one's nose, or raise the flag on the king's birthday. There was no end to the many uses one had made of one's hands, like helping a horse get on solid ground when it had fallen into a swamp; it repaid him with a kick, and he discovered suddenly that it was a horse with good sense.
Someone was coming up the stairs. Erling looked apathetically at the door. There was a knock and he said yes. It was Jan.
It seemed unnatural, and both felt equally uncomfortable. Jan had never been inside this room in his own house since Erling had occupied it. Something must of necessity shape up between them; they saw her so actually alive that both for a moment must lower their eyes.
Outside the car started. Erling had risen and taken a few steps. He looked out at the dusky yard.
"Tor Anderssen is going out with the car, I see," he said.
"Yes, he wanted to take a little ride."
They spoke low but their voices filled the room, creating a hundred whispering replies. The fluttering light threw deep, living shadows on their faces. Erling thought of the shadows on Felicia's mature body as she used to walk across the floor. Jan sat down, finding a chair with his body as it were, the way one sits down in a doctor's office and knows one is being observed, that the diagnosis to a certain degree already is being made. Or at the police station, it struck him, where they also make diagnoses and can be wrong.
"Erling," said Jan, and breathed heavily. "There is something I want to ask of you."
Erling felt the murmur of the silence; he pictured himself as a Lilliputian sitting and listening at the mouth of a conch shell. Jan had never asked anything of him. Well, small matters. To buy a coil of rope in Oslo, or stop by the saddle-maker and order a belly-band. Last time it was a dozen copper nails with octagonal heads. What did Jan want him to do? [p. 353] He would do anything, or nothing; it was equally indifferent to him. "Just tell me, Jan."
But he discovered he was becoming curious and thought: Could my ghost be on its way home?
Both of them at the same time became aware of the clock's ticking. Jan sat quite still, one hand on each knee, and looked at Erling.
"It is nothing you can promise in advance," said Jan. "It lies entirely outside of the ordinary."
"Just tell me straight out."
Jan raised one hand and rubbed his forehead. "I want you to go to Oslo and kill Torvald Ørje."
Now it was Erling's turn to rub his forehead. Well, he thought. Go to Oslo and kill Torvald Ørje. That is a definite order. The ticket doesn't cost much, I can easily manage that. Roundtrip. No—won't need return ticket. Very cheap.
The clock ticked and ticked and wouldn't stop, it had become so remarkably persistent, his alarm clock. Erling didn't know for how long it was the only sound he heard. The reply came without his knowing if he had thought what he should say: "Of course I will."
Well, that would be the end. Just as well. Perhaps Jan had forgotten that peace had come several years ago and that it would be a little more difficult. Now there were no police to help him hide—at least not in the same way. No Sweden to slink away to and undisturbed await better days. Certain private activities had, plainly speaking, been taken over by the authorities. Perhaps Jan had forgotten there would be no chance of hiding in a hospital bed under a false name and with false entry-date, no chance of getting an injection to keep one from talking too convincingly in delirium, no chance of changing sex and lying in the women's ward after abortion, as Øystein Myhre had done.
But just as well. He had no lust for life the way it had turned out; it was monotonous, colorless, valueless. He might as well commit suicide, which of course he would do, as soon as he had managed things as Jan asked him. A long-drawn-out, widely publicized trial, and life imprisonment, was not a culminating experience he would relish. Suicide wasn't in his line either, but it wasn't so abhorrent.
It was a great sacrifice Jan asked of him and he writhed under it, but he felt he would manage to face it, if Jan didn't change his mind.
He had not heard the clock for a long while. Now it broke through again.
"I believe she wants it done," he had heard from far away.
How long ago?[p. 354]
Now he replied, "You know Felicia is gone forever. There is nothing she wants."
"You know quite well what I mean," said Jan, in the same tired voice. "You know what she did when they had murdered her two brothers, and therefore you must know what she would have expected from us now—if she were able to expect anything. I want them—you know who—to gain nothing from having silenced her."
Jan wet his lips. "She would have demanded it of you, could she have stepped through that door at this minute."
They felt she was in the room.
Erling looked at Jan and smiled. "You have had my answer, Jan. If you consider it must be done, it will be done. It is not that I am talking about, but I would like to understand the whole matter a little more clearly. By the way, it sounded remarkably beautiful, what you said now, that she would have demanded it of me. Why of me?"
"Of course she would demand it of you—she couldn't fail to see the risk of apprehension. Well, matters being the way they are, her children are mine, and I am the one capable of running a farm, like it or not. She always said her children must inherit it in good condition."
Erling looked down and thought further on behalf of Jan: He is fifteen years younger besides and clings to life more than I, and perhaps this makes him somewhat less perspicacious. Besides, he will soon marry the only one who can take Felicia's place, the only replacement the children will accept, and he himself can manage. Yet, that you should know me so little, Jan. You too. If we didn't think that our work has had, and will have, a certain value, what use would there have been in living? Call it prejudice if you wish, but I hadn't thought of myself dying as a criminal. You can sit there, Jan, and demand that I throw everything to the dogs. Just a petty bourgeois prejudice, I might have said twenty-five years ago. But I see it this way now, that it is not only my life you demand; that is unimportant the way things are now. But that just you, the one of all men I would have liked to understand me, demand my reputation also. It would be impossible to save it, after all the legends that already have grown up. The searchlight will once and for all concentrate on all extraneous matters. But the symbolism will hit home: I was one to fight windmills, one perhaps never seriously dreaming of anything but this single point: how to disarm stupidity, isolate it and put it on display in some circus, drive it from power in the land, and then let it live on its own natural plane. Isn't it a joke of the greatest magnitude that my best friend throws me into my grave with my fingers round the throat of an unworthy thrall?[p. 355]
Just then Erling remembered Felicia's eyes which had turned ice-cold that time when she said, "How dared one of those unhanged ones call on you!"
Erling kept pondering. Jan was waiting, silent.
Probably Jan knows the line of my thoughts—even though I suspect him incapable of grasping what is really essential to me, and just how critically I view the rest. Jan is peculiar. Once a realist always a realist. Erling was a little confused at meeting so much common-sense calculation in a man who for the present was rather far removed from normality (sending me to Oslo to kill a man!). He could see how logical Jan Venhaug had been and was to the end. Here he had in clear words said: Felicia had two men, and she would not like to see herself unrevenged, but if it goes wrong, then you are the more expendable one.
It could be seen from that angle. And Jan knew very well what he was doing, by saying it here at Old Venhaug, in Erling and Felicia's room. It must be said to all that lay in the atmosphere here, so that she herself was almost a witness, when after all these years for the first and only time she was discussed by her men. She must be a witness also to the implication that if anything went wrong, Jan had no part in the blame; he would deny it point-blank and remain at Venhaug with the children—and Julie.
Erling had not for a moment intended to withdraw his promise, not even as he tried to think matters through after his answer had been given. Now something happened to him that lay beyond all reasoning: Jan's commission had pulled him out of his vacuum and placed him in the midst of life again, now when it was decided that he probably would have to leave it. The pressure on his brain had eased. It was no longer true that Felicia was gone and dead. He stood on the floor and felt it now; sorrow rose up like thunderclouds, his soul had returned home. Erling Vik must live! this stormed up potently within him and therefore he could pay the price Jan Venhaug demanded.
"Jan," he said, "you must be counting on me doing it because the chances of escape are so minimal?"
"No! You're crazy!" exclaimed Jan, in surprise. "Of course you'll manage. That's to say, when it's you. You will get away; since it's you. I, I would have no luck now, in these new times. With you it's something—something particular. And something with you and Oslo."
He sounded so confident Erling could have laughed.
"There are many reasons why it must be you. Unlike me you are not afraid of the dark. And then you are so impractical in many ways."
"Well, I mean—suppose I did it and were caught, then you would start some nonsense that it was your idea. And what would happen to the children? I am much wiser. If it goes wrong for you—but it won't—I would be much more practical since I couldn't help you anyway."
Erling could hear Felicia's laughter as it rang out in the good old days at Venhaug: Jan, oh, Jan, you precious Jan!
"Now it is my turn to give instructions," said Erling, and gathered his thoughts. "You have nothing more to say or ask. We must use old experiences now—you must not know more than absolutely necessary. My instructions to you are these: I go back with you and get a bottle of cognac. I bring it with me here and wish to be alone until I show up tomorrow. You remark casually this evening, or tomorrow, that I intend to go to Lier. Sometime in the afternoon I'll call for a taxi. That's all. There is much we could talk about, in case we never see each other again, but you'll manage all that, and much better without my aid. You are so practical, you know.
"There are also a few questions I would like to ask. First, do you realize you'll never see me again if anything goes wrong—afterwards?"
"Secondly—why just that stupid ass? And why anyone for that matter? I have never before this evening doubted that you are normal—within certain limits, that is. In principle it is of no consequence to me what you answer, but before I set out on an expedition of this kind, I would like to know—"
"It's simply that blood-revenge must strike that family."
Jan could see that Erling failed to understand and that his thoughts went off in another direction. "I mean," he added, "that revenge must strike that family or that species, if you wish. I never experience revelations, and perhaps I've thought too much about this matter, but we have to do here with one of that species. Since we don't know which one, lightning must strike among them. I don't think it will hit far from home. And not one of that brood will be in doubt that lightning has struck from Venhaug. You'll escape. They can't start any trouble, they can't do a thing, they'll just have to suffer the only reply they understand. Not to a single one of them will there be—and certainly never has been either—something called—" he contorted his lips, "—a Venhaug mystery."
Erling made his plans in the evening. Now that he wished to live, nothing must go wrong. He knew before he parted from Jan that tonight he would sin against the Holy Ghost—forcibly open the spring of inspiration, utilize it for a murder. He would brutally commit this sin for [p. 357] Felicia and all at Venhaug. The bottle—well, he would empty it when the Holy Ghost had given him information. He intended to commit sacrilege against the Spirit and use it as advisor for a murder.
It was a sunrise from the Garden of Eden when he rowed into Erlingvik and pulled up the boat on the shore. He stood long and beheld his kingdom before he walked over to the three tall white birches against the mountainside. He did not look up at the wall on the other side where they were sitting, watching him; he did not wish to do so before he reached the slab between the birches. He did not bend over the slab, he felt he must first have permission. Perhaps after all she did not wish it. He looked up. Felicia sat with her feet pulled under her as he so often had seen her do; she wore a blue dress with lace at the neck and a broad belt round her narrow waist. He was rather surprised at seeing the dress, she had not worn it since he returned from Las Palmas. Steingrim held one of her hands, he was leaning forward a little the better to see Erling. They did not move. He looked at them and waited. They were very solemn, but a great peace lay on their faces. The closed severity was gone from Steingrim's face, it appeared rather boy-like curious—what errand might Erling have?
He stooped down and raised the slab on edge before he looked at them again. They sat as before. Then Felicia would not forbid it, and he took the golden hammer he had found at life's dawn in the rat-hole at home, but had not known it was gold until the family moved to Rjukan. Carefully he brushed off some dirt from the shining hammer and when he again looked up at Felicia, a faint warmth was already at work in his blood, soon to turn into an intoxication. She must hurry now and give a sign if she was against it, but she only watched him with her big, deep eyes. Steingrim did the same. Erling could see no motion except in Felicia's hair, when a breath of wind fluttered it. Well, it must be so, he thought, and the tears came—he knew it, knew it once and for all, that the dead and the living are equally dead to each other. To the dead one, all are dead. One could thank the deity for at least that much. He knocked on the mountain wall with his gold hammer and called aloud; then a white, crackling light streamed over him. It rushed like floods of wild horses over the broad fields, he ran from dungeon to dungeon and loosened all the ropes of dreams, hit the law's watch-dog in the head at the door, and opened the sluice gates to the springs of life; he blasted his mind to pieces, some of which floated away down the streams, while other pieces escaped like dark birds to rank heaths where they were more at home. He raised a new heaven and a new earth, but in the new- [p. 358] created world were also Felicia and Steingrim, this he could see as he pushed out the boat and the smoke lifted from over Erlingvik.
About two o'clock in the morning he was standing on the floor, swaying like a conductor calling for order and attention before he slowly raises the baton. All eyes in his consciousness were waiting for the sign.
He had risen from the dark well into which Felicia's disappearance had pushed him; he was not undamaged, but he was whole; dark moments undoubtedly lay ahead, but he would live. Now it only remained to get it over with, this that he must do in Oslo tomorrow, or, if necessary, to wait there until he could strike. He felt as if everything was already done, only one detail remained.
He opened the bottle Jan had given him and sat down to drink. It was twelve days since he had tasted liquor and he needed it now. The poison rose quickly to his head. He had a recollection about something black he had seen during the night, some slinking, formless shadow over the snow. He remembered what it was. That damned Haukas who considered it elegant to be called Anderssen had returned with the car. At that hour the moon had been high, now it was low. Shadows from this long-legged, long-armed, long-backed creature, actually a beast who confused people by wearing clothing and who for some reason walked on two legs, it was his shadow he had seen slinking over the dirty, moon-green snow. People like Tor Anderssen should be forbidden a shadow. He leaned back in his chair and recited, pathetically:
I the Fool sit here alone,
Like God within His heaven.
The clock ticks unflaggingly:
Lonely, alone, alone, lonely.The bottle is empty and I am drunk,
The woman you gave me
Someone took from me.
Lonely, alone, alone, lonely.
At dusk the following day they were standing on the veranda, waiting for the taxi. Julie had been seized with weeping and had gone inside.
"I noticed you take along everything," said Jan.
"Well, for all eventualities."
"You take along everything," repeated Jan. "Everything, even the thing you might be just as well without—in an eventuality."
Erling did not reply. He felt for the thing he had in his pocket.[p. 359]
"It looks as if you had in mind to stay away, Erling—however it turns out."
Something was wrong with Erling; he could find no words.
Jan looked down at the floor. "It's my doing," he said, indistinctly. "I ask you to return. Julie—"
Erling was low today. He would rather everything was left open and that Jan would refrain from appealing to his conscience. It was nothing to hold up to the light. He turned aside and said, slurringly, "It is not certain I can decide that myself."
"You know you will decide it yourself, Erling. And I know I only plague you the way matters stand. I only wanted to say I feel like a beggar. I am your son-in-law. It's my hopeless fear of the dark that brought it about before—before it ought to have happened perhaps, but Felicia—I believe she'd have understood."
Erling took him by the shoulder. "Shut up, Jan! Felicia understands."
"Julie has saved me, Erling. My mind—"
The taxi was approaching down the road; the headlights hit the barn.
Erling felt better, and of course he knew that he never could tear himself loose and that he did not wish it either—but some door must be left open. Well, he didn't know. Jan was a strange person. This was like the time the Germans were in the country. Then Jan was very young, but had automatically become a leader at the first moment. Not one to give orders and forget, but one who always got his way, and no one had been the loser. Erling had not been Jan's man during the war, had not even known him, and had consequently not encountered Felicia. He had heard about her through Steingrim who was a contact man for several groups.
Jan held on to Erling's sleeve and followed him down the steps. No, he had not been Jan's man, yet he felt as if he always had been, as if he remembered from before how Jan Venhaug would send a man out into the night. Before he closed the taxi door he called, unnaturally loud, "See you soon, Jan!"
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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