I sat dejectedly and looked at her; my heart beat violently, my blood raced quickly through my veins, there was a singular sense of enjoyment in it!
"Why don't you say something?"
"What a darling you are," I cried. "I am simply sitting here getting thoroughly fascinated by you--here this very moment thoroughly fascinated.... There is no help for it.... You are the most extraordinary creature that ... sometimes your eyes gleam so, that I never saw their match; they look like flowers ... eh? No, well, no, perhaps, not like flowers, either, but ... I am so desperately in love with you, and it is so preposterous ... for, great Scott! there is naturally not an atom of a chance for me.... What is your name? Now, you really must tell me what you are called."
"No; what is your name? Gracious, I was nearly forgetting that again! I thought about it all yesterday, that I meant to ask you--yes, that is to say, not all yesterday, but--"
"Do you know what I named you? I named you Ylajali. How do you like that? It has a gliding sound...."
"Is that a foreign language?"
"Humph--no, it isn't that either!"
"Well, it isn't ugly!"
After a long discussion we told one another our names. She seated herself close to my side on the sofa, and shoved the chair away with her foot, and we began to chatter afresh.
"You are shaved this evening, too," she said; look on the whole a little better than the last time--that is to say, only just a scrap better. Don't imagine ... no; the last time you were really shabby, and you had a dirty rag round your finger into the bargain; and in that state you absolutely wanted me to go to some place, and take wine with you--thanks, not me!"
"So it was, after all, because of my miserable appearance that you would not go with me?" I said.
"No," she replied and looked down. "No; God knows it wasn't. I didn't even think about it."
"Listen," said I; "you are evidently sitting here labouring under the delusion that I can dress and live exactly as I choose, aren't you? And that is just what I can't do; I am very, very poor."
She looked at me. "Are you?" she queried.
"Yes, worse luck, I am."
After an interval.
"Well, gracious, so am I, too," she said, with a cheerful movement of her head.
Every one of her words intoxicated me, fell on my heart like drops of wine. She enchanted me with the trick she had of putting her head a little on one side, and listening when I said anything, and I could feel her breath brush my face.
"Do you know," I said, "that ... but, now, you mustn't get angry--when I went to bed last night I settled this arm for you ... so ... as if you lay on it ... and then I went to sleep."
"Did you? That was lovely!" A pause. "But of course it could only be from a distance that you would venture to do such a thing, for otherwise...."
"Don't you believe I could do it otherwise?"
"No, I don't believe it."
"Ah, from me you may expect everything," I said, and I put my arm around her waist.
"Can I?" was all she said.
It annoyed me, almost wounded me, that she should look upon me as being so utterly inoffensive. I braced myself up, steeled my heart, and seized her hand; but she withdrew it softly, and moved a little away from me. That just put an end to my courage again; I felt ashamed, and looked out through the window. I was, in spite of all, in far too wretched a condition; I must, above all, not try to imagine myself any one in particular. It would have been another matter if I had met her during the time that I still looked like a respectable human being--in my old, well- off days when I had sufficient to make an appearance; and I felt fearfully downcast!
"There now, one can see!" she said, "now one can just see one can snub you with just the tiniest frown--make you look sheepish by just moving a little away from you" ... she laughed, tantalizingly, roguishly, with tightly-closed eyes, as if she could not stand being looked at, either.
"Well, upon my soul!" I blurted out, "now you shall just see," and I flung my arms violently around her shoulders. I was mortified. Was the girl out of her senses? Did she think I was totally inexperienced! Ha! Then I would, by the living.... No one should say of me that I was backward on that score. The creature was possessed by the devil himself! If it were only a matter of going at it, well....
She sat quite quietly, and still kept her eyes closed; neither of us spoke. I crushed her fiercely to me, pressed her body greedily against my breast, and she spoke never a word. I heard her heart's beat, both hers and mine; they sounded like hurrying hoofbeats.
I kissed her.
I no longer knew myself. I uttered some nonsense, that she laughed at, whispered pet names into her mouth, caressed her cheek, kissed her many times....
She winds her arms about my neck, quite slowly, tenderly, the breath of her pink quivering nostrils fans me right in the face; she strokes down my shoulders with her left hand, and says, "What a lot of loose hair there is."
"Yes," I reply.
"What can be the reason that your hair falls out so?"
"Ah, of course, because you drink too much, and perhaps ... fie, I won't say it. You ought to be ashamed. No, I wouldn't have believed that of you! To think that you, who are so young, already should lose your hair! Now, do please just tell me what sort of way you really spend your life--I am certain it is dreadful! But only the truth, do you hear; no evasions. Anyway, I shall see by you if you hide anything--there, tell now!"
"Yes; but let me kiss you first, then."
"Are you mad?... Humph, ... I want to hear what kind of a man you are.... Ah, I am sure it is dreadful."
It hurt me that she should believe the worst of me; I was afraid of thrusting her away entirely, and I could not endure the misgivings she had as to my way of life. I would clear myself in her eyes, make myself worthy of her, show her that she was sitting at the side of a person almost angelically disposed. Why, bless me, I could count my falls up to date on my fingers. I related--related all--and I only related truth. I made out nothing any worse than it was; it was not my intention to rouse her compassion. I told her also that I had stolen five shillings one evening.
She sat and listened, with open mouth, pale, frightened, her shining eyes completely bewildered. I desired to make it good again, to disperse the sad impression I had made, and I pulled myself up.
"Well, it is all over now!" I said; "there can be no talk of such a thing happening again; I am saved now...."
But she was much dispirited. "The Lord preserve me!" was all she said, then kept silent. She repeated this at short intervals, and kept silent after each "the Lord preserve me."
I began to jest, caught hold of her, tried to tickle her, lifted her up to my breast. I was irritated not a little--indeed, downright hurt. Was I more unworthy in her eyes now, than if I had myself been instrumental in causing the falling out of my hair? Would she have thought more of me if I had made myself out to be a roué?... No nonsense now;... it was just a matter of going at it; and if it was only just a matter of going at it, so, by the living...
"No;... what do you want?" she queried, and she added these distressing words, "I can't be sure that you are not insane!"
I checked myself involuntarily, and I said: "You don't mean that!"
"Indeed, God knows I do! you look so strangely. And the forenoon you followed me--after all, you weren't tipsy that time?"
"No; but I wasn't hungry then, either; I had just eaten...."
"Yes; but that made it so much the worse."
"Would you rather I had been tipsy?"
"Yes ... ugh ... I am afraid of you! Lord, can't you let me be now!"
I considered a moment. No, I couldn't let her be.... I happened, as if inadvertently, to knock over the light, so that it went out. She made a despairing struggle--gave vent at last to a little whimper.
"No, not that! If you like, you may rather kiss me, oh, dear, kind...."
I stopped instantly. Her words sounded so terrified, so helpless, I was struck to the heart. She meant to offer me a compensation by giving me leave to kiss her! How charming, how charmingly naïve. I could have fallen down and knelt before her.
"But, dear pretty one," I said, completely bewildered, "I don't understand.... I really can't conceive what sort of a game this is...."
She rose, lit the candle again with trembling hands. I leant back on the sofa and did nothing. What would happen now? I was in reality very ill at ease.
She cast a look over at the clock on the wall, and started.
Knut Hamsun, Hunger, translated from Norwegian by George Egerton