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Björnstjerne Björnson (1832–1910). A Happy Boy.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Chapter VI

SIX months later, that is to say in the autumn (the confirmation had been put off till then), the candidates for confirmation sat in the servants’ hall of the minister’s house waiting to be called in for examination, and amongst them Eyvind of Pladsen and Marit of the Hill Farms. Marit had just come down from the minister’s room where she had received a beautiful book and much commendation. She laughed and chatted with her girlfriends on all sides, and looked round amongst the boys. Marit was now a full-grown girl, light and free in all her movements, and the boys as well as the girls knew that the finest bachelor of the village, John Hatlen, was paying court to her; she might well be happy as she sat there. By the door stood some girls and boys who had not passed; they were crying whilst Marit and her friends laughed. Amongst them was a little boy in his father’s boots and his mother’s Sunday kerchief.    1
  “Oh God, oh God!” he sobbed, “I daren’t go home again.”    2
  This seized those who had not yet been up, with the force of fellow-feeling; there was a general silence. Anxiety clouded their eyes and gripped them by the throat; they could not see distinctly, and neither could they swallow, though they constantly wanted to. One sat and went over all he knew, and though he had discovered some hours before that he knew everything, he now found out with equal certainty that he knew nothing—could not even read. A second went over his whole list of sins, from as far back as he could remember, till now, and came to the conclusion that it would not be in the least wonderful if Our Lord did not let him pass. A third sat and watched everything in the room: if the clock, which was on the point of striking, did not begin until he had counted twenty, he would pass; if the person he heard coming into the passage was the stableboy, Lars, he would pass; if the big raindrop that was creeping down the window came right to the frame, he would pass. The last and decisive proof was to be whether he could get his right foot twisted round his left, and this he found quite impossible. A fourth was sure that if he was questioned on Joseph in history and on baptism in doctrine, or on Saul, or on the Decalogue, or on Jesus or—he was still going over it all when his turn came. A fifth had set his heart on the Sermon on the Mount; he had dreamt of the sermon, he was sure he would be questioned on the sermon; he went over the sermon to himself, he had to slip out to read the sermon over again—then his turn came, and he was examined on the major and minor prophets. A sixth thought of the minister, what a kind man he was, and how well he knew his father and mother; and of the schoolmaster, who had such a gentle face; and of God, who was so very gracious and had helped many before, both Jacob and Joseph; and then he thought how his mother and sisters were at home praying for him, and that was sure to help. The seventh sat and knocked down all the castles in the air he had built. First he had determined to become a king, then a general or a minister—that stage had long been past: but until he had entered this room he had still thought of going to sea and becoming a captain, perhaps a pirate, and amassing enormous wealth: then he gave up the idea of riches, then the idea of becoming a pirate, then of becoming a captain, then of becoming a mate; he stopped at common sailor or at highest boatswain—it was even possible that he would not go to sea at all, but set to work on his father’s farm. The eighth was a little more confident, yet not quite sure of passing; for not even the cleverest could be quite sure. He thought of the clothes he had got to be confirmed in, and what they would be used for if he didn’t pass. But if he passed he was to go to town and get splendid Sunday clothes, and come home again and dance at Christmas, to the envy of all the boys and the admiration of all the girls. The ninth reckoned otherwise; he opened a little account with God in which he placed upon the one side as Debit: ‘He will allow me to pass,’ and on the other side as Credit: ‘I will never tell any more lies, nor gossip, will always go to church, let the girls alone, and break myself of swearing.’ But the tenth thought that as Ole Hansen had passed last year, it would be worse than injustice if he did not pass this year, for he had always been above him at school, and besides, his parents were not respectable. At his side sat the eleventh, nursing the most bloodthirsty plans for revenge in case he did not pass—he was going either to set fire to the school, or leave the neighbourhood and come back as a fulminating judge to call the minister and the whole school-commission to account, and then magnanimously let mercy stand for justice. As a beginning he would go into service with the minister of the next parish, and there be first in the examination next year, and answer so that the whole church should wonder and admire. But the twelfth sat by himself underneath the clock, with both hands in his pockets, and looked sorrowfully at the rest. No one knew what a burden he bore and what anxiety was racking him. But at home there was one who knew it—for he was betrothed. A big, long-legged spider crept over the floor and came near his foot: he used always to tread upon the ugly insects, but to-day he lifted his foot tenderly and let it pass in peace. His voice was as mild as a collect; his eyes kept on repeating that all men were good; his hand moved humbly from his pocket to his hair, in order to smooth it down. If he could only wriggle by hook or by crook through this terrible needle’s eye, he would soon swell out again on the other side, chew tobacco and make his engagement public. On a low stool, with his legs bent underneath him, sat the restless thirteenth; his legs bent underneath him, sat the restless thirteenth; his small sparkling eyes made the round of the room three times in a second: and inside the strong, rough head the thoughts of all the other twelve were tossing about in wild confusion, from the brightest hope to the darkest despair, from the humblest resolves to the most annihilating plans of vengeance; and meanwhile he had eaten up all the loose skin from his right thumb and was now busy with his nails, of which he scattered great fragments on the floor.    3
  Eyvind sat over by the window; he had been up and answered everything he was asked, but the minister had said nothing nor the schoolmaster either. He had been thinking for more than six months what both would say when they came to know how he had worked, and he now felt disappointed, and hurt withal. There sat Marit who, for far less labour and knowledge, had received both encouragement and reward. It was precisely for the sake of shining in her eyes that he had toiled, and now she laughingly enjoyed all that he had worked for with so much self-renunciation. Her laughter and joking burnt into his soul, the freedom with which she carried herself hurt him. He had sedulously avoided speaking to her since that evening; “I won’t for years yet,” he thought; but the sight of her sitting there, so gay and at her ease, crushed him to the earth, and all his proud projects drooped like leaves in the rain.    4
  Little by little, however, he tried to shake off the depression. The thing was to know whether he was Number One to-day, and for this he waited. The schoolmaster generally remained a little while in the minister’s room to arrange the young folks in order, and then came down to announce the result; not the final order, indeed, but that which the minister and himself had provisionally agreed upon. Conversation in the room became livelier by degrees, as more and more were examined and passed. But now it became easy to distinguish the ambitious from the contented ones; the latter, so soon as they could get company on the way, went off to tell their parents of their good luck, or else waited for others who had not yet been examined; the former, on the contrary, became quieter and quieter, straining their eyes towards the door.    5
  At length all had been examined, the last had come down, and the schoolmaster was now consulting with the minister. Eyvind looked at Marit; she seemed quite indifferent, but remained sitting, whether on her own or on some one else’s account, he did not know. How lovely Marit had grown! He had never seen such a dazzlingly soft complexion; her nose turned up a little, her mouth was smiling. Her eyes were half-closed when she did not just happen to be looking at you, but that gave her glance an unexpected brilliance when it came—and, as if to explain that she meant nothing by it, she would half smile at the same time. Her hair was rather dark than fair, but it curled in little ringlets and came far forward at the sides—so that together with her half-closed eyes it gave her face an effect of mystery which it seemed one could never quite fathom. It was impossible to tell exactly at whom she was looking when she sat by herself or among others, or what she was really thinking of when she turned and talked to any one—for she seemed immediately to take back what she gave.    6
  “No doubt John Hatlen is lurking under all this,” thought Eyvind; but still he kept on looking at her.    7
  Now the schoolmaster came. They all started from their seats and crowded round him.    8
  “What’s my number?”    9
  “And mine?”   10
  “And mine, mine?”   11
  “Hush you overgrown children, no noise here; be quiet boys, and you shall hear.”   12
  He looked slowly round.   13
  “You are Number Two,” said he to a boy with blue eyes who was looking beseechingly at him, and the boy danced out of the ring.   14
  “You are Number Three,” and he gave a little slap to a red-haired, active little fellow who stood pulling his coat.   15
  “You are Number Five, you Number Eight,” and so on. He caught sight of Marit.   16
  “You are Number One of the girls.” She flushed crimson all over her face and neck, but tried to smile.   17
  “You, Number Twelve, have been lazy, you rascal, and a great vagabond; you Number Eleven couldn’t expect anything better, my boy; you, Number Thirteen, must study hard and come to the repetition class, else you’ll come off badly.”   18
  Eyvind could bear it no longer; it was true Number One had not been mentioned, but he was standing the whole time where the schoolmaster could see him.   19
  “Master!”—he did not hear. “Master!” He had to repeat it three times before he was heard. At last the schoolmaster looked at him.   20
  “Number Nine or Ten, I don’t exactly remember which,” said he, and turned to the others.   21
  “Who is Number One then?” asked Hans, who was Eyvind’s great friend.   22
  “Not you, curly pate!” said the schoolmaster, hitting him over the knuckles with a roll of paper.   23
  “Who is it then?” asked several. “Who is it—yes, who is it?”   24
  “The one who has the number will be told of it,” answered the schoolmaster, severely; he would have no more questions.   25
  “Go home nicely now, children, thank your God and gladden your parents! Thank your old schoolmaster too; you would have been badly enough off without him!”   26
  They thanked him and laughed, they dispersed rejoicing, for at this moment when they were to go home to their parents they were all happy. But one there was who could not immediately find his books and who, when he did find them, sat down as if to con them all over again.   27
  The schoolmaster went up to him.   28
  “Well, Eyvind, aren’t you going with the others?”   29
  He did not answer.   30
  “What are you looking up in your books?”   31
  “I want to see what I have answered wrong to-day.”   32
  “I don’t think you answered anything wrong.”   33
  Then Eyvind looked at him, the tears in his eyes; he looked fixedly at him whilst one tear after another ran down, but he said not a word. The schoolmaster sat down in front of him.   34
  “Are you not glad now that you’ve passed?”   35
  His mouth quivered but he did not answer.   36
  “Your father and mother will be very much pleased,” said the schoolmaster looking at him.   37
  Eyvind struggled a long time to get a word out, at last he asked him, speaking low and in broken phrases:   38
  “Is it—because I—am a cottar’s son—that I am Number Nine or Ten?”   39
  “No doubt it is,” answered the schoolmaster.   40
  “Then it’s no good for me to work,” said he in a dead voice, crushed under the wreck of his dreams. Suddenly he raised his head, lifted his right hand, struck the table with all his might, flung himself on his face and burst into an agony of weeping.   41
  The schoolmaster let him lie and have his cry right out. It lasted a long time, but the schoolmaster waited until the weeping became more like that of a child. Then he took the boy’s head between his hands, lifted it up and looked into the tear-stained face.   42
  “Do you think it is God who has been with you now?” said he, putting his arm tenderly round his shoulders.   43
  Eyvind was still sobbing, but not so violently; the tears flowed more slowly, but he did not dare to look at his questioner, nor yet to answer.   44
  “This, Eyvind, has been your just reward. You have not studied for the love of heaven and your parents; you have studied for vanity’s sake.”   45
  It was all silent in the room in the intervals of the schoolmaster’s speaking. Eyvind felt his gaze resting on him and he was melted and humbled by it.   46
  “With such anger in your heart you could not have presented yourself to make a covenant with your God; could you, Eyvind?”   47
  “No,” he stammered as well as he could.   48
  “And if you stood there in vainglorious joy because you were Number One, would you not be bringing sin to the altar?”   49
  “Yes,” whispered he, with trembling lips.   50
  “You still love me, Eyvind?”   51
  “Yes;” and he looked up for the first time.   52
  “Then I will tell you that it was I who got you placed lower; for I love you so much, Eyvind!”   53
  The other looked at him, blinked several times, and the tears rained down thickly.   54
  “You don’t bear me a grudge for it?”   55
  “No.” He looked up fully and clearly although he was nearly choked.   56
  “My dear child! I will take care of you as long as I live.”   57
  The schoolmaster waited for him until he had pulled himself together and arranged his books, and then said he would go home with him. They walked slowly homewards; at first Eyvind was still silent and struggling with himself, but gradually he got into a better frame of mind. He felt quite sure that what had happened was for the best, and before they reached home his conviction had become so strong that he thanked God and told the schoolmaster.   58
  “Ah, now we can think about doing something in life,” said the schoolmaster, “and not run after nothings and numbers. What do you say to the seminary?”   59
  “Yes, I would like to go there.”   60
  “You mean the Agricultural College?”   61
  “Yes.”   62
  “That’s certainly the best; it offers better prospects than schoolmastering.”   63
  “But how shall I get there? I want so much to go, but I’ve no money.”   64
  “Be industrious and good and we shall find means.”   65
  Eyvind was quite overcome with gratitude. He had that sparkle of the eye, that lightness of breath, that infinite fire of love which comes over one when one feels the unexpected goodness of a human creature. The whole future presents itself for a moment like wandering in the fresh mountain air; one seems to be wafted forward without effort.   66
  When they got home, both parents were in the room where they had been sitting in silent expectation, although it was working-time and they were busy. The schoolmaster went in first, Eyvind followed; both were smiling.   67
  “Well?” said the father, laying down a hymn book in which he had just been reading “A Communicant’s Prayer.” The mother stood by the fireplace and dared not speak: she laughed, but her hands were unsteady; she evidently expected good news, but would not betray herself.   68
  “I thought I’d just come with him, for I knew how glad you would be to hear that he answered every question, and that the minister said when Eyvind had gone that he has never had a better-prepared candidate.”   69
  “Oh, did he really!” said his mother, much moved.   70
  “That was good,” said his father, clearing his throat undecidedly.   71
  After a long silence the mother asked softly: “What Number will he get?”   72
  “Number Nine or Ten,” said the schoolmaster, calmly.   73
  The mother looked at the father, and he looked first at her and then at Eyvind.   74
  “A cottar’s son can expect no more,” said he.   75
  Eyvind looked back at him; he felt as if the tears would rise to his throat again, but he controlled himself by hastily calling to mind things dear to him, one after another, until the impulse subsided.   76
  “I had better go now,” said the schoolmaster, nodding and turning away. Both parents went out with him as usual to the doorstep; here the schoolmaster cut a quid of tobacco and said smiling:   77
  “He will be Number One all the same; but had better not hear it until the day comes.”   78
  “No, no,” said his father, nodding.   79
  “No, no,” said his mother, nodding too; then she took the schoolmaster’s hand: “You must let us thank you for all you have done for him,” said she.   80
  “Yes, we thank you,” said the father, and the schoolmaster went away; but they stood a long time looking after him.   81