Under the Autumn Star, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter I

Smooth as glass the water was yesterday, and smooth as glass it is again today. Indian summer on the island, mild and warm — ah! But there is no sun.

It is many years now since I knew such peace. Twenty or thirty years, maybe; or maybe it was in another life. But I have felt it some time, surely, since I go about now humming a little tune; go about rejoicing, loving every straw and every stone, and feeling as if they cared for me in return.

When I go by the overgrown path, in through the woods, my heart quivers with an unearthly joy. I call to mind a spot on the eastern shores of the Caspian, where I once stood. All just as it is here, with the water still and heavy and iron-grey as now. I walked through the woods, touched to the heart, and verging on tears for sheer happiness’ sake, and saying to myself all the time: God in heaven. To be here again. . . .

As if I had been there before.

Ah well, I may have been there once before, perhaps, coming from another time and another land, where the woods and the woodland paths were the same. Perhaps I was a flower then, in the woods, or perhaps a beetle, with its home in some acacia tree.

And now I have come to this place. Perhaps I was a bird and flew all that long way. Or the kernel in some fruit sent by a Persian trader.

See, now I am well away from the rush and crowd of the city, from people and newspapers; I have fled away from it all, because of the calling that came to me once more from the quiet, lonely tracts where I belong. “It will all come right this time,” I tell myself, and am full of hope. Alas, I have fled from the city like this before, and afterwards returned. And fled away again.

But this time I am resolved. Peace I will have, at any cost. And for the present I have taken a room in a cottage here, with Old Gunhild to look after me.

Here and there among the pines are rowans, with ripe coral berries; now the berries are falling, heavy clusters striking the earth. So they reap themselves and sow themselves again, an inconceivable abundance to be squandered every single year. Over three hundred clusters I can count on a single tree. And here and there about are flowers still in bloom, obstinate things that will not die, though their time is really past.

But Old Gunhild’s time is past as well — and think you she will die? She goes about as if death were a thing did not concern her. When the fishermen are down on the beach, painting their boats or darning nets, comes Gunhild with her vacant eyes, but with a mind as keen as any to a bargain.

“And what is the price of mackerel today?” she asks.

“The same as yesterday.”

“Then you can keep it, for all I care.”

And Gunhild goes back home.

But the fishermen know that Gunhild is not one of those that only pretend to go away; she has gone off like that before now, up to her cottage, without once looking back. So, “Hey” they call to her, and say they’ll make it seven to the half-dozen today, seeing she is an old customer.

And Gunhild buys her fish.

Washing hangs on the lines to dry; red petticoats and blue shirts, and under-things of preposterous thickness, all spun and woven on the island by the old women still left alive. But there is washing, too, of another sort: those fine chemises without sleeves, the very thing to make a body blue with cold, and mauve woollen undervests that pull out to no more than the thickness of a string. And how did these abominations get there? Why, ’tis the daughters, to be sure, the young girls of the present day, who’ve been in service in the towns, and earned such finery that way. Wash them carefully, and not too often, and the things will last for just a month. And then there is a lovely naked feeling when the holes begin to spread.

But there is none of that sort of nonsense, now, about Gunhild’s shoes, for instance. At suitable intervals, she goes round to one of the fishermen, her like in age and mind, and gets the uppers and the soles done in thoroughly with a powerful mess of stuff that leaves the water simply helpless. I’ve seen that dubbin boiling on the beach; there’s tallow in it, and tar and resin as well.

Wandering idly along the beach yesterday, looking at driftwood and scales and stones, I came upon a tiny bit of plate glass. How it ever got there, is more than I can make out; but the thing seems a mistake, a very lie, to look at. Would any fisherman, now, have rowed out here with it and laid it down and rowed away again? I left it where it lay; it was thick and common and vulgar; perhaps a bit of a tramcar window. Once on a time glass was rare, and bottle-green. God’s blessing on the old days, when something could be rare!

Smoke rising now from the fisher-huts on the southern point of the island. Evening time, and porridge cooking for supper. And when supper’s done, decent folk go to their beds, to be up again with the dawn. Only young and foolish creatures still go trapesing round from house to house, putting off their bedtime, not knowing what is best for themselves.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38