Under the Autumn Star, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXVIII

A young girl sat at a table sewing; there was no one else in the room. When I asked for shelter, she answered brightly and trustingly that she would see, and went into a little room at the side. I called after her as she went that I would be glad only to sit here by the stove till daylight.

A little after the girl came in again with her mother, who was still buttoning her clothes about her. Godkvæld! Shelter for the night? Well, well, there wasn’t that room in the place they could make me properly comfortable, but I’d be welcome to the bedroom, such as it was.

And where would they sleep themselves?

Why, it was near day now, and the girl’d be sitting up anyhow for a bit with her sewing.

What was she sewing to sit up for all night? A new dress?

No, only the skirt. She was to wear it to church in the morning, but wouldn’t hear of her mother helping.

I brought up my sewing-machine, and said jestingly that a skirt more or less was a mere trifle for a thing like this. Wait, and I’d show them.

Was I a tailor, then?

No. But I sold sewing-machines.

I took out the printed directions and studied them to see how it worked. The girl listened attentively; she was a mere child; her thin fingers were all blue with the dye from the stuff. There was something so poor-looking about those blue fingers; I brought out some wine and poured out for all of us. Then we go on sewing again — I with the printed paper, and the girl working the machine. She is delighted to see how easily it goes, and her eyes are all aglow.

How old was she?

Sixteen. Confirmed last year.

And what was her name?

Olga.

Her mother stands watching us, and would dearly like to try the machine herself, but every time she comes near, Olga says: “Be careful, mother, you’ll despise it.” And when the spool needs filling, and her mother takes the shuttle in her hand a moment, the child is once more afraid it may be “despised.”4

4 Foragte, literally “despise.” The word is evidently to be understood as used in error by the girl herself, in place of some equivalent of “spoil (destroy),” the author’s purpose being to convey an impression of something touchingly “poor,” as with the dye-stained fingers earlier and her awkward gait and figure later mentioned. Precisely similar characteristics are used to the same end in Pan, and elsewhere.

The old woman puts on the coffee-pot, and tends the fire; the room is soon warm and cosy. The lonely folk are as trusting and kindly as could be. Olga laughs when I make a little jest about the machine. I noted that neither of them asked how much the thing cost, though I had told them it was for sale. They looked on it as hopelessly beyond their reach. But they could still take a delight in seeing it work.

I hinted that Olga really ought to have a machine like that, seeing she’d got the way of it so neatly all at once.

Her mother answered it would have to wait till she’d been out in service for a bit.

Was she going out in service?

Why, yes, she hoped so, anyway. Both her other daughters were in service, and doing well — thank God. Olga would be meeting them at church in the morning.

There was a little cracked mirror hanging on one of the walls, on the other a few cheap prints had been tacked up — pictures of soldiers on horseback and royalties with a great deal of finery. One of these pictures is old and frayed. It is a portrait of the Empress Eugenie, and evidently not a recent purchase. I asked where it had come from.

The good woman did not know. Must be something her husband had bought in his time.

“Did he buy it here?”

More likely ‘twould have been at Hersæt, where he had been in service as a young man. Might be thirty years gone now.

I have a little plan in my head already, and say:

“That picture is worth a deal of money.”

The woman thinks I am making game of her, so I make a close inspection of the picture, and declare emphatically that it is no cheap print — no.

But the woman is quite stupid, and simply says: well, did I think so, now? The thing had hung there ever since the house was built. It was Olga’s, by the way, she had called it hers from the time she was a little one.

I put on a knowing, mysterious air, and ask for further details of the case — where Hersæt might be.

Hersæt was in the neighbouring parish, some eight miles away. The Lensmand lived there. . . .

The coffee is ready, and Olga and I call a halt. There are only the fastenings to be done now. I ask to see the blouse she is to wear with the skirt, and it appears that this is not a real blouse at all, but a knitted kerchief. But she has a left-off jacket that one of her sisters gave her, and that will go outside and hide all the rest.

Olga is growing so fast, I am told, that there’s no sense in buying a blouse for her this twelvemonth to come.

Olga sits sewing on hooks and eyes, and that is soon done. Then she turns so sleepy, it’s a sight to see; wherefore I put on an air of authority and order her to bed. Her mother feels constrained to sit up and keep me company, though I tell her myself to go back to bed again.

“You ought to be properly thankful, I’m sure,” says the mother, “to the strange man for all the way he’s helped you.”

And Olga comes up to me and gives her hand to thank me, and I turn her round and shuffle her across to the bedroom door.

“You’d better go too,” I say to her mother. “I won’t sit talking any more, for I’m tired myself.”

And, seeing I settle down by the stove with my sack under my head, she shakes her head with a smile and goes off too.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23u/chapter28.html

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