A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter I

It turned out otherwise than I had thought. Captain Falkenberg came out, heard what I had to say, and answered no on the spot. He had all the hands he wanted, and the field work was all but done.

Good! Might I go over to the men’s room and sit down and rest a while?

Certainly.

No invitation to stay over Sunday. The Captain turned on his heel and went indoors again. He looked as if he had only just got out of bed, for he was wearing a night-shirt tucked into his trousers, and had no waistcoat on; only a jacket flung on loosely and left unbuttoned. He was going grey about the ears, and his beard as well.

I sat down in the men’s quarters and waited till the farmhands came in for their afternoon meal. There were only two of them — the foreman and another. I got into talk with them, and it appeared the Captain had made a mistake in saying the field work was all but done. Well, ’twas his own affair. I made no secret of the fact that I was looking for a place, and, as for being used to the work, I showed them the fine recommendation I had got from the Lensmand at Hersæt years ago. When the men went out again, I took my sack and walked out with them, ready to go on my way. I peeped in at the stables and saw a surprising number of horses, looked at the cowshed, at the fowls, and the pigs. I noticed that there was dung in the pit from the year before that had not been carted out yet.

I asked how that could be.

“Well, what are we to do?” answered the foreman. “I looked to it from the end of the winter up till now, and nobody but myself on the place. Now there’s two of us at least, in a sort of way, but now there’s all the ploughing and harrowing to be done.”

’Twas his affair.

I bade him farewell, and went on my way. I was going to my good friend, Lars Falkenberg, but I did not tell them so. There are some new little buildings far up in the wood I can see, and that I take to be the clearing.

But the man I had just left must have been inwardly stirred by the thought of getting an extra hand to help with the work. I saw him tramp across the courtyard and up to the house as I went off.

I had gone but a couple of hundred yards when he comes hurrying after me to say I am taken on after all. He had spoken to the Captain, and got leave to take me on himself. “There’ll be nothing to do now till Monday, but come in and have something to eat.”

He is a good fellow, this; goes with me up to the kitchen and tells them there: “Here’s a new man come to work on the place; see he gets something to eat.”

A strange cook and strange maids. I get my food and go out again. No sign of master or mistress anywhere.

But I cannot sit idle in the men’s room all the evening; I walk up to the field and talk to my two fellow-workers. Nils, the foreman, is from a farm a little north of here, but, not being the eldest son, and having no farm of his own to run, he has been sensible enough to take service here at Øvrebø for the time being. And, indeed, he might have done worse. The Captain himself was not paying more and more attention to his land, rather, perhaps, less and less, and he was away so much that the man had to use his own judgment many a time. This last autumn, for instance, he has turned up a big stretch of waste land that he is going to sow. He points out over the ground, showing where he’s ploughed and what’s to lie over: “See that bit there how well it’s coming on.”

It is good to hear how well this young man knows his work; I find a pleasure in his sensible talk. He has been to one of the State schools, too, and learned how to keep accounts of stock, entering loads of hay in one column and the birth dates of the calves in another. His affair. In the old days a peasant kept such matters in his head, and the womenfolk knew to a day when each of their twenty or fifty cow was due to calve.

But he is a smart young fellow, nevertheless, and not afraid of work, only a little soured and spoiled of late by having more on his hands than a man could do. It was plain to see how he brightened up now he had got a man to help with the work. And he settles there and then that I am to start on Monday with the harrow horse, carting out manure, the lad to take one of the Captain’s carriage horses for the harrow; he himself would stick to the ploughing. Ay, we would get our sowing done this year.

Sunday.

I must be careful not to show any former knowledge of things about the place here; as, for instance, how far the Captain’s timber runs, or where the various out-houses and buildings are, or the well, or the roads. I took some time getting things ready for tomorrow — greased the wheels of the cart, and did up the harness, and gave the horse an extra turn. In the afternoon I went for a four or five hours’ ramble through the woods, passed by Lars Falkenberg’s place without going in, and came right out to where the Captain’s land joined that of the neighbouring village before I turned back. I was surprised to see the mass of timber that had been cut.

When I got back, Nils asked: “Did you hear them singing and carrying on last night?”

“Yes; what was it?”

“Visitors,” said he, with a laugh.

Visitors! yes, there were always visitors at Øvrebø just now.

There was an extremely fat but sprightly man among them; he wore his moustache turned up at the ends, and was a captain in the same arm of the service as the master. I saw him and the other guests come lounging out of the house in the course of the evening. There was a man they called Ingeniør,2 he was young, a little over twenty, fairly tall, brown-skinned and clean shaven. And there was Elisabet from the vicarage. I remember Elisabet very well, and recognized her now at once, for all she was six years older and more mature. Little Elisabet of the old days was no longer a girl — her breast stood out so, and gave an impression of exaggerated health. I learned she is married; she took Erik after all, a farmer’s son she had been fond of as a child. She was still friendly with Fru Falkenberg, and often came to stay. But her husband never came with her.

2 Engineer. Men are frequently addressed and referred to by the title of their occupation, with or without adding the name.

Elisabet is standing by the flagstaff, and Captain Falkenberg comes out. They talk a little, and are occupied with their own affairs. The Captain glances round every time he speaks; possibly he is not talking of trifles, but of something he must needs be careful with.

Then comes the other Captain, the fat and jovial one; we can hear his laugh right over in the servants’ quarters. He calls out to Captain Falkenberg to come along, but gets back only a curt answer. A few stone steps lead down to the lilac shrubbery; the Captain goes down there now, a maid following after with wine and glasses. Last of all comes the engineer.

Nils bursts out laughing: “Oh, that Captain! look at him!”

“What’s his name?”

“They all call him Bror;3 it was the same last year as well. I don’t know his proper name.”

3 Brother. Not so much a nickname as a general term of jovial familiarity.

“And the Engineer?”

“His name’s Lassen, so I’ve heard. He’s only been here once before in my time.”

Then came Fru Falkenberg out on the steps; she stopped for a moment and glanced over at the two by the flagstaff. Her figure is slight and pretty as ever; but her face seems looser, as if she had been stouter once and since grown thin. She goes down to the shrubbery after the others, and I recognize her walk again — light and firm as of old. But little wonder if time has taken something of her looks in all those years.

More people come out from the house — an elderly lady wearing a shawl, and two gentlemen with her.

Nils tells me it is not always there are so many guests in the house at once; but it was the Captain’s birthday two days ago, and two carriage loads of people had come dashing up; the four strange horses were in the stables now.

Now voices are calling again for the couple by the flagstaff; the Captain throws out an impatient “Yes!” but does not move. Now he brushes a speck of dust from Elisabet’s shoulder; now, looking round carefully, he lays one hand on her arm and tells her something earnestly.

Says Nils:

“They’ve always such a lot to talk about, those two. She never comes here but they go off for long walks together.”

“And what does Fru Falkenberg say to that?”

“I’ve never heard she troubled about it any way.”

“And Elisabet, hasn’t she any children either?”

“Ay, she’s many.”

“But how can she get away so often with that big place and the children to look after?”

“It’s all right as long as Erik’s mother’s alive. She can get away all she wants.”

He went out as he spoke, leaving me alone. In this room I had sat once working out the construction of an improved timber saw. How earnest I was about it all! Petter, the farm-hand, lay sick in the room next door, and I would hurry out eagerly whenever I’d any hammering to do, and get it done outside. Now that patent saw’s just literature to me, no more. So the years deal with us all.

Nils comes in again.

“If the visitors aren’t gone tomorrow, I’ll take a couple of their horses for the ploughing,” says he, thinking only of his own affairs.

I glanced out of the window; the couple by the flagstaff have moved away at last.

In the evening things grew more and more lively down in the shrubbery. The maids went backwards and forwards with trays of food and drink; the party were having supper among the lilacs. “Bror! Bror!” cried one and another, but Bror himself was loudest of all. A chair had broken under his enormous weight, and a message comes out to the servants’ quarters to find a good, solid, wooden chair that would bear him. Oh, but they were merry down in the shrubbery! Captain Falkenberg walked up now and again in front of the house to show he was still steady on his legs, and was keeping a watchful eye on things in general. “You mark my words,” said Nils, “he’ll not be the first to give over. I drove for him last year, and he was drinking all the way, but never a sign was there to see.”

The sun went down. It was growing chilly, perhaps, in the garden; anyway, the party went indoors. But the big windows were thrown wide, and waves of melody from Fru Falkenberg’s piano poured out. After a while it changed to dance tunes; jovial Captain Bror, no doubt, was playing now.

“Nice lot, aren’t they?” said Nils. “Sit up playing and dancing all night, and stay in bed all day. I’m going to turn in.”

I stayed behind, looking out of the window, and saw my mate Lars Falkenberg come walking across the courtyard and go up into the house. He had been sent for to sing to the company. When he has sung for a while, Captain Bror and some of the others begin to chime in and help, making a fine merry noise between them. After about an hour in comes Lars Falkenberg to the servants’ quarters with a half-bottle of spirit in his pocket for his trouble. Seeing no one but me, a stranger, in the room, he goes in to Nils in the bedroom next door, and they take a dram together; after a little they call to me to come in. I am careful not to say too much, hoping not to be recognized; but when Lars gets up to go home, he asks me to go part of the way with him. And then it appears that I am discovered already; Lars knows that I am his former mate of the woodcutting days.

The Captain had told him.

Well and good, I think to myself. Then I’ve no need to bother about being careful any more. To tell the truth, I was well pleased at the way things had turned out; it meant that the Captain was completely indifferent as to having me about the place; I could do as I pleased.

I walked all the way home with Lars, talking over old times, and of his new place, and of the people at Øvrebø. It seemed that the Captain was not looked up to with the same respect as before; he was no longer the spokesman of the district, and neighbours had ceased to come and ask his help and advice. The last thing of any account he did was to have the carriage drive altered down to the high road, but that was five years ago. The buildings needed painting, but he had put it off and never had it done; the road across the estate was in disrepair, and he had felled too much timber by far. Drink? Oh, so folk said, no doubt, but it couldn’t be fairly said he drank — not that way. Devil take the gossiping fools. He drank a little, and now and again he would drive off somewhere and stay away for a bit; but when he did come home again things never seemed to go well with him, and that was the pity of it! An evil spirit seemed to have got hold of him, said Lars.

And Fruen?

Fruen! She went about the house as before, and played on her piano, and was as pretty and neat as ever any one could wish. And they keep open house, with folk for ever coming and going; but taxes and charges on this and that mount up, and it costs a deal to keep up the place, with all the big buildings to be seen to. But it is a sin and a shame for the Captain, and Fruen as well, to be so dead-weary of each other, you’d never think. If they do say a word to each other, it’s looking to the other side all the time, and hardly opening their lips. They barely speak at all, except to other people month after month the same. And all summer the Captain’s out on manoeuvres, and never comes home to see how his wife and the place are getting on. “No, they’ve no children; that’s the trouble,” says Lars.

Emma comes out and joins us. She looks well and handsome still, and I tell her so.

“Emma?” says Lars. “Ay, well, she’s none so bad. But she’s for ever having children, the wretch!” and, pouring out a drink from his half-bottle, he forces her to drink it off. Now Emma presses us to come in; we might just as well be sitting down indoors as standing about out here.

“Oh, it’s summer now!” says Lars, evidently none so anxious to have me in. Then, when I set off for home, he walks down again with me a bit of the way, showing me where he’s dug and drained and fenced about his bit of land. Small as it is, he has made good and sensible use of it. I find a strange sense of pleasure coming over me as I look at this cosy homestead in the woods. There is a faint soughing of the wind in the forest behind; close up to the house are foliage trees, and the aspens rustle like silk.

I walk back home. Night is deepening; all the birds are silent; the air calm and warm, in a soft bluish gloom.

“Let us be young to-night!” It is a man’s voice, loud and bright, from behind the lilacs. “Let’s go and dance, or do something wild.”

“Have you forgotten what you were like last year?” answers Fru Falkenberg. “You were nice and young then, and never said such things.”

“No, I never said such things. To think you should remember that! But you scolded me one evening last year too. I said how beautiful you were that evening, and you said no, you weren’t beautiful any more; and you called me a child, and told me not to drink so much.”

“Yes, so I did,” says Fru Falkenberg, with a laugh.

“So you did, yes. But as to your being beautiful or not, surely I ought to know when I was sitting looking at you all the time?”

“Oh, you child!”

“And this evening you’re lovelier still.”

“There’s some one coming!”

Two figures rise up suddenly behind the lilacs. Fruen and the young engineer. Seeing it is only me, they breathe more easily again, and go on talking as if I did not exist. And mark how strange is human feeling; I had been wishing all along to be ignored and left in peace, yet now it hurt me to see these two making so little account of me. My hair and beard are turning grey, I thought to myself; should they not respect me at least for that?

“Yes, you’re lovelier still tonight,” says the man again. I come up alongside them, touching my cap carelessly, and pass on.

“I’ll tell you this much: you’ll gain nothing by it,” says Fruen. And then: “Here, you’ve dropped something,” she calls to me.

Dropped something? My handkerchief lay on the path; I had dropped it on purpose. I turned round now and picked it up, said thank you, and walked on.

“You’re very quick to notice things of no account,” says the engineer. “A lout’s red-spotted rag. . . . Come, let’s go and sit in the summer-house.”

“It’s shut up at night,” says Fruen. “I dare say there’s somebody in there.”

After that I heard no more.

My bedroom is up in the loft in the servants’ quarters, and the one open window looks out to the shrubbery. When I come up I can still hear voices down there among the bushes, but cannot make out what is said. I thought to myself: why should the summer-house be shut up at night, and whose idea could it be? Possibly some very crafty soul, reckoning that, if the door were always kept locked, it would be less risky to slip inside one evening in good company, take out the key, and stay there.

Some way down along the way I had just come were two people walking up — Captain Bror and the old lady with the shawl. They had been sitting somewhere among the trees, no doubt, when I passed by, and I fell to wondering now if, by any chance, I could have been talking to myself as I walked, and been overheard.

Suddenly I see the engineer get up from behind the bushes and walk swiftly over to the summer-house. Finding it locked, he sets his shoulder against the door and breaks it open with a crash.

“Come along, there’s nobody here!” he cries.

Fru Falkenberg gets up and says: “Madman! Whatever are you doing?”

But she goes towards him all the same.

“Doing?” says he. “What else should I do? Love isn’t glycerine — it’s nitro-glycerine.”

And he takes her by the arm and leads her in.

Well, ’tis their affair. . . .

But the stout Captain and his lady are coming up; the pair in the summer-house will hardly be aware of their approach, and Fru Falkenberg would perhaps find it far from agreeable to be discovered sitting there with a man just now. I look about for some means of warning them; here is an empty bottle; I go to the window and fling it as hard as I can over towards the summer-house. There is a crash, bottle and tiles are broken, and the pieces go clattering down over the roof; a cry of dismay from within, and Fru Falkenberg rushes out, her companion behind her still grasping her dress. They stop for a moment and look about them. “Bror!” cries Fru Falkenberg, and sets off at a run down the shrubbery. “No, don’t come,” she calls back over her shoulder. “You mustn’t, I tell you.”

But the engineer ran after her, all the same. Wonderfully young he was, and all inflexible.

Now the stout Captain and his lady come up, and their talk is a marvel to hear. Love: there is nothing like it, so it seems. The stout cavalier must be sixty at the least, and the lady with him, say forty; their infatuation was a sight to see.

The Captain speaks:

“And up to this evening I’ve managed to hide it somehow, but now — well, it’s more than any man can. You’ve bewitched me Frue, completely.”

“I didn’t think you cared so much, really,” she answers gently, trying to help him along.

“Well, I do,” he says. “And I can’t stand it any longer, and that’s the truth. When we were up in the woods just now, I still thought I could get through one more night, and didn’t say anything much at the time. But now; come back with me, say you will!”

She shook her head.

“No; oh, I’d love to give you . . . do what you. . . . ”

“Ah!” he exclaims, and, throwing his arms about her, stands pressing his round paunch against hers. There they stood, looking like two recalcitrants that would not. Oh, that Captain!

“Let me go,” she implored him.

He loosened his hold a trifle and pressed her to him again. Once more it looked as if both were resisting.

“Come back up into the wood,” he urged again and again.

“Oh, it’s impossible!” she answered. “And then it’s all wet with the dew.”

But the Captain was full of passionate words — full and frothing over.

“Oh, I used to think I didn’t care much about eyes! Blue eyes — huh! Grey eyes — huh! Eyes any sort of colour — huh! But then you came with those brown eyes of yours. . . . ”

“They are brown, yes. . . . ”

“You burn me with them; you — you roast me up!”

“To tell the truth, you’re not the first that’s said nice things about my eyes. My husband now. . . . ”

“Ah, but what about me!” cries the Captain. “I tell you, Frue, if I’d only met you twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have answered for my reason. Come; there’s no dew to speak of up in the wood.”

“We’d better go indoors, I think,” she suggests.

“Go in? There’s not a corner anywhere indoors where we can be alone.”

“Oh, we’ll find somewhere!” she says.

“Well, anyhow, we must have an end of it to-night,” says the Captain decisively.

And they go.

I asked myself: was it to warn anybody I had thrown that empty bottle?

At three in the morning I heard Nils go out to feed the horses. At four he knocked to rouse me out of bed. I did not grudge him the honour of being first up, though I could have called him earlier myself, any hour of that night indeed, for I had not slept. ’Tis easy enough to go without sleep a night or two in this light, fine air; it does not make for drowsiness.

Nils sets out for the fields, driving a new team. He has looked over the visitors’ horses, and chosen Elisabet’s. Good country-breds, heavy in the leg.

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