A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter X

The Captain and his wife came next day. Nils and I had talked over whether to hoist the flag; I dared not myself, but Nils was less cautious, and said we must. So there it was, flapping broad and free from its white staff.

I was close at hand when the carriage drove up and they got out. Fruen walked out far across the courtyard, looked at the house, and clapped her hands. I heard her, too, loud in wonder as she entered the hall — at sight of the stairs, no doubt, and the new red carpet.

Grindhusen had no sooner got the horses in than he came up to me, all agape with astonishment over something, and drew me aside to talk.

“There must be something wrong,” he said. That’s not Fru Falkenberg, surely? Is she married to him — the Captain, I mean?”

“Why, yes, Grindhusen, the Captain’s wife is married to the Captain. What makes you ask?”

“But it’s that cousin girl! I’ll stake my life on it if it’s not the very same one. The Inspector’s cousin that was there.”

“Not a bit of it, Grindhusen. But it might be her sister.”

“But I’ll stake my life on it. I saw her with him myself I don’t know how many times.”

“Well, well, she may be his cousin as far as that goes, but what’s it to do with us?”

“I saw it the moment she got out of the train. And she looked at me, too, and gave a start. I could see her breathing quickly after. Don’t come telling me. . . . But I can’t make out. . . . Is she from here?”

“Was Fruen pleased, or did she look unhappy?” I asked.

“Nay, I don’t know. Yes, I think she was.” Grindhusen shook his head, still marvelling how this could be the Captain’s wife. “You must have seen her with the Inspector yourself,” he said. “Didn’t you recognize her again?”

“Was she pleased, did you say?”

“Pleased? Why, yes, I suppose so. I don’t know. They talked such a lot of queer stuff the pair of them, driving home — began at the station, the minute she got out. There was a whole lot I couldn’t make out at all. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ said she, ‘but I beg you so earnestly to forgive me for it all.’ ‘And so do I,’ says he. Now did you ever hear such a thing? And they were both of them crying, I believe, in the carriage after. ‘I’ve had the place painted and done up a bit,’ said the Captain. ‘Have you?’ says she. And then he went on talking about all her things, and how they were still there and never been touched. I don’t know what things he meant, but he thought she’d find everything still in its place, he said. Did you ever hear the like? ‘All your things,’ he said. And then he went on about somebody Elisabet, and said he never gave her a thought, and never had, I think he said. And she cried like anything at that, and was all upset. But she didn’t say a word about being abroad, as the Captain said. No, I’ll stake my life she’d come from the Inspector.”

I began to fear I had made a grave mistake in bringing Grindhusen to Øvrebø. It was done now, but I wished it undone. And I told Grindhusen himself as much, and that pretty plainly.

“Fruen here’s the mistress of the place, and good and kind as could be to every one, and the Captain as well, remember that. But you’ll find yourself whipped out of here, and at once, if you go gossiping and telling tales. Take my advice and be careful. You’ve got a good job here, with good pay and decent food. Think of that, and keep quiet while you’re here.”

“Yes, yes, you’re right,” said Grindhusen meekly enough. “I don’t say a word; only, that she’s the very image of that cousin down there. And did I ever say more than that? I don’t know what you’ve got to make such a fuss about, and as for that, maybe she’s a bit fairer than the cousin. I won’t swear it’s the same sort of hair. And I never said it was. But if you want to know what I thought, I’ll tell you straight out. I was thinking she was too good to be that cousin girl. That was my very thought. ‘Twould be a shame for her to be cousin to a fellow like that, and I can’t think how anybody ever could. I’m not thinking about the money now; you know as well as I do I’m not the man to make a fuss over losing a two-Kroner piece, no more than you yourself, but it was a mean thing to do, all the same, giving me the money one day and taking it back the next. Ay, that it was. I say no more than that. But I don’t know what’s the matter with you lately, flying out the least word a man says. And what have I said, anyway? A mean lot, that he was; paid me two Kroner a day and find my own food, and always niggling and haggling over every little thing. I’ve had enough of your talk anyhow, but I’ll tell you what was my very thought, if you want to know. . . . ”

But all his flow of talk did not avail to hide the fact that he had recognized Fruen at once, and was still convinced that he was right.

All things in order now, the Captain and Fruen at home, bright days and a rich harvest. What more could any wish for?

Fruen greets me with a kindly glance, and says:

“The place looks different altogether after the way you’ve painted it so nicely. The Captain’s ever so pleased.”

She seemed calmer now than when I had seen her last, on the stairs of the hotel in the town. She did not start and breathe quickly at sight of me as she had with Grindhusen, and that could only mean she was not displeased at seeing me again! So I thought to myself, and was glad to think so. But why had she not left off that unsteady glance, that flutter of the eyes, she had fallen into of late? If I were the Captain, now, I would speak to her about it. And her complexion, too, was not what it had been. There were some curious little spots about the temples. But what matter? She was no less pretty for that.

“I’m afraid, though,” she went on, “it wasn’t my idea at all with the lovely grey for the house. You must have made a mistake in thinking I said so.”

“Well, then, I can’t make it out. But, anyhow, it’s no matter; the Captain himself decided to have it.”

“The staircase is simply splendid, and so are the rooms upstairs. It’s twice as bright as before. . . . ”

’Twas Fruen herself was trying to be twice as bright and

“Why, yes, Grindhusen, the Captain’s wife is married twice as good as before.” I knew that well enough. And she fancied she owed me these little marks of kindliness, for something or other. Well and good, but now it was enough. Best let it be.

Autumn drawing on, the scent of the jasmine all importunate down in the shrubbery, and red and yellow showing up long since on the wooded hills. Not a soul in the place but is glad to have Fruen at home again; the flag, too, does its part. ’Tis like a Sunday; the maids have put clean aprons on, fresh from the ironing.

In the evening I went down by the little stone steps to the shrubbery and sat there a while. The jasmines were pouring out waves of perfume after the heat of the day. After awhile Nils came down, looking for me.

“No visitors here now,” says Nils. “And no high goings-on at nights. Have you heard anything of that sort at night now, since the Captain first came back?”

“No.”

“And that’s full ten weeks ago now. What d’you say if I tore off this thing now?” And he pointed to his temperance badge. “Captain’s given up drinking, here’s Fruen home again, and no call to be unfriendly anyway to either of them.”

He handed me a knife, and I cut the badge away.

We talked for a bit about the farm-work — Nils thought of nothing else. “We’ll have most of the corn under shelter by tomorrow night,” he says. “And thank goodness for that! Then we’ll sow the winter rye. Queer thing, isn’t it? Here’s Lars went on year after year sowing by machine, and thought it good enough. Not if I know it! We’ll sow ours by hand.”

“But why?”

“On land like ours! Now just take the man over there, for instance; he sowed by machine three weeks ago and some’s come up and some not. No. The machine goes too deep in the soil.”

“H’m! Don’t the jasmines smell fine tonight?”

“Yes. There’s been a big difference with the barley and oats these last few days. Getting on time for bed, though, now!”

He got up, but I did not move. “Looks like being fine again tomorrow,” says Nils, glancing at the sky. And then he went on about the grass in the garden; worth cutting, he said it was.

“You going to stay down here long?” he asked suddenly.

“Yes, for a bit; why not? Oh, well, perhaps I’d better go up too.”

Nils walked off a few paces, then came back again.

“Better not stay here any longer,” he said. “Come along up here with me.”

“Think so?” I said, and rose at once. Evidently Nils had something in his mind, and had come down here on purpose to fetch me.

Had he found me out? But what was there to find out?

Did I know myself what I had gone down to the shrubbery for? I remember now that I lay face downwards, chewing a stalk of grass. There was light in a certain upstairs window of the house. I was looking at that. And that was all.

“Not being inquisitive now, but what’s the matter?” I asked.

“Nothing,” said Nils. “The girls said you were down here, so I just came along. Why, what else?”

So the maids had found me out, I thought to myself, and was ill pleased at the thought. Ragnhild it must be, a devil of a girl, sharp as a needle; she must have said a lot more than Nils was willing to confess. And what if Fruen herself had seen me from the window!

I resolved now to be cold and indifferent as ice henceforward all the days of my life.

Ragnhild is properly in clover. The thick stair carpet muffles every step; she can run upstairs whenever she pleases and slip down again in a moment without a sound.

“I can’t make it out about Fruen,” says Ragnhild.

“Here she’s come back, and ought to be happy and good tempered as could be, and instead she’s all tears and frowning. I heard the Captain telling her today: ‘Now do be a little reasonable, Lovise,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it any more,’ says Fruen; and then she cried because she’d been unreasonable. But that about never doing it any more — she’s said that now every day since she came back, but she’s done it again, all the same. Poor dear, she’d a toothache today; she was simply crying out with the pain. . . . ”

“Go and get on with the potatoes, Ragnhild,” said Nils quickly. “We’ve no time for gossiping now.”

We’d all of us our field-work now; there was much to be done. Nils was afraid the corn would spoil if he left it too long at the poles; better to get it in as it was. Well and good; but that meant threshing the worst of it at once, and spreading the grain over the floor of every shed and outhouse. Even in our own big living-room there was a large layer of corn drying on the floor. Any more irons in the fire? Ay, indeed, and all the while hot and waiting. Bad weather has set in, and all the work ought to be done at once. When we’ve finished threshing, there’s the fresh straw to be cut up and salted down in bins to keep it from rotting. That all? Not by a long way: irons enough still glowing hot. Grindhusen and the maids are pulling potatoes. Nils snatches the precious time after a couple of dry days to sow a patch of rye and send the lad over it with the harrow. Lars Falkenberg is still ploughing; he has given way altogether and turned out a fine ploughman since the Captain and Fruen came back. When the corn-land’s too soft he ploughs the meadows; then, when sun and wind have dried things a bit, he goes on to the corn-land again.

The work goes on steadily and well; in the afternoon the Captain himself comes out to lend a hand. The last load of corn in being brought in.

Captain Falkenberg is no child at the work, big and strong he is, and with the right knack of it. See him loading up oats from the drying-frames: his second load now.

Just then Fruen comes along down the road, and crosses over to where we are at work. Her eyes are bright. She seems pleased to watch her husband loading up corn.

Signe Arbejdet!6 she says.

6 “A blessing on the work.”

“Thanks,” says the Captain.

“That’s what we used to say in Nordland.”

“What?”

“That’s what we used to say in Nordland.”

“Oh yes.”

The Captain is busy with his work, and in the rustle of the straw he does not always hear what she says, but has to look up and ask again, and this annoys them both.

“Are the oats ripe?” she asks.

“Yes, thank goodness!”

“But not dry, I suppose?”

“Eh? I can’t hear what you say.”

“Oh, I didn’t say anything.”

A long, uncomfortable silence after that. The Captain tries once or twice with a good-humoured word, but gets no answer.

“So you’re out on a round of inspection,” he says jestingly. “Have you seen how the potatoes are getting on?”

“No,” she answers. “But I’ll go over there, by all means, if you can’t bear the sight of me here.”

It was too dreadful to hear them going on like this. I must have frowned unconsciously — shown some such feeling. Then, suddenly remembering that for certain reasons I was to be cold as ice, I frowned the more.

Freun looked straight at me and said:

“What are you scowling at?”

“Scowling, eh?” says the Captain, joining in, with a forced laugh.

Fruen takes him up on the instant.

“Ah! you managed to hear that time!”

“Really, Lovise. . . . ”

Fruen’s eyes dimmed suddenly; she stood a moment then ran, stooping forward, round behind the frames, and sobbed.

The Captain went over to her. “What is it, Lovise, tell me?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing! Go away.”

She was sick; we could hear it. And moaning and saying: “Heaven help me!”

“My wife’s not very well just now,” says the Captain to me. “We can’t make out what it is.”

“There’s sickness in the neighbourhood,” I suggested, for something to say. “Sort of autumn fever. I heard about it up at the post office.”

“Is there, though? Why, there you are, Lovise,” he calls out. “There’s some sort of fever about, it seems. That’s all it is.”

Fruen made no answer.

We went on loading up, and Fruen moved farther and farther away as we came up. At last the frames were cleared, and she stood there guiltily, very pale after her trouble.

“Shall I see you back to the house?” asked the Captain.

“No, thank you, I’d rather not,” she answered, walking away.

The Captain stayed out and worked with us till evening.

So here was everything gone wrong again. Oh, but it was hard for them both!

And it was not just a little matter that could be got over by a little give and take on either side, as folk say; no, it was a thing insuperable, a trouble rooted deep. And now it had come to mutiny, no less: Fruen had taken to locking her door at night. Ragnhild had heard the Captain, highly offended, talking to her through the wall.

But that evening the Captain had demanded to speak with her in her room before she went to bed. Fruen agreed, and there was a further scene. Each was willing and anxious, no doubt, to set matters right, but it was hopeless now; it was too late. We sat in the kitchen, Nils and I, listening to Ragnhild’s story. I had never seen Nils look so miserable before.

“If things go wrong again now, it’s all over,” he said. “I thought to myself last summer that perhaps a good, sound thrashing would do her good. But that was just foolishness, I can see now. Did she talk about running away again?”

“She said something about it,” answered Ragnhild. And then she went on something like this: “It began with the Captain asking if she didn’t think it was this local sickness she had got. Fruen answered it could hardly be any local sickness that had turned her against him so. ‘Turned you against me?’ ‘Yes. Oh, I could scream sometimes. At table, for instance, the way you eat and eat. . . . ’ ‘Do I?’ says the Captain. ‘Well, I can’t see there’s anything very wrong in that; it’s just natural. There’s no rule for how much one ought to eat at a meal.’ ‘But to have to sit and look at you — it makes me sick. It’s that that makes me ill.’ ‘Well, anyhow, you can’t say I drink too much now,’ said he. ‘So it’s better than it was.’ ‘No, indeed, it’s worse!’ Then says the Captain: ‘Well, really, I do think you might make allowances for me a little, after I’ve — I mean, considering what you did yourself this summer.’ ‘Yes, you’re right,’ says Fruen, beginning to cry. ‘If you knew how it hurts and plagues me night and day, thinking of that. . . . But I’ve never said a word.’ ‘No, I know,’ says she, crying all the more. ‘And I asked you myself to come back,’ he said. But at that she seemed to think he was taking too much credit to himself; she stopped crying, and answered, with a toss of her head: ‘Yes, and it would have been better if you’d never asked me back, if it was only to go on like this.’ ‘Like what?’ says he. ‘You’ve your own way in everything now. The same as before, only you don’t care for anything at all. You never touch the piano, even; only go about cross and irritable all the time; there’s no pleasing you with anything. And you shut your door at night and lock me out. Well and good; lock me out if you like!’ ‘It’s you that are hard to please, if you ask me,’ she said. ‘There’s never a night and never a morning but I’m worried out of my life lest you shall be thinking of — this summer. You’ve never said a word about it, you say. Oh, don’t you, though! I’m never left long in peace without you throwing it in my teeth. I happened to say “Hugo” one day, by a slip of the tongue, and what did you do? You might have been nice and comforted me to help me over it, but you only scowled and said you were not Hugo. No. I knew well enough, and I was ever so sorry to have said it.’ ‘That’s just the point,’ said the Captain. ‘Were you really sorry?’ ‘Yes, indeed,’ said Fruen; ‘it hurt me ever so.’ ‘Well, I shouldn’t have thought it; you don’t seem very upset about it.’ ‘Ah, but what about you? Haven’t you anything to be sorry for?’ ‘You’ve got photos of Hugo on your piano still; I haven’t seen you move them away yet, though I’ve shown you not once but fifty times I wished you to — yes, and begged you to do it.’ ‘Oh, what a fuss you make about those photos!’ said she. ‘Oh, don’t make any mistake! I’m not asking you now. If you went and shifted them now, it would make no difference. I’ve begged and prayed of you fifty times before. Only, I think it would have been a little more decent if you’d burned them the day you came home. But, instead of that, you’ve books here lying about in your room with his name in. And there’s a handkerchief with his initials on, I see.’ ‘Oh, it’s all your jealousy,’ answered Fruen. ‘I can’t see what difference it makes. I can’t kill him, as you’d like me to, and Papa and Mama say the same. After all, I’ve lived with him and been married to him.’ ‘Married to him?’ ‘Yes, that’s what I say. It isn’t every one that looks at Hugo and me the way you do.’ The Captain sat a while, shaking his head. ‘And it’s all your own fault, really,’ Fruen went on, ‘the way you drove off with Elisabet that time, though I came and asked you not to go. It was then it happened. And we’d been drinking that evening. I didn’t quite know what I was doing.’ Still, the Captain said nothing for a while; then at last he said: ‘Yes, I ought not to have gone off like that.’ ‘No, but you did,’ said Fruen, and started crying again. ‘You wouldn’t hear a word. And you’re always throwing it in my teeth about Hugo, but you never think of what you’ve done yourself.’ ‘There’s just this difference,’ says the Captain, ‘that I’ve never lived with the lady you mention, never been married to her, as you call it.’ Fruen gave a little scornful laugh. ‘Never!’ said the Captain, striking the table with his hand. Fruen gave a start, and sat staring at him. ‘Then — I don’t understand why you were always running after her and sitting out in the summer-house and lurking in corners,’ said she. ‘It was you that sat out in the summer-house,’ he answered. ‘Oh yes, it’s always me,’ said she. ‘Never you by any chance!’ ‘As for my running after Elisabet,’ said the Captain, ‘it was solely and simply in the hopes of getting you back. You’d drifted away from me, and I wanted you.’ Fruen sat thinking over that for a minute, then she sprang up and threw her arms around him and said: ‘Oh, then you cared for me all the time! And I thought it was all over. You’d drifted away from me, too; it was years since. And it all seemed so hopeless. I never thought — I never knew. . . . And then it was me you cared for all the time! Oh, my dear, then it’s all come right again.’ ‘Sit down,’ said he. ‘You seem to forget that something else has happened since.’ ‘Something else?’ ‘There you are, you’ve forgotten all about it. May I ask you, are you sorry enough for what’s happened since?’ At that Fruen turned hard again and said: ‘Oh, you mean about Hugo? That’s done and can’t be altered.’ ‘That doesn’t answer the question.’ ‘If I’m sorry enough? What about you; are you so innocent yourself?’ At this the Captain got up and began walking up and down. ‘The trouble is that we’ve no children,’ said Fruen. ‘I haven’t a daughter that I could teach and bring up to be better than I am,’ ‘I’ve thought of that,’ said the Captain, ‘perhaps you’re right.’ Then he turned straight towards her and said: ‘It’s a nasty crash that’s come over us, Lovise — like a landslide. But don’t you think now we might set to work and shift away all the wreckage that’s been burying us for years, and get clear and breathe again? You might have a daughter yet!’ At that Fruen got up and made as if to say something, but couldn’t. ‘Yes,’ was all she said, and ‘Yes,’ she said again. ‘You’re tired and nervous, I know,’ he said. ‘But think a little over what I’ve said. Another time.’ ‘Good-night,’ said she.”

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