A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XI

The Captain spoke to Nils about the timber; he thought of disposing of the whole lot, or selling it standing. Nils took this to mean that he didn’t like the idea of having more new folk about the place. “It looks like things are as bad as ever with him and Fruen,” said Nils.

We are getting in the potatoes now, and since we are thus far there is less hurry and anxiety about the work. But there is still much to be done. The ploughing is behindhand, and Lars Falkenberg and I are both at it, field and meadow land.

Nils, queer creature that he was, began to find things intolerable at Øvrebø again, and talked of throwing up his place and going off altogether. But he couldn’t bear the disgrace of leaving his service like that. Nils had his own clear notions of honour, handed down through many generations. A young man from a big farm could not behave like a lad from a cottar’s holding. And then he hadn’t been here long enough yet; Øvrebø had been sadly ill-managed before he came: it would take some years to bring it round again. It was only this year, when he’d had more help with the work, that he’d been able to do anything properly. But from now onward he might begin to look for some result of his work; look at this year’s harvest, the fine heavy grain! The Captain, too, had looked at the crops with wonder and thankfulness — the first time for many years. There would be plenty to sell.

All things considered, then, it was senseless for Nils to think of leaving Øvrebø. But he must go home for a couple of days to his people — they lived a little way north of us. So he gave himself two days’ leave as soon as the potatoes were all out of the ground. No doubt he’d good reason for going — perhaps to see his sweetheart, we thought — and when he came back he was bright and full of energy as ever, and took up work again at once.

We were sitting at dinner in the kitchen one day when out comes Fruen from the front door of the house, and goes tearing down the road, all wild and excited. Then the Captain came out, calling after her: “Lovise, what is it, Lovise? Where are you going?” But Fruen only called back: “Leave me alone!”

We looked at one another. Ragnhild rose from the table; she must go after her mistress, she said.

“That’s right,” said Nils, calm as ever. “But go indoors first and see if she’s moved those photographs.”

“They’re still there,” said Ragnhild as she went out.

Outside, we heard the Captain telling her to go and look after her mistress.

There was no one but took thought for Fruen in her distress.

We went out to the fields again. Said Nils to me:

“She ought to take away those photos; it’s not right of her to leave them there. I don’t know what she can be thinking of to do it.”

What do you know about it? I thought to myself. Oh, I was so clever with my knowledge of the world, and all I’d learned on my wanderings, I thought I would try him now; perhaps he was only showing off.

“I can’t understand why the Captain hasn’t taken and burnt them long ago,” said I.

“No, that’s all wrong,” said Nils. “I wouldn’t have done that either.”

“Oh, indeed!”

“It wouldn’t be for me to do it, but for her.”

We walked on a little. And then Nils said a thing that showed his sound and right instinct.

“Poor lady!” he said. “She’s not got over that slip of hers this summer; it’s troubling her still. From all I can see, there’s some people pick up again all right after a fall, and go on through life with no more than the mark of a bruise. But there’s some that never get over it.”

“Fruen seems to be taking it easy enough,” said I, still trying him.

“How can we tell? She’s been unlike herself, to my mind, ever since she’s been back,” he answered. “She’s got to live, of course, but she’s lost all harmony, perhaps. I don’t know much about it, but harmony, that’s what I mean. Oh yes, she can eat and laugh and sleep, no doubt, but . . . I followed one such to the grave, but now. . . . ”

And at that I was no longer cold and wise, but foolish and ashamed, and only said:

“So it was that? She died, then?”

“Yes. She wished it so,” said Nils. And then suddenly: “Well, you and Lars get on with the ploughing. We ought soon to be through with things now.”

And we went each our separate way.

I thought to myself: a sister of his, perhaps, that had gone wrong, and he’d been home and followed her to the grave. Herregud! there are some that never get over it; it shakes them to their foundations; a revolution. All depends on whether they’re coarse enough. Only the mark of a bruise, said Nils. A sudden thought came to me, and I stopped: perhaps it was not his sister, but his sweetheart.

Some association of ideas led me to think of my washing. I decided to send the lad up for it.

It was evening.

Ragnhild came to me and begged me to keep awake again; there was dreadful trouble up at the house. Ragnhild herself was greatly upset, and dared not sit anywhere now in the half-dark but upon my knees. It was always so with her; emotion made her frightened and tender — frightened and tender, yes.

“But can you be away like this? Is there any one in your place in the kitchen?” I asked.

“Yes. Cook’s going to listen for the bell. You know, I side with the Captain,” she declared. “I’ve sided with him all along.”

“Oh, that’s only because he’s a man.”

“No, it’s not.”

“You’d much better side with Fruen.”

“You only say that because she’s a woman,” answered Ragnhild in her turn. “But you don’t know all I do. Fruen’s so unreasonable. We didn’t care a bit about her, she said, and left her all to herself, whatever might happen. Did you ever hear such a thing, when I’d just gone after her. And then there’s another dreadful thing. . . . ”

“I don’t want to hear any more,” I said.

“But I haven’t been listening outside — what are you thinking of? I was there in the same room, and heard them.”

“Did you? Well, well, stay here till you’ve calmed down a little; then we’ll go and find Nils.”

And so frightened and tender was Ragnhild that she threw her arms round me because I was kind to her. A strange girl!

Then we went down to Nils.

“Ragnhild thinks that somebody ought to keep awake for a bit,” I said.

“Yes,” said Ragnhild. “Oh, it’s so dreadful — worse than ever it’s been! Heaven knows what the Captain’ll do! Perhaps he won’t go to bed at all. Oh, she’s fond of him and he’s fond of her, too; only, everything’s all wrong! When she went running off like that today, the Captain was standing outside the house, and said to me: ‘Go and look after your mistress, Ragnhild,’ and I went after her, and there she was, standing behind a tree down the road, and she just stood there, crying, and smiled at me. I tried to get her to come in again, but she said we didn’t care about her; it didn’t matter where she went. ‘The Captain sent me after you,’ said I. ‘Did he, though?’ she asked. ‘Now? Was it just now?’ ‘Yes,’ said I. ‘Wait, then,’ she said, and stood quite a while. ‘Take those hateful books that are lying in my room and burn them,’ she said; and then: ‘Oh no, I’ll do it myself, but I’ll ring for you after supper, and then you must come up at once.’ ‘I will,’ said I, and then I got her to come in.”

“And you know,” said Ragnhild suddenly, “she’s going to have a child.”

We looked at one another. Nils’ face grew, as it were, veiled beneath a film of something indistinct. All expression faded, the eyes asleep. But why should it affect him so? For the sake of saying something, I turned to Ragnhild and asked:

“Fruen was going to ring for you, you said?”

“Yes, and so she did. There was something she wanted to tell the Captain, but she was afraid, and wanted to have me there. ‘Light a candle and pick up all this host of buttons I’ve upset,’ she said. And then she called out to the Captain in his room. I lit the candle and began picking up buttons; dozens of them there were, all sorts. The Captain came in. ‘I only wanted to tell you,’ says Fruen at once, ‘that it was kind of you to send Ragnhild after me to-day. Heaven bless you for that!’ ‘Never mind about that, my dear,’ says he. ‘You were nervous, you know.’ ‘Yes, I’m all nerves just now,’ she answered, ‘but I hope it’ll get better in time. No, the trouble is that I haven’t a daughter I could bring up to be really good. There’s nothing I can do!’ The Captain sat down on a chair. ‘Oh yes, there is,’ he said. ‘Yes, you say? Oh, I know it says in that book there. . . . Oh, those hateful books! — Ragnhild take them away and burn them,’ she says. ‘No, wait, I’ll tear them to bits now myself and put them in the stove here.’ And then she started pulling them to pieces, taking ever so many pages at a time and throwing them in the stove. ‘Don’t be so excited, Lovise,’ said the Captain. ‘The Nunnery,’ she said — that was one of the books. ‘But I can’t go into a nunnery. There’s nothing I can do. When I laugh, you think I’m laughing,’ she said to the Captain, ‘but I’m miserable all the time and not laughing a bit.’ ‘Is your toothache any better?’ he asked. ‘Oh, that toothache won’t be better for a long time to come!’ she said; ‘you know that well enough.’ ‘No, indeed, I don’t.’ ‘You don’t know?’ ‘No.’ ‘But, heavens! can’t you see what’s the matter with me?’ said Fruen. The Captain only looked at her and did not answer. ‘I’m — oh, you said today I might have a daughter after all, don’t you remember?’ I happened to look up at the Captain just then. . . . ”

Ragnhild smiled and shook her head; then she went on:

“Heaven forgive me for smiling, but the Captain’s face was so queer; he stood there like a sheep. ‘Didn’t you guess as much before?’ asked Fruen. The Captain looked over at me and said: ‘What’s that you’re doing there all this time?’ ‘I asked her to pick up those buttons for me,’ said Fruen. ‘I’ve finished now,’ said I. ‘Have you?’ said Fruen, getting up. ‘Let me see.’ And she took the box and dropped them again all over the floor. Oh, they went rolling all over the place, under the table, under the bed and the stove! ‘There, now, did you ever see such a mess?’ said Fruen. But then she went off again at once talking about herself, and said again: ‘But I can’t understand you didn’t you see I was — didn’t see what was the matter with me.’ Can’t those buttons wait till tomorrow?’ said the Captain. ‘Why, yes, perhaps they can,’ said Fruen. ‘But then I’ll be treading on them everywhere. I can’t . . . I’m rather afraid of stooping just now. . . . But, never mind, we’ll leave them for now,’ she said, and stroked his hand. ‘Oh, my dear, my dear!’ she says. But he drew his hand away. ‘Oh, so you’re angry with me!’ she said. ‘But then, why did you write and ask me to come back?’ ‘My dear Lovise, we’re not alone here,’ he says. ‘But surely you must know what made you write?’ ‘I suppose it was because I hoped things would come right again.’ ‘And they didn’t?’ ‘Well, no!’ ‘But what was in your mind when you wrote? Were you thinking of me? Did you want me again? I can’t make out what was in your mind.’ ‘Ragnhild’s finished, I see,’ said the Captain. ‘Good-night, Ragnhild!’”

“And then you came away?”

“Yes, but I dare not go far because of Fruen. You may be sure it wasn’t nice for her when I was out of the room, so I had to be somewhere at hand. And if the Captain had come and found me and said anything, I’d have told him straight out I wasn’t going farther away with Fruen in the state she was. As it happened, he didn’t come at all, but they began again in there. ‘I know what you’re thinking of,’ said Fruen —‘that perhaps it’s not . . . it wouldn’t be your child. Oh yes, indeed it might be so! But, God knows, I can’t find words this moment to make you forgive me!’ she said, all crying. ‘Oh, my dear, forgive me, forgive me!’ said Fruen, and went down on her knees on the floor. ‘You’ve seen what I did with the books, and that handkerchief with the initials on — I burnt that before, and the books, you know. . . . ’ ‘Yes, and — here’s another handkerchief with the same initials on —’ says the Captain. ‘Oh, heavens! yes, you’re ever so considerate, Lovise.’ Fruen was all upset at that. ‘I’m sorry you should have seen it,’ she said. ‘It must be one I brought back with me when I came home. I haven’t looked through my things properly since. But does it really matter so very much? Surely —’ ‘Oh no,’ said he. ‘And if you’d only listen to me,’ she went on, I’m almost certain it’s you that . . . I mean, that the child is yours. Why should it not be? Oh, I don’t know how to say it!’ ‘Sit down again,’ said the Captain. But Fruen must have misunderstood; she got up and said: ‘There you are! You won’t listen to me. Really, I can’t make out why you ever wrote to me at all. You might just as well have left me alone.’ Then the Captain said something about being in prison; if a man grew up in a prison yard, he said, and you take him out, he’ll long to be back in his prison yard again, he said. It was something like that, anyway. ‘Yes, but I was with Papa and Mama, and they weren’t hard like you; they said I had been married to him, and weren’t unkind to me at all. It isn’t every one that looks at things like you do,’ ‘You don’t want that candle alight now Ragnhild’s gone, do you?’ said the Captain. ‘It looks so out of place to have it burning there beside the lamp — as if it were ashamed.’ ‘Ashamed of me,’ she says quickly. ‘Oh yes, that was what you meant. But you’ve been to blame as well.’ ‘Don’t misunderstand me,’ he says. ‘I know I’ve been to blame. But that doesn’t make your part any better.’ ‘Oh, you think not? Well, of all the. . . . So yours doesn’t count, then?’ ‘Yes, I say I’ve been to blame, not in the way you mean, but in other ways — in old things and new.’ ‘Oh, indeed!’ ‘Yes, but I don’t come home bringing the fruits of it under my heart to you.’ ‘No,’ says Fruen, ‘but you know it was you all along that wouldn’t . . . that didn’t want us to have children. And I didn’t want it, either, but you ought to have known better. And they said the same thing at home. If only I’d had a daughter. . . . ’ ‘Oh, don’t let’s go over all that again,’ says the Captain — he called it something or other — a romance, I think it was. ‘But it’s true,’ says Fruen, ‘and I can’t think how you can deny it.’ ‘I’m not denying anything. Do sit down, now, Lovise, and listen to me. All this about having children, and a daughter to bring up and so on, it’s something you’ve picked up lately. And, you snatched at the idea at once, to save yourself. But you never said a word about wanting children before — not that I ever heard.’ ‘Yes, but you ought to have known better.’ ‘There again, that’s something you’ve heard, something new. But it doesn’t matter: quite possibly things might have been different if we’d had children. I can see that myself now, but now it’s too late, more’s the pity. And here you are now — like that. . . . ’ ‘Oh, heavens, yes! But I tell you it may be yours after all — I don’t know. . . . Oh! . . . ’ ‘Mine? said the Captain, shaking his head. ‘Well, the mother should be the one to know. But in this case, it seems, she doesn’t. The woman I’m married to doesn’t know — or do you?’ But Fruen did not answer. ‘Do you know? I ask you!’ Oh, but again she could not answer, only slipped down to the floor again and cried. Really, I don’t know — but perhaps I’m on her side after all; it was dreadful for her, poor thing. And then I was just going to knock at the door and go in, but then the Captain went on again. ‘You can’t say it,’ he said. ‘But that’s an answer in itself, and plain enough.’ ‘I can’t say more,’ said Fruen. She was still crying. ‘I’m fond of you for lots of things, Lovise,’ says the Captain, ‘and one of them’s because you’re truthful.’ ‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘They haven’t taught you to lie as yet. Get up, now.’ And he helped her up himself, and set her in the chair. But it was pitiful to see her crying so. ‘Don’t cry, now,’ he says. ‘I want to ask you something. Shall we wait and see what it’s like when it comes — what sort of eyes it has, and so on?’ ‘Oh, heaven bless you, yes, if you would! Oh, my dear, God bless you, God bless you.’ ‘And I’ll try to bear with things as they are. It’s an aching misery all the time, but I’ll try. And I’ve been to blame as well.’ ‘God bless you, God bless you!’ she said again. ‘And you,’ he said. ‘And now good-night until tomorrow.’ Then Fruen leaned down over the table and cried and cried so dreadfully. ‘What are you crying for now?’ he asked. ‘You’re going,’ she said. ‘Oh, I was afraid of you before, but now I can’t bear to be without you. Couldn’t you stay a little?’ ‘Stay here, with you, now?’ he asked. ‘Oh no, I didn’t mean . . . it wasn’t that . . . only, it’s so lonely. I didn’t mean. . . . ’ ‘No,’ said the Captain. ‘You can understand I don’t feel like staying any longer now. Ring for the maid!’”

“And then I had to run,” Ragnhild concluded.

Said Nils, after a while: “Have they gone to bed now?”

Ragnhild could not say. Yes. Perhaps. Anyhow, Cook was there in case. “But, only think of it, how dreadful! I don’t suppose Fruen can sleep.”

“You’d better go and see if there’s anything you can do.”

“Yes,” said Ragnhild, getting up. “But I side with the Captain after all, and no mistake, whatever you say. Yes, that I do.”

“It’s none so easy to know what’s right.”

“Only think of letting that engineer creature. . . . How she ever could, I don’t know! And then to go down and stay with him there, after, as she did; what a thing to do! And she’s all those handkerchiefs of his, ever so many, and a lot of her own are gone; I suppose they used each other’s anyhow. Lived with him, she said! And she with a husband of her own!”

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