A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XIII

Fruen has ordered the carriage to drive her to the station.

No sign of haste in her manner; she gives orders to the cook about packing up some food for the journey, and when Nils asks which carriage he is to take, she thinks for a moment, and decides to take the landau and pair.

So she went away. Nils himself drove for her.

They came back the same evening; they had turned back when half-way out.

Had Fruen forgotten something? She ordered fresh horses, and another hamper of food; she was going off again at once. Nils was uneasy, and said so; it was almost night, they would be driving in the dark; but Fruen repeated her order. Meantime, she sat indoors and waited; she had not forgotten anything; she did nothing now but sit staring before her. Ragnhild went in and asked if there was anything she could do. No, thank you. Fruen sat bowed forward as if weighted down by some deadly grief.

The carriage was ready, and Fruen came out.

Seeing Nils himself ready to drive again, she took pity on him, and said she would have Grindhusen to drive this time. And she sat on the steps till he came.

Then they drove off. It was a fine evening, and nice and cool for the horses.

“She’s past making out now,” said Nils. “I can’t think what’s come to her. I’d no idea of anything, when suddenly she taps at the window and says turn back. We were about half-way there. But never a word of starting out again at once.”

“But she must have forgotten something, surely?”

“Ragnhild says no. She was indoors, and I thought for a moment of those photograph things, if she was going to burn them; but they’re still there. No, she didn’t do a single thing while she was back.”

We walked across the courtyard together.

“No,” Nils went on, “Fruen’s in a bad way; she’s lost all harmony for everything. Where’s she going off to now, do you think? Heaven knows; she doesn’t seem to be altogether sure of it herself. When we stopped to breathe the horses, she said something about being in such a hurry, and having to be in different places at once — and then she ought not really to be away from home at all. ‘Best for Fruen not to hurry about anything,’ I said, ‘but just keep quiet.’ But you know how she is nowadays; there’s no saying a word to her. She just looked at her watch and said go on again.”

“Was this on the way to the station?”

“No, on the way back. She was quite excited, I thought.”

“Perhaps the Captain sent for her?”

Nils shook his head. “No. But perhaps — Lord knows. What was I going to say — it’s — tomorrow’s Sunday, isn’t it?”

“Yes; what then?”

“Oh, nothing. I was only thinking I’d use the day off to mark out firewood for the winter. I’ve been thinking of that a long while. And it’s easier now than when the snow’s about.”

Always thinking of his work, was Nils. He took a pride in it, and was anxious now, moreover, to show his gratitude for the Captain’s having raised his wages since the harvest.

It is Sunday.

I walked up to have a look at the trench and the reservoir; a few more good days now, and we should have the pipes laid down. I was quite excited about it myself, and could hardly wait for tomorrow’s working-day to begin again. The Captain had not interfered in the arrangements, not with a single word, but left all to me, so that it was no light matter to me if the frost came now and upset it all.

When I got back, there was the landau outside the house — the horses had been taken out. Grindhusen would about have had time to get back, I thought; but why had he pulled up in front of the steps to the house?

I went into the kitchen. The maids came towards me; Fruen was in the carriage, they said; ‘she had come back once again. She had just been to the station, but now she was going there again. Could I make out what was the matter with her, now?

“Nervous, I expect,” said I. “Where’s Nils?”

“Up in the woods. Said he’d be away some time. There’s only us here now, and we can’t say more to her than we have.”

“And where’s Grindhusen?”

“Changing the horses again. And Fruen’s sitting there in the carriage and won’t get out. You go and speak to her.”

“Oh, well, there’s no great harm in her driving about a bit. Don’t worry about that.”

I went out to the carriage, my heart beating fast. How miserable and desperate she must be! I opened the carriage door, and asked respectfully if Fruen would let me drive this time.

She looked me calmly in the face. “No. What for?” she said.

“Grindhusen might be a little done up, perhaps — I don’t know. . . . ”

“He promised to drive,” she said. “And he’s not done up. Isn’t he nearly ready?”

“I can’t see him,” I answered.

“Shut the door again, and tell him to come,” she commanded, wrapping herself more closely as she spoke.

I went over to the stables. Grindhusen was harnessing a fresh pair of horses.

“What’s all this?” I asked. “Going off again, are you?”

“Yes — that is, I thought so,” said Grindhusen, stopping for a moment as if in doubt.

“It looks queer. Where’s Fruen going to, do you know?”

“No. She wanted to drive back again last night as soon as we got to the station, but I told her that it was too much for either of us to drive back then. So she slept at the hotel. But this morning it was home again, if you please. And now she wants to go to the station again, she says. I don’t know, I’m sure. . . . ”

Grindhusen goes on harnessing up.

“Fruen said you were to make haste,” I said.

“All right, I’m coming. But these girths are the very devil.”

“Aren’t you too tired to drive all that way again now?”

“No. You know well enough I can manage it all right. And she’s given me good money, too. Extra.”

“Did she, though?”

“Ay, that she did. But she’s a queer sort, is Fruen.”

Then said I: “I don’t think you ought to go off again now.”

Grindhusen stopped short. “You think so? Well, now, I dare say you’re right.”

Just then came Fruen’s voice from outside — she had come right over to the stable door.

“Aren’t you ready yet? How much longer am I to sit waiting?”

“Ready this minute,” answered Grindhusen, and turned to again, busier than ever. “It was only these girths.”

Fruen went back to the carriage. She ran, and the thick fur coat she had on was too heavy for her, she had to balance with her arms. It was pitiful to see; like a hen trying to escape across the barnyard, and flapping its wings to help.

I went over to the carriage again, politely, even humbly. I took off my cap, and begged Fruen to give up this new journey.

“You are not driving me!” she answered.

“No. But if Fruen would only give it up and stay at home. . . . ”

At this she was offended; she stared at me, looked me up and down, and said:

“Excuse me, but this is no business of yours. Because I got you dismissed once. . . . ”

“No, no, it’s not that!” I cried desperately, and could say no more. When she took it that way I was helpless.

Just for one moment a wave of fury came over me; I had only to put out my arms and I could lift her out of the carriage altogether, this child, this pitiful hen! My arms must have twitched at the thought, for she gave a sudden frightened start, and shifted in her seat. Then all at once the reaction took me; I turned foolish and soft, and tried once more:

“It’ll be so dismal for us all here if you go. Do let us try if we can’t hit on something between us to pass the time for you! I can read a little, reading aloud, and there’s Lars can sing. Perhaps I might tell stories — tell of something or other. Here’s Grindhusen coming; won’t you let me tell him you’re not going after all?”

She softened at this, and sat thinking for a little. Then she said:

“You must be making a mistake altogether, I think. I am going to the station to meet the Captain. He didn’t come the first day, or yesterday either, but he’s sure to come some time. I’m driving over to meet him.”

“Oh!”

“There you are. Now go. Is Grindhusen there?”

It was like a slap in the face for me. She was right; it sounded so natural — oh, I had made a fool of myself again!

“Yes, here he is,” I answered. There was no more to be said.

And I put on my cap again, and helped Grindhusen myself with the harness. So confused and shamed was I that I did not even ask pardon, but only fretted this way and that way seeing to buckles and straps.

“You are driving then, Grindhusen?” called Fruen from the carriage.

“Me? Yes, surely,” he answered.

Fruen pulled the door to with a bang, and the carriage drove off.

“Has she gone?” asked the maids, clasping their hands.

“Gone — yes, of course. She’s going to meet her husband.”

I strolled up to the reservoir again. Grindhusen away meant one man less; why, then, the rest of us must work so much the harder.

But I had already come to realize that Fru Falkenberg had only silenced me with a false excuse when she declared she was going to meet her husband. What matter? The horses were rested; they had done no work the days Nils had been helping us with the trench. But I had been a fool. I could have got up on the box myself without asking leave. Well, and what then? Why, then at least any later follies would have had to pass by way of me, more or less, and I might have stopped them. He, he! infatuated old fool! Fruen knew what she was doing, no doubt; she wanted to pay off old scores, and be away when her husband came home. She was all indecision, would and would not, would and would not, all the time; but the idea was there. And I, simple soul — I had not set out a-wandering on purpose to attend to the particular interests of married folk in love or out of it. ’Twas their affair! Fru Falkenberg had changed for the worse. There was no denying it; she had suffered damage, and was thoroughly spoiled now; it hardly mattered any longer what she did. Ay, and she had taken to lying as well. First, music-hall tricks with her eyes, then on till it got to lying. A white lie today, tomorrow a blacker one, each leading to another. And what of it? Life could afford to waste her, to throw her away.

We put in three days’ work at the trench; only a few feet left now. There might be three degrees of frost now at nights, but it did not stop us; we went steadily on. Grindhusen had come back, and was set to tunnelling under the kitchen where the pipes were to go; but the stable and cowshed was more important, and I did the underground work for these myself. Nils and Lars ran the last bit of trech up meanwhile, the last bit of way to the reservoir.

Today, at last, I questioned Grindhusen about Fruen.

“So you didn’t bring Fruen back with you again this last time?”

“No. She went off by train.”

“Off to her husband, I suppose?”

But Grindhusen has turned cautious with me; these two days past he has said never a word, and now he only answers vaguely:

“Ay, that would be it, no doubt. Ay, surely, yes. Why, you might reckon that out yourself, she would. Her own husband and all. . . . ”

“I thought perhaps she might have been going up to her own people at Kristianssand.”

“Why, that might be,” says Grindhusen, thinking this a better way. “Lord, yes, that would be it, of course Just for a visit, like. Well, well, she’ll be home again soon, for sure.”

“Did she tell you so?”

“Why, ’twas so I made out. And the Captain’s not home himself yet, anyway. Eh, but she’s a rare openhanded one, she is. ‘Here’s something for food and drink for yourself and the horses,’ she says. ‘And here’s a little extra,’ she says again. Eh, but there’s never her like!”

But to the maids, with whom he felt less fear, Grindhusen had said it didn’t look as if they’d be seeing Fruen back again at all. She had been asking him all the way, he said, about Engineer Lassen; she must have gone off to him after all. And, surely, she’d be well enough with him, a man with any amount of money and grand style and all.

Then came another card for Fruen from the Captain, this time only to say would she please send Nils to meet him at the station on Friday, and be sure to bring his fur coat. The post card had been delayed — it was Thursday already. And this time it was fortunate, really, that Ragnhild happened to look at the post card and see what it said.

We stayed sitting in Nils’s room, talking about the Captain — what he would say when he got back, and what we should say, or if we ought to say anything at all. All three of the maids were present at this council. Fruen would have had plenty of time to get to Kristiania herself by the day the Captain had written his card; she had not, it seemed — she had gone somewhere else. It was more than pitiful altogether.

Said Nils:

“Didn’t she leave a note or anything when she went?”

But no, there was nothing. Ragnhild, however, had done a thing on her own responsibility which perhaps she ought not to have done — she had taken the photos from the piano and thrown them in the stove. “Was it wrong, now?”

“No, no, Ragnhild! No!”

She told us, also, that she had been through Fruen’s wardrobe and sorted out all handkerchiefs that were not hers. Oh, she had found lots of things up in her room — a bag with Engineer Lassen’s initials worked on, a book with his full name in, some sweets in an envelope with his writing — and she had burnt it all.

A strange girl, Ragnhild — yes! Was there ever such an instinct as hers? It was like the devil turned monk. Ragnhild, who made such use herself of the thick red stair-carpet and the keyholes everywhere!

It suited me and my work well enough that the Captain had not ordered the carriage before; we had got the trench finished now all the way up, and I could manage without Nils for laying the pipes. I should want all hands, though, when it came to filling in again. It was rain again now, by the way; mild weather, many degrees of warmth.

It was well for me, no doubt, these days that I had this work of mine to occupy my thoughts as keenly as it did; it kept away many a fancy that would surely otherwise have plagued me. Now and again I would clench my fists as a spasm of pain came over me; and when I was all alone up at the reservoir I could sometimes cry aloud up at the woods. But there was no possibility of my getting away. And where should I go if I did?

The Captain arrived.

He went all through the house at once — into the parlour, out into the kitchen, then to the rooms upstairs — in his fur coat and overboots.

“Where’s Fruen?” he asked.

“Fruen went to meet Captain,” answered Ragnhild. “We thought she’d be coming back now as well.”

The Captain’s head bowed forward a little. Then cautiously he began questioning.

“You mean she drove with Nils to the station? Stupid of me not to have looked about while I was there!”

“No,” said Ragnhild; “it was Sunday Fruen went.”

At this the Captain pulled himself together. “Sunday?” he said. “Then she must have been going to meet me in Kristiania. H’m! We’ve managed to miss each other somehow. I had to make another little journey yesterday, out to Drammen — no, Frederikstad, I mean. Get me something to eat, will you?”

“Værsaagod, it’s already laid.”

“It was the day before yesterday, by the way, I went out there. Well, well, she’ll have had a little outing, anyhow. And how’s everything going on? Are the men at work on the trench?”

“They’ve finished it, I think.”

The Captain went in, and Ragnhild came running at once to tell us what he had said, that we might know what to go by now, and not make things worse.

Later in the day he came out to where we were at work, greeted us cheerily, in military fashion, and was surprised to find the pipes already laid; we had begun filling in now.

“Splendid!” he said. “You fellows are quicker at your work than I am.”

He went off by himself up to the reservoir. When he came back his eyes were not so keen; he looked a little weary. Maybe he had been sitting there alone and thinking of many things. He stood watching us now with one hand to his chin. After a little he said to Nils:

“I’ve sold the timber now.”

“Captain’s got a good price for it, maybe?”

“Yes, a good price. But I’ve been all this time about it. You’ve been quicker here.”

“There are more of us here,” I said. “Four of us some times.”

And at that he tried to jest. “Yes,” he said; “I know you’re an expensive man to have about the place!”

But there was no jest in his face; his smile was hardly a smile at all. The weakness had gripped him now in earnest. After a little, he sat down on a stone we had just got out, all over fresh clay as it was, and watched us.

I took up my spade and went up, thinking of his clothes.

“Hadn’t I better scrape the stone a bit clean?”

“No, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

But he got up all the same, and let me clean it a little.

It was then that Ragnhild came running up to us, following the line of the trench. She had something in her hand — a paper. And she was running, running. The Captain sat watching her.

“It’s only a telegram!” she said breathlessly. “It came on by messenger.”

The Captain got up and strode quickly a few paces forward toward this telegram that had come. Then he tore it open and read.

We could see at once it must be something important. The Captain gave a great gasp. Then he began walking down, running down, towards the house. A little way off he turned round and called to Nils:

“The carriage at once! I must go to the station!”

Then he ran on again.

So the Captain went away again. He had only been home a few hours.

Ragnhild told us of his terrible haste and worry, poor man; he was getting into the carriage without his fur coat, and would have left the food behind him that was packed all ready. And the telegram that had come was lying all open on the stairs.

“Accident,” it said. “Your wife. — Chief of Police.” What was all this?

“I thought as much,” said Ragnhild, “when they sent it on by messenger.” Her voice was strange, and she turned away. “Something serious, I dare say,” she said.

“No, no!” said I, reading and reading again. “Look, it’s not so very bad! Hear what it says. ‘Request you come at once — accident to your wife.’”

It was an express telegram from the little town, the little dead town. Yes, that was it — a town with a roar of sound through it, and a long bridge, and foaming waters; all cries there died as they were uttered — none could hear. And there were no birds.

But all the maids spoke now in changed voices; ’twas nothing but misery amongst us now; I had to appear steady and confident myself, to reassure them. Fruen might have had a fall, perhaps, she was not as active of late. But she could, perhaps, have got up again and walked on almost as well as ever — just a little bleeding. . . . Oh, they were so quick with their telegrams, these police folk!

“No, no!” said Ragnhild. “You know well enough that when the Chief of Police sends a telegram it’s pretty sure to mean Fruen’s been found dead somewhere! Oh, I can’t — I can’t — can’t bear it!”

Miserable days! I worked away, harder than ever, but as a man in his sleep, without interest or pleasure. Would the Captain never come?

Three days later he came — quietly and alone. The body had been sent to Kristianssand; he had only come back to fetch some clothes, then he was going on there himself, to the funeral.

He was home this time for an hour at most, then off again to catch the early train. I did not even see him myself, being out at work.

Ragnhild asked if he had seen Fruen alive.

He looked at her and frowned.

But the girl would not give up; she begged him, for Heaven’s sake, to say. And the two other maids stood just behind, as desperate as she.

Then the Captain answered, but in a low voice as if to himself:

“She had been dead some days when I got there. It was an accident; she had tried to cross the river and the ice would not bear. No, no, there was no ice, but the stones were slippery. There was ice as well, though.”

Then the maids began moaning and crying; but this was more than he could stand. He got up from the chair where he was sitting, cleared his throat hard, and said:

“There, there, it’s all right, girls, go along now. Ragnhild, a minute.” And then to Ragnhild, when the others had gone: “What was I going to say, now? You haven’t moved some photos, have you, that were on the piano here? I can’t make out what’s happened to them.”

Then Ragnhild spoke up well and with spirit — and may Heaven bless her for the lie!

“I? No, indeed, ’twas Fruen herself one day.”

“Oh? Well, well. I only wondered how it was they had gone.”

Relieved — relieved the Captain was to hear it.

As he was leaving he told Ragnhild to say I was not to go away from Øvrebø till he returned.

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