A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter II

More visitors arrive, and the house-party goes on. We farm-hands are busy measuring, ploughing, and sowing; some of the fields are sprouting green already after our work — a joy to see.

But we’ve difficulties here and there, and that with Captain Falkenberg himself. “He’s lost all thought and care for his own good,” says Nils. And indeed an evil spirit must have got hold of him; he was half-drunk most of the time, and seemed to think of little else beyond playing the genial host. For nearly a week past, he and his guests had played upside down with day and night. But what with the noise and rioting after dark the beasts in stable and shed could get no rest; the maids, too, were kept up at all hours, and, what was more, the young gentlemen would come over to their quarters at night and sit on their beds talking, just to see them undressed.

We working hands had no part in this, of course, but many a time we felt shamed instead of proud to work on Captain Falkenberg’s estate. Nils got hold of a temperance badge and wore it in the front of his blouse.

One day the Captain came out to me in the fields and ordered me to get out the carriage and fetch two new visitors from the station. It was in the middle of the afternoon; apparently he had just got up. But he put me in an awkward position here — why had he not gone to Nils? It struck me that he was perhaps, after all, a little shy of Nils with his temperance badge.

The Captain must have guessed my difficulty, for he smiled and said:

“Thinking what Nils might say? Well, perhaps I’d better talk to him first.”

But I wouldn’t for worlds have sent the Captain over to Nils just then, for Nils was still ploughing with visitors’ horses, and had asked me to give him warning if I saw danger ahead. I took out my handkerchief to wipe my face, and waved a little; Nils saw it, and slipped his team at once. What would he do now, I wondered? But Nils was not easily dismayed; he came straight in with his horses, though it was in the middle of a working spell.

If only I could hold the Captain here a bit while he got in! Nils realizes there is no time to be lost — he is already unfastening the harness on the way.

Suddenly the Captain looks at me, and asks:

“Well, have you lost your tongue?”

“’Twas Nils,” I answer then. “Something gone wrong, it looks like; he’s taken the horses out.”

“Well, and what then?”

“Nay, I was only thinking. . . . ”

But there I stopped. Devil take it, was I to stand there playing the hypocrite? Here was my chance to put in a word for Nils; the next round he would have to manage alone.

“It’s the spring season now,” I said, “and there’s green showing already where we’re done. But there’s a deal more to do yet, and we. . . . ”

“Well, and what then — what then?”

“There’s two and a half acres here, and Nils with hard on three acres of corn land; perhaps Captain might give it another thought.”

At that the Captain swung on his heel and left me without a word.

“That’s my dismissal,” I thought to myself. But I walked up after him with my cart and team, ready to do as he had said.

I was in no fear now about Nils; he was close up to the stables by now. The Captain beckoned to him, but without avail. Then “Halt!” he cried, military fashion; but Nils was deaf.

When we reached the stables the horses were back in their places already. The Captain was stiff and stern as ever, but I fancied he had been thinking matters over a little on the way.

“What have you brought the horses in for now?” he asked.

“Plough was working loose,” answered Nils. “I brought them in just while I’m setting it to rights again; it won’t take very long.”

The Captain raps out his order:

“I want a man to drive to the station.”

Nils glances at me, and says half to himself:

“H’m! So that’s it? A nice time for that sort of thing.”

“What’s that you’re muttering about?”

“There’s two of us and a lad,” says Nils, “for the season’s work this spring. ’Tis none so much as leaves any to spare.”

But the Captain must have had some inkling as to the two brown horses Nils had been in such a hurry to get in; he goes round patting the animals in turn, to see which of them are warm. Then he comes back to us, wiping his fingers with his handkerchief.

“Do you go ploughing with other people’s horses, Nils?”

Pause.

“I’ll not have it here; you understand?”

“H’m! No,” says Nils submissively. Then suddenly he flares up: “We’ve more need of horses this spring than any season ever at Øvrebø: we’re taking up more ground than ever before. And here were these strange cattle standing here day after day eating and eating, and doing never so much as the worth of the water they drank. So I took them out for a bit of a spell now and then, just enough to keep them in trim.”

“I’ll have no more of it. You hear what I say?” repeated the Captain shortly.

Pause.

“Didn’t you say one of the Captain’s plough horses was ailing yesterday?” I put in.

Nils was quick to seize his chance.

“Ay. So it was. Standing all a-tremble in its box. I couldn’t have taken it out anyway.”

The Captain looked me coldly up and down.

“What are you standing here for?” he asked sharply.

“Captain said I was to drive to the station.”

“Well, then, be off and get ready.”

But Nils took him up on the instant.

“That can’t be done.”

“Bravo, Nils!” said I to myself. The lad was thoroughly in the right, and he looked it, sturdily holding his own. And as for the horses, our own had been sorely overdone with the long season’s work, and the strange cattle stood there eating their heads off and spoiling for want of exercise.

“Can’t be done?” said the Captain, astounded. “What do you mean?”

“If Captain takes away the help I’ve got, then I’ve finished here, that’s all,” says Nils.

The Captain walked to the stable door and looked out, biting his moustache and thinking hard. Then he asked over his shoulder:

“And you can’t spare the lad, either?”

“No,” said Nils; “he’s the harrowing to do.”

This was our first real encounter with the Captain, and we had our way. There were some little troubles again later on, but he soon gave in.

“I want a case fetched from the station,” he said one day. “Can the boy go in for it?”

“The boy’s as ill to spare as a man for us now,” said Nils. “If he’s to drive in to the station now, he won’t be back till late tomorrow; that’s a day and a half lost.”

“Bravo!” I said to myself again. Nils had spoken to me before about that case at the station; it was a new consignment of liquor; the maids had heard about it.

There was some more talk this way and that. The Captain frowned; he had never known a busy season last so long before. Nils lost his temper, and said at last: “If you take the boy off his field work, then I go.” And then he did as he and I had agreed beforehand, and asked me straight out:

“Will you go, too?”

“Yes,” said I.

At that the Captain gave way, and said with a smile: “Conspiracy, I see. But I don’t mind saying you’re right in a way. And you’re good fellows to work.”

But the Captain saw but little of our work, and little pleasure it gave him. He looked out now and again, no doubt, over his fields, and saw how much was ploughed and sown, but that was all. But we farm-hands worked our hardest, and all for the good of our master; that was our way.

Ay, that was our way, no doubt.

But maybe now and again we might have just a thought of question as to that zeal of ours, whether it was so noble after all. Nils was a man from the village who was anxious to get his field work done at least as quickly as any of his neighbours; his honour was at stake. And I followed him. Ay, even when he put on that temperance badge, it was, perhaps, as much as anything to get the Captain sober enough to see the fine work we had done. And here again I was with him. Moreover, I had perhaps a hope that Fruen, that Fru Falkenberg at least, might understand what good souls we were. I doubt I was no better than to reckon so.

The first time I saw Fru Falkenberg close to was one afternoon as I was going out of the kitchen. She came walking across the courtyard, a slender, bareheaded figure. I raised my cap and looked at her; her face was strangely young and innocent to see. And with perfect indifference she answered my “Goddag,” and passed on.

It could not be all over for good between the Captain and his wife. I based this view upon the following grounds:

Ragnhild, the parlour-maid, was her mistress’s friend and trusted spy. She noted things on Fruen’s behalf, went last to bed, listened on the stairs, made a few swift, noiseless steps when she was outside and somebody called. She was a handsome girl, with very bright eyes, and fine and warm-blooded into the bargain. One evening I came on her just by the summer-house, where she stood sniffing at the lilacs; she started as I came up, pointed warningly towards the summer-house, and ran off with her tongue between her teeth.

The Captain was aware of Ragnhild’s doings, and once said to his wife so all might hear — he was drunk, no doubt, and annoyed at something or other:

“That Ragnhild’s an underhanded creature; I’d be glad to be rid of her.”

Fruen answered:

“It’s not the first time you’ve wanted to get Ragnhild out of the way; Heaven knows what for! She’s the best maid we’ve ever had.”

“For that particular purpose, I dare say,” he retorted.

This set me thinking. Fruen was perhaps crafty enough to keep this girl spying, simply to make it seem as if she cared at all what her husband did. Then people could imagine that Fruen, poor thing, went about secretly longing for him, and being constantly disappointed and wronged. And then, of course, who could blame her if she did the like in return, and went her own way? Heaven knows if that was the way of it!

One day later on the Captain changed his tactics. He had not managed to free himself from Ragnhild’s watchfulness; she was still there, to be close at hand when he was talking to Elisabet in some corner, or making towards the summer-house late in the evening to sit there with some one undisturbed. So he tried another way, and began making himself agreeable to that same Ragnhild. Oho! ’twas a woman’s wit — no doubt, ’twas Elisabet — had put him up to that!

We were sitting at the long dining-table in the kitchen, Nils and I and the lad; Fruen was there, and the maids were busy with their own work. Then in comes the Captain from the house with a brush in his hand.

“Give my coat a bit of a brush, d’you mind?” says he to Ragnhild.

She obeyed. When she had finished, he thanked her, saying: “Thank you, my child.”

Fruen looked a little surprised, and, a moment after, sent her maid upstairs for something. The Captain looked after her as she went, and said:

“Wonderfully bright eyes that girl has, to be sure.”

I glanced across at Fruen. Her eyes were blazing, her cheeks flushed, as she moved to leave the room. But in the doorway she turned, and now her face was pale. She seemed to have formed her resolution already. Speaking over her shoulder, she said to her husband:

“I shouldn’t be surprised if Ragnhild’s eyes were a little too bright.”

“Eh?” says the Captain, in surprise.

“Yes,” says Fruen, with a slight laugh, nodding over towards the table where we sat. “She’s getting a little too friendly with the men out here.”

Silence.

“So perhaps she’d better go,” Fruen went on.

It was incomparable audacity on Fruen’s part, of course, to say such a thing to our face, but we could not protest; we saw she was only using us to serve her need.

When we got outside, Nils said angrily:

“I’m not sure but I’d better go back and say a word or two myself about that.”

But I dissuaded him, saying it was not worth troubling about.

A few days passed. Again the Captain found an opportunity of paying barefaced compliments to Ragnhild: “ . . . with a figure like yours,” he said.

And the tone of everything about the house now — badly changed from of old. Gone down, grown poorer year by year, no doubt, drunken guests doing their share to help, and idleness and indifference and childlessness for the rest.

In the evening, Ragnhild came to me and told me she was given notice; Fruen had made some reference to me, and that was all.

Once more a piece of underhand work. Fruen knew well I should not be long on the place; why not make me the scapegoat? She was determined to upset her husband’s calculations, that was the matter.

Ragnhild, by the way, took it to heart a good deal, and sobbed and dabbed her eyes. But after a while she comforted herself with the thought that, as soon as I was gone, Fruen would take back her dismissal and let her stay. I, for my part, was inwardly sure that Fruen would do nothing of the kind.

Yes, the Captain and Elisabet might be content: the troublesome parlour-maid was to be sent packing, surely enough.

But who was to know? I might be out in my reckoning after all. New happenings set me questioning anew; ay, forced me to alter my judgment once again. ’Tis a sorely difficult thing to judge the truth of humankind.

I learned now, beyond doubt, that Fru Falkenberg was truly and honestly jealous of her husband; not merely pretending to be, as so by way of covering her own devious ways. Far, indeed, from any pretence here. True, she did not really believe for a moment that he was interested in her maid. But it suited her purpose to pretend she did; in her extremity, she would use any means that came to hand. She had blushed during that scene in the kitchen; yes, indeed, but that was a sudden and natural indignation at her husband’s ill-chosen words, nothing more.

But she had no objections to her husband’s imagining she was jealous of the girl. This was just what she wanted. Her meaning was clear enough. I’m jealous again, yes; you can see it’s all the same as before with me: here I am! Fru Falkenberg was better than I had thought. For many years now the pair had slipped farther and farther from each other through indifference, partly perhaps towards the last, in defiance; now she would take the first step and show that she cared for him still. That was it, yes. But, in face of the one she feared most of all, she would not show her jealousy for worlds — and that was Elisabet, this dangerous friend of hers who was so many years younger than herself.

Yes, that was the way of it.

And the Captain? Was he moved at all to see his wife flush at his words to her maid? Maybe a shadow of memory from the old days, a tingle of wonder, a gladness. But he said no word. Maybe he was grown prouder and more obstinate with the years that had passed. It might well seem so from his looks.

Then it was there came the happenings I spoke of.

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