A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter III

Fru Falkenberg had been playing with her husband now for some little time. She affected indifference to his indifference, and consoled herself with the casual attentions of men staying in the house. Now one and now another of them left, but stout Captain Bror and the lady with the shawl stayed on, and Lassen, the young engineer, stayed too. Captain Falkenberg looked on as if to say: “Well and good, stay on by all means, my dear fellow, as long as you please.” And it made no impression on him when his wife said “Du” to Lassen and called him Hugo. “Hugo!” she would call, standing on the steps, looking out. And the Captain would volunteer carelessly: “Hugo’s just gone down the road.”

One day I heard him answer her with a bitter smile and a wave of his hand towards the lilacs: “Little King Hugo is waiting for you in his kingdom.” I saw her start; then she laughed awkwardly to cover her confusion, and went down in search of Lassen.

At last she had managed to wring some expression of feeling out of him. She would try it again.

This was on a Sunday.

Later in the day Fruen was strangely restless; she said a few kindly words to me, and mentioned that both Nils and I had managed our work very well.

“Lars has been to the post office today,” she said, “to fetch a letter for me. It’s one I particularly want. Would you mind going up to his place and bringing it down for me?”

I said I would with pleasure.

“Lars won’t be home again till about eleven. So you need not start for a long time yet.”

Very good.

“And when you get back, just give the letter to Ragnhild.”

It was the first time Fru Falkenberg had spoken to me during my present stay at Øvrebø; it was something so new, I went up afterwards to my bedroom and sat there by myself, feeling as if something had really happened. I thought over one or two things a little as well. It was simply foolishness, I told myself to go on playing the stranger here and pretending nobody knew. And a full beard was a nuisance in the hot weather; moreover, it was grey, and made me look ever so old. So I set to and shaved it off.

About ten o’clock I started out towards the clearing. Lars was not back. I stayed there a while with Emma, and presently he came in. I took the letter and went straight home. It was close on midnight.

Ragnhild was nowhere to be seen, and the other maids had gone to bed. I glanced in at the shrubbery. There sat Captain Falkenberg and Elisabet, talking together at the round stone table; they took no notice of me. There was a light in Fruen’s bedroom upstairs. And suddenly it occurred to me that to-night I looked as I had done six years before, clean-shaven as then. I took the letter out of my pocket and went in the main entrance to give it to Fruen myself.

At the top of the stairs Ragnhild comes slipping noiselessly towards me and takes the letter. She is evidently excited. I can feel the heat of her breath as she points along the passage. There is a sound of voices from the far end.

It looked as if she had taken up her post here on guard, or had been set there by some one to watch; however, it was no business of mine. And when she whispered: “Don’t say a word; go down again quietly!” I obeyed, and went to my room.

My window was open. I could hear the couple down among the bushes: they were drinking wine. And there was still light upstairs in Fruen’s room.

Ten minutes passed; then the light went out.

A moment later I heard some one hurrying up the stairs in the house, and looked down involuntarily to see if it was the Captain. But the Captain was sitting as before.

Now came the same steps down the stairs again, and, a little after, others. I kept watch on the main entrance. First comes Ragnhild, flying as if for her life over towards the servants’ quarters; then comes Fru Falkenberg with her hair down, and the letter in her hand showing white in the gloom. After her comes the engineer. The pair of them move down towards the high road.

Ragnhild comes rushing in to me and flings herself on a chair, all out of breath and bursting with news. Such things had happened this evening, she whispered. Shut the window! Fruen and that engineer fellow — never a thought of being careful —’twas as near as ever could be but they’d have done it. He was holding on to her when Ragnhild went in with the letter. Ugh! Up in Fruen’s room, with the lamp blown out.

“You’re mad,” said I to Ragnhild.

But the girl had both heard and seen well enough, it seemed. She was grown so used to playing the spy that she could not help spying on her mistress as well. An uncommon sort, was Ragnhild.

I put on a lofty air at first and would have none of her tale-bearing, thank you, listening at keyholes. Fie!

But how could she help it, she replied. Her orders were to bring up the letter as soon as her mistress put out the light, and not before. But Fruen’s windows looked out to the shrubbery, where the Captain was sitting with Elisabet from the vicarage. No place for Ragnhild there. Better to wait upstairs in the passage, and just take a look at the keyhole now and again, to see if the light was out.

This sounded a little more reasonable.

“But only think of it,” said Ragnhild suddenly, shaking her head in admiration. “What a fellow he must be, that engineer, to get as near as that with Fruen.”

As near as what! Jealousy seized me; I gave up my lofty pose, and questioned Ragnhild searchingly about it all. What did she say they were doing? How did it all come about?

Ragnhild could not say how it began. Fruen had given her orders about a letter that was to be fetched from Lars Falkenberg’s, and when it arrived, she was to wait till the light went out in Fruen’s room, and then bring it up. “Very good,” said Ragnhild. “But not till I put out the light, you understand,” said Fruen again. And Ragnhild had set herself to wait for the letter. But the time seemed endless, and she fell to thinking and wondering about it all; there was something strange about it. She went up into the passage and listened. She could hear Fruen and the engineer talking easily and without restraint; stooping down to the keyhole, she saw her mistress loosening her hair, with the engineer looking on and saying how lovely she was. And then — ah, that engineer — he kissed her.

“On the lips, was it? . . . ”

Ragnhild saw I was greatly excited, and tried to reassure me.

“Well, perhaps not quite. I won’t be sure; but still . . . and he’s not a pretty mouth, anyway, to my mind. . . . I say, though, you’ve shaved all clean this evening. How nice! Let me see. . . . ”

“But what did Fruen say to that? Did she slip away?”

“Yes, I think so; yes, of course she did — and screamed.”

“Did she, though?”

“Yes; out loud. And he said ‘Sh!’ And every time she raised her voice he said ‘Sh!’ again. But Fruen said let them hear, it didn’t matter; they were sitting down there making love in the shrubbery themselves. That’s what she said, and it was the Captain and Elisabet from the vicarage she meant. ‘There, you can see them,’ she said, and went to the window. ‘I know, I know,’ says the engineer; ‘but, for Heaven’s sake, don’t stand there with your hair down!’ and he went over and got her away from the window. Then they said a whole heap of things, and every time he tried to whisper Fruen talked out loud again. ‘If only you wouldn’t shout,’ he said. ‘We could be ever so quiet up here.’ Then she was quiet for a bit, and just sat there smiling at him without a word. She was ever so fond of him.”

“Was she?”

“Yes, indeed, I could see that much. Only fancy, a fellow like that! He leaned over towards her, and put his hand so — there.”

“And Fruen sat still and let him?”

“Well, yes, a little. But then she went over to the window again, and came back, and put out her tongue like that — and went straight up to him and kissed him. I can’t think how she could. For his mouth’s not a bit nice, really. Then he said, ‘Now we’re all alone, and we can hear if anybody comes.’ ‘What about Bror and his partner?’ said she. ‘Oh; they are out somewhere, at the other end of the earth,’ said he. ‘We’re all alone; don’t let me have to keep on asking you now!’ And then he took hold of her and picked her up — oh, he was so strong, so strong! ‘No, no; leave go!’ she cried.”

“Go on!” I said breathlessly. “What next?”

“Why, it was just then you came up with the letter, and I didn’t see what happened next. And when I went back, they’d turned the key in the lock, so I could hardly see at all. But I heard Fruen saying: ‘Oh, what are you doing? No, no, we mustn’t!’ She must have been in his arms then. And then at last she said: ‘Wait, then; let me get down a minute.’ And he let her go. ‘Blow out the lamp,’ she said. And then it was all dark . . . oh! . . . ”

“But now I was at my wits’ end what to do,” Ragnhild went on. “I stood a minute all in a flurry, and was just going to knock at the door all at once —”

“Yes, yes; why didn’t you? What on earth made you wait at all?”

“Why, if I had, then Fruen’d have known in a moment I’d been listening outside,” answered the girl. “No, I slipped away from the door and down the stairs, then turned back and went up again, treading hard so Fruen could hear the way I came. The door was still fastened, but I knocked, and Fruen came and opened it. But the engineer was just behind; he’d got hold of her clothes, and was simply wild after her. ‘Don’t go! don’t go!’ he kept on saying, and never taking the slightest notice of me. But then, when I turned to go, Fruen came out with me. Oh, but only think. It was as near as could be! . . . ”

A long, restless night.

At noon, when we men came home from the fields next day, the maids were whispering something about a scene between the Captain and his wife. Ragnhild knew all about it. The Captain had noticed his wife with her hair down the night before, and the lamp out upstairs, and laughed at her hair and said wasn’t it pretty! And Fruen said nothing much at first, but waited her chance, and then she said: “Yes, I know. I like to let my hair down now and again, and why not? It isn’t yours!” She was none so clever, poor thing, at answering back in a quarrel.

Then Elisabet had come up and put in her word. And she was smarter — prrr! Fruen did manage to say: “Well, anyhow we were in the house, but you two were sitting out among the bushes!” And Elisabet turned sharp at that, and snapped out: “We didn’t put out the light!” “And if we did,” said Fruen, “it made no difference; we came down directly after.”

Heavens! I thought to myself, why ever didn’t she say they put the light out because they were going down?

That was the end of it for a while. But then, later on, the Captain said something about Fruen being so much older than Elisabet. “You ought always to wear your hair down,” he said. “On my word, it made you look quite a girl!” “Oh yes, I dare say I need it now,” answered Fruen. But seeing Elisabet turn away laughing, she flared up all of a sudden and told her to take herself off. And Elisabet put her hands on her hips, and asked the Captain to order her carriage. “Right!” says the Captain at that; “and I’ll drive you myself!”

All this Ragnhild had heard for herself standing close by.

I thought to myself they were jealous, the pair of them — she, of this sitting out in the shrubbery, and he, of her letting her hair down and putting out the light.

As we came out of the kitchen, and were going across for a rest, there was the Captain busy with Elisabet’s carriage. He called me up and said:

“I ought not to ask you now, when you’re having your rest, but I wish you’d go down and mend the door of the summer-house for me.”

“Right!” I said.

Now that door had been wrong ever since the engineer burst it open several nights before. What made the Captain so anxious to have it put right just at this moment? He’d have no use for the summerhouse while he was driving Elisabet home. Was it because he wanted to shut the place up so no one else should use it while he was away? It was a significant move, if so.

I took some tools and things and went down to the shrubbery.

And now I had my first look at the summer-house from inside. It was comparatively new; it had not been there six years before. A roomy place, with pictures on the walls, and even an alarm clock — now run down — chairs with cushions, a table, and an upholstered settee covered with red plush. The blinds were down.

I set a couple of pieces in the roof first, where I’d smashed it with my empty bottle; then I took off the lock to see what was wrong there. While I was busy with this the Captain came up. He had evidently been drinking already that day, or was suffering from a heavy bout the night before.

“That’s no burglary,” he said. “Either the door must have been left open, and slammed itself to bits, or some one must have stumbled up against it in the dark. One of the visitors, perhaps, that left the other day.”

But the door had been roughly handled, one could see: the lock was burst open, and the woodwork on the inside of the frame torn away.

“Let me see! Put a new bolt in here, and force the spring back in place,” said the Captain, examining the lock. He sat down in a chair.

Fru Falkenberg came down the stone steps to the shrubbery, and called:

“Is the Captain there?”

“Yes,” said I.

Then she came up. Her face was twitching with emotion.

“I’d like a word with you,” she said. “I won’t keep you long.”

The Captain answered, without rising:

“Certainly. Will you sit down, or would you rather stand? No, don’t run away, you! I’ve none too much time as it is,” he said sharply to me.

This I took to mean that he wanted the lock mended so he could take the key with him when he went.

“I dare say it wasn’t — I oughtn’t to have said what I did,” Fruen began.

The Captain made no answer.

But his silence, after she had come down on purpose to try and make it up, was more than she could bear. She ended by saying: “Oh, well, it’s all the same; I don’t care.”

And she turned to go.

“Did you want to speak to me?” asked the Captain.

“Oh no, it doesn’t matter. Thanks, I shan’t trouble.”

“Very well,” said the Captain. He smiled as he spoke. He was drunk, no doubt, and angry about something.

But Fruen turned as she passed by me in the doorway, and said:

“You ought not to drive down there today. There’s gossip enough already.”

“You need not listen to it,” he answered.

“It can’t go on like this, you know,” she said again. “And you don’t seem to think of the disgrace. . . . ”

“We’re both a little thoughtless in that respect,” he answered carelessly, looking round at the walls.

I took the lock and stepped outside.

“Here, don’t go running away now!” cried the Captain. “I’m in a hurry!”

“Yes, you’re in a hurry, of course,” repeated Fruen. “Going away again. But you’d do well to think it over just for once. I’ve been thinking things over myself lately; only you wouldn’t see. . . . ”

“What do you mean?” he asked, haughty and stiff as ever. “Was it your fooling about at night with your hair down and lights out you thought I wouldn’t see? Oh yes, no doubt!”

“I’ll have to finish this on the anvil,” said I, and hurried off.

I stayed away longer than was needed, but when I came back Fruen was still there. They were talking louder than before.

“And do you know what I have done?” said Fruen “I’ve lowered myself so far as to show I was jealous. Yes, I’ve done that. Oh, only about the maid . . . I mean. . . . ”

“Well, and what then?” said the Captain.

“Oh, won’t you understand? Well, have it your own way, then. You’ll have to take the consequences later; make no mistake about that!”

These were her last words, and they sounded like an arrow striking a shield. She stepped out and strode away.

“Manage it all right?” said the Captain as I came up. But I could see his thoughts were busy with other things; he was trying to appear unconcerned. A little after, he managed to yawn, and said lazily: “Ugh, it’s a long drive. But if Nils can’t spare a hand I must go myself.”

I had only to fix the lock in its place, and set a new strip down the inside of the door-frame; it was soon done. The Captain tried the door, put the key in his pocket, thanked me for the work, and went off.

A little later he drove away with Elisabet.

“See you again soon,” he called to Captain Bror and Engineer Lassen, waving his hand to them both. “Mind that you have a good time while I’m away!”

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