A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter IV

Evening came. And what would happen now? A great deal, as it turned out.

It started early; we men were at supper while they were having dinner up at the house, and we could hear them carrying on as gaily as could be. Ragnhild was taking in trays of food and bottles, and waiting at table; once when she came out, she laughed to herself and said to the other girls: “I believe Fruen’s drunk herself tonight.”

I had not slept the night before, nor had my midday rest; I was troubled and nervous after all that had happened the last two days. So, as soon as I had finished my supper, I went out and up to the woods to be alone. I stayed there a long while.

I looked down towards the house. The Captain away, the servants gone to rest, the beasts in stable and shed fast asleep. Stout Captain Bror and his lady, too, had doubtless found a quiet corner all to themselves after dinner; he was simply wild about the woman, for all he was old and fat and she herself no longer young. That left only Fru Falkenberg and the young engineer. And where would they be now?

’Twas their affair.

I sauntered home again, yawning and shivering a little in the cool night, and went up to my room. After a while Ragnhild came up, and begged me to keep awake and be ready to help in case of need. It was horrible, she said; they were carrying on like mad things up at the house, walking about from one room to another, half undressed and drunk as well. Was Fruen drunk, too? Yes, she was. And was she walking about half undressed? No, but Captain Bror was, and Fruen clapped her hands and cried “Bravo!” And the engineer as well. It was one as bad as the other. And Ragnhild had just taken in two more bottles of wine, though they were drunk already.

“Come over with me and you can hear them yourself,” said Ragnhild. “They’re up in Fruen’s room now.”

“No,” I said. “I’m going to bed. And you’d better go, too.”

“But they’ll ring in a minute and be wanting something if I do.”

“Let them ring!”

And then it was Ragnhild confessed that the Captain himself had asked her to stay up that night in case Fruen should want her.

This altered the whole aspect of affairs in a moment. Evidently the Captain had feared something might happen, and set Ragnhild on guard in case. I put on my blouse again and went across with her to the house.

We went upstairs and stood in the passage; we could hear them laughing and making a noise in Fruen’s room. But Fruen herself spoke as clearly as ever, and was not drunk at all. “Yes, she is,” said Ragnhild, “anyhow, she’s not like herself tonight.”

I wished I could have seen her for a moment.

We went back to the kitchen and sat down. But I was restless all the time; after a little I took down the lamp from the wall and told Ragnhild to follow me. We went upstairs again.

“No; go in and ask Fruen to come out here to me,” I said.

“Why, whatever for?”

“I’ve a message for her.”

And Ragnhild knocked at the door and went in.

It was only at the last moment I hit on any message to give. I could simply look her straight in the face and say: “The Captain sent his kind regards.”4 Would that be enough? I might say more: “The Captain was obliged to drive himself, because Nils couldn’t spare any one to go.”

4 Kapteinen bad mig hilse Dem: literally, “The Captain bade me greet you.” Such a message would not seem quite so uncalled for in Norway, such greetings (Hilsen) being given and sent more frequently, and on slighter occasions, than with us.

But a moment can be long at times, and thought a lightning flash. I found time to reject both these plans and hatch out another before Fruen came. Though I doubt if my last plan was any better.

Fruen asked in surprise:

“Well, what do you want?”

Ragnhild came up, too, and looked at me wonderingly.

I turned the lamp towards Fruen’s face and said:

“I beg pardon for coming up so late. I’ll be going to the post first thing tomorrow; I thought if perhaps Fruen had any letters to go?”

“Letters? No,” she answered, shaking her head.

There was an absent look in her eyes, but she did not look in the least as if she had been drinking.

“No, I’ve no letters,” she said, and moved to go.

“Beg pardon, then,” I said.

“Was it the Captain told you to go to the post?” she asked.

“No, I was just going for myself.”

She turned and went back to her room. Before she was well through the door I heard her say to the others:

“A nice pretext, indeed.”

Ragnhild and I went down again. I had seen her.

Oh, but I was humbled now indeed! And it did not ease my mind at all when Ragnhild incautiously let out a further piece of news. It seemed she had been romancing before; it was not true about the Captain’s having asked her to keep a look out. I grew more and more convinced in my own mind: Ragnhild was playing the spy on her own account, for sheer love of the game.

I left her, and, went up to my room. What had my clumsy intrusion gained for me, after all? A pretext, she had said; clearly she had seen through it all. Disgusted with myself, I vowed that for the future I would leave things and people to themselves.

I threw myself down fully dressed on the bed.

After a while I heard Fru Falkenberg’s voice outside in front of the house; my window was open, and she spoke loudly enough. The engineer was with her, putting in a word now and again. Fruen was in raptures over the weather, so fine it was, and such a warm night. Oh, it was lovely out now — ever so much nicer than indoors!

But her voice seemed a trifle less clear now than before.

I ran to the window, and saw the pair of them standing by the steps that led down to the shrubbery. The engineer seemed to have something on his mind that he had not been able to get said before. “Do listen to me now,” he said. Then followed a brief and earnest pleading, which was answered — ay, and rewarded. He spoke as if to one hard of hearing, because she had been deaf to his words so long; they stood there by the stone steps, neither of them caring for any one else in the world. Let any listen or watch who pleased; the night was theirs, the world was theirs, and the spring-time was about them, drawing them together. He watched her like a cat; every movement of her body set his blood tingling; he was ready to spring upon her in a moment. And when it came near to action there was a power of will in his manner towards her. Ay, the young spark!

“I’ve begged and prayed you long enough,” he said breathlessly. “Yesterday you all but would; today you’re deaf again. You think you and Bror and Tante5 and the rest are to have a good time and no harm done, while I look on and play the nice young man? But, by Heaven, you’re wrong! Here’s you yourself, a garden of all good things right in front of me, and a fence . . . do you know what I’m going to do now with that silly fence?”

5 “Auntie.” Evidently Captain Bror’s lady is meant.

“What are you going to do? No, Hugo, you’ve had too much to drink this evening. You’re so young. We’ve both drunk more than we ought,” she said.

“And then you play me false into the bargain, with your tricks. You send a special messenger for a letter that simply can’t wait, and at the same time you’re cruel enough to let me think . . . to promise me. . . . ”

“I’ll never do it again, Hugo.”

“Never do it again? What do you mean by that? When you can go up to a man — yes, to me, and kiss me like you did. . . . What’s the good of saying you’ll never do it any more; it’s done, and a kiss like that’s not a thing to forget. I can feel it still, and it’s a mad delight, and I thank you for it You’ve got that letter in your dress; let me see it.”

“You’re so excited, Hugo. No, it’s getting late now. We’d better say good-night.”

“Will you show me that letter?”

“Show you the letter? Certainly not!”

At that he made a half-spring, as if to take it by force, but checked himself, and snapped out:

“What? You won’t? Well, on my word you are. . . . Mean’s not the word for it. You’re something worse. . . . ”

“Hugo!”

“Yes, you are!”

“If you will see the letter, here it is!” She thrust her hand into her blouse, took out the letter, opened it, and waved it at him, flourishing her innocence. “Here’s the letter — from my mother; there’s her signature — look. From mother — and now what have you to say?”

He quailed as if at a blow, and only said:

“From your mother. Why, then, it didn’t matter at all?”

“No; there you are. Oh, but of course it did matter in a way, but still. . . . ”

He leaned up against the fence, and began to work it out:

“From your mother. . . . I see. A letter from your mother came and interrupted us. Do you know what I think? You’ve been cheating. You’ve been fooling me all along. I can see it all now.”

She tried again.

“It was an important letter. Mama is coming — she’s coming here to stay very soon. And I was waiting to hear.”

“You were cheating all the time, weren’t you?” he said again. “Let them bring in the letter just at the right moment, when we’d put out the light. Yes, that’s it. You were just leading me on, to see how far I’d go, and kept your maid close at hand to protect you.”

“Oh, do be sensible! It’s ever so late; we must go in.”

“Ugh! I had too much to drink up there, I think. Can’t talk straight now.”

He could think of nothing but the letter, and went on about it again:

“For there was no need to have all that mystery about a letter from home. No; I see it all now. Want to go in, you say? Well then, go in, Fru, by all means. Godnat, Frue. My dutiful respects, as from a son.”

He bowed, and stood watching her with a sneering smile.

“A son? Oh yes,” she replied, with sudden emotion. “I am old, yes. And you are so young, Hugo, that’s true. And that’s why I kissed you. But I couldn’t be your mother — no, it’s only that I’m older, ever so much older than you. But I’m not quite an old woman yet, and that you should see if only . . . But I’m older than Elisabet and every one else. Oh, what am I talking about? Not a bit of it. I don’t know what else the years may have done to me, but they haven’t made me an old woman yet. Have they? What do you think yourself? Oh, but what do you know about it? . . .”

“No, no,” he said softly. “But is there any sense in going on like this? Here are you, young as you are, with nothing on earth to do all the time but keep guard over yourself and get others to do the same. And the Lord in heaven knows you promised me a thing, but it means so little to you; you take a pleasure in putting me off and beating me down with your great white wings.”

“Great white wings,” she murmured to herself.

“Yes, you might have great red wings. Look at yourself now, standing there all lovely as you are, and all for nothing.”

“Oh, I think the wine has gone to my head! All for nothing, indeed!”

Then suddenly she takes his hand and leads him down the steps. I can hear her voice: “Why should I care? Does he imagine Elisabet’s so much better?”

They pass along the path to the summer-house. Here she hesitates, and stops.

“Oh, where are we going?” she asks. “Haha, we must be mad! You wouldn’t have thought I was mad, would you? I’m not, either — that is to say, yes, I am, now and again. There, the door’s locked; very well, we’ll go away again. But what a mean trick to lock the door, when we want to go in.”

Full of bitterness and suspicion, he answered:

“Now, you’re cheating again. You knew well enough the door was locked.”

“Oh, must you always think the worst of me? But why should he lock the door so carefully and have the place all to himself? Yes, I did know it was locked, and that’s why I came with you. I dare not. No, Hugo, I won’t, I mean it. Oh, are you mad? Come back!”

She took his hand again and tried to turn back; they stood struggling a little, for he would not follow. Then in his passion and strength he threw both arms round her and kissed her again and again. And she weakened ever more and more, speaking brokenly between the kisses:

“I’ve never kissed any other man before — never! It’s true — I swear it. I’ve never kissed. . . . ”

“No, no, no,” he answers impatiently, drawing her step by step the way he will.

Outside the summer-house he looses his hold of her a moment, flings himself, one shoulder forward, heavily against the door, and breaks it open for the second time. Then in one stride he is beside her once more. Neither speaks.

But even at the door, she checks again — stands clinging to the door-post, and will not move.

“No, no, I’ve never been unfaithful to him yet. I won’t; I’ve never — never. . . . ”

He draws her to him suddenly, kisses her a full minute, two minutes, a deep, unbroken kiss; she leans back from the waist, her hand slips where it holds, and she gives way. . . .

A white mist gathers before my eyes. So . . . they have come to it now. Now he takes her, has his will and joy of her. . . .

A melancholy weariness and rest comes over me. I feel miserable and alone. It is late; my heart has had its day. . . .

Through the white mist comes a leaping figure; it is Ragnhild coming up from among the bushes, running with her tongue thrust out.

The engineer came up to me, nodded Godmorgen, and asked me to mend the summer-house door.

“Is it broken again?”

“Yes, it got broken last night.”

It was early for him to be about — no more than halfpast four; we farm-hands had not yet started for the fields. His eyes showed small and glittering, as if they burned; likely enough he had not slept all night. But he said nothing as to how the door had got broken.

Not for any thought of him, but for Captain Falkenberg’s sake, I went down at once to the summer-house and mended the door once again. No need for such haste, maybe; the Captain had a long drive there and back, but it was close on twenty-four hours now since he started.

The engineer came down with me. Without in the least perceiving how it came about, I found myself thinking well of him; he had broken open that door last night — quite so, but he was not the man to sneak out of it after. He and no one other it was who had it mended. Eh, well, perhaps after all ’twas only my vanity was pleased. I felt flattered at his trusting to my silence. That was it. That was how I came to think well of him.

“I’m in charge of some timber-rafting on the rivers,” he said. “How long are you staying here?”

“Not for long. Till the field-work’s over for the season.”

“I could give you work if you’d care about it.”

Now this was work I knew nothing of, and, what was more, I liked to be among field and forest, not with lumbermen and proletariat. However, I thanked him for the offer.

“Very good of you to come and put this right. As a matter of fact, I broke it open looking for a gun. I wanted to shoot something, and I thought there might be a gun in there.”

I made no answer; it would have pleased me better if he had said nothing.

“So I thought I’d ask you before you started out to work,” he said, to finish off.

I put the lock right and set it in its place again, and began nailing up the woodwork, which was shattered as before. While I was busy with this, we heard Captain Falkenberg’s voice; through the bushes we could see him unharnessing the horses and leading them in.

The engineer gave a start; he fumbled for his watch, and got it out, but his eyes had grown all big and empty — they could see nothing. Suddenly he said:

“Oh, I forgot, I must . . .”

And he hurried off far down the garden.

“So he’s going to sneak out of it, after all,” I thought to myself.

A moment later the Captain himself came down. He was pale, and covered with dust, and plainly had not slept, but perfectly sober. He called to me from a distance:

“Hei! how did you get in there?”

I touched my cap, but said nothing.

“Somebody been breaking in again?”

“It was only . . . I just remembered I’d left out a couple of nails here yesterday. It’s all right now. If Captain will lock up again . . .”

Fool that I was! If that was the best excuse I could find, he would see through it all at once.

He stood for a few seconds looking at the door with half-closed eyes; he had his suspicions, no doubt. Then he took out the key, locked up the place, and walked off. What else could he do?

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