A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter V

All the guests are gone — stout Captain Bror, the lady with the shawl, Engineer Lassen as well. And Captain Falkenberg is getting ready to start for manoeuvres at last. It struck me that he must have applied for leave on very special grounds, or he would have been away on duty long before this.

We farm-hands have been hard at work in the fields the last few days — a heavy strain on man and beast. But Nils knew what he was doing; he wanted to gain time for something else.

One day he set me to work cleaning up all round outside the house and buildings. It took all the time gained and more, but it made the whole place look different altogether. And that was what Nils wanted — to cheer the Captain up a little before he left home. And I turned to of my own accord and fixed up a loose pale or so in the garden fence, straightened the door of a shed that was wry on its hinges, and such-like. And the barn bridge, too, needed mending. I thought of putting in new beams.

“Where will you be going when you leave here?” asked the Captain.

“I don’t know. I’ll be on the road for a bit.”

“I could do with you here for a while; there’s a lot of things that want doing.”

“Captain was thinking of paintwork, maybe?”

“Painting, too — yes. I’m not sure about that, though; it would be a costly business, with the outbuildings and all. No, I was thinking of something else. Do you know anything about timber, now? Could you mark down for yourself?”

It pleased him, then, to pretend he did not recognize me from the time I had worked in his timber before. But was there anything left now to fell? I answered him:

“Ay, I’m used to timber. Where would it be this year?”

“Anywhere. Wherever you like. There must be something left, surely.”

“Ay, well.”

I laid the new beams in the barn bridge, and when that was done, I took down the flagstaff and put on a new knob and line. Øvrebø was looking quite nice already, and Nils said it made him feel better only to look at it. I got him to talk to the Captain and put in a word about the paintwork, but the Captain had looked at him with a troubled air and said: “Yes, yes, I know. But paint’s not the only thing we’ve got to think about. Wait till the autumn and see how the crops turn out. We’ve sowed a lot this year.”

But when the flagstaff stood there with the old paint all scraped off, and a new knob and halliards, the Captain could not help noticing it, and ordered some paint by telegraph. Though, to be sure there was no such hurry as all that; a letter by the post had been enough.

Two days passed. The paint arrived, but was put aside for the time being; we had not done with the field-work yet by a long way, though we were using both the carriage horses for sowing and harrowing, and when it came to planting potatoes, Nils had to ask up at the house for the maids to come and help. The Captain gave him leave, said yes to all that was asked, and went off to manoeuvres. So we were left to ourselves.

But there was a big scene between husband and wife before he went.

Every one of us on the place knew there was trouble between them, and Ragnhild and the dairymaid were always talking about it. The fields were coming on nicely now, and you could see the change in the grassland from day to day; it was fine spring weather, and all things doing well that grew, but there was trouble and strife at Øvrebø. Fruen could be seen at times with a face that showed she had been crying; or other times with an air of exaggerated haughtiness, as if she cared nothing for any one. Her mother came — a pale, quiet lady with spectacles and a face like a mouse. She did not stay long — only a few days; then she went back to Kristianssand — that was where she lived. The air here did not agree with her, she said.

Ah, that great scene! A bitter final reckoning that lasted over an hour — Ragnhild told us all about it afterwards. Neither the Captain nor Fruen raised their voices, but the words came slow and strong. And in their bitterness the pair of them agreed to go each their own way from now on.

“Oh, you don’t say so!” cried all in the kitchen, clasping their hands.

Ragnhild drew herself up and began mimicking:

“‘You’ve been breaking into the summer-house again with some one?’ said the Captain. ‘Yes,’ said Fruen. ‘And what more?’ he asked. ‘Everything,’ said she. The Captain smiled at that and said: ‘There’s something frank and open about an answer like that; you can see what is meant almost at once.’ Fruen said nothing to that. ‘What you can see in that young puppy, I don’t know — though he did help me once out of a fix.’ Fruen looked at him then, and said: ‘Helped you?’ ‘Yes,’ said the Captain; ‘backed a bill for me once.’ And Fruen asked: ‘I didn’t know that.’ Then the Captain: ‘Didn’t he tell you that?’ Fruen shook her head. ‘Well, what then?’ he said again. ‘Would it have made any difference if he had?’ ‘Yes,’ said Fruen at first, and then, ‘No.’ ‘Are you fond of him?’ he asked. And she turned on him at once. ‘Are you fond of Elisabet?’ ‘Yes,’ answered the Captain; but he sat smiling after that. ‘Well and good,’ said Fruen sharply. Then there was a long silence. The Captain was the first to speak, ‘You were right when you said that about thinking over things. I’ve been doing so. I’m not a vicious man, really; queerly enough, I’ve never really cared about drinking and playing the fool. And yet I suppose I did, in a way. But there’s an end of it now.’ ‘So much the better for you,’ she answered sullenly. ‘Quite so,’ says he again. ‘Though it would have been better if you’d been a bit glad to hear it.’ ‘You can get Elisabet to do that,’ says she. ‘Elisabet,’ says he — just that one word — and shakes his head. Then they said nothing for quite a while. ‘What are you going to do now?’ asks the Captain. ‘Oh, don’t trouble yourself about me,’ said Fruen very slowly. ‘I can be a nurse, if you like, or cut my hair short and be a school teacher, if you like.’ ‘If I like,’ says he; ‘no, decide for yourself.’ ‘I want to know what you are going to do first,’ she says, ‘I’m going to stay here where I am,’ he answered, ‘but you’ve turned yourself out of doors.’ And Fruen nodded and said: ‘Very well.’”

“Oh,” from all in the kitchen. “Oh but, Herregud! it will come right again surely,” said Nils, looking round at the rest of us to see what we thought.

For a couple of days after the Captain had gone, Fruen sat playing the piano all the time. On the third day Nils drove her to the station; she was going to stay with her mother at Kristianssand. That left us more alone than ever. Fruen had not taken any of her things with her; perhaps she felt they were not really hers; perhaps they had all come from him originally, and she did not care to have them now. Oh, but it was all a misery.

Ragnhild was not to go away, her mistress had said. But it was cook that was left in charge of everything, and kept the keys, which was best for all concerned.

On Saturday the Captain came back home on leave. Nils said he never used to do that before. Fine and upright in his bearing he was, for all that his wife was gone away, and he was sober as could be. He gave me orders, very short and clear, about the timber; came out with me and showed me here and there. “Battens, down to smallest battens, a thousand dozen. I shall be away three weeks this time,” he said. On the Sunday afternoon he went off again. He was more determined in his manner now — more like himself.

We were through with the field-work at last, and the potato-planting was done; after that, Nils and the lad could manage the daily work by themselves, and I went up to my new work among the timber.

Good days these were for me, all through. Warm and rainy at first, making the woods all wet, but I went out all the same, and never stayed in on that account. Then a spell of hot weather set in, and in the light evenings, after I got home from work, it was a pleasure to go round mending and seeing to little things here and there — a gutter-pipe, a window, and the like. At last I got the escape ladder up and set to scraping the old paint from the north wall of the barn — it was flaking away there of itself. It would be a neat piece of work if I could get the barn done this summer after all, and the paint was there all ready.

But there was another thing that made me weary at times of the work and the whole place. It was not the same working there now as when the Captain and Fruen were home; I found here confirmation of the well-known truth that it is well for a man to have some one over him at his work, that is, if he is not himself in charge as leading man. Here were the maids now, going about the place with none to look after them. Ragnhild and the dairymaid were always laughing and joking noisily at meal-times and quarreling now and again between themselves; the cook’s authority was not always enough to keep the peace, and this often made things uncomfortable. Also, it seemed that some one must have been talking to Lars Falkenberg, my good old comrade that had been, and made him suspicious of me now.

Lars came in one evening and took me aside; he had come to say he forbade me to show myself on his place again. His manner was comically threatening.

Now, I had not been there more than a few times with washing — maybe half a dozen times in all; he had been out, but Emma and I had talked a bit of old things and new. The last time I was there Lars came home suddenly and made a scene the moment he got inside the door, because Emma was sitting on a stool in her petticoat. “It’s too hot for a skirt,” she said. “Ho, yes, and your hair all down your back — too hot to put it up, I suppose?” he retorted. Altogether he was in a rage with her. I said good-night to him as I left, but he did not answer.

I had not been there since. Then what made him come over like this all of a sudden? I set it down as more of Ragnhild’s mischievous work.

When he had told me in so many words he forbade me to enter his house, Lars nodded and looked at me; to his mind, I ought now to be as one dead.

“And I’ve heard Emma’s been down here,” he went on. “But she’ll come no more, I fancy, after this.”

“She may have been here once or twice for the washing.”

“Ho, yes, the washing, of course. And you coming up yourself Heaven knows how many times a week — more washing! Bring up a shirt one day and a pair of drawers the next, that’s what you do. But you can get Ragnhild to do your washing now.”

“Well and good.”

“Aha, my friend, I know you and your little ways. Going and visiting and making yourself sweet to folk when you find them all alone. But not for me, thank you!”

Nils comes up to us now, guessing, no doubt, what’s the trouble, and ready to put in a word for me, like the good comrade he is. He catches the last words, and gives me a testimonial on the spot, to the effect that he’s never seen anything wrong about me all the time I’ve been on the place.

But Lars Falkenberg bridles up at once and puts on airs, looking Nils up and down with contempt. He has a grudge against Nils already. For though Lars had managed well enough since he got his own little place up in the wood, he had never equalled Nils’ work here on the Captain’s land. And Lars Falkenberg feels himself aggrieved.

“What have you got to come cackling about?” he asks.

“I’m saying what is the truth, that’s all,” answers Nils.

“Ho, are you, you goat? If you want me to wipe the floor with you, I’ll do it on the spot!”

Nils and I walked away, but Lars still shouted after us. And there was Ragnhild, of course, sniffing at the lilacs as we passed.

That evening I began to think about moving on again as soon as I had finished my work in the timber. When the three weeks were up, the Captain came back as he had said. He noticed I had scraped the northern wall of the barn, and was pleased with me for that. “End of it’ll be you’ll have to paint that again, too,” he said. I told him how far I had got with the timber; there was not much left now. “Well, keep at it and do some more,” was all he said. Then he went back to his duty again for another three weeks.

But I did not care to stay another three weeks at Øvrebø as things were now. I marked down a few score dozen battens, and reckoned it all out on my paper — that would have to do. But it was still too early for a man to live in the forests and hills; the flowers were come, but there were no berries yet. Song and twitter of birds at their mating, flies and midges and moths, but no cloudberries, no angelica.

In town.

I came in to Engineer Lassen, Inspector of rafting sections, and he took me on as he had promised, though it was late in the season now. To begin with, I am to make a tour of the water and see where the logs have gathered thickest, noting down the places on a chart. He is quite a good fellow, the engineer, only still very young. He gives me over-careful instructions about things he fancies I don’t know already. It makes him seem a trifle precocious.

And so this man has helped Captain Falkenberg out of a mess? The Captain was sorry for it now, no doubt, anxious to free himself from the debt — that was why he was cutting down his timber to the last lot of battens, I thought. And I wished him free of it myself. I was sorry now I had not stayed on marking down a few more days, that he might have enough and to spare. What if it should prove too little, after all?

Engineer Lassen was a wealthy man, apparently. He lived at an hotel, and had two rooms there. I never got farther than the office myself, but even there he had a lot of costly things, books and papers, silver things for the writing-table, gilt instruments and things; a light overcoat, silk-lined, hung on the wall. Evidently a rich man, and a person of importance in the place. The local photographer had a large-sized photograph of him in the show-case outside. I saw him, too, out walking in the afternoons with the young ladies of the town. Being in charge of all the timber traffic, he generally walked down to the long bridge — it was four hundred and sixty feet — across the foss, halted there, and stood looking up and down the river. Just by the bridge piers, and on the flat rocks below them, was where the logs were most inclined to jam, and he kept a gang of lumbermen regularly at hand for this work alone. Standing on the bridge there, watching the men at work among the logs, he looked like an admiral on board a ship, young and strong, with power to command. The ladies with him stopped willingly, and stood there on the bridge, though the rush of water was often enough to make one giddy. And the roar of it was such that they had to put their heads together when they spoke.

But just in this position, at his post on the bridge, standing there and turning this way and that, there was something smallish and unhandsome about his figure; his sports jacket, fitting tightly at the waist, seemed to pinch, and showed up over-heavy contours behind.

The very first evening, after he’d given me my orders to start off up the river next day, I met him out walking with two ladies. At sight of me he stopped, and kept his companions waiting there, too, while he gave me the same instructions all over again. “Just as well I happened to meet you,” he said. “You’ll start off early, then, tomorrow morning, take a hooking pole with you, and clear all the logs you can manage. If you come across a big jam, mark it down on the chart — you’ve got a copy of the chart, haven’t you? And keep on up river till you meet another man coming down. But remember to mark in red, not blue. And let me see how well you can manage. — A man I’ve got to work under me,” he explained to the ladies. “I really can’t be bothered running up and down all the time.”

So serious he was about it all; he even took out a notebook and wrote something down. He was very young, and could not help showing off a little with two fair ladies to look on.

Next morning I got away early. It was light at four, and by that time I was a good way up the river. I carried food with me, and my hooking pole — which is like a boat-hook really.

No young, growing timber here, as on Captain Falkenberg’s land; the ground was stony and barren, covered with heather and pine needles for miles round. They had felled too freely here; the sawmills had taken over much, leaving next to no young wood. It was a melancholy country to be in.

By noon I had cleared a few small jams, and marked down a big one. Then I had my meal, with a drink of water from the river. A bit of a rest, and I went on again, on till the evening. Then I came upon a big jam, where a man was already at work among the logs. This was the man I had been told to look out for. I did not go straight up to him at first, but stopped to look at him. He worked very cautiously, as if in terror of his life; he was even afraid of getting his feet wet. It amused me to watch him for a little. The least chance of being carried out into the stream on a loosened log was enough to make him shift at once. At last I went up close and looked at him — why . . . yes, it was my old friend, Grindhusen.

Grindhusen, that I had worked with as a young man at Skreia — my partner in the digging of a certain well six years before.

And now to meet him here.

We gave each other greeting, and sat down on the logs to talk, asking and answering questions for an hour or more. Then it was too late to get any more done that day. We got up and went back a little way up the river, where Grindhusen had a bit of a log hut. We crept in, lit a fire, made some coffee, and had a meal. Then, going outside again, we lit our pipes and lay down in the heather.

Grindhusen had aged, and was in no better case than I myself; he did not care to think of the gay times in our youth, when we had danced the whole night through. He it was that had once been as a red-haired wolf among the girls, but now he was thoroughly cowed by age and toil, and had not even a smile. If I had only had a drop of spirits with me it might have livened him up a little, but I had none.

In the old days he had been a stiff-necked fellow, obstinate as could be; now he was easy-going and stupid. “Ay, maybe so,” was his answer to everything. “Ay, you’re right,” he would say. Not that he meant it; only that life had taught him to seek the easiest way. So life does with all of us, as the years go by — but it was an ill thing to see, meeting him so.

Ay, he got along somehow, he said, but he was not the man he used to be. He’d been troubled with gout of late, and pains in the chest as well. His pains in the chest were cardialgic. But it was none so bad as long as he’d the work here for Engineer Lassen. He knew the river right up, and worked here all spring and early summer in his hut. And as for clothes, he’d nothing to wear out save breeches and blouse all the year round. Had a bit of luck, though, last year, he said suddenly. Found a sheep with nobody to own it. Sheep in the forest? Up that way, he said, pointing. He’d had meat on Sundays half through the winter off that sheep. Then he’d his folks in America as good as any one else: children married there and well-to-do. They sent him a little to help the first year or so, but now they’d stopped; it was close on two years now since he’d heard from them at all. Eyah! well, that’s how things were now with him and his wife. And getting old. . . .

Grindhusen lapsed into thought.

A dull, rushing sound from the forest and the river, like millions of nothings flowing and flowing on. No birds here, no creatures hopping about, but if I turn up a stone, I may find some insect under it.

“Wonder what these tiny things live on?” I say.

“What tiny things?” says Grindhusen. “Those? That’s only ants and things.”

“It’s a sort of beetle,” I tell him. “Put one on the grass and roll a stone on top of it, and it’ll live.”

Grindhusen answers: “Ay, maybe so,” but thinking never a word of what I’ve said, and I think the rest to myself; but put an ant there under the stone as well, and very soon there’ll be no beetle left.

And the rush of the forest and river goes on: ’tis one eternity that speaks with another, and agrees. But in the storms and in thunder they are at war.

“Ay, so it is,” says Grindhusen at last. “Two years come next fourteenth of August since the last letter came. There was a smart photograph in, from Olea, it was, that lives in Dakota, as they call it. A mighty fine photograph it was, but I never got it sold. Eyah, but we’ll manage somehow, please the Lord,” says Grindhusen, with a yawn. “What was I going to say now? . . . What is he paying for the work?”

“I don’t know.”

But Grindhusen looks at me suspiciously, thinking it is only that I will not say.

“Ay, well, ’tis all the same to me,” he says. “I was only asking.”

To please him, I try to guess a wage. “I dare say he’ll give me a couple of Kroner a day, or perhaps three, d’you think?”

“Ay, dare say you may,” he answers enviously. “Two Kroner’s all I get, and I’m an old hand at the work.”

Then fancying, perhaps, I may go telling of his grumbling, he starts off in praise of Engineer Lassen, saying what a splendid fellow he is in every way. “He’ll do what’s fair by me, that I know. Trust him for that! Why, he’s been as good as a father to me, and that’s the truth!”

It sounds quaint, indeed, to hear Grindhusen, half his teeth gone with age, talking of the young engineer as a father. I felt pretty sure I could find out a good deal about my new employer from this quarter, but I did not ask.

“He didn’t say anything about me coming down into town?” asked Grindhusen.

“No.”

“He sends up for me now and again, and when I get there, it’s not for anything particular — only wants to have a bit of a chat with me, that’s all. Ay, a fine fellow is the engineer!”

It is getting late. Grindhusen yawns again, creeps into the hut and lies down.

Next morning we cleared the jam. “Come up with me my way a bit,” says Grindhusen. And I went. After an hour’s walking, we sighted the fields and buildings of a hill farm up among the trees. And suddenly I recollect the sheep Grindhusen had found.

“Was it up this way you found that sheep?” I ask.

Grindhusen looks at me.

“Here? No, that was ever so far away — right over toward Trovatn.”

“But Trovatn’s only in the next parish, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s what I say. It’s ever so far away from here.”

But now Grindhusen does not care to have my company farther; he stops, and thanks me for coming up so far. I might just as well go up to the farm with him, and I say so; but Grindhusen, it seems, is not going up to the farm at all — he never did. And I’d just have an easy day back into town, starting now.

So I turned and went back the way I had come.

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