A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter VI

It was no sort of work this for a man; I was not satisfied. Nothing but walk, walk up and down the river, clearing a few logs here and there, and then on again. And after each trip, back to my lodging-house in the town. All this time I had but one man to talk to — the boots or porter at the hotel where the engineer was staying. He was a burly fellow, with huge fists, and eyes like a child’s. He had fallen down and hurt his head as a youngster, he said, and never got on in life beyond hauling things and carrying heavy loads. I had a talk with him now and again, but found no one else to talk to in the town.

That little town!

When the river is high, a mighty roar of sound goes rushing through the place, dividing it in two. Folk live in their little wooden houses north or south of the roar, and manage, no doubt, to make ends meet from day to day. Of all the many children crossing the bridge and running errands to the shops, there are none that go naked, probably few that suffer want, and all are decent looking enough. And here are big, tall, half-grown girls, the quaintest of all, with their awkward movements, and their laughter, and their earnest occupation with their own little affairs. Now and again they stop on the bridge to watch the lumbermen at work among the logs below, and join in the song of the men as they haul — “Hoi-aho!“— and then they giggle and nudge one another and go on.

But there are no birds here.

Strange, that there should be no birds! On quiet evenings, at sunset-time, the great enclosed pool lies there with its deep waters unmoved; moths and midges hover above it, the trees on the banks are reflected there, but there are no birds in the trees. Perhaps it is because of the roar of the water, that drowns all other sound; birds cannot thrive there, where none can hear another’s song. And so it comes about that the only winged creatures here are flies and moths. But God alone knows why even the crows and common birds shun us and our town.

Every small town has its daily event that every one turns out for — and, as for that, the big towns too, with their promenades. Out Vestland way it is the postpacket. Living in Vestland, it’s hard to keep away from the quay when the little vessel comes in. Here, in this inland town, with a dozen miles or more to the sea, and nothing but rocks and hills all about, here we have the river. Has the water risen or fallen in the night? Will they be clearing logs from the booms today? Oh, we are all so interested! True, we have a little railway as well, but that doesn’t count for much. The line ends here; it runs as far as it can go, and then stops, like a cork in a bottle. And there’s something cosy and pleasant about the tiny carriages on the trains; but folk seem ashamed of them, they are so ridiculously old and worse for wear, and there’s not even room to sit upright with a hat on!

Not but what we’ve other things besides — a market, and a church, and schools, and post office, and all. And then there’s the sawmills and works by the riverside. But as for grocery shops and stores, there’s more than you’d believe.

We’ve so many things altogether. I am a stranger here myself — as indeed I am everywhere — yet I could reckon up a host of things we have besides the river. Was the town a big place once upon a time? No, it has been a little town for two hundred and fifty years. But there was once a great man over all the smaller folk — one who rode lordly fashion with a servant behind him — a great landowner. Now we are all equal; saving, perhaps, with Engineer Lassen, this something-and-twenty-year-old Inspector of rafting sections, who can afford two rooms at his hotel.

I have nothing to do, and find myself pondering over the following matter:

Here is a big house, somewhere about a couple of hundred years old, the house of the wealthy Ole Olsen Ture. It is of enormous size, a house of two stories, the length of a whole block; it is used as a depot now. In the days when that house was built there was no lack of giant timber hereabouts; three beams together make the height of a man, and the wood is hard as iron; nothing can bite on it. And inside the building are halls and cells as in a castle. Here Ture the Great ruled like a prince in his day.

But times changed. Houses were made not only big, not only to live in for shelter from cold and rain, but also to look on with pleasure to the eye. On the opposite side of the river stands an old archaic building with carefully balanced verandah in the Empire style, pillars, fronton, and all. It is not faultless, but handsome all the same; it stands out like a white temple on the green hillside. One other house I have seen and stopped to look at; one near the market-place. Its double street door has old handles and carved rococo mirrors, but the frames cannelated in the style of Louis XVI. The cartouche above the doorway bears the date 1795 in Arabic numerals — that was our transition period here! So there were folk here at that time who kept in touch with the times, without the aid of steam and telegraph.

But later on, again, houses were built to keep off rain and snow and nothing else. They were neither big nor beautiful to look at. The idea was to put up some sort of a dwelling, Swiss fashion — a place to keep a wife and children in, and that was all. And we learned from a miserable little people up in the Alps, a people that throughout its history has never been or done anything worth speaking of — we learned to pay no heed to what a homestead really looked like, as long as it met with the approval of loafing tourist. Is there something of the calm and beauty of a temple about that white building on the hillside? And pray, what’s the use of it if there is? And the great big house that dates from the time of Ole Olsen Ture, why hasn’t it been pulled down long ago? There would be room for a score of cheap dwellings on the site.

Things have gone downhill, gone to the depths. And now the little cobbler-soul can rejoice — not because we’re all grown equally great, but because we’re all equally small. ’Tis our affair!

The long bridge is pleasant to walk on because it is paved with planks, and even as a floor; all the young ladies can walk gracefully here. And the bridge is light and open at the sides, making an excellent lookout place for us inquisitive folk.

Down on the raft of tangled logs the men are shouting, as they strain to free the timber that has caught and stuck fast among the rocks and boulders in the river-bed. Stick after stick comes floating down and joins the mass already gathered; the jam grows and grows; at times there may be a couple of hundred dozen balks hung up at one spot. But if all goes well, the gang can clear the jam in time. And if fate will have it ill, some unlucky lumberman may be carried down as well, down the rapids to his death.

There are ten men with boat-hooks on the jam, all more or less wet from falling in. The foreman points out the log next to be freed, but we, watching from the bridge, can see now and again that all the gang are not agreed. There is no hearing what is said, but we can see some of them are inclined to get another log out first; one of the old hands protests. Knowing his speech as I do, I fancy I can hear him say stubbornly and calmly: “I doubt we’d better see and get that one clear first.” Ten pairs of eyes are turned towards the stick he has chosen, tracing the lie of it in among its tangled fellows; if the men agree, ten boat-hooks are thrust into it. Then for a moment the poles stand out from the log like the strings of a harp; a mighty “Ho!“ from the gang, a short, tense haul, and it moves a trifle forward. A fresh grip, another shout, and forward again. It is like watching half a score of ants about a twig. And at last the freed log slides out and away down the foss.

But there are logs that are almost immovable, and often it is just one of the worst that has to be cleared before anything else can be done. Then the men spread out and surround it, fixing their hooks wherever they can get a sight of it in the tangle, some hauling, others thrusting outward; if it is dry, they splash water over it to make it slippery. And here the poles are nowise regularly set like harp-strings, but lie crosswise at all angles like a cobweb.

Sometimes the shouting of the gang can be heard all day long from the river, silenced only for meals; ay, it may happen that it goes on for days together. Then suddenly a new sound falls on the ear: the stroke of the ax; some devil of a log has fixed itself so cunningly there is no hauling it free, and it has to be cut through. It does not take many strokes to do it, for the pressure on it already is enormous; soon it breaks, the great confused mass yields, and begins to move. All the men are on their guard now, holding back to see what is coming next; if the part they are standing on shows signs of breaking loose, they must leap with catlike swiftness to a safer spot. Their calling is one of daily and hourly peril; they carry their lives in their hands.

But the little town is a living death.

It is pitiful to see such a dead place, trying to pretend it is alive. It is the same with Bruges, the great city of the past, and with many cities in Holland, in South Germany, the north of France, the Orient. Standing in the marketplace of such a town one cannot but think: “Once, once upon a time this was a living place; there are still human beings walking in the streets!”

Strange, this town of ours is hidden away, shut in by the hills — and yet for all that it has no doubt its local feminine beauty and its local masculine ambition just as all other towns. Only it is such a queer, outlandish life that is lived here, with little crooked fingers, with eyes as of a mouse, and ears filled day and night with the eternal rushing of the waters. A beetle on its way in the heather, a stub of yellow grass sticks up here and there — huge trees they seem to the beetle’s eye! Two local merchants walk across the bridge. Going to the post, no doubt. They have this very day decided to go halves in a whole sheet of stamps, buying them all at once for the sake of the rebate on a quantity!

Oh, those local tradesmen!

Each day they hang out their stocks of ready-made clothes, and dress their windows with their stuffs and goods, but rarely do I see a customer go in. I thought to myself at first: But there must surely be some one now and then — a peasant from somewhere up the valley, coming into town. And I was right; I saw that peasant today, and it was strange and pleasant to see him.

He was dressed like the pictures in our folk-tales — a little short jacket with silver buttons, and grey breeches with a black leather seat. He was driving a tiny little haycart with a tiny little horse, and up in the cart was a little red-flanked cow — on its way to the butcher’s, I suppose. All three — man, horse, and cow — were undersized; palaeolithic figures; dwarf creatures from the underworld on a visit to the haunts of men. I almost looked to see them vanish before my eyes. All of a sudden the cow in its Lilliputian cart utters a throaty roar — and even that unromantic sound was like a voice from another world.

A couple of hours later I come upon the man again, minus horse and cow: he is wandering round among the shops on his errands. I follow him to the saddler’s — saddler and harness-maker Vogt is also a glazier, and deals in leather as well. This merchant of many parts offers to serve me first, but I explain that I must look at a saddle, and some glass, and a trifle of leather first, I am in no hurry. So he turns to the elfin countryman.

The two are old acquaintances.

“So here’s you come to town?”

“Ay, that’s the way of it.”

And so on through the whole rigmarole; wind and weather, and the state of the roads; wife and children getting on as usual; season and crops; river’s fallen so much the last week; butchers’ prices; hard times nowadays, etc. Then they begin trying the leather, pinching and feeling and bending it about and talking it over. And when at last a strip is cut off and weighed, the mannikin finds it a marvel, sure, that ever it could weigh so much! Reckon it at a round figure, those little bits of weights aren’t worth counting! And the two of them argue and split over this for a good solid while, as is right and proper. When at last it comes to paying for the goods, a fantastic leather purse is brought to light, a thing out of a fairy tale. Slowly and cautiously the heavy fist draws forth the coins, one skilling after another; both parties count the money over again and again, then the mannikin closes his purse with an anxious movement; that is all he has!

“Why, you’ve coin and paper too; I saw a note in there.”

“Nay, I’ll not break the note.”

More reckoning and arguing — a long business this; each gives way a little, they split the difference — and the deal is over.

“And a terrible heap to pay for a bit of leather,” says the purchaser. And the dealer answers:

“Nay, you’ve got it at a bargain. But don’t forget me next time you’re in town.”

Towards evening I meet the mannikin once more, driving home again after his venture into the world. The cow has been left behind at the butcher’s. There are parcels and sacks in the cart, but the little man himself jogs along behind, the leather seat of his breeches stretching to a triangle at every step. And whether for thoughtlessness, or an overweight of thought after all these doings and dealings, he wears a rolled-up strip of sole leather like a ring about one arm.

So money has flowed into the town once more; a peasant has come in and sold his cow, and spent the price of it again in goods. The event is noticed everywhere at once: the town’s three lawyers notice it, the three little local papers notice it; money is circulating more freely of late. Unproductive — but it helps the town to live.

Every week the little local papers advertise town properties for sale; every week a list is issued by the authorities of houses to be sold in liquidation of the unpaid tax. What then? Ah, but mark how many properties come on the market that way! The barren, rocky valley with its great river cannot feed this moribund town; a cow now and again is not enough. And so it is that the properties are given up, the Swiss-pattern houses, the dwellings and shelters. Out Vestland way, if ever a house in one of the little towns should chance to come up for sale, it is a great event; the inhabitants flock together on the quay to talk it over. Here, in our little town beyond all hope, it occasions no remark when another wearied hand leaves hold of what it had. My turn now —’twill be another’s before long. And none finds it worth while sorrowing much for that.

Engineer Lassen came to my lodging and said:

“Put on your cap and come with me to the station to fetch a trunk.”

“No,” said I. “I’m not going to do that.”

“Not going to. . . . ”

“No. There’s a porter at the hotel for that sort of thing. Let him earn the money.”

It was quite enough. The engineer was very young; he looked at me and said nothing. But, being obstinate by nature, he would not give up at once; he changed his tone.

“I’d rather have you,” he said. “I’ve a reason for it, and I wish you would.”

“That’s a different matter. Then I will.”

I put on my cap, and I am ready; he walks on ahead, and I follow behind. Ten minutes waiting at the station, and the train comes in. It consists of three toy carriages, and a few passengers tumble out. In the rear carriage is a lady trying to alight; the engineer hurries to assist her.

I paid no great heed to what was happening. The lady was veiled and wore gloves; a light coat she handed to her escort. She seemed embarrassed at first, and said only a few words in a low voice, but he was quite the reverse, talking loudly and freely all the time. And, when he begged her to take off her veil, she grew bolder, and did as he said.

“Do you know me now?” she said. And suddenly I pricked up my ears; it was Fru Falkenberg’s voice. I turned round and looked her in the face.

It is no easy matter to be old and done with and behave as such. The moment I realized who it was standing there I could think of nothing but my age-worn self, and how to stand and bow with ease and respect. Now, I had among my possessions a blouse, and breeches of brown corduroy such as labourers wear in the south; an excellent, well-looking suit, and new. But, alas! I had not put it on today. And the lack of it at that moment irked me. I was down-hearted at the thought. And, while the two stood there talking, I fell to wondering why the engineer had wanted me so particularly to come with him to the station. Could it be for the matter of a few skilling to the porter? Or was it to show off with a servant at his heels? Or had he thought that Fruen would be pleased to have some one she knew in attendance? If the last, then he was greatly mistaken; Fruen started in evident displeasure at finding me here, where she had thought, perhaps, to be safely concealed. I heard the engineer say: “I’ve got a man here, he’ll take your luggage down. Have you the ticket?” But I made no sign of greeting. I turned away.

And afterwards I triumphed over him in my miserable soul, thinking how annoyed she would be with him for his want of tact. He brought up with him a man who had been in her employ when she had a home; but that man had some delicacy of feeling, he turned away, pretending not to know her! Lord knows what the woman found to run after in this tight-waisted youth with the heavy contours behind.

There are fewer people on the platform now; the little toy waggons are rolled away and shunted about to build another train; at last we are left with the whole place to ourselves. Fruen and the engineer stand talking. What has she come for? Heaven knows! Young Lovelace, perhaps, has had a spasm of longing and wants her again. Or is she come of her own accord to tell him what has happened, and ask his advice? Like as not the end of it will be they fix things up and get married some day. Mr. Hugo Lassen is, of course, a chivalrous gentleman, and she his one and only love. And then comes the time when she should walk on roses and live happily ever after!

“No, really, it would never do!” he exclaims, with a laugh. “If you won’t be my aunt, then you’ll have to be my cousin.”

“S-sh!” whispers Fruen. “Can’t you get rid of that man there?”

Whereupon the engineer comes up to me with the luggage receipt in his hand, and in his lordliest manner, as an Inspector of Waterways addressing a gang of lumbermen, he says:

“Bring this along to the hotel.”

“Very good,” I answered, touching my cap.

I carried down the trunk, thinking as I went. He had actually invited her to pass as his aunt! Visibly older she might be than he; still, here again he had shown himself wanting in tact. I would not have said such a thing myself. I would have declared to all and sundry: “Behold, here is come a bright angel to visit King Hugo; see how young and beautiful she is; mark the slow, heavy turn of her grey eyes; ay, a weighty glance! But there is a shimmer of sea-fire in her hair — I love her! Mark her, too, when she speaks, a mouth good and fine, and with ever and again a little helpless look and smile. I am King Hugo this day, and she is my love!”

The trunk was no heavier than many another burden, but there were bronzed iron bands round, and one of them tore a hole in my blouse at the back. So I thanked my stars I had not worn my better one.

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