A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter VII

Some days passed. I was growing tired of my empty occupation, which consisted in doing nothing but loaf about the place. I went to the foreman of the gang and asked him to take me on as a lumberman, but he refused.

These gentlemen of the proletariat think a good deal of themselves; they look down on farm-workers, and will have nothing to do with them. They are ever on the move, going from one waterway to another, drawing their wages in cash, and spending a fair part of the same in drink. Then, too, they are more popular among the girls. It is the same with men working on the roads or railways, with all factory-hands; even the mechanic is looked down upon, and as for the farm-hand, he is a very slave!

Now, I knew I could be pretty sure of a place in the gang any day if I cared to ask the engineer. But, in the first place, I had no wish to be further indebted to him, and in the second, I might be sure that if I did, my friends the lumbermen would make my life a misery until I had gone through all the trouble of making myself respected for my deserts. And that might take longer than I cared about.

And then one day the engineer came to me with instructions that I was to observe with care. He spoke politely and sensibly this time:

“We’ve had no rain for a long time now; the river’s getting steadily lower, and the logs are piling up on the way down. I want you to tell the man above and the one below to be extra careful about their work just now, and you yourself, of course, will do the same.”

“We’re sure to get rain before long,” I said, for the sake of saying something.

“That may be,” he answered, with the intense earnestness of youth, “but I must act all the same as if there were never to be rain again. Now remember every word I’ve said. I can’t be everywhere at once myself, more especially now that I’ve a visitor.”

I answered him with a face as serious as his own that I would do my very best.

So I was still bound to my idling occupation after all, and wandered up and down the river as before with my boat-hook and my rations. For my own satisfaction I cleared away bigger and bigger jams unaided, sang to myself as if I were a whole gang, and worked hard enough for many men; also I carried the new instructions to Grindhusen, and frightened him properly.

But then came the rain.

And now the sticks went dancing down through channel and rapids, like huge, pale serpents hurrying, hurrying on, now head, now tail in air.

Easy days these for my engineer!

For myself, I was ill at ease in the town and in my lodging there. I had a little room to myself, but one could hear every sound in the place, and there was little rest or comfort. Moreover, I found myself outdone in everything by the young lumbermen who lodged there.

I patroled the river-bank regularly those days, though there was little or nothing for me to do there. I would steal away and sit in hiding under an over-hanging rock, hugging the thought of how I was old, and forsaken by all; in the evenings I wrote many letters to people I knew, just to have some one to talk to; but I did not send the letters.

Joyless days were these. My chief pleasure was to go about noticing every little trifle in the town, wherever it might be, and thinking a little upon each.

But was my engineer so free from care? I began to doubt it.

Why was he no longer to be seen out early and late with this new cousin of his? He would even stop another young lady on the bridge and pass the time of day — a thing he had not done this fortnight gone. I had seen him with Fru Falkenberg once or twice; she looked so young and prettily dressed, and happy — a little reckless, laughing out loud. That’s what it’s like when a woman first steps aside, I thought to myself; but to-morrow or the day after it may be different! And when I saw her again later on I was annoyed with her; there was something overbold about her dress and manner, the old charm and sweetness were gone. Where was the tenderness now in her eyes? Nothing but bravado! And furiously I told myself that her eyes shone like a pair of lamps at the door of a music hall.

By the look of things the couple had begun to weary of each other, since he had taken to going out alone, and she spend much of her time sitting looking out of the window in the hotel. And this, no doubt, was why stout Captain Bror made his appearance once again; his mission was perhaps to bring jollity and mirth to others besides himself. And this jovial lump of deformity certainly did his best; his guffaws of laughter rang through the little town one whole night long. Then his leave expired, and he had to go back to drill and duty — Fru Falkenberg and her Hugo were left to themselves once more.

One day, while I was in a shop, I heard that there had been some slight difference of opinion between Engineer Lassen and his cousin. A commercial traveller was telling the shopkeeper all about it. But so great was the general respect for the wealthy engineer throughout the town that the shopman would hardly believe the story, and questioned the scandal-monger doubtingly.

“It must have been in fun, I’m sure. Did you hear it yourself? When was it?”

The traveller himself did not dare to make more of it.

“My room’s next to his,” he said, “so I couldn’t help hearing it last night. They were arguing; I don’t say it was a quarrel — lord, no! as delicate as could be. She only said he was different now from what he had been; that he’d changed somehow. And he said it wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t do as he liked here in town. Then she asked him to get rid of somebody she didn’t like — one of his men, a lumberman, I suppose. And he promised he would.”

“Well, there you are — just nothing at all,” said the shopkeeper.

But the traveller had heard more, I fancy, than he cared to say. I could tell as much by his looks.

And had I not noticed myself how the engineer had changed? He had talked out loud so cheerfully at the station that first day; now he could be obstinately silent when he did go so far as to take Fruen for a walk down to the bridge. I could see well enough how they stood looking each their separate ways. Lord God in heaven, but love is a fleeting thing!

All went well enough at first. She said, no doubt, that it was quite a nice little place, with a great big river and the rapids, and so strange to hear the roar of the waters all the time; and here was a real little town with streets and people in —“And then you here, too!” And he of course, would answer: “Yes, and you!” Oh, they were everything to each other at first! But then they grew weary of good things; they took too much — took love in handfuls, such was their foolishness. And more and more clearly he realized that things were getting awry; the town was such a little place, and this cousin of his a stranger — he could not keep on being her attendant squire for ever. No, they must ease off a little gradually; now and then, perhaps — only occasionally, of course — it would be as well to have their meals at different times. If not, some of those commercial travellers would be getting ideas into their heads about the loving cousins. Remember, in a little place like this — and she . . . how could she understand it? A little place — yes, but surely it was no smaller now than it had been at first? No, no, my friend, it is you that have changed!

There had been plenty of rain, and the timber was coming down beautifully. Nevertheless, the engineer took to going off on little trips up or down the river. It seemed as if he were glad to get away; he looked worried and miserable altogether now.

One day he asked me to go up and tell Grindhusen to come in to town. Was it Grindhusen, I wondered, that was to be dismissed? But Fruen had never so much as set eyes on Grindhusen since she came; what could he have done to offend her?

I fetched Grindhusen in accordingly. He went up to the hotel at once to report, and the engineer put on his things and went out with him. They set out up the river and disappeared.

Later in the day Grindhusen came to my lodging, and was ready enough to tell, but I asked him nothing. In the evening the lumberman gave him Brændevin, and the spirit loosened his tongue. What about this cousin, or something, engineer has got with him? How much longer was she going to stay? As to this, nobody could say; and, anyhow, why shouldn’t she stay? “’Tis naught but fooling and trouble with such-like cousin business,” Grindhusen declared. “Why couldn’t he bring along the girl he’s going to marry? — and I told him so to his face.”

“You told him?” asked one of the men.

“Ay, I did that. You may not know it, but engineer and I we sit there talking as it might be me and you,” said Grindhusen, looking mighty big and proud. “What do you suppose he sent to fetch me for? You’d never guess if you sat there all night. Why, he sent for me just to have a talk over things. Not that there’s anything new or strange about that; he’s done the same before now; but, anyhow, that’s what it was.”

“What’d he want to talk to you about?” asked one.

Grindhusen swelled, and was not to be drawn at once. “Eh, I’m not such a fool, but I know how to talk with a man. And it’s not my way to be contrary neither. ‘You know a thing or two, Grindhusen,’ says the Inspector, ‘and there’s two Kroner for you,’ says he. Ay, that’s what he said. And if you don’t believe me, why, here’s the money, and you can see. There!”

“But what was it all about?” asked several voices at once.

“He’d better not say, if you ask me,” I said.

It struck me that the engineer must have been miserable and desperate when he sent me to fetch Grindhusen. He was so little used to trouble that the moment anything went wrong he felt the need of some one to confide in. And now when he was going about day after day, thoroughly disheartened and full of pity for himself, as if he wanted to know how miserable he was at being checked in his play. This sportsman, with his figure moulded in the wrong place, was a travesty of youth, a Spartan in tears. What sort of upbringing could his have been?

Ah, well, if he had been an old man I had found reason and excuse for him enough; if the truth were known, it was perhaps but hatred of his youth that moved me now. Who can say? But I know I looked upon him as a travesty, a caricature.

Grindhusen stared at me when I had spoken my few words; the others, too, looked wonderingly.

“I’ll not say, but it might be better not,” said Grindhusen submissively.

But the men were not to be put off.

“And why shouldn’t he tell? We’re not going to let it go farther.”

“No, that we shan’t,” said another. “But you might be one of that sort yourself and go telling tales to the Inspector.”

Grindhusen took courage at this, and said:

“I’ll say what I like, so don’t you trouble yourself! Tell just as much as I please. For I’m saying no more than’s true. And in case you’d care to know, I can tell you the Inspector’s got a word to say to you very soon. Ay, that he has, or hearing goes for nothing. So you’ve no call to be anyway stuck up yourself. And as for me telling or not telling things, I’m saying never a thing but what’s the truth. Just remember that. And if you knew as much as I do, she’s nothing but a plague and a burden to him all the time, and won’t let him out of her sight. D’you call that cousins, going on like that?”

“Nay, surely; nay, surely!” said the men encouragingly.

“What d’you think he sent for me about? Ay, there’s the pretty fellow he sent up with the message! But there’ll be a message for him one of these days: I gathered as much from the Inspector himself. I’ll say no more than that. And as for me telling things, here’s Inspector’s been like a father to me, and I’d be a stock and a stone to say otherwise. ‘I’m all upset and worried these days, Grindhusen,’ says he to me. ‘And what’s a man to do; can you tell me that now?’ ‘No,’ says I, ‘but Inspector knows himself,’ says I. Those very words I said. ‘I wish to Heaven I did,’ says he again. ‘But it’s all these wretched women,’ says he. ‘If it’s women,’ says I, ‘why, there’s no doing anything with them,’ says I. ‘No, indeed, you’re right there!’ says he. ‘The only way’s to give them what they were made for, and a good round slap on the backside into the bargain,’ says I. ‘By Heaven, I believe you’re right there, Grindhusen,’ says the Inspector, and he brightened up no end. I’ve never seen a man so brightened up and cheerful just for a word or so. It was a sight to see. And you can take and drown me if it isn’t gospel truth every single bit I’ve said. I sat there just as I’m sitting now, and Inspector as it might be there. . . . ”

And Grindhusen rambled on.

Next morning early, before it was fairly light, Engineer Lassen stopped me on the street. It was only half-past three. I was all fitted out for a tramp up the river, with my boat-hook and a store of food. Grindhusen was having a drinking-bout in town, and I was going to do his beat as well as my own. That would take me right up to the top of the hills, and I had packed a double stock of food accordingly.

The engineer was evidently coming down from a party somewhere; he was laughing and talking loudly with a couple of other men, all of them more or less drunk.

“Go on ahead a bit,” he said to the others. And then, turning to me, he asked: “Where are you off to?”

I told him what I had in mind.

“H’m! I don’t know about that,” said he. “No, I think you’d better not. Grindhusen can manage all right by himself. And, besides, I’m going to inspect myself. You’ve no business to go off doing things like that without asking me first.”

Well, he was right of course, so far as that went, and I begged his pardon. And, indeed, knowing as I did how he was set on playing the master and lording it over his men, I might have had more sense.

But begging his pardon only seemed to egg him on; he felt deeply injured, and grew quite excited over it.

“I’ll have no more of this!” he said. “My men are here to carry out my orders; that’s all they’ve got to do. I took you on to give you a chance, not because I’d any use for you myself. And I’ve no use for you now, anyhow.”

I stood there staring at him, and said never a word.

“You can come round to the office today and get your wages,” he went on. And then he turned to go.

So I was the one to be dismissed! Now I understood what Grindhusen had meant with his hints about me. Fru Falkenberg, no doubt, had come to hate the sight of me by now, reminding her, as it must, of her home, and so she had got him to turn me off. But hadn’t I been the very one to show delicacy of feeling towards her at the station, turning away instead of recognizing her? Had I ever so much as lifted my cap to her when I passed her in the street? Surely I had been considerate enough to deserve consideration in return?

And now — here was this young engineer turning me off at a moment’s notice, and that with unnecessary vehemence. I saw it all in my mind: he had been worrying himself for days over this dismissal, shirking it all the time, until at last he managed to screw his courage up by drinking hard all night. Was I doing him an injustice? It might be so; and I tried to combat the thought myself. Once more I called to mind that he was young and I was old, and my heart no doubt, full of envy on that account. So I gave him no sarcastic answer now, but simply said:

“Ay, well, then, I can unpack the things I was taking along.”

But the engineer was anxious to make the most of his chance now he was fairly started; he dragged in the old story about the time he’d wanted me to go and fetch a trunk.

“When I give an order, I don’t expect the man to turn round and say no, he won’t. I’m not used to that sort of thing. And as there’s no knowing it may not occur again, you’d better go.”

“Well and good,” said I.

I saw a figure in a white dress at a window in the hotel, and fancied it must be Fru Falkenberg watching us, so I said no more.

But then the engineer seemed suddenly to remember that he couldn’t get rid of me once and for all on the spot; he would have to see me again to settle up. So he changed his tone and said: “Well, anyhow, come up sometime to-day and get your money. Have you thought over how much it ought to be?”

“No. That’ll be for engineer himself to decide.”

“Well, well,” he said in a kindlier voice, “after all, you’ve been a good man to have, I will say that for you. But, for various reasons — and it’s not only for myself: you know what women — that is, I mean the ladies —”

Oh, but he was young indeed. He stopped at nothing.

“Well — good morning!” He nodded abruptly, and turned away.

But the day proved all too short for me; I went up into the woods, and stayed roaming about there all by myself so long that I didn’t get to the office to draw my money. Well, there was no hurry; I had plenty of time.

What was I to do now?

I had not cared much for the little town before, but now it began to interest me; I would gladly have stayed on a while. There were complications arising between two people whom I had been following attentively for some weeks past; something fresh might happen any moment now, there was no saying. I thought of going as apprentice to a blacksmith, just for the sake of staying in the place, but then, if I did, I should be tied to the smithy all day and hampered in my movements altogether; apart from which, the apprenticeship would take too many years of my life. And years were the thing I least of all could spare.

So I let the days pass, one after another; the weather changed round again to dry, sunny days. I stayed on at the lodging-house, mended my clothes, and got some new ones made at a shop. One of the maids in the house came up one evening and offered to do some mending for me, but I was more in the mood for fooling, and showed her how well I managed the work myself.

“Look at that patch, there, now — and that!” After a while a man came up the stairs and tried the door. “Open, you within!” he said.

“It’s Henrik, one of the lumbermen,” said the girl.

“Is he your sweetheart?” I asked.

“No, indeed, I should think not,” she answered. “I’d rather go without than have a fellow like him.”

“Open the door, d’you hear!” cried the man outside. But the girl was not frightened in the least. “Let him stay outside,” she said. And we let him stay outside. But that door of mine bent inwards in a great curve every now and then, when he pushed his hardest.

At last, when we’d finished making fun about my needlework and her sweethearts, I had to go out and see the passage was clear before she would venture downstairs. But there was no man there.

It was late now; I went down to the parlour for a bit, and there was Grindhusen drinking with some of the gang. “There he is!” said one of them, as I came in. It was Henrik who spoke; he was trying to get his mates against me. Grindhusen, too, sided with the rest of them, and tried all he could to annoy me.

Poor Grindhusen! He was stale-drunk all the time now, and couldn’t get clear of it. He had had another meeting with Engineer Lassen; they had walked up the river as before and sat talking for an hour, and when Grindhusen came back he showed a new two-Kroner piece he’d got. Then he went on the drink again, and gabbled about being in the engineer’s confidence. This evening, too, he was all high-and-mightiness, not to be outdone by anybody.

“Come in and sit down,” he said to me.

But one or two of the other men demurred; they would have nothing to do with me. And at this Grindhusen changed front; for sheer devilment he fell to again about the engineer and his cousin, knowing it would annoy me.

“Well, has he turned you off?” he asked, with a side glance at the others, as if to bid them watch what was coming.

“Yes,” said I.

“Aha! I knew all about it days ago, but I never said a word. I don’t mind saying I knew about it before any other single soul in the world of us here, but did I ever breathe a word of it? Inspector he says to me: ‘I want to ask you something, Grindhusen,’ says he, ‘and that is, if you’ll come down and work in the town instead of the man I’ve got there now. I want to get rid of him,’ says he. ‘Why, as to that,’ says I, ‘it’s just as Inspector’s pleased to command.’ That was my very words, and neither more nor less. But did I ever breathe a syllable?”

“Has he turned you off?” asked one of the other men then.

“Yes,” I answered.

“But as for that cousin of his,” Grindhusen went on, “he asked me about her, too. Ay, Inspector, he asks my advice about all sorts of things. And now, this last time we were up the river together, he slapped his knee when he talked of her. So there. And you can guess for yourselves till tomorrow morning if you like. Everything of the best to eat and drink and every way, and costing a heap of money each week; but she stays on and on. Fie and for shame, say I, and I mean it too.”

But now it seemed as if the scale had turned in my favour at the news of my dismissal; some of the men perhaps felt sorry for me, others were glad to learn that I was going. One of them offered me a drink from his own bottle, and called to the maid for “another glass — a clean one, you understand!” Even Henrik no longer bore me any grudge, but drank with me and was friendly enough. And we sat there gossiping over our glasses quite a while.

“But you’d better go up and see about that money of yours,” said Grindhusen. “For from what I’ve heard, I don’t fancy you’ll get the Inspector to come down here with it after you. He said as much. ‘There’s money owing to him,’ that was what he said, ‘but if he thinks I’m going to run after him with it, you can tell him it’s here,’ he said.”

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