A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter VIII

But the engineer did come down after me, as it turned out, though it was queer it should be so. Anyhow, it was a triumph I had not sought, and I cared nothing for it.

He came to the lodging-house to see me, and said: “I want you to come back with me, if you please, and get your money. And there’s a letter come for you by the post.”

When we stepped into the office, Fru Falkenberg was there. I was taken aback at finding her there. I made a bow and stood over by the door.

“Sit down, won’t you?” said the engineer, going to the table for my letter. “Here you are. No, sit down and read your letter while I’m reckoning up your pay.”

And Fru Falkenberg herself motioned me to a chair.

Now, what were they looking so anxious about? And what was the meaning of this sudden politeness and “Won’t you sit down?” and all the rest? I had not to wait long to find out: the letter was from Captain Falkenberg.

“Here, you can use this,” said Fruen very obligingly, handing me a letter-opener.

A simple, ordinary letter, nothing more; indeed, it began almost jestingly: I had run away from Øvrebø before he knew I was going, and hadn’t even waited for my money. If I imagined he was in difficulties and would not be able to pay me before the harvest was in — if that was why I had left in such a hurry, why, he hoped I had found out I was mistaken. And now he would be very glad if I would come back and work for him if I wasn’t fixed up elsewhere. The house and outbuildings wanted painting, then there would be the harvesting, and, after that, he would like to have me for work among the timber. Everything looking well here, fields nice and tall, meadows nice and thick. Glad to hear as soon as you can in answer to this — Yours, FALKENBERG.

The engineer had finished his reckoning. He turned on his chair and looked over at the wall. Then, as if suddenly remembering something, he turned sharply to the table again. Nervousness, that was all. Fruen stood looking at her rings, but I had a feeling she was stealthily watching me all the time — thoroughly nervous, the pair of them!

Then said the engineer:

“Oh, by the way, I noticed your letter was from Captain Falkenberg. How are things going there? I knew the writing at once.”

“Would you like to read the letter?” I said promptly, offering it as I spoke.

“No — oh no. Thanks, all the same. Not in the least. I was only. . . . ”

But he took the letter, all the same. And Fruen came across to him and stood looking over his shoulder as he read.

“H’m!” said the engineer, with a nod. “Everything going on nicely, it seems. Thanks.” And he held out the letter to give it back.

Fruen’s manner was different. She took the letter from him and began studying it herself. Her hand shook a little.

“Well, now about the money,” said the engineer. “Here you are; that’s what I make it. I hope you’re satisfied all right?”

“Yes, thank you,” said I.

He seemed relieved to find that Captain Falkenberg’s letter was only about myself and made no mention of anyone else. And again he tried to soften down my dismissal.

“Well, well,” he said. “But if you should happen to be in these parts any time, you know where to find me. We’ve all but finished now for this year — there’s been too much drought just lately.”

Fruen was still holding the letter. Then I saw she had finished reading, for her eyes never moved; but she stood there, staring at the letter, thinking. What was in her mind, I wondered?

The engineer glanced at her impatiently.

“Are you learning it by heart?” he said, with a half-smile. “Come, dear, he’s waiting.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon,” said Fruen quickly. “I forgot.” And she handed me the letter.

“So it seems,” observed the engineer.

I bowed, and went out.

On a summer evening the bridge is crowded with people out walking — school teachers and tradespeople, young girls and children. I watch my time when it is getting late, and the bridge is deserted; then I can lounge over that way myself, and stay for an hour or so in the midst of the roar. No need to do anything really but listen; only my brain is so over-rested with idleness and good sound sleep, it finds no end of things to busy itself about. Last evening I determined in all seriousness to go to Fru Falkenberg and say:

“Go away from here, Frue; leave by the first train that goes.” Today I have been calling myself a fool for entertaining such a ridiculous thought, and set in its place another: “Get out of this yourself, my good man, by the first train that goes. Are you her equal, her adviser? Very well, then; see that what you do is not too utterly at variance with what you are!”

And this evening I am still treating myself as I deserve. I fall to humming a little tune, but can scarcely hear it myself! the sound is crushed to death in the roar of the water. “That’s right,” I say to myself scornfully. “You ought always to stand by a deafening foss when you feel like humming a tune.” And I laugh at myself again. With suchlike childish fancies do I pass the time.

The noise of the rapids anywhere inland is as useful to the ear as the noise of breakers on the shore. But the voice of the breakers is louder and fainter by turns. The roar of waters in a river-bed is like an audible fog, a monotony of sound beyond reason, contrary to all sense, a miracle of idiocy. “What is the time, do you know?” “Yes, isn’t it?” “Day or night?” “Yes!” As if some one had laid a stone on six keys of an organ, and walked off and left it there.

With such childish fancies do I while away the time.

Godaften!” says Fru Falkenberg, and there she is beside me.

I hardly felt surprised; it was almost as if I had expected her. After her behaviour with her husband’s letter, she might well go a little farther.

Now I could think two ways about her coming: either she had turned thoroughly sentimental at being reminded so directly of her home once more, or she wanted to make her engineer jealous; he might perhaps be watching us from his window that very moment, and I had been sent for to go back to Øvrebø. Possibly she was thoroughly calculating, and had been trying to work on his jealousy even yesterday, when she studied the letter so attentively.

It seemed, however, that none of my clever theories was to be confirmed. It was me she wanted to see, and that only to make a sort of apology for getting me dismissed. That she should ever care about such a trifle! Was she so incapable of thinking seriously that she could not see what a miserable position she herself was in? What in the devil’s name had she to do with my affairs?

I had thought to say a brief word or so and point to the train, but something made me gentle, as if I were dealing with an irresponsible, a child.

“You’ll be going back to Øvrebø now, I suppose?” she said. “And I thought I’d like. . . . H’m! . . . You’re sorry to be leaving here, perhaps? No? No, no, of course not. But I must tell you something: It was I that got you dismissed.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“No, no. Only, I wanted to tell you. Now that you’re going back to Øvrebø. You can understand it was a little unpleasant for me at times to. . . . ”

She checked herself.

“To have me about the place. Yes, it would be unpleasant.”

“To see you here. A little unpleasant; I mean, because you knew about me before. So I asked the engineer if he couldn’t send you away. Not that he wanted to himself, you understand. Quite the reverse, in fact, but he did at last. I’m glad you’re going back to Øvrebø.”

“So?” said I. “But when Fruen comes home again surely it will be just as unpleasant to see me then?”

“Home?” she repeated. “I’m not going home.”

Pause. She had frowned as she spoke. But now she nodded, and even smiled a little, and turned to go.

“Well, well, you’ll pardon me, then, I know,” she said.

“Have you any objection to my going back to Captain Falkenberg?” I asked.

She stopped, and looked me full in the face. Now, what was the right thing here? Three times she had spoken of Øvrebø. Was it with the idea that I might put in a word for her if opportunity offered, when I got back there? Or was she unwilling to ask of me as a favour not to go?

“No, no, indeed I’ve not!” she answered. “Go there, by all means.”

And she turned and left me.

Neither sentimental nor calculating, as far as I could see. But she might well have been both. And what had I gained by my attempt at a confidential tone? I should have known better than to try, whether she stayed here or went elsewhere. What business was it of mine? ’Twas her affair.

You’re playing and pretending, I said to myself. All very well to say she’s literature and no more, but that withered soul of yours showed good signs of life when she was kind to you and began looking at you with those two eyes of hers. I’m disappointed; I’m ashamed of you, and to-morrow you go!

But I did not go.

And true it is that I went about spying and listening everywhere for anything I could learn of Fru Falkenberg; and then at times, ay, many a night, I would call myself to account for that same thing, and torture myself with self-contempt. From early morning I thought of her: is she awake yet? Has she slept well? Will she be going back home to-day? And at the same time all sorts of ideas came into my head. I might perhaps get work at the hotel where she was staying. Or I might write home for some clothes, turn gentleman myself, and go and stay at that same hotel. This last, of course, would at once have cut the ground from under my feet and left me farther removed from her than ever, but it was the one that appealed to me most of all, fool that I was. I had begun to make friends with the hotel porter, already, merely because he lived nearer to her than I. He was a big, strong fellow, who went up to the station every day to meet the trains and pick up a commercial traveller once a fortnight. He could give me no news; I did not ply him with questions, nor even lead him on to tell me things of his own accord; and, besides, he was far from intelligent. But he lived under the same roof with Fruen — ah yes, that he did. And one day it came about that this acquaintance of mine with the hotel porter brought me a piece of valuable information about Fru Falkenberg, and that from her own lips.

So they were not all equally fruitless, those days in the little town.

One morning I came back with the porter from the station; he had picked up a traveller with a heap of luggage, and had to take horse and cart to fetch the heavy grey trunks.

I had helped him to get them loaded up at the station, and now, as we pulled up at the hotel, he said: “You might lend a hand getting these things in; I’ll stand you a bottle of beer this evening.”

So we carried in the trunks together. They were to be taken up at once to the big luggage-room upstairs; the owner was waiting for them. It was an easy job for the two of us big, strong fellows both.

We had got them up all but one — that was still in the cart — when the porter was called back upstairs; the traveller was giving him instructions about something or other. Meantime, I went out, and waited in the passage; I did not belong to the place, and did not want to be seen hanging about on the stairs by myself.

Just then the door of Engineer Lassen’s office opened, and he and Fru Falkenberg came out. They looked as if they had just got up; they had no hats on; just going down to breakfast, no doubt. Now, whether they did not notice me, or took me for the porter standing there, they went on with what they had been saying.

“Quite so,” says the engineer. “And it won’t be any different. I can’t see what you’ve got to feel lonely about.”

“Oh, you know well enough!” she answered.

“No, I don’t, and I do think you might be a little more cheerful.”

“You wouldn’t like it if I were. You’d rather have me stay as I am, miserable and wretched, because you don’t care for me any more.”

He stopped on the stairs abruptly. “Really, I think you must be mad,” he said.

“I dare say I am,” she answered.

How poorly she held her own in a quarrel! It was always so with her. Why could she not be careful of her words, and answer so as to wound him, crush him altogether?

He stood with one hand on the stair-rail and said:

“So you think it pleases me to have things going on like this? I tell you it hurts me desperately — has done for a long time past.”

“And me,” she answered. “But now I’ll have no more of it.”

“Oh, indeed! You’ve said that before. You said it only a week ago.”

“Well, I am going now.”

He looked up at her.

“Going away?”

“Yes. Very soon.”

But he saw that he had betrayed himself in grasping so eagerly, delightedly, at the suggestion, and tried now to smooth it over.

“There, there!” he said. “Be a nice sensible cousin now, and don’t talk about going away.”

“I am going,” she said, and, slipping past him, went down the stairs by herself. He followed after.

Then the porter came out and we went down together. The last box was smaller than the others. I asked him to carry it up himself, pretending I had hurt my hand. I helped him to get it on his back, and went off home. Now I could go away the following day.

That afternoon Grindhusen, too, was dismissed. The engineer had sent for him, given him a severe talking to for doing no work and staying in town and getting drunk; in a word, his services were no longer needed.

I thought to myself: It was strangely sudden, this new burst of courage on the part of the engineer. He was so young, he had needed some one to back him up and agree to everything he said; now, however, seeing that a certain troublesome cousin was going away, he had no further need of comfort there. Or was my withered soul doing him an injustice?

Grindhusen was greatly distressed. He had reckoned on staying in town all the summer, as general handyman to the Inspector himself; but all hope of that was gone now. The Inspector was no longer as good as a father to him. And Grindhusen bore the disappointment badly. When they came to settle up, the Inspector had been going to deduct the two-Kroner pieces he had given him, saying they had only been meant as payment in advance. Grindhusen sat in the general room at the lodging-house and told us all about it, adding that the Inspector was pretty mean in the matter of wages after all. At this, one of the men burst out laughing, and said:

“No; did he, though? He didn’t take them back, really?”

“Nay,” said Grindhusen. “He didn’t dare take off more than the one.”

There was more laughter at this, and some one else asked:

“No, really? Which one was it? Did he knock off the first two-Kroner or the second? Ha, ha, ha! That’s the best I’ve heard for a long time.”

But Grindhusen did not laugh; he grew more and more sullen and despairing. What was he to do now? Farm labourers for the season’s work would have been taken on everywhere by now, and here he was. He asked me where I was going, and when I told him, he begged me to put in a word for him with the Captain, and see if I couldn’t get him taken on there for the summer. Meantime, he would stay on in the town, and wait till he heard from me.

But I knew there would soon be an end of Grindhusen’s money if he stayed on in the town. The end of it was, I took him along with me, as the best thing to be done. He had been a smart hand at paint-work once, had Grindhusen; I remembered how he had done up old Gunhild’s cottage on the island. He could come and help me now, for the time being; later on, we would surely find something else for him to do; there would be plenty of field-work in the course of the summer where he might be useful.

The 16th July found me back at Øvrebø. I remember dates more and more distinctly now, partly by reason of my getting old and acquiring the intensified interest of senility in such things, partly because of being a labourer, and obliged to keep account of my working days. But an old man may keep his dates in mind and forget all about far more important things. Up to now, for instance, I have forgotten to mention that the letter I had from Captain Falkenberg was addressed to me care of Engineer Lassen. Well and good. But the point appeared significant: the Captain, then, had ascertained whom I was working for. And it came into my mind that possibly the Captain was also aware of who else had been in the care of Engineer Lassen that summer!

The Captain was still away on duty when I arrived; he would be back in a week. As it was, Grindhusen was very well received; Nils was quite pleased to find I had brought my mate along, and refused to let me keep him to help with the painting, but sent him off on his own responsibility to work in the turnip and potato fields. There was no end of work — weeding and thinning out — and Nils was already in the thick of the hay-making.

He was the same splendid, earnest farmer as ever. At the first rest, while the horses were feeding, he took me out over the ground to look at the crops. Everything was doing well; but it had been a late spring that year, and the cat’s-tail was barely forming as yet, while the clover had just begun to show bloom. The last rain had beaten down a lot of the first-year grass, and it could not pick up again, so Nils had put on the mowing-machine.

We walked back home through waving grass and corn; there was a whispering in the winter rye and the stout six-rowed barley. Nils, who had not forgotten his schooling, called to mind that beautiful line of Bjørnson’s:

Beginning like a whisper in the corn one summer day.”

“Time to get the horses out again,” said Nils, stepping out a little. And waving his hand once more out over the fields, he said: “What a harvest we’ll have this year if we can only get it safely in!”

So Grindhusen went off to work in the fields, and I fell to on the painting. I started with the barn, and all that was to be red; then I did over the flagstaff and the summer-house down among the lilacs with the first coat of oil. The house itself I meant to leave till the last. It was built in good old-fashioned country style, with rich, heavy woodwork and a carved border, à la grecque, above the doorway. It was yellow as it was, and a new lot of yellow paint had come in to do with this time. I took upon myself, however, to send the yellow back, and get another colour in exchange. In my judgment the house ought to be stone-grey, with doors and window-frames and verge-boards white. But that would be for the Captain to decide.

But though every one on the place was as nice as could be, and the cook in authority lenient, and Ragnhild as bright-eyed as ever, we all felt it dull with the master and mistress away. All save Grindhusen, honest fellow, who was quite content. Decent work and good food soon set him up again, and in a few days he was happy and waxing fat. His one anxiety was lest the Captain should turn him off when he came home. But no such thing — Grindhusen was allowed to stay.

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