A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter IX

The Captain arrived.

I was giving the barn its second coat; at the sound of his voice I came down from the ladder. He bade me welcome.

“Running away from your money like that!” he said. And I fancied he looked at me with some suspicion as he asked: “What did you do that for?”

I answered simply that I had no idea of presuming to make him a present of my work; the money could stand over, that was all.

He brightened up at that.

“Yes, yes, of course. Well, I’m very glad you came. We must have the flagstaff white, I suppose?”

I did not dare tell him at once all I wanted done in white, but simply said:

“Yes. I’ve got hold of some white paint.”

“Have you, though? That’s good. You’ve brought another man up with you, I hear?”

“Yes. I don’t know what Captain thinks. . . . ”

“He can stay. Nils has got him to work out in the fields already. And anyhow, you all seem to do as you like with me,” he added jestingly. “And you’ve been working with the lumbermen, have you?”

“Yes.”

“Hardly the sort of thing for you, was it?” Then, as if anxious not to seem curious about my work with Engineer Lassen, he broke off abruptly and said: “When are you going to start painting the house?”

“I thought of beginning this afternoon. It’ll need scraping a bit here and there.”

“Good. And if you find the woodwork loose anywhere, you can put in a nail or so at the same time. Have you had a look at the fields?”

“Yes.”

“Everything’s looking very nice. You men did good work last spring. Do no harm now if we had a little rain for the upper lands.”

“Grindhusen and I passed lots of places on the way up that needed rain more than here. It’s clay bottom here, and far up in the hills.”

“That’s true. How did you know that, by the way?”

“I looked about when I was here in the spring,” I answered, “and I did a little digging here and there. I’d an idea you’d be wanting to have water laid on to the house some time or other, so I went prospecting a bit.”

“Water laid on? Well, yes, I did think of it at one time, but. . . . Yes, I was going to have it done some years back; but I couldn’t get everything done at once, and then it was held up. And just now I shall want the money for other things.”

A wrinkle showed between his eyes for a moment; he stood looking down — in thought.

“Well, well, that thousand dozen battens ought to do it, and leave something over,” he said suddenly. “Water? It would have to be laid on to the outbuildings as well. A whole system of pipes.”

“There’d be no rock-work though, no blasting.”

“Eh? Oh, well, we’ll see. What was I going to say? Did you have a good time down there in the town? Not a big place, but you do see more people there. And the railway brings visitors now and again, no doubt.”

“Aha,” I thought to myself, “he knows well enough what visitor came to stay with Engineer Lassen this summer!” I answered that I did not care much for the place — which was perfectly true.

“No, really?”

He seemed to find something to ponder over in that; he stared straight in front of him, whistling softly to himself. Then he walked away.

The Captain was in good spirits; he had been more communicative than ever before; he nodded to me as he went off. Just as of old he was now — quick and determined, taking an interest in his affairs once more, and sober as water. I felt cheered myself to see him so. He was no wastrel; he had had a spell of foolishness and dissipation, but it needed only his own resolution to put an end to that. An oar in the water looks broken to the eye, but it is whole.

It set in to rain, and I had to stop work on the painting. Nils had been lucky enough to get in all the hay that was cut; we got to work now on the potatoes, all hands out in the fields at once, with the women folk from the house as well.

Meanwhile the Captain stayed indoors all alone; it was dull enough; now and again he would touch the keys of Fruen’s piano. He came out once or twice to where we were at work, and he carried no umbrella, but let himself get drenched to the skin.

“Grand weather for the crops!” he would say; or again, “Looks like being an extra special harvest this year!” But when he went back to the house there was only himself and loneliness to meet him. “We’re better off ourselves than he is now,” said Nils.

So we worked away at the potatoes, and when they were done there were the turnips. And by the time we were through with them the weather began to clear. Ideal weather, all that one could wish for. Nils and I were as proud of it all as if we owned the place.

And now the haymaking began in earnest: the maids were out, spreading in the wake of the machine, and Grindhusen was set to work with a scythe in the corners and awkward parts where the machine could not go. And I got out my stone-grey paint and set about the house.

The Captain came up. “What colour’s that you’ve got here?” he asked.

What could I say to that? I was nervous, I know, but my greatest fear was lest I should not be allowed to paint it grey after all. As it was, I said:

“Oh, it’s only some . . . I don’t know . . . it doesn’t matter what we put on for the first coat. . . . ”

That saved me for the time being, at any rate. The Captain said no more about it then.

When I had done the house all grey, and doors and windows white, I went down to the summer-house and did that the same. But it turned out horrible to look at; the yellow underneath showed through and made it a ghastly colour. The flagstaff I took down and painted a clean white. Then I put in a spell of field-work with Nils and was haymaking for some days. Early in August it was.

Now, when I went back to my painting again I had settled in my mind to start on the house as early as possible, so as to be well on the way with it before the Captain was up — too far, if I could manage it, to go back! I started at three in the morning; there was a heavy dew, and I had to rub the woodwork over with a bit of sack. I worked away for an hour, and then had coffee, then on again till eight. I knew the Captain would be getting up then, so I went off to help Nils for an hour and be out of the way. I had done as much as I wanted, and my idea now was to give the Captain time to get over the shock of my grey, in case he should have got up in an irritable mood.

After breakfast I went back to work, and stood there on my ladder painting away, as innocently as could be, when the Captain came up.

“Are you doing it over with grey again?” he called up.

Godmorgen! Yes. I don’t know if. . . . ”

“Now what’s the meaning of all this? Come down off that ladder at once!”

I clambered down. But I was not anxious now. I had thought out something to say that I fancied would prove effective at the right moment — unless my judgment was altogether at fault.

I tried first of all to make out it didn’t matter really what colour we used for the second time either, but the Captain cut me short here and said:

“Nonsense! Yellow on top of that grey will look like mud; you can see that for yourself, surely.”

“Well, then, we might give it two coats of yellow,” I suggested.

“Four coats of paint? No, thank you! And all that white you’ve been wasting! It’s ever so much dearer than the yellow.”

This was perfectly true, and the very argument I had been fearing all along. I answered now straight-forwardly:

“Let me paint it grey.”

“What?”

“It would look better. There’s something about the house . . . and with the green of the woods behind . . . the style of the place is. . . . ”

“Is grey, you mean?” He swung off impatiently a few steps and came back again.

And then I faced him, more innocently than ever, with an inspiration surely sent from above:

“Now I remember! Yes. . . . I’ve always seen it grey in my mind, ever since one day — it was Fruen that said so. . . . ”

I was watching him closely; he gave a great start and stared at me wide-eyed for a moment; then he took out his handkerchief and began fidgeting with it at one eye as if to get out a speck or something.

“Indeed!” he said. “Did she say so?”

“Yes, I’m almost sure it was that. It’s a long time back now, but. . . . ”

“Oh, nonsense!” he broke out abruptly, and strode away. I heard him clearing his throat — hard — as he crossed the courtyard behind.

I stood there limply for a while, feeling anything but comfortable myself. I dared not go on with the painting now, and risk making him angry again. I went round to the back and put in an hour cutting firewood. When I came round again, the Captain looked out from an open window upstairs and called down:

“You may as well go on with it now you’ve got so far. I don’t know what possessed you, I’m sure. But get on with it now.”

The window had been open before, but he slammed it to and I went on with the work.

A week passed. I spent my time between painting and haymaking. Grindhusen was good enough at hoeing potatoes and using a rake here and there, but not of much account when it came to loading hay. Nils himself was a first-rate hand, and a glutton for work.

I gave the house a third coat, and the delicate grey, picked out with white, made the place look nobler altogether. One afternoon I was at work, the Captain came walking up from the road. He watched me for a bit, then took out his handkerchief as if the heat troubled him, and said:

“Yes, better go on with it now you’ve got so far. I must say she wasn’t far wrong about the colour. All nonsense though, really! H’m!”

I made no answer. The Captain used his handkerchief again and said:

“Hot again today — puh! What was I going to say? . . . yes, it doesn’t look so bad after all. No, she was right — that is, I mean, you were right about the colour. I was looking at it from down there just now, and it makes quite a handsome place. And anyhow, it’s too late to alter it now.”

“I thought so too,” I said. “It suits the house.”

“Yes, yes, it suits the house, as it were. And what was it she said about the woods behind — my wife, I mean? The background, or something?”

“It’s a long time ago now, but I’m almost sure. . . . ”

“Yes, yes, never mind. I must say I never thought it would turn out like that — turn out so well. Will you have enough white, though, to finish?”

“Well . . . yes, I sent back the yellow and got some white instead.”

The Captain smiled, shook his head, and walked away. So I had been right after all!

Haymaking took up all my time now till it was done, but Nils lent me a hand in return, painting at the summer-house in the evening. Even Grindhusen joined in and took a brush. He wasn’t much of a painter, he said, but he reckoned he could be trusted to paint a bit of a wall. Grindhusen was picking up fast.

At last the buildings were finished; hardly recognizable, they were, in their new finery. And when we’d cleaned up a bit in the shrubbery and the little park — this was our own idea — the whole place looked different altogether. And the Captain thanked us specially for what we’d done.

We started on the rye then, and at the same time the autumn rain set in; but we worked away all we knew, and there came a spell of sunshine in between whiles. There were big fields of thick, heavy rye, and big fields again of oats and barley, not yet ripe. It was a rich landscape to work in. The clover was seeding, but the turnips were somewhat behindhand. A good soaking would put them right, said Nils.

The Captain sent me up to the post from time to time; once he gave me a letter for his wife. A whole bundle of letters there were, to different people, and hers in the middle. It was addressed care of her mother in Kristianssand. When I came back in the evening and took in the incoming post, the Captain’s first words were: “You posted the letters all right?”

“Yes,” I said.

Time went on. On wet days, when there was little we could do out of doors, the Captain wanted me to paint a bit here and there about the house inside. He showed me some fine enamels he had got in, and said:

“Now here’s the staircase to begin with. I want that white, and I’ve ordered a dark red stair-carpet to put down. Then there’ll be doors and windows. But I want all this done as soon as possible really; it’s been left too long as it is.”

I quite agreed that this was a good idea of the Captain’s. He had lived carelessly enough for years past now, never troubling about the look of his house; now he had begun to take an interest in it again; it was a sort of reawakening. He took me over the place, upstairs and down, and showed me what was to be done. I noticed the pictures and sculpture in the rooms; there was a big marble lion, and paintings by Askevold and the famous Dahl. Heirlooms, I supposed they would be. Fruen’s room upstairs looked just as if she were at home, with all sorts of little trifles neatly in their places, and clothes hanging still on the pegs. It was a fine old house, with moulded ceilings, and some of the walls done in costly style, but the paint-work everywhere was faded or flaking off. The staircase was broad and easy, with seats, and a mahogany handrail.

I was painting indoors one day when the Captain came in.

“It’s harvest-time, I know, but this indoor work’s important too. My wife will be back soon. I don’t know what we’re to do, really! I’d like to have the place thoroughly cleaned up.”

So that letter was asking her to come back! I thought to myself. But then, again, it was some days since he had written, and I had been to the post several times myself, after, but no answer had come. I knew Fruen’s writing. I had seen it six years before. But the Captain thought perhaps that he had only to say “Come,” and she would obey. Well, well, he might be right; she was taking a little time to get ready, that was all. . . . How was I to know?

The painting had grown so important now, that the Captain went up himself to the clearing and got Lars to come down and help with the field-work in my place. Nils was by no means pleased with the exchange, for Lars was not over willing under orders on the place where he had been in charge himself in days gone by.

But there was no such need of hurry about the painting, as it turned out. The Captain sent the lad up twice to the post, but I watched for him on the way back both times, and found he had no letter from Fruen. Perhaps she was not coming after all! Ay, it might be as bad as that. Or she felt herself in a false position, and was too proud to say yes because her husband called. It might be that.

But the paint was on and had time to dry; the red stair-carpet came and was laid down with brass rods; the staircase looked wonderfully fine; wonderfully fine, too, were the doors and windows in the rooms upstairs. But Fruen did not come — no.

We got through with the rye, and set to work in good time on the barley; but Fruen did not come. The Captain went out and gazed down the road, whistling to himself; he was looking thinner now. Often and often he would come out to where we were at work, and keep with us, looking on all the time without a word. But if Nils happened to ask him anything, he did not start as if his thoughts had been elsewhere, but was quick and ready as could be. He did not seem dejected, and as for looking thin, that was perhaps because he had got Nils to cut his hair.

Then I was sent up to the post again, and this time there was a letter. Fruen’s hand, and postmarked Kristianssand. I hurried back, laid the letter in among the rest of the post, and handed the whole bundle to the Captain outside the house. He took it with a careless word of thanks, showing no eagerness to see what there was; he was used to being disappointed.

“Corn coming in everywhere, I suppose?” he asked casually, glancing at the letters one after another. “What was the road like? All right?” While I was telling him, he came upon Fruen’s letter, and at once packing up the whole bundle together, he turned to me with a sudden intensified interest in other people’s crops and the state of the roads. Keeping himself well in hand; he was not going to show feeling openly. He nodded as he walked off, and said “Thank you” once more.

Next day the Captain came out and washed and greased the carriage himself. But it was two days more before he used it. We were sitting at supper one evening when the Captain came into the kitchen and said he wanted some one to drive him to the station tomorrow. He could have driven himself, but he was going to fetch his wife, who was coming home from abroad, and he would have to take the landau in case it rained. Nils decided, then, that Grindhusen had better drive, he being the one who could best be spared.

The rest of us went on with our field-work while they were away. There was plenty to do; besides the rye and barley not yet in, there were still potatoes to hoe and turnips to see to. But Ragnhild and the dairymaid both lent a hand; all youth and energy they were.

It might have been pleasant enough to work side by side with my old mate Lars Falkenberg once more, but he and Nils could not get on together, and instead of cheerful comradeship, a gloomy silence hung over the fields. Lars seemed to have got over his late ill-will towards me in some degree, but he was short and sullen with us all on account of Nils.

At last Nils decided that Lars should take the pair of chestnuts and get to work on the autumn ploughing. Lars was offended, and said crossly: No. He’d never heard of doing things that way before, he said, starting to plough your land before you’d got the harvest off it. “That may be,” said Nils, “but I’ll find you land that has been reaped enough to keep you going.”

There were more words over that. Lars found everything all wrong somehow at Øvrebø. In the old days he used to do his work and sing songs after for the company at the house; now, it was all a mess and a muddle, and no sense in any way of doing things. Ploughing, indeed! Not if he knew it.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Nils. “Nowadays you’ll see folk ploughing between the corn-poles and the hay-frames.”

“I’ve not seen it yet,” said Lars. “But it seems you’ve seen a lot. Of all the silly goats. . . . ”

But the end of it was that Lars gave way, Nils being head man there, and went on ploughing till the Captain came home.

It crossed my mind that I had left some washing behind with Emma when I went away, before. But I judged it best not to go up to the clearing after it now, while Lars was in his present mood.

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