A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Introduction

It looks to be a fine year for berries, yes; whortleberries, crowberries, and fintocks. A man can’t live on berries; true enough. But it is good to have them growing all about, and a kindly thing to see. And many a thirsty and hungry man’s been glad to find them.

I was thinking of this only yesterday evening.

There’s two or three months yet till the late autumn berries are ripe; yes, I know. But there are other joys than berries in the wilds. Spring and summer they are still only in bloom, but there are harebells and ladyslippers, deep, windless woods, and the scent of trees, and stillness. There is a sound as of distant waters from the heavens; never so long-drawn a sound in all eternity. And a thrush may be singing as high as ever its voice can go, and then, just at its highest pitch, the note breaks suddenly at a right angle; clear and clean as if cut with a diamond; then softly and sweetly down the scale once more. Along the shore, too, there is life; guillemot, oyster-catcher, tern are busy there; the wagtail is out in search of food, advancing in little spurts, trim and pert with its pointed beak and swift little flick of a tail; after a while it flies up to perch on a fence and sing with the rest. But when the sun has set, may come the cry of a loon from some hill-tarn; a melancholy hurrah. That is the last; now there is only the grasshopper left. And there’s nothing to say of a grasshopper, you never see it; it doesn’t count, only he’s there gritting his resiny teeth, as you might say.

I sit and think of all these things; of how summer has its joys for a wanderer, so there’s no sort of need to wait till autumn comes.

And here I am writing cool words of these quiet things — for all the world as if there were no violent and perilous happenings ahead. ’Tis a trick, and I learned it of a man in the southern hemisphere — of a Mexican called Rough. The brim of his huge hat was hung with tinkling sequins: that in itself was a thing to remember. And most of all, I remember how calmly he told the story of his first murder: “I’d a sweetheart once named Maria,” said Rough, with that patient look of his; “well, she was no more than sixteen, and I was nineteen then. She’d such little hands when you touched them; fingers thin and slight, you know the sort. One evening the master called her in from the fields to do some sewing for him. No help for it then; and it wasn’t more than a day again before he calls her in same as before. Well, it went on like that a few weeks, and then stopped. Seven months after Maria died, and they buried her, little hands and all. I went to her brother Inez and said: ‘At six tomorrow morning the master rides to town, and he’ll be alone.’ ‘I know,’ said he. ‘You might lend me that little rifle of yours to shoot him with.’ ‘I shall be using it myself,’ said he. Then we talked for a bit about other things: the crops, and a big new well we’d dug. And when I left, I reached down his rifle from the wall and took it with me. In the timber I heard Inez at my heels, calling to me to stop. We sat down and talked a bit more this way and that; then Inez snatched the rifle away from me and went home. Next morning I was up early, and out at the gate ready to open it for the master; Inez was there too, hiding in the bushes. I told him he’d better go on ahead; we didn’t want to be two to one. ‘He’s pistols in his belt.’ said Inez; ‘but what about you?’ ‘I know,’ said I; ‘but I’ve a lump of lead here, and that makes no noise.’ I showed him the lump of lead, and he thought for a bit; then he went home. Then the master came riding up; grey and old he was, sixty at least. ‘Open the gate!’ he called out. But I didn’t. He thought I must be mad, no doubt, and lashed out at me with his whip, but I paid no heed. At last he had to get down himself to open the gate. Then I gave him the first blow: it got him just by one eye and cut a hole. He said, ‘Augh!’ and dropped. I said a few words to him, but he didn’t understand; after a few more blows he was dead. He’d a deal of money on him; I took a little to help me on my way, then I mounted and rode off. Inez was standing in the doorway as I rode past his place. ‘It’s only three and a half days to the frontier,’ he said.”

So Rough told his story, and sat staring coolly in front of him when it was ended.

I have no murders to tell of, but joys and sufferings and love. And love is no less violent and perilous than murder.

Green in all the woods now, I thought to myself this morning as I dressed. The snow is melting on the hills, and everywhere the cattle in their sheds are eager and anxious to be out; in houses and cottages the windows are opened wide. I open my shirt and let the wind blow in upon me, and I mark how I grow starstruck and uncontrollable within; ah, for a moment it is all as years ago, when I was young, and a wilder spirit than now. And I think to myself: maybe there’s a tract of woodland somewhere east or west of this, where an old man can find himself as well bested as a young. I will go and look for it.

Rain and sun and wind by turns; I have been many days on the road already. Too cold yet to lie out in the open at night, but there is always shelter to be had at farmsteads by the way. One man thinks it strange that I should go tramping about like this for nothing; he takes me, no doubt, for somebody in disguise, just trying to be original like Wergeland.1 The man knows nothing of my plans, how I am on my way to a place I know, where live some people I have a fancy to see again. But he is a sensible fellow enough, and involuntarily I nod as if to agree there is something in what he says. There’s a theatrical touch in most of us that makes us feel flattered at being taken for more than we are. Then up come his wife and daughter, good, ordinary souls, and carry all away with their kindly gossip; he’s no beggar, they say; be paid for his supper and all. And at last I turn crafty and cowardly and say never a word, and let the man lay more to my charge and still never a word. And we three hearty souls outwin his reasoning sense, and he has to explain he was only jesting all the time; surely we could see that. I stayed a night and a day there, and greased my shoes with extra care, and mended my clothes.

1 A Norwegian poet.

But then the man begins to suspect once more. “There’ll be a handsome present for that girl of mine when you leave, I know,” says he. I made as if his words had no effect, and answered with a laugh: “You think so?” “Yes,” says he; “and then when you’re gone we’ll sit thinking you must have been somebody grand, after all.”

A detestable fellow this! I did the only thing I could: ignored his sarcasm and asked for work. I liked the place, I said, and he’d need of help; I could turn my hand to anything now in the busy time.

“You’re a fool,” said he, “and the sooner you’re off the place the better I’ll be pleased.”

Clearly he had taken a dislike to me, and there was none of the womenfolk at hand to take my part. I looked at the man, at a loss to understand what was in his mind.

His glance was steady; it struck me suddenly that I had never seen such wisdom in the eyes of man or woman. But he carried his ill-will too far, and made a false step. He asked: “What shall we say your name was?” “No need to say anything at all,” I answered. “A wandering Eilert Sundt?” he suggested. And I entered into the jest and answered: “Yes, why not?” But at that he fired up and snapped out sharply: “Then I’m sorry for Fru Sundt, that’s all.” I shrugged my shoulders in return, and said: “You’re wrong there, my good man; I am not married.” And I turned to go. But with an unnatural readiness he called after me: “’Tis you that’s wrong: I meant for the mother that bore you.”

A little way down the road I turned, and saw how his wife and daughter took him up. And I thought to myself: no, ’tis not all roses when one goes a-wandering.

At the next place I came to I learned that he had been with the army, as quartermaster-sergeant; then he went mad over a lawsuit he lost, and was shut up in an asylum for some time. Now in the spring his trouble broke out again; perhaps it was my coming that had given the final touch. But the lightning insight in his eyes at the moment when the madness came upon him! I think of him now and again; he was a lesson to me. ’Tis none so easy to judge of men, who are wise or mad. And God preserve us all from being known for what we are!

That day I passed by a house where a lad sat on the doorstep playing a mouth-organ. He was no musician to speak of, but a cheerful soul he must surely be, to sit there playing to himself like that. I would not disturb him, but simply raised one hand to my cap, and stood a little distance off. He took no notice of me, only wiped his mouth-organ and went on playing. This went on for some time; then at last, waiting till he stopped to wipe his instrument again, I coughed.

“That you, Ingeborg?” he called out. I thought he must be speaking to someone in the house behind him, and made no answer. “You there, I mean,” he said again.

I was confused at this. “Can’t you see me?” I said.

He did not answer, but fumbled with his hands to either side, as if trying to get up, and I realized that he was blind, “Sit still; don’t be afraid of me,” I said, and set myself down beside him.

We fell into talk: been blind since he was fourteen, it seemed; he would be eighteen now, and a big, strong fellow he was, with a thick growth of down on his chin. And, thank Heaven, he said, his health was good. But his eyesight, I asked; could he remember what the world looked like? Yes, indeed; there were many pleasant things he could remember from the time when he could see. He was happy and content enough. He was going in to Christiania this spring, to have an operation; then perhaps he might at least be able to see well enough to walk; ay, all would be well in time, no doubt. He was dull-witted, looked as if he ate a lot; was stout and strong as a beast. But there was something unhealthy-looking, something of the idiot about him; his acceptance of his fate was too unreasonable. To be hopeful in that way implies a certain foolishness, I thought to myself; a man must be lacking in sense to some degree if he can go ahead feeling always content with life, and even reckoning to get something new, some good out of it into the bargain.

But I was in the mood to learn something from all I chanced on in my wandering; even this poor creature on his doorstep made me the wiser by one little thing. How was it he could mistake me for a woman; the woman Ingeborg he had called by name? I must have walked up too quietly. I had forgotten the plodding cart-horse gait; my shoes were too light. I had lived too luxuriously these years past; I must work my way back to the peasant again.

Three more days now to the goal my curious fancy had set before me: to Øvrebø, to Captain Falkenberg’s. It was an opportune time to walk up there just now and ask for work; there would be plenty to do on a big place like that in the spring. Six years since I was there last; time had passed, and for the last few weeks I had been letting my beard grow, so that none should recognize me now.

It was in the middle of the week; I must arrange to get there on the Saturday evening. Then the Captain would let me stay over the Sunday while he thought about taking me on. On Monday he would come and say yes or no.

Strangely enough, I felt no excitement at the thought of what was to come; nothing of unrest, no; calmly and comfortably I took my way by farmstead, wood, and meadow. I thought to myself how I had once, years ago, spent some adventurous weeks at that same Øvrebø, even to being in love with Fruen herself, with Fru Lovise. Ay, that I was. She had fair hair and grey, dark eyes; like a young girl she was. Six years gone, ay, so long it is ago; would she be greatly changed? Time has had its wear on me; I am grown dull and faded and indifferent; I look upon a woman now as literature, no more. It has come to the end. Well, and what then? Everything comes to an end. When first I entered on this stage I had a feeling as if I had lost something; as if I had been favoured by the caresses of a pickpocket. Then I set to and felt myself about, to see if I could bear myself after this; if I could endure myself as I was now. Oh well, yes, why not? Not the same as before, of course, but it all passed off so noiselessly, but peacefully, but surely. Everything comes to an end.

In old age one takes no real part in life, but keeps oneself on memories. We are like letters that have been delivered; we are no longer on the way, we have arrived. It is only a question whether we have whirled up joys and sorrows out of what was in us, or have made no impression at all. Thanks be for life; it was good to live!

But Woman, she was, as the wise aforetime knew, infinitely poor in mind, but rich in irresponsibility, in vanity, in wantonness. Like a child in many ways, but with nothing of its innocence.

I stand by the guide-post where the road turns off to Øvrebø. There is no emotion in me. The day lies broad and bright over meadow and woods; here and there is ploughing and harrowing in the fields, but all moves slowly, hardly seems to move at all, for it is full noon and a blazing sun. I walk a little way on beyond the post, dragging out the time before going up to the house. After an hour, I go into the woods and wander about there for a while; there are berries in flower and a scent of little green leaves. A crowd of thrushes go chasing a crow across the sky, making a great to-do, like a clattering confusion of faulty castanets. I lie down on my back, with my sack under my head, and drop off to sleep.

A little after I wake again, and walk over to the nearest ploughman. I want to find out something about the Falkenbergs, if they are still there and all well. The man answers cautiously; he stands blinking, with his little, crafty eyes, and says: “All depends if Captain’s at home.”

“Is he often away, then?”

“Nay, he’ll be at home.”

“Has he got the field work done?”

The man smiled: “Nay, I doubt it’s not finished yet.”

“Are there hands enough to the place?”

“That’s more than I can say; yes, I doubt there’s hands enough. And the field work’s done; leastways, the manure’s all carted out.”

The man clicks to his horses and goes on ploughing; I walked on beside him. There was not much to be got out of him; next time the horses stopped for a breathing space I worried out of him a few more contradictions as to the family at Øvrebø. The Captain, it seemed was away on manoeuvres all through the summer, and Fruen was at home alone. Yes, they had always a heap of visitors, of course; but the Captain was away. That is to say, not because he wanted to; he liked best to stay at home, by all accounts, but, of course, he’d his duty as well. No, they’d no children as yet; didn’t look as if Fruen was like to have any. What was I talking about? They might have children yet, of course; any amount of them for that. On again.

We plough on to the next stop. I am anxious not to arrive at an awkward time, and ask the man, therefore, if he thinks there would be visitors or anything of that sort up at the house today. No, he thought not. They’d parties and visitors now and again, but. . . . Ay, and music and playing and fine goings-on as often as could be, but. . . . And well they might, for that matter, seeing they were fine folks, and rich and well-to-do as they were.

He was a torment, was that ploughman. I tried to find out something about another Falkenberg, who could tune pianos at a pinch. On this the ploughman’s information was more definite. Lars? Ay, he was here. Know him? Why, of course he knew Lars well enough. He’d finished with service at Øvrebø, but the Captain had given him a clearing of land to live on; he married Emma, that was maid at the house, and they’d a couple of children. Decent, hardworking folk, with feed for two cows already out of their clearing.

Here the furrow ended, and the man turned his team about. I thanked him, and went on my way.

When I came to the house, I recognized all the buildings; they wanted painting. The flagstaff I had helped to raise six years before, it stood there still; but there was no cord to it, and the knob at the top was gone.

Well, here I was, and that was four o’clock in the afternoon of the 26th day of April.

Old folk have a memory for dates.

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