A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XII

The Captain has done as he said about the timber; there’s a cracking and crashing in the woods already. And a mild autumn, too, with no frost in the ground as yet to stop the ploughing; Nils grasps at the time like a miser, to save as much as possible next spring.

Now comes the question whether Grindhusen and I are to work on the timber. It crosses my mind that I had intended really to go off for a tramp up in the hills and over the moors while the berries were there; what about that journey now? And another thing, Grindhusen was no longer worth his keep as a wood-cutter; he could hold one end of a saw, but that was about all he was good for now.

No, for Grindhusen was changed somehow; devil knows how it had come about. He had not grown bald at all; his hair was there, and thick and red as ever. But he had picked up a deal at Øvrebø, and went about bursting with health and good feeding; well off here? He had sent good sums of money home to his family all that summer and autumn, and was full of praise for Captain and Freun, who paid such good wages and treated their folk so well. Not like the Inspector, that weighed and counted every miserable Skilling, and then, as true as God’s in heaven, go and take off two Kroner that he’d given as clear as could be . . . ugh! He, Grindhusen, was not the man to make a fuss about a wretched two Kroner, as long as it was a matter of any sense or reason, but to go and take it off like that — fy Fan! Would you ever find the Captain doing such a thing?

But Grindhusen was grown so cautious now, and wouldn’t even get properly angry with any one. Even yet, perhaps, he might go back and work for the Inspector on the river at two Kroner a day, and humbly agree with all his master said. Age, time, had overtaken him.

It overtakes us all.

Said the Captain:

“That water-supply you spoke about — is it too late to do anything with it this year?”

“Yes,” I answered.

The Captain nodded and walked away.

I ploughed one day more, then the Captain came to me again. He was out and about everywhere these days, working hard, keeping an eye on everything. He gave himself barely time for a proper meal, but was out again at once, in the fields, the barn, the cattle-sheds, or up in the woods where the men were at work.

“You’d better get to work on that water-supply,” he said. “The ground’s workable still, and may stay so for a long time yet. What help will you want?”

“Grindhusen can help,” I said. “But. . . . ”

“Yes, and Lars. What were you going to say?”

“The frost may set in any day now.”

“Well, and then it may snow and soften the ground again. We’re not frost-bound here every year,” said the Captain. “You’d better take a few extra hands, and set some of them to digging, the rest to the masonry work. You’ve done all this before, I think you said?”


“And I’ve spoken to Nils myself,” he said, with a smile. “So you’ll have no trouble in that way. You can put the horses in now.”

So bravely cheerful he was, I could not help feeling the same, and wanted to begin at once; I hurried back with the horses, almost at a run. The Captain seemed quite eager about this water-supply, now that the place looked so nice with its new paint, and after the fine harvest we’d had. And now he was cutting a thousand dozen battens in the woods, to pay off his debts and leave something over!

So I went off up the rising ground, and found the old place I had marked down long before for the reservoir, took the depth down to the house, pacing and measuring this way and that. There was a streamlet came down from the hillside far above, with such a depth and fall that it never froze in winter; the thing would be to build a small stone reservoir here, with openings at the sides for the overflow in autumn and spring. Oh, but they should have their water-supply at Øvrebø! As for the masonry work, we could break out our stone on the site itself; there was layer on layer of granite there.

By noon next day we were hard at work, Lars Falkenberg digging the trench for the pipe-line, Grindhusen and I getting stone. We were both well used to this work from the days when we had been road-making together at Skreia.

Well and good.

We worked four days; then it was Sunday. I remember that Sunday, the sky clear and far, the leaves all fallen in the woods, and the hillside showing only its calm winter green; smoke rose from the chimney up in the clearing. Lars had borrowed a horse and cart that afternoon to drive in to the station; he had killed a pig and was sending it in to town. He was to fetch letters for the Captain on the way back.

It occurred to me that this evening would be a good time to send the lad up to the clearing for my washing: Lars was away, and no one could take offence at that washing business now.

Oh yes, I said to myself, you’re very careful to do what’s right and proper, sending the lad up to fetch that washing. But you’ll find it isn’t that at all. Right and proper, indeed; you’re getting old, that’s what it is.

I bore with this reproach for an hour. Then — well, it was all nonsense, like as not, and here was a lovely evening, and Sunday into the bargain, nothing to do, no one to talk to down here. . . . Getting old, was I? Afraid of the walk uphill?

And I went up myself.

Early next morning Lars Falkenberg came over again. He drew me aside, as he had done once before, and with the same intent: I had been up to the clearing yesterday, it seemed; it was to be the last time, and would I please to make no mistake about that!

“It was the last of my washing, anyhow,” I said.

“Oh, you and your washing! As if I couldn’t have brought along your miserable shirt a hundred times since you’ve been here!”

Now, by what sort of magic had he got to know of my little walk up there already? Ragnhild, of course, at her old tricks again — it could be no one else. There was no doing anything with that girl.

But now, as it happened, Nils was at hand this time, as he had been the time before. He came strolling over innocently from the kitchen, and in a moment Lars’s anger was turned upon him instead.

“Here’s the other scarecrow coming up, too,” says Lars, “and he’s a long sight worse than you.”

“What’s that you say?” said Nils.

“What’s that you say!” retorted Lars. “You go home and rinse your mouth with a mixture or something, and see if you can talk plain,” said he.

Nils stopped short at this, and came up to see what it was all about.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said he.

“No, of course not. You don’t know anything that’s any sense. But you know all about ploughing in standing crops, don’t you? There’s not many can beat you at that.”

But here Nils grew angry for once, and his cheeks paled.

“What an utter fool you are, Lars! Can’t you keep your mouth shut with that nonsense?”

“Fool, eh? Hark at the silly goat!” said Lars, turning to me. “Thinks himself mighty fine, doesn’t he? ‘Utter’” he says — and goes white about it. “I’ve been more years than you at Øvrebø, and asked in to sing up at the house of an evening more than once, let me tell you. But things have changed since then, and what have we got instead? You remember,” he said, turning to me, “what it was like in the old days. It was Lars here and Lars there, and I never heard but the work got done all right. And after me it was Albert, that was here for eighteen months. But then you, Nils, came along, and now it’s toil and moil and ploughing and carting manure day and night, till a man’s worn to a thread with it all.”

Nils and I could not help laughing at this. And Lars was in no way offended; he seemed quite pleased at having said something funny, and, forgetting his ill-will, joined in the laugh himself.

“Yes, I say it straight out,” said he. “And if it wasn’t for you being a friendly sort between whiles — no, friendly I won’t say, but someways decent and to get on with after a fashion . . . if it wasn’t for that. . . . ”

“Well, what then?”

Lars was getting more and more good humoured. “Oh,” he said, with a laugh, “I could just pick you up and stuff you down in your own long boots.”

“Like to feel my arm?” said Nils.

“What’s going on here?” asked the Captain, coming up. It was only six o’clock, but he was out and about already.

“Nothing,” said Lars and Nils as well.

“How’s the reservoir getting on?” asked the Captain. This was to me, but before I could answer he turned to Nils. “I shall want the boy to drive me to the station,” he said. “I’m going to Christiania.”

Grindhusen and I went off to our work on the reservoir, and Lars to his digging. But a shadow seemed to have fallen over us all.

Grindhusen himself said openly: “Pity the Captain’s going away.”

I thought so, too. But he was obliged to go in on business, no doubt. There were the crops as well as the timber to be sold. But why should he start at that hour of the day? He couldn’t catch the early train in any case. Had there been trouble again? Was he anxious to be out of the way before Fruen got up?

Trouble there was, often enough.

It had gone so far by this time that the Captain and Fruen hardly spoke to one another, and whenever they did exchange a word it was in a careless tone, and looking all the other way. Now and again the Captain would look his wife properly in the face, and say she ought to be out more in the lovely air; and once when she was outside he asked if she wouldn’t come in and play a little. But this, perhaps, was only to keep up appearances, no more.

It was pitiful to see.

Fruen was quiet and nice. Now and again she would stand outside on the steps looking out towards the hills; so soft her features were, and her reddish yellow hair. But it was dull for her now — no visitors, no music and entertaining, nothing but sorrow and shame.

The Captain had promised to bear with things as they were, and surely he was bearing all he could. But he could do no more. Disaster had come to the home, and the best will in the world could not shoulder it off. If Fruen happened to be hasty, as she might now and then, and forgot to be grateful, the Captain would look down at the floor, and it would not be long before he put on his hat and went out. All the maids knew about it, and I had seen it myself once or twice. He never forgot what she had done — how could he? — though he could keep from speaking of it. But could he keep from speaking of it when she forgot herself and said:

“You know I’m not well just now; you know I can’t walk far like I used to!”

“S— sh, Lovise!” he would say, with a frown. And then the mischief was there as bad as ever.

“Oh, of course you must bring that up again!”

“No, indeed! It’s you that brought it up yourself. You’ve lost all sense of modesty, I think; you seem to have no shame left.”

“Oh, I wish I’d never come back at all! I was better off at home!”

“Yes, or living with that puppy, I dare say.”

“You said he’d helped you once yourself. And I often wish I were back there with him again. Hugo’s a great deal better than you are.”

She was all irresponsible in her words, going, perhaps, further than she meant. But she was changed out of knowledge to us all, and spoiled and shameless now. Fru Falkenberg shameless! Nay, perhaps not; who could say? Yet she was not ashamed to come out in the kitchen of an evening and say nice things to Nils about how young and strong he was. I was jealous again, no doubt, and envied Nils for his youth, for I thought to myself: Is every one gone mad? Surely we older ones are far to be preferred! Was it his innocence that attracted her? Or was she merely trying to keep up her spirits a little — trying to be younger than she was? But then one day she came up to the reservoir where Grindhusen and I were at work, and sat watching us for a while. It was easy work then for half an hour; the granite turned pliable, and yielded to our will; we built away like giants. Oh, but Fruen sat there irresponsible as ever, letting her eyes play this way and that. Why could she not rid herself of this new habit of hers? Her eyes were too earnest for such playing; it did not suit her. I thought to myself, either she was trying to make up for her foolishness towards Nils by favouring us in turn, or starting a new game altogether — which would it be? I could not make it out, and as for Grindhusen, he saw nothing in it at all, but only said, when Fruen had gone: “Eh, she’s a strange, kind-hearted soul, is Fruen. Almost like a mother. Only fancy going and feeling if the water wasn’t too cold for us!”

One day, when I was standing by the kitchen entrance, she said:

“Do you remember the old days here — when you first came?”

She had never once spoken of this till now, and I did not know what to say. I stammered out: Yes, I remembered.

“You drove me down to the Vicarage once,” she said.

Then I half fancied that perhaps she was not disinclined to talk to me and occupy her mind a little; I felt I must help her, make it easier for her. And perhaps I was a little touched myself at the thought.

“Yes,” I said, “I remember. It was a glorious drive. But Fruen must have found it cold towards the last.”

“It was you that must have felt cold,” she answered. “You lent me your own rug from the box. Oh, you poor thing!”

I was even more moved at this, and foolish ideas came into my head. Ah, then she had not forgotten me! The few years that had passed since then had not made so much difference in me after all!

“Fruen must be mistaken about the rug, I think,” said I. “But I remember we stopped at a cottage to eat, and the woman made coffee, and you gave me things yourself.”

As I spoke, I leaned up against the fence, with my arms round a post. Perhaps this somehow offended her, looking as if I expected her to stand gossiping there with me. And then I had said, “We stopped at a cottage,” as if we had been equals. It was a bad mistake on my part, of course, but I had got a little out of hand after all these vagabond months.

I stood up straight again the moment I saw she was displeased, but it was too late. She was just as kind as ever, but she had grown suspicious and easily hurt with all her trouble, and found rudeness in what was merely awkwardness of mine.

“Well, well,” she said, “I hope you find yourself as comfortable now at Øvrebø as before.”

And she nodded and walked away.

Some days passed. The Captain had not come back, but he had sent a post card, with a kind message, to Fruen: he hoped to be home again next week. He was also sending pipes, taps, and cement for the water supply.

Fruen showed me that card. “Here,” she said, “the Captain has sent these things for your work. You had better get them down from the station.”

We stood there together, looking at the card; mid-day it was, and we were just outside the house. I can’t say how it was, but I was standing there quite close to her, with my head bent in towards hers, and it made me feel happy all through. When she had finished reading she looked up at me. No play of her eyes now; but she must have caught some expression in my face, for she looked at me still. Did she feel my presence as I felt hers? Those two heavy eyes raised towards mine and held there were loaded to the brim with love. She could not be responsible for her actions now. There was a pathological depth in her glance, an influence from far within, from the life she bore under her heart. Her breath came heavily, her face flushed dark all over, then she swung round and walked slowly away.

There I stood, with the card in my hand. Had she given it to me? Had I taken it?

“Your card,” I said. “Shall I. . . . ”

She held out her hand without looking round, and walked on.

This little episode occupied my mind a great deal for some days. Ought I to have gone after her when she walked away? Oh, I might have tried, might have made the attempt — her door was not far off. Pathological? But what had she brought me the card for at all? She could have told me by word of mouth what there was to say. I called to mind how six years before we had stood in just that same way reading a telegram the Captain had sent her. Did she find pleasure in situations of that sort, and go out of her way to seek them?

Next time I saw her there was no trace of any embarassment in her manner — she was kind and cold. So I had to let it drop altogether. And, anyhow, what did I want with her at all? No, indeed!

Some visitors came to see her one day — a neighbour’s wife, with her daughter. They had heard, no doubt, that the Captain was away, and thought she might be glad of a little society; or perhaps they had come out of curiosity. They were well received; Fru Falkenberg was amiable as ever, and even played the piano for them. When they left, she went with them down to the road, talking sensibly of practical affairs, though she might well have had other things in her head than coops and killing pigs. Oh, she was full of kindly interest in it all! “Come again soon — or you, at any rate, Sofie. . . . ” “Thanks, thanks. But aren’t you ever coming over to us at Nedrebø?” “Oh, I? Of course — yes. I’d walk down with you now if it weren’t so late.” “Well, tomorrow, then?” “Yes, perhaps I might come over tomorrow. — Oh, is that you?” This was to Ragnhild, who had come down with a shawl. “Oh, what an idea! — did you think I should catch cold?”

Altogether things were looking brighter now at Øvrebø; we no longer felt that shadow of uneasiness over us all. Grindhusen and I worked away at our famous reservoir, and Lars was getting on farther every day with his trench. Seeing the Captain was away, I wanted to make the most of the time, and perhaps have the work nearly done by the time he came back; it would be a grand thing if we could get it finished altogether! He would be all the better for a pleasant little surprise, for — yes, there had been something of a scene the night before he left. Some new reminder, no doubt, of the trouble that had come upon his house; a book, perhaps, still unburnt, lying about in Fruen’s room. He had ended up by saying: “Anyhow, I’m cutting timber now to pay it off. And the harvest we’ve got in means a lot of money. So I hope the Lord will forgive me — as I do Him. Good-night, Lovise.”

When we had laid the last stone of the reservoir, and cement over all, I went down with Grindhusen to help Lars with the trench — we took a section each. The work went on easily and with a will — here and there a stone had to be blasted out, or a tree felled up in the woods; but the trench moved steadily upwards, until we had a long black line from the house to the reservoir itself. Then we went back again and dug it out to the proper depth. This was no ornamental work, but a trench — an underground resting place for some pipes that were to be buried on the spot. All we were concerned with was to get down below the reach of frost, and that before the frost itself came to hinder us. Already it was coating the fields at night. Nils himself left all else now, and came to lend a hand.

But masonry and digging trenches are but work for the hands; my brain in its idleness was busy all the while with every conceivable idea. As often as I thought of that episode with the post card, it sent, as it were, a glow all through me. Why should I think any more about it? No, of course not. And I had not followed her to the door after all.

But there she stood, and you there. Her breath came towards you — a taste of flesh. Out of a darkness she was, nay, not of earth. And her eyes — did you mark her eyes?

And each time something in me turned at the thought — a nausea. A meaningless succession of names poured in upon me, places of wild and tender sound, whence she might be: Uganda, Antananarivo, Honolulu, Venezuela, Atacama. Verse? Colours? I knew not what to do with the words.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55