A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XIV

No, I didn’t go away.

I worked on, tramped through the weariest days of my life to their end, and finished laying the pipes. It was a bit of a change for us all on the place the first time we could draw water from a tap, and we were none the worse for something new to talk about for a while.

Lars Falkenberg had left us. He and I had got rid of all disagreement between us at the last, and were as we had been in the old days when we were mates and tramped the roads together.

He was better off than many another, was Lars; light of heart and empty of head; and thereto unconscionably sound and strong. True, there would be no more singing up at the house for him now or ever after, but he seemed to have grown a trifle doubtful of his voice himself the last few years, and contented himself now for the most part with the things he had sung — once upon a time — at dances and gentlefolk’s parties. No, Lars Falkenberg was none so badly off. He’d his own little holding, with keep for two cows and a pig; and a wife and children he had as well.

But what were Grindhusen and I to turn our hands to now? I could go off wandering anywhere, but Grindhusen, good soul, was no wanderer. All he could do was to stay on at one place and work till he was dismissed. And when the stern decision came, he was so upset that he could not take it easily, but felt he was being specially hardly used. Then after a while he grew confident again, and full of a childlike trust — not in himself, but in Fate, in Providence — sat down resignedly, and said: “Ay, well, ’twill be all right, let’s hope, with God’s help.”

But he was happy enough. He settled down with marvellous ease at whatever place he came to, and could stay there till he died if it rested with himself. Home he need not go; the children were grown up now, and his wife never troubled him. No, this red-haired old sinner of former days — all he needed now was a place, and work.

“Where are you going after this?” he asked me.

“A long way, up in the hills, to Trovatn, to a forest.”

He did not believe me in the least, but he answered quickly and evasively:

“Ay, I dare say, yes.”

After we had finished the pipes, Nils sent Grindhusen and myself up cutting wood till the Captain returned. We cut up and stacked the top-ends the woodmen had left; neat and steady work it was.

“We’ll be turned off, both of us,” said Grindhusen. “When Captain comes, eh?”

“You might get work here for the winter,” I said. “A thousand dozen battens means a lot of small stuff left over that you could saw up for a reasonable wage.”

“Well, talk to the Captain about it,” he said.

And the hope of regular work for the winter made this man a contented soul. He could manage well enough. No, Grindhusen had nothing much to trouble about.

But then there was myself. And I felt but little worth or use to myself now, Heaven help me!

That Sunday I wandered restlessly about. I was waiting for the Captain; he was to be back today. To make sure of things as far as I could, I went for a long walk up along the stream that fed our reservoir. I wanted to have another look at the two little waters up the hillside —“the sources of the Nile.”

Coming down on the way back, I met Lars Falkenberg; he was going home. The full moon was just coming up, red and huge, and turned things light all round. A touch of snow and frost there was, too; it was easy breathing. Lars was in a friendly mood: he had been drinking Brændevin somewhere, and talked a great deal. But I was not altogether pleased at meeting him.

I had stood there long up on the wooded hillside, listening to the soughing of earth and sky, and there was nothing else to hear. Then there might come a faint little rustling, a curled and shrunken leaf rolling and rustling down over the frozen branches. It was like the sound of a little spring. Then the soughing of earth and sky again. A gentleness came over me; a mute was set on all my strings.

Lars Falkenberg wanted to know where I had been and where I was going. Reservoir? A senseless business that reservoir thing. As if people couldn’t carry water for themselves. The Captain went in too much for these new-fangled inventions and ploughing over standing crops and such-like; he’d find himself landed one day. A rich harvest, they said. Ho, yes, but they never troubled to think what it must cost, with machines for this and that, and a pack of men to every machine again. What mustn’t it have cost, now, for Grindhusen and me that summer! And then himself this autumn. In the old days it had been music and plenty at Øvrebø, and some of us had been asked into the parlour to sing. “I’ll say no more,” said Lars. “And now there’s hardly a sizeable stick of timber left in the woods.”

“A few years’ time and it’ll be as thick as ever.”

“A few years! A many years, you mean. No, it’s not enough to go about being Captain and commanding — brrrr! and there it is! And he’s not even spokesman for the neighbours now, and you never see folk coming up now to ask him what he’d say was best to do in this or that. . . . ”

“Did you see the Captain down below? Had he come back yet?” I broke in.

“He’s just come back. Looked like a skeleton, he did. What was I going to say? . . . When are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow,” I said.

“So soon?” Lars was all friendliness, and wishing me good luck now; he had not thought I should be going off at once.

“It’s all a chance if I see you again this time,” he said. “But I’ll tell you this much, now: you’d do well to stop frittering your life away any more, and never staying on a place for good. And I say as much here and now, so mark my words. I dare say I haven’t got on so grandly myself, but I don’t know many of our likes have done better, and anyway not you. I’ve a roof over my head at the least, and a wife and children, and two cows — one bears autumn and one spring — and then a pig, and that’s all I can say I own. So better not boast about that. But if you reckon it up, it amounts to a bit of a holding after all.”

“It’s all very well for you, the way you’ve got on,” said I.

Lars is friendlier than ever after this appreciation; he wishes me no end of good, and goes on:

“There’s none could get on better than yourself, for that matter. With the knack you’ve got for all kinds of work, and writing and figuring into the bargain. But it’s your own fault. You might have done as I told you these six, seven years ago, and taken one of the other girls on the place, like I did with Emma, and settled down here for good. Then you wouldn’t be going about now from place to place. But I say the same again now.”

“It’s too late,” I answered.

“Ay, you’re terribly grey. I don’t know who you could reckon to get now about here. How old are you now?”

“Don’t ask me!”

“Not exactly a young one, perhaps, but still — What was I going to say? Come up with me a little, and maybe I’ll remember.”

I walked up, and Lars went on talking all the way. He offered to put in a word for me with the Captain, so I could get a clearing like he had.

“Funny to go and forget a thing like that,” he said. “It’s gone clean out of my head. But come up home now. I’ll be sure to hit on it again.”

All friendliness he was now. But I had one or two things to do myself, and would not go farther.

“You won’t see the Captain tonight, anyway.”

No, but it was late. Emma would be in bed, and would only be a trouble.

“Not a bit of it,” said Lars. “And if she has gone to bed, what of it? I shouldn’t wonder, now, if there was a shirt of yours up there, too. Better come up and take it with you, and save Emma going all the way down herself.”

But I would not go up. I ventured, however, to send a greeting to Emma this time.

“Ay, surely,” said Lars. “And if so be as you haven’t time to come up to my bit of a place now, why, there it is. You’ll be going off first thing tomorrow, I suppose?”

It slipped my mind for the moment that I should not be able to see the Captain that evening, and I answered now that I should be leaving as early as could be.

“Well, then, I’ll send Emma down with that shirt of yours at once,” said Lars. “And good luck to you. And don’t forget what I said.”

And that was farewell to Lars.

A little farther down I slackened my pace. After all, there was no real hurry about the few things I had to pack and finish off. I turned back and walked up again a little, whistling in the moonlight. It was a fine evening, not cold at all, only a soft, obedient calm all over the woods. Half an hour passed, and then to my surprise came Emma, bringing my shirt.

Next morning neither Grindhusen nor I went to the woods. Grindhusen was uneasy.

“Did you speak to the Captain about me?” he asked.

“I haven’t spoken to him.”

“Oh, I know he’ll turn me off now, you see! If he had any sense, he’d let me stay on to cut up all that cord-wood. But what’s he know about things? It’s as much as he can manage to keep a man at all.”

“Why, what’s this, Grindhusen? You seemed to like the Captain well enough before.”

“Oh yes, you know! Yes, of course. He’s good enough, I dare say. H’m! I wonder, now, if the Inspector down on the river mightn’t have some little scrap of a job in my line. He’s a man with plenty of money, is the Inspector.”

I saw the Captain at eight o’clock, and talked with him a while; then a couple of neighbours came to call — offering sympathy in his bereavement, no doubt. The Captain looked fatigued, but he was not a broken man by any means; his manner was firm and steady enough. He spoke to me a little about a plan he had in mind for a big drying-house for hay and corn.

No more of things awry now, Øvrebø, no more emotion, no soul gone off the rails. I thought of it almost with sadness. No one to stick up impertinent photographs on the piano, but no one to play on that piano, either; dumb now, it stands, since the last note sounded. No, for Fru Falkenberg is not here now; she can do no more hurt to herself or any other. Nothing of all that used to be here now. Remains, then, to be seen if all will be flowers and joy at Øvrebø hereafter.

“If only he doesn’t take to drinking again,” I said to Nils.

“No, surely,” he said. “And I don’t believe he ever did. It was just a bit of foolery, if you ask me, his going on like that just for the time. But talking of something else — will you be coming back here in the spring?”

“No,” I answered. “I shall not come again now.”

Then Nils and I took leave of each other. Well I remember that man’s calm and fairness of mind; I stood looking after him as he walked away across the yard. Then he turned round and said:

“Were you up in the woods yesterday? Is there snow enough for me to take a sledge up for wood?”

“Yes,” I answered.

And he went off, relieved, to the stables, to harness up.

Grindhusen, too, comes along, on the way to the stable. He stops for a moment to tell me that the Captain has himself offered him work cutting wood. “‘Saw up all the small stuff you can,’ he said; ‘keep at it for a while. I dare say we can agree all right about wages.’ ‘Honoured and thank you, Captain,’ says I. ‘Right! Go and tell Nils,’ he says. Oh, but he’s a grand open-handed sort, is the Captain! There’s not many of his like about.”

A little while after, I was sent for up to the Captain’s room. He thanked me for the work I had done both indoors, and out, and went on to settle up. And that was all, really. But he kept me there a little, asking one or two things about the drying-shed, and we talked over that for a bit. Anyhow it would have to wait till after Christmas, he said. But when the time came, he’d be glad to see me back. He looked me in the face then, and went on:

“But you won’t come back here again now, I suppose?”

I was taken by surprise. But I faced him squarely in return, and answered:


As I went down, I thought over what he had said. Had he seen through me, then? If so, he had shown a degree of trust in me that I was glad to think of. At least, he was a man of good feeling.

Trust me? And why should he not? Played out and done with as I was. Suffered to go about and do and be as I pleased, by virtue of my eminent incapacity for harm. Yes, that was it. And, anyhow, there was nothing to see through after all.

I went round, upstairs and down, saying good-bye to them all, to Ragnhild and the maids. Then, as I was coming in front of the house with my pack on my shoulder, the Captain called to me from the steps:

“Wait! I just thought — if you’re going to the station, the lad could drive you in.”

Thoughtful and considerate again! But I thanked him and declined. I was not so played out but that I could surely walk that way.

Back in my little town again. And if I have come here now, it is because the place lies on my way to Trovatn, up in the hills.

All is as it was before here now, save for thin ice on the river above and below the rapids, and snow on the ice again.

I take care to buy clothes and equipment here in the town, and, having got a good new pair of shoes, I take my old ones to the cobbler to be half-soled. The cobbler is inclined to talk, and begs me to sit down. “And where’s this man from, now?” he asks. In a moment I am enveloped by the spirit of the town.

I walk up to the churchyard. Here, too, care has been taken to provide equipment for the winter. Bundles of straw have been fastened round plants and bushes; many a delicate monument is protected by a tall wooden hood. And the hoods again armoured with a coat of paint. As if some provident soul had thought: Well, now, I have this funeral monument here; with proper care it may be made to last for generations!

There is a Christmas Fair on, too, and I stroll along to see. Here are skis and toboggans, butter scoops and log chairs from the underworld, rose-coloured mittens, clothes’ rollers, foxes’ skins. And here are horse-dealers and drovers mingling with drunken folk from up the valley. Jews there are, too, anxious to palm off a gaudy watch or so, for all there is no money in the town. And the watches come from that country up in the Alps, where Bocklin — did not come from; where nothing and nobody ever came from.

But in the evening there is brave entertainment for all. Two dancing-halls there are, and the music is supplied by masters on the hardingfele, and wonderful music it is, to be sure. There are iron strings to it, and it utters no empty phrases, but music with a sting in its tail. It acts differently upon different people: some find it rich in national sweetness; some of us are rather constrained to grit our teeth and howl in melancholy wise. Never was stinging music delivered with more effect.

The dance goes on.

In one of the intervals the schoolmaster sings touching verses about an

“aged mother, worn with toil

And sweating as ’twere blood. . . . ”

But some of the wild youths insist on dancing and nothing else. What’s this! Start singing, when they’re standing here with the girls all ready to dance — it’s not proper! The singer stops, and meets the protest in broadest dialect: What? Not proper? Why, it’s by Vinje himself! Heated discussion, pro and contra, arguing and shouting. Never were verses sung with more effect.

The dance goes on.

The girls from the valley are armoured five layers thick, but who cares for that! All are used to hard work. And the dance goes on — ay, the thunder goes on. Brændevin helps things bravely along. The witches’ cauldron is fairly steaming now. At three in the morning the local police force appears, and knocks on the floor with his stick. Finis. The dancers go off in the moonlight, and spread out near and far. And nine months later, the girls from the valley show proof that after all they were one layer of armour short. Never was such an effect of being one layer short.

The river is quieter now — not much of a river to look at: the winter is come upon it now. It drives the mills and works that stand on its banks, for, in spite of all, it is and will be a great river still, but it shows no life. It has shut down the lid on itself.

And the rapids have suffered, too. And I who stood watching them once and listening, and thought to myself if one lived down there in the roar of it for ever, what would one’s brain be like at last? But now the rapids are dwindled, and murmur faintly. It would be shame to call it a roar. Herregud! ’tis no more than a ruin of what it was. Sunk into poverty, great rocks thrust up all down the channel, with here and there a stick of timber hung up thwart and slantwise; one could cross dry-shod by way of stick and stone.

I have done all I have to do in the town, and my pack is on my shoulders. It is Sunday, and a fine clear day.

I look in at the hotel, to see the porter; he is going with me a bit of the way up the river. The great good-hearted fellow offers to carry my things — as if I could not carry them myself.

We go up along the right bank; but the road itself lies on the left; the way we are taking is only a summer path, trodden only by the lumbermen, and with some few fresh tracks in the snow. My companion cannot make out why we do not follow the road: he was always dull of wit; but I have been up this path twice before these last few days, and I am going up it once again. It is my own tracks we can see all the time.

I question him:

“That lady you told me about once — the one that was drowned — was it somewhere about here?”

“Eh? Oh, the one that fell in! Yes. Ay, it was close by here. Dreadful it was. There must have been twenty of us here, with the police, searching about.”

“Dragging the channel?”

“Yes. We got out planks and ladders, but they broke through under us; we cut up all the ice in the end. Here”— he stopped suddenly —“you can see the way we went.”

I can see in the dark space where the boats had moved out and broken through the ice to drag the depth; it was frozen over again now.

The porter goes on:

“We found her at last. And a mercy it was, I dare say. The river was low as it was. Gone right down at once, she had, and got stuck fast between two stones. There was no current to speak of; if it had been spring, now, she’d have travelled a long way down.”

“Trying to cross to the other side, I suppose?”

“Ay. They’re always getting out on the ice as soon as it comes; a nasty way it is. Somebody had been over already, but that was two days before. She just came walking down on this side where we are, and the engineer, he was coming down the road on the other side — he’d been out on his bicycle somewhere. Then they caught sight of each other and waved or made a sign or something, for they were cousins or something, both of them. Then the lady must have mistaken him somehow, the engineer says, and thought he was beckoning, for she started to come across. He shouted at her not to, but she didn’t hear, and he’d got his bicycle and couldn’t move, but, anyhow, some one had got across before. The engineer told the police all about how it happened, and it was written down, every word. Well, and then when she’s half-way across, she goes down. A rotten piece of ice it must have been where she trod. And the engineer, he comes down like lightning on his bicycle through the town and up to the hotel and starts ringing. I never heard the like, the way he rang. ‘There’s someone in the river!’ he cries out. ‘My cousin’s fallen in!’ Out we went, and he came along with us. We’d ropes and boat-hooks, but that was no use. The police came soon after, and the fire brigade; they got hold of a boat up there and carried it between them till they got to us; then they got it out and started searching about with the drag. We didn’t find her the first day, but the day after. Ay, a nasty business, that it was.”

“And her husband came, you said. The Captain?”

“Yes, the Captain, he came. And you can reckon for yourself the state he was in. And we were all the same for that matter, all the town was. The engineer, he was out of his senses for a long while, so they told us at the hotel, and when the Captain arrived, the engineer went off inspecting up the river, just because he couldn’t bear to talk any more about it.”

“So the Captain didn’t see him, then?”

“No. H’m! Nay, I don’t know,” said the porter, looking around. “No, I don’t know anything about that — no.”

His answer was so confused, it was evident that he did know. But it was of no importance, and I did not question him again.

“Well, thanks for coming up with me,” I said, and shared a little money with him for a winter wrap or something of the sort. And I took leave of him, and wanted him to turn back.

He seemed anxious, however, to go on with me a little farther. And, to get me to agree, he suddenly confesses that the Captain had seen the engineer while he was here — yes. The porter, good foolish creature, had understood enough of the maids’ gossip in the kitchen to make out that there was something wrong about the engineer and this cousin of his who had come to stay; more than this, however, he had not seen. But, as regards the meeting between the two men, it was he himself who had acted as guide to the Captain on his way up to find the engineer.

“He said he must find him, and so we went up together. And the Captain, he asked me on the way, what could there be to inspect up the river now it was frozen over? And I couldn’t see myself, I told him. And so we walked up all day to about three or four in the afternoon. ‘We might see if he’s not in the hut here,’ I said, for I’d heard the lumbermen used the place. Then the Captain wouldn’t let me go on with him any farther, but told me to wait. And he walked up to the hut by himself, and went in. He’d not been in the place more than a bare couple of minutes, when out he comes, and the engineer with him. There was a word or so between them — I didn’t hear; then all of a sudden the Captain flings up one arm like that, and lands out at the engineer, and down he goes. Lord! but he must have felt it pretty badly. And not content with that, he picks him up and lands out at him again as hard as before. Then he came back to me and said we’d be going home.”

I grew thoughtful at this. It seemed strange that this porter, a creature who bore no grudge or ill-will to any one, should leave the engineer up there at the hut without aid. And he had shown no disapproval in his telling of the thrashing. The engineer must have been miserly with him, too, I thought, and never paid him for his services, but only ordered him about and laughed at him, puppy that he was. That would be it, no doubt. And this time, perhaps, I was not misled by jealous feelings of my own.

“But the Captain — he was free with his money, if you like,” said the porter at last. “I paid off all my owings with what he gave me — ay, indeed I did.”

When at last I had got rid of the man, I crossed the river; the ice was firm enough. I was on the main road now. And I walked on, thinking over the porter’s story. That scene at the hut — what did it amount to, after all? It merely showed that one of the two men was big and strong, the other a little, would-be sportsman heavily built behind. But the Captain was an officer — it was something of that sort, perhaps, he had been thinking. Perhaps he ought to have thought a little more in other ways while there was yet time — who can say? It was his wife! who had been drowned. The Captain might do what he pleased now; she would never come again.

But if she did, what then? She was born to her fate, no doubt. Husband and wife had tried to patch up the damage, but had failed. I remember her as she was six or seven years back. She found life dull, and fell in love a trifle here and there perhaps, even then, but she was faithful and delicate-minded. And time went on. She had no occupation, but had three maid-servants to her house; she had no children, but she had a piano. But she had no children.

And Life can afford to waste.

Mother and child it was that went down.


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