Saturday, May 12, 2012

'Twas not as if they were strangers

Raining, and dirty underfoot, but Barbro tramps on. Evening is drawing on, but not dark yet at that season of the year. Poor Barbro--she does not spare herself, but goes on her errand like another; she is bound for a place, to commence another struggle there. She has never spared herself, to tell the truth, never been of a lazy sort, and that is why she has her neat figure now and pretty shape. Barbro is quick to learn things, and often to her own undoing; what else could one expect? She had learned to save herself at a pinch, to slip from one scrape to another, but keeping all along some better qualities; a child's death is nothing to her, but she can still give sweets to a child alive. Then she has a fine musical ear, can strum softly and correctly on a guitar, singing hoarsely the while; pleasant and slightly mournful to hear. Spared herself? no; so little, indeed, that she has thrown herself away altogether, and felt no loss. Now and again she cries, and breaks her heart over this or that in her life--but that is only natural, it goes with the songs she sings, 'tis the poetry and friendly sweetness in her; she had fooled herself and many another with the same. Had she been able to bring the guitar with her this evening she could have strummed a little for Axel when she came.  

She manages so as to arrive late in the evening; all is quiet at Maaneland when she reaches there. See, Axel has already begun haymaking, the grass is cut near the house, and some of the hay already in. And then she reckons out that Oline, being old, will be sleeping in the little room, and Axel lying out in the hayshed, just as she herself had done. She goes to the door she knows so well, breathless as a thief, and calls softly: "Axel!"  
"What's that?" asks Axel all at once.  
"Nay, 'tis only me," says Barbro, and steps in. "You couldn't house me for the night?" she says.  
Axel looks at her and is slow to think, and sits there in his underclothes, looking at her. "So 'tis you," says he. "And where'll you be going?"  
"Why, depends first of all if you've need of help to the summer work," says she.  
Axel thinks over that, and says: "Aren't you going to stay where you were, then?"   
"Nay; I've finished at the Lensmand's."  
"I might be needing help, true enough, for the summer," said Axel. "But what's it mean, anyway, you wanting to come back?"  
"Nay, never mind me," says Barbro, putting it off. "I'll go on again tomorrow. Go to Sellanraa and cross the hills. I've a place there."  
"You've fixed up with some one there?"  
"I might be needing summer help myself," says Axel again.  

Barbro is wet through; she has other clothes in her sack, and must change. "Don't mind about me," says Axel, and moves a bit toward the door, no more.  Barbro takes off her wet clothes, they talking the while, and Axel turning his head pretty often towards her. "Now you'd better go out just a bit," says she.  

"Out?" says he. And indeed 'twas no weather to go out in. He stands there, seeing her more and more stripped; 'tis hard to keep his eyes away; and Barbro is so thoughtless, she might well have put on dry things bit by bit as she took oft the wet, but no. Her shift is thin and clings to her; she unfastens a button at one shoulder, and turns aside, 'tis nothing new for her. Axel dead silent then, and he sees how she makes but a touch or two with her hands and washes the last of her clothes from her. 'Twas splendidly done, to his mind. And there she stands, so utterly thoughtless of her....  

A while after, they lay talking together. Ay, he had need of help for the summer, no doubt about that.  
"They said something that way," says Barbro.  

He had begun his mowing and haymaking all alone again; Barbro could judge for herself how awkward it was for him now.--Ay, Barbro understood.--On the other hand, it was Barbro herself that had run away and left him before, without a soul to help him, he can't forget that. And taken her rings with her into the bargain. And on top of all that, shameful as it was, the paper that kept on coming, that Bergen newspaper it seemed he would never get rid of; he had had to go on paying for it a whole year after.  
"'Twas shameful mean of them," says Barbro, taking his part all the time.  

But seeing her all submissive and gentle, Axel himself could not be altogether heartless towards her; he agreed that Barbro might have some reason to be angry with him in return for the way he had taken the telegraph business from her father. "But as for that," said he, "your father can have the telegraph business again for me; I'll have no more of it, 'tis but a waste of time."  
"Ay," says Barbro.  
Axel thought for a while, then asked straight out: "Well, what about it now, would you want to come for the summer and no more?"  
"Nay," says Barbro, "let it be as you please."  
"You mean that, and truly?"  
"Ay, just as you please, and I'll be pleased with the same. You've no call to doubt about me any more."  
"No, 'tis true. And I've ordered about the banns."  

H'm. This was not so bad. Axel lay thinking it over a long time. If she meant it in earnest this time, and not shameful deceit again, then he'd a woman of his own and help for as long as might be.  
"I could get a woman to come from our parts," said he, "and she's written saying she'd come. But then I'd have to pay her fare from America."  
Says Barbro: "Ho, she's in America, then?"  
"Ay. Went over last year she did, but doesn't care to stay."  
"Never mind about her," says Barbro. 
"And what'd become of me then?" says she, and begins to be soft and mournful.  
"No. That's why I've not fixed up all certain with her."  

And after that, Barbro must have something to show in return; she confessed about how she could have taken a lad in Bergen, and he was a carter in a big brewery, a mighty big concern, and a good position. "And he'll be sorrowing for me now, I doubt," says Barbro, and makes a little sob. "But you know how 'tis, Axel; when there's two been so much together as you and I, 'tis more than I could ever forget. And you can forget me as much as you please." "What! me?" says Axel. "Nay, no need to lie there crying for that, my girl, for I've never forgot you."  

Barbro feels a deal better after that confession, and says: "Anyway, paying her fare all the way from America when there's no need...." She advises him to have nothing to do with that business; 'twould be over costly, and there was no need. Barbro seemed resolved to build up his happiness herself.  

They came to agreement all round in the course of the night. 'Twas not as if they were strangers; they had talked over everything before. Even the necessary marriage ceremony was to take place before St. Olaf's Day and harvest; they had no need to hide things, and Barbro was now herself most eager to get it done at once. Axel was not any put out at her eagerness, and it did not make him any way suspicious; far from it, he was flattered and encouraged to find her so. Ay, he was a worker in the fields, no doubt, a thick-skinned fellow, not used to looking over fine at things, nothing delicate beyond measure; there were things he was obliged to do, and he looked to what was useful first of all. Moreover, here was Barbro all new and pretty again, and nice to him, almost sweeter than before. Like an apple she was, and he bit at it. The banns were already put up.

Knut Hamsun, Growth of the Soil  (1917) (translated by W. W. Worster)

No comments: