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Glahn's Death by Knut Hamsun

Translated from the Norwegian of Knut Hamsun by W. W. Worster

 

A DOCUMENT OF 1861

I

The Glahn family can go on advertising as long as they please for Lieutenant Thomas Glahn, who disappeared; but he will never come back. He is dead, and, what is more, I know how he died.

To tell the truth, I am not surprised that his people should still keep on seeking information; for Thomas Glahn was in many ways an uncommon and likable man. I admit this, for fairness' sake, and despite the fact that Glahn is still repellant to my soul, so that the bare memory of him arouses hatred. He was a splendidly handsome man, full of youth, and with an irresistible manner. When he looked at you with his hot animal eyes, you could not but feel his power; even I felt it so. A woman, they say, said: “When he looks at me, I am lost; I feel a sensation as if he were touching me.”

But Thomas Glahn had his faults, and I have no intention of hiding them, seeing that I hate him. He could at times be full of nonsense like a child, so kindly natured was he; and perhaps it was that which made him so irresistible to women. God knows! He could chat with them and laugh at their senseless twaddle; and so he made an impression. Once, speaking of a very corpulent man in the place, he said that he looked as if he went about with his breeches full of lard. And he laughed at that joke himself, though I should have been ashamed of it. Another time, after we had come to live in the same house together, he showed his foolishness in an unmistakable way. My landlady came in one morning and asked what I would have for breakfast, and in my hurry I happened to answer: “A bread and a slice of egg.” Thomas Glahn was sitting in my room at the time—he lived in the attic up above, just under the roof—and he began to chuckle and laugh childishly over my little slip of the tongue. “A bread and a slice of egg!” he repeated time over and over, until I looked at him in surprise and made him stop.

Maybe I shall call to mind other ridiculous traits of his later on. If so, I will write them down too, and not spare him, seeing that he is still my enemy. Why should I be generous? But I will admit that he talked nonsense only when he was drunk. But is it not a great mistake to be drunk at all?

When I first met him, in the autumn of 1859, he was a man of two-and-thirty—we were of an age. He wore a full beard at that time, and affected woolen sports shirts with an exaggerated lowness of neck; not content with that, he sometimes left the top button undone. His neck appeared to me at first to be remarkably handsome; but little by little he made me his deadly enemy, and then I did not consider his neck handsomer than mine, though I did not show off mine so openly. I met him first on a river boat, and we were going to the same place, on a hunting trip; we agreed to go together up-country by ox-wagon when we came to the end of the railway. I purposely refrained from stating the place we were going to, not wishing to set anyone on the track. But the Glahns can safely stop advertising for their relative; for he died at the place we went to, which I will not name.

I had heard of Thomas Glahn, by the way, before I met him; his name was not unknown to me. I had heard of some affair of his with a young girl from Nordland, from a big house there, and that he had compromised her in some way, after which she broke it off. This he had sworn, in his foolish obstinacy, to revenge upon himself, and the lady calmly let him do as he pleased in that respect, considering it no business of hers. From that time onwards, Thomas Glahn's name began to be well known; he turned wild, mad; he drank, created scandal after scandal, and resigned his commission in the army. A queer way of taking vengeance for a girl's refusal!

There was also another story of his relations with that young lady, to the effect that he had not compromised her in any way, but that her people had showed him the door, and that she herself had helped in it, after a Swedish Count, whose name I will not mention, had proposed to her. But this account I am less inclined to trust; I regard the first as true, for after all I hate Thomas Glahn and believe him capable of the worst. But, however it may have been, he never spoke himself of the affair with that noble lady, and I did not ask him about it. What business was it of mine?

As we sat there on the boat, I remember we talked about the little village we were making for, to which neither of us had been before.

“There's a sort of hotel there, I believe,” said Glahn, looking at the map. “Kept by an old half-caste woman, so they say. The chief lives in the next village, and has a heap of wives, by all accounts—some of them only ten years old.”

Well, I knew nothing about the chief and his wives, or whether there was a hotel in the place, so I said nothing. But Glahn smiled, and I thought his smile was beautiful.

I forgot, by the way, that he could not by any means be called a perfect man, handsome though he was. He told me himself that he had an old gunshot wound in his left foot, and that it was full of gout whenever the weather changed.

II

A week later we were lodged in the big hut that went by the name of hotel, with the old English half-caste woman. What a hotel it was! The walls were of clay, with a little wood, and the wood was eaten through by the white ants that crawled about everywhere. I lived in a room next the main parlor, with a green glass window looking on to the street—a single pane, not very clear at that—and Glahn had chosen a little bit of a hole up in the attic, much darker, and a poor place to live in. The sun heated the thatched roof and made his room almost insufferably hot at night and day; besides which, it was not a stair at all that led up to it, but a wretched bit of a ladder with four steps. What could I do? I let him take his choice, and said:

“Here are two rooms, one upstairs and one down; take your choice.”

And Glahn looked at the two rooms and took the upper one, possibly to give me the better of the two—but was I not grateful for it? I owe him nothing.

As long as the worst of the heat lasted, we left the hunting alone and stayed quietly in the hut, for the heat was extremely uncomfortable. We lay at night with a mosquito net over the bedplace, to keep off the insects; but even then it happened sometimes that blind bats would come flying silently against our nets and tear them. This happened too often to Glahn, because he was obliged to have a trap in the roof open all the time, on account of the heat; but it did not happen to me. In the daytime we lay on mats outside the hut, and smoked and watched the life about the other huts. The natives were brown, thick-lipped folk, all with rings in their ears and dead, brown eyes; they were almost naked, with just a strip of cotton cloth or plaited leaves round the middle, and the women had also a short petticoat of cotton stuff to cover them. All the children went about stark naked night and day, with great big prominent bellies simply glistening with oil.

“The women are too fat,” said Glahn.

And I too thought the women were too fat. Perhaps it was not Glahn at all, but myself, who thought so first; but I will not dispute his claim—I am willing to give him the credit. As a matter of fact, not all the women were ugly, though their faces were fat and swollen. I had met a girl in the village, a young half-Tamil with long hair and snow-white teeth; she was the prettiest of them all. I came upon her one evening at the edge of a rice field. She lay flat on her face in the high grass, kicking her legs in the air. She could talk to me, and we did talk, too, as long as I pleased. Glahn sat that evening in the middle of our village outside a hut with two other girls, very young—not more than ten years old, perhaps. He sat there talking nonsense to them, and drinking rice beer; that was the sort of thing he liked.

A couple of days later, we went out shooting. We passed by tea gardens, rice fields, and grass plains; we left the village behind us and went in the direction of the river, and came into forests of strange foreign trees, bamboo and mango, tamarind, teak and salt trees, oil—and gum-bearing plants—Heaven knows what they all were; we had, between us, but little knowledge of the things. But there was very little water in the river, and so it remained until the rainy season. We shot wild pigeons and partridges, and saw a couple of panthers one afternoon; parrots, too, flew over our heads. Glahn was a terribly accurate shot; he never missed. But that was merely because his gun was better than mine; many times I too shot terribly accurately. I never boasted of it, but Glahn would often say: “I'll get that fellow in the tail,” or “that one in the head.” He would say that before he fired; and when the bird fell, sure enough, it was hit in the tail or the head as he had said. When we came upon the two panthers, Glahn was all for attacking them too with his shot-gun, but I persuaded him to give it up, as it was getting dusk, and we had no more than two or three cartridges left. He boasted of that too—of having had the courage to attack panthers with a shot-gun.

“I am sorry I did not fire at them after all,” he said to me. “What do you want to be so infernally cautious for? Do you want to go on living?” “I'm glad you consider me wiser than yourself,” I answered.

“Well, don't let us quarrel over a trifle,” he said.

Those were his words, not mine; if he had wished to quarrel, I for my part had no wish to prevent him. I was beginning to feel some dislike for him for his incautious behavior, and for his manner with women. Only the night before, I had been walking quietly along with Maggie, the Tamil girl that was my friend, and we were both as happy as could be. Glahn sits outside his hut, and nods and smiles to us as we pass. It was then that Maggie saw him for the first time, and she was very inquisitive about him. So great an impression had he made on her that, when it was time to go, we went each our own way; she did not go back home with me.

Glahn would have put this by as of no importance when I spoke to him about it. But I did not forget it. And it was not to me that he nodded and smiled as we passed by the hut! it was to Maggie.

“What's that she chews?” he asked me.

“I don't know,” I answered. “She chews—I suppose that's what her teeth are for.”

And it was no news to me either that Maggie was always chewing something; I had noticed it long before. But it was not betel she was chewing, for her teeth were quite white; she had, however, a habit of chewing all sorts of other things—putting them in her mouth and chewing as if they were something nice. Anything would do—a piece of money, a scrap of paper, feathers—she would chew it all the same. Still, it was nothing to reproach her for, seeing that she was the prettiest girl in the village, anyway. Glahn was jealous of me, that was all.

I was friends again with Maggie, though, next evening, and we saw nothing of Glahn.

III

A week passed, and we went out shooting every day, and shot a heap of game. One morning, just as we were entering the forest, Glahn gripped me by the arm and whispered: “Stop!” At the same moment he threw up his rifle and fired. It was a young leopard he had shot, I might have fired myself, but Glahn kept the honour to himself and fired first. Now he'll boast of that later on, I said to myself. We went up to the dead beast. It was stone dead, the left flank all torn up and the bullet in its back.

Now I do not like being gripped by the arm, so I said:

“I could have managed that shot myself.”

Glahn looked at me.

I said: “You think perhaps I couldn't have done it?”

Still Glahn made no answer. Instead, he showed his childishness once more, shooting the dead leopard again, this time through the head. I looked at him in utter astonishment.

“Well, you know,” he explains, “I shouldn't like to have it said that I shot a leopard in the flank.” “You are very amiable this evening,” I said.

It was too much for his vanity to have made such a poor shot; he must always be first. What a fool he was! But it was no business of mine, anyway. I was not going to show him up.

In the evening, when we came back to the village with the dead leopard, a lot of the natives came out to look at it. Glahn simply said we had shot it that morning, and made no sort of fuss about it himself at the time. Maggie came up too.

“Who shot it?” she asked.

And Glahn answered:

“You can see for yourself—twice hit. We shot it this morning when we went out.” And he turned the beast over and showed her the two bullet wounds, both that in the flank and that in the head. “That's where mine went,” he said, pointing to the side—in his idiotic fashion he wanted me to have the credit of having shot it in the head. I did not trouble to correct him; I said nothing. After that, Glahn began treating the natives with rice beer—gave them any amount of it, as many as cared to drink.

“Both shot it,” said Maggie to herself; but she was looking at Glahn all the time.

I drew her aside with me and said:

“What are you looking at him all the time for? I am here too, I suppose?”

“Yes,” she said. “And listen: I am coming this evening.”

It was the day after this that Glahn got the letter. There came a letter for him, sent up by express messenger from the river station, and it had made a detour of a hundred and eighty miles. The letter was in a woman's hand, and I thought to my self that perhaps it was from that former friend of his, the noble lady. Glahn laughed nervously when he had read it, and gave the messenger extra money for bringing it. But it was not long before he turned silent and gloomy, and did nothing but sit staring straight before him. That evening he got drunk—sat drinking with an old dwarf of a native and his son, and clung hold of me too, and did all he could to make me drink as well.

Then he laughed out loud and said:

“Here we are, the two of us, miles away in the middle of all India shooting game—what? Desperately funny, isn't it? And hurrah for all the lands and kingdoms of the earth, and hurrah for all the pretty women, married or unmarried, far and near. Hoho! Nice thing for a man when a married woman proposes to him, isn't it—a married woman?”

“A countess,” I said ironically. I said it very scornfully, and that cut him. He grinned like a dog because it hurt him. Then suddenly he wrinkled his forehead and began blinking his eyes, and thinking hard if he hadn't said too much—so mighty serious was he about his bit of a secret. But just then a lot of children came running over to our hut and crying out: “Tigers, ohoi, the tigers!” A child had been snapped up by a tiger quite close to the village, in a thicket between it and the river.

That was enough for Glahn, drunk as he was, and cut up about something into the bargain. He picked up his rifle and raced off at once to the thicket—didn't even put on his hat. But why did he take his rifle instead of a shot-gun, if he was really as plucky as all that? He had to wade across the river, and that was rather a risky thing in itself—but then, the river was nearly dry now, till the rains. A little later I heard two shots, and then, close on them, a third. Three shots at a single beast, I thought; why, a lion would have fallen for two, and this was only a tiger! But even those three shots were no use: the child was torn to bits and half eaten by the time Glahn come up. If he hadn't been drunk he wouldn't have made the attempt to save it.

He spent the night drinking and rioting in the hut next door. For two days he was never sober for a minute, and he had found a lot of companions, too, to drink with him. He begged me in vain to take part in the orgy. He was no longer careful of what he said, and taunted me with being jealous of him.

“Your jealousy makes you blind,” he said.

My jealousy? I, jealous of him?

“Good Lord!” I said, “I jealous of you? What's there for me to be jealous about?”

“No, no, of course you're not jealous of me,” he answered. “I saw Maggie this evening, by the way. She was chewing something, as usual.”

I made no answer; I simply walked off.

IV

We began going out shooting again. Glahn felt he had wronged me, and begged my pardon.

“And I'm dead sick of the whole thing,” he said. “I only wish you'd make a slip one day and put a bullet in my throat.” It was that letter from the Countess again, perhaps, that was smouldering in his mind. I answered:

“As a man soweth, so shall he also reap.”

Day by day he grew more silent and gloomy. He had given up drinking now, and didn't say a word, either; his cheeks grew hollow.

One day I heard talking and laughter outside my window; Glahn had turned cheerful again, and he stood there talking out loud to Maggie. He was getting in all his fascinating tricks. Maggie must have come straight from her hut, and Glahn had been watching and waiting for her. They even had the nerve to stand there making up together right outside my glass window.

I felt a trembling in all my limbs. I cocked my gun; then I let the hammer down again. I went outside and took Maggie by the arm; we walked out of the village in silence; Glahn went back into the hut again at once.

“What were you talking with him again for?” I asked Maggie.

She made no answer.

I was thoroughly desperate. My heart beat so I could hardly breathe. I had never seen Maggie look so lovely as she did then—never seen a real white girl so beautiful. And I forgot she was a Tamil—forgot everything for her sake.

“Answer me,” I said. “What were you talking to him for?”

“I like him best,” she said.

“You like him better than me?”

“Yes.”

Oh, indeed! She liked him better than me, though I was at least as good a man! Hadn't I always been kind to her, and given her money and presents? And what had he done?

“He makes fun of you; he says you're always chewing things,” I said.

She did not understand that, and I explained it better; how she had a habit of putting everything in her mouth and chewing it, and how Glahn laughed at her for it. That made more impression on her than all the rest I said.

“Look here, Maggie,” I went on, “you shall be mine for always. Wouldn't you like that? I've been thinking it over. You shall go with me when I leave here; I will marry you, do you hear? and we'll go to our own country and live there. You'd like that, wouldn't you?”

And that impressed her too. Maggie grew lively and talked a lot as we walked. She only mentioned Glahn once; she asked:

“And will Glahn go with us when we go away?”

“No,” I said. “He won't. Are you sorry about that?”

“No, no,” she said quickly. “I am glad.”

She said no more about him, and I felt easier. And Maggie went home with me, too, when I asked her.

When she went, a couple of hours later, I climbed up the ladder to Glahn's room and knocked at the thin reed door. He was in. I said:

“I came to tell you that perhaps we'd better not go out shooting to-morrow.”

“Why not?” said Glahn.

“Because I'm not so sure but I might make a little mistake and put a bullet in your throat.”

Glahn did not answer, and I went down again. After that warning he would hardly dare to go out to-morrow—but what did he want to get Maggie out under my window for, and fool with her there at the top of his voice? Why didn't he go back home again, if the letter really asked him, instead of going about as he often did, clenching his teeth and shouting at the empty air: “Never, never! I'll be drawn and quartered first”?

But the morning after I had warned him, as I said, there was Glahn the same as ever, standing by my bed, calling out:

“Up with you, comrade! It's a lovely day; we must go out and shoot something. That was all nonsense you said yesterday.”

It was no more than four o'clock, but I got up at once and got ready to go with him, in spite of my warning. I loaded my gun before starting out, and I let him see that I did. And it was not at all a lovely day, as he had said; it was raining, which showed that he was only trying to irritate me the more. But I took no notice, and went with him, saying nothing.

All that day we wandered round through the forest, each lost in his own thoughts. We shot nothing—lost one chance after another, through thinking of other things than sport. About noon, Glahn began walking a bit ahead of me, as if to give me a better chance of doing what I liked with him. He walked right across the muzzle of my gun; but I bore with that too. We came back that evening. Nothing had happened. I thought to myself: “Perhaps he'll be more careful now, and leave Maggie alone.”

“This has been the longest day of my life,” said Glahn when we got back to the hut.

Nothing more was said on either side.

The next few days he was in the blackest humor, seemingly all about the same letter. “I can't stand it; no, it's more than I can bear,” he would say sometimes in the night; we could hear it all through the hut. His ill temper carried him so far that he would not even answer the most friendly questions when our landlady spoke to him; and he used to groan in his sleep. He must have a deal on his conscience, I thought—but why in the name of goodness didn't he go home? Just pride, no doubt; he would not go back when he had been turned off once.

I met Maggie every evening, and Glahn talked with her no more. I noticed that she had given up chewing things altogether; she never chewed now. I was pleased at that, and thought: She's given up chewing things; that is one failing the less, and I love her twice as much as I did before!

One day she asked about Glahn—asked very cautiously. Was he not well? Had he gone away?

“If he's not dead, or gone away,” I said, “he's lying at home, no doubt. It's all one to me. He's beyond all bearing now.”

But just then, coming up to the hut, we saw Glahn lying on a mat on the ground, hands at the back of his neck, staring up at the sky.

“There he is,” I said.

Maggie went straight up to him, before I could stop her, and said in a pleased sort of voice:

“I don't chew things now—nothing at all. No feathers or money or bits of paper—you can see for yourself.”

Glahn scarcely looked at her. He lay still. Maggie and I went on. When I reproached her with having broken her promise and spoken to Glahn again, she answered that she had only meant to show him he was wrong.

“That's right—show him he's wrong,” I said. “But do you mean it was for his sake you stopped chewing things?”

She didn't answer. What, wouldn't she answer?

“Do you hear? Tell me, was it for his sake?”

And I could not think otherwise. Why should she do anything for Glahn's sake?

That evening Maggie promised to come to me, and she did.

V

She came at ten o'clock. I heard her voice outside; she was talking loud to a child whom she led by the hand. Why did she not come in, and what had she brought the child for? I watched her, and it struck me that she was giving a signal by talking out loud to the child; I noticed, too, that she kept her eyes fixed on the attic—on Glahn's window up there. Had he nodded to her, I wondered, or beckoned to her from inside when he heard her talking outside? Anyhow, I had sense enough myself to know there was no need to look up aloft when talking to a child on the ground.

I was going out to take her by the arm. But just then she let go the child's hand, left the child standing there, and came in herself, through the door to the hut. She stepped into the passage. Well, there she was at last; I would take care to give her a good talking to when she came!

Well, I stood there and heard Maggie step into the passage. There was no mistake: she was close outside my door. But instead of coming in to me, I heard her step up the ladder—up to the attic—to Glahn's hole up there. I heard it only too well. I threw my door open wide, but Maggie had gone up already. That was ten o'clock.

I went in, sat down in my room, and took my gun and loaded it. At twelve o'clock I went up the ladder and listened at Glahn's door. I could hear Maggie in there; I went down again. At one I went up again; all was quiet this time. I waited outside the door. Three o'clock, four o'clock, five. Good, I thought to myself. But a little after, I heard a noise and movement below in the hut, in my landlady's room; and I had to go down again quickly, so as not to let her find me there. I might have listened much more, but I had to go.

In the passage I said to myself: “See, here she went: she must have touched my door with her arm as she passed, but she did not open the door: she went up the ladder, and here is the ladder itself—those four steps, she has trodden them.”

My bed still lay untouched, and I did not lie down now, but sat by the window, fingering my rifle now and again. My heart was not beating—it was trembling.

Half an hour later I heard Maggie's footstep on the ladder again. I lay close up to the window and saw her walk out of the hut. She was wearing her little short cotton petticoat, that did not even reach to her knees, and over her shoulders a woolen scarf borrowed from Glahn. She walked slowly, as she always did, and did not so much as glance towards my window. Then she disappeared behind the huts.

A little after came Glahn, with his rifle under his arm, all ready to go out. He looked gloomy, and did not even say good-morning. I noticed, though, that he had got himself up and taken special care about his dress.

I got ready at once and went with him. Neither of us said a word. The first two birds we shot were mangled horribly, through shooting them with the rifle; but we cooked them under a tree as best we could, and ate in silence. So the day wore on till noon.

Glahn called out to me:

“Sure your gun is loaded? We might come across something unexpectedly. Load it, anyhow.”

“It is loaded,” I answered.

Then he disappeared a moment into the bush. I felt it would be a pleasure to shoot him then—pick him off and shoot him down like a dog. There was no hurry; he could still enjoy the thought of it for a bit. He knew well enough what I had in mind: that was why he had asked if my gun were loaded. Even to-day he could not refrain from giving way to his beastly pride. He had dressed himself up and put on a new shirt; his manner was, lordly beyond all bounds.

About one o'clock he stopped, pale and angry, in front of me, and said:

“I can't stand this! Look and see if you're loaded, man—if you've anything in your gun.”

“Kindly look after your own gun,” I answered. But I knew well enough why he kept asking about mine.

And he turned away again. My answer had so effectively put him in his place that he actually seemed cowed: he even hung his head as he walked off.

After a while I shot a pigeon, and loaded again. While I was doing so, I caught sight of Glahn standing half hidden behind a tree, watching me to see if I really loaded. A little later he started singing a hymn—and a wedding hymn into the bargain. Singing wedding hymns, and putting on his best clothes, I thought to myself—that's his way of being extra fascinating to-day. Even before he had finished the hymn he began walking softly in front of me, hanging his head, and still singing as he walked. He was keeping right in front of the muzzle of my gun again, as if thinking to himself: Now it is coming, and that is why I am singing this wedding hymn! But it did not come yet, and when he had finished his singing he had to look back at me.

“We shan't get much to-day anyhow, by the look of it,” he said, with a smile, as if excusing himself, and asking pardon of me for singing while we were out after game. But even at that moment his smile was beautiful. It was as if he were weeping inwardly, and his lips trembled, too, for all that he boasted of being able to smile at such a solemn moment.

I was no woman, and he saw well enough that he made no impression on me. He grew impatient, his face paled, he circled round me with hasty steps, showing up now to the left, now to the right of me, and stopping every now and then to wait for me to come up.

About five, I heard a shot all of a sudden, and a bullet sang past my left ear. I looked up. There was Glahn standing motionless a few paces off, staring at me; his smoking rifle lay along his arm. Had he tried to shoot me? I said:

“You missed that time. You've been shooting badly of late.”

But he had not been shooting badly. He never missed. He had only been trying to irritate me.

“Then take your revenge, damn you!” he shouted back.

“All in good time,” I said, clenching my teeth.

We stood there looking at each other. And suddenly Glahn shrugged his shoulders and called out “Coward” to me. And why should he call me a coward? I threw my rifle to my shoulder—aimed full in his face—fired.

As a man soweth...

Now, there is no need, I insist, for the Glahns to make further inquiry about this man. It annoys me to be constantly seeing their advertisements offering such and such reward for information about a dead man. Thomas Glahn was killed by accident—shot by accident when out on a hunting trip in India. The court entered his name, with the particulars of his end, in a register with pierced and threaded leaves. And in that register it says that he is dead—dead, I tell you—and what is more, that he was killed by accident.