Blöndal frowned. "And your mother?"
"They're visiting folks down south in the valley."
"I see." He looked fixedly at the young woman, who squirmed and cast her eyes nervously to the fields. A smattering of freckles across her nose and forehead interrupted what was otherwise pale skin. Her eyes were brown and widely set, and there was a large gap between her front teeth. There was something rather ungainly about her, Blöndal decided. He noted the thick crescents of dirt under her fingernails.
"You'll have to come back later," Steina finally suggested.
Blöndal tensed. "May I at least come inside?"
"Oh. If you want. You can tie your horse there." Steina bit her lip while Blöndal wound his reins through a post in the yard, and then she turned and almost ran inside.
Blöndal followed her, stooping under the low entrance to the croft. "Will your father return this day?"
"No," was the curt reply.
"How unfavorable," Blöndal complained, stumbling in the dark passageway as Steina led him through to the badstofa. He had grown corpulent since his posting as District Commissioner and was accustomed to the more spacious dwelling provided for him and his family at Hvammur, built from imported wood. The hovels of the peasants and farmers had begun to repel him, with their cramped rooms constructed of turf that issued clouds of dust in the summer, irritating his lungs.
"I'm sorry, District Commissioner. Mamma and Pabbi, I mean, Margrét and Jón, will return tomorrow. Or the next day. Depending on the weather." Steina gestured towards the nearest end of the narrow room, where a gray woolen curtain served as a partition between the badstofa and a tiny parlor. "Sit in there," she said. "I'll go find my sister."
Lauga Jónsdóttir, Steina's younger sister, was weeding the meager vegetable plot at a little distance from the croft. Bent over her task, she hadn't seen the District Commissioner arrive, but she heard her sister calling long before she came into sight.
"Lauga! Where are you? Lauga!"
Lauga rose to her feet and wiped her soiled hands on her apron. She didn't shout back to her sister, but waited patiently until Steina, running and tripping over her long skirts, spotted her.
"I've been looking everywhere for you!" Steina cried, out of breath.
"What on God's earth is wrong with you?"
"The Commissioner is here!"
Lauga stared at her sister. "District Commissioner Björn Blöndal? Wipe your nose, Steina, you're snotting."
"He's sitting in the parlor."
"You know, behind the curtain."
"You left him there by himself?" Lauga's eyes grew wide.
Steina grimaced. "Please come and talk to him."
Lauga glared at her sister, then quickly untied her dirty apron and dropped it beside the lovage. "I can't think of what goes through your head sometimes, Steina," she muttered, as they walked quickly towards the croft. "Leaving a man like Blöndal twiddling his thumbs in our badstofa."
"In the parlor."
"What difference does it make? I suppose you gave him the servants' whey to drink, too."
Steina turned to her sister with a panicked expression. "I didn't give him anything."
"Steina!" Lauga broke into a little trot. "He'll think us peasants!"
Steina watched her sister pick her way through the tussocks of grass. "We are peasants," she mumbled.
Lauga quickly washed her face and hands, and snatched a new apron from Kristín, the family's workmaid, who had hidden herself in the kitchen at the sound of a stranger's voice. Lauga found the District Commissioner seated at the little wooden table in the parlor, reading over a slip of paper. Expressing apologies for her sister's discourteous reception, she offered him a plate of cold, hashed mutton, which he took gladly, albeit with a slightly injured air. She quietly stood aside as he ate, watching his fleshy lips wrap about the meat. Perhaps her Pabbi was to be promoted from District Officer to an even greater title. Perhaps he would receive a uniform, or a stipend from the Danish Crown. There might be new dresses. A new home. More servants.
Excerpted from Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Copyright © 2013 by Hannah Kent. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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