The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter One

The third generation now guides the destiny of Jensen’s great store in Segelfoss. Originally founded by one Per Jensen, dubbed Per paa Bua, it continued under the direction of his son Theodore, also “paa Bua,” who traded far and wide, stood forth as a true son of progress and was rain or blue sky to all who crossed his path. Nor was that so very long ago, either; people in town do not have to strain their minds to remember him, for he was contemporary with the old Lieutenant’s son, Willatz, who simply went bothering his head about music and came to nought in this world.

Theodore, on the contrary, came to a very great deal. His achievements could be listed at length: village burgomaster, heavy tax-payer, a merchant trading in a grand manner hitherto unknown, once even with a commercial traveler to take in the towns of northern Norway, three men in the store itself, and an office manager to keep his books for him. An active fellow, that Theodore paa Bua, aspiring, waxing ever more prosperous, owner of a fish-sloop and two herring-seines, each with its boat and full equipment, growing more and more kindly with the years, taking a paternal interest in those who were feeling life’s pinch, and in time becoming well-liked. In bad years for both sea and soil, many a one was compelled to go to Theodore paa Bua for the bread to keep him alive, and this could not be denied. But, as a matter of course, they would first have to pay him extravagant homage, or, at least, to wag their heads, overwhelmed by all his power and wealth. “A single sack of flour?” he might ask. “How long do you think that will last that family of yours?” Then, hearing the poor wretch reply that he dared not think of going into him for more, Theodore might turn to one of his clerks and say: “Let him have two sacks!” And, after issuing such an order, it was only right and proper that he should inwardly swell to the bursting point.

He had cast eyes in the direction of Frøken Holmengraa, the mill-owner’s daughter, but nothing ever came of that. No, in that particular Theodore paa Bua’s vanity had overshot its mark and, since his office manager had been merely a bauble to flash in the fair one’s eyes, his first move was to let the poor chap go. There was more to it than that, however: though he continued to maintain his balance and promptly saw the error of his ways, he shortly took advantage of the situation and, one fine day, married the sexton’s juvenile daughter who had by no means spurned his courtship. Thus, in spite of his folly in certain directions, Theodore proved that he had a remarkably level head on his shoulders, for he gained a delightful wife, ardent and handsome as a young filly, and if it happened that she was no more than seventeen, she was really sufficiently developed for all that.

How silly the mill-owner’s daughter had been! Her father’s affairs had been running steadily downhill of late and there she might have struck a bargain, accepted Theodore paa Bua and stepped into a new life of splendour and security. Snobbishness and a devil-may-care pride alone had caused her to stand thus in her own light, and little enough did she gain for that pride of hers, for in the end she found her level as an ordinary housekeeper in Tromsø.

Thus badly had things gone for the once mighty mill-folk, Herr Holmengraa and his daughter Mariane.

But what then of Segelfoss Manor and all its vast estate? The old Lieutenant had been a true nobleman; in his day he had put up a church for the people of Segelfoss, had donated portraits of the Apostles for the altar and a basin of sterling silver for the baptismal fount and everything else he could think of. He had had no less than seven-and-twenty house servants and his enormous lands under cultivation had extended to the very boundary of the neighbouring parish — a glorious and a princely domain. His wife had been a titled lady from Hanover, Germany and together they had lived in the great white house with its tall pillars, a palace which could be seen from steamers out at sea. Proud and upright he had been, a man of truth and courage. To indicate the worth of a signature, it had been said: “As good as that Willatz Holmsen’s!” His word had held like an oath, the nod of his head had been like a benediction upon his people about him.

But to what avail had all that been? The time came when that sort of thing didn’t go any longer. The Holmsens of Segelfoss were doomed. The fate of the third generation. They persisted in living along like grand folk with not a single penny coming in. And it took no end of money to pay off that house full of servants and to scatter charity throughout the parish, for travel and for the grand receptions such as were held when Carl XV came touring the north or when the prefect and his council stopped with them over the Sessions. And, added to all that, were finally the funds despatched to their son, living the life of a gentleman as a student of music in costly schools abroad. Things were bound to come to a bad end with them. As for the old Lieutenant and his lady, they both died and got out of the way in time, but their son, young Willatz Holmsen — why, he had nothing left to do but to sell out. . . . That had been before Segelfoss had grown into a regular town, before land and houses had been worth an established price, the very development which had given Theodore paa Bua his chance. For no sooner had young Willatz turned everything movable into cash than Theodore began casting his eyes in the direction of the house with its tall white pillars, that palace, that country seat of kings, and in this his vanity was hugely triumphant. He became sole owner of the glories of Segelfoss Manor.

Yes, those had been hard times, wretchedly hard times up in Nordland. Cheap fish, deep sleep and depression — not a farthing over sixty skilling a barrel for prime round-fish. But, for one who had means left over from a former day, it was no trick at all to acquire a palace and land for city lots all up and down the sea. Of course it must not be assumed that Theodore paa Bua was so bloated with wealth that his purchase left no hole in his pocket — as a matter of fact, he found himself sweating no end to meet his payments — but an extension of time was his for less than the asking, so far into the depths had this Holmsen descended. A pity it was how much young Willatz owed both at home and abroad! Yes, and he was obliged to charter a steamer to transport all the handsome furnishings and costly works of art of all kinds from the halls of Segelfoss Manor south to a possible market. A tragic evidence indeed of the power of life and of fate.

And what then were Theodore paa Bua and his wife to do with that palace of theirs? They had a table and chairs for one of the parlours and beds for a bedroom or two. But in this palace there were two grand reception halls downstairs to say nothing of twenty or more guest rooms upstairs, and the plush carpets in some of these rooms were red, and those in others were blue; and the walls of one of the grand salons downstairs were done with a golden floral design, and the walls of the other were hung with pure silk. But nowhere was there to be found a solitary chair to sit upon. After he had become burgomaster, Theodore put one of these salons to good use as a council chamber and went far to impress his fellow townsmen with this meeting-place straight out of wonderland. . . .

A daughter was born to them and the mother was overjoyed. The father had taken the trouble to order some fireworks from Trondhjem but declined to set them off. The following year they had another daughter, a blessed new creation which again brought joy to the mother, though the father, viewing the situation with a practical eye, failed to share her elation. Again no fireworks were set off. But at length, when the father was over forty and the mother was barely half his age, they had a son who pleased them both, a ten-pound baby with much hair on his head and real strength in his grip, a robust little chap. That evening the father got out a certain sky-rocket he had hidden away and tried to touch it off. Nothing happened, however. He struggled with live coals and direct flame, but the thing refused to go off. Oh well, all that meant was that the powder had gone mouldy with the years.

The boy was christened Gordon Tidemand, a name which the mother with all her book-learning — she was the sexton’s daughter, bear in mind — had run across some place or other. As a name that was quite all right, there was nothing worth arguing about there, and the lad did not die; on the contrary, he throve, ate and drank like any healthy child, but in time he developed brown eyes. No one was able to understand it — brown eyes! And that was quite all right, too; his blue-eyed parents regarded the situation as an interesting freak of nature and mentioned it quite openly to others: “Will you simply look at what brown eyes he has!” they said. They did nothing to conceal the fact of those sparkling brown little eyes.

But then one day the father was assailed by frightful misgivings.

Had it been back in the days of his hot-blooded youth, Theodore paa Bua would surely have held his wife responsible for those brown eyes. But as things now were with him, taken up every minute of his day with that enormous business of his and all his other affairs, to say nothing of his repeated exasperation over being the father of all those little girls — an endless procession of girls — he again made the best of the situation and used sound common sense. On one or two occasions he had thumped the table at his wife, and he had gone so far as to squint searchingly into her face each time she called for help from the warehouse to slaughter a calf or smoke some salmon, but further than that he had never gone. Nor had he even for a moment considered dismissing that handsome devil of a Gypsy lad who worked for him down at the warehouse and who was such an able hand with the salmon net.

A practical, superior sort of chap, that Theodore paa Bua, even though he was hardly the man for such an attitude, hardly one of those whose tombstone’s are forever cluttered up with fulsome inscriptions. No, he was simply an honest fellow with a slightly twisted sense of ethics. His fireworks had failed to go off; not a single rocket had he been able to despatch with a blazing thrust at the stars. But what of it? In truth, the stars are well beyond the reach of mortal man! And was it, after all, worth while to get rid of the Gypsy and thus only lose a good servant? Who could trap the salmon as cleverly as he? Who would bring in an unexpectedly large profit in fish at the expense of getting his hands all covered with blisters from handling jellyfish, as he? Who would turn out at all hours of the day or night to meet the steamers and ferry ashore all those piles of freight for the store, as he? Furthermore, didn’t that Gypsy lad, Otto, come of good people in their own way, too? He belonged to the great family of Alexanders who were from Hungary and who were known all through Nordland, wherever they went with that houseboat of theirs.

Moreover, how could Theodore tell? What proof did he have? None save a pair of shining brown eyes and a certain suspicious way his wife had had about her ever since that Gypsy had come to Segelfoss. It was something, was it not, that a new light had kindled in her eyes, that she tiptoed up and downstairs, that she had taken to singing rather frequently of late, and that she was wearing a little gold medallion on a black velvet ribbon about her neck, that little child of nature! Further, if the truth be told, there had once been a desperate embrace involving a kiss and a fumbling of hands one evening out in the smokehouse with Theodore spying on the pair. And last of all, there had been a repetition of the affair one moonlight night right there on the wharf in front of the warehouse door. But these were all, so really what proof did he have! Father Theodore reasoned it out somewhat as follows: In any event, it wasn’t a girl this time and even if everything had not been exactly right and proper, the sin was not on his soul.

Time passed and a governess was brought in for the children, a lady — again if the truth be told — with whom Theodore might sport about a bit and to whom he might pay some open attention in order to prove that he, too, was a man of parts and to indicate to his wife that he could play the same game. Of course he could — just see there! He escorted the lady to church without his wife and, when Christmas came, he presented the lady with a sterling silver napkin-ring. Please, now let his wife chew on that a while! He was simply indifferent to what the world might say of his actions; it had not been he, had it, who had brought a brown-eyed child into the world! Well then, folk would certainly be on his side! And quite apart from all that, the masters of Segelfoss Manor had a way of doing about as they liked!

But his young wife followed his example and thereafter it was the Gypsy Otto who took her to church. There they both sat in the traditional manorial pew to defy all public opinion, even though Otto Alexander was only a Gypsy and a common warehouse hand. Hm, Theodore paa Bua must have thought to himself at that — the situation is growing intolerable! And the Gypsy was through then and there.

Ay, for autumn was at hand and the salmon fishing was over for that year.

But Theodore was not a bad sort; he was willing to balance accounts. He had a plain talk with his wife and mentioned a new arrangement. The children were growing up rapidly and the little girls, in particular, were old enough now to have a regular tutor, a really learned man. Oh that rascal, Theodore paa Bua! That cunning scamp! He was no Cupid’s votary; he was really bored to death with trying to feign an affair with the governess and he was unable to go on simulating a deeply wounded vanity — enough of that sort of thing! No, he was really not so bad.

And it was a splendid solution to the family problem when the governess went her way and a male tutor arrived in the house. Now the children could get some real knowledge into those heads of theirs. Gordon Tidemand, particularly, was in need of manly instruction, brilliant and precocious as he had already proven himself to be, his mind a searching flame. And in time he went to Trondhjem, first to a school where he took first honours, later serving his business apprenticeship as a clerk behind a counter. After that, he spent two years in Germany where he studied “all that pertained to the profession,” such as mercantile trading, accountancy, banking and foreign exchange — pompous and superfluous stuff for a mere coastal trader from Segelfoss, but liberalizing and essential for a cultured man of affairs. Theodore paa Bua was doing his level best to ape the ways of the old Lieutenant by giving his son a complete and refined education abroad, and, since he had made no end of money of late on a couple of herring coups, he could well afford this unusual expense. And not only that: he even assigned his son, that mere youth, the task of buying up some fine old furniture for the halls and parlours of Segelfoss Manor like that which had stood there before — gold-framed mirrors which reached from floor to ceiling, chairs and sofas designed with gilded sphinxes and lion’s paws, paintings and vases, tables and inlaid cabinets; and many an odd piece did Gordon Tidemand pick up and send home in enormous packing cases. It was indeed a spectacle to see how the interior of the palace was beginning to blossom again in all its former splendour. A hodge-podge of ornamental pieces, some imitation, some genuine, clocks which naturally did not run, chandeliers with countless broken prisms, bronzes smeared over with cheap patina, certain pieces of authentic furniture in fine old woods, to say nothing of the many beds ornate with angels and whatnot in the guest rooms. The grandeur of the new furnishings went so far beyond all the old stuff young Willatz had carted away that Theodore and his wife hardly knew what to do with it. No, they decided, they would have to leave things standing where they were until their son returned home.

In London Gordon Tidemand met a young compatriot of his, one Romeo Knoff, likewise abroad to acquire a maze of theory. The latter was from a big trading station in Helgeland, the centre of a populous district, a regular port of call for the coasting steamers and stylishly equipped with dovecots, peacock alleys, a tower on the main building, a warehouse and a ship quay of solid concrete. Not always, however, had the elder Knoff been as solid as his ship quay; not until there had been a couple of remunerative bankruptcies had he emerged to carry on his extensive trading in Lofoten fish, his cooperage and boat-building enterprises, along with divers other activities. A man of energy, a mighty magnate there on his native heath. And the father of two children, a son Romeo and a daughter Juliet — Romeo and Juliet!

After their meeting in London, Romeo Knoff and Gordon Tidemand spent much time in each other’s company; they were of an age and they became close friends, studied the same subjects and were thus both products of the same quality-type of culture. They returned home to Norway together and agreed to exchange visits in due time.

Theodore paa Bua was surely no man to oppose the visit of so polished a gentleman as young Knoff; on the contrary, he felt himself distinctly honoured and was much concerned over the coming event. The Knoffs had originally hailed from abroad, but for several generations now had been traders there in Nordland. Theodore, on the other hand, was Norwegian through and through, had descended from Per paa Bua, and was thus, as it were, no more than a last season’s product, lacking all glamour save that which was part of the Manor itself as the mark of its former owners — the renowned family of Holmsens. But it was a happy stroke of fortune, at least, which had elevated so local a phenomenon as Theodore paa Bua to his present manorial status.

Romeo arrived with his sister Juliet and, even from the steamer, they gained an immediate impression of grandeur — the Manor, bulky behind its pillared front, the long avenue of arching birches, the belfry astride the storehouse roof. Later, when they arrived on the place itself, and stepped inside that magnificent mansion, the two young Knoffs simply threw up their hands and Frøken Juliet said: “Great Heavens, we live in no such style!” Any wonder then, that Theodore paa Bua swelled with pride!

Upon leaving for home, Romeo and Juliet took both Gordon Tidemand and his two sisters along with them, and again did father Theodore have occasion to plume himself.

For several years the young people were constantly exchanging visits and their relationship became familiar indeed. The end of it was a double wedding: Romeo made off with Theodore’s daughter Lillian and Juliet Knoff came to Segelfoss to live. An even exchange is no robbery. It was only Marna, Theodore’s younger daughter, who was left out of it and who remained unmarried for a time.

The town had been quite small to begin with. Segelfoss Manor had been the nucleus, but this lay isolated a fair distance back from the sea. Down by the waterfront stood Theodore’s mighty store and about it the rest of the town. One by one, a number of craftsmen had arrived from the south and settled down: a tailor, a photographer, a blacksmith, a baker and a butcher. Several small tradesmen had also settled there, but the latter were finding it difficult to earn a livelihood. The original butcher had been compelled to give up, but another had come to take his place. A watchmaker had turned up in town one day and had found a good bit of work getting all the old clocks up at the Manor to run, but upon completion of that task he had been forced to depart. He had no other choice. . . .

But Tobias Holmengraa, the man who had come from Mexico to establish his great mill by the river, he had been responsible for no end of activity and local expansion. During his regime, many outsiders had come to settle in town and the place had grown by leaps and bounds. But Holmengraa’s hour of triumph had been, after all, short-lived; Segelfoss and its immediate environs were too small and too impoverished and the distance to cities and towns needing flour too great. Further than that, a flood of hard times engulfed him, he and his workers had a falling-out and all activity perished.

But for all that, the town still advanced step by step; a couple of new buildings last year, a building or two this year, the district doctor chose this as his headquarters, and that meant a drugstore, too. After a span of years have elapsed, just see what we have here now: a post-office, a telegraph station, a Grand Hotel, a circuit courthouse, a bank and a cinema. Left over from a bygone day, a church and parsonage, but as the perfect fruit of today, a schoolhouse and a home for the schoolmaster, a lawyer and a sheriff, each with his separate establishment, a police department and a police station, a little printshop and the offices of the Segelfoss News. Aside from these, there was little that one could expect. Spreading out through the parish lay hosts of small farms and cottages, and the people lived on the yield from soil and sea.

Little remained of the original village and its people. A few whose history dated back to the regime of the old Lieutenant or the era of the mill still survived, but these were few in number and played no part in the present life of the town. They had hidden themselves away and were living secluded lives; like the ghosts of a vanished age, they were for the most part abroad only after dark, existed as the children of night and were glad to remain unseen. They no longer had sons and daughters over whom to watch and worry, for these had grown up and gone out into the world. Just man and wife remained now, alone, forgotten. Some of the men still went in for a bit of home fishing, others found occupation in cleaning up the town at night, two of the real old men were grave-diggers attached to the cemetery.

But once there was a time when these were human beings just like the others who live here, and not so very long ago, either. Theodore paa Bua was alive in those days, but now he is alive no more. One by one they die off and only the real old ones remain. . . . And at the hour of twilight of an evening, the old women come together about the pump to exchange their mighty memories: the mill was running then with work and good pay for their men, there were clothes to wear and a fire in the stove, coffee steaming in the pot and treacle to pour on their porridge. Now and then God was kind to them and there was a run of herring in the fjord or a good year for cod at Lofoten. And now and then there was a birth or a wedding or a funeral in their neighbourhood and all was so good, so blissful. And now there is that Lassen; he used to be from here and now at last he’s got to be bishop and councillor to the King, just like Joseph at the court of Pharaoh in the land of Egypt.

No Grand Hotel, no cinema, no bank here then. Ah yes, but those were the days!

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38