The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Ten

Odd that Segelfoss does not flourish, that business does not develop here with people earning money hand over fist, and traffic bustling in the streets. Just look at Gordon Tidemand, the Consul! He is up and doing, he has many irons in the fire.

There he is in the bank exchanging a few words with Lawyer-Banker Pettersen — the “Buttonhead.”

“My account is over-drawn — hm — a small amount, really less than one might expect, merely a few kroner. However, it is necessary for me to have cash to my credit.”

Yes, “Buttonhead” will care for his needs with pleasure, with extreme pleasure, in fact. For “Buttonhead” knows that the Consul would still have his ground rents even were all else to fail. Furthermore, his holdings here in the parish represent a whole fortune in themselves, a fortune “Buttonhead” would be only too glad to take over, if necessary.

“All right, then make it for — let’s say ten thousand. I’ve many workers on my pay-roll and I’m expecting a motor car.”

“Buttonhead” makes a note of the figure, 10,000.

So much for that.

The next person to be interviewed was Altmulig. Ah, there was one throbbing with life and activity! Altmulig was hard at work laying a cement floor in the garage which was to house the new car; haste for this had been so necessary, that he had been compelled to discontinue his supervision of the road-building work and to leave this in charge of Adolf. The automobile, it seems, had been telegraphed for and might already be on its way north. Wasn’t that sufficient reason for haste! But wasn’t there likewise reason for haste in completing the very road along which the machine would roll when the Consul and his family were sojourning “out in the country?”— Altmulig is hard-pressed. He hasn’t a moment to devote to his road-gang for he must help the Gypsy Alexander and the gardener Steffen with the cementing of this floor, though these two in turn are likewise hard-pressed, the one with his smoking of salmon, the other with the necessity of hilling the potatoes and weeding out the turnip beds. The whole pinch for time lies simply in the Consul’s unquenchable thirst for activity.

“Altmulig,” he says, “it has just occurred to me that Olsen, that old skipper of mine, never seems to look after anything any more. He seems to spend most of his time raising potatoes and going to the movies with his wife and children. You’d never know he was working for me. I was wondering in what condition he left the sloop. Do you know?”

Altmulig says nothing.

“I’m afraid he’s left things pretty much open so that anyone can get in. I believe we ought to lock things up on board.”

Altmulig says nothing.

“Do you suppose you could see to this, Altmulig? Fit her with locks both fore and aft. And there are some bed-clothes and other things to be brought ashore. You can obtain what locks you require at the store.”

Altmulig: “Ay ay, sir.”

The Consul inspects the cement work. “Well, I see you’re getting on in fine shape.”

“We’ll have to hurry if we want to be finished in time. We’ve another garage to build, you know.”

The Consul receives this with a jolt: “Good Heavens, I had quite forgotten about that!”

The Herr Consul has so many things to remember, Altmulig politely suggests. But with regard to garage number two, the one down at the store — the Consulate! — it had been Altmulig himself who had brought up the need for it. He now reports that he would knock out the wall between the stall and the carriage floor and turn the whole place into a garage.

“Does it have to be as large as all that?”

“It ought to be,” Altmulig replies, “to make room for the gasoline tanks, the spare parts, the oil cans and a lap robe to use when it’s cold.”

“Of course. Naturally. Do you drive a car yourself?”

“Well, I haven’t got an operator’s license.”

“I have one,” says the Consul. “But mine is English. We must both see about getting ourselves Norwegian licenses. It is possible that I shall need you to drive for me on occasion.”

He nods and is on his way, thinking no doubt how fortunate he is to have a man such as Altmulig to fathom his every problem — a miracle-worker, a genius in head and hand. And how well he knew how to behave! Had it come to Altmulig’s mind to congratulate him upon his consular appointment? Of course not, he had simply addressed him as “Herr Consul.” Others would have stepped up, seized his hand and vulgarly congratulated him. Skipper Olsen, for example. . . .

There stands Altmulig, for his own part smoothing out a cement floor and anything but pleased in his mind. He is waiting on pins and needles for that money of his which never arrives. Not that he is hard-up for cash — he still receives his regular pay from the chief, enough to care for his needs — no, what he really lacks is capital. Furthermore, he is constantly being interrupted, summoned from all quarters and never able to see anything through to a clean finish. To fit locks aboard the sloop will take him away from his work just that long; his two assistants will be helpless to go on without him. And briefly, he ought to have paid a certain call down in South Parish long before this. But does he ever find himself with a spare moment on his hands? Oh, he could find important enough business to take him down into South Parish, some downright pressing errand. Never fear as to that, for who could contradict him? But during the day he has no time, and during the night he must sleep. . . .

“Go on back to your regular work until I’m finished aboard the sloop,” he says to his helpers.

“All right,” they say. “But we could keep right on here, then maybe we could get through some time. What do you think yourself, Altmulig?”

“Think? You have your orders!”

But Alexander has something of a personal interest in the matter and — “It’s all foolishness to lock up the sloop,” he says.

Altmulig ignores the remark.

“For there isn’t a lock made that can’t be picked,” says Gypsy Alexander.

Altmulig looks at him. “Take my advice and stay off that sloop after I’m finished there today.”

“Hm.”

“Ay, just you take my advice! Unless you want to run into something you’re not looking for!”

“What are you talking about? What should I run into?”

“I’ve warned you,” mumbles August and with that he crosses himself.

The Gypsy, as an afterthought: “No, I— that I should go aboard? No, all I said was that we should hurry up and get finished here. Come on, Altmulig, don’t go and get mad now!”

On Sunday August took the bull by the horns and left for South Parish. Naturally he could not get there afoot in a minute, but who ever heard of a man crawling out of bed and shaving himself at three o’clock in the morning in order to be in South Parish at ten!

He does not deck himself out in all the finery he has to his name, but he does put on a brand-new red-plaid shirt over which he buttons no more than the bottom two buttons of his vest in order to expose his shining breast.

What does he want down at that new house of Tobias’? Has he come on a pressing errand? No one can contradict him. He is August. He is an old free-lance wanderer, a stranded sailor, his trade is alt mulig, everything under the sun, his place is everywhere, his life’s meaning changes day by day. Do not ask him about his errand. It is for him to raise that issue. He is just like everyone else, save that he has a bit more intelligence, a bit more ingenuity; he has a sense of grandeur and adventure, he evolves plans and has the will-power to execute them — the equipment, as well. Otherwise, he is just like everyone else. And yet —

It is he who can ask: What in the world has become of all I have got out of life? A scamp and a prevaricator, a braggart, a gambler, a fool, a law-breaker, too, at times — but innocent of malice, naïve to a degree, and born with a friendly nature, and the ability to enjoy one’s self. Here he stands today in his old age and, in the language of Gordon’s accountancy, his assets exceed his liabilities.

A loser he has been in every undertaking, in love, in his quest for lasting joy, in the rightful cravings of his nature. Fate has exacted substantial deductions from whatever gains he may have made in this life. Downright abused he has been, no blessings have fallen upon his head, behind him, wherever he has gone, ruins have lain in his wake, though he has always striven to give the best that was in him. And how he has striven! Who has ever found him at his wits’ end? For him life has been less to relish than to endure; he has staggered along under the weight of his days and his years. And now his time is over and he knows it; no change shall come into his life, no ultimate reward shall be his; he expects no justice, nor even mercy. And yet —

And yet he makes straight for South Parish and the house where Tobias lives. And he lies by saying that he has come on pressing business, to look at a horse — a horse he has already seen. Well, who can contradict him?

Upon his arrival the household is thrown into a panic of excitement. To the extent of their humble means, the members of the family are attired in their Sunday best, Cornelia even with a silver ring on her finger. But did they have a single thing to entertain him with in the way of food? The cupboard was bare; in desperation the mother of the house stood there with her hands upon her breast and said: “We have company! We have company!” Cornelia tore the kerchief from about her head, dusted off a chair and invited their guest to sit down.

“You mustn’t let yourselves get all upset just because of me,” said August, though inwardly he had no objection to being regarded as an important arrival.

Nor was this the first time the family had seen him; both Tobias and his wife had already made a trip into town to thank him and bless him for the horse. And they had been bewildered and excited then, too, though that was not to be wondered at, when they suddenly found themselves the recipients of this clear gift of a horse — the rich stranger had waved all suggestion of a promissory note aside. They had enumerated all the horse’s good points, told how they had come across the animal in the neighbouring parish and purchased it on the spot — a mare, brown with a black mane and tail, a white face, four legs — ay, naturally she had four legs, but sturdy legs, they meant, as sturdy as fence-posts — four sturdy fence-posts for legs, was what they had meant to say. The only trouble with her was that she had a bit of a bad temper, she had a little trick of laying back her ears, but this was unimportant, hardly noticeable, in fact, and Cornelia and her mother could easily capture her by offering her a wisp of hay. They could never thank him enough for this wonderful mare, never so long as they lived. . . . “I’ll come out and look at the horse some day soon,” August had said. And today he has come.

Cornelia’s small sisters and brothers have huddled themselves in one corner of the room and stand there peering out at him. They are wearing but little in the way of clothing; all are barefoot, all have grey starved faces and long silken eyelashes — the family trait. One small lad has a wide-awake appearance, the faces of the others seem dull and lifeless. There are four of them in all. Including Cornelia, the grown son who remained in Lofoten and the daughter in service at the druggist’s, there are seven children in the family. Prolific parents, it would seem.

Various religious tracts and pamphlets left behind by the evangelist are in evidence about the house. It is annoying to August to be reminded of this man and he inquires tartly what kind of a fellow he had been. A person to keep in one’s house, for example?

Ay, he had been a first rate man.

How first rate? Had he been anything else but a miserable whelp of a vagabond?

Ay, said Tobias — an extra fine fellow.

Had he paid for his keep?

Lord, yes. Paid for the whole sheep. Slaughtered a sheep for him, they had.

August could get nowhere with them; they defended the evangelist, shielded his head with their hands. Paid for the sheep — well, why shouldn’t he have paid for it? He had eaten it up before he left, had he not? August is many times on the point of interrupting this distressing conversation by asking to be shown the horse, but he keeps on asking questions. Had he been a young man? What had he looked like? Questions which had for three weeks been plaguing his mind. They had probably polished his shoes for him, Cornelia had perhaps sewed buttons on his clothes, they had seen him off on the ship — oh, there were so many secrets to be fathomed!

“I got this silver ring from him,” says Cornelia.

“What!” August screams at the ceiling. “What did you get that for?”

“I don’t know, he just gave it to me. Took it off his own finger and gave it to me.”

“Show me the horse!” bellows August, rising.

They go outside, the whole family takes him out to show him the horse. It is grazing in a field at the side, it glances up, lays back its ears in silent fury and continues to nibble the grass.

“Don’t get too near her, children!” their father warns. And with that he proceeds once again to enumerate the creature’s fine points, beginning with her remarkable powers of digestion. “See how broad and strong she is! Look at those legs! As sturdy as fence-posts, I’d say!” Then —“I wish as you’d look in her mouth,” he suggests, “have a look at her teeth —”

No, August was not the least bit interested in her teeth; he said that he could see at a glance that she was a splendid animal. No one could tell him anything about horses. Look straight through them, he could! And in order to emphasize his knowledge of horse-flesh, he adjusted his nose-glasses and studied the mare from all angles.

They were unable to capture the creature for the purpose of stroking it and admiring its coat. Hardly! The beast would scowl out of the corner of its eye and immediately turn its back on anyone attempting to approach. “Well, she has that little bad habit,” said Tobias. “But otherwise she’s as gentle as a lamb!” And again he undertook to offer August his extravagant thanks and blessings. . . .

August draws Cornelia to one side and speaks to her in a low voice: he has not seen her since that first time, where has she been keeping herself? — Home. She’s been home the entire time. Many things to do. Hilling potatoes. Of late she’s been cutting peat. — She might have come to town and gone to the movies with him. — Ay, that would have been fun! She has heard about them. Living people and animals just like in real life! — Would she like to go with him that evening? — Oh, if only she could! But she has the creatures to tend to and the milking. — Couldn’t her mother do the milking? — Heavens, ’twas not to be thought of!

“It’s just that you don’t want to!” he said. “All right!” he added with a hurt nod of the head. He could see at once how things stood! He took a couple of long strides but he lacked the fine courage to leave her and go off by himself and sulk.

She for her own part felt badly and she, too, took several long strides to catch up with him. “Could I have a few words with you?” she asked.

“All right, let’s go over to the barn.”

He held no illusions, his time was over, had been over for more than a human generation. He had nought save antiquity to lavish upon her; he lacked future, significance. But he had felt a foolish little warm spot glowing in his breast. Age had crushed his heart beneath the weight of many long years, but one day that heart had none the less fluttered because of two eyes which had looked at him from beneath their fringes of long silken lashes and a feeling of tenderness had seized him, a sweet urge to be something to the girl.

They were walking against the wind and for her this was nothing at all. For him, however, this was trouble enough; his old eyes watered and he was compelled to wipe his cheeks without letting her see. Oh, but the devil, he was still what he was, was he not? — a man in a red plaid shirt, a man who could make a gift of a horse or two!

The barn was empty and bare, not a wisp of hay or anything else to offer them comfort, so they sat down, side by side, in the doorway. They sat down and looked back in the direction of the mare grazing in the field beside the house. Nought else was there to see save the road and a youth rambling along from the neighbouring farm.

“What was it you wanted to talk to me about?” August asked.

“Nothing,” she replied. “I just didn’t want you to be angry with me!”

He decided to give her more time and fell to stabbing the ground with his staff. Meanwhile she kept her eyes fastened upon the youth rambling down the road. She did not utter a word. No, it appeared that Cornelia had withdrawn into herself and would refuse to talk.

“Where was that preacher fellow from?” August asked.

“The preacher? I don’t know.”

“Well, he must be from some place, mustn’t he?”

“Ay, I suppose he must.”

“Hahaha, I have to laugh when I think of it, but is it so that he baptised folk?”

“Of course. But we didn’t get ourselves baptised. None of us did.”

“He wanted you to, though, I suppose?”

“He mentioned it. But he wanted to wait until he came back.”

“What, is he coming back here? No, I imagine that will depend just a wee bit upon what the Consul has to say about it, if I should happen to mention the matter to him!” August nodded and tightened his lips.

The youth is rambling past; his face is unnaturally pale and he appears to be greatly excited over something. Just as he is passing he calls out: “Well, I see you’re having a good time!”

Cornelia herself goes pale as death but August takes no notice. He is absorbed entirely in his own problem and asks: “Did he have a beard?”

“What’s that?” she asked, bewildered. “That lad?”

“I mean that preacher fellow, that vagabond. I asked if he had a beard.”

“Oh, him! Yes, a long beard.”

“Naturally. He’s one of the kind that never take the trouble to shave, but go about looking like pigs. Excuse me!”

“Ay,” says Cornelia and she too laughs.

“But was it perhaps a thick pretty-looking beard?” August inquires sarcastically.

Cornelia laughs again. “No, I don’t think so. Just ordinary,” she says.

“Was he young?”

“Young, did you say? No.”

August glances at her with something akin to humility in his eyes. “Ay, but I suppose he was younger than me?” he asks.

“I couldn’t say. How old are you?”

“Oh,” answers August, evasively. “I’m a real old man now. Just a worn-out piece of junk.”

“My, how you talk!” she says mildly.

“Ay, that I’ll admit straight out. An old piece of junk!” His contempt for the vagabond preacher leads him to deliver a further blast in that direction. “So he isn’t as old as I am, eh? Then I’m mindful to know what the devil he had to come simpering around here for. You can tell him from me that I’ve no more use for him than I have for this stick I’ve got in my hand. Who ever heard of such a thing! Too lazy to shave off that beard of his! A fool, that’s what he was, a mere puppy, a cock with a comb —”

“No, no, no! He was not!”

“He certainly was, and I know it. But that’s nothing. A man to be a real man has to be old. That’s what I mean!”

“Ay.”

“I’ll give that fellow something he’s not bargaining for. Now what do you say to that?”

“I? What do I care about him”

“Hm?” asks August, amazed.

“What do you mean? It’s not the preacher I’m to have.”

August, still more deeply amazed: “Yes, but — you see, I thought —”

“Hahaha!” Cornelia laughs. She throws back her head and laughs uproariously.

August thought for a moment and, as usual, came back with a quick retort: “Well then, you can go to the movies with me, can’t you?”

She shook her head. “Didn’t you see the lad who just went by?” she asked.

“That lad? Ay. Oh, so he’s the one you’re to have?”

She stepped down from her seat and made sure the youth was a good distance away. Returning, she was more communicative, she was willing to talk. Ay, he was always after her. She couldn’t go anywhere, either to a dance or a meeting, without his flying into a rage. He was furious with her now just because he had seen her sitting there with another man. She didn’t know what she was going to do with him.

August fell into a brown study, gave thought to the manifold complexities of life. “But,” he said, “if it isn’t that preacher fellow you’re to have, why the devil did I get myself all worked up over him?”

Cornelia laughed and answered that she had wondered about that herself.

So August had lost again, had staked much and lost again. Regret and deep chagrin, his world seemed topsyturvy. Nevertheless, he was gallant in defeat. “Ay,” he said, “now that it’s a young good-looking lad you’re to have, Cornelia, there’s all the difference in the world. I say no more.”

But now it was her turn to open her heart and it seemed as though this were the matter about which she had intended to speak to August. “Things aren’t so definitely settled between us,” she said.

“Hm. Then maybe you don’t care as much for him as you might, eh?” he asked.

She sighed and shook her head. Then suddenly she burst into tears. Oh, the manifold complexities of life! The point was: she had another lad!

August was speechless.

And the fact of the matter was that relations between this other youth and herself were becoming more and more settled and definite. Ay, but Hendrik, he would give her no peace. So really she didn’t know what in the world to do. Why, this very day he had come to her and threatened to shoot them both.

“Hold on, hold on! Wait a minute!” said August. “Who said he was going to shoot?”

“Hendrik. The one we just saw go by.”

“Well, what’s the other one’s name?”

“Benjamin. He’s from North Parish. But Hendrik said he would shoot him right off the face of this earth —”

“Oh, go kiss your grandmother!” snorted August.

“And he means what he says, too. He’s been and asked that Aase.”

“That Aase? Oh, piffle!”

“She has given him much advice, for Aase, she’s angry at us and would like to make things hard for us. It’s all because of one time when we couldn’t put her up over night. She’s tried to make things hard for us ever since. She carries a grudge so long. That’s why the whole thing seems so awful.”

“Don’t you bother your head about such stuff!” August said in a soothing voice. “He wouldn’t dare shoot. And as for that Aase, I’ll see she is put in prison. And I can do it, too. I’ve been thinking of it for some time.”

Cornelia, catching her breath. “Bless you! I knew if only I could have a talk with you —”

August swelled and went further to console her. Did she imagine for a moment that Hendrik would dare to shoot! How old was he?

“Twenty-two. But that Benjamin, he’s twenty-four.”

“You shall have that Benjamin!” August decided. And now it was his intense desire that she should look to him; the time was ripe for him to declare himself. “Don’t sit there crying, a young thing like you!” he says. “You don’t see me crying, do you? I’m a worn-out piece of junk — there’s no use trying to deny it — a perfect example of an old broken-down thing, like a star that falls out of the sky because it’s too old and weak to hold on any more — you needn’t try to deny it. But I’ve had my day, and what a day it was!”

“Ay, I dare say you have!”

“You may be sure of that!” he said, beginning to boast. “Why, Lord bless your soul, you never saw anything like the figure I used to cut when I was young. Once I had three after me at the same time and here you’ve only two. And another time a party of girls chased me out on the ice. Yes sir, and the ice was strong enough to hold me, but there were five girls after me and that was too much for it — it broke and down they went. I’ll never forget it. Two of the girls were as pretty as could be —”

“But what happened to them?” Cornelia anxiously asked.

“Oh, I saved them,” August said to relieve her mind.

If he had abused the evangelist too shabbily, he went far to make up for it now. He entertained her and consoled himself with the tales he told her, perhaps even believing the words he spoke. After rattling off a number of yarns, he came out with this one: They were in a foreign land, it seems, and a young girl was sitting outside her door playing on a harmonica. It was lovely music she was playing and the girl herself was beyond his powers of description, so utterly lovely she was. She had numberless strings of pearls about her neck and her body was draped with no more than a mantle of gauze — it was a summer day and the air was warm. In her own language they had called her Signora, so that was probably her name. The moment she saw him, she rose to her feet, walked over to him and smilingly invited him into the house. Inside she refused to sit anywhere save on his lap. . . . “Cornelia, you must believe me, she was a sweetheart worth having! But there was trouble between us when it came time for me to go back to my ship, for you see I was on shore-leave at the time. Well sir, I couldn’t do a thing with her. She was determined to go aboard with me and she insisted she would never leave me so long as she lived. Do you know what I did? I took her aboard with me, gave her something to drink and a few other things besides. But in the meantime a pack of swine ashore began shooting at me.”

“Shooting at you?”

“Ay, but that didn’t bother me any in those days. The worst trouble was when the time came for her to go back ashore, for that she refused to do and simply sat down and cried.”

“So you didn’t stay with her?”

“A thousand times impossible! How could I stay with them all? She was only one. But she was with me in my cabin for a good long time, and my, how pleased and happy she was over that! Ay, that was in the old days!” said August, with a sigh.

He must have enjoyed rolling these juicy stories over his tongue; they did him good, they were all he needed. When Cornelia asked him if he had never been married, it would have been sweet indeed to have answered: “Not yet!” But, instead, he fell sad and intimated that such bliss had been denied him by fate. Oh, but he had had many earthly experiences, and one time, in particular, in a land where the palms and raisins grow, he had been engaged to marry a certain girl but nothing had ever come of it.

Had she died, then?

Ay, God rest her bones! He paused to feel sorry for himself, uttered a series of pathetic sighs. He might have asked Cornelia to blow her cool breath upon him, as though he were a child that had bruised its head. But —“So much for that!” he said. “I’ve had my day! And this much I can say for myself: I’ve never married any of them and gone off and left them with a lot of children to support. No sir, I’ve never done anything but well by them. I’ve never committed any sins against them.”

“Ay, and even we got a horse from you! Good Heavens, if only we could do something for you in return!”

“A mere trifle!” said August.

“We’ve wondered at home if we couldn’t maybe darn socks for you or something else like that. But, I suppose it’s an insult even to mention a thing like that. You have everything that anyone can —”

Suddenly Hendrik appears around the corner of the barn; he scowls at them and is on the point of going his way.

August, suddenly wide awake: “Hendrik, come here!”

Hendrik looks over his shoulder and halts in his tracks. He has become startlingly aware of the fact that August is sitting there with a revolver in his hand.

“Come here, I said!”

“What do you want with me?” asks Hendrik, deathly pale.

“Oh no! Oh no!” pleads Cornelia.

August: “I hear you’ve been threatening to use a gun on some one. I’d just like to warn you against it. Do you see that aspen over there? Do you see that red leaf?”

“Ay, what about it?”

“Just this!”— August crosses himself, forehead and breast, takes momentary aim and fires.

The red aspen leaf has disappeared, only the branch is left there trembling. A bull’s-eye, fool luck. Hendrik’s jaw drops open. A miracle from Heaven that the bullet found its mark, for the shot had been fired at random. But August had paused to cross himself twice and no doubt that had helped — there was something uncanny about it, an act of sorcery, an appeal to the Evil One for help — ay, and thus was Aase powerless!

August looks at the boy. “You can see, I’m a fellow you’d better steer clear of!”

“Ay —”

“Now step over to that aspen and I’ll put a nick in your ear!”

“Oh no! Oh no!” Cornelia squeals.

Hendrik’s teeth are chattering. “I didn’t mean — that wasn’t what I meant — I never — I only said it to —”

“Go on home!” August commands him.

Cornelia leaps to her feet, clutches the boy’s arm and off they flee together.

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