The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Eleven

The sloop had been locked up fore and aft, whatever could be the reason which had called forth this measure. What was the matter with Gordon Tidemand? He hadn’t suspected his mother of anything, had he? That couldn’t have been it; he had had no grounds for suspicion. She had merely been aboard to look around. Nevertheless for several days Gammelmoderen had been deeply concerned over something; she had missed a certain belt of hers and if it were on the sloop she could have left it, it would now be locked up tight. Delicious food for scandal.

She could not go aboard again to search for it, nor could she ask Altmulig if he had found it. The situation was painful indeed. Naturally Altmulig might of his own accord have let fall a word or two; she had given him the opportunity, had smiled and dropped the proper hints; but no, he had said nothing. So there was nothing more to be done about it.

But a final ruling in the account was that the sloop was now locked up. But it was more than the mere cabin of a sloop Gammelmoderen now found herself deprived of. Of a truth, she was still young in body and spirit; it was splendid to feel herself a part of life once more, and, since she was not of an age to be free from all possible danger, she had a devil of a lot of courage when it came to taking risks.

She was always present when there was salmon on hand to be smoked. She had important duties to perform in the course of this delicate process; the right kind of smoke was essential and in exactly the needed volume. She was indispensable there in the smokehouse.

But to an equal extent was the Gypsy Alexander likewise indispensable. So there you have it: an indispensable pair. There was no one to equal him at hauling salmon out of the sea, no one could split the fish so evenly down the spine, no one could salt it and stretch it and take out the bones as neatly as he. The gardener Steffen had attempted it, but he had made a mess of things. And when all these preparatory tasks had been performed, Alexander would mount the roof and hang the salmon in even rows down into the smoke-vent and lightly cover it over. And there again had the gardener Steffen proved clumsy; once he had lowered a string of salmon all the way down into the fire pit. No, there was an art and a science to smoking salmon.

It was likewise Alexander’s task to cut peat and heather and moss and juniper for use in the smoking process, for this was a combination of fuel which would give forth billows of smoke without once bursting into flame. Adjoining the smokehouse itself was a storage bin packed with this fuel. The moss and juniper must be kept at all times moist, the peat and heather dry. So here too was a question of science.

Alexander was a good man for the job, an expert at work of this nature. He had elevated the smoked salmon industry at Segelfoss to the point where shipments were made to the cities, to the point where it was earning a steady profit upon which the chief had already begun to rely. That Alexander, that Gypsy! Tall, thin, a lonely man, no friends in the town, but a tower of strength in himself, steel in that back-bone of his. And all were, in truth, against this swarthy stranger, and he would hardly have bothered to remain on the place had he not been both subtle and cunning — he would not have bothered to stay on, were it not for Gammelmoderen.

The affair between the two was audacious and thoroughgoing, though not entirely lacking in glamour, passion, and romantic love. There was a mad though loyal bond between them — a bond of Gypsy forging — which nothing could break asunder and which under different circumstances might have been given a fairer name. They might have parted company to their mutual advantage. But this they did not; their passion was as poignant as youth’s first love. But it was dangerous and deeply afflicted.

They had met during their younger days, he and the widow of Theodore paa Bua. The original fusion of their passion had taken place during a golden opportunity out in the berry field — she had given him a certain look upon leaving the house and he had gone a round-about way and met her. Violence — violence and violation, but so welcome, so unimpeachable. Ay, and their affair had continued without interruption throughout two whole summers and one winter. When they parted, they had had good cause to remember each other and when they met again they had neither of them changed; they were the same mad lovers they had been during their earliest youth. Segelfoss again, he and she again, wine and rapture, madness and bold adventure. And their conscience was perfectly clear — Theodore paa Bua was dead.

They had a deep secret between them, did they not? Yes, but they never mentioned it to each other, never referred to it, not once during their moments together. But it was there all the time like a tender bond between them. Possibly the parental emotion. Both were devoted to Gordon Tidemand.

“They’ve locked up the sloop,” she told him.

“I know it,” he replied.

“They’ve locked up the sloop,” she repeated softly to herself.

The fact had not seemed to bowl him over; he smiled, and he had such white teeth in that swarthy face of his. Everyone considered Alexander’s eyes too piercing and they were all a little afraid of him, but she — she called him Otto and loved him. Oh, how deeply in love with him she was! And this was so strange. He was frivolous and cunning; he pilfered and robbed and appeared none too pleasing from the rear, he had no sense of honour toward anyone, he seldom bathed, went about with gold rings in his ears, blew his nose through his fingers — all this and even more. But he was hot-headed and pugnacious; as lithe as a willow, he could leap a good meter aside before one could strike him a blow, and once he had jumped out of a second-storey window in the main building and landed on his toes — all this, as well. He was a tramp and a rogue. But Gammelmoderen had no fault to find with him; he was possessed of the voracious eroticism of his race and he kept her in a constant state of yearning. They had been in the habit of meeting four, or at least, three times each week, though there had never been any definite arrangement. But now they no longer had a comfortable sloop cabin in which to lie as man and wife, now they could only meet out in the smokehouse occasionally when there was salmon to be smoked. But he was never at a loss, even so; a wild fancy might strike him and he would gather her into his arms, wrestle with her and drag her bodily into the storage bin where the peat and heather was stored.

“The door!” she exclaims. “The door is open!”

But he cares not for that, he cares for nothing in the world but her. The odour of peat and heather assails their nostrils; they are out in the berry field again!

Afterwards neither of them appear any too bold; no, they realize the risk they have taken.

She says: “You’re so careless, Otto!”

“Ay, but what other way is there for us?”

“But what if someone had come?” she asked.

“Ay,” he answered with a shake of his head.

“And if some other time someone should come?”

“Ay.”

The storage bin was a dangerous retreat and it was foolhardy indeed to leave the door open. But possibly an open door, after all, is less likely to arouse suspicion than a closed one. Furthermore the floor of the smokehouse would emit a loud squeak were anyone to come. Oh, but it couldn’t go on that way, in the long run it couldn’t go on! Well? They would have to find another way. They were really in a tight place at last. They could not walk along the same pathway together without having eyes staring at them from this window or that. Alexander shared his room with the gardener Steffen, and Gammelmoderen’s room in the main building adjoined the nursery on the one hand and Marna’s room on the other. A luckless tryst in Gammelmoderen’s room, nought else, had been the cause of Alexander’s miraculous leap from a second-storey window to the ground.

Everything seemed so preposterous.

But a storage bin and a bed of peat and heather, these were at least accessible; all they had to do was walk in. And —“Leave it to me!” Alexander would say. “Leave it to me!”

So there was no great change, after all.

Time after time they had taken alarm and nothing serious had happened. They were helpless but they were bold. They let things go.

Now and then they would be called away for some purpose, Gammelmoderen to wait upon Fru Juliet or the children, Alexander to perform some small service in the kitchen — lift some heavy object or kill a mouse in the wood-box. They were at close hand and easy to find. Possibly there were times when they were intentionally disturbed. No, their position was anything but enviable.

See, there comes Altmulig now with orders for Alexander to come finish up the work in the garage. The concrete they had laid Saturday had had two days to set. It would be all right now for them to proceed with their work.

“Haven’t got the time,” answered Alexander.

“The fact is we’re putting up a garage,” said Altmulig. “And we’ll have to hurry the work along.”

“You must go, Otto,” said Gammelmoderen.

They made short work of the garage at the Manor and moved their tools down to the Consul’s place of business in town. Their first task there was to tear down a partition. After that they spaded up the ground, set up scaffoldings and started in pouring cement. A big piece of work; August was here, there and all over. He had it in mind to make the place over into a really fine garage. The consular escutcheon had recently arrived and now appeared as the only object of embellishment outside the chief’s private office. August had decided of his own accord to brace the walls of his garage with steel struts and divide the wall-space off into panels. This work could, if necessary, be performed after the arrival of the Consul’s new car.

There came spectators to watch him at work — loafers and youngsters. Editor Davidsen of the Segelfoss News came and interviewed Altmulig about this auto stable which already had the appearance of a residence fit for a lord. The doctor’s young sons were there constantly and it was impossible to shoo them away. Two young hellions, they were, forever climbing about and sitting astride the roof beams. To be sure they climbed to no great height, but the floor beneath them was of solid concrete, as hard as rock, were either of them to fall. Altmulig spoke to them frequently and warned them particularly against standing on one foot on the beams, a trick they had begun to perform. And yes, he had been right: one day the elder of the two boys came tumbling down. From no great height, to be sure, but the floor was as hard as rock and the impact was exactly what was to be expected. He laughed and said that he was all right, but when he tried to get up, he found he could no longer stand. No, there was some trouble with one of his legs — it was broken. So he had had a serious fall, in spite of Altmulig’s warnings. Alexander took him on his back and carried him home.

There was great excitement at the doctor’s, the mother beside herself and unconsolable, the doctor desiring to take his son to the hospital in Bodø, unable to do so for three days as there would be no south-bound steamer until then, and thus himself obliged to set the leg in temporary splints. No end of excitement in the house, for the boy was not laughing now, he was bellowing.

The following day the doctor’s wife came racing up to August, beside herself and unconsolable: her son had put in a perfectly hideous night, he had screamed and was possibly even dying, for his father, the doctor, had probably squeezed all life out of the leg with all those awful splints, that’s the way it looked, and he had given the boy drops to make him sleep, but he hadn’t been able to sleep. She had begged him to administer a stronger dose, but he had refused. Now she had heard about . . . the doctor’s wife draws August with her out into the street, far away from the garage, meanwhile continuing to chatter her explanations: everyone was so kind, a neighbour woman had come to the house and she had heard of someone who could put a person to sleep, who could soothe that boy of hers; he screamed so and he couldn’t fall asleep and now August must help her in her trouble. . . .

Ay, August would help the doctor’s wife, he would help that sweet little Esther who had herself been unable to sleep and who was now so utterly beside herself. “Just you take and go home now,” he said. “I’ll throw on my coat and be off in a jiffy.”

“Do you think you can find her?”

“Don’t you worry about that!” answers August. Oh that August, he was always so emphatic about the things he said. “Don’t you worry about that!” he had said.

“And this would be such a good time, just now,” says the doctor’s wife. “My husband was called out this afternoon and he thought he would be gone quite some time.”

August looks at his watch and reports: “She will be in your house before six o’clock!”

August kept his word; Aase came to the house. He had made tracks straight to South Parish and inquired indirectly as to her whereabouts. Wandering about as was her custom, he had learned, and the day before she had been into town. He had located her at last in the old Lapp’s hut where she lived, had paused on the threshold to cross himself as a precaution against her power of evil, and stepped in. Aase was willing at once, Aase had nothing against being called to the doctor’s house.

“It’s a lucky thing I found you,” said August.

“I was expecting a message,” she replied. “That’s why I am at home.”

“It’s a broken leg,” he explained.

“I knew it before you told me,” she replied.

She knew it before he had told her! Hearing this, August again took the trouble to cross himself. The devil was in this female creature!

They began walking off together. “You’re not to come with me, do you hear!” she said, motioning him away. With that she went stalking off alone, tall, of proud and regal carriage. Arriving at the doctor’s home, she marched without hesitation straight up the steps in front. The lady herself admitted her and led the way up to the sick room. As though by tacit agreement they stole softly without speaking up the stairs — to be sure, the doctor was out of the house, but there were the maids to be considered.

Aase stationed herself by the bed and gently picked up the patient’s hands. The lad was so amazed by the sight of her that he let out a little squeak. He quite neglected to bellow. In truth he had never had any real cause for bellowing; it had been merely a case of bad temper with him, he had bellowed merely to arouse his mother’s sympathy.

“See here!” says the lady, turning back the covers. — If only her husband, the doctor, had been here now! —“Just see here! Great ugly wooden sticks, bound all up with wire! Is there any wonder that he screams? Bound all up like that —”

Aase passed her hand up and down the bandaged leg and pulled up the covers again. She observed that the lad was staring curiously at all the dingledangles hanging from her belt and that he was attempting to pull himself up in the bed to get a better look at them. Aase removed the belt, handed it to him and said: “Hold it a bit.”

“Am I to hold it?”

“Ay, look at it closely.”

This was not a difficult thing to get him to do. Such odd things: a smoking pipe of iron with a tiny perforated iron lid, a clever piece of work, and the pipe itself so graceful and so small; tobacco in a leather pouch, punk in another pouch, steel and flint for striking fire, objects of bone and silver, a foreign coin on a string, a knife in a case, the knife inlaid, the case engraved with symbols and runes; last of all a heart.

“Smell of it!” said Aase.

It contained a little sponge; there was nothing more strange than that inside, nothing to spring out and strike one in the eyes!

“Smell of it!” said Aase.

The lad smelled of it and said: “What an awful smell! Here, mama, you smell!” They both smelled and Aase said to the boy: “Now smell it a little more!”

The boy was ever so deeply fascinated by all the oddities attached to Aase’s belt, but at length he became tired and offered to hand the little museum back to her.

“Hold it a little longer!” said Aase.

“No, why should I!” fretted the boy, but he obeyed and again inspected the articles which hung from the belt. He was quite drowsy by this time and began to yawn; his eyelids had grown heavy, now and then he would close them and open them again with a start, but at length he kept them closed.

His mother whispered ecstatically: “He’s asleep! Just to think, he’s asleep!”

Aase moved over to the door and motioned the boy’s mother to accompany her; outside in the hall they remained standing together. It was then that Aase began to speak mystical and incomprehensible things to little Fru Esther. Oh, she drew herself up, puffed out her chest and affected an air of deep wisdom; she also performed a number of nonsensical rites, such as taking her own tongue between her fingers and swaying her body. And little Fru Esther, she thought this woman both handsome and hideous with that uncoiffed hair of hers which fell to her shoulders, those large horse-like teeth, that coldly arrogant face beneath the pointed cap she wore. Her hands were long and unclean, her fingers covered with heavy rings.

“I can never thank you enough,” says Fru Esther.

Aase: “When he wakes up, turn his night-shirt inside out and put it back on like that.”

“Ay.”

“And see as he wears it that way for a day and a night.”

Fru Esther nods.

“Then the doctor can take him to Bodø! Such will do him no harm. I’ve stroked him back to full health.”

“Will he be lame or have a stiff leg?”

“No.”

“Oh, to think he won’t be lame!” exclaims Fru Esther, enraptured. “Aase, see here! Take this — it’s only a banknote, such a small amount for such a great blessing. Please don’t spurn it!”

But Aase draws herself up again and brushes the money aside: “Away with it. Don’t even want to look at it. Have no use for it — hm, money! What are you thinking of —”

At this moment they hear the front door opening below. The doctor lets himself in, closes the door behind him and walks about through the rooms downstairs, calling in a loud voice: “Esther! Esther!”

“Yes!” his wife calls softly down the stairs to him. She is trembling, she would like to get Aase out of the way, urges her to retreat up into the attic. But Aase is proud and is of no mind to retreat. No, it is not for Aase to hide from any man!

The doctor mounts the stairs. His wife urges him to be quiet. “Sh! He’s asleep. Aase has put him to sleep!”

“What’s that?” asks the doctor. “Aase?”

“Yes. She came and put him to sleep.”

The doctor flashes his teeth and utters an enraged laugh.

“The idiocy of some women!” he growls.

His wife: “Don’t forget, he hasn’t had a wink of sleep for a day and a half —”

“Get out of here!” the doctor commands, addressing Aase and pointing down the stairs.

“He has my belt —”

“Yes,” explains Fru Esther. “He’s asleep with that belt of hers. He’s lying with it in his hand. I’ll —”

The doctor is already on his way into the boy’s room.

“Don’t wake him up,” his wife whispers after him. “Oh, don’t wake him up, I beg of you!”

“Here!” says the doctor, thrusting the belt with its cluster of dingledangles into Aase’s hand. “Now get out!”

Aase pauses deliberately to fasten the belt about her waist. The doctor is no doubt impatient over the delay this involves; he attempts to hurry her down the stairs, he attempts something in the nature of a push to help her along.

But no, this is no way to treat such a one as Aase; in a flash she wheels about, stretches forth her arms with fingers out-spread like claws and flings them in the doctor’s face.

A hoarse scream — the doctor leaps from the floor and clutches his face with his hands. Aase turns and marches proudly down the staircase.

For a moment the doctor remains stooping slightly forward, as though attempting to recover his balance.

“What’s the matter?” asks his wife, trembling. “Did she injure you?”

“Injure me!” He straightens up and removes his hands from his face. “See for yourself!”

One of his eyes, bathed in its own blood, is hanging down his cheek.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23r/chapter11.html

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