The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Twelve

How many silly ways folk could find to waste a man’s time! Hither and yon August was called away from his work, consulted about this thing and that, gabbled at, and if there was no one else to disturb him then it would be the chief himself who would come to him with some question or problem. And when it was the Consul who addressed him, it was not for August to continue cementing his wall whilst answering; no, he must stand with body erect and deliver respectful replies.

“Can you drive a car yourself, Altmulig?”

“I haven’t the papers for it.”

“No operator’s license, eh? I have one,” said the chief, “but it’s in English. I wish you would find out what we must do to obtain Norwegian licenses. I’ll need you to relieve me when the occasion arises. This is a fine garage you’re putting up here.”

“If only we can get done with it!”

“Let’s hope so! It was too bad about that tumble the doctor’s youngster had in here.”

Altmulig: “I warned those lads ten times if I did once, but I was only wasting my breath.”

“They are incorrigible, those two. And now the doctor himself has trouble with one of his eyes and must go to the hospital as well. The ship is sailing tomorrow. By the way, I’d like to have all three of you down at the pier tomorrow to help the doctor and his son aboard.”

“Ay ay, sir!”

“Fine. Then you’ll see about those driving licenses, won’t you? I’m sure it has something to do with the sheriff or the judge —”

Later the chief-telegraphist stopped in — the bookworm. Again August was obliged to stand erect.

Any more Russian books?

No.

Any other rare books?

No.

“I may as well tell you,” the fellow said, “I bought that Russian Bible of yours.”

“Ho! Didn’t I know how it would be!” exclaims August. “So he turned it into money, did he!”

“He came and offered it to me.”

“How much did you give for it?”

“First let me know what the man paid you for it.”

“A swine about holy matters!” says August. “If I’d known that, I’d never have let him have it.”

“I paid him five kroner. Was that too much?”

August: “He’d better not come around me any more. Once he tried to sneak off with a brand-new — that is to say, a prayer book of mine — an old prayer book —”

“What language was it?”

August returns to his work, muttering: “He’d better not try to set foot in my place again —”

Later, trouble sprang up between the road gang and the blacksmith. Adolf comes to August with a complaint; the smith was so incompetent, Altmulig must take a hand.

Very well, Altmulig has it out with the man. The smith is unskilled in his craft; the blasting drills refuse to stand up, they either shatter or crumple at a blow; the man does not know how to temper his steel.

“Ho, so you say I don’t know how to harden steel, eh?”

“No. And if you can’t turn out better work than that, you’ve had your last drill and your last pickaxe from us.”

The smith laughs: “I’m the only blacksmith in town. I don’t know of anyone else. Unless you’d like to get the sexton to edge your tools for you!”

“I’ll telegraph for a field forge and do the work myself. And as for that, there’s nothing to prevent the Consul from getting a regular blacksmith to come here to Segelfoss.”

The smith turns pale. “A regular smith, did you say? Say, I learned my work from none less than Ship-smith Orne in Tromsø.”

“I can’t help that, you can’t temper a crow-bar so it will hold up.”

“Well, maybe I can’t. But if you think you can show me how, I’ll be glad to take lessons from you. Hahaha!”

Altmulig is pinched for time, he is behind with his work as it is; nevertheless he thrusts a bar in the forge and sets Adolf to working the bellows. The smith is an ill-natured spectator. Altmulig is no smith, but he is alt mulig, which means also a smith. This job he has set his hand to positively must succeed. But he has been faced with difficult problems before, this is not the first time he has stood at an anvil — he has tempered tool steel before.

And of course he is successful. He thins out the tip of the bar, keeps a sharp eye on the heat, stands ready with a handful of sand in the event the heat should become too intense, beats down the tip again, hammers it to a fine edge and for the third time buries it in the forge, this time calling for a gentle heat — take it easy on the bellows there, Adolf; ay, take it real easy now. Carefully, oh how carefully, August handles the bar at this stage.

“Now what do you generally do?” he scornfully asks the smith.

“What do I do? Why, I stick it in the water. Finished!”

“Well that’s not what I do!” said August.

No, that was not what August did; he thrust the glowing end of the crow-bar into the sand-box, held it there no longer than a split second, looked at it to make sure it had the correct bluish tint, delicately touched the tip to the surface of the water, withdrew it, touched it to the water again, withdrew it and examined it to make sure the bluish tint had all but disappeared, thrust it into the water again, turned it about in his hands, cooled it gradually.

They tried the edge with a file; the file would not bite. The smith nodded. They tried to blunt the crowbar by striking it against the anvil; they failed; the edge was still there. The smith nodded again. “I’ll try it like that after this,” he said respectfully. “Now go after this drill!”

“Haven’t got the time. But go at it the same way with your drills,” Altmulig advised. “And a little less heat on the pickaxes as there’s iron in with the steel. You must learn about these things. Remember, go easy when you’re trying to harden your steel.”

Altmulig was lucky this time and could strut, but he might not have been so lucky a second time. Possibly too he had employed a bit more hocus-pocus than was necessary. But he had maintained his reputation as an expert.

He turned to Adolf and said: “There’s a couple of places in the road we’ll have to go back and go over. Too narrow for the car, the mudguards will strike against the cliff, I’m afraid. We’ll either have to build it out to the left or blast away more of the cliff to the right. I’ll be up this evening and decide which will cost us least money. By the way, how are things going up the line?”

Adolf was quick to reply. “It’s that Francis,” he said.

“What’s the matter with him?”

“He’s just the same as usual.”

Altmulig: “Say, you’re an ass to let yourself be bothered by riff-raff like that Francis! Tell him from me that he’s to keep his mouth shut while he’s working for me!”

So much for that. But the interruptions, the general time-wasting continues. How discouraging! The following day Alexander fails to turn up for work in the garage. “Better and better all the time!” August bitterly complains.

“He’s smoking salmon,” the gardener Steffen replies.

“We’ll never in all eternity be through with this garage!”

“Well, the Consul makes more money smoking and shipping off salmon.”

“Money, money, money!” grates August. “What’s the good of such trifles? Here I’m building a road up the mountain and a garage in town — isn’t it enough that I’m doing to put this town and the people that live in it ahead? What the devil does that talk of yours amount to!”

“I merely told you what’s keeping Alexander away. That’s nothing to bite my head off for!”

“Do you know your way around up in North Parish?” August asks.

“That’s where I come from,” Steffen answers.

“Then I suppose you know a lad named Benjamin?”

“Ay, a neighbour, as you might say.”

“A lad of twenty-four. Is he from a farm?”

“Ay.”

“Go and get him and bring him here!”

“How’s that — now?”

“Certainly. And he’s to be in working clothes and have his lunch with him.”

When Benjamin arrived it was afternoon — another half-day wasted. Another whole half-day! Altmulig growled to himself. Altmulig is curt and commanding, desirous perhaps of impressing this new helper of his, and possibly he has good reasons for wishing to do so.

Benjamin is a friendly lad, somewhat slow in his movements, no crack hand, but able to accomplish the tasks he is put to. It is he who is to have Cornelia, eh? Well, maybe we’ll see about that! Nothing very grand about him — ptt, not a trace! He is young and that’s all. But a man to amount to anything must be old!

They work on steadily until quitting time and then get things ready for the morning. Alexander will be with them tomorrow and that will be some help, at least. If only the steamer they were waiting for would arrive this evening! Then they could help the doctor and his son aboard without wasting further working hours.

But in this they prove unfortunate: outside the store there was a telegram announcing that the steamer was late all the way north out of Senjen.

In the morning they start in working again and, as there are four of them now, they manage to accomplish quite a bit. Benjamin is a sturdy lad — yes, but let us not exaggerate — he is anything but a shining light, and furthermore he goes about with a full beard cluttering up his face. Odd people here in this world! But Altmulig sees through him at once and says: “What are you trying to look like with all that fancy trimming, a skipper or a kaiser?”

They continue their cementing for two hours or so. Then they hear the steamer whistling out at the point. Naturally, now that they have hit a stride in their work! The spell is broken. Alexander leaves them at once, for it is he who is to take in the shoreline. The others follow him to the wharf. The entire town is astir with excitement; grown folk and children and dogs, all go wandering down to the pier — even Jørn Mathildesen and his wife, Valborg from Øira make themselves part of the throng. There he goes brazenly walking along beside his wife, as smug as anyone else, and he in rags and she in her red and green dress.

Doctor Lund arrives hatless because of the bandage about his head, his son reclining on a spring mattress loaded onto a wagon. Fru Lund and her second son are accompanying the procession, Druggist Holm acting as escort. The Consul and his entire household, along with other members of Segelfoss society, are on the pier to greet them — the situation is all so sorrowful, they wish to share the misfortune.

“How in the world did it happen, Doctor?”

“Don’t ask. I was due for a bit of bad luck, I suppose!”

Fru Lund is weeping, careless of the fact that tears ill-become her; sometimes she stands beside her son, sometimes beside her husband. She utters but few words, merely pats them on the cheek and shows how much she loves them. Fru Juliet does her best to console her, and with her own hand brushes out the wrinkles in Fru Esther’s cloak.

“The boy is worse off than I am,” says the doctor. “He should have been taken to the hospital at once. It’s possible now that they may have to re-break and re-set the bone!”

“I don’t know which one of you is worse off!” answers little Fru Esther, shaking her head. “You are both so badly off!”

The boy, for his part, did not seem to be taking things too hard. When any one asked him if he were in pain, the little rascal would smile and admit that, yes, those wooden splints surrounding his leg were anything but comfortable to wear!

There was no great difficulty about carrying the box-springs aboard and when the boy was safely installed in his cabin, Alexander went below to see about a number of boxes of smoked salmon he was shipping south — valuable merchandise, worth gold.

With the departure of the ship the four garage-builders returned to their work. They might have remained on the pier to watch the crowd streaming back into town, but they could not afford to waste further time. They returned to work on their garage.

Suddenly the doctor’s wife appeared in the door. “Psst! One moment, August!”

August was obliged to drop his work and go out to her. Ah yes, but this time it was little Fru Esther and that was a horse of a different colour — there was no one else like her! “Keep at it, lads,” he said. “I’ll be right back!”

But no, he did not return immediately. Fru Esther was beside herself and in need of consolation! August was given a full account of the affair with Aase; at length Fru Esther was doing more weeping than talking. But this seemed to ease her heart. She had no qualms about divulging the entire gruesome secret; the doctor had taken the matter calmly, but he had requested her to keep things dark. Oh, he had been so strange about the whole affair, he had; not a harsh word had he spoken to her, though it was she herself who had been to blame. He had bathed the eye and set it back in its socket and bandaged it tightly in place, but several days had now passed and something had surely gone wrong with it — he himself believed that Aase’s unclean fingers had given him an infection. “Oh, it’s all so horrible to think of! And now he’s beginning to fear for his other eye. And that means he’ll be blind —”

“Oh my, no!” said August in that emphatic manner of his. “Not a chance!” he said, with a shake of his head.

“Don’t you think so, August?”

“Why, Lord bless your soul, my dear, do you think that if I got pus in one of my fingers here and had to have it cut off, I’d get pus in my other nine fingers, as well?”

And now August must tell her a story selected from his adventurous career. “Once I knew a sailor who had one of his eyes nipped out, but he wrapped it up in a piece of paper and went to the doctor and had it put back in again.”

“The same eye?” the lady inquires.

“Ay, but whether it was the same identical eye or not is something I can’t insist on, for I wouldn’t want to exaggerate. But it must have been, for the man was gone several days and when he came back aboard he had the same number of eyes as the rest of us and even when we went right up to him and counted closely the number was always the same. No, you see, these men of science, no matter what you say, they can do just about what they please. And I just thought of another man. Once he had a glass eye put in his head and he always insisted that he could see just as well with that glass eye as he could with his regular one. So, for that matter he might just as well have had two glass eyes in his head. . . . And it’s just the same with ears, too,” August goes on to explain. “How often haven’t I seen it happen in countries abroad that on Sundays they would stand around talking and suddenly whip out their revolvers and shoot off some fellow’s ear! But from all I could make out, that never did the man any harm — he could hear just as good as ever. No, I’ve never let myself get upset by the thought of losing an eye or an ear, or anything else about me, either, for in these days there’s nothing stops them when it comes to fixing a fellow up. Ay, just you believe what I’m telling you.”

And it was Fru Esther’s earnest desire to believe him. August gave her confidence; she could speak the language of her childhood and youth with him — her mother tongue, Poldenese — without being obliged to watch her words, and this alone was a pleasure and a blessing.

August: “It was a shame and a pity about that lad of yours falling down and breaking his leg.”

“Ay, but for him my man’s not afraid. There will only be trouble for him if they have to break and re-set the bone. But he’s not to be lame or stiff-legged, for that’s what that Aase said.”

“A broken bone, that’s nothing in our days!”

“Ay ay, August. Now I mustn’t be keeping you away from your work any longer. But I had to tell you how everything went. It seems so good to talk to you.”

“I could just as well walk home with you, but I’m not much to look at in these clothes I’m in here at work.”

“You mustn’t even think of it, August. I can just as well walk home alone. Bright daylight and all that —”

But when August returned to the garage, Alexander had quit the job. Yes, he had seized his opportunity and had sneaked out the back door.

“Well, by the jumping —!” shrieked August. “Where the devil has he gone to?”

“He’s gone out to his net.”

It would do August no good to swear. Alexander had gone his way.

Alexander had his own affairs to manage. He must empty the net of salmon, he must clear it of seaweed and jellyfish, he must cast it out again. He must prepare the salmon he has caught, must split it and smoke it and clean up his boxes in preparation for the next shipment. And last of all, it is barely possible that he may collect his usual reward from Gammelmoderen today. She had been down on the pier when the steamer had lain alongside — that sweetheart of his, and she was younger and more loveable than any of the others — she had stolen a furtive look into his eyes and blushed to the roots of her hair. There was no one who could blush quite so charmingly as she, that healthy, red-blooded creature!

Late that afternoon he arrives at the Manor with his salmon; she meets him at the door. All is well; they go out to the smokehouse together and light their smudgy flame. The door is unlocked, she is nervous, but nevertheless she glides with him into the storage bin — in there where it is dark and still. Oh Otto!

But something seems wrong this day. The entire household has been down to the pier; even Fru Juliet herself has been out, and this is not as it has been on other days; the Consul has been taken from his work in his office, in his Consulate, and now, as it is already lunch time, he strolls up home with the others. And this too is not as it has been on other days. It is just as though the two smokehouse lovers have been given exactly enough time to get down to business, but not a moment over. The door opens and the floor outside gives forth a squeak. “Leave it to me!” Alexander manages to whisper.

Gammelmoderen begins at once to upbraid him in a loud voice. The widow of Theodore paa Bua recalls the language of her youth and uses it to good advantage. To be sure, it was impossible for her to wipe the flush of love from her face, but she scolds in a fish-wifely voice, steps out into the light and roars at him over her shoulder: “I won’t stand for your impertinence! You call that good fuel, you clumsy clown! You needn’t come around here and try to show me, you good-for-nothing weed, you!”

“Such monkey talk as you use!” Alexander answers her back, he angry as well. He is so downright enraged that he flings himself across the room between the Consul and his mother and storms straight out the door. Oh, but he is furious!

“What’s up, mother?” asks Gordon Tidemand.

“What’s up! Why, he wanted to show me how to sprinkle the moss in there, but he’d better not try that. Did you ever see anything like him? Such a clumsy clown!”

“Juliet would like a word with you,” says her son and leaves her.

Next morning Alexander again appears at the garage quite ready for work. Silent and thoughtful, he seems, too. At eleven o’clock he throws on his coat and says: “I’ll be right back!”

Wrathfully, August barks after him: “Someday I hope you can get rid of what’s eating you!”

Alexander makes straight for the chief’s private office. Oh that Gypsy, that rogue! He’s up to something and there is no limit to his reckless courage. What does the chief know about that prearranged bout last evening between Gammelmoderen and her Gypsy sweetheart! He knows nothing and it is his wish to know nothing; he is too much of a gentleman to eavesdrop or yield to petty suspicion. But Alexander, he is of no mind to be scolded again by Gammelmoderen, not if his name is Otto Alexander! Far from it, and no one need expect it of him!

He knocks on the door and steps in. Altmulig, well-disciplined chap that he is, would drop his cap to the floor and stand there at attention. But not so this Alexander — oh no! — he is literally boiling with anger, he holds his cap in his hand and begins jabbering away at the top of his lungs even before the chief has given him permission to speak.

“There’s one thing sure,” he says, “I refuse to be scolded right before your ears!”

“What’s that?” asks the chief, wrinkling his brow and doing his best to comprehend. “What are you talking about?”

“Like last night! You heard it!”

“Oh, that!” says the chief. “But, my dear fellow, what was there to that!”

“For I’d sooner leave the place,” continues Alexander in keeping with the plan he had invented whilst working in the garage.

“That’s all nonsense,” says the chief.

“All right!” Alexander nods disagreeably and is on the point of leaving. “I’ve said all I’m going to about that!”

He is even on the point of placing his cap on his head right there inside the office. A thing which a man like Altmulig would never have dreamed of doing. But the chief is an angel for tolerance; he puts up with this crazy Gypsy, he refrains from ringing for one of his store hands to come and pitch him out through the door. To the contrary, the chief smiles ingratiatingly and asks: “But that business of last night, is that anything to get yourself all worked up over?”

“Yes!” barks Alexander.

“You certainly can’t leave us on that account.”

“Oh I can’t, can’t I! That’s what you think!”

The chief turns the matter over in his mind, glances, as it were, casually at the large account for smoked salmon and says: “It is really too bad you don’t feel you can stay on with us here, now that we are just beginning to show results. Frankly, I am at a loss.”

Alexander likewise weighs the matter over; possibly he has gone far enough. In a somewhat milder voice he asks: “Do you think yourself it is very pleasant to be called a weed and a clumsy clown, just because we had a bit of a quarrel?”

“No, that I certainly do not,” answers the chief. “And I really do not understand it. It’s not at all like her. She probably became annoyed because you tried to teach her how to sprinkle the moss. Don’t you see, she has been doing that very thing for many many years — since the days when my father was alive.”

“Oh I know all about that!” exclaims Alexander. “I was here in those days, too. I was here when you were born. And we used to sprinkle the moss together then and she never spoke a harsh word.”

“There, you see? And you can be certain that she didn’t mean anything by it this time,” the chief attempts to mediate. “On the other hand, I assure you she’s always spoken of you in glowing terms.”

Alexander: “Ay, and it was a bit of glowing terms she gave me last night, wasn’t it!” He weighs the matter further in his mind; he is as crafty as the devil himself, the last word in strategem. “Well, we’ll let those glowing terms of hers go for what they are worth — I’ll stay on if you’ll let me lock her out of the smokehouse.”

The chief, failing utterly to comprehend: “Lock her out of the smokehouse?”

“Ay. Lock the door so she can’t get in.”

“But I thought she was quite indispensable there?”

“And that she is; I’ll say nothing to deny that,” admits Alexander. “But there are many things I can do by myself and when it’s time for her to step in with all that silly hocus-pocus about the colour of the product, the smell, the taste and all that — why, I suppose I can call her in.”

The chief thinks this over: “Yes, I hardly imagine she will say a word against such an arrangement. I shall speak to her about it. I even believe that she will be grateful —”

Alexander returns to the garage. “Didn’t take me long, eh?” he beams. He did the work of two, joked, carried in bags of cement, whistled and sang. And on the following day he was in the same excellent humour. Two whole days passed before he was again compelled to visit his net and perform his smokehouse duties.

And he held a conference with Gammelmoderen in regard to the precise and proper moment when he could lock himself in the smokehouse, with her at his side.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23r/chapter12.html

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