The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Thirteen

August had heard nothing further concerning his money from Polden. The whole thing was possibly no more than a rumour, a mere exaggeration. Well, August was accustomed to disappointments in life. In the meantime he could continue to build roads and construct motor garages in the interest of progress.

At length, when so many days had gone by that August had lost both hope and angry regret, he was again reminded of the money by the arrival of a messenger from the magistrate’s office.

The messenger was a young office employee who took his duties seriously. “I have in my pocket a letter from the magistrate,” he began. “What is your name?”

August smiled and gave his name.

“That is correct!” But in order to avoid a mistake, he added: “Are you known by any other name here on the place?”

“Altmulig.”

“That is also correct. Now this letter contains instructions for you to call at our office immediately to receive an important declaration. You must call within the next few days.”

August realized in a flash that his money had at length arrived; he assumed a bit more of the manner of a great man, stretched forth his hand and said impatiently: “All right, let me have the letter! I can read it myself!”

The young man: “I can make the whole thing clear to you. For it was myself who wrote the letter. You are to call between the hours of nine and three when our office is open. You are to see me first; I shall then give you further instructions.” August became crafty at once, took out his notebook and began to write in it. The art of writing was not beyond him; he would show the young man that he knew the letters of the alphabet. Ay, and he even adjusted his pince-nez to give himself a more imposing appearance. “An important letter, did you say?” . . . He writes. . . .

“No, that is not what I said. An important declaration is what I said. There is a vast difference between the two. You are to call and receive an important declaration, I said.”

August strikes a line through what he has written and enters the correction. “From the magistrate, did you say?” . . . He writes. . . . He glances at his watch. “I’ll just note down the time that you came!” . . . He writes. . . .

“I didn’t know that you were so experienced in matters of this nature,” said the young man. “But I now observe that I have made a mistake. Possibly you are likewise aware of the subject of this important declaration?”

“It’s not impossible that I do. I have so many interests. You see I have business all over.”

“This has to do with an inheritance, or whatever it is, in Polden. That much at least I can advise you.”

August flourishes his arm in a gesture of impatience. “I have so much property in Polden — a whole section of the town, a seining outfit, a factory — a large factory. You don’t mean to tell me that the State has been sticking its fingers into that factory of mine, do you?”

“No, I can assure you that such is not the case. But more than that I am not at liberty to divulge.”

“Between nine and three, did you say?” . . . He writes. . . . “And within a couple of days?” . . . He writes. . . .

The young man: “I shall herewith deliver the letter to you in person. It is already too late to call at our office today, as we shall soon be closed. But at some future date will you be good enough to appear between the hours prescribed.”

With that he turned and left, that young seedling of Norway’s dear bureaucracy, that small piece of the dough of Norway’s brand of statesmanship. . . .

Druggist Holm is the next to stop in at the garage. He greets August familiarly and asks jocularly: “Letter from the King?”

August flings the letter unopened over onto a bag of cement. “A mere note,” he remarks superciliously. “It’s only that I’m to call at the magistrate’s office and pick up a sum of money.”

“Money? In these days!”

“Well — I’ve been expecting it long enough. The Herr Druggist is out for a walk?”

“Oh I walk and I walk. Yes, I’m taking one of those idiotic walks of mine. Listen, August, I’ve a message for you from Fru Lund. She’s been left so alone, you know, and she’d like to have you stop in at the house some time when you’ve a bit of time to spare.”

“Glad to,” says August.

“She’s just had a telegram from the doctor and she would like to speak with you.”

“I’ll be there this evening.”

“Thanks.”

Druggist Holm hastens off. He walks for the sake of walking, walks briskly, leaves the whole of South Parish behind him, penetrates well into the neighbouring parish and at length turns homeward after several hours of roaming about. He is a perfect fiend for walking.

He is in the very centre of South Parish on his way home when he suddenly comes to a halt. Something happens to him; a feeling of sweetness sweeps over him, a rosy kindling of his every sense. Others would perhaps have noticed nothing, but this wanderer, Holm, stops short, turns and for a short distance even retraces his steps. And upon his return home, as he was reaching for his patience cards, his heart was still aching from the delicate moment he had experienced.

The following day he called upon the postmaster’s wife to tell her of this thing that had happened to him: he had been walking out in the country the day before through the section they call South Parish. On the way home he heard something and halted fair in his tracks. It had been a woman aloft on a knoll, a rustic housewife calling in her kine. “Soo-ah! Soo-ah!” she had called. Well, was that anything? No — yes, it had been something; a flood of harmony it had been, sheer loveliness poured forth into the sky, a thing of matchless beauty. He had turned and stared at the woman as she was descending from the knoll, and thin and poor she had appeared, a woman of something past thirty — Gina, her name was — Gina i Roten. He had walked home with her and exchanged a few words with her — she had both husband and children. Her family was not in distress; on the contrary, they owned a small farm with a mortgage, a few head of cattle. Her husband had been in the habit of entertaining at dances and gatherings with a whole repertory of ballads and ditties, but he had given up singing his songs after his recent baptism by a traveling evangelist. And for the same reason, his wife would no longer sing anything but hymns — though, for that matter, she knew but few secular songs. “But God help me, if her voice isn’t a thing of beauty!” Holm exclaims. “She knew all the hymns by heart and she simply sat down and sang them to me with absolutely no thought of the time. And do you know the words that I spoke? ‘Jesus Christ!’ That’s all I could find to say. Silly, wasn’t it?”

“What was her voice?”

“Let me see — alto, I believe.”

The postmaster’s wife sat, as was her custom, with her head thrown back, her eyes partially closed — she was so terribly near-sighted — but she was an interested listener and at length she said: “I must arrange to meet her.”

“Good. Gina i Roten. A little farm in South Parish. I told her that she and her family could become as ill as they liked, she could have all the medicine she needed from me free of charge. Hehehe! That was an odd thing to say, wasn’t it? But I meant it!”

“Is it far from here?”

“No. But can’t we go out and call on her some time together?”

“Yes, if you will promise to behave yourself.”

“What!” he cries. “In the middle of the main road!”

“No, I don’t trust you.”

“It’s a different matter here,” says Holm, glancing about.

“You are mad.”

“In my arms —”

“Keep still!”

“— through that door over there.”

“Hahaha, we wouldn’t get far that way! That’s the kitchen.”

“There, you see what it leads to when you keep things from me! I meant that door over there.”

“Keep still. You meant nothing. But à propos that woman: when shall we go out to her?”

“The very day and hour you yourself shall determine.”

“You must have an able pharmacist,” says Fru Hagen.

“Extremely able.”

“For you are away from your store day and night.”

“Not so at all! Now that the doctor is away I have to work like a dog. Especially on Mondays.”

“Why especially on Mondays?”

“People are coarse enough to make love over the holidays, for that’s when they have most time to spare. Then on the following Monday, they all come to me for medicine.”

“Silly!”

“Honour bright! They come to me for something to brace them up!”

“Well, what do you give them?”

“Well, what do you take yourself when you feel yourself spent — from such things?”

“I never feel spent — from such things, as you say.”

“Nor I either — unfortunately!” says Holm. “So I really don’t know what to give them. I’ve been giving them white sulphur salve. What is your opinion of that?”

“What — to rub on oneself?”

“No, they take it internally.”

“Oh, you’re impossible!” says Fru Hagen, shrieking with laughter.

“Yes, for you see there’s a bit of arsenic in it, a drug I’m not supposed to dispense without a doctor’s prescription.”

“We could go out and call on your woman today, if you like.”

“God bless you, sweet lady, thanks!” beams Holm. “If you only could know how sweetly you said that — your voice! — the golden tones of muted strings —”

“I have a pupil from one to two. Then we have lunch. We could start out around three.”

“How splendid, how splendid! I never knew anyone like you to ascertain the exact hours when I am free!”

“Hahaha!”

“It’s no laughing matter. Your words have already struck home and made an impression upon me. Hjertet blir saa stort derved (My heart o’erflows because of it), as it says in the song. I know of no one quite like you — sweet and lovable, charming and seductive —”

“No faults?”

“Ah yes, you have one fault.”

“What is it?”

“You are cold.”

The lady remains silent.

“Seductive but cold.”

“But what are you, then? A phrase-maker. Just that. You make a fine show of your depravity, you bristle and pretend. But it’s all artifice with you.”

“The devil you say!”

“So. And now you must go. My first pupil will be here shortly.”

Holm: “Did you mean what you said?”

“Some of it.”

“See here now, Fru Hagen — you ought to have waited for me instead of coupling up with that old stamp-seller of yours.”

“Mm — no — I’d rather have him than you.”

“The devil you say!”

“Yes, I surely would.”

“All right, then I shan’t go with you to call on Gina i Roten.”

“Oh, I’m certain you will.”

“No sir, I won’t. Now hear me again: don’t you suppose I might be able to make some headway with Marna?”

“With whom?”

“Marna. Marna Theodorsdatter of Segelfoss Manor.”

“Why, I’m sure I don’t know.”

“She is exactly the type I admire — a most promising girl, of large, superb proportions. I really ought to marry some day, don’t you think?”

“Of course you should. You, as we others. You might try your luck with Marna.”

“You do not advise me against it?”

“Oh no, not exactly.”

“No, it is you that I love!”

“Now you must go.”

“Well, I’ll be back for you at three.”

They started off, the druggist with his guitar on a broad silk band slung over his shoulder, Fru Hagen on the arm of her husband. Oh yes, the postmaster had taken the afternoon off and was to accompany them. “Do you think I can ever be rid of her!” he said. But Holm must have wondered to himself just who could ever be rid of whom! It annoyed him keenly to be obliged to include the postmaster on this jaunt — that fellow, that detestable individual, he prevented him from walking beside the lady and exchanging his idle banter with her. But the weather was fine, field and meadow bloomed and breathed fragrance into the breeze, the birds were twittering, the foliage trees spread forth their broadest leaves, and not a person to be seen on the road.

Well, but Postmaster Hagen was hardly a man to be overlooked. Slightly under middle-height but solidly built and muscular, intelligent of face, not bad looking. He uttered no contentious chatter, but he uttered no imbecilities, either.

“Suppose we appear at the doctor’s,” he said. “Fru Lund is so lonely these days.”

“What in heaven’s name should we do there?”

“You could play and Alfhild could sing.”

“And you?”

“I could pass the hat.”

His suggestion gained no adherents. Nor had the postmaster apparently expected that it should; he had probably spoken up merely to prove he had a voice.

“Mysterious about the doctor having had his eye torn clean out,” he said.

Holm caught him up with a product of his own imagination: “Was there really anything mysterious about it? The doctor is returning home from a sick call; he takes a short cut through the woods, runs into difficulties and a dry branch claws out his eye. What if it were something like that?”

“Well, I suppose it was something like that. But has he had himself cared for in Bodø?”

“No. He wired that he would have to go on to Trondhjem. No doubt he has already left.”

There was no further mention of the affair. Nevertheless the postmaster apparently still felt called upon to make conversation: “If only we don’t scare off the people we are going to see. There are three of us, you know.”

Holm: “Yes, and three makes quite a crowd.”

“Well, I can just as well remain outside.”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind!” puts in his wife, clinging to his arm.

The postmaster nodded: “Dit Ord min Lov, Alfhild! (Your word my law, Alfhild!).”

“No, you mean ‘Dit Ord mit Lov!‘ (Your word my leave), don’t you?”

Holm squirmed at the sound of such nonsense, swung his guitar across his breast and began thrumming the strings.

The postmaster: “I believe it’s done me good to come along today. Usually I sit doubled up in my office all day long, sucking on my pipe and gossiping with my accounts. Out here there is fresh air.”

“Gossiping with your accounts?” asked Holm. “What does that mean?”

“That is to say, I sit there talking to myself.”

“That must be boring indeed,” Holm flung at him.

The postmaster accepted the remark good-naturedly. “Oh no,” he said. “I keep myself most pleasantly amused. I talk much better when I’m alone than when I’m in company with others. Thus it is with all lonely ones.”

“Do you make your husband feel lonely, then, Fru Hagen?”

“I am lonely myself,” she replied.

The postmaster: “Yes, that you are. But you artists and musicians, really you do not find it so terrible to be alone — you have your art — you have your songs, your guitar.”

“But you sketch, don’t you!”

“What’s that, does he sketch?” asked Holm.

“Of course, he sketches. But he is furious with me now for telling on him.

“Why, no — I’m by no means furious. But you promised me you would never talk nonsense about it.”

“Oh, so you sketch?” the druggist repeated. “I never knew anything about that.”

“I most certainly do not sketch. But if it were possible to make a living at it, I believe I might turn to sculpture.”

“Hahaha!” laughed his wife, apparently proud of him, and squeezing his arm.

They had arrived at the farm. Not a child to be seen, not a dog. Silence over everything. The woman of the house is observed sitting in the house, the upper part of her body quite nude. She is working over a white garment held across her knees. Her breasts are loose and pendulous.

The party halts abruptly.

“What are we stopping for?” Fru Hagen asks and quickly adjusts her pince-nez. “Good heavens —!” she says.

The druggist: “What are we stopping for? Apparently the lady in there is studying entomology first-hand from her undershirt.”

“No no no! Surely she is sewing on it, she is mending her garment.”

“One should hold honest poverty in respect,” says the postmaster quietly.

“Look, she’s seen us,” his wife observes.

“Yes,” replies the druggist. “But she seems in no hurry to crawl back into her clothes. I must say, I didn’t know folks were so completely out of the world in this section. If I had —”

“If you had? What are you mumbling about? See, there come the children.”

“Well well, and even they look just like human beings — even they.”

“How can you talk so cynically?” Fru Hagen asks. “You who have kept open hotel for hungry children?”

“What’s that —!”

“Oh, I’ve heard all about it.”

“What the devil did I have to do with that!” snapped the druggist. “It was at the hotel, the proprietor —”

“Go in and see if we are welcome!” she replies.

They were welcome and she and the druggist stepped into the house. The postmaster, however, preferred to remain outside for a time.

He began walking across the open country. He had seen a man cleaning out a ditch — Karel, the man from Roten. He was barefoot in water and slime clear up to his knees.

“Bless the work!” said the postmaster in greeting.

“Thanks to you!” replied Karel, glancing up. He had a pleasant face and seemed ready to smile at the slightest thing. There was nothing about him to indicate that he had become serious-minded after his recent baptismal experience. “But I don’t know how blessed it is,” he said. “This drain gets bigger for me every year that goes by. And in autumn season there’s enough water here to turn mill-wheels.”

The postmaster turned his gaze up the slope in the direction of a certain pond, a regular little lake. “Can’t you drain off the water up there?” he asked.

“Ay, mercy! And if I ever can find the means to do it, you’ll see it as dry as the floor of a room.”

“How deep is it?”

“Now that it’s summer, it’s just about up to my knees in the deepest place. And fine fertile soil, too, on the bottom.”

“You must drain off that water, Karel.”

“Ay, well I must that!”

“That will make a splendid addition to this farm of yours.”

“Ay, it will so. But I’m none to afford it just now,” said Karel, a gentle smile on his face. “And I doubt me how long I can work out with the whole place here. That’s all to do with how soon the lawyer will be taking it away from me.”

“Lawyer Pettersen?”

“Ay. He’s the bank now, too, as it is.”

“Do you owe the bank money?”

“Ay, for so it seems. But not so much, when you come to it. Give me two, three fine years at Lofoten, so I’ll clear the place of the worst of it!” And Karel almost laughed as he said this.

The tones of a voice floated across the field to them from the cottage in the distance. Karel put his head on one side and listened. “She’s singing,” he said.

The postmaster explained that his wife and Druggist Holm from town had stopped in at the cottage to hear Gina’s voice. The druggist had brought along his guitar.

“He brought a guitar, say you?” asked Karel, his interest aroused at once. He climbed out of the ditch, wiped the slime from his feet on a tuft of grass and said: “That’s something for me to hear!” And the music-loving Karel i Roten, born and reared in the direst of poverty, but the ablest ballad-singer in South Parish, he left his work and hastened home simply to hear a man play the guitar. No, there was absolutely nothing about Karel to indicate that his second baptism had made a pious man of him.

Greetings all round in the cottage. “Aren’t you ashamed to show yourself barefoot like that!” said Gina. “Ay,” answered Karel quite absently. He stationed himself as near the guitar as he could, paid little or no heed to his guests, and when the druggist began to play, Karel was unable to take away his eyes.

“Come, Gina, you must sing now!” someone begged.

And Gina raised the roof from that humble cottage again and again with the glorious tones of her voice. Karel stood bent forward the entire time and, with a broad smile on his face, followed every movement of the druggist’s fingers. When invited to try the guitar, he accepted it without hesitation and immediately began thrumming the strings. He smiled and thrummed, smiled and thrummed; and in truth he was so thoroughly musical that, in spite of his many mistakes, he was able to produce not a few chords which would have done credit to one who had studied the instrument.

The druggist left the guitar in Karel’s hands when the party departed for home.

Along the way they encountered August. He was standing outside the blacksmith shop and was again having trouble with the smith who seemed unable to perform the simplest task. This time it was a number of garage appliances, the steel so brittle it could stand no weight at all. The fellow had roasted his metal. August was fussing and fuming.

In passing, the druggist asked: “Did you call on Fru Lund?”

August nodded curtly.

“And have you also been to the magistrate’s office?”

August, grief-stricken and indisposed, merely looked at him.

“After your money, I mean to say. After that million of yours. Would it pay me, I mean, to assault you and go through your pockets?”

August shook his head. . . .

No, he had received no million. The magistrate had no money to hand him. That “important declaration” had been nought save a letter from Paulina in Polden in which she declared that she would not turn over a certain bankbook — that for August! In the first place, he had nothing to do with this money, as he had made over to her, Paulina, everything he had left behind in Polden, including whatever he might win in a lottery. She had a document signed by two witnesses to show for it. In the second place, August could come to Polden and get the money himself; what guarantee did she have that he was the man he made himself out to be?

That devil of a Paulina, as like herself today as ever, capable, keen as a whip, honest to a fault. He could see her in his mind’s eye — old now, but still with a white ribbon about her throat, a pearl ring on her finger.

The magistrate was most desirous of helping August; that he was, for he was really a kind-hearted fellow. But there was some hitch in regard to that money in Polden. Had the title to it been assigned to another?

“Ay,” August answered. But that had been anything but the right thing to say; he knew Paulina, knew that she would not wish to retain a single øre of any money which might be his — that had been only something she had said.

Would August care then to go north after the money himself?

No. In addition to everything else, it would be impossible for him to drop the many undertakings he was engaged in on behalf of the Consul — the construction of the road, in particular. He had many men working for him.

But could he then identify himself by means of certain papers so that the lady, Paulina, could feel herself amply protected?

That would be worse.

What, no papers?

No.

But wasn’t it true that Doctor Lund and his wife had recognized August as an old Poldener?

To be sure! He could certainly hope that they had! Many a glass of grog had he drunk with them there in their house. And when the doctor and his wife had it in mind to invite someone in for the evening, who should be the first one they thought of if not August? And he could easily have gone to the doctor and his wife and right then and there secured from them a sworn statement that he was the man he said he was. But the doctor, he was away now, had gone down to Trondhjem, and no one knew when he was coming back.

August had again been pitifully unlucky. Again he would have to wait, wait, wait. . . .

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