The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Fourteen

No, Segelfoss was surely not flourishing. Something must have been standing in the way. Possibly the town was unfavourably located, possibly there was too little farming enterprise there, the earth too lean, or at least too poorly cultivated. It must have been something like that. Nothing seemed to thrive and grow fat and bloated there — not a single human being whose eyes were all but grown together with fat, not a single farm creature which appeared as something of a monstrosity because of overfeeding. No. The cattle were let out to pasture every morning and at eventide they would return with their bellies not even half-filled; each tuft of grass and the verdancy of each brookside had already been nibbled clean by the sheep, and the cows were compelled to seek a diet of heather and leaves, the result being the poorest of milk. These were obvious conditions. But a good five or six miles back in the mountains behind South Parish lay vast stretches of lush moorland, a green paradise for sheep and goats. There was a legend to the effect that Willatz Holmsen had once kept flocks at graze there in summer.

And the home fishing, what did this do for the parish round about? Folk living fair at the edge of the sea might occasionally bring home a string of haddock and coalfish, enough for a single boiling, but with none left over for the following day. Ay, such was the home fishing. And fishermen from town might get together a party and row the long distance to a certain bay off North Parish where they could spear flounders against the white sandy bottom. True. But this would prevent them from slumbering peacefully through the long light night and this would require that they have a meal of dried meat and coffee at two o’clock, so how could the spearing of flounder be considered in any way profitable? And wouldn’t they have to make up their lost sleep by resting throughout the entire following day?

No, Segelfoss was without all reasonable means of making a living.

But Gordon Tidemand, he wriggled and lived on and prospered — he was a great man and even a consul. He did mad things because of his urgent thirst for activity, such as building that country home of his and that road which went up the mountain. And he did other things out of sheer adolescent foolishness, such as investing in that shining motor boat in which to dash out to meet incoming steamers — what need had he for that trim little craft when in a few moments that very steamer would be lying alongside his own pier? There lay the motor boat now, a toy of brass and mahogany, a thing of useless beauty.

All this. But Gordon Tidemand was in any event wide awake and, amongst other things, he conducted a highly profitable salmon-packing industry. More, he had taken this enterprise seriously and had sent one of his able store clerks south through Helgeland as his traveling representative. Naturally, he had equipped the fellow regally, first of all with a handsome new suit of clothes, a watch and a gold chain, next with the most modern of sample cases, brass corners and all. All this had cost a pretty penny, to be sure, but the lad was already justifying the outlay by the orders he was sending back — he was apparently a born traveling salesman.

But otherwise Segelfoss was utterly dead, a centre of sheer stupidity.

Some folk had already begun to scowl at the Consul’s road leading up the mountain side. This work of the hand of man was certainly a creditable embellishment to the landscape, but it had already become the subject of much muttering and shaking of heads. Who could have thought such a thing possible? Naturally, the talk had started up in North Parish where folk were most backward in knowledge and the will to progress, and where superstition and a primitive fear of the Lord took the place of science and culture. This new attitude found its original expression in the words of aged men and women and this in turn might have been inspired by certain dark words uttered by Aase. “There’s no peace for mouse or sparrow,” Aase had said. “They are digging and blasting away a mountain the Lord created.”—“Ay, isn’t it true what you say!” nodded the old ones up in North Parish.

And so they all undertook to discuss this thing, and time flashed back and forth in those old grey heads, with no order to the passing years: the Franco-Prussian War; the night of the bloody aurora; the fate of Doctor Paul Føyn; the prophet Jeremiah’s prediction of the comet which lost its tail on an island in the sea and caused an earthquake — and everything eventually led back to those words of Aase’s concerning the Consul’s new road and how it was disturbing all nature.

For there were folk who dwelt in the mountains, underworld folk, supernatural beings who had their own farms and cattle, rich and peaceful gnomes who would harm no earthly creature if they themselves were left in peace. And this bedlam of pounding and shouting and blasting and yelling which had begun last spring and which had kept up ever since, what had it been but a plague and a nuisance for the underworld folk, so great that they had probably been obliged to move on to some other mountain. And this would be of no profit to the ones who lived on the earth; the aged of North Parish could still recall what their parents had told them of the creatures of the underworld when the first telegraph lines had been set up with no end of confusion of horses and men. Ay, and on the very ship which had arrived with all the telegraph wire, an iron block had fallen from the rigging and killed a sailor on deck. He had even been buried in Hamarøy churchyard. But that wasn’t all; never before in all the world had there been such thunder and lightning and storms of wind and rain throughout Nordland as there had been that year, and Willumsen ‘pun Lian had had the roof of his barn blown off — maybe they couldn’t remember that year! And his new roof had to be chained down with two heavy iron chains as anyone could see today — just go and look! And is there anyone who has forgotten how lean the fishing was at Lofoten that winter, so that it couldn’t even be likened to an average year, but was really perfectly awful. And then with spring, it was ten times worse — ankle deep snow on Midsummer’s Eve and the grain unable to ripen. And that was the very summer when the underworld folk had been disturbed in the south and had moved here to the mountains of Segelfoss. For here it was so fine with deep ravines all over, so that it was easy for them to get in and they didn’t have to crawl right into the very heart of the mountain, which is a hardship even for them. Folk here had stumbled upon them when they were arriving with all their horses and their vast herds of cattle, and they had marvelled to see so many cows, sleek and fat as any shoal of herring. This one and that one of the parents of these old folk had met them — Aron of Staurholla had met them and he had told more than once of the great event. To be sure, when he lay on his death-bed and had had the pastor to visit him, he had said he had never seen them at all and that the whole thing had been nought but a lie, but that had been because he was so near death then that he had taken leave of most of his senses. Another who had met them that same day had been Ingeborg of Utleia. She was knitting a pair of red and grey stockings and was just about finished with the second stocking when an underworld woman came to her and asked her for the stocking. “Ay, and may you live to wear it long!” said Ingeborg. “And won’t you have the other stocking, too?” Ay, and that she would, said the underworld woman. And good luck had followed Ingeborg to the end of her days because of it, for she rose to grand heights of wealth and position in Vesteraalen, married a man, and then his brother, and inherited what they both left when they died.

“Ay, so it may go,” said an old man of North Parish. “So it may go when the underworld folk are treated with a wee mite of kindness and charity — they pay back a hundred-fold! But now as it is, when our people are pounding and shooting worse than wildmen and savages up in the mountains belonging to others, and close up one ravine after another with walls and ways for a road, ay, only the Lord in Heaven can say what we who live on the earth have in store for us in the way of punishment. Now if I was as young as today I am old, I don’t know what I would do. For it’s leaving these mountains they are, remember it as I say, and if only someone might be lucky enough to stand in their way and hold out some little gift to them, never would he want for good luck and help in this world from that day on. And it wouldn’t have to be such a grand gift to be giving them either, for the underworld folk, they have the power to see into a man’s heart. And it wouldn’t have to be a coin no matter how bright it might be, for the underworld folk, they have their own money and they have no use for ours. How was it, wasn’t a strange coin found in the till at the store in Segelfoss? And that was on the very same day that a man from the other world had been to the store to buy a bit of tobacco of the same kind that we here on the earth find to use —”

A youth comes out with the explanation that this purchaser of tobacco had not been an underworld man but a man from Germany — one of the German musicians who had played in the town.

“Where do you get your knowledge from?” asks the old man with a touch of annoyance. “I have mine from that Martin who is himself a clerk in the store.”

“Ay, but that Martin, he went in to the Consul with the coin and asked him about it. And the Consul, he took one look at it and said it was money from Germany.”

“Ay ay, there you have it! But it is so that we others in our own wretched lives, we too have learned a few things. It’s you young lads that study in books and newspapers who know it all and won’t believe plain talk. It was my own grandfather as came home with a load of wood from the forest one night when there was a moon and stars. He unhitched his horse and propped the shafts of his sledge straight up in the air. Then he went in. In the house there were two strangers sitting there. They were astronomers and they were going up in the Segelfoss mountains the next day to look for a star they had lost track of. ‘Tonight we’ll be having a snowfall!’ said my grandfather. ‘What makes you think so?’ asked the two astronomers, just like doubting Thomas in the Scripture, and they pointed out through the window at the moonlight. ‘I know it by that horse of mine,’ said my grandfather. ‘For he shook himself twice in the shafts before I could get him unhooked!’ And excuse me, if it didn’t turn out even better than he said, and in the morning he was mighty glad as he had turned up the shafts of his sledge, for it was buried under the snow and otherwise he might never have found it!”

“He’d have found it in the spring, at any rate,” a young lad whispered.

“Go on, tell us more!” said another.

The old man, this time downright annoyed: “No, what should I go on and tell you for? You know everything so much better than I do. You’re just like those two astronomers — they knew everything there was to know about heaven and earth.”

“Well, but couldn’t they go up the mountain on account of the snow, those astronomers?”

“Ho, maybe they went up the mountain! No, but they found the lost star just the same.”

“How did they find it?”

“Ay, they looked in the almanac more carefully and there it was all the time, there along with the rest of the stars!”

A grand sensation there in the room. “Well, that beats all!”—“Why, mercy sakes alive!”

The old man, encouraged by the appreciation his tale had called forth, became mild again and continued: “The Consul should perhaps have looked more carefully at that piece of money,” he said to clinch his point.

“Maybe so. Ay, that he should. Tell us more!”

“No. There’s no reason why I should go on talking and telling you things. But there’s one thing sure: if I had my youth back, I should certainly be out looking after my interests when the underworld folk are moving!”

The question arises as to what might be the most appropriate gifts to offer them.

“Almost anything. It wouldn’t make any difference what it was so long as it was either some kind of shining ornament or a collar or even a couple of tallow candles. And I would hold it out to them in both hands, like this, and not be afraid. But ’tis also true that I would go to the altar first so they couldn’t use any of their power on me.”

When the old man fell silent, the young people began gossiping amongst themselves.

“That Benjamin, he says he has seen them.”

“Seen underworld folk? Where?”

“Just this autumn, it was — one evening when he was walking home from South Parish. All at once he saw a woman standing in the road in front of him. I said it must have been that Cornelia, but he said he was just coming from Cornelia’s place.”

“What became of the woman?”

“She fluttered off into the woods.”

“Well, then it was that Cornelia. I’d be willing to bet on it. For Benjamin, he’s anyway a bit afraid of the dark.”

“Well, I wish as I was that Benjamin! He’s had steady work there at the Consul’s, could earn his bread week after week for two weeks. And there was money in that, even if the job is over now.”

True, Benjamin’s job was now over; the garage was finished and the car itself had arrived; both the chief and August had taken their driving tests with an official from the south and had earned their certificates with no small amount of glory to themselves. As Benjamin was no longer needed, August went up to him and told him he was through. And they parted company without the slightest sign of friendliness on August’s part; no, it seemed more as though the lad had been given the chuck.

It had in truth been decidedly pleasant work for August whilst creating this home for the car, this motor boudoir with its walls panelled off in steel and cement, and he had received the ablest type of assistance from Benjamin, this clever little lad from North Parish, this sweetheart of Cornelia’s before whom he could strut and put on airs. But it was natural that he should dislike the young man and, though Cornelia was as inaccessible to him as the stars of heaven, August was forever pouncing upon Benjamin with sarcasm born of his jealousy.

“You have a farm, haven’t you? Then why don’t you go to work and get married?” August asked with all the spite that was in him.

“The farm isn’t mine,” answered Benjamin. “The farm, it belongs to my father.”

“A filthy little dungheap of a farm, too, I’ve been told. Like all the rest of the farms in these parts!”

“No, it’s a good farm, I can tell you.”

“Hm, I suppose you grow oranges on it?”

“And a pretty farm,” says Benjamin, ignoring the remark. “You must come out and see it some time.”

“As though I had nothing better to do!” snorted August.

“We have four cows and a horse. There aren’t many who have more.”

August delivered himself of a further snort. “Say, I’ve been on farms in South America where they had three million head of cattle like yours.”

“Ay, I’d never think of doubting you!”

“But the point is,” said August, “you ought to get married to some girl up in that North Parish of yours — get married and have it over with.”

Benjamin: “She isn’t from North Parish, she is from South Parish.”

August, slowly: “Hm — that’s nothing to me!”

“What’s that?”

“I said you’re through working for me. You don’t need to come back tomorrow.”

“Oh, so we’re all through here?”

“Ay, do you hear!”

“All right,” said Benjamin. “There’s nothing to be said about that. But if you have anything else for me to do later on, you can send for me.”

August: “I’ll have nothing else for you to do, count on that! What was I going to say? No, I can’t understand what you’re waiting for. You’re old enough. When I was your age I was a widow-man for the second time. Ay, and here you stand. I don’t suppose you’ve even got a girl.”

“Oh yes, I have, you can be sure. I’ve a girl I’m in love with and who is in love with me, as well. It’s the girl they call Cornelia.”

“Well, what’s that got to do with me!”

“What did you say?”

“I said are you ever together with her? Do you dance with her? When you go to a Christmas dance, does she sit on your knee?”

“You act so grouchy with me,” says Benjamin.

“And I suppose you drink coffee out of the same cup, you two?”

Benjamin smiling: “We might, sometimes. Why do you ask me that?”

“These Christmas dances, they’re the work of the devil himself. You never see me at one!”

“But in your younger days, I suppose you used to go?”

“No,” said August. “I used to think myself too good for such goings-on. My younger days —! Say, I’m not so old right now, so get that into your head! You think that just because you’re young! But you should see me in one of those enormous dance halls abroad. I was at a grand ball just before I came here. And I was such a wonderful dancer, no one else dared to step out on the floor. Tell that to that Cornelia of yours with my compliments!”

“Do you know her?”

“Say, what are you standing around here wasting my time for! Didn’t I tell you to go?”

Benjamin: “All right. But you say such grouchy things to me. No, that I should get me a girl there in North Parish, when I already have a girl down in South Parish!”

“I’ll think about it,” said August.

Ho, so many ways of wasting a man’s time! A mere youth from the country district, a mere stripling for all his full beard, he thought he was privileged to stand around talking over his love affairs with his boss! Unheard of in countries abroad. . . .

August was called into conference by his chief. They were to go out on a road inspection tour. A main road ran through the centre of town, a road connecting parish with parish. In spite of the usual ruts it was passable, but it was the Consul’s thought to discover how far north and how far south he could drive that car of his for the purpose of astounding the natives.

The Consul sits at the wheel. He is a skillful driver, no mistake; just another of the sciences he has mastered abroad. Folk scamper out of the way in such utter confusion that the occupants of the machine are indeed amused. Oh that Consul!

The road passes over the river in the vicinity of the falls by means of a stone bridge, ancient and solidly built — two arches and an iron railing. This must be the place where they come and baptise each other! August muses as they are crossing the bridge, and possibly he groans inwardly at the thought of all the swinishness committed in the name of the Holy Ghost. When they have emerged from the droning roar of the falls, he turns to the Consul and says: “It’s a pity about that big mill standing there unused!”

“It didn’t pay,” the chief replies.

“Maybe it would pay as a factory.”

“I don’t know. What kind of a factory?”

“Oh — a packing house and tannery. And maybe a woollen mill besides. Three in one.”

The chief halts the car, thinks for a moment and says: “But there aren’t enough sheep here to do anything with.”

“You could have as many sheep here as there are stars in the sky.”

“You think so?”

“Ay,” continues August. “As many sheep as there are sands on the seashore.”

“But they would have to eat.”

August points to the summits and replies: “Up there lie mile upon mile of grazing lands. Thousands of creatures could live up there. And here’s a good thing to consider: no wolves, no bears, no lynxes or anything else you can mention. A single shepherd would be all you’d need.”

The Consul is silent for a long time, then speaks. “The mill is certainly falling to pieces,” he remarks. “I haven’t been up there since childhood.” Then suddenly the Consul consults his watch, as though it had suddenly occurred to him to make for the mill at once. But no, he again starts up the car.

There was an excellent road as far as the church and for quite some distance beyond, but at length it became more and more narrow and at length broke up into a number of forks leading off to divers farms and cottages. They were obliged to drive slowly and carefully and at length to stop entirely in order to make way for a load of hay — the horses stood up on their hind legs and the lad on the load had all he could do to control them.

But August continued to brood over a certain plan; a scheme involving a factory of one type or another. To begin with it had been but a sudden notion, a wild fancy which on the spur of the moment had popped into that active brain of his, a notion he had hastily cloaked with three-fold possibility. Quite off-hand, he inquired: “Does the Herr Consul know who owns the grazing lands at the top?”

“No. The Province perhaps. Possibly the title is in the Crown.”

“Then it’s easy! They’re as good as yours already!”

“Mine? No,” says the Consul, shaking his head. “I have no use for them. However, I’ve heard it said that one of the old owners of Segelfoss once maintained a large flock on the mountain. But I simply can not understand what he did to feed them during the winter months.”

“He probably had roving flocks.”

“Possibly. But even outlers must have food.”

August was silent for a time. He realized that the question of a factory was still somewhat vague in the Consul’s mind: he therefore decided to establish himself as a man of reputation now as on previous occasion — for this had he been given that nimble brain of his.

The chief remarked: “You are a man with ideas, Altmulig. And it is clear that we ought to start up something here in Segelfoss. But I’m afraid I lack the capacity.”

But to the same degree the Consul’s cooled, August’s enthusiasm kindled. “Why, all we’d have to do would be to turn the flocks loose up there!” he objected.

“Yes, for the summer,” said the chief.

August now took refuge in his manifold worldly experience. “I’ve seen myself how sheep can pull through winter and bad weather both in Africa and Australia. Why, that’s nothing at all for a sheep. No, it’s the summer dry spell that kills them off like flies.”

“But we should have snow to contend with here. Don’t you see that?”

“Oh, I’ve seen it done here in Norway, too.”

The chief remained silent.

And now it is possible that August went a bit too far. “Ay,” he said, “maybe the Herr Consul doesn’t believe me, but as true as I’m sitting here, I once had the whole of the Hardanger moorland covered with my flocks.”

The chief brought the car to a standstill. “What’s that?” he asked. “I’ve been around a good bit both at home and abroad and I’ve never either heard or read of that!”

“I could have bought the entire moor, but I leased it instead.”

“You had flocks there?”

“A few thousand. Only ten thousand.”

The Consul tried his best to comprehend, did all he could to accompany August on this wild flight of his. “But I don’t see how,” he said — “when the autumn — the winter feeding —”

“Oh, in the fall I slaughtered them off. Shipped meat all over the world. Perhaps the Herr Consul didn’t read about that, either?”

“No. And how — well, after you had slaughtered off your flock, you had no sheep to begin the next year with, did you?”

“No, Herr Consul — you see I had to leave just then. I couldn’t keep on with it, for I had been called to South America to take charge of an important piece of work.”

The Consul was silent. Absent-mindedly, he started the car.

August was likewise silent. He realized that his yarn had not been believed, but this fact was of no great concern to him — he had never in his life cared a fig whether folk believed what he told them or not. Nor did he regret his exaggeration; he refused to take back a word. It was his mission in life to father all forms of progress and development, and he had left behind him desolation in one form or another wherever he had gone. He was ignorant and therefore innocent; a warrior in the cause for human emancipation even were the result to prove meaningless and destructive in the end. Were we not to keep up with the times? Were we to be the laughing stock of the entire world? The times, the spirit of modernity had its eye on him and found in him a man it could use. Yes, the modern age had good use for him; he was a voyager, a man who had sailed the seven seas and who was rags both inside and out, a man whose mind found no room for skepticism — or conscience — but a man who was keen of head and able of hand. The age had made of him its missionary. He had heard the call and he was on fire with the will to modernize and develop, even at the expense of destroying all semblance of order. He was as abnormally mendacious as the new age itself, but as he was ignorant, he was innocent. And now he was old. But he still had breath in his body. The Lord had allowed him to live.

“I’m looking for a place to turn round,” said the Consul. “This is as far as we can get.”

The people of the countryside had turned out in great numbers to witness the return trip of the car; the rumour must have spread from farm to farm, from cottage to cottage. Ay, here now was a spectacle — not a comet, to be sure, but a carriage that went of itself. Oh that Consul! The only pity was that he could not whizz along the road as motorists did abroad. On this rural lane in Norway his speed was such that not even a hen took fright.

As they were crossing the bridge for the second time, August suddenly remarked: “That mill could even be used as an iodine factory.”

“What’s that —?”

“Ay, as an iodine factory.”

The devil and all lay in that old Altmulig and those factories of his; there, he had got another flash of inspiration through his brain!

“Yes,” said the Consul. “Iodine is certainly an excellent product. Something they use in medicine.”

“And here we have no end of raw stuff to make it out of — whole heaps of seaweed right outside our very doors — God’s gift simply going to waste.”

“That’s true. We use a bit of seaweed as fertilizer for our soil, but otherwise I don’t suppose we make all the use of it we might.”

“All we need is a few machines,” said August.

The Consul asked: “Have you worked in that field, as well?”

“Some!” August now felt urged to make amends for his earlier exaggerations. “I wasn’t a foreman or anything like that. I was simply an ordinary day labourer.”

“While I think of it,” said the Consul. “We must fence off those two dangerous steeps at the side of that mountain road of ours.”

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