The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Sixteen

The road workers were relieved when their regular foreman, August, returned to the job. He had been absent so much of late, had appeared only occasionally to deal with some specific problem, and otherwise had left Adolf, as it were, in charge of operations. But the men were loath to obey Adolf’s commands; after all, he was no better than they themselves and they made a fool of him and consulted him on various silly points where no advice was needed. The Trønder Francis was particularly objectionable in this respect; he might load up his wheelbarrow and suddenly go over to Adolf and ask if he were supposed to trundle it away.

Their opposition to Adolf had its basic origin in their feelings of jealousy. Marna, the Consul’s sister, was not an infrequent visitor along the line of construction. She made the most of her life of indolent ease and seldom neglected to seek out Adolf with whom she would stop for a chat. Adolf was robust and handsome, he removed his cap when he greeted her, his speech was courteous, and now and then he would blush. Nothing escaped the eyes of his fellows, and they were after him the very moment the lady had disappeared.

They were now at work in several places blasting away a bit more of the cliff at the right for the purpose of widening the road; otherwise the shoulders were complete along the entire line — a bit more work on the surface and the road would be ready for traffic. Nevertheless, to slice off but a foot or two of solid cliff for a distance of no more than three or four yards would take time and necessitate no end of blasting.

But August was no longer the old boss he had been before, and his workmen took note of the change. He was no longer racing up and down the line, he lacked his former certainty of decision, he no longer harped continually on the subject of order and discipline. He confessed that his sight and hearing were beginning to fail, though his health in other respects was as good as ever, he said. But the workmen agreed amongst themselves that it must really be his mind which had begun to fail. No, he was not the man he had been before.

Naturally he had never written that letter to Paulina in Polden and, as a consequence, his money had failed to arrive. Such a condition, it is obvious, is likely to turn a man’s mind.

Along about this time he happened one evening upon Aase and it was his thought at once to hear what she might have to say in regard to that money of his: would he get it, or could he kiss it goodbye? He halted her and asked her advice in a matter of great importance to him. She stared him hard in the eyes, then without uttering a word, she drew him to one side, spread her legs wide apart and lifted up her clothes, so that she stood there nude to the navel. Meanwhile she continued to stare into his eyes.

“Hey —! Well I never!” August managed to stammer.

“I just wanted to see!” she said and let her clothes drop back into place.

Now it may be that August’s face had momentarily beamed at what his eyes had witnessed and it is likewise possible that he had gone further and moistened his lips.

“You old swine!” said Aase. “That’s why you go there all the time. You want her!”

Hell and damnation! This was not what he had hoped to hear from Aase, though he knew she had spoken the truth — unfortunately, the words were all too true — night and day the girl had haunted his dreams.

August laid his head on one side and said: “Tell me something about that!”

Aase tossed her head contemptuously.

“Ho, isn’t there anything you can tell me about that?” he asked.

Aase scowled darkly at him, strode past him and was on her way.

So he was just as near. . . .

Fate appeared dead set against him and that money of his. It even tried to tempt him into complaining against the Lord. As though he could ever do that! He was both sorry for himself and resentful, but even so, he was no godless man. No, he looked up to God. He had learned from the various tight squeezes in which he had found himself during the course of his roving career that God was a splendid force to feel at one’s back — during a shipwreck, for example, during periods of the utmost poverty, for example, or at moments when he was in possible danger of receiving a revolver shot or a knife thrust. From each crisis, he had emerged safe and sound. Ay, God was a friend worth having! . . . Well, what if he were to turn downright religious now and rely entirely upon a life of simple piety? It would do him no harm, at least — and, possibly it might help him the better to get along without his money.

The road crews now learned to their astonishment that they were no longer to swear at a stone which had injured a toe or a finger.

August was putting in a good bit of time at the blacksmith shop these days. He was helping to produce the divers parts of ironwork for the fencing he would install at the two danger points along the new road. A splendid variation in his tasks and a welcome one. At the same time he could keep an eye on Benjamin’s work in the theatre.

“I wonder if you’ve prayed the Lord to help you on with this job,” he said to Benjamin.

Benjamin had heard strange words from August’s lips before, so he essayed no elaborate reply. He pointed to the work he had already performed and indicated what he would have to do to complete the job — oh yes, he knew what he was doing all right!

“You should thank God for that!” said August.

Adolf comes to him and complains of his comrades’ disobedience and open defiance, and begs August to come back on the job. The men were wasting their time wrangling among themselves; sometimes they would get drunk during rest periods; they were lagging behind in their work. August promised to come up and look into the matter.

He understood very well what the matter was; he knew his men. For months chained to this construction work and deprived of all traffic with women, they were now heartily sick of each other’s company and would fly into a rage on the slightest provocation. Furthermore, they were half-mad with jealousy and Adolf was hardly safe from attack.

This feeling flared up anew on the day when Frøken Marna appeared in the company of Druggist Holm. The men envied even the druggist his walk with this beautiful girl — to be sure, for how could they help it! — but the truth of the matter was, they could in a way endure this fellow, whereas they could not in the least endure Adolf. And this must have come mainly of the fact that Marna was so thoroughly scornful of the attentions of her present swain. She appeared to detest his very presence. It was indeed a pitiful sight when the druggist’s sweetest and most charming speeches would evoke from the lady’s lips nought save a scornful grimace. The men on the road undertook to snicker at this — Hi, lads, she’s no use for him even if he does have a flower in his buttonhole and tries to look like a swell! — His bouttonière, a carnation, had been fresh some days before and it had clung bravely to its fragrant blush, having reposed each night in a tumbler of water, but at last this day the hand of death was upon it.

Holm: “Here I stand talking away to myself and not knowing what I may do to interest you.”

“Keep still! That will interest me!” grated Frøken Marna.

“Are you really as cruel as that? Ah, so I am merely spoiling my every chance with you.”

“You have absolutely no chance whatever with me!”

“No, so I observe. Well, here I go with a house plant stuck in my lapel and a part in my hair, yet all seems to escape your attention.”

Marna appeared unwilling to hear another word out of him and the workers snickered further and poked each other in the ribs. No, lads, he’ll never get anywhere with her, that’s one thing sure! Why, she’s too good for an old rooster like him!

“Where are you keeping Adolf today?” the lady inquires of the men.

No one answers.

Marna walks slowly up the new road, apparently of the opinion that she will find him somewhere above. The druggist accompanies her.

The Trønder Francis is the first to express himself. “Now I don’t know as you could exactly call the druggist an old rooster,” he says. “He’s better than that Adolf, he is.”

The druggist? they all shout. A remarkable fellow! Isn’t he decent enough to hand out a bottle now and then in that drugstore of his? Why, Boldemand, he had even got two bottles the time he had cried and said he was bound for a funeral. Isn’t that right, Boldemand?

“I could have got four!” boasted Boldemand. “That’s the kind of man he is!”

“Where are you keeping our Adolf today?” one of the men mocks scornfully. “Hehehe, come on out with Adolf now! I really must know where Adolf is! Hahaha!”

No, the druggist is a horse of a different colour, they all agree. A husky fellow, too. Broad shoulders on him. You ought to see him row a boat! Ay, you must have observed that there is a man who is something. But Adolf —

The next time Marna arrived, she was seated on a horse, the druggist accompanying her on foot. You see, after her brother, Gordon Tidemand, had got him that car of his, he had turned his carriage horse over to Marna who had forthwith taken up riding. She sat heavily in the saddle, though she rode with a certain air. The horse was well-rested and lively; now and then it would toss its head and sidestep. The druggist continued to shower his sweet nothings upon the lady of his dreams and his verbal courtship showed little short of virtuosity. Yet Marna seldom troubled so much as to acknowledge his compliments; no, she made straight for Adolf to show the latter how beautiful she appeared on horseback and to demonstrate her marvelous equestrian talent by jumping over a wheelbarrow which stood there in the road.

“It is charming to observe with what finesse you manage that Arab of yours,” said the druggist.

“Have you noticed what beautiful eyes Adolf has?” she replied dotingly.

“But I, too, have beautiful eyes,” said Druggist Holm. “That is, when I turn them upon you.”

“Have you?” she replied. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen your eyes. You’re always hiding them.”

The druggist bowed his head. “That comes of my humility.” he said. “I bow my head. I dare only glance at the hem of your garment.”

On the way home, as it was down-grade, she galloped off and left him. . . . From that day on, she and the druggist never again visited the road in each other’s company.

But Druggist Holm was by no means left without resources; in a few days he was seen strolling up the new road with Mama’s mother — with none other than Gammelmoderen. He was dashingly attired in a handsome suit of clothes, a brand-new hat worn at a rakish angle, the corner of a white silk handkerchief peeping from his breast pocket. Exactly why he had chosen Gammelmoderen to accompany him on this walk — whether it had been his thought to come at Marna via her mother, or whether it had been a sheer desire on his part to go sightseeing — no one was able to determine. But, at least, the druggist was not without resourcefulness. And the pair seemed to enjoy each other’s company thoroughly; Holm was indeed entertaining and his lady laughed with the spontaneity of youth at the fancifulness of his remarks. Their conversation was lively and scintillant.

But now the situation up on the road became truly critical. Marna was visiting the construction more frequently than ever and, as the druggist no longer accompanied her, Adolf was now left without a rival. This led to open insurrection in the ranks of the workmen and Adolf was obliged to go to August in the smithy and resign his job as foreman. August objected and reminded Adolf that he would thus lose the added pay he had coming to him, but all right, let it go at that, Adolf said.

August considered the situation: he might perhaps put Boldemand in charge of the crew for the days still needed to put up the iron fencing, but Boldemand, it seemed, was a fiend for the bottle. And how would it aid matters, even were Adolf to be removed as foreman? Marna could find him aloft with the gang, and then, as he would again be simply a common labourer, his comrades would at last be free to murder him. Such was by no means unthinkable.

The point was, Marna would have to be restrained from visiting the new road. She was the root of the entire difficulty. The men had become like gunpowder, and their thoughts were hardly upon God.

August called at the Consul’s office, dropped his cap to the floor and bowed.

The Consul descended from his high stool and said in a friendly voice: “Glad to see you, Altmulig. I was going to ask you when you imagine the new road will be completed.”

“You ask me and I ask you.”

“Hm.”

“Ay, for we’ve trouble in one way or another. If only the men can be left to work in peace —”

“How’s that — are they being disturbed?”

August reviewed conditions as they existed at present on the road: the men were out of control — they couldn’t stand the sight of young and beautiful womenfolk come there to watch them work — their thoughts were not upon God.

The Consul looked uncertainly at his old altmuligmand. What, was it God he had mentioned?

August continued: bright summer days and mountain air and the food they ate did not satisfy them — pardon now, but they had become a good bit wrought up and felt a hunger for anyone they might happen to see — ay, even for that Aase, he had been told.

“What rot!” said the Consul.

“Ay. And now I’ve come to warn you against letting any of your own ladies — to tell you she shouldn’t visit the road any more.”

“Marna? She can give that up, I suppose.”

“For it might be dangerous for her. And besides, the lads don’t do a stroke of work so long as she is there; they just stand around and look at her. She makes them feel restless. Pardon, but they’re all in love with her, they’re very fond of her, and when she goes talking with that Adolf —”

“Very well, very well!” said the Consul, annoyed. “Marna will go there no more. Today marks the end of that. And now, Altmulig, when do you think you can finish the road?”

August brightened at this. “If we can be left in peace, we can be finished up there in three weeks’ time. That is, if we are left in peace. But, after all, everything rests in the hand of God,” he added thoughtfully.

“Of course, there is no especial hurry about it,” said the Consul. “But I am expecting a friend from England to visit me during the hunting season. I’ll need the road by that time. But, as you say, you’ll be finished long before then. By the way, have you seen anything in the way of game up the mountain this summer?”

“I should think I have! Nothing very big, though, as I should say. But one covey of ptarmigan after another. And no end of rabbits.”

“Are you a hunter yourself, Altmulig?”

“In my younger days. I should say as I was a hunter then! One winter I shot and trapped a whole eight-oar load of the finest of furs and sailed them down the coast to the fair at Stokmarknes.”

“Furs? What kind?”

“Otter and fox, a few ermine, a bit of sealskin. Ay, those were the days! And later on, up in the Andes and out in Java and different other places —”

The Consul interrupted him: “The Englishman I am expecting to visit me this autumn is a gentleman of decidedly high quality — he is a nobleman, the owner of vast estates. We were together in school. I’ve been entertained in his home and now I should like to do a little something for him in return. If you can think of anything out of the ordinary, Altmulig, I wish you’d mention it to me.”

“Everything rests in the hand of God,” said August.

The Consul started at this, but nodded his head and said: “Yes.”

“If we live that long,” said August. “That’s what I meant.”

“Yes,” the Consul repeated. But old Altmulig was not himself this day; something must have happened to him of late. The Consul inquired after his health. It was excellent. Had anything gone wrong with him, then? Of course not! On the contrary, he had a large sum of money on deposit somewhere, but dashed if he was able to get hold of it, and now God was helping him to get along without it, so in truth there was nought save joy and music in his breast. . . .

When the Consul returned home that night, his first words to his wife were: “Of all things, Altmulig has gone religious! I am really at a loss to comprehend it.”

“Altmulig? So. Yes, I’ve seen him cross himself a few times,” said Fru Juliet.

“Yes, but it’s even worse than that now. And I must request you to refrain from profanity and frivolous conversation the next time you happen to meet him.”

“Hahaha!” laughed Fru Juliet.

From this he turned to the present situation up on the new road. As the whole matter appealed to them in terms of the wildest comedy, they laughed and joked and had no end of fun over it. Gordon Tidemand who was either too weak and evasive or else too delicate and refined, put the matter of speaking to Marna off onto his wife. “You must have a talk with Marna,” he said. “You could manage it so much more discreetly than I. Tell her that all the road men are crazy about her, hahaha, that they cannot live without her, but that there is one Adolf in particular who craves her hand and who really has the most honourable intentions! But that on account of this, he is in danger of being beaten to death by the others! Hahaha!”

Fru Juliet managed to laugh with him, but it appeared that she was likewise able to view the situation from Marna’s point of view. “It is possible that she herself is in love with this Adolf,” she said.

“Then she is out of her head!” said Gordon Tidemand. “And we’ll simply ship her back to Helgeland where she came from. She is not to set foot upon that new road again, tell her that! Who ever heard of such a thing! And you must be straight up and down with her, Juliet, just as though you felt you were I!”

“Yes,” said Fru Juliet.

Gordon Tidemand always shrank from all forms of personal friction and he was decidedly relieved at the thought of avoiding a possible scene with his sister. His tone was at once jocular again: “And here’s another thing, Juliet — I don’t ever want to hear of you showing yourself up there on the road, either, do you understand? If I ever find you up there, I’ll shoot you!”

“Haha!”

“For I know of no one worse than you are when it comes to getting us wretched menfolks excited to the point of losing what little common sense we have.”

“Haha. That’s enough, Gordon! Will you return me the favour and speak to those maids of ours?” she asked. “They’ve gone a bit daft themselves. They are attending revival meetings held by a certain Anabaptist down in South Parish and, along with this, they’ve taken so to bathing and scrubbing themselves that they are in the bath twice a day now, and the rest of us hardly get so much as a chance at it!”

“Such impudence!” says Gordon Tidemand.

“I have asked them the meaning of all this sudden cleanliness, and the answer they give me is that they do not wish to appear filthy on the day when they must take off their chemises for baptism in the river below the falls.”

“Why, I’ve never heard of such a thing! Which of the girls are they?”

“The parlour maids. I hope you will deal with them properly.”

“I? Juliet, don’t you think it would be best —”

“And you must be straight up and down with them, Gordon, just exactly as though you were I!” says Fru Juliet.

“No, I—?” replies the Consul, Gordon Tidemand. “I really feel that lies in your province, my dear. Seriously speaking, the maids — no, they are in your department, quite! You would not wish them to do as they please in your house, would you? If I were mistress here, they would change their song and dance right quickly, or else — Why, who ever heard of such a thing! But here’s another point — now that general wickedness seems to be the order of the day, what if you and I were to go for another automobile ride this afternoon? What do you say to that, eh?”

“That might not be such a bad idea,” said Fru Juliet.

“The weather is so fine, we can take the children with us. The baby, too.”

Peace along the new road. Marna comes no more.

The fact that the druggist and Gammelmoderen still visited their project was nothing to the workmen — nothing to bother about there! Adolf toiled faithfully and steadily with his own crew, Boldemand who had no eye for the opposite sex was in charge and the work was progressing with a dash. August had good reason to be satisfied.

But many were those whom August was to assist by word and deed. It was the consensus of opinion that he was splendid to confide in and that he could always think of many ways out of a difficulty. Now, for example, there was Gammelmoderen. “If you please, may I have a few words with you, Altmulig?” she had asked modestly.

“Who’s to prevent it!” August had replied.

Gammelmoderen was at a crisis; ay, she was, as it were, in a bad way and during the past two weeks her head had been plagued by many thoughts. You see, it would never do for Alexander and her to lock themselves up in the smokehouse together. That was one solution to the problem, but in the long run it wouldn’t do. The couple could not very well avoid at one time or another unlocking the door to allow one of them to slip outside, but it was a simple matter for some interloper to rush up and detect the presence of the one remaining inside. It was the parlour-maids who had made the discovery, Blonda and Stina, two sisters whom Gammelmoderen had had in her service since the days of her youth and who were of an age with herself. The sisters had not wished their old mistress to come to any harm; they had gone religious and it was their desire to save her.

But that had been the end of their locking themselves up in the smokehouse.

And not enough with that, Gammelmoderen had been certain that from then on an eye would be kept on her window, in order that no tall man should come slipping into her room.

So the final way out had also been closed to her. . . .

And then one day whilst walking along the street in town Gammelmoderen had encountered Druggist Holm who had greeted her in his characteristically jovial manner. And he had at once assumed a jaunty air and invited her to stop in at the hotel with him. “A glass of wine?” he had asked. An amusing interlude, a quiet little revel in broad daylight, right there where people could see, an innocent affair and amusing. No, a large and charming hotel dining room was nothing to be mentioned in the same breath with the storage bin off the smokehouse back home. One did not whisper here, one spoke in a natural tone of voice. . . . Later they had strolled up the new road together — if you please, let everyone see!

That was the first time.

“We must repeat this some time,” Holm had said. “It was a most pleasant walk for me. I was able to avoid going home where only my patience cards awaited me.”

Gammelmoderen had been no less pleased with her afternoon; she had again got a taste of open air and of daylight, it had been loads of fun and she had laughed heartily for the first time in many moons. And she had talked intelligently, too. Oh, Gammelmoderen, she was good for anything!

And they had repeated their walk together, had taken the same immense pleasure in each other’s company and a new type of joy had begun to dawn in Gammelmoderen’s heart. It had been so long, and it seemed so good! She could have blessed her two parlour maids who had stood in the way of a less wholesome solution to her life’s problem. She had misjudged Blonda and Stina, for they had been but tools in the creation of a greater happiness for her. In the sweetest manner possible, she would relieve them from further guarding of her window.

One Sunday Blonda had announced her intention of attending an Anabaptist prayer meeting in South Parish. “Ay ay, here I am going off and leaving you,” she said. “But if anything should happen, just ring the bell real loud. Ring it real hard —”

“Nothing will happen,” said Gammelmoderen.

“— for I was thinking — in case Stina should go to bed —”

“Stina is not going to bed.”

Blonda started. “Have you asked her to remain up, then?”

“No, but you may speak to her before you leave.”

They looked at each other.

“But,” said Gammelmoderen, “you two are simply not to stay up nights watching my window any more. No one is going to try to get in!”

Blonda had gone all to pieces: “Well — no no — all right — ay —” she had stammered.

“Good-night, Blonda!” . . .

And now it is that Gammelmoderen comes to August humbly to beg a few words with him. She is at a crisis, her mind is plagued with a thousand thoughts, it is so difficult to settle her problem, to extricate herself — Altmulig must now advise her.

“Pray to God!” says August.

Gammelmoderen arches her brows and stares at him in amazement. “No, really — I’m not joking,” she says.

“Neither am I,” he replies.

“Well, but you see, Altmulig — it is so with me now that I can’t have things going on in this manner. He simply must leave me in peace. I can not smoke salmon with him any longer. But then I don’t know what Gordon is going to do. I suppose he might send him away. That would be the best thing. But who can he get in his place, then?”

August’s brain immediately flashes a thought of Benjamin, but he refuses to yield to such mundane temptation — he will not be so quick to seek triumph at another’s expense — Benjamin could look to the lilies of the field —

Gammelmoderen continued, pained with the thought of the innumerable difficulties she herself had brought about: the time was not far distant when it would be closed season for salmon fishing — the exact date she had forgotten and she would have to ask him — what’s that? She certainly would not ask him — she would ask her own son about that! Why, the very idea! But, in any event, the date would soon be at hand, and what if Gordon should decide to discontinue immediately? What did Altmulig think about that? But, said that capable woman who was the widow of none other than Theodore paa Bua, it would be a grand pity to discontinue at once, for the fishing was still excellent here, and, with the approach of the closed season, salmon prices were mounting. So she couldn’t understand at all what to do. And neither could she talk with Gordon about this matter — no, how could she do that? How could she tell him that she was through smoking salmon and all that? Surely Altmulig could see at a glance how utterly impossible that would be. But now he must find a way out of her dilemma. . . .

And yes, August already had his advice on the tip of his tongue; Gammelmoderen’s difficulties were nothing to speak of, he could solve them all with a half-dozen words at the most, if he might be so mundane. “Don’t you worry about that!” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Let him smoke salmon alone!”

Gammelmoderen: “I’ve thought of that, too, but — Oh yes, I’ve given that no end of thought. But then the point will come up — then the whole thing will come up — that I’ve never at any time been indispensable there in the smokehouse.”

August became more and more mundane; inside that keen old head of his he was positively blazing with light. “Why, you were indispensable only so long as he didn’t know how to do things himself, weren’t you? Just let me ask you that! But now you’ve taught him the trick and that makes quite a difference, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said. “That’s true.”

Both continued to think. Gammelmoderen shook her head. “If only he will stand for it!” she said.

“Who? Let him try to start something! Besides, it’s no kind of a profession for one like you to be standing there in that hole smoking salmon. The Consul’s own mother —”

“If only I can make the change without getting into trouble!”

“Haha, that makes me laugh! Pardon me —! The first time you are sick. Ay, the first couple of times you are sick. After that, the thing will go of itself!”

Gammelmoderen exclaims: “That’s it, Altmulig, God bless you! I never thought of that. That way nothing will come up. I knew I should get help from you. It was just as though someone had whispered it into my ear. And you’re so kind — dear Altmulig —”

The first time there was salmon to be smoked, Gammelmoderen was ill, confined to her room. Alexander sent a message in to her saying that now she must come. It was August who brought him his answer out in the smokehouse. “What’s the matter with you, you jackass? Don’t you know that Gammelmoderen is sick abed?” he said to open the conversation. “Even so, I’ll be switched if I can see why a fellow like you is in need of a skirt to help him smoke his salmon. How many months have you been at it now? You must be an eternally stupid clown never to learn how to do things for yourself! You don’t know the difference between a smoked salmon and a calf! If I was the pastor of your parish, you bet I’d never confirm you, and if I was the Consul I’d kick you out as useless before another day went by! Yes sir! Now what are you jabbering after female help for? Is it maybe a rag you want tied on your finger? Come on now, let me hear what it is about this business of smoking salmon you’re too stupid to know for yourself, and I’ll tell you all about it, just to save a poor —”

Alexander surely must have considered himself anything but deserving of this stream of abuse, for his face went pale and his breath came in short gasps. Nevertheless, all must agree that his reply was really mild and sweet under the circumstances: “Hold that jaw of yours, you sour-bellied old puke, you!” he said. “I’d be doing right to wring the dung out of you and make you eat it again, do you get that!” This was as far as Alexander permitted himself to proceed in this vein; he bit his lip and immediately fell to defending his knowledge: “Maybe you think I don’t know how to smoke salmon?” he said. “Have I done much of anything else either the first time I was here in Segelfoss or this time? Don’t try to tell me anything else, you musty old spook, you! I know all about the colour, the smell, the taste and anything else you can mention — now get that into your head!”

“That’s what I thought,” said August. “It would be a disgrace to you if you didn’t!”

Alexander went further to boast: “And as far as I stand, I don’t need anybody to help me smoke salmon. Ho, that’s a fine thing to hear! Now go on and get out of here so I can find room to spit! Did I ask you to come around here to teach me so much as can be stuck on a hair? Now dry up and get out of that door there!”

“You’re a fool to go and get mad like that, you filthy ragamuffin, you!” said August. “You ought to thank God for having at last succeeded in prying a little something into that head of yours. But I don’t suppose you ever trouble yourself very much about God —”

. . . The second time there was salmon to be smoked Gammelmoderen made the fatal mistake of not being ill. On the contrary, she appeared in the best of health and she was likewise stupid enough to go down into town and, in broad daylight, to meet Holm, that new swain of hers for the purpose of going for another jaunt up the new road. Such incredible insouciance right in the middle of the afternoon! And was her aim simply to bait the entire town? It seemed so; the courtship of this pair seemed marked with urgency. The road crew took note of the fact that they now both deported themselves in a somewhat quieter manner than before — no more laughter and idle chatter — in a word, a bond of sincere tenderness now seemed to exist between them. What did Holm mean by helping the lady past stones and wheelbarrows over which she could have leapt as lightly as Mama’s Arab? Had he gone a bit foolish in the head?

They strolled up the road all the way to the “hunting lodge,” where they sat gazing across the waters of a mountain lake. There was no moonlight — no, but there was rich sunshine. They were both fresh and charmingly flushed after their climb and they smiled frequently, no sign of foolishness from either side. Holm was careful of the crease in his trousers and must have been striving to create something of an impression, what with that fresh carnation in his button-hole and all; and Gammelmoderen, for her part, removed her hat from the lush extravagance of her hair and sat there like the very girl she once had been.

They were a pair, in many respects alike — both straightforward by nature, both with a sense of humour, both with a healthy lust after life. Nor was there any great disparity of age to keep them apart; Gammelmoderen was possibly a bit older than Holm but she was sound of body and decidedly attractive, not a wrinkle in her face, and her hands were remarkably beautiful.

They spoke of the lake and the summits rising about its shores, they asked each other’s impressions and yes, both found the scene lovely indeed. What a splendid idea of Gordon Tidemand’s to arrange for this pleasant spot where they might sit and commune with nature!

“Hunting lodge,” Holm mused. “Yes, there is a house there, isn’t there? Well, I suppose we might live up here —”

“Yes,” she replied and laughed to show she hadn’t taken him seriously.

“House and outhouse, a highway leading to our very door — all the conveniences.”

“Yes. Hahaha!”

He offered her his carnation, but she declined, explaining that it would look more fetching where it was. He lighted up his pipe and was careful to blow the smoke as far as possible away from her.

Suddenly she rose and went to peer around the corner of the house; when she returned and sat down, her face was paler than before. “I thought I heard someone rustling back there and went to see if it were Gordon.”

“Fine, then I suppose he could unlock this hunting-lodge of his and invite us in, eh?”

“He surely would, if it were he. Gordon loves so to be host. But I’m not sure whether anything has been put in the cellar here yet.”

“I’ve never yet forgotten,” said Hohn, “that charming dinner you all gave us last spring.”

“When you were so impolite at the table and pinched me so that I screamed!”

“Unfortunately, yes,” said Holm. “I had, you see, stopped in to pay a visit to my old friend Vendt of the hotel.”

“Oh, that was nothing,” Gammelmoderen said to reassure him. “I was giddy myself from all that wine and I was glad to know that life hadn’t left me behind. My, but it was fun!”

“But what did your son say?”

“Gordon? He never says anything about such matters. He’s a good boy.”

“And Fru Juliet is so sweet.”

“Yes, isn’t she! Where is her equal to be found? We are all so fond of her!”

“Ah yes, take it all in all, everything seems good!” said Holm, picking a straw from her dress.

“Magnificent! Good Lord, how beautiful the world seems! I shall never leave it if I can do anything to prevent it!”

August appeared walking slowly and thoughtfully up the road. Observing the pair, he greeted them and sat down for a moment beside them. In his hand he had a measuring tape which he kept pulling out and springing back on the spool.

“We came out to inspect your road, Altmulig,” said Gammelmoderen. “I simply couldn’t stay indoors today.”

“Ay, the weather’s too fine to stay in the house,” he said apologetically.

“And such a fine road as you have built!”

“With God’s help!” August said.

The druggist laughed aloud at this remark; he had taken it for a joke — poor fellow, he knew no better. Pointing to the measuring tape, he said flippantly: “That’s no kind of thing to hang yourself with, Altmulig, if that’s what you have in mind.”

August: “Don’t use such sinful talk!”

The druggist, attempting to make up for his remark: “Well, did you get that million of yours from the judge yet?”

“Million?” said August. “It wasn’t a million exactly, but it was quite a sum of money, all the same. I haven’t got it yet and I suppose I never will. But I know that the Lord will help me now as He has always done in the past.”

“No doubt He will. What’s He for, if not to help His children?”

“Well, I have my work to do. I didn’t come here to sit down,” said August, rising.

“What are you up to now, Altmulig?” asked Gammelmoderen, if only to say something.

“Just a bit of measuring. The Consul wants a fence put up here at the edge of the steep.”

“Ugh, how frightfully far down it goes! I don’t even dare look down. Well, good-bye, Altmulig. See you later.”

The couple departed, leaving August to his work of measuring. A sound suddenly caused him to glance up: the Gypsy Alexander was standing at the corner of the hunting-lodge.

August forgot himself and swore: “What the devil are you doing up here?”

“I just got here,” Alexander replied. “I was back in the mountains.”

“What are you doing here?”

“What do you want to know for? Is that any business of yours?”

“Isn’t this supposed to be your day for smoking salmon?”

“I’m all finished with that. And if there’s anything else you’d like to know, ask me and I’ll tell you!”

“You’d better clear out of here,” said August, turning back to his measuring.

Alexander stood still. He glared more and more angrily at the other’s back. “Well, I’ll be damned!” he said. “Say, what are you doing up here yourself?”

August turned and stared at him. “What’s that? Me?”

“For you got here just in time to prevent me from heaving a certain druggist down into the valley below.”

“Say, I’ll have you put behind bars!” said August.

The Gypsy showed his white teeth in a wild laugh. “You’d better keep a civil tongue in your head,” he grated. “For I can just as well heave you over the edge instead.”

“One move out of you and I’ll drop you dead as a stone,” warned August, aiming his revolver.

The Gypsy began walking down the road in the direction of home, shrugging his shoulders, jabbering to himself and wildly waving his arms.

August returned the revolver to his pocket, completed his measurements and noted down a few figures. As cool as a cucumber. He could have despatched the poor Gypsy man in the wink of an eye.

He stared out across the wide mountain lake. The bay here looked like the harbour entrance to some sea port or other, and, by a wild stretch of the imagination, it reminded him of Rio. A fish leaped out there in the water. Wonder how fish could have found their way clear up here? . . . Now and then a splash and a circle of ripples marring the glassy surface of the lake. . . .

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23r/chapter16.html

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