The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Seventeen

A neighbour lad came to see Benjamin in the movie theatre and it developed that they were in league in some secret matter; they huddled together, whispered and came to some sort of agreement. . . .

The time was at hand, according to the old folk up in North Parish; it was the right quarter of the moon and the weather was fine and it wouldn’t interfere with the mowing. They had originally planned a party of three, but now there would be only two of them in order not to split the good luck too many ways. Besides, nothing could be worse than that there should be too many in the party, for that would frighten the underworld folk away, according to the aged ones up in North Parish. . . .

On Sunday they visited the altar and afterward they neither touched tobacco nor had anything to do with a girl — they walked in paths of righteousness. At eight o’clock they ate their supper, each at home, and met at the appointed place. With that, they set out on their mission.

They chose neither path nor road, but went stealing in through the forest as long as there were trees, later clambering up over rough country where there were heaped boulders and deep fissures carved out by rock-slides and where progress was difficult indeed. After a time they sat down to rest.

“I don’t suppose we’re committing a sin by doing this?” inquired Benjamin who was of an innocent turn of mind.

No, his comrade was unafraid. They were following the wisdom of the old folk, weren’t they? And they had made no mistake in carrying out directions: they were wearing their shirts wrong-side-out, they carried no blade of any description, and each had three juniper berries carefully tucked in his pocket.

They got out the gifts they had brought along for the fairy creature they would meet and inspected them: brand-new articles which had never seen use by Christian man or woman, articles they had bought at the store in Segelfoss where everything in the world was for sale. Having earned good wages this summer Benjamin had bought a silver heart on a chain, and his companion, not to be outdone, had provided himself with a silver ring. Ay, they were well-equipped for the encounter.

They rose and resumed their journey, continued their rugged climb. Thy were not to arrive at the steep at any particular hour; they were simply to take their time and to take pains to be not out of breath when they reached their destination, lest they forget what they were about. They had until twelve o’clock. There were a great many details to remember.

Coming to the steep, they hunted about until they found a likely looking fissure in the face of the mountain through which it would be easy for the underworld people to slip in and out, and there they sat down to wait. Silently they sat for an hour. The night was light, the sun was still shining against the tallest summits, but with the passage of another hour, time began to drag heavily for them. They looked about, but the sun had disappeared entirely and the light had begun to fail.

“If only we haven’t made any mistakes,” said Benjamin.

“Unless we have some kind of steel on us,” hinted his friend. “And you’re sure you’ve no holes in your pocket?”

They both felt in their pockets, and there were the three juniper berries intact and the only steel they had on them was in the cleats they wore on the heels of their shoes, but these were permitted.

When twelve o’clock had passed without anything having happened they got up and went home. Benjamin had a few days’ work left to do in the theatre and it would be necessary for him to be up at six o’clock.

This was only the first night’s test. They would have to come back tomorrow night and the next without tobacco or girls until they had achieved their aim.

Benjamin’s fellow-neophyte nodded and said that, for himself, he was sure they would meet the fairy. It was her way when moving from mountain to mountain to come up out of the ground, he had heard. “And that’s when we are supposed to hold out our hands to her,” he added.

“Ay,” said Benjamin.

Night after night they continued their faithful vigil and on Saturday they had but two nights left to go — the rules of the game required that their test should include two Sunday nights. Benjamin was beginning to show the effects of this business of nightly vigil lasting from supper to midnight, for it was necessary for him to rise early from bed each morning. Nevertheless he was sustained by the hopes held out by his friend. On Saturday Cornelia came to visit him in the movie house; she cried out her joy at finding him again, for she had been to his home to look for him, had inquired after him there in town, had made inquiries along the street — and how awful folk had acted — they had winked one eye at her and laughed.

“What do you want of me?” asked Benjamin curtly, for it was forbidden him to have anything to do with a girl.

“Ho, what do I want of you!” Cornelia replied quite meekly. “I was just passing and stopped in here to see you.”

“Well, go on home again!” he commanded her.

Cornelia stood there for a moment, speechless. Then she began to cry, paced back and forth and at length came out with a question. “Is it because of that Hendrik you’re mad at me?” she asked.

Benjamin did not reply.

Cornelia: “Oh, so then it’s true that you’re to have one of the housemaids up at the Manor?”

Benjamin let slip an exclamation. “What!” he cried.

“Do you think I don’t know all about it? It’s all over the parish just what kind of a fellow you are, that you have both her and me!”

Benjamin hopped up and down in his tracks; it was forbidden him to defend himself and there stood Cornelia with her head full of piffle, spoiling his chances utterly. From sheer exasperation he threw down his trowel and scrambled out of the building. And when he came out onto the street, he ran. . . .

Saturday night passed as had the others; they sat by the steep and waited, but nothing happened. They were unable to comprehend it; they had kept close watch of the fissure which scored the mountain wall, but it had not opened wider and no one had issued forth from the bowels of the earth.

Benjamin was chagrined over the episode with Cornelia and at length he was urged to confess. He had said nothing, had merely asked her to go, but Cornelia herself had come out with the usual piffle. Could that have caused things to go wrong?

His comrade was in doubt, but no, so long as it had not been Benjamin’s own fault and as he had not kissed her and chucked her under the chin. . . .

“Ay, but that’s what she wanted,” Benjamin confessed. “And that’s what I wanted myself. Do you suppose that could have been wrong?”

His comrade, assailed by fresh doubts: “I wonder!”

When they had arrived back home, Benjamin whispered that now he was through looking for the fairy. His comrade, however, managed to talk him into changing his mind; they had but one night left to go, the second Sunday night; no one knew what might happen — they had surely been faithful and it was possible that the underworld folk could see inside one’s heart. It was worth trying. . . .

And so the lads went out to the steep this last night as well, and it is more than probable that their hopes ran higher than ever, as this was the second Sunday night. And there they sat gazing up at the sheer mountain wall with such concentration that they both developed stiff necks. Occasionally, to break the monotony, they would point and say in a spirit of good-natured fun: “Look there, it seems to me I see —”

But nothing seemed to help.

Well, but something happened, after all. . . .

As it was a difficult route home by way of rocky slope and forest, they agreed, now that their trial was over, to climb up to that new road of the Consul’s and follow that as far as the main road through the parish. A splendid saving of time, as it took them only a half-hour to scale the precipitous face of the mountain!

Suddenly, upon reaching the top, they heard a cry. It had come from a point some hundred yards distant, had risen for a moment, then died away, as though sucked down into the earth.

“What was that?” the lads whispered to each other and possibly a quick thought of the underworld flashed through their minds. They were foolhardy enough to stand still listening as though hoping to hear the cry again; worse, they sat right down to listen. At length Benjamin’s friend recklessly advanced and he had barely reached the point whence the cry had issued before he waved frantically for Benjamin to come and see.

It was now an hour past midnight, light in the sky and warm. Benjamin took his place by the side of his comrade and looked.

And together they saw. . . .

Benjamin immediately recognized the lady. He had seen her during the time he was working for Altmulig down in the garage; she had stopped in to watch him at work — it was the Consul’s sister, the one named Marna. The man was unknown to them; but, even so, his face was so scratched and bloody he looked like nothing at all. If the couple had had a battle, it was anyway over now — both parties were standing back to back arranging their clothes.

The two lads remained standing where they were: they didn’t even have sense enough to be on their way. The man picked his cap from the ground, turned and seemed anxious to say something, but, the very moment he discovered two strangers watching him, he bowed and ran away. The lady, on the other hand, had no look of being forsaken — she took plenty of time to arrange both her clothes and her hair, brushed dirt and bits of dry stubble from her skirt, stared the two young spectators straight in the eye, and, when she felt she was ready, walked straight past them as though they had been less than the dust beneath her feet.

An endless round of duties for August. No one seemed careful to spare him, though he was in dire need of free time in which to manage his personal affairs. At length he was through at the blacksmith shop and had resumed his duties as foreman of the road gang. Meanwhile, however, as he had been assailed by many worries and had sought relief in a life of simple piety, he no longer relished bossing men about as he had formerly.

“Look here now, lads,” he said on Monday morning. “In just two weeks this road must be finished and ready for the Consul’s car — I’ve given my word on this, and you all know what we have left to do. There’s no sense whatever in coming to work Monday morning all played out after spending the entire weekend dancing and sinning in other ways. And besides that, you don’t get here on time,” he added with a glance at his watch.

Boldemand, no longer foreman, came late to work, his face bearing signs of dissipation and August was quick to reprimand him. But the worst offender of all was Adolf — he turned up a full half-hour late. “What in God’s name have you been up to!” asked August. “How did you get your face all scratched up like that?”

“I fell down and skinned it,” replied Adolf, turning his face to one side.

“One thing after another!” muttered his boss. “You get yourself all dressed up fine on Sundays, I’ve been told, and make the rest of us look like tramps. I didn’t think it of you, Adolf — the idea of fighting on the Holy Sabbath. You look as though somebody had been over your face with a harrow. I certainly thought that the spring planting would be over by this time.”

The other workmen laughed at this, and Adolf looked like a whipped dog. He picked up his drill and sledge hammer and went to his work.

During the forenoon conditions improved up there on the road; backs became more supple, arms began to swing more lustily and the good spirits of the men returned. But Adolf dallied along and wasn’t half himself.

“What ails you?” asked his working mate who was handling the hammer. “You aren’t holding the drill steady. You even forget to turn it.”

Adolf uttered no reply.

After drilling four holes, they were ready to blast. August walked up the road, measured, figured things out, estimated the extent of the danger zone. “Blaa-aa-st — ho!” he shouted. The workmen round about sought sheltered spots. Four charges were to be fired simultaneously. “Light up!” cried August.

When Adolf had fired the last fuse he stood still for a moment to make sure that it was smoking. Why didn’t he run away? The workmen peered at him from their shelters, noted his behaviour with amazement, and promptly began shouting at him. Suddenly Adolf hoists himself atop the ledge, the very one about to be shattered. He sits astride the charge, the fuse smoking between his legs. Now what in Heaven’s name —! The men round about yell at him, no longer give a thought to their own safety, but step out into the open, jump up and down, wave their arms wildly, shout, fume, and curse. It is a matter of seconds. The first charge goes off with a boom, the second follows immediately. Adolf remains seated on the ledge. A shower of granite chips rises in the air and falls all about his ears; he bends forward a bit and raises his hands to his face, but continues to occupy his seat. The third charge goes off and Adolf is no longer unscathed. Nevertheless, he continues to sit there. At the last minute, like a streak, a man rushes out to him, grabs him with both hands and hauls him from the ledge — it is the Trønder Francis. Just at that moment the fourth charge goes off.

The men stream out of hiding and find them lying in a welter of gravel and broken rock — naturally, they had not got far enough away and the final explosion had laid them low. Nevertheless, the worst had apparently not taken place — it had been the air pressure more than anything else which had fetched them. Francis, at least, was able to raise himself up on one elbow. After spitting the gravel from his mouth, he managed to growl: “Say, if there’s any life left in Adolf there, give him a good wallop for me!” Whereupon Francis fell back prostrate again.

Neither man was good for much after his experience. Adolf had to be carried down to the bunk-house in an empty tool-chest and it took two men to hold him up before Francis was able to walk, but both were dull in the head and thoroughly done out. — Both had received broken bones; they groaned but they did not talk. By way of damage, Adolf had two wounds in his head and a fractured shoulder, whereas Francis had had several ribs broken when he had been thrown to the ground by the charge — his head was whole, however.

Both were sent to the hospital in Bodø.

The accident was the subject of no end of discussion in town and the Segelfoss News carried a special article about it. It was a question whether Adolf, after his release from the hospital, might not be obliged to spend some time in an asylum, as his singular conduct during the explosion of the four blasting charges had been indicative of a temporary mental disorder. His fellow-worker, Francis, had behaved like a hero and was deserving of the greatest of praise.

At length things settled down again, but two of the ablest members of the road-crew had been laid up. Resolutely, August took on both Benjamin and the latter’s comrade in nocturnal adventure. They could take no part in the blasting operations, but they were able lads and could help at graveling the surface.

Again Gammelmoderen comes to consult the oracle, August. She is at a fresh crisis and — dear Altmulig, this time the situation is more dire than ever. . . .

August, who surely had worries enough of his own, opened the interview by asking: “Have you done what I told you to do last time? Have you prayed to God?”

No, Gammelmoderen admitted. But, at all events, last evening a tall dark man had made an attempt to slip in by way of her window, even though the window was closed. There he had stood outside, though it was a second-storey window and all that, so he must have climbed up the outside of the house! Who ever heard of such a thing! And then he had knocked on the glass, and her mistake had been that she had opened the window to talk some sense into the fellow, whereupon he had grabbed her. They had grappled there in the window, yes, and in the end he had been compelled to drop to the ground. . . . Oh, but then he had stood there below and drawn out his knife and shown it to her and threatened her most horribly — and look there, just see what he had done to her! Marks on her face, and her arms and breast were all black and blue, so that now she couldn’t show herself in public but would have to sit in her room and brood over her terrible misfortune, and now — dear Altmulig — what was she to do?

August gave the matter some thought and at length he said: “It would be a good thing to ask help of the Lord.”

Gammelmoderen answered hesitantly: “Yes. To be sure. But tell me one thing, Altmulig, was that any way to act? Is he a human being or is he a beast?”

August: “He must have been drunk.”

“And now you must go and get hold of him for me.”

August shook his head and doubted that this would do any good.

“Won’t it do any good? But something must be done, mustn’t it? Am I not to be able to stay here at all? I shall give him a little warning, that’s what I’ll do!” Gammelmoderen threatened. “For it’s my desire to be like other decent people,” she said, half sobbing over the helplessness of her position.

This was more than August could stand. He thought for a long time, as though loath to consider the most obvious solution to the problem. “I see no other way but for me to shoot him,” he said at length.

“What? No, you can’t do that.”

“Can’t? Such would be the very least of my tricks,” said August. . . .

But the man in question was not to be shot; by a lucky stroke, he was able to demonstrate his exceeding talent as a veterinarian and, in the space of a few minutes, his star had risen to eclipse even that of August himself.

It so happened that one of the horses fell ill, Marna’s saddle horse. It had developed colic from eating too much green grass and there it stood in the yard, its belly distended like that of a drum. Marna was not at home — no, Marna had gone away — but all the other people of the Manor had gathered about the mare — the Consul and Fru Juliet, Gammelmoderen, the housekeeper and her maids, as well as those of the children who had learned to walk. The gardener Steffen was at his wit’s end; he had “stirred up” the horse, he had “rolled” the horse, but at length it had refused to move a step. There it stood, its legs spread stiffly apart, its eyes dull and listless — now and then it would make a feeble attempt to kick its own belly.

From the door of the smokehouse the Gypsy Alexander must have noted this cluster of people standing about in the yard, for he had come at once to find out what was up. No one made anything of his arrival and when he asked a question or two, the gardener Steffen merely mumbled one thing or another to get rid of him.

“Here, hold the horse tight by the bit!” he commanded Steffen. His black eyes bored into the suffering animal; he stroked her here and there, pinched up the skin, felt for the ribs and counted these till he came to the one in the middle. Then he began from the other end and counted back until he had fixed upon a definite point. . . .

What, was that a knife he had hidden in that right sleeve of his? Before the spectators were able to catch a quick breath, the Gypsy had thrust the knife up to the hilt into the side of the suffering mare. “No, but —” panted someone in the crowd. It was Gammelmoderen. The others stood there speechless.

Alexander made no move to withdraw the blade; no, he pressed it hard to one side in the wound and forced an opening. Very little blood appeared, but there was a steady rush of escaping gas.

The mare stood stock still; she had hardly winced at the stab she had received. After a few moments the swelling had delicately subsided. Alexander now found it necessary to press the blade against the opposite side of the wound where he held it for a few minutes. With that he withdrew the knife, wiped it off on the grass, walked around, looked the mare in the eyes and nodded.

The gardener Steffen let slip an oath. “The devil and all!” he said.

The mare now began to move about and no longer cared to be held. She lowered her head and began snorting at the ground.

Alexander gave Steffen further orders. “Put her in a box stall for a few hours and don’t let her have anything to eat.”

“And about that wound?”

“That’s nothing to bother her. Smear a little raw tar on it if you want.”

Fru Juliet asked in amazement: “What, is she quite well again?”

“Ay,” Alexander replied.

The mare was patted and stroked by children and grown-folk and when she was led back into the stable, the old animation had returned to her eyes. The children followed her in to the stall.

“Thank you, Alexander!” said the Consul.

“Yes, wasn’t it clever of him though!” Fru Juliet enthused. “Alexander certainly knows how to do a thing or two!”

Suddenly Gammelmoderen thrusts in a pointed remark: “Sometimes he knows how to do a thing too many. Climbing the walls of houses, for example.”

“What’s that he can do?”

“Climb right up the outside of a house. As far as the second storey.”

“Well, I never!”

“And if certain little boys I know should see him do it and try to do it themselves, they’d fall and break their necks.”

“No, that will never do, Alexander!” said Fru Juliet.

“All right,” he replied and stalked off.

All had heard this brief exchange; Blonda and Stina had stood there and pricked up their ears. Yes, Gammelmoderen had seized her opportunity and had struck a blow for her own peace. She felt relieved in her mind, she was pleased with herself and she said lightly: “Well, what are we standing here for now? The patient has left and the doctor has left!” Turning to Fru Juliet, she said: “Now, Juliet, you must write Marna all about this.”

“Must Marna be written about this?” asked Gordon Tidemand. “Where was she off to, leaving in such haste?”

Gammelmoderen: “She’s gone to Helgeland, I suppose?”

“Yes, I shall write her,” said Fru Juliet. “She’s in Bodø!”

When August came to hear of Alexander’s miraculous act of horse surgery, he let it be known that he himself had become too religious to take on such jobs at present and that he was glad some one had been found to perform the work for him. Furthermore, he was out of practice; it had been so long since he had operated on a horse for colic — the last time had been in Sumatra in 1903! But before that he had cured horses suffering from colic both in the north and in the south.

It was easily possible that this old handy man about the place had dabbled a bit in veterinary arts as well, for such would surely be like him. But Alexander had acquired his knowledge from his ancient wandering tribe and had developed his technique to a truly marvelous degree. He had not learned such tricks from books.

“Ay,” said August. “But the fellow who taught me how to stab a horse like that was a full-blooded man in his country. He drove the Lord High President’s coach-and-four and otherwise had fifty horses to look after. He used to cure colic with a knife every time.”

Alexander determined at once to cross-examine this crazy braggart: Where had he stabbed? How far forward and how far back? How high up and how low down? In other words, name the exact point!

August crumpled. He didn’t remember, it had been so long ago. But no less wide-awake and inquiring than he had been all his life was he now — he countered by asking Alexander to name him the point.

“Hohoho!” laughed Alexander. “So you can go ahead and ruin certain horses, eh? You imagine that it’s simply a question of stabbing in a particular spot! But have you ever looked inside a horse and seen the place to let out the wind? And do you know how far in to stick the knife? Go on, shut up, you bald-headed old fossil!”

But this marvelous Gypsy art must have appealed strongly to August’s mind, for he ignored the other’s insult and said eagerly: “I’ll pay you to tell me!”

“Ho, you? What have you got to pay with?” asked Alexander.

“I’m expecting some money.”

“Don’t talk rot!” . . .

But August’s prestige was restored in quite another quarter, and by the chief himself.

Now Gordon Tidemand was a learned man and a consul; he had attended school in many foreign lands and he was educated in both language and accountancy, but he was nevertheless compelled to seek frequent counsel with that able mother of his. And on this very day he comes to her with a telegram in his hand — splendid herring at Værø, shoals running strong. “We must send our own seiners out at once,” he said. “We’ve need for haste —”

Gammelmoderen, startled: “What! Herring at this time of year?”

“That’s what it says here.”

“Yes, but — Who is this Ellingsen?”

“My agent,” said Gordon Tidemand. “I have my agents out, you know.”

His mother: “I think you’d better go see Altmulig about this, that’s what I think you’d better do.”

Gordon Tidemand went at once to August. But his conversation with his mother had rendered him cautious. “Is this telegram anything to bother about?” he asked casually.

August adjusted his pince-nez and glanced at the despatch. “I can’t make it out,” he said.

“Eh?”

“Herring now? And at Værø?”

Gordon Tidemand took back the telegram and thrust it carelessly into his pocket.

“It doesn’t sound reasonable,” continued August, thoughtfully. “If it had said . . . pardon, Herr Consul, can I see it again!”

August read the telegram over once more, nodded and said in that emphatic manner of his: “This is a mistake in copying, that’s all. It should read ‘pollack’ in place of ‘herring’.”2

2 Sild = herring. Sei = pollack (pollachius carbonarius), a fish belonging to the cod family. Also known as “coalfish.”— Translator.

“Is that possible?”

“Ay, Herr Consul, that’s right. It’s pollack that’s meant. That makes both the season of the year and Værø come out right. But I don’t suppose you’ve any use for pollack?”

“Not that I know of. What do you think?”

“Not as I can see. And besides, pollack — ay, from pollack you get stockfish and liver — otherwise there isn’t much sense in pollack. None at all. But Heaven forgive my sinful words, how I talk! The pollack is also one of God’s gifts to us, the grace and mercy of the Lord —”

“All right. Thanks, Altmulig. I know where to come when I’m in need of expert advice.”

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