The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Eighteen

August’s money had not arrived. He had received no word from Polden; no, for he had written no letter in the first place.

Was there no possible way, then, for him to lay hands on this money? One day he had tried to consult Aase on the matter, but she had tendered him no advice. That obscure hocus-pocus of hers, that of lifting up her clothes and staring into his eyes, had been merely a trick on her part to substantiate her knowledge of his fondness for a certain young lady of South Parish. And his shock had been such that he had stood rooted to the spot.

Aase, that tall dark woman in Lappish garb, wandering about from house to house listening to folk’s words and seeing into their minds — it was not strange that she should have known much and that she had cast a truth in August’s teeth. Was he himself unaware of the truth, then? Perhaps so and perhaps not. From the depths of his own mendacity, it was likewise possible that he might have lied to himself. He was so like an imaginary being, intangible as smoke in the air. But in private, he might have turned to the wall and whispered something to himself.

Nevertheless, his delirium notwithstanding, August had both feet on the ground. He had discovered trout in the remote and neglected mountain lake up by the hunting lodge. It was a mystery how they had ever found their way up into its waters, for no trout could have possibly negotiated the falls below. But there they were, and August now had it in mind to interest the Consul in hauling a small boat up to the lake as soon as the road should e finished. Then there would be sport fishing to offer the English lord on his visit. Oh yes, August had a brain in his head.

Then might not it also be possible for the old rascal to find some special way of achieving his personal ambition? With money in his pocket, his word would have been law, he would have been in a position to shine, to reach about him and change conditions. And what if he were actually to win the girl? Without money, he would be obliged to seek other remedies for the present situation. . . . On many scores August had begun to lay great store by a religious life. By degrees he had come to consider the possible effects of baptism in the river below the falls. That old horse-trader, possibly he had something special in mind with all this piety of his — such would not be beneath him! But wasn’t it fate itself which was against him? Who had ever seen anything to equal it! He was sick at heart, he had lost all courage and enterprise, for Cornelia had been in town a day or two ago and, passing the blacksmith shop, had pretended not to see him inside. To such a stage had things progressed! Many a man has taken to religion with less grounds! Nor had he been entirely lacking in religious spirit before; the devil and all if he had! But now that he was in love, there was more to religion that simply making the sign of the cross.

He inquired of the small dealer who had succumbed to the urge for second baptism if he felt himself a better and happier man as the result of his experience.

Oh yes, the merchant had observed quite a change.

Relief from the anguish of worrying over moneys owed him which he was unable to collect?

Oh yes, one thing with another.

“What I wanted to ask,” continued August, “is it true that such a baptism will help out a man in love? Will it help him so much as a hair?”

“What’s that?”

“I’m not asking for myself; I’m asking for that Benjamin up in North Parish. He’s afraid he’s losing his girl and that makes him feel sick and discouraged. He’s working for me and I was wondering if it would help him to get himself baptised? If the Lord would step in and let him have the girl?”

“Hm! Ay, that’s possible,” said the merchant. “But anyway, it’s good for a great many things. Take me, for instance. Tobias from South Parish has begun to do business with me.”

“I saw that Cornelia in town a few days ago. Did she buy something from you?”

“I believe so.”

August’s final question was whether the newly baptised were supposed to kiss each other at the conclusion of the ceremony — did they give each other a kiss of brotherhood, or whatever it was they called it?

“Ay,” said the merchant. “Of course, I’m a married man and all that, but I’ve heard that they kiss each other.”

“Shame on them!” said August. . . .

He became more and more religious, more and more concerned with this question of baptism. He was in earnest about it, developed the habit of carrying cold food from the table to eat in the seclusion of his own room; once inside, with the door closed, he would scrape the richest portions to one side in order to enjoy these last and then, at the final moment, deprive himself of these tidbits — instead of eating them himself, he would throw them to the birds. And did the birds make the most of their banquet? Ay, that they did — those little birds of Heaven! An act of kindness, of charity, and God could see into one’s heart.

With God’s help he found it possible to renounce that money of his, to renounce this entire world of Mammon. And the days passed the same as ever, and he lacked for neither food nor clothes, and he gave no thought to the day when the mountain road would be finished with the possibility that his job on the place would be over.

However, it was more difficult for him to strike a balance in the problem of love — in that quarter piety was no more helpful than spit. A fine state of affairs! It had never occurred to him for a moment that, as a lover, he was something of anachronism, so youthful he was at heart. He could support a wife and children in splendid style, provided his job were to continue. And he would make a good husband; he was no niggard by nature and he would deny his wife nothing within reason. That miserable disparity of age, the thing which was standing between him and his Cornelia — why, in this particular case, with a bit of good will, it could easily be disregarded. Had such things never happened before? Hadn’t the newspapers he had read and the many experiences he had had in this world taught him that far worse conditions existed? What about the innocent young girls who married rich old men on their death beds for the mere purpose of inheriting their fortunes? August groaned to contemplate anything quite so repulsive. Think of it — marrying a man on his death bed!

Aase was right, he did want this girl. And it would take little or nothing to arouse his jealousy and make him play the fool. One day, coming upon Benjamin carving his initials, along with Cornelia’s, in the bark of a birch tree beside the new road, August stepped up and, under threat of losing his job, gave him orders to scrape out what he had carved there. Though Benjamin was reluctant to do so and said, “It almost looks as if things were over between us!” he obeyed the order. Later he smiled happily as he told his boss about a certain silver heart on a chain he was going to give Cornelia that evening.

August flared at once: “Haven’t I told you that you should marry one of your own girls up in North Parish?”

And yes, Benjamin recalled the advice, but such would be impossible, as Cornelia was the maid of his choice.

“Then let me tell you this,” said August, “if you give Cornelia that silver heart, a day won’t go by before she’s given it to that Hendrik.”

But August was unconvincing. “I don’t believe it,” said Benjamin.

If it had not been that Benjamin was indispensable on the road just then, it is certain that August would have fired him.

This lad from North Parish filled August with dark resentment simply because he was stubborn enough to hold fast to his sweetheart. A lad August had provided with work and good wages — where was his sense of gratitude! Why, August was nourishing a viper! This fellow who carved initials in trees, no doubt he had also in some similar way dedicated the new cement floor of the movie house? And when the cement set, the writing would remain there as long as the floor! It was a good thing for him he hadn’t tried a trick like that to begin with! It was another matter that August had himself, by means of certain hieroglyphics inscribed in soft cement, made the floor of the Consul’s garage something of a monument to his own tender sentiments. He had hidden his efforts in the corner where he himself had been working and they constituted no more than a friendly greeting, but Benjamin had probably sniffed them out, none the less. The devil’s own nose on that lad!

It irritated August to find himself wasting so much time upon Benjamin, to find himself compelled to regard him as a rival. Such made him feel mundane and such disturbed his dream life and he would have to find some way of patching up this damage to his soul. On Sunday he went to the schoolhouse in South Parish to attend a prayer meeting held by the reverend Baptist gentleman. The moment was embarrassing for him, and, taking a seat as far back as possible, August endeavoured to avoid all people he knew. But the room was literally filled with them. Cornelia was there, but she did not see him; Hendrik was there; Gina i Roten was there and sang. August found nothing to his choice in the sermon; the text was taken from the Scripture and had mostly to do with: Come, come, while the gracious arms of the Lord are still open to receive you! . . . “Take note of this, good people,” the preacher went on to say, “the solstice has long passed and we can no longer expect fine weather and sun. My advice to all of you who up until now have merely harboured the thought: come this very day and get yourselves baptised. It is now twelve o’clock — in an hour we shall meet by the river —”

This was too short notice and August got up and went home.

But whilst crossing the bridge, he suffered a change of heart. Possibly it was inadvisable to postpone the matter further and thus lose out on the entire deal. He therefore turned back.

He fell in with some others who were going his way, among them Blonda and Stina, the two parlour-maids up at the Manor. August did not relish being seen by them, but he was in any event glad that the road workers were keeping to themselves. And there came both Cornelia and Hendrik who, although they were already baptised, had nevertheless come to view again the sacred ceremony.

“What’s this I see!” said Cornelia, “Are you too to be baptised?”

“I’m giving it a bit of a thought,” answered August.

Oh no, he had nothing against so holy a thing as baptism. Who could tell, maybe there was something in it, after all! Cornelia and many others had gone religious and yielded to second baptism, so why should he hold back?

Said briefly, he followed the herd.

Several stood there ahead of him, among these, Blonda and Stina, so there couldn’t be a very complicated ceremony where the individual was concerned. Furthermore, the two old girls had been here before and had learned what to do to get ready; with no further ado, they took off their shoes and stockings and rolled up their skirts. Their last move was to remove their chemises.

Damp spray and a bitter wind swept down from the waterfall above and, though the sun was shining, here were weather conditions calling rather for oilskins and a sou’wester. August began to vacillate in his mind. But, glancing up, he saw Cornelia with her eyes riveted upon him.

When his turn arrived, the baptist said: “Take your shoes off!”

Too late now for August to withdraw, so he pulled off his shoes and socks and rolled his trousers up above his knees.

“Take off your coat, take off your vest and take off your shirt!” said the baptist in a voice pompous and ceremonious. August obeyed. With that the two men stepped out into the water and August’s soul was saved. Three times he was ducked — in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

The water was horribly cold.

He dried himself as well as he could and got back into his clothes. And yes, Cornelia had had her eyes fastened on him the entire time; she had gazed skeptically at him, but now she was forced to believe in him. She came over to him, a kindly look on her face and was ready to leave the place in his company.

August was embarrassed. “Ay, and what do you think of me now?” he asked.

What did she think of him —?

Ay, taken all in all. “That was one experience I never went through before, in spite of all the places I’ve been,” he said.

Yes, she supposed it was.

But the water was frightfully cold, he said. It would have been better if he had got himself baptised in Tahiti, he said.

His teeth were chattering.

He would get over it, right enough, she thought. Just as the others had.

“But the others are so much younger,” he said. “I’m just old junk, you know.”

No, she reckoned he was nothing of the kind.

“What’s that? Don’t you think so, Cornelia?”

She preferred not to go into the matter, but she was kind in her manner to him the whole time and thought that he had done the right thing in having himself baptised.

“No, I’m really not so broken down as you think,” he asserted, straightening up and attempting to prove himself free of decrepitude. “I’m high and low and all over on that new road of ours,” he boasted, “and I’ve yet to see the man who can give me one under the ear without my shooting him down like a dog.”

Hendrik stood in the offing, his face as sour as swill, for here was one day he was not to have Cornelia. He appeared displeased over the fact that August had now been baptised and could thus appear on equal terms with him. “I say, Cornelia, hadn’t we better be getting home?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “I’m going home the way I came. Just you go on alone, Hendrik!” Frank words, a clear dismissal. But with that, she turned to August and inquired after Benjamin.

Benjamin? Oh, he was at work.

Where? For yesterday she had been in town and she had learned he was through in the theatre.

“What do you want of him?” asked August, disagreeably. “He isn’t baptised like we are.”

No, what did she want of him exactly —

She was simply not to disturb him right now, said August. He was busy with an important piece of work which demanded his entire attention.

Where?

No matter. But he was earning good money. Naturally it was August who had to show him everything and tell him what to do, for he was far from being a wizard when it came to brains.

He was? That Benjamin?

Yes. He was a sheep. And he could hardly be called good-looking, either. But August had promised to help him and he would keep his promise.

Cornelia was silent for a few moments, then asked if August might be good enough to carry her greetings to Benjamin?

Greetings? No, what for? He hadn’t been baptised or anything. August would most likely forget to take him her greetings. He had so much to carry about in his head. He was the Consul’s right-hand man in all his undertakings. What he had meant to say was, she could now give him a nice sisterly kiss after the baptism, couldn’t she? Cornelia paled and said no.

“After the baptism, I meant. Now that we are both baptised. I’m just like you and yours now,” he said.

“Well, I guess I’ll have to be getting on home,” she said and turned on her heel.

Long nose. . . .

He could have followed her, couldn’t he? Ho, he? August? As though he didn’t know how to deal with a young and timid girl! But he really didn’t feel up to it; no, in truth, he wasn’t even as well as he might be. The cold waters of Jordan and the draught of wind from the waterfall had chilled him to the bone. He began running to warm his blood, but he was soon tired and out of breath and forced to return to a walk. Damned if he didn’t feel pretty miserable — heaven forgive that tongue of his!

In the field outside their sleeping quarters a goodly number of the road crew had gathered in a crowd. August, returning from his baptism and decidedly ill, hurried past in order to get home and to bed. As usual, they had been to a dance the night before, he had heard, and it was apparent that they were carrying their merrymaking over into Sunday. Possibly there was also strong drink in the crowd, for the men were rushing around shouting in each other’s faces. Certain females were likewise in evidence — girls from the town. Valborg from Øira and her husband were there, as well. Someone was playing the accordion over by the new road.

August piled all his blankets on the bed and crawled under them fully dressed.

He could not fall asleep and he did not grow warm; he lay dozing and thinking over the various happenings of the day. No doubt he could have kissed Blonda and Stina without much trouble, but that would not be the same thing, and the thought of doing so merely for the purpose of piquing Cornelia would never have entered his mind, for he was not that sort. . . .

Suddenly he hears a couple of sharp yells. They had originated somewhere outside. What was going on? Yells from the field where the road gangs had gathered. August raises himself up on one elbow and listens. He hears sounds of commotion, springs out of bed and rushes over to the window. Right he had been — a gang-fight! These howls and angry yells had struck a familiar chord in his memory — thus in the old days had bandits and other marauding folk howled — unforgettable sounds beneath a southern sky. . . .

He leaps out-of-doors and hastens to the scene of battle.

Two rival gangs of workers are at each other’s throats; women are fluttering about here and there making futile attempts to stop the fighting, children are watching from a safe distance, but the doctor’s two sons are perilously close to the danger zone.

Hm, an honest-to-goodness brawl or mere monkey-shines? August wondered to himself, wrinkling his brow and joining the spectators. Nothing much to it, he decided. They fling their arms and legs about, but nobody seems to get hurt. Hey, there Boldemand landed one, but he’s too drunk to accomplish much. Ho, there he landed another! Not bad, after all! . . . Ugh, such a way to fight — are they hitting each other in the chest? No, not even that, they are using their feet — kicking! Are they crazy? Why don’t they knock out each other’s teeth? And isn’t there a single one among them who knows how to wade in with both fists?

August pulls himself together and debates whether to join the mêlée or remain on the sidelines, an interested spectator. He makes pugnacious gestures in the air with his arms to show them the way, leans to one side and peers, laughs aloud when a blow lands home, mutters to himself when an attack falls flat. Shameful, shameful, to go at it like that! It should have been me that had that grip on him! Look at that tall giant, Petter — he’s no good! Away with you, Petter! You’re spoiling the whole fight by pretending you’re really bleeding. Do you think that’s real blood? That’s only blood from your nose — nose blood mixed with tears! Why, if he isn’t actually bawling. . . .

Jørn Mathildesen walks over to August and says something. “You look a mite blue in the face. What’s the matter, don’t you feel well?” He takes a full bottle of hard liquor from his pocket and hands it over to August. Cognac. But August is absorbed in watching the battle’s progress, absorbed and absent-minded. Yes, he accepts the bottle and takes a long pull on it, but quite absently, his eyes riveted the whole time upon the raging fight.

“This isn’t my bottle,” says Jørn Mathildesen, “I was only supposed to hold it. It belongs to that Boldemand. . . . No, did you ever see such crazy fellows to be fighting like this? Just look there how they’re bleeding! It’s that Valborg they are after, but Valborg, she won’t have anything to do with them —”

August drank again, absently, as though he didn’t know what he was doing; however, the art of draining a bottle did not exactly appear alien to him. He continued without interruption to follow the progress of the brawl and, from time to time, he would deliver himself of disparaging remarks relative to the conduct of the contestants: “Look there at that Gustav — there’s a man I’ve had working for me for months now, and he can’t even land a punch. To hell with him!” said August, spitting viciously. Absently, he tugged on the bottle again and forgot to hand it back. “Now what in Satan’s name — there’s a fellow using his cap to slap with! He’s slapping faces! Good God, they’re just a bunch of babies, nasty little brats. Dear, dear — Faugh!” This was too much for August, he drew his head down between his shoulders and made himself short to express his disgust. Then suddenly he straightened up and let out a howl. One of the warriors has slipped off his shoe and begins flailing about with this weapon. The shoe is wrenched from his grasp, brought down across his nose and hurriedly thrown away. “What kind of a trick was that!” August was again compelled to express his disgust, was compelled to dance up and down to show how sorely he was annoyed by this pitiful scene. “All he did was lose a shoe, ugh!”

Absently he drank again, got a bit of colour back in his face, a bit of new life, and continued to follow the battle. The whole thing was shallow nonsense. There came the doctor’s two sons carrying the lost shoe on the end of a stick, yes, and August was obliged to stand and witness this miserable imitation of a gang-fight! He watched two of the frantic little fighting-cocks make from the scene with a girl between them; they immediately came to a disagreement over her and fell to fighting between themselves. This private encounter proved to be slightly more satisfactory according to August’s standards — these lads were truly in a rage and, though one had his ear all but twisted off, he kept on fighting doggedly. But others came up and the affair degenerated into no more than a general mix-up of crazy workmen who knew nothing about fighting. Valborg was playing a game of her own; she had not vanished from the scene. Oh no! On special occasion she would strike a blow herself; otherwise she acted as referee, sometimes screaming encouragement, other times threatening to go away and leave them. She still appeared fresh and charming after the all-night revel and her green and red dress was still as tidy as ever.

They now began striking with keys and stories in their hands, and these proved slightly more effective. What’s that, more blood? One man drew a bottle from his pocket. “Well, I’ll be ——!” jabbered August. “If he isn’t standing there squirting whiskey in the eyes of the others instead of lamming out with the bottle. . . . Hey you, knock him silly! Oh . . . ” he wailed. Nothing had happened, he couldn’t stand to see more. . . . Such an utter fiasco!

A confused yell arose. “Look. Now they’ve got out their knives!” explains Jørn Mathildesen. —“Where — who —?” demanded August, running forward a few steps, stooping to peer into the thickest of the battle, leaping up again and crying: “Hurrah! . . . What — what’s he standing still with a great big knife like that for?”—“That’s Olsen from Namdal.”—“Well, what’s he standing still for? Where did he get that sweet friendly look on his face from? Isn’t he going to use that knife of his? Then what’s he got it out for? . . . Look, he just missed a fine chance! Ho, stick it into him and finish him up quick, that’s the way to do!” August is desperate in his contempt for the Namdaler who has so kindly a disposition that he refuses to use a knife on anyone. Yielding to an uncontrollable urge, August pulls his revolver from his pocket and discharges two shots in the air, just to take some part in the combat, to encourage them, to show them. . . .

But the shots produce quite the wrong effect: the battle comes to an abrupt halt. August utters a long and lusty yell, but no one is encouraged by that. Some of the men look up, recognize their boss and take the shots as a warning to cease fighting. There is only one who refuses to give in — Boldemand. He even has a hateful scowl on his face as he releases a final kick. His attack but partially succeeds; his kick is aimed too high, it catches his opponent in the belly rather than in the crotch and he himself loses his balance and falls. Fat Boldemand, he is too drunk!

Silence falls over the field.

August is hurt to the quick; never before in all his travels has he stood witness to such namby-pamby child’s play. “It should have been me!” he keeps repeating to himself. “But now I’m too old!”

He took several more powerful gulps from the bottle, let out his breath and said: “Now they stand around thinking what bold brave lads they have been. They have fought so hard, they have tried to kill each other. Oh well. But there isn’t a single one of them left lying out there on the field, is there! Yes sir, it should have been me!” He held up the bottle to see how much there was left in it, and observing that there was very little — the bottle was hardly quarter-full — he absently put it back to his lips and, his thoughts far away, began swallowing. When the bottle was empty, he held it out in his hand.

He has begun shivering again and his lips are once more blue. He is on the point of taking another drink from the bottle when he suddenly realizes what he is doing and holds it out to be rid of it. Jørn Mathildesen repeats that it is not his bottle, that he had merely been asked to hold it, that it was really that Boldemand’s bottle. August continues to hold it out to him, shakes his head and grins foolishly at Jørn’s remark. It is as though he is simply refusing to drink another drop. And all the while his thoughts are on other matters; he continues to chatter about the recent fray, abuses his workers with the most sarcastic of language, suddenly becomes touched by something, half-sobs with self-pity and, utterly crushed, says: “No, I’m too old, too old!” At length he merely mumbles incoherently, almost like a man who is drunk.

And then he sank to the ground. . . .

But possibly it was just because he had drunk that bottle of cognac and was carried home to bed that he had been saved from serious illness. His two Baptist sisters, Blonda and Stina, put him to bed with a hot-water bottle, covered him over with heavy wool blankets and nursed him through the entire night. He lay drenched with sweat and slept for fifteen hours.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23r/chapter18.html

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