The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Nineteen

Druggist Holm stepped into Fru Hagen’s house one day, bowed and said: “Thank you, I’m well indeed. And you?”

The lady glanced at him laughingly and said: “You monkey, you!”

Holm: “Granted! I said that merely to turn aside your anger with me because it has been so long since I have been here. Nor did I utter a lie when I said I was well. And you?”

Fru Hagen scrutinized him. “Well well, I see you’ve been calling on Vendt of the hotel again.”

“Not to any great extent, hardly a trace of that! No, but I’ve been into so many things. For example, I simply can not be rid of that accursed widow of Solmund’s.”

“Widow Solmund?” Fru Hagen reflects and shakes her head.

“The lady I turned over to the welfare agency for the reason that I could not go on feeding her and her children.”

“Well, what about her?”

“It’s like this: I am on a leisurely and innocent walk in North Parish. Suddenly I see the widow approaching. But she has seen me first — she is wringing her hands and wiping the tears from her eyes. Wasn’t it possible for me to help her? If only I knew how in need she was! Now from that day to this, I have simply not set foot in North Parish. There is something unsavoury about that section of town. Don’t you think so yourself? There is something so depressing about it. How much more charming and cosy it is to find oneself in South Parish, for instance. Eh, what? Nor is it so dark and gloomy there, either.”

“But then, I suppose you also go for an occasional walk up the Consul’s new road?” asks Fru Hagen.

Holm sits there breathing for a few moments. “But I believe we were speaking of South Parish. Of the two sections of town, I really much prefer South Parish. I am left to walk in peace in South Parish. No signs of a widow Solmund down there, and on my way home in the evening I hear Gina i Roten singing that superb cow-call of hers from the knoll.”

“I never got to hear that cow-call of hers.”

“And today, heaven help me if the widow Solmund didn’t come to see me at the drugstore!” Holm continued. “At the drugstore! And that’s the reason I am now here. She was in a most wretched condition and she didn’t know what to do, and it was the welfare people’s fault that she was so poor and had so little in life. However there seems nothing to distinguish her brand of poverty from that of many others — it really seems like a quite ordinary case; that is, she and the children have a bit of what food there is to eat, a little coffee, too, a little syrup and a little thyme. More than that, she is occasionally able to beg her way into the movies without paying for a ticket. The true difficulty seems to lie in the matter of clothes; no shoes, no underwear, and her bed clothes are in a most sorry condition. She lifted up her skirt to show me that she had nothing to wear underneath and merely a thin calico dress outside. She even asked me to go home with her to have a personal look at the bed clothes, though it was really a pity to ask it of me, she said. Yes, no, I knew nothing of such matters. But oh yes, I did, and in any event I would have to go with her to the welfare agency, she said! Yes, and so I did. And in truth, the woman’s teeth did chatter when she got outside, for it is a cold day to be wearing no more than a calico dress. But our visit proved in vain. Clothes? Bedding? Out of the question! And, on the whole, the widow’s poverty was so far from being hair-raising that the welfare woman merely shook her head and had nothing to offer.”

Holm paused and looked at Fru Hagen.

“Well?”

“Yes, but there is one thing more you must hear,” said Holm. “This morning the widow Solmund called on me in the drugstore with her bed clothes under her arm!”

“No, now really —”

“She wished to show them to me.”

“Well, but just where do you figure in the situation?” asked Fru Hagen.

“Nowhere, unless it’s possible she got my drugstore confused with the Department of Health or something like that.”

“The whole thing seems incredible.”

“Doesn’t it though! She had told me she was going to bring me all she had to put under and over herself and her children, just to show me. Well, the whole business made a bundle she could carry under her arm.”

“It is a matter one might either laugh or cry over,” said Fru Hagen.

“Well, I did neither,” said Holm. “But I admit that I am bewildered. The first thing I did was to drink a whiskey and soda with Vendt of the hotel, but as that did not help me a bit, I employed a remedy of which I had heard — I made it two whiskeys and soda. And then I came here.”

“So, and what do you want here?” asked the lady.

Holm: “Is that any question to ask of a man standing on the scaffold! ‘What do you want here?’ you ask him!”

“Haha! Can’t you turn the widow over to your apprentice and yourself decline the bed clothes?”

“I might have done that. But you see I have my apprentice at work on a game of patience which won’t come out for me. It may take him the entire day.”

“You must all of you be drunk there in your drugstore,” said Fru Hagen.

“Not the pharmacist. And, as a matter of fact, no one. But when a stubborn game of patience refuses to come out, it is necessary to lay the cards out time after time. It is a perfectly shocking punishment to work out such a game — two, three, four o’clock in the morning and there you sit. On the whole, I believe, the present year is a terrible year for patience.”

“Patience!” said Fru Hagen, contemptuously.

“Yes, but now my cat has gone and left me, too.”

“Cat? Oh, fudge!”

“No, really you mustn’t say that, Fru Hagen. That cat has lived with me for many years now. I hardly think, either, that it could be said that she has had such a bad home with me.”

“Simpleton! But speaking of that widow of yours, so she brought you her bed clothes this morning, eh?”

“No, that she did not, fortunately,” replied Holm. “No, that business about the bed clothes was only something I thought up to make myself interesting. So you’re not to believe a word of it. But the widow Solmund does cling to me and she has, of course, visited me in the drugstore. It seems as though I shall never be rid of her because of the wretched condition of her own and the children’s clothes. That much is the truth.”

“So that’s why you came to me?” asked Fru Hagen. “I haven’t much more in the way of clothes than these you see on my back.”

Holm: “Nor I, either. No, but I have an idea — as you might say, a notion from on high. The widow Solmund and her children are unquestionably too poorly clad in mere calico now that it is autumn with winter bearing down. What would you say to our getting up some manner of evening entertainment, the proceeds to go to her?”

“Possibly,” said Fru Hagen.

Holm continued to expound his idea: the postmaster’s wife would play, he himself could strum the guitar, Gina i Roten could sing and Karel yodel a few numbers to the accompaniment of some master of the accordion. But the performance itself did not constitute the chief problem, he thought. The main thing was the audience, and this he was sure he would be able to assemble. The place must be the largest and finest in town — the cinema theatre. . . .

They discussed the plan together. Holm would take care of all the details. As for the audience? First of all the Consul and the people of his household and business — then the entire families of the doctor, the pastor, the sheriff, the district judge, the postmaster, Lawyer Buttonhead, the telegraph superintendent, the school teachers — how many did that make? Then there were the merchants in town, the workers on the road, Skipper Olsen and family, the entire hotel — servants and possible guests — yes, and then all the people of the parish round about! The Segelfoss News would print a glowing publicity article in both this and next week’s issues — placards printed in red and gold to tack up about the town and place in store windows — tickets one krone, net profit — how many did that make?

“Fifty persons,” Fru Hagen reckoned.

Holm: “No, hundreds! A thousand!” He begins to count them up himself: “Buttonhead and his wife make two —”

Fru Hagen, imploringly: “No, please —”

Pause.

They changed the subject, shifted over to personal matters, and frequently it was difficult to detect whether they were jesting or speaking seriously. They were jointly guilty of creating this conversational web of subtle nonsense, flirtatiousness and verbal hide-and-seek. Singular that they could play thus dangerously with fire without once causing a conflagration. No, possibly it was not even necessary for them to take proper precautions, possibly the whole affair was in the nature of a training course — no danger of fire, for there was nothing there to burn. Possibly. . . .

Holm: “You said something about the Consul’s new road?”

“Will you have a glass of port?” she asked.

“No, thanks! But you are anxious then that I shall utter a few confessions, I take it.”

“Yes, I have heard that you have taken to neglecting your business during the day of late.”

“Not really? I don’t see that I have been neglecting my business. But since everything is over between you and me —”

“Is everything over?” asked Fru Hagen.

“Yes, and I am sorry for you!”

“Well, how did it go with Marna, then?” she asked.

“Marna?” said Holm pausing to think for a moment. “Oh, her! No, I never stood a chance with her.”

“Then possibly you declined to put yourself out for her?”

“Oh, indeed! I even put a part in my hair.”

“Just to think you did that!”

“Tragic!” said Holm. “And now that very same lady has made a trip to Bodø for the purpose of nursing an injured workman lying there in the hospital.”

“Christian love, no doubt?”

“No, the opposite, I have heard.”

“What is the opposite of Christian love?”

“Fleshly, isn’t it? The type of fleshly love I felt for you up until the time everything was over between us.”

Fru Hagen: “But if it is, as you say, over, it might be possible to repair the damage, don’t you think? You have reached a conclusion without consulting me, Herr Druggist!”

“The devil, that’s too bad!” said Holm. “Ought I to have made more definite advances, do you suppose?”

“I hardly know,” replied Fru Hagen.

“But you once announced to me that you would rather have your husband than me.”

“Heavens, yes, and so I should.”

“There, you see! And furthermore, what could we find to live on?”

“Why, what about your drugstore?”

“No,” said Holm, shaking his head.

“What are you living on, yourself?”

Holm withdrew a check from his vest pocket, held it aloft in his hand and replied: “What do I live on now? On a fair number of negotiable instruments such as this one! Family contributions.”

“Which will cease when you marry?”

“Now, now, my dear! Of course they will not cease, they might even increase. Though I admit it is a mite contemptible of me to accept them. Don’t you think so yourself?”

“Yes, but what will you live on then — I mean in the event of your marriage to —?”

“Ah, but with her it is quite a different matter. We have spoken of that. She is a wizard at management. She was born with the ability and she has had plenty of experience in that line. A superb creature, let me tell you!”

“Are you in love?”

“More, I love her. And besides, it is only right that I, too, should marry some day, isn’t it?”

“Can you win her?”

“Of course.”

After a pause, Fru Hagen remarks tactfully: “But, in any event, have you thought over the entire situation? I may tell you straight out that I believe you are going astray.”

“What do you mean by ‘the entire situation,’ Fru Hagen?”

“If you will not be angry with me, I’ll tell you — I mean, her own situation. You know what I mean, all right.”

Holm brushes the thought aside with the flat of his hand. “I am no bourgeois, if that’s what you’re driving at.”

“I am not driving at anything!” replies Fru Hagen. “I wouldn’t have you if I could get you. But your present predicament is surely a puzzle to me. After all, how did you ever fall in with her?”

“Fate,” said Holm.

“But isn’t she somewhat — I mean —”

“No,” answered Holm. “We are of the same age.”

“How young does she claim she is?”

“Seventy. But the mere question of years is nothing to her — she is unlike those women who always desire to appear as young as possible.”

“Thanks.”

“It is her absolute naturalness and humanness, within as well as without — health, capacity for joy and tenderness — which she makes no effort to conceal. I have never encountered her equal. Have you seen her?”

“Occasionally.”

“Well, I have seen her,” said Holm. “Nose, just a mite turned up — greenish eyes which dance and close to narrow slits when she laughs — large mouth, but perfectly bowed — charming! — lips red and full — a mouthful.”

“I told you that I have seen her occasionally!”

“High breast, full lips —”

“What, again!”

“An avid mouth — her hair, such glory squandered upon a mere human being — but her mouth —”

“All right, all right!” says Fru Hagen. And then in tones of forced animation: “Listen, I have something to tell you. Karel i Roten has become downright clever on that guitar of yours.”

Holm is caught with this remark, at least. “So? Karel i Roten? Well well! The entire house of Roten is musical. You offered me a glass of port, Fru Hagen?”

“Yes, but you really must forgive me, I was not in earnest. No, we can’t afford to keep wine in the house. Did you think we could?”

“No, possibly not. Your pardon! But then it was a good thing I left my guitar with him, wasn’t it? With Karel, I mean. But how do you know he can play it now?”

“My husband and I have been out to Roten.”

“Without me!” says Holm.

“Yes, but it wasn’t to be mean. My husband went on an errand. You see, he has been helping Karel to get public funds for the purpose of draining a certain pond on his property.”

“Your husband?”

“Yes. And Karel was so happy over it, he laid off work and played for us.”

“That husband of yours must be a devil of a fellow to be able to get hold of public funds merely on his say-so.”

“Well, he certainly went no higher up than the local committee on agriculture. And it is true that my husband is both capable and intelligent. Have you ever doubted the fact?”

Holm, smiling: “Were things as they used to be between us, I should have replied that I too am capable and intelligent.”

Fru Hagen, likewise with a smile: “And were things as they used to be between us, I should, for fear of losing you, have answered yes.”

“But now?”

“No, now I am unfortunately obliged to say that you are merely a man who is clever at turning out words.”

“The devil you say!” exclaimed Holm. “Turning out words?”

“Yes, with a poor shallow mind like my own. We are both so empty. Two empty vessels.”

Holm: “After this I have nothing left to do —”

Fru Hagen interrupts him: “Heavens, let me off this time! If it’s just more talk on your part.”

“Shall I hold my tongue then? Tell me!”

“You might hang your head and tell me that you are at last able to comprehend fully why I should rather have my husband than you.”

Holm regarded her scrutinizingly: “I trust there’s no shade of jealousy in that remark?”

“I don’t know,” said Fru Hagen.

Holm rose to leave. “Let us be just a wee bit charitable toward ourselves, Fru Hagen. No one can be anything other than that which he is. Druggist Holm is nothing, but whatever he is, he is quite unlike Postmaster Hagen. And for this he is willing to forgive himself. We have spoken of you and another lady — turned out words, as you put it. You and she are nothing alike, but you are both something —”

Fru Hagen sprang up. “I do not wish to be compared with her!”

Holm paled, his eyes grew hard and he replied: “I said we must be charitable toward ourselves, Fru Hagen. We must forgive ourselves for not being as great as others.”

Druggist Holm walked down to the bank with his check. Inside stood the Consul in conference with Lawyer-Banker Pettersen. They were talking earnestly, and now and then the sum sixty thousand was mentioned. At first the Consul seemed to take the entire matter for a joke, though he declined to laugh at its dubious humour. On the contrary, by wrinkling his brow, he showed Herr Buttonhead his place. One was simply not to indulge in levity during a conversation with the Consul — a fetish one was bound to respect.

Sixty thousand.

There was some mistake about that, some frightful mistake, and the Consul said: “I beg your pardon, but neither you nor I can afford the time to indulge in such tomfoolery!”

“This is not tomfoolery,” said Pettersen.

Consul Gordon Tidemand had learned that an English gentleman must not proceed too rapidly, that he must give his opponent a chance. Hence he remained silent for a brief time, though he tightly compressed his lips and stared with eyes of ice.

“But what does that amount to for one such as you, Herr Consul!” said Pettersen. “You must have considerably more than that outstanding and I should be pleased indeed if you would allow me to do something to collect it for you —”

“Pardon me,” interrupted the Consul, “but aren’t you getting slightly beside the point?”

“And to say nothing of all your other resources,” continued Pettersen. “I wish I were as well off as you!” Patronizingly, he stretched forth his hand to receive the druggist’s check for the purpose of passing it for payment.

But this was more than the Consul was willing to endure; his eyes were needles and he said: “Pardon, you will first finish with me!”

“Very well,” replied Pettersen, now the lawyer. “But is there more to be said?” he asked.

“A little. A mere detail — I should like my account balanced to date.”

“Yes,” said Pettersen. “Yes. But you can see it right here in the books.”

“Very kind of you, I’m sure. But I desire a regular bank statement. When may I have it?”

“I’ll ask the cashier to hurry with it.”

“Thank you. For all the years since my father’s death.”

“What!” asked the lawyer with a shock.

“From the date I took over the business.”

“That means a terrific amount of work. And I don’t even know that the present bank staff need be expected —”

“Do you prefer that the account shall be audited by order of the court?”

“By order of the court?” The lawyer smiled. “That involves rather complicated proceedings.”

“Hardly pleasant for me to mention.”

“But you’ve received your bank statement year by year, haven’t you! And now at this late date you detect a mistake! The best thing would be to call in the directors.”

“I have no objection to that.”

The lawyer smiled again. “And even if you did object to it, Herr Consul!”

Gordon Tidemand asked: “Is that the tone you choose to adopt?”

“Yes, that’s the tone I now choose to adopt! You are so high and mighty! Here you come to an old attorney and mention possible court proceedings.”

“Your pardon, if I find myself compelled to mention them further!”

“Go ahead and talk!” said the lawyer in an ugly voice. “You have had your statements year by year. The accounts have been audited year by year.”

The Consul nodded. “Yes. I understand that, before you became head of the bank here, you had something to do with auditing the accounts. But did you have expert assistance in those years?”

“I’m something of an expert myself, I believe.”

“I sincerely trust so. But here you suddenly come out with a hitherto unnoticed claim against my father, an enormous claim which your audits have up until now failed to reveal.”

“Yes, it may be that I went over the account with too little understanding at first, for which no court in the land could possibly criticise me. I was not alone in conducting the audit and I may have relied somewhat blindly upon my assistant.”

Gordon Tidemand shrugged his shoulders. “Nevertheless you now point conclusively to that audit? Are you aware of the fact, Herr Lawyer, that you are in a tight corner?”

“I? Well now, I never —”

“I fear so,” said the Consul.

Brief silence. The lawyer was thinking, blinking his eyes behind his glasses and thinking. Apparently he was subsiding for he said: “Why make so much of the situation? If we are in any way in error, obviously we shall correct the mistake.”

The Consul, curtly: “Of course, you will correct it! I thought I saw the druggist here?”

“He left at once. I see him walking up and down, outside.”

The Consul went to the door, motioned to the druggist to come in and tendered his profuse apologies.

The druggist: “Oh my, no! What is there to be said! I merely called here on an insignificant matter of business. It hardly involves the elaborate sums of which I heard you gentlemen speaking!” He handed over his check for the executive’s okay.

“Right then, Herr Bank-President — you will send me a full statement of my account as soon as possible? Thank you.” The Consul made ready to depart.

“As soon as possible, we may say. But if it proves necessary to call in the directors, it may take time. However, you may have your statement for the current year tomorrow, if you like.”

“My account involves only a few items each year, and it ought not to take you long to prepare a statement of that. But my real interest lies in discovering the year in which you began carrying forward this fictitious sum of sixty thousand plus interest.”

“Well, that I can tell you right here and now,” replied the banker. “The sixty thousand were inserted into the account on the first of this year — naturally plus interest from the time the debt was incurred.”

“Thank you, then all I need — for the present! — is a statement covering the current year. And that I shall receive tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

Consul Gordon Tidemand wished both gentleman good-day and departed.

It occurred to Lawyer Pettersen too late that the druggist had been called in to serve as a witness.

“Ho, it looks now like you’re in for a blow!” said Holm.

“It’s he who is in for a blow,” replied the lawyer.

“I’ve always heard that if there’s one thing that man knows it’s accounting.”

“So do I.”

“Well, you’ll have need for all you know about it,” said Holm. He stepped over to the teller and received cash for his check. Returning to Pettersen, he said: “By the way, I understand you are at the head of the company that owns the cinema. Will you loan us the theatre for an amateur performance?”

“Certainly, any evening with the exception of Saturdays.”

“Good. We are planning a little entertainment to raise funds for a certain poor family.”

“Thirty kroner,“ said the lawyer. “What evening shall we say?” he asked, reaching for a calendar.

Holm: “Surely you misunderstand. This is a charitable undertaking — we shall be unable to pay anything.”

“Charity or no charity, it’s all the same. We have just been to great expense laying a cement floor in the theatre, and we must make this up wherever possible. Thirty kroner is reasonable at that. What evening would you like?”

“Sunday evening,” answered Holm. His face was white as he paid over the thirty kroner. “And now my receipt!” he demanded.

“Receipt? I’ve never given receipts for it before.”

“Just in case you were to be shot before the date arrives. I don’t want to be held up twice for the same obligation.”

Holm got his receipt and left the bank.

He next called at the office of the Segelfoss News and had a talk with Editor Davidsen regarding the placards — red and gold placards to tack up on telephone poles and place in store windows — fifteen or twenty of them. The copy was to run somewhat as follows: “Amateur Performance”— then the time and place —“Ticket and programme at the door.”

They discussed the individual entertainers, the artists who were to appear, and decided on an appropriate article to come out in the next issue of the News. All the details were arranged — the druggist’s apprentice would call for the placards as soon as they were dry and see that they were properly displayed about the town. He would also see about getting an accordion player. In order to save the cost of printing tickets, the regular roll of cinema tickets would be used on this occasion. The programme, Holm would make up later in the week in consultation with Vendt of the hotel.

“How much do I owe you?” asked Holm.

“No — I thought you said it was for charity,” said Davidsen.

Holm took out a fat roll of bills to prove how flush he was and again asked: “How much do I owe you?”

“Well, if I must take something,” said Davidsen, reluctantly, “let’s make it a couple of kroner.”

“Won’t cover even the cost of the paper,” said Holm and handed over a ten-spot.

Davidsen fumbled through all his pockets. “I don’t believe I can — I’m a bit short of small change —”

Holm hastened with long strides out to Roten, to Gina and Karel i Roten.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23r/chapter19.html

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