The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Two

Life at Segelfoss was altered considerably under the new regime. The daily routine was on a somewhat grander scale with far less contact with the village folk. Gordon Tidemand chose to drive back and forth between the store and the Manor in a light phaeton, though the distance was anything but great, and he had put on other grand airs, as well. For instance, what business had he to wear those yellow gloves for so short a drive on a summer day? And he had invested in a smart little motor-boat without having a sign of practical use for it, simply for the purpose of racing out to meet incoming mail steamers; after circling about and calling out a couple of words to the captain, he would head straight in for shore. His point in this was possibly merely to show off for the benefit of the passengers lining the rails. Indeed he was a handsome fellow; there was something of the look of a foreigner about him, with his swarthy skin and dark hair, his aquiline nose, his sparkling brown eyes and his firm narrow mouth. He was always smartly attired, his shoes highly polished. No, here was no Per paa Bua, nor a true son of Theodore, either.

During his father’s lifetime the seine-boats had fared forth regularly every year, each exploring its own corner of the sea, ofttimes twice a year, in the fall before the Lofoten fishing, and in the spring after the codfishing was over. The buying and selling of fish, Lofoten cod or herring trapped by his seiners, the salting down, the packing, the shipping — these were the interests upon which Theodore’s mind had fed and from which he had derived his fortune. But these were not the undertakings of which Gordon Tidemand had learned in school or off on his travels abroad; his fund of knowledge consisted of accountancy, foreign commerce and international monetary exchange, subjects which were quite irrelevant to the running of his type of business. What good did it do him to set up a refined and complicated system of accounting for his store which could never under any set of circumstances yield him the profits attendant upon a single lucky stroke of his seiners? He insisted upon maintaining a commercial traveler to carry his line through Nordland, though little business seemed to follow in the fellow’s wake. One day he summoned this salesman to his private office and pointed to a chair. Big business executive that he was, he was polite but terse in his remarks.

“You haven’t been doing much business,” he began.

“No, that’s the way it looks.”

“That last line of ours ought to be going better. Silk nightgowns.”

“Yes,” said the man, “but folks simply shake their heads when I show them.”

“It’s a line from one of the finest houses.”

“Folks up here still seem to prefer to sleep in flannel. They’re old-fashioned, I guess.”

“Well, how about those flannel skirts? The latest mode, you know.”

“Yes,” answered the man with a shake of the head. “But up here, the women would rather have silk.”

“Hm.”

“Wool underneath and silk outside,” said the man with a laugh.

The big business executive frowned at this sign of amusement. “At any rate, you aren’t doing enough business. Something must be the matter. Are you drawing enough for traveling expenses?”

“Yes, I have the same as the rest of us out on the road.”

“But,” his chief said suddenly, “you yourself might possibly equip yourself a little better. Do you call on your trade in clothes like these you are wearing?”

“They are practically brand-new. My last suit possibly got to looking a bit shabby, but this one —”

“Where did you buy it?”

“In Tromsø. At the finest clothing store in Tromsø.”

“Perhaps you ought to have polished brass corners on your sample cases,” said the chief.

The man stared. “You don’t mean it?” he said, aghast.

“I don’t know, it was just a thought. But it isn’t simply a question of sample cases and clothes, it’s a question of general get-up. I’m not sure you grasp my point. Have you ever given a thought to the matter of style and manner? You are the representative of a big house and you should act and appear accordingly. That shirt and that necktie — pardon me for mentioning them!” The chief nodded to indicate that his reference had been sufficient.

But possibly there was some serious flaw in the man’s sense of fashion and progress, possibly he was short on the power discrimination. For instance, he did not even realize that at this point the interview had been concluded. He said: “You see, when we’re on the road, we often have to carry our bags ourselves. Sometimes we miss ship connections and have to travel by motorboat. We can’t always appear spic and span, sometimes we look pretty mussy.”

The chief remained silent.

“And sometimes we aren’t even as clean as we might be when we arrive in certain places.”

The chief remarked in definite conclusion: “All right, but just think over my words. We will really have to inject a little —”

Nevertheless, Gordon Tidemand was not all show and vanity; he had learned, of course, that clothes and a neat appearance are matters of keen significance, but he did not wander off and get lost in the maze of this doctrine. For instance, he was quick to heed his mother’s advice and immediately got busy laying plans to send out a seining expedition.

This mother of his was in many ways worth her weight in gold. She might easily have passed for his sister, so young and good-looking she still was, so joyous, so warmblooded, so clever. She was said to have taken the bit in her teeth during the early years of her marriage, for she had soon lost all interest in her husband, but that had been a good while ago and was already quite forgotten. She was known as Gammelmoderen,1 but that was a stupid nickname, for it had simply been her husband, that Theodore paa Bua, who had grown old before his time and who had allowed life and marriage to use him up. She, herself, was as good as ever today.

1 An affectionate term applied to any older woman who is sweet and helpful by nature. Though literally it means “old mother,” the adjective “gammel” has the same affectionate connotation as “old” in “old son,” “old man,” etc. — Translator.

“When will you send out the seines, and who have you got to boss the crews?” she asked.

Gordon Tidemand was so clever with writing materials; he had prepared a list of all his father’s old seiners and began reading it off aloud.

“You’ve written it down to the last comma, haven’t you?” laughed his mother. “But your father used to carry all that around in his head. And what’s that, have you included Nikolai in your list? But he’s been dead for some time now, hasn’t he?”

“Oh well, we’ll simply strike out his name and stick in Altmulig there in his place.”

“But Altmulig is too old. No, you must have a young crew out with the seines.”

“He’s old enough, but he’s tough and wiry. I’d trust that fellow with anything.”

“But we can’t get along without him here on the place.”

“We’ll manage somehow,” concluded her son.

Gammelmoderen was well acquainted with Altmulig and she knew what a quick head he had on his shoulders. Many was the time she had talked with him and listened to his colourful tales. He was an old sailor, a vagabond, who had turned up one day and asked for work. He was thin and surprisingly nimble; he had wandered about the world no end and could certainly tell tall tales. When asked his port of hail, he had claimed the entire world. But where had he come from last? From Latvia.

The chief, Gordon Tidemand, had grown to like the man in the course of their very first interview there in his office. The stranger had promptly dropped his hat to the floor upon entering the room and had stood there with body erect. Ah, discipline! — to which Gordon Tidemand stood in no way opposed. No, he was not the kind upon whom courtesy is likely to be wasted. More than that, he was helpful by nature and had once found a place in his stockroom for a youth from Finmark for the single reason that the lad could play the fiddle. Yes, but here stood a man with skill of a different order. His name? He had mentioned it, otherwise stating that he had been called “alt mulig” (everything possible) from Captain to murderer during his lifetime, so his real name meant nothing, he said. But what was his line of work? Oh, probably it would be best to set him down simply as an alt-muligmand, as a general handy man, as thus he could do anything he might be put to, perhaps even a little bit more.

“All right, then, you may stay!” the chief had said with a smile.

Nor had he ever found cause to regret having taken this man into his service. The old fellow had soon proven his worth in many quarters, had, for instance, extinguished a serious chimney fire there on the place with no more than a bucket of common kitchen salt — the devil and all if that hadn’t conquered the flames! He had tinkered about with the meat-grinder, the wash-wringer and the laundry mangle which were out of repair and had made them as good as new. Without being told, he had scraped and oiled the boats and what tools he could lay his hands on. Then he had reconstructed that filthy old tumbledown pigsty and, with sand and cement, had made it over into a neat, attractive shelter. “Altmulig, come give us a hand!” folk would call out to him whenever a window might happen to stick.

Moreover, he must certainly have been a most deeply religious man, for he would cross himself frequently and the life he lived was one of quiet meditation. No one had ever heard him singing or shouting outlandishly about town, or firing off that revolver of his.

Children were born to the people up at the Manor — two children in three years, and later there were more. Vigour and diligence no end up above, the young mistress tall and slender as a serpent. Then suddenly her figure would begin bulging like that of a leech; ay, how suddenly the change would take place! Mad with youth they were, this couple; they could hardly budge without love, so what could the end of it be but children? Gammelmoderen now had grandchildren to swing on her arm and it began to look as though she would never again be able to call her time her own.

And children were born in the cottages and on the small farms round about; folk married early in life, and in no time were poor, which was exactly what could be expected.

For example, there was Jørn Mathildesen, named thus after his mother, Mathilde, for the reason that he had had no father — well, he married the girl Valborg from Øira. They owned not the tiniest plot of ground and they hadn’t a King’s copper to live on. For clothes all they had were a few old rags they had picked up here and there. But, even so, they got married and settled down in a rickety shack. —“For why did you do it and go throwing yourself away?” folk inquired of Valborg. —“Was I to go on waiting for another forever?” she asked in return. —“And you so pretty and all,” folk said. “If you’re twenty you’re never a day.”—“No,” Valborg answered, “but they began with me the year I was confirmed.”

They begged a bit, did Jørn and Valborg, and they must have done a bit of stealing on the side, too, for a sharp eye was kept on them whenever they entered the shops in town. —“Well, what will you have today?” the shopkeepers would ask, jocosely. —“Have I no leave to come in?” Jørn would answer straight back. Whenever they would leave him in peace, it might be that Jørn would inquire the price of a bit of red and green dress material which had happened to catch his fancy, or to ask the cost of a pound of American bacon. But what good did it do to tell him what things were worth? the dealers might grumble. The fact was, he never bought anything, did he? “Have I no leave to ask?” Jørn would answer.

A wretched existence for Jørn and Valborg, but at least they had no children — no, unfortunately, they didn’t have even a child to their name.

But children there were on the farms throughout the countryside, of these alone there were plenty, and they were no mean blessing. Without children there would be no laughter heard one year to the next, and without children no tiny groping hands and no droll questions to answer. Otherwise, poverty and desolation reigned over each rural home. When autumn came, folk might, of course, slaughter a bit of a sheep and, God be praised, there were still potatoes in the house and milk to be had from the byre, so it really wasn’t so bad to be a farmer in a small way, with three or four kine and a horse in the barn and a few smaller creatures besides. But did they own these things? They were in debt for more than these and their entire farms were worth; they were deep in the books of the merchants in town, they were far behind in their taxes, they were living in tumble-down homes. And it would help little were they to offer a cow or a pair of sheep as a payment against those enormous debts of theirs, and whenever the fishing was lean at Lofoten, they only got in deeper. No, they had little enough to offer Jørn and Valborg when these beggars were making their rounds. And another result was, one poor soul would help out another with a half-sack of potatoes or a pail of milk. And thus folk took full pity one upon another and showed such a splendid spirit of mutual helpfulness as must have delighted the angels.

Honest, everyday people, these, content to be what they were. They lived according to the keen good sense of their forefathers, though they lived so close by the town with all its people of rank and quality and the new imported customs. No thank you, the people of the countryside still lived as they had once learned to live and slow they were to adopt such fancy new articles as white collars for the neck of a man and cut tobacco for an honest man’s pipe.

Ay, the old ways, those are the best! Look there at those boat-sheds of theirs, those little sheds on stilts! Surely they differ in no particular from those which stood here eight centuries ago when Sverre ruled the land, though they still answer every practical purpose. The walls are open strips of birch and aspen, the roofs are of turf and birchbark. And if someone there is who imagines that these boathouse walls ought to be fitted tight against the weather, the reply is obvious that much would be lost thereby, since it is wind blowing in through the cracks which airs out the sails and the fishing gear left hanging there to dry. And observe those massive wooden locks on the doors of the sheds with their prehistoric wooden keys! No iron there, not a single thing which will rust. And when, at last, lock and key have become rotten, what a simple matter it will be to fit new ones at not a single penny’s cost, with the expenditure of only a little time and some deftness of hand — an interesting evening’s work for any ordinary man. . . .

These people were industrious in their own way, too, though they were guided by no mad urge. They busied themselves with cutting the winter’s fuel supply or with a bit of the usual home fishing, each at its proper season of the year. The children tended the flocks and performed whatever other simple tasks might arise; during the berry season, they would go out into the fields, often in foul weather when the autumn’s cold bit deep, often absent the whole day without food. Cranberries and cloudberries, these they would sell in town and bring the money home. Early in life they had learned to amuse themselves with small matters and had suffered no harm in that. Their mothers and sisters looked after house and byre, they spun the wool from the sheep, prepared the loom and wove a glorious thick material for underwear and outer garments, dyed certain balls of yarn and added bright borders and colourful designs to the dresses intended as Sunday best for their little girls and themselves. No living soul was there whom they envied; they could make themselves fine for church — indeed! For there were their Sunday clothes!

Contented farm-folk; poor but contented, they were. For they were accustomed to this way of living and to no other. And there was frequent occasion for merriment in the homes, too. The children, it took so little to make them laugh and squeal, and, often as not, the grown-ups would share in their fun. Evening was the time for games and stories and splendid it was, too, if only to have Karel i Roten drop in, he who was such a master at singing and yodeling, or even old Mons-Karina who chewed tobacco but who steadfastly refused to admit that she did. But it was entertainment flavoured somewhat with eeriness whenever Aase the Lapp would stop by. Ay, though she always arrived with a greeting of “Peace!” and departed with “Peace be with you!” she was none the less regarded as a fearsome person.

Folk were so wedded to their superstitious beliefs in trollfolk and goblins and creatures of the underworld. There might be a man who had dreamed something, another who had been given a sign — so many ominous and unfathomable things as there might be in the world! . . . There was, for example, that man named Solmund. One evening he was carting home wood and, according to his story, it was frightfully dark in the forest. As he was making his last trip and was homeward bound, he was walking along behind the load. Suddenly he spied the form of a woman seated atop the load of wood in the cart. He was at a loss to understand how in the world she had got there, but it certainly did not seem right to him and he began straightway praying to God to protect both himself and his horse. Coming within sight of home, the horse suddenly lurched forward into a gallop, and ran away. That female creature up there must have prodded it with something, she herself hopping to the ground and standing there to face him. —“Is that you, Aase?” he asked.

“Ay,” she replied. —“Well, what do you want with me?” asked Solmund. —“I want that you shall have me,” answered Aase. —“I’ll have you out of my way!” he said. “Fee-faw-fum! Clear out, do you hear!”—“You’ll have your pay for this!” said Aase. And from that day on the man’s horse was shy. Solmund, poor soul, he had stumbled into the grip of fate. . . .

Aase was tall and dark. Her father, it was said, was a Gypsy, her mother a Lapp. She would always appear in Lappish garb — furs sewed together into a kind of smock — and stride straight into the room like a very queen, proud of her comely person, serious and deliberate of speech. She was an unusually handsome woman, but, like all Lapps, extremely filthy. Some years ago she had probably been a beauty indeed, both in face and in figure. Her face was that of a Lapp and she dressed in Lappish garb, though her outer garment was not embellished with the screamingly bright embroidery and decorative flourishes common to her race — hers was a simple brown smock. From the left side of her belt, from the left side only, there hung a jingling cluster of ceremonial articles: a knife, scissors, sewing implements consisting of a bone needle and a bundle of sinews for thread, a pipe and tobacco, fire-steel and punk, silver gew-gaws and a number of mysterious articles shaped from bone. Aase was forever wandering. God knew when she ever slept! She would simply put in a sudden appearance. She might be in South Parish and in North Parish, both in the same day, though she traveled only afoot. . . .

Here now she suddenly turns up in a cottage. . . .

With the arrival of Aase, the children immediately subside and sneak off into the corners. She has come on no special errand and it is seldom that she asks for anything. Nevertheless the mother of the house makes haste to offer her a few beans of coffee and a bit of tobacco simply as a token of friendly esteem, and it is no less than ordinary politeness which leads the father of the house to inquire whence she has come and whither she is bound. Receiving the appropriate replies, he goes further and asks: “Have you heard as how that Solmund and that horse of his were both drowned in the falls just yesterday as it was?”—“Ay,” Aase answers, but it appears as though the matter is not of the slightest concern to her. —“But a danger it was to be driving that horse so near the falls. Didn’t that Solmund know as much?”—“You ask me and I ask you!” Aase answers. —“And then as to that poor Tobias as was burned from house and home this very week as it was? Have you heard anything more about the fire, you who go about meeting so many folk?”—“No,” Aase answers. . . . With dreamy eyes she sits there thinking thoughts of her own; now and then she glances up and her brown eyes are eery and fathomless. What is on her mind? Nothing at all, perhaps. Or perhaps it is only that her heart is heavy, perhaps she is suffering for love. She is unmarried and lives in a hut together with an old, old Lapp, so old that it is impossible that he should be her lover. Well, but it must be, then, that Aase is a girl who is doomed to be barren — barren at something past thirty, though still a handsome creature. There is something so strange about Aase; though in a drawling way all her own, she speaks good peasant Norwegian, and true it is that she knows more than other Lapps; she is not without her gifts. She reads but little and she writes not at all. Happening in at some dance and being offered something to drink, she always calls for whiskey and seems able to stand no end of it. . . .

At length she rises to her feet. “Well, so now I’m on my way again,” she says.

“Ho, what’s your need for hurry? You’ve time and plenty,” the father of the house says to be polite.

“I’m on my way to North Parish. There’s a child badly scalded I’m to see.”

At which Mother uncomfortably exclaims: “Oh, then hurry you must! Ay, hurry you must!”

“I arrive at my hour exactly!” says Aase, nodding. “Peace be with you!”

Mother follows her outside with something hidden beneath her apron to give her. When she returns, Father eyes her apprehensively and asks: “Did she spit?”

“No.”

The whole house heaves a sigh of relief, the children emerge from their corners and promptly begin teasing each other and giving imitations. —“My, but your face was white!” says Big Brother to that tiny wee sister of his. —“It was?” she squeals. “Why, I could have walked right up and touched her!”

But oh no! Aase had appeared as slightly more awesome than that! Baby Sister had had no more the courage to go up and touch her than, for instance, her parents had had. . . .

Whether deserving of it or not, Aase enjoyed the reputation of being able to rid folk of their ailments; she was said to have effected a number of remarkable cures in the case of both people and animals and it was believed that she could bring misfortune upon a household by merely spitting on the doorstep. And she gave herself magic airs. “I arrive at my hour exactly!” she had said. She was sent for by folk who had faith in her powers, and no one there was who dared utter a word against her, as that would be the surest way of inviting her revenge.

“Sh! Still now!” says Mother. “Quiet your mouths about that Aase! Outside she can stand and hear right through the wall!”

“I say only that Baby Sister was afraid,” the lad mumbles.

The other children enter the argument at this point, promptly taking sides with the youngest. “It was Big Brother himself who really was afraid!”

Then they all laugh mischievously and Big Brother is made to feel small. . . . They cuddled up together, became enemies, then friends again. . . .

What a blessing it was to have children! What would a home be without children? A hollow tree-trunk, no more. Afford to have them? Somehow they’d manage to afford them, the parents would decide. And if it were a question of their growing so fast that it would be impossible to keep them in clothes, well — they would be cold in winter anyway, so what if they were likewise a bit chilly in summer? And if the house itself lacked certain comforts, the main point was these children had never been spoiled. During the rains of spring and autumn every turf roof leaked a bit and it would be necessary to set pots to catch the drops. And it was always worst up in the loft where the children slept — there they would lie with cups and pans on all sides of them on the bed. But were they disheartened or petulant when they happened to upset one of these pans and soaked the bed with rain water? No, they would set up a momentary commotion, with laughter or howls of anger which soon subsided. They accepted things as they were, promptly went back to sleep, and in the morning had forgotten that anything at all had occurred. They were accustomed to turf roofs which leaked; they were accustomed to no other kind.

Every Saturday the floors would be scoured till they shone. And then of a sudden it would appear to Mother and Father that the floors were strewn with twigs of juniper, as was the custom in the north, though neither of them had placed them there. They would hardly be able to believe their own eyes. Well? Oh, it had been those thoughtful little girls, God bless their tiny hands! Now it was out why they had sneaked off into the forest in spite of the difficult going. Of course, for they had gone to fetch fresh juniper to strew on the floors for the Sabbath. How clean and pure was the fragrance of juniper there in the warmth of the house! And on each berry there was the mark of a tiny cross. Now what could have been on God’s mind when He gave this symbol to the juniper? There was something quite rare about juniper, it was something more than a mere strew for the floor; if it were desired to sweeten up the house, one would light a twig of juniper and swing the smoke through the air. And when Mother was at the milk pans she would boil a sprig of juniper in each, to make them sweet and clean.

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