The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Twenty

There was no mistaking it, if there was one thing Gordon Tidemand knew it was how to figure accounts.

He received his bank statement on the following day and found good cause to triumph: the credit balance had now shrunk to more than half the figure previously mentioned — to four-and-twenty thousand — including his own cash borrowings from the bank! His father’s enormous debt to the bank had thus diminished to a mere twelve thousand, plus two thousand in interest!

There followed an attempted explanation: “The senseless error was due to several years’ faulty posting in the late Herr Theodore Jensen’s two accounts. Yours truly, the Segelfoss Savings Bank, J. C. Pettersen.”

“Hm!” said Gordon Tidemand ominously. “He’ll take back this twelve thousand, too, along with this interest of his! Is he trying to fool with me? I’ll show that — that —” He might have used the name “Buttonhead,” but an English gentleman does not call a man names, even in the privacy of his own office. “I’ll give due consideration to the possibility of calling in the authorities,” he said. Ah, that sounded better at once!

He sent the errand boy with a note to the former president of the bank: “Dear Sir, The next time you are in this part of town, you would be conferring a favour upon me if you would stop in to answer me a question. Yours truly, Consul Gordon Tidemand.”

The man appeared immediately. He was a man of the parish, one Johnsen by name, a pensioned school teacher, familiar with all that went on in the district, old now, but still one of the bank’s directors. The Consul apologized for having put him to this inconvenience and explained what he had come up against at the bank.

Johnsen shook his head and let fall a word to the effect that more than one had come up against Lawyer Pettersen. At the last directors’ meeting he had come out with the definite suggestion to put Karel i Roten’s farm up for public auction.

“Karel i Roten is deep in my books, too, but what of it!” said the Consul.

“No, he stops at nothing, that lawyer. He’s too greedy.”

“Well, he’d better not come too close to me!” said the Consul. “Now what I really desired of you, Johnsen, is this: have you any recollection which would lead you to suppose that my father was in any way in debt to the Segelfoss Savings Bank when he died?”

“No, certainly he was not!” said Johnsen and laughed a bit at such an idea. “No, he was no man to owe anyone anything. He was too much of a man for that. And he always had a helping hand for those in need.”

“Then how can Lawyer Pettersen pin on him a debt of sixty thousand? Later reducing the amount to twelve thousand? How can he, for that matter, pin on him a debt of a single øre?”

Johnsen again shook that grey head of his and said: “That’s one thing I can’t understand. Unless he could have discovered some mistake in the books as I kept them in my time. And I can say nothing about that without having the books before me. But, in any event, your father certainly didn’t owe the bank a single penny when he died. All in all, he never did owe the bank anything. It was just the other way round — he usually kept a large sum on deposit with us. I’ll take my oath on that.”

“Thanks! That’s just what I wanted to hear!” The Consul picked up a small book from his desk. “This is my father’s old passbook,” he said. “I find here a couple of entries I wonder if I might ask you about. These figures are entered clearly enough in the handwriting of my father and not in that of the bank teller.”

Johnsen laughed apologetically. “Oh yes, I suppose that is a bit of an irregularity,” he said. “But we never used to take such things too seriously. That was when he came to the bank with a deposit and forgot to bring his passbook with him. He entered the deposits himself when he got back to the store. We all knew each other so well — we were all honest and none of us ever tried to cheat another. But of course, things like that wouldn’t go in these days. Hehe! What are the entries in question?”

“Here is one for seven thousand five hundred kroner ‘acknowledged by separate receipt’ and a little further down another for four thousand five hundred also ‘acknowledged by separate receipt.’”

“Yes, yes!” said Johnsen. “I can explain those easily enough.”

“You can?”

“Yes, yes, those are perfectly correct. That was when he handed me the money personally and I later deposited it to his account and noted down in pencil, as was my custom, ‘acknowledged by separate receipt.’”

“These transactions didn’t take place in the bank, then?”

“No, up at the Manor, up at Segelfoss Manor, at council meetings.”

“Ah!” exclaimed the Consul, relieved. “That explains how he himself would keep his passbook à jour when he returned to the office.”

Johnsen: “Yes, everything was honest and above-board. I remember very well both times — it was when his seiners had met with great success and he was rolling in wealth. We two were sitting in council meeting — yes, and he was the chairman and I was only an ordinary member — but after I took over the management of the bank and was a school teacher and suchlike, he seemed to take to me just a mite and he seemed to have great confidence in me. ‘Here, take this money,’ he would say. ‘Put it in the bank for me before I lose it!’ When I offered him a receipt for the money he said that such was unnecessary, but on these two occasions I insisted upon giving him a receipt, as the amounts involved were so large. On other occasions, when the amounts were small, I gave him no receipt. People used to hand me money at church or at other gatherings, interest money or partial payments on small loans from the bank, and in such cases I would make a note in pencil in the books: ‘oral receipt.’ Yes, that’s the way we used to do business in those days and I never heard a complaint from anyone about it. As a matter of fact, the rural folk used to thank me for it.”

The Consul: “But I can not understand why my father didn’t go himself to the bank with his money. For him who lived right here, it was only a few steps.”

“Yes,” replied Johnsen somewhat shyly. “Yes, you must forgive me for mentioning it, but you see there was one little peculiarity with your father, he was just a wee bit vain at times. He liked to show the whole council how much money he was worth. He couldn’t do that if he were to go to the bank by himself. Pardon, but it wasn’t I alone who had that impression of him.”

“That’s an excellent explanation,” said Gordon Tidemand, “and I thank you heartily for the light you have thrown on the subject. I do not know what use I shall have for it, but should the occasion arise, it is possible that I shall require you as a witness.”

“At any time, my dear Consul!” replied Johnsen. “At your service at any time at all!”

The Consul sent his errand boy with the following message to the lawyer: “Both yesterday and today I have been expecting the Herr Bank-President to call on me in my office. My future action in this matter will depend entirely upon what explanations and apologies you may choose to offer. Yours truly.”

The first hour passed with no word from Pettersen. Then the telephone rang and it was the lawyer on the other end of the line. Had not the bank statement been received? Was not the explanation that the error was due to faulty entries made by his predecessors in the bank sufficient? If not, what further was there to explain? He would be in the bank at two o’clock. At the Herr Consul’s service!

Hear that! He would be of service — at the bank! The Consul uttered not a single word in reply. Instead, he hung up the receiver in Pettersen’s ear.

Unreasonable to suppose that that good Pettersen would refrain from coming himself. Fine! The Consul would prepare for him. Would he offer the man a chair? No, for the Consul would himself descend from his swivel stool and conduct the interview on his feet. But what if the man were to take a chair and sit down without being asked? That would be like him — it would be like him to offer his apologies whilst slouching in a chair!

There were three unpainted chairs in the office, three chairs dating back to the regime of his father, Theodore paa Bua. Well, he could have these chairs removed, thus compelling his visitor to stand? But no, the office was empty and barren enough as it was — merely the desk, the stove, the safe and the copy press — and Gordon Tidemand was hardly of a mind to make his office, his British Consulate, appear more barren than it already was. After a time a most brilliant idea occurred to him — a solution to the entire problem: he would order one of his store hands to paint the chairs, thus rendering them unfit for use. And the paint would likewise help to brighten up the office. All in all, a flash of genius!

He rang and gave his orders. The colour? Green, dark green, to match everything else in the room. There would be plenty of time. Four hours until two o’clock.

The Consul worked as usual at his desk; the stench of paint grew stronger in the room, but the chairs had begun to gleam like new — they were actually no longer to be recognized. His mother would certainly be surprised the next time she visited his office.

At two o’clock he drove home to lunch.

When he returned at four, the lawyer was pacing back and forth outside. Together they stepped into the office, the lawyer being courteously offered first use of the door. Inside, he sniffed the air.

“You’ve been painting?” he asked.

“The chairs,” said the Consul, curtly.

The battle began without further delay.

“So you’re not yet of a mind to offer your apologies?” asked the Consul.

“If you insist upon being a child,” grated the lawyer, “I suppose I can respectfully beg your pardon for those old errors in posting.”

“But not for your own conduct in the matter?”

“Hm, but that was entirely guided by what had gone on before.”

“Your audit, for example, I suppose.”

The lawyer shrugged his shoulders. “I acted in good faith,” he said.

“And I don’t suppose, either, that it is your desire to apologize for your most recent errors as they appear on the statement?”

“What errors?”

“The twelve thousand plus interest which you set forth as a claim against my father.”

“No, that stands. I can’t see how it’s up to me to apologize for the fact that your father owed money.”

“The former head of the bank stands ready to swear in court that my father never owed this money.”

“Johnsen? That blundering fool?” asked the lawyer. “I have more faith in myself than I have in him.”

“The point is rather whether others might have more faith in him than in you.”

“What others? You, I suppose?”

“Yes. And eventually, the court.”

“There we have the court again!” said the lawyer. “I won’t hear any more of such nonsense!”

“The oath of a man such as Johnsen is not to be whistled aside by a man of your calibre.”

“Do you know,” asked the lawyer, “why this same Johnsen was removed from office?”

“Because you desired to get rid of him, wasn’t it?”

“That’s untrue. It was because we all found him to be unqualified.”

“But you — is it possible that you do not find yourself unqualified?”

“Yes, in one respect or another,” replied the lawyer. “For example I am unqualified to accede to a childish desire for an apology for a mistake which was promptly rectified. But I am not unqualified when it comes to finding both legal and moral fault with your father’s method of bookkeeping. In his passbook you will see that he has himself entered two deposits for which he has no receipt from the bank.”

“One item of seven and a half thousand and another for four and a half thousand?”

“Yes.”

“Covering these two entries are both Johnsen’s oath and separate receipts.”

“Receipts? Let me see them!” says the lawyer and stretches forth his hand.

The Consul: “Even if I were to stand here with the receipts in my hand, I doubt that I should place them in yours.”

“The time will come when you’ll have to, now let me tell you that! Who ever heard of such bookkeeping! A private individual, a common ordinary business man undertaking to keep his own bankbook! What was he, then, a megalomaniac?”

“I doubt it.”

“Well, I’ve heard one thing or another about him. I never knew him personally — nor did you either, it is possible. We hear so many things, you know. Possibly, he wasn’t even your real —”

Now it ill-becomes an English gentleman to fly at the throat of a mere lawyer, but it is both fitting and proper for such a gentleman to turn pale with wrath and to hold open the door of his office until such a lawyer has left the room. An English gentleman, in other words, behaves with perfect manners, for that is what makes him a gentleman.

But in this instance?

A gentleman may strike with his fist, or shoot, slay and trample under foot, and still remain a gentleman.

But in this instance?

The Consul did not raise so much as a finger. He was not, it seems, a perfect type — he was a mixture of races, a hybrid, and a first-generation blend at that — which means that his nature consisted of two separate and distinct halves. Nevertheless, in this instance, the Consul did something which saved not only himself, but his parents and the entire situation: he stood with no sign of emotion on his face whatever, and simply stared his adversary straight in the eyes. With a studious expression on his face he attempted to discover what the man had meant. What he had said was a banality — it may be said of anyone, that, in truth, he can not be positive as to the identity of his father. Was it the usual abracadabra the lawyer had thus chosen to utter? But why so? At length the Consul declined to give the stupid matter any further thought; he withdrew his eyes and began indifferently to fuss with a few papers on his desk.

Lawyer Pettersen was greatly bewildered. A novel type of self-discipline had revealed itself here before his eyes, an utterly foreign brand of personal superiority, totally unrelated to such phenomena as boxing, dueling or verbal debate. What was he to do in the face of it? He began to speak, to flounder about in order to prove to himself his own existence! A devil of a situation to arise out of another’s mistakes! He had simply delved back into the books, as it was his duty to do, for he was the bank’s faithful servant and was employed to care for its interests. But what did he get for that?

He began pacing back and forth across the floor, behaviour which in itself was most discourteous, inasmuch as he was being received in another’s office; he halted and stared at a map on the wall, went over to the chairs, touched them one after another as though hoping to discover at least one of them dry enough to use as a seat. He wiped his fingers on his socks. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring one of my own chairs along with me,” he said bitterly. But the Consul appeared to be busily at work and did not so much as glance up.

The lawyer inquired with a trace of worry in his voice: “You don’t think for a moment that I have been looking after my own interests in this matter, do you?”

The Consul, after a delay filled with much glancing at papers: “I’ve never considered that angle of the present situation.”

“That I should have had some personal interest in the matter?”

No answer.

Both men are silent.

At length, the lawyer: “Well, I don’t give a damn what you think! Go ahead and bring on a court action if you’re that childish. But you’ll get nowhere with it, I can tell you. The bank has given no receipt for the moneys your father owes it, and no court of law would constitute old man Johnsen’s oath as a receipt. I trust you have understood my words.”

He must have been out of his mind; he had certainly lost his poise. At the same time his determination and fixity of purpose had shown that he was not playing a game; no, in his own way he was acting in good faith. His avarice was as well-known as his face. In his petty grasping way, he was unwilling to relinquish the slightest remuneration in sight — a postage stamp in payment for a transcript consisting of no more than a few lines! Had he now produced these alleged debts for collection in the exclusive interest of the bank? Or was he seriously considering a campaign to collect the Consul’s many outstanding claims? He could not avoid being misunderstood. There were those receipts mentioned during his conversation with the Consul; was he hoping that in the course of so many years they had become lost? But in that event, what could he possibly attain? Nothing.

J. C. Pettersen — the man himself mattered little, but his hard-headedness, his insanely enterprising spirit had brought about so many ravages that the present situation was fraught with significance both for himself and for others, particularly for Editor Davidsen whose day, as it were, was at hand.

Gordon Tidemand had a talk with his mother — he had never outgrown his need for her. She did not mince matters, and advised him at once against bringing suit against the lawyer, giving as her reason that “Pettersen was not worth the bother.”

“Better that you should go and have a talk with the judge,” she said.

But no, her son stood firmly opposed to this suggestion; the thought of seeking underhanded assistance did not appeal to him, especially from a man who had been a guest in his home.

But the judge was chairman of the board of directors, she said.

So much the worse, replied her son. An odd monkey, that Gordon!

He was greatly annoyed with himself for having neglected to have that old discarded passbook put in proper order at the bank while there had yet been time. Suppose that old man Johnsen had been dead, he said.

“But he isn’t!” laughed his mother.

“But suppose he were! Then I should not have had his testimony in this matter! Johnsen’s personal receipts are gone. I should have a bank of my own, shouldn’t I? I wouldn’t mention such a thing had I not studied banking in school and acquired such a thorough knowledge of the subject — But I have searched high and low through the office, dumped out all the drawers and dug into all the old manila envelopes where father used to hide his papers. But those two miserable receipts are nowhere to be found.”

His mother: “You don’t suppose they could be up here at the Manor?”

“How should I know! However, it was up here the transactions took place — at meetings of the town council.”

“I’ll make a search,” she said.

Gordon Tidemand was unhappy. The entire stupid affair with the lawyer had arisen just in time to interfere with his own plans. He ought to have money in the bank soon now, a few thousand to tide him over the slack season, but, under the circumstances, he would refuse to go to Pettersen for a loan. As though he could bring himself to that!

He was in a wretched humour when he drove back to the office after lunch and during the afternoon his work suffered because of it. But at least there was one bright spot in his day in the form of a communication which he found on his desk: a large order from his traveler through Helgeland. There was no end to the amount of expensive ladies’ garments that that fellow could sell on his trips! Yes, he had even sold to Knoff himself, the trader who had married Gordon Tidemand’s sister Lillian. . . .

Gammelmoderen appeared at the office. She had been walking rapidly and was warm and charmingly flushed.

“My, what pretty chairs!” she cried.

“Whoa — don’t sit down!” he screamed.

No, she did not take a seat; she came over to him, laid some papers on the desk, smiled and waited for his first word.

“What’s all this?” he asked.

“Old scraps of paper, memorandums and such stuff as your father used to carry about in his pocket!”

“But you didn’t find the —” Suddenly he gave a start. . . .

There were the two receipts signed by Johnsen as president of the bank!

“Ho!”

Yes, during all the years of her marriage, Gammelmoderen had been obliged to sew a special inner pocket on every new vest her husband had acquired. And this afternoon she had hit upon the idea of searching the pockets of a couple of old vests of Theodore’s which had hung there ever since his death. Thus she had come across these scraps of paper. And she had not wished to wait for her son to return home that evening. . . .

“You surely are a prize, mother!” said Gordon Tidemand. His gratitude knew no bounds. Not because the two old receipts would make any difference one way or another, but because they had brought order out of chaos and had soothed his sense of honour.

“Go out into the store and pick out any dress we have in stock, mother!” he said.

“What? Do you mean it?”

“It’s your finder’s reward!”

His mother blushed girlishly and thanked him. She was in such sore need of a new dress. Somehow, it was her desire to appear well-dressed just at this time.

As was to be expected, things now began to take a bad turn for Lawyer Pettersen. He should not have been so zealous about finding fault with the Consul’s bank account.

He was summoned before a special meeting of the board of directors, was questioned minutely by the members individually and collectively, was confronted with the bank statement, the passbook and the penciled receipts, and himself had nothing to say. He apologized by saying that it had been nought save his desire to safeguard the interests of the bank which had caused him to act.

When ordered to resign his position, he was true to his colours and demanded three months’ salary. Another, under the circumstances, would have uttered no word about salary — Gordon Tidemand, for example, would have gone pale and thrust aside the question of salary as an insult, had the matter of compensation been mentioned to him. But Lawyer Pettersen was true to his own colours and insisted upon his right to this salary.

The magistrate, with full dignity, reproved him: “I believe, Lawyer Pettersen, that you have every reason to leave without further ado!” he said.

“Without further ado?” said the lawyer. “Never!”

The man became something of a riddle at this point. He had revealed no such ugly side of his nature prior to this, and the gentlemen were amazed. Formerly, in spite of his implacable avarice, he had been, after a fashion, extremely affable; he had frequently found himself engaged in a duel of words with the druggist and had often been able to return thrust for thrust. He had even found it possible to joke a bit about his own miserliness, stating that this was his own special cross to bear. And a miser he was indeed! Once on a steamer he discovered that he had lost his change purse. The purse had been found, but Lawyer Pettersen insisted that his purse had contained much more change than that — yes, double the amount! — and gave this as his excuse for refusing to offer a reward to the finder. Well, but what had his avarice gained for him? Nothing. He now stood forth, a loser. Everything had gone wrong for him, though he actually had gained one thing — a bad name.

He was a dangerous man, though he was his own worst enemy. In his affair with Gordon Tidemand, he saw no reason why he should be a subject for censure. “What wrong have I committed?” he asked. He even wished to know the name of the man who was to succeed him. “Johnsen, at least, won’t do,” he said. And in that, no doubt, he was right. Johnsen was too quick with a pencil when it came to keeping the books. Separate receipt! Oral receipt! Yes, but he had been honest and honourable, a servant of the people, and in his time the best that could have been found.

So, in any event, they invited old Johnsen to return to his former position. The offer touched him; he thanked the kind gentlemen, but declined. The bank, it seemed, could not afford to maintain a full-time manager, the salary was commensurate with the work involved and this was little enough. Besides, that capable cashier in the bank was a great help. For a moment the gentlemen considered promoting the cashier to the office of manager, but they were obliged to give him up as a possibility, as he was indispensable where he was.

Was there a dearth of potential bank managers? Someone mentioned Skipper Olsen, but he lived too far out in the country and it was doubtful the man could write. Of course, it would be impossible to secure the services of Consul Gordon Tidemand himself. No, they did not even ask him, they knew what constituted good manners too well for that. The postmaster and the telegraph superintendent likewise came in for a bit of discussion, but the office hours of these gentlemen conflicted with those of the bank. So far as the school teachers were concerned, none could be found to compare with old Johnsen in his day.

They wracked their brains for some time.

Then someone brought up the name of Herr Davidsen, editor and publisher of the Segelfoss News. Davidsen? said the others, and turned this name over on their tongues. Ye-es, possibly! Of course, he could not hope to establish much confidence in himself — he had nothing to his name, only two cases of type — but the directors were hard put; there was a shortage of eligible bank material.

A committee interviewed Davidsen, but no, the latter shook his head.

The salary was such and such, they said.

Davidsen declined.

They asked him the reason for his refusal.

The reason was that he knew nothing at all about banking.

But neither had the past presidents or the directors who constituted the board, in the main. It was a simple matter to learn the more important details. Banking involved no special witchcraft and all important questions were decided by the directors.

The idea was by no means stupid, that of getting Davidsen in as manager of the bank. For a long time now he had been writing and publishing what he wrote, in a charming little local newspaper, and in meetings of the town council he had long been recognized as the possessor of a capable mind. Folk in general gave no great thought either to the man himself or to his publication, but that was because he had never done anything to thrust himself forward; instead, he had gone on in that little cubbyhole of his, where, with the aid of a bright little daughter, he had got out his paper every Wednesday. And the paper went the rounds, he got along — though, to be sure, by the skin of his teeth. . . .

They asked him if, considering how things stood with himself, his wife and his five children, he could afford to turn down their offer.

“My dear friends,” he replied. “I know no more about banking than does my little daughter here. Of course, she may on occasion have been inside that bank of yours with a handbill or two, that may be perfectly true, but as for myself I have never been inside a bank in my life!”

The committee’s mind was now made up that Davidsen was the likeliest man for the position, and the gentlemen were determined not to let him get away. Even Lawyer Pettersen was satisfied with him and offered, for a reasonable consideration, to instruct him in banking technique, at which the committee smiled and respectfully declined his offer. Instead, they went at once to the Consul and had a talk with him. He understood, did he not, that the bank was now without a director of its affairs, and therefore would he not be willing to assist Editor Davidsen with his own vast fund of knowledge?

With pleasure! said the Consul. He would be glad, at any time, to spend a few days in the bank with Davidsen and show him one thing or another. “When do we begin? I’m ready to go with you at once!”

No, Gordon Tidemand was by no means unwilling to help out.

And so, in the end, there was no way out of it for Davidsen. But he insisted upon his sovereign right to withdraw without notice, at any time he might consider himself incapable of filling his office.

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