The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Twenty-Four

That same afternoon August is on his way to South Parish. It is merely an ordinary day of the week — a Friday, to be exact — but such a day will do, much may be accomplished on a Friday, good as well as evil. . . .

He might have gone to the store in Segelfoss and purchased a new complete outfit, and he had given this matter some thought; however, he was not sufficiently calm in his mind for this — his heart was bidding him to hasten. And was this so strange? Had anything so remarkable never happened to another?

He might have appeared in a new suit of clothes, perfume on his handkerchief, his shirt open at the throat; he might have borrowed Frøken Marna’s saddle-horse and gone posting down to South Parish like a very country squire, and to this matter he had also given some thought, but his heart would not grant him a moment. What, was he out of his mind, then? Couldn’t he keep himself under control? Ay, he was well enough under control. There was nothing mean or demolished about his appearance as it was. A sailor lad on shore-leave again; his gait was light, he had money in his pocket, he was in love.

There was no need for him to go scuffing up the dust of a country road, pausing every now and then to wipe the dust from his shoes in the heather which grew by the way; he might have had a boy, a body servant to follow at his heels and wipe his shoes clean with a handkerchief of pure silk. Might he not also at this moment have forgotten Cornelia in South Parish completely, and instead, with a ticket in his pocket, stepped out into the wide world which beckoned to him with loving arms? He had thought of such a thing, too, but there was his heart, his heart.

The family is out in the field, all hands at work with the haying, raking it up and dragging it into the barn, loading it onto a flat sledge, and hauling it home in old Norse style. August walks simply and politely over to them and is modest in every gesture, despite his untold wealth. He touches his hat and, in old Norse style, says: “Bless the work!”

Tobias thanks him, spits, and is ready for a good old-fashioned chat.

“You’re not to stop your work for my sake,” says August.

“This is the last load for today,” answers Tobias. “I’m afraid to take in any more. It isn’t so dry.”

August thrusts his hand into the load and feels about.

“What are you doing that for?” asks Tobias.

“Are you salting it?”

“Just a wee bit.”

Cornelia and her mother and all the little ones come up; they are finished with cocking the hay. August touches his hat to them, but his old cheeks are flaming and it is with difficulty he manages to say: “Fine weather for hay we’re having!”

“Ay, that it is!” Cornelia replies.

She immediately begins walking in the direction of the house, the others trailing behind her. On the way in, August observes that every now and then the horse, of its own accord, halts to rest, though the load it is dragging is surely light. Immediately upon halting, it lowers its muzzle to the ground and begins gnawing the stubble, meanwhile glaring in every direction.

“What ails that mare of yours?” asks August. “Do you let her do whatever she wants?”

“I have to take it easy with her,” replies Tobias. “Cornelia’s the only one who can handle her.”

“Does she bite?”

“Bites and kicks.”

Cornelia is called to unhitch the horse and put it out to tether. In the meantime, Tobias unloads the hay, carries it armful by armful into the barn and at length bends to pick up every last stray wisp from the sledge, lest any part of the crop be wasted. At length he salts down the hay in the barn.

His wife and her little ones have gone into the house.

August follows Cornelia with his eyes; she must protect herself from the horse whilst leading it, must hold tight to the bridle to prevent the beast from snapping at her, must continue to hold the bridle with one hand whilst tethering the horse by the foot with the other. At length she slips off the bridle and skips gingerly to one side. The horse immediately lays back its ears, scowls and turns its back to her.

Cornelia returns uninjured. She is barefoot and thinly clad, but she is handsome and agile in her movements, a perfect portrait of youth.

“How do you get hold of her when you want to harness her up?” asks August.

“With a handful of hay,” she replies.

Such is life day by day on this little farm of theirs. And it is not the worst life imaginable, either. Folk live and grow up and die here, the same as everywhere else. The sky is blue here, just as it is over all the earth. Cornelia is accustomed to such a life, and she is accustomed to no other.

But August pities her in his heart.

They went into the house. Cornelia’s mother was already busy at the spinning wheel. A window stood open, for the evening was warm.

“I’m thinking about that horse,” said August. “She must be a nuisance to have.”

“Ay, she’s getting worse instead of better,” said Tobias.

“She isn’t so bad,” said Cornelia. “I’ve grown used to her ways.”

“I hear she both bites and kicks,” said August. “And certainly that’s no way for a horse to act.”

“It’s worse with our other creatures,” Cornelia continued.

“How’s that, are they sick?” asked August.

“No, but they have no food to eat.”

Cornelia knows all there is to know about that little farm of theirs and she has a care for the whole. Well, but how could anything escape her? For here she was born and here she has grown up and this is her world and her life. “There’s nothing for them to eat in the pasture,” she says. “And that’s because of the sheep.”

“Ay,” says her father. “It’s all because of the sheep.”

“For the sheep, they gnaw right down to the soil itself and there’s nothing left for the cattle. I could cry over it. Soon we won’t be getting a drop of milk from a single one of our cows.”

August hears this and August has a keen old head on his shoulders. “Hm!” he says and is prepared to say more. . . .

“No, that’s so,” replies Tobias, his own head as empty as ever. “There’s no forage for the cows in the pasture any more.”

August is no longer able to hold himself in. “Well, why don’t you send those sheep of yours up the mountain where it’s green?” he suggests.

At which Tobias merely smiles a wan smile. “No,” he says. “I know of no one else who is doing that. So we’ll have to keep the flock down here.”

“How many sheep in your flock?” asks August.

Cornelia counts up both sheep and lambs. “Eight,” she reports.

“Do you want to sell them?”

“Sell them?” Tobias asks. “What’s that? Do we want to sell them?”

“I’ll buy that flock of yours,” says August. “I’ll keep them up in the mountains.”

Cornelia smiles with a wet mouth; she almost drools with amazement. Her mother halts the spinning wheel and looks from one face to another. “Why, we can’t sell our sheep,” she says. “For then we’d have no wool.”

“You can have back the wool,” says August.

More speechless amazement.

“Ay, you can have all the wool back. But you’ll have to feed the sheep over the winter from October to May when I bring them down from the mountain. I’ll pay you for the winter’s feeding.”

Heavens, what dealing in sheep! Much sharp thinking there in the room. At length Tobias comes out with a weighty decision. “That depends upon what you’re to give, doesn’t it?” he asks.

August is on the point of answering: “No, that depends upon how much you will take.” However, he catches himself in time and says: “Let me hear your price. I know my own.”

Tobias thought for a long time, cast eyes in the direction of his wife, cast eyes in the direction of Cornelia and at length made mention of a price. Possibly this was not what might be termed a religious price, a price guided by Scriptural reference, but as a matter of fact, the evangelist had now left town and the baptisms below the falls were now nought but a matter of history. And how truly difficult it was for Tobias to decide on a price which was bloody enough to suit him and one which would at the same time sound reasonable to this Baptist brother of his! “Say twenty-six or — seven kroner — what do you say to that?” asked Tobias. “I don’t remember what the price was last year or the years before that.”

August merely nodded his head. He was such a mighty figure, no limit to the things he could command — hey there, a skipper at last! However, he must not allow the affair to slip through his fingers without a touch of impressive pomp and ceremony. “I say, Cornelia, I suppose you have ink and pen and a bit of paper about?” he asked, as though he were about to take title to an ocean or two.

He sat down to write and it was silly to attempt to engage him in conversation while he was writing, for he refused to answer a word.

The room was dark with doubt. What was the man up to? What was he writing for? Was he thinking of buying on credit . . .?

Oh, they were such simple-minded souls, they had never seen a magnate or a president in action before. They did not know, as he, how the important business of the world was transacted. Nor, in truth, did they realize that he was making out a little contract with Tobias so that no one could ever say he had made the family a gift.

August wrote until he was finished and then he said: “Now, Tobias, if you will be good enough to sign this document, you may have your money!”

A bomb! Tobias could merely stammer humbly that he was no great hand at writing. However, he did manage to scribble down his name. “If only you can make that out!” he says.

August hauls out his wallet — not until this moment has he made a single move in the direction of that wallet of his. And as a wallet, it was a miracle and one of the seven wonders of the world! It was stuffed full and literally bursting with bills of large denomination. A flurry of excitement there in the room now. August takes stock of the effect, notices that Cornelia has audibly caught her breath —“Ah!” she said. And there in the window peers a face, the face of a certain lad.

August lays three hundred-kroner bills on the table.

Tobias, utterly at a loss, fumbles about his clothes, goes through all his empty pockets and —“I can’t give back change on anything as big as that,” he says.

August waves the suggestion aside with a toss of the head. “That suits me quite all right. I’ll owe you something for winter feeding.”

The face in the window disappeared and in a moment the lad Hendrik entered the room. “Don’t mind me!” he said.

The family was deeply vexed at his arrival. Tobias immediately hid the bills which lay on the table. No, no one ought to sell sheep in front of an open window, for there came Hendrik now butting in on things, even though he was baptised and really ought to know better. Wonder what business he had inside? Cornelia must have felt like showing him the door, so deeply was she annoyed by his presence. For Hendrik was by no means her sweetheart at this particular time.

Poor Hendrik, he must have observed the enmity expressed on every hand, but he was courageous enough to utter a question. “How many loads of hay did you get in today?” he asked.

No one answered him. Cornelia retired into her own room and her mother resumed her spinning.

“We only got in four loads up at our place,” he said to keep from collapsing with sheer embarrassment.

It was August who came to his rescue; he did not feel they had treated the boy kindly. And what if he had stood there in the window and seen that pocketbook of his? It was an object worth seeing. Furthermore, Cornelia might have sat there and uttered a few more gasps of amazement, instead of indifferently walking off to her room. He made sure that her door stood open, then turned to Hendrik and asked: “How many sheep in the flock up at your place?”

“Sheep?” Hendrik counted them up. “Oh, there might be ten or twelve. Are you buying sheep?”

“Yes,” said August. “I’m buying sheep.”

This gave Hendrik something to think about. “Well, we’d certainly like to sell. How much are you giving?”

“I’m paying seven-and-twenty kroner per head for sheep, lambs and wethers,” August notified him.

Hendrik nearly jumped out of his skin; never before in his life had he heard of such an autumn price for sheep. It looked like the hand of Providence, like a gift from on high. “Will you be kind enough to wait while I run home and get my father?” he asked.

August nodded.

And there came Cornelia out of her room. She was followed by her brother. “Hurry up now, Mattis!” she said and pushed him out through the front door.

“What’s this? Where’s he going?” asked her mother.

“He’s going on an errand to North Parish for me. You know,” said Cornelia.

“An errand about what?”

Signs of great suffering dwelt in the lines of Tobias’ face and his wife halted her spinning wheel to peer at him uneasily. What, couldn’t this little stroke of business of his be transacted without others also benefiting by it and coming in on the same bloody price for sheep? Fie, on such luck as he had!

“What are you thinking of?” asked Tobias bitterly. “Are you giving twenty-seven kroner to every Tom, Dick and Harry you meet?”

“That is my price today,” answered August.

Oh, how glorious it felt to be a magnate again, to hold human destinies in the hollow of his hand! He had not thought of buying up sheep, the devil and all if he had! Sheep were neither a silver mine nor a herd of hundreds of thousands of steers! Couldn’t be mentioned in the same breath! But as neither a pleasure yacht nor a ranch in Bolivia had been offered for sale here and now, he had been forced to content himself with a simple transaction in sheep.

But he was August, wasn’t he? And there he was, his mind immediately ablaze with all manner of plans and ideas. He would, out of common civility, have a talk with Consul Gordon Tidemand and, in any event, secure his permission to use the mountain pasture lands for his sheep, and after that he would buy up sheep all over the countryside. They would be as fat as butter by fall, and he would get Jørn Mathildesen and his wife to shepherd the flocks. He would not slaughter when autumn came; instead, he would breed them, breed them year after year — why, there was forage for at least ten thousand sheep back up there in the mountains! In time he would build huge shelters for his flocks and buy up six or seven miles of moorland on which to raise winter fodder. Paulina surely could have no objections to an enterprise of such a nature — she was fond of animals, she had creatures of her own. Oh Lord, what wouldn’t he have in the way of sheep and wool and mutton. . . .

Look, there come Hendrik and his father down the road at a run! Tobias and his wife are obliged to laugh sarcastically at their haste and even Cornelia feels called upon to indulge in a witticism. “They’re running for their lives!” she remarks. Yes, an unusually clever girl in many ways, she was, that Cornelia.

Hendrik and his father stand puffing for breath in the room and, out of common decency, Tobias is compelled to say to his neighbour: “Take and sit down, why don’t you!”

“No, I don’t want to sit down. Ay, so I suppose you got in all your hay, Tobias —?”

August interrupted at once. “How many sheep have you got to sell?”

This was coming at the man a mite too abruptly. A man of the old school, it was his way to begin things with a bit of a cosy chat. “Ay, so they tell me you’re buying up sheep,” he says. “And now I hear that —”

“How many sheep do you want to sell?”

“Twelve, big and little,” said the man, with a respectful bow.

August to Cornelia: “Have you a little more paper?”

“No,” she replied. “Things are so slow with us, we haven’t any more.”

“Hm!” said August. “I say, Hendrik, you might run into town after all those books and ledgers of mine.”

Hendrik, ready on the instant.

“But you’d never be able to find them!”— August hauled a ring containing eight large keys from his trousers pocket. “No,” he said, “you’d never be able to find them in all those trunks and safes of mine.”

“My, such a lot of keys!” exclaimed the boy.

August: “But, as a matter of fact, I never travel with more than four at a time, for I don’t want to seem to exaggerate.”

Cornelia might possibly enjoy hearing the number of his safe combination?

He solved the problem of paper by writing on the back of Tobias’ contract: same price, same terms covering the winter feeding from October to May, figures such and such. Sign here! Here’s your money! Finished! Not a single superfluous word.

The man appeared to be somewhat embarrassed. “Am I to have all that?” he asked. “No, that can’t really be your meaning?”

August replied that if he had paid him too much, the difference could be applied against his bill for winter feeding. Unfortunately, he had brought no small change with him. “And now, Cornelia,” he said, “I’d like you to come out with me and have a look at the horse. I’d like to examine it.”

Too bad how things went; he had sought this little moment alone with her right there in the full hearing of four pairs of ears. Instead of taking the hint, the entire household and the neighbour lad and his father banded themselves together into a body and followed the pair out of the house. In vain he kept stalling for time; round and round the mare he walked, carefully scrutinizing the creature’s dung and several times succeeded in getting her to stand on two legs, but that Satan’s own gallery of people, though they must have been decidedly hungry after a long day of arduous toil, they refused to budge from the spot.

August was at length forced to conclude his examination. “It occurred to me that she might have had tetheritis and colic,” he said. “And if so, I could have got rid of it for her in a very few minutes.”

The neighbour man was more than willing to look up to this wealthy gentleman. “Oh, could you so?” he asked. “Ay, that’s what it means to be one who is something, right up on things and all that!”

“It would be simply a question of stabbing her,” said August.

“But it certainly isn’t wind that ails her,” said Cornelia.

“No, that’s just what I say,” August answered.

“And I don’t know what else can ail her except that she’s shy and ferocious.”

“Well, isn’t that enough!”

All laughed and the neighbour man agreed that what August had said was true, so true. For really wasn’t it enough that a horse should be shy and ferocious? Why, there was a thing he’d insist upon until he laid him down and died!

August consulted his watch. “It’s getting on toward evening,” he said. “I’ll examine the horse more thoroughly the next time, Cornelia. Today I haven’t the time.”

But just as they were returning to the house a cyclist turned into the yard with Mattis sitting on behind. It was Benjamin from North Parish, dripping wet with sweat. Cornelia immediately went into the house.

“Is that you so far from home!” said Tobias.

“That’s how it looks,” said Benjamin.

Now Benjamin had acquired no wealth direct from the underworld folk, but he had earned so blessed much money during the summer that he had been able to buy himself a bicycle and other things besides. And in this he was well ahead of the lad Hendrik, who had neither a bicycle nor any immediate likelihood of acquiring one.

Benjamin nodded familiarly to August and even offered to shake hands with him. But August the garage-builder and August the foreman of road construction was by no means the August who stood there today, so today the proffered hand of such a mere nonentity was thoroughly ignored.

All stepped into the house.

“I hear you’re buying sheep?” asked Benjamin.

“That happens to be my office and my profession,” answered August.

“Well, my father has sheep he’d like to sell you.”

“Very well, then let your father come to me.”

“Ay — but he just asked me to see you for him.”

“Have you a power of attorney in writing?” asked August.

“Not in writing, I don’t, but —”

“It’s that Benjamin who’s to have the farm and all that,” explained Tobias.

“Good for him,” said August, tersely.

He was terse for the very good reason that he had been cheated out of his little tête-à-tête with Cornelia, and he was terse because the day was drawing to a close and he felt both hungry and tired out but, above all, because Cornelia had just appeared in the door of her room a bit cleaner than she had been before and with a silver heart on a chain about her neck.

“Oh, so we can’t do business together, then?” asked Benjamin, pleasantly.

“No,” said August, glancing again at his watch.

“You aren’t going to play favourites, are you?” asked Cornelia from the bedroom door. That devil of a Cornelia, if she didn’t know what she was about!

“You can’t tell what I’ll do,” answered August. “Seven-and-twenty kroner is my price today, but when I’ve looked over the prices abroad and read all the telegrams back home waiting for me, it may be that tomorrow I’ll be offering only twenty.”

“No,” said Cornelia, stepping up close to him. “No, you certainly won’t make a difference between that Benjamin and that Hendrik, I’m sure you won’t do that!”

And here perhaps, in spite of everything, he might have given in, for again her eyes were large with pleading, and that silver heart on a chain, it was really no better than trash and certainly not a heart of gold — He might have said: “Good, I’ll take those sheep of yours, Benjamin. How many are there?” But the truth was, he lacked sufficient money, and were he to ask for one day’s credit no one would believe him rich. For more than eight head he could not have paid in cash and it might be that Benjamin had twelve.

He glanced at his watch again, rose to his feet and said: “I have an important meeting!” Then, turning to Benjamin, he continued: “Come with that father of yours to my residence there in the Consul’s house tomorrow morning at eleven o’clock! How many sheep have you got to sell?”

“Seven.”

He was saved. He sat down again, but his mood was peevish and he spat out the words: “Seven sheep! It’s hardly worth bothering your father about a number as small as that! I’ve seen as many as thirty thousand sheep in one flock, and here you come pestering folk with talk about a mere seven! Furthermore, I have a very important meeting. And we haven’t any more paper for a contract, either.”

Cornelia came with paper. “Here! I just found we had exactly one sheet left!” she said.

A devil of a young one, that Cornelia, worth her weight in gold to any one who had her!

Whilst August sat there writing, the others were simply not to jabber amongst themselves about their haying operations; he promptly shut them up by saying: “Look here, do you want me to write up this document or don’t you?”

Two hundred-kroner bills made their appearance.

“Haven’t we coffee for those as come to visit us?” asked Tobias.

“Ay, but we’ve only brown sugar,” said his wife.

August rose, tore his watch from his pocket for the tenth time, said good-night and left. It was Tobias who followed him out — no one else, not even Cornelia. August thought that she might at least have seen him to the door!

“There was something I wanted to talk to you about,” said Tobias. “I wonder if you’d be good enough to take a look in here in the shed?”

August poked his head into the shed and asked: “Well, what is there for me to see in here?”

“That skin rug hanging over there! I was wondering if you’d like to buy it?”

“No,” said August.

“No, I suppose that’s too much to expect. But it’s a good rug and the last one to lie down under it was that evangelist who baptised you. You’d be able to sell it to some one else right off.”

August shook his head.

“You’re buying up sheep, so I thought that you could buy an extra fine skin rug from me. But that’s too much to expect. And so I don’t suppose you have need for a single thing that I own, for I’ve hardly a thing to my name. I’m so badly off I don’t know what to do. And then when the widow Solmund was to get help from a cinema show, what they call it, and when they came to my house here and told me to buy tickets to help her, there were three kroner thrown away. And then there are always so many expenses —”

August looked at his watch.

“No, I don’t want to hold you back,” said Tobias, “and it’s a pity and all to be asking you straight out, but that neighbour of mine, here he gets four hundred kroner out of you and all I got was three. And it’s not that I envy him for that —”

“He had four sheep more than you.”

“Ay, but excuse me, if he didn’t get a whole hundred more than I got! And all the time it was me he could thank for it, for it was me you came to first. And so I was thinking if I could get the money for the winter feeding —”

“No,” said August, starting for home.

“Well — No no, it’s too much to expect,” admitted Tobias and kept pace with him. “It’s altogether too much to expect. But if as you’d lend me a helping hand and save me from going under, I’d give you a document on this house of mine what they call a mortgage. What do you say to that?”

August suddenly asked: “What did that Cornelia send a message to that Benjamin for?”

“What? Benjamin? How so?”

“She sent out her brother to get him.”

“Ay,” said Tobias. “Now what ever did she do that for! Forgive me my sins, but if there isn’t something up between her and that lad Benjamin! There he’s just given her an ornament to hang around her neck and he’s a fine and prosperous man for her to have and that’s as clear as day. He’s to have what his father leaves, so it won’t be for Cornelia to worry about anything here in this life. Ay, you heard it with your own ears, they only sold seven sheep, so that leaves them at least two ewes with their lambs and a ram to keep for breeding, so it’s terrible how much they own of everything there is to have. No, you don’t have to worry about that Cornelia, if that’s what you meant, for she’ll be well taken care of, and that you can believe. And now they’ll be married the first chance they get, so I’ve heard.”

August looked at his watch.

“Ay, so what do you say to that business I asked you about? Brand-new house with doors and windows and everything else you can think of.”

“I don’t want that house of yours,” said August.

“I’m so up against it,” said Tobias. “And if only you could let me have a few miserable kroner —”

“Go see that son-in-law of yours, that Benjamin, if he’s all the fellow you say!” said August, to end all talk. And thus had he handled himself like a man, like a true captain. . . .

Now that he had become a person of wealth and importance, now that he could cut a glamourous figure, it seemed that Cornelia would be lost. Lost — wholly lost? That all depended. They had yet to see him in all his glory. It would be a triumph for him to show them a thing or two about wholesale trading in sheep, about the meaning of financial omnipotence. He now had twenty-seven head; on the morrow Jørn Mathildesen would gather them together and drive them up in the mountains. August had heard the legend about one whose name was Coldevin and later another whose name was Willatz Holmsen, both of whom had maintained flocks at graze in the mountains. Here was no idle dream, no wild caprice to bring smiles to the faces of folk; on the contrary here was a mighty enterprise in the making — he would buy a thousand animals to begin with, perhaps he would even open an office in town. . . .

Suddenly, as he was rounding a sharp curve in the road, he found Aase standing there in his path. Now August before and August today were not one and the same person and it was his thought to stalk straight past her without offering a word of greeting.

“Well,” said she. “I see you’ve put on some airs!”

August kept on walking.

“You’ve been out to her place again, I see.”

At this August turned and said: “What’s that to you?”

“Nothing. But remember I’ve warned you.”

“You and your warnings! What do you think I care about that!”

“Just you wait and see!” cried Aase. “A Friday child and dung is all you are!”

“Say, what the devil do you mean by standing there in the middle of the road calling people names!” exclaimed August and took a couple of steps in her direction. “I’m man enough to see that you’re arrested any day I like.”

“Hahaha!” laughed Aase. But here was no true laughter; she did not laugh, she merely uttered the syllables.

At length August continued: “I’ve heard a number of things about you, you monster. You go around spitting bad luck on folks’ doorsteps, you scared a man’s horse so that both got drowned in the river and you scratched out one of the doctor’s eyes. But it’s not me that’s afraid of you, and when the proper time for it comes, I’ll turn you over to the authorities and see that you’re put behind bars. Mark my words!”

So much for Aase.

He straightened his back there on the road, made himself tall and bold. Benjamin, with no more than seven sheep, had actually bested him — it was laughable, downright idiotic! Well, they didn’t know him yet, they thought he was buying skin rugs, whereas he was really in the market for ten thousand sheep. . . .

He hummed to himself as he walked along; inwardly he sang a great song — by their leave, they would have to find out about him, those creatures who crept on the earth!

Coming to the first tiny huts by the sea, a great wave of tender pity swept over him. He was so rich and powerful; he could leave nine hundred kroner behind him in Tobias’ house, he could fling fifty in the face of the widow Solmund, but what could others do! Here before him stood a cluster of tiny dwellings, all that were left of the old Segelfoss, and within these walls stark poverty surely stalked. Such a shy and miserable little community of human beings lived here; each time before, as he had approached this section of town, he had seen these primitive creatures sneak indoors where they hovered until he had passed.

Some children were playing out in the road and were too intent upon their game to notice his approach. Outside one of the houses stood a bare-headed man chopping a boxful of wood; he observed August too late to make an effective escape. August handed a ten-kroner bill to the eldest of the little girls and told her to share it equally with the others. But there she stood without moving, the money clutched in her hand.

“Bless the work!” August said, turning to the man.

The man fumbled about with his hair as though trying to take off his hat, although he was quite bare-headed. “Ay, thanks!” he says.

“Is this your little girl?”

“No.”

The man had light blue eyes, the colour of milk and water, and his face was old and withered. He was fairly well dressed, however.

“Are you a fisherman?” asked August.

“No,” said the man.

“What are you then?”

“A grave-digger.”

“Hm, a grave-digger. Ay, we all of us must die and have a grave!” The devil of a taciturn creature, August must have thought to himself. What is he made of, I wonder? Then —“Is this your house?” he asked.

“Ay,” answered the man. “Such as she is.”

“Do you live alone in it?”

“No.”

It was like pulling teeth to wring a word out of this clod! August sent the little girl to get small change for his bill and waited. Four other children stood about staring at him.

“Are any of these little ones yours?” he asked.

“No. I haven’t any.”

“Lost them?”

“Ay, they’ve left home.”

“Hm, left home, eh? So maybe it’s only you and the wife left now?”

“Ay.”

But when the girl returned with the small change and the children had been given two kroner each to run home with, the old grave-digger suddenly remarked of his own accord: “Just as that Willatz Holmsen would have done!”

“You mean he gave away small change?”

“Ay ay ay ay ay! He gave things away!” answered the man, wagging his head, and bringing fond memories to mind.

“Hm, so you belonged here in Willatz Holmsen’s time?”

“Ay. And after that I went to work for Herr Holmengraa in the mill. But then one day the mill shut down.”

As the moments passed, the man became more communicative; he was no clod, he was merely cowed and broken. And August received an explanation from him which was well worth the ten kroner it had cost him to pause for a chat — he learned the solution of a riddle which had long troubled his mind.

“Ay, I knew him well, the late Holmsen,” said the man, “and he had an only son. I was here the whole time and I never left the place. And that Holmengraa, he was also a good man to work for, and he often gave away coppers to children he met. He himself had a son and a daughter, but they were grown up. And after him there was that Theodore.”

“The Consul’s father?”

“Ay. And a fine man that Theodore was, too. Once he gave me ten kroner. Ay ay, but it wasn’t exactly a gift, either, for it was me as helped him carry two buckets of young fish up to that big lake up yonder in the mountains.”

August pricked up his ears. “The lake? Young fish?”

“Ay, he threw them into the water here and there. It was a Sunday morning, and I mind it well. He was such a speculator, that Theodore, and he had so many good ideas for himself and he even sent south for two buckets of young fish. And when we came down from the mountain, he gave me a ten-kroner bill. It was altogether too much, but it was for good luck, he said.”

“And did the fish grow up there in the lake?” asked August, feeling his way along.

“That I can’t say,” answered the grave-digger. “I was not to mention it to anyone, I was told by that Theodore. Ay, those were the days, and those were the folk here in Segelfoss!” the man rambled on. He was old and withered, perhaps sufficiently cowed by life to wish all men well. He had words of particular praise for the Consul: “Oh, a splendid man toward one and all! We don’t know him, for he never shows himself in this part of town, but he sends out orders on that store of his whenever he wants to help us —”

Many more children had clustered about and August was annoyed with himself that he lacked enough money for them all. He gave them all he had, thrust his last ten-kroner bill into the grave-digger’s hand and departed.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23r/chapter24.html

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