The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Twenty-Six

It turned out exactly as August had predicted; Alexander, in a few days, was buying up sheep at the rate of a hundred a day, and the flock on the mountain was already beginning to assume enormous proportions. The rainy season set in and there was fresh grass for the creatures to munch; they throve and grew fat, their fleeces became rich and silky, and no accidents occurred.

Then there was a brief interruption of purchasing activities; Alexander was obliged to take in some salmon, as he was, first of all, the Consul’s man. He was nevertheless reluctant to abandon his new profession, earning as he was a splendid daily wage as the result of his diligence and cunning and well provided with funds from August at the beginning of each day. Alexander therefore spent two days at his nets and in the smokehouse, and by that time he had his cases of smoked salmon ready for shipment and lost no time getting back to his sheep-buying.

August was pleased with developments; his flocks were ever increasing and each evening the Gypsy Alexander would come to him with an honest accounting of the day’s expenditures, no question about that. Could anything better be hoped for! August was again on the upward path in life, but this time in grand style and as a man of wealth. Money was at his disposal, thousands upon thousands, and a joy it was to see how that business of his was developing! Yes, he would keep on buying sheep till he came to the end of his rope. It was as though he could find no peace or rest until he had put his money into something, into some wild speculation, the turn of a wheel. Had not chance led him to buy up sheep, chance would have led him to buy up something else. Success, and he smiles with Dame Fortune, failure and he has no time to brood, for in the long run it means turnover and activity, the very life blood of world trade, foreign exchange and banking — it is the spirit of the age we live in, it is life itself.

And now he had got his name in the paper; that splendid fellow, Davidsen, had written about him in the Segelfoss News. . . . Davidsen had one day suddenly found himself a banker and in good faith he would perform his new duties, but first and foremost he was a journalist, the editor of that tiny well-meaning paper of his. He wrote glowingly of August — this humane and expert individual who had both the will and the means to spread good amongst people and animals. The country districts comprising a wide area were deeply indebted to August for having opened up enormous mountain pasture lands for smaller livestock, and so on. . . .

Over night August had become a man of importance in the community; the people had taken to greeting him on the street whether they knew him or not, and public respect for him had grown apace. As he became accustomed to the feelings of wealth, he curbed his taste for shrieking personal embellishment, abandoned his red shirts for those of classic white, and cast aside his multi-coloured belt with its huge nickel buckle. Otherwise, he was the old August and could never change.

His acquaintance from past nights at the card table, the Anabaptist merchant in town who dealt in Russian Bibles — this fellow made a point to greet him with extravagant respect and one day had the gall to seek to borrow some money from him. August should have it back at the end of three months, plus interest, he promised.

“I have no money to loan out,” said August. “I use my money!” And with that, he strode off.

But the merchant strode off with him. That wretched baptism, its magic had long since ceased to be effective, so far as he was concerned, his customers had quit coming to that little shop of his and had gone back to other dealers who had not even got themselves totally immersed.

“Ay, there you see,” said August. “Isn’t it just what I told you, that such kind of baptising is the worst kind of swinishness in matters too holy to trifle with!”

Yes, the merchant agreed with him, but now everything had gone so awry with him — wife, children, local taxes, a bill for nails and rope and soft soap — that it didn’t look as though he would ever be able to pull himself out of the hole.

August had nothing to spare for this worthless fellow who on his very first visit to his room had attempted to sneak off with a brand-new deck of cards. But, of course, in the end he helped him, pulled him out of the hole, though much in the manner of a mighty British sea captain tossing from his own plenty a ten-pound note to some impoverished sailor.

On the other hand, when Boldemand came to him for help, he got it man to man. The navvy Boldemand had come to his old boss and explained that he was afraid he was being cheated by Lawyer Pettersen.

How was that?

It seemed that Boldemand and his fellow-workmen had been busy excavating and cementing a cellar for Buttonhead’s new house and had already come a great way with the foundation walls. And then if the lawyer hadn’t come to them and demanded that the whole plan be changed —!

“Well, but after all isn’t that his business?” August asked.

“Ay, but here he wants as we shall rip out the walls and put in new ones all for the one price!” said Boldemand.

“No, that won’t go at all!” August decided.

He went at once to the lawyer and demanded an explanation. From what he could gather from the statements made by the lawyer, the masons had been working without a blue print, merely from the spoken word, and the whole thing had been a mistake.

“Didn’t you have a written contract between you?” August asked.

“No.”

“But didn’t you go there yourself every day to see what the masons were doing?”

“Yes, but what good did that do?” the lawyer returned. “My wife was after them all the time to divide the basement off into a food cellar and a laundry and an oven to boil the clothes on and all sorts of other things —”

“All necessary parts to a man’s house!”

“Yes, but I won’t have them!” cried the lawyer. “This place isn’t to be a man’s house — it’s to be a building!”

August stared with open mouth. The lawyer’s face had taken on such a weird expression; through the glass of his spectacles his eyes were staring wildly.

“I can’t seem to make out your meaning,” said August.

The lawyer explained emphatically: “It’s simple to understand — I want this place for a bank. Yes. A bank building. All I need is a small fireproof space in the cellar for the money. What do I want with an oven?”

“Oh, so that’s it!” said August, now utterly at a loss.

“Yes. And I won’t have a food closet and food to smear up the money. I’ll get an injunction! I simply won’t give in!”

August saw no reason why he should continue to listen to the ravings of a madman and, with that, he rose to leave. The lawyer, however, restrained him. “I’ve been reading about you in the paper,” he says. “You are a man with an enormous fortune and with a brilliant head on your shoulders. Listen to me now for a moment: here on my land I’m putting up an all-stone building and will take in money for safe keeping and investment. This will be the solidest private bank in all Nordland and will drive the Segelfoss Savings Bank out of existence inside of a few months. Even the tower will be of stone. Give this matter your most serious consideration and deposit your funds with me if only ten thousand or so at a time!”

“I suppose I might be able to,” said August, partially yielding to flattery.

“Yes, do so! Rely upon me in the beginning! And you can have a written contract, too, if you like. Sit down again for a moment!” said the lawyer and began pawing about on his desk in search of the proper form to fill out.

But it was not August’s desire to bind himself that day; at the time there was his sheep ranch. “I’ll think it over,” he said. “But if you’re of a mind to draw up a contract between yourself and those masons of yours, that’s another matter.”

“Masons!” fumed the lawyer. “They’re to do what I tell them!”

No mistake, the man was out of his head.

August would have to advise Boldemand and his fellows to lay off work for a time. “Here, lads, here’s a bit of change to tide you over in the meantime!”

“Good Lord, boss! You don’t mean that, do you?”

“What, my old workmen I’ve been through thick and thin with!” said August, touched. “You’ll never have to suffer for anything as long as I am here in Segelfoss.”

He stepped into the bank and withdrew some more of his money. Things were grand indeed with him, amazing — all should see to what a colossal extent his enterprise in sheep was developing.

Today Davidsen was alone in the bank, and that kind Davidsen, he granted himself the privilege of letting fall a hint — he uttered a wee tiny warning — not by direct word, merely by a certain inflection of the voice. Now the Consul would never have done a thing like that.

It had come out when August, jocularly and facetiously, had said: “I suppose you’re thinking it’s a deal of money I’m drawing out this time, eh?”

No, Davidsen had not offered jest for jest, had not laughed and assured him that there was plenty left where this had come from, that it was still a long way to the bottom, that even Vanderbilt had been unable to use up all his millions before he died. No, Davidsen, with a trace of sorry concern on his face, had merely said: “After all, it’s your money!” Now the Consul would never have said a thing like that.

August straightened up at once and asked: “Isn’t the Consul here any more?”

“No, unfortunately,” Davidsen answered. “No, I’m alone now. But I won’t be here for long. The responsibility is too great for me, and the first time I find I have made a mistake, I’ll pick up my hat and leave.”

“You don’t suppose you have made a mistake by giving me these few thousand, do you?” asked August sarcastically.

“Oh no, oh no!” returned Davidsen. But, to be on the safe side, he glanced once more into the bank-book and said: “No, this is quite all right.”

As though the Consul would have permitted himself so hostile a gesture.

“I’ll have a word with the Consul,” said August and left the bank.

He called at once upon Gordon Tidemand and reported the difficulty which existed between the masons and Lawyer Pettersen. It seemed that the lawyer was trying to get them to work for him without pay. What would the Herr Consul advise them to do in this matter, if the Herr Consul would pardon him for asking?

The Consul waited a time before answering. “That is a matter I know very little about, or to be exact, nothing at all. But I imagine that the magistrate might be able to do something in regard to it. It surely appears that Pettersen’s brain has begun to be affected. He’s written me several times about buying up all my outstanding claims, but I’ve never even bothered to answer him. And then a day or two ago he came himself to call on me here in my office and with him he brought a chair to sit on!”

August could never permit himself to laugh in the Consul’s presence. Therefore, he held strictly to the question before them and said: “He tells me he’s decided to build him a bank instead of a home, and now he wants that the workmen shall tear out the entire cellar wall without paying them for the work they’ve already done.”

The Consul glanced at his watch. “I’ve still time to see the judge today. Would you care to come along with me?”

It was a good thing that August was no longer conspicuously attired. He might even have passed for a consul himself as he sat there in the car beside Gordon Tidemand, what with his silk-lined coat, the corner of a white handkerchief peeping from his breast pocket, a white collar about his neck, and on his head a bowler fashionably worn. All he lacked was a pair of yellow gloves.

They discussed the problem with the magistrate. No, the way of the law was long and tortuous — summons and complaint, answer and trial, judgment and appeal, further proceedings and possibly further appeal. Endless hocus-pocus. No, the law was out of the question in a case involving poor workmen like these, but it might be possible to do something in a private way. “Neither the Consul nor I should be able to get anywhere at all with Herr Pettersen,” said the judge. “We’re not exactly on good terms with him after our having kicked him out of the bank. But I wonder if possibly Druggist Holm might not be able to accomplish something in the general direction. The two are old acquaintances and I’ve often observed that though they have bitten and stabbed each other rather severely, they have always remained firm friends. What would you gentlemen say to having a talk with the druggist?”

They drove over to the drugstore, and there they learned a serious piece of news: Fru Pettersen had, the previous day, been to Doctor Lund to ask him to examine her husband, as his brain had been acting queerly of late. “The doctor then came to me,” said the druggist, “and together we went and had a long talk with Pettersen. Of course he is insane, no doubt about it! He showed us about that new place of his and told us he was going to make it over into a bank. The building was to cost him a million and the basement was to be equipped with armour plate! His wife was with us and spent most of her time weeping and praying to God. We both agreed with her that the best thing for her husband would be a trip south and that I should attempt to talk him into it and accompany him, if he were willing to go. Then, if the sea voyage should prove insufficient to pull him out of his condition, I should be obliged to leave him in some sanatorium.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to get him to go on such a trip?” asked the Consul.

“Yes,” said the druggist. “We’ve already decided upon it together. We’ll go south and buy up the armour plate!”

“When do you sail?”

“This evening.”

“It’s a pity about those masons of his. They’ll be out of work now,” said the Consul. “They must find something to do, mustn’t they?”

August: “I told them to quit for a time until we see which way the wind’s blowing.”

“But can they afford to be idle?”

“Ay,” said August.

They drove back to the office. The devil and all if August didn’t feel proud to be motoring about town with the Consul! He himself would touch that new bowler of his each time the Consul acknowledged a greeting. Quite a difference between now and before! August thought to himself.

They stepped out in front of the Consulate.

“From one thing to another, Altmulig,” said the Consul. “Do you recall my telling you that a certain English gentleman would visit me during the hunting season? Fine. And do you remember as well that I requested you to think up some special way in which I might entertain him?”

“I’ve been giving that a good bit of thought,” said August. “When is the lord coming?”

“He’s salmon fishing up in Finmark now, but the season for that will soon be closed. He’ll come at that time.”

“There’s trout in the lake up the mountain,” said August.

“Really? Trout?”

“So you could do some fishing, anyway. Fly fishing.”

It took the Consul a moment or two to realize the full import of the discovery August had made in the interest of British sport. “Trout in that mountain lake?” he asked stupidly.

“Fine big trout. I’ve been seeing them there for some time now.”

“Trout in the mountain lake and no one knew about them?” puzzled the Consul. “How in the world did they get there? Not even a salmon could leap the Segelfoss!”

August explained the situation: the Consul’s father had stocked the lake with trout many long years ago, had imported two buckets of younglings and released them there in the lake, had created life in dead waters and had kept still about it —

“How do you know about that?”

“I have talked,” said August, “with the man your father had along to help him.”

The Consul was too much of a gentleman to explode with emotion, but he was certainly on the point of clasping his hands in ecstasy. They discussed the matter in further detail: wouldn’t it likewise be closed season for trout?

But August was a man of many resources: in the first place the season for rod fishing for trout was a month longer than the season for netting salmon in sea and river —

“Yes, and that’s all the time we need!” exclaimed the Consul. “He won’t be with us a full month. He’ll be here two weeks at the most. After that, he’s due back home. But you said ‘in the first place’—?”

“Ay, and in the second place,” continued August, “the fish in the lake are not sea trout. They didn’t go up from the sea, so fishing for them can never be forbidden.”

“No no. Of course not. My, wasn’t he a remarkable man, that father of mine!”

“Ay, that’s just what the old grave-digger told me. A studious and thoughtful man, he said.”

“But to think that no one ever knew anything about it!” marveled the Consul.

“That helper of his told me that he himself promised your father to keep quiet about it,” said August. “It had to be a secret to keep folk from going up there and fishing out the lake before the trout had time to grow up.”

“Yes, yes, of course! A splendid precaution. And I must have been abroad at the time and father forgot to write me about it. He had so many matters to take care of. He was burgomaster and everything under the sun in those days, you know.”

“We must see about taking some kind of a row boat up there to the lake,” said August.

“Yes, see to that, will you, Altmulig? If we haven’t a proper boat here on the place, you may order one in my name.”

Marvelous what money could do for a man, even where his attitude toward himself was concerned. Here he was, discussing a certain problem with the Consul almost on equal terms. And the Consul was no longer addressing him as a servant, he was now quite innocently saying “De“ to him. August’s bankbook was probably the key to the situation, that and his genteel clothes. And here today, though he was still respectful to his betters, though he still subjected himself to the strictest of self-discipline, he no longer put himself down, no longer crossed himself on the slightest provocation, and he even ventured to say, regarding to the boat: “The one on the sloop would do.”

The Consul seemed startled. “But then the sloop would not be complete, in the event we had use for her, would she?”

“That sloop —” said August slowly —“If that sloop was mine, I believe I’d get rid of her. Pardon me for mentioning such a thing!”

“Get rid of her? You would?”

“A vessel like that — you see, you need wind to get out with her, and by the time there’s wind enough to move her, it may be too late to go where you’re hoping to go with her. All vessels of that size these days have engines to drive them along — just like that motor boat of yours.”

“Yes,” said the Consul, thoughtfully.

“It’s nothing to have a sloop like that lying here waiting for a herring call,” August continued. “The sea is always full of small steamers and motor craft which can answer a call in a few hours, while a sloop like this simply lies over waiting for a breeze.”

“Yes,” said the Consul. “What you say is no doubt correct, Altmulig, and I’ll have to give the problem some thought. What would a motor craft cost?”

“All depends upon the size. Perhaps you could even fit out the sloop with an engine of some kind. How old is she?”

“I really couldn’t say. She’s been here as long as I can remember.”

No, as a matter of fact, Consul Gordon Tidemand knew very little about sloops — his province was banking and exchange and business administration. Perhaps he didn’t even know why he kept that ancient vessel of his lying there in the harbour. No, but he could speak to his mother about it.

He glanced at his watch and asked: “Where are you off to? Home?”

“Ay, to begin with.”

“All right, jump in again and we can drive home together. I’d like to tell the ladies about the trout up there in the lake. How are things with you these days, Altmulig?”

“Fine, and thanks for the asking.”

“I can’t tell you how it pleases me to hear that! And, as you say, we might as well take that boat from the sloop.”

Alexander was waiting for additional capital before setting out on his next expedition. Very well, there was August with a pocket full of money. How much?

Alexander explained himself in some detail: he would have to penetrate far into the neighbouring parishes this time — it would hardly be worth while to call at the farms close by the town and scrape the bottom for sheep. He would be gone several days, would gather up an enormous flock all at one time, a whole drove —

“Very well? How much?”

“Four thousand,” said Alexander. “Unless you think that’s too much.”

“Blueberries for me!” said August.

August was not opposed to having his purchasing agent think in large terms whilst operating in his name. A whole drove of sheep and lambs added to those he already had at graze in the mountains would round out the first thousand. Business was looking up.

When Alexander was receiving the money, he said: “Now, you needn’t expect me home for the first few days.”

August waved him aside. He had other things to do than to wait around for the Gypsy to return; he had altogether too many important matters to attend to. The most important of these arose from the fact that he had not as yet seen Cornelia to forbid her to go with the mare. This duty demanded his immediate attention, for how easily misfortune might result from his neglect. He would never be able to forgive himself.

As it had begun to drizzle, he stepped into the Segelfoss Store and purchased an umbrella. Then, as he could afford to cut something of a figure and appear as a person of luxury, he looked grandly at his umbrella and said offhandedly: “I say, give me another of these things!” And with two umbrellas in his hand and the newspaper article about him in his pocket, he set out for South Parish.

No one rushed out of Tobias’ house to receive him. This time proved no exception to the rule. All right as for that, he was the man he was, a man whom folk greeted when they saw him, a man who filled the columns of newspapers. He set down his umbrellas and stepped inside the house.

“Peace!” he said, in greeting.

“Thanks. Find yourself a chair.”

August went at it immediately; he forbade Cornelia to go with the mare, said he would not take the responsibility.

Her astonishment knew no bounds and she looked with mouth agape at her parents.

“Ay, ’tis no small responsibility,” echoed Tobias.

“And I don’t want you to be kicked or bitten to death,” continued August. “Hey there, Mattis, how did you like that new instrument of yours?”

“He’s playing it night and day,” his father answered for the lad. “Ay, but that was a grand gift you gave him!”

“And I offered that Cornelia an even grander gift, but she said no to it,” August declared.

Her mother looked at her severely and said: “Cornelia, you ought to be ashamed!”

“You can all take and let me alone!” exclaimed Cornelia and flounced down on a chair to card some wool.

August fell to talking about one thing and another; he was in a position to do so now, he could afford to be tolerant of the actions of a mere petulant girl. “Ay, so now I suppose there’s forage for the cattle after the rain?”

“Ay,” answered Tobias’ wife. “Ay, now we’ve milk from the cows.”

“I’m mindful to show you this,” said August handing Cornelia the newspaper he had in his pocket. “What do you say to this?”

But it seemed she had read the article; Benjamin from North Parish had brought her a copy to show her. Disappointed, August returned the paper to his pocket and said: “Oh well, it wasn’t anything anyway!”

“Oh yes, ’twas so!” contradicted Tobias and wagged his head long and lustily to show how deeply he had been impressed. “A man they write about in the papers and all that!” And with that Tobias left the house.

In a few moments he was followed by his wife.

“You mustn’t always go out like that, mother!” Cornelia called after her. “I’m not going to change what I said!”

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” her mother whispered back at her and disappeared.

“What won’t you change that you said?” August asked.

No answer.

He kept after her. “Have you thought over what I said to you the last time, Cornelia?” he asked.

“What was that?”

“Oh, so you don’t even remember it! I told you I wanted to marry you.”

“You must be crazy!” she said. “Ugh! And you so old!”

A blow in the solar plexus! August had the wind knocked out of him. When at last he was able to speak, he said: “I’m no older than a good many others. And besides, things are so with me that I could dress you in velvet and pearls!”

Oh, but this ill-timed swagger of his produced not the slightest effect upon her; she had heard it all before. Nor did it do anything to stiffen his own spirit. He was cowed at once and pitiful, his mustache was quivering again, and his eyes were milk and water. “I come here and I come here,” he says weakly, “and I can’t seem to stay at home. What is there for me? At night I can’t sleep and I go over to the window and gaze off into the distance where you are. I can’t stay home when I’m like that and so I come out here. I’m sorry if my talk goes against you!”

“Ay, we’ve been all over that before,” she said.

“What do you mean? Haven’t I had business here every time? Didn’t I come out to look at the horse and buy your sheep and get that Mattis started with a decent instrument and all that? And, after all, I’m not exactly a person you have to feel ashamed of,” he bragged again and spoiled everything. “You can tell them that from me! But you can’t seem to understand that I’m just about half-crazy, but when you grow up and can’t sleep nights, maybe you’ll feel like I do. And then, if you’re still alive, you’ll know what it’s like not to be like you used to be, no appetite and no rest in you like you used to have. Soon I won’t know what to do with myself. But I can be just as young and healthy again as anyone else if only you will have me, Cornelia, and make me like a man again.”

“No, you must keep still about all that. It just can’t be, that’s all.”

“But I’m mindful to try!” he said, disconsolately. “After all we are to each other, you and I—”

“No, what is it we are to each other?”

“Ay, you know — right here in town the first time I met you on the street and you looked at me, I felt the deepest kindness and love for you, deeper than you’ll ever get from anyone else in —”

Cornelia drops her work and leaps to her feet. She would put an end to this scene. But now, when words were no longer capable of expressing his feelings, he caught her in his arms and dragged her down on his lap. He was old but his arms were still sinewy and she had some trouble before she could tear herself free from his grasp and retreat to the middle of the room. Nor did she seem so greatly annoyed by his action; no one could have taken the situation more sweetly. “No, now you mustn’t stay here any longer,” she said.

“You want me to go?”

“Ay, for now I must go out and look to a pot on the stove.”

“You’re showing me out? Will you listen to that, Mattis, that sister of yours is showing me out!”

“No, that’s not what I meant,” she said.

“When I sit here with nothing but love for you and ask you —”

“Ay, but I don’t want you!” said Cornelia. “Now drop it!” she said.

No, she had not meant to show him out exactly, she had merely given him something of an urgent invitation to leave. There was no mistaking her desires in the matter, and, pulling himself together, he began edging toward the door. The bones in his old legs creaked, he took short shuffling steps, he moved like an automaton. He picked up one umbrella from beside the door and left the other standing there. She’ll find it all right, he thought to himself.

The same today again, every day the same, he could not seem to get anywhere with her. But he had discovered one thing, that her parents were working for him, and this at least brought him some joy. God knew whether that Benjamin, poor fellow, was as well off in this respect as he was. August was even inclined to doubt it.

Nevertheless, August would not be in haste to return to South Parish where he might get back into the habit of exaggerating. That was one thing certain. At most, he would return only once more to get her to give him a serious answer to his proposal. She owed him that much, at least.

On the way home he falls to thinking about the boat he is to take up to the lake. He goes aboard the sloop, wanders about in her hold, goes over her, inch by inch, digs into her timbers here and there with his knife to determine her state of decay. She must have been a spanking little craft in her younger days when she was the property of Theodore paa Bua, and in spite of the neglect she had suffered in her old age, she was still a fit vessel for a motor.

He goes up on deck and unlashes the boat.

Whilst he is busy with this task, the south-bound passenger steamer whistles and comes steaming in from the sea. Many folk are waiting on the pier: Druggist Holm and Lawyer Pettersen, bound for a sea voyage south; Doctor Lund, come to see them off, Fru Pettersen standing there weeping her eyes out. Her husband comforts her and explains that he is compelled to make this voyage south for the purpose of procuring some armour plate for his bank vault.

Gammelmoderen is there too and waves gaily to Druggist Holm in spite of the staring multitude. Bless her for the enormous courage she has to live life! In order to spare her reputation, the druggist barely returns her wave. But with that she walks out to the end of the pier and compels him to wave to her. And see how sweetly she smiles!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23r/chapter26.html

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