The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Three

When the seiners returned empty-handed, the chief’s only words were: “Better luck next time!” He was not one to hang his head, he could take things like a man.

They settled accounts in his private office, one crew at a time, each headed by its own boss. In the days of Theodore paa Bua, it had been the custom for the seine-boss to render a colourful report of his expedition. Theodore would sit there on his high swivel-stool, completely absorbed, nodding or shaking his head from time to time, and firing back many a question.

Not so now.

“No, we didn’t make out so well this time,” says the seine-boss.

The chief offers nothing in reply, merely continues his calculations.

“But I don’t see as how we could do more than what we did.”

The chief continues to figure.

The seine-boss essays further conversation: “Or what do you think yourself?”

The chief lays aside his pen and replies: “What do I think myself? We were unlucky. That’s all there is to be said about it. Better luck next time!”

And thus it went with the second seine-boss and his crew — not a superfluous word from the chief. No, he was quite unlike his father who had sat there before him and chatted away with his seiners. Grand to the point of appearing somewhat ludicrous Theodore paa Bua had been, but a thorough man of the people, and downright kind and helpful when flattered into it. Here today sits his son on the same swivel-stool and is no more than civil and matter-of-fact, his an air which holds him aloof from his people.

Well, after all, what was there to be said about those luckless expeditions? What was there about them to warrant an elaborate verbal exchange? He had laid out provisions and a few weeks’ pay for two crews, but that was nothing to upset him. On the contrary, folk might well say of him: “See, there is a man who is able to stand the loss!” Besides, how could he expect good fortune from the very start? No seine in existence is a pot of gold each year. And what difference did it make if the Segelfoss News did publish a notice calling attention to the fact that both crews had returned home empty-handed? . . .

Gordon spoke to his mother. “What do you say to a little party?” he asked.

“What kind?”

“A few people in town, a bit of wine and something to eat?”

“I think you’re mad!” laughed his mother. “You’ve made no fortune in herring, have you?”

“That’s just the point,” her son replied.

Oh that Gordon! His style of thought seemed so alien to his mother, so incomprehensible to the widow of Theodore paa Bua, so utterly outlandish! She herself would have done everything in her power to compensate her loss, would have scrimped and saved every penny she could in order to come out even in the end. But to such old-fashioned ideas her son simply shook his head.

“Come, let’s go have a talk with Juliet about it!” he said.

The dinner party proved something of a fizzle.

Gordon Tidemand and his wife had held no grand receptions in their home in the past. After christenings, they had merely entertained the godparents and the pastor and his wife at dinner. This time, however, invitations had been scattered far and wide and many were the guests who arrived at the house. But of good cheer there was a conspicuous lack. What could the matter be? Though the gentlemen were not in evening dress, the ladies had attired themselves in their choicest finery. Moreover, the beautiful Fru Lund was there. She, the doctor’s wife, was in the habit of never going anywhere but on this occasion she had made an exception. And there was enough to eat and the bottles were full of good wine and the maids wore starched white aprons as they went about serving the guests, but these seemed not enough. Dinner was served in the room of golden flowers, champagne appeared on the table, the host made a speech, the district judge made a speech, but there seemed no joy or gusto in anything. Oddly enough, Gordon Tidemand was himself in no way stiff or formal; he played his part admirably and his wife, Juliet, was the perfect hostess. Nor did the pastor put a damper on the spirits of the party; to the contrary, he was the most jovial person present. Was it Herr Holm, the druggist, then, who charmingly or otherwise, was forever cutting up and again was quite himself?

He had been in high spirits upon arriving at the party. Not only had he found something tasty in his own cellar before starting out, he had also stopped in at the hotel on his way. Holm was a bachelor, as was his fellow-Bergenser, the hotel proprietor, and the pair were seen often together.

But what difference should it have made so far as the present dinner party was concerned if Druggist Holm had been in high feather when he arrived? He was no bourgeois. He had been placed next to Gammelmoderen at table and that possibly had been a mistake, for they appeared to be waxing more and more confidential as the dinner progressed.

The pastor made no great shakes about his reverence; he was human just like the rest and frightfully poor in the bargain; his shoes were in wretched condition, his clothes all frayed and mended, but his cheeks were plump and he had a charming head of grey hair. He knew how to take a joke and was the recipient of more than one sly dig. His jovial round face would break into a thousand wrinkles when he laughed and this had inspired Lawyer Pettersen to utter the one bon mot of his life when he called the pastor “Lohengrin.”

“Pettersen clever?” asked the druggist when he heard of the attempted pun. “In the first place it isn’t clever, but if it is, then he must have read it some place!”

Lawyer Pettersen’s head was too small for his gangling body and when the pastor heard his own new nick-name he merely remarked: “Why — that buttonhead!” Nor was this attempted repartee exactly a flash of scintillant wit, but as an appellation it was apt and it stuck to its man.

To be sure, Pastor Ole Landsen was anything but an inspiring preacher and his sermons were ill-attended more often than not. People seemed to prefer the prayer-meetings held in the cottages round about by various itinerant evangelists, but this fact never once aroused the local pastor to ire. “People are rather silly, I believe,” was all he ever said. “It’s cosier to sit right in church now that we’ve got us a stove.”

His wife was a charming little woman, still pretty, still girlish, ready to blush on the slightest provocation. Her face and her personality were strongly dove-like. She was quiet and retiring in manner, but she had a pair of bright little eyes which never missed a thing.

“Sit still, Druggist!” says Gammelmoderen to her dinner partner.

“All right, then still it shall be!”

“Haha, for otherwise I shall have to change my place.”

“If you do, I shall change mine, too!”

The pastor’s wife blushes.

The district judge tells of the inquiry he has held in regard to Tobias’ fire. “It was like pulling teeth to get anything definite out of them,” he says. “They simply sat there scared out of their wits lest they say too much. What they did say was so much foolishness. Here is an example of my questions and the answers I received — it is the daughter I am now examining in an effort to determine the condition in which she found her father when she discovered the fire.

“I am as friendly as can be when I put the following question: ‘How did you find your father when you came to tell him of the fire?’

“‘He was asleep,’ she replies.

“‘In the bedroom?’

“‘Yes.’

“‘Was he undressed? Hadn’t he just been out for a walk?’

“‘No.’

“‘How did you know your father was asleep?’

“‘He was gasping.’

“‘By that do you mean he was snoring?’

“At this she grows red and is certain I am trying to trip her up. Therefore she holds fast to her statement that her father was gasping — and furthermore that he was asleep. I was obliged to drop it right there. The fact is, they had agreed upon what they were to say, but when it came time for them to utter their explanations they got all tangled up. Now the father must have been lying there awake as he had just come in from a walk, but that is not the same thing as to say that he had himself set fire to the house. She was a pretty little girl, too; she had such a pleading way about her. I confess, I felt sorry for her.”

“Her sister is in service with me,” says the druggist. “And what a regular little steam engine she is! She has us all right by the ears.”

General laughter. “Where did you get hold of her?” some one asks.

“Hm? — oh, she was working over at the hotel and had learned a bit of cooking there. I got her from the proprietor. She’s a wonder, though, the witch!”

Gammelmoderen: “Poor Druggist. Did he have his ears pulled all out of shape!”

“That’s right. And she’s a free-thinker, too!”

“Free-thinker?”

“She laughs at people who go to prayer-meetings. She refuses to have anything at all to do with them.”

“My, what you must go through!” smiles Gammelmoderen, her cheeks sweetly flushed with the wine she has drunk.

And at this point the druggist must have inadvertently come in some sort of contact with her under the table, for she suddenly starts up, then settles back in her chair with a sigh of: “Ah!”

The judge continues: “Many times it is a sad duty to be obliged to examine poor people. It is cowardly, I know, but as a rule I allow my clerk to do it. He can conduct an investigation with less trouble to his finer nature — he is from Trondhjem.”

Lawyer Pettersen adjusts his spectacles and smilingly assures the party that during his term as magistrate’s clerk he, too, had many times found it difficult to do his duty when this consisted of taking over the duties of the magistrate, even though he himself was also from Trondhjem.

“Poor fellow!” exclaimed the druggist without a sign of self-restraint.

All at the table smiled, and even the lawyer himself smiled good-naturedly.

“I suspect it is more or less embarrassing for all of us to go snooping into other people’s affairs,” says the pastor, “but that is no reason why we should turn aside from our duty.”

The lawyer: “Yes, there really is something to be said about you clergymen. When I think of the harangues you are in the habit of delivering over a grave — why wouldn’t it be in better taste simply to come out with a bit of straightforward talk?”

The pastor: “Addressed to the dead?”

“I mean instead of singing the praises of the dead, of literally bragging about the dead.”

“Hm-hm,” says the pastor. “Yes, of course it is possible that we do tend to make too much of it. But, don’t you see, since the dead can no longer hear us, it is our task to console as best we may those left behind. What sense would there be in calling a corpse to time? Let the dead man answer for himself in the place where he has gone! To attempt to reckon accounts with him on earth would be an insult to Almighty God.”

The lawyer: “Console those left behind? Even when they are inwardly rejoicing over this very death? I am referring in particular to the disgusting tommyrot shouted over the coffins of dead officials. That’s one thing you clergymen ought to cut out.”

The pastor, in a quiet voice: “There is certainly something in what you say. But with a little experience in such matters, I doubt you would find them so obscure. A man and wife may have lived together like cat and dog, but the moment one of them dies, the other immediately comes to me with a bosom filled with praise and blessings for the departed and begs me to say something fine.”

“Ugh, are we really like that!” exclaims the magistrate’s wife. “I mean, we human beings. I mean, are we as loathsome as that?”

The pastor: “There is really nothing loathsome about that, my good lady. It is of some significance to the children, in any event, that nice things are said at the graves of their parents. Put yourself in the place of the children, if the very opposite were to take place.”

“I would sign a release for all that!” put in the magistrate.

“But you have no children, have you?” the druggist shot back.

“No! No!” exclaimed several of the ladies in unison. “The pastor is right!”

Fru Juliet, with a wry smile: “Just think, Gordon, that’s the way it will be with us: a splendid eulogy simply for the sake of our children, regardless of whether or not we deserve the kind things that are said of us!”

“Right, Juliet! Skoal!”

The doctor’s wife addresses her husband across the table: “Where do you suppose those boys of ours are now?”

The doctor: “Oh you and those boys of ours!”

“Yes, I am a bit uneasy,” she smiles helplessly. And her face is so pretty and her teeth so white.

“They are probably down at the sloop again climbing about in the rigging,” he teases.

“Boys usually know pretty well how to look out for themselves,” says the magistrate.

The doctor agrees at once: “Yes, isn’t it true? But my wife is unable to let them out of her sight.”

Gammelmoderen is seen to leave the table, her hand fumbling a bit with the arm of her chair. No one seems to notice her, but the pastor’s wife blushes red as fire.

Fru Juliet turns to the doctor’s wife and attempts to reassure her: “All you have to do is telephone home and inquire about the boys.”

Coffee and liqueurs were served in the large reception hall, but the affair seemed no more festive than it had before. Gordon Tidemand was disappointed: the devil with trying to provide elaborate dinner-parties for unappreciative people! There each one sat, uttered his few miserable words and then fell silent. No one seemed impressed. He would never invite them again.

With the arrival of the whiskey there were slight signs of life; conversation was resumed, the men rose partially to the occasion, but not a word was uttered concerning the most important of details: this feast at the old palace, this reception in the grand manner, the antique silver, the entertainment itself. Even the doctor who himself had come of a grand home and ought therefore to have understood a thing or two, even he behaved as though the affair were not much of anything.

What did not occur to Gordon Tidemand was that his party was in truth little else, neither one thing nor another, simply a hodge-podge of this and that, from the excellent food and the large variety of wine to the pompous but tasteless interior furnishings. The present occupants of the Manor were simply squatters, the golden flowers on the wall had danced for a finer breed. Gordon Tidemand did not swagger like a peasant, he made no obnoxious parade, but all that he knew he had acquired from his betters, including his modesty. Fru Juliet had been born something more of an aristocrat and whatever she might have lacked in this regard was immediately compensated by her own great natural charm. Now what about Doctor Lund? He was the district doctor, a government official, thus, and not one of your aggressive little medicos setting up practice in a city and doing his best to ruin business for his older colleagues. If it were true that he had originally come of an important family, all that was but a vague memory in his mind by now, and the steady grind of making sick calls had proven anything but a refining influence. He had acquired his wife in a little place up north called Polden. She was of the common people and her name was Esther. She knew nothing of the finer things of life but she was well-equipped with the primitive wisdom of her class, was furthermore a thing of beauty from top to toe, exquisite to look at, though she was already the mother of two husky youngsters. When she rose to leave for the telephone, there was no one in the room whose eyes had failed to follow her.

The postmaster’s wife, Fru Hagen began to play upon the quaint little clavicord which Gordon had picked up abroad and shipped home along with his odd assortment of other antiques. It was his custom to apologize for this instrument, though he had always been careful to add: “But Mozart knew nothing better.” The postmaster’s lady was a small light-haired creature, thin, somewhat pug-nosed, probably in her late twenties. She was nearsighted and she would throw back her head and cross her eyes whenever she attempted to look someone in the face. She played a few lovely things and, when asked, added an encore or two, concluding with a dainty minuet.

Gordon Tidemand: “You seem to be able to get more music out of that contraption than was ever put into it.”

“This contraption is good enough for me,” she replied as she rose. “And see how lovely it is! Just look at the harp, see the beautiful inlay work!”

“Did I hear that you have studied in Berlin?”

“Yes, for a short time.”

“For a long time,” corrects her husband, the postmaster.

“But I really accomplished very little.”

“Oh yes, you did!” affirmed the druggist from where he was sitting.

“Fru Hagen has pupils here. She gives lessons,” explains Fru Juliet.

“Just a few pupils,” admits Fru Hagen, forever putting herself down.

The postmaster declares: “She took singing at first, but then she lost her voice.”

“Oh! And did she never get it back?”

“No. It was during a fire. She was rescued through a window and caught cold.”

“Possibly I never had much voice to lose,” she says with a smile. With that she turns to the druggist and asks: “Haven’t you your guitar with you?”

“Don’t you dare try and bring me out when you’re around!” he replies.

“But I’ve heard you before.”

“Yes. Under excusable circumstances.”

“Hm!” the lawyer puts in tartly.

“Keep still, Lawyer!”

“Hahaha! I’ve never been refused a word in a case before!”

“No — really?”

“Well, I believe I won the case to which you are referring, didn’t I?”

Holm: “Winning cases! So the laws of Norway permit even lawyers to earn their bread!”

The magistrate sits chuckling good-naturedly at this duel of words between two opponents forever on each other’s necks. Then, as the doctor’s wife has just returned to the room, he turns to her and asks: “Well, Fru Lund, and were the boys aloft on the sloop?”

“They are out fishing.”

“Yes, those boys never fail to find some new means of risking their lives!” the doctor remarks to tease his wife.

“We are in mortal danger wherever we are,” cites the lawyer’s wife who is religious.

“Yes, but my husband never seems to think anything is dangerous where my boys are concerned,” remarks Fru Lund.

The doctor wags his head: “There, you see? I never count for anything any more — it’s only her boys these days!”

“Hahaha!”

“Moreover,” says the doctor, “cold feet with her are at once synonymous with fever and headache. In any event death seems imminent.”

“Ugh!” someone groans. “Death!”

“Yes, that’s one thing not one of us can escape,” remarks Lawyer Pettersen with the air of a sage. “And it’s so natural, too.”

The doctor: “So natural, did you say? I know an old man of ninety who is about to die. But that’s the one thing he’s dead set against doing. His appearance is truly frightful, but he simply will not give up. Medicine, fomentations, food! He is so hideous, so emaciated and so downright filthy that one dreads so much as to touch him, but there he lies, for all eyes to gaze upon. An animal creeps off by itself to die.”

The pastor: “Yes, but a human being, Doctor!”

“Well, what is there delicate or refined about a human being, now that you seek the comparison? We have reason enough ourselves to hide. In appearance the human being is enough to make one groan — longish, fattish, unaesthetic bodies, patches of hair here and there, protruding knuckles and flabby flesh, a basketful of odd materials thrown carelessly together to form the most grotesque figure on the face of the globe. Anything beautiful about that, seen objectively?”

“Yes, Fru Lund is beautiful!” Druggist Holm blurts out in a high-pitched voice.

A moment’s stillness, then laughter from all corners of the room. Oh that druggist, that druggist! But Fru Lund was at a loss and the pastor’s wife sat there blushing.

The doctor continues his discourse: “Now turn and look at a bird, take just a common everyday wood-grouse. What a lovely creature she is, what graceful lines and curves, the colour of every known metal in her feathers. Or look upon any flower you choose. A miracle from root to blossom. But a human being?”

“This is only one of those things you have gone speculating about in order to cultivate a knowing attitude,” the pastor gaily remarks.

The lawyer ventures a further learned comment: “But it is man who has been created in God’s image!”

The doctor, somewhat more meekly: “It may be that I was a bit too harsh in my judgment. But I have gained an impression or two from having visited the sick and sat by many a death-bed, impressions which might cause you to hold your nose. Would you like to hear an example? — Once I was called upon to shave a certain corpse. It was a friend of mine who had died, so I decided against calling in outside help. He had been in life a person of so-called refinement. In any event, there was nothing grand about him as he lay there stretched out in death. Well, I lathered his face and started in. He had worn his face cleanshaven, so I had quite some work ahead of me. It went fine while I was shaving his cheeks, but when I came to his upper lip, it seemed that my razor must have pulled, for he groaned. I do not exaggerate — the razor pulled a bit and he groaned. The sound probably came from the skin stretched taut beneath the razor slipping back into place. Well, I got past the upper lip at length, but the worst part still lay before me, the throat, the Adam’s apple. This involved an awkward unnatural position for one who was not used to shaving another — it was necessary for me to bend far forward with the upper part of my body, whilst manipulating the razor. Well, I must have inadvertently placed my left hand upon the chest of the corpse and leaned my weight upon it for an instant. But that was enough. The chest sank beneath my weight and the corpse exhaled a long breath — Good Lord in Heaven, I received that sudden puff of rank air full in the face! It was not my habit to faint, but, believe me, I immediately sank down into a chair behind me. The air from those dead lungs had been killing, an unearthly stink impossible for anyone to imagine!”

The gentlemen were outwardly calm, but they were finding it difficult to restrain their laughter. “So you weren’t able to finish shaving the corpse?” one of them asked.

“Oh yes, I came to, a little later in the afternoon.”

The pastor: “But what were you trying to —? I don’t believe I quite understand —”

“That was your human being!” said the doctor.

The pastor thought this over. “No, it was not,” he said at length. “That was the remains of a human being, the cadaver.”

The chief telegraphist was obliged to go on duty and departed. He had done nothing to shine at the party, had merely sat comfortably smoking. He was a bibliophile and as there was not a single book to be seen in the room, he had had nothing to talk about. His wife remained at the party.

The glasses were changed and tokay was then served. Tokay! Could not even this raise the party from the level of the commonplace? It was, to be sure, a rare old wine from abroad, but no one seemed to take any particular notice of it.

“Skoal, Fru Hagen!” toasted Gordon Tidemand. “I believe you will recognize this wine?”

“I once tasted it in Vienna,” replied the postmaster’s wife.

“Of course. In Austria and Hungary it is tokay one drinks after dinner — in England it is port.”

“Well, in Norway it is whisky and soda,” observed the druggist, swallowing his wine in one gulp.

Laughter —“Yes, in Norway one drinks whiskeys and soda! Many of them.”

“But in France — what would it be in France?”

“Champagne. One continues with champagne.”

“I’ve never tasted this particular wine before,” says the pastor and spells through what is written on the label: “‘Tokay-Zsdaly.’ Splendid, isn’t it?” he adds and smacks his lips.

But as the tokay remained practically untouched in the glasses, Fru Juliet rang for champagne and assorted fruits: apples, grapes and figs! Why, heavens and earth! everyone must certainly have thought to themselves, and the host was able at last to recognize a faint glimmer of the emotion he had striven to arouse in his guests. But the sensation soon passed over, and the party settled back into its deadly mood. What a boring affair! thought Gordon Tidemand bitterly. I’ll never invite them again! Never!

The magistrate glanced at the clock as a suggestion that it might possibly be time to break up, but he immediately decided he could equal his host and hostess in powers of endurance and remained seated where he was. Fru Juliet had the children brought in and showed them off to the group — by way of interlude, that too. Exclamations and the usual amazement, honeyed words, cootchy-cootchy — but there was so much cigar smoke there in the room, the little ones soon began to cough. It was Gammelmoderen who had brought in the children and it was she who led them away. She seemed as good as ever, all fresh and smiling.

“It’s a pity you have no children, Lawyer,” says the druggist.

“Children? How could I ever support them?”

“Poor chap!”

The magistrate now looks at the clock in earnest and rises. Fru Juliet meets him half-way. “What’s the hurry?” she asks, persuasively. “It is so pleasant to have you here.”

“Ah yes, my good lady, but the time has really come.”

All rise, extend their hands, give thanks, and thanks. The druggist was himself to the end. “Strange people to be leaving a treat like this. Now just look at that bottle of champagne, Lawyer! There it stands perishing in its bath of ice with no one to come to its rescue!”

Gordon Tidemand could on longer restrain himself. “No, let’s not try to hold them, Juliet. It is we who are to offer thanks to them for having had the kindness to come and look in on us!”

There was nothing to be said to this. Genuflection seemed really in order!

Later he remarked to his wife: “That was a rotten idea of mine. Did you ever in your life see such people! You can bet, I’ll never repeat this affair!”

Fru Juliet: “Sh, Gordon!”

“Oh, you’re always so ready to excuse!”

“They’ll remember, you’ll see,” she said.

“Do you think so? But they acted as though they had known of such things before.”

“They couldn’t very well say anything while they were here.”

“They didn’t have to say anything. But damned if they oughtn’t to have demonstrated an occasional sign of enthusiasm. Over the tokay, at least?”

Fru Juliet voiced her opinion that it had really been a splendid party, the guests both pleased and pleasing. The druggist had been in high feather and witty indeed, the postmaster’s wife was captivating.

“Yes, she too has been out in the world,” said Gordon Tidemand. “But the others? No, we shall never have them again. Eh, Juliet? Not by a damned sight!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23r/chapter3.html

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