The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Thirty

Everything fell upon August to do.

At eleven o’clock that night, after he had gone to bed, a knock came on his window. He opened the window, saw that it was Postmaster Hagen outside, learned what was up, and, in all haste, threw on his clothes. It was the masons — they had begun knocking out the cellar wall!

Yes, the postmaster had gone for his usual evening walk and had discovered them. He had tried his best to stop them but they had simply referred him to August and, with their sledge-hammers and pickaxes and crowbars, had continued to ruin that beautiful wall, even singing at their work!

That devil’s own crew, they never seemed able to obey orders! To rip out a wall at night when they should have done so between eight and one the following morning!

The postmaster strode rapidly and August, thoroughly embittered, went trotting along at his side. They were out of breath when they arrived.

“Are those my orders!” August bellowed.

The workmen were guiltless, entirely guiltless — hadn’t he mentioned the hours of —? And so they had agreed among themselves to do the job that very night, for there wasn’t anything in the world they wouldn’t do for the druggist. Between eight and one — but why exactly tomorrow morning?

August shook his head and drew the postmaster aside. As a matter of fact, August was enormously pleased with the situation, for he could now, with a perfectly clear conscience, place the blame upon the men — who, in turn, were quite guiltless. However, the postmaster had best not hear too much about those mysterious divisions of the clock.

They glanced down at the ruin; the men had so far progressed with their work that it would be best for them to complete what they were doing. August was beside himself and shook his head. “But you heard with your own ears, didn’t you, Postmaster, that they had gone against my orders?” he was careful to ask.

Yes, the postmaster had gathered as much.

“You’re to lay an extra fine concrete half-deck according to the postmaster’s drawing, is what I told them.”

“Yes, and I don’t see how they could have misunderstood that, do you?” said Hagen. “But what was that talk about eight o’clock and one?”

August cleared this obstacle as though it had been nothing at all: “I told them to set up the scaffolding for the half-deck and be finished with it at one o’clock, when the Herr Postmaster left his office, so that he could make any changes he liked before we poured the cement.”

“Quite right, quite right!” said the postmaster. “But don’t you think — now that they’ve torn out so much — that it would be best for them to keep right on?”

Yes, August agreed, upon reflection, there was no other way out of the situation.

“You must forgive me, then, for having disturbed you tonight!”

August waved this aside: Nothing of the kind! And in a terrifying voice he bellowed at his crew: “All right, lads, go ahead! But you’ll hear from me tomorrow!”

So that business was now out of the way. . . .

In the morning he got hold of the gardener Steffen and together they carted the furniture up to the hunting lodge. The men were already at work up there when August arrived. They had finished with the cellar wall at one o’clock in the morning, had slept five hours — plenty of time for sleeping — and were now busy drilling holes for the new fence, and working away with a will. Ay, boss, the job had gone well and now the druggist would find that wall of his in ruins when he returned home! August did not utter a harsh word to them for having gone against his orders. He knew his men, realized that the more enthusiastic they were about their work, the more likely they were of falling into a slump, and it was urgent that they finish their present job as soon as possible. . . .

Later he met the Consul in his office and again had a splendid interview with his chief.

Again the Consul put up a brave front with him, for this had proven so successful the last time. It so happened that Davidsen had left the bank and that the Consul had himself been obliged to take over the work — that is, take over the bank. Lord how the directors had threatened and coerced him! There was not another man in all Segelfoss to be found for the position and, the bank could not very well remain closed. And of course, there was reason in what they had said. But the Consul had his great business and his traveling salesmen, his British Consulate and Segelfoss Manor, all requiring his personal care and attention — twelve huge ledgers to keep, to say nothing of all the correspondence — and now they had cast a bank into his lap! And the whole mad situation had arisen simply from the fact that August had gone to Davidsen for money. And now August would come running to the Consul for money, would bother the life out of him with requests to draw out more money, would certainly turn up that very day. But the Consul would be as difficult in such matters as Davidsen had been; the Consul too had a conscience and would do his best to protect people from squandering their own money. Out of the question! Not a single øre! He would be firmness personified!

“I say, Altmulig,” he said, “You were the cause of Davidsen’s leaving the bank.”

I was?”

“And consequently the cause of my being forced to take over the bank.”

“That can’t be possible, can it!” August exclaimed. “I didn’t exactly pound on the counter under Davidsen’s nose.”

“I do not know what the affair was between you two and I do not wish to know.”

“All I asked for was a few thousand.”

“Very well,” said the Consul. “And his conscience did not permit him to concede to your request, I understand.”

August thought this over. “If I had known all the trouble that that was going to cause, I’d never have come to that Davidsen for so much as a single øre. For I didn’t have any use for the money, anyway.”

The Consul started. “No use for it, did you say?”

“No. I’ve quit buying sheep. The mountain isn’t big enough to feed another sheep.”

The Consul appeared as a man whose life had just been spared. “Hm. Well well. Yes, every business has its turning point. But you must already own a tremendous number of sheep, I suppose?”

“Mm — no! Only a few thousand. I couldn’t say as to the number before looking over my records.”

“Yes, everything has its turning point,” the Consul mumbled again. “So you have no further use for money, eh?”

“No,” August replied. “Well, that is to say, I’ll probably have to buy up a few farms, but that can wait till next year.”

“You’re going to buy up a few farms, did you say?”

“Farms to grow feed for the animals.”

The Consul’s mind was again thrown into a mad confusion. “Well now, I say! Hm! Plans calling for no small amount of capital!”

August, with a smile: “Oh, I believe I’ll have capital enough. I have various businesses in many foreign lands, you know.”

“I’m glad to hear that!” said the Consul. “I wish you nothing but success! That is splendid! By the way, Altmulig — what I really wished to see you about was a point of advice. Now that I have this bank to manage, I find that something of a problem has arisen. The distance to the bank is too short for motoring and to walk there would be a waste of precious time. Do you think it would be a good plan to move that bank down here?”

August measured the office with his eye. . . .

The Consul hastened to correct the impression: “Oh, I should have to build an addition, of course.”

August nodded at this. “Build right onto this wing here, cut a door through this wall —”

“Exactly,” said the Consul. “What would that cost? How much of an investment would it require?”

August smiled again. “Oh, I imagine the Herr Consul could stand the cost! I could make up a little estimate, if you say so.”

“Do so, Altmulig. Three rooms for the bank itself and two inner offices. Frame building.”

Oh, they were comrade souls in unproductiveness, those two. Build, stir up, twist things around so long as there is a way. . . .

Before departing, August came out with a question. “Does the bank now own its own building?” he asked.

“No, it leases from Skipper Olsen — No, I mustn’t detain you any further now, Altmulig,” said the Consul. “And as for this affair with Davidsen — he is a splendid man and he wishes everyone well. But your money is, of course, your own.”

So much for August. Gordon Tidemand felt relieved.

And the fact that he desired to move the bank was not entirely foolish on his part. It was simply that he did not care to be seen going in and out of that tiny little building which Skipper Olsen had once built to house himself and family — he was accustomed to doors and windows of a different order. But there was another point: once Gordon Tidemand had invested a fair sum of money in a proper bank building, the rent in the future would go to him — he would first protect himself by signing a twenty-year lease with the bank. No, he was not merely a goose, he was also a modern business man. . . .

Then something else happened: cards arrived in the mail, cards addressed to everyone in Segelfoss. Cards? From Gammelmoderen and Druggist Holm. Wedding announcements. They were married!

Everyone up at the Manor immediately threw up their hands and Fru Juliet was so stunned that she was unable to utter a word! But she smiled craftily like one peeping from beneath the handkerchief in the game of blind man’s buff.

Consul Gordon Tidemand did not smile, however. Pardon him, he did not! To go at a thing in such an underhanded manner, to ignore all proper forms, to go behind his back —

“Yes, but Gordon dear,” Fru Juliet objected, “you must be able to appreciate the awkwardness of your mother’s position.”

“My mother! I’m not referring to her, I’m referring to him! Where was the man brought up? He knew very well who the head of the family was and he could have interviewed me at any time.”

“He was probably simply afraid that you would object!”

“And he had grounds for his fear, too. But such a moral coward as to fear a scene! He has behaved in anything but good form and I shall forbid him to enter our home.”

“Yes,” said Fru Juliet.

“You agree with me there, don’t you, Juliet? He has conducted himself in the manner of the cottagers round about. Very well, then, he may live as one of them.”

“I hardly blame you, Gordon,” said Fru Juliet. “But when your mother comes and he is with her, I don’t know —”

“Well I know! If I am at home, you may be certain that I shall show him the door!”

“Good!” said Fru Juliet.

“Nor need you expect me to spare my mother, either. After all it is she who has got us into this.”

Fru Juliet with a smile: “What else could she have done?”

“She could have sent him to me.”

“That might not have been so easy for her. Possibly, she, too, feared your objection to her marriage.”

“She? No! Pardon me, but my mother is not a coward. No, that she is not. She may have her faults — for who is without faults? — but craven and timid? Not she! And don’t you think yourself, Juliet, that the whole thing showed splendid courage on her part?”

“Magnificent courage!”

“Downright reckless courage!” he enthused. “I’d like to see anyone else who would have dared!”

He paced the floor a few times, peeped at his new-born daughter, permitted his finger to be clutched by that tiny hand. “Bless her little heart!” he cooed. “But now I must be off!” he said. “It’s that wretched bank they’ve thrust into my hands now!”

“I trust that it will pay you a handsome salary,” said his wife.

“A few thousand. But it isn’t that. Don’t you see, I shall be taken from my work several hours each day.”

“Oh, but I’m sure you will manage, Gordon!”

“Manage? Of course! But is it your wish to have your husband all worn out before we are seventy?”

“No no! Not that, either!” Fru Juliet replied, and drew his hand down to her cheek.

Before passing through the door on the way out, he turned and said: “I’ve been thinking it over, Juliet, and you’re right when you say that he can not be left standing outside when he comes here with mother. But I shall be cold as ice toward him, that much I still insist upon.”

“Yes,” said Fru Juliet. . . .

At the drugstore the cards were received with dumb amazement. The people there had surely gathered no hint of what was about to take place, and, as a consequence, they would surely do nothing about arranging the apartment until the druggist and his wife had returned — let the newlyweds have a good time arranging things for themselves! Nevertheless, a thing or two seemed to indicate that both the pharmacist and the apprentice had, in truth, known something in advance and that their ignorance was merely feigned, for otherwise what could have possessed them to perform a number of singular tasks the week before? For example, they had gone into the druggist’s bedroom and moved the bed — exactly as though to make room for another bed alongside it, and what the devil business did they have in the druggist’s bedroom? A day passed and then the pharmacist and the apprentice had done another strange thing: they had gone to the Segelfoss Store and bought roller shades for the bedroom windows, conveniences which the druggist had managed to do without during the whole of his sojourn in Segelfoss — splendid, close-fitting roller shades after the apprentice had put them up.

Naturally the maid left at once, that little steam engine! She simply exploded when she heard the news, refused to remain there another day, another hour, and promptly went down to the hotel to ask Vendt for her old place back again. Cornelia’s sister — a regular little steam engine. . . .

When the couple arrived — the bridal couple — all Segelfoss, it seemed, was down on the pier to greet them: the doctor, the pastor, the magistrate, each stood there with his wife. Fru Juliet was not present, for she was not yet strong enough to go out, but the postmaster and the telegraph superintendent and their wives were there, many of the local shopkeepers were there, and August was there. Even August had received a personally addressed announcement and there he stood today, his hat held high in greeting. Turning to one of the small dealers who stood at his side, he remarked: “I knew it right from the beginning! They told me all about it!”

But neither the pharmacist nor the apprentice were present; they had probably stayed away to emphasize their indignation over the fact that they had not been taken into the secret. And as for the couple themselves, doubtless they had hoped that none might come to meet them; in any event, the druggist was doing his best to look shy and flustered.

At length Consul Gordon Tidemand put in his routine appearance. His steps were more hasty than usual this day, however; he had probably been curious to know the cause of this general foregathering of the local populace, and, quite unwittingly he suddenly found himself in the very midst of the common herd. As was to be expected, when he made out the centre of attraction, he wished himself dead and buried; however, as he was in for it, he simply smiled and said: “Ah, so here we have the renegades! Welcome home, mother! Good-day, Druggist!” He offered his hand to each, and his mother he even patted on the back. “You must look in on Juliet soon,” he said to her. “She has been rather miserable the past week.”

“Yes, I know,” his mother replied. “I received a wire. But she’s doing fine by this time, I suppose?”

“Yes, splendidly! — You received a wire, did you say? Then she knew where you were all the time —?”

“Good-day, Altmulig!” she said to change the subject. “You were here when we went away and you’re here again when we return!”

August was holding his hat in his hand; he did not offer his congratulations as did the others, he merely bowed and was silent.

They put an end to things and left. Arriving at the drugstore, the couple discovered the pharmacist and the apprentice standing outside to receive them, though their faces were as sour as could be. And at this the druggist and his wife had their first hearty laugh since leaving to be married. The pharmacist acted as spokesman and gave utterance to the displeasure he felt — hm! — his well-founded anger over the fact that neither he nor his younger colleague had been deemed worthy to receive the glad tidings in advance of the entire town. And now nothing is in readiness for the master and mistress — the pharmacist and his colleague were in no mood to get themselves up in their Sunday best, precious stones and all. But step in, Herr Druggist, if you please — your house is just as you left it — a table and a chair and a single bed. And she, too, if it please her — Fru Druggist Holm may step right in! But the maid — that little steam engine of ours — she has gone her way, never to return, so there isn’t a thing to eat in the house. The pharmacist and his colleague have eaten nothing since day before yesterday — though, to be sure, the apprentice has been drinking the whole time and has not been sober a single moment of the day, and that is why he is still unable to utter a word, but the pharmacist himself, he has not touched so much as a drop. So welcome home beneath the druggist’s wretched roof which leaks both rain and sun. And, fair mistress, if it is food that she craves, it will have to be the hotel!

But the couple — bride and groom! — had not the slightest desire to dine at the hotel; the bride searched through kitchen and pantry and brought forth divers delicate morsels of repast, the apprentice jumped on his wheel and went to the store after the articles needed and the result was a splendid feast.

After dinner, they strolled about the apartment, but as the rooms were small and few in number, their stroll consisted of simply stepping from the living room into the bedroom. On the threshold the druggist halted with a start: “What’s this I see? Roller shades?” he exclaimed.

“The ones that have been here right along,” the pharmacist replied. “We haven’t touched a thing.”

“The devil you say!” Holm replied. “And two beds?” he remarked. “I say, are you trying to convey the impression to my wife that the girl used to sleep in here with me?”

“No, we had to move her bed in here yesterday for her room was leaking so badly, you see. And we haven’t yet found time to move it out again.”

And thus was the situation saved.

August’s only duty now was to superintend the workmen, to see that they persevered and that they did not indulge in too frequent conferences with the druggist. But things turned out as he had anticipated: the enthusiasm of the men gradually wore itself out, they continued boring holes, but in a more and more listless manner, and they broke their agreement in regard to overtime.

The Consul himself drove up to the lodge to supervise the placing of the furniture. Singular that not even the first fence had as yet been erected, he mused with a shake of his head. But August was still hopeful and explained that they were boring all the holes to begin with in order to cement all the pickets in place at one time. The work was progressing at a fair rate, he asserted.

Two days later the Consul appeared again, this time truly agitated. If worst came to worst, they must erect what they had ready of the fence, he said. August promptly handed him the estimate he had prepared covering the construction of an addition to the Consulate. He had figured on two types of building: frame and concrete. Naturally concrete would be more in keeping with the spirit of a bank. They continued to discuss the matter for a time, but the Consul refused to allow himself to be talked out of his mental agitation and he was dejected indeed when he drove away. . . .

“There’s a man missing here,” said August. “Where is he?”

“Down at the shop edging drills.”

“During working hours? Say, you’re to take your drills with you when you quit, edge them during the evening on your own time and bring them back when you start work in the morning, you hear!”

Silence.

“Oh, it’s so troublesome to keep on here,” said Boldemand, acting as spokesman for the crew. “We’re tired and bored with the job. Hole after hole we drill and all we ever see is holes, holes, holes!”

“That’s your own fault for not finishing up the job long ago,” said August.

No answer to this statement. But the men showed clearly that they could do about as they pleased and that they intended to make a long-drawn-out affair of it. They were without competitors and they had no sense of honour. . . . And now the druggist had been after them to put in that new cellar wall of his, they said.

“Ay,” August replied. “But not till you’re finished up here!”

Why, how could their boss talk such foolishness? they asked. They could drill holes all winter long, if necessary, but to pour a concrete wall during a frost?

“Hold your jaw, the lot of you!” August shouted. “These fences are going up, do you hear!”

August weighed the matter over in his mind; he would be powerless unless he could shoot. And he would be powerless if he shot. Nevertheless, it would be a distinct pleasure for him to discharge that revolver of his a time or two.

Then suddenly the situation is altered and the effect is felt all round. The Consul arrives on the scene with the pleasing news that the Englishman has gone to Svalbard and that he will not arrive in Segelfoss for several more weeks at least.

All well and good — they were saved! But the mistake was that the Consul uttered this information in the hearing of the men. Ho, then they would have all the time in the world! They finished out that day, but on the day following they bored no holes. No, on the day following they bored no holes! August found them busy erecting scaffoldings for the druggist’s cellar wall.

The druggist was in a panic of alarm, for the Consul had recently become something of a near relative of his, as a matter of fact, his stepson. “The men came and knocked on my door last evening,” he said, “and told me they were now idle. ‘Good,’ I replied. ‘The wall three feet further in. Begin right away, I’m in a hurry!’ I said.”

“What’s your hurry?” asked August.

“Well —” said the druggist, somewhat flustered. “No, I don’t suppose there’s really any need for haste. But we just wanted to have the foundation finished before snowfall — that is, the house. And I already have a motorship on the way north with all the materials and carpenters on board. But no matter, the men are simply not to begin work on our little house before you are ready to let them go.”

August thought the matter over. If the materials and carpenters were already on their way north, it was in truth high time the cellar wall was poured in order to give it a chance to set. And after all, he was of a mind to help this newly married couple — both bride and groom, dashed if he wasn’t.

“We must see how we can fix it for both of us,” he said.

“If a way can be found, we shall indeed be grateful to you,” the druggist replied.

And thus began a period of constant worry and unrest for August. Once the men had begun pouring cement, they would have to keep on pouring till the job was finished. And at this point a fresh problem arose — the conduit between brook and cellar. But the devil and all if it wasn’t this very project, this work of art, which came to interest August most. It likewise fascinated the men and in the meantime no holes were bored. He was frightened each evening upon returning home to his room, but each morning found him with renewed courage to neglect the matter of the fences along the road. And thus week after week went by.

During this period it was impossible for him to get hold of Cornelia for an earnest heart-to-heart talk. Each time he came to her home, she would be nowhere about. He was unable to understand how she could have the heart to treat him thus, knowing how fond of her he was. If only to hold her hand, he dreamed — such a pathetic little hand, she had, the fingers so rough about the nails. It touched him to think about those poor little under-nourished hands of hers. He frequently found himself in South Parish, each time on a matter of urgent business. For example, he was obliged to report to Hendrik that the Englishman had stopped off at Svalbard and again, for example, he was obliged to report to Hendrik how long the Englishman would remain in Svalbard. At no time, however, was he able to locate Cornelia.

“Where the devil is she keeping herself?” he inquired of Hendrik.

“She’s hiding from me, as well,” Hendrik replied.

“What’s she doing that for?”

“I wish I knew. Unless she’s doubting that I’m really to have that job with the Englishman.”

“Did she say anything about that?”

“Ay, when she heard he wasn’t coming.”

August was annoyed. “You can tell her from me that when I say a thing it’s so!”

But it was shortly after this that the great tragedy occurred. No further messages for Cornelia. No more business trips to South Parish. No, in a flash all that was over. . . .

Hendrik came running to him. He was not even on his bicycle; instead he came afoot, running, senselessly, without a cap on his head.

“She’s dead!” he sobbed.

“Dead?”

“Cornelia!”

Silence.

“Isn’t that a lie?” August asked.

Hendrik did his best to explain: They had gone with the mare that morning, both she and her father. The mare was in heat and wild — she had kicked and snapped at them and danced round and round in the road as they were leading her. But they had started down the road with her, none the less. They were bound for a stallion in the neighbouring parish. They had come to the river dividing this parish from the next and had been on the point of crossing to the other side. But the mare had refused and had danced round and round. There were two there to hold the horse but Cornelia had tumbled headlong and it was then the mare had kicked her. And that had killed her. Ay, she had been kicked squarely on the temple and she had died of it. A single kick. . . .

Silence.

Her father had run to fetch water in his hat. He imagined that she had fainted. But no, she was dead. . . .

Silence.

He had run to fetch water several times, but she had never once opened her eyes again. He had screamed for help, but this was far away by the river which divided the two parishes, and he couldn’t get her to open her eyes again and she wasn’t even breathing any more. . . .

Silence.

“Were you with them?” August asked, at length.

“Me? No. Oh no. Her father came carrying her home. And that Mattis, he borrowed my bicycle and rode off to get the doctor, but that didn’t do any good.”

August was at this late moment quick with expedients. “What did the doctor say? Did he bleed her?”

“I don’t know. He said she was dead.”

“Didn’t he bleed her?”

“I don’t know,” said Hendrik. “I didn’t go inside. But when he came out he said that she was dead. And then he rode off on his motorcycle.”

August recalled an episode from his travels abroad: a murderous blow on the temple with a bottle. The man was dead, but anyway they had opened one of his veins. August received Hendrik’s news cold-bloodedly — he offered but scant comment and showed no visible signs of emotion. “Ay,” he said. “I always used to bleed them and I told that Cornelia not to go with the mare.”

“I heard you tell her,” said Hendrik.

“I made my mistake when I didn’t shoot that beast,” said August. “I could have done another thing — I could have stabbed her for colic. But that wasn’t what ailed her and that wouldn’t have done her any good. No, I should have shot her.”

Hendrik was silent.

Was August a stoic who refused to reveal his true heart in public? Or was it his lightness of mind, his essential shallowness which were helping him to bear the catastrophe? Both, perhaps. Cornelia was dead; August was never to have her now. His jealousy, however, was certainly relieved by the knowledge that neither was any one else to have her.

“Well, there’s no help for it now,” he said.

Hendrik was weeping and was having a hard time of it to conceal the fact; he cleared his throat with a series of brutal hawks, and now and then he would toss his head back to show how plucky he was.

“No, Hendrik, there’s nothing we can about it now,” August said gently.

“No. But kicked to death by a horse — it’s so sad I can’t seem to get over it.”

“No,” said August, absently.

Hendrik wagged his head. “And everything would have been so nice,” he said, “if only both of us could have been left to live.”

“Hm,” said August, indifferently.

“Ay, we had an understanding, she and I, the last time we were together.”

“There were probably several others she had the same understanding with,” August hinted.

“What’s that?” asked Hendrik quickly. “The only other one was that Benjamin. But she told me she thought a whole lot more of me than she did of him.”

August, hurt and provoked at having been left out of the running: “That Benjamin was not the only other one and that much I happen to know —! Well, I’ve too much to do to stand here talking with you,” he said and strode off.

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