The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Thirty-Four

Friday.

But life must carry on. . . .

The carpenters working on the druggist’s new house are hammering and sawing and planing away just as they were doing yesterday before death visited the town. The gardener Steffen has at last got together a crew of threshers and the rumble of his machine is heard from one end of the Manor to the other. Boldemand and his fellow-workmen are drilling the last holes; they will be finished by quitting time today and tomorrow they will set up the ironwork. All who have flags in town are flying them at half-mast, but life must carry on. . . . Yes, even the postmaster is keeping his office hours as usual, hoping thus to conquer his grief. What else may the poor fellow do! But it is otherwise with the lord from England; he will not go shooting and making a great noise today, partly because he has been up all night and partly because he feels a trace of respect for the tragedy which has come to Segelfoss.

He encounters Frøken Marna — she has become so much easier to meet, so much more ready with a word since yesterday. He encounters her in the hall just as he is leaving his room after having slept a couple of hours. She seems, in a way, thawed out, her beauty now fresh and luxuriant; why, she might even be thought capable, after all, of coming to England some day. And well she might! She invites him down to late breakfast and, together with Juliet, she listens raptly when he tells of his night on the island and of the finding of the body in the morning. The lord shakes his head and says that sad it was indeed to have listened to the postmaster.

“What did he say?”

“No, not many words. ‘Young person,’ he said, ‘and so musical and merry and happy.’ But she was so nearsighted, he said. She has stumbled — stumbled — and not seen it herself. Frightful! What is it you have on your nose?”

Both ladies start up, clutch at their noses and fail to understand.

He smiles. “No, no!” he says. “What it was she did not have on her nose?”

“Oh — briller?”

“No no —”

Nœseklemme?”

“Ay ay, nœseklemme! Nose glasses! He had begged her to use nose glasses, always, but that she wouldn’t. She had it on a string.”

Marna smiled —“Uf, I thought I had got something on my nose!” she said.

Fru Juliet is unable to refrain from smiling. “I was just on the point of rushing to a mirror!” she smiled.

“Such foolishness as I talk!” said the lord.

No, that he certainly did not! On the contrary, it was a miracle how well he spoke; and the ladies simply couldn’t get over it how much Norwegian he had acquired in the course of no more than two months up in Finmark.

No, nor had he either, said the lord. Ak no, far from it! That came from a day when he had lived twelve years of his childhood in Durban and there he lay aboard Norwegian ships and talked Norwegian both early and late. No, that which he had learned in Finmark was only to brush up his Norwegian from Durban. And even so, he didn’t know today the half part of what he had known then. So he was altogether not a miracle. . . .

Nevertheless, they considered him remarkable for all the things he could say.

On the island yesterday when he had talked with Marna he couldn’t say anything.

Marna slowly flushed.

But he could perhaps have permission to come back in the winter and learn more?

“You’ll always be welcome!” said Fru Juliet and extended him her hand.

He seemed so human, so natural now — something of the Durban harbour lad had returned to the surface, he had lost his English affectation. He made no mention of that cock ptarmigan now, for he was sitting there in a shirt he had slept in and his necktie was down from the collar.

Marna managed to say: “Well, so there’s to be no hunting today, then?”

“Ay, this afternoon,” he replied. That was what he was there for. But that old man was not to get up and drive him. . . .

What, was old man August not to be aroused by afternoon? Why, he was already up and, for that matter, God knew whether he had as much as been in bed. That very moment he was hammering and doing a bit of carpenter work out in the smokehouse, was busy laying a bit of new floor right there inside the door. Life must carry on, even when there was death. That old floor board had served its time and was worn out and squeaked every time one laid one’s foot on it, but now the floor would be as good as new and all ready for next year’s salmon smoking. August was a man of forethought, he would get rid of that abominable squeak.

Afterwards he walks down into town and, as usual, visits the pier — ay, and the engine for the sloop Soria had arrived at last! He nodded, for it had arrived as he had expected on the north-bound steamer that very morning. It had taken several telegrams, the beastly thing, but there it stood at last, strong and powerful, a thing of steel, a baby elephant with delicate wheels inside, the stamp of the manufacturer outside. A bit of oil and she would be ready to go. The problem now was to get it aboard the sloop, but today was Friday and tomorrow, Michaelmas Day, when he would deliver back the sheep. Monday he would begin mounting the engine, a delicate piece of work, but he could manage it all right, don’t you worry about that!

He finds a tarpaulin and covers over the engine, fastens the covering in place with a length of rope about the whole, for it is not his wish to have every Tom, Dick and Harry fingering that splendid new machine of his. Ho, wouldn’t Skipper Olsen be amazed, though, to see the sloop gliding along with no sails bent and no wind blowing! And the Consul might be counted on to say: “Yes, Altmulig, you are certainly a man with ideas, no question about that!” And August would answer with all the soul that was in him: “Now when the Herr Consul gets word about herring he can have the sloop there on the dot!”

In the street he meets his old friend the shopkeeper, the fellow with whom he had played cards last spring. It was always the same with that shopkeeper: a large account which he was unable to pay, wife and children so naked for clothes they couldn’t so much as leave the house, and couldn’t August help him out again?

August pulls a wry smile.

“Just this once! God will pay you back for it!”

“I haven’t been to the bank yet today,” August says and passes him by.

“Aren’t we ever going to have a little evening of cards again?” begs the shopkeeper.

Oh, it was all so long ago since then! That business was now quite dead and forgotten! Something to do with a Russian Bible and a wedding ring. Since then fate had intervened with money from Polden, with a bowler hat and a white collar, with the mere bagatelle of a thousand or two head of sheep! . . . August cuts off and steps into the Segelfoss Store.

The shopkeeper dogs his trail.

In the store many folk are assembled; Hendrik is there because he is off duty and need not go shooting with the lord until afternoon; Karel and Gina i Roten are there, buying yarn of several different colours. A pair of housewives look on with envy at the transaction, but they smirk and say that such colours should really be made by God himself. And what now was Gina thinking of doing with all this finery in the world, what had she decided in that head of hers?

“Ay,” says Gina, “’tis so now as I’m to set up a wee bit of a web. What ever the kind may be!”

“A good bit of a web it will be, as it seems to us!”

“I’m come so out of clothes for a skirt,” says Gina. “And if for nothing else, ’twas to carry home hay straws in as I was always to borrow a skirt. But pity ’tis, so should the little ones have a rag as will hide their nakedness there in church. So it came as I had to set me up a web, poor and bad off as we are.”

“You poor!” cry the other women. “You as have earned such big money for singing and playing in the theatre as we’ve heard, and drained out a big pond on your land for a cow or two. No, ’tis not for the likes of you to take poverty on that tongue of yours and say bad off for a name.”

Gina has no objections to being held up as something grand, and she invites the other women to look carefully at the yarn and to pass it through their fingers. The women are shy and reluctant, they feel themselves unworthy to be awarded so great an honour, but Gina is gracious toward them and asks their advice with respect to the colours. “I’ve thought of yellow and blue and red and green and so I’ve been looking again at yellow and blue and red and green — so what do you think about it?”

“’Tis not for us to understand and see through the half part of anything so fine!” say the women hypocritically and themselves run through the list of primary colours.

To them these colours meant perhaps a rainbow or a picture of a child or a dream. Fifty of such women represented all the housewives of their neighbourhood. They knew each other and talked together, nearly all of them were mothers, none owned more than the others. The rain leaked through their turf roofs at home, and food with them was sometimes scarce, all this, and yet — They knew of no better condition, and thus were they tortured by no sense of privation. Days and nights passed in their neighbourhood as in others, and they both envied and admired each other, quarreled and were helpful to each other. There was a little good and a little bad in all of them. They were human.

They fell to discussing the postmaster’s wife. “Ay, and shouldn’t I know her, though!” says Gina. “Once she was out to see us and kinder and gentler than one of God’s angels, she was. And we were together that evening in the theatre when I sang and that Karel he played for all the quality folk — ay, and there we were together and she laughed the whole evening long at some joke the druggist was having. And we didn’t know then that she would be dead and go down into the grave before any of us others.”

“Ay, so it is, and so it is!” jabbers one of the other women. But she is first and foremost concerned with her own affairs, and as she is fearful that she will run short of feed for her creatures during the winter ahead, she says to Gina: “An eternal shame it is to be at you for a skirt before it’s a web and sewed and all that, and ashamed of myself I am, but —”

“The skirt you shall have!” replies Gina, proud that now, for the first time in her life, she is in a position to loan a handsome skirt for another to carry home hay. . . .

August really has nothing in mind to purchase, he has ducked into the store merely to avoid that small dealer. But he thinks quickly and asks for cigars. “The best you have!” he orders.

The merchant lacks all sense of shame and again comes at August for help.

August repeats that he has not yet been to the bank.

The man pulls a ring from his finger — his wedding ring! Couldn’t August possibly lend him a bit on that? Genuine gold, look at the stamping! It was really the last thing in the world he would care to part with but — when one is so up against it, you know. . . .

So many stand there watching! Well, August is no man to take a mortgage on something when he is of a mind to fling out some money. “Go to sea with that ring of yours!” he commands, snatches out his wallet and tosses the man a large red bill. What else could he have done with so many looking on! Nor does he fail to thrust aside the hand extended to him in thanks.

Clerks and stock boys titter throughout the store, but the merchant has no sense of shame and he does not leave the place. He has got the money he asked for and he is saved, but at that he turns to Karel i Roten and says: “You don’t trade with me in my place any more.”

“What?” returns Karel. “Dear man, but you carry no yarn there, do you?”

“No, but I carry all the other things you need and could mention. And the fact is, we were baptised together and all that, but you don’t seem to remember that!”

He arouses the animosity of everyone there in the store, but he is too bitter in his heart to realize it. Isn’t he striving as hard as he can? Yes, but his enterprise draws no customers. Folk do not forsake the other merchants in town and come hammering on his counter. There is more to business and trade and turnover than that! Why go to the Segelfoss Store after store yarn for a fancy skirt? In an earlier day people used to spin and dye their own tough yarn and surely they got more service out of it. But when a small dealer does not carry store goods, factory products and gew-gaws for women, folk simply do not come flocking to him in droves. In fact they don’t buy a single thing from him. No. And in the end the small dealer is starved out. Yes, happy journey to him!

He is bitter and talks no end of foolishness, and all the things he is unable to say are fully legible upon his careworn face. But everyone has his troubles, the small dealer along with the rest. . . .

Suddenly, before quitting the halls of his mighty competitor, he manages to utter the startling statement that he has cut the price of soft soap and American bacon!

August glances at his watch and returns home. Quite by chance he discovers the doctor’s wife far up the street by the corner bakery. She has been inside making purchases. He raises his hat high off his head to her and yes, she spies him, and nods back at him several times. Little Fru Esther, so she has got at last what she wants! And why shouldn’t she have a little daughter now and then if she likes! And as for Doctor Lund, though he is otherwise a splendid chap, he had better look out, for unlawful it is to. . . .

August has been up all night and a midday nap would do him no end of good. However, he has no time for a nap; he must go above to his shepherds and arrange with them to return the flocks to their regular mountain pasturage, for tomorrow will be Michaelmas Day. He eats a hasty lunch and observes from his watch that he will just about have time. Out in the yard he comes upon the Consul, walking in from the smokehouse. August nods, for it would not be right to stalk straight past the Consul without some form of greeting.

“I heard from my ladies that you’ve been doing a bit of carpentry out in the smokehouse this morning,” says the Consul, “and I thought I’d step out and have a look at your work.”

“I simply put in a length of floor board,” said August.

“Splendid! You’re always arranging and fixing things up for me, and I give you my hearty thanks, Altmulig! By the way, in regard to that bank addition of ours — I’m not sure — perhaps, even though it will prove more expensive — still, I believe we should make it of concrete.”

August’s face brightens at once. “Exactly the right material!” he says.

“Concrete through and through, then,” says the Consul, with a bit of a swagger. “I’ve thought the whole thing over. Somewhat more expensive as to initial investment, but more permanent and, before all else, more secure. And a bank should be both, I believe.”

August was aroused at once over the thought of beginning work. “Ay,” he said. “Those lads of mine, they’ll be finished with the road fence tomorrow. Then all they’ll have ahead of them will be a bit of a foundation for that outhouse of the druggist’s. But just as soon as they’re through down there, they can start in on the bank.”

“Good, but aren’t we getting pretty far along in the autumn?”

“Ay,” answers August, “but we’ll get the building up this autumn. If we have a bit of frost, we’ll use salt.”

“Salt?”

“Salt in the water.”

“Well, of all the things you know!” exclaims the Consul.

“Oh, I’ve done one thing or another in my day,” said August. “I’ve built huge concrete piers and warehouses and no less than three churches.”

The Consul was surely afraid that August might be led to continue in this vein, so he said: “Well, I’m wasting your time, Altmulig! By the way, haven’t you had any sleep today? Yes, but you must be tired after last night. It was you, I understand, who found the body.”

“No, the postmaster himself was along.”

The Consul shook his head. “A pitiful tragedy indeed!”

“Ay,” said August. “But I’ve been in two or three earthquakes, and in one earthquake I was in, a great huge crack opened up in the earth and three thousand persons fell into it.”

The Consul again afraid of what might follow, asked: “Where are you bound for now, Altmulig?”

“Up to those sheep of mine. They’re up there on this side of the lake now, but I must see about getting them back to their regular pasturage by tomorrow, the day they’re to be given back.”

“Are you going to give them back?” asked the Consul absently.

“For winter feeding.”

The Consul must have had something on his mind to ask his old altmuligmand, but now he glances at his watch and says: “I’ve arranged with my English friend to go after him in the car at five o’clock.”

August considers it a pity that the Consul himself should go for the lord.

“No, that was the arrangement,” says the Consul. “I say, will you remember to take down the flag when you return home this evening.”

“Ay ay, sir!” . . .

August walks hastily up the road. He meets his workmen who are on the way down. “Well, we’re through with the holes, we are, boss!” they say.

“It’s about time!” the boss answers. “Tomorrow we’ll put up the fence,” he reminds them and continues on his way.

He arrives at the lodge, turns to the left and begins walking along the edge of the lake. God knows, he may be obliged to walk some distance before he encounters those shepherds of his, for the lake is large. After walking briskly for some time, he raises his hands to his mouth and calls. . . . An answering call from some distance away. . . . Ho, so those good shepherds, Jørn and Valborg, have not yet begun their return march about the lake, eh! They must start back at once, then, for the way is long and the animals must not be driven at too rapid a pace — they must graze along at their ease, that they may be well-fed upon returning to their old pasturage on the morrow.

“How’s this?” calls August when still some distance away. “Haven’t you been thinking of turning back with the sheep?”

“Ay,” answers Jørn. He rises from the ground, touches his hat in greeting, and seats himself again. Thus calmly does he take the situation. “Ay, we’ve been thinking of it. But it was that Valborg,” he says. “She hated to take the creatures away from here where there’s so much for them to eat. And will you just look and see how round and fat they are from all they’ve eaten!”

August slumps down on the ground beside Jørn. He has perhaps walked too briskly and over-taxed himself; moreover, the evening was long. Even so, an odd feeling seems gnawing away at him, a feeling he can not shake off. What can it be? Then suddenly he turns to Jørn —“Wasn’t that a crow that just flew by?” he asks.

“Where?” asks Jørn. “I didn’t see any crow.”

“Didn’t you, either, Valborg?”

“What’s that? A crow? No.”

August fell to thinking. What was the matter with him? He wasn’t so dead for sleep that he was seeing imaginary crows, was he! No, he had seen it with his own eyes. He looks at Jørn Mathildesen and there the fellow sits toying with a twig in his fingers, and there sits Valborg, as well, none other than Valborg from Øira, knitting away on a stocking — his eyes do not deceive him, for the stocking has been rolled up tight and made quite short, and Valborg’s steel knitting needles are glittering in the sun. Hm, as though he hadn’t seen a crow!

“You didn’t see it when it flew right by here?” he asks obstinately.

“A crow? No, we saw no crow,” answers Jørn.

“East or west?”

Valborg begins to take fright —“You make me feel creepy,” she says.

“Nonsense!” August replies. “But what I can’t understand is what business a crow has got so far up here in the mountains.”

“No,” says Valborg. “Unless it’s on Friday business.”

August gazes at her indulgently. “That’s all a lot of silly talk about a crow being a Friday bird and that it goes out on errands of mischief of a Friday. I never heard of such a thing anywhere else but here, although I’ve been in all the leading crow-countries of the world. Why couldn’t the same thing be said about ostriches or penguins which I’ve also seen aplenty. And aren’t both the crow and Friday in the hand and the care of the Lord?”

He offers a rebuttal to Valborg’s argument, reduces it to dust, and says that she’s got her mind all cluttered up with witchcraft and Freemasonry. “I myself have been hooted at and cursed for a Friday’s child,” he says, “but I’ve been through something like four thousand Fridays in my time and I’m still here to tell the tale!”

“I only said it,” mumbles Valborg.

Jørn, however, has something more important on his mind. Remarkable about that poor neglected man, once given a definite task to perform, he has proved both reliable and conscientious. And now he has changed from the cast-off clothing he had picked up here and there and is attired in regular work clothes purchased from the store in town. He feels like a new man in them, feels himself raised from the dust and suddenly made over into a human being. Tomorrow he will stand there and receive many folk who will come to call for their sheep, and he does not shrink from the thought of it!

But Jørn has also come to think a bit about the future, something he has not done thus far before. “Ay, and tomorrow, ’tis Michaelmas Day and all that,” he says, “so you’ll be having no further use for us, I suppose?”

August is August, and far be it from him to let any of his people go without a mouthful of bread to depend on. When had it ever been heard that he had? “I’ll see that you get something to do,” he replied.

“Ho, what a blessing! Valborg, I’m to have work!” he shouts to his wife, who is sitting right there beside him. “I always said that if only I could get to talk with you —”

“You ought to have known how I’d be!”

“Ay, that’s what I’ve always said, that’s what I’ve always said!”

August, the captain, the general: “You’re to begin Monday!” And merely to show how mighty he is, he scribbles a note on a page of his memorandum book to the effect that this man, Jørn Mathildesen, is to have work first putting in the foundation and later erecting the walls! With that he signs his name with a flourish, tears out the page and says: “Deliver this order to my foreman whose name is Boldemand!”

Jørn is acquainted with Boldemand and he nods and offers profuse thanks: Oh, it was so fine of him! Just as he had always said —

“So! Now you must go!” August commands him. “You can’t get to the pasturage along this side of the lake, for down yonder is the falls. You’ll have to go around. But be sure and take it easy!” he says.

Valborg begins walking. She must walk some distance before passing through those thousand sheep. At length she utters her call. The creatures raise their heads and listen. She calls again and at once there is a rippling motion throughout the flock, the animals begin moving off in the direction of the sound, some answer her with a bleat, and finally they are off in a flowing stream, Jørn bringing up to the rear.

It is all just as it was yesterday morning; in a brief time there is not a single sheep left there at August’s side.

He continues to sit resting there a while longer. He is in no particular hurry. He hears Valborg’s calls fading farther and farther into the distance, and he realizes that she is making off with the flock in perfect order.

At length he rises and strolls off toward home. It is now half-past-four.

Hm, not a bad idea, after all, had he taken that midday nap, he thinks to himself, but anyway, he will sit down for a bit of a rest upon reaching the lodge.

Suddenly he hears two shots, one directly following the other. He halts. They had come from some place up near the lake. Likely enough, though, Jørn and Valborg will be able to control the animals — they had departed in such perfect order.

He resumes walking and arrives at length at the lodge. Whilst sitting there for a few moments’ rest on a stone, he hears two further reports. Damnably annoying of that Englishman to go shooting fair in the path of the sheep! And bad though it was that he should fire his gun, even worse it would be should the sheep catch sight of the dog which they would surely mistake for a fox or a wolf. He could hardly believe, however, that Jørn and Valborg would allow themselves to be overpowered. It would take a good deal for that to happen. . . .

And so he starts on down the road, his own magnificent motor road. But he has a queer feeling within him and, for the first time in long months, he catches himself making the sign of the cross. How singular! A half-forgotten gesture his hand performs all of its own accord.

. . . Then, all at once, he hears the sounds of a terrific commotion behind him. . . . He wheels about and his eyes behold sheep — sheep, the whole way up along the road, a mighty maelstrom of sheep, a mad torrent raging down toward him and which will perhaps pour over him. God in Heaven! For a moment, he attempts to breast the tide, to head the creatures off with his staff. Utterly futile — he is borne along with the tide and he has all he can do simply to remain upright. A thousand sheep propel him on a swift journey down the road. They arrive at the unfenced steep and there the Consul, on the way up in his car, stands barring their course. The latter sounds his horn to halt the creatures, but this succeeds merely in terrifying them further. A sheer mountain wall along one side of the road, the open abyss along the other. The Consul backs his car, but, as there is a curve behind him, he must move slowly. Even so, it is possible that some of the flock might have safely passed by the car, had a figure not stood there blocking the way. It is Aase — Aase who stands there blocking the way, waving her arms and swishing that Lappish skirt of hers. The Consul shouts at her and she shrieks something in reply, perhaps something to the effect that she is merely trying to assist in halting the stampede. But what she does is quite the opposite — she simply drives the animals off the road and some are already tumbling down into the abyss — nine hundred feet down to their doom. . . .

The torrent increases and a human being is there in the midst of that boiling maelstrom. August. He is seen to smile momentarily in the direction of the machine. Perhaps that is because he imagines to save himself at the last moment, or perhaps only because he does not wish to arouse any one’s concern for himself. Therefore he smiles. But he can not save himself. Sheep are sheep. Where one goes the others follow. The flock presses on, an avalanche of sheep descending into the deep. When August sees that all is lost, he grasps a sheep by its shaggy fleece. Perhaps he will have it to fall upon. He holds it up in front of him, but it wriggles free. Then he is carried over. . . .

“Sailor’s Grave a Sea of Sheep” is the headline in the paper about August.

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