The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Four

Then came the autumn, then came the winter. And the winter was a dismal time, snow and cold, short days, darkness. The small farms and the lonely cottages had deep pathways through the snow to each other, and now and then a human form might be seen there, walking. It might be of an evening with moon and stars, and it might be the woman from Roten walking over to the neighbouring farm in order to borrow a skirt.

Ay well, and all the menfolk were off in Lofoten and Karel was off in Lofoten and it fell to the lot of that woman of his to keep things going, what with the children and the cowbarn, until some three weeks after Easter when the menfolk would be returning home. It was a hard time for her, she had good use for all her patience and all her frugal ways.

She had once been the girl Georgina, Gina to most, as poor then as now and not much for the eyes of a man, but young and healthy and able at work and she had sung so wondrously with her strong alto voice. Now she was Gina i Roten. She had not come from any high place and she had married into no worse state of poverty than some others, only that she was older now and many times a mother, and forty years. But was that anything! She was used to it and she was used to nothing else. Things might have been worse with her, of course they might; her years went by, one by one, and she had her children and her man and they had their little farm and their cattle in the shed, though ’tis true they owned but little clear. And if her man was a wizard at singing a ditty — ay, and famous for the words he had once set to a waltz — she was something in her own way, too. There was no one like Gina to stand upon the knoll and call home her creatures from the pasture of an evening. “Soo-a! Soo-a!” A melody which sang through the air, though ’twas nought but a cry, a call for the cows to come home, like a prayer in a voice of rich velvet. And in church she would sing out like no one else, and those at her side would fall silent. Her voice she had received from a God who could afford to squander his gifts.

She goes walking along the deep footpath through the snow; ay, and the path is like a deep ditch and she becomes white with snow to her knees. All is not well with her now, she is clean out of feed for her creatures and she must find a remedy. Tomorrow, along with another woman who is also in need of feed, she must search through the parish for hay.

“Good evening!” she greets in the neighbouring cottage.

“Good evening! Oh, is that you, Gina? Sit down.”

“No, sit I really mustn’t,” says Gina and seats herself. “Just passing by I was.”

“What hear you for news?”

“No, what can I hear for news when I’m never outside that door of mine?”

“Ay, we each have our things to do,” says the woman. “We must only thank God for the health that we have.”

Silence.

“Ay,” says Gina, with a bit of trouble on her mind. “I saw as you had a web up last fall?”

“Ay, and that’s no lie.”

“And so much for a web it was, too, I could see. There was yellow and blue and everything else you can mention. If a dress it was for, it was lovely indeed and all that.”

“Both for a dress and a skirt,” the woman replies. “I was beginning to go so naked for clothes.”

“Ay, and a shame it is to be asking. But it might be as you’d give me the loan of the skirt for tomorrow?”

The woman gives a momentary start, then says: “Ho, is it feed then you’re short of?”

“Ay, as it is!” replies Gina, with a violent nod of her head.

No, the woman needed no lengthy reflection to tell her why Gina wished to borrow the skirt. It was no riddle to her. For she too was running short of provender out in the shed. And it was far from likely that Gina wished to dress up and appear fine in the new skirt: she wished to carry home hay in it. It was an ancient tradition that one should carry home hay in a skirt; oh, it was something of an annual event there in the parish — the peasant skirt would hold so much, it was like a balloon when filled. Almost at any time a pair of womenfolk might be seen shuffling along through the snow with tremendous burdens on their backs — skirts tight full of hay and tied up with a rope. These wanderers were part of the winter landscape; there was always someone short of feed and always another who was a bit better off for hay and who was willing to sell a truss or two. The women seldom had a penny to their names before the return of their men from Lofoten, but a new and colourful skirt would be sure to gain them the necessary credit for a bit of hay; more, it would give the neighbours to understand that the need was not the result of mere poverty but of the enormous number of creatures for which one could never provide enough, and which represented a small fortune in themselves.

“But a pity it is to be asking you,” repeats Gina.

“No, that it’s not,” replies the woman, proud to be the owner of a skirt fit to loan. “Who’s to be with you tomorrow?”

Gina mentioned a name.

“Where has she borrowed her skirt?”

Gina mentioned another name.

“Ho!” says the woman. “Then I don’t imagine as you’ll be ashamed to be showing my skirt!”

“No, that I should never be!”

“Here it is. Double thick and summer wool every inch of the thread. Let me hear what you think of the border?”

“A miracle for work,” says Gina. “I’ve no words in my mouth to praise it!”

Gina returns home with the pride and pleasure in her of being able to swagger a bit on the morrow with such a splendid skirt. But on the way home she meets Aase, that witch woman, that cross between Gypsy and Lapp, that wandering plague of a woman.

“Bless the meeting!” says Gina, sweet as butter and stepping far out into the snow to make room for Aase. “Have you come from my place? And none but the children at home there!”

“I didn’t come to see you,” Aase answers. “I only looked inside.”

“Such a pity it was and all that! Had I been home, I should surely have given you a bit of this or that.”

“There’s nothing I’m needing!” Aase mumbles. So saying, she passes on.

Gina hastens home. She knows that her children are hiding scared out of their wits in the corner, that they are daring not so much as to move. Gina has received a bit of a scare herself — she is no greater than she is — but she must appear plucky for the sake of the children.

Entering the house she says at once: “What’s this I see, you’re afraid? Why, what a thing to be! That Aase? My, my! What then if it was? I just met her myself and all I heard was a bit of a kind word. Aren’t you ashamed to cry like that? Here it’s moonlight and all that! And all you have to do is pray to the Father in Heaven. What was I going to say — did she leave straight off?”

The children reply both yea and nay; they don’t know, they can’t remember, they hadn’t dared so much as to breathe —

“Ay, but she didn’t spit then when she left?”

The children give various answers, they really aren’t quite sure, they didn’t look —

The mother weighs the matter in her mind a moment: wouldn’t it be possible for her to run out and overtake Aase, slip something into her hand? Oh yes, she too is somewhat wrought up in her mind. But she doesn’t dare reveal it. Then Lillemor speaks up, Lillemor who is too tiny to be afraid; she asks mama what she is carrying under her arm.

This relieves all minds. “Ay,” says mama. “You simply should see what I have. All come here now to the light! This is the pretty skirt mama is to fill up with hay to bring it home tomorrow. Did you ever see anything so pretty! . . . ”

Three weeks after Easter the cod ran out in East Lofoten and the menfolk returned home. An average year, the fishing light all the way through, but fine prices — a bit of change in their pockets again, wife and children saved once more. And the sun shone brightly and the snow turned brown and brooklets began to form which froze over every night only to become brooklets again with the morning’s sun.

The traveler is ready to depart for Nordland and Finmark with the spring line — silks and woollens, a bit of velvet, a bit of cotton, fashionable frocks, patent leather shoes. The chief, Gordon Tidemand, as usual stares at his salesman and feels he is a bit too shabbily dressed to do credit to the house he represents, but now as usual the man explains that upon his arrival in Tromsø he will purchase a splendid new summer suit from the finest clothier in town.

The interview was otherwise just as usual; sales had shown no satisfactory increase, especially of the more expensive articles wherein real profit lay. Something must be the matter. Weren’t the people up north willing to keep up with the trend of the times?

Oh yes, they were beginning to. But Finmark, after all, was Finmark. Up there one still had to dress according to the climate and daily occupation. But truth to tell, the ladies were already taking to high-heeled shoes.

The chief simply could not understand it; no orders for those marvelous corselettes he was offering. Heavy rose silk from breast to buttock which would fit the form like a glove. Why wouldn’t such dainty garments sell? Expensive? Of course, but how could one expect to appear like a lady without one?

“They’re too tight,” says the traveler.

“Too what?”

“Too tight.” And the traveler adds with a smile: “The ladies are so squeezed in they can’t even swallow when they try to eat.”

He should not have smiled, the chief does not care for his manner; he nods to indicate that the interview has come to an end. . . .

Outside in the store old Altmulig, the jack-of-all-trades, stands waiting. He desires a word from the chief, but he is respectful and religious and does not even expect a personal conversation with his employer; instead, he sends in one of the clerks with a question.

His modesty yields fruit; he is summoned at once into the office. Altmulig has been there but once before, the day he found service on the place.

“Well well, Altmulig, so you’d like to know what you’re to do next, eh?”

“Ay.”

“What are the workmen doing?”

“They’re carting sea-weed for the fields.”

The chief thinks a moment. “How about going over the seines and seeing that they’re in perfect order?”

“Ay ay, sir!”

“No, never mind,” says the chief. “For I don’t suppose we’ll be having any use for them for some time.”

Altmulig: “If I may speak a word, there seems to me to be constant use for them.”

“So?”

“For, by the grace of God, there are always herring in the sea.”

“We couldn’t get any people out with them, right now,” says the chief. “They’re just back from Lofoten, and they want to rest. They’re hardly even willing to chop wood for their cook stoves.”

Altmulig: “I can get them out.”

The chief looks at him: “Do you think you could go out with them yourself?”

Altmulig shakes his head and crosses himself. “The Lord has made an old man of me,” he says. “If only it had been before!”

The chief nods as a sign of conclusion. “Good, get busy with this thing, then. Collect the crews and send them out with the seines. Where do you think we ought to tell them to go?”

Altmulig: “North. I’ve faith in a place called Polden —”

Odd that the chief should have acquired such deep confidence in this old altmuligmand of his in the course of no more than a few months. They had talked together of one thing and another and the old man had shown that he knew a thing or two — he had ability and it had been profitable to take his word in a number of matters. Gordon Tidemand was apparently an executive of vision and optimism, but in truth he sometimes felt the need of expert advice. What for instance did he know about this business of his, aside from book-keeping and the marketing of luxuries! His learning consisted solely of technique, language and office routine, university courses, punctilio — he could read the labels on French pipes and spools of English thread — oh, he had his talents, without a doubt, but at bottom he had but little understanding of business and his intelligence was rather a minus quantity. He was, just what he appeared to be on the surface, a mongrel creature, a mixture of races, no strong characteristics in his nature, a little of this and that, a wizard in the classroom, perhaps, but out of touch with reality. Taken by and large, he was a quite ordinary individual, but he had a burning desire to be a gentleman, in the English sense of the word.

Such was the man, nought more. He was really in sore need of the advice old Altmulig was ready to offer him. Even his mother was something of a rod and a staff to comfort him.

“I’m sending out the seines,” he said to his mother. “I’ve put Altmulig to rounding up the crews.”

“Have you had news of herring?” she asked him.

“No. But, by the grace of God, there are always herring in the sea. If all I did was to wait for news, I’m afraid we’d all pretty much starve to death. We must do something, don’t you think?”

“Things look rather dark, do I understand?”

“How can they possibly look bright? Store business and petty trading like that. People here really aren’t buying anything, either. They’re spinning and weaving themselves. Why, they live like mice in the field — they don’t seem to belong to this human race of ours. Here we are, required to make a living off this little town of ours, this grotesque spectacle of a town, a mere port of loading, a few hundred people with no more than a copper each in their pockets. It’s a mockery. I ought never to have come back home and taken over this business.”

“Well, let’s see once,” says Gammelmoderen. “You’ve quite a bit outstanding on your books. Can’t you try to get some of this in?”

“Get it in, mother? Set Lawyer Pettersen after these people? Collection letters, court proceedings, all that sort of thing? I couldn’t do that and you know it. Why, people would say that I was on the verge.”

“You have the downery and the salmon fishery. You have one thing or another. And first and foremost, you have an entire town leasing land from you. That ought to mean no small yearly income.”

“Yes, but that’s the cursed trouble, don’t you see?” exclaims the son. “I haven’t been able to sell these lands so that something definite could be done with them. No one seems to have money enough to buy.”

His mother: “Your father was opposed to selling off any of his land. He always said that if everything else failed, the rent from his lands would supply him with a solid yearly income, enough to live on at least.”

“Trifling details!” fumed her son. “Small change!” he fumed. “The downery? I have the figures and I can show you. A couple of feather beds, a couple of quilts. The salmon fishery? Nothing.”

“We used to have big fish there once,” mumbled his mother, her mind seeming to dwell lingeringly on the past.

No, there was nothing much there. Segelfoss? What was there to the place? What lived and had its being there? Everything was dead. . . .

“Just take the mail I receive,” explodes son Gordon —“no more than what might come for a sheriff or a school teacher. A letter is slipped into a yellow envelope and importantly addressed to me; one day it arrives and I open it — it has to do with a horse! One man haggles with another man about the price of a mere horse. And I am acquainted with neither them nor the horse. A few weeks ago I received a letter from a man who would like to come and manage the salmon net for me. Yes, that’s the kind of mail I get! You don’t find three men simply taking care of the mail here as you would in a regular place of business!”

Gammelmoderen: “Who was it that wrote you about the salmon net?”

“I don’t remember. He said he had worked here before and knew all about the place.”

“What was his name?”

“Alexander, or something like that.”

Silence.

Gammelmoderen, approaching the matter indirectly: “Well, you are going to send out the seines again. Yes, it’s to be hoped they prove lucky this time. . . . ” She rises from her chair, takes a turn over to the window and glances out. “It’s beginning to thaw in earnest, isn’t it?” she says, simply to have something to say. She is restless. Not until she is on the point of leaving does she suddenly remember the point about the man and the salmon net. “Oh yes, Gordon, you must get that man back on the place,” she says. “He was the ablest man your father ever had. My, how he used to work the salmon net! Your father used to ship salmon off to the cities, all the way to Trondhjem. Smoked salmon. Good money. What did you say the man’s name was?”

“Alexander, I believe. What difference does it make?” mumbles the son, hunting about on his desk. “Here’s the letter. His name is Otto Alexander. I didn’t even bother answering him.”

“Yes, but you should do so at once. Sit right down and drop him a line. He will bring you in profits at once, you’ll see. The salmon net certainly isn’t out now, is it? Besides, we could easily use a salmon or two for our own table.”

“Of course, if you say so,” concedes her son. “I can just as well get the fellow here.”

Within the week Altmulig had kept his word and organized a full crew for each of the seining boats. But neither of the two bosses seemed to rely very much upon the old man’s word and they called together to consult with the chief.

“Yes,” said Gordon Tidemand. “He told you what I wanted.”

Ay, but he had made strange signs and crosses with his fingers, like as though he was casting a spell, or such-like.

They were not to concern themselves over that.

And then he had pointed out on the chart where they were to lie, one seine here, the other there. But, might they ask in all humility, wouldn’t such a business seem like a personal affront to the Almighty? Weren’t they to move along from bay to bay and use their spy glass and scan the sea and read the signs and do their best?

The chief rang and gave orders for Altmulig to be brought into the office. “Show me the chart!” he said to the men.

It was a bit of coastal chart borrowed from the sloop. The chief studied it, pretended that he understood it perfectly, put up a grand appearance, picked up a rule and measured: “Here is Polden, this point here!”

“Yes, but —” replied the seine-bosses. “But he said that one of us should drift about in this locality, near a place called Fuglværøy. And in both places both boats should simply lie still.”

The chief measured again, nodded and said: “That’s right. Those are exactly the orders he got from me.”

Altmulig entered the room softly, laid his cap beside him on the floor over by the door and, when recognized, stepped forward and bowed.

Gad, what a courteous fellow this old man is! Gordon Tidemand must have thought. “Your men here don’t seem to understand our orders very well,” he said. “Would you be good enough to repeat them!”

No trouble at all! Altmulig repeated his explanations and stood by his guns; he mentioned Polden and Fuglværøy, mentioned exact distances, mentioned the direction of the sea currents.

I wonder why he doesn’t stand over here and put on a few airs? the chief thought slyly to himself. “Won’t you step over and look at the chart?” he asked.

Altmulig took out his nose-glasses, but found no use for them. He smiled and said: “I have the chart right here in my head.”

“Ay,” said the seine-bosses. “But that we should lie still —”

Altmulig stood by his guns: “Ay, for seven days and seven nights is what I told you. If you have not shot your seines after seven days and seven nights, move seven miles north, up toward Senjen. But you will shoot before then, I know!” Again he crossed himself, both over his forehead and over his breast.

“That’s odd!” mumbled the bosses. “And why are we to lie exactly at these places and not move and not scan all the sea?”

Altmulig delivered himself like a true prophet and seer: “For it is exactly there the herring will turn up if there are any at all in those parts. Don’t you dare to doubt me! The herring, she knows her way through the sea. Whales and other vermin can force her off her course, but that you can see when it happens and move on after the shoal.”

“Have you conjured up herring there?” asks one seine-boss in desperation.

“Ay, for if so, we’ll have nothing at all to do with this business!” chimes in the other.

Altmulig looks up at the chief and asks: “I don’t know — was there anything more —?”

“No.”

He bows, picks up his cap over by the door and leaves the room.

Gad, what discipline! Probably picked up from the skipper of some big ship, Gordon Tidemand thought to himself again. Turning to his men, he curtly remarks: “There! Now you’ve had my orders explained to you a second time!”

Even the chief must have found Altmulig a bit too mystical, but he let the matter go. Why not follow out the old fellow’s directions! The last time the seiners had been out, they had craned their necks and stared about the sea, they had rowed hither and yon and stuck their noses into all the old herring coves they knew of, but they had come home empty-handed. Now let’s see this time! No seine in existence is a pot of gold each year, but every seine has an equal chance of stumbling onto the good fortune which means immediate wealth.

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