The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Five

During the spring Gordon Tidemand began putting up a residence back up in the mountains. He called it a hunting-lodge, but it was anything but a mere cabin, it was a regular house, a summer residence — in the event that his family might like to spend a few months “in the country.” He was busy with a large corps of workers and the work was progressing rapidly. There were masons, carpenters, and painters; a veranda with a truly dizzying outlook was added and, after that, a flag pole. For the time being, these would be all.

Gordon Tidemand had set much in motion since the amazing coup scored by his seiners. Oh, here was a man with an eye for progress and activity! And now at last he had the means, for the unthinkable, the almost unbelievable had actually come to pass: the capture of a gigantic shoal of herring off Fuglværøy, the miracle which had been reported in all the papers and which had turned the entire countryside upside-down. What else save the power of fate and good fortune had it been! Nor was it for any true master of Segelfoss to shovel vast sums of money into his pockets without putting them to some good use! So he ran his steamer pier far out into deep water to accommodate the largest of ships; by the expansion of store credit he extended a helping hand to many poor folk throughout the parish. There was the type of fellow he was! He even weighed in his mind a plan which he and old Altmulig had once discussed: a dairy in town to supply the entire district round about.

Yes, to be sure, he was good for a thing or two, but his mother shook her head; and when he began building his mountain home she stood there wringing her hands. Oh that Gordon, to think of moving out to the country, away from Segelfoss Manor! Well then, why didn’t Fru Juliet step in? No, how could she do that? She was the mistress of the house, a love bird, a mother, so beautiful, so sweet — she was only a woman, and her figure was lumpy again! No, it was not her place to tie her husband’s hands. Gammelmoderen, on the other hand, did absolutely nothing to stifle her voice; she was a woman of manifold experience and was bursting with advice. The widow of Theodore paa Bua did her reasonable best to restrain her son’s taste for extravagance, though for the time being she decided against having it out with him. On the contrary, she had reason to stand in well with him, to be good friends with him. Had he not heeded her advice about taking on that man, Otto Alexander, he who was so handy at bringing in salmon for the family table and who didn’t mind smoking fish out in the smokehouse even though it was late at night?

Gammelmoderen had become younger than ever; she went fluttering along the roads like a young girl and again she took to wearing a gold medallion about her neck. Bold she was indeed; the talk about her and a certain Gypsy lad had long since died away, but of late it had sprung up anew. —“Notice how she goes about singing?”—“That’s no way to do!”—“She stays with him out in the smokehouse, she goes aboard the sloop Soria with him, they have something to drink aboard, they are worse than any young couple!”—“And to think she has no shame in her!”

And that she surely had not; Gammelmoderen simply lacked all sense of shame, she managed her personal affairs with a conscience as clear as crystal — she was a daredevil, to say the least. But to object seriously to what her son was doing was, of course, not fitting or proper.

“I see so many strange workmen with picks and shovels,” she said. “Are they working for you?”

“Yes. They’re from the south. They are road-builders. They are laying a road up to the lodge.” “What, a carriage road? Listen to me now, Gordon, wouldn’t a footpath really do just as well?”

“No,” her son curtly replied.

And his mother gave in at once: “Ay, possibly you are right about that. What good would a mountain lodge be without a road leading up to it! . . . ”

It seems that Gordon Tidemand had happened to mention his road-building project to his right-hand man, Altmulig; he had stated that he was of a mind to hire some expert people who would first of all do a bit of surveying and then stake out the route.

Ay, Altmulig had indicated that such would not prove so difficult.

“So?” asked the chief. “Do you think you could do it yourself?”

“Such work is right in my line,” replied Altmulig.

Oh that undefeatable fellow! Nothing seemed to leave him at a loss! There were many ways of going about it. A footpath presented no great problems.

“What, a footpath? Really, I say!” sneered the chief.

“Oh, it’s a carriage road you’d be wanting?”

“Of course, for we must figure on the transportation of provisions and equipment. I imagine the family will prefer living up there during the hottest part of the summer.”

“How stupid of me!” said Altmulig. “Well, do you want the line to go up gradually in a long curve, or would you rather take it short with a steep grade?”

“You may decide that for yourself. So far as I personally am concerned, the question of grade is immaterial, but I suppose my wife might occasionally enjoy walking back and forth.”

“We may have to blast our way along part of the way; it’s pretty rough country up there. I can take a little trip up the mountain right away and have a look around, if you say so.”

The chief nodded. “And while you’re up there at the house, you might decide whether we ought to put up an iron fence at the edge of the steep. For the children’s sake, you know. . . . ”

An invaluable assistance, that Altmulig. His very manner made a strong appeal to Gordon Tidemand. “Right away,” he had said — as if he might be asked to quit his place at any time, though it was he alone the chief could thank for the fortune he had made in herring! Had he put on airs and strutted, had he jumped up and cracked his heels together the day the wire had arrived from the seiners? Not at all. When the chief had read him the telegram, he had been moved to great depths, apparently; he had crossed himself, he had swallowed a lump in his throat. And his lips had trembled and his eyes had assumed a tint of washed-out blue. But his emotion had passed immediately; he had nodded and said: “Oh, so they shot the two seines together and closed in a bay, did they? What else does it say?”

“Only that the herring are 7 — 8 and 9 — 10. But I don’t believe I know what that means.”

“That’s important,” Altmulig had said. “That means so many herring by weight. They are average and better than average fish!” And in a flash he had become levelheaded and practical, a man who knew the next steps to be taken: Buyers, buyers! Wires to every town and city! Salt! Barrels! Order the sloop Soria to clear for the north this very day —“That is, if you agree with me!” he had been careful to add.

The chief had stared at him long. No hint of fishing about for a compliment, not a single boastful word. But the miracle itself, the successful gamble, these had fascinated the old man and he had said: “What a pity I couldn’t have been there to see it!”

That had been all.

Now Gordon Tidemand was not lacking in appreciation and it had been as clear as day to him what a debt of gratitude he owed Altmulig. It had been his desire to make a great fuss over him, to give a feast, a banquet, in his honour, but Altmulig had respectfully declined. Since arriving on the place the old man had lived in a single room in the servants’ hall, but the chief had promptly invited him to occupy one of the guest rooms in the Manor itself, a room with a full-length gold mirror, a carpet on the floor, a mahogany bed graced with gilded angels, a decorative clock on the mantelpiece. . . . Altmulig had simply shaken his head to all this and humbly and piously said no.

All in all an odd individual, this man. See there, how he still continues to work about the place with his usual care and diligence, with never a thought to spare himself, with never a thought for his age, or even a request for a raise in pay. The chief had of course offered a raise of his own accord, but —

There was no reason for that, the man had answered.

But couldn’t he find some use for a particular sum then, say? Wouldn’t he like to start up something for himself, or possibly make a certain purchase?

“Oh yes. But with your permission, let’s say no more about that!”

The chief had then handed him a sum large enough to have set him up in one business or another, but though several weeks had already passed, the old fellow had continued his position as general handy-man, altering not one detail of his daily routine. The only difference was that some one had seen him down at the post office sending divers money orders abroad.

Drilling and blasting and the singing of men up the side of the mountain, an air of festivity marking the progress of the work. There are several gangs of workmen along the stretch of road under construction; some blasting away rock, others working with cement; some digging up gravel, others wheeling it away. Altmulig goes stalking up and down the entire line, a thoughtful, intelligent foreman.

One day he says: “Blast this rock. It’s been in our way long enough.”

The men did not wish to blast it. The rock weighed well over a thousand pounds, but the workmen were husky and preferred wheeling it away just as it was. “Blast a mere pebble like that?” they said. Altmulig looked at them; they showed that they had been drinking, their whiskey had gone to their heads. In the course of their struggle to lift the rock into a wheel-barrow the wheel broke and the barrow was a wreck.

“Blast that stone!” ordered Altmulig.

No, there was one thing they simply refused to do; their dander was up and they would show that rock its place, they would finish it off man to man! “What the hell!” they said. “That’s one of those stones that sit there just making themselves heavy for spite. Give in? Not on your life!”

Five men succeeded at length in hoisting the stone into a wheel-barrow and wheeling it off to a fill-in. They came staggering back with triumph beaming on their faces. One man appeared to have injured his hand.

Altmulig called to a member of another gang and said: “Go back and blast that stone!”

“Now?” cried the others. “The stone isn’t in your way now, is it?”

The stone was not drilled, it was blasted with a direct charge.

But the workmen refused to pass up the matter, they muttered over their boss’s conduct and asked him if he were crazy. He made no reply. They called him an old fool and stepped up to him. Altmulig backed up against the wall of the cliff in order to protect himself from the rear, two of the worst trouble-makers in close pursuit. They desired to have him speak up and explain himself, he was simply not to stand there with an important look on his face and refuse to account to them, they offered to throw him over the tall rampart, they shook their fists in his face. . . .

Suddenly Altmulig pulls a revolver from his hip-pocket and discharges it in the air. The two started back at the unexpected sound of the shot. “Are you shooting?” they yelled. But the look on the old man’s face must have given them some cause for alarm — he was as pale as death and he was grinding his false teeth in rage. —“What’s the sense of taking it that way?” they said and immediately tamed down. “We didn’t mean any harm by it.”

“Quit standing there chewing the rag!” cried their comrades to get them away.

During the noon knock-off and after they had worked off the effects of their intoxication, Altmulig stepped up and spoke to them: “You fellows are hired to work and obey orders. There isn’t one of you here who can take the responsibility of going against orders, for you aren’t that kind of people. Here you’ve gone to work and wrecked a wheel-barrow and injured a man, and what good did that do you? A wheel-barrow is not built to carry half a ton and a man with crushed fingers can’t work.”

Silence.

“Ay, but to blast a stone afterwards —!” they said.

“That’s the way we show discipline at sea.”

The men continued to mutter: “Well, we aren’t at sea here. And when you shot that revolver — don’t you know you might have hit one of us?”

“That would have been the least of my tricks — if I wanted to!” said Altmulig.

And looking at him they could see that he meant what he said.

But it was not long before peace again prevailed along the entire line.

Other things happened, as well. A bull came bellowing up the stretch of finished road, one of the manorial cattle, a powerful brute. It behaved itself like a fool, stood pawing up the road, dug its horns into the piles of gravel at the side and awoke the dead with its frightful bellowings.

“Go chase away that mosquito, will you!” some one said to a short, wiry, broad-shouldered little fellow from Trondhjem, a man whose name was Francis.

“Ho, so I suppose you think I’m afraid!” said Francis, starting off with a spade in his hand.

Altmulig was at the moment coming up the line and immediately cried: “Stop! What the devil are you thinking of!”

The bull let out a bellow to indicate how deeply he detested this Francis person, but neither bull nor man would retreat. “Stop!” screeched Altmulig again, but the Trønder refused to heed his warning; instead he picked up a stone and threw it. It reached its mark, but it produced no more of an impression on the animal than a mere drop of water. Suddenly the bull takes it into his head to charge. His tail outstretched, earth and pebbles flying out behind, he comes at his adversary and in a trice Francis is sailing through the air, past his comrades, over the parapet, down the mountain slope.

Finished!

The bull pauses for a moment in amazement. The end of the combat already? Then, for lack of something better to do, he gores the road with his horns, throws back his head and bellows.

Altmulig is ready with his orders: “Fetch some chains!” he commands.

Higher up along the line there were some chains used for anchoring the fascines when blasting was going on near the house. Several of the men began running up after them, apparently glad to be able to retreat from the danger zone. The remainder of the gang crouched as best they could behind rocks and portions of jutting cliff.

When the chains arrived they were fastened together with steel wire and carried in a circle about the animal. The entire gang took part in the operation. One of the men thought it best to stretch the chain across the narrow road and thus bar the way. “That won’t work, a bull can jump pretty high. We’ve got to catch him!” said Altmulig. Gradually the circle closed in; these many people yelling at each other at the top of their lungs seemed to confuse the bull — he snorted, but stood still. When he at last decided to launch a further attack, he found the chain encircling one of his forelegs and he was forced to resign from the field. Two men led him peacefully down the road to the Manor.

At this point the Trønder made his reappearance; that wiry little Francis came crawling back up the slope and asked for a hand to help him over the parapet. “Can’t you jump it?” some one asked in fun. “No, for I’m all cut up,” he replied. Ho, that devil of a fellow, he was anything but unscathed! There was a bloody gash in his head and he had a most unhealthy look about him. But he had come through with his life, though he himself could not understand how he had managed it. He was a tough little chap and kept referring to the affair in a humorous vein. “I’m all gravel inside and out!” he said. “Look here, I’m spitting gravel. How about some water, lads!”

“That’s a mean hole in your head,” they said. “You must have scrubbed up the entire landscape, the way it looks.”

“Ay, but let’s talk of that later. Give me some water now!”

He drew in a deep breath and was on the point of fainting. No, he had not come out of his bull-fighting venture unscathed. Later, Doctor Lund examined him and discovered that lie had two broken ribs and had a serious wound in his head.

The people of Segelfoss Manor came up to watch the road-builders at work. There were not only Gordon Tidemand and his wife Juliet, but Frøken Marna as well, she who had been visiting her sister married to Romeo Knoff further south. She was as blond as her mother, Gammelmoderen, and somewhat older than Gordon — she was well on in her twenties now, a handsome lady, quiet in her speech, a bit too quiet, somewhat sluggish, in fact.

And the people from town came up, too: Druggist Holm, the chief telegraphist and his wife, Postmaster Hagen and his wife. These visits of the ladies always acted as a tonic upon the workmen; the blasters would go about drilling for their charges with much whistling and vocal refrain, and the masons seemed unable to work their tiniest trowels without shouting as loud as they could. Frøken Marna did much to stimulate them; ay, to the last man they all seemed hopelessly in love with her.

“You were singing so lustily I really had to come up and see what you were doing,” she might coyly remark.

One day it is Adolf who replies to her: “Would you like to take a few cracks on this drill?”

“I could never hit it with the hammer, I’m sure!” she says with a shake of her head.

“Come on, have a try!”

“Oh no, you must be mad! I know I should hurt your hand.”

But the fellow is head over heels in love with her by this time and he begins at once to talk foolishness: “It would make my hand feel so good, if only you might manage to crush it!”

She stood there smiling at this, but with downcast eyes which gave her a sly, thoughtful look.

The workers undertook to wonder amongst themselves why Frøken Marna had never married and they asked each other what the matter with her could be. “You’ll see,” they said. “She’s the kind who can never find anyone good enough for her. Isn’t that right?” The Trønder Francis is somewhat more crude in his view of the matter; he is strolling about with a bandage about his head and, because he is enjoying workman’s compensation, he affects an air of great luxury. “Unless,” he suggests prettily, “she can’t work up any sensation for a man?”

Adolf, blindly infatuated, stands up for her and strikes a blow in her defence. “There isn’t anything the matter with her, that much I can say for myself. But you always were a filthy-minded swine, Francis — you can’t even look at a skirt without saying something offensive!”

And then one day came Davidsen, editor and publisher of the Segelfoss News, of a mind to write a bit of a story about the new road. As Altmulig was nowhere in sight, he turned to the workmen themselves, took out paper and pencil and began asking important questions. Now it so happened that Editor-Publisher Davidsen was an unpopular character with the men. They did not read his paper, had themselves a nose for news, and had soon learned what the people in town thought of him. He was in truth an able man and a toiler; he had one of his children, a small daughter, to help him in the office, and together they would set up the little sheet each week and it was thus they made their slender living. But no one respected him for all that, perhaps because he was always something of a spectacle in the shabby clothes he was compelled to wear. And inasmuch as fundamentally he was no more than a type-setter and printer, he could by no stretch of the imagination be considered as a person of quality. But he held sound, progressive ideas and no end of social vision, facts which were most apparent when, in meetings of the local commune, he was always able to triumph over the school teachers who knew nothing, thought nothing, were content to be merely radical.

Poor Davidsen, a tall, thin man in ragged clothes, the father of five children, the owner of two cases of type and a hand-press, a pauper thus, a louse.

The workers declined to answer his questions seriously and when he realized that they were only poking fun at him, he made the grave error of becoming annoyed and stooping to argue with them. He got nowhere in this regard, for theirs was the voice of the rabble, arrogant, illogical, deprecating — they winked at each other like baboons and laughed the man down. Francis was unable to work, but he was still able to exert himself in deviltry, and he hit upon a most amusing notion: he stealthily picked up a light charge of blasting powder and exploded it behind the editor’s back. Splendid, splendid! The workers all howled with merriment and the editor found himself squatting some distance away.

“You shouldn’t have done that!” he said.

Francis, roaring with glee: “We’re blasting up here on the mountain!”

“But not without warning, are you?”

Silence.

Davidsen then committed a further error in judgment: he addressed the gang with a bit of a lecture. “You are all too easily pleased with yourselves,” he began. “Was that anything to laugh at? This man here is merely crude, can’t you see that? I pity poor wretches like you who can laugh and have a good time over such an incident as this! It is in this particular at least that you excel us others: crudeness, and the ability to exercise it without self-disgust. In all our struggles that is the only weapon you have at your command. You are too easily satisfied! What you really need is a sense of decency, my good lads! What you need is the will to rise above your essential crudity of nature, but this you lack entirely. Even the negro is gifted with this power of buoyancy and has the desire to compete for the decent honours of this world. But you, my good friends, all you have is the negro’s flippant tongue, his voracity —”

They interrupt him: “We haven’t got his black skin, either.”

“Our workers should be a proud class, and pride means honest simp —”

“Give him another dose of that powder, Francis!”

“Farewell, my lads, think over what I have said!” Herr Davidsen bowed and left them.

“Did you ever see such an idiot!” said the workers. “Think over what I said! Come on, lads, let’s sit right down and think over what that fool said! Hahaha —”

And in turn came Lawyer Pettersen aloft to inspect the road. “There’s that fellow they call ‘Buttonhead’!” cried the workers, who already knew all about him. But here was a man they respected; they knew that he was hard about forcing collections, that he never hesitated to throw some poor wretch into bankruptcy and that he cashed in big profits from dealing in the life blood of others. Oh, of course, he enjoyed their respect, for now he was at the head of the Segelfoss Savings Bank — by Gad, he was a bank president!

And in turn came Doctor Lund and his wife. . . .

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23r/chapter5.html

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