The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Seven

Later on in the summer it came about that Tobias got his insurance money after all. All who could had helped him. Tobias’ wife had testified that he had positively not gasped in his sleep, that in fact he had screamed, uttered a little cry in his sleep, and this had turned the tide. Cleared of all personal blame for the fire, he already had neighbours and regular carpenters at work putting up a new house for him. Nor was the new building to be more in the way of a home than the old — there would be parlour, kitchen and two bedrooms just as there had been before and these were enough, these would serve all purposes. Few cottages, in fact, could boast of two bedrooms.

One of the bedrooms would be for the old people, the other for Cornelia and the children; thus it had been before, and thus it would be again. But if travelers and strangers were to stop in for a night’s lodging, Cornelia and the children could easily give up their room and find corners of the parlour in which to rest their weary bones; thus it had been before, and thus it would be again. It might be wandering pedlars who would seek refuge over night, or it might be some preacher or evangelist, now and then a tourist, perhaps, or only some weary vagabond lacking means to stay at the hotel — to such could Tobias offer the shelter of his roof.

The first stranger to occupy the new bedroom was a traveling Anabaptist. He was a handsome, middle-aged man with the eyes of a fanatic and a Jesus-like beard. He was selling or giving away religious pamphlets and holding revival meetings in the cottages round about. After a week of furious activity, he had succeeded in stirring up a tremendous amount of fear and religious fervour up and down the countryside. When no cottage could be found large enough to accommodate his meetings, he called upon Pastor Landsen and succeeded in obtaining the use of the school-house. He was carrying on a terrific campaign, people even came from town to attend his meetings and no one seemed to find it amiss to squander an hour or two on prayer.

It was a remarkable thing about that Anabaptist: his audiences seemed unable to detect any difference between his gospel and other statements of God’s Word. Oh, but there was a deeper meaning to his work! After each sermon and appropriate prayers, he would conduct his following down to the river and, in its waters, baptize them. This was all in accordance with his earnest belief that it was the only thing to do — these people were black with sin and he would give them this opportunity to clean themselves up for the Lord. But they had been baptized before, had they not? To be sure, but in running water? Was a baptismal fount the same thing as the River Jordan? No no, my friends!

This preacher with those burning eyes of his had delved deeply into esoteric literature; he was a devil of a fellow to settle the doubts of his people and the regular pastor of Segelfoss received a rather good impression of the man. This priest of the parish, this Ole Landsen, he was anything but contentious in spirit, it was never his thought to find fault with others. The Segelfoss News had interviewed him and asked whether he did not consider these revival meetings in the school-house and these baptisms in the river to be getting folk off on the wrong track, to which the pastor had replied that this question had its juridical aspect. People who had interested themselves in the revival might otherwise have put their time to far worse use. And it might be shown that these religious exercises were actually of benefit to this one or that one, who knew? “Those people are groping forward after the light exactly as we others are doing. We none of us know anything, we simply believe.” Thus Pastor Ole Landsen had expressed himself.

And there they all went to meeting, children and womenfolk, mostly, but a few men, as well. A full house. And there in the midst of them sat Mons-Karina, chewing tobacco, spitting on the floor and rubbing it dry with her foot. Valborg from Øira attended, though she had perhaps dressed herself up a bit too grand in a new dress of fine green and red material. Cornelia of South Parish came with her mother and her younger sisters and her half-grown brother, Mattis. And after a time, in truth, came also Karel i Roten and his wife Gina and their little ones. And Karel had a gift for song and made the most of the hymns, but when Gina, with that glorious voice of hers would sing out, the others would all fall silent. Now and then a local Salvationist would join the gathering and now and then one of August’s road-workers.

Full house and tears and a frenzy of emotion. Ay, and nothing to be done about it. It was only the district-doctor who had dared to murmur: “That ducking in the river is a wild idea. One can catch cold from such a baptism, one can develop pneumonia, cystirrhoea, rheumatism, bad hips, stiff fingers.” Thus District-Doctor Lund had expressed himself. But none there was who would take a doctor’s word where religion was concerned.

August is restless these days. He wanders about waiting for his money from Polden and is unable to interest himself in anything aside from his daily supervision of the road construction. As Gordon Tidemand’s right-hand man it is not for him to mingle with the common herd, and on Sundays when he is idle, it is his custom to go for long walks in the country. He carries a staff to swing and talks to himself as he walks.

He wanders out to Tobias’ new house. Cornelia is not at home, no one is home, the house is empty. The only sign of life is the horse, grazing a short distance away. He inspects the house from all angles. As a builder of houses himself during his younger days in Polden, he gazes at the present building with a keen professional eye. Nothing new to learn here, walls of skinned logs, moss to seal the cracks, a small porch, a turf roof. No panes of coloured glass in the door.

He strolls over to the horse, a gift from none save himself and which he is now seeing for the first time. Observing a woman approaching from the neighbouring farm, he draws himself up and goes stalking about the horse as though he were something of a connoisseur. He tries to lift up one of the animal’s forefeet, but the horse simply lays back its ears and turns its back on him.

The woman draws near; it is Aase, tall and exotic in appearance, clad in her Lappish cloak and moccasins, a tall sugar-loaf cap on her head, a scarf about her neck and with a whole cluster of dingledangles hanging from her belt. August does not look up at her.

“Are you afraid of the horse?” asks Aase.

He casts a hurried glance in her direction without answering.

“I saw as you were afraid.”

“I wasn’t exactly afraid,” August said. “I just wanted to look at his hoof.”

“What ails the hoof?” she asked, and easily lifted up the horse’s leg.

August was already beginning to feel a bit uneasy. “I just wanted — I thought he needed to be shod,” he said.

“This is that Tobias’ new mare, but ’tis little enough she is worth,” Aase said. “Them as owned her before let her go because she kicks. Would you be wanting to see her other hoofs?”

“No. But what the devil does all this have to do with you?”

“Is it the horse or something else as has brought you out here?” Aase asked.

Such a woman! How much did she think he would stand for? “Say, you!” he cried. “Why don’t you get back to your own kind and use that jaw of yours on them?”

Together they walked over to the house and August remarked that there was no one at home. Without heeding his remark, she stepped inside. When she came out again, she paused to spit on the doorstep. Ho! So that’s the kind you are, eh! August mused and promptly crossed himself. He took fright and crossed himself again, twice — forehead and breast. Aase paid not the slightest attention to him; instead, she seated herself on the doorstep and deliberately filled her pipe.

“Here’s an odd bit I’ve got,” he said and held something in his hand to show her. “I was wondering how you’d like to have it?”

“An old coin? With a hook?”

“I soldered the hook on myself so the coin could be worn on a chain. Have you ever seen anything like that before?”

“I’ve many just like it already.”

“But this one is sacred,” said August. “It’s been sprinkled with holy water in Russia. I was wondering if you’d like to have it?”

She hooked it onto the chain which held her other gewgaws and looked approvingly at it. With that, she must have decided to make some return for the favour. With a quick gesture, she turned her cap inside-out and put it back on her head with the lining on the outside. “Let me see that hand of yours,” she said. “No, not that one. The one as you gave me this with!” She inspected the hand, back and palm, lifted it up three times and nodded. “Friday child,” she said. “Rubbish fit for nothing!” He withdrew his hand and crossed himself with it. Both of them were very much in earnest.

When she rose and started off, he called after her. “Hey, don’t you know you’ve got your hat on wrong side out?”

“Ay — seven paces!” she said cryptically and halted. With that, she adjusted her hat properly and left him altogether. . . .

It was getting on toward meal time and he strolled homeward, swinging his staff and talking to himself. He might have asked her what she had seen in his hand, he might have learned a few things about his fate, how things would be for him after his money arrived, for instance. Nonsense — she didn’t know any more about it than he did himself! But she had spat upon leaving the house.

He fell in with a few of those who had been down at the river getting themselves baptised. One of the small dealers from town who had been at the card table in August’s room gave an amusing account of the hallowed event: Mons-Karina, it seemed, had stepped into the water with a wad of tobacco in her mouth and she couldn’t find a place to spit — hahaha — she couldn’t spit in the holy water! It had looked as though they would have to get rid of her, without bothering to baptise her. But the revivalist had suddenly got a brilliant idea — he had taken her downstream away from the rest and ducked her there. Haha, how funny it had been!

“Are you coming to play cards this afternoon?” asked August.

“No,” said the merchant.

“No?”

“I wouldn’t touch my hand to a card this day.”

“All right, do what you want!” August muttered with exasperation.

But August had yet to obtain the information he was seeking, and some time passed before he got up sufficient courage to come out with a direct query. “Was anyone from Tobias’ place baptised?” he asked.

“From Tobias’ place? No.”

“I thought maybe there would be, seeing as the preacher is staying over there. A certain Gypsy woman spit on the doorstep of that new house of his today, so I was thinking that it might be just as well for Tobias to get himself baptised.”

“Hm, it must have been that Aase, then — that witch! All she does is go about spitting misfortune upon folks’ houses.”

“Wasn’t that Cornelia baptised either?” August asked.

“No — no, there were only four of us today.”

August stopped dead in his tracks and shouted: “What! You, too?”

The merchant also stopped and nodded: “Ay, so it would seem,” he said.

“Well, I’ll be — what the devil did you do that for?”

“What does anybody get baptised for? You talk like a fool!”

August turned on him scornfully: “You’re a pig in holy matters! Weren’t you baptised already in the name of the Trinity? Hm, this is the worst thing I’ve ever heard!”

The man attempted to excuse himself: “Things weren’t going so good for me, let me tell you. Both Karel i Roten and that wife of his got themselves baptised, and you see Karel occasionally does a bit of business with me.”

August shook his head: “You’re just like a lot of swine, the whole pack of you, all filled up with superstition and false idol worship. And what’s that damned old angel-maker doing, staying out there with an innocent girl in the house? I’d stand in my right, if I went and reported him to that chief of mine.”

“Save your steps,” said the man. “The preacher is all ready to leave town now. I was the last one he baptised, at least for the present —”

So that was the end of the card game for that evening; the merchant had got himself baptised and was using this for an excuse and the gardener Steffen had gone off somewhere with his sweetheart. Not even the Gypsy Alexander was anywhere to be found.

Nothing else to do but eat, take a nap after dinner, go out for another walk and wait on pins and needles for that money of his to arrive. Why the devil didn’t it come? What was the matter? Well, it was a good thing, in any event, that that preacher fellow was on his way.

During the latter part of the afternoon he found himself down by the pier where two small boys were throwing stones at the sloop Soria. Suddenly he heard a stone strike home with a splinter of glass. Nimble lads they were, but they were unable to get away before August had recognized them — they were the doctor’s two sons, two little hellcats, two little rascals when it came to getting into mischief. It is possible that there was someone down in the cabin — a couple the lads had hoped to disturb.

There would be an evening of cards, after all. Jørn Mathildesen turned up and got his usual krone for acting as sentry. The merchant had changed his mind and appeared.

“What are you doing here?” August asked.

“Didn’t you say something about a hand or two of cards?” the man returned.

“I thought you got yourself baptised today! Didn’t I tell you that you were a pig about sacred matters?”

“Ay, but we can’t all be Jesus, you know.”

The gardener Steffen cut short his playing the swain and came racing over to August’s room as though frightened stiff he might miss something and with him he brought one of the clerks from the store, a regular demon at cards. Only the Gypsy was absent.

This was the first time the store-clerk had met with the sacred circle, but he lost no time in going after what small change the others had in their pockets. “Never saw anything to beat it!” said the merchant and lost again. But August was in even tighter straits than he; he was obliged to break the last banknote he had to his name. This was his present remnant, and what is there to do with a remnant? Reckless, excited, he stayed in the game.

The party lasted until midnight, Steffen and the store-clerk winning consistently. After they had cleaned out the other pair, there was nothing further to detain them and they rose and picked up their hats. They whistled, cast taunts at the losers and were in the highest of spirits when they left.

The merchant was furious at the whole group, at the entire world and demanded if August wouldn’t be good enough to cross himself a few times! Oh, he was in a vile humour, ashen with rage, desperate.

“Don’t cry about it!” said August and laughed at him.

“I should have listened to my wife and stayed away from here,” the man wailed. “Here I sit now as naked as when I was inside my mother’s womb.”

“You’ve got your wedding ring on!” said August.

“What’s that!” screamed the man.

“Let’s play for that.”

“Who ever heard such sinful talk! You haven’t got a single øre left to set up against it.”

“I’ll play you my Bible against it,” said August.

“Your Bible!” said the man, pausing to take a long breath. “You’d be committing a sin to play for that.”

August began shuffling the cards and said: “Best three out of five hands.”

The merchant won the first hand.

August took down the Bible from the shelf and laid it on the table. What did he want with it, heavy as it had been to drag about with him from country to country? An old Russian Bible. “Lay down the ring!” he said.

With much effort the man got the ring from his finger and laid it on top of the Bible.

August won. They were even. He also won the next hand.

The merchant was trembling by now, but he took fresh hope when he evened the game by winning the fourth hand. The score was two-all. The next hand would tell the story.

August prepared to deal.

“Shuffle the cards!” said the man.

August refused.

With that the merchant let one card slip to the floor and began counting over the cards he held in his hand. “I’ve only got four cards,” he said. “New deal!”

“Why?” asked August. “There’s one of your cards on the floor.”

“Yes, but you saw what it was. New deal!”

August good-naturedly threw in his hand and said: “All right, deal them over, you rascal!”

He lost. Naturally he lost with the wretched cards he received in the next hand. Very well, that old Bible had been so heavy to drag about with him from country to country. The merchant let out an audible sigh of relief, returned his wedding ring to his finger, stuck the Bible under his arm and withdrew. . . .

So there had been an evening of cards, after all.

Gammelmoderen called at August’s room before he had crawled into bed. Flushed in the face she was, youthful in appearance, charming. “Altmulig,” she said, “I saw you down by the pier this evening. Someone was throwing stones out at the sloop.”

“Hm,” said August to keep from stepping into something.

“Yes. I had just gone aboard to look around, but then they began throwing those stones so there was nothing else for me to do. Will you set some new panes in the skylight early tomorrow morning?”

“Ay, ay, ma’am!”

“Early, before you go to work on the road?”

“Ay, ay.”

“Thanks, Altmulig. You’re always so nice to come to!” Gammelmoderen said and slipped out the door.

It was one o’clock.

The Gypsy stopped in before going to bed. He was as drunk as could be, but he was holding it well. He gave out that he had been up in the mountains hunting for angelica root all day Sunday.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23r/chapter7.html

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