The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Nine

There were two sides to his nature, however, many sides, but he was also a madcap. Happy-go-lucky and reckless, somewhat careless in the matter of dress — one wide and one narrow shoestring, a hat which had seen better days. But essentially good-natured and of strong character, a well-spring of whimsical notions, occasionally even regretful over the mistakes he had made.

Aside from being adroit at swinging on a trapeze and rowing a boat, he was also something of a mountain-climber and in none of his activities did he think to spare a muscle. He had likewise a habit of going for long walks in the country, whether this was due to sheer boredom or a thirst for physical exercise, and indeed he was on friendly terms with natives of the rural districts who interested him with all the things they had to tell. There was, for example, the case of the man who, this very spring, had got drowned when the horse he was driving had backed both him and itself into the river below the falls. Both man and horse had been lost. But what had he been doing so near the falls with such a skittish colt? No one seems clever at guessing the riddle and the sheriff says it is a thousand times impossible ever to solve the mystery. “But here now’s what I think —” offers the man who tells him the story. “If he had been using a sledge — but a cart it was he was driving, so that when he was trying to turn on that steep slope there, his wheels, they must have slipped back and pulled the horse down with the cart. Ay, that’s how she seems to me. But much there is as is kept from the light of day in this and they say as that Aase had just been spitting on that doorstep of his. And now ’tis as that Aase should be brought before the law to tell the things as she knows, but the sheriff, he won’t so much as touch a hand to her, so there’s nothing as can be done about anything. And his family as lives on behind him — his woman and four little ones — so boundless poor they are as nobody here would think, their man and support all dead and gone and even their horse was drowned. And the two oldest out begging in one part and the mother and the two littlest out begging in another! It might be as there’s something the Herr Druggist might find to do for them?”

“Of course, of course,” says Holm. “If only I— no, the idea is mad!”

“If only as to speak a word for them somewhere?”

“What was the man’s name?”

“Ay, there you see, ’tis almost a blasphemy to take in one’s mouth!”

“How so?”

“For ’tis no human name to be called by with such!”

“Well, what was his name?”

“Don’t tell that I say it —’twas Solmund!”

He would certainly have liked to do something for the surviving members of Solmund’s family, but what means did a mere druggist in Segelfoss have at his command! He could go for long walks and meet people and listen to their tales and return home. But what was he, really? A nonentity. He could sit and play patience, he could sit and read books —

Yes, but he could also play the guitar — oh, he was something of a master when it came to playing the guitar. The postmaster’s wife, Fru Hagen, who understood music, said she had never heard such guitar-playing in her life. He sang a bit, as well, in a quiet, subdued, almost shameful voice, but there, too, he showed that he was really a musician. Nor was Fru Hagen able to sing much herself, now that she had lost her voice. But this did not prevent them from having many a pleasant time together over their music, she on her grand piano: Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven — he on his guitar: light songs and ballads. Yes, art and music all the way through, even on a poor guitar.

It was his habit to get himself mildly drunk; he said he would never have the courage to play for the postmaster’s lady unless he were in such a condition as would warrant her forgiveness. There was a touch of bravado in his attitude, possibly a conscious modesty, an attempt to emphasize the fact that he was no bourgeois. He enjoyed himself in Fru Hagen’s company; she had lived much among artists abroad and had a good bit in common with him. Together they would play and laugh and chat. No, he was not always drunk, nor in truth so very often, and were he to come to her on rare occasions after a bit of a bout with his fellow-Bergenser, Vendt of the hotel, he would be no less amusing and voluble than usual. To the contrary. Nor would Fru Hagen be any the less herself, either; she knew how to keep pace with him, that handsome little lady, graceful as a willow bough. They could hold the most incredible conversations together, many times actually verging on the point of subtle flirtation, and God knew if on some occasion they might not play with fire a bit too carelessly and cause a conflagration.

“Do you know, it is quite possible that I love you,” he says. “But I don’t suppose that you would care to close your door to me on that account?”

“Such would never enter my mind,” she replies.

“No, for I am such a nonentity. And my outward appearance, I don’t suppose that is much of a temptation to you, is it?”

“Oh, no, I consider my husband better looking.”

“Here, here! That won’t go,” says Holm, shaking his head.

“He is fond of me.”

“Well, so am I. And, do you know, I’ve just taken a notion to part my hair in the back.”

“Heavens no! I’d rather have you just as you are.”

“Hm.”

“For you aren’t exactly homely, you know.”

“Homely? Why, I’d be downright handsome if only I didn’t have this ugly nose in the middle of my face.”

“It really isn’t ugly,” says Fru Hagen. “I consider it quite full and lovely.”

“Hm. But do you know what I’m thinking as I sit here? That we could easily hear your husband coming up the front steps.”

“Yes?”

“Yes. And that I should have plenty of time to kiss you before he gets home.”

“No,” says Fru Hagen, shaking her head.

“I don’t see how you can very well avoid it,” he mumbles.

“What would I say if he should suddenly come in on us?”

“You could say that you were sitting here reading a book.”

“Hahaha! I never heard anything quite so brazen!”

“I might steal a kiss, you know. As though I knew it were forbidden.”

“Better let it go altogether. You see, I’m a married woman.”

“I don’t believe it. You are a young and fascinating girl, and I have developed a tremendous passion for you.”

“It is difficult to discern any signs of that passion in you,” says the lady. “Especially, when I know very well that it doesn’t exist.”

“What, after all I have said!”

“Said? You haven’t said anything.”

“Are you mad? Of course, I didn’t exactly say in so many words that I would die upon your grave. But such you must assume for yourself.”

“Shall we play a bit again?” she asks.

“Out of the question! For now I am about to take you in my arms!” says Holm, rising.

But Fru Hagen avoids his embrace, gently — as it were, winningly — and steps across the room to the window where she stands in full view of the street. “Come here and see something!” she says.

The annual German musicians have arrived on the north-bound steamer and have stepped ashore at Segelfoss to play their serenades. And they will survive, as they have in the past survived; they will be received with friendship and a bit to eat in every house, so welcome they will be. But first of all, they make their way out to Segelfoss Manor where they form in a circle by the kitchen door and run through their entire repertory. Their visit is not in vain; with the first blast from the cornet, the inmates rush to the windows, the children flatten their noses against the panes and even the beautiful Frøken Marna raises a window and seats herself on the ledge to take full advantage of the concert. But Fru Juliet, she is on the verge of tears and refrains from showing herself, in such wise does she react to the serenade — that adorable mistress of Segelfoss, good heavens, see how easily touched she is! But down in the kitchen the maids glide in waltz-time each trip they take between cook-stove and sink, and as for Gammelmoderen, she too sways a bit to the music, though she has a young child in her arms.

And when the concert draws to a close, the eldest of the children, a little boy, steps out with an envelope containing money. Ah, banknotes! They are not niggardly at Segelfoss Manor. If only Gordon Tidemand himself had been at home, he would have rounded off the gift, added to it, added much. He would have shown the sort of man he was.

The musicians take off their hats and bow, first to the boy, to this little gentleman, and then to all the windows, both upstairs and downstairs. The young dark-haired cornetist even kisses his fingers to the beautiful Marna aloft in her window, though she hardly so much as returns him a smile, that phlegmatic creature! It would take a virile lover indeed to kindle a flame in that lady’s breast!

With that, the musicians wander down into town and station themselves outside the postmaster’s home for their next performance. Here they are accustomed to exchanging a few words of German with the lady of the house and to receive a few kroner done up in a paper and thrown down into the band-leader’s cap.

A procession of children and young people have followed them down the street, for here is a grand experience in their lives — a cornet, two violins and an accordion, music played by four men all at once, to them a living fairy tale. . . .

The band strikes up. And in the window stand the postmaster’s wife, Fru Hagen, and Druggist Holm, listening.

“Have you a krone?” she asks. “For I have only one.”

“I have two,” he replies.

She opens the window, hats fly off, smiles and recognition. —”Guten Tag, meine Herren!”—“Guten Tag, gnädige Frau!“—“You’re late this year!”—”Ja, gnädige Frau, a whole month later than usual. Ve vere delayed back home in Chairmany. But ve vill hurry along later now so ve come to Hammerfest before die Hundstage.

Fru Hagen takes aim at the cornetist’s cap, and even though she is near-sighted, she throws the money. It finds its mark, how could it miss? For the young man is so flattered at being chosen by her, that he almost falls on his face in his efforts to catch her packet. The entire band laughs and the lady in the window laughs, too. “Danke schön, gnädige Frau! Vielen Dank!” And then the devil must have let loose inside that young cornetist’s breast, for he steps directly up to the window, looks the lady straight in the face and kisses his fingers to her. The two are in such close proximity, that it might just as well have been a kiss on the mouth. “Glückliche Reise nordwärts!” says the lady, stepping back from the window to hide the shameful blush on her cheeks.

“Mercy me!” is all she says.

But Druggist Holm has found something else to interest him and utters no reply. He has caught sight of a little boy and a little girl who, hand-in-hand, are standing outside the circle of town children. They feel lost in a town of this size, and for safety’s sake, they cling to each other’s hands. Both are carrying little pasteboard boxes under their arms, as they stand there watching the musicians, their mouths agape, all eyes.

Holm says to Fru Hagen with a deep bow: “Madam, I must leave you, I have completely forgotten that I must go on duty, though it breaks my heart.”

“Dear, dear, so you must go!” she replies. How clever she is never to allow herself to be amazed over the sudden whims of this man!

“Thanks for today, madam! It breaks my heart.”

He hastens out of the house and gathers up the two children as they stand there clinging tightly together. “What’s your father’s name?” he asks of the boy. A foolish question; the lad simply stares at him.

“Are you from North Parish?”

“What did you say?”

“I said, are you from North Parish?”

“Ay.”

“You probably don’t know. What’s your father’s name?”

“Father, he’s dead,” says the boy.

“Drowned below the falls?”

“Ay,” answer both children at once.

“Come, you must have something to eat!” says Holm.

God knows what he could have had at home good enough for these little shavers, seeing as they needed so much. And it was probable, too, that they were expected to take something home in those pasteboard boxes of theirs.

He takes them straight to the hotel.

A lovely predicament in which Druggist Holm now found himself! His last words to the children that day had been: “Come back tomorrow!” Yes, for they had given him those tiny sorrowful hands of theirs whilst thanking him for his food, and in his, they had seemed like little bird feet, and he had been quite overcome with emotion.

And yes, bright and early the following day the children had returned to the hotel, and thereafter they had come each day. This was splendid, a pleasure Holm would hardly have cared to deny himself. But now their mother had also joined the company and with her she had brought the two youngest, and that made five in all — it was now almost as though he had got himself a family! To be sure, the mother had come on a legitimate enough errand, to thank the druggist, but could he have allowed her and those two tiny tots to go away without a little something to chew on themselves? Who could be so hardhearted? And on the following day, at meal-time, the mother had returned to the hotel — she had lost her kerchief, she said, and imagined she might have left it at the hotel. Oh well, it wasn’t so easy to have four little ones! The mother came right frequently, and Holm could not send her away. The hotel-keeper asked him if it was his thought to marry the widow.

At length he was obliged to go to the welfare agency just as though he had once had this family and was now unable any longer to support them. This helped, as thenceforth the widow received definite support — nothing grand, to be sure, the painful bare necessities — but she received her grocery orders regularly and her children were no longer beggars.

“Phew!” said Druggist Holm.

And meanwhile the town had been ringing with music. The band-leader was like an old friend, recognized by folk from year to year; he played outside the hotel, he played outside the drugstore, packed up his band and led them out to the magistrate’s home and the parsonage where they played, and on the way back to town, they stopped to play for the doctor — joyfully received wherever they went. Doctor Lund himself had stood with his arms around his wife’s waist on the porch to listen, and fortunately the small boys were at home instead of being away on some errand of mischief. They went into the house after the coins they had themselves been saving, they collected money from their parents and from the girls in the kitchen, gathered in quite a sum and presented this to the band. The leader thanked them profusely. A tray of food and drink was brought out to them and after that there was more music and at length farewells were said. A charming farewell, not too lengthy and not too curt, a cultured farewell as in years past. But there, suddenly the cornetist was off again. The rascal, he had an eye for beauty, good-looking as he himself was with his burning gaze and his shining dark hair. But how ever had he found courage for this latest gesture of his! He raced up two of the three steps to the porch, knelt on the third and kissed the hem of Fru Esther’s garment! That mad buffoon! His act constituted a serious breach of discipline, the third and worst he had committed that day, and the leader called out sharply to him. Nevertheless, he did not come until he was ready. At first the doctor’s wife had not realized what was happening but then her lovely face had gone red as fire and she had uttered a laugh of embarrassment.

“Auf Wiedersehen!” the doctor called after the band and he, too, laughed, though his laughter was possibly a bit forced.

“That crazy fellow!” said his wife. “He wasn’t with them past years.”

“But perhaps he will come back again!” said the doctor.

His wife looked at him. “I didn’t have anything to do with it,” she said, and entered the house.

The doctor followed her in. “You didn’t have anything to do with what? Do you think I care about that? Are you mad!”

“No, no, everything’s all right.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, my dear Esther!”

Without another word, she left the room, mounted the stairs and continued on up to the attic. There she had a certain dark corner into which she could creep and hide, a heavenly corner which was all her own. Poor little Esther from Polden, in no wise grand enough to be a doctor’s wife. No, it had been easier to be this doctor’s cook.

The devil take that cornet-player! If he hadn’t come all the way north from Germany just to set folk’s heads awhirl in this backwoods town of Segelfoss in Norway! From the sound of the leader’s voice, too, it was apparent that even he was strongly resentful of the young man’s conduct and had the latter not been the most invaluable member of the quartette, he would certainly have let him go. But the cornet, my dear, that marvelous shining horn which brought in whole capfuls of money! Yes, it was the cornet which created the wildest sensation and it must have been a gift from God Himself to enable anyone to produce living tones from it. The doctor’s sons who had accompanied the band, received permission to try the horn, but they were unable to get a single sound out of it. They became annoyed and tried it again, but not a peep would it give forth. “Oh the devil!” they cried and almost burst blood-vessels trying to get it to speak. The cornet seemed to smile at them, for all that it politely declined. Then one of them placed a finger on one of the valves — the instrument emitted a squeak. Ah, they had discovered the secret! They were probably the worst-behaved boys in town, but they were certainly no fools! By the following day the musicians were finished in Segelfoss. There had been no great changes in the town since the year before; a couple of new craftsmen, a butcher and a watch-maker had arrived to try for a living in this new field, but these were not the type to squander one’s musical gifts upon. The band was thus delighted to learn that a north-bound freighter, leaving that night, could take them aboard and drop them at the next populous port of call.

The doctor’s boys, though it was past midnight, stole out of the house and followed the band aboard. And the Segelfoss News carried a friendly notice of the visiting German musicians. They came each year like migratory birds, stopped off at our little town and brought us all joy again, leaving behind them the nostalgic memory of a pleasure which had spread through all the homes, but which had been all too short. Auf Wiedersehen! Welcome back next year!

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