The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Fifteen

Doctor Lund and his son had returned home. They were both entirely well now. That is, the boy was still obliged to use a cane for a time, and the doctor had a glass eye.

That devil’s own Aase! It had been impossible to save the eye. Her filthy fingers had created an infection and this had ruined the eye completely.

It wasn’t so bad, though. The glass eye was just as lovely as the good one. The only trouble with it was, it could not roll about like a real eye and, of course, it was somewhat lacking in fire. No one else could observe any change in the doctor’s appearance, though he himself felt poorer and somewhat despoiled. That finicky man, he could not get it out of his mind; it had worked on his nerves, so he came right out with it to his wife, as though to make light of his misfortune. “Well, I don’t suppose you will want me any longer now!” he said. And when she laughed to hear such talk, he carried the conversation a bit further; it must be extremely disgusting to feel oneself attached to a man with so terrific a blemish and, beautiful as she was, she would certainly have no difficulty at all in finding herself another man!

“Here, here! Have you taken clean leave of your mind!” she howled joyfully. “I’d have you if you were blind!”

So ’tis an ill wind which blows no one some good! As the result of his misfortune Doctor Lund became an entirely changed man, fonder of his wife than ever before, truly in love now, as jealous as a youth of twenty. What difference did it make now if she were from Polden, from the poorest of homes, from the simplest of parents? A new life had begun for this pair: affectionate embraces, mad nights as bride and groom, laughter ringing through the house. And Fru Esther never again found it necessary to steal up to her corner in the attic to weep. That blessed creature, Aase!

August called on them.

“See here, August!” said the doctor. “Step over to the light and stick your finger in this damaged eye of mine!”

August went to the light, examined the two eyes carefully and was tactful enough to stick his finger in the good eye.

Nor was the doctor the least bit annoyed by this good-hearted mistake; he cried out, laughing: “You old rascal, you’re in league with Esther here! I ought to show you both the door!”

August pardoned himself on the grounds that he had been without his glasses, and this sounded reasonable enough. But the doctor was, nevertheless, naïvely pleased over the affair; if his blemish could not be detected without spectacles and a magnifying glass, it could not be such a terrific blemish, after all, could it?

“And see here now, August; I’ve been given to understand that you would like us to testify to the fact that you’re the man you say you are! Well well, that I shall be more than happy to do. Sit down a moment, have another cup of coffee!” The doctor began to write. “Come, Esther, you must sign this, too!”

After this, they sat down and had a long and friendly chat. The doctor’s son entered the room with his cane. “Yes, here’s the other cripple,” said the doctor. “But he’s all right now, too.”

“And who’s the first?” asked August, innocently.

“You know, that’s me!”

“You’re not to talk like that, do you hear!” cried his wife, clapping her hand over his mouth.

The doctor: “Can you ever understand women, August? Now look at Esther — she’s never before been as nice to me as she is now. No talk of slapping and scratching each other now!”

Moonshine, fiddle-faddle, but domestic happiness, full mutual accord, peace in the breast. . . .

When August was leaving, Esther stepped outside with him. “What do you think, August, just what do you think, I ask you!” she breathed, enraptured. “Have you ever seen such a change? I can’t feel my feet on the ground any more. It seems so good for me to be alive now!”

“You deserve all the good things anyone can think of!” said August.

“He’s been entirely different ever since he came back,” she continued. “I haven’t thought of Polden even once — I’ve no need to any more!”

“Ugh, Polden!” groaned August, attempting to blot out all thought of that vile place. . . .

Oh, but August was originally from Polden himself, and it would seem that he was not to be entirely quit of his native heath. He was expecting a sum of money from there. The identification signed by the doctor and his wife was despatched and Paulina was prompt to reply. And firm she was, that Paulina: the least August could do would be to come himself. There was an old and detailed account to present to him; out of the original lottery prize of twenty thousand German marks, she had paid off August’s debts, but more than half of the original amount had been left over and this residue, in the course of time, had more than doubled itself. She demanded that August should come to Polden so that he might receive an accurate accounting. If not, he could forget about the entire matter — just as he liked!

“In truth I am not surprised at the woman,” said the judge. “She seems to me to be decidedly salt of the earth.”

“Salt!” exclaimed August. “Say, you couldn’t find a straighter, honester, more religious lump of salt on this side of the Atlantic. I’ll say that much for her, I will!”

The magistrate was still anxious to help him and said: “What if you were to write her a letter yourself and explain that you have so much work to do down here that you simply can’t get away? That’s an idea worth trying.”

Ay, perhaps it was an idea worth trying, but one day after another slipped by and August put off writing the letter. No, he simply could not bring himself to do it. In the first place, how was such a singular letter to be put together? It wasn’t like a business letter — date, at hand and contents noted, in regard to, beg to advise, yours very truly — no, it was in truth a begging letter, a humble request for a sum of money he had given away with a mere flourish of his arm. The long and short of it was, he wrote no letter at all. All right then, you can keep the money, Paulina! He could live his remaining time on earth without it, as he had before, and farewell forever. Yours truly, August. . . . But no, it was a crying shame to be losing so large a sum of money just at this time when he could certainly put it to good use in one way or another. Didn’t that Paulina have any feeling left in her breast for her old friend and childhood companion? Hm. . . .

Well, perhaps he might send her a wire. An old vanity he had preserved from the days of his youth. Who could be bothered writing a long and tedious letter when the whole thing could be said in a telegram?

He seats himself in the telegraph office, fills in a blank, scratches out what he has written, writes something else, scratches that out. But he would not have sat there so complacently had he anticipated the interview which was about to follow: the chief telegraphist stepped from the instrument room to the outer office and approached him with a ponderous tome under his arm — the Russian Bible.

“I saw you sitting here,” he said, “and I had something I wanted to ask you.”

The fact of the matter was the chief telegraphist, the local bookworm, had suddenly gained the impression that this Russian Bible of his was really no Bible at all, though he had had no convenient way of settling his doubts on the point. Why should a Russian Bible have such an odd appearance? It might very well be some other manner of book. On the other hand, why should a Russian Bible not look exactly like this? What if it did look very much like some kind of a catalogue? There, you see! The whole problem was decidedly perplexing and the chief telegraphist had just about come to the conclusion that the book was anyway, as it were, Satan’s own Scripture, for he had been unable to sleep nights of late because of it.

“Can you read this book here?” he asked.

August smiled. “Blueberries for me!” he smiled.

“Well, what does this word mean?”

“That one there? That means in Norwegian something similar to Pontius Pilate.”

“And this one?”

“That means ‘with regard to.’ Ay, ‘with regard to.’ That’s what that means.”

“I wish I knew if you’re serious,” said the chief telegraphist. Suddenly he asked pointedly: “See here, man, do you know Russian?”

August smiled again.

The telegraphist: “I’m not sure what you know, but I can tell you one thing — you’re holding the book upside down. I can tell by the Greek characters.”

August started. “Dear me,” he said. “I can just as well turn the book the other way, if you like. But it’s all one to me. I can read it either way.”

The telegraphist: “How certain are you that this thing here is a Bible?”

August, exasperated: “Say, if you doubt that this is the Holy Bible, the Law and the Word of God Almighty, I can just as well take it back again for the five kroner you paid for it!”

This was the least he could do about it and right was only right. Of course such would mean a wicked expenditure on his part, the Bible was utterly useless to him, he couldn’t exactly rent it out. No, but he must save his reputation.

The telegraphist points to a certain page: “What’s this verse to do with?”

“That verse? Baptism, as I read it. The baptism of Jesus.”

“What!” shrieks the telegraphist at the top of his voice. “There? So far forward in the book? In the Old Testament?”

August reached for his five kroner; he would do his best to get himself out of this tight place without injury to his reputation. “I don’t see so well with these glasses. Never did see so well with them, but they were the only glasses I could get at the time. I bought them at a fair in Revel which is the capital of a country they call Esthonia. There were all kinds of other things I could have bought, but when I saw a man selling glasses I went right over to him and bought these. He was dressed in a homespun robe, like, with a rope around his middle and a glossy silk hat on his head, but other than that he was bare-footed. You never saw such a funny-looking merchant —”

The telegraphist’s excitement mounted steadily as he waited for August to finish. At length he pointed to the page again and let out a brutal roar! “Is it true that this particular verse has to do with baptism? With the baptism of Jesus?”

“Well, now, I won’t insist on it,” August answered. “It might, of course, have to do with something else. I was bright enough in my school days and I used to know all sorts of things, but what can you expect of a man of my age? Now I’ll just take and polish up these glasses of mine — hhhhhhhah — nice and bright and have a real good look. But you know when a man hasn’t the proper glasses —”

“Wait a minute!” commanded the chief telegraphist and hurried off to his instrument which was frantically signalling.

No, August did not wait.

He was finished with his various jobs on the place and was free to return to the road construction. The last thing he had to do was to show Editor Davidsen the new motor car and explain the mechanism to him. This was to be the subject of an article in the Segelfoss News.

There were others, too, who came to him for expert advice. Two men from the motion picture theatre called to ask him if he would lay a cement floor for them. He could do this evenings and during other free periods, they suggested.

August merely shook his head; he was the Consul’s man and would be unable to take on “private jobs,” in the district round about. “No no, my good friends,” he said. “I’ve altogether too much to take care of here!”

“That’s a shame,” the men said. “We’re in a tight place. Our old floor has rotted away.”

August, our busy friend, nevertheless found time to make a little jaunt down into South Parish. It was Saturday evening, the end of a bright summer day, and August had polished his shoes till they gleamed, had dressed himself up in a light linen suit purchased at the Segelfoss Store and had tied a red befringed kerchief about his waist for a sash. Thoroughly exotic he appeared and it was part of the program that he should. In his trousers pocket he jingled eight keys on a ring. Now what could those keys betoken? Possibly they had something to do with eight treasure chests he was somewhere said to possess.

No sign of festivity in the home of Tobias now; the world and the goods of this world had been rooted from the family consciousness, for the Anabaptist had returned to resume his pious doings. Who could have believed such a thing of Tobias and his household! He had always been such a steadfast and diligent chap, and even if he hadn’t burned down his own house last spring, he had been as pleased as punch when the insurance company paid out the money. But the preacher, that itinerant spiritual laundry, had had some effect upon him. Tobias had begun to feel some qualms; this business about the Holy Ghost was surely intricate and the end of it was that not only he himself, but his wife and Cornelia as well, were obliged to visit the river below the falls and go in for some holy scrubbing. Now who could have believed that of him!

Bustle and vociferation throughout the entire district; the Anabaptist reached about him with long arms and even succeeded in hauling in some of the present summer’s crop of confirmands — school children whom he got to kneel down and shout out their sins during his testimonial meetings. And the duckings continued, even though there were already slight signs of autumn in the air and the temperature of Jordan’s flood was only forty degrees.

But then something happened: another preacher came to town, another herald of the Lord, a competitor. The new man was holding forth up in North Parish and who should it be but Nilsen, an ordinary evangelist, with nothing to do with baptism, with little or no hocus-pocus involved in his gospel. Instead, he had brought with him a number of good sound written testimonials addressed to Pastor Ole Landsen by other legitimate ministers.

He proved to be a faithful servant of God, no great preacher, but kind of face and sincere in all he said. He did not fail to create an impression and those who had taken the trouble to hear both preachers and were connoisseurs of prayer meetings held Nilsen to be a hair’s breadth more liberal than the other. He was a simple man, wore not even a necktie, but in its place a plain yellow neckerchief, no black coat hanging clear to his knees, and his hands could not be called white. But Nilsen was not to be disesteemed for that.

It was, of course, quite unavoidable that he should talk against the Anabaptist and his activities in the south end of the parish. Not even one of God’s angels in Heaven could have avoided that. And it was here that Nilsen proved himself to be unexpectedly clever; that devil of a Nilsen, if he didn’t have something of a tongue in his head: “They are at their baptising again down there in South Parish,” said he. “And there they are jeering at and making mock of the Holy Ghost. But, my friends, it shows decidedly bad breeding to sneer and mock — when the one you refer to is absent!” he concluded pointedly.

By means of such simple, cosy peasant talk Nilsen was able to hold his listeners, but in the long run he could not last out against the preacher in South Parish who employed such hocus-pocus as kneeling down and popping up and treating folk to cold baths in running wafer. And the result was a general split, hatred and unrest there in Ole Landsen’s spiritual domain, and when at length it began to happen that folk went for each other on public thoroughfares, the Segelfoss News again asked Pastor Landsen if he didn’t feel that now he had grounds to interfere. “No,” replied the local minister. “It doesn’t amount to anything. Just give it time. By winter it will all be over with!”

The battle for the Holy Ghost raged on without signs of abating. Never before in history had this obscure God in God come in for such glowing publicity — the Anabaptist preached an entire sermon on the subject of this element of the Trinity and made Him far better known in the Segelfoss district than He was elsewhere in the whole of Norway. It was unbelievable how minutely the preacher could define Him — it was almost as though the Holy Ghost had sat to him for a portrait. “And what’s more, I can tell you his name in Latin!” he bellowed. “His name is Spiritus Sanctus. Go ahead, ask anybody you like if that’s not right!”

August, with but slight theological training, suddenly found himself in the very midst of this spiritual frenzy. Tobias no longer mentioned the horse he had received as a gift, made no mention of the frivolous red sash August was wearing about his waist, thought only of the sermon to be preached on the morrow — followed by further wallowings in the waters of Jordan.

Oh, kiss your grandmother! August probably thought to himself and didn’t even stop to cross himself. “Let me have a word with you, Cornelia!” he said.

Cornelia rose unwillingly and followed him out of doors. In a field at the side grazed the mare; as usual, she raised her head to glare in their direction. And as usual, a youth was to be seen rambling down the road from the neighbouring farm.

“Well, how are you getting along with the mare these days?” asked August, determined that the creature should receive at least some mention.

“Oh, the mare —” said Cornelia. “Ay well, she’s a devil to get into the harness, but otherwise she’s all right.”

“Well now, that’s fine!”

“But father, he’s begun to complain about it,” said Cornelia. “He wonders if he isn’t committing a sin to keep her.”

“A sin? Against me?” cried August, the millionaire. “You mean he thinks I couldn’t afford it?”

“No — no, that isn’t what he meant —”

“Well, let’s hope not, at least! A mere horse? Hahaha!” And August took out his bunch of keys and glanced at them, full of ownership.

“No, he was wondering if he wasn’t sinning against the man who sold the horse.”

August, a bit long in the face: “The man got what he asked, didn’t he? I didn’t beat him down on the price, that I know of!”

“No,” said Cornelia. “But, you see, there he was, a poor man, who was forced to sell. And now he must pack home firewood and hay on his back. A poor fellow who hasn’t even a horse in this world.”

August thought for a time, then said in utter desperation: “Well, I can easily take back the horse!”

The youth from the neighbouring farm draws near — Hendrik, Cornelia’s other sweetheart. He steps up to them and without a word of greeting asks: “What are you talking about, you two?”

“He wants to take back the horse,” says Cornelia.

“What’s that — the horse he gave you as a gift?”

August gives him fair warning: “Keep that nasty little snout of yours shut when I’m talking!”

No effect. No, Hendrik’s soul has become likewise awakened; he is pious now, God loves him and will watch over him. What can the world do to him now!

Cornelia began to weep.

“Don’t cry, Cornelia!” said Hendrik. “He isn’t thinking of taking the horse away. That’s impossible.”

“Listen here, you!” August warns him for the second time. “Get out of here!” And, at the same time, August makes a little flick of his hand in the direction of his hip pocket.

No effect here, either. Hendrik paled, as was to be expected, but he refused to budge. And Cornelia wept and clutched his arm and said: “No, you’re to stay right here!”

This staggered August somewhat. “Oh, so that’s how it stands, is it!” he said.

“Ay, we are one now,” explained Cornelia. “Hendrik is just like us others and tomorrow he will also be baptised. Then we’ll be together in that, too.”

August suddenly realized that he was losing the game and again fell to thinking to himself. When he spoke again, he said: “Look, Cornelia, I only came out here to tell you that I have had that Benjamin working for me for a time — that sweetheart of yours, you know, the one who holds you on his lap at Christmas dances —”

“Let him go on talking!” said Hendrik.

“He’s made good money working for me,” continued August. “And he’s a fine lad and a bright lad, too. You’d never go wrong on him, Cornelia.”

“I like your nerve!” said Cornelia. “He’s nothing to me any more. He goes to hear Nilsen — he’s not one of our kind!”

“There’s something so nice about that Benjamin,” said August. “And honest, too. I’ve given him my keys and put him in charge of everything I own and I’ve never missed so much as a pin from that day to this.”

“It’s nothing to me what you say!”

“And you’d never imagine all the things he’s learned from me! I’ll give him a fine letter of recommendation any day he likes and that you can believe! I’ll let you read the letter yourself.”

Cornelia was becoming more and more annoyed; at length she went far enough to say: “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“Benjamin, that sweetheart of yours. Oh, you know who I mean, all right — he’s kissed you more than once and kissed you good and proper, too —”

Hendrik undertook to exclaim: “I don’t see why we should go on listening to this man! He is not one of our kind. He’s full of the impurity of this world.”

“You filthy little snot!” cried August. “I’d do well to pick you up and wipe up the ground with you! What kind of clown is this you’re grabbing by the arm, Cornelia! He hasn’t got so much as a knife and spoon to his name and he couldn’t even buy himself a pair of shoes to keep from going barefoot this winter! But that sweetheart of yours — that Benjamin — it’s me that’s looking out for him, and I’ll teach him all kinds of trades and ways to make good money, too. Don’t you worry about that!”

And Cornelia burst into tears; ay, that she did. But she refused to give in, so thoroughly baptised and religious had she become. “Gold and worldly goods we may never have much of,” she said. “But our daily bread will be enough for us.”

“Ay,” said Hendrik, and agreed with her thoroughly.

“All right. It’s all the same to me,” said August. “And I’m all through trying to talk to you. But you needn’t think you can make a fool of that Benjamin. No. For there isn’t a girl in the whole of North Parish he can’t have if he likes. But best of all, he can even have one of the housemaids at the Manor if he likes. She’s crazy about him. Anyone could see as much with one eye shut.”

Cornelia flared up at this. “Ho, so maybe he’ll take her?”

“I wouldn’t say a word as to that!” August answered. . . .

He tramped back to town, fretful and annoyed. His jaunt had proved unfortunate — he had completely neglected his personal interests where Cornelia was concerned and had struggled on another’s behalf. But even in this miserable direction he had failed to accomplish his ends.

He called at the motion picture theatre and sent to North Parish after Benjamin to come and lay a cement floor. The present job would involve no small amount of work, as the ground beneath would first have to be dried out and a draining system installed. Benjamin would have enough to keep him busy until haying time at home.

What would Cornelia have to say about that? Oh, those stupid womenfolk!

But Cornelia, after all, was certainly no worse in affairs of the heart than others of her sex — all women were alike. He spat. Maybe he didn’t know them! What prevented them from indulging in the vilest of folly? What had he not experienced of an evening upon returning home? Who could control them when they took it into their heads to fly loose?

He felt disconsolate indeed as he went strolling home to the Manor. He was completely out of sorts and at length stopped in at the gardener Steffen’s room to see if he couldn’t get up a card game for that same evening. But Steffen was engaged, Steffen had his sweetheart in from the country to visit him in his room and there he now sat entertaining her with a bag of cookies, as hard as rocks, he had bought for her at the store.

“Come in Altmulig,” said Steffen. “This is only my girl and me.”

“Ay, but we’re not making love!” said his sweetheart, tauntingly.

Steffen, with self-justification: “I just got these cookies here from the store, so you wouldn’t have to go home hungry.”

“They’re not to be got down,” she said.

Steffen sat there making a heroic job of munching and chewing, but the lady seemed unwilling to risk her teeth. At length she resolutely took them out of her mouth and set them down on the table. False teeth in a plate of red India rubber and slimy into the bargain. Steffen gave them an ugly scowl. The lady now began gummily to suck on a petrified cookie.

“You’re a pig!” said Steffen.

“And you, with those horse teeth of yours?”

“Take that thing away!” he bellowed in desperation.

“So so,” she replied, and sucked her plate back into her mouth.

“I’ve puked at less than that,” said Steffen.

“You brute!” replied his sweetheart.

“Ay, but it looked like some part of your insides!”

“I won’t so much as answer such filthy talk!”

Their words grew more and more harsh and bitter. At length tears and poundings on the table.

“I’ll go right off and leave you,” the lady howled. “You’re nothing to me!”

“Go ahead and leave! See if I care!” Steffen shot back. “Happy journey to you!”

They played through the entire scene. . . .

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55