The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Twenty-Three

August has been in bed for several days, but the doctor, fearing certain complications as the result of his patient’s immoderate debauch, has ordered him for a few more days to stay where he is.

On the whole, August is in no immediate distress; his Baptist sisters are giving him the best of care — they sit there talking religion with him, and their hours together bear a strong resemblance to prayer meetings.

But could he afford the time to keep lying there flat on his back? Had he not promised to turn over a certain finished road to the Consul on a certain definite date? And that date had now passed and two fences had yet to be installed and here he was in bed! Indeed fate’s paths were dark and devious.

Glancing at himself in the mirror, he observed that his face had lost flesh. But had he not taken up religion for the purpose of bettering his condition and getting some benefit out of life? Well then, if he couldn’t get up and appear well, what was the sense in baptism and all that hocus-pocus? If he were to remain bed-ridden for several more weeks and thus grow simply that much older to no end, what would Cornelia have to say about that?

It was all very well to be religious but it was a ghastly tedious business. He couldn’t take a single bite of food into his mouth without first pausing to thank the Lord for His bounty, and he couldn’t even send for the small dealer in town to come up and play cards with him on the bed. What was there for him, then? His sisters in the cause of God had even gone so far as to remind him that he was indulging in acts of sheer worldliness to shave as often as he did. How could such women ever understand a man who had fallen in love with a girl? It was not to be denied that it had been much simpler for him to live life before his recent baptism, divinely religious as he had been even then, with a sign of the cross over forehead and breast for each and every occasion.

It was utterly impossible for him to lie there completely inert; diligently he cut notches in the back of the chair at his bedside and many times a day he would get out his revolver and examine it and polish it.

“Come on, no more fooling now! Let me have those clothes of mine!” he ordered.

“We don’t dare,” answered Blonda and Stina.

“If you don’t, I’ll scream,” he threatened. “And I’ll swear so that lightnings will flash about your ears!”

“Are you out of your head? Lie still! We’ll phone the doctor and hear what he has to say.”

Day after day they soothed him, told him white lies to keep him quiet: the doctor wasn’t home, the doctor was furious and ordered him to be tied down in bed.

They had even been on the point of summoning help to tie him down, those beasts! And with that he had altered his tactics. “You’re right!” he had said. “This is a test the Lord is putting me through — I’m still too sinful to get up!” And not only when his good sisters were at his side, but when he was alone as well, did he try to improve himself and strengthen his feelings of piety by punishing himself and torturing himself in divers ways. Many times during the night he would weep, smite himself in the face and pinch his body till it hurt. But what good did all that do? he would ask himself in the morning. Didn’t I fall to dreaming about her as soon as I was asleep?

“I can just as well sit up in bed,” he craftily said to his sisters. “Let me have that coat of mine!”

But his sisters were no less crafty. “Here’s a woollen blanket for you,” they said.

He ground his false teeth. “Do you want to have me sitting here looking like a dummy?” he raged. “No, I’d rather stay lying down!” And, to himself, he wondered if next morning it might not be possible for him to effect an escape in his nightshirt.

But the next morning the greatest of miracles came into his life, and it was well he hadn’t been sitting there bundled up in a blanket: a visitor from out of town was shown into his room, Paulina Andreasen from Polden!

He stared at her for a time. Old she now was, to be sure, but still wearing three articles forever traditional to her person — a white ribbon about her throat, a pearl ring on her finger and a hair-net over her hair. In addition to these, she was today wearing a kind of hat made from brown velvet. . . .

“No, is that you, Paulina!” he said.

“Ay, and so it seems!” she replied. “You were pretty good to know me again.”

“As though I wouldn’t know you again! You look just like you always did!”

It pleased her to hear this and she was sympathetic with him at once. “What’s this I find? Is that August all sick and played out?”

“Ay, worse luck!” he said faintly. “The Lord has cast me down upon my bed of pain!”

Bed of pain! She seemed at once to recognize the August of old and smiled. “What’s your trouble?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s my chest that’s worst of all right now. I’ve coughed up a good bit of blood.”

“No need for you to worry over that,” she said briskly. “It’s only the young as can count that anything serious — consumption or the like. How did you get sick?”

“Ay — cast me down — I don’t know —”

More clearly than ever could she recognize him now. “Well,” she said, “I’ve heard that you got yourself baptised in the river below a big waterfall here and that it gave you a terrible cold.”

“Ay,” he said. “It was a mistake I didn’t get it done to me in Java or some other warm country like that.”

“Your real mistake was that you had it done to you at all. You were already baptised in the Christian faith, weren’t you? What was the sense in getting baptised all over again?” she asked.

“But this was what they call total immersion in regular running water,” he said.

“And if you weren’t a goose to take stock in such nonsense as that!”

“But there was an evangelist here and he was after me all the time.”

“And so? — Catch me bothering my head about a man like that! You might have died of it; didn’t you know that?”

“Ay. But he said to me that if he couldn’t do it to me, it wouldn’t do the rest of them any good, either.”

“So you sacrificed yourself? How gallant!”

“Ay. And you see, he got a grip on so many of us sinners here, and I didn’t know how things would go with me, so I took up with religion.”

Paulina smiled. “Took up with religion, did you, August!” she said.

“I had gone about crossing myself and reading the Bible in Russian and all that, but it didn’t seem like that was anything but heathenish magic and Freemasonry. What do you think, Paulina?”

“I don’t know anything about it.”

“No, but after I was baptised I happened to go out on that field there where some men were having a fight. And that’s one thing I certainly shouldn’t have done, for it was the worst imitation of a fight I ever saw in my life and I stood there too long and got chilled.”

“Ay, but why did you go?” snorted Paulina.

“No, I just wanted to — not because I had any desire to see blood or suchlike — but is it really anything to you why I went?”

August was in some doubt as to the attitude he should adopt toward her. Religious she was not, and he could only feel his way along with her. At length he decided to let her take the lead. Nor for that matter did she appear to be particularly concerned over anything he said or might say. She knew him too well, it seemed, and, after all, she had merely come to see him on a matter of business.

“Ay, August,” she said. “I’ve come down here from Polden.”

“Hm, Polden,” he mumbled. “I’ll never forget that Polden in spite of all the many places I’ve visited since last I was there.”

“Since you wouldn’t come to me, I had to come to you.”

“As you see, Paulina, here I am in bed and out of everything —”

“Nonsense!” she said. “And now I’ve written to the judge from the hotel and told him I’m here myself.”

“Hm. The judge, eh? Well well.”

She drew a packet of papers from the pocket of her coat. “Here’s the accounts as I’ve kept them to the last penny you got from us and we from you. You remember that morning?”


“That brother Edevart, he walked out along the road with you when you were running away from town. But then just a little while later we got news that you no longer had need to run away, for you had won a large sum of money in a lottery and could pay back every penny you owed and still have the best part left over. But you don’t ask about that brother Edevart. He was my own brother and he was drowned when he went out to bring you back —”

“I know about that,” said August quietly.

“He borrowed the mail-boat and he sailed out all by himself and he never came back.”

“I know it.”

“But I paid for the mail-boat which was lost out of this money of yours.”

“What money? I have no money.”

“Rubbish! And, just like that, I paid one thing after another that you owed for, both in Polden and in Vesteraalen, so you don’t owe anyone anything now. Here’s the account of everything!” she said, slapping her palm with the packet.

“I don’t want to see any account or anything.”

“Haha!” laughed Paulina, derisively. “No, and I didn’t intend that you should have them. From what I can make out, you don’t understand accounts any better now than you used to in the old days. It’s the judge and the proper authorities who are to take these accounts and study them. For you are just like you were twenty years ago — you simply can’t manage your own affairs, for you’re a child or a bird on the wing.”

“You’re right, Paulina. I know of no bird as restless as I am.”

“And here is the bank-book!” she said, slapping her hand with this. “Quite a sum of money has accumulated in this account of yours through all the years. And the money you can get either at the bank here or in Bodø.”

She mentioned no specific sum and it was quite impossible that he should ask. Instead, he said: “I can’t make out why you talk like you do, Paulina. I have no money coming to me from you. You know as well as I do that I gave you everything I left behind me when I went away from Polden.”

Paulina nodded. “Ay, you’re not so far wrong in that. And that’s why I answered the judge like I did when I said that, so far as I knew, the money was mine, with the signatures of two witnesses to the paper. For it seemed to me that Sir August was just a wee bit too high and mighty to write and order me to send the money to him, instead of coming to me after it himself.”

“True, I was too high and mighty.”

“For how did I know you were the man you made yourself out to be?”

“No,” August admitted with a shake of his head.

“And so,” said Paulina, desirous of ending the discussion, “I had to come down here, since you wouldn’t come to Polden.”

“I was hoping to find the time, and I’d have come this week if I hadn’t —”

“Rubbish! You’ve had plenty of time ever since last spring! But let’s hear no more about that — you’re to have this money of yours!” She neatly arranged the papers and tucked them back into the pocket of her coat.

August attempted one pitiful last wriggle. “That money is yours, Paulina!” he said.

She sniffed vehemently. “What do I want with it?” she asked. “I certainly don’t need it and you needn’t think for a minute I do. And that brother Joakim, he certainly doesn’t have to come to me for anything — he’s a single man and has a farm of his own.”

There was a knock on the door and a maid from the kitchen entered with a tray of cakes and coffee.

“Goodness me!” exclaimed Paulina.

“The mistress heard as how you had a stranger in for a guest, Altmulig,” the girl said.

“Ay, and what a stranger!” he declared emphatically.

“Now I simply refuse to be called such a thing as that!” said Paulina. “Here we’ve known each other since we toddled about as children and the Lord has given us many a year since then.”

“Yes, miss, so now if you please!” said the girl and left the room.

Paulina, greatly enlivened: “Well, I must say the folk on this place here certainly aren’t petty in their ways! Such a lovely plate of cakes!” She poured coffee for them both, lost no time in tasting of her own, smacked her lips and smiled. “And such coffee! Oh my, oh my! Now certainly I will have to slip off this coat of mine and stay a while with you, August! What was that she called you — Altmulig?”

“Ay. Because I do everything there is to be done here in the Consul’s service and everywhere else I go.”

“My, there never was such coffee!” she said and took another swallow. “Are you pleased with it here?”

“That you should ask such a question! The lady of the house here is just like a sister to me!”

“Ay ay, so now I can tell you all the news from Polden,” she said. “Those elegant houses you and that brother Edevart put up, there they stand beautifying the road running down to the boathouses.”

“And the factory?” he asked in a voice which was barely audible.

“Ay, and the factory stands there just the way it did when you left it. I’ve tried my best to sell it for you, but nothing ever came of that.”

“It isn’t mine,” said August.

“Well, but I paid back all the stockholders out of that money of yours. And I paid all the bills for the steel beams and the sheet iron roofing and the cement all out of that same money. So I don’t know what else there can be standing against it — my, I’ve never tasted such delicious cakes! And such a lot of them! Here I’m eating and eating away and to see the plate you’d never think I’d had one!”

“You must keep right on and eat all you can.”

“Ay, and there stands your factory the same as ever, so, for the matter of that, you could come home and start it up any day that you like. But what could you possibly make there? You worked at so many things when you were with us in Polden and some things were helpful and some things were hurtful, but what, after all, is there left today to show for all the hard work you put in? The expenses ate up the profits in whatever business undertaking you touched your hand to, and is that the way factories are supposed to be run? No, that sister Hosea is probably the wisest one of all — she spins and she weaves and she sews her own clothes and she never buys so much as a stitch of underwear from me in my store. You got that Karolus to sell off his good fertile soil to make building lots and in the end he almost starved to death. You wanted that Ezra to plant Christmas trees on soil which yielded food! Hahaha! But you certainly came up against a tough one when you came up against that Ezra! Do you remember that, August? But for my part, I’ve nothing to complain about over the things you did in Polden, for it was me that got that big iron safe you bought for that bank of yours and for which I’ve daily use now for all the business papers belonging to me and the store and the Royal Mail and the village register and other official books belonging to that brother Joakim who is head-man there at home. Ay, and that bank of yours, August — how you ever could have thought up such a bank! But, thank the Lord in Heaven, I’ve arranged everything about that as about everything else, and paid back every man the money he lost through it, whether stockholder or depositor.”

“I don’t understand where you got hold of money enough to do all that,” said August.

“I did it with the money I had of yours. It was your own money that did it.”

“Ay, then I don’t suppose there can be so very much left of it, then?” he questioned her.

She did not answer his query; instead, she drank coffee and devoured cakes. “Ay, I got the safe cheap enough, I did,” she said. “But I cheated no one, least of all you.”

“If I’d have been there I’d have given you the safe,” he said.

“I know you would. You’ve never been petty or stingy in any of your dealings. But you’ve been a fool and a silly goose every time it came to looking out for your own interests. That’s the opinion of this Paulina who says so.”

It would be quite improper to find fault with her statement were he to pursue his policy of meekness and a broken heart in order to gain possession of a certain bankbook. Therefore, he merely asked: “About those spruce trees I set out, are they still alive?”

“Ay, nicely. Both at ours and several other places. The ones in the Inner Settlement, the long double row from the boat landing up to the church, they are alive, but they’re slow to grow and they’re still hardly bigger than house plants. But pretty to look at they are and I see them every time I go to church. They’ve now planted birches beside them to give them a wee bit of shelter. What was I going to say? Tomorrow I’ll be going to see that Esther and that doctor of hers. Have you been up to their place?”

“Ay, a good many times. Finest sort of people, they are.”

“I’ve greetings for her from her people. And then I must hear a sermon here before I go back home. They say your pastor here is worth listening to.”

“Ay, and that’s no lie.”

“Have you heard him preach?”

“Every Sunday! What do you take me for!”

“But, first of all, I must go see the judge and take care of my business with him and get a receipt and all. Ay, and a pity it is, but I won’t have time to wait over for that sermon on Sunday. I’d miss the boat if I did.”

Would she were gone already! August probably thought to himself. Ay, for until she had left town, it would be impossible for him, without feeling ashamed, to go and pick up a certain bank-book. But still —

“What’s your hurry!” he exclaimed. “Can’t you wait over for the next ship north? You’ve no one at home calling for you.”

She paid small heed to the words he spoke — his conversation was so much thin air. “Ay, so now you must have my many thanks,” she said, getting into her coat. “I’ll never forget this treat I’ve had, stranger that I am here in town and all that. For I may as well say it’s almost like paradise being here. Do you know when I came off the boat last night I met the druggist here on the pier and I never saw him before in my life but he wanted to carry my basket for me! I can’t get over that!”

“Ay, that druggist, he’s a top-notch fellow. I know him well.”

“And the same with the manager of the hotel, you can’t imagine how nice he was to me. When I asked him how much he wanted for the room I was to have, he said it wasn’t big enough to charge for. But I didn’t want it that way, for he mustn’t think it’s charity I’m needing. But it only goes to show how kind folk here in Segelfoss are to me. And now I’m mindful to know what time it says on that watch of yours, that is, if it’s going at all?”

“Going! When I have so many folk under me here, I have to keep time by the minute!” He takes down his watch from the wall and gives her the time.

“So now I must go,” she says, “for I wrote to the judge there I’d stop in to see him before noon. . . . That Ane Maria as was wife to that Karolus, I suppose you remember her well? She’s old now and her days have been many and long, but a sight it is to see how active and full of fun she still is. And that must be because she’s never been sick — ay, both she and I, we’re never sick a day, and that’s how we manage to keep up without growing old, but it was odd, just the same, how you knew me the minute I stepped into the room here.”

“Nothing odd about that,” said August, “for you don’t look a day older than you did when I last saw you.”

“But then there can’t be many more of us you still can remember,” she said, pausing to think. “And as I say, that factory of yours, there’s nothing to be done with that, and I’ll explain it all to the judge. Unless a certain Englishman comes to Polden and buys it. Ay, you wouldn’t believe it, but one year there came an Englishman and bought him a house in Polden. It was out where the pilots live — you know. He happened to see a board in the outside of the house and he wanted to buy the board because there was some writing on it and other signs on it which proved it had come out of a wreck. But shrewd he was, that pilot, and he didn’t want to give up the board. ‘All right, then I’ll buy the whole house,’ said the Englishman, and that he did. And then, excuse me, if he didn’t take that one board out of the house and go away with it and leave the house just as it stood. And now there’s a family moved in there, and there they live to this day and no one ever hears a word from that Englishman. What do you think, August, would you be ashamed of me if I took another cup of coffee and finished up what’s here?”

“Ashamed of you? Say, are you out of your head!”

“My, what coffee! But I won’t take another one of these cakes, and that much I’ll promise you!”

“Why not? You must have some more cakes, as well!”

“No, for now I’ve eaten enough. . . . And then there’s that sister Hosea and Ezra, that husband of hers — you remember them, too, I suppose? For it was you that laid out the plans for that big barn of theirs, and they all objected and said you were making it too large to take care of what crops could be raised, but it’s long ago now that he found it too small for him and twice now he’s had to build an addition. And that’s all because of that big peat bog he drained and put to rich use as a farm. So now that Hosea and her husband, they’re folk both rich and respected and the biggest taxpayers we have. And you’ll have me to take them your greetings, I suppose? Ay ay, August, so now I must say good-bye and wish you good fortune with all that money of yours!”

She stepped to the door without offering him her hand.

He realized that it had been the strong coffee which had brought colour into her cheeks and made her unusually talkative. Truth to tell, too, he was bored with hearing her voice. Whilst she was going on about Ezra and all that he was in that little world of hers up north, he had seemed to recall that it had been he, one August, who had first drained the bog, then arranged for his little helper, Ezra, a bright young lad but a starveling, to acquire the rich lands which resulted. The idea and the initial execution in the matter of draining that bog had been August’s. Now why had she not mentioned that? . . . Oh well, Polden and its people were nothing to him. . . . But there now Paulina was leaving, and he could not let her go without a word, some little word of thanks.

“Paulina!” he called. “If it’s true as you say I’m to have this money and all, let me tell you one thing right here to your face: I’m simply not going to scratch around up in the mountains and throw good money away on any old kind of a mine, for no one could ever get me to do a thing like that here in this life, for I’ve seen enough of them down in South America and other places in the world where they go around chipping out stones and looking at them through a magnifying glass and all that, and where they spent their last penny on a license to work out their claims and suchlike, for many’s the time I could see where things would end for them, but they had the gold fever and they couldn’t stop. Ay, God preserve me from nonsense like that. So, you can feel as safe as you like about that, Paulina —”

“That’s none of my business,” she said, brushing the air aside with the flat of her hand. “What do you think I care about that? It’s nothing to me what you do.”

. . . An hour filled with plans and with grandeur, journeys through the clouds, scenes and glorious adventure. . . .

Well it was, then, that Gammelmoderen came to his room and put an end to all his dreaming. She had come, as usual, to seek his advice on a certain matter, this time in regard to the widow Solmund’s shameful attitude toward her noble benefactor, the druggist. It had something to do with fifty kroner, or possibly half that amount. August’s feelings of annoyance grew apace as the shocking tale was unfolded. See, they came to him about everything! Well, he had nothing against that, he was flattered. Nor was he lacking in the ability to solve their every problem. And tomorrow, if not already today, his power would consist not of good will alone — no, he would have the pressure of wealth at his back.

“She won’t give him any peace, did you say?”

“Not a single moment of peace! She keeps coming to the drugstore and stays there till the apprentice carries her out.”

“Very well, then she’ll hear from me!” said August, and surely that came straight from the shoulder.

“I knew it!” exclaimed Gammelmoderen. “I knew that if only I could come to you —!”

“I won’t stand for it!” he shrilled, just as though he were sincerely indignant, as though no one could be found who was powerful enough to prevent him from stepping in. Then, in a voice which was milder by far, he said: “It’s a shame to bother you, but I can’t make out what they’ve done with those clothes of mine. You see, I’d like to get up!”

“You shall have your clothes before another hour goes by,” said Gammelmoderen. “Thanks, Altmulig! Oh, such a one as you are! . . . ”

The next hour was filled with intense activity. His first move was to inspect the new road. Everything fine about that, a veritable highway all the way up to the summit where the hunting lodge stood looking at him from beneath its arching eyebrows.

He dismissed the remaining workmen. What about the ironwork? they asked. Later! he replied. Other things to do first!

They walked down the road together. The workmen were to begin work on Herr Buttonhead’s cellar, whilst August would have to go all the way into town to strike the road leading to North Parish where the widow Solmund lived. . . . Oh, but then, what an unfortunate encounter! At a street corner he meets none other than Paulina, whose keen eyes it is quite impossible for him to avoid.

She reveals no signs of amazement at seeing him up and about, and immediately launches into conversation: “It’s good that I met you here, August! For now I’ve been out to see the judge and I’ve delivered all the papers to him and got my receipt and all that. So now all you have to do is to go to him and get that bank-book of yours. A remarkable man, the judge —‘If you please, won’t you sit down!’ he said to me, and then he sat down himself and listened to everything I had to say. By deed of assignment, it was doubtless my money, he said. Ay, but I was of no mind to hold on to someone else’s money, I answered. And that made the judge laugh. And when I was going out the door, he said I would have to come to his home this evening and have a chat with him and his wife. And now I’ve never heard of such lovely people as those that live here in Segelfoss! And do you know what happened to me when I left your place today? It seems that the doctor and that Esther had heard about me from the druggist, so what did they do but go right to the hotel and leave an important message for me to come out to their place at once — hahaha! — and if I didn’t come there by myself they’d get me there by force! Did you ever hear of such people as live down here! So now I haven’t time to talk any more with you, for I must hurry back to the hotel and tidy myself up a mite before I go out to the doctor’s. But I’ll have to tell you one thing, August, I’m certainly not sorry you made me come all this way down here to Segelfoss and I’ll never forget my visit here. So now you must go to the judge at once and get what really belongs to you.”

She hastened off. August had been unable to get in a single word.

He glanced at his watch. . . . Paulina was right, he could go to the judge at once. . . . Heavens, what a fortunate encounter!

It took him ten minutes to reach his destination and another ten minutes to talk with the judge. He thanked the good gentleman for his splendid help in this matter, in his own choice words, offered his blessings and departed.

He barely glanced at the unexpectedly large balance revealed by the bank-book — good Lord in Heaven! — then consulted his watch again and hastily made for the bank.

Inside stood Consul Gordon Tidemand and Banker Davidsen ready to close for the day. The Consul was already drawing on those yellow gloves of his.

August begged pardon and somewhat shyly held forth his bank-book. Would he be able to draw out a bit of money? he asked. He had one thing or another to pay for — mere trifles, however. . . .

The two gentlemen fell to studying the book. All summer long they had been hearing about this fortune of August’s, and now they were making the discovery that the matter had been no myth. They nodded and said there was nothing to prevent them from paying out money against such a book — how much would he like?

August asked for a mere thousand — so he could have a bit of pocket money by him, he said.

Outside the bank, the Consul said: “Jump in, Altmulig. We’ll drive home together.”

August: “Thanks, but I— you see, I have business up in North Parish —”

“Fine, then I’ll drive you out to North Parish first,” said the Consul. “You’ve just got up out of bed and you mustn’t overtax your strength. It’s a pleasure to spare you the walk. Has your illness been anything serious?”

“No, just a cold.”

They mentioned the road. It was finished now. Only the ironwork left to be set up and there was no particular hurry about that. The Consul would drive his ladies and the children up the new road to the lodge this very afternoon.

They found where the widow Solmund lived. August spent but a few decisive minutes within; his words were brief and to the point, for he was now a man of position. He threw a fifty kroner note on the table under her nose. If you please! Keep your mouth shut from now on! Finished!

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