The Road Leads On, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter Twenty-Seven

A couple of days later the doctor’s small sons brought August a note from Alexander. But they were so unruly, those youngsters, they had vanished before August could make out the writing, before he could ask them a question.

The note read as follows:

“Right side of the horse. One hand forward from loin and two and a half hands from withers, that’s it. Stab ever so little downward, not so careful. Two inches deep. Otto Alexander.”

August decided that this must be the formula for stabbing horses for colic. He thrust the note into his pocket and wondered, firstly, why this information had been tendered him at all, and secondly, why the Gypsy had sent it to him by messenger instead of coming to him in person. What could the whole thing signify?

That evening he received word that Gammelmoderen wished to speak with him. He had had it in mind to make a certain trip, on a matter of important business, but here now Gammelmoderen was calling for him.

He found her abed in her room, pale and still and expectant.

“I’m in bad shape,” she said.

“No, never you!” said August. “What’s the matter?”

“I’ve been wounded, Altmulig, and now you must do me a favour and tell me what I’m to do.”

“That depends upon whether I can! What kind of a wound is it?”

“A wound where I cut myself. I’m afraid to call the doctor, for he’ll only ask me a lot of questions. And the druggist has gone away. Oh, if only the druggist hadn’t gone away!”

“Let me see your wound,” said August. “Is it bleeding?”

“No, not now.”

She threw aside the bed covers and opened wide the front of her nightgown, exactly as though he were a doctor.

“In the breast!” he exclaimed. “How did you get that?”

“With a knife. Heavens, how it hurt!”

August looked at her. “Hm, a stab with a knife, eh?”

“Yes, a stab. Do you think it’s bleeding internally?”

He did not reply to this, but said: “It couldn’t have been much of a knife! I’ve seen great huge knives to carry in your boot, but a mere sheath-knife to carry in your belt, that’s nothing. What did you put on it?”

“Nothing. Only a rag. I washed it out first and then I laid this rag on it.”

“Ay, a rag is good enough,” said August. “I’ve never used anything else. But I can ask the doctor about it.”

“Oh, if only you would! But you mustn’t tell him how I was wounded. Tell him I stumbled upstairs and fell on a knife.”

“By all means!” said August. “When did it happen, last evening?”

“Yes, last night. Right here at my window.”

August shook his head over this explanation.

“A big hole here in my nightgown, too, right here in front,” said Gammelmoderen. “A brand-new nightgown!”

“Did it bleed much?”

“Oh yes, it bled quite a bit. I’ve since washed my nightgown so no one should see the blood. No one else knows about it.”

“I’m sorry for you!” he said.

“Yes, I know you are, Altmulig, for you’ve always been so nice to me,” she replied. . . .

August was back in no time and, on his return, he asked to see the wound again, took a corner of the rag in his fingers and, with a sudden jerk, ripped off the bandage. “Excuse me!” he said.

“Oo, that hurt terribly!”

“That’s what the doctor told me to do, for the wound must bleed a little more, he said. And then he said as I should pour in the wound a drop or two of the stuff here in this bottle. It won’t smart much, he said, but it will do you a lot of good.”

August poured in a good bit of the fluid and of course it smarted in the wound. It smarted like Satan’s own and beads of cold sweat appeared on Gammelmoderen’s face during the worst of it. But she did not moan or groan, she merely clenched her hands till her arms shook. At length he placed a plaster patch over the wound and said: “Now it will heal up real quick, and that you can believe!”

“What did the doctor say? What did he ask you?”

“Nothing, for I told him it was one of my road gang as was wounded and he’s treated them for wounds before. You know, they get silly sometimes and lose their temper and stab each other and so —”

It would now be possible for him to make that little trip he had been contemplating and at the same time work on a matter of vast importance. He was already well on his way, but when he came to the Segelfoss Store, he found it closed, and he would be unable to purchase that article of prime necessity he had had in mind — a bit of lovely edging lace with which to trim a nightgown. He had seen such lace on Gammelmoderen.

There was nothing else for it but to give up the trip, to return home and brood, to return home and do his best to get through another night. He now had all which life could offer him, all save peace of mind.

But there were others who were likewise having a hard time of it and in the morning Gammelmoderen sent for him again. She had put in a night of torture, of fitful sleep and bad dreams. “Don’t hold it against me, Altmulig,” she said, “but you don’t know how miserable I am! If only the druggist were home!”

August thought for a moment, then said: “He certainly ought to be on his way back by this time.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Long ago. He’ll be here in another day.”

She took heart at this. “But if only I could be sure I’m not bleeding internally.”

“Oh no, there’s no reason for you to worry about that!” August decided in that reassuring manner of his. “Why, bless your heart, I’ve had ten revolver bullets in me and many more knife stabs than that all at one time, but I never bled internally.”

Again she was cheered, but, even so, she asked: “Yes, but when is it then that we bleed internally?”

“Oh, that’s when the blade goes right through your body and comes out the other side,” said August. “It’s only then you can talk about bleeding internally. For that’s when nature can’t seem to heal things. But knives which will do a thing like that are not to be found in these parts.”

“That’s what you say! But I’ve heard of people bleeding internally.”

August reassured her further: “But in that case, you wouldn’t have lived half an hour. No. You’d be lying here stiff and dead by this time. Ay. And at this time tomorrow, we’d be carrying you off to your grave. Think of that! We wouldn’t even have had time enough to bring in the priest and the last Communion. And the blood would have come out of you and soaked the entire bed.”

“Uf!” said Gammelmoderen.

“Do you hurt any place?”

“Yes, it seems so. But let that be as it is,” she said, discouraged. “I can’t do anything about it. Here, let me ask you one thing, Altmulig: that time you were aboard the sloop to lock up the cabin — didn’t you find a belt in the bunk?”

“Ay,” he said. “Ay, not only a belt, but some hairpins and other female stuff. And I knew right off that the skipper’s wife had left these things there. What do you ask me that for?”

“What did you do with those things?”

“Oh, they weren’t worth returning. I heaved them overboard.”

“Oh — and the buckle was solid silver!” exclaimed the widow of Theodore paa Bua —“or, at least, so I’ve heard,” she added quickly.

“Mm no — the buckle was only nickel-plated iron,” said August.

“Good Heavens, so you threw it into the sea, then! But it was bought and paid for as silver — I’ve heard,” she added again. “Oh well, let that be as it is. I’ve other things to think about now if I’m bleeding internally.”

“You aren’t bleeding internally any more than I am!” August insisted. “Here’s one thing I was going to ask you — we ought to be hauling up the salmon net, but we haven’t any crew.”

“Hm,” she said indifferently. Her thoughts were no longer concerned with fish nets and worldly goods.

“That Alexander, he’s away.”


“You know, Alexander, that Gypsy lad as was here. He’s out buying up sheep for me and he won’t be able to get back and haul in the salmon net. This is the fourth day, so I don’t know —”

August had begun to harbour certain misgivings in regard to the Gypsy. Where had he disappeared to and why had he sent that note? Nor had Gammelmoderen been able or willing to render anything of an account of him. But the fellow had, in any event, gone off with four thousand of August’s money.

The first thing August did was to take the gardener Steffen with him to haul in the salmon net. It must be left idle no longer. There was only one salmon in it, but a large one, a salmon for the Consul’s table. So there was the finish of that.

The next thing August would have to do would be to get hold of the doctor’s sons. This proved no easy matter for him as the youngsters were not at home. However, at lunch time, he found them — out at the parsonage where they were busy helping to make hay. The devil and all if they weren’t two smart little lads, though! They were working like regular hands, clad in no more than shirt and trousers, and though they were to earn no more than a meal or two. They had made a definite bargain with the pastor’s man.

“How’s this?” the pastor’s man had asked.

“Rice pudding at home today,” said the youngsters.

“Here all we’ll have will be herring,” said the man.

“Fine!” the boys had replied.

To August they explained that the night before they had run down to the pier upon hearing the north-bound steamer whistling at the harbour mouth, and it was down on the pier that Alexander had handed them the note for August. And at the last minute he had jumped aboard the ship.

The Gypsy had thus headed north.

He had performed his last task ashore and the ground was burning beneath his boot soles; he had hastened down to the pier, scuttled aboard the ship, decamped.

But had he first bought sheep for four thousand kroner?

August makes tracks for South Parish. He has suddenly stumbled upon a new and important business matter to take him thence: he will send the lad Mattis up to the mountain pasturage after Jørn Mathildesen and avail himself of this excuse to sit and wait.

Tobias and his entire household are out in the field making hay; it is a question now of rescuing all they can of the crop which has been lying out in the rain. The parents are on August’s side, this day as well, and he observes the efforts they put forth to aid his cause. Cornelia, however, is not to be drawn aside; she shuns all possibility of a tête-à-tête. Singular conduct on her part; she was aware, was she not, that she owed him a serious answer?

They are likewise haying on the neighbouring farm and he decides to take a run up there. They have regarded him with no end of honour and respect ever since the day he purchased their sheep at such a fabulous price and today they greet him cordially and nod and smile at everything he says. They come out with the assertion that it is a grand blessing to see so many creatures at graze on the mountain.

“This is only the beginning!” August retorts.

He draws Hendrik to one side and quite casually asks him how things are going with him.

Thanks for asking, things aren’t going so well for Hendrik. Cornelia has apparently finished with him for good and all now and, he had heard, she was even to have banns spoken at church next Sunday.

“Well, now I don’t know about that,” said August.

“Ay, she doesn’t seem to remember the things she promised me,” complained Hendrik. “Things were so settled between us and she fooled me into getting myself baptised in the summer and all that. But now I have no bicycle to go like the wind on like he has. And besides, he’s now given her a heart to wear on a chain and a fur thing for her neck. Oh, I’ve seen them! So now there’s so much between them that I wish as I was dead.”

August is himself afflicted with the heartaches of hopeless adoration, but dashed if he is not likewise touched by Hendrik’s frantic state of mind. He is therefore stirred to action; he will do his best to put something in the way of this master cyclist Benjamin, this pompous little brat he himself had dragged from the family manure pile and provided with good wages for respectable work throughout an entire summer. August stands pondering the problem. His brain is still keen and ingenious. It is still capable of producing a brilliant idea. Suddenly he asks: “How soon will you be done with this haying of yours?”

“Right soon now,” Hendrik replies. “We’ve just this bit that you see here to get in.”

“All right, then I’ll take you on as my man,” said August.

Dumb amazement. The other stared at him with mouth agape, after hearing these words.

Jørn Mathildesen and Mattis appeared. August is brief and to the point whilst treating with them, in every respect a boss, a baron. “Here, Mattis, take this for your trouble! Now Jørn, have you been getting any new sheep of late?”

Jørn: “Not yesterday or today. But Tuesday and Wednesday we took in a mighty lot of them.”

August adjusts his pince-nez, gets out paper and pencil and stands prepared to write. “All right, how many Tuesday?”

“Four score adding four.”

August jots this down. “All right. And Wednesday?”

“Ay,” said Jørn, “that was a terrible day! We took in a whole parish full that day. There were six score adding fifteen.”

August jots down this figure and strikes a total. “Eleven score missing one for the two days!” He reckons further and discovers that he is from twenty-five to thirty head short of the number he ought to have had in return for his four thousand kroner. “He’s cheated me out of seven hundred kroner!” he says.

“Who?” Jørn cries in alarm.

“That Gypsy. He’s dug out on me.”

“You don’t say so!”

August waves him aside. “How many all together up there now?” he asks. “I didn’t bring along my accounts.”

Jørn has carried every transaction since the first day in his head, for such is his type of mind. “We’ve two-and-forty score missing three,” he reports.

August shakes his head. Trouble enough for him now, defeat, frustration — he has yet to buy his thousandth sheep. He has all the money in the world, but not a thousand sheep. . . .

Jørn chatters on: “Fine creatures they are, both white and black. They’re lean and hungry when they come to us, but a week sees quite a change in them, for by that time they’ve had enough to eat and are all filled out. You ought to see how they follow that Valborg around — ay, just like dogs, they are.”

“Ay, there’s nothing more now, Jørn!” says August with a curt nod of his head.

He returns to Hendrik, his head bowed deep in thought. Cheated out of seven hundred kroner — all right, it was well the loss had fallen upon a man who could bear it. His chief annoyance arose from the fact that the Gypsy had run off before he had rounded out the first thousand. Now folk would be able to say that he had only a few hundred!

He hired Hendrik right there on the spot, hired him to step into the Gypsy’s shoes, arranged everything with him, gave him minute instructions. Such energy as there was in that old man August as he barked out his orders! “Throw down that rake of yours and right away go down to the store in Segelfoss. Pick out the finest and dearest wheel they’ve got there in stock, learn how to ride it tonight and start in work tomorrow covering the parishes both north and south of here. Come on now, get busy! Here’s a thousand to start with!”

He makes no move to return to Tobias and his family; no, he declines to put himself forward any further this day. Just wait till Hendrik goes whizzing by on that splendid new wheel of his, just wait till the entire neighbourhood learns of the important position for which that Hendrik has been selected!

Tobias leaves his work and comes running after him; he calls out, but August continues on his way. Tobias overtakes him and mentions the umbrella, mentions the fact that a certain umbrella is still standing where he left it the last time he called, a brand-new umbrella —

August continues on his way. At length he says: “I don’t want it any more.”

And in such wise had he made the presentation!

On the way home he began talking aloud to himself, began abusing the Gypsy Alexander: Left him cold with only a few hundred sheep in his flock! August’s mistake had been in not shooting the fellow when he had had a chance — ho, if that wouldn’t have brought joy to a certain lady he knew! The telegraph office was still open — he could halt the absconding rascal — that is, with the aid of the police and the authorities, and those were the devil and all to get mixed up with. Gammelmoderen could do it if she liked, but she would think twice before taking such steps. The Consul on his mother’s behalf? He less than anyone else. . . . No, the Gypsy was free to continue north by steamer. . . .

August encounters the doctor bound on a sick-call.

“I was down to see those workmen of yours, August, but there didn’t seem to be anyone of them with a knife wound in his chest.”

“Hm,” August replies. “No, they’d never admit it.”

“But I looked them all over. You haven’t got more than four men, have you?”

August replied with a long conversation to the effect that he had had twenty men working for him all summer, for what could a mere squad of four men accomplish on such a big and exacting piece of road construction work —

The doctor interrupts him. “Yes, but how many men have you now?”

“Five,” said August. “They’ve been working for the lawyer, but —”

“All right, all right! But who is the fifth? I must see him, too.”

August risks everything: “No, he’s up and around already now, it was nothing.”

“All right, that’s fine. For it’s no laughing matter to have a knife wound in one’s chest.”

August squirms. “Could he have bled internally?” he inquires.

“Yes, that too.”

“But, if he had, he couldn’t have gone on living day after day, could he?”

“You seem to be hiding something, August,” said the doctor. “It wasn’t you yourself that got into trouble with a knife by any chance?”

“Who, me —?”

“No, never mind! Who was it, then?”

August replied with a further long conversation, moral in nature, to the effect that it was swinish and inhuman of anyone to go around stabbing folk in the chest. His only regret was that he had not been present at the time, for he would have shot to kill —

“Hm, that would be pretty bad.”

“Ay, with this very hand you see here!” August threatened.

In order to conclude the interview, the doctor said: “You never come out to see us any more, August. We invited you at the time Paulina from Polden was here, but no. Is it because you’ve become so rich?”

“No — now doctor, how can you make such a joke as that! No, it’s just that I’m so tied up with business and other matters — but it looks as though I’m through the thickest of it.”

“Well, then come out and see us! Don’t forget!”

August was glad when at last the doctor left him. He had been stricken with a sudden fear: what if Gammelmoderen were, after all, bleeding internally?

He found her looking much better and in a happier frame of mind; she had slept during the night and was now sitting up in bed. August heaved a sigh of relief, asked a few questions concerning the wound and listened to her answers: No, it wasn’t paining any longer and she was now confident that she had suffered no internal hemorrhage. She had appeared somewhat astonished to see him, but now that his fears had been set aside, that ingenious head of his was quick to find an excuse for calling: did she think it would be worth while to set out the salmon net again? It was now late summer and the fish were already scarce — only one salmon in the past four days.

About such matters he would have to consult her son.

Oh, this was no matter to bother the Consul about, August felt. And the fact of the matter was, they no longer had a man for it —“The Gypsy — you know, that Alexander — he’s gone.”

This much at least he was able to report to the lady with a wound in her breast.

“Oh,” she said. “You say he has gone?”

“Saturday night, by the north-bound.” Significantly he established the time.

He could not detect from her expression whether or not she were rejoicing over this bit of news, and he immediately got back to the matter under discussion. “So I don’t know what to do about the net,” he said.

“Then I guess you’d better hang it up for all time,” she said.

When August left her, he felt so blessedly relieved over her improvement that he even found himself thinking more kindly of the Gypsy. He had not said that he had run away, merely that he had gone, and he had made no mention of the fact that he, August, had been cheated out of seven hundred kroner. Well, had he been cheated? How did he know! Alexander had, after all, sent him a formula for treating horses with colic and that ought to have some value. August did not know what a veterinarian would charge for such surgical services, but, he decided, were the occasion to arise when such a knife thrust would be necessary to save the life of some valuable stallion, no amount would seem enough.

Yes, the more he thought about the Gypsy the more he was obliged to exculpate him: what else could he have done but flee after that final act of his? And what else was there for him to do but to take the money he had in his pocket? Otherwise, what would he have had with which to buy himself something to eat during the next few weeks? And, under similar circumstances, would not August have done exactly the same thing? As though he wouldn’t have! And, taking facts as they were, the Gypsy Alexander had gone about here in Segelfoss with a great secret in his bosom upon which he might have made big money. But he had never stooped to that level. Obviously he might have made something out of his relationship to Gammelmoderen and her son. But never had he stooped to that level. What the devil kind of business turnover and modern efficiency was that? August probably wondered to himself. He had no knowledge of life’s complexities, but he had a faint conception of the type of honour and superiority which was part of this Gypsy’s character. Without them, the fellow might not have kept his job on the place so long. Love and sex into the bargain — very well, but there was more, a personal something, a plus. He had taken no hush money from the house of Jensen — what money he made he came by as the result of honest and loyal services rendered. And he had kept his mouth shut. Pride and honour in a rascal, a thief, a criminal? At all events, these were not virtues he had been born with — he had not acquired them from his race. Might it possibly be, in this instance, anything so incomprehensible as paternal feeling?

The devil and all if August didn’t have cause to be sour on him, but even so, he was unable to get the fellow out of his thoughts. Alexander wasn’t so bad. And if once, in the course of the summer, he had thought of heaving Druggist Holm over the edge of an abyss, the fellow could surely be said to have courage — he certainly could not be called a milksop. And in his love affair he had, in the end, given expression to the kind of knife play which was faintly reminiscent of South America. There was otherwise no trace of this art in Segelfoss and this August found boring indeed. In truth, the Gypsy was the only one who had offered him the slightest likelihood of a personal encounter and it had been for this reason that he had indulged in a bit of revolver practice at the upper end of the lake. Oh — if only August had had occasion to shoot the knife out of the hand of a man who was trying to make off with his wallet! What a thrill would not the children of the age have experienced whilst reading about that in all the papers!

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