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The Birth of A New Era by Hans Kirk

Translated by Marianne Helweg

Bregentved had been working on the Cliff, but now he had found something else to keep him busy, selling land, which was a step up from selling herrings. Anton lost his job, but he soon got another, for Grocer Skifter wanted a boy to help in the warehouse and to carry goods out to people when they ordered them. So Anton was taken on as assistant in the shop, when he was not at school.

The building sites for the workers' houses had already been parcelled out, and roads and boundaries defined. Someone had to negotiate with the purchasers, and Bregentved thought he would be the right man for this. He talked with the solicitor, Mr. Schjott, and they agreed that Bregentved should have a commission on all that he managed to sell. He put a notice in his window with: "Good building sites for sale" written on it. A great ambition had been realised; he had become a dealer, and a dealer in land. You could see that he felt he had risen in life, for, whereas before he had dressed like the other day labourers, he now wore his town suit with its rubber collar and green tie every day.

But it was not enough to put a notice in the window,—nobody came to buy the sites. Bregentved had made his room into a sort of office; he sat at the table with pen and paper in front of him, and there were chairs for the customers to sit on while he wrote out the contract and deed of sale. But the customers stayed away, and he realised that, to do business, he would have to go out and talk to people.

So Bregentved went calling, and, quite casually, he would bring the conversation round to the question whether it might not now be necessary for the day-labourers to have houses of their own. With a good daily wage all the year round, they should be able to afford decent homes.

"This is a shocking place you have," he said, as he looked round Lars Sjaeldenglad's parlour, "it's not fit for a woman like you, Line. You should have a snug little house with a tiled roof and plenty of headroom."

"Have you one to give away, then?" asked Line Sjaeldenglad. "At least this belongs to us."

That was not Bregentved's intention exactly, but he did have a plot he could sell them, and once they had the site, he told them, it would be an easy matter to raise a loan to build.

Line shook her head: "We're not biting off more than we can chew, thank you. Beggars can't be choosers."

He had no more luck at Marinus'.

"Mercy on us!" exclaimed Marinus in horror, "what sort of a price is that to ask for a bit of land? Why it's as much people pay for a whole cottage. And how would I get all that money?"

Bregentved explained that only a small deposit would have to be made, the rest of the money could be paid off over a number of years. But Marinus said No; he knew what it meant to be in debt. He was not taking on a responsibility like that.

The sites remained unsold, and Bregentved went to Faergeby to complain to Schjott.

"Don't worry," said the solicitor, "the buyers will come. But if you're smart, you'll go round to the farmers and get them to promise to sell all land for building sites through you. The main thing is to keep prices up. In six months, or maybe a year, people will be fighting for plots in Alslev. A town will grow up round the factory, that's certain."

Bregentved followed his advice, and he had no difficulty in getting the farmers to agree. They saw that it was in their interest not to undercut each other's prices once the buyers came along.

It was summer time. The crops in the fields were growing, and the soft night air was scented with jasmine and lilac from the sheltered cottage gardens. Every Saturday there was dancing at the inn, and the girls were more in demand than ever before, for, with so many single menfolk in the town, there were not enough to go round. The old people shook their heads at all these goings-on. It was a bad sign when the girls went dancing and came home in the early hours with hay in their hair. And if they were led astray, who could they turn to? The men did not belong to the parish, and who knew, they might have wives and sweethearts where they came from.

All day long the sound of activity came from the Cliff. Heavily loaded carts creaked their way over the churned-up road through the village. Workmen on bicycles arrived at the break of day. Alarm clocks shrilled in cottages and farm-houses, sleepy men tumbled out of bed, shook themselves awake and set to work. Tinkers appeared with sweaters, and boots and God knows what else to sell. They came on foot with bundles on their backs or pushing handcarts full of goods. Their sales-talk was glib, and they sold their wares, for the place was full of people with bulging pockets. The farmers shook their heads. It was a disgrace to see how these men flung good money about instead of putting it into a savings-bank and letting it breed. Look at Black Anders' daughter, Mathilde, now, she had been given a piano. Her father, so they said, and her sweetheart (who came from the west and worked on the Cliff) had bought her a very expensive second-hand piano. Which showed what happened when people got above themselves. What did lame Mathilde want with a piano? Only rich farmers' daughters had that sort of stuff.

The air became torpid with a baking sun, even the wind blew hot, and the men became tanned and brown. The hard work made the sweat pour from them. The young ones threw off their shirts and worked in belted trousers, and in the dinner hour they threw off their trousers as well and jumped into the fiord from the quay. What with larking in the water, puffing and blowing like seals, they hardly gave themselves time to eat. The day labourers did not hold with bathing. Salt water was weakening, and, as everyone knew, it was bad for the health to get wet. But what was the good of preaching? These were strange days when all time-honoured customs were turned topsy-turvy.

It was not only humans who needed to be cooled off. The cattle in the meadows along the fiord stood up to their bellies in water. A thunderstorm passed over the district, and the workers took shelter from a torrential shower. Afterwards everything looked fresher and greeener, and the white patches on the Cliff much whiter than before. The sun glistened, and soon the deafening noise on the work-site began again. Stones were loaded, iron girders hoisted on squeaking pulleys, mallets rang on iron, axes on wood, and through it all there was a shouting of eager voices. In one place Marinus was giving a hand with the brick-laying, balancing a load of bricks on his shoulders. In another Cilius and Black Anders were hoisting girders together with men they hardly knew by name. Andres and Boel-Erik, Horse-Jens and Poul Bogh, the Klovhuse tenants, fishermen from the harbour, smallholders from the moor, Faergeby workmen, bricklayers, builders and labourers of all sorts from distant places, hundreds of men all hard at work, swept up together in a fast-moving rhythm. This was not like working on the land—you had to keep in step, had to keep in unison.

Once a week you pocketed your comfortable wage; there was never any trouble or argument, none of your farmer's excuses of "No money today", no waiting till he got paid for the milk at the dairy. Two clerks sat in a wooden shed and handed each man a pay-envelope with his name on it. It was all worked out according to the rate, and there was never a penny missing. The men brought money home, there was enough to spare for the children's clothes. Take Marinus: his children had never been very well dressed. Now they were getting new shirts and dresses, and Tora sewed and hemmed till the sparks flew from her sewing machine. A little was put by for a rainy day too; after all, you never knew how long the job would last. But the day labourers felt better off than they had ever been, they had ready cash in their pockets and owed nothing to anyone.

On the other hand, the cost of living was going up. Marinus's landlord decided that they could now afford to pay a little more in rent.

"I should have thought we paid enough for this couple of rooms," said Tora. "I don't know how you have the face to charge any more!" But the landlord had the face; if they did not like it, there were plenty of others who needed a roof over their heads.

"You ought to be ashamed, bleeding us for a tumbledown shack like this!" said Tora. "I thought you were a decent man, but I despise you, that I do."

The farmer was not slow to retort: "You take as much as you can for your work," he said, "so why shouldn't we take what we can get in rent? Charity begins at home, you know."

"First myself, then myself, and then myself again! That's the rule with you farmers, morning, noon and night!" snapped Tora, "and if you could strip us naked, I suppose you'd do it!"

"If it was a question of stripping you, Tora, I wouldn't hesitate!" laughed the farmer, "you're a fine, handsome woman, though you do have a devilish tongue!"

The same thing happened to the other tenants; their rents were put up. And now it was Bregentved's turn to have visitors. The building plots started selling, and the first to buy was Andres. He moaned over all the money he had to pay out, but there was no cheaper land to be had anywhere near the factory. Andres had figured out that if he built his house a bit on the large side, with a flat to let and a couple of rooms for unmarried workers, that would cover the cost, and he would be able to live free himself.

One day Niels came home and announced that he had bought a plot on the installment plan.

"But my dear boy," cried Marinus, "you must have gone out of your mind! What do you want with land? And how are you going to pay for it?"

"I've given Bregentved a down-payment," answered Niels, "the rest will come off my wages bit by bit. Then, when we've paid for the plot, we'll get a building loan. We're not going on paying the farmers double rent for these hovels."

"It'll probably make no difference," said Marinus, "after all, it's their land we'd be building on, and we're certainly not going to get it for nothing. I never would have believed land could be so dear."

There were others who thought of building—the Faithful Brethren. Now that so many people were coming to live in the place, it was time to build a Mission Hall. Once it had been erected, with a cross over the gable, sinners would be sure to find their way there. A fisherman must cast his net where the shoal is thickest.

After his conversion Pastor Gamst had taken on Karlsen's mission, and become leader of the small band of Faithful. He went from house to house collecting for the Mission Hall, and one evening he presented himself at Hopner's door with his list.

"I am the vicar of this parish," he said, and explained what he came for.

Mme Marja put away her cigarette and stayed for a moment to listen to the parson. Then she quietly left the men in the snug little low- ceilinged room.

"A mission hall?" said Hopner, "that's not in my line. You must remember, Pastor Gamst, that in a year's time Alslev will no longer be a country village, but an industrial town, a factory town."

"All the more reason," replied the parson. "There will be great tasks ahead, souls in need of the Word of God."

"True enough," said Hopner, "but the question is, whether the souls will bother to listen. There is the difference between an impoverished land proletariat and a modern industrial one. Religion has no hold on the factory worker; he has grown out of its primitive symbolism. He has enough material comfort to dismiss all this talk of suffering and sacrifice as ridiculous. Forgive the expression, vicar, I speak as an industrial employer."

"But however good material conditions may be, the soul still has a thirst to satisfy," objected the parson; "death still exists, and life is no less difficult."

"Animals don't think about death," said Hopner, "nor do healthy people. And it's a moot point whether religion does help people over their difficulties nowadays. If we must have a religion, it should at least tackle contemporary problems. Start a new religion, Pastor Gamst, or modernise the old one. Let us have the eleventh Commandment: 'Thou must not go on strike!' If you can hammer that one into your congregation and then get my workers into your fold, I'll give you my blessing. Then you shall have a mission hall or a new church, if you like. What we need is a religion which fits our modern industrial and economic organisation, a religion which fits with capitalism. The old bait's no good any more."

"Mr. Hopner!" Pastor Gamst rose angrily to his feet.

"Sit down!" commanded Hopner. "I don't say this to insult your faith, I am speaking merely as an industrial employer. I am building a factory; that is a greater undertaking than you may think. I have had countless difficulties to overcome, had to raise capital, had to risk my own money as well. That is the first stage. The next is to run the factory. I have make it pay, and I have to feed my workers. If I am to keep up with my competitors the work must not be interrupted, which means no strikes, no unnecessary fuss. I am best served by employing quiet and orderly people, and it's my object to keep them as quiet and orderly as possible. The factory worker who has no property of his own is difficult to handle, far more difficult than the ignorant, but also innocent agricultural labourer. The factory worker has a faint idea what it's all about. But give him property, let him establish a family and become even the smallest pillar of society; let him gambol in the blessed institutions of democracy and revel in the power he doesn't wield. Give each man his own house and garden, his position in the Council with the accompanying duties and apparent rights, and you'll keep him quiet. That's modern religion for you—that's democracy, and that's the religion which has my full support."

"But what about the soul? The secret depths of man?" asked the parson.

"What is the soul or secret depths of a sound potato?" retorted Hopner. "But if the potato is diseased you will find dark spots on it. A well-oiled machine will hum along in its own contented rhythm. But if it's not oiled it will protest and squeak. The soul is a canker. It can be quite decorative, in the same way that a bunion can be crimson or purple. But the human mind is made up of a series of functions and reactions. Actually, Mr. Gamst, there is very little to choose between men and the machine. It is the modern employer's task to make the section of humanity which serves industry, namely the workers, function as smoothly, efficiently and noiselessly as the machine itself. It can be done and it is done, and we don't need religion to help us. All we need is a certain knowledge of modern mass psychology. However, if you insist on presenting us with a religion, it must be one that belongs to the times, one that preaches the great commandment: 'Thou shalt not stop the machine. The machine is thy God, to which thou must dedicate thy life's blood. Thou must not go on strike, thou must not demand higher wages, thou must not cause the machine to stop'."

Pastor Gamst leaned back in his chair. He was tired; he had been going round with his list the whole afternoon, and had hardly had time to eat his supper.

"But no man can live in this terrible world of yours," he said, "far better a world without machines altogether........"

"So it would be!" nodded the engineer, "for without modern scientific technique we would plunge head first back into the Middle Ages. The machine means a decent standard of life for the whole of mankind. If we were without it we would again need parsons and religion. Soulfulness would be on the increase in proportion to the spread of hunger and misery. But never mind, I might as well finance your religion—like signing an insurance policy. How much am I rated at on your list?"

The parson rose to his feet.

"Under the circumstances I cannot accept a donation from you," he said. "But a time will come when you will discover that you have an immortal soul in need of spiritual sustenance. Some day it will rage in your breast like a caged beast. For you cannot kill the soul, only lull it to sleep for a while. Sooner or later it will wake up."

Pastor Gamst continued on his rounds with the list. People gave him contributions, but they did not amount to much, and it looked as if it would be some time before the mission hall could be built. He visited his parishioners more frequently, and looked in on the new families that had come to live in the district. He spoke to the young workers, he even ventured up to the barracks to talk with those who were billeted there. Everywhere he was politely received. Slightly embarrassed, people listened to him talking about Mercy and Salvation, and he felt himself that his words did not enter into their souls.

 
 
 

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