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
"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
"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,
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
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
"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
"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
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-
"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
"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
"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.