Banker to the
In Greenland --- here the timid Christian speaks --- friendship is cheap. Friends can be had for a plug of tobacco, and up. Good Lord!
In America people will pay out ten thousand dollars --- and only get a string of beads, and then you never know for sure they're genuine: friends mostly are. At least you take them on trust, not feeling them to see if they're all wool, or looking at their bottoms for the sterling mark. You merely hand your gift out, and go home to write a new friend's name down in your book.
Besides speculating, to a limited extent, in friends in Greenland, I became a banker, ran a bank. One does, when one first goes there. People, beginning in late October when the fall gales blasted hunting, through October and dark November and December, on more or less till March, when they were pinched for food and without cash to buy it, people would come trooping, one or two a day, to borrow at my bank: I lent. One kroner, two, five sometimes, sometimes only fifty ore. I kept my records on a slip of paper first, and then I used a book.
It was, of course, only play banking, for there was no security put down and no interest paid, and the president got no salary and no bonus. I wouldn't like to be the first in Greenland to suggest that people pay you back more than they have borrowed. In fact I was so grateful when they paid me back at all that I'd pay them interest in cigars and beer. That was expensive in the end: they all but one paid back.
As Christmas approached it began to look as if we'd have to suspend business, close the doors. There was virtually a run on the bank, due not to panic lest the bank's funds might run out, but to the growing rumor that they wouldn't. And I couldn't well combat it with any plea of poverty, living as I did, in such a house, with two brass student lamps, a dozen or more pots and pans, and food in plenty. The simple logic of their attitude, that those who have should give to those who haven't, was as irrefutable, it appeared, as physical law: that nature hates a vacuum, and water seeks its level. Why shouldn't gold?
It does, of course, in time. We pile it up, taking from those that have little --- I'm not moralizing, it has to come from somewhere --- taking from those that have little and stacking it for those that have, deepening the valleys and piling on the mountain peaks, till crash! there's a cave-in and a landslide, and it all has to begin over again.
At any rate, in Greenland one is confronted by the relentless logic of communism, against which to maintain oneself in the enjoyment of a sufficient --- and, I may say, considerable --- residue of one's wealth one has recourse to his Christian sophistry: he will not pauperize the poor. In consequence, I lent them money, reserving the giving of it to such special occasions of need as the sickness of the breadwinner of a house, or death, and festivals. The wonder is that anyone paid back; the marvel is that all did, as I've said, but one. That one! That miserable, whining, whipped cur Joas. Let me tell about him.
He, and a female of his kind, his wife, their children, and Cornelia and hers, inhabited one lair-like den. There Joas, who was able-bodied, in the prime --- if one could call his that --- of life, maintained them in the filthy squalor to which they were no doubt accustomed, and which they no doubt liked. They lacked the energy, the will, to even wipe their noses on their hands. Cats preen themselves, hogs given half a chance keep clean; not they. That stinking outfit --- phew! Who cares?
I didn't, at the bank. They'd come: one day a half a kroner, next day a kroner, then two, then five --- and so on. And always, so they said, Cornelia needed it. Now Cornelia was one of those unfortunate creatures to whom the heart of man --- or, more particularly, men --- goes out. She had no family, no standing, no character, no morals, and no charm.
She was the sort of amiable girl that would lend herself to any man, and one whom a surprising lot had borrowed. So when it came to naming the father of her child she picked --- on, doubtless, grounds enough --- a good one, Severin. Five kroner a year: that's the indemnity the law secured to her. And Severin, obeying law and custom, pays the cash and cuts the child and mother dead. It seemed a bit severe. I used to hand out for Cornelia.
"Why," asked Salamina in some indignation one day upon returning from the store, "why are you giving all that money to Joas and his wife?"
"I'm not," said I. "It's for Cornelia --- poor thing, she needs it." "Cornelia! Why, she hasn't been living in their house for a long time. They've been buying coffee and sugar and crackers with it for themselves."
And that was true. I bode my time. Not long, and Joas came again: five kroner for Cornelia.
One feels at times like that, the need of words, the lack of words in Greenlandish. How eloquent my English would have been! I would have told him off, concluding splendidly, "You God- damned lying sneak, get out!" In Greenlandish? The best I knew, the best, I think, they have, is what I said: I told him how he'd sinned and then in wrath cried out, "Bad man, you're very bad. Go way!"
Joas stood still, looked black. Then he turned round, strode out, and crashed the door shut back of him.
Good riddance, worth the price. No more of him, thank God. Oh --- no? Not right away --- ten days or so --- he's back. No, Joas, none for you. Good-by. For never --- now in '34 I'm writing this --- never shall Joas or his tribe --- Wait, please, excuse me, Reader, just a moment. I'll be back. There's someone knocking at the door, outside somewhere.
Funny coincidence: it was that wife of Joas's. She was afraid to come to the house door, scared of the dogs. "Why, they're all right," I said. "No, that one there," she whimpered, "I'm afraid of him." I thought that only dogs feared dogs in Greenland. "What is it that you want, Louisa?" "I want to borrow money." She was shocking to look at: filthy, of course, her clothes just black with grease. And such miserable, wrinkled, worn-out kamiks without stockings; bare knees in winter time! And that half-wit face with wisps of feather-dusted hair across it. And she had had a nosebleed; it was caked all over her upper lip and chin. Oh, well, I gave it to her.--- From Salamina
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