The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XI

Isak drives on till he comes to a tarn, a bit of a pool on the moor, and there he pulls up. A pool on the moors, black, deep down, and the little surface of the water perfectly still; Isak knew what that was good for; he had hardly used any other mirror in his life than such a bit of water on the moors. Look how nice and neat he is today, with a red shirt; he takes out a pair of scissors now, and trims his beard. Vain barge of a man; is he going to make himself handsome all at once, and cut away five years’ growth of iron beard? He cuts and cuts away, looking at himself in his glass. He might have done all this at home, of course, but was shy of doing it before Oline; it was quite enough to stand there right in front of her nose and put on a red shirt. He cuts and cuts away, a certain amount of beard falls into his patent mirror. The horse grows impatient at last and is moving on; Isak is fain to be content with himself as he is, and gets up again. And indeed he feels somehow younger already — devil knows what it could be, but somehow slighter of build. Isak drives down to the village.

Next day the mail boat comes in. Isak climbs up on a rock by the storekeeper’s wharf, looking out, but still no Inger to be seen. Passengers there were, grown-up folk and children with them — Herregud! — but no Inger. He had kept in the background, sitting on his rock, but there was no need to stay behind any longer; he gets down and goes to the steamer. Barrels and cases trundling ashore, people and mailbags, but still Isak lacked what he had come for. There was something there — a woman with a little girl, up at the entrance to the landing-stage already; but the woman was prettier to look at than Inger — though Inger was good enough. What — why — but it was Inger! “H’m,” said Isak, and trundled up to meet them. Greetings: “Goddag,” said Inger, and held out her hand; a little cold, a little pale after the voyage, and being ill on the way. Isak, he just stood there; at last he said:

“H’m. ’Tis a fine day and all.”

“I saw you down there all along,” said Inger. “But I didn’t want to come crowding ashore with the rest. So you’re down in the village today?”

“Ay, yes. H’m.”

“And all’s well at home, everything all right?”

“Ay, thank you kindly.”

“This is Leopoldine; she’s stood the voyage much better than I did. This is your papa, Leopoldine; come and shake hands nicely.”

“H’m,” said Isak, feeling very strange — ay, he was like a stranger with them all at once.

Said Inger: “If you find a sewing-machine down by the boat, it’ll be mine. And there’s a chest as well.”

Off goes Isak, goes off more than willingly, after the chest; the men on board showed him which it was. The sewing-machine was another matter; Inger had to go down and find that herself. It was a handsome box, of curious shape, with a round cover over, and a handle to carry it by — a sewing machine in these parts i Isak hoisted the chest and the sewing-machine on to his shoulders, and turned to his wife and child:

“I’ll have these up in no time, and come back for her after.”

“Come back for who?” asked Inger, with a smile. “Did you think she couldn’t walk by herself, a big girl like that?”

They walked up to where Isak had left the horse and cart.

“New horse, you’ve got?” said Inger. “And what’s that you’ve got — a cart with a seat in?”

“’Tis but natural,” said Isak. “What I was going to say: Wouldn’t you care for a little bit of something to eat? I’ve brought things all ready.”

“Wait till we get a bit on the way,” said she. “Leopoldine, can you sit up by yourself?”

But her father won’t have it; she might fall down under the wheels. “You sit up with her and drive yourself.”

So they drove off, Isak walking behind.

He looked at the two in the cart as he walked. There was Inger, all strangely dressed and strange and fine to look at, with no hare-lip now, but only a tiny scar on the upper lip. No hissing when she talked; she spoke all clearly, and that was the wonder of it all. A grey-and-red woollen wrap with a fringe looked grand on her dark hair. She turned round in her seat on the cart, and called to him:

“It’s a pity you didn’t bring a skin rug with you; it’ll be cold, I doubt, for the child towards night.”

“She can have my jacket,” said Isak. “And when we get up in the woods, I’ve left a rug there on the way.”

“Oh, have you a rug up in the woods?”

“Ay. I wouldn’t bring it down all the way, for if you didn’t come today.”

“H’m. What was it you said before — the boys are well and all?”

“Ay, thank you kindly.”

“They’ll be big lads now, I doubt?”

“Ay, that’s true. They’ve just been planting potatoes.”

“Oh!” said the mother, smiling, and shaking her head. “Can they plant potatoes already?”

“Why, Eleseus, he gives a hand with this, and little Sivert helps with that,” said Isak proudly.

Little Leopoldine was asking for something to eat. Oh, the pretty little creature; a ladybird up on a cart! She talked with a sing in her voice, with a strange accent, as she had learned in Trondhjem. Inger had to translate now and again. She had her brothers’ features, the brown eyes and oval cheeks that all had got from their mother; ay, they were their mother’s children, and well that they were so! Isak was something shy of his little girl, shy of her tiny shoes and long, thin, woollen stockings and short frock; when she had come to meet her strange papa she had curtseyed and offered him a tiny hand.

They got up into the woods and halted for a rest and a meal all round. The horse had his fodder;

Leopoldine ran about in the heather, eating as she went.

“You’ve not changed much,” said Inger, looking at her husband.

Isak glanced aside, and said, “No, you think not? But you’ve grown so grand and all.”

“Ha ha! Nay, I’m an old woman now,” said she jestingly.

It was no use trying to hide the fact: Isak was not a bit sure of himself now. He could find no self-possession, but still kept aloof, shy, as if ashamed of himself. How old could his wife be now? She couldn’t be less than thirty — that is to say, she couldn’t be more, of course. And Isak, for all that he was eating already, must pull up a twig of heather and fall to biting that.

“What — are you eating heather?” cried Inger laughingly.

Isak threw down the twig, took a mouthful of food, and going over to the road, took the horse by its forelegs and heaved up its forepart till the animal stood on its hindlegs. Inger looked on with astonishment.

“What are you doing that for?” she asked.

“Oh, he’s so playful,” said Isak, and set the horse down again.

Now what had he done that for? A sudden impulse to do just that thing; perhaps he had done it to hide his embarrassment.

They started off again, and all three of them walked a bit of the way. They came to a new farm.

“What’s that there?” asked Inger.

“’Tis Brede’s place, that he’s bought.”

“Brede?”

“Breidablik, he calls it. There’s wide moorland, but the timber’s poor.”

They talked of the new place as they passed on. Isak noticed that Brede’s cart was still left out in the open.

The child was growing sleepy now, and Isak took her gently in his arms and carried her. They walked and walked. Leopoldine was soon fast asleep, and Inger said:

“We’ll wrap her up in the rug, and she can lie down in the cart and sleep as long as she likes.”

“’Twill shake her all to pieces,” said Isak, and carries her on. They cross the moors and get into the woods again.

Ptro!“ says Inger, and the horse stops. She takes the child from Isak, gets him to shift the chest and the sewing-machine, making a place for Leopoldine in the bottom of the cart. “Shaken? not a bit of it!”

Isak fixes things to rights, tucks his little daughter up in the rug, and lays his jacket folded under her head. Then off again.

Man and wife gossiping of this and that. The sun is up till late in the evening, and the weather warm.

“Oline,” says Inger — “where does she sleep?”

“In the little room.”

“Ho! And the boys?”

“They’ve their own bed in the big room. There’s two beds there, just as when you went away.”

“Looking at you now,” said Inger, “I can see you’re just as you were before. And those shoulders of yours, they’ve carried some burdens up along this way, but they’ve not grown the weaker by it, seems.”

“H’m. Maybe. What I was going to say: How it was like with you all the years there? Bearable like?” Oh, Isak was soft at heart now; he asked her that, and wondered in his mind.

And Inger said: “Ay, ’twas nothing to complain of.”

They talked more feelingly together, and Isak asked if she wasn’t tired of walking, and would get up in the cart a bit of way. “No, thanks all the same,” said she. “But I don’t know what’s the matter with me today; after being ill on the boat, I feel hungry all the time.”

“Why, did you want something, then?”

“Yes, if you don’t mind stopping so long.”

Oh, that Inger, maybe ’twas not for herself at all, but for Isak’s sake. She would have him eat again; he had spoiled his last meal chewing twigs of heather.

And the evening was light and warm, and they had but a few miles more to go; they sat down to eat again.

Inger took a parcel from her box, and said:

“I’ve a few things I brought along for the boys. Let’s go over there in the bushes, it’s warmer there.”

They went across to the bushes, and she showed him the things; neat braces with buckles for the boys to wear, copy-books with copies at the top of the page, a pencil for each, a pocket-knife for each. And there was an excellent book for herself, she had. “Look, with my name in and all. A prayer-book.” It was a present from the Governor, by way of remembrance.

Isak admired each thing in silence. She took out a bundle of little collars — Leopoldine’s, they were. And gave Isak a black neckerchief for himself, shiny as silk.

“Is that for me?” said he.

“Yes, it’s for you.”

He took it carefully in his hands, and stroked it.

“Do you think it’s nice?”

“Nice — why I could go round the world in such.”

But Isak’s fingers were rough; they stuck in the curious silky stuff.

Now Inger had no more things to show. But when she had packed them all up again, she sat there still; and the way she sat, he could see her legs, could see her red-bordered stockings.

“H’m,” said he. “Those’ll be town-made things, I doubt?”

“’Tis wool was bought in the town, but I knitted them myself. They’re ever so long — right up above the knee — look . . . .”

A little while after she heard herself whispering:

“Oh, you . . . you’re just the same — the same as ever!”

And after that halt they drove on again, and Inger sat up, holding the reins. “I’ve brought a paper of coffee too,” she said. “But you can’t have any this evening, for it’s not roasted yet.”

“’Tis more than’s needed this evening and all,” said he.

An hour later the sun goes down, and it grows colder. Inger gets down to walk. Together they tuck the rug closer about Leopoldine, and smile to see how soundly she can sleep. Man and wife talk together again on their way. A pleasure it is to hear Inger’s voice; none could speak clearer than Inger now.

“Wasn’t it four cows we had?” she asks.

“’Tis more than that,” says he proudly.

“We’ve eight.”

“Eight cows!”

“That is to say, counting the bull.”

“Have you sold any butter?”

“Ay, and eggs.”

“What, have we chickens now?”

“Ay, of course we have. And a pig.”

Inger is so astonished at all this that she forgets herself altogether, and stops for a moment — “Ptro!“ And Isak is proud and keeps on, trying to overwhelm her completely.

“That Geissler,” he says, “you remember him? He came up a little while back.”

“Oh?”

“I’ve sold him a copper mine.”

“Ho! What’s that — a copper mine?”

“Copper, yes. Up in the hills, all along the north side of the water.”

“You — you don’t mean he paid you money for it?”

“Ay, that he did. Geissler he wouldn’t but things and not pay for them.”

“What did you get, then?”

“H’m. Well, you might not believe it — but it was two hundred Daler.”

“You got two hundred Daler!” shouts Inger, stopping again with a “Ptro!

“I did — yes. And I’ve paid for my land a long while back,” said Isak.

“Well — you are a wonder, you are!”

Truly, it was a pleasure to see Inger all surprised, and make her a rich wife. Isak did not forget to add that he had no debts nor owings at the store or anywhere else. And he had not only Geissler’s two hundred untouched, but more than that — a hundred and sixty Daler more. Ay, they might well be thankful to God

They spoke of Geissler again; Inger was able to tell how he had helped to get her set free. It had not been an easy matter for him, after all, it seemed; he had been a long time getting the matter through, and had called on the Governor ever so many times. Geissler had also written to some of the State Councillors, or some other high authorities; but this he had done behind the Governor’s back, and when the Governor heard of it he was furious, which was not surprising. But Geissler was not to be frightened; he demanded a revision of the case, new trial, new examination, and everything. And after that the King had to sign.

Ex-Lensmand Geissler had always been a good friend to them both, and their had often wondered why; he got nothing out of it but their poor thanks — it was more than they could understand. Inger had spoken with him in Trondhjem, and could not make him out. “He doesn’t seem to care a bit about any in the village but us,” she explained.

“Did he say so?”

“Yes. He’s furious with the village here. He’d show them, he said.”

“Ho!”

“And they’d find out one day, and be sorry they’d lost him, he said.”

They reached the fringe of the wood, and came in sight of their home. There were more buildings there than before, and all nicely painted. Inger hardly knew the place again, and stopped dead.

“You — you don’t say that’s our place — all that?” she exclaimed.

Little Leopoldine woke at last and sat up, thoroughly rested now; they lifted her out and let her walk.

“Are we there now?” she asked.

“Yes. Isn’t it a pretty place?”

There were small figures moving, over by the house; it was Eleseus and Sivert, keeping watch. Now they came running up. Inger was seized with a sudden cold — a dreadful cold in the head, with sniffing and coughing — even her eyes were all red and watering too. It always gives one a dreadful cold on board ship — makes one’s eyes wet and all!

But when the boys came nearer they stopped running all of a sudden and stared. They had forgotten what their mother looked like, and little sister they had never seen. But father — they didn’t know him at all till he came quite close. He had cut off his heavy beard.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38