The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XII

All is well now.

Isak sows his oats, harrows, and rolls it in. Little Leopoldine comes and wants to sit on the roller. Sit on a roller? — nay, she’s all too little and unknowing for that yet. Her brothers know better. There’s no seat on father’s roller.

But father thinks it fine and a pleasure to see little Leopoldine coming up so trustingly to him already; he talks to her, and shows her how to walk nicely over the fields, and not get her shoes full of earth.

“And what’s that — why, if you haven’t a blue frock on today — come, let me see; ay, ’tis blue, so it is. And a belt round and all. Remember when you came on the big ship? And the engines — did you see them? That’s right — and now run home to the boys again, they’ll find you something to play with.”

Oline is gone, and Inger has taken up her old work once more, in house and yard. She overdoes it a little, maybe, in cleanliness and order, just by way of showing that she was going to have things differently now. And indeed it was wonderful to see what a change was made; even the glass windows in the old turf hut were cleaned, and the boxes swept out.

But it was only the first days, the first week; after that she began to be less eager about the work. There was really no need to take all that trouble about cowsheds and things; she could make better use of her time now. Inger had learned a deal among the town folk, and it would be a pity not to turn it to account. She took to her spinning-wheel and loom again — true enough, she was even quicker and neater than before — a trifle too quick — hui! — especially when Isak was looking on; he couldn’t make out how any one could learn to use their fingers that way — the fine long fingers she had to her big hands. But Inger had a way of dropping one piece of work to take up another, all in a moment. Well, well, there were more things to be looked to now than before, and maybe she was not altogether so patient as she had been; a trifle of unrest had managed to creep in.

First of all there were the flowers she had brought with her — bulbs and cuttings; little lives these too, that must be thought of. The glass window was too small, the ledge too narrow to set flower-pots on; and besides, she had no flower-pots. Isak must make some tiny boxes for begonias, fuchsias, and roses. Also, one window was not enough — fancy a room with only one window!

And, “Oh, by the way,” said Inger, “I want an iron, you know. There isn’t one in the place. I could use a flat iron for pressing when I’m sewing dresses and things, but you can’t do proper work without an iron of some sort.”

Isak promised to get the blacksmith down at the village to make a first-rate pressing-iron. Oh, Isak was ready to do anything, do all that she asked in every way; for he could see well enough that Inger had learned a heap of things now, and matchless clever she was grown. She spoke, too, in a different way, a little finer, using elegant words. She never shouted out to him now as she used to: “Come and get your food!” but would say instead: “Dinner’s ready, if you please.” Everything was different now. In the old days he would answer simply “Ay,” or say nothing at all, and go on working for a bit before he came. Now, he said “Thanks,” and went in at once. Love makes the wise a fool: now and then Isak would say “Thanks, thanks.” Ay, all was different now — maybe a trifle too fine in some ways. When Isak spoke of dung, and was rough in his speech, as peasants are, Inger would call it manure, “for the sake of the children, you know.”

She was careful with the children, and taught them everything, educated them. Let tiny Leopoldine go on quickly with her crochet work, and the boys with writing and schooling; they would not be altogether behindhand when the time came for them to go to school in the village. Eleseus in particular was grown a clever one, but little Sivert was nothing much, if the truth must be told — a madcap, a jackanapes. He even ventured to screw a little at Mother’s sewing-machine, and had already hacked off splinters from table and chairs with his new pocket-knife. Inger had threatened to take it away altogether.

The children, of course, had all the animals about the place, and Eleseus had still his coloured pencil besides. He used it very carefully, and rarely lent it to his brother, but for all that the walls were covered with blue and red drawings as time went on, and the pencil got smaller and smaller. At last Eleseus was simply forced to put Sivert on rations with it, lending him the pencil on Sunday only, for one drawing. Sivert was not pleased with the arrangement, but Eleseus was a fellow who would stand no nonsense. Not so much as being the stronger, but he had longer arms, and could man age better when it came to a quarrel.

But that Sivert! Now and again he would come across a bird’s nest in the woods; once he talked about a mouse-hole he had found, and made a lot of that; another time it was a great fish as big as a man, he had seen in the river. But it was all evidently his own invention; he was somewhat inclined to make black into white, was Sivert, but a good sort for all that. When the cat had kittens, it was he who brought her milk, because she hissed too much for Eleseus. Sivert was never tired of standing looking at the box full of movement, a nest of tumbling furry paws.

The chickens, too, he noticed every day: the cock with his lordly carriage and fine feathers, the hens tripping about chattering low, and pecking at the sand, or screaming out as if terribly hurt every time they had laid an egg.

And there was the big wether. Little Sivert had read a good deal to what he knew before, but he could not say of the wether that the beast had a fine Roman nose, begad! That he could not say. But he could do better than that. He knew the wether from the day when it had been a lamb, he understood it and was one with it — a kinsman, a fellow-creature. Once, a strange primitive impression flickered through his senses: it was a moment he never forgot. The wether was grazing quietly in the field; suddenly it threw up its head, stopped munching, simply stood there looking out. Sivert looked involuntarily in the same direction. No — nothing remarkable. But Sivert himself felt something strange within him: “’Tis most as if he stood looking into the garden of Eden,” he thought.

There were the cows, — the children had each a couple, — great sailing creatures, so friendly and tame that they let themselves be caught whenever you liked; let human children pat them. There was the pig, white and particular about its person when decently looked after, listening to every sound, a comical fellow, always eager for food, and ticklish and fidgety as a girl. And there was the billy-goat, there was always one old billy-goat at Sellanraa, for as soon as one died another was ready to take his place. And was there ever anything so solemnly ridiculous to look at? Just now he had a whole lot of goats to look after, but at tirades he would get sick and tired of them all, and lie down, a bearded, thoughtful spectacle, a veritable Father Abraham. And then in a moment, up again and off after the flock. He always left a trail of sourish air behind him.

The daily round of the farm goes on. Now and again a traveller comes by, on his way up to the hills, and asks: “And how’s all with ye here?”

And Isak answers: “Ay, thank ye kindly.”

Isak works and works, consulting the almanac for all that he does, notes the changes of the moon, pays heed to the signs of the weather, and works on. He has beaten out so much of a track down to the village that he can drive in now with horse and cart, but for the most part, he carries his load himself; carries loads of cheese or hides, and bark and resin, and butter and eggs; all things he can sell, to bring back other wares instead. No, in the summer he does not often drive down — for one thing, because the road down from Breidablik, the last part of the way, is so badly kept. He has asked Brede Olsen to help with the upkeep of the road, and do his share. Brede Olsen promises, but does not hold to his word. And Isak will not ask him again. Rather carry a load on his back himself. And Inger says: “I can’t understand how you ever manage it all.” Oh, but he could manage anything. He had a pair of boots, so unimaginably heavy and thick, with great slabs of iron on the soles, even the straps were fastened with copper nails — it was a marvel that one man could walk in such boots at all.

On one of his journeys down, he came upon several gangs of men at work on the moors; putting down stone sockets and fixing telegraph poles. Some of them are from the village, Brede Olsen is there too, for all that he has taken up land of his own and ought to be working on that. Isak wonders that Brede can find time.

The foreman asks if Isak can sell them telegraph poles. Isak says no. Not if he’s well paid for them? — No. — Oh, Isak was grown a thought quicker in his dealings now, he could say no. If he sold them a few poles, to be sure it would be money in his pocket, so many Daler more; but he had no timber to spare, there was nothing gained by that. The engineer in charge comes up himself to ask, but Isak refuses.

“We’ve poles enough,” says the engineer, “but it would be easier to take them from your ground up there, and save transport.”

“I’ve no timber to spare myself,” says Isak. “I want to get up a bit of a saw and do some cutting; there’s some more buildings I’ll need to have ready soon.”

Here Brede Olsen put in a word, and says: “If I was you, Isak, I’d sell them poles.”

For all his patience, Isak gave Brede a look and said: “Ay, I dare say you would.”

“Well — what?” asks Brede.

“Only that I’m not you,” said Isak.

Some of the workmen chuckled a little at this.

Ay, Isak had reason enough just then to put his neighbour down; that very day he had seen three sheep in the fields at Breidablik, and one of them he knew — the one with the flat ears that Oline had bartered away. He may keep it, thought Isak, as he went on his way; Brede and his woman may get all the sheep they want, for me!

That business of the saw was always in his thoughts; it was as he had said. Last winter, when the roads were hard, he had carted up the big circular blade and the fittings, ordered from Trondhjem through the village store. The parts were lying in one of the sheds now, well smeared with oil to keep off the rust. He had brought up some of the beams too, for the framework; he could begin building when he pleased, but he put it off. What could it be? was he beginning to grow slack, was he wearing out? He could not understand it himself. It would have been no surprise to others, perhaps, but Isak could not believe it. Was his head going? He had never been afraid of taking up a piece of work before; he must have changed somehow, since the time when he had built his mill across a river just as big. He could get in help from the village, but he would try again alone; he would start in a day or so — and Inger could lend him a hand.

He spoke to Inger about it.

“Hm. I don’t know if you could find time one of these days to lend a hand with that sawmill?”

Inger thought for a moment. “Ye — s, if I can manage it. So you’re going to set up a sawmill?”

“Ay, ’tis my intention so. I’ve worked it all out in my head.”

“Will that be harder than the mill was?”

“Much harder, ten times as hard. Why, it’s all got to be as close and exact — down to the tiniest line, and the saw itself exactly midways.”

“If only you can manage it,” said Inger thoughtlessly.

Isak was offended, and answered, “As to that, we shall see.”

“Couldn’t you get a man to help you, some one that knows the work?”

“No.”

“Well, then, you won’t be able to manage it,” said she again.

Isak put up his hand to his hair — it was like a bear lifting his paw.

“’Twas just that I’ve been fearing,” said he. “That I might not manage it. And that’s why I wanted you that’s learned so much to help me.”

That was one to the bear. But nothing gained after all. Inger tossed her head and turned aside unkindly, and would have nothing to do with his saw.

“Well, then ——” said Isak.

“Why, do you want me to stand getting drenched in the river and have me laid up? And who’s to do all the sewing, and look to the animals and keep house, and all the rest?”

“No, that’s true,” said Isak.

Oh, but it was only the four corner posts and the middle ones for the two long sides he wanted help with, that was all. Inger — was she really grown so different in her heart through living among folk from the towns?

The fact was that Inger had changed a good deal; she thought now less of their common good than of herself. She had taken loom and wheel into use again, but the sewing machine was more to her taste; and when the pressing-iron came up from the blacksmith’s, she was ready to set up as a fully-trained dressmaker. She had a profession now. She began by making a couple of little frocks for Leopoldine. Isak thought them pretty, and praised them, maybe, a thought too much; Inger hinted that it was nothing to what she could do when she tried.

“But they’re too short,” said Isak.

“They’re worn that way in town,” said Inger. “You know nothing about it.”

Isak saw he had gone too far, and, to make up for it, said something about getting some material for Inger herself, for something or other.

“For a cloak?” said Inger.

“Ay, or what you’d like.”

Inger agreed to have something for a cloak, and described the sort of stuff she wanted.

But when she had made the cloak, she had to find some one to show it to; accordingly, when the boys went down to the village to be put to school, Inger herself went with them. And that journey might have seemed a little thing, but it left its mark.

They came first of all to Breidablik, and the Breidablik woman and her children came out to see who it was going by. There sat Inger and the two boys, driving down lordly-wise — the boys on their way to school, nothing less, and Inger wearing a cloak. The Breidablik woman felt a sting at the sight; the cloak she could have done without — thank heaven, she set no store by such foolishness! — but . . . she had children of her own — Barbro, a great girl already, Helge, the next, and Katrine, all of an age for school. The two eldest had been to school before, when they lived down in the village, but after moving up to Breidablik, to an out-of-the-way place up on the moors, they had been forced to give it up, and let the children run heathen again.

“You’ll be wanting a bite for the boys, maybe,” said the woman.

“Food? Do you see this chest here? It’s my travelling trunk, that I brought home with me — I’ve that full of food.”

“And what’ll be in it of sorts?”

“What sorts? I’ve meat and pork in plenty, and bread and butter and cheese besides.”

“Ay, you’ve no lack up at Sellanraa,” said the other; and her poor, sallow-faced children listened with eyes and ears to this talk of rich things to eat. “And where will they be staying?” asked the mother.

“At the blacksmith’s,” said Inger.

“Ho!” said the other. “Ay, mine’ll be going to school again soon. They’ll stay with the Lensmand.”

“Ho!” said Inger.

“Ay, or at the doctor’s, maybe, or at the parsonage. Brede he’s in with the great folks there, of course.”

Inger fumbled with her cloak, and managed to turn it so that a bit of black silk fringe appeared to advantage.

“Where did you get the cloak?” asked the woman. “One you had with you, maybe?”

“I made it myself.”

“Ay, ay, ’tis as I said: wealth and riches full and running over. . . . ”

Inger drove on, feeling all set up and pleased with herself, and, coming into the village, she may have been a tripe overproud in her bearing. Lensmand Heyerdahl’s lady was not pleased at the sight of that cloak; the Sellanraa woman was forgetting her place — forgetting where it was she had come from after five years’ absence. But Inger had at least a chance of showing off her cloak, and the storekeeper’s wife and the blacksmith’s wife and the schoolmaster’s wife all thought of getting one like it for themselves — but it could wait a bit.

And now it was not long before Inger began to have visitors. One or two women came across from the other side of the hills, out of curiosity. Oline had perhaps chanced to say something against her will, to this one or that. Those who came now brought news from Inger’s own birthplace; what more natural than that Inger should give them a cup of coffee, and let them look at her sewing-machine! Young girls came up in pairs from the coast, from the village, to ask Inger’s advice; it was autumn now, and they had been saving up for a new dress, and wanted her to help them. Inger, of course, would know all about the latest fashions, after being out in the world, and now and again she would do a little cutting out. Inger herself brightened up at these visits, and was glad; kindly and helpful she was too, and clever at the work, besides; she could cut out material without a pattern. Sometimes she would even hem a whole length on her machine, and all for nothing, and give the stuff back to the girls with a delightful jest: “There — now you can sew the buttons on yourself!”

Later in the year Inger was sent for down to the village, to do dressmaking for some of the great folks there. Inger could not go; she had a household to look after, and animals besides, all the work of the home, and she had no servant.

Had no what? Servant!

She spoke to Isak one day.

“If only I had some one to help me, I could put in more time sewing.”

Isak did not understand. “Help?”

“Yes, help in the house — a servant-girl.”

Isak must have been taken aback at this; he laughed a little in his iron beard, and took it as a jest. “Ay, we should have a servant-girl,” said he.

“Housewives in the towns always have a servant,” said Inger.

“Ho!” said Isak.

Well, Isak was not perhaps in the best of humour just then, not exactly gentle and content, no, for he had started work on that sawmill, and it was a slow and toilsome business; he couldn’t hold the baulks with one hand, and a level in the other, and fix ends at the same time. But when the boys came back from school again it was easier; the lads were useful and a help, bless them I Sivert especially had a genius for knocking in nails, but Eleseus was better at handling a plumb-line. By the end of a week, Isak and the boys had actually got the foundation posts in, and soundly fixed with stretcher pieces as thick as the beams themselves.

It worked out all right — everything worked out all right somehow. But Isak was beginning to feel tired in the evenings now — whatever it could be. It was not only building; a sawmill and getting that done — there was everything else besides. The hay was in, but the corn was standing yet, soon it would have to be cut and stacked: there were the potatoes too, they would have to be taken up before long. But the boys were a wonderful help. He did not thank them; ’twas not the way among folk of their sort, but he was mightily pleased with their. for all that. Now and again they would sit down in the middle of their work and talk together, the father almost asking his sons’ advice as to what they should do next. Those were proud moments for the lads, they learned also to think well before they spoke, lest they should be in the wrong.

“‘Twould be a pity not to have the saw roofed in before the autumn rains,” said their father.

If only Inger had been as in the old days! But Inger was not so strong as she had been, it seemed, and that was natural enough after her long spell within walls. That her mind, too, seemed changed was another matter. Strange, how little thought, how little care, she seemed to take now; shallow and heedless — was this Inger?”

One day she spoke of the child she had killed.

“And a fool I was to do it,” she said. “We might have had her mouth sewed up too, and then I needn’t have throttled her” And she never stole off now to a tiny grave in the forest, where once she had patted the earth with her hands and set up a little cross.

But Inger was not altogether heartless yet; she cared for her other children, kept them clean and made new clothes for them; she would sit up late at night mending their things. It was her ambition to see them get on in the world.

The corn was stacked, and the potatoes were taken up. Then came the winter. No, the sawmill did not get roofed in that autumn, but that could not be helped — after all, ’twas not a matter of life or death. Next summer would be time and means enough.

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