The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XIII

The winter round of work was as before; carting wood, mending tools and implements. Inger kept house, and did sewing in her spare time. The boys were down in the village again for the long term at school. For several winters past they had had a pair of ski between them; they managed well enough that way as long as they were at home, one waiting while the other took his turn, or one standing on behind the other. Ay, they managed finely with but one pair, it was the finest thing they knew, and they were innocent and glad. But down in the village things were different. The school was full of ski; even the children at Breidablik, it seemed, had each a pair. And the end of it was that Isak had to make a new pair for Eleseus, Sivert keeping the old pair for his own.

Isak did more; he had the boys well clad, and gave them everlasting boots. But when that was done, Isak went to the storekeeper and asked for a ring.

“A ring?” said the man.

“A finger ring. Ay, I’ve grown that high and mighty now I must give my wife a ring.”

“Do you want a silver one, or gold, or just a brass ring dipped to look like gold?”

“Let’s say a silver ring.”

The storekeeper thought for a while.

“Look you, Isak,” he said. “If you want to do the proper thing, and give your wife a ring she needn’t be ashamed to wear, you’d better make it a gold ring.”

“What!” said Isak aloud. Though maybe in his inmost heart he had been thinking of a gold ring all the time.

They talked the matter over seriously, and agreed about getting a measurement of some sort for the ring. Isak was thoughtful, and shook his head and reckoned it was a big thing to do, but the storekeeper refused to order anything but a gold ring. Isak went home again, secretly pleased with his decision, but somewhat anxious, for all that, at the extravagant lengths he had gone to, all for being in love with his wife.

There was a good average snowfall that winter, and early in the year, when the roads were passable, folk from the village began carting up telegraph poles over the moors, dropping their loads at regular intervals. They drove big teams, and came up past Breidablik, past Sellanraa farm, and met new teams beyond, coming down with poles from the other side of the hills — the line was complete.

So life went on day by day, without any great event. What was there to happen, anyway? Spring came, and the work of setting up the poles began. Brede Olsen was there again, with the gangs, though he should have been working on his own land at that season. “’Tis a wonder he’s the time,” thought Isak.

Isak himself had barely time to eat and sleep; it was a close thing to get through the season’s work now, with all the land he had brought under tillage.

Then, between seasons, he got his sawmill roofed in, and could set to work putting up the machine parts. And look you, ’twas no marvel of fine wood work he had set up, but strong it was, as a giant of the hills, and stood there to good use. The saw could work, and cut as a sawmill should; Isak had kept his eyes about him down in the village, and used them well. It was hearty and small, this saw mill he had built, but he was pleased with it; he carved the date above the doorway, and put his mark.

And that summer, something more than usual did tome about after all at Sellanraa.

The telegraph workers had now reached so far up over the moors that the foremost gang came to the farm one evening and asked to be lodged for the night. They were given shelter in the big barn. As the days went on, the other gangs came along, and all were housed at Sellanraa. The work went on ahead, passing the farm, but the men still came back to sleep in the barn. One Saturday evening came the engineer in charge, to pay the men.

At sight of the engineer, Eleseus felt his heart jump, and stole out of the house lest he should be asked about that coloured pencil. Oh, there would be trouble now — and Sivert nowhere to be seen; he would have to face it alone. Eleseus slipped round the corner of the house, like a pale ghost, found his mother, and begged her to tell Sivert to come. There was no help for it now.

Sivert took the matter less to heart — but then, he was not the chief culprit. The two brothers went a little way off and sat down, and Eleseus said: “If you’d say it was you, now!”

“Me?” said Sivert.

“You’re younger, he wouldn’t do anything to you.”

Sivert thought over it, and saw that his brother was in distress; also it flattered him to feel that the other needed his help.

“Why, I might help you out of it, perhaps,” said he in a grown-up voice.

“Ay, if you would!” said Eleseus, and quite simply gave his brother the bit of pencil that was left. “You can have it for keeps,” he said.

They were going in again together, but Eleseus recollected he had something he must do over at the sawmill, or rather, at the cornmill; something he must look to, and it would take some time — he wouldn’t be finished just yet. Sivert went in alone.

There sat the engineer, paying out notes and silver, and when he had finished, Inger gave him milk to drink, a jug and a glass, and he thanked her. Then he talked to little Leopoldine, and then, noticing the drawings on the walls, asked straight out who had done that. “Was it you?” he asked, turning to Sivert. The man felt, perhaps, he owed something for Inger’s hospitality, and praised the drawings just to please her. Inger, on her part, explained the matter as it was: it was her boys had made the drawings — both of them. They had no paper till she came home and looked to things, so they had marked all about the walls. But she hadn’t the heart to wash it off again.

“Why, leave it as it is,” said the engineer. “Paper, did you say?” And he took out a heap of big sheets. “There, draw away on that till I come round again. And how are you off for pencils?”

Sivert stepped forward simply with the stump he had, and showed how small it was. And behold, the man gave him a new coloured pencil, not even sharpened. “There, now you can start afresh. But I’d make the horses red if I were you, and do the goats with blue. Never seen a blue horse, have you?”

And the engineer went on his way.

That same evening, a man came up from the village with a basket — he handed out some bottles to the workmen, and went off again. But after he had gone, it was no longer so quiet about the place; some one played an accordion, the men talked loudly, and there was singing, and even dancing, at Sellanraa. One of the men asked Inger out to dance, and Inger — who would have thought it of her? — she laughed a little laugh and actually danced a few turns round. After that, some of the others asked her and she danced not a little in the end.

Inger — who could say what was in her mind? Here she was dancing gaily, maybe for the first time in her life; sought after, riotously pursued by thirty men, and she alone, the only one to choose from, no one to cut her out. And those burly telegraph men — how they lifted her! Why not dance? Eleseus and Sivert were fast asleep in the little chamber, undisturbed by all the noise outside; little Leopoldine was up, looking on wonderingly at her mother as she danced.

Isak was out in the fields all the time; he had gone off directly after supper, and when he came home to go to bed, some one offered him a bottle. He drank a little, and sat watching the dancing, with Leopoldine on his lap.

“’Tis a gay time you’re having,” said he kindly to Inger — “footing it properly tonight!”

After a while, the music stopped, and the dance was over. The workmen got ready to leave they were going down to the village for the rest of the evening, and would be there all next day, coming back on Monday morning. Soon all was quiet again at Sellanraa; a couple of the older men stayed behind, and turned in to sleep in the barn.

Isak woke up in the night — Inger was not there. Could she be gone to see to the cows? He got up and went across to the cowshed. “Inger!” he called. No answer. The cows turned their heads and looked at him; all was still. Unthinkingly, from ancient habit, he counted heads, counted the sheep also; there was one of the ewes had a bad habit of staying out at night — and out it was now. “Inger!” he called again. Still no answer. Surely she couldn’t have gone with them down to the village?

The summer night was light and warm. Isak stayed a while sitting on the door-slab, then he went out into the woods to look for the ewe. And he found Inger. Inger and one other. They sat in the heather, she twirling his peaked cap on one finger, both talking together — they were after her again, it seemed.

Isak trundled slowly over towards them. Inger turned and saw him, and bowed forward where she sat; all the life went out of her, she hung like a rag.

“H’m. Did you know that ewe’s out again?” asked Isak. “But no, you wouldn’t know,” said he.

The young telegraph hand picked up his cap and began sidling away. “I’ll be getting along after the others,” he said. “Good-night to ye.” No one answered.

“So you’re sitting here,” said Isak. “Going to stay out a bit, maybe?” And he turned towards home. Inger rose to her knees, got on her feet and followed after, and so they went, man in front and wife behind, tandem-wise. They went home.

Inger must have found time to think. Oh, she found a way. “’Twas the ewe I was after,” said she. “I saw it was out again. Then one of the men came up and helped me look. We’d not been sitting a moment when you came. Where are you going now?”

“I? Seems I’d better look for the creature myself.”

“No, no, go and lie down. If any one’s to go, let me. Go and lie down, you’ll be needing rest. And as for that, the ewe can stay out where she is — ‘twon’t be the first time.”

“And be eaten up by some beast or other,” said Isak, and went off.

Inger ran after him. “Don’t, don’t, it’s not worth it,” she said. “You need rest. Let me go.”

Isak gave in. But he would not hear of Inger going out to search by herself. And they went in doors together.

Inger turned at once to look for the children; went into the little chamber to see to the boys, as if she had been out on some perfectly natural errand; it almost seemed, indeed, as if she were trying to make up to Isak — as if she expected him to be more in love with her than ever that evening — after she had explained it all so neatly. But no, Isak was not so easy to turn; he would rather have seen her thoroughly distressed and beside herself with contrition. Ay, that would have been better. What matter that she had collapsed for a moment when he came on her in the woods; the little moment of shame — what was the good of that when it all passed off so soon?

He was far from gentle, too, the next day, and that a Sunday; went off and looked to the sawmill, looked to the cornmill, looked over the fields, with the children or by himself. Inger tried once to join him, but Isak turned away: “I’m going up to the river,” he said. “Something up there . . .” There was trouble in his mind, like enough, but he bore it silently, and made no scene. Oh, there was something great about Isak; as it might be Israel, promised and ever deceived, but still believing.

By Monday the tension was less marked, and as the days went on, the impression of that unhappy Saturday evening grew fainter. Time can mend a deal of things; a spit and a shake, a meal and a good night’s rest, and it will heal the sorriest of wounds. Isak’s trouble was not so bad as it might have been;; after all, he was not certain that he had been wronged, and apart from that, he had other things to think of; the harvesting was at hand. And last, not least, the telegraph line was all but finished now; in a little while they would be left in peace. A broad light road, a king’s highway, had been cut through the dark of the forest; there were poles and wires running right up over the hills.

Next Saturday paytime, the last there was to be, Isak managed to be away from home — he wished it so. He went down into the village with cheese and butter, and came back on Sunday night. The men were all gone from the barn; nearly all, that is; the last man stumbled out of the yard with his pack on his shoulder — all but the last, that is. That it was not altogether safe as yet Isak could see, for there was a bundle left on the floor of the barn. Where the owner was he could not say, and did not care to know, but there was a peaked cap on top of the bundle — an offense to the eye.

Isak heaved the bundle out into the yard, flung the cap out after it, and closed the door. Then he went into the stable and looked out through the window. And thought, belike: “Let the bundle stay there, and let the cap lie there, ’tis all one whose they may be. A bit of dirt he is, and not worth my while” — so he might have thought. But when the fellow comes for his bundle, never doubt but that Isak will be there to take him by the arm and make that arm a trifle blue. And as for kicking him off the place in a way he’d remember — why, Isak would give him that too!

Whereupon Isak left his window in the stable and went back to the cowshed and looked out from there, and could not rest. The bundle was tied up with string; the poor fellow had no lock to his bag, and the string had come undone — Isak could not feel sure he had not dealt over hardly with that bundle. Whatever it might be — he was not sure he had acted rightly. Only just now he had been in the village, and seen his new harrow, a brand-new harrow he had ordered — oh, a wonderful machine, an idol to worship, and it had just come. A thing like that must carry a blessing with it. And the powers above, that guide the footsteps of men, might be watching him now at this moment, to see if he deserved a blessing or not. Isak gave much thought to the powers above; ay, he had seen God with his own eyes, one night in harvest-time, in the woods; it was rather a curious sight.

Isak went out into the yard and stood over the bundle. He was still in doubt; he thrust his hat back and scratched his head, which gave him a devil-may-care appearance for the moment; something lordly and careless, as it might have been a Spaniard. But then he must have thought something like this: “Nay, here am I, and far from being in any way splendid or excellent; a very dog.” And then he tied up the bundle neatly once more, picked up the cap, and carried all back into the barn again. And that was done.

As he went out from the barn and over to the mill, away from ‘:he yard, away from everything, there was no Inger to be seen in the window of the house. Nay, then, let her be where she pleased — no doubt she was in bed — where else should she be? But in the old days, in those first innocent years, Inger could never rest, but sat up at nights waiting for him when he had been down to the village. It was different now, different in every way. As, for instance, when he had given her that ring. Could anything have been more utterly a failure? Isak had been gloriously modest, and far from venturing to call it a gold ring. “’Tis nothing grand, but you might put it on your finger just to try.”

“Is it gold?” she asked.

“Ay, but ’tis none so thick,” said he.

And here she was to have answered: “Ay, but indeed it is.” But instead she had said: “No, ’tis not very thick, but still . . .”

“Nay, ’tis worth no more than a bit of grass, be like,” said he at last, and gave up hope.

But Inger had indeed been glad of the ring, and wore it on her right hand, looking fine there when she was sewing; now and again she would let the village girls try it on, and sit with it on their finger for a bit when they came up to ask of this or that. Foolish Isak — not to understand that she was proud of it beyond measure! . . .

It was a profitless business sitting there alone in the mill, listening to the fall the whole night through. Isak had done no wrong; he had no cause to hide himself away. He left the mill, went up over the fields, and home — into the house.

And then in truth it was a shamefaced Isak, shamefaced and glad. Brede Olsen sat there, his neighbour and no other; sat there drinking coffee. Ay, Inger was up, the two of them sat there simply and quietly, talking and drinking coffee.

“Here’s Isak,” said Inger pleasantly as could be, and got up and poured out a cup for him. “Evening,” said Brede, and was just as pleasant too.

Isak could see that Brede had been spending the evening with the telegraph gangs, the last night be fore they went; he was somewhat the worse for it, maybe, but friendly and good-humoured enough. He boasted a little, as was his way: hadn’t the time really to bother with this telegraphic work, the farm took all of a man’s day — but he couldn’t very well say no when the engineer was so anxious to have him. And so it had come about, too, that Brede had had to take over the job of line inspector. Not for the sake of the money, of course, he could earn many times that down in the village, but he hadn’t liked to refuse. And they’d given him a neat little machine set up on the wall, a curious little thing, a sort of telegraph in itself.

Ay, Brede was a wastrel and a boaster, but for all that Isak could bear him no grudge; he himself was too relieved at finding his neighbour in the house that evening instead of a stranger. Isak had the peasant’s coolness of mind, his few feelings, stability, stubbornness; he chatted with Brede and nodded at his shallowness. “Another cup for Brede,” said he. And Inger poured it out.

Inger talked of the engineer; a kindly man he was beyond measure; had looked at the boys’ drawings and writings, and even said something about taking Eleseus to work under him.

“To work with him?” said Isak.

“Ay, to the town. To do writing and things, be a clerk in the office — all for he was so pleased with the boy’s writing and drawing.”

“Ho!” said Isak.

“Well, and what do you say? He was going to have him confirmed too. That was a great thing, to my mind.”

“Ay, a great thing indeed,” said Brede. “And when the engineer says he’ll do a thing, he’ll do it. I know him, and you can take my word for that.”

“We’ve no Eleseus to spare on this farm as I know of,” said Isak.

There was something like a painful silence after that. Isak was not an easy man to talk to.

“But when the boy himself wants to get on,” said

Inger at last, “and has it in him, too.” Silence again.

Then said Brede with a laugh: “I wish he’d ask for one of mine, anyway. I’ve enough of them and to spare. But Barbro’s the eldest, and she’s a girl.”

“And a good girl enough,” said Inger, for politeness’ sake.

“Ay, I’ll not say no,” said Brede.” Barbro’s well enough, and clever at this and that — she’s going to help at the Lensmand’s now.”

“Going to the Lensmand’s?”

“Well, I had to let her go — his wife was so set on it, I couldn’t say no.”

It was well on towards morning now, and Brede rose to go.

“I’ve a bundle and a cap I left in your barn,” he said. “That is if the men haven’t run off with it,” he added jestingly.

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