The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XIV

And time went on.

Yes, Eleseus was sent to town after all; Inger managed that. He was there for a year, then he was confirmed, and after that had a regular place in the engineer’s office, and grew more and more clever at writing and things. To see the letters he sent home — sometimes with red and black ink, like pictures almost. And the talk of them, the words he used. Now and again he asked for money, something towards his expenses. A watch and chain, for instance, he must have, so as not to over sleep himself in the morning and be late at the office; money for a pipe and tobacco also, such as the other young clerks in the town always had. And for something he called pocket-money, and something he called evening classes, where he learned drawing and gymnastics and other matters proper to his rank and position. Altogether, it was no light matter to keep Eleseus going in a berth in town.

“Pocket-money?” said Isak. “Is that money to keep in your pocket, maybe?”

“That must be it, no doubt,” said Inger. “So as not to be altogether without. And it’s not much; only a Daler now and then.”

“Ay, that’s just it,” said Isak harshly. ”

Daler now and a Daler then . . .” But his harshness was all because he missed Eleseus himself, and wanted him home. “It makes too many Dalers in the long run,” said he. “I can’t keep on like this; you must write and tell him he can have no more.”

“Ho, very well then!” said Inger in an offended tone.

“There’s Sivert — what does he get by way of pocket-money?”

Inger answered: “You’ve never been in a town, and so you don’t know these things. Sivert’s no need of pocket-money. And talking of money, Sivert ought to be none so badly off when his Uncle Sivert dies.”

“You don’t know.”

“Ay, but I do know.”

And this was right enough in a way; Uncle Sivert had said something about making little Sivert his heir. Uncle Sivert had heard of Eleseus and his grand doings in town, and the story did not please him; he nodded and bit his lips, and muttered that a nephew called up as his namesake — named after Uncle Sivert — should not come to want. But what was this fortune Uncle Sivert was supposed to possess? Had he really, besides his neglected farm and his fishery, the heap of money and means folk generally thought? No one could say for certain. And apart from that, Uncle Sivert himself was an obstinate man; he insisted that little Sivert should come to stay with him. It was a point of honour with him, this last; he should take little Sivert and look after him, as the engineer had done with Eleseus.

But how could it be done? Send little Sivert away from home? — it was out of the question. He was all the help left to Isak now. Moreover, the lad himself had no great wish to go and stay with his famous uncle; he had tried it once, but had come home again. He was confirmed, shot up in stature, and grew; the down showed on his cheek, his hands were big, a pair of willing slaves. And he worked like a man.

Isak could hardly have managed to get the new barn built at all without Sivert’s help — but there it stood now, with bridge-way and air-holes and all, as big as they had at the parsonage itself. True, it was only a half-timbered building covered with boarding, but extra stout built, with iron clinches at the corners, and covered with one-inch plank from Isak’s own sawmill’. And Sivert had hammered in more than one nail at the work, and lifted the heavy beams for the framework till he was near fainting. Sivert got on well with his father, and worked steadily at his side; he was made of the same stuff. And yet he was not above such simple ways as going up the hill side for tansy to rub with so as to smell nice in church. ’Twas Leopoldine was the one for getting fancies in her head, which was natural enough, she being a girl, and the only daughter. That summer, if you please, she had discovered that she could not eat her porridge at supper without treacle — simply couldn’t. And she was no great use at any kind of work either.

Inger had not yet given up her idea of keeping a servant; she brought up the question every spring, and every time Isak opposed it stubbornly. All the cutting out and sewing and fine weaving she could do, not to speak of making embroidered slippers, if she had but the time to herself! And of late, Isak had been something less firm in his refusal, though he grumbled still. Ho, the first time! He had made a whole long speech about it; not as a matter of right and reason, nor yet from pride, but, alas! from weakness, from anger at the idea. But now, he seemed to be giving way, as if ashamed.

“If ever I’m to have help in the house, now’s the time,” said Inger. “A few years more, and Leopoldine’ll be big enough to do this and that.”

“Help?” said Isak. “What do you want help with, anyway?”

“Want with it, indeed? Haven’t you help yourself? Haven’t you Sivert all the time?”

What could Isak say to a meaningless argument like that? He answered: “Ay, well; when you get a girl up here, I doubt you’ll be able to plough and sow and reap and manage all by yourselves. And then Sivert and I can go our ways.”

“That’s as may be,” said Inger. “But I’ll just say this: that I could get Barbro to come now; she’s written home about it.”

“What Barbro?” said Isak. “Is it that Brede’s girl you mean?”

“Yes. She’s in Bergen now.”

“I’ll not have that Brede’s girl Barbro up here,” said he. “Whoever you get, I’ll have none of her.”

That was better than nothing; Isak refused to have Barbro; he no longer said they would have no servant at all.

Barbro from Breidablik was not the sort of girl Isak approved of; she was shallow and unsettled like her father — maybe like her mother too — a care less creature, no steady character at all. She had not stayed long at the Lensmand’s; only a year. After her confirmation, she went to help at the store keeper’s, and was there another year. Here she turned pious and got religion, and when the Salvation Army came to the village she joined it, and went about with a red band on her sleeve and carried a guitar. She went to Bergen in that costume, on the storekeeper’s boat — that was last year. And she had just sent home a photograph of herself to her people at Breidablik. Isak had seen it; a strange young lady with her hair curled up and a long watch chain hanging down over her breast. Her parents were proud of little Barbro, and showed the photograph about to all who came; ’twas grand to see how she had learned town ways and got on in the world. As for the red band and the guitar, she had given them up, it seemed.

“I took the picture along and showed it to the Lensmand’s lady,” said Brede. “She didn’t know her again.”

“Is she going to stay in Bergen?” said Isak suspiciously.

“Why, unless she goes on to Christiania, perhaps,” said Brede. “What’s there for her to do here? She’s got a new place now, as housekeeper, for two young clerks. They’ve no wives nor womenfolk of their own, and they pay her well.”

“How much?” said Isak.

“She doesn’t say exactly in the letter. But it must be something altogether different from what folk pay down here, that’s plain. Why, she gets Christmas presents, and presents other times as well, and not counted off her wages at all.”

“Ho!” said Isak.

“You wouldn’t like to have her up at your place?” asked Brede.

“I?” said Isak, all taken aback.

“No, of course, he he! It was only a way of speaking. Barbro’s well enough where she is. What was I going to say? You didn’t notice anything wrong with the line coming down — the telegraph, what?”

“With the telegraph? No.”

“No, no . . . There’s not much wrong with it now since I took over. And then I’ve my own machine here on the wall to give a warning if anything happens. I’ll have to take a walk up along the line one of these days and see how things are. I’ve too much to manage and look after, ’tis more than one man’s work. But as long as I’m Inspector here, and hold an official position, of course I can’t neglect my duties. If I hadn’t the telegraph, of course and it may not be for long . . . . ”

“Why?” said Isak. “You thinking of giving it up, maybe? ”

“Well, I can’t say exactly,” said Brede. “I haven’t quite decided. They want me to move down into the village again.”

“Who is it wants you?” asked Isak.

“Oh, all of them. The Lensmand wants me to go and be assistant there again, and the doctor wants me to drive for him, and the parson’s wife said more than once she misses me to lend a hand, if it wasn’t such a long way to go. How was it with that strip of hill, Isak — the bit you sold? Did you get as much for it as they say? ”

“Ay, ’tis no lie,” answered Isak.

“But what did Geissler want with it, anyway? It lies there still — curious thing! Year after year and nothing done.”

It was a curious thing; Isak had often wondered about it himself; he had spoken to the Lensmand about it, and asked for Geissler’s address, thinking to write to him Ay, it was a mystery.

“’Tis more than I can say,” said Isak.

Brede made no secret of his interest in this matter of the sale. “They say there’s more of the same sort up there,” he said, “besides yours. Maybe there’s more in it than we know. ’Tis a pity that we should sit here like dumb beasts and know nothing of it all. I’ve thought of going up one day myself to have a look.”

“But do you know anything about metals an such-like? asked Isak.

“Why, I know a bit. And I’ve asked one or to others. Anyhow, I’ll have to find something; I can’t live and keep us all here on this bit of a farm. It’s sheer impossible. ’Twas another matter with you that’s got all that timber and good soil below. ’Tis naught but moorland here.”

“Moorland’s good soil enough,” said Isak shortly. “I’ve the same myself.”

“But there’s no draining it,” said Brede . . . “It can’t be done.”

But it could be done. Coming down the road that day Isak noticed other clearings; two of the were lower down, nearer the village, but there was one far up above, between Breidablik and Sellanraa — ay, men were beginning to work on the land now; in the old days when Isak first came up, it had lain waste all of it. And these three new settlers were folks from another district; men with some sense In their heads, by the look of things. They didn’t begin by borrowing money to build a house; no, they came up one year and did their spade work and went away again; vanished as if they were dead. That was the proper way; ditching first, then plough and sow. Axel Ström was nearest to Isak’s land not, his next-door neighbour. A clever fellow, unmarried he came from Helgeland. He had borrowed Isak s new harrow to break up his soil, and not till the second year had he set up a hayshed and a turf. hut for himself and a couple of animals. He had called his place Maaneland, because it looked nice in the moonlight. He had no womenfolk himself, and found it difficult to get help in the summer, lying so far out, but he managed things the right way, no doubt about that. Not as Brede Olsen did, building a house first, and then coming up with a big family and little ones and all, with neither soil nor stock to feed them. What did Brede Olsen know of draining moorland and breaking new soil?

He knew how to waste his time idling, did Brede. He came by Sellanraa one day, going up to the hills — simply to look for precious metals. He came back the same evening; had not found anything definite, he said, but certain signs — and he nodded. He would come up again soon, and go over the hills thoroughly, over towards Sweden.

And sure enough, Brede came up again. He had taken a fancy to the work, no doubt; but he called it telegraph business this time — must go up and look over the whole of the line. Meanwhile his wife and children at home looked after the farm, or left it to look after itself. Isak was sick and tired of Brede’s visits, and went out of the room when he came; then Inger and Brede would sit talking heartily together. What could they have to talk about? Brede often went down to the village, and had always some news to tell of the great folk there; Inger, on the other hand, could always draw upon her famous journey to Trondhjem and her stay there. She had grown talkative in the years she had been away, and was always ready to gossip with any one. No, she was no longer the same straightforward, simple Inger of the old days.

Girls and women came up continually to Sellanraa to have a piece of work cut out, or a long hem put through the machine in a moment, and Inger entertained them well. Oline too came again, couldn’t help it, belike; came both spring and autumn; fair-spoken, soft as butter, and thoroughly false. “Just looked along to see how things are with you,” she said each time. “And I’ve been longing so for a sight of the lads, I’m that fond of them, the little angels they were. Ay, they’re big fellows now, but it’s strange . . . I can’t forget the time when they were small and I had them in my care. And here’s you building and building again, and making a whale town of the place. Going to have a bell to ring, maybe, at the roof of the barn, same as at the parsonage?”

Once Oline came and brought another woman with her, and the pair of them and Inger had a nice day together. The more Inger had sitting round her, the better she worked at her sewing and cutting out, making a show of it, waving her scissors and swinging the iron. It reminded her of the place where she had learned it all — there was always many of them in the workrooms there. Inger made no secret of where she had got her knowledge and all her art from; it was from Trondhjem. It almost appeared as if she had not been in prison at all, in the ordinary way, but at school, in an institute, where one could learn to sew and weave and write, and do dressing and dyeing — all that she had learned in Trondhjem. She spoke of the place as of a home; there were so many people she knew there, superintendents and forewomen and attendants, it had been dull and empty to come back here again, and hard to find herself altogether cut off from the life and society she had been accustomed to. She even made some show of having a cold — couldn’t stand the keen air there; for years after her return she had been too poorly to work out of doors in all seasons. It was for the outside work she really ought to have a servant.

“Ay, Heaven save us,” said Oline, “and why shouldn’t you have a servant indeed, when you’ve means and learning and a great fine house and all!”

It was pleasant to meet with sympathy, and Inger did not deny it. She worked away at her machine till the place shook, and the ring on her finger shone.

“There, you can see for yourself,” said Oline to the woman with her. “It’s true what I said, Inger she wears a gold ring on her finger.”

“Would you like to see it?” asked Inger, taking it off.

Oline seemed still to have her doubts; she turned it in her fingers as a monkey with a nut, looked at the mark. “Ay, ’tis as I say; Inger with all her means and riches.”

The other woman took the ring with veneration, and smiled humbly. “You can put it on for a bit if you like,” said Inger. “Don’t be afraid, it won’t break.”

And Inger was amiable and kind. She told them about the cathedral at Trondhjem, and began like this: “You haven’t seen the cathedral at Trondhjem, maybe? No, you haven’t been there!” And it might have been her own cathedral, from the way she praised it, boasted of it, told them height and breadth; it was a marvel! Seven priests could stand there preaching all at once and never hear one an other. “And then I suppose you’ve never seen St. Olaf’s Well? Right in the middle of the cathedral itself, it is, on one side, and it’s a bottomless well. When we went there, we took each a little stone with us, and dropped it in, but it never reached the bottom.”

“Never reached the bottom?” whispered the two women, shaking their heads.

“And there’s a thousand other things besides in that cathedral,” exclaimed Inger delightedly. “There’s the silver chest to begin with. It’s Holy St. Olaf his own silver chest that he had. But the Marble Church — that was a little church all of pure marble — the Danes took that from us in the war . . . .”

It was time for the women to go. Oline took Inger aside, led her out into the larder where she knew all the cheeses were stored, and closed the door. “What is it?” asked Inger.

Oline whispered: “Os-Anders, he doesn’t dare come here any more. I’ve told him.”

“Ho!” said Inger.

“I told him if he only dared, after what he’d done to you.”

“Ay,” said Inger.” But he’s been here many a time since for all that. And he can come if he likes, I’m not afraid.”

“No, that’s so,” said Oline. “But I know what I know, and if you like, I’ll lay a charge against him.”

“Ho!” said Inger. “No, you’ve no call to do that. ’Tis not worth it.”

But she was not ill pleased to have Oline on her side; it cost her a cheese, to be sure, but Oline thanked her so fulsomely: “’Tis as I say, ’tis as I’ve always said: Inger, she gives with both hands, nothing grudging, nothing sparing about her! No, maybe you’re not afraid of Os-Anders, but I’ve forbid him to come here all the same. ’Twas the least I could do for you.”

Said Inger then: “What harm could it do if he did come, anyway? He can’t hurt me any more.”

Oline pricked up her ears: “Ho, you’ve learned a way yourself, maybe?”

“I shan’t have any more children,” said Inger.

And now they were quits, each holding as good a trump as the other: for Oline stood there knowing all the time that Os-Anders the Lapp had died the day before. . . .

Why should Inger say that about having no more children? She was not on bad terms with her husband, ’twas no cat-and-dog life between them — far from it. They had each their own little ways, but it was rarely they quarrelled, and never for long at a time; it was soon made up. And many a time Inger would suddenly be just as she had been in the old days, working hard in the cowshed or in the field; as if she had had a relapse into health again. And at such times Isak would look at his wife with grateful eyes; if he had been the sort of man to speak his mind at once, he might have said, “H’m. What does this mean, heh?” or something of the sort, just to show he appreciated it. But he waited too long, and his praise came too late. So Inger, no doubt, found it not worth whiles and did not care to keep it up.

She might have had children till past fifty; as it was, she was perhaps hardly forty now. She had learned all sorts of things at the institution — had she also learned to play tricks with herself? She had come back so thoroughly trained and educated after her long association with the other murderesses; maybe the men had taught her something too — the gaolers, the doctors. She told Isak one day what one young medical man had said of her little crime: “Why should it be a criminal offense to kill children — ay, even healthy children? They were nothing but lumps of flesh after all.”

Isak asked: “Wasn’t he terribly cruel himself, then?”

“Him!” exclaimed Inger, and told how kind he had been to her herself; it was he who had got another doctor to operate on her mouth and make a human being of her. Now there was only a scar to be seen.

Only a scar, yes. And a fine woman she was in her way, tall and not over-stout, dark, with rich hair; in summer she went barefooted mostly, and with her skirt lifted high; Inger was not afraid of letting her calves be seen. Isak saw them — as who did not!

They did not quarrel, no. Isak had no talent for quarrelling, and his wife had grown readier-witted to answer back. A thorough good quarrel took a long time to grow with Isak, heavy stub of a man as he was; he found himself all entangled in her words, and could say next to nothing himself; and besides, he was fond of her — powerfully in love was Isak. And it was not often he had any need to answer. Inger did not complain; he was an excellent husband in many ways, and she let him alone. What had she to complain of at all? Isak was not a man to be despised; she might have married a worse. Worn out, was he? True, he showed signs of being tired now at times, but nothing serious. He was full of old health and unwasted strength, like herself, and in this autumn of their married life he fulfilled his part at least as affectionately as she did.

But nothing particularly beautiful nor grand about him? No. And here came her superiority. Inger might well think to herself at times how she had seen finer men; handsome gentlemen with walking sticks and handkerchiefs and starched collars to wear — oh, those gentlemen of the town! And so she kept Isak in his place, treated him, as it were, no better than he deserved. He was only a peasant, a clodhopper of the wilds; if her mouth had been as it was now from the start she would never have taken him; be sure of that. No, she could have done better than that I The home he had given her, the life he offered her, were poor-enough; she might at least have married some one from her own village, and lived among neighbours, with a circle of friends, instead of here like an outcast in the wilds. It was not the place for her now; she had learned to look differently at life.

Strange, how one could come to look differently at things! Inger found no pleasure now in admiring a new calf; she did not clap her hands in surprise when Isak came down from the hills with a big basket of fish; no, she had lived for six years among greater things. And of late she had even ceased to be heavenly and sweet when she called him in to dinner. “Your food’s ready, aren’t you coming in?” was all she said now. And it didn’t sound nice. Isak wondered a little at first; it was a curious way to speak; a nasty, uncaring, take-it-or-leave. it way to speak. And he answered: “Why, I didn’t know ’twas ready.” But when Inger pointed out that he ought to have known, or might have guessed it, anyway, by the sun, he said no more, and let the matter drop.

Ah, but once he got a hold on her and used it — that was when she tried to steal his money from him. Not that Isak was a miser in that way, but the money was clearly his. Ho, it was nearly being ruin and disaster for her that time I But even then it was not exactly thoroughgoing, out-and-out wickedness on Inger’s part; she wanted the money for Eleseus — for her blessed boy Eleseus in town, who was asking for his Daler again. Was he to go there among all the fine folk and with empty pockets? After all, she had a mother’s heart. She asked his father for the money first, and, finding it was no good, had taken it herself. Whether Isak had had some suspicion beforehand, or had found it out by accident — any how, it was found out. And suddenly Inger found herself gripped by both arms, felt herself lifted from the floor, and thumped down on to the floor again. It was something strange and terrible — a sort of avalanche. Isak’s hands were not weak, not worn out now. Inger gave a groan, her head fell back, she shivered, and gave up the money.

Even then Isak said little, though Inger made no attempt to hinder him from speaking. What he did say was uttered, as it were, in one hard breath: “Huttch! You — you’re not fit to have in the place!”

She hardly knew him again. Oh, but it must have been long-stored bitterness that would not be repressed.

A miserable day, and a long night, and a day beyond. Isak went out of the house and lay outside, for all that there was hay to be got in; Sivert was with his father. Inger had little Leopoldine and the animals to keep her company; but lonely she was for all that, crying nearly all the time and shaking her head at herself. Only once in all her life before had she felt so moved, and this day called it to mind; it was when she had lain in her bed and throttled a newborn child.

Where were Isak and his son? They had not been idle; no, they had stolen a day and a night or thereabouts from the hay-making, and had built a boat up on the lake. Oh, a rough and poor-looking vessel enough, but strong and sound as their work had always been; they had a boat now, and could go fishing with nets.

When they came home the hay was dry as ever. They had cheated providence by trusting it, and suffered no loss; they had gained by it. And then Sivert flung out an arm, and said: “Ho! Mother’s been haymaking!” Isak looked down over the fields and said “H’m.” Isak had noticed already that some of the hay had been shifted; Inger ought to be home now for her midday meal. It was well done indeed of her to get in the hay, after he had scolded her the day before and said “Huttch!” And it was no light hay to move; she must have worked hard, and all the cows and goats to milk besides. . . . “Go in and get something to eat,” he said to Sivert.

“Aren’t you coming, then?”

“No.”

A little while after, Inger came out and stood humbly on the door-slab and said:

“If you’d think of yourself a little — and come in and have a bite to eat.”

Isak grumbled at that and said “H’m.” But it was so strange a thing of late for Inger to be humble in any way, that his stubbornness was shaken.

“If you could manage to set a couple of teeth in my rake, I could get on again with the hay,” said she. Ay, she came to her husband, the master of the place, to ask for something, and was grateful that he did not turn scornfully away.

“You’ve worked enough,” said he, “raking and carting and all.”

“No, ’tis not enough.”

“I’ve no time, anyway, to mend rakes now. You can see there’s rain coming soon.”

And Isak went off to his work.

It was all meant to save her, no doubt; for the couple of minutes it would have taken to mend the rake would have been more than tenfold repaid by letting Inger work on. Anyhow, Inger came out with her rake as it was, and fell to haymaking with a will; Sivert came up with the horse and haycart, and all went at it, sweating at the work, and the hay was got in. It was a good stroke of work, and Isak fell to thinking once more of the powers above that guide all our ways — from stealing a Daler to getting a crop of hay. Moreover, there lay the boat; after half a generation of thinking it over, the boat was finished; it was there, up on the lake.

“Eyah, Herregud!“ said Isak.

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