The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XV

It was a strange evening altogether: a turning point. Inger had been running off the line for a long time now; and one lift up from the floor had set her in her place again. Neither spoke of what had happened. Isak had felt ashamed of himself after — all for the sake of a Daler, a trifle of money, that he would have had to give her after all, because he himself would gladly have let the boy have it. And then again — was not the money as much Inger’s as his own? There came a time when Isak found it his turn to be humble.

There came many sorts of times. Inger must have changed her mind again, it seemed; once more she was different, gradually forgetting her fine ways and turning earnest anew: a settler’s wife, earnest and thoughtful as she had been before. To think that a man’s hard grip could work such wonders! But it was right; here was a strong and healthy woman, sensible enough, but spoiled and warped by long confinement in an artificial air — and she had butted into a man who stood firmly on his feet. Never for a moment had he left his natural place on the earth, on the soil. Nothing could move him.

Many sorts of times. Next year came the drought again, killing the growth off slowly, and wearing down human courage. The corn stood there and shrivelled up; the potatoes — the wonderful potatoes — they did not shrivel up, but flowered and flowered. The meadows turned grey, but the potatoes flowered. The powers above guided all things, no doubt, but the meadows were turning grey.

Then one day came Geissler — ex-Lensmand Geissler came again at last. It was good to find that he was not dead, but had turned up again. And what had he come for now?

Geissler had no grand surprises with him this time, by the look of it; no purchases of mining rights and documents and such-like. Geissler was poorly dressed, his hair and beard turned greyer, and his eyes redder at the edges than before. He had no man, either, to carry his things, but had his papers in a pocket, and not even a bag.

Goddag,” said Geissler.

Goddag,” answered Isak and Inger. “Here’s the like of visitors to see this way!”

Geissler nodded.

“And thanks for all you did that time — in Trondhjem,” said Inger all by herself.

And Isak nodded at that, and said: “Ay, ’tis two of us owe you thanks for that.”

But Geissler — it was not his way to be all feelings and sentiments; he said: “Yes, I’m just going across to Sweden.”

For all their trouble of mind over the drought, Sellanraa’s folk were glad to see Geissler again; they gave him the best they had, and were heartily glad to do what they could for him after all he had done.

Geissler himself had no troubles that could be seen; he grew talkative at once, looked out over the fields and nodded. He carried himself upright as ever, and looked as if he had several hundreds of Daler in his pockets. It livened them up and brightened everything to have him there; not that he made any boisterous fun, but a lively talker, that he was.

“Fine place, Sellanraa, splendid place,” he said. “And now there’s others coming up one after another, since you’ve started, Isak. I counted five myself. Are there any more?”

“Seven in all. There’s two that can’t be seen from the road.”

“Seven holdings; say fifty souls. Why, it’ll be a densely populated neighbourhood before long. And you’ve a school already, so I hear?”

“Ay, we have.”

“There — what did I say? A school all to yourselves, down by Brede’s place, being more in the middle. Fancy Brede as a farmer in the wilds!” and Geissler laughed at the thought. “Ay, I’ve heard all about you, Isak; you’re the best man here. And I’m glad of it. Sawmill, too, you’ve got?”

“Ay, such as it is. But it serves me well enough. And I’ve sawed a bit now and again for them down below.”

“Bravo! That’s the way!”

“I’d be glad to hear what you think of it, Lensmand, if so be you’d care to look at that sawmill for yourself.”

Geissler nodded, with the air of an expert; yes, he would look at it, examine it thoroughly. Then he asked: “You had two boys, hadn’t you — what’s become of the other? In town? Clerk in an office? H’m,” said Geissler. “But this one here looks a sturdy sort — what was your name, now?”

“Sivert.”

“And the other one?”

“Eleseus.”

“And he’s in an engineer’s office — what’s he reckon to learn there? A starvation business. Much better have come to me,” said Geissler.

“Ay,” said Isak, for politeness’ sake. He felt a sort of pity for Geissler at the moment. Oh, that good man did not look as if he could afford to keep clerks; had to work hard enough by himself, belike. That jacket — it was worn to fringes at the wrists.

“Won’t you have some dry hose to put on?” said Inger, and brought out a pair of her own. They were from her best days; fine and thin, with a border.

“No, thanks,” said Geissler shortly, though he must have been wet through. — “Much better have come to me,” he said again, speaking of Eleseus. “I want him badly.” He took a small silver tobacco box from his pocket and sat playing with it in his fingers. It was perhaps the only thing of value left him now.

But Geissler was restless, changing from one thing to another. He slipped the thing back into his pocket again and started a new theme. “But what’s that? Why, the meadow that’s all grey. I thought it was the shadow. The ground is simply parched. Come along with me, Sivert.”

He rose from the table suddenly, thinking no more of food, turned in the doorway to say “Thank you” to Inger for the meal, and disappeared, Sivert following.

They went across to the river, Geissler peering keenly about all the time. “Here!” he cried, and stopped. And then he explained: “Where’s the sense of letting your land dry up to nothing when you’ve a river there big enough to drown it in a minute? We’ll have that meadow green by tomorrow!”

Sivert, all astonishment, said “Yes.”

“Dig down obliquely from here, see? — on a slope. The ground’s level; have to make some sort of a channel. You’ve a sawmill there — I suppose you can find some long planks from somewhere? Good! Run and fetch a pick and spade, and start here; I’ll go back and mark out a proper line.”

He ran up to the house again, his boots squelching, for they were wet through. He set Isak to work making pipes, a whole lot of them, to be laid down where the ground could not well be cut with ditches.

Isak tried to object that the water might not get so far; the dry ground would soak it up before it reached the parched fields. Geissler explained that it would take some time; the earth must drink a little first, but then gradually the water would go on — “field and meadow green by this time tomorrow.”

“Ho!” said Isak, and fell to boxing up long planks as hard as he could.

Off hurries Geissler to Sivert once more: “That’s right — keep at it — didn’t I say he was a sturdy sort? Follow these stakes, you understand, where I’ve marked out. If you come up against heavy boulders, or rock, then turn aside and go round, but keep the level — the same depth; you see what I mean?”

Then back to Isak again: “That’s one finished — good! But we shall want more — half a dozen, perhaps. Keep at it, Isak; you see, we’ll have it all green by tomorrow — we’ve saved your crops!” And Geissler sat down on the ground, slapped his knees with both hands and was delighted, chattered away, thought in flashes of lightning. “Any pitch, any oakum, or anything about the place? That’s splendid — got everything. These things’ll leak at the edges you see, to begin with, but the wood’ll swell after a while, and they’ll be as taut as a bottle. Oakum and pitch — fancy you having it too! — What? Built a boat, you say? Where is the boat? Up in the lake? Good! I must have a look at that too.”

Oh, Geissler was all promises. Light come, light go — and he seemed more giving to fussing about than before. He worked at things by fits and starts, but at a furious rate when he did work. There was a certain superiority about him after all. True, he exaggerated a bit — it was impossible, of course, to get all green by this time tomorrow, as he had said, but for all that, Geissler was a sharp fellow, quick to see and take a decision; ay, a strange man was Geissler. And it was he and no other that saved the crops that year at Sellanraa.

“How many have you got done? Not enough. The more wood you can lay, the quicker it’ll flow. Make them twenty feet long or twenty-five, if you can. Any planks that length on the place? Good; fetch them along — you’ll find it’ll pay you at harvest-time!”

Restless again — up and off to Sivert once more. “That’s the way, Sivert man; getting on finely. Your father’s turning out culverts like a poet, there’ll be more than I ever thought. Run across and get some now, and we’ll make a start.”

All that afternoon was one hurrying spell; Sivert had never seen such a furious piece of work; he was not accustomed to see things done at that pace. They hardly gave themselves time to eat. But the water was flowing already! Here and there they had to dig deeper, a culvert had to be raised or lowered, but it flowed. The three men were at it till late that night, touching up their work, and keenly on the look out for any fault. But when the water began to trickle out over the driest spots, there was joy and delight at Sellanraa. “I forgot to bring my watch,” said Geissler. “What’s the time, I wonder? Ay, she’ll be green by this time tomorrow!” said he.

Sivert got up in the middle of the night to see how things were going, and found his father out already on the same errand. Oh, but it was a thrilling time — a day of great events!

But next day, Geissler stayed in bed till nearly noon, worn out now that the fit had passed. He did not trouble to go up and look at the boat on the lake; and but for what he had said the day before, he would never have bothered to look at the saw mill. Even the irrigation works interested him less than at first — and when he saw that neither field nor meadow had turned green in the course of the night, he lost heart, never thinking of how the water flowed, and flowed all the time, and spread out farther and farther over the ground. He backed down a little, and said now: “It may take time — you won’t see any change perhaps before tomorrow again. But it’ll be all right, never fear.”

Later in the day Brede Olsen came lounging in; he had brought some samples of rock he wanted Geissler to see. “And something out of the common, this time, to my mind,” said Brede.

Geissler would not look at the things.” That the way you manage a farm,” he asked scornfully, “pottering about up in the hills looking for a fortune?”

Brede apparently did not fancy being taken to task now by his former chief; he answered sharply, with out any form of respect, treating the ex-Lensmand as an equal: “If you think I care what you say. . .”

“You’ve no more sense than you had before,” said Geissler. “Fooling away your time.”

“What about yourself?” said Brede. “What about you, I’d like to know? You’ve got a mine of your own up here, and what have you done with it? Huh! Lies there doing nothing. Ay, you’re the sort to have a mine, aren’t you? He he!”

“Get out of this,” said Geissler. And Brede did not stay long, but shouldered his load of samples and went down to his own menage, without saying goodbye.

Geissler sat down and began to look over some papers with a thoughtful air. He seemed to have caught a touch of the fever himself, and wanted now to look over that business of the copper mine, the contract, the analyses. It was fine ore, almost pure copper; he must do something with it, and not let everything slide.

“What I really came up for was to get the whole thing settled,” he said to Isak. “I’ve been thinking of making a start here, and that very soon. Get a lot of men to work, and run the thing properly. What do you think?”

Isak felt sorry for the man, and would not say anything against it.

“It’s a matter that concerns you as well, you know. There’ll be a lot of bother, of course; a lot of men about the place, and a bit rowdy at times, perhaps. And blasting up in the hills — I don’t know how you’ll like that. On the other hand, there’ll be more life in the district where we begin, and you’ll have a good market close at hand for farm produce and that sort of thing. Fix your own price, too.”

“Ay,” said Isak.

“Besides your share in the mine — you’ll get a high percentage of earnings, you know. Big money, Isak.”

Said Isak: “You’ve paid me fairly already, and more than enough. . . . ”

Next morning Geissler left, hurrying off eastward, over toward Sweden. “No, thanks,” he said shortly, when Isak offered to go with him. It was almost painful to see him start off in that poor fashion, on foot and all alone. Inger had put up a fine parcel of food for him to take, all as nice as she could make it, and made some wafers specially to put in. Even that was not enough; she would have given him a can of cream and a whole lot of eggs, but he wouldn’t carry them, and Inger was disappointed.

Geissler himself must have found it hard to leave Sellanraa without paying as he generally did for his keep; so he pretended that he had paid; made as if he had laid down a big note in payment, and said to little Leopoldine: “Here, child, here’s something for you as well.” And with that he gave her the silver box, his tobacco box. “You can rinse it out and use it to keep pins and things in,” he said. “It’s not the sort of thing for a present really. If I were at home I could have found her something else; I’ve a heap of things. . . . ”

But Geissler’s waterwork remained after Geissler had gone; there it was, working wonders day and night, week after week; the fields turned green, the potatoes ceased to flower, the corn shot up. . . .

The settlers from the holdings farther down began to come up, all anxious to see the marvel for themselves. Axel Ström, — the neighbour from Maaneland, the man who had no wife, and no woman to help him, but managed for himself, — he came too. He was in a good humour that day; — he told them how he had just got a promise of a girl to help through the summer — and that was a weight off his mind. He did not say who the girl was, and Isak did not ask, but it was Brede’s girl Barbro who was to come. It would cost the price of a telegram to Bergen to fetch her; but Axel paid the money, though he was not one of your extravagant sort, but rather something of a miser.

It was the waterwork business that had enticed him up today; he had looked it over from one end to the other, and was highly interested. There was no big river on his land, but he had a bit of a stream; he had no planks, either, to make culverts with, but he would dig his channels in the earth; it could be done. Up to now, things were not absolutely at their worst on his land, which lay lower down the slopes; but if the drought continued, he, too, would have to irrigate. When he had seen what he wanted, he took his leave and went back at once. No, he would not come in, hadn’t the time; he was going to start ditching that same evening. And off he went.

This was something different from Brede’s way.

Oh, Brede, he could run about the moorland farms now telling news: miraculous waterworks at Sellanraa!” It doesn’t pay to work your soil over much,” he had said. “Look at Isak up there; he’s dug and dug about so long that at last he’s had to water the whole ground.”

Isak was patient, but he wished many a time that he could get rid of the fellow, hanging about Sellanraa with his boastful ways. Brede put it all down to the telegraph; as long as he was a public official, it was his duty to keep the line in order. But the telegraph company had already had occasion several times to reprimand him for neglect, and had again offered the post to Isak. No, it was not the telegraph that was in Brede’s mind all the time, but the ore up in the hills; it was his one idea now, a mania.

He took to dropping in often now at Sellanraa, confident that he had found the treasure; he would nod his head and say: “I can’t tell you all about it yet, but I don’t mind saying I’ve struck something remarkable this time.” Wasting hours and energy all for nothing. And when he came back in the evening to his little house, he would fling down a little sack of samples on the floor, and puff and blow after his day’s work, as if no man could have toiled harder for his daily bread. He grew a few potatoes on sour, peaty soil, and cut the tufts of grass that grew by themselves on the ground about the house — that was Brede’s farming. He was never made for a farmer, and there could be but one end to it all. His turf roof was falling to pieces already, and the steps to the kitchen were rotten with damp; a grindstone lay on the ground, and the cart was still left uncovered in the open.

Brede was fortunate perhaps in that such little matters never troubled him. When the children rolled his grindstone about for play, he was kind and indulgent, and would even help them to roll it himself. An easy-going, idle nature, never serious, but all never downed, a weak, irresponsible character; but he managed to find food, such as it was, and kept himself and his alive from day to day; managed to keep them somehow. But it was not to be expected that the storekeeper could go on feeding Brede and his family for ever; he had said so more than once to Brede himself, and he said it now in earnest. Brede admitted he was right, and promised to turn over a new leaf — he would sell his place, and very likely make a good thing out of it — and pay what he owed at the store!

Oh, but Brede would sell out anyhow, even at a loss; what was the good of a farm for him? He was home-sick for the village again, the easy gossiping life there, and the little shop — it suited him better than settling down here to work, and trying to forget the world outside. Could he ever forget the Christmas trees and parties, or the national feastings on Constitution Day, or the bazaars held in the meeting-rooms? He loved to talk with his kind, to exchange news and views, but who was there to talk with here? anger up at Sellanraa had seemed to be one of his sort for a while, but then she had changed — there was no getting a word out of her now. And besides, she had been in prison; and for a man in his position — no, it would never do.

No, he had made a mistake in ever leaving the village; it was throwing himself away. He noted with envy that the Lensmand had got another assistant, and the doctor another man to drive for him; he had run away from the people who needed him, and now that he was no longer there, they man aged without him. But the men who had taken his place — they were no earthly good, of course. Properly speaking, he, Brede, ought to be fetched back to the village in triumph!

Then there was Barbro — why had he backed up the idea of getting her to go as help to Sellanraa? Well, that was after talking over things with his wife. If all went well, it might mean a good future for the girl, perhaps a future of a sort for all of them. All very well to be housekeeper for two young clerks in Bergen, but who could say what she would get out of that in the long run? Barbro was a pretty girl, and liked to look well; there might be a better chance for her here, after all. For there were two sons at Sellanraa.

But when Brede saw that this plan would never come to anything, he hit on another. After all, there was no great catch in marrying into Inger’s lot — Inger who had been in prison. And there were other lads to be thought of besides those two Sellanraa boys — there was Axel Ström, for instance. He had a farm and a hut of his own, he was a man who scraped and saved and little by little managed to get hold of a bit of live stock and such-like, but with no wife, and no woman to help him. “Well, I don’t mind telling you, if you take Barbro, she’ll be all the help you’ll need,” said Brede to him. “Look, here’s her picture; you can see.”

And after a week or so, came Barbro. Axel was in the midst of his haymaking, and had to do his mowing by day and haymaking by night, and all by himself — and then came Barbro! It was a godsend. Barbro soon showed she was not afraid of work; she washed clothes and cleaned things, cooked and milked and helped in the hayfield helped to carry in the hay, she did. Axel determined to give her good wages, and not lose by it.

She was not merely a photograph of a fine lady here. Barbro was straight and thin, spoke some what hoarsely, showed sense and experience in various ways — she was not a child. Axel wondered what made her so thin and haggard in the face.

“I d know you by your looks,” he said; “but you’re not like the photograph.”

“That’s only the journey,” she said, “and living in town air all that time.”

And indeed, she very soon grew plump and well looking again. “Take my word for it,” said Barbro, “it pulls you down a bit, a journey like that, and living in town like that.” She hinted also at the temptations of life in Bergen — one had to be careful there. But while they sat talking, she begged him to take in a paper — a Bergen newspaper — so that she could read a bit and see the news of the world. She had got accustomed to reading, and theatres and music, and it was so dull in a place like this.

Axel was pleased with the results of his summer help, and took in a paper. He also bore with the frequent visits of the Brede family, who were constantly dropping in at his place and eating and drinking. He was anxious to show that he appreciated this servant-girl of his. And what could be nicer and homelier than when Barbro sat there of a Sunday evening twanging the strings of a guitar and singing a little with her hoarse voice? Axel was touched by it all, by the pretty, strange songs, by the mere fact that some one really sat there singing on his poor half-baked farm.

True, in the course of the summer he learned to know other sides of Barbro’s character, but on the whole, he was content. She had her fancies, and could answer hastily at times; was somewhat over quick to answer back. That Saturday evening, for instance, when Axel himself had to go down to the village to get some things, it was wrong of Barbro to run away from the hut and the animals and leave the place to itself. They had a few words over that. And where had she been? Only to her home, to Breidablik, but still . . . When Axel came back to the hut that night, Barbro was not there; he looked to the animals, got himself something to eat, and turned in. Towards morning Barbro came. “I only wanted to see what it was like to step on a wooden floor again,” she said, somewhat scornfully. And Axel could find nothing much to say to that, seeing that he had as yet but a turf hut with a floor of beaten earth. He did say, however, that if it came to that, he could get a few planks himself, and no doubt but he’d have a house with a wooden floor himself in time! Barbro seemed penitent at that; she was not altogether unkindly. And for all it was Sunday, she went off at once to the woods and gathered fresh juniper twigs to spread on the earthen floor.

And then, seeing she was so fine-hearted and behaved so splendidly, what could Axel do but bring out the kerchief he had bought for her the evening before, though he had really thought of keeping it by a while, and getting something respectable out of her in return. And there! she was pleased with it, and tried it on at once — ay, she turned to him and asked if she didn’t look nice in it. And yes, indeed she did; and she might put on his old fur cap if she liked, and she’d look nice in that! Barbro laughed at this and tried to say something really nice in return; she said: “I’d far rather go to church and communion in this kerchief than wear a hat. In Bergen, of course, we always wore hats — all except common servant-girls from the country.”

Friends again, as nice as could be.

And when Axel brought out the newspaper he had fetched from the post office, Barbro sat down to read news of the world: of a burglary at a jeweller’s shop in one Bergen street, and a quarrel between two gipsies in another; of a horrible find in the harbour — the dead body of a newborn child sewed up in an old shirt with the sleeves cut off. “I wonder who can have done it?” said Barbro. And she read the list of marketing prices too, as she always did.

So the summer passed.

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