The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XVI

Great changes at Sellanraa. There was no knowing the place again, after what it had been at first: sawmill, cornmill, buildings of all sorts and kinds — the wilderness was peopled country now. And there was more to come. But Inger was perhaps the strangest of all; so altered she was, and good and clever again.

The great event of last year, when things had come to a head, was hardly enough in itself, perhaps, to change her careless ways; there was backsliding now and then, as when she found herself beginning to talk of the “Institute” again, and the cathedral at Trondhjem. Oh, innocent things enough; and she took off her ring, and let down that bold skirt of hers some inches. She was grown thoughtful, there was more quiet about the place, and visits were less frequent; the girls and women from the village came out rarely now, for Inger no longer cared to see them. No one can live in the depth of the wilds and have time for such foolishness. Happiness and nonsense are two different things.

In the wilds, each season has its wonders, but always, unchangingly, there is that immense heavy sound of heaven and earth, the sense of being surrounded on all sides, the darkness of the forest, the kindliness of the trees. All is heavy and soft, no thought is impossible there. North of Sellanraa there was a little tarn, a mere puddle, no bigger than an aquarium. There lived some tiny baby fish that never grew bigger, lived and died there and were no use at all — Herregud! no use on earth. One evening Inger stood there listening for the cow bells; all was dead about her, she heard nothing, and then came a song from the tarn. A little, little song, hardly there at all, almost lost. It was the tiny fishes’ song.

They had this good fortune at Sellanraa, that every spring and autumn they could see the grey geese sailing in fleets above that wilderness, and hear their chatter up in the air — delirious talk it was. And as if the world stood still for a moment, till the train of them had passed. And the human souls beneath, did they not feel a weakness gliding through them now? They went to their work again, but drawing breath first; something had spoken to them, something from beyond.

Great marvels were about them at all times; in the winter were the stars; in winter often, too, the northern lights, a firmament of wings, a conflagration in the mansions of God. Now and then, not often; not commonly, but now and then, they heard the thunder. It came mostly in the autumn, and a dark and solemn thing it was for man and beast; the animals grazing near home would bunch together and stand waiting. Bowing their heads what for? Waiting for the end? And man, what of man standing in the wilds with bowed head, waiting, when the thunder came? Waiting for what?

The spring — ay, with its haste and joy and madcap delight; but the autumn! It called up a fear of darkness, drove one to an evening prayer; there were visions about, and warnings on the air. Folks might go out one day in autumn seeking for something: the man for a piece of timber to his work, the woman after cattle that ran wild now after mush room growths: they would come home with many secrets in their mind. Did they tread unexpectedly upon an ant, crushing its hind part fast to the path, so the front part could not free itself again? Or step too near — a white grouse nest, putting up a fluttering hissing mother to dash against them? Even the big cow — mushrooms are not altogether meaning less; not a mere white emptiness in the eye. The big mushroom does not flower, it does not move, but there is something overturning in the look of it; it is a monster, a thing like a lung standing there alive and naked — a lung without a body.

Inger grew despondent at last, the wilds oppressed her, she turned religious. How could she help it? No one can help it in the wilds; life there is not all earthly toil and worldliness; there is piety and the fear of death and rich superstition. Inger, maybe, felt that she had more reason than others to fear the judgment of Heaven, and it would not pass her by; she knew how God walked about in the evening time looking out over all His wilderness with fabulous eyes; ay, He would find her. There was not so much in her daily life wherein she could improve; true, she might bury her gold ring deep in the bottom of a clothes chest, and she could write to Eleseus and tell him to be converted too; after that, there was nothing more she could find beyond doing her work well and not sparing herself. Ay, one thing more; she could dress in humble things, only fastening a blue ribbon at her neck of Sundays. False, unnecessary poverty — but it was the expression of a kind of philosophy, self-humiliation, stoicism. The blue ribbon was not new; it had been cut from a cap little Leopoldine had grown out of; it was faded here and there, and, to tell the truth, a little dirty — Inger wore it now as a piece of modest finery on holy days. Ay, it may be that she went beyond reason, feigning to be poor, striving falsely to imitate the wretched who live in hovels; but even so — would her desert have been greater if that sorry finery had been her best? Leave her in peace; she has a right to peace!

She overdid things finely, and worked harder than she ought. There were two men on the place, but Inger took the chance when both were away at once, and set to work herself sawing wood; and where was the good of torturing and mortifying the flesh that way? She was so insignificant a creature, so little worth, her powers of so common a sort; her death or life would not be noticed in the land, in the State, only here in the wilds. Here, she was almost great — at any rate, the greatest; and she may well have thought herself worth all the chastening she ordered and endured. Her husband said:

“Sivert and I, we’ve been talking about this; we’re not going to have you sawing wood, and wearing yourself out.”

“I do it for conscience’ sake,” she answered.

Conscience! The word made Isak thoughtful once more. He was getting on in years, slow to think, but weighty when he did come to anything. Conscience must be something pretty strong if it could turn Inger all upside down like that. And however it might be, Inger’s conversion made a change in him also; he caught it from her, grew tame, and given to pondering. Life was all heavy-like and stern that winter; he sought for loneliness, for a hiding-place. To save his own trees he had bought up a piece of the State forest near by, with some good timber, over toward the Swedish side, and he did the felling now alone, refusing all help. Sivert was ordered to stay at home and see that his mother did not work too much.

And so, in those short winter days, Isak went out to his work in the dark, and came home in the dark; it was not always there was a moon, or any stars, and at times his own track of the morning would be covered with snow by nightfall, so he was hard put to it to find his way. And one evening something happened.

He was nearing home; in the fine moonlight he could see Sellanraa there on the hillside, neat and clear of the forest, but small, undergroundish to look at, by reason of the snow banked high against the walls. He had more timber now, and it was to be a grand surprise for Inger and the children when they heard what use he would make of it — the wonderful building he had in mind. He sat down in the snow to rest a bit, not to seem worn out when he came home.

All is quiet around him, and God’s blessing on this quiet and thoughtfulness, for it is nothing but good! Isak is a man at work on a clearing in the forest, and he looks out over the ground, reckoning what is to be cleared next turn; heaving aside great stones in his mind — Isak had a real talent for that work. There, he knows now, is a deep, bare patch on his ground; it is full of ore; there is always a metallic film over every puddle of water there — and now he will dig it out. He marks out squares with his eye, making his plans for all, speculating over all; they are to be made green and fruitful. Oh, but a piece of tilled soil was a great and good thing; it was like right and order to his mind, and a delight beyond . . .

He got up, and felt suddenly confused. H’m. What had happened now? Nothing, only that he had been sitting down a bit. Now there is some thing standing there before him, a Being, a spirit; grey silk — no, it was nothing. He felt strange — took one short, uncertain step forward, and walked straight into a look, a great look, a pair of eyes. At the same moment the aspens close by began rustling. Now any one knows that an aspen can have a horrible eerie way of rustling at times; anyhow, Isak had never before heard such an utterly horrible rustling as this, and he shuddered. Also he put out one hand in front of him, and it was perhaps the most helpless movement that hand had ever made.

But what was this thing before him? Was it ghost-work or reality? Isak would all his days have been ready to swear that this was a higher power, and once indeed he had seen it, but the thing he saw now did not look like God. Possibly the Holy Ghost? If so, what was it standing there for anyway, in the midst of nowhere; two eyes, a look, and nothing more? If it had come to him, to fetch away his soul why, so it would have to be; it would happen one day, after all, and then he would go to heaven and be among the blest.

Isak was eager to see what would come next; he was shivering still; a coldness seemed to radiate from the figure before him — it must be the Evil One! And here Isak was no longer sure of his ground, so to speak. It might be the Evil One but what did he want here? What had he, Isak, been doing? Nothing but sitting still and tilling the ground, as it were, in his thoughts — there could surely be no harm in that? There was no other guilt he could call to mind just then; he was only coming back from his work in the forest, a tired and hungry woodman, going home to Sellanraa — he means no harm . . . .

He took a step forward again, but it was only a little one, and, to tell the truth, he stepped back again immediately. The vision would not give way. Isak knitted his brows, as if beginning to suspect something. If it were the Evil One, why, let it be; the Evil One was not all-powerful — there was Luther, for instance, who had nearly killed the fiend himself, not to speak of many who had put him to flight by the sign of the cross and Jesu name. Not that Isak meant to defy the peril before him; it was not in his mind to sit down and laugh in its face, but he certainly gave up his first idea of dying and the next world. He took two steps forward straight at the vision, crossed himself, and cried out: “In Jesu name!”

H’m. At the sound of his own voice he came, as it were, to himself again, and saw Sellanraa over on the hillside once more. The two eyes in the air had gone.

He lost no time in getting home, and took no steps to challenge the spectre further. But when he found himself once more safely on his own door slab, he cleared his throat with a sense of power and security; he walked into the house with lofty mien, like a man — ay, a man of the world.

Inger started at the sight of him, and asked what made him so pale.

And at that he did not deny having met the Evil One himself.

“Where?” she asked.

“Over there. Right up towards our place.” Inger evinced no jealousy on her part. She did not praise him for it, true, but there was nothing in her manner suggestive of a hard word or a contemptuous kick. Inger herself, you see, had grown somewhat lighter of heart and kindlier of late, what ever the cause; and now she merely asked:

“The Evil One himself?”

Isak nodded: as far as he could see it was himself and no other.

“And how did you get rid of him?”

“I went for him in Jesu name,” said Isak.

Inger wagged her head, altogether overwhelmed, and it was some time before she could get his supper on the table.

“Anyhow,” said she at last, “we’ll have no more of you going out alone in the woods by yourself.”

She was anxious about him — and it did him good to know it. He made out to be as bold as ever, and altogether careless whether he went alone or in company; but this was only to quiet Inger’s mind, not to frighten her more than necessary with the awful thing that had happened to himself. It was his place to protect her and them all; he was the Man, the Leader.

But Inger saw through it also, and said: “Oh, I know you don’t want to frighten me. But you must take Sivert with you all the same.”

Isak only sniffed.

“You might be taken poorly of a sudden, taken ill out in the woods — you’ve not been over well lately.”

Isak sniffed again. Ill? Tired, perhaps, and worn out a bit, but ill? No need for Inger to start worrying and making a fool of him; he was sound and well enough; ate, slept, and worked; his health was simply terrific, it was incurable! Once, felling a tree, the thing had come down on top of him, and broken his ear; but he made light of it. He set the ear in place again, and kept it there by wearing his cap drawn over it night and day, and it grew together again that way. For internal complaints, he dosed himself with treak boiled in milk to make him sweat — liquorice it was, bought at the store, an old and tried remedy, the Teriak of the ancients. If he chanced to cut his hand, he treated the wound with an ever-present fluid containing salts, and it healed up in a few days. No doctor was ever sent for to Sellanraa.

No, Isak was not ill. A meeting with the Evil One might happen even to the healthiest man. And he felt none the worse for his adventure afterwards; on the contrary, it seemed to have strengthened him. And as the winter drew on, and it was not such a dreadful time to wait till the spring, he, the Man and the Leader, began to feel himself almost a hero: he understood these things; only trust to him and all would be well. In case of need, he could exorcise the Evil One himself!

Altogether, the days were longer and lighter now; Easter was past, Isak had hauled up all his timber, everything looked bright, human beings could breathe again after another winter gone.

Inger was again the first to brighten up; she had been more cheerful now for a long time. What could it be? Ho, ’twas for a very simple reason; Inger was heavy again; expecting a child again. Everything worked out easily in her life, no hitch anywhere. But what a mercy, after the way she had sinned! it was more than she had any right to expect. Ay, she was fortunate, fortunate. Isak himself actually noticed something one day, and asked her straight out: “Looks to me as if you’re on the way again; what do you say yourself?”

“Ay, Lord be thanked, ’tis surely so,” she answered.

They were both equally astonished. Not that Inger was past the age, of course; to Isak’s mind, she was not too old in any way. But still, another child . . . well, well. . . . And little Leopoldine going to school several times a year down at Breidablik — that left them with no little ones about the place now — besides which, Leopoldine herself was grown up now.

Some days passed, and Isak resolutely threw away a whole week-end — from Saturday evening till Monday morning — on a trip down to the village. He would not say what he was going for when he set out, but on his return, he brought with him a girl. “This is Jensine,” he said. “Come to help.”

“’Tis all your nonsense,” said Inger. “I’ve no need of help at all.”

Isak answered that she did need a help — just now.

Need or not — it was a kind and generous thought of his; Inger was abashed and grateful. The new girl was a daughter of the blacksmith, and she was to stay with them for the present; through the summer, anyhow, and then they would see.

“And I’ve sent a telegram,” said Isak, “after him Eleseus.”

This fairly startled Inger; startled the mother. A telegram? Did he mean to upset her completely with his thoughtfulness? It had been her great sorrow of late that boy Eleseus was away in town — in the evil-minded town; she had written to him about God, and likewise explained to him how his father here was beginning to sink under the work, and the place getting bigger all the time; little Sivert couldn’t manage it all by himself, and besides, he was to have money after his uncle one day — all this she had written, and sent him the money for his journey once for all. But Eleseus was a man-about-town now, and had no sort of longing for a peasant’s life; he answered something about what was he to do anyway if he did come home? Work on a farm and throw away all the knowledge and learning he had gained?” In point of fact,” — that was how he put it, — “I’ve no desire to come back now. And if you could send me some stuff for underclothes, it would save me getting the things on credit.” So he wrote. And yes, his mother sent him stuff — sent him remarkable quantities of stuff from time to time for underclothes. But when she was converted, and got religion, the scales fell from her eyes, and she understood that Eleseus was selling the stuff and spending the money on other things.

His father saw it too. He never spoke of it; he knew that Eleseus was his mother’s darling, and how she cried over him and shook her head; but one piece of finely woven stuff went after another the same way, and he knew it was more than any living man could use for underclothes. Altogether, it came to this: Isak must be Man and Leader again — head of the house, and step in and interfere. It had cost a terrible lot of money, to be sure, getting the store keeper to send a telegram; but in the first place, a telegram could not fail to make an impression on the boy, and also — it was something unusually fine for Isak himself to come home and tell Inger. He carried the servant-girl’s box on his back as he strode home; but for all that, he was proud and full of weighty secrets as he had been the day he came home with that gold ring. . . .

It was a grand time after that. For a long while, Inger could not do enough in the way of showing her husband how good and useful she could be. She would say to him now, as in the old days:” You’re working yourself to death!” Or again: “’Tis more than any man can stand.” Or again: “Now, you’re not to work any more; come in and have dinner — I’ve made some wafers for you!” And to please him, she said: “I should just like to know, now, what you’ve got in your mind with all that wood, and what you’re going to build, now, next?”

“Why, I can’t say as yet,” said Isak, making a mystery of it.

Ay, just as in the old days. And after the child was born — and it was a little girl — a great big girl, fine-looking and sturdy and sound — after that, Isak must have been a stone and a miserable creature if he had not thanked God. But what was he going to build? It would be more news for Oline to go gadding about with — a new building again at Sellanraa. A new wing of the house — a new house it was to be. And there were so many now at Sellanraa — they had a servant-girl; and Eleseus, he was coming home; and a brand-new little girl child of their own, just come — the old house would be just an extra room now, nothing more.

And, of course, he had to tell Inger about it one day; she was so curious to know, and though maybe Inger knew it all beforehand, from Sivert, — they two were often whispering together, — she was all surprised as any one could be, and let her arms fall, and said: “’Tis all your nonsense — you don’t mean it?”

And Isak, brimming over with greatness inside, he answered her: “Why, with you bringing I don’t know how many more children on the place, ’tis the least I can do, it seems.”

The two menfolk were out now every day getting stone for the walls of the new house. They worked their utmost together each in his own way: the one young, and with his young body firmly set, quick to see his way, to mark out the stones that would suit; the other ageing — tough, with long arms, and a mighty weight to bear down on a crowbar. When they had managed some specially difficult feat, they would hold a breathing-space, and talk together in a curious, reserved fashion of their own.

“Brede, he talks of selling out,” said the father.

“Ay,” said the son. “Wonder what he’ll be asking for the place?”

“Ay, I wonder.”

“You’ve not heard anything?”

“No.”

“I’ve heard two hundred.”

The father thought for a while, and said: “What d’you think, ‘ll this be a good stone?”

“All depends if we can get this shell off him,” said Sivert, and was on his feet in a moment, giving the setting-hammer to his father, and taking the sledge himself. He grew red and hot, stood up to his full height and let the sledge-hammer fall; rose again and let it fall; twenty strokes alike — twenty thunder-strokes. He spared neither tool nor strength; it was heavy work; his shirt rucked up from his trousers at the waist, leaving him bare in front; he lifted on his toes each time to give the sledge a better swing. Twenty strokes.

“Now! Let’s look!” cried his father.

The son stops, and asks: “Marked him any?”

And they lay down together to look at the stone; look at the beast, the devil of a thing; no, not marked any as yet.

“I’ve a mind to try with the sledge alone,” said the father, and stood up. Still harder work this, sheer force alone, the hammer grew hot, the steel crushed, the pen grew blunt.

“She’ll be slipping the head,” he said, and stopped. “And I’m no hand at this any more,” he said.

Oh, but he never meant it; it was not his thought, that he was no hand at the work any more!

This father, this barge of a man, simple, full of patience and goodness, he would let his son strike the last few blows and cleave the stone. And there it lay, split in two.

“Ay, you’ve the trick of it,” said the father. “H’m, yes . . . Breidablik . . . might make something out of that place.”

“Ay, should think so,” said the son.

“Only the land was fairly ditched and turned.”

“The house’d have to be done up.”

“Ay, that of course. Place all done up ‘twould mean a lot of work at first, but . . . What I was going to say, d’you know if your mother was going to church come Sunday?”

“Ay, she said something like it.”

“Ho! . . . H’m. Keep your eyes open now and look out for a good big door-slab for the new house. You haven’t seen a bit would do?”

“No,” said Sivert.

And they fell to work again.

A couple of days later both agreed they had enough stone now for the walls. It was Friday evening; they sat taking a breathing-space, and talking together the while.

“H’m — what d’you say?” said the father.

“Should we think it over, maybe, about Breidablik?”

“How d’you mean?” asked the son. “What to do with it?”

“Why, I don’t know. There’s the school there, and it’s midway down this tract now.”

“And what then?” asked the son. “I don’t know what we’d do with it, though; it’s not worth much as it is.”

“That’s what you’ve been thinking of?”

“No, not that way . . . Unless Eleseus he’d like to have the place to work on.”

“Eleseus? Well, no, I don’t know”

Long pause, the two men thinking hard. The father begins gathering tools together, packing up to go home.

“Ay, unless . . .” said Sivert. “You might ask him what he says.”

The father made an end of the matter thus: “Well, there’s another day, and we haven’t found that door-slab yet, either.”

Next day was Saturday, and they had to be off early to get across the hills with the child. Jensine, the servant-girl, was to go with them; that was one godmother, the rest they would have to find from among Inger’s folk on the other side.

Inger looked nice; she had made herself a dainty cotton dress, with white at the neck and wrists. The child was all in white, with a new blue silk ribbon drawn through the lower edge of its dress; but then she was a wonder of a child, to be sure, that could smile and chatter already, and lay and listened when the clock struck on the wall. Her father had chosen her name. It was his right; he was determined to have his say — only trust to him! He had hesitated between Jacobine and Rebecca, as being both sort of related to Isak; and at last he went to Inger and asked timidly: “What d’you think, now, of Rebecca?”

“Why, yes,” said Inger.

And when Isak heard that, he grew suddenly in dependent and master in his own house. “If she’s to have a name at all,” he said sharply, “it shall be Rebecca! I’ll see to that.”

And of course he was going with the party to church, partly to carry, and partly for propriety’s sake. It would never do to let Rebecca go to be christened without a decent following I Isak trimmed his beard and put on a red shirt, as in his younger days; it was in the worst of the hot weather, but he had a nice new winter suit, that looked well on him, and he wore it. But for all that, Isak was not the man to make a duty of finery and show; as now, for instance, he put on a pair of fabulously heavy boots for the march.

Sivert and Leopoldine stayed behind to look after the place.

Then they rowed in a boat across the lake, and that was a deal easier than before, when they had had to walk round all the way. But half-way across, as Inger unfastened her dress to nurse the child, Isak noticed something bright hung in a string round her neck; whatever it might be. And in the church he noticed that she wore that gold ring on her finger. Oh, Inger — it had been too much for her after all!

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