The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XVII

Eleseus came home.

He had been away now for some years, and had grown taller than his father, with long white hands and a little dark growth on his upper lip. He did not give himself airs, but seemed anxious to appear natural and kindly; his mother was surprised and pleased. He shared the small bedroom with Sivert; the two brothers got on well together, and were constantly playing tricks on each other by way of amusement. But, naturally, Eleseus had to take his share of the work in building the house; and tired and miserable it made him, all unused as he was to bodily fatigue of any kind. It was worse still when Sivert had to go off and leave it all to the other two; Eleseus then was almost more of a hindrance than a help.

And where had Sivert gone off to? Why, ’twas Oline had come over the hills one day with word from Uncle Sivert that he was dying; and, of course, young Sivert had to go. A nice state of things all at once — it couldn’t have happened worse than to have Sivert running off just now. But there was no help for it.

Said Oline: “I’d no time to go running errands, and that’s the truth; but for all that . . . I’ve taken a fancy to the children here, all of them, and little Sivert, and if as I could help him to his legacy . . .”

“But was Uncle Sivert very bad, then?”

“Bad? Heaven bless us, he’s falling away day by day.”

“Was he in bed, then?”

“In bed? How can you talk so light and flighty of death before God’s Judgment-seat? Nay, he’ll neither hop nor run again in this world, will your Uncle Sivert.”

All this seemed to mean that Uncle Sivert had not long to live, and Inger insisted that little Sivert should set off at once.

But Uncle Sivert, incorrigible old knave, was not on his death-bed; was not even confined to bed at all. When young Sivert came, he found the little place in terrible muddle and disorder; they had not finished the spring season’s work properly yet — had not even carted out all the winter manure; but as for approaching death, there was no sign of it that he could see. Uncle Sivert was an old man now, over seventy; he was something of an invalid, and pattered about half-dressed in the house, and often kept his bed for a time. He needed help on the place in many ways, as, for instance, with the herring all that he was by no means at his last gasp; he could still eat sour fish and smoke his pipe.

When Sivert had been there half an hour and seen how things were, he was for going back home again.

“Home?” said the old man.

“We’re building a house, and father’s none to help him properly.”

“Ho!” said his uncle. “Isn’t Eleseus come home, then?”

“Ay, but he’s not used to the work.”

“Then why did you come at all?”

Sivert told him about Oline and her message, how she had said that Uncle Sivert was on the point of death.

“Point of death?” cried the old man. “Said I was on the point of death, did she? A cursed old fool!”

“Ha ha ha!” said Sivert.

The old man looked sternly at him. “Eh? Laugh at a dying man, do you, and you called after me and all!”

But Sivert was too young to put on a graveyard face for that; he had never cared much for his uncle. And now he wanted to get back home again.

“Ho, so you thought so, too?” said the old man again. “Thought I was at my last gasp, and that fetched you, did it?”

“’Twas Oline said so,” answered Sivert.

His uncle was silent for a while, then spoke again:

“Look you here. If you’ll mend that net of mine and put it right, I’ll show you something.”

“H’m,” said Sivert. “What is it?”

“Well, never you mind,” said the old man sullenly, and went to bed again.

It was going to be a long business, evidently. Sivert writhed uncomfortably. He went out and took a look round the place; everything was shame — fully neglected and uncared for; it was hopeless begin work here. When he came in after a while his uncle was sitting up, warming himself at the stove.

“See that?” He pointed to an oak chest on the floor at his feet. It was his money chest. As matter of fact, it was a lined case made to hold hold bottles, such as visiting justices and other great folk used to carry with them when travelling about the country in the old days, but there were no bottles in it now; the old man had used it for his documents and papers as district treasurer; he kept his accounts and his money in it now. The story ran that it was full of uncounted riches; the village folk would shake their heads and say: “Ah! if I’d only as much as lies in old Sivert his chest!”

Uncle Sivert took out a paper from the box an said solemnly: “You can read writing, I suppose?”

Little Sivert was not by any means a great hand at that, it is true, but he made out so much as told him he was to inherit all that his uncle might leave at his death.

“There,” said the old man. “And now you can do as you please.” And he laid the paper back in the chest.

Sivert was not greatly impressed; after all, the paper told him no more than he had known before ever since he was a child he had heard say that he was to have what Uncle Sivert left one day. A sight of the treasure would be another matter.

“There’s some fine things in that chest, I doubt, said he.

“There’s more than you think,” said the old man shortly.

He was angry and disappointed with his nephew; he locked up the box and went to bed again. There he lay, delivering jets of information. “I’ve been district treasurer and warden of the public moneys in this village over thirty year; I’ve no need to beg and pray for a helping hand from any man I Who told Oline, I’d like to know, that I was on my death-bed? I can send three men, carriage and cart to fetch a doctor if I want one. Don’t try your games with me, young man! Can’t even wait till I’m gone, it seems. I’ve shown you the document and you’ve seen it, and it’s there in the chest — that’s all I’ve got to say. But if you go running off and leave me now, you can just carry word to Eleseus and tell him to come. He’s not named after me and called by my earthly name — let him come.”

But for all the threatening tone, Sivert only thought a moment, and said: “Ay, I’ll tell Eleseus to come.”

Oline was still at Sellanraa when Sivert got back. She had found time to pay a visit lower down, to Axel Ström and Barbro on their place, and came back full of mysteries and whisperings. “That girl Barbro’s filling out a deal of late — Lord knows what it may mean. But not a word that I’ve said so! And here’s Sivert back again? No need to ask what news, I suppose? Your Uncle Sivert’s passed away? Ay, well, an old man he was and an aged one, on the brink of the grave. What — not dead? Well, well, we’ve much to be thankful for, and that’s a solemn word! Me talking nonsense, you say? Oh, if I’d never more to answer for! How was I to know your uncle he was lying there a sham and a false pretender before the Lord? Not long to live, that’s what I said. And I’ll hold by it, when the time comes, before the Throne. What’s that you say? Well, and wasn’t he lying there his very self in his bed, and folding his hands on his breast and saying ‘twould soon be over?”

There was no arguing with Oline, she bewildered her adversaries with talk and cast them down. When she learned that Uncle Sivert had sent for Eleseus, she grasped at that too, and made her own advantage of it: “There you are, and see if I was talking nonsense. Here’s old Sivert calling up his kinsfolk and longing for a sight of his own flesh and blood; ay, he’s nearing his end! You can’t refuse him, Eleseus; off with you at once this minute and see your uncle while there’s life in him. I’m going that way too, we’ll go together.”

Oline did not leave Sellanraa without taking Inger aside for more whisperings of Barbro. “Not a word I’ve said — but I could see the signs of it! And now I suppose she’ll be wife and all on the farm there. Ay, there’s some folk are born to great things, for all they may be small as the sands of the sea in their beginnings. And who’d have ever thought it of that girl Barbro! Axel, yes, never doubt but he’s a toiling sort and getting on, and great fine lands and means and all like you’ve got here — ’tis more than we know of over on our side the hills, as you know’s a true word, Inger, being born and come of the place yourself. Barbro, she’d a trifle of wool in a chest; ’twas naught but winter wool, and I wasn’t asking and she never offered me. We said but Goddag and Farvel, for all that I’d known her from she was a toddling child all that time I was here at Sellanraa by reason of you being away and learning knowledge at the Institute . . .”

“There’s Rebecca crying,” said Inger, breaking in on Oline. But she gave her a handful of wool.

Then a great thanksgiving speech from Oline: ay, wasn’t it just as she had said to Barbro herself of Inger, and how there was not her like to be found for giving to folk; ay, she’d give till she was bare, and give her fingers to the bone, and never complain. Ay, go in and see to the sweet angel, and never was there a child in the world so like her mother as Rebecca — no. Did Inger remember how she’d said one day as she’d never have children again? Ah, now she could see I No, better give ear to them as were grown old and had borne children of their own, for who should fathom the Lord His ways, said Oline.

And with that she padded off after Eleseus up through the forest, shrunken with age, grey and abject, and for ever nosing after things, imperishable. Going to old Sivert now, to let him know how she, Oline, had managed to persuade Eleseus to come.

But Eleseus had needed no persuading, there was no difficulty there. For, look you, Eleseus had turned out better, after all, than he’d begun; a decent lad in his way, kindly and easy-going from a child, only nothing great in the way of bodily strength. It was not without reason he had been unwilling to come home this time; he knew well enough that his mother had been in prison for child murder; he had never heard a word about it there in the town, but at home in the village every one would remember. And it was not for nothing he had been living with companions of another sort. He had grown to be more sensitive and finer feeling than ever before. He knew that a fork was really just as necessary as a knife. As a man of business, he used the terms of the near coinage, whereas, out in the wild., men still counted money by the ancient Daler. Ay, he was not unwilling to walk across the hills to other parts; here, at home, he was constantly forced to keep down his own superiority. He tried his best to adapt himself to the others, and he managed well; but it was always having to be on his guard. As, for instance, when he had first come back to Sellanraa a couple of weeks ago, he had brought with him his light spring overcoat, though it was midsummer; and when he hung it up on a nail, he might just as well have turned it so as to show the silver plate inside with his initials, but he didn’t. And the same with his stick — his walking-stick. True, it was only an umbrella stick really, that he had dismantled and taken the framework off; but here he had not used it as he did in town, swinging it about — only carried it hidden against his thigh.

No, it was not surprising that Eleseus went across the hills. He was no good at building houses; he was good at writing with letters, a thing not every one could do, but here at home there was no one in all the place that set any store by the art of it save perhaps his mother. He set off gaily through the woods, far ahead of Oline; he could wait for her farther up. He ran like a calf; he hurried. Eleseus had in a way stolen off from the farm; he was afraid of being seen. For, to tell the truth, he had taken with him both spring coat and walking stick for the journey. Over on the other side there might be a chance of seeing people, and being seen himself; he might even be able to go to church. And so he sweated happily under the weight of an unnecessary spring coat in the heat of the sun.

They did not miss him at the building, far from it. Isak had Sivert back again, and Sivert was worth a host of his brother at that work; he could keep at it from morning to night. It did not take them long to get the framework up; it was only three walls, as they were building out from the other. And they had less trouble with the timber; they could cut their planks at the sawmill, which gave them the outside pieces for roofing at the same time. And one fine day there was the house all finished, before their eyes, roofed, floored, and with the windows in. They had no time for more than this between the seasons; the boarding and painting would have to wait.

And now came Geissler with a great following across the hills from Sweden. And the men with him rode on horseback with glossy-coated horses and yellow saddles; rich travellers they must be no doubt; stout, heavy men; the horses bowed under their weight. And among all these great person ages came Geissler on foot. Four gentlemen and Geissler made up the party, and then there were a couple of servants, each leading a packhorse.

The riders dismounted outside the farm, and Geissler said: “Here’s Isak — here’s the Margrave of the place himself. Goddag, Isak! I’ve come back again, you see, as I said I would.”

Geissler was the same as ever. For all that he came on foot, his manner showed no consciousness of inferiority to the rest; ay, his threadbare coat hung long and wretched-looking down over his shrunken back, but he put on a grand enough air for all that. He even said: “We’re going up into the hills a bit, these gentlemen and myself — it’ll do them good to get their weight down a bit.”

The gentlemen themselves were nice and pleasant enough; they smiled at Geissler’s words, and hoped Isak would excuse their coming rioting over his land like this. They had brought their own provisions, and did not propose to eat him out of house and home but they would be glad of a roof over their heads for the night. Perhaps he could put them up in the new building there?

When they had rested a while, and Geissler had been inside with Inger and the children, the whole party went up into the hills and stayed out till evening. Now and again in the course of the afternoon, the folks at Sellanraa could hear an unusually heavy report from the distance, and the train of them came down with new bags of samples. “Blue copper,” they said, nodding at the ore. They talked long and learnedly, and consulting a sort of map they had drawn; there was an engineer among them, and a mining expert; one appeared to be a big land owner or manager of works. They talked of aerial railways and cable traction. Geissler threw in a I word here and there, and each time as if advising them; they paid great attention to what he said.

“Who owns the land south of the lake?” one of them asked Isak.

“The State,” answered Geissler quickly. He was wide awake and sharp, and held in his hand the document Isak had once signed with his mark. “I told you before — the State,” he said. “No need to ask again. If you don’t believe me, you can find out for yourself if you please.” Later in the evening, Geissler took Isak aside and said: “Look here, shall we sell that copper mine?”

Said Isak: “Why, as to that, ’twas so that Lensmand bought it of me once, and paid for it.”

“True,” said Geissler. “I bought the ground. But then there was a provision that you were to have a percentage of receipts from working or sale; are you willing to dispose of your share?”

This was more than Isak could understand, and Geissler had to explain. Isak could not work a mine, being a farmer and a clearer of forest land; Geissler himself couldn’t run a mine either. Money, capital? Ho, as much as he wanted never fear! But he hadn’t the time, too many things to do, always running about the country, attending to his property in the south, his property in the north. And now Geissler was thinking of selling out to these Swedish gentlemen here; they were relatives of his wife, all of them, and rich men. “Do you see what I mean?”

“I’ll do it what way you please,” said Isak.

A strange thing — this complete confidence seemed to comfort Geissler wonderfully in his threadbareness. “Well, I’m not sure it’s the best thing you could do,” he said thoughtfully. Then suddenly he was certain, and went on: “But if you’ll give me a free hand to act on my discretion, I can do better for you at any rate than you could by yourself.”

“H’m,” began Isak. “You’ve always been a good man to us all here. . . . ”

But Geissler frowned at that, and cut him short:

“All right, then.”

Next morning the gentlemen sat down to write. It was a serious business; there was first of all a contract for forty thousand Kroner for the sale of the mine, then a document whereby Geissler made over the whole of the money to his wife and children. Isak and Sivert were called in to witness the signatures to these. When it was done, the gentlemen wanted to buy over Isak’s percentage for a ridiculous sum-five hundred Kroner. Geissler put a stop to that, however. “Jesting apart, he said.

Isak himself understood but little of the whole affair; he had sold the place once, and got his money. But in any case, he did not care much about Kroner — it was not real money like Daler. Sivert, on the other hand, followed the business with more understanding. There was something peculiar, he thought, about the tone of these negotiations; It looked very much like a family affair between the parties. One of the strangers would say: ‘My dear Geissler, you ought not to have such red eyes, you know.” Whereto Geissler answered sharply, if evasively: “No, I ought not, I know. But we don’t all get what we ought to in this world!”

It looked very much as if Fru Geissler’s brothers and kinsmen were trying to buy off her husband, secure themselves against his visits for the future, and get quit of a troublesome relation. As to the mine, it was worth something in itself, no doubt, no one denied it; but it lay far out of the way, and the buyers themselves said they were only taking It over in order to sell it again to some one better in a position to work it. There was nothing unreason able in that. They declared too, quite frankly, that they had no idea what they would be able to get for it as it stood; if it were taken up and worked, then the forty thousand might turn out to be only a fraction of what it was worth; if it were allowed to lie there as it was, the money was simply thrown away. But in any case, they wanted to have a clear title, without encumbrance, and therefore they offered Isak five hundred Kroner for his share.

“I’m acting on his behalf,” said Geissler, “and I’m not going to sell out his share for less than ten per cent. of the purchase-money.”

“Four thousand!” said the others.

“Four thousand,” said Geissler. “The land was his, and his share comes to four thousand. It wasn’t mine, and I get forty thousand. Kindly turn that over in Our minds, if you please.”

“Yes, but — four thousand Kroner!

Geissler rose from his place, and said: “That, or no sale.”

They thought it over, whispered about it, went out into the yard, talking as long as they could. “Get the horses ready,” they called to the servants. One of the gentlemen went in to Inger and paid royally for coffee, a few eggs, and their lodging. Geissler walked about with a careless air, but he was wide awake all the same.

“How did that irrigation work turn out last year?” he asked Sivert.

“It saved the whole crop.”

“You’ve cut away that mound there since I was here last, what? ”

“Ay.”

“You must have another horse on the farm,” said Geissler. He noticed everything.

One of the strangers came up. “Now then, let’s get this matter settled and have done with it,” he said.

They all went into the new building again, and Isak’s four thousand Kroner were counted out. Geissler was given a paper, which he thrust into his pocket as if it were of no value at all. “Keep that carefully,” they told him, “and in a few days your wife shall have the bankbook sent.”

Geissler puckered his forehead and said shortly: “Very good.”

But they were not finished with Geissler yet. Not that he opened his mouth to ask for anything; he simply stood there, and they saw how he stood there: maybe he had stipulated beforehand for a trifle on his own account. The leader gave him a bundle of notes, and Geissler simply nodded again, and said: “Very good.”

“And now I think we ought to drink a glass with Geissler,” said the other.

They drank, and that was done. And then they took leave of Geissler.

Just at that moment came Brede Olsen walking up. Now what did he want? Brede had doubtless heard the reports of the blasting charges the day before, and understood that there was something on foot in the way of mines. And now he came up ready to sell something too. He walked straight past Geissler, and addressed himself to the gentlemen; he had found some remarkable specimens of rock hereabouts, quite extraordinary, some blood-like, others like silver; he knew every cranny and corner in the hills around and could go straight to every spot; he knew of long veins of some heavy metal — whatever it might be.

“Have you any samples?” asked the mining expert.

Yes, Brede had samples. But couldn’t they just as well go up and look at the places at once? It wasn’t far. Samples — oh, sacks of them, whole packing-cases full. No, he had not brought them with him, they were at home — he could run down and fetch them. But it would be quicker just to run up into the hills and fetch some more, if they would only wait.

The men shook their heads and went on their way.

Brede looked after them with an injured air. If he had felt a glimmer of hope for the moment, it was gone now; fate was against him, nothing ever went right. Well for Brede that he was not easily cast down; he looked after the men as they rode away, and said at last: “Wish you a pleasant journey!” And that was all.

But now he was humble again in his manner towards Geissler, his former chief, and no longer treated him as an equal, but used forms of respect. Geissler had taken out his pocket-book on some pretext or other, and any one could see that it was stuffed full of notes.

“If only Lensmand could help me a bit,” said Brede.

“Go back home and work your land properly,” said Geissler, and helped him not a bit.

“I might easily have brought up a whole barrow load of samples, but wouldn’t it have been easier to go up and look at the place itself while they were here?”

Geissler took no notice of him, and turned to Isak: “Did you see what I did with that document? It was a most important thing — a matter of several thousand Kroner. Oh, here it is, in among a bundle of notes.”

“Who were those people?” asked Brede.

“Just out for a ride, or what?”

Geissler had been having an anxious time, no doubt, and now he cooled down. But he had still something of life and eagerness in him, enough to do a little more; he went up into the hills with Sivert, and took a big sheet of paper with him, and drew a map of the ground south of the lake Heaven knows what he had in mind. When he came down to the farm some hours later, Brede was still there, but Geissler took no notice of his questions; Geissler was tired, and waved him aside.

He slept like a stone till next morning early, then he rose with the sun, and was himself again.

“Sellanraa,” said he, standing outside and looking all round.

“All that money,” said Isak; “does it mean I’m to have it all?”

“All?” said Geissler. “Heavens, man, can’t you see it ought to have been ever so much more? And it was my business really to pay you, according to our contract; but you saw how things were — it was the only way to manage it. What did you get? Only a thousand Daler, according to the old reckoning. I’ve been thinking, you’ll need another horse on the place now.”

“Ay.”

“Well, I know of one. That fellow Heyerdahl’s assistant, he’s letting his place go to rack and ruin; takes more interest in running about selling folk up. He’s sold a deal of his stock already, and he’ll be willing to sell the horse.”

“I’ll see him about it,” said Isak.

Geissler waved his hand broadly around, and said: “Margrave, landowner — that’s you! House and stock and cultivated land — they can’t starve you out if they try!”

“No,” said Isak. “We’ve all we could wish for that the Lord ever made.”

Geissler went fussing about the place, and suddenly slipped in to Inger. “Could you manage a bit of food for me to take along again?” he asked. “Just a few wafers — no butter and cheese; there’s good things enough in them already. No, do as I say; I can’t carry more.”

Out again. Geissler was restless, he went into the new building and sat down to write. He had thought it all out beforehand, and it did not take long now to get it down. Sending in an application to the State, he explained loftily to Isak — “to the Ministry of the Interior, you understand. Yes, I’ve no end of things to look after all at once.”

When he had got his parcel of food and had taken leave, he seemed to remember something all of a sudden: “Oh, by the way, I’m afraid I owe you something from last time — I took out a note from my pocket-book on purpose, and then stuck It in my waistcoat pocket — I found it there afterwards; Too many things to think about all at once. . . . He put something into Inger’s hand and off he went.

Ay, off went Geissler, bravely enough to all seeming. Nothing downcast nor anyway nearing his end; he came to Sellanraa again after, and it was long years before he died. Each time he went away the Sellanraa folk missed him as a friend. Isak had been thinking of asking him about Breidablik, getting his advice, but nothing came of it. And maybe Geissler would have dissuaded him there; have thought it a risky thing to buy up land for cultivation and give it to Eleseus; to a clerk.

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