The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XVIII

Uncle Sivert died after all. Eleseus spent three weeks looking after him, and then the old man died. Eleseus arranged the funeral, and managed things very well; got hold of a fuchsia or so from the cottages round, and borrowed a flag to hoist at half-mast, and bought some black stuff from the store for lowered blinds. Isak and Inger were sent for, and came to the burial. Eleseus acted as host, and served out refreshments to the guests; ay, and when the body was carried out, and they had sung a hymn, Eleseus actually said a few suitable words over the coffin, and his mother was so proud and touched that she had to use her handkerchief. Everything went off splendidly.

Then on the way home with his father, Eleseus had to carry that spring coat of his openly, though he managed to hide the stick in one of the sleeves. All went well till they had to cross the water in a boat; then his father sat down unexpectedly on the coat, and there was a crack. “What was that?” asked Isak.

“Oh, nothing,” said Eleseus.

But he did not throw the broken stick away; as soon as they got home, he set about looking for a bit of tube or something to mend it with. “We’ll fix it all right,” said Sivert, the incorrigible. “Look here, get a good stout splint of wood on either side, and lash all fast with waxed thread. . . . ”

“I’ll lash you with waxed thread,” said Eleseus.

“Ha ha ha! Well, perhaps you’d rather tie it up neatly with a red garter?”

“Ha ha ha,” said Eleseus himself at that; but he went in to his mother, and got her to give him an old thimble, filed off the end, and made quite a fine ferrule. Oh, Eleseus was not so helpless after all, t with his long, white hands.

The brothers teased each other as much as ever. “Am I to have what Uncle Sivert’s left?” asked Eleseus.

“You have it? How much is it?” asked Sivert.

“Ha ha ha, you want to know how much it is first, you old miser!”

“Well, you can have it, anyway,” said Sivert.

“It’s between five and ten thousand.”

Daler?” cried Sivert; he couldn’t help it.

Now Eleseus never reckoned in Daler, but he didn’t like to say no at the time, so he just nodded, and left it at that till next day.

Then he took up the matter again. “Aren’t you sorry you gave me all that yesterday?” he said.

“Woodenhead! Of course not,” said Sivert. That was what he said, but — well, five thousand Daler was five thousand Daler, and no little sum; if his brother were anything but a lousy Indian savage, he ought to give back half.

“Well, to tell the truth,” explained Eleseus, “I don’t reckon to get fat on that legacy, after all.”

Sivert looked at him in astonishment. “Ho, don’t you?”

“No, nothing special, that is to say. Not what you might call par excellence.”

Eleseus had some notions of accounts, of course, and Uncle Sivert’s money-chest, the famous bottle case, had been opened and examined while he was there; he had had to go through all the accounts and make up a balance sheet. Uncle Sivert had not set this nephew to work on the fields or mending of herring nets; he had initiated him into a complex muddle of figures, the weirdest book-keeping ever seen. If a man had paid his taxes some years back in kind, with a goat, say, or a load of dried cod, there was neither flesh nor fish to show for it now; but old Sivert searched his memory and said, “He’s paid!”

“Right, then we’ll cross him out,” said Sivert.

Eleseus was the man for this sort of work; he was bright and quick, and encouraged the invalid by assuring him that things were all right; the two had got on well together, even to jesting at times. Eleseus was a bit of a fool, perhaps, in some things, but so was his uncle; and the two of them sat there drawing up elaborate documents in favour not only of little Sivert but also to benefit the village, the commune which the old man had served for thirty years. Oh, they were grand days! “I couldn’t have got a better man to help with all this than you, Eleseus boy,” said Uncle Sivert. He sent out and bought mutton, in the middle of the summer; fish was brought up fresh from the sea, Eleseus being ordered to pay cash from the chest. They lived well enough. They got hold of Oline — they couldn’t have found a better person to invite to a feast, nor one more sure to spread abroad the news of Uncle Sivert’s greatness to the end. And the satisfaction was mutual. “We must do something for Oline, too,” said Uncle Sivert, “she being a widow and not well off. There’ll be enough for little Sivert, anyhow.” Eleseus managed it with a few strokes of the pen; a mere codicil to the last will and testament, and lo, Oline was also a sharer in the inheritance.

“I’ll look after you,” said Uncle Sivert to her. “If so be I shouldn’t get better this time and get about again on earth I’ll take care you’re not left out.” Oline declared that she was speechless, but speechless she was not; she wept and was touched to the heart and grateful; there was none to compare with Oline for finding the immediate connection between a worldly gift and being “repaid a thousandfold eternally in the world to come.” No, speechless she was not.

But Eleseus? At first, perhaps, he may have taken a bright enough view of his uncle’s affairs, but after a while he began to think things over and talk as well. He tried at first with a slight hint: “The accounts aren’t exactly as they should be,” he said.

“Well, never mind that,” said the old man. “There’ll be enough and to spare when I’m gone.”

“You’ve money outstanding besides, maybe?” said Eleseus. “In a bank, or so?” For so report had said.

“H’m,” said the old man. “That’s as it may be. But, anyhow, with the fishery, the farm and buildings and stock, red cows and white cows and all — don’t you worry about that, Eleseus, my boy.”

Eleseus had no idea what the fishery business might be worth, but he had seen the live-stock; it consisted of one cow, partly red and partly white. Uncle Sivert must have been delirious. Some of the accounts, too, were difficult to make out at all; they were a muddle, a bare jumble of figures, especially from the date when the coinage was changed; the district treasurer had frequently reckoned the small Kroner as if they were full Daler. No wonder he fancied himself rich! But when everything was reduced to something like order, Eleseus feared there would not be much left over. Perhaps not enough to settle at all.

Ay, Sivert might easily promise him all that came to him from his uncle!

The two brothers jested about it. Sivert was not upset over the matter, not at all; perhaps, indeed, it might have irked him something more if he really had thrown away five thousand Daler. He knew well enough that it had been a mere speculation, naming him after his uncle; he had no claim to anything there. And now he pressed Eleseus to take what there was. “It’s to be yours, of course,” said he. “Come along, let’s get it set down in writing.

I’d like to see you a rich man. Don’t be too proud to take it”

Ay, they had many a laugh together. Sivert, indeed, was the one that helped most to keep Eleseus at home; it would have been much harder but for him.

As a matter of fact, Eleseus was getting rather spoiled again; the three weeks’ idling on the other side of the hills had not done him any good. He had also been to church there, and made a show; ay, he had even met some girls there. Here at Sellanraa there was nothing of that sort; Jensine, the servant-maid, was a mere nothing, a worker and no more, rather suited to Sivert.

“I’ve a fancy to see how that girl Barbro from Breidablik turned out now she’s grown up,” said Eleseus one day.

“Well, go down to Axel Ström ‘s place and see,” said Sivert.

Eleseus went down one Sunday. Ay, he had been I away, gained confidence and high spirits once more; he had tasted excitement of a sort, and he made things livelier at Axel’s little place. Barbro herself was by no means to be despised; at any rate she was the only one anywhere near. She played the guitar and talked readily; moreover, she did not smell of tansy, but of real scent, the sort you buy in shops. Eleseus, on his part, let it be understood that he was only home for a holiday, and would soon be called back to the office again. But it was not so bad being at home after all, in the old place, and, of course, he had the little bedroom to live in. But it was not like being in town!

“Nay, that’s a true word,” said Barbro. “Town’s very different from this.”

Axel himself was altogether out of it with these two town-folk; he found it dull with them, and preferred to go out and look over his land. The pair of them were left to do as they liked, and Eleseus managed things grandly. He told how he had been over to the neighbouring village to bury his uncle, and did not forget to mention the speech he had made over the coffin.

When he took his leave, he asked Barbro to go part of the way home with him. But Barbro, thank you, was not inclined that way.

“Is that the way they do things where you’ve been,” she asked — “for the ladies to escort the gentlemen home?”

That was a nasty hit for Eleseus; he turned red, and understood he had offended her.

Nevertheless, he went down to Maaneland again next Sunday, and this time he took his stick. They talked as before, and Axel was out of it altogether, as before. “’Tis a big place your father’s got,” said he. “And building again, now, it seems.”

“Ay, it’s all very well for him,” said Eleseus, anxious to show off a little. “He can afford it. It’s another matter with poor folk like ourselves.”

“How d’you mean?”

“Oh, haven’t you heard? There’s been some

Swedish millionaires came down the other day and bought a mine of him, a copper mine.”

“Why, you don’t say? And he’ll have got a heap of money for it, then?”

“Enormous. Well, I don’t want to boast, but it was at any rate ever so many thousands. What was I going to say? Build? You’ve a deal of timber lying about here yourself. When are you going to start?”

Barbro put in her word here: “Never!”

Now that was pure exaggeration and impertinence. Axel had got his stones the autumn before, and carted them home that winter; now, between seasons, he had got the foundation walls done, and cellar and all else — all that remained was to build the timbered part above. He was hoping to get part of it roofed in this autumn, and had thought of asking Sivert to lend him a hand for a few days — what did Eleseus think of that?

Eleseus thought like as not. “But why not ask me?” he said, smiling.

“You?” said Axel, and he spoke with sudden respect at the idea. “You’ve talents for other things than that, I take it.”

Oh, but it was pleasant to find oneself appreciated here in the wilds! “Why, I’m afraid my hands aren’t much good at that sort of work,” said Eleseus delicately.

“Let me look,” said Barbro, and took his hand.

Axel dropped out of the conversation again, and went out, leaving the two of them alone. They were of an age, had been to school together, and played and kissed each other and raced about; and now, with a fine disdainful carelessness, they talked of old times — exchanging reminiscences — and Barbro, perhaps, was inclined to show off a little before her companion. True, this Eleseus was not like the really fine young men in offices, that wore glasses and gold watches and so on, but he could pass for a gentleman here in the wilds, there was no denying that. And she took out her photograph now and showed him — that’s what she looked like then — “all different now, of course.” And Barbro sighed;

“Why, what’s the matter with you now?” he asked.

“Don’t you think I’ve changed for the worse since then?”

“Changed for the worse, indeed! Well, I don’t mind telling you you’re ever so much prettier now,” said he, “filled out all round. For the worse? Ho! That’s a fine idea!”

“But it’s a nice dress, don’t you think? Cut open lust a bit front and back. And then I had that silver chain you see there, and it cost a heap of money, too; it was a present from one of the young clerks I was with then. But I lost it. Not exactly lost it, you know, but I wanted money to come home.”

Eleseus asked: “Can I have the photo to keep?”

“To keep? H’m. What’ll you give me for it?”

Oh, Eleseus knew well enough what he wanted to say, but he dared not. “I’ll have mine taken when I go back to town,” he said instead, “and send it you.”

Barbro put away the photograph. “No, it’s the only one I’ve left.”

That was a stroke of darkness to his young heart, and he stretched out his hand towards the picture.

“Well, give me something for it, now,” she said, laughing. And at that he up and kissed her properly.

After that it was easier all round; Eleseus brightened up, and got on finely. They flirted and joked and laughed, and were excellent friends. “When you took my hand just now it was like a bit of swan’s down — yours, I mean.”

“Oh, you’ll be going back to town again, and never come back here, I’ll be bound,” said Barbro.

“Do you think I’m that sort?” said Eleseus.

“Ah, I dare say there’s a somebody there you’re fond of.”

“No, there isn’t. Between you and me, I’m not engaged at all,” said he.

“Oh yes, you are; I know.”

“No, solemn fact, I’m not.”

They carried on like this quite a while; Eleseus was plainly in love. “I’ll write to you,” said he. “May I?”

“Yes,” said she.

“For I wouldn’t be mean enough if you didn’t care about it, you know.” And suddenly he was jealous, and asked: “I’ve heard say you’re promised to Axel here; is it true?”

“Axel?” she said scornfully, and he brightened up again. “I’ll see him farther!” But then she turned penitent, and added: “Alex, he’s good enough for me, though. . . . And he takes in a paper all for me to read, and gives me things now and again — lots of things. I will say that.”

“Oh, of course,” Eleseus agreed. “He may be an excellent fellow in his way, but that’s not everything. . .”

But the thought of Axel seemed to have made Barbro anxious; she got up, and said to Eleseus: “You’ll have to go now; I must see to the animals.”

Next Sunday Eleseus went down a good deal later than usual, and carried the letter himself. It was a letter! A whole week of excitement, all the trouble it had cost him to write, but here it was at last; he had managed to produce a letter: “To Fröken Barbro Bredesen. It is two or three times now I have had the inexpressible delight of seeing you again. . . . ”

Coming so late as he did now, Barbro must at any rate have finished seeing to the animals, and might perhaps have gone to bed already. That wouldn’t matter — quite the reverse, indeed.

But Barbro was up, sitting in the hut. She looked now as if she had suddenly lost all idea of being nice to him and making love — Eleseus fancied Axel had perhaps got hold of her and warned her.

“Here’s the letter I promised you,” he said.

“Thank you,” said she, and opened it, and read it through without seeming much moved. “I wish I could write as nice a hand as that,” she said.

Eleseus was disappointed. What had he done — what was the matter with her? And where was Axel? He was not there. Beginning to get tired of these foolish Sunday visits, perhaps, and preferred to stay away; or he might have had some business to keep him over, when he went down to the village the day before. Anyhow, he was not there.

“What d’you want to sit here in this stuffy old place for on a lovely evening?” asked Eleseus.

“Come out for a walk.”

“I’m waiting for Axel,” she answered.

“Axel? Can’t you live without Axel, then?”

“Yes. But he’ll want something to eat when he comes back.”

Time went, time dribbled away, they came no nearer each other; Barbro was as cross and contrary as ever. He tried telling her again of his visit across the hills, and did not forget about the speech he had made: “‘Twasn’t much I had to say, but all the same it brought out the tears from some of them.”

“Did it?” said she.

“And then one Sunday I went to church.”

“What news there?”

“News? Oh, nothing. Only to have a look round. Not much of a priest, as far as I know any thing about it; no sort of manner, he had.”

Time went.

“What d’you think Axel’d say if he found you here this evening again?” said Barbro suddenly.

There was a thing to say! It was as if she had struck him. Had she forgotten all about last time? Hadn’t they agreed that he was to come this evening? Eleseus was deeply hurt, and murmured: “I can go, if you like. What have I done?” he asked then, his lips trembling. He was in distress, in trouble, that was plain to see.

“Done? Oh, you haven’t done anything.”

“Well, what’s the matter with you, anyway, this evening?”

“With me? Ha ha ha! — But come to think of it, ’tis no wonder Axel should be angry.”

“I’ll go, then,” said Eleseus again. But she was still indifferent, not in the least afraid, caring nothing that he sat there struggling with his feelings. Fool of a woman!

And now he began to grow angry; he hinted his displeasure at first delicately: to the effect that she was a nice sort indeed, and a credit to her sex, huh! But when that produced no effect — oh, he would have done better to endure it patiently, and say nothing. But he grew no better for that; he said: “If I’d known you were going to be like this, I’d never have come this evening at all.”

“Well, what if you hadn’t?” said she. “You’d have lost a chance of airing that cane of yours that you’re so fond of.”

Oh, Barbro, she had lived in Bergen, she knew how to jeer at a man; she had seen real walking sticks, and could ask; now what he wanted to go swinging a patched-up umbrella handle like that for. But he let her go on.

“I suppose now you’ll be wanting that photograph back you gave me,” he said. And if that didn’t move her, surely nothing would, for among folks in the wilds, there was nothing counted so mean as to take back a gift.

“That’s as it may be,” she answered evasively.

“Oh, you shall have it all right,” he answered bravely. “I’ll send it back at once, never fear. And now perhaps you’ll give me back my letter.” Eleseus rose to his feet.

Very well; she gave him back the letter. But now the tears came into her eyes as she did so; this servant girl was touched; her friend was forsaking her — good-bye for ever!

“You’ve no need to go,” she said. “I don’t care for what Axel says.”

But Eleseus had the upper hand now, and must use it; he thanked her and said good-bye. “When a lady carries on that way,” he said, “there’s nothing else to be done.”

He left the house, quietly, and walked up homeward, whistling, swinging his stick, and playing the man. Huh I A little while after came Barbro walking up; she called to him once or twice. Very well; he stopped, so he did, but was a wounded lion. She sat down in the heather looking penitent; she fidgeted with a sprig, and a little after he too softened, and asked for a kiss, the last time, just to say good-bye, he said. No, she would not. “Be nice and be a dear, like you were last time,” he begged, and moved round her on all sides, stepping quickly, if he could see his chance. But she would not be a dear; she got up. And there she stood. And at that he simply nodded and went.

When he was out of sight, Axel appeared suddenly from behind some bushes. Barbro started, all taken aback, and asked: “What’s that — where have you been? Up that way?”

“No; I’ve been down that way,” he answered. “But I saw you two going up here.”

“Ho, did you? And a lot of good it did you, I dare say,” she cried, suddenly furious. She was certainly not easier to deal with now. “What are you poking and sniffing about after, I’d like to know? What’s it to do with you?”

Axel was not in the best of temper himself. “H’m. So he’s been here again today?”

“Well, what if he has? What do you want with him?”

“I want with him? It’s what you want with him, I’d like to ask. You ought to be ashamed.”

“Ashamed? Huh! The least said about that, if you ask me,” said Barbro. “I’m here to sit in the house like a statue, I suppose? What have I got to be ashamed of, anyway? If you like to go and get some one else to look after the place, I’m ready to go. You hold your tongue, that’s all I’ve got to say, if it’s not too much to ask. I’m going back now to get your supper and make the coffee, and after that I can do as I please.”

They came home with the quarrel at its height.

No, they were not always the best of friends, Axel and Barbro; there was trouble now and again. She had been with him now for a couple of years, and they had had words before; mostly when Barbro talked of finding another place. He wanted her to stay there for ever, to settle down there and share the house and life with him; he knew how hard it would be for him if he were left without help again. And she had promised several times — ay, in her more affectionate moments she would not think of going away at all. But the moment they quarrelled about anything, she invariably threatened to go. If for nothing else, she must go to have her teeth seen to in town. Go, go away . . . Axel felt he must find a means to keep her.

Keep her? A lot Barbro cared for his trying to keep her if she didn’t want to stay.

“Ho, so you want to go away again?” said he.

“Well, and if I do?”

Can you, d’you think?”

“Well, and why not? If you think I’m afraid because the winter’s coming on . . . But I can get a place in Bergen any day I like.”

Then said Axel steadily enough: “It’ll be some time before you can do that, anyway. As long as you’re with child.”

“With child? What are you talking about?”

Axel stared. Was the girl mad?

True, he himself should have been more patient. Now that he had the means of keeping her, he had grown too confident, and that was a mistake; there was no need to be sharp with her and make her wild; he need not have ordered her in so many words to help him with the potatoes that spring — he might have planted them by himself. There would be plenty of time for him to assert his authority after they were married; until then he ought to have had sense enough to give way.

But — it was too bad, this business with Eleseus this clerk, who came swaggering about with his walking-stick and all his fine talk. For a girl to carry on like that when she was promised to another man — and in her condition! It was beyond understanding. Up to then, Axel had had no rival to compete with — now, it was different.

“Here’s a new paper for you,” he said. “And here’s a bit of a thing I got you. Don’t know you’ll care about it.”

Barbro was cold. They were sitting there together, drinking scalding hot coffee from the bowl but for all that she answered icy cold:

“I suppose that’s the gold ring you’ve been promising me this twelvemonth and more.”

This, however, was beyond the mark, for it was the ring after all. But a gold ring it was not, and that he had never promised her — ’twas an invention of her own; silver it was, with gilt hand; clasped, real silver, with the mark on and all. But ah, that unlucky voyage of hers to Bergen! Barbro had seen real engagement rings — no use telling her!

“That ring! Huh! You can keep it yourself.”

“What’s wrong with it, then?”

“Wrong with it? There’s nothing wrong with it that I know,” she answered, and got up to clear the table.

“Why, you’ll needs make do with it for now,” he said. “Maybe I’ll manage another some day.”

Barbro made no answer.

A thankless creature was Barbro this evening. A new silver ring — she might at least have thanked him nicely for it. It must be that clerk with the town ways that had turned her head. Axel could not help saying: “I’d like to know what that fellow Eleseus keeps coming here for, anyway. What does he want with you?”

“With me?”

“Ay. Is he such a greenhorn and can’t see how ’tis with you now? Hasn’t he eyes in his head?”

Barbro turned on him straight at that: “Oh, so you think you’ve got a hold on me because of that, You’ll find out you’re wrong, that’s all.”

“Ho!” said Axel. I

“Ay, and I’ll not stay here, neither.”

But Axel only smiled a little at this; not broadly and laughing in her face, no; for he did not mean to cross her. And then he spoke soothingly, as to a child: “Be a good girl now, Barbro. ’Tis you and me, you know.”

And of course in the end Barbro gave in and was good, and even went to sleep with the silver ring on her finger.

It would all come right in time, never fear.

For the two in the hut, yes. But what about Eleseus? ’Twas worse with him; he found it hard to get over the shameful way Barbro had treated him. He knew nothing of hysterics, and took it as all pure cruelty on her part; that girl Barbro from Breidablik thought a deal too much of herself, even though she had been in Bergen. . . .

He sent her back the photograph in a way of his own — took it down himself one night and stuck it through the door to her in the hayloft, where she slept. ’Twas not done in any rough unmannerly way, not at all; he had fidgeted with the door a long time so as to wake her, and When she rose up on her elbow and asked, “What’s the matter; can’t you find your way in this evening?” he understood the question was meant for some one else, and it went through him like a needle; like a sabre.

He walked back home — no walking-stick, no whistling. He did not care about playing the man any longer. A stab at the heart is no light matter.

And was that the last of it?

One Sunday he went down just to look; to peep and spy. With a sickly and unnatural patience he lay in hiding among the bushes, staring over at the hut. And when at last there came a sign of life and movement it was enough to make an end of him altogether: Axel and Barbro came out together and went across to the cowshed. They were loving and affectionate now, ay, they had a blessed hour; they walked with their arms round each other, and he was going to help her with the animals. Ho, yes!

Eleseus watched the pair with a look as if he had lost all; as a ruined man. And his thought, maybe, was like this: There she goes arm in arm with Axel Ström . How she could ever do it I can’t think; there was a time when she put her arms round me! And there they disappeared into the shed.

Well, let them! Huh! Was he to lie here in the bushes and forget himself? A nice thing for him — to lie there flat on his belly and forget himself. Who was she, after all? But he was the man he was. Huh! again.

He sprang to his feet and stood up. Brushed the twigs and dust from his clothes and drew himself up and stood upright again. His rage and desperation came out in a curious fashion now: he threw all care to the winds, and began singing a ballad of highly frivolous import. And there was an earnest expression on his face as he took care to sing the worst parts loudest of all.

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