The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XIX

Isak came back from the village with a horse.

Ay, it had come to that; he had bought the horse from the Lensmand’s assistant; the animal was for sale, as Geissler had said, but it cost two hundred and forty Kroner — that was sixty Daler. The price of horseflesh had gone up beyond all bounds: when Isak was a boy the best horse could be bought for fifty Daler.

But why had he never raised a horse himself? He had thought of it, had imagined a nice little foal — that he had been waiting for these two years past. That was a business for folk who could spare the time from their land, could leave waste patches lying waste till they got a horse to carry home the crop. The Lensmand’s assistant had said: “I don’t care about paying for a horse’s keep myself; I’ve no more hay than my womenfolk can get it in by themselves while I’m away on duty.”

The new horse was an old idea of Isak’s, he had been thinking of it for years; it was not Geissler who had put him up to it. And he had also made preparations such as he could; a new stall, a new rope for tethering it in the summer; as for carts, he had some already, he must make some more for the autumn. Most important of all was the fodder, and he had not forgotten that, of course; or why should he have thought it so important to get that last patch broken up last year if it hadn’t been to save getting rid of one of the cows, and yet have enough keep for a new horse? It was sown for green fodder now; that was for the calving cows.

Ay, he had thought it all out. Well might Inger be astonished again, and clap her hands just as in the old days.

Isak brought news from the village; Breidablik was to be sold, there was a notice outside the church. The bit of crop, such as it was,-hay and potatoes, — to go with the rest. Perhaps the live stock too; a few beasts only, nothing big.

“Is he going to sell up the home altogether and leave nothing?” cried Inger. “And where’s he going to live?”

“In the village.”

It was true enough. Brede was going back to the pillage. But he had first tried to get Axel Ström to let him live there with Barbro. He didn’t succeed. Brede would never dream of interfering with the relations between his daughter and Axel, so he was careful not to make himself a nuisance, though to be sure it was a hard set-back, with all the rest. Axel was going to get his new house built that autumn; well, then, when he and Barbro moved in there, why couldn’t Brede and his family have a hut? No! ’Twas so with Brede, he didn’t look at things like a farmer and a settler on new land; he didn’t understand that Axel had to move out be cause he wanted the hut for his growing stock; the hut was to be a new cowshed. And even when this was explained to him, he failed to see the point of view; surely human beings should come before animals, he said. No, a settler’s way was different; animals first; a man could always find himself a shelter for the winter. But Barbro put in a word herself now: “Ho, so you put the animals first and us after? ’Tis just as well I know ill” So Axel had made enemies of a whole family because he hadn’t room to house them. But he would not give way. He was no good-natured fool, was Axel, but on the contrary he had grown more and more careful; he knew well that a crowd like that moving in would give him so many more mouths to fill. Brede bade his daughter be quiet, and tried to make out that he himself would rather move down to the village again; couldn’t endure life in the wilderness he said — ’twas only for that reason he was selling the place.

Oh, but to tell the truth it was not so much Brede was selling the place; ’twas the Bank and the storekeeper were selling up Breidablik, though for the sake of appearances they let it be done in Brede’s name. That way, he thought he was saved from disgrace. And Brede was not altogether dejected when Isak met him; he consoled himself with the thought that he was still Inspector on the telegraph line; that was a regular income, anyway, and in time he would be able to work up to his old position in the place as the Lensmand’s companion and this and that. He was something affected at the change, of course; ’twas not so easy to say good-bye to a place where one had lived and toiled and mailed so many years, and come to care for. But Brede, good man, was never long cast down. ’Twas his best point, the charm of him. He had once in his life taken it into his head to be a tiller of the soil, ’twas an inspiration had come to him. True, he had not made a success of it, but he had taken up other plans in the same airy way and got on better; and who could say — perhaps his samples of ore might after all turn out something wonderful in time! And then look at Barbro, he had got her fixed up there at Maaneland, and she’d not be leaving Axel Ström now, that he could swear — ’twas plain indeed for any one to see.

No, there was nothing to fear as long as he had his health and could work for himself and those that looked to him, said Brede Olsen. And the children were just growing up, and big enough now to go out and make their own way in the world, said he. Helge was gone to the herring fisheries already, and Katrine was going to help at the doctor’s. That left only the two youngest — well, well, there was a third on the way, true, but, anyhow . . .

Isak had more news from the village: the Lensmand’s lady had had a baby. Inger suddenly interested at this: “Boy or girl?”

“Why, I didn’t hear which,” said Isak.

But the Lensmand’s lady had had a child after all — after all the way she’d spoken at the women’s club about the increasing birth-rate among the poor; better give women the franchise and let them have some say in their own affairs, she said. And now she was caught. Yes, the parson’s wife had said, “She’s had some say in lots of things — but her own affairs are none the better for it, ha ha ha!” And that was a clever saying that went the round of the village, and there were many that understood what was meant — Inger no doubt as well; it was only Isak who did not understand.

Isak understood his work, his calling. He was a rich man now, with a big farm, but the heavy cash payments that had come to him by a lucky chance he used but poorly; he put the money aside. The land saved him. If he had lived down in the village, maybe the great world would have affected even him; so much gaiety, so many elegant manners and ways; he would have been buying useless trifles, and wearing a red Sunday shirt on weekdays. Here in the wilds he was sheltered from all immoderation; he lived in clear air, washed himself on Sunday mornings, and took a bath when he went up to the lake. Those thousand Daler — well, ’twas a gift from Heaven, to be kept intact. What else should he do? His ordinary outgoings were more than covered by the produce of his fields and stock.

Eleseus, of course, knew better; he had advised his father to put the money in the Bank. Well, perhaps that was the best, but Isak had put off doing it for the present — perhaps it would never be done at all. Not that Isak was above taking advice from his son; Eleseus was no fool, as he showed later on. Now, in the haymaking season, he had tried his hand with the scythe — but he was no master hand at that, no. He kept close to Sivert, and had to get him to use the whetstone every time. But Eleseus had long arms and could pick up hay in first-rate fashion. And he and Sivert and Leopoldine, and Jensine the servant-maid, they were all busy now in the fields with the first lot of hay that year. Eleseus did not spare himself either, but raked away till his hands were blistered and had to be wrapped in rags. He had lost his appetite for a week or so, but worked none the worse for it now. Something had come over the boy; it looked perhaps as if a certain unhappy love affair or something of the sort, a touch of never-to-be-forgotten sorrow and distress, had done him a world of good. And, look you, he had by now smoked the last of the tobacco he had brought with him from town; ordinarily, that would have been enough to make a clerk go about banging doors and expressing himself emphatically upon many points; but no, Eleseus only grew the steadier for it; firmer and more upright; a man indeed. Even Sivert, the jester, could not put him out of countenance. Today the pair of them were lying out on boulders in the river to drink, and Sivert imprudently offered to get some extra fine moss and dry it for tobacco — “unless you’d rather smoke it raw?” he said.

“I’ll give you tobacco,” said Eleseus, and reaching out, ducked Sivert head and shoulders in the water. Ho, one for him! Sivert came back with his hair still dripping.

“Looks like Eleseus he’s turning out for the good,” thought Isak to himself, watching his son at work. And to Inger he said: “H’m — wonder if Eleseus he’ll be staying home now for good?”

And she just as queerly cautious again: “’Tis more than I can say. No, I doubt if he will.”

“Ho Have you said a word of it to himself?”

“No — well, yes, I’ve talked a bit with him, may be. But that’s the way I think.”

“Like to know, now — suppose he’d a bit of land of his own . . .”

“How do you mean?”

“If he’d work on a place of his own?”


“Well, have you said anything?”

“Said anything? Can’t you see for yourself? No, I don’t see anything in him Eleseus, that way.”

“Don’t sit there talking ill of him,” said Isak impartially. “All I can see is, he’s doing a good day’s work down there.”

“Ay, maybe,” said Inger submissively.

“And I can’t see what you’ve got to find fault with the lad,” cried Isak, evidently displeased. “He does his work better and better every day, and what can you ask more?”

Inger murmured: “Ay, but he’s not like he used to be. You try talking to him about waistcoats.”

“About waistcoats? What d’you mean?”

“How he used to wear white waistcoats in summer when he was in town, so he says.”

Isak pondered this a while; it was beyond him. “Well, can’t he have a white waistcoat?” he said. Isak was out of his depth here; of course it was only women’s nonsense; to his mind, the boy had a perfect right to a white waistcoat, if it pleased him; anyhow, he couldn’t see what there was to make a fuss about, and was inclined to put the matter aside and go on.

“Well, what do you think, if he had Brede’s bit of land to work on?”

“Who?” said Inger.

“Him Eleseus.”

“Breidablik? Nay, ’tis more than’s worth your while.”

The fact was, she had already been talking over that very plan with Eleseus, she had heard it from Sivert, who could not keep the secret. And indeed, why should Sivert keep the matter secret when his father had surely told him of it on purpose to feel his way? It was not the first time he had used Sivert as a go-between. Well, but what had Eleseus answered? Just as before, as in his letters from town, that no, he would not throw away all he had learned, and be an insignificant nothing again. That was what he had said. Well, and then his mother had brought out all her good reasons, but Eleseus had said no to them all; he had other plans for his life. Young hearts have their unfathomable depths, and after what had happened, likely enough he did not care about staying on with Barbro as a neighbour. Who could say? He had put it loftily enough in talking to his mother; he could get a better position in town than the one he had; could go as clerk to one of the higher officials. He must get on, he must rise in the world. In a few years, perhaps, he might be a Lensmand, or perhaps a light house keeper, or get into the Customs. There were so many roads open to a man with learning.

However it might be, his mother came round, was drawn over to his point of view. Oh, she was so little sure of herself yet; the world had not quite lost its hold on her. Last winter she had gone so far as to read occasionally a certain excellent devotional work which she had brought from Trondhjem, from the Institute; but now, Eleseus might be a Lensmand one day!

“And why not?” said Eleseus. “What’s Heyerdahl himself but a former clerk in the same department?”

Splendid prospects. His mother herself advised him not to give up his career and throw himself away. What was a man like that to do in the wilds?

But why should Eleseus then trouble to work hard and steadily as he was doing now on his father’s land? Heaven knows, he had some reason, maybe. Something of inborn pride in him still, perhaps; he would not be outdone by others; and besides, it would do him no harm to be in his father’s good books the day he went away. To tell the truth, he had a number of little debts in town, and it would be a good thing to be able to settle them at once improve his credit a lot. And it was not a question now of a mere hundred Kroner, but something worth considering.

Eleseus was far from stupid, but on the contrary, a sly fellow in his way. He had seen his father come home, and knew well enough he was sitting there in the window at that moment, looking out. No harm in putting his back into it then for a bit, working a little harder for the moment — it would hurt no one, and might do himself good.

Eleseus was somehow changed; whatever it might be, something in him had been warped, and quietly spoiled; he was not bad, but something blemished. Had he lacked a guiding hand those last few years? What could his mother do to help him now? Only stand by him and agree. She could let herself be dazzled by her son’s bright prospects for the future, and stand between him and his father, to take his part — she could do that.

But Isak grew impatient at last over her opposition; to his mind, the idea about Breidablik was by no means a bad one. Only that very day, coming up, he had stopped the horse almost without thinking, to look out with a critical eye over the ill-tended land; ay, it could be made a fine place in proper hands.

“Why not worth while?” he asked Inger now. “I’ve that much feeling for Eleseus, anyway, that I’d help him to it.”

“If you’ve any feeling for him, then say never a word of Breidablik again,” she answered.


“Ay, for he’s greater thoughts in his head than the like of us.”

Isak, too, is hardly sure of himself here, and it weakens him; but he is by no means pleased at having shown his hand, and spoken straight out about his plan. He is unwilling to give it up now.

“He shall do as I say,” declares Isak suddenly.

And he raises his voice threateningly, in case Inger by any chance should be hard of hearing. “Ay’ you may look; I’ll say no more. It’s midway up, with a schoolhouse by, and everything; what’s the greater thoughts he’s got beyond that, I’d like to know? With a son like that I might starve to death — is that any better, d’you think? And can you tell me why my own flesh and blood should turn and go contrary to — to my own flesh and blood?”

Isak stopped; he realized that the more he talked the worse it would be. He was on the point of changing his clothes, getting out of his best things he had put on to go down to the village in; but no, he altered his mind, he would stay as he was — whatever he meant by that. “You’d better say a word of it to Eleseus,” he says then.

And Inger answers: “Best if you’d say it yourself. He won’t do as I say.”

Very well, then, Isak is head of the house, so he should think; now see if Eleseus dares to murmur! But, whether it were because he feared defeat, Isak draws back now, and says: “Ay, ’tis true, I might say a word of it myself. But by reason of having so many things to do, and busy with this and that, I’ve something else to think of.”

“Well . . .?” said Inger in surprise.

And Isak goes off again — not very far, only to the farther fields, but still, he goes off. He is full of mysteries, and must hide himself out of the way. The fact is this: he had brought back a third piece of news from the village today, and that was some thing more than the rest, something enormous; and he had hidden it at the edge of the wood. There it stands, wrapped up in sacking and paper; he uncovers it, and lo, a huge machine. Look! red and blue, wonderful to see, with a heap of teeth and a heap of knives, with joints and arms and screws and wheels — a mowing-machine. No, Isak would not have gone down today for the new horse if it hadn’t been for that machine.

He stands with a marvellously keen expression, going over in his mind from beginning to end the instructions for use that the storekeeper had read out; he sets a spring here, and shifts a bolt there, then he oils every hole and every crevice, then he looks over the whole thing once more. Isak had never known such an hour in his life. To pick up a pen and write one’s mark on a paper, a document — ay, ’twas a perilous great thing that, no doubt. Likewise in the matter of a new harrow he had once brought up — there were many curiously twisted parts in that to be considered. Not to speak of the great circular saw that had to be set in its course to the nicety of a pencil line, never swaying east nor west, lest it should fly asunder. But this —— this mowing machine of his — ’twas a crawling nest of steel springs and hooks and apparatus, and hundreds of screws — Inger’s sewing-machine was a bookmarker compared with this!

Isak harnessed himself to the shafts and tried the thing. Here was the wonderful moment. And that was why he kept out of sight and was his own horse.

For — what if the machine had been wrongly put together and did not do its work, but went to pieces with a crash! No such calamity happened, how ever; the machine could cut grass. And so indeed it ought, after Isak had stood there, deep in study, for hours. The sun had gone down. Again he harnesses himself and tries it; ay, the thing cuts grass. And so indeed it ought!

When the dew began to fall close after the heat of the day, and the boys came out, each with his scythe to mow in readiness for next day, Isak came in sight close to the house and said:

“Put away scythes for tonight. Get out the new horse, you can, and bring him down to the edge of the wood.”

And on that, instead of going indoors to his supper as the others had done already, he turned where he stood and went back the way he had come.

“D’you want the cart, then?” Sivert called after him.

“No,” said his father, and walked on.

Swelling with mystery, full of pride; with a little lift and throw from the knee at every step, so emphatically did he walk. So a brave man might walk to death and destruction, carrying no weapon in his hand.

The boys came up with the horse, saw the machine, and stopped dead. It was the first mowing-machine! in the wilds, the first in the village — red and blue, a thing of splendour to man’s eyes. And the father, head of them all, called out, oh, in a careless tone, as if it were nothing uncommon: “Harness up to this machine here.”

And they drove it; the father drove. Brrr! said the thing, and felled the grass in swathes. The boys walked behind, nothing in their hands, doing no work, smiling. The father stopped and looked back. H’m, not as clear as it might be. He screws up a nut here and there to bring the knives closer to the ground, and tries again. No, not right yet, I all uneven; the frame with the cutters seems to be hopping a little. Father and sons discuss what it can be. Eleseus has found the instructions and is reading them. “Here, it says to sit up on the seat when you drive — then it runs steadier,” he says.

“Ho!” says his father. “Ay, ’tis so, I know,” he answers. “I’ve studied it all through.” He gets up into the seat and starts off again; it goes steadily now. Suddenly the machine stops working — the knives are not cutting at all. “Ptro! What’s wrong now?” Father down from his seat, no longer swelling with pride, but bending an anxious, questioning face down over the machine.

Father and sons all stare at it; something must be wrong. Eleseus stands holding the instructions.

“Here’s a bolt or something,” says Sivert, picking up a thing from the grass.

“Ho, that’s all right, then,” says his father, as if that was all that was needed to set everything in order. “I was just looking for that bolt.” But now they could not find the hole for it to fit in — where in the name of wonder could the hole be, now?

And it was now that Eleseus could begin to feel himself a person of importance; he was the man to make out a printed paper of instructions. What would they do without him? He pointed unnecessarily long to the hole and explained: “According to the illustration, the bolt should fit in there.”

“Ay, that’s where she goes,” said his father. “’Twas there I had it before.” And, by way of regaining lost prestige, he ordered Sivert to set about looking for more bolts in the grass. “There ought to be another,” he said, looking very important, as if he carried the whole thing in his head. “Can’t you find another? Well, well, it’ll be in its hole then, all right.”

Father starts off again.

“Wait a minute — this is wrong,” cried Eleseus. Ho, Eleseus standing there with the drawing in his hand, with the Law in his hand; no getting away from him!” That spring there goes outside,” he says to his father.

“Ay, what then?”,

“Why, you’ve got it in under, you’ve set it wrong.

It’s a steel spring, and you have to fix it outside, else the bolt jars out again and stops the knives. You can see in the picture here.”

“I’ve left my spectacles behind, and can’t see it quite,” says his father, something meekly. “You can see better — you set it as it should go. I don’t want to go up to the house for my spectacles now.”

All in order now, and Isak gets up. Eleseus calls after him: “You must drive pretty fast, it cuts better that way — it says so here.”

Isak drives and drives, and everything goes well, and Brrr! says the machine. There is a broad track of cut grass in his wake, neatly in line, ready to take up. Now they can see him from the house, and all the womenfolk come out; Inger carries little Rebecca on her arm, though little Rebecca has learned to walk by herself long since. But there they come — four womenfolk, big and small — hurrying with straining eyes down towards the miracle, flocking down to see. Oh, but now is Isak’s hour. Now he is truly proud, a mighty man, sitting high aloft dressed in holiday clothes, in all his finery; in jacket and hat, though the sweat is pouring off him. He swings round in four big angles, goes over a good bit of ground, swings round, drives, cuts grass, passes along by where the women are standing; they are dumbfounded, it is all beyond them, and Brrr! says the machine.

Then Isak stops and gets down. Longing, no doubt, to hear what these folk on earth down there will say; what they will find to say about it all. He hears smothered cries; they fear to disturb him, these beings on earth, in his lordly work, but they turn to one another with awed questionings, and he hears what they say. And now, that he may be a kind and fatherly lord and ruler to them all, to encourage them, he says: “There, I’ll just do this bit, and you can spread it tomorrow.”

“Haven’t you time to come in and have a bite of food?” says Inger, all overwhelmed.

“Nay, I’ve other things to do,” he answers.

Then he oils the machine again; gives them to understand that he is occupied with scientific work. Drives off again, cutting more grass. And, at long last, the womenfolk go back home.

Happy Isak — happy folk at Sellanraa!

Very soon the neighbours from below will be coming up. Axel Ström is interested in things, he may be up tomorrow. But Brede from Breidablik, he might be here that very evening. Isak would not be loth to show them his machine, explain it to them, tell them how it works, and all about it. He can point out how that no man with a scythe could ever cut so fine and clean. But it costs money, of course — oh, a red-and-blue machine like that is a terribly costly thing!

Happy Isak!

But as he stops for oil the third time, there! his spectacles fall from his pocket. And, worst of all, the two boys saw it. Was there a higher power be hind that little happening — a warning against over weening pride? He had put on those spectacles time and again that day to study the instructions, without making out a word; Eleseus had to help him with that. Eyah, Herregud, ’twas a good thing, no doubt, to be book-learned. And, by way of humbling himself, Isak determines to give up his plan of making Eleseus a tiller of soil in the wilds; he will never say a word of it again.

Not that the boys made any great business about that matter of the spectacles; far from it. Sivert, the jester, had to say something, of course; it was too much for him. He plucked Eleseus by the sleeve and said: “Here, come along, we’ll go back home and throw those scythes on the fire. Father’s going to do all the mowing now with his machine!” And that was a jest indeed.

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