The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Book Two

Chapter I

Sellanraa is no longer a desolate spot in in the waste; human beings live here — seven of them, counting great and small. But in the little time the haymaking lasted there came a stranger or so, folk wanting to see the mowing-machine. Brede Olsen was first, of course, but Axel Ström came, too, and other neighbours from lower down — ay, from right down in the village, And from across the hills came Oline, the imperishable Oline.

This time, too, she brought news with her from her own village; ’twas not Oline’s way to come empty of gossip. Old Sivert’s affaires had been gone into, his accounts reckoned up, and the fortune remaining after him came to nothing. Nothing!

Here Oline pressed her lips together and looked from one to another. Well, was there not a sigh — would not the roof fall down? Eleseus was the first to smile.

“Let’s see — you’re called after your Uncle Sivert, aren’t you?” he asked softly.

And little Sivert answered as softly again:

“That’s so. But I made you a present of all that might come to me after him.”

“And how much was it?”

“Between five and ten thousand.”

Daler?“ cried Eleseus suddenly, mimicking his brother.

Oline, no doubt, thought this ill-timed jesting. Oh, she had herself been cheated of her due; for all that she had managed to squeeze out something like real tears over old Sivert’s grave. Eleseus should know best what he himself had written — so-and-so much to Oline, to be a comfort and support in her declining years. And where was that support? Oh, a broken reed!

Poor Oline, they might have left her something — single golden gleam in her life! Oline was not over-blessed with this world’s goods. Practised in evil — ay, well used to edging her way by tricks and little meannesses from day to day; strong only as a scandalmonger, as one whose tongue was to be feared; ay, so. But nothing could have made her worse than before; least of all a pittance left her by the dead. She had toiled all her life, had borne children, and taught them her own few arts; begged for them, maybe stolen for them, but always man aging for them somehow — a mother in her poor way. Her powers were not less than those of other politicians; she acted for herself and those belonging to her, set her speech according to the moment, and gained her end, earning a cheese or a handful of wool each time; she also could live and die in commonplace insincerity and readiness of wit. Oline — maybe old Sivert had for a moment thought of her as young, pretty, and rosy-cheeked, but now she is old, deformed, a picture of decay; she ought to have been dead. Where is she to be buried? She has no family vault of her own; nay, she will be lowered down in a graveyard to lie among the bones of strangers and unknown; ay, to that she comes at last — Oline, born and died. She had been young once. A pittance left to her now, at the eleventh hour? Ay, a single golden gleam, and this slave woman’s hands would have been folded for a moment. Justice would have overtaken her with its late reward; for that she had begged for her children, maybe stolen for them, but always managed for them some way. A moment — and the darkness would reign in her as before; her eyes glower, her fingers feel out graspingly-how much? she would say. What, no more? she would say. She would be right again. A mother many times, realizing life — it was worthy of a great reward.

But all went otherwise. Old Sivert’s accounts had appeared more or less in order after Eleseus had been through them; but the farm and the cow, the fishery and nets were barely enough to cover the deficit. And it was due in some measure to Oline that things had turned out no worse; so earnest was she in trying to secure a small remainder for herself that she dragged to light forgotten items that she, as gossip and newsmonger for years, remembered still, or matters outstanding which others would have passed over on purpose, to avoid causing unpleasantness to respectable fellow-citizens. Oh, that Oline I And she did not even say a word against old Sivert now; he had made his will in kindness of heart, and there would have been a plenty after him, but that the two men sent by the Department to arrange things had cheated her. But one day all would come to the ears of the Almighty, said Oline threateningly.

Strange, she found nothing ridiculous in the fact that she was mentioned in the will; after all, it was an honour of a sort; none of her likes were named there with her!

The Sellanraa folk took the blow with patience; they were not altogether unprepared. True, Inger could not understand it — Uncle Sivert that had always been so rich. . . .

“He might have stood forth an upright man and a wealthy before the Lamb and before the Throne,” said Oline, “if they hadn’t robbed him.”

Isak was standing ready to go out to his fields, and Oline said: “Pity you’ve got to go now, Isak; then I shan’t see the new machine, after all. You’ve got a new machine, they say?”

“Ay.”

“Ay, there’s talk of it about, and how it cuts quicker than a hundred scythes. And what haven’t you got, Isak, with all your means and riches! Priest, our way, he’s got a new plough with two handles; but what’s he, compared with you, and I’d tell him so to his face.”

“Sivert here’ll show you the machine; he’s better at working her than his father,” said Isak, and went out.

Isak went out. There is an auction to be held at Breidablik that noon, and he is going; there’s but just time to get there now. Not that Isak any longer thinks of buying the place, but the auction — it is the first auction held there in the wilds, and it would be strange not to go.

He gets down as far as Maaneland and sees Barbro, and would pass by with only a greeting, but Barbro calls to him and asks if he is going down. “Ay,” said Isak, making to go on again. It is her home that is being sold, and that is why he answers shortly.

“You going to the sale?” she asks.

“To the sale? Well, I was only going down a bit. What you’ve done with Axel?”

“Axel? Nay, I don’t know. He’s gone down to sale. Doubt he’ll be seeing his chance to pick up something for nothing, like the rest.”

Heavy to look at was Barbro now — ay, and sharp and bitter-tongued!

The auction has begun; Isak hears the Lensmand calling out, and sees a crowd of people. Coming nearer, he does not know them all; there are some from other villages, but Brede is fussing about, ire his best finery, and chattering in his old way. “Goddag, Isak. So you’re doing me the honour to come and see my auction sale. Thanks, thanks. Ay, we’ve been neighbours and friends these many years now, and never an ill word between us.” Brede grows pathetic. “Ay, ’tis strange to think of leaving a place where you’ve lived and toiled and grown fond of. But what’s a man to do when it’s fated so to be?”

“Maybe ’twill be better for you after,” says Isak comfortingly.

“Why,” says Brede, grasping at it himself, “to tell the truth, I think it will. I’m not regretting it, not a bit. I won’t say I’ve made a fortune on the place here, but that’s to come, maybe; and the young ones getting older and leaving the nest — ay, ’tis true the wife’s got another on the way; but for all that . . .” And suddenly Brede tells his news straight out: “I’ve given up the telegraph business.”

“What?” asks Isak.

“I’ve given up that telegraph.”

“Given up the telegraph?”

“Ay, from new year to be. What was the good of it, anyway? And supposing I was out on business, or driving for the Lensmand or the doctor, then to have to look after the telegraph first of all — no, there’s no sense nor meaning in it that way. Well enough for them that’s time to spare. But running over hill and dale after a telegraph wire for next to nothing wages, ’tis no job that for Brede. And then, besides, I’ve had words with the people from the telegraph office about it — they’ve been making a fuss again.”

The Lensmand keeps repeating the bids for the farm; they have got up to the few hundred Kroner the place is judged to be worth, and the bidding goes slowly, now, with but five or ten Kroner more each time.

“Why, surely — ’tis Axel there’s bidding,” cries Brede suddenly, and hurries eagerly across.

“What, you going to take over my place too? Haven’t you enough to look after?”

“I’m bidding for another man,” says Axel evasively.

“Well, well, ’tis no harm to me, ‘twasn’t that I meant.”

The Lensmand raises his hammer, as new bid is made, a whole hundred Kroner at once; no one bids higher, the Lensmand repeats the figure again and again, waits for a moment with his hammer raised, and then strikes.

Whose bid?

Axel Ström — on behalf of another.

The Lensmand notes it down: Axel Ström as agent.

“Who’s that you buying for?” asks Brede. “Not that it’s any business of mine, of course, but . . .”

But now some men at the Lensmand’s table are putting their heads together; there is a representative from the Bank, the storekeeper has sent his assistant; there is something the matter; the creditors are not satisfied. Brede is called up, and Brede, careless and light-hearted, only nods and is agreed — “but who’d ever have thought it didn’t come up to more?” says he. And suddenly he raises his voice and declares to all present:

“Seeing as we’ve an auction holding anyhow, and I’ve troubled the Lensmand all this way, I’m willing to sell what I’ve got here on the place: the cart, stock, a pitchfork, a grindstone. I’ve no use the things now; we’ll sell the lot!”

Small bidding now. Brede’s wife, careless and light-hearted as himself, for all the fulness of her in front, has begun selling coffee at a table. She finds it amusing to play at shop, and smiles; and when Brede himself comes up for some coffee, she tells him jestingly that he must pay for it like the rest. And Brede actually takes out his lean purse and pays. “There’s a wife for You.” he says to the others. “Thrifty’ what?”

The cart is not worth much — it has stood too long uncovered in the open; but Axel bids a full five Kroner more at last, and gets the cart as well. After that Axel buys no more, but all are astonished to see that cautious man buying so much as he has.

Then came the animals. They had been kept in their shed today, so as to be there in readiness. What did Brede want with live stock when he had no farm to keep them on? He had no cows; he had started farming with two goats, and had now four. Besides these, there were six sheep. No horse.

Isak bought a certain sheep with eat ears. When Brede’s children led it out from the shed, he started bidding at once, and people looked at him. Isak from Sellanraa was a rich man, in a good position, with no need of more sheep than be had. Brede’s wife stops selling coffee for a moment, and says: “Ay, you may buy her, Isak; she’s old, ’tis true, but she’s two and three lambs every blessed year, and that’s the truth.”

“I know it,” said Isak, looking straight at her. “I’ve seen that sheep before.”

He walks up with Axel Ström on the way back, She leading his sheep on a string. Axel is taciturn, seemingly anxious about something, whatever it might be. There’s nothing he need be troubled about that one can see, thinks Isak; his crops are looking well, most of his fodder is housed already, and he has begun timbering his house. All as it should be with Axel Ström; a thought slowly, but sure in the end. And now he had got a horse.

“So you’ve bought Brede’s place?” said Isak. “Going to work it yourself?”

“No, not for myself. I bought it for another man.”

“Ho!”

“What d’you think; was it too much I gave for it?”

“Why, no. ’Tis good land for a man that work it as it should.”

“I bought it for a brother of mine up in Helgeland.”

“Ho!”

“Then I thought perhaps I’d half a mind change with him, too.”

“Change with him — would you?”

“And perhaps how Barbro she’d like it better that way.”

“Ay, maybe,” said Isak.

They walk on for a good way in silence. Then says Axel:

“They’ve been after me to take over that telegraph business.”

“The telegraph? H’m. Ay, I heard that Brede he’s given it up.”

“H’m,” says Axel, smiling. “’Tis not so much that way of it, but Brede that’s been turned off.”

“Ay, so,” says Isak, and trying to find some excuse for Brede. “It takes a deal of time to look after, no doubt.”

“They gave him notice to the new year, if he didn’t do better.”

“H’m.”

“You don’t think it’d be worth my while to take it?”

Isak thought for a long while, and answered:

“Ay, there’s the money, true, but still . . .”

“They’ve offered me more.”

“How much?”

“Double.”

“Double? Why, then, I’d say you should think it over.”

“But they’ve made the line a bit longer now. No, I don’t know what’s best to do — there’s not so much timber to sell here as you’ve got on yours, and I’ve need to buy more things for the work that I’ve got now. And buying things needs money in cash, and I’ve not so much out of the land and stock that there’s much over to sell. Seems to me I’ll have to try a year at the telegraph to begin with . . . .”

It did not occur to either of them that Brede might “do better” and keep the post himself.

When they reached Maaneland, Oline was there already, on her way down. Ay, a strange creature, Oline, crawling about fat and round as a maggot, and over seventy years and all, but still getting about. She sits drinking coffee in the hut, but seeing the men come up, all must give way to that, and she comes out.

Goddag, Axel, and welcome back from the sale. You’ll not mind me looking in to see how you and Barbro’s getting on? And you’re getting on finely, to see, and building a new house and getting richer and richer! And you been buying sheep, Isak?”

“Ay,” said Isak. “You know her, maybe?”

“If I know her? Nay . . .”

“With these flat ears, you can see.”

“Flat ears? How d’you mean now? And what then? What I was going to say: Who bought Brede’s place, after all? I was just saying to Barbro here, who’d be your neighbours that way now? said I. And Barbro, poor thing, she sits crying, as natural enough, to be sure; but the Almighty that’s decreed her a new home here at Maaneland . . . Flat ears? I’ve seen a deal of sheep in my day with flat ears and all. And I’ll tell you, Isak, that machine of yours, ’twas almost more than my old eyes could see nor understand. And what she’ll have cost you I won’t even ask. for I never could count so far. Axel, if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean; ’twas all as it might be Elijah and his chariot of fire, and Heaven forgive me that I say it . . . .”

When the hay was all in, Eleseus began making preparations for his return to town. He had written to the engineer to say he was coming, but received the extraordinary reply that times were bad, and they would have to economize; the office would have to dispense with Eleseus’ services, and the chief would do the work himself.

The deuce and all! But after all, what did a district surveyor want with an office staff? When he had taken Eleseus on as a youngster, he had done so, no doubt, only to show himself as a great man to these folks in the wilds; and if he had given him clothes and board till his confirmation, he had got some return for it in the way of writing work, that was true. Now the boy was grown up, and that made all the difference.

“But,” said the engineer, “if you do come back I will do all I can to get you a place somewhere else, though it may be a difficult matter, as there are more young men than are wanted looking out for the same thing. With kind regards. . . . ”

Eleseus would go back to town, of course, there could be no question about that. Was he to throw himself away? He wanted to get on in the world. And he said nothing to those at home as to the altered state of affairs; it would be no use, and, to tell the truth, he felt a little out of humour with the whole thing.

Anyhow, he said nothing. The life at Sellanraa was having its effect on him again; it was an inglorious, commonplace life, but quiet and dulling to the sense, a dreamy life; there was nothing for him to show off about, a looking-glass was a thing he had no use for. His town life had wrought a schism in himself, and made him finer than the others, made him weaker; he began indeed to feel that he must be homeless anywhere. He had come to like the smell of tansy again — let that pass. But there was no sense at all in a peasant lad’s standing listening in the morning to the girls milking the cows and thinking thus: they’re milking, listen now; ’tis almost by way of something wonderful to hear, a kind of song in nothing but little streams, different from the brass bands in the town and the Salvation Army and the steamer sirens. Music streaming into a pail.

It was not the way at Sellanraa to show one’s feelings over-much, and Eleseus dreaded the moment when he would have to say good-bye. He was well equipped now; again his mother had given him a stock of woven stuff for underclothes, and his father had commissioned some one to hand him money as he went out of the door. Money — could Isak really spare such a thing as money? But it was so. and no otherwise. Inger hinted that it would doubt less be the last time; for was not Eleseus going to get on and rise in the world by himself?

There was an atmosphere of solemnity, of stillness in the home; they had each had a boiled egg at the last meal, and Sivert stood outside all ready to go down with his brother and carry his things. It was for Eleseus to begin.

He began with Leopoldine. Well and good, she said good-bye in return, and managed it very well. Likewise Jensine the servant-maid, she sat carding wool and answered good-bye — but both girls stared at him, confound them! and all because he might perhaps be the least bit red about the eyes. He shook hands with his mother, and she cried of course quite openly, never caring to remember how he hated crying. “Goo — ood-bye and bl — bless you!” she sobbed out. It was worst with his father; worst of all with him. Oh, in every way; he was so toil-worn and so utterly faithful; he had carried the children in his arms, had told them of the seagulls and other birds and beasts, and the wonders of the field; it was not so long ago, a few years. . . . Father stands by the glass window, then suddenly he turns round, grasps his son’s hand, and says quickly and peevishly: “Well, good-bye. There’s the new horse getting loose,” and he swings out of the door and hurries away. Oh, but he had himself taken care to let the new horse loose a while ago, and Sivert, the rascal, knew it too, as he stood outside watching his father, and smiling to himself. And, anyway, the horse was only in the rowans.

Eleseus had got it over at last.

And then his mother must needs come out on the door-slab and hiccup again and say, “God bless you!” and give him something. “Take this — and you’re not to thank him, he says you’re not to. And don’t forget to write; write often.”

Two hundred Kroner.

Eleseus looked down the field: his father was furiously at work driving a tethering-peg into the ground; he seemed to find it a difficult matter, for all that the ground was soft enough.

The brothers set off down the road; they came to Maaneland, and there stood Barbro in the doorway and called to them to come up.

“You going away again, Eleseus? Nay, then. you must come in and take a cup of coffee at least.”

They go into the hut, and Eleseus is no longer a prey to the pangs of love, nor wishful to jump out of windows and take poison; nay, he spreads his light spring overcoat across his knees, taking care to lay it so the silver plate is to be seen; then he wipes his hair with his handkerchief, and observes delicately: “Beautiful day, isn’t it — simply classic!”

Barbro too is self-possessed enough; she plays with a silver ring on one hand and a gold ring on the other — ay, true enough, if she hasn’t got a gold ring too — and she wears an apron reaching from neck to feet, as if to say she is not spoiled as to her figure, whoever else may be that way. And when the coffee is ready and her guests are drinking, she sews a little to begin with on a white cloth, and then does a little crochet-work with a collar of some sort, and so with all manner of maidenly tasks. Barbro is not put out by their visit, and all the better; they can talk naturally, and Eleseus can be all on the surface again, young and witty as he pleases.

“What have you done with Axel?” asks Sivert.

“Oh, he’s about the place somewhere,” she answers, pulling herself up. “And so we’ll not be seeing you this way any more, I doubt?” she asks Eleseus.

“It’s hardly probable,” says he.

“Ay, ’tis no place for one as is used to the town. I only wish I could go along with you.”

“You don’t mean that, I know.”

“Don’t mean it? Oh, I’ve known what it is to live in town, and what it’s like here; and I’ve been in a bigger town than you, for that matter — and shouldn’t I miss it?”

“I didn’t mean that way,” says Eleseus hastily. “After you being in Bergen itself and all.” Strange, how impatient she was, after all!

“I only know that if it wasn’t for having the papers to read, I’d not stay here another day,” says she.

“But what about Axel, then, and all the rest? — ’twas that I was thinking.”

“As for Axel, ’tis no business of mine. And what about yourself — I doubt there’ll be some one waiting for you in town?”

And at that, Eleseus couldn’t help showing off a little and closing his eyes and turning over the morsel on his tongue: perhaps true enough there was some one waiting for him in town. Oh, but he could have managed this ever so differently, snapped at the chance, if it hadn’t been for Sivert sitting there! As it was, he could only say: “Don’t talk such nonsense!”

“Ho,” said she — and indeed she was shamefully ill-humoured today — “nonsense, indeed! Well, what can you expect of folk at Maaneland? we’re not so great and fine as you — no.”

Oh, she could go to the devil, what did Eleseus care; her face was visibly dirty, and her condition plain enough now even to his innocent eyes.

“Can’t you play a bit on the guitar?” he asked.

“No,” answered Barbro shortly. “What I was going to say: Sivert, couldn’t you come and help Axel a bit with the new house a day or so? If you could begin tomorrow, say, when you come back from the village?”

Sivert thought for a moment. “Ay, maybe. But I’ve no clothes.”

“I could run up and fetch your working clothes this evening, so they’ll be here when you get back.”

“Ay,” said Sivert, “if you could.”

And Barbro unnecessarily eager now: “Oh, if only you would come! Here’s summer nearly gone already, and the house that should be up and roofed before the autumn rains. Axel, he’s been going to ask you a many times before, but he couldn’t, some how. Oh, you’d be helping us no end!”

“I’ll help as well as I can,” said Sivert.

And that was settled.

But now it was Eleseus’ turn to be offended. He can see well enough that it’s clever of Barbro and all that, to look out and manage to her own advantage and Axel’s too, and get help for the building and save the house, but the whole thing is a little too plain; after all, she is not mistress of the place as yet, and it’s not so long since he himself had kissed her — the creature! Was there never an atom of shame in her at all?

“Ay,” said Eleseus, then suddenly: “I’ll come back again in time and be a godfather when you’re ready.”

She sent him a glance, and answered in great of fence: “Godfather, indeed! And who’s talking nonsense now, I’d like to know? ’Twill be time enough for you when I send word I’m looking out for godfathers.” And what could Eleseus do then but laugh foolishly and wish himself out of the place!

“Here’s thanks!” says Sivert, and gets up from his seat to go.

“Here’s thanks!” says Eleseus also; but he did not rise nor bow as a man should do in saying thanks for a cup of coffee; not he, indeed — he would see her at the devil for a bitter-tongued lump of ugliness.

“Let me look,” said Barbro. “Oh yes; the young men I stayed with in town, they had silver plates on their overcoats too, much bigger than this,” said she. “Well, then, you’ll come in on your way back, Sivert, and stay the night? I’ll get your clothes all right.”

And that was good-bye to Barbro.

The brothers went on again. Eleseus was not distressed in any way in the matter of Barbro; she could go to the devil — and, besides, he had two big bank-notes in his pocket! The brothers took care not to touch on any mournful things, such as the strange way father had said good-bye, or how mother had cried. They went a long way round to avoid being stopped at Breidablik, and made a jest of that little ruse. But when they came down in sight of the village, and it was time for Sivert to turn homeward again, they both behaved in some what unmanly fashion. Sivert, for instance, was weak enough to say: “I doubt it’ll be a bit lonely, maybe, when you’re gone.”

And at that Eleseus must fall to whistling, and looking to his shoes, and finding a splinter in his finger, and searching after something in his pockets; some papers, he said, couldn’t make out . . . Oh, ‘twould have gone ill with them if Sivert had not saved things at the last. “Touch!” he cried suddenly, and touched his brother on the shoulder and sprang away. It was better after that; they shouted a word of farewell or so from a distance, and went each on his own way.

Fate or chance — whatever it might be. Eleseus went back, after all, to the town, to a post that was no longer open for him, but that same occasion led to Axel Ström ‘s getting a man to work for him.

They began work on the house the 21st of August, and ten days later the place was roofed in. Oh, twas no great house to see, and nothing much in the way of height; the best that could be said of it was that it was a wooden house and no turf hut. But, at least, it meant that the animals would have a splendid shelter for the winter in what had been a house for human beings up to then.

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