The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter II

On the 3rd of September Barbro was not to be found. ’Twas not that she was altogether lost, but she was not up at the house.

Axel was doing carpenter’s work the best he could; he was trying hard to get a glass window and a door set in the new house, and it was taking all his time to do it. But being long past noon, and no word said about coming in to dinner, he went in himself into the hut. No one there. He got himself some food, and looked about while he was eating. All Barbro’s clothes were hanging there; she must be out somewhere, that was all. He went back to his work on the new building, and kept at it for a while, then he looked in at the hut again — no, nobody there. She must be lying down somewhere. He sets out to find her.

“Barbro! he calls. No. He looks all round the houses, goes across to some bushes on the edge of his land, searches about a long while, maybe an hour, calls out — no. He comes on her a long way off, lying on the ground, hidden by some bushes; the stream flows by at her feet, she is barefoot and bareheaded, and wet all up the back as well.

“You lying here?” says he. “Why didn’t you answer?

“I couldn’t,” she answers, and her voice so hoarse he can scarcely hear.

“What — you been in the water?”

“Yes. Slipped down — oh!”

“Is it hurting you now?”

“Ay — it’s over now.”

“Is it over?” says he.

“Yes. Help me to get home.”

“Where’s . . .?”

“What?”

“Wasn’t it — the child?”

“No. ’Twas dead.”

“Was it dead?”

“Yes.”

Axel is slow of mind, and slow to act. He stands there still. “Where is it, then?” he asks.

“You’ve no call to know,” says she. “Help me back home. ’Twas dead. I can walk if you hold my arm a bit.”

Axel carries her back home and sets her in a chair, the water dripping off her. “Was it dead?” he asks.

“I told you ’twas so,” she answers.

“What have you done with it, then?”

“D’you want to smell it? D’you get anything to eat while I was away?”

“But what did you want down by the water?”

“By the water? I was looking for juniper twigs.”

“Juniper twigs? What for?”

“For cleaning the buckets.”

“There’s none that way,” says he.

“You get on with your work,” says she hoarsely, and all impatient. “What was I doing by the water? I wanted twigs for a broom. Have you had anything to eat, d’you hear?”

“Eat?” says he. “How d’you feel now?”

“’Tis well enough.”

“I doubt I’d better fetch the doctor up.”

“You’d better try!” says she, getting up and looking about for dry clothes to put on. “As if you’d no better to do with your money!”

Axel goes back to his work, and ’tis but little he gets done, but makes a bit of noise with planing and hammering, so she can hear. At last he gets the window wedged in, and stops the frame all round with moss.

That evening Barbro seems not to care for her food, but goes about, all the same, busy with this and that — goes to the cowshed at milking-time, only stepping a thought more carefully over the door-sill. She went to bed in the hayshed as usual. Axel went in twice to look at her, and she was sleeping soundly. She had a good night.

Next morning she was almost as usual, only so hoarse she could hardly speak at all, and with a long stocking wound round her throat. They could not talk together. Days passed, and the matter was no longer new; other things cropped up, and it slipped aside. The new house ought by rights to have been left a while for the timber to work together and make it tight and sound, but there was no time for that now; they had to get it into use at once, and the new cowshed ready. When it was done, and they had moved in, they took up the potatoes, and after that there was the corn to get in. Life was the same as ever.

But there were signs enough, great or small, that things were different now at Maaneland. Barbro felt herself no more at home there now than any other serving-maid; no more bound to the place. Axel could see that his hold on her had loosened with the death of the child. He had thought to himself so confidently: wait till the child comes I But the child had come and gone. And at last Barbro even took off the rings from her fingers, and wore neither.

“What’s that mean?” he asked.

“What’s it mean?” she said, tossing her head.

But it could hardly mean anything else than faithlessness and desertion on her part.

And he had found the little body by the stream. Not that he had made any search for it, to speak of; he knew pretty closely where it must be, but he had left the matter idly as it was. Then chance willed it so that he should not forget it altogether; birds began to hover above the spot, shrieking grouse and crows, and then, later on, a pair of eagles at a giddy height above. To begin with, only a single bird had seen something buried there, and, being unable to keep a secret like a human being, had shouted it abroad. Then Axel roused himself from his apathy, and waited for an opportunity to steal out to the spot. He found the thing under a heap of moss and twigs, kept down by flat stones, and wrapped in a cloth, in a piece of rag. With a feeling of curiosity and horror he drew the cloth a little aside — eyes closed, dark hair, a boy, and the legs crossed — that was all he saw. The cloth had been wet, but was drying now; the whole thing looked like a half-wrung bundle of washing.

He could not leave it there in the light of day, and in his heart, perhaps, he feared some ill to himself or to the place. He ran home for a spade and dug the grave deeper; but, being so near the stream, the water came in, and he had to shift it farther up the bank. As he worked, his fear lest Barbro should come and find him disappeared; he grew defiant and thoroughly bitter. Let her come, and he would make her wrap up the body neatly and decently after her, stillborn or no! He saw well enough all he had lost by the death of the child; how he was faced now with the prospect of being left without help again on the place — and that, more over, with three times the stock to care for he had had at first. Let her come — he did not care! But Barbro — it might be she had some inkling of what he was at; anyway, she did not come, and Axel had to wrap up the body himself as best he could and move it to the new grave. He laid down the turf again on top, just as before, hiding it all. When he had done, there was nothing to be seen but a little green mound among the bushes.

He found Barbro outside the house as he came home.

“Where you been?” she asked.

The bitterness must have left him, for he only said: “Nowhere. Where’ve you been?”

Oh, but the look on his face must have warned her; she said no more, but went into the house.

He followed her.

“Look here,” he said, and asked her straight out, “What d’you mean by taking off those rings?”

Barbro, maybe, found it best to give way a little; she laughed, and answered: “Well, you are serious today — I can’t help laughing! But if you want me to put on the rings and wear them out weekdays, why, I will!” And she got out the rings and put them on.

But seeing him look all foolish and content at that, she grew bolder. “Is there anything else I’ve done, I’d like to know?”

“I’m not complaining,” answered he. “And you’ve only to be as you were before, all the time before, when you first came. That’s all I mean.”

’Tis not so easy to be always together and always agree.

Axel went on: “When I bought that place after your father, ’twas thinking maybe you’d like better to be there, and so we could shift. What d’you think?”

Ho, there he gave himself away; he was afraid of losing her and being left without help, with none to look to the place and the animals again — she knew I “Ay, you’ve said that before,” she answered coldly.

“Ay, so I have; but I’ve got no answer.”

“Answer?” said she. “Oh, I’m sick of hearing it.”

Axel might fairly consider he had been lenient; he had let Brede and his family stay on at Breidablik, and for all that he had bought the good crop with the place, he had carted home no more than a few loads of hay, and left the potatoes to them. It was all unreasonable of Barbro to be contrary now; but she paid no heed to that, and asked indignantly: “So you’d have us move down to Breidablik now, and turn out a whole family to be homeless?”

Had he heard aright? He sat for a moment staring and gaping, cleared his throat as if to answer thoroughly, but it came to nothing; he only asked: “Aren’t they going to the village, then?”

“Don’t ask me,” said Barbro. “Or perhaps you’ve got a place for them to be there?”

Axel was still loth to quarrel with her, but he could not help letting her see he was surprised at her, just a little surprised. “You’re getting more and more cross and hard,” said he, “though you don’t mean any harm, belike.”

“I mean every word I say,” she answered. “And why couldn’t you have let my folks come up here?-answer me that! Then I’d have had mother to help me a bit. But you think, perhaps, I’ve so little to do, I’ve no need of help?”

There was some sense in this, of course, but also much that was unreasonable altogether. If Bredes had come, they would have had to live in the hut, and Axel would have had no place for his beasts as badly off as before. What was the woman getting at? — had she neither sense nor wit in her head?

“Look here,” said he, “you’d better have a servant-girl to help.”

“Now — with the winter coming on and less to do than ever? No, you should have thought of that when I needed it.”

Here, again, she was right in a way; when she had been heavy and ailing — that was the time to talk of help. But then Barbro herself had done her work all the time as if nothing were the matter; she had been quick and clever as usual, did all that had to be done, and had never spoken a word about getting help.

“Well, I can’t make it out, anyway,” said he hopelessly.

Silence.

Barbro asked: “What’s this about you taking over the telegraph after father?”

“What? Who said a word about that?”

“Well, they say it’s to be.”

“Why,” said Axel, “it may come to something;

I’ll not say no.”

“Ho!”

But why you ask?”

“Nothing,” said Barbro; “only that you’ve turned my father out of house and home, and now you’re taking the bread out of his mouth.”

Silence.

Oh, but that was the end of Axel’s patience. “I’ll tell you this,” he cried, “you’re not worth all I’ve done for you and yours!”

“Ho!” said Barbro.

“No!” said he, striking his fist on the table. And then he got up.

“You can’t frighten me, so don’t think,” whimpered Barbro, and moved over nearer the wall.

“Frighten you?” he said again, and sniffed scornfully. “I’m going to speak out now in earnest. What about that child? Did you drown it?”

“Drown it”

“Ay. It’s been in the water.”

“Ho, so you’ve seen it? You’ve been ——— “ “sniffing at it,” she was going to say, but dared not; Axel was not to be played with just then, by his looks. “You’ve been and found it?”

“I saw it had been in the water.”

“Ay,” said she, “and well it might. ’Twas born in the water; I slipped in and couldn’t get up again.”

“Slipped, did you?”

“Yes, and the child came before I could get out.”

“H’m,” said he. “But you took the bit of wrap ping with you before you went out — was that in case you should happen to fall in?”

“Wrapping?” said she again.

“A bit of white rag — one of my shirts you’d cut hall across.”

“Ay,” said Barbro, “’twas a bit of rag I took with me to carry back juniper twigs in.”

“Juniper twigs?”

“Yes. Didn’t I tell you that was what I’d been for?”

“Ay, so you said. Or else it was twigs for a broom.”

“Well, no matter what it was. . . . ”

It was an open quarrel between them this time. But even that died away after a time, and all was well again. That is to say, not well exactly — no, I but passable. Barbro was careful and more sub missive; she knew there was danger. But that way, life at Maaneland grew even more forced and intolerable — no frankness, no joy between them, always on guard. It could not last long, but as long as it lasted at all, Axel was forced to be content. He had got this girl on the place, and had wanted her for himself and had her, tied his life to her; it was not an easy matter to alter all that. Barbro knew everything about the place: where pots and vessels stood, when cows and goats were to bear, if the winter feed would be short or plenty, how much milk was for cheese and how much for food — a stranger would know nothing of it all, and even so, a stranger was perhaps not to be had.

Oh, but Axel had thought many a time of getting rid of Barbro and taking another girl to help; she was a wicked thing at times, and he was almost afraid of her. Even when he had the misfortune to get on well with her he drew back at times in fear of her strange cruelty and brutal ways; but she was pretty to look at, and could be sweet at times, and bury him deep in her arms. So it had been — but that was over now. No, thank you Barbro was not going to have all that miserable business over again. But it was not so easy to change. . . . “Let’s get married at once, then,” said Axe], urging her.

“At once?” said she. “Nay; I must go into town first about my teeth, they’re all but gone as it is.”

So there was nothing to do but go on as before. And Barbro had no real wages now, but far beyond what her wages would have been; and every time she asked for money and he gave it, she thanked him as for a gift. But for all that Axel could not make out where the money went — what could she want money for out in the wilds? Was she hoarding for herself; But what on earth was there to save and save for, all the year round?

There was much that Axel could not make out. Hadn’t he given her a ring — ay, a real gold ring? And they had got on well together, too, after that last gift; but it could not last for ever, far from it; and he could not go on buying rings to give her. In a word — did she mean to throw him over? Women were strange creatures! Was there a man with a good farm and a well-stocked place of his own waiting for her somewhere else? Axel could at times go so far as to strike his fist on the table in his impatience with women and their foolish humours.

A strange thing, Barbro seemed to have nothing really in her head but the thought of Bergen and town life. Well and good. But if so, why had she come back at all, confound her! A telegram from her father would never have moved her a step in itself; she must have had some other reason. And now here she was, eternally discontented from morning to night, year after year. All these wooden buckets, instead of proper iron pails; cooking-pots instead of saucepans; the everlasting milking instead of a little walk round to the dairy; heavy boots, yellow soap, a pillow stuffed with hay; no military bands, no people. Living like this. . . .

They had many little bouts after the one big quarrel. Ho, time and again they were at it! “You say no more about it, if you’re wise,” said Barbro. “And not to speak of what you’ve done about father and all.”

Said Axel: “Well, what have I done?”

“Oh, you know well enough,” said she. “But for all that you’ll not be Inspector, anyway.”

“Ho!”

“No, that you won’t. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“Meaning I’m not good enough, perhaps?”

“Oh, good enough and good enough. . . . Any way, you can’t read nor write, and never so much as take a newspaper to look at.”

“As to that,” said he, “I can read and write all I’ve any need for. But as for you, with all your gabble and talk . . . I’m sick of it.”

“Well, then, here’s that to begin with,” said she, and threw down the silver ring on the table.

“Ho!” said he, after a while. “And what about the other?”

“Oh, if you want your rings back that you gave me, you can have them,” said she, trying to pull off the gold one.

“You can be as nasty as you please,” said he.

“If you think I care . . .” And he went out.

And naturally enough, soon after, Barbro was wearing both her rings again.

In time, too, she ceased to care at all for what he said about the death of the child. She simply sniffed and tossed her head. Not that she ever confessed anything, but only said: “Well, and suppose I had drowned it? You live here in the wilds and what do you know of things elsewhere?” Once when they were talking of this, she seemed to be trying to get him to see he was taking it all too seriously; she herself thought no more of getting rid of a child than the matter was worth. She knew two girls in Bergen who had done it; but one of them had got two months’ imprisonment because she had been a fool and hadn’t killed it, but only left it out to freeze to death; and the other had been acquitted. “No,” said Barbro, “the law’s not so cruel hard now as it used to be. And besides, it’s not always it gets found out.” There was a girl in

Bergen at the hotel who had killed two children; she was from Christiania, and wore a hat — a hat with feathers in. They had given her three months for the second one, but the first was never discovered, said Barbro.

Axel listened to all this and grew more than ever afraid of her. He tried to understand, to make out things a little in the darkness, but she was right after all; he took these things too seriously in his way. With all her vulgar depravity, Barbro was not worth a single earnest thought. Infanticide meant nothing to her, there was nothing extraordinary in the killing of a child; she thought of it only with the looseness and moral nastiness that was to be expected of a servant-girl. It was plain, too, in the days that followed; never an hour did she give herself up to thought; she was easy and natural as if ever, unalterably shallow and foolish, unalterably a servant-girl. “I must go and have my teeth seen to,” she said. “And I want one of those new cloaks.” There was a new kind of half-length coat that had been fashionable for some years past, and Barbro must have one.

And when she took it all so naturally, what could Axel do but give way? And it was not always that he had any real suspicion of her; she herself had never confessed, had indeed denied time and again, but without indignation, without insistence, as a trifle, as a servant-girl would have denied having broken a dish, whether she had done so or not. But after a couple of weeks, Axel could stand it no longer; he stopped dead one day in the middle of the room and saw it all as by a revelation. Great Heaven! every one must have seen how it was with her, heavy with child and plain to see — and now with her figure as before — but where was the child? Suppose others came to look for it? They would be asking about it sooner or later. And if there had been nothing wrong, it would have been far better to have had the child buried decently in the church yard. Not there in the bushes, there on his land. . . .

“No. ‘Twould only have made a fuss,” said Barbro. “They’d have cut it open and had an inquest, and all that. I didn’t want to be bothered.”

“If only it mayn’t come to worse later on,” said he.

“Barbro asked easily:” What’s there to worry about? Let it lie where it is.” Ay, she smiled, and asked: “Are you afraid it’ll come after you? Leave all that nonsense, and say no more about it.”

“Ay, well . . .”

“Did I drown the child? I’ve told you it drowned itself in the water when I slipped in. I never heard such things as you get in your head. And, anyway, it would never be found out,” said she.

“’Twas found out all the same with Inger at Sellanraa,” said Axel.

Barbro thought for a moment. “Well, I don’t care,” said she. “The law’s all different now, and if you read the papers you’d know. There’s heaps that have done it, and don’t get anything to speak of.” Barbro sets out to explain it, to teach him, as it were — getting him to take a broad view of things. It was not for nothing she herself had been out in the world and seen and heard and learned so much; now she could sit here and be more than a match for him. She had three main arguments which she was continually advancing: In the first place, she had not done it. In the second, it was not such a terrible thing, after all, if she had done it. But in the third place, it would never be found out.

“Everything gets found out, seems to me,” he objected.

“Not by a long way,” she answered. And whether to astonish him or to encourage him, or perhaps from sheer vanity and as something to boast of, all of a sudden she threw a bombshell. Thus: “I’ve done something myself that never got found out.”

“You?” said he, all unbelieving. “What have you done?”

“What have I done? Killed something.”

She had not meant, perhaps, to go so far, but she had to go on now; there he was, staring at her. Oh, and it was not grand, indomitable boldness even; it was mere bravado, vulgar showing off; she wanted to look big herself, and silence him. “You don’t believe me?” she cried. “D’you remember that in the paper about the body of a child found in the harbour? ’Twas me that did it.”

“What?” said he.

“Body of a child. You never remember any thing. We read about it in the paper you brought up.

After a moment he burst out: “You must be out of your senses!”

But his confusion seemed to incite her more, to give her a sort of artificial strength; she could even give the details. “I had it in my box — it was dead then, of course — I did that as soon as it was born. And when we got out into the harbour, I threw it overboard.”

Axel sat dark and silent, but she went on. It was a long time back now, many years, the time she had first come to Maaneland. So, there, he could see ’twas not everything was found out, not by a long way! What would things be like if everything folk did got out? What about all the married people in the towns and the things they did? They killed their children before they were born — there were doctors who managed that. They didn’t want more than one, or at most two children, and so they’d get in a doctor to get rid of it before it come. Ho, Axel need not think that was such a great affair out in the world!

“Ho!” said Axel. “Then I suppose you did get rid of the last one too, that way?”

“No, I didn’t,” she answered carelessly as could be, “for I dropped it,” she said. But even then she must go on again about it being nothing so terrible if she had. She was plainly accustomed to think of the thing as natural and easy; it did not affect her now. The first time, perhaps, it might have been a little uncomfortable, something of an awkward feeling about it, to kill the child; but the second? She could think of it now with a sort of historic sense: as a thing that had been done, and could be done.

Axel went out of the house heavy in mind. He was not so much concerned over the fact that Barbro had killed her first child — that was nothing to do with himself. That she had had a child at all before she came to him was nothing much either; she was no innocent, and had never pretended to be so, far from it. She had made no secret of her knowledge, and had taught him many things in the dark. Well and good. But this last child — he would not willingly have lost it; a tiny boy, a little white creature wrapped up in a rag. If she were guilty of that child’s death, then she had injured him, Axel — broken a tie that he prized, and that could not be replaced. But it might be that he wronged her, after all: that she had slipped in the water by accident. But then the wrapping — the bit of shirt she had taken with her

Meantime, the hours passed; dinner-time came, and evening. And when Axel had gone to bed, and had lain staring into the dark long enough, he fell asleep at last, and slept till morning. And then came a new day, and after that day other days. . . .

Barbro was the same as ever. She knew so much of the world, and could take lightly many little trifles that were terrible and serious things for folk in the wilds. It was well in a way; she was clever enough for both of them, careless enough for both. And she did not go about like a terrible creature herself. Barbro a monster? Not in the least. She was a pretty girl, with blue eyes, a slightly turned-up nose, and quick-handed at her work. She was utterly sick and tired of the farm and the wooden vessels, that took such a lot of cleaning; sick and tired, perhaps, of Axel and all, of the out-of-the-way life she led. But she never killed any of the cattle, and Axel never found her standing over him with up lifted knife in the middle of the night.

Only once it happened that they came to talk again of the body in the wood. Axel still insisted that it ought to have been buried in the churchyard, in consecrated ground; but she maintained as before that her way was good enough. And then she said something which showed that she was reasoned after her fashion — ho, was sharp enough, could see beyond the tip of her nose; could think, with the pitiful little brain of a savage.

“If it gets found out I’ll go and talk to the Lensmand; I’ve been in service with him. And Fru Heyerdahl, she’ll put in a word for me, I know. It’s not every one that can get folk to help them like that, and they get off all the same. And then, besides, there’s father, that knows all the great folks, and been assistant himself, and all the rest.”

But Axel only shook his head.

“Well, what’s wrong with that?

“D’you think your father’d ever be able to do anything?”

“A lot you know about it!” she cried angrily. “After you’ve ruined him and all, taking his farm and the bread out of his mouth.”

She seemed to have a sort of idea herself that her father’s reputation had suffered of late, and that she might lose by it. And what could Axel say to that? Nothing. He was a man of peace, a worker.

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