The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter III

That winter, Axel was left to himself again at Maaneland. Barbro was gone. Ay, that was the end of it.

Her journey to town would not take long, she said; ’twas not like going to Bergen; but she wasn’t going to stay on here losing one tooth after another, till she’d a mouth like a calf. “What’ll it cost?” said Axel.

“How do I know?” said she. “But, anyway, it won’t cost you anything. I’ll earn the money myself.”

She had explained, too, why it was best for her to go just then; there were but two cows to milk, and in the spring there would be two more, besides all the goats with kids, and the busy season, and work enough right on till June.

“Do as you please,” said Axel.

It was not going to cost him anything, not at all. But she must have some money to start with, just a little; there was the journey, and the dentist to pay, and besides, she must have one of the new cloaks and some other little things. But, of course, if he didn’t care to . . .

“You’ve had money enough up to now,” said he.

“H’m,” said she. “Anyway, it’s all gone.”

“Haven’t you put by anything?”

“Put by anything? You can look in my box if you like. I never put by anything in Bergen, and I got more wages then.”

“I’ve no money to give you,” said he.

He had but little faith in her ever coming back at all, and she had plagued him so much with her humours this way and that; he had grown indifferent at last. And though he gave her money in the end, it was nothing to speak of; but he took no notice when she packed away an enormous hoard of food to take with her, and he drove her down himself, with her box, to the village to meet the steamer.

And that was done.

He could have managed alone on the place, he had learned to do so before, but it was awkward with the cattle; if ever he had to leave home, there was none to look to them. The storekeeper in the village had urged him to get Oline to come for the winter, she had been at Sellanraa for years before; she was old now, of course, but fit and able to work. And Axel did send for Oline, but she had not come, and sent no word.

Meantime, he worked in the forest, threshed out his little crop of corn, and tended his cattle. It was a quiet and lonely life. Now and again Sivert from Sellanraa would drive past on his way to and from the village, taking down loads of wood, or hides, or farm produce, but rarely bringing anything up home; there was little they needed to buy now at Sellanraa.

Now and again, too, Brede Olsen would come trudging along, more frequently of late — whatever he might be after. It looked as if he were trying to make himself indispensable to the telegraph people in the little time that remained, so as to keep his job. He never came in to see Axel now that Barbro was gone, but went straight by — a piece of high-and-mightiness ill fitted to his state, seeing that he was still living on at Breidablik and had not moved. One day, when he was passing without so much as a word of greeting, Axel stopped him, and asked when he had thought of getting out of the place.

“What about Barbro, and the way she left you?” asked Brede in return. And one word led to an other: “You sent her off with neither help nor means, ’twas a near thing but she never got to Bergen at all.”

“Ho! So she’s in Bergen, is she?”

“Ay, got there at last, so she writes, but little thanks to you.”

“I’ll have you out of Breidablik, and that sharp,” said Axel.

“Ay, if you’d be so kind,” said the other, with a sneer. “But we’ll be going of ourselves at the new year,” he said, and went on his way.

So Barbro was gone to Bergen — ay, ’twas as Axel had thought. He did not take it to heart. Take it to heart? No, indeed; he was well rid of her. But for all that, he had hoped a little until then that she might come back. ’Twas all unreason able, but somehow he had come to care overmuch for the girl — ay, for that devil of a girl. She had her sweet moments, unforgettable moments, and it was on purpose to hinder her from running off to Bergen that he had given her so little money for the journey. And now she had gone there after all. A few of her clothes still hung in the house, and there was a straw hat with birds’ wings on, wrapped up in a paper, in the loft, but she did not come to fetch them. Eyah, maybe he took it to heart a little, only a little. And as if to jeer at him, as a mighty jest in his trouble, came the paper he had ordered for her every week, and it would not stop now till the new year.

Well, well, there were other things to think about. He must be a man.

Next spring he would have to put up a shed against the north wall of the house; the timber would have to be felled that winter, and the planks cut. Axel had no timber to speak of, not growing close, but there were some heavy firs scattered about here and there on the outskirts of his land, and he marked out those on the side toward Sellanraa, to have the shortest way to cart his timber up to the sawmill.

And so one morning he gives the beasts an extra feed, to last them till the evening, shuts all doors behind him, and goes out felling trees. Besides his ax and a basket of food, he carried a rake to clear the snow away. The weather was mild, there had been a heavy snowstorm the day before, but now it had stopped. He follows the telegraph line all the way to the spot, then pulls off his jacket and falls to work. As the trees are felled, he strips off the branches, leaving the clean trunks, and piles up the small wood in heaps.

Brede Olsen comes by on his way up — trouble on the line, no doubt, after yesterday’s storm. Or maybe Brede was Out on no particular errand, but simply from pure zeal — ho, he was mighty keen on his duty of late, was Brede! The two men did not speak, did not so much as lift a hand in greeting.

The weather is changing again, the wind is getting up. Axel marks it, but goes on with his work. It is long past noon, and he has not yet eaten. Then, felling a big fir, he manages to get in the way of its fall, and is thrown to the ground. He hardly knew how it happened — but there it was. A big fir swaying from the root: a man will have it fall one way, the storm says another — and the storm it is that wins. He might have got clear after all, but the lie of the ground was hidden by snow. Axel made a false step, lost his footing, and came down in a cleft of rock, astride of a boulder, pinned down by the weight of a tree.

Well, and what then? He might still have got clear, but, as it chanced, he had fallen awkwardly as could be — no bones broken, as far as he could tell, but twisted somehow, and unable to drag himself out. After a while he gets one hand free, supporting himself on the other, but the ax is beyond his reach. He looks round, takes thought, as any other beast in a trap would do; looks round and takes thought and tries to work his way out from under the tree. Brede must be coming by on his way down before long, he thinks to himself, and gives himself a breathing-space.

He does not let it trouble him much at first, it was only annoying to lose time at his work; there is no thought in his mind of being in danger, let alone m peril of his life. True, he can feel the hand that supports him growing numbed and dead, his foot in the cleft growing cold and helpless too; but no matter, Brede must be here soon.

Brede did not come.

The storm increased, Axel felt the snow driving full in his face. Ho, ’tis coming down in earnest now, says he to himself, still never troubling much about it all — ay, ’tis as if he blinks at himself through the snow, to look out, for now things are beginning in earnest! After a long while he gives a single shout. The sound would hardly carry far in the gale, but it would be upward along the line, towards Brede. Axel lies there with all sorts of vain and useless thoughts in his head: if only he could reach the ax, and perhaps cut his way out! If he could only get his hand up — it was pressing against something sharp, an edge of stone, and the stone was eating its way quietly and politely into the back of his hand. Anyhow, if only that infernal stone itself had not been there — but no one has ever yet heard tell of such a touching act of kindness on the part of a stone.

Getting late now, getting later, the snow drifting thick; Axel is getting snowed up himself. The snow packs all innocently, all unknowing, about his face, melting at first, till the flesh grows cold, and then it melts no longer. Ay, now ’tis beginning in earnest!

He gives two great shouts, and listens.

His ax is getting snowed up now; he can see but a bit of the hart. Over there is his basket of food, hung on a tree — if he could but have reached it and had a feed — oh, huge big mouthfuls! And then he goes one step farther in his demands, and asks yet more: if he only had his coat on — it is getting cold. He gives another swinging shout. . . .

And there is Brede. Stopped in his tracks, standing still, looking toward the man as he calls; he stands there but for a moment, glancing that way, as if to see what is amiss.

“Reach me the ax here, will you?” calls Axel, a trifle weakly.

Brede looks away hurriedly, fully aware now of what is the matter; he glances up at the telegraph wires and seems to be whistling. What can he mean by that?

“Here, reach me the ax, can’t you?” cries Axel louder. “I’m pinned here under a tree.”

But Brede is strangely full of zeal in his duty now, he keeps on looking at the telegraph wires, and whistling all the time. Note, also, that he seems to be whistling gaily, as it were vengefully.

“Ho, so you’re going to murder me — won’t even reach me the ax?” cries Axel. And at that it seems as if there is trouble farther down the line, which Brede must see to without delay. He moves off, and is lost to sight in the driving snow.

Ho — well and good! But after that, well, it would just serve things generally right if Axel were to manage by himself after all, and get at the ax without help from any one. He strains all the muscles of his chest to lift the huge weight that bears him down; the tree moves, he can feel it shake, but all he gains by that is a shower of snow. And after a few more tries, he gives up.

Growing dark now. Brede is gone — but how far can he have got? Axel shouts again, and lets off a few straight-forward words into the bargain. “Leave me here to die, would you, like a murderer?” he cries. “Have ye no soul nor thought of what’s to come? And the worth of a cow, no less, to lend a helping hand. But ’tis a dog you are and ever were, Brede, and leaving a man to die. Ho, but there’s more shall know of this, never fear, and true as I’m lying here. And won’t even come and reach me that ax . . .”

Silence. Axel strains away at the tree once more, lifts it a little, and brings down a new shower of snow. Gives it up again and sighs; he is worn out now, and getting sleepy. There’s the cattle at home, they’ll be standing in the hut and bellowing for food, not a bite nor a drop since the morning; no Barbro to look to them now — no. Barbro’s gone, run off and gone, and taken both her rings, gold and silver, taken them with her. Getting dark now, ay, evening, night; well, well . . . But there’s the cold to reckon with too; his beard is freezing, soon his eyes will freeze too as well; ay, if he had but his jacket from the tree there . . . and now his leg — surely, it can’t be that — but all the same one leg feels dead now up to the hip. “All in God’s hands,” he says to himself — seems like he can talk all godly and pious when he will. Getting dark, ay; but a man can die without the light of a lamp. He feels all soft and good now, and of sheer humility he smiles, foolishly and kindly, at the snowstorm round; ’tis God’s own snow, an innocent thing! Ay, he might even forgive Brede, and never say a word.

He is very quiet now, and growing ever more sleepy, ay, as if some poison were numbing him all over. And there is too much whiteness to look at every way; woods and lands, great wings, white veils, white sails; white, white . . . what can it be? Nonsense, man! And he knows well enough it is but snow; he is lying out in the snow; ’tis no fancy that he is lying there, pinned down beneath a tree.

He shouts again at hazard, throws out a roar; there in the snow a man’s great hairy chest swelling to a roar, bellowing so it could be heard right down at the hut, again and again. “Ay, and a swine and a monster,” he cries after Brede again; “never a thought of how you’re leaving me to lie and be perished. And couldn’t even reach me the ax, that was all I asked; and call yourself a man, or a beast of the field? Ay, well then, go your way, and good luck to you if that’s your will and thought to go. . .”

He must have slept; he is all stiff and lifeless now, but his eyes are open; set in ice, but open, he cannot wing nor blink — has he been sleeping with open eyes? Dropped off for a second maybe, or for an hour, God knows, but here’s Oline standing before him. He can hear her asking: “In Jesu name, say if there’s life in you!” And asking him if it is him lying there, and if he’s lost his wits or no.

Always something of a jackal about Oline; sniffing and scenting out, always on the spot where there was trouble; ay, she would nose it out. And how could she ever have managed through life at all if it hadn’t been that same way? Axel’s word had reached her, and for all her seventy years she had crossed the field to come. Snowed up at Sellanraa in the storm of the day before, and then on again to Maaneland; not a soul on the place; fed the cattle, stood in the doorway listening, milked the cows at milking-time, listening again; what could it be? . . .

And then a cry comes down, and she nods; Axel, maybe, or maybe the hill-folk, devils — anyway, something to sniff and scent and find — to worm out the meaning of it all, the wisdom of the Almighty with the dark and the forest in the hollow of His hand — and He would never harm Oline, that was not worthy to unloose the latchet of His shoes . . .

And there she stands.

The ax? Oline digs down and down in the snow, and finds no ax. Manage without, then and she strains at the tree to lift it where it lies, but with no more strength than a child; she can but shake the branches here and there. Tries for the ax again — it is all dark, but she digs with hands and feet. Axel cannot move a hand to point, only tell where it lay before, but ’tis not there now. “If it hadn’t been so far to Sellanraa,” says Axel.

Then Oline falls to searching her own ways, and Axel calls to her that there’s no ax there. “Ay, well,” says Oline, “I was but looking a bit. And what’s this, maybe?” says she.

“You’ve found it?” says he.

“Ay, by the grace of the Lord Almighty,” answers Oline, with high-sounding words.

But there’s little pride in Axel now, no more than he’ll give in that he was wrong after all, and maybe not all clear in his head. And what’s he to do with the ax now ’tis there? He cannot stir, and Oline has to cut him free herself. Oh, Oline has wielded an ax before that day; had axed off many a load of firing in her life.

Axel cannot walk, one leg is dead to the hip, and something wrong with his back; shooting pains that make him groan curiously — ay, he feels but a part of himself, as if something were left behind there under the tree. “Don’t know,” says he — “don’t know what it can be. . . . ” But Oline knows, and tells him now with solemn words; ay, for she has saved a human creature from death, and she knows it; ’tis the Almighty has seen fit to lay on her this charge, where He might have sent legions of angels. Let Axel consider the grace and infinite wisdom of the Almighty even in this! And if so be as it had been His pleasure to send a worm out of the earth instead, all things were possible to Him.

“Ay, I know,” said Axel. “But I can’t make out how ’tis with me — feels strange. . . . ”

Feels strange, does it? Oh, but only wait, wait just a little. ’Twas but to move and stretch the least bit at a time, till the life came back. And get his jacket on and get warm again. But never in all her days would she forget how the Angel of the Lord had called her out to the doorway that last time, that she might hear a voice — the voice of one crying in the forest. Ay, ’twas as in the days of Paradise, when trumpets blew and compassed round the walls of Jericho. . . .

Ay, strange. But while she talked, Axel was taking his time, learning the use of his limbs again, getting to walk.

They get along slowly towards home, Oline still playing saviour and supporting him. They man age somehow. A little farther down they come upon Brede. “What’s here?” says Brede.

“Hurt yourself? Let me help a bit.”

Axel takes no heed. He had given a promise to God not to be vengeful, not to tell of what Brede had done, but beyond that he was free. And what was Brede going up that way again for now? Had he seen that Oline was at Maaneland, and guessed that she would hear?

“And it’s you here, Oline, is it?” goes on Brede easily. “Where d’you find him? Under a tree? Well, now, ’tis a curious thing,” says he. “I was up that way just now on duty, along the line, and seems like I heard some one shouting. Turns round and listens quick as a flash — Brede’s the man to lend a hand if there’s need. And so ’twas Axel, was it, lying under a tree, d’you say?”

“Ay,” says Axel. “And well you knew that saw and heard as well. But never helping hand . . .”

“Good Lord, deliver us!” cries Oline, aghast. “As I’m a sinner . . .”

Brede explains. “Saw? Why, yes, I saw you right enough. But why didn’t you call out? You might have called out if there was anything wrong. I saw you right enough, ay, but never thought but you were lying down a bit to rest.”

“You’d better say no more,” says Axel warningly. “You know well enough you left me there and hoping I’d never rise again.”

Oline sees her way now; Brede must not be allowed to interfere. She must be indispensable, nothing can come between her and Axel that could make him less completely indebted to herself. She had saved him, she alone. And she waves Brede aside; will not even let him carry the ax or the basket of food. Oh, for the moment she is all on Axel’s side — but next time she comes to Brede and sits talking to him over a cup of coffee, she will be on his.

“Let me carry the ax and things, anyway,” says Brede.

“Nay,” says Oline, speaking for Axel. “He’ll take them himself.”

And Brede goes on again: “You might have called to me, anyway; we’re not so deadly enemies that you couldn’t say a word to a man? — You did call? Well. you might have shouted then, so a man could hear. Blowing a gale and all . . . Least-ways, you might have waved a hand.”

“I’d no hand to wave,” answers Axel. “You saw how ’twas with me, shut down and locked in all ways.”

“Nay, that I’ll swear I didn’t. Well, I never heard. Here, let me carry those things.”

Oline puts in: “Leave him alone. He’s hurt and poorly.”

But Axel’s mind is getting to work again now. He has heard of Oline before, and understands it will be a costly thing for him, and a plague besides, if she can claim to have saved his life all by herself. Better to share between them as far as may be. And he lets Brede take the basket and the tools; ay, he lets it be understood that this is a relief, that it eases him to get rid of it. But Oline will not have it, she snatches away the basket, she and no other will carry what’s to be carried there. Sly simplicity at war on every side. Axel is left for a moment without support, and Brede has to drop the basket and hold him, though Axel can stand by himself now, it seems.

Then they go on a bit that way, Brede holding Axel’s arm, and Oline carrying the things. Carrying, carrying, full of bitterness and flashing fire; a miserable part indeed, to carry a basket instead of leading a helpless man. What did Brede want coming that way at all — devil of a man!

“Brede,” says she, “what’s it they’re saying, you’ve sold your place and all?”

“And who’s it wants to know?” says Brede boldly.

“Why, as to that, I’d never thought ’twas any secret not to be known.”

“Why didn’t you come to the sale, then, and bid with the rest?”

“Me — ay, ’tis like you to make a jest of poor folk.”

“Well, and I thought ’twas you had grown rich and grand. Wasn’t it you had left you old Sivert’s chest and all his money in? He he he!”

Oline was not pleased, not softened at being minded of that legacy. “Ay, old Sivert, he’d a kindly thought for me, and I’ll not say otherwise. But once he was dead and gone, ’twas little they left after him in worldly goods. And you know yourself how ’tis to be stripped of all, and live under other man’s roof; but old Sivert he’s in palaces and mansions now, and the likes of you and me are left on earth to be spurned underfoot.”

“Ho, you and your talk!” says Brede scornfully, and turns to Axel: “Well, I’m glad I came in time — help you back home. Not going too fast, eh?”

“No.”

Talk to Oline, stand up and argue with Oline! Was never a man could do it but to his cost. Never in life would she give in, and never her match for turning and twisting heaven and earth to a medley of seeming kindness and malice, poison and senseless words. This to her face now: Brede making as if ’twas himself was bringing Axel home!

“What I was going to say,” she begins: “They gentlemen came up to Sellanraa that time; did you ever get to show them all those sacks of stone you’d got, eh, Brede?”

“Axel,” says Brede, “let me hoist you on my shoulders, and I’ll carry you down rest of the way.”

“Nay,” says Axel. “For all it’s good of you to ask.”

So they go on; not far now to go. Oline must make the best of her time on the way. “Better if you’d saved him at the point of death,” says she. “And how was it, Brede, you coming by and seeing him in deadly peril and heard his cry and never stopped to help?”

“You hold your tongue,” says Brede.

And it might have been easier for her if she had, wading deep in snow and out of breath, and a heavy burden and all, but ’twas not Oline’s way to hold her tongue. She’d a bit in reserve, a dainty morsel. Ho, ’twas a dangerous thing to talk of, but she dared

“There’s Barbro now,” says she. “And how’s it with her? Not run off and away, perhaps?”

“Ay, she has,” answers Brede carelessly. “And left a place for you for the winter by the same.”

But here was a first-rate opening for Oline again; she could let it be seen now what a personage she was; how none could manage long without Oline — Oline, that had to be sent for near or far. She might have been two places, ay, three, for that matter. There was the parsonage — they’d have been glad to have her there, too. And here was another thing — ay, let Axel hear it too, ‘twould do no harm — they’d offered her so-and-so much for the winter, not to speak of a new pair of shoes and a sheepskin into the bargain. But she knew what she was doing, coming to Maaneland, coming to a man that was lordly to give and would pay her over and above what other folk did — and so she’d come. No, ’twas no need for Brede to trouble himself that gait — when her Heavenly Father had watched over her all those years, and opened this door and that before her feet, and bidden her in. Ay, and it seemed like God Himself had known what He was doing, sending her up to Maaneland that day, to save the life of one of His creatures on earth. . . .

Axel was getting wearied again by now; his legs could hardly bear him, and seemed like giving up. Strange, he had been getting better by degrees, able to walk, as the life and warmth came back into his body. But now — he must lean on Brede for support! It seemed to begin when Oline started talking about her wages; and then, when she was saving his life again, it was worse than ever. Was he trying to lessen her triumph once more? Heaven knows-but his mind seemed to be working again. As they neared the house, he stopped, and said: “Looks like I’ll never get there, after all.”

Brede hoists him up without a word, and carries him. So they go on like that, Oline all venom, Axel up full length on Brede’s back.

“What I was going to say,” gets out Oline “about Barbro — wasn’t she far gone with child?”

“Child?” groans Brede, under the weight. Oh, ’tis a strange procession; but Axel lets himself be carried all the way till he’s set down at his own door. Brede puffs and blows, mightily out of breath.

“Ay, or how — was it ever born, after all?” asks Oline.

Axel cuts in quickly with a word to Brede: “I don’t know how I’d ever have got home this night but for you.” And he does not forget Oline: “And you, Oline, that was the first to find me. I’ve to thank you both for it all.”

That was how Axel was saved. . . .

The next few days Oline would talk of nothing but the great event; Axel was hard put to it to keep her within bounds. Oline can point out the very spot where she was standing in the room when an angel of the Lord called her out to the door to hear a cry for help — Axel goes back to his work in the woods, and when he has felled enough, begins carting it up to the sawmill at Sellanraa.

Good, regular winter work, as long as it lasts; carting up rough timber and bringing back sawn planks. The great thing is to hurry and get through with it before the new year, when the frost sets in in earnest, and the saw cannot work. Things are going on nicely, everything as well as could be wished. If Sivert happens to come up from the village with an empty sledge, he stops and takes a stick of timber on the way, to help his neighbour. And the pair of them talk over things together, and each is glad of a talk with the other.

“What’s the news down village?” asks Axel.

“Why, nothing much,” says Sivert. “There’s a new man coming to take up land, so they say.”

A new man — nothing in that; ’twas only Sivert’s way of putting it. New men came now every year or so, to take up land; there were five new holdings now below Breidablik. Higher up, things went more slowly, for all that the soil was richer that way. The one who had ventured farthest was Isak, when he settled down at Sellanraa; he was the boldest and the wisest of them all. Later, Axel Ström had come — and now there was a new man besides. The new man was to have a big patch of arable land and forest down below Maaneland — there was land enough.

“Heard what sort of a man it is?” asked Axel.

“Nay,” said Sivert. “But he’s bringing up houses all ready made, to fix up in no time.”

“Ho! A rich man, then?”

“Ay, seems like. And a wife and three children with him; and horse and cattle.”

“Why, then, ’twill be a rich man enough. Any more about him?”

“No. He’s three-and-thirty.”

“And what’s his name?”

“Aron, they say. Calls his place Storborg.”

“Storborg? H’m. ’Tis no little place, then.”5

5 “Stor” = great.

“He’s come up from the coast. Had a fishery there, so they say.”

“H’m — fishery. Wonder if he knows much about farming?” says Axel. “That all you heard? Nothing more?”

“No. He paid all down in cash for the title deeds. That’s all I heard. Must have made a heap of money with his fishery, they say. And now he’s going to start here with a store.”

“Ho! A store?”

“Ay, so they say.”

“H’m. So he’s going to start a store?”

This was the one really important piece of news, and the two neighbours talked it over every way as they drove up. It was a big piece of news — the greatest event, perhaps, in all the history of the place; ay, there was much to say of that. Who was he going to trade with, this new man? The eight of them that had settled on the common lands? Or did he reckon on getting custom from the village as well? Anyway, the store would mean a lot to them; like as not, it would bring up more settlers again. The holdings might rise in value — who could say?

They talked it over as if they would never tire. Ay, here were two men with their own interests and aims, as great to them as other men’s. The settlement was their world; work, seasons, crops were the adventures of their life. Was not that interest and excitement enough? Ho, enough indeed! Many a time they had need to sleep but lightly, to work on long past meal-times; but they stood it, they endured it and were none the worse; a matter of seven hours lying pinned down beneath a tree was not a thing to spoil them for life as long as their limbs were whole. A narrow world, a life with no great prospects? Ho, indeed! What of this new Storborg, a shop and a store here in the wilds — was not that prospect enough?

They talked it over until Christmas came . . . .

Axel had got a letter, a big envelope with a lion on it; it was from the State. He was to fetch supplies of wire, a telegraph apparatus, tools and implements, from Brede Olsen, and take over inspection of the line from New Year’s Day.

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