The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter VIII

Axel had no long time to rest at home, as it turned out; the autumn gales led to fresh trouble and bothersome work that he had brought upon himself: the telegraph apparatus on his wall announced that the line was out of order.

Oh, but he had been thinking overmuch of the money, surely, when he took on that post. It had been a nuisance from the start. Brede Olsen had fairly threatened him when he went down to fetch the apparatus and tools; ay, lid said to him in as many words: “You don’t stern like remembering how I saved your life last winter!”

“’Twas Oline saved my life,” answered Axel.

“Ho, indeed! And didn’t I carry you down myself on my own poor shoulders? Anyway, you were clever enough to buy up my place in summer-time and leave me homeless in the winter.” Ay, Brede was deeply offended; he went on:

“But you can take the telegraph for me, av, all the rubble of it for me. I and mine we’ll go down to the village and start on something there — you don’t know what it’ll be, but wait and see. What about a hotel place where folk can get coffee? You see but we’ll manage all right. There’s my wife can sell things to eat and drink as well as another, and I can go out on business and make a heap more than you ever did. But I don’t mind telling you, Axel, I could make things awkward for you in many odd ways, seeing all I know about the telegraph and things; ay, ‘twould be easy enough both to pull down poles and cut the line and all. And then you to go running out after it midway in the busy time. That’s all I’ll say to you, Axel, and you bear it in mind . . . .”

Now Axel should have been down and brought up the machines from the quay — all over gilt and colouring they were, like pictures to see. And he might have had them to look at all that day, and learn the manner of using them — but now they must wait. ’Twas none so pleasant to have to put aside all manner of necessary work to run and see after a telegraph line. But ’twas the money. . . .

Up on the top of the hill he meets Aronsen. Ay, Aronsen the trader standing there looking and gazing out into the storm, like a vision himself. What did he want there? No peace in his mind now, it seems, but he must go up the fjeld himself and look at the mine with his own eyes. And this, look you, Trader Aronsen had done from sheer earnest thought of his own and his family’s future. Here he is, face to face with bare desolation on the forsaken hills, machines lying there to rust, carts and material of all sorts left out in the open — twas dismal to see. Here and there on the walls of the huts were placards, notices written by hand, forbidding any one to damage or remove the company’s property — tools, carts, or buildings.

Axel stops for a few words with the mad trader, and asks if he has come out shooting.

“Shooting? Ay, if I could only get within reach of him!”

“Him? Who, then?”

“Why, him that’s ruining me and all the rest of us hereabout. Him that won’t sell his bit of fjeld and let things get to work again, and trade and money passing same as before.”

“D’you mean him Geissler, then?”

“Ay, ’tis him I mean. Ought to be shot!”

Axel laughs at this, and says: “Geissler he was in town but a few days back; you should have talked to him there. But if I might be so bold as to say, I doubt you’d better leave him alone, after all.”

“And why?” asks Aron angrily.

“Why? I’ve a mind he’d be overwise and mysterious for you in the end.”

They argued over this for a while, and Aronsen grew more excited than ever. At last Axel asked jestingly: “Well, anyway, you’ll not be so hard on us all to run away and leave us to ourselves in the wilds?”

“Huh! Think I’m going to stay fooling about here in your bogs and never so much as making the price of a pipe?” cried Aron indignantly. “Find me a buyer and I’ll sell out.”

“Sell out?” says Axel. “The land’s good ordinary land if she’s handled as should be — and what you’ve got’s enough to keep a man.”

“Haven’t I just said I’ll not touch it?” cried

Aronsen again in the gale. “I can do better than that!”

Axel thought if that was so, ‘twould be easy to find a buyer; but Aronsen laughed scornfully at the idea — there was nobody there in the wilds had money to buy him out.

Not here in the wilds, maybe, but elsewhere.”

“Here’s naught but filth and poverty,” said Aron bitterly.

“Why, that’s as it may be,” said Axel in some offence. “But Isak up at Sellanraa he could buy you out any day.”

Don’t believe it,” said Aronsen.

“’Tis all one to me what you believe,” said Axel, and turned to go.

Aronsen called after him: “Hi, wait a bit! What’s that you say — Isak might take the place, was that what you said? ”

“Ay,” said Axel, “if ’twas only the money. He’s means enough to buy up five of your Storborg and all!”

Aronsen had gone round keeping wide of Sellanraa on his way up, taking care not to be seen; but, going back, he called in and had a talk with Isak. But Isak only shook his head and said nay, ’twas a matter he’d never thought of, and didn’t care to.

But when Eleseus came back home that Christmas, Isak was easier to deal with. True, he maintained that it was a mad idea to think of buying Storborg, ’twas nothing had ever been in his mind; still, if

Eleseus thought he could do anything with the place, why, they might think it over.

Eleseus himself was midways between, as it were; not exactly eager for it, yet not altogether indifferent. If he did settle down here at home, then his career in one way was at an end. ’Twas not like being in a town. That autumn, when a lot of people from his parts had been up for cross-examination in a certain place, he had taken care not to show himself; he had no desire to meet any that knew him from that quarter; they belonged to another world. And was he now to go back to that same world himself?

His mother was all for buying the place; Sivert, too, said it would be best. They stuck to Eleseus both of them, and one day the three drove down to Storborg to see the wonder with their own eyes.

But once there was a prospect of selling, Aronsen became a different man; he wasn’t pressed to get rid of it, not at all. If he did go away, the place could stand as it was; ’twas a first-rate holding, a “cash down” place, there’d be no difficulty in selling it any time. “You’d not give my price,” said Aronsen.

They went over the house and stores, the ware house and sheds, inspected the miserable remains of the stock, consisting of a few mouth-organs, watch — chains, boxes of coloured papers, lamps with hanging ornaments, all utterly unsaleable to sensible folks that lived on their land. There were a few cases of nails and some Cotton print, and that was all.

Eleseus was constrained to show off a bit, and looked over things with a knowing air. “I’ve no use for that sort of truck,” said he.

“Why, then, you’ve no call to buy it,” said Aronsen.

“Anyhow, I’ll offer you fifteen hundred Kroner for the place as it stands, with goods, live stock, and the rest,” said Eleseus. Oh, he was careless enough: his offer was but a show, for something to say.

And they drove back home. No, there was no deal; Eleseus had made a ridiculous offer, that Aronsen regarded as an insult. “I don’t think much of you, young man,” said Aronsen; ay, calling him young man, considering him but a slip of a lad that had grown conceited in the town, and thought to teach him, Aronsen, the value of goods.

“I’ll not be called ‘young man’ by you, if you please,” said Eleseus, offended in his turn. They must be mortal enemies after that.

But how could it be that Aronsen had all along been so independent and so sure of not being forced to sell? There was a reason for it: Aronsen had a little hope at the back of his mind, after all.

A meeting had been held in the village to consider the position which had arisen owing to Geissler’s refusal to sell his part of the mining tract. ’Twas not only the outlying settlers who stood to lose by this, it would be fatal to the whole district.

Why could not folk go on living as well or as poorly now as before there had been any mine at all? Well, they could not, and that was all about it. They had grown accustomed to better food, finer bread, store-bought clothes and higher wages, general extravagance — ay, folk had learned to reckon with money more, that was the matter. And now the money was gone again, had slipped away like a shoal of herring out to sea — twas dire distress for them all, and what was to be done?

There was no doubt about it: ex-Lensmand Geissler was taking his revenge upon the village because they had helped his superior to get him dismissed; equally clear was it that they had underestimated him at the time. He had not simply disappeared and left. By the simplest means, merely by demanding an unreasonable price for a mine, he had succeeded in checking the entire development of the district. Ay, a strong map! Axel Ström from Maaneland could bear them out in this; he was the one who had last met Geissler. Brede’s girl Barbro had had a lawsuit in the town, and come home acquitted; but Geissler, he had been there in court all the time. And if any one suggested that Geissler was dejected, and a broken man, why, he had only to look at the costly machines that same Geissler had sent up as a present to Axel Ström .

This man it was then, who held the fate of the district in his hand; they would have to come to some agreement with him. What price would Geissler ultimately be disposed to accept: for his mine? They must ascertain in any case. The Swedes had offered him twenty-five thousand — Geissler had refused. But suppose the village here, the commune, were to make up the remainder, simply to get things going again? If it were not an altogether unheard of amount, it might be worth while. Both the trader at the shore station and Aronsen up at Storborg would be willing to contribute privately and secretly; funds devoted to such a purpose now would be repaid in the long run.

The end of it was that two men were deputed to call on Geissler and take up the matter with him. And they were expected back shortly.

So it was, then, that Aronsen cherished a flicker of hope, and thought he could afford to stand on his dignity with any who offered to buy up Storborg. But it was not to last.

A week later the deputation returned home with a flat refusal. Oh, they had done the worst thing possible at the outset, in choosing Brede Olsen as one of the men they sent — they had taken him as being one who best could spare the time. They had found Geissler, but he had only shaken his head and laughed. “Go back home again,” he had said. But Geissler had paid for their journey back.

Then the district was to be left to its fate?

After Aronsen had raged for a while, and grown more and more desperate, he went up one day to Sellanraa and closed the deal. Ay, Aronsen did. Eleseus got it for the price he had offered; land and house and sheds, live stock and goods, for fifteen hundred Kroner. True, on going through the inventory after, it was found that Aronsen’s wife had converted most of the cotton print to her own use; but trifles of that sort were nothing to a man like Eleseus. It didn’t do to be mean, he said.

Nevertheless, Eleseus was not exactly delighted with things as they had turned out — his future was settled now, he was to bury himself in the wilds. He must give up his great plans; he was no longer a young gentleman in an office, he would never be a Lensmand, not even live in a town at all. To his father and those at home he made it appear that he was proud at having secured Storborg at the very price he had fixed-it would show them he knew what he was about. But that small triumph did not go very far. He had also the — satisfaction of taking over Andresen, the chief cleric, who was thus, as it were, included In the bargain. Aronsen had no longer any use for him, until he had a new place going. It was a pleasant sensation to be Eleseus, when Andresen came up begging to be allowed to stay; here it was Eleseus who was master and head of the business — for the first time in his life.

“You can stay, yes,” he said. “I shall be wanting an assistant to look after the place when I’m away on business — opening up connections in Bergen and Trondhjem,” said he.

And Andresen was no bad man to have, as it soon proved; he was a good worker, and looked after things well when Eleseus was away. ’Twas only at first he had been somewhat inclined to show and play the fine gentleman, and that was the fault of his master Aronsen. It was different now. In the spring, when the bogs were thawed some depth, Sivert came down from Sellanraa to Storborg, to start a bit of ditching for his brother, and lo, Andresen himself went out on the land digging too. Heaven knows what possessed him to do it, for ’twas no work of his, but that was the sort of man he was. It was not thawed deep enough yet, and they could not get as far as they wanted by a long way, but it was something done, at any rate. It was Isak’s old idea to drain the bogs at Storborg and till the land there properly; the bit of a store was only to be an extra, a convenience, to save folk going all the way down to the village for a reel of thread.

So Sivert and Andresen stood there digging, and talking now and again when they stopped for a rest. Andresen had also somehow or other managed to get hold of a gold piece, a twenty-Krone piece, and Sivert would gladly have had the bright thing himself; but Andresen would not part with it-kept it wrapped up in tissue paper in his chest. Sivert proposed a wrestling match for the money — see who could throw the other; but Andresen would not risk it. Sivert offered to stake twenty Kroner in notes against the gold piece, and do all the digging himself into the bargain if he won; but Andresen took offence at that. “Ho,” said he, “and you’d like to go back home, no doubt, and say I’m no good at working on the land!” At last they agreed to set twenty-five Kroner in notes against the gold twenty-Krone piece, and Sivert slipped home to Sellanraa that night to ask his father for the money.

A young man’s trick, the pretty play of youth! A night’s sleep thrown away, to walk miles up and miles down again, and work next day as usual ’twas nothing to a young man in his strength, and a bright gold piece was worth it all. Andresen was a little inclined to make fun of him over the deal, but Sivert was not at a loss; he had only to let fall a word of Leopoldine. “There! I was nearly forgetting. Leopoldine she asked after you. . . . ” And Andresen stopped his work of a sudden and went very red.

Pleasant days for them both, draining and ditching, getting up long arguments for fun, and working, and arguing again. Now and then Eleseus would come out and lend a hand, but he soon tired. Eleseus was not strong either of body or will, but a thorough good fellow for all that. . . .

“Here’s that Oline coming along,” Sivert the Jester would say. “Now you’ll have to go in and sell her a paper of coffee.” And Eleseus was glad enough to go. Selling Oline some trifle or other meant so many minutes’ rest from throwing heavy clods.

And Oline, poor creature, she might well be needing a pinch of coffee now and again, whether by chance she managed to get the money from Axel to pay for it, or bartered a goats’ milk cheese in exchange. Oline was not altogether what she had been; the work at Maaneland was too hard for her; she was an old woman now, and it was leaving its mark. Not that she ever confessed to any weakness or ageing herself; ho! she would have found plenty to say if she had been dismissed. Tough and irrepressible was Oline; did her work, and found time to wander over to neighbours here or there for a real good gossip. ’Twas her plain right, and there was little gossiping at Maaneland. Axel himself was not given that way.

As for that Barbro case, Oline was displeased, ay, disappointed was Oline. Both of them acquitted! That Brede’s girl Barbro should be let off when Inger Sellanraa had got eight years was not to Oline’s taste at all; she felt an unchristian annoyance at such favouritism. But the Almighty would look to things, no doubt, in His own good time! And Oline nodded, as if prophesying divine retribution at a later date. Naturally, also, Oline made no secret of her dissatisfaction with the finding of the court, more especially when she happened to fall out with her master, Axel, over any little trifle. Then she would deliver herself, in the old soft-spoken way, of much deep and bitter sarcasm. “Ay, ’tis strange how the law’s changed these days, for all the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah; but the word of the Lord’s my guide, as ever was, and a blessed refuge for the meek.”

Oh, Axel was sick and tired of his housekeeper now, and wished her anywhere. And now with spring coming again, and all the season’s work to do alone; haymaking to come, and what was he to do? ’Twas a poor look-out. His brother’s wife at Breidablik had written home to Helgeland trying to find a decent woman to help him, but nothing had come of it as yet. And in any case, it would mean his having to pay for the journey.

Nay, ’twas a mean and wicked trick of Barbro to make away with the bit of a child and then run off herself. A summer and two winters now he had been forced to make do with Oline, and no saying how much longer it might be yet. And Barbro, the creature, did she care? He had had a few words with her down in the village one day that not winter, but never a tear had trickled slowly from her eyes to freeze on her cheek.

“What you’ve done with rings I gave you?” asks he.

“Rings?”

“Ay, the rings.”

“I haven’t got them now.”

“Ho, so you haven’t got them now?”

“’Twas all over between us,” said she. “And I couldn’t wear them after that. ’Tis not the way to go on wearing rings when it’s all over between you.”

“Well, I’d just like to know what you’ve done with them, that’s all.”

“Wanted me to give them back, maybe,” said she. “Well, I never thought you’d have had me put you to that shame.”

Axel thought for a moment, and said: “I could have made it up to you other ways. That you shouldn’t lose by it, I mean.”

But no, Barbro had got rid of the rings, and never so much as gave him the chance of buying back a gold ring and a silver ring at a reasonable price.

For all that, Barbro was not so thoroughly harsh and unlovable, that she was not. She had a long apron thing that fastened over the shoulders and with tucks at the edge, and a strip of white stuff up round her neck — ay, she looked well. There were some said she’d found a lad already down in the village to go sweethearting with, though maybe ’twas but their talk, after all. Fru Heyerdahl kept a watchful eye on her at any rate, and took care not to let her go to the Christmas dances.

Ay, Fru Heyerdahl was careful enough, that she was; here was Axel standing talking to his former servant-girl about a matter of two rings, and suddenly Fru Heyerdahl comes right between them and says: “Barbro, I thought you were going to the store?” Off goes Barbro. And her mistress turns to Axel and says: “Have you come down with some meat, or something?”

“H’m,” said Axel, just that, and touched his cap.

Now it was Fru Heyerdahl that had praised him up so that last autumn, saying he was a splendid fellow and she had always thought well of him; and one good turn was worth another, no doubt. Axel knew the way of doing things; ’twas an old story, when simple folk had dealing with their betters, with authority. And he had thought at once of a piece of butcher’s meat, a bull he had, that might be useful there. But time went on, and month and month passed by and autumn was gone, and the bull was never killed. And what harm could it do, after all, if he kept it for himself?-give it away, and he would be so much poorer. And ’twas a fine beast, anyway.

“H’m, Goddag. Nay,” said Axel, shaking his head; he’d no meat with him today. But Fru Heyerdahl seemed to be guessing his thoughts, for she said: “I’ve heard you’ve an ox, or what? ’

“Ay, so I have,” said Axel.

“Are you going to keep it?”

“Ay, I’ll be keeping him yet.”

“I see. You’ve no sheep to be killed?”

“Not now I haven’t. ’Tis this way, I’ve never had but what’s to be kept on the place.”

“Oh, I see,” said Fru Heyerdahl; “well, that was all.” And she went on her way.

Axel drove up homeward, but he could not help thinking somewhat of what had passed; he rather feared he had made a false step somehow. The Lensmand’s lady had been an important witness once; for and against him, but important anyway. He had been through an unpleasant time on that occasion, but, after all, he had got out of it in the end — got out of a very awkward business in connection with the body of a child found buried on his land. Perhaps, after all, he had better kill that sheep. And, strangely enough, this thought was somehow connected with Barbro. If he came down bringing sheep for her mistress it could hardly fail to make a certain impression on Barbro herself.

But again the days went on, and nothing evil happened for their going on. Next time he drove down to the village he had no sheep on his cart, no, still no sheep. But at the last moment he had taken a lamb. A big lamb, though; not a miserable little one by any means, and he delivered it with these words:

“’Tis rare tough meat on a wether, and no sort of a gift to bring. But this is none so bad.”

But Fru Heyerdahl would not hear of taking it a gift. “Say what you want for it,” she said. Oh, a fine lady, ’twas not her way to take gifts from folk! And the end of it was that Axel got a good price for his lamb.

He saw nothing of Barbro at all. Lensmand’s lady had seen him coming, and got her out of the way. And good luck go with her-Barbro that had cheated him out of his help for a year and half!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23g/chapter27.html

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