The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter IX

That spring something unexpected happened — something of importance indeed; work at the mine was started again; Geissler had as sold his land. Inconceivable! Oh, but Geissler was an unfathomable mind; he could make a bargain or refuse, shake his head for a “No,” or nod the same for “Yes.” Could make the whole village smile again.

Conscience had pricked him, maybe; he had no longer the heart to see the district where he had been Lensmand famishing on home-made gruel and short of money. Or had he got his quarter of a million? Possibly, again, Geissler himself had at last begun to feel the need of money, and had been forced to sell for what he could get. Twenty-five or fifty thousand was not to be despised, after all. As a matter of fact, there were rumours that it was his eldest son who had settled the business on his father’s account.

Be that as it might, work was recommenced; the same engineer came again with his gangs of men, and the work went on anew. The same work, ay, but in a different fashion now, going backwards, as it were.

All seemed in regular order: the Swedish mine owners had brought their men, and dynamite and money — what could be wrong, anyway? Even Aronsen came back again, Aronsen the trader, who had set his mind on buying back Storborg from Eleseus.

“No,” said Eleseus. “It’s not for sale.”

“You’ll sell, I suppose, if you’re offered enough?”

“No.”

No, Eleseus was not going to sell Storborg. The truth was, he had changed his mind somewhat as to the position; it was none so bad, after all, to be owner of a trading station in the hills; he had a fine verandah with coloured glass windows, and a chief clerk to do all the work, while he himself went about the country travelling. Ay, travelling first class, with fine folks. One day, perhaps, he might be able to go as far as America — he often thought of that. Even these little journeys on business to the towns down in the south were something to live on for a long time after. Not that he let himself go altogether, and chartered a steamer of his own and held wild orgies on the way — orgies were not in his line. A strange fellow, was Eleseus; he no longer cared about girls, had given up such things altogether, lost all interest in them. No, but after all, he was the Margrave’s son, and travelled first class and bought up loads of goods. And each time he came back a little finer than before, a greater man; the last time, he even wore galoshes to keep his feet dry. “What’s that — you taken to wearing two pairs of shoes?” they said.

“I’ve been suffering from chilblains lately,” says Eleseus.

And every one sympathized with Eleseus and his chilblains.

Glorious days — a grand life, with no end of leisure. No, he was not going to sell Storborg. What, go back to a little town and stand behind the counter in a little shop, and no chief clerk of his own at all? Moreover, he had made up his mind now to develop the business on a grand scale. The Swedes had come back again and would flood the place with money; he would be a fool to sell out now. Aronsen was forced to go back each time with a flat refusal; more and more disgusted at his own lack of foresight in ever having given up the place.

Oh, but Aronsen might have saved himself a deal of self-reproach, and likewise Eleseus with his plans and intentions, that he might have kept in moderation. And more than all, the village would have done well to be less confident, instead of going about smiling and rubbing its hands like angels sure of being blessed — no call for them to do so if they had but known. For now came disappointment, and no little one at that. Who would ever have thought it; work at the mine commenced again, true enough — but at the other end of the field, eight miles away, on the southern boundary of Geissler’s holding, far off in another district altogether, a district with which they were in no way concerned. And from there the work was to make its way gradually north ward to the original mine, Isak’s mine, to be a blessing to folk in the wilds and in the village. At best, it would take years, any number of years, a generation.

The news came like a dynamite charge of the heaviest sort, with shock and stopping of ears. The village folk were overcome with grief. Some blamed Geissler; ’twas Geissler, that devil of a man, who had tricked them once more. Others huddled together at a meeting and sent out a new deputation of trusty men, this time to the mining company, to the engineer. But nothing came of it; the engineer explained that he was obliged to start work from the south because that was nearest the sea, and saved the need of an aerial railway, reduced the transport almost to nil. No, the work must begin that way: no more to be said.

Then it was that Aronsen at once rose up and set out for the new workings, the new promised land. He even tried to get Andresen to go with him: “What’s the sense of you staying on here in the wilds?” said he. “Much better come with me.” But Andresen would not leave; incomprehensible, but so it was, there was something which held him to the spot; he seemed to thrive there, had taken root. It must be Andresen who had changed, for the place was the same as ever. Folk and things were unaltered; the mining work had turned away to other tracts, but folk in the wilds had not lost their heads over that; they had their land to till, their crops, their cattle. No great wealth in money, true, but in all the necessaries of life, ay, absolutely all. Even Eleseus was not reduced to misery because the stream of gold was flowing elsewhere; the worst of it was that in his stocks of goods that were now unsaleable. Well, they could stay there for the time being; it looked well, at any rate, to have plenty of wares in a store.

No, a man of the wilds did not lose his head. The air was not less healthy now than before; there were folk enough to admire new clothes; there was no need of diamonds. Wine was a thing he knew from the feast at Cana. A man of the wild was not put out by the thought of great things he could not get; art, newspapers, luxuries, politics, and such-like were worth just what folk were willing to pay for them, no more. Growth of the soil was something different, a thing to be procured at any cost; the only the origin of all. A dull and desolate existence? Nay, least of all. A man had everything; his powers above, his dreams, his loves, his wealth of supersition. Sivert, walking one evening by the river, stops on a sudden; there on the water are a pair of ducks, male and female. They have sighted him; they are aware of man, and afraid; one of them says something, utters a little sound, a melody in three tones, and the other answers with the same. Then they rise, whirl off like two little wheels a stone’s throw up the river, and settle again. Then, as before, one speaks and the other answers; the same speech as at first, but mark a new delight: it is set two octaves higher! Sivert stands looking at the birds, looking past them, far into a dream. A sound has floated through him, a sweetness, and left him standing there with a delicate, thin recollection of something wild and splendid, something he had known before, and forgotten again. He walks home in silence, says no word of it, makes no boast of it, ’twas not for worldly speech. And it was but Sivert from Sellanraa, went out one evening, young and ordinary as he was, and met with this.

It was not the only thing he met with — there were more adventures beside. Another thing which happened was that Jensine left Sellanraa. And that made Sivert not a little perturbed in his mind.

Ay, it came to that: Jensine would leave, if you please; she wished it so. Oh, Jensine was not one of your common sort, none could say that. Sivert had once offered to drive her back home at once, and on that occasion she had cried, which was a pity; but afterwards she repented of that, and made it clear that she repented, and gave notice and would leave. Ay, a proper way to do.

Nothing could have suited Inger at Sellanraa better than this; Inger was beginning to grow dissatisfied with her maid. Strange; she had nothing to say against her, but the sight of the girl annoyed her, she could hardly endure to have her about the place. It all arose, no doubt, from Inger’s state of mind; she had been heavy and religious all that winter, and it would not pass off. “Want to leave, do you? Why, then, well and good,” said Inger. It was a blessing, the fulfilment of nightly prayers. Two grown women they were already, what did they want with this Jensine, fresh as could be and marriageable and all? Inger thought with a certain displeasure of that same marriageableness, thinking, maybe, how she had once been the same herself.

Her deep religiousness did not pass off. She was not full of vice; she had tasted, sipped, let us say, but ’twas not her intent to persevere in that way all through her old age, not by any means; Inger turned aside with horror from the thought. The mine and all its workmen were no longer there — and Heaven be praised. Virtue was not only tolerable, but inevitable, it was a necessary thing; ay, a necessary good, a special grace.

But the world was all awry. Look now, here was Leopoldine, little Leopoldine, a seedling, a slip of a child, going about bursting with sinful health; but an arm round her waist and she would fall helpless — oh, fie! There were spots on her face now, too — a sign in itself of wild blood; ay, her mother remembered well enough, ’twas the wild blood would out. Inger did not condemn her child for a matter of spots on her face; but it must stop, she would have an end of it. And what did that fellow Andresen want coming up to Sellanraa of Sundays, to talk field-work with Isak? Did the two menfolk imagine the child was blind? Ay, young folk were young folk as they had ever been, thirty, forty years ago, but worse than ever now.

“Why, that’s as it may be,” said Isak, when they spoke of the matter. “But here’s the spring come, and Jensine gone, and who’s to manage the summer work?”

“Leopoldine and I can do the haymaking,” said Inger. “Ay, I’d rather go raking night and day myself,” said she bitterly, and on the point of crying.

Isak could not understand what there was to make such a fuss about; but he had his own ideas, no doubt, and off he went to the edge of the wood, with crow bar and pick, and fell to working at a stone. Nay, indeed, Isak could not see why Jensine should have left them; a good girl, and a worker. To tell the truth, Isak was often at a loss in all save the simplest things — his work, his lawful and natural doings. A broad-shouldered man, well filled out, nothing astral about him at all; he ate like a man and throve on it, and ’twas rarely he was thrown off his balance in any way.

Well, here was this stone. There were stones more in plenty, but here was one to begin with. Isak is looking ahead, to the time when he will need to build a little house here, a little home for himself and Inger, and as well to get to work a bit on the site, and clear it, while Sivert is down at Storborg. Otherwise the boy would be asking questions, and that was not to Isak’s mind. The day must come of course, when Sivert would need all there was of the place for himself — the old folks would be wanting a house apart. Ay, there was never an end of building at Sellanraa; that fodder loft above the cowshed was not done yet, though the beams and planks for it were there all ready.

Well, then, here was this stone. Nothing so big said to look at above ground, but not to be moved at a touch for all that; it must be a heavy fellow. Isak dug round about it, and tried his crowbar, but it would not move. He dug again and tried once more, but no. Back to the house for a spade then, crow. and clear the earth away, then digging again, trying again — no. A mighty heavy beast to shift, thought Isak patiently enough. He dug away now for a steady while, but the stone seemed reaching ever deeper and deeper down, there was no getting a purchase on it. A nuisance it would be if he had to blast it, after all. The boring would make such a noise, and call up every one on the place. He dug. Off again to fetch a levering pole and tried that — no. He dug again. Isak was beginning to be annoyed with this stone; he frowned, and looked at the thing, as if he had just come along to make a need general inspection of the stones in that neighbourhood, and found this one particularly stupid. He criticized it; ay, it was a round-faced, idiotic stone, no getting hold of it any way — he was almost inclined to say it was deformed. Blasting? The thing wasn’t worth a charge of powder. And was he to give it up, was he to consider the possibility of being beaten by a stone?

He dug. Hard work, that it was, but as to giving up . . . At last he got the nose of his lever down and tried it; the stone did not move. Technically speaking, there was nothing wrong with his method, but it did not work. What was the matter, then? He had got out stones before in his life. Was he getting old? Funny thing, he he he! Ridiculous, indeed. True, he had noticed lately that he was not so strong as he had been — that is to say, he had noticed nothing of the sort, never heeded it; ’twas only imagination. And he goes at the stone once more, with the best will in the world.

Oh, ’twas no little matter when Isak bore down on a levering pole with all his weight. There he is now, hoisting and hoisting again, a Cyclop, enormous, with a torso that seems built in one to the knees. A certain pomp and splendour about him; his equator was astounding.

But the stone did not move.

No help for it; he must dig again. Try blasting? Not a word! No, dig again. He was intent on his work now. The stone should come up! It would be wrong to say there was anything at all perverse in this on Isak’s part; it was the ingrown love of a worker on the soil, but altogether without tenderness. It was a foolish sight; first gathering, as it were, about the stone from all sides, then making dash at it, then digging all round its sides an fumbling at it, throwing up the earth with his bare hands, ay, so he did. Yet there was nothing of caress in it all. Warmth, yes, but the warmth of zeal alone

Try the lever again? He thrust it down where there was best hold-no. An altogether remarkable instance of obstinacy and defiance on the part of the stone. But it seemed to be giving. Isak tries again, with a touch of hope; the earth-breaker has a feeling now that the stone is no longer invincible. Then the lever slipped, throwing him to the ground. “Devil!” said he. Ay, he said that. His cap had got thrust down over one ear as he fell making him look like a robber, like a Spaniard.

Here comes Inger. “Isak, come in and have your food now,” says she, kindly and pleasant as can be.

“Ay,” says he, but will have her no nearer, and wants no questions.

Oh, but Inger, never dreaming, she comes nearer.

What s in your mind now?” she asks, to soften him with a hint of the way he thinks out some new grand thing almost every day.

But Isak is sullen, terribly sullen and stern; he says: “Nay, I don’t know.”

And Inger again, foolish that she is — ugh, keeps on talking and asking and will not go.

“Seeing as you’ve seen it yourself,” says he at last, I’m getting up this stone here.”

“Ho, going to get him up?”

“Ay.”

“And couldn’t I help a bit at all?” she asks. Isak shakes his head. But it was a kindly thought, anyway, that she would have helped him, and he can hardly be harsh in return.

“If you just wait the least bit of a while,” says he, and runs home for the hammers.

If he could only get the stone rough a bit, knocking off a flake or so in the right spot, it would give the lever a better hold. Inger holds the setting hammer, and Isak strikes. Strikes, strikes. Ay, sure enough, off goes a flake. “’Twas a good help,” says Isak, “and thanks. But don’t trouble about food for me this bit of a while, I must get this stone up first.”

But Inger does not go. And to tell the truth, Isak is pleased enough to have her there watching him at his work; ’tis a thing has always pleased him, since their young days. And lo, he gets a fine purchase now on the lever, and puts his weight into it — the stone moves!” He’s moving,” says Inger.

“’Tis but your nonsense,” says Isak.

“Nonsense, indeed! But it is!”

Got so far, then — and that was something. The stone was, so to speak, converted now, was on his side; they were working together. Isak hoists and heaves with his lever, and the stone moves, but no more. He keeps at it a while, nothing more. All at once he understands that it is not merely a question of weight, the dead pull of his body; no, the fact is that he has no longer his old strength, he has lost the tough agility that makes all the difference. Weight? An easy matter enough to hang on with his weight and break an iron-shod pole. No, he was weakening, that was it. And the patient man is filled with bitterness at the thought — at least he might have been spared the shame of having Inger here to see it!

Suddenly he drops the lever and grasps the sledge. A fury takes him, he is minded to go at it violently now. And see, his cap still hangs on one ear, robber-fashion, and now he steps mightily, threateningly, round the stone, trying, as it were, to set himself in the proper light; ho, he will leave that — stone a ruin and a wreck of what it had been. Why not? When a man is filled with mortal hatred of a stone, It is a mere formality to crush it. And suppose the stone resists, suppose it declines to be crushed? Why, let it try — and see which of the two survives!

But then it is that Inger speaks up, a little timidly, again; seeing, no doubt, what is troubling him: “What if we both hang on the stick there?” And the thing she calls a stick is the lever, nothing else

“No!” cries Isak furiously. But after a moments thought he says: “Well, well, since you’re here — though you might as well have gone home. Let’s try.”

And they get the stone on edge. Ay, they manage that. And “Puh!” says Isak.

But now comes a revelation, a strange thing to see. The underside of the stone is flat, mightily broad, finely cut, smooth and even as a floor. The stone is but the half of a stone, the other half is somewhere close by, no doubt. Isak knows well enough that two halves of the same stone may lie in different places; the frost, no doubt, that in course of time had shifted them apart. But he is all wonder and delight at the find; ’tis a useful stone of the best, a door-slab. A round sum of money would not have filled this fieldworker’s mind with such content. “A fine door-slab,” says he proudly.

And Inger, simple creature: “Why!. Now how on earth could you tell that beforehand?”

“H’m,” says Isak. “Think I’d go here digging about for nothing?”

They walk home together, Isak enjoying new admiration on false pretences; ’twas something he had not deserved, but it tasted but little different from the real thing. He lets it be understood that he has been looking out for a suitable door-slab for a long time, and had found it at last. After that, of course, there could be nothing in the least suspicious about his working there again; he could root about as much as he pleased on pretext of looking for the other half. And when Sivert came home, he could get him to help.

But if it had come to this, that he could no longer go out alone and heave up a stone, why, things were sorely changed; ay, ’twas a bad look-out, and the more need to get that site cleared quick as might be. Age was upon him, he was ripening for the chimney. corner. The triumph he had stolen in the matter of the door-slab faded away in a few days; ’twas a false thing, and not made to last. Isak stooped a little now in his walk.

Had he not once been so much of a man that he grew wakeful and attentive in a moment if one but said a word of stone, a word of digging? And ’twas no long time since, but a few years, no more. Ay, and in those days, folk that were shy of a bit of draining work kept out of his way. Now he was beginning, little by little, to take such matters more calmly; eyah, Herregud! All things were changed, the land itself was different now, with broad telegraph roads up through the woods, that had not been there before, and rocks blasted and sundered up by the water, as they had not been before. And folk, too, were changed. They did not greet coming and going as in the old days, but nodded only, or maybe not even that.

But then — in the old days there had been no Sellanraa, but only a turf hut, while now . . . There had been no Margrave in the old days.

Ay, but Margrave, what was he now? A pitiful thing, nothing superhuman, but old and fading, going the way of all flesh. What though he had good bowels, and could eat well, when it gave him no strength? ’Twas Sivert had the strength now, and a mercy it was so — but think, if Isak had had it too! A sorry thing, to find his works running down. He had toiled like a man, carrying loads enough for any beast of burden; now, he could exercise his patience in resting.

Isak is ill-pleased, heavy at heart.

Here lies an old hat, an old sou’wester, rotting on the ground. Carried there by the gale, maybe, or maybe the lads had brought it there to the edge of the wood years ago, when they were little ones. It lies there year after year, rotting and rotting away; but once it had been a new sou’wester, all yellow and new. Isak remembers the day he came home with it from the store, and Inger had said it was a fine hat. A year or so after, he had taken it to a painter down in the village, and had it blacked and polished, and the brim done in green. And when he came home, Inger thought it a finer hat than before. Inger always thought everything was fine; ay, ’twas a good life those days, cutting faggots, with Inger to look on — his best days. And when March and April came, Inger and he would be wild after each other, just like the birds and beasts in the woods; and when May was come, he would sow his corn and plant potatoes, living and thriving from day dawn. Work and sleep, loving and dreaming, was like the first big ox, and that was a wonder to see, big and bright as a king. But there was no such May to the years now. No such thing.

Isak was sorely despondent for some days. Dark days they were. He felt neither wish nor strength to start work on the fodder loft — that could be left for Sivert to do some day. The thing to be done now was the house for himself — the last house to build. He could not long hide from Sivert what he was doing; he was clearing the ground, and plain see what for. And one day he told.

“There’s a good bit of stone if we’d any use stonework,” said he. “And there’s another.”

Sivert showed no surprise, and only said: “Aye first-rate stones.”

“What you might think,” said his father.

“We’ve been digging round here now to find that other door-slab piece; might almost do to build here. I don’t know. . . . ”

“Ay, ’tis no bad place to build,” said Sivert, looking round.

“Think so? ’Twas none so bad, maybe, to have a bit of a place to house folk if any should come along.”

“Ay.”

“A couple of rooms’d be as well. You saw how ’twas when they Swedish gentlemen came, and no proper place to house them. But what you think: a bit of a kitchen as well, maybe, if ’twas any cooking to be done?”

“Ay, ‘twould be a shame to built with never a bit of kitchen,” says Sivert.

“You think so?”

Isak said no more. But Sivert, he was a fine lad to grasp things, and get into his head all at once just what was needed in a place to put up Swedish gentlemen that chanced to come along; never so much as asked a single question, but only said: “Doing it my way, now, you’d put up a bit of a shed on the north wall. Folks coming along, ‘d be useful to have a shed place to hang up wet clothes and things.”

And his father agrees at once: “Ay, the very thing.”

They work at their stones again in silence. Then asks Isak: “Eleseus, he’s not come home, I suppose?”

And Sivert answers evasively: “He’ll be coming home soon.”

’Twas that way with Eleseus: he was all for staying away, living away on journeys. Couldn’t he have written for the goods? But he must go round and buy them on the spot. Got them so much cheaper. Ay, maybe, but what about cost of the journey? He had his own way of thinking, it seemed. And then, what did he want, anyway, with more cotton stuff, and coloured ribbons for christening caps, and black and white straw hats, and long tobacco pipes? No one ever bought such things up in the hills; and the village folk, they only came up to Storborg when they’d no money. Eleseus was clever enough in his way — only to see him write on a paper, or do sums with a bit of chalk! “Ay, with a head like yours,” said folk, admiring him. And that was true enough; but he was spending over much. They village folk never paid their owings, and yet even a fellow like Brede Olsen could come up to Storborg that winter and get cotton print and coffee and molasses and paraffin on credit.

Isak has laid out a deal of money already for Eleseus, and his store and his long journeyings about; there’s not overmuch left now out of the riches from the mine — and what then?

“How d’you think he’s getting on, Eleseus?” asks Isak suddenly.

“Getting on?” says Sivert, to gain time.

“Doesn’t seem to be doing so well.”

“H’m. He says it’ll go all right.”

“You spoken to him about it?”

“Nay; but Andresen he says so.”

Isak thought over this, and shook his head.

“Nay, I doubt it’s going ill,” says he. “’Tis a pity for the lad.”

And Isak gloomier than ever now, for all he’d the been none too bright before.

But then Sivert flashes out a bit of news: “There’s more folk coming to live now.”

“How d’you say?”

“Two new holdings. They’ve bought up close by us.”

Isak stands still with his crowbar in hand; this was news, and good news, the best that could be. “That makes ten of us here,” says he. And Isak learns exactly where the new men have bought, he knows the country all round in his head, and nods. “Ay, they’ve done well there; wood for firing in plenty, and some big timber here and there. Ground slopes down sou’west. Ay . . .”

Settlers — nothing could beat them, anyway here were new folk coming to live. The mine had for come to nothing, but so much the better for the land. A desert, a dying place? Far from it, all about was the swarming with life; two new men, four new hands to work, fields and meadows and homes. Oh, the little green tracts in a forest, a hut and water, children and cattle about. Corn waving on the moorlands where naught but horsetail grew before, blue bells nodding on the fells, and yellow sunlight blazing in the ladyslipper flowers outside a house. And human beings living there, move and talk and think and are there with heaven and earth.

Here stands the first of them all, the first man in the wilds. He came that way, kneedeep in marsh-growth and heather, found a sunny slope and settled there. Others came after him, they trod a path across the waste Almenning; others again, and the path became a road; carts drove there now. Isak may be content, may start with a little thrill of pride; he was the founder of a district, the pioneer.

“Look here, we can’t go wasting time on this bit of a house place if we’re to get that fodder loft done this year,” says he.

With a new brightness, new spirit; as it were, new courage and life.

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