The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter X

A WOMAN tramping up along the road. A steady summer rain falls, wetting her, but she does not heed it; other things are in her mind-anxiety. Barbro it is, and no other — Brede’s girl, Barbro. Anxious, ay; not knowing how the venture will end; she has gone from service at the Lensmand’s, and left the village. That is the matter.

She keeps away from all the farms on the road up, unwilling to meet with folk; easy to see where she was going, with a bundle of clothing on her back. Ay, going to Maaneland, to take service there again.

Ten months she has been at the Lensmand’s now, and ’tis no little time, reckoned out in days and nights, but an eternity reckoned in longing and oppression. It had been bearable at first, Fru Heyerdahl looking after her kindly, giving her aprons and neat things to wear; ’twas a joy to be sent on errands to the store with such fine clothes to wear. Barbro had been in the village as a child; she knew all the village folk from the days when she had played there, gone to school there, kissed the lads there, and joined in many games with stones and shells. Bearable enough for a month or so. But then Fru Heyerdahl had begun to be even more careful about her, and when the Christmas festivities began, she was strict. And what good could ever come of that? It was bound to spoil things. Barbro could never have endured it but that she had certain hours of the night to herself; from two to six in the morning she was more or less safe, and had stolen pleasures not a few. What about Cook, then, for not reporting her? A nice sort of woman she must be! Oh, an ordinary woman enough, as the world finds them; Cook went out without leave herself. They took it in turns.

And it was quite a long time before they were found out. Barbro was by no means so depraved that it showed in her face, impossible to accuse her of immorality. Immorality? She made all the resistance one could expect. When young men asked her to go to a Christmas dance, she said “No” once, said “No” twice, but the third time she would say: “I’ll try and come from two to six.” Just as a decent woman should, not trying to make herself out worse than she is, and making a display of daring. She was a servant-girl, serving all her time, and knew no other recreation than fooling with men. It was all she asked for. Fru Heyerdahl came and lectured her, lent her books — and a fool for her pains. Barbro had lived in Bergen and read the papers and been to the theatre! She was no innocent lamb from the countryside. . .

But Fru Heyerdahl must have grown suspicious at last. One day she comes up at three in the morning to the maids’ room and calls: “Barbro!”

“Yes,” answers Cook.

“It’s Barbro I want. Isn’t she there? Open the door.”

Cook opens the door and explains as agreed upon, that Barbro had had to run home for a minute about something. Home for a minute at this time of night? Fru Heyerdahl has a good deal to say about that. And in the morning there is a scene. Brede is sent for, and Fru Heyerdahl asks: “Was Barbro at home with you last night — at three o’clock?”

Brede is unprepared, but answers: “Three o’clock? Yes, yes, quite right. We sat up late, there was something we had to talk about,” says Brede.

The Lensmand’s lady then solemnly declares that Barbro shall go out no more at nights.

“No, no,” says Brede.

“Not as long as she’s in this house.”

“No, no; there, you can see, Barbro, I told you so,” says her father.

“You can go and see your parents now and then during the day,” says her mistress.

But Fru Heyerdahl was wide awake enough, and her suspicion was not gone; she waited a week, and tried at four in the morning. “Barbro!” she called. Oh, but this time ’twas Cook’s turn out, and Barbro was at home; the maids’ room was a nest of innocence. Her mistress had to hit on something in a hurry.

“Did you take in the washing last night?”

“Yes.”

“That’s a good thing, it’s blowing so hard. . . . Good-night.”

But it was not so pleasant for Fru Heyerdahl to get her husband to wake her in the middle of the night and go padding across herself to the servants’ room to see if they were at home. They could do as they pleased, she would trouble herself no more.

And if it had not been for sheer ill-luck, Barbro might have stayed the year out in her place that way. But a few days ago the trouble had come.

It was in the kitchen, early one morning. Barbro had been having some words with Cook, and no light words either; they raised their voices, forgetting all about their mistress. Cook was a mean thing and a cheat, she had sneaked off last night out of her; turn because it was Sunday. And what excuse had she to give? Going to say good-bye to her favourite sister that was off to America? Not a bit of it; Cook had made no excuse at all, but simply said that Sunday night was one had been owing to her for a long time.

“Oh, you’ve not an atom of truth nor decency in your body!” said Barbro.

And there was the mistress in the doorway.

She had come out, perhaps, with no more thought than that the girls were making too much noise, but now she stood looking very closely at Barbro, at Barbro’s apron over her breast; ay, leaning forward and looking very closely indeed. It was a painful moment. And suddenly Fru Heyerdahl screams and draws back to the door. What on earth can it be? thinks Barbro, and looks down at herself. Herregud! a flea, nothing more. Barbro cannot help smiling, and being not unused to acting under critical circumstances, she flicks off the flea at once.

“On the floor!” cried Fru Heyerdahl. “Are you mad, girl? Pick it up at once!” Barbro begins looking about for it, and once more acts with presence of mind: she makes as if she had caught the creature, and drops it realistically into the fire.

“Where did you get it?” asks her mistress angrily.

“Where I got it?”

“Yes, that’s what I want to know.”

But here Barbro makes a bad mistake. “At the store,” she ought to have said, of course — that would have been quite enough. As it was — she did not know where she had got the creature, but had an idea it must have been from Cook.

Cook at the height of passion at once: “From me! You’ll please to keep your fleas to yourself, so there!”

“Anyway, ’twas you was out last night.”

Another mistake — she should have said nothing about it. Cook has no longer any reason for keeping silence, and now she let out the whole thing, and told all about the nights Barbro had been out. Fru Heyerdahl mightily indignant; she cares nothing about Cook, ’tis Barbro she is after, the girl whose character she has answered for. And even then all might have been well if Barbro had bowed her head like a reed, and been cast down with shame, and promised all manner of things for the future — but no. Her mistress is forced to remind her of all she has done for her, and at that, if you please, Barbro falls to answering back, ay, so foolish was she, saying impertinent things. Or perhaps she was cleverer than might seem; trying on purpose, maybe, to bring the matter to a head, and get out of the place altogether? Says her mistress:

“After I’ve saved you from the clutches of the Law.”

“As for that,” answers Barbro, “I’d have just as pleased if you hadn’t.”

“And that’s all the thanks I get,” says her mistress.

“Least said the better, perhaps,” says Barbro.

“I wouldn’t have got more than a month or two, anyway, and done with it.”

Fru Heyerdahl is speechless for a moment; ay, for a little while she stands saying nothing, only opening and closing her mouth. The first thing she says is to tell the girl to go; she will have no more of her.

“Just as you please,” says Barbro.

For some days after that Barbro had been at home with her parents. But she could not go on staying there. True, her mother sold coffee, and there came a deal of folk to the house, but Barbro could not live on that — and maybe she had other reasons of her own for wanting to get into a settled position again. And so today she had taken a sack of clothes on her back, and started up along the road over the moors. Question now, whether Axel Ström would take her? But she had had the banns put up, anyway, the Sunday before.

Raining, and dirty underfoot, but Barbro tramps on. Evening is drawing on, but not dark yet at that season of the year. Poor Barbro — she does not spare herself, but goes on her errand like another; she is bound for a place, to commence another struggle there. She has never spared herself, to tell the truth, never been of a lazy sort, and that is why she has her neat figure now and pretty shape. Barbro is quick to learn things, and often to her own undoing; what else could one expect? She had learned to save herself at a pinch, to slip from one scrape to another, but keeping all along some better qualities; a child’s death is nothing to her, but she can still give sweets to a child alive. Then she has a fine musical ear, can strum softly and correctly on a guitar, singing hoarsely the while; pleasant and slightly mournful to hear. Spared herself? no; so little, indeed, that she has thrown herself away altogether, and felt no loss. Now and again she cries, and breaks her heart over this or that in her life — but that is only natural, it goes with the songs she sings, ’tis the poetry and friendly sweetness in her; she had fooled herself and many another with the same. Had she been able to bring the guitar with her this evening she could have strummed a little for Axel when she came.

She manages so as to arrive late in the evening; all is quiet at Maaneland when she reaches there. See, Axel has already begun haymaking, the grass is cut near the house, and some of the hay already in. And then she reckons out that Oline, being old, will be sleeping in the little room, and Axel lying out in the hayshed, just as she herself had done. She goes to the door she knows so well, breathless as a thief, and calls softly: “Axel”

“What’s that?” asks Axel all at once.

“Nay, ’tis only me,” says Barbro, and steps in. “You couldn’t house me for the night?” she says.

Axel looks at her and is slow to think, and sits there in his underclothes, looking at her. “So ’tis you,” says he. “And where’ll you be going?”

“Why, depends first of all if you’ve need of help to the summer work,” says she.

Axel thinks over that, and says “Aren’t you going to stay where you were, then?”

“Nay; I’ve finished at the Lensmand’s.”

“I might be needing help, true enough, for the summer,” said Axel. “But what’s it mean, anyway, you wanting to come back?”

“Nay, never mind me,” says Barbro, putting it off. “I’ll go on again tomorrow. Go to Sellanraa and cross the hills. I’ve a place there.”

“You’ve fixed up with some one there?”

“Ay.”

“I might be needing summer help myself,” says Axel again.

Barbro is wet through; she has other clothes in her sack, and must change. “Don’t mind about me,” says Axel, and moves a bit toward the door, more.

Barbro takes off her wet clothes, they talking the while, and Axel turning his head pretty often towards her. “Now you’d better go out just a bit,” says she.

“Out?” says he. And indeed ’twas no weather to go out in. He stands there, seeing her more and more stripped; ’tis hard to keep his eyes away; and Barbro is so thoughtless, she might well have put on dry things bit by bit as she took off the wet, but no. Her shift is thin and clings to her; she unfastens a button at one shoulder, and turns aside, ’tis nothing new for her. Axel dead silent then, and he sees how she makes but a touch or two with her hands and washes the last of her clothes from her. ’Twas splendidly done, to his mind. And there she stands, so utterly thoughtless of her. . . .

A while after, they lay talking together. Ay, he had need of help for the summer, no doubt about that.

“They said something that way,” says Barbro.

He had begun his mowing and haymaking all alone again; Barbro could judge for herself how awkward it was for him now. — Ay, Barbro under stood. — On the other hand, it was Barbro herself that had run away and left him before, without a soul to help him, he can’t forget that. And taken her rings with her into the bargain. And on top of all that, shameful as it was, the paper that kept on comeing, that Bergen newspaper it seemed he would never get rid of; he had had to go on paying for it a whole year after.

“’Twas shameful mean of them,” says Barbro, taking his part all the time.

But seeing her all submissive and gentle, Axel himself could not be altogether heartless towards her; he agreed that Barbro might have some reason to be angry with him in return for the way he had taken the telegraph business from her father. “But as for that,” said he, “your father can have the telegraph business again for me; I’ll have no more of it, ’tis but a waste of time.”

“Ay,” says Barbro.

Axel thought for a while, then asked straight out: “Well, what about it now, would you want to come for the summer and no more?”

“Nay,” says Barbro, “let it be as you please.”

“You mean that, and truly?”

“Ay, just as you please, and I’ll be pleased with the same. You’ve no call to doubt about me any more.”

“H’m.”

“No, ’tis true. And I’ve ordered about the banns.”

H’m. This was not so bad. Axel lay thinking it over a long time. If she meant it in earnest this time, and not shameful deceit again, then he’d a woman of his own and help for as long as might be.

“I could get a woman to come from our parts,” said he, “and she’s written saying she’d come. But then I’d have to pay her fare from America.”

Says Barbro: “Ho, she’s in America, then?”

“Ay. Went over last year she did, but doesn’t care to stay.”

“Never mind about her,” says Barbro. “And what’d become of me then?” says she, and begins to be soft and mournful.

“No. That’s why I’ve not fixed up all certain with her.”

And after that, Barbro must have something to show in return; she confessed about how she could have taken a lad in Bergen, and he was a carter in a big brewery, a mighty big concern, and a good position. “And he’ll be sorrowing for me now, I doubt,” says Barbro, and makes a little sob. “But you know how ’tis, Axel; when there’s two been so much together as you and I, ’tis more than I could ever forget. And you can forget me as much as you please.”

“What! me?” says Axel. “Nay, no need to lie there crying for that, my girl, for I’ve never forgot you.”

“Well . . .”

Barbro feels a deal better after that confession, and says: “Anyway, paying her fare all the way from America when there’s no need . . .” She advises him to have nothing to do with that business; ‘twould be over costly, and there was no need. Barbro seemed resolved to build up his happiness herself.

They came to agreement all round in the course of the night. ’Twas not as if they were strangers; they had talked over everything before. Even the necessary marriage ceremony was to take place be fore St. Olaf’s Day and harvest; they had no need to hide things, and Barbro was now herself most eager to get it done at once. Axel was not any put out at her eagerness, and it did not make him any way suspicious; far from it, he was flattered and encouraged to find her so. Ay, he was a worker in the fields, no doubt, a thick-skinned fellow, not used to looking over fine at things, nothing delicate beyond measure; there were things he was obliged to dot and he looked to what was useful first of all. Moreover, here was Barbro all new and pretty again, and nice to him, almost sweeter than before. Like an apple she was, and he bit at it. The banns were already put up.

As to the dead child and the trial, neither said a word of that.

But they did speak of Oline, of how they were to get rid of her. “Ay, she must go,” said Barbro. “We’ve nothing to thank her for, anyway. She’s naught but tale-bearing and malice.”

But it proved no easy matter to get Oline to go.

The very first morning, when Barbro appeared, Oline was clear, no doubt, as to her fate. She was troubled at once, but tried not to show it, and brought out a chair. They had managed up to then at Maaneland. Axel had carried water and wood and done the heaviest work, and Oline doing the rest. And gradually she had come to reckon on staying the rest of her life on the place. Now came Barbro and upset it all.

“If we’d only a grain of coffee in the house you should have it,” said she to Barbro. “Going farther up, maybe?”

“No,” said Barbro.

“Ho! Not going farther?”

“No.”

“Why, ’tis no business of mine, no,” says Oline.

“Going down again, maybe?”

“No. Nor going down again. I’m staying here for now.”

“Staying here, are you?”

“Ay, staying here, I doubt.”

Oline waits for a moment, using her old head, full of policy. “Ay, well,” says she. “’Twill save me, then, no doubt. And glad I’ll be for the same.”

“Oho,” says Barbro in jest, “has Axel here been so hard on you this while?”

“Hard on me? Axel! Oh, there’s no call to turn an old body’s words, there’s naught but living on and waiting for the blessed end. Axel that’s been as a father and a messenger from the Highest to me day and hour together, and gospel truth the same. But seeing I’ve none of my own folks here, and living alone and rejected under a stranger’s roof, with all my kin over across the hills . . .”

But for all that, Oline stayed on. They could not get rid of her till after they were wed, and Oline made a deal of reluctance, but said “Yes” at last, and would stay so long to please them, and look to house and cattle while they went down to the church. It took two days. But when they came back wedded and all, Oline stayed on as before. She put off going; one day she was feeling poorly, she said; the next it looked like rain. She made up to Barbro with smooth words about the food. Oh, there was a mighty difference in the food now at Maaneland; ’twas different living now, and a mighty difference in the coffee now. Oh, she stopped at nothing, that Oline; asked Barbro’s advice on things she knew better herself. “What you think now, should I milk cows as they stand in their place and order, or should I take cow Bordelin first?’

“You can do as you please.”

“Ay, ’tis as I always said,” exclaims Oline.

“You’ve been out in the world and lived among great folks and fine folks, and learned all and everything. ’Tis different with the likes of me.”

Ay, Oline stopped at nothing, she was intriguing all day long. Sitting there telling Barbro how she herself was friends and on the best of terms with Barbro’s father, with Brede Olsen! Ho, many a pleasant hour they’d had together, and a kindly man and rich and grand to boot was Brede, and never a hard word in his mouth.

But this could not go on for ever; neither Axel nor Barbro cared to have Oline there any longer, and Barbro had taken over all her work. Oline made no complaint, but she flashed dangerous glances at her young mistress and changed her tone ever so little.

“Ay, great folk, ’tis true. Axel, he was in town a while last harvest-time-you didn’t meet him there, maybe? Nay, that’s true, you were in Bergen that time. But he went into town, he did; ’twas all to buy a mowing-machine and a harrow-machine. And what’s folk at Sellanraa now beside you here? Nothing to compare!”

She was beginning to shoot out little pinpricks, but even that did not help her now; neither of them feared her. Axel told her straight out one day that she must go.

“Go?” says Oline. “And how? Crawling, be like?” No, she would not go, saying by way of excuse that she was poorly, and could not move her legs. And to make things bad as could be, when once they had taken the work off her hands, and she had nothing to do at all, she collapsed, and was thoroughly ill. She kept about for a week in spite of it, Axel looking furiously at her; but she stayed on from sheer malice, and at last she had to take to her bed.

And now she lay there, not in the least awaiting her blessed end, but counting the hours till she should be up and about again. She asked for a doctor, a piece of extravagance unheard of in the wilds.

“Doctor?” said Axel. “Are you out of your senses?”

“How d’you mean, then?” said Oline quite gently, as to something she could not understand. Ay, so gentle and smooth-tongued was she, so glad to think she need not be a burden to others; she could pay for the doctor herself.

“Ho, can you?” said Axel.

“Why, and couldn’t I, then?” says Oline.

“And, anyway, you’d not have me lie here and die like a dumb beast in the face of the Lord?”

Here Barbro put in a word, and was unwise enough to say:

“Well, what you’ve got to complain of, I’d like to know, when I bring you in your meals and all myself? As for coffee, I’ve said you’re better with out it, and meaning well.”

“Is that Barbro?” says Oline, turning just her eyes and no more to look for her; ay, she is poorly is Oline, and a pitiful sight with her eyes screwed round cornerways. “Ay, maybe ’tis as you say, Barbro, if a tiny drop of coffee’d do me any harm, a spoonful and no more.”

“If ’twas me in your stead, I’d be thinking of other things than coffee at this hour,” says Barbro.

“Ay, ’tis as I say,” answers Oline. “’Twas never your way to wish and desire a fellow-creature’s end, but rather they should be converted and live. What . . . ay, I’m lying here and seeing things. . . . Is it with child you are now, Barbro?”

“What’s that you say?” cries Barbro furiously; and goes on again: “Oh, ‘twould serve you right if I took and heaved you out on the muck-heap for your wicked tongue.”

And at that the invalid was silent for one thoughtful moment, her mouth trembling as if trying so hard to smile, but dare not.

“I heard a some one calling last night,” says she.

“She’s out of her senses,” says Axel, whispering.

“Nay, out of my senses that I’m not. Like some one calling it was. From the woods, or maybe from the stream up yonder. Strange to hear — as it might be a bit of a child crying out. Was that Barbro went out?”

“Ay,” says Axel. “Sick of your nonsense, and no wonder.”

“Nonsense, you call it, and out of any senses, and all? Ah, but not so far as you’d like to think,” says Oline. “Nay, ’tis not the Almighty’s will and decree I should come before Throne and before the Lamb as yet, with all I know of goings-on here at Maaneland. I’ll be up and about again, never fear; but you’d better be fetching a doctor, Axel, ’tis quicker that way. What about that cow you were going to give me?”

“Cow? What cow?”

“That cow you promised me. Was it Bordelin, maybe?”

“You’re talking wild,” says Axel.

“You know how you promised me a cow the day I saved your life.”

“Nay, that I never knew.”

At that Oline lifts up her head and looks at him. Grey and bald she is, a head standing up on a long, scraggy neck — ugly as a witch, as an ogress out of a story. And Axel starts at the sight, and fumbles with a hand behind his back for the latch of the door.

“Ho,” says Oline, “so you’re that sort! Ay, well — say no more of it now. I can live without the cow from this day forth, and never a word I’ll say nor breathe of it again. But well that you’ve shown what sort and manner of man you are this day; I know it now. Ay, and I’ll know it another time.”

But Oline, she died that night — some time in the night; anyway, she was cold next morning when they came in.

Oline — an aged creature. Born and died. . . .

’Twas no sorrow to Axel nor Barbro to bury her, and be quit of her for ever; there was less to be on their guard against now, they could be at rest. Barbro is having trouble with her teeth again; save for that, all is well. But that everlasting woollen muffler over her face, and shifting it aside every time there’s a word to say — ’twas plaguy and troublesome enough, and all this toothache is something of a mystery to Axel. He has noticed, certainly, that she chews her food in a careful sort of way, but there’s not a tooth missing in her head.

“Didn’t you get new teeth?” he asks.

“Ay, so I did.”

“And are they aching, too?”

“Ah, you with your nonsense!” says Barbro irritably, for all that Axel has asked innocently enough. And in her bitterness she lets out what is the matter. “You can see how ’tis with me, surely?”

How ’twas with her? Axel looks closer, and fancies she is stouter than need be.

“Why, you can’t be — ’tis surely not another child again?” says he.

“Why, you know it is,” says she.

Axel stares foolishly at her. Slow of thought he is, he sits there counting for a bit: one week, two weeks, getting on the third week. . . .

“Nay, how I should know. .. .” says he.

But Barbro is losing all patience with this debate, and bursts out, crying aloud, crying like a deeply injured creature: “Nay, you can take and bury me, too, in the ground, and then you’ll be rid of me.”

Strange, what odd things a woman can find to cry for!

Axel had never a thought of burying her in the ground; he is a thick-skinned fellow, looking mainly to what is useful; a pathway carpeted with flowers is beyond his needs.

“Then you’ll not be fit to work in the fields this summer?” says he.

“Not work?” says Barbro, all terrified again. And then — strange what odd things a woman can find to smile for! Axel, taking it that way, sent a flow of hysterical joy through Barbro, and she burst out: “I’ll work for two! Oh, you wait and see, Axel; I’ll do all you set me to, and more beyond. Wear myself to the bone, I will, and be thankful, if only you’ll put up with me so!”

More tears and smiles and tenderness after that. Only the two of them in the wilds, none to disturb, them; open doors and a humming of flies in the summer heat. All so tender and willing was Barbro; ay, he might do as he pleased with her, and she was willing.

After sunset he stands harnessing up to the mowing-machine; there’s a bit he can still get done ready for tomorrow. Barbro comes hurrying out, as if she’s something important, and says:

“Axel, how ever could you think of getting home from America? She couldn’t get here before winter, and what use of her then?” And that was something had just come into her head, and she must come running out with it as if ’twas something needful.

But ’twas no way needful; Axel had seen the first that taking Barbro would mean getting help for all the year. No swaying and swinging with Axel, no thinking with his head among the stars. Now he’s a woman of his own to look after the place, he can keep on the telegraph business for a bit. ’Tis a deal of money in the year, and good to reckon with as long as he’s barely enough for his needs from the land, and little to sell. All sound and working well; all good reality. And little to fear from Brede about the telegraph line, he’s son-in-law to Brede now.

Ay, things are looking well, looking grand with Axel now.

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