The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter III

Isak worked on the land until the frost set in; there were stones and roots to be dug up and cleared away, and the meadow to be levelled ready for next year. When the ground hardened, he left his field work and became a woodman, felling I and cutting up great quantities of logs.

“What do you want with all these logs?” Inger would say.

“Oh, they’ll be useful some way,” said Isak off handedly, as though he had no plan. But Isak had a plan, never fear. Here was virgin forest, a dense growth, right close up to the house, a barrier hedging in his fields where he wanted room. Moreover, there must be some way of getting the logs down to the village that winter; there were folk enough would be glad of wood for firing. It was sound enough, and Isak was in no doubt; he stuck to his work in the forest, felling trees and cutting them up into logs.

Inger came out often, to watch him at work. He took no notice, but made as if her coming were no matter, and not at all a thing he wished for her to do; but she understood all the same that it pleased him to have her there. They had a strange way, too, of speaking to each other at times.

“Couldn’t you find things to do but come out here and get stark frozen?” says Isak.

“I’m well enough for me,” says Inger. “But I can’t see there’s any living sense in you working yourself to death like you do.”

“Ho! You just pick up that coat of mine there and put it on you.”

“Put on your coat? Likely, indeed. I’ve no time to sit here now, with Goldenhorns ready to calve and all.”

“H’m. Calving, you say?”

“As if you didn’t know! But what do you think now about that same calf. Let it stay and be weaned, maybe?”

“Do as you think; ’tis none of my business with calves and things.”

“Well, ‘twould be a pity to eat up calf, seems to me. And leave us with but one cow on the place.”

“Don’t seem to me like you’d do that anyway,” says Isak.

That was their way. Lonely folk, ugly to look at and overfull of growth, but a blessing for each other, for the beasts, and for the earth.

And Goldenhorns calved. A great day in the wilderness, a joy and a delight. They gave her flour-wash, and Isak himself saw to it there war no stint of flour, though he had carried it all the way himself, on his back. And there lay a pretty calf, a beauty, red-flanked like her mother, and comically bewildered at the miracle of coming into the world. In a couple of years she would be having her own.

“’Twill be a grand fine cow when she grows up,” said Inger. “And what are we to call her, now? I can’t think.”

Inger was childish in her ways, and no clever wit for anything.

“Call her?” said Isak. “Why, Silverhorns, of course; what else?”

The first snow came. As soon as there was a passable road, Isak set out for the village, full of concealment and mystery as ever, when Inger asked his errand. And sure enough, he came back this time with a new and unthinkable surprise. A horse and sledge, nothing less.

“Here’s foolishness,” says Inger. “And, you’ve not stolen it, I suppose?”

“Stolen it?”

“Well, found it, then?”

Now if only he could have said: “’Tis my — our horse . . . .” But to tell the truth, he had only hired it, after all. Hired horse and sledge to cart his logs.

Isak drove down with his loads of firewood, and brought back food, herrings and flour. And one day he came up with a young bull on the sledge; bought it for next to nothing, by reason they were getting short of fodder down in the village. Shaggy and thin, no ways a beauty, but decently built for all that and wanted no more than proper feed to set it right. And with a cow they had already . . . “What’ll you be bringing up next?” said Inger.

Isak brought up a host of things. Brought up planks and a saw he had got in exchange for timber; a grindstone, a wafer iron, tools — all in exchange for his logs. Inger was bursting with riches, and said each time: “What, more things! When we’ve cattle and all a body could think of!”

They had enough to meet their needs for no little time to come, and were well-to-do folk. What was Isak to start on again next spring? He had thought it all out, tramping down beside his loads of wood that winter; he would clear more ground over the hillside and level it off, cut up more logs to dry the summer, and take down double loads when the snow came fit for sledging. It worked out beautifully.

But there was another matter Isak had thought of times out of number: that Goldenhorns, where had she come from, whose had she been? There was never a wife on earth like Inger. Ho! a wild thing she was, that let him do as he pleased with her, and was glad of it. But — suppose one day they were to come for the cow, and take it away — and worse, maybe, to come after? What was it Inger herself had said about the horse: “You haven’t stolen it, I suppose, or found it?” That was her first thought, yes. That was what she had said; who could say if she were to be trusted — what should he do? He had thought of it all many a time. And here he had brought up a mate himself for the cow — for a stolen cow, maybe!

And there was the horse he would have to return again. A pity — for ’twas a little friendly beast, and grown fond of them already.

“Never mind,” said Inger comfortingly. “Why, you’ve done wonders already.”

“Ay, but just now with the spring coming on — and I’ve need of a horse. . . . ”

Next morning he drove off quietly with the last load, and was away two days. Coming back on foot the third day, he stopped as he neared the house, and stood listening. There was a curious noise inside. . . . A child crying — Eyah, Herregud! . . . Well, there it was; but a terrible strange thing. And Inger had never said a word.

He stepped inside, and there first thing of all was the packing-case — the famous packing-case that he had carried home slung round his neck in front; there it was, hung up by a string at each end from the ceiling, a cradle and a bedplace for the child. Inger was up, pattering about half-dressed — she had milked the cow and the goats, as it might have been just an ordinary day.

The child stopped crying. “You’re through with it already?” said Isak.

“Ay, I’m through with it now.”

“H’m.”

“It came the first evening you were gone.”

“H’m.”

“I’d only to get my things off and hang up the cradle there, but it was too much for me, like, and I had to lie down.”.

“Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Why, I couldn’t say to a minute when it’d be. ’Tis a boy.”

“Ho, a boy.”

“And I can’t for the life of me think what we’re to call him,” said Inger.

Isak peeped at the little red face; well shaped it was, and no hare-lip, and a growth of hair all thick on the head. A fine little fellow for his rank and station in a packing-case; Isak felt himself curiously weak. The rugged man stood there with a miracle before him; a thing created first of all in a sacred mist, showing forth now in life with a little face like an allegory. Days and years, and the miracle would be a human being.

“Come and have your food,” said Inger. . . .

Isak is a woodman, felling trees and sawing logs. He is better off now than before, having a saw. He works away, and mighty piles of wood grow up; he makes a street of them, a town, built up of stacks and piles of wood. Inger is more about the house now, and does not come out as before to watch him at his work; Isak must find a pretext now and then to slip off home for a moment instead. Queer to have a little fellow like that about the place! Isak, of course, would never dream of taking any notice — ’twas but a bit of a thing in a packing-case. And as for being fond of it . . . But when it cried, well, it was only human nature to feel just a little something for a cry like that; a little tiny cry like that.

“Don’t touch him!” says Inger. “With your hands all messed up with resin and all!”

“Resin, indeed!” says Isak. “Why, I haven’t had resin on my hands since I built this house. Give me the boy, let me take him — there, he’s as right as can be!”

Early in May came a visitor. A woman came over the hills to that lonely place where none ever came; she was of Inger’s kinsfolk, though not near, and they made her welcome.

“I thought I’d just look in,” she says, “and see how Goldenhorns gets on since she left us.”

Inger looks at the child, and talks to it in a little pitying voice: “Ah, there’s none asks how he’s getting on, that’s but a little tiny thing.”

“Why, as for that, any one can see how he’s getting on. A fine little lad and all. And who’d have thought it a year gone, Inger, to find you here with house and husband and child and all manner of things.”

“’Tis no doing of mine to praise. But there’s one sitting there that took me as I was and no more.”

“And wedded? — Not wedded yet, no, I see.”

“We’ll see about it, the time this little man’s to be christened,” says Inger. “We’d have been wedded before, but couldn’t come by it, getting down to a church and all. What do you say, Isak?”

“Wedded?” says Isak. “Why, yes, of course.”

“But if as you’d help us, Oline,” says Inger.

“Just to come up for a few days in the off time once, and look to the creatures here while we’re away?”

Ay, Oline would do that.

“We’ll see it’s no loss to you after.”

Why, as to that, she’d leave it to them. . . . “And you’re building again, I see. Now what’ll that be for? Isn’t there built enough?”

Inger sees her chance and puts in here: “Why, you must ask him about that. I’m not to know.”

“Building?” says Isak. “Oh, ’tis nothing to speak of. A bit of a shed, maybe, if we should need it. What’s that you were saying about Goldenhorns? You’d like to see her?”

They go across to the cowshed, and there’s cow and calf to show, and an ox to boot. The visitor nods her head, looking at the beasts, and at the shed; all fine as could be, and clean as couldn’t be cleaner. “Trust Inger for looking after creatures every way,” says Oline.

Isak puts a question: “Goldenhorns was at your place before?”

“Ay, from a calf. Not my place, though; at my son’s. But ’tis all the same. And we’ve her mother still.”

Isak had not heard better news a long while; it was a burden lighter. Goldenhorns was his and Inger’s by honest right. To tell the truth, he had half thought of getting rid of his trouble in a sorry way; to kill off the cow that autumn, scrape the hide, bury the horns, and thus make away with all trace of Cow Goldenhorns in this life. No need for that now. And he grew mightily proud of Inger all at once.

“Ay, Inger,” says he. “She’s one to manage things, that’s true. There’s not her like nor equal to be found. ’Twas a poor place here till I got a woman of my own, as you might say.”

“Why, ’tis but natural so,” says Oline.

And so this woman from across the hills, a soft spoken creature with her wits about her, and by name Oline, she stayed with them a couple of days, and had the little room to sleep in. And, when she set out for home, she had a bundle of wool that Inger had given her, from the sheep. There was no call to hide that bundle of wool, but Oline took care that Isak should not see it.

Then the child and Isak and his wife again; the same world again, and the work of the day, with many little joys and big. Goldenhorns was yielding well, the goats had dropped their kids and were yielding well; Inger had a row of red and white cheeses already, stored away to get ripe. It was her plan to save up cheeses till there were enough to buy a loom. Oh, that Inger; she knew how to weave.

And Isak built a shed — he too had a plan of his own, no doubt. He set up a new wing built out from the side of the turf hut, with double panelling boards, made a doorway in it, and a neat little window with four panes; laid on a roof of outer boards, and made do with that till the ground thawed and he could get turf. All that was useful and necessary; no flooring, no smooth-planed walls, but Isak had fixed up a box partition, as for a horse, and a manger.

It was nearing the end of May. The sun had thawed the high ground; Isak roofed in his shed with turf and it was finished. Then one morning he ate a meal to last for the day, took some more food with him, shouldered pick and spade, and went down to the village.

“Bring up three yards of cotton print, if you can,” Inger called after him.

“What do you want with that?” said Isak.

Isak was long away; it almost seemed as if he had gone for good. Inger looked at the weather every day, noting the way of the wind, as if she were expecting a sailing-ship; she went out at nighttime to listen; even thought of taking the child on her arm and going after him. Then at last he came back, with a horse and cart. “Ptro!“ shouted Isak as he drew up; shouted so as to be heard. And the horse was well behaved, and stood as quiet as could be, nodding at the turf hut as if it knew the place again. Nevertheless, Isak must call out, “Hi, come and hold the horse a bit, can’t you?”

Out goes Inger. “Where is it now? Oh, Isak, have you hired him again? Where have you been all this time? ’Tis six days gone.”

“Where d’you think I’d be? Had to go all sorts of ways round to find a road for this cart of mine. Hold the horse a bit, can’t you?”

“Cart of yours! You don’t mean to say you’ve bought that cart?”

Isak dumb; Isak swelling with things unspoken. He lifts out a plough and a harrow he has brought; nails, provisions, a grindstone, a sack of corn. “And how’s the child?” he asks.

“Child’s all right. Have you bought that cart, that’s what I want to know? For here have I been longing and longing for a loom,” says she jestingly, in her gladness at having him back again.

Isak dumb once more, for a long space, busied with his own affairs, pondering, looking round for a place to put all his goods and implements; it was hard to find room for them all. But when Inger gave up asking, and began talking to the horse instead, he came out of his lofty silence at last.

“Ever see a farm without a horse and cart, and plough and harrows, and all the rest of it? And since you want to know, why, I’ve bought that horse and cart, and all that’s in it,” says he.

And Inger could only shake her head and murmur: “Well, I never did see such a man!”

Isak was no longer littleness and humility; he had paid, as it were, like a gentleman, for Goldenhorns. “Here you are,” he could say. “I’ve brought along a horse; we can call it quits.”

He stood there, upright and agile, against his wont; shifted the plough once more, picked it up and carried it with one hand and stood it up against the wall. Oh, he could manage an estate! He took up the other things: the harrow, the grindstone, a new fork he had bought, all the costly agricultural implements, treasures of the new home, a grand array. All requisite appliances — nothing was lacking.

“H’m. As for that loom, why, we’ll manage that too, I dare say, as long as I’ve my health. And there’s your cotton print; they’d none but blue, so I took that.”

There was no end to the things he brought. A bottomless well, rich in all manner of things, like a city store.

Says Inger: “I wish Oline could have seen all this when she was here.”

Just like a woman! Sheer senseless vanity — as if that mattered! Isak sniffed contemptuously. Though perhaps he himself would not have been displeased if Oline had been there to see.

The child was crying.

“Go in and look after the boy,” said Isak. “I’ll look to the horse.”

He takes out the horse and leads it into the stable: ay, here is Isak putting his horse into the stable! Feeds it and strokes it and treats it tenderly. And how much was owing now, on that horse and cart? — Everything, the whole sum, a mighty debt; but it should all be paid that summer, never fear. He had stacks of cordwood to pay with, and some building bark from last year’s cut, not to speak of heavy timber. There was time enough. But later on, when the pride and glory had cooled off a little, there were bitter hours of fear and anxiety; all depended on the summer and the crops; how the year turned out.

The days now were occupied in field work and more field work; he cleared new bits of ground, getting out roots and stones; ploughing, manuring, harrowing, working with pick and spade, breaking lumps of soil and crumbling them with hand and heel; a tiller of the ground always, laying out fields like velvet carpets. He waited a couple of days longer — there was a look of rain about — and then he sowed his corn.

For generations back, into forgotten time, his fathers before him had sowed corn; solemnly, on a still, calm evening, best with a gentle fall of warm and misty rain, soon after the grey goose flight. Potatoes were a new thing, nothing mystic, nothing religious; women and children could plant them — earth-apples that came from foreign parts, like coffee; fine rich food, but much like swedes and mangolds. Corn was nothing less than bread; corn or no corn meant life or death.

Isak walked bareheaded, in Jesu name, a sower. Like a tree-stump with hands to look at, but in his heart like a child. Every cast was made with care, in a spirit of kindly resignation. Look! the tiny grains that are to take life and grow, shoot up into ears, and give more corn again; so it is throughout all the earth where corn is sown. Palestine, America, the valleys of Norway itself — a great wide world, and here is Isak, a tiny speck in the midst of it all, a sower. Little showers of corn flung out fanwise from his hand; a kindly clouded sky, with a promise of the faintest little misty rain.

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