The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XII

A NOTABLE procession coming up to Sellanraa; something laughable to look at, maybe, but more than that. Three men with enormous burdens, with sacks hanging down from their shoulders, front and back. Walking one be hind the other, and calling to one another with jesting words, but heavily laden. Little Andresen, chief clerk, is head of that procession; indeed, ’tis his procession; he has fitted out himself, and Sivert from Sellanraa, and one other, Fredrik Ström from Breidablik, for the expedition. A notable little man is Andresen; his shoulder is weighed down slantwise on one side, and his jacket pulled all awry at the neck, the way he goes, but he carries his burden on and on.

Storborg and the business Eleseus had left — well, not bought it straight out on the spot, perhaps, ’tis more than Andresen could afford; better afford to wait a bit and get the whole maybe for nothing. Andresen is no fool; he has taken over the place on lease for the meanwhile, and manages the business himself.

Gone through the stock in hand, and found a deal of unsalable truck in Eleseus’ store, even to such things as toothbrushes and embroidered table centres; ay, and stuffed birds on springs that squeaked when you pressed in the right place.

These are the things he has started out with now, going to sell them to the miners on the other side of the hills. He knows from Aronsen’s time that miners with money in their pockets will buy anything on earth. Only a pity he had to leave behind six rocking-horses that Eleseus had ordered on his last trip to Bergen.

The caravan turns into the yard at Sellanraa and sets down its load. No long wait here; they drink a mug of milk, and make pretence of trying to sell their wares on the spot, then shoulder their burdens and off again. They are not out for pretence. Off they go, trundling southward through the forest.

They march till noon, rest for a meal and on again till evening. Then they camp and make a fire, lie down, and sleep a while. Sivert sleeps resting on a boulder that he calls an arm-chair. Oh, Sivert knows what he is about; here’s the sun been warming that boulder all day, till it’s a good place to sit and sleep. His companions are not so wise, and will not take advice; they lie down in the heather, and wake up feeling cold, and sneezing. Then they have breakfast and start off again.

Listening now, for any sound of blasting about; they are hoping to come on the mine, and meet with folk some time that day. The work should have got so far by now; a good way up from the water towards Sellanraa. But never a sound of blasting anywhere. They march till noon, meeting never a soul; but here and there they come upon holes in the ground, where men have been digging for trial. What can this mean? Means, no doubt, that the ore must be more than commonly rich at the farther end of the tract; they are getting out pure heavy copper, and keeping to that end all the time.

In the afternoon they come upon several more mines, but no miners; they march on till evening, and already they can make out the sea below; marching through a wilderness of deserted mines, and never a sound. ’Tis all beyond understanding, but nothing for it; they must camp and sleep out again that night. They talk the matter over: Can the work have stopped? Should they turn and go back again?” Not a bit of it,” says Andresen.

Next morning a man walks into their camp — a pale, haggard man who looks at them frowningly, piercingly. “That you, Andresen?” says the man. It is Aronsen, Aronsen the trader. He does not say “No” to a cup of hot coffee and something to eat with the caravan, and settles down at once. “I saw the smoke of your fire, and came up to see what it was,” says he. “I said to myself, ‘Sure enough, they’re coming to their senses, and starting work again.’ And ’twas only you, after all! Where you making for, then?”

“Here.”

“What’s that you’ve got with you?”

“Goods.”

“Goods?” cries Aronsen.” Coming up here with goods for sale? Who’s to buy them? There’s never a soul. They left last Saturday gone.”

“Left? Who left?”

“All the lot. Not a soul on the place now. And I’ve goods. enough myself, anyway. A whole store packed full. I’ll sell you anything you like.”

Oh, Trader Aronsen in difficulties again! The mine has shut down.

They ply him with coffee till he grows calmer’ and asks what it all means.

Aronsen shakes his head despairingly. “’Tis beyond understanding, there’s no words for it,” says he. All had been going so well, and he had been selling goods, and money pouring in; the village round all flourishing, and using the finest meal, and a new schoolhouse, and hanging lamps and town-made boots, and all! Then suddenly their lordships up at the mine take it into their heads that the thing isn’t paying, and close down. Not paying? But it paid them before? Wasn’t there clean copper there and plain to see at every blasting? ’Twas rank cheating, no less. “And never a thought of what it means to a man like me. Ay, I doubt it’s as they say; ’tis that Geissler’s at the bottom of it all, same as before. No sooner he’d come up than the work stopped; ’twas as if he’d smelt it out somehow.”

“Geissler, is he here, then?”

“Is he not? Ought to be shot, he ought! Comes up one day by the steamer and says to the engineer: ‘Well, how’s things going? ‘ — ‘ All right, as far as I can see,’ says the engineer. But Geissler he just stands there, and asks again: ‘Ho, all right is it?’ — ‘Ay, as far as I know,’ says the engineer. But as true as I’m here, no sooner the post comes up from that same boat Geissler had come by, than there’s letter and telegram both to the engineer that the work wasn’t paying, and he’s to shut down at once.”

The members of the expedition look at one another, but the leader, Andresen himself, has not lost courage yet.

“You may just as well turn back and go home again,” is Aronsen’s advice.

“We’re not doing that,” says Andresen, and packs up the coffee-pot.

Aronsen stares at the three of them in turn. “You’re mad, then,” says he.

Look you, Andresen he cares little now for what his master that was can say; he’s master himself now, leader of an expedition equipped at his own expense for a journey to distant parts; ‘twould lose him his prestige to turn back now where he is.

“Well, where will you go?” asks Aronsen irritably.

“Can’t say,” answers Andresen. But he’s a notion of his own all the same, no doubt; thinking, maybe, of the natives, and coming down into the district three men strong, with glass beads and finger rings. “We’ll be getting on,” says he to the rest.

Now, Aronsen had thought like enough to go farther up that morning, seeing he’d come so far, wanting, maybe, to see if all the place was quite deserted, if it could be true every man on the place was gone.

But seeing these pedlar-folk so set on going on, it hinders him, and he tells them again and again they’re mad to try. Aronsen is furious himself, marches down in front of the caravan, turning round and shouting at them, barking at them, trying to keep them out of his district. And so they come down to the huts in the mining centre.

A little town of huts, but empty and desolate. Most of the tools and implements are housed under cover, but poles and planks, broken carts and cases and barrels, lie ail about in disorder; here and there a notice on a door declares “No admittance.”

“There you are,” cries Aronsen. “What did I say? Not a soul in the place.” And he threatens the caravan with disaster — he will send for the Lensmand; anyway, he’s going to follow them every step now, and if he can catch them at any unlawful trading ’tis penal servitude and slavery, no mistake!

All at once somebody calls out for Sivert. The place is not altogether dead, after all, not utterly deserted; here is a man standing beckoning at the corner of a house. Sivert trundles over with his load, and sees at once who it is — Geissler.

“Funny meeting you here,” says Geissler. His face is red and flourishing, but his eyes apparently cannot stand the glare of spring, he is wearing smoked glasses. He talks as brilliantly as ever. “Luckiest thing in the world,” says he. “Save me going all the way up to Sellanraa; and I’ve a deal to look after. How many settlers are there in the Almenning now?”

“Ten.”

“Ten new holdings. I’ll agree. I’m satisfied. But ’tis two-and-thirty-thousand men of your father’s stamp the country wants. Ay, that’s what I say, and I mean it; I’ve reckoned it out.”

“Sivert, are you coming on?” The caravan is waiting.

Geissler hears, and calls back sharply: “No.”

“I’ll come on after,” calls Sivert, and sets down his load.

The two men sit down and talk. Geissler is in the right mood today; the spirit moves him, and he talk all the time, only pausing when Sivert puts in a word or so in answer, and then going on again. “A mighty lucky thing — can’t help saying it. Everything turned out just as I wanted all the way up, and now meeting you here and saving all the journey to Sellanraa. All well at home, what?”

“All well, and thank you kindly.”

“Got up that hayloft yet, over the cowshed?”

“Ay, ’tis done.”

“Well, well — I’ve a heap of things to look to almost more than I can manage. Look at where we’re sitting now, for instance. What d’you say to that, Sivert man, Ruined city, eh? Men gone about to build it all against their nature and well-being. Properly speaking, it’s all my fault from the start — that is to say, I’m a humble agent in the workings of fate. It all began when your father picked up some bits of stone up in the hills, and gave you to play with when you were a child. That was how it started. I knew well enough those bits of stone were worth exactly as much as men would give for them, no more; well and good, I set a price on them myself, and bought them. Then the stones passed from hand to hand, and did no end of damage. Time went on. And now, a few days ago, I came up here again, and what for, d’you think? To buy those stones back again!”

Geissler stops for a moment, and looks at Sivert. Then suddenly he glances at the sack, and asks: “What’s that you’re carrying?”

“Goods,” says Sivert. “We’re taking them down to the village.”

Geissler does not seem interested in the answer; has not even heard it, like as not. He goes on:

“Buy them back again — yes. Last time, I let my son manage the deal; he sold them then. Young fellow about your own age, that’s all about him. He’s the lightning in the family, I’m more a sort of fog. Know what’s the right thing to do, but don’t do it. But he’s the lightning — and he’s entered the service of industry for the time being. ’Twas he sold for me last time. I’m something and he’s not, he’s only the lightning; quick to act, modern type. But the lightning by itself’s a barren thing. Look at you folk at Sellanraa, now; looking up at blue peaks every day of your lives; no new-fangled inventions about that, but fjeld and rocky peaks, rooted deep in the past — but you’ve them for companionship. There you are, living in touch with heaven and earth, one with them, one with all these wide, deep-rooted things. No need of a sword in your hands, you go through life bareheaded, barehanded, in the midst of a great kindliness. Look, Nature’s there, for you and yours to have and enjoy. Man and Nature don’t bombard each other, but agree; they don’t compete, race one against the other, but go together. There’s you Sellanraa folk, in all this, living there. Fjeld and forest, moors and meadow, and sky and stars — oh, ’tis not poor and sparingly counted out, but without measure. Listen to me, Sivert: you be content! You’ve everything to live on, everything to live for, everything to believe in; being born and bringing forth, you are the needful on earth. ’Tis not all that are so, but you are so; needful on earth. ’Tis you that maintain life. Generation to generation, breeding ever anew; and when you die, the new stock goes on. That’s the meaning of eternal life. What do you get out of it? An existence innocently and properly set towards all. What you get out of it? Nothing can put you under orders and lord it over you Sellanraa folk, you’ve peace and authority and this great kindliness all round. That’s what you get for it. You lie at a mother’s breast and suck, and play with a mother’s warm hand. There’s your father now, he’s one of the two-and-thirty thousand. What’s to be said of many another? I’m something, I’m the fog, as it were, here and there, floating around, sometimes coming like rain on dry ground. But the others? There’s my son, the lightning that’s nothing in itself, a flash of barrenness; he can act. My son, ay, he’s the modern type, a man of our time; he believes honestly enough all the age has taught him, all the Jew and the Yankee have taught him; I shake my head at it all. But there’s nothing mythical about me; ’tis only in the family, so to speak, that I’m like a fog. Sit there shaking my head. Tell the truth — I’ve not the power of doing things and not regretting it. If I had, I could be lightning myself. Now I’m a fog.”

Suddenly Geissler seems to recollect himself, and asks: “Got up that hayloft yet, above the cowshed?”

“Ay, that’s done. And father’s put up a new house.”

“New house?”

“’Tis in case any one should come, he says — in case Geissler he should happen to come along.”

Geissler thinks over this, and takes his decision: “Well, then, I’d better come. Yes, I’ll come; you can tell your father that. But I’ve a heap of things to look to. Came up here and told the engineer to let his people in Sweden know I was ready to buy. And we’d see what happened. All the same to me, no hurry. You ought to have seen that engineer — here he’s been going about and keeping it all up with men and horses and money and machines and any amount of fuss; thought it was all right, knew no better. The more bits of stone he can turn into money, the better; he thinks he’s doing some thing clever and deserving, bringing money to the place, to the country, and everything nearing disaster more and more, and he’s none the wiser. ’Tis not money the country wants, there’s more than enough of it already; ’tis men like your father there’s not enough of. Ay, turning the means to an end in itself and being proud of it! They’re mad, diseased; they don’t work, they know nothing of the plough, only the dice. Mighty deserving of them, isn’t it, working and wasting themselves to nothing in their own mad way. Look at them — staking everything, aren’t they? There’s but this much wrong with it all; they forget that gambling isn’t courage, ’tis not even foolhardy courage, ’tis a horror. D’you know what gambling is? ’Tis fear, with the sweat on your brow, that’s what it is. What’s wrong with them is, they won’t keep pace with life, but want to go faster — race on, tear on ahead, driving themselves into life itself like wedges. And then the flanks of them say: here, stop, there’s something breaking, find a remedy; stop, say the flanks! And then life crushes them, politely but firmly crushes them. And then they set to complaining about life, raging against life! Each to his own taste; some may have ground to complain, others not, but there’s none should rage against life. Not be stern and strict and just with life, but be merciful to it, and take its part; only think of the gamblers life has to bear with!”

Geissler recollects himself again, and says: “Well, all that’s as it may be; leave it!” He is evidently tired, beginning to breathe in little gasps. “Going down?” says he.

“Ay.”

“There’s no hurry. You owe me a long walk over the hills, Sivert man, remember that? I remember it all. I remember from the time I was a year and a half; stood leaning down from the barn bridge at Garmo, and noticed a smell. I can smell it again now. But all that’s as it may be, that too; but we might have done that trip over the hills now if you hadn’t got that sack. What’s in it?”

“Goods. ’Tis Andresen is going to sell them.”

“Well, then, I’m a man that knows what’s the right thing to do, but doesn’t do it,” says Geissler. “I’m the fog. Now perhaps I’ll buy that mine back again one of these days, it’s not impossible; but if I do, it wouldn’t be to go about staring up at the sky and sating; ‘Aerial railway! South America!’ No, leave that to the gamblers. Folk hereabout say I must be the devil himself because I knew before hand this was going to break up. But there’s nothing mystical about me, ’tis simple enough. The new copper mines in Montana, that’s all. The Yankees are smarter than we are at that game; they are cutting us to death in South America — our ore here’s too poor. My son’s the lightning; he got the news, and I came floating up here. Simple, isn’t it? I beat those fellows in Sweden by a few hours, that’s all.”

Geissler is short of breath again; he gets on his feet, and says: “If you’re going down, let’s get along.”

They go on down together, Geissler dragging behind, all tired out. The caravan has stopped at the quay, and Fredrik Ström, cheerful as ever, is poking fun at Aronsen: “I’m clean out of tobacco; got any tobacco, what?”

“I’ll give you tobacco,” said Aronsen threateningly.

Fredrik laughs, and says comfortingly: “Nay, you’ve no call to take it all heavy-like and sad, Aronsen. We’re just going to sell these things here before your eyes, and then we’ll be off home again.”

“Get away and wash your dirty mouth,” says Aronsen furiously.

“Ha ha ha! Nay, you’ve no call to dance about that way; keep still and look like a picture!”

Geissler is tired, tired out, even his smoked glasses do not help him now, his eyes keep closing in the glare.

“Good-bye, Sivert man,” says he all at once. “No, I can’t get up to Sellanraa this time, after all; tell your father. I’ve a heap of things to see to. But I’ll come later on — say that . . . ”

Aronsen spits after him, and says: “Ought to be shot!”

For three days the caravan peddles its wares, selling out the contents of the sacks, and getting good prices. It was a brilliant piece of business. The village folk were still well supplied with money after the downfall of the mine, and were excellently in form in the way of spending; those stuffed birds on springs were the very thing they wanted; they set them up on chests of drawers in their parlours, and also bought nice paper-knives, the very thing for cutting the leaves of an almanac. Aronsen was furious. “Just as if I hadn’t things every bit as good in my store,” said he.”

Trader Aronsen was in a sorry way; he had made up his mind to keep with these pedlars and their sacks, watching them all the time; but they went separate ways about the village, each for himself, and Aronsen almost tore himself to pieces trying to follow all at once. First he gave up Fredrik Ström, who was quickest at saying unpleasant things; then Sivert, because he never said a word, but went on selling; at last he stuck to following his former clerk, and trying to set folk against him wherever he went in. Oh, but Andresen knew his master that was — knew him of old, and how little he knew of business and unlawful trading.

“Ho, you mean to say English thread’s not prohibited? “ said Aronsen, looking wise.

“I know it is,” answered Andresen. “But I’m not carrying any this way; I can sell that elsewhere. I haven’t a reel in my pack; look for yourself, if you like.”

“That’s as it may be,” says Aronsen. “Anyway, I know what’s forbidden, and I’ve shown you, so don’t try to teach me.”

Aronsen stood it for a whole day, then he gave up Andresen, too, and went home. The pedlars had no one to watch them after that.

And then things began to go swimmingly. It was in the day when womenfolk used to wear loose plaits in their hair; and Andresen, he was the man to sell loose plaits. Ay, at a pinch he could sell fair plaits to dark girls, and be sorry he’d nothing lighter; no grey plaits, for instance, for that was the finest of all. And every evening the three young salesmen met at an appointed place and went over the day’s trade, each borrowing from another anything he’d sold out of; and Andresen would sit down, often as not, and take out a file and file away the German trade-mark from a sportsman’s whistle, or rub out “Faber” on the pens and pencils. Andresen was a trump, and always had been.

Sivert, on the other hand, was rather a disappointment. Not that he was any way slack, and failed to sell his goods — ’twas he, indeed, sold most — but he did not get enough for them. “You don’t put in enough patter with it,” said Andresen.

No, Sivert was no hand at reeling off a lot of talk; he was a fieldworker, sure of what he said, and speaking calmly when he spoke at all. What was there to talk about here? Also, Sivert was anxious to be done with it and get back home, there was work to do in the fields.

“’Tis that Jensine’s calling him,” Fredrik Ström explained. Fredrik, himself, by the way, had work on his own fields to be done that spring, and little time to waste; but for all that, he must look in on Aronsen the last day and get up an argument with him. “I’ll sell him the empty sacks,” said he.

Andresen and Sivert stayed outside while he went in. They heard grand goings-on inside the store, both talking at once, and Fredrik setting up a laugh now and again; then Aronsen threw open the door and showed his visitor out. Oh, but Fredrik didn’t come out — no, he took his time, and talked a lot more. The last thing they heard from outside was Fredrik trying to sell Aronsen a lot of rocking-horses.

Then the caravan went home again — three young men full of life and health. They marched and sang, slept a few hours in the open, and went on again. When they got back to Sellanraa on the Monday, Isak had begun sowing. The weather was right for it; the air moist, with the sun peeping out now and again, and a mighty rainbow strung right across the heavens.

The caravan broke up — Farvel, Farvel. . .

Isak at his sowing; a stump of a man, a barge of a man to look at, nothing more. Clad in home-spun — wool from his own sheep, boots from the hide of his own cows and calves. Sowing — and he walks religiously bareheaded to that work; his head is bald just at the very top, but all the rest of him shamefully hairy; a fan, a wheel of hair and beard, stands out from his face. ’Tis Isak, the Margrave.

’Twas rarely he knew the day of the month — what need had he of that? He had no bills to be met on a certain date; the marks on his almanac were to show the time when each of the cows should bear. But he knew St. Olaf’s Day in the autumn, that by then his hay must be in, and he knew Candlemas in spring, and that three weeks after then the bears came out of their winter quarters; all seed must be in the earth by then. He knew what was needful.

A tiller of the ground, body and soul; a worker on the land without respite. A ghost risen out of the past to point the future, a man from the earliest days of cultivation, a settler in the wilds, nine hundred years old, and, withal, a man of the day.

Nay, there was nothing left to him now of the copper mine and its riches — the money had vanished into air. And who had anything left of all that wealth when the working stopped, and the hills lay dead and deserted? But the Almenning was there still, and ten new holdings on that land, beckoning a hundred more.

Nothing growing there? All things growing there; men and beasts and fruit of the soil. Isak sowing his corn. The evening sunlight falls on the corn that flashes out in an arc from his hand, and falls like a dropping of gold to the ground. Here comes Sivert to the harrowing; after that the roller, and then the harrow again. Forest and field look on. All is majesty and power — a sequence and purpose of things.

Kling . . . eling . . . say the cow bells far up on the hillside, coming nearer and nearer; the cattle are coming home for the night. Fifteen head of them, and five-and-forty sheep and goats besides; threescore in all. There go the women out with their milk-pails, carried on yokes from the shoulder Leopoldine, Jensine, and little Rebecca. All three barefooted. The Margravine, Inger herself, is not with them; she is indoors preparing the meal. Tall and stately, as she moves about her house, a Vestal tending the fire of a kitchen stove. Inger has made her stormy voyage, ’tis true, has lived in a city a while, but now she is home; the world is wide, swarming with tiny specks — Inger has been one of them. All but nothing in all humanity, only one speck.

Then comes the evening.

The End

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