The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter IV

It was the slack time between the seasons, the woman Oline did not come.

Isak was free of the soil now; he had two scythes and two rakes ready for the haymaking; he made long bottom boards for the cart for getting in the hay, and procured a couple of runners and some suitable wood to make a sledge for the winter. Many useful things he did. Even to shelves. He set up a pair of shelves inside the house, as an excellent place to keep various things, such as an almanac — he had bought one at last — and ladles and vessels not in use. Inger thought a deal of those two shelves.

Inger was easily pleased; she thought a great deal of everything. There was Goldenhorns, for instance, no fear of her running away now, with the calf and bull to play with; she ran about in the woods all day long. The goats too were thriving, their heavy udders almost dragging on the ground. Inger made a long robe of blue cotton print, and a little cap of the same stuff, as pretty as could be — and that was for the christening. The boy himself watched her at work many a time; a blessed wonder of a boy he was, and if she was so bent on calling him Eleseus, why, Isak supposed she must have her way. When the robe was finished, it had a long train to it, nigh on a yard and a half of cotton print, and every inch of it money spent; but what of that — the child was their first-born.

“What about those beads of yours?” said Isak. “If as they’re ever to be used at all . . .”

Oh, but Inger had thought of them already, those beads of hers. Trust a mother for that. Inger said nothing, and was very proud. The beads were none so many; they would not make a necklace for the boy, but they would look pretty stitched on the front of his cap, and there they should be.

But Oline did not come.

If it had not been for the cattle, they could have gone off all three of them, and come back a few days later with the child properly christened. And if it had not been for that matter of getting wedded, Inger might have gone by herself.

“If we put off the wedding business for a bit?” said Isak. But Inger was loth to put it off; it would be ten or twelve years at least before Eleseus was old enough to stay behind and look to the milking while they went.

No, Isak must use his brains to find a way. The whole thing had come about somehow without their knowing; maybe the wedding business was just as important as the christening — how should he know? The weather looked like drought — a thoroughly wicked drought; if the rain did not come before long, their crops would be burnt up. But all was in the hand of God. Isak made ready to go down to the village and find some one to come up. All those miles again!

And all that fuss just to be wed and christened Ay, outlying folks had many troubles, great and small.

At last Oline did come. . . .

And now they were wedded and christened, everything decently in order; they had remembered to have the wedding first, so the child could be christened as of a wedded pair. But the drought kept on, and the tiny cornfields were parched, those velvet carpets parched — and why? ’Twas all in the hand of God. Isak mowed his bits of meadow; there was little grass on them for all he had manured them well that spring. mowed and mowed on the hillsides, farther and farther out; mowing and turning and carting home loads of hay, as if he would never tire — for he had a horse already, and a well stocked farm. But by mid-July he had to cut the corn for green fodder, there was no help for it. And now all depended on the potato crop.

What was that about potatoes? Were they just a thing from foreign parts, like coffee; a luxury, an extra? Oh, the potato is a lordly fruit; drought or downpour, it grows and grows all the same. It laughs at the weather, and will stand anything; only deal kindly with it, and it yields fifteen-fold again. Not the blood of a grape, but the flesh of a chest nut, to be boiled or roasted, used in every way. A man may lack corn to make bread, but give him potatoes and he will not starve. Roast them in the embers, and there is supper; boil them in water, and there’s a breakfast ready. As for meat, it’s little is needed beside. Potatoes can be served with what you please; a dish of milk, a herring, is enough. The rich eat them with butter; poor folk manage with a tiny pinch of salt. Isak could make a feast of them on Sundays, with a mess of cream from Goldenhorns’ milk. Poor despised potato — a blessed thing!

But now — things look black even for the potato crop.

Isak looked at the sky unnumbered times in the day. And the sky was blue. Many an evening it looked as if a shower were coming. Isak would go in and say, “Like as not we’ll be getting that rain after all.” And a couple of hours later all would be as hopeless as before.

The drought had lasted seven weeks now, and the heat was serious; the potatoes stood all the time in flower; flowering marvellously, unnaturally. The cornfields looked from a distance as if under snow. Where was it all to end? The almanac said nothing — almanacs nowadays were not what they used to be; an almanac now was no good at all. Now it looked like rain again, and Isak went in to Inger: “We’ll have rain this night, God willing.”

“Is it looking that way?”

“Ay. And the horse is shivering a bit, like they will.”

Inger glanced towards the door and said, “Ay, you see, ’twill come right enough.”

A few drops fell. Hours passed, they had their supper, and when Isak went out in the night to look, the sky was blue.

“Well, well,” said Inger; “anyway, ’twill give the last bit of lichen another day to dry,” said she to comfort him all she could.

Isak had been getting lichen, as much as he could, and had a fine lot, all of the best. It was good fodder, and he treated it as he would hay, covering it over with bark in the woods. There was only a little still left out, and now, when Inger spoke of it, he answered despairingly, as if it were all one, “I’ll not take it in if it is dry.”

“Isak, you don’t mean it!” said Inger.

And next day, sure enough, he did not take it in. He let it out and never touched it, just as he had said. Let it stay where it was, there’d be no rain anyway; let it stay where it was in God’s name! He could take it in some time before Christmas, if so be as the sun hadn’t burnt it all up to nothing.

Isak was deeply and thoroughly offended. It was no longer a pleasure and a delight to sit outside on the door-slab and look out over his lands and be the owner of it all. There was the potato field flowering madly, and drying up; let the lichen stay where it was — what did he care? That Isak! Who could say; perhaps he had a bit of a sly little thought in his mind for all his stolid simpleness; maybe he knew what he was doing after all, trying to tempt the blue sky now, at the change of the moon.

That evening it looked like rain once more. “You ought to have got that lichen in,” said Inger.

“What for?” said Isak, looking all surprised.

“Ay, you with your nonsense — but it might be rain after all.”

“There’ll be no rain this year, you can see for yourself.”

But for all that, it grew curiously dark in the night. They could see through the glass window that it was darker — ay, and as if something beat against the panes, something wet, whatever it might be. Inger woke up. “’Tis rain! look at the windowpanes.”

But Isak only sniffed. “Rain? — not a bit of it. Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Ah, it’s no good pretending,” said Inger.

Isak was pretending — ay, that was it. Rain it was, sure enough, and a good heavy shower — but as soon as it had rained enough to spoil Isak’s lichen, it stopped. The sky was blue. “What did I say,” said Isak, stiff-necked and hard.

The shower made no difference to the potato crop, and days came and went; the sky was blue. Isak set to work on his timber sledge, worked hard at it, and bowed his heart, and planed away humbly at runners and shafts. Eyah, Herregud! Ay, the days came and went, and the child grew. Inger churned and made cheeses; there was no serious danger; folk that had their wits about them and could work need not die for the sake of one bad year. Moreover, after nine weeks, there came a regular blessing of rain, rain all one day and night, and sixteen hours of it pouring as hard as it could. If it had come but two weeks back, Isak would have said, “It’s too late now!” As it was, he said to Inger, “You see, that’ll save some of the potatoes.”

“Ay,” said Inger hopefully. “It’ll save the lot, you’ll see.”

And now things were looking better. Rain every day; good, thorough showers. Everything looking green again, as by a miracle. The potatoes were flowering still, worse than before, and with big berries growing out at the tops, which was not as it should be; but none could say what might be at the roots — Isak had not ventured to look. Then one day Inger went out and found over a score of little potatoes under one plant. “And they’ve five weeks more to grow in,” said Inger. Oh, that Inger, always trying to comfort and speak hopefull through her hare-lip. It was not pretty to hear when she spoke, for a sort of hissing, like steam from a leaky valve, but a comfort all the same out in the wilds. And a happy and cheerful soul she was at all times.

“I wish you could manage to make another bed,” she said to Isak one day.

“Ho!” said he.

“Why, there’s no hurry, but still . . .”

They started getting in the potatoes, and finished by Michaelmas, as the custom is. It was a middling year — a good year; once again it was seen that potatoes didn’t care so much about the weather, but grew up all the same, and could stand a deal. A middling year — a good year . . . well, not perhaps, if they worked it out exactly, but that they couldn’t do this year. A Lapp had passed that way one day and said how fine their potatoes were up there; it was much worse, he said, down in the village.

And now Isak had a few weeks more to work the ground before the frost set in. The cattle were out, grazing where they pleased; it was good to work with them about, and hear the bells, though it did take some of his time now and again. There was the bull, mischievous beast, would take to butting at the lichen stacks; and as for the goats, they were high and low and everywhere, even to the roof of the hut.

Troubles great and small.

One day Isak heard a sudden shout; Inger stood on the door-slab with the child in her arms, pointing over to the bull and the pretty little cow Silverhorns — they were making love. Isak threw down his pick and raced over to the pair, but it was too late, by the look of it. The mischief was done. “Oh, the little rascal, she’s all too young — half a year too soon, a child!” Isak got her into the hut, but It was too late.

“Well, well,” says Inger, “’tis none so bad after all, in a way; if she’d waited, we’d have had both of them bearing at the same time.” Oh, that Inger; not so bright as some, maybe, yet, for all that, she may well have known what she was about when she let the pair loose together that morning.

Winter came, Inger carding and spinning, Isak driving down with loads of wood; fine dry wood and good going; all his debts paid off and settled; horse and cart, plough and harrow his very own. He drove down with Inger’s goats’ milk cheeses, and brought back woollen thread, a loom, shuttles and beam and all; brought back flour and provisions, more planks, and boards and nails; one day he brought home a lamp.

“As true as I’m here I won’t believe it,” says Inger. But she had long had in her mind about a lamp for all that. They lit it the same evening, and were in paradise; little Eleseus he thought, no doubt, it was the sun. “Look how he stares all wondering like,” said Isak. And now Inger could spin of an evening by lamplight.

He brought up linen for shirts, and new hide shoes for Inger. She had asked for some dye-stuffs, too, for the wool, and he brought them. Then one day he came back with a clock. With what? — A clock. This was too much for Inger; she was overwhelmed and could not say a word. Isak hung it up on the wall, and set it at a guess, wound it up, and let it strike. The child turned its eyes at the sound and then looked at its another. “Ay, you may wonder,” said Inger, and took the child to her, not a little touched herself. Of all good things, here in a lonely place, there was nothing could be better than a clock to go all the dark winter through, and strike so prettily at the hours.

When the last load was carted down, Isak turned woodman once more, felling and stacking, building his streets, his town of wood-piles for next winter. He was getting farther and farther from the homestead now, there was a great broad stretch of hillside all ready for tillage. He would not cut close any more, but simply throw the biggest trees with dry tops.

He knew well enough, of course, what Inger had been thinking of when she asked for another bed; best to hurry up and get it ready. One dark evening he came home from the woods, and sure enough, Inger had got it over — another boy — and was lying down. That Inger! Only that very morning she had tried to get him to go down to the village again: “’Tis time the horse had something to do,” says she. “Eating his head off all day.”

“I’ve no time for such-like nonsense,” said Isak shortly, and went out. Now he understood; she had wanted to get him out of the way. And why? Surely ’twas as well to have him about the house.

“Why can’t you ever tell a man what’s coming?” said he.

“You make a bed for yourself and sleep in the little room,” said Inger.

As for that, it was not only a bedstead to make; there must be bedclothes to spread. They had but one skin rug, and there would be no getting another till next autumn, when there were wethers to kill and even then two skins would not make a blanket. Isak had a hard time, with cold at nights, for a while; he tried burying himself in the hay under the rock-shelter, tried to bed down for himself with the cows. Isak was homeless. Well for him that it was May; soon June would be in; July . . . .

A wonderful deal they had managed, out there in the wilderness; house for themselves and housing for the cattle, and ground cleared and cultivated, all in three years. Isak was building again — what was he building now? A new shed, a lean-to, jutting out from the house. The whole place rang with the noise as he hammered in his eight-inch nails. Inger came out now and again and said it was trying for the little ones.

“Ay, the little ones — go in and talk to them then, sing a bit. Eleseus, he can have a bucket lid to hammer on himself. And it’s only while I’m doing these big nails just here, at the cross-beams, that’s got to bear the whole. Only planks after that, two-and-a-half-inch nails, as gentle as building dolls’ houses.”

Small wonder if Isak hammered and thumped. There stood a barrel of herrings, and the flour, and all kinds of food-stuffs in the stable; better than lying out in the open, maybe, but the pork tasted of it already; a shed they must have, and that was clear. As for the little ones, they’d get used to the noise in no time. Eleseus was inclined to be ailing somehow, but the other took nourishment sturdily, like a fat cherub, and when he wasn’t crying, he slept. A wonder of a child! Isak made no objection to his being called Sivert, though he himself would rather have preferred Jacob. Inger could hit on the right thing at times. Eleseus was named after the priest of her parish, and that was a fine name to be sure; but Sivert was called after his mother’s uncle, the district treasurer, who was a well-to-do man, with neither wife nor child to come after him. They couldn’t do better than name the boy after him.

Then came spring, and the new season’s work; all was down in the earth before Whitsun. When there had been only Eleseus to look after, Inger could never find time to help her husband, being tied to her first-born; now, with two children in the house, it was different; she helped in the fields and managed a deal of odd work here and there; planting potatoes, sowing carrots and turnips. A wife like that is none so easy to find. And she had her loom besides; at all odd minutes she would slip into the little room and weave a couple of spools, making half-wool stuff for underclothes for the winter. Then when she had dyed her wools, it was red and blue dress material for herself and the little ones; at last she put in several colours, and made a bedspread for Isak all by herself. No fancy work from Inger’s loom; useful and necessary things, and sound all through.

Oh, they were doing famously, these settlers in the wilds; they had got on so far, and if this year’s crops turned out well they would be enviable folk, no less. What was lacking on the place at all? A hayloft, perhaps; a big barn with a threshing-floor inside — but that might come in time. Ay, it would come, never fear, only give then time. And now pretty Silverhorns had calved, the sheep had lambs, the goats had kids, the young stock fairly swarmed about the place. And what of the little household itself? Eleseus could walk already, walk by himself wherever he pleased, and little Sivert was christened. Inger? By all signs and tokens, making ready for another turn; she was not what you’d call niggardly at bearing. Another child — oh, a mere nothing to Inger! Though, to be sure, she was proud enough of them when they came. Fine little creatures, as any one could see. ’Twas not all, by a long way, that the Lord had blessed with such fine big children. Inger was young, and making the most of it. She was no beauty, and had suffered all her girlhood by reason of the same, being set aside and looked down on. The young men never noticed her, though she could dance and work as well. They found nothing sweet in her, and turned elsewhere. But now her time had come; she was in full flower and constantly with child. Isak himself, her lord and master, was earnest and stolid as ever, but he had got on well, and was content. How he had managed to live till Inger came was a mystery; feeding, no doubt, on potatoes and goats’ milk, or maybe venturesome dishes without a name; now, he had all that a man could think of in his place in the world.

There came another drought, a new bad year. Os-Anders the Lapp, coming by with his dog, brought news that folk in the village had cut their corn already, for fodder.

“’Tis a poor look out,” said Inger, “when it comes to that.”

“Ay. But they’ve the herring. A fine haul, ’tis said. Your Uncle Sivert, he’s going to build a country house.”

“Why, he was none so badly off before.”

“That’s true. And like to be the same with you, for all it seems.”

“Why, as to that, thank God, we’ve enough for our little needs. What do they say at home about me up here?”

Os-Anders wags his head helplessly; there’s no end to the great things they say; more than he can tell. A pleasant-spoken fellow, like all the Lapps.

“If as you’d care for a dish of milk now, you’ve only to say so,” says Inger.

“’Tis more than’s worth your while. But if you’ve a sup for the dog here. . . . ”

Milk for Os-Anders, and food for the dog. Os Anders lifts his head suddenly, at a kind of music inside the house.

“What’s that?”

“’Tis only our clock,” says Inger. “It strikes the hours that way.” Inger bursting with pride.

The Lapp wags his head again: “House and cattle and all manner of things. There’s nothing a man could think of but you’ve that thing.”

“Ay, we’ve much to be thankful for, ’tis true.”

“I forgot to say, there’s Oline was asking after you.”

“Oline? How is it with her?”

“She’s none so poorly. Where will your husband be now?”

“He’ll be at work in the fields somewhere.”

“They say he’s not bought yet,” says the Lapp carelessly.

“Bought? Who says so?”

“Why, ’tis what they say.”

“But who’s he to buy from? ’Tis common land.”

“Ay, ’tis so.”

“And sweat of his brow to every spade of it.”

“Why, they say ’tis the State owns all the land.”

Inger could make nothing of this. “Ay, maybe so. Was it Oline said so?”

“I don’t well remember,” says the Lapp, and his shifty eyes looked all ways around.

Inger wondered why he did not beg for anything; Os-Anders always begged, as do all the Lapps. Os-Anders sits scraping at the bowl of ho clay pipe, and and lights up. What a pipe! He puffs and draws at it till his wrinkled old face looks like a wizard’s runes.

“No need to ask if the little ones there are yours,” says he, flattering again. “They’re as like you as could be. The living image of yourself when you were small.”

Now Inger was a monster and a deformity to look at; ’twas all wrong, of course, but she swelled with pride for all that. Even a Lapp can gladden a mother’s heart.

“If it wasn’t that your sack there’s so full, I’d find you something to put in it,” says Inger.

“Nay, ’tis more than’s worth your while.”

Inger goes inside with the child on her arm; Eleseus stays outside with the Lapp. The two make friends at once; the child sees something curious in the sack, something soft and fluffy, and wants to pat it. The dog stands alert, barking and whining. Inger comes out with a parcel of food; she gives a cry, and drops down on the door-slab.

“What’s that you’ve got there? What is it?”

“’Tis nothing. Only a hare.”

“I saw it.”

“’Twas the boy wanted to look. Dog ran it down this morning and killed it, and I brought it along . . . .”

“Here’s your food,” said Inger.

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