The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter V

One bad year never comes alone. Isak had grown patient, and took what fell to his lot. The corn was parched, and the hay was poor, but the potatoes looked like pulling through once more — bad enough, all things together, but not the worst. Isak had still a season’s yield of cordwood and timber to sell in the village, and the herring fishery had been rich all round the coast, so there was plenty of money to buy wood. Indeed it almost looked like a providence that the corn harvest had failed — for how could he have threshed it without a barn and threshing-floor? Call it providence; there’s no harm in that sometimes.

There were other things not so easily put out of mind. What was it a certain Lapp had said to Inger that summer — something about not having bought? Buy, what should he buy for? The ground was there, the forest was there; he had cleared and tilled, built up a homestead in the midst of a natural wilderness, winning bread for himself and his, asking nothing of any man, but working, and working alone. He had often thought himself of asking the Lensmand 3 about the matter when he went down to the village, but had always put it off; the Lensmand was not a pleasant man to deal with, so people said, and Isak was not one to talk much. What could he say if he went — what had he come for?

3 Sheriff’s officer, in charge of a small district.

One day that winter the Lensmand himself came driving up to the place. There was a man with him, and a lot of papers in a bag. Geissler himself, the Lensmand, no less. He looked at the broad open hillside, cleared of timber, smooth and unbroken under the snow; he thought perhaps that it was all tilled land already, for he said:

“Why, this is a whole big farm you’ve got. You don’t expect to get all this for nothing?”

There it was! Isak was terror-stricken and said not a word.

“You ought to have come to me at first, and bought the land,” said Geissler.

“Ay.”

The Lensmand talked of valuations, of boundaries, taxes, taxes to the State, and, when he had explained the matter a little, Isak began to see that there was something reasonable in it after all. The Lensmand turned to his companion teasingly.

“Now then, you call yourself a surveyor, what’s the extent of cultivated ground here?” He did not wait for the other to reply, but noted down himself, at a guess. Then he asked Isak about the crops, how much hay, how many bushels of potatoes. And then about boundaries. They could not go round the place marking out waist-deep in snow; and in summer no one could get up there at all. What did Isak think himself about the extent of woodland and pasturage? — Isak had no idea at all; he had always thought of the place as being his own as far as he could see. The Lensmand said that the State required definite boundaries. “And the greater the extent, the more you will have to pay.”

“Ay.”

“And they won’t give you all you think you can swallow; they’ll let you have what’s reasonable for your needs.”

“Ay.”

Inger brought in some milk for the visitors, they drank it, and she brought in some more. The Lensmand a surly fellow? He stroked Eleseus’ hair, and looked at something the child was playing with. “Playing with stones, what? Let me see. H’m heavy. Looks like some kind of ore.”

“There’s plenty such up in the hills,” said Isak.

The Lensmand came back to business. “South and west from here’s what you want most, I suppose? Shall we say a couple of furlongs to the southward?”

“Two furlongs!” exclaimed his assistant.

You couldn’t till two hundred yards,” said his chief shortly.

“What will that cost?” asked Isak.

“Can’t say. It all depends. But I’ll put it as low as I can on my report; it’s miles away from anywhere, and difficult to get at.”

“But two furlongs!” said the assistant again.

The Lensmand entered duly, two furlongs to the southward, and asked: “What about the hills? How much do you want that way?”

“I’ll need all up as far as the water. There’s a big water up there,” said Isak.

The Lensmand noted that. “And how far north?”

“Why, it’s no great matter that way. ’Tis but moorland most, and little timber.”

The Lensmand fixed the northward boundary at one furlong. “East?”

“That’s no great matter either. ’Tis bare fjeld all from here into Sweden.”

The Lensmand noted down again. He made a rapid calculation, and said: “It’ll make a good-sized place, even at that. Anywhere near the village, of course, it’d be worth a lot of money; nobody could have bought it. I’ll send in a report, and say a hundred Daler would be fair. What do you think?” he asked his assistant.

“It’s giving it away,” said the other.

“A hundred Daler?“ said Inger. “Isak, you’ve no call to take so big a place.”

“No — o,” said Isak.

The assistant put in hurriedly: “That’s just what I say. It’s miles too big for you as it is. What will you do with it?”

“Cultivate it,” said the Lensmand.

He had been sitting there writing and working in his head, with the children crying every now and then; he did not want to have the whole thing to do again. As it was, he would not be home till late that night, perhaps not before morning. He thrust the papers into the bag; the matter was settled.

“Put the horse in,” he said to his companion. And turning to Isak: “As a matter of fact, they ought to give you the place for nothing, and pay you into the bargain, the way you’ve worked. I’ll say as much when I send in the report. There we’ll see how much the State will ask for the title-deeds.”

Isak — it was hard to say how he felt about it. Half as if he were not ill-pleased after all to find his land valued at a big price, after the work he had done. As for the hundred Daler, he could manage to pay that off, no doubt, in course of time. He made no further business about it; he could go on working as he had done hitherto, clearing and cultivating, fetching loads of timber from the untended woodlands. Isak was not a man to look about anxiously for what might come; he worked.

Inger thanked the Lensmand, and hoped he would put in a word for them with the State.

“Yes, yes. But I’ve no say in the matter myself. All I have to do is to say what I have seen, and what I think. How old is the youngest there?”

“Six months as near as can be.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Boy.”

The Lensmand was no tyrant, but shallow, and not overconscientious. He ignored his assistant, Brede Olsen, who by virtue of his office should be an expert in such affairs; the matter was settled out of hand, by guesswork. Yet for Isak and his wife it was a serious matter enough — ay, and for who should come after them, maybe for generations. But he set it all down, as it pleased him, making a document of it on the spot. Withal a kindly man; he took a bright coin from his pocket and gave it to little Sivert; then he nodded to the others and went out to the sledge.

Suddenly he asked: “What do you call the place?”

“Call it?”

“Yes. What’s its name? We must have a name for it.”

No one had ever thought of that before. Inger and Isak looked at each other.

“Sellanraa?” said the Lensmand. He must have invented it out of his own head; maybe it was not a name at all. But he only nodded, and said again, “Sellanraa!” and drove off.

Settled again, at a guess, anything would do. The name, the price, the boundaries. . . .

Some weeks later, when Isak was down in the village, he heard rumours of some business about Lensmand Geissler; there had been an inquiry about some moneys he could not account for, and the matter had been reported to his superior. Well, such things did happen; some folk were content to stumble through life anyhow, till they ran up against those that walked.

Then one day Isak went down with a load of wood, and coming back, who should drive with him on his sledge but Lensmand Geissler. He stepped out from the trees, on to the road, waved his hand, and simply said: “Take me along, will you?”

They drove for a while, neither speaking. Once the passenger took a flask from his pocket and drank; offered it to Isak, who declined. “I’m afraid this journey will upset my stomach,”‘said the Lensmand.

He began at once to talk about Isak’s deal in land. “I sent off the report at once, with a strong recommendation on my own account. Sellanraa’s a nice name. As a matter of fact, they ought to let you have the place for nothing, wouldn’t do to say so, of course. If I had, they’d only have taken offense and put their own price on it. I suggested fifty Daler.”

“Ho. Fifty, you said? Not a hundred?”

The Lensmand puckered his brow and thought a moment. “As far as I recollect it was fifty. Yes . . . ”

“And where will you be going, now?” asked Isak

“Over to Vesterbotten, to my wife’s people.”

“’Tis none so easy that way at this time of year.”

“I’ll manage. Couldn’t you go with me a bit?”

“Ay; you shan’t go alone.”

They came to the farm, and the Lensmand stayed the night, sleeping in the little room. In the morning, he brought out his flask again, and remarked “I’m sure this journey’s going to upset my stomach.” For the rest, he was much the same as last time kindly, decisive, but fussy, and little concerned about his own affairs. Possibly it might not be so bad after all. Isak ventured to point out that the hillside was not all under cultivation yet, but only some small squares here and there. The Lensmand took the information in a curious fashion. “I knew that well enough, of. course, last time I was here, when I made out the report. But Brede, the fellow who was with me, he didn’t see it. Brede, he’s no earthly good. But they work it out by table. With all the ground as I entered it, and only so few loads of hay, so few bushels of potatoes, they’ll say at once that it must be poor soil, cheap soil, you understand. I did my best for you, and you take my word for it, that’ll do the trick. It’s two and thirty thousand fellows of your stamp the country wants.”

The Lensmand nodded and turned to Inger.

“How old’s the youngest?”

“He’s just three-quarters of a year.”

“And a boy, is he?”

“Yes.”

“But you must see and get that business settled as soon as ever you can,” said he to Isak again. “There’s another man wants to purchase now, midway between here and the village, and as soon as he does, this’ll be worth more. You buy now, get the place first, and let the price go up after — that way, you’ll be getting some return for all the work you’ve put into it. It was you that started cultivating here at all. ’Twas all wilderness before.”

They were grateful for his advice, and asked if it was not he himself that would arrange the matter. He answered that he had done all he could; every thing now depended on the State. “I’m going across to Vesterbotten now, and I shan’t be coming back,” he told them straightforwardly.

He gave Inger an Ort, and that was overmuch. “You can take a bit of meat down to my people in the village next time you’re killing,” said he. “My wife’ll pay you. Take a cheese or so, too, any time you can. The children like it.”

Isak went with him up over the hills; it was firm, good going on the higher ground, easier than below. Isak received a whole Daler.

In that manner was it Lensmand Geissler left the place, and he did not come back. No great loss, folk said, he being looked on as a doubtful person age, an adventurer. Not that he hadn’t the knowledge; he was a learned man, and had studied this and that, but he lived too freely, and spent other people’s money. It came out later that he had left the place after a sharp reprimand from his superior, Amtmand Pleym; but nothing was done about his family officially, and they went on living there a good while after — his wife and three children. And it was not long before the money unaccounted for was sent from Sweden, so that Geisslers’s wife and children could not be said to be held as hostages, but stayed on simply because it pleased them.

Isak and Inger had no cause to complain of Geissler’s dealings with them, not by a long way. And there was no saying what sort of man his successor would be — perhaps they would have to go over the whole business again!

The Amtmand4 sent one of his clerks up to the village, to be the new Lensmand. He was a man about forty, son of a local magistrate, by name Heyerdahl. He had lacked the means to go to the university and enter the service that way; instead, he had been constrained to sit in an office, writing at a desk, for fifteen years. He was unmarried, having never been able to afford a wife. His chief, Amtmand Pleym, had inherited him from his predecessor, and paid him the same miserable wage that had been given before; Heyerdahl took it, and went on writing at his desk as before.

4 Governor of a county.

Isak plucked up his courage, and went to see him.

“Documents in the Sellanraa case . . .? Here they are, just returned from the Department. They want to know all sorts of things — the whole business is in a dreadful muddle, as Geissler left it,” said the official. “The Department wishes to be informed as to whether any considerable crop of marketable berries is to be reckoned with on the estate. Whether there is any heavy timber. Whether possibly there may be ores or metals of value in the hills adjoining. Mention is made of water, but nothing stated as to any fishery in the same. This Geissler appears to have furnished certain information, but he’s not to be trusted, and here have I to go through the whole affair again after him. I shall have to come up to Sellanraa and make a thorough inspection and valuation. How many miles is it up there? The Department, of course, requires that adequate boundaries be drawn: yes, we shall have to beat the bounds in due order.”

“’Tis no light business setting up boundaries this tine of year,” said Isak. “Not till later on in the summer.”

“Anyhow, it’ll have to be done. The Department can’t wait all through the summer for an answer. I’ll come up myself as soon as I can get away. I shall have to be out that way in any case, there’s another plot of land a man’s inquiring about.”

“Will that be him that’s going to buy up between me and the village?”

“Can’t say, I’m sure. Very likely. As a matter of fact, it’s a man from the office here, my assistant in the office. He was here in Geissler’s time. Asked Geissler about it, I understand, but Geissler put him off; said he couldn’t cultivate a hundred yards of land. So he sent in an application to the Amtmand, and I’m instructed to see the matter through. More of Geissler’s muddling!”

Lensmand Heyerdahl came up to the farm, and brought with him his assistant, Brede. They had got thoroughly wet crossing the moors, and wetter still they were before they’d finished tramping the boundary lines through melting snow and slush up and down the hills. The Lensmand set to work zealously the first day, but on the second he had had enough, and contented himself with standing still for the most part, pointing and shouting directions. There was no further talk about prospecting for ore in the “adjoining hills,” and as for marketable berries — they would have a look at the moors on the way back, he said.

The Department requested information on quite a number of points — there were tables for all sorts of things, no doubt. The only thing that seemed reasonable was the question of timber. Certainly, there was some heavy timber, and that within the limits of Isak’s proposed holding, but not enough to reckon with for sale; no more than would be required to keep up the place. Even if there had been timber in plenty, who was to carry it all the many miles to where it could be sold? Only Isak, trundling like a tub-wheel through the forest in winter-time carting some few heavy sticks down to the village, to bring back planks and boards for his building.

Geissler, the incomprehensible, had, it seemed; sent in a report which was not easily upset. Here was his successor going through the whole thing again, trying to find mistakes and blatant inaccuracies — but all in vain. It was noticeable that he consulted his assistant at every turn, and paid heed to what he said, which was not Geissler’s way at all. That same assistant, moreover, must presumably have altered his own opinion, since he was now a would-be purchaser himself of lands from the common ground held by the State.

“What about the price?” asked the Lensmand.

“Fifty Daler is the most they can fairly ask of any buyer,” answered the expert.

Lensmand Heyerdahl drew up his report in elegant phrasing. Geissler had written: “The man will also have to pay land tax every year; he cannot afford to pay more for the place than fifty Daler, in annual instalments over ten years. The State can accept his offer, or take away his land and the fruits of his work.” Heyerdahl wrote: “He now humbly begs to submit this application to the Department: that he be allowed to retain this land, upon which, albeit without right of possession, he has up to this present effected considerable improvements, for a purchase price of 50 — fifty — Speciedaler, the amount to be paid in annual instalments as may seem fit to the Department to apportion the same.”

Lensmand Heyerdahl promised Isak to do his best. “I hope to succeed in procuring you possession of the estate,” he said.

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