The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter VI

The big bull is to be sent away. It has grown to an enormous beast, and costs too much to feed; Isak is taking it down to the village, to bring up a suitable yearling in exchange.

It was Inger’s idea. And Inger had no doubt her own reasons for getting Isak out of the place on that particular day.

“If you are going at all, you’d better go today,” she said. “The bull’s in fine condition; ’twill fetch a good price at this time of year. You take him down to the village, and they’ll send him to be sold in town — townsfolk pay anything for their meat.”

“Ay,” says Isak.

“If only the beast doesn’t make trouble on the way down.”

Isak made no answer.

“But he’s been out and about now this last week, and getting used to things.”

Isak was silent. He took a big knife, hung it in a sheath at his waist, and led out the bull.

A mighty beast it was, glossy-coated and terrible to look at, swaying at the buttocks as it walked. A trifle short in the leg; when it ran, it crushed down the undergrowth with its chest; it was like a railway engine. Its neck was huge almost to deformity; there was the strength of an elephant in that neck.

“If only he doesn’t get mad with you,” said Inger.

Isak thought for a moment. “Why, if as he takes it that way, I’ll just have to slaughter him half-way and carry down the meat.”

Inger sat down on the door-slab. She was in pain; her face was aflame. She had kept her feet till Isak was gone; now he and the bull were out of sight, and she could give way to a groan without fear. Little Eleseus can talk a little already; he asks: “Mama hurt?” — “Yes, hurt.” He mimics her, pressing his hands to his sides and groaning. Little Sivert is asleep.

Inger takes Eleseus inside the house, gives him some things to play with on the floor, and gets into bed herself. Her time was come. She is perfectly conscious all the while, keeps an eye on Eleseus, glances at the clock on the wall to see the time. Never a cry, hardly a movement; the struggle is in her vitals — a burden is loosened and glides from her. Almost at the same moment she hears a strange cry in the bed, a blessed little voice; poor thing, poor little thing . . . and now she cannot rest, but lifts herself up and looks down. What is it? Her face is grey and blank in a moment, with out expression or intelligence; a groan is heard; unnatural, impossible — a choking gasp.

She slips back on the bed. A minute passes; she cannot rest, the little cry down there in the bed grows louder, she raises herself once more, and sees — O God, the direst of all! No mercy, no hope — and this a girl!

Isak could not have gone more than a couple of miles or so. It was hardly an hour since he had left. In less than ten minutes Inger had borne her child and killed it. . . .

Isak came back on the third day, leading a half starved yearling bull. The beast could hardly walk; it had been a long business getting up to the place at all.

“How did you get on?” asked Inger. She herself was ill and miserable enough.

Isak had managed very well. True, the big bull had been mad the last two miles or so, and he had to tie it up and fetch help from the village. Then, when he got back, it had broken loose and took a deal of time to find. But he had managed somehow, and had sold for a good price to a trader in the village, buying up for butchers in the town. “And here’s the new one,” said Isak. “Let the children come and look.”

Any addition to the live stock was a great event. Inger looked at the bull and felt it over, asked what it had cost; little Sivert was allowed to sit on its back. “I shall miss the big one, though,” said Inger. “So glossy and fine he was. I do hope they’ll kill him nicely.”

It was the busy season now, and there was work enough. The animals were let loose; in the empty shed were cases and bins of potatoes left to grow. Isak sowed more corn this year than last, and did all he could to get it nicely down. He made beds for carrots and turnips, and Inger sowed the seeds. All went on as before.

Inger went about for some time with a bag of hay under her dress, to hide any change in her figure, taking out a little from time to time, and finally discarding the bag altogether. At last, one day, Isak noticed something, and asked in surprise:

“Why, how’s this? Hasn’t anything happened? I thought. . . . ”

“No. Not this time.”

“Ho. Why, what was wrong? ’

“’Twas meant to be so, I suppose. Isak, how long d’you think it’ll take you to work over all this land of ours?”

“Ye’, but . . . you mean you had your trouble — didn’t go as it should?”

“Ay, that was it — yes.”

“But yourself — you’re not hurt anyway after it?”

“No. Isak, I’ve been thinking, we ought to have a pig.”

Isak was not quick to change the subject that way. He was silent a little, then at last he said: “Ay, a pig. I’ve thought of that myself each spring. But we’ll need to have more potatoes first, and more of the small, and a bit of corn beside; we’ve not enough to feed a pig. We’ll see how this year turns out.”

“But it would be nice to have a pig.”

“Ay.”

Days pass, rain comes, fields and meadows are looking well — oh, the year will turn out well, never fear! Little happenings and big, all in their turn: food, sleep, and work; Sundays, with washing of faces and combing of hair, and Isak sitting about in a new red shirt of Inger’s weaving and sewing. Then an event, a happening of note in the ordinary round: a sheep, roaming with her lamb, gets caught in a cleft among the rocks. The Lathers come home in the evening. Inger at once sees there are two missing, and out goes Isak in search. Isak’s first thought is to be thankful it is Sunday, so he is not called away from his work and losing time. He tramps off — there is an endless range of ground to be searched; and, meanwhile, the house is all anxiety. Mother hushes the children with brief words; there are two sheep missing, and they must be good. All share the feeling; what has happened is a matter for the whole little community. Even the cows know that something unusual is going on, and give tongue in their own fashion, for Inger goes out every now and then, calling aloud towards the woods, though it is near night. It is an event in the wilderness, a general misfortune. Now and again she gives a long-drawn hail to Isak, but there is no answer; he must be out of hearing.

Where are the sheep — what can have come to them? Is there a bear abroad? Or have the wolves come down over the hills from Sweden and Finland? Neither, as it turns out. Isak finds the ewe stuck fast in a cleft of rock, with a broken leg and lacerated udder. It must have been there some time, for, despite its wounds, the poor thing has nibbled the grass down to the roots as far as it could reach. Isak lifts the sheep and sets it free; it falls to grazing at once. The lamb makes for its mother and sucks away — a blessed relief for the wounded udder to be emptied now.

Isak gathers stones and fills up the dangerous cleft; a wicked place; it shall break no more sheep’s thighs! Isak wears leather braces; he takes them off now and fastens them round the sheep’s middle as a support for the udder. Then, lifting the animal on his shoulders, he sets off home, the lamb at his heels.

After that — splints and tar bandages. In a few days’ time the patient begins twitching the foot of the wounded leg; it is the fracture aching as it grows together. Ay, all things getting well again — until next time something happens.

The daily round; little matters that are all important to the settler-folk themselves. Oh, they are not trifles after all, but things of fate, making for their happiness and comfort and well-being, or against them.

In the slack time between the seasons, Isak smooths down some new tree-trunks he has thrown; to be used for something or other, no doubt. Also he digs out a number of useful stones and gets them down to the house; as soon as there are stones enough, he builds a wall of them. A year or so back, Inger would have been curious, wondering what her man was after with all this — now, she seemed for the most part busied with her own work, and asked no questions. Inger is busy as ever, but she has taken to singing, which is something new, and she is teaching Eleseus an evening prayer; this also is something new. Isak misses her questioning; it was her curiosity and her praise of all he did that made him the contented man, the incomparable man he was. But now, she goes by, saying nothing, or at most with a word or so that he is working himself to death. “She’s troubled after that last time, for all she says,” thinks Isak to himself.

Oline comes over to visit them once more. If all had been as before she would have been welcome but now it is different. Inger greets her from the first with some ill-will; be it what it may, there is something that makes Inger look on her as an enemy.

“I’d half a thought I’d be coming just at the right time again,” says Oline, with delicate meaning.

“How d’you mean?”

“Why, for the third one to be christened. How is it with you now?”

“Nay,” says Inger. “For that matter you might have saved yourself the trouble.”

“Ho.”

Oline falls to praising the children, so fine and big they’ve grown; and Isak taking over more ground, and going to build again, by the look of things — there’s no end to things with them; a wonderful place, and hard to find its like. “And what is he going to build this time?”

“Ask him yourself,” says Inger. “I don’t know.”

“Nay,” says Oline. “’Tis no business of mine. I just looked along to see how things were with you here; it’s a pleasure and delight for me to see. As for Goldenhorns, I’ll not ask nor speak of her she’s fallen into proper ways, as any one can see.”

They talk for a while companionable; Inger is no longer harsh. The clock on the wall strikes with its sweet little note. Oline looks up with tears in her eyes; never in all her humble life did she hear such a thing — ’tis like church and organ music, says Oline. Inger feels herself rich and generous-minded towards her poor relation, and says: “Come into the next room and see my loom.”

Oline stays all day. She talks to Isak, and praises all his doings. “And I hear you’ve bought up the land for miles on every side. Couldn’t you have got it for nothing, then? There’s none as I can see would take it from you.”

Isak had been feeling the need of praise, and is the better for it now. Feels a man again. “I’m buying from the Government,” says Isak.

“Ay, Government. But they’ve no call to be grasping in a deal, surely? What are you building now?”

“Why, I don’t know. Nothing much, anyway.”

“Ay, you’re getting on; building and getting on you are. Painted doors to the house, and a clock on the wall — ’tis a new grand house you’re building, I suspect.”

“You, with your foolish talk . . .” says Isak. But he is pleased all the same, and says to Inger: “Couldn’t you make a bit of a dish of nice cream custard for one that comes a-visiting?”

“That I can’t,” says Inger, “for I’ve churned all there was.”

“’Tis no foolish talk,” puts in Oline hurriedly; “I’m but a simple woman asking to know. And if it’s not a new grand house, why, ’twill be a new big barn, I dare say; and why not? With all these fields and meadow lands, fine and full of growth; ay, and full of milk and honey, as the Bible says.”

Isak asks: “How’s things looking your way — crops and the like?”

“Why, ’tis there as it is till now. If only the Lord don’t set fire to it all again this year, and burn up the lot — Heaven forgive me I should say the word. ’Tis all in His hand and almighty power. But we’ve nothing our parts that’s any way like this place of yours to compare, and that’s the solemn truth.”

Inger asks after other relatives, her Uncle Sivert in particular. He is the great man of the family, and owns rich fisheries; ’tis almost a wonder how he can find a way to spend all he has. The women talk of Uncle Sivert, and Isak and his doings somehow drop out of sight; no one asks any more about his building now, so at last he says:

“Well, if you want to know, ’tis a bit of a barn with a threshing-floor I’m trying to get set up.”

“Just as I thought,” says Oline. “Folk with real sound sense in their heads, they do that way. Fore-thought and back-thought and all as it should be. There’s not a pot nor pitcher in the place you haven’t thought of. A threshing-floor, you said?”

Isak is a child. Oline’s flattering words go to his head, and he answers something foolishly with fine words: “As to that new house of mine, there must be a threshing-floor in the same, necessarily. ’Tis my intention so.”

“A threshing-floor?” says Oline, wagging her head.

“And where’s the sense of growing corn on the place if we’ve nowhere to thresh it?”

“Ay, ’tis as I say, not a thing as could be but you have it all there in your head.”

Inger is suddenly out of humour again. The talk between the other two somehow displeases her, and she breaks in:

“Cream custard indeed! And where’s the cream to come from? Fish it up in the river, maybe?”

Oline hastens to make peace. “Inger, Lord bless you, child, don’t speak of such a thing. Not a word of cream nor custard either — an old creature like me that does but idle about from house to neighbour . . .!”

Isak sits for a while, then up, and saying suddenly: “Here am I doing nothing middle of the day, and stones to fetch and carry for that wall of mine!”

“Ay, a wall like that’ll need a mighty lot of stone, to be sure.”

“Stone?” says Isak. “’Tis like as if there’d never be enough.”

When Isak is gone, the two womenfolk get on nicely together for a while; they sit for hours talking of this and that. In the evening, Oline must go out and see how their live stock has grown: cows, a bull, two calves, and a swarm of sheep and goats. “I don’t know where it’ll ever end,” says Oline, with her eyes turned heavenwards.

And Oline stays the night.

Next morning she goes off again. Once more she has a bundle of something with her. Isak is working in the quarry, and she goes another way round, so that he shall not see.

Two hours later, Oline comes back again, steps into the house, and asks at once: “Where is Isak?”

Inger is washing up. Oline should have passed by the quarry where Isak was at work, and the children with him; Inger at once guesses something wrong.

“Isak? What d’you want with him?”

“Want with him?-why, nothing. Only I didn’t see him to say good-bye.”

Silence. Oline sits down on a bench without being asked, drops down as if her legs refuse to carry her. Her manner is intended to show that some thing serious is the matter; she is overcome.

Inger can control herself no longer. Her face is all terror and fury as she says:

“I saw what you sent me by Os-Anders. Ay, ’twas a nice thing to send!”

“Why . . . what . . .?”

“That hare.”

“What do you mean?” asks Oline in a strangely gentle voice.

“Ah, don’t deny it!” cries Inger, her eyes wild. “I’ll break your face in with this ladle here — see that!”

Struck her? Ay, she did so. Oline took the first blow without falling, and only cried out: “Mind what you’re doing, woman! I know what I knob, about you and your doings!” Inger strikes again gets Oline down to the floor, falls on her there, and thrusts her knees into her.

“D’you mean to murder me?” asks Oline. The terrible woman with the hare-lip was kneeling on her a great strong creature armed with a huge wooden ladle, heavy as a club. Oline was bruised already and bleeding, but still sullenly refusing to cry out. “So you’re trying to murder me too!

“Ay, kill you,” says Inger, striking again. “There! I’ll see you dead before I’ve done with you.” She was certain of it now. Oline knew her secret; nothing mattered now. “I’ll spoil your beastly face.”

“Beastly face?” gasps Oline. “Huh! Look to your own. With the Lord His mark on it!”

Oline is hard, and will not give in; Inger is forced to give over the blows that are exhausting her own strength. But she threatens still — glares into the other’s eyes and swears she has not finished with her yet. “There’s more to come, ay, more, more. Wait till I get a knife. I’ll show you!”

She gets on her feet again, and moves as if to look for a knife, a table knife. But now her fury is past its worst, and she falls back on curses and abuse. Oline heaves herself up to the bench again, her face all blue and yellow, swollen and bleeding; she wipes the hair from her forehead, straightens her kerchief, and spits; her mouth too is bruised and swollen. “You devil!” she says.

“You’ve been nosing about in the woods!” cries Inger. “That’s what you’ve been doing. You’ve found that little bit of a grave there. Better if you’d dug one for yourself the same time.”

“Ay, you wait,” says Oline, her eyes glowing revengefully. “I’ll say no more — but you wait there’ll be no fine two-roomed house for you, with musical clocks and all.”

“You can’t take it from me, anyway!”

“Ay, you wait. You’ll see what Oline can do.”

And so they keep on. Oline does not curse, and hardly raises her voice; there is something almost gentle in her cold cruelty, but she is bitterly dangerous. “Where’s that bundle? I left it in the woods. But you shall have it back — I’ll not own your wool.”

“Ho, you think I’ve stolen it, maybe.”

“Ah, you know best what you’ve done.”

So back and forth again about the wool. Inger offers to show the very sheep it was cut from. Oline asks quietly, smoothly: “Ay, but who knows where you got the first sheep to start with?”

Inger names the place and people where her first sheep were out to keep with their lambs. “And you mind and care and look to what you’re saying,” says she threateningly. “Guard your mouth, or you’ll be sorry.”

“Ha ha ha!” laughs Oline softly. Oline is never at a loss, never to be silenced. “My mouth, eh? And what of your own, my dear?” She points to Inger’s hare-lip, calling her a ghastly sight for God and man.

Inger answers furiously, and Oline being fat, she calls her a lump of blubber — “a lump of dog’s blubber like you. You sent me a hare — I’ll pay you for that.”

“Hare again?” says Oline. “If I’d no more guilt in anything than I have about that hare. What was it like?”

“What was it like? Why, what’s a hare always like?”

“Like you. The very image.”

“Out with you — get out!” shrieks Inger.

“’Twas you sent Os-Anders with that hare. I’ll have you punished; I’ll have you put in prison for that.”

“Prison — was it prison you said?”

“Oh, you’re jealous and envious of all you see; you hate me for all the good things I’ve got,” says Inger again. “You’ve lain awake with envy since I got Isak and all that’s here. Heavens, woman, what have I ever done to you? Is it my fault that your children never got on in the world, and turned out badly, every one of them? You can’t bear the sight of mine, because they’re fine and strong, and better named than yours. Is it my fault they’re prettier flesh and blood than yours ever were?”

If there was one thing could drive Oline to fury it was this. She had been a mother many times, and all she had was her children, such as they were; she made much of them, and boasted of them, told of great things they had never really done, and hid their faults.

“What’s that you’re saying?” answered Oline. “Oh that you don’t sink in your grave for shame! My children! They were a bright host of angels compared with yours. You dare to speak of my children? Seven blessed gifts of God they were from they were little, and all grown up now every one. You dare to speak. . . . ”

“What about Lise, that was sent to prison?” asks Inger.

“For never a thing. She was as innocent as a flower,” answers Oline. “And she’s in Bergen now; lives in a town and wears a hat — but what about you?”

“What about Nils — what did they say of him?”

“Oh, I’ll not lower myself. . . . But there’s one of yours now lying buried out there in the woods — what did you do to it, eh?”

“Now . . .! One-two-three — out you go!” shrieks Inger again, and makes a rush at Oline.

But Oline does not move, does not even rise to her feet. Her stolid indifference paralyses Inger, who draws back, muttering: “Wait till I get that knife.”

“Don’t trouble,” says Oline. “I’m going. But as for you, turning your own kin out of doors one-two-three. . . . Nay, I’ll say no more.”

“Get out of this, that’s all you need to do!”

But Oline is not gone yet. The two of them fall to again with words and abuse, a long bout of it again, and when the clock strikes half of the hour, Oline laughs scornfully, making Inger wilder than ever. At last both calm down a little, and Oline makes ready to go. “I’ve a long road before me,” says she, “and it’s late enough to be starting. It wouldn’t ha’ been amiss to have had a bite with me on the way. . . . ”

Inger makes no answer. She has come to her senses again now, and pours out water in a basin for Oline to wash. “There — if you want to tidy yourself,” she says. Oline too thinks it a’ well to make herself as decent as may be, but cannot see where the blood is, and washes the wrong places. Inger looks on for a while, and then points with her finger.

“There — wash there too, over your eye. No, not that, the other one; can’t you see where I’m pointing?”

“How can I see which one you’re pointing at,” answers Oline.

“And there’s more there, by your mouth. Are you afraid of water? — it won’t bite you!”

In the end, Inger washes the patient herself, and throws her a towel.

“What I was going to say,” says Oline, wiping herself, and quite peaceable now. “About Isak and the children — how will they get over this?”

“Does he know?” asks Inger.

“Know? He came and saw it.”

“What did he say?”

“What could he say? He was speechless, same as me.”

Silence.

“It’s all your fault,” wails Inger, beginning to cry.

“My fault? I wish I may never have more to answer for!”

“I’ll ask Os-Anders, anyhow, be sure of that.”

“Ay, do.”

They talk it all over quietly, and Oline seems less revengeful now. An able politician, is Oline, and quick to find expedients; she speaks now as if in sympathy — what a terrible thing it will be for Isak and the children when it is found out!

“Yes,” says Inger, crying again. “I’ve thought and thought of that night and day.” Oline thinks she might be able to help, and be a saviour to them in distress. She could come and stay on the place to look after things, while Inger is in prison.

Inger stops crying; stops suddenly as if to listen and take thought. “No, you don’t care for the children.”

“Don’t care for them, don’t I? How could you say such a thing?”

“Ah, I know. . . . ”

“Why, if there’s one thing in the world I do feet and care for, ’tis children.”

“Ay, for your own,” says Inger. “But how would you be with mine? And when I think how you sent that hare for nothing else but to ruin me altogether — oh, you’re no better than a heap of wickedness!”

“Am I?” says Oline. “Is it me you mean?”

“Yes, ’tis you I mean,” says Inger, crying; “you’ve been a wicked wretch, you have, and I’ll not trust you. And you’d steal all the wool, too, if you did come. And all the cheeses that’d go to your people instead of mine. . . . ”

“Oh, you wicked creature to think of such a thing!” answers Oline.

Inger cries, and wipes her eyes, saying a word or so between. Oline does not try to force her. If Inger does not care about the idea, ’tis all the same to her. She can go and stay with her son Nils, as she has always done. But now that Inger is to be sent away to prison, it will be a hard time for Isak and the innocent children; Oline could stay on the place and give an eye to things. “You can think it over,” says Oline.

Inger has lost the day. She cries and shakes her head and looks down. She goes out as if walking in her sleep, and makes up a parcel of food for Oline to take with her. “’Tis more than’s worth your while,” says Oline.

“You can’t go all that way without a bite to eat,” says Inger.

When Oline has gone, Inger steals out, looks round, and listens. No, no sound from the quarry. She goes nearer, and hears the children playing with little stones. Isak is sitting down, holding the crow-bar between his knees, and resting on it like a staff. There he sits.

Inger steals away into the edge of the wood. Near here was a spot where she had set a little cross in the ground; the cross is thrown down now, and where it stood the turf has been lifted, and the ground turned over. She stoops down and pats the earth together again with her hands. And there she sits.

She had come out of curiosity, to see how far the little grave had been disturbed by Oline; she stays there now because the cattle have not yet come for the night. Sits there crying, shaking her head, and looking down.

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