The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter VII

And the days pass.

A blessed time for the soil, with sun and showers of rain; the crops are looking well. the haymaking is nearly over now, and they have got in a grand lot of hay; almost more than they can find room for. Some is stowed away under overhanging rocks, in the stable, under the flooring of the house itself; the shed at the side is emptied of everything to make room for more hay. Inger herself works early and late, a faithful helper and sup port Isak tales advantage of every fall of rain to put in a spell of roofing on the new barn, and get the south wall at least fully done; once that is ready, they can stuff in as much hay as they please. The work is going forward; they will manage, never fear!

And their great sorrow and disaster — ay, it was there, the thing was done, and what it brought must come. Good things mostly leave no trace, but something always comes of evil. Isak took the matter sensibly from the first. He made no great words about it, but asked his wife simply: “How did you come to do it? Inger made no answer to that. And a little after, he spoke again: “Strangled it — was that what you did?”

“Yes,” said Inger.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“No,” she agreed.

“And I can’t make out how you ever could bring yourself to do it.”

“She was all the same as myself,” said Inger.

“How d’you mean?”

“Her mouth.”

Isak thought over that for some time. “Ay, well,” said he.

And nothing more was said about it at the time; the days went on, peacefully as ever; there was all the mass of hay to be got in, and a rare heavy crop all round, so that by degrees the thing slipped into the background of their minds. But it hung over them, and over the place, none the less. They could not hope that Oline would keep the secret; it was too much to expect. And even if Oline said nothing, others would speak; dumb witnesses would find a tongue; the walls of the house, the trees around the little grave in the wood. Os-Anders the Lapp would throw out hints; Inger herself would betray it, sleeping or waking. They were prepared for the worst.

Isak took the matter sensibly — what else was there to do? He knew now why Inger had always taken care to be left alone at every birth; to be alone with her fears of how the child might be, and face the danger with no one by. Three times she had done the same thing. Isak shook his head, touched with pity for her ill fate — poor Inger. He learned of the coming of the Lapp with the hare, and acquitted her. It led to a great love between them, a wild love; they drew closer to each other in their peril. Inger was full of a desperate sweetness towards him, and the great heavy fellow, lumbering carrier of burdens, felt a greed and an endless desire for her in himself. And Inger, for all that she wore hide shoes like a Lapp, was no withered little creature as the Lapland women are, but splendidly big. It was summer now, and she went about barefooted, with her naked legs showing almost to the knee — Isak could not keep his eyes from those bare legs.

All through the summer she went about singing bits of hymns, and she taught Eleseus to say prayers; but there grew up in her an unchristian hate of all Lapps, and she spoke plainly enough to any that passed. Some one might have sent them again; like as not they had a hare in their bag as before; let them go on their way, and no more about it.

“A hare? What hare?”

“Ho, you haven’t heard perhaps what Os-Anders he did that time?”

“No.”

“Well, I don’t care who knows it — he came up here with a hare, when I was with child.”

“Dear, and that was a dreadful thing! And what happened?”

“Never you mind what happened, just get along with you, that’s all. Here’s a bite of food, and get along.

“You don’t happen to have an odd bit of leather anywhere, I could mend my shoe with?”

“No! But I’ll give you a bit of stick if you don’t get out!”

Now a Lapp will beg as humbly as could be, but say no to him, and he turns bad, and threatens. A pair of Lapps with two children came past the place; the children were sent up to the house to beg, and came back and said there was no one to be seen about the place. The four of them stood there a while talking in their own tongue, then the man went up to see. He went inside, and stayed. Then his I wife went up, and the children after; all of them stood inside the doorway, talking Lapp. The man puts his head in the doorway and peeps through into the room; no one there either. The clock strikes the hour, and the whole family stand listening in wonder.

Inger must have had some idea there were strangers about; she comes hurrying down the hillside, and seeing Lapps, strange Lapps into the bargain, asks them straight out what they are doing there.

“What do you want in here? Couldn’t you see there was no one at home?”

“H’m . . .” says the man.

“Get out with you,” says Inger again, and go on your way.”

The Lapps move out slowly, unwillingly. “We were just listening to that clock of yours,” says the man; “’tis a wonder to hear, that it is.

“You haven’t a bit of bread to spare?” says his wife.

“Where do you come from?” asks Inger.

“From the water over beyond. We’ve been walking all night.”

“And where are you going to now?”

“Across the hills.”

Inger makes up some food for them; when she comes out with it, the woman starts begging again: a bit of stuff for a cap, a tuft of wool, a stump of cheese — anything. Inger has no time to waste, Isak and the children are in the hayfield. “Be off with you now,” she says.

The woman tries flattery. “We saw your place up here, and the cattle — a host of them, like the stars in the sky.”

“Ay, a wonder,” says the man. “You haven’t a pair of old shoes to give away to needy folk?”

Inger shuts the door of the house and goes back to her work on the hillside. The man called after her — she pretended not to hear, and walked on unheeding. But she heard it well enough: “You don’t want to buy any hares, maybe?”

There was no mistaking what he had said. The Lapp himself might have spoken innocently enough; some one had told him, perhaps. Or he might have meant it ill. Be that as it may, Inger took it as a warning — a message of what was to come. . . .

The days went on. The settlers were healthy folk; what was to come would come; they went about their work and waited. They lived close to each other like beasts of the forest; they slept and ate; already the year was so far advanced that they had tried the new potatoes, and found them large and floury. The blow that was to fall — why did it not come? It was late in August already, soon it would be September; were they to be spared through the winter? They lived in a constant watchfulness; every night they crept close together in their cave, thankful that the day had passed without event. And so the time went on until one day in October, when the Lensmand came up with a man and a bag. The Law stepped in through their doorway.

The investigation took some time. Inger was called up and examined privately; she denied nothing. The grave in the wood was opened, and its contents removed, the body being sent for examination. The little body — it was dressed in Eleseus’ christening robe, and a cap sewn over with beads.

Isak seemed to find speech again. “Ay,” said he, “it’s as bad as well can be with us now. I’ve said before — you ought never to have done it.”

“No,” said Inger.

“How did you do it?” Inger made no answer.

“That you could find it in your heart. . . . ”

“She was just the same as myself to look at. And so I took and twisted her face round.”

Isak shook his head slowly.

“And then she was dead,” went on Inger, beginning to cry.

Isak was silent for a while. “Well, well, ’tis too late to be crying over it now,” said he.

“She had brown hair,” sobbed Inger, “there at the back of her head. . . . ”

And again no more was said.

Time went on as before. Inger was not locked up; the law was merciful. Lensmand Heyerdahl asked her questions just as he might have spoken to any one, and only said, “It’s a great pity such things should happen at all.” Inger asked who had in formed against her, but the Lensmand answered that it was no one in particular; many had spoken of the matter, and he had heard of it from several quarters. Had she not herself said something about it to some Lapps?

Inger — ay, she had told some Lapps about Os-Anders, how he came and brought a hare that summer, and gave her unborn child the hare-lip. And wasn’t it Oline who had sent the hare? — The Lensmand knew nothing about that. But in any case, he could not think of putting down such ignorant superstition in his report.

“But my mother saw a hare just before I was born,” said Inger. . . .

The barn was finished; a great big place it was, with hay-stalls on both sides and a threshing-floor in the middle. The shed and the other makeshift places were emptied now, and all the hay brought into the barn; the corn was reaped, dried in stacks, and carted in. Inger took up the carrots and turnips. All their crops were in now. And everything might have been well with them — they had all they needed. Isak had started on new ground again, before the frost came, to make a bigger cornfield; Isak was a tiller of the soil. But in November Inger said one day, “She would have been six months old now, and known us all.”

“’Tis no good talking of that now,” said Isak.

When the winter came, Isak threshed his corn on the new threshing-floor, and Inger helped him often, with an arm as quick to the work as his own, while the children played in the haystalls at the side. It was fine plump grain. Early in the new year the roads were good, and Isak started carting down his loads of wood to the village; he had his regular customers now, and the summer-dried wood fetched a good price. One day he and Inger agreed that they should take the fine bull-calf from Goldenhorns and drive it down to Fru Geissler, with a cheese into the bargain. She was delighted, and asked how much it cost.

“Nothing” said Isak. “The Lensmand paid for it before.”

“Heaven bless him, and did he?” said Fru Geissler, touched at the thought. She sent things up for Eleseus and Sivert in return — cakes and picture books and toys. When Isak came back and Inger saw the things, she turned away and cried.

“What is it?” asked Isak.

“Nothing,” answered Inger. “Only — she’d have been just a year now, and able to see it all.”

“Ay, but you know how it was with her,” said Isak, for comfort’s sake. “And after all, it may be we’ll get off easier than we thought. I’ve found out where Geissler is now.”

Inger looked up. “But how’s that going to help us?”

“I don’t know. . . . ”

Then Isak carried his corn to the mill and had it ground, and brought back flour. Then he turned woodman again, cutting the wood to be ready for next winter. His life was spent in this work and that, according to the season; from the fields to the woods, and back to the fields again. He had worked on the place for six years now, and Inger five; all might have been well, if it were only allowed to last. But it was not. Inger worked at her loom and tended the animals; also, she was often to be heard singing hymns, but it was a pitiful singing; she was like a bed without a tongue.

As soon as the roads were passable, she was sent for down to the village to be examined. Isak had to stay behind. And being there all alone, it came into his mind to go across to Sweden and find out Geissler; the former Lensmand had been kind to them, and might perhaps still lend a helping hand some way to the folks at Sellanraa. But when Inger returned, she had asked about things herself, and learned something of what her sentence was likely to be. Strictly speaking, it was imprisonment for life, Paragraph 1. But . . . After all, she had stood up in the court itself and simply confessed. The two witnesses from the village had looked pityingly at her, and the judge had put his questions kindly; but for all that, she was no match for the bright intellects of the law. Lawyers are great men to simple folk; they can quote paragraph this and section that; they have learned such things by rote, ready to bring out at any moment. Oh, they are great men indeed. And apart from all this knowledge, they are not always devoid of sense; sometimes even not altogether heartless. Inger had no cause to complain of the court; she made no mention of the hare, but when she tearfully explained that she could not be so cruel to her poor deformed child as to let it live, the magistrate nodded, quietly and seriously.

“But,” said he, “think of yourself; you have a hare-lip, and it has not spoilt your life.”

“No, thanks be to God,” was all she said. She could not tell them of all she had suffered in secret as a child, as a young girl.

But the magistrate must have understood some thing of what it meant; he himself had a club-foot, and could not dance. “As to the sentence,” he said, “I hardly know. Really, it should be imprisonment for life, but . . . I can’t say, perhaps we might get it commuted, second or third degree, fifteen to twelve years, or twelve to nine. There’s a commission sitting to reform the criminal code, make it more humane, but the final decision won’t be ready yet. Anyhow, we must hope for the best,” said he.

Inger came back in a state of dull resignation; they had not found it necessary to keep her in confinement meantime. Two months passed; then one evening, when Isak came back from fishing, the Lensmand and his new assistant had been to Sellanraa. Inger was cheerful, and welcomed her husband kindly, praising his catch, though it was little he had brought home.

“What I was going to say — has any one been here?” he asked.

“Any one been? Why, who should there be?”

“There’s fresh footmarks outside. Men with boots on.”

“Why — there’s been no one but the Lensmand and one other.”

“What did they want?”

“You know that without asking.”

“Did they come to fetch you?”

“Fetch me? No, ’twas only about the sentence. The Lord is kind, ’tis not so bad as I feared.”

“Ah,” said Isak eagerly. “Not so long, maybe?”

“No. Only a few years.”

“How many years?”

“Why, you might think it a lot, maybe. But I’m thankful to God all the same.”

Inger did not say how long it would be. Later that evening Isak asked when they would be coming to fetch her away, but this she could not or would not tell. She had grown thoughtful again, and talked of what was to come; how they would man age she could not think — but she supposed they would have to get Oline to come. And Isak had no better plan to offer.

What had become of Oline, by the way? She had not beers up this year as she used to do. Was she going to stay away for ever, now that she had upset everything for them? The working season passed, but Oline did not come — did she expect them to go and fetch her? She would come loitering up of her self, no doubt, the great lump of blubber, the monster.

And at last one day she did. Extraordinary person — it was as nothing whatever had occurred to make ill-feeling between them; she was even knitting a pair of new stockings for Eleseus, she said.

“Just came up to see how you were getting on over here,” said she. And it turned out that she had brought her clothes and things up in a sack, and left in the woods close by, ready to stay.

That evening Inger took her husband aside and said: “Didn’t you say something about seeking out Geissler? ’Tis in the slack time now.”

“Ay,” said Isak. “Now that Oline is come, I can go off tomorrow morning, first thing.”

Inger was grateful, and thanked him. “And take your money with you,” she said — “all you have in the place.”

“Why, can’t you keep the money here?”

“No,” said she.

Inger made up a big parcel of food at once, and Isak woke while it was yet night, and got ready to start. Inger went out on the door-slab to see him off; she did not cry or complain, but only said:

“They may be coming for me now any day.” I

“You don’t know when?”

“No, I can’t say. And I don’t suppose it will be just yet, but anyhow. . . . If only you could get hold of Geissler, perhaps he might be able to say something.”

What could Geissler do to help them now? Nothing. But Isak went.

Inger — oh, she knew, no doubt, more than she had been willing to say. It might be, too that she herself had sent for Oline. When Isak came from Sweden, Inger was gone and Oline was there with the two children.

It was dark news for a homecoming. Isak’s voice was louder than usual as he asked: “Is she gone?”

“Ay,” said Oline.

“What day was it?”

“The day after you left.” And Isak knew now that Inger had got him out of the way on purpose — that was why she had persuaded him to take the money with him. Oh, but she might have kept a little for herself, for that long journey!

But the children could think of nothing else but the little pig Isak had brought with him. It was all he had for his trouble; the address he had was out of date, and Geissler was no longer in Sweden, but had returned to Norway and was now in Trondhjem. As for the pig, Isak had carried it in his arms all the way, feeding it with milk from a bottle, and sleeping with it on his breast among the hills. He had been looking forward to Inger’s delight when she saw it; now, Eleseus and Sivert played with it, and it was a joy to them. And Isak, watching them, forgot his trouble for the moment. Moreover, Oline had a message from the Lensmand; the State had at last given its decision in the matter of the land at Sellanraa. Isak had only to go down to the office and pay the amount. This was good news, and served to keep him from the worst depth of despair. Tired and worn out as he was, he packed up some food in a bag and set off for the village at once. Maybe he had some little hope of seeing Inger once again before she left there.

But he was disappointed. Inger was gone — for eight years. Isak felt himself in a mist of darkness and emptiness; heard only a word here and there of all the Lensmand said — a pity such things should happen . . . hoped it might be a lesson to her . . . reform and be a better woman after, and not kill her children any more!

Lensmand Heyerdahl had married the year before. His wife had no intention of ever being a mother — no children for her, thank you! And she had none.

“And now,” said the Lensmand, “this business about Sellanraa. At last I am in a position to settle it definitely. The Department is graciously pleased to approve the sale of the land, more or less according to the terms I suggested.”

“H’m,” said Isak.

It has been a lengthy business, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that my endeavours have not been altogether fruitless. The terms I proposed have been agreed to almost without exception.”

“Without exception,” said Isak, and nodded.

“Here are the title-deeds. You can have the transfer registered at the first session.”

“Ay,” said Isak. “And how much is there to pay?”

“Ten Daler a year.” The Department has made a slight alteration here — ten Daler per annum instead of five. You have no objection to that, I presume?”

“As long as I can manage to pay . . .” said Isak.

“And for ten years.” Isak looked up, half frightened.

“Those are the terms — the Department insists. Even then, it’s no price really for all that land, cleared and cultivated as it is now.”

Isak had the ten Daler for that year — it was the money he had got for his loads of wood, and for the cheeses Inger had laid by. He paid the amount, and had still a small sum left.

“It’s a lucky thing for you the Department didn’t get to hear about your wife,” said the Lensmand. “Or they might have sold to some one else.”

“Ay,” said Isak. He asked about Inger. “Is it true that she’s gone away for eight years?”

“That is so. And can’t be altered — the law must take its course. As a matter of fact, the sentence is extraordinarily light. There’s one thing you must do now — that is, to set up clear boundaries between your land and the State’s. A straight, direct line, following the marks I set up on the spot, and entered in my register at the time. The timber cleared from the boundary line becomes your property. I will come up some time and have a look at what you have done.”

Isak trudged back to his home.

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