The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter VIII

Time flies? Ay, when a man is growing old. Isak was not old, he had not lost his vigour; the years seemed long to him. He worked on his land, and let his iron beard grow as it would.

Now and again the monotony of the wilderness was broken by the sight of a passing Lapp, or by something happening to one of the animals on the place, then all would be as before. Once there came a number of men at once; they rested at Sellanraa, and had some food and a dish of milk; they asked Isak and Oline about the path across the hills; they were marking out the telegraph line, they said. And once came Geissler — Geissler himself, and no other. There he came, free and easy as ever, walking up from the village, two men with him, carrying mining tools, pick and spade.

Oh, that Geissler! Unchanged, the same as ever; meeting and greeting as if nothing had happened, talked to the children, went into the house and came out again, looked over the ground, opened the doors of cowshed and hayloft and looked in. “Excellent!” said he. “Isak, have you still got those bits of stone?”

“Bits of stone?” said Isak, wondering.

“Little heavy lumps of stone I saw the boy playing with when I was here once before.”

The stones were out in the larder, serving as weights for so many mouse-traps; Isak brought them in. Geissler and the two men examined them, talking together, tapped them here and there, weighed them in the hand. “Copper,” they said.

“Could you go up with us and show where you found them?” asked Geissler.

They all went up together; it was not far to the place where Isak had found the stones, but they stayed up in the hills for a couple of days, looking for veins of metal, and firing charges here and there. It They came down to Sellanraa with two bags filled with heavy lumps of stone.

Isak had meanwhile had a talk with Geissler, and told him everything as to his own position: about the purchase of the land, which had come to a hundred Daler instead of fifty.

“That’s a trifle,” said Geissler easily. “You’ve thousands, like as not, on your part of the hills.”

“Ho!” said Isak.

“But you’d better get those title-deeds entered in the register as soon as ever you can.”

“Ay.”

“Then the State can’t come any nonsense about it after, you understand.”

Isak understood. “’Tis worst about Inger,” he said.

“Ay,” said Geissler, and remained thoughtful longer than was usual with him. “Might get the case brought up again. Set out the whole thing properly; very likely get the sentence reduced a bit. Or we could put in an application for a pardon, and that would probably come to the same thing in the end.”

“Why, if as that could be done. . . . ”

“But it wouldn’t do to try for a pardon at once. Have to wait a bit. What was I going to say . . . you’ve been taking things down to my wife — meat and cheese and things — what?”

“Why, as to that, Lensmand paid for all that before.”

“Did I, though?”

“And helped us kindly in many a way.”

“Not a bit of it,” said Geissler shortly. “Here — take this.” And he took out some Daler notes.

Geissler was not the man to take things for nothing, that was plain. And he seemed to have plenty of money about him, from the way his pocket bulged. Heaven only knew if he really had money or not.

“But she writes all’s well and getting on,” said Isak, coming back to his one thought.

“What? — Oh, your wife!”

“Ay. And since the girl was born — she’s had a girl child, born while she was there. A fine little one.”

“Excellent!”

“Ay, and now they’re all as kind as can be, and help her every way, she says.”

“Look here,” said Geissler, “I’m going to send these bits of stone into some mining experts, and find out what’s in them. If there’s a decent percentage of copper, you’ll be a rich man.”

“H’m,” said Isak. “And how long do you think before we could apply for a pardon?”

“Well, not so very long, perhaps. I’ll write the thing for you. I’ll be back here again soon. What was it you said — your wife has had a child since she left here?”

“Yes.”

“Then they took her away while she was expecting it. That’s a thing they’ve no right to do.”

“Anyhow, it’s one more reason for letting her out earlier.”

“Ay, if that could be . . .” said Isak gratefully.

Isak knew nothing of the many lengthy writings backward and forward between the different authorities concerning the woman who was expecting a child. The local authorities had let her go free while the matter was pending, for two reasons: in the first place, they had no lock-up in the village where they could keep her, and, in the second place, they wished to be as lenient as possible. The consequence was something they could not have foreseen. Later, when they had sent to fetch her away, no one had inquired about her condition, and she herself had said nothing of it. Possibly she had concealed the matter on purpose, in order to have a child with her during the years of imprisonment; if she behaved well, she would no doubt be allowed to see it now and again. Or perhaps she had been merely indifferent, and had gone off carelessly, despite her state. . . .

Isak worked and toiled, dug ditches and broke new ground, set up his boundary lines between his land and the State’s, and gained another season’s stock of timber. But now that Inger was no longer there to wonder at his doings, he worked more from let two sessions pass without having his title-deeds registered, caring little about it; at last, that autumn, he had pulled himself together and got it done. Things were not as they should be with Isak now. Quiet and patient as ever — yes, but now it was be cause he did not care. He got out hides because it had to be done — goatskins and calfskins — steeped them in the river, laid them in bark, and tanned them after a fashion ready for shoes. In the winter at the very first threshing — he set aside his seed corn for the next spring, in order to have it done; best to have things done and done with; he was a methodical man. But it was a grey and lonely life; eyah, Herregud! a man without a wife again, and all the rest. . . .

What pleasure was there now in sitting at home Sundays, cleanly washed, with a neat red shirt on, when there was no one to be clean and neat for! Sundays were the longest days of all, days when he was forced to idleness and weary thoughts; nothing to do but wander about over the place, counting up all that should have been done. He always took the children with him, always carried one on his arm. It was a distraction to hear their chatter, and answer their questions of everything.

He kept old Oline because there was no one else he could get. And Oline was, after all, of use in a way. Carding and spinning, knitting stockings and mittens, and making cheese — she could do all these things, but she lacked Inger’s happy touch, and had no heart in her work; nothing of all she handled was her own. There was a thing Isak had bought once at the village store, a china pot with a dog’s head on the lid. It was a sort of tobacco box, really, and stood on a shelf. Oline took off the lid and dropped it on the floor. Inger had left behind some cuttings of fuchsia, under glass. Oline took the glass off and, putting it back, pressed it down hard and maliciously; next day, all the cuttings were dead. It was not so easy for Isak to bear with such things; he looked displeased, and showed it, and, as there was nothing swanlike and gentle about Isak, it may well be that he showed it plainly. Oline cared little for looks; soft-spoken as ever, she only said: “Now, could I help it?”

“That I can’t say,” answered Isak. “But you might have left the things alone.”

“I’ll not touch her flowers again,” said Oline. But the flowers were already dead.

Again, how could it be that the Lapps came up to Sellanraa so frequently of late? Os-Anders, for instance, had no business there at all, he should have passed on his way. Twice in one summer he came across the hills, and Os-Anders, it should be remembered, had no reindeer to look to, but lived by begging and quartering himself on other Lapps. As soon as he came up to the place, Oline left her work and fell to chatting with him about people in the village, and, when he left, his sack was heavy with no end of things. Isak put up with it for two years, saying nothing.

Then Oline wanted new shoes again, and he could be silent no longer. It was in the autumn, and Oline wore shoes every day, instead of going in wooden pattens or rough hide.

“Looks like being fine today,” said Isak. “H’m.” That was how he began.

“Ay,” said Oline.

“Those cheeses, Eleseus,” went on Isak again, “wasn’t it ten you counted on the shelf this morning?”

“Ay,” said Eleseus.

“Well, there’s but nine there now.”

Eleseus counted again, and thought for a moment inside his little head; then he said: “Yes, but then Os-Anders had one to take away; that makes ten.”

There was silence for quite a while after that. Then little Sivert must try to count as well, and says after his brother: “That makes ten.”

Silence again. At last Oline felt she must say something.

“Ay, I did give him a tiny one, that’s true. I didn’t think that could do any harm. But they children, they’re no sooner able to talk than they show what’s in them. And who they take after’s more than I can think or guess. For ’tis not your way, Isak, that I do know.”

The hint was too plain to pass unchecked. “The children are well enough,” said Isak shortly. “But I’d like to know what good Os-Anders has ever done to me and mine.”

“What good?”

“Ay, that’s what I said.”

“What good Os-Anders . . .?”

“Ay, since I’m to give him cheeses in return.”

Oline has had time to think, and has her answer ready now.

“Well, now, I wouldn’t have thought it of you, Isak, that I wouldn’t. Was it me, pray, that first began with Os-Anders? I wish I may never move alive from this spot if I ever so much as spoke his name.”

Brilliant success for Oline. Isak has to give in, as he has done many a time before.

But Oline had more to say. “And if you mean I’m to go here clean barefoot, with the winter coming on and all, and never own the like of a pair of shoes, why, you’ll please to say so. I said a word of it three and four weeks gone, that I needed shoes, but never sign of a shoe to this day, and here I am.”

Said Isak: “What’s wrong with your pattens, then, that you can’t use them?”

“What’s wrong with them?” repeats Oline, all unprepared.

“Ay, that’s what I’d like to know.”

“With my pattens?”

“Ay.”

“Well . . . and me carding and spinning, and tending cattle and sheep and all, looking after children here — have you nothing to say to that? I’d like to know; that wife of yours that’s in prison for her deeds, did you let her go barefoot in the snow?”

“She wore her pattens,” said Isak. “And for going to church and visiting and the like, why, rough hide was good enough for her.”

“Ay, and all the finer for it, no doubt.”

“Ay, that she was. And when she did wear her hide shoes in summer, she did but stuff a wisp of grass in them, and never no more. But you — you must wear stockings in your shoes all the year round.”

Said Oline: “As for that, I’ll wear out my pat tens in time, no doubt. I’d no thought there was any such haste to wear out good Fattens all at once.” She spake softly and gently, but with half-closed eyes, the same sly Oline as ever. “And as for Inger,” said she, “the changeling, as we called her, she went about with children of mine and learned both this and that, for years she did. And this is what we get for it. Because I’ve a daughter that lives in Bergen and wears a hat, I suppose that’s what Inger must be gone away south for; gone to Trondhjem to buy a hat, he he!”

Isak got up to leave the room. But Oline had opened her heart now, unlocked the store of blackness within; ay, she gave out rays of darkness, did Oline. Thank Heaven, none of her children had their faces slit like a fire-breathing dragon, so to speak; but they were none the worse for that, maybe. No, ‘twasn’t every one was so quick and handy at getting rid of the young they bore — strangling them in a twinkling. . . .

“Mind what you’re saying,” shouted Isak. And to make his meaning perfectly clear, he added: “You cursed old hag!”

But Oline was not going to mind what she was saying; not in the least, he he! She turned up her eyes to heaven and hinted that a hare-lip might be this or that, but some folk seemed to carry it too far, he he!

Isak may well have been glad to get safely out of the house at last. And what could he do but get Oline the shoes? A tiller of earth in the wilds; no longer even something of a god, that he could say to his servant, “Go!” He was helpless without Oline; whatever she did or said, she had nothing to fear, and she knew it.

The nights are colder now, with a full moon; the marshlands harden till they can almost bear, but thawing again when the sun comes out, to an impassable swamp once more. Isak goes down to the village one cold night, to order shoes for Oline. He takes a couple of cheeses with him, for Fru Geissler.

Half-way down to the village a new settler has appeared. A well-to-do man, no doubt, since he had called in folk from the village to build his house, and hired men to plough up a patch of sandy moorland for potatoes; he himself did little or nothing. The new man was Brede Olsen, Lensmand’s assistant, a man to go to when the doctor had to be fetched, or a pig to be killed. He was not yet thirty, but had four children to look after, not to speak of his wife, who was as good as a child her self. Oh, Brede was not so well off, perhaps, after all; ’twas no great money he could earn running hither and thither on all odd businesses, and collecting taxes from people that would not pay. So now he was trying a new venture on the soil. He had raised a loan at the bank to start house in the wilds. Breidablik, he called the place; and it was Lensmand Heyerdahl’s lady that had found that splendid name.

Isak hurries past the house, not wasting time on looking in, but he can see through the window that all the children are up already, early as it is. Isak has no time to lose, if he is to be back as far as this on the homeward journey next night, while the roads are hard. A man living in the wilds has much to think of, to reckon out and fit in as best can be. It is not the busiest time for him just now, but he is anxious about the children, left all alone with Oline.

He thinks, as he walks, of the first time he had come that way. Time has passed, the two last years had been long; there had been much that was good at Sellanraa, and a deal that was not — eyah, Herregud! And now here was another man clearing ground in the wilds. Isak knew the place well; it was one of the kindlier spots he had noted himself on his way up, but he had gone on farther It was nearer the village, certainly, but the timber was not so good; the ground was less hilly, but a poorer soil; easy to work on the surface, but hard to deal with farther down. That fellow Brede would find it took more than a mere turning over of the soil to made a field that would bear. And why hadn’t he built out a shed from the end of the hay-loft for carts and implements? Isak noticed that a cart had been left standing out in the yard, uncovered, in the open.

He got through his business with the shoemaker, and, Fru Geissler having left the place, he sold his cheeses to the man at the store. In the evening, he starts out for home. The frost is getting harder now, and it is good, firm going, but Isak trudges heavily for all that. Who could say when Geissler would be back, now that his wife had gone; maybe he would not be coming at all? Inger was far away, and time was getting on. . . .

He does not look in at Brede’s on the way back; on the contrary, he goes a long way round, keeping away from the place. He does not care to stop and talk to folk, only trudge on. Brede’s cart is still out in the open — does he mean to leave it there? Well, ’tis his own affair. Isak himself had a cart of his own now, and a shed to house it, but none the happier for that. His home is but half a thing; it had been a home once, but now only half a thing.

It is full day by the time he gets within sight of his own place up on the hillside, and it cheers him somewhat, weary and exhausted as he is after forty-eight they stand, smoke curling up from the chimney; both the little ones are out, and come down to meet him surprise: “What, you back already!” She is making coffee on the stove. Coffee? Coffee!

Isak has noticed the same thing before. When Os-Anders or any of the other Lapps have been there, Oline makes coffee in Inger’s little pot for a long time after. She does it while Isak is out in the woods or in the fields, and when he comes in unexpectedly and sees it, she says nothing. But he knows that he is the poorer by a cheese or a bundle of wool each time. And it is to his credit that he does not pick up Oline in his fingers and crush her to pieces for her meanness. Altogether, Isak is trying hard indeed to make himself a better man, better and better, whatever may be his idea, whether it be for the sake of peace in the house, or in some hope that the Lord may give him back his Inger the sooner. He is something given to superstition and a pondering upon things; even his rustic wariness is innocent in its way. Early that autumn he found the turf on the roof of the stable was beginning to slip down inside. Isak chewed at his beard for a while, then, smiling like a man who understands a jest, he laid some poles across to keep it up. Not a bitter word did he say. And another thing: the shed where he kept his store of provisions was simply built on high stone feet at the corners, with nothing between. After a while, little birds began to find their way in through the big gaps in the wall, and stayed fluttering about inside, unable to get out. Oline complained that they picked at the food and spoiled the meat, and made a nasty mess about the place. Isak said: “Ay, ’tis a pity small birds should come in and not be able to get out again.” And in the thick of a busy season he turned stonemason and filled up the gaps in the wall.

Heaven knows what was in his mind that he took things so; whether maybe he fancied Inger might be given back to him the sooner for his gentleness.

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