The Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter IX

The years pass by.

Once more there came visitors to Sellanraa; an engineer, with a foreman and a couple of workmen, marking out telegraph lines again over line would be carried a little above the house, and a straight road cut through the forest. No harm in that. It would make the place less desolate, a glimpse of the world would make it brighter.

“This place,” said the engineer, “will be just about midway between two lines through the valleys on either side. They’ll very likely ask you to take on the job of linesman for both.”

“Ho!” said Isak.

“It will be twenty-five Daler a year in your pocket.”

“H’m,” said Isak. “And what am I to do for that?”

“Keep the line in repair, mend the wires when necessary, clear away forest growth on the route as it comes up. They’ll set up a little machine thing in the house here, to hang on the wall, that’ll tell you when you’re wanted. And when it does, you must leave whatever you’re doing and go.”

Isak thought it over. “I could do it all right in winter,” he said.

“That’s no good. It would have to be for the whole year, summer and winter alike.”

“Can’t be done,” said Isak. “Spring and summer and autumn I’ve my work on the land! and no time for other things.”

The engineer looked at him for quite a while, and then put an astonishing question, as follows: “Can you make more money that way?”

“Make more money?” said Isak.

“Can you earn more money in a day by working on the land than you could by working for us?”

“Why, as to that, I can’t say,” answered Isak. “It’s just this way, you see — ’tis the land I’m here for. I’ve many souls and more beasts to keep alive — and ’tis the land that keeps us. ’Tis our living.”

“If you won’t, I can find some one else,” said the engineer.

But Isak only seemed rather relieved at the threat. He did not like to disoblige the great man, and tried to explain. “’Tis this way,” he said. “I’ve a horse and five cows, besides the bull. I’ve twenty sheep and sixteen goats. The beasts, they give us food and wool and hide; we must give them food.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said the other shortly.

“Well, and so I say, how am I to feed them when I’ve to run away all times in the busy season, to work on the telegraph line?”

“Say no more about it,” said the engineer. “I’ll get the man down below you, Brede Olsen; he’ll be glad to take it.” He turned to his men with a brief word: “Now, lads, we’ll be getting on.”

Now Oline had heard from the way Isak spoke that he was stiff-necked and unreasonable in his mind, and she would make the most of it.

“What was that you said, Isak? Sixteen goats? There s no more than fifteen,” said she.

Isak looked at her, and Oline looked at him again, straight in the face.

“Not sixteen goats?” said he.

“No,” said she, looking helplessly towards the strangers, as if to say how unreasonable he was.

“Ho!” said Isak softly. He drew a tuft of his beard between his teeth and stood chewing it.

The engineer and his men went on their way.

Now, if Isak had wanted to show his displeasure with Oline and maybe thrash her for her doings, here was his chance — a Heaven-sent chance to do that thing. They were alone in the house; the children had gone after the men when they went. Isak stood there in the middle of the room, and Oline was sitting by the stove. Isak cleared his throat once or twice, just to show that he was ready to say some thing if he pleased. But he said nothing. That was his strength of soul. What, did he not know the number of his goats as he knew the fingers on his hands — was the woman mad? Could one of the beasts be missing, when he knew every one of them personally and talked to them every day — his goats that were sixteen in number? Oline must have traded away one of them the day before, when the woman from Breidablik had come up to look at the place. “H’m,” said Isak, and this time words were on the very tip of his tongue. What was it Oline had done? Not exactly murder, perhaps, but some thing not far from it. He could speak in deadly earnest of that sixteenth goat.

But he could not stand there for ever, in the middle of the room, saying nothing. “H’m,” he said. “Ho! So there’s but fifteen goats there now, you say?”

“That’s all I make it,” answered Oline gently. “But you’d better count for yourself and see.”

Now was his time — he could do it now: reach out with his hands and alter the shape of Oline considerably, with but one good grip. He could do it. He did not do it, but said boldly, making for the door: “I’ll say no more just now.” And he went out, as if plainly showing that, next time, he would have proper words to say, never fear.

“Eleseus!” he called out.

Where was Eleseus, where were the children? Their father had something to ask them; they were big fellows now, with their eyes about them. He found them under the floor of the barn; they had crept in as far as they could, hiding away invisibly, but betraying themselves by an anxious whispering. Out they crept now like two sinners.

The fact of the matter was that Eleseus had found a stump of coloured pencil the engineer had left behind, and started to run after him and give it back; but the big men with their long strides were already far up in the forest. Eleseus stopped. The idea occurred to him that he might keep the pencil — if only he could! He hunted out little Sivert, so that they might at least be two to share the guilt, and the find. Oh, that stump of pencil — it was an event in their lives, a wonder! They found shavings and covered them all over with signs; the pencil, they discovered, made blue marks with one end and red with the other, and they took it in turns to use. When their father called out so loudly and insistently, Eleseus whispered: “They’ve come back for the pencil!” All their joy was dashed in a moment, swept out of their minds at a touch, and their little hearts began beating and thumping terribly. The brothers crept forth. Eleseus held out the pencil at arm’s length; here it was, they had not broken it; only wished they had never seen the thing.

No engineer was to be seen. Their hearts settled to a quieter beat; it was heavenly to be rid of that dreadful tension.

“There was a woman here yesterday,” said their father.

“Yes.”

“The woman from the place down below. Did you see her go?”

“Yes.”

“Had she a goat with her?”

“No,” said the boys. “A goat?”

“Didn’t she have a goat with her when she left?”

“No. What goat?”

Isak wondered and wondered. In the evening when the animals came home, he counted the goats once over — there were sixteen. He counted them once more, counted them five times. There were sixteen. None missing.

Isak breathed again. But what did it all mean? Oline, miserable creature, couldn’t she count as far as sixteen? He asked her angrily: “What’s all this nonsense? there are sixteen goats.”

“Are there sixteen?” she asked innocently.

“Ay.”

“Ay, well, then.”

“A nice one to count, you are.”

Oline answered quietly, in an injured tone, “Since all the goats are there, why, then, thank Heaven, you can’t say Oline’s been eating them up. And well for her, poor thing.”

Oline had taken him in completely with her trickery; he was content, imagining all was well. It did not occur to him, for instance, to count the sheep. He did not trouble about further counting of the stock at all. After all, Oline was not as bad as she might have been; she kept house for him after a fashion, and looked to his cattle; she was merely a fool, and that was worst for herself. Let her stay, let her live — she was not worth troubling about. But it was a grey and joyless thing to be Isak, as life was now.

Years had passed. Grass had grown on the roof of the house, even the roof of the barn, which was some years younger, was green. The wild mouse, native of the woods, had long since found way into the storehouse. Tits and all manner of little birds swarmed about the place; there were more birds up on the hillside; even the crows had come. And most wonderful of all, the summer before, seagulls had appeared, seagulls coming all the way up from the coast to settle on the fields there in the wilderness. Isak’s farm was known far and wide to all wild creatures. And what of Eleseus and little Sivert when they saw the gulls? Oh, ’twas some strange birds from ever so far away; not so many of them, just six white birds, all exactly alike, waddling this way and that about the fields, and pecking at the grass now and then.

“Father, what have they come for?” asked the boys.

“There’s foul weather coming out at sea,” said their father. Oh, a grand and mysterious thing to see those gulls!

And Isak taught his sons many other things good and useful to know. They were of an age to go to school, but the school was many miles away down in the village, out of reach. Isak had himself taught the boys their A B C on Sundays, but ’twas not for him, not for this born tiller of the soil, to give them any manner of higher education; the Catechism and Bible history lay quietly on the shelf with the cheeses. Isak apparently thought it better for men to grow up without book-knowledge, from the way he dealt with his boys. They were a joy and a blessing to him, the two; many a time he thought of the days when they had been tiny things, and their mother would not let him touch them because his hands were sticky with resin. Ho, resin, the cleanest thing in the world! Tar and goats’ milk and marrow. for instance all excellent things but resin clean gum from the fir — not a word!

So the lads grew up in a paradise of dirt and ignorance, but they were nice lads for all that when they were washed, which happened now and again; little Sivert he was a splendid fellow, though Eleseus was something finer and deeper.

“How do the gulls know about the weather?” he asked.

“They’re weather-sick,” said his father. “But as for that they re no more so than the files. Now it may be with flies, I can’t say, if they get the gout, or feel giddy, or what. But never hit out at a fly, for ’twill only make him worse — remember that, boys! The horsefly he’s a different sort he dies of himself. Turns up suddenly one day in summer, and there he is; then one day suddenly he’s gone, and that’s the end of him.

“But how does he die?” asked Eleseus.

“The fat inside him stiffens, and he lies there.”

Every day they learned something new. Jumping down from high rocks, for instance, to keep your tongue in your mouth, and not get it between your teeth. When they grew bigger, and wanted to smell nice for going to church, the thing was to rub oneself with a little tansy that grew on the hillside. Father was full of wisdom. He taught the boys about stones, about flint, how that the white stone was harder than the grey; but when he had found a flint, he must also make tinder. Then he could strike fire with it. He taught them about the moon, how when you can grip in the hollow side with your left hand it is waxing, and grip in with the right, it’s on the wane; remember that, boys! Now and again, Isak would go too far, and grow mysterious; one day he declared that it was harder for a camel to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a human being to thread the eye of a needle. Another time, telling them of the glory of the angels, he explained that angels had stars set in their heels instead of hobnails. Good and simple teaching, well fitted for settlers in the wilds; the schoolmaster in the village would have laughed at it all, but Isak’s boys found good use for it in their inner life. They were trained and taught for their own little world, and what could be better? In the autumn, when animals were to be killed, the lads were greatly curious, and fearful, and heavy at heart for the ones that were to die. There was Isak holding with one hand, and the other ready to strike; Oline stirred the blood. The old goat was led out, bearded and wise; the boys stood peeping round the corner. “Filthy cold wind this time,” said Eleseus, and turned away to wipe his eyes. Little Sivert cried more openly, could not help calling out: “Oh, poor old goat!” When the goat was killed, Isak came up to them and gave them this lesson: “Never stand around saying ‘Poor thing’ and being pitiful when things are being killed. It makes them tough and harder to kill. Remember that!”

So the years passed, and now it was nearing spring again.

Inger had written home to say she was well, and was learning a lot of things where she was. Her little girl was big, and was called Leopoldine, after the day she was born, the 15th November. She knew all sorts of things, and was a genius at hemstitch and crochet, wonderful fine work she could do on linen or canvas.

The curious thing about this letter was that Inger had written and spelt it all herself. Isak was not so learned but that he had to get it read for him down in the village, by the man at the store; but once he had got it into his head it stayed there; he knew it off by heart when he got home.

And now he sat down with great solemnity at the head of the table, spread out the letter, and read it aloud to the boys. He was willing enough that Oline also should see how easily he could read writing, but he did not speak so much as a word to her directly. When he had finished, he said: “There now, Eleseus, and you, Sivert, ’tis your mother herself has written that letter and learned all these things. Even that little tiny sister of yours, she knows more than all the rest of us here. Remember that!” The boys sat still, wondering in silence.

“Ay, ’tis a grand thing,” said Oline.

And what did she mean by that? Was she doubt-

ing that Inger told the truth? Or had she her suspicions as to Isak’s reading? It was no easy matter to get at what Oline really thought, when she sat there with her simple face, saying dark things. Isak determined to take no notice.

“And when your mother comes home, boys, you shall learn to write too,” said he to the lads.

Oline shifted some clothes that were hanging near the stove to dry; shifted a pot, shifted the clothes again, and busied herself generally. She was thinking all the time.

“So fine and grand as everything’s getting here,” she said at last. “I do think you might have bought a paper of coffee for the house.”

Coffee?“ said Isak. It slipped out.

Oline answered quietly: “Up to now I’ve bought a little now and again out of my own money, but . . .”

Coffee was a thing of dreams and fairy tales for Isak, a rainbow. Oline was talking nonsense, of course. He was not angry with her, no; but, slow of thought as he was, he called to mind at last her bartering with the Lapps, and he said bitterly:

“Ay, I’ll buy you coffee, that I will. A paper of coffee, was it? Why not a pound? A pound of coffee, while you’re about it.”

“No need to talk that way, Isak. My brother Nils, he gets coffee; down at Breidablik, too, they’ve coffee.”

“Ay, for they’ve no milk. Not a drop of milk on the place, they’ve not.”

“That’s as it may be. But you that know such a lot, and read writing as pat as a cockroach running you ought to know that coffee’s a thing should be in everybody s house.”

“You creature!” said Isak.

At that Oline sat down and was not to be silenced. “As for that Inger” said she, “if so be I may dare to say such a word. . .”

“Say what you will, ’tis all one to me.”

“She’ll be coming home, and learned everything of sorts. And beads and feathers in her hat, maybe?”

“Ay, that may be.”

“Ay,” said Oline “and she can thank me a little for all the way she’s grown so fine and grand.”

“You?” asked Isak. It slipped out.

Oline answered humbly: “Ay, since ’twas my modest doing that she ever went away.”

Isak was speechless at that; all his words were checked, he sat there staring. Had he heard aright? Oline sat there looking as if she had said nothing. No, in a battle of words Isak was altogether lost.

He swung out of the house, full of dark thoughts. Oline that beast that throve in wickedness and grew fat on it — why had he not wrung her neck the first year? So he thought trying to pull himself together. He could have done it — he? Couldn’t he though! No one better.

And then a ridiculous thing happened. Isak went into the shed and counted the goats. There they are with their kids, the full number. He counts cows the pig, fourteen hens, two calves. “I’d all but forgotten the sheep,” he says to himself; he counts the sheep and pretends to be all anxiety lest there should be any missing there. Isak knows very well that there is a sheep missing; he has known that a long time; why should he let it appear otherwise? It was this way. Oline had tricked him nicely once before, saying one of the goats was gone, though all the goats were there as they should be; he had made a great fuss about it at the time, but to no purpose. It was always the same when he came into conflict with Oline. Then, in the autumn at slaughtering time, he had seen at once that there was one ewe short, but he had not found courage to call her to account for it at the time. And he had not found that courage since.

But today he is stern; Isak is stern. Oline has made him thoroughly angry this time. He counts the sheep over again, putting his forefinger on each and counting aloud — Oline may hear it if she likes, if she should happen to be outside. And he says many hard things about Oline — says them out loud; how that she uses a new method of her own in feeding sheep, a method that simply makes them vanish — here’s a ewe simply vanished. She is a thieving baggage, nothing less, and she may know ill Oh he would just have liked Oline to be standing outside be thoroughly frightened for once.

He strides out from the shed goes to the stable and counts the horse; from there he will go in — will go into the house and speak his mind. He walks so fast that his shirt stands out like a very angry shirt behind him. But Oline as like as not has noticed something, looking out through the glass window; she appears in the doorway, quietly and steadily, with buckets in her hands, on her way to the cowshed.

“What have you done with that ewe with the flat ears?” he asks.

“Ewe?” she asks.

“Ay. If she’d been here she’d have had two lambs by now. What have you done with them? She always had two. You’ve done me out of three together, do you understand?”

Oline is altogether overwhelmed, altogether annihilated by the accusation; she wags her head, and her legs seem to melt away under her — she might fall and hurt herself. Her head is busy all the time; her ready wit had always helped her, always served her well; it must not fail her now.

“I steal goats and I steal the sheep,” she says quietly. “And what do I do with them, I should like to know? I don’t eat them up all by myself, I suppose?”

“You know best what you do with them.”

“Ho! As if I didn’t have enough and to spare of meat and food and all, with what you give me, Isak, that I should have to steal more? But I’ll say that, anyway, I’ve never needed so much, all these years.”

“Well, what have you done with the sheep? Has Os-Anders had it?”

“Os-Anders?” Oline has to set down the buckets and fold her hands. “May I never have more guilt to answer for! What’s all this about a ewe and lambs you’re talking of? Is it the goat you mean, with the flat ears?”

“You creature!” said Isak, turning away.

“Well, if you’re not a miracle, Isak, I will say . . . Here you’ve all you could wish for every sort, and a heavenly host of sheep and goats and all in your own shed, and you’ve not enough. How should I know what sheep, and what two lambs, you’re trying to get out of me now? You should be thanking the Lord for His mercies from generation to generation, that you should. ’Tis but this summer and a bit of a way to next winter, and you’ve the lambing season once more, and three times as many again.”

Oh, that woman Oline!

Isak went off grumbling like a bear. “Fool I was not to murder her the first day!” he thought, calling himself all manner of names. “Idiot, lump of rubbish that I was! But it’s not too late yet; just wait, let her go to the cowshed if she likes. It wouldn’t be wise to do anything tonight, but tomorrow . . . ay, tomorrow morning’s the time. Three sheep lost and gone! And coffee, did she say!”

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