The clatter was a relief to Carol after months of smug houses. She wished that she could work in the mill; that she did not belong to the caste of professional-man's-wife.
She started for home, through the small slum. Before a tar-paper shack, at a gateless gate, a man in rough brown dogskin coat and black plush cap with lappets was watching her. His square face was confident, his foxy mustache was picaresque. He stood erect, his hands in his side-pockets, his pipe puffing slowly. He was forty-five or -six, perhaps.
"How do, Mrs. Kennicott," he drawled.
She recalled him — the town handyman, who had repaired their furnace at the beginning of winter.
"Oh, how do you do," she fluttered.
"My name 's Bjornstam. 'The Red Swede' they call me. Remember? Always thought I'd kind of like to say howdy to you again."
"Ye — yes — — I've been exploring the outskirts of town."
"Yump. Fine mess. No sewage, no street cleaning, and the Lutheran minister and the priest represent the arts and sciences. Well, thunder, we submerged tenth down here in Swede Hollow are no worse off than you folks. Thank God, we don't have to go and purr at Juanity Haydock at the Jolly Old Seventeen."
The Carol who regarded herself as completely adaptable was uncomfortable at being chosen as comrade by a pipe-reeking odd-job man. Probably he was one of her husband's patients. But she must keep her dignity.
"Yes, even the Jolly Seventeen isn't always so exciting. It's very cold again today, isn't it. Well — — "
Bjornstam was not respectfully valedictory. He showed no signs of pulling a forelock. His eyebrows moved as though they had a life of their own. With a subgrin he went on:
"Maybe I hadn't ought to talk about Mrs. Haydock and her Solemcholy Seventeen in that fresh way. I suppose I'd be tickled to death if I was invited to sit in with that gang. I'm what they call a pariah, I guess. I'm the town badman, Mrs. Kennicott: town atheist, and I suppose I must be an anarchist, too. Everybody who doesn't love the bankers and the Grand Old Republican Party is an anarchist."
Carol had unconsciously slipped from her attitude of departure into an attitude of listening, her face full toward him, her muff lowered. She fumbled:
"Yes, I suppose so." Her own grudges came in a flood. "I don't see why you shouldn't criticize the Jolly Seventeen if you want to. They aren't sacred."
"Oh yes, they are! The dollar-sign has chased the crucifix clean off the map. But then, I've got no kick. I do what I please, and I suppose I ought to let them do the same."
"What do you mean by saying you're a pariah?"
"I'm poor, and yet I don't decently envy the rich. I'm an old bach. I make enough money for a stake, and then I sit around by myself, and shake hands with myself, and have a smoke, and read history, and I don't contribute to the wealth of Brother Elder or Daddy Cass."
"You — — I fancy you read a good deal."
"Yep. In a hit-or-a-miss way. I'll tell you: I'm a lone wolf. I trade horses, and saw wood, and work in lumber-camps — I'm a first-rate swamper. Always wished I could go to college. Though I s'pose I'd find it pretty slow, and they'd probably kick me out."
"You really are a curious person, Mr. — — "
"Bjornstam. Miles Bjornstam. Half Yank and half Swede. Usually known as 'that damn lazy big-mouthed calamity-howler that ain't satisfied with the way we run things.' No, I ain't curious — whatever you mean by that! I'm just a bookworm. Probably too much reading for the amount of digestion I've got. Probably half-baked. I'm going to get in 'half-baked' first, and beat you to it, because it's dead sure to be handed to a radical that wears jeans!"
They grinned together. She demanded:
"You say that the Jolly Seventeen is stupid. What makes you think so?"
"Oh, trust us borers into the foundation to know about your leisure class. Fact, Mrs. Kennicott, I'll say that far as I can make out, the only people in this man's town that do have any brains — I don't mean ledger-keeping brains or duck-hunting brains or baby-spanking brains, but real imaginative brains — are you and me and Guy Pollock and the foreman at the flour-mill. He's a socialist, the foreman. (Don't tell Lym Cass that! Lym would fire a socialist quicker than he would a horse-thief!)"
"Indeed no, I sha'n't tell him."
"This foreman and I have some great set-to's. He's a regular old-line party-member. Too dogmatic. Expects to reform everything from deforestration to nosebleed by saying phrases like 'surplus value.' Like reading the prayer-book. But same time, he's a Plato J. Aristotle compared with people like Ezry Stowbody or Professor Mott or Julius Flickerbaugh."
"It's interesting to hear about him."
He dug his toe into a drift, like a schoolboy. "Rats. You mean I talk too much. Well, I do, when I get hold of somebody like you. You probably want to run along and keep your nose from freezing."
"Yes, I must go, I suppose. But tell me: Why did you leave Miss Sherwin, of the high school, out of your list of the town intelligentsia?"
"I guess maybe she does belong in it. From all I can hear she's in everything and behind everything that looks like a reform — lot more than most folks realize. She lets Mrs. Reverend Warren, the president of this-here Thanatopsis Club, think she's running the works, but Miss Sherwin is the secret boss, and nags all the easy-going dames into doing something. But way I figure it out — — You see, I'm not interested in these dinky reforms. Miss Sherwin's trying to repair the holes in this barnacle-covered ship of a town by keeping busy bailing out the water. And Pollock tries to repair it by reading poetry to the crew! Me, I want to yank it up on the ways, and fire the poor bum of a shoemaker that built it so it sails crooked, and have it rebuilt right, from the keel up."
"Yes — that — that would be better. But I must run home. My poor nose is nearly frozen."
"Say, you better come in and get warm, and see what an old bach's shack is like."
She looked doubtfully at him, at the low shanty, the yard that was littered with cord-wood, moldy planks, a hoopless wash-tub. She was disquieted, but Bjornstam did not give her the opportunity to be delicate. He flung out his hand in a welcoming gesture which assumed that she was her own counselor, that she was not a Respectable Married Woman but fully a human being. With a shaky, "Well, just a moment, to warm my nose," she glanced down the street to make sure that she was not spied on, and bolted toward the shanty.
She remained for one hour, and never had she known a more considerate host than the Red Swede.
He had but one room: bare pine floor, small work-bench, wall bunk with amazingly neat bed, frying-pan and ash-stippled coffee-pot on the shelf behind the pot-bellied cannon-ball stove, backwoods chairs — one constructed from half a barrel, one from a tilted plank — and a row of books incredibly assorted; Byron and Tennyson and Stevenson, a manual of gas-engines, a book by Thorstein Veblen, and a spotty treatise on "The Care, Feeding, Diseases, and Breeding of Poultry and Cattle."
There was but one picture — a magazine color-plate of a steep-roofed village in the Harz Mountains which suggested kobolds and maidens with golden hair.
Bjornstam did not fuss over her. He suggested, "Might throw open your coat and put your feet up on the box in front of the stove." He tossed his dogskin coat into the bunk, lowered himself into the barrel chair, and droned on:
"Yeh, I'm probably a yahoo, but by gum I do keep my independence by doing odd jobs, and that's more 'n these polite cusses like the clerks in the banks do. When I'm rude to some slob, it may be partly because I don't know better (and God knows I'm not no authority on trick forks and what pants you wear with a Prince Albert), but mostly it's because I mean something. I'm about the only man in Johnson County that remembers the joker in the Declaration of Independence about Americans being supposed to have the right to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'
"I meet old Ezra Stowbody on the street. He looks at me like he wants me to remember he's a highmuckamuck and worth two hundred thousand dollars, and he says, 'Uh, Bjornquist — — '
"'Bjornstam's my name, Ezra,' I says. HE knows my name, all rightee.
"'Well, whatever your name is,' he says, 'I understand you have a gasoline saw. I want you to come around and saw up four cords of maple for me,' he says.