Svea Meets a Rebel
Said the radical: "You're a wage slave." Said Svea: "You're dizzy in the head."
R. E. BREACH
HER eyes were blue as the Norwegian fjord beside which she had been born, and her hair was yellow as the ripe corn in her father's Dakota fields.
Now, completing the cycle of migration, she waited table in the George and Mary Hotel at Richvale—a figure huge and delicately colored, a mind deep and clear as rain pools in granite rock.
Standing on the back verandah of the hotel and looking towards the railway station where the way-freight jerked slowly to a stop, she saw the brakeman hurl a supine figure from an empty box-car to the cinders of the roadbed. The tall trainman’s leg rose and fell in a series of kicks.
“You, Sim Fraser!”
Her deep voice rolled across like a trumpet call. The brakeman stood on one leg, his other arrested in mid-air, like a startled stork.
“Honest to God, Svea, that’s the sixth bohunk I’ve kicked off my train since Saskatoon!”
“He isn’t on your train now, Sim. Lay off!”
The tramp rose and staggered across the vacant lots towards the square, white-painted hotel building as if drawn by that vibrant voice. He sat down on the step, his face unshaven and blackened by coaldust, clothes torn and dusty from the brakeman’s handling. Svea, arms akimbo on her broad hips, said severely:
“You shouldn’t be riding on his train.”
“Why shouldn’t I ride on it if I want to?” The dejected figure came to life. “It’s as much mine as his. Doesn’t it belong to the people?”
“Yass,” agreed the blonde woman. “It’s the gover’ment railway.”
“Government!” sneered the ragamuffin.
“Take a drink,” said Svea, dipping a pan into a steel water-barrel. The man drank thirstily, lifting sunken eyes above the rim towards his benefactress. The icy. water struck hard at his emptiness, and the figure before him swelled like a balloon and exploded into misty nothingness, out of which it presently reappeared, bearing a plate of bread and meat and a jug of milk.
The odor of food pulled him like a magnet, but he drew back his dirty fingers from the plate.
“May I wash?”
The grave reproof of her face melted into a smile. He saw that he had found favor by his simple request. He was a guest, not a hungry dog to be fed at the back door with broken bits from the table. The girl watched him silently until he had eaten.
“You looking for work?”
“No. I have my work.”
She stared doubtfully at his thin figure, his soiled clothes; glanced across at the cinder-bed on which this toiler had fallen.
“Your boss skip out and not pay you?”
“No,” he explained impatiently, “my work is its own reward. My pay will come in the future.”
“That’s no good,” said Svea. “I like my pay now, in my hand.”
“You would. You’re a wage-slave.”
“Are you learning the language?” inquired Svea. “In the English, slaves don’t get wages.”
“You women never understand. You know nothing but your homes and your husbands and your children.” “If a woman knows that, she knows a lot. Do you
want a job where you could start in right now, and thé pay once a month as sure as the clock strikes, and your food and bed for nothing?”
“Who pays the wages?”
“Why, the boss, of course.”
“Listen, girl.” The man’s laugh had no mirth, “/work for no boss. My wages are cold and hunger and to be kicked off trains. But what do you understand of that? You will marry, and raise a horde of yellow-headed slaves to serve the old masters.”
“I—I guess not,” replied Svea. “The fellows won’t look at a big one like me. The style is for little girls, with the shiny hair and the red lips, that can dance good. Claire and Eva, the dining-room girls, get all the fellows. I’ve never had a beau. But won’t you take that job?” “What’s your name?”
“Well, Miss Svea Anderson, I’m obliged to you for the meal and your kind words, but when you find me taking wages from any man again, I give you liberty to—to call me your beau. And I have taken oath to own neither wife nor child nor home until the great work is finished.” “How can a man do a great work without a roof over him, or food for his strength, or love in his heart?”
“In the New Day every man shall have a roof and food and comfort for his old age, and he won’t have to work himself into the grave or sell his soul for it.”
“Is it, perhaps, a new kind of insurance you’re selling?” The reformer banged his cup on his plate.
“You’re the stupidest girl I ever met. When does the next train go through?”
“The local goes west at six to-morrow morning. Where
are you going to stay to-night? There’s a cot in the room over the stable. But you must promise not to smoke.” “You are kind. I’m sorry I was so crusty. But were you ever hungry, Miss Svea?”
"Why should I be? It’s a good country, and I have two hands. And neither would you be—if you’d take that job.”
“Haven’t I told you, woman, that I have a job? Can’t you understand? Look at that old building across the road. It’s no good. Those men tear it down and make way for something better. That’s my work—to help destroy all the old outworn institutions, the laws made by the few for themselves, the banks that hoard the gold for which workers have sweated, the slothful bloated lives that suck dry the souls of their slaves—to destroy the world, if need be—”
“You go lie down now and sleep,” said Svea. “You’re dizzy in the head.”
CHE met him next morning.
^ “Haven't you gone yet?”
“This is what comes of comfort,” he frowned. “I overslept. Where are you going with the pail?”
“I go to milk the cow. Claire and Eva, they don’t know how to milk.”
“Give me the pail and I’ll do the milking. Since I’m late for the train, I’ll help you.”
“That’ll be good. I have to work hard.”
He carried the full pail into the kitchen where the cook stared curiously at him, and the odor of food made his mouth wet. Svea toiled past him with a bucketful of scraps. He snatched at it angrily.
“That’s too heavy for you. Where shall I empty it?” “In the pigpen.”
“Is this a hotel, or a farm?”
“The boss, he likes a cow and the pigs. We got hundred hens, too. In no hotel on the line can you get so fresh
milk and eggs and meat. Come back in, for breakfast.” “I have no money to pay.”
“What for, money?” inquired Svea. “You milk the cow, yass, and clean out the stable, too, I see. And carry out slops. You have earned a breakfast.”
She spread a bountiful meal on the corner of the long kitchen table. The two dining-room girls made giggling overtures, but he scowled at them so horribly that they fled.
“Yass,” sighed Svea. “It was good of you to do my work. All day long I work hard.”
He came upon her an hour later, piling tables and chairs out of the sample room into the dark corners of the rear hall.
“What are you going to do now?”
“I must paint the floor of the sample room. The travelers say it is the bummest room on the line. And the paint smell make my head ache so,” she added, plaintively.
“Look here. I’ve got to wait over for that train tomorrow. Let me paint the floor.”
“The walls and ceiling, they must be kalsomined, too,” “I’ll stay two days, and do them for you.”
“My, you are good to me! But first I go to get ready the bags and trunks for the dray. The east train goes pretty soon.”
“Isn’t there a man in this hotel?”
“The boss is away. His wife got the lung sickness this spring, and he took her to the coast. So I come to help two-three weeks while he is gone. I guess he forgot to get a man to carry down trunks. You coming with me?”
TJE hurled himself at the walls and floor of the sample room in a storm of kalsomine and paint. The work kept him three days instead of two. Svea came in and out at intervals, brought him supplies, listened to his angry arraignment of society, boiling out of him like the
explosions of a geyser, in brief pauses between furious paintings.
“What’s your name?” she asked him.
“That’s a queer name. What kind are you?”
Her broad, fair face brightened.
“I know—like the mountains and fjords of Norway. I remember when I was a child. Ah—the pine forests!”
“I never saw Scotland,” said Munro, stirring fresh, kalsomine in a wooden pail. “My father was a poor crofter, driven off his little farm to make way for a game preserve. I was born in Winnipeg.”
“We lived on a farm after that. My father started in debt, he had bad crops and he lost his land. He came to town to find work and lost his job in a lockout. My mother died in want. I lived on the streets, sold papers, worked in a factory, and when I spoke my mind about conditions among the workmen was kicked out for an agitator. I’m through with working for wages!”
“My, you have hard luck!”
“Luck! I call it by another name. It’s this cursed capitalistic system! Hasn't the workman a right to free speech? Shouldn't every child be given a fair chance? I wanted an education, and I had to gather what scraps of knowledge I could from the free night schools and the reading tables of public libraries. Why should my father lose his farm because the crops failed? Could he make the rain fall? He worked like a slave and denied himself everything to pay his debts. I tell you, girl, the day comes when no man’s land will be taken from him because of misfortune. The state will own all the land and give to every man-his just share—"
“Not my land,” said Svea, suddenly becoming interested. “You don't give my farm to any of these loafers
Continued on page 56
Svea Meets a Rebel
Continued from page 6
“Where did you get a farm, Svea?” he asked, halting his dripping brush.
“My father gave it to me,” replied the girl. “He and my mother and my sister and my brother died when the flu sickness was bad in ’eighteen. My father died last. He wrote a paper before he died so I should have the land.”
“What will you do with a farm?”
“I work it. There is good land. My father came here from Dakota and bought a half-section and broke forty acres that first year. Then he died. Some day I make a farm just as he would like. He was a good farmer, my father. Forty acres of wheat I had last year, on summer fallow.”
“Yep, and sold it a thousand miles away, and men who never saw wheat juggled the price and your wheat together, and put your profit in their pockets.”
“Not on my crop,” said Svea with dignity. “I belong to wheat pool. You come and see my farm some Sunday?”
“Id like to, Svea but I must go away to-morrow morning. You’re a nice girl to talk to, and you can listen better than most women, but I’ve got a big job to do, you understand, and I mustn’t fall down on it.”
DUT that night he lay restless and awake. The single purpose of his heart wavered. He wanted to know something more of this fair, placid girl, longed to save her from the life of toil which was all she knew, show her the fiery path to freedom for all men and women. But in the end the old bitterness was too strong. What was one country girl, busy with her brooms and dustpan and pails, to hinder even for one pitying instant the Work? He would hop the train that went through at six, easier to go without any final meeting. He rose early, milked the cow, set the pail inside the dark, quiet kitchen, and tiptoed through the silent halls.
He stumbled over Svea on her knees in the barnlike rotunda, beside a wooden bucket of hot suds.
“What now?” he cried, his anger rising at the sight of the girl’s back bent over the hard task.
“I got to scrub this floor.”
“Isn’t there a man to do this rough work?”
“No,” sighed the Norwegian girl. “The men think themselves too big for this. It is hard work, too. The stooping give me a pain in the side. Maybe I got the appendicitis.”
He seized her by her round, firm arm.
“Get up,” he said, roughly. “I’ll doit. And you’re going at it in the hardest possible way—on your knees. Get me a broom and a mop.”
“It has to be scrubbed twice a week,” said Svea, edging out of the circle of swimming suds. “And don’t, now, splash water on the wall.”
THUS he entered into servitude.
Friendless, bitter, the maternal spirit of this woman enfolded him, held him. The resentment which had been born in him at his father’s misfortunes, burned higher at her servitude. He followed her
about, arguing, expounding, the while under her half-heard directions, he carried water, moved trunks, ran errands.
But after that first meal he would not eat in the hotel. He was used to going without meals, he told the wondering Svea. From the few small coins remaining to him, he bought crackers and ends of cheese and nibbled at them, knowing not, nor caring, where or how he would eat in future. Every night he found a jug of milk and a plate of food on the table by his bedside. He knew that Svea had put it there. He knew also that it belonged to the man who owned the hotel and paid the girl her wages. But he did not stop to question his inconsistency. Because the food passed through the calloused hands of this girl who worked, it lost its capitalistic taint, and became the bread of the poor. He ate it, and was strengthened.
Every night he said: ‘I will go tomorrow.’ Every morning he found himself before the blonde girl, hungry for the comfort of her slow smile, her deliberate speech. Day after day drifted by in the warm sunshine, while his eyes that had been haggard grew less haggard in a face now shaven and his bitter tongue faltered in the friendly atmosphere of the prosperous little town. And every morning,, drugged by work and food, he slept serenely through the rumbling, whistling passage of the west-bound local.
CVEA borrowed a jogging pony and a ^ buggy with sagging springs, and they. rode in the early morning out of the sleepy town across the southern slough land and came slowly on to a higher park country, heavily bushed with slender, whiteskinned birch, with fluttering poplar and sweet-scented balm-o’-gilead. The grass lands were splashed with yellow buffalo bean and blue vetch, and every bluff was hedged with wild rose delicately pink, and footed with Indian paint-brush. In low sheltered places the earliest tiger-lilies lay like drops of blood.
Munro’s taut body relaxed in the old sagging seat, soaked through with sunlight, his eyes on Svea’s large brown hands, holding the reins skilfully. Color of flowers and sky, the warm scented breeze against his thin face, the acrid smell of the sweating horse, woke in him old memories of other mornings, hot and sweet and quiet, like this Sunday morning, before torment and doubt and resentment had blotted them out.
Why should Svea remind him of red and white clover, with bees humming over it? He pressed closer against her, like a tired child against its mother.
“Open the gate for me,” said Svea. He unwound the wire from the post and the gate collapsed into a tangle of loose wires and prodding poplar pickets. The fat pony woke and ambled through. The low, unpainted house brooded among the poplar trees, its little windows like sleepy half-opened eyes, its wide porch drowsy vn hot shadows.
Inside, it was just as it had heen on the day when the father and the mother, the sister and the brother, had fallen asleep for the last time, and Svea, a tear-stained, bewildered lath of a girl of fourteen had sat alone on the porch when the last
neighbor had departed. Sat alone, she told him, all night long, with the frowsy body of the old collie pressed against her, too frightened and lonely to go inside.
“Poor kid! Poor little kid! Why didn’t someone stay with you?”
“Everybody had the sickness in their homes. They did well for me. I was all right, only a little lonely. After a while I show you their graves where they sleep.” Immaculately clean, dustless, quiet order.
“I come every Sunday and work. I don’t feel so lonesome here. This is the good room where we sat on Sunday and when the work was done. My father, he made those chairs, and my mother sewed the rugs, and these curtains my grandmother wove in Norway—”
He wandered through the rooms, barely furnished with lopsided tables and clumsy chairs fitted with cushions of faded chintz stuffed with wild duck feathers; mats underfoot made of scraps of heavy woollen stuffs outlined in gay wool stitchery; bits of yellowing Hardanger work on chairback and shelf. In this quiet room a wooden bed—two pictures on the wall, a bearded man, a placid woman wearing a starched cap; Svea’s room, a narrow blue-painted cell, like a nun’s—upstairs to a low attic, a child’s bed, a crib, a pair of boy’s skis hanging on the wall, old trunks and boxes, herbs tied in withered bunches—a house from which the living hearts had gone and it remained yet, not destroyed as he had judged the outworn things should be, but resting, waiting—
CVEA was moving about the kitchen ^She had kindled a fire in the stove and was baking cakes.
“Come out and see my land.”
The barns were empty and the barnyard green. But beyond the buildings the wheat wound among the darker bluffs. Svea stripped a green head and rubbed it between her palms.
“Who puts in your crop, Svea?” asked Munro, trying to imitate her gesture with the wheat.
“I put it in myself. Some day, maybe, I have hundred acres in crop. Olaf Oleson, my neighbor, he do some breaking for me this summer.”
“Do you plough the land yourself?” “For three years now. Before, the land lay fallow or was rented out. But renters are no good. They steal the good of the land and let the wild oats in. Olaf helps me with the harvest, and between times I work in town. So much ready cash you need for farming. Come to the pasture. I want to see if the horses are all right.” She filled a pan with oats from a box in the barn, walked to the pasture gate and whistled. Figures detached themselves from the leafy coverts, blowing through wide nostrils, munching greedily. Ungrateful, they moved off when fed, all but one, a huge white beast, that lingered and nuzzled at Svea’s sleeve.
“This was my father’s loved one,” she said, “but he is growing old. Are you not old, Thor, but faithful? None pull the plough so strong as he, and on the binder he can swing the team square at the corners, better than a man.”
She clambered from the gate to the white horse’s back. He arched his neck, and tossed his head, but stood firmly.
She turned the horse by smiting him lightly on the neck. Munro followed, his hand in the long mane.
“Not eight acres,” she said, slowly, measuring the fresh furrows with practiced eye. “Ten he asked pay for, the loafer! Well, he ploughs another day before he gets his money.”
She slid off the horse to the ground. “My, it is hot! Do you mind if I take off my shoes?”
He nodded an astonished acquiescence, and she pulled off her shoes and, unabashed, her black cotton stockings, and stood ankle-deep in the moist, cool earth. Barefooted and bareheaded she leaned against the white horse who stood in the
furrow, dreaming of the plough behind him. A strange, sudden desire seized Munro.
“Svea, how long is your hair? Take down your hair until I see it.”
“Yass, I have good hair.” She drew out the coarse wire pins and the yellow braids swung to her knees. But the intensity of his gaze made her uneasy. She stooped and drew on her shoes over her bare, earth-stained feet.
“Come in, now. The cakes will be baked.”
Sweet crumbling morsels on a blue plate, eggs fried in the liquid gold of melted butter, potatoes steaming through their split skins, thick slices of bread, incense of coffee.
“You eat too much,” he said, ungratefully. “You eat twice as much as I do.” “I am big woman, and I work hard.” She munched placidly while he stared at his filled plate.
“I cannot enjoy this food because I know so many that lack food.”
“If you do not eat, there will only be one more hungry. And hungry folks are always finding trouble. Eat, now!”
He ate obediently, his starved boy body clamoring for food. And when he had eaten, his sated body took command of his restless mind and drugged it into peace. He sat in Hjalmer Anderson’s big armchair, smoking cigarette after cigarette, watching Svea’s figure looming through the blue smoke-cloud, his eyes closing.
The guardian spirits of the house withdrew, well-satisfied, smiling ghostly smiles at him, sleeping in Hjalmer Anderson’s chair in a cloud of tobacco smoke, as Hjalmer Anderson had smoked and slept so many hot Sunday afternoons.
L'OUR graves in a sheltered glade— sacred to the memory of Hjalmer Anderson, and his wife Ingeborg, their son Osbjarne, and their daughter Margaret.
“My father liked to sit under these trees and smoke his pipe,” explained Svea. “I thought he would rest better here than among so many strangers. And he could keep an eye to the place still.” He looked at her solemn face with amusement.
“And do you really believe, Svea, that your father knows what you do and say, and that you will see him again?”
“I sow the wheat in spring,” said Svea, “and put the black earth over it, and every year we reap the harvest.”
“You think wheat is the salvation of the world.”
“Wheat is bread, and bread is life,” said Svea, gravely. “We go now. But there is Olaf riding by.”
“Keep back, Svea. He might see you.” “I want him to see me. I want to ask him what makes him think eight acres so big as ten.”
“Then I’ll keep out of sight.”
“What is it all about? He knows you are here. I told him yesterday I bring you to see my land.”
“Won’t it make talk? Do you want your name bandied about among the loungers on the street corners?”
“They won’t talk about me.”
“No? Are you more privileged than other women? Why won’t they say things about you?”
Svea opened and closed her broad palms.
“I’d smack ’em one,” she said, and went on to explain matters about the breaking to the delinquent Olaf.
' I 'HERE was a new figure about the place, a big man with shrewd kind face and burly shoulders, moving as one who knows his way about the halls, through the kitchen. Angus Munro, carrying rainwater for the geraniums in the window-boxes, halted, but the big man nodded and went by without stopping. Angus sought Svea, and said:
“Who is that man?”
“That’s the boss back again,” she said,
and hurried away. Munro put down his pail at the man’s call.
“Wait a minute, Munro. Here’s twenty dollars for you.”
“Sure. Who else. And let me say that I appreciate a good man about the place; a lad who’ll do what he’s told without grouchin’, and not drink my beer when my back is turned.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What—you’ve been at it like the rest, have you?”
“If you mean stolen your beer, I haven’t touched it. But you don’t owe me any money.”
“Aren’t you the lad that’s been milkin’ the cow, and totin’ trunks, and paintin’ the floors? Then here you are—two weeks wages. I pay by the month, but you’re maybe needin’ a bit of cash, and it’s the first of the month anyway—•”
“Do you mean to tell me that I’ve been working for wages?”
“Workin’—wages—” stuttered the big man. “Svea! Svea!” he shouted. “What’s the matter with this lackwit you hired as porter?”
SHE stood before him, smiling enigmatically.
“So you are like the rest of the women. You lie and cheat and make fools of men. What did you do it for? Aren’t you ashamed of such a trick?”
“Not for myself, but you, Angus—you give me a red face. You are like a child, angry and crying, with a broken toy that you cannot mend. What is that in your hand?”
“Money, that that man gave me.”
“He did not give it to you. It was money he owed to you. Think, now. For two weeks you have worked and been happy, and everyone looks up at you. Would Sim Fraser dare to come in here now and kick you out?”
“You have cheated me.”
“Maybe, but as I might cheat a child, for its own good, when I give it the bad medicine, like castor oil, and call it honey. You and I have done much talking, Angus, these last two weeks. Who has said the truth? Think of it.”
“You have made me false to my beliefs.”
“I think it is your beliefs that are false, not you. But if you are mad at me, you must go away. I thought you would only be mad at those who were mean to you. I will get you my alarm-clock, and you can get up to-morrow morning in time to catch the train that you have missed these fourteen days. Sim Fraser will kick you off at the next station. Maybe next spring you’ll get to where you are going.” The hotelman looked into the room. “Lad, you can depend on it, Svea will always give you the straight goods. But if you think she has double-crossed you by making you do honest work for wages, you can save your face by taking it that you’ve worked for her, not for me. She has been manager here since the wife hasn’t been able to attend to things, and she does my hiring and firing. If you think it will salve your hurt feelings, say you’re her man, not mine. Now, are you goin’ to take my dirty money, or aren’t you?”
Into Angus’ troubled mind came the old tormenting visions—restless hungry folk, calling, taunting, stretching thin arms toward him, asking for bread, for life. He was sweating, afraid. Then there moved across this dark vision the figure of a tall girl, with unbound hair and naked feet planted in black, fresh-turned furrows, leaning against the great white horse, Thor. Where she trod, the green wheat spears thrust up through her footprints, grew and ripened and hung heavy golden ears. The hungry folk followed her and fed. The dark picture faded, and the glory of Svea’s eyes lighted the whole world.
He thrust the green bills into his pocket.
“I’m Svea’s man,” he said.