Adventures in Friendship/Chapter IX

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Chapter 9, Adventures in Friendship, Grayson.jpg

IX
THE GUNSMITH

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Harriet and I had the first intimation of what we have since called the "gunsmith problem" about ten days ago. It came to us, as was to be expected, from that accomplished spreader of burdens, the Scotch Preacher. When he came in to call on us that evening after supper I could see that he had something important on his mind; but I let him get to it in his own way.

"David," he said finally, "Carlstrom, the gunsmith, is going home to Sweden."

"At last!" I exclaimed.

Dr. McAlway paused a moment and then said hesitatingly:

"He says he is going."

Harriet laughed. "Then it's all decided," she said; "he isn't going."

"No," said the Scotch Preacher, "it's not decided—yet."

"Dr. McAlway hasn't made up his mind," I said, "whether Carlstrom is to go or not."

But the Scotch Preacher was in no mood for joking.

"David," he said, "did you ever know anything about the homesickness of the foreigner?"

He paused a moment and then continued, nodding his great shaggy head:

"Man, man, how my old mither greeted for Scotland! I mind how a sprig of heather would bring the tears to her eyes; and for twenty years I dared not whistle "Bonnie Doon" or "Charlie Is My Darling" lest it break her heart. 'Tis a pain you've not had, I'm thinking, Davy."

"We all know the longing for old places and old times," I said.

"No, no, David, it's more than that. It's the wanting and the longing to see the hills of your own land, and the town where you were born, and the street where you played, and the house----"

He paused, "Ah, well, it's hard for those who have it."

"But I haven't heard Carlstrom refer to Sweden for years," I said. "Is it homesickness, or just old age?"

"There ye have it, Davy; the nail right on the head!" exclaimed the Scotch Preacher. "Is it homesickness, or is he just old and tired?"

With that we fell to talking about Carlstrom, the gunsmith. I have known him pretty nearly ever since I came here, now more than ten years ago—and liked him well, too—but it seemed, as Dr. McAlway talked that evening, as though we were making the acquaintance of quite a new and wonderful person. How dull we all are! How we need such an artist as the Scotch Preacher to mould heroes out of the common human clay around us! It takes a sort of greatness to recognize greatness.

In an hour's time the Scotch Preacher had both Harriet and me much excited, and the upshot of the whole matter was that I promised to call on Carlstrom the next day when I went to town.

I scarcely needed the prompting of the Scotch Preacher, for Carlstrom's gunshop has for years been one of the most interesting places in town for me. I went to it now with a new understanding.

Afar off I began to listen for Carlstrom's hammer, and presently I heard the familiar sounds. There were two or three mellow strokes, and I knew that Carlstrom was making the sparks fly from the red iron. Then the hammer rang, and I knew he was striking down on the cold steel of the anvil. It is a pleasant sound to hear.

Carlstrom's shop is just around the corner from the main street. You may know it by a great weather-beaten wooden gun fastened over the doorway, pointing in the daytime at the sky, and in the night at the stars. A stranger passing that way might wonder at the great gun and possibly say to himself:

"A gunshop! How can a man make a living mending guns in such a peaceful community!"

Such a remark merely shows that he doesn't know Carlstrom, nor the shop, nor us.

I tied my horse at the corner and went down to the shop with a peculiar new interest. I saw as if for the first time the old wheels which have stood weathering so long at one end of the building. I saw under the shed at the other end the wonderful assortment of old iron pipes, kettles, tires, a pump or two, many parts of farm machinery, a broken water wheel, and I don't know what other flotsam of thirty years of diligent mending of the iron works of an entire community. All this, you may say—the disorder of old iron, the cinders which cover part of the yard but do not keep out the tangle of goldenrod and catnip and boneset which at this time of the year grows thick along the neighbouring fences—all this, you say, makes no inviting picture. You are wrong. Where honest work is, there is always that which invites the eye.

I know of few things more inviting than to step up to the wide-open doors and look into the shop. The floor, half of hard worn boards half of cinders, the smoky rafters of the roof, the confusion of implements on the benches, the guns in the corners—how all of these things form the subdued background for the flaming forge and the square chimney above it.

At one side of the forge you will see the great dusty bellows and you will hear its stertorous breathing. In front stands the old brown anvil set upon a gnarly maple block. A long sweep made of peeled hickory wood controls the bellows, and as you look in upon this lively and pleasant scene you will see that the grimy hand of Carlstrom himself is upon the hickory sweep. As he draws it down and lets it up again with the peculiar rhythmic swing of long experience—heaping up his fire with a little iron paddle held in the other hand—he hums to himself in a high curious old voice, no words at all, just a tune of contented employment in consonance with the breathing of the bellows and the mounting flames of the forge.

As I stood for a moment in the doorway the other day before Carlstrom saw me, I wished I could picture my friend as the typical blacksmith with the brawny arms, the big chest, the deep voice and all that. But as I looked at him newly, the Scotch Preacher's words still in my ears, he seemed, with his stooping shoulders, his gray beard not very well kept, and his thin gray hair, more than ordinarily small and old.

I remember as distinctly as though it were yesterday the first time Carlstrom really impressed himself upon me. It was in my early blind days at the farm. I had gone to him with a part of a horse-rake which I had broken on one of my stony hills'.

"Can you mend it?" I asked.

If I had known him better I should never have asked such a question. I saw, indeed, at the time that I had not said the right thing; but how could I know then that Carlstrom never let any broken thing escape him? A watch, or a gun, or a locomotive—they are all alike to him, if they are broken. I believe he would agree to patch the wrecked chariot of Phaëthon!

A week later I came back to the shop.

"Come in, come in," he said when he saw me.

He turned from his forge, set his hands on his hips and looked at me a moment with feigned seriousness.

"So!" he said. "You have come for your job?"

He softened the "j" in job; his whole speech, indeed, had the engaging inflection of the Scandinavian tongue overlaid upon the English words.

"So," he said, and went to his bench with a quick step and an air of almost childish eagerness. He handed me the parts of my hay-rake without a word. I looked them over carefully.

"I can't see where you mended them," I said.

You should have seen his face brighten with pleasure! He allowed me to admire the work in silence for a moment and then he had it out of my hand, as if I couldn't be trusted with anything so important, and he explained how he had done it. A special tool for his lathe had been found necessary in order to do my work properly. This he had made at his forge, and I suppose it had taken him twice as long to make the special tool as it had to mend the parts of my rake; but when I would have paid him for it he would take nothing save for the mending itself. Nor was this a mere rebuke to a doubter. It had delighted him to do a difficult thing, to show the really great skill he had. Indeed, I think our friendship began right there and was based upon the favour I did in bringing him a job that I thought he couldn't do!

When he saw me the other day in the door of his shop he seemed greatly pleased.

"Come in, come in," he said.

"What is this I hear," I said, "about your going back to Sweden?"

"For forty years," he said, "I've been homesick for Sweden. Now I'm an old man and I'm going home."

"But, Carlstrom," I said, "we can't get along without you. Who's going to keep us mended up?"

"You have Charles Baxter," he said, smiling.

For years there had been a quiet sort of rivalry between Carlstrom and Baxter, though Baxter is in the country and works chiefly in wood.

"But Baxter can't mend a gun or a hay-rake, or a pump, to save his life," I said. "You know that."

The old man seemed greatly pleased: he had the simple vanity which is the right of the true workman. But for answer he merely shook his head.

"I have been here forty years," he said. "and all the time I have been homesick for Sweden."

I found that several men of the town had been in to see Carlstrom and talked with him of his plans, and even while I was there two other friends came in. The old man was delighted with the interest shown. After I left him I went down the street. It seemed as though everybody had heard of Carlstrom's plans, and here and there I felt that the secret hand of the Scotch Preacher had been at work. At the store where I usually trade the merchant talked about it, and the postmaster when I went in for my mail, and the clerk at the drug store, and the harness-maker. I had known a good deal about Carlstrom in the past, for one learns much of his neighbours in ten years, but it seemed to me that day as though his history stood out as something separate and new and impressive.

When he first came here forty years ago I suppose Carlstrom was not unlike most of the foreigners who immigrate to our shores, fired with faith in a free country. He was poor—as poor as a man could possibly be. For several years he worked on a farm—hard work, for which, owing to his frail physique, he was not well fitted. But he saved money constantly, and after a time he was able to come to town and open a little shop. He made nearly all of his tools with his own hands, he built his own chimney and forge, he even whittled out the wooden gun which stands for a sign over the door of his shop. He had learned his trade in the careful old-country way. Not only could he mend a gun, but he could make one outright, even to the barrel and the wooden stock. In all the years I have known him he has always had on hand some such work—once I remember, a pistol—which he was turning out at odd times for the very satisfaction it gave him. He could not sell one of his hand-made guns for half as much as it cost him, nor does he seem to want to sell them, preferring rather to have them stand in the corner of his shop where he can look at them. His is the incorruptible spirit of the artist!

What a tremendous power there is in work. Carlstrom worked. He was up early in the morning to work, and he worked in the evening as long as daylight lasted, and once I found him in his shop in the evening, bending low over his bench with a kerosene lamp in front of him. He was humming his inevitable tune and smoothing off with a fine file the nice curves of a rifle trigger. When he had trouble—and what a lot of it he has had in his time!—he worked; and when he was happy he worked all the harder. All the leisurely ones of the town drifted by, all the children and the fools, and often rested in the doorway of his shop. He made them all welcome: he talked with them, but he never stopped working. Clang, clang, would go his anvil, whish, whish, would respond his bellows, creak, creak, would go the hickory sweep—he was helping the world go round!

All this time, though he had sickness in his family, though his wife died, and then his children one after another until only one now remains, he worked and he saved. He bought a lot and built a house to rent; then he built another house; then he bought the land where his shop stands and rebuilt the shop itself. It was an epic of homely work. He took part in the work of the church and on election days he changed his coat, and went to the town hall to vote.

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In the years since I have known the old gunsmith and something of the town where he works, I have seen young men, born Americans, with every opportunity and encouragement of a free country, growing up there and going to waste. One day I heard one of them, sitting in front of a store, grumbling about the foreigners who were coming in and taking up the land. The young man thought it should be prevented by law. I said nothing; but I listened and heard from the distance the steady clang, clang, of Carlstrom's hammer upon the anvil.

Ketchell, the store-keeper, told me how Carlstrom had longed and planned and saved to be able to go back once more to the old home he had left. Again and again he had got almost enough money ahead to start, and then there would be an interest payment due, or a death in the family, and the money would all go to the banker, the doctor, or the undertaker.

"Of recent years," said Ketchell, "we thought he'd given up the idea. His friends are all here now, and if he went back, he certainly would be disappointed."

A sort of serenity seemed, indeed, to come upon him: his family lie on the quiet hill, old things and old times have grown distant, and upon that anvil of his before the glowing forge he has beaten out for himself a real place in this community. He has beaten out the respect of a whole town; and from the crude human nature with which he started he has fashioned himself wisdom, and peace of mind, and the ripe humour which sees that God is in his world. There are men I know who read many books, hoping to learn how to be happy; let me commend them to Carlstrom, the gunsmith.

I have often reflected upon the incalculable influence of one man upon a community. The town is better for having stood often looking into the fire of Carlstrom's forge, and seeing his hammer strike. I don't know how many times I have heard men repeat observations gathered in Carlstrom's shop. Only the other day I heard the village school teacher say, when I asked him why he always seemed so merry and had so little fault to find with the world.

"Why," he replied, "as Carlstrom, the smith says, 'when I feel like finding fault I always begin with myself and then I never get any farther,'"

Another of Carlstrom's sayings is current in the country.

"It's a good thing," he says, "when a man knows what he pretends to know."

The more I circulated among my friends, the more I heard of Carlstrom. It is odd that I should have gone all these years knowing Carlstrom, and yet never consciously until last week setting him in his rightful place among the men I know. It makes me wonder what other great souls about me are thus concealing themselves in the guise of familiarity. (This stooped gray neighbour of mine whom I have seen so often working in his field that he has almost become a part of the landscape—who can tell what heroisms may be locked away from my vision under his old brown hat?)

On Wednesday night Carlstrom was at Dr. McAlway's house—with Charles Baxter, my neighbour Horace, and several others. And I had still another view of him.

I think there is always something that surprises one in finding a familiar figure in a wholly new environment. I was so accustomed to the Carlstrom of the gunshop that I could not at once reconcile myself to the Carlstrom of Dr. McAlway's sitting room. And, indeed, there was a striking change in his appearance. He came dressed in the quaint black coat which he wears at funerals. His hair was brushed straight back from his broad, smooth forehead and his mild blue eyes were bright behind an especially shiny pair of steel-bowed spectacles. He looked more like some old-fashioned college professor than he did like a smith.

The old gunsmith had that pride of humility which is about the best pride in this world. He was perfectly at home at the Scotch Preacher's hearth. Indeed, he radiated a sort of beaming good will; he had a native desire to make everything pleasant. I did not realize before what a fund of humour the old man had. The Scotch Preacher rallied him on the number of houses he now owns, and suggested that he ought to get a wife to keep at least one of them for him. Carlstrom looked around with a twinkle in his eye.

"When I was a poor man," he said, "and carried boxes from Ketchell's store to help build my first shop, I used to wish I had a wheelbarrow. Now I have four. When I had no house to keep my family in, I used to wish that I had one. Now I have four. I have thought sometimes I would like a wife—but I have not dared to wish for one."

The old gunsmith laughed noiselessly, and then from habit, I suppose, began to hum as he does in his shop—stopping instantly, however, when he realized what he was doing.

During the evening the Scotch Preacher got me to one side and said:

"David, we can't let the old man go."

"No, sir," I said, "we can't."

"All he needs, Davy, is cheering up. It's a cold world sometimes to the old."

I suppose the Scotch Preacher was saying the same thing to all the other men of the company.

When we were preparing to go, Dr. McAlway turned to Carlstrom and said:

"How is it, Carlstrom, that you have come to hold such a place in this community? How is it that you have got ahead so rapidly?"

The old man leaned forward, beaming through his spectacles, and said eagerly:

"It ist America; it ist America."

"No, Carlstrom, no—it is not all America. It is Carlstrom, too. You work, Carlstrom, and you save."

Every day since Wednesday there has been a steady pressure on Carlstrom; not so much said in words, but people stopping in at the shop and passing a good word. But up to Monday morning the gunsmith went forward steadily with his preparations to leave. On Sunday I saw the Scotch Preacher and found him perplexed as to what to do. I don't know yet positively, that he had a hand in it, though I suspect it, but on Monday afternoon Charles Baxter went by my house on his way to town with a broken saw in his buggy. Such is the perversity of rival artists that I don't think Charles Baxter had ever been to Carlstrom with any work. But this morning when I went to town and stopped at Carlstrom's shop I found the gunsmith humming louder than ever.

"Well, Carlstrom, when are we to say good-by?" I asked.

"I'm not going," he said, and taking me by the sleeve he led me over to his bench and showed me a saw he had mended. Now, a broken saw is one of the high tests of the genius of the mender. To put the pieces together so that the blade will be perfectly smooth, so that the teeth match accurately, is an art which few workmen of to-day would even attempt.

"Charles Baxter brought it in," answered the old gunsmith, unable to conceal his delight. "He thought I couldn't mend it!"

To the true artist there is nothing to equal the approbation of a rival. It was Charles Baxter, I am convinced, who was the deciding factor. Carlstrom couldn't leave with one of Baxter's saws unmended! But back of it all, I know, is the hand and the heart of the Scotch Preacher.

The more I think of it the more I think that our gunsmith possesses many of the qualities of true greatness. He has the serenity, and the humour, and the humility of greatness. He has a real faith in God. He works, he accepts what comes. He thinks there is no more honourable calling than that of gunsmith, and that the town he lives in is the best of all towns, and the people he knows the best people.

Yes, it is greatness.

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