From now on, to Saxon, life seemed bereft of its last reason and rhyme. It had become senseless, nightmarish. Anything irrational was possible. There was nothing stable in the anarchic flux of affairs that swept her on she knew not to what catastrophic end. Had Billy been dependable, all would still have been well. With him to cling to she would have faced everything fearlessly. But he had been whirled away from her in the prevailing madness. So radical was the change in him that he seemed almost an intruder in the house. Spiritually he was such an intruder. Another man looked out of his eyes—a man whose thoughts were of violence and hatred; a man to whom there was no good in anything, and who had become an ardent protagonist of the evil that was rampant and universal. This man no longer condemned Bert, himself muttering vaguely of dynamite, end sabotage, and revolution.
Saxon strove to maintain that sweetness and coolness of flesh and spirit that Billy had praised in the old days. Once, only, she lost control. He had been in a particularly ugly mood, and a final harshness and unfairness cut her to the quick.
“Who are you speaking to?” she flamed out at him.
He was speechless and abashed, and could only stare at her face, which was white with anger.
“Don’t you ever speak to me like that again, Billy,” she commanded.
“Aw, can’t you put up with a piece of bad temper?” he muttered, half apologetically, yet half defiantly. “God knows I got enough to make me cranky.”
After he left the house she flung herself on the bed and cried heart-brokenly. For she, who knew so thoroughly the humility of love, was a proud woman. Only the proud can be truly humble, as only the strong may know the fullness of gentleness. But what was the use, she demanded, of being proud and game, when the only person in the world who mattered to her lost his own pride and gameness and fairness and gave her the worse share of their mutual trouble?
And now, as she had faced alone the deeper, organic hurt of the loss of her baby, she faced alone another, and, in a way, an even greater personal trouble. Perhaps she loved Billy none the less, but her love was changing into something less proud, less confident, less trusting; it was becoming shot through with pity—with the pity that is parent to contempt. Her own loyalty was threatening to weaken, and she shuddered and shrank from the contempt she could see creeping in.
She struggled to steel herself to face the situation. Forgiveness stole into her heart, and she knew relief until the thought came that in the truest, highest love forgiveness should have no place. And again she cried, and continued her battle. After all, one thing was incontestable: THIS BILLY WES NOT THE BILLY SHE HAD LOVED. This Billy was another man, a sick man, and no more to be held responsible than a fever-patient in the ravings of delirium. She must be Billy’s nurse, without pride, without contempt, with nothing to forgive. Besides, he was really bearing the brunt of the fight, was in the thick of it, dizzy with the striking of blows and the blows he received. If fault there was, it lay elsewhere, somewhere in the tangled scheme of things that made men snarl over jobs like dogs over bones.
So Saxon arose and buckled on her armor again for the hardest fight of all in the world’s arena—the woman’s fight. She ejected from her thought all doubting and distrust. She forgave nothing, for there was nothing requiring forgiveness. She pledged herself to an absoluteness of belief that her love and Billy’s was unsullied, unperturbed—severe as it had always been, as it would be when it came back again after the world settled down once more to rational ways.
That night, when he came home, she proposed, as an emergency measure, that she should resume her needlework and help keep the pot boiling until the strike was over. But Billy would hear nothing of it.
“It’s all right,” he assured her repeatedly. “They ain’t no call for you to work. I’m goin’ to get some money before the week is out. An’ I’ll turn it over to you. An’ Saturday night we’ll go to the show—a real show, no movin’ pictures. Harvey’s nigger minstrels is comin’ to town. We’ll go Saturday night. I’ll have the money before that, as sure as beans is beans.”
Friday evening he did not come home to supper, which Saxon regretted, for Maggie Donahue had returned a pan of potatoes and two quarts of flour (borrowed the week before), and it was a hearty meal that awaited him. Saxon kept the stove going till nine o’clock, when, despite her reluctance, she went to bed. Her preference would have been to wait up, but she did not dare, knowing full well what the effect would be on him did he come home in liquor.
The clock had just struck one, when she heard the click of the gate. Slowly, heavily, ominously, she heard him come up the steps and fumble with his key at the door. He entered the bedroom, and she heard him sigh as he sat down. She remained quiet, for she had learned the hypersensitiveness induced by drink and was fastidiously careful not to hurt him even with the knowledge that she had lain awake for him. It was not easy. Her hands were clenched till the nails dented the palms, and her body was rigid in her passionate effort for control. Never had he come home as bad as this.
“Saxon,” he called thickly. “Saxon.”
She stired and yawned.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Won’t you strike a light? My fingers is all thumbs.”
Without looking at him, she complied; but so violent was the nervous trembling of her hands that the glass chimney tinkled against the globe and the match went out.
“I ain’t drunk, Saxon,” he said in the darkness, a hint of amusement in his thick voice. “I’ve only had two or three jolts ... of that sort.”
On her second attempt with the lamp she succeeded. When she turned to look at him she screamed with fright. Though she had heard his voice and knew him to be Billy, for the instant she did not recognize him. His face was a face she had never known. Swollen, bruised, discolored, every feature had been beaten out of all semblance of familiarity. One eye was entirely closed, the other showed through a narrow slit of blood-congested flesh. One ear seemed to have lost most of its skin. The whole face was a swollen pulp. His right jaw, in particular, was twice the size of the left. No wonder his speech had been thick, was her thought, as she regarded the fearfully cut and swollen lips that still bled. She was sickened by the sight, and her heart went out to him in a great wave of tenderness. She wanted to put her arms around him, and cuddle and soothe him; but her practical judgment bade otherwise.
“You poor, poor boy,” she cried. “Tell me what you want me to do first. I don’t know about such things.”
“If you could help me get my clothes off,” he suggested meekly and thickly. “I got ‘em on before I stiffened up.”
“And then hot water—that will be good,” she said, as she began gently drawing his coat sleeve over a puffed and helpless hand.
“I told you they was all thumbs,” he grimaced, holding up his hand and squinting at it with the fraction of sight remaining to him.
“You sit and wait,” she said, “till I start the fire and get the hot water going. I won’t be a minute. Then I’ll finish getting your clothes off.”
From the kitchen she could hear him mumbling to himself, and when she returned he was repeating over and over:
“We needed the money, Saxon. We needed the money.”
Drunken he was not, she could see that, and from his babbling she knew he was partly delirious.
“He was a surprise box,” he wandered on, while she proceeded to undress him; and bit by bit she was able to piece together what had happened. “He was an unknown from Chicago. They sprang him on me. The secretary of the Acme Club warned me I’d have my hands full. An’ I’d a-won if I’d been in condition. But fifteen pounds off without trainin’ ain’t condition. Then I’d been drinkin’ pretty regular, an’ I didn’t have my wind.”
But Saxon, stripping his undershirt, no longer heard him. As with his face, she could not recognize his splendidly muscled back. The white sheath of silken skin was torn and bloody. The lacerations occurred oftenest in horizontal lines, though there were perpendicular lines as well.
“How did you get all that?” she asked.
“The ropes. I was up against ‘em more times than I like to remember. Gee! He certainly gave me mine. But I fooled ‘m. He couldn’t put me out. I lasted the twenty rounds, an’ I wanta tell you he’s got some marks to remember me by. If he ain’t got a couple of knuckles broke in the left hand I’m a geezer.—Here, feel my head here. Swollen, eh? Sure thing. He hit that more times than he’s wishin’ he had right now. But, oh, what a lacin’! What a lacin’! I never had anything like it before. The Chicago Terror, they call ‘m. I take my hat off to ‘m. He’s some bear. But I could a-made ‘m take the count if I’d ben in condition an’ had my wind.—Oh! Ouch! Watch out! It’s like a boil!”
Fumbling at his waistband, Saxon’s hand had come in contact with a brightly inflamed surface larger than a soup plate.
“That’s from the kidney blows,” Billy explained. “He was a regular devil at it. ‘Most every clench, like clock work, down he’d chop one on me. It got so sore I was wincin’... until I got groggy an’ didn’t know much of anything. It ain’t a knockout blow, you know, but it’s awful wearin’ in a long fight. It takes the starch out of you.”
When his knees were bared, Saxon could see the skin across the knee-caps was broken and gone.
“The skin ain’t made to stand a heavy fellow like me on the knees,” he volunteered. “An’ the rosin in the canvas cuts like Sam Hill.”
The tears were in Saxon’s eyes, and she could have cried over the manhandled body of her beautiful sick boy.
As she carried his pants across the room to hang them up, a jingle of money came from them. He called her back, and from the pocket drew forth a handful of silver.
“We needed the money, we needed the money,” he kept muttering, as he vainly tried to count the coins; and Saxon knew that his mind was wandering again.
It cut her to the heart, for she could not but remember the harsh thoughts that had threatened her loyalty during the week past. After all, Billy, the splendid physical man, was only a boy, her boy. And he had faced and endured all this terrible punishment for her, for the house and the furniture that were their house and furniture. He said so, now, when he scarcely knew what he said. He said “WE needed the money.” She was not so absent from his thoughts as she had fancied. Here, down to the naked tie-ribs of his soul, when he was half unconscious, the thought of her persisted, was uppermost. We needed the money. WE!
The tears were trickling down her checks as she bent over him, and it seemed she had never loved him so much as now.
“Here; you count,” he said, abandoning the effort and handing the money to her. “... How much do you make it?”
“Nineteen dollars and thirty-five cents.”
“That’s right... the loser’s end... twenty dollars. I had some drinks, an’ treated a couple of the boys, an’ then there was carfare. If I’d a-won, I’d a-got a hundred. That’s what I fought for. It’d a-put us on Easy street for a while. You take it an’ keep it. It’s better ‘n nothin’.”
In bed, he could not sleep because of his pain, and hour by hour she worked over him, renewing the hot compresses over his bruises, soothing the lacerations with witch hazel and cold cream and the tenderest of finger tips. And all the while, with broken intervals of groaning, he babbled on, living over the fight, seeking relief in telling her his trouble, voicing regret at loss of the money, and crying out the hurt to his pride. Far worse than the sum of his physical hurts was his hurt pride.
“He couldn’t put me out, anyway. He had full swing at me in the times when I was too much in to get my hands up. The crowd was crazy. I showed ‘em some stamina. They was times when he only rocked me, for I’d evaporated plenty of his steam for him in the openin’ rounds. I don’t know how many times he dropped me. Things was gettin’ too dreamy....
“Sometimes, toward the end, I could see three of him in the ring at once, an’ I wouldn’t know which to hit an’ which to duck....
“But I fooled ‘m. When I couldn’t see, or feel, an’ when my knees was shakin an my head goin’ like a merry-go-round, I’d fall safe into clenches just the same. I bet the referee’s arms is tired from draggin’ us apart....
“But what a lacin’! What a lacin’! Say, Saxon... where are you? Oh, there, eh? I guess I was dreamin’. But, say, let this be a lesson to you. I broke my word an’ went fightin’, an’ see what I got. Look at me, an’ take warnin’ so you won’t make the same mistake an’ go to makin’ an’ sellin’ fancy work again....
“But I fooled ‘em—everybody. At the beginnin’ the bettin’ was even. By the sixth round the wise gazabos was offerin’ two to one against me. I was licked from the first drop outa the box—anybody could see that; but he couldn’t put me down for the count. By the tenth round they was offerin’ even that I wouldn’t last the round. At the eleventh they was offerin’ I wouldn’t last the fifteenth. An’ I lasted the whole twenty. But some punishment, I want to tell you, some punishment.
“Why, they was four rounds I was in dreamland all the time... only I kept on my feet an’ fought, or took the count to eight an’ got up, an’ stalled an’ covered an’ whanged away. I don’t know what I done, except I must a-done like that, because I wasn’t there. I don’t know a thing from the thirteenth, when he sent me to the mat on my head, till the eighteenth.
“Where was I? Oh, yes. I opened my eyes, or one eye, because I had only one that would open. An’ there I was, in my corner, with the towels goin’ an’ ammonia in my nose an’ Bill Murphy with a chunk of ice at the back of my neck. An’ there, across the ring, I could see the Chicago Terror, an’ I had to do some thinkin’ to remember I was fightin’ him. It was like I’d been away somewhere an’ just got back. ‘What round’s this comin’?’ I ask Bill. ‘The eighteenth,’ says he. ‘The hell,’ I says. ’What’s come of all the other rounds? The last I was fightin’ in was the thirteenth.’ ‘You’re a wonder,’ says Bill. ‘You’ve ben out four rounds, only nobody knows it except me. I’ve ben tryin’ to get you to quit all the time.’ Just then the gong sounds, an’ I can see the Terror startin’ for me. ‘Quit,’ says Bill, makin’ a move to throw in the towel. ‘Not on your life,’ I says. ‘Drop it, Bill.’ But he went on wantin’ me to quit. By that time the Terror had come across to my corner an’ was standin’ with his hands down, lookin’ at me. The referee was lookin’, too, an’ the house was that quiet, lookin’, you could hear a pin drop. An’ my head was gettin’ some clearer, but not much.
“’You can’t win,’ Bill says.
“’Watch me,’ says I. An’ with that I make a rush for the Terror, catchin’ him unexpected. I’m that groggy I can’t stand, but I just keep a-goin’, wallopin’ the Terror clear across the ring to his corner, where he slips an’ falls, an’ I fall on top of ‘m. Say, that crowd goes crazy.
“Where was I?—My head’s still goin’ round I guess. It’s buzzin’ like a swarm of bees.”
“You’d just fallen on top of him in his corner,” Saxon prompted.
“Oh, yes. Well, no sooner are we on our feet—an’ I can’t stand—I rush ’m the same way back across to my corner an’ fall on ‘m. That was luck. We got up, an’ I’d a-fallen, only I clenched an’ held myself up by him. ’I got your goat,’ I says to him. ‘An’ now I’m goin’ to eat you up.’
“I hadn’t his goat, but I was playin’ to get a piece of it, an’ I got it, rushin’ ‘m as soon as the referee drags us apart an’ fetchin’ ‘m a lucky wallop in the stomach that steadied ‘m an’ made him almighty careful. Too almighty careful. He was afraid to chance a mix with me. He thought I had more fight left in me than I had. So you see I got that much of his goat anyway.
“An’ he couldn’t get me. He didn’t get me. An’ in the twentieth we stood in the middle of the ring an’ exchanged wallops even. Of course, I’d made a fine showin’ for a licked man, but he got the decision, which was right. But I fooled ‘m. He couldn’t get me. An’ I fooled the gazabos that was bettin’ he would on short order.”
At last, as dawn came on, Billy slept. He groaned and moaned, his face twisting with pain, his body vainly moving and tossing in quest of easement.
So this was prizefighting, Saxon thought. It was much worse than she had dreamed. She had had no idea that such damage could be wrought with padded gloves. He must never fight again. Street rioting was preferable. She was wondering how much of his silk had been lost, when he mumbled and opened his eyes.
“What is it?” she asked, ere it came to her that his eyes were unseeing and that he was in delirium.
“Saxon!... Saxon!” he called.
“Yes, Billy. What is it?”
His hand fumbled over the bed where ordinarily it would have encountered her.
Again he called her, and she cried her presence loudly in his ear. He sighed with relief and muttered brokenly:
“I had to do it.... We needed the money.”
His eyes closed, and he slept more soundly, though his muttering continued. She had heard of congestion of the brain, and was frightened. Then she remembered his telling her of the ice Billy Murphy had held against his head.
Throwing a shawl over her head, she ran to the Pile Drivers’ Home on Seventh street. The barkeeper had just opened, and was sweeping out. From the refrigerator he gave her all the ice she wished to carry, breaking it into convenient pieces for her. Back in the house, she applied the ice to the base of Billy’s brain, placed hot irons to his feet, and bathed his head with witch hazel made cold by resting on the ice.
He slept in the darkened room until late afternoon, when, to Saxon’s dismay, he insisted on getting up.
“Gotta make a showin’,” he explained. “They ain’t goin’ to have the laugh on me.”
In torment he was helped by her to dress, and in torment he went forth from the house so that his world should have ocular evidence that the beating he had received did not keep him in bed.
It was another kind of pride, different from a woman’s, and Saxon wondered if it were the less admirable for that.
In the days that followed Billy’s swellings went down and the bruises passed away with surprising rapidity. The quick healing of the lacerations attested the healthiness of his blood. Only remained the black eyes, unduly conspicuous on a face as blond as his. The discoloration was stubborn, persisting half a month, in which time happened divers events of importance.
Otto Frank’s trial had been expeditious. Found guilty by a jury notable for the business and professional men on it, the death sentence was passed upon him and he was removed to San Quentin for execution.
The case of Chester Johnson and the fourteen others had taken longer, but within the same week, it, too, was finished. Chester Johnson was sentenced to be hanged. Two got life; three, twenty years. Only two were acquitted. The remaining seven received terms of from two to ten years.
The effect on Saxon was to throw her into deep depression. Billy was made gloomy, but his fighting spirit was not subdued.
“Always some men killed in battle,” he said. “That’s to be expected. But the way of sentencin’ ‘em gets me. All found guilty was responsible for the killin’; or none was responsible. If all was, then they should get the same sentence. They oughta hang like Chester Johnson, or else he oughtn’t to hang. I’d just like to know how the judge makes up his mind. It must be like markin’ China lottery tickets. He plays hunches. He looks at a guy an’ waits for a spot or a number to come into his head. How else could he give Johnny Black four years an’ Cal Hutchins twenty years? He played the hunches as they came into his head, an’ it might just as easy ben the other way around an’ Cal Hutchins got four years an’ Johnny Black twenty.
“I know both them boys. They hung out with the Tenth an’ Kirkham gang mostly, though sometimes they ran with my gang. We used to go swimmin’ after school down to Sandy Beach on the marsh, an’ in the Transit slip where they said the water was sixty feet deep, only it wasn’t. An’ once, on a Thursday, we dug a lot of clams together, an’ played hookey Friday to peddle them. An’ we used to go out on the Rock Wall an’ catch pogies an’ rock cod. One day—the day of the eclipse—Cal caught a perch half as big as a door. I never seen such a fish. An’ now he’s got to wear the stripes for twenty years. Lucky he wasn’t married. If he don’t get the consumption he’ll be an old man when he comes out. Cal’s mother wouldn’t let ‘m go swimmin’, an’ whenever she suspected she always licked his hair with her tongue. If it tasted salty, he got a beltin’. But he was onto himself. Comin’ home, he’d jump somebody’s front fence an’ hold his head under a faucet.”
“I used to dance with Chester Johnson,” Saxon said. “And I knew his wife, Kittie Brady, long and long ago. She had next place at the table to me in the paper-box factory. She’s gone to San Francisco to her married sister’s. She’s going to have a baby, too. She was awfully pretty, and there was always a string of fellows after her.”
The effect of the conviction and severe sentences was a bad one on the union men. Instead of being disheartening, it intensified the bitterness. Billy’s repentance for having fought and the sweetness and affection which had flashed up in the days of Saxon’s nursing of him were blotted out. At home, he scowled and brooded, while his talk took on the tone of Bert’s in the last days ere that Mohegan died. Also, Billy stayed away from home longer hours, and was again steadily drinking.
Saxon well-nigh abandoned hope. Almost was she steeled to the inevitable tragedy which her morbid fancy painted in a thousand guises. Oftenest, it was of Billy being brought home on a stretcher. Sometimes it was a call to the telephone in the corner grocery and the curt information by a strange voice that her husband was lying in the receiving hospital or the morgue. And when the mysterious horse-poisoning cases occurred, and when the residence of one of the teaming magnates was half destroyed by dynamite, she saw Billy in prison, or wearing stripes, or mounting to the scaffold at San Quentin while at the same time she could see the little cottage on Pine street besieged by newspaper reporters and photographers.
Yet her lively imagination failed altogether to anticipate the real catastrophe. Harmon, the fireman lodger, passing through the kitchen on his way out to work, had paused to tell Saxon about the previous day’s train-wreck in the Alviso marshes, and of how the engineer, imprisoned under the overturned engine and unhurt, being drowned by the rising tide, had begged to be shot. Billy came in at the end of the narrative, and from the somber light in his heavy-lidded eyes Saxon knew he had been drinking. He glowered at Harmon, and, without greeting to him or Saxon, leaned his shoulder against the wall.
Harmon felt the awkwardness of the situation, and did his best to appear oblivious.
“I was just telling your wife—” he began, but was savagely interrupted.
“I don’t care what you was tellin’ her. But I got something to tell you, Mister Man. My wife’s made up your bed too many times to suit me.”
“Billy!” Saxon cried, her face scarlet with resentment, and hurt, and shame.
Billy ignored her. Harmon was saying:
“I don’t understand—”
“Well, I don’t like your mug,” Billy informed him. “You’re standin’ on your foot. Get off of it. Get out. Beat it. D’ye understand that?”
“I don’t know what’s got into him,” Saxon gasped hurriedly to the fireman. “He’s not himself. Oh, I am so ashamed, so ashamed.”
Billy turned on her.
“You shut your mouth an’ keep outa this.”
“But, Billy,” she remonstrated.
“An’ get outa here. You go into the other room.”
“Here, now,” Harmon broke in. “This is a fine way to treat a fellow.”
“I’ve given you too much rope as it is,” was Billy’s answer.
“I’ve paid my rent regularly, haven’t I?”
“An’ I oughta knock your block off for you. Don’t see any reason I shouldn’t, for that matter.”
“If you do anything like that, Billy—” Saxon began.
“You here still? Well, if you won’t go into the other room, I’ll see that you do.”
His hand clutched her arm. For one instant she resisted his strength; and in that instant, the flesh crushed under his fingers, she realized the fullness of his strength.
In the front room she could only lie back in the Morris chair sobbing, and listen to what occurred in the kitchen. “I’ll stay to the end of the week,” the fireman was saying. “I’ve paid in advance.”
“Don’t make no mistake,” came Billy’s voice, so slow that it was almost a drawl, yet quivering with rage. “You can’t get out too quick if you wanta stay healthy—you an’ your traps with you. I’m likely to start something any moment.”
“Oh, I know you’re a slugger—” the fireman’s voice began.
Then came the unmistakable impact of a blow; the crash of glass; a scuffle on the back porch; and, finally, the heavy bumps of a body down the steps. She heard Billy reenter the kitchen, move about, and knew he was sweeping up the broken glass of the kitchen door. Then he washed himself at the sink, whistling while he dried his face and hands, and walked into the front room. She did not look at him. She was too sick and sad. He paused irresolutely, seeming to make up his mind.
“I’m goin’ up town,” he stated. “They’s a meeting of the union. If I don’t come back it’ll be because that geezer’s sworn out a warrant.”
He opened the front door and paused. She knew he was looking at her. Then the door closed and she heard him go down the steps.
Saxon was stunned. She did not think. She did not know what to think. The whole thing was incomprehensible, incredible. She lay back in the chair, her eyes closed, her mind almost a blank, crushed by a leaden feeling that the end had come to everything.
The voices of children playing in the street aroused her. Night had fallen. She groped her way to a lamp and lighted it. In the kitchen she stared, lips trembling, at the pitiful, half prepared meal. The fire had gone out. The water had boiled away from the potatoes. When she lifted the lid, a burnt smell arose. Methodically she scraped and cleaned the pot, put things in order, and peeled and sliced the potatoes for next day’s frying. And just as methodically she went to bed. Her lack of nervousness, her placidity, was abnormal, so abnormal that she closed her eyes and was almost immediately asleep. Nor did she awaken till the sunshine was streaming into the room.
It was the first night she and Billy had slept apart. She was amazed that she had not lain awake worrying about him. She lay with eyes wide open, scarcely thinking, until pain in her arm attracted her attention. It was where Billy had gripped her. On examination she found the bruised flesh fearfully black and blue. She was astonished, not by the spiritual fact that such bruise had been administered by the one she loved most in the world, but by the sheer physical fact that an instant’s pressure had inflicted so much damage. The strength of a man was a terrible thing. Quite impersonally, she found herself wondering if Charley Long were as strong as Billy.
It was not until she dressed and built the fire that she began to think about more immediate things. Billy had not returned. Then he was arrested. What was she to do?—leave him in jail, go away, and start life afresh? Of course it was impossible to go on living with a man who had behaved as he had. But then, came another thought, WAS it impossible? After all, he was her husband. FOR BETTER OR WORSE—the phrase reiterated itself, a monotonous accompaniment to her thoughts, at the back of her consciousness. To leave him was to surrender. She carried the matter before the tribunal of her mother’s memory. No; Daisy would never have surrendered. Daisy was a fighter. Then she, Saxon, must fight. Besides—and she acknowledged it—readily, though in a cold, dead way—besides, Billy was better than most husbands. Better than any other husband she had heard of, she concluded, as she remembered many of his earlier nicenesses and finenesses, and especially his eternal chant: NOTHING IS TOO GOOD FOR US. THE ROBERTSES AIN’T ON THE CHEAP.
At eleven o’clock she had a caller. It was Bud Strothers, Billy’s mate on strike duty. Billy, he told her, had refused bail, refused a lawyer, had asked to be tried by the Court, had pleaded guilty, and had received a sentence of sixty dollars or thirty days. Also, he had refused to let the boys pay his fine.
“He’s clean looney,” Strothers summed up. “Won’t listen to reason. Says he’ll serve the time out. He’s been tankin’ up too regular, I guess. His wheels are buzzin’. Here, he give me this note for you. Any time you want anything send for me. The boys’ll all stand by Bill’s wife. You belong to us, you know. How are you off for money?”
Proudly she disclaimed any need for money, and not until her visitor departed did she read Billy’s note:
Dear Saxon—Bud Strothers is going to give you this. Don’t worry about me. I am going to take my medicine. I deserve it—you know that. I guess I am gone bughouse. Just the same, I am sorry for what I done. Don’t come to see me. I don’t want you to. If you need money, the union will give you some. The business agent is all right. I will be out in a month. Now, Saxon, you know I love you, and just say to yourself that you forgive me this time, and you won’t never have to do it again.
Bud Strothers was followed by Maggie Donahue, and Mrs. Olsen, who paid neighborly calls of cheer and were tactful in their offers of help and in studiously avoiding more reference than was necessary to Billy’s predicament.
In the afternoon James Harmon arrived. He limped slightly, and Saxon divined that he was doing his best to minimize that evidence of hurt. She tried to apologize to him, but he would not listen.
“I don’t blame you, Mrs. Roberts,” he said. “I know it wasn’t your doing. But your husband wasn’t just himself, I guess. He was fightin’ mad on general principles, and it was just my luck to get in the way, that was all.”
“But just the same—”
The fireman shook his head.
“I know all about it. I used to punish the drink myself, and I done some funny things in them days. And I’m sorry I swore that warrant out and testified. But I was hot in the collar. I’m cooled down now, an’ I’m sorry I done it.”
“You’re awfully good and kind,” she said, and then began hesitantly on what was bothering her. “You... you can’t stay now, with him... away, you know.”
“Yes; that wouldn’t do, would it? I’ll tell you: I’ll pack up right now, and skin out, and then, before six o’clock, I’ll send a wagon for my things. Here’s the key to the kitchen door.”
Much as he demurred, she compelled him to receive back the unexpired portion of his rent. He shook her hand heartily at leaving, and tried to get her to promise to call upon him for a loan any time she might be in need.
“It’s all right,” he assured her. “I’m married, and got two boys. One of them’s got his lungs touched, and she’s with ‘em down in Arizona campin’ out. The railroad helped with passes.”
And as he went down the steps she wondered that so kind a man should be in so madly cruel a world.
The Donahue boy threw in a spare evening paper, and Saxon found half a column devoted to Billy. It was not nice. The fact that he had stood up in the police court with his eyes blacked from some other fray was noted. He was described as a bully, a hoodlum, a rough-neck, a professional slugger whose presence in the ranks was a disgrace to organized labor. The assault he had pleaded guilty of was atrocious and unprovoked, and if he were a fair sample of a striking teamster, the only wise thing for Oakland to do was to break up the union and drive every member from the city. And, finally, the paper complained at the mildness of the sentence. It should have been six months at least. The judge was quoted as expressing regret that he had been unable to impose a six months’ sentence, this inability being due to the condition of the jails, already crowded beyond capacity by the many eases of assault committed in the course of the various strikes.
That night, in bed, Saxon experienced her first loneliness. Her brain seemed in a whirl, and her sleep was broken by vain gropings for the form of Billy she imagined at her side. At last, she lighted the lamp and lay staring at the ceiling, wide-eyed, conning over and over the details of the disaster that had overwhelmed her. She could forgive, and she could not forgive. The blow to her love-life had been too savage, too brutal. Her pride was too lacerated to permit her wholly to return in memory to the other Billy whom she loved. Wine in, wit out, she repeated to herself; but the phrase could not absolve the man who had slept by her side, and to whom she had consecrated herself. She wept in the loneliness of the all-too-spacious bed, strove to forget Billy’s incomprehensible cruelty, even pillowed her cheek with numb fondness against the bruise of her arm; but still resentment burned within her, a steady flame of protest against Billy and all that Billy had done. Her throat was parched, a dull ache never ceased in her breast, and she was oppressed by a feeling of goneness. WHY, WHY?—And from the puzzle of the world came no solution.
In the morning she received a visit from Sarah—the second in all the period of her marriage; and she could easily guess her sister-in-law’s ghoulish errand. No exertion was required for the assertion of all of Saxon’s pride. She refused to be in the slightest on the defensive. There was nothing to defend, nothing to explain. Everything was all right, and it was nobody’s business anyway. This attitude but served to vex Sarah.
“I warned you, and you can’t say I didn’t,” her diatribe ran. “I always knew he was no good, a jailbird, a hoodlum, a slugger. My heart sunk into my boots when I heard you was runnin’ with a prizefighter. I told you so at the time. But no; you wouldn’t listen, you with your highfalutin’ notions an’ more pairs of shoes than any decent woman should have. You knew better’n me. An’ I said then, to Tom, I said, ’It’s all up with Saxon now.’ Them was my very words. Them that touches pitch is defiled. If you’d only a-married Charley Long! Then the family wouldn’t a-ben disgraced. An’ this is only the beginnin’, mark me, only the beginnin’. Where it’ll end, God knows. He’ll kill somebody yet, that plug-ugly of yourn, an’ be hanged for it. You wait an’ see, that’s all, an’ then you’ll remember my words. As you make your bed, so you will lay in it”
“Best bed I ever had,” Saxon commented.
“So you can say, so you can say,” Sarah snorted.
“I wouldn’t trade it for a queen’s bed,” Saxon added.
“A jailbird’s bed,” Sarah rejoined witheringly.
“Oh, it’s the style,” Saxon retorted airily. “Everybody’s getting a taste of jail. Wasn’t Tom arrested at some street meeting of the socialists? Everybody goes to jail these days.”
The barb had struck home.
“But Tom was acquitted,” Sarah hastened to proclaim.
“Just the same he lay in jail all night without bail.”
This was unanswerable, and Sarah executed her favorite tactic of attack in flank.
“A nice come-down for you, I must say, that was raised straight an’ right, a-cuttin’ up didoes with a lodger.”
“Who says so?” Saxon blazed with an indignation quickly mastered.
“Oh, a blind man can read between the lines. A lodger, a young married woman with no self respect, an’ a prizefighter for a husband—what else would they fight about?”
“Just like any family quarrel, wasn’t it?” Saxon smiled placidly.
Sarah was shocked into momentary speechlessness.
“And I want you to understand it,” Saxon continued. “It makes a woman proud to have men fight over her. I am proud. Do you hear? I am proud. I want you to tell them so. I want you to tell all your neighbors. Tell everybody. I am no cow. Men like me. Men fight for me. Men go to jail for me. What is a woman in the world for, if it isn’t to have men like her? Now, go, Sarah; go at once, and tell everybody what you’ve read between the lines. Tell them Billy is a jailbird and that I am a bad woman whom all men desire. Shout it out, and good luck to you. And get out of my house. And never put your feet in it again. You are too decent a woman to come here. You might lose your reputation. And think of your children. Now get out. Go.”
Not until Sarah had taken an amazed and horrified departure did Saxon fling herself on the bed in a convulsion of tears. She had been ashamed, before, merely of Billy’s inhospitality, and surliness, and unfairness. But she could see, now, the light in which others looked on the affair. It had not entered Saxon’s head. She was confident that it had not entered Billy’s. She knew his attitude from the first. Always he had opposed taking a lodger because of his proud faith that his wife should not work. Only hard times had compelled his consent, and, now that she looked back, almost had she inveigled him into consenting.
But all this did not alter the viewpoint the neighborhood must hold, that every one who had ever known her must hold. And for this, too, Billy was responsible. It was more terrible than all the other things he had been guilty of put together. She could never look any one in the face again. Maggie Donahue and Mrs. Olsen had been very kind, but of what must they have been thinking all the time they talked with her? And what must they have said to each other? What was everybody saying?—over front gates and back fences,—the men standing on the corners or talking in saloons?
Later, exhausted by her grief, when the tears no longer fell, she grew more impersonal, and dwelt on the disasters that had befallen so many women since the strike troubles began—Otto Frank’s wife, Henderson’s widow, pretty Kittie Brady, Mary, all the womenfolk of the other workmen who were now wearing the stripes in San Quentin. Her world was crashing about her ears. No one was exempt. Not only had she not escaped, but hers was the worst disgrace of all. Desperately she tried to hug the delusion that she was asleep, that it was all a nightmare, and that soon the alarm would go off and she would get up and cook Billy’s breakfast so that he could go to work.
She did not leave the bed that day. Nor did she sleep. Her brain whirled on and on, now dwelling at insistent length upon her misfortunes, now pursuing the most fantastic ramifications of what she considered her disgrace, and, again, going back to her childhood and wandering through endless trivial detail. She worked at all the tasks she had ever done, performing, in fancy, the myriads of mechanical movements peculiar to each occupation—shaping and pasting in the paper box factory, ironing in the laundry, weaving in the jute mill, peeling fruit in the cannery and countless boxes of scalded tomatoes. She attended all her dances and all her picnics over again; went through her school days, recalling the face and name and seat of every schoolmate; endured the gray bleakness of the years in the orphan asylum; revisioned every memory of her mother, every tale; and relived all her life with Billy. But ever—and here the torment lay—she was drawn back from these far-wanderings to her present trouble, with its parch in the throat, its ache in the breast, and its gnawing, vacant goneness.
All that night Saxon lay, unsleeping, without taking off her clothes, and when she arose in the morning and washed her face and dressed her hair she was aware of a strange numbness, of a feeling of constriction about her head as if it were bound by a heavy band of iron. It seemed like a dull pressure upon her brain. It was the beginning of an illness that she did not know as illness. All she knew was that she felt queer. It was not fever. It was not cold. Her bodily health was as it should be, and, when she thought about it, she put her condition down to nerves—nerves, according to her ideas and the ideas of her class, being unconnected with disease.
She had a strange feeling of loss of self, of being a stranger to herself, and the world in which she moved seemed a vague and shrouded world. It lacked sharpness of definition. Its customary vividness was gone. She had lapses of memory, and was continually finding herself doing unplanned things. Thus, to her astonishment, she came to in the back yard hanging up the week’s wash. She had no recollection of having done it, yet it had been done precisely as it should have been done. She had boiled the sheets and pillow-slips and the table linen. Billy’s woolens had been washed in warm water only, with the home-made soap, the recipe of which Mercedes had given her. On investigation, she found she had eaten a mutton chop for breakfast. This meant that she had been to the butcher shop, yet she had no memory of having gone. Curiously, she went into the bedroom. The bed was made up and everything in order.
At twilight she came upon herself in the front room, seated by the window, crying in an ecstasy of joy. At first she did not know what this joy was; then it came to her that it was because she had lost her baby. “A blessing, a blessing,” she was chanting aloud, wringing her hands, but with joy, she knew it was with joy that she wrung her hands.
The days came and went. She had little notion of time. Sometimes, centuries agone, it seemed to her it was since Billy had gone to jail. At other times it was no more than the night before. But through it all two ideas persisted: she must not go to see Billy in jail; it was a blessing she had lost her baby.
Once, Bud Strothers came to see her. She sat in the front room and talked with him, noting with fascination that there were fringes to the heels of his trousers. Another day, the business agent of the union called. She told him, as she had told Bud Strothers, that everything was all right, that she needed nothing, that she could get along comfortably until Billy came out.
A fear began to haunt her. WHEN HE CAME OUT. No; it must not be. There must not be another baby. It might LIVE. No, no, a thousand times no. It must not be. She would run away first. She would never see Billy again. Anything but that. Anything but that.
This fear persisted. In her nightmare-ridden sleep it became an accomplished fact, so that she would awake, trembling, in a cold sweat, crying out. Her sleep had become wretched. Sometimes she was convinced that she did not sleep at all, and she knew that she had insomnia, and remembered that it was of insomnia her mother had died.
She came to herself one day, sitting in Doctor Hentley’s office. He was looking at her in a puzzled way.
“Got plenty to eat?” he was asking.
“Any serious trouble?”
She shook her head.
“Everything’s all right, doctor... except...”
“Yes, yes,” he encouraged.
And then she knew why she had come. Simply, explicitly, she told him. He shook his head slowly.
“It can’t be done, little woman,” he said
“Oh, but it can!” she cried. “I know it can.”
“I don’t mean that,” he answered. “I mean I can’t tell you. I dare not. It is against the law. There is a doctor in Leavenworth prison right now for that.”
In vain she pleaded with him. He instanced his own wife and children whose existence forbade his imperiling.
“Besides, there is no likelihood now,” he told her.
“But there will be, there is sure to be,” she urged.
But he could only shake his head sadly.
“Why do you want to know?” he questioned finally.
Saxon poured her heart out to him. She told of her first year of happiness with Billy, of the hard times caused by the labor troubles, of the change in Billy so that there was no love-life left, of her own deep horror. Not if it died, she concluded. She could go through that again. But if it should live. Billy would soon be out of jail, and then the danger would begin. It was only a few words. She would never tell any one. Wild horses could not drag it out of her.
But Doctor Hentley continued to shake his head. “I can’t tell you, little woman. It’s a shame, but I can’t take the risk. My hands are tied. Our laws are all wrong. I have to consider those who are dear to me.”
It was when she got up to go that he faltered. “Come here,” he said. “Sit closer.”
He prepared to whisper in her ear, then, with a sudden excess of caution, crossed the room swiftly, opened the door, and looked out. When he sat down again he drew his chair so close to hers that the arms touched, and when he whispered his beard tickled her ear.
“No, no,” he shut her off when she tried to voice her gratitude. “I have told you nothing. You were here to consult me about your general health. You are run down, out of condition—”
As he talked he moved her toward the door. When he opened it, a patient for the dentist in the adjoining office was standing in the hall. Doctor Hentley lifted his voice.
“What you need is that tonic I prescribed. Remember that. And don’t pamper your appetite when it comes back. Eat strong, nourishing food, and beefsteak, plenty of beefsteak. And don’t cook it to a cinder. Good day.”
At times the silent cottage became unendurable, and Saxon would throw a shawl about her head and walk out the Oakland Mole, or cross the railroad yards and the marshes to Sandy Beach where Billy had said he used to swim. Also, by going out the Transit slip, by climbing down the piles on a precarious ladder of iron spikes, and by crossing a boom of logs, she won access to the Rock Wall that extended far out into the bay and that served as a barrier between the mudflats and the tide-scoured channel of Oakland Estuary. Here the fresh sea breezes blew and Oakland sank down to a smudge of smoke behind her, while across the bay she could see the smudge that represented San Francisco. Ocean steamships passed up and down the estuary, and lofty-masted ships, towed by red-stacked tugs.
She gazed at the sailors on the ships, wondered on what far voyages and to what far lands they went, wondered what freedoms were theirs. Or were they girt in by as remorseless and cruel a world as the dwellers in Oakland were? Were they as unfair, as unjust, as brutal, in their dealings with their fellows as were the city dwellers? It did not seem so, and sometimes she wished herself on board, out-bound, going anywhere, she cared not where, so long as it was away from the world to which she had given her best and which had trampled her in return.
She did not know always when she left the house, nor where her feet took her. Once, she came to herself in a strange part of Oakland. The street was wide and lined with rows of shade trees. Velvet lawns, broken only by cement sidewalks, ran down to the gutters. The houses stood apart and were large. In her vocabulary they were mansions. What had shocked her to consciousness of herself was a young man in the driver’s seat of a touring car standing at the curb. He was looking at her curiously and she recognized him as Roy Blanchard, whom, in front of the Forum, Billy had threatened to whip. Beside the car, bareheaded, stood another young man. He, too, she remembered. He it was, at the Sunday picnic where she first met Billy, who had thrust his cane between the legs of the flying foot-racer and precipitated the free-for-all fight. Like Blanchard, he was looking at her curiously, and she became aware that she had been talking to herself. The babble of her lips still beat in her ears. She blushed, a rising tide of shame heating her face, and quickened her pace. Blanchard sprang out of the car and came to her with lifted hat. “Is anything the matter?” he asked.
She shook her head, and, though she had stopped, she evinced her desire to go on.
“I know you,” he said, studying her face. “You were with the striker who promised me a licking.”
“He is my husband,” she said.
“Oh! Good for him.” He regarded her pleasantly and frankly. “But about yourself? Isn’t there anything I can do for you? Something IS the matter.”
“No, I’m all right,” she answered. “I have been sick,” she lied; for she never dreamed of connecting her queerness with sickness.
“You look tired,” he pressed her. “I can take you in the machine and run you anywhere you want. It won’t be any trouble. I’ve plenty of time.”
Saxon shook her head.
“If... if you would tell me where I can catch the Eighth street cars. I don’t often come to this part of town.”
He told her where to find an electric car and what transfers to make, and she was surprised at the distance she had wandered.
“Thank you,” she said. “And good bye.”
“Sure I can’t do anything now?”
“Well, good bye,” he smiled good humoredly. “And tell that husband of yours to keep in good condition. I’m likely to make him need it all when he tangles up with me.”
“Oh, but you can’t fight with him,” she warned. “You mustn’t. You haven’t got a show.”
“Good for you,” he admired. “That’s the way for a woman to stand up for her man. Now the average woman would be so afraid he was going to get licked—”
“But I’m not afraid... for him. It’s for you. He’s a terrible fighter. You wouldn’t have any chance. It would be like... like...”
“Like taking candy from a baby?” Blanchard finished for her.
“Yes,” she nodded. “That’s just what he would call it. And whenever he tells you you are standing on your foot watch out for him. Now I must go. Good bye, and thank you again.”
She went on down the sidewalk, his cheery good bye ringing in her ears. He was kind—she admitted it honestly; yet he was one of the clever ones, one of the masters, who, according to Billy, were responsible for all the cruelty to labor, for the hardships of the women, for the punishment of the labor men who were wearing stripes in San Quentin or were in the death cells awaiting the scaffold. Yet he was kind, sweet natured, clean, good. She could read his character in his face. But how could this be, if he were responsible for so much evil? She shook her head wearily. There was no explanation, no understanding of this world which destroyed little babes and bruised women’s breasts.
As for her having strayed into that neighborhood of fine residences, she was unsurprised. It was in line with her queerness. She did so many things without knowing that she did them. But she must be careful. It was better to wander on the marshes and the Rock Wall.
Especially she liked the Rock Wall. There was a freedom about it, a wide spaciousness that she found herself instinctively trying to breathe, holding her arms out to embrace and make part of herself. It was a more natural world, a more rational world. She could understand it—understand the green crabs with white-bleached claws that scuttled before her and which she could see pasturing on green-weeded rocks when the tide was low. Here, hopelessly man-made as the great wall was, nothing seemed artificial. There were no men here, no laws nor conflicts of men. The tide flowed and ebbed; the sun rose and set; regularly each afternoon the brave west wind came romping in through the Golden Gate, darkening the water, cresting tiny wavelets, making the sailboats fly. Everything ran with frictionless order. Everything was free. Firewood lay about for the taking. No man sold it by the sack. Small boys fished with poles from the rocks, with no one to drive them away for trespass, catching fish as Billy had caught fish, as Cal Hutchins had caught fish. Billy had told her of the great perch Cal Hutchins caught on the day of the eclipse, when he had little dreamed the heart of his manhood would be spent in convict’s garb.
And here was food, food that was free. She watched the small boys on a day when she had eaten nothing, and emulated them, gathering mussels from the rocks at low water, cooking them by placing them among the coals of a fire she built on top of the wall. They tasted particularly good. She learned to knock the small oysters from the rocks, and once she found a string of fresh-caught fish some small boy had forgotten to take home with him.
Here drifted evidences of man’s sinister handiwork—from a distance, from the cities. One flood tide she found the water covered with muskmelons. They bobbed and bumped along up the estuary in countless thousands. Where they stranded against the rocks she was able to get them. But each and every melon—and she patiently tried scores of them—had been spoiled by a sharp gash that let in the salt water. She could not understand. She asked an old Portuguese woman gathering driftwood.
“They do it, the people who have too much,” the old woman explained, straightening her labor-stiffened back with such an effort that almost Saxon could hear it creak. The old woman’s black eyes flashed angrily, and her wrinkled lips, drawn tightly across toothless gums, wry with bitterness. “The people that have too much. It is to keep up the price. They throw them overboard in San Francisco.”
“But why don’t they give them away to the poor people?” Saxon asked.
“They must keep up the price.”
“But the poor people cannot buy them anyway,” Saxon objected. “It would not hurt the price.”
The old woman shrugged her shoulders.
“I do not know. It is their way. They chop each melon so that the poor people cannot fish them out and eat anyway. They do the same with the oranges, with the apples. Ah, the fishermen! There is a trust. When the boats catch too much fish, the trust throws them overboard from Fisherman Wharf, boat-loads, and boat-loads, and boatloads of the beautiful fish. And the beautiful good fish sink and are gone. And no one gets them. Yet they are dead and only good to eat. Fish are very good to eat.”
And Saxon could not understand a world that did such things—a world in which some men possessed so much food that they threw it away, paying men for their labor of spoiling it before they threw it away; and in the same world so many people who did not have enough food, whose babies died because their mothers’ milk was not nourishing, whose young men fought and killed one another for the chance to work, whose old men and women went to the poorhouse because there was no food for them in the little shacks they wept at leaving. She wondered if all the world were that way, and remembered Mercedes’ tales. Yes; all the world was that way. Had not Mercedes seen ten thousand families starve to death in that far away India, when, as she had said, her own jewels that she wore would have fed and saved them all? It was the poorhouse and the salt vats for the stupid, jewels and automobiles for the clever ones.
She was one of the stupid. She must be. The evidence all pointed that way. Yet Saxon refused to accept it. She was not stupid. Her mother had not been stupid, nor had the pioneer stock before her. Still it must be so. Here she sat, nothing to eat at home, her love-husband changed to a brute beast and lying in jail, her arms and heart empty of the babe that would have been there if only the stupid ones had not made a shambles of her front yard in their wrangling over jobs.
She sat there, racking her brain, the smudge of Oakland at her back, staring across the bay at the smudge of Ban Francisco. Yet the sun was good; the wind was good, as was the keen salt air in her nostrils; the blue sky, flecked with clouds, was good. All the natural world was right, and sensible, and beneficent. It was the man-world that was wrong, and mad, and horrible. Why were the stupid stupid? Was it a law of God? No; it could not be. God had made the wind, and air, and sun. The man-world was made by man, and a rotten job it was. Yet, and she remembered it well, the teaching in the orphan asylum, God had made everything. Her mother, too, had believed this, had believed in this God. Things could not be different. It was ordained.
For a time Saxon sat crushed, helpless. Then smoldered protest, revolt. Vainly she asked why God had it in for her. What had she done to deserve such fate? She briefly reviewed her life in quest of deadly sins committed, and found them not. She had obeyed her mother; obeyed Cady, the saloon-keeper, and Cady’s wife; obeyed the matron and the other women in the orphan asylum; obeyed Tom when she came to live in his house, and never run in the streets because he didn’t wish her to. At school she had always been honorably promoted, and never had her deportment report varied from one hundred per cent. She had worked from the day she left school to the day of her marriage. She had been a good worker, too. The little Jew who ran the paper box factory had almost wept when she quit. It was the same at the cannery. She was among the high-line weavers when the jute mills closed down. I And she had kept straight. It was not as if she had been ugly or unattractive. She had known her temptations and encountered her dangers. The fellows had been crazy about her. They had run after her, fought over her, in a way to turn most girls’ heads. But she had kept straight. And then had come Billy, her reward. She had devoted herself to him, to his house, to all that would nourish his love; and now she and Billy were sinking down into this senseless vortex of misery and heartbreak of the man-made world.
No, God was not responsible. She could have made a better world herself—a finer, squarer world. This being so, then there was no God. God could not make a botch. The matron had been wrong, her mother had been wrong. Then there was no immortality, and Bert, wild and crazy Bert, falling at her front gate with his foolish death-cry, was right. One was a long time dead.
Looking thus at life, shorn of its superrational sanctions, Saxon floundered into the morass of pessimism. There was no justification for right conduct in the universe, no square deal for her who had earned reward, for the millions who worked like animals, died like animals, and were a long time and forever dead. Like the hosts of more learned thinkers before her, she concluded that the universe was unmoral and without concern for men.
And now she sat crushed in greater helplessness than when she had included God in the scheme of injustice. As long as God was, there was always chance for a miracle, for some supernatural intervention, some rewarding with ineffable bliss. With God missing, the world was a trap. Life was a trap. She was like a linnet, caught by small boys and imprisoned in a cage. That was because the linnet was stupid. But she rebelled. She fluttered and beat her soul against the hard face of things as did the linnet against the bars of wire. She was not stupid. She did not belong in the trap. She would fight her way out of the trap. There must be such a way out. When canal boys and rail-splitters, the lowliest of the stupid lowly, as she had read in her school history, could find their way out and become presidents of the nation and rule over even the clever ones in their automobiles, then could she find her way out and win to the tiny reward she craved—Billy, a little love, a little happiness. She would not mind that the universe was unmoral, that there was no God, no immortality. She was willing to go into the black grave and remain in its blackness forever, to go into the salt vats and let the young men cut her dead flesh to sausage-meat, if—if only she could get her small meed of happiness first.
How she would work for that happiness! How she would appreciate it, make the most of each least particle of it! But how was she to do it. Where was the path? She could not vision it. Her eyes showed her only the smudge of San Francisco, the smudge of Oakland, where men were breaking heads and killing one another, where babies were dying, born and unborn, and where women were weeping with bruised breasts.
Her vague, unreal existence continued. It seemed in some previous life-time that Billy had gone away, that another life-time would have to come before he returned. She still suffered from insomnia. Long nights passed in succession, during which she never closed her eyes. At other times she slept through long stupors, waking stunned and numbed, scarcely able to open her heavy eyes, to move her weary limbs. The pressure of the iron band on her head never relaxed. She was poorly nourished. Nor had she a cent of money. She often went a whole day without eating. Once, seventy-two hours elapsed without food passing her lips. She dug clams in the marsh, knocked the tiny oysters from the rocks, and gathered mussels.
And yet, when Bud Strothers came to see how she was getting along, she convinced him that all was well. One evening after work, Tom came, and forced two dollars upon her. He was terribly worried. He would like to help more, but Sarah was expecting another baby. There had been slack times in his trade because of the strikes in the other trades. He did not know what the country was coming to. And it was all so simple. All they had to do was see things in his way and vote the way he voted. Then everybody would get a square deal. Christ was a Socialist, he told her.
“Christ died two thousand years ago,” Saxon said.
“Well?” Tom queried, not catching her implication.
“Think,” she said, “think of all the men and women who died in those two thousand years, and socialism has not come yet. And in two thousand years more it may be as far away as ever. Tom, your socialism never did you any good. It is a dream.”
“It wouldn’t be if—” he began with a flash of resentment.
“If they believed as you do. Only they don’t. You don’t succeed in making them.”
“But we are increasing every year,” he argued.
“Two thousand years is an awfully long time,” she said quietly.
Her brother’s tired face saddened as he noted. Then he sighed:
“Well, Saxon, if it’s a dream, it is a good dream.”
“I don’t want to dream,” was her reply. “I want things real. I want them now.”
And before her fancy passed the countless generations of the stupid lowly, the Billys and Saxons, the Berts and Marys, the Toms and Sarahs. And to what end? The salt vats and the grave. Mercedes was a hard and wicked woman, but Mercedes was right. The stupid must always be under the heels of the clever ones. Only she, Saxon, daughter of Daisy who had written wonderful poems and of a soldier-father on a roan war-horse, daughter of the strong generations who hall won half a world from wild nature and the savage Indian—no, she was not stupid. It was as if she suffered false imprisonment. There was some mistake. She would find the way out.
With the two dollars she bought a sack of flour and half a sack of potatoes. This relieved the monotony of her clams and mussels. Like the Italian and Portuguese women, she gathered driftwood and carried it home, though always she did it with shamed pride, timing her arrival so that it would be after dark. One day, on the mud-flat side of the Rock Wall, an Italian fishing boat hauled up on the sand dredged from the channel. From the top of the wall Saxon watched the men grouped about the charcoal brazier, eating crusty Italian bread and a stew of meat and vegetables, washed down with long draughts of thin red wine. She envied them their freedom that advertised itself in the heartiness of their meal, in the tones of their chatter and laughter, in the very boat itself that was not tied always to one place and that carried them wherever they willed. Afterward, they dragged a seine across the mud-flats and up on the sand, selecting for themselves only the larger kinds of fish. Many thousands of small fish, like sardines, they left dying on the sand when they sailed away. Saxon got a sackful of the fish, and was compelled to make two trips in order to carry them home, where she salted them down in a wooden washtubs.
Her lapses of consciousness continued. The strangest thing she did while in such condition was on Sandy Beach. There she discovered herself, one windy afternoon, lying in a hole she had dug, with sacks for blankets. She had even roofed the hole in rough fashion by means of drift wood and marsh grass. On top of the grass she had piled sand.
Another time she came to herself walking across the marshes, a bundle of driftwood, tied with bale-rope, on her shoulder. Charley Long was walking beside her. She could see his face in the starlight. She wondered dully how long he had been talking, what he had said. Then she was curious to hear what he was saying. She was not afraid, despite his strength, his wicked nature, and the loneliness and darkness of the marsh.
“It’s a shame for a girl like you to have to do this,” he was saying, apparently in repetition of what he had already urged. “Come on an’ say the word, Saxon. Come on an’ say the word.”
Saxon stopped and quietly faced him.
“Listen, Charley Long. Billy’s only doing thirty days, and his time is almost up. When he gets out your life won’t be worth a pinch of salt if I tell him you’ve been bothering me. Now listen. If you go right now away from here, and stay away, I won’t tell him. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
The big blacksmith stood in scowling indecisions his face pathetic in its fierce yearning, his hands making unconscious, clutching contractions.
“Why, you little, small thing,” he said desperately, “I could break you in one hand. I could—why, I could do anything I wanted. I don’t want to hurt you, Saxon. You know that. Just say the word—”
“I’ve said the only word I’m going to say.”
“God!” he muttered in involuntary admiration. “You ain’t afraid. You ain’t afraid.”
They faced each other for long silent minutes.
“Why ain’t you afraid?” he demanded at last, after peering into the surrounding darkness as if searching for her hidden allies.
“Because I married a man,” Saxon said briefly. “And now you’d better go.”
When he had gone she shifted the load of wood to her other shoulder and started on, in her breast a quiet thrill of pride in Billy. Though behind prison bars, still she leaned against his strength. The mere naming of him was sufficient to drive away a brute like Charley Long.
On the day that Otto Frank was hanged she remained indoors. The evening papers published the account. There had been no reprieve. In Sacramento was a railroad Governor who might reprieve or even pardon bank-wreckers and grafters, but who dared not lift his finger for a workingman. All this was the talk of the neighborhood. It had been Billy’s talk. It had been Bert’s talk.
The next day Saxon started out the Rock Wall, and the specter of Otto Frank walked by her side. And with him was a dimmer, mistier specter that she recognized as Billy. Was he, too, destined to tread his way to Otto Frank’s dark end? Surely so, if the blood and strike continued. He was a fighter. He felt he was right in fighting. It was easy to kill a man. Even if he did not intend it, some time, when he was slugging a scab, the scab would fracture his skull on a stone curbing or a cement sidewalk. And then Billy would hang. That was why Otto Frank hanged. He had not intended to kill Henderson. It was only by accident that Henderson’s skull was fractured. Yet Otto Frank had been hanged for it just the same.
She wrung her hands and wept loudly as she stumbled among the windy rocks. The hours passed, and she was lost to herself and her grief. When she came to she found herself on the far end of the wall where it jutted into the bay between the Oakland and Alameda Moles. But she could see no wall. It was the time of the full moon, and the unusual high tide covered the rocks. She was knee deep in the water, and about her knees swam scores of big rock rats, squeaking and fighting, scrambling to climb upon her out of the flood. She screamed with fright and horror, and kicked at them. Some dived and swam away under water; others circled about her warily at a distance; and one big fellow laid his teeth into her shoe. Him she stepped on and crushed with her free foot. By this time, though still trembling, she was able coolly to consider the situation. She waded to a stout stick of driftwood a few feet away, and with this quickly cleared a space about herself.
A grinning small boy, in a small, bright-painted and half-decked skiff, sailed close in to the wall and let go his sheet to spill the wind. “Want to get aboard?” he called.
“Yes,” she answered. “There are thousands of big rats here. I’m afraid of them.”
He nodded, ran close in, spilled the wind from his sail, the boat’s way carrying it gently to her.
“Shove out its bow,” he commanded. “That’s right. I don’t want to break my centerboard.... An’ then jump aboard in the stern—quick!—alongside of me.”
She obeyed, stepping in lightly beside him. He held the tiller up with his elbow, pulled in on the sheet, and as the sail filled the boat sprang away over the rippling water.
“You know boats,” the boy said approvingly.
He was a slender, almost frail lad, of twelve or thirteen years, though healthy enough, with sunburned freckled face and large gray eyes that were clear and wistful.
Despite his possession of the pretty boat, Saxon was quick to sense that he was one of them, a child of the people.
“First boat I was ever in, except ferryboats,” Saxon laughed.
He looked at her keenly. “Well, you take to it like a duck to water is all I can say about it. Where d’ye want me to land you?”
He opened his mouth to speak, gave her another long look, considered for a space, then asked suddenly: “Got plenty of time?”
Again she nodded.
“Say—I’ll tell you, I’m goin’ out on this ebb to Goat Island for rockcod, an’ I’ll come in on the flood this evening. I got plenty of lines an’ bait. Want to come along? We can both fish. And what you catch you can have.”
Saxon hesitated. The freedom and motion of the small boat appealed to her. Like the ships she had envied, it was outbound.
“Maybe you’ll drown me,” she parleyed.
The boy threw back his head with pride.
“I guess I’ve been sailin’ many a long day by myself, an’ I ain’t drowned yet.”
“All right,” she consented. “Though remember, I don’t know anything about boats.”
“Aw, that’s all right.—Now I’m goin’ to go about. When I say ‘Hard a-lee!’ like that, you duck your head so the boom don’t hit you, an’ shift over to the other side.”
He executed the maneuver, Saxon obeyed, and found herself sitting beside him on the opposite side of the boat, while the boat itself, on the other tack, was heading toward Long Wharf where the coal bunkers were. She was aglow with admiration, the more so because the mechanics of boat-sailing was to her a complex and mysterious thing.
“Where did you learn it all?” she inquired.
“Taught myself, just naturally taught myself. I liked it, you see, an’ what a fellow likes he’s likeliest to do. This is my second boat. My first didn’t have a centerboard. I bought it for two dollars an’ learned a lot, though it never stopped leaking. What d ‘ye think I paid for this one? It’s worth twenty-five dollars right now. What d ‘ye think I paid for it?”
“I give up,” Saxon said. “How much?”
“Six dollars. Think of it! A boat like this! Of course I done a lot of work, an’ the sail cost two dollars, the oars one forty, an’ the paint one seventy-five. But just the same eleven dollars and fifteen cents is a real bargain. It took me a long time saving for it, though. I carry papers morning and evening—there’s a boy taking my route for me this afternoon—I give ‘m ten cents, an’ all the extras he sells is his; and I’d a-got the boat sooner only I had to pay for my shorthand lessons. My mother wants me to become a court reporter. They get sometimes as much as twenty dollars a day. Gee! But I don’t want it. It’s a shame to waste the money on the lessons.”
“What do you want?” she asked, partly from idleness, and yet with genuine curiosity; for she felt drawn to this boy in knee pants who was so confident and at the same time so wistful.
“What do I want?” he repeated after her.
Turning his head slowly, he followed the sky-line, pausing especially when his eyes rested landward on the brown Contra Costa hills, and seaward, past Alcatraz, on the Golden Glate. The wistfulness in his eyes was overwhelming and went to her heart.
“That,” he said, sweeping the circle of the world with a wave of his arm.
“That?” she queried.
He looked at her, perplexed in that he had not made his meaning clear.
“Don’t you ever feel that way?” he asked, bidding for sympathy with his dream. “Don’t you sometimes feel you’d die if you didn’t know what’s beyond them hills an’ what’s beyond the other hills behind them hills? An’ the Golden Gate! There’s the Pacific Ocean beyond, and China, an’ Japan, an’ India, an’... an’ all the coral islands. You can go anywhere out through the Golden Gate—to Australia, to Africa, to the seal islands, to the North Pole, to Cape Horn. Why, all them places are just waitin’ for me to come an’ see ‘em. I’ve lived in Oakland all my life, but I’m not going to live in Oakland the rest of my life, not by a long shot. I’m goin’ to get away... away....”
Again, as words failed to express the vastness of his desire, the wave of his arm swept the circle of the world.
Saxon thrilled with him. She too, save for her earlier childhood, had lived in Oakland all her life. And it had been a good place in which to live... until now. And now, in all its nightmare horror, it was a place to get away from, as with her people the East had been a place to get away from. And why not? The world tugged at her, and she felt in touch with the lad’s desire. Now that she thought of it, her race had never been given to staying long in one place. Always it had been on the move. She remembered back to her mother’s tales, and to the wood engraving in her scrapbook where her half-clad forebears, sword in hand, leaped from their lean beaked boats to do battle on the blood-drenched sands of England.
“Did you ever hear about the Anglo-Saxons?” she asked the boy.
“You bet!” His eyes glistened, and he looked at her with new interest. “I’m an Anglo-Saxon, every inch of me. Look at the color of my eyes, my skin. I’m awful white where I ain’t sunburned. An’ my hair was yellow when I was a baby. My mother says it’ll be dark brown by the time I’m grown up, worse luck. Just the same, I’m Anglo-Saxon. I am of a fighting race. We ain’t afraid of nothin’. This bay—think I’m afraid of it!” He looked out over the water with flashing eye of scorn. “Why, I’ve crossed it when it was howlin’ an’ when the scow schooner sailors said I lied an’ that I didn’t. Huh! They were only squareheads. Why, we licked their kind thousands of years ago. We lick everything we go up against. We’ve wandered all over the world, licking the world. On the sea, on the land, it’s all the same. Look at Ivory Nelson, look at Davy Crockett, look at Paul Jones, look at Clive, an’ Kitchener, an’ Fremont, an’ Kit Carson, an’ all of ‘em.”
Saxon nodded, while he continued, her own eyes shining, and it came to her what a glory it would be to be the mother of a man-child like this. Her body ached with the fancied quickening of unborn life. A good stock, a good stock, she thought to herself. Then she thought of herself and Billy, healthy shoots of that same stock, yet condemned to childlessness because of the trap of the manmade world and the curse of being herded with the stupid ones.
She came back to the boy.
“My father was a soldier in the Civil War,” he was telling her, “a scout an’ a spy. The rebels were going to hang him twice for a spy. At the battle of Wilson’s Creek he ran half a mile with his captain wounded on his back. He’s got a bullet in his leg right now, just above the knee. It’s been there all these years. He let me feel it once. He was a buffalo hunter and a trapper before the war. He was sheriff of his county when he was twenty years old. An’ after the war, when he was marshal of Silver City, he cleaned out the bad men an’ gun-fighters. He’s been in almost every state in the Union. He could wrestle any man at the railings in his day, an’ he was bully of the raftsmen of the Susquehanna when he was only a youngster. His father killed a man in a standup fight with a blow of his fist when he was sixty years old. An’ when he was seventy-four, his second wife had twins, an’ he died when he was plowing in the field with oxen when he was ninety-nine years old. He just unyoked the oxen, an’ sat down under a tree, an’ died there sitting up. An’ my father’s just like him. He’s pretty old now, but he ain’t afraid of nothing. He’s a regular Anglo-Saxon, you see. He’s a special policeman, an’ he didn’t do a thing to the strikers in some of the fightin’. He had his face all cut up with a rock, but he broke his club short off over some hoodlum’s head.”
He paused breathlessly and looked at her.
“Gee!” he said. “I’d hate to a-ben that hoodlum.”
“My name is Saxon,” she said.
“My first name.”
“Gee!” he cried. “You’re lucky. Now if mine had been only Erling—you know, Erling the Bold—or Wolf, or Swen, or Jarl!”
“What is it?” she asked.
“Only John,” he admitted sadly. “But I don’t let ‘em call one John. Everybody’s got to call me Jack. I’ve scrapped with a dozen fellows that tried to call me John, or Johnnie—wouldn’t that make you sick?—Johnnie!”
They were now off the coal bunkers of Long Wharf, and the boy put the skiff about, heading toward San Francisco. They were well out in the open bay. The west wind had strengthened and was whitecapping the strong ebb tide. The boat drove merrily along. When splashes of spray flew aboard, wetting them, Saxon laughed, and the boy surveyed her with approval. They passed a ferryboat, and the passengers on the upper deck crowded to one side to watch them. In the swell of the steamer’s wake, the skiff shipped quarter-full of water. Saxon picked up an empty can and looked at the boy.
“That’s right,” he said. “Go ahead an’ bale out.” And, when she had finished: “We’ll fetch Goat Island next tack. Right there off the Torpedo Station is where we fish, in fifty feet of water an’ the tide runnin’ to beat the band. You’re wringing wet, ain’t you? Gee! You’re like your name. You’re a Saxon, all right. Are you married?”
Saxon nodded, and the boy frowned.
“What’d you want to do that for. Now you can’t wander over the world like I’m going to. You’re tied down. You’re anchored for keeps.”
“It’s pretty good to be married, though,” she smiled.
“Sure, everybody gets married. But that’s no reason to be in a rush about it. Why couldn’t you wait a while, like me, I’m goin’ to get married, too, but not until I’m an old man an’ have been everywheres.”
Under the lee of Goat Island, Saxon obediently sitting still, he took in the sail, and, when the boat had drifted to a position to suit him, he dropped a tiny anchor. He got out the fish lines and showed Saxon how to bait her hooks with salted minnows. Then they dropped the lines to bottom, where they vibrated in the swift tide, and waited for bites.
“They’ll bite pretty soon,” he encouraged. “I’ve never failed but twice to catch a mess here. What d’ye say we eat while we’re waiting?”
Vainly she protested she was not hungry. He shared his lunch with her with a boy’s rigid equity, even to the half of a hard-boiled egg and the half of a big red apple.
Still the rockcod did not bite. From under the stern-sheets he drew out a cloth-bound book.
“Free Library,” he vouchsafed, as he began to read, with one hand holding the place while with the other he waited for the tug on the fishline that would announce rockcod.
Saxon read the title. It was “Afloat in the Forest.”
“Listen to this,” he said after a few minutes, and he read several pages descriptive of a great flooded tropical forest being navigated by boys on a raft.
“Think of that!” he concluded. “That’s the Amazon river in flood time in South America. And the world’s full of places like that—everywhere, most likely, except Oakland. Oakland’s just a place to start from, I guess. Now that’s adventure, I want to tell you. Just think of the luck of them boys! All the same, some day I’m going to go over the Andes to the headwaters of the Amazon, all through the rubber country, an’ canoe down the Amazon thousands of miles to its mouth where it’s that wide you can’t see one bank from the other an’ where you can scoop up perfectly fresh water out of the ocean a hundred miles from land.”
But Saxon was not listening. One pregnant sentence had caught her fancy. Oakland just a place to start from. She had never viewed the city in that light. She had accepted it as a place to live in, as an end in itself. But a place to start from! Why not! Why not like any railroad station or ferry depot! Certainly, as things were going, Oakland was not a place to stop in. The boy was right. It was a place to start from. But to go where? Here she was halted, and she was driven from the train of thought by a strong pull and a series of jerks on the line. She began to haul in, hand under hand, rapidly and deftly, the boy encouraging her, until hooks, sinker, and a big gasping rockcod tumbled into the bottom of the boat. The fish was free of the hook, and she baited afresh and dropped the line over. The boy marked his place and closed the book.
“They’ll be biting soon as fast as we can haul ‘em in,” he said.
But the rush of fish did not come immediately.
“Did you ever read Captain Mayne Reid?” he asked. “Or Captain Marryatt? Or Ballantyne?”
She shook her head.
“And you an Anglo-Saxon!” he cried derisively. “Why, there’s stacks of ’em in the Free Library. I have two cards, my mother’s an’ mine, an’ I draw ‘em out all the time, after school, before I have to carry my papers. I stick the books inside my shirt, in front, under the suspenders. That holds ‘em. One time, deliverin’ papers at Second an’ Market—there’s an awful tough gang of kids hang out there—I got into a fight with the leader. He hauled off to knock my wind out, an’ he landed square on a book. You ought to seen his face. An’ then I landed on him. An’ then his whole gang was goin’ to jump on me, only a couple of iron-molders stepped in an’ saw fair play. I gave ‘em the books to hold.”
“Who won?” Saxon asked.
“Nobody,” the boy confessed reluctantly. “I think I was lickin’ him, but the molders called it a draw because the policeman on the beat stopped us when we’d only teen fightin’ half an hour. But you ought to seen the crowd. I bet there was five hundred—”
He broke off abruptly and began hauling in his line. Saxon, too, was hauling in. And in the next couple of hours they caught twenty pounds of fish between them.
That night, long after dark, the little, half-decked skiff sailed up the Oakland Estuary. The wind was fair but light, and the boat moved slowly, towing a long pile which the boy had picked up adrift and announced as worth three dollars anywhere for the wood that was in it. The tide flooded smoothly under the full moon, and Saxon recognized the points they passed—the Transit slip, Sandy Beach, the shipyards, the nail works, Market street wharf. The boy took the skiff in to a dilapidated boat-wharf at the foot of Castro street, where the scow schooners, laden with sand and gravel, lay hauled to the shore in a long row. He insisted upon an equal division of the fish, because Saxon had helped catch them, though he explained at length the ethics of flotsam to show her that the pile was wholly his.
At Seventh and Poplar they separated, Saxon walking on alone to Pine street with her load of fish. Tired though she was from the long day, she had a strange feeling of well-being, and, after cleaning the fish, she fell asleep wondering, when good times came again, if she could persuade Billy to get a boat and go out with her on Sundays as she had gone out that day.