They left Carmel River and Carmel Valley behind, and with a rising sun went south across the hills between the mountains and the sea. The road was badly washed and gullied and showed little sign of travel.
“It peters out altogether farther down,” Billy said. “From there on it’s only horse trails. But I don’t see much signs of timber, an’ this soil’s none so good. It’s only used for pasture—no farmin’ to speak of.”
The hills were bare and grassy. Only the canyons were wooded, while the higher and more distant hills were furry with chaparral. Once they saw a coyote slide into the brush, and once Billy wished for a gun when a large wildcat stared at them malignantly and declined to run until routed by a clod of earth that burst about its ears like shrapnel.
Several miles along Saxon complained of thirst. Where the road dipped nearly at sea level to cross a small gulch Billy looked for water. The bed of the gulch was damp with hill-drip, and he left her to rest while he sought a spring.
“Say,” he hailed a few minutes afterward. “Come on down. You just gotta see this. It’ll ‘most take your breath away.”
Saxon followed the faint path that led steeply down through the thicket. Midway along, where a barbed wire fence was strung high across the mouth of the gulch and weighted down with big rocks, she caught her first glimpse of the tiny beach. Only from the sea could one guess its existence, so completely was it tucked away on three precipitous sides by the land, and screened by the thicket. Furthermore, the beach was the head of a narrow rock cove, a quarter of a mile long, up which pent way the sea roared and was subdued at the last to a gentle pulse of surf. Beyond the mouth many detached rocks, meeting the full force of the breakers, spouted foam and spray high in the air. The knees of these rocks, seen between the surges, were black with mussels. On their tops sprawled huge sea-lions tawny-wet and roaring in the sun, while overhead, uttering shrill cries, darted and wheeled a multitude of sea birds.
The last of the descent, from the barbed wire fence, was a sliding fall of a dozen feet, and Saxon arrived on the soft dry sand in a sitting posture.
“Oh, I tell you it’s just great,” Billy bubbled. “Look at it for a camping spot. In among the trees there is the prettiest spring you ever saw. An’ look at all the good firewood, an’...” He gazed about and seaward with eyes that saw what no rush of words could compass. “... An’, an’ everything. We could live here. Look at the mussels out there. An’ I bet you we could catch fish. What d’ye say we stop a few days?—It’s vacation anyway—an’ I could go back to Carmel for hooks an’ lines.”
Saxon, keenly appraising his glowing face, realized that he was indeed being won from the city.
“An’ there ain’t no wind here,” he was recommending. “Not a breath. An’ look how wild it is. Just as if we was a thousand miles from anywhere.”
The wind, which had been fresh and raw across the bare hills, gained no entrance to the cove; and the beach was warm and balmy, the air sweetly pungent with the thicket odors. Here and there, in the midst of the thicket, severe small oak trees and other small trees of which Saxon did not know the names. Her enthusiasm now vied with Billy’s, and, hand in hand, they started to explore.
“Here’s where we can play real Robinson Crusoe,” Billy cried, as they crossed the hard sand from highwater mark to the edge of the water. “Come on, Robinson. Let’s stop over. Of course, I’m your Man Friday, an’ what you say goes.”
“But what shall we do with Man Saturday!” She pointed in mock consternation to a fresh footprint in the sand. “He may be a savage cannibal, you know.”
“No chance. It’s not a bare foot but a tennis shoe.”
“But a savage could get a tennis shoe from a drowned or eaten sailor, couldn’t hey” she contended.
“But sailors don’t wear tennis shoes,” was Billy’s prompt refutation.
“You know too much for Man Friday,” she chided; “but, just the same; if you’ll fetch the packs we’ll make camp. Besides, it mightn’t have been a sailor that was eaten. It might have been a passenger.”
By the end of an hour a snug camp was completed. The blankets were spread, a supply of firewood was chopped from the seasoned driftwood, and over a fire the coffee pot had begun to sing. Saxon called to Billy, who was improvising a table from a wave-washed plank. She pointed seaward. On the far point of rocks, naked except for swimming trunks, stood a man. He was gazing toward them, and they could see his long mop of dark hair blown by the wind. As he started to climb the rocks landward Billy called Saxon’s attention to the fact that the stranger wore tennis shoes. In a few minutes he dropped down from the rock to the beach and walked up to them.
“Gosh!” Billy whispered to Saxon. “He’s lean enough, but look at his muscles. Everybody down here seems to go in for physical culture.”
As the newcomer approached, Saxon glimpsed sufficient of his face to be reminded of the old pioneers and of a certain type of face seen frequently among the old soldiers: Young though he was—not more than thirty, she decided—this man had the same long and narrow face, with the high cheekbones, high and slender forehead, and nose high, lean, and almost beaked. The lips were thin and sensitive; but the eyes were different from any she had ever seen in pioneer or veteran or any man. They were so dark a gray that they seemed brown, and there were a farness and alertness of vision in them as of bright questing through profounds of space. In a misty way Saxon felt that she had seen him before.
“Hello,” he greeted. “You ought to be comfortable here.” He threw down a partly filled sack. “Mussels. All I could get. The tide’s not low enough yet.”
Saxon heard Billy muffle an ejaculation, and saw painted on his face the extremest astonishment.
“Well, honest to God, it does me proud to meet you,” he blurted out. “Shake hands. I always said if I laid eyes on you I’d shake.—Say!”
But Billy’s feelings mastered him, and, beginning with a choking giggle, he roared into helpless mirth.
The stranger looked at him curiously across their clasped hands, and glanced inquiringly to Saxon.
“You gotta excuse me,” Billy gurgled, pumping the other’s hand up and down. “But I just gotta laugh. Why, honest to God, I’ve woke up nights an’ laughed an’ gone to sleep again. Don’t you recognize ‘m, Saxon? He’s the same identical dude say, friend, you’re some punkins at a hundred yards dash, ain’t you?”
And then, in a sudden rush, Saxon placed him. He it was who had stood with Roy Blanchard alongside the automobile on the day she had wandered, sick and unwitting, into strange neighborhoods. Nor had that day been the first time she had seen him.
“Remember the Bricklayers’ Picnic at Weasel Park?” Billy was asking. “An’ the foot race? Why, I’d know that nose of yours anywhere among a million. You was the guy that stuck your cane between Timothy McManus’s legs an’ started the grandest roughhouse Weasel Park or any other park ever seen.”
The visitor now commenced to laugh. He stood on one leg as he laughed harder, then stood on the other leg. Finally he sat down on a log of driftwood.
“And you were there,” he managed to gasp to Billy at last. “You saw it. You saw it.” He turned to Saxon. “—And you?”
“Say,” Billy began again, as their laughter eased down, “what I wants know is what’d you wanta do it for. Say, what’d you wants do it for? I’ve been askin’ that to myself ever since.”
“So have I,” was the answer.
“You didn’t know Timothy McManus, did you?”
“No; I’d never seen him before, and I’ve never seen him since.”
“But what’d you wanta do it for?” Billy persisted.
The young man laughed, then controlled himself.
“To save my life, I don’t know. I have one friend, a most intelligent chap that writes sober, scientific books, and he’s always aching to throw an egg into an electric fan to see what will happen. Perhaps that’s the way it was with me, except that there was no aching. When I saw those legs flying past, I merely stuck my stick in between. I didn’t know I was going to do it. I just did it. Timothy McManus was no more surprised than I was.”
“Did they catch you?” Billy asked.
“Do I look as if they did? I was never so scared in my life. Timothy McManus himself couldn’t have caught me that day. But what happened afterward? I heard they had a fearful roughhouse, but I couldn’t stop to see.”
It was not until a quarter of an hour had passed, during which Billy described the fight, that introductions took place. Mark Hall was their visitor’s name, and he lived in a bungalow among the Carmel pines.
“But how did you ever find your way to Bierce’s Cove?” he was curious to know. “Nobody ever dreams of it from the road.”
“So that’s its name?” Saxon said.
“It’s the name we gave it. One of our crowd camped here one summer, and we named it after him. I’ll take a cup of that coffee, if you don’t mind."—This to Saxon. “And then I’ll show your husband around. We’re pretty proud of this cove. Nobody ever comes here but ourselves.”
“You didn’t get all that muscle from bein’ chased by McManus,” Billy observed over the coffee.
“Massage under tension,” was the cryptic reply.
“Yes,” Billy said, pondering vacantly. “Do you eat it with a spoon?”
“I’ll show you. Take any muscle you want, tense it, then manipulate it with your fingers, so, and so.”
“An’ that done all that’” Billy asked skeptically.
“All that!” the other scorned proudly. “For one muscle you see, there’s five tucked away but under command. Touch your finger to any part of me and see.”
Billy complied, touching the right breast.
“You know something about anatomy, picking a muscleless spot,” scolded Hall.
Billy grinned triumphantly, then, to his amazement, saw a muscle grow up under his finger. He prodded it, and found it hard and honest.
“Massage under tension!” Hall exulted. “Go on—anywhere you want.”
And anywhere and everywhere Billy touched, muscles large and small rose up, quivered, and sank down, till the whole body was a ripple of willed quick.
“Never saw anything like it,” Billy marveled at the end; “an’ I’ve seen some few good men stripped in my time. Why, you’re all living silk.”
“Massage under tension did it, my friend. The doctors gave me up. My friends called me the sick rat, and the mangy poet, and all that. Then I quit the city, came down to Carmel, and went in for the open air—and massage under tension.”
“Jim Hazard didn’t get his muscles that way,” Billy challenged.
“Certainly not, the lucky skunk; he was born with them. Mine’s made. That’s the difference. I’m a work of art. He’s a cave bear. Come along. I’ll show you around now. You’d better get your clothes off. Keep on only your shoes and pants, unless you’ve got a pair of trunks.”
“My mother was a poet,” Saxon said, while Billy was getting himself ready in the thicket. She had noted Hall’s reference to himself.
He seemed incurious, and she ventured further.
“Some of it was printed.”
“What was her name?” he asked idly.
“Dayelle Wiley Brown. She wrote: ‘The Viking’s Quest’; ‘Days of Gold’; ’Constancy’; ‘The Caballero’; ‘Graves at Little Meadow’; and a lot more. Ten of them are in ‘The Story of the Files.’”
“I’ve the book at home,” he remarked, for the first time showing real interest. “She was a pioneer, of course—before my time. I’ll look her up when I get back to the house. My people were pioneers. They came by Panama, in the Fifties, from Long Island. My father was a doctor, but he went into business in San Francisco and robbed his fellow men out of enough to keep me and the rest of a large family going ever since.—Say, where are you and your husband bound?”
When Saxon had told him of their attempt to get away from Oakland and of their quest for land, he sympathized with the first and shook his head over the second.
“It’s beautiful down beyond the Sur,” he told her. “I’ve been all over those redwood canyons, and the place is alive with game. The government land is there, too. But you’d be foolish to settle. It’s too remote. And it isn’t good farming land, except in patches in the canyons. I know a Mexican there who is wild to sell his five hundred acres for fifteen hundred dollars. Three dollars an acre! And what does that mean? That it isn’t worth more. That it isn’t worth so much; because he can find no takers. Land, you know, is worth what they buy and sell it for.”
Billy, emerging from the thicket, only in shoes and in pants rolled to the knees, put an end to the conversation; and Saxon watched the two men, physically so dissimilar, climb the rocks and start out the south side of the cove. At first her eyes followed them lazily, but soon she grew interested and worried. Hall was leading Billy up what seemed a perpendicular wall in order to gain the backbone of the rock. Billy went slowly, displaying extreme caution; but twice she saw him slip, the weather-eaten stone crumbling away in his hand and rattling beneath him into the cove. When Hall reached the top, a hundred feet above the sea, she saw him stand upright and sway easily on the knife-edge which she knew fell away as abruptly on the other side. Billy, once on top, contented himself with crouching on hands and knees. The leader went on, upright, walking as easily as on a level floor. Billy abandoned the hands and knees position, but crouched closely and often helped himself with his hands.
The knife-edge backbone was deeply serrated, and into one of the notches both men disappeared. Saxon could not keep down her anxiety, and climbed out on the north side of the cove, which was less rugged and far less difficult to travel. Even so, the unaccustomed height, the crumbling surface, and the fierce buffets of the wind tried her nerve. Soon she was opposite the men. They had leaped a narrow chasm and were scaling another tooth. Already Billy was going more nimbly, but his leader often paused and waited for him. The way grew severer, and several times the clefts they essayed extended down to the ocean level and spouted spray from the growling breakers that burst through. At other times, standing erect, they would fall forward across deep and narrow clefts until their palms met the opposing side; then, clinging with their fingers, their bodies would be drawn across and up.
Near the end, Hall and Billy went out of sight over the south side of the backbone, and when Saxon saw them again they were rounding the extreme point of rock and coming back on the cove side. Here the way seemed barred. A wide fissure, with hopelessly vertical sides, yawned skywards from a foam-white vortex where the mad waters shot their level a dozen feet upward and dropped it as abruptly to the black depths of battered rock and writhing weed.
Clinging precariously, the men descended their side till the spray was flying about them. Here they paused. Saxon could see Hall pointing down across the fissure and imagined he was showing some curious thing to Billy. She was not prepared for what followed. The surf-level sucked and sank away, and across and down Hall jumped to a narrow foothold where the wash had roared yards deep the moment before. Without pause, as the returning sea rushed up, he was around the sharp corner and clawing upward hand and foot to escape being caught. Billy was now left alone. He could not even see Hall, much less be further advised by him, and so tensely did Saxon watch, that the pain in her finger-tips, crushed to the rock by which she held, warned her to relax. Billy waited his chance, twice made tentative preparations to leap and sank back, then leaped across and down to the momentarily exposed foothold, doubled the corner, and as he clawed up to join Hall was washed to the waist but not torn away.
Saxon did not breathe easily till they rejoined her at the fire. One glance at Billy told her that he was exceedingly disgusted with himself.
“You’ll do, for a beginner,” Hall cried, slapping him jovially on the bare shoulder. “That climb is a stunt of mine. Many’s the brave lad that’s started with me and broken down before we were half way out. I’ve had a dozen balk at that big jump. Only the athletes make it.”
“I ain’t ashamed of admittin’ I was scairt,” Billy growled. “You’re a regular goat, an’ you sure got my goat half a dozen times. But I’m mad now. It’s mostly trainin’, an’ I’m goin’ to camp right here an’ train till I can challenge you to a race out an’ around an’ back to the beach.”
“Done,” said Hall, putting out his hand in ratification. “And some time, when we get together in San Francisco, I’ll lead you up against Bierce—the one this cove is named after. His favorite stunt, when he isn’t collecting rattlesnakes, is to wait for a forty-mile-an-hour breeze, and then get up and walk on the parapet of a skyscraper—on the lee side, mind you, so that if he blows off there’s nothing to fetch him up but the street. He sprang that on me once.”
“Did you do it!” Billy asked eagerly.
“I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been on. I’d been practicing it secretly for a week. And I got twenty dollars out of him on the bet.”
The tide was now low enough for mussel gathering and Saxon accompanied the men out the north wall. Hall had several sacks to fill. A rig was coming for him in the afternoon, he explained, to cart the mussels back to Carmel. When the sacks were full they ventured further among the rock crevices and were rewarded with three abalones, among the shells of which Saxon found one coveted blister-pearl. Hall initiated them into the mysteries of pounding and preparing the abalone meat for cooking.
By this time it seemed to Saxon that they had known him a long time. It reminded her of the old times when Bert had been with them, singing his songs or ranting about the last of the Mohicans.
“Now, listen; I’m going to teach you something,” Hall commanded, a large round rock poised in his hand above the abalone meat. “You must never, never pound abalone without singing this song. Nor must you sing this song at any other time. It would be the rankest sacrilege. Abalone is the food of the gods. Its preparation is a religious function. Now listen, and follow, and remember that it is a very solemn occasion.”
The stone came down with a thump on the white meat, and thereafter arose and fell in a sort of tom-tom accompaniment to the poet’s song:
“Oh! some folks boast of quail on toast, Because they think it’s tony; But I’m content to owe my rent And live on abalone.
“Oh! Mission Point’s a friendly joint Where every crab’s a crony, And true and kind you’ll ever find The clinging abalone.
“He wanders free beside the sea Where ‘er the coast is stony; He flaps his wings and madly sings—The plaintive abalone.
“Some stick to biz, some flirt with Liz Down on the sands of Coney; But we, by hell, stay in Carmel, And whang the abalone.”
He paused with his mouth open and stone upraised. There was a rattle of wheels and a voice calling from above where the sacks of mussels had been carried. He brought the stone down with a final thump and stood up.
“There’s a thousand more verses like those,” he said. “Sorry I hadn’t time to teach you them.” He held out his hand, palm downward. “And now, children, bless you, you are now members of the clan of Abalone Eaters, and I solemnly enjoin you, never, no matter what the circumstances, pound abalone meat without chanting the sacred words I have revealed unto you.”
“But we can’t remember the words from only one hearing,” Saxon expostulated.
“That shall be attended to. Next Sunday the Tribe of Abalone Eaters will descend upon you here in Bierce’s Cove, and you will be able to see the rites, the writers and writeresses, down even to the Iron Man with the basilisk eyes, vulgarly known as the King of the Sacerdotal Lizards.”
“Will Jim Hazard come?” Billy called, as Hall disappeared into the thicket.
“He will certainly come. Is he not the Cave-Bear Pot-Walloper and Gridironer, the most fearsome, and, next to me, the most exalted, of all the Abalone Eaters?”
Saxon and Billy could only look at each other till they heard the wheels rattle away.
“Well, I’ll be doggoned,” Billy let out. “He’s some boy, that. Nothing stuck up about him. Just like Jim Hazard, comes along and makes himself at home, you’re as good as he is an’ he’s as good as you, an’ we’re all friends together, just like that, right off the bat.”
“He’s old stock, too,” Saxon said. “He told me while you were undressing. His folks came by Panama before the railroad was built, and from what he said I guess he’s got plenty of money.”
“He sure don’t act like it.”
“And isn’t he full of fun!” Saxon cried.
“A regular josher. An’ HIM!—a POET!”
“Oh, I don’t know, Billy. I’ve heard that plenty of poets are odd.”
“That’s right, come to think of it. There’s Joaquin Miller, lives out in the hills back of Fruitvale. He’s certainly odd. It’s right near his place where I proposed to you. Just the same I thought poets wore whiskers and eyeglasses, an’ never tripped up foot-racers at Sunday picnics, nor run around with as few clothes on as the law allows, gatherin’ mussels an’ climbin’ like goats.”
That night, under the blankets, Saxon lay awake, looking at the stars, pleasuring in the balmy thicket-scents, and listening to the dull rumble of the outer surf and the whispering ripples on the sheltered beach a few feet away. Billy stirred, and she knew he was not yet asleep.
“Glad you left Oakland, Billy?” she snuggled.
“Huh!” came his answer. “Is a clam happy?”
Every half tide Billy raced out the south wall over the dangerous course he and Hall had traveled, and each trial found him doing it in faster time.
“Wait till Sunday,” he said to Saxon. “I’ll give that poet a run for his money. Why, they ain’t a place that bothers me now. I’ve got the head confidence. I run where I went on hands an’ knees. I figured it out this way: Suppose you had a foot to fall on each side, an’ it was soft hay. They’d be nothing to stop you. You wouldn’t fall. You’d go like a streak. Then it’s just the same if it’s a mile down on each side. That ain’t your concern. Your concern is to stay on top and go like a streak. An’, d’ye know, Saxon, when I went at it that way it never bothered me at all. Wait till he comes with his crowd Sunday. I’m ready for him.”
“I wonder what the crowd will be like,” Saxon speculated.
“Like him, of course. Birds of a feather flock together. They won’t be stuck up, any of them, you’ll see.”
Hall had sent out fish-lines and a swimming suit by a Mexican cowboy bound south to his ranch, and from the latter they learned much of the government land and how to get it. The week flew by; each day Saxon sighed a farewell of happiness to the sun; each morning they greeted its return with laughter of joy in that another happy day had begun. They made no plans, but fished, gathered mussels and abalones, and climbed among the rocks as the moment moved them. The abalone meat they pounded religiously to a verse of doggerel improvised by Saxon. Billy prospered. Saxon had never seen him at so keen a pitch of health. As for herself, she scarcely needed the little hand-mirror to know that never, since she was a young girl, had there been such color in her cheeks, such spontaneity of vivacity.
“It’s the first time in my life I ever had real play,” Billy said. “An’ you an’ me never played at all all the time we was married. This beats bein’ any kind of a millionaire.”
“No seven o’clock whistle,” Saxon exulted. “I’d lie abed in the mornings on purpose, only everything is too good not to be up. And now you just play at chopping some firewood and catching a nice big perch, Man Friday, if you expect to get any dinner.”
Billy got up, hatchet in hand, from where he had been lying prone, digging holes in the sand with his bare toes.
“But it ain’t goin’ to last,” he said, with a deep sigh of regret. “The rains’ll come any time now. The good weather’s hangin’ on something wonderful.”
On Saturday morning, returning from his run out the south wall, he missed Saxon. After helloing for her without result, he climbed to the road. Half a mile away, he saw her astride an unsaddled, unbridled horse that moved unwillingly, at a slow walk, across the pasture.
“Lucky for you it was an old mare that had been used to ridin’—see them saddle marks,” he grumbled, when she at last drew to a halt beside him and allowed him to help her down.
“Oh, Billy,” she sparkled, “I was never on a horse before. It was glorious! I felt so helpless, too, and so brave.”
“I’m proud of you, just the same,” he said, in more grumbling tones than before. “’Tain’t every married women’d tackle a strange horse that way, especially if she’d never ben on one. An’ I ain’t forgot that you’re goin’ to have a saddle animal all to yourself some day—a regular Joe dandy.”
The Abalone Eaters, in two rigs and on a number of horses, descended in force on Bierce’s Cove. There were half a score of men and almost as many women. All were young, between the ages of twenty-five and forty, and all seemed good friends. Most of them were married. They arrived in a roar of good spirits, tripping one another down the slippery trail and engulfing Saxon and Billy in a comradeship as artless and warm as the sunshine itself. Saxon was appropriated by the girls—she could not realize them women; and they made much of her, praising her camping and traveling equipment and insisting on hearing some of her tale. They were experienced campers themselves, as she quickly discovered when she saw the pots and pans and clothes-boilers for the mussels which they had brought.
In the meantime Billy and the men had undressed and scattered out after mussels and abalones. The girls lighted on Saxon’s ukulele and nothing would do but she must play and sing. Several of them had been to Honolulu, and knew the instrument, confirming Mercedes’ definition of ukulele as “jumping flea.” Also, they knew Hawaiian songs she had learned from Mercedes, and soon, to her accompaniment, all were singing: “Aloha Oe,” “Honolulu Tomboy,” and “Sweet Lei Lehua.” Saxon was genuinely shocked when some of them, even the more matronly, danced hulas on the sand.
When the men returned, burdened with sacks of shellfish, Mark Hall, as high priest, commanded the due and solemn rite of the tribe. At a wave of his hand, the many poised stones came down in unison on the white meat, and all voices were uplifted in the Hymn to the Abalone. Old verses all sang, occasionally some one sang a fresh verse alone, whereupon it was repeated in chorus. Billy betrayed Saxon by begging her in an undertone to sing the verse she had made, and her pretty voice was timidly raised in:
“We sit around and gaily pound, And bear no acrimony Because our ob—ject is a gob Of sizzling abalone.”
“Great!” cried the poet, who had winced at ob—ject. “She speaks the language of the tribe! Come on, children—now!”
And all chanted Saxon’s lines. Then Jim Hazard had a new verse, and one of the girls, and the Iron Man with the basilisk eyes of greenish-gray, whom Saxon recognized from Hall’s description. To her it seemed he had the face of a priest.
“Oh! some like ham and some like lamb And some like macaroni; But bring me in a pail of gin And a tub of abalone.
“Oh! some drink rain and some champagne Or brandy by the pony; But I will try a little rye With a dash of abalone.
“Some live on hope and some on dope And some on alimony. But our tom-cat, he lives on fat And tender abalone.”
A black-haired, black-eyed man with the roguish face of a satyr, who, Saxon learned, was an artist who sold his paintings at five hundred apiece, brought on himself universal execration and acclamation by singing:
“The more we take, the more they make In deep sea matrimony; Race suicide cannot betide The fertile abalone.”
And so it went, verses new and old, verses without end, all in glorification of the succulent shellfish of Carmel. Saxon’s enjoyment was keen, almost ecstatic, and she had difficulty in convincing herself of the reality of it all. It seemed like some fairy tale or book story come true. Again, it seemed more like a stage, and these the actors, she and Billy having blundered into the scene in some incomprehensible way. Much of wit she sensed which she did not understand. Much she did understand. And she was aware that brains were playing as she had never seen brains play before. The puritan streak in her training was astonished and shocked by some of the broadness; but she refused to sit in judgment. They SEEMED good, these light-hearted young people; they certainly were not rough or gross as were many of the crowds she had been with on Sunday picnics. None of the men got drunk, although there were cocktails in vacuum bottles and red wine in a huge demijohn.
What impressed Saxon most was their excessive jollity, their childlike joy, and the childlike things they did. This effect was heightened by the fact that they were novelists and painters, poets and critics, sculptors and musicians. One man, with a refined and delicate face—a dramatic critic on a great San Francisco daily, she was told—introduced a feat which all the men tried and failed at most ludicrously. On the beach, at regular intervals, planks were placed as obstacles. Then the dramatic critic, on all fours, galloped along the sand for all the world like a horse, and for all the world like a horse taking hurdles he jumped the planks to the end of the course.
Quoits had been brought along, and for a while these were pitched with zest. Then jumping was started, and game slid into game. Billy took part in everything, but did not win first place as often as he had expected. An English writer beat him a dozen feet at tossing the caber. Jim Hazard beat him in putting the heavy “rock.” Mark Hall out-jumped him standing and running. But at the standing high back-jump Billy did come first. Despite the handicap of his weight, this victory was due to his splendid back and abdominal lifting muscles. Immediately after this, however, he was brought to grief by Mark Hall’s sister, a strapping young amazon in cross-saddle riding costume, who three times tumbled him ignominiously heels over head in a bout of Indian wrestling.
“You’re easy,” jeered the Iron Man, whose name they had learned was Pete Bideaux. “I can put you down myself, catch-as-catch-can.”
Billy accepted the challenge, and found in all truth that the other was rightly nicknamed. In the training camps Billy had sparred and clinched with giant champions like Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson, and met the weight of their strength, but never had he encountered strength like this of the Iron Man. Do what he could, Billy was powerless, and twice his shoulders were ground into the sand in defeat.
“You’ll get a chance back at him,” Hazard whispered to Billy, off at one side. “I’ve brought the gloves along. Of course, you had no chance with him at his own game. He’s wrestled in the music halls in London with Hackenschmidt. Now you keep quiet, and we’ll lead up to it in a casual sort of way. He doesn’t know about you.”
Soon, the Englishman who had tossed the caber was sparring with the dramatic critic, Hazard and Hall boxed in fantastic burlesque, then, gloves in hand, looked for the next appropriately matched couple. The choice of Bideaux and Billy was obvious.
“He’s liable to get nasty if he’s hurt,” Hazard warned Billy, as he tied on the gloves for him. “He’s old American French, and he’s got a devil of a temper. But just keep your head and tap him—whatever you do, keep tapping him.”
“Easy sparring now"; “No roughhouse, Bideaux"; “Just light tapping, you know,” were admonitions variously addressed to the Iron Man.
“Hold on a second,” he said to Billy, dropping his hands. “When I get rapped I do get a bit hot. But don’t mind me. I can’t help it, you know. It’s only for the moment, and I don’t mean it.”
Saxon felt very nervous, visions of Billy’s bloody fights and all the scabs he had slugged rising in her brain; but she had never seen her husband box, and but few seconds were required to put her at ease. The Iron Man had no chance. Billy was too completely the master, guarding every blow, himself continually and almost at will tapping the other’s face and body. There was no weight in Billy’s blows, only a light and snappy tingle; but their incessant iteration told on the Iron Man’s temper. In vain the onlookers warned him to go easy. His face purpled with anger, and his blows became savage. But Billy went on, tap, tap, tap, calmly, gently, imperturbably. The Iron Man lost control, and rushed and plunged, delivering great swings and upper-cuts of man-killing quality. Billy ducked, side-stepped, blocked, stalled, and escaped all damage. In the clinches, which were unavoidable, he locked the Iron Man’s arms, and in the clinches the Iron Man invariably laughed and apologized, only to lose his head with the first tap the instant they separated and be more infuriated than ever.
And when it was over and Billy’s identity had been divulged, the Iron Man accepted the joke on himself with the best of humor. It had been a splendid exhibition on Billy’s part. His mastery of the sport, coupled with his self-control, had most favorably impressed the crowd, and Saxon, very proud of her man boy, could not but see the admiration all had for him.
Nor did she prove in any way a social failure. When the tired and sweating players lay down in the dry sand to cool off, she was persuaded into accompanying their nonsense songs with the ukulele. Nor was it long, catching their spirit, ere she was singing to them and teaching them quaint songs of early days which she had herself learned as a little girl from Cady—Cady, the saloonkeeper, pioneer, and ax-cavalryman, who had been a bull-whacker on the Salt Intake Trail in the days before the railroad.
One song which became an immediate favorite was:
“Oh! times on Bitter Creek, they never can be beat, Root hog or die is on every wagon sheet; The sand within your throat, the dust within your eye, Bend your back and stand it—root hog or die.”
After the dozen verses of “Root Hog or Die,” Mark Hall claimed to be especially infatuated with:
“Obadier, he dreampt a dream, Dreampt he was drivin’ a ten-mule team, But when he woke he heaved a sigh, The lead-mule kicked e-o-wt the swing-mule’s eye.”
It was Mark Hall who brought up the matter of Billy’s challenge to race out the south wall of the cove, though he referred to the test as lying somewhere in the future. Billy surprised him by saying he was ready at any time. Forthwith the crowd clamored for the race. Hall offered to bet on himself, but there were no takers. He offered two to one to Jim Hazard, who shook his head and said he would accept three to one as a sporting proposition. Billy heard and gritted his teeth.
“I’ll take you for five dollars,” he said to Hall, “but not at those odds. I’ll back myself even.”
“It isn’t your money I want; it’s Hazard’s,” Hall demurred. “Though I’ll give either of you three to one.”
“Even or nothing,” Billy held out obstinately.
Hall finally closed both bets—even with Billy, and three to one with Hazard.
The path along the knife-edge was so narrow that it was impossible for runners to pass each other, so it was arranged to time the men, Hall to go first and Billy to follow after an interval of half a minute.
Hall toed the mark and at the word was off with the form of a sprinter. Saxon’s heart sank. She knew Billy had never crossed the stretch of sand at that speed. Billy darted forward thirty seconds later, and reached the foot of the rock when Hall was half way up. When both were on top and racing from notch to notch, the Iron Man announced that they had scaled the wall in the same time to a second.
“My money still looks good,” Hazard remarked, “though I hope neither of them breaks a neck. I wouldn’t take that run that way for all the gold that would fill the cove.”
“But you’ll take bigger chances swimming in a storm on Carmel Beach,” his wife chided.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he retorted. “You haven’t so far to fall when swimming.”
Billy and Hall had disappeared and were making the circle around the end. Those on the beach were certain that the poet had gained in the dizzy spurts of flight along the knife-edge. Even Hazard admitted it.
“What price for my money now?” he cried excitedly, dancing up and down.
Hall had reappeared, the great jump accomplished, and was running shoreward. But there was no gap. Billy was on his heels, and on his heels he stayed, in to shore, down the wall, and to the mark on the beach. Billy had won by half a minute.
“Only by the watch,” he panted. “Hall was over half a minute ahead of me out to the end. I’m not slower than I thought, but he’s faster. He’s a wooz of a sprinter. He could beat me ten times outa ten, except for accident. He was hung up at the jump by a big sea. That’s where I caught ’m. I jumped right after ‘m on the same sea, then he set the pace home, and all I had to do was take it.”
“That’s all right,” said Hall. “You did better than beat me. That’s the first time in the history of Bierce’s Cove that two men made that jump on the same sea. And all the risk was yours, coming last.”
“It was a fluke,” Billy insisted.
And at that point Saxon settled the dispute of modesty and raised a general laugh by rippling chords on the ukulele and parodying an old hymn in negro minstrel fashion:
“De Lawd move in er mischievous way His blunders to perform.”
In the afternoon Jim Hazard and Hall dived into the breakers and swam to the outlying rocks, routing the protesting sea-lions and taking possession of their surf-battered stronghold. Billy followed the swimmers with his eyes, yearning after them so undisguisedly that Mrs. Hazard said to him:
“Why don’t you stop in Carmel this winter? Jim will teach you all he knows about the surf. And he’s wild to box with you. He works long hours at his desk, and he really needs exercise.”
Not until sunset did the merry crowd carry their pots and pans and trove of mussels up to the road and depart. Saxon and Billy watched them disappear, on horses and behind horses, over the top of the first hill, and then descended hand in hand through the thicket to the camp. Billy threw himself on the sand and stretched out.
“I don’t know when I’ve been so tired,” he yawned. “An’ there’s one thing sure: I never had such a day. It’s worth livin’ twenty years for an’ then some.”
He reached out his hand to Saxon, who lay beside him.
“And, oh, I was so proud of you, Billy,” she said. “I never saw you box before. I didn’t know it was like that. The Iron Man was at your mercy all the time, and you kept it from being violent or terrible. Everybody could look on and enjoy—and they did, too.”
“Huh, I want to say you was goin’ some yourself. They just took to you. Why, honest to God, Saxon, in the singin’ you was the whole show, along with the ukulele. All the women liked you, too, an’ that’s what counts.”
It was their first social triumph, and the taste of it was sweet:
“Mr. Hall said he’d looked up the ‘Story of the Files,’” Saxon recounted. “And he said mother was a true poet. He said it was astonishing the fine stock that had crossed the Plains. He told me a lot about those times and the people I didn’t know. And he’s read all about the fight at Little Meadow. He says he’s got it in a book at home, and if we come back to Carmel he’ll show it to me.”
“He wants us to come back all right. D’ye know what he said to me, Saxon t He gave me a letter to some guy that’s down on the government land—some poet that’s holdin’ down a quarter of a section—so we’ll be able to stop there, which’ll come in handy if the big rains catch us. An’—Oh! that’s what I was drivin’ at. He said he had a little shack he lived in while the house was buildin’. The Iron Man’s livin’ in it now, but he’s goin’ away to some Catholic college to study to be a priest, an’ Hall said the shack’d be ours as long as we wanted to use it. An’ he said I could do what the Iron Man was doin’ to make a livin’. Hall was kind of bashful when he was offerin’ me work. Said it’d be only odd jobs, but that we’d make out. I could help’m plant potatoes, he said; an’ he got half savage when he said I couldn’t chop wood. That was his job, he said; an’ you could see he was actually jealous over it.”
“And Mrs. Hall said just about the same to me, Billy. Carmel wouldn’t be so bad to pass the rainy season in. And then, too, you could go swimming with Mr. Hazard.”
“Seems as if we could settle down wherever we’ve a mind to,” Billy assented. “Carmel’s the third place now that’s offered. Well, after this, no man need be afraid of makin’ a go in the country.”
“No good man,” Saxon corrected.
“I guess you’re right.” Billy thought for a moment. “Just the same a dub, too, has a better chance in the country than in the city.”
“Who’d have ever thought that such fine people existed?” Saxon pondered. “It’s just wonderful, when you come to think of it.”
“It’s only what you’d expect from a rich poet that’d trip up a foot-racer at an Irish picnic,” Billy exposited.
“The only crowd such a guy’d run with would be like himself, or he’d make a crowd that was. I wouldn’t wonder that he’d make this crowd. Say, he’s got some sister, if anybody’d ride up on a sea-lion an’ ask you. She’s got that Indian wrestlin’ down pat, an’ she’s built for it. An’ say, ain’t his wife a beaut?”
A little longer they lay in the warm sand. It was Billy who broke the silence, and what he said seemed to proceed out of profound meditation.
“Say, Saxon, d’ye know I don’t care if I never see movie pictures again.”
Saxon and Billy were gone weeks on the trip south, but in the end they came back to Carmel. They had stopped with Hafler, the poets in the Marble House, which he had built with his own hands. This queer dwelling was all in one room, built almost entirely of white marble. Hailer cooked, as over a campfire, in the huge marble fireplace, which he used in all ways as a kitchen. There were divers shelves of books, and the massive furniture he had made from redwood, as he had made the shakes for the roof. A blanket, stretched across a corner, gave Saxon privacy. The poet was on the verge of departing for San Francisco and New York, but remained a day over with them to explain the country and run over the government land with Billy. Saxon had wanted to go along that morning, but Hafler scornfully rejected her, telling her that her legs were too short. That night, when the men returned, Billy was played out to exhaustion. He frankly acknowledged that Hafler had walked him into the ground, and that his tongue had been hanging out from the first hour. Hafler estimated that they had covered fifty-five miles.
“But such miles!” Billy enlarged. “Half the time up or down, an’ ‘most all the time without trails. An’ such a pace. He was dead right about your short legs, Saxon. You wouldn’t a-lasted the first mile. An’ such country! We ain’t seen anything like it yet.”
Hafler left the next day to catch the train at Monterey. He gave them the freedom of the Marble House, and told them to stay the whole winter if they wanted. Billy elected to loaf around and rest up that day. He was stiff and sore. Moreover, he was stunned by the exhibition of walking prowess on the part of the poet.
“Everybody can do something top-notch down in this country,” he marveled. “Now take that Hafler. He’s a bigger man than me, an’ a heavier. An’ weight’s against walkin’, too. But not with him. He’s done eighty miles inside twenty-four hours, he told me, an’ once a hundred an’ seventy in three days. Why, he made a show outa me. I felt ashamed as a little kid.”
“Remember, Billy,” Saxon soothed him, “every man to his own game. And down here you’re a top-notcher at your own game. There isn’t one you’re not the master of with the gloves.”
“I guess that’s right,” he conceded. “But just the same it goes against the grain to be walked off my legs by a poet—by a poet, mind you.”
They spent days in going over the government land, and in the end reluctantly decided against taking it up. The redwood canyons and great cliffs of the Santa Lucia Mountains fascinated Saxon; but she remembered what Hafler had told her of the summer fogs which hid the sun sometimes for a week or two at a time, and which lingered for months. Then, too, there was no access to market. It was many miles to where the nearest wagon road began, at Post’s, and from there on, past Point Sur to Carmel, it was a weary and perilous way. Billy, with his teamster judgment, admitted that for heavy hauling it was anything but a picnic. There was the quarry of perfect marble on Hafler’s quarter section. He had said that it would be worth a fortune if near a railroad; but, as it was, he’d make them a present of it if they wanted it.
Billy visioned the grassy slopes pastured with his horses and cattle, and found it hard to turn his back; but he listened with a willing ear to Saxon’s argument in favor of a farm-home like the one they had seen in the moving pictures in Oakland. Yes, he agreed, what they wanted was an all-around farm, and an all-around farm they would have if they hiked forty years to find it.
“But it must have redwoods on it,” Saxon hastened to stipulate. “I’ve fallen in love with them. And we can get along without fog. And there must be good wagon-roads, and a railroad not more than a thousand miles away.”
Heavy winter rains held them prisoners for two weeks in the Marble House. Saxon browsed among Hafler’s books, though most of them were depressingly beyond her, while Billy hunted with Hafler’s guns. But he was a poor shot and a worse hunter. His only success was with rabbits, which he managed to kill on occasions when they stood still. With the rifle he got nothing, although he fired at half a dozen different deer, and, once, at a huge cat-creature with a long tail which he was certain was a mountain lion. Despite the way he grumbled at himself, Saxon could see the keen joy he was taking. This belated arousal of the hunting instinct seemed to make almost another man of him. He was out early and late, compassing prodigious climbs and tramps—once reaching as far as the gold mines Tom had spoken of, and being away two days.
“Talk about pluggin’ away at a job in the city, an’ goin’ to movie’ pictures and Sunday picnics for amusement!” he would burst out. “I can’t see what was eatin’ me that I ever put up with such truck. Here’s where I oughta ben all the time, or some place like it.”
He was filled with this new mode of life, and was continually recalling old hunting tales of his father and telling them to Saxon.
“Say, I don’t get stiffened any more after an all-day tramp,” he exulted. “I’m broke in. An’ some day, if I meet up with that Hafler, I’ll challenge’m to a tramp that’ll break his heart.”
“Foolish boy, always wanting to play everybody’s game and beat them at it,” Saxon laughed delightedly.
“Aw, I guess you’re right,” he growled. “Hafler can always out-walk me. He’s made that way. But some day, just the same, if I ever see ‘m again, I’ll invite ‘m to put on the gloves.. .. though I won’t be mean enough to make ‘m as sore as he made me.”
After they left Post’s on the way back to Carmel, the condition of the road proved the wisdom of their rejection of the government land. They passed a rancher’s wagon overturned, a second wagon with a broken axle, and the stage a hundred yards down the mountainside, where it had fallen, passengers, horses, road, and all.
“I guess they just about quit tryin’ to use this road in the winter,” Billy said. “It’s horse-killin’ an’ man-killin’, an’ I can just see ‘m freightin’ that marble out over it I don’t think.”
Settling down at Carmel was an easy matter. The Iron Man had already departed to his Catholic college, and the “shack” turned out to be a three-roomed house comfortably furnished for housekeeping. Hall put Billy to work on the potato patch—a matter of three acres which the poet farmed erratically to the huge delight of his crowd. He planted at all seasons, and it was accepted by the community that what did not rot in the ground was evenly divided between the gophers and trespassing cows. A plow was borrowed, a team of horses hired, and Billy took hold. Also he built a fence around the patch, and after that was set to staining the shingled roof of the bungalow. Hall climbed to the ridge-pole to repeat his warning that Billy must keep away from his wood-pile. One morning Hall came over and watched Billy chopping wood for Saxon. The poet looked on covetously as long as he could restrain himself.
“It’s plain you don’t know how to use an axe,” he sneered. “Here, let me show you.”
He worked away for an hour, all the while delivering an exposition on the art of chopping wood.
“Here,” Billy expostulated at last, taking hold of the axe. “I’ll have to chop a cord of yours now in order to make this up to you.”
Hall surrendered the axe reluctantly.
“Don’t let me catch you around my wood-pile, that’s all,” he threatened. “My wood-pile is my castle, and you’ve got to understand that.”
From a financial standpoint, Saxon and Billy were putting aside much money. They paid no rent, their simple living was cheap, and Billy had all the work he cared to accept. The various members of the crowd seemed in a conspiracy to keep him busy. It was all odd jobs, but he preferred it so, for it enabled him to suit his time to Jim Hazard’s. Each day they boxed and took a long swim through the surf. When Hazard finished his morning’s writing, he would whoop through the pines to Billy, who dropped whatever work he was doing. After the swim, they would take a fresh shower at Hazard’s house, rub each other down in training camp style, and be ready for the noon meal. In the afternoon Hazard returned to his desk, and Billy to his outdoor work, although, still later, they often met for a few miles’ run over the hills. Training was a matter of habit to both men. Hazard, when he had finished with seven years of football, knowing the dire death that awaits the big-muscled athlete who ceases training abruptly, had been compelled to keep it up. Not only was it a necessity, but he had grown to like it. Billy also liked it, for he took great delight in the silk of his body.
Often, in the early morning, gun in hand, he was off with Mark Hall, who taught him to shoot and hunt. Hall had dragged a shotgun around from the days when he wore knee pants, and his keen observing eyes and knowledge of the habits of wild life were a revelation to Billy. This part of the country was too settled for large game, but Billy kept Saxon supplied with squirrels and quail, cottontails and jackrabbits, snipe and wild ducks. And they learned to eat roasted mallard and canvasback in the California style of sixteen minutes in a hot oven. As he became expert with shotgun and rifle, he began to regret the deer and the mountain lion he had missed down below the Sur; and to the requirements of the farm he and Saxon sought he added plenty of game.
But it was not all play in Carmel. That portion of the community which Saxon and Billy came to know, “the crowd,” was hard-working. Some worked regularly, in the morning or late at night. Others worked spasmodically, like the wild Irish playwright, who would shut himself up for a week at a time, then emerge, pale and drawn, to play like a madman against the time of his next retirement. The pale and youthful father of a family, with the face of Shelley, who wrote vaudeville turns for a living and blank verse tragedies and sonnet cycles for the despair of managers and publishers, hid himself in a concrete cell with three-foot walls, so piped, that, by turning a lever, the whole structure spouted water upon the impending intruder. But in the main, they respected each other’s work-time. They drifted into one another’s houses as the spirit prompted, but if they found a man at work they went their way. This obtained to all except Mark Hall, who did not have to work for a living; and he climbed trees to get away from popularity and compose in peace.
The crowd was unique in its democracy and solidarity. It had little intercourse with the sober and conventional part of Carmel. This section constituted the aristocracy of art and letters, and was sneered at as bourgeois. In return, it looked askance at the crowd with its rampant bohemianism. The taboo extended to Billy and Saxon. Billy took up the attitude of the clan and sought no work from the other camp. Nor was work offered him.
Hall kept open house. The big living room, with its huge fireplace, divans, shelves and tables of books and magazines, was the center of things. Here, Billy and Saxon were expected to be, and in truth found themselves to be, as much at home as anybody. Here, when wordy discussions on all subjects under the sun were not being waged, Billy played at cut-throat Pedro, horrible fives, bridge, and pinochle. Saxon, a favorite of the young women, sewed with them, teaching them pretties and being taught in fair measure in return.
It was Billy, before they had been in Carmel a week, who said shyly to Saxon:
“Say, you can’t guess how I’m missin’ all your nice things. What’s the matter with writin’ Tom to express ‘m down? When we start trampin’ again, we’ll express ‘m back.”
Saxon wrote the letter, and all that day her heart was singing. Her man was still her lover. And there were in his eyes all the old lights which had been blotted out during the nightmare period of the strike.
“Some pretty nifty skirts around here, but you’ve got ‘em all beat, or I’m no judge,” he told her. And again: “Oh, I love you to death anyway. But if them things ain’t shipped down there’ll be a funeral.”
Hall and his wife owned a pair of saddle horses which were kept at the livery stable, and here Billy naturally gravitated. The stable operated the stage and carried the mails between Carmel and Monterey. Also, it rented out carriages and mountain wagons that seated nine persons. With carriages and wagons a driver was furnished The stable often found itself short a driver, and Billy was quickly called upon. He became an extra man at the stable. He received three dollars a day at such times, and drove many parties around the Seventeen Mile Drive, up Carmel Valley, and down the coast to the various points and beaches.
“But they’re a pretty uppish sort, most of ‘em,” he said to Saxon, referring to the persons he drove. “Always MISTER Roberts this, an’ MISTER Roberts that—all kinds of ceremony so as to make me not forget they consider themselves better ‘n me. You see, I ain’t exactly a servant, an’ yet I ain’t good enough for them. I’m the driver—something half way between a hired man and a chauffeur. Huh! When they eat they give me my lunch off to one side, or afterward. No family party like with Hall an’ HIS kind. An’ that crowd to-day, why, they just naturally didn’t have no lunch for me at all. After this, always, you make me up my own lunch. I won’t be be holdin’ to ‘em for nothin’, the damned geezers. An’ you’d a-died to seen one of ‘em try to give me a tip. I didn’t say nothin’. I just looked at ‘m like I didn’t see ‘m, an’ turned away casual-like after a moment, leavin’ him as embarrassed as hell.”
Nevertheless, Billy enjoyed the driving, never more so than when he held the reins, not of four plodding workhorses, but of four fast driving animals, his foot on the powerful brake, and swung around curves and along dizzy cliff-rims to a frightened chorus of women passengers. And when it came to horse judgment and treatment of sick and injured horses even the owner of the stable yielded place to Billy.
“I could get a regular job there any time,” he boasted quietly to Saxon. “Why, the country’s just sproutin’ with jobs for any so-so sort of a fellow. I bet anything, right now, if I said to the boss that I’d take sixty dollars an’ work regular, he’d jump for me. He’s hinted as much.—And, say! Are you onta the fact that yours truly has learnt a new trade. Well he has. He could take a job stage-drivin’ anywheres. They drive six on some of the stages up in Lake County. If we ever get there, I’ll get thick with some driver, just to get the reins of six in my hands. An’ I’ll have you on the box beside me. Some goin’ that! Some goin’!”
Billy took little interest in the many discussions waged in Hall’s big living room. “Wind-chewin’,” was his term for it. To him it was so much good time wasted that might be employed at a game of Pedro, or going swimming, or wrestling in the sand. Saxon, on the contrary, delighted in the logomachy, though little enough she understood of it, following mainly by feeling, and once in a while catching a high light.
But what she could never comprehend was the pessimism that so often cropped up. The wild Irish playwright had terrible spells of depression. Shelley, who wrote vaudeville turns in the concrete cell, was a chronic pessimist. St. John, a young magazine writer, was an anarchic disciple of Nietzsche. Masson, a painter, held to a doctrine of eternal recurrence that was petrifying. And Hall, usually so merry, could outfoot them all when he once got started on the cosmic pathos of religion and the gibbering anthropomorphisms of those who loved not to die. At such times Saxon was oppressed by these sad children of art. It was inconceivable that they, of all people, should be so forlorn.
One night Hall turned suddenly upon Billy, who had been following dimly and who only comprehended that to them everything in life was rotten and wrong.
“Here, you pagan, you, you stolid and flesh-fettered ox, you monstrosity of over-weening and perennial health and joy, what do you think of it?” Hall demanded.
“Oh, I’ve had my troubles,” Billy answered, speaking in his wonted slow way. “I’ve had my hard times, an’ fought a losin’ strike, an’ soaked my watch, an’ ben unable to pay my rent or buy grub, an’ slugged scabs, an’ ben slugged, and ben thrown into jail for makin’ a fool of myself. If I get you, I’d be a whole lot better to be a swell hog fattenin’ for market an’ nothin’ worryin’, than to be a guy sick to his stomach from not savvyin’ how the world is made or from wonderin’ what’s the good of anything.”
“That’s good, that prize hog,” the poet laughed. “Least irritation, least effort—a compromise of Nirvana and life. Least irritation, least effort, the ideal existence: a jellyfish floating in a tideless, tepid, twilight sea.”
“But you’re missin’ all the good things,” Billy objected.
“Name them,” came the challenge.
Billy was silent a moment. To him life seemed a large and generous thing. He felt as if his arms ached from inability to compass it all, and he began, haltingly at first, to put his feeling into speech.
“If you’d ever stood up in the ring an’ out-gamed an’ out-fought a man as good as yourself for twenty rounds, you’d get what I’m drivin’ at. Jim Hazard an’ I get it when we swim out through the surf an’ laugh in the teeth of the biggest breakers that ever pounded the beach, an’ when we come out from the shower, rubbed down and dressed, our skin an’ muscles like silk, our bodies an’ brains all a-tinglin’ like silk.. ..”
He paused and gave up from sheer inability to express ideas that were nebulous at best and that in reality were remembered sensations.
“Silk of the body, can you beat it?” he concluded lamely, feeling that he had failed to make his point, embarrassed by the circle of listeners.
“We know all that,” Hall retorted. “The lies of the flesh. Afterward come rheumatism and diabetes. The wine of life is heady, but all too quickly it turns to—”
“Uric acid,” interpolated the wild Irish playwright.
“They’s plenty more of the good things,” Billy took up with a sudden rush of words. “Good things all the way up from juicy porterhouse and the kind of coffee Mrs. Hall makes to....” He hesitated at what he was about to say, then took it at a plunge. “To a woman you can love an’ that loves you. Just take a look at Saxon there with the ukulele in her lap. There’s where I got the jellyfish in the dishwater an’ the prize hog skinned to death.”
A shout of applause and great hand-clapping went up from the girls, and Billy looked painfully uncomfortable.
“But suppose the silk goes out of your body till you creak like a rusty wheelbarrow?” Hall pursued. “Suppose, just suppose, Saxon went away with another man. What then?”
Billy considered a space.
“Then it’d be me for the dishwater an’ the jellyfish, I guess.” He straightened up in his chair and threw back his shoulders unconsciously as he ran a hand over his biceps and swelled it. Then he took another look at Saxon. “But thank the Lord I still got a wallop in both my arms an’ a wife to fill ‘em with love.”
Again the girls applauded, and Mrs. Hall cried:
“Look at Saxon! She blushing! What have you to say for yourself?”
“That no woman could be happier,” she stammered, “and no queen as proud. And that—”
She completed the thought by strumming on the ukulele and singing:
“De Lawd move in or mischievous way His blunders to perform.”
“I give you best,” Hall grinned to Billy.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Billy disclaimed modestly. “You’ve read so much I guess you know more about everything than I do.”
“Oh! Oh!” “Traitor!” “Taking it all back!” the girls cried variously.
Billy took heart of courage, reassured them with a slow smile, and said:
“Just the same I’d sooner be myself than have book indigestion. An’ as for Saxon, why, one kiss of her lips is worth more’n all the libraries in the world.”
“There be hills and valleys, and rich land, and streams of clear water, good wagon roads and a railroad not too far away, plenty of sunshine, and cold enough at night to need blankets, and not only pines but plenty of other kinds of trees, with open spaces to pasture Billy’s horses and cattle, and deer and rabbits for him to shoot, and lots and lots of redwood trees, and... and... well, and no fog,” Saxon concluded the description of the farm she and Billy sought.
Mark Hall laughed delightedly.
“And nightingales roosting in all the trees,” he cried; “flowers that neither fail nor fade, bees without stings, honey dew every morning, showers of manna betweenwhiles, fountains of youth and quarries of philosopher’s stones—why, I know the very place. Let me show you.”
She waited while he pored over road-maps of the state. Failing in them, he got out a big atlas, and, though all the countries of the world were in it, he could not find what he was after.
“Never mind,” he said. “Come over to-night and I’ll be able to show you.”
That evening he led her out on the veranda to the telescope, and she found herself looking through it at the full moon.
“Somewhere up there in some valley you’ll find that farm,” he teased.
Mrs. Hall looked inquiringly at them as they returned inside.
“I’ve been showing her a valley in the moon where she expects to go farming,” he laughed.
“We started out prepared to go any distance,” Saxon said. “And if it’s to the moon, I expect we can make it.”
“But my dear child, you can’t expect to find such a paradise on the earth,” Hall continued. “For instance, you can’t have redwoods without fog. They go together. The redwoods grow only in the fog belt.”
Saxon debated a while.
“Well, we could put up with a little fog,” she conceded, “—almost anything to have redwoods. I don’t know what a quarry of philosopher’s stones is like, but if it’s anything like Mr. Hafler’s marble quarry, and there’s a railroad handy, I guess we could manage to worry along. And you don’t have to go to the moon for honey dew. They scrape it off of the leaves of the bushes up in Nevada County. I know that for a fact, because my father told my mother about it, and she told me.”
A little later in the evening, the subject of farming having remained uppermost, Hall swept off into a diatribe against the “gambler’s paradise,” which was his epithet for the United States.
“When you think of the glorious chance,” he said. “A new country, bounded by the oceans, situated just right in latitude, with the richest land and vastest natural resources of any country in the world, settled by immigrants who had thrown off all the leading strings of the Old World and were in the humor for democracy. There was only one thing to stop them from perfecting the democracy they started, and that thing was greediness.
“They started gobbling everything in sight like a lot of swine, and while they gobbled democracy went to smash. Gobbling became gambling. It was a nation of tin horns. Whenever a man lost his stake, all he had to do was to chase the frontier west a few miles and get another stake. They moved over the face of the land like so many locusts. They destroyed everything—the Indians, the soil, the forests, just as they destroyed the buffalo and the passenger pigeon. Their morality in business and politics was gambler morality. Their laws were gambling laws—how to play the game. Everybody played. Therefore, hurrah for the game. Nobody objected, because nobody was unable to play. As I said, the losers chased the frontier for fresh stakes. The winner of to-day, broke to-morrow, on the day following might be riding his luck to royal flushes on five-card draws.
“So they gobbled and gambled from the Atlantic to the Pacific, until they’d swined a whole continent. When they’d finished with the lands and forests and mines, they turned back, gambling for any little stakes they’d overlooked, gambling for franchises and monopolies, using politics to protect their crooked deals and brace games. And democracy gone clean to smash.
“And then was the funniest time of all. The losers couldn’t get any more stakes, while the winners went on gambling among themselves. The losers could only stand around with their hands in their pockets and look on. When they got hungry, they went, hat in hand, and begged the successful gamblers for a job. The losers went to work for the winners, and they’ve been working for them ever since, and democracy side-tracked up Salt Creek. You, Billy Roberts, have never had a hand in the game in your life. That’s because your people were among the also-rans.”
“How about yourself?” Billy asked. “I ain’t seen you holdin’ any hands.”
“I don’t have to. I don’t count. I am a parasite.”
“A flea, a woodtick, anything that gets something for nothing. I batten on the mangy hides of the workingmen. I don’t have to gamble. I don’t have to work. My father left me enough of his winnings.—Oh, don’t preen yourself, my boy. Your folks were just as bad as mine. But yours lost, and mine won, and so you plow in my potato patch.”
“I don’t see it,” Billy contended stoutly. “A man with gumption can win out to-day—”
“On government land?” Hall asked quickly.
Billy swallowed and acknowledged the stab.
“Just the same he can win out,” he reiterated.
“Surely—he can win a job from some other fellow? A young husky with a good head like yours can win jobs anywhere. But think of the handicaps on the fellows who lose. How many tramps have you met along the road who could get a job driving four horses for the Carmel Livery Stabler And some of them were as husky as you when they were young. And on top of it all you’ve got no shout coming. It’s a mighty big come-down from gambling for a continent to gambling for a job.”
“Just the same—” Billy recommenced.
“Oh, you’ve got it in your blood,” Hall cut him off cavalierly. “And why not? Everybody in this country has been gambling for generations. It was in the air when you were born. You’ve breathed it all your life. You, who ‘ve never had a white chip in the game, still go on shouting for it and capping for it.”
“But what are all of us losers to do?” Saxon inquired.
“Call in the police and stop the game,” Hall recommended. “It’s crooked.”
“Do what your forefathers didn’t do,” he amplified. “Go ahead and perfect democracy.”
She remembered a remark of Mercedes. “A friend of mine says that democracy is an enchantment.”
“It is—in a gambling joint. There are a million boys in our public schools right now swallowing the gump of canal boy to President, and millions of worthy citizens who sleep sound every night in the belief that they have a say in running the country.”
“You talk like my brother Tom,” Saxon said, failing to comprehend. “If we all get into politics and work hard for something better maybe we’ll get it after a thousand years or so. But I want it now.” She clenched her hands passionately. “I can’t wait; I want it now.”
“But that is just what I’ve been telling you, my dear girl. That’s what’s the trouble with all the losers. They can’t wait. They want it now—a stack of chips and a fling at the game. Well, they won’t get it now. That’s what’s the matter with you, chasing a valley in the moon. That’s what’s the matter with Billy, aching right now for a chance to win ten cents from me at Pedro cussing wind-chewing under his breath.”
“Gee! you’d make a good soap-boxer,” commented Billy.
“And I’d be a soap-boxer if I didn’t have the spending of my father’s ill-gotten gains. It’s none of my affair. Islet them rot. They’d be just as bad if they were on top. It’s all a mess—blind bats, hungry swine, and filthy buzzards—”
Here Mrs. Hall interferred.
“Now, Mark, you stop that, or you’ll be getting the blues.”
He tossed his mop of hair and laughed with an effort.
“No I won’t,” he denied. “I’m going to get ten cents from Billy at a game of Pedro. He won’t have a look in.”
Saxon and Billy flourished in the genial human atmosphere of Carmel. They appreciated in their own estimation. Saxon felt that she was something more than a laundry girl and the wife of a union teamster. She was no longer pent in the narrow working class environment of a Pine street neighborhood. Life had grown opulent. They fared better physically, materially, and spiritually; and all this was reflected in their features, in the carriage of their bodies. She knew Billy had never been handsomer nor in more splendid bodily condition. He swore he had a harem, and that she was his second wife—twice as beautiful as the first one he had married. And she demurely confessed to him that Mrs. Hall and several others of the matrons had enthusiastically admired her form one day when in for a cold dip in Carmel river. They had got around her, and called her Venus, and made her crouch and assume different poses.
Billy understood the Venus reference; for a marble one, with broken arms, stood in Hall’s living room, and the poet had told him the world worshiped it as the perfection of female form.
“I always said you had Annette Kellerman beat a mile,” Billy said; and so proud was his air of possession that Saxon blushed and trembled, and hid her hot face against his breast.
The men in the crowd were open in their admiration of Saxon, in an above-board manner. But she made no mistake. She did not lose her head. There was no chance of that, for her love for Billy beat more strongly than ever. Nor was she guilty of over-appraisal. She knew him for what he was, and loved him with open eyes. He had no book learning, no art, like the other men. His grammar was bad; she knew that, just as she knew that he would never mend it. Yet she would not have exchanged him for any of the others, not even for Mark Hall with the princely heart whom she loved much in the same way that she loved his wife.
For that matter, she found in Billy a certain health and rightness, a certain essential integrity, which she prized more highly than all book learning and bank accounts. It was by virtue of this health, and rightness, and integrity, that he had beaten Hall in argument the night the poet was on the pessimistic rampage. Billy had beaten him, not with the weapons of learning, but just by being himself and by speaking out the truth that was in him. Best of all, he had not even known that he had beaten, and had taken the applause as good-natured banter. But Saxon knew, though she could scarcely tell why; and she would always remember how the wife of Shelley had whispered to her afterward with shining eyes: “Oh, Saxon, you must be so happy.”
Were Saxon driven to speech to attempt to express what Billy meant to her, she would have done it with the simple word “man.” Always he was that to her. Always in glowing splendor, that was his connotation—MAN. Sometimes, by herself, she would all but weep with joy at recollection of his way of informing some truculent male that he was standing on his foot. “Get off your foot. You’re standin’ on it.” It was Billy! It was magnificently Billy. And it was this Billy who loved her. She knew it. She knew it by the pulse that only a woman knows how to gauge. He loved her less wildly, it was true; but more fondly, more maturely. It was the love that lasted—if only they did not go back to the city where the beautiful things of the spirit perished and the beast bared its fangs.
In the early spring, Mark Hall and his wife went to New York, the two Japanese servants of the bungalow were dismissed, and Saxon and Billy were installed as caretakers. Jim Hazard, too, departed on his yearly visit to Paris; and though Billy missed him, he continued his long swims out through the breakers. Hall’s two saddle horses had been left in his charge, and Saxon made herself a pretty cross-saddle riding costume of tawny-brown corduroy that matched the glints in her hair. Billy no longer worked at odd jobs. As extra driver at the stable he earned more than they spent, and, in preference to cash, he taught Saxon to ride, and was out and away with her over the country on all-day trips. A favorite ride was around by the coast to Monterey, where he taught her to swim in the big Del Monte tank. They would come home in the evening across the hills. Also, she took to following him on his early morning hunts, and life seemed one long vacation.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” he said to Saxon, one day, as they drew their horses to a halt and gazed down into Carmel Valley. “I ain’t never going to work steady for another man for wages as long as I live.”
“Work isn’t everything,” she acknowledged.
“I should guess not. Why, look here, Saxon, what’d it mean if I worked teamin’ in Oakland for a million dollars a day for a million years and just had to go on stayin’ there an’ livin’ the way we used to? It’d mean work all day, three squares, an’ movie’ pictures for recreation. Movin’ pictures! Huh! We’re livin’ movie’ pictures these days. I’d sooner have one year like what we’re havin’ here in Carmel and then die, than a thousan’ million years like on Pine street.”
Saxon had warned the Halls by letter that she and Billy intended starting on their search for the valley in the moon as soon as the first of summer arrived. Fortunately, the poet was put to no inconvenience, for Bideaux, the Iron Man with the basilisk eyes, had abandoned his dreams of priesthood and decided to become an actor. He arrived at Carmel from the Catholic college in time to take charge of the bungalow.
Much to Saxon’s gratification, the crowd was loth to see them depart. The owner of the Carmel stable offered to put Billy in charge at ninety dollars a month. Also, he received a similar offer from the stable in Pacific Grove.
“Whither away,” the wild Irish playwright hailed them on the station platform at Monterey. He was just returning from New York.
“To a valley in the moon,” Saxon answered gaily.
He regarded their business-like packs.
“By George!” he cried. “I’ll do it! By George! Let me come along.” Then his face fell. “And I’ve signed the contract,” he groaned. “Three acts! Say, you’re lucky. And this time of year, too.”