Sarah was conservative. Worse, she had crystallized at the end of her love-time with the coming of her first child. After that she was as set in her ways as plaster in a mold. Her mold was the prejudices and notions of her girlhood and the house she lived in. So habitual was she that any change in the customary round assumed the proportions of a revolution. Tom had gone through many of these revolutions, three of them when he moved house. Then his stamina broke, and he never moved house again.
So it was that Saxon had held back the announcement of her approaching marriage until it was unavoidable. She expected a scene, and she got it.
“A prizefighter, a hoodlum, a plug-ugly,” Sarah sneered, after she had exhausted herself of all calamitous forecasts of her own future and the future of her children in the absence of Saxon’s weekly four dollars and a half. “I don’t know what your mother’d thought if she lived to see the day when you took up with a tough like Bill Roberts. Bill! Why, your mother was too refined to associate with a man that was called Bill. And all I can say is you can say good-bye to silk stockings and your three pair of shoes. It won’t be long before you’ll think yourself lucky to go sloppin’ around in Congress gaiters and cotton stockin’s two pair for a quarter.”
“Oh, I’m not afraid of Billy not being able to keep me in all kinds of shoes,” Saxon retorted with a proud toss of her head.
“You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.” Sarah paused to laugh in mirthless discordance. “Watch for the babies to come. They come faster than wages raise these days.”
“But we’re not going to have any babies... that is, at first. Not until after the furniture is all paid for anyway.”
“Wise in your generation, eh? In my days girls were more modest than to know anything about disgraceful subjects.”
“As babies?” Saxon queried, with a touch of gentle malice.
“Yes, as babies.”
“The first I knew that babies were disgraceful. Why, Sarah, you, with your five, how disgraceful you have been. Billy and I have decided not to be half as disgraceful. We’re only going to have two—a boy and a girl.”
Tom chuckled, but held the peace by hiding his face in his coffee cup. Sarah, though checked by this flank attack, was herself an old hand in the art. So temporary was the setback that she scarcely paused ere hurling her assault from a new angle.
“An’ marryin’ so quick, all of a sudden, eh? If that ain’t suspicious, nothin’ is. I don’t know what young women’s comin’ to. They ain’t decent, I tell you. They ain’t decent. That’s what comes of Sunday dancin’ an’ all the rest. Young women nowadays are like a lot of animals. Such fast an’ looseness I never saw....”
Saxon was white with anger, but while Sarah wandered on in her diatribe, Tom managed to wink privily and prodigiously at his sister and to implore her to help in keeping the peace.
“It’s all right, kid sister,” he comforted Saxon when they were alone. “There’s no use talkin’ to Sarah. Bill Roberts is a good boy. I know a lot about him. It does you proud to get him for a husband. You’re bound to be happy with him...” His voice sank, and his face seemed suddenly to be very old and tired as he went on anxiously. “Take warning from Sarah. Don’t nag. Whatever you do, don’t nag. Don’t give him a perpetual-motion line of chin. Kind of let him talk once in a while. Men have some horse sense, though Sarah don’t know it. Why, Sarah actually loves me, though she don’t make a noise like it. The thing for you is to love your husband, and, by thunder, to make a noise of lovin’ him, too. And then you can kid him into doing ‘most anything you want. Let him have his way once in a while, and he’ll let you have yourn. But you just go on lovin’ him, and leanin’ on his judgement—he’s no fool—and you’ll be all hunky-dory. I’m scared from goin’ wrong, what of Sarah. But I’d sooner be loved into not going wrong.”
“Oh, I’ll do it, Tom,” Saxon nodded, smiling through the tears his sympathy had brought into her eyes. “And on top of it I’m going to do something else, I’m going to make Billy love me and just keep on loving me. And then I won’t have to kid him into doing some of the things I want. He’ll do them because he loves me, you see.”
“You got the right idea, Saxon. Stick with it, an’ you’ll win out.”
Later, when she had put on her hat to start for the laundry, she found Tom waiting for her at the corner.
“An’, Saxon,” he said, hastily and haltingly, “you won’t take anything I’ve said... you know... —about Sarah... as bein’ in any way disloyal to her? She’s a good woman, an’ faithful. An’ her life ain’t so easy by a long shot. I’d bite out my tongue before I’d say anything against her. I guess all folks have their troubles. It’s hell to be poor, ain’t it?”
“You’ve been awful good to me, Tom. I can never forget it. And I know Sarah means right. She does do her best.”
“I won’t be able to give you a wedding present,” her brother ventured apologetically. “Sarah won’t hear of it. Says we didn’t get none from my folks when we got married. But I got something for you just the same. A surprise. You’d never guess it.”
“When you told me you was goin’ to get married, I just happened to think of it, an’ I wrote to brother George, askin’ him for it for you. An’ by thunder he sent it by express. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t know but maybe he’d sold it. He did sell the silver spurs. He needed the money, I guess. But the other, I had it sent to the shop so as not to bother Sarah, an’ I sneaked it in last night an’ hid it in the woodshed.”
“Oh, it is something of my father’s! What is it? Oh, what is it?”
“His army sword.”
“The one he wore on his roan war horse! Oh, Tom, you couldn’t give me a better present. Let’s go back now. I want to see it. We can slip in the back way. Sarah’s washing in the kitchen, and she won’t begin hanging out for an hour.”
“I spoke to Sarah about lettin’ you take the old chest of drawers that was your mother’s,” Tom whispered, as they stole along the narrow alley between the houses. “Only she got on her high horse. Said that Daisy was as much my mother as yourn, even if we did have different fathers, and that the chest had always belonged in Daisy’s family and not Captain Kit’s, an’ that it was mine, an’ what was mine she had some say-so about.”
“It’s all right,” Saxon reassured him. “She sold it to me last night. She was waiting up for me when I got home with fire in her eye.”
“Yep, she was on the warpath all day after I mentioned it. How much did you give her for it?”
“Robbery—it ain’t worth it,” Tom groaned. “It’s all cracked at one end and as old as the hills.”
“I’d have given ten dollars for it. I’d have given ‘most anything for it, Tom. It was mother’s, you know. I remember it in her room when she was still alive.”
In the woodshed Tom resurrected the hidden treasure and took off the wrapping paper. Appeared a rusty, steel-scabbarded saber of the heavy type carried by cavalry officers in Civil War days. It was attached to a moth-eaten sash of thick-woven crimson silk from which hung heavy silk tassels. Saxon almost seized it from her brother in her eagerness. She drew forth the blade and pressed her lips to the steel.
It was her last day at the laundry. She was to quit work that evening for good. And the next afternoon, at five, she and Billy were to go before a justice of the peace and be married. Bert and Mary were to be the witnesses, and after that the four were to go to a private room in Barnum’s Restaurant for the wedding supper. That over, Bert and Mary would proceed to a dance at Myrtle Hall, while Billy and Saxon would take the Eighth Street car to Seventh and Pine. Honeymoons are infrequent in the working class. The next morning Billy must be at the stable at his regular hour to drive his team out.
All the women in the fancy starch room knew it was Saxon’s last day. Many exulted for her, and not a few were envious of her, in that she had won a husband and to freedom from the suffocating slavery of the ironing board. Much of bantering she endured; such was the fate of every girl who married out of the fancy starch room. But Saxon was too happy to be hurt by the teasing, a great deal of which was gross, but all of which was good-natured.
In the steam that arose from under her iron, and on the surfaces of the dainty lawns and muslins that flew under her hands, she kept visioning herself in the Pine Street cottage; and steadily she hummed under her breath her paraphrase of the latest popular song:
“And when I work, and when I work, I’ll always work for Billy.”
By three in the afternoon the strain of the piece-workers in the humid, heated room grew tense. Elderly women gasped and sighed; the color went out of the cheeks of the young women, their faces became drawn and dark circles formed under their eyes; but all held on with weary, unabated speed. The tireless, vigilant forewoman kept a sharp lookout for incipient hysteria, and once led a narrow-chested, stoop-shouldered young thing out of the place in time to prevent a collapse.
Saxon was startled by the wildest scream of terror she had ever heard. The tense thread of human resolution snapped; wills and nerves broke down, and a hundred women suspended their irons or dropped them. It was Mary who had screamed so terribly, and Saxon saw a strange black animal flapping great claw-like wings and nestling on Mary’s shoulder. With the scream, Mary crouched down, and the strange creature, darting into the air, fluttered full into the startled face of a woman at the next board. This woman promptly screamed and fainted. Into the air again, the flying thing darted hither and thither, while the shrieking, shrinking women threw up their arms, tried to run away along the aisles, or cowered under their ironing boards.
“It’s only a bat!” the forewoman shouted. She was furious. “Ain’t you ever seen a bat? It won’t eat you!”
But they were ghetto people, and were not to be quieted. Some woman who could not see the cause of the uproar, out of her overwrought apprehension raised the cry of fire and precipitated the panic rush for the doors. All of them were screaming the stupid, soul-sickening high note of terror, drowning the forewoman’s voice. Saxon had been merely startled at first, but the screaming panic broke her grip on herself and swept her away. Though she did not scream, she fled with the rest. When this horde of crazed women debouched on the next department, those who worked there joined in the stampede to escape from they knew not what danger. In ten minutes the laundry was deserted, save for a few men wandering about with hand grenades in futile search for the cause of the disturbance.
The forewoman was stout, but indomitable. Swept along half the length of an aisle by the terror-stricken women, she had broken her way back through the rout and quickly caught the light-blinded visitant in a clothes basket.
“Maybe I don’t know what God looks like, but take it from me I’ve seen a tintype of the devil,” Mary gurgled, emotionally fluttering back and forth between laughter and tears.
But Saxon was angry with herself, for she had been as frightened as the rest in that wild flight for out-of-doors.
“We’re a lot of fools,” she said. “It was only a bat. I’ve heard about them. They live in the country. They wouldn’t hurt a fly. They can’t see in the daytime. That was what was the matter with this one. It was only a bat.”
“Huh, you can’t string me,” Mary replied. “It was the devil.” She sobbed a moment, and then laughed hysterically again. “Did you see Mrs. Bergstrom faint? And it only touched her in the face. Why, it was on my shoulder and touching my bare neck like the hand of a corpse. And I didn’t faint.” She laughed again. “I guess, maybe, I was too scared to faint.”
“Come on back,” Saxon urged. “We’ve lost half an hour.”
“Not me. I’m goin’ home after that, if they fire me. I couldn’t iron for sour apples now, I’m that shaky.”
One woman had broken a leg, another an arm, and a number nursed milder bruises and bruises. No bullying nor entreating of the forewoman could persuade the women to return to work. They were too upset and nervous, and only here and there could one be found brave enough to re-enter the building for the hats and lunch baskets of the others. Saxon was one of the handful that returned and worked till six o’clock.
The four were at the table in the private room at Barnum’s. The wedding supper, simple enough, but seemingly too expensive to Saxon, had been eaten. Bert, in his hand a glass of California red wine, which the management supplied for fifty cents a bottle, was on his feet endeavoring a speech. His face was flushed; his black eyes were feverishly bright.
“You’ve ben drinkin’ before you met me,” Mary continued. “I can see it stickin’ out all over you.”
“Consult an oculist, my dear,” he replied. “Bertram is himself to-night. An’ he is here, arisin’ to his feet to give the glad hand to his old pal. Bill, old man, here’s to you. It’s how-de-do an’ good-bye, I guess. You’re a married man now, Bill, an’ you got to keep regular hours. No more runnin’ around with the boys. You gotta take care of yourself, an’ get your life insured, an’ take out an accident policy, an’ join a buildin’ an’ loan society, an’ a buryin’ association—”
“Now you shut up, Bert,” Mary broke in. “You don’t talk about buryin’s at weddings. You oughta be ashamed of yourself.”
“Whoa, Mary! Back up! I said what I said because I meant it. I ain’t thinkin’ what Mary thinks. What I was thinkin’.... Let me tell you what I was thinkin’. I said buryin’ association, didn’t I? Well, it was not with the idea of castin’ gloom over this merry gatherin’. Far be it....”
He was so evidently seeking a way out of his predicament, that Mary tossed her head triumphantly. This acted as a spur to his reeling wits.
“Let me tell you why,” he went on. “Because, Bill, you got such an all-fired pretty wife, that’s why. All the fellows is crazy over her, an’ when they get to runnin’ after her, what’ll you be doin’? You’ll be gettin’ busy. And then won’t you need a buryin’ association to bury ‘em? I just guess yes. That was the compliment to your good taste in skirts I was tryin’ to come across with when Mary butted in.”
His glittering eyes rested for a moment in bantering triumph on Mary.
“Who says I’m squiffed? Me? Not on your life. I’m seein’ all things in a clear white light. An’ I see Bill there, my old friend Bill. An’ I don’t see two Bills. I see only one. Bill was never two-faced in his life. Bill, old man, when I look at you there in the married harness, I’m sorry—” He ceased abruptly and turned on Mary. “Now don’t go up in the air, old girl. I’m onto my job. My grandfather was a state senator, and he could spiel graceful an’ pleasin’ till the cows come home. So can I.—Bill, when I look at you, I’m sorry. I repeat, I’m sorry.” He glared challengingly at Mary. “For myself when I look at you an’ know all the happiness you got a hammerlock on. Take it from me, you’re a wise guy, bless the women. You’ve started well. Keep it up. Marry ‘em all, bless ’em. Bill, here’s to you. You’re a Mohegan with a scalplock. An’ you got a squaw that is some squaw, take it from me. Minnehaha, here’s to you—to the two of you—an’ to the papooses, too, gosh-dang them!”
He drained the glass suddenly and collapsed in his chair, blinking his eyes across at the wedded couple while tears trickled unheeded down his cheeks. Mary’s hand went out soothingly to his, completing his break-down.
“By God, I got a right to cry,” he sobbed. “I’m losin’ my best friend, ain’t I? It’ll never be the same again never. When I think of the fun, an’ scrapes, an’ good times Bill an’ me has had together, I could darn near hate you, Saxon, sittin’ there with your hand in his.”
“Cheer up, Bert,” she laughed gently. “Look at whose hand you are holding.”
“Aw, it’s only one of his cryin’ jags,” Mary said, with a harshness that her free hand belied as it caressed his hair with soothing strokes. “Buck up, Bert. Everything’s all right. And now it’s up to Bill to say something after your dandy spiel.”
Bert recovered himself quickly with another glass of wine.
“Kick in, Bill,” he cried. “It’s your turn now.”
“I’m no hotair artist,” Billy grumbled. “What’ll I say, Saxon? They ain’t no use tellin’ ‘em how happy we are. They know that.”
“Tell them we’re always going to be happy,” she said. “And thank them for all their good wishes, and we both wish them the same. And we’re always going to be together, like old times, the four of us. And tell them they’re invited down to 507 Pine Street next Sunday for Sunday dinner.—And, Mary, if you want to come Saturday night you can sleep in the spare bedroom.”
“You’ve told’m yourself, better’n I could.” Billy clapped his hands. “You did yourself proud, an’ I guess they ain’t much to add to it, but just the same I’m goin’ to pass them a hot one.”
He stood up, his hand on his glass. His clear blue eyes under the dark brows and framed by the dark lashes, seemed a deeper blue, and accentuated the blondness of hair and skin. The smooth cheeks were rosy—not with wine, for it was only his second glass—but with health and joy. Saxon, looking up at him, thrilled with pride in him, he was so well-dressed, so strong, so handsome, so clean-looking—her man-boy. And she was aware of pride in herself, in her woman’s desirableness that had won for her so wonderful a lover.
“Well, Bert an’ Mary, here you are at Saxon’s and my wedding supper. We’re just goin’ to take all your good wishes to heart, we wish you the same back, and when we say it we mean more than you think we mean. Saxon an’ I believe in tit for tat. So we’re wishin’ for the day when the table is turned clear around an’ we’re sittin’ as guests at your weddin’ supper. And then, when you come to Sunday dinner, you can both stop Saturday night in the spare bedroom. I guess I was wised up when I furnished it, eh?”
“I never thought it of you, Billy!” Mary exclaimed. “You’re every hit as raw as Bert. But just the same...”
There was a rush of moisture to her eyes. Her voice faltered and broke. She smiled through her tears at them, then turned to look at Bert, who put his arm around her and gathered her on to his knees.
When they left the restaurant, the four walked to Eighth and Broadway, where they stopped beside the electric car. Bert and Billy were awkward and silent, oppressed by a strange aloofness. But Mary embraced Saxon with fond anxiousness.
“It’s all right, dear,” Mary whispered. “Don’t be scared. It’s all right. Think of all the other women in the world.”
The conductor clanged the gong, and the two couples separated in a sudden hubbub of farewell.
“Oh, you Mohegan!” Bert called after, as the car got under way. “Oh, you Minnehaha!”
“Remember what I said,” was Mary’s parting to Saxon.
The car stopped at Seventh and Pine, the terminus of the line. It was only a little over two blocks to the cottage. On the front steps Billy took the key from his pocket.
“Funny, isn’t it?” he said, as the key turned in the lock. “You an’ me. Just you an’ me.”
While he lighted the lamp in the parlor, Saxon was taking off her hat. He went into the bedroom and lighted the lamp there, then turned back and stood in the doorway. Saxon, still unaccountably fumbling with her hatpins, stole a glance at him. He held out his arms.
“Now,” he said.
She came to him, and in his arms he could feel her trembling.
The first evening after the marriage night Saxon met Billy at the door as he came up the front steps. After their embrace, and as they crossed the parlor hand in hand toward the kitchen, he filled his lungs through his nostrils with audible satisfaction.
“My, but this house smells good, Saxon! It ain’t the coffee—I can smell that, too. It’s the whole house. It smells... well, it just smells good to me, that’s all.”
He washed and dried himself at the sink, while she heated the frying pan on the front hole of the stove with the lid off. As he wiped his hands he watched her keenly, and cried out with approbation as she dropped the steak in the fryin pan.
“Where’d you learn to cook steak on a dry, hot pan? It’s the only way, but darn few women seem to know about it.”
As she took the cover off a second frying pan and stirred the savory contents with a kitchen knife, he came behind her, passed his arms under her arm-pits with down-drooping hands upon her breasts, and bent his head over her shoulder till cheek touched cheek.
“Um-um-um-m-m! Fried potatoes with onions like mother used to make. Me for them. Don’t they smell good, though! Um-um-m-m-m!”
The pressure of his hands relaxed, and his cheek slid caressingly past hers as he started to release her. Then his hands closed down again. She felt his lips on her hair and heard his advertised inhalation of delight.
“Um-um-m-m-m! Don’t you smell good—yourself, though! I never understood what they meant when they said a girl was sweet. I know, now. And you’re the sweetest I ever knew.”
His joy was boundless. When he returned from combing his hair in the bedroom and sat down at the small table opposite her, he paused with knife and fork in hand.
“Say, bein’ married is a whole lot more than it’s cracked up to be by most married folks. Honest to God, Saxon, we can show ‘em a few. We can give ‘em cards and spades an’ little casino an’ win out on big casino and the aces. I’ve got but one kick comin’.”
The instant apprehension in her eyes provoked a chuckle from him.
“An’ that is that we didn’t get married quick enough. Just think. I’ve lost a whole week of this.”
Her eyes shone with gratitude and happiness, and in her heart she solemnly pledged herself that never in all their married life would it be otherwise.
Supper finished, she cleared the table and began washing the dishes at the sink. When he evinced the intention of wiping them, she caught him by the lapels of the coat and backed him into a chair.
“You’ll sit right there, if you know what’s good for you. Now be good and mind what I say. Also, you will smoke a cigarette.—No; you’re not going to watch me. There’s the morning paper beside you. And if you don’t hurry to read it, I’ll be through these dishes before you’ve started.”
As he smoked and read, she continually glanced across at him from her work. One thing more, she thought—slippers; and then the picture of comfort and content would be complete.
Several minutes later Billy put the paper aside with a sigh.
“It’s no use,” he complained. “I can’t read.”
“What’s the matter?” she teased. “Eyes weak?”
“Nope. They’re sore, and there’s only one thing to do ‘em any good, an’ that’s lookin’ at you.”
“All right, then, baby Billy; I’ll be through in a jiffy.”
When she had washed the dish towel and scalded out the sink, she took off her kitchen apron, came to him, and kissed first one eye and then the other.
“How are they now. Cured?”
“They feel some better already.”
She repeated the treatment.
After he had adjudged them well, he ouched and informed her that there was still some hurt in the right eye.
In the course of treating it, she cried out as in pain. Billy was all alarm.
“What is it? What hurt you?”
“My eyes. They’re hurting like sixty.”
And Billy became physician for a while and she the patient. When the cure was accomplished, she led him into the parlor, where, by the open window, they succeeded in occupying the same Morris chair. It was the most expensive comfort in the house. It had cost seven dollars and a half, and, though it was grander than anything she had dreamed of possessing, the extravagance of it had worried her in a half-guilty way all day.
The salt chill of the air that is the blessing of all the bay cities after the sun goes down crept in about them. They heard the switch engines puffing in the railroad yards, and the rumbling thunder of the Seventh Street local slowing down in its run from the Mole to stop at West Oakland station. From the street came the noise of children playing in the summer night, and from the steps of the house next door the low voices of gossiping housewives.
“Can you beat it?” Billy murmured. “When I think of that six-dollar furnished room of mine, it makes me sick to think what I was missin’ all the time. But there’s one satisfaction. If I’d changed it sooner I wouldn’t a-had you. You see, I didn’t know you existed only until a couple of weeks ago.”
His hand crept along her bare forearm and up and partly under the elbow-sleeve.
“Your skin’s so cool,” he said. “It ain’t cold; it’s cool. It feels good to the hand.”
“Pretty soon you’ll be calling me your cold-storage baby,” she laughed.
“And your voice is cool,” he went on. “It gives me the feeling just as your hand does when you rest it on my forehead. It’s funny. I can’t explain it. But your voice just goes all through me, cool and fine. It’s like a wind of coolness—just right. It’s like the first of the sea-breeze settin’ in in the afternoon after a scorchin’ hot morning. An’ sometimes, when you talk low, it sounds round and sweet like the ’cello in the Macdonough Theater orchestra. And it never goes high up, or sharp, or squeaky, or scratchy, like some women’s voices when they’re mad, or fresh, or excited, till they remind me of a bum phonograph record. Why, your voice, it just goes through me till I’m all trembling—like with the everlastin’ cool of it. It’s it’s straight delicious. I guess angels in heaven, if they is any, must have voices like that.”
After a few minutes, in which, so inexpressible was her happiness that she could only pass her hand through his hair and cling to him, he broke out again.
“I’ll tell you what you remind me of. Did you ever see a thoroughbred mare, all shinin’ in the sun, with hair like satin an’ skin so thin an’ tender that the least touch of the whip leaves a mark—all fine nerves, an’ delicate an’ sensitive, that’ll kill the toughest bronco when it comes to endurance an’ that can strain a tendon in a flash or catch death-of-cold without a blanket for a night? I wanta tell you they ain’t many beautifuler sights in this world. An’ they’re that fine-strung, an’ sensitive, an’ delicate. You gotta handle ‘em right-side up, glass, with care. Well, that’s what you remind me of. And I’m goin’ to make it my job to see you get handled an’ gentled in the same way. You’re as different from other women as that kind of a mare is from scrub work-horse mares. You’re a thoroughbred. You’re clean-cut an’ spirited, an’ your lines...
“Say, d’ye know you’ve got some figure? Well, you have. Talk about Annette Kellerman. You can give her cards and spades. She’s Australian, an’ you’re American, only your figure ain’t. You’re different. You’re nifty—I don’t know how to explain it. Other women ain’t built like you. You belong in some other country. You’re Frenchy, that’s what. You’re built like a French woman an’ more than that—the way you walk, move, stand up or sit down, or don’t do anything.”
And he, who had never been out of California, or, for that matter, had never slept a night away from his birthtown of Oakland, was right in his judgment. She was a flower of Anglo-Saxon stock, a rarity in the exceptional smallness and fineness of hand and foot and bone and grace of flesh and carriage—some throw-back across the face of time to the foraying Norman-French that had intermingled with the sturdy Saxon breed.
“And in the way you carry your clothes. They belong to you. They seem just as much part of you as the cool of your voice and skin. They’re always all right an’ couldn’t be better. An’ you know, a fellow kind of likes to be seen taggin’ around with a woman like you, that wears her clothes like a dream, an’ hear the other fellows say: ‘Who’s Bill’s new skirt? She’s a peach, ain’t she? Wouldn’t I like to win her, though.’ And all that sort of talk.”
And Saxon, her cheek pressed to his, knew that she was paid in full for all her midnight sewings and the torturing hours of drowsy stitching when her head nodded with the weariness of the day’s toil, while she recreated for herself filched ideas from the dainty garments that had steamed under her passing iron.
“Say, Saxon, I got a new name for you. You’re my Tonic Kid. That’s what you are, the Tonic Kid.”
“And you’ll never get tired of me?” she queried.
“Tired? Why we was made for each other.”
“Isn’t it wonderful, our meeting, Billy? We might never have met. It was just by accident that we did.”
“We was born lucky,” he proclaimed. “That’s a cinch.”
“Maybe it was more than luck,” she ventured.
“Sure. It just had to be. It was fate. Nothing could a-kept us apart.”
They sat on in a silence that was quick with unuttered love, till she felt him slowly draw her more closely and his lips come near to her ear as they whispered: “What do you say we go to bed?”
Many evenings they spent like this, varied with an occasional dance, with trips to the Orpheum and to Bell’s Theater, or to the moving picture shows, or to the Friday night band concerts in City Hall Park. Often, on Sunday, she prepared a lunch, and he drove her out into the hills behind Prince and King, whom Billy’s employer was still glad to have him exercise.
Each morning Saxon was called by the alarm clock. The first morning he had insisted upon getting up with her and building the fire in the kitchen stove. She gave in the first morning, but after that she laid the fire in the evening, so that all that was required was the touching of a match to it. And in bed she compelled him to remain for a last little doze ere she called him for breakfast. For the first several weeks she prepared his lunch for him. Then, for a week, he came down to dinner. After that he was compelled to take his lunch with him. It depended on how far distant the teaming was done.
“You’re not starting right with a man,” Mary cautioned. “You wait on him hand and foot. You’ll spoil him if you don’t watch out. It’s him that ought to be waitin’ on you.”
“He’s the bread-winner,” Saxon replied. “He works harder than I, and I’ve got more time than I know what to do with—time to burn. Besides, I want to wait on him because I love to, and because... well, anyway, I want to.”
Despite the fastidiousness of her housekeeping, Saxon, once she had systematized it, found time and to spare on her hands. Especially during the periods in which her husband carried his lunch and there was no midday meal to prepare, she had a number of hours each day to herself. Trained for years to the routine of factory and laundry work, she could not abide this unaccustomed idleness. She could not bear to sit and do nothing, while she could not pay calls on her girlhood friends, for they still worked in factory and laundry. Nor was she acquainted with the wives of the neighborhood, save for one strange old woman who lived in the house next door and with whom Saxon had exchanged snatches of conversation over the backyard division fence.
One time-consuming diversion of which Saxon took advantage was free and unlimited baths. In the orphan asylum and in Sarah’s house she had been used to but one bath a week. As she grew to womanhood she had attempted more frequent baths. But the effort proved disastrous, arousing, first, Sarah’s derision, and next, her wrath. Sarah had crystallized in the era of the weekly Saturday night bath, and any increase in this cleansing function was regarded by her as putting on airs and as an insinuation against her own cleanliness. Also, it was an extravagant misuse of fuel, and occasioned extra towels in the family wash. But now, in Billy’s house, with her own stove, her own tub and towels and soap, and no one to say her nay, Saxon was guilty of a daily orgy. True, it was only a common washtub that she placed on the kitchen floor and filled by hand; but it was a luxury that had taken her twenty-four years to achieve. It was from the strange woman next door that Saxon received a hint, dropped in casual conversation, of what proved the culminating joy of bathing. A simple thing—a few drops of druggist’s ammonia in the water; but Saxon had never heard of it before.
She was destined to learn much from the strange woman. The acquaintance had begun one day when Saxon, in the back yard, was hanging out a couple of corset covers and several pieces of her finest undergarments. The woman leaning on the rail of her back porch, had caught her eye, and nodded, as it seemed to Saxon, half to her and half to the underlinen on the line.
“You’re newly married, aren’t you?” the woman asked. “I’m Mrs. Higgins. I prefer my first name, which is Mercedes.”
“And I’m Mrs. Roberts,” Saxon replied, thrilling to the newness of the designation on her tongue. “My first name is Saxon.”
“Strange name for a Yankee woman,” the other commented.
“Oh, but I’m not Yankee,” Saxon exclaimed. “I’m Californian.”
“La la,” laughed Mercedes Higgins. “I forgot I was in America. In other lands all Americans are called Yankees. It is true that you are newly married?”
Saxon nodded with a happy sigh. Mercedes sighed, too.
“Oh, you happy, soft, beautiful young thing. I could envy you to hatred—you with all the man-world ripe to be twisted about your pretty little fingers. And you don’t realize your fortune. No one does until it’s too late.”
Saxon was puzzled and disturbed, though she answered readily:
“Oh, but I do know how lucky I am. I have the finest man in the world.”
Mercedes Higgins sighed again and changed the subject. She nodded her head at the garments.
“I see you like pretty things. It is good judgment for a young woman. They’re the bait for men—half the weapons in the battle. They win men, and they hold men—” She broke off to demand almost fiercely: “And you, you would keep your husband?—always, always—if you can?”
“I intend to. I will make him love me always and always.”
Saxon ceased, troubled and surprised that she should be so intimate with a stranger.
“’Tis a queer thing, this love of men,” Mercedes said. “And a failing of all women is it to believe they know men like books. And with breaking hearts, die they do, most women, out of their ignorance of men and still foolishly believing they know all about them. Oh, la la, the little fools. And so you say, little new-married woman, that you will make your man love you always and always? And so they all say it, knowing men and the queerness of men’s love the way they think they do. Easier it is to win the capital prize in the Little Louisiana, but the little new-married women never know it until too late. But you—you have begun well. Stay by your pretties and your looks. ‘Twas so you won your man, ’tis so you’ll hold him. But that is not all. Some time I will talk with you and tell what few women trouble to know, what few women ever come to know.—Saxon!—’tis a strong, handsome name for a woman. But you don’t look it. Oh, I’ve watched you. French you are, with a Frenchiness beyond dispute. Tell Mr. Roberts I congratulate him on his good taste.”
She paused, her hand on the knob of her kitchen door.
“And come and see me some time. You will never be sorry. I can teach you much. Come in the afternoon. My man is night watchman in the yards and sleeps of mornings. He’s sleeping now.”
Saxon went into the house puzzling and pondering. Anything but ordinary was this lean, dark-skinned woman, with the face withered as if scorched in great heats, and the eyes, large and black, that flashed and flamed with advertisement of an unquenched inner conflagration. Old she was—Saxon caught herself debating anywhere between fifty and seventy; and her hair, which had once been blackest black, was streaked plentifully with gray. Especially noteworthy to Saxon was her speech. Good English it was, better than that to which Saxon was accustomed. Yet the woman was not American. On the other hand, she had no perceptible accent. Rather were her words touched by a foreignness so elusive that Saxon could not analyze nor place it.
“Uh, huh,” Billy said, when she had told him that evening of the day’s event. “So SHE’S Mrs. Higgins? He’s a watchman. He’s got only one arm. Old Higgins an’ her—a funny bunch, the two of them. The people’s scared of her—some of ‘em. The Dagoes an’ some of the old Irish dames thinks she’s a witch. Won’t have a thing to do with her. Bert was tellin’ me about it. Why, Saxon, d’ye know, some of ‘em believe if she was to get mad at ‘em, or didn’t like their mugs, or anything, that all she’s got to do is look at ‘em an’ they’ll curl up their toes an’ croak. One of the fellows that works at the stable—you’ve seen ‘m—Henderson—he lives around the corner on Fifth—he says she’s bughouse.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Saxon defended her new acquaintance. “She may be crazy, but she says the same thing you’re always saying. She says my form is not American but French.”
“Then I take my hat off to her,” Billy responded. “No wheels in her head if she says that. Take it from me, she’s a wise gazabo.”
“And she speaks good English, Billy, like a school teacher, like what I guess my mother used to speak. She’s educated.”
“She ain’t no fool, or she wouldn’t a-sized you up the way she did.”
“She told me to congratulate you on your good taste in marrying me,” Saxon laughed.
“She did, eh? Then give her my love. Me for her, because she knows a good thing when she sees it, an’ she ought to be congratulating you on your good taste in me.”
It was on another day that Mercedes Higgins nodded, half to Saxon, and half to the dainty women’s things Saxon was hanging on the line.
“I’ve been worrying over your washing, little new-wife,” was her greeting.
“Oh, but I’ve worked in the laundry for years,” Saxon said quickly.
Mercedes sneered scornfully.
“Steam laundry. That’s business, and it’s stupid. Only common things should go to a steam laundry. That is their punishment for being common. But the pretties! the dainties! the flimsies!—la la, my dear, their washing is an art. It requires wisdom, genius, and discretion fine as the clothes are fine. I will give you a recipe for homemade soap. It will not harden the texture. It will give whiteness, and softness, and life. You can wear them long, and fine white clothes are to be loved a long time. Oh, fine washing is a refinement, an art. It is to be done as an artist paints a picture, or writes a poem, with love, holily, a true sacrament of beauty.
“I shall teach you better ways, my dear, better ways than you Yankees know. I shall teach you new pretties.” She nodded her head to Saxon’s underlinen on the line. “I see you make little laces. I know all laces—the Belgian, the Maltese, the Mechlin—oh, the many, many loves of laces! I shall teach you some of the simpler ones so that you can make them for yourself, for your brave man you are to make love you always and always.”
On her first visit to Mercedes Higgins, Saxon received the recipe for home-made soap and her head was filled with a minutiae of instruction in the art of fine washing. Further, she was fascinated and excited by all the newness and strangeness of the withered old woman who blew upon her the breath of wider lands and seas beyond the horizon.
“You are Spanish?” Saxon ventured.
“No, and yes, and neither, and more. My father was Irish, my mother Peruvian-Spanish. ‘Tis after her I took, in color and looks. In other ways after my father, the blue-eyed Celt with the fairy song on his tongue and the restless feet that stole the rest of him away to far-wandering. And the feet of him that he lent me have led me away on as wide far roads as ever his led him.”
Saxon remembered her school geography, and with her mind’s eye she saw a certain outline map of a continent with jiggly wavering parallel lines that denoted coast.
“Oh,” she cried, “then you are South American.”
Mercedes shrugged her shoulders.
“I had to be born somewhere. It was a great ranch, my mother’s. You could put all Oakland in one of its smallest pastures.”
Mercedes Higgins sighed cheerfully and for the time was lost in retrospection. Saxon was curious to hear more about this woman who must have lived much as the Spanish-Californians had lived in the old days.
“You received a good education,” she said tentatively. “Your English is perfect.”
“Ah, the English came afterward, and not in school. But, as it goes, yes, a good education in all things but the most important—men. That, too, came afterward. And little my mother dreamed—she was a grand lady, what you call a cattle-queen—little she dreamed my fine education was to fit me in the end for a night watchman’s wife.” She laughed genuinely at the grotesqueness of the idea. “Night watchman, laborers, why, we had hundreds, yes, thousands that toiled for us. The peons—they are like what you call slaves, almost, and the cowboys, who could ride two hundred miles between side and side of the ranch. And in the big house servants beyond remembering or counting. La la, in my mother’s house were many servants.”
Mercedes Higgins was voluble as a Greek, and wandered on in reminiscence.
“But our servants were lazy and dirty. The Chinese are the servants par excellence. So are the Japanese, when you find a good one, but not so good as the Chinese. The Japanese maidservants are pretty and merry, but you never know the moment they’ll leave you. The Hindoos are not strong, but very obedient. They look upon sahibs and memsahibs as gods! I was a memsahib—which means woman. I once had a Russian cook who always spat in the soup for luck. It was very funny. But we put up with it. It was the custom.”
“How you must have traveled to have such strange servants!” Saxon encouraged.
The old woman laughed corroboration.
“And the strangest of all, down in the South Seas, black slaves, little kinky-haired cannibals with bones through their noses. When they did not mind, or when they stole, they were tied up to a cocoanut palm behind the compound and lashed with whips of rhinoceros hide. They were from an island of cannibals and head-hunters, and they never cried out. It was their pride. There was little Vibi, only twelve years old—he waited on me—and when his back was cut in shreds and I wept over him, he would only laugh and say, ‘Short time little bit I take ‘m head belong big fella white marster.’ That was Bruce Anstey, the Englishman who whipped him. But little Vibi never got the head. He ran away and the bushmen cut off his own head and ate every bit of him.”
Saxon chilled, and her face was grave; but Mercedes Higgins rattled on.
“Ah, those were wild, gay, savage days. Would you believe it, my dear, in three years those Englishmen of the plantation drank up oceans of champagne and Scotch whisky and dropped thirty thousand pounds on the adventure. Not dollars—pounds, which means one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. They were princes while it lasted. It was splendid, glorious. It was mad, mad. I sold half my beautiful jewels in New Zealand before I got started again. Bruce Anstey blew out his brains at the end. Roger went mate on a trader with a black crew, for eight pounds a month. And Jack Gilbraith—he was the rarest of them all. His people were wealthy and titled, and he went home to England and sold cat’s meat, sat around their big house till they gave him more money to start a rubber plantation in the East Indies somewhere, on Sumatra, I think—or was it New Guinea?”
And Saxon, back in her own kitchen and preparing supper for Billy, wondered what lusts and rapacities had led the old, burnt-faced woman from the big Peruvian ranch, through all the world, to West Oakland and Barry Higgins Old Barry was not the sort who would fling away his share of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, much less ever attain to such opulence. Besides, she had mentioned the names of other men, but not his.
Much more Mercedes had talked, in snatches and fragments. There seemed no great country nor city of the old world or the new in which she had not been. She had even been in Klondike, ten years before, in a half-dozen flashing sentences picturing the fur-clad, be-moccasined miners sowing the barroom floors with thousands of dollars’ worth of gold dust. Always, so it seemed to Saxon, Mrs. Higgins had been with men to whom money was as water.
Saxon, brooding over her problem of retaining Billy’s love, of never staling the freshness of their feeling for each other and of never descending from the heights which at present they were treading, felt herself impelled toward Mrs. Higgins. SHE knew; surely she must know. Had she not hinted knowledge beyond ordinary women’s knowledge?
Several weeks went by, during which Saxon was often with her. But Mrs. Higgins talked of all other matters, taught Saxon the making of certain simple laces, and instructed her in the arts of washing and of marketing. And then, one afternoon, Saxon found Mrs. Higgins more voluble than usual, with words, clean-uttered, that rippled and tripped in their haste to escape. Her eyes were flaming. So flamed her face. Her words were flames. There was a smell of liquor in the air and Saxon knew that the old woman had been drinking. Nervous and frightened, at the same time fascinated, Saxon hemstitched a linen handkerchief intended for Billy and listened to Mercedes’ wild flow of speech.
“Listen, my dear. I shall tell you about the world of men. Do not be stupid like all your people, who think me foolish and a witch with the evil eye. Ha! ha! When I think of silly Maggie Donahue pulling the shawl across her baby’s face when we pass each other on the sidewalk! A witch I have been, ‘tis true, but my witchery was with men. Oh, I am wise, very wise, my dear. I shall tell you of women’s ways with men, and of men’s ways with women, the best of them and the worst of them. Of the brute that is in all men, of the queerness of them that breaks the hearts of stupid women who do not understand. And all women are stupid. I am not stupid. La la, listen.
“I am an old woman. And like a woman, I’ll not tell you how old I am. Yet can I hold men. Yet would I hold men, toothless and a hundred, my nose touching my chin. Not the young men. They were mine in my young days. But the old men, as befits my years. And well for me the power is mine. In all this world I am without kin or cash. Only have I wisdom and memories—memories that are ashes, but royal ashes, jeweled ashes. Old women, such as I, starve and shiver, or accept the pauper’s dole and the pauper’s shroud. Not I. I hold my man. True, ‘tis only Barry Higgins—old Barry, heavy, an ox, but a male man, my dear, and queer as all men are queer. ‘Tis true, he has one arm.” She shrugged her shoulders. “A compensation. He cannot beat me, and old bones are tender when the round flesh thins to strings.
“But when I think of my wild young lovers, princes, mad with the madness of youth! I have lived. It is enough. I regret nothing. And with old Barry I have my surety of a bite to eat and a place by the fire. And why? Because I know men, and shall never lose my cunning to hold them. ’Tis bitter sweet, the knowledge of them, more sweet than bitter—men and men and men! Not stupid dolts, nor fat bourgeois swine of business men, but men of temperament, of flame and fire; madmen, maybe, but a lawless, royal race of madmen.
“Little wife-woman, you must learn. Variety! There lies the magic. ‘Tis the golden key. ‘Tis the toy that amuses. Without it in the wife, the man is a Turk; with it, he is her slave, and faithful. A wife must be many wives. If you would have your husband’s love you must be all women to him. You must be ever new, with the dew of newness ever sparkling, a flower that never blooms to the fulness that fades. You must be a garden of flowers, ever new, ever fresh, ever different. And in your garden the man must never pluck the last of your posies.
“Listen, little wife-woman. In the garden of love is a snake. It is the commonplace. Stamp on its head, or it will destroy the garden. Remember the name. Commonplace. Never be too intimate. Men only seem gross. Women are more gross than men.—No, do not argue, little new-wife. You are an infant woman. Women are less delicate than men. Do I not know? Of their own husbands they will relate the most intimate love-secrets to other women. Men never do this of their wives. Explain it. There is only one way. In all things of love women are less delicate. It is their mistake. It is the father and the mother of the commonplace, and it is the commonplace, like a loathsome slug, that beslimes and destroys love.
“Be delicate, little wife-woman. Never be without your veil, without many veils. Veil yourself in a thousand veils, all shimmering and glittering with costly textures and precious jewels. Never let the last veil be drawn. Against the morrow array yourself with more veils, ever more veils, veils without end. Yet the many veils must not seem many. Each veil must seem the only one between you and your hungry lover who will have nothing less than all of you. Each time he must seem to get all, to tear aside the last veil that hides you. He must think so. It must not be so. Then there will be no satiety, for on the morrow he will find another last veil that has escaped him.
“Remember, each veil must seem the last and only one. Always you must seem to abandon all to his arms; always you must reserve more that on the morrow and on all the morrows you may abandon. Of such is variety, surprise, so that your man’s pursuit will be everlasting, so that his eyes will look to you for newness, and not to other women. It was the freshness and the newness’ of your beauty and you, the mystery of you, that won your man. When a man has plucked and smelled all the sweetness of a flower, he looks for other flowers. It is his queerness. You must ever remain a flower almost plucked yet never plucked, stored with vats of sweet unbroached though ever broached.
“Stupid women, and all are stupid, think the first winning of the man the final victory. Then they settle down and grow fat, and state, and dead, and heartbroken. Alas, they are so stupid. But you, little infant-woman with your first victory, you must make your love-life an unending chain of victories. Each day you must win your man again. And when you have won the last victory, when you can find no more to win, then ends love. Finis is written, and your man wanders in strange gardens. Remember, love must be kept insatiable. It must have an appetite knife-edged and never satisfied. You must feed your lover well, ah, very well, most well; give, give, yet send him away hungry to come back to you for more.”
Mrs. Higgins stood up suddenly and crossed out of the room. Saxon had not failed to note the litheness and grace in that lean and withered body. She watched for Mrs. Higgins’ return, and knew that the litheness and grace had not been imagined.
“Scarcely have I told you the first letter in love’s alphabet,” said Mercedes Higgins, as she reseated herself.
In her hands was a tiny instrument, beautifully grained and richly brown, which resembled a guitar save that it bore four strings. She swept them back and forth with rhythmic forefinger and lifted a voice, thin and mellow, in a fashion of melody that was strange, and in a foreign tongue, warm-voweled, all-voweled, and love-exciting. Softly throbbing, voice and strings arose on sensuous crests of song, died away to whisperings and caresses, drifted through love-dusks and twilights, or swelled again to love-cries barbarically imperious in which were woven plaintive calls and madnesses of invitation and promise. It went through Saxon until she was as this instrument, swept with passional strains. It seemed to her a dream, and almost was she dizzy, when Mercedes Higgins ceased.
“If your man had clasped the last of you, and if all of you were known to him as an old story, yet, did you sing that one song, as I have sung it, yet would his arms again go out to you and his eyes grow warm with the old mad lights. Do you see? Do you understand, little wife-woman?”
Saxon could only nod, her lips too dry for speech.
“The golden koa, the king of woods,” Mercedes was crooning over the instrument. “The ukulele—that is what the Hawaiians call it, which means, my dear, the jumping flea. They are golden-fleshed, the Hawalians, a race of lovers, all in the warm cool of the tropic night where the trade winds blow.”
Again she struck the strings. She sang in another language, which Saxon deemed must be French. It was a gayly-devilish lilt, tripping and tickling. Her large eyes at times grew larger and wilder, and again narrowed in enticement and wickedness. When she ended, she looked to Saxon for a verdict.
“I don’t like that one so well,” Saxon said.
Mercedes shrugged her shoulders.
“They all have their worth, little infant-woman with so much to learn. There are times when men may be won with wine. There are times when men may be won with the wine of song, so queer they are. La la, so many ways, so many ways. There are your pretties, my dear, your dainties. They are magic nets. No fisherman upon the sea ever tangled fish more successfully than we women with our flimsies. You are on the right path. I have seen men enmeshed by a corset cover no prettier, no daintier, than these of yours I have seen on the line.
“I have called the washing of fine linen an art. But it is not for itself alone. The greatest of the arts is the conquering of men. Love is the sum of all the arts, as it is the reason for their existence. Listen. In all times and ages have been women, great wise women. They did not need to be beautiful. Greater then all woman’s beauty was their wisdom. Princes end potentates bowed down before them. Nations battled over them. Empires crashed because of them. Religions were founded on them. Aphrodite, Astarte, the worships of the night—listen, infant-woman, of the great women who conquered worlds of men.”
And thereafter Saxon listened, in a maze, to what almost seemed a wild farrago, save that the strange meaningless phrases were fraught with dim, mysterious significance. She caught glimmerings of profounds inexpressible and unthinkable that hinted connotations lawless and terrible. The woman’s speech was a lava rush, scorching and searing; and Saxon’s cheeks, and forehead, and neck burned with a blush that continuously increased. She trembled with fear, suffered qualms of nausea, thought sometimes that she would faint, so madly reeled her brain; yet she could not tear herself away, sad sat on and on, her sewing forgotten on her lap, staring with inward sight upon a nightmare vision beyond all imagining. At last, when it seemed she could endure no more, and while she was wetting her dry lips to cry out in protest, Mercedes ceased.
“And here endeth the first lesson,” she said quite calmly, then laughed with a laughter that was tantalizing and tormenting. “What is the matter? You are not shocked?”
“I am frightened,” Saxon quavered huskily, with a half-sob of nervousness. “You frighten me. I am very foolish, and I know so little, that I had never dreamed... THAT.”
Mercedes nodded her head comprehendingly.
“It is indeed to be frightened at,” she said. “It is solemn; it is terrible; it is magnificent!”
Saxon had been clear-eyed all her days, though her field of vision had been restricted. Clear-eyed, from her childhood days with the saloonkeeper Cady and Cady’s good-natured but unmoral spouse, she had observed, and, later, generalized much upon sex. She knew the post-nuptial problem of retaining a husband’s love, as few wives of any class knew it, just as she knew the pre-nuptial problem of selecting a husband, as few girls of the working class knew it.
She had of herself developed an eminently rational philosophy of love. Instinctively, and consciously, too, she had made toward delicacy, and shunned the perils of the habitual and commonplace. Thoroughly aware she was that as she cheapened herself so did she cheapen love. Never, in the weeks of their married life, had Billy found her dowdy, or harshly irritable, or lethargic. And she had deliberately permeated her house with her personal atmosphere of coolness, and freshness, and equableness. Nor had she been ignorant of such assets as surprise and charm. Her imagination had not been asleep, and she had been born with wisdom. In Billy she had won a prize, and she knew it. She appreciated his lover’s ardor and was proud. His open-handed liberality, his desire for everything of the best, his own personal cleanliness and care of himself she recognized as far beyond the average. He was never coarse. He met delicacy with delicacy, though it was obvious to her that the initiative in all such matters lay with her and must lie with her always. He was largely unconscious of what he did and why. But she knew in all full clarity of judgment. And he was such a prize among men.
Despite her clear sight of her problem of keeping Billy a lover, and despite the considerable knowledge and experience arrayed before her mental vision, Mercedes Higgins had spread before her a vastly wider panorama. The old woman had verified her own conclusions, given her new ideas, clinched old ones, and even savagely emphasized the tragic importance of the whole problem. Much Saxon remembered of that mad preachment, much she guessed and felt, and much had been beyond her experience and understanding. But the metaphors of the veils and the flowers, and the rules of giving to abandonment with always more to abandon, she grasped thoroughly, and she was enabled to formulate a bigger and stronger love-philosophy. In the light of the revelation she re-examined the married lives of all she had ever known, and, with sharp definiteness as never before, she saw where and why so many of them had failed.
With renewed ardor Saxon devoted herself to her household, to her pretties, and to her charms. She marketed with a keener desire for the best, though never ignoring the need for economy. From the women’s pages of the Sunday supplements, and from the women’s magazines in the free reading room two blocks away, she gleaned many ideas for the preservation of her looks. In a systematic way she exercised the various parts of her body, and a certain period of time each day she employed in facial exercises and massage for the purpose of retaining the roundness and freshness, and firmness and color. Billy did not know. These intimacies of the toilette were not for him. The results, only, were his. She drew books from the Carnegie Library and studied physiology and hygiene, and learned a myriad of things about herself and the ways of woman’s health that she had never been taught by Sarah, the women of the orphan asylum, nor by Mrs. Cady.
After long debate she subscribed to a woman’s magazine, the patterns and lessons of which she decided were the best suited to her taste and purse. The other woman’s magazines she had access to in the free reading room, and more than one pattern of lace and embroidery she copied by means of tracing paper. Before the lingerie windows of the uptown shops she often stood and studied; nor was she above taking advantage, when small purchases were made, of looking over the goods at the hand-embroidered underwear counters. Once, she even considered taking up with hand-painted china, but gave over the idea when she learned its expensiveness.
She slowly replaced all her simple maiden underlinen with garments which, while still simple, were wrought with beautiful French embroidery, tucks, and drawnwork. She crocheted fine edgings on the inexpensive knitted underwear she wore in winter. She made little corset covers and chemises of fine but fairly inexpensive lawns, and, with simple flowered designs and perfect laundering, her nightgowns were always sweetly fresh and dainty. In some publication she ran across a brief printed note to the effect that French women were just beginning to wear fascinating beruffled caps at the breakfast table. It meant nothing to her that in her case she must first prepare the breakfast. Promptly appeared in the house a yard of dotted Swiss muslin, and Saxon was deep in experimenting on patterns for herself, and in sorting her bits of laces for suitable trimmings. The resultant dainty creation won Mercedes Higgins’ enthusiastic approval.
Saxon made for herself simple house slips of pretty gingham, with neat low collars turned back from her fresh round throat. She crocheted yards of laces for her underwear, and made Battenberg in abundance for her table and for the bureau. A great achievement, that aroused Billy’s applause, was an Afghan for the bed. She even ventured a rag carpet, which, the women’s magazines informed her, had newly returned into fashion. As a matter of course she hemstitched the best table linen and bed linen they could afford.
As the happy months went by she was never idle. Nor was Billy forgotten. When the cold weather came on she knitted him wristlets, which he always religiously wore from the house and pocketed immediately thereafter. The two sweaters she made for him, however, received a better fate, as did the slippers which she insisted on his slipping into, on the evenings they remained at home.
The hard practical wisdom of Mercedes Higgins proved of immense help, for Saxon strove with a fervor almost religious to have everything of the best and at the same time to be saving. Here she faced the financial and economic problem of keeping house in a society where the cost of living rose faster than the wages of industry. And here the old woman taught her the science of marketing so thoroughly that she made a dollar of Billy’s go half as far again as the wives of the neighborhood made the dollars of their men go.
Invariably, on Saturday night, Billy poured his total wages into her lap. He never asked for an accounting of what she did with it, though he continually reiterated that he had never fed so well in his life. And always, the wages still untouched in her lap, she had him take out what he estimated he would need for spending money for the week to come. Not only did she bid him take plenty but she insisted on his taking any amount extra that he might desire at any time through the week. And, further, she insisted he should not tell her what it was for.
“You’ve always had money in your pocket,” she reminded him, “and there’s no reason marriage should change that. If it did, I’d wish I’d never married you. Oh, I know about men when they get together. First one treats and then another, and it takes money. Now if you can’t treat just as freely as the rest of them, why I know you so well that I know you’d stay away from them. And that wouldn’t be right... to you, I mean. I want you to be together with men. It’s good for a man.”
And Billy buried her in his arms and swore she was the greatest little bit of woman that ever came down the pike.
“Why,” he jubilated; “not only do I feed better, and live more comfortable, and hold up my end with the fellows; but I’m actually saving money—or you are for me. Here I am, with furniture being paid for regular every month, and a little woman I’m mad over, and on top of it money in the bank. How much is it now?”
“Sixty-two dollars,” she told him. “Not so bad for a rainy day. You might get sick, or hurt, or something happen.”
It was in mid-winter, when Billy, with quite a deal of obvious reluctance, broached a money matter to Saxon. His old friend, Billy Murphy, was laid up with la grippe, and one of his children, playing in the street, had been seriously injured by a passing wagon. Billy Murphy, still feeble after two weeks in bed, had asked Billy for the loan of fifty dollars.
“It’s perfectly safe,” Billy concluded to Saxon. “I’ve known him since we was kids at the Durant School together. He’s straight as a die.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” Saxon chided. “If you were single you’d have lent it to him immediately, wouldn’t you?”
“Then it’s no different because you’re married. It’s your money, Billy.”
“Not by a damn sight,” he cried. “It ain’t mine. It’s ourn. And I wouldn’t think of lettin’ anybody have it without seein’ you first.”
“I hope you didn’t tell him that,” she said with quick concern.
“Nope,” Billy laughed. “I knew, if I did, you’d be madder’n a hatter. I just told him I’d try an’ figure it out. After all, I was sure you’d stand for it if you had it.”
“Oh, Billy,” she murmured, her voice rich and low with love; “maybe you don’t know it, but that’s one of the sweetest things you’ve said since we got married.”
The more Saxon saw of Mercedes Higgins the less did she understand her. That the old woman was a close-fisted miser, Saxon soon learned. And this trait she found hard to reconcile with her tales of squandering. On the other hand, Saxon was bewildered by Mercedes’ extravagance in personal matters. Her underlinen, hand-made of course, was very costly. The table she set for Barry was good, but the table for herself was vastly better. Yet both tables were set on the same table. While Barry contented himself with solid round steak, Mercedes ate tenderloin. A huge, tough muttonchop on Barry’s plate would be balanced by tiny French chops on Mercedes’ plate. Tea was brewed in separate pots. So was coffee. While Barry gulped twenty-five cent tea from a large and heavy mug, Mercedes sipped three-dollar tea from a tiny cup of Belleek, rose-tinted, fragile as all egg-shell. In the same manner, his twenty-five cent coffee was diluted with milk, her eighty cent Turkish with cream.
“’Tis good enough for the old man,” she told Saxon. “He knows no better, and it would be a wicked sin to waste it on him.”
Little traffickings began between the two women. After Mercedes had freely taught Saxon the loose-wristed facility of playing accompaniments on the ukulele, she proposed an exchange. Her time was past, she said, for such frivolities, and she offered the instrument for the breakfast cap of which Saxon had made so good a success.
“It’s worth a few dollars,” Mercedes said. “It cost me twenty, though that was years ago. Yet it is well worth the value of the cap.”
“But wouldn’t the cap be frivolous, too?” Saxon queried, though herself well pleased with the bargain.
“’Tis not for my graying hair,” Mercedes frankly disclaimed. “I shall sell it for the money. Much that I do, when the rheumatism is not maddening my fingers, I sell. La la, my dear, ‘tis not old Barry’s fifty a month that’ll satisfy all my expensive tastes. ‘Tis I that make up the difference. And old age needs money as never youth needs it. Some day you will learn for yourself.”
“I am well satisfied with the trade,” Saxon said. “And I shall make me another cap when I can lay aside enough for the material.”
“Make several,” Mercedes advised. “I’ll sell them for you, keeping, of course, a small commission for my services. I can give you six dollars apiece for them. We will consult about them. The profit will more than provide material for your own.”
Four eventful things happened in the course of the winter. Bert and Mary got married and rented a cottage in the neighborhood three blocks away. Billy’s wages were cut, along with the wages of all the teamsters in Oakland. Billy took up shaving with a safety razor. And, finally, Saxon was proven a false prophet and Sarah a true one.
Saxon made up her mind, beyond any doubt, ere she confided the news to Billy. At first, while still suspecting, she had felt a frightened sinking of the heart and fear of the unknown and unexperienced. Then had come economic fear, as she contemplated the increased expense entailed. But by the time she had made surety doubly sure, all was swept away before a wave of passionate gladness. HERS AND BILLY’S! The phrase was continually in her mind, and each recurrent thought of it brought an actual physical pleasure-pang to her heart.
The night she told the news to Billy, he withheld his own news of the wage-cut, and joined with her in welcoming the little one.
“What’ll we do? Go to the theater to celebrate?” he asked, relaxing the pressure of his embrace so that she might speak. “Or suppose we stay in, just you and me, and... and the three of us?”
“Stay in,” was her verdict. “I just want you to hold me, and hold me, and hold me.”
“That’s what I wanted, too, only I wasn’t sure, after bein’ in the house all day, maybe you’d want to go out.”
There was frost in the air, and Billy brought the Morris chair in by the kitchen stove. She lay cuddled in his arms, her head on his shoulder, his cheek against her hair.
“We didn’t make no mistake in our lightning marriage with only a week’s courtin’,” he reflected aloud. “Why, Saxon, we’ve been courtin’ ever since just the same. And now... my God, Saxon, it’s too wonderful to be true. Think of it! Ourn! The three of us! The little rascal! I bet he’s goin’ to be a boy. An’ won’t I learn ‘m to put up his fists an’ take care of himself! An’ swimmin’ too. If he don’t know how to swim by the time he’s six...”
“And if HE’S a girl?”
“SHE’S goin’ to be a boy,” Billy retorted, joining in the playful misuse of pronouns.
And both laughed and kissed, and sighed with content. “I’m goin’ to turn pincher, now,” he announced, after quite an interval of meditation. “No more drinks with the boys. It’s me for the water wagon. And I’m goin’ to ease down on smokes. Huh! Don’t see why I can’t roll my own cigarettes. They’re ten times cheaper’n tailor-mades. An’ I can grow a beard. The amount of money the barbers get out of a fellow in a year would keep a baby.”
“Just you let your beard grow, Mister Roberts, and I’ll get a divorce,” Saxon threatened. “You’re just too handsome and strong with a smooth face. I love your face too much to have it covered up.—Oh, you dear! you dear! Billy, I never knew what happiness was until I came to live with you.”
“Nor me neither.”
“And it’s always going to be so?”
“You can just bet,” he assured her.
“I thought I was going to be happy married,” she went on; “but I never dreamed it would be like this.” She turned her head on his shoulder and kissed his cheek. “Billy, it isn’t happiness. It’s heaven.”
And Billy resolutely kept undivulged the cut in wages. Not until two weeks later, when it went into effect, and he poured the diminished sum into her lap, did he break it to her. The next day, Bert and Mary, already a month married, had Sunday dinner with them, and the matter came up for discussion. Bert was particularly pessimistic, and muttered dark hints of an impending strike in the railroad shops.
“If you’d all shut your traps, it’d be all right,” Mary criticized. “These union agitators get the railroad sore. They give me the cramp, the way they butt in an’ stir up trouble. If I was boss I’d cut the wages of any man that listened to them.”
“Yet you belonged to the laundry workers’ union,” Saxon rebuked gently.
“Because I had to or I wouldn’t a-got work. An’ much good it ever done me.”
“But look at Billy,” Bert argued “The teamsters ain’t ben sayin’ a word, not a peep, an’ everything lovely, and then, bang, right in the neck, a ten per cent cut. Oh, hell, what chance have we got? We lose. There’s nothin’ left for us in this country we’ve made and our fathers an’ mothers before us. We’re all shot to pieces. We Can see our finish—we, the old stock, the children of the white people that broke away from England an’ licked the tar outa her, that freed the slaves, an’ fought the Indians, ‘an made the West! Any gink with half an eye can see it comin’.”
“But what are we going to do about it?” Saxon questioned anxiously.
“Fight. That’s all. The country’s in the hands of a gang of robbers. Look at the Southern Pacific. It runs California.”
“Aw, rats, Bert,” Billy interrupted. “You’re takin’ through your lid. No railroad can ran the government of California.”
“You’re a bonehead,” Bert sneered. “And some day, when it’s too late, you an’ all the other boneheads’ll realize the fact. Rotten? I tell you it stinks. Why, there ain’t a man who wants to go to state legislature but has to make a trip to San Francisco, an’ go into the S. P. offices, an’ take his hat off, an’ humbly ask permission. Why, the governors of California has been railroad governors since before you and I was born. Huh! You can’t tell me. We’re finished. We’re licked to a frazzle. But it’d do my heart good to help string up some of the dirty thieves before I passed out. D’ye know what we are?—we old white stock that fought in the wars, an’ broke the land, an’ made all this? I’ll tell you. We’re the last of the Mohegans.”
“He scares me to death, he’s so violent,” Mary said with unconcealed hostility. “If he don’t quit shootin’ off his mouth he’ll get fired from the shops. And then what’ll we do? He don’t consider me. But I can tell you one thing all right, all right. I’ll not go back to the laundry.” She held her right hand up and spoke with the solemnity of an oath. “Not so’s you can see it. Never again for yours truly.”
“Oh, I know what you’re drivin’ at,” Bert said with asperity. “An’ all I can tell you is, livin’ or dead, in a job or out, no matter what happens to me, if you will lead that way, you will, an’ there’s nothin’ else to it.”
“I guess I kept straight before I met you,” she came back with a toss of the head. “And I kept straight after I met you, which is going some if anybody should ask you.”
Hot words were on Bert’s tongue, but Saxon intervened and brought about peace. She was concerned over the outcome of their marriage. Both were highstrung, both were quick and irritable, and their continual clashes did not augur well for their future.
The safety razor was a great achievement for Saxon. Privily she conferred with a clerk she knew in Pierce’s hardware store and made the purchase. On Sunday morning, after breakfast, when Billy was starting to go to the barber shop, she led him into the bedroom, whisked a towel aside, and revealed the razor box, shaving mug, soap, brush, and lather all ready. Billy recoiled, then came back to make curious investigation. He gazed pityingly at the safety razor.
“Huh! Call that a man’s tool!”
“It’ll do the work,” she said. “It does it for thousands of men every day.”
But Billy shook his head and backed away.
“You shave three times a week,” she urged. “That’s forty-five cents. Call it half a dollar, and there are fifty-two weeks in the year. Twenty-six dollars a year just for shaving. Come on, dear, and try it. Lots of men swear by it.”
He shook his head mutinously, and the cloudy deeps of his eyes grew more cloudy. She loved that sullen handsomeness that made him look so boyish, and, laughing and kissing him, she forced him into a chair, got off his coat, and unbuttoned shirt and undershirt and turned them in.
Threatening him with, “If you open your mouth to kick I’ll shove it in,” she coated his face with lather.
“Wait a minute,” she checked him, as he reached desperately for the razor. “I’ve been watching the barbers from the sidewalk. This is what they do after the lather is on.”
And thereupon she proceeded to rub the lather in with her fingers.
“There,” she said, when she had coated his face a second time. “You’re ready to begin. Only remember, I’m not always going to do this for you. I’m just breaking you in, you see.”
With great outward show of rebellion, half genuine, half facetious, he made several tentative scrapes with the razor. He winced violently, and violently exclaimed:
“Holy jumping Jehosaphat!”
He examined his face in the glass, and a streak of blood showed in the midst of the lather.
“Cut!—by a safety razor, by God! Sure, men swear by it. Can’t blame ’em. Cut! By a safety!”
“But wait a second,” Saxon pleaded. “They have to be regulated. The clerk told me. See those little screws. There.... That’s it... turn them around.”
Again Billy applied the blade to his face. After a couple of scrapes, he looked at himself closely in the mirror, grinned, and went on shaving. With swiftness and dexterity he scraped his face clean of lather. Saxon clapped her hands.
“Fine,” Billy approved. “Great! Here. Give me your hand. See what a good job it made.”
He started to rub her hand against his cheek. Saxon jerked away with a little cry of disappointment, then examined him closely.
“It hasn’t shaved at all,” she said.
“It’s a fake, that’s what it is. It cuts the hide, but not the hair. Me for the barber.”
But Saxon was persistent.
“You haven’t given it a fair trial yet. It was regulated too much. Let me try my hand at it. There, that’s it, betwixt and between. Now, lather again and try it.”
This time the unmistakable sand-papery sound of hair-severing could be heard.
“How is it?” she fluttered anxiously.
“It gets the—ouch!—hair,” Billy grunted, frowning and making faces. “But it—gee!—say!—ouch!—pulls like Sam Hill.”
“Stay with it,” she encouraged. “Don’t give up the ship, big Injun with a scalplock. Remember what Bert says and be the last of the Mohegans.”
At the end of fifteen minutes he rinsed his face and dried it, sighing with relief.
“It’s a shave, in a fashion, Saxon, but I can’t say I’m stuck on it. It takes out the nerve. I’m as weak as a cat.”
He groaned with sudden discovery of fresh misfortune.
“What’s the matter now?” she asked.
“The back of my neck—how can I shave the back of my neck? I’ll have to pay a barber to do it.”
Saxon’s consternation was tragic, but it only lasted a moment. She took the brush in her hand.
“Sit down, Billy.”
“What?—you?” he demanded indignantly.
“Yes; me. If any barber is good enough to shave your neck, and then I am, too.”
Billy moaned and groaned in the abjectness of humility and surrender, and let her have her way.
“There, and a good job,” she informed him when she had finished. “As easy as falling off a log. And besides, it means twenty-six dollars a year. And you’ll buy the crib, the baby buggy, the pinning blankets, and lots and lots of things with it. Now sit still a minute longer.”
She rinsed and dried the back of his neck and dusted it with talcum powder.
“You’re as sweet as a clean little baby, Billy Boy.”
The unexpected and lingering impact of her lips on the back of his neck made him writhe with mingled feelings not all unpleasant.
Two days later, though vowing in the intervening time to have nothing further to do with the instrument of the devil, he permitted Saxon to assist him to a second shave. This time it went easier.
“It ain’t so bad,” he admitted. “I’m gettin’ the hang of it. It’s all in the regulating. You can shave as close as you want an’ no more close than you want. Barbers can’t do that. Every once an’ awhile they get my face sore.”
The third shave was an unqualified success, and the culminating bliss was reached when Saxon presented him with a bottle of witch hazel. After that he began active proselyting. He could not wait a visit from Bert, but carried the paraphernalia to the latter’s house to demonstrate.
“We’ve ben boobs all these years, Bert, runnin’ the chances of barber’s itch an’ everything. Look at this, eh? See her take hold. Smooth as silk. Just as easy.... There! Six minutes by the clock. Can you beat it? When I get my hand in, I can do it in three. It works in the dark. It works under water. You couldn’t cut yourself if you tried. And it saves twenty-six dollars a year. Saxon figured it out, and she’s a wonder, I tell you.”
The trafficking between Saxon and Mercedes increased. The latter commanded a ready market for all the fine work Saxon could supply, while Saxon was eager and happy in the work. The expected babe and the cut in Billy’s wages had caused her to regard the economic phase of existence more seriously than ever. Too little money was being laid away in the bank, and her conscience pricked her as she considered how much she was laying out on the pretty necessaries for the household and herself. Also, for the first time in her life she was spending another’s earnings. Since a young girl she had been used to spending her own, and now, thanks to Mercedes she was doing it again, and, out of her profits, assaying more expensive and delightful adventures in lingerie.
Mercedes suggested, and Saxon carried out and even bettered, the dainty things of thread and texture. She made ruffled chemises of sheer linen, with her own fine edgings and French embroidery on breast and shoulders; linen hand-made combination undersuits; and nightgowns, fairy and cobwebby, embroidered, trimmed with Irish lace. On Mercedes’ instigation she executed an ambitious and wonderful breakfast cap for which the old woman returned her twelve dollars after deducting commission.
She was happy and busy every waking moment, nor was preparation for the little one neglected. The only ready made garments she bought were three fine little knit shirts. As for the rest, every bit was made by her own hands—featherstitched pinning blankets, a crocheted jacket and cap, knitted mittens, embroidered bonnets; slim little princess slips of sensible length; underskirts on absurd Lilliputian yokes; silk-embroidered white flannel petticoats; stockings and crocheted boots, seeming to burgeon before her eyes with wriggly pink toes and plump little calves; and last, but not least, many deliciously soft squares of bird’s-eye linen. A little later, as a crowning masterpiece, she was guilty of a dress coat of white silk, embroidered. And into all the tiny garments, with every stitch, she sewed love. Yet this love, so unceasingly sewn, she knew when she came to consider and marvel, was more of Billy than of the nebulous, ungraspable new bit of life that eluded her fondest attempts at visioning.
“Huh,” was Billy’s comment, as he went over the mite’s wardrobe and came back to center on the little knit shirts, “they look more like a real kid than the whole kit an’ caboodle. Why, I can see him in them regular manshirts.”
Saxon, with a sudden rush of happy, unshed tears, held one of the little shirts up to his lips. He kissed it solemnly, his eyes resting on Saxon’s.
“That’s some for the boy,” he said, “but a whole lot for you.”
But Saxon’s money-earning was doomed to cease ignominiously and tragically. One day, to take advantage of a department store bargain sale, she crossed the bay to San Francisco. Passing along Sutter Street, her eye was attracted by a display in the small window of a small shop. At first she could not believe it; yet there, in the honored place of the window, was the wonderful breakfast cap for which she had received twelve dollars from Mercedes. It was marked twenty-eight dollars. Saxon went in and interviewed the shopkeeper, an emaciated, shrewd-eyed and middle-aged woman of foreign extraction.
“Oh, I don’t want to buy anything,” Saxon said. “I make nice things like you have here, and I wanted to know what you pay for them—for that breakfast cap in the window, for instance.”
The woman darted a keen glance to Saxon’s left hand, noted the innumerable tiny punctures in the ends of the first and second fingers, then appraised her clothing and her face.
“Can you do work like that?”
“I paid twenty dollars to the woman that made that.” Saxon repressed an almost spasmodic gasp, and thought coolly for a space. Mercedes had given her twelve. Then Mercedes had pocketed eight, while she, Saxon, had furnished the material and labor.
“Would you please show me other hand-made things nightgowns, chemises, and such things, and tell me the prices you pay?”
“Can you do such work?”
“And will you sell to me?”
“Certainly,” Saxon answered. “That is why I am here.”
“We add only a small amount when we sell,” the woman went on; “you see, light and rent and such things, as well as a profit or else we could not be here.”
“It’s only fair,” Saxon agreed.
Amongst the beautiful stuff Saxon went over, she found a nightgown and a combination undersuit of her own manufacture. For the former she had received eight dollars from Mercedes, it was marked eighteen, and the woman had paid fourteen; for the latter Saxon received six, it was marked fifteen, and the woman had paid eleven.
“Thank you,” Saxon said, as she drew on her gloves. “I should like to bring you some of my work at those prices.”
“And I shall be glad to buy it... if it is up to the mark.” The woman looked at her severely. “Mind you, it must be as good as this. And if it is, I often get special orders, and I’ll give you a chance at them.”
Mercedes was unblushingly candid when Saxon reproached her.
“You told me you took only a commission,” was Saxon’s accusation.
“So I did; and so I have.”
“But I did all the work and bought all the materials, yet you actually cleared more out of it than I did. You got the lion’s share.”
“And why shouldn’t I, my dear? I was the middleman. It’s the way of the world. ‘Tis the middlemen that get the lion’s share.”
“It seems to me most unfair,” Saxon reflected, more in sadness than anger.
“That is your quarrel with the world, not with me,” Mercedes rejoined sharply, then immediately softened with one of her quick changes. “We mustn’t quarrel, my dear. I like you so much. La la, it is nothing to you, who are young and strong with a man young and strong. Listen, I am an old woman. And old Barry can do little for me. He is on his last legs. His kidneys are ‘most gone. Remember, ‘tis I must bury him. And I do him honor, for beside me he’ll have his last long steep. A stupid, dull old man, heavy, an ox, ‘tis true; but a good old fool with no trace of evil in him. The plot is bought and paid for—the final installment was made up, in part, out of my commissions from you. Then there are the funeral expenses. It must be done nicely. I have still much to save. And Barry may turn up his toes any day.”
Saxon sniffed the air carefully, and knew the old woman had been drinking again.
“Come, my dear, let me show you.” Leading Saxon to a large sea chest in the bedroom, Mercedes lifted the lid. A faint perfume, as of rose-petals, floated up. “Behold, my burial trousseau. Thus I shall wed the dust.”
Saxon’s amazement increased, as, article by article, the old woman displayed the airiest, the daintiest, the most delicious and most complete of bridal outfits. Mercedes held up an ivory fan.
“In Venice ‘twas given me, my dear.—See, this comb, turtle shell; Bruce Anstey made it for me the week before he drank his last bottle and scattered his brave mad brains with a Colt’s 44.—This scarf. La la, a Liberty scarf—”
“And all that will be buried with you,” Saxon mused, “Oh, the extravagance of it!”
“Why not? I shall die as I have lived. It is my pleasure. I go to the dust as a bride. No cold and narrow bed for me. I would it were a coach, covered with the soft things of the East, and pillows, pillows, without end.”
“It would buy you twenty funerals and twenty plots,” Saxon protested, shocked by this blasphemy of conventional death. “It is downright wicked.”
“’Twill be as I have lived,” Mercedes said complacently. “And it’s a fine bride old Barry’ll have to come and lie beside him.” She closed the lid and sighed. “Though I wish it were Bruce Anstey, or any of the pick of my young men to lie with me in the great dark and to crumble with me to the dust that is the real death.”
She gazed at Saxon with eyes heated by alcohol and at the same time cool with the coolness of content.
“In the old days the great of earth were buried with their live slaves with them. I but take my flimsies, my dear.”
“Then you aren’t afraid of death?... in the least?”
Mercedes shook her head emphatically.
“Death is brave, and good, and kind. I do not fear death. ‘Tis of men I am afraid when I am dead. So I prepare. They shall not have me when I am dead.”
Saxon was puzzled.
“They would not want you then,” she said.
“Many are wanted,” was the answer. “Do you know what becomes of the aged poor who have no money for burial? They are not buried. Let me tell you. We stood before great doors. He was a queer man, a professor who ought to have been a pirate, a man who lectured in class rooms when he ought to have been storming walled cities or robbing banks. He was slender, like Don Juan. His hands were strong as steel. So was his spirit. And he was mad, a bit mad, as all my young men have been. ‘Come, Mercedes,’ he said; ‘we will inspect our brethren and become humble, and glad that we are not as they—as yet not yet. And afterward, to-night, we will dine with a more devilish taste, and we will drink to them in golden wine that will be the more golden for having seen them. Come, Mercedes.’
“He thrust the great doors open, and by the hand led me in. It was a sad company. Twenty-four, that lay on marble slabs, or sat, half erect and propped, while many young men, bright of eye, bright little knives in their hands, glanced curiously at me from their work.”
“They were dead?” Saxon interrupted to gasp.
“They were the pauper dead, my dear. ‘Come, Mercedes,’ said he. ‘There is more to show you that will make us glad we are alive.’ And he took me down, down to the vats. The salt vats, my dear. I was not afraid. But it was in my mind, then, as I looked, how it would be with me when I was dead. And there they were, so many lumps of pork. And the order came, ‘A woman; an old woman.’ And the man who worked there fished in the vats. The first was a man he drew to see. Again he fished and stirred. Again a man. He was impatient, and grumbled at his luck. And then, up through the brine, he drew a woman, and by the face of her she was old, and he was satisfied.”
“It is not true!” Saxon cried out.
“I have seen, my dear, I know. And I tell you fear not the wrath of God when you are dead. Fear only the salt vats. And as I stood and looked, and as he who led me there looked at me and smiled and questioned and bedeviled me with those mad, black, tired-scholar’s eyes of his, I knew that that was no way for my dear clay. Dear it is, my clay to me; dear it has been to others. La la, the salt vat is no place for my kissed lips and love-lavished body.” Mercedes lifted the lid of the chest and gazed fondly at her burial pretties. “So I have made my bed. So I shall lie in it. Some old philosopher said we know we must die; we do not believe it. But the old do believe. I believe.
“My dear, remember the salt vats, and do not be angry with me because my commissions have been heavy. To escape the vats I would stop at nothing steal the widow’s mite, the orphan’s crust, and pennies from a dead man’s eyes.”
“Do you believe in God?” Saxon asked abruptly, holding herself together despite cold horror.
Mercedes dropped the lid and shrugged her shoulders.
“Who knows? I shall rest well.”
“And punishment?” Saxon probed, remembering the unthinkable tale of the other’s life.
“Impossible, my dear. As some old poet said, ‘God’s a good fellow.’ Some time I shall talk to you about God. Never be afraid of him. Be afraid only of the salt vats and the things men may do with your pretty flesh after you are dead.”
Billy quarreled with good fortune. He suspected he was too prosperous on the wages he received. What with the accumulating savings account, the paying of the monthly furniture installment and the house rent, the spending money in pocket, and the good fare he was eating, he was puzzled as to how Saxon managed to pay for the goods used in her fancy work. Several times he had suggested his inability to see how she did it, and been baffled each time by Saxon’s mysterious laugh.
“I can’t see how you do it on the money,” he was contending one evening.
He opened his mouth to speak further, then closed it and for five minutes thought with knitted brows.
“Say,” he said, “what’s become of that frilly breakfast cap you was workin’ on so hard, I ain’t never seen you wear it, and it was sure too big for the kid.”
Saxon hesitated, with pursed lips and teasing eyes. With her, untruthfulness had always been a difficult matter. To Billy it was impossible. She could see the cloud-drift in his eyes deepening and his face hardening in the way she knew so well when he was vexed.
“Say, Saxon, you ain’t... you ain’t... sellin’ your work?”
And thereat she related everything, not omitting Mercedes Higgins’ part in the transaction, nor Mercedes Higgins’ remarkable burial trousseau. But Billy was not to be led aside by the latter. In terms anything but uncertain he told Saxon that she was not to work for money.
“But I have so much spare time, Billy, dear,” she pleaded.
He shook his head.
“Nothing doing. I won’t listen to it. I married you, and I’ll take care of you. Nobody can say Bill Roberts’ wife has to work. And I don’t want to think it myself. Besides, it ain’t necessary.”
“But Billy—” she began again.
“Nope. That’s one thing I won’t stand for, Saxon. Not that I don’t like fancy work. I do. I like it like hell, every bit you make, but I like it on YOU. Go ahead and make all you want of it, for yourself, an’ I’ll put up for the goods. Why, I’m just whistlin’ an’ happy all day long, thinkin’ of the boy an’ seein’ you at home here workin’ away on all them nice things. Because I know how happy you are a-doin’ it. But honest to God, Saxon, it’d all be spoiled if I knew you was doin’ it to sell. You see, Bill Roberts’ wife don’t have to work. That’s my brag—to myself, mind you. An’ besides, it ain’t right.”
“You’re a dear,” she whispered, happy despite her disappointment.
“I want you to have all you want,” he continued. “An’ you’re goin’ to get it as long as I got two hands stickin’ on the ends of my arms. I guess I know how good the things are you wear—good to me, I mean, too. I’m dry behind the ears, an’ maybe I’ve learned a few things I oughtn’t to before I knew you. But I know what I’m talkin’ about, and I want to say that outside the clothes down underneath, an’ the clothes down underneath the outside ones, I never saw a woman like you. Oh—”
He threw up his hands as if despairing of ability to express what he thought and felt, then essayed a further attempt.
“It’s not a matter of bein’ only clean, though that’s a whole lot. Lots of women are clean. It ain’t that. It’s something more, an’ different. It’s... well, it’s the look of it, so white, an’ pretty, an’ tasty. It gets on the imagination. It’s something I can’t get out of my thoughts of you. I want to tell you lots of men can’t strip to advantage, an’ lots of women, too. But you—well, you’re a wonder, that’s all, and you can’t get too many of them nice things to suit me, and you can’t get them too nice.
“For that matter, Saxon, you can just blow yourself. There’s lots of easy money layin’ around. I’m in great condition. Billy Murphy pulled down seventy-five round iron dollars only last week for puttin’ away the Pride of North Beach. That’s what ha paid us the fifty back out of.”
But this time it was Saxon who rebelled.
“There’s Carl Hansen,” Billy argued. “The second Sharkey, the alfalfa sportin’ writers are callin’ him. An’ he calls himself Champion of the United States Navy. Well, I got his number. He’s just a big stiff. I’ve seen ‘m fight, an’ I can pass him the sleep medicine just as easy. The Secretary of the Sportin’ Life Club offered to match me. An’ a hundred iron dollars in it for the winner. And it’ll all be yours to blow in any way you want. What d’ye say?”
“If I can’t work for money, you can’t fight,” was Saxon’s ultimatum, immediately withdrawn. “But you and I don’t drive bargains. Even if you’d let me work for money, I wouldn’t let you fight. I’ve never forgotten what you told me about how prizefighters lose their silk. Well, you’re not going to lose yours. It’s half my silk, you know. And if you won’t fight, I won’t work—there. And more, I’ll never do anything you don’t want me to, Billy.”
“Same here,” Billy agreed. “Though just the same I’d like most to death to have just one go at that squarehead Hansen.” He smiled with pleasure at the thought. “Say, let’s forget it all now, an’ you sing me ‘Harvest Days’ on that dinky what-you-may-call-it.”
When she had complied, accompanying herself on the ukulele, she suggested his weird “Cowboy’s Lament.” In some inexplicable way of love, she had come to like her husband’s one song. Because he sang it, she liked its inanity and monotonousness; and most of all, it seemed to her, she loved his hopeless and adorable flatting of every note. She could even sing with him, flatting as accurately and deliciously as he. Nor did she undeceive him in his sublime faith.
“I guess Bert an’ the rest have joshed me all the time,” he said.
“You and I get along together with it fine,” she equivocated; for in such matters she did not deem the untruth a wrong.
Spring was on when the strike came in the railroad shops. The Sunday before it was called, Saxon and Billy had dinner at Bert’s house. Saxon’s brother came, though he had found it impossible to bring Sarah, who refused to budge from her household rut. Bert was blackly pessimistic, and they found him singing with sardonic glee:
“Nobody loves a mil-yun-aire. Nobody likes his looks. Nobody’ll share his slightest care, He classes with thugs and crooks. Thriftiness has become a crime, So spend everything you earn; We’re living now in a funny time, When money is made to burn.”
Mary went about the dinner preparation, flaunting unmistakable signals of rebellion; and Saxon, rolling up her sleeves and tying on an apron, washed the breakfast dishes. Bert fetched a pitcher of steaming beer from the corner saloon, and the three men smoked and talked about the coming strike.
“It oughta come years ago,” was Bert’s dictum. “It can’t come any too quick now to suit me, but it’s too late. We’re beaten thumbs donn. Here’s where the last of the Mohegans gets theirs, in the neck, ker-whop!”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Tom, who had been smoking his pipe gravely, began to counsel. “Organized labor’s gettin’ stronger every day. Why, I can remember when there wasn’t any unions in California, Look at us now—wages, an’ hours, an’ everything.”
“You talk like an organizer,” Bert sneered, “shovin’ the bull con on the boneheads. But we know different. Organized wages won’t buy as much now as unorganized wages used to buy. They’ve got us whipsawed. Look at Frisco, the labor leaders doin’ dirtier polities than the old parties, pawin’ an’ squabblin’ over graft, an’ goin’ to San Quentin, while—what are the Frisco carpenters doin’? Let me tell you one thing, Tom Brown, if you listen to all you hear you’ll hear that every Frisco carpenter is union an’ gettin’ full union wages. Do you believe it? It’s a damn lie. There ain’t a carpenter that don’t rebate his wages Saturday night to the contractor. An’ that’s your buildin’ trades in San Francisco, while the leaders are makin’ trips to Europe on the earnings of the tenderloin—when they ain’t coughing it up to the lawyers to get out of wearin’ stripes.”
“That’s all right,” Tom concurred. “Nobody’s denyin’ it. The trouble is labor ain’t quite got its eyes open. It ought to play politics, but the politics ought to be the right kind.”
“Socialism, eh?” Bert caught him up with scorn. “Wouldn’t they sell us out just as the Ruefs and Schmidts have?”
“Get men that are honest,” Billy said. “That’s the whole trouble. Not that I stand for socialism. I don’t. All our folks was a long time in America, an’ I for one won’t stand for a lot of fat Germans an’ greasy Russian Jews tellin’ me how to run my country when they can’t speak English yet.”
“Your country!” Bert cried. “Why, you bonehead, you ain’t got a country. That’s a fairy story the grafters shove at you every time they want to rob you some more.”
“But don’t vote for the grafters,” Billy contended. “If we selected honest men we’d get honest treatment.”
“I wish you’d come to some of our meetings, Billy,” Tom said wistfully. “If you would, you’d get your eyes open an’ vote the socialist ticket next election.”
“Not on your life,” Billy declined. “When you catch me in a socialist meeting’ll be when they can talk like white men.”
Bert was humming:
“We’re living now in a funny time, When money is made to burn.”
Mary was too angry with her husband, because of the impending strike and his incendiary utterances, to hold conversation with Saxon, and the latter, bepuzzled, listened to the conflicting opinions of the men.
“Where are we at?” she asked them, with a merriness that concealed her anxiety at heart.
“We ain’t at,” Bert snarled. “We’re gone.”
“But meat and oil have gone up again,” she chafed. “And Billy’s wages have been cut, and the shop men’s were cut last year. Something must be done.”
“The only thing to do is fight like hell,” Bert answered. “Fight, an’ go down fightin’. That’s all. We’re licked anyhow, but we can have a last run for our money.”
“That’s no way to talk,” Tom rebuked.
“The time for talkin’ ‘s past, old cock. The time for fightin’ ‘s come.”
“A hell of a chance you’d have against regular troops and machine guns,” Billy retorted.
“Oh, not that way. There’s such things as greasy sticks that go up with a loud noise and leave holes. There’s such things as emery powder—”
“Oh, ho!” Mary burst out upon him, arms akimbo. “So that’s what it means. That’s what the emery in your vest pocket meant.”
Her husband ignored her. Tom smoked with a troubled air. Billy was hurt. It showed plainly in his face.
“You ain’t ben doin’ that, Bert?” he asked, his manner showing his expectancy of his friend’s denial.
“Sure thing, if you wont to know. I’d see’m all in hell if I could, before I go.”
“He’s a bloody-minded anarchist,” Mary complained. “Men like him killed McKinley, and Garfield, an’—an’ an’ all the rest. He’ll be hung. You’ll see. Mark my words. I’m glad there’s no children in sight, that’s all.”
“It’s hot air,” Billy comforted her.
“He’s just teasing you,” Saxon soothed. “He always was a josher.”
But Mary shook her head.
“I know. I hear him talkin’ in his sleep. He swears and curses something awful, an’ grits his teeth. Listen to him now.”
Bert, his handsome face bitter and devil-may-care, had tilted his chair back against the wall and was singing
“Nobody loves a mil-yun-aire, Nobody likes his looks, Nobody’ll share his slightest care, He classes with thugs and crooks.”
Tom was saying something about reasonableness and justice, and Bert ceased from singing to catch him up.
“Justice, eh? Another pipe-dream. I’ll show you where the working class gets justice. You remember Forbes—J. Alliston Forbes—wrecked the Alta California Trust Company an’ salted down two cold millions. I saw him yesterday, in a big hell-bent automobile. What’d he get? Eight years’ sentence. How long did he serve? Less’n two years. Pardoned out on account of ill health. Ill hell! We’ll be dead an’ rotten before he kicks the bucket. Here. Look out this window. You see the back of that house with the broken porch rail. Mrs. Danaker lives there. She takes in washin’. Her old man was killed on the railroad. Nitsky on damages—contributory negligence, or fellow-servant-something-or-other flimflam. That’s what the courts handed her. Her boy, Archie, was sixteen. He was on the road, a regular road-kid. He blew into Fresno an’ rolled a drunk. Do you want to know how much he got? Two dollars and eighty cents. Get that?—Two-eighty. And what did the alfalfa judge hand’m? Fifty years. He’s served eight of it already in San Quentin. And he’ll go on serving it till he croaks. Mrs. Danaker says he’s bad with consumption—caught it inside, but she ain’t got the pull to get’m pardoned. Archie the Kid steals two dollars an’ eighty cents from a drunk and gets fifty years. J. Alliston Forbes sticks up the Alta Trust for two millions en’ gets less’n two years. Who’s country is this anyway? Yourn an’ Archie the Kid’s? Guess again. It’s J. Alliston Forbes’—Oh:
“Nobody likes a mil-yun-aire, Nobody likes his looks, Nobody’ll share his slightest care, He classes with thugs and crooks.”
Mary, at the sink, where Saxon was just finishing the last dish, untied Saxon’s apron and kissed her with the sympathy that women alone feel for each other under the shadow of maternity.
“Now you sit down, dear. You mustn’t tire yourself, and it’s a long way to go yet. I’ll get your sewing for you, and you can listen to the men talk. But don’t listen to Bert. He’s crazy.”
Saxon sewed and listened, and Bert’s face grew bleak and bitter as he contemplated the baby clothes in her lap.
“There you go,” he blurted out, “bringin’ kids into the world when you ain’t got any guarantee you can feed em.
“You must a-had a souse last night,” Tom grinned.
Bert shook his head.
“Aw, what’s the use of gettin’ grouched?” Billy cheered. “It’s a pretty good country.”
“It WAS a pretty good country,” Bert replied, “when we was all Mohegans. But not now. We’re jiggerooed. We’re hornswoggled. We’re backed to a standstill. We’re double-crossed to a fare-you-well. My folks fought for this country. So did yourn, all of you. We freed the niggers, killed the Indians, an starved, an’ froze, an’ sweat, an’ fought. This land looked good to us. We cleared it, an’ broke it, an’ made the roads, an’ built the cities. And there was plenty for everybody. And we went on fightin’ for it. I had two uncles killed at Gettysburg. All of us was mixed up in that war. Listen to Saxon talk any time what her folks went through to get out here an’ get ranches, an’ horses, an’ cattle, an’ everything. And they got ‘em. All our folks’ got ‘em, Mary’s, too—”
“And if they’d ben smart they’d a-held on to them,” she interpolated.
“Sure thing,” Bert continued. “That’s the very point. We’re the losers. We’ve ben robbed. We couldn’t mark cards, deal from the bottom, an’ ring in cold decks like the others. We’re the white folks that failed. You see, times changed, and there was two kinds of us, the lions and the plugs. The plugs only worked, the lions only gobbled. They gobbled the farms, the mines, the factories, an’ now they’ve gobbled the government. We’re the white folks an’ the children of white folks, that was too busy being good to be smart. We’re the white folks that lost out. We’re the ones that’s ben skinned. D’ye get me?”
“You’d make a good soap-boxer,” Tom commended, “if only you’d get the kinks straightened out in your reasoning.”
“It sounds all right, Bert,” Billy said, “only it ain’t. Any man can get rich to-day—”
“Or be president of the United States,” Bert snapped. “Sure thing—if he’s got it in him. Just the same I ain’t heard you makin’ a noise like a millionaire or a president. Why? You ain’t got it in you. You’re a bonehead. A plug. That’s why. Skiddoo for you. Skiddoo for all of us.”
At the table, while they ate, Tom talked of the joys of farm-life he had known as a boy and as a young man, and confided that it was his dream to go and take up government land somewhere as his people had done before him. Unfortunately, as he explained, Sarah was set, so that the dream must remain a dream.
“It’s all in the game,” Billy sighed. “It’s played to rules. Some one has to get knocked out, I suppose.”
A little later, while Bert was off on a fresh diatribe, Billy became aware that he was making comparisons. This house was not like his house. Here was no satisfying atmosphere. Things seemed to run with a jar. He recollected that when they arrived the breakfast dishes had not yet been washed. With a man’s general obliviousness of household affairs, he had not noted details; yet it had been borne in on him, all morning, in a myriad ways, that Mary was not the housekeeper Saxon was. He glanced proudly across at her, and felt the spur of an impulse to leave his seat, go around, and embrace her. She was a wife. He remembered her dainty undergarmenting, and on the instant, into his brain, leaped the image of her so appareled, only to be shattered by Bert.
“Hey, Bill, you seem to think I’ve got a grouch. Sure thing. I have. You ain’t had my experiences. You’ve always done teamin’ an’ pulled down easy money prizefightin’. You ain’t known hard times. You ain’t ben through strikes. You ain’t had to take care of an old mother an’ swallow dirt on her account. It wasn’t until after she died that I could rip loose an’ take or leave as I felt like it.
“Take that time I tackled the Niles Electric an’ see what a work-plug gets handed out to him. The Head Cheese sizes me up, pumps me a lot of questions, an’ gives me an application blank. I make it out, payin’ a dollar to a doctor they sent me to for a health certificate. Then I got to go to a picture garage an’ get my mug taken for the Niles Electric rogues’ gallery. And I cough up another dollar for the mug. The Head Squirt takes the blank, the health certificate, and the mug, an’ fires more questions. DID I BELONG TO A LABOR UNION?—ME? Of course I told’m the truth I guess nit. I needed the job. The grocery wouldn’t give me any more tick, and there was my mother.
“Huh, thinks I, here’s where I’m a real carman. Back platform for me, where I can pick up the fancy skirts. Nitsky. Two dollars, please. Me—my two dollars. All for a pewter badge. Then there was the uniform—nineteen fifty, and get it anywhere else for fifteen. Only that was to be paid out of my first month. And then five dollars in change in my pocket, my own money. That was the rule.—I borrowed that five from Tom Donovan, the policeman. Then what? They worked me for two weeks without pay, breakin’ me in.”
“Did you pick up any fancy skirts?” Saxon queried teasingly.
Bert shook his head glumly.
“I only worked a month. Then we organized, and they busted our union higher’n a kite.”
“And you boobs in the shops will be busted the same way if you go out on strike,” Mary informed him.
“That’s what I’ve ben tellin’ you all along,” Bert replied. “We ain’t got a chance to win.”
“Then why go out?” was Saxon’s question.
He looked at her with lackluster eyes for a moment, then answered
“Why did my two uncles get killed at Gettysburg?”