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The Valley of the Moon (Book I Chapter14)

2006-08-22 19:12

  Book I Chapter XIV

  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 he 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 gueas 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.”

  Saxon waited.

  “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?”

  “Six dollars.”

  “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 evor 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 bullding for the hats and lunch baskets of the others. Saxon was one of the handful that returned and worked till six o'clock.

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