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The Valley of the Moon (Book II Chapter17)

2006-08-22 19:18

  Book II Chapter XVII

  She slept all night, without stirring, without dreaming, and awoke naturally and, for the first time in weeks, refreshed. She felt her old self, as if some depressing weight had been lifted, or a shadow had been swept away from between her and the sun. Her head was clear. The seeming iron band that had pressed it so hard was gone. She was cheerful. She even caught herself humming aloud as she divided the fish into messes for Mrs. Olsen, Maggie Donahue, and herself. She enjoyed her gossip with each of them, and, returning home, plunged joyfully into the task of putting the neglected house in order. She sang as she worked, and ever as she sang the magic words of the boy danced and sparkled among the notes: Oakland is just a place to start from.

  Everything was clear as print. Her and Billy's problem was as simple as an arithmetic problem at school: to carpet a room so many feet long, so many feet wide, to paper a room so many feet high, so many feet around. She had been sick in her head, she had had strange lapses, she had been irresponsible. Very well. All this had been because of her troubles——troubles in which she had had no hand in the making. Billy's case was hers precisely. He had behaved strangely because he had been irresponsible. And all their troubles were the troubles of the trap. Oakland was the trap. Oakland was a good place to start from.

  She reviewed the events of her married life. The strikes and the hard times had caused everything. If it had not been for the strike of the shopmen and the fight in her front yard, she would not have lost her baby. If Billy had not been made desperate by the idleness and the hopeless fight of the teamsters, he would not have taken to drinking. If they had not been hard up, they would not have taken a lodger, and Billy would not be in jail.

  Her mind was made up. The city was no place for her and Billy, no place for love nor for babies. The way out was simple. They would leave Oakland. It was the stupid that remained and bowed their heads to fate. But she and Billy were not stupid. They would not bow their heads. They would go forth and face fate.——Where, she did not know. But that would come. The world was large. Beyond the encircling hills, out through the Golden Gate, somewhere they would find what they desired. The boy had been wrong in one thing. She was not tied to Oakland, even if she was married. The world was free to her and Billy as it had been free to the wandering generations before them. It was only the stupid who had been left behind everywhere in the race's wandering. The strong had gone on. Well, she and Billy were strong. They would go on, over the brown Contra Costa hills or out through the Golden Gate.

  The day before Billy's release Saxon completed her meager preparations to receive him. She was without money, and, except for her resolve not to offend Billy in that way again, she would have borrowed ferry fare from Maggie Donahue and journeyed to San Francisco to sell some of her personal pretties. As it was, with bread and potatoes and salted sardines in the house, she went out at the afternoon low tide and dug clams for a chowder. Also, she gathered a load of driftwood, and it was nine in the evening when she emerged from the marsh, on her shoulder a bundle of wood and a short-handled spade, in her free hand the pail of clams. She sought the darker side of the street at the corner and hurried across the zone of electric light to avoid detection by the neighbors. But a woman came toward her, looked sharply and stopped in front of her. It was Mary.

  “My God, Saxon!” she exclaimed. “Is it as bad as this?”

  Saxon looked at her old friend curiously, with a swift glance that sketched all the tragedy. Mary was thinner, though there was more color in her cheeks——color of which Saxon had her doubts. Mary's bright eyes were handsomer, larger——too large, too feverish bright, too restless. She was well dressed——too well dressed; and she was suffering from nerves. She turned her head apprehensively to glance into the darkness behind her.

  “My God!” Saxon breathed. “And you. ……” She shut her lips, then began anew. “Come along to the house,” she said.

  “If you're ashamed to be seen with me——” Mary blurted, with one of her old quick angers.

  “No, no,” Saxon disclaimed. “It's the driftwood and the clams. I don't want the neighbors to know. Come along.”

  “No; I can't, Saxon. I'd like to, but I can't. I've got to catch the next train to F'risco. I've ben waitin' around. I knocked at your back door. But the house was dark. Billy's still in, ain't he?”

  “Yes, he gets out to-morrow.”

  “I read about it in the papers,” Mary went on hurriedly, looking behind her. “I was in Stockton when it happened.” She turned upon Saxon almost savagely. “You don't blame me, do you? I just couldn't go back to work after bein' married. I was sick of work. Played out, I guess, an' no good anyway. But if you only knew how I hated the laundry even before I got married. It's a dirty world. You don't dream. Saxon, honest to God, you could never guess a hundredth part of its dirtiness. Oh, I wish I was dead, I wish I was dead an' out of it all. Listen——no, I can't now. There's the down train puffin' at Adeline. I'll have to run for it. Can I come——”

  “Aw, get a move on, can't you?” a man's voice interrupted.

  Behind her the speaker had partly emerged from the darkness. No workingman, Saxon could see that——lower in the world scale, despite his good clothes, than any workingman.

  “I'm comin', if you'll only wait a second,” Mary placated.

  And by her answer and its accents Saxon knew that Mary was afraid of this man who prowled on the rim of light.

  Mary turned to her.

  “I got to beat it; good bye,” she said, fumbling in the palm of her glove.

  She caught Saxon's free hand, and Saxon felt a small hot coin pressed into it. She tried to resist, to force it back.

  “No, no,” Mary pleaded. “For old times. You can do as much for me some day. I'll see you again. Good bye.”

  Suddenly, sobbing, she threw her arms around Saxon's waist, crushing the feathers of her hat against the load of wood as she pressed her face against Saxon's breast. Then she tore herself away to arm's length, passionate, queering, and stood gazing at Saxon.

  “Aw, get a hustle, get a hustle,” came from the darkness the peremptory voice of the man.

  “Oh, Saxon!” Mary sobbed; and was gone.

  In the house, the lamp lighted, Saxon looked at the coin. It was a five-dollar piece——to her, a fortune. Then she thought of Mary, and of the man of whom she was afraid. Saxon registered another black mark against Oakland. Mary was one more destroyed. They lived only five years, on the average, Saxon had heard somewhere. She looked at the coin and tossed it into the kitchen sink. When she cleaned the clams, she heard the coin tinkle down the vent pipe.

  It was the thought of Billy, next morning, that led Saxon to go under the sink, unscrew the cap to the catchtrap, and rescue the five-dollar piece. Prisoners were not well fed, she had been told; and the thought of placing clams and dry bread before Billy, after thirty days of prison fare, was too appalling for her to contemplate. She knew how he liked to spread his butter on thick, how he liked thick, rare steak fried on a dry hot pan, and how he liked coffee that was coffee and plenty of it.

  Not until after nine o'clock did Billy arrive, and she was dressed in her prettiest house gingham to meet him. She peeped on him as he came slowly up the front steps, and she would have run out to him except for a group of neighborhood children who were staring from across the street. The door opened before him as his hand reached for the knob, and, inside, he closed it by backing against it, for his arms were filled with Saxon. No, he had not had breakfast, nor did he want any now that he had her. He had only stopped for a shave. He had stood the barber off, and he had walked all the way from the City Hall because of lack of the nickel carfare. But he'd like a bath most mighty well, and a change of clothes. She mustn't come near him until he was clean.

  When all this was accomplished, he sat in the kitchen and watched her cook, noting the driftwood she put in the stove and asking about it. While she moved about, she told how she had gathered the wood, how she had managed to live and not be beholden to the union, and by the time they were seated at the table she was telling him about her meeting with Mary the night before. She did not mention the five dollars.

  Billy stopped chewing the first mouthful of steak. His expression frightened her. He spat the meat out on his plate.

  “You got the money to buy the meat from her,” he accused slowly. “You had no money, no more tick with the butcher, yet here's meat. Am I right?”

  Saxon could only bend her head.

  The terrifying, ageless look had come into his face, the bleak and passionless glaze into his eyes, which she had first seen on the day at Weasel Park when he had fought with the three Irishmen.

  “What else did you buy?” he demanded——not roughly, not angrily, but with the fearful coldness of a rage that words could not express.

  To her surprise, she had grown calm. What did it matter? It was merely what one must expect, living in Oakland——something to be left behind when Oakland was a thing behind, a place started from.

  “The coffee,” she answered. “And the butter.”

  He emptied his plate of meat and her plate into the frying pan, likewise the roll of butter and the slice on the table, and on top he poured the contents of the coffee canister. All this he carried into the back yard and dumped in the garbage can. The coffee pot he emptied into the sink. “How much of the money you got left?” he next wanted to know.

  Saxon had already gone to her purse and taken it out.

  “Three dollars and eighty cents,” she counted, handing it to him. “I paid forty-five cents for the steak.”

  He ran his eye over the money, counted it, and went to the front door. She heard the door open and close, and knew that the silver had been flung into the street. When he came back to the kitchen, Saxon was already serving him fried potatoes on a clean plate.

  “Nothin's too good for the Robertses,” he said; “but, by God, that sort of truck is too high for my stomach. It's so high it stinks.”

  He glanced at the fried potatoes, the fresh slice of dry bread, and the glass of water she was placing by his plate.

  “It's all right,” she smiled, as he hesitated. “There's nothing left that's tainted.”

  He shot a swift glance at her face, as if for sarcasm, then sighed and sat down. Almost immediately he was up again and holding out his arms to her.

  “I'm goin' to eat in a minute, but I want to talk to you first,” he said, sitting down and holding her closely. “Besides, that water ain't like coffee. Gettin' cold won't spoil it none. Now, listen. You're the only one I got in this world. You wasn't afraid of me an' what I just done, an' I'm glad of that. Now we'll forget all about Mary. I got charity enough. I'm just as sorry for her as you. I'd do anything for her. I'd wash her feet for her like Christ did. I'd let her eat at my table, an' sleep under my roof. But all that ain't no reason I should touch anything she's earned. Now forget her. It's you an' me, Saxon, only you an' me an' to hell with the rest of the world. Nothing else counts. You won't never have to be afraid of me again. Whisky an' I don't mix very well, so I'm goin' to cut whisky out. I've been clean off my nut, an' I ain't treated you altogether right. But that's all past. It won't never happen again. I'm goin' to start out fresh.

  “Now take this thing. I oughtn't to acted so hasty. But I did. I oughta talked it over. But I didn't. My damned temper got the best of me, an' you know I got one. If a fellow can keep his temper in boxin', why he can keep it in bein' married, too. Only this got me too sudden-like. It's something I can't stomach, that I never could stomach. An' you wouldn't want me to any more'n I'd want you to stomach something you just couldn't.”

  She sat up straight on his knees and looked at him, afire with an idea.

  “You mean that, Billy?”

  “Sure I do.”

  “Then I'll tell you something I can't stomach any more. I'll die if I have to.”

  “Well?” he questioned, after a searching pause.

  “It's up to you,” she said.

  “Then fire away.”

  “You don't know what you're letting yourself in for,” she warned. “Maybe you'd better back out before it's too late.”

  He shook his head stubbornly.

  “What you don't want to stomach you ain't goin' to stomach. Let her go.”

  “First,” she commenced, “no more slugging of scabs.”

  His mouth opened, but he checked the involuntary protest.

  “And, second, no more Oakland.”

  “I don't get that last.”

  “No more Oakland. No more living in Oakland. I'll die if I have to. It's pull up stakes and get out.”

  He digested this slowly.

  “Where?” he asked finally.

  “Anywhere. Everywhere. Smoke a cigarette and think it over.”

  He shook his head and studied her.

  “You mean that?” he asked at length.

  “I do. I want to chuck Oakland just as hard as you wanted to chuck the beefsteak, the coffee, and the butter.”

  She could see him brace himself. She could feel him brace his very body ere he answered.

  “All right then, if that's what you want. We'll quit Oakland. We'll quit it cold. God damn it, anyway, it never done nothin' for me, an' I guess I'm husky enough to scratch for us both anywheres. An' now that's settled, just tell me what you got it in for Oakland for.”

  And she told him all she had thought out, marshaled all the facts in her indictment of Oakland, omitting nothing, not even her last visit to Doctor Hentley's office nor Billy's drinking. He but drew her closer and proclaimed his resolves anew. The time passed. The fried potatoes grew cold, and the stove went out.

  When a pause came, Billy stood up, still holding her. He glanced at the fried potatoes.

  “Stone cold,” he said, then turned to her. “Come on. Put on your prettiest. We're goin' up town for something to eat an' to celebrate. I guess we got a celebration comin', seein' as we're going to pull up stakes an' pull our freight from the old burg. An' we won't have to walk. I can borrow a dime from the barber, an' I got enough junk to hock for a blowout.”

  His junk proved to be several gold medals won in his amateur days at boxing tournaments. Once up town and in the pawnshop, Uncle Sam seemed thoroughly versed in the value of the medals, and Billy jingled a handful of silver in his pocket as they walked out.

  He was as hilarious as a boy, and she joined in his good spirits. When he stopped at a corner cigar store to buy a sack of Bull Durham, he changed his mind and bought Imperials.

  “Oh, I'm a regular devil,” he laughed. “Nothing's too good to-day——not even tailor-made smokes. An' no chop houses nor Jap joints for you an' me. It's Barnum's.”

  They strolled to the restaurant at Seventh and Broadway where they had had their wedding supper.

  “Let's make believed we're not married,” Saxon suggested.

  “Sure,” he agreed, “——an' take a private room so as the waiter'll have to knock on the door each time he comes in.”

  Saxon demurred at that.

  “It will be too expensive, Billy. You'll have to tip him for the knocking. We'll take the regular dining room.”

  “Order anything you want,” Billy said largely, when they were seated. “Here's family porterhouse, a dollar an' a half. What d'ye say?”

  “And hash-browned,” she abetted, “and coffee extra special, and some oysters first——I want to compare them with the rock oysters.”

  Billy nodded, and looked up from the bill of fare.

  “Here's mussels bordelay. Try an order of them, too, an' see if they beat your Rock Wall ones.”

  “Why not?” Saxon cried, her eyes dancing. “The world is ours. We're just travelers through this town.”

  “Yep, that's the stuff,” Billy muttered absently. He was looking at the theater column. He lifted his eyes from the paper. “Matinee at Bell's. We can get reserved seats for a quarter.——Doggone the luck anyway!”

  His exclamation was so aggrieved and violent that it brought alarm into her eyes.

  “If I'd only thought,” he regretted, “we could a-gone to the Forum for grub. That's the swell joint where fellows like Roy Blanchard hangs out, blowin' the money we sweat for them.”

  They bought reserved tickets at Bell's Theater; but it was too early for the performance, and they went down Broadway and into the Electric Theater to while away the time on a moving picture show. A cowboy film was run off, and a French comic; then came a rural drama situated somewhere in the Middle West. It began with a farm yard scene. The sun blazed down on a corner of a barn and on a rail fence where the ground lay in the mottled shade of large trees overhead. There were chickens, ducks, and turkeys, scratching, waddling, moving about. A big sow, followed by a roly-poly litter of seven little ones, marched majestically through the chickens, rooting them out of the way. The hens, in turn, took it out on the little porkers, pecking them when they strayed too far from their mother. And over the top rail a horse looked drowsily on, ever and anon, at mathematically precise intervals, switching a lazy tail that flashed high lights in the sunshine.

  “It's a warm day and there are flies——can't you just feel it?” Saxon whispered.

  “Sure. An' that horse's tail! It's the most natural ever. Gee! I bet he knows the trick of clampin' it down over the reins. I wouldn't wonder if his name was Iron Tail.”

  A dog ran upon the scene. The mother pig turned tail and with short ludicrous jumps, followed by her progeny and pursued by the dog, fled out of the film. A young girl came on, a sunbonnet hanging down her back, her apron caught up in front and filled with grain which she threw to the buttering fowls. Pigeons flew down from the top of the film and joined in the scrambling feast. The dog returned, wading scarcely noticed among the feathered creatures, to wag his tail and laugh up at the girl. And, behind, the horse nodded over the rail and switched on. A young man entered, his errand immediately known to an audience educated in moving pictures. But Saxon had no eyes for the love-making, the pleading forcefulness, the shy reluctance, of man and maid. Ever her gaze wandered back to the chickens, to the mottled shade under the trees, to the warm wall of the barn, to the sleepy horse with its ever recurrent whisk of tail

  She drew closer to Billy, and her hand, passed around his arm, sought his hand.

  “Oh, Billy,” she sighed. “I'd just die of happiness in a place like that.” And, when the film was ended. “We got lots of time for Bell's. Let's stay and see that one over again.”

  They sat through a repetition of the performance, and when the farm yard scene appeared, the longer Saxon looked at it the more it affected her. And this time she took in further details. She saw fields beyond, rolling hills in the background, and a cloud-flecked sky. She identified some of the chickens, especially an obstreperous old hen who resented the thrust of the sow's muzzle, particularly pecked at the little pigs, and laid about her with a vengeance when the grain fell. Saxon looked back across the fields to the hills and sky, breathing the spaciousness of it, the freedom, the content. Tears welled into her eyes and she wept silently, happily.

  “I know a trick that'd fix that old horse if he ever clamped his tail down on me,” Billy whispered

  “Now I know where we're going when we leave Oakland,” she informed him.



  He looked at her, and followed her gaze to the screen. “Oh,” he said, and cogitated. “An' why shouldn't we?” he added.

  “Oh, Billy, will you?”

  Her lips trembled in her eagerness, and her whisper broke and was almost inaudible “Sure,” he said. It was his day of royal largess.

  “What you want is yourn, an' I'll scratch my fingers off for it. An' I've always had a hankerin' for the country myself. Say! I've known horses like that to sell for half the price, an' I can sure cure 'em of the habit.”

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