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," be 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 equivoeated; 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 hia 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 everyhody. 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?"