The Valley of the Moon by Jack London
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 ventnred.
"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.