The Valley of the Moon/Book I/Chapter V
At eight o'clock the Al Vista band played "Home, Sweet Home," and, following the hurried rush through the twilight to the picnic train, the four managed to get double seats facing each other. When the aisles and platforms were packed by the hilarious crowd, the train pulled out for the short run from the suburbs into Oakland. All the car was singing a score of songs at once, and Bert, his head pillowed on Mary's breast with her arms around him, started "On the Banks of the Wabash." And he sang the song through, undeterred by the bedlam of two general fights, one on the adjacent platform, the other at the opposite end of the car, both of which were finally subdued by special policemen to the screams of women and the crash of glass.
Billy sang a lugubrious song of many stanzas about a cowboy, the refrain of which was, "Bury me out on the lone pr-rairie."
"That's one you never heard before; my father used to sing it," he told Saxon, who was glad that it was ended.
She had discovered the first flaw in him. He was tonedeaf. Not once had he been on the key.
"I don't sing often," he added.
"You bet your sweet life he don't," Bert exclaimed. "His friends'd kill him if he did."
"They all make fun of my singin'," he complained to Saxon. "Honest, now, do you find it as rotten as all that?"
"It's . . . it's maybe flat a bit," she admitted reluctantly.
"It don't sound flat to me," he protested. "It's a regular josh on me. I'll bet Bert put you up to it. You sing something now, Saxon. I bet you sing good. I can tell it from lookin' at you."
She began "When the Harvest Days Are Over." Bert and Mary joined in; but when Billy attempted to add his voice he was dissuaded by a shin-kick from Bert. Saxon sang in a clear, true soprano, thin but sweet, and she was aware that she was singing to Billy.
"Now THAT is singing what is," he proclaimed, when she had finished. "Sing it again. Aw, go on. You do it just right. It's great."
His hand slipped to hers and gathered it in, and as she sang again she felt the tide of his strength flood warmingly through her.
"Look at 'em holdin' hands," Bert jeered. "Just a-holdin' hands like they was afraid. Look at Mary an' me. Come on an' kick in, you cold-feets. Get together. If you don't, it'll look suspicious. I got my suspicions already. You're framin' somethin' up."
There was no mistaking his innuendo, and Saxon felt her cheeks flaming.
"Get onto yourself, Bert," Billy reproved.
"Shut up!" Mary added the weight of her indignation. "You're awfully raw, Bert Wanhope, an' I won't have anything more to do with you--there!"
She withdrew her arms and shoved him away, only to receive him forgivingly half a dozen seconds afterward.
"Come on, the four of us," Bert went on irrepressibly. "The night's young. Let's make a time of it--Pabst's Cafe first, and then some. What you say, Bill? What you say, Saxon? Mary's game."
Saxon waited and wondered, half sick with apprehension of this man beside her whom she had known so short a time.
"Nope," he said slowly. "I gotta get up to a hard day's work to-morrow, and I guess the girls has got to, too."
Saxon forgave him his tone-deafness. Here was the kind of man she always had known existed. It was for some such man that she had waited. She was twenty-two, and her first marriage offer had come when she was sixteen. The last had occurred only the month before, from the foreman of the washing-room, and he had been good and kind, but not young. But this one beside her--he was strong and kind and good, and YOUNG. She was too young herself not to desire youth. There would have been rest from fancy starch with the foreman, but there would have been no warmth. But this man beside her. . . . She caught herself on the verge involuntarily of pressing his hand that held hers.
"No, Bert, don't tease he's right," Mary was saying. "We've got to get some sleep. It's fancy starch to-morrow, and all day on our feet."
It came to Saxon with a chill pang that she was surely older than Billy. She stole glances at the smoothness of his face, and the essential boyishness of him, so much desired, shocked her. Of course he would marry some girl years younger than himself, than herself. How old was he? Could it be that he was too young for her? As he seemed to grow inaccessible, she was drawn toward him more compellingly. He was so strong, so gentle. She lived over the events of the day. There was no flaw there. He had considered her and Mary, always. And he had torn the program up and danced only with her. Surely he had liked her, or he would not have done it.
She slightly moved her hand in his and felt the harsh contact of his teamster callouses. The sensation was exquisite. He, too, moved his hand, to accommodate the shift of hers, and she waited fearfully. She did not want him to prove like other men, and she could have hated him had he dared to take advantage of that slight movement of her fingers and put his arm around her. He did not, and she flamed toward him. There was fineness in him. He was neither rattle-brained, like Bert, nor coarse like other men she had encountered. For she had had experiences, not nice, and she had been made to suffer by the lack of what was termed chivalry, though she, in turn, lacked that word to describe what she divined and desired.
And he was a prizefighter. The thought of it almost made her gasp. Yet he answered not at all to her conception of a prizefighter. But, then, he wasn't a prizefighter. He had said he was not. She resolved to ask him about it some time if . . . if he took her out again. Yet there was little doubt of that, for when a man danced with one girl a whole day he did not drop her immediately. Almost she hoped that he was a prizefighter. There was a delicious tickle of wickedness about it. Prizefighters were such terrible and mysterious men. In so far as they were out of the ordinary and were not mere common workingmen such as carpenters and laundrymen, they represented romance. Power also they represented. They did not work for bosses, but spectacularly and magnificently, with their own might, grappled with the great world and wrung splendid living from its reluctant hands. Some of them even owned automobiles and traveled with a retinue of trainers and servants. Perhaps it had been only Billy's modesty that made him say he had quit fighting. And yet, there were the callouses on his hands. That showed he had quit.