| The Valley of the Moon, by Jack London.
BOOK I, CHAPTER 1
"You hear me, Saxon? Come on along. What if it is the
Bricklayers? I'll have gentlemen friends there, and so'll you.
The Al Vista band'll be along, an' you know it plays heavenly.
An' you just love dancin'---"
Twenty feet away, a stout, elderly woman interrupted the girl's
persuasions. The elderly woman's back was turned, and the
back-loose, bulging, and misshapen--began a convulsive heaving.
"Gawd!" she cried out. "O Gawd!"
She flung wild glances, like those of an entrapped animal, up and
down the big whitewashed room that panted with heat and that was
thickly humid with the steam that sizzled from the damp cloth
under the irons of the many ironers. From the girls and women
near her, all swinging irons steadily but at high pace, came
quick glances, and labor efficiency suffered to the extent of a
score of suspended or inadequate movements. The elderly woman's
cry had caused a tremor of money-loss to pass among the
piece-work ironers of fancy starch.
She gripped herself and her iron with a visible effort, and
dabbed futilely at the frail, frilled garment on the board under
"I thought she'd got'em again--didn't you?" the girl said.
"It's a shame, a women of her age, and . . . condition," Saxon
answered, as she frilled a lace ruffle with a hot fluting-iron.
Her movements were delicate, safe, and swift, and though her face
was wan with fatigue and exhausting heat, there was no slackening
in her pace.
"An' her with seven, an' two of 'em in reform school," the girl
at the next board sniffed sympathetic agreement. "But you just
got to come to Weasel Park to-morrow, Saxon. The Bricklayers' is
always lively--tugs-of-war, fat-man races, real Irish jiggin',
an' . . . an' everything. An' The floor of the pavilion's swell."
But the elderly woman brought another interruption. She dropped
her iron on the shirtwaist, clutched at the board, fumbled it,
caved in at the knees and hips, and like a half-empty sack
collapsed on the floor, her long shriek rising in the pent room
to the acrid smell of scorching cloth. The women at the boards
near to her scrambled, first, to the hot iron to save the cloth,
and then to her, while the forewoman hurried belligerently down
the aisle. The women farther away continued unsteadily at their
work, losing movements to the extent of a minute's set-back to
the totality of the efficiency of the fancy-starch room.
"Enough to kill a dog," the girl muttered, thumping her iron down
on its rest with reckless determination. "Workin' girls' life
ain't what it's cracked up. Me to quit--that's what I'm comin'
"Mary!" Saxon uttered the other's name with a reproach so
profound that she was compelled to rest her own iron for emphasis
and so lose a dozen movements.
Mary flashed a half-frightened look across.
"I didn't mean it, Saxon," she whimpered. "Honest, I didn't. I
wouldn't never go that way. But I leave it to you, if a day like
this don't get on anybody's nerves. Listen to that!"
The stricken woman, on her back, drumming her heels on the floor,
was shrieking persistently and monotonously, like a mechanical
siren. Two women, clutching her under the arms, were dragging her
down the aisle. She drummed and shrieked the length of it. The
door opened, and a vast, muffled roar of machinery burst in; and
in the roar of it the drumming and the shrieking were drowned ere
the door swung shut. Remained of the episode only the scorch of
cloth drifting ominously through the air.
"It's sickenin'," said Mary.
And thereafter, for a long time, the many irons rose and fell,
the pace of the room in no wise diminished; while the forewoman
strode the aisles with a threatening eye for incipient breakdown
and hysteria. Occasionally an ironer lost the stride for an
instant, gasped or sighed, then caught it up again with weary
determination. The long summer day waned, but not the heat, and
under the raw flare of electric light the work went on.
By nine o'clock the first women began to go home. The mountain of
fancy starch had been demolished--all save the few remnants, here
and there, on the boards, where the ironers still labored.
Saxon finished ahead of Mary, at whose board she paused on the
"Saturday night an' another week gone," Mary said mournfully, her
young cheeks pallid and hollowed, her black eyes blue-shadowed
and tired. "What d'you think you've made, Saxon?"
"Twelve and a quarter," was the answer, just touched with pride
"And I'd a-made more if it wasn't for that fake bunch of
"My! I got to pass it to you," Mary congratulated. "You're a sure
fierce hustler--just eat it up. Me--I've only ten an' a half, an'
for a hard week . . . See you on the nine-forty. Sure now. We can
just fool around until the dancin' begins. A lot of my gentlemen
friends'll be there in the afternoon."
Two blocks from the laundry, where an arc-light showed a gang of
toughs on the corner, Saxon quickened her pace. Unconsciously her
face set and hardened as she passed. She did not catch the words
of the muttered comment, but the rough laughter it raised made
her guess and warmed her checks with resentful blood. Three
blocks more, turning once to left and once to right, she walked
on through the night that was already growing cool. On either
side were workingmen's houses, of weathered wood, the ancient
paint grimed with the dust of years, conspicuous only for
cheapness and ugliness.
Dark it was, but she made no mistake, the familiar sag and
screeching reproach of the front gate welcome under her hand. She
went along the narrow walk to the rear, avoided the missing step
without thinking about it, and entered the kitchen, where a
solitary gas-jet flickered. She turned it up to the best of its
flame. It was a small room, not disorderly, because of lack of
furnishings to disorder it. The plaster, discolored by the steam
of many wash-days, was crisscrossed with cracks from the big
earthquake of the previous spring. The floor was ridged,
wide-cracked, and uneven, and in front of the stove it was worn
through and repaired with a five-gallon oil-can hammered flat and
double. A sink, a dirty roller-towel, several chairs, and a
wooden table completed the picture.
An apple-core crunched under her foot as she drew a chair to the
table. On the frayed oilcloth, a supper waited. She attempted the
cold beans, thick with grease, but gave them up, and buttered a
slice of bread.
The rickety house shook to a heavy, prideless tread, and through
the inner door came Sarah, middle-aged, lop-breasted,
hair-tousled, her face lined with care and fat petulance.
"Huh, it's you," she grunted a greeting. "I just couldn't keep
things warm. Such a day! I near died of the heat. An' little
Henry cut his lip awful. The doctor had to put four stitches in
Sarah came over and stood mountainously by the table.
"What's the matter with them beans?" she challenged.
"Nothing, only . . ." Saxon caught her breath and avoided the
threatened outburst. "Only I'm not hungry. It's been so hot all
day. It was terrible in the laundry."
Recklessly she took a mouthful of the cold tea that had been
steeped so long that it was like acid in her mouth, and
recklessly, under the eye of her sister-in-law, she swallowed it
and the rest of the cupful. She wiped her mouth on her
handkerchief and got up.
"I guess I'll go to bed."
"Wonder you ain't out to a dance," Sarah sniffed. "Funny, ain't
it, you come home so dead tired every night, an' yet any night in
the week you can get out an' dance unearthly hours."
Saxon started to speak, suppressed herself with tightened lips,
then lost control and blazed out. "Wasn't you ever young?"
Without waiting for reply, she turned to her bedroom, which
opened directly off the kitchen. It was a small room, eight by
twelve, and the earthquake had left its marks upon the plaster. A
bed and chair of cheap pine and a very ancient chest of drawers
constituted the furniture. Saxon had known this chest of drawers
all her life. The vision of it was woven into her earliest
recollections. She knew it had crossed the plains with her people
in a prairie schooner. It was of solid mahogany. One end was
cracked and dented from the capsize of the wagon in Rock Canyon.
A bullet-hole, plugged, in the face of the top drawer, told of
the fight with the Indians at Little Meadow. Of these happenings
her mother had told her; also had she told that the chest had
come with the family originally from England in a day even
earlier than the day on which George Washington was born.
Above the chest of drawers, on the wall, hung a small
looking-glass. Thrust under the molding were photographs of young
men and women, and of picnic groups wherein the young men, with
hats rakishly on the backs of their heads, encircled the girls
with their arms. Farther along on the wall were a colored
calendar and numerous colored advertisements and sketches torn
out of magazines. Most of these sketches were of horses. From the
gas-fixture hung a tangled bunch of well-scribbled dance
Saxon started to take off her hat, but suddenly sat down on the
bed. She sobbed softly, with considered repression, but the
weak-latched door swung noiselessly open, and she was startled by
her sister-in-law's voice.
"NOW what's the matter with you? If you didn't like them beans--"
"No, no," Saxon explained hurriedly. "I'm just tired, that's all,
and my feet hurt. I wasn't hungry, Sarah. I'm just beat out."
"If you took care of this house," came the retort, "an' cooked
an' baked, an' washed, an' put up with what I put up, you'd have
something to be beat out about. You've got a snap, you have. But
just wait." Sarah broke off to cackle gloatingly. "Just wait,
that's all, an' you'll be fool enough to get married some day,
like me, an' then you'll get yours--an' it'll be brats, an'
brats, an' brats, an' no more dancin', an' silk stockin's, an'
three pairs of shoes at one time. You've got a cinch-nobody to
think of but your own precious self--an' a lot of young hoodlums
makin' eyes at you an' tellin' you how beautiful your eyes are.
Huh! Some fine day you'll tie up to one of 'em, an' then, mebbe,
on occasion, you'll wear black eyes for a change."
"Don't say that, Sarah," Saxon protested. "My brother never laid
hands on you. You know that."
"No more he didn't. He never had the gumption. Just the same,
he's better stock than that tough crowd you run with, if he can't
make a livin' an' keep his wife in three pairs of shoes. Just the
same he's oodles better'n your bunch of hoodlums that no decent
woman'd wipe her one pair of shoes on. How you've missed trouble
this long is beyond me. Mebbe the younger generation is wiser in
such thins--I don't know. But I do know that a young woman that
has three pairs of shoes ain't thinkin' of anything but her own
enjoyment, an' she's goin' to get hers, I can tell her that much.
When I was a girl there wasn't such doin's. My mother'd taken the
hide off me if I done the things you do. An' she was right, just
as everything in the world is wrong now. Look at your brother,
a-runnin' around to socialist meetin's, an' chewin' hot air, an'
diggin' up extra strike dues to the union that means so much
bread out of the mouths of his children, instead of makin' good
with his bosses. Why, the dues he pays would keep me in seventeen
pairs of shoes if I was nannygoat enough to want 'em. Some day,
mark my words, he'll get his time, an' then what'll we do?
What'll I do, with five mouths to feed an' nothin' comin' in?"
She stopped, out of breath but seething with the tirade yet to
"Oh, Sarah, please won't you shut the door?" Saxon pleaded.
The door slammed violently, and Saxon, ere she fell to crying
again, could hear her sister-in-law lumbering about the kitchen
and talking loudly to herself.Next chapter |
The Valley of the Moon, by Jack London. CHAPTER II CHAPTER III CHAPTER IV CHAPTER V CHAPTER VI CHAPTER VII CHAPTER VIII CHAPTER IX CHAPTER X CHAPTER XI CHAPTER XII CHAPTER XIII CHAPTER XIV CHAPTER XV BOOK II, CHAPTER I CHAPTER II CHAPTER III CHAPTER IV CHAPTER V CHAPTER VI CHAPTER VII CHAPTER VIII CHAPTER IX CHAPTER X CHAPTER XI CHAPTER XII CHAPTER XIII CHAPTER XIV CHAPTER XV CHAPTER XVI CHAPTER XVII CHAPTER XVIII CHAPTER XIX BOOK III, CHAPTER I CHAPTER II CHAPTER III CHAPTER IV CHAPTER V CHAPTER VI CHAPTER VII CHAPTER VIII CHAPTER IX CHAPTER X CHAPTER XI CHAPTER XII CHAPTER XIII CHAPTER XIV CHAPTER XV CHAPTER XVI CHAPTER XVII CHAPTER XVIII CHAPTER XIX CHAPTER XX CHAPTER XXI CHAPTER XXII
(Sunday, 24 January, 2021.)