The Valley of the Moon by Jack London Book 3 Chapter 3 Part 2 Audio Book
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The widow Mrs. Mortimer, now a successful San Jose-area farmer, has effected a radical change from her former life as head librarian of the Doncaster Library. She appears in Chapter 22, where she pleasantly receives on-the-road couple Billy and Saxon Roberts, who are fleeing labor strife in Oakland, California. She impresses the young couple with her business acumen and resourcefulness before they leave her behind.
Mrs. Mortimer is of interest chiefly because she is probably based, at least in part, on Jack London's Oakland mentor, librarian Ina Coolbrith.
It is forty miles from Oakland to San Jose, and Saxon and Billy accomplished it in three easy days. No more obliging and angrily garrulous linemen were encountered, and few were the opportunities for conversation with chance wayfarers. Numbers of tramps, carrying rolls of blankets, were met, traveling both north and south on the county road; and from talks with them Saxon quickly learned that they knew little or nothing about farming. They were mostly old men, feeble or besotted, and all they knew was work-where jobs might be good, where jobs had been good; but the places they mentioned were always a long way off. One thing she did glean from them, and that was that the district she and Billy were passing through was "small-farmer" country in which labor was rarely hired, and that when it was it generally was Portuguese.
The farmers themselves were unfriendly. They drove by Billy and Saxon, often with empty wagons, but never invited them to ride. When chance offered and Saxon did ask questions, they looked her over curiously, or suspiciously, and gave ambiguous and facetious answers.
"They ain't Americans, damn them," Billy fretted. "Why, in the old days everybody was friendly to everybody."
But Saxon remembered her last talk with her brother.
"It's the spirit of the times, Billy. The spirit has changed. Besides, these people are too near. Wait till we get farther away from the cities, then we'll find them more friendly."
"A measly lot these ones are," he sneered.
"Maybe they've a right to be," she laughed. "For all you know, more than one of the scabs you've slugged were sons of theirs."
"If I could only hope so," Billy said fervently. "But I don't care if I owned ten thousand acres, any man hikin' with his blankets might be just as good a man as me, an' maybe better, for all I'd know. I'd give 'm the benefit of the doubt, anyway."
Billy asked for work, at first, indiscriminately, later, only at the larger farms. The unvarying reply was that there was no work. A few said there would be plowing after the first rains. Here and there, in a small way, dry plowing was going on. But in the main the farmers were waiting.
"But do you know how to plow?" Saxon asked Billy.
"No; but I guess it ain't much of a trick to turn. Besides, next man I see plowing I'm goin' to get a lesson from."
In the mid-afternoon of the second day his opportunity came. He climbed on top of the fence of a small field and watched an old man plow round and round it.
"Aw, shucks, just as easy as easy," Billy commented scornfully. "If an old codger like that can handle one plow, I can handle two."
"Go on and try it," Saxon urged.
"What's the good?"
"Cold feet," she jeered, but with a smiling face. "All you have to do is ask him. All he can do is say no. And what if he does? You faced the Chicago Terror twenty rounds without flinching."
"Aw, but it's different," he demurred, then dropped to the ground inside the fence. "Two to one the old geezer turns me down."
"No, he won't. Just tell him you want to learn, and ask him if he'll let you drive around a few times. Tell him it won't cost him anything."
"Huh! If he gets chesty I'll take his blamed plow away from him."
From the top of the fence, but too far away to hear, Saxon watched the colloquy. After several minutes, the lines were transferred to Billy's neck, the handles to his hands. Then the team started, and the old man, delivering a rapid fire of instructions, walked alongside of Billy. When a few turns had been made, the farmer crossed the plowed strip to Saxon, and joined her on the rail.
"He's plowed before, a little mite, ain't he?"
Saxon shook her head.
"Never in his life. But he knows how to drive horses."
"He showed he wasn't all greenhorn, an' he learns pretty quick." Here the farmer chuckled and cut himself a chew from a plug of tobacco. "I reckon he won't tire me out a-settin' here."
The unplowed area grew smaller and smaller, but Billy evinced no intention of quitting, and his audience on the fence was deep in conversation. Saxon's questions flew fast and furious, and she was not long in concluding that the old man bore a striking resemblance to the description the lineman had given of his father.
Billy persisted till the field was finished, and the old man invited him and Saxon to stop for the night. There was a disused outbuilding where they would find a small cook stove, he said, and also he would give them fresh milk. Further, if Saxon wanted to test HER desire for farming, she could try her hand on the cow.
The milking lesson did not prove as successful as Billy's plowing; but when he had mocked sufficiently, Saxon challenged him to try, and he failed as grievously as she. Saxon had eyes and questions for everything, and it did not take her long to realize that she was looking upon the other side of the farming shield. Farm and farmer were old-fashioned. There was no intensive cultivation. There was too much land too little farmed. Everything was slipshod. House and barn and outbuildings were fast falling into ruin. The front yard was weed-grown. There was no vegetable garden. The small orchard was old, sickly, and neglected. The trees were twisted, spindling, and overgrown with a gray moss. The sons and daughters were away in the cities, Saxon found out. One daughter had married a doctor, the other was a teacher in the state normal school; one son was a locomotive engineer, the second was an architect, and the third was a police court reporter in San Francisco. On occasion, the father said, they helped out the old folks.
"What do you think?" Saxon asked Billy as he smoked his after-supper cigarette.
His shoulders went up in a comprehensive shrug.
"Huh! That's easy. The old geezer's like his orchard-covered with moss. It's plain as the nose on your face, after San Leandro, that he don't know the first thing. An' them horses. It'd be a charity to him, an' a savin' of money for him, to take 'em out an' shoot 'em both. You bet you don't see the Porchugeeze with horses like them. An' it ain't a case of bein' proud, or puttin' on side, to have good horses. It's brass tacks an' business. It pays. That's the game. Old horses eat more 'n young ones to keep in condition an' they can't do the same amount of work. But you bet it costs just as much to shoe them. An' his is scrub on top of it. Every minute he has them horses he's losin' money. You oughta see the way they work an' figure horses in the city."
They slept soundly, and, after an early breakfast, prepared to start.
"I'd like to give you a couple of days' work," the old man regretted, at parting, "but I can't see it. The ranch just about keeps me and the old woman, now that the children are gone. An' then it don't always. Seems times have been bad for a long spell now. Ain't never been the same since Grover Cleveland."
Early in the afternoon, on the outskirts of San Jose, Saxon called a halt.
"I'm going right in there and talk," she declared, "unless they set the dogs on me. That's the prettiest place yet, isn't it?"
Billy, who was always visioning hills and spacious ranges for his horses, mumbled unenthusiastic assent.
"And the vegetables! Look at them! And the flowers growing along the borders! That beats tomato plants in wrapping paper."
"Don't see the sense of it," Billy objected. "Where's the money come in from flowers that take up the ground that good vegetables might be growin' on?"
"And that's what I'm going to find out." She pointed to a woman, stooped to the ground and working with a trowel; in front of the tiny bungalow. "I don't know what she's like, but at the worst she can only be mean. See! She's looking at us now. Drop your load alongside of mine, and come on in."
Billy slung the blankets from his shoulder to the ground, but elected to wait. As Saxon went up the narrow, flower-bordered walk, she noted two men at work among the vegetables-one an old Chinese, the other old and of some dark-eyed foreign breed. Here were neatness, efficiency, and intensive cultivation with a vengeance-even her untrained eye could see that. The woman stood up and turned from her flowers, and Saxon saw that she was middle-aged, slender, and simply but nicely dressed. She wore glasses, and Saxon's reading of her face was that it was kind but nervous looking.
"I don't want anything to-day," she said, before Saxon could speak, administering the rebuff with a pleasant smile.
Saxon groaned inwardly over the black-covered telescope basket. Evidently the woman had seen her put it down.
"We're not peddling," she explained quickly.
"Oh, I am sorry for the mistake."
This time the woman's smile was even pleasanter, and she waited for Saxon to state her errand.
Nothing loath, Saxon took it at a plunge.
"We're looking for land. We want to be farmers, you know, and before we get the land we want to find out what kind of land we want. And seeing your pretty place has just filled me up with questions. You see, we don't know anything about farming. We've lived in the city all our life, and now we've given it up and are going to live in the country and be happy."
She paused. The woman's face seemed to grow quizzical, though the pleasantness did not abate.
"But how do you know you will be happy in the country?" she asked.
"I don't know. All I do know is that poor people can't be happy in the city where they have labor troubles all the time. If they can't be happy in the country, then there's no happiness anywhere, and that doesn't seem fair, does it?"
"It is sound reasoning, my dear, as far as it goes. But you must remember that there are many poor people in the country and many unhappy people."
"You look neither poor nor unhappy," Saxon challenged.
"You ARE a dear."
Saxon saw the pleased flush in the other's face, which lingered as she went on.
"But still, I may be peculiarly qualified to live and succeed in the country. As you say yourself, you've spent your life in the city. You don't know the first thing about the country. It might even break your heart."
Saxon's mind went back to the terrible months in the Pine street cottage.
"I know already that the city will break my heart. Maybe the country will, too, but just the same it's my only chance, don't you see. It's that or nothing. Besides, our folks before us were all of the country. It seems the more natural way. And better, here I am, which proves that 'way down inside I must want the country, must, as you call it, be peculiarly qualified for the country, or else I wouldn't be here."
The other nodded approval, and looked at her with growing interest.
"That young man-" she began.
"Is my husband. He was a teamster until the big strike came. My name is Roberts, Saxon Roberts, and my husband is William Roberts."
"And I am Mrs. Mortimer," the other said, with a bow of acknowledgment. "I am a widow. And now, if you will ask your husband in, I shall try to answer some of your many questions. Tell him to put the bundles inside the gate.. .. And now what are all the questions you are filled with?"
"Oh, all kinds. How does it pay? How did you manage it all? How much did the land cost? Did you build that beautiful house? How much do you pay the men? How did you learn all the different kinds of things, and which grew best and which paid best? What is the best way to sell them? How do you sell them?" Saxon paused and laughed. "Oh, I haven't begun yet. Why do you have flowers on the borders everywhere? I looked over the Portuguese farms around San Leandro, but they never mixed flowers and vegetables."
Mrs. Mortimer held up her hand. "Let me answer the last first. It is the key to almost everything."
But Billy arrived, and the explanation was deferred until after his introduction.
"The flowers caught your eyes, didn't they, my dear?" Mrs. Mortimer resumed. "And brought you in through my gate and right up to me. And that's the very reason they were planted with the vegetables-to catch eyes. You can't imagine how many eyes they have caught, nor how many owners of eyes they have lured inside my gate. This is a good road, and is a very popular short country drive for townsfolk. Oh, no; I've never had any luck with automobiles. They can't see anything for dust. But I began when nearly everybody still used carriages. The townswomen would drive by. My flowers, and then my place, would catch their eyes. They would tell their drivers to stop. And-well, somehow, I managed to be in the front within speaking distance. Usually I succeeded in inviting them in to see my flowers... and vegetables, of course. Everything was sweet, clean, pretty. It all appealed. And-" Mrs. Mortimer shrugged her shoulders. "It is well known that the stomach sees through the eyes. The thought of vegetables growing among flowers pleased their fancy. They wanted my vegetables. They must have them. And they did, at double the market price, which they were only too glad to pay. You see, I became the fashion, or a fad, in a small way. Nobody lost. The vegetables were certainly good, as good as any on the market and often fresher. And, besides, my customers killed two birds with one stone; for they were pleased with themselves for philanthropic reasons. Not only did they obtain the finest and freshest possible vegetables, but at the same time they were happy with the knowledge that they were helping a deserving widow-woman. Yes, and it gave a certain tone to their establishments to be able to say they bought Mrs. Mortimer's vegetables. But that's too big a side to go into. In short, my little place became a show place-anywhere to go, for a drive or anything, you know, when time has to be killed. And it became noised about who I was, and who my husband had been, what I had been. Some of the townsladies I had known personally in the old days. They actually worked for my success. And then, too, I used to serve tea. My patrons became my guests for the time being. I still serve it, when they drive out to show me off to their friends. So you see, the flowers are one of the ways I succeeded."
Saxon was glowing with appreciation, but Mrs. Mortimer, glancing at Billy, noted not entire approval. His blue eyes were clouded.
"Well, out with it," she encouraged. "What are you thinking?"
To Saxon's surprise, he answered directly, and to her double surprise, his criticism was of a nature which had never entered her head.
"It's just a trick," Billy expounded. "That's what I was gettin' at-"
"But a paying trick," Mrs. Mortimer interrupted, her eyes dancing and vivacious behind the glasses.
"Yes, and no," Billy said stubbornly, speaking in his slow, deliberate fashion. "If every farmer was to mix flowers an' vegetables, then every farmer would get double the market price, an' then there wouldn't be any double market price. Everything'd be as it was before."
"You are opposing a theory to a fact," Mrs. Mortimer stated. "The fact is that all the farmers do not do it. The fact is that I do receive double the price. You can't get away from that."
Billy was unconvinced, though unable to reply.
"Just the same," he muttered, with a slow shake of the head, "I don't get the hang of it. There's something wrong so far as we're concerned-my wife an' me, I mean. Maybe I'll get hold of it after a while."
"And in the meantime, we'll look around," Mrs. Mortimer invited. "I want to show you everything, and tell you how I make it go. Afterward, we'll sit down, and I'll tell you about the beginning. You see-" she bent her gaze on Saxon-"I want you thoroughly to understand that you can succeed in the country if you go about it right. I didn't know a thing about it when I began, and I didn't have a fine big man like yours. I was all alone. But I'll tell you about that."
For the next hour, among vegetables, berry-bushes and fruit trees, Saxon stored her brain with a huge mass of information to be digested at her leisure. Billy, too, was interested, but he left the talking to Saxon, himself rarely asking a question. At the rear of the bungalow, where everything was as clean and orderly as the front, they were shown through the chicken yard. Here, in different runs, were kept several hundred small and snow-white hens.
"White Leghorns," said Mrs. Mortimer. "You have no idea what they netted me this year. I never keep a hen a moment past the prime of her laying period-"
"Just what I was tellin' you, Saxon, about horses," Billy broke in.
"And by the simplest method of hatching them at the right time, which not one farmer in ten thousand ever dreams of doing, I have them laying in the winter when most hens stop laying and when eggs are highest. Another thing: I have my special customers. They pay me ten cents a dozen more than the market price, because my specialty is one-day eggs."
Here she chanced to glance at Billy, and guessed that he was still wrestling with his problem.
"Same old thing?" she queried.
He nodded. "Same old thing. If every farmer delivered day-old eggs, there wouldn't be no ten cents higher 'n the top price. They'd be no better off than they was before."
"But the eggs would be one-day eggs, all the eggs would be one-day eggs, you mustn't forget that," Mrs. Mortimer pointed out.
"But that don't butter no toast for my wife an' me," he objected. "An' that's what I've been tryin' to get the hang of, an' now I got it. You talk about theory an' fact. Ten cents higher than top price is a theory to Saxon an' me. The fact is, we ain't got no eggs, no chickens, an' no land for the chickens to run an' lay eggs on."
Their hostess nodded sympathetically.
"An' there's something else about this outfit of yourn that I don't get the hang of," he pursued. "I can't just put my finger on it, but it's there all right."
They were shown over the cattery, the piggery, the milkers, and the kennelry, as Mrs. Mortimer called her live stock departments. None was large. All were moneymakers, she assured them, and rattled off her profits glibly. She took their breaths away by the prices given and received for pedigreed Persians, pedigreed Ohio Improved Chesters, pedigreed Scotch collies, and pedigreed Jerseys. For the milk of the last she also had a special private market, receiving five cents more a quart than was fetched by the best dairy milk. Billy was quick to point out the difference between the look of her orchard and the look of the orchard they had inspected the previous afternoon, and Mrs. Mortimer showed him scores of other differences, many of which he was compelled to accept on faith.
Then she told them of another industry, her home-made jams and jellies, always contracted for in advance, and at prices dizzyingly beyond the regular market. They sat in comfortable rattan chairs on the veranda, while she told the story of how she had drummed up the jam and jelly trade, dealing only with the one best restaurant and one best club in San Jose. To the proprietor and the steward she had gone with her samples, in long discussions beaten down their opposition, overcome their reluctance, and persuaded the proprietor, in particular, to make a "special" of her wares, to boom them quietly with his patrons, and, above all, to charge stiffly for dishes and courses in which they appeared.
Throughout the recital Billy's eyes were moody with dissatisfaction. Mrs. Mortimer saw, and waited.
"And now, begin at the beginning," Saxon begged.
But Mrs. Mortimer refused unless they agreed to stop for supper. Saxon frowned Billy's reluctance away, and accepted for both of them.
"Well, then," Mrs. Mortimer took up her tale, "in the beginning I was a greenhorn, city born and bred. All I knew of the country was that it was a place to go to for vacations, and I always went to springs and mountain and seaside resorts. I had lived among books almost all my life. I was head librarian of the Doncaster Library for years. Then I married Mr. Mortimer. He was a book man, a professor in San Miguel University. He had a long sickness, and when he died there was nothing left. Even his life insurance was eaten into before I could be free of creditors. As for myself, I was worn out, on the verge of nervous prostration, fit for nothing. I had five thousand dollars left, however, and, without going into the details, I decided to go farming. I found this place, in a delightful climate, close to San Jose-the end of the electric line is only a quarter of a mile on-and I bought it. I paid two thousand cash, and gave a mortgage for two thousand. It cost two hundred an acre, you see."
"Twenty acres!" Saxon cried.
"Wasn't that pretty small?" Billy ventured.
"Too large, oceans too large. I leased ten acres of it the first thing. And it's still leased after all this time. Even the ten I'd retained was much too large for a long, long time. It's only now that I'm beginning to feel a tiny mite crowded."
"And ten acres has supported you an' two hired men?" Billy demanded, amazed.
Mrs. Mortimer clapped her hands delightedly.
"Listen. I had been a librarian. I knew my way among books. First of all I'd read everything written on the subject, and subscribed to some of the best farm magazines and papers. And you ask if my ten acres have supported me and two hired men. Let me tell you. I have four hired men. The ten acres certainly must support them, as it supports Hannah-she's a Swedish widow who runs the house and who is a perfect Trojan during the jam and jelly season-and Hannah's daughter, who goes to school and lends a hand, and my nephew whom I have taken to raise and educate. Also, the ten acres have come pretty close to paying for the whole twenty, as well as for this house, and all the outbuildings, and all the pedigreed stock."
Saxon remembered what the young lineman had said about the Portuguese.
"The ten acres didn't do a bit of it," she cried. "It was your head that did it all, and you know it."
"And that's the point, my dear. It shows the right kind of person can succeed in the country. Remember, the soil is generous. But it must be treated generously, and that is something the old style American farmer can't get into his head. So it IS head that counts. Even when his starving acres have convinced him of the need for fertilizing, he can't see the difference between cheap fertilizer and good fertilizer."
"And that's something I want to know about," Saxon exclaimed. "And I'll tell you all I know, but, first, you must be very tired. I noticed you were limping. Let me take you in-never mind your bundles; I'll send Chang for them."
To Saxon, with her innate love of beauty and charm in all personal things, the interior of the bungalow was a revelation. Never before had she been inside a middle class home, and what she saw not only far exceeded anything she had imagined, but was vastly different from her imaginings. Mrs. Mortimer noted her sparkling glances which took in everything, and went out of her way to show Saxon around, doing it under the guise of gleeful boastings, stating the costs of the different materials, explaining how she had done things with her own hands, such as staining the doors, weathering the bookcases, and putting together the big Mission Morris chair. Billy stepped gingerly behind, and though it never entered his mind to ape to the manner born, he succeeded in escaping conspicuous awkwardness, even at the table where he and Saxon had the unique experience of being waited on in a private house by a servant.
"If you'd only come along next year," Mrs. Mortimer mourned; "then I should have had the spare room I had planned-"
"That's all right," Billy spoke up; "thank you just the same. But we'll catch the electric cars into San Jose an' get a room."
Mrs. Mortimer was still disturbed at her inability to put them up for the night, and Saxon changed the conversation by pleading to be told more.
"You remember, I told you I'd paid only two thousand down on the land," Mrs. Mortimer complied. "That left me three thousand to experiment with. Of course, all my friends and relatives prophesied failure. And, of course, I made my mistakes, plenty of them, but I was saved from still more by the thorough study I had made and continued to make." She indicated shelves of farm books and files of farm magazines that lined the walls. "And I continued to study. I was resolved to be up to date, and I sent for all the experiment station reports. I went almost entirely on the basis that whatever the old type farmer did was wrong, and, do you know, in doing that I was not so far wrong myself. It's almost unthinkable, the stupidity of the old-fashioned farmers. Oh, I consulted with them, talked things over with them, challenged their stereotyped ways, demanded demonstration of their dogmatic and prejudiced beliefs, and quite succeeded in convincing the last of them that I was a fool and doomed to come to grief."
"But you didn't! You didn't!"
Mrs. Mortimer smiled gratefully.
"Sometimes, even now, I'm amazed that I didn't. But I came of a hard-headed stock which had been away from the soil long enough to gain a new perspective. When a thing satisfied my judgment, I did it forthwith and downright, no matter how extravagant it seemed. Take the old orchard. Worthless! Worse than worthless! Old Calkins nearly died of heart disease when he saw the devastation I had wreaked upon it. And look at it now. There was an old rattletrap ruin where the bungalow now stands. I put up with it, but I immediately pulled down the cow barn, the pigsties, the chicken houses, everything-made a clean sweep. They shook their heads and groaned when they saw such wanton waste by a widow struggling to make a living. But worse was to come. They were paralyzed when I told them the price of the three beautiful O.I.C.'s-pigs, you know, Chesters-which I bought, sixty dollars for the three, and only just weaned. Then I hustled the nondescript chickens to market, replacing them with the White Leghorns. The two scrub cows that came with the place I sold to the butcher for thirty dollars each, paying two hundred and fifty for two blue-blooded Jersey heifers... and coined money on the exchange, while Calkins and the rest went right on with their scrubs that couldn't give enough milk to pay for their board."
Billy nodded approval.
"Remember what I told you about horses," he reiterated to Saxon; and, assisted by his hostess, he gave a very creditable disquisition on horseflesh and its management from a business point of view.
When he went out to smoke Mrs. Mortimer led Saxon into talking about herself and Billy, and betrayed not the slightest shock when she learned of his prizefighting and scab-slugging proclivities.
"He's a splendid young man, and good," she assured Saxon. "His face shows that. And, best of all, he loves you and is proud of you. You can't imagine how I have enjoyed watching the way he looks at you, especially when you are talking. He respects your judgment. Why, he must, for here he is with you on this pilgrimage which is wholly your idea." Mrs. Mortimer sighed. "You are very fortunate, dear child, very fortunate. And you don't yet know what a man's brain is. Wait till he is quite fired with enthusiasm for your project. You will be astounded by the way he takes hold. You will have to exert yourself to keep up with him. In the meantime, you must lead. Remember, he is city bred. It will be a struggle to wean him from the only life he's known."
"Oh, but he's disgusted with the city, too-" Saxon began.
"But not as you are. Love is not the whole of man, as it is of woman. The city hurt you more than it hurt him. It was you who lost the dear little babe. His interest, his connection, was no more than casual and incidental compared with the depth and vividness of yours."
Mrs. Mortimer turned her head to Billy, who was just entering.
"Have you got the hang of what was bothering you?" she asked.
"Pretty close to it," he answered, taking the indicated big Morris chair. "It's this-"
"One moment," Mrs. Mortimer checked him. "That is a beautiful, big, strong chair, and so are you, at any rate big and strong, and your little wife is very weary-no, no; sit down, it's your strength she needs. Yes, I insist. Open your arms."
And to him she led Saxon, and into his arms placed her. "Now, sir-and you look delicious, the pair of you-register your objections to my way of earning a living."
"It ain't your way," Billy repudiated quickly. "Your way's all right. It's great. What I'm trying to get at is that your way don't fit us. We couldn't make a go of it your way. Why you had pull-well-to-do acquaintances, people that knew you'd been a librarian an' your husband a professor. An' you had...." Here he floundered a moment, seeking definiteness for the idea he still vaguely grasped. "Well, you had a way we couldn't have. You were educated, an'... an'-I don't know, I guess you knew society ways an' business ways we couldn't know."
"But, my dear boy, you could learn what was necessary," she contended.
Billy shook his head.
"No. You don't quite get me. Let's take it this way. Just suppose it's me, with jam an' jelly, a-wadin' into that swell restaurant like you did to talk with the top guy. Why, I'd be outa place the moment I stepped into his office. Worse'n that, I'd feel outa place. That'd make me have a chip on my shoulder an' lookin' for trouble, which is a poor way to do business. Then, too, I'd be thinkin' he was thinkin' I was a whole lot of a husky to be peddlin' jam. What'd happen, I'd be chesty at the drop of the hat. I'd be thinkin' he was thinkin' I was standin' on my foot, an' I'd beat him to it in tellin' him he was standin' on HIS foot. Don't you see? It's because I was raised that way. It'd be take it or leave it with me, an' no jam sold."
"What you say is true," Mrs. Mortimer took up brightly. "But there is your wife. Just look at her. She'd make an impression on any business man. He'd be only too willing to listen to her."
Billy stiffened, a forbidding expression springing into his eyes.
"What have I done now?" their hostess laughed.
"I ain't got around yet to tradin' on my wife's looks," he rumbled gruffly.
"Right you are. The only trouble is that you, both of you, are fifty years behind the times. You're old American. How you ever got here in the thick of modern conditions is a miracle. You're Rip Van Winkles. Who ever heard, in these degenerate times, of a young man and woman of the city putting their blankets on their backs and starting out in search of land? Why, it's the old Argonaut spirit. You're as like as peas in a pod to those who yoked their oxen and held west to the lands beyond the sunset. I'll wager your fathers and mothers, or grandfathers and grandmothers, were that very stock."
Saxon's eyes were glistening, and Billy's were friendly once more. Both nodded their heads.
"I'm of the old stock myself," Mrs. Mortimer went on proudly. "My grandmother was one of the survivors of the Donner Party. My grandfather, Jason Whitney, came around the Horn and took part in the raising of the Bear Flag at Sonoma. He was at Monterey when John Marshall discovered gold in Sutter's mill-race. One of the streets in San Francisco is named after him."
"I know it," Billy put in. "Whitney Street. It's near Russian Hill. Saxon's mother walked across the Plains."
"And Billy's grandfather and grandmother were massacred by the Indians," Saxon contributed. "His father was a little baby boy, and lived with the Indians, until captured by the whites. He didn't even know his name and was adopted by a Mr. Roberts."
"Why, you two dear children, we're almost like relatives," Mrs. Mortimer beamed. "It's a breath of old times, alas! all forgotten in these fly-away days. I am especially interested, because I've catalogued and read everything covering those times. You-" she indicated Billy, "you are historical, or at least your father is. I remember about him. The whole thing is in Bancroft's History. It was the Modoc Indians. There were eighteen wagons. Your father was the only survivor, a mere baby at the time, with no knowledge of what happened. He was adopted by the leader of the whites."
"That's right," said Billy. "It was the Modocs. His train must have ben bound for Oregon. It was all wiped out. I wonder if you know anything about Saxon's mother. She used to write poetry in the early days."
"Was any of it printed?"
"Yes," Saxon answered. "In the old San Jose papers."
"And do you know any of it?"
"Yes, there's one beginning:
"'Sweet as the wind-lute's airy strains Your gentle muse has learned to sing, And California's boundless plains Prolong the soft notes echoing.'"
"It sounds familiar," Mrs. Mortimer said, pondering.
"And there was another I remember that began:
"'I've stolen away from the crowd in the groves, Where the nude statues stand, and the leaves point and shiver,'-
"And it run on like that. I don't understand it all. It was written to my father-"
"A love poem!" Mrs. Mortimer broke in. "I remember it. Wait a minute.... Da-da-dah, da-da-dah, da-da-dah, da-da-STANDS-
"'In the spray of a fountain, whose seed-amethysts Tremble lightly a moment on bosom and hands, Then drip in their basin from bosom and wrists.'
"I've never forgotten the drip of the seed-amethysts, though I don't remember your mother's name."
"It was Daisy-" Saxon began.
"No; Dayelle," Mrs. Mortimer corrected with quickening recollection.
"Oh, but nobody called her that."
"But she signed it that way. What is the rest?"
"Daisy Wiley Brown."
Mrs. Mortimer went to the bookshelves and quickly returned with a large, soberly-bound volume.
"It's 'The Story of the Files,'" she explained. "Among other things, all the good fugitive verse was gathered here from the old newspaper files." Her eyes running down the index suddenly stopped. "I was right. Dayelle Wiley Brown. There it is. Ten of her poems, too: 'The Viking's Quest'; 'Days of Gold'; 'Constancy'; 'The Caballero'; 'Graves at Little Meadow'-"
"We fought off the Indians there," Saxon interrupted in her excitement. "And mother, who was only a little girl, went out and got water for the wounded. And the Indians wouldn't shoot at her. Everybody said it was a miracle." She sprang out of Billy's arms, reaching for the book and crying: "Oh, let me see it! Let me see it! It's all new to me. I don't know these poems. Can I copy them? I'll learn them by heart. Just to think, my mother's!"
Mrs. Mortimer's glasses required repolishing; and for half an hour she and Billy remained silent while Saxon devoured her mother's lines. At the end, staring at the book which she had closed on her finger, she could only repeat in wondering awe:
"And I never knew, I never knew."
But during that half hour Mrs. Mortimer's mind had not been idle. A little later, she broached her plan. She believed in intensive dairying as well as intensive farming, and intended, as soon as the lease expired, to establish a Jersey dairy on the other ten acres. This, like everything she had done, would be model, and it meant that she would require more help. Billy and Saxon were just the two. By next summer she could have them installed in the cottage she intended building. In the meantime she could arrange, one way and another, to get work for Billy through the winter. She would guarantee this work, and she knew a small house they could rent just at the end of the car-line. Under her supervision Billy could take charge from the very beginning of the building. In this way they would be earning money, preparing themselves for independent farming life, and have opportunity to look about them.
But her persuasions were in vain. In the end Saxon succinctly epitomized their point of view.
"We can't stop at the first place, even if it is as beautiful and kind as yours and as nice as this valley is. We don't even know what we want. We've got to go farther, and see all kinds of places and all kinds of ways, in order to find out. We're not in a hurry to make up our minds. We want to make, oh, so very sure! And besides...." She hesitated. "Besides, we don't like altogether flat land. Billy wants some hills in his. And so do I."
When they were ready to leave Mrs. Mortimer offered to present Saxon with "The Story of the Files"; but Saxon shook her head and got some money from Billy.
"It says it costs two dollars," she said. "Will you buy me one, and keep it till we get settled? Then I'll write, and you can send it to me."
"Oh, you Americans," Mrs. Mortimer chided, accepting the money. "But you must promise to write from time to time before you're settled."
She saw them to the county road.
"You are brave young things," she said at parting. "I only wish I were going with you, my pack upon my back. You're perfectly glorious, the pair of you. If ever I can do anything for you, just let me know. You're bound to succeed, and I want a hand in it myself. Let me know how that government land turns out, though I warn you I haven't much faith in its feasibility. It's sure to be too far away from markets."
She shook hands with Billy. Saxon she caught into her arms and kissed.
"Be brave," she said, with low earnestness, in Saxon's ear. "You'll win. You are starting with the right ideas. And you were right not to accept my proposition. But remember, it, or better, will always be open to you. You're young yet, both of you. Don't be in a hurry. Any time you stop anywhere for a while, let me know, and I'll mail you heaps of agricultural reports and farm publications. Good-bye. Heaps and heaps and heaps of luck."