Tun work in the ironing-room slipped off, but the three days until Wednesday night were very long. She hummed over the fancy starch that flew under the iron at an astounding rate.
"I can't see how you do it," Mary admired. "You'll make thirteen or fourteen this week at that rate."
Saxon laughed, and in the steam from the iron she saw dancing golden letters that spelled WEDNESDAY.
"What do you think of Billy?" Mary asked.
"I like him," was the frank answer.
"Well, don't let it go farther than that."
"I will if I want to," Saxon retorted gaily.
"Better not," came the warning. "You'll only make trouble for yourself. He ain't marryin'. Many a girl's found that out. They just throw themselves at his head, too."
"I'm not going to throw myself at him, or any other man."
"Just thought I'd tell you," Mary concluded. "A word to the wise."
Saxon had become grave.
"He's not . . . not . . ." she began, than looked the significance of the question she could not complete.
"Oh, nothin' like that--though there's nothin' to stop him. He's straight, all right, all right. But he just won't fall for anything in skirts. He dances, an' runs around, an' has a good time, an' beyond that--nitsky. A lot of 'em's got fooled on him. I bet you there's a dozen girls in love with him right now. An' he just goes on turnin' 'em down. There was Lily Sanderson--you know her. You seen her at that Slavonic picnic last summer at Shellmound--that tall, nice-lookin' blonde that was with Butch Willows?"
"Yes, I remember her," Saxon sald. "What about her?"
"Well, she'd been runnin' with Butch Willows pretty steady, an' just because she could dance, Billy dances a lot with her. Butch ain't afraid of nothin'. He wades right in for a showdown, an' nails Billy outside, before everybody, an' reads the riot act. An' Billy listens in that slow, sleepy way of his, an' Butch gets hotter an' hotter, an' everybody expects a scrap.
"An' then Billy says to Butch, 'Are you done?' 'Yes,' Butch says; 'I've said my say, an' what are you goin' to do about it?' An' Billy says--an' what d'ye think he said, with everybody lookin' on an' Butch with blood in his eye? Well, he said, 'I guess nothin', Butch.' Just like that. Butch was that surprised you could knocked him over with a feather. 'An' never dance with her no more?' he says. 'Not if you say I can't, Butch,' Billy says. Just like that.
"Well, you know, any other man to take water the way he did from Butch--why, everybody'd despise him. But not Billy. You see, he can afford to. He's got a rep as a fighter, an' when he just stood back 'an' let Butch have his way, everybody knew he wasn't scared, or backin' down, or anything. He didn't care a rap for Lily Sanderson, that was all, an' anybody could see she was just crazy after him."
The telling of this episode caused Saxon no little worry. Hers was the average woman's pride, but in the matter of man-conquering prowess she was not unduly conceited. Billy had enjoyed her dancing, and she wondered if that were all. If Charley Long bullied up to him would he let her go as he had let Lily Sanderson go? He was not a marrying man; nor could Saxon blind her eyes to the fact that he was eminently marriageable. No wonder the girls ran after him. And he was a man-subduer as well as a woman-subduer. Men liked him. Bert Wanhope seemed actually to love him. She remembered the Butchertown tough in the dining-room at Weasel Park who had come over to the table to apologize, and the Irishman at the tug-of-war who had abandoned all thought of fighting with him the moment he learned his identity.
A very much spoiled young man was a thought that flitted frequently through Saxon's mind; and each time she condemned it as ungenerous. He was gentle in that tantalizing slow way of his. Despite his strength, he did not walk rough-shod over others. There was the affair with Lily Sanderson. Saxon analysed it again and again. He had not cared for the girl, and he had immediately stepped from between her and Butch. It was just the thing that Bert, out of sheer wickedness and love of trouble, would not have done. There would have been a fight, hard feelings, Butch turned into an enemy, and nothing profited to Lily. But Billy had done the right thing--done it slowly and imperturbably and with the least hurt to everybody. All of which made him more desirable to Saxon and less possible.
She bought another pair of silk stockings that she had hesitated at for weeks, and on Tuesday night sewed and drowsed wearily over a new shirtwaist and earned complaint from Sarah concerning her extravagant use of gas.
Wednesday night, at the Orindore dance, was not all undiluted pleasure. It was shameless the way the girls made up to Billy, and, at times, Saxon found his easy consideration for them almost irritating. Yet she was compelled to acknowledge to herself that he hurt none of the other fellows' feelings in the way the girls hurt hers. They all but asked him outright to dance with them, and little of their open pursuit of him escaped her eyes. She resolved that she would not be guilty of throwing herself at him, and withheld dance after dance, and yet was secretly and thrillingly aware that she was pursuing the right tactics. She deliberately demonstrated that she was desirable to other men, as he involuntarily demonstrated his own desirableness to the women.
Her happiness came when he coolly overrode her objections and insisted on two dances more than she had allotted him. And she was pleased, as well as angered, when she chanced to overhear two of the strapping young cannery girls. "The way that little sawed-off is monopolizin' him," said one. And the other: "You'd think she might have the good taste to run after somebody of her own age." "Cradle-snatcher," was the final sting that sent the angry blood into Saxon's cheeks as the two girls moved away, unaware that they had been overheard.
Billy saw her home, kissed her at the gate, and got her consent to go with him to the dance at Germania Hall on Friday night.
"I wasn't thinkin' of goin'," he sald. "But if you'll say the word . . . Bert's goin' to be there."
Next day, at the ironing boards, Mary told her that she and Bert were dated for Germania Hall.
"Are you goin'?" Mary asked.
The nod was repeated, and Mary, with suspended iron, gave her a long and curions look.
"Say, an' what if Charley Long butts in?"
Saxon shrugged her shoulders.
They ironed swiftly and silently for a quarter of an hour.
"Well," Mary decided, "if he does butt in maybe he'll get his. I'd like to see him get it--the big stiff! It all depends how Billy feels--about you, I mean."
"I'm no Lily Sanderson," Saxon answered indignantly. "I'll never give Billy Roberts a chance to turn me down."
"You will, if Charley Long butts in. Take it from me, Saxon, he ain't no gentleman. Look what he done to Mr. Moody. That was a awful beatin'. An' Mr. Moody only a quiet little man that wouldn't harm a fly. Well, he won't find Billy Roberts a sissy by a long shot."
That night, outside the laundry entrance, Saxon found Charley Long waiting. As he stepped forward to greet her and walk alongside, she felt the sickening palpitation that he had so thoroughly taught her to know. The blood ebbed from her face with the apprehension and fear his appearance caused. She was afraid of the rough bulk of the man; of the heavy brown eyes, dominant and confident; of the big blacksmith-hands and the thick strong fingers with the hair-pads on the back to every first joint. He was unlovely to the eye, and he was unlovely to all her finer sensibilities. It was not his strength itself, but the quality of it and the misuse of it, that affronted her. The beating he had given the gentle Mr. Moody had meant half-hours of horror to her afterward. Always did the memory of it come to her accompanied by a shudder. And yet, without shock, she had seen Billy fight at Weasel Park in the same primitive man-animal way. But it had been ditferent. She recognized, but could not analyze, the difference. She was aware only of the brutishness of this man's hands and mind.
"You're lookin' white an' all beat to a frazzle," he was saying. "Why don't you cut the work? You got to some time, anyway. You can't lose me, kid."
"I wish I could," she replied.
He laughed with harsh joviality. "Nothin' to it, Saxon. You're just cut out to be Mrs. Long, an' you're sure goin' to be."
"I wish I was as certain about all things as you are," she said with mild sarcasm that missed.
"Take it from me," he went on, "there's just one thing you can be certain of--an' that is that I am certain." He was pleased with the cleverness of his idea and laughed approvingly. "When I go after anything I get it, an' if anything gets in between it gets hurt. D'ye get that? It's me for you, an' that's all there is to it, so you might as well make up your mind and go to workin' in my home instead of the laundry. Why, it's a snap. There wouldn't be much to do. I make good money, an' you wouldn't want for anything. You know, I just washed up from work an' skinned over here to tell it to you once more, so you wouldn't forget. I ain't ate yet, an' that shows how much I think of you."
"You'd better go and eat then," she advised, though she knew the futility of attempting to get rid of him.
She scarcely heard what he said. It had come upon her suddenly that she was very tired and very small and very weak alongside this colossus of a man. Would he dog her always? she asked despairingly, and seemed to glimpse a vision of all her future life stretched out before her, with always the form and face of the burly blacksmith pursuing her.
"Come on, kid, an' kick in," he continued. "It's the good old summer time, an' that's the time to get married."
"But I'm not going to marry you," she protested. "I've told you a thousand times already."
"Aw, forget it. You want to get them ideas out of your think-box. Of course, you're goin' to marry me. It's a pipe. An' I'll tell you another pipe. You an' me's goin' acrost to Frisco Friday night. There's goin' to he big doin's with the Horseshoers."
"Only I'm not," she contradicted.
"Oh, yes you are," he asserted with absolute assurance. "We'll eatch the last boat back, an' you'll have one fine time. An' I'll put you next to some of the good dancers. Oh, I ain't a pincher, an' I know you like dancin'."
"But I tell you I can't," she reiterated.
He shot a glance of suspicion at her from under the black thatch of brows that met above his nose and were as one brow.
"Why can't you?"
"A date," she said.
"Who's the bloke?"
"None of your business, Charley Long. I've got a date, that's all."
"I'll make it my business. Remember that lah-de-dah bookkeeper rummy? Well, just keep on rememborin' him an' what he got."
"I wish yon'd leave me alone," she pleaded resentfully. "Can't you be kind just for once?"
The blacksmith laughed unpleasantly.
"If any rummy thinks he can butt in on you an' me, he'll learn different, an' I'm the little boy that'll learn 'm.--Fridey night, eh? Where?"
"I won't tell you."
"Where?" he repeated.
Her lips were drawn in tight silence, and in her cheeks were little angry spots of blood.
"Huh!--As if I couldn't guess! Germania Hall. Well, I'll be there, an' I'll take you home afterward. D'ye get that? An' you'd better tell the rummy to beat it unless you want to see'm get his face hurt."
Saxon, hurt as a prideful woman can be hurt by cavalier treatment, was tempted to cry out the name and prowess of her new-found protector. And then came fear. This was a big man, and Billy was only a boy. That was the way he affected her. She remembered her first impression of his hands and glanced quickly at the hands of the man beside her. They seemed twice as large as Billy's, and the mats of hair seemed to advertise a terrible strength. No, Billy could not fight this big brute. He must not. And then to Saxon came a wicked little hope that by the mysterious and unthinkable ability that prizefighters possessed, Billy might be able to whip this bully and rid her of him. With the next glance doubt came again, for her eye dwelt on the blacksmith's broad shoulders, the cloth of the coat muscle-wrinkled and the sleeves bulging above the biceps.
"If you lay a hand on anybody I'm going with again---" she began.
"Why, they'll get hurt, of course," Long grinned. "And they'll deserve it, too. Any rummy that comes between a fellow an' his girl ought to get hurt."
"But I'm not your girl, and all your saying so doesn't make it so."
"That's right, get mad," he approved. "I like you for that, too. You've got spunk an' fight. I like to see it. It's what a man needs in his wife--and not these fat cows of women. They're the dead ones. Now you're a live one, all wool, a yard long and a yard wide."
She stopped before the house and put her hand on the gate.
"Good-bye," she said. "I'm going in."
"Come on out afterward for a run to Idora Park," he suggested.
"No, I'm not feeling good, and I'm going straight to bed as soon as I eat supper."
"Huh!" he sneered. "Gettin' in shape for the fling to-morrow night, eh?"
With an impatient movement she opened the gate and stepped inside.
"I've given it to you straight," he went on. "If you don't go with me to-morrow night somebody'll get hurt."
"I hope it will be you," she cried vindictively.
He laughed as he threw his head back, stretched his big chest, and half-lifted his heavy arms. The action reminded her disgustingly of a great ape she had once seen in a circus.
"Well, good-bye," he said. "See you to-morrow night at Germania Hall."
"I haven't told you it was Germania Hall."
"And you haven't told me it wasn't. All the same, I'll be there. And I'll take you home, too. Be sure an' keep plenty of round dances open fer me. That's right. Get mad. It makes you look fine."