THE BIRTH OF A WOMAN-CHILD
"Whose cradle's that?" the sick woman's thin querulous tones arrested the man at the threshold. "
Onie Dillard's," he replied hollowly from the depths of the crib which he carried upside down upon his head, like some curious kind of overgrown helmet. "
Now, why in the name o' common sense would ye go and borry a broken cradle?" came the wail from the bed. "I 'lowed you'd git Billy Spinner's, an' hit's as good as new."
Uncle Pros set the small article of furniture down gently. "
Don't you worry yo'se'f, Laurelly," he said enthusiastically. Pros Passmore, uncle of the sick woman and mainstay of the forlorn little Consadine household, was always full of enthusiasm. "Just a few nails and a little wrappin' of twine'll make it all right," he informed his niece. "I stopped a-past and borried the nails and the hammer from Jeff Dawes; I mighty nigh pounded my thumb off knockin' in nails with a rock an' a sad-iron last week." "
Looks like nobody ain't got no sense," returned Laurella Consadine ungratefully. "Even you, Unc' Pros--while you borryin' why cain't ye borry whole things that don't need mendin'?"
Out of the shadows that hoarded the further end of the room came a woman with a little bundle in her arm which had evidently created the necessity for the borrowed cradle. "
Laurelly," the nurse hesitated, "I wouldn't name it to ye whilst ye was a-sufferin,' but I jest cain't find the baby's clothes nowhars. I've done washed the little trick and wrapped her in my flannen petticoat. I do despise to put anything on 'em that anybody else has wore ... hit don't seem right. But I've been plumb through everything, an' cain't find none of her coats. Whar did you put 'em?" "
I didn't have no luck borryin' for this one," complained the sick woman fretfully. "Looks like everybody's got that mean that they wouldn't lend me a rag ... an' the Lord knows I only ast a wearin' of the clothes for my chillen. Folks can make shore that I return what I borry--ef the Lord lets me." "
"Ain't they nothin' to put on the baby?" asked Mavity Bence, aghast.
"No. Hit's jest like I been tellin' ye, I went to Tarver's wife--she's got a plenty. I knowed in reason she'd have baby clothes that she couldn't expect to wear out on her own chillen. I said as much to her, when she told me she was liable to need 'em befo' I did. I says, 'Ye cain't need more'n half of 'em, I reckon, an' half'll do me, an' I'll return 'em to ye when I'm done with 'em.' She acted jest as selfish--said she'd like to know how I was goin' to inshore her that it wouldn't be twins agin same as 'twas before. Some folks is powerful mean an' suspicious."
All this time the nurse had been standing with the quiet small packet which was the storm centre of preparation lying like a cocoon or a giant seed-pod against her bosom.
"She's a mighty likely little gal," said she finally. "Have ye any hopes o' gittin' anything to put on her?"
The woman in the bed--she was scarcely more than a girl, with shining dark eyes and a profusion of jetty ringlets about her elfish, pretty little face--seemed to feel that this speech was in the nature of a reproach. She hastened to detail her further activities on behalf of the newcomer.
"Consadine's a poor provider," she said plaintively, alluding to her absent husband. "Maw said to me when I would have him that he was a poor provider; and then he's got into this here way of goin' off like. Time things gets too bad here at home he's got a big scheme up for makin' his fortune somewhars else, and out he puts. He 'lowed he'd be home with a plenty before the baby come. But thar--he's the best man that ever was, when he's here, and I have no wish to miscall him. I reckon he thought I could borry what I'd need. Biney Meal lent me enough for the little un that died; but of course some o' the coats was buried with the child; and what was left, Sis' Elvira borried for her baby. I was layin' off to go over to the Deep Spring neighbourhood when I could git a lift in that direction--the folks over yon is mighty accommodative," she concluded, "but I was took sooner than I expected, and hyer we air without a stitch, I've done sont Bud an' Honey to Mandy Ann Foncher's mebby they'll bring in somethin'."
The little cabin shrank back against the steep side of the mountain as though half terrified at the hollow immensity of the welkin above, or the almost sheer drop to the valley five hundred feet beneath. A sidling mountain trail passed the front of its rail fence, and stones continually rolled from the upper to the lower side of this highway.
The day was darkening rapidly. A low line of red still burned behind the massive bulk of Big Unaka, and the solemn purple mountains raised their peaks against it in a jagged line. Within die single-roomed cabin the rich, broken light from the cavernous fireplace filled the smoke-browned interior full of shadow and shine in which things leaped oddly into life, or dropped out of knowledge with a startling effect. The four corners of the log room were utilized, three of them for beds, made by thrusting two poles through auger holes bored in the logs of the walls, setting a leg at the corner where these met and lacing the bottom with hickory withes. The fourth had some rude planks nailed in it for a table, and a knot-hole in one of the logs served the primitive purpose of a salt-cellar. A pack of gaunt hounds quarrelled under the floor, and the sick woman stirred uneasily on her bed and expressed a wish that her emissaries would return.
Uncle Pros had taken the cradle to a back door to get the last of the evening sun upon his task. One would not have thought that he could hear what the women were saying at this distance, but the old hunter's ears were sharp.
"Never you mind, Laurelly," he called cheerfully. "Wrop the baby up some fashion, and I'll hike out and get clothes for her, time I mend this cradle."
"Ef that ain't just like Unc' Pros!" And the girlish mother laughed out suddenly. You saw the gypsy beauty of her face. "He ain't content with borryin' men's truck, but thinks he can turn in an' borry coats 'mongst the women. Well, I reckon he might have better luck than what I did."
As she spoke a small boy and girl, her dead brother's children, came clattering in from the purple mysteries of dusk outside, hand clasped in hand, and stopped close to the bed, staring.
"Mandy Ann, she wouldn't lend us a thing," Bud began in an aggrieved tone. "I traded for this--chopped wood for it--and hit was all she would give me." He laid a coarse little garment upon the ragged coverlet. "
That!" cried Laurella Passmore, taking it up with angrily tremulous fingers. "My child shain't wear no sech. Hit ain't fittin' for my baby to put on. Oh, I wisht I could git up from here and do about; I'd git somethin' for her to wear!"
"Son," said Mrs. Bence, approaching the bedside, "air ye afeared to go over as far as my house right now?"
"I ain't skeered ef Honey'll go with me," returned the boy doubtfully, as he interrogated the twilit spaces beyond the open cabin door.
"Well, you go ask Pap to look in the green chist and send me the spotted caliker poke that he'll find under the big bun'le. Don't you let him give you that thar big bun'le; 'caze that's not a thing but seed corn, and he'll be mad ef it's tetched. Fell Pap that what's in the spotted poke ain't nothin' that he wants. Tell him it's--well, tell him to look at it before he gives it to you."
The two little souls scuttled away into the gathering dark, and the neighbour woman sat down by the fire to nurse the baby and croon and await the clothing for which she had sent.
She was not an old woman, but already stiff and misshapen by toil and the lack of that saving salt of pride, the stimulation of joy, which keeps us erect and supple. Her broad back was bent; her hands as they shifted the infant tenderly were knotted and work-worn. Mavity Bence was a widow, living at home with her father, Gideon Himes; she had one child left, a daughter; but the clothing for which she had sent was an outfit made for a son, the posthumous offspring of his father; and the babe had not lived long enough to wear it.
Outside, Uncle Pros began to sing at his work. He had a fluty old tenor voice, and he put in turns and quavers that no ear not of the mountains could possibly follow and fix. First it was a hymn, all abrupt, odd, minor cadences and monotonous refrain. Then he shifted to a ballad--and the mountains are full of old ballads of Scotland and England, come down from the time of the first settlers, and with local names quaintly substituted for the originals here and there.
chanted the old man above the little bed he was repairing.
"Who's that you're a-namin' that's a-goin' to have silk dresses?" inquired Laurella, as he entered and set the mended cradle down by the bedside.
"The baby." he returned. "Ef I find my silver mine--or ruther when I find my silver mine, for you know in reason with the directions Pap's Grandpap left, and that word from Great Uncle Billy that helped the Injuns work it, I'm bound to run the thing down one o' these days--when I find my silver mine this here little gal's a-goin' to have everything she wants--ain't ye, Pretty?"
And, having made a bed in the cradle from some folded covers, he lifted the baby with strange deftness and placed it in.
"See thar," he called their attention proudly. "As good as new. And ef I git time I'm a-goin' to give it a few licks o' paint."
Hands on knees, he bent to study the face of the new-born, that countenance so ambiguous to our eyes, scarce stamped yet with the common seal of humanity.
"She's a mighty pretty little gal," he repeated Mavity Bence's words. "She's got the Passmore favour, as well as the Consadine. Reckon I better be steppin' over to Vander's and see can I borry their cow. If it's with you this time like it was with the last one, we'll have to have a cow. I always thought if we'd had a fresh cow for that other one, hit would 'a' lived. I know in reason Vander'll lend the cow for a spell"--Uncle Pros always had unbounded confidence in the good will of his neighbours toward himself, since his own generosity to them would have been fathomless--"I know in reason he'll lend hit, 'caze they ain't got no baby to their house."
He bestowed one more proud, fond look upon the little face in the borrowed cradle, and walked out with as elated a step as though a queen had been born to the tribe.
In the doorway he met Bud and Honey, returning with the spotted calico poke clutched fast between them.
"I won't ask nothin' but a wearin' of em for my child," Laurella Consadine, born Laurella Passmore, reiterated when the small garments were laid out on the bed, and the baby was being dressed. "They're mighty fine, Mavity, an' I'll take good keer of 'em and always bear in mind that they're only borried."
"No," returned Mavity Bence, with unwonted firmness, as she put the newcomer into the slip intended for her own son. "No, Laurelly, these clothes ain't loaned to you. I give 'em to this child. I'm a widder, and I never look to wed again, becaze Pap he has to have somebody to do for him, an' he'd just about tear up the ground if I was to name sech a thing. I'm mighty glad to give 'em to yo' little gal. I only wisht," she said wistfully, "that hit was a boy. Ef hit was a boy, mebbe you'd give hit the name that should 'a' went with the clothes. I was a-goin' to call the baby John after hit's pappy."
Laurella Consadine lay quiescent for a moment, big black eyes studying the smoky logs that raftered the roof. Then all at once she laughed, with a flash of white teeth.
"I don't see why Johnnie ain't a mighty fine name for a gal," she said. "I vow I'm a-goin' to name her Johnnie!"
And so this one of the tribe of borrowing Passmores wore her own clothing from the first. No borrowed garment touched her. She rejected the milk from the borrowed cow, fiercely; lustily she demanded--and eventually received--her own legitimate, unborrowed sustenance.
Perhaps such a beginning had its own influence upon her future.