THE BIRTH OF AN AMBITION
All day the girl had walked steadily, her bare feet comforted by the warm dust, shunning the pebbles, never finding sham stones in the way, making friends with the path--that would always be Johnnie. From the little high-hung valley in the remote fastnesses of the Unakas where she was born, Johnnie Consadine was walking down to Cottonville, the factory town on the outskirts of Watauga, to find work. Sometimes the road wound a little upward for a quarter of a mile or so; but the general tendency was persistently down.
In the gray dawn of Sunday morning she had stepped from the door of that room where the three beds occupied three corners, and a rude table was rigged in the fourth. It might almost seem that the same hounds were quarrelling under the floor that had scrambled there eighteen years before when she was born. At first the way was entirely familiar to her. It passed few habitations, and of those the dwellers were not yet abroad, since it was scarce day. As time went on she got to the little settlement at the foot of the first mountain, and had to explain to everybody her destination and ambition. Beyond this, she stopped occasionally for direction, she met more people; yet she was still in the heart of the mountains when noon found her, and she crept up a wayside bank and sat down alone to eat her bite of corn pone.
Guided by the instinct--or the wood-craft--of the mountain born and bred, she had sought out one of the hermit springs of beautiful freestone water that hide in these solitudes. When she had slaked her thirst at its little ice-cold chalice, she raised her head with a low exclamation of rapture. There, growing and blowing beside the cool thread of water which trickled from the spring, was a stately pink moccasin flower. She knelt and gazed at it with folded hands, as one before a shrine.
What is it in the sweeping dignity of these pointed, oval, parallel-veined leaves, sheathed one within another, the clean column of the bloom stalk rising a foot and a half perhaps above, and at its tip the wonderful pink, dreaming Buddha of the forest, that so commands the heart? It was not entirely the beauty of the softly glowing orchid that charmed Johnnie Consadine's eyes; it was the significance of the flower. Somehow the finding this rare, shy thing decking her path toward labour and enterprise spoke to her soul of success. For a long time she knelt, her bright uncovered head dappled by a ray of sunlight which filtered through the deep, cool green above her, her face bent, her eyes brooding, as though she prayed. When she had finished her dinner of corn pone and fried pork, she rose and parted with almost reverent fingers the pink wonder from its stalk, sought out a coarse, clean handkerchief from her bundle and, steeping it in the icy water of the spring, lapped it around her treasure. Not often in her eighteen summers had she found so fine a specimen. Then she took up her journey, comforted and strangely elated.
"Looks like it was waiting right there to tell me howdy," she murmured to herself.
The keynote of Johnnie Consadine's character was aspiration. In her cabin home the wings of desire were clipped, because she must needs put her passionate young soul into the longing for food, to quiet the cravings of a healthy stomach, which generally clamoured from one blackberry season to the other; the longing for shoes, when her feet were frostbitten; the yet more urgent wish to feed the little ones she loved; the pressing demand, when the water-bucket gave out and they had to pack water in a tin tomato can with a string bail; the dull ache of mortification when she became old enough to understand their position as the borrowing Passmores. Yet all human desire is sacred, and of God; to desire--to want--to aspire--thus shall the individual be saved; and surely in this is the salvation of the race. And Johnnie felt vaguely that at last she was going out into a world where she should learn what to desire and how to desire it.
Now as she tramped she was conning over her present plans. Again she saw the cabin at home in that pitchy black which precedes the first leavening of dawn, and herself getting up to start early on the long walk. Her mother would get up too, and that was foolish. She saw the slight figure stooping to rake together the embers in the broad chimney's throat that the coffee-pot might be set on. She remonstrated with the little mother, saying that she aimed not to disturb anybody--not even Uncle Pros.
"Uncle Pros!" Laurella echoed from the hearthstone, where she sat on her heels, like a little girl playing at mud-pies. Johnnie smiled at the memory of how her mother laughed over the suggestion, with a drawing of slant brows above big, tragic dark eyes, a look of suffering from the mirth which adds the crown to joyousness. "Your Uncle Pros he got a revelation 'long 'bout midnight as to just whar that thar silver mine is that's been dodgin' him for more'n forty year. He come a-shakin' me by the shoulder--like I reckon he's done fifty times ef he's done it once--and telling me that he's off to make all our fortunes inside of a week. He said if you still would go down to that thar old fool cotton mill and hire out, to name it to you that Shade Buckheath would stand some watchin'. Your Uncle Pros has got sense--in streaks. Why in the world you'll pike out and go to work in a cotton mill is more than I can cipher."
"To take care of you and the children," the girl had said, standing tall and straight, deep-bosomed and red-lipped, laughing back at her little mother. "Somebody's got to take care of you-all, and I just love to be the one."
Laurella Consadine, commonly called in mountain fashion by her maiden name of Laurella Passmore, scrambled to her feet and tossed the dark curls out of her eyes.
"Aw--law--huh!" she returned carelessly. "We'll get along; we always have. How do you reckon I made out before you was born, you great big somebody? What's the matter with you? Did you fail to borry a frock for the dance over at Rainy Gap? Try again, honey--I'll bet S'lomy Buckheath would lend you one o' her'n."
That was it; borrowing--borrowing--borrowing till they were known as the borrowing Passmores and became the jest of the neighbourhood.
"No, I couldn't stand it," the girl justified herself. "I had obliged to get out and go where money could be earned--me, that's big and stout and able."
And sighingly--yet light-heartedly, for with Laurella Consadine and Johnnie there was always the quaint suggestion of a little girl with a doll quite too big for her--the mother let her go. It had been just so when Johnnie would have her time for every term of the "old field hollerin' school," where she learned to read and write; even when she persisted in going to Rainy Gap where some charitably inclined northern church maintained a little school, and pushed her education to dizzy heights that to mountain vision appeared "plumb foolish."
That morning she had cautioned her mother to be careful lest they waken the children, for if the little ones roused and began, as the mountain phrase has it, "takin' on," she scarcely knew how she should find heart to leave them. The children--there was the thing that drove. Four small brothers and sisters there were; with little Deanie, the youngest, to make the painfully strong plea of recent babyhood. Consadine, who never could earn money, and used to be from home following one wild scheme or another most of the time, was gone these two years upon his last dubious, adventurous journey; there was not even his intermittent assistance to depend upon. Johnnie was the man of the family, and she shouldered her burden bravely, declaring to herself that she would yet have a chance, which the little ones could share.
She had kissed her mother, picked up her bundle and got as far as the door, when there came a spat of bare feet meeting the floor, a pattering rush, and Deanie's short arms went around her knees, almost tripping her up.
"I wasn't 'sleep--I was 'wake the whole time," whispered the baby, lifting a warm, pursed mouth for a kiss. "Deanie'll be good an' let you go, Sis' Johnnie. An' then when you get down thar whar it's all so sightly, you'll send for Deanie, 'cause deed and double you couldn't live without her, now could ye?" And she looked craftily up into the face bent above her, bravely choking back the tears that wanted to drown her long speech.
Johnnie dropped her bundle and caught up the child, crushing the warm, soft, yielding little form against her breast in a very passion of tenderness.
"Deed and double I couldn't," she whispered back. "Sister's goin' to earn money, and Deanie shall have plenty of good things to eat next winter, and some shoes. She shan't be housed up every time it snows. Sis's goin' to--"
She broke off abruptly and kissed the small face with vehemence.
"Good-bye," she managed to whisper, as she set the baby down and turned to her mother. The kindling touch of that farewell warmed her resolution yet. She was not going down to Cottonville to work in the mill merely; she was going into the Storehouse of Possibilities, to find and buy a chance in the world for these poor little souls who could never have it otherwise.
Before she kissed her mother, took up her bundle and trudged away in the chill, gray dawn, she declared an intention to come home and pay back every one to whom they were under obligations. Now her face dimpled as she remembered the shriek of dismay Laurella sent after her.
"Good land, Johnnie Consadine! If you start in to pay off all the borryin's of the Passmore family since you was born, you'll ruin us--that's what you'll do--you'll ruin us."
These things acted themselves over and over in Johnnie's mind as, throughout the fresh April afternoon, her long, free, rhythmic step, its morning vigour undiminished, swung the miles behind her; still present in thought when, away down in Render's Gap, she settled herself on a rock by the wayside where a little stream crossed the road, to wash her feet and put on the shoes which she had up to this time carried with her bundle.
"I reckon I must be near enough town to need 'em," she said regretfully, as she drew the big, shapeless, cowhide affairs on her slim, brown, carefully washed and dried feet, and with a leathern thong laced down a wide, stiff tongue. She had earned the money for these shoes picking blackberries at ten cents the gallon, and Uncle Pros had bought them at the store at Bledsoe according to his own ideas. "Get 'em big enough and there won't be any fussin' about the fit," the old man explained his theory: and indeed the fit of those shoes on Johnnie's feet was not a thing to fuss over--it was past considering.
The sun was westering; the Gap began to be in shadow, although the point at which she sat was well above the valley. The girl was all at once aware that she was tired and a little timid of what lay before her. She had written to Shade Buckheath, a neighbour's boy with whom she had gone to school, now employed as a mechanic or loom-fixer in one of the cotton mills, and from whom she had received a reply saying that she could get work in Cottonville if she would come down.
Mavity Bence, who had given Johnnie her first clothes, was a weaver in the Hardwick mill at Cottonville, Watauga's milling suburb; her father, Gideon Himes, with whom Shade Buckheath learned his trade, was a skilled mechanic, and had worked as a loom-fixer for a while. At present he was keeping a boarding-house for the hands, and it was here Johnnie was to find lodging. Shade himself was reported to be doing extremely well. He had promised in his letter that if Johnnie came on a Sunday evening he would walk up the road a piece and meet her. She now began to hope that he would come. Then, waiting for him, she forgot him, and set herself to imagine what work in the cotton mill and life in town would be like.
To Shade Buckheath, strolling up the road, in the expansiveness of his holiday mood and the dignity of his Sunday suit, the first sight of Johnnie came with a little unwelcome shock. He had left her in the mountains a tall, thin, sandy-haired girl in the growing age. He got his first sight of her profile relieved against the green of the wayside bank, with a bunch of blooming azaleas starring its verdure behind her bright head. He was not artist enough to appreciate the picture at its value; he simply had the sudden resentful feeling of one who has asked for a hen and been offered a bird of paradise. She was tall and lithe and strong; her thick, fair hair, without being actually curly, seemed to be so vehemently alive that it rippled a bit in its length, as a swift-flowing brook does over a stone. It rose up around her brow in a roll that was almost the fashionable coiffure. Those among whom she had been bred, laconically called the colour red; but in fact it was only too deep a gold to be quite yellow. Johnnie's face, even in repose, was always potentially joyous. The clear, wide, gray eyes, under their arching brows, the mobile lips, held as it were the smile in solution; when one addressed her it broke swiftly into being, the pink lips lifting adorably above the white teeth, the long fringed eyes crinkling deliciously about the corners. Johnnie loved to laugh, and the heart of any reasonable being was instantly moved to give her cause.
For himself, the young man was a prevalent type among his people. Brown, well built, light on his feet, with heavy black hair growing low on his forehead, and long blackish-gray eyes, there was something Latin in the grace of his movements and in his glance. Life ran strong in Shade Buckheath. He stepped with an independent stride that was almost a swagger, and already felt himself a successful man; but that one of the tribe of borrowing Passmores should presume to such opulence of charm struck him as well-nigh impudent. The pure outlines of Johnnie's features, their aristocratic mould, the ruddy gold of her rich, clustering hair, those were things it seemed to him a good mill-hand might well have dispensed with. Then the girl turned, saw him, and flashed him a swift smile of greeting.
"It's mighty kind of you to come up and meet me," she said, getting to her feet a little awkwardly on account of the shoes, and picking up her bundle.
"I 'lowed you might get lost," bantered the young fellow, not offering to carry the packet as they trudged away side by side. "How's everybody back on Unaka? Has your Uncle Pros found his silver mine yet?"
"No," returned Johnnie seriously, "but he's lookin' for it."
Shade threw back his head and laughed so long and loud that it would have been embarrassing to any one less sound and sweet-natured than this girl.
"I reckon he is," said Buckheath. "I reckon Pros Passmore will be lookin' for that silver mine when Gabriel blows. It runs in the family, don't it?"
Johnnie looked at him and shook her head.
"You've been learnin' town ways, haven't you?" she asked simply.
"You mean my makin' game of the Passmores?" he inquired coolly. "No, I never learned that in the settlement; I learned it in the mountains. I just forgot your name was Passmore, that's all," he added sarcastically. "Are you goin' to get mad about it?"
Johnnie had put on her slat sunbonnet and pulled it down so he could not see her face.
"No," she returned evenly, "I'm not goin' to get mad at anything. And my name's not Passmore, either. My name is Consadine, and I aim to be called that. Uncle Pros Passmore is my mother's uncle, and one of the best men that ever lived, I reckon. If all the folks he's nursed in sickness or laid out in death was numbered over it would be a-many a one; and I never heard him take any credit to himself for anything he did. Why, Shade, the last three years of your father's life Uncle Pros didn't dare hunt his silver mine much, because your father was paralysed and had to have close waitin' on, and--and there wasn't nobody but Uncle Pros, since all his boys was gone and--"
"Oh, say it. Speak out," urged Shade hardily. "You mean that all us chaps had cut out and left the old man, and there wasn't a cent of money to pay anybody, and no one but Pros Passmore would 'a' been fool enough to do such hard work without pay. Well, I reckon you're about right. You and me come of a mighty poor nation of folks; but I'm goin' to make my pile and have my share, if lookin' out for number one'll do it."
Johnnie turned and regarded him curiously. It was characteristic of the mountain girl, and of her people, that she had not on first meeting stared, village fashion, at his brave attire; and she seemed now concerned only with the man himself.
"I reckon you'll get it," she said meditatively. "I reckon you will. Sometimes I think we always get just what we deserve in this here world, and that the only safe way is to try to deserve something good. I hope I didn't say too much for Uncle Pros; but he's so easy and say-nothin' himself, that I just couldn't bear to hear you laughin' at him and not answer you."
"I declare, you're plenty funny!" Buckheath burst put boisterously. "No, I ain't mad at you. I kind o' like you for stickin' up for the old man. You and me'll get along, I reckon."
As they moved forward, the man and the girl fell into more general chat, the feeling of irritation at Johnnie's beauty, her superior air, growing rather than diminishing in the young fellow's mind. How dare Pros Passmore's grandniece carry a bright head so high, and flash such glances of liquid fire at her questioner? Shade looked sidewise sometimes at his companion as he asked the news of their mutual friends, and she answered. Yet when he got, along with her mild responses, one of those glances, he was himself strangely subdued by it, and fain to prop his leaning prejudices by contrasting her scant print gown, her slat sunbonnet, and cowhide shoes with the apparel of the humblest in the village which they were approaching.