A PEAK IN DARIEN
So walking, and so desultorily talking, they came out on a noble white highway that wound for miles along the bluffy edge of the upland overlooking the valley upon the one side, fronted by handsome residences on the other.
It was Johnnie's first view of a big valley, a river, or a city. She had seen the shoestring creek bottoms between the endless mountains among which she was born and bred, the high-hung, cup-like depressions of their inner fastnesses; she was used to the cool, clear, boulder-checked mountain creeks that fight their way down those steeps like an armed man beating off assailants at every turn; she had been taken a number of times to Bledsoe, the tiny settlement at the foot of Unaka Old Bald, where there were two stores, a blacksmith shop, the post-office and the church.
Below her, now beginning to glow in the evening light, opened out one of the finest valleys of the southern Appalachees. Lapped in it, far off, shrouded with rosy mist which she did not identify as transmuted coal smoke, a city lay, fretted with spires, already sparkling with electric lights, set like a glittering boss of jewels in the broad curve of a shining river.
Directly down the steep at their feet was the cotton-mill town, a suburb clustered about a half-dozen great factories, whose long rows of lighted windows defined their black bulk. There was a stream here, too; a small, sluggish thing that flowed from tank to tank among the factories, spanned by numerous handrails, bridged in one place for the wagon-road to cross. Mills, valley, town, distant rimming mountains, river and creek, glowed and pulsed, dissolved and relimned themselves in the uprolling glory of sunset.
"Oh, wait for me a minute, Shade," pleaded the girl, pulling off her sunbonnet.... "I want to look.... Never in my life did I see anything so sightly!"
"Good land!" laughed the man, with a note of impatience in his voice. "You and me was raised on mountain scenery, as a body may say. I should think we'd both had enough of it to last us."
"But this--this is different," groped Johnnie, trying to explain the emotions that possessed her. "Look at that big settlement over yon. I reckon it's a city. It must be Watauga. It looks like the--the mansions of the blest, in the big Bible that preacher Drane has, down at Bledsoe."
"I reckon they're blest--they got plenty of money," returned Shade, with the cheap cynicism of his kind.
"So many houses!" the girl communed with herself. "There's bound to be a-many a person in all them houses," she went on. One could read the loving outreach to all humanity in her tones.
"There is," put in Shade caustically. "There's many a rogue. You want to look out for them tricky town folks--a girl like you."
Had he been more kind, he would have said, "a pretty girl like you." But Johnnie did not miss it; she was used to such as he gave, or less.
"Come on," he urged impatiently. "We won't get no supper if you don't hurry."
Supper! Johnnie drew in her breath and shook her head. With that scene unrolled there, as though all the kingdoms of earth were spread before them to look upon, she was asked to remember supper! Sighing, but submissively, she moved to follow her guide, a reluctant glance across her shoulder, when there came a cry something like that which the wild geese make when they come over in the spring; and a thing with two shining, fiery eyes, a thing that purred like a giant cat, rounded a curve in the road and came to a sudden jolting halt beside them.
Shade stopped immediately for that. Johnnie did not fail to recognize the vehicle. Illustrated magazines go everywhere in these days. In the automobile rode a man, bare-headed, dressed in a suit of white flannels, strange to Johnnie's eyes. Beside him sat a woman in a long, shimmering, silken cloak, a great, misty, silver-gray veil twined round head and hat and tied in a big bow under the chin. Johnnie had as yet seen nothing more pretentious than the starched and ruffled flummeries of a small mountain watering-place. This beautiful, peculiar looking garb had something of the picturesque, the poetic, about it, that appealed to her as the frocks worn at Chalybeate Springs or Bledsoe had never done. She had not wanted them. She wanted this. The automobile was stopped, the young fellow in it calling to Shade:
"I wonder if you could help me with this thing, Buckheath? It's on a strike again. Show me what you did to it last time."
Along the edge of the road at this point, for safety's sake, a low stone wall had been laid. Setting down her bundle, Johnnie leaned upon this, and shared her admiration between the valley below and these beautiful, interesting newcomers. Her bonnet was pushed far back; the wind ruffled the bright hair about her forehead; the wonder and glory and delight of it all made her deep eyes shine with a child's curiosity and avid wishfulness. Her lips were parted in unconscious smiles. White and red, tremulous, on tiptoe, the eager soul looking out of her face, she was very beautiful. The man in the automobile observed her kindly; the woman's features she could not quite see, though the veil was parted.
Neither Johnnie nor the driver of the car saw the quick, resentful glance her companion shot at the city man as Shade noted the latter's admiring look at the girl. Buckheath displayed an awesome familiarity with the machine and its workings, crawling under the body, and tapping it here and there with a wrench its driver supplied. They backed it and moved it a little, and seemed to be debating the short turn which would take them into the driveway leading up to a house on the slope above the road.
Johnnie continued to watch with fascinated eyes; Shade was on his feet now, reaching into the bowels of the machine to do mysterious things.
"It's a broken connection," he announced briefly.
"Is the wire too short to twist together?" inquired the man in the car. "Will you have to put in a new piece?"
"Uh-huh," assented Buckheath.
"There's a wire in that box there," directed the other.
Shade worked in silence for a moment.
"Now she'll go, I reckon," he announced, and once more the driver started up his car. It curved perilously near the bundle she had set down, with the handkerchief containing her cherished blossom lying atop; the mud-guard swept this latter off, and Buckheath set a foot upon it as he followed the machine in its progress.
"Take care--that was a flower," the man in the auto warned, too late.
Shade answered with a quick, backward-flung glance and a little derisive laugh, but no words. The young fellow stopped the machine, jumped down, and picked up the coarse little handkerchief which showed a bit of drooping green stem at one end and a glimpse of pink at the other.
"I'm sorry," he said, presenting it to Johnnie with exactly the air and tone he had used in speaking to the lady who was with him in the car. "If I had seen it in time, I might have saved it. I hope it's not much hurt."
Buckheath addressed himself savagely to his work at the machine. The woman in the auto glanced uneasily up at the house on the slope above them. Johnnie looked into the eyes bent so kindly upon her, and could have worshipped the ground on which their owner trod. Kindness always melted her heart utterly, but kindness with such beautiful courtesy added--this was the quality in flower.
"It doesn't make any differ," she said softly, turning to him a rapt, transfigured face. "It's just a bloom I brought from the mountains--they don't grow in the valley, and I found this one on my way down."
The man wondered a little if it were only the glow of the sunset that lit her face with such shining beauty; he noted how the fires of it flowed over her bright, blown hair and kindled its colour, how it lingered in the clear eyes, and flamed upon the white neck and throat till they had almost the translucence of pearl.
"I think this thing'll work now--for a spell, anyhow," Shade Buckheath's voice sounded sharply from the road behind them.
"Are you afraid to attempt it, Miss Sessions?" the young man called to his companion. "If you are, we'll walk up, I'll telephone at the house for a trap and we'll drive back:--Buckheath will take the machine in for us."
The voice was even and low-toned, yet every word came to Johnnie distinctly. She watched with a sort of rapture the movements of this party. The man's hair was dark and crisp, and worn a little long about the temples and ears; he had pleasant dark eyes and an air of being slightly amused, even when he did not smile. The lady apparently said that she was not afraid, for her companion got in, the machine negotiated the turn safely and began to move slowly up the steep ascent. As it did so, the driver gave another glance toward where the mountain girl stood, a swift, kind glance, and a smile that stayed with her after the shining car had disappeared in the direction of the wide-porched building where people were laughing and calling to each other and moving about--people dressed in beautiful garments which Johnnie would fain have inspected more closely.
Buckheath stood gazing at her sarcastically.
"Come on," he ordered, as she held back, lingering. "They ain't no good in you hangin' 'round here. That was Mr. Gray Stoddard, and the lady he's beauin' is Miss Lydia Sessions, Mr. Hardwick's sister-in-law. He's for such as her--not for you. He's the boss of the bosses down at Cottonville. No use of you lookin' at him."
Johnnie scarcely heard the words. Her eyes were on the wide porch of the house above them.
"What is that place?" she inquired in an awestruck whisper, as she fell into step submissively, plodding with bent head at his shoulder.
"The Country Club," Shade flung back at her. "Did you 'low it was heaven?"
Heaven! Johnnie brooded on that for a long time. She turned her head stealthily for a last glimpse of the portico where a laughing girl tossed a ball to a young fellow on the terrace below. After all, heaven was not so far amiss. She had rather associated it with the abode of the blest. The people in it were happy; they moved in beautiful raiment all day long; they spoke to each other kindly. It was love's home, she was sure of that. Then her mind went back to the dress of the girl in the auto.
"I'm a-going to have me a frock like that before I die," she said, half unconsciously, yet with a sudden passion of resolution. "Yes, if I live I'm a-goin' to have me just such a frock."
Shade wheeled in his tracks with a swift narrowing of the slate-gray eyes. He had been more stirred than he was willing to acknowledge by the girl's beauty, and by a nameless power that went out from the seemingly helpless creature and laid hold of those with whom she came in contact. It was the open admiration of young Stoddard which had roused the sullen resentment he was now spending on her.
"Ye air, air ye?" he demanded sharply. "You're a-goin' to have a frock like that? And what man's a-goin' to pay for it, I'd like to know?"
Such talk belonged to the valley and the settlement. In the mountains a woman works, of course, and earns her board and keep. She is a valuable industrial possession or chattel to the man, who may profit by her labour; never a luxury--a bill of expense. As she walked, Johnnie nodded toward the factory in the valley, beginning to blaze with light--her bridge of toil, that was to carry her from the island of Nowhere to the great mainland of Life, where everything might be had for the working, the striving.
"I didn't name no man," she said mildly. "I don't reckon anybody's goin' to give me things. Ain't there the factory where a body may work and earn money for all they need?"
"Well, I reckon they might, if they was good and careful to need powerful little," allowed Shade.
At the moment they came to the opening of a small path which plunged abruptly down the steep side of the ridge, curving in and out with--and sometimes across--a carriage road. As they took the first steps on this the sun forsook the valley at last, and lingered only on the mountain top where was that Palace of Pleasure into which He and She had vanished, before which the strange chariot waited. And all at once the little brook that wound, a golden thread, between the bulk of the mills, flowed, a stream of ink, from pool to pool of black water. The way down turned and turned; and each time that Shade and Johnnie got another sight of the buildings of the little village below, they had changed in character with the changing point of view. They loomed taller, they looked darker in spite of the pulsing light from their many windows.
And now there burst out a roar of whistles, like the bellowing of great monsters. Somehow it struck cold upon the girl's heart. They were coming down from that wonderful highland where she had seemed to see all the kingdoms of earth spread before her, hers for the conquering; they were descending into the shadow.
As they came quite to the foot they saw groups of women and children, with here and there a decrepit man, leaving the cottages and making their way toward the lighted mills. From the doors of little shanties tired-faced women with boys and girls walking near them, and, in one or two cases, very small ones clinging to their skirts and hands, reinforced the crowd which set in a steady stream toward the bridges and the open gates in the high board fences.
"What are they a-goin' to the factory for on Sunday evening?" Johnnie inquired.
"Night turn," replied Buckheath briefly. "Sunday's over at sundown."
"Oh, yes," agreed Johnnie dutifully, but rather disheartened. "Trade must be mighty good if they have to work all night."
"Them that works don't get any more for it," retorted Shade harshly.
"What's the little ones goin' to the mill for?" Johnnie questioned, staring up at him with apprehensive eyes.
"Why, to play, I reckon," returned the young fellow ironically. "Folks mostly does go to the mill to play, don't they?"
The girl ran forward and clasped his arm with eager fingers that shook. "Shade!" she cried; "they can't work those little babies. That one over there ain't to exceed four year old, and I know it."
The man looked indifferently to where a tiny boy trotted at his mother's heels, solemn, old-faced, unchildish. He laughed a little.
"That thar chap is the oldest feller in the mills," he said. "That's Benny Tarbox. He's too short to tend a frame, but his maw lets him help her at the loom--every weaver has obliged to have helpers wait on 'em. You'll get used to it."
Get used to it! She pulled the sunbonnet about her face. The gold was all gone from the earth, and from her mood as well. She raised her eyes to where the last brightness lingered on the mountain-top. Up there they were happy. And even as her feet carried her forward to Pap Himes's boarding-house, her soul went clamouring, questing back toward the heights, and the sunlight, the love and laughter, she had left behind.
"The power and the glory--the power and the glory," she whispered over and over to herself. "Is it all back there?" Again she looked wistfully toward the heights. "But maybe a body with two feet can climb."