OF THE USE OF FEET
The suburb of Cottonville bordered a creek, a starveling, wet-weather stream which offered the sole suggestion of sewerage. The village was cut in two by this natural division. It clung to the shelving sides of the shallow ravine; it was scattered like bits of refuse on the numerous railroad embankments, where building was unhandy and streets almost impossible, to be convenient to the mills. Six big factories in all, some on one side of the state line and some on the other, daily breathed in their live current of operatives and exhaled them again to fill the litter of flimsy shanties.
The road which wound down from the heights ran through the middle of the village and formed its main street. Across the ravine from it, reached by a wooden bridge, stood a pretentious frame edifice, a boarding-house built by the Gloriana mill for the use of its office force and mechanics. Men were lounging on the wide porches of this structure in Sabbath-afternoon leisure, smoking and singing. The young Southern male of any class is usually melodious. Across the hollow came the sounds of a guitar and a harmonica.
"Listen a minute, Shade. Ain't that pretty? I know that tune," said Johnnie, and she began to hum softly under her breath, her girlish heart responding to the call.
"Hush," admonished Buckheath harshly. "You don't want to be runnin' after them fellers. It's some of the loom-fixers."
In silence he led the way past the great mill buildings of red brick, square and unlovely but many-windowed and glowing, alight, throbbing with the hum of pent industry. Johnnie gazed steadily up at those windows; the glow within was other than that which gilded turret and pinnacle and fairy isle in the Western sky, yet perchance this light might be a lamp to the feet of one who wished to climb that way. Her adventurous spirit rose to the challenge, and she said softly, more to herself than to the man:
"I'm a-goin' to be a boss hand in there. I'm goin' to get the highest wages of any girl in the mill, time I learn my trade, because I'm goin' to try harder 'n anybody."
Shade looked around at her, curiously. Her beauty, her air of superiority, still repelled him--such fancy articles were not apt to be of much use--but this sounded like a woman who might be valuable to her master.
Johnnie returned his gaze with the frank good will of a child, and suddenly he forgot everything but the adorable lift of her pink lip over the shining white teeth.
The young fellow now halted at the step of a big frame house. The outside was of an extent to seem fairly pretentious; yet so mean was the construction, so sparing of window and finish, that the building showed itself instantly for what it was--the cheap boarding-house of a mill town. A group of tired-looking girls sitting on the step in blessed Sunday idleness and cheap Sunday finery stared as he and Johnnie ascended and crossed the porch. One of these, a tall lank woman of perhaps thirty years, got up and followed a few hesitating paces, apparently more as a matter of curiosity than with any hospitable intent.
A man with a round red face and a bald pate whose curly fringe of grizzled, reddish hair made him look like a clown in a pantomime, motioned them with a surly thumb toward the back of the house, where clattering preparations for supper were audible and odoriferous. The old fellow sat in a splint-bottomed chair of extra size and with arms. This he had kicked back against the wall of the house, so that his short legs did not reach the floor, the big carpet-slippered feet finding rest on the rung of the chair. His attitude was one of relaxation. The face, broad, flat, small of eye and wide of mouth, did indeed suggest the clown countenance; yet there was in it, and in the whole personality, something of the Eastern idol, the journeyman attempt of crude humanity to represent power. And the potential cruelty of the type slept in his placid countenance as surely as ever in the dreaming face of Shiva, the destroyer.
"Mrs. Bence--Aunt Mavity," called Shade, advancing into the narrow hall. In answer a tired-faced woman came from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her checked apron.
"Good Lord, if it ain't Johnnie! I was 'feared she Wouldn't git here to-night," she ejaculated when she saw the girl. "Take her out on the porch, Shade; I ain't got a minute now. Pap's poorly again, and I'm obliged to put the late supper on the table for them thar gals--the night shift's done eat and gone. I'll show her whar she's to sleep at, after while. I don't just rightly know whar Pap aimed to have her stay," she concluded hastily, as something boiled over on the stove. Johnnie set her bundle down in the corner of the kitchen.
"I'll help," she said simply, as she drew the excited coffee-pot to a corner of the range and dosed it judiciously with cold water.
"Well, now, that's mighty good of you," panted worried Mavity Bence. "How queer things comes 'round," she ruminated as they dished up the biscuits and fried pork. "I helped you into the very world, Johnnie. I lived neighbour to your maw, and they wasn't nobody else to be with her when you was born, and I went over. I never suspicioned that you would be helpin' me git supper down here in the settlement inside o' twenty year."
Johnnie ran and fetched and carried, as though she had never done anything else in her life, intent on the one task. She was alive in every fibre of her young body; she saw, she heard, as these words cannot always be truthfully applied to people.
"Did Shade tell you anything about Louvania?" inquired the woman at length.
"No," replied Johnnie softly, "but I seen it in the paper."
Louvania Bence, the only remaining child of the widow, had, two weeks before, left her work at the mill, taken the trolley in to Watauga, walked out upon the county bridge across the Tennessee and jumped off. Johnnie had read the published account, passed from hand to hand in the mountains where Pap Himes and Mavity Bence had troops of kin and where Louvania was born. The statement ran that there was no love affair, and that the girl's distaste for her work at the cotton mill must have been the reason for the suicide.
"That there talk in the newspaper wasn't right," Louvania's mother choked. "They wasn't a word of truth in it. You know in reason that if Louvany hated to work in the mill as bad as all that she'd have named it to me--her own mother--and she never did. She never spoke a word like it, only to say now and ag'in, as we all do, that it was hard, and that she'd--well, she did 'low she'd ruther be dead, as gals will; but she couldn't have meant it. Do you think she could have meant it, Johnnie?"
The faded eyes, clouded now by tears, stared up into Johnnie's clear young orbs.
"Of course she couldn't have meant it," Johnnie comforted her. "Why, I'm sure it's fine to work in the mill. If she didn't feel so, she'd have told you the thing. She must have been out of her mind. People always are when they--do that."
"That's what I keep a-thinkin'," the poor mother said, clinging pathetically to that which gave her consolation and cheer. "I say to myself that it must have been some brain disease took her all of a sudden and made her crazy that-a-way; because God knows she had nothing to fret her nor drive her to such."
By this time the meal was on the table, and the girls trooped in from the porch. The old man with the bald pate was seating himself at the head of the board, and Johnnie asked the privilege of helping wait on table.
"No, you ain't a-goin' to," Mrs. Bence said hospitably, pushing her into a seat. "If you start in to work in the morning, like I reckon you will, you ain't got no other time to get acquainted with the gals but right now. You set down. We don't take much waitin' on. We all pass things, and reach for what we want."
In the smoky illumination of the two ill-cleaned lamps which stood one at each end of the table, Johnnie's fair face shone out like a star. The tall woman who had shown a faint interest in them on the porch was seated just opposite. Her bulging light-blue eyes scarcely left the newcomer's countenance as she absent-mindedly filled her mouth. She was a scant, stringy-looking creature, despite her height; the narrow back was hooped like that of an old woman and the shoulders indrawn, so that the chest was cramped, and sent forth a wheezy, flatted voice that sorted ill with her inches; her round eyes had no speculation in them; her short chin was obstinate without power; the thin, half-gray hair that wanted to curl feebly about her lined forehead was stripped away and twisted in a knot no bigger than a walnut, at the back of a bent head.
For some time the old man at the end of the table stowed himself methodically with victuals; his air was that of a man packing a box; then he brought his implements to half-rest, as it were, and gave a divided attention to the new boarder.
"What did I hear them call yo' name?" he inquired gruffly.
Johnnie repeated her title and gave him one of those smiles that went with most of her speeches. It seemed to suggest things to the old sinner.
"Huh," he grunted; "I riccollect ye now. Yo' pap was a Consadine, but you're old Virgil Passmore's grandchild. One of the borryin' Passmores," he added, staring coolly at Johnnie. "Virge was a fine, upstandin' old man. You've got the favour of him--if you wasn't a gal."
He evidently shared Schopenhauer's distaste for "the low-statured, wide-hipped, narrow-shouldered sex."
The girls about the table were all listening eagerly. Johnnie had the sensation of a freshman who has walked out on the campus too well dressed.
"Virge was a great beau in his day," continued Pap, reminiscently. "He liked to wear good clothes, too. I mind how he borried Abner Wimberly's weddin' coat and wore it something like ten year--showed it off fine--it fitted him enough sight better than it ever fitted little old Ab. Then he comes back to Wimberly at the end of so long a time with the buttons. He says, says he, 'Looks like that thar cloth yo' coat was made of wasn't much 'count, Ab,' says he. 'I think Jeeters cheated ye on it. But the buttons was good. The buttons wore well. And them I'm bringin' back, 'caze you may have use for 'em, and I have none, now the coat's gone. Also, what I borry I return, as everybody knows.' That was your granddaddy."
There was a tremendous giggling about the board as the old man made an end. Johnnie herself smiled, though her face was scarlet. She had no words to tell her tormentor that the borrowing trait in her tribe which had earned them the name of the borrowing Passmores proceeded not from avarice, which ate into Pap Himes's very marrow, but from its reverse trait of generosity. She knew vaguely that they would have shared with a neighbour their last bite or dollar, and had thus never any doubt of being shared with nor any shame in the asking.
"Yes," pursued Himes, surveying Johnnie chucklingly, "I mind when you was born. Has your Uncle Pros found his silver mine yet?"
"My mother has often told me how good you and Mrs. Bence was to us when I was little," answered Johnnie mildly. "No, sir, Uncle Pros hasn't found his silver mine yet--but he's still a-hunting for it."
The reply appeared to delight Himes. He laughed immoderately, even as Buckheath had done.
"I'll bet he is," he agreed. "Pros Passmore's goin' to hunt that there silver mine till he finds another hole in the ground about six feet long and six feet deep--that's what he's a-goin' to do."
The hasty supper was well under way now. Mrs. Bence brought the last of the hot bread, and shuffled into a seat. The old man at the head of the board returned to his feeding, but with somewhat moderated voracity. At length, pretty fully gorged, he raised his head from over his plate and looked about him for diversion. Again his attention was directed to the new girl.
"Air ye wedded?" he challenged suddenly.
She shook her head and laughed.
"Got your paigs sot for to git any one?" he followed up his investigations.
Johnnie laughed more than ever, and blushed again.
"How old air ye?" demanded her inquisitor. "Eighteen? 'Most nineteen? Good Lord! You're a old maid right now. Well, don't you let twenty go by without gittin' your hooks on a man. My experience is that when a gal gits to be twenty an' ain't wedded--or got her paigs sot for to wed--she's left. Left," he concluded impressively.
That quick smile of Johnnie's responded.
"I reckon I'll do my best," she agreed reasonably; "but some folks can do that and miss it."
Himes nodded till he set the little red curls all bobbing around the bare spot.
"Uh-huh," he approved, "I reckon that's so. Women is plenty, and men hard to git. Here's Mandy Meacham, been puttin' in her best licks for thirty year or more, an' won't never make it."
Johnnie did not need to be told which one was Mandy. The sallow cheek of the tall woman across from her reddened; the short chin wabbled a bit more than the mastication of the biscuit in hand demanded; a moisture appeared in the inexpressive blue eyes; but she managed a shaky laugh to assist the chorus which always followed Pap Himes's little jokes.
The old man held a sort of state among these poor girls, and took tribute of admiration, as he had taken tribute of life and happiness from daughter and granddaughter. Gideon Himes was not actively a bad man; he was as without personal malice as malaria. When it makes miserable those about it, or robs a girl of her pink cheeks, her bright eyes, her joy of life, wearing the elasticity out of her step and making an old woman of her before her time, we do not fly into a rage at it--we avoid it. The Pap Himeses of this world are to be avoided if possible.
Mandy stared at her plate in mortified silence. Johnnie wished she could think of something pleasant to say to the poor thing, when her attention was diverted by the old man once more addressing herself.
"You look stout and hearty; if you learn to weave as fast as you ort, and git so you can tend five or six looms, I'll bet you git a husband," he remarked in a burst of generosity. "I'll bet you do; and what's more, I'll speak a good word for ye. A gal that's a peart weaver's mighty apt to find a man. You learn your looms if you want to git wedded--and I know in reason you do--it's about all gals of your age thinks of."
When supper was over Johnnie was a little surprised to see the tall woman approach Pap Himes like a small child begging a favour of a harsh taskmaster.
"Can't that there new girl bunk with me?" she inquired earnestly.
"I had the intention to give her Louvany's bed," Pap returned promptly. "As long as nobody's with you, I reckon I don't care; but if one comes in, you take 'em, and she goes with Mavity, mind. I cain't waste room, poor as I am."
Piloted by the tall girl, Johnnie climbed the narrow stair to a long bare room where a row of double beds accommodated eight girls. The couch she was to occupy had been slept in during the day by a mill hand who was on night turn, and it had not been remade. Deftly Johnnie straightened and spread it, while her partner grumbled.
"What's the use o' doin' that?" Mandy inquired, stretching herself and yawning portentously. "We'll jist muss it all up in about two minutes. When you've worked in a mill as long as I have you'll git over the notion of makin' your bed, for hit's but a notion."
Johnnie laughed across her shoulder.
"I'd just as soon do it," she reassured her companion. "I do love smooth bedclothes; looks like I dream better on 'em and under 'em."
Mandy sat down on the edge of the bed, interfering considerably with the final touches Johnnie was putting to it.
"You're a right good gal," she opined patronizingly, "but foolish. The new ones always is foolish. I can put you up to a-many a thing that'll help you along, though, and I'm willin' to do it."
Again Johnnie smiled at her, that smile of enveloping sweetness and tenderness. It made something down in the left side of poor Mandy's slovenly dress-bodice vibrate and tingle.
"I'll thank you mightily," said Johnnie Consadine, "mightily." And knew not how true a word she spoke.
"You see," counselled Mandy from the bed into which she had rolled with most of her clothes on, "you want to get in with Miss Lydia Sessions and the Uplift ladies, and them thar swell folks."
Johnnie nodded, busily at work making a more elaborated night toilet than the others, who were going to bed all about them, paying little attention to their conversation.
"Miss Lyddy she ain't as young as she once was, and the boys has quit hangin' 'round her as much as they used to; so now she has took up with good works," the girl on the bed explained with a directness which Miss Sessions would not perhaps have appreciated. "Her and some other of the nobby folks has started what they call a Uplift club amongst the mill girls. Thar's a big room whar you dance--if you can--and whar they give little suppers for us with not much to eat; and thar's a place where they sorter preach to ye--lecture she calls it. I don't know what-all Miss Lyddy hain't got for her club. But you jist go, and listen, and say how much obliged you are, an she'll do a lot for you, besides payin' your wages to get you out of the mill any day she wants you for the Upliftin' business."
Mandy had a gasp, which occurred between sentences and at the end of certain words, with grotesque effect. Johnnie was to find that this gasp was always very much to the fore when Mandy was being uplifted. It then served variously as the gasp of humility, gratitude, admiration; the gasp of chaste emotion, the gasp of reprobation toward others who did not come forward to be uplifted.
"Did you say there was books at that club?" inquired Johnnie out of the darkness--she had now extinguished the light. "Can a body learn things from the lectures?"
"Uh-huh," agreed Mandy sleepily; "but you don't have to read 'em--the books. They lend 'em to you, and you take 'em home, and after so long a time you take 'em back sayin' how much good they done you. That's the way. If Mr. Stoddard's 'round, he'll ask you questions about 'em; but Miss Lyddy won't--she hates to find out that any of her plans ain't workin'."
For a long time there was silence. Mandy was just dropping off into her first heavy sleep, when a whispering voice asked,
"Is Mr. Stoddard--has he got right brown eyes and right brown hair, and does he ride in one of these--one of these--"
"Good land!" grumbled the addressed, "I thought it was mornin' and I had to git up! You ort to been asleep long ago. Yes, Mr. Stoddard's got sorter brown eyes and hair, and he rides in a otty-mobile. How did you know?"
But Mandy was too tired to stay awake to marvel over that. Her rhythmic snores soon proved that she slept, while Johnnie lay thinking of the various proffers she had that evening received of a lamp to her feet, a light on her path. And she would climb--yes, she would climb. Not by the road Pap Himes pointed out; not by the devious path Mandy Meacham suggested; but by the rugged road of good, honest toil, to heights where was the power and the glory, she would certainly strive.
She conned over the new things which this day had brought. Again she saw the auto swing around the curve and halt; she got the outline of the man's bent head against the evening sky. They were singing again over at the mechanics' boarding-house; the sound came across to her window; the vibrant wires, the chorus of deep male voices, even the words she knew they were using but could not distinguish, linked themselves in some fashion with memory of a man's eyes, his smile, his air of tender deference as he cherished her broken flower. Something caught in her throat and choked. Her mind veered to the figures on the porch of that Palace of Pleasure; the girl with the ball tossing it to the young fellow below on the lawn. In memory she descended the hill, coming down into the shadows with each step, looking back to the heights and the light. Well, she had said that if one had feet one might climb, and to-night the old man had tried to train her to his pace for attaining heart's desire. In the midst of a jumble of autos and shining mill windows, she watched the room grow ghostly with the light of a late-risen moon. Suddenly afar off she heard the "honk! honk! honk!" which had preceded the advent of the car on the ridge road.
Getting up, she stole, to the one window which the long room afforded. It gave upon the main street of the village. "Honk! honk! honk!" She gazed toward the steep from which the sounds seemed to come. There, flashing in and out of the greenery, appeared half a dozen pairs of fiery eyes. A party of motorists were going in to Watauga, starting from the Country Club on the Ridge crest. Johnnie watched them, fascinated. As the foremost car swept down the road and directly beneath her window, its driver, whom she recognized with a little shiver, by the characteristic carriage of his head, swerved the machine out and stopped it at the curb below. The others passed, calling gay inquiries to him.
"We're all right," she heard a well-remembered voice reply. "You go ahead--we'll be there before you."
The slim, gray-clad figure in the seat beside him laughed softly and fluttered a white handkerchief as the last car went on.
"Now!" exulted the voice. "I'll put on my goggles and cap and we'll show them what running is.
'It's they'll take the high road and we'll take the low, And we'll be in Watauga befo-o-ore them!'" Even as he spoke he adjusted his costume, and Johnnie saw the car shoot forward like a living creature eager on the trail. She sighed as she looked after them.
Feet--of what use were feet to follow such a flight as that?