A BIT OF METAL
In the valleys of Tennessee, spring has a trick of dropping down on the world like a steaming wet blanket. The season that Johnnie Consadine went to work in the mills at Cottonville, May came in with warm rains. Stifling nights followed sultry, drenching days, till vegetation everywhere sprouted unwholesomely and the mountain slopes had almost the reek of tropic jungles.
Yet the girl performed the labours of a factory weaver with almost passionate enthusiasm and devotion. Always and always she was looking beyond the mere present moment. If tending loom was the road which led to the power and the glory, what need to complain that it--the mere road--was but dull earth?
She tried conscientiously, to do and be exactly what Lydia Sessions seemed to want. Gray Stoddard's occasional spoken word, or the more lengthy written messages he had taken to putting in the books he sent her, seemed to demand of her nothing, but always inspired to much. For all his disposition to keep hands off the personal development of his friends, perhaps on account of it, Gray made an excellent teacher, and these writings--the garnered grain, the gist, of his own wide culture--were the very sinews for the race Johnnie was setting out on. She began to intelligently guard her speech, her manner, her very thoughts, conforming them to what she knew of his ideals. Miss Session's striving to build up an imitation lady on the sincere foundation Johnnie offered appealed less to the girl, and had therefore less effect; but she immediately responded to Stoddard's methods, tucking in to the books she returned written queries or records of perplexity, which gradually expanded into notes, expressions of her own awakened thought, and even fancies, which held from the first a quaint charm and individuality.
The long, hot days at the foot of the hills did seem to the mountain-bred creature interminable and stifling. Perspiration dripped from white faces as the operatives stood listlessly at their looms, or the children straggled back and forth in the narrow lanes between the frames, tending the endlessly turning spools.
The Hardwick Mill had both spinning and weaving departments. Administrative ability is as much a native gift as the poet's voice or the actor's grace, and the managers of any large business are always on the lookout for it. Before Johnnie Consadine had been two months in the factory she was given charge of a spinning room. But the dignity of the new position--even the increase of pay--had a cloud upon it. She was beginning to understand the enmity there is between the soulless factory and the human tide that feeds its life. She knew now that the tasks of the little spinners, which seemed less than child's play, were deadly in their monotony, their long indoor hours, and the vibrant clamour amid which they were performed. Her own vigorous young frame resisted valiantly; yet the Saturday half-holiday, the Sunday of rest, could scarcely renew her for the exorbitant hours of mechanical toil.
As she left the mill those sultry evenings, with the heat mists still tremulous over the valley and heat lightnings bickering in the west, she went with a lagging step up the village street, not looking, as had been her wont, first toward the far blue mountains, and then at the glorious state of the big valley. The houses of the operatives were set up haphazard and the village was denied all beauty. Most of the yards were unfenced, and here and there a row of shanties would be crowded so close together that speech in one could be heard in the other.
"And then if any ketchin' disease does break out, like the dipthery did last year," Mavity Bence said one evening as she walked home with Johnnie, "hit's sartin shore to go through 'em like it would go through a family."
Johnnie looked curiously at the dirty yards with their debris of lard buckets and tin cans. Space--air, earth and sky--was cheap and plentiful in the mountains. It seemed strange to be sparing of it, down here where people were so rich.
"What makes 'em build so close, Aunt Mavity?" she asked.
"Hit's the Company," returned Mrs. Bence lifelessly. "They don't want to spend any more than they have to for land. Besides they want everything to be nigh to the mill. Lord--hit don't make no differ. Only when a fire starts in a row of 'em hit cleans up the Company's property same as it does the plunder of the folks that lives in 'em. You just got to be thankful if there don't chance to be one or more baby children locked up in the houses and burned along with the other stuff. I've knowed that to happen more than oncet."
Johnnie's face whitened.
"Miss Lydia says she's going to persuade her brother-in-law to furnish a kindergarten and a day nursery for the Hardwick Mill," she offered hastily. "They have one at some other mill down in Georgia, and she says it's fine the way they take care of the children while the mothers are at work in the factory."
"Uh-uh," put in Mandy Meacham slowly, speaking over the shoulders of the two, "but I'd a heap ruther take care of my own child--ef I had one. An' ef the mills can afford to pay for it the one way, they can afford to pay for it t'other way. Miss Liddy's schemes is all for the showin' off of the swells and the rich folks. I reckon that, with her, hit'll end in talk, anyhow--hit always does."
"Aunt Mavity," pursued Johnnie timidly, "do you reckon the water's unhealthy down here in Cottonville? Looks like all the children in the mill have the same white, puny look. I thought maybe the water didn't agree with them."
Mavity Bence laughed out mirthlessly. "The water!" she echoed in a tone of amused contempt. "Johnnie, you're mighty smart about some things; cain't you see that a cotton mill is bound to either kill or cripple a child? Them that don't die, sort o' drags along and grows up to be mis'able, undersized, sickly somebodies. Hit's true the Hardwick Mill won't run night turn; hit's true they show mo' good will about hirin' older children; but if you can make a cotton mill healthy for young-uns, you can do more than God A'mighty." She wiped her eyes furtively.
"Lou was well growed before ever she went in the mill. I know in reason hit never hurt her. I mean these here mammies that I see puttin' little tricks to work that ort to be runnin' out o' doors gettin' their strength and growth--well, po' souls, I reckon they don't know no better, God forgive 'em!"
"But if they got sick or anything, there's always the hospital," Johnnie spoke up hopefully, as they passed the clean white building standing high on its green slope.
"The hospital!" echoed Mandy, with a half-terrified glance over her shoulder. "Yes, ef you want to be shipped out of town in a box for the student doctors to cut up, I reckon the hospital is a good place. It's just like everything else the rich swells does--it's for their profit, not for our'n. They was a lot of big talk when they built that thar hospital, and every one of us was axed to give something for beds and such. We was told that if we got hurt in the mill we could go thar free, and if we fell sick they'd doctor us for little or nothin'. They can afford it--considerin' the prices they git for dead bodies, I reckon."
"Now, Mandy, you don't believe any such as that," remonstrated Johnnie, with a half-smile.
"Believe it--I know it to be true!" Mandy stuck to her point stubbornly. "Thar was Lura Dawson; her folks was comin' down to git the body and bury hit, and when they got here the hospital folks couldn't tell 'em whar to look--no, they couldn't. Atlas Dawson 'lows he'll git even with 'em if it takes him the rest of his natural life. His wife was a Bushares and her whole tribe is out agin the hospital folks and the mill folks down here. I reckon you live too far up in the mountains to hear the talk, but some of these swells had better look out."
As the long, hot days followed each other, Johnnie noticed how Mandy failed. Her hand was forever at her side, where she had a stitch-like pain, that she called "a jumpin' misery." Even broad, seasoned Mavity Bence grew pallid and gaunt. Only Pap Himes thrived. His trouble was rheumatism, and the hot days were his best. Of evenings he would sit on the porch in his broad, rush-bottomed chair, the big yellow cat on his knees, and smoke his pipe and, if he cared to do so, banter unkindly with the girls on the steps. Early in the season as it was, the upstairs rooms were terribly hot; and sometimes the poor creatures sat or lay on the porch till well past midnight. Across the gulch were songs and the strumming of banjos or guitars, where the young fellows at the inn waked late.
The rich people on top of the hill were beginning to make their preparations to flit to the seashore or mountains. Lydia Sessions left for two weeks, promising to return in June, and the Uplift work drooped, neglected. There seems to be an understanding that people do not need uplifting so much during hot weather. Gray Stoddard was faithful in the matter of books. He carried them to Lydia Sessions and discussed with that young lady a complete course of reading for Johnnie. Lydia was in the position of one taking bad medicine for good results. She could not but delight in any enterprise which brought Stoddard intimately to her, yet the discussion of Johnnie Consadine, the admiration he expressed for the girl's character and work, were as so much quinine.
Johnnie herself was dumb and abashed, now, in his presence. She sought vainly for the poise and composure which were her natural birthright in most of the situations of life. Yet her perturbation was not that of distress. The sight of him, the sound of his voice, even if he were not saying good morning to her, would cheer her heart for one whole, long, hot day: and if he spoke to her, if he looked at her, nothing could touch her with sadness for hours afterward. She asked no questions why this was so; she met it with a sort of desperate bravery, accepting the joy, refusing to see the sorrow there might be in it. And she robbed herself of necessary sleep to read Stoddard's books, to study them, to wring from them the last precious crumb of help or information that they might have for her. The mountain dweller is a mental creature. An environment which builds lean, vigorous bodies, is apt to nourish keen, alert minds. Johnnie crowded into her few months of night reading a world, of ripening culture.
Ever since the Sunday morning of the automobile ride, Shade Buckheath had been making elaborate pretense of having forgotten that such a person as Johnnie Consadine existed. If he saw her approaching, he turned his back; and when forced to recognize her, barely growled some unintelligible greeting. Then one evening she came suddenly into the machine room. She walked slowly down the long aisle between pieces of whirring machinery, carrying all eyes with her. It was an offence to Buckheath to note how the other young fellows turned from their tasks to look after her. She had no business down here where the men were. That was just like a fool girl, always running after--. She paused at his bench.
"Shade," she said, bending close so that he might hear the words, "I got leave to come in and ask you to make me a thing like this--see?" showing a pattern for a peculiarly slotted strip of metal.
Buckheath returned to the surly indifference of demeanour which was natural to him. Yet he smiled covertly as he examined the drawing she had made of the thing she wanted. He divined in this movement of Johnnie's but an attempt to approach himself, and, as she explained with some particularity, he paid more attention to the girl than to her words.
"I want a big enough hole here to put a bolt through," she repeated. "Shade--do you understand? You're not listening to one word I say."
Buckheath turned and grinned broadly at her.
"What's the use of this foolishness, Johnnie?" he inquired, clinking the strips of metal between his fingers. "Looks like you and me could find a chance to visit without going to so much trouble."
Johnnie opened her gray eyes wide and stared at him.
"Foolishness!" she echoed. "Mr. Stoddard didn't call it foolishness when I named it to him. He said I was to have anything I wanted made, and that one of the loom-fixers could attend to it."
"Mr. Stoddard--what's he got to do with it?" demanded Shade.
"He hasn't anything; but that I spoke to him about it, and he told me to try any plan I wanted to."
"Well, the less you talk to the bosses--a girl like you, working here in the mill--the better name you'll bear," Shade told her, twisting the drawing in his hands and regarding her from under lowered brows.
"Don't tear that," cautioned Johnnie impatiently. "I have to speak to some of the people in authority sometimes--the same as you do. What's the matter with you, Shade Buckheath?"
"There's nothing the matter with me," Buckheath declared wagging his head portentously, and avoiding her eye. Then the wrath, the sense of personal injury, which had been simmering in him ever since he saw her sitting beside Stoddard in the young mill owner's car, broke forth. "When I see a girl riding in an automobile with one of these young bosses," he growled, close to her ear, "I know what to think--and so does everybody else."
It was out. He had said it at last. He stared at her fiercely. The red dyed her face and neck at his words and look. For a desperate moment she took counsel with herself. Then she lifted her head and looked squarely in Buckheath's face.
"Oh, that's what has been the matter with you all this time, is it?" she inquired. "Well, I'm glad you spoke and relieved your mind." Then she went on evenly, "Mr. Stoddard had been up in the mountains that Sunday to get a flower that he wanted, like the one you stepped on and broke the day I came down. I was up there and showed him where the things grow. Then it rained, and he brought me down in his car. That's all there was to it."
"Mighty poor excuse," grunted Shade, turning his shoulder to her.
"It's not an excuse at all," said Johnnie. "You have no right to ask excuses for what I do--or explanations, either, for that matter. I've told you the truth about it because we were old friends and you named it to me; but I'm sorry now that I spoke at all. Give me that drawing and those patterns back. Some of the other loom-fixers can make what I want."
"You get mad quick, don't you?" Buckheath asked, turning to her with a half-taunting, half-relenting smile on his face. "Red-headed people always do."
"No, I'm not mad," Johnnie told him, as she had told him long ago. "But I'll thank you not to name Mr. Stoddard to me again. If I haven't the right to speak to anybody I need to, why it certainly isn't your place to tell me of it."
"Go 'long," said Buckheath, surlily; "I'll fix 'em for you." And without another word the girl left him.
After Johnnie was gone, Buckheath chewed for some time the bitter cud of chagrin. He was wholly mistaken, then, in the object of her visit to the mechanical department? Yet he was a cool-headed fellow, always alert for that which might bring him gain. Pushing, aspiring, he subscribed for and faithfully studied a mechanics' journal which continually urged upon its readers the profit of patenting small improvements on machinery already in use. Indeed everybody, these days, in the factories, is on the lookout for patentable improvements. Why might not Johnnie have stumbled on to something worth while? That Passmore and Consadine tribe were all smart fools. He made the slotted strips she wanted, and delivered them to her the next day with civil words. When, after she had them in use on the spinning jennies upstairs for a week, she came down bringing them for certain minute alterations, his attitude was one of friendly helpfulness.
"You say you use 'em on the frames? What for? How do they work?" he asked her, examining the little contrivance lingeringly.
"They're working pretty well," she told him, "even the way they are--a good deal too long, and with that slot not cut deep enough, I'm right proud of myself when I look at them. Any boy or girl tending a frame can go to the end of it and see if anything's the matter without walking plumb down. When you get them fixed the way I want them, I tell you they'll be fine."
The next afternoon saw Shade Buckheath in the spooling room, watching the operation of Johnnie Consadine's simple device for notifying the frame-tender if a thread fouled or broke.
"Let me take 'em all down to the basement," he said finally when he had studied them from every point of view for fifteen minutes. "They ain't as well polished as I'd like to have 'em and I think they might be a little longer in the shank. There ought to be a ring of babbit metal around that slot, too--I reckon I could get it in Watauga. If you'll let me take 'em now, I'll fix 'em up for you soon as I can, so that they'll do fine."
Johnnie remonstrated, half-heartedly, as he gathered the crude little invention from the frames; but his proposition wore a plausible face, and she suffered him to take them.
"They ain't but five here," he said to her sharply.
"I know I made you six. Where's the other one?" He looked so startled, he spoke so anxiously, that she laughed.
"I think that must be the one I carried home," she said carelessly. "I had a file, and was trying to fix it myself one evening, and I reckon I never brought it back."
"Johnnie," said Shade, coming close, and speaking in a low confidential tone that was almost affectionate, "if I was you I wouldn't name this business to anybody. Wait till we get it all fixed right," he pursued, as he saw the rising wonder in her face. "No need to tell every feller all you know--so he'll be jest as smart as you are. Ain't that so? And you git me that other strip. I don't want it layin' round for somebody to get hold of and--you find me that other strip. Hunt it up, won't you?"
"Well, you sure talk curious to-day!" Johnnie told him. "I don't see anything to be ashamed of in my loving to fool with machinery, if I am a girl. But I'll get you the strip, if I can find it. I'm mighty proud of being a room boss, and I aim to make my room the best one in the mill. Shade, did you know that I get eight dollars a week? I've been sending money home to mother, and I've got a room to myself down at Pap Himes's. And Mr. Sessions says they'll raise me again soon. I wanted 'em to see this thing working well."
"Look here!" broke in Shade swiftly; "don't you say anything to the bosses about this"--he shook the strips in his hand--"not till I've had a chance to talk to you again. You know I'm your friend, don't you Johnnie?"
"I reckon so," returned truthful Johnnie, with unflattering moderation. "You get me those things done as quick as you can, please, Shade."
After this the matter dropped. Two or three times Johnnie reminded Shade of his promise to bring the little strips back, and always he had an excuse ready for her: he had been very busy--the metal he wanted was out of stock--he would fix them for her just as soon as he could. With every interview his manner toward herself grew kinder--more distinctly that of a lover.
The loom-fixers and mechanics, belonging, be it remembered, to a trades-union, were out of all the mills by five o'clock. It was a significant point for any student of economic conditions to note these strapping young males sitting at ease upon the porches of their homes or boarding houses, when the sweating, fagged women weavers and childish spinners trooped across the bridges an hour after. Johnnie was surprised, therefore, one evening, nearly two weeks later, to find Shade waiting for her at the door of the mill.
"I wish't you'd walk a piece up the Gap road with me, I want to have speech with you," the young fellow told her.
"I can't go far; I 'most always try to be home in time to help Aunt Mavity put supper on the table, or anyway to wash up the dishes for her," the girl replied to him.
"All right," agreed Buckheath briefly. "Wait here a minute and let me get some things I want to take along."
He stopped at a little shed back of the offices, sometimes called the garage because Stoddard's car stood in it. Johnnie dropped down on a box at the door and the young fellow went inside and began searching the pockets of a coat hanging on a peg. He spoke over his shoulder to her.
"What's the matter with you here lately since you got your raise? 'Pears like you won't look at a body."
"Haven't I seemed friendly?" Johnnie returned, with a deprecating smile. "I reckon I'm just tired. Seems like I'm tired every minute of the day--and I couldn't tell you why. I sure don't have anything hard to do. I think sometimes I need the good hard work I used to have back in the mountains to get rested on."
She laughed up at him, and Buckheath's emotional nature answered with a dull anger, which was his only reply to her attraction.
"I was going to invite you to go to a dance in at Watauga, Saturday night," he said sullenly; "but I reckon if you're tired all the time, you don't want to go."
He had hoped and expected that she would say she was not too tired to go anywhere that he wished her to. His disappointment was disproportionate when she sighingly agreed:
"Yes, I reckon I hadn't better go to any dances. I wouldn't for the world break down at my work, when I've just begun to earn so much, and am sending money home to mother."
Inside the offices Lydia Sessions stood near her brother's desk. She had gone down, as she sometimes did, to take him home in the carriage.
"Oh, here you are, Miss Sessions," said Gray Stoddard coming in. "I've brought those books for Johnnie. There are a lot of them here for her to make selection from. As you are driving, perhaps you wouldn't mind letting me set them in the carriage, then I won't go up past your house."
Miss Sessions glanced uneasily at the volumes he carried.
"Do you think it's wise to give an ignorant, untrained girl like that the choice of her own reading?" she said at length.
"It's as far as my wisdom goes," he replied promptly. "I would as soon think of getting up a form of prayer for a fellow creature as laying out a course of reading for him."
"Well, then," suggested Miss Sessions, "why not let her take up a Chatauqua course? I'm sure many of them are excellent. She would be properly guided, and--and encroach less on your time."
"My time!" echoed Stoddard. "Never mind that feature. I'm immensely interested. It's fascinating to watch the development of so fine a mind which has lain almost entirely fallow to the culture of schools. I quite enjoy looking out a bunch of books for her, and watching to see which one will most appeal to her. Her instinct has proved wholly trustworthy so far. Indeed, if it didn't seem exaggerated, I should say her taste was faultless."
Miss Sessions flushed and set her lips together.
"Faultless," she repeated, with an attempt at a smile. "I fancy Johnnie finds out what you admire most, and makes favourites of your favourites."
Stoddard looked a bit blank for an instant. Then,
"Well--perhaps--she does," he allowed, hesitatingly. His usual tolerant smile held a hint of indulgent tenderness, and there was a vibration in his voice which struck to Lydia Sessions's heart like a knife.
"No, you are mistaken," he added after a moment's reflection. "You don't realize how little I've talked to the child about books--or anything else, for that matter. It does chance that her taste is mine in very many cases; but you underrate our protégé when you speak of her as ignorant and uncultured. She knows a good deal more about some things than either of us. It is her fund of nature lore that makes Thoreau and White of Selborne appeal to her. Now I love them because I know so little about what they write of."
Lydia Sessions instantly fastened upon the one point. She protested almost anxiously.
"But surely you would not call her cultured--a factory girl who has lived in a hut in the mountains all her life? She is trying hard, I admit; but her speech is--well, it certainly is rather uncivilized."
Stoddard looked as though he might debate that matter a bit. Then he questioned, instead:
"Did you ever get a letter from her? She doesn't carry her quaint little archaisms of pronunciation and wording into her writing. Her letters are delicious."
Miss Sessions turned hastily to the window and looked out, apparently to observe whether her brother was ready to leave or not. Johnnie Consadine's letters--her letters. What--when--? Of course she could not baldly question him in such a matter; and the simple explanation of a little note of thanks with a returned book, or the leaf which reported impressions from its reading tucked in between the pages occurred to her perturbed mind.
"You quite astonish me," she said finally. "Well--that is good hearing. Mr. Stoddard," with sudden decision, "don't you believe that it would be well worth while, in view of all this, to raise the money and send John Consadine away to a good school? There are several fine ones in New England where she might partially work her way; and really, from what you say, it seems to me she's worthy of such a chance."
Stoddard glanced at her in surprise.
"Why, Miss Sessions, doesn't this look like going squarely back on your most cherished theories? If it's only to bestow a little money, and send her away to some half-charity school, what becomes of your argument that people who have had advantages should give of themselves and their comradeship to those they wish to help?" There was a boyish eagerness in his manner; his changeful gray-brown eyes were alight; he came close and laid a hand on her arm--quite an unusual demonstration with Gray Stoddard. "You mustn't discourage me," he said winningly. "I'm such a hopeful disciple. I've never enjoyed anything more in my life than this enterprise you and I have undertaken together, providing the right food for so bright and so responsive a mind."
Miss Lydia looked at him in a sort of despair.
"Yes--oh, yes. I quite understand that," she agreed almost mechanically. "I don't mean to go back on my principles. But what John needs is a good, sound education from the beginning. Don't you think so?"
"No," said Stoddard promptly. "Indeed I do not. Development must come from within. To give it a chance--to lend it stimulus--that's all a friend can do. A ready-made education plastered on the outside cultivates nobody. Moreover, Johnnie is in no crying need of mere schooling. You don't seem to know how well provided she has been in that respect. But the thing that settles the matter is that she would not accept any such charitable arrangement. Unless you're tired of our present method, I vote to continue it."
Lydia Sessions had been for some moments watching Johnnie Consadine who sat on her box at the door of the little garage. She had refrained from mentioning this fact to her companion; but now Shade Buckheath stepped out to join Johnnie, and instantly Lydia turned and motioned Stoddard to her.
"Look there," she whispered. "Don't they make a perfect couple? You and I may do what we choose about cultivating the girl's mind--she'll marry a man of her own class, and there it will end."
"Why should you say that?" asked Stoddard abruptly. "Those two do not belong to the same class. They--"
"Oh, Mr. Stoddard! They grew up side by side; they went to school together, and I imagine were sweethearts long before they came to Cottonville."
"Do you think that makes them of the same class?" asked Stoddard impatiently. "I should say the presumption was still greater the other way. I was not alluding to social classes."
"You're so odd," murmured Lydia Sessions. "These mountaineers are all alike."
The village road was a smother of white dust; the weeds beside it drooped powdered heads; evil odours reeked through the little place; but when Shade and Johnnie had passed its confines, the air from the mountains greeted them sweetly; the dusty white road gave place to springy leaf-mould, mixed with tiny, sharp stones. A young moon rode low in the west. The tank-a-tank of cowbells sounded from homing animals. Up in the dusky Gap, whip-poor-wills were beginning to call.
"I'm glad I came," said Johnnie, pushing the hair off her hot forehead. She was speaking to herself, aware that Buckheath paid little attention, but walked in silence a step ahead, twisting a little branch of sassafras in his fingers. The spicy odour of the bark was afterward associated in Johnnie's mind with what he had then to say.
"Johnnie," he began, facing around and barring her way, when they were finally alone together between the trees, "do you remember the last time you and me was on this piece of road here--do you?"
He had intended to remind her of the evening she came to Cottonville: but instead, recollection built for her once more the picture of that slope bathed in Sabbath sunshine. There was the fork where the Hardwick carriage had turned off; to this side went Shade and his fellows, with Mandy and the girls following; and down the middle of the road she herself came, seated in the car beside Stoddard.
For a moment memory choked and blinded Johnnie. She could neither see the path before them, nor find the voice to answer her questioner. The bleak pathos of her situation came home to her, and tears of rare self-pity filled her eyes. Why was it a disgrace that Stoddard should treat her kindly? Why must she be ashamed of her feeling for him? Shade's voice broke in harshly.
"Do you remember? You ain't forgot, have you? Ever since that time I've intended to speak to you--to tell you--"
"Well, you needn't do it," she interrupted him passionately.
"I won't hear a word against Mr. Stoddard, if that's what you're aiming at."
Buckheath fell back a pace and stared with angry eyes.
"Stoddard--Gray Stoddard?" he repeated. "What's a swell like that got to do with you and me, Johnnie Consadine? You want to let Gray Stoddard and his kind alone--yes, and make them let you alone, if you and me are going to marry."
It was Johnnie's turn to stare.
"If we're going to marry!" she echoed blankly--"going to marry!" The girl had had her lovers. Despite hard work and the stigma of belonging to the borrowing Passmore family, Johnnie had commanded the homage of more than one heart. She was not without a healthy young woman's relish for this sort of admiration; but Shade Buckheath's proposal came with so little grace, in such almost sinister form, that she scarcely recognized it.
"Yes, if we're going to wed," reiterated Buckheath sullenly. "I'm willin' to have you."
Johnnie's tense, almost tragic manner relaxed. She laughed suddenly.
"I didn't know you was joking, Shade," she said good-humouredly. "I took you to be in earnest. You'll have to excuse me."
"I am in earnest," Buckheath told her, almost fiercely. "I reckon I'm a fool; but I want you. Any day"--he spoke with a curious, half-savage reluctance--"any day you'll say the word, I'll take you."
His eyes, like his voice, were resentful, yet eager. He took off his hat and wiped the perspiration from his brow, looking away from her now, toward the road by which they had climbed.
Johnnie regarded him through her thick eyelashes, the smile still lingering bright in her eyes. After all, it was only a rather unusual kind of sweethearting, and not a case of it to touch her feelings.
"I'm mighty sorry," she said soberly, "but I ain't aimin' to wed any man, fixed like I am. Mother and the children have to be looked after, and I can't ask a man to do for 'em, so I have it to do myself."
"Of course I can't take your mother and the children," Buckheath objected querulously, as though she had asked him to do so. "But you I'll take; and you'd do well to think it over. You won't get such a chance soon again, and I'm apt to change my mind if you put on airs with me this way."
Johnnie shook her head.
"I know it's a fine chance, Shade," she said in the kindest tone, "but I'm hoping you will change your mind, and that soon; for it's just like I tell you."
She turned with evident intention of going back and terminating their interview. Buckheath stepped beside her in helpless fury. He knew she would have other, opportunities, and better. He was aware how futile was this threat of withdrawing his proposition. Hot, tired, angry, the dust of the way prickling on his face and neck, he was persistently conscious of a letter in the pocket of his striped shirt, over his heavily beating heart, warm and moist like the shirt itself, with the sweat of his body. Good Lord! That letter which had come from Washington this morning informing him that the device this girl had invented was patentable, filled her hands with gold. It was necessary that he should have control of her, and at once. He put from him the knowledge of how her charm wrought upon him--bound him the faster every time he spoke to her. Cold, calculating, sluggishly selfish, he had not reckoned with her radiant personality, nor had the instinct to know that, approached closely, it must inevitably light in him unwelcome and inextinguishable fires.
"Johnnie," he said finally, "you ain't saying no to me, are you? You take time to think it over--but not so very long--I'll name it to you again."
"Please don't, Shade," remonstrated the girl, walking on fast, despite the oppressive heat of the evening. "I wish you wouldn't speak of it to me any more; and I can't go walking with you this way. I have obliged to help Aunt Mavity; and every minute of time I get from that, and my work, I'm putting in on my books and reading."
She stepped ahead of him now, and Buckheath regarded her back with sullen, sombre eyes. What was he to do? How come nearer her when she thus held herself aloof?
"Johnnie Consadine!" The girl checked her steps a bit at a new sound in his voice. "I'll tell you just one thing, and you'd better never forget it, neither. I ain't no fool. I know mighty well an' good your reason for treating me this-a-way. Your reason's got a name. Hit's called Mr. Gray Stoddard. You behave yo'self an' listen to reason, or I'll get even with him for it. Damn him--I'll fix him!"