THE MOCCASIN FLOWER
Johnnie was used to hardship and early rising, but in an intermittent fashion; for the Passmores and Consadines were a haggard lot that came to no lure but their own pleasure. They might--and often did--go hungry, ill-clad, ill-housed; they might sometimes--in order to keep soul and body together--have to labour desperately at rude tasks unsuited to them; but these times were exceptions, and between such seasons, down to the least of the tribe, they had always followed the Vision, pursuing the flying skirts of whatever ideal was in their shapely heads. The little cabin in the gash of the hills owned for domain a rocky ravine that was the standing jest of the mountain-side.
"Sure, hit's good land--fine land," the mountaineers would comment with their inveterate, dry, lazy humour. "Nothing on earth to hender a man from raisin' a crap off 'n it--ef he could once git the leathers on a good stout, willin' pa'r o' hawks or buzzards, an' a plough hitched to 'em." And Johnnie could remember the other children teasing her and saying that her folks had to load a gun with seed corn and shoot it into the sky to reach their fields. Yet, the unmended roof covered much joy and good feeling. They were light feet that trod the unsecured puncheons. The Passmores were tender of each other's eccentricities, admiring of each other's virtues. A wolf race nourished on the knees of purple kings, how should they ever come down to wearing any man's collar, to slink at heel and retrieve for him?
One would have said that to the daughter of such the close cotton-mill room with its inhuman clamour, its fetid air, its long hours of enforced, monotonous, mechanical toil, would be prison with the torture added. But Johnnie looked forward to her present enterprise as a soldier going into a new country to conquer it. She was buoyantly certain, and determinedly delighted with everything. When, the next morning after her arrival, Mandy Meacham shook her by the shoulder and bade her get up, the room was humming with the roar of mill whistles, and the gray dawn leaking in at its one window in a churlish, chary fashion, reminded her that they were under the shadow of a mountain instead of living upon its top.
"I don't see what in the world could 'a' made me sleep so!" Johnnie deprecated, as she made haste to dress herself. "Looks like I never had nothing to do yesterday, except walking down. I've been on foot that much many a time and never noticed it."
The other girls in the room, poor souls, were all cross and sleepy. Nobody had time to converse with Johnnie. As they went down the stairs another contingent began to straggle up, having eaten a hasty meal after their night's work, and making now for certain of the just-vacated beds.
Johnnie ran into the kitchen to help Mrs. Bence get breakfast on the table, for Pap Himes was bad off this morning with a misery somewhere, and his daughter was sending word to the cotton mill to put a substitute on her looms till dinner time. Almost as much to her own surprise as to that of everybody else, Mandy Meacham proposed to stay and take Johnnie in to register for a job.
When the others were all seated at table, the new girl from the mountains took her cup of coffee and a biscuit and dropped upon the doorstep to eat her breakfast. The back yard was unenclosed, a litter of tin cans and ashes running with its desert disorder into a similar one on either side. But there were no houses back of the Himes place, the ground falling away sharply to the rocky creek bed. Across the ravine half a dozen strapping young fellows were lounging, waiting for breakfast; loom-fixers and mechanics these, whose hours were more favourable than those of the women and children workers.
"It's lots prettier out here than it is in the house," she returned smilingly, when Mavity Bence offered to get her a chair. "I do love to be out-of-doors."
"Huh," grunted Mandy with her mouth full of biscuit, "I reckon a cotton mill'll jest about kill you. What makes you work in one, anyhow? I wouldn't if I could help it."
Johnnie eyed the tall girl gravely. "I've got to earn some money," she said at length. "Ma and the children have to be taken care of. I don't know of any better way than the mill."
"An' I don't know of any worse," retorted Mandy sourly, as they went out together.
Johnnie began to feel timid. There had been a secret hope that she would meet Shade on the way to the mill, or that Mrs. Bence would finally get through in time to accompany her. She was suddenly aware that there was not a soul within sound of her voice who had belonged to her former world. With a little gasp she looked about her as they entered the office.
The Hardwick mill to which they now came consisted of a number of large, red brick buildings, joined by covered passage-ways, abutting on one of those sullen pools Johnnie had noted the night before, the yard enclosed by a tight board fence, so high that the operatives in the first-and second-floor rooms could not see the street. This for the factory portion; the office did not front on the shut-in yard, but opened out freely on to the street, through a little grassy square of its own, tree-shadowed, with paved walks and flower beds. As with all the mills in its district, the suggestion was dangerously apt of a penitentiary, with its high wooden barrier, around all the building, the only free approach from the world to its corridors through the seemly, humanized office, where abided the heads, the bosses, the free men, who came and went at will. The walls were already beginning to wear that garment of green which the American ivy flings over so many factory buildings.
As the two girls came up, Johnnie looked at the wide, clear, plate windows, the brass railing that guarded the heavy granite approach, the shining name "Hardwick" deep-set in brazen lettering on the step over which they entered. Inside, the polished oak and metal of office fittings carried on the idea of splendour, if not of luxury. Back of the crystal windows were the tempering shades, all was spacious, ordered with quiet dignity, and there was no sense of hurry in the well-clad, well-groomed figures of men that sat at the massive desks or moved about the softly carpeted floors. The corridor was long, but cleanly swept, and, at its upper portion, covered with a material unfamiliar to Johnnie, but which she recognized as suited to its purpose. Down at the further end of that corridor, something throbbed and moaned and roared and growled--the factory was awake there and working. The contrast struck cold to the girl's heart. Here, yet more sharply defined, was the same difference she had noted between the Palace of Pleasure on the heights and the mills at the foot of the mountain.
Would the people think she was good enough? Would they understand how hard she meant to try? For a minute she had a desperate impulse to turn and run. Then she heard Mandy's thin, flatted tones announcing:
"This hyer girl wants to git a job in the mill. Miz Bence, she cain't come down this morning--you'll have to git somebody to tend her looms till noon; Pap, he's sick, and she has obliged to wait on him--so I brung the new gal."
"All right," said the man she addressed. "She can wait there; you go on to your looms."
Johnnie sat on the bench against the wall where newcomers applying for positions were placed. The man she was to see had not yet come to his desk, and she remained unnoticed and apparently forgotten for more than an hour. The offices were entered from the other side, yet a doorway close by Johnnie commanded a view of a room and desk. To it presently came one who seated himself and began opening and reading letters. Johnnie caught her breath and leaned a little forward, watching him, her heart in her eyes, hands locked hard together in her lap. It was the young man of the car. He was not in white flannels now, but he looked almost as wonderful to the girl in his gray business suit, with the air of easy command, and the quiet half-smile only latent on his face. Shade Buckheath had spoken of Gray Stoddard as the boss of the bosses down at Cottonville. Indeed, his position was unique. Inheritor of large holdings in Eastern cotton-mill stock, he had returned from abroad on the death of his father, to look into this source of his very ample income. The mills in which he was concerned were not earning as they should, so he was told; and there was discussion as to whether they be moved south, or a Southern mill be established which might be considered in the nature of a branch, and where the coarser grades of sheeting would be manufactured, as well as all the spinning done.
But Stoddard was not of the blood that takes opinions second-hand. Upon his mother's side he was the grandson of one of the great anti-slavery agitators. The sister of this man, Gray's great-aunt, had stood beside him on the platform when there was danger in it; and after the Negro was freed and enfranchised, she had devoted a long life to the cause of woman suffrage. The mother who bore him died young. She left him to the care of a conservative father, but the blood that came through her did not make for conservatism.
Perhaps it was some admixture of his father's traits which set the young man to investigating the cotton-mill situation in his own fashion. To do this as he conceived it should be done, he had hired himself to the Hardwick Spinning Company in an office position which gave him a fair outlook on the business, and put him in complete touch with the practical side of it; yet the facts of the case made the situation evident to those under him as well as his peers. Whatever convictions and opinions he was maturing in this year with the Hardwicks, he kept to himself; but he was supposed to hold some socialistic ideas, and Lydia Sessions, James Hardwick's sister-in-law, made her devoir to these by engaging zealously in semi-charitable enterprises among the mill-girls. He was a passionate individualist. The word seems unduly fiery when one remembers the smiling, insouciant manner of his divergences from the conventional type; yet he was inveterately himself, and not some schoolmaster's or tailor's or barber's version of Gray Stoddard; and in this, though Johnnie did not know it, lay the strength of his charm for her.
The moments passed unheeded after he came into her field of vision, and she watched him for some time, busy at his morning's work. It took her breath when he raised his eyes suddenly and their glances encountered. He plainly recognized her at once, and nodded a cheerful greeting. After a while he got up and came out into the hall, his hands full of papers, evidently on his way to one of the other offices. He paused beside the bench and spoke to her.
"Waiting for the room boss? Are they going to put you on this morning?" he asked pleasantly.
"Yes, I'm a-going to get a chance to work right away," she smiled up at him. "Ain't it fine?"
The smile that answered hers held something pitying, yet it was a pity that did not hurt or offend.
"Yes--I'm sure it's fine, if you think so," said Stoddard, half reluctantly. Then his eye caught the broken pink blossom which Johnnie had pinned to the front of her bodice. "What's that?" he asked. "It looks like an orchid."
He was instantly apologetic for the word; but Johnnie detached the flower from her dress and held it toward him.
"It is," she assented. "It's an orchid; and the little yellow flower that we-all call the whippoorwill shoe is an orchid, too."
Stoddard thrust his papers into his coat pocket and took the blossom in his hand.
"That's the pink moccasin flower," Johnnie told him. "They don't bloom in the valley at all, and they're not very plenty in the mountains. I picked this one six miles up on White Oak Ridge yesterday. I reckon I haven't seen more than a dozen of these in my life, and I've hunted flowers all over Unaka."
"I never had the chance to analyze one," observed Stoddard. "I'd like to get hold of a good specimen.
"I'm sorry this one's broken," Johnnie deprecated. Then her clouded face cleared suddenly with its luminous smile. "If it hadn't been for you I reckon it would have been knocked over the edge of the road," she added. "That's the flower I had in my handkerchief yesterday evening."
Stoddard continued to examine the pink blossom with interest.
"You said it grew up in the mountains--and didn't grow in the valley," he reminded her.
She nodded. "Of course I'm not certain about that," and while she spoke he transferred his attention from the flower to the girl. "I really know mighty little about such things, and I've not been in the valley to exceed ten times in my life. Miss Baird, that taught the school I went to over at Rainy Gap, had a herbarium, and put all kinds of pressed flowers in it. I gathered a great many for her, and she taught me to analyze them--like you were speaking of--but I never did love to do that. It seemed like naming over and calling out the ways of your friends, to pull the flower all to pieces and press it and paste it in a book and write down all its--its--ways and faults."
Again she smiled up at him radiantly, and the young man's astonished glance went from her dusty, cowhide shoes to the thick roll of fair hair on her graceful head. What manner of mill-girls did the mountains send down to the valley?
"But I--" began Stoddard deprecatingly, when Johnnie reddened and broke in hastily.
"Oh, I don't mean that for you. Miss Baird taught me for three years, and I loved her as dearly as I ever could any one. You may keep this flower if you want to; and, come Sunday, I'll get you another one that won't be broken."
"Why Sunday?" asked Stoddard.
"Well, I wouldn't have time to go after them till then, and the ones I know of wouldn't be open before Sunday. I saw just three there by the spring. That's the way they grow, you know--two or three in a place, and not another for miles."
"You saw them growing?" repeated Stoddard. "I should like to see one on its roots, and maybe make a little sketch of it. Couldn't you just as well show me the place Sunday?"
For no reason that she could assign, and very much against her will, Johnnie's face flushed deeply.
"I reckon I couldn't," she answered evasively. "Hit's a long ways up--and--hit's a long ways up."
"And yet you're going to walk it--after a week's work here in the mill?" persisted Stoddard. "You'd better tell me where they grow, and let me go up in my car."
"I wish't I could," said Johnnie, embarrassed. "But you'd never find it in the world. They isn't one thing that I could tell you to know the place by: and you have to leave the road and walk a little piece--oh, it's no use--and I don't mind, I'd just love to go up there and get the flowers for you."
"Are you the new girl?" inquired a voice at Johnnie's shoulder.
They turned to find a squat, middle-aged man regarding them dubiously.
"Yes," answered Johnnie, rising. "I've been waiting quite a while."
"Well, come this way," directed the man and, turning, led her away. Down the hall they went, then up a flight of wooden stairs which carried them to a covered bridge, and so to the upper story of the factory.
"That's an unusual-looking girl." Old Andrew MacPherson made the comment as he received the papers from Stoddard's hands.
"The one I was speaking to in the hall?" inquired Stoddard rather unnecessarily. "Yes; she seems to have an unusual mind as well. These mountain people are peculiar. They appear to have no idea of class, and therefore are in a measure all aristocrats."
"Well, that ought to square with your socialistic notions," chaffed MacPherson, sorting the work on his desk and pushing a certain portion of it toward Stoddard. "Sit down here, if you please, and we'll go over these now. The girl looked a good deal like a fairy princess. I don't think she's a safe topic for susceptible young chaps like you and me," the grizzled old Scotchman concluded with a chuckle. "Your socialistic hullabaloo makes you liable to foregather with all sorts of impossible people."
Gray shook his head, laughing, as he seated himself at the desk beside the other.
"Oh, I'm only a theoretical socialist," he deprecated.
"Hum," grunted the older man. "A theoretical socialist always seemed to me about like a theoretical pickpocket--neither of them stands to do much harm. For example, here you are, one of the richest young fellows of my acquaintance, living along very contentedly where every tenet you profess to hold is daily outraged. You're not giving away your money. You take a healthy interest in a good car, a good dinner, the gals; I'm even told you have a fad for old porcelains--and yet you call yourself a socialist."
"These economic conditions are not a pin," answered Gray, smiling. "I don't have to jump and say 'ouch!' the minute I find they prick me. Worse conditions have always been, and no doubt bad ones will survive for a time, and pass away as mankind outgrows them. I haven't the colossal conceit to suppose that I can reform the world--not even push it much faster toward the destination of good to which it is rolling. But I want to know--I want to understand, myself; then if there is anything for me to do I shall do it. It may be that the present conditions are the best possible for the present moment. It may be that if a lot of us got together and agreed, we could better them exceedingly. It is not certain in my mind yet that any growth is of value to humanity which does not proceed from within. This is true of the individual--must it not be true of the class?"
"No doubt, no doubt," agreed MacPherson, indifferently. "Most of the men who are loud in the leadership of socialism have made a failure of their own lives. We'll see what happens when a man who is a personal and economic success sets up to teach."
"If you mean that very complimentary description for me," said Gray with sudden seriousness, "I will say to you here and now that there is no preacher in me. But when I am a little clearer in my own mind as to what I believe, I shall practise. The only real creed is a manner of life. If you don't live it, you don't really believe it."