WEAVERS AND WEFT
The Hardwick mill was a large one; to the mountain-bred girl it seemed endless, while its clamour and roar was a thing to daunt. They passed through the spinning department, in which the long lines of frames were tended by children, and reached the weaving-rooms whose looms required the attention of women, with here and there a man who had failed to make a success of male occupations and sunk to the ill-paid feminine activities. In a corner of one of these, Johnnie's guide stopped before two silent, motionless looms, and threw on the power. He began to instruct her in their operation, all communication being in dumb show; for the clapping thunder of the weaving-room instantly snatches the sound from one's lips and batters it into shapelessness. Johnnie had been an expert weaver on the ancient foot-power looms of the mountains; but the strangeness of the new machine, the noise and her surroundings, bewildered her. When the man saw that she was not likely to injure herself or the looms, he turned away with a careless nod and left her to her fate.
It was a blowy April day outside, with a gay blue sky in which the white clouds raced, drawing barges of shadow over the earth below. But the necessity of keeping dust out of the machinery, the inconvenience of having flying ends carried toward it, closed every window in the big factory, and the operatives gasped in the early heat, the odour of oil, the exhausted air. There was a ventilating system in the Hardwick mill, and it was supposed to be exceptionally free from lint; but the fagged children crowded to the casements with instinctive longing for the outdoor air which could not of course enter through the glass; or plodded their monotonous rounds to tend the frames and see that the thread was running properly to each spool, and that the spools were removed, when filled.
By noon every nerve in Johnnie's body quivered with excitement and overstrain; yet when Mandy came for her at the dinner hour she showed her a face still resolute, and asked that a snack be brought her to the mill.
"I don't see why you won't come along home and eat your dinner," the Meacham woman commented. "The Lord knows you get time enough to stay in the mill working over them old looms. Say, I seen you in the hall--did you know who you was talking to?"
The red flooded Johnnie's face as she knelt before her loom interrogating its workings with a dexterous hand; even the white nape of her neck showed pink to Mandy's examining eye; but she managed to reply in a fairly even tone:
"Yes, that was Mr. Stoddard. I saw him yesterday evening when I was coming down the Ridge with Shade."
"But did you know 'bout him? Say--Johnnie Consadine--turn yourself round from that old loom and answer me, I was goin' a-past the door, and when I ketched sight o' you and him settin' there talkin' as if you'd knowed each other all your lives, why you could have--could have knocked me down with a feather."
Johnnie sat up on her heels and turned a laughing face across her shoulder.
"I don't see any reason to want to knock you down with anything," she evaded the direct issue. "Go 'long, Mandy, or you won't have time to eat your dinner. Tell Aunt Mavity to send me just a biscuit and a piece of meat."
"Good land, Johnnie Consadine, but you're quare!" exclaimed Mandy, staring with bulging light eyes. "If it was me I'd be all in a tremble yet--and there you sit and talk about meat and bread!"
Johnnie did not think it necessary to explain that the tremor of that conversation with Stoddard had indeed lasted through her entire morning.
"There was nothing to tremble about," she remarked with surface calm. "He'd never seen a pink moccasin flower, and I gave him the one I had and told him where it grew."
"Well, he wasn't looking at no moccasin flower when I seed him," Mandy persisted. "He was lookin' at you. He jest eyed you as if you was Miss Lydia Sessions herself--more so, if anything."
Johnnie inwardly rebuked the throb of joy which greeted this statement.
"I reckon his looks are his own, Mandy," she said soberly. "You and me have no call to notice them."
"Ain't got no call to notice 'em? Well, I jest wish't I could get you and him up in front of Miss Sessions, and have her see them looks of his'n," grumbled Mandy as she turned away. "I bet you there'd be some noticin' done then!"
When in the evening Mandy came for Johnnie, she found the new mill hand white about the mouth with exhaustion, heavy-eyed, choking, and ready to weep.
"Uh-huh," said the Meacham woman, "I know just how you feel. They all look that-a-way the first day or two--then after that they look worse."
Nervelessly Johnnie found her way downstairs in the stream of tired girls and women. There was more than one kindly greeting for the new hand, and occasionally somebody clapped her on the shoulder and assured her that a few days more would get her used to the work. The mill yard was large, filled with grass-plots and gravel walks; but it was shut in by a boarding so tall that the street could not be seen from the windows of the lower floor. To Johnnie, weary to the point where aching muscles and blood charged with uneliminated waste spelled pessimism, that high board fence seemed to make of the pretty place a prison yard.
A man was propping open the big wooden gates, and through them she saw the street, the sidewalk, and a carriage drawn up at the curb. In this vehicle sat a lady; and a gentleman, hat in hand, talked to her from the sidewalk.
"Come on," hissed Mandy, seizing her companion's arm and dragging her forward. "Thar's Miss Lydia Sessions right now, and that's Mr. Stoddard a-talkin' to her. I'll go straight up and give you a knockdown--I want to, anyway. She's the one that runs the Uplift Club. If she takes a shine to you it'll be money in your pocket."
She turned over her shoulder to glance at Johnnie, who was pulling vigorously back. There was no hint of tiredness or depression in the girl's face now. Her deep eyes glowed; red was again in the fresh lips that parted over the white teeth in an adorable, tremulous smile. Mandy stared.
"Hurry up--he'll be gittin' away," she admonished.
"Oh, no," objected the new girl. "Wait till some other time, I--I don't want to--"
But her remonstrance came too late; Mandy had yanked her forward and was performing the introduction she so euphoniously described.
Gray Stoddard turned and bowed to both girls. He carried the broken orchid in his hand, and apparently had been speaking of it to Miss Sessions. Mandy eyed him narrowly to see if any of the looks she had apprehended as offensive to Miss Sessions went in Johnnie's direction. And she was not disappointed.
Stoddard's gaze lingered long on the radiant countenance of the girl from Unaka. Not so the young women looked after a few months of factory life. He was getting to know well the odd jail-bleach the cotton mill puts on country cheeks, the curious, dulled, yet resentful expression of the eyes, begotten by continuous repetition of excessive hours of trivial, monotonous toil. Would this girl come at last to that favour? He was a little surprised at the strength of protest in his own heart. Then MacPherson, coming down the office steps, called to him; and, with courteous adieux, the two men departed in company.
Johnnie was a bit grieved to find that the removal from Miss Sessions of the shrouding, misty veil revealed a countenance somewhat angular in outline, with cheekbones a trifle hard and high, and a lack of colour. She fancied, too, that Miss Sessions was slightly annoyed about something. She wondered if it was because they had interrupted her conversation with Mr. Stoddard and driven him away. Yet while she so questioned, she was taking in with swift appreciation the trim set of the driving coat Miss Lydia wore, the appropriate texture of the heavy gloves on the small hands that held the lines, and a certain indefinable air of elegance hard to put into words, but which all women recognize.
"Ain't she swell?" inquired Mandy, as they passed on. "She's after Mr. Stoddard now--it used to be the preacher that had the big church in Watauga, but he moved away. I wish I had her clothes."
"Yes," returned Johnnie absently. She had already forgotten her impression of Miss Sessions's displeasure. Gone was the leaden weariness of her day's toil Something intimate and kind in the glance Stoddard had given her remained warm at her heart, and set that heart singing.
Meantime, Stoddard and MacPherson were walking up the ridge toward the Country Club together, intending to spend the night on the highlands. The Scotchman returned once more to the subject he had broached that morning.
"This is a great country," he opened obliquely, "a very great country. But you Americans will have to learn that generations of blood and breeding are not to be skipped with impunity. See the sons and daughters of your rich men. If the hope of the land lay in them it would be a bad outlook indeed."
"Is that peculiar to America?" asked Stoddard mildly. They were coming under the trees now. He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair to enjoy the coolness. "My impression was that the youthful aristocracy of every country often made of itself a spectacle unseemly."
The Scotchman laughed. Then he looked sidewise at his companion. "I'm not denying," he pursued, again with that odd trick of entering his argument from the side, "that a young chap like yourself has my good word. A man with money who will go to work to find out how that money was made, and to live as his father did, carries an old head on young shoulders. I put aside your socialistic vapourings of course--every fellow to his fad--I see in you the makings of a canny business man."
It was Stoddard's turn to laugh, and he did so unrestrainedly, throwing back his head and uttering his mirth so boyishly that the other smiled in sympathy.
"You talk about what's in the blood," Gray said finally, "and then you make light of my socialistic vapourings, as you call them. My mother's clan--and it is from the spindle side that a man gets his traits--are all come-outers as far back as I know anything about them. They fought with Cromwell--some of them; they came over and robbed the Indians in true sanctimonious fashion, and persecuted the Quakers; and down the line a bit I get some Quaker blood that stood for its beliefs in the stocks, and sacrificed its ears for what it thought right. I'm afraid the socialistic vapourings are the true expression of the animal."
MacPherson grunted incredulously.
"I give you ten years to be done with it," he said. "It is a disease of youth. But don't let it mark your affairs. It is all right to foregather with these workingmen, and find out about their trades-unions and that sort of thing--such knowledge will be useful to you in your business. But when it comes to women"--MacPherson paused and shook his gray head--"to young, pretty women--a man must stick to his own class."
"You mean the girl in the corridor," said Stoddard with that directness which his friends were apt to find disconcerting. "I haven't classified her yet. She's rather an extraordinary specimen."
"Well, she's not in your class, and best leave her alone," returned MacPherson doggedly. "It wouldn't matter if the young thing were not so beautiful, and with such a winning look in her eyes. This America beats me. That poor lass would make a model princess--according to common ideals of royalty--and here you find her coming out of some hut in the mountains and going to work in a factory. Miss Lydia Sessions is a well-bred young woman, now; she's been all over Europe, and profited by her advantages of travel. I call her an exceedingly well-bred person."
"She is," agreed Stoddard without enthusiasm.
"And I'm sure you must admire her altruistic ideas--they'd just fall in with yours, I suppose, now."
Stoddard shook his head.
"Not at all," he said briefly. "If you were enough interested in socialism to know what we folks are driving at, I could explain to you why we object to charitable enterprises--but it's not worth while."
"Indeed it is not," assented MacPherson hastily. "Though no doubt we might have a fine argument over it some evening when we have nothing better to talk about. I thought you and Miss Sessions were fixing up a match of it, and it struck me as a very good thing, too. The holdings of both of you are in cotton-mill property, I judge. That always makes for harmony and stability in a matrimonial alliance."
Stoddard smiled. He was aware that Miss Lydia's holdings consisted of a complaisant brother-in-law in whose house she was welcome till she could marry. But he said nothing on this head.
"MacPherson," he began very seriously, "I wonder a little at you, I know you old-world people regard these things differently; but could you look at Mrs. Hardwick's children, and seriously recommend Mrs. Hardwick's sister as a wife for a friend?"
Old MacPherson stopped in the way, thrust his hands deep in his pockets and stared at the younger man.
"Well!" he ejaculated at last; "that's a great speech for a hot-headed young fellow! Your foresight is worthy of a Scotchman."
Gray Stoddard smiled. "I am not a hot-headed person," he observed. "Nobody but you ever accused me of such a thing. Marriage concerns the race and a man's whole future. If the children of the marriage are likely to be unsatisfactory, the marriage will certainly be so. We moderns bedeck and bedrape us in all sorts of meretricious togas, till a pair of fine eyes and a dashing manner pass for beauty; but when life tries the metal--when nature applies her inevitable test--the degenerate or neurotic type goes to the wall."
Again MacPherson grunted. "No doubt you're sound enough; but it is rather uncanny to hear a young fellow talk like his grandfather," the Scotchman said finally. "Are there many of your sort in this astonishing land?"
"A good many," Stoddard told him. "The modern young man of education and wealth is doing one of two things--burning up his money and going to the dogs as fast as he can; or putting in a power of thinking, and trying, while he saves his own soul, to do his part in the regeneration of the world."
"Yes. Well, it's a big job. It's been on hand a long time. The young men of America have their work cut out for them," said MacPherson drily.
"No doubt," returned Stoddard with undisturbed cheerfulness. "But when every man saves his own soul, the salvation of the world will come to pass."