ABOVE THE VALLEY
All week in Johnnie the white flame of purpose burned out every consciousness of weariness, of bodily or mental distaste. The preposterously long hours, the ill-ventilated rooms, the savage monotony of her toil, none of these reached the girl through the glow of hope and ambition. Physically, the finger of the factory was already laid upon her vigorous young frame; but when Sunday morning came, though there was no bellowing whistle to break in on her slumbers, she waked early, and while nerve and muscle begged achingly for more sleep, she rose with a sense of exhilaration which nothing could dampen. She had seen a small mountain church over the Ridge by the spring where her moccasin flowers grew; and if there were preaching in it to-day, the boys and girls scouring the surrounding woods during the intermissions would surely find and carry away the orchids. There was no safety but to take the road early.
The room was dark. Mandy slept noisily beside her. All the beds were full, because the night-turn workers were in. She meant to be very careful to waken nobody. Poor souls, they needed this one day of rest when they could all lie late. Searching for something, she cautiously struck a match, and in the flaring up of its small flame got a glimpse of Mandy's face, open-mouthed, pallid, unbeautiful, against the tumbled pillow. A great rush of pity filled her eyes with tears, but then she was in a mood to compassionate any creature who had not the prospect of a twelve-mile walk to get a flower for Gray Stoddard.
It was in that black hour before dawn that Johnnie let herself out the front door, finding the direction by instinct rather than any assistance from sight, since fences, trees, houses, were but vague blots of deeper shadow in the black. She was well on her way before a light here and there in a cabin window showed that, Sunday morning as it was, the earliest risers were beginning to stir. Her face was set to the east, and after a time a pallid line showed itself above the great bulk of mountains which in this quarter backed up the ramparts of the circling ridges about Watauga. The furthest line was big Unaka, but this passionate lover of her native highlands gave it neither thought nor glance, as she tramped steadily with lifted face, following unconsciously the beckoning finger of Fate.
It was a dripping-sweet spring morning, dew-drenched, and with the air so full of moisture that it gathered and pattered from the scant leafage. She was two miles up, swinging along at that steady pace her mountain-bred youth had given her, when the sky began to flush faintly, and the first hint of dawn rested on her upraised countenance.
Rain-laden mists swept down upon her from the heights, and she walked through them unnoting; the pale light from the eastern sky shone on an aspect introverted, rapt away from knowledge of its surroundings. She was going to get something for him. She had promised him the flowers, and he would be pleased with them. He would smile when he thanked her for them, and look at her as he had when she gave him the broken blossom. A look like that was to the girl in her present mood as the sword's touch on the shoulder of the lad who is being knighted by his king--it made her want to rise up and be all that such a man could ever demand of her. Twelve miles of walking after a week's toil in the mill was a very small offering to put before so worshipful a divinity. She sought vaguely to conjecture just what his words would be when next they spoke together. Her lips formed themselves into tender, reminiscent half-smiles as she went over the few and brief moments of her three interviews with Stoddard.
Johnnie was not inexperienced in matters of the heart. Mating time comes early in the mountains. Had her dreams been of Shade Buckheath, or any of the boys of her own kind and class, she would have been instantly full of self-consciousness; but Gray Stoddard appeared to her a creature so apart from her sphere that this overwhelming attraction he held for her seemed no more than the admiration she might have given to Miss Lydia Sessions. And so the dream lay undisturbed under her eyelashes, and she breasted the slope of the big mountain with a buoyant step, oblivious of fatigue.
She reached the little wayside spring before even the early-rising mountain folk were abroad, found three pink blossoms in full perfection, plucked them and wrapped them carefully in damp cloths disposed in a little hickory basket that Uncle Pros had made for her years ago. It was a tiny thing, designed to hold a child's play-pretties or a young girl's sewing, but shaped and fashioned after the manner of mountain baskets, and woven of stout white hickory withes shaved down to daintier size and pliancy by the old man's jack-knife. Life was very sweet to Johnnie Consadine as she straightened up, basket in hand, and turned toward the home journey.
It was nearly nine o'clock when she reached the gap above Cottonville. She was singing a little, softly, to herself, as she footed it down the road, and wishing that she might see Gray's face when he got her flowers. She planned to put them in a glass on his desk Monday morning, and of course she would be at her loom long before he should reach the office. She was glad they were such fine specimens--all perfect. Lovingly she pulled aside the wet cloth and looked in at them. She began to meet people on the road, and the cabins she passed were open and thronged with morning life. The next turn in the road would bring her to the spring where she had rested that evening just a week ago, and where Shade had met her.
Suddenly, she caught the sheen of something down the road between the scant greenery. It was a carriage or an automobile. Now, it was more likely to be the former than the latter; also, there were a half-dozen cars in Cottonville; yet from the first she knew, and was prepared for it when the shining vehicle came nearer and showed her Gray Stoddard driving it. They looked at each other in silence. Stoddard brought the machine to a halt beside her. She came mutely forward, a hesitating hand at her basket covering, her eyes raised to his. With the mountaineer's deathless instinct for greeting, she was first to speak.
"Howdy," she breathed softly. "I--I was looking for--I got you--"
She fell silent again, still regarding him, and fumbling blindly at the cover of the basket.
"Well--aren't you lost?" inquired Stoddard with a rather futile assumption of surprise. He was strangely moved by the direct gaze of those clear, wide-set gray eyes, under the white brow and the ruffled coronet of bright hair.
"No," returned Johnnie gently, literally. "You know I said I'd come up here and get those moccasin flowers for you this morning. This is my road home, anyhow. I'm not as near lost on it as I am at a loom, down in the factory."
Stoddard continued to stare at the hand she had laid on the car.
"It'll be an awfully long walk for you," he said at last, choosing his words with some difficulty. "Won't you get in and let me take you up to the spring?"
Johnnie laughed softly, exultantly.
"Oh, I picked your flowers before day broke. I'll bet there have been a dozen boys over from Sunday-school to drink out of that spring before this time. You wouldn't have had any blooms if I hadn't got up early."
Again she laughed, and, uncovering the orchids, held them up to him.
"These are beauties," he exclaimed with due enthusiasm, yet with a certain uneasy preoccupation in his manner. "Were you up before day, did you tell me, to get these? That seems too bad. You needed your sleep."
Johnnie flushed and smiled.
"I love to do it," she said simply. "It was mighty sweet out on the road this morning, and you don't know how pretty the blooms did look, standing there waiting for me. I 'most hated to pick them."
Stoddard's troubled eyes raised themselves to her face. Here was a royal nature that would always be in the attitude of the giver. He wanted to offer her something, and, as the nearest thing in reach, sprang down from the automobile and, laying a hand on her arm, said, almost brusquely:
"Get in. Come, let me help you. I want to go up and see the spring where these grow. I'll get you back to Cottonville in time for church, if that's what you're debating about."
Both of them knew that Johnnie's reluctance had nothing to do with the question of church-time. Stoddard himself was well aware that a factory girl could not with propriety accept a seat in his car; yet when once they were settled side by side, and the car resumed that swift, tireless climb which is the wonder and delight of the mechanical vehicle, it was characteristic that both put aside definitely and completely all hesitations and doubts. The girl was freely, innocently, exultantly blissful. Stoddard noticed her intent examination of the machine, and began explaining its workings to her.
"Was that what you were doing," she asked, alluding to some small item of the operating, "when you stopped by the side of the road, Sunday night, when Miss Lydia was with you?"
He looked his astonishment.
"You were right under my window when you stopped," Johnnie explained to him. "I watched you-all when you started away. I was sure you would beat."
"We did," Stoddard assured her. "But we came near missing it. That connection Buckheath put in for me the evening you were with him on the Ridge worked loose. But I discovered the trouble in time to fix it."
Remembrance of that evening, and of the swift flight of the motors through the dusk moonlight, made Johnnie wonder at herself and her present position. She was roused by Stoddard's voice asking:
"Are you interested in machinery?"
"I love it," returned Johnnie sincerely. "I never did get enough of tinkerin' around machines. If I was ever so fortunate as to own a sewing machine I could take it all apart and clean it and put it together again. I did that to the minister's wife's sewing machine down at Bledsoe when it got out of order. She said I knew more about it than the man that sold it to her."
"Would you like to run the car?" came the next query.
Would she like to! The countenance of simple rapture that she turned to him was reply sufficient.
"Well, look at my hands here on the steering-wheel. Get the position, and when I raise one put yours in its place. There. No, a little more this way. Now you can hold it better. The other one's right."
Smilingly he watched her, like a grown person amusing a child.
"You see what the wheel does, of course--guides. Now," when they had run ahead for some minutes, "do you want to go faster?"
Johnnie laughed up at him, through thick, fair lashes.
"Looks like anybody would be hard to suit that wanted to go faster than this," she apologized. "But if the machine can make a higher speed, there wouldn't be any harm in just running that way for a spell, would there?"
It was Stoddard's turn to laugh.
"No manner of harm," he agreed readily. "Well, you advance your spark and open the throttle--that speeds her up. This is the spark and this the gas, here. Then you shove your shifting lever--see, here it is--over to the next speed. Remember that, any time you shift the gears, you'll have to pull the clutch. The machine has to gain headway on one speed before it can take the next."
Johnnie nodded soberly. Her intent gaze studied the mechanism before her intelligently.
"We're going a heap faster now," she suggested in a moment. "Can I move that--whatever it is--over to the third speed?"
"Yes," agreed Stoddard. "Here's a good, long, straight stretch of road for us to take it on. I'll attend to the horn when we come to the turn up there. We mustn't make anybody's horse run away."
So the lesson proceeded. He showed her brake and clutch. He gave her some theoretical knowledge of cranking up, because she seemed to enjoy it as a child enjoys exploiting the possibilities of a new toy.
Up and up they went, the sky widening and brightening above them. Hens began to lead forth their broods. Overhead, a hawk wheeled high in the blue, uttering his querulous cry.
"I'm mighty glad I came," the girl said, more to herself than to the man at her side. "This is the most like flying of anything that ever chanced to me."
From time to time Stoddard had sent swift, sidelong glances at his companion, noting the bright, bent head, the purity of line in the profile above the steering-wheel, the intelligent beauty of the intent, down-dropped eyes, with long lashes almost on the flushed cheeks. He wondered at her; born amid these wide, cool spaces, how had she endured for a week the fetid atmosphere of the factory rooms? How, having tested it, could she look forward to a life like that? Something in her innocent trust choked him. He began some carefully worded inquiries as to her experience in the mill and her opinion of the work. The answers partook of that charm which always clung about Johnnie. She told him of Mandy and, missing no shade of the humour there was in the Meacham girl, managed to make the description pathetic. She described Pap Himes and his boarding-house, aptly, deftly, and left it funny, though a sympathetic listener could feel the tragedy beneath.
Presently they met the first farm-wagon with its load of worshippers for the little mountain church beyond. As these came out of a small side road, and caught sight of the car, the bony old horses jibbed and shied, and took all the driver's skill and a large portion of his vocabulary to carry them safely past, the children staring, the women pulling their sunbonnets about their faces and looking down. Something in the sight brought home to Johnnie the incongruity of her present position. On the instant, a drop of rain splashed upon the back of her hand.
"There!" she cried in a contrite voice. "I knew mighty well and good that it was going to rain, and I ought to have named it to you, because you town folks don't understand the weather as well as we do. I ought not to have let you come on up here."
"We'll have to turn and run for it," said Stoddard, laughing a little. "I wish I'd had the hood put on this morning," as he surveyed the narrow way in which he had to turn. "Is it wider beyond here, do you remember?"
"There's a bluff up about a quarter of a mile that you could run under and be as dry as if you were in the shed at home," said Johnnie. "This won't last long. Do you want to try it?"
"You are the pilot," Stoddard declared promptly, resigning the wheel once more to her hands. "If it's a bad place, you might let me take the car in."
Rain in the mountains has a trick of coming with the suddenness of an overturned bucket. Johnnie sent the car ahead at what she considered a rapid pace, till Stoddard unceremoniously took the wheel from her and shoved the speed clutch over to the third speed.
"I'm mighty sorry I was so careless and didn't warn you about the rain," she declared with shining eyes, as her hair blew back and her colour rose at the rapid motion. "But this is fine. I believe that if I should ever be so fortunate as to own an automobile I'd want to fly like this every minute of the time I was in it."
As she spoke, they swept beneath the overhanging rocks, and a great curtain of Virginia creeper and trumpet-vine fell behind them, half screening them from the road, and from the deluge which now broke more fiercely. For five minutes the world was blotted out in rain, with these two watching its gray swirls and listening to its insistent drumming, safe and dry in their cave.
Nothing ripens intimacy so rapidly as a common mishap. Also, two people seem much to each other as they await alone the ceasing of the rain or the coming of the delayed boat.
"This won't last long," Johnnie repeated. "We won't dare to start out when it first stops; but there'll come a little clearing-up shower after that, and then I think we'll have a fair day. Don't you know the saying, 'Rain before seven, quit before eleven?' Well, it showered twice just as day was breaking, and I had to wait under a tree till it was over."
The big drops lengthened themselves, as they came down, into tiny javelins and struck upon the rocks with a splash. The roar and drumming in the forest made a soft, blurring undertone of sound. The first rain lasted longer than Johnnie had counted on, and the clearing-up shower was slow in making its appearance. The two talked with ever-growing interest. Strangely enough Johnnie Consadine, who had no knowledge of any other life except through a few well-conned books, appreciated the values of this mountain existence with almost the detached view of an outsider. Her knowledge of it was therefore more assorted and available, and Stoddard listened to her eagerly.
"But what made you think you'd like to work in a cotton mill?" he asked suddenly. "After all, weren't you maybe better off up in these mountains?"
And then and there Johnnie strove to put into exact and intelligent words what she had possessed and what she had lacked in the home of her childhood. Unconsciously she told him more than was in the mere words. He got the situation as to the visionary, kindly father with a turn for book learning and a liking for enterprises that appealed to his imagination. Uncle Pros and the silver mine were always touched upon with the tender kindness Johnnie felt for the old man and his life-long quest. But the little mother and the children--ah, it was here that the listener found Johnnie's incentive.
"Mr. Stoddard," she concluded, "there wasn't a bit of hope of schooling for the children unless I could get out and work in the factory. I think it's a splendid chance for a girl. I think any girl that wouldn't take such a chance would be mighty mean and poor-spirited."
Gray Stoddard revolved this conception of a chance in the world in his mind for some time.
"I did get some schooling," she told him. "You wouldn't think it to hear me talk, because I'm careless, but I've been taught, and I can do better. Yet if I don't see to it, how am I to know that the children will have as much even as I've had? Mountain air is mighty pure and healthy, and the water up here is the finest you ever drank; but that's only for the body. Of course there's beauty all about you--there was never anything more sightly than big Unaka and the ridges that run from it, and the sky, and the big woods--and all. And yet human beings have got to have more than that. I aim to make a chance for the children."
"Are you going to bring them down and let them work in the mills with you?" Stoddard asked in a perfectly colourless tone.
Johnnie looked embarrassed. Her week in the cotton mill had fixed indelibly on her mind the picture of the mill child, straggling to work in the gray dawn, sleepy, shivering, unkempt; of the young things creeping up and down the aisles between the endlessly turning spools, dully regarding the frames to see that the threads were not fouled or broken; of the tired little groups as they pressed close to the shut windows, neglecting their work to stare out into a world of blue sky and blowing airs--a world they could see but not enter, and no breath of which could come in to them. And so she looked embarrassed. She was afraid that memory of those tired little faces would show in her own countenance. Her hands on the steering-wheel trembled. She remembered that Mr. Stoddard was, as Shade had said, one of the bosses in the Hardwick mill. It seemed too terrible to offend him. He certainly thought no ill of having children employed; she must not seem to criticize him; she answered evasively:
"Well, of course they might do that. I did think of it--before I went down there."
"Before you went to work in the mills yourself," supplied Stoddard, again in that colourless tone.
"Ye--yes," hesitated Johnnie; "but you mustn't get the idea that I don't love my work--because I do. You see the children haven't had any schooling yet, and--well, I'm a great, big, stout somebody, and it looks like I'm the one to work in the mill."
She turned to him fleetingly a countenance of appeal and perplexity. It seemed indeed anything but certain that she was one to work in the mill. There was something almost grotesque in the idea which made Stoddard smile a little at her earnestness.
"I'd like to talk it over with you when you've been at work there longer," he found himself saying. "You see, I'm studying mill conditions from one side, and you're studying them from the opposite--perhaps we could help each other."
"I sure will tell you what I find out," agreed Johnnie heartily. "I reckon you'll want to know how the work seems to me at the side of such as I was used to in the mountains; but I hope you won't inquire how long it took me to learn, for I'm afraid I'm going to make a poor record. If you was to ask me how much I was able to earn there, and how much back on Unaka, I could make a good report for the mill on that, because that's all that's the matter with the mountains--they're a beautiful place to live, but a body can't hardly earn a cent, work as they may."
Johnnie forgot herself--she was always doing that--and she talked freely and well. It was as inevitable that she should be drawn to Gray Stoddard as that she should desire the clothing and culture Miss Lydia possessed. For the present, one aspiration struck her as quite as innocent as the other. Stoddard had not yet emerged from the starry constellations among which she set him, to take form as a young man, a person who might indeed return her regard. Her emotions were in that nebulous, formative stage when but a touch would be needed to show her whither the regard tended, yet till that touch should come, she as unashamedly adored Gray as any child of five could have done. It was not till they were well down the road to Cottonville that she realized the bald fact that she, a mill girl, was riding in an automobile with one of the mill owners.
She was casting about for some reasonable phrase in which to clothe the statement that it would be better he should stop the car and let her out; she had parted her lips to ask him to take the wheel, when they rounded a turn and came upon a company of loom-fixers from the village below. Behind them, in a giggling group, strolled a dozen mill girls in their Sunday best. Johnnie had sight of Mandy Meacham, fixing eyes of terrified admiration upon her; then she nodded in reply to Shade Buckheath's angry stare, and a rattle of wheels apprized her that a carriage was passing on the other side. This vehicle contained the entire Hardwick family, with Lydia Sessions turning long to look her incredulous amazement back at them from her seat beside her brother-in-law.
It was all over in a moment. The loom-fixers had debouched upon the long, wooden bridge which crossed the ravine to their quarters; the girls were going on, Mandy Meacham hanging back and staring; a tree finally shut out Miss Sessions's accusing countenance.
"Please stop and let me out here," said Johnnie, in a scarcely audible voice.
When Stoddard would have remonstrated, or asked why, his lips were closed by sight of her daunted, miserable face. He knew as well as she the mad imprudence of the thing which they had done, and blamed himself roundly with it all.
"I'll not forget to bring the books we were talking of," he made haste to say. He picked up the little basket from the floor of the car.
"You'd better keep the flowers in that," Johnnie told him lifelessly. Her innocent dream was broken into by a cruel reality. She was struggling blindly under the weight of all her little world's disapprobation.
"You'll let me return the basket when I bring you the books," Gray suggested, helplessly.
"I don't know," Johnnie hesitated. Then, as a sudden inspiration came to her, "Mandy Meacham said she'd try to get me into a club for girls that Miss Sessions has. She said Miss Sessions would lend me books. Maybe you might just leave them with her. I'm sure I should be mighty proud to have them. I know I'll love to read them; but--well, you might just leave them with her."
A little satiric sparkle leaped to life in Stoddard's eyes. He looked at the innocent, upraised face in wonder. The most experienced manoeuverer of Society's legion could not have handled a difficult situation more deftly.
"The very thing," he said cheerily. "I'll talk to Miss Sessions about it to-morrow."