OF THE USE OF WINGS
"I told you I'd speak a good word for you," shouted Mandy Meacham, putting her lips down close to Johnnie's ear where she struggled and fought with her looms amid the deafening clamour of the weaving room.
The girl looked up, flushed, tired, but eagerly receptive.
"Yes," her red lips shaped the word to the other's eyes, though no sound could make itself heard above that din except such eldritch shrieks as Mandy's.
"I done it. I got you a invite to some doin's at the Uplift Club a-Wednesday."
Again Johnnie nodded and shaped "Yes" with her lips. She added something which might have been "thank you"; the adorable smile that accompanied it said as much.
Mandy watched her, fascinated as the lithe, strong young figure bent and strained to correct a crease in the web where it turned the roll.
"They never saw anything like you in their born days, I'll bet," she yelled. "I never did. You're awful quare--but somehow I sorter like ye." And she scuttled back to her looms as the room boss came in. A weaver works by the piece, but Mandy had been reproved too often for slovenly methods not to know that she might be fined for neglect. Her looms stood where she could continually get the newcomer's figure against the light, with its swift motion, its supple curves, and the brave carriage of the well-formed head. The sight gave Mandy a curious satisfaction, as though it uttered what she would fain have said to the classes above her. Hers was something the feeling which the private in the ranks has for the standard-bearer who carries the colours aloft, or the dashing officer who leads the charge. Johnnie was the challenge she would have flung in the face of the enemy.
"I'll bet if you'd put one of Miss Lyddy's dresses on her she'd look nobby," Mandy ruminated, addressing her looms. "That's what she would. She'd have 'em all f--fa--faded away, as the feller says."
And so it came about that the next day Johnnie Consadine did not go to the mill at all, but spent the morning washing and ironing her one light print dress. It was as coarse almost as flour-sacking, and the blue dots on it had paled till they made a suspicious speckle not unlike mildew; yet when she had combed her thick, fair hair, rolled it back from the white brow and braided it to a coronet round her head as she had seen that of the lady on the porch at the Palace of Pleasure; when, cleansed and smooth, she put the frock on, one forgot the dress in the youth of her, the hope, the glorious expectation there was in that eager face.
The ladies assisting in Miss Lydia Sessions's Uplift
Club for work among the mill girls, were almost all young and youngish women. The mothers in Israel attacked the more serious problems of orphanages, winter's supplies of coal, and clothing for the destitute.
"But their souls must be fed, too," Miss Lydia asserted as she recruited her helpers for the Uplift work. "Their souls must be fed; and who can reach the souls of these young girls so well as we who are near their own age, and who have had time for culture and spiritual growth?"
It was a good theory. Perhaps one may say that it remains a good theory. The manner of uplifting was to select a certain number of mill girls whom it was deemed well to help, approach them on the subject, and, if they appeared amenable, pay a substitute to take charge of their looms while those in process of being uplifted attended a meeting of the Club. The gathering to which Johnnie was bidden was held in honour of a lady from London who had written a book on some subject which it was thought ought to appeal to workingwomen. This lady intended to address the company and to mingle with them and get their views. Most of those present being quite unfurnished with any views whatever on the problem she discussed, her position was something that of a pick-pocket in a moneyless crowd; but of this she was fortunately and happily unaware.
Mandy Meacham regarded Johnnie's preparation for the function with some disfavour.
"Ef you fix up like that," she remonstrated, "you're bound to look too nice to suit Miss Lyddy. They won't be no men thar. I'm goin' to wear my workin' dress, and tell her I hadn't nary minute nor nary cent to do other."
Johnnie laughed a little at this, as though it were intended for a joke.
"But I did have time," she objected. "Miss Sessions would pay a substitute for the whole day though I told her I'd only need the afternoon for the party. I think it was mighty good of her, and it's as little as I can do to make myself look as nice as I can."
"You ain't got the sense you was born with!" fretted Mandy. "Them thar kind ladies ain't a-carin' for you to look so fine. They'll attend to all the fine lookin' theirselves. What they want is to know how bad off you air, an' to have you say how much what they have did or give has helped you."
Such interchange of views brought the two girls to the door of the little frame chapel, given over for the day to Uplift work. Within it rose a bustle and clatter, a hum of voices that spoke, a frilling of nervous, shrill laughter to edge the sound, and back of that the clink of dishes from a rear room where refreshments were being prepared.
Miss Sessions, near the door, had a receiving line, quite in the manner of any reception. She herself, in a blouse of marvellous daintiness and sweeping skirts, stood beside the visitor from London to present her. To this day Johnnie is uncertain as to where the wonderful blue silk frock of that lady from abroad was fastened, though she gave the undivided efforts of sharp young eyes and an inquiring mind to the problem a good portion of the time while it was within her view. The Englishwoman was called Mrs. Archbold, and on her other hand stood a tall, slim lady with long gray-green eyes, prematurely gray hair which had plainly been red, and an odd little twist to her smile. This was Mrs. Hexter, wife of the owner of the big woollen mills across the creek, and only bidden in to assist the Uplift work because the position of her husband gave her much power. These, with the Misses Burchard, daughters of the rector, formed the reception committee.
"I am so charmed to see you here to-day," Miss Lydia smiled as they entered. It was part of her theory to treat the mill girls exactly as she would members of her own circle. Mandy, being old at the business, possessed herself of the high-held hand presented; but Johnnie only looked at it in astonishment, uncertain whether Miss Lydia meant to shake hands or pat her on the head. Yet when she did finally divine what was intended, the quality of her apologetic smile ought to have atoned for her lapse.
"I'm sure proud to be here with you-all," she said. "Looks like to me you are mighty kind to strangers."
The ineradicable dignity of the true mountaineer, who has always been as good as the best in his environment, preserved Johnnie from any embarrassment, any tendency to shrink or cringe. Her beauty, in the fresh-washed print gown, was like a thing released and, as Miss Sessions might have put it, rampant.
Gray Stoddard had gone directly to Lydia Sessions, with his proffers of books, and his suggestions for Johnnie. The explanation of how the girl came to be riding in his car that Sunday morning was neither as full nor as penitent as Miss Lydia could have wished; yet it did recognize the impropriety of the act, and was, in so far, satisfactory. Miss Sessions made haste to form an alliance with the young man for the special upliftment of Johnnie Consadine. She would have greatly preferred to interest him in Mandy Meacham, but beggars can not be choosers, and she took what she could get.
"Whom have we here?" demanded the lady from London, leaning across and peering at Johnnie with friendly, near-sighted eyes. "Why, what a blooming girl, to be sure! You haven't been long from the country, I'll venture to guess, my dear."
Johnnie blushed and dimpled at being so kindly welcomed. The mountain people are undemonstrative in speech and action; and that "my dear" seemed wonderful.
"I come from away up in the mountains," she said softly.
"From away up in the mountains," repeated the Englishwoman, her smiling gaze dwelling on Johnnie's radiant face. "Why yes--so one would conceive. Well, you mustn't lose all those pretty roses in the mill down here." She was a visitor, remember; residents of Cottonville never admitted that roses, or anything else desirable, could be lost in the mills.
"I'll not," said Johnnie sturdily. "I'm goin' to earn my way and send for Mother and the children, if hard work'll do it; but I'm a mighty big, stout, healthy somebody, and I aim to keep so."
Mrs. Archbold patted the tall young shoulder as she turned to Mandy Meacham whom Miss Lydia was eager to put through her paces for the benefit of the lady from London.
"Isn't that the girl Mr. Stoddard was speaking to me about?" she inquired in a whisper as Johnnie moved away. "I think it must be. He said she was such a beauty, and I scarcely believe there could be two like her in one town."
"Such a type,' were Mr. Stoddard's exact words I believe," returned Miss Sessions a little frostily. "Yes, John Consadine is quite a marked type of the mountaineer. She is, as she said to you, a stout, healthy creature, and, I understand, very industrious. I approve of John."
She approved of John, but she addressed herself to exploiting Mandy; and the lady in the blue silk frock learned how poor and helpless the Meacham woman had been before she got in to the mill work, how greatly the Uplift Club had benefited her, with many interesting details. Yet as the English lady went from group to group in company with Miss Lydia and T.H. Hexter's wife, her quick eyes wandered across the room to where a bright head rose a little taller than its fellows, and occasional bursts of laughter told that Johnnie was in a merry mood.
The threadbare attempt at a reception was gotten through laboriously. The girls were finally settled in orderly rows, and Mrs. Archbold led to the platform. The talk she had prepared for them was upon aspiration. It was an essay, in fact, and she had delivered it successfully before many women's clubs. She is not to be blamed that the language was as absolutely above the comprehension of her hearers as though it had been Greek. She was a busy woman, with other aims and activities than those of working among the masses; Miss Lydia had heard her present talk, fancied it, and thought it would be the very thing for the Uplift Club.
For thirty minutes Johnnie sat concentrating desperately on every sentence that fell from the lips of the lady from London, trying harder to understand than she had ever tried to do anything in her life. She put all her quick, young mind and avid soul into the struggle to receive, though piercingly aware every instant of the difference between her attire and that of the women who had bidden her there, noting acutely variations between their language and hers, their voices, their gestures and hers. These were the women of Gray Stoddard's world. Such were his feminine associates; here, then, must be her models.
Mandy and her likes got from the talk perhaps nothing at all, except that rich people might have what they liked if they wanted it--that at least was Miss Meacham's summing up of the matter when she went home that night. But to Johnnie some of the sentences remained.
"You struggle and climb and strive," said Mrs. Archbold earnestly, "when, if you only knew it, you have wings. And what are the wings of the soul? The wings of the soul are aspiration. Oh, that we would spread them and fly to the heights our longing eyes behold, the heights we dream of when we cannot see them, the heights we foolishly and mistakenly expect to climb some day."
Again Johnnie saw herself coming down the ridge at Shade's side; descending into the shadow, stepping closer to the droning mills; while above her the Palace of Pleasure swam in its golden glory, and these who were privileged to do so went out and in and laughed and were happy. Were such heights as that what this woman meant? Johnnie had let it typify to her the heights to which she intended to climb. Was it indeed possible to fly to them instead? The talk ended. She sat so long with bent head that Miss Sessions finally came round and took the unoccupied chair beside her.
"Are you thinking it over, John?" she inquired with that odd little note of hostility which she could never quite keep out of her voice when she addressed this girl.
"Yes'm," replied Johnnie meekly.
Several who were talking together in the vicinity relinquished their conversation to listen to the two. Mrs. Hexter shot one of her quaint, crooked smiles at the lady from London and, with a silent gesture, bade her hearken.
"I think these things are most important for you girls who have to earn your daily bread," Miss Sessions condescended.
"Daily bread," echoed Johnnie softly. She loved fine phrases as she loved fine clothes. "I know where that comes from. It's in the prayer about 'daily bread,' and 'the kingdom and the power and the glory.' Don't you think those are beautiful words, Miss Lydia--the 'power and the glory'?"
Miss Sessions's lips sucked in with that singular, half-reluctant expression of condemnation which was becoming fairly familiar to Johnnie.
"Oh, John!" she said reprovingly, 'Daily bread' is all we have anything to do with. Don't you remember that it says 'Thine be the kingdom and the power and the glory'? Thine, John--Thine."
"Yes'm," returned Johnnie submissively. But it was in her heart that certain upon this earth had their share of kingdoms and powers and the glories. And, although she uttered that submissive "Yes'm," her high-couraged young heart registered a vow to achieve its own slice of these things as well as of daily bread.
"Didn't you enjoy Mrs. Archbold's talk? I thought it very fine," Miss Sessions pursued.
"It sure was that," sighed Johnnie. "I don't know as I understand it all--every word. I tried to, but maybe I got some of it wrong."
"What is it you don't understand, John?" inquired
Miss Lydia patronizingly. "Ask me. I'll explain anything you care to know about."
Johnnie turned to her, too desperately in earnest to note the other listeners to the conversation.
"Why, that about stretching out the wings of your spirit and flying. Do you believe that?"
"I certainly do," Miss Sessions said brightly, as delighted at Johnnie's remembering part of the visitor's words as a small boy when he has taught his terrier to walk on its hind legs.
"Then if a body wants a thing bad enough, and keeps on a-wanting it--Oh, just awful--is that aspiration? Will the thing you want that-a-way come to pass?"
"We-e-ell," Miss Sessions deemed it necessary to qualify her statement to this fiery and exact young questioner. "You have to want the right thing, of course, John. You have to want the right thing."
"Yes'm," agreed Johnnie heartily. "And I'd 'low it was certainly the right thing, if it was what good folks--like you--want."
Miss Sessions flushed, yet she looked pleased, aware, if Johnnie was not, of the number of listeners. Here was her work of Uplift among the mill girls being justified.
"I--Oh, really, I couldn't set myself up as a pattern," she said modestly.
"But you are," Johnnie assured her warmly. "There ain't anybody in this room I'd rather go by as by you." The fine gray eyes had been travelling from neck to belt, from shoulder to wrist of the lady who was enlightening her, "I think I never in all my life seen anything more sightly than that dress-body you're a-wearin'," she murmured softly. "Where--how might a person come by such a one? If you thought that my wishing and--aspiring--would ever bring me such as that, I'd sure try."
There rose a titter about the two. It spread and swelled till the whole assembly was in a gale of laughter. Miss Sessions's becoming blush deepened to the tint of angry mortification. She looked about and assumed the air of a schoolmistress with a room full of noisy pupils; but Johnnie, her cheeks pink too, first swept them all with an astonished gaze which flung the long lashes up in such a wide curve of innocence as made her eyes bewitching, then joined it, and laughed as loud as any of them at she knew not what. It was the one touch to put her with the majority, and leave her mentor stranded in a bleak minority. Miss Sessions objected to the position.
"Oh, John!" she said severely, so soon as she could be heard above the giggles. "How you have misunderstood me, and Mrs. Archbold, and all we intended to bring to you! What is a mere blouse like this to the uplift, the outlook, the development we were striving to offer? I confess I am deeply disappointed in you."
This sobered Johnnie, instantly.
"I'm sorry," she said, bending forward to lay a wistful, penitent hand on that of Miss Sessions. "I'll try to understand better. I reckon I'm right dumb, and you'll have to have a lot of patience with me. I don't rightly know what to aspire after."
The amende was so sweetly made that even Lydia Sessions, still exceedingly employed at being pictorially chagrined over the depravity of her neophyte, could but be appeased.
"I'll try to furnish you more suitable objects for your ambition," she murmured virtuously.
But the lady with the gray hair and the odd little twist to her smile now leaned forward and took a hand in the conversation.
"See here, Lydia," Mrs. Hexter remonstrated in crisp tones, "what's the matter with the girl's aspiring after a blouse like yours? You took a lot of trouble and spent a lot of money to get that one. I noticed you were careful to tell me it was imported, because I couldn't see the neck-band and find out that detail for myself. That blouse is a dream--it's a dream. If it's good enough aspiration for you or me, why not for this girl?"
"Oh, but Mrs. Hexter," murmured the mortified Miss Sessions, glancing uneasily toward the mill-girl contingent which was listening eagerly, and then at the speaker of the day, "I am sure Mrs. Archbold will agree with me that it would be a gross, material idea to aspire after blouses and such-like, when the poor child needs--er--other things so much more."
"Yes'm, I do that," conceded Johnnie dutifully, those changeful eyes of hers full of pensive, denied desire, as they swept the dainty gowns of the women before her. "I do--you're right. I wouldn't think of spending my money for a dress-body like that when I'm mighty near as barefoot as a rabbit this minute, and the little 'uns back home has to have every cent I can save. I just thought that if beautiful wishes was ever really coming true--if it was right and proper for a person to have beautiful wishes--I'd like--"
Her voice faltered into discouraged silence. Tears gathered and hung thick on her lashes. Miss Sessions sent a beseeching look toward the lady from London. Mrs. Archbold stepped accommodatingly into the breach.
"All aspiration is good," she said gently. "I shouldn't be discouraged because it took a rather concrete form."
Johnnie's eyes were upon her face, trying to understand. A "concrete form" she imagined might allude to the fact that Miss Sessions had a better figure than she.
Mrs. Hexter, glad of an ally, tossed that incorrigible gray head of hers and dashed into the conversation once more.
"If I were you, Johnnie, I'd just aspire as hard as I could in that direction," she said recklessly, her mischievous glance upon the flowing lines of Johnnie's young shoulders and throat. "A blouse like that would be awfully fetching on you. You'd look lovely in it. Why shouldn't you aspire to it? Maybe you'll have one just as pretty before the style changes. I am sure you're nice enough, and good-looking enough, for the best in the way of purple and fine linen to come to you by the law of attraction--don't you believe in the law of attraction, Mrs. Archbold?"
Lydia Sessions got up and moved away in shocked silence. Mrs. Hexter was a good deal of a thorn in her flesh, and she only tolerated her because of Mr. Hexter and his position. After the retreating and disaffected hostess came Mrs. Archbold's voice, with a thread of laughter in it.
"I believe in the law of such attraction as this girl has," she said kindly. "What is it your Walt Whitman says about the fluid and attaching character? That all hearts yearn toward it, that old and young must give it love. That is, my dear," turning explainingly to Johnnie, "the character which gives much love, takes much interest in those about it, makes itself one with other people and their affairs--do you get my meaning?"
"I think I understand," half whispered Johnnie, glowing eyes on the face of the speaker. "Do you mean that I am anything like that? I do love everybody--most. But how could I help it, when everybody is so good and kind to me?"
The glances of the older women met across the bright head.
"She won't have much use for feet to climb with," Mrs. Hexter summed it up, taking her figure from the talk earlier in the afternoon. "She's got wings."
And puzzled Johnnie could only smile from one to the other.
"Wings!" whispered Mandy Meacham to herself. Mandy was not only restricted to the use of spiritual feet; she was lame in the soul as well, poor creature, "Wings--air they callin' her a angel?"