THE SANDALS OF JOY
"Come in here, Johnnie," Mavity Bence called one day, as Johnnie was passing a strange little cluttered cubbyhole under the garret stairs and out over the roof of the lean-to kitchen. It was a hybrid apartment, between a large closet and a small room; one four-paned window gave scant light and ventilation; all the broken or disused plunder about the house was pitched into it, and in the middle sat a tumbled bed. It was the woman's sleeping place and her dead daughter had shared it with her during her lifetime. Johnnie stopped at the door with a hand on each side of its frame.
"Reddin' up things, Aunt Mavity?" she asked, adding, "If I had time I'd come in and help you."
"I was just puttin' away what I've got left that belonged to Lou," said the woman, sitting suddenly down on the bed and gazing up into the bright face above her with a sort of appeal. Johnnie noticed then that Mrs. Bence had a pair of cheap slippers in her lap. It came back vividly to the girl how the newspapers had said that Louvania Bence had taken off her slippers and left them on the bridge, that she might climb the netting more easily to throw herself into the water. The mother stared down at these, dry-eyed.
"She never had 'em on but the once," Mavity Bence breathed. "And I--and I r'ared out on her for buyin' of 'em. I said that with Pap so old and all, we hadn't money to spend for slippers. Lord God!"--she shivered--"We had to find money for the undertaker, when he come to lay her out."
She turned to Johnnie feverishly, like a thing that writhes on the rack and seeks an easier position.
"I had the best for her then--I jest would do it--there was white shoes and stockin's, and a reg'lar shroud like they make at Watauga; we never put a stitch on her that she'd wore--hit was all new-bought. For once I said my say to Pap, and made him take money out of the bank to do it. He's got some in thar for to bury all of us--he says--but he never wanted to use any of it for Lou."
Johnnie came in and sat down on the bed beside her hostess. She laid a loving hand over Mavity's that held the slippers.
"What pretty little feet she must have had," she said softly.
"Didn't she?" echoed the mother, with a tremulous half-smile. "I couldn't more'n get these here on my hand, but they was a loose fit for her. They're as good as new. Johnnie, ef you ever get a invite to a dance I'll lend 'em to you. Hit'd pleasure me to think some gal's feet was dancin' in them thar slippers. Lou, she never learned to dance--looked like she could never find time." Louvania, be it remembered had found time in which to die.
So Johnnie thanked poor Mavity, and hurried away, because the warning whistle was blowing.
The very next Wednesday Miss Sessions gave a dance to the members of her Uplift Club. These gaieties were rather singular and ingenious affairs, sterilized dances, Mrs. Hexter irreverently dubbed them. Miss Lydia did not invite the young men employed about the mill, not having as yet undertaken their uplifting; and feeling quite inadequate to cope with the relations between them and the mill girls, which would be something vital and genuine, and as such, quite foreign--if not inimical--to her enterprise. She contented herself with bringing in a few well-trained young males of her own class, who were expected to be attentive to the girls, treating them as equals, just as Miss Lydia did. For the rest, the members were encouraged to dance with each other, and find such joy as they might in the supper, and the fact that Miss Sessions paid for a half-day's work for them on the morrow, that they might lie late in bed after a night's pleasuring.
Johnnie Consadine had begun to earn money in such quantities as seemed to her economic experience extremely large. She paid her board, sent a little home to her mother, and had still wherewith to buy a frock for the dance. She treated herself to a trolley ride in to Watauga to select this dress, going on the Saturday half-holiday which the mills gave their workers, lest the labour laws regulating the hours per week which women and children may be employed be infringed upon. There was grave debate in Johnnie's mind as to what she should buy. Colours would fade--in cheap goods, anyhow--white soiled easily. "But then I could wash and iron it myself any evening I wanted to wear it," she argued to Mandy Meacham, who accompanied her.
"I'd be proud to do it for you," returned Mandy, loyally. Ordinarily the Meacham woman was selfish; but having found an object upon which she could centre her thin, watery affections, she proceeded to be selfish for Johnnie instead of toward her, a spiritual juggle which some mothers perform in regard to their children.
The store reached, Johnnie showed good judgment in her choice. There was a great sale on at the biggest shopping place in Watauga, and the ready-made summer wear was to be had at bargain rates. Not for her were the flaring, coarse, scant garments whose lack of seemliness was supposed to be atoned for by a profusion of cheap, sleazy trimming. After long and somewhat painful inspection, since most of the things she wanted were hopelessly beyond her, Johnnie carried home a fairly fine white lawn, simply tucked, and fitting to perfection.
"But you've got a shape that sets off anything," said the saleswoman, carelessly dealing out the compliments she kept in stock with her goods for purchasers.
"You're mighty right she has," rejoined Mandy, sharply, as who should say, "My back is not a true expression of my desires concerning backs. Look at this other--she has the spine of my dreams."
The saleswoman chewed gum while they waited for change and parcel, and in the interval she had time to inspect Johnnie more closely.
"Working in the cotton mill, are you?" she asked as she sorted up her stock, jingling the bracelets on her wrists, and patting into shape her big, frizzy pompadour. "That's awful hard work, ain't it? I should think a girl like you would try for a place in a store. I'll bet you could get one," she added encouragingly, as she handed the parcel across the counter. But already Johnnie knew that the spurious elegance of this young person's appearance was not what she wished to emulate.
The night of the dance Johnnie adjusted her costume with the nice skill and care which seem native to so many of the daughters of America. Mandy, dressing at the same bureau, scraggled the parting of her own hair, furtively watching the deft arranging of Johnnie's.
"Let me do it for you, and part it straight," Johnnie remonstrated.
"Aw, hit'll never be seen on a gallopin' hoss," returned Mandy carelessly. "Everybody'll be so tuck up a-watchin' you that they won't have time to notice is my hair parted straight, nohow."
"But you're not a galloping horse," objected Johnnie, laughing and clutching the comb away from her. "You've got mighty pretty hair, Mandy, if you'd give it a chance. Why, it's curly! Let me do it up right for you once."
So the thin, graying ringlets were loosened around the meagre forehead, and indeed Mandy's appearance was considerably ameliorated.
"There--isn't that nice?" inquired Johnnie, turning her companion around to the glass and forcing her to gaze in it--a thing Mandy always instinctively avoided.
"I reckon I've looked worse," agreed the tall woman unenthusiastically; "but Miss Lyddy ain't carin' to have ye fix up much. I get sort of feisty and want to dav-il her by makin' you look pretty. Wish't you would wear that breas'-pin o' mine, an' them rings an' beads I borried from Lizzie for ye. You might just as well, and then nobody'd know you from one o' the swells."
Johnnie shook her fair head decidedly. Talk of borrowing things brought a reminiscent flush to her cheek.
"I'm just as much obliged," she said sweetly. "I'll wear nothing but what's my own. After a while I'll be able to afford jewellery, and that'll be the time for me to put it on."
Presently came Mavity Bence bringing the treasured footwear.
"I expect they'll be a little tight for me," Johnnie remarked somewhat doubtfully; the slippers, though cheap, ill-cut things, looked so much smaller than her heavy, country-made shoes. But they went readily upon the arched feet of the mountain girl, Mandy and the poor mother looking on with deep interest.
"I wish't Lou was here to see you in 'em," whispered Mavity Bence. "She wouldn't grudge 'em to you one minute. Lord, how pretty you do look, Johnnie Consadine! You're as sightly as that thar big wax doll down at the Company store. I wish't Lou could see you."
The dance was being given in the big hall above a store, which Miss Lydia hired for these functions of her Uplift Club. The room was half-heartedly decorated in a hybrid fashion. Miss Lydia had sent down a rose-bowl of flowers; and the girls, being encouraged to use their own taste, put up some flags left over from last Fourth of July. When Johnnie and Mandy Meacham--strangely assorted pair--entered the long room, festivities were already in progress; Negro fiddlers were reeling off dance music, and Miss Lydia was trying to teach some of her club members the two-step. Her younger brother, Hartley Sessions, was gravely piloting a girl down the room in what was supposed to be that popular dance, and two young men from Watauga, for whom he had vouched, stood ready for Miss Sessions to furnish them with partners, when she should have encouraged her learners sufficiently to make the attempt. Round the walls sat the other girls, and to Johnnie's memory came those words of Mandy's, "You dance--if you can."
Johnnie Consadine certainly could dance. Many a time back in the mountains she had walked five miles after a hard day's work to get to a dance that some one of her mates was giving, tramping home in the dawn and doing without sleep for that twenty-four hours. The music seemed somehow to get into her muscles, so that she swayed and moved exactly in time to it.
"That's the two-step," she murmured to her partner. "I never tried it, but I've seen 'em dance it at the hotel down at Chalybeate Springs. I can waltz a little; but I love an old-fashioned quadrille the best--it seems more friendly."
Gray Stoddard was talking to an older woman who had come with her daughter--a thin-bodied, deep-eyed woman of forty, perhaps, with a half-sad, tolerant smile, and slow, racy speech. A sudden touch on his shoulder roused him, as one of the young men from town leaned over and asked him excitedly:
"Who's that girl down at the other end of the room, Gray?--the stunning blonde that just came in? She's got one of the mill girls with her."
Gray looked, and laughed a little. Somehow the adjectives applied to Johnnie did not please him.
"Both of them work in the mill," he said briefly. "The one you mean is Johnnie Consadine. She's a remarkable girl in more ways than merely in appearance."
"Well, take me down there and give me an introduction," urged the youth from Watauga, in a tone of animation which was barred from Uplift affairs.
"All right," agreed Gray, getting to his feet with a twinkle in his eye. "I suppose you want to meet the tall one. I've got an engagement for the first dance with Miss Consadine myself."
"Say," ejaculated the other, drawing back, "that isn't fair. Miss Sessions," he appealed to their hostess as umpire. "Here's Gray got the belle of the ball mortgaged for all her dances, and won't even give me an introduction. You do the square thing by me, won't you?"
Lydia Sessions had got her neophites safely launched, and they were making a more or less tempestuous progress across the floor. She turned to the two young men a flushed, smiling countenance. In the tempered light and the extremely favouring costume of the hour, she looked almost pretty.
"What is it?" she asked graciously. "The belle of the ball? I don't know quite who that is. Oh!" with a slight drop in her tone and the temperature of her expression; "do you mean John Consadine? Really, how well she is looking to-night!"
"Isn't she!" blundered the Watauga man with ill-timed enthusiasm. "I call her a regular beauty, and such an interesting-looking creature. What is she trying to do? Good Lord, she's going to attempt the two-step with that Eiffel tower she brought along!"
These frivolous remarks, suited well enough to the ordinary ballroom, did not please Miss Lydia for an Uplift dance.
"The girl with John is one in whom I take a very deep interest," she said with a touch of primness.
"John Consadine is young, and exceptionally strong and healthy. But Amanda Meacham has--er--disabilities and afflictions that make it difficult for her to get along. She is a very worthy case."
The young man from Watauga, who had not regarded Johnnie as a case at all, but had considered her purely as an exceptionally attractive young woman, looked a trifle bewildered. Then Gray took his arm and led him across to where the attempt at two-stepping had broken up in laughing disorder. With that absolutely natural manner which Miss Sessions could never quite achieve, good as her intentions were, he performed the introduction, and then said pleasantly:
"Mr. Baker wants to ask you to dance, Miss Johnnie. I'll carry on Miss Amanda's teaching, or we'll sit down here and talk if she'd rather."
"No more two-steppin' for me," agreed Miss Meacham, seating herself decidedly. "I'll take my steps one at a time from this on. I'd rather watch Johnnie dance, anyhow; but she would have me try for myself."
Johnnie and the young fellow from Watauga were off now. They halted once or twice, evidently for some further instructions, as Johnnie got the step and time, and then moved away smoothly. Gray took the seat beside Mandy.
"Ain't she a wonder?" inquired the big woman, staring fondly after the fluttering white skirts.
"She is indeed," agreed Gray quietly. And then, Mandy being thus launched on the congenial theme--the one theme upon which she was ever loquacious--out came the story of the purchase of the dress, the compliments of the saleswoman, the refusal of the borrowed jewellery.
"Johnnie's quare--she is that--I'll never deny it; but I cain't no more help likin' her than as if she was my own born sister."
"That's because she is fond of you, too," suggested Gray, thinking of the girl's laborious attempts to teach poor Mandy to dance.
"Do you reckon she is?" asked the tall woman, flushing. "Looks like Johnnie Consadine loves every livin' thing on the top side of this earth. I ain't never seen the human yet that she ain't got a good word for. But I don't know as she cares 'specially 'bout me."
Stoddard could not refuse the assurance for which Mandy so naively angled.
"You wouldn't be so fond of her if she wasn't fond of you," he asserted confidently.
"Mebbe I wouldn't," Mandy debated; "but I don't know. Let Johnnie put them two eyes o' hern on you, and laugh in your face, and you feel just like you'd follow her to the ends of the earth--or I know I do. Why, she done up my hair this evening and"--the voice sank to a half-shamed whisper--"she said it was pretty."
Gray turned and looked into the flushed, tremulous face beside him with a sudden tightening in his throat. How cruel humanity is when it beholds only the grotesque in the Mandys of this world. Her hair was pretty--and Johnnie had the eyes of love to see it.
He stared down the long, lighted room with unseeing gaze. Old Andrew MacPherson's counsel that he let Johnnie Consadine alone appealed to him at that moment as cruel good sense. He was recalled from his musings by Mandy's voice.
"Oh, look thar!" whispered his companion excitedly. "The other town feller has asked for a knock-down to Johnnie, too. Look at him passin' his bows with her just like she was one of the swells!"
Stoddard looked. Charlie Conroy was relieving Baker of his partner. Johnnie had evidently been asked if she was tired, for they saw her laughingly shake her head, and the new couple finished what was left of the two-step and seated themselves a moment at the other side of the room to wait for the next dance to begin.
"These affairs are great fun, aren't they?" inquired Conroy, fanning his late partner vigorously.
"I love to dance better than anything else in the world, I believe," returned Johnnie dreamily.
"Oh, a dance--I should suppose so. You move as though you enjoyed it; but I mean a performance like this. The girls are great fun, don't you think? But then you wouldn't get quite our point of view on that."
He glanced again at her dress; it was plain and simple, but good style and becoming. She wore no jewellery, but lots of girls were rather affecting that now, especially the athletic type to which this young beauty seemed to belong. Surely he was not mistaken in guessing her to be one of Miss Sessions's friends. Of course he was not. She had dressed herself in this simple fashion for a mill-girl's dance, that she might not embarrass the working people who attended. Yes, by George! that was it, and it was a long ways-better taste than the frocks Miss Sessions and Mrs. Hexter were wearing.
Johnnie considered his last remark, her gaze still following the movements of the Negro fiddler at the head of the room. Understanding him to mean that, being a mill-hand herself, she could not get a detached view of the matter, and thus see the humour of this attempt to make society women of working-girls, Johnnie was yet not affronted. Her clear eyes came back from watching Uncle Zeke's manoeuvres and looked frankly into the eyes of the man beside her.
"I reckon we are right funny," she assented. "But of course, as you say, I wouldn't see that as quick as you would. Sometimes I have to laugh a little at Mandy--the girl I was dancing with first this evening --but--but she's so good-natured it never hurts her feelings. I don't mind being laughed at myself, either."
"Laughed at--you?" inquired Conroy, throwing an immense amount of expression into his glance. He was rather a lady's man, and fancied he had made pretty fair headway with this beautiful girl whom he still supposed to be of the circle of factory owners. "Oh, you mean your work among the mill girls here.
"Indeed, I should not laugh at that. I think it's noble for those more fortunate to stretch a hand to help their brothers and sisters that haven't so good a chance. That's what brought me over here to-night. Gray Stoddard explained the plan to me. He doesn't seem to think much of it--but then, Gray's a socialist at heart, and you know those socialists never believe in organized charity. I tell him he's an anarchist."
"Mr. Stoddard is a mighty good man," agreed Johnnie with sudden pensiveness. "They've all been mighty good to me ever since I've been here; but I believe Mr. Stoddard has done more for me than any one else. He not only lends me books, but he takes time to explain things to me."
Conroy smiled covertly at the simplicity of this young beauty. He debated in his mind whether indeed it was not an affected simplicity. Of course Gray was devoting himself to her and lending her books; of course he would be glad to assume the position of mentor to a girl who bade fair to be such a pronounced social success, and who was herself so charming.
"How long have you been in Cottonville, Miss Consadine?" he asked. "Do tell me who you are visiting--or are you visiting here?"
"Oh, no," Johnnie corrected him. "I believe you haven't understood from the first that I'm one of the mill girls. I board at--well, everybody calls it Pap Himes's boarding-house."
There was a moment's silence; but Conroy managed not to look quite as deeply surprised as he felt.
"I--of course I knew it," he began at length, after having sorted and discarded half a dozen explanations. "There--why, there's our dance!" And he stood up in relief, as the fiddlers began on an old-fashioned quadrille.
Johnnie responded with alacrity, not aware of having either risen or fallen in her companion's estimation. She danced through the set with smiling enjoyment, prompting her partner, who knew only modern dances. On his part Conroy studied her covertly, trying to adjust his slow mind to this astonishing new state of things, and to decide what a man's proper attitude might be toward such a girl. In the end he found himself with no conclusion.
"They say they're going to try a plain waltz," he began as he led her back to a seat. He hesitated, glanced about him, and finally placed himself uneasily in the chair beside her. Good Lord! The situation was impossible. What should he say if anybody--Gray Stoddard, for instance--chaffed him about being smitten in this quarter?
"A waltz?" echoed Johnnie helpfully when he did not go on. "I believe I could dance that--I tried it once."
"Then you'll dance it with me?" Conroy found himself saying, baldly, awkwardly, but unable, for the life of him, to keep the eagerness out of his voice.
Upon the instant the music struck up. The two rose and made ready for the dance; Conroy placing Johnnie in waltzing position, and instructing her solicitously.
Gray Stoddard looking on, was amazed at the naïf simple jealousy that swept over him at the sight. She had danced with Conroy twice already--he ought to be more considerate than to bring the girl into notice that way--a chump like Charlie Conroy, what would he understand of such a nature as Johnnie Consadine's? Before he fully realized his own intentions, he had paused in front of the two and was speaking.
"I think Miss Johnnie promised me a dance this evening. I'll have to go back to the office in twenty minutes, and--I hate to interrupt you, but I guess I'll have to claim my own."
He became suddenly aware that Conroy was signalling him across Johnnie's unconscious head with Masonic twistings of the features. Stoddard met these recklessly inconsiderate grimacings with an impassive stare, then looked away.
"I want to see you before you go," the man from Watauga remarked, as he reluctantly resigned his partner. "Don't you forget that there's a waltz coming to me, Miss Johnnie. I'm going to have it, if we make the band play special for us alone."
Lydia Sessions, passing on the arm of young Baker, glanced at Johnnie, star-eyed, pink-cheeked and smiling, with a pair of tall cavaliers contending for her favours, and sucked her lips in to that thin, sharp line of reprobation Johnnie knew so well. Dismissing her escort graciously, she hurried to the little supper room and found another member of the committee.
"Come here, Mrs. Hexter. Just look at that, will you?" She called attention in a carefully suppressed, but fairly tragic tone, to Stoddard and Johnnie dancing together, the only couple on the floor. "None of the girls know how to waltz. I am not sure that it would be suitable if they did. When I came past, just now, there were two of the men--two--talking to John Consadine, and they were all three laughing. I can't think how it is that girls of that sort manage to stir things up so and get all the men around them."
"Neither can I," said Mrs. Hexter wickedly. "If I did know how, I believe I'd do it sometimes myself. What is it you want of me, Miss Sessions? I must run back and see to supper, if you don't need me."
"But I do," fretted Lydia. "I want your help. This waltzing and--and such things--ought to be stopped."
"All right," rejoined practical Mrs. Hexter. "The quickest way to do it is to stop the music."
She had meant the speech as a jeer, but literal-minded Lydia Sessions welcomed its suggestion. Hurrying down the long room, she spoke to the leader of their small orchestra. The Negro raised to her a brown face full of astonishment. His fiddle-bow faltered--stopped. He turned to his two fellows and gave hasty directions. The waltz measure died away, and a quadrille was announced.
"That was too bad," said Stoddard as they came to a halt; "you were just getting the step beautifully."
The girl flashed a swift, sweet look up at him. "I do love to dance," she breathed.
"John, would you be so kind as to come and help in the supper room," Miss Sessions's hasty tones broke in.
She was leaning on Charlie Conroy's arm, and when she departed to hide Johnnie safely away in the depths of their impromptu kitchen, it left the two men alone together. Conroy promptly fastened upon the other.
Charlie Conroy was a young man who had made up his mind to get on socially. Such figures are rarer in America than in the old world. Yet Charlie Conroy with his petty ambitions does not stand entirely alone. He seriously regarded marriage as a stepping-stone to a circle which should include "the best people." That this term did not indicate the noblest or most selfless, need hardly be explained. It meant only that bit of froth which in each community rides high on the top of the cup, and which, in Watauga, was augmented by the mill owners of its suburb of Cottonville. Conroy had been grateful for the opportunity to make an entry into this circle by means of assisting Miss Sessions in her charitable work. That lady herself, as sister-in-law of Jerome Hardwick and a descendant of an excellent New England family, he regarded with absolute veneration, quite too serious and profound for anything so assured as mere admiration.
"I tried to warn you," he began: "but you were bound to get stung."
"I beg your pardon?" returned Stoddard in that civil, colourless interrogation which should always check over-familiar speech, even from the dullest. But Conroy was not sensitive.
"That big red-headed girl, you know," he said, leaning close and speaking in a confidential tone. "I mistook her for a lady. I was going my full length--telling her what fun the mill girls were, and trying to do the agreeable--when I found out."
"Found out what?" inquired Stoddard. "That she was not a lady?"
"Aw, come off," laughed Conroy. "You make a joke of everything."
"I knew that she was a weaver in the mill," said Stoddard quietly.
Conroy glanced half wistfully over his shoulder in the direction where Johnnie had vanished.
"She's a good-looker all right," he said thoughtfully. "And smile--when that girl smiles and turns those eyes on you--by George! if she was taken to New York and put through one of those finishing schools she'd make a sensation in the swagger set."
Stoddard nodded gravely. He had not Conroy's faith in the fashionable finishing school; but what he lacked there, he made up in conviction as to Johnnie's deserts and abilities.
"There she comes now," said Conroy, as the door swung open to admit a couple of girls with trays of coffee cups. "She walks mighty well. I wonder where a girl like that learned to carry herself so finely. By George, she is a good-looker! She's got 'em all beaten; if she was only--. Queer about the accidents of birth, isn't it? Now, what would you say, in her heredity, makes a common girl like that step and look like a queen?"
Gray Stoddard's face relaxed. A hint of his quizzical, inscrutable smile was upon it as he answered.
"Nature doesn't make mistakes. I don't call Johnnie Consadine a common girl--it strikes me that she is rather uncommon."
And outside, a young fellow in the Sunday suit of a workingman was walking up and down, staring at the lighted windows, catching a glimpse now and again of one girl or another, and cursing under his breath when he saw Johnnie Consadine.
"Wouldn't go with me to the dance at Watauga--oh no! But she ain't too tired to dance with the swells!" he muttered to the darkness. "And I can't get a word nor a look out of her. Lord, I don't know what some women think!"