THE NEW BOARDER
Pap Himes was sitting on the front gallery, dozing in the westering sunshine. On his lap the big, yellow cat purred and blinked with a grotesque resemblance in colouring and expression to his master. It was Sunday afternoon, when the toilers were all out of the mills, and most of them lying on their beds or gone in to Watauga. The village seemed curiously silent and deserted. Through the lazy smoke from his cob pipe Pap noticed Shade Buckheath emerge from the store and start up the street. He paid no more attention till the young man's voice at the porch edge roused him from his half-somnolence.
"Evenin', Pap," said the newcomer.
"Good evenin' yourself," returned Himes with unusual cordiality. He liked men, particularly young, vigorous, masterful men. "Come in, Buck, an' set a spell. Rest your hat--rest your hat."
It was always Pap's custom to call Shade by the first syllable of his second name. Buck is a common by-name for boys in the mountains, and it could not be guessed whether the old man used it as a diminutive of the surname, or whether he meant merely to nickname this favourite of his.
Shade threw himself on the upper step of the porch and searched in his pockets for tobacco.
"Room for another boarder?" he asked laconically.
The old man nodded.
"I reckon there's always room, ef it's asked for," he returned. "Hit's the one way I got to make me a livin', with Louvany dyin' off and Mavity puny like she is. I have obliged to keep the house full, or we'd see the bottom of the meal sack."
"All right," agreed Buckheath, rising, and treating the matter as terminated. "I'll move my things in a-Monday."
"Hold on thar--hold on, young feller," objected Pap, as Shade turned away. It was against all reasonable mountain precedent to trade so quickly; but indeed Shade had merely done so with a view to forcing through what he well knew to be a doubtful proposition.
"I'm a-holding on," he observed gruffly at last, as the other continued to blink at him with red eyes and say nothing. "What's the matter with what I said? You told me you had room for another boarder and I named it that I was comin' to board at your house. Have you got any objections?"
"Well, yes, I have," Himes opened up ponderously. "You set yourself down on that thar step and we'll have this here thing out. My boardin'-house is for gals. I fixed it so when I come here. There ain't scarcely a rowdy feller in Cottonville that hain't at one time or another had the notion he'd board with Pap Himes; but I've always kep' a respectable house, and I always aim to, I am a old man, and I bear a good name, and I'm the only man in this house, and I aim to stay so. Now, sir, there's my flatform; and you may take it or leave it."
Buckheath glanced angrily and contemptuously into the stupid, fatuous countenance above him; he appeared to curb with some difficulty the disposition to retort in kind. Instead, he returned, sarcastically:
"The fellers around town say you won't keep anything but gals because nothin' but gals would put up with your hectorin' 'em, and crowdin' ten in a room that was intended for four. That's what folks say; but I've got a reason to want to board with you, Pap, and I'll pay regular prices and take what you give me."
Himes looked a little astonished; then an expression of distrust stole over his broad, flat face.
"What's bringin' you here?" he asked bluntly.
"Johnnie Consadine," returned Shade, without evasion or preamble. "Before I left the mountains, Johnnie an' me was aimin' to wed. Now she's got down here, and doin' better than ever she hoped to, and I cain't get within hand-reach of her."
"Ye cain't?" inquired Pap scornfully. "Why anybody could marry that gal that wanted to. But Lord! anybody can marry any gal, if he's got the sense he was born with."
"All right," repeated Shade grimly. "I come to you to know could I get board, not to ask advice. I aim to marry Johnnie Consadine, and I know my own business--air you goin' to board me?"
The old man turned this speech in his mind for some time.
"Curious," he muttered to himself, "how these here young fellers will get petted on some special gal and break their necks to have her."
"Shut up--will you?" ejaculated Buckheath, so suddenly and fiercely that the old man fairly jumped, rousing the yellow cat to remonstrative squirmings. "I tell you I know my business, and I ask no advice of you--will you board me?"
"I cain't do it, Buck," returned Himes definitely. "I ain't got such a room to give you by yourself as you'd be willin' to take up with; and nobody comes into my room. But I'll tell you what I'll do for you--I'll meal you, ef that will help your case any. I'll meal you for two dollars a week, and throw in a good word with Johnnie."
Buckheath received the conclusion of this speech with a grin.
"I reckon your good word 'd have a lot to do with Johnnie Consadine," he said ironically, as he picked up his hat from the floor.
"Uh-huh," nodded Pap. "She sets a heap of store by what I say. All of 'em does; but Johnnie in particular. I don't know but what you're about right. Ain't no sense in bein' all tore up concernin' any gal or woman; but I believe if I was pickin' out a good worker that would earn her way, I'd as soon pick out Johnnie Consadine as any of 'em."
And having thus paid his ultimate compliment to Johnnie, Himes relapsed into intermittent slumber as Shade moved away down the squalid, dusty street under the fierce July sun.
Johnnie greeted the new boarder with a reserve which was in marked contrast to the reception he got from the other girls. Shade Buckheath was a handsome, compelling fellow, and a good match; this Adamless Eden regarded him as a rival in glory even to Pap himself. When supper was over on the first night of his arrival, Shade walked out on the porch and seated himself on the steps. The girls disposed themselves at a little distance--your mountain-bred young female is ever obviously shy, almost to prudery.
"Whar's Johnnie Consadine?" asked the newcomer lazily, disposing himself with his back against a post and his long legs stretched across the upper step.
"Settin' in thar, readin' a book," replied Beulah Catlett curtly. Beulah was but fourteen, and she belonged to the newer dispensation which speaks up more boldly to the masculine half of creation. "Johnnie! Johnnie Consadine!" she called through the casement. "Here's Mr. Buckheath, wishful of your company. Better come out."
"I will, after a while," returned Johnnie absently. "I've got to help Aunt Mavity some, and then I'll be there."
"Hit's a sight, the books that gal does read," complained Beulah. "Looks like a body might get enough stayin' in the house by workin' in a cotton mill, without humpin' theirselves up over a book all evenin'."
"Mr. Stoddard lends 'em to her," announced Mandy importantly. "He used to give 'em to Miss Lyddy Sessions, and she'd give 'em to Johnnie; but now when Miss Lyddy's away, he'll bring one down to the mill about every so often, and him an' Johnnie'll stand and gas and talk over what's in 'em--I cain't understand one word they say. I tell you Johnnie Consadine's got sense."
Her pride in Johnnie made her miss the look of rage that settled on Buckheath's face at her announcement. The young fellow was glad when Pap Himes began to speak growlingly.
"Yes, an' if she was my gal I'd talk to her with a hickory about that there business. A gal that ain't too old to carry on that-a-way ain't too old to take a whippin' for it. Huh!"
For her own self Mandy would have been thoroughly scared by this attack; in Johnnie's defence she rustled her feathers like an old hen whose one chick has been menaced.
"Johnnie Consadine is the prettiest-behaved gal I ever seen," she announced shrilly. "She ain't never said nor done the least thing that she hadn't ort. Mr. Stoddard he just sees how awful smart she is, and he loves to lend her books and talk with her about 'em afterward. For my part I ain't never seen look nor motion about Mr. Gray Stoddard that wasn't such as a gentleman ort to be. I know he never said nothin' he ort not to me."
The suggestion of Stoddard's making advances of unseemly warmth to Mandy Meacham produced a subdued snicker. Even Pap smiled, and Mandy herself, who had been looking a bit terrified after her bold speaking, was reassured.
Buckheath had been a week at the Himes boarding-house, finding it not unpleasant to show Johnnie Consadine how many of the girls regarded him with favour, whether she did or not, when he came to supper one evening with a gleam in his eye that spoke evil for some one. After the meal was over, he followed Pap out on the porch and sat down beside the old man, the girls being bunched expectantly on the step, for he was apt to delay for a bit of chat with one or another of them before leaving.
"You infernal old rascal, I've caught up with you," he whispered, leaning close to his host.
Himes clutched the pipe in his teeth till it clicked, and stared in helpless resentment at his mealer.
"What's the matter with you?" he demanded.
"Speak lower, so the gals won't hear you, or you'll wish you had," counselled Shade. "I sent that there thing on to Washington to get a patent on it, and now I find that they was a model of the same there in the name of Gideon Himes. What do you make of that?"
Pap stared at the thin strips of metal lying in Shade's hard, brown palm.
"The little liar!" he breathed. "She told me she got it up herself." He glared at the bits of steel with protruding eyes, and breathed hard.
"Well, she didn't," Shade countered swiftly, taking advantage of the turn things were showing. "I made six of 'em; and when I told her to bring 'em back and I'd give her some that would wear better, she only brought me five. She said she'd lost one here at home, she believed. I might have knowed then that you'd get your claws on it ef I wasn't mighty peart."
Old Gideon was not listening; he had fallen into a brown study, turning the piece of metal in his skilful, wonted, knotty fingers, with their spade tips.
"Put it out of sight--quick--here she comes!" whispered Shade; and the old man looked up to see Johnnie Consadine in the doorway. A grin of triumph grew slowly upon his face, as he gazed from one to the other.
"She did get it up!" he returned in Buckheath's face. "You liar! You're a-aimin' to steal it from her. You filed out the pieces like she told you to, and when you found it would work, you tried to get a patent on it for yo'se'f. Yes, sir, I'm onto you!"
Shade looked over his shoulder. The girls had forsaken the steps. Despairing of his coming, they were strolling two-and-two after Johnnie on the sidewalk.
"It's you and me for it, Pap," he said hardily. "What was you tryin' to do? Was you gettin' the patent for Johnnie? Shall I call her up here and ask her?"
"No, no," exclaimed the old man hastily. "They ain't no use of puttin' sich things in a fool gal's hands. She never heard of a patent--wouldn't know one from a hole in the ground. Hit's like you say, Buck--you and me for it."
The two men rose and stood a moment, Shade smiling a bit to think what he would do with Pap Himes and his claim if he could only once get Johnnie to say yes to his suit. The thick wits of the elder man apparently realized this feature of the matter not at all.
"Why that thar girl is crazy to get married," he argued, half angrily. "You know in reason she is--they all are. The fust night when you brung her here I named it to her that she was pretty well along in years, and she'd better be spry about gettin' her hooks on a man, or she was left. She said she'd do the best she could--I never heered a gal speak up pearter--most of 'em would be 'shamed to name it out so free. Why, if it was me, I'd walk her down to a justice's office an' wed her so quick her head'd swim.
"Who's that talking about getting married?" called Johnnie's voice from the street, and Johnnie herself ran up the steps.
"Hit was me," harangued Pap Himes doggedly. "I was tellin' Shade how bad you wanted to git off, and that I 'lowed you'd be a good bargain for him."
He looked hopefully from one to the other, as though he expected to see his advice accepted and put into immediate practice. Johnnie laughed whole-heartedly.
"Pap," she said with shining eyes, "if you get me a husband, I'll have to give you a commission on it. Looks like I can't noways get one for myself, don't it?"
She passed into the house, and Shade regarded his ally in helpless anger.
"That's the way she talks, here lately," he growled, "Seems like it would be easy enough to come to something; and by the Lord, it would, with any other gal I ever seed--or with Johnnie like she was when she first came down here! But these days and times she's got a way of puttin' me off that I can't seem to get around."
Neither man quite understood the power of that mental culture which Johnnie was assimilating so avidly. That reading things in a book should enable her--a child, a girl, a helpless woman--to negative their wishes smilingly, this would have been a thing quite outside the comprehension of either.
"Aunt Mavity wants me to go down to the store for her," Johnnie announced, returning. "Any of you girls like to come along?"
Mandy had parted her lips to accept the general invitation, when Shade Buckheath rose to his feet and announced curtly, "I'll go with you."
His glance added that nobody else was wanted, and Mandy subsided into a seat on the steps and watched the two walk away side by side.
"Looks like you ain't just so awful pleased to have me boardin' with Pap," Shade began truculently, when it appeared that the girl was not going to open any conversation with him. "Maybe you wasn't a-carin' for my company down street this evenin'."
"No," said Johnnie, bluntly but very quietly. "I wish you hadn't come to the house to board. I have told you to let me alone."
Shade laughed, an exasperated, mirthless laugh. "You know well enough what made me do it," he said sullenly. "If you don't want me to board with Pap Himes you can stop it any day you say the word. You promise to wed me, and I'll go back to the Inn. The Lord knows they feed you better thar, and I believe in my soul the gals at Pap Himes's will run me crazy. But as long as you hang off the way you do about our marryin', and I git word of you carryin' on with other folks, I'm goin' to stay where I can watch you."
"Other folks!" echoed Johnnie, colour coming into her cheeks. "Shade, there's no use of your quarrelling with me, and I see it's what you're settin' out to do."
"Yes, other folks--Mr. Gray Stoddard, for instance. I ain't got no auto to take you out ridin' in, but you're a blame sight safer with me than you are with him; and if I was to carry word to your mother or your uncle Pros about your doin's they'd say--"
"The last word my uncle Pros left with ma to give me was that you'd bear watchin', Shade Buckheath," laughed Johnnie, her face breaking up into sweet, sudden mirth at the folly of it all. "You're not aimin' for my good. I don't see what on earth makes you talk like you wanted to marry me."
"Because I do," said Buckheath helplessly. He wondered if the girl did not herself know her own attractions, forgetful that he had not seen them plainly till a man higher placed in the social scale set the cachet of a gentleman's admiration upon them.