A vine on Mavity Bence's porch turned to blood crimson. Its leaves parted from the stem in the gay Autumn wind, and sifted lightly down to join the painted foliage of the two little maples which struggled for existence against an adverse world, crouching beaten and torn at the curb.
In these days Johnnie used to leave the mill in the evening and go directly to the hospital. Gray Stoddard was her one source of comfort--and terror. Uncle Pros's injuries brought these two into closer relations than anything had yet done. So far, Johnnie had conducted her affairs with a judgment and propriety extraordinary, clinging as it were to the skirts of Lydia Sessions, keeping that not unwilling lady between her and Stoddard always. But the injured man took a great fancy to Gray. Johnnie he had forgotten; Shade and Pap Himes he recognized only by an irritation which made the doctors exclude them from his presence; but something in Stoddard's equable, disciplined personality, appealed to and soothed Uncle Pros when even Johnnie failed.
The old mountaineer had gone back to childhood. He would lie by the hour murmuring a boy's woods lore to Gray Stoddard, communicating deep secrets of where a bee tree might be found; where, known only to him, there was a deeply hidden spring of pure freestone water, "so cold it'll make yo' teeth chatter"; and which one of old Lead's pups seemed likely to turn out the best coon dog.
When Stoddard's presence and help had been proffered to herself, Johnnie had not failed to find a gracious way of declining or avoiding; but you cannot reprove a sick man--a dying man. She could not for the life of her find a way to insist that Uncle Pros make less demand on the young mill owner's time.
And so the two of them met often at the bedside, and that trouble which was beginning to make Johnnie's heart like lead grew with the growing love Gray Stoddard commanded. She told herself mercilessly that it was presumption, folly, wickedness; she was always going to be done with it; but, once more in his presence, her very soul cried out that she was indeed fit at least to love him, if not to hope for his love in turn.
Stoddard himself was touched by the old man's fancy, and showed a devotion and patience that were characteristic.
If she was kept late at the hospital, Mavity put by a bite of cold supper for her, and Mandy always waited to see that she had what she wanted. On the day after Shade Buckheath and Gideon Himes had come to their agreement, she stopped at the hospital for a briefer stay than usual. Her uncle was worse, and an opiate had been administered to quiet him, so that she only sat a while at the bedside and finally took her way homeward in a state of utter depression for which she could scarcely account.
It was dusk--almost dark--when she reached the gate, and she noted carelessly a vehicle drawn up before it.
"Johnnie," called her mother's voice from the back of the rickety old wagon as the girl was turning in toward the steps.
"Sis' Johnnie--Sis' Johnnie!" crowed Deanie; and then she was aware of sober, eleven-year-old Milo climbing down over the wheel and trying to help Lissy, while Pony got in his way and was gravely reproved. She ran to the wheel and put up ready arms.
"Why, honeys!" she exclaimed. "How come you-all never let me know to expect you? Oh, I'm so glad, mother. I didn't intend to send you word to come; but I was feeling so blue. I sure wanted to. Maybe Uncle Pros might know you--or the baby--and it would do him good."
She had got little Deanie out in her arms now, and stood hugging the child, bending to kiss Melissa, finding a hand to pat Milo's shoulder and rub Pony's tousled poll.
"Oh, I'm so glad!--I'm so glad to see you-all," she kept repeating. "Who brought you?" She looked closely at the man on the driver's seat and recognized Gideon Himes.
"Why, Pap!" she exclaimed. "I'll never forget you for this. It was mighty good of you."
The door swung open, letting out a path of light.
"Aunt Mavity!" cried the girl. "Mother and the children have come down to see me. Isn't it fine?"
Mavity Bence made her appearance in the doorway, her faded eyes so reddened with weeping that she looked like a woman in a fever. She gulped and stared from her father, where in the shine of her upheld lamp he sat blinking and grinning, to Laurella Consadine in a ruffled pink-and-white lawn frock, with a big, rose-wreathed hat on her dark curls, and Johnnie Consadine with the children clinging about her.
"Have ye told her?" she gasped. And at the tone Johnnie turned quickly, a sudden chill falling upon her glowing mood.
"What's the matter?" she asked, startled, clutching the baby tighter to her, and conning over with quick alarm the tow-heads that bobbed and surged about her waist. "The children are all right--aren't they?"
Milo looked up apprehensively. He was an old-faced, anxious-looking, little fellow, already beginning to have a stoop to his thin shoulders--the bend of the burden bearer.
"I--I done the best I could, Sis' Johnnie," he hesitated apologetically. "You wasn't thar, and Unc' Pros was gone, an' I thest worked the farm and took care of mother an' the little 'uns best I knowed how. But when she--when he--oh, I wish't you and Unc' Pros had been home to-day."
Johnnie, her mind at rest about the children, turned to her mother.
"Was ma sick?" she asked sympathetically. Then, noticing for the first time the unwonted gaiety of Laurella's costume, the glowing cheeks and bright eyes, she smiled in relief.
"You don't look sick. My, but you're fine! You're as spick and span as a bride."
The old man bent and spat over the wheel, preparatory to speaking, but his daughter took the words from his mouth.
"She is a bride," explained Mavity Bence in a flatted, toneless voice. "Leastways, Pap said he was a-goin' up on Unaka for to wed her and bring her down--and I know in reason she'd have him."
Johnnie's terror-stricken eyes searched her mother's irresponsible, gypsy face.
"Now, Johnnie," fretted the little woman, "how long air you goin' to keep us standin' here in the road? Don't you think my frock's pretty? Do they make em that way down here in the big town? I bought this lawn at Bledsoe, with the very first money you sent up. Ain't you a bit glad to see us?"
The lip trembled, the tragic dark brows lifted in their familiar slant.
"Come on in the house," said Johnnie heavily, and she led the way with drooping head.
Called by the unusual disturbance, Mandy left the supper she was putting on the table for Johnnie and ran into the front hall. Beulah Catlett and one or two of the other girls had crowded behind Mavity Bence's shoulders, and were staring. Mandy joined them in time to hear the conclusion of Mavity's explanation.
She came through the door and passed the new Mrs. Himes on the porch.
"Why, Johnnie Consadine" she cried. "Is that there your ma?"
Johnnie nodded. She was past speech.
"Well, I vow! I should've took her for your sister, if any kin. Ain't she pretty? Beulah--she's Johnnie's ma, and her and Pap has just been wedded."
She turned to follow Johnnie, who was mutely starting the children in to the house.
"Well," she said with a sigh, "some folks gits two, and some folks don't git nary one." And she brought up the rear of the in-going procession.
"Ain't you goin' to pack your plunder in?" inquired the bridegroom harshly, almost threateningly, as he pitched out upon the path a number of bundles and boxes.
"I reckon they won't pester it till you git back from puttin' up the nag," returned Laurella carelessly as she swung her light, frilled skirts and tripped across the porch. "You needn't werry about me," she called down to the old fellow where he sat speechlessly glaring. "Mavity'll show me whar I can sit, and git me a nice cool drink; and that's all I'll need for one while."
Pap Himes's mouth was open, but no words came.
He finally shut it with that click of the ill-fitting false teeth which was familiar--and terrible--to everybody at the boarding-house, shook out the lines over the old horse, and jogged away into the dusk.
"And this here's the baby," admired Mandy, kneeling in front of little Deanie, when the newcomers halted in the front room. "Why, Johnnie Consadine! She don't look like nothin' on earth but a little copy of you. If she's dispositioned like you, I vow I'll just about love her to death."
Mavity Bence was struggling up the porch steps loaded with the baggage of the newcomers.
"Better leave that for your paw," the bride counselled her. "It's more suited to a man person to lift them heavy things."
But Mavity had not lived with Pap Himes for nearly forty years without knowing what was suited to him, in distinction, perhaps, from mankind in general. She made no reply, but continued to bring in the baggage, and Johnnie, after settling her mother in a rocking-chair with the cool drink which the little woman had specified, hurried down to help her.
"Everybody always has been mighty good to me all my life," Laurella Himes was saying to Mandy, Beulah and the others. "I reckon they always will. Uncle Pros he just does for me like he was my daddy, and my children always waited on me. Johnnie's the best gal that ever was, ef she does have some quare notions."
"Ain't she?" returned Mandy enthusiastically, as Johnnie of the "quare notions" helped Mavity Bence upstairs with the one small trunk belonging to Laurella.
"Look out for that trunk, Johnnie," came her mother's caution, with a girlish ripple of laughter in the tones. "Hit's a borried one. Now don't you roach up and git mad. I had obliged to have a trunk, bein' wedded and comin' down to the settlement this-a-way. I only borried Mildred Faidley's. She won't never have any use for it. Evelyn Toler loaned me the trimmin' o' this hat--ain't it sightly?"
Johnnie's distressed eyes met the pale gaze of Aunt Mavity across the little oilcloth-covered coffer.
"I would 'a' told you, Johnnie," said the poor woman deprecatingly, "but I never knowed it myself till late last night, and I hadn't the heart to name it at breakfast. I thort I'd git a chance this evenin', but they come sooner'n I was expectin' 'em."
"Never mind, Aunt Mavity," said Johnnie. "When I get a little used to it I'll be glad to have them all here. I--I wish Uncle Pros was able to know folks."
The children were fed, Milo, touchingly subdued and apologetic, nestling close to his sister's side and whispering to her how he had tried to get ma to wait and come down to the Settlement, and hungrily begging with his pathetic childish eyes for her to say that this thing which had come upon them was not, after all, the calamity he feared. Snub-nosed, nine-year-old Pony, whose two front teeth had come in quite too large for his mouth, Pony, with the quick-expanding pupils, and the temperament that would cope ill with disaster, addressed himself gaily to his supper and saw no sorrow anywhere. Little Melissa was half asleep; and even Deanie, after the first outburst of greeting, nodded in her chair.
"I got ready for 'em," Mavity told Johnnie in an undertone, after her father returned. "I knowed in reason he'd bring her back with him. Pap always has his own way, and gits whatever he wants. I 'lowed you'd take the baby in bed with you, and I put a pallet in your room for Lissy."
Johnnie agreed to this arrangement, almost mechanically. Is it to be wondered at that her mind was already busy with the barrier this must set between herself and Gray Stoddard? She had never been ashamed of her origin or her people; but this--this was different.
Next morning she sent word to the mill foreman to put on a substitute, and took the morning that she might go with her mother to the hospital. Passmore was asleep, and they were not allowed to disturb him; but on the steps they met Gray Stoddard, and he stopped so decidedly to speak to them that Johnnie could not exactly run away, as she felt like doing.
"Your mother!" echoed Stoddard, when Johnnie had told him who the visitor was. He glanced from the tall, fair-haired daughter to the lithe little gypsy at her side. "Why, she looks more like your sister," he said.
Laurella's white teeth flashed at this, and her big, dark eyes glowed.
"Johnnie's such a serious-minded person that she favours older than her years," the mother told him. "Well, I give her the name of the dead, and they say that makes a body solemn like."
It was very evident that Stoddard desired to detain them in conversation, but Johnnie smilingly, yet with decision, cut the interview short.
"I don't see why you hurried me a-past that-a-way," the little mother said resentfully, when they had gone a few steps. "I wanted to stay and talk to the gentleman, if you didn't. I think he's one of the nicest persons I've met since I've been in Cottonville. Mr. Gray Stoddard--how come you never mentioned him to me Johnnie?"
She turned to find a slow, painful blush rising in her daughter's face.
"I don't know, ma," said Johnnie gently. "I reckon it was because I didn't seem to have any concern with a rich gentleman such as Mr. Stoddard. He's got more money than Mr. Hardwick, they say--more than anybody else in Cottonville."
"Has he?" inquired Laurella vivaciously. "Well, money or no money, I think he's mighty nice. Looks like he ain't studying as to whether you got money or not. And if you was meaning that you didn't think yourself fit to be friends with such, why I'm ashamed of you, Johnnie Consadine. The Passmores and the Consadines are as good a family as there is on Unaka mountains. I don't know as I ever met up with anybody that I found was too fine for my company. And whenever your Uncle Pros gets well and finds his silver mine, we'll have as much money as the best of 'em."
The tears blinded Johnnie so that she could scarcely find her way, and the voice wherewith she would have answered her mother caught in her throat. She pressed her lips hard together and shook her head, then laughed out, a little sobbing laugh.
"Poor ma--poor little mother!" she whispered at length. "You ain't been away from the mountains as I have. Things are--well, they're a heap different here in the Settlement."
"They're a heap nicer," returned Laurella blithely. "Well, I'm mighty glad I met that gentleman this morning. Mr. Himes was talking to me of Shade Buckheath a-yesterday. He said Shade was wishful to wed you, Johnnie, and wanted me to give the boy my good word. I told him I wouldn't say anything--and then afterward I was going to. But since I've seen this gentleman, and know that his likes are friends of your'n, well--I--Johnnie, the Buckheaths are a hard nation of people, and that's the truth. If you wedded Shade, like as not he'd mistreat you."
"Oh mother--don't!" pleaded Johnnie, scarlet of face, and not daring to raise her eyes.
"What have I done now?" demanded Laurella with asperity.
"You mustn't couple my name with Mr. Stoddard's that way," Johnnie told her. "He's never thought of me, except as a poor girl who needs help mighty bad; and he's so kind-hearted and generous he's ready to do for each and every that's worthy of it. But--not that way--mother, you mustn't ever suppose for a minute that he'd think of me in that way."
"Well, I wish't I may never!" Laurella exclaimed. "Did I mention any particular way that the man was supposed to be thinking about you? Can't I speak a word without your biting my head off for it? As for what Mr. Gray Stoddard thinks of you, let me tell you, child, a body has only to see his eyes when he's looking at you."
"Mother--Oh, mother!" protested Johnnie.
"Well, if he can look that way I reckon I can speak of it," returned Laurella, with some reason.
"I want you to promise never to name it again, even to me," said Johnnie solemnly, as they came to the steps of the big lead-coloured house. "You surely wouldn't say such a thing to any one else. I wish you'd forget it yourself."
"We-ell," hesitated Laurella, "if you feel so strong; about it, I reckon I'll do as you say. But there ain't anything in that to hinder me from being friends with Mr. Stoddard. I feel sure that him and me would get on together fine. He favours my people, the Passmores. My daddy was just such an upstanding, dark-complected feller as he is. He's got the look in the eye, too."
Johnnie gasped as she remembered that the grandfather of whom her mother spoke was Virgil Passmore, and called to mind the story of the borrowed wedding coat.