While Himes and Buckheath yet stood thus talking, the warning whistles of the various mills began to blow. Groups of girls came down the steps and stared at the two men conferring with heads close together. Mavity Bence put her face out at the front door and called.
"Pap, yo' breakfast is gettin' stone cold."
"Do you have to go to the mill right now?" inquired the older man, timorously. He was already under the domination of this swifter, bolder, more fiery spirit.
"No, I don't have to go anywhere that I don't want to. I've got business with a certain party up this-a-way, and when I git to the mill I'll be there."
He turned and hurried swiftly up the minor slope that led to the big Hardwick home, Pap's fascinated eyes following him as long as he was in sight. As the young fellow strode along he was turning in his mind Lydia Sessions's promise to talk to him this morning about Johnnie.
"But she'll be in bed and asleep, I reckon, at this time of day," he ruminated. "The good Lord knows I would if I had the chance like she has."
As he came in sight of the Hardwick house, he checked momentarily. Standing at the gate, an astonishing figure, still in her evening frock, looking haggard and old in the gray, disillusioning light of early morning, was Lydia Sessions. Upstairs, her white bed was smooth; its pillows spread fair and prim, unpressed by any head, since the maid had settled them trimly in place the morning before; but the long rug which ran from her dressing table to the window might have told a tale of pacing feet that passed restlessly from midnight till dawn; the mirror could have disclosed the picture of a white, anxious, and often angry face that had stared into it as the woman paused now and again to commune with the real Lydia Sessions.
She was thirty and penniless. She belonged to a circle where everybody had money. Her sister had married well, and Harriet was no better-looking than she. All Lydia Sessions's considerable forces were by heredity and training turned into one narrow channel--the effort to make a creditable, if not a brilliant, match. And she had thought she was succeeding. Gray Stoddard had seemed seriously interested. In those long night watches while the lights flared on either side of her mirror, and the luxurious room of a modern young lady lay disclosed, with all its sumptuous fittings of beauty and inutility, Lydia went over her plans of campaign. She was a suitable match for him--anybody would say so. He had liked her--he had liked her well enough--till he got interested in this mill girl. They had never agreed on anything concerning Johnnie Consadine. If that element were eliminated to-morrow, she knew she could go back and pick up the thread of their intimacy which had promised so well, and, she doubted not at all, twist it safely into a marriage-knot. If Johnnie were only out of the way. If she would leave Cottonville. If she would marry that good-looking mechanic who plainly wanted her. How silly of her not to take him!
Toward dawn, she snatched a little cape from the garments hanging in the closet, flung it over her shoulders and ran downstairs. She must have a breath of fresh air. So, in the manner of helpless creatures who cannot go out in the highway to accost fate, she was standing at the gate when she caught sight of Shade Buckheath approaching. Here was her opportunity. She must be doing something, and the nearest enterprise at hand was to foster and encourage this young fellow's pursuit of Johnnie.
"I wanted to talk to you about a very particular matter," she broke out nervously, as soon as Buckheath was near enough to be addressed in the carefully lowered tone which she used throughout the interview. She continually huddled the light cape together at the neck with tremulous, unsteady fingers; and it was characteristic of these two that, although the woman had heard of the calamity at the Victory mill the night before, and knew that Shade came directly from the Himes home, she made no inquiry as to the welfare of Deanie, and he offered no information. He gave no reply in words to her accost, and she went on, with increasing agitation.
"I--this matter ought to be attended to at once. Something's got to be done. I've attempted to improve the social and spiritual conditions of these girls in the mill, and if I've only worked harm by bringing them in contact with--in contact with--"
She hesitated and stood looking into the man's face. Buckheath knew exactly what she wished to say. He was impatient of the flummery she found it necessary to wind around her simple proposition; but he was used to women, he understood them; and to him a woman of Miss Sessions's class was no different from a woman of his own.
"I reckon you wanted to name it to me about Johnnie Consadine," he said bluntly.
"Yes--yes, that was it," breathed Lydia Sessions, glancing back toward the house with a frightened air. "John is--she's a good girl, Mr. Buckheath; I beg of you to believe me when I assure you that John is a good, honest, upright girl. I would not think anything else for a minute; but it seems to me that somebody has to do something, or--or--"
Shade raised his hand to his mouth to conceal the swift, sarcastic smile on his lips. He spat toward the pathside before agreeing seriously with Miss Lydia.
"Her and me was promised, before she come down here and got all this foolishness into her head," he said finally. "Her mother never could do anything with Johnnie. Looks like Johnnie's got more authority--her mother's more like a little girl to her than the other way round. Her uncle Pros has been crazy in the hospital, and Pap Himes, her stepfather--well, I reckon she's the only human that ever had to mind Pap and didn't do it."
This somewhat ambiguous statement of the case failed to bring any smile to his hearer's lips.
"There's no use talking to John herself," Miss Lydia took up the tale feverishly. "I've done that, and it had no effect on--. Well, of course she would say that she didn't encourage him to the things I saw afterward; but I know that a man of his sort does not do things without encouragement, and--Mr. Buckheath don't you think you ought to go right to Mr. Stoddard and tell him that John is your promised wife, and show him the folly and--and the wickedness of his course--or what would be wickedness if he persisted in it? Don't you think you ought to do that?"
Shade held down his head and appeared to be giving this matter some consideration. The weak point of such an argument lay in the fact that Johnnie was not his promised wife, and Gray Stoddard was very likely to know it. Indeed, Lydia Sessions herself only believed the statement because she so wished.
"I reckon I ort," he said finally. "If I could ever get a chance of private speech with him, mebbe I'd--"
There came a sound of light hoofs down the road, and Stoddard on Roan Sultan, riding bareheaded, came toward them under the trees.
Miss Sessions clutched the gate and stood staring. Buckheath drew a little closer, set his shoulder against the fence and tried to look unconcerned. The rising sun behind the mountains threw long slant rays across into the bare tree tops, so that the shimmer of it dappled horse and man. Gray's face was pale, his brow looked anxious; but he rode head up and alert, and glanced with surprise at the two at the Sessions gate. He had no hat to raise, but he saluted Lydia Sessions with a sweeping gesture of the hand and passed on. A blithe, gallant figure cantering along the suburban road, out toward the Gap, and the mountains beyond, Gray Stoddard rode into the dip of the ridge and--so far as Cottonville was concerned--vanished utterly.
Buckheath drew a long breath and straightened up.
"I'm but a poor man," he began truculently, "yit there ain't nobody can marry the gal I set out to wed and me stand by and say nothing."
"Oh, Mr. Buckheath!" cried Miss Lydia. "Mr. Stoddard had no idea of marrying John--a mill girl! There is no possibility of any such thing as that. I want you to understand that there isn't--to feel assured, once for all. I have reason to know, and I urge you to put that out of your mind."
Shade looked at her narrowly. Up to the time Pap gave him definite information from headquarters, he had never for an instant supposed that there was a possibility of Stoddard desiring to marry Johnnie; but the flurried eagerness of Miss Sessions convinced him that such a possibility was a very present dread with her, and he sent a venomous glance after the disappearing horseman.
"You go and talk to him right now, Mr. Buckheath," insisted Lydia anxiously. "Tell him, just as you have told me, how long you and John have been engaged, and how devoted she was to you before she came down to the mill. You appeal to him that way. You can overtake him--I mean you can intercept him--if you start right on now--cut across the turn, and go through the tunnel."
"If I go after him to talk to him, and we--uh--we have an interruption--are you going to tell everybody you see about it?" demanded Shade sharply, staring down at the woman.
She crouched a little, still clinging to the pickets of the gate. The word "interruption" only conveyed to her mind the suggestion that they might be interfered with in their conversation. She did not recollect the mountain use of it to describe a quarrel, an outbreak, or an affray.
"No," she whispered. "Oh, certainly not--I'll never tell anything that you don't want me to."
"All right," returned Buckheath hardily. "If you won't, I won't. If you name to people that I was the last one saw with Mr. Stoddard, I shall have obliged to tell 'em of what you and me was talkin' about when he passed us. You see that, don't you?"
She nodded silently, her frightened eyes on his face; and without another word he set off at that long, swinging pace which belongs to his people. Lydia turned and ran swiftly into the house, and up the stairs to her own room.