THE FEET OF THE CHILDREN
The mountain people, being used only to one class, never find themselves consciously in the society of their superiors. Johnnie Consadine had been unembarrassed and completely mistress of the situation in the presence of Charlie Conroy, who did not fail after the Uplift dance to make some further effort to meet the "big red-headed girl," as he called her. She was aware that social overtures from such a person were not to be received by her, and she put them aside quite as though she had been, according to her own opinion, above rather than beneath them. The lover-like pretensions of Shade Buckheath, a man dangerous, remorseless, as careless of the rights of others as any tiger in the jungle, she regarded with negligent composure. But Gray Stoddard--ah, there her treacherous heart gave way, and trembled in terror. The air of perfect equality he maintained between them, his attitude of intimacy, flattering, almost affectionate, this it was which she felt she must not recognize.
The beloved books, which had seemed so many steps upon which to climb to a world where she dared acknowledge her own liking and admiration for Stoddard, were now laid aside. It took all of her heart and mind and time to visit Uncle Pros at the hospital, keep the children out of Pap's way in the house, and do justice to her work in the factory. She told Gray, haltingly, reluctantly, that she thought she must give up the reading and studying for a time.
"Not for long, I hope," Stoddard received her decision with a puzzled air, turning in his fingers the copy of "Walden" which she was bringing back to him. "Perhaps now that you have your mother and the children with you, there will be less time for this sort of thing for a while, but you haven't a mind that can enjoy being inactive. You may think you'll give it up; but study--once you've tasted it--will never let you alone."
Johnnie looked up at him with a weak and pitiful version of her usual beaming smile.
"I reckon you're right," she hesitated finally, in a very low voice. "But sometimes I think the less we know the happier we are."
"How's this? How's this?" cried Stoddard, almost startled. "Why, Johnnie--I never expected to hear that sort of thing from you. I thought your optimism was as deep as a well, and as wide as a church."
Poor Johnnie surely had need of such optimism as Stoddard had ascribed to her. They were weary evenings when she came home now, with the November rain blowing in the streets and the early-falling dusk almost upon her. It was on a Saturday night, and she had been to the hospital, when she got in to find Mandy, seated in the darkest corner of the sitting room, with a red flannel cloth around her neck--a sure sign that something unfortunate had occurred, since the tall woman always had sore throat when trouble loomed large.
"What's the matter?" asked Johnnie, coming close and laying a hand on the bent shoulder to peer into the drooping countenance.
"Don't come too nigh me--you'll ketch it," warned Mandy gloomily. "A so' th'oat is as ketchin' as smallpox, and I know it so to be, though they is them that say it ain't. When mine gits like this I jest tie it up and keep away from folks best I can. I hain't dared touch the baby sence hit began to hurt me this a-way."
"There's something besides the sore throat," persisted Johnnie. "Is it anything I can help you about?"
"Now, if that ain't jest like Johnnie Consadine!" apostrophized Mandy. "Yes, there is somethin'--not that I keer." She tossed her poor old gray head scornfully, and then groaned because the movement hurt her throat. "That thar feisty old Sullivan gave me my time this evenin'. He said they was layin' off weavers, and they could spare me. I told him, well, I could spare them, too. I told him I could hire in any other mill in Cottonville befo' workin' time Monday--but I'm afeared I cain't." Weak tears began to travel down her countenance. "I know I never will make a fine hand like you, Johnnie," she said pathetically. "There ain't a thing in the mill that I love to do--nary thing. I can tend a truck patch or raise a field o' corn to beat anybody, and nobody cain't outdo me with fowls; but the mill--"
She broke off and sat staring dully at the floor. Pap Himes had stumped into the room during the latter part of this conversation.
"Lost your job, hey?" he inquired keenly.
Mandy nodded, with fearful eyes on his face.
"Well, you want to watch out and keep yo' board paid up here. The week you cain't pay--out you go. I reckon I better trouble you to pay me in advance, unless'n you've got some kind friend that'll stand for you."
Mandy's lips parted, but no sound came. The gaze of absolute terror with which she followed the old man's waddling bulk as he went and seated himself in front of the air-tight stove, was more than Johnnie could endure.
"I'll stand for her board, Pap," she said quietly.
"Oh, you will, will ye?" Pap received her remark with disfavour. "Well, a fool and his money don't stay together long. And who'll stand for you, Johnnie Consadine? Yo' wages ain't a-goin' to pay for yo' livin' and Mandy's too. Ye needn't lay back on bein' my stepdaughter. You ain't acted square by me, an' I don't aim to do no more for you than if we was no kin."
"You won't have to. Mandy'll get a place next week--you know she will, Pap--an experienced weaver like she is. I'll stand for her."
Himes snorted. Mandy caught at Johnnie's hand and drew it to her, fondling it. Her round eyes were still full of tears.
"I do know you're the sweetest thing God ever made," she whispered, as Johnnie looked down at her. "You and Deanie." And the two went out into the dining room together.
"Thar," muttered Himes to Buckheath, as the latter passed through on his way to supper; "you see whether it would do to give Johnnie the handlin' o' all that thar money from the patent. Why, she'd hand it out to the first feller that put up a poor mouth and asked her for it. You heard anything, Buck?"
"Come down to the works with me after supper. I've got something to show you," he said briefly, and Himes understood that the desired letter had arrived.
At first Laurella Consadine bloomed like a late rose in the town atmosphere. She delighted in the village streets. She was as wildly exhilarated as a child when she was taken on the trolley to Watauga. With strange, inherent deftness she copied the garb, the hair dressing, even the manner and speech, of such worthy models as came within her range of vision--like her daughter, she had an eye for fitness and beauty; that which was merely fashionable though truly inelegant, did not appeal to her. She was swift to appreciate the change in Johnnie.
"You look a heap prettier, and act and speak a heap prettier than you used to up in the mountains," she told the tall girl. "Looks like it was a mighty sensible thing for you to come down here to the Settlement; and if it was good for you, I don't see why it wasn't good for me--and won't be for the rest of the children. No need for you to be so solemn over it."
The entire household was aghast at the bride's attitude toward her old husband. They watched her with the fascinated gaze we give to a petted child encroaching upon the rights of a cross dog, or the pretty lady with her little riding whip in the cage of the lion. She treated him with a kindly, tolerant, yet overbearing familiarity that appalled. She knew not to be frightened when he clicked his teeth, but drew up her pretty brows and fretted at him that she wished he wouldn't make that noise--it worried her. She tipped the sacred yellow cat out of the rocking-chair where it always slept in state, took the chair herself, and sent that astonished feline from the room.
It was in Laurella's evident influence that Johnnie put her trust when, one evening, they all sat in Sunday leisure in the front room--most of the girls being gone to church or out strolling with "company"--Pap Himes broached the question of the children going to work in the mill.
"They're too young, Pap," Johnnie said to him mildly. "They ought to be in school this winter."
"They've every one, down to Deanie, had mo' than the six weeks schoolin' that the laws calls for," snarled Himes.
"You wasn't thinking of putting Deanie in the mill--not Deanie--was you?" asked Johnnie breathlessly.
"Why not?" inquired Himes. "She'll get no good runnin' the streets here in Cottonville, and she can earn a little somethin' in the mill. I'm a old man, an sickly, and I ain't long for this world. If them chaps is a-goin' to do anything for me, they'd better be puttin' in their licks."
Johnnie looked from the little girl's pink-and-white infantile beauty--she sat with the child in her lap--to the old man's hulking, powerful, useless frame. What would Deanie naturally be expected to do for her stepfather?
"Nobody's asked my opinion," observed Shade Buckheath, who made one of the family group, "but as far as I can see there ain't a thing to hurt young 'uns about mill work; and there surely ain't any good reason why they shouldn't earn their way, same as we all do. I reckon they had to work back on Unaka. Goin' to set 'em up now an make swells of 'em?"
Johnnie looked bitterly at him but made no reply.
"They won't take them at the Hardwick mill," she said finally. "Mr. Stoddard has enforced the rule that they have to have an affidavit with any child the mill employs that it is of legal age; and there's nobody going to swear that Deanie's even as much as twelve years old--nor Lissy--nor Pony--nor Milo. The oldest is but eleven."
Laurella had bought a long chain of red glass beads with a heart-shaped pendant. This trinket occupied her attention entirely while her daughter and husband discussed the matter of the children's future.
"Johnnie," she began now, apparently not having heard one word that had been said, "did you ever in your life see anything so cheap as this here string of beads for a dime? I vow I could live and die in that five-and-ten-cent store at Watauga. There was more pretties in it than I could have looked at in a week. I'm going right back thar Monday and git me them green garters that the gal showed me. I don't know what I was thinkin' about to come away without 'em! They was but a nickel."
Pap Himes looked at her, at the beads, and gave the fierce, inarticulate, ludicrously futile growl of a thwarted, perplexed animal.
"Mother," appealed Johnnie desperately, "do you want the children to go into the mill?"
"I don't know but they might as well--for a spell," said Laurella Himes, vainly endeavouring to look grown-up, and to pretend that she was really the head of the family. "They want to go, and you've done mighty well in the mill. If it wasn't for my health, I reckon I might go in and try to learn to weave, myself. But there--I came a-past with Mandy t'other evenin' when she was out, and the noise of that there factory is enough for me from the outside--I never could stand to be in it. Looks like such a racket would drive me plumb crazy."
Pap stared at his bride and clicked his teeth with the gnashing sound that overawed the others. He drew his shaggy brows in an attempt to look masterful.
"Well, ef you cain't tend looms, I reckon you can take Mavity's place in the house here, and let her keep to the weavin' stiddier. She'll just about lose her job if she has to be out and in so much as she has had to be with me here of late."
"I will when I can," said Laurella, patronizingly. "Sometimes I get to feeling just kind of restless and no-account, and can't do a stroke of work. When I'm that-a-way I go to bed and sleep it off, or get out and go somewheres that'll take my mind from my troubles. Hit's by far the best way."
Once more Pap looked at her, and opened and shut his mouth helplessly. Then he turned sullenly to his stepdaughter, grumbling.
"You hear that! She won't work, and you won't give me your money. The children have obliged to bring in a little something--that's the way it looks to me. If the mills on the Tennessee side is too choicy to take 'em--and I know well as you, Johnnie, that they air; their man Connors told me so--I can hire 'em over at the Victory, on the Georgy side."
The Victory! A mill notorious in the district for its ancient, unsanitary buildings, its poor management, its bad treatment of its hands. Yes, it was true that at the Victory you could hire out anything that could walk and talk. Johnnie caught her breath and hugged the small pliant body to her breast, feeling with a mighty throb of fierce, mother-tenderness, the poor little ribs, yet cartilagenous; the delicate, soft frame for which God and nature demanded time, and chance to grow and strengthen. Yet she knew if she gave up her wages to Pap she would be no better off--indeed, she would be helpless in his hands; and the sum of them would not cover what the children all together could earn.
"Oh, Lord! To work in the Victory!" she groaned.
"Now, Johnnie," objected her mother, "don't you get meddlesome just because you're a old maid. Your great-aunt Betsy was meddlesome disposed that-a-way. I reckon single women as they get on in years is apt so to be. Every one of these children has been promised that they should be let to work in the mill. They've been jest honin' to do it ever since you came down and got your place. Deanie was scared to death for fear they wouldn't take her. Don't you be meddlesome."
"Yes, and I'm goin' to buy me a gun and a nag with my money what I earn," put in Pony explosively. "'Course I'll take you-all to ride." He added the saving clause under Milo's reproving eye. "Sis' Johnnie, don't you want me to earn money and buy a hawse and a gun, and a--and most ever'thing else?"
Johnnie looked down into the blue eyes of the little lad who had crept close to her chair. What he would earn in the factory she knew well--blows, curses, evil knowledge.
"If they should go to the Victory, I'd be mighty proud to do all I could to look after 'em, Johnnie," spoke Mandy from the shadows, where she sat on the floor at Laurella Consadine's feet, working away with a shoe-brush and cloth at the cleaning and polishing of the little woman's tan footwear. "Ye know I'm a-gittin' looms thar to-morrow mornin'. Yes, I am," in answer to Johnnie's deprecating look. "I'd ruther do it as to run round a week--or a month--'mongst the better ones, huntin' a job, and you here standin' for my board."
Till late that night Johnnie laboured with her mother and stepfather, trying to show them that the mill was no fit place for the children. Milo was all too apt for such a situation, the very material out of which a cotton mill moulds its best hands and its worst citizens. Pony, restless, emotional, gifted and ambitious, craving his share of the joy of life and its opportunities, would never make a mill hand; but under the pressure of factory life his sister apprehended that he would make a criminal.
"Uh-huh," agreed Pap, drily, when she tried to put something of this into words. "I spotted that feller for a rogue and a shirk the minute I laid eyes on him. The mill'll tame him. The mill'll make him git down and pull in the collar, I reckon. Women ain't fitten to bring up chillen. A widder's boys allers goes to ruin. Why, Johnnie Consadine, every one of them chaps is plumb crazy to work in the mill--just like you was--and you're workin' in the mill yourself. What makes you talk so foolish about it?"
Laurella nodded an agreement, looking more than usually like a little girl playing dolls.
"I reckon Mr. Himes knows best, Johnnie, honey," was her reiterated comment.
Cautiously Johnnie approached the subject of pay; her stepfather had already demanded her wages, and expressed unbounded surprise that she was not willing to pass over the Saturday pay-envelope to him and let him put the money in the bank along with his other savings. Careful calculation showed that the four children could, after a few weeks of learning, probably earn a little more than she could; and in any case Himes put it as a disciplinary measure, a way of life selected largely for the good of the little ones.
"If you just as soon let me," she said to him at last, "I believe I'll take them over to the Victory myself to-morrow morning."
She had hopes of telling their ages bluntly to the mill superintendent and having them refused.
Pap agreed negligently; he had no liking for early rising. And thus it was that Johnnie found herself at eight o'clock making her way, in the midst of the little group, toward the Georgia line and the old Victory plant, which all good workers in the district shunned if possible.
As she set her foot on the first plank of the bridge she heard a little rumble of sound, and down the road came a light, two-seated vehicle, with coloured driver, and Miss Lydia Sessions taking her sister's children out for an early morning drive. There was a frail, long-visaged boy of ten sitting beside his aunt in the back, with a girl of eight tucked between them. The nurse on the front seat held the youngest child, a little girl about Deanie's age.
As they came nearer, the driver drew up, evidently in obedience to Miss Sessions's command, and she leaned forward graciously to speak to Johnnie.
"Good morning, John," said Miss Sessions as the carriage stopped. "Whose children are those?"
"They are my little sisters and brothers," responded Johnnie, looking down with a very pale face, and busying herself with Deanie's hair.
"And you're taking them over to the mill, so that they can learn to be useful. How nice that is!" Lydia smiled brightly at the little ones--her best charity-worker's smile.
"No," returned Johnnie, goaded past endurance, "I'm going over to see if I can get them to refuse to take this one." And she bent and picked Deanie up, holding her, the child's head dropped shyly against her breast, the small flower-like face turned a bit so that one blue eye might investigate the carriage and those in it. "Deanie's too little to work in the mill," Johnnie went on. "They have night turn over there at the Victory now, and it'll just about make her sick."
Miss Lydia frowned.
"Oh, John, I think you are mistaken," she said coldly. "The work is very light--you know that. Young people work a great deal harder racing about in their play than at anything they have to do in a spooling room--I'm sure my nieces and nephews do. And in your case it is necessary and right that the younger members of the family should help. I think you will find that it will not hurt them."
Individuals who work in cotton mills, and are not adults, are never alluded to as children. It is an offense to mention them so. They are always spoken of--even those scarcely more than three feet high--as "young people."
Miss Sessions had smiled upon the piteous little group with a judicious mixture of patronage and mild reproof, and her driver had shaken the lines over the backs of the fat horses preparatory to moving on, when Stoddard's car turned into the street from the corner above.
"Wait, Junius, Dick is afraid of autos," cautioned Miss Lydia nervously.
Junius grinned respectfully, while bay Dick dozed and regarded the approaching car philosophically. As they stood, they blocked the way, so that Gray was obliged to slow down and finally to stop. He raised his hat ceremoniously to both groups. His pained eyes went past Lydia Sessions as though she had been but the painted representation of a woman, to fasten themselves on Johnnie where she stood, her tall, deep-bosomed figure relieved against the shining water, the flaxen-haired child on her breast, the little ones huddled about her.
That Johnnie Consadine should have fallen away all at once from that higher course she had so eagerly chosen and so resolutely maintained, had been to Gray a disappointment whose depth and bitterness somewhat surprised him. In vain he recalled the fact that all his theories of life were against forcing a culture where none was desired; he went back to it with grief--he had been so sure that Johnnie did love the real things, that hers was a nature which not only wished, but must have, spiritual and mental food. Her attitude toward himself upon their few meetings of late had confirmed a certain distrust of her, if one may use so strong a word. She seemed afraid, almost ashamed to face him. What was it she was doing, he wondered, that she knew so perfectly he would disapprove? And then, with the return of the books, the dropping of Johnnie's education, came the abrupt end of those informal letters. Not till they ceased, did he realize how large a figure they had come to cut in his life. Only this morning he had taken them out and read them over, and decided that the girl who wrote them was worth at least an attempt toward an explanation and better footing. He had decided not to give her up. Now she confirmed his worst apprehensions. At his glance, her face was suffused with a swift, distressed red. She wondered if he yet knew of her mother's marriage. She dreaded the time when she must tell him. With an inarticulate murmur she spoke to the little ones, turned her back and hurried across the bridge.
"Is Johnnie putting those children in the mill?" asked Stoddard half doubtfully, as his gaze followed them toward the entrance of the Victory.
"I believe so," returned Lydia, smiling. "We were just speaking of how good it was that the cotton mills gave an opportunity for even the smaller ones to help, at work which is within their capacity."
"Johnnie Consadine said that?" inquired Gray, startled. "Why is she taking them over to the Victory?" And then he answered his own question. "She knows very well they are below the legal age in Tennessee."
Lydia Sessions trimmed instantly.
"That must be it," she said. "I wondered a little that she seemed not to want them in the same factory that she is in. But I remember Brother Hartley said that we are very particular at our mill to hire no young people below the legal age. That must be it."
Stoddard looked with reprehending yet still incredulous eyes, to where Johnnie and her small following disappeared within the mill doors. Johnnie--the girl who had written him that pathetic little letter about the children in her room, and her growing doubt as to the wholesomeness of their work; the girl who had read the books he gave her, and fed her understanding on them till she expressed herself logically and lucidly on the economic problems of the day--that, for the sake of the few cents they could earn, she should put the children, whom he knew she loved, into slavery, seemed to him monstrous beyond belief. Why, if this were true, what a hypocrite the girl was! As coarse and unfeeling as the rest of them. Yet she had some shame left; she had blushed to be caught in the act by him. It showed her worse than those who justified this thing, the enormity of which she had seemed to understand well.
"You mustn't blame her too much," came Lydia Sessions's smooth voice. "John's mother is a widow, and girls of that age like pretty clothes and a good time. Some people consider John very handsome, and of course with an ignorant young woman of that class, flattery is likely to turn the head. I think she does as well as could be expected."