Gray Stoddard's eyes had followed Lydia Sessions when she went into the hall to speak to Shade Buckheath. He had a glimpse of Johnnie, too, in the passage; he noted that she later left the house with Buckheath (Mandy Meacham was beyond his range of vision); and the pang that went through him at the sight was a strangely mingled one.
The talk between him and his hostess had been enlightening to both of them. It showed Lydia Sessions not only where she stood with Gray, but it brought home to her startlingly, and as nothing had yet done, the strength of Johnnie's hold upon him; while it forced Gray himself to realize that ever since that morning when he met the girl on the bridge going to put her little brothers and sisters in the Victory mill, he had behaved more like a sulky, disappointed lover than a staunch friend. He confessed frankly to himself, that, had Johnnie been a boy, a young man, instead of a beautiful and appealing woman, he would have been prompt to go to her and remonstrate--he would have made no bones of having the matter out clearly and fully. He blamed himself much for the estrangement which he had allowed to grow between them. He knew instinctively about what Shade Buckheath was--certainly no fit mate for Johnnie Consadine. And for the better to desert her--poor, helpless, unschooled girl--could only operate to push her toward the worse. These thoughts kept Stoddard wakeful company till almost morning.
Dawn came with a soft wind out of the west, all the odours of spring on its breath, and a penitent warmth to apologize for last night's storm. Stoddard faced his day, and decided that he would begin it with an early-morning horseback ride. He called up his stable boy over the telephone, and when Jim brought round Roan Sultan saddled there was a pause, as of custom, for conversation.
"Heared about the accident over to the Victory, Mr. Stoddard?" Jim inquired.
"No," said Gray, wheeling sharply. "Anybody hurt?"
"One o' Pap Himes's stepchildren mighty near killed, they say," the boy told him. "I seen Miss Johnnie Consadine when they was bringing the little gal down. It seems they sent for her over to Mr. Hardwickses where she was at."
Gray mounted quickly, settled himself in the saddle, and glanced down the street which would lead him past Himes's place. For months now, he had been instinctively avoiding that part of town. Poor Johnnie! She might be a disappointing character, but he knew well that she was full of love; he remembered her eyes when, nearly a year ago, up in the mist and sweetness of April on the Unakas, she had told him of the baby sister and the other little ones. She must be suffering now. Almost without reflection he turned his horse's head and rode toward the forlorn Himes boarding-house.
As he drew near, he noticed a huddled figure at the head of the steps, and coming up made it out to be Himes himself, sitting, elbows on knees, staring straight ahead of him. Pap had not undressed at all, but he had taken out his false teeth "to rest his jaws a spell," as he was in the habit of doing, and the result was startling. His cheeks were fallen in to such an extent that the blinking red eyes above looked larger; it was as though the old rascal's crimes of callous selfishness and greed had suddenly aged him.
Stoddard pulled in his horse at the foot of the steps.
"I hear one of the little girls was hurt in the mill last night. Was she badly injured? Which one was it?" he asked abruptly.
"Hit's Deanie. She's all right," mumbled Pap. "Got the whole house uptore, and Laurelly miscallin' me till I don't know which way to look; and now the little dickens is a-goin' to git well all right. Chaps is tough, I tell ye. Ye cain't kill 'em."
"You people must have thought so," said Stoddard, "or you wouldn't have brought these little ones down and hired them to the cotton mill. Johnnie knew what that meant."
The words had come almost involuntarily. The old man stared at the speaker breathing hard.
"What's Johnnie Consadine got to do with it?" he inquired finally. "I'm the stepdaddy of the children--and Johnnie's stepdaddy too, for the matter of that--and what I say goes."
"Did you hire the children at the Victory?" inquired Stoddard, swiftly. Back across his memory came the picture of Johnnie with her poor little sheep for the shambles clustered about her on the bridge before the Victory mill. "Did you hire the children to the factory?" he repeated.
"Now Mr. Stoddard," began the old man, between bluster and whine, "I talked about them chaps to the superintendent of yo' mill, an' you-all said you didn't want none of that size. And one o' yo' men--he was a room boss, I reckon--spoke up right sassy to me--as sassy as Johnnie Consadine herself, and God knows she ain't got no respect for them that's set over her. I had obliged to let 'em go to the Victory; but I don't think you have any call to hold it ag'in me--Johnnie was plumb impident about it--plumb impident."
Stoddard glanced up at the windows and made as though to dismount. All night at his pillow had stood the accusation that he had been cruel to Johnnie. Now, as Himes's revelations went on, and he saw what her futile efforts had been, as he guessed a part of her sufferings, it seemed he must hurry to her and brush away the tangle of misunderstanding which he had allowed to grow up between them.
"They've worked over that thar chap, off an' on, all night," the old man said. "Looks like, if they keep hit up, she'll begin to think somethin's the matter of her."
Gray realized that his visit at this moment would be ill-timed. He would ride on through the Gap now, and call as he came back.
"I had obliged to find me a place whar I could hire out them chaps," the miserable old man before him went on, garrulously. "They's nothin' like mill work to take the davilment out o' young 'uns. Some of them chaps'll call you names and make faces at you, even whilst you' goin' through the mill yard--and think what they'd be ef they wasn't worked! I'm a old man, and when I married Laurelly and took the keepin' o' her passel o' chaps on my back, I aimed to make it pay. Laurelly, she won't work."
He looked helplessly at Stoddard, like a child about to cry.
"She told me up and down that she never had worked in no mill, and she was too old to l'arn. She said the noise of the thing from the outside was enough to show her that she didn't want to go inside--and go she would not."
"But she let her children go--she and Johnnie," muttered Stoddard, settling himself in his saddle.
"Well, I'd like to see either of 'em he'p theirselves!" returned Pap Himes with a reminiscence of his former manner. "Johnnie ain't had the decency to give me her wages, not once since I've been her pappy; the onliest money I ever had from her--'ceptin' to pay her board--was when she tried to buy them chaps out o' workin' in the mill. But when I put my foot down an' told her that the chillen could work in the mill without a beatin' or with one, jest as she might see and choose, she had a little sense, and took 'em over and hired 'em herself. Baylor told me afterward that she tried to make him say he didn't want 'em, but Baylor and me stands together, an' Miss Johnnie failed up on that trick."
Pap felt an altogether misplaced confidence in the view that Stoddard, as a male, was likely to take of the matter.
"A man is obliged to be boss of his own family--ain't that so, Mr. Stoddard?" he demanded. "I said the chillen had to go into the mill, and into the mill they went. They all wanted to go, at the start, and Laurelly agreed with me that hit was the right thing. Then, just because Deanie happened to a accident and Johnnie took up for her, Laurelly has to go off into hy-strikes and say she'll quit me soon as she can put foot to the ground."
Stoddard made no response to this, but touched Sultan with his heel and moved on. He had stopped at the post-office as he came past, taking from his personal box one letter. This he opened and read as he rode slowly away. Halfway up the first rise, Pap saw him rein in and turn; the old man was still staring when Gray stopped once more at the gate.
"See here, Himes," he spoke abruptly, "this concerns you--this letter that has just reached me."
Pap looked at the younger man with mere curiosity.
"When Johnnie was first given a spinning room to look after," said Gray, "she came to Mr. Sessions and myself and asked permission to have a small device of her own contrivance used on the frames as an Indicator."
Pap shuffled his feet uneasily.
"I thought no more about the matter; in fact I've not been in the spinning department for--for some time." Stoddard looked down at the hand which held his bridle, and remembered that he had absented himself from every place that threatened him with the sight of Johnnie.
Pap was breathing audibly through his open mouth.
"She--she never had nothin' made," he whispered out the ready lie hurriedly, scrambling to his feet and down the steps, pressing close to Roan Sultan's shoulder, laying a wheedling hand on the bridle, looking up anxiously into the stern young face above him.
"Oh, yes, she did," Stoddard returned. "I remember, now, hearing some of the children from the room say that she had a device which worked well. From the description they gave of it, I judge that it is the same which this letter tells me you and Buckheath are offering to the Alabama mills. Mr. Trumbull, the superintendent, says that you and Buckheath hold the patent for this Indicator jointly. As soon as I can consult with Johnnie, we will see about the matter."
Himes let go the roan's bridle and staggered back a pace or two, open-mouthed, staring. The skies had fallen. His heavy mind turned slowly toward resentment against Buckheath. He wished the younger conspirator were here to take his share. Then the door opened and Shade himself came out wiping his mouth. He was fresh from the breakfast table, but not on his way to the mill, since it was still too early. He gave Stoddard a surly nod as he passed through the gate and on down the street, in the direction of the Inn. Himes, in a turmoil of stupid uncertainty, once or twice made as though to detain him. His slow wits refused him any available counsel. Dazedly he fumbled for something convincing to say. Then on a sudden inspiration, he once more laid hold of the bridle and began to speak volubly in a hoarse undertone:
"W'y, name o' God, Mr. Stoddard! Who should have a better right to that thar patent than Buck and me? I'm the gal's stepdaddy, an' he's the man she's goin' to wed."
Some peculiar quality in the silence of Gray Stoddard seemed finally to penetrate the old fellow's understanding. He looked up to find the man on horseback regarding him, square-jawed, pale, and with eyes angrily bright. He glanced over his shoulder at the windows of the house behind him, moistened his lips once again, gulped, and finally resumed in a manner both whining and aggressive.
"Now, Mr. Stoddard, I want to talk to you mighty plain. The whole o' Cottonville is full o' tales about you and Johnnie. Yes--that's the truth."
He stood staring down at his big, shuffling feet, laboriously sorting in his own mind such phrases as it might do to use. The difficulty of what he had to say blocked speech for so long that Stoddard, in a curiously quiet voice, finally prompted him.
"Tales?" he repeated. "What tales, Mr. Himes?"
"Why, they ain't a old woman in town, nor a young one neither--I believe in my soul that the young ones is the worst--that ain't been talkin'--talkin' bad--ever since you took Johnnie to ride in your otty-mobile."
Again there came a long pause. Stoddard stared down on Gideon Himes, and Himes stared at his own feet.
"Well?" Stoddard's quiet voice once more urged his accuser forward.
Pap rolled his head between his shoulders with a negative motion which intimated that it was not well.
"And lending her books, and all sich," he pursued doggedly. "That kind o' carryin' on ain't decent, and you know it ain't. Buck knows it ain't--but he's willin' to have her. He told her he was willin' to have her, and the fool gal let on like she didn't want him. He came here to board at my house because she wouldn't scarcely so much as speak to him elsewhere."
By the light of these statements Stoddard read what poor Johnnie's persecution had been. The details of it he could not, of course, know; yet he saw in that moment largely how she had been harried. At the instant of seeing, came that swift and mighty revulsion that follows surely when we have misprized and misunderstood those dear to us.
"What is it you want of me?" he inquired of Himes.
"Why, just this here," Pap told him. "You let Johnnie Consadine alone." He leaned even closer and spoke in a yet lower tone, because a number of girls were emerging from the house and starting down the steps. "A big, rich feller like you don't mean any good by a girl fixed the way Johnnie is. You wouldn't marry her--then let her alone. Things ain't got so bad but what Buck is still willin' to have her. You wouldn't marry her."
Stoddard looked down at the shameful old man with eyes that were indecipherable. If the impulse was strong in him to twist the unclean old throat against any further ill-speaking, it gave no heat to the tone in which he answered:
"It's you and your kind that say I mean harm to Johnnie, and that I would not marry her. Why should I intend ill toward her? Why shouldn't I marry her? I would--I would marry her."
As he made this, to him the only possible defence of the poor girl, Pap faltered slowly back, uttering a gurgling expression of astonishment. With a sense of surprise Stoddard saw in his face only dismay and chagrin.
"Hit--hit's a lie," Himes mumbled half-heartedly. "Ye'd never do it in the world."
Stoddard gathered up his bridle rein, preparatory to moving on.
"You're an old man, Mr. Himes," he said coldly, "and you are excited; but you don't want to say any more--that's quite enough of that sort of thing."
Then he loosened the rein on Roan Sultan, and moved away down the street.
Gideon Himes stood and gazed after him with bulging eyes. Gray Stoddard married to Johnnie! He tried to adjust his dull wits to the new position of affairs; tried to cipher the problem with this amazing new element introduced. Last night's scene of violence when the injured child was brought home went dismally before his eyes. Laurella had said she would leave him so soon as she could put foot to the floor. He had expected to coax her with gifts and money, with concessions in regard to the children if it must be; but with a rich man for a son-in-law, of course she would go. He would never see her face again. And suddenly he flung up an arm like a beaten schoolboy and began to blubbler noisily in the crook of his elbow.
An ungentle hand on his shoulder recalled him to time and place.
"For God's sake, what's the matter with you?" inquired Shade Buckheath's voice harshly.
The old man gulped down his grief and made his communication in a few hurried sentences.
"An' he'll do it," Pap concluded. "He's jest big enough fool for anything. Ain't you heard of his scheme for having the hands make the money in the mill?" (Thus he described a profit-sharing plan.) "Don't you know he's given ten thousand dollars to start up some sort o' school for the boys and gals to learn their trade in? A man like that'll do anything. And if he marries Johnnie, Laurelly'll leave me sure."
"Leave you!" echoed Buckheath darkly. "She won't have to. If Gray Stoddard marries Johnnie Consadine, you and me will just about roost in the penitentiary for the rest of our days."
"The patent!" echoed Pap blankly. He turned fiercely on his fellow conspirator. "Now see what ye done with yer foolishness," he exclaimed. "Nothin' would do ye but to be offerin' the contraption for sale, and tellin' each and every that hit'd been used in the Hardwick mill. Look what a mess ye've made. I'm sorry I ever hitched up with ye. Boy o' yo' age has got no sense."
"How was I to know they'd write to Stoddard?" growled Shade sulkily. "No harm did if hit wasn't for him. We've got the patent all right, and Johnnie cain't help herself. But him--with all his money--he can help her--damn him!"
"Yes, and he'll take a holt and hunt up about Pros's silver mine, too," said Himes. "I've always mistrusted the way he's been hangin' round Pros Passmore. Like enough he's hearn of that silver mine, and that's the reason he's after Johnnie."
The old man paused to ruminate on this feature of the case. He was pleased with his own shrewdness in fathoming Gray Stoddard's mysterious motives.
"Buck," he said finally, with a swift drop to friendliness, "hit's got to be stopped. Can you stop it?
"Didn't you tell me that Johnnie promised last night to wed you? Didn't you say she promised it, when you was goin' up to the Victory with her?"
"She promised she would if I'd get you to let the children stay out of the mill. Deanie's hurt now, and you're afraid to make the others go back in the mill anyhow, 'count of Laurelly's tongue. I can't hold Johnnie to that promise. But--but there's one person I want to talk to about this business, and then I'll be ready to do something."