Read THE BOLL: CHAPTER IV of The Bishop of Cottontown A Story of the Southern Cotton Mills , free online book, by John Trotwood Moore, on ReadCentral.com.

FOOD FOR THE FACTORY

The next morning being Saturday, Carpenter, the Whipper-in, mounted his Texas pony and started out toward the foothills of the mountains.

Upon the pommel of his saddle lay a long single-barreled squirrel gun, for the hills were full of squirrels, and Jud was fond of a tender one, now and then. Behind him, as usual, trotted Bonaparte, his sullen eyes looking for an opportunity to jump on any timid country dog which happened along.

There are two things for which all mills must be prepared the wear and tear of Time on the machinery the wear and tear of Death on the frail things who yearly work out their lives before it.

In the fight for life between the machine and the human labor, in the race of life for that which men call success, who cares for the life of one little mill hand? And what is one tot of them from another? And if one die one month and another the next, and another the next and the next, year in and year out, who remembers it save some poverty-hardened, stooped and benumbed creature, surrounded by a scrawny brood calling ever for bread?

The world knows not cares not for its tiny life is but a thread in the warp of the great Drawing-in Machine.

So fearful is the strain upon the nerve and brain and body of the little things, that every year many of them pass away slowly, surely, quietly so imperceptibly that the mill people themselves scarcely miss them. And what does it matter? Are there not hundreds of others, born of ignorance and poverty and pain, to take their places?

And the dead ones unknown, they simply pass into a Greater Unknown. Their places are filled with fresh victims innocents, whom Passion begets with a caress and Cupidity buys with a curse. Children they are tots and why should they know that they are trading life for death?

It was a bright fall morning, and Jud Carpenter rode toward the mountain a few miles away. They are scarcely mountains these beautifully wooded hills in the Tennessee Valley, hooded by blue in the day and shrouded in somber at night; but it pleases the people who live within the sweet influence of their shadows to call them mountains.

Jud knew where he was going, and he rode leisurely along, revolving in his mind the plan of his campaign. He needed the recruits for the Acme Mills, and in all his past experience as an employment agent he had never undertaken to bring in a family where as much tact and diplomacy was required as in this case.

It was a dilapidated gate at which he drew rein. There had once been handsome pillars of stone and brick, but these had fallen and the gate had been swung on a convenient locust tree that had sprung up and grown with its usual rapidity from its sheltered nook near the crumbling rock wall. Only one end of the gate was hung; and it lay diagonally across the entrance of what had once been a thousand acres of the finest farm in the Tennessee Valley.

Dismounting, Jud hitched his horse and set his gun beside the tree; and as it was easier to climb over the broken-down fence than to lift the gate around, he stepped over and then shuffled along in his lazy way toward the house.

It was an old farmhouse, now devoid of paint; and the path to it had once been a well-kept gravel walk, lined with cedars; but the box-plants, having felt no pruning shears for years, almost filled, with their fantastically jagged boughs, the narrow path, while the cedars tossed about their broken and dead limbs.

The tall, square pillars in the house, from dado above to where they rested in the brick base below, showed the naked wood, untouched so long by paint that it had grown furzy from rain and snow, and splintery from sun and heat. Its green shutters hung, some of them, on one hinge; and those which could be closed, were shut up close and sombre under the casements.

A half dozen hounds came baying and barking around him. As Jud proceeded, others poured out from under the house. All were ribby, and half starved.

Without a moment’s hesitation they promptly covered Bonaparte, much to the delight of that genius. Indeed, from the half-satisfied, half malignant snarl which lit up his face as they piled rashly and brainlessly on him, Jud took it that Bonaparte had trotted all these miles just to breakfast on this remnant of hound on the half-shell.

In a few minutes Bonaparte’s terrible, flashing teeth had them flying in every direction.

Jud promptly cuffed him back to the gate and bade him wait there.

On the front portico, his chair half-tilted back, his trousers in his boot legs, and his feet on the balustrade rim, the uprights of which were knocked out here and there, like broken teeth in a comb, sat a man in a slouch hat, smoking a cob pipe. He was in his shirt sleeves. His face was flushed and red; his eyes were watery, bleared. His head was fine and long his nose and chin seemed to meet in a sharp point. His face showed that form of despair so common in those whom whiskey has helped to degenerate. He did not smile he scowled continuously, and his voice had been imprecatory so long that it whined in the same falsetto twang as one of his hounds.

Jud stepped forward and bowed obsequiously.

“How are you to-day, Majah, sah?” he asked while his puckered and wrinkled face tried to smile.

Jud was chameleon. Long experience had taught him to drop instinctively into the mannerism even the dialect of those he hoped to cajole. With the well-bred he could speak glibly, and had airs himself. With the illiterate and the low-bred, he could out-Caliban the herd of them.

The man did not take the pipe out of his mouth. He did not even turn his head. Only his two bleared eyes shot sidewise down to the ground, where ten feet below him stood the employment agent of the mills, smiling, smirking, and doing his best to spell out on the signboard of his unscrupulous face the fact that he came in peace and good will.

Major Edward Conway scarcely grunted it might have been anything from an oath to an éructation. Then, taking his pipe-stem from between his teeth, and shifting his tobacco in his mouth, for he was both chewing and smoking he expectorated squarely into the eyes of a hound which had followed Jud up the steps, barking and snarling at his heels.

He was a good marksman even with spittle, and the dog fled, whining.

Then he answered, with an oath, that he was about as well as the rheumatism and the beastly weather would permit.

Jud came up uninvited and sat down. The Major did not even turn his head. The last of a long line of gentlemen did not waste his manners on one beneath him socially.

Jud was discreetly silent, and soon the Major began to tell all of his troubles, but in the tone of one who was talking to his servant and with many oaths and much bitterness:

“You see it’s this damned rheumatism, Carpenter. Las’ night, suh, I had to drink a quart of whiskey befo’ I cu’d go to sleep at all. It came on me soon aftah I come out of the wah, an’ it growed on me like jim’son weeds in a hog-pen. My appetite’s quit on me two pints of whiskey an’ wild-cherry bark a day, suh, don’t seem to help it at all, suh. I cyant tell whut the devil’s the matter with my stomach. Nothin’ I eat or drink seems to agree with me but whiskey. If I drink this malarial water, suh, m’legs an’ m’feet begin to swell. I have to go back to whiskey. Damn me, but I was born for Kentucky. Why, I’ve got a forty dollar thirst on me this very minute. I’m so dry I cu’d kick up a dust in a hog wallow. Maybe, though, it’s this rotten stuff that cross-roads Jew is sellin’ me an’ callin’ it whiskey. He’s got a mortgage on everything here but the houn’s and the house cat, an’ he’s tryin’ to see if he cyant kill me with his bug-juice an’ save a suit in Chancery. I’m goin’ to sen’ off an’ see if I cyant git another bran’ of it, suh.”

Edward Conway was the type of the Southerner wrecked financially and morally by the war. His father and grandfather had owned Millwood, and the present owner had gone into the war a carefully educated, well reared youth of twenty. He came out of it alive, it is true, but, like many another fine youth of both North and South, addicted to drink.

The brutality of war lies not alone in death it is often more fatal, more degenerating, in the life it leaves behind.

Coming out of the war, Conway found, as did all others in the Tennessee Valley who sided with the South, that his home was a wreck. Not a fence, even, remained nothing but the old home shutterless, plasterless, its roof rotten, its cellar the abode of hogs.

Thousands of others found themselves likewise brave hearts men they proved themselves to be in that they built up their homes out of wreck and their country out of chaos.

The man who retrieves his fortune under the protecting arm of law and order is worthy of great praise; but he who does it in the surly, snarling teeth of Disorder itself is worthy of still greater praise.

And the real soldier is not he with his battles and his bravery. All animals will fight it is instinct. But he who conquers in the great moral battle of peace and good government, overcoming prejudice, ignorance, poverty and even injustice, till he rises to the height of the brave whose deeds do vindicate them this is the real soldier.

Thousands of Southern soldiers did this, but Edward Conway had not been one of them. For where whiskey sits he holds a scepter whose staff is the body of the Upas tree, and there is no room for the oak of thrift or the wild-flower of sweetness underneath.

From poverty to worse poverty Edward Conway had gone, until now, hopelessly mortgaged, hopelessly besotted, hopelessly soured, he lived the diseased product of weakness, developed through stimulated inactivity.

Nature is inexorable, morally, physically, mentally, and as two generations of atheists will beget a thief, so will two generations of idle rich beget nonentities.

On this particular morning that Jud Carpenter came, things had reached a crisis with Edward Conway. By a decree of the court, the last hope he had of retaining a portion of his family estate had been swept away, and the entire estate was to be advertised for sale, to satisfy a mortgage and judgment. It is true, he had the two years of redemption under the Alabama law, but can a drunkard redeem his land when he can not redeem himself?

And so, partly from despair, and partly from that instinct which makes even the most sensitive of mortals wish to pour their secret troubles into another’s ear, partly even from drunken recklessness, Edward Conway sat on his verandah this morning and poured his troubles into the designing ear of Jud Carpenter. The refrain of his woe was that luck luck remorseless luck was against him.

Luck, since the beginning of the world, has been the cry of him who gambles with destiny. Work is the watchword of the man who believes in himself.

This thing went because that man had been against him, and this went because of the faithlessness of another. His health well, that was God’s doing.

Jud was too shrewd to let him know that he thought whiskey had anything to do with it and so, very cautiously did the employment agent proceed.

A child with sunny hair and bright eyes ran across the yard. She was followed by an old black mammy, whose anxiety for fear her charge might get her clothes soiled was plainly evident; from the parlor came the notes of an old piano, sadly out of tune, and Jud could hear the fine voice of another daughter singing a love ballad.

“You’ve got two mighty pyeart gyrls here,” at last he ventured.

“Of course, they are, suh,” snapped their father “they are Conways.”

“Ever think of it, sah,” went on Jud, “that they could make you a livin’ in the mill?”

Conway was silent. In truth, he had thought of that very thing. To-day, however, he was nerved and desperate, being more besotted than usual.

“Now, look aheah it’s this way,” went on Jud “you’re gettin’ along in age and you need res’. You’ve been wuckin’ too hard. I tell you, Majah, sah, you’re dead game no other man I know of would have stood up under the burdens you’ve had on yo’ shoulders.”

The Major drew himself up: “That’s a family trait of the Conways, suh.”

“Wal, it’s time for you to res’ awhile. No use to drive a willin’ hoss to death. I can get a place for both of the gyrls in the mill, an’ aftah the fust month aftah they learn the job, they can earn enough to support you comf’t’bly. Now, we’ll give you a nice little cottage no bother of keepin’ up a big run-down place like this jes’ a neat little cottage. Aunt Mariah can keep it in nice fix. The gyrls will be employed and busy an’ you can jes’ live comf’t’bly, an’ res’. An’ say,” he added, slyly “you can get all the credit at the Company’s sto’ you want an’ I’m thinkin’ you’ll find a better brand of licker than that you’ve been samplin’.”

Besotted as he was hardened and discouraged the proposition came over Conway with a wave of shame. Even through his weakened mind the old instinct of the gentleman asserted itself, and for a moment the sweet refined face of a beautiful dead wife, the delicate beauty of a little daughter, the queenliness of an elder one, all the product of good breeding and rearing, came over him. He sprang to his feet. “What do you mean, suh? My daughters grandchildren of Gen. Leonidas Conway my daughters work in the mill by the side of that poor trash from the mountains? I’ll see you damned first.”

He sat down he bowed his head in his hands. A glinty look came into his eyes.

Jud drew his chair up closer: “But jes’ think a minute you’re sold out you’ve got no whur to go, you’ve wuck’d yo’self down tryin’ to save the farm. We’ve all got to wuck these days. The war has changed all the old order of things. We havn’t got any mo’ slaves.”

“We,” repeated Conway, and he looked at the man and laughed.

Jud flushed even through his sallow skin:

“Wal, that’s all right,” he added. “Listen to me, now, I’m tryin’ to save you from trouble. The war changed everything. Your folks got to whur they did by wuckin’. They built up this big estate by economy an’ wuck. Now, you mus’ do it. You’ve got the old dead-game Conway breedin’ in yo’ bones an’ you’ve got the brains, too.” He lowered his voice: “It’s only for a little while jes’ a year or so it’ll give you a nice little home to live in while you brace up an’ pull out of debt an’ redeem yo’ farm. Here it is only for a year or so sign this givin’ you a home, an’ start all over in life sign it right there, only for a little while a chance to git on yo’ feet .”

Conway scarcely knew how it happened that he signed for Jud quickly changed the subject.

After a while Jud arose to go. As he did so, Lily, the little daughter, came out, and putting her arms around her father’s neck, kissed him and said:

“Papa luncheon is served, and oh, do come on! Mammy and Helen and I are so hungry.”

Mammy Maria had followed her and stood deferentially behind the chair. And as Jud went away he thought he saw in the old woman’s eyes, as she watched him, a trace of that fine scorn bred of generations of gentleness, but which whiskey had destroyed in the master.