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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter24)

2006-08-29 01:38

  Chapter XXIV

  The red dawn of the twentieth century was stealing over the frost- white fields, and in the alien house of his fathers John Burnham was watching it through his bedroom window. There had been little sleep for him that New Year's night, and even now, when he went back to bed, sleep would not come.

  The first contest in the life of the State was going on at the little capital. That capital was now an armed camp. The law-makers there themselves were armed, divided, and men of each party were marked by men of the other for the first shot when the crisis should come. There was a Democratic conspiracy to defraud——a Republican conspiracy to resist by force to the death. Even in the placing of the ballots in the box for the drawing of the contest board, fraud was openly charged, and even then pistols almost leaped from their holsters. Republicans whose seats were contested would be unseated and the autocrat's triumph would thus be sure—— that was the plan wrought out by his inflexible will and iron hand. The governor from the Pennyroyal swore he would leave his post only on a stretcher. Disfranchisement was on the very eve of taking place, liberty was at stake, and Kentuckians unless aroused to action would be a free people no longer. The Republican cry was that the autocrat had created his election triumvirate, had stolen his nomination, tried to steal his election, and was now trying to steal the governorship. There was even a meeting in the big town of the State to determine openly whether there should be resistance to him by force. Two men from the mountains had met in the lobby of the Capitol Hotel and a few moments later, under the drifting powder smoke, two men lay wounded and three lay dead. The quarrel was personal, it was said, but the dial-hand of the times was left pointing with sinister prophecy at tragedy yet to come. And in the dark of the first moon of that century the shadowy hillsmen were getting ready to swoop down. And it was the dawn of the twentieth century of the Christian era that Burnham watched, the dawn of the one hundred and twenty-fifth year of the nation's life——of the one hundred and seventh year of statehood for Kentucky. And thinking of the onward sweep of the world, of the nation, North, East, West, and South, the backward staggering of his own loved State tugged sorely at his heart.

  In chapel next morning John Burnham made another little talk—— chiefly to the young men of the Blue-grass among whom this tragedy was taking place. No inheritance in American life was better than theirs, he told them——no better ideals in the relations of family, State, and nation. But the State was sick now with many ills and it was coming to trial now before the judgment of the watching world. If it stood the crucial fire, it would be the part of all the youth before him to maintain and even better the manhood that should come through unscathed. And if it failed, God forbid, it would be for them to heal, to mend, to upbuild, and, undaunted, push on and upward again. And as at the opening of the session he saw again, lifted to him with peculiar intenseness, the faces of Marjorie and Gray Pendleton, and of Mavis and Jason Hawn——only now Gray looked deeply serious and Jason sullen and defiant. And at Mavis, Marjorie did not turn this time to smile. Nor was there any furtive look from any one of the four to any other, when the students rose, though each pair of cousins drifted together on the way out, and in pairs went on their separate ways.

  The truth was that Marjorie and Gray were none too happy over the recent turn of affairs. Both were too fine, too generous, to hurt the feelings of others except with pain to themselves. They knew Mavis and Jason were hurt but, hardly realizing that between the four the frank democracy of childhood was gone, they hardly knew how and how deeply. Both were mystified, greatly disturbed, drawn more than ever by the proud withdrawal of the mountain boy and girl, and both were anxious to make amends. More than once Gray came near riding over to Steve Hawn's and trying once more to understand and if possible to explain and restore good feeling, but the memory of his rebuff from Mavis and the unapproachable quality in Jason made him hesitate. Naturally with Marjorie this state of mind was worse, because of the brink of Jason's confession for which she knew she was much to blame, and because of the closer past between them. Once only she saw him striding the fields, and though she pulled in her horse to watch him, Jason did not know; and once he came to her when he did not know that she knew. It was the night before the mid-year examinations and Marjorie, in spite of that fact, had gone to a dance and, because of it, was spending the night in town with a friend. The two girls had got home a little before three in the morning, and Marjorie had put out her light and gone to bed but, being sleepless, had risen and sat dreaming before the fire. The extraordinary whiteness of the moonlight had drawn her to the window when she rose again, and she stood there like a tall lily, looking silent sympathy to the sufferers in the bitter cold outside. She put one bare arm on the sill of the closed window and looked down at the snow-crystals hardly less brilliant under the moon than they would be under the first sun-rays next morning, looked through the snow- laden branches of the trees, over the white house-tops, and out to the still white fields——the white world within her answering the white world without as in a dream. She was thinking of Jason, as she had been thinking for days, for she could not get the boy out of her mind. All night at the dance she had been thinking of him, and when between the stone pillars of the gateway a figure appeared without overcoat, hands in pockets and a bundle of something under one arm, the hand on the window-sill dropped till it clutched her heart at the strangeness of it, for her watching eyes saw plain in the moonlight the drawn white face of Jason Hawn. He tossed something on the porch and her tears came when she realized what it meant. Then he drew a letter out of his pocket, hesitated, turned, turned again, tossed it too upon the porch, and wearily crunched out through the gate. The girl whirled for her dressing-gown and slippers, and slipped downstairs to the door, for her instinct told her the letter was for her, and a few minutes later she was reading it by the light of the fire.

  "I know where you are," the boy had written. "Don't worry, but I want to tell you that I take back that promise I made in the road that day."

  John Burnham's examination was first for Jason that morning, and when the boy came into the recitation-room the school-master was shocked by the tumult in his face. He saw the lad bend listlessly over his papers and look helplessly up and around——worn, brain- fagged, and half wild——saw him rise suddenly and hurriedly, and nodded him an excuse before he could ask for it, thinking the boy had suddenly gone ill. When he did not come back Burnham got uneasy, and after an hour he called another member of the faculty to take his place and hurried out. As he went down the corridor a figure detached itself from a group of girls and flew after him. He felt his arm caught tightly and he turned to find Marjorie, white, with trembling lips, but struggling to be calm:

  "Where is Jason?" Burnham recovered quickly.

  "Why, I don't believe he is very well," he said with gentle carelessness. "I'm going over now to see him. I'll be back in a minute." Wondering and more than ever uneasy, Burnham went on, while the girl unconsciously followed him to the door, looking after him and almost on the point of wringing her hands. In the boy's room Burnham found an old dress-suit case packed and placed on the study table. On it was a pencil-scribbled note to one of his room-mates:

  "I'll send for this later," it read, and that was all.

  Jason was gone.

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