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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter20)

2006-08-29 01:37

  Chapter XX

  Already the coach had asked Jason to try foot-ball, but the boy had kept away from the field, for the truth was that he had but one suit of clothes and he couldn't afford to have them soiled and torn. Gray suspected this, and told the coach, who explained to Jason that practice clothes would be furnished him, but still the boy did not come until one day when, out of curiosity, he wandered over to the field to see what the game was like. Soon his eyes brightened, his lips parted, and his face grew tense as the players swayed, clenched struggling, fell in a heap, and leaped to their feet again. And everywhere he saw Gray's yellow head darting among them like a sun-ball, and he began to wonder, if he could not outrun and outwrestle his old enemy. He began to fidget in his seat and presently he could stand it no longer, and he ran out into the field and touched the coach on the shoulder.

  "Can I git them clothes now?"

  The coach looked at his excited face, nodded with a smile, and pointed to the gymnasium, and Jason was off in a run.

  The matter was settled in the thrill and struggle of that one practice game, and right away Jason showed extraordinary aptitude, for he was quick, fleet, and strong, and the generalship and tactics of the game fascinated him from the start. And when he discovered that the training-table meant a savings-bank for him, he counted his money, gave up the morning papers without hesitation or doubt, and started in for the team. Thus he and Gray were brought violently together on the field, for within two weeks Jason was on the second team, but the chasm between them did not close. Gray treated the mountain boy with a sort of curt courtesy, and while Jason tackled him, fell upon him with a savage thrill, and sometimes wanted to keep on tightening his wiry arms and throttling him, the mountain boy could discover no personal feeling whatever against him in return, and he was mystified. With the ingrained suspicion of the mountaineer toward an enemy, he supposed Gray had some cunning purpose. As captain, Gray had been bound, Jason knew, to put him on the second team, but as day after day went by and the magic word that he longed for went unsaid, the boy began to believe that the sinister purpose of Gray's concealment was, without evident prejudice, to keep him off the college team. The ball was about to be snapped back on Gray's side, and Gray had given him one careless, indifferent glance over the bent backs of the guards, when Jason came to this conclusion, and his heart began to pound with rage. There was the shock of bodies, the ball disappeared from his sight, he saw Gray's yellow head dart three times, each time a different way, and then it flashed down the side line with a clear field for the goal. With a bound Jason was after him, and he knew that even if Gray had wings, he would catch him. With a flying leap he hurled himself on the speeding figure, in front of him, he heard Gray's breath go out in a quick gasp under the fierce lock of his arms, and, as they crashed to the ground, Jason for one savage moment wanted to use his teeth on the back of the sunburnt neck under him, but he sprang to his feet, fists clenched and ready for the fight. With another gasp Gray, too, sprang lightly up.

  "Good!" he said heartily.

  No mortal fist could have laid Jason quite so low as that one word. The coach's whistle blew and Gray added carelessly: "Come around, Hawn, to the training-table to-night."

  No mortal command could have filled him with so much shame, and Jason stood stock-still and speechless. Then, fumbling for an instant at his shirt collar as though he were choking, he walked swiftly away. As he passed the benches he saw Mavis and Marjorie, who had been watching the practice. Apparently Mavis had started out into the field, and Marjorie, bewildered by her indignant outcry, had risen to follow her; and Jason, when he met the accusing fire of his cousin's eyes, knew that she alone, on the field, had understood it all, that she had started with the impulse of protecting Gray, and his shame went deeper still. He did not go to the training-table that night, and the moonlight found him under the old willows wondering and brooding, as he had been——long and hard. Gray was too much for him, and the mountain boy had not been able to solve the mystery of the Blue-grass boy's power over his fellows, for the social complexity of things had unravelled very slowly for Jason. He saw that each county had brought its local patriotism to college and had its county club. There were too few students from the hills and a sectional club was forming, "The Mountain Club," into which Jason naturally had gone; but broadly the students were divided into "frat" men and "non-frat" men, chiefly along social lines, and there were literary clubs of which the watchword was merit and nothing else. In all these sectional cliques from the Purchase, Pennyroyal, and Peavine, as the western border of the State, the southern border, and the eastern border of hills were called; indeed, in all the sections except the Bear-grass, where was the largest town and where the greatest wealth of the State was concentrated, he found a widespread, subconscious, home-nursed resentment brought to that college against the lordly Blue-grass. In the social life of the college he found that resentment rarely if ever voiced, but always tirelessly at work. He was not surprised then to discover that in the history of the college, Gray Pendleton was the first plainsman, the first aristocrat, who had ever been captain of the team and the president of his class. He began to understand now, for he could feel the tendrils of the boy's magnetic personality enclosing even him, and by and by he could stand it no longer, and he went to Gray.

  "I wanted to kill you that day."

  Gray smiled.

  "I knew it," he said quietly.

  "Then why——"

  "We were playing foot-ball. Almost anybody can lose his head entirely——but you didn't. That's why I didn't say anything to you afterward. That's why you'll be captain of the team after I'm gone."

  Again Jason choked, and again he turned speechless away, and then and there was born within him an idolatry for Gray that was carefully locked in his own breast, for your mountaineer openly worships, and then but shyly, the Almighty alone. Jason no longer wondered about the attitude of faculty and students of both sexes toward Gray, no longer at Mavis, but at Marjorie he kept on wondering mightily, for she alone seemed the one exception to the general rule. Like everybody else, Jason knew the parental purpose where those two were concerned, and he began to laugh at the daring presumptions of his own past dreams and to worship now only from afar. But he could not know the effect of that parental purpose on that wilful, high-strung young person, the pique that Gray's frank interest in Mavis brought to life within her, and he was not yet far enough along in the classics to suspect that Marjorie might weary of hearing Aristides called the Just. Nor could he know the spirit of coquetry that lurked deep behind her serious eyes, and was for that reason the more dangerously effective.

  He only began to notice one morning, after the foot-ball incident, that Marjorie was beginning to notice him; that, worshipped now only on the horizon, his star seemed to be drawing a little nearer. A passing lecturer had told Jason much of himself and his people that morning. The mountain people, said the speaker, still lived like the pioneer forefathers of the rest of the State. Indeed they were "our contemporary ancestors"; so that, sociologically speaking, Jason, young as he was, was the ancestor of all around him. The thought made him grin and, looking up, he caught the mischievous eyes of Marjorie, who later seemed to be waiting for him on the steps:

  "Good-morning, grandfather," she said demurely, and went rapidly on her way.

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