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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter17)

2006-08-29 01:36

  Chapter XVII

  There was little about Jason and his school career that John Burnham had not heard from his friend St. Hilda, for she kept sending at intervals reports of him, so that Burnham knew how doggedly the lad had worked in school and out; what a leader he was among his fellows, and how, that he might keep out of the feud, he had never gone to his grandfather's even during vacations, except for a day or two, but had hired himself out to some mountain farmer and had toiled like a slave, always within St. Hilda's reach. She had won Jason's heart from the start, so that he had told her frankly about his father's death, the coming of the geologist, the sale of his home, the flight of his mother and Steve Hawn, his shooting at Babe Honeycutt, and his own flight after them, but at the brink of one confession he always balked. Never could St. Hilda learn just why he had given up the manly prerogatives of pistol, whiskey-jug, and a deadly purpose of revenge, to accept in their place, if need be, the despised duties of women-folks. But his grim and ready willingness for the exchange appealed to St. Hilda so strongly that she had always saved him as much of these duties as she could.

  The truth was that the school-master had slyly made a diplomatic use of their mutual interest in Jason that was masterly. There had been little communication between them since the long-ago days when she had given him her final decision and gone on her mission to the mountains, until Jason had come to be an important link between them. Gradually, after that, St. Hilda had slowly come to count on the school-master's sympathy and understanding, and more than once she had written not only for his advice but for his help as well. And wisely, through it all, Burnham had never sounded the personal note, and smilingly he had noted the passing of all suspicion on her part, the birth of her belief that he was cured of his love for her and would bother her no more, and now, in her last letter announcing Jason's coming to the Blue-grass, there was a distinct personal atmosphere that almost made him chuckle. St. Hilda even wondered whether he might not care, during some vacation, to come down and see with his own eyes the really remarkable work he knew she was doing down there. And when he wrote during the summer that he had been called to the suddenly vacated chair of geology in the college Jason had been prepared for, her delight thrilled him, though he had to wonder how much of it might be due to the fact that her protege would thus be near him for help and counsel.

  His face was almost aglow when he drove out through the gate that morning on his way to the duties of his first day. The neighborhood children were already on their way to school, but they were mostly the children of tobacco tenants, and when he passed the school-house he saw a young woman on the porch——two facts that were significant. The neighborhood church was going, the neighborhood school was going, the man-teacher was gone——and he himself was perhaps the last of the line that started in coonskin caps and moccasins. The gentleman farmers who had made the land distinct and distinguished were renting their acres to tobacco tenants on shares and were moving to town to get back their negro servants and to provide their children with proper schooling. And those children of the gentle people, it seemed, were growing more and more indifferent to education and culture, and less and less marked by the gentle manners that were their birthright. And when he thought of the toll-gate war, the threatened political violence almost at hand, and the tobacco troubles which he knew must some day come, he wondered with a sick heart if a general decadence was not going on in the land for which he would have given his life in peace as readily as in war. In the mountains, according to St. Hilda, the people had awakened from a sleep of a hundred years. Lawlessness was on the decrease, the feud was disappearing, railroads were coming in, the hills were beginning to give up the wealth of their timber, iron, and coal. County schools were increasing, and the pathetic eagerness of mountain children to learn and the pathetic hardships they endured to get to school and to stay there made her heart bleed and his ache to help them. And in his own land, what a contrast! Three years before, the wedge of free silver had split the State in twain. Into this breach had sprung that new man with the new political method that threatened disaster to the commonwealth. To his supporters, he was the enemy of corporations, the friend of widows and orphans, the champion of the poor——this man; to his enemies, he was the most malign figure that had ever thrust head above the horizon of Kentucky politics——and so John Burnham regarded him; to both he was the autocrat, cold, exacting, imperious, and his election bill would make him as completely master of the commonwealth as Diaz in Mexico or Menelik in Abyssinia. The dazed people awoke and fought, but the autocrat had passed his bill. It was incredible, but could he enforce it? No one knew, but the midsummer convention for the nomination of governor came, and among the candidates he entered it, the last in public preference. But he carried that convention at the pistol's point, came out the Democratic nominee, and now stood smilingly ready to face the most terrible political storm that had ever broken over Kentucky. The election was less than two months away, the State was seething as though on the trembling crisis of a civil war, and the division that John Burnham expected between friend and friend, brother and brother, and father and son had come. The mountains were on fire and there might even be an invasion from those black hills led by the spirit of the Picts and Scots of old, and aided and abetted by the head, hand, and tongue of the best element of the Blue-grass. The people of the Blue- grass had known little and cared less about these shadowy hillsmen, but it looked to John Burnham as though they might soon be forced to know and care more than would be good for the peace of the State and its threatened good name.

  A rattle-trap buggy was crawling up a hill ahead of him, and when he passed it Steve Hawn was flopping the reins, and by him was Mavis with a radiant face and sparkling eyes.

  "Where's Jason?" John Burnham called, and the girl's face grew quickly serious.

  "Gone on, afoot," laughed Steve loudly. "He started 'bout crack o' day."

  The school-master smiled. On the slope of the next hill, two carriages, each drawn by a spanking pair of trotters, swept by him. From one he got a courteous salute from Colonel Pendleton and a happy shout from Gray, and from the other a radiant greeting from Marjorie and her mother. Again John Burnham smiled thoughtfully. For him the hope of the Blue-grass was in the joyous pair ahead of him, the hope of the mountains was in the girl behind and the sturdy youth streaking across the dawn-wet fields, and in the four the hope of his State; and his smile was pleased and hopeful.

  Soon on his left were visible the gray lines of the old Transylvania University where Jefferson Davis had gone to college while Abraham Lincoln was splitting rails and studying by candlelight a hundred miles away, and its campus was dotted with swiftly moving figures of boys and girls on their way to the majestic portico on the hill. The streets were filled with eager young faces, and he drove on through them to the red-brick walls of the State University, on the other side of the town, where his labors were to begin. And when, half an hour later, he turned into the campus afoot, he found himself looking among the boys who thronged the walk, the yard, and the entrances of the study halls for the face of Jason Hawn.

  Tremblingly the boy had climbed down from the fence after Marjorie galloped by him the day before, had crossed the pike slowly, sunk dully at the foot of an oak in the woods beyond, and sat there, wide-eyed and stunned, until dark. Had he been one of the followers of the star of Bethlehem, and had that star vanished suddenly from the heavens, he could hardly have known such darkness, such despair. For the time Mavis and Gray passed quite out of the world while he was wrestling with that darkness, and it was only when he rose shakily to his feet at last that they came back into it again. Supper was over when he reached the house, but Mavis had kept it for him, and while she waited on him she tried to ask him questions about his school-life in the mountains, to tell him of her own in the Blue-grass——tried to talk about the opening of college next day, but he sat silent and sullen, and so, puzzled and full of resentment, she quietly withdrew. After he was through, he heard her cleaning the dishes and putting them away, and he saw her that night no more. Next morning, without a word to her or to his mother, he went out to the barn where Steve was feeding.

  "If you'll bring my things on in the buggy, I reckon I'll just be goin' on."

  "Why, we can all three git in the buggy."

  Jason shook his head.

  "I hain't goin' to be late."

  Steve laughed.

  "Well, you'll shore be on time if you start now. Why, Mavis says—— "

  But Jason had started swiftly on, and Steve, puzzled, did not try to stop him. Mavis came out on the porch, and he pointed out the boy's figure going through the dim fields. "Jason's gone on," he said, "afeerd he'll be late. That boy's plum' quar."

  Jason was making a bee-line for more than the curve of the pike, for more than the college——he was making it now for everything in his life that was ahead of him, and he meant now to travel it without help or hindrance, unswervingly and alone. With St. Hilda, each day had started for him at dawn, and whether it started that early at the college in town he did not ask himself or anybody else. He would wait now for nothing——nobody. The time had come to start, so he had started on his own new way, stout in body, heart, and soul, and that was all.

  Soft mists of flame were shooting up the eastern horizon, soft dew-born mists were rising from little hollows and trailing through the low trees. There had been a withering drought lately, but the merciful rain had come, the parched earth had drunk deep, and now under its mantle of rich green it seemed to be heaving forth one vast long sigh of happy content. The corn was long ready for the knife, green sprouts of winter wheat were feathering their way above the rich brown soil, and the cut upturned tobacco stalks, but dimly seen through the mists, looked like little hunchbacked witches poised on broomsticks, and ready for flight at dawn. Vast deviltry those witches had done, for every cut field, every poor field, recovering from the drastic visit of years before was rough, weedy, shaggy, unkempt, and worn. The very face of the land showed decadence, and, in the wake of the witches, white top, dockweed, ragweed, cockle burr, and sweet fern had up- leaped like some joyous swarm of criminals unleashed from the hand of the law, while the beautiful pastures and grassy woodlands, their dignity outraged, were stretched here and there between them, helpless, but breathing in the very mists their scorn.

  When he reached the white, dusty road, the fires of his ambition kept on kindling with every step, and his pace, even in the cool of the early morning, sent his hat to his hand, and plastered his long lank hair to his temples and the back of his sturdy sunburnt neck. The sun was hardly star-pointing the horizon when he saw the luminous smoke-cloud over the town. He quickened his step, and in his dark eyes those fires leaped into steady flames. The town was wakening from sleep. The driver of a milk-cart pointed a general direction for him across the roof-tops, but when he got into the wilderness of houses he lost that point of the compass and knew not which way to turn. On a street corner he saw a man in a cap and a long coat with brass buttons on it, a black stick in his hand, and something bulging at his hip, and light dawned for Jason.

  "Air you the constable?" he asked, and the policeman grinned kindly.

  "I'm one of 'em," he said.

  "Well, how do I git to the college I'm goin' to?"

  The officer grinned good-naturedly again, and pointed with his stick.

  "Follow that street, and hurry up or you'll get a whippin'."

  "Thar now," thought Jason, and started into a trot up the hill, and the officer, seeing the boy's suddenly anxious face, called to him to take it easy, but Jason, finding the pavements rather uneven, took to the middle of the street, and without looking back sped on. It was a long run, but Jason never stopped until he saw a man standing at the door of a long, low, brick building with the word "Tobacco" painted in huge letters above its closed doors, and he ran across the street to him.

  "Whar's the college?"

  The man pointed across the street to an entrance between two gray stone pillars with pyramidal tops, and Jason trotted back, and trotted on through them, and up the smooth curve of the road. Not a soul was in sight, and on the empty steps of the first building he came to Jason dropped, panting.

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