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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter19)

2006-08-29 01:37

  Chapter XIX

  Jason drew the top bed in a bare-walled, bare-floored room with two other boys, as green and countrified as was he, and he took turns with them making up those beds, carrying water for the one tin basin, and sweeping up the floor with the broom that stood in the corner behind it. But even then the stark simplicity of his life was a luxury. His meals cost him three dollars a week, and that most serious item began to worry him, but not for long. Within two weeks he was meeting a part of that outlay by delivering the morning daily paper of the town. This meant getting up at half past three in the morning, after a sleep of five hours and a half, but if this should begin to wear on him, he would simply go earlier to bed; there was no sign of wear and tear, however, for the boy was as tough as a bolt-proof black gum-tree back in the hills, his capacity for work was prodigious, and the early rising hour but lengthened the range of each day's activities. Indeed Jason missed nothing and nothing missed him. His novitiate passed quickly, and while his fund for "breakage" was almost gone, he had, without knowing it, drawn no little attention to himself. He had wandered innocently into "Heaven"—— the seniors' hall——a satanic offence for a freshman, and he had been stretched over a chair, "strapped," and thrown out. But at dawn next morning he was waiting at the entrance and when four seniors appeared he tackled them all valiantly. Three held him while the fourth went for a pair of scissors, for thus far Jason had escaped the tonsorial betterment that had been inflicted on most of his classmates. The boy stood still, but in a relaxed moment of vigilance he tore loose just as the scissors appeared, and fled for the building opposite. There he turned with his back to the wall. "When I want my hair cut, I'll git my mammy to do it or pay fer it myself," he said quietly, but his face was white. When they rushed on, he thrust his hand into his shirt and pulled it out with a mighty oath of helplessness——he had forgotten his knife. They cut his hair, but it cost them two bloody noses and one black eye. At the flag-rush later he did not forget. The sophomores had enticed the freshmen into the gymnasium, stripped them of their clothes, and carried them away, whereat the freshmen got into the locker-rooms of the girls, and a few moments later rushed from the gymnasium in bloomers to find the sophomores crowded about the base of the pole, one of them with an axe in his hand, and Jason at the top with his hand again in his shirt.

  "Chop away!" he was shouting, "but I'll git some o' ye when this pole comes down." Above the din rose John Burnham's voice, stern and angry, calling Jason's name. The student with the axe had halted at the unmistakable sincerity of the boy's threat.

  "Jason," called Burnham again, for he knew what the boy meant, and the lad tossed knife and scabbard over the heads of the crowd to the grass, and slid down the pole. And in the fight that followed, the mountain boy fought with a calm, half-smiling ferocity that made the wavering freshmen instinctively surge behind him as a leader, and the onlooking foot-ball coach quickly mark him for his own. Even at the first foot-ball "rally," where he learned the college yells, Jason had been singled out, for the mountaineer measures distance by the carry of his voice and with a "whoop an' a holler" the boy could cover a mile. Above the din, Jason's clear cry was, so to speak, like a cracker on the whip of the cheer, and the "yell-master," a swaying figure of frenzied enthusiasm, caught his eye in time, nodded approvingly, and saw in him a possible yell-leader for the freshman class. After the rally the piano was rolled joyously to the centre of the gymnasium and a pale-faced lad began to thump it vigorously, much to Jason's disapproval, for he could not understand how a boy could, or would, play anything but a banjo or a fiddle. Then, with the accompaniment of a snare- drum, there was a merry, informal dance, at which Jason and Mavis looked yearningly on. And, as that night long ago in the mountains, Gray and Marjorie floated like feathers past them, and over Gray's shoulder the girl's eyes caught Jason's fixed on her, and Mavis's fixed on Gray; so on the next round she stopped a moment near them.

  "I'm going to teach you to dance, Jason," she said, as though she were tossing a gauntlet to somebody, "and Gray can teach Mavis."

  "Sure," laughed Gray, and off they whirled again.

  The eyes of the two mountaineers met, and they might have been back in their childhood again, standing on the sunny river-bank and waiting for Gray and Marjorie to pass, for what their tongues said then their eyes said now:

  "I seed you a-lookin' at him."

  "'Tain't so——I seed you a-lookin' at her."

  And it was true now as it was then, and then as now both knew it and both flushed. Jason turned abruptly away, for he knew more of Mavis's secret than she of his, and it was partly for that reason that he had not yet opened his lips to her. He had seen no consciousness in Gray's face, he resented the fact, somehow, that there was none, and his lulled suspicions began to stir again within him. In Marjorie's face he had missed what Mavis had caught, a fleeting spirit of mischief, which stung the mountain girl with jealousy and a quick fierce desire to protect Jason, just as Jason, with the same motive, was making up his mind again to keep a close eye on Gray Pendleton. As for Marjorie, she, too, knew more of Mavis's secret than Mavis knew of hers, and of the four, indeed, she was by far the wisest. During the years that Jason was in the hills she had read as on an open page the meaning of the mountain girl's flush at any unexpected appearance of Gray, the dumb adoration for him in her dark eyes, and more than once, riding in the woods, she had come upon Mavis, seated at the foot of an oak, screened by a clump of elder-bushes and patiently waiting, as Marjorie knew, to watch Gray gallop by. She even knew how unconsciously Gray had been drawn by all this toward Mavis, but she had not bothered her head to think how much he was drawn until just before the opening of the college year, for, from the other side of the hill, she, too, had witnessed the meeting in the lane that Jason had seen, and had wondered about it just as much, though she, too, had kept still. That the two boys knew so little, that the two girls knew so much, and that each girl resented the other's interest in her own cousin, was merely a distinction of sex, as was the fact that matters would have to be made very clear before Jason or Gray could see and understand. And for them matters were to become clearer, at least——very soon.

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