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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter23)

2006-08-29 01:38

  Chapter XXIII

  But the sun of election day went down and a breath of relief passed like a south wind over the land. Perhaps it was the universal recognition of the universal danger that prevented an outbreak, but the morning after found both parties charging fraud, claiming victory, and deadlocked like two savage armies in the crisis of actual battle. For a fortnight each went on claiming the victory. In one mountain county the autocrat's local triumvirate was surrounded by five hundred men, while it was making its count; in another there were three thousand determined onlookers; and still another mountain triumvirate was visited by nearly all the male inhabitants of the county who rode in on horseback and waited silently and threateningly in the court-house square.

  At the capital the arsenal was under a picked guard and the autocrat was said to be preparing for a resort to arms. A few mountaineers were seen drifting about the streets, and the State offices——"just a-lookin' aroun' to see if their votes was a-goin' to be counted in or not."

  At the end of the fortnight the autocrat claimed the fight by one vote, but three days before Thanksgiving Day two of the State triumvirate declared for the Republican from the Pennyroyal——and resigned.

  "Great Caesar!" shouted Colonel Pendleton. "Can the one that's left appoint his own board?"

  Being for the autocrat, he not only could but did——for the autocrat's work was only begun. The contest was yet to come.

  Meanwhile the great game was at hand. The fight for the championship lay now between the State University and old Transylvania, and, amid a forest of waving flags and a frenzied storm from human throats, was fought out desperately on the day that the nation sets aside for peace, prayer, and thanksgiving. Every atom of resentment, indignation, rebellion, ambition that was stored up in Jason went into that fight. It seemed to John Burnham and to Mavis and Marjorie that their team was made up of just one black head and one yellow one, for everywhere over the field and all the time, like a ball of fire and its shadow, those two heads darted, and, when they came together, they were the last to go down in the crowd of writhing bodies and the first to leap into view again——and always with the ball nearer the enemy's goal. Behind that goal each head darted once, and by just those two goals was the game won. Gray was the hero he always was; Jason was the coming idol, and both were borne off the field on the shoulders of a crowd that was hoarse with shouting triumph and weeping tears of joy. And on that triumphal way Jason swerved his eyes from Marjorie and Mavis swerved hers from Gray. There was no sleep for Jason that night, but the next night the fierce tension of mind and muscle relaxed and he slept long and hard; and Sunday morning found him out in the warm sunlight of the autumn fields, seated on a fence rail——alone.

  He had left the smoke cloud of the town behind him and walked aimlessly afield, except to take the turnpike that led the opposite way from Mavis and Marjorie and John Burnham and Gray, for he wanted to be alone. Now, perched in the crotch of a stake- and-ridered fence, he was calmly, searchingly, unsparingly taking stock with himself.

  In the first place the training-table was no more, and he must go back to delivering morning papers. With foot-ball, with diversions in college and in the country, he had lost much time and he must make that up. The political turmoil had kept his mind from his books and for a while Marjorie had taken it away from them altogether. He had come to college none too well prepared, and already John Burnham had given him one kindly warning; but so supreme was his self-confidence that he had smiled at the geologist and to himself. Now he frowningly wondered if he had not lost his head and made a fool of himself; and a host of worries and suspicions attacked him so sharply and suddenly that, before he knew what he was doing, he had leaped panic-stricken from the fence and at a half-trot was striking back across the fields in a bee-line for his room and his books. And night and day thereafter he stuck to them.

  Meanwhile the struggle was going on at the capital, and by the light of every dawn the boy drank in every detail of it from the morning paper that was literally his daily bread. Two weeks after the big game, the man from the Pennyroyal was installed as governor. The picked guard at the arsenal was reinforced. The contesting autocrat was said to have stored arms in the penitentiary, a gray, high-walled fortress within a stone's throw of the governor's mansion, for the Democratic warden thereof was his loyal henchman. The first rumor of the coming of the mountaineers spread, and the capital began to fill with the ward heelers and bad men of the autocrat.

  A week passed, there was no filing of a protest, a pall of suspense hung over the land like a black cloud, and under it there was no more restless spirit than Jason, who had retreated into his own soul as though it were a fortress of his hills. No more was he seen at any social gathering——not even at the gymnasium, for the delivery of his morning papers gave him all the exercise that he needed and more. His hard work and short hours of sleep began to tell on him. Sometimes the printed page of his book would swim before his eyes and his brain go panic-stricken. He grew pale, thin, haggard, and worn, and Marjorie saw him only when he was silently, swiftly striding from dormitory to class-room and back again——grim, reticent, and non-approachable. When Christmas approached he would not promise to go to Gray's nor to John Burnham's, and he rarely went now even to his mother. In Mavis Hawn, Gray found the same mystifying change, for when the morbidly sensitive spirit of the mountaineer is wounded, healing is slow and cure difficult. One day, however, each pair met. Passing the mouth of the lane, Gray saw Mavis walking slowly along it homeward and he rode after her. She turned when she heard his horse behind her, her chin lifted, and her dark sullen eyes looked into his with a stark, direct simplicity that left him with his lips half open——confused and speechless. And gently, at last:

  "What's the matter, Mavis?"

  Still she looked, unquestioning, uncompromising, and turned without answer and went slowly on home while the boy sat his horse and looked after her until she climbed the porch of her cottage and, without once turning her head, disappeared within. But Jason at his meeting with Marjorie broke his grim reticence in spite of himself. She had come upon him at sunset under the snowy willows by the edge of the ice-locked pond. He had let the floodgates down and she had been shaken and terrified by the torrent that rushed from him. The girl shrank from his bitter denunciation of himself. He had been a fool. The mid-year examinations would be a tragedy for him, and he must go to the "kitchen" or leave college with pride broken and in just disgrace. Fate had trapped him like a rat. A grewsome oath had been put on him as a child and from it he could never escape. He had been robbed of his birthright by his own mother and the people of the Blue-grass, and Marjorie's people were now robbing his of their national birthrights as well. The boy did not say her people, but she knew that was what he meant, and she looked so hurt that Jason spoke quickly his gratitude for all the kindness that had been shown him. And when he started with his gratitude to her, his memories got the better of him and he stopped for a moment with hungry eyes, but seeing her consternation over what might be coming next, he had ended with a bitter smile at the further bitter proof she was giving him.

  "But I understand——now," he said sternly to himself and sadly to her, and he turned away without seeing the quiver of her mouth and the starting of her tears.

  Going to his mother's that afternoon, Jason found Mavis standing by the fence, hardly less pale than the snow under her feet, and looking into the sunset. She started when she heard the crunch of his feet, and from the look of her face he knew that she thought he might be some one else.

  He saw that she had been crying, and as quickly she knew that the boy was in a like agony of mind. There was only one swift look——a mutual recognition of a mutual betrayal——but no word passed then nor when they walked together back to the house, for race and relationship made no word possible. Within the house Jason noticed his mother's eyes fixed anxiously on him, and when Mavis was clearing up in the kitchen after supper, she subtly shifted her solicitude to the girl in order to draw some confession from her son.

  "Mavis wants to go back to the mountains."

  The ruse worked, for Jason looked up quickly and then into the fire while the mother waited.

  "Sometimes I want to go back myself," he said wearily; "it's gittin' too much for me here."

  Martha Hawn looked at her husband stretched on the bed in a drunken sleep and began to cry softly.

  "It's al'ays been too much fer me," she sobbed. "I've al'ays wanted to go back."

  For the first time Jason began to think how lonely her life must be, and, perhaps as the result of his own suffering, his heart suddenly began to ache for her.

  "Don't worry, mammy——I'll take ye back some day."

  Mavis came back from the kitchen. Again she had been crying. Again the same keen look passed between them and with only that look Jason climbed the stairs to her room. As his eyes wandered about the familiar touches the hand of civilization had added to the bare little chamber it once was, he saw on the dresser of varnished pine one touch of that hand that he had never noticed before——the picture of Gray Pendleton. Evidently Mavis had forgotten to put it away, and Jason looked at it curiously a moment——the frank face, strong mouth, and winning smile——but he never noticed that it was placed where she could see it when she kneeled at her bedside, and never guessed that it was the last earthly thing her eyes rested on before darkness closed about her, and that the girl took its image upward with her even in her prayers.

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