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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter15)

2006-08-29 01:36

  Chapter XV

  The funeral of old Hiram Sudduth, Marjorie's grandfather on her mother's side, was over. The old man had been laid to rest, by the side of his father and his pioneer grandfather, in the cedar- filled burying-ground on the broad farm that had belonged in turn to the three in an adjoining county that was the last stronghold of conservatism in the Blue-grass world, and John Burnham, the school-master, who had spent the night with an old friend after the funeral, was driving home. Not that there had not been many changes in that stronghold, too, but they were fewer than elsewhere and unmodern, and whatever profit was possible through these changes was reaped by men of the land like old Hiram and not by strangers. For the war there, as elsewhere, had done its deadly work. With the negro quarters empty, the elders were too old to change their ways, the young would not accept the new and hard conditions, and as mortgages slowly ate up farm after farm, quiet, thrifty, hard-working old Hiram would gradually take them in, depleting the old Stonewall neighborhood of its families one by one, and sending them West, never to come back. The old man, John Burnham knew, had bitterly opposed the marriage of his daughter with a "spendthrift Pendleton," and he wondered if now the old man's will would show that he had carried that opposition to the grave. It was more than likely, for Marjorie's father had gone his careless, generous, magnificent way in spite of the curb that the inherited thrift and inherited passion for land in his Sudduth wife had put upon him. Old Hiram knew, moreover, the parental purpose where Gray and Marjorie were concerned, and it was not likely that he would thwart one generation and tempt the succeeding one to go on in its reckless way. Right now Burnham knew that trouble was imminent for Gray's father, and he began to wonder what for him and his kind the end would be, for no change that came or was coming to his beloved land ever escaped his watchful eye. From the crest of the Cumberland to the yellow flood of the Ohio he knew that land, and he loved every acre of it, whether blue-grass, bear-grass, peavine, or pennyroyal, and he knew its history from Daniel Boone to the little Boones who still trapped skunk, mink, and muskrat, and shot squirrels in the hills with the same old-fashioned rifle, and he loved its people——his people——whether they wore silk and slippers, homespun and brogans, patent leathers and broadcloth, or cowhide boots and jeans. And now serious troubles were threatening them. A new man with a new political method had entered the arena and had boldly offered an election bill which, if passed and enforced, would create a State- wide revolution, for it would rob the people of local self- government and centralize power in the hands of a triumvirate that would be the creature of his government and, under the control of no court or jury, the supreme master of the State and absolute master of the people. And Burnham knew that, in such a crisis, ties of blood, kinship, friendship, religion, business, would count no more in the Blue-grass than they did during the Civil War, and that now, as then, father and son, brother and brother, neighbor and neighbor, would each think and act for himself, though the house divided against itself should fall to rise no more. Nor was that all. In the farmer's fight against the staggering crop of mortgages that had slowly sprung up from the long-ago sowing of the dragon's teeth Burnham saw with a heavy heart the telling signs of the land's slow descent from the strength of hemp to the weakness of tobacco——the ravage of the woodlands, the incoming of the tenant from the river-valley counties, the scars on the beautiful face of the land, the scars on the body social of the region——and now he knew another deadlier crisis, both social and economic, must some day come.

  In the toll-gate war, long over, the law had been merely a little too awkward and slow. County sentiment had been a little lazy, but it had got active in a hurry, and several gentlemen, among them Gray's father, had ridden into town and deposited bits of gilt- scrolled paper to be appraised and taken over by the county, and the whole problem had been quickly solved, but the school-master, looking back, could not help wondering what lawless seeds the firebrand had then sowed in the hearts of the people and what weeds might not spring from those seeds even now; for the trust element of the toll-gate troubles had been accidental, unintentional, even unconscious, unrecognized; and now the real spirit of a real trust from the outside world was making itself felt. Courteous emissaries were smilingly fixing their own price on the Kentuckian's own tobacco and assuring him that he not only could not get a higher price elsewhere, but that if he declined he would be offered less next time, which he would have to accept or he could not sell at all. And the incredulous, fiery, independent Kentuckian found his crop mysteriously shadowed on its way to the big town markets, marked with an invisible "noli me tangere" except at the price that he was offered at home. And so he had to sell it in a rage at just that price, and he went home puzzled and fighting-mad. If, then, the Blue-grass people had handled with the firebrand corporate aggrandizement of toll-gate owners who were neighbors and friends, how would they treat meddlesome interference from strangers? Already one courteous emissary in one county had fled the people's wrath on a swift thoroughbred, and Burnham smiled sadly to himself and shook his head.

  Rounding a hill a few minutes later, the school-master saw far ahead the ancestral home of the Pendletons, where the stern old head of the house, but lately passed in his ninetieth year, had wielded patriarchal power. The old general had entered the Mexican War a lieutenant and come out a colonel, and from the Civil War he had emerged a major-general. He had two sons——twins——and for the twin brothers he had built twin houses on either side of the turnpike and had given each five hundred acres of land. And these houses had literally grown from the soil, for the soil had given every stick of timber in them and every brick and stone. The twin brothers had married sisters, and thus as the results of those unions Gray's father and Marjorie's father were double cousins, and like twin brothers had been reared, and the school-master marvelled afresh when he thought of the cleavage made in that one family by the terrible Civil War. For the old general carried but one of his twin sons into the Confederacy with him——the other went with the Union——and his grandsons, the double cousins, who were just entering college, went not only against each other, but each against his own father, and there was the extraordinary fact of three generations serving in the same war, cousin against cousin, brother against brother, and father against son. The twin brothers each gave up his life for his cause. After the war the cousins lived on like brothers, married late, and, naturally, each was called uncle by the other's only child. In time the two took their fathers' places in the heart of the old general, and in the twin houses on the hills. Gray's father had married an aristocrat, who survived the birth of Gray only a few years, and Marjorie's father died of an old wound but a year or two after she was born. And so the balked affection of the old man dropped down through three generations to centre on Marjorie, and his passionate family pride to concentrate on Gray.

  Now the old Roman was gone, and John Burnham looked with sad eyes at the last stronghold of him and his kind——the rambling old house stuccoed with aged brown and covered with ancient vines, knotted and gnarled like an old man's hand; the walls three feet thick and built as for a fort, as was doubtless the intent in pioneer days; the big yard of unmown blue-grass and filled with cedars and forest trees; the numerous servants' quarters, the spacious hen- house, the stables with gables and long sloping roofs and the arched gateway to them for the thoroughbreds, under which no hybrid mule or lowly work-horse was ever allowed to pass; the spring-house with its dripping green walls, the long-silent blacksmith-shop; the still windmill; and over all the atmosphere of careless, magnificent luxury and slow decay; the stucco peeled off in great patches, the stable roofs sagging, the windmill wheelless, the fences following the line of a drunken man's walk, the trees storm-torn, and the mournful cedars harping with every passing wind a requiem for the glory that was gone. As he looked, the memory of the old man's funeral came to Burnham: the white old face in the coffin——haughty, noble, proud, and the spirit of it unconquered even by death; the long procession of carriages, the slow way to the cemetery, the stops on that way, the creaking of wheels and harness, and the awe of it all to the boy, Gray, who rode with him. Then the hospitable doors of the princely old house were closed and the princely life that had made merry for so long within its walls came sharply to an end, and it stood now, desolate, gloomy, haunted, the last link between the life that was gone and the life that was now breaking just ahead. A mile on, the twin-pillared houses of brick jutted from a long swelling knoll on each side of the road. In each the same spirit had lived and was yet alive.

  In Gray's home it had gone on unchecked toward the same tragedy, but in Marjorie's the thrifty, quiet force of her mother's hand had been in power, and in the little girl the same force was plain. Her father was a Pendleton of the Pendletons, too, but the same gentle force had, without curb or check-rein, so guided him that while he lived he led proudly with never a suspicion that he was being led. And since the death of Gray's mother and Marjorie's father each that was left had been faithful to the partner gone, and in spite of prediction and gossip, the common neighborhood prophecy had remained unfulfilled.

  A mile farther onward, the face of the land on each side changed suddenly and sharply and became park-like. Not a ploughed acre was visible, no tree-top was shattered, no broken boughs hung down. The worm fence disappeared and neat white lines flashed divisions of pastures, it seemed, for miles. A great amphitheatrical red barn sat on every little hill or a great red rectangular tobacco barn. A huge dairy was building of brick. Paddocks and stables were everywhere, macadamized roads ran from the main highway through the fields, and on the highest hill visible stood a great villa——a colossal architectural stranger in the land——and Burnham was driving by a row of neat red cottages, strangers, too, in the land. In the old Stonewall neighborhood that Burnham had left the gradual depopulation around old Hiram left him almost as alone as his pioneer grandfather had been, and the home of the small farmers about him had been filled by the tobacco tenant. From the big villa emanated a similar force with a similar tendency, but old Hiram, compared with old Morton Sanders, was as a slow fire to a lightning-bolt. Sanders was from the East, had unlimited wealth, and loved race-horses. Purchasing a farm for them, the Saxon virus in his Kentucky blood for land had gotten hold of him, and he, too, had started depopulating the country; only where old Hiram bought roods, he bought acres; and where Hiram bagged the small farmer for game, Sanders gunned for the aristocrat as well. It was for Sanders that Colonel Pendleton had gone to the mountains long ago to gobble coal lands. It was to him that the roof over little Jason's head and the earth under his feet had been sold, and the school-master smiled a little bitterly when he turned at last into a gate and drove toward a stately old home in the midst of ancient cedars, for he was thinking of the little mountaineer and of the letter St. Hilda had sent him years ago.

  "Jason has come back," she wrote, "to learn some way o' gittin' his land back.'"

  For the school-master's reflections during his long drive had not been wholly impersonal. With his own family there had been the same change, the same passing, the workings of the same force in the same remorseless way, and to him, too, the same doom had come. The home to which he was driving had been his, but it was Morton Sanders's now. His brother lived there as manager of Sanders's flocks, herds, and acres, and in the house of his fathers the school-master now paid his own brother for his board.

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