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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter33)

2006-08-29 01:41

  Chapter XXXIII

  Down in the Blue-grass a handsome saddle-horse was hitched at the stile in front of Colonel Pendleton's house and the front door was open to the pale gold of the early sun. Upstairs Gray was packing for his last year away from home, after which he too would go to Morton Sanders' mines, on the land Jason's mother once had owned. Below him his father sat at his desk with two columns of figures before him, of assets and liabilities, and his face was gray and his form seemed to have shrunk when he rose from his chair; but he straightened up when he heard his boy's feet coming down the stairway, forced a smile to his lips, and called to him cheerily. Together they walked down to the stile.

  "I'm going to drive into town this morning, dad," said Gray. "Can I do anything for you?"

  "No, son——nothing——except come back safe."

  In the distance a tree crashed to the earth as the colonel was climbing his horse, and a low groan came from his lips, but again he quickly recovered himself at the boy's apprehensive cry.

  "Nothing, son. I reckon I'm getting too fat to climb a horse—— good-by."

  He turned and rode away, erect as a youth of twenty, and the lad looked after him puzzled and alarmed. One glance his father had turned toward the beautiful woodland that had at last been turned over to axe and saw for the planting of tobacco, and it was almost the last tree of that woodland that had just fallen. When the first struck the earth two months before, the lad now recalled hearing his father mutter:

  "This is the meanest act of my life."

  Suddenly now the boy knew that the act was done for him——and his eyes filled as he looked after the retreating horseman upon whose shoulders so much secret trouble weighed. And when the elder man passed through the gate and started down the pike, those broad shoulders began to droop, and the lad saw him ride out of sight with his chin close to his breast. The boy started back to his packing, but with a folded coat in his hand dropped in a chair by the open window, looking out on the quick undoing in that woodland of the Master's slow upbuilding for centuries, and he began to recall how often during the past summer he had caught his father brooding alone, or figuring at his desk, or had heard him pacing the floor of his bedroom late at night; how frequently he had made trips into town to see his lawyer, how often the lad had seen in his mail, lately, envelopes stamped with the name of his bank; and, above all, how often the old family doctor had driven out from town, and though there was never a complaint, how failing had been his father's health, and how he had aged. And suddenly Gray sprang to his feet, ordered his buggy and started for town.

  Along the edge of the bleeding stumps of noble trees the colonel rode slowly, his thoughts falling and rising between his boy in the room above and his columns of figures in the room below. The sacrilege of destruction had started in his mind years before from love of the one, but the actual deed had started under pressure of the other, and now it looked as though each motive would be thwarted, for the tobacco war was on in earnest now, and again the poor old commonwealth was rent as by a forked tongue of lightning. And, like the State, the colonel too was pitifully divided against himself.

  Already many Blue-grass farmers had pooled their crops against the great tobacco trust——already they had decided that no tobacco at all should be raised that coming year just when the colonel was deepest in debt and could count only on his tobacco for relief. And so the great-hearted gentleman must now go against his neighbor, or go to destruction himself and carry with him his beloved son. Toward noon he reined in on a little knoll above the deserted house of the old general, the patriarchal head of the family——who had passed not many years before——the rambling old house, stuccoed with aged brown and still in the faithful clasp of ancient vines. The old landmark had passed to Morton Sanders, and on and about it the ruthless hand of progress was at work. The atmosphere of careless, magnificent luxury was gone. The servants' quarters, the big hen-house, the old stables with gables and sunken roofs, the staggering fences, the old blacksmith-shop, the wheelless windmill——all were rebuilt or torn away. Only the arched gate-way under which only thoroughbreds could pass was left untouched, for Sanders loved horses and the humor of that gate- way, and the old spring-house with its green dripping walls. No longer even were the forest trees in the big yard ragged and storm-torn, but trimmed carefully, their wounds dressed, and sturdy with a fresh lease on life; only the mournful cedars were unchanged and still harping with every passing wind the same requiem for the glory that was gone. With another groan the old colonel turned his horse toward home——the home that but for the slain woodlands would soon pass in that same way to house a Sanders tenant or an overseer.

  When he reached his front door he heard his boy whistling like a happy lark in his room at the head of the stairway. The sounds pierced him for one swift instant and then his generous heart was glad for the careless joy of youth, and instead of going into his office he slowly climbed the stairs. When he reached the door of the boy's room, he saw two empty trunks, the clothes that had been in them tossed in a whirlwind over bed and chair and floor, and Gray hanging out of the window and shouting to a servant:

  "Come up here, Tom, and help put my things back——I'm not going away."

  A joyous whoop from below answered:

  "Yassuh, yassuh; my Gord, but I is glad. Why, de colonel——"

  Just then the boy heard a slight noise behind him and he turned to see his father's arms stretched wide for him.

  Gray remained firm. He would not waste another year. He had a good start; he would go to the mines and begin work, and he could come home when he pleased, if only over Sunday. So, as Mavis had watched Jason leave to be with Marjorie in the Blue-grass, so Marjorie now watched Gray leave to be with Mavis in the hills. And between them John Burnham was again left wondering.

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