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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter18)

2006-08-29 01:36

  Chapter XVIII

  The campus was thick with grass and full of trees, there were buildings of red brick everywhere, and all were deserted. He began to feel that the constable had made game of him, and he was indignant. Nobody in the mountains would treat a stranger that way; but he had reached his goal, and, no matter when "school took up," he was there.

  Still, he couldn't help rising restlessly once, and then with a deep breath he patiently sat down again and waited, looking eagerly around meanwhile. The trees about him were low and young—— they looked like maples——and multitudinous little gray birds were flitting and chattering around him, and these he did not know, for the English sparrow has not yet captured the mountains. Above the closed doors of the long brick building opposite the stone-guarded gateway he could see the word "Tobacco" printed in huge letters, and farther away he could see another similar sign, and somehow he began wondering why Steve Hawn had talked so much about the troubles that were coming over tobacco, and seemed to care so little about the election troubles that had put the whole State on the wire edge of quivering suspense. Half an hour passed and Jason was getting restless again, when he saw an old negro shuffling down the stone walk with a bucket in one hand, a mop in the other, and trailing one leg like a bird with a broken wing.

  "Good-mornin', son."

  "Do you know whar John Burnham is?"

  "Whut's dat——whut's dat?"

  "I'm a-lookin' fer John Burnham."

  "Look hyeh, chile, is you referrin' to Perfesser Burnham?"

  "I reckon that's him."

  "Well, if you is, you better axe fer him jes' that-a-way—— Perfesser Perfesser——Burnham. Well, Perfesser Burnham won't sanctify dis hall wid his presence fer quite a long while——quite a long while. May I inquire, son, if yo' purpose is to attend dis place o' learnin'?"

  "I come to go to college."

  "Yassuh, yassuh," said the old negro, and with no insolence whatever he guffawed loudly.

  "Well, suh, looks lak you come a long way, an' you sutinly got hyeh on time——you sho did. Well, son, you jes' set hyeh as long as you please an', walk aroun' an' come back an' den ef you set hyeh long enough agin, you'se a-gwine to see Perfesser Burnham come right up dese steps."

  So Jason took the old man's advice, and strolled around the grounds. A big pond caught his eye, and he walked along its grassy bank and under the thick willows that fringed it. He pulled himself to the top of a high board fence at the upper end of it, peered over at a broad, smooth athletic-field, and he wondered what the two poles that stood at each end with a cross-bar between them could be, and why that tall fence ran all around it. He stared at the big chimney of the powerhouse, as tall as the trunk of a poplar in a "deadening" at home, and covered with vines to the top, and he wondered what on earth that could be. He looked over the gate at the president's house. Through the windows of one building he saw hanging rings and all sorts of strange paraphernalia, and he wondered about them, and, peering through one ground-floor window, he saw three beds piled one on top of the other, each separated from the other by the length of its legs. It would take a step-ladder to get into the top bed——good Lord, did people sleep that way in this college? Suppose the top boy rolled out! And every building was covered with vines, and it was funny that vines grew on houses, and why in the world didn't folks cut 'em off? It was all wonder——nothing but wonder——and he got tired of wondering and went back to his steps and sat patiently down again. It was not long now before windows began to bang up and down in the dormitory near him. Cries and whistles began to emanate from the rooms, and now and then a head would protrude, and its eyes never failed, it seemed, to catch and linger on the lonely, still figure clinging to the steps. Soon there was a rush of feet downstairs, and a crowd of boys emerged and started briskly for breakfast. Girls began to appear——short-skirted, with and without hats, with hair up and hair down——more girls than he had ever seen before——tall and short, fat and thin, and brunette and blonde. Students began to stroll through the campus gates, and now and then a buggy or a carriage would enter and whisk past him to deposit its occupants in front of the building opposite from where he sat. What was going on over there? He wanted to go over and see, for school might be taking up over there, and, from being too early, he might be too late after all; but he might miss John Burnham, and if he himself were late, why lots of the boys and girls about him would be late too, and surely if they knew, which they must, they would not let that happen. So, all eyes, he sat on, taking in everything, like the lens of a camera. Some of the boys wore caps, or little white hats with the crown pushed in all around, and, though it wasn't muddy and didn't look as though it were going to rain, each one of them had his "britches" turned up, and that puzzled the mountain boy sorely; but no matter why they did it, he wouldn't have to turn his up, for they didn't come to the tops of his shoes. Swiftly he gathered how different he himself was, particularly in clothes, from all of them. Nowhere did he see a boy who matched himself as so lonely and set apart, but with a shake of his head he tossed off his inner plea for sympathetic companionship, and the little uneasiness creeping over him——proudly. There was a little commotion now in the crowd nearest him, all heads turned one way, and Jason saw approaching an old gentleman on crutches, a man with a thin face that was all pure intellect and abnormally keen; that, centuries old in thought, had yet the unquenchable soul-fire of youth. He stopped, lifted his hat in response to the cheers that greeted him, and for a single instant over that thin face played, like the winking eye of summer lightning, the subtle humor that the world over is always playing hide-and-seek in the heart of the Scot. A moment, and Jason halted a passing boy with his eye.

  "Who's that ole feller?" he blurted.

  The lad looked shocked, for he could not know that Jason meant not a particle of disrespect.

  "That 'ole feller,'" he mimicked indignantly and with scathing sarcasm, "is the president of this university"; and he hurried on while Jason miserably shrivelled closer to the steps. After that he spoke to nobody, and nobody spoke to him, and he lifted his eyes only to the gateway through which he longed for John Burnham to come. But the smile of the old president haunted him. There sat a man on heights no more to be scaled by him than heaven, and yet that puzzling smile for the blissful ignorance, in the young, of how gladly the old would give up their crowns in exchange for the swift young feet on the threshold——no wonder the boy could not understand. Through that gate dashed presently a pair of proud, high-headed black horses——"star-gazers," as the Kentuckians call them——with a rhythmic beat of high-lifted feet, and the boy's eyes narrowed as the carriage behind them swept by him, for in it were Colonel Pendleton and Gray, with eager face and flashing eyes. There was a welcoming shout when Gray leaped out, and a crowd of students rushed toward him and surrounded him. One of them took off his hat, lifted both hands above his head, and then they all barked out a series of barbaric yells with a long shout of Gray's full name at the end, while the Blue-grass lad stood among them, flushed and embarrassed but not at all displeased. Again Jason's brow knitted with wonder, for he could not know what a young god in that sternly democratic college Gray Pendleton, aristocrat though he was, had made himself, and he shrank deeper still into his loneliness and turned wistful eyes again to the gate. Somebody had halted in front of him, and he looked up to see the same lad of whom he had just asked a question.

  "And that young feller," said the boy in the same mimicking tone, "is another president——of the sophomore class and the captain of the football team."

  Lightning-like and belligerent, Jason sprang to his feet. "Air you pokin' fun at me?" he asked thickly and clenching his fists.

  Genuinely amazed, the other lad stared at him a moment, smiled, and held out his hand.

  "I reckon I was, but you're all right. Shake!"

  And within Jason, won by the frank eyes and winning smile, the tumult died quickly, and he shook——gravely.

  "My name's Burns——Jack Burns."

  "Mine's Hawn——Jason Hawn."

  The other turned away with a wave of his hand.

  "See you again."

  "Shore," said Jason, and then his breast heaved and his heart seemed to stop quite still. Another pair of proud horses shot between the stone pillars, and in the carriage behind them was Marjorie. The boy dropped to his seat, dropped his chin in both hands as though to keep his face hidden, but as the sound of her coming loudened he simply could not help lifting his head. Erect, happy, smiling, the girl was looking straight past him, and he felt like one of the yellow grains of dust about her horses' feet. And then within him a high, shrill little yell rose above the laughter and vocal hum going on around him——there was John Burnham coming up the walk, the school-master, John Burnham——and Jason sprang to meet him. Immediately Burnham's searching eyes fell upon him, and he stopped——smiling, measuring, surprised. Could this keen-faced, keen-eyed, sinewy, tall lad be the faithful little chap who had trudged sturdily at his heels so many days in the mountains?

  "Well, well, well," he said; "why, I wouldn't have known you. You got here in time, didn't you?"

  "I have been waitin' fer you," said Jason. "Miss Hilda told me to come straight to you."

  "That's right——how is she?"

  "She ain't well——she works too hard."

  The school-master shook his head with grave concern.

  "I know. You've been lucky, Jason. She is the best woman on earth."

  "I'd lay right down here an' die fer her right now," said the lad soberly. So would John Burnham, and he loved the lad for saying that.

  "She said you was the best man on earth——but I knowed that," the lad went on simply; "an' she told me to tell you to make me keep out o' fights and study hard and behave."

  "All right, Jason," said Burnham with a smile. "Have you matriculated yet?"

  Jason was not to be caught napping. His eyes gave out the quick light of humor, but his face was serious.

  "I been so busy waitin' fer you that I reckon I must 'a' forgot that."

  The school-master laughed.

  "Come along."

  Through the thick crowd that gave way respectfully to the new professor, Jason followed across the road to the building opposite, and up the steps into a room where he told his name and his age, and the name of his father and mother, and pulled from his pooket a little roll of dirty bills. There was a fee of five dollars for "janitor"; Jason did not know what a janitor was, but John Burnham nodded when he looked up inquiringly and Jason asked no question. There was another fee for "breakage," and that was all, but the latter item was too much for Jason.

  "S'pose I don't break nothin'," he asked shrewdly, "do I git that back?"

  Then registrar and professor laughed.

  "You get it back."

  Down they went again.

  "That's a mighty big word fer such little doin's," the boy said soberly, and the school-master smiled.

  "You'll find just that all through college now, Jason, but don't wait to find out what the big word means."

  "I won't," said Jason, "next time."

  Many eyes now looked on the lad curiously when he followed John Burnham back through the crowd to the steps, where the new professor paused.

  "I passed Mavis on the road. I wonder if she has come."

  "I don't know," said Jason, and a curious something in his tone made John Burnham look at him quickly——but he said nothing.

  "Oh well," he said presently, "she knows what to do."

  A few minutes later the two were alone in the new professor's recitation-room.

  "Have you seen Marjorie and Gray?"

  The lad hesitated.

  "I seed——I saw 'em when they come in."

  "Gray finishes my course this year. He's going to be a civil engineer."

  "So'm I," said Jason; and the quick shortness of his tone again made John Burnham look keenly at him.

  "You know a good deal about geology already——are you going to take my course too?"

  "I want to know just what to do with that land o' mine. I ain't forgot what you told me——to go away and git an education——and when I come back what that land 'ud be worth."

  "Yes, but——"

  The lad's face had paled and his mouth had set.

  "I'm goin' to git it back."

  Behind them the door had opened, and Gray's spirited, smiling face was thrust in.

  "Good morning, professor," he cried, and then, seeing Jason, he came swiftly in with his hand outstretched.

  "Why, how are you, Jason? Mavis told me yesterday you were here. I've been looking for you. Glad to see you."

  Watching both, John Burnham saw the look of surprise in Gray's face when the mountain boy's whole frame stiffened into the rigidity of steel, saw the haughty uplifting of the Blue-grass boy's chin, as he wheeled to go, and like Gray, he, too, thought Jason had never forgotten the old feud between them. For a moment he was tempted to caution Jason about the folly of it all, but as suddenly he changed his mind. Outside a bugle blew.

  "Go on down, Jason," he said instead, "and follow the crowd—— that's chapel——prayer-meeting," he explained.

  At the foot of the stairs the boy mingled with the youthful stream pouring through the wide doors of the chapel hall. He turned to the left and was met by the smiling eyes of his new acquaintance, Burns, who waved him good-humoredly away:

  "This is the sophomore corner——I reckon you belong in there."

  And toward the centre Jason went among the green, the countrified, the uneasy, and the unkempt. The other half of the hall was banked with the faces of young girls——fresh as flowers——and everywhere were youth and eagerness, eagerness and youth. The members of the faculty were climbing the steps to a platform and ranging themselves about the old gentleman with the crutches. John Burnham entered, and the vault above rocked with the same barbaric yells that Jason had heard given Gray Pendleton, for Burnham had been a mighty foot-ball player in his college days. The old president rose, and the tumult sank to reverential silence while a silver tongue sent its beautiful diction on high in a prayer for the bodies, the minds, and the souls of the whole buoyant throng in the race for which they were about to be let loose. And that was just what the tense uplifted faces suggested to John Burnham——he felt in them the spirit of the thoroughbred at the post, the young hound straining at the leash, the falcon unhooded for flight, when, at the president's nod, he rose to his feet to speak to the host the welcome of the faculty within these college walls and the welcome of the Blue-grass to the strangers from the confines of the State——particularly to those who had journeyed from their mountain homes. "These young people from the hills," he said, "for their own encouragement and for all patience in their own struggle, must always remember, and the young men and women of the Blue-grass, for tolerance and a better understanding, must never forget, in what darkness and for how long their sturdy kinspeople had lived, how they were just wakening from a sleep into which, not of their own fault, they had lapsed but little after the Revolution; how eagerly they had strained their eyes for the first glimmer from the outside world that had come to them, and how earnestly now they were fighting toward the light. So isolated, so primitive were they only a short while ago that neighbor would go to neighbor asking 'Lend us fire,' and now they were but asking of the outer world, 'Lend us fire.' And he hoped that the young men and women from those dark fastnesses who had come there to light their torches would keep them burning, and take them back home still sacredly aflame, so that in the hills the old question with its new meaning could never again be asked in vain."

  Jason's eyes had never wavered from the speaker's face, nor had Gray's, but, while John Burnham purposely avoided the eyes of both, he noted here and there the sudden squaring of shoulders, and the face of a mountain boy or girl lift quickly and with open- mouthed interest remain fixed; and far back he saw Mavis, wide- eyed and deep in some new-born dream, and he thought he saw Marjorie turn at the end to look at the mountain girl as though to smile understanding and sympathy. A mental tumult still held Jason when the crowd about him rose to go, and he kept his seat. John Burnham had been talking about Mavis and him, and maybe about Marjorie and Gray, and he had a vague desire to see the school- master again. Moreover, a doubt, at once welcome and disturbing to him, had coursed through his brain. If secret meetings in lanes and by-ways were going on between Mavis and Gray, Gray would hardly have been so frank in saying he had seen Mavis the previous afternoon for Gray must know that Jason knew there had been no meeting at Steve Hawn's house. Perhaps Gray had overtaken her in the lane quite by accident, and the boy was bothered and felt rather foolish and ashamed when, seeing John Burnham still busy on the platform, he rose to leave.

  On the steps more confusion awaited him. A group of girls was standing to one side of them, and he turned hurriedly the other way. Light footsteps followed him, and a voice called:

  "Oh, Jason!"

  His blood rushed, and he turned dizzily, for he knew it was Marjorie. In her frank eyes was a merry smile instead of the tear that had fixed them in his memory, but the clasp of her hand was the same.

  "Why, I didn't know you yesterday——did I? No wonder. Why, I wouldn't have known you now if I hadn't been looking for you. Mavis told me you'd come. Dear me, what a big man you are. Professor Burnham told me all about you, and I've been so proud. Why, I came near writing to you several times. I'm expecting you to lead your class here, and"——she took in with frank admiration his height and the breadth of his shoulders——"Gray will want you, maybe, for the foot-ball team."

  The crowds of girls near by were boring him into the very ground with their eyes. His feet and his hands had grown to enormous proportions and seemed suddenly to belong to somebody else. He felt like an ant in a grain-hopper, or as though he were deep under water in a long dive and must in a moment actually gasp for breath. And, remembering St. Hilda, he did manage to get his hat off, but he was speechless. Marjorie paused, the smile did not leave her eyes, but it turned serious, and she lowered her voice a little.

  "Did you keep your promise, Jason?"

  Then the boy found himself, and as he had said before, that winter dusk, he said now soberly:

  "I give you my hand."

  And, as before, taking him literally, Marjorie again stretched out her hand.

  "I'm so glad."

  Once more the bugle sent its mellow summons through the air.

  "And you are coming to our house some Saturday night to go coon- hunting——good-by."

  Jason turned weakly away, and all the rest of the day he felt dazed. He did not want to see Mavis or Gray or Marjorie again, or even John Burnham. So he started back home afoot, and all the way he kept to the fields through fear that some one of them might overtake him on the road, for he wanted to be alone. And those fields looked more friendly now than they had looked at dawn, and his heart grew lighter with every step. Now and then a rabbit leaped from the grass before him, or a squirrel whisked up the rattling bark of a hickory-tree. A sparrow trilled from the swaying top of a purple ironwood, and from grass, and fence-rail, and awing, meadow larks were fluting everywhere, but the song of no wood-thrush reached his waiting ear. Over and over again his brain reviewed every incident of the day, only to end each time with Marjorie's voice, her smile with its new quality of mischief, and the touch of her hand. She had not forgotten——that was the thrill of it all——and she had even asked if he had kept his promise to her. And at that thought his soul darkened, for the day would come when he must ask to be absolved of one part of that promise, as on that day he must be up and on his dead father's business. And he wondered what, when he told her, she would say. It was curious, but the sense of the crime involved was naught, as was the possible effect of it on his college career——it was only what that girl would say. But the day might still be long off, and he had so schooled himself to throwing aside the old deep, sinister purpose that he threw it off now and gave himself up to the bubbling relief that had come to him. That meeting in the lane must have been chance, John Burnham was kind, and Marjorie had not forgotten. He was not alone in the world, nor was he even lonely, for everywhere that day he had found a hand stretched out to help him.

  Mavis was sitting on the porch when he walked through the gate, and the moment she saw his face a glad light shone in her own, for it was the old Jason coming back to her:

  "Mavie," he said huskily, "I reckon I'm the biggest fool this side o' hell, whar I reckon I ought to be."

  Mavis asked no question, made no answer. She merely looked steadily at him for a moment, and then, brushing quickly at her eyes, she rose and turned into the house. The sun gave way to darkness, but it kept on shining in Jason's heart, and when at bedtime he stood again on the porch, his gratitude went up to the very stars. He heard Mavis behind him, but he did not turn, for all he had to say he had said, and the break in his reserve was over.

  "I'm glad you come back, Jasie," was all she said, shyly, for she understood, and then she added the little phrase that is not often used in the mountain world:

  "Good-night."

  From St. Hilda, Jason, too, had learned that phrase, and he spoke it with a gruffness that made the girl smile:

  "Good-night, Mavie."

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