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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter14)

2006-08-29 01:35

  Chapter XIV

  Little Mavis did not reach the hills. At sunrise a few miles down the road, the two met Steve Hawn on a borrowed horse, his pistol buckled around him and his face pale and sleepless.

  "Whar you two goin'?" he asked roughly.

  "Home," was Jason's short answer, and he felt Mavis's arm about his waist begin to tremble.

  "Git off, Mavis, an' git up hyeh behind me. Yo' home's with me."

  Jason valiantly reached for his gun, but Mavis caught his hand and, holding it, slipped to the ground. "Don't, Jasie——I'll come, pap, I'll come." Whereat Steve laughed and Jason, raging, saw her ride away behind her step-father, clutching him about the waist with one arm and with the other bent over her eyes to shield her tears.

  A few miles farther, Jason came on the smoking, charred remains of a toll-gate, and he paused a moment wondering if Steve might not have had a hand in that, and rode on toward the hills. Two hours later the school-master's horse shied from those black ruins, and John Burnham kept on toward school with a troubled face. To him the ruins meant the first touch of the writhing tentacles of the modern trust and the Blue-grass Kentuckian's characteristic way of throwing them off, for turnpikes of white limestone, like the one he travelled, thread the Blue-grass country like strands of a spider's web. The spinning of them started away back in the beginning of the last century. That far back, the strand he followed pierced the heart of the region from its chief town to the Ohio and was graded for steam-wagons that were expected to roll out from the land of dreams. Every few miles on each of these roads sat a little house, its porch touching the very edge of the turnpike, and there a long pole, heavily weighted at one end and pulled down and tied fast to the porch, blocked the way. Every traveller, except he was on foot, every drover of cattle, sheep, hogs, or mules, must pay his toll before the pole was lifted and he could go on his way. And Burnham could remember the big fat man who once a month, in a broad, low buggy, drawn by two swift black horses, would travel hither and thither, stopping at each little house to gather in the deposits of small coins. As time went on, this man and a few friends began to gather in as well certain bits of scattered paper that put the turnpike webs like reins into a few pairs of hands, with the natural, inevitable result: fewer men had personal need of good roads, the man who parted with his bit of paper lost his power of protest, and while the traveller paid the small toll, the path that he travelled got steadily worse. A mild effort to arouse a sentiment for county control was made, and this failing, the Kentuckian had straightway gone for firebrand and gun. The dormant spirit of Ku-Klux awakened, the night-rider was born again, and one by one the toll-gates were going up in flame and settling back in ashes to the mother earth. The school- master smiled when he thought of the result of one investigation in the county by law. A sturdy farmer was haled before the grand jury.

  "Do you know the perpetrators of the unlawful burning of the toll- gate on the Cave Hill Pike?" asked the august body. The farmer ran his fearless eyes down the twelve of his peers and slowly walked the length of them, pointing his finger at this juror and that.

  "Yes, I do," he said quietly, "and so do you——and you and you. Your son was in it——and yours——and mine; and you were in it yourself. Now, what are you going to do about it?" And, unrebuked and unrestrained, he turned and walked out of the room, leaving the august body, startled, grimly smiling and reduced to a helpless pulp of inactivity.

  That morning Mavis was late to school, and the school-master and Gray and Marjorie all saw that she had been weeping. Only Marjorie suspected the cause, but at little recess John Burnham went to her to ask where Jason was, and Gray was behind him with the same question on his lips. And when Mavis burst into tears, Marjorie answered for her and sat down beside her and put her arms around the mountain girl. After school she even took Mavis home behind her, and Gray rode along with them on his pony. Steve Hawn was sitting on his little porch smoking when they rode up, and he came down and hospitably asked them to "light and hitch their beastes," and the black-haired step-mother called from the doorway for them to "come in an' rest a spell." Gray and Marjorie concealed with some difficulty their amusement at such queer phrases of welcome, and a wonder at the democratic ease of the two and their utter unconsciousness of any social difference between the lords and ladies of the Blue-grass and poor people from the mountains, for the other tobacco tenants were not like these. And there was no surprise on the part of the man, the woman, or the little girl when a sudden warm impulse to relieve loneliness led Marjorie to ask Mavis to go to her own home and stay all night with her.

  "Course," said the woman.

  "Go right along, Mavis," said the man, and Marjorie turned to Gray.

  "You can carry her things," she said, and she turned to Mavis and met puzzled, unabashed eyes.

  "Whut things?" asked little Mavis, whereat Marjorie blushed, looked quickly to Gray, whose face was courteously unsmiling, and started her pony abruptly.

  It was a wonderful night for the mountaineer girl in the big- pillared house on the hill. When they got home, Marjorie drove her in a little pony-cart over the big farm, while Gray trotted alongside——through pastures filled with cattle so fat they could hardly walk, past big barns bursting with hay and tobacco and stables full of slender, beautiful horses. Even the pigs had little red houses of refuge from the weather and flocks of sheep dotted the hill-side like unmelted patches of snow. The mountain girl's eyes grew big with wonder when she entered the great hall with its lofty ceiling, its winding stairway, and its polished floor, so slippery that she came near falling down, and they stayed big when she saw the rows of books, the pictures on the walls, the padded couches and chairs, the noiseless carpets, the polished andirons that gleamed like gold before the blazing fires, and when she glimpsed through an open door the long dining-table with its glistening glass and silver. When she mounted that winding stairway and entered Marjorie's room she was stricken dumb by its pink curtains, pink wall-paper, and gleaming brass bedstead with pink coverlid and pink pillow-facings. And she nearly gasped when Marjorie led her on into another room of blue.

  "This is your room," she said smiling, "right next to mine. I'll be back in a minute."

  Mavis stood a moment in the middle of the room when she was alone, hardly daring to sit down. A coal fire crackled behind a wire screen——coal from her mountains. A door opened into a queer little room, glistening white, and she peeped, wondering, within.

  "There's the bath-room," Marjorie had said. She had not known what was meant, and she did not now, looking at the long white tub and the white tiling floor and walls until she saw the multitudinous towels, and she marvelled at the new mystery. She went back and walked to the window and looked out on the endless rolling winter fields over which she had driven that afternoon——all, Gray had told her, to be Marjorie's some day, just as all across the turnpike, Marjorie had told her, was some day to be Gray's. She thought of herself and of Jason, and her tears started, not for herself, but for him. Then she heard Marjorie coming in and she brushed her eyes swiftly.

  "Whar can I git some water to wash?" she asked.

  Marjorie laughed delightedly and led her back to that wonderful little white room, turned a gleaming silver star, and the water spurted joyously into the bowl.

  "Well, I do declare!"

  Soon they went down to supper, and Mavis put out a shy hand to Marjorie's mother, a kind-eyed, smiling woman in black. And Gray, too, was there, watching the little mountain girl and smiling encouragement whenever he met her eyes. And Mavis passed muster well, for the mountaineer's sensitiveness makes him wary of his manners when he is among strange people, and he will go hungry rather than be guilty unknowingly of a possible breach. Marjorie's mother was much interested and pleased with Mavis, and she made up her mind at once to discuss with her daughter how they could best help along the little stranger. After supper Marjorie played on the piano, and she and Gray sang duets, but the music was foreign to Mavis, and she did not like it very much. When the two went upstairs, there was a dainty long garment spread on Mavis's bed, which Mavis fingered carefully with much interest and much curiosity until she recalled suddenly what Marjorie had said about Gray carrying her "things." This was one of these things, and Mavis put it on wondering what the other things might be. Then she saw that a silver-backed comb and brush had appeared on the bureau along with a tiny pair of scissors and a little ivory stick, the use of which she could not make out at all. But she asked no questions, and when Marjorie came in with a new toothbrush and a little tin box and put them in the bath-room, Mavis still showed no surprise, but ran her eyes down the nightgown with its dainty ribbons.

  "Ain't it purty?" she said, and her voice and her eyes spoke all her thanks with such sincerity and pathos that Marjorie was touched. Then they sat down in front of the fire——a pair of slim brown feet that had been bruised by many a stone and pierced by many a thorn stretched out to a warm blaze side by side with a pair of white slim ones that had been tenderly guarded against both since the first day they had touched the earth, and a golden head that had never been without the caress of a tender hand and a tousled dark one that had been bared to sun and wind and storm—— close together for a long time. Unconsciously Marjorie had Mavis tell her much about Jason, just as Mavis without knowing it had Marjorie tell her much about Gray. Mavis got the first good-night kiss of her life that night, and she went to bed thinking of the Blue-grass boy's watchful eyes, little courtesies, and his sympathetic smile, just as Gray, riding home, was thinking of the dark, shy little mountain girl with a warm glow of protection about his heart, and Marjorie fell asleep dreaming of the mountain boy who, under her promise, had gone back homeless to his hills. In them perhaps it was the call of the woods and wilds that had led their pioneer forefathers long, long ago into woods and wilds, or perhaps, after all, it was only the little blind god shooting arrows at them in the dark.

  At least with little Jason one arrow had gone home. At the forks of the road beyond the county-seat he turned not toward his grandfather's, but up the spur and over the mountain. And St. Hilda, sitting on her porch, saw him coming again. His face looked beaten but determined, and he strode toward her as straight and sturdy as ever.

  "I've come back to stay with ye," he said.

  Again she started to make denial, but he shook his head. "'Tain't no use——I'm a-goin' to stay this time," he said, and he walked up the steps, pulling two or three dirty bills from his pocket with one hand and unbuckling his pistol belt with the other.

  "Me an' my nag'll work fer ye an' I'll wear gal's stockin's an' a poke-bonnet an' do a gal's work, if you'll jus' l'arn me whut I want to know."

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