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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter16)

2006-08-29 01:36

  Chapter XVI

  The boy was curled up on the rear seat of the smoking-car. His face was upturned to the glare of light above him, the train bumped, jerked, and swayed; smoke and dust rolled in at the open window and cinders stung his face, but he slept as peacefully as though he were in one of the huge feather-beds at his grandfather's house——slept until the conductor shook him by the shoulder, when he opened his eyes, grunted, and closed them again. The train stopped, a brakeman yanked him roughly to his feet, put a cheap suit-case into his hand, and pushed him, still dazed, into the chill morning air. The train rumbled on and left him blinking into a lantern held up to his face, but he did not look promising as a hotel guest and the darky porter turned abruptly; and the boy yawned long and deeply, with his arms stretched above his head, dropped on the frosty bars of a baggage-truck and rose again shivering. Cocks were crowing, light was showing in the east, the sea of mist that he well knew was about him, but no mountains loomed above it, and St. Hilda's prize pupil, Jason Hawn, woke sharply at last with a tingling that went from head to foot. Once more he was in the land of the Blue-grass, his journey was almost over, and in a few hours he would put his confident feet on a new level and march on upward. Gradually, as the lad paced the platform, the mist thinned and the outlines of things came out. A mysterious dark bulk high in the air showed as a water-tank, roofs new to mountain eyes jutted upward, trees softly emerged, a desolate dusty street opened before him, and the cocks crowed on lustily all around him and from farm-houses far away. The crowing made him hungry, and he went to the light of a little eating-house and asked the price of the things he saw on the counter there, but the price was too high. He shook his head and went out, but his pangs were so keen that he went back for a cup of coffee and a hard-boiled egg, and then he heard the coming thunder of his train. The sun was rising as he sped on through the breaking mist toward the Blue-grass town that in pioneer days was known as the Athens of the West. In a few minutes the train slackened in mid- air and on a cloud of mist between jutting cliffs, it seemed, and the startled lad, looking far down through it, saw a winding yellow light, and he was rushing through autumn fields again before he realized that the yellow light was the Kentucky River surging down from the hills. Back up the stream surged his memories, making him faint with homesickness, for it was the last link that bound him to the mountains. But both home and hills were behind him now, and he shook himself sharply and lost him-self again in the fields of grass and grain, the grazing stock and the fences, houses, and barns that reeled past his window. Steve Hawn met him at the station with a rattle-trap buggy and, stared at him long and hard.

  "I'd hardly knowed ye——you've growed like a weed."

  "How's the folks?" asked Jason.

  "Stirrin'."

  Silently they rattled down the street, each side of which was lined with big wagons loaded with tobacco and covered with cotton cloth——there seemed to be hundreds of them.

  "Hell's a-comin' about that terbaccer up here," said Steve.

  "Hell's a-comin' in the mountains if that robber up here at the capital steals the next election for governor," said Jason, and Steve looked up quickly and with some uneasiness. He himself had heard vaguely that somebody, somewhere, and in some way, had robbed his own party of their rights and would go on robbing at the polls, but this new Jason seemed to know all about it, so Steve nodded wisely.

  "Yes, my feller."

  Through town they drove, and when they started out into the country they met more wagons of tobacco coming in.

  "How's the folks in the mountains?"

  "About the same as usual," said the boy, "Grandpap's poorly. The war's over just now——folks 'r' busy makin' money. Uncle Arch's still takin' up options. The railroad's comin' up the river"——the lad's face darkened——"an' land's sellin' fer three times as much as you sold me out fer."

  Steve's face darkened too, but he was silent.

  "Found out yit who killed yo' daddy?"

  Jason's answer was short.

  "If I had I wouldn't tell you."

  "Must be purty good shot now?"

  "I hain't shot a pistol off fer four year," said the lad again shortly, and Steve stared.

  "Whut devilmint are you in up here now?" asked Jason calmly and with no apparent notice of the start Steve gave.

  "Who's been a-tellin' you lies about me?" asked Steve with angry suspicion.

  "I hain't heerd a word," said Jason coolly. "I bet you burned that toll-gate the morning I left here. Thar's devilmint goin' on everywhar, an' if there's any around you I know you can't keep out o' it."

  Steve laughed with relief.

  "You can't git away with devilmint here like you can in the mountains, an' I'm 'tendin' to my own business."

  Jason made no comment and Steve went on:

  "I've paid fer this hoss an' buggy an' I got things hung up at home an' a leetle money in the bank, an' yo' ma says she wouldn't go back to the mountains fer nothin'."

  "How's Mavis?" asked Jason abruptly.

  "Reckon you wouldn't know her. She's al'ays runnin' aroun' with that Pendleton boy an' gal, an' she's chuck-full o' new-fangled notions. She's the purtiest gal I ever seed, an'," he added slyly, "looks like that Pendleton boy's plumb crazy 'bout her."

  Jason made no answer and showed no sign of interest, much less jealousy, and yet, though he was thinking of the Pendleton girl and wanted to ask some question about her, a little inconsistent rankling started deep within him at the news of Mavis's disloyalty to him. They were approaching the lane that led to Steve's house now, and beyond the big twin houses were visible.

  "Yo' Uncle Arch's been here a good deal, an' he's tuk a powerful fancy to Mavis an' he's goin' to send her to the same college school in town whar you're goin'. Marjorie and Gray is a-goin' thar too, I reckon."

  Jason's heart beat fast at these words. Gray had the start of him, but he would give the Blue-grass boy a race now in school and without. As they turned into the lane, he could see the woods—— could almost see the tree around which he had circled drunk, raging, and shooting his pistol, and his face burned with the memory. And over in the hollow he had met Marjorie on her pony, and he could see the tears in her eyes, hear her voice, and feel the clasp of her hand again. Though neither knew it, a new life had started for him there and then. He had kept his promise, and he wondered if she would remember and be glad.

  His mother was on the porch, waiting and watching for him, with one hand shading her eyes. She rushed for the gate, and when he stepped slowly from the buggy she gave a look of wondering surprise and pride, burst into tears, and for the first time in her life threw her arms around him and kissed him, to his great confusion and shame. In the doorway stood a tall, slender girl with a mass of black hair, and she, too, with shining eyes rushed toward him, stopping defiantly short within a few feet of him when she met his cool, clear gaze, and, without even speaking his name, held out her hand. Then with intuitive suspicion she flashed a look at Steve and knew that his tongue had been wagging. She flushed angrily, but with feminine swiftness caught her lost poise and, lifting her head, smiled.

  "I wouldn't 'a' known ye," she said.

  "An' I wouldn't 'a' known you," said Jason.

  The girl said no more, and the father looked at his daughter and the mother at her son, puzzled by the domestic tragedy so common in this land of ours, where the gates of opportunity swing wide for the passing on of the young. But of the two, Steve Hawn was the more puzzled and uneasy, for Jason, like himself, was a product of the hills and had had less chance than even he to know the outside world.

  The older mountaineer wore store clothes, but so did Jason. He had gone to meet the boy, self-assured and with the purpose of patronage and counsel, and he had met more assurance than his own and a calm air of superiority that was troubling to Steve's pride. The mother, always apologetic on account of the one great act of injustice she had done her son, felt awe as she looked, and as her pride grew she became abject, and the boy accepted the attitude of each as his just due. But on Mavis the wave of his influence broke as on a rock. She was as much changed from the Mavis he had last seen as she was at that time from the little Mavis of the hills, and he felt her eyes searching him from head to foot just as she had done that long-ago time when he saw her first in the hunting- field. He knew that now she was comparing him with even higher standards than she was then, and that now, as then, he was falling short, and he looked up suddenly and caught her eyes with a grim, confident little smile that made her shift her gaze confusedly. She moved nervously in her chair and her cheeks began to burn. And Steve talked on——volubly for him——while the mother threw in a timid homesick question to Jason now and then about something in the mountains, and Mavis kept still and looked at the boy no more. By and by the two women went to their work, and Jason followed Steve about the little place to look at the cow and a few pigs and at the garden and up over the hill to the tobacco-patch that Steve was tending on shares with Colonel Pendleton. After dinner Mavis disappeared, and the stepmother reckoned she had gone over to see Marjorie Pendleton——"she was al'ays a-goin' over thar"——and in the middle of the afternoon the boy wandered aimlessly forth into the Blue-grass fields.

  Spring green the fields were, and the woods, but scarcely touched by the blight of autumn, were gray as usual from the limestone turnpike, which, when he crossed it, was ankle-deep in dust. A cloud of yellow butterflies fluttered crazily before him in a sunlight that was hardly less golden, and when he climbed the fence a rabbit leaped beneath him and darted into a patch of ironweeds. Instinctively he leaped after it, crashing, through the purple crowns, and as suddenly stopped at the foolishness of pursuit, when he had left his pistol in his suit-case, and with another sharp memory of the rabbit hunt he had encountered when he made his first appearance in that land. Half unconsciously then his thoughts turned him through the woods and through a pasture toward the twin homes of the Pendletons, and on the top of the next hill he could see them on their wooded eminences——could even see the stile where he had had his last vision of Marjorie, and he dropped in the thick grass, looking long and hard and wondering.

  Around the corner of the yard fence a negro appeared leading a prancing iron-gray horse, the front doors opened, a tall girl in a black riding-habit came swiftly down the walk, and a moment later the iron-gray was bearing her at a swift gallop toward the turnpike gate. As she disappeared over a green summit, his heart stood quite still. Could that tall woman be the little girl who, with a tear, a tremor of the voice, and a touch of the hand, had swerved him from the beaten path of a century? Mavis had grown, he himself had grown——and, of course, Marjorie, too, had grown. He began to wonder whether she would recollect him, would know him when he met her face to face, would remember the promise she had asked and he had given, and if she would be pleased to know that he had kept it. In the passing years the boy had actually lost sight of her as flesh and blood, for she had become enshrined among his dreams by night and his dreams by day; among the visions his soul had seen when he had sat under the old circuit rider and heard pictured the glories of the blessed when mortals should mingle with the shining hosts on high: and above even St. Hilda, on the very pinnacle of his new-born and ever-growing ambitions, Marjorie sat enthroned and alone. Light was all he remembered of her——the light of her eyes and of her hair——yes, and that one touch of her hand. His heart turned to water at the thought of seeing her again and his legs were trembling when he rose to start back through the fields. Another rabbit sprang from its bed in a tuft of grass, but he scarcely paid any heed to it. When he crossed the creek a muskrat was leisurely swimming for its hole in the other bank, and he did not even pick up a stone to throw at it, but walked on dreaming through the woods. As he was about to emerge from them he heard voices ahead of him, high-pitched and angry, and with the caution of his race he slipped forward and stopped, listening. In a tobacco-patch on the edge of the woods Steve Hawn had stopped work and was leaning on the fence. Seated on it was one of the small farmers of the neighborhood. They were not quarrelling, and the boy could hardly believe his ears.

  "I tell you that fellow——they're callin' him the autocrat already- -that fellow will have two of his judges to your one at every election booth in the State. He'll steal every precinct and he'll be settin' in the governor's chair as sure as you are standing here. I'm a Democrat, but I've been half a Republican ever since this free-silver foolishness came up, and I'm going to vote against him. Now, all you mountain people are Republicans, but you might as well all be Democrats. You haven't got a chance oh earth. What are you goin' to do about it?"

  Steve Hawn shook his head helplessly, but Jason saw his huge hand grip his tobacco knife and his own blood beat indignantly at his temples. The farmer threw one leg back over the fence.

  "There'll be hell to pay when the day comes," he said, and he strode away, while the mountaineer leaned motionless on the fence with his grip on the knife unrelaxed.

  Noiselessly the boy made his way through the edge of the woods, out under the brow of a hill, and went on his restless way up the bank of the creek toward Steve's home. When he turned toward the turnpike he found that he had passed the house a quarter of a mile, so he wheeled back down the creek, and where the mouth of the lane opened from the road he dropped in a spot of sunlight on the crest of a little cliff, his legs weary but his brain still tirelessly at work. These people of the Blue-grass were not only robbing him and his people of their lands, but of their political birthright as well. The fact that the farmer was on his side but helped make the boy know it was truth, and the resentments that were always burning like a bed of coals deep within him sprang into flames again. The shadows lengthened swiftly about him and closed over him, and then the air grew chill. Abruptly he rose and stood rigid, for far up the lane, and coming over a little hill, he saw the figure of a man leading a black horse and by his side the figure of a woman——both visible for a moment before they disappeared behind the bushes that lined the lane. When they were visible again Jason saw that they were a boy and girl, and when they once more came into view at a bend of the lane and stopped he saw that the girl, with her face downcast, was Mavis. While they stood the boy suddenly put his arm around her, but she eluded him and fled to the fence, and with a laugh he climbed on his horse and came down the lane. In a burning rage Jason started to slide down the cliff and pull the intruder, whoever he was, from his horse, and then he saw Mavis, going swiftly through the fields, turn and wave her hand. That stopped him still——he could not punish where there was apparently no offence——so with sullen eyes he watched the mouth of the lane give up a tall lad on a black thoroughbred, his hat in his hand and his handsome face still laughing and still turned for another glimpse of the girl. Another hand-wave came from Mavis at the edge of the woods, and glowering Jason stood in full view unseen and watched Gray Pendleton go thundering past him down the road.

  Mavis had not gone to see Marjorie——she had sneaked away to meet Gray; his lips curled contemptuously——Mavis was a sneak, and so was Gray Pendleton. Then a thought struck him——why was Mavis behaving like a brush-girl this way, and why didn't Gray go to see her in her own home, open and above-board, like a man? The curl of the boy's lips settled into a straight, grim line, and once more he turned slowly down the stream that he might approach Steve's house from another direction. Half an hour later, when he climbed the turnpike fence, he heard the gallop of iron-shod feet and he saw bearing down on him an iron-gray horse. It was Marjorie. He knew her from afar; he gripped the rail beneath him with both hands and his heart seemed almost to stop. She was looking him full in the face now, and then, with a nod and a smile she would have given a beggar or a tramp, she swept him by.

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