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The Heart Of The Hills(Chapter21)

2006-08-29 01:37

  Chapter XXI

  Meanwhile that political storm was raging and Jason got at the heart of it through his morning paper and John Burnham. He knew that at home Republicans ran against Republicans for all offices, and now he learned that his own mountains were the Gibraltar of that party, and that the line of its fortifications ran from the Big Sandy, three hundred miles by public roads, to the line of Tennessee. When free silver had shattered the Democratic ranks three years before, the mountaineers had leaped forth and unfurled the Republican flag over the State for the first time since the Civil War. Ballots were falsified——that was the Democratic cry, and that was the Democratic excuse for that election law which had been forced through the Senate, whipped through the lower house with the party lash, and passed over the veto of the Republican governor by the new Democratic leader——the bold, cool, crafty, silent autocrat. From bombastic orators Jason learned that a fair ballot was the bulwark of freedom, that some God-given bill of rights had been smashed, and the very altar of liberty desecrated. And when John Burnham explained how the autocrat's triumvirate could at will appoint and remove officers of election, canvass returns, and certify and determine results, he could understand how the "atrocious measure," as the great editor of the State called it, "was a ready chariot to the governor's chair." And in the summer convention the spirit behind the measure had started for that goal in just that way, like a scythe-bearing chariot of ancient days, but cutting down friend as well as foe. Straightway, Democrats long in line for honors, and gray in the councils of the party, bolted; the rural press bolted; and Jason heard one bolter thus cry his fealty and his faithlessness: "As charged, I do stand ready to vote for a yellow dog, if he be the regular nominee, but lower than that you shall not drag me."

  The autocrat's retort was courteous.

  "You have a brother in the penitentiary."

  "No," was the answer, "but your brothers have a brother who ought to be."

  The pulpit thundered. Half a million Kentuckians, "professing Christians and temperance advocates," repudiated the autocrat's claim to support. A new convention was the cry, and the wheel- horse of the party, an ex-Confederate, ex-governor, and aristocrat, answered that cry. The leadership of the Democratic bolters he took as a "sacred duty"——took it with the gentle statement that the man who tampers with the rights of the humblest citizen is worse than the assassin, and should be streaked with a felon's stripes, and suffered to speak only through barred doors. From the same tongue, Jason heard with puckered brow that the honored and honest yeomanry of the commonwealth, through coalition by judge and politician, would be hoodwinked by the leger-demain of ballot-juggling magicians; but he did understand when he heard this yeomanry called brave, adventurous self-gods of creation, slow to anger and patient with wrongs, but when once stirred, let the man who had done the wrong——beware! Long ago Jason had heard the Republican chieftain who was to be pitted against such a foe characterized as "a plain, unknown man, a hill-billy from the Pennyroyal, and the nominee because there was no opposition and no hope." But hope was running high now, and now with the aristocrat, the autocrat, and the plebeian from the Pennyroyal——whose slogan was the repeal of the autocrat's election law——the tricornered fight was on.

  On a hot day in the star county of the star district, the autocrat, like Caesar, had a fainting fit and left the Democrats, explaining for the rest of the campaign that Republican eyes had seen a big dirk under his coat; and Jason never rested until with his own eyes he had seen the man who had begun to possess his brain like an evil dream. And he did see him and heard him defend his law as better than the old one, and declare that never again could the Democrats steal the State with mountain votes——heard him confidently leave to the common people to decide whether imperialism should replace democracy, trusts destroy the business of man with man, and whether the big railroad of the State was the servant or the master of the people. He heard a senator from the national capital, whose fortunes were linked with the autocrat's, declare that leader as the most maligned figure in American politics, and that he was without a blemish or vice on his private or public life, but, unlike Pontius Pilate, Jason never thought to ask himself what was truth, for, in spite of the mountaineer's Blue-grass allies, the lad had come to believe that there was a State conspiracy to rob his own people of their rights. This autocrat was the head and front of that conspiracy; while he spoke the boy's hatred grew with every word, and turned personal, so that at the close of the speech he moved near the man with a fierce desire to fly at his throat then and there. The boy even caught one sweeping look——cool, fearless, insolent, scorning——the look the man had for his enemies——and he was left with swimming head and trembling knees. Then the great Nebraskan came, and Jason heard him tell the people to vote against him for President if they pleased——but to stand by Democracy; and in his paper next morning Jason saw a cartoon of the autocrat driving the great editor and the Nebraskan on a race-track, hitched together, but pulling like oxen apart. And through the whole campaign he heard the one Republican cry ringing like a bell through the State: "Elect the ticket by a majority that can't be counted out."

  Thus the storm went on, the Republicans crying for a free ballot and a fair count, flaunting on a banner the picture of a man stuffing a ballot-box and two men with shot-guns playfully interrupting the performance, and hammering into the head of the State that no man could be trusted with unlimited power over the suffrage of a free people. Any ex-Confederate who was for the autocrat, any repentant bolter that swung away from the aristocrat, any negro that was against the man from the Pennyroyal, was lifted by the beneficiary to be looked on by the public eye. The autocrat would cut down a Republican majority by contesting votes and throw the matter into the hands of the legislature——that was the Republican prophecy and the Republican fear. Manufacturers, merchants, and ministers pleaded for a fair election. An anti-autocratic grip became prevalent in the hills. The Hawns and Honeycutts sent word that they had buried the feud for a while and would fight like brothers for their rights, and from more than one mountain county came the homely threat that if those rights were denied, there would somewhere be "a mighty shovellin' of dirt." And so to the last minute the fight went on.

  The boy's head buzzed and ached with the multifarious interests that filled it, but for all that the autumn was all gold for him and with both hands he gathered it in. Sometimes he would go home with Gray for Sunday. With Colonel Pendleton for master, he was initiated into exercises with dirk and fencing-foil, for not yet was the boxing-glove considered meet, by that still old-fashioned courtier, for the hand of a gentleman. Sometimes he would spend Sunday with John Burnham, and wander with him through the wonders of Morton Sanders' great farm, and he listened to Burnham and the colonel talk politics and tobacco, and the old days, and the destructive changes that were subtly undermining the glories of those old days. In the tri-cornered foot-ball fight for the State championship, he had played one game with Central University and one with old Transylvania, and he had learned the joy of victory in one and in the other the heart-sickening depression of defeat. One never-to-be-forgotten night he had gone coon-hunting with Mavis and Marjorie and Gray——riding slowly through shadowy woods, or recklessly galloping over the blue-grass fields, and again, as many times before, he felt his heart pounding with emotions that seemed almost to make it burst.

  For Marjorie, child of sunlight, and Mavis, child of shadows, riding bareheaded together under the brilliant moon, were the twin spirits of the night, and that moon dimmed the eyes of both only as she dimmed the stars. He saw Mavis swerving at every stop and every gallop to Gray's side, and always he found Marjorie somewhere near him. And only John Burnham understood it all, and he wondered and smiled, and with the smile wondered again.

  There had been no time for dancing lessons, but the little comedy of sentiment went on just the same. In neither Mavis nor Jason was there the slightest consciousness of any chasm between them and Marjorie and Gray, though at times both felt in the latter pair a vague atmosphere that neither would for a long time be able to define as patronage, and so when Jason received an invitation to the first dance given in the hotel ballroom in town, he went straight to Marjorie and solemnly asked "the pleasure of her company" that night.

  For a moment Marjorie was speechless.

  "Why, Jason," she gasped, "I——I——you're a freshman, and anyhow——"

  For the first time the boy gained an inkling of that chasm, and his eyes turned so fiercely sombre and suspicious that she added in a hurry:

  "It's a joke, Jason——that invitation. No freshman can go to one of those dances."

  Jason looked perplexed now, and still a little suspicious.

  "Who'll keep me from goin'?" he asked quietly,

  "The sophomores. They sent you that invitation to get you into trouble. They'll tear your clothes off."

  As was the habit of his grandfather Hawn, Jason's tongue went reflectively to the hollow of one cheek, and his eyes dropped to the yellow leaves about their feet, and Marjorie waited with a tingling thrill that some vague thing of importance was going to happen. Jason's face was very calm when he looked up at last, and he held out the card of invitation.

  "Will that git——get me in, when I a-get to the door?"

  "Of course, but——"

  "Then I'll be th-there," said Jason, and he turned away.

  Now Marjorie knew that Gray expected to take her to that dance, but he had not yet even mentioned it. Jason had come to her swift and straight; the thrill still tingled within her, and before she knew it she had cried impulsively:

  "Jason, if you get to that dance, I'll——I'll dance every square dance with you."

  Jason nodded simply and turned away.

  The mischief-makers soon learned the boy's purpose, and there was great joy among them, and when Gray finally asked Marjorie to go with him, she demurely told him she was going with Jason. Gray was amazed and indignant, and he pleaded with her not to do anything so foolish.

  "Why, it's outrageous. It will be the talk of the town. Your mother won't like it. Maybe they won't do anything to him because you are along, but they might, and think of you being mixed up in such a mess. Anyhow I tell you——you can't do it."

  Marjorie paled and Gray got a look from her that he had never had before.

  "Did I hear you say 'can't'?" she asked coldly. "Well, I'm not going with him——he won't let me. He's going alone. I'll meet him there."

  Gray made a helpless gesture.

  "Well, I'll try to get the fellows to let him alone——on your account."

  "Don't bother——he can take care of himself."

  "Why, Marjorie!"

  The girl's coldness was turning to fire.

  "Why don't you take Mavis?"

  Gray started an impatient refusal, and stopped——Mavis was passing in the grass on the other side of the road, and her face was flaming violently.

  "She heard you," said Gray in a low voice.

  The heel of one of Marjorie's little boots came sharply down on the gravelled road.

  "Yes, and I hope she heard you——and don't you ever——ever——ever say can't to me again." And she flashed away.

  The news went rapidly through the college and, as Gray predicted, became the talk of the young people of the town, Marjorie's mother did object violently, but Marjorie remained firm——what harm was there in dancing with Jason Hawn, even if he was a poor mountaineer and a freshman? She was not a snob, even if Gray was. Jason himself was quiet, non-communicative, dignified. He refused to discuss the matter with anybody, ignored comment and curiosity, and his very silence sent a wave of uneasiness through some of the sophomores and puzzled them all. Even John Burnham, who had severely reprimanded and shamed Jason for the flag incident, gravely advised the boy not to go, but even to him Jason was respectfully non-committal, for this was a matter that, as the boy saw it, involved his rights, and the excitement grew quite feverish when one bit of news leaked out. At the beginning of the session the old president, perhaps in view of the political turmoil imminent, had made a request that one would hardly hear in the chapel of any other hall of learning in the broad United States.

  "If any student had brought with him to college any weapon or fire-arm, he would please deliver it to the commandant, who would return it to him at the end of the session, or whenever he should leave college."

  Now Jason had deliberated deeply on that request; on the point of personal privilege involved he differed with the president, and a few days before the dance one of his room-mates found not only a knife, but a huge pistol——relics of Jason's feudal days—— protruding from the top bed. This was the bit of news that leaked, and Marjorie paled when she heard it, but her word was given, and she would keep it. There was no sneaking on Jason's part that night, and when a crowd of sophomores gathered at the entrance of his dormitory they found a night-hawk that Jason had hired, waiting at the door, and patiently they waited for Jason.

  Down at the hotel ballroom Gray and Marjorie waited, Gray anxious, worried, and angry, and Marjorie with shining eyes and a pale but determined face. And she shot a triumphant glance toward Gray when she saw the figure of the young mountaineer framed at last in the doorway of the ballroom. There Jason stood a moment, uncouth and stock-still. His eyes moved only until he caught sight of Marjorie, and then, with them fixed steadily on her, he solemnly walked through the sudden silence that swiftly spread through the room straight for her. He stood cool, calm, and with a curious dignity before her, and the only sign of his emotion was in a reckless lapse into his mountain speech.

  "I've come to tell ye I can't dance with ye. Nobody can keep me from goin' whar I've got a right to go, but I won't stay nowhar I'm not wanted."

  And, without waiting for her answer, he turned and stalked solemnly out again.

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