The following June Marjorie and Gray Pendleton brought back finishing touches of dress, manner, and atmosphere to the dazzled envy of the less fortunate, in spite of the fact that both bore their new claims to distinction with a modesty that would have kept a stranger from knowing that they had ever been away from home. Jason and Mavis were still at the old university when the two arrived. To the mountaineers all four had once seemed almost on the same level, such had once been the comradeship between them, but now the old chasm seemed to yawn wider than ever between them, and there was no time for it to close, if closing were possible, for again Jason went back to the hills—this time to Morton Sanders' opening mines—and, this time, Mavis went with him to teach Hawns and Honeycutts in a summer school on the outskirts of the little mining town. Again for Jason the summer was one of unflagging work and learning—learning all he could, all the time. He had discovered that to get his land back through the law, he must prove that Arch Hawn or Colonel Pendleton not only must have known about the big seam of coal, not only must have concealed the fact of their knowledge from his mother and Steve Hawn, but, in addition, must have told one or both, with the purpose of fraud, that the land was worth no more than was visible to the eye in timber and seams of coal that were known to all. That Colonel Pendleton could have been guilty of such underhandedness was absurd. Moreover, Jason's mother said that no such statement had been made to her by either, though Steve had sworn readily that Arch had said just that thing to him. But Jason began to believe that Steve had lied, and Arch Hawn laughed when he heard of Jason's investigations.
"Son, if you want that land back, or, ruther, the money it's worth, you git right down to work, learn the business, and DIG it back in another way."
And that was what Jason, half unconsciously, was doing. And yet, with all the ambition that was in him, his interest in the work, his love for the hills, his sense of duty to his people and his wish to help them, the boy was sorely depressed that summer, for the talons with which the fate of birth and environment clutched him seemed to be tightening now again.
The trials of Steve Hawn and of Hiram Honeycutt for the death of the autocrat were bringing back the old friction. Charges and counter-charges of perjury among witnesses had freshened the old enmity between the Hawns and the Honeycutts. Jason himself had once to go back to the Blue-grass as witness, and when he returned he learned that the charge whispered against him, particularly by little Aaron, was that he had sworn falsely for Steve Hawn and falsely against Hiram Honeycutt. Again Babe Honeycutt had come back from the West and had quietly slipped out of the mountains again, and Jason was led to believe it was on his account. So once more the old oath began to weigh heavily upon him, for everybody seemed to take it as much for granted that he would some day fulfil that oath as that, after the dark of the moon, that moon would rise again. Moreover, fate was inexorably pushing him and little Aaron into the same channels that their fathers had followed and putting on each the duty and responsibility of leadership. And Jason, though shirking nothing, turned sick and faint of heart and was glad when the summer neared its close.
Through all his vacation he and Mavis had seen but little of each other, though Mavis lived with the old circuit rider and Jason in a little shack on the spur above her, for the boy was on the night shift and through most of the day was asleep. Moreover, both were rather morose and brooding, each felt the deep trouble of the other, and to it each paid the mutual respect of silence. How much Mavis knew, Jason little guessed, though he was always vaguely uneasy under the constant search of her dark eyes, and often he would turn toward her expecting her to speak. But not until the autumn was at hand and they were both making ready to go back to the Blue-grass did she break her silence. The news had just reached them that Steve Hawn had come clear at last and was at home—and Mavis heard it with little elation and no comment. Next day she announced calmly that she was not going back with Jason, but would stay in the hills and go on with her school. Jason stared questioningly, but she would not explain—she only became more brooding and silent than ever, and only when they parted one drowsy day in September was the thought within her betrayed:
"I reckon maybe you won't come back again."
Jason was startled. She knew then—knew his discontent, his new longing to break the fetters of the hills, knew even that in his dreams Marjorie's face was still shining like a star. "Course I'm comin' back," he said, with a little return of his old boyish roughness, but his eyes fell before hers as he turned hurriedly away. He was rolling away from the hills, and his mind had gone back to her seated with folded hands and unseeing eyes in the old circuit rider's porch, dreaming, thinking—thinking, dreaming— before he began fully to understand. He remembered his mother telling him how unhappy Mavis had been the summer the two were alone in the Blue-grass, and how she had kept away from Marjorie and Gray and all to herself. He recalled Mavis telling him bitterly how she had once overheard some girl student speak of her as the daughter of a jail-bird. He began to see that she had stayed in the Blue-grass that summer on his mother's account and on her account would have gone back with him again. He knew that there was no disloyalty to her father in her decision, for he knew that she would stick to him, jail-bird or whatever he was, till the end of time. But now neither her father nor Jason's mother needed her. Through eyes that had gained a new vision in the Blue- grass Mavis had long ago come to see herself as she was seen there; and now to escape wounds that any malicious tongue could inflict she would stay where the sins of fathers rested less heavily on the innocent. There was, to be sure, good reason for Jason to feel as Mavis felt—he had been a jail-bird himself—but not to act like her—no. And then as he rolled along he began to wonder what part Gray might be playing in her mind and heart. The vision of her seated in the porch thinking—thinking—would not leave him, and a pang of undefined remorse for leaving her behind started within him. She, too, had outgrown his and her people as he had—perhaps she was as rebellious against her fate as he was against his own, but, unlike him, utterly helpless. And suddenly the boy's remorse merged into a sympathetic terror for the loneliness that was hers.
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.
At sunset Gray Pendleton pushed his tired horse across the Cumberland River and up into the county-seat of the Hawns and Honeycutts. From the head of the main street two battered signs caught his eye—Hawn Hotel and Honeycutt Inn—the one on the right-hand side close at hand, and the other far down on the left, and each on the corner of the street. Both had double balconies, both were ramshackle and unpainted, and near each was a general store, run now by a subleader of each faction—Hiram Honeycutt and Shade Hawn—for old Jason and old Aaron, except in councils of war and business, had retired into the more or less peaceful haven of home and old age. Naturally the boy drew up and stopped before Hawn Hotel, from the porch of which keen eyes scrutinized him with curiosity and suspicion, and before he had finished his supper of doughy biscuits, greasy bacon, and newly killed fried chicken, the town knew but little less about his business there than he himself. That night he asked many questions of Shade Hawn, the proprietor, and all were answered freely, except where they bore on the feud of half a century, and then Gray encountered a silence that was puzzling but significant and deterrent. Next morning everybody who spoke to him called him by name, and as he rode up the river there was the look of recognition in every face he saw, for the news of him had gone ahead the night before. At the mouth of Hawn Creek, in a bend of the river, he came upon a schoolhouse under a beech-tree on the side of a little hill; through the open door he saw, amidst the bent heads of the pupils, the figure of a young woman seated at a desk, and had he looked back when he turned up the creek he would have seen her at the window, gazing covertly after him with one hand against her heart. For Mavis Hawn, too, had heard that Gray was come to the hills. All morning she had been watching the open door-way, and yet when she saw him pass she went pale and had to throw her head up sharply to get her breath. Her hands trembled, she rose and went to the window, and she did not realize what she was doing until she turned to meet the surprised and curious eyes of one of the larger girls, who, too, could see the passing stranger, and then the young school- mistress flushed violently and turned to her seat. The girl was a Honeycutt, and more than once that long, restless afternoon Mavis met the same eyes searching her own and already looking mischief. Slowly the long afternoon passed, school was dismissed, and Mavis, with the circuit rider's old dog on guard at her heels, started slowly up the creek with her eyes fixed on every bend of the road she turned and on the crest of every little hill she climbed, watching for Gray to come back. Once a horse that looked like the one he rode and glimpsed through the bushes far ahead made her heart beat violently and stopped her, poised for a leap into the bushes, but it was only little Aaron Honeycutt, who lifted his hat, flushed, and spoke gravely; and Mavis reached the old circuit rider's gate, slipped around to the back porch and sat down, still in a tumult that she could not calm. It was not long before she heard a clear shout of "hello" at the gate, and she clenched her chair with both hands, for the voice was Gray's. She heard the old woman go to the door, heard her speak her surprise and hearty welcome—heard Gray's approaching steps.
"Is Mavis here?" Gray asked.
"She ain't got back from school."
"Was that her school down there at the mouth of the creek?"
"Well, I wish I had known that."
Calmly and steadily then Mavis rose, and a moment later Gray saw her in the door and his own heart leaped at the rich, grave beauty of her. Gravely she shook hands, gravely looked full into his eyes, without a question sat down with quiet hands folded in her lap, and it was the boy who was embarrassed and talked. He would live with the superintendent on the spur just above and he would be a near neighbor. His father was not well. Marjorie was not going away again, but would stay at home that winter. Mavis's stepmother was well, and he had not seen Jason before he left— they must have passed each other on the way. Since Mavis's father was now at home, Jason would stay at the college, as he lost so much time going to and fro. Gray was glad to get to work, he already loved the mountains; but there had been so many changes he hardly remembered the creek—how was Mavis's grandfather, old Mr. Hawn? Mavis raised her eyes, but she was so long answering that the old woman broke in:
"He's mighty peart fer sech a' old man, but he's a-breakin' fast an' he ain't long fer this wuld." She spoke with the frank satisfaction that, among country folks, the old take in ushering their contemporaries through the portals, and Gray could hardly help smiling. He rose to leave presently, and the old woman pressed him to stay for supper; but Mavis's manner somehow forbade, and the boy climbed back up the spur, wondering, ill at ease, and almost shaken by the new beauty the girl seemed to have taken on in the hills. For there she was at home. She had the peace and serenity of them: the pink-flecked laurel was in her cheeks, the white of the rhododendron was at the base of her full round throat, and in her eyes were the sleepy shadows of deep ravines. It might not be so lonely for him after all in his exile, and the vision of the girl haunted Gray when he went to bed that night and made him murmur and stir restlessly in his sleep.
Once more, on his way for his last year at college, Jason Hawn had stepped into the chill morning air at the railway junction, on the edge of the Blue-grass. Again a faint light was showing in the east, and cocks were crowing from a low sea of mist that lay motionless over the land, but this time the darky porter reached without hesitation for his bag and led him to the porch of the hotel, where he sat waiting for breakfast. Once more at sunrise he sped through the breaking mist and high over the yellow Kentucky River, but there was no pang of homesickness when he looked down upon it now. Again fields of grass and gram, grazing horses and cattle, fences, houses, barns reeled past his window, and once more Steve Hawn met him at the station in the same old rattletrap buggy, and again stared at him long and hard.
"Ain't much like the leetle feller I met here three year ago—air ye?"
Steve was unshaven and his stubbly, thick, black beard emphasized the sickly touch of prison pallor that was still on his face. His eyes had a new, wild, furtive look, and his mouth was cruel and bitter. Again each side of the street was lined with big wagons loaded with tobacco and covered with cotton cloth. Steve pointed to them.
"Rickolect whut I tol' you about hell a-comin' about that terbaccer?"
"Well, hit's come." His tone was ominous, personal, and disturbed the boy.
"Look here, Steve," he said earnestly, "haven't you had enough now? Ain't you goin' to settle down and behave yourself?"
The man's face took on the snarl of a vicious dog.
"No, by God!—I hain't. The trouble's on me right now. Colonel Pendleton hain't treated me right—he cheated me out—"
Steve got no further; the boy turned squarely in the buggy and his eyes blazed.
"That's a lie. I don't know anything about it, but I know it's a lie."
Steve, too, turned furious, but he had gone too far, and had counted too much on kinship, so he controlled himself, and with vicious cunning whipped about.
"Well," he said in an injured tone, "I mought be mistaken. We'll see—we'll see."
Jason had not asked about his mother, and he did not ask now, for Steve's manner worried him and made him apprehensive. He answered the man's questions about the mountains shortly, and with diabolical keenness Steve began to probe old wounds.
"I reckon," he said sympathetically, "you hain't found no way yit o' gittin' yo' land back?"
"Ner who shot yo' pap?"
"Well, I hear as how Colonel Pendleton owns a lot in that company that's diggin' out yo' coal. Mebbe you might git it back from him."
Jason made no answer, for his heart was sinking with every thought of his mother and the further trouble Steve seemed bound to make. Martha Hawn was standing in her porch with one hand above her eyes when they drove into the mouth of the lane. She came down to the gate, and Jason put his arms around her and kissed her; and when he saw the tears start in her eyes he kissed her again while Steve stared, surprised and uncomprehending. Again that afternoon Jason wandered aimlessly into the blue-grass fields, and again his feet led him to the knoll whence he could see the twin houses of the Pendletons bathed in the yellow sunlight, and their own proud atmosphere of untroubled calm. And again, even, he saw Marjorie galloping across the fields, and while he knew the distressful anxiety in one of the households, he little guessed the incipient storm that imperious young woman was at that moment carrying within her own breast from the other. For Marjorie missed Gray; she was lonely and she was bored; she had heard that Jason had been home several days; she was irritated that he had not been to see her, nor had sent her any message, and just now what she was going to do, she did not exactly know or care. Half an hour later he saw her again, coming back at a gallop along the turnpike, and seeing him, she pulled in and waved her whip. Jason took off his hat, waved it in answer, and kept on, whereat imperious Marjorie wheeled her horse through a gate into the next field and thundered across it and up the slope toward him. Jason stood hat in hand— embarrassed, irresolute, pale. When she pulled in, he walked forward to take her outstretched gloved hand, and when he looked up into her spirited face and challenging eyes, a great calm came suddenly over him, and from it emerged his own dominant spirit which the girl instantly felt. She had meant to tease, badger, upbraid, domineer over him, but the volley of reproachful questions that were on her petulant red lips dwindled lamely to one:
"How's Mavis, Jason?"
"She's well as common."
"You didn't see Gray?"
"I got a letter from him yesterday. He's living right above Mavis. He says she is more beautiful than ever, and he's already crazy about his life down there—and the mountains."
"I'm mighty glad."
She turned to go, and the boy walked down the hill to open the gate for her—and sidewise Marjorie scrutinized him. Jason had grown taller, darker, his hair was longer, his clothes were worn and rather shabby, the atmosphere of the hills still invested him, and he was more like the Jason she had first seen, so that the memories of childhood were awakened in the girl and she softened toward him. When she passed through the gate and turned her horse toward him again, the boy folded his arms over the gate, and his sunburnt hands showed to Marjorie's eyes the ravages of hard work.
"Why haven't you been over to see me, Jason?" she asked gently.
"I just got back this mornin'."
"Why, Gray wrote you left home several days ago."
"I did—but I stopped on the way to visit some kinfolks."
"Oh. Well, aren't you coming? I'm lonesome, and I guess you will be too—without Mavis."
"I won't have time to get lonesome."
The girl smiled.
"That's ungracious—but I want you to take the time."
The boy looked at her; since his trial he had hardly spoken to her, and had rarely seen her. Somehow he had come to regard his presence at Colonel Pendleton's the following Christmas night as but a generous impulse on their part that was to end then and there. He had kept away from Marjorie thereafter, and if he was not to keep away now, he must make matters very clear.
"Maybe your mother won't like it," he said gravely. "I'm a jail- bird."
"Don't, Jason," she said, shocked by his frankness; "you couldn't help that. I want you to come."
Jason was reddening with embarrassment now, but he had to get out what had been so long on his mind.
"I'm comin' once anyhow. I know what she did for me and I'm comin' to thank her for doin' it."
Marjorie was surprised and again she smiled.
"Well, she won't like that, Jason," she said, and the boy, not misunderstanding, smiled too.
Marjorie turned her horse.
"I hope I'll be at home."
Her mood had turned to coquetry again. Jason had meant to tell her that he knew she herself had been behind her mother's kindness toward him, but a sudden delicacy forbade, and to her change of mood he answered:
"You will be—when I come."
This was a new deftness for Jason, and a little flush of pleasure came to the girl's cheeks and a little seriousness to her eyes.
"Well, you ARE mighty nice, Jason—good-by."
"Good-by," said the boy soberly.
At her own gate the girl turned to look back, but Jason was striding across the fields. She turned again on the slope of the hill but Jason was still striding on. She watched him until he had disappeared, but he did not turn to look and her heart felt a little hurt. She was very quiet that night, so quiet that she caught a concerned look in her mother's eyes, and when she had gone to her room her mother came in and found her in a stream of moonlight at her window. And when Mrs. Pendleton silently kissed her, she broke into tears.
"I'm lonely, mother," she sobbed; "I'm so lonely."
A week later Jason sat on the porch one night after supper and his mother came to the doorway.
"I forgot to tell ye, Jason, that Marjorie Pendleton rid over here the day you got here an' axed if you'd come home."
"I saw her down the pike that day," said Jason, not showing the surprise he felt. Steve Hawn, coming around the corner of the house, heard them both and on his face was a malicious grin.
"Down the pike," he repeated. "I seed ye both a-talkin', up thar at the edge of the woods. She looked back at ye twice, but you wouldn't take no notice. Now that Gray ain't hyeh I reckon you mought—"
The boy's protest, hoarse and inarticulate, stopped Steve, who dropped his bantering tone and turned serious.
"Now looky here, Jason, yo' uncle Arch has tol' me about Gray and Mavis already up that in the mountains, an' I see what's comin' down here fer you. You an' Gray ought to have more sense—gittin' into such trouble—"
"Trouble!" cried the boy.
"Yes, I know," Steve answered. "Hit is funny fer me to be talkin' about trouble. I was born to it, as the circuit rider says, as the sparks fly upward. That ain't no hope fer me, but you—"
The boy rose impatiently but curiously shaken by such words and so strange a tone from his step-father. He was still shaken when he climbed to Mavis's room and was looking out of her window, and that turned his thoughts to her and to Gray in the hills. What was the trouble that Steve had already heard about Mavis and Gray, and what the trouble at which Steve had hinted—for him? Once before Steve had dropped a bit of news, also gathered from Arch Hawn, that during the truce in the mountains little Aaron Honeycutt had developed a wild passion for Mavis, but at that absurdity Jason had only laughed. Still the customs of the Blue-grass and the hills were widely divergent, and if Gray, only out of loneliness, were much with Mavis, only one interpretation was possible to the Hawns and Honeycutts, just as only one interpretation had been possible for Steve with reference to Marjorie and himself, and Steve's interpretation he contemptuously dismissed. His grandfather might make trouble for Gray, or Gray and little Aaron might clash. He would like to warn Gray, and yet even with that wish in his mind a little flame of jealousy was already licking at his heart, though already that heart was thumping at the bid of Marjorie. Impatiently he began to wonder at the perverse waywardness of his own soul, and without undressing he sat at the window—restless, sleepless, and helpless against his warring self—sat until the shadows of the night began to sweep after the light of the sinking moon. When he rose finally, he thought he saw a dim figure moving around the corner of the barn. He rubbed his eyes to make sure, and then picking up his pistol he slipped down the stairs and out the side door, taking care not to awaken his mother and Steve. When he peered forth from the corner of the house, Steve's chestnut gelding was outside the barn and somebody was saddling him. Some negro doubtless was stealing him out for a ride, as was not unusual in that land, and that negro Jason meant to scare half to death. Noiselessly the boy reached the hen-house, and when he peered around that he saw to his bewilderment that the thief was Steve. Once more Steve went into the barn, and this time when he come out he began to fumble about his forehead with both hands, and a moment later Jason saw him move toward the gate, masked and armed. A long shrill whistle came from the turnpike and he heard Steve start into a gallop down the lane.
It was three days before Steve Hawn returned, ill-humored, reddened by drink, and worn. As ever, Martha Hawn asked no questions and Jason betrayed no curiosity, no suspicion, though he was not surprised to learn that in a neighboring county the night riders had been at their lawless work, and he had no doubt that Steve was among them. Jason would be able to help but little that autumn in the tobacco field, for it was his last year in college and he meant to work hard at his books, but he knew that the dispute between his step-father and Colonel Pendleton was still unsettled—that Steve was bitter and had a secret relentless purpose to get even. He did not dare give Colonel Pendleton a warning, for it was difficult, and he knew the fiery old gentleman would receive such an intervention with a gracious smile and dismiss it with haughty contempt; so Jason decided merely to keep a close watch on Steve.
On the opening day of college, as on the opening day three years before, Jason walked through the fields to town, but he did not start at dawn. The dew-born mists were gone and the land lay, with no mystery to the eye or the mind, under a brilliant sun-the fields of stately corn, the yellow tents of wheat gone from the golden stretches of stubble, and green trees rising from the dull golden sheen of the stripped blue-grass pastures. The cut, upturned tobacco no longer looked like hunchbacked witches on broom-sticks and ready for flight, for the leaves, waxen, oily, inert, hung limp and listless from the sticks that pointed like needles to the north to keep the stalks inclined as much as possible from the sun. Even they had taken on the Midas touch of gold, for all green and gold that world of blue-grass was—all green and gold, except for the shaggy unkempt fields where the king of weeds had tented the year before and turned them over to his camp followers—ragweed, dockweed, white-top, and cockle-burr. But the resentment against such an agricultural outrage that the boy had caught from John Burnham was no longer so deep, for that tobacco had kept his mother and himself alive and the father of his best friend must look to it now to save himself from destruction. All the way Jason, walking leisurely, confidently, proudly, and with the fires of his ambition no less keen, thought of the green mountain boy who had torn across those fields at sunrise, that when "school took up" he might not be late—thought of him with much humor and with no little sympathy. When he saw the smoke cloud over the town he took to the white turnpike and quickened his pace. Again the campus of the rival old Transylvania was dotted with students moving to and fro. Again the same policeman stood on the same corner, but now he shook hands with Jason and called him by name. When he passed between the two gray stone pillars with pyramidal tops and swung along the driveway between the maple-trees and chattering sparrows, there were the same boys with caps pushed back and trousers turned up, the same girls with hair up and hair down, but what a difference now for him! Even while he looked around there was a shout from a crowd around John Burnham's doorway; several darted from that crowd toward him and the crowd followed. A dozen of them were trying to catch his hand at once, and the welcome he had seen Gray Pendleton once get he got now for himself, for again a pair of hands went high, a series of barbaric yells were barked out, and the air was rent with the name of Jason Hawn. Among them Jason stood flushed, shy, grateful. A moment later he saw John Burnham in the doorway— looking no less pleased and waiting for him. Even the old president paused on his crutches for a handshake and a word of welcome. The boy found himself wishing that Marjorie—and Mavis— were there, and, as he walked up the steps, from out behind John Burnham Marjorie stepped—proud for him and radiant.
And so, through that autumn, the rectangular, diametric little comedy went on between Marjorie and Jason in the Blue-grass and between Gray and Mavis in the hills. No Saturday passed that Jason did not spend at his mother's home or with John Burnham, and to the mother and Steve and to Burnham his motive was plain—for most of the boy's time was spent with Marjorie Pendleton. Somehow Marjorie seemed always driving to town or coming home when Jason was on his way home or going to town, and somehow he was always afoot and Marjorie was always giving him a kindly lift one or the other way. Moreover, horses were plentiful as barn-yard fowls on Morton Sanders' farm, and the manager, John Burnham's brother, who had taken a great fancy to Jason, gave him a mount whenever the boy pleased. And so John Burnham saw the pair galloping the turnpikes or through the fields, or at dusk going slowly toward Marjorie's home. Besides, Marjorie organized many hunting parties that autumn, and the moon and the stars looking down saw the two never apart for long. About the intimacy Mrs. Pendleton and the colonel thought little. Colonel Pendleton liked the boy, Mrs. Pendleton wanted Marjorie at home, and she was glad for her to have companionship. Moreover, to both, Marjorie was still a child, anything serious would be absurd, and anyway Marjorie was meant for Gray.
In the mountains Gray's interest in his life was growing every day. He liked to watch things planned and grow into execution. His day began with the screech of a whistle at midnight. Every morning he saw the sun rise and the mists unroll and the drenched flanks of the mountains glisten and drip under the sunlight. During the afternoon he woke up in time to stroll down the creek, meet Mavis after school and walk back to the circuit rider's house with her. After supper every night he would go down the spur and sit under the honeysuckles with her on the porch. The third time he came the old man and woman quietly withdrew and were seen no more, and this happened thereafter all the time. Meanwhile in the Blue-grass and the hills the forked tongues of gossip began to play, reaching last, as usual, those who were most concerned, but, as usual, reaching them, too, in time. In the Blue-grass it was criticism of Colonel and Mrs. Pendleton, their indifference, carelessness, blindness, a gaping question of their sanity at the risk of even a suspicion that such a mating might be possible—the proud daughter of a proud family with a nobody from the hills, unknown except that he belonged to a fierce family whose history could be written in human blood; who himself had been in jail on the charge of murder; whose mother could not write her own name; whose step- father was a common tobacco tenant no less illiterate, and with a brain that was a hotbed of lawless mischief, and who held the life of a man as cheap as the life of a steer fattening for the butcher's knife. But in all the gossip there was no sinister suggestion or even thought save in the primitive inference of this same Steve Hawn.
In the mountains, too, the gossip was for a while innocent. To the simple democratic mountain way of thinking, there was nothing strange in the intimacy of Mavis and Gray. There Gray was no better than any mountain boy. He was in love with Mavis, he was courting her, and if he won her he would marry her, and that simply was all—particularly in the mind of old grandfather Hawn. Likewise, too, was there for a while nothing sinister in the talk, for at first Mavis held to the mountain custom, and would not walk in the woods with Gray unless one of the school-children was along—nothing sinister except to little Aaron Honeycutt, whose code had been a little poisoned by his two years' stay outside the hills.
Once more about each pair the elements of social tragedy began to concentrate, intensify, and become active. The new development in the hills made business competition keen between Shade Hawn and Hiram Honeycutt, who each ran a hotel and store in the county- seat. As old Jason Hawn and old Aaron Honeycutt had retired from the leadership, and little Jason and little Aaron had been out of the hills, leadership naturally was assumed by these two business rivals, who revived the old hostility between the factions, but gave vent to it in a secret, underhanded way that disgusted not only old Jason but even old Aaron as well. For now and then a hired Hawn would drop a Honeycutt from the bushes and a hired Honeycutt would drop a Hawn. There was, said old Jason with an oath of contempt, no manhood left in the feud. No principal went gunning for a principal—no hired assassin for another of his kind.
"Nobody ain't shootin' the RIGHT feller," said the old man. "Looks like hit's a question of which hired feller gits fust the man who hired the other feller."
And when this observation reached old Aaron he agreed heartily.
"Fer once in his life," he said, "old Jason Hawn kind o' by accident is a-hittin' the truth." And each old man bet in his secret heart, if little Aaron and little Jason were only at home together, things would go on in quite a different way.
In the lowlands the tobacco pool had been formed and, when persuasion and argument failed, was starting violent measures to force into the pool raisers who would not go in willingly. In the western and southern parts of the State the night riders had been more than ever active. Tobacco beds had been destroyed, barns had been burned, and men had been threatened, whipped, and shot. Colonel Pendleton found himself gradually getting estranged from some of his best friends. He quarrelled with old Morton Sanders, and in time he retired to his farm, as though it were the pole of the earth. His land was his own to do with as he pleased. No man, no power but the Almighty and the law, could tell him what he MUST do. The tobacco pool was using the very methods of the trust it was seeking to destroy. Under those circumstances he considered his duty to himself paramount to his duty to his neighbor, and his duty to himself he would do; and so the old gentleman lived proudly in his loneliness and refused to know fear, though the night riders were getting busy now in the counties adjacent to the Blue-grass, and were threatening raids into the colonel's own county—the proudest in the State. Other "independents" hardly less lonely, hardly less hated, had electrified their barbed-wire fences, and had hired guards—fighting men from the mountains—to watch their barns and houses, but such an example the colonel would not follow, though John Burnham pleaded with him, and even Jason dared at last to give him a covert warning, with no hint, however, that the warning was against his own step-father Steve. It was the duty of the law to protect him, the colonel further argued; the county judge had sworn that the law would do its best; and only when the law could not protect him would the colonel protect himself.
And so the winter months passed until one morning a wood-thrush hidden in green depths sent up a song of spring to Gray's ears in the hills, and in the Blue-grass a meadow-lark wheeling in the sun-light showered down the same song upon the heart of Jason Hawn.
Almost every Saturday Mavis would go down to stay till Monday with her grandfather Hawn. Gray would drift down there to see her—and always, while Mavis was helping her grandmother in the kitchen, Gray and old Jason would sit together on the porch. Gray never tired of the old man's shrewd humor, quaint philosophy, his hunting tales and stories of the feud, and old Jason liked Gray and trusted him more the more he saw of him. And Gray was a little startled when it soon became evident that the old man took it for granted that in his intimacy with Mavis was one meaning and only one.
"I al'ays thought Mavis would marry Jason," he said one night, "but, Lordy Mighty, I'm nigh on to eighty an' I don't know no more about gals than when I was eighteen. A feller stands more chance with some of 'em stayin' away, an' agin if he stays away from some of 'em he don't stand no chance at all. An' agin I rickollect that if I hadn't 'a' got mad an' left grandma in thar jist at one time an' hadn't 'a' come back jist at the right time another time, I'd 'a' lost her—shore. Looks like you're cuttin' Jason out mighty fast now—but which kind of a gal Mavis in thar is, I don't know no more'n if I'd never seed her."
Gray flushed and said nothing, and a little later the old man went frankly on:
"I'm gittin' purty old now an' I hain't goin' to last much longer, I reckon. An' I want you to know if you an' Mavis hitch up fer a life-trot tergether I aim to divide this farm betwixt her an' Jason, an' you an' Mavis can have the half up thar closest to the mines, so you can be close to yo' work."
The boy was saved any answer, for the old man expected and waited for none, so simple was the whole matter to him, but Gray, winding up the creek homeward in the moonlight that night, did some pretty serious thinking. No such interpretation could have been put on the intimacy between him and Mavis at home, for there companionship, coquetry, sentiment, devotion even, were possible without serious parental concern. Young people in the Blue-grass handled their own heart affairs, and so they did for that matter in the hills, but Gray could not realize that primitive conditions forbade attention without intention: for life was simple, mating was early because life was so simple, and Nature's way with humanity was as with her creatures of the fields and air except for the eye of God and the hand of the law. A license, a few words from the circuit rider, a cleared hill-side, a one-room log cabin, a side of bacon, and a bag of meal—and, from old Jason's point of view, Gray and Mavis could enter the happy portals, create life for others, and go on hand in hand to the grave. So that where complexity would block Jason in the Blue-grass, simplicity would halt Gray in the hills. To be sure, the strangeness, the wildness, the activity of the life had fascinated Gray. He loved to ride the mountains and trails—even to slosh along the river road with the rain beating on him, dry and warm under a poncho. Often he would be caught out in the hills and have to stay all night in a cabin; and thus he learned the way of life away from the mines and the river bottoms. So far that poor life had only been pathetic and picturesque, but now when he thought of it as a part of his own life, of the people becoming through Mavis his people, he shuddered and stopped in the moonlit road-aghast. Still, the code of his father was his, all women were sacred, and with all there would be but one duty for him, if circumstances, as they bade fair to now, made that one duty plain. And if his father should go under, if Morton Sanders took over his home and the boy must make his own way and live his life where he was—why not? Gray sat in the porch of the house on the spur, long asking himself that question. He was asking it when he finally went to bed, and he went with it, unanswered, to sleep.
The news reached Colonel Pendleton late one afternoon while he was sitting on his porch—pipe in mouth and with a forbidden mint julep within easy reach. He had felt the reticence of Gray's letters, he knew that the boy was keeping back some important secret from him as long as he could, and now, in answer to his own kind, frank letter Gray had, without excuse or apology, told the truth, and what he had not told the colonel fathomed with ease. He had hardly made up his mind to go at once to Gray, or send for him, when a negro boy galloped up to the stile and brought him a note from Marjorie's mother to come to her at once—and the colonel scented further trouble in the air.
There had been a turmoil that afternoon at Mrs. Pendleton's. Marjorie had come home a little while before with Jason Hawn and, sitting in the hallway, Mrs. Pendleton had seen Jason on the stile, with his hat in one hand and his bridle reins in the other, and Marjorie halting suddenly on her way to the house and wheeling impetuously back toward him. To the mother's amazement and dismay she saw that they were quarrelling—quarrelling as only lovers can. The girl's face was flushed with anger, and her red lips were winging out low, swift, bitter words. The boy stood straight, white, courteous, and unanswering. He lifted his chin a little when she finished, and unanswering turned to his horse and rode away. The mother saw her daughter's face pale quickly. She saw tears as Marjorie came up the walk, and when she rose in alarm and stood waiting in the doorway, the girl fled past her and rushed weeping upstairs.
Mrs. Pendleton was waiting in the porch when the colonel rode to the stile, and the distress in her face was so plain even that far away, that the colonel hurried up the walk, and there was no greeting between the two:
"It's Marjorie, Robert," she said simply, and the old gentleman, who had seen Jason come out of the yard gate and gallop toward John Burnham's, guessed what the matter was, and he took the slim white hands that were clenched together and patted them gently:
"There—there! Don't worry, don't worry!"
He led her into the house, and at the top of the steps stood Marjorie in white, her hair down and tears streaming down her face:
"Come here, Marjorie," called Colonel Pendleton, and she obeyed like a child, talking wildly as she came:
"I know what you're going to say, Uncle Bob—I know it all. I'm tired of all this talk about family, Uncle Bob, I'm tired of it."
She had stopped a few steps above, clinging with one trembling hand to the balcony, as though to have her say quite out before she went helplessly into the arms that were stretched out toward her:
"Dead people are dead, Uncle Bob, and only live people really count. People have to be alive to help you and make you happy. I want to be happy, Uncle Bob—I want to be happy. I know all about the Pendletons, Uncle Bob. They were Cavaliers—I know all that— and they used to ride about sticking lances into peasants who couldn't afford a suit of armor, but they can't do anything for me now, and they mustn't interfere with me now. Anyhow, the Sudduths were plain people and I'm not a bit ashamed of it, mother. Great- grandfather Hiram lived in a log cabin. Grandfather Hiram ate with his knife. I've SEEN him do it, and he kept on doing it when he knew better just out of habit or stubbornness, but Jason's people ate with their knives because they didn't HAVE anything but TWO- pronged forks—I heard John Burnham say that. And Jason's family is as good as the Sudduths, and maybe as the Pendletons, and he wouldn't know it because his grandfathers were out of the world and were too busy, fighting Indians and killing bears and things for food. They didn't have TIME to keep their family trees trimmed, and they didn't CARE anything about the old trees anyhow, and I don't either. John Burnham has told me—"
"Marjorie!" said the colonel gently, for she was getting hysterical. He held out his arms to her, and with another burst of weeping she went into them.
Half an hour later, when she was calm, the colonel got her to ride over home with him, and what she had not told her mother Marjorie on the way told him—in a halting voice and with her face turned aside.
"There's something funny and deep about him, Uncle Bob, and I never could reach it. It piqued me and made me angry. I knew he cared for me, but I could never make him tell it."
The colonel was shaking his old head wisely and comprehendingly.
"I don't know why, but I flew into a rage with him this afternoon about nothing, and he never answered me a word, but stood there listening—why, Uncle Bob, he stood there like—like a—a gentleman—till I got through, and then he turned away—he never did say anything, and I was so sorry and ashamed that I nearly died. I don't know what to do now—and he won't come back, Uncle Bob—I know he won't."
Her voice broke again, and the colonel silenced her by putting one hand comfortingly on her knee and by keeping still himself. His shoulders drooped a little as they walked from the stile toward the house, and Marjorie ran her arm through his:
"Why, you're a little tired, aren't you, Uncle Bob?" she said tenderly, and he did not answer except to pat her hand, against which she suddenly felt his heart throb. He almost stumbled going up the steps, and deadly pale he sank with a muffled groan into a chair. With a cry the girl darted for a glass of water, but when she came back, terrified, he was smiling:
"I'm all right—don't worry. I thought thas sun to-day was going to be too much for me."
But still Marjorie watched him anxiously, and when the color came back to his face she went behind him and wrapped her arms about his neck and put her mouth to his ear:
"I'm just a plain little fool, Uncle Bob, and, as Gray says, I talk through my aigrette. Now, don't you and mother worry—don't worry the least little bit," and she tightened her arms and kissed him several times on his forehead and cheek. "I must go now—and if you don't take better care of yourself I'm going to come over here and take care of you myself."
She was in front of him now and looking down fondly; and a wistfulness that was almost childlike had come into the colonel's face:
"I wish you could, little Marjorie—I wish you would."
He watched her gallop away—turning to wave her whip to him as she went over the slope, her tears gone and once more radiant and gay- -and the sadness of the coming twilight slowly overspread the colonel's face. It was the one hope of his life that she would one day come over to take care of him—and Gray. On into the twilight he sat still and thoughtful. It looked serious for her and Gray. Back his mind flashed to that night of the dance in the mountains, when the four were children, and his wonder then as to what might take place if that mountain boy and girl should have the chance in the world that had already come to them. He began to wonder how much of her real feeling Marjorie might have concealed—how much Gray in his letters was keeping back of his. Such a union was preposterous. He realized too late now the danger to youth of simple proximity—he knew the exquisite sensitiveness of Gray in any matter that meant consideration for others and for his own honor, the generous warmhearted impulsiveness of Marjorie, and the appeal that any romantic element in the situation would make to them both. Perhaps he ought to go to the mountains. There was much he might say to Gray, but what to Jason, or to Marjorie, with that life-absorbing motive of his own—and his affairs at such a crisis? The colonel shook his head helplessly. He was very tired, and wished he could put the matter off till morning when he was rested and his head was clear, but the questions had sunk talons into his heart and brain that would not be unloosed, and the colonel rose wearily and went within.
Marjorie looked serious after she told her mother that night that she feared her uncle was not well, for Mrs. Pendleton became very grave:
"Your Uncle Robert is very far from well. I'm afraid sometimes he is sicker than any of us know."
"And he is in great trouble, Marjorie."
The girl hesitated:
"Money trouble, mother?" she asked at last, "Why, you—we—why don't—"
The mother interrupted with a shake of her head:
"He would go bankrupt first."
The older woman looked up with apprehension, so suddenly charged with an incredible something was the girl's tone:
"Why don't you marry Uncle Robert?"
The mother clutched at her heart with both hands, for an actual spasm caught her there. Every trace of color shot from her face, and with a rush came back—fire. She rose, gave her daughter one look that was almost terror, and quickly left the room.
Marjorie sat aghast. She had caught with careless hand the veil of some mystery—what long-hidden shrine was there behind it, what sacred deeps long still had she stirred?
Jason Hawn rode rapidly to one of Morton Sanders' great stables, put his horse away himself, and, avoiding the chance of meeting John Burnham, slipped down the slope to the creek, crossed on a water gap, and struck across the sunset fields for home. He had felt no anger at Marjorie's mysterious outbreak—only bewilderment; and only bewilderment he felt now.
But as he strode along with his eyes on the ground, things began to clear a little. The fact was that, as he had become more enthralled by the girl's witcheries, the more helpless and stupid he had become. Marjorie's nimble wit had played about his that afternoon like a humming-bird around a sullen sunflower. He hardly knew that every word, every glance, every gesture was a challenge, and when she began stinging into him sharp little arrows of taunt and sarcasm he was helpless as the bull's-hide target at which the two sometimes practised archery. Even now when the poisoned points began to fester, he could stir himself to no anger—he only felt dazed and hurt and sore. Nobody was in sight when he reached his mother's home and he sat down on the porch in the twilight wretched and miserable. Around the corner of the house presently he heard his mother and Steve coming, and around there they stopped for some reason for a moment.
"I seed Babe Honeycutt yestiddy," Steve was saying. "He says thar's a lot o' talk goin' on about Mavis an' Gray Pendleton. The Honeycutts air doin' most o' the talkin' an' looks like the ole trouble's comin' up again. Old Jason is tearin' mad an' swears Gray'll have to git out o' them mountains—"
Jason heard them start moving and he rose and went quickly within that they might know he had overheard. After supper he was again on the porch brooding about Mavis and Gray when his mother came out. He knew that she wanted to say something, and he waited.
"Jason," she said finally, "you don't believe Colonel Pendleton cheated Steve—do you?"
"No," said the lad sharply. "Colonel Pendleton never cheated anybody in his life—except himself."
"That's all I wanted to know," she sighed, but Jason knew that was not all she wanted to say.
"Jason, I heerd two fellers in the lane to-day' talkin' about tearin' up Colonel Pendleton's tobacco beds."
The boy was startled, but he did not show it.
"Nothin' but talk, I reckon."
"Well, if I was in his place I'd git some guards."
Marjorie sat at her window a long time that night before she went to sleep. Her mother had come in, had held her tightly to her breast, and had gone out with only a whispered good-night. And while the girl was wondering once more at the strange effect of her naive question, she recalled suddenly the yearning look of her uncle that afternoon when she had mentioned Gray's name. Could there be some thwarted hope in the lives of Gray's father and her mother that both were now trying to realize in the lives of her and Gray? Her mother had never spoken her wish, nor doubtless Gray's father to him—nor was it necessary, for as children they had decided the question themselves, as had Mavis and Jason Hawn, and had talked about it with the same frankness, though with each pair alike the matter had not been mentioned for a long time. Then her mind leaped, and after it leaped her heart—if her Uncle Robert would not let her mother help him, why, she too could never help Gray, unless—why, of course, if Gray were in trouble she would marry him and give him everything she had. The thought made her glow, and she began to wish Gray would come home. He had been a long time in those hills, his father was sick and worried—and what was he doing down there anyhow? He had mentioned Mavis often in his first letters, and now he wrote rarely, and he never spoke of her at all. She began to get resentful and indignant, not only at him but at Mavis, and she went to bed wishing more than ever that Gray would come home. And yet playing around in her brain was her last vision of that mountain boy standing before her, white and silent—"like a gentleman"—and that vision would not pass even in her dreams.
Through Colonel Pendleton's bed-room window an hour later two pistol shots rang sharply, and through that window the colonel saw a man leap the fence around his tobacco beds and streak for the woods. From the shadow of a tree at his yard fence another flame burst, and by its light he saw a crouching figure. He called out sharply, the figure rose and came toward him, and in the moonlight the colonel saw uplifted to him, apologetic and half shamed, the face of Jason Hawn.
"No harm, colonel," he called. "Somebody was tearing up your tobacco beds and I just scared him off. I didn't try to hit him."
The colonel was dazed, but he spoke at last gently.
"Well, well, I can't let you lose your sleep this way, Jason; I'll get some guards now."
"If you won't let me," said the boy quickly, "you ought to send for Gray."
The old gentleman looked thoughtful.
"Of course, perhaps I ought—why, I will."
"He won't come again to-night," said Jason. "I shot close enough to scare him, I reckon, Good-night, colonel."
"Thank you, my boy—good-night."
It was court day at the county-seat. A Honeycutt had shot down a Hawn in the open street, had escaped, and a Hawn posse was after him. The incident was really a far effect of the recent news that Jason Hawn was soon coming back home—and coming back to live. Straightway the professional sneaks and scandal-mongers of both factions got busy to such purpose that the Honeycutts were ready to believe that the sole purpose of Jason's return was to revive the feud and incidentally square a personal account with little Aaron. Old Jason Hawn had started home that afternoon almost apoplectic with rage, for word had been brought him that little Aaron had openly said that it was high time that Jason Hawn came home to look after his cousin and Gray Pendleton went home to take care of his. It was a double insult, and to the old man's mind subtly charged with a low meaning. Old as he was, he had tried to find little Aaron, but the boy had left town.
Gray and Mavis were seated on the old man's porch when he came in sight of his house, for it was Saturday, and Mavis started the moment she saw her grandfather's face, and rose to meet him.
"What's the matter, grandpap?" The old man waved her back. "Git back inter the house," he commanded shortly. "No—stay whar you air. When do you two aim to git married?" Had a bolt of lightning flashed through the narrow sunlit space between him and them, the pair could not have been more startled, blinded. Mavis flushed angrily, paled, and wheeled into the house. Gray rose in physical response to the physical threat in the old man's tone and fearlessly met the eyes that were glaring at him.
"I don't know what you mean, Mr. Hawn," he said respectfully. "I— "
"The hell you don't," broke in the old man furiously. "I'll give ye jes two minutes to hit the road and git a license. I'll give ye an hour an' a half to git back. An' if you don't come back I'll make Jason foller you to the mouth o' the pit o' hell an' bring ye back alive or dead." Again the boy tried to speak, but the old man would not listen.
"Git!" he cried, and, as the boy still made no move, old Jason hurried on trembling legs into the house. Gray heard him cursing and searching inside, and at the corner of the house appeared Mavis with both of the old man's pistols and his Winchester.
"Go on, Gray," she said, and her face was still red with shame. "You'll only make him worse, an' he'll kill you sure."
Gray shook his head: "No!"
"Please, Gray," she pleaded; "for God's sake—for my sake."
That the boy could not withstand. He started for the gate with his hat in hand—is head high, and, as he slowly passed through the gate and turned, the old man reappeared, looked fiercely after him, and sank into a chair sick with rage and trembling. As Mavis walked toward him with his weapons he glared at her, but she passed him by as though she did not see him, and put the Winchester and pistols in their accustomed places. She came out with her bonnet in her hand, and already her calmness and her silence had each had its effect—old Jason was still trembling, but from his eyes the rage was gone.
"I'm goin' home, grandpap," she said quietly, "an' if it wasn't for grandma I wouldn't come back. You've been bullyin' an' rough- ridin' over men-folks and women-folks all your life, but you can't do it no more with ME. An' you're not goin' to meddle in MY business any more. You know I'm a good girl—why didn't you go after the folks who've been talkin' instead o' pitchin' into Gray? You know he'd die before he'd harm a hair o' my head or allow you or anybody else to say anything against my good name. An' I tell you to your face"—her tone fiercened suddenly—"if you hadn't 'a' been an old man an' my grandfather, he'd 'a' killed you right here. An' I'm goin' to tell you something more. He ain't responsible for this talk—I am. He didn't know it was goin' on- -I did. I'm not goin' to marry him to please you an' the miserable tattletales you've been listenin' to. I reckon I ain't good enough—but I KNOW my kinfolks ain't fit to be his—even by marriage. My daddy ain't, an' YOU ain't, an' there ain't but one o' the whole o' our tribe who is—an' that's little Jason Hawn. Now you let him alone an' you let me alone."
She put her bonnet on, flashed to the gate, and disappeared in the dusk down the road. The old man's shaggy head had dropped forward on his chest, he had shrunk down in his chair bewildered, and he sat there a helpless, unanswering heap. When the moon rose, Mavis was seated on the porch with her chin in both hands. The old circuit rider and his wife had gone to bed. A whippoorwill was crying with plaintive persistence far up a ravine, and the night was deep and still about her, save for the droning of insect life from the gloomy woods. Straight above her stars glowed thickly, and in a gap of the hills beyond the river, where the sun had gone down, the evening star still hung like a great jewel on the velvety violet curtain of the night, and upon that her eyes were fixed. On the spur above, her keen ears caught the soft thud of a foot against a stone, and her heart answered. She heard a quick leap across the branch, the sound of a familiar stride along the road, and saw the quick coming of a familiar figure along the edge of the moonlight, but she sat where she was and as she was until Gray, with hat in hand, stood before her, and then only did she lift to him eyes that were dark as the night but shining like that sinking star in the little gap. The boy went down on one knee before her, and gently pulled both of her, hands away from her face with both his own, and held them tightly.
"Mavis," he said, "I want you to marry me—won't you, Mavis?"
The girl showed no surprise, said nothing—she only disengaged her hands, took his face into them, and looked with unwavering silence deep into his eyes, looked until he saw that the truth was known in hers, and then he dropped his face into her lap and she put her hands on his head and bent over him, so that her heart beat with the throbbing at his temples. For a moment she held him as though she were shielding him from every threatening danger, and then she lifted his face again.
"No, Gray—it won't do—hush, now." She paused a moment to get self-control, and then she went on rapidly, as though what she had to say had been long prepared and repeated to herself many times:
"I knew you were coming to-night. I know why you were so late. I know why you came. Hush, now—I know all that, too. Why, Gray, ever since I saw you the first time—you remember?—why, it seems to me that ever since then, even, I've been thinkin' o' this very hour. All the time I was goin' to school when I first went to the Blue-grass, when I was walkin' in the fields and workin' around the house and always lookin' to the road to see you passin' by—I was thinkin', thinkin' all the time. It seems to me every night of my life I went to sleep thinkin'—I was alone so much and I was so lonely. It was all mighty puzzlin' to me, but that time you didn't take me to that dance—hush now—I began to understand. I told Jason an' he only got mad. He didn't understand, for he was wilful and he was a man, and men don't somehow seem to see and take things like women—they just want to go ahead and make them the way they want them. But I understood right then. And then when I come here the thinkin' started all over again differently when I was goin' back and forwards from school and walkin' around in the woods and listenin' to the wood-thrushes, and sittin' here in the porch at night alone and lyin' up in the loft there lookin' out of the little window. And when I heard you were comin' here I got to thinkin' differently, because I got to hopin' differently and wonderin' if some miracle mightn't yet happen in this world once more. But I watched you here, and the more I watched you, the more I began to go back and think as I used to think. Your people ain't mine, Gray, nor mine yours, and they won't benot in our lifetime. I've seen you shrinkin' when you've been with me in the houses of some of my own kin—shrinkin' at the table at grandpap's and here, at the way folks eat an' live—shrinkin' at oaths and loud voices and rough talk and liquor-drinkin' and all this talk about killin' people, as though they were nothin' but hogs—shrinkin' at everybody but me. If we stayed here, the time would come when you'd be shrinkin' from me—don't now! But you ain't goin' to stay here, Gray. I've heard Uncle Arch say you'd never make a business man. You're too trustin', you've been a farmer and a gentleman for too many generations. You're goin' back home—you've got to—some day—I know that, and then the time would come when you'd be ashamed of me if I went with you. It's the same way with Jason and Marjorie. Jason will have to come back here—how do you suppose Marjorie would feel here, bein' a woman, if you feel the way you do, bein' a man? Why, the time would come when she'd be ashamed o' him—only worse. It won't do, Gray." She turned his face toward the gap in the hills.
"You see that star there? Well, that's your star, Gray. I named it for you, and every night I've been lookin' out at it from my window in the loft. And that's what you've been to me and what Marjorie's been to Jason—just a star—a dream. We're not really real to each other—you an' me—and Marjorie and Jason ain't. Only Jason and I are real to each other and only you and Marjorie, Jason and I have been worshippin' stars, and they've looked down mighty kindly on us, so that they came mighty nigh foolin' us and themselves. I read a book the other day that said ideals were stars and were good to point the way, but that people needed lamps to follow that way. It won't do, Gray. You are goin' back home to carry a lamp for Marjorie, and maybe Jason'll come back to these hills to carry a lantern for me."
Throughout the long speech the boy's eyes had never wavered from hers. After one or two efforts to protest he had listened quite intensely, marvelling at the startling revelation of such depths of mind and heart-the startling penetration to the truth, for he knew it was the truth. And when she rose he stayed where he was, clinging to her hand, and kissing it reverently. He was speechless even when, obeying the impulse of her hand, he rose in front of her and she smiled gently.
"You don't have to say one word, Gray—I understand, bless your dear, dear heart, I understand. Good-by, now." She stretched out her hand, but his trembling lips and the wounded helplessness in his eyes were too much for her, and she put her arms around him, drew his head to her breast, and a tear followed her kiss to his forehead. At the door she paused a moment.
"And until he comes," she half-whispered, "I reckon I'll keep my lamp burning." Then she was gone.
Slowly the boy climbed back to the little house on the spur, and to the porch, on which he sank wearily. While he and Marjorie and Jason were blundering into a hopeless snarl of all their lives, this mountain girl, alone with the hills and the night and the stars, had alone found the truth—and she had pointed the way. The camp lights twinkled below. The moon swam in majestic splendor above. The evening star still hung above the little western gap in the hills. It was his star; it was sinking fast: and she would keep her lamp burning. When he climbed to his room, the cry of the whippoorwill in the ravine came to him through his window—futile, persistent, like a human wail for happiness. The boy went to his knees at his bedside that night, and the prayer that went on high from the depths of his heart was that God would bring the wish of her heart to Mavis Hawn.
Gray Pendleton was coming home. Like Jason, he, too, waited at the little junction for dawn, and swept along the red edge of it, over the yellow Kentucky River and through the blue-grass fields. Drawn up at the station was his father's carriage and in it sat Marjorie, with a radiant smile of welcome which gave way to sudden tears when they clasped hands—tears that she did not try to conceal. Uncle Robert was in bed, she said, and Gray did not perceive any significance in the tone with which she added, that her mother hardly ever left him. She did not know what the matter was, but he was very pale, and he seemed to be growing weaker. The doctor was cheery and hopeful, but her mother, she emphasized, was most alarmed, and again Gray did not notice the girl's peculiar tone. Nor did the colonel seem to be worried by the threats of the night riders. It was Jason Hawn who was worried and had persuaded the colonel to send for Gray. The girl halted when she spoke Jason's name, and the boy looked up to find her face scarlet and her eyes swerve suddenly from his to the passing fields. But as quickly they swerved back to find Gray's face aflame with the thought of Mavis. For a moment both looked straight ahead in silence, and in that silence Marjorie became aware that Gray had not asked about Jason, and Gray that Marjorie had not mentioned Mavis's name. But now both made the omission good-and Gray spoke first.
Mavis was well. She was still teaching school. She had lived a life of pathetic loneliness, but she had developed in an amazing way through that very fact, and she had grown very beautiful. She had startled him by her insight into—he halted—into everything— and how was Jason getting along? The girl had been listening, covertly watching, and had grown quite calm. Jason, too, was well, but he looked worried and overworked. His examinations were going on now. He had written his graduating speech but had not shown it to her, though he had said he would. Her mother and Uncle Robert had grown very fond of him and admired him greatly, but lately she had not seen him, he was so busy. Again there was a long silence between them, but when they reached, the hill whence both their homes were visible Marjorie began as though she must get out something' that was on her mind before they reached Colonel Pendleton's gate.
"Gray," she said hesitantly and so seriously that the boy turned to her, "did it ever cross your mind that there was ever any secret between Uncle Robert and mother?"
The boy's startled look was answer enough and she went on telling him of the question she had asked her mother.
"Sometimes," she finished, "I think that your father and my mother must have loved each other first and that something kept them from marrying. I know that they must have talked it over lately, for there seems to be a curious understanding between them now, and the sweetest peace has come to both of them."
She paused, and Gray, paralyzed with wonder, still made no answer. They had passed through the gate now and in a moment more would be at Gray's home. Around each barn Gray saw an armed guard; there was another at the yard gate, and there were two more on the steps of the big portico.
"Maybe," the girl went on naively, almost as though she were talking to herself, "that's why they've both always been so anxious to have us—" Again she stopped—scarlet.
Jason Hawn's last examination was over, and he stepped into the first June sunlight and drew it into his lungs with deep relief. Looking upward from the pavement below, the old president saw his confident face.
"It seems you are not at all uneasy," he said, and his keen old eyes smiled humorously.
Jason reddened a little.
"No, sir—I'm not."
"Nor am I," said the old gentleman, "nor will you forget that this little end is only the big beginning."
"Thank you, sir."
"You are going back home? You will be needed there."
It was the longest talk Jason had ever had with the man he all but worshipped, and while it was going on the old scholar was painfully climbing the steps—so that the last word was flung back with the sharp, soldier-like quality of a command given by an officer who turned his back with perfect trust that it would be obeyed, and in answer to that trust the boy's body straightened and his very much about changing his ways, that he no longer had any resentment against Colonel Pendleton, and wanted now to live a better life. His talk might have fooled Jason but for the fact that he shrewdly noted the little effect it all had on his mother. Entering the mouth of the lane, Jason saw Steve going from the yard gate to the house, and his brows wrinkled angrily—Steve was staggering. He came to the door and glared at Jason.
"Whut you doin' out hyeh?"
"I'm goin' to see Gray through his troubles," said Jason quietly.
"I kind o' thought you had troubles enough o' yo' own," sneered the man.
Jason did not answer. His mother was seated within with her back to the door, and when she turned Jason saw that she had been weeping, and, catching sight of a red welt on her temple, he walked over to her.
"How'd that happen, mammy?"
She hesitated and Jason whirled with such fury that his mother caught him with both arms, and Steve lost no time reaching for his gun.
"I jammed it agin the kitchen door, Jasie."
He looked at her, knew that she was lying, and when he turned to go, halted at the door.
"If you ever touch my mother again," he said with terrifying quiet, "I'll kill you as sure as there is a God in heaven to forgive me."
Across the midsummer fields Jason went swiftly. On his right, half of a magnificent woodland was being laid low—on his left, another was all gone—and with Colonel Pendleton both, he knew, had been heart-breaking deeds of necessity, for his first duty, that gentleman claimed, was to his family and to his creditors, and nobody could rob him of his right to do what he pleased, much less what he ought, with his own land. And so the colonel still stood out against friend and neighbor, and open and secret foes. His tobacco beds had been raided, one of his barns had been burned, his cattle had been poisoned, and, sick as he was, threats were yet coming in that the night riders would burn his house and take his life. Across the turnpike were the fields and untouched woodlands of Marjorie, and it looked as though the hand of Providence had blessed one side of the road and withered the other with a curse. On top of the orchard fence, to the western side of the house, Jason sat a while. The curse was descending on Gray's innocent head and he had had the weakness and the folly to lift his eyes to the blessing across the way. As Mavis had pointed out the way to Gray, so Marjorie, without knowing it, had pointed. the way for him. When long ago he had been helpless before her by the snow-fringed willows at the edge of the pond in the old college yard, she had been frightened and had shrunk away. When he gained his self-control, she had lost hers, and in her loneliness had come trailing toward him almost like a broken-winged young bird looking for mother help—and he had not misunderstood, though his heart ached for her suffering as it ached for her. And Marjorie had been quite right—he had never come back after that one quarrel, and he would never come. The old colonel had gone to him, but he had hardly more than opened his lips when he had both hands on the boy's shoulders with broken words of sympathy and then had turned away—so quickly had he seen that Jason fully understood the situation and had disposed of it firmly, proudly, and finally- -for himself. The mountains were for Jason—there were his duty and the work of his life. Under June apples turning golden, and amid the buzzing of bees, the boy went across the orchard, and at the fence he paused again. Marjorie and her mother were coming out of the house with Gray, and Jason watched them walk to the stile. Gray was tanned, and even his blonde head had been turned copper by the mountain sun, while the girl looked like a great golden- hearted lily. But it was Gray's face as he looked at her that caught the boy's eyes and held them fast, for the face was tense, eager, and worshipping.
He saw Marjorie and her mother drive away, saw Gray wave to them and turn back to the house, and then he was so shocked at the quick change to haggard worry that draped his friend like a cloak from head to foot that he could hardly call to him. And so Jason waited till Gray had passed within, and then he leaped the fence and made for the portico. Gray himself answered his ring and with a flashing smile hurried forward when he saw Jason in the doorway. The two clasped hands and for one swift instant searched each other's eyes with questions too deep and delicate to be put into words—each wondering how much the other might know, each silent if the other did not know. For Gray had learned from his father about Steve Hawn, and Jason's suspicions of Steve he had kept to himself.
"My father would like to have you as our guest, Jason, while I am here," Gray said with some embarrassment, "but he doesn't feel like letting you take the risk."
Jason threw back the lapel of his coat that covered his badge as deputy.
"That's what I'm here for," he said with a smile, "but I think I'd better stay at home. I'll be on hand when the trouble comes."
Gray, too, smiled.
"You don't have to tell me that."
"How is the colonel?"
"He's pretty bad. He wants to see you."
Jason lowered his voice when they entered the hallway. "The soldiers have reached town to-day. If there's anything going to be done, it will probably be done to-night."
"We won't tell the colonel."
Then Gray led the way to the sick-room and softly opened the door. In a great canopied bed lay Colonel Pendleton with his face turned toward the window, through which came the sun and air, the odors and bird-songs of spring-time, and when that face turned, Jason was shocked by its waste and whiteness and by the thinness of the hand that was weakly thrust out to him. But the fire of the brilliant eyes burned as ever; there was with him, prone in bed, still the same demeanor of stately courtesy; and Jason felt his heart melt and then fill as always with admiration for the man, the gentleman, who unconsciously had played such a part in the moulding of his own life, and as always with the recognition of the unbridgable chasm between them—between even him and Gray. The bitter resentment he had first felt against this chasm was gone now, for now he understood and accepted. As men the three were equal, but father and son had three generations the start of him. He could see in them what he lacked himself, and what they were without thought he could only consciously try to be—and he would keep on trying. The sick man turned his face again to the window and the morning air. When he turned again he was smiling faintly and his voice was friendly and affectionate:
"Jason, I know why you are here. I'm not going to thank you, but I—Gray"—he paused ever so little, and Jason sadly knew what it meant—"will never forget it. I want you two boys to be friends as long as you live. I'm sorry, but it looks as though you would both have to give up yourselves to business—particularly sorry about Gray, for that is my fault. For the good of our State I wish you both were going to sit side by side at Frankfort, in Congress, and the Senate, and fight it out"—he smiled whimsically—"some day for the nomination for the Presidency. The poor old commonwealth is in a bad way, and it needs just such boys as you two are. The war started us downhill, but we might have done better—I know I might. The earth was too rich—it made life too easy. The horse, the bottle of whiskey, and the plug of tobacco were all too easily the best—and the pistol always too ready. We've been cartooned through the world with a fearsome, half-contemptuous slap on the back. Our living has been made out of luxuries. Agriculturally, socially, politically, we have gone wrong, and but for the American sense of humor the State would be in a just, nation-wide contempt. The Ku-Klux, the burning of toll-gates, the Goebel troubles, and the night rider are all links in the same chain of lawlessness, and but for the first the others might not have been. But we are, in spite of all this, a law-abiding people, and the old manhood of the State is still here. Don't forget that—THE OLD MANHOOD IS HERE."
Jason had sat eager-eyed and listening hard. Bewildered Gray felt his tears welling, for never had he heard in all his life his father talk this way. Again Colonel Pendleton turned his face to the window and went on as though to the world outside.