HE had walked almost forty miles on his quest (but he did not call it a quest) and he was glad when he came to the strange fence of which he had heard, the fence that was made of wires twisted and woven together.
On the last ten miles of his journey he had met people who glanced curiously at his clothes and the bundle in his hand. Parties of gay, young people they were, in vehicles to which he could give no name.
"They've got luther stretched up overhead," Jed observed. "I reckon they're too lazy to carry umbrells."
He supposed they were going to the hotel at the springs just this side of the mountains. He had been at the springs once; but it was in the winter when there were no gay young people about. He had walked across the mountains to the little store near the hotel with a load of furs on his back, and had bought a new gun for himself and a calico dress for his mother – a wonderful dress with roses and morning glories on it. She had hemmed a square of it and given it to Jed for a handkerchief. When he started on his quest he had tied up all his worldly possessions in that handkerchief, and he was not surprised that even the stylish young people who were going to the springs noticed the beauty of it.
Standing before the fence, Jed studied the intricate pattern of the wires and meditated on the fact that this fence was the dividing line between his life as it had been and the glorious new life that was to be. If he had ever heard of the Rubicon he would have thought of it then.
He jumped the fence and walked on through the woods with the martial tread of one who was going forth to do valiant deeds.
"This yere's what they call a campus," he said, and a moment later he stopped short with an exclamation of delight. "That's the place," he cried. "The very identical spot that's pictured out in the catalogue."
He drew from his pocket a copy of the Jenkinsburg college bulletin, a well thumbed copy that opened of itself at the picture of this tennis court at the edge of the woods.
"It'S jest the same," he said. "Only–ther's gals in the picture."
He felt a vague sense of disappointment that the girls of the picture had vanished from the tennis court.
He walked on, more slowly now, for the college buildings were in plain view and their magnificence awed him. They were almost as large as the hotel at the springs. One of them was three stories high.
A bell rang out suddenly from one of the buildings, and a moment later troops of young people poured out the doors and scattered along the walks. The sight of them sent Jed's heart into his throat but he stopped the first one that he met.
"Kin you'uns tell me," he asked, "whar the president's at?"
The student was clad in all the glory of a red and black sweater, and a red cap perched on one corner of his large square head, like a bird poised for flight. He looked at Jed's homespun garments somewhat superciliously, but answered civilly enough.
"I reckon the president's in his office, but I do not know. I have not saw him today. His office is in this building at the fur end of the hall."
If was' a long narrow hall and the office at the end of it was small, but the windows were the largest Jed had ever seen, and the polished oak furniture seemed luxurious to him.
A small, alert man, with a smooth bald head, sat at the desk writing. He greeted Jed cordially.
"Take a chair," he said, and Jed sat down carefully on the shiny surface of the chair nearest him.
"Well what can I do for you?" he asked, as Jed only gazed around the room with undisguised curiosity.
"Be you the president?" Jed asked.
Jed surveyed him for a moment admiringly. This was the great man of whom he had heard.
"Wal, I want to git larnin' " he said. "I've sold my sheep an' I want to larn up the money. How long will it take to larn up twenty sheep?"
The president coughed slightly and looked down at the papers on his desk before replying.
"That will depend somewhat on the price you received for the sheep," he said.
"I got two dollars a head."
"That is forty dollars; how long do you wish to stay in school?"
"Jest till I larn ever'thing. I'm a-goin' to larn ever'thing you-all knows."
"But I don't know everything, my boy."
His eyes twinkled genially, but Jed felt very much disappointed. If this great man did not know everything, how long it must take one to learn.
"Your money," the president said, "will not be sufficient to cover the first year's expenses." Jed's face lengthened.
"I'd been 'lowin' I cud jest about buy the whole college with this 'ere," he said. "Hit's more money 'n I ever see before."
"If you are willing to work," the great man went on, "you might pay a part of your expenses in that way."
"I reckon I kin work," the fellow said. His tone denoted great relief and he glanced at his rough, work-hardened hands with a look of pride. "Jest show me the work, an' I'll pitch inter it."
"Can you take care of horses?"
"I reckon I kin, I've tuk care of Uncle Jed's horses a right smart."
"Very well. I can arrange for you to attend school this year at least, and during vacation you can doubtless find something to do that will help pay next year's expenses. You will be in the preparatory department, I suppose?"
"I dunno." Jed was somewhat nervously rubbing the rough knuckles of one hand with the forefinger of the other. "I reckon I orter tell you I ain't no perfessor."
"Oh, that makes no difference."
The great man smiled benignly on him.
"Of course I am sorry to hear it and hope you will experience a change of heart while here, hut though this is a denominatiol school it is open to everyone. We believe in freedom of conscience."
"All right." Jed was vastly relieved. "I kin stay then. I saw suthin' in you-uns' catalogue about how the folks as goes to school to you-uns' has to go to church, an' I axed the schoolmarm what churches there is in Jenkinsburg an' there ain't none that my conscience'd let me go to."
The great man's brews drew together slightly. He foresaw complications.
"What schoolma'am are you speaking of?" he asked, "and what did she tell you about the churches!"
"She didn't tell me nuthin' but the names of 'em," Jed declared, loyally, "an' I reckon I've see preachers enough to know what them names stands fer."
"But what objection have you to these churches? You are not an atheist, are you?"
"I dunno," answered Jed. It was the first time he had ever heard of an atheist. "I'm a non-conformist I reckon."
The great man leaned his head on his hand and pondered a moment. The ticking of the clock on the mantel sounded through the room. Jed thought of the nights he had lain awake listening to the ticking of his mother's clock. He thought of the long nights he had prayed in agony, on the lonely mountainside, and the skies were dark above him.
"I know," the great man said slowly, "that there are often great doubts, great difficulties, in the path of the young. If you will stay with us perhaps we can help you to overcome all the obstacles that hinder you from true Christian belief and Christian living."
"Mebbe so," Jed responded, doubtfully.
"What is the nature of your difficulty?" the great man asked, winningly. "Can you not tell me."
Jed shook his head slowly. The horror of those lonely nights of doubt and darkness came over him again. Tears for which he scorned himself sprang to his eyes. No, there were some things he could not speak of, even to this great, good man who was so anxious to help him.
"I am very sorry," the great man said. "If you will stay with us we will do all in our power to bring you into right relations with God. But of course the rules of the school must be observed. All students must attend church services and join a class in Sunday school."
"I wouldn't mind goin' oncet or twicet ter see all they is to see. But it wouldn't be right" (Jed was arguing more with himself than the president) "ter go ter church right along jest fer the sake up gittin' larnin' an' bein' somebody."
"No," the great man said, "it would not be right to go to church merely for material advancement. But can't you go because it is right?"
"I don't reckon I kin. It wouldn't be right fer me."
"I am very sorry," the great man said again, "but the rules of the college must be observed."
"I thought," answered Jed, half perplexed, half resentful, "that the days uv conformity like we read uv in the hist'ry book wus done past."
"This is not conformity," the great man said, with dignity. "It is different entirely. This is a private school and those who do not wish to obey its rules need not attend it."
"I reckon so," Ted responded, vaguely.
He rose to his feet.
"I'd better be a-gittin' back ter Lone Valley," he said.
He was outside the door and closing it behind him when the great man called him back.
"We are holding our annual series of revival meetings in the college," he said. "I wish you would stay for today's service. It begins in half an hour. I cannot attend this meeting, but I can direct you to the chapel. We have a very able evangelist."
Jed signified his willingness to attend the meeting and the president directed him to the chapel.
"I reckon I'll go to the libr'y fust," he said. "I never see so many books all to oncet as them that's pictured in the catalogue."
The president pointed out the library building through a window and shook hands with the fellow regretfully.
"If you should change your mind at any time," he said, "come back to us."
"Thank you," answered Jed. "I don't reckon I'll change my mind."
In the library he stalked from one book-lined alcove to another, looking at the books but not touching them. A girl sitting at one of the tables noticed him presently and came to him.
"Is there some special book you are trying to find?" she asked.
Her voice was low and so sweet that something within him trembled and thrilled as it did when he listened to the birds' songs in the woods.
"I reckon not," he said. "I'm jest readin' the names on the backs of the books. I won't begin readin' none uv 'em fer I ain't got time ter finish none."
She was a warm-hearted girl who usually acted on her first impulse, and she had been book-hungry herself. She understood the look in his eyes. She turned to the table where the book she had been reading lay open. It was a copy of Olive Schreiner's "Dreams."
"This is mine," she said, putting it into his hands. The other young people in the room were looking at them curiously, but her voice was so low they could not hear. "Read in it while you are here and if you like it you may take it with you."
He took the book and sat down at the nearest table. After that he was deaf and blind to his surroundings until a gong sounded loudly from the opposite wall. He noticed then that all the young people closed their books and brought them to the girl who had spoken to him. Before she had finished putting the books away all of them had left the building except one young man, who lingered near the door as if he were trying to think of some excuse for waiting longer.
"I must close the library now," the girl said to Jed. "We must all attend the service in the in the chapel. We shall be glad to have you attend it, too."
She was bending toward him over the table, and as he looked up at her he noticed how much more beautiful she was than the angel in the great stained glass window behind her. The sunlight fell through a western window on her face–lighting the sensitive, red mouth and the deep, deep eyes with dreams in their depths. For the first time in his life Jed wished that he could have had a sister.
Me untied the handkerchief that wrapped his bundle and stowed his book away. Then he went out slowly and walked along the path toward the chapel with only one backward glance. He saw that the young man who had lingered in the vestibule turned the key in the lock and walked down the steps beside the girl.
The chapel was already half-filled when Jed entered it. He took a seat in front where he could hear and see everything. The students came trooping in at the different doors in groups of two or three or a dozen. There was much whispering and subdued giggling as they settled themselves in their seats. Jed saw that he was the cause of some of their amusement, and flushed with embarrassment. He wondered if he looked as strange to them as they did to him. The bright-colored sweaters that some of the boys wore, the big sleeves and blouse waists of the girls were entirely new to him. He felt sorry for most of the girls because their hair stood up in such an immense mass above their foreheads. To his untutored mind, ignorant of pompadour combs and "rats," those careful coiffures seemed deformities.
Presently the girl who had spoken to Jed in the library came up into the pulpit, and, after a whispered consultation with some other young people, one of whom was evidently the evangelist, seated herself on a queer little stool and began fingering a piece of furniture which Jed had noticed but could not name. He understood at once that it was an organ or piano. He had heard of them but he had not dreamed that such music could flow from them. He closed his eyes and let it flow through him, lifting him up into an ecstasy he never had known before. Only for a moment the liquid sweetness throbbed through him, blotting out past and present. Then, at the end of the prelude, the voices of choir and congregation joined in and the spell was broken. He looked around at them angrily. How could they spoil her music? Had they no ears? How could they prefer their own bellowing to that divine harmony? The congregation stood up while they sang, and Jed, who was head and shoulders above the rest, felt horribly conspicuous. He almost wished that he was back in Lone Valley.
The minister was an able evangelist, of that there could be no question. He uncorked the lower regions and shook the sinner over the flames until he was somewhat scorched and thoroughly repentant. On this occasion the text he had chosen was, "Fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell."
To Jed the whole service was like an unpleasant dream. It was the same scene he had witnessed so many times at camp-meetings in the mountains. The fiery eloquence and hypnotic gestures of the preacher, the congregation that laughed or cried at his will – it was all so sickeningly familiar. The fact that the people were better dressed, better educated, seemingly more intelligent than any he had seen before, only made it seem worse to Jed. Was this what the wise world was doing? The world of his dreams? He felt the deep notes of the organ and the discordant voices of the singers crashing through him with a sense of physical pain. He stood up with the rest. He hoped it was the closing hymn, but as soon as it was ended the evangelist announced another.
Jed set his teeth and tried to endure it patiently. The heated air of the room was loathsome to his mountain-bred lungs. The sight and sound of these people sickened him. He felt that they were an alien race and that the world he had dreamed of existed only in his dreams. If it had not been for the book in his handkerchief and the face of the girl who had given it to him, he would have known that he was the only one of his kind. And yet–after all, was the girl what she had seemed? Why was she helping these people carry on this unholy farce if she were not one of them? Was she, too, a fool, or was she a hypocrite? Jed was too young to have learned the "judge not" lesson, which is perhaps the most important we mortals may learn.
He felt a sudden distrust of everything – except the book in his handkerchief. He drew it out and looked for the name of the author.
"Olive Schreiner," he muttered. "Olive's a girl's name. I bet she wouldn't set a poundin' no organ ter help preachers scare folks with lies about hell."
He put the book away carefully and looked at the long line of students at the mourner's seat. The singing had ceased. The evangelist and some others were talking to the mourners. It was the latter that Jed studied. One of them – the one nearest Jed – was a young girl, with big baby-blue eyes filled with tears. She raised them appealingly to the preacher as he bent over her for a minute.
Jed sprang to his feet. He did not know at the moment what he meant to do. He wanted to throw the preacher through the window. He went across to the girl and knelt down beside her. She had put her face down on the bench at which the mourners knelt and was sobbing softly.
"Don't you worry," whispered Jed. "Gawd loves we-uns. The bible says so. 'Like ez a father pities his children.' Your daddy wouldn't burn you up in no hell an' the Lord won't nuther."
The girl looked up quickly. She did not notice Jed's uncouth appearance. A drowning man does not criticize the cut of his rescuer's coat. "Are you sure?" she asked.
"I reckon I'd orter be sure. Don't the bible say, 'kin a mother fergit her children? Yes, she may fergit, yit will not I fergit you.' The Lord says that hisself an' what the Lord says goes." Jed was very reverent and intensely earnest. The girl looked at him hopefully.
"Youall knows yer mother wouldn't take her own little baby an' put it in the soap kittle an set it in the chimney corner to bile. 'Taint true," he asserted, "not ef all the preachers in creation says so, that the Lord'll do sech things ez that. The Lord's ez good ez our mothers. The bible sads he's better."
The girl said nothing, but her face was radiant. Jed felt a hand laid on his shoulder.
"My brother," a voice said in his ear, "are you seeking the Lord?"
Jed rose and looked down from his six feet three inches of height on the dapper little man at his side.
"Yes," he said, "I'm seekin' the Lord, but I don't reckon I need none of your leadin's."
He turned and strode down the aisle to the outer door. He was glad of the solitude that waited for him in Lone Valley.
Near the gates he met a party of students who had just arrived at the college. Two or three of them carried large, flat, leather-covered boxes with leather handles. Jed looked at them curiously and the young people returned his stare with interest. The bundle in his hand came in for a share of their inspection.
"That's the very latest in suit-cases," one o the girls said as soon as he had passed them.
"You must get one like it, Cousin George, or you won't be in it any more.
They all laughed hilariously. She had lowered her voice a little, but Jed's ears were trained for the sounds of the forest.
He strode rapidly through the little town. He had meant to stop and enjoy the sights – there were many huge buildings, two stories in height; there were roads with long hearths of stone or brick laid down on each side for people to walk on; there were marvelous things displayed in great windows. But it was growing late and Jed allowed himself only a brief glimpse of the wonders of civilization. Then he went back toward the mountains.
The sun had set before he reached the high hill from which he could take his last view of the town. Its spires and chimneys showed black against the red sky. He stood looking back at it silently.
If he had been a Socialist, he would probably have vented his mingled emotions in a denunciation of the system that locks up the accumulated knowledge of the ages in institutions which open only to a key of gold, or worse, of conformity.
But Jed had never heard of Socialism and his vocabulary was limited.
" 'Tain't squar'," was all he said as he turned again toward the mountains. "Hit's a derned long ways frum bein' squar'."