From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days
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Twice that morning had Shorty tried to get him aside with sympathetic question, but the elder shook his head. There was no time. At recess, when Shorty counted on seeing his chum and hearing the whole story, Lawton never came out at all. John, the janitor, said he was having a talk with Mr. Halsey, trying to get him not to report something to the Doctor, but John himself seemed ill at ease and anxious to avoid question. The class communed together and instinctively connected Briggs and Hoover with the mystery, but Hoover had disappointed everybody by remaining away from school that day, and as for Briggs, he was in everybody's way. Wherever he saw a group in low-toned conference he would make for it, and by his very presence and loud-voiced questions and conjectures put an end to their confidences. Everybody seemed to feel that when the Doctor came down that afternoon there would be a sensation of some kind, and school reassembled after recess and the First Latin went to its benches without even accidentally upsetting one of them. Snipe was sitting at the end of the upper bench looking drearily out on the avenue, and Mr. Halsey, with darker face than usual, had taken his accustomed place.
A spiritless recitation was begun, Snipe losing his head and memory and place after place. There were boys who knew the answers to questions at which he only shook his head and who presently refused to speak and go above him. Halsey's face grew darker and darker at these evidences of sympathy. The "next! next! next!" became incessant. Up even towards the head of the class, above the seat to which the sad-eyed fellow had drifted, there was no animation. The leaders gave their answers in low tones, as though to say, "We've got to go through with this, but we've no heart in it. Snipe's proper place is up here among us." It was actually a relief to everybody when at last, towards the close of the hour, the Doctor's heavy tread was heard, slow and majestic, ascending the wooden stairs.
It was his custom to halt at the doorway, and from that point of view survey his waiting scholars, the foot of the class coming in for invariable comment. I can see him now, portly, erect, scrupulously neat and exact in dress from the crown of his deeply weeded high top hat to the tip of his polished shoes. Clean shaved, the wide upper lip, the broad massive chin, the great sweep of jaw. Collar, cuffs, and shirt-front immaculate; coat, waistcoat, and trousers, and the broad stock of flawless black. The gold seal dangling from his watch ribbon the only speck of color, the gold top of his stout, straight, black cane concealed in his hand. Under their shaggy brows the deep-set gray eyes twinkle, as slowly he lifts the long ferule and points it at the luckless wight on the lowermost bench; then with inquiring gaze sweeps the line of intent young faces, looking for some one.
"What!" he says. "Another occupant! Where, then, is the
And at any other day the class, barring Hoover, would have shouted with appreciative joy; but not to-day.Despite Hoover's absence a cloud has lowered over their house. They cannot laugh, even in counterfeited glee, and the Doctor's face changes on the instant as he steps within. He has noted Lawton's unusual position and his strange, white face.
"Anything wrong, Mr. Halsey?"
The head-master rises and turns to his revered senior. In low tone he says, so that only one or two can catch the words, "A matter I'll have to tell you after school, sir." And school must last over an hour longer. Silently the class exchanges the text-book for Xenophon. The Doctor's own hour has come, sacred to Greek, and silently the boys retake their places. But the occasion weighs upon the Doctor's mind. Something tells him there is worry ahead, and the sooner it is met the better. One expedient never fails him. "How have they done to-day, Mr. Halsey?"
The head-master purses up his lip. He knows that since recess at least, so far as recitation is concerned, they have done unusually ill; but he knows what the Doctor desires.
"Behaved rather better than usual, sir."
"One good turn deserves another," says Pop. "How many young gentlemen of the First Latin deserve half holiday? All hands up!" And up go the hands, but with only half the usual alacrity.
"The ayes have it. The class may retire."
And slowly the First Latin finds its legs and lingers, for Halsey whispers to Pop, and the latter, with somewhat grayer shade to his face, says, "Lawton will remain."
The boys dawdle unaccountably about the big bookcase, glancing over their shoulders at Lawton, who sits with drooping head and downcast eyes opposite Halsey's table. Briggs, panting a little, slinks through the silent group to the doorway, and scuttles quickly down the stairs. When Joy and Beekman reach the street he is peering round the stable at the corner, but slips out of sight an instant later. Three or four of the class, Shorty among them, still hover about the coat-rack. Shorty says he can't find his overshoes, which is not remarkable, as he did not wear them. Halsey is nervously tapping his desk with the butt of his pencil and glancing at the dawdlers with ominous eyes. At last the Doctor uplifts his head and voice. He has been looking over some papers on his desk.
"Those young gentlemen at the coat-rack seem reluctant to leave school, Mr. Halsey. Hah! Julian, cestus bearing! Dix, ecclesiasticus! Et tu, puer parvule, lingua longissima!" He pauses impressively, and, raising hand and pencil, points to the door. "If one of 'em comes back before to-morrow, Mr. Halsey, set him to work on Sallust."
And then the three know enough to stand no longer on the order of their going. Their faces are full of sympathy as they take a farewell peep at Snipe, and Shorty signals to unseeing eyes "I'll wait." And wait the little fellow does, a long hour, kicking his heels about the cold pavement without, and then the Second Latin comes tumbling down-stairs, scattering with noisy glee, and marvelling much to see Shorty looking blue and cold and mournful. He will not answer their questions; he's only waiting for Snipe. And another quarter-hour passes, and then for an instant the boy's eyes brighten, and he springs forward as his tall chum appears at the doorway, cap downpulled over his eyes, coat-collar hunched up to his ears, a glimpse of stocking between the hem of his scant trousers and those inadequate shoes. But the light goes out as quickly as it came, for with Lawton, similarly bundled up and well-nigh as shabby, is the head-master, who silently uplifts his hand and warns Shorty back; then, linking an arm in one of Lawton's, leads him away around the corner of Twenty-fifth Street.
It is more than the youngster can stand. Long-legged Damon, short-legged Pythias, the two have been friends since Third Latin days and chums for over a year. Shorty springs after the retreating forms, but halts short at sound of his name, called in imperative tone from above. At the open window stands the Doctor gazing out. He uses no further words. His right hand is occupied with his snowy cambric handkerchief. With his left he makes two motions. He curves his finger inward, indicating plainly "Come back!" and then with the index points down the avenue, meaning as plainly "Go!" and there is no cheery, undignified whistle as Shorty hastens to tell his tale of sorrow to sympathetic ears at home.
There were three more school-days that week, and they were the quietest of the year. On the principle that it was an ill wind that blew nobody good, there was one instructor to whom such unusual decorum was welcome, and that was poor Meeker, who noted the gloom in the eyes of most of the First Latin, and responsively lengthened his face, yet at bottom was conscious of something akin to rejoicing. His had been a hapless lot. He had entered upon his duties the first week in September, and the class had taken his measure the first day. A better-meaning fellow than Meeker probably never lived, but he was handicapped by a soft, appealing manner and a theory that to get the most out of boys he must have their good-will, and to get their good-will he must load them with what the class promptly derided as "blarney." He was poor and struggling, was graduated high in his class at college, was eager to prepare himself for the ministry, and took to teaching in the mean time to provide the necessary means. The First Latin would have it that Pop didn't want him at all, but that Meeker gave him no rest until promised employment, for Meeker had well known that there was to be a vacancy, and was first to apply for it. But what made it more than a luckless move for him was that he had applied for the position vacated by a man Pop's boys adored, "a man from the ground up," as they expressed it, a splendid, deep-voiced, deep-chested, long-limbed athlete, with a soul as big as his massive frame and an energy as boundless as the skies. He, too, had worked his way to the priesthood, teaching long hours at Pop's each day, tutoring college weaklings or would-be freshmen in the evenings, studying when and where he could, but wasting never a minute. Never was there a tutor who preached less or practised more. His life was a lesson of self-denial, of study, of purpose. Work hard, play hard, pray hard, might have been his motto, for whatsoever that hand of his found to do that did he with all his might. Truth, manliness, magnetism, were in every glance of his clear eyes, every tone of his deep voice. Boys shrank from boys' subterfuges and turned in unaccustomed disgust from school-boy lies before they had been a month in Tuttle's presence; he seemed to feel such infinite pity for a coward. Never using a harsh word, never an unjust one, never losing faith or temper, his was yet so commanding a nature that by sheer force of his personality and example his pupils followed unquestioning. With the strength of a Hercules, he could not harm an inferior creature. With the courage of a lion, he had only sorrow for the faint-hearted. With a gift and faculty for leadership that would have made him a general-in-chief, he was humble as a child in the sight of his Maker, and in all the long years of his great, brave life, only once, that his boys ever heard of, did he use that rugged strength to discipline or punish a human being, and that only when courtesy and persuasion had failed to stop a ruffian tongue in its foul abuse of that Maker's name. It was a solemn day for the school, a glad one for the church militant, when he took leave of the one to take his vows in the other. There wasn't a boy among all his pupils that would have been surprised at his becoming a bishop inside of five years, – as, indeed, he did inside of ten, – and the class had not ceased mourning their loss when Meeker came to take his place. "Fill Tut's shoes!" said Snipe, with fine derision. "Why, he'll rattle around in 'em like shot in a drum." No wonder Meeker failed to fill the bill.
And yet he tried hard. Something told him the First Latin would decide whether he should go or stay. Halsey had not been consulted in his selection, or Halsey would have told the Doctor in so many words that it took a man of bigger calibre to handle that class. Beach had not been consulted. He had known Meeker in undergraduate days and thought him lacking in backbone. Pop had "sprung" him, so to speak, upon the school, as though he really felt he owed his boys an apology, and, with the ingenuity of so many unregenerate young imps, the First Latin set to work to make Meeker's life a burden to him.
It was one of the fads of the school that the individual slate should be used in mathematical hour instead of a wall slate or blackboard. It was one of the practices to give out examples in higher arithmetic or equations in algebra and have the pupils work them out then and there, each boy, presumably, working for himself. Meeker introduced a refinement of the system. He announced one example at a time, and directed that as soon as a pupil had finished the work he should step forward and deposit his slate, face downward, on the corner of the master's table. The next boy to finish should place his slate on top of that of the first, and at the end of five minutes the pile of slates thus formed was turned bottom side up. All boys who had not finished their work in the given time – four, five, six, or eight minutes, according to the difficulty of the problem – were counted out. All whose work proved to be incorrect were similarly scored, while those who had obtained by proper methods the right result were credited with a mark of three, with an additional premium for the quickest, the first boy counting six, the second five, the third four. Meeker introduced the system with a fine flourish of trumpets and marvelled at its prompt success. Even boys known to be lamentably backward in the multiplication-table were found to present slates full of apparently unimpeachable figures in cube root or equations of the second degree, and the whole twenty-seven would have their slates on the pile within the allotted time. "Of course," said Meeker, "it is beyond belief that young gentlemen of the First Latin would be guilty of accepting assistance or copying from a competitor's work," whereat there would be heard the low murmur, as of far-distant, but rapidly approaching, tornado, and the moan would swell unaccountably, even while every pencil was flying, every eye fixed upon the slate. This thing went along for two or three days with no more serious mishap than that twice, without an apparent exciting cause, while Meeker would be elaborately explaining some alleged knotty point to Joy or Lawton, the half-completed stack would edge slowly off the slippery table and topple with prodigious crash and clatter to the floor. Then Meeker bethought himself of a stopper to these seismic developments, and directed that henceforth, instead of being deposited at the corner, the slates should be laid directly in front of him on the middle of the desk. This was most decorously done as much as twice, and then an extraordinary thing occurred. It had occasionally happened that two or even three of the boys would finish their work at the same moment, and in their eagerness to get their slates foremost on the stack a race, a rush, a collision, had resulted. Then these became surprisingly frequent, as many as four boys finishing together and coming like quarter horses to the goal, but the day that Meeker hit on the expedient of piling the slates up directly in front of him, and at the third essay, there was witnessed the most astonishing thing of all. Snipe was always a leader in mathematics, as he was in mischief, and he, Carey, Satterlee, and Joy were sure to be of the first four, but now, for a wonder, four, even five, minutes passed and not a slate was in. "Come, come, gentlemen," said Meeker, "there's nothing remarkable in this example. I obtained the result with the utmost ease in three minutes." And still the heads bent lower over the slates and the pencils whizzed more furiously. Five minutes went by. "Most astonishing!" said Meeker, and began going over his own work to see if there could be any mistake, and no sooner was he seen to be absorbed thereat than quick glances shot up and down the long bench-line and slates were deftly passed from hand to hand. The laggards got those of the quicker. The experts swiftly straightened out the errors of the slow, and some mysterious message went down from hand to hand in Snipe's well-known chirography, and then, just as Meeker would have raised his head to glance at the time and warn them there was but half a minute more, as one boy up rose the twenty-seven and charged upon him with uplifted slates. Batter, clatter, rattle, bang! they came crashing down upon the desk, while in one mighty, struggling upheaval the class surged about him and that unstable table.
Turner, Beekman, Snipe, and Shorty vigorously expostulating against such riotous performances and appealing to their classmates not to upset Mr. Meeker, who had tilted back out of his chair only in the nick of time, for the table followed, skating across the floor, and it was "really verging on the miraculous," said he, "that these gentlemen should all finish at the same instant." But that was the last of the slate-pile business. "Hereafter, young gentlemen," said Meeker, on the morrow, "you will retain your seats and slates, but as soon as you have obtained the result hold up your hand. I will record the name and the order and then call you forward, as I may wish to see your slates." This worked beautifully just once, then the hands would go up in blocks of five, and the class as one boy would exclaim "Astonishing! Miraculous!" Then Meeker abandoned the speed system and tried the plan of calling up at thirty-second intervals by the watch as many boys as he thought should have finished, beginning at the head of the class. And then the First Latin gave him an exhibition of the peculiar properties of those benches. They were about eight or nine feet long, supported on two stoutly braced "legs," with the seat projecting some eighteen inches beyond each support. Put one hundred and forty pounds on one end of an eight-foot plank, with a fulcrum a foot away, and the long end will tilt up and point to the roof in the twinkling of an eye. Meeker called his lads up three at a time, at the beginning of the next new system, and smiled to see how smoothly it worked and how uncommonly still the lads were. Then came exhibit number two, and in the most innocent way in the world Doremus and Ballou – the heavy weights of the class – took seats at the extreme lower end of their respective benches. The sudden rising of the three other occupants when called forward resulted in instant gymnastics. The long bench suddenly tilted skyward, a fat young gentleman was spilled off the shorter end, vehemently struggling and sorely bruised, and then back the bench would come with a bang that shook the premises, while half the class would rush in apparent consternation to raise their prostrate and aggrieved comrade. Hoover's bench was never known to misbehave in this way, for he had it usually all to himself, except when some brighter lad was sent to the foot in temporary punishment. But no matter how absurd the incident, how palpable the mischief, it was apparently a point of honor with the class to see nothing funny in it, to maintain an expression of severe disapproval, if not of righteous indignation, and invariably to denounce the perpetrators of such indignity as unworthy to longer remain in a school whose boast it was that the scholars loved their masters and would never do aught to annoy them. The most amazing things were perpetually happening. Meeker's eyes were no sharper than his wits, and he could not understand how it was that Snipe and Joy, two of the keenest mathematicians in the class, should so frequently require assistance at the desk, and when they returned to their seats, such objects on his table as the hand-bell, the pen-rack, or even the ink-stand, would be gifted with invisible wings and whisk off after them. Nothing could exceed Snipe's astonishment and just abhorrence when it was finally discovered that a long loop of tough but almost invisible horse-hair was attached to the back of his sack-coat, or the condemnation in the expressed disapprobation of the class when Joy was found to be similarly equipped. Then Meeker's high silk hat, hung on a peg outside Pop's particular closet, began to develop astonishing powers of procreation, bringing forth one day a litter of mice, on another a pair of frolicsome kittens. Meeker abandoned the hat for a billycock as the autumn wore on, and the class appeared content; only the Doctor was allowed a high hat. But Meeker was of nervous temperament, and started at sudden sounds and squirmed under the influence of certain others, noting which the class sympathetically sprinkled the floor with torpedoes and jumped liked electrified frogs when they exploded under some crunching heel, and the fuel for the big stove presently became gifted with explosive tendencies that filled Meeker's soul with dread, and the room with smoke, and the breasts of the First Latin with amaze that the janitor could be so careless. Then there was a strolling German band, with clarinets of appalling squeak, that became speedily possessed of the devil and a desire to "spiel" under the school windows just after the mathematical hour began, and Meeker's voice was uplifted from the windows in vain protest. The band was well paid to come and the policeman to keep away. I fear me that many a dime of poor Snipe's little stipend went into that unhallowed contribution rather than into his boots. All this and more was Meeker accepting with indomitable smiles day after day until the sudden withdrawal of George Lawton from the school, – no boy knew why, and all the fun went out of the hearts of the First Latin when they heard the rumor going round that Pop himself had written to his old pupil, Mr. Park, suggesting that his step-son would better be recalled from a city which seemed so full of dangerous temptation to one of George's temperament, and yet Pop had really seemed fond of him.
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