From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days
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The whole thing was unaccountable. The most miserable lad in school, apparently, was Shorty. He had gone to the Lawrences to inquire for his chum right after dinner that Tuesday evening, and the servant checked him when he would have bolted, as usual, up the stairs to George's room. Mrs. Lawrence was entertaining friends at dinner, but had left word that if Master Reggie came he was to be told that George could see no one that evening, that Mrs. Lawrence would explain it all later. Shorty went there Wednesday on his way to school, and the butler said Master George was still in his room, and that he was not to be disturbed. Wednesday at recess the leaders of the class held a council and determined to appoint a committee to ask an explanation of the Doctor, since not a word could be extracted from Halsey or Beach, and the committee called right after recitation and "rose and reported" within two minutes. Pop silently pointed to the door. Then seeing that Shorty and Joy still lingered, half determined, supplemented the gesture by "Young gentlemen, pack yourselves off! When I am ready to tell you, you'll hear it and not before."
But the woe in Shorty's face was too much for him, after all. He knew the lads and the friendship they bore each other.
"Here you, sir!" he cried, with affected sternness, "sit there till I want you," and he pointed to a bench, even while frowning at the others of the disheartened delegation, who scuttled away down-stairs in dread of the Doctor's rising wrath. When all were gone and the big, bare school-rooms were still, Pop looked up from a letter he was writing, beckoned with his long forefinger, then reversing the hand, pointed downward at the floor beside his desk, and Shorty, recognizing the signal, with leaping heart and twitching lips, marched up and took his stand, looking dumbly into the Doctor's pallid face. The great man shoved his gold-rimmed spectacles half-way up across the expanse of forehead the lads had likened to "a ten-acre lot," folded his hands across the voluminous waistcoat, and leaned back in his chair. Then his eyes swept downward.
"Has our friend Snipe often been in need of money?" he asked.
"He had hardly any at all, sir," blurted Shorty, with something like a sob. "There are holes in the soles of his shoes and corresponding holes worn in his stockings, and the skin of the soles of his feet'll go next. He never had enough to get a decent lunch with, and couldn't join our first nine last year because he hadn't the uniform and wouldn't ask for one. The Club subscribed and bought it, – he was so bully a player. All the – "
The Doctor knows that Shorty is not named because of brevity in speech, and upraises a white hand. "Did he owe any of the boys, – Hoover, for instance?"
"He wouldn't borrow," said Shorty, indignantly; "last of all from Hoover. None of us ever owe him anything except – " And Shorty gulps, and the tears that were starting to his eyes burn out before the sudden fire of his wrath.
"Except what?" asks Pop, deliberately.
"A lickin'," says Shorty, with reddening face, whereat the Doctor's head tilts back and the great stomach heaves spasmodically.The grim lines about the wide mouth relax. It is his way of laughing and he enjoys it, but Shorty doesn't.
"I wish you'd tell me what's the trouble with – with Lawton, sir," he almost sobs again. "They won't let me see him, and the boys say it's all a – " But here Shorty breaks off, which is unlike him.
"Yes," suggested Pop, "they say it's all a – what?"
"Shame," said Shorty, well knowing that that shame is mentally qualified by a most unqualified adjective.
Pop ponders a moment. "Has none of the boys missed anything besides Joy, – no trinkets, rings, anything?"
"Hoover and Briggs are always missing something, sir, and Seymour lost a gold pencil."
"But Lawton never borrowed and didn't owe anybody, – in school, I mean?" asks Pop.
"Didn't owe anybody anywhere that I know of!" protests Shorty. "He says it makes him sick to owe anything. If Hoover says anything different, he's lying. That's all."
"What's the reason Hoover isn't at school?" asks Pop, and while his face does not change the eyes study closely.
"He's afraid of trouble because some of that Metamora set tripped and hurt Snipe, running to a fire last Saturday."
"That's what you get for running to fires, sir. Young gentlemen have no business mingling with crowds and rowdies. That's why you lost the head of the class in Latin three weeks ago. You spent hours at that big fire down-town when you should have been at your Virgil."
Shorty reddens, but attempts no defence. He knows it is so. He knows, furthermore, that if the bell were to strike the next minute he'd be off like the wind, – Latin, and even Snipe, to the contrary notwithstanding. What he doesn't understand is how the Doctor knows all about it.
"Youngster," says the Doctor, after a moment's reflection, "I want Hoover back at school at once, and there must be no harming him in any way. What's more, I have told Lawton to stay away until I send for him. There are reasons for this, and you can say so to the class. To-night you will see him yourself, and he will tell you the whole story. Now, I must write to Hoover paterfamilias. Run along!"
But Pop is mistaken in one matter. Shorty does not see Snipe that night, nor the next day, nor the next. He waits vainly until late in the evening, then goes to the Lawrences', and Mrs. Lawrence, with scared face, comes down to ask what he means. George had asked permission soon after dark to go and spend one hour with his friend and chum and tell him his troubles. It is now ten o'clock. He has not been there, and he has not returned.
Forty-eight hours passed without a trace of George Lawton, and they were the saddest two days the First Latin ever knew. "All the life went out of the school with Snipe," was the way Joy expressed it, though no fellow in the whole establishment was credited with more mischief than the speaker. Lessons and recitations, despite the best efforts of Halsey and Beach and the lamb-like bleatings of Meeker, seemed to fall flat. Even the leaders went through with them in a style more dead than alive, and at every sound upon the stairs all eyes would be fixed on the doorway and matters would come to a stand-still in the class. It was plain that every boy was thinking only of the missing comrade and praying for tidings of him. The masters, too, were weighed down with apprehension – or something. Othello's dark face wore a yellowish hue, and Meeker looked the picture of nervous woe. His complexion, always pallid, now seemed ashen, and he started at every sudden sound. Thursday went by without a word of any kind of news. The class huddled together at recess, taking no notice whatever of Hoover, who skulked away for his smoke, followed by many unloving eyes but without audible comment, for Shorty had conveyed Pop's dictum to the class, and when Pop took his boys into his confidence, as, through some one or two of their number he sometimes did, and told them thus and so, there was no question. That class at least observed his wishes to the letter. Hoover had been told to return to school and no questions asked, and the First Latin was virtually pledged to the arrangement.
But a wretched-looking Hoover it was that emerged from the Doctor's closet at two that afternoon and slunk back to the accustomed place at the foot of the room. Even Briggs had steered clear of him, and every one noted how Briggs flitted about from group to group during recess, his old-time "cheek" apparently vanished, his effrontery replaced by nervous appeal. He had seized on Shorty, as the boys turned out for recess, with eager question about Snipe, but the youngster impatiently shook him off and shot away, light of foot as he was heavy of heart, and the eyes of the others followed him as he turned into Twenty-fourth Street, for all seemed to know he was using his half-hour to speed to the Lawrences' for news of Snipe. Before the bell recalled them he was back, mournfully shaking his head, and they trooped up-stairs, low-voiced and disconsolate, Hoover slinking in alone, last of all, his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched, his eyes flitting nervously about. All through the half-hour the talk had been as to the possible cause of Snipe's mysterious withdrawal from the school and later and more mysterious disappearance. Everybody felt that John, the janitor, could tell something, even if it were only a lie – or a pack of lies, for John's veracity was a thing held up to scorn at the end of a hair. But John kept under the wing of some teacher and could not and would not be approached, and John looked white and scared. The Doctor came at the usual time, made the usual impressive pause at the doorway, pointed, as usual, to the usual foot of the class, who blinked and shifted rather more than ever. Then Pop removed his hat and strode with his usual deliberation to the closet, hung it on its peg, produced his gold-rimmed spectacles, and, as usual, wiped the glasses with his spotless cambric handkerchief as he looked over the notes and letters on his desk, while in subdued, half-hearted way the recitation went on. Then, with only a glance along the line of young faces, all studying him and none regarding Halsey, who at the moment had little Beekman on the rack, he signalled to Shorty, and the boy sprang to his side.
"Hear anything?" he asked, in undertone, as though he needed not to be told that Shorty had gone to inquire.
"No news, sir," said Loquax, with lips that twitched alarmingly. "Mrs. Lawrence will be here right after school."
"Then you stay. I may need you," said the Doctor, and pointed to the bench.
Five minutes later, after rapidly reading the brief missives on his desk, the Doctor arose, signalled to Hoover, ushered him into the lead-colored closet, followed and shut the door, from which quarter of an hour later Hoover emerged, as has been said, looking limp and woe-begone, and the moment school was over slunk away homeward without a word. By this time the First Latin was half mad with mingled curiosity and concern, when an elegantly dressed woman, followed by a manservant with a compact little parcel under his arm, appeared at the Fourth Avenue entrance, where the group still lingered, waiting for Shorty, and the whisper went round that it was Mrs. Lawrence, Snipe's aunt. The excitement rose to fever heat. Doremus and Satterlee, scouting about the avenue an hour later, declared that she had been crying when she came forth again and walked away to Twenty-fourth Street. Friday came. Shorty was ten minutes late at first recitation and failed in every lesson, yet not a word of rebuke came from any one of the masters. Halsey merely inclined his dark head, and with a tinge of sympathy in his tone, wherein they had long known only cutting sarcasm or stern admonition, said, "Never mind going further to-day." At recess, again, the boy bounded away to the Lawrences' and came back five minutes late, with face as hopeless as before, but he bore a note, which he laid upon the Doctor's desk, and without a word accepted the "ten marks off" for his delay, which at any other time would have caused a storm of protest. Pop arrived three minutes ahead of time, saw at a glance that little Pythias was down near the foot of the class, and made not the faintest allusion to it. He had barely taken his seat and looked over the two or three notes when a heavy tread was heard upon the stair, and despite Halsey's efforts the recitation hung fire, and every boy stared as a tall, grim-visaged, angular man of middle age stepped within the door, and in another moment was clasping hands with the Doctor, who left his dais to greet him. There was a brief, low-toned exchange of words, then Halsey and the new-comer caught each other's eye, despite the former's effort to stick to his work, and, faintly flushing, Halsey arose, and they too shook hands.
"How have they done to-day, Mr. Halsey?" promptly queried the Doctor; and as nobody had done well or behaved ill, Halsey hesitated. He could not dissemble. Pop saw the hitch and cut the Gordian knot.
"Gentlemen of the First Latin," he said, "the school is honored by a visit from one of Columbia's most distinguished alumni. Shall we give him an exhibition performance in the Anabasis or – take half holiday?"
The class would rather stay but not exhibit; and so in five minutes the decks are clear, and, next to Beekman, the shortest boy in the highest class is being presented to the tall graduate. Before the name was mentioned he knew that it must be Lawton's step-father, Mr. Park.
First there has to be another conference of some ten minutes' duration between the Doctor and his visitor, who had taken the youngster's hand and looked down into his anxious face with solemn, speculative eyes and without the ghost of a smile. Shorty feels his soul welling up in mightier sympathy with Snipe. There is not a thing in Park's manner to invite a boy's trust or confidence. Then the two turn to Shorty, and he is summoned to rejoin them.
"The Doctor tells me you have been my – er – young Lawton's most intimate friend, – that most of his hours out of school have been spent with you. I had heard as much before through his mother and his aunt, whom I believe you know, – Mrs. Lawrence."
The boy looks up, unspeaking, his blue eyes clouded. It needs but faint encouragement, as a rule, to relax his tongue; but neither in word nor manner does he find encouragement here. He looks, and his gaze is fearless, if not a little defiant, but he answers never a word.
"What I wish to know is something of your haunts, occupations, etc. We supposed that when in your company and in the home of such eminent persons as your grandparents our boy would be safe."
Shorty reddens. Many a time when Snipe would have studied he has coaxed him out for a run afar down-town, a visit to some bell tower or some famous fire company, where they were never without kindly welcome.
"I gather," continues Park, "from what has been told me at his aunt's, that your associates were not always of the better class of boys."
Shorty turns redder still. Many a time when he would have been glad to spend an evening at the home of Joy or Beekman, Doremus or Satterlee, Snipe had held back. "You go," he said: "I'll stay here and read," and it wasn't long before Shorty fully understood the reason. Snipe could not bear to go in such shabby attire, but he had no better, and could get none without importuning his mother. No one in the houses of the fire department looked or said critical things about his clothes. Snipe was just as welcome as Shorty, and the rough fellows of the red shirts seemed to enjoy explaining everything about the different styles of engines and all the intricacies of their running rules to the brown-eyed boy, who seemed to ponder over what he was told and to remember everything. And so it had resulted that whenever a cold or rainy Saturday came round and they couldn't play ball, big Damon and little Pythias had spent many an hour going from one engine-or hose-house to another, studying the different "machines," learning to know the foremen or leaders of the rival companies, and often climbing to the tall perches of the bell towers and gazing out through the watcher's long glass over the far-spreading city, the smoky shores of Jersey or Long Island, the thicket of masts bordering the rivers, and the distant glimmering bay. It was all of vivid interest. True, they heard language that was eminently unclassical. They penetrated into sections of the great city where the fashionable garments of their wealthier schoolmates would have become the target for the satire of the saloons and the missiles of the street Arabs. They saw and heard all manner of things at which Aunt Lawrence would have shrunk in dismay, and concerning which Shorty's own people were sometimes apprehensive. But as neither boy cared to imitate the language or the manners thus discovered, it was held that no great harm resulted. That they might have been far better employed every right-thinking moralist will doubtless declare, and that they would have been better employed even Snipe, down in the bottom of his heart, would have admitted – but for his clothes. It is astonishing how much one's garb has to do with one's goodness, even among school-boys.
And all this was passing through Shorty's mind as the steely blue eyes of Mr. Park were searching his flushing face, and more things, too. With all her ambition and moderate wealth, Mrs. Lawrence occupied a social position just a plane below that on which moved Shorty's kith and kin. Beautiful old homes on the lower avenue and around Washington Square where they were welcome knew not Mrs. Lawrence. She had encouraged, unquestioning, Snipe's growing intimacy with his little friend, because it "brought the families together," as she once gushingly explained to Shorty's favorite aunt, and, as she confided to her husband, might lead to even more. Much, therefore, did she question Snipe as to what took place at table, in the parlor and music-room of the big household in Fourteenth Street, and, in the engrossing interest she felt in the doings of certain of its elder inmates, lost all thought of those of the boys themselves. Not until within the past few days had she been required to give an account of her stewardship, and now the butler's revelations, gathered mainly, as he stated, from market conferences with the magnate who presided over the board at Shorty's, had filled her with dismay.
"Them boys, ma'am," was that dignitary's comprehensive summing up, "do be seeing the worst society in New York, 'stead of rejoicin' in the best – with their relatives."
"You do not answer," at last says Park. "Could you find no better way of spending your play hours than going around among low firemen?"
"We spent 'em at base ball when the weather was good," says Shorty, shortly, and there is glowing temper in the tone which the Doctor knows of old, and he sees it is time to interpose.
"I have never said anything to you about this, my young friend," says he, "because I found that your relatives knew all about it, and thought you capable of keeping out of trouble; but I did not know Lawton was so often with you. What Mr. Park wishes to know is why you spent so much time among the firemen and so little among your classmates?"
Shorty turns to the Doctor fearlessly. Him he knows and trusts. Twice for boyish misdemeanors has the great teacher bidden him take his books and leave the school, and both times has he reinstated him, as he had others, within twelve hours. "I don't care for these Sammy-go-softly boys," he had confided to Shorty. "I don't mind a little fun, but it must not take the form of impertinence to teachers or disobedience of their orders. If they are unjust, I'll straighten it out myself, but don't you try." Like most of the boys in the First Latin, Shorty knows he has the Doctor's sympathy and friendship, and so the answer comes pat. "The reason was because he had no money and was ashamed of his clothes."
Mr. Park is severely judicial. School-boy impetuosity must not be permitted to ruffle him. With great dignity he begins, —
"I do not approve of young lads having unlimited pocket-money or fashionable clothes, much less so in the case of a lad who must make his own way in the world, as George will have to do."
"That's what Snipe said," was Shorty's quick reply. "Most of the class have both, however; and as he had neither and I only a little, we couldn't keep up with the crowd, so we spent our time together."
"I am amazed that your grandparents should approve of such pernicious association for so young a lad as you," says Park, shifting the point of attack, for he feels that a revelation is imminent, and doesn't care to have the rector know how little he gave and how much he demanded. But it is bad fencing, for Shorty "disengages" with equal skill and follows with a palpable hit. Ignoring Park's comment, he faces the Doctor again.
"You know, sir, that there isn't another boy in the class has to get his boots and gloves and pay his way on fifty cents a week." And Pop, inwardly convulsed, feels compelled to reprove.
"Tut, tut!" he says. "These are matters for parents and guardians to settle. Little boys must hold their tongues." And when Pop means to be especially crushing he "little boys" the First Latin.
"Any proper and necessary expense incurred by George would have been promptly allowed," says Park, loftily, "had he seen fit to confide in me or in his mother."
"He couldn't tell his mother, even when he was nearly barefoot," blurts out Shorty. "She wrote him last year she'd rather sell her watch than ask you for money for him!" And now Park, too, reddens, for he realizes that the statement is probably true. Hastily he returns to the charge. This boy knows and talks too much. It isn't safe to allow him the floor. Pop turns away, with evidences of earthquake-like disturbances underneath that silken waistcoat.
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