From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days
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"Then this is the excuse," says Park, severely, "for his resorting to pawnbrokers – with stolen property."
And Shorty bursts out indignantly, "He never stole a thing, or sold it either!" And now his eyes look pleadingly to the Doctor as though to say, "You know this can't be so! Why do you let him lie?"
And as though to answer the appeal and come to the rescue of a maligned and beloved pupil, Pop turns instantly, every sign of merriment gone.
"Surely you are misinformed, Park," he says. "There was nothing but some last year's books and his father's old shotgun. He told us everything."
"He didn't tell you everything," answers Park, with emphasis. "How much of this is due to evil associations you can judge better than I; but look here," and from a bulging pocket of his overcoat he produces a package wrapped in a red silk handkerchief. A minute later and he lays upon the desk Seymour's handsome gold pencil-case, an old-fashioned watch and chain, such as women wore twenty years earlier, and some cameo earrings, with breastpin to match. "These," says he, solemnly, "were recovered this morning. They represent only a small portion of what his aunt, his benefactress, has found to be missing from her box of disused trinkets and heirlooms. The boy was shrewd enough to confine his stealings to things that wouldn't have been missed for weeks or months, perhaps, had not a faithful domestic's suspicions been aroused. This will be a sore blow to his poor mother. It has almost prostrated his aunt, and I dare say we don't begin to know the worst. Has nothing been missed by his classmates here at school?"
There are beads of sweat on the Doctor's pale forehead as he turns away, Joy's watch instantly occurring to him. As for Shorty, in distress and consternation, mingled with vehement unbelief, for once in his life he is dumb.
Another week began. Pop's boys gathered on Monday morning, and the first question on every lip was for Snipe, and all in vain. He had disappeared as from the face of the earth. Shorty looked an inch shorter and several pounds lighter. His chatter was silenced, his young heart heavy as lead. He had had two miserable days, and there were more before him. He had been closely questioned, both at home and at the Lawrences', over and over again, as to all their haunts and habits, which he and poor Snipe had shared in their leisure hours, and stoutly he maintained that never had Snipe entered a pawnshop while they were together, – never had he mentioned such a thing. The one piece of information he could give, that went to confirm the suspicions attaching to the missing boy, was that during the three weeks previous to his disappearance George had seemed to have much more money than usual. He had ordered a new pair of shoes, had bought some collars and neckties, had "stood treat" two or three times, and had got Shorty to go with him to a great clothier's, much affected by the school, to try on some overcoats.He had totally outgrown the one he brought from home two years previous, and was going without one, and seemed divided in his mind whether to buy a new one for winter or a new suit of clothes. Another thing Shorty had to tell was that of late Snipe had missed several evenings when Shorty expected him, or had come very late and said he had been of an errand. Of course, it was now apparent to poor Mrs. Lawrence that her nephew's suddenly discovered crimes were all due to her intrusting him entirely to Shorty and his kindred, and Mr. Park was oracularly severe in his comments on youthful depravity of so glaring a character that it could be satisfied with no association less disreputable than that of the rowdies of the fire department. He went so far as to make some such assertion to Shorty's uncle, who was called into a conference, and this was lucky for Shorty, – one of the few lucky things that happened to him that sorrowful winter. Ordinarily he would doubtless have been made the recipient of several lectures of the same tenor as Mr. Park's, only less radical, but the moment Park ventured to assert that his step-son had been led astray, and that Shorty's kindred had shut their eyes to the boys' misdoings and let them go their wicked ways, he stirred up the whole tribe and put them on the defensive. Uncles and aunts might even have thought somewhat as did Park, but not after he laid his accusation at their door. Shorty submitted his whole cabinet of possessions to prove that nothing of his was missing, except one pair of gold sleeve-links, which he had lent Snipe, and gladly lent him. "If Snipe ever stole, why didn't he steal my watch?" he chokingly asked. "It was as good as Joy's, and hadn't any name on it, as his had, and he could have sold it easier." All the evidence in creation couldn't make that butt-headed boy believe that Snipe was a thief. What he probably had stolen, since they were missing from his room, were his school-books of previous years, a set of Marryat's novels that had belonged to his father, and his father's old shotgun, which he had brought to New York with him, and had no use for whatever. Perhaps he was thinking, poor fellow, of selling his father's old watch, a bulky, yellow "turnip," too big for him to wear, in order to get the money to buy those sorely needed clothes. Shorty well remembered Snipe's story of how his mother cried during that summer's vacation because she could give him so little when he needed so much; but Park's dominion was absolute. "That boy must learn the value of money," he constantly said. "He must know as I knew what it is to plan and contrive to make five cents do the work of twenty-five. Then he may amount to something." Park said the boy's clothes were better than he wore in his school-days, when he had to sweep shop and make the fires and sleep in an attic, without a curtain to his window or a rag to the floor. Shorty began to realize at last how great must have been Snipe's temptations, and still he wouldn't believe he stole. Even the sight of Seymour's pencil failed to convince him, – even the fact that Snipe had certainly run away, if indeed he had not made away with himself.
But in the class there was gloom and sadness almost equal to Shorty's, and by Monday noon all the story was out and much besides. Nothing could exceed the virtuous amaze of Briggs. He always had suspected Lawton, "but you fellows would not believe." Nothing more sardonic than Hoover's grinning face could be imagined. His blinking eyes seemed fairly to snap with comfort over the contemplation of Lawton's turpitude. By this time it was being asserted that Snipe had stolen his aunt's diamonds, Joy's watch, and every missing item, big or little, that had disappeared during the three years of his membership in the school. John, the janitor, was overhauled, questioned and cross-questioned. He dodged, parried, broke away, but by implication confessed that he found out that Lawton was going to a certain pawnshop on Third Avenue, and had been there two or three times within the previous month. Park paid the school another visit that afternoon and had brief conference with the Doctor, looked steadily and with stern disapproval at poor Shorty, sitting midway down the line and drifting gradually towards the foot. The First Latin took Park's measure, as they had Meeker's, and disapproved of him. They wondered would he attempt to address them. If he did, not one applauding hand could there be, except Briggs's or possibly Hoover's, if he referred to Snipe's to-be-expected fall. Snipe might have fallen, but if ever a boy was pushed and driven over a precipice he was, said they, and, take them by and large, the First Latin would have gone out of their way to shake hands with Snipe or to avoid shaking hands with his step-father. Park left before school closed, but to Joy's request of the Doctor, in the name of the class, for news of Snipe, the answer was given that they still had nothing authentic, though they thought they had a clue. He had once spent a month with some kinsfolk of his poor mother's in Pennsylvania, and Park opined that he would presently be heard of there, where his peculations, he might hope, had not yet become known.
There were half a dozen of the boys walking together down the avenue that afternoon, Shorty in their midst. They were plying him with questions and conjectures. No, he was not going to the Lawrences', he said. He would never, probably, go there again. No, he hadn't been around among the engine-houses. He didn't at all believe in Snipe's guilt, and wouldn't believe he was hiding on that account. How did he account for Seymour's pencil? He couldn't account for it. All he could say was, that he'd bet anything he owned that Snipe wasn't a thief, and some day they'd find it out, and find out who was. It so happened that Briggs had gone on ahead with Hoover, the two lads with their heads close together in eager conference, but at Eighteenth Street he held back and stood waiting for the little knot of excited boys. Bertram and Joy were of the lot, tall young fellows on whose upper lips the down was sprouting and who on Sundays went to church in their first tophats. They were the elders, the senate of the school, and at sight of Briggs they muttered malediction and cautioned silence.
"Say, Shorty!" cried the pachyderm, as Pop had named him, "twice last week I went to your house and asked for you, and the man said you weren't home. You were up in your room with Snipe Lawton, and I know it. I watched, and saw you come out with him half an hour later. What you 'fraid of? Think I was policeman with a search-warrant?"
The little fellow's blue eyes blazed up, but Bertram grabbed him and Joy turned savagely on the leering tormentor. "Shut up! you sneaking whelp!" he cried, "or I'll smash you here and now!" And glaring and red-faced in his wrath, Joy looked fully capable of doing it.
"Why, what have I done?" sneered Briggs. "He's the fellow that stood by the thief that's been robbing us right and left, and didn't dare let his own classmate come up in his room."
"You used to ring the bell and bolt up there the moment the door was opened, you cad!" answered Joy, "just as you did at my house and others until orders had to be given not to let you in. Get out of the way! No one in this party wants to be seen in the same street with you."
"Oh, all right," snarled Briggs. "If you want to run with thieves and pickpockets you're welcome. I don't."
But now there was a crash on the broad flagstones as the red-labelled, calf-bound, tightly-strapped volumes of Virgil and Xenophon went spinning to the curb, and, wrenching himself free from Bertram's relaxing grasp, Shorty flew at Sandy Briggs like a bull terrier at some marauding hound. Quick, alert, active, the surest-footed boy in the school, there was no dodging his spring. The whack of the leather on the flagging was echoed on the instant by the biff-bapp of two knotty fists, and Briggs reeled back before the sudden storm and tumbled into the gutter. Instantly the others threw themselves on Shorty or between the two. Briggs bounded up in a fury, the blood streaming from his nose, rage and blasphemy rushing from his swelling lips. He was ready enough to fight a boy so much smaller, and disdained Julian's prompt proffer of himself as Shorty's substitute. A policeman at the Everett corner came sprinting across at sight of the swift-gathering crowd. Joy and Julian saw him, and grabbing Briggs, darted with him down the stairway to the Clarendon's barber-shop. Bertram, Beekman, and Gray snatched up Shorty and Shorty's books and fled with him eastward towards Lexington Avenue. The row was over as quick as it began, but not, alas! the results. "I'll pay that blackguardly little cur for this, – you'll see if I don't!" shrieked Briggs at his captors, and they all knew that even as he could dissemble, that fellow could hate.
Late that afternoon the Doctor sat in the midst of his books and manuscripts in the solemn library, the sanctum in which he rarely permitted himself to be disturbed, yet he lifted his massive head and listened eagerly as a servant entered with a message.
"Send him right in here," said he, throwing down his pen, and the words were hardly out of his mouth when in came Shorty, bounding, breathless, excited, and with snapping eyes. "Ha, lad! So you've heard from Lawton! What does he say?" And trembling, rejoicing, triumphing, yet troubled, the youngster read from a letter in his hand.
The little reader was almost sobbing when he got through, but the Doctor was on his feet and listening in undisguised interest and sympathy.
"But that pencil was found among those things Mr. Park brought to the school!" he exclaimed. Then, as a sudden light seemed to flash over the case, he took the missive in his big, white hand and pored over the last two of its many pages. "You have shown this to – ?" he began.
"Nobody, sir. Nobody was at home. I brought it right to you."
"Then leave it with me and say nothing about it till I tell you. I will see your grandfather to-morrow."
A week later the First Latin was divided against itself, – a most unusual thing. That it generally despised Hoover and hated Briggs was an old story. These two of the twenty-seven had long been excluded from the fellowship of the twenty-five; but that twenty-five was now reduced to twenty-four by the loss of Snipe, and the twenty-four was split, much to the comfort of the two outsiders. A grievous burden had been imposed on Shorty when the Doctor bade him tell no one about Snipe's letter, – that he had good reason and desired to investigate on his own account. Shorty couldn't listen to an insinuation of any kind against his chum, and there were members of the class who now couldn't help entertaining suspicion and saying so. Shorty's intentions of observing the Doctor's caution were of the best, but indignation would find vent, and so would the boy nature that impelled him to say that he had information when Snipe's accusers had not. Then he had to lose a point and admit that his knowledge was of such a character that it must be kept concealed awhile, which statement many of the class decided to accept, but not a few to deride. Turner was one of the latter, and at recess one day openly taunted Shorty with professing what he couldn't prove. Briggs was on the outskirts of the knot of excited lads at the first sign of trouble. He was still raging in his heart against Shorty because of the stinging blows that sent him reeling into the gutter the previous Friday afternoon. Here was a chance for vicarious vengeance. Shorty was half a head smaller than his long-armed accuser. Briggs knew that Joy, Julian, any of the bigger members of the class, would pounce on him if he dared lay hand on the "little 'un," but Turner was nearer the youngster's weight. Those were the days when Heenan and Sayers were the models of the fistic art, when Charlier's boys at Wood's gymnasium or Pop's at Ottignon's were accustomed to putting on the gloves with the master, and school affairs were settled in the neighboring stable after the manner of Tom Brown and Slogger Williams in "School-Days at Rugby." Cooler heads in the little crowd counselled peace and strove to stem the angry torrent of words between the boys. Even Turner himself, seeing Shorty's rage, would probably have been willing to take back what he had said, but Briggs had other plans. Stooping underneath the elbows of the boys at Turner's back, he suddenly straightened up, giving Turner a powerful shove that sent him lunging against his fuming little antagonist, and like a flash came the first blow, the counter, an instant's clinch, and then, as the boys broke away, two stinging whacks before the elders could interpose. "Come round to the stable and finish it!" yelled Shorty, in his fury. "Come on yourself!" shouted Turner; and, despite the pleadings of those who hated to see class harmony destroyed, away went the excited crowd, Hoover and Briggs leering and grinning after them, while John, the janitor, bolted miserably up-stairs to give warning to Othello, who had determined there should be no more stable-fights, and who came breathless into the arena just as the combatants had shed their coats and collars and, with clinched fists and flashing eyes, were facing each other for business. The ring broke and scattered pell-mell at sound of Halsey's voice, but the principals were caught. Recess was ordered suspended. The bell summoned the class in-doors, and, in sullen silence, slowly the boys obeyed. Shorty's prominent nose had suffered in the preliminary skirmish, and he had to go and stanch the blood. Turner, scowling, was sent to the foot of the class, where Hoover welcomed him with a malignant grin, and there, along its accustomed line, sat the First Latin in gloom and despond, while the head-master penned brief memoranda of the circumstance. Everybody felt there would be tragedy when the Doctor came. "The next boys I hear of as fighting around school," he had said the week before, "I'll pack 'em home to their parents." And yet the First Latin had reason to believe the Doctor had nothing but disdain for boys who quarrelled and called names and perhaps cuffed, scratched, or kicked, and couldn't or wouldn't fight "fair and square." Only a few months before, just at the close of the school-year, when the twenty-seven were still the Second Latin, there had been a laughable scuffle between two big, lanky lads in the senior class. Full ten minutes had they clinched, wrestled, slapped, and sparred in the vestibule, many of the Second Latin looking – and egging – on and indulging in satirical comment, until Beach swooped upon the surging crowd and ordered DeForest and Dominick, the principals, to their benches. The classes recited together then in Latin Prosody, a Second Latin boy many a time "taking a fall" out of the First and getting the head of the combined array. There was no love lost between the two. Pop was unquestionably partial to the juniors, and had frequent occasion to torment the seniors with satire over the fact that the youngsters knew better Latin, if not more, than did the other class. He listened to Beach's report of the affair with frowning brows, until it transpired that full ten minutes were consumed before the combatants were separated. Then his broad features expanded in a smile of amusement. "What!" he exclaimed, as he studied the crestfallen faces of the culprits. "Ten minutes' battling and not a scratch to show for it! Scandalous! Et tunc pugnabant pugnis– Hold! Young gentlemen, there's a capital start on a fine, sonorous line, dactylic hexameter. Half-holiday to the class that first completes it! Half-holiday except to those wielders of the wind-stuffed cestus. Set your wits to work – and your pencils." With that he seated himself in his chair of state, his fine cambric handkerchief came forth to mop his glowing face, and, still chuckling with suppressed merriment, the massive rector looked down along the crowded ranks of his boys, forty-five in all, and then he wiped his gold-rimmed spectacles and laid them on his desk, and then little Beekman darted up to his side, a scrap of paper in his hand, and gave it hopefully to the magnate in the chair. The Doctor glanced over it, shook his head, and frowned. "No, no," said he. "What we want is sound and sense combined. You've only got the sound, like the blows of our gladiators. There's nothing behind them. The words mean nothing. Mark the rhythm and majesty of mine. Et tunc – pugna – bant pug– All spondaic. And then – they were – fighting – with fists – Come, come, gentlemen, that line needs appropriate close. Ha! the versatile Second Latin again tenders a contribution!" and the big Doctor took the next youngster's slate, leaned back in his chair, read, a beaming light shot into his eyes; then the eyes closed, the massive head fell back, the capacious waistcoat began to heave and shake from internal convulsion, and the whole array of boys looked up expectant. For a full minute Pop lay back in his big chair in solitary enjoyment of his fun, and at last, bubbling over with merriment, he straightened up and began, "Listen, young gentlemen of the First Latin, to the satire of the Second. Triumph, gentlemen of the Second, in the victory of your laureate.
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