From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days
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"And then they were fighting with fists (full ten minutes understood) and not a drop of blood was drawn from the nose. Poetic license set at naught! Stern facts related! Half-holiday to the Second Latin! Take your books and go rejoicing! Gentlemen of the vanquished First, remain where you are."
That episode widened the breach between the classes and strengthened the conviction that Pop was "down on" bloodless encounters. Pop was thorough, argued the boys. He wanted no quarrelling, but if quarrels came, they were soonest ended when fought to a finish on the spot.
And so despite the frown on Halsey's dark face most of the First Latin hoped that when the Doctor came he would look with leniency on the misconduct of the belligerents. Hoover, defrauded of his smoke, pleaded for permission to go to Duncan's to get his fine silk handkerchief, which he claimed to have dropped during their brief ten minutes of recess. This was killing two birds with one stone. He needed his cigarette, and he hoped to create the impression that he was not among the crowd at the stable. There had been a solemn conference between the Doctor and Hoover senior, and solemn warning to the young man on part of both, and Hoover junior felt that he could risk nothing with the rector in his present frame of mind. The head-master, with doubtful glance in his eyes, said go, and not three minutes later wished he hadn't. There was a sound of angry altercation below-stairs. John's whining voice was uplifted in protestation. At any other time the class would have had fun out of it, but the class was in no mood for frolic now.
"Stop that noise and come up here at once!" ordered the master from the head of the stairs, and sullen and swollen-faced, the janitor came.
"I couldn't help it, sir," he began at once. "I ain't going to be cursed for obeying orders by any such sneak as that."
And when Halsey could check the angry torrent of his words, it transpired that Hoover had taken occasion, with much blasphemy and bad language, to abuse him for having told about the fight. Hoover came in ten minutes later, glancing shiftingly around. "Say, did that cur tell on me?" he whispered to Turner, as he sidled into his seat, and Turner turned his back and bade him go to Halifax, but Briggs nodded yes. It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. The Doctor came with gloom in his eye and thunder on his tongue. Things had been going amiss. Not another word had been heard of Snipe. A favorite pupil had disappeared because of troubles brought to light at school, and the Doctor felt that his system, his methods, his discipline and supervision were all being challenged and dissected by his rivals and opponents, and, like every successful man, he was the target for the shafts of all the envious. A high authority at faculty meeting that day had demanded news of the missing boy and particulars as to the causes of his going, had intimated that such things ought not to be in a well-regulated school, and the rector came down ruffled and wrathful.The first thing to attract his eyes was the sight of Shorty sitting ruefully on the "mourners' bench," as the boys called the settee at the foot of the class. Hoover, Turner, and Briggs were the other occupants.
"Hiyee!" he exclaimed, as he halted at the doorway. "The lad of the long tongue has let it run away with him again, I suppose! What's he been saying, Mr. Halsey?"
"Nothing, sir," said Halsey, briefly. "Fighting again."
"What! And after my prohibition! Here, you, sir!" he exclaimed, with indignation in his tone. "Take your books and pack yourself out of school, at once!"
Slowly Shorty found his legs and, uttering no word, went drearily to the bookcase, obeying the pointing, menacing cane in the rector's hand, and trembling and with heavily beating heart began to gather and strap his few possessions. For a moment there was dead silence. Pop still standing at the doorway, glaring at the culprit, perhaps wishing the boy would speak. But Shorty's spirits were crushed by the sorrows of the past ten days, and he didn't much care what happened. It was Bertram who broke the silence.
"May I say a word, sir?" he asked, as he rose respectfully.
"Not unless you wish to quit the school the same way, sir. Young people will speak when spoken to and not before. Come, you, sir," he continued, turning again on Shorty, "I am waiting for you to go."
"So'm I, sir," said the youngster, desperately, "but I can't – till you get out of the way."
For an instant the silence was intense. The Doctor stared, then dropped his threatening cane, closed his eyes and began to shake. In another instant the room rang with a shout of laughter, even the saturnine features of Halsey relaxing in a grin.
"Who's the other belligerent, Mr. Halsey?" asked Pop, as soon as he could regain severity of mien. "The illustrious Turner, I apprehend. What did you wish to say, Bertram?"
"Nothing, sir, in view of the penalty," was the prompt answer.
"It wasn't his fault, I suppose you wish to imply," said the Doctor. "Go back to the bench, sir," was his stern order to Shorty. "Remain after school, both of you, until I investigate this and send you home with a letter apiece. Any other enormities to report, Mr. Halsey?"
"Yes, sir, – Hoover. The janitor says that he cursed and abused him at recess for obeying your orders."
The Doctor's face had mellowed a moment before; now it hardened. He stood with his cane tucked under his arm, his top-hat in one hand, the polishing handkerchief in the other, flicking away the dust and smoothing the glossy crown. Foul language on part of boy or man was something he abhorred, and Hoover had been reported more than once. For John, the janitor, the Doctor had but faint regard. He was a blundering booby, said he. But that in no wise relieved Hoover. Watching his angering face, the silent boys could almost foretell the words they saw framing on his compressed lips. "Out of my school, sir," were beyond doubt the first he would have spoken, but there sat two other culprits who deserved the temporary expulsion that was at the time his favorite method of punishment. If Hoover went, they too must go, or Hoover senior would hear and ask the reason, and the Doctor hated to be cross-questioned about his school. His methods were his own; one might almost say the boys were too.
"Using blasphemous and profane language again!" he finally began, as he stood and glared at the scowling pupil. "Gentlemen never abuse a servant for obeying orders. Gentlemen avoid the use of profanity. We must have a new name, – a more descriptive title for our monstrum horrendum, our roaring Polyphemus. What say you, Bertram, Imperator? What say you, Joy? Come, wake your nimble wits, young gentlemen. The astute head of the class is silent, the second is dumb, the third sits mute," and now the great but shapely white hand, with its taper index, points to one after another, "the fourth, the fifth, the sixth. What? Have we no wits left to-day? You, Beekman; you, Satterlee; the iconoclastic Bagshot, the epicurean Doremus" (a titter now, for Doremus's taste for cream-puffs is proverbial). Speak up, Van Sandtvoordt. Gihon, Post, Dix, Bliss, Seymour, Grayson, next, next, next; the late belligerent Mr. Turner, the benignant Briggs, Hoover we'll skip, and now the other gladiator, Loquax. What?"
"Polyblasphemous!" says Shorty, with twitching lips, the Irish in him coming to the top despite his weight of woe.
An instant of silence, then, shaking from head to foot, the tears fairly starting from his eyes, unable for the moment to speak at all, laughing himself to the verge of apoplexy, the Doctor motions the youngster from the foot to the head of the class, and it is a full minute before order is restored and the laughter of the First Latin subsides. Even then, every little while some boy bursts out into a chuckle of merriment, and Hoover glares at him with new malevolence. Every little while the Doctor settles back in his chair and shakes anew. That jeu d'esprit saves three culprits from deserved suspension and brings sunshine through the storm-clouds for the day at least. But it thickens the hide of Hoover's hate.
"You think you were smart this afternoon" (with an adjective to the smart), sneers Hoover to the youngster after school. "You'll find out where the smart comes in before you're a month older, young feller."
And Hoover means it.
Another month had come and not another word from Snipe. All the Doctor's explorations were in vain. There was grief at the Lawrences', for the poor mother had been visiting her sister, imploring full particulars in one minute and denouncing her informants in the next. The most yielding and self-forgetful of women ordinarily, she had risen in rebellion against those whom she believed had wronged her boy. There was a rupture at Rhinebeck, where George Lawton's step-father was given to understand by George Lawton's mother that she would never believe that her boy had stolen. That he had sold the books and the gun and might have sold the watch was probably true. He had to do it to buy even the coarsest clothes to hide his nakedness. She had come to Shorty's home, and, with that sad-hearted youngster as her guide, had been conducted to the Doctor's study, and there she was permitted to read and to weep over Snipe's pathetic letter. She drew from Shorty all the details of the boy's effort to get along on his scanty allowance, to spare her, and to make his worn shoes and shabby, outgrown garments answer for another year. The interview between the now roused and indignant woman and her husband on her return to Rhinebeck must have been a source of amaze to him as well as discomfiture. In forty-eight hours she was back at Mrs. Lawrence's. "Do not put yourself out for me any more than you did for George," she said to her sister, with a tinge of irrepressible bitterness. "I will sleep in his little hall bedroom and sit at his corner of your table – when you are not entertaining." And Mrs. Lawrence made no reply. She knew well there had been much to warrant the mother's accusation. George might indeed be the culprit her husband, her brother-in-law, and her butler asserted, but he might not, probably would not, have been but for the indifference or neglect which had been his portion. Down at the bottom of her heart Aunt Lawrence was a sympathetic woman, and not entirely unjust, for after the first few days of excitement, at which times those at fault are sure to strive to fix the blame on others, she realized that what she had said of George's playmate and his people, even of George's misguided methods of spending his recreation hours, was something she would gladly recall.
But all this time the search for the absent boy had gone on unremittingly. Shorty had promised faithfully that if another letter came from Snipe he would bring it to the mother at once, and Pop had given his sanction. He refused to promise to come every day to see her, as she had at first almost demanded. He told her frankly that after what Mrs. Lawrence had said of him and his leading George astray, he couldn't come. The Doctor had certain theories about the missing jewelry, and had, on his own account, employed detective aid, and abandoned his theory more perplexed than ever. Privately he let it be known to the police that he would pay a handsome reward for the recovery of Joy's watch and information that would lead to the apprehension of the thief, but not a trace of it had been found. School work had to be kept up, but Shorty's standing suffered. The weekly reports that so often bore in Pop's remarkable chirography the word "Imperator," in Halsey's big, round hand the inscription "Nulli Secundus," and over the sign manuals of the other teachers some tribute to his scholarship and industry, now spoke of him as "falling off," "losing ground," etc., and a gentle hand was laid on his troubled head at home ere it signed the receipt, and kind and sympathetic words would send him hurrying away to his own little den, there to give way to a passion of tears. It was bad enough to lose Snipe. It was cruel to think of the boy's loneliness and suffering, but it was getting to be worst of all at school, where, true to the old, old saying, the absent was sure to be wrong. Little by little sneer, rumor, and insinuation had done their work, and, with no one to defend but Shorty, Snipe's name had become clouded with suspicion that was verging into certainty. If innocent of all the misdeeds laid at his door, why had he run away? Why did he not come home to face his accusers?
And so it happened that Shorty saw less of his schoolmates and more of his and Snipe's old friends, the firemen, than ever before. At home this was looked upon as decidedly unfortunate, but the lad was so unhappy and restless that no active opposition was made. "No good can ever come from such association," said the one oracular and dogmatic member of the household. But that prophecy was destined to be put to the blush.
Quarter day had come at Pop's, – a day marked in the annals of the school and celebrated in its traditions. More stories centred on that momentous date than on all the other school-days combined. On the Friday of the last week of the expiring quarter each of the Doctor's pupils would be handed an envelope addressed to his responsible parent or guardian, and each envelope so addressed contained the school bill for the ensuing quarter, filled out in the Doctor's unique and dainty hand. No writing was ever like it. Pop had a system of penmanship, as he had of punishment, of instruction, and school discipline, peculiarly his own. His capital letters were always large, clear, and well formed. His small letters, except those extending above and below the line, were indicated by tiny, back-handed dashes that individually conveyed no idea and collectively were unmistakable. Not a word of instruction accompanied the presentation of the missive, but every boy knew infallibly what to expect. From time immemorial in the history of the school the unwritten law had been that every boy appearing with the cash or check in payment of the bill early on the following Monday morning might go his way on whole holiday. If the money came on Tuesday the bearer was released at twelve o'clock; but if it failed to come on Wednesday the pupil found himself drifting from one scrape into another until it did come, and old boys used to declare that pretexts were never lacking, when they were of the school, to warrant the Doctor in flogging, every day until the money came, the hapless lad whose parents failed to meet the demand on time. Small wonder that Pop's boys developed phenomenal powers as bill collectors and that Pop himself had no dunning letters to write.
The late autumn had given way to early winter, sharp and frosty. A great presidential election had been held some weeks before. The East was excited and the South enraged over the victory of a far Western candidate, almost unknown to Gotham. Rumors more and more alarming of Southern force and fury flew from lip to lip as November drew to its close, and December, frosty but kindly, was ushered in. The boys had separated Friday afternoon, taking the bills with them, and early Monday morning Othello sat "for such occasions only" at the Doctor's desk, in readiness to receipt for checks or cash before the opening hours of school. A dozen at least of the First Latin had gleefully gone their way. Another dozen, less fortunate, lolled dejectedly on the benches, devoutly wishing their paters were as well to do as those of the holiday-makers (which many were, but held to a theory that Pop found too many excuses for holidays). Shorty was neither with one nor the other. Nine o'clock came and two of the First Latin had not reported; Hoover was the other. The bell rang. Beach was told off to put the supposedly derelict through their paces in Sallust, while Halsey went on signing receipts, shoving money into the drawer, and saying, "You may go," briefly as possible, to the boys who came provided. The rule held good for the entire school, and by quarter-past nine the rector's drawer was stored with something over a thousand dollars in checks, bank-notes, and coin. It was fully half-past nine when Hoover came slowly and sullenly up the stairs and entered the room. Briggs, sitting at the foot of the incarcerated dozen, jocularly hailed him with, "Hullo! for once in his life Hoover won't have to sit on the mourners' bench."
"Go there yourself, sir!" said Beach, sternly, bringing Briggs instantly to his feet with whining expostulation. "Why, what did I say, sir?" And it takes more fines and much frowning to settle him, Othello never interposing, for this money taking and changing is his bane. He has to do it in the Doctor's absence, but he hates it. He counts over every penny slowly and carefully, for the rector requires account to the uttermost farthing, and small boys waiting for their receipt fidget impatiently.
Hoover, mean time, is removing coat, gloves, and muffler with exaggerated deliberation, and seizes the opportunity when Beach turns to the head with a question, and while the stove-pipe hides Othello's eyes, to administer a fervent kick to Briggs and send that sandy-haired young fellow's Sallust flying to mid-floor, Briggs, of course, lending unnecessary and additional centrifugal impetus to his belongings, and in the midst of the acrimonious debate that follows a bounding step is heard on the stair and in comes Shorty, flushed, panting a bit, and filled with suppressed excitement and evident importance. He squeezes in between Hoover and the rack to hang up his top-coat, Hoover swaying backward, of course, to make it as difficult and disagreeable a process as possible.
"Come out of that, Hoover, and take your seat," orders Beach, sternly. But "Polyblasphemous" is ugly and rebellious. Not until Shorty has a second time squeezed by is Hoover made to obey. Even then he turns back and rummages among the coat pockets, claiming that he has left his handkerchief therein. Hoover's handkerchief, like charity, is made to cover a multitude of sins. He feels in a dozen pockets, apparently, before he finds it. So engrossed is the class, or what is left of it, in the effort to bring order out of chaos at the foot of the room – and Hoover from among the overcoats – that few see that Shorty has handed Othello a note before silently taking his seat. Hoover is presently settled below Briggs, fined five marks for being late and another five for trifling, and the recitation goes on, Beach evidently ruffled. Then Othello looks up and beckons to Shorty, who silently goes to his side.
"When did the Doctor give you this?" he asks, in low tone; but now the boys are still as mice and listening intently.
"Just at nine, sir, up at his house. I caught him going up to college and gave him the letter, and he turned back and wrote that." Shorty never could explain a thing in few words.
There is a sound as of shouting and excitement on the avenue above the school and of swift-running feet, but at the moment no attention is paid. "The Doctor says you are to have whole holiday," continues Halsey, in his monotonous tones. The noise without is increasing.
"I – don't care to go, sir," says Shorty, hesitating, and the class looks up in astonishment. The noise has spread to the rooms to the east, – the nursery, – where the small boys are; a banging of windows and shades, a rush of many feet, and all of a sudden the leaden-colored door flies open and Meeker appears, pale and excited.
"Mr. Halsey!" he cries, "a house right back of us is all in a blaze. Shall I dismiss my class?"
"Wait a moment," answers the head-master, ever deliberate, and away he goes, long striding, the First Latin, despite Beach's effort, tearing after him. Then Beach follows the tide. The house in flames is not just back of them, but near enough to prove a source of tremendous interest and excitement, if not of danger. It faces on Twenty-fifth Street, just beyond the stable, and backs up into the grape-vined, fence-crossed rectangle at the back. Smoke in thick volumes is pouring out of the back windows. A tongue of flame licks out under the narrow gallery at the rear of the main floor as Halsey forces his way through a mob of shouting small boys to the open window. The First Latin comes tumbling after him, shoving Meeker aside. Borne on the breath of the rising east wind, a single, solemn "bong" of the Twenty-third Street tower tells that the watcher has quickly descried the unusual smoke-cloud billowing up from the doomed dwelling. People in adjoining houses are throwing open blinds and shouting unintelligible things. Boys and men come clambering over fences from adjoining yards. Cooks and housemaids gather on back galleries, huddling together with shawls over their heads and red arms wrapped in flimsy aprons. A pile of bedding comes hurtling down through the smoke from a third-story window, followed by a lot of books. Somebody has fetched a ladder, and a dozen boys and men have scrambled to the tar and pebble roof of the stable, and there they dance and shout and run hither and yon, but still no firemen appear. The nearest hook and ladder company "lies" seven blocks away. The school is down at the foot of the First (fire) District. The jangling bells of 61 Hose can be heard coming on the jump down the avenue, and every boy knows Pacific Engine can't be a block behind. But now the "hot black breath" rushing from the basement and first-floor windows bursts all at once into furious red flames, and Halsey says resignedly, "School's dismissed till the fire's out." The boys go tumbling over each other's heels in mad dash for the door, and the thunder of feet, as they go leaping down the narrow stairway, shakes and scandalizes the watchmakers in the little shop below, and Mr. Foley, rushing out at the first boy he can lay hands on, shakes him in turn until, amazed and wrathful, the young fellow breaks loose, whirls about, and lands a stunning left-and-right full in Foley's angry face, and turns it even redder, while every other big boy springs to the aid of "28," just lowering her long side levers and "taking the butt" from "61," while two or three stalwart, black-helmeted fellows dart up the brownstone steps and into the smoke-vomiting doorway, glistening pipe in hand, the copper-riveted, black leather hose trailing behind them. Before the water gushes from the corner hydrant and swells the snake-like coils that connect with the engine, the pipemen come reeling out before the jetting flames, and everybody knows that that fire will burn itself out and not succumb to water. In their haste, many lads have left their overcoats on the rack, and from the midst of these emerges Hoover, twisting the silken muffler about his throat, the only pupil left in the main school room, as Halsey suddenly recollects himself – and the cash in the Doctor's drawer – and comes hurrying back to that abandoned desk. The drawer is half-way open, the checks and bank-notes seem undisturbed, but Halsey knows there were a number of ten-dollar gold pieces in the lot, and now there isn't one. Long before that lively blaze is out and only bare burned walls are left standing, the Doctor himself arrives upon the scene, and the head-master, with rueful face, reports himself about one hundred dollars short.
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