From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days
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"I haven't got a cent with me, Johnny," protested the elder, while the others crowded about in indignant chorus. "I swear I'll fetch it to you to-night, or in two hours, if you must have it."
"You've sworn to the same effect twice before, Mr. Hulker," said the manager, calmly, "and I cannot trust you. I was down in the bar-room when your orders came for this round of drinks and cigars, and the boy declared that you showed him gold, and declared further that you'd settle the whole account. It's fourteen dollars and seventy-five cents, and I want that money now."
"It ain't mine, Johnny. It was given me for a particular purpose," protested Hulker. "That was just bluffing. I didn't think he'd take it in earnest."
"But he did, Mr. Hulker, and so did I, and so will your mother when my messenger gets there ten minutes from now. Get your coat, Mr. Tracy," he said, turning to his assistant. "I'll send you around with the message. That's all, gentlemen. I won't detain you further than to say that you will not be allowed in this room hereafter."
"Sa-ay, stop! Hold on!" cried Hulker. "Here, I'll – I'll pay it now. But of all the dash, dash, dashed mean – "
"No bad language, Mr. Hulker," said Martigny, calmly. "A special policeman is at the door." He glanced at the coin tendered by the trembling hand of the leader. "Give Mr. Hulker five dollars and twenty-five cents," said he, calmly, to the desk. "There's a friend of yours peeking in at the door. You might inquire now what he wants." And with unruffled civility the manager led the way to the door, closed it after the crestfallen quartette, and came back thoughtfully chinking the coins, just as Joy and Julian, laying aside their cues, hurried to the desk to pay for their game.
"Was that red-headed specimen there yet when you came up, Martigny?" asked Julian.
"Yes, sir; but he scuttled away down-stairs as soon as he saw me. Who is he?"
"One of the Hulker set, and none of ours," was the brief answer, as Julian's keen eyes took in the two coins Martigny was still mechanically passing back and forth from the fingers of one hand to the other. "Ten-dollar gold pieces," said he to Joy, as the two hurried down the stairs and out on the busy street. There, "scooting" along in the keen December wind, heads bowed and half hidden in high coat-collars, and huddling together, the discomfited quartette, reinforced at the corner by Briggs, were just turning to cross Broadway when a carriage came driving rapidly by. Seated therein, erect and majestic, was the Doctor, apparently lost in thought. By his side a pasty-faced young fellow, with flitting, beady black eyes, glanced furtively out and recognized his fellows, made some quick signal with the hand, waved it from the window, and pointed towards the northeast corner of Madison Square.
"I'll bet I know what that means," said Julian, as the five halted, irresolute, and gazed after the carriage. "Pop's had him in limbo for over an hour, and the moment he gets out he wants those fellows to meet him.We could find something worth knowing, old man, if we could see them together again." But not until long after did Julian dream how much.
The Doctor left Hoover at the steps of the brownstone mansion, saw him safely within-doors, summoned the grave butler to his carriage, said a few words in low tone, and was about to order "drive on," when he was aware of two young gentlemen running up, panting a bit and red in the face.
"Ha, Joy! Julian!" he cried, as they raised their caps. "What brings you here?"
"What news of Lawton, sir? Doremus just told us there was a letter." And to substantiate the story, Doremus himself came puffing after the pair.
"Where'd you hear it?" asked the Doctor of the third youngster, desirous first of ascertaining where the leak occurred.
"I was over at the school a few minutes ago. The janitor told me, and Mr. Halsey and Prime were just going away together."
"Just going away together! Why, I supposed everybody had left the building an hour ago."
"So did I, sir, but John said Mr. Halsey had kept Prime. He was having a long talk with him 'bout something, and John heard him say that now they had proof it wasn't Lawton that took Joy's watch, and that they'd have him back in less than a week."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Pop, now well-nigh as vehemently interested as his pupils. "Then you young gentlemen will be wise to go direct to your respective rooms and get to work on the lessons for to-morrow. It's almost dark now. Be off with you!" and, with exaggerated sternness, the cane was displayed.
"But was it so, sir? Have you heard of Lawton?"
"Yes," said the Doctor, instantly relapsing into the confidential manner known only to the boys he trusted and liked. "He writes that he had been ill, but is strong again, and we are going to try and fetch him back. Now, no more until to-morrow. Off to your books!"
If John, the janitor, had not been in such a hurry to get home, he might have given out some news that would have surprised them, and that was that when Mr. Halsey and Shorty Prime left the school together they went up the avenue instead of down, and, of all places in Gotham, Halsey led straight to the house of 61 Hose. Out in front on the cobble-stones the dainty white Zephyr was being sponged off and rubbed dry by three or four red-shirted experts, who glanced up and grinned affably at "the little 'un" and looked critically but in no surprise at the master. A New York fireman of the late '50s thought it bad form to be unprepared for anything. "Here are two who can back up my statements," said the boy, with confident eyes, as he beckoned to the nearest member of the Zephyr. "Will you tell Mr. Halsey where I met you on the way to the fire this morning, and what we said?"
The hoseman straightened up and squeezed the dirty water out of a huge sponge, shifted a quid in his cheek, thought a moment, and answered, "Why, cert'nly, Shorty; right down there opposite the Harlem depot. We'd hardly gone a block when I see this little fellow come a-running. 'What's a-fire, Shorty?' says I. 'Big house next the stable,' says he. 'Where's your cap?' says I. And he just kind a' nodded at the school as he grabbed the rope. You ain't going to do nothing to him for coming to give us a still on a fire, are you?" he asked, with something like menace in his eye.
"No," said Halsey, with one of his rare smiles. "We're glad to know it. That'll do, Prime. Come on." And Halsey, who never wasted a second of time, touched his hat to the Zephyrs and went streaking off down the avenue again, the tails of his worn black frock-coat streaming in the breeze, Shorty, much disappointed because he wasn't called upon to produce further evidence of prowess as a fireman, skipping along after him. The lad's heart was bounding with excitement and joy. Another day, and if successful in the quest on which she had already started, Mrs. Park, George Lawton's mother, would have Snipe once more back in school, and his accusers would stand confounded. Not for days had Shorty seemed so like his old self, bright, buoyant, and chatting like a parrot, to the discomfiture of a most tolerant home circle.
Morning came and all the school was early "on deck," and the news of Snipe went buzzing from lip to lip, and Briggs nervously flitted from group to group, swallowing snubs as though they were sugar. Meeker came wearily in, his pale face paler than ever, his eyes seeking Halsey, who glanced up and gravely shook his head, whereat the junior master made a despondent gesture with both hands and went on into his own room. Beach, his ruddy skin glowing with the exercise of a long, vigorous walk, swung out of his top-coat and into his seat as though lessons were to begin at the instant. He and Halsey merely exchanged nods. They were on civil – not confidential – terms. The janitor came and reached for the bell, lifted it by the handle from the table, and was turning with it when, unaccountably, it was jerked from his grasp and went clanging and clattering to the floor. The news of Snipe had restored heart to the First Latin, and as one boy the class turned on John in voluble sympathy. John dove for the bell, straightened up, and started anew, when there was a jerk to the table, a snap, and the little clapper of the bell shot half-way across the room. Turner dashed upon it and held it up to public view, a fine steel wire firmly attached to it and stretching to the leg of the table.
"Awe, see here, Mr. Beach, any boy that would play such a trick as that ought to be packed out of school. I move you, sir, that it is the sense of the First Latin – "
But Beach is in no mood for trifling. Bang! comes the heavy ruler on the desk. "To your seat!" he orders. "Ten marks off for Turner," and the class subsides, while John speeds away to borrow the bell from the shop below, and the master mentally calls the roll. "One absentee, Hoover," he notes; instantly calls Bertram to his feet and begins the work of the day. Poor work it proves to be, for between yesterday's fire and the morning's tidings the First Latin has neglected its studies. Poorer it proves after ten o'clock, at which hour a policeman appears at the door and asks for the rector. Poorer still after a recess at twelve, at which time Mr. Hoover himself drives up in his carriage, Halsey comes down to meet him, and together they drive away. At any other time the fact that Halsey was away from his post at the reassembly after recess would lead to a riot, but the sight of the face of Hoover, pater, is more than enough for the class. "He looks like a ghost," says Bliss. "What's coming next?"
Nothing came – ahead of the Doctor. At the usual moment he appeared, and as usual levelled his stick at the boy at the foot. "No message – telegraphic?" he asked of Beach, after brief glance at the missives on his desk. A shake of the head, an inaudible "no" framed by the lips were the answers. A look of grave concern spread over the Doctor's face. He glanced at his watch, turned to the window, then back to the door, for the rustle of skirts, most unusual sound, could be heard on the stairs. Another moment and there entered Mrs. Park, George Lawton's mother. She reached the chair the Doctor promptly placed for her, sank into it, limp and despairing, and burst into tears. "Doctor, Doctor!" she wailed. "My boy has not been near Bridgeport. I couldn't find a trace of him – or of any one who knew anything about him."
There was a change in the composition of the First Latin when the Christmas holidays came on, and the erstwhile "band of brothers" broke up for a fortnight of frolic at home. Hoover had not reappeared at school at all. He had been sent South to visit relatives in Mobile "for the benefit of his health," the rector said to the class, but there was no twinkle of merriment in his eye as he spoke, and no responsive laugh along the line of young faces. Strange interviews had occurred between the Doctor, Joy, and Julian, from which "the senate" came forth with sealed lips. Long conferences had taken place between the Doctor, Halsey, and Beach, and twice had Briggs been bidden to stay after school. "They wanted me to tell on lots of you fellows," was his explanation to the class. "Pop and Halsey tried to get me to tell where you spent your time and your money out of school, and threatened to dismiss me if I didn't." But the First Latin answered unanimously that Briggs was a liar. All the same they did wish they knew what was really the matter with Hoover. There was one lad who could have given a new direction to their theories had he not promised both the Doctor and Halsey to say nothing whatever about that ten-dollar gold piece, and a hard time he had keeping his word, and that was Shorty. Neither from the Doctor nor any one, until long after, did he learn nor did the school know that at least one hundred dollars had disappeared from the drawer of the Doctor's desk the eventful morning of the fire. Yet what made it strange was that rumors of such a thing had been heard, and they came from outside the school. Columbia students heard it whispered at Martigny's. Martigny himself admitted, when cornered, that he had had an interview with the rector at the residence of a gentleman in Madison Avenue, by request, but he would say no more. One thing was certain. None of the Hulker set reappeared at Martigny's. Another thing was announced, that Mrs. Hulker, who for the years that followed her husband's death had followed his example and consulted Hoover senior in all her investments, etc., had turned against that substantial citizen and was filling the ears of society with tales of his treachery, tales to which Mrs. Lawrence and her coterie listened with bated breath. Then, as has been said, the Hulker boys, too, went South, "visiting relatives in Savannah," and the widow followed a fortnight later. Ten days before Christmas, the so-called Hulker gang was without head, foot, or finances, both Hulker and Hoover having disappeared. There were "no more cakes and ale," no more cigars and tobacco for the few hangers-on about the quarters of Metamora Hose. But, after all, the matter over which Pop's boys talked and wondered most was: Where was Snipe Lawton and why did nothing further come from him?
There was a mystery about the letter that had taken Shorty up to the Doctor's early that December morning and sent an eager, anxious, loving-hearted woman out on the New Haven Railway by the noon train. It had come by post to Shorty just as he was starting for school, and he had run first to the Lawrences' and then, after five minutes' eager, excited talk with Mrs. Park, nearly all the way to Murray Hill, and caught the Doctor on his customary tramp to college before he reached the reservoir. It was only a little note. It said that Snipe had been ill of some kind of fever, that he had found work and was feeling independent and happy, hoping soon to make enough to send five dollars to Seymour, when he was taken ill. Snipe thought he "must have been flighty a few days," but people had been very kind to him. He had helped two boys – his employer's sons – with their arithmetic every night until his prostration, and it had pleased their mother and father both, but he had let out something about his own mother, and now they were telling him how cruel he had been to her and how he ought to go back to her and put an end to her suffering. Snipe said he couldn't go back to Rhinebeck and wouldn't go back to Aunt Lawrence, but if Shorty would send the enclosed note to his mother she would know that he loved her and thought of her constantly; and then he asked Shorty to write to him how the boys were and whether they missed him, and what Seymour said. "Address your letter care Massasoit House, Bridgeport, and I'll get it safely, only don't tell anybody." And, instead of writing, Shorty had run to Pop and Pop had turned back with him, had sent notes by him to Mrs. Park and to Halsey, bidding the latter give Shorty whole holiday, which, to the astonishment of the school, he had declined.
"Why did you do that?" Halsey had asked him during their memorable conference after the discovery of the gold in his overcoat-pocket, and Halsey was thinking how, unconsciously, the boy was weaving a strong thread in the net of suspicion that would have been thrown about him but for the lucky accident of the afternoon. "Beyond all question," said Halsey to himself and to the Doctor, "it was the intention of the thief to cast suspicion on Prime and divert it from himself," and there were just three lads, so far as Halsey could figure, who besides "Loquax" were in the room during his few minutes' absence, and had opportunity to rob that till, – Briggs, Hoover, and the janitor. The later discovery of the gold at Martigny's narrowed the number to Briggs and Hoover, with the chances in favor of the latter. And all these facts combined had led to that solemn conference between the Doctor and Hoover senior, and, despite all his protests of innocence, to the withdrawal of the ill-favored and unfortunate young fellow from the school. There was to be no scandal, – no allegation of crime. Pop would have dropped a thousand dollars rather than have it openly said that such things had happened among his boys. His own suspicions for months past had centred on his hulking, clumsy janitor, and for weeks the detectives had dogged and dogged in vain. What confounded and troubled the Doctor was young Hoover's vehement and persistent denial of guilt, and Hoover senior's prompt assertion that on the Saturday afternoon previous to quarter day, when giving his son the check for his school bill, he had also given him twenty-five dollars in gold and silver to pay certain debts the young man had confessed to him, and he was certain there were two ten-dollar pieces in the lot.
Those were solemn days for the elder Hoover and rueful days for the son. There were conferences, crossexaminations, and almost inquisitions at the solemn old mansion, Pop, Halsey, Martigny (most unwillingly), and Beach taking part. But the boy stood firm to his first statement. He had had no more money from any source than that twenty-five dollars. He long refused to say what he had done with it, as only a little silver remained, but at last owned that he had given the two tens "for safe-keeping" to the elder of the Hulker brothers as they stood there by the hose carriage. There was an unsettled account between them, covering only a few dollars, Hoover claimed, but the Hulkers said a great deal more, and while they were trying to straighten it out the Doctor swooped down on him and bore him away. This, if true, would account for the money Hulker gave Martigny. But who took the money from the Doctor's drawer? Who put that ten-dollar piece in Shorty's overcoat-pocket? Why didn't Shorty wish to take the whole holiday with the other boys as proffered by the Doctor? Halsey had to ask him, and it was plain the little fellow hated to answer, but answer he did. He was being educated at the expense of his relatives. They had made occasional criticism of the Doctor's proclivity as to half-holidays, and when this quarter day came Shorty had been not unkindly told that the money expended in payment for those school bills was for his instruction, not his amusement, that Saturday and Sunday were holidays enough in the week, and, finally, that he should have his check on Wednesday, and meantime they expected him to attend school.
One more question had Halsey to ask, and over it the youngster pondered long, though he answered instantly. "It was not four minutes – not much more than three – between the time you came in and the moment of the announcement of the fire. Was there no sign of it when you crossed Twenty-fifth Street? Didn't you know that the alarm would be given in a minute?"
"No, sir, there wasn't a sign or a sound of it on the avenue; besides, I came through Twenty-fourth Street, from the direction of the Lawrences';" and that ended Halsey's cross-examination. To clinch matters, he had taken Shorty with him, as has been told, and questioned a fireman of 61 Hose, then sent him home for dry clothing, happy in the importance of having held 28's pipe a whole half-hour, and hungry as a bear. Small wonder that the family decided after dinner that evening that it was time to call a halt on this craze for running to fires on the part of their junior member. But events were looming up that were soon to spare them further care in that direction.
What the First Latin and Pop and Halsey and Beach now longed to know, however, was, where was Snipe, and why had Mrs. Park failed in her mission? The rector and his head-master had now good reason to know that whether Lawton had anything to do with the disappearance of Joy's watch (which none of them could really believe), he was not the only thief in the school, for the loss of the hundred dollars long after his disappearance conclusively settled that. There were now not more than half a dozen lads who believed that Snipe was dishonest to the extent of stealing a watch, not more than a dozen who doubted his integrity at all, and as for his saying in his letter that he could be reached through the Massasoit at Bridgeport, there were theories in abundance to explain the fact that neither in person nor by letter had Snipe "reported." He never said where he had found work; he had not given the address of his benefactors; he still, it seemed, dreaded that his step-father would enforce his return to a life that was torment to a boy of his character and spirit. He had merely told Shorty that a letter addressed care of the Massasoit, Bridgeport, would reach him; and, learning this through the admissions wrung from his sorely badgered "chum," and never waiting to write, the impulsive woman had gone at once in person, and the Massasoit people knew nothing whatever of the son. No one answering his description had been there, and as for letters being sent in care of the house, they showed her a bundle of missives so addressed. Every day guests would arrive, register, ask if letters had come for them, ransack the packet, select their own, and toss the others back. Some they showed her had been waiting a month for claimants. If she were to leave a letter addressed in their care for her son and if he were to call for it, they would telegraph to her, but that was all they could promise, and, after consulting the city authorities and, of course, the minister of the church to whose doctrines she had pinned her faith, and all without hearing of a lad who in the least resembled her George, the sad-hearted woman had gone miserably back to Gotham and to Pop.
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