“Well, now, I am disgusted.”
“So am I. I call it a most unusual proceeding.”
“That is a very mild term to be applied to it. I call it an outrage. The Professor has deliberately gone to work to disgrace the school and every student in it.”
“That’s my opinion. I shall give my father a full history of the case in the next letter I write to him; and I incline to the belief that he will order me to pack my trunk and start for home.”
“I know that is what my father will do. Why, fellows, just think of it for a moment! What if this street gamin, who has been brought here as the Professor’s pet, should accidentally win a warrant at the next examination?”
“Or a commission! That would be worse yet. Wouldn’t a gentleman’s son look nice obeying his orders – the orders of a bootblack?”
“I’ll never do that. I’ll stay in the guard-house until I am gray-headed first.”
“Well, I won’t. I’ll go home first.”
This conversation took place one cold, frosty morning in the latter part of January, 18 – , among the members of a little party of boys who were walking up the path that led to the door of the Bridgeport Military Academy. There were a dozen of them in all, and their ages varied from thirteen to sixteen years. They looked like young soldiers, dressed as they were in their neat, well-fitting uniforms of cadet gray, set off by light blue trimmings; but it seems that they were anything but good soldiers just then, for their words indicated a determination on their part to rebel against lawful authority.
The Bridgeport Military School was a time-honored, wealthy, and aristocratic institution. It was modeled after the school at “the Point,” and although its course of study differed materially from that pursued at the national academy, its rules of discipline were almost the same. It was intended to fit boys for college, for business, for civil or mining engineering, or for West Point, if they wanted to go there and could command influence enough to secure the appointment; and in order that they might begin early in life to realize the majesty and dignity of law, and to see the necessity of submitting to it as becomes good citizens of the republic, they were put through a course of military drill as strict as that to which they would have been subjected if they had been private soldiers in the regular army.
The majority of the students – there were nearly three hundred of them in all-were deeply in love with the school, and with every body and every thing connected with it. Although they were obliged to study hard for seven months in the year to avoid being dropped from their classes, and to watch themselves closely in order to keep within the rules, they were allowed two seasons of rest and recreation during the year; a faithful student could always obtain a pass for an evening, provided his standing as a soldier was what it should be, and warrants and commissions were to be obtained by anybody who was willing to work for them.
But if these were the sentiments of some of the boys, there was a small but busy minority who cherished feelings that were exactly the reverse – boys who had been sent there because they could not be controlled at home, who were restive under the restraints that were imposed upon them, and whose sole object was to complete the course and get away from the school with as little trouble to themselves as possible. These were the fellows who were always in trouble. They did not mind their hard lessons so much as they did the fatiguing drills with muskets and broadswords. They envied the officers in their class on account of the authority they possessed, the extra privileges that fell to their lot, and the respect they demanded from the rest of the students; but they were not willing to work for a commission themselves, and they did not like those who were. They ran the guard at every opportunity to eat pancakes with Cony Ryan, who was quite as important a personage at Bridgeport as Benny Havens is, or used to be, at West Point, and did penance for it the next Saturday by performing extra duty as sentries with bricks in their knapsacks. When they saluted a member of the class above them, as the law required them to do, they did it in a very sullen and ungracious manner; but if a member of the class below them neglected his duty in this respect, they were prompt to take him to task for it.
The two meanest boys in school were Tom Fisher and Clarence Duncan, who, at the time our story opens, had been members of the academy just two years. They were smart enough at their books and stood well in their classes when they felt in the humor to apply themselves; but their record as soldiers was something of which they ought to have been ashamed. Tom, to put it in plain English, was a sneak, and Clarence was a bully, who boasted of his ability to whip any boy in school. These boys had a good many adherents among the students, and if there were any mischief done about the village it was pretty certain to be traced home to them.
The two seasons of rest and recreation of which we have spoken were the camping-out frolic, that came off in August, and the vacation, which began on the 15th of September and continued until the 15th of January. Then the boys went home to spend the holidays and show their uniforms. When the time came to go into camp no one was excused except upon the surgeon’s certificate of disability. In fact there were very few among them who ever asked to be excused. Even the most studious had grown tired of their books by this time, and were anxious to get out among the hills where they could breathe invigorating air, go trout-fishing and botanizing, and in various other ways brace up their nerves in readiness for the searching examination that was to be held immediately on their return to the academy.
This camp was intended as a school of review. Theory was reduced to practice, and those of the students who kept their eyes and ears open, and tried to profit by the instructions there received, were almost sure to pass the examination with flying colors. The civil engineers surveyed the bar in the river, just as their fathers had done before them; staked out the best route for a canal around the falls, and laid out a railroad and got everything in readiness for tunneling the hills to let it through. The military engineers, under cover of a hot fire of blank cartridges from the battery, threw pontoon bridges over the creek, and when they were finished, the infantry, which had been concealed in a ravine close by, charged across them and swarmed up the opposite heights to dislodge an enemy that was supposed to be intrenched there. They fortified the hills to prevent the approach of an invading army, sent out scouts to scour the surrounding country, held drumhead courts-martial, and tried everybody who was reported for any misdemeanor; in fact, they did everything that soldiers do when they are in the field.
Perhaps two or three days would be spent in this way, and then there would come two or three days of rest, during which the young soldiers would roam about the woods and fields, going wherever their fancy led them. When the examination came off, the graduates were presented with their diplomas and the degrees that the institution was empowered to confer, new officers were appointed from among the students, the classes were reorganized, new applicants were received, and everything was made ready for work at the beginning of the new school year.
At the time of which we write the school had been in session about two weeks. Two hundred and fifty of the old students had returned, and the places of the large number who were graduated at the close of the last term were filled by the second class, which became the first; the third became the second, the fourth became the third, and the new fourth was made up of the “Plebes” who had signed the muster-roll. Why the new-comers were called “Plebes,” which is short for “plebeians,” it is hard to tell. Perhaps it was because their fathers, in the days of their boyhood, had given that name to all new scholars, or it may have been for the reason that everybody was down on them. They certainly looked out of place there. They still wore their citizens’ clothes, the uniforms for which they had been measured when they first arrived not having yet been received. They were not allowed to go on dress-parade because they could not handle a musket; and as they had not yet been “broken in,” they were a little too independent in their conduct to suit the old students, who exacted the greatest show of respect from those who were below them.
Among these “Plebes” was one whose advent created the profoundest astonishment among some of the students. The boys we have already introduced to the reader were talking about him as they came up the path. They were Tom Fisher and his crowd. Having drawn the capes of their overcoats over their heads, they were strolling leisurely along, paying no heed to the cutting wind that swept across the snow-covered parade-ground; but the thinly clad young fellow who came up the path behind them was shivering violently under its influence. His hands and face were blue with cold, and his feet were so poorly protected that he was obliged to stop now and then and stamp them on the ground to get them warm. The noise he made attracted the attention of Tom Fisher and his companions, who turned to see what had occasioned it.
“Here he comes now,” exclaimed Dick Henderson, a fair-haired, sunny-faced little fellow, whose mother would have been ashamed of him if she had known what sort of company he was keeping at the academy. “Say, you fellow, where are your manners?”
Only one short year ago Dick was a “Plebe” himself; but now he was a third class boy, and he was resolved that everybody should know it and treat him accordingly.
“Let him go, Dick,” said Tom Fisher, in a tone of disgust. “You would be highly honored by a salute from a bootblack, wouldn’t you, now?”
“Who are these?” said Clarence Duncan, in a low tone.
Tom and his crowd looked down the path and saw two other new-comers approaching. In appearance they were very unlike the shivering, half-frozen boy who had just gone along the path. They were warmly clad, wore sealskin caps and gloves, and there was something in their air and bearing that proclaimed them to be boys who respected themselves, and who intended that others should respect them. One of them was tall and broad-shouldered, and carried himself as though he had never been in the habit of submitting to any nonsense, and the other was small, slender, and apparently delicate.
“Why, they are the Planter and his brother,” said one of the students, all of whom had had opportunity to learn more or less of the history of the boys who composed the fourth class. “They’re from Mississippi. Their father is worth no end of money, and they say he gives his boys a very liberal allowance.”
“Then they’ll be good fellows to foot the bills at Cony Ryan’s, will they not?” said Fisher.
“They say that the little one is a saint,” chimed in Dick Henderson. “He never does anything wrong; but his brother must be a brick, for he was expelled from the last school he attended on account of some violation of the rules.”
“Then he’s the fellow for us,” said Tom Fisher. “We must make it a point to see him after taps.”
The near approach of the new-comers cut short the conversation. Tom and his crowd strolled leisurely on, filling up the path so completely that it was impossible for any one to pass them without stepping out into the deep snow that had been thrown up on each side. This the new scholars did not seem inclined to do. The smaller one came up behind Dick Henderson, and placing the back of his hand against his arm, said pleasantly:
“Will you be good enough to give us a little room?”
Tom and his friends faced about at once, and the former stepped up to the speaker and laid his hand rather heavily on his shoulder.
“Look here, Plebe,” said he, in an insolent tone. “‘Subordination is of discipline the root; when you address an old cadet, forget not to salute.’ Mind that in future.”
“Take your hand off that boy, or I will salute you with a blow in the face that will bury you out of sight in that snowdrift,” said he who had been called the “Planter.”
“Who are you?” demanded Fisher.
“Take a good look at me so that you will remember me,” was the reply.
The boy drew off his gloves and pulled down his muffler, revealing the familiar features of our old friend, Don Gordon. Just then the clear notes of a bugle rang out on the frosty air. It was the “study call,” and all the students within hearing made haste to respond to it.
Don Gordon and his brother Hubert were two of the heroes of the Boy Trapper series. Those who have met them before will not need to be told what sort of boys they were; and strangers we will leave to do as the boys of the Bridgeport Academy did – become acquainted with them by degrees. They lived near the little town of Rochdale, in the State of Mississippi, where their father owned an extensive cotton plantation. That was the reason why the students, who had a new name for every new-comer, called Don the Planter. The last time we spoke of him and Hubert was in connection with the building of a Shooting-Box on the site of the one that had been burned by Bob Owens and Lester Brigham. We then informed the reader that the new structure was much better than the old one, and that is all we shall say about it until such time as the owners get ready to take possession of it.
After Bob Owens ran away from home to become a hunter, and Godfrey Evans and his son Dan went to work to earn an honest living, and David Evans became mail carrier, and Lester Brigham withdrew himself from the society of the boys in the neighborhood, the inhabitants of Rochdale and the surrounding country settled back into their old ways, and waited for something to happen that would create an excitement. They marveled greatly at the sudden change that had taken place in Godfrey and Dan, talked of the indomitable courage Bob Owens had displayed on the night the steamer Sam Kendall was burned, and cast jealous eyes upon David Evans, who, they thought, was making money a little too rapidly, and throwing on a few more airs than were becoming in a boy who had a woodchopper, and a lazy and worthless one at that, for a father.
Rochdale was like some other country towns that you may have heard of. The people, most of whom had been impoverished by the war, were envious of one another, though outwardly they were friendly, and all one had to do to gain enemies was to be successful. If he made money one year by planting potatoes, when the next season came around everybody planted potatoes. If he set up a blacksmith shop or opened a store, and seemed to be prospering, some one was sure to start opposition to him. When David Evans began riding the mail route for Don Gordon’s father, who had the contract, and exchanged his rags for warm and durable clothing, and purchased a fine horse for himself, there were a good many who thought that he was getting on in the world altogether too fast. His most bitter enemy was Mr. Owens, who had tried so hard to secure the contract for his son Bob, the runaway. He generally rode a very dilapidated specimen of horse-flesh, and whenever David passed him on the road, mounted on his high-stepping colt, Mr. Owens always felt as though he wanted to knock him out of his saddle.
“Just look at that beggar on horseback!” he would say to himself. “Things have come to a pretty pass when white trash like that can hold their heads so high in the air. If it hadn’t been for him and that meddlesome Gordon, Bob might have been riding that route now instead of roaming about the world, nobody knows where. If the opportunity ever presents itself I’ll get even with both of them for that piece of business.”
As for Don and Bert, they hardly knew what to do with themselves. Their private tutor left them – being a Northern man he could not stand the climate – and then they were as uneasy as fish out of their native element. They galloped their ponies about the country in search of adventure, paddled around the lake in their canoe, roamed listlessly through the woods with their guns in their hands; in short, to quote from Don, “they became as shiftless and of as little use in the world as ever Godfrey Evans had been.”
“I don’t at all like this thing,” the general one day said to his wife, “and there must be a stop put to it. The boys will grow up as ignorant as the negroes. I shall pack them both off to school.”
Mrs. Gordon thought of the way in which Don had conducted himself at the last school he attended (he had been expelled from it on account of the “scrapes” that his inordinate love of mischief brought him into), and made no reply.
“I have not forgotten that unfortunate occurrence,” said the general, who well knew what was passing in his wife’s mind. “But I think it was a lesson to Don, and one that will never fade from his memory. Being blessed with wonderful health and strength, he is fairly overflowing with animal spirits, and some of his surplus energy must be worked off in some way. I’ll put him where he will be held with his nose close to the grindstone. I’ll send him to Bridgeport.”
“Do you think he can endure the discipline?” asked the anxious mother, who knew how easily Don could be governed by kindness, and how obstinate he was under harsh treatment.
“He’ll have to; it is just what he needs. After he has spent six hours in racking his brain over the hardest kind of problems in mathematics, and two hours and a half more in handling muskets and broadswords under the eye of a strict drillmaster, he will feel more like going to bed than he will like running the guard to eat Cony Ryan’s pancakes and drink his sour buttermilk. I know, for I have been right there.”
When General Gordon once made up his mind to a course of action he lost no time in carrying it into effect. Before the week was passed he and his two boys were on their way to Bridgeport, where they arrived in time to learn something of the life the students led while they were in camp. The veteran superintendent welcomed the general as an old friend and pupil, received him and his boys into his marquee, and took pains to see that the latter made some agreeable acquaintances among the members of the first class, who showed them every thing there was to be seen. Bert did not have much to say, but Don was all enthusiasm.
“That’s the school for me,” said he to his father when they were on their way to Rochdale, after Don and Bert had passed their examination and been admitted as members of the academy. “How nicely those fellows were drilled, and what good-natured gentlemen all the instructors are! We shall have easy times during the first year. It will seem like play for me to go back to the beginning of algebra again.”
The general smiled, but said nothing until they reached home and the boys began to get ready to go back to the academy at the beginning of the school year. Then he tried to make them understand that “easy times” were entirely unknown in Bridgeport; that the instructors, although they were “good-natured” enough to the guests they met while in camp, were the sternest and most inflexible of disciplinarians in the barracks; and that there was as wide a gulf between them and the students as there was between the officers and privates in the army. Somehow Don could not bring himself to believe it, but before many months more had passed over his head he found out that his father knew what he was talking about. He made his mother the most solemn promises in regard to his behavior, assuring her that he had been in “scrapes” enough, and that henceforth he would give her and his teachers no trouble; and when he made those promises he was fully resolved to live up to them. He was then entirely unacquainted with the temptations that fell to the lot of a Bridgeport student. Cony Ryan’s pancakes and surreptitious sleigh-rides had no charms for him, neither had the guard-house and extra duty any terrors, because he did not know that there were any such things. But they were soon brought to his notice, and perhaps we shall see how he kept his promises after that.