“That’s so,” said Duncan, thoughtfully. “Your idea is better than mine. Why didn’t you speak of it before?”
“I should have thought your own good sense, if you had any, would have suggested it to you,” answered Tom. “I have been thinking about it ever since we left Cony’s. Your governor and mine have curtailed our allowance, and unless somebody foots the bills for us, how are we going to get any pancakes this term? Besides, we may want to borrow a dollar occasionally, and I know Gordon will give it to us if we only handle him right.”
“That’s so,” said Duncan, again. “I wish I had kept away from Henderson.”
“So do I. We may see trouble over that thing yet. I wish it was morning. I shall be on nettles until I see Don in the ranks. I hope he will get in all right, but somehow I can’t bring myself to believe that he will.”
The two boys did not sleep a wink that night – or morning, rather. They rolled and tossed about on their beds, waiting impatiently for the report of the morning gun which finally rang out on the frosty air, being followed almost immediately by the rattle of drums and the shrieking of fifes in the drill-room. They marched down with their company, and while the roll was being called they ran their eyes over the Plebes who were drawn up at the farther end of the room. There was Don Gordon in the front rank, looking as fresh as a daisy and as innocent as though he had never violated a rule in his life.
“He did get in, didn’t he?” said Duncan, while he and Fisher were clearing up their room in readiness for inspection. “He didn’t seem any the worse for his night’s experience, either; but did you notice Dick Henderson? His face was as long as your arm.”
Having received positive proof that Don had succeeded in reaching his room in spite of the fact that the hall-door had been locked against him, Tom and his companion, their friendly relations having been fully restored by the unexpected and mysterious failure of Duncan’s “idea,” became anxious to know how he had done it. During the two hours of study that came after the inspection of their rooms, they did not look at their books.
As soon as breakfast was over and the ranks were broken, they put on their overcoats and went out in search of Don. They found him in a very few minutes, for he was also looking for them. He was just as anxious to know why he had been challenged while the other members of the party were allowed to pass, as they were to ascertain how he had got back to his room. Before any of the three could speak, Dick Henderson came rushing up.
“O, boys!” he began.
“That will do for the present, Bub,” interrupted Duncan.
“Run away now, like a good little boy.”
“But I say, fellows,” exclaimed Dick.
“Well, say it some other time. We are busy just now.”
“Let him speak,” said Don. “I want him to tell why he stopped me this morning.”
“I didn’t stop you,” replied Dick.
“That’s a fact, you didn’t.
“Why, Gordon, it can’t be possible that you were – eh?”
Dick was about to ask Don if he was the boy who tried to bury himself out of sight in a snowdrift, and who jumped up and ran toward the academy when the corporal of the guard was summoned; but he was interrupted by a look from Duncan. Then the latter pointed with his thumb over his shoulder, and Dick, who understood the motion, beat a hasty retreat, looking crestfallen as well as bewildered.
“He committed a most inexcusable blunder, and came very near getting the whole of us into hot water,” said Fisher, who knew that he must offer something in the way of explanation. “We will give him a good talking to, and make him promise to be more careful in future. Now, Gordon, how in the world did you get in?”
“Easy enough,” answered Don. “I say, boys, there’s lots of fun in running the guard, and some little excitement too. I am ready to try it again any night. Come on, and I will tell you all about it.”
The three boys linked their arms together and walked toward an unfrequented part of the grounds, so that Don could give the details of his exploit without danger of being overheard. We will tell the story in our own way.
“Don’t be in too great a hurry. Let me get out of your sight,” said Clarence Duncan, as he crept through the fence; and Don, whose suspicions had not been aroused, was careful to obey. When he thought that Clarence had been allowed time to reach the academy, he passed through the opening and moved toward Dick Henderson’s post. He saw the latter when he came out from behind his box and walked along his beat, and remembering Tom Fisher’s words of caution – that it would not be safe to approach Dick’s post openly for fear that the officer of the day or the corporal might be somewhere within sight – Don sought concealment by throwing himself at full length in the snow. He expected to see Dick turn about and go behind his box again; and consequently he was not a little amazed when the sentry took up a position directly in front of him, and called for the corporal of the guard.
Don did not know what to make of it; but he did know that if he stayed where he was, detection and punishment were inevitable. He still had one chance for escape, and he lost no time in improving it. He jumped up and took to his heels, trusting to the darkness and to his uniform to conceal his identity. He was very light of foot, and by doing some of his best running, he succeeded in dodging around the corner of the academy building just as the corporal threw open the door of the guard-room. The signal, which had produced such an effect upon Dick Henderson, he had given by the merest accident. It was one that Fisher, by some oversight, had neglected to teach him, although he had let him into the secret of all the other signs and pass-words.
“A miss is as good as a mile, but still that was a pretty close shave,” said Don to himself, as he opened the back door and felt his way up the stairs. “I can’t understand why Dick challenged me, unless it was because my approach was discovered by somebody else who would have reported him if he hadn’t tried to stop me.”
On reaching the second landing Don moved cautiously along the hall, spelling the last syllable of the pass-word as he went. Greatly to his surprise, he met with no response. When his hands came in contact with the door, he began searching for the knob; but when he turned it, the door did not open for him. It was locked.
“Now here’s a go,” thought Don, who did not know whether to laugh or get angry over the predicament in which he so unexpectedly found himself. “Where’s Fisher? He knew very well that I couldn’t get to my room without assistance, and yet he has deserted me. If that is the sort of fellow he is, he’ll not eat any more pancakes this winter at my expense.”
Having satisfied himself that Tom was not on hand, as he had promised to be, Don placed his ear close to the key-hole, and found that he could distinctly hear the footsteps of the floor-guard, as he paced up and down the hall on the other side of the door. There was a fellow who could and would help him if he could only attract his attention. Waiting, with all the patience he could command, until the sentry came down to that end of the hall again, Don rapped softly upon the door, and in a peculiar manner. The footsteps ceased on the instant; the sentry was listening. Again Don gave the mystic signal – one quick rap; then, after a little pause, three more raps, delivered in rapid succession, and presently a voice came through the key-hole.
“B-l-e-r-s!” it whispered.
“R-a-m!” whispered Don, in reply.
“Who is it?”
A moment later a key rattled in the lock, the door swung open, and Don stood face to face with the sentry.
“Where’s Fisher?” demanded the latter.
“That’s just what I should like to know,” answered Don. “He said he would be here to let me in, but I haven’t seen anything of him.”
“He’s a pretty fellow,” exclaimed the sentry. “I don’t know whether you can reach your room or not. The guards have been aroused, and I am expecting the officer of the day every minute. But I’ll do the best I can for you. Stay here till I come back.”
The sentry was not gone more than a quarter of a minute. He went as far as the head of the stairs that led to the floor below, and then he turned and ran back on tip-toe. “You’re too late,” said he. “The officer of the day is down stairs, and he’ll be up here in a second. You might as well come out and give yourself up, for the boy who comes after me will not pass you.”
“I can’t help that,” replied Don, “I’ll not give myself up. That isn’t my style.”
The sentry had seen many a boy in a tight corner, but he had never before seen one who took matters as coolly as Don did. All the other students of his acquaintance would have been frightened when they found that every avenue of escape was closed against them; but Don was as serene as a summer’s morning.
“You’re a plucky one,” said the sentry, “and I am sorry that I can not help you. If my relief – Get out of sight, quick! quick!” he added, as a heavy step sounded on the stairs. “That’s the officer of the day; and if he finds this door unlocked, I shall be in as bad a box as you are.”
Don went back into the hall, his movements being quickened by a gentle push from the sentry, who, having closed and locked the door, succeeded in reaching his own hall just a second before the officer of the day appeared at the head of the stairs. Close at his heels came the corporal of the guard, who carried a lighted lantern in his hand.
“Sentry,” said the officer, “have any of your men left their rooms to-night?”
“Not since I have been on post, sir,” replied the sentry. “The beds were all occupied half an hour ago.”
“We will look into this matter, corporal,” said the officer; and as he spoke he led the way to the farther end of the hall to begin an examination of the rooms. The sentry knew that he would do this, and he awaited the issue of events with no little uneasiness.
“Somebody is in for a regular overhauling,” said he to himself. “Of course they will see that Gordon’s bed is empty, and the next question to be decided will be: Who let him out, Porter or I? I know I didn’t do it; Porter will be sure to deny it – he can keep a smooth face and tell a lie easier than any boy I ever saw – and unless I can prevail upon Gordon to back up my statement, I shall be in a bad fix.”
This was the sentry’s only chance for escape, and it looked like a very slim one. He was not at all acquainted with Don Gordon; in fact he had never exchanged a word with him until that night, and consequently he had no idea what Don would do when he was taken before the superintendent and ordered to give the names of the floor-guard and of the outside sentry who had permitted him to pass unchallenged. Would he refuse to obey the order, as an honorable boy ought to do, or would he seek to screen himself by making a clean breast of everything? While the sentry was turning these matters over in his mind, the officer of the day opened the door of Don’s dormitory.
“It’s all over now,” thought he, “and the next thing is the investigation. I don’t believe I shall have another opportunity to speak to Gordon to-night, for my relief ought to be along now; but I must see him the first thing in the morning and find out what sort of a story he intends to tell when he is hauled up. If he has nerve enough to keep a still tongue in his head – ”
The sentry brought his soliloquy to a close, and stood looking the very picture of astonishment. Just then the officer of the day and his attendant came out of Don’s room, and there was nothing in their faces to indicate that they had made any discovery there. They looked into all the other dormitories, and then came back to the lower end of the hall and tried the door that led to the fire-escape. It was locked, and everything seemed to be all right.
“Sentry,” said the officer of the day, in stern tones. “Are you sure you are telling me the truth when you say that no one has passed you to-night?”
“Yes, sir, I am,” answered the boy, looking his questioner squarely in the eye. “No one has passed across this floor since I came on post.”
“When this matter has been sifted to the bottom, as it certainly will be, a fine reckoning awaits somebody,” said the officer. “Corporal, we will go to the next floor.”
When the two had disappeared, and the sentry’s ears told him that they were making the round of the dormitories above, he pulled his key from his pocket and quickly opened the door behind which Don Gordon stood trying to make up his mind to something. He did not expect to get into his room that morning, and the question he was trying to decide, was: Should he stay there in the cold and take his chances of falling-in with the rest of the Plebes when they were marched down to the drill-room to answer to roll-call, or should he give himself up and ask permission to sit by the guard-room stove until he was thawed out? He was very much surprised when the door opened, and he saw the sentry beckoning to him.
“Gordon,” said the latter, in a hurried whisper. “You’re safe. Did you put a dummy in your bed before you came out?”
Don replied that he did.
“Well, it must be a perfect one, for the officer of the day went in there with a light and never saw anything to excite his suspicions. It’s the greatest wonder in the world to me that he didn’t miss your clothes.”
“My clothes were there,” answered Don, calmly. “I took my dress suit out of the closet and put it on a chair by the side of my bed, turning the coat inside out and doubling up the skirts of it so that it would look like a fatigue coat. What did the old fellow have to say about it, anyhow?”
The sentry could not waste much time in conversation, for every moment was precious; but he said enough to give Don an idea of what had passed between himself and the officer of the day, and to enable him to give Fisher and Duncan a very accurate account of it.
“You have got Porter and me and all the rest of us out of a bad scrape,” said the sentry, in conclusion. “Now keep mum, or if you speak at all deny everything, and this night’s work will prove to be the most bewildering piece of business in the way of guard-running that has ever been done at this academy. Go to your room while the way is open to you, and be quick about it.”
Don, whose teeth were chattering with the cold, lost no time in acting upon this suggestion. His first act was to hang his dress-suit in the closet, and his next to deposit in its place on the chair the suit he had on and which he proceeded to pull off with all possible haste. Then he tumbled into bed and turned his face to the wall just as the floor-guard’s relief came up the stairs.
“That was another close shave,” thought Don, “and now comes something else. I hope the investigation will not be a very searching one, for if it is, the whole thing is bound to come out. I am always in for a good time when I can have it without getting anybody into difficulty; but when it comes to telling a deliberate lie about it – that’s a huckleberry beyond my persimmon.”
“I say Don!” whispered Bert, from his bed.
“Great Moses!” was the culprit’s mental ejaculation. “Was he awake when I came in? If he was, I am in for lectures by the mile.”
“I say, Don!” whispered Bert, in a louder tone.
“M!” said Don, drowsily.
“I thought I heard some one come in just now.”
“Very likely you did. The officer of the day has been in here.”
“The officer of the day!” repeated Bert, who had learned to dread that official as much as some of the other boys disliked him. “What did he want? Is there anything wrong?”
“He wanted to make sure that we were both safely stowed away in our little beds. Wake me when you hear the morning gun.”
This was the substance of the story that Don told his two companions as they strolled about the grounds arm in arm. They listened in amazement, and complimented Don’s presence of mind in no measured terms. Don said he didn’t look upon it as much of an exploit – that almost any boy could have done the same thing under the same circumstances, adding —
“But there are two or three matters that I want cleared up, and at least one on which I wish to come to the plainest kind of an understanding with you. What made Henderson halt me?”
“I don’t know, I am sure,” replied Duncan. “He made the biggest kind of a blunder, didn’t he?”
“I’ll tell you what I think about it,” said Tom. “Dick probably knew that there was somebody else watching you, and that if he didn’t challenge you, he would be reported for neglect of duty.”
“That was the construction I put upon his conduct,” said Don.
“We can’t expect a fellow to get himself into trouble for the sake of keeping another out of it, you know,” chimed in Clarence Duncan.
“Of course not. Now, Fisher, what was the reason you were not there at that door to let me in?”
“I was to blame for that,” said Clarence. He knew Don would be sure to ask that question, and while the latter was telling his story he had leisure to make up his mind how he would answer it. “When I was running toward the academy I heard footsteps in the guard-room, and believing that the relief was being called, I dodged behind the building to wait until they began the round of the posts. Just then Henderson challenged, and shortly afterward some one ran by me and went into the academy through the back door. I supposed it was you; and believing that I was the last one to go in, I took pains to examine the doors leading out of the fire-escape, knowing that they would all be tried by the officer of the day when he came up to look into the rooms. In the door opening on to your floor I found a key of which I took possession, supposing, of course, that you had used it to let yourself in and forgotten to take it away with you.”
“That was perfectly right, Gordon,” said Tom Fisher. “If the officer of the day had found that key in the door, it would have knocked our night excursions into a cocked hat. The teachers don’t even suspect that we make use of the doors leading to the back stairs, and if they ever find it out – ”
“Then good-by to Cony Ryan’s pancakes,” said Duncan, finishing the sentence for his companion. “What is that point on which you wish to come to the plainest kind of an understanding with us?” he added, in the hope of turning the conversation into another channel. He was afraid that Don might begin a vigorous cross-questioning, and find a flaw or two in the story he had told him regarding that key.
“It is this,” replied Don: “When that floor-guard, whatever his name is, let me in, he told me to keep mum; or, if I opened my lips at all, to deny everything. Now, that is something I’ll not do to please or screen anybody.”
Don’s companions were utterly astounded. They withdrew their arms from his, and stood off and looked at him.
“I didn’t think you were that sort of a chap,” said Fisher.
“Neither did I,” exclaimed Duncan. “We have been deceived in you.”
“You certainly have, if you picked me up for that kind of a fellow,” answered Don, boldly, “and you had better drop me like a hot potato. All the secrets you have intrusted to my keeping are perfectly safe with me; but I want you to understand that I will not tell a barefaced lie, if I should chance to be hauled up, to keep you or any one else out of trouble.”
“Do you mean to say that you will confess if you are hauled up?” demanded Duncan.
“If the superintendent asks me if I ran the guard last night, I shall tell him the truth. That’s what I mean.”
“And give the rest of us away too?” exclaimed Fisher.
“By no means,” answered Don, quickly. “I didn’t say that. If he asks me any questions I don’t want to answer, I can keep my mouth shut, can’t I?”
“But will you? That’s the point.”
“If you think I can’t be trusted, you had better drop me,” was Don’s reply.
It was plain that Tom and Clarence were very much disappointed in Don, and that they did not know what to make of him. He had shown himself perfectly willing to break the rules of the school, but his sense of honor would not permit him to lie about it in order to escape punishment. They had never before met a boy like him.
“I don’t believe such a fellow ever lived since the days of George Washington,” thought Duncan; “and neither do I believe he means what he says. If he is questioned, he will blow the whole thing, and some of us will be sent down as sure as the world. Gordon won’t do to tie to – I can see that with half an eye. If you will excuse me, fellows,” he added, aloud, “I will go and ask Dick Henderson to give an account of himself.”
Tom would have been glad to go with Duncan, for he wanted an opportunity to ask him what he thought of this boy who would not tell a lie when circumstances seemed to demand it; but as he could think up no good excuse for leaving Don just then, he remained with him, and Duncan went off alone. Dick was easily found, for he was loitering about waiting for a chance to speak to Duncan or Fisher. He expected that there was trouble ahead, and he wanted it distinctly understood that if it came, Duncan was the boy who was to blame for it.