Winter had passed, the snow had disappeared, the ice was all out of the river, the buds were starting on the maple trees, and those of the students who were ambitious to be something better than privates in their companies, were studying night and day to prepare themselves for the approaching examination. These found rest and recreation by whipping the neighboring brooks for trout on Saturday afternoon (you know it is time to begin trout-fishing when the maple buds start), while Tom Fisher and his followers diverted themselves by running the guard as often as the opportunity was presented.
On a certain night one of Tom’s friends who held one of the outside posts from eight o’clock until midnight, was taken suddenly ill, and was relieved by the corporal, his beat being taken by a boy who did not belong to the “set.” Tom had made arrangements for visiting Cony Ryan’s, and Don Gordon had charge of his floor. When taps had sounded, and the officer of the day had made his rounds, the guard-runners left their dormitories, one by one, Don turning his back so that he did not see them as they passed. They left the building without being discovered, but when they attempted to pass the sentry, their troubles began. They were halted, and by a voice that did not belong to the friend they had expected to find on that post. Amazed and disconcerted, they huddled together for a moment like a flock of sheep that had been suddenly frightened, and then, knowing that there was but one thing they could do, they turned and started for the academy on a dead run, the vigilant sentry all the while rending the air with his lusty calls for the corporal of the guard. They tumbled up the stairs, gained access to the floor on which their dormitories were situated, pulled off their uniforms without loss of time and went to bed, as miserable and frightened a lot of boys as the walls of that academy had ever inclosed.
“Did you ever hear of anything so very unfortunate?” whispered Fisher to his friend Duncan. “If there was any one of our fellows except Gordon in charge of this floor, we should be all right, for it is as dark as a pocket out of doors, and I know that that sentry could not have recognized us.”
“We ought never to have had anything to do with Gordon in the first place,” whispered Duncan, in reply.
“That’s what I have thought for a long time; but it is too late to mend the matter now. There they are,” he added, as the sound of footsteps on the stairs came to their ears. “It is all over with us now.”
So thought Don Gordon, only he used the word “me” instead of “us.” “I am in for it,” he soliloquized, “and I would give something to know what they will do with me. I’ll not go back on the boys, and that’s flat. The superintendent will give me a lively shake-up, of course; and then what will Bert say? What will mother think?”
When the officer of the day, attended as usual by the corporal, came up the stairs, he found Don pacing slowly along the hall with his hands behind his back.
“There’s no one out who belongs on this floor,” replied Don. “And if there has been anything going on up stairs, I don’t know it.”
“What did he say to you?”
“Not a word!”
The students were all surprised to hear this, and there were some among them who were frightened as well. After a few more questions, which brought no information from Don for the simple reason that he had none to impart, the students all went back to bed except Fisher and Duncan, who lingered to have a word with Don in private. They were ill at ease, and told themselves that when the new fastenings were put on the doors, some new routine had been adopted of which they had not yet heard.
“Didn’t he ask you any questions at all – not a single one?” whispered Fisher.
“He didn’t open his lips,” answered Don.
“Didn’t say anything to you about reporting to him as soon as you were relieved, did he?” put in Duncan, who thought Don must surely be mistaken.
“How could he, when he didn’t open his lips?” asked Don, in reply.
“This is an unusual way of doing business,” said Tom, reflectively, “and there’s something about it that doesn’t look just right to me. Now, mark my words, fellows: they’re going to spring something new on us, and they will do it so suddenly, that it will knock us flatter than one of Cony Ryan’s pancakes. You’ll see.”
And sure enough they did.
It was an eager and anxious lot of boys who answered to roll-call the next morning. Of course they knew that a party of their fellows had been challenged while they were attempting to run the guard, and they were impatient to learn who they were, and what the superintendent was going to do about it. Two things astonished and bewildered them: They could not imagine how the culprits had managed to leave the building and get back again so easily, and neither could they understand why the officer of the day had neglected to question the floor-guards. They believed, with Tom Fisher, that something new was to be “sprung” on them; and as soon as breakfast was over, they found out what it was. On ordinary occasions the quartermaster-sergeants marched their respective companies to and from the dining-hall; but on this particular morning the captains took command and led them to the drill-room, where they were drawn up in line as they were when preparing for dress-parade. The teachers were all there, and many a sly and inquiring glance was cast toward them; but their countenances revealed nothing.
“Right dress! – Front!” commanded the captains, as the companies came into line; and when these orders had been obeyed, the superintendent, who stood in the place that is occupied by the battalion commander during dress-parade, thus addressed them:
“Young gentlemen,” said he, and his tones were not near as stern and severe as the boys expected they would be, “I am sorry to hear that some of you attempted to run the guard last night. Heretofore, when such offences have been committed, it has been our rule to examine the floor-guards and sentries who were on duty at the time, but we have seldom succeeded in drawing from them any information that would lead to the detection of the guilty parties. A student who will prove false to his duty, and violate the confidence reposed in him, will not scruple to tell any number of falsehoods to conceal his wrong-doing. Now I intend, before these ranks are broken, to learn the names of all those who tried to run by post No. 8 last night, as well as the name of the floor-guard who permitted them to pass. The first sergeants will now call the roll, and you can answer ‘guilty,’ or ‘not guilty,’ just as your sense of honor may seem to dictate. If innocent, simply answer ‘here’ and keep your place in the ranks; if you are guilty, step three paces to the front. I put you all upon your honor.”
When the superintendent ceased speaking, the first sergeants moved to the front and centre of their respective companies, and the roll-call began. As it proceeded, more than one boy standing in the ranks of the third company tried to twist himself around so that he could catch a glimpse of Don Gordon’s face, hoping to see something there that would give him a hint of the course Don intended to pursue when his turn came to answer to his name.
“He certainly will not – he dare not – confess,” were the thoughts that passed through their minds. “If he does, he will be sent down, sure. If some one could only get a chance to whisper a word or two in his ear, we would come out all right yet, in spite of this honor business.”
The anxiety and alarm experienced by these boys showed very plainly in their countenances, and before the roll-call had been going on for two minutes, the superintendent could have stepped forward and picked out every one of the guard-runners.
The names of the boys belonging to the first and second companies were called in quick succession, and as yet nobody had stepped to the front. The culprits, in this instance, all belonged to the third class, with the single exception of Don Gordon, who, having long ago made up his mind what he would do, waited with some impatience to see how his companions in guilt would stand the test. The result was just what he might have expected.
“Clarence Duncan,” said the third company sergeant.
“Here,” answered the owner of that name, making a desperate but unsuccessful effort to appear at his ease.
“George W. Brown.”
“They’re a pack of cowards,” was Don’s mental comment. “Such fellows always are, and I ought to have known better than to take up with them. My last act in this school will be to show them and everybody else that I am just as willing to pay the fiddler as I am to dance.”
At last the sergeant of the fourth company began, and near the top of his list was the name – “Donald Gordon.”
There was no response to it; but to the intense amazement of everybody present, and the almost overwhelming consternation of some, Don stepped quickly and firmly to the front. No one outside the “set” would have thought of picking him out as a guard-runner. The sergeant hesitated and stammered over the next name, and there was a perceptible flutter among all except the first-class boys. They showed their three years’ drill and discipline by standing as stiff as so many posts and holding their eyes straight to the front; but they could not control their countenances, and surprise and sorrow were depicted upon every one of them. When the roll-call was ended the sergeants went back to their places, and Don was left standing alone. He had passed through one ordeal, and now came another.
“Gordon,” said the superintendent, “I am glad to see that you have too much manhood to take refuge behind a lie. I should have been very much surprised and grieved if you had showed me that I had formed a wrong opinion of you.”
These words made some of the guilty ones in the third class open their eyes. Duncan’s face grew whiter than ever, while Tom Fisher said to himself:
“I really believe the old fellow knows right where to look to find every boy who was outside the building last night after taps. If I had had the faintest suspicion that Don intended to confess, I should have been ahead of him. He’ll get off easy by giving the names of the rest of us, and Duncan and I and a few others, who kicked up such a row last term, will be sent down.”
“You had charge of the third floor between the hours of eight and twelve last evening,” continued the superintendent, addressing himself to Don.
“Yes, sir,” was the reply.
“And while you were on duty several boys, who you knew intended to run the guard, left their dormitories, and you permitted them to pass out of the building?”
“Yes, sir,” said Don, again.
“Give me the names of those boys,” said the superintendent, nodding to the adjutant, who pulled out his note-book and pencil; but he did not use them – at least just then. While he held his pencil in the air and looked at Don, and the culprits were trembling with apprehension, and the others were listening with all their ears to catch the first name that fell from Don’s lips, the answer came clear and distinct:
“I hope you will not insist upon that, sir, for it is something I do not like to do.”
The superintendent stared, the teachers looked astonished, and another flutter of excitement ran along the line. This time it did not even miss the first-class boys, some of whom so far forgot themselves as to turn their heads and look at the boy who dared stand in the presence of the head of the school and say that he did not like to obey an order that had been given him point-blank. Such a thing had never happened before in the Bridgeport academy. Don’s companions in guilt began to breathe easier.
“If he will only stick to that I am all right; but he will have to go down,” soliloquized Clarence Duncan, whose every thought was a selfish one, and who did not care the snap of his finger what became of Don or anybody else, so long as he escaped punishment himself.
“That bangs me,” thought Tom Fisher, who was not altogether bad at heart, even though he did have faults almost without number. He knew a brave boy when he saw one, and Don’s conduct excited his unbounded admiration. “He’s the pluckiest fellow I ever saw, and he shall not be sent down if I can help it.”
“Do you refuse to give me the names of those boys?” asked the superintendent, as soon as he had somewhat recovered from his surprise.
“I would rather not, sir,” replied Don. He did not like to use so strong a word as “refuse,” but still his answer was given in a tone which showed that he had no intention of wavering.
“You know the alternative?” said the superintendent, quietly but firmly.
“And you are willing to submit to it?”
“But I am not willing that he should, sir,” exclaimed Tom Fisher, stepping three paces to the front and raising his hand to his cap. “If he won’t tell who the guard-runners are, I will.”
“Attention!” shouted the superintendent, who was utterly confounded by this breach of discipline; but Tom, having made a resolution, was determined to stick to it, regardless of the consequences.
“No boy in this academy shall ever again suffer for my misdeeds if I can help it,” said he, speaking as rapidly as he could in order that he might get everything off his mind before he was interrupted. “I was one of the guard-runners, and if the others have the least particle of pluck in them – ”
“Attention!” shouted the superintendent again. “Captain Morgan” he added, addressing the commander of the first company, “detail a corporal’s guard to take private Fisher to his room under arrest.”
“I don’t care,” thought Tom, as he was marched off by the guard that was quickly detailed to take charge of him. “I did my best to save Don, and I shall go down with something like a clear conscience. But I really wish the superintendent would give me another chance. I would make an honest and earnest effort to do better.”
This was the unexpected act on the part of Tom Fisher to which we referred a short time ago, and which, taken in connection with Don’s bold acknowledgment of his guilt, did more to break up guard-running at that academy than all the locks and bolts that could have been put upon the doors. These two incidents upset everybody, teachers included; but the latter were quick to see how to take advantage of it.
“Sergeant Clayton, call the roll of your company again,” said the superintendent.
The sergeant obeyed, and this time all the guard-runners stepped to the front with the exception of Clarence Duncan. He had good reasons for fearing exposure, as we shall presently see, and believing that his companions would follow Don Gordon’s example and refuse to bear witness against him, he was resolved to keep up a bold front, and to deny his guilt to the very last.
“It is a pity that some of these weak-kneed fellows didn’t come to the same determination,” said he to himself. “There was not a scrap of evidence against any of us, and if they had only stood by me – ”
“Sergeant, call private Duncan’s name again,” said the superintendent, breaking in upon his soliloquy.
“Clarence Duncan,” said the sergeant.
“Here,” came the response.
“Clarence Duncan!” repeated Clayton.
“Here!” replied the culprit; adding to himself, “You can’t make me own up, and you might as well give up trying.”
“Private Duncan, three paces to the front,” commanded the superintendent. “Break ranks.”
Duncan was taken to his room under guard, and when he got there he found an armed sentry pacing back and forth in front of the door. Tom Fisher was seated at the table with an open book before him, but he was not studying. He was thinking over the incidents that had just transpired.
“Well, Clarence,” said he, cheerfully, “we’re in for it.”
“Yes,” replied Clarence, angrily. “Thanks to you and Don Gordon, we are in for it. I never knew before that you were such a coward. What made you side with Gordon?”
“Well, I had two reasons for it: In the first place, he showed himself to be a good fellow, and as true as steel; and I couldn’t stand by and see him punished. If I hadn’t spoken up, he would have been sent down for refusing to give our names.”
“That’s just what ought to have been done with him,” said Clarence.
“As the case now stands,” continued Tom, “he will, most likely, be let off easy, this being the first time that anything serious has been charged against him.”
“And what is to become of you and me?”
“You know what they told us the last time we were court-martialed, don’t you?”
“I should think I ought, for I have been reminded of it often enough. Don’t you know that by befriending Don you have got me into a terrible scrape? Don’t you remember that my father told me that he would put me on board the school-ship if I were sent down?”
It would have been strange if Tom had forgotten it, for Duncan had such a horror of that same school-ship that he talked about it every day. He had seen and conversed with boys who had been sent there because they would not behave themselves at home, and he had noticed that they all agreed on these two points – that the officers were very stern and severe, and that the life of a hod-carrier was easier and more respectable than that of a foremast hand. Clarence had a deep-rooted horror of the sea and every thing connected with it, and he looked forward to five years on the school-ship with feelings very near akin to those with which he would have looked forward to a term in the penitentiary.
“You went back on me, an old-time friend, for the sake of a boy you never saw or heard of until last winter,” continued Clarence. “I didn’t act the craven, I tell you. I stuck it out as long as I could.”
“Did they find you out?” asked Tom.
“I am under arrest, the same as you are; but they can’t prove anything against me.”
“Then how does it come that you are in arrest?”
“That’s just what beats me. They called the roll of our company again after you were sent off under guard, and, to my intense disgust, every fellow who was with us last night stepped to the front. They tried to bully a confession out of me, but I didn’t leave the ranks until I was ordered to do so.”
“That brings me to the second reason I had for doing as I did,” said Tom. “They’ve got evidence against every one of us.”
“I don’t see where they got it.”
If Clarence had taken the trouble to look in the mirror he would have seen at a glance where the evidence that convicted him came from. He carried it in his face.
We need not dwell upon the incidents that happened during the next few days, for they have nothing to do with our story, and no one except the boys who attended the Bridgeport academy at this particular time would be interested in them. It will be enough to say that the culprits were confined to their rooms and given ample leisure in which to think over their folly and make good resolutions for the future. The repentant ones devoted the most of their time to their books; but there were some among them who did nothing but bemoan their hard luck and rail at Don Gordon for being such a “fluke.”
The court-martial came off in due time, and Clarence Duncan, who denied his guilt to the very last, and even denounced the others for bearing false witness against him, was sent down; and it was not long before reports came to the academy that he had been placed on board the school-ship. Tom Fisher was given a new lease of life. He evidently knew just what he was doing when he took sides with Don, for that one act was all that saved him from going home too. Next to Duncan he and Don received the heaviest sentences, both being gated for two months, during which time they were required to walk eight extras with packed knapsacks on their backs. The others were punished in nearly the same way, only they were not gated for so long a period, nor were they called upon to perform as much extra duty. Strange as it may appear, no one suspected that the guard-runners had made use of the fire-escape. All the blame was laid upon the floor-guard, who suffered accordingly.