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“Oh, go to the dickens,” muttered Dick. “You make me tired.” Then, after a moment, he added: “Maybe that was cheeky, Stan. I’m sorry. Guess I’ve had it too easy.”
“That’s all right, son. It’s just as well to know where we stand, though. Any other little thing I can do for you?”
“Yes, you can close your silly mouth,” was the answer.
By Saturday Dick felt almost like an old boy. His courses promised to be only mildly difficult, and the instructors seemed a very decent lot, notably “Old Addicks” who knew so much of ancient languages that he looked like an elderly, benignant Greek philosopher, and Mr. McCreedy, who taught mathematics. Through Stanley he met a great many of the fellows, and he picked up a few acquaintances himself. Of these latter, one was “Rusty” Crozier. He was a Fourth Class fellow who preferred to live in the town, and occupied two comfortable rooms in a house on Maple Street, just below the school. He was a jolly, light-hearted chap with a perpetual smile and hair of that peculiar shade of red that we associate with rusted iron: hence his nick-name. Dick met him in classroom. “Rusty” borrowed Dick’s fountain pen for a minute. After class they came together in the corridor and walked a little way along The Front. That began it. When Dick asked Stanley if he knew Crozier, Stanley nodded.
“Everyone knows Rusty,” he said. “But if you want to tread the straight and narrow, Dick, keep away from him.”
“What do you mean? Isn’t he – all right?”
“Oh, yes, Rusty’s all right. That is, there’s nothing vicious about him. In fact, he’s a very decent, very clean fellow. But he’s gifted with a talent for discovering trouble. And a talent for squirming out of it! If he wasn’t he’d have left Parkinson long ago. I’d say that Rusty’s trouble was an over-developed sense of humor.”
“I rather liked him,” mused Dick.
“You would. So do I. Everyone likes Rusty. But wise guys say him nay when he suggests one of his innocent amusements. It was Rusty who closed traffic on Main Street in the middle of a busy Saturday one day last year, only faculty doesn’t know it.”
“Did what?” asked Dick.
“He borrowed two carpenter’s horses and a sign and placed ’em across the middle of Main Street, near School, about one o’clock one day last spring. He found the sign somewhere, I don’t know where. It said ‘Street Closed by Order of Selectmen.’ Then he went over and stood in Wiley’s drug store and watched the fun. It was almost an hour before they discovered that it was a hoax. The paper was full of it, and the selectmen made an awful rumpus, but everyone else thought it was a pretty good joke.”
“And he wasn’t found out!”
“No. At least a score of people must have seen him set the barrier up, but no two of them agreed as to what he looked like. Some said he was a labourer in blue overalls, and others said he was a tall man with whiskers, and so on. That’s just one of Rusty’s innocent ways of amusing himself.”
“But doesn’t he ever get caught?” asked Dick incredulously.
“Oh, yes, heaps of times, but he always manages somehow to show that he was actuated by good intentions or that circumstances worked against him.Like the time he dropped the parlour match heads all over the floor in Room G and every time anyone put his foot down, one of the things went pop! He showed Jud the hole in his pocket where the things had fallen out. If it hadn’t been for the hole, he claimed, it wouldn’t have happened. He got off with a month’s probation, I think.”
Dick laughed. “He must be a cut-up! Well, I’ll keep away from him when he feels frolicsome.”
“Trouble is,” said Stanley, “you never can tell when Rusty is going to spring something.” He smiled and then chuckled. “Three or four of us walked over to Princeville two years ago to the circus. It was one of those little one-ring affairs, you know, with a mangey camel, and a moth-eaten lion and a troop of trained dogs. It was rather fun. Rusty was one of us, and he was as quiet as a mouse until near the end. Then he began flicking peanuts at the ring master. We tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t quit. Every time the ring master turned his back, Rusty would land a peanut on him, and the crowd got to laughing and gave it away. So they hustled us all out, and we didn’t see the performing dogs. Has he asked you over to his room at Spooner’s?”
“Yes,” said Dick, suspiciously. “Is there any trick in that?”
“Oh, no,” answered Stanley, smilingly. “He has very jolly quarters. If you like we’ll go over together some evening.”
“All right. Only I don’t like that catfish grin of yours. I suppose he has a trick staircase that folds up and lets you down in a heap or something?”
“No. Rusty’s fun is pretty harmless. We’ll wander over there tonight if you like.”
“Well, but I’m going to keep my eyes open just the same,” Dick laughed “You’re too anxious to go along, Stan!”
That afternoon Dick found a letter in the rack downstairs. It bore the Warne postmark, and was addressed to him in a very dashing hand: “Richard C. Bates, Esq., Sohmer Hall, Parkinson School, Town.” Wondering, Dick opened the envelope. Within was an oblong of pasteboard punched with three holes of varying sizes. In one of the holes was an ancient looking cent so badly corroded that it was hard to read the lettering. Dick’s thoughts naturally fell on Rusty Crozier, although what the joke meant, he couldn’t make out. But he smiled and dropped the coin in a waistcoat pocket, and presently forgot about it. Returning from football practice at five, however, he found another missive awaiting him. The envelope was different and the writing different, but there was just such another coin-card within and in the card was a second penny. This one was bright enough, but it had been badly bent. Dick, puzzled, added the second coin to the first, resolved to find out the meaning of the prank that evening.
He and Stanley went across the campus and down Maple Street about eight. Spooner’s was a large, square house standing almost flush with the sidewalk. Like many of the residences thereabouts, its upper floors were tenanted by students unable or disinclined to secure rooms on the campus. Stanley pulled open a squeaky screen door and entered. At the foot of the staircase, he paused and lifted his voice.
“Oh, Rusty!” he shouted. “Rusty-y-y!”
Somewhere above a door opened and a voice answered.
“A-a-ay! Come up!”
Stanley led the way again up two flights, and then to a door at the front of the house. Oddly enough, it was closed tightly, which fact, since it had been opened a moment before, struck Dick as peculiar. Stanley knocked and a voice called “Come in!” Somehow Stanley managed to get behind Dick, and it was Dick who turned the knob and pressed the door inward. The next instant he was precipitated into a glare of light. The knob had jerked itself out of his hand, and something – he supposed at the moment the something to have been Stanley – had banged against his heels and pushed him violently into the room. He stopped to find himself asprawl over an armchair with a placard bearing the word WELCOME a few inches from his nose.
“Good evening,” said Rusty amiably from across the room.
“Hello,” gasped Dick. Then he looked back at the door for Stanley. Stanley was not there. But at the instant the door opened again and Stanley appeared. He was grinning broadly, but Dick was too much interested in the door to see it. The door was not opening like any door Dick had ever seen. In the first place it was turning on pivots at top and bottom, half of it coming in, and half of it going out, so that the aperture for entrance was scarcely wider than Stanley. In the second place, Stanley was holding hard to that knob and being fairly dragged through, for above the sill and below the lintel was a coiled spring that, so soon as the knob was turned, swung the door swiftly on its axis from left to right. Dick stared in surprise.
“Just a little idea of my own, Bates,” said Rusty, coming forward and removing the placard from the back of the chair to a place on the wall. “Have a chair.”
Dick looked from the proffered chair to Rusty and then to Stanley and shook his head. “No, thanks,” he muttered. “I’ll stand!”
However, Stanley assured him on oath that the chair was quite safe and wouldn’t double up under him and he consented to try it, although not without anxiety. But he was up again a moment later, demanding to be shown the working of the amazing door.
“Quite simple,” laughed Rusty. “First I unlock it, thus. Then I stand clear of it. Then the unsuspecting visitor outside turns the knob.” He turned it from the inside, stepping quickly out of the way, and the door leaped open, swung once around and stopped as the latch snapped again into its socket. “That’s all there is to it. I place the cushioned chair here to receive the caller and place the ‘Welcome’ sign where he will be sure to see it. Most all the fellows know about it now, though, and I have to rely on newcomers like you, Bates, for a bit of fun.” He locked the portal again.
“Well, but – but suppose you want to go out?” asked Dick.
“I go out the other door.” Rusty indicated the adjoining bedroom. “In fact,” he added with a twinkle, “I seldom use this entrance myself. I keep it locked until I am expecting a distinguished visitor.”
“Still, I don’t see how you knew I was with Stan,” Dick objected.
“You’ll have to ask Stan about that,” laughed Rusty.
“I told him,” explained Stanley, grinning.
“Oh! Then that’s why you were so anxious to come with me.” Dick fixed his room-mate with an accusing eye. “All right. I’ll get even with you, old son, if it takes my last – if it takes my last two pennies!” He looked quickly at Rusty, but there was nothing to show that the latter had grasped the allusion. “Maybe,” continued Dick, “you’d like to see them.” He fished the two cents from his pocket and held them forth. Stanley viewed them interestedly and so did Rusty.
“What’s the idea?” asked the former. “Do you mean that you’re down to those? Stony broke, Dick?”
Rusty’s innocent, uncomprehending expression remained and Dick began to think his suspicions wrong. “No, those are just – just pocket-pieces,” he answered flatly.
“Wouldn’t be very useful to you in a pinch,” observed his host. “Well, find seats, fellows. Hope you didn’t mind the reception, Bates. But I guess you didn’t. You look like a fellow who can take a joke.”
“No, I didn’t mind,” said Dick. “Guess I was too surprised to mind!” He looked about the room. “This is pretty comfortable, Crozier.”
“Not bad. I’ve had these rooms ever since my first year. Got two nice windows in front and one on the side there, and two more in the bedroom. Mrs. Spooner is a corking old soul, and doesn’t mind a bit of noise now and then.”
Stanley chuckled, and when Dick looked across inquiringly he explained. “Mrs. Spooner’s as deaf as a haddock, Dick. If she wasn’t she couldn’t live in the same house with Rusty!”
“Run away! I’m not noisy. Sometimes my guests are, but I do all I can to restrain them. Haynes gives me more trouble than Mrs. S. He has the room under this on the floor below, Bates, and insists on studying at the times I feel playful. There are four other fellows in the house and you couldn’t pry any of us loose. You chaps can have your dormitory rooms. I don’t want them, thanks.”
“Do you take your meals here?” Dick inquired.
“No, Mrs. S. doesn’t give meals. She used to, but that was before my time. I eat around. Usually at ‘The Eggery.’ Sometimes at Thacher’s. Stan says you’re out for the football team. Going to make it all right?”
“I don’t know, I’m sure. I’m going to try to. Do you – are you – ”
“No, I’m not athletic, Bates. My favourite sport is mumblepeg. Besides, my studies prevent. Oh, shut up, Stan! Let me make a good impression on Bates, can’t you? What time is it, anyway? Look here, let’s go to the movies. What do you say?”
“Not for me,” answered Stanley. “I’ve got to beat it back and do some work tonight. Besides, the last time – ”
“Oh, that!” laughed Rusty. “Wasn’t it silly? Such a fuss about so little, eh?”
“Oh, yes, very little!” Stanley turned to Dick. “He and Blash stretched a rope across the aisle and tied it to the arms of the seats ahead of them. Being fairly dark, some confusion ensued!”
“During which, if I remember correctly, you and Joe and Blash sneaked out. Just shows what a guilty conscience will do, Bates. I remained, secure in my innocence, and saw the show through.”
“Yes, you rotter!” said Stan indignantly. “You put the blame on us, and every time I go there now the doorman looks at me unkindly.”
“Well, you were out of the way and I wasn’t. Besides, I wanted to see the rest of the picture.”
“Rusty, if you got your deserts,” said Stanley, feelingly, “you’d be shot at sunrise. Well, I must beat it. Coming along, Dick?”
Dick went, in spite of Rusty’s pleas. They left by way of the bedroom and Dick watched the hall door very, very carefully. It proved to be a perfectly normal door, however. Rusty told Dick to call again and held conversation with them over the banister until they had reached the street door, while from a second floor room came howls of “Shut up, Rusty! Shu-u-ut u-u-up!”
“It’s only Haynes,” called Rusty reassuringly. “Don’t mind the poor fish. Come again, fellows! Good night!”
In the letter rack in Sohmer was another envelope addressed to Dick and within was a third penny.