The Fighting Blood
YERGER, sitting at his desk in the schoolroom, narrowly watched the big clock opposite. Most of the children were already in their seats, the few delayed ones hurrying in with a good deal of noise and clatter. The hands of the big clock were already on the stroke of nine, and still Yerger’s usually prompt hand stayed in sounding the bell. His lean, muscular hands, heavily veined and browned by exposure to the sun, worked nervously, and his eyes traveled from the big clock to the door. It suddenly opened and was carefully but hastily shut by the Commodore, who met Yerger’s keen eyes for a moment and slipped quickly into his seat as Yerger’s hand came down sharply on the bell.
It was the Commodore’s last day at school, and he had prepared his lessons with unusual care and was glad that he had been in time. It would have been a dreadful blot upon his punctuality — a black mark the last day.
Yerger rose and advanced to the end of the platform, and the children collected their singing-books and waited for the number of the page to be given out. But for some reason, they noted with surprise, his own singing-book, though open, lay untouched on the desk near by. He was a tall lean man, dark of coloring and with cheek bones of unusual prominence, giving credibility to the report of the older members of the town, of what had been Yerger’s one boast in his youth, — his direct descent from an Indian chief. The children had half accepted the report, awed yet curious, and it might have accounted for much that was stern and forbidding in his appearance and his nature, and for an unusual reticence.
For a moment Yerger hesitated, and the children, sensitive to all moods of older people, noticed it with surprise. The schoolmaster was not inclined to hesitate. Once his eyes rested on the Commodore, and it was only the Commodore who fancied he saw a slow, dark flush creep up into his face.
“After long consideration,” he began slowly, and it seemed to the curious listening children that his voice was more than usually severe, “ I have decided to abolish corporal punishment. All of you know that I have in the past never resorted to this except under extraordinary circumstances, — principally that of flagrant disobedience. However, in the future there will be some other penalty, equally severe, for similar offenses. I have not taken this step without much thought and — advice from competent authority.” He smiled a little ironically, but the children did not notice it, and when he paused an audible stir went through the schoolroom. The Commodore alone did not look at Yerger, and he began to trace intricate patterns with his finger on the top of his desk. Amelia Flora, on the opposite side of the room, tried vainly to attract his attention.
“That is all,” said Yerger, apparently not noticing the stir that his words had created; and he turned to the desk and picked up the open singing-book.
“You will all turn to page ninetythree,” he said, motioning to Amelia Flora’s older sister who played the accompaniments of the simple songs the children sang, “and we will sing, this morning, ‘Robin Adair.’”
The Commodore’s education, in spite of much thought and not a little worry on the part of his relatives, had mostly taken care of itself. His parents had vainly tried to solve the problem that had beset other fathers and mothers in the Service, of a child old enough for instruction and yet too young, according to the American idea, to be put upon his own resources and sent away to school. The problem for the most part had solved itself, to the infinite satisfaction of the Commodore, if not to the grandmothers and great aunts left at home, who had old-fashioned ideas of how a child should be trained in the three R’s. His father, after a trial or two, and with the devotion for which naval officers are noted, had refused to allow the recurring cruises, which were a necessary evil of his profession, to continue to separate him from the sweet, frail woman he had met and loved long ago as a girl, when he was a midshipman; and since his wife had always firmly maintained that the Commodore could n’t do without her any better than he could, the Commodore had been accepted along with the cruises, not even the Commodore realizing how important a part he played in their scheme of life. Thus it chanced he had taken his first step ’way off in China, and knew much of the lingo of his amah, unintelligible to most people, before he could say a dozen words in his own language. He had shed his kilts and put on his sailor blouse in Leghorn, just before his father was detached from his ship there. He was n’t going to be taken for a girl on his return to a Navy Yard in his own country, —the first that he could remember. Circumstances rather than intention had molded his life always, and while fractions were a quantity he knew of only vaguely, and the first pages of his scrawled and dirty Latin grammar an abomination, he could always lead the geography class; and even Yerger, passing through the playground at recess, would pause on the outskirts of the crowd of listening children gathered around him, to hear him tell how they “did things” in other lands.
The stories he told and the boats he whittled were a source of constant delight to the village children he had come among, and it is to be much feared that if the lessons of truth and honor had not been early instilled, he might have been led into an almost excusable prevarication at times.
He had appeared among them suddenly one April morning, and had reported at Yerger’s desk, much as he had seen the men report to his father as officer of the deck. Yerger, quick to note details, was struck by something in the Commodore’s bearing that was foreign to that of any pupil in his school. The Commodore’s eyes were different, too.
The Commodore’s father had called the evening before at Yerger’s home, excusing himself on the ground that he wanted no time lost, and requested the privilege of sending the Commodore to him the next morning.
“You’ll find him pretty rusty,” he said with a short laugh, that fell on Yerger’s ears like a healthy breath from the open sea. “He’s behind on his book learning, but he’s seen a good deal of the earth, for a little chap, and he is n’t stupid. Get into him all you can while this steel-inspection duty lasts. I’ll probably be detached sometime in the fall. I’m going to make this pretty little river town of yours my headquarters, and leave my wife and the boy here. He needs the schooling, and they both need the tonic of your hills, and I’ll be near enough to run up twice or so a week.”
Yerger found himself studying the Commodore as the days went by. The Commodore, poring over his lessons, used to think and ponder over the schoolmaster a good deal. As far as he could find out, no one really cared for the schoolmaster, unless it was the invalid sister with whom he lived. Certainly none of the children cared for him, not even Amelia Flora, the best-natured member of the school. He had even heard Amelia Flora say that her aunt had told her cousin that he was cruel, like the Indian chief whose blood ran in his veins. The Commodore listened and thought things out for himself in a way the Commodore had, and when the burden of his thinking grew too heavy for him, he would talk it over a little with his mother.
The Commodore never saw the schoolmaster walking with any one on the streets, out of school hours, or standing on the corners talking to other men. Yerger had no friends, — he never tried to make any. Once, the Saturday before Easter, the Commodore had met him carrying a big pot of flowering geranium in his arms, and the next day he had seen the plant at Yerger’s house, blooming in Miss Betty’s sunny window. Later, one day just before school closed for the summer, the Commodore, in shopping with his mother, had noticed the schoolmaster standing before one of the shop windows looking intently on a fine silk shawl. Yerger had raised his hat as they passed, and his mother had stopped to speak to him and inquire for Miss Betty, with that tender sympathy in voice and eyes for which she is remembered in the Service. The Commodore had never noticed until then how kind a smile Yerger really had. He used to wonder too what Yerger did with his Saturdays and Sundays — how he was going to spend the long vacation near at hand. He had heard that Yerger did a good deal of quiet studying at home, and Amelia Flora’s cousin said that he read a good deal aloud to Miss Betty. He had the reputation of being the best fisherman in town, and owned an old boat that he would pull up and down the river until stopped by the ice, exploring with rod and reel every cove and cranny for miles around. The Commodore met him sometimes, returning from a day of fishing,— he was always alone, — and there were always fish upon his line, no matter if the other men and the older boys of town came back empty-handed. Once he sent around to the Commodore’s mother a fivepound bass he had carefully fried himself, with his and Miss Betty’s compliments.
School ended, and the Commodore closed the detested Latin grammar with a sigh of relief; but queer thoughts kept coming into his head as he gathered his books together to take home until school should open again in the fall. Why was it the schoolmaster was so unapproachable in school ? Why was it he had never seen him smile but that once at his mother in the street ?
He walked home slowly that day, taking a back street that he might escape the other children. He supposed he was glad school was over. Of course he was glad school was over! That miserable Latin grammar ! That awful arithmetic that made his head swim with its figures! And yet mathematics were so necessary at the Academy! He had said that once to Yerger in a burst of discouraged confidence. He still remembered the queer look Yerger had given him then. He would have to try and work a little on his mathematics this summer with his father’s help.
When he reached the two bright rooms in the private boarding-house where they lived, he was met by his mother with a telegram in her hand.
“Grandmother is sick, dear,” she said with a clear directness that reminded one of the Commodore’s own candor. “I’m going this afternoon to help make her well again. I want you to stay here to be company for father his nights at home, and I don’t want you to have to take the long trip. Mrs. Jensen wall see you have everything you need, and I know I can trust you to be good when father is n’t here.”
The Commodore looked up at her squarely.
“I’ll be good. You can trust me,” he said.
“I know I can, although it does seem as though I could n’t leave you both on so long a trip. I’ll try and be back by next week. I’ve just wired to father and he ’ll try and get up to-night.”
The Commodore went around and got the expressman for the trunk, and he insisted that she lie down and rest while he went down and checked the baggage and got the ticket for her. Was n’t his father away ?
He saw her off at the station, ate a hasty supper that somehow choked him when he glanced at his mother’s vacant chair, firmly but politely refused the second doughnut that Mrs. Jensen tried to press upon him, and went upstairs and began to figure over his mathematic book with a stub of a pencil and a torn sheet of paper, until it grew too dark to see. He lighted the big lamp, then, replacing with great caution Mrs. Jensen’s magenta shade, got his father’s slippers ready, as he had always seen his mother do the nights he was expected back, and placed the daily paper near the lamp. Then he got a book of travels and sat down to wait for his father.
The Commodore did not go around much that next week, although some of the boys came over and tried to drag him into their games. The boys he cared mostly for had gone away on a camping trip, and the Commodore took the opportunity to finish whittling and painting the big man-of-war he had begun before the final examinations of school. He wanted to have it done when the Baxter twins returned, for they were to make a big day of it on the river and put it into commission. The remembrance of the school examinations made him think of Yerger and of what the boys had said that day of Miss Betty, who had grown suddenly worse. The Commodore thought the matter out very seriously. There was no one to advise him excepting old Mrs. Jensen, and he hardly wanted to talk to her about it; but he kept remembering the way Yerger had smiled when his mother had spoken to him about Miss Betty, and he kept remembering that big five-pound bass he had sent. After a while he went out to the florist and bought some carnations — they were a bright red, like the stripes in his flag at home — with some of the money his father had left with him that morning. Then he went home and hunted around in his mother’s desk until he found one of her visiting cards, which he held in his hand, regarding it solemnly, for a long while. His mother always wrote something on her card when she sent flowers. It seemed to the Commodore that he had once seen her write “Congratulations;” he could n’t think of anything else, and “congratulations” would probably do. He hunted for the word in the dictionary and carefully copied it on the card, and tied it to the big bunch of flowers. Then he went and left them with the servant at Yerger’s door.
He heard nothing from them although he waited impatiently, and two days later he went and inquired how Miss Betty was. Miss Betty was much worse, the girl told him, and the next evening he met Amelia Flora on the street, who told him Miss Betty was dead.
For the next three days he whittled furiously at the man-of-war and kept reading over his mother’s little notes. Grandmother was better, but she would n’t be able to be left for another week. How was father ? And she was sure her little boy was taking her place in every way.
That last letter decided the Commodore. His father had n’t been home since Miss Betty’s death, and that was three days ago, and the Commodore felt something ought to be done. He remembered his mother usually went to call after such events. His mother and his father were not here, but he must take their place!
Yes, Mr. Yerger was in. Did the little boy want to see him ? He did ? Well, she would see. He had better take a seat in the parlor.
The Commodore entered, his heart beating violently beneath his linen sailor blouse, and he sat down carefully on the edge of a horsehair chair. It was quite early in the morning and the warm summer sun streamed in through the halfclosed blinds, and mercilessly showed forth the dust lying on the table and the chairs. There were some dried and faded carnations in a vase on the table, and a flute lay near it, and a pink silk sewingbag. There were a few fine old pieces of mahogany in the room, some books, and one good painting. The Commodore waited very quietly. By and by he heard some one come down the stairs. He recognized the tread. It was decided but — how slow!
Yerger stopped in the doorway and the Commodore rose, grasping his hat nervously in his hand.
“I’ve — I’ve come to see you, sir,” he said, vainly trying to conquer a sudden huskiness in his throat.
Yerger, his lean face leaner than ever, looked at him with keen, dry eyes. Then he entered the room and sat down wearily.
“So ! ” he said.
“I thought, perhaps, sir, that you might like to see me,” began the Commodore, and then flushed a deep red. It had not been what he had planned to say at all. “I — that is — you know I’m here alone, sir, my mother is away nursing my grandmother who is sick.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Yerger gravely.
“She’s getting better, though. I think my mother will be back next week; " and the Commodore’s face lighted up suddenly.
Yerger watched him for a moment in silence.
“I guess you’re lonely too,” he said after a pause.
The Commodore nodded slowly.
“Yes,” he said.
“ So you brought the flowers ? ”
The Commodore’s heart thumped violently.
“Yes,” he said again.
There was a long silence. The sunmotes continued to pour in through the half-open blind. Somewhere upstairs a canary began to sing. At the sound Yerger rose suddenly and began to walk to and fro — rapidly now.
“You must find time drags,” he said after a while, not pausing in his walk.
“ Oh, well,” said the Commodore philosophically, glad that his throat was feeling better again, “I’m very busy fixing that man-of-war. You see, sir, when the Baxter twins come home we ’re going out on the river with it.”
“Ah! do you go out on the river often ? ”
“Not often, sir. Sometimes on Sundays with my father. But it’s great — is n’t it ? ”
“Yes,” said Yerger, stopping in his walk and looking at him curiously. “Do you like fishing?”
The Commodore drew a deep breath.
“ Indeed I do! ” he said in a low voice.
“Has any one ever taken you to Onizaba’s Rock?” asked Yerger, a suggestion of a smile around his mouth.
The Commodore shook his head.
“Suppose you come with me fishing to-day. There is an island nearly opposite that we can row to. Do you care to come ? Neither of us seems to have much to do — now.”
The Commodore rose suddenly.
“You really mean it ? To-day, sir? ”
When Yerger came back with his fishing clothes on, his rod and reel and a lunch basket in hand, he found the Commodore staring at the faded flowers, the sun-motes on his hair.
The Commodore walked by Yerger’s side to the river in an ecstasy of joy. A whole day on the water with Yerger, the best fisherman in town!
Yerger took the oars, and the Commodore sat in the stern and steered, flushing with pleasure when Yerger commended him in his hard, dry way. He at times almost forgot the rudder in watching Yerger. The schoolmaster had opened his faded chambray shirt at the throat, exposing a long lean neck which made his face all the sharper by contrast. An old battered hat was pushed high up on his forehead and tilted back. His sleeves were rolled up above the elbows, and the Commodore kept watching the rhythmic rise and fall of such muscles as he never had dreamed that the schoolmaster possessed. The boat shot out swiftly to the middle of the river, where the sun caught the drops of water from the dripping oars as they were raised, turning them to gold.
By and by they left the central current and the hot sunshine, and skirted the opposite shore, where the great willows hung above the water’s edge, and made cool, dark spots upon the surface of the stream. They spoke but little, Yerger too intent upon his task and thoughts, and the Commodore fearing to disturb him. For half an hour Yerger pulled, slowly, steadily, and then the boat rounded a bend in the river and a small island came in view. Beyond the island, looming bright and still in the summer sun, rose Onizaba’s Rock, its steep sides sloping down in almost perpendicular lines to the river far below.
Yerger rested on his oars, and the current bore them swiftly toward the patch of green in the middle of the river, and half turning in his seat, he broke the long silence.
“It’s the rock of the Indian princess,” he said slowly. “There’s a wonderful view from there! Did you ever hear the story? ”
“No,” said the Commodore, in a low, eager voice, bending forward.
Yerger took a few strokes more and pulled the boat on to a shady beach of the island, where it rocked gently in the shadows. Then he drew the oars in and leaned forward, facing the great pile of stone, his lean face in his strong brown hands.
“She was the daughter of an Indian chief, whose tribe had for centuries owned miles along the river. In one of the Indian wars with the early settlers, she was captured and held for hostage in the settlers’ blockhouse. There she met the young son of an English admiral, who had come over to seek his fortune. He had heard great stories of the treasures of the upper wilderness, and he left Jamestown, and, with a few others, joined the small settlement of white men here. He was in the fort when Onizaba was brought in and — well, he fell in love with her — and they were married. The settlers held the blockhouse over a year against the repeated attacks of the Indians, but at last it fell, and Onizaba was carried back to her own people. They told her that her husband and her child had been both killed, and the old chief tried to make her marry the son of a friendly tribe. She used to come out of the wigwams of her father, and sit up there on that big lonely rock and wait — and wait. She always said he and the child would come back. She always said they lived. One day, the old chief and the young one came on her by surprise and tried to carry her away by force.”
Yerger stopped. He seemed to have forgotten the Commodore. He sat staring up at the big rock, suncapped, but around whose base the shadows were beginning to creep. The Commodore, wide-eyed, drew a deep, long breath.
“Oh! please go on!”
Yerger came back to the present with a start. His eyes met the Commodore’s grave, intent ones. His face relaxed a little and he sighed.
“She was true to him,” he said; “she knew she could not escape. She threw herself from that rock. It is called for her.”
The Commodore said nothing, but he raised his face and eyes and stared long at the granite mass.
“That was a brave thing to do,” he said at length ; “something like going into battle.”
“She was the daughter of a chief,” said Yerger.
The Commodore spoke in a low hushed voice.
“But the — son of the Admiral, and the little baby — ” he questioned Yerger with his eyes.
“They were alive.”
“The man took the baby back to England. In the beginning of the last century, some of his descendants came over to America and settled near here.”
The Commodore unconsciously leaned a little nearer Yerger in his interest.
“Are any of his people alive to-day?”
“Just one,” said Yerger slowly.
“Oh!” said the Commodore again.
Yerger rested his chin on the knuckles of his right hand, and he looked at the Commodore sitting there in the boat before him. It was a long, long while since any one had ever sat there — so long that he could not remember.
“ Did any one ever tell you I had some Indian blood in me ? ” he asked suddenly, a grim smile around his lips.
The Commodore started guiltily.
“I’ve —I’ve heard it said, sir,” he said after a short pause, in which it seemed to him all the blood of his body was in his face; but he looked at Yerger squarely.
Yerger rose, stepped out of the boat, and pulled it high on the beach.
“Well, boy, it’s the blood of the old Chief and — Onizaba — that’s all.”
A strange spell of reticence held the Commodore all day. He helped Yerger get his tackle together, and he passively allowed Yerger to show him the most approved way to reel his line. He unpacked the lunch basket while Yerger built a fire and fried some of the fish, the schoolmaster’s dark face lighting up with real pleasure as he turned the bass on his improvised spit; and he went down to the water’s edge with the dishes when they were through, and carefully washed them; but he spoke but little, and he seemed to be thinking deeply. Yerger made a few attempts at conversation while he was smoking his pipe after lunch, but gave it up when he went back to his reel.
The Commodore watched him, a puzzled expression in his eyes which Yerger did not see, and then he idly began to build a blockhouse of the bits of wood that had been washed ashore. By and by, when the blockhouse stood completed, he came back and sat down near Yerger and raised his eyes to the big rock again.
“If — if it is n’t impolite, sir, I’d like to ask you something,” he said at length, his voice shaking a little.
Yerger wound his reel slowly. There was something unusual in the Commodore’s voice, and he wanted to listen, even though the Commodore had spoiled the best bite of the day.
“Go on,” said Yerger, looking at him curiously.
“Well then if — if it is n’t impolite, sir,” said the Commodore, “I’d like to know if you have n’t ever wanted to — to fight, sir ? ”
It seemed to the Commodore that Yerger must be angry, he was so long in answering. There was such a hard, straight line beneath his mouth — like he had so often seen there in school when things went wrong.
“ What made you ask that ?” said Yerger, laying down his rod.
“Well, you see, sir, I’ve — I’ve been thinking of the Chief and— her, sir; ” he nodded in the direction of Onizaba’s Rock. He hesitated.
Yerger sat staring at the river.
“And you wondered where my fighting blood was, did n’t you ? ”
“Well, not exactly that, sir,” said the Commodore, “ but — ” he hesitated again, afraid of hurting Yerger.
“There was the old Chief,” said Yerger slowly, and he counted off the fingers of his hand as he spoke. “There was Onizaba. There was my great-greatuncle on the Bonhomme Richard, and my father with Farragut, and my mother’s brother with Semmes. That makes five. You see the fingers are all taken.” He looked down at the Commodore and laughed shortly.
“You forgot the English Admiral,” said the Commodore, “and — yourself—”
Yerger smiled grimly.
“True, I had forgotten the English Admiral! And I — well, I went to the Academy for nearly four years.”
He had spoken. The long, long silence of the years that not even Betty had ever alluded to, was broken. A slow dark flush crept over Yerger’s face.
The Commodore sprang up, facing him.
“ Really, sir ? ” he asked. “ But why — ” he caught himself suddenly.
“ Why did n’t I stay in the navy ? Why did n’t I graduate instead of coming home and teaching school ?” Yerger looked down at the reel at his side and played with it with nervous fingers,
“It’s a long story,” he said, looking up at the Commodore, the flush gone now, and his usual expression on his face. “It’s a much longer story than the one I told you about Onizaba this morning, and you could n’t understand it as well — now. You may when you get a bit older and go to the Academy. Something happened to me while I was there that upset me a good deal. I let things go their own gait — it’s a bad thing to do, I tell you — and I flunked in the finals — that’s all.”
“Just before graduation,” said the Commodore, a funny sound in his throat.
“Just before graduation,” said Yerger, not looking at the boy.
The sun had almost set behind Onizaba’s Rock, that loomed dark and shadowy, with only a touch of sunlight on its summit. Clouds edged with black hung in the sky above it. A sharp wind had arisen. Yerger felt it against his face and he glanced at the river anxiously. He had pulled against that river current once before when the wind was high. He still remembered it.
Out in the stream he pulled against it once again, while the Commodore’s strong little hands tried to control the rudder. The Commodore would n’t let Yerger know how his arms hurt — how hard he tried to steer straight for the opposite shore. Yerger never told the Commodore how his own muscles ached with the effort to hold his own. Once they lost a little, and the current took the boat and swept it in the direction of the dam. Something came into Yerger’s face then, with its high cheek bones and swarthy skin — something that might have been in the old Chief’s as he led his braves on the warpath. Something of the Indian’s lean and tremendous strength was in his muscles as he regained the distance that he had lost, and pulled the boat out of the swift current into the more quiet water near the shore. They made their landing a little to the right of Onizaba’s Rock. Yerger drew a long, exhausted breath. The fighting blood of his fathers ran red and pulsing in his veins as he stood there looking out upon the lowering waters, his dark, lean face covered with the sweat of battle. The blood of Onizaba, long hidden by the years, — of the Indian princess who had remembered and been true, — throbbed in his heart and hands, as he reached forth and lifted the weary Commodore in his arms and placed him on the pine-strewed ground beside him.
School opened just when the children were beginning to talk and plan of the coming nutting season. It was hard to settle down again to the distressing perplexities of the multiplication table and mathematics and the Latin grammar, when the days were still warm and hazy — when the river was still such a delightful place in which to swim. If the languor of the Indian summer crept into Yerger’s veins no one ever knew it. He picked up the threads of school just where they had been dropped in the early summer. He was seen less about town than ever, spending his Saturdays and Sundays alone on the river fishing, and his evenings in reading or playing on his flute. Sometimes if the wind blew in the right direction, the Commodore, lying awake, would hear him playing, and the long sweet plaintive notes would stir the child’s imagination with a vague sadness of which he was not conscious. He got in the way of listening for the music and of waiting patiently for what was always the closing piece, and he would lie very still with eyes fast shut until “Robin Adair,” with its pathetic rise and fall and soft crescendos, was done.
The piece grew to have a strange influence on the child, as it did on the schoolmaster; and somehow, although the Commodore could not have told why, things in school always went better the days they sung that song.
The short Thanksgiving recess was fast approaching, and it might have been the hope of early liberty that just then tempted Amelia Flora into the way of transgression. Yerger had few rules and fewer punishments, controlling the noisy little throng of scholars by the sheer force of personality and will; but the rules he had had never been disregarded without the full penalty being paid. The children had grown to know this,— those who had been with him since they first wept over the difficulties of their A B C’s, — and the Commodore, the newest member of the school, had always vaguely felt it. But it was not until Amelia Flora, with the pride that comes before a bitter fall, had ventured openly to disobey the schoolmaster, that the Commodore knew things for himself. Just why Amelia Flora decided at this time carefully to reduce to pulp scraps of paper, and dexterously spit them at the Baxter twins, could not be told. It might have been joy at the coming vacation, or grief for the Commodore’s departure that was near at hand, — him she had in secret worshiped. At any rate Amelia Flora fell, and — Yerger caught her falling!
The Latin grammar class was at recitation, and the Commodore was struggling bravely with the subjunctive mood, when Yerger, suddenly motioning him to cease, rose, and came to the edge of the platform. There was a terrible silence in which no one moved, and he fixed his eyes on Amelia Flora.
Amelia Flora trembled. She forgot to drop the pulp bullets, carefully prepared, which she held in her hand. Her feet seemed shod with lead.
“Come here! ”
Amelia Flora rose and advanced falteringly. An almost unheard whisper of excitement stole through the schoolroom.
“A year ago,”said Yerger, “I warned every child in the school of what might be expected if this offense was repeated. Amelia Flora, hold out your hand.”
Yerger took a ruler from the desk. The whisper of excitement grew, and then a perfect stillness followed. Amelia Flora stood immovable as though turned to stone.
“Hold out your hand.”
Amelia Flora did so, and all the sticky pulp bullets slipped to the floor at Yerger’s feet. She did not even see them for the tears.
There was the sound of scraping feet in the Latin grammar class. The Commodore, his face white as from some illness, came up to Amelia Flora, and reached forth and took her hand. Then he looked up at Yerger. At first it seemed he could not speak, and then his voice grew steady. The words reached even the Baxter twins at the back of the room.
“ You ’re not going to strike a girl, sir! ”
Yerger met his eyes calmly, an odd light in his own. The slow dark flush, so seldom seen upon his face, rose to it now, and the children, straining ears and eyes, held their breath.
“Am I going to strike a boy, instead ? " he asked in his cold, dry way.
The Commodore’s hold tightened a little on Amelia Flora’s hand. He breathed heavily.
“You are afraid?”
A sudden rush of blood came to the Commodore’s face and then receded, leaving it whiter than before. He dropped Amelia Flora’s hand suddenly and took a step nearer to Yerger. His eyes met Yerger’s with an all-consuming anger and his voice shook.
“No, sir, I’m not afraid,” and he caught his breath sharply over the word. “I don’t mind a licking — square! I’ll fight you, sir, all right, though I know you won’t leave much of me! We put the men in the ‘brig’ in the navy, sir, when they disobey, or in irons, or on bread and water, but we don’t touch them!”
The Commodore stopped with a sharp indrawing of the breath, and slowly the anger faded from his eyes. Yerger’s had never left his face.
“Is that all you have to say?” he asked.
The Commodore shook his head a little.
“Well, no, sir, not quite,” he said, and his voice was respectful and almost pleasant again. “I — I just thought that perhaps — for the minute, sir — you forgot how they do things in the navy!”
There was a long silence in the schoolroom, broken by the fall of a coal in the big stove. The dark flush had gone from Yerger’s face, leaving it as immovable as before. He looked from the Commodore over the sea of children’s faces and then back into the Commodore’s grave eyes again. Then he stepped back and laid the ruler on the desk.
“You are right,” he said, in his cold, dry way. “I — had forgotten,”
Then he turned to Amelia Flora.
“There will be an extra lesson for you to study in your vacation, and you will come here Saturday morning and recite it to me. You may take your seat.”
The Commodore stood waiting.
“As for you,” said Yerger, “there will be on your desk later a Latin exercise. You will stay here this afternoon and copy it one hundred times,”
“Yes sir,” said the Commodore, not looking at Yerger now.
“That is all,” said Yerger,
The Commodore turned and resumed his seat with cheeks that burned anew. His punishment had been spoken before the whole school, and he had only one day more ; but Amelia Flora had not been struck!
The long afternoon wore onward to its close. Yerger waited at his desk until the Commodore was through, that he might close up for the night. The Commodore labored wearily over the Latin exercise, and already was the big sheet of foolscap blotted in two places, and sticky in half a dozen from the “jaw buster ” Amelia Flora had laid upon his desk on leaving. The “jaw buster” helped some, but he was very tired, and the long exercise was only a little over half done.
He copied the words laboriously, spelling them sometimes aloud to help.
Yerger had copied the Latin words at the head of the sheet and the translation below it. The Commodore read it through slowly as he rested.
The Commodore was obliged to admit that the words thrilled him, but the balm the sentiment of them gave him hardly compensated for the weary copying that had been the price of Amelia Flora’s release. He had forgotten Yerger. Indeed he did not even hear him as he quietly left his desk and renewed the fire that was dying with the day. He did not hear Yerger return. He did not know that Yerger was watching him.
He traced the words out more and more slowly. The growing heat of the room made him drowsy.
The hundredth line had been reached. The pen slipped from his brown, cramped fingers; his head, already close to the desk, fell forward, and the Commodore, his task done, slept.
The fire in the big stove flared up, and very slowly began to die out again. A few last sunbeams crept into the quiet room where Yerger watched. By and by these faded, and shadows stole into the far corners. It almost seemed to Yerger as if the shadows were taking shape, — strange, silent forms of lost, dead things. He kept staring at the shadows and the Commodore. In some strange fashion, the shadows and the Commodore became a link to bind him to the past, and then the schoolroom in all its bare ugliness stood out, — the rows of narrow desks, the rows of narrow benches, — as narrow and as cold and unresponsive as his life had been. The twilight gathered, and softened the hardness of all things, and the Commodore slept on. Yerger watched him, a strange expression in his eyes. Just one day more! Such a little time as he had had to teach him the little that he knew himself! The days would come and go. Amelia Flora would continue to struggle over the multiplication table; the Baxter twins would continue to be late as usual, — all the endless round, — but the Commodore would never come again!
The chill of the room suddenly struck on Yerger unpleasantly. He rose and lighted a big lamp that hung behind his desk. The movement roused the Commodore, who looked up guiltily, and then with the paper in his hand came to Yerger’s desk and laid it down beside him.
“It’s finished, sir,” he said, and then a little anxiously, “Is it all right?”
Yerger’s eyes traveled down the length of the sticky, blotted sheet. From the seventieth line until the end there shone forth an i in decorum and an e in patriâ. Yerger folded the sheet carefully and laid it in his desk.
“That will do,” he said.
The Commodore was almost late the next day, but not quite, and he was there in time to hear the little speech that Yerger made the children. Often he kept remembering it in a puzzled way.
“After long consideration, I have decided to abolish corporal punishment. All of you know that I have in the past never resorted to this except under extraordinary circumstances, —principally that of flagrant disobedience. However, in the future there will be some other penalty, equally severe, for similar offenses. I have not taken this step without much thought and — advice from competent authority.”
Then Yerger had given out the page for the singing, and his deep baritone had led, —
Robin Adair — ”
He had stopped suddenly, but the children had not noticed. Only the Commodore’s clear, grave eyes met his own, and, above the other voices, above the music evoked from the old piano by Amelia Flora’s older sister, the Commodore’s clear young voice carried the measure to its close.