Hardscrabble Hellas


THERE is a lost fatherland for which the modern world goes homesick. Yet not always lost, for at odd times, in obscure places, it lives again. And this was the distinction (for the high gods delight to visit the humble) which befell a poverty-stricken academy in a Middle-Western small town. Queerly disguised this ancient fatherland was, but exiles know home when they see it.

History tells us that Periclean Athens was the Great Age. A great age it assuredly was, but not the only one. The years of youth between sixteen and eighteen are another, and the place to spend them is in a boys’ school. There is a fine chapter in a fine English novel — the fifteenth chapter of Middlemarch — in which George Eliot relates the awakening of an intellectual passion in boyhood. Such was the passion which this out-at-elbow transplantation of Periclean Athens enkindled in a handful of young barbarians at play. It was the miracle which the whole world of education goes forever seeking. For, once wrought, it transforms youth, and youth thus transformed transforms the world.

So I tell the story of this harassed school as it was a quarter of a century ago, a story with an ending which, had it been predicted to us then, would have sounded like the most extravagant of poets’ dreams. Yet poets’ dreams, let us remember, have a way of coming true.

September was minting its gold coinage on the campus elms when Hardcastle Academy opened its doors for the seventy-fifth time — and opened them with misgiving. It was a question whether the school could weather the year. Two decades earlier, when its parent college moved away to the city, one fourth of the college income was allotted to the academy, along with full possession of the grounds and buildings which it had formerly shared. Impecunious, even under the wing of the college, the school had always been. But could it live on next to nothing a year? And little did anyone guess what a stormy year it was to be.

But the normal weather at Hardcastle was one of storms. If you doubt it, ask any new boy after he has been there twenty-four hours. Oh, it opens peacefully enough! Here in the chapel room beside a fireless stove a shy youngster quakes inwardly. His hour has come, the hour when the world must be faced alone. The world? Eighty boys and four schoolmasters — a world ardently desired yet acutely dreaded, for out of it have trickled tales to freeze young blood. It is a boys’ world of rough-and-tumble that gives no quarter and asks none. Plunge into it, and be bare fists and wits your only weapons.

Into this chapel room tramps a burly, handsome youth, affable as a Saint Bernard puppy, a dozen lads at his heels. He spies the newcomer, offers a huge paw, and accosts, ‘I’m Newbury. Who ’re you ?’

The dozen are introduced. They step forward, friendly and courteous, to shake hands. They make shy efforts to put the stranger at his case. How it warms the cockles of the heart! What is so very dreadful about this world? It has been slandered!

It has other pleasant surprises. Dinner at the clattery boarding house tastes good. This is clear gain, for, being kept by a Mrs. Slaughter, it is naturally called ‘the Slaughter House,’ and the ‘Slaughter House yell’ is not reassuring: —

Baked potato, masked potato,
Hash, mince pie;
Stewed prunes, and cabbage soup —
Oh ! . . . . . . . . . . . . . My !

Likewise, the first evening in the gaunt dormitory beside a green-shaded student lamp which Uncle Horace used in this very room thirty years before; an ancestral lamp and very learned, for it has already gone through this academy four times and through college twice. Roommate? A necessary evil, somewhat arbitrarily chosen by one’s father because he and the other boy’s father happened to have been comrades in the Civil War. If roommate wants civil war let him start it! At any rate, here you are, in a room with windows looking on the noble elm grove of the back campus, and your own boss. On your own at last! This is the life!

Yes, but — Oliver Newbury and that dozen friendly lads are not the whole eighty. There is another gang, hoofed, horned, and fork-tailed. New boys begin coming into morning chapel looking like wet wash put through a wringer. Whose turn will be next? When you were sent away to school the understanding was that you were to take your medicine like a man.

Hazing, though bad for the hazers, may be good for the hazed. I do not see how any self-respecting boy can join with a dozen to pick on one. All the same, it is a satisfaction to have taken one’s dose without a whimper. The first night comes blanket-tossing. The next, rooms are stacked. The night following we are taken out on a country road and run behind a horse and cart. Poor Andy Dwight has a close squeak. They did n’t know he had a weak heart. The night after that comes ducking under the chapel pump; then a course in humiliation, singing and speech-making to a jeering audience. Next, run the gauntlet of barrel-stave paddles, drink a brew of asafœtida, and be shut in a room with a smudge of burning red pepper.

In retrospect this may be amusing. To adolescents it is grim. And the inevitable followed. Homesickness. It swept the school like an epidemic. Boys went down before it in windrows. Did you ever have a good stiff dose of it? If so, you have been at pains to forget. Allow me to remind you. First symptom: an all-gone feeling in the pit of the stomach. Second symptom: dull ache in the region of the heart. Third symptom: this ache travels to the head, where it becomes an acute pain. Queer results follow. Food ceases to taste. Music, once a delight, becomes torture. Try to study: two streams of thought go on at once. With one you learn the Greek alphabet; with the other you ache. It is curiously exhausting. People around you become unreal shadows. They speak: you can hear your own voice make answer. But the whole transaction is a dream, and a most unpleasant one. Sunlight looks strange. There is darkness in its glitter. You are sick, dreadfully sick, and you don’t dare tell a soul. The queerest part is that, long for home as you may, not for anything would you go home. That would be defeat. No; stay where you are and sweat it out.

On goes the hazing. The hours after 10 P.M. are a world of paw and claw. Is there no end to this ingenuity at inventing uncomfortable antics? None! ‘On your own,’ remember! So this is what it means to be one’s own boss? It has its drawbacks.

Suddenly it stops. The whole hazing system collapses overnight. The fellows who officiated at these amateur Inquisitions slink into chapel slackjawed and hangdog. What has happened? It appears that the faculty know everything—names, events, dates, places, down to the last detail. How did they find out? No one has the least idea. But their bland omniscience strikes a chill of superstitious awe into the whole school. The culprits are closeted, quizzed, and outfaced. They confess. Their penances are far from enviable.

The landscape turns right side up again. ‘And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.’ Now at last it is possible to draw a quiet breath and look about you at your world. And behold! it is very good.


An oddly romantic little world it was. ‘More like New England than New England itself,’ travelers from the East used to tell us. We boys always supposed this remark twaddle. It was not. That transplanted academic village amid the rolling richness of Middle-Western woodland and farming country was what New England had been half a century before and would have remained but for the invention of machinery and the importation of Southern European mill hands.

It was, that autumn, just a hundred years since Connecticut farmers had begun jolting over the Alleghenies with their pewter dishes and grandfather’s clocks stowed in canvas-covered oxcarts. Hardly had they felled the oaks and planted their corn when they set about founding a baby Yale. A rugged infant it had to be. All told, the founding of this college in the pioneer wilderness took twenty-five years. First, it burned to the ground. Next, it barely survived the War of 1812. Then its location had to be changed. Finally, David Judson, a farmer in the village of Hardcastle, outdid John Harvard. He gave the college 160 acres and $7500. These scholar-axemen designed their own buildings, following Yale’s Bastille architecture. The first fifty thousand bricks crumbled. They bought a brickyard and made their own. The better brick for chimneys was hauled by oxcart from the Great Lakes port twenty-five miles away. For professors they shanghaied young Yale graduates. The judgment of the press gang was excellent. This backwoods college for fifty years was a breeding place of great scholars: a Barrows in Hebrew; a Loomis and a Young in astronomy; a Morley in chemistry; the two Seymours, father and son, in Greek. It sent presidents to Dartmouth and Williams. It sired authors, senators, governors, and chief justices.

Neither was it only and merely a tranquil seat of academic learning. Through these halls blew great winds of life, brusque and bracing. Missionary zeal swept the college like a forest fire. Antislavery rocked and rent it. What wonder, with John Brown living in Woolwick only eight miles away? So notorious a station on the Underground did it become that professors’ wives left pies cooling on window sills for runaway blacks to filch. Trustees were conservative.

Faculty and students were red-hot liberators. Ructions and resignations. Then the Civil War depopulated dormitories and lecture halls. The college was forever dogged by debt. Its revenues had to include cattle, grain, books, clocks, a sleigh — even a tombstone. Imagine professors obliged to accept, as part of their salaries, heifers, calico, potatoes, and tallow candles. That college, to keep alive, had to gnaw the bark off trees! The president who finally raised this incubus of debt died of his exertions. Not a foot of these academic groves but had been trodden by heroes and martyrs of learning.

Thus the struggle went on for half a century. Then a rich man offered it liberal endowment if it would move to a port city of the Great Lakes twenty-five miles away and change its name to that of his dead son. It accepted. The Vergilian elm wood of its campus, its frowning fortresses of dormitories, its Faculty Row of red brick professorial residences, and its ‘Athenæum’ recitation hall were bequeathed to its academy, along with that fourth of its income which was to prove so unstable a prop.

In youth — or any other time — the one thing needful is imagination. Give us that and we can put up with any amount of hardscrabble. Over this little academy hung a glamour of romance. In these dooryard gardens greatness had hoed its own cabbages, feet on earth and head in clouds. Around yonder orchard you still might see the crumbling high board fence which old Professor Seymour had built to shut the world away while he wandered, hands clasped behind back, alone with his moods and syntaxes. That vacant stone castle fronting the campus, called ‘the Pentagon,’ was once the business centre of the Mississippi Valley. Here was a scene of departed grandeurs. The place had known better days. No doubt of that. Good! Now to imagining what it was like in its prime.

Plenty of hardscrabble, meanwhile, there was to put up with. Central heating plant? Bless us! A stove and a coal hod centrally heated each study. As for bedrooms! The west wind had clean sweep across fifteen miles of snow-smothered river valley. That wind never met anything until it struck these dormitory walls. Sleep with windows open you determinedly would, but on zero nights the only efficient heating was to pool quilts and blankets and sleep three in a bed. On rising, you broke the ice in your water jug and built a fire to thaw out your face cloth, which was frozen stiff as sheet metal. Shower baths? On the whole campus was not so much as one stationary tub — no, not even one solitary spigot of running water. Open plumbing? Oh, very open plumbing indeed; open air. Out behind the chapel is a pump. Take a bucket and lug. Did we bathe? Oh yes; heroically; standing ankle-deep in snow and slashing pails of icy water at each other from crown to heel, as sturdily as ever Homer’s warriors. That we much objected to this arctic existence I do not recall. We sons of farmers and country-town professional men were far from having been pampered at home. Besides, in healthy youngsters runs a congenital streak of the Spartan. You rather like these rigors. They suggest that you could stand the gaff quite as well as your favorite heroes in the Anabasis and the Iliad. If the windy plains of Troy were much windier than these bedrooms on a January night, Helen showed poor judgment in ever leaving home.

Was it any wonder that the school at Hardcastle got nicknamed ‘Hardscrabble Academy’? It would n’t take a gang of boys long to think of that!

It was in the autumn when weakminded people began losing their wits trying to figure out whether the century should rightly be deemed to end in 1900 or in 1901 that the pittance income of the academy was discontinued by the college. And now it was scratch gravel with a vengeance. To instruct these eighty adolescent pirates were four schoolmasters and four only. Vacations they had to spend rustling out their own salaries, heaven knows where! How they maintained the high quality of their teaching remains a mystery of brains and energy. Not one of them but could have done brilliantly in business. They had repeated offers. Not one of them but scorned to exchange his career of learning for one of earning. These four men — three were married — lived each on less than $1500 a year. Even in 1900 that meant scrimping. A good share of the boys worked their way through school. Where the money came from I cannot to this day guess. We were all so short of cash that it was like the town where everybody lived by taking in one another’s washing. To heat the large chapel for morning devotions was an impossible extravagance. Chapel was held in a large recitation room. Yet words of wisdom uttered from that humble rostrum have gone on ringing in my head for a quarter of a century.


I have dwelt on the poverty and meagreness of this school in order that no one might suppose we are discussing education de luxe. The current idea is that you must have gilt-edged equipment. But that forlorn little academy had the one thing needful — delight in hard mental exercise.

Delight in sharp physical exercise boys know in their games. Instinct sees to that. Yet this other delight is well within the grasp of boyhood, and lucky the boy who grasps it early, for it arms him with one of the few weapons which may enable him to cope with other instincts more unruly. Youth’s religion? Could theologians look into the heart of youth, — a thing they appear tragically unable to do, — I wonder if they would recognize anything they beheld there. The heart of youth is not Hebraic. It is Hellenic. Youth’s articles of faith are two. One is athletics — which no less competent a witness than George Meredith has pronounced ‘the best philosophy youth can pretend to.’ The other is this passionate delight of the awakened mind.

What a stupid superstition it is that boys naturally detest study! What they do detest is a bore. Youth is the hero-worshiping age. Give me a hero schoolmaster and I will guarantee that the intellectual passion gets kindled in any mind that is combustible. A hero my schoolmaster will have to be to embrace this greatest of all professions in a society so besotted with money lust as to have condemned it to poverty and disesteem. What would my hero schoolmaster be like? He would be as nearly like the young man of five-and-twenty who, in that little academy, put me through the thrilling grind of Greek as this good green earth could be ransacked to discover.

Rather a grim-looking customer, youthful though he is — black-haired, black-browed, keen-eyed, and cleanshaven, a wiry blue stubble of beard darkening the iron muscles of his jowls. His trim body looks all sinew and steel springs. Afternoons on the gridiron when he coaches the football squads he wears moleskins and a black jersey which sets snugly to a powerful back and square pectorals. The grip of his muscled thumb and fingers on chalk or pencil betrays huge surplus of energy. Reticent, self-contained, a shade taciturn — it is the mind of a stoic housed in the body of an Olympian athlete. His classroom discipline is not so much as a word. It is a look. Yet his power is not intimidation. Besides, he keeps us too interested to think of misbehaving. And grim though his countenance may be, was ever a better sportsman ?

Finding late one evening all the chapel-room benches stacked on the campus, he returned them to their places (it took him till dawn) and never spoke a word of it to anyone until years afterward. He found it quite amusing enough to sit in chapel next morning and identify the guilty by their bewildered faces.

We respected him. We admired him. We would have loved him had we dared. Failing that, the game was to win his esteem. To do so one must be cultivating a vigorous body, an active mind, and a high standard of conduct. He despised cowardice; he despised meanness; he despised liars, sneaks, and squealers. On the other hand, he knew the weaknesses which the flesh of boyhood is prone to and was willing to make allowance. Perfection he did not demand. He did not even demand success. The one thing he did demand was effort.

A personality as dynamic as this with the fiery juices of life naturally generated action. In his classes it became a recognized sport, quite as definitely as football practice, not to flunk. Reading the Anabasis, he would call on us for the principal parts of all the irregular verbs. What gallons of midnight kerosene we burned getting ourselves primed to volley these verbs at him as fast as tongues could articulate. The reward was to watch his jaw set like a boxer’s standing up to buffets. Not by so much as a syllable did he ever acknowledge the existence of this contest. No need to. His game was to stick us. Our game was not to get stuck. It was exhilarating.

What we were taking in was, I suppose, that it is not beneath the dignity of a male man to use his intellect for something besides moneygrubbing. It used to puzzle us that a young man of such force and ability should not be making his fortune in a bank, ‘Has he no ambition?’ A legend was even coined to the effect that a siege of typhoid in college had drained him of all desire to ‘succeed.’ It was years before some of us learned to comprehend his fine unworldly ambition, his determination to ‘succeed’ in the noblest sense of that abused term, his resolution to reject a career of property getting in order to create in that most vital of all art forms, the minds and characters of boys. It meant poverty, it meant sacrifice; and this leads me to the other mystery about him. He was brilliant; he was gifted; he was magnificently male — and yet he had no ‘girl.’ In vain did the local college widows ogle and angle; in vain did the other masters genially endeavor to ‘date him up’ and marry him off. He merely laughed his grim laugh; and once, just once, he was heard to remark: ‘I pity the fellow who lets Cupid get in the way of his life work.’ All in his own good time he did marry, and most happily. But, meanwhile, what we boys were being privileged thus early to observe was a life ruled, not by emotion, but by intellect.

Hardcastle Academy had not one hero schoolmaster only: it had four. The fact spoke for itself. If they had not been heroic they never would have been where they were. In the Periclean period, — as indeed with any Great Age, — the whole question was whether Athens and Sparta could come to terms. At Hardcastle they did. The school fed our bodies the black broth of Sparta; our minds it kindled with the spiced wine of Athens. These four men were inheritors of that stalwart Hellenic tradition of the New England schoolmaster which began before Harvard College with Boston Latin School and Ezekiel Cheever, a heritage which was the intellectual backbone of the rustic republic; and pray Pallas Athene that it never perish out of the land!


Lest anyone suppose these boys were not perfectly average rapscallions, let me hasten to confess the usual escapades. Tying the tongue of the chapel bell was mere routine. Once it was stolen and gone for days. Finally the Principal wrote on the bulletin board: —


The school consulted Holy Writ. There it read: ‘Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth.’ Up went a roar of laughter. The bell clapper as mysteriously reappeared. I have said that the dormitories were Bastilles of brick and oak. They declined to burn. We experimented. Overturn a red-hot stove; it merely made a smudge that drove you to open windows. Pack a trunk with coal hods and dumb-bells and roll it down two flights of stairs. Crash! Bang! It never dented a newel post. Fill every ewer and bucket in the building, carry them to the top landing, and let them all go at once. Hiss! Roar! For five minutes the stair hall is Niagara. Yet all it does is loosen one square foot of plaster. Were we caught ? Ho! Not by ten laps. The fire escape is a knotted rope. Give the trunk its kick-off, dive for the rope, and slide. Our agility in going up and down those ropes verified every contention of the late Charles Darwin.

No. These lads were quite wholesome hell-raisers. Yet what a delight it was, after solid geometry and Greek prose composition, to find that ordinary reading had become a holiday. Carlyle’s French Revolution turned out to be a thriller. Browning and Henry James, vulgarly supposed to be comic weekly jokes at the expense of cultured bluestockings, went like a house afire. Someone discovered Zola, Daudet, and Dumas fils. Now it was go to the city, perch in the top gallery of the old Lyceum theatre, and watch Miss Eugenie Blair — fair, fat, and fifty, making her last stand against oblivion and a waistline — smoke the cigarettes of Carmen, rack the cough of Camille, and display the dishabille of Sappho. Ah, that was wickedness!

Thus began an epidemic of scribbling; burlesques of Ibsen and Zola (very scurril and not seldom indelicate), read aloud amid guffaws; parodies of Vergil; football epics in the heroic couplets of Pope and Dryden (once get the trick, you can reel them off by the yard); and lovesick lyrics after the songs in The Princess (these deadly serious: none of us had ever been disappointed in love, but we earnestly hoped to be). All this, please remember, came quite in nature’s way, with never a taint of self-consciousness. For this village, through half a century, had been a cultural centre of the Middle West, and the deposits were still on every hand. Opposite the campus in an oaktimbered ark of a house dwelt a retired lawyer who on winter evenings drew wing chair to glowing hearth and read his Pindar and Thucydides. Out on the old stagecoach road Andy Dwight encountered a farmer’s wife who could discuss philosophy while she blacked her kitchen stove. The minister knew how to hold his tongue in five languages. An independent scholar, dwelling in one of the brick residences once occupied by the college faculty, delivered a lecture on the Divine Comedy. Most of it was miles over our heads. But though the ideas might escape us, we did get the glow. It was intellect warmed with emotion and it left us with the feeling that the Divine Comedy was a glorious work which some day we must read for ourselves.

On autumn evenings, especially, the whole place — campus, village, countryside — would seem haunted with poetry, the air drenched with music. The swish of night wind in elm tops to the toll of a church bell had a way of sounding like distant surf and the chime of a bell buoy; and this just when you were reading Milton: —

Oft on a plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off curfew sound,
Over some wide-watered shore.
Swinging slow with sullen roar.

Or wild nights of October — flying clouds, flashing moon, trees lashing and leaves whirling — would orchestrate a thunderous symphonic poem, Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre:

Winter wind blows and the night is dark,
Moans are heard in the linden trees;
Through the gloom white skeletons pass,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.

Then, exactly at the right moment, Tennyson swam into ken. Here was the boys’ poet; plumed knights in clangorous tourneys and great gobs of romantic melancholy as proper to the age as raiding orchards. There was a snowy meadow bordering a wood across which at any moment one could imagine Launcelot spurring in bright armor. And when spring came — believe it or not! — we youngsters would get up at daybreak, two hours before breakfast, and, taking books out into fields and woods, toil over our Homeric dialects to the tune of bird matins and by the beams of rosyfingered Aurora. This study in the open became, in fine weather, a general custom. Boy fashion, all were paired off, chumming

Two and two,
The elephant and
The kangaroo,

each pair to some favorite sanctuary of Pan — the green embankment of an abandoned ‘air-line’ railway, the crumbling stone arch of its bridge, brookside meadows, or the grounds of a mysteriously deserted residence, unlocked, and completely furnished down to soap and towels.

The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees,

sings Tennyson, and we read him to the tune of both, all in the budding May. Also someone far mellower and richer — no less a personage than Vergil of the Eclogues. To have read the rustic idyls of that gentle poet and superb stylist amid the mild splendors of these spring-fledged hills and new-ploughed farms was to have savored to its full youth’s springtime hour of imagination and beauty. Work? Of course it was work. But what fun it was!

There was about it all a haunting sense of being English boys from an English school, leisuring in some placid English countryside—a spell wrought, I suppose, by Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and all that glorious dynasty of British poets whom we were reading. It came as a homesickness for some elder land far off and never so much as seen, yet felt somehow to be more homelike than home. Mother England!

It has often seemed to me that a room in which great poetry has been read or a hall where noble music has sounded is forever after sacred, raised out of insignificance by that hour of splendor. So is the spot where one has come to love learning. Look on a ramshackle building within which is a stage once trodden by Edwin Booth as Hamlet. Outwardly shabby; within, it has known the consecration and the poet’s dream.

This, l suppose, is what distinguishes an academic town. Here dwell people whose lives are, for the time being at least, dedicated to some aim higher than getting and spending. These white-plastered walls and dusty blackboards may be chill and bleak, but in this room one has learned to read the sounding hexameters of Homer and has seen the long ships go ploughing the wine-dark sea. Holy places are of many kinds, and this is one of them. All winter we have toiled over the snowy mountain passes of the Anabasis. Then, one day in April, gaining a summit in Asia Minor, we hear the jubilant shout of Xenophon’s soldiers: θάλασσα, θάλασσα. (‘The Sea! The Sea!’)

Yes, afar off, afar off, we can spy the silvery shining of Homer’s immortal sea, and hear on the salt strand of the ages the surge and thunder of the Iliad.


Nearly two years of this rustic Hellas of learning and boyhood; then one evening an old editor who lived in the village and went to the city every day came to talk to us. He published a farm journal which our fathers and grandfathers alternately swore by and swore at. His name was Chamberlain — one that recalls whole genealogies of New England schoolmasters, ministers, and journalists, and all of them the best. He was tall, burly, blue-eyed, spectacled, grayhaired and gray-bearded — a benevolent grizzly. For one hour he spoke of what a satisfaction it is to use our minds. That was twenty-five years ago. All of that talk I could still give in substance and much of it word for word.

This man, evenings after work, was keeping on with his Greek and reading the whole of the Iliad and Odyssey. With a small telescope on clear nights he studied astronomy. He told us how at first he had had to jot down the figures of his observations, but gradually he trained himself to carry the whole series in his head. Then he uttered this sentence, as it seemed to me, in words of fire: ‘Make your brain do its work!’ You could feel the muscles of your mind stiffen. He was an elderly man then. Whether he still lives I do not know. But I do know what he did for me. To that casual hour’s talk to a roomful of boys he probably never gave another thought — so little do we guess when our words fall like warm rain into a thirsty mind or our deeds like warm tears into a hungry heart. Many a time when tempted to skimp and give my second-best (‘Who will ever know, or care?’) the thought of that old man has hauled me up short.

On, meanwhile, went the routine of the school, hard work and harder play — golden-hazed Saturday afternoons of Indian summer for ideal football weather; marauding expeditions to cider mills; winter sleigh rides; spring pilgrimages Lo maplesugar camps; all-day tramps to Boston Ledges and back with aching joints and ravenous appetites; a mock trial, plays, concerts, gymnastic exhibitions (but no gymnasium), a prize-speaking contest, the annual flag rush.

This glad, eager life was dogged perpetually by the spectre of dissolution. The school might have to put up shutters at any time. Perhaps that gave things half their zest. We were there only on sufferance. Each day was wrung from niggard destiny. And I seem to remember that the Periclean, that other Great Age, was likewise a gayly desperate stand by a handful of picked men holding their tiny citadel of light and learning against a beleaguering world of barbarian darkness.

The first of these two lean years the school contrived to weather. The second? Chatting with us youngsters about our Iliad as we encountered him on the rude flagstones under the leaky porches of the Pentagon, the old lawyer was fond of quoting in especial two hexameters — one which described the clang of Apollo’s bow as he launched his arrows of pestilence against the Greeks: —

δϵινὴ δὲκλαΥΥὴ Υέυϵτ’ άρΥυρέοῐο, yever1 apyvpeoio fiiolo,

and another which pictures the leaping flames of the funeral pyres: —

βάλλ’. αἰεὶ δὲ пνραὶ υϵκύωυ καίουτοθαμϵιαί.

Before that second year was out we had good cause to remember both.


Abruptly, one February afternoon, the whole kit and caboodle of us were summoned to the chapel room and the doors locked. One at a time we were called before the four masters and quizzed. Back into the chapel somehow leaked the news. An epidemic of gambling had started from half a dozen harum-scarums who had been bounced from other schools and sent here in the hope of being made to behave. It had spread among twoscore of the boys. Gambling was explicitly vetoed. Again the faculty had found out everything, and a good half of the school had incurred expulsion. It looked like the death blow.

By nightfall it was known that the original half-dozen delinquents were marked to go; possibly a dozen more; perhaps even the whole forty. The dormitories buzzed like hives of angry bees.

Now Oliver Newbury had been with this half dozen a target of studied disesteem. Oliver’s hatband, it is true, was a trifle stretched. How could it well help being? He was the pride of the school. And a beautiful fellow he was, six feet of brawn and sinew, well proportioned, and a face all glow and sparkle. Splendid athlete, excellent scholar—if you liked him, his robust self-esteem did not annoy you a particle; if you did not, then you organized a Greek-Ietter fraternity in order to leave him out. But it is worth noting that in his study gathered the militant minority of the uncompromised. The six marked for expulsion they were serenely willing to part withal. But the next dozen; the twoscore? It seemed unjust. Yet how to make the distinction? The debate went on till midnight. Then Oliver, in handwriting neat and round as copperplate engraving, drafted a petition. This was circulated through the dormitories, all the uncompromised being routed out of bed, blinking and bewildered, to sign.

It was now two o’clock in the morning. They were just deciding to call it a day when a rumor came that the recitation hall had been stacked. If true, and the masters found it in chaos on the morrow, this petition was waste paper. The only thing to do was find out for certain.

With an unlighted lantern half a dozen of the petitioners stole out of their dormitory across the snowy campus, crept along behind arborvitæ hedges to the building, let themselves in with a key obtained from the student janitor, and started on the prowl through the spooky old rookery. Downstairs, everything in order. Upstairs, class rooms quite unmolested. Was the rumor a hoax?

Oliver, who went ahead with the lantern, opened the door to the library. His foot struck something. He elevated the light. From all six came a gasp of dismay. The library, sanctum sanctorum of the school, had been stacked.

Then did the hearts of the wellgreaved Achæans swell with black bile. All night they had been laboring to save their schoolfellows. Was this the payment? Then let them stew in their own juice!

‘But what about Lawrence?’ Out of the gloom came the voice of a rosy cherub known as Pat Ridley. ‘We know he did n’t do it. Do we want him fired?’

‘That’s so, fellows!’ said several at once. ‘It’s worth cleaning up this mess if only for Lawrence.’

It was decided. They set to work.

Now as luck would have it one of those lads knew that library by heart. Four large bookcases, from wall to wall, from floor to ceiling, perhaps eight hundred volumes in all — he knew the titles by authors, by sets, by classifications; history, fiction, biography, poetry, science, works of reference, even to bound volumes of ponderous old reviews. The library was not catalogued.

He carried a catalogue of it in his head. By the yellow beams of the single lantern the others collected and sorted; he restored the volumes to their places on the shelves. It was such an examination at once in literature and in magnanimity as few lads in their teens are summoned to undergo. And it was triumphantly passed. Not until months later did the masters discover that anything had been awry. Then it came out that each had in his own mind been accusing the others of carelessness in replacing used books.

A winter dawn was silvering the east when six boys crept dog-tired along the evergreen hedges back to their dormitory to snatch an hour’s sleep before breakfast.

The petition now did the business. The masters were not anxious to kill the school by expelling half of it. And this act of the boys provided them an emergency exit. It was decided to expel the first half dozen; the rest were penalized but allowed to remain.

Then these schoolmasters arranged a final curtain that gives the measure of their wisdom and kindness. Once more the whole school was summoned to the chapel room and the doors were shut. The affair was to be talked over in the bosom of the family. Then befell a blend of Methodist experience meeting and Moravian love feast. One after another, culprits voluntarily hoisted themselves to their feet and spoke. Manly words, manly tears, repentance. It was agreed that no one was to repeat a word of what was said there — which was well, for, electrified by the courage of the gamblers’ confessions, others rose and a good deal more got confessed than gambling. And to the everlasting credit of all be it said that never afterward was one word of what was uttered in that public privacy repeated as tattle or flung as taunt. Such is honor among boys.


But the affair left everybody rather limp. Easter recess came as a distinct relief. Now things could quiet down.

Quiet down! Two days after school reopened Oliver Newbury was taken ill. His roommate, Howard Spencer, brought him his meals and rubbed his aching body with alcohol. In two days more the case was pronounced smallpox, and black smallpox at that. How many had been exposed? Probably half the school. Classes ceased. Quarantine was clamped down tight as a drumhead. Yes, Apollo had launched his arrows at the camp of the Greeks,

And terrible came the clang of the silver bow.

Then again the school showed its mettle. Instead of loafing away these grim holidays everyone set to work. Mornings there was play on the athletic fields. Afternoons, since no one could leave the campus and it was too chill to sit out, there were study and reading. What did we read? I remember open sessions with Shakespeare’s sonnets, Macaulay’s essays, and comedies of Sheridan and Goldsmith. We kept on with Latin, Greek, and mathematics. The days seemed not too long, the evenings fairly cheerful.

But up there behind those secondstory windows in a wing of the Principal’s house Oliver Newbury was battling against a grisly death.

Four days of this. Then swooped one of those belated blizzards that vex late April. All day it snowed, and all night, and all the next day — snow that was wet, heavy, and packed hard. Down came wires. Trains stopped. No telegrams. No letters. For a while hardly so much as horse and sleigh. Here was quarantine with a vengeance.

On the bleak morrow of the storm, sullen clouds brooding stagnant over an arctic earth, someone came through the dormitories at six o’clock in the morning, rapped on doors and said, —

‘He is dead.’

From room to room could be heard the sound of boys weeping. It was the first time death had struck so close to them — and such a death!

A funeral in the ordinary sense of course there could not be. It was even a question whether for a day or two there could be so much as a burial. But a grave was delved, three feet of snow and six of earth, and a way shoveled through the deepest drifts to the cemetery. While the coffin was being borne out there was a huddled funeral service at the house of another master. The hearse lurched away.

That evening came the first train in two days. Permission was granted to go down to the campus gate and meet a messenger from the post office. Returning in the bluish dusk of that vapory exhalation which rises at twilight from melting snow, and wading waist-deep in drifts, one saw among the stark elm stems of the back campus red flames leaping. They were burning Oliver’s clothes, his bedding, his books, his very furniture. The fire had a ghastly glare. Into mind sprang that hexameter of Homer: —

βáλλ’. αἰϵὶ δὲ пυραὶ υϵκύωυ καίουτο θαμϵιαί.

‘He smote. And ever the funeral pyres of the dead were burning thickly.’

Had another case developed, it would have finished the school. Howard Spencer was watched for symptoms. None appeared. But the experience had cut deep into the boy. He talked and wept in his sleep. He and his chum went for long rambles in the country soberly debating the question of a life after death. They never could seem to reach any conclusion.

School resumed. The annual prizespeaking contest came round. One year from the night when Oliver, all aglow, had walked off with the prize, word went among the audience as it was pouring out of the chapel building that his body had been exhumed for reburial in the city. No one seemed to know for certain. Spencer and his chum resolved to find out for themselves. It was a clear spring night of full moon. Sharp frost was in the air. The cemetery was a mile away. They cut across lots. The creek was swollen with spring freshets and floating ice. They scrambled over it on a fallen willow trunk, crashed through underwoods, and clambered over the cemetery wall beside the grave.

A heap of freshly turned earth. A gaping hole glittering half full of water already beginning to freeze. And over it all the chill beams of the spring moon.


Hardscrabble Academy struggled on one year more. Up to the very last a stubborn hope persisted that it might somehow emerge from its trials a radiant Western Andover. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair may have been able to live on nothing a year. A school cannot. In June it closed its doors.

What became of its poor little possessions I never knew. Campus walks grew up to weeds. Dormitories tumbled to decay. Roofs leaked and shutters banged. Plaster fell in and panes fell out. No haunted house was ever half so dismal. For these buildings were haunted by the departed spirits of youth. Everyone who had loved the place avoided it as he would have avoided looking on a beloved face coffined. Even to think of it was a heartache. Meeting old schoolfellows was like a funeral. We spoke of the dead.

Yet its loyalties were hoops of steel. Sitting one Sunday morning at breakfast in the Harvard Union, I noticed across the tables a face that would have looked familiar had this oaken room been six hundred miles to the westward.

’If that,’ I remember ruminating, ‘were really Arthur Dawson, Laurence Sprague would be sitting across the table from him.’ (At Hardcastle the pair had been inseparables, but it was years since I had heard of either.)

I glanced at his table companion. Sure enough, there sat Laurence Sprague! That proved that it was Arthur Dawson.

Year after year Hardscrabble Academy lay mouldering in its grave. Then one autumn came such a tale as makes legend seem prosaic commonplace. In Hardcastle there had been a more or less mythical being known to us boys as ‘the coal baron.’ Born there, he had gone away to make his millions, and returned to build a Queen Anne villa on the old farm. There was in him evidently a streak of romance and creative imagination. He had already in the coal fields built one town which bore his name. Why not rebuild another, with the academy reinstated as its heart and centre?

Fable turned fact. The village voted saloons out and wires underground. It planted trees. The millionaire gave water works, sewage system, and lighting plant. On the site of the Pentagon he erected a parsonage of red brick Georgian embowered in greenery. The adjacent grist mill he rebuilt as a village clubhouse with classic whitepillared portico. On the campus one dormitory too ruinous was demolished and a new hall raised on its site. Other buildings were built or rebuilt. The school received an endowment of $200,000. A dozen years after its doors were closed they opened again. That was ten years ago.

And now, one hundred years from the time when college and academy were first established at Hardcastle, one reads in the newspapers the authoritative announcement that, by the will of the late Ellis W. James, Hardcastle Academy receives $4,000,000, making it, with previous gifts, one of the richest preparatory schools in America — if not the richest.

Hardcastle Academy? Poor, dear, little old Hardscrabble! So now you are rich! One hardly knows whether to laugh or to cry; whether to be glad or sorry. For how can we love the school as we did when it had little else to live on but our love and loyalty? What need of us has it now?

More, I venture to think, than ever. To ‘emerge a radiant Western Andover.’ Well, emerged it has. And now what? We have seen what this school could do without money. Now what can it do with it?

This question is a good deal larger than Hardcastle Academy, and that is why it is raised. It is a question which stares out of countenance pretty much the whole of American education. The heathen thought they should be heard for their much speaking. Our institutions of learning appear to think they shall be heard for their much brick and bullion. Yet the question is even larger than this. It is as large as the machine civilization of the Western world. Those Connecticut pioneers founding their school in an oak forest are type and symbol of the age and race that sired us. When we were young and poor, our poverty and struggle bred men. We grow prosperous. And now what are we? This wealth — is it to be a bed of ease or an alpenstock? These machines — are we to use them, or be used by them? I have likened Hardcastle Academy to Periclean Athens. Both perished. But both lived on. Both failed. Yet both triumphed. And these United States? Are we to lie yet one more gluttonous and grasping Rome, physically powerful but spiritually sterile? Or is another Athens to arise? Shall the world’s Great Age begin anew, the golden years return ?

Owing what I do to schoolmasters, is it any wonder that I should admire them and think their profession the greatest one of all? Is it any wonder that just so surely as autumn comes round I find myself homesick for a study and bedroom in some Spartan barracks of a school dormitory? The dry leaf swirls of October; the rich dank odor of goldenrod and aster, of ripening apples and grapes heavy on the languid breeze; the plum-blue haze of Indian summer afternoons; the snap and ginger of autumn air spiced like cider with the bead on it, conjure up the studious lamplight of lengthening evenings, the flash of an open fire, and a table, commodious for knees and elbows, stacked with books which mean work and the grim pleasure of intellectual mastery. Owing what I do to Athenian schoolmasters, is it any wonder that I should cherish for my land and people this ideal of a new Hellas to ennoble and beautify the world? And if another Athens shall arise, the golden years return, what likelier place to watch for it than in just such hardscrabble schools? There, yes, and in the heart of youth, where Hellas never dies.