A MASTER'S DEGREE
By Margaret Hill McCarter
TO THE KANSAS BOYS AND GIRLS WHO HAVE NOT YET EARNED THEIR DEGREES; AND TO THOSE OLDER IN YEARS, EVERYWHERE, "CAPTAINS OVER HUNDREDS," WHO WOULD WIN TO THE LARGER MASTERY.
In the old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them gently forth toward a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child's.
THE MEETING I. "DEAN FUNNYBONE" II. POTTER'S CLAY III. PIGEON PLACE IV. THE KICKAPOO CORRAL V. THE STORM VI. THE GAME VII. THE DAY OF RECKONING VIII. LOSS, OR GAIN? IX. GAIN, OR LOSS? X. THE THIEF IN THE MOUTH XI. THE SINS OF THE FATHERS XII. THE SILVER PITCHER XIII. THE MAN BELOW THE SMOKE XIV. THE DERELICTS XV. THE MASTERY THE PARTING
A MASTER'S DEGREE
...There is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, tho' they come from the ends of the earth! KIPLING
IT happened by mere chance that the September day on which Professor Vincent Burgess, A.B., from Boston, first entered Sunrise College as instructor in Greek, was the same day on which Vic Burleigh, overgrown country boy from a Kansas claim out beyond the Walnut River, signed up with the secretary of the College Board and paid the entrance fee for his freshman year. And further, by chance, it happened that the two young men had first met at the gateway to the campus, one coming from the East and the other from the West, and having exchanged the courtesies of stranger greeting, they had walked, side by side, up the long avenue to the foot of the slope. Together, they had climbed the broad flight of steps leading up to the imposing doorway of Sunrise, with the great letter S carved in stone relief above it; and, after pausing a moment to take in the matchless wonder of the landscape over which old Sunrise keeps watch, the college portal had swung open, and the two had entered at the same time.
Inside the doorway the Professor and the country boy were impressed, though in differing degrees, with the massive beauty of the rotunda over which the stained glass of the dome hangs a halo of mellow radiance. Involuntarily they lifted their eyes toward this crown of light and saw far above them, wrought in dainty coloring, the design of the great State Seal of Kansas, with its inscription They saw something more in that upward glance. On the stairway of the rotunda, Elinor Wream, the niece of the president of Sunrise College, was leaning over the balustrade, looking at them with curious eyes. Her smile of recognition as she caught sight of Professor Burgess, gave place to an expression of half-concealed ridicule, as she glanced down at Vic Burleigh, the big, heavy-boned young fellow, so grotesquely impossible to the harmony of the place.
As the two men dropped their eyes, they encountered the upturned face of a plainly dressed girl coming up the stairs from the basement, with a big feather duster in her hand. It was old Bond Saxon's daughter Dennie, who was earning her tuition by keeping the library and offices in order. As if to even matters, it was Vic Burleigh who caught a token of recognition now, while the young Professor was surveyed with fearless disapproval.
All this took only a moment of time. Long afterward these two men knew that in that moment an antagonism was born between them that must fight itself out through the length of days. But now, Dr. Lloyd Fenneben, Dean of Sunrise, known to students and alumni alike as "Dean Funnybone," was grasping each man's hand with a cordial grip and measuring each with a keen glance from piercing black eyes, as he bade them equal welcome.
And here all likeness of conditions ends for these two. Days come and go, moons wax and wane, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter glide fourfold through their appointed seasons, before the two young men stand side by side on a common level again. And the events of these changing seasons ring in so rapidly, and in so inevitable a fashion, that the whole cycle runs like a real story along the page.
_With the first faint note out of distance flung, From the moment man hears the siren call Of Victory's bugle, which sounds for all, To his inner self the promise is made To weary not, rest not, but all unafraid Press on—till for him the paean be sung.
The song for the victor is sweet, is sweet— Yet to the music a memory clings Of trampled nestlings, of broken wings, And of faces white with defeat!_ —ELIZABETH D. PRESTON
CHAPTER I. "DEAN FUNNYBONE"
Nature they say, doth dote, And cannot make a man Save on some worn-out plan, Repeating us by rote: For him her Old-World moulds aside she threw, ............................. With stuff untainted, shaped a hero new.—LOWELL
DR. LLOYD FENNEBEN, Dean of Sunrise College, had migrated to the Walnut Valley with the founding of the school here. In fact, he had brought the college with him when he came hither, and had set it, as a light not to be hidden, on the crest of that high ridge that runs east of the little town of Lagonda Ledge. And the town eagerly took the new school to itself; at once its pride and profit. Yea, the town rises and sets with Sunrise. When the first gleam of morning, hidden by the east ridge from the Walnut Valley, glints redly from the south windows of the college dome in the winter time, and from the north windows in the summer time, the town bestirs; itself, and the factory whistles blow. And when the last crimson glory of evening puts a halo of flame about the brow of Sunrise, the people know that out beyond the Walnut River the day is passing, and the pearl-gray mantle of twilight is deepening to velvety darkness on the wide, quiet prairie lands.
Lagonda Ledge was a better place after the college settled permanently above it. Some improvident citizens took a new hold on life, while some undesirables who had lived in lawless infamy skulked across the Walnut and disappeared in that rough picturesque region full of uncertainties that lies behind the west bluffs of the stream. All this, after the college had found an abiding place on the limestone ridge. For Sunrise had been a migratory bird before reaching the outskirts of Lagonda Ledge. As a fulfillment of prophecy, it had arisen from the visions and pockets of some Boston scholars, and it had come to the West and was made flesh—or stone—and dwelt among men on the outskirts of a booming young Kansas town.
Lloyd Fenneben was just out of Harvard when Dr. Joshua Wream, his step-brother, many years his senior, professor of all the dead languages ever left unburied, had put a considerable fortune into his hands, and into his brain the dream of a life-work—even the building of a great university in the West. For the Wreams were a stubborn, self-willed, bookish breed, who held that salvation of souls could come only through possession of a college diploma. Young Fenneben had come to Kansas with all his youth and health and money, with high ideals and culture and ambition for success and dreams of honor—and, hidden deep down, the memory of some sort of love affair, but that was his own business. With this dream of a new Harvard on the western prairies, he had burned his bridges behind him, and in an unbusiness-like way, relying too much upon a board of trustees whom he had interested in his plans he had eagerly begun his task, struggling to adapt the West to his university model, measuring all men and means by the scholarly rule of his Alma Mater. Being a young man, he took himself full seriously, and it was a tremendous blow to his sense of dignity when the youthful Jayhawkers at the outset dubbed him "Dean Funnybone"—a name he was never to lose.
His college flourished so amazingly that another boom town, farther inland, came across the prairie one day, and before the eyes of the young dean bought it of the money-loving trustees—body and soul and dean—and packed it off as the Plains Indians would carry off a white captive, miles away to the westward. Plumped down in a big frame barracks in the public square of twenty acres in the middle of this new town, at once real estate dealers advertised the place as the literary center of Kansas; while lots in straggling additions far away across the prairie draws were boomed as "college flats within walking distance of the university."
In this new setting Lloyd Fenneben started again to build up what had been so recklessly torn down. But it was slow doing, and in a downcast hour the head of the board of trustees took council with the young dean.
"Funnybone, that's what the boys call you, ain't it?" The name had come along over the prairie with the school. "Funnybone, you are as likely a man as ever escaped from Boston. But you're never going to build the East into the West, no more'n you could ram the West into the Atlantic seaboard states. My advice to you is to get yourself into the West for good and drop your higher learnin' notions, and be one of us, or beat it back to where you came from quick."
Dean Fenneben listened as a man who hears the reading of his own obituary.
"You've come out to Kansas with beautiful dreams," the bluff trustee continued. "Drop 'em! You're too late for the New England pioneers who come West. They've had their day and passed on. The thing for you to do is to commercialize yourself right away. Go to buyin' and sellin' dirt. It's all a man can do for Kansas now. Just boom her real estate."
"All a man can do for Kansas!" Fenneben repeated slowly.
"Sure, and I'll tell you something more. This town is busted, absolutely busted. I, and a few others, brought this college here as an investment for ourselves. It ain't paid us, and we've throwed the thing over. I've just closed a deal with a New Jersey syndicate that gets me rid of every foot of ground I own here. The county-seat's goin' to be eighteen miles south, and it will be kingdom come, a'most, before the railroad extension is any nearer 'n that. Let your university go, and come with me. I can make you rich in six months. In six weeks the coyotes will be howlin' through your college halls, and the prairie dogs layin' out a townsite on the campus, and the rattlesnakes coilin' round the doorsteps. Will you come, Funnybone?"
The trustee waited for an answer. While he waited, the soul of the young dean found itself.
"Funnybone!" Lloyd repeated. "I guess that's just what I need—a funny bone in my anatomy to help me to see the humor of this thing. Go with you and give up my college? Build up the prosperity of a commonwealth by starving its mind! No, no; I'll go on with the thing I came here to do—so help me God!"
"You'll soon go to the devil, you and your old school. Good-by!" And the trustee left him.
A month later, Dean Fenneben sat alone in his university barracks and saw the prairie dogs making the dust fly as they digged about what had been intended for a flower bed on the campus. Then he packed up his meager library and other college equipments and walked ten miles across the plains to hire a man with a team to haul them away. The teamster had much ado to drive his half-bridle-wise Indian ponies near enough to the university doorway to load his wagon. Before the threshold a huge rattlesnake lay coiled, already disputing any human claim to this kingdom of the wild.
Discouraging as all this must have been to Fenneben, when he started away from the deserted town he smiled joyously as a man who sees his road fair before him.
"I might go back to Cambridge and poke about after the dead languages until my brother passes on, and then drop into his chair in the university," he said to himself, "but the trustee was right. I can never build the East into the West. But I can learn from the East how to bring the West into its own kingdom. I can make the dead languages serve me the better to speak the living words here. And if I can do that, I may earn a Master's Degree from my Alma Mater without the writing of a learned thesis to clinch it. But whether I win honor or I am forgotten, this shall be my life-work—out on these Kansas prairies, to till a soil that shall grow MEN AND WOMEN."
For the next three years Dean Fenneben and his college flourished on the borders of a little frontier town, if that can be called flourishing which uses up time, and money, and energy, Christian patience, and dogged persistence. Then an August prairie fire, sweeping up from the southwest, leaped the narrow fire-guard about the one building and burned up everything there, except Dean Fenneben. Six years, and nothing to show for his work on the outside. Inside, the six years' stay in Kansas had seen the making over of a scholarly dreamer into a hard-headed, far-seeing, masterful man, who took the West as he found it, but did not leave it so. Not he! All the power of higher learning he still held supreme. But by days of hard work in the college halls, and nights of meditation out in the silent sanctuary spaces of the prairies round about him, he had been learning how to compute the needs of men as the angel with the golden reed computed the walls and gates of the New Jerusalem—according to the measure of a man.
Such was Dean Fenneben who came after six years of service to the little town of Lagonda Ledge to plant Sunrise on the crest above the Walnut Valley beyond reach of prairie fire or bursting boom. Firm set as the limestone of its foundations, he reared here a college that should live, for that its builder himself with his feet on the ground and his face toward the light had learned the secret of living.
Miles away across the valley, the dome of Sunrise could be seen by day. By night, the old college lantern at first, and later the studding of electric lights, made a beacon for all the open countryside. But if the wayfarer, by chance or choice, turned his footsteps to those rocky bluffs and glens beyond the Walnut River, wherefrom the town of Lagonda Ledge takes its name, he lost the guiding ray from the hilltop and groped in black and dangerous ways where darkness rules.
Above the south turret hung the Sunrise bell, whose resonant voice filled the whole valley, and what the sight of Sunrise failed to do for Lagonda Ledge, the sound of the bell accomplished. The first class to enter the school nicknamed its head "Dean Funnybone," but this gave him no shock any more. He had learned the humor of life now, the spirit of the open land where the view is broad to broadening souls.
And it was to the hand of Dean Fenneben that Professor Vincent Burgess, A.B., Greek instructor from Boston, and Vic Burleigh, the big country boy from a claim beyond the Walnut, came on a September day; albeit, the one had his head in the clouds, while the other's feet were clogged with the grass roots.
CHAPTER II. POTTER'S CLAY
This clay, well mixed with marl and sand, Follows the motion of my hand, For some must follow and some command, Though all are made of clay. —LONGFELLOW
THE afternoon sunshine was flooding the September landscape with molten gold, filling the valley with intense heat, and rippling back in warm waves from the crest of the ridge. Dean Fenneben's study in the south tower of Sunrise looked out on the new heaven and the new earth, every day-dawn created afresh for his eyes; for truly, the Walnut Valley in any mood needs only eyes that see to be called a goodly land. And it was because of the magnificent vista, unfolding in woodland, and winding river, and fertile field, and far golden prairie—it was because of the unconscious power of all this upon the student mind, that Dr. Fenneben had set his college up here.
On this September afternoon, the Dean sat looking out on this land of pure delight a-quiver in the late summer sunshine. Nature had done well by Lloyd Fenneben. His height was commanding, and he was slender, rather than heavy, with ease of movement as if the play of every muscle was nerved to harmony. His heavy black hair was worn a trifle long on the upper part of his head and fell in masses above his forehead. His eyes were black and keen under heavy black brows. Every feature was strong and massive, but saved from sternness by a genial kindliness and sense of humor. Whoever came into his presence felt that magnetic power only a king of his kind can possess.
Long the Dean sat gazing at the gleaming landscape and the sleepy town beyond the campus and the pigeons circling gracefully above a little cottage, hidden by trees, up the river.
"A wonderful region!" he murmured. "If that old white-haired brother of mine digging about the roots of Greek and Sanscrit back in Harvard could only see all this, maybe he might understand why I choose to stay here with my college instead of tying up with a university back East. But, maybe not. We are only step-brothers. He is old enough to be my father, and with all his knowledge of books he could never read men. However, he sent me West with a fat pocketbook in the interest of higher education. I hope I've invested well. And our magnificent group of buildings up here and our broad-acred campus, together with our splendid enrollment of students justify my hope. Strange, I have never known whose money I was using. Not Joshua Wream's, I know that. Money is nothing to the Wreams except as it endows libraries, builds colleges, and extends universities. Too scholarly for these prairies, all of them! Too scholarly!"
The Dean's eyes were fixed on a tiny shaft of blue smoke rising steadily from the rough country in the valley beyond Lagonda Ledge, but his mind was still on his brother.
"Dr. Joshua Wream, D.D., Litt.D., LL.D., etc.! He has taken all the degrees conferable, except the degree of human insight." Something behind the strong face sent a line of pathos into it with the thought. "He has piled up enough for me to look after this fall, anyhow. It was bad enough for that niece of ours to be left a penniless orphan with only the two uncles to look after her and both of us bachelors. And now, after he has been shaping Elinor Wream's life until she is ready for college, he sends her out here to me, frankly declaring that she is too much for him. She always was."
He turned to a letter lying on the table beside him, a smile playing about the frown on his countenance.
"He hopes I can do better by Elinor than he has been able to do, because he's never had a wife nor child to teach him," he continued, giving word to his thought. "A fine time for me to begin! No wife nor child has ever taught me anything. He says she is a good girl, a beautiful girl with only two great faults. Only two! She's lucky. 'One'"—Fenneben glanced more closely at the letter—"'is her self-will.' I never knew a Wream that didn't have that fault. 'And the other'"—the frown drove back the smile now—"'is her notion of wealth. Nobody but a rich man could ever win her hand.' She who has been simply reared, with all the Wream creed that higher education is the final end of man, is set with a Wream-like firmness in her hatred of poverty, her eagerness for riches and luxury. And to add to all this responsibility he must send me his pet Greek scholar, Vincent Burgess, to try out as a professor in Sunrise. A Burgess, of all men in the world, to be sent to me! Of course this young man knows nothing of my affairs but is my brother too old and too scholarly to remember what I've tried a thousand times to forget? I thought the old wound had healed by this time."
A wave of sadness swept the strong man's face. "I've asked Burgess to come up at three. I must find out what material is sent here for my shaping. It is a president's business to shape well, and I must do my best, God help me!"
A shadow darkened Lloyd Fenneben's face, and his black eyes held a strange light. He stared vacantly at the landscape until he suddenly noted the slender wavering pillar of smoke beyond the Walnut.
"There are no houses in those glens and hidden places," he thought. "I wonder what fire is under that smoke on a day like this. It is a far cry from the top of this ridge to the bottom of that half-tamed region down there. One may see into three counties here, but it is rough traveling across the river by day, and worse by night."
The bell above the south turret chimed the hour of three as Vincent Burgess entered the study.
"Take this seat by the window," Dr. Fenneben said with a genial smile and a handclasp worth remembering. "You can see an Empire from this point, if you care to look out."
Vincent Burgess sat at ease in any presence. He had the face of a scholar, and the manners of a gentleman. But he gave no sign that he cared to view the empire that lay beyond the window.
"We are to be co-workers for some time, Burgess. May I ask you why you chose to come to Kansas?"
Fenneben came straight to the purpose of the interview. This keen-eyed, business-like man seemed to Burgess very unlike old Dr. Wream, whom everybody at Harvard loved and anybody could deceive. But to the direct question he answered directly and concisely.
"I came to study types, to acquire geographical breadth, to have seclusion, that I may pursue more profound research."
There was a play of light in Dr. Fenneben's eyes.
"You must judge for yourself of the value of Sunrise and Lagonda Ledge for seclusion. But we make a specialty of geographical breadth out here. As to types, they assay fairly well to the ton, these Jayhawkers do."
"What are Jayhawkers, Doctor?" Burgess queried.
"Yonder is one specimen," Fenneben answered, pointing toward the window.
Vincent Burgess, looking out, saw Vic Burleigh leaping up the broad steps from the level campus, a giant fellow, fully six feet tall. The swing of strength, void of grace, was in his motion. His face was gypsy-brown under a crop of sunburned auburn hair. A stiff new derby hat was set bashfully on a head set unabashed on broad shoulders. The store-mark of the ready-made was on his clothing, and it was clear that he was less accustomed to cut stone steps than to springing prairie sod. Clearly he was a real product of the soil.
"Why, that is the young bumpkin I came in with this morning. I thought I was striding alongside an elephant in bulk and wild horse in speed," Burgess said with a smile.
"You will have a share in taming him, doubtless," Dr. Fenneben replied. "He looks hardly bridle-wise yet. Enter him among your types. I didn't get his name this morning, but he interested me at once, as a fellow of good blood if not of good manners, and I have asked him to come in here later. Some boys must be met on the very threshold of a college if they are to run safely along the four years."
"His name is Burleigh, Victor Burleigh. I remember it because it is not a new name to me. Picture him in a cap and gown at home in a library, or standing up to receive a Master's Degree from a university! His kind leave about the middle of the second semester and revert to the soil, don't they?"
Burgess laughed pleasantly, and leaned forward to get one more look at the country boy, disappearing behind a group of evergreens in the north angle of the building.
"They do not always leave so soon as that. You can't tell the grade of timber every time by the bark outside." There was a deeper tone in Dr. Fenneben's voice now. "But as to yourself, you had a motive in coming to Kansas, I judge. You can study types anywhere."
Whether the young man liked this or not, he answered evenly:
"I am to give instruction in Greek here at Lagonda Ledge. Beastly name, isn't it? Suggestive of rattlesnakes, somehow! I shall spend much time in study, for I am preparing a comprehensive thesis for my Master's Degree. The very barrenness of these dull prairies will keep me close to my library for a couple of years."
"Oh, you will do your work well anywhere," Dr. Fenneben declared. "You need not put walls of distances about you for that. I thought you might have a more definite purpose in choosing this state, of all places."
Fenneben's mind was running back to the days of his own first struggle for existence in the West, and his heart went out in sympathy to the undisciplined young professor.
"I have a reason, but it is entirely a personal matter." Burgess was looking at the floor now. "Did you know I had a sister once?"
"Yes, I know," Dr. Fenneben said.
"She was married and came to Kansas. That was after you left Cambridge, I suppose. She and her husband are both dead, leaving no children. My father was bitterly opposed to her coming out here, and never forgave her for it. He died recently, making me his heir. I've always thought I'd like to see the state where my sister lived. She died young. She could not have been as old as you are, and you are a young man yet, Doctor. In addition, my father left in my care some trust funds for a claimant who also lived in Kansas. He is dead now, but I want to find out something more definite concerning him. Outside of this, I hope to do well here and to succeed to higher places elsewhere, soon. All this personal to myself, and worthy, I hope."
He looked at Fenneben, who was leaning forward with his elbow on the table and his head bowed. His face was hidden and his white fingers were thrust through the heavy masses of black hair.
"You will find a great field here in which to work out your success," the Dean said at length. "But I must give a word of warning. I tried once to reproduce the eastern university here. I learned better. If Kansas is to be your training ground, may I say that the man who opens his front door for the first time on the green prairies of the West has no less to learn than the man who first pitches his tent beside the blue Atlantic? Don't say I didn't show you where to find the blazed trail if you get lost from it for a little while."
Dr. Fenneben's face was charming when he smiled.
"One other thing I may mention. You know my niece, Elinor? I've been out here so long, I may need your help in making her feel at home at first."
There was a new light in Burgess's eyes at the mention of Elinor Wream's name.
"Oh, yes, I know Miss Elinor very well. I shall need her more to make me feel at home than she will need me."
Somehow the answer was a trifle too quick and smooth to ring right. Dr. Fenneben forgot it in an instant, however, for Elinor Wream herself came suddenly into the room, a tall, slender girl, with a face so full of sunshiny charm that no great defect of character had yet made its mark there.
"I beg your pardon, Uncle Lloyd; I thought you were alone. How do you do, Professor Burgess." She came forward smilingly and offered her hand. "Makes me homesick for old Cambridge and Uncle Joshua when I see you. I want to go down to Lagonda Ledge, and I don't know the streets at all. Don't you want to show me the way?"
"Can't you wait for me to do that, Norrie? I have only one more engagement for the afternoon, and Miss Saxon will be wanting to dust in here soon." Dr. Fenneben looked fondly at his niece, a man to make other men jealous, if occasion offered.
"Please don't, Miss Elinor," Vincent Burgess urged. "I shall be delighted to explore darkest Kansas with you at any time."
"There is no mistaking that look in a man's eyes," Dr. Fenneben thought as he watched the two pass through the rotunda and out of the great front door. "I have guessed Joshua's plan easily enough, but I've only half guessed him out. Why did he mention his money matters to me? There is enough merit in him worth the shaping Sunrise will give him, however, and I must do a man's part, anyhow. As for Elinor, there's a ready-made missionary field in her, so Joshua warns me. But he is a poor judge sometimes. I wish I might have begun with her sooner. I cannot think she is quite as mercenary as he represents her to be."
Through the window he saw a pretty picture. Outlined against the dark green cedars of the north angle was Professor Burgess, tall, slender, fair of face, faultless in dress. Beside him was Elinor Wream, all dainty and sweet and white, from the broad-brimmed hat set jauntily on her dark hair to the white bows on the instep of her neat little canvas shoes. A wave of loneliness swept over Dr. Fenneben's soul as he looked.
"It must have been a thousand years ago that I was in love and walked in my Eden. There are no serpents here as there were in mine."
Just then his eyes fell upon the wide stone landing of the campus steps. At the same moment Elinor gave a scream of fright. A bull snake, big and ugly, had crawled half out of the burned grasses of the slope and stretched itself lazily in the sunshine along the warm stone. It roused itself at the scream, emitting its hoarse hiss, after the manner of bull snakes. Elinor clutched at her companion's arm, pale with fear.
"Kill it! Kill it!" she cried, trying to force her slender white parasol into his hand.
Before he could move, Vic Burleigh leaped out from behind the cedars, and, picking up a sharp-edged bit of limestone, tipped his hand dexterously and sent it clean as a knife cut across the space. It struck the snake just below the head, half severing it from the body. Another leap and Burleigh had kicked the whole writhing mass—it would have measured five feet—off the stone into the sunflower stalks and long grasses of the steep slope.
"How did you ever dare?" Elinor asked.
"Oh, he's not poison; he just doesn't belong up here."
The bluntness of timidity was in Vic's answer, but the strength and musical depth of his resonant voice was almost startling.
"There is no Eden without a serpent, Miss Elinor," Professor Burgess said lightly.
"Nor a serpent without some sort of Eden built around it. The thing's mate will be along after it pretty soon. Look out for it down there. The best place to catch it is right behind its ears," came the boy's quick response.
Burleigh looked back defiantly at Burgess as he disappeared indoors. And the antagonism born in the meeting of these two men in the morning took on a tiny degree of strength in the afternoon.
"What a wonderful voice, Vincent. It makes one want to hear it again," Elinor exclaimed.
"Yes, and what an overgrown pile of awkwardness. It makes one hope never to see it again," her companion responded.
"But he killed that snake in a way that looked expert to me," Elinor insisted.
"My dear Miss Elinor, he was probably born in some Kansas cabin and has practiced killing snakes all his life. Not a very elevating feat. Let's go down and explore Lagonda Ledge now before the other snake comes in for the coroner's inquest."
And the two passed down the stone steps to the shady level campus and on to the town beyond it.
"You are hard on snakes, Burleigh," Dr. Fenneben said as he welcomed the country boy into his study. "A bull snake is a harmless creature, and he is the farmer's friend."
"Let him stay on the farm then. I hate him. He's no friend of mine," Vic replied.
He was overflowing the chair recently graced by Professor Burgess and clutching his derby as if it might escape and leave him bareheaded forever. His face had a dogged expression and his glance was stern. Yet his direct words and the deep richness of his voice put him outside of the class of commonplace beginners.
"Are you fond of killing things?" the Dean asked.
The ruddy color deepened in Vic Burleigh's brown cheek, but the steadfast gaze of his eyes and the firm lines of his mouth told the head of Sunrise something of what he would find in the sturdy young Jayhawker.
"Sometimes," came the blunt answer. "I've always lived on a Kansas claim. Unless you know what that means you might not understand—how hard a life"—Vic stopped abruptly and squeezed the rim of his derby.
"Never mind. We take only face value here. Fine view from that window," and Lloyd Fenneben's genial smile began to win the heart of the country boy as most young hearts were won to him.
Burleigh leaned toward the window, forgetful of the chair arms he had striven to subdue, the late afternoon sunlight falling on his brown face and glinting in his auburn hair.
"It's as pretty as paradise," he said, simply. "There's nothing like our Kansas prairies."
"You come from the plains out west, I hear. How long do you plan to stay here, Burleigh?" Dr. Fenneben asked.
"Four years if I can make it go. I've got a little schooling and I know how to herd cattle. I need more than this, if I am only a country boy."
"Who pays for your schooling, yourself, or your father?" Fenneben queried.
"I have no father nor mother now."
"You are willing to work four years to get a diploma from Sunrise? It is hard work; all the harder if you have not had much schooling before it."
"I'm willing to work, and I'd like to have the diploma for it," Vic answered.
"Burleigh, did you notice the letter S carved in the stone above the door?"
"Yes, sir; I suppose it stands for Sunrise?"
"It does. But with the years it will take on new meanings for you. When you have learned all these meanings you will be ready for your diploma—and more. You will be far on your way to the winning of a Master's Degree."
Vic's eyes widened with a sort of child-like simplicity. He forgot his hat and the chair arms, and Dr. Fenneben noted for the first time that his golden-brown eyes matching his auburn hair were shaded by long black lashes, the kind artists rave about, and arched over with black brows.
"His eyes and voice are all right," was the Dean's mental comment. "There's good blood in his veins, I'll wager."
But before he could speak further the shrill scream of a frightened child came from the campus below the ridge. At the cry Vic Burleigh sprang to his feet, upsetting his chair, and without stopping to pick it up, he rushed from the building.
As he tore down the long flight of steps, Lloyd Fenneben caught sight of a child on the level campus running toward him as fast as its fat little legs could toddle. Two minutes later Vic Burleigh was back in the study, panting and hot, with the little one clinging to his neck.
"Excuse me, please," Vic said as he lifted the fallen chair. "I forgot all about Bug down there, and the widow Bull"—he gave a half-smile—"was wriggling around trying to find her mate, and scared him. He's too little to be left alone, anyhow."
Bug was a sturdy, stubby three-year-old, or less, dimpled and brown, with big dark eyes and a tangle of soft little red-brown ringlets. As Vic seated himself, Bug perched on the arm of the chair inside of the big boy's encircling arm.
"Who is your friend? Is he your brother?" asked the Dean.
"No. He's no relation. I don't know anything about him, except that his name is Buler. Bug Buler, he says."
Little Bug put up a chubby brown hand loving-wise to Vic Burleigh's brown cheek, and, looking straight at Dr. Fenneben with wide serious eyes, he asked,
"Is you dood to Vic?"
"Yes, indeed," replied the Dean.
"Nen, I like you fornever," Bug declared, shutting his lips so tightly that his checks puffed.
"How do you happen to have this child here, Burleigh?" questioned Fenneben.
"Because he's got nobody else to look after him," answered Vic.
"How about an orphan asylum?"
Vic looked down at the little fellow cuddled against his arm, and every feature of his stern face softened.
"Will it make any difference about him if I get my lessons, sir? I can't let Bug go now. We are the limit for each other—neither of us got anybody else. I take care of him, but he keeps me from getting too coarse and rough. Every fellow needs something innocent and good about him sometimes."
"Oh, no! Keep him if you want him. But would you mind telling me about him?"
"I'd rather not now," Burleigh said, quietly, and Lloyd Fenneben knew when to drop a subject.
"Then I'm through with you for today, Burleigh. I must let Miss Saxon have my room now. Come here whenever you like, and bring Bug if you care to."
Sunrise students always left Dr. Fenneben's study with a little more of self-respect than when they entered it; richer, not so much from the word as from the spirit of the head of Sunrise. Victor Burleigh with little Bug Buler's fat fist clasped in his big, hard hand walked out of the college door that afternoon with the unconscious baptism of the student upon him, the dim sense of a fellowship with a scholarly master of books and of men.
Back in his study Lloyd Fenneben sat looking out once more at the Empire that meant nothing but dreary distances to the scholarly professor of Greek, and seemed a paradise to the untrained young fellow from the prairies.
"I see my stint of cloth for the day," he murmured. "A college professor in the making who has much to unlearn; a crude young giant who is fond of killing things, and cares for helpless children; and a beautiful, wilful, characterless girl to be shown into her womanly heritage. The clay is ready. It is the potter whose hands need skill. Victor Burleigh! Victor Burleigh! There's my greatest problem of all three. He has the strength of a Titan in those arms, and the passion of a tiger behind those innocent yellow eyes. God keep me on the hilltop nor let my feet once get into the dark and dangerous ways!"
He looked long at the landscape radiant under the level rays of splendor streaming from the low afternoon sun.
"I wonder who built that fire, and what that pillar of smoke meant this afternoon. The mystery of our lives hangs some token in each day."
The shadows were gathering in the Walnut Valley, the pigeons about the cottage up the river, were in their cotes now, the heat of the day was over, and with one more look at the far peaceful prairies Dr. Lloyd Fenneben closed his study door and passed out into the cool September air.
CHAPTER III. PIGEON PLACE
Strange is the wind and the tide, The heavens eternally wide; Less fathomed, this life at my side. —W. H. SIMPSON
THE Sunrise rotunda was ringing with a chorus from three hundred throats as three hundred students poured out of doors, and over-flowed the ridge and spilled down the broad steps, making a babel of musical tongues; while fitting itself to every catchy college air known to Sunrise came the noisy refrain:
Rah for Funnybone! Rah for Funnybone! Rah for Funnybone! Rah! RAH! RAH!!!
Again it was repeated, swelling along the ridge and floating wide away over the Walnut Valley. Nor was there a climax of exuberance until the appearance of Dr. Lloyd Fenneben himself, with his tall figure and striking presence outlined against the gray stone columns of the veranda. All this because it was mid-October, a heaven-made autumn day in Kansas, with its gracious warmth and bracing breath; with the Indian summer haze in shimmering amethyst and gold overhanging the land; and the Walnut Valley, gorgeous in the glow of the October frost-fires, winding down between broad seas of rainbow-radiant prairies. And all this gladness and grandeur, by the decree of Dr. Fenneben, was given in fee simple to these three hundred young people for the hours of one perfect day—their annual autumn holiday. No wonder they filled the air with shouts. And before the singing had ceased the crowd broke into groups by natural selection, and the holiday was begun.
Whatever bounds of time Nature may give to the seed in which to become a plant, or to the grub to become a butterfly, there is no set limit wherein the country-bred boy may bloom into a full-fledged college student.
Seven weeks after Vic Burleigh had come alongside the Greek Professor into Sunrise, found the quick marvelous change from the timid, untrained, overgrown young giant into a leader of his clan, the pride of the Freshman, the terror of the Sophomores, the dramatic interest of the classroom, and the hope of Sunrise on the football gridiron. His store-made clothes had a jaunty carelessness of fit. The tan had left his cheek. His auburn hair had lost its sun-burn. His powerful physique, the charm of his deep voice, the singular beauty of his wide open golden-brown eyes, with their long black lashes lighting up his rugged face, gave to him an attractive personality.
Yet to Lloyd Fenneben, who saw below the surface, Victor Burleigh was only at the beginning of things. Something of the tiger light in the brown eyes, the pride in brute strength, the blunt justice lacking the finer sense of mercy, showed how wide yet was the distance between the man and the gentleman.
When Dr. Fenneben returned to his study after the hilarious demonstration he found Dennie Saxon busy with the little film of dust that comes in overnight. Old Bond Saxon, Dennie's father, had been one of the improvident of Lagonda Ledge who took a new lease on a livelihood with the advent of Sunrise. From being a dissipated old fellow drifting toward pauperism, he became the proprietor of a respectable boarding house for students, doing average well. At rare intervals, however, he lapsed into his old ways. During such occasions he kept to the river side of the town. Sober, he was good-natured and obliging; drunken, he was sullen, with a disposition to skulk out of sight and be alone. His daughter Dennie had her father's good-nature combined with a will power all her own.
As Dr. Fenneben watched her about her work this morning, he noted how comfortably she took hold of it. He noted, too, that her heavy yellow-brown hair was full of ripples just where ripples helped, that her arms were plump, that she was short and nothing willowy, and that she had a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
"Why don't you take a holiday, Miss Dennie?" he asked, presently.
"I wanted this done so I wouldn't be seeing dusty books in my daydreams," Dennie answered.
"Where do you do your dreaming today?"
"A crowd of us are going down the river to the Kickapoo Corral. I must make the cakes yet this morning," she answered.
"Good enough Can't I do something for you? Do you need a chaperon?" the Dean queried, smilingly.
"Professor Burgess is to be our chaperon. He is all we can look after." Dennie's gray eyes danced, but she was serious a moment later.
"Dr. Fenneben, you can do something, maybe, that's none of your business, nor mine." Dennie wondered afterward how she could have had the courage to speak these words.
"That's generally the easy thing. What is it?" the Dean smiled.
The girl hung her feather brush in its place and sat down opposite to him.
"Do you know anything about Pigeon Place?" she began.
"The little place up the river where a queer, half-crazy woman lives alone with a fierce dog?" he asked.
"Yes, you never heard anything more?" Dennie queried.
"Only that the house is hidden from the road and has many pigeons about it, and that the woman sees few callers. I've never located the place. Tell me about it," he replied.
"Bug Buler and I were up there after eggs this morning. Bug is Victor Burleigh's little boy. They board at our house," Dennie explained. "Pigeon Place is a little cottage all covered with vines and with flowers everywhere. It's hidden away from the road just outside of town. Mrs. Marian isn't crazy nor queer, only she seldom leaves home, never goes to church, nor visits anywhere. She doesn't care for anybody, nor take any interest in Lagonda Ledge, and she keeps a Great Dane dog, as big as a calf, that is friendly to women and children, but won't let a man come near, unless Mrs. Marian says so." Dennie paused.
"Very interesting, Miss Dennie, but what can I do?" Fenneben asked. "Shall I kill the dog and carry off the woman like the regulation grim ogre of the fairy tales?"
Dennie hesitated. Few girls would have come to a college president on such a mission as hers. But then few college presidents are like Lloyd Fenneben.
"Of course nobody likes Mrs. Marian, and my father—when he's not quite himself—says dreadful things if I mention her name." Dennie's checks were crimson as she thought of her father. "It's none of my business, but I've felt sorry for Mrs. Marian ever since she came here. She seems like an innocent outcast."
"That is very pitiful." Lloyd Fenneben's voice was sympathetic.
"This morning," continued Dennie, "Bug was playing with the dog outside, and I went into the house for the first time. Mrs. Marian is very pleasant. She asked me about my work here and I told her about Sunrise and you, and your niece, Miss Elinor, being here."
"All the interesting features. Did you mention Professor Burgess?" The query was innocently meant, but it brought the color to Dennie Saxon's cheek.
"No, I didn't think he was in that class," she replied, quickly. "But what surprised me was her interest in things. She is a pretty, refined, young-looking woman, with gray hair. When I was leaving I turned back to ask about some eggs for Saturday. She thought I was gone, and she had dropped her head on the table and was crying, so I slipped out without her knowing." Dennie's gray eyes were full of tears now. "Dr. Fenneben, if talking about Sunrise made her do that, maybe you might do something for her. I pity her so. Nobody seems to care about her. My father is set against her when he is not responsible, and he might—" She stopped abruptly and did not finish the sentence.
The Dean looked out of the window at the purple mist melting along the horizon line. Down in the valley pigeons were circling above a wooded spot at a bend in the Walnut River. Fenneben remembered now that he had seen them there many times. He had a boyhood memory of a country home with pigeons flying about it.
"I wish, too, that I might do something," he said at last. "You say she will not let men inside her gate now. I'll keep her in mind, though. The gate may open some time."
It was mid-afternoon when Lloyd Fenneben left his study for a stroll. As he approached the Saxon House, he saw old Bond Saxon slipping out of the side gate and with uncertain steps skulk down the alley.
"Poor old sinner! What a slave and a fool whisky can make of a man!" he thought. Then he remembered Dennie's anxiety of the morning. "There must be some cause for his prejudice against this strange hermit woman when he is drunk. Bond Saxon is not a man to hate anybody when he is sober."
"Is you Don Fonnybone?" Bug Buler's little piping voice from the doorstep haled the Dean. "I finked Vic would turn, and he don't turn, and I 's hungry for somebody. May I go wis you, Don Fonnybone?" The baby lips quivered.
Lloyd Fenneben held out his hand and Bug put his little fist into it.
"Where shall we go, Bug? I 'm hungry for somebody, too."
"Let's do find the bunny the bid dod ist scared away this morning. Turn on!"
Lloyd Fenneben was hardly conscious that Bug was choosing their path as the two strolled away together. Everywhere there was the pathos of a waning autumn day, and a soft haze creeping out of the west was making a blood-red carbuncle of the sun, set as a jewel on the amber-veiled bosom of the sky. The air was soft, wooing the spirit to a still, sweet peace. The two were at the outskirts of Lagonda Ledge now. The last board walk was three blocks back, and the cinder-made way had dwindled to a bare hard path by the roadside. A bend in the river cutting close to the road shows a long vista of the Walnut bordered by vine-draped shrubbery and overhung with trees. A slab of limestone beside a huge elm tree had been placed at this bend to prevent the bank from breaking, or a chance misdriving into the water.
"I 's pitty tired," Bug said as the two reached the stone. "Will we tum to the bunny's house pitty soon?"
"We'll rest here a while and maybe the bunny will come out to meet us," Dr. Fenneben said, and they sat down on the broad stone.
"It was somewhere here the bunny runned." Little Bug studied the roadside with a quaint puzzled face. "Is you 'faid of snakes?"
"Not very much." The Dean's eyes were on the graceful flight of pigeons circling about the trees beyond the bend.
"Vic isn't 'faid. He killed bid one, two, five, free wattle, wattle snakes—" Bug caught his breath suddenly—"He told me not to tell that. I fordot. I don't 'member. He didn't do it—he didn't killed no snakes fornever."
Dr. Fenneben gave little heed to this prattle. His eyes were on the pigeons cleaving the air with short, graceful flights. Presently he felt the soft touch of baby curls against his hand, and little Bug had fallen asleep with his drooping head on Fenneben's lap.
The Dean gently placed the tired little one in an easy position, and rested his shoulder against the tree.
"That must be Pigeon Place," he mused. "Every town has its odd characters. This is one of Lagonda Ledge's little mysteries. Dennie finds it a pathetic one. How graceful those pigeons are!" And his thoughts drifted to a far New England homestead where pigeons used to sweep about an old barn roof.
A fuzzy gray rabbit flashed across the road, followed by a Great Dane dog in hot chase.
"Bug's bunny! I hope the big murderer will miss it," Fenneben thought.
The roadside bushes half hid him. As the crashing sound of the huge dog through the underbrush ceased he noticed a woman coming leisurely toward him. Her arms were full of bitter-sweet berries and flaming autumn leaves. She wore no hat and Fenneben saw that her gray hair was wound like a coronal about her head. Before he could catch sight of her face a heavy staggering step was beside him, and old Bond Saxon, muttering and shaking his clenched fists, passed beyond him toward the woman. Lloyd Fenneben's own fists clenched, but he sat stone still. The woman seemed to melt into the bushes and obliterate herself entirely, while the drunken man stalked unsteadily on toward where she had been. Then shaking his fists vehemently at the pigeons, he skulked around the bend in the road.
As soon as he was out of sight the woman emerged from the bushes, with autumn leaves hiding her crown of hair. She hastened a few rods toward the man watching her, then disappeared through a vine-covered gateway into a wilderness of shrubbery, beyond which the pigeons were cooing about their cotes.
As she closed the gate, she caught sight of Lloyd Fenneben, leaning motionless against the gray bole of the elm tree. But she was looking through a tangle of purple oak leaves and twining bitter-sweet branches, and Fenneben was unconscious of being discovered.
"A woman never could whistle," he smiled, as he listened, "but that call seems to do for the dog, all right."
The Great Dane was tearing across lots in answer to the trill of a woman's voice.
"She is safe now. But what does it all mean? Is there a wayside tragedy here that calls for my unraveling?"
Attracted by some subtle force beyond his power to check, he turned toward the river and looked steadily at the still overhanging shrubbery. Just below him, where the current turns, the quiet waters were lapping about a ledge of rock. Between that ledge and himself a tangle of bushes clutched the steep bank. He looked straight into the tangle, just plain twig and brown leaf, giving place as he stared, for two still black human eyes looking balefully at him as a snake at its prey. Lloyd Fenneben could not withdraw his gaze. The two eyes—no other human token visible—just two cruel human eyes full of human hate were fixed on him. And the fascination of the thing was paralyzing, horrible. He could not move nor utter a sound. Bug Buler woke with a little cry. The bushes by the riverside just rippled—one quiver of motion—and the eyes were not there. Then Fenneben knew that his heart, which had been still for an age, had begun to beat again. Bug stared up into his face, dazed from sleep.
"Where's my Vic? Who's dot me?" he cried.
"We came to hunt the bunny. He's gone away again. Shall we go back home?" The gentle voice and strong hand soothed the little one.
"It's dettin' told. Let's wun home." Bug cuddled against Fenneben's side and hugged his hand. "I love you lots," he said, looking up with eyes of innocent trust.
"Yes, let's run home. There is a storm in the air and the sun is hidden from the valley." He stooped and kissed the little upturned face. "Thank heaven for children!" he murmured. "Amid skulking, drunken men and strange, lonely women, and cruel eyes of unknown beings, they lead us loving-wise back home again."
Behind the vine-covered gate a gray-haired, fair-faced woman watched the two as they disappeared down the road.
And the blood-red sun out on the west prairie sank swiftly into a blue cloudbank, presaging the coming of a storm.
CHAPTER IV. THE KICKAPOO CORRAL
And even now, as the night comes, and the shadows gather round, And you tell the old-time story, I can almost hear the sound Of the horses' hoofs in the silence, and the voices of struggling men; For the night is the same forever, and the time comes back again. —JAMES W. STEELE
FROM the beginning of things in the Walnut Valley, the Kickapoo Corral had its uses. Nature built it to this end. The river course follows the pattern of the letter S faced westward instead of eastward. The upper half of the letter is properly shaped, but the sharpened curve at the middle leaves only a narrow distance across the lower space. In this outline runs the Walnut, its upper curve almost surrounding a little wooded peninsula that slopes gently on its side to the water's edge. But the farther bank stands up in a straight limestone bluff forming a high wall of protection about the river-encircled ground. A less severe bluff crosses the open part of the peninsula, reaching the hither side of the river below the sharp bend. The space inside, stone-walled and water-bound, made an ideal shelter for the wild life that should inhabit it. And Nature saw that it was good and went away and left it, not forgetting to lock the door upon it. For the enemy who would enter this protecting shelter must come through the gateway of the river. There was only one right place to do this. Deceivingly near to the shallow rock-based ford before the Corral, so near that only the wise ones knew how to miss it, Nature placed the cruelest whirlpool that ever swung an even surface up stream, its gentle motion telling nothing of the fatal suction underneath that level stretch of steady, slow moving, irresistible water.
What use the primitive tribes made of this spot the river has never told. But in the day of the Kickapoo supremacy it came to its christening. Here the tribe found a refuge and harbored its stolen plunder. From this wooded covert it sent its death-singing arrows through the heart of its enemy who dared to stand in relief on that stone bluff. Here it laughed at the drowning cries of those who were caught in the fatal whirlpool beyond the curve in the river wall, and here it endured siege and slaughter when foes were valiant enough, and numerous enough to storm into its stronghold over the dead bodies of their own vanguard.
Weird and tragical are the legends of the Kickapoo Corral, left for a stronger race to marvel over. For, with the swing of time, the white man cut a road down the steep bluff at the sharpest bend and made a ford in the shallow place between the whirlpool and the old Corral, and the Nature-built stockade became a peaceful spot, specially ordained by Providence, the Sunrise Freshmen claimed, as a picnic ground for their autumn holiday. At least the young folk for whom Professor Burgess was acting as chaperon took it so, and reveled in the right.
Interest in Greek had greatly increased in Sunrise with the advent of the handsome young Harvard man, and his desired seclusion for profound research had not yet been fully realized. Types for study were plentiful, however, especially the type of the presumptuous young fellow who dared to admire Elinor Wream. By divine right she was the most popular girl in Sunrise, which pleased Professor Burgess up to a certain point. That point was Victor Burleigh. The silent antagonism between these two daily grew stronger; why, neither one could have told up to this holiday.
The day had been perfect—the weather, the dinner, the company, the woodland—even the amber light in the sky softening the glow as the afternoon slipped down toward twilight in the sheltered old Corral.
"Come, Vic Burleigh, help me to start this fire for supper," Dennie Saxon called. "We won't get our coffee and ham and eggs ready before midnight."
"Here, Trench, or some of you fellows, get busy," Vic called back to the big right guard of the Sunrise football squad. "Elinor and I are going to climb the west bluff to see what's the matter with the sun. It looks sick. I've been hired man all day; carried nineteen girls across the shallows, packed all the lunch-baskets, toted all the wood, built all the fires, washed all the dishes—"
"Ate all the dinner, drank all the grape juice, stepped on all the custard pies, upset all the cream bottles. Oh, you piker, get out!" Trench aimed an empty lunch-basket at Vic's head with the words.
Being a chaperon was a pleasant office to Professor Burgess today but for the task of throwing a barrier about Elinor every time Vic Burleigh came near. And Burleigh, lacking many other things more than insight, kept him busy at barrier building.
"Miss Wream, you can't think of climbing that rough place," Burgess protested, with a sharp glance of resentment at the big young fellow who dared to call her Elinor.
The tiger-light blazed in the eyes that flashed back at him, as Vic cried daringly.
"Oh, come on, Elinor; be a good Indian!"
"Don't do it, Miss Wream," Vincent Burgess pleaded.
Elinor looked from the one to the other, and the very magnetism of power called her.
"I mean to try, anyhow," she declared. "Will you pick me up if I fall, Victor?"
"Well, I wouldn't hardly go away and leave you to perish miserably," Vic assured her, and they were off together.
The Wream men were slender, and all of them, except Lloyd Fenneben, the stepbrother, wore nose glasses and drank hot water at breakfast, and ate predigested foods, and talked of acids and carbons, and took prescribed gestures for exercise. The joyousness of perfect health was in every motion of this young man. His brown sweater showed a hard white throat. He planted his feet firmly. And he leaped up the bluffside easily. If Elinor slipped, the strength of his grip on her arm reassured her, until climbing beside him became a joy.
The bluff was less surly than it appeared to be down in the Corral, and the benediction of autumn was in the view from its crest. They sat down on the stone ledge crowning it, and Elinor threw aside her jaunty scarlet outing cap. The breezes played in her dark hair, and her cheeks were pink from the exercise. Victor Burleigh looked at her with frank, wide-open eyes.
"What's the matter? Is my hair a fright?" she murmured.
"A fright!" Burleigh flung off his cap and ran his fingers through his own hair. "Not what I call a fright," he asserted in an even tone.
"What's that scar on your left arm? It looks like a little hole dug out," Elinor declared.
Vic's brown sweater sleeve was pushed up to the elbow.
"It is a little hole I put in where I dug out the flesh with a pocket knife," he replied, carelessly.
"Did you do that yourself?" Elinor cried. "What made you be so cruel?"
"I wasn't so cruel. 'I seen my duty and I done it noble,' as the essay runs. I made that vacancy to get ahead of a rattlesnake that got me there, a venomous big one with nine police calls on its tail, and that's no snake story, either. I cut the flesh out to get rid of the poison. I was n't in a college laboratory and I had to work fast and use what tools I had with me. I killed the gentleman that did the mischief, though," Vic added carelessly, deftly slipping down his sleeve as if to change the subject.
"Oh, tell me about it, do," Elinor urged. "You were killing a snake the first time I saw you."
How dainty and sweet she was sitting there in her neat-fitting outing suit of dark gray with scarlet pipings and buttons and pocket flaps, and the scarlet of her full lips, and the coral tint of her cheeks, the white hands and white throat and brow, the dark eyes and finely shaped head with abundant beautiful hair.
Vic Burleigh sat looking straight at her and the light in his own eyes told nothing of the glitter that had flashed in them when he glared at Professor Burgess down in the Corral.
"I wasn't killing snakes. I was looking up at a girl on the rotunda stairs the first time," he said, "and I don't want to tell about this scar, because I've wished a thousand times to forget it. See how much darker it is down there than it is up here."
The shadows were lengthening in the Corral where the supper fires were gleaming. Across the low bluff the imprisoned sun was sending a dull red glow along the waters of the Walnut.
"Look at that still place in the river, Victor. The ripples are all on the farther side," Elinor said, looking pensively downstream.
"Watch it a minute. Do you see that bit of drift coming upstream in the still water?" Vic asked.
"Why, the water does move; toward us, too, instead of down the river. I'd like to boat around in that quiet place."
She was leaning forward, resting her chin in her hand. In outline against the misty background shot through with the crimson light from the storm-smothered sun, with the gray shadows of the old Kickapoo Corral below them, hemmed in by the silver gleaming waters of the Walnut, a picture grew up before Victor Burleigh's eyes that he was never to forget. Like the cleft of the lightning through the cloud, like the flash of the swallow's wing, the careless-hearted boy leaped to the stature of a man, into whose soul the love of a lifetime is born. Unconsciously, he drew away from her, and long afterward she recalled the sweetness of his deep voice when he spoke again.
"Elinor Wream, I'd rather see you helpless up here with the hungriest wild beast between us that ever tore a human form to pieces than to see you in that quiet water below the shallows."
"Why?" Elinor looked up into his face.
"Because I could save your life here, maybe, even if I lost mine. Down there I could drown for you, but that would n't save you. Nobody ever swam that whirlpool and lived to tell about it. There's a ledge underneath that holds down what the infernal slow suction swallows. But it's dead sure."
"Why, that's awful," Elinor said, lightly, for she had no picture of him engulfed in the slow-moving treachery below them.
"There's an old Indian legend about that pool," Vic said, staring down at the water.
"Tell me about it." Elinor was breaking the twigs from a branch of buck-berry growing beside her.
"Oh, it's a tragical one, like everything else about that place," Vic responded, grimly. "Old Lagonda, Chief of the Wahoos, I reckon, I don't know his tribe, did n't want to give up this valley to the sons and heirs of Sunrise to desecrate with salmon cans and pop bottles and Harvard-turned chaperons. He held out against putting his multiplication sign to the treaty, claiming that land was like water and air and could n't be bought and sold. But the white men with true missionary courtesy held his head under water till he burbled 'Nuff,' and signed up with a piece of charcoal. Then he went down the river to this smooth-faced whirlpool, and laid a curse on the sons of men who had taken his own from him."
The twilight had deepened. The sun was lost in the cloudbank out of which a hot wind was sweeping eastward. Vic was telling the story well, and the magnetism of his voice was compelling. Elinor drew nearer to him.
"What was the curse? I would n't want to go near that place, unless you were with me."
The very innocence of the words put a thrill in Vic Burleigh's every pulse beat.
"Don't ever do it, if you can help it." Vic could not keep back the words. "Old Lagonda decreed a tribute to the river for the wrong done to him, a life a year in that pool. And the Walnut has been exacting in its rights. Life after life has gone out down there until sometimes it seems like the old chief's curse would never be lifted."
"I hope it may be, while I am at Sunrise, anyhow," Elinor said. "I don't like real tragedies about me. I like an easy, comfortable life, and everybody good and happy. I hope the curse will be staid until I go back home."
Vic hadn't thought of this. Of course, she would leave Sunrise some time. Her home was in Cambridge-by-the-Sea, not on the Prairie-by-the-Walnut. She belonged to the dead-language scholars, not to crude red-blooded creatures like himself. He turned his face to the west and the threatening sky seemed in harmony with his storm-riven soul. He was so young—less than half an hour older than the big whole-hearted fellow who started up the bluff in picnic frolic with a pretty girl whom Professor Burgess adored. That was one reason why he had brought her up. He wanted to tease the Professor then. He hated Burgess now, and the white teeth clinched at the thought of him.
A sudden shouting and beating of tom-toms down in the Corral, and the call in crude rhyme to straggling couples to close in, announced supper. High above other whooping the voice of Trench, the big right guard, reached the top of the bluff:
Victor Burleigh and Elinor Wream, Better wake from Love's Young Dream, Before the ants get into the cream.
The beating of a dishpan drowned the chorus. Then down by the river Dennie's soprano streamed out,
The sun is sot, The coffee's hot, The supper's got. What? Yes! Got!
Answering this call from the north end of the Corral, a heavy base growled,
Dennie is sad, The eggs are bad; The Professor's mad At a College lad. Burleigh! Burly! Burlee! Come home! Come home! Come home!
"The Kickapoos are on the warpath. Let's go down and get into the running."
Vic lifted Elinor to her feet with a sort of reverence in his touch. But she did not note that it was otherwise than the good-natured grip of the comrade who had helped her up the steep places half an hour ago.
Descent was more difficult, and it was growing dark rapidly. Vic held her arm to keep her from falling, and once on a sliding rock, he had to catch both of her hands, and half-lift her to solid footing. Her shining eyes, starbright in the gloom, the dainty rose hue of her cheeks, the touch of her soft white hands, and her need for his strength, made the shadowy path delicious for her companion.
The call of the wild was in that evening camp in the autumn woodland, in the charm of the deepening twilight warmed with the red glow of the fires, in the appetizing odor of coffee, the unconventional freedom, the carelessness of youth, the jolly good-fellowship of comrades. To Professor Burgess it had the added charm of newness. All the pleasures of popularity were his this evening, for he was young himself, he dressed well, and he had the grace of a gentleman. The enjoyment of the day gave him a thrill of surprise. He was already dropping the viewpoint of Dr. Joshua Wream for Dean Fenneben's angle of vision. And in these picturesque surroundings he forgot about the weather and the prudence of getting home early.
"Throw that log on the fire, Vic. It begins to look spooky back here. I've just had my ear to the ground and I heard an awful roaring somewhere." Trench, who had been sprawling lazily in the shadows, now declared, "Say, I'd hate to be penned into this place so I couldn't get out. There's no skinning up that rock wall even if a fellow could swim the river, and I can't," and the big guard stretched himself on the ground again.
"What's that old story about the Kickapoos here?" somebody asked. "Dennie Saxon knows it. Tell us about it, Dennie, AND THEN WE'LL ALL GO HOME." The last words were half-sung.
"Be swift, Dennie, be quite swift. I heard that noise again. I'm afraid it's a stampede of wild horses." Trench, who had had his ear to the ground, sat up suddenly. But nobody paid any attention to him.
"Come, Denmark Saxon, let's close the day in song and story. You tell the story and then I'll sing the song," somebody declared.
"Aw-w-w!" a prolonged chorus. "Make your story long, Dennie; make it lengthy."
"Don't you do it, Dennie. I tell you this ground is shaking. I feel it," Trench insisted.
"Say, who's got the bromo-seltzer? The right guard's supper is n't treating him right. Go ahead, Dennie," the crowd urged.
They were all in a circle about the fire. Its flickering glow lighted Vic Burleigh's rugged face, and gleamed in his auburn hair. Elinor sat between him and Vincent Burgess. Dennie was just beyond Vincent, who noted incidentally the play of light and shadow on the blowsy ripples of her hair that night and remembered it all on a day long afterward.
"Once upon a time," Dennie began,
there was a beautiful Kickapoo Indian maiden—"
"Yep, any Kickapoo's a beaut. Hurry up, Dennie. I hear something coming." It was the big lazy guard again.
"Oh! Vic Burleigh, sit on his prostrate form. Go on, Dennie," the company insisted, and she continued.
"Her name was The Fawn of the Morning Light, her best lover was Swift Elk."
"You be Mrs. Swift Elk—" but Vic Burleigh's arm about Trench's throat choked his words.
"And there was a wily Sioux, named Red Fox, who loved the Fawn and wanted her to marry him. She wouldn't do it. The Kickapoos were heap-big grafters, and they had this old Corral full of ponies and junk they had relieved other tribes of caring for. And the only way to get in here, besides falling over the bluff and becoming a pin-cushion for poisoned arrows, was to come in by the shallows in the river where the ford is now above old Lagonda's pool, and most Indians needed a diagram for that." Although Dennie spoke lightly, she shuddered a little at the thought, and the whole company grew graver.
"An Indian doesn't forget. So, Red Fox, who had sworn to have The Fawn, came down here with hundreds of Sioux who wanted the ponies the Kickapoos had stolen, as Red Fox wanted Swift Elk's girl. The Kickapoos wouldn't give up the ponies and Swift Elk wouldn't give up The Fawn. So the siege began. Right where we are so safe and peaceful tonight those Kickapoos fought, and starved, and died, while the Sioux kept cruel watch on the top of that old stone ledge, never letting one escape. At last, after hours and hours of siege, The Fawn and Swift Elk decided to escape by the river in the night. A storm had come on suddenly, and a cloudburst up the Walnut was sending a perfect surge of water down around the bend. The two lovers were caught in its sweep and carried beyond the shallows when a flash of lightning showed them to Red Fox watching on the bluff up there. At the next flash he sent an arrow straight through Swift Elk's body and into The Fawn's shoulder, pinning the two together. The Sioux leaped into the stream to save the girl he loved, but the heavy current swept them toward the whirlpool, and before they could prevent the dying and wounded and rescuing were all caught by the fatal suction. Then the Sioux warriors rushed in from all sides, upstream, down the bluff from west prairie, and over the Corral, and slaughtered every Kickapoo here. Their fierce yells and the shrieks of the squaws and pappooses, the pounding of horses' hoofs in the stampede of hundreds of ponies, the roar of the river, the wrath of the storm made a scene this old Corral will never see again." Dennie paused.
"I think I hear something like it, right now," came Trench's irrepressible voice from the shadows in the edge of the circle. But nobody heeded it.
And all the while from far across the west prairie the stormcloud was rolling in, black and angry, blowing its hot breath before it, while from a cloudburst upstream an hour before a great surge of water was rushing down the Walnut, turning the quiet river to a murderous flood. But the high walls hid all this from the valley and the heedless young folk took the full time limit of their holiday in the sheltering gloom of the old Kickapoo Corral.
CHAPTER V. THE STORM
Rock and moan, and roar alone, And the dread of some nameless thing unknown. —LOWELL
THE silence following Dennie's story was broken by a sudden peal of thunder overhead. At the same instant the blackness of midnight lifted itself above the stone ledges and dropped down upon the Corral, smothering everything in darkness. A rushing whirlwind, a lurid blaze of lightning, and a second peal of thunder threw the camp into blind disorder. In the minute's lull following the first storm herald, there was a wild scrambling for wraps and lunch baskets. Then the darkness thickened and the storm's fury burst upon the crowd—a mad lashing of bending tree tops, a blinding whirl of dust filling the air, the thunder's terrific cannonade, the incessant blaze of lightning, the rattling of the distant rain; and above all these, unlike them all, a steady, dreadful roaring, coming nearer each moment.
Professor Burgess was no coward, but he had little power of generalship. As the crowd huddled together under the swaying trees, Trench called to Burleigh:
"There's been a cloudburst up stream. The roar I've been hearing is a wall of water coming down. We've got to get out of this."
Then above all the crashing and booming they heard Vic Burleigh's voice:
"Every fellow take a girl and run for the ford. Come on!"
In the darkness, each boy caught the arm of the girl nearest him and made a dash for the ford. A flash of lightning showed Burleigh that the white-faced girl clinging to his arm was Elinor Wream. After that, the storm was a plaything for him.
The first to reach the ford were Vincent Burgess and Dennie Saxon. Dennie was sure-footed and she knew by instinct where to find the shallows. But the river was rising rapidly and the waters were black and angry under the lightning's glitter. As the crowd held back Vic shouted:
"You'll have to wade. It's not very deep yet. Professor, you must cross first, and count 'em as they come. Go quick! One at a time. The way is narrow. And for God's sake, keep to the upper side of the shallows. Stand in the middle, Trench, and don't let them get down stream below you."
They were all safely across except Vic and Elinor, when Trench cried out:
"Send your girl in quick, Burleigh, and you run west. The flood is at the bend now. Hurry!"
"Run in, Elinor. Trench will take you through, and I'll follow, for I can swim and he can't. I'll be right behind you. Run!"
A vision of the whirlpool and of Swift Elk and The Fawn flashed into Elinor's mind, filling her with terror. Before Vic could push her forward, Trench shouted:
"It's too late. Don't try it. I've got to run."
He was strong and sure-footed and he fought his way gallantly to the further side as a great wave swirled around the curve of the river, engulfing the shallows in its mad surge. When he reached the east bank the count of the company numbered all but two.
"It's Vic and Elinor," Trench declared. "Vic wouldn't come till the last, and Elinor was too dead scared to trust anybody else, I guess. Nobody could cross there now, Professor. But Vic is as strong as an ox and he's not afraid of the devil. He'll keep both their heads above water. He wants to win out in the Thanksgiving game too much to get lost now. Trust him to get up the bluff some way, and back to town by the Main street bridge like as not, before we get there. There's no shelter between here and Lagonda Ledge. Let's all cut for it before the rain beats us into the mud."
The deluge was just beginning, so, safe, but wet, and mud-smeared, fighting wind and rain and darkness, taking it all as a jolly lark, although they had slidden into safety but a hand's breadth in front of death, the couples straggled back to town.
Vincent Burgess, anxious, angry, and jealous, found an unconscious comfort in Dennie Saxon in that homeward struggle. She was so capable and cheery that he forgot a little the girl who had as surely drawn him Kansas-ward as his interest in types and geographical breadth had done. It dimly entered his consciousness, as he told Dennie good-bye, that maybe she had been the most desirable companion of the crowd on such a night as this. He knew, at least, that he would have shown Elinor much more attention than he had shown to Dennie, and he knew that Elinor would have required it of him.
The light from the hall was streaming across the veranda of the Saxon House, a beam as faithful and friendly at the border of the lower campus as the bigger beacon in the college turret up on the lime-stone ridge. As Burgess started away the worst deluge of the night fell out of the sky, so he dropped down on a seat to wait for the downpour to weaken. He was very tired and his mind was feverishly busy. Where could Burleigh and Elinor be now? What dangers might threaten them? What ill might befall Elinor from exposure to this beating storm? He was frantic with the thought. Then he recalled Dennie, the girl who was working her way through college, whom he—Professor Vincent Burgess, A.B., from Harvard—had escorted home. How cheap Kansas was making him. The boys and girls had taken Dennie as one of them today; and truly, she did add to the comfort and pleasure of the outing. It seemed all right down in the woods where all was unconventional. But now, alone, in how common a grade he seemed to have placed himself, to be forced to pay attention to the poorest girl in school. His cheeks grew hot at the very thought of it.
In the shadows, beyond him, a form straightened up stupidly:
"Shay, Profesh Burgush, that you?"
Dennie's father, half-drunken still! Oh, Shades of classic culture! To what depths in social contact may a college man fall in this wretched land!
"Shay! Is't you, or ain't it you? You gonna tell me?" Old Bond queried.
"This is Vincent Burgess," the young man replied.
"Dennie home?" the father asked.
"Yes, sir," came the curt answer.
"Who? Who bring her home? Vic Burleigh?"
"I brought her home. She is a good girl, too."
In spite of himself, Burgess resented the shame of such a father for the capable, happy-spirited daughter.
"Yesh, Dennie's good girl, all right."
Then a silence fell.
Presently, the old man spoke again.
"Shay, Prof esh, 'd ye mind doin' somethin' for me?"
"What is it?" Burgess was by nature courteous.
"If anything sh'd ever happen to me, 'd you take care of Dennie? Shay, would you?"
"If I could do anything for her, I would do it," the young man replied.
"Somethin' gonna happen to me. I ain't shafe. I know I'll go that way. But you'll be good to Dennie. Now, wouldn't you? I'd ask Funnybone, but he's no shafer 'n I am. No shafer! You'll be good to Dennie, you said so. Shay it again!"
Bond was standing now bending threateningly toward Burgess, who had also risen.
"I'll do all that a gentleman ought to do." He had only one thought—to pacify the drunken man and get away. And the old man understood.
"Shwear it, I tell you! Lif' up your right hand an'—an' shwear to take care of Dennie, or I'll kill you!" Bond insisted.
He was a large, muscular man, towering over the slender young professor like a very giant, and in his eyes there was a cruel gleam. Vincent Burgess was at the limit of mental resistance. Lifting his shapely right hand in the shadowy light, he said wearily:
"I swear it!"
"One more question, and you may go. You know that little boy Vic Burleigh takes care of here?"
The Professor had heard of him.
"Vic keeps that little boy all right. He don't complain none. S'pose you help me watch um, Profesh." Then as an afterthought, Saxon added: "Young woman livin' out north of town. Pretty woman. She don't know nothing 'bout that little boy. Now, honest, she don't. Lives all by herself with a big dog."
Jealousy is an ugly, suspicious beast. Vincent Burgess was no worse than many other men would have been, because his mind leaped to the meaning old Saxon's words might carry. And this was the man with Elinor in the darkness and the storm. Before Burgess could think clearly, Saxon came a step nearer.
"Shay, where's Vic tonight?"
"Across the river with Miss Wream. They were cut off by the deep water," Vincent answered.
A quick change from drunkenness to sober sense leaped into Bond Saxon's eyes.
"Across the river! Great God!" Then sternly, with a grim set of jaw, he commanded: "You go home! If you dare to say a word, I'll kill you. If you try to follow me, he'll kill you. Go home! I 'm going over there, if I die for it." And the darkness and rain swallowed him as he leaped away to the westward!
Burgess gazed into the blackness into which Bond Saxon had gone until a soft hand touched his, and he looked down to see little Bug Buler, clad in his nightgown, standing barefoot beside him.
"Where's Vic?" Bug demanded.
"I don't know," Burgess answered.
"Take me up, I'se told." Bug stretched up his arms appealingly, and Burgess, who knew nothing of babies, awkwardly lifted him up.
"Tuddle me tlose like Vic do," and the little one snuggled lovingly in the Professor's embrace. "Your toat's wet. Is Vic wet, too?"
"Yes, little boy. We are all in trouble tonight." Burgess had to say something.
"In twouble? Umph—humph!" Bug shut his lips tightly, puffing out his cheeks, as was his habit. "I was in twouble, and I ist wented to Don Fonnybone. He's dood for twouble-ness. You go see him. Poor man!" and the little hand stroked Professor Burgess' feverish cheek.
"If you'll run right back to bed, I'll do it," Burgess declared. "We can learn even from children sometimes," he thought, as Bug climbed down obediently and toddled away.
Vincent Burgess went directly to Dr. Lloyd Fenneben, to whom he told the story of the day's events, including the interview with Bond Saxon. He did not repeat Bond's words regarding Vic, but only hinted at the suspicion that there was something questionable in the situation in which Vic was placed. Nor did he refer to the old man's maudlin demand that he should take care of Dennie if she were left fatherless, and of his sworn promise to do so.
Burgess felt as, if the Dean's black eyes would burn through him, so steady was their gaze while the story was being told. When he had finished, Lloyd Fenneben said quietly:
"You are worn out with the excitement of the day and night. Go home and rest now. I've learned through many a struggle, that what I cannot fight to a finish in the darkness, I can safely leave with God till the daylight comes."
The smile that lighted up the stern face and the firm handclasp with which Lloyd Fenneben dismissed the young man were things he remembered long afterward. And above all, he recalled many times a sense of secret shame that he should have felt degraded because of his association with Dennie Saxon on this day. But of this last, the memory was stronger than the present realization.
Meanwhile, as the mad waters surged around the bend in the river, and swept over the shallows, Victor Burleigh flung his arm around Elinor Wream and leaped back from the very edge of doom.
"We must climb the bluff again. Be a good Indian!" he cried, groping for a footing.
Climbing the west bluff by daylight for the sake of adventure was very unlike this struggle in the darkness to escape the widening river, with a wind-driven torrent of rain sweeping down the land behind the first storm-fury, and Elinor Wream clung to her companion's arm almost helpless with fear.
"Do you think you can ever get us out? she asked, as the limestone ledge blocked the way.
"Do you know what my mother named me?" The carelessness of the tone was surprising.
"Victor!" she replied.
"Then don't forget it," Burleigh said. "It's a dreadfully rough way before us, little girl, but we'll soon be safe from the river. Don't mind this little bit of a storm, and you'll get personally conducted into Lagonda Ledge before midnight."
In her sheltered life, Elinor had never known anything half so dreadful as this storm and darkness and booming flood, but the fearlessness of the strong man beside her inspired her to do her best. It was only two hours since they were here before. How could she know that these two hours had marked the crisis of a lifetime for Victor Burleigh. With a friendly little pressure on his arm, she said bravely:
"I'd rather be here with you than over the river with anybody else. I feel safer here."
Vic knew she meant only to be courteous, but the words were comforting. On the crest of the ledge the fierceness of the storm was revealed. Great sheets of wind-blown rain were flung athwart the landscape, and the utter blackness that followed the lightning's glare, and the roaring of the wind and river were appalling.
In all this tumult, away to the northeast, the beacon light above the Sunrise dome was cutting the darkness with a steady beam.
"See that light, Elinor? We are not lost. We must get up stream a little way. Then we'll find the bridge, all right. The crowd will get home ahead of us, because this is the rough side of the river."
"Oh, what a comfort a light can be!" Elinor murmured as she looked up and caught the welcome gleam.
As they hurried along, the Sunrise light suddenly disappeared and they found themselves descending a rough downward way. Presently there were rock walls on either side hemming them in a narrow crevice in the ledges. Then the rain ceased and Vic knew they had slidden down into a rock-covered fissure, that they were getting underground. They tried to turn back, but the up-climb was impossible, and in the darkness they could reach nothing but the sharp ledge of the cliff sheer above the raging river. Entrapped and bewildered, Vic felt cautiously about; but the only certain things were the straight bluff overhanging the flood, and the cavernous way leading downward; while the same deluge that was keeping Vincent Burgess storm-staid on the veranda of the Saxon House, was beating mercilessly down on Elinor Wream.
"We can't stay here and be threshed to pieces," Vic cried. "This crack is drier, anyhow, and it must lead to somewhere."
It did lead to what seemed to Elinor an endless length of hideous uncertainty, until Vic suddenly lost his footing and plunged headlong down somewhere into the blackness of darkness. Elinor shrieked in terror and sank down limply on the stone floor of the crevice.
"All a bluff," Vic called up cheerily, in the same startlingly deep sweet voice that had caught Elinor's ear on the September afternoon before the door of Sunrise, and out in the edge of her consciousness the thought played in again, "I'd rather be here with you than over the river with anybody else. I feel safer here."
"Slide down, Elinor. I'll catch you. It is n't very far, and there's a little light somewhere."
Elinor slipped blindly down the side of the rock into Vic Burleigh's outstretched arms. As he set her on her feet, somehow, the little light failed. In all their struggle, this part of the way seemed the darkest, the chillest, the most dangerous, and a sudden sense of a presence hidden nearby possessed them both, as they came against a blind wall. A stouter heart than Vic Burleigh's might well have quailed now. The two were lost underground. What deeper cavern might yawn beyond them? What length of dead wall might bar their way? And more terrifying still, was the growing sense of a human presence, a human menace, an unseen treachery. As Vic felt his way along the stone, his hand closed over something thrust into a little niche, shoulder-high in the wall. It seemed to be a small pitcher of unique pattern, solid silver by its weight. Was it the booty of some dead and forgotten robber chief, the buried treasure of some old Kickapoo raiding tragedy, or the loot of a living outlaw?
Vic thought he felt the outline of a letter graven in heavy relief on the smooth side, and, for a reason of his own, dropped the thing. Mercifully, he did not cry out at the discovery, but Elinor felt his hand on her arm grow chill.
A dazzling glare, token of the passing of the storm's fireworks, outlined an irregular opening in the wall before them, revealing at the same time a large room beyond the wall.
"Here's the hole where we get out of this trap, Elinor Wream. If such a big lightning like that can get in, we can get out," Vic cried.
He crawled through the opening, and pulled her as gently as possible after him. Presently, another blaze lit up the night outside, showing a cavern-like space thirty feet in dimensions, with a rock roof above their heads, and a low doorway through which the light from the outside had come in, and beyond which the rain was beating tremendously. Evidently they had found a rear entrance to this cavern.
"We are past our troubles now, Elinor," Vic said. "There's the real out-of-doors, and I feel sure of the rest of the way. This seems to be a sort of cave, and we have come in kind of irregularly by the back door or down the chimney. But here we are at the real front door. Shall we go on?"
Elinor leaned wearily against the wall, wet and cold, and almost exhausted.
"Let's wait a little, till this shower passes," she pleaded.
"You poor girl! This has been an awful night," Vic said gently.
Their eyes were getting accustomed to the darkness and they saw more clearly the outline of the opening to the outside world. Suddenly Elinor shivered as again the nearness of a presence somewhere possessed them both.
"Let's go! Let's go!" she whispered, huddling close to her companion, whose grip on her arm tightened.
He was conscious of a light behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he caught a gleam beyond the opening in the rear wall through which they had just crept; and in that gleam, a villainous face, with still black eyes, looking straight at him. The light disappeared, and he heard the faint sound of something creeping toward them. Vic could fight any man living. Nature built him for that. He had no fear for himself. But here was Elinor, and he must think of her first. At that instant, the doorway darkened, and a form slipped into the cavern somewhere. Oh, wind and rain, and forked blue lightning and the thunder's roar, the river's mad floods, the steep, slippery rocks, and jagged ledges, all were kind beside this secret human presence, cruelly silent and treacherous.
Victor Burleigh drew Elinor closer to him, and whispered low:
"Don't be afraid with me to guard you."
Even in that deep gloom, he caught the outline of a white face with star-bright eyes lifted toward his face.
"I'm not afraid with you," she whispered.
Behind them stealthy movements somewhere. Between them and the doorway, stealthy movements somewhere; but all so still and slow, they stretched the listening nerve almost to the breaking point. Suddenly, a big, hard hand gripped Burleigh's shoulder, and a dead still voice, that Vic could not recognize, breathed into his ear, "Go quick and quiet! I'll stand for it. Go!"
It was old Bond Saxon.
Vic caught Elinor's arm, and with one stride they sprang from the cave's mouth up to the open ground beyond it. Something behind them, it might have been a groan or a smothered oath, reached their ears, as they sped away down a narrow ravine. The rain had ceased and overhead the stars were peeping from the edges of feathery flying clouds; and all the sodden autumn night was still at last, save for the gurgling waters of a little stream down the rocky glen.
The Sunrise bell was striking eleven when they reached the bridge across the Walnut, and the beacon light from the dome began to twinkle a welcome now and then through the dripping branches of the leafless trees. A few minutes later, Victor Burleigh brought Elinor safely to Lloyd Fenneben's door.
"We made it in before midnight, anyhow," he said carelessly.
Elinor looked up in surprise. The terrors of the night still possessed her.
"What a horrible nightmare it has all been. The storm, the river, the rocks, and the darkness, and that dreadful something behind us in the cave. Was there really anything, or did we just imagine it all? It will seem impossible when the daylight comes."
Victor looked at her with a wonderful light in his wide-open brown eyes.
"Yes," he said in a deep voice. "It will seem impossible when daylight comes. But will it all be as a horrible nightmare?"
"No, no; not all." Elinor's face was winsomely sweet. "Not all," she repeated. "It is fine to feel one's self so safeguarded as I have been. I shall always remember you as one with whom I could never again be afraid."
Burleigh turned hastily toward the door, and, having delivered her to the care of her uncle, he bade them both good night.
Dr. Fenneben looked keenly after the young man striding away from the light. His clothes were torn and bedraggled, his cap was gone, and his heavy hair was a mass of rough waves about his forehead. The direct gaze of his golden-brown eyes took away distrust, and yet the face had changed somehow in this day. A hint of a new purpose had crept into it, a purpose not possible for Dr. Fenneben to read.
But he did note the set of the head, the erect form and broad shoulders, and the easy swinging step as the boy went whistling away into the shadows of the night.
"A splendid animal, anyhow," the Dean thought. "Will the soul measure up to that princely body? And what can be the purport of this maudlin mouthing of old Bond Saxon? Bond is really a lovable man when he's sober; but he's vindictive and ugly when he's drunk. I can wait for developments. Whatever the boy's history may have been, like the courts, it's my business to hold every man innocent till he's proven guilty; to build up character, not to undermine and destroy it. And destruction begins in suspicion."
CHAPTER VI. THE GAME
Truly ye come of The Blood; slower to bless than to ban; Little used to lie down at the bidding of any man. —KIPLING
BITTER weather followed the night of the storm. Biting winds beat all the autumn beauty from tree and shrub. Cold gray skies hung over a cold gray land, and a heavy snowfall and a penetrating chill seemed to destroy all hope for the Indian Summer that makes the Kansas Novembers glorious.
Dennie Saxon was the only girl of the party who was not affected by the storm at the Kickapoo Corral. Professor Burgess, who narrowly escaped pneumonia himself, and who disliked irregular class attendance, took comfort in the sight of Dennie. She was so fresh-checked and wholesome, and she went about her work promptly, forgetful of storm and rain and muddy ways.
"You seem immune from sickness, Miss Dennie," Burgess said one day as she was putting the library in order.
Under her little blue dusting cap, the sunny ripples of her hair framed a face glowing with health. She smiled up at him comfortably—a smile that played about the edges of his consciousness all that day.
"I've never been sick," she said. "It 's a good thing, too, for our house is a regular hospital this week. Little Bug Buler is the worst of all. He took cold on the night of the storm. That's why Victor Burleigh's out of school so much. He won't leave Bug."
Vincent Burgess despised the name of Burleigh now. While Vic's safe escort of Elinor Wream had increased his popularity with the students, Burgess honestly believed that old Bond Saxon's drunken speech hinted at some disgrace the big freshman would not long be able to conceal, and he resented the high place given to such a low grade of character. To a man like himself it was galling to look upon such a fellow as a rival. So, he tightened the rules and exacted the last mental farthing of Vic in the classroom. And Vic, easily understanding all this, because he was frankly and foolishly in love with the same girl whom Vincent Burgess seemed to claim, contrived in a thousand ways to make life a burden to the Harvard man. Of course, Burgess showed no mercy toward Vic for absence from the classroom while he was caring for little Bug, and the black marks multiplied against him.
Elinor Wream had been ill after the night of the storm. Vic had not seen her since the hour when he left her at Lloyd Fenneben's door. He knew he was a fool to think of her at all. He knew she must sometime be won by Burgess, and that she was born to gentle culture which his hard life had never known. Besides, he was poor. Not a pauper, but poor, and luxuries belonged naturally to a girl like Elinor. The storm of the holiday was a balmy zephyr compared to the storm that raged every day in him. For with all the hopelessness of things, he was in love. Poor fellow! The strength of his spirit was like the strength of his body—unbreakable.
He had no fear of pneumonia after the stormy night, for he was used to hard knocks. And he meant to go again by daylight and explore the rocky glen and hidden ways, and to find out, if possible, whose face it was that was behind that cavern wall, whose voice had whispered in his ear, and what loot was hidden there. For reasons of his own, he had mentioned this matter to nobody. But the cold, wet days, little Bug's illness, and the hard study to keep up his class standing, took all of his time. Especially, the study, that he might not be shut out of the great football game of the year on Thanksgiving day. Sunrise was stiff in its scholastic requirements, and conscientious to the last degree. The football team stood on mental ability and moral honor, no less than on scientific skill and muscular weight and cunning. Dr. Fenneben watched Burleigh carefully, for the boy seemed to be always on his heart. The Dean knew how to mix common sense and justice into his rulings, so the word was sent quietly from the head office—the suggestion of leniency in the matter of Burleigh's absence. Burleigh was good for it. It lay with his professors, of course, to grant or withhold scholarship ranking, but the Dean would be pleased to have all latitude given in Burleigh's case.