"Curly" sat with head in hands, elbows on desk, and eyes fixed unseeingly on the half-opened door. The afternoon sunlight made golden shafts across the rows of empty seats. The windows were open, and with the sunlight came the songs of birds, the incessant hum of insects, and occasionally a quick, rattling cheer.
On the playground, under the bluest of blue skies, with a fresh, clover-perfumed breeze fanning their dripping brows, the boys of Willard's School were playing the third and deciding game of baseball with the nine of Durham Academy. But Curly neither heard the cheering nor had thought for the contest.
Curly's real name was Isaac Newton Stone. He had taken the "A.M." degree the preceding June at a Western university, and had entered his name in the long list of those wishing to be teachers.
As the summer had advanced his hope had waned. September found him without a position. During the fall and early winter he waited with what philosophy he could summon, and had studied doggedly, having in view the attainment of a Ph. D.
Then, in February, an unforeseen vacancy at Willard's School had given him his place as instructor in Greek and German.
It is a matter of principle at Willard's to haze new teachers. No exception was made in the case of Isaac Newton Stone, A. M.
He was twenty-three years old, but looked several years younger. He was small, slight and wiry, with pale blue eyes, a tip-tilted nose and a fresh pink-and-white complexion. His hair was of an indeterminate shade between brown and sand-color, and it curled closely over his head like a baby's. Three days after his advent at Willard's he had become universally known as Curly.
Former teachers at Willard's, with experience to guide them, had tolerated the hazing process, if not with enjoyment, at least with apparent good humor. But Curly, a novice, thought he saw his authority endangered, his dignity assailed. The ringleaders in the affair, five in number, were placed upon probation in exactly two seconds.
The class gasped. Such a thing had never happened before. The hazing died a violent death, and Curly sprang into sudden fame as a tyrant.
The role of iron-heeled despot was least of all suited to Curly or desired by him, but having momentarily adopted it, he had to continue it. He dared not take the frown from his face for a moment; intimidation was his only course.
Meanwhile the faculty viewed events with dissatisfaction. Once or twice Curly's punishments were not upheld. In May he was informed that unless he could maintain discipline without such severity the faculty would be forced to the painful necessity of asking his resignation. His election, the principal explained kindly, had been in the nature of an experiment, and unsuccessful experiments must of course be terminated.
The experiment was unsuccessful. It was June now, and class day was but two weeks distant. This morning there had been trouble in the German class, and as a result, two students had been placed on probation. The fact that one of them, Rogers, was the best pitcher in school, and that the loss of his services would in all likelihood mean the defeat of Willard's nine in this decisive game was most unfortunate. To be sure, Rogers had merited his punishment, but the school failed to consider that, and indignation ran high.
Curly himself, seated in the silent class room, acknowledged failure at last. He looked at his watch. It was quarter past three. With a sigh he drew paper toward him, dipped pen in ink and began to write.
The letter was brief, yet it took him nearly ten minutes. When at last it was finished, lacking only the signature, he read it over. He had made no attempt at explanation or extenuation, but had thanked the faculty for their kindness and patience, regretted their disappointment, and begged them to accept his resignation. He subscribed himself "Respectfully yours, Isaac Newton Stone," sealed the letter and addressed it to the principal.
This done, he gathered his books, took up his hat and stepped from the platform. Footsteps sounded in the echoing corridor, and a flushed, perspiring face peered into the room. Then a boy of sixteen hurried up the aisle.
"Mr. Stone, sir," he cried, "will you help us? It's the beginning of the sixth inning, and the score's eight to six in our favor. They've knocked Willings out of the box, sir, and we haven't anyone else. Apthorpe's cousin says you can pitch, and--and we want to know if you won't play for us, sir?" He ended with a gasp for breath.
"But--I don't quite understand!"
"Why, sir, we held 'em down until the fifth, and then they made six runs. Maybe they've scored some more. If you could only come right away!"
"But who said I could pitch, Turner?"
"Tom Apthorpe's cousin, sir; he's down for Sunday."
"But how did he know?"
"Why, sir, he knew you at college, and--"
"What's his name?"
"Harris, sir. He said--"
"Jack Harris!" The instructor's eyes lighted. He tossed the books on the desk. "Run back and tell them I'll come as soon as I leave this note at Dr. Willard's."
There came a cheer from the playground. It was not a Willard cheer.
Turner listened dismayed. "Couldn't you come now, sir?" he begged. "It may be too late. They're batting like anything. Couldn't you leave the note afterwards, sir!"
"Well, may be I could," said Curly. He dropped it into his pocket, put on his hat and strode down the aisle. "Come on, Turner!" he cried.
Along the terrace of the playground, under the elms, were gathered the spectators--the boys of both schools and their friends. At the foot of the terrace, just back of first base, a striped awning warded off the sunlight from a little group of professors and their families. On the field the blue-stockinged players of Willard's were scattered about, and on a bench behind third base a row of boys wearing the red of Durham Academy awaited their turns at bat. This much Curly saw as he crossed the terrace.
Then a tall, broad-shouldered man came toward him with a pleasant smile and outstretched hand. Curly recognized Harris, and sprang down the steps to meet him. At college they had been hardly more than acquaintances, yet to-day they met almost like fast friends.
"I never thought to find you in this part of the world, Stone," said Harris. "I'm awfully glad to see you again. You're badly needed. Tom Apthorpe, my cousin, was bewailing the fact that he hadn't anyone to pitch. I saw that Durham was playing her professor of mathematics on first base, and asked him if there wasn't anyone in the faculty who could take Willings's place. Willings is used up, as you can see. Tom said there was no one unless "--Harris paused and grinned--"unless it was Curly. He didn't know whether you could play or not. Inquiries elicited the astounding fact that 'Curly' was none other than Newt Stone, pitcher and star batsman on our old class nine. I told him to hurry up and get you out. And so, for goodness' sake, Stone, get into the box and strike out some of those boys from Durham! The score's eight to eight now, and if they get that man on second in they'll have a good grip on the game and championship."
"I'm afraid I'm all out of practice," objected Curly. "I haven't handled a ball for two years, but I'll do what I can. I wish you'd come round to my room afterwards and have a talk, if you've nothing better to do."
Time had been called, and Apthorpe, who was both captain and catcher, ran across to them.
"It's good of you, Mr. Stone," he said, wiping the perspiration from his face. "I don't think we fellows have much right to ask you to help us out, but if you'll do it for the school, sir, everyone will be mighty glad."
"For the school!" Curly wondered rather bitterly what the school had done for him that he should come to her rescue. But he only answered gravely:
"I'll do what I can, Apthorpe."
He threw aside his coat and waistcoat and tightened his belt. Then he walked across the diamond and picked the ball from the ground.
On the terrace bank a boy armed with a blue and white flag jumped to his feet, and amidst a ripple of clapping from the audience above, called for "three times three for Curl--for Mr. Stone!" There was a burst of laughter, but the cheer that followed was hearty.
The batsman stepped out of the box and Curly delivered half a dozen balls to Apthorpe to get his hand in. Then the two met and agreed on a few simple signals, the umpire called, "Play!" and the game went on again.
It was the first half of the sixth inning; the score was eight to eight; there was one man out, a runner on second, and Durham's left fielder at bat.
Curly looked over the field, glanced carelessly at the runner, turned, and sent a swift, straight ball over the plate. Durham's players were eager for just that sort, and the batsman made a long, clean hit into the outfield between first and second.
When the new pitcher got the ball again the man on second had gone to third, and Durham's left fielder was jumping about on first.
Durham's next man up was her catcher. Curly strove to wipe out the intervening two years and to imagine himself back at college, pitching for his class in the final championship game. But alas! his arm was stiff and muscle-bound, and creaked in the socket every time he threw.
There was a wild pitch that was just saved from being a passed ball by a brilliant stop of Apthorpe's; then the batsman hit an infield fly and was caught out.
"Two gone, fellows!" shouted the captain.
The runner on first took second unmolested, and the Durham coaches yelled themselves hoarse. But Curly was not to be rattled in that way; and besides, the stiffness was wearing out of his arm. He set his lips together and pitched the ball.
"Strike!" cried the umpire. Willard's cheered vociferously. Then came a ball. Then another strike. Then the batter swung with all his might at a slow, curving ball--and missed it.
"Striker's out!" called the umpire.
Willard's rose as one man and cheered to the echo. In the tent the principal and his associates forgot their dignity for an instant, and added their shouts to the general acclaim. The new pitcher, his eyes sparkling, retired to the bench.
The fielders, as they joined him, shot curious and admiring glances toward him. Harris leaned over the bench and talked with him about the incidents of old college games. And the boys near by listened, while the curly-haired instructor grew before their eyes into an athletic hero.
The last of the sixth inning ended without a score. Pretty as it was to watch, the first of the seventh would make tame history. Not a Durham player reached first base. One--two--three was the way they struck out.
Curly's arm worked now like a well-lubricated piece of machinery, and the outshoots and incurves and drops which he sent with varying speed into Apthorpe's hands puzzled the enemy to distraction.
Nor was the second half of the inning much more exciting. To be sure, Apthorpe put a fly where the Durham right fielder could not reach it, and so got to first base, and Riding advanced him by a neat sacrifice; but he had no chance to score.
Durham's best hitter was Mansfield, the instructor, who played first base. Just when or how the peculiar custom of recruiting baseball and football players from the faculty originated at Willard's and Durham is not known; but it was a privilege that each enjoyed and made use of whenever possible.
This year, for almost the first time, Willard's team had been, until to-day, composed entirely of students. On the other hand, Mansfield had been playing with Durham all spring, and to his excellent fielding and hitting was largely due the fact that she had won the second of the three games.
He was a player of much experience, and in the eighth inning, when he came to bat, he made a three-base hit. The little knot of Durhamites shrieked joyfully and waved their cherry-and-white banners.
Curly faced the next batsman, tried him with a "drop," at which he promptly struck and failed to hit, and then gave his attention to Mansfield on third. Curly watched him out of the corner of his eye and pitched again. The umpire called another strike.
Apthorpe threw back the ball to the pitcher; Curly dropped it, recovered it, and threw swiftly to third base.
Large bodies move slowly. Mansfield was caught a yard from the base. He retired in chagrin, while Willard's cheered ecstatically. Then the batsman struck out on a slow drop ball.
The third man made a leisurely hit and was thrown out at first.
During the next half inning Curly held his court on the players' bench. Little by little timidity wore away, and the boys gave voice to their enthusiasm. They wished they had known he was such a ball player early in the spring. Next year he would play on the team, would he not?
Curly remembered the letter in his pocket and sighed.
Again Willard's failed to get a man over the plate, although at one time there was a player on third. The ninth inning began with the score still eight to eight. The spectators suggested ten innings, and fell to recalling former long-drawn contests.
Curly had found his pace, as Harris put it. His white shirt was stained with the dust of battle; his shoes were gray and scuffed; his curly locks were damp and clung to his forehead; but his blue eyes were bright, and as he poised the ball in air, balancing himself before the throw, he no longer looked ridiculous.
Harris, observing him from the bench, rendered ungrudging admiration.
"Good old 'Newt' Stone!" he muttered. "It's the little chaps, after all, who have the pluck!"
But pluck alone would not have succeeded in shutting Durham out in that inning. Science was necessary, and science Curly had. He had not forgotten the old knack of "sizing up" the batsman. He found, in fact, that he had forgotten nothing.
Durham made the supreme effort of the contest in that first half of the ninth inning. It might be the last chance to score. The first man struck out as ingloriously as his predecessors; but the second batsman, after knocking innumerable fouls, made a slow bunt and reached his base.
At that Durham's supporters found encouragement, and her cheers rose once more. Then fate threw a sop to the wearers of the cherry and white.
The third man up was struck on the elbow with the ball, and trotted gleefully to first, the player ahead going to second. But Curly caught the runner on first napping, and the next batsman struck out. The blue-stockinged players came in from the field.
"Stone at bat!" called the scorer. "Brown on deck!"
"A run would do it, sir," said Apthorpe, eagerly.
"One of those old-fashioned home runs, Newt," laughed Harris.
Curly walked to the plate, and stood there, swinging the bat back of his shoulder in a way that suggested discretion to the wearied Durham pitcher.
From the bank came encouraging cheers for "Mr. Stone." He made no offer at the first ball, which was out of reach. Then came a strike.
The spectators fidgeted in their seats; the field was almost quiet. Then bat and ball met with a sharp crack, and Curly sped toward first.
Across that base he sped, swung in a quick curve, and made for second. The center fielder had picked up the ball and was about to throw it in.
It was a narrow chance, but when Curly scrambled to his feet after his slide, the umpire dropped his hand. Curly was safe. From the bank and along the base line came loud cheers for Willard's.
But the following batsman struck out miserably. The next attempted a sacrifice, and not only went out himself, but failed to advance the runner.
Then Curly, seeing no help forthcoming, advanced himself, starting like a shot with the pitcher's arm and rising safe from a cloud of dust at third.
Apthorpe went to bat, weary but determined. Curly, on third, shot back and forth like a shuttle with every motion of the pitcher's arm. With two balls in his favor, Apthorpe thought he saw his chance, and struck swiftly at an outshoot.
The result--he swung through empty air--appeared to unnerve him. He struck again at the next ball, and again missed.
But he found the next ball, and drove it swift and straight at the pitcher.
Curly was ten feet from the base when ball met bat. He stopped, poised to go on or to scuttle back, and saw the pitcher attempt the catch, drop the ball as if it were a red-hot cinder, and stoop for it.
Then Curly settled his chin on his breast, worked his arms like pistons and his legs like driving shafts, and flew along the line.
Beside him scuttled a coach, shouting shrill, useless words. All about him were cries, commands, entreaties, confused, meaningless. Ten feet from the plate he launched himself through space, with arms outstretched. The dust was in his eyes and nostrils.
He felt a corner of the plate. At the same instant he heard the thud of the ball against the catcher's glove overhead, the swish of the down-swinging arm, and----
"Safe at the plate!" cried the umpire.
At second Apthorpe was sitting on the bag, joyfully kicking his heels into the earth. On the bench the scorer made big, trembling dots on the page. Everywhere pandemonium reigned. The home nine had won game and championship.
Curly jumped to his feet, dusted his bedraggled clothes, and walked into the arms of Harris.
"The best steal you ever made!" cried Harris, thumping him on the back. As he went to the bench he heard an excited and perspiring youth exclaim proudly, "I have him in Greek, you know!"
Two minutes later the cherry-colored banners of Durham departed, flaunting bravely in the face of defeat.
Willard's danced across the terrace, shouting and singing. In their possession was a soiled and battered ball, which on the morrow would be inscribed with the figures "9 to 8," and proudly suspended behind a glass case in the trophy room.
Curly and Harris sat together in the former's study. Supper was over. Curly held a sealed and addressed letter in his hands, which he turned over and over undecidedly.
"Then--if you were in my place--under the circumstances--you--you wouldn't hand this in?" he asked.
"Let me have it, please," said Harris, with decision. He tore the letter across, and tossed the pieces into the waste basket.
"That's the only thing to do with that," he said. And in the successful two years of teaching since then Curly has come to feel that Harris was quite right.
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