The Praying Skipper and Other Stories/Chapter 2
A VICTORY UNFORESEEN
"THAT'S enough for to-night. Turn around and go home. You are a disgrace to Yale, all of you, and you're the worst of a bad lot, Number Five."
The Head Coach roared his convictions through a megaphone from the bow of the panting launch, and the coxswain caught up the words and flung them in piping echoes at the heads of the eight sullen oarsmen facing him. The grind of the slides and the tearing swash of blades abruptly ceased as the slim shell trailed with dying headway to the skitter of the resting oars. Backs burned dull red by the sun of long June days drooped in relaxation that was not all weariness. John Hastings, at Number Five, remembered when to slip along the shore; heading homeward in the twilight after pulling four miles over the New London course, was the keenest joy he had ever known. Now, with the Harvard race less than a week away, the daily toil was a nightmare of ineffective striving. The pulsating shell hesitated between strokes, it rolled without visible cause, and seemed sentiently to realize that the crew was rowing as eight men, not as one.
The boat circled wide and the men swept it listlessly toward the lights of the Quarters at Gales Ferry. They had just undergone the severest ordeal in all athletic training in their race against the stop watch, yet if the work had been good they would have finished vibrant as steel springs, spurting in this welcome home stretch like the sweep of a hawk. Squatted on the boathouse float a little later, dousing pails of water over his sweating shoulders, Hastings heard the Stroke growl to Number Seven:
"What's the matter with you loafers back there?"
"I'm not behind," retorted Seven, with hair-trigger irritability. "The trouble is in the middle of the boat. Hastings is too heavy to row in form this year, and he seems to have gone to pieces in the last month. That's where the worst break in the swing comes. Did you hear the Old Man threaten to take him out of the boat and get him a job as a farm hand?"
The Culprit wearily picked himself up and dressed in a dark corner of the boat-house, shunning conversation. After the training-table supper, the Head Coach and his younger staff of graduate experts, who had flocked back to help stem the adverse tide, summoned the crew into the parlor of the lonely old farmhouse. The Nestor of Yale rowing, who for twenty years had taught Yale crews how to win, leaned against the battered piano and looked at the ruddy and wholesome young faces around him. It might have been a council about to weigh matters of life and death, so grave was the troubled aspect of the waiting group, so stern the set of their leader's bulldog jaw.
To-night he had something of their nervous uncertainty, and it showed in the way his strong fingers played with the fringe of the faded piano cover. Picking up the well-worn logbook in which was recorded year by year the daily work of Yale crews from January to July, he turned the leaves until a text was found. Then, slamming the book on the piano with a vigor that made the aged wires complain, he said:
"The work has been discouraging ever since you came to New London, but to-day it was so bad that it made me sick. I never saw faster conditions on this course, and yet you clawed your way up river in twenty-two minutes and ten seconds. That is nearly a quarter of a mile slower than last year's crew. Do you know what this means? You are strong enough; you have had plenty of coaching, and I intend to work the very souls out of you to-morrow. If there is no improvement—well, you had better jump overboard and drown yourself after the race than to go back to New Haven. No man's place is safe in this crew, even if the race is only four days off. This means you, Number Five."
There were no songs around the piano, as was the custom in happier evenings, nor did the Head Coach pound the tinkling yellow keys and lead the chorus of "Jolly Boating Weather," as he had done so many nights of so many years when the work had been satisfactory. At nine o'clock the Captain called out gruffly:
"All out for the walk, fellows."
The squad filed through the gate into the darkness of the country lane for the end of the day's routine, with John Hastings trailing in rear of the procession. He had become fond of this nightly ramble, feeling on terms of intimacy with every stone wall, low-roofed farmhouse and fragrant orchard, and courting the smell of the lush June country side as the rarest of sleeping potions. But to-night he strode with head down, turning over and over in his mind the haunting list of his sins as an oarsman. Always with him of late, they had been driven home anew by the events of recent hours. He looked up at the quiet sea of little stars, and his self-reproach unconsciously changed to the form of a prayer:
"O Lord, help me to get my power on, and to keep my slide under me. I never worked half so hard, but I know I am heavier and slower than I used to be. Help me to stay on the crew. I don't ask it for my sake, but—but Mother's coming to the race, and this is my third year on the crew, and she never saw a race, and if I'm kicked off now it will break her heart. It means so much to her, and I am all she has. And—and there's Cynthia Wells—she's coming, too. Oh, it means everything to me, everything."
Such a man was he in the glory of his superbly conditioned strength, such a boy in the narrow limits of his life's horizon, bounded in this crisis by the Quarters, the boathouse, the crew, and the shining stretch of river!
The next morning sparkled with a cool breeze from the Sound, and its salty tang was a tonic after the sultry days that had tugged at the weights of all the men, except Hastings, until they were almost gaunt. When the crew was boated for the forenoon practice, the exhortations of the Head Coach were even hopeful. But after he had sent them on the first stretch at full speed, even the blasé old engineer of the launch could see that things were going wrong in the same old way. The emotions of the Head Coach were too large for words and with sinister patience he made them row another spurt. Before he could begin to speak, Hastings knew that there was still a break in the swing at Number Five, and the confirmation came in almost a tone of entreaty from the launch:
"You are still behind, Number Five, while the rest of the crew is swinging better. Try, for Heaven's sake, to get your shoulders on it, and swing them up to the perpendicular as if the devil were after you. Do you want seven other men to pull your hundred and ninety pounds of beef and muscle like so much freight in the boat? I have told you these things a thousand times, and you must hang on to them this time, or I can't risk bothering with you any more. All ready, coxswain, steer for that red barn across the river."
"Forward all. G-e-t ready. R-o-w-w!" shrieked the coxswain.
Within the first thirty strokes Hastings felt that he was rowing in no better form than before, although never had he been so grimly determined to row better. Stung to the soul by the taunt of the coach, he threw his splendid shoulders against the twelve-foot sweep, striving always to be a little ahead of Number Six, whose instant of catch was signaled by the tell-tale tightening of the crease in the back of his neck. The Captain called:
"Give her ten good ones, and look out for the stroke. It's going up."
"O-n-e, T-w-o, Thr-e-e, F-o-u-r, F-i-v-e," gasped the eight, in husky chorus to the cadence of the catch.
"Slo-w down on your y-o-u-r slides," yelled the bobbing coxswain. "You're be-h-i-n-d, Number Five."
Hastings could have throttled the coxswain for this. He had heard it so often that it cut him on the raw. The Head Coach picked up the damnable refrain:
"You are behind, Number Five."
Recalling how once, to fill an idle half hour, he had enumerated sixty-four faults possible in rowing a single stroke, Hastings was sure that in this spurt he was committing all these and several as yet unrecorded. The futility of his flurried effort became maddening. Where was his strength going?
The verdict befell as the launch steamed alongside, and a substitute perched on the cabin roof jumped to the deck at the beckoning of the Head Coach, who said, with a ring of sincere regret:
"I am afraid I'll have to try a change at Number Five, to see whether we can patch up that break. Get in there, Matthews. Better get out and take a rest, Hastings."
The cast-off crawled aboard the launch and went aft to the cock-pit under the awnings, where he could be alone. Holding himself bravely under the sympathetic eyes of his comrades, he watched the substitute grip the oar, still warm from his own calloused hands. Nor did he yet realize what had befallen him, and felt vague relief that the struggle was done. At dinner he was cheerful and flippant and the other oarsmen admired his "sand."
The reality began to overtake him when he went to his room under the eaves, and anxiously asked the Stroke:
"Well, how did you go it with a new Number Five?"
"A little better," replied his room-mate, with evident reluctance. "The Old Man says he is going to keep Matthews in your seat for the race. It's a hard thing to talk about, Jack. You know how broken up we all feel about it, don't you? We know you tried your level best, and your extra weight this year made you slow, and you couldn't help that. Heard from your folks lately?"
Hastings was reminded of things he had feared to let rush into the foreground. He had been too preoccupied to think of looking for mail downstairs, and was starting for the door, when the Stroke halted him with:
"Oh, I forgot to tell you I brought up a couple of letters for you. There they are, on the bureau."
Hastings recognized his mother's handwriting on one envelope, that of Cynthia Wells on the other. He appeared to hesitate which of them to open first, and in this hour of trial, his choice was swayed by an impulse as old as the world:
The letter which he preferred was dated on board the yacht Diana, off New Haven, and he read slowly to himself:
I am so happy to be almost at the scene of your victories, past and to come. And to think I have never seen you row! How foolish and inconsiderate of Father to drag me abroad so early two seasons on end. But I am bringing all the heaped-up enthusiasm of three years—think of that! I suppose you are as calm as blanc mange, while I am jabbering rowing at everybody in sight, and am getting really awfully clever about strokes and catches (are they so very catching?). Your classmate, Dickie Munson, is on board, and has been coaching me up on the technical mysteries, and spinning many jolly yarns about you. I hear you are to be elected captain of next year's crew, the very grandest honor at Yale. May I offer congratulations in advance? I do so want to see you, and will be one of the worshipping admirers of your prowess! Of course you will be busy until after the race, and then you are to come down to the Diana as soon as ever you can. Don't forget that I will have an eye on you all the way down the course.Yours as ever, Cynthia.
Hastings tucked this letter in an inside pocket with reverent care, and without speaking, sought next what his mother would say:
I have decided to come North by sea, and will sail on the Mohican to-morrow. The fare is considerably less than by rail, and as you have insisted upon paying the expenses of my wonderful trip, I want to save you all I can. The ship is due at New York late in the afternoon of the twenty-seventh, the day before the race, and I plan to take the earliest train to New London, to reach there that night, if possible. I have the address of the boarding house in which you have reserved the nice room for me, and you will not have to worry at all about having me met, as, of course, you will not be able to come down from the Quarters. It will be hard to bear, this being so near you on that last night, unable even to kiss you good night and God bless you. After the race you can come to my room, and we will go to New Haven on the special train with the crew. Of course you are going to win again, when your mother is coming all the way from the South to see her boy fight for old Yale. Oh, I want so much to see my big, handsome boy, and it will be music for me to hear the thousands cheering him. I received the ticket for the observation train in Car Fifteen, and I can find it at the station, as you directed me, so don't have me on your mind for a moment. I pray for you each night, and may God bring me safe to you.
Your loving and adoring
"I don't see how I can let her know," observed Hastings with a long sigh.
"Which?" asked the Stroke, as he searched his comrade's face with shrewd kindliness.
"I mean Mother, of course," was the reply, followed by a sharp prick of conscience. "She is coming up by sea, she is on the way now. The other letter was from a—from a friend. She is to be here, too."
"You ought to meet her in New York—your mother, of course. She is first in your thoughts, I am sure," advised the Stroke, with a perceptible shade of disbelief. "Just let her see that you are sound and lusty, that's what she will care most about. She will be sorry for your sake, not for her own."
Throwing himself across his cot, Hastings looked out of the nearest window, down the river to where the flag above the Harvard Quarters slashed the sky like a ribbon of flame. There were the enemy whom he had helped to defeat, and now it seemed an honorable thing, greatly to be desired, even to row on a beaten crew. The tousled head went to the pillow, and he could no longer help pouring out his heart to his friend:
"Nothing can make it any worse than it is. I have worked every summer so far, and I was going to have a real vacation this year, the first since I have been in college. Now I can't bear to think of any good times, with disgrace hanging over me. I am going to apply for my summer job again, but I've been working in the office of a Yale man, and I am afraid he won't want to have a slob around him who was kicked off the crew four days before the race, will he? Of course he won't. The last month has been simply hell. Mother has been living in the thought of this trip just to see me row against Harvard, and—and there is a girl—well, I am a big, whining, useless baby, that's all."
The Stroke was an older man by five years, who had known a man's stress and sorrows before his college days began. Had he been a man of readier speech, he would have tried somehow to make the sorrowing boy realize that there were other worlds to conquer, wider and more inspiring fields in the years beyond. Yet there was something quite fine in this absorption in the crew; it was what one ought to feel at twenty-one, and it might be better for him to fight it out alone. The Stroke was glad when the youngster marched out of the room without more words. "I hope he stands the gaff," thought the elder man.
Hastings' first impulse had been to flee the place, and he was still busy with the longing to be anywhere away from the sights and sounds that racked him because they were so infinitely much to him. While he struggled with the decision, the eight began to make ready for the long afternoon practice. As the shell swung out of sight around the curve of the shore, Hastings had not believed it possible that any one could feel as lonely and neglected as he at that moment. Just then he saw a University substitute standing idly in the boathouse door, and he remembered that with one transferred to the eight, and another laid off with a cold, this youngster, Bates, was the sole survivor of the trio which had its own thankless duties and burdens. The intending fugitive made a choice then and there, as he slid down the bank, shouting:
"Aren't you going out to-day to keep tabs on the Red-Heads?"
The solitary substitute ruefully shook his head:
"No, I haven't any one to man the pair-oar with me, and I'm no good in a single shell. And I ought to be over at the start right now, for the tip is out that Harvard is going to try the four miles on time, their last attempt. How am I going to catch their time, I want to know, with nobody to help me?"
Hastings laid hold of the bow of the pair-oared boat as he said:
"Get hold of the other end of the tub, and we'll put her in the water. I might as well be a substitute, too, if there is work for me to do. We'll hold the watch on the Johnny Harvards in great shape."
The substitute glimpsed something of the sacrifice and struggle in Hastings' offer to help him, but he could not know it all, because he was only a "sub." The two were bending over their stretchers lacing the shoes, when the launch slipped past the float so quietly that the substitutes did not hear it. The Head Coach, however, standing on the forward deck, heard Hastings say to his mate with an evident effort:
"I came pretty near playing the baby act and running away, but if I can help the Yale shell to go faster by being out of it, I am glad of it. That's what I am rowing for, anyhow. And if I can be of any use as a substitute, why, that's what I am here for, too. It is all for Yale, isn't it?"
The two in the pair-oar rowed across the river, landed a half mile above the start of the four-mile course, and walked down the railroad track.
"We can't do anything more than catch their time over the first mile," observed the experienced Bates; "but that will give us a good line on the gait they are going." Hastings meekly followed instructions to hurry to the hill opposite the first-mile flag, and be ready to wave his handkerchief when the Harvard crew should pass him. Bates, at the start with a stop watch, would snap the time at this signal. In dust and quivering heat, Hastings trudged along the ties, crept up the hill and lay on his stomach under a tree, waiting the appearance of the Harvard crew. The tears could not be held back at thought of this humiliation, of the abysmal gap between this petty spying in ambush, and all the days in which he had swung by this first-mile flag in the University eight.
There was much time for meditation, and while the first shock had wrecked his every hope, he began to patch the fabric of his dearest dream, until he was ready to believe that, even more clearly than his mother, Cynthia Wells would understand. She would see that he had tried to do his best, that the failure was blackened by nothing left undone, and that his great disappointment was of a piece with those troubles which knit closer the bonds of friendship. She would know that it was "all for Yale," that winning the race was more important than anything else in the world, and he ached for the words of comfort and inspiration she would be so eager to offer. If friendship meant anything it meant help in such times as this.
On the day before the race Hastings' occupation as a substitute was gone. The shadow of the morrow was over the Quarters, the atmosphere was funereal, and the strapping oarsmen were coddled like infants. He had no part in the excitement, and was free to meet his mother in New York that afternoon. The news he must bear her made him as nervous as if he were facing the tussle of the eights. After farewells with his other comrades he sought the Stroke, who grasped the hand of the sorrowful exile in a crushing grip.
"Keep your nerve, Jack," said he; "it will all come out in the wash. I know there's a girl in it, and if she is the right sort, she will understand."
Hastings flushed at mention of the feminine factor, as he stammered:
"Of course she will understand. She is that kind, all right. But I hope to Heaven I'll never clap eyes on Gales Ferry again. Damn the place! Good-bye. You've been a brick to me, and lots of comfort."
After he had gone, the Stroke looked up from his book for some time, while a tender smile softened his strong mouth. He had found a girl who could understand, and he hoped the same good fortune for his friend.
When the train passed through New Haven, Hastings wore a hang-dog air, fearing recognition. A runaway from New London the day before the race, his college town was the last place on earth in which he wished to be seen. As he neared New York he braced himself for the meeting with his mother, blindly fearing that she would be sorely disappointed in him. But the Mohican had been delayed by heavy weather along the coast and a smothering fog off Sandy Hook, and could not be expected to reach her dock before seven o'clock of the following morning.
Hastings felt as if he were cast away on a desert island. He yearned for his mother now, but she was somewhere out in the fog, and he was alone in New York, alone through the long night before the race, with all its smarting, thrilling memories. Long after midnight, unable to coax drowsiness, his thoughts went homing back to the Quarters as he knew the place in these last hours.
He could hear the call of the robin at daybreak in the tree by his window, the call that had aroused him to face the issues of two races when he was Number Five. He could picture the morning scenes, the hush of lawn and house, the enforced lounging on bed and sofa until the summons to be ready and dressed at the boat-house.
Then he recalled the tense waiting on the float for the call of the whistle of the referee's yacht, how the year before they had sat together in the sunshine and sung the chorus of "Jolly Boating Weather." Since then it had become to him a battle song, a chant profoundly burdened with sentiment and solemnity. He could not hear it without feeling a lump in his breast. Now the shell would be launched, the men seating themselves with unusual care, and the coaches would shake hands from stroke to bow as the eight shoved off to row over to the start…. He wiped the sweat from his face and came back to the stifling room of the hotel in New York, and the sense of cruel isolation.
It was almost daylight when Hastings fell asleep, more tired than he knew, and when he awoke, a glance at his watch told him that he had overslept, and that it was nearly ten o'clock. The reply to a frantic telephone message was that all the passengers of the Mohican had gone ashore shortly after eight o'clock. His mother had gone to New London without him, and the express train into which he dove was due to arrive at the scene of conflict barely in time to connect with the observation train, if all conditions favored. Ten minutes behind time, he was running through the New London station, as the tail of the rearward observation cars was vanishing around a curve of the track yard, with cheering in its wake.
Vainly pursuing on foot, Hastings came to a standstill, stranded and alone, unable even to see the race, about to start five miles up the river. Walking down to the nearest wharf, he could see through the arches of the great railroad bridge the festooned yachts stretching in squadrons beyond, and between them only a little patch of silver lane where the crews would finish.
Shortly after noon, there stepped from the first "special" into New London a fragile yet sprightly little woman in rustling black, alone, but confident and unafraid. Her sweet face was made beautiful, even youthful, by the flush of excitement that tinted her cheek so delicately beneath her silvered hair. Violets were pinned at her waist; in one hand she carried a flag of Yale blue, and in the other a decorative souvenir programme "containing the pictures of all the crews." Those near her in the car had watched with pleasure her vivacious interest in this booklet, but only the gentleman sitting next her had been taken into her confidence. Thirty years out of college, he was come from the far West to his class reunion, and he, too, had a boy in Yale. Fortunately or otherwise, he had not kept in touch with the most recent news of the heroic figures of aquatics, and he knew not even the names of the crew of the year at Yale, so that she could enlighten his lamentable ignorance and right willingly. The "souvenir" booklet had been printed a week before the race, too soon to record the change in the personnel of the Yale eight, and there was her boy's picture filling a page, a massive young giant, most scantily clothed. The man from the West saw in the picture the mother's brown eyes, and his heart was stirred, for he knew what it was to have an only son with his mother's eyes.
"Yes, John has been on the crew three years," she confided, "and he will be the captain next year. I fairly live with him in spirit through the whole six months of the training season. He has had a very hard time this season, and lately his letters have been a little despondent. But I was never so delighted as when I learned from the head-lines of this morning's newspapers that there has been a wonderful improvement in the last week. Oh, I am excited, there is no use trying to deny it. It is almost too big an event for an old woman to survive."
The gray-haired stranger was comforting, and in the recesses of his memory found certain eulogies pronounced by his son regarding "Jack Hastings, the biggest man in his class, by Jove!" He insisted upon presenting two of his own classmates, and they bowed low in formal tribute to the "mother of the next captain of the crew."
The porter must leave her bag in the station, for she could not wait to go to the boarding house when the air was full of tingling sights and sounds, all the excitement and flaunting color paying homage to the prowess of John Hastings. She found Car Fifteen, and sat in a beautiful dream, watching the holiday crowds fill the canopied lengths of open train. What a tale to tell when she should come again to the little colorless village in the South! It seemed impossible to drink it all in when the train began to move and in a few moments the amazing panorama of the Thames flashed into view. The eager eyes of the oarsman's mother passed quickly over the gorgeous marine pictures, by the twisting length of the riotous train, up, up the river toward the quiet reaches, hoping to discern the white house on the high bank and the big blue flag floating above the Quarters at Gales Ferry, a scene she knew from many descriptions.
Soon the train had passed the yachts and the crowds massed on shore, and was opposite the red-roofed home of the Harvard crew, whose crimson flag seemed to her to flaunt an insolent defiance. In near-by cars fluttered many Harvard flags, as the partisans from Cambridge chanted their slogan, inspired by the sight of their rowing camp across the river. She turned to look at the offenders with reproof in her manner. How could they be so misguided as to cheer for Harvard? How dreadful it was to think that if John should be beaten, every one of them would be shouting even louder for joy. So she turned to gaze at the Yale Quarters, which she could see quite plainly, and the ugly brown boathouse squatted at the water's edge.
Her color came and went, and stayed in a brilliant patch when she saw, with a quick intake of breath, a yellow streak appear in front of the boathouse and a number of Lilliputians walking beside it. There seemed an eternity of delay before the wisp of a shell settled on the water, and nine figures climbed into it, while her heart was tripping furiously.
The thing became in motion, it was crawling across the river like a mechanical toy, with frequent pauses. Could this be the Crew, this fragile thing that moved over the water so slowly? A roar from the Harvard cars, and Mrs. Hastings turned to see a similar set of manikins swaying in as absurd a boat, heading out from "Red Top." The mother looked at them only for an instant, because the Yale crew was crossing the river faster than she could realize, and soon it was half a mile above the start, paddling and drifting down with the tide to get into position at its stake-boat. She wanted to call imploringly to the referee to bring the crew nearer, nearer, so that she might see the men, and count from the bow, to two, three, four, five. Presently the shell swung round, parallel with the shore, and maneuvered into position scarcely twenty yards from the observation train hanging on the edge of the bank.
At last the mother could look for Number Five. She counted with an eager and quivering finger. No, she must have made a mistake—that was not John at Number Five. They must have shifted him to another seat at the last moment.
She flung away all method and searched the stern young faces from stroke to bow, from bow to stroke and back again, with yearning agony of intensity. She made bold to ask that the gentleman next her lend her his field-glasses for a moment, and focused them on the shell, seeking in vain. The color had fled from her cheeks, and she sat back, white and silent, beyond speech. Around her raved the cheers of thousands, but the rocketing "rahs" for Yale sounded in her ears like some barbaric funeral chant. She had become old and weak far beyond her years.
Her distress was unnoticed, and through a haze she saw the long shells leap from their leashes with incredible suddenness in tearing cascades of foam. To the mourning mother the race was no more than an exhibition of automatons, as Harvard took the lead, and then the long Yale swing cut it down remorselessly, foot by foot, until the gap was closed. She closed her eyes with a weary sigh, but rallied in a little while to try to make herself heard above the din. Yale was spurting gallantly, and those around her were oblivious to the quavering voice and its vital questions:
"Where is John Hastings? Number Five in the Yale Crew? Where has he gone? What have they done with him? Oh, tell me, tell me, tell me, please. I am his mother."
Yale hopes drooped as Harvard met the spurt, and in the lull a young man of a kindly face saw that she was ill, and leaned toward her to ask whether he could help. She was able to make him understand, and there was a huskiness in his voice that came not all from cheering, as he said:"Why, he's all right, safe and sound as a dollar. He was taken out of the boat four or five days ago, and Matthews put in his place. No, I don't know what the matter was. Too heavy, I fancy. I'm awfully sorry for you."
Where else should a boy flee in time of trouble than straight to his mother's arms? Therefore the reason for his disappearance must be an alarming one. Then she felt a blaze of swift anger. It was an outrageous act of injustice, this deed of the Yale coaches. They were no better than conspirators thus to treat the best oarsman they had. It was not in a mother's philosophy to grasp the viewpoint that what was best for Yale was best for all who fought for its glory. She vowed that a reckoning was due, and that her duty was to see these coaches, and tell them the truth before she left the scene. And so, between wrath and tears, she saw the race end, saw the Yale crew sweep across the finish line, victors over Harvard by four lengths. This was what she had come to see, what she had lived in the hope of seeing through three long years, and now all had turned to ashes.
Wearily she threaded a way through the thronging railroad station, found a cab and gave the driver directions for reaching the boarding house where a room awaited her. Her steps faltered as she toiled up the stairs, and all that gave her strength for the ascent was the flicker of hope that John might be there, or that some message had come from him. The room was empty, the table bare of letter or telegram. Carefully laying her bonnet and jacket on a chair, she looked at her face in a mirror, and it frightened her. Although she was eager to be out again in search of the way to Gales Ferry, rest was imperative, and she crossed over to the bed and lay down for a few moments until the dizzy faintness should pass.
When John Hastings drifted down to the wharf nearest the railroad station, he laid an almost aimless course. While he could not see the race, he was drawn to the harbor into which flowed the river, the river by whose bank, five miles away, his comrades were waiting for the summons, and perhaps even then singing "Jolly Boating Weather," as it was never sung at any other time.
Through the maze of fragile shipping flying the flags of a dozen yacht clubs threaded a naphtha launch hurrying toward the bridge, the cock-pit gay with white gowns and blue uniforms, and Yale colors fluttering at bow and stern. The outcast bestowed no more than a scowling glance on the glittering, humming pleasure craft, and was about to saunter shoreward with a vague intent of hovering near the telegraph office until the result of the race should be known, when the beckoning flurry of several handkerchiefs delayed his retreat.
He walked to the end of the wharf in idlest curiosity, and the possibility staggered him only an instant before he knew the fact. There was no mistaking the trim and jaunty figure in the bow for any one else than Cynthia Wells herself, as she flicked the steering wheel over and ran the craft close to the stringpiece, while the sailor in the stern held fast with a boat hook. Her voice was lifted in peremptory command:
"Scramble right down here this minute, and tumble aboard, Jack. We are awfully late already. Broke down on the way from the Diana. I don't know what in the world you are doing here, but we can't pass such an image of desolation. Hurry, please. I am the skipper to-day."
Jack would have vastly preferred to run away. This meeting was not at all what he had planned. His misery loved company limited to one, and that one was hedged about by half a dozen laughing men and girls out for a holiday lark. He realized how sorry a figure of a man he was in this scene, but retreat meant cowardly flight, and there was the shadow of consolation in being near her. The grip of "Dickie" Munson's hand spelled understanding of the situation as the classmate said:
"We're tickled to death to kidnap you this way, Jack. It's a tough day for you, I know, but you must not miss the race. Get forward. There's room by Miss Wells, and, of course, she is dying to see you."
When he found himself standing by the side of Cynthia, she was alert and absorbed in steering the launch with confident ease toward the swirling channel between the arches of the bridge, where small craft darted and drifted in common eagerness to find positions along the last mile of the swarming course.
The jolly wind whipped a straying lock of gold-shot hair across her eyes, and she brushed it aside with an impatient gesture. Her adorable face, warm with the glow of many summer days of sun and breeze, was set in serious alertness. Standing straight and tall, head thrown back and shoulders squared, the poise and look of her were as athletic as the bearing of the man at her side. With her mind wholly intent on the business in hand, she said crisply:
"I have the right of way over that tub to port. Why doesn't he head inshore? How is the tide through that middle arch, Jack? You ought to know."
He made brief reply. Unreasonably sensitive, he did not realize that her preoccupation was essential. At the least, he had expected she would speak some ready word of the sympathy he craved, because he stood for a tragedy in which she ought to show concern. Did she not know, could she not feel what this flight up the course meant to him, "Jack Hastings, Number Five"? But the girl at the wheel was too busy even to note the gloom in his face, as she shot the launch into a roomy berth near the three and a half mile flag, at the edge of the streak of open water. Then Cynthia turned to Hastings, held out a firm brown hand, and said with a happy smile:
"There, congratulate me. Could your coxswain, with his absurd little megaphone and all his importance, do a neater trick of steering than that? Now, you poor unfortunate boy, I am ready to hear all about your troubles. We heard yesterday, when we came ashore at New London, that you had been evicted, or had gone on strike, or something of the sort. Are you all broken up over it, and how did it happen? I am terribly disappointed, too. I came on to see you win a race. I don't care a rap for the other heroes. Poor old Jack! He looks as if he were chief mourner."
She patted his hand with a motherly air, and the mourner sighed heavily. Evidently she was making a gallant effort to hide her genuine emotion from the alien company. He tried to imitate her lightness of manner as he replied, with a laugh that was a trifle shaky:
"Yes, I have been out of the crew four days, Cynthia, and it seems four years. It was awfully good of you to pick me up, but I don't know whether I am glad or not. Perhaps you ought to have left me alone."
"And why, Mister Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance? Didn't you want to see me?"
There was archness in the query, even a trace of pretty coquetry in her air. Where was the kinship of souls, that wonderful symphony of understanding he had dreamed of as come true? With a fierce onset of earnestness, he confided:
"I wanted to see you more than any one else in the world. I wanted to see you more than I wanted to see my mother. She is looking for me now. She is on that train up yonder. It has been a pretty hard day for me, and I thought it would be for you."
She tried to make amends:
"Why, of course, it is a dreadful disappointment for you, and for me, and for all your friends, Jack. But aren't you glad it gave you the chance to be here? I certainly am. And I'm trying to make the best of it, and so must you. You are the same old Jack, you know, in the crew or out."
The first smile in days broke over his face. If he was the same old Jack to her, the rest of the world could go hang. He was about to tell her what he ached to reveal in a rush of pent-up desire, what the Crew stood for, and how much of his life was bound up in it. She caught the kindling light in his face, and before he spoke, she thought this light was all for her. That his interest should be absorbed in the crew, rather than in Miss Cynthia Wells, piqued her, even now, as he began:
"I was afraid the crash was coming for some time. Nobody can know how I hoped and worried through those weeks, when I felt that I was slipping back. I did not write you about it, because I could not believe there was any serious danger of my being thrown out at the last moment, and I knew it would harrow you to share this worry with me. I—I—wanted your——"
The classmate behind him jumped to his feet and shouted:
"There they come! Yale! Yale! Yale!"
Hastings glanced along the water level up-river. Two black dots were visible, each fluttering thread-like tentacles. Abreast of them trailed the observation train, like a huge serpent of gaudy hues. He bit his lip and trembled with sudden excitement, while Cynthia Wells stood, one hand shading her eyes, so eagerly intent that it was plain that she had forgotten the oarsman out of the shell. The sea of blue, rippling along the train, told him that Yale was leading. He shut his eyes, fearing, until it sickened him, that some accident might happen to Yale, even with what seemed to be a safe lead.
To those who did not know, the winners seemed to be playing with rowing as they swept toward the finish. With no apparent effort the blue-tipped blades flashed in and out, without even a feather of spray. Forward and back again rocked eight bare backs, working as if coupled on the same connecting rod. Hands slipped easily into arched and heaving, chests, and shot out with lightning speed; slow, slower, swooped the shoulders squared beneath necks like fluted columns and heads poised with airy grace. As Hastings leaned far out on the bow of the launch, waving his hat in a fury of approval, the shell rushed by him not twenty feet away, and the complaining roar of the slides was music in his ears. He could feel with that agony of effort to keep in form when every muscle cried out in rebellion, and the choking fight for breath, and yet, with it all, the glory of making the swing and catch fairly lift the quivering shell. And he knew, also, the intoxication of the sight of the Harvard crew laboring astern, as seen through eyes half blinded with sweat.
Hastings was lifted out of himself until he saw his crew cease rowing and the oars trail like the wings of a tired bird. Then the defeated crew went past him. There were breaks in the swing, heads nodded on the catch, backs were bending, and bodies swaying athwartships. It was anything now to cross the line and rest.
Hastings had a new realization of what these whipped oarsmen felt, they whose high hopes were wrecked, whose labor, as long and as faithful as that of the winners, had gone for nought. After all, he did not belong with the winners, he was one of the losers, and he wished he might shake their hands. He cheered with all his voice, and Number Five of Harvard turned a drawn face to this salutation so close at hand, and in a quick glance recognized his dethroned rival, whom he had once met on the lawn at Gales Ferry. The man in the boat flashed a smile of comradeship to the man in the launch, and both felt better for the incident.
Cynthia was clapping her hands, then she tore the violets from her gown and flung them as far as she could toward the distant crew.
"Yale! Yale!" she cried. "Cast off. I want to work the launch down that way to see them. Wasn't it glorious? Oh, I never saw anything half so fine. I want to shake their hands, every one of that beautiful, blessed crew. I'd give ten years of my life to be one of those men at this moment."
She had not looked at Jack, but he was determined to obtrude himself somehow.
"How about the man who worked just as hard, and gets none of this hero worship? Doesn't he deserve anything from you?"
"Poor old Jack!" she said tenderly. "Why, I forgot all about you for a little while. It is a shame you are not there. You ought to have tried just a little bit harder, hadn't you? Now you can't be a hero, but don't you care. We are all sorry as sorry as can be."
The launch had daringly poked a passage close to the float on to which the crew was now clambering from the shell. Big brown, half-naked men were hugging each other, and clumsily dancing in stockinged feet. Eagerly Cynthia asked her companion:
"Do tell me which is which, Jack. I want to be able to know them all by name. Which is the Stroke, and which is the man at Number Five? I want to see if he looks like you."
Hastings gave the information very soberly. The Stroke caught sight of his clouded face, and yelled to his fellows:
"Hey, here's Jack Hastings! Three long cheers for him. Are you ready?"
The cheer given by men still struggling to regain their normal breathing came so gratefully to John Hastings that he felt like whimpering, because they understood. The launch was deftly steered alongside the float, and grabbing the outstretched hand of Hastings, the Stroke nearly pulled him overboard, as he whispered:
"Jack, I am glad you could see the race with the Only One. It must have helped you over the rough places. There is nothing like it when things look blue. God bless you both. Where is your mother? Be sure to come down to New Haven to-night, won't you?"
The Stroke jumped to help load the oars on the coaching launch just as Cynthia said to Hastings:
"Why didn't you present me? I think you are a stupid old Jack."
Where was his mother? Guilty and ashamed, he stammered:
"Please set me ashore anywhere as soon as you can, and I shall be eternally grateful."
"Do you want to leave me so soon? Certainly, I will put you ashore if you wish. You have been as cross as a bear. You must do penance by coming off to dinner to-night."
"Thanks, I have another engagement," said he shortly.
The observation train had gone to the station, and it must be emptied of its freight by this time. There was no more time for talk with Cynthia, and he did not know what else to say to her to whom the day was an outing, vastly exciting and enjoyable. Still, he sought one last word of sincere realization of his ill fortune, and found no response to his own heart hunger. He said "Good-bye," as he stepped ashore, and holding her hand for a moment:
"I am glad that you have had such a pleasant afternoon, Cynthia. A friend in need is a friend indeed."
The tribute touched and pleased her, and the irony of it wholly escaped her, as she gayly called after him:
"Be sure you don't forget to look us up to-night."
Hastings did not look behind him, as with lowered head he ran along the railroad track to the station, jumped into a cab and urged the driver to speed to the house where his mother must be waiting.
Some one within heard his footstep, knew it for what she craved most to hear, and was in the doorway of her room, when he saw her. Picking her up like a child, he covered her white hair, her tired face, her hands with kisses, and as she clung weeping on his breast, he carried her to a big armchair in the bay window. He was on his knees with his rumpled head in her lap when she found broken voice to say:
"Oh, Jack, are you well? Are you all right? My own precious boy! I have come to comfort and love you. Nothing else matters. Nothing else matters to me, now that I have found you safe and sound."
She twisted her slim fingers in his thick brown hair, and as she felt the warm pressure of his head in her lap, the years had stepped aside, and he was the little boy who used to flee to that dear sanctuary in every time of trial. And to her this was only another trouble, which only Mother could understand and clear from his path. When at length he looked up, she was shocked to see the shadow circles under his eyes, and the nervous twitching of the mouth that was so very like his mother's. He was sobbing, and not ashamed of it, as he murmured:
"I have been disgraced and disappointed, but I don't care any more now that I have found you. Are you all right, Little Mother? Did you think I had deserted you?"
She told him of the race as she had seen it, and was with difficulty dissuaded from planning to search out the Head Coach, crying with the angry sparkle he loved of old:
"It is not ladylike, Jack, but I would like to scratch his horrid eyes out. Of course, he should have kept you on the crew, but we are not going to cry over spilt milk, are we? I want you to tell me all about it—everything—so that we can look and find some consolation. Every cloud has a silver lining."
While he carried the tale down to the parting with Cynthia she smiled and frowned in turn, and wiped her eyes before he had finished. A mother's intuition read between the lines and when the rueful confession halted, her arm stole around his neck, and she kissed him again.
"It is a sad story," she said; "but never let me hear that word disgrace as long as you live. Of course, I was nearly killed about it to-day, and I should have been crying for four nights at sea if I could have heard the news before I started. But it would have been only because you were unhappy and disappointed. What else are mothers for than to understand when the world seems upside down? When you were seven years old, you were kept home from a Sunday-school picnic by the chicken-pox, and you told me in floods of tears that you didn't 'b'lieve you could never, never be happy again.' I knew how small your world was, and that the chicken-pox was big enough to fill it to overflowing.
"Now you have tried your best, you rowed as well as you knew how, and the crew was everything to you, just as it ought to be. But some day you may have larger troubles, and they, too, shall pass away, and more and more you will come back to the simple gospel of living I have tried to teach you, that there is only one standard by which to judge success or failure. Is the tiring worth while, and have you done your best in the best way to gain it? I don't mean to preach, my boy mine. You don't want that. You want your mother. I know, I know."
She stroked his cheek as he went deep into his heart, and brought up more than he had ever told her before of his dreams of love, first love, and of what he had been building. His mother knew that she must be careful, and she hesitated, as if pondering how best to speak her view-point.
"She did not understand, poor girl. It is not all her fault, and it is not yours, laddie boy. When the race began and I saw that you were not in the crew, it seemed as if I were in the depths of a bad dream. I was with you all the way, and I thought of nothing else. And I know that while you would have been with me if you could, yet if the girl were here you would wish in your heart to find her first. No, don't try to deny it. But she did not know at all what it meant to you, she could not know. But if she had loved you, she would have understood as I did. We will talk about her all night if it will make your heartache any better. What are we going to do now?"
The boy straightened himself and threw back his wide shoulders, because his mother saw no cause for reproach in his downfall. But he did not want to see the crew again, and he wished to avoid the riotous celebration soon to burst. Obviously the best plan was to go to New Haven at once, where they could find refuge in his rooms, and pack his trunk for the vacation departure.
To him this little journey from New London was a panic flight, to her it was made radiant by the one fact that her boy had come back to her. After dinner, in a quiet corner of the college town, they went to his rooms on the campus. The sight of the two twelve-foot oars on the walls, his own trophies of two victories, their handles stained dark with the sweat of his hands, made her turn to him as they entered:
"Nothing can ever take those away from you, with all their splendid story of success."
The boy looked at them for an instant, then brushed a hand across his tired young eyes.
"Better make kindling of them," he said. "Look at that one over there. I won it as a raw, overgrown Freshman, and three years later I can't do as well as I did then. Matthews, 'the sub,' will hang my third oar on his wall next year. I am going to curl up on the window-seat and rest a while, Mother. I feel all played out."
She, too, was very tired, but felt that her son had need of her, and she tried to soothe him to sleep, and smiled as she found herself half unconsciously humming a slumber-song she had crooned to him twenty years before. Her photograph was on his desk, and framed near it the winsome face of Cynthia Wells, and she crossed the room to look closely and comprehendingly at the girl who had acted in her own world as naturally as had the youth in his. When she returned to the window, her son was asleep, and she softly kissed him.
Looking across the green, she saw a blaze of red fire that colored the evening sky. Rockets and Roman candles began to spangle the illumination, and presently the far-away blare of a brass band crept nearer. She knew that these were signs of the home-coming of the crew, of the celebration whose glories Jack had eloquently portrayed. It was not disloyalty to him that she should want to see what it was like, although she knew he would not want to be there. Yet feeling traitorish qualms, she scribbled a little note, saying she had gone out for a "breath of fresh air," and stole down the staircase.
When she came to the corner the procession was rioting up Chapel Street toward the campus. The band preceded a tally-ho, on top of which were the heroes in their white boating uniforms, nervously dodging innumerable fiery darts aimed straight at them by wild-eyed admirers on the pavement. Behind, surging from curb to curb, skipped thousands of students and townspeople, arm in arm, in common rapture. The wavering line of fireworks told that the tail of the parade was blocks and blocks away.
The coach was stopped at the corner of the campus, as a hundred agile figures swarmed up the wheels, and dragged the crew to earth, from which they were instantly caught up, and borne on tossing shoulders to the stone steps of the nearest recitation hall. There they were held aloft, still struggling, while cheers greeted each by name.
Now the celebration programme would have been halting and inadequate if the Assistant Manager of the Yale Navy had not hurried to New Haven on an earlier train. He had been in the car with John Hastings, and took it for granted that the sweet-faced woman of the silvery hair must be his mother. He was plunging through the crowd on the stone steps, trying to rescue the oarsmen in order to head them toward the banquet hall, when beneath the arc light on the corner, a little way out of the tumult, he saw the timid lady for whom he had felt much sympathy. The Assistant Manager was ably fitted for his official task of looking after details, because he fairly boiled over with initiative, and with him to think was to act, as the powder speeds the bullet. He dashed across to Mrs. Hastings, and said, with a hurried and apologetic bow:
"Beg pardon, but this is Jack Hastings' mother, are you not? Yes, thank you, I was sure of it. It may seem presumptuous, but I have heard lots about you, and Jack has convinced me that you are the finest mother in the world, bar one. I have been so infern—so very busy since I got in town from New London, that I have had no time to look up Jack. We want him at the dinner, everybody does, and we want you just as much. In fact, you must be my special guest, and hear the speeches, anyhow, if you won't stay any longer. Jack's asleep, is he? Well, we'll wake him up, all right."
The alarmed little mother tried to protest several things at once. Jack had sworn he would not go to the dinner, and that he would break the neck of the man who should try to rout him out. Of course, Jack would not do that really, but he was all worn out and needed the rest. Please not to disturb him, and she would not dream of going without him, and she did not want to go at all. Her earnestness was almost tearful, but the Assistant Manager, who had heard perhaps the first ten words, darted off and was back with two young men whose fists were full of cannon crackers. He had each fast by the coat-collar, and shoving them into the foreground like a pair of marionettes, he breathlessly blurted:
"Mrs. Hastings, may I present Mr. Stower and Mr. 'Stuffy' Barlow, both Seniors, highly dignified and proper persons? This is Jack Hastings' mother. You are to escort Mrs. Hastings down to Harmonium Hall, and see that she has a nice seat in the gallery or near the door. No trouble at all, Mrs. Hastings, I assure you. Awfully glad to have had the honor of meeting you. Good-bye. I'll run over to Jack's room and drag him down there in five minutes."
Mrs. Hastings had all the sensations of being kidnaped. She tried to protest, even to resist, but was like a leaf caught up in a torrent, as Messrs. Barlow and Stower, both talking at once, handed her politely but firmly into the depths of a hack, climbed in after her and slammed the door.
Almost in a twinkling, as it seemed to the agitated mother, she was being ushered carefully into a small music gallery overlooking the banquet floor, where from a shadowy corner she could overlook the festivities in semi-seclusion. She waited only until her genial abductors were out of sight, and then slipped furtively toward the stairs, intending, of course, to return to her boy if he did not appear forthwith. Uneasy and fluttering, she was also keenly interested, for had not John placed this picture before her, and what it had meant to him in other years? He met her at the top of the stairway, looking sheepish and alarmed. She tried to explain, but he cut her short with a laugh:
"I know all about it, Little Mother. You fell a victim to the wiles of a terrible set of villains. You couldn't help yourself. Neither could I, when I heard how you had been spirited away. Now you are going to stay and see the fun, aren't you?"
She tried to persuade him to leave her and take his seat with the celebrants.
"No, I have lost my seat," said he, with the old shadow on his face. "I don't belong there any more. … I don't want to be seen. But the fellows promised not to give me away. It is pretty nervy for me to come at all. But I am here only to escort you."
She took his hand and held it while they sat well back in a corner of the gallery and watched the company trooping in. To the young oarsmen, so clean-cut and strong, tired but happy, all their woes and fears forgotten, this was their day of days. In a long row were seated the University eight, the substitutes, and the Freshman crew, which had also won its race. At the head of the table was "Big Bill" Hall, stout oarsman of thirty years ago, now a much stouter citizen. The captain of the crew was at his right, and at his left hand the beaming Head Coach, burned as black as any Indian. In another group were the younger coaches, most of them old strokes and captains, and mighty men at Yale in their time. Other oarsmen of other days were welcomed, regardless of the formality of invitation. Perhaps forty men around the board had known the test of the four-mile course, brothers of the oar through nearly two generations of rowing history.
The outcast was able to keep his poise until the Glee Club quartette rose to sing, by special request of the Head Coach, "Jolly Boating Weather." The first tenor had a sweet and sympathetic voice, and he had heard the story of the singing of this song on the float just before the race, wherefore he did the verses uncommonly well.
Then the old fellows, some with grizzled thatches, and some with thatches scant and thin, had their innings and pounded the table to emphasize their harmonious declaration that
"Twenty years hence such weather
Will tempt us from office stools.
We may be slow on the feather,
And seem to the boys old fools,
But we'll still swing together——"
The song carried to Hastings was the last straw to break the endurance which had pulled him through the long, long day. He did not want his mother to see his quivering lip, and he thought she would not perceive that he was near to breaking down. Did she know? Why, she felt his emotion in the hand she clasped tighter than before, she read his thoughts in the very beat of his pulse, and when he whispered that he must have caught a cold in the head because he was getting an attack of sniffles, she needed no words to enlighten her understanding. If his tears were those of a boy, then she thanked God she was childish enough to feel with him at every step and turn of the way that was blocked by the biggest sorrow of his life. She asked him whether he would like to go home. He shook his head and said that he would stick it through to the end
Speeches were in order, and the presiding alumnus hove himself out of his chair, and hammered the table with the rudder of the winning shell, thoughtfully lifted and provided by the able Assistant Manager. There were cheers for "Big Bill" Hall, of the '73 crew, more cheers for Yale, and before the uproar was quiet his great voice rose above it as he began to speak. Presiding Judge of the Supreme Court of a New England State when at home, he was all a Yale man come back to his own upon such occasions as this, and because Yale men loved him they called him "Big Bill."
"When we get into the big world beyond the campus," he began, "it may seem to some that this intensity of purpose, this absorption in a sport, were childish, yet we do not regret those convictions, we are proud of them, for these same qualities make for manhood in the larger duties of a wider horizon. And, after all, are the things for which we are striving in after years any more worth while? Are they always sweetened and uplifted by so much devotion, unselfishness, loyalty, and singleness of purpose? Are they thrilled by as fine a spirit of manliness? We hear it said that the old Yale spirit is losing its savor, that men are working for themselves rather than for the college, that they hold in light esteem things that were sacred and vital to us. I do not believe these criticisms are true.
"The young man I wished most to see is not here to-night. He would not come to help us celebrate a victory over an ancient and honorable foe. He believes that he has lost the respect of his comrades and that he has been proven a failure. For three years he has been a University oar. This season he could not keep his weight down to the limit of former years, he found that he could not keep up with the eight—although he tried as never before—and he was not helping the crew. The day came when he had to be removed, and he experienced as bitter disappointment as could befall a young man of spirit and pluck. The coaches and captain expected that he would throw up training, leave the Quarters and go home. It was the natural thing to do, because he was cut to the soul, and it was like attending his own funeral services to hang around the place.
"Without a word he slipped into the place of a substitute, and did a substitute's work as long as there was need of it. I venture to say that he would have scrubbed out the boathouse if it would have been of service to the crew. Do you know why he took this stand? Not because he did not care, but because he cared so much. When he offered to help as a substitute he said:
"'If I can help the Yale shell to go faster by being out of it, I am glad of it. That is what I am rowing for. And if I can be of any use as a substitute, why, that is what I am here for, too. It is all for Yale, isn't it?'
"He did not know that he was overheard. It was not meant to be overheard. But it expressed his whole attitude, and he stood by it to the end. You youngsters who licked Harvard to-day deserve all the praise and rejoicing that comes to you. We are all proud of you, and we know how hard and well you have worked. But while you are the heroes of this celebration, the hero did not row with you. His name is 'Jack' Hastings, the man who was glad to help a Yale crew go faster by getting out of it.
"And when you hear it said that the Yale spirit is dying out, I want you to think of that remark. That man absorbed the spirit right here that made him take that view as a matter of course. It was because he did not think of anything else to be done under the circumstances that he epitomized the spirit that will make this old place great as long as it stands. Endowments and imposing buildings can never breed that spirit. It grows and blossoms as the fruitage of many generations of tradition, and when Yale loses it, she is become an empty shell, a diploma factory, and no longer a nursery of the right kind of manhood needed in this country.
"Three long cheers for 'Jack' Hastings, who, if he did not help to win this race, will help to win races long after he is gone from the campus world; and so long as his words are remembered Yale men on football field, on track and diamond, and on the dear old Thames will feel their inspiration. Are you ready?"
The men rose the length of the table and shouted, with napkins waved on high. Before the last "rah, rah, rah, Hastings, Hastings, Hastings," subsided, the Assistant Manager had become red in the face and exceedingly uneasy. He wrestled with a weighty ethical problem, because while he had pledged his word not to reveal the secret of Hastings' presence within sight and sound of this ovation, he realized that to lead him in would be a crowning and dramatic episode. A compromise was possible, however, and he slipped around the table and whispered in the ear of "Big Bill" Hall.
In the gallery the little mother had shrunk farther back into the shadows, half afraid of this uproar, yet happier than ever before in her life. She looked at her boy, sitting close beside her, his face hidden so that she could not see the illuminating joy in it, the dazed look of unreality, as if he were coming through dreamland. There was no surprise in her mind. Of course, this triumph was no more than what was due, and she could have hugged the massive chairman as a person of excellent discernment. The boy whispered:
"He does not really mean it, Mother. There is some mistake. He has been out of college so long that he does not know what things mean."
She patted his burning cheek and whispered:
"Why, I knew it all the time. But you would not believe it if your mother said you were a hero. I wonder how the Head Coach feels now? I wish I——"
With a quick leap Jack had wrenched himself away and was clattering down the stairs. He had seen the whispered conference and "Big Bill" Hall staring up at the gallery, and fearing that he was trapped and betrayed, he fled into the street and was running for the nearest corner before the Assistant Manager could pass through the hall to the foot of the stairs. The conspirator had not promised silence regarding Hastings' mother, and before she knew what was happening he was by her side, so quickly that she thought it was Jack returned to her. As she looked up in alarm, the Assistant Manager had her reluctant hand, and was insisting upon leading her to the railing of the little gallery. She gazed at the upturned faces, and there was a moment of expectant silence. Then Judge Hall shouted the command: "Three long cheers for Jack Hastings' mother."
She was trembling now, and the lights and faces below swam in a mist of tears, as she timidly bowed. Then, as the full realization of the tribute swept over her like an engulfing wave, she became youthfully erect, she smiled, and blew kisses with both her slender hands toward the long table. She was thanking them in behalf of her boy, that was all, because they too understood. Certain that he must be waiting not far away, she bowed again, and hurried down the stairs, meeting the Head Coach in the hall. His face was serious, his manner abashed, as he said:
"I want to ask whether you will shake hands with me, Mrs. Hastings. I am proud that you do me the honor. I wish to tell you something more than you have heard to-night, and I am going to tell it to all the men, when I return to the room. Your son was too heavy to handle himself as well as he did last year and the year before. But I believe he would have rowed in the race if a mistake had not been made. I found out when it was too late that his rigging, or measurements, in the shell was not right for him, and it would have made considerable difference if he could have been shifted in time. It was wholly my fault, and nobody else was to blame in any way. I can never make it up to him, and my only consolation is that you have found what I have learned, that he is a good deal finer man than we thought him, and an honor to Yale beyond all the rest of us. You must hate me, more than any one else in the world. I remember how my mother shared my joys and sorrows in the crew."
The mother put out her hand again, and clasped that of the Coach, as she said simply, but with a catch of emotion in her voice:
"I did hate you to-day. I thought you had broken my boy's heart. Now I have to thank you. God's ways are not our ways, and I rejoice that while I have lost a captain of the crew, I have gained a man, every inch of him, tried in the fire and proven. This is the happiest night of my life. I would rather have heard the speech of Judge Hall, and the cheers that followed it, than to have my son in four winning crews and captain of every one of them. Of course he is a hero. Didn't you know that?"
The Head Coach started to speak, when the elbow of "Big Bill" Hall nudged him. The bulk of him filled the passage-way, and his voice boomed out into the night:
"If you don't bring that boy around to the hotel to see me in the morning, I will take back all I have said about him, Mrs. Hastings. Now I know where he gets all his fine qualities."
She blushed and courtesied, and the two men escorted her to the pavement, as John Hastings slipped from a doorway across the street and came over to them. His mother's escort, believing that he had been no nearer the banquet than this, made a rush for him, which he nimbly dodged, and slipped his mother's arm in his.
"He is mine now," said she. "He has a previous engagement, and, besides, I don't want him spoiled. Good-night to you. Come along, Jack, you are not too big to mind your mother, are you?"
The two walked slowly across the Green toward the campus. The communion of their uplifted souls was perfect, their happiness almost beyond words. She was first to break this rare, sweet silence, and strangely enough, she said nothing about the vindication and the triumph. Looking up into his face she almost whispered:
"Are you caring so much that Cynthia disappointed you to-day, dear boy of mine? Does it hurt and rankle? I could see it in your eyes to-night. Do you want to marry her very much? Are you sure of your heart?"
He winced a little and held her arm tighter than before, as he replied:
"Little Mother, it has been my first real love story, as you know. The thought of her has helped me over many a rough place. Before to-day she was always so quick to understand. And—and she seemed to like me better than any other fellow she knew. I was fairly aching to be worthy of her, to make my place in the world for her. I wasn't conceited enough to think she loved me. I was only hoping that some day—Any man has a right to do that, has he not?"
It was not easy for the mother to say what she wished to tell him, but at length her response was:
"I don't want you to think I am criticising her, or sitting in judgment, but you must not let her mar your faith and hope and happiness. I want to help you to guard those precious gifts. You must not blame her too much. You have been believing that she understood you, because you would have it that way. She is no older than you, a girl of twenty, accustomed to a wholly different life from yours. She was flattered by your attention, for you were a great man in her eyes. She liked you because no one can help liking you. But it made a difference when you were a hero knocked off his pedestal. And yet you expected to find in her sympathy a balm that even your mother could not give. Poor lad, mothers are handy sometimes, but most boys do not find it out until their mothers are gone from them."
"I thought I knew her so well," said he, after another silence. "It looks as if I had amused her and nothing more. But I have found you, and I have fallen head over heels in love with you, Little Mother, all over again, and I am going to kiss you right under this electric light."
Even yet she was not sure that she had sounded the depths of the ache in his heart, but as she looked up at the light in his campus rooms she said softly:
"Some day you will understand, and will thank God your mother understood. He giveth you the victory unforeseen."