Ken Ward had not been at the big university many days before he realized the miserable lot of a freshman.
At first he was sorely puzzled. College was so different from what he had expected. At the high school of his home town, which, being the capital of the State, was no village, he had been somebody. Then his summer in Arizona, with its wild adventures, had given him a self-appreciation which made his present situation humiliating.
There were more than four thousand students at the university. Ken felt himself the youngest, the smallest, the one of least consequence. He was lost in a shuffle of superior youths. In the forestry department he was a mere boy; and he soon realized that a freshman there was the same as anywhere. The fact that he weighed nearly one hundred and sixty pounds, and was no stripling, despite his youth, made not one whit of difference.
Unfortunately, his first overture of what he considered good-fellowship had been made to an upper-classman, and had been a grievous mistake. Ken had not yet recovered from its reception. He grew careful after that, then shy, and finally began to struggle against disappointment and loneliness.
Outside of his department, on the campus and everywhere he ventured, he found things still worse. There was something wrong with him, with his fresh complexion, with his hair, with the way he wore his tie, with the cut of his clothes. In fact, there was nothing right about him. He had been so beset that he could not think of anything but himself. One day, while sauntering along a campus path, with his hands in his pockets, he met two students coming toward him. They went to right and left, and, jerking his hands from his pockets, roared in each ear, "How dare you walk with your hands in your pockets!"
Another day, on the library step, he encountered a handsome bareheaded youth with a fine, clean-cut face and keen eyes, who showed the true stamp of the great university.
"Here," he said, sharply, "aren't you a freshman?"
"Why—yes," confessed Ken.
"I see you have your trousers turned up at the bottom."
"Yes—so I have." For the life of him Ken could not understand why that simple fact seemed a crime, but so it was.
"Turn them down!" ordered the student.
Ken looked into the stern face and flashing eyes of his tormentor, and then meekly did as he had been commanded.
"Boy, I've saved your life. We murder freshmen here for that," said the student, and then passed on up the steps.
In the beginning it was such incidents as these that had bewildered Ken. He passed from surprise to anger, and vowed he would have something to say to these upper-classmen. But when the opportunity came Ken always felt so little and mean that he could not retaliate. This made him furious. He had not been in college two weeks before he could distinguish the sophomores from the seniors by the look on their faces. He hated the sneering "Sophs," and felt rising in him the desire to fight. But he both feared and admired seniors. They seemed so aloof, so far above him. He was in awe of them, and had a hopeless longing to be like them. And as for the freshmen, it took no second glance for Ken to pick them out. They were of two kinds—those who banded together in crowds and went about yelling, and running away from the Sophs, and those who sneaked about alone with timid step and furtive glance.
Ken was one of these lonesome freshmen. He was pining for companionship, but he was afraid to open his lips. Once he had dared to go into Carlton Hall, the magnificent club-house which had been given to the university by a famous graduate. The club was for all students—Ken had read that on the card sent to him, and also in the papers. But manifestly the upper-classmen had a different point of view. Ken had gotten a glimpse into the immense reading-room with its open fireplace and huge chairs, its air of quiet study and repose; he had peeped into the brilliant billiard-hall and the gymnasium; and he had been so impressed and delighted with the marble swimming-tank that he had forgotten himself and walked too near the pool. Several students accidentally bumped him into it. It appeared the students were so eager to help him out that they crowded him in again. When Ken finally got out he learned the remarkable fact that he was the sixteenth freshman who had been accidentally pushed into the tank that day.
So Ken Ward was in a state of revolt. He was homesick; he was lonely for a friend; he was constantly on the lookout for some trick; his confidence in himself had fled; his opinion of himself had suffered a damaging change; he hardly dared call his soul his own.
But that part of his time spent in study or attending lectures more than made up for the other. Ken loved his subject and was eager to learn. He had a free hour in the afternoon, and often he passed this in the library, sometimes in the different exhibition halls. He wanted to go into Carlton Club again, but his experience there made him refrain.
One afternoon at this hour Ken happened to glance into a lecture-room. It was a large amphitheatre full of noisy students. The benches were arranged in a circle running up from a small pit. Seeing safety in the number of students who were passing in, Ken went along. He thought he might hear an interesting lecture. It did not occur to him that he did not belong there. The university had many departments and he felt that any lecture-room was open to him. Still, caution had become a habit with him, and he stepped down the steep aisle looking for an empty bench.
How steep the aisle was! The benches appeared to be on the side of a hill. Ken slipped into an empty one. There was something warm and pleasant in the close contact of so many students, in the ripple of laughter and the murmur of voices. Ken looked about him with a feeling that he was glad to be there.
It struck him, suddenly, that the room had grown strangely silent. Even the shuffling steps of the incoming students had ceased. Ken gazed upward with a queer sense of foreboding. Perhaps he only imagined that all the students above were looking down at him. Hurriedly he glanced below. A sea of faces, in circular rows, was turned his way.
There was no mistake about it. He was the attraction. At the same instant when he prayed to sink through the bench out of sight a burning anger filled his breast. What on earth had he done now? He knew it was something; he felt it. That quiet moment seemed an age. Then the waiting silence burst.
"Fresh on fifth!" yelled a student in one of the lower benches.
"FRESH ON FIFTH!" bawled another at the top of his lungs.
Ken's muddled brain could make little of the matter. He saw he was in the fifth row of benches, and that all the way around on either side of him the row was empty. The four lower rows were packed, and above him students were scattered all over. He had the fifth row of benches to himself.
"Fresh on fifth!"
Again the call rang up from below. It was repeated, now from the left of the pit and then from the right. A student yelled it from the first row and another from the fourth. It banged back and forth. Not a word came from the upper part of the room.
Ken sat up straight with a very red face. It was his intention to leave the bench, but embarrassment that was developing into resentment held him fast. What a senseless lot these students were! Why could they not leave him in peace? How foolish of him to go wandering about in strange lecture-rooms!
A hand pressed Ken's shoulder. He looked back to see a student bending down toward him.
"Hang, Freshie!" this fellow whispered.
"What's it all about?" asked Ken. "What have I done, anyway? I never was in here before."
"All Sophs down there. They don't allow freshmen to go below the sixth row. There've been several rushes this term. And the big one's coming. Hang, Freshie! We're all with you."
"Fresh on fifth!" The tenor of the cry had subtly changed. Good-humored warning had changed to challenge. It pealed up from many lusty throats, and became general all along the four packed rows.
"Hang, Freshie!" bellowed a freshman from the topmost row. It was acceptance of the challenge, the battle-cry flung down to the Sophs. A roar arose from the pit. The freshmen, outnumbering the sophomores, drowned the roar in a hoarser one. Then both sides settled back in ominous waiting.
Ken thrilled in all his being. The freshmen were with him! That roar told him of united strength. All in a moment he had found comrades, and he clenched his fingers into the bench, vowing he would hang there until hauled away.
"Fresh on fifth!" shouted a Soph in ringing voice. He stood up in the pit and stepped to the back of the second bench. "Fresh on fifth! Watch me throw him out!"
He was a sturdily built young fellow and balanced himself gracefully on the backs of the benches, stepping up from one to the other. There was a bold gleam in his eyes and a smile on his face. He showed good-natured contempt for a freshman and an assurance that was close to authority.
Ken sat glued to his seat in mingled fear and wrath. Was he to be the butt of those overbearing sophomores? He thought he could do nothing but hang on with all his might. The ascending student jumped upon the fourth bench and, reaching up, laid hold of Ken with no gentle hands. His grip was so hard that Ken had difficulty in stifling a cry of pain. This, however, served to dispel his panic and make him angry clear through.
The sophomore pulled and tugged with all his strength, yet he could not dislodge Ken. The freshmen howled gleefully for him to "Hang! hang!"
Then two more sophomores leaped up to help the leader. A blank silence followed this move, and all the freshmen leaned forward breathlessly. There was a sharp ripping of cloth. Half of Ken's coat appeared in the hands of one of his assailants.
Suddenly Ken let go his hold, pushed one fellow violently, then swung his fists. It might have been unfair, for the sophomores were beneath him and balancing themselves on the steep benches, but Ken was too angry to think of that. The fellow he pushed fell into the arms of the students below, the second slid out of sight, and the third, who had started the fray, plunged with a crash into the pit.
The freshmen greeted this with a wild yell; the sophomores answered likewise. Like climbing, tumbling apes the two classes spilled themselves up and down the benches, and those nearest Ken laid hold of him, pulling him in opposite directions.
Then began a fierce fight for possession of luckless Ken. Both sides were linked together by gripping hands. Ken was absolutely powerless. His clothes were torn to tatters in a twinkling; they were soon torn completely off, leaving only his shoes and socks. Not only was he in danger of being seriously injured, but students of both sides were handled as fiercely. A heavy trampling roar shook the amphitheatre. As they surged up and down the steep room benches were split. In the beginning the sophomores had the advantage and the tug-of-war raged near the pit and all about it. But the superior numbers of the freshmen began to tell. The web of close-locked bodies slowly mounted up the room, smashing the benches, swaying downward now and then, yet irresistibly gaining ground. The yells of the freshmen increased with the assurance of victory. There was one more prolonged, straining struggle, then Ken was pulled away from the sophomores. The wide, swinging doors of the room were knocked flat to let out the stream of wild freshmen. They howled like fiends; it was first blood for the freshman class; the first tug won that year.
Ken Ward came to his senses out in the corridor surrounded by an excited, beaming, and disreputable crowd of freshmen. Badly as he was hurt, he had to laugh. Some of them looked happy in nothing but torn underclothes. Others resembled a lot of ragamuffins. Coats were minus sleeves, vests were split, shirts were collarless. Blood and bruises were much in evidence.
Some one helped Ken into a long ulster.
"Say, it was great," said this worthy. "Do you know who that fellow was—the first one who tried to throw you out of number five?"
"I haven't any idea," replied Ken. In fact, he felt that his ideas were as scarce just then as his clothes.
"That was the president of the Sophs. He's the varsity baseball captain, too. You slugged him!… Great!"
Ken's spirit, low as it was, sank still lower. What miserable luck he had! His one great ambition, next to getting his diploma, had been to make the varsity baseball team.