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Frank Merriwell's Endurance
or A Square Shooter
Burt L. Standish
CHAPTER I. L’ESTRANGE.
CHAPTER II. THRUST AND RIPOSTE.
CHAPTER III. GETTING INTO TRIM.
CHAPTER IV. DARLETON’S CHALLENGE.
CHAPTER V. THE FENCING BOUT.
CHAPTER VI. A FORCED APOLOGY.
CHAPTER VII. THE ADMIRATION OF L’ESTRANGE.
CHAPTER VIII. AROUSED BY A MYSTERY.
CHAPTER IX. THE TRICK EXPOSED.
CHAPTER X. STEEL MEETS STEEL.
CHAPTER XI. THE RECEPTION AT CARTERSVILLE.
CHAPTER XII. TURNED DOWN.
CHAPTER XIII. THE HOUSE AMID THE TREES.
CHAPTER XIV. MATTERS OF UNCERTAINTY.
CHAPTER XV. CAMERON’S CHALLENGE.
CHAPTER XVI. AN ASTOUNDING WAGER.
CHAPTER XVII. THE VEILED WOMAN’S SECRET.
CHAPTER XVIII. IN THE CLUB CONSERVATORY.
CHAPTER XIX. CONFIDENTIAL CRITICISM.
CHAPTER XX. THE GOLDEN TROPHY.
CHAPTER XXI. TOM BRAMWELL.
CHAPTER XXII. WATCHING HIS CHANCE.
CHAPTER XXIII. THE CERTIFICATE.
CHAPTER XXIV. WHAT BART HODGE DID.
CHAPTER XXV. THROUGH DEAD TIMBER JUNGLE.
CHAPTER XXVI. THE WINNER OF THE TROPHY.
CHAPTER XXVII. NOT IN FORM.
CHAPTER XXVIII. NO CONTROL.
CHAPTER XXIX. FRANK’S TURN AT THE BAT.
CHAPTER XXX. THE STING OF DEFEAT.
CHAPTER XXXI. NO CHANCE FOR REVENGE.
CHAPTER XXXII. PERFECT CONTROL.
CHAPTER XXXIII. A BATTLE ROYAL.
On the way East with his athletic team Frank Merriwell accepted the invitation made by Hugh Morton to stop off at Omaha and visit the Midwestern Athletic Association.
Morton, a young man of twenty-five, was president of the Midwestern. He and Merriwell, the former Yale athlete, had met and become acquainted by chance in Los Angeles some weeks before, and there seemed to exist between them a sort of fellow feeling that caused them to take unusual interest in each other.
Merry and his friends were invited by Morton to witness the finals in a series of athletic events which were being conducted by the club. These contests consisted mainly of boxing and wrestling, although fencing, which was held in high esteem by the association, was one of the features.
In explanation of the rather surprising fact that fencing was thus highly regarded by an athletic association of the middle West, it is necessary to state that a very active member of the club was M. François L’Estrange, the famous French fencer and duelist, whose final encounter in his own country had resulted in the death of his opponent, a gentleman of noble birth, and had compelled L’Estrange to flee from his native land, never to return.
As fencing instructor of the Midwestern A. A., L’Estrange soon succeeded in arousing great interest in the graceful accomplishment, and he quickly developed a number of surprisingly clever pupils. In this manner fencing came to be held in high esteem by the organization and was a feature of nearly all indoor contests.
At first Omaha did not appeal to Frank; but he quickly found the people of the city were frank, unreserved, genial, and friendly, and after all, a person learns to like a place mainly through the character of its inhabitants.
At the rooms of the Midwestern, Merry and his comrades met a fine lot of young men, nearly all of whom made an effort to entertain the boys. The visitors were quickly convinced that they were welcome at the club and that they could make themselves at home there without offending any conservative and hidebound old fogies. Although the Midwestern was cautious and discreet in regard to admitting members, and it was necessary for visitors to obtain admittance in the proper manner, once inside its portals a person immediately sensed an air of liberty that was most agreeable.
“The forming of cliques in this club has been frowned down,” Hugh Morton explained. “I have visited clubs of similar standing in the East and found them full of cliques and restless with petty jealousies and personal dislikes. We hope to suppress such things here, although I regret to say that of late the club has seemed to be gradually dividing into two parties. Thus far everything has been good-natured and unruffled; but I fear that I see a pernicious undercurrent. I may be wrong; I hope I am.”
The morning after Merry’s arrival in the city the Bee noted the fact, giving him half a column and speaking of him as “that wonderful young American athlete who had maintained and added to his reputation since leaving college, yet who had persistently abstained from professionalism.” A list of his contests and victories during his Western tour was also given.
At ten o’clock that forenoon Frank and Bart Hodge met Hugh Morton by appointment in the reception room of the Midwestern. Morton rose and advanced to meet them, smiling a welcome.
“Look here,” said Frank, when they had shaken hands, “I don’t feel just right about this.”
“About what?” questioned the Omaha man.
“Taking you from your business this way. When I accepted your invitation to stop off here, I didn’t expect you to waste your time on us. Business is business, and——”
“Don’t you worry. My business is fixed so it will not suffer if I leave it. I’m delighted with this opportunity. Yesterday I gave you a look at the stockyards and the city. To-day, you told me, you wanted to take things easy and just loaf around. I’m more than willing to loaf with you. And my business will go on just the same.”
“All right,” smiled Frank. “You know your own affairs, and we’re glad to have you with us. Bart and I were talking about fencing on our way here. We’ve been wondering how much we have deteriorated in the art since quitting active practice. It has surprised us—and stirred us up somewhat—to find the sport features in this club. Bart has challenged me to give him a go at it. If we can have a set of foils and——”
“Just follow me,” invited Morton. “I’ll fix you out.”
As they were about to leave the room a tall, slender, dark man of thirty-six or thirty-seven entered. Immediately Morton paused, saying:
“Mr. Merriwell and Mr. Hodge, I am sure you will appreciate the honor of meeting our fencing instructor, Monsieur L’Estrange. Monsieur L’Estrange, this is Frank Merriwell, the most famous American amateur athlete of the present day.”
The Frenchman accepted Frank’s proffered hand. He was as graceful in his movements as a jungle panther. About him there was an air of conscious strength and superiority, and instantly he struck Frank as a person who could not do an awkward thing or fall into an ungainly pose. His training was such, that grace and ease had become a part of his nature—not second nature, but nature itself.
“Monsieur Merriwell,” he breathed softly, “it gives me ze very great pleasure to meet wiz you, sare. I have meet very many of your famous American athletes. Eet is ze grand passion in this country. Eet is good in some ways, but eet nevare make ze feenished gentleman—nevare.”
“I agree with you on that point, monsieur,” confessed Frank; “but it fits a man for the struggle of life—it prepares him to combat with the world, and you know the success and survival of the fittest was never more in evidence, as the thing of vital importance, than at the present time.”
The eyes of the Frenchman glistened.
“Very true, sare; but mere brute strength can nevare make any man ze fittest—nevare. You theenk so? You are wrong—pardone me eef I speak ze truth plainly.”
“But I do not think so, monsieur. It takes a combination of strength and brains to make a well-balanced man.”
“And skeel—do not forget skeel. Eet is ze most important of all, sare.”
“Brains give ability, strength gives power to exercise that ability.”
“And skeel defeats ze man with strength and brains. Oh, eet does! Ze man with too much strength, with ze beeg muscles; he ees handicap against ze man with just ze propare development and no more. His beeg muscles tie him, make him awkward.”
“Again I am compelled to agree with you,” smiled Frank; “and I confess that I consider fencing the most perfect method of developing ease, grace, quickness and skill—attributes essential to any man who desires to reach the highest pinnacle of development.”
“You have ze unusual wisdom on zat point, sare,” acknowledged L’Estrange. “Eet is strange, for seldom have I met ze great athlete who did not theenk himself superior to ze expert fencer. Eet is plain you know your weakness, sare.”
Bart Hodge opened his lips to say something, but Merry checked him with a quick look.
“I have fenced a little, monsieur,” explained Frank—“enough to get an idea of its value and importance.”
“Zat ees goode. You take eet up at school—at college?”
“Yes, first at Fardale, and later I followed it up at Yale.”
“Ah! But you could not have ze propare instruction—no! no! Ze American instructor he seldom know very much about eet. He ees crude; but he have ze—ze—what you call eet? Ze swell head. He theenk he knows eet all. Oui!”
“That is a fact in many instances,” acknowledged Merriwell.
At this point Morton whispered in Bart Hodge’s ear:
“L’Estrange is started and he will bore Merriwell with talk about fencing, unless we find a way to interrupt it and break away. We must be careful not to offend him.”
There was a strange, half-hidden smile on Bart’s lips as he turned to their host.
“Let the man talk,” he said, in a low tone. “Before he is through Merry will give him the call. You may not believe it, but I doubt if the Frenchman can tell Frank anything new about fencing.”
“Oh, L’Estrange is a graduate of Joinville-le-Pont, the great government school of France.”
Morton said this as if it settled a point, and Hodge knew the man thought him presuming in fancying Frank’s information on fencing was to be compared with that of the great French master of the art.
In the meantime, all his enthusiasm aroused, L’Estrange ardently continued:
“You speak of ze brain, sare. When you fence, ze brain ees prompted to act without a moment of ze hesitation. To hesitate means to make ze failure. Ze fencer must be readee with hees wit, skill, and action, like ze flash of lightning. So ze fencer fits himself for ze struggle of life. He is full of ze resource, he is queek to detec’ ze strength or ze weakness, of an argument or situation, and he acts like electricity, sweeft and unerring. Zis make him a bettair business man zan other men.”
“Every word of this is true,” nodded Merry.
“In societee he is at perfect ease; in business he can stand ze great strain. His blood ees fresh, his tissues are firm and he has ze grand enthusiasm.”
“And enthusiasm is absolutely necessary for a man to make the best of himself,” said Frank. “The man who goes at any task with indifference is inviting failure. No matter how well he may think he knows his work, he must keep up his enthusiasm unless he is willing to see that work deteriorate. Lack of enthusiasm causes thousands to fail and fall by the wayside every year.”
“True, true, sare. I see you have ze enthusiasm of ze boy steel with you. You have nevare met with anything to dull eet.”
“Not yet; and I hope I never may.”
“To keep eet you should fence, Monsieur Merriwell. Some time eet may safe your life. Oui! Once since I come to zis country I hear a noise in ze night. I rise and go to discovare ze matter. I find ze burglaire. He attack me wiz ze knife. He was beeg and strong—ze brute! I see ze umbrellare in ze corner. I seize eet. I keep ze burglaire off. I punish heem. I thrust, hit him in ze face. I give eet to him hard. Soon he try to get away. He rush for ze door. I sprang between. I continue to administaire ze punishment. I make him drop ze knife. Ze noise have aroused ze rest of ze house. Ze police come. Ze burglaire ees marched to ze jail. Ha! If I had been ze athlete, like you, zen with hees knife ze burglaire he cut me to pieces—he keel me.”
“That was fine work,” agreed Frank.
“Not yet you are too old to acquire ze skeel. You know a leetale about eet now. That help you. Find ze French master and keep at eet. Take no one but ze French master. Ze Italian style is not so good. That has been proved many time. Ze Frenchman is cool and he stands on guard with ease. Ze Italian he will move all ze time. He jump here, there, everywhere. He crouch, he stand straight, he dodge. Every minute he seem ready to jump. He makes strange sounds in hees throat; but he is not dangerous as he seem. Did you ever hear of Jean Louis?”
“Yes; he was a famous French duelist.”
“Oui, oui! When ze French army invade Spain, in 1814, Jean Louis keeled thirteen Italian fencing masters, one after ze other. Zat profe ze superiority of ze French method, sare. Ze Italian believe strength is needed to make ze perfect fencer. That is wrong. In France manee persons of ze highest rank are wondairefully skillful in ze art, yet they are not remarkable for strength. Eet is ze light touch, ze grace, ze art, ze composure, ze ready wit that count.”
“How about duels at German colleges, like Leipzig and Heidelberg?”
“Oh, no, no, no! The German have a mixture of ze French and ze Italian method. Zey are fightaires, but zey count on ze strength, too. Years ago fencing was ze study paramount at ze great German colleges; but too manee students they are killed at eet. Ze most peaceable never was he sure of his life for one day. Later ze method change, and now eet is to cut and scar ze face of ze adversary. Ze German never have ze grace of ze French.
“You stay here, Monsieur Merriwell—you see ze finals? Well, zen you see my greatest pupil, Fred Darleton, defeat his opponent. Of Monsieur Darleton I am very proud. Oui! He is a wondaire. I belief he can defeat any American in ze country.”
Hodge made a protesting sound in his throat; but again Frank shot Bart a glance of warning.
“I shall be delighted to witness the work of Mr. Darleton,” said Merry. “It has been some time since I have fenced, Monsieur L’Estrange, and I know I must be very rusty at it; but you have reawakened my enthusiasm for the sport, and I feel like taking up the foils again. If I were to remain in Omaha any length of time, I would seek to become one of your pupils.”
L’Estrange bowed with graciousness.
“Eet would give me pleasure to instruct you, sare,” he said. “Eet would give me delight to show you ze real superiority of ze duelist, ze fencer, over ze athlete. You watch ze work of Fred Darleton to-night. Eet will delight you.”
As Morton led them away, he said:
“You got off easy, Merriwell. Once get L’Estrange aroused and he can talk a blue streak about fencing for hours. He’s really a wizard with the foils, and this fellow Darleton, of whom he spoke, is likewise a wonder. Darleton is not popular with many members in the club; but I believe that is because of his remarkable skill at cards.”
“He is a successful card player, is he?” questioned Frank.
“Altogether too successful. He makes his spending money at the game.”
“Do you permit gambling for stakes in this club?”
“It is permitted,” confessed Morton, flushing slightly. “Of course gambling is not open here. We have a private card room for those who wish to play for stakes.”
Merry said nothing more, but he was thinking that the practice of gambling was a bad thing for any organization of that sort. It was not his place, however, to express such an opinion.
A short time later Merry and Bart were fitted out with foils, masks, and plastrons, and they prepared for a bout, both eager to discover if they retained their old-time skill at the art.
That Frank retained all his old-time skill he soon demonstrated. Hodge was not in bad form, but Merry was far and away his superior, and he toyed with Bart.
Morton looked on in some surprise.
“Why, say,” he cried, “both of you chaps know the game all right! You could cut some ice at it.”
“I could have told you that Merry knew it,” he said.
“L’Estrange could make an expert of him,” declared Morton.
“Perhaps he might surprise L’Estrange,” said Hodge.
“I think he would,” nodded the host, without detecting Bart’s real meaning.
Frank and Bart went at it again. In the midst of the bout two young men sauntered up and paused, watching them with interest.
“Why,” said one, “they really know how to fence, Fred!”
“That’s right,” nodded the other. “They are not novices.”
Morton quickly stepped to the side of the two.
“These are my guests, gentlemen,” he said.
“Oh,” said the taller and darker chap, “I understand you have Merriwell and his friends in town. Is either of these fellows——”
“Yes, that one there is Frank Merriwell.”
“Introduce me when they are through. I am interested in him as an athlete, although I may not be as a fencer. Evidently he thinks himself pretty clever at this trick, but his form is not correct, and he makes a number of false moves.”
Bart Hodge heard these words distinctly, and he lowered his foil, turning to survey the speaker.
“You see, Darleton!” muttered Morton resentfully. “They have heard you!”
Darleton shrugged his shoulders.
To cover his confusion, Morton hastened to introduce Darleton and his companion, Grant Hardy, to Frank and Bart.
“Mr. Darleton,” said Merry, “glad to know you. I’ve just been hearing about you from your fencing instructor.”
“Have you?” said Darleton, with a quite superior air. “I’m afraid Monsieur L’Estrange has been boasting about me, as usual. Just because I happened to be particularly apt as a pupil, he is inclined to puff me on every occasion. I don’t fancy it, you know, but I can’t seem to prevent it. People will begin to think me quite a wonder if he doesn’t stop overrating me.”
“But he doesn’t overrate you, my dear fellow,” quickly put in Grant Hardy. “I’ve seen you hold L’Estrange himself at something like even play, and he is a wizard.”
Hodge laughed a bit.
“Why do you laugh?” asked Hardy, with a flash of resentment. “Do you think——”
“I laughed over Mr. Darleton’s modesty,” said Hodge. “It is useless for him to seek to conceal the truth from us in that manner. He is quite the wonder of this club.”
Hardy missed the sarcasm hidden in Bart’s words and his face cleared.
Darleton, however, was not so obtuse, and he surveyed Bart searchingly, a flush creeping into his cheeks.
“I observe that you fence after a fashion, Mr. Hodge,” said Darleton, and the passing breath of insult lay in his manner of saying “after a fashion.”
“Oh, not at all!” protested Hodge; “but I assure you that my friend Merriwell can put up something of an argument at it when he is in his best form.”
“Indeed?” smiled Darleton, lifting his eyebrows. “Then I am led to infer that he is not in his best form just now.”
“What leads you to infer that?”
“Oh, your manner of speaking the words, of course. I would not comment on what I have seen him do.”
“Sometimes our ears deceive us,” said Bart; “but I fancied I did hear you—never mind that.”
He broke off abruptly, but he had informed Darleton that his words, spoken when he first appeared on the scene, had been overheard.
Darleton shrugged his shoulders, a gesture he had caught from his French instructor.
“Fancy leads us into grave mistakes at times,” he said. “It should not be permitted to run away with us. Now, I have known fellows who fancied they could fence, but very few of them have been able to make much of a go at it.”
This was a sly thrust at Merry. Frank looked pleasant and nodded.
“I have even known instructors to be deceived in the skill of their pupils,” he remarked, reaching home and scoring heavily.
This reply brought the blood flashing once more to Darleton’s cheeks.
“In case you were the pupil,” said the fencer, instantly, “no instructor could feel the least doubt in regard to your skill.”
His words plainly implied that he meant lack of skill, although he was not that blunt.
“Although you are not inclined to comment on the work of another,” returned Merry; “it is evident that your observation is keen, and with you, one’s back might not be as safe as his face.”
This was a coup, for Darleton lost his temper, showing how sharply he had been hit.
“I’ll not pass words with you, Mr. Merriwell,” he exclaimed, “as I am not inclined to waste my breath uselessly. If at any time while you are here you feel inclined to demonstrate what you can really do—or think you can do—you will find me at your service.”
Hodge stiffened. It was a challenge.
“Thank you for your kindness,” smiled Frank, perfectly at his ease. “I may take you at your word later on.”
Darleton and Hardy turned away.
“He may,” observed Hardy, speaking to his companion, but making sure Frank could not fail to hear, “yet I doubt it.”
Hodge seized Frank’s arm, fairly quivering with excitement.
“You’re challenged, Merry!” he panted. “You must accept! Don’t let him off! Teach the fellow a lesson!”
“Steady, Bart,” said Merriwell softly. “There is plenty of time. Don’t fly up like this. Do you want to see me defeated?”
“No! He can’t defeat you!”
“How do you know?”
Hodge stared at Frank in doubt and astonishment.
“Is it possible you are afraid to face him?” he gasped.
“I don’t think so; but you should remember that he is in perfect form and condition, while I am rusty. In order to meet him and do my best I must practice. That I shall do. Wait. I promise you satisfaction—and Mr. Darleton the same!”
Bart Hodge was not aware that Frank had been so thoroughly aroused; but when he was called to Merry’s room in the hotel that day after lunch and found two complete fencing outfits there—foils, masks, jackets, and gauntlet gloves—he realized that there was “something doing.”
Frank closed and locked the door.
“Strip down and make ready,” he said grimly. “I’m going to brush up and get in condition, and you are the victim.”
“I’m happy to be the victim now,” declared Bart; “in case Mr. Darleton is the victim later.”
Something more than an hour later the comrades were resting after a bath and rub down. Bart’s eyes shone and his dark, handsome face wore an expression of great satisfaction.
“You may be rusty, Merry,” he observed; “but I fail to see it. I swear you fenced better to-day than ever before in all your life.”
“You think so, Bart; but I can’t believe that. A man can’t be at his best at fencing, any more than at billiards, unless he is in constant practice.”
“Oh, I know I’ve gone back; but you have not. I’ll wager my life you can give Fred Darleton all he is looking for.”
“It would be a pleasure to me,” confessed Frank. “Somehow he irritated me strangely.”
“I’d never supposed it by your manner.”
“If I had lost my temper I should have been defeated. Mr. Darleton has a temper, and I shall count on it leading to his downfall, in case we meet.”
“You’ll meet, for you are challenged. He thinks you a mark, Merry. He’ll be overconfident.”
“Another thing I count on as aiding me. Overconfidence is quite as bad as lack of confidence. Darleton has been praised too much, and he believes he is very nearly perfect as a fencer. A defeat now will either make or mar him. If defeated, he will either set about working harder to acquire further accomplishment, or he will quit.”
“I believe he’ll quit.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t like him, Merry.”
“There is something about him that I do not fancy, myself. I’ve not seen him enough to judge what it is. I’ve tried to think it might be his freshness in shooting his mouth the way he did; but something asserts that I should have disliked him had he kept his mouth closed. He has an air of directness; but behind it there is a touch of cunning and craft that stamps him as crooked. I may sympathize with a weak chap who goes crooked through temptation; but I have no sympathy for a sly rascal who is dishonest with deliberation. If Darleton is naturally honest, I have misjudged him.”
There came a heavy knock on the door and the sound of voices outside.
Bart unlocked the door, and Joe Gamp stalked in, followed by Jack Ready, Hans Dunnerwurst, and Jim Stretcher, all of Merriwell’s party.
“Ding this tut-tut-tut-tut-tut——” began Joe.
“Tut, tut!” interrupted Jack. “Eliminate repetitions from your profuse flow of language, Joseph.”
Gamp flourished his fist in the air and began again:
“Ding this tut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut——”
“Whistle, Joe—whistle!” advised Frank.
Whereupon the tall chap recommenced:
“Ding this tut-tut-tut—whistle—town! It’s all up hill and dud-dud-dud—whistle—down!”
“Oh, Joseph, you’re a poet!” exclaimed Ready.
“Yah,” said Dunnerwurst gravely, “oudt uf him boetry flows like a sbarkling rifer.”
“We have decided in solemn conclave,” said Ready, “that the streets of this prosperous Western burgh are exceedingly soiled.”
“Und some of them been stood their end onto,” put in Hans.
“It’s hard to keep your fuf-fuf-fuf—whistle—feet from slipping in the sus-sus-sus—whistle—street,” added Gamp.
“There he goes again!” burst from Ready. “I never suspected it of him. Crown him with laurels and adorn him with bays.”
“What is the difference between the bay and the laurel, Jack?” laughed Frank.
“Ask me not at this unpropitious moment,” entreated the odd fellow. “We have been meandering hither and yon over Omaha—yea verily, we have been even as far as the stockyards of South Omaha. We have waded across streets that were guiltless of being cleaned even since the day they were paved. We have ascended streets which led into the clouds, and we have descended others which led into the gorges and valleys. We have gazed in awe upon the courthouse, with blind justice standing on its battlements, balances in hand. We have seen the post office and expressed our admiration. Alas and alack, we are wearied! We fain would rest. Omaha is all right for those who think so; but some day she will rise and butcher her street-cleaning department. She will be justified. I have spoke.”
With this he dropped on a chair and fanned himself weakly.
“What have you fellows been dud-dud-doing?” inquired Gamp, noticing for the first time that the boys were in bath robes and that fencing paraphernalia was scattered about the room.
Frank explained that they had been fencing.
“Jee-whickers!” cried Joe. “You used to be pretty good at it when you were at cuc-cuc-college. You were the champion fuf-fuf-fuf-fencer at Yale, all right.”
“He’s just as good to-day as he ever was,” declared Bart; “and Mr. Darleton will find out that is good enough.”
“Who’s Darleton?” asked Stretcher.
Then they were told about the affair at the club, which quickly awoke their interest.
“Omaha takes on new fascination for me,” averred Ready. “I felt like folding my tent and stealing away a short time ago; but if Merry is going against some gentleman with the inflated cranium in this burgh, I shall linger with great glee to watch the outcome.”
“You talk the way a cub reporter writes, Ready,” said Stretcher. “Big words sound good to you, but if you know what you’re saying you’ll have to show me.”
“I shall refrain from exerting myself to that extent, my boy,” retorted Jack. “It’s not worth while.”
“Where are the rest of the boys?” asked Frank.
“Scattered broadcast over the mountains and valleys of Omaha,” answered Ready. “Fear not for them; they will return in due time.”
“How does Omaha strike you, Jim?” inquired Merriwell.
“She ain’t in it much compared with Kansas City,” said Stretcher. “We have some hills there, you know. I’ve yet to see any country that can get away from old Missouri. When you get ahead of Missouri, you’ll have to hurry.”
“It does me good to see a chap who will stand up for his native State,” said Merry, winking at some of the others but maintaining a grave face before Stretcher. “Of course Missouri may have her drawbacks, but we all know she is a land of fertility and——”
“Fertility!” cried Jim enthusiastically. “You bet! Crops grow overnight there. Yes, sir, that’s straight. It’s perfectly astonishing how things grow. As an illustration, when I was about seven years old my mother gave me some morning-glory seeds to plant. I always did love the morning-glory flower. I thought it would be a grand thing to plant the seeds beneath my chamber window, where I could look forth each morning on rising and revel in the beauty of the purple blossoms. I got busy and stuck the seeds into the ground one afternoon about five o’clock. I knew the soil was particularly rich right there, and I counted on the vines growing fast, so I lost no time in stringing a number of cords from the ground right up to my window.
“That night when I went to bed I wondered if the seeds would be sprouted when I rose the following morning. It was warm weather, and I slept with my window open. I suppose I kicked the bedclothes off. Some time in the night I felt something pushing me, but I was too sleepy to wake up. About daylight I woke up suddenly, for something pushed me out of bed onto the floor. I jumped up and looked to see what was the matter. Fellows, you won’t believe it, but the vine—or, rather, a profusion of vines—had grown all the way up to my window in the night, had found the window open, had come into the room, and, being tired from its exertion in growing so hard, I presume, had climbed into my bed and pushed me out.”
A profound silence was broken by Dunnerwurst, who gurgled:
“Uf I faint, vill somebody blease throw me on some vater!”
“Stretcher,” said Merry, “I don’t suppose there is ever anything in your State that is not grand and superior? There are no drawbacks to Missouri? Soil, climate, people—all are of the first quality?”
“Oh,” said Jim, with an air of modesty, “I presume any part of the country has its drawbacks. The soil of Missouri is magnificent and the climate superb—as a rule. I presume there are sterile spots within the boundaries of the State, and I have experienced some unpleasant weather. The winter that old Jake died was unusually severe.”
“Who was Jake?”
“A mule, and the dumb companion of my innocent boyhood. You see, I always wanted a dog. Lots of boys I knew had dogs. Tom Jones had a shepherd, Pete Boogers had a collie, Muck Robbins had a yaller cur, and Runt Hatch had two bull purps. I pestered paw for a dog. He didn’t have any use for dogs, and he wouldn’t give me one. I told him I must have a pet of some kind. ‘All right, Jim,’ says he, ‘if you want a pet, there’s Jake, our old mule, you may have him.’ Now, Jake was pretty well used up. He was spavined and chest foundered and so thin his slats were coming through his hide. He wasn’t beautiful, but he had been a faithful old creature, and paw was disinclined to kill him. He thought it was a great joke to give me Jake for a pet; but I was just yearning for something on which I could lavish my affection, and I began to pour it out on Jake.
“I petted the old boy, gave him good feed, took him into the cowshed nights, and did my best to make him generally comfortable. Jake appreciated it. You may think dumb creatures, and mules in particular, have no sense of gratitude, but such is not the case. Jake understood me, and I did him. I could actually read his thoughts. Yes, sir, it’s a fact. At first paw grinned over it and tried to joke me about Jake; but after a while he got tired of having his best feed given that old mule and finding the animal bedded down in the cowshed. He said it would have to stop. Then he got mad and turned Jake out to pick for himself. I brought Jake back twice, but both times paw raised a fuss, and the last time, he got so blazing mad he swore he’d knock the mule in the head if I did it again.
“That was in the fall, with winter coming on. I tried to plead with paw; but it was no go. He said Jake would have to shift for himself in the open. Jake used to come up to the lower fence and call to me melodiously in the gloaming, and I would slip down and pat him and talk to him and sympathize with him. But I didn’t dare do anything more. Well, that winter was a tough one. Never had so much cold weather packed into one winter before that. Jake suffered from exposure, and my heart bled for him. He grew thinner and thinner and sadder and sadder. Paw’s heart was like flint, and I couldn’t do anything. Jake hated snowstorms. Every time one came he thought it would be his last; but somehow he worried through them all until the snow went off and spring set in. Then Jake brightened up some and seemed more like himself.
“But late in the spring another cold spell struck in. It was near the first of May. In the midst of that cold spell our barn got afire one night. When Jake saw that fire, he says to himself, ‘Here’s my chance to get warm all the way through.’ He found a weak spot in the fence and got over it, after which he waltzed up to the barn and stood there, warming first one side and then the other by the heat and enjoying himself.
“We had a heap of corn stored in the barn. After a while the roof of the barn burned off and the fire got to the corn. When this happened the corn began to pop and fly into the air. It popped faster and faster and flew high into the air, coming down in a great shower. Jake looked up and saw the air plumb full of great, white flakes of popped corn. The poor, old mule gave a great groan of anguish. ‘I’ve lasted through twenty-one snowstorms this winter,’ says he, with tears in his eyes; ‘but this one is my finish.’ Then he lay right down where he was and gave up the struggle. In the morning we found him frozen stiff.”
Ready sobbed and wiped his eyes.
“How pathetic!” he exclaimed chokingly.
“Poor Shake!” gurgled Hans.
“That story should be entitled ‘The Tale of a Mule,’” observed Frank.
“It is evident,” said Bart, “that Missouri mules are sometimes more intelligent than the inhabitants of the State.”
“Oh, we have some dull people, of course,” admitted Jim. “I remember the janitor at our old school—he was a trifle dull. Poor old Mullen! One day he threw up his job. They asked him why he did it. Says he: ‘I’m honest, and I won’t stand being slurred.’ He was pressed to explain. ‘Why,’ he exclaimed, ‘when I’m sweeping out, if I happen to find a handkerchief or any little thing, I hang it up, like an honest man. Every now and then the teacher, or somebody who hasn’t the nerve to face me, gives me a slur. A few days ago I come in one mornin’ and I seen writ on the blackboard: “Find the least common multiple.” Well, I just went searching the place over from top to bottom, but I couldn’t find a sign of the old thing anywhere. I don’t believe nobody lost it. That made me sore, but I stood for it all right. Yesterday mornin’ in great big letters there was writ on the blackboard: “Find the greatest common divisor.” Says I to myself: “Now, both of them blamed things is lost, and I’ll be charged with swipin’ ’em.” And I throwed up my job.’”
They laughed heartily over this story, and, having aroused their risibilities at last, Jim seemed satisfied.
It was the night of the “finals” at the Midwestern, and the clubrooms were thronged. Frank and all his friends were there. Morton had introduced them to many well-known young men of the prosperous Nebraska city, and they were being made to feel quite at home.
Much of the general conversation concerned the coming bouts. Opinions were freely expressed as to the abilities and merits of different contestants and there was much good-natured argument and banter.
There was also not a little quiet betting.
In one of the big main rooms of the club, Merry met three Yale men, who expressed their delight at seeing him there. While he was talking with them François L’Estrange came up. The Frenchman knew them also, and he paused to shake hands all round.
“What’s the matter, L’Estrange?” asked one. “You seem rather downcast and troubled over something.”
The fencing master shrugged his shoulders.
“Eet is unfortunate,” he declared. “I haf to geef you ze information zat there will be no fencing zis night.”
“Why, how is that?” they exclaimed.
“Meestare Marlowe, who was to meet Meestare Darleton, ees not here.”
“Where is he?”
“He haf sent ze word zat he is very ill.”
“Cold feet!” cried one of the gentlemen. “That’s what’s the matter! Marlowe squeals!”
“Sure thing!” agreed another. “It’s a shame, but he has made a clean backdown.”
“He was all right last night. I saw him then,” put in the third gentleman.
“Eet is very strange,” said L’Estrange regretfully. “I understand eet not why he should haf ze cold feet and be ill. I suppose ze cold feet ees unpleasant, but zey should not make him squeal.”
“What we mean,” explained the first gentleman, “is that he is afraid to meet Darleton. He has defeated every opponent in the contests, and it has been his boast that he would defeat Darleton. His nerve failed him.”
“Eet ruin ze sport for zis night,” declared the fencing master. “Zere ees no one who is for Meestare Darleton ze efen match, so zere will be no fencing.”
At this point Darleton himself, accompanied as usual by his chum, Grant Hardy, came pushing through the throng, espied L’Estrange and hurried up.
“I’ve been looking for you, professor!” he exclaimed. “What’s this about Marlowe? Is it true that he has quit?”
“Eet is true.”
“Well, that’s just about the sort I took him to be!” cried Darleton angrily. “He’s a great case of bluff! He’s a bag of wind! He’s a quitter! He knew I’d defeat him. Now, what are we going to do?”
“Zere is nothing we can do,” answered the fencing master regretfully.
“And our go was to be the feature to-night. Every one will be disappointed. It’s a shame. Besides that, Marlowe had no right not to give me a chance to show him up. I meant to put it all over him, the slob!”
Darleton’s chagrin over his lost opportunity to “put it all over” the other fellow seemed to lead him into a complete loss of temper, and he indulged in language which on any occasion he would have condemned in another.
Suddenly his eyes fell on Frank Merriwell, and a peculiar expression came to his face.
“Why, here is the great athlete who fancies he is something of a fencer,” he said. “Good evening, Mr. Merriwell. I suppose you came to see me outpoint Marlowe? Well, you will be disappointed, I regret to say.”
Hodge was near, and the words and manner of Darleton had caused him to bridle until he was on the point of exploding.
“I regret very much,” said Merry quietly, “that we shall not have the pleasure of witnessing the fencing bout between you and Mr. Marlowe, sir.”
He was calm, polite, and reserved.
L’Estrange spoke up:
“I suppose we might geef ze exhibition ourselves, Meestare Darleton,” he said. “Zat might please ze spectators bettaire than nothing.”
“But it would not be like a bout in which there was an element of uncertainty. Every one would know you could defeat me easily if you cared to. If I counted on you I’d win no credit, for they would say you permitted me to do it.”
The desire of the fellow for applause and his thirst to display his skill by defeating some one was all too evident.
Suddenly he turned sharply to again face Frank.
“How about you?” he asked.
Merry lifted his eyebrows.
Hodge felt a tingling, for he realized that an open challenge was coming.
“About me?” repeated Frank questioningly.
“Yes, how about you? You think you can fence.”
“I have fenced—a little.”
“I was told to-day that you are a champion at everything you undertake. That’s ridiculous if you undertake many things. You have undertaken fencing. Well, I’d like to convince some people that there is one thing at which you are not much of a champion.”
“Would you?” asked Merry, smiling pleasantly.
“Indeed I would. The crowd wants to see a fencing bout to-night. Marlowe has taken water. He isn’t here. You are here. Of course we can’t fence for honors in the series, as you have not been engaged in previous contests. All the same, we can give an exhibition go. There will be an element of uncertainty about it. What do you say?”
“Why, I don’t know——” came slowly from Merry, as if he hesitated over it.
“Oh, if you’re afraid,” sneered Darleton—“if you haven’t the nerve, that’s different.”
A strange, smothered growl was choked back in the throat of Bart Hodge.
“I don’t believe I am afraid of you,” said Frank, with the same deliberate manner. “I was thinking that such an affair would be quite irregular if interpolated with the finals.”
“Don’t worry about that. If you are willing to meet me, I’ll fix it.”
“Of course I’m willing, but——”
“That settles it!” cried Darleton triumphantly. “You hear him, gentlemen. He’s ready to fence me. He can’t back out.”
“As if he would want to back out!” muttered Bart Hodge softly. “You’ll get all you’re looking for to-night, Mr. Darleton.”
“On guard, gentlemen!”
It was the voice of François L’Estrange.
The regular finals were over. As a finish to the evening’s entertainment, the announcer had stated that, in order not to disappoint those who had expected to witness a fencing contest, an arrangement had been made whereby Frank Merriwell, a guest of the club, would meet the club’s champion, Fred Darleton.
Darleton had appeared first on the raised platform and had been greeted by hearty applause.
Then came Merriwell, and the applause accorded him was no less generous.
The preliminaries were quickly arranged.
L’Estrange was agreed on as the referee.
“On guard, gentlemen!” he commanded.
At the word the contestants faced each other, and then they went through the graceful movements of coming on guard, their foils sweeping through the air. Simultaneously they advanced their right feet and were ready.
The foils met with a soft clash and the bout had begun.
The great gathering of spectators packed on the four sides of the raised platform were hushed and breathless. They saw before them two splendid specimens of youthful manhood. Between them it was indeed no easy thing to make a hasty choice. Both were graceful as panthers and both seemed perfectly at home and fully confident. Frank’s face was grave and pleasant, while Darleton wore a faint smile that bespoke his perfect trust in himself.
Frank’s friends were all together in a body. Among them Harry Rattleton was the only one who expressed anxiety.