Joel arrived at chapel the following morning just as the doors were being closed. Duffy, the wooden-legged doorkeeper, was not on duty, and the youth upon whom his duties had devolved allowed Joel to pass without giving his name for report as tardy. During prayers there was an evident atmosphere of suppressed excitement among the pupils, but not until chapel was over did Joel discover the cause.
"Were you here when it happened?" asked West.
"When what happened?" responded Joel.
"Haven't you heard? Why, some one cut the bell rope, and when 'Peg-leg' went to ring chapel bell the rope broke up in the tower and came down on his head and laid him out there on the floor, and some of the fellows found him knocked senseless. And they've taken him to the infirmary. You know the rope's as big as your wrist, and it hit him on top of the head. I guess he isn't much hurt, but 'Wheels' is as mad as never was, and whoever did it will have a hard time, I'll bet!"
"Poor old Duffy!" said Joel. "Let's go over and find out if he's much hurt. It was a dirty sort of a joke to play, though I suppose whoever did it didn't think it would hurt any one."
At the infirmary they found Professor Gibbs in the office.
"No, boys, he isn't damaged much. He'll be all right in a few hours. I hope that the ones who did it will be severely punished. It was a most contemptible trick to put up on Duffy."
"I hope so too," answered West indignantly. "You may depend that no upper middle boy did it, sir." The professor smiled.
"I hope you are right, West."
At noon hour Joel was summoned to the principal's office. Professor Wheeler, the secretary, and Professor Durkee were present, and as Joel entered he scented an air of hostility. The secretary closed the door behind him.
"March, I have sent for you to ask whether you can give us any information which will lead to the apprehension of the perpetrators of the trick which has resulted in injury to Mr. Duffy. Can you?"
"No, sir," responded Joel.
"You know absolutely nothing about it?"
"Nothing, sir, except what I have been told."
"Outfield West, sir, after chapel. We went to the infirmary to inquire about 'Peg'--about Mr. Duffy, sir." The secretary repressed a smile. The principal was observing Joel very closely, and Professor Durkee moved impatiently in his seat.
"I can not suppose," continued the principal, "that the thing was done simply as a school joke. The boy who cut the rope must have known when he did so that the result would be harmful to whoever rang the chapel bell this morning. I wish it understood that I have no intention of dealing leniently with the culprit, but, at the same time, a confession, if made now, will have the effect of mitigating his punishment." He paused. Joel turned an astonished look from him to Professor Durkee, who, meeting it, frowned and turned impatiently away. "You have nothing more to tell me, March?"
"Why, no, sir," answered Joel in a troubled voice. "I don't understand. Am I suspected--of--of this--thing, sir?"
"Dear me, sir," exclaimed Professor Durkee, explosively, turning to the principal, "it's quite evident that--"
"One moment, please," answered the latter firmly. The other subsided.--"You had town leave last night, March?"
"You went with Outfield West?"
"What time did you return to your room?"
"At about a quarter to ten, sir."
"You are certain as to the time?"
"I only know that I heard the down train whistle as I left Academy Building. I went right to my room, sir."
"Was the door of Academy Building unlocked last night?"
"I don't know. I didn't try it, sir."
"What time did you leave Mr. Remsen's house?"
"A few minutes after nine."
"You came right back here?"
"Yes, sir. We came as far as Academy Building, and West and Digbee went home. I sat on the front steps here until I heard the whistle blow. Then I went to my room."
"Why did you sit on the steps, March?"
"I wasn't sleepy; and the moon was coming out--and--I wanted to think."
"Do you hear from home very often?"
"Once or twice a week, sir."
"When did you get a letter last, and from whom was it?"
"From my mother, about three days ago."
"Have you that letter?"
"Yes, sir. It is in my room."
"You sometimes carry your letters in your pocket?"
"Why, yes, but not often. If I receive them on the way out of the building I put them in my pocket, and then put them away when I get back."
"Where do you keep them?"
"In my bureau drawer."
"It is kept locked?"
"No, sir. I never lock it."
"Do you remember what was in that last letter?"
"Was any one mentioned in it?"
"Yes, sir. Mr. Remsen was mentioned. And Outfield West, and my brother, and father."
"Is this your letter?" Professor Wheeler extended it across the desk, and Joel took it wonderingly.
"Why, yes, sir. But where--I don't understand--!" Again he looked toward Professor Durkee in bewilderment.
"Nor do I," answered that gentleman dryly.
"March," continued the principal, as he took the letter again, "this was found this morning, after the accident, on the floor of the bell tower. Do you know how it came there?" Joel's cheeks reddened and then grew white as the full meaning of the words reached him. His voice suddenly grew husky.
"No, sir, I do not." The words were spoken very stoutly and rang with sincerity. A silence fell on the room. Professor Wheeler glanced inquiringly at Professor Durkee, and the latter made a grimace of impatience that snarled his homely face into a mass of wrinkles.
"Look here, boy," he snapped, "who do you think dropped that letter there?"
"I can't think, sir. I can't understand it at all. I've never been in the tower since I've been in school."
"Do you know of any one who might like to get you into trouble in such a way as this?"
"No, sir," answered Joel promptly. Then a sudden recollection of Bartlett Cloud came to him, and he hesitated. Professor Durkee observed it.
"Well?" he said sharply.
"I know of no one, sir."
"Humph!" grunted the professor, "you do, but you won't say."
"If you suspect any one it will be best to tell us, March," said Professor Wheeler, more kindly. "You must see that the evidence is much against you, and, while I myself can not believe that you are guilty, I shall be obliged to consider you so until proof of your innocence is forthcoming. Have you any enemy in school?"
"I think not, sir."
The door opened and Remsen appeared.
"Good-morning," he said. "You wished to see me, professor?"
"Yes, in a moment. Sit down, please, Remsen." Remsen nodded to Joel and the secretary, shook hands with Professor Durkee, and took a chair. The principal turned again to Joel.
"You wish me to understand, then, that you have no explanation to offer as to how the letter came to be in the bell tower? Recollect that shielding a friend or any other pupil will do neither you nor him any service."
Joel was hesitating. Was it right to throw suspicion on Bartlett Cloud by mentioning the small occurrence on the football field so long before? It was inconceivable that Cloud would go to such a length in mere spite. And yet--Remsen interrupted his thoughts.
"Professor, if you will dismiss March for a while, perhaps I can throw some light on the matter. Let him return in half an hour or so." Professor Wheeler nodded.
"Come back at one o'clock, March," he said.
Outside Joel hesitated where to go. He must tell some one his trouble, and there was only one who would really care. He turned toward Hampton House, then remembered that it was dinner hour and that Outfield would be at table. He had forgotten his own dinner until that moment. In the dining hall West was still lingering over his dessert. Joel took his seat at the training table, explaining his absence by saying that he had been called to the office, and hurried through a dinner of beef and rice and milk. When West arose Joel overtook him at the door. And as the friends took their way toward Joel's room, he told everything to West in words that tumbled over each other.
Outfield West heard him in silence after one exclamation of surprise, and when Joel had finished, cried:
"Why didn't you tell about Cloud? Don't you see that this is his doing? That he is getting even with you for his losing the football team?"
"I thought of that, Out, but it seemed too silly to suppose that he would do such a thing just for--for that, you know."
"Well, you may be certain that he did do it; or, at least, if he didn't cut the rope himself, found some one to do it for him. It's just the kind of a revenge that a fellow of his meanness would think of. He won't stand up and fight like a man. Here, let's go and find him!"
"No, wait. I'll tell Professor Wheeler about him when I go back; then if he thinks--If he did do it, Out, I'll lick him good for it!"
"Hooray! And when you get through I'll take a hand, too. But what do you suppose Remsen was going to tell?"
Joel shook his head. They found Sproule in the room, and to him West spoke as follows:
"Hello, Dickey! You're not studying? It's not good for you; these sudden changes should be avoided." Sproule laughed, but looked annoyed at the banter. "Joel and I have come up for a chat, Dickey," continued West. "Now, you take your Robinson Crusoe and read somewhere else for a while, like a nice boy."
Sproule grew red-faced, and turned to West angrily.
"Don't you see I'm studying? If you and March want to talk, why, either go somewhere else, or talk here."
"But our talk is private, Dickey, and not intended for little boys' ears. You know the saying about little pitchers, Dickey?"
"Well, I'm not going out, so you can talk or not as you like."
"Oh, yes, you are going out, Dickey. Politeness requires it, and I shall see that you maintain that delightful courteousness for which you are noted. Now, Dickey!" West indicated the door with a nod and a smile. Sproule bent his head over his book and growled a response that sounded anything but polite. Then West, still smiling, seized the unobliging youth by the shoulders, pinioning his arms to his sides, and pushed him away from the table and toward the door. Joel rescued the lamp at a critical moment, the chairs went over on to the floor, and a minute later Sproule was on the farther side of the bolted door, and West was adjusting his rumpled attire.
"I'll report you for this, Outfield West!" howled Sproule through the door, in a passion of resentment.
"Report away," answered West mockingly.
"And if I miss my Latin I'll tell why, too!"
"Well, you'll miss it all right enough, unless you've changed mightily. But, here, I'll shy your book through the transom."
This was done, and the sound of ascending feet on the stairway reaching Sproule's ears at that moment, he grabbed his book and took himself off, muttering vengeance.
"Have you looked?" asked West.
"Yes; it's not there. But there are no others missing. Who could have taken it?"
"Any one, my boy; Bartlett Cloud, for preference. Your door is unlocked, he comes in when he knows you are out, looks on the table, sees nothing there that will serve, goes to the bureau, opens the top drawer, and finds a pile of letters. He takes the first one, which is, of course, the last received, and sneaks out. Then he climbs into the bell tower at night, cuts the rope through all but one small strand, and puts your letter on the floor where it will be found in the morning. Isn't that plain enough?" Joel nodded forlornly. "But cheer up, Joel. Your Uncle Out will see your innocence established, firmly and beyond all question. And now come on. It's one o'clock, and you've got to go back to the office, while I've got a class. Come over to my room at four, Joel, and tell me what happens."
Remsen and the secretary were no longer in the office when Joel returned. Professor Durkee was standing with his hat in his hand, apparently about to leave.
"March," began the principal, "Mr. Remsen tells us that you were struck at by Bartlett Cloud on the football field one day at practice. Is that so?" Joel replied affirmatively.
"Does he speak to you, or you to him?"
"No, sir; but then I've never been acquainted with him."
"Do you believe that he could have stolen that letter from your room?"
"I know that he could have done so, sir, but I don't like to think--"
"That he did? Well, possibly he did and possibly he didn't. I shall endeavor to find out. Meanwhile I must ask you to let this go no further. You will go on as though this conversation had never occurred. If I find that you are unjustly suspected I will summon you and ask your pardon, and the guilty one will be punished. Professor Durkee here has pointed out to me that such conduct is totally foreign to his conception of your character, and has reminded me that your standing in class has been of the best since the beginning of the term. I agree with him in all this, but duty in the affair is very plain and I have been performing it, unpleasant as it is. You may go now, March; and kindly remember that this affair must be kept quiet,"
Joel turned with a surprised but grateful look toward Professor Durkee, but was met with a wrathful scowl. Joel hurried to his recitation, and later, before West's fireplace, the friends discussed the unfortunate affair in all its phases, and resolved, with vehemence, to know the truth sooner or later.
But Joel's cup was not yet filled. When he returned to the dormitory after supper, he found two missives awaiting him. The first was from Wesley Blair:
"DEAR MARCH" (it read): "Please show up in the morning at Burke's for breakfast with the first eleven. You are to take the place of Post at L.H.B. It will be necessary for you to report at the gym at eleven each day for noon signals; please arrange your recitations to this end. I am writing this because I couldn't see you this afternoon; hope you are all right. Yours,
Joel read this with a loudly beating heart and flushing cheeks. It was as unexpected as it was welcome, that news; he had hoped for an occasional chance to substitute Post or Blair or Clausen on the first team in some minor game, but to be taken on as a member was more than he had even thought of since he had found how very far from perfect was his playing. He seized his cap with the intention of racing across to Hampton and informing West of his luck; then he remembered the other note. It was from the office, and it was with a sinking heart that he tore it open and read:
"You are placed upon probation until further notice from the Faculty. The rules and regulations require that pupils on probation abstain from all sports and keep their rooms in the evenings except upon permission from the Principal. Respectfully,
"CURTIS GORDON, Secretary."
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