TWO young men met in front of the post-office of a small country town. They were of about the same age—eighteen—each was well dressed, comely, and apparently of good family; and each had an expression of face that would commend him to strangers, save that one of them, the larger of the two, had what is called a “bad eye”—that is, an eye showing just a little too much white above the iris. In the other’s eye white predominated below the iris. The former is usually the index of violent though restrained temper; the latter of an intuitive, psychic disposition, with very little self-control. The difference in character so indicated may lead one person to the Presidency, another to the gallows. And—though no such results are promised—with similar divergence of path, of pain and pleasure, of punishment and reward, is this story concerned.
The two boys were schoolmates and friends, with never a quarrel since they had known each other; they had graduated together from the high school, but neither had been valedictorian. They later had sought the competitive examination given by the congressman of the district for an appointment to the Naval Academy, and had won out over all, but so close together that the congressman had decreed another test.
They had taken it, and since then had waited for the letter that named the winner; hence the daily visits to the post-office, ending in this one, when the larger boy, about to go up the steps, met the smaller coming down with an opened letter, and smiling.
“I’ve got it, Jack,” said the smaller boy, joyously. “Here it is. I win, but, of course, you’re the alternate. Read it.”
He handed the letter to Jack, but it was declined.
“What’s the use?” was the somewhat sulky response. “I’ve lost, sure enough. All I’ve got to do is to forget it.”
“Then let me read it to you,” said the winner, eagerly. “I want you to feel glad about it—same as I would if you had passed first. Listen:
“‘MR. WILLIAM DENMAN.
“‘DEAR SIR: I am glad to inform you that you have successfully passed the second examination for an appointment to the Naval Academy, winning by three points in history over the other contestant, Mr. John Forsythe, who, of course, is the alternate in case you do not pass the entrance examination at Annapolis.
“‘Be ready at any time for instructions from the Secretary of the Navy to report at Annapolis. Sincerely yours,
“What do I care for that?” said Forsythe. “I suppose I’ve got a letter in there, too. Let’s see.”
While Denman waited, Forsythe entered the post-office, and soon emerged, reading a letter.
“Same thing,” he said. “I failed by three points in my special study. How is it, Bill?” he demanded, fiercely, as his disappointment grew upon him. “I’ve beaten not only you, but the whole class from the primary up, in history, ancient, modern, and local, until now. There’s something crooked here.” His voice sank to a mutter.
“Crooked, Jack! What are you talking about?” replied Denman, hotly.
“Oh, I don’t know, Bill. Never mind. Come on, if you’re going home.”
They walked side by side in the direction of their homes—near together and on the outskirts of the town—each busy with his thoughts. Denman, though proud and joyous over the prize he had won, was yet hurt by the speech and manner of Forsythe, and hurt still further by the darkening cloud on his face as they walked on.
Forsythe’s thoughts were best indicated by his suddenly turning toward Denman and blurting out:
“Yes, I say; there’s something crooked in this. I can beat you in history any day in the week, but your dad and old Bland are close friends. I see it now.”
Denman turned white as he answered:
“Do you want me to report your opinion to my father and Mr. Bland?”
“Oh, you would, would you? And take from me the alternate, too! Well, you’re a cur, Bill Denman. Go ahead and report.”
They were now on a block bounded by vacant lots, and no one was within sight. Denman stopped, threw off his coat, and said:
“No, I’ll not report your opinion, but—you square yourself, Jack Forsythe, and I’ll show you the kind of cur I am.”
Forsythe turned, saw the anger in Denman’s eyes, and promptly shed his coat.
It was a short fight, of one round only. Each fought courageously, and with such fistic skill as schoolboys acquire, and each was equal to the other in strength; but one possessed about an inch longer reach than the other, which decided the battle.
Denman, with nose bleeding and both eyes closing, went down at last, and could not arise, nor even see the necessity of rising. But soon his brain cleared, and he staggered to his feet, his head throbbing viciously and his face and clothing smeared with blood from his nose, to see between puffed eyelids the erect figure of Forsythe swaggering around a distant corner. He stanched the blood with his handkerchief, but as there was not a brook, a ditch, or a puddle in the neighborhood, he could only go home as he was, trusting that he would meet no one.
“Licked!” he muttered. “For the first time in my life, too! What’ll the old gentleman and mother say?”
What the father and mother might say, or what they did say, has no part in this story; but what another person said may have a place and value, and will be given here. This person was the only one he met before reaching home—a very small person, about thirteen years old, with big gray eyes and long dark ringlets, who ran across the street to look at him.
“Why, Billie Denman!” she cried, shocked and anxious. “What has happened to you? Run over?”
“No, Florrie,” he answered, painfully. “I’ve been licked. I had a fight.”
“But don’t you know it’s wrong to fight, Billie?”
“Maybe,” answered Denman, trying to get more blood from his face to the already saturated handkerchief. “But we all do wrong—sometimes.”
The child planted herself directly before him, and looked chidingly into his discolored and disfigured face.
“Billie Denman,” she said, shaking a small finger at him, “of course I’m sorry, but, if you have been fighting when you know it is wrong, why—why, it served you right.”
Had he not been aching in every joint, his nose, his lips, and his eyes, this unjust speech might have amused him. As it was he answered testily:
“Florence Fleming, you’re only a kid yet, though the best one I know; and if I should tell you the name I was called and which brought on the fight, you would not understand. But you’ll grow up some day, and then you will understand. Now, remember this fight, and when some woman, or possibly some man, calls you a—a cat, you’ll feel like fighting, too.”
“But I wouldn’t mind,” she answered, firm in her position. “Papa called me a kitten to-day, and I didn’t get mad.”
“Well, Florrie,” he said, wearily, “I won’t try to explain. I’m going away before long, and perhaps I won’t come back again. But if I do, there’ll be another fight.”
“Going away, Billie!” she cried in alarm. “Where to?”
“To Annapolis. I may stay, or I may come back. I don’t know.”
“And you are going away, and you don’t know that you’ll come back! Oh, Billie, I’m sorry. I’m sorry you got licked, too. Who did it? I hate him. Who licked you, Billie?”
“Never mind, Florrie. He’ll tell the news, and you’ll soon know who he is.”
He walked on, but the child headed him and faced him. There were tears in the gray eyes.
“And you’re going away, Billie!” she exclaimed again. “When are you going?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “Whenever I am sent for. If I don’t see you again, good-by, Florrie girl.” He stooped to kiss her, but straightened up, remembering the condition of his face.
“But I will see you again,” she declared. “I will, I will. I’ll come to your house. And, Billie—I’m sorry I scolded you, really I am.”
He smiled ruefully. “Never mind that, Florrie; you always scolded me, you know, and I’m used to it.”
“But only when you did wrong, Billie,” she answered, gravely, “and somehow I feel that this time you have not done wrong. But I won’t scold the next time you really do wrong. I promise.”
“Oh, yes, you will, little girl. It’s the privilege and prerogative of your sex.”
He patted her on the head and went on, leaving her staring, open-eyed and tearful. She was the child of a neighbor; he had mended her dolls, soothed her griefs, and protected her since infancy, but she was only as a small sister to him.
While waiting for orders to Annapolis, he saw her many times, but she did not change to him. She changed, however; she had learned the name of his assailant, and through her expressed hatred for him, and through her sympathy for Billie as the disfigurements left his face, she passed the border between childhood and womanhood.
When orders came, he stopped at her home, kissed her good-by, and went to Annapolis, leaving her sad-eyed and with quivering lips.
And he did not come back.