The Proving of Jerry by Ralph Henry Barbour
"I'm awfully sorry," said Ned Gaynor earnestly, "but it isn't as though you had been blackballed, Jerry."
"I don't see what difference it makes," replied Gerald Hutton disconsolately. "I don't get taken in, do I?"
"No, but when a fellow's name is 'postponed' he can try again any time. If he's blackballed, he's a goner until next year."
"Oh, well, I don't want to join the old Lyceum, anyhow," said his roommate with a scowl.
"Yes, you do," responded Ned, "and I want you to. And I'm going to bring your name up again just as soon as I think there's a chance of getting you elected."
"When will that be?" asked Jerry dubiously. Ned hesitated.
"I don't just know, Jerry," he answered finally. "You see, it's like this; the Lyceum is the only society we have here at Winthrop, and it's small, only thirty members, you know, while there are over seventy fellows in school this year. So of course there are lots of chaps who want to get in. And when it comes to selecting members the society naturally tries to get the best."
"Which means I'm not one of the best," said Jerry with a grin.
"No, it doesn't," replied his roommate. "It just means that you aren't very well known yet; you haven't proved yourself."
"Shucks! I've been here ever since school opened in September, and I know almost every fellow here to speak to."
"Well, but that isn't quite what I mean," replied Ned. "You--you haven't proved yourself."
"What do you mean by 'proved myself'?" asked Jerry.
"Well, you haven't done anything to--to show what you are. I can't explain very well, but--"
"What the dickens do you want me to do? Burn down Academy Hall or chuck one of the Faculty in the river?" inquired Jerry sarcastically.
"Oh, you know what I mean," answered Ned a trifle impatiently. "Sooner or later a fellow does something worth while, like getting a scholarship or making the Eleven or the Baseball Team. Then he's proved himself. You've been here only half a year, and, of course, yon haven't made yourself known."
"I've done my best," replied Jerry disconsolately. "I worked like a slave for two weeks trying to get on the Football Team, and I almost broke my neck learning to skate well enough so I'd have a show for the Hockey Team."
"Maybe you'll make the Nine," said Ned hopefully. "I guess if you do that there won't be any trouble about the Lyceum."
"I'll never get on the Nine while Herb Welch is captain," said Jerry with a shake of his head. "He doesn't care for me much."
"Well, I guess that's so," answered Ned thoughtfully. "The fact is, Jerry, it was Herb who objected to your election to the Lyceum."
"I guessed as much," Jerry replied dryly. "I knew he'd keep me out if he could. Just as he will keep me off the Nine."
"Oh, come now, Herb isn't that bad. He's sort of rough and bossy, but he's straight, Jerry. He was very decent at the election. He simply said--"
"I don't want to hear what he said," interrupted Jerry peevishly. "He's a big bully. He's hated me ever since I interfered the time he was ducking young Gordon. Gordon couldn't swim, and he was so scared that his face was as white as that block of paper."
"Well, it was pretty cheeky for a Sophomore to lay down the law to a Senior, you know," said Ned.
"And it was pretty mean of a Senior to haze a Freshman, wasn't it?" Jerry demanded. "Anyhow, I spoiled his fun for him."
"And got ducked yourself," laughed the other.
"That was all right. I could swim and wasn't afraid. I was better able to take it than young Gordon was. Ever since then Welch has had it in for me. I dare say that if I went and licked his boots he'd let me into the Lyceum and give me a fair show for the Nine, but I'm not going to do it. I can play baseball, and I'd like to make the team, but if it depends on my toadying to Welch, why, I'll stay off, that's all."
"Oh, come now, it isn't as bad as that," responded Ned. "Don't you bother. I'll get you elected before Class Day, Jerry. Grab your skates and come on down to the river."
"Skates!" exclaimed Jerry. "Why, you can't skate to-day. The ice is all breaking up. Look at it!"
From the dormitory window the river was visible for a quarter of a mile as it curved slowly to the south between Winthrop Academy and the town bridge. It was late February, and for two days the mercury had lingered around fifty degrees. Along the nearest shore the ice still held, but in midstream and across by the Peterboro side the river, swollen by melting snow and ice, flowed in a turbid, ice-strewn torrent. For a while at noon the sun had shone, but now, at four o'clock, the clouds had gathered and the moist air coming in at the open window of the room suggested rain.
"There's plenty of ice along this bank," answered Ned cheerfully, "and as it may be the last chance I'll get to skate I'm going to make the most of it. I promised Tom Thurber and Herb Welch I'd meet them at four. I must get a move on." He closed the book before him and arose from the study table. "You'd better come along, Jerry."
But Jerry shook his head, staring moodily out over the dreary prospect of wet campus and slushy road. A mile away the little town of Peterboro lay straggling along the river, the chimneys of its three or four factories spouting thick black smoke into the heavy air. Jerry was disappointed. It meant a good deal to win election to the Lyceum, and, in spite of what he had told Ned, he had all along entertained a sneaking idea that he would make it, Welch or no Welch. He wondered whether Ned couldn't have got him in if he had tried real hard. Ned and he were very good friends, even though they had never met until they had been roomed together in the fall, but Jerry was a new boy still, while Ned was a Junior and had known Herb Welch three years.
"I suppose," he thought, "Ned didn't want to offend Welch. Much he cares whether I'm elected or not!"
"Coming?" asked Ned, pausing at the door. Jerry shook his head.
"No, I guess not. I think I'll walk over to town and get some things."
"Well, buy me half a dozen blue books, will you?" asked Ned eagerly. He tossed a coin across and Jerry caught it deftly and dropped it into his pocket with a nod. Ned slammed the door behind him and went clattering downstairs. Jerry watched him emerge below, jump a miniature rivulet flowing beside the board walk and disappear around the corner of the dormitory. Then he got into his sweater, put his cap on, and in turn descended the stairs.
It was a good twenty-minutes walk to the village. By keeping along the river path to the bridge he might have saved something in time and distance, but the river path was ankle-deep in slush and mud, while the road, although longer, gave firmer foothold. When he reached the old wooden bridge he paused and watched the water rushing under between the stone pillars. He had never seen the stream so high. The surface appeared scarcely eight feet beneath the floor of the bridge. Huge cakes of ice, broken loose upstream, went tearing by, grinding against each other and hurling themselves at the worn stones. And between the fragments of ice the surface was almost covered with a layer of slush. Jerry flattened himself against the wooden railing while a team of sweating horses, tugging a great load of hay, went creaking by him. Then he followed it across and turned to the right at the end of the bridge into the main street of the town.
His purchases didn't take him long, and soon he was back at the bridge again. Upstream, on the Academy side of the river, he could see the skaters. Apparently half the school had decided to seize this last chance for indulging in the sport, for the long and narrow strip of ice remaining was quite black with figures. At the end of the bridge Jerry decided to take the river path, for a glance at his shoes and stockings convinced him that it was no longer necessary to consider them; they were already as wet and muddy as it was possible for them to be. He felt rather more cheerful after his tramp, and told himself that if there was time he would run up to the room, leave his purchases, get his skates, and join the group on the ice. By the time he had covered half the distance between bridge and Academy he could distinguish several of the skaters. There was Morris, with his blue sweater, and the tall fellow was, of course, Jim Kennedy; and there was Burns, and young Gordon; Gordon, even if he couldn't swim, was a dandy skater.
"Only," thought Jerry, "if he got into the river it would be a bad outlook for him."
He had left the bridge a full quarter of a mile behind when a sudden commotion among the skaters attracted his attention. There was a scurrying together and the skating stopped. Jerry paused and watched intently, but for a moment saw nothing to account for the actions of the fellows. They were lined up along the edge of the ice in little groups. Then several of them turned and skated frantically toward the bank. Jerry's first thought now was that some one had fallen into the water, that the ice had given way, as it was quite likely to do in its present half-rotten state, and he looked anxiously for young Gordon's slight figure. He couldn't see him, but that signified little, since the fellows were packed together and the light was failing.
But in another instant Jerry saw that his surmise was wrong. For suddenly a single figure came into view, a figure huddled on hands and knees a full fifty feet away from his companions. For an instant Jerry couldn't understand. Then the huddled figure was swept farther away toward the opposite shore and a clear expanse of angry river showed between it and those on the ice. One of the fellows had ventured too far, the ice had broken away, and now he was being borne swiftly down the stream! Already the current had swept him away from all hope of assistance from his companions, for up there the channel ran close to the Peterboro shore. The fragment of ice to which he clung seemed to be fairly large, perhaps ten feet long by half that in width, but Jerry knew that the chance of its remaining unbroken for long was very slim. If the fellows had gone for a boat they might have saved themselves the effort, for no boat could be managed in that seething mass of broken ice. And a rope would be quite as useless, since the current would keep the boy along the farther shore and no one on earth could throw a coil of rope half the distance.
Jerry had already broken into a run, but now he pulled himself up and glanced behind him toward the bridge. He could be of no more use up there than were the fellows grouped helplessly at the edge of the ice. If the boy was to be rescued it must be downstream somewhere, always supposing the cake of ice hung together and that he managed to retain his place on it. Jerry thought rapidly with fast-beating heart. Already the boy on the ice had covered half the distance to where Jerry stood, and the fellows up there where the accident had happened were leaving the ice, frantically freeing themselves from their skates and running down the path. Jerry turned and ran back the way he had come. If he could reach the bridge first there might be a chance!
His feet slipped in the ice and slush of the path and it was slow going. Once he fell flat on his face, but was up again in a twinkling, wet and bruised. A glance over his shoulder told him that the pitching, whirling slag of ice with its human burden was gaining on him. If only he had started before! he thought. But he ran on, sliding and tripping, his breath coming hard and his heart pounding agonizedly against his ribs. He was almost there now; only another hundred yards or so remained between him and the end of the bridge. He prayed for strength to keep on as he glanced again over his shoulder. The boy had thrown himself face down on the ice and Jerry saw with a sinking heart that already the cake had diminished in size. If it struck one of the stone pillars of the bridge it would go to pieces without a doubt, and it would be a hard task for the strongest swimmer to battle his way clear of that rushing current.
With his breath almost failing him, Jerry reached the bridge and ran out upon it. He was none too soon. Close to the farther shore the jagged fragment still held together as it dipped and turned, glancing from the jutting points of the shore ice and grinding between its fellows in the ugly green torrent. Face down lay the boy, limp, his hands outthrown beside him. Under the bridge the river rushed with a loud rushing sound, swift and relentless.
Jerry ran with aching limbs to the third span, toward which the current was bearing the helpless, huddled figure. In the brief moment of time left him Jerry noted two things. One was that those in the van of the straggling line hurrying toward him along the river path were but a couple of hundred yards distant. The other was that his left shoulder was aching dully. He must, he thought, have struck on it when he fell. Then his gaze was on the motionless form sweeping toward him, and he was leaning over the wooden rail, his hands at his mouth.
"Stand up!" he cried with all his might.
But there was no answering movement from the boy. Jerry's heart sank, but once more he shouted, putting, as it seemed to him, every remaining bit of breath into his call:
"Stand up and I'll save you!"
The head raised and a white face gazed up at him as the narrowing current seized the ice fragment. With a gasp of surprise Jerry looked down into the horror-stricken eyes of Herbert Welch! Then he had thrown himself down on the floor of the bridge, his head and shoulders over the water.
"Stand up!" he called again. And Welch staggered weakly to his knees, the ice beneath him tilting perilously. Jerry's hands stretched down over the rushing water.
"Catch hold!" he cried.
A momentary return of hope and courage came to Welch, and as his treacherous craft shot, crushing and grinding, into the maelstrom, he found his feet for a moment, and threw his arms above his head, his fingers clutching hungrily at the empty air. Then a corner of the ice fragment struck against the left-hand pillar and he lost his balance. But in that brief moment Jerry's left hand had grasped one of Welch's wrists, and now the latter hung between bridge and water, swinging slowly and limply. Then Jerry's right hand found a hold below his left, and he set his teeth and closed his eyes, praying, as he had done before on the river path, for strength and endurance. The strain was terrible. He felt the blood rushing to his head and throbbing there mightily.
His left shoulder hurt worse every moment. But he could hold on a moment longer. Surely the others would be here in just a second. He thought he heard cries, but the roar of the water beneath and the throbbing in his head made it uncertain. Then he heard a voice. It was Herb Welch speaking.
"Let me go, Hutton," said Welch quietly. "You can't hold me here."
Jerry tried to answer, but the pressure against his chest was too severe. His left hand began to slip from Welch's wrist; the fingers wouldn't hold; there was a strange numbness from hand to shoulder. With a smothered groan he tried to tighten his clasp again. Then help came. Eager hands took his burden, and he felt himself being pulled back from the edge. He glanced up once and had a glimpse of somber twilight sky and Ned's brown eyes....
When he opened his eyes again he was lying on a couch in a cottage at the edge of the village. There were several figures about him, and one was Ned's. He smiled and tried to rise, but was glad to lay back again and look curiously at his bandaged shoulder.
"It's only a busted collarbone," said Ned. "Doctor says it will be all right in two or three weeks. We're going to take you back in a minute. The carriage is coming now."
"That's nice," said Jerry drowsily. "How's Welch?"
"Not hurt a bit. He walked home. And say, Jerry," Ned went on, dropping his voice, "it's all right about the Lyceum. Herb says he's going to bring your name up himself at the next meeting. You--you proved yourself to-day, old chum!"