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   Chapter 5 THE CADET SILENCE FALLS

Dick Prescotts's Fourth Year at West Point / Or, Ready to Drop the Gray for Shoulder Straps By H. Irving Hancock Characters: 11810

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Six companies of sun-browned, muscular young men marched away to cadet mess hall that evening.

If any of these cadets were more than properly fatigued, none of them betrayed the fact. Their carriage was erect, their step springy and martial. In ranks their faces were impassive, but when they filed into the mess hall, seated themselves at table and glanced about, an orderly Babel broke loose.

At all, that is to say, save one table. That was the table at which Cadet Captain Richard Prescott sat.

Greg was the first to make the discovery. He turned to Brown with a remark. Brown glanced at Holmes, nodding slightly. All the other cadets at that board were eating, their eyes on their plates.

"What's the matter?" quizzed Holmes. "You're ideas moving slowly?"

Again Brown glanced up at his questioner, but that was all.

"How's the cold lamb, Durville?" questioned Dick.

Durville passed the meat without speaking, nor did he look directly at Prescott.

Dick and Greg exchanged swift glances. They understood. The blow had fallen.

The Silence had been given!

Dick felt a hot flush mounting to his temples. The blood there seemed to sting him. Then, as suddenly, he went white, clammy perspiration beading his forehead and temples.

This was the verdict of the class--of the corps? He had offended the strict traditions and inner regulations of the cadet corps, and was pronounced unfit for association!

That explained the constrained atmosphere at this one table, the one spot in all the big room where silence replaced the merry chatter of mealtime.

"The fellows are mighty unjust!" thought Dick bitterly, as he went on eating mechanically. He no longer knew, really, whether he were eating meat, bread or potato.

That was the first thought of Prescott. But swiftly his view changed. He realized about him, were hundreds of the flower of the young manhood of the United States. These young men were being trained in the ways of justice and honor, and were trying to live up to their ideals.

If such an exceptional, picked body of young men had condemned him--had sentenced him to bitter retribution--was it not wholly likely that there was much justice on their side?

"The verdict of so many good and true men must contain much justice," Prescott thought, as he munched mechanically, trying proudly to bide his dismay from watchful eyes. "Then I have offended against manhood, in some way. Yet how? I have obeyed orders and have performed my duties like a soldier. How, then, have I done wrong?"

Once more it seemed indisputable to Prescott that his comrades had wronged him. But once more his own sense of justice triumphed.

"I am not really at fault," he told himself, "nor is the class. The class has acted on the best view of appearances that it could obtain. I was wholly right in obeying the orders that I received from Lieutenant Denton, and equally right in not communicating those orders to a class committee. Nor could I refrain from reporting Mr. Jordan for breach of con. That was my plain duty, more especially as Mr. Jordan is a member of the company that I command. But the appearances have been all against me, and I have refused to explain. The class is hardly to be blamed for condemning me, and I imagine that Mr. Jordan, in accusing me, has not been at all reticent. Probably, too, he has taken no extreme pains to adhere to the exact truth. I do not see how I can get out of the scrape in which I find myself. I wonder if the silence is to be continued until I am forced to resign and give up a career in the Army?"

With such thoughts as these it was hard, indeed, to look and act as though nothing had happened.

But Cadet Jordan, taking eager, covert looks at his enemy from another table, got little satisfaction from anything that he detected in Prescott's face.

"Why, that b.j.(fresh) puppy is quite equal to cheeking his way on through the last year and into the Army!" thought Jordan maliciously. "However, he's done for! No matter if he sticks, he'll never get any joy out of his shoulder straps."

Little could Jordan imagine that Prescott's proud nature would long resist the silence. If this rebuke were to become permanent, then Prescott was not in the least likely to attempt to enter upon his studies at the beginning of they Academic year in September.

And Greg! He didn't waste any time in trying to be just to any one. All his hot blood rose and fomented within him at the bare thought of this terrible indignity put upon that prince of good fellows, Dick Prescott. Holmes felt, in truth, as though he would be glad to fight, in turn, every member of the first class who had voted for the silence.

That practically all the fellows of the first class had voted for the silence, Greg did not for an instant believe. He was well aware that Dick had many staunch friends in the class who would stand out for him in the face of any appearances. But a vote of the majority in favor of the silence would be enough; the rest of the class would be bound by the action of the majority. And all the lower classes would observe and respect any decision of the first class concerning one of its own members.

Not a word did Greg say to Dick. Yet, under the table, Holmes employed one of his knees to give Dick's knee a long, firm pressure that conveyed the hidden message of unfaltering friendship and loyalty.

For the other cadets at the table the silence imposed more or less hardship, since they could utter only the most necessary words. They however, were not objects against whom the silence was directed, and they could endure the absence of conversation with far more indifference than was possible for Prescott.

It was a relief to all at the table, none the less, when the rising order was given. When the corps had marched back to camp, and had been dismissed, Dick Prescott, head erect, and be

traying no sign of annoyance, walked naturally into A company's Street, drew out his camp chair and seated himself on it in the open.

Barely had he done so, when Greg arrived. Cadet Holmes, however, did not stop or speak, but hurried on.

"Greg has his hands full," thought Dick. "He's going to investigate. And I'm afraid his hot head will get him into some sort of trouble, too."

The imposition of the silence did not affect Greg in his relations with his tentmate. When a cadet is sent to Coventry, or has the silence "put" on him, his tentmate or roommate may still talk unreservedly with him without fear of incurring class disfavor. To impose the rule of silence on the tentmate or roommate of the rebuked one would be to punish an innocent man along with the guilty one.

Rarely, after all, does the corps err in its judgment when Coventry or the silence is meted out. None the less, in Dick's case a grave mistake had been made.

Time slipped by, and darkness came on, but Greg had not returned.

There was band concert in camp that night. Many cadets of the first and third classes had already gone to meet girls whom they would escort in strolling near the bandstand. Plebes are not expected to escort young ladies to these concerts. The members of the second class were away on the summer furlough, as Dick and Greg had been the summer before.

As the musicians began to tune up at the bandstand, most of the remaining cadets sauntered through the company streets on their way to get close to the music.

All cadets who passed through A company's street became suddenly silent when within ten paces of Dick's tent, and remained silent until ten paces beyond.

Dick's tent being at the head of the street, he was quite near enough to the music. But he was not long in noting that both cadet escorts and cadets without young ladies took pains not to approach too close to where he sat. It was enough to fill him with savage bitterness, though he still strove to be just to his classmates who had been blinded by Cadet Jordan's villainous scheme.

Of a sudden the band struck up its lively opening march. Just at that moment Prescott became aware of the fact that Greg Holmes was lifting out a campstool and was placing it beside him.

"Well," announced Greg, "I've found out all there is behind the silence."

"I took it for granted that was your purpose," Dick responded.

"Aren't you anxious to hear the news, old ramrod?"

"Yes; very."

"I'm hanged if you look anxious!" muttered Greg, studying his chum's face keenly.

"I fancy I've got to display a good deal of skill in masking my feelings," smiled Dick wearily.

"Oh, I don't know," returned Cadet Holmes hopefully. "It may not turn out to be so bad."

"Then a permanent silence hasn't been imposed?"

"Not yet," replied Greg.

"By which, I suppose, you mean that the length of the silence has not yet been decided upon."

"It hasn't," Greg declared. "It was only after the biggest, swiftest and hardest kind of campaign, in fact, that the class was swung around to the silence. Only a bare majority were wheedled into voting for it. Nearly half of the class stood out for you stubbornly, pointing to your record here as a sufficient answer. And that nearly half are still your warm adherents."

"Yet, of course, they are bound by the majority action?"

"Of course," sighed Greg. "That's the old rule here, isn't it? Well, to sum it up quickly, old ramrod, the silence has been put on you, and that's as far as the decision runs up to date. The class is yet to decide on whether the silence is to be for a week or a month. Of course, a certain element will do all in its power to make the silence a permanent thing. Even if it is made permanent, Dick, you'll stick, won't you?"

"No."

"What?"

"I shall not even try to stick against any permanent silence," replied Prescott slowly.

"I thought you had more fight in you than that," muttered Greg in a tone of astonishment.

"I think I have enough fight," Dick replied with some warmth. "And I honestly believe I have enough in me to make at least a moderately capable officer of the Army. But, Greg, I'm not going to make a stubborn, senseless effort, all through life, to stay among comrades who don't want me, and who will make it plain enough that they do not consider me fit to be of their number. Greg, in such an atmosphere I couldn't bring out the best that is in me. I couldn't make the most of my own life, or do the best by those who are dear to me."

There was an almost imperceptible catch in Dick Prescott's voice. He was thinking of Laura Bentley as the one for whom he had hoped to do all his best things in life.

"I don't know but you're right, old fellow. But it's fearfully hard to decide such a matter off-hand," returned Greg. His own voice broke. For some moments Holmes sat in moody silence.

At last he reached out a hand, resting it on Dick's arm.

"If you get out, old ramrod, it's the outs for me on the same day."

"Greg!"

"Oh, that's all right," retorted Cadet Holmes, trying to force a cheery ring into his voice. "If you can't get through and live under the colors, Dick, I don't want to!"

"But Greg, old fellow, you mustn't look at it that way. You have had three years of training here at the nation's expense. It will soon be four. You owe your country some return for this magnificent training."

"How about you, then?" asked Holmes, regarding his friend quizzically.

"Me? I'd stay under the colors, and give up my life for the country and the Army, if my comrades would have it. But if they won't, then it's for the best interests of the service that I get out, Greg."

"Well, talk yourself blind, if it will give you any relief. But post this information up on your inside bulletin board: When you quit the service, old ramrod, it will be 'good-bye' for little Holmesy!"

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