One Friday morning before school-time, the boys and girls were talking about the relative merits of the two spellers, Joanna maintaining that Sarah was the better, and others that Jack could spell better than Sarah.
"Oh!" said Sarah Weathervane, "Jack is the best speller in school. I study till my head aches to get my lesson, but it is all the same to Jack whether he studies or not. He has a natural gift for spelling, and he spends nearly all his time on arithmetic and Latin."
This speech pleased Jack very much. He had stood at the head of the class all the week, and spelling did seem to him the easiest thing in the world. That afternoon he hardly looked at his lesson. It was so nice to think he could beat Sarah Weathervane with his left hand, so to speak.
When the great spelling-class was called, he spelled the words given to him, as usual, and Sarah saw no chance to get the coveted opportunity to stand at the head, go down, and spell her way up again. But the very last word given to Jack was sacrilege, and, not having studied the lesson, he spelled it with e in the second syllable and i in the last. Sarah gave the letters correctly, and when Jack saw the smile of triumph on her face, he guessed why she had flattered him that morning. Hereafter he would not depend on his natural genius for spelling. A natural genius for working is the best gift.
With a sinking heart, Jack often called to mind that this was his last term at school. The little money that his father had left was not enough to warrant his continuing; he must now do something for his own support. He resolved, therefore, to make the most of his time under Mr. Williams.
When Pewee, Riley, and Ben Berry got through with their punishment, they sought some way of revenging themselves on the master for punishing them, and on Jack for doing better than they had done, and thus escaping punishment. It was a sore thing with them that Jack had led all the school his way, so that, instead of the whole herd following King Pewee and Prime Minister Riley into rebellion, they now "knuckled down to the master," as Riley called it, under the lead of Jack, and they even dared to laugh slyly at the inseparable "triplets."
The first aim of Pewee and company was to get the better of the master. They boasted to Jack and Bob that they would fix Mr. Williams some time, and gave out to the other boys that they knew where the master spent his evenings, and they knew how to fix him.
When Jack heard of this, he understood it. The teacher had a habit of spending an evening, now and then, at Dr. Lanham's, and the boys no doubt intended to play a prank on him in going or coming. There being now no moonlight, the village streets were very dark, and there was every opportunity for a trick. Riley's father's house stood next on the street to Dr. Lanham's; the lots were divided by an alley. This gave the triplets a good chance to carry out their designs.
But Bob Holliday and Jack, good friends to the teacher, thought that it would be fun to watch the conspirators and defeat them. So, when they saw Mr. Williams going to Dr. Lanham's, they stationed themselves in the dark alley on the side of the street opposite to Riley's and took observations. Mr. Williams had a habit of leaving Dr. Lanham's at exactly nine o'clock, and so, just before nine, the three came out of Riley's yard, and proceeded in the darkness to the fence of Lanham's dooryard.
Getting the trunk of one of the large shade-trees between him and the plotters, Jack crept up close enough to guess what they were doing and to overhear their conversation. Then he came back to Bob.
"They are tying a string across the sidewalk on Lanham's side of the alley, I believe," whispered Jack, "so as to throw Mr. Williams head foremost into that mud-hole at the mouth of the alley."
By this time, the three boys had finished their arrangements and retreated through the gate into the porch of the Riley house, whence they might keep a lookout for the catastrophe.
"I'm going to cut that string where it goes around the tree," said Bob, and he crouched low on the ground, got the trunk of the tree between him and the Riley house, and crept slowly across the street.
"I'll capture the string," said Jack, walking off to the next cross-street, then running around the block until he came to the back gate of Lanham's yard, which he entered, running up the walk to the back door. His knock was answered by Mrs. Lanham.
"Why, Jack, what's the matter?" she asked, seeing him at the kitchen door, breathless.
"I want to see Susan, please," he said, "and tell Mr. Williams not to go yet a minute."
"Here's a mystery," said Mrs. Lanham, returning to the sitting-room, where the teacher was just rising to say good-night. "Here's Jack Dudley, at the back door, out of breath, asking for Susan, and wishing Mr. Williams not to leave the house yet."
Susan ran to the back door.
"Susan," said Jack, "the triplets have tied a string from the corner of your fence to the locust-tree, and they're watching from Riley's porch to see Mr. Williams fall into the mud-hole. Bob is cutting the string at the tree, and I want you to go down along the fence and untie it and bring it in. They will not suspect you if they see you."
"I don't care if they do," said Susan, and she glided out to the cross-fence which ran along the alley, followed it to the front and untied the string, fetching it back with her. When she got back to the kitchen door she heard Jack closing the alley gate. He had run off to join Bob, leaving the string in Susan's hands.
Dr. Lanham and the master had a good laugh over the captured string, which was made of Pewee's and Riley's top-strings, tied together.
The triplets did not see Susan go to the fence. They were too intent on what was to happen to Mr. Williams. When, at length, he came along safely through the darkness, they were bewildered.
"You didn't tie that string well in the middle," growled Pewee at Riley.
"Yes, I did," said Riley. "He must have stepped over."
"Step over a string a foot high, when he didn't know it was there?" said Pewee.
"Let's go and get the string," said Ben Berry.
So out of the gate they sallied, and quickly reached the place where the string ought to have been.
"I can't find this end," whispered Pewee by the fence.
"The string's gone!" broke out Riley, after feeling up and down the tree for some half a minute.
What could have become of it? They had been so near the sidewalk all the time that no one could have passed without their seeing him.
The next day, at noon-time, when Susan Lanham brought out her lunch, it was tied with Pewee's new top-string,—the best one in the school.
"That's a very nice string," said Susan.
"It's just like Pewee's top-string," cried Harry Weathervane.
"Is it yours, Pewee?" said Susan, in her sweetest tones.
"No," said the king, with his head down; "mine's at home."
"I found this one, last night," said Susan.
And all the school knew that she was tormenting Pewee, although they could not guess how she had got his top-string. After a while, she made a dive into her pocket, and brought out another string.
"Oh," cried Johnny Meline, "where did you get that?"
"I found it."
"That's Will Riley's top-string," said Johnny. "It was mine. He cheated me out of it by trading an old top that wouldn't spin."
"That's the way you get your top-strings, is it, Will? Is this yours?" asked the tormenting Susan.
"No, it isn't."
"Of course it isn't yours. You don't tie top-strings across the sidewalk at night. You're a gentleman, you are! Come, Johnny, this string doesn't belong to anybody; I'll trade with you for that old top that Will gave you for a good string. I want something to remember honest Will Riley by."
Johnny gladly pocketed the string, and Susan carried off the shabby top, to the great amusement of the school, who now began to understand how she had come by the two top-strings.
THE LAST DAY OF SCHOOL, AND THE LAST CHAPTER OF THE STORY
It was the last day of the spring term of school. With Jack this meant the end of his opportunity for going to school. What he should learn hereafter he must learn by himself. The money was nearly out, and he must go to work.
The last day of school meant also the expiration of the master's authority. Whatever evil was done after school-hours on the last day was none of his business. All who had grudges carried them forward to that day, for thus they could revenge themselves without being called to account by the master the next day. The last day of school had no to-morrow to be afraid of. Hence, Pewee and his friends proposed to square accounts on the last day of school with Jack Dudley, whom they hated for being the best scholar, and for having outwitted them more than once.
It was on the first day of June that the school ended, and Mr. Williams bade his pupils good-bye. The warm sun had by this time brought the waters of the Ohio to a temperature that made bathing pleasant, and when the school closed, all the boys, delighted with liberty, rushed to the river for a good swim together. In that genial climate one can remain in the water for hours at a time, and boys become swimmers at an early age.
Just below the village a raft was moored, and from this the youthful swimmers were soon diving into the deep water like frogs. Every boy who could perform any feat of agility displayed it. One would turn a somersault in the water, and then dive from one side of the raft to another, one could float, and another swim on his back, while a third was learning to tread water. Some were fond of diving toes downward, others took headers. "The little fellows" who could not swim kept on the inside of the great raft and paddled about with the aid of slabs used for floats. Jack, who had lived for years on the banks of the Wildcat, could swim and dive like a musquash.
Mr. Williams, the teacher, felt lonesome at saying good-bye to his school; and to keep the boys company as long as possible, he strolled down to the bank and sat on the grass watching the bathers below him, plunging and paddling in all the spontaneous happiness of young life.
Riley and Pewee—conspirators to the last—had their plans arranged. When Jack should get his clothes on, they intended to pitch him off the raft for a good wetting, and thus gratify their long-hoarded jealousy, and get an offset to the standing joke about dough-faces and ghosts which the town had at their expense. Ben Berry, who was their confidant, thought this a capital plan.
When at length Jack had enjoyed the water enough, he came out and was about to begin dressing. Pewee and Riley were close at hand, already dressed, and prepared to give Jack a farewell ducking.
But just at that moment there came from the other end of the raft, and from the spectators on the bank, a wild, confused cry, and all turned to hearken. Harry Weathervane's younger brother, whose name was Andrew Jackson, and who could not swim, in dressing, had stepped too far backward and gone off the raft. He uttered a despairing and terrified scream, struck out wildly and blindly, and went down.
All up and down the raft and up and down the bank there went up a cry: "Andy is drowning!" while everybody looked for somebody else to save him.
The school-master was sitting on the bank, and saw the accident. He quickly slipped off his boots, but then he stopped, for Jack had already started on a splendid run down that long raft. The confused and terrified boys made a path for him quickly, as he came on at more than the tremendous speed he had always shown in games. He did not stop to leap, but ran full tilt off the raft, falling upon the drowning boy and carrying him completely under water with him. Nobody breathed during the two seconds that Jack, under water, struggled to get a good hold on Andy and to keep Andy from disabling him by his blind grappling of Jack's limbs.
When at length Jack's head came above water, there was an audible sigh of relief from all the on-lookers. But the danger was not over.
"Let go of my arms, Andy!" cried Jack. "You'll drown us both if you hold on that way. If you don't let go I'll strike you."
Jack knew that it was sometimes necessary to stun a drowning person before you could save him, where he persisted in clutching his deliverer. But poor frightened Andy let go of Jack's arms at last. Jack was already exhausted with swimming, and he had great difficulty in dragging the little fellow to the raft, where Will Riley and Pewee Rose pulled him out of the water.
But now, while all were giving attention to the rescued Andy, there occurred with Jack one of those events which people call a cramp. I do not know what to call it, but it is not a cramp. It is a kind of collapse—a sudden exhaustion that may come to the best of swimmers. The heart insists on resting, the consciousness grows dim, the will-power flags, and the strong swimmer sinks.
Nobody was regarding Jack, who first found himself unable to make even an effort to climb on the raft; then his hold on its edge relaxed, and he slowly sank out of sight. Pewee saw his sinking condition first, and cried out, as did Riley and all the rest, doing nothing to save Jack, but running up and down the raft in a vain search for a rope or a pole.
The school-master, having seen that Andy was brought out little worse for his fright and the water he had swallowed, was about to put on his boots when this new alarm attracted his attention to Jack Dudley. Instantly he threw off his coat and was bounding down the steep bank, along the plank to the raft, and then along the raft to where Jack had sunk entirely out of sight. Mr. Williams leaped head first into the water and made what the boys afterward called a splendid dive. Once under water he opened his eyes and looked about for Jack.
At last he came up, drawing after him the unconscious and apparently lifeless form of Jack, who was taken from the water by the boys. The teacher despatched two boys to bring Dr. Lanham, while he set himself to restore consciousness by producing artificial breathing. It was some time after Dr. Lanham's arrival that Jack fully regained his consciousness, when he was carried home by the strong arms of Bob Holliday, Will Riley, and Pewee, in turn.
And here I must do the last two boys the justice to say that they called to inquire after Jack every day during the illness that followed, and the old animosity to Jack was never afterward revived by Pewee and his friends.
On the evening after this accident and these rescues, Dr. Lanham said to Mrs. Lanham and Susan and Mr. Williams, who happened to be there again, that a boy was wanted in the new drug-store in the village, to learn the business, and to sleep in the back room, so as to attend night-calls. Dr. Lanham did not know why this Jack Dudley wouldn't be just the boy.
Susan, for her part, was very sure he would be; and Mr. Williams agreed with Susan, as, indeed, he generally did.
Dr. Lanham thought that Jack might be allowed to attend school in the daytime in the winter season, and if the boy had as good stuff in him as he seemed to have, there was no reason why he shouldn't come to something some day.
"Come to something!" said Susan. "Come to something! Why, he'll make one of the best doctors in the country yet."
And again Mr. Williams entirely agreed with Susan, Jack Dudley was sure to go up to the head of the class.
Jack got the place, and I doubt not fulfilled the hope of his friends. I know this, at least, that when a year or so later his good friend and teacher, Mr. Williams, was married to his good and stanch friend, Susan Lanham, Jack's was one of the happiest faces at the wedding.