Ralph Henry Barbour

About this book

An adventurous boarding school and sports story about a 14-year-old John Boland, his roommate Ned Brent and six boys living in West House. They all attend the Oak Park School, a preparatory school for boys. Things become thrilling when a thief appears in West House, and their identity is slowly disclosed.

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“How far is it to Oak Park School, please?”

The policeman on duty at the North Woodfield station turned from watching the train disappear westward along the track and gave his attention to the speaker. What he saw was a rather thin youth of fourteen with deeply tanned face from which a pair of gray eyes looked somewhat anxiously upward. The boy had removed his hat, a dilapidated straw adorned with a faded blue band, not out of deference to the majesty of the law but because the September afternoon was decidedly hot, leaving to view a head of pale brown hair, rumpled and damp, which had evidently been trimmed both recently and poorly. He wore a suit of gray flannel, a white shirt, with a stiff and creaky bosom, a narrow red four-in-hand tie and tan shoes. In spite of the fact that his attire was all of the most inexpensive sort he was quite palpably “dressed up” and extremely uncomfortable. He had set down his bag, a small and very shiny contrivance of imitation alligator skin, in order to run a new and scratchy handkerchief around inside his collar.

“What was it you asked?” inquired the officer.

“How far is it to Oak Park School, sir? And which way do I have to go, please?”

The officer had started a good many boys on their initial journey to the school and had acquired a method of procedure.

“Pick up your bag and I’ll show you, my boy. Right through here.” He conducted his charge across the waiting-room and out the further door where, along the asphalt walk, carriage drivers were clamoring for fares.

“The school’s about a half a mile up that way. Any of these drivers will take you there.”

“But they’ll charge me, won’t they?” asked the boy.

“Sure! They ain’t doing it for their health. It’s only a quarter, though. You can stand that, I guess.”

“I’d rather walk if you’ll tell me how to go.”

The officer turned for another survey of the boy before he replied. He had seen a number of Oak Park School boys, but this was the first one who had ever in his experience saved carriage fare. “Don’t quite look like he belonged at that school,” he said to himself. Then,

“’D rather walk, eh? Well, you cross the common here and take that street over by the hardware store. See? Keep right on that until you get to the school. You can’t miss it. Going to the Hall, are you?”

“No, sir; West House.”

“Well, that’s a bit farther, but you’d better go up to the school and then cross over through the park. You might go another way, but it’s longer and a good deal hotter walking, I guess. If I was you, though, I’d take a carriage. There’s a load of the boys going up now. Better go with ’em.”

“I cal’late I’d rather walk, thanks. It ain’t very far.” He put on his hat and returned his handkerchief to his pocket. “Much obliged, sir.”

“Oh, you’re welcome. Better take it easy; it’s a hot day.”

“Yes, sir, I will.”

The officer watched him cross the road, enter the common and strike off toward the other side of the Square. He smiled and then he shook his head.

“Wonder how he came here,” he muttered. “I guess he’s in for a lot of guying when the rest of ’em catch sight of him. Well, he’ll live through it.”

The boy reached the farther side of the common and started across the street in front of the hardware store. At that moment a three-seated surrey containing the driver, four boys and numerous suit-cases came along and the boy on foot had to retreat hurriedly to keep from being run down.

“Look out there, farmer! Most got you that time!”

“Look where you’re going, kid!”

He had a brief glimpse of laughing, mocking faces and then the surrey, drawn by a pair of sleek bays, dashed around the corner out of sight. He started again across the street, this time looking cautiously to left and right. But the course was clear now. Across from the hardware store was a druggist’s and huge placards told enticingly of “Ice Cold Soda” and “College Ices.” One hand went tentatively into his trousers pocket as the hiss of the soda fountain came to him. But it came out again empty and he turned down the street toward the school. “Elm Street” said the sign on the corner, but the elms were not in sight. Beyond an occasional maple, too small to throw shade, the street was treeless and the hot sunlight beat remorselessly down on either sidewalk.

There had been a fountain in the common and he wished now that he had stopped and had a drink. For a block or two small stores lined the way and he considered entering one of them and asking for water. But they were all shabby and untidy and by the time he had made up his mind to ask he had left them behind, and houses, no more attractive than the stores, had taken their place. He took the policeman’s advice and walked slowly, for in spite of the fact that it wanted but a week to the first of October the day was as hot as an August one and the stiff shirt and the vest, both articles of attire with which he was somewhat unfamiliar, increased his discomfort. He hoped that the policeman hadn’t underestimated the distance to the school. The bag, while it wasn’t very heavy, didn’t make progress any easier. And that awful collar was squeezing his neck like a vise!

He had started from home after an early dinner feeling decidedly excited and elated, but the elation was dwindling fast with every step, and the excitement had changed to something that savored both of dismay and homesickness. When, away last Spring, it had been decided in family council that he was to go to boarding school and prepare for college the prospect had filled him with delight. Now he wished himself back in West Bayport. He already missed the sight and smell of the ocean and the wharves and the shipping. It seemed unpleasantly shut in here, and the air was dead and held no tang, and the street was deep in yellowish-gray dust and even the hills in the distance looked hot and wilted under their purple haze. On the whole, he was sorely tempted to retrace his steps and take the next train homeward, abandoning Oak Park and college and all they stood for.

But of course he didn’t. If he had his name wouldn’t have been John William Boland. Moreover, there wouldn’t have been any story! No, he kept right along the hot road which presently bore to the left and became gradually shady with spreading elms. The shabby dwellings died away from either side and open lots and then broad fields succeeded them. Once he rested for a good five minutes perched on a stone wall in the grateful shade of a big elm, and while he sat there, hat off, rumpled hair exposed to a little listless breeze, shiny bag at his feet, two carriages filled to the brim with boys, arrivals on a later train, rattled merrily and noisily by him, and he was uncomfortably conscious of the curious looks and the muttered comments proceeding from them.

He didn’t think he was going to like Oak Park School and regretted that he hadn’t held out for one of the institutions which his own choice had fallen upon when the little white cottage at West Bayport had been inundated for weeks with school catalogues. He recalled one in particular, Seaview Academy, an imposing brick building fronting the ocean, backed with a jolly looking forest and adorned on all sides by winding paths sprinkled with boys and strange-shaped flower beds blooming tropically. But Seaview had been quite out of the question with its seven hundred dollar tuition fee, and, like several others which had caught his fancy, had been set aside as something beautiful but impossible.

There had been a time when the Bolands were prosperous. That was before Captain Jonathan Boland, master and half-owner of the fishing schooner Patriot, had been lost with all hands on the Grand Banks and Mrs. Boland and John and his sister Nan had been left with only the small house overlooking the harbor and a very little money. The disaster had occurred when John was ten and his sister a year younger, and since that time the family had often had hard work to make ends meet. John and Nan attended public school, and in the summer the former found what work he could. The wages weren’t large, but they helped. One summer he had obtained a place in a sail-loft, and another year had nailed “flats” into boxes at the fish house. But the best summer of all had been the one just past, when he had served as one of the crew of three on the little auxiliary sloop Emma Boyd, which sailed or chugged about the harbor selling water to the fishing boats.

It was the death of Uncle Thomas that had altered the boy’s prospects. Uncle Thomas had been his mother’s brother, a mysterious, seldom seen old man who had lived in Maine and who, when he decided to die at the respectable age of seventy-odd, had left a legacy of a thousand dollars to his sister. News of it had reached Mrs. Boland in the late winter and not for an instant had there been any doubt in her mind as to the investment of the money. It was to go toward her boy’s education. It wouldn’t take him through college, of course, but, with care, it might prepare him for it; and once old enough to find employment at a man’s wages, he could, she was certain, with the Lord’s help, manage the rest himself. Mrs. Boland had always been a firm believer in trusting to the Lord, and so far she had never been disappointed.

John was to study hard and prepare himself for college in three years. Neither himself nor his mother nor Sister Nan doubted his ability to do this; Nan least of all, perhaps, for to her John was something just short of super-human. Had the legacy been larger John could have afforded another year at school, but with a thousand dollars only to draw on, and tuition at good schools seldom being less than three hundred a year, you can see that three years was bound to be his limit. So the legacy was placed untouched in the savings bank and the entire family began a systematic study of preparatory schools. In the end Oak Park had won the privilege of enrolling John William Boland among its pupils. The tuition at Oak Park was three hundred dollars a year, a price made possible by endowments from former students. It was only a dollar and twenty cents from West Bayport—you see the Bolands reckoned distance in terms of carfares!—and it possessed in addition most of the advantages offered by larger and more expensive schools. I think, though, that it was the phrase in the advertisement alluding to moral character that decided Mrs. Boland. John remembered every word of that advertisement yet; it had been read a dozen times while awaiting the school catalogue.

“Oak Park School, North Woodfield, Mass. Preparatory School for Boys. Estab. 1876. Ideal equipment for health and study. Twenty-four acres of elevated ground one hour from Boston. Special attention given to boys of fifteen and under. Enrollment limited to sixty and only boys of high moral character accepted. For further information address Dr. Horace Mitchell Webster, Principal.”

John’s application had been forwarded in June and a month later he had learned that it had been accepted. From that moment he had looked forward to this day. And now—why, now he was dragging unwilling feet along the road and heartily wishing himself back at home! It was extremely unreasonable of him, he knew, but somehow he just couldn’t help it. It was not only unreasonable, it was ungrateful besides. And while he was telling himself so, with a terrific frown on his brown forehead, the school suddenly appeared before him.

A neat stone wall, flat-topped and half-hidden with ivy, began beside him and went on to an ornamental iron gateway. Beyond the wall was a broad expanse of velvety green turf divided by drives and walks which led to the four buildings in sight. The nearest of these was a low two-story building of buff colored brick and limestone trimming. John guessed it to be the gymnasium, and he was right. It was full of windows, most of which were open, and the red slate roof looked very hot in the sunlight. Near the gymnasium and further from John was a handsome building of three stories, the lower of weathered shingles and the upper two of creamy-hued plaster between beams. There were two entrances, a square porch before each, and on the porches and steps were many boys. Still further away was an old building of red brick, making no pretence of architectural attractiveness and draped in ivy. This was the recitation hall doubtless. And quite a distance beyond the three foremost buildings a fourth peered around the corner of the center one. It too was of shingle and stucco and beams, but it was quite small. Beyond the school grounds there was a fringe of trees, and back of that the country rose and fell in meadows and wooded hillsides.

The policeman had said that West House was farther than the school itself and John hesitated at the gate. Then his gaze crossed the road and there was another gate, a rustic one, with the sign “West House” above it. So he turned his back on the school buildings and went through the smaller gate and followed a neat gravelled path that dipped down to a wooden bridge. Above the bridge was an oval pond half an acre in extent. Under and below it a little brook ran, fern-fringed and murmurous, to disappear in a patch of willows and alders beyond. This was the park from which the school took its name. The path led upward again and wound westward through a grove of oaks. Here and there shrubs and plants, their leaves drooping and wilted, lined the path. With the exception of the Public Gardens in Boston, John had never seen anything as beautiful as that far-reaching expanse of turfed ground with the great wide-spreading oak trees throwing their pools of dark green shadow on the grass. There seemed to be no limits to the park, for as far as he could see his vision was shut in by leaf and branch and trunk. Once he thought he spied the top of a red chimney through the greenery, but he wasn’t certain of that. He was certain, however, that Oak Park School exceeded his expectations as far as attractiveness went, and he found so much pleasure in following the path and viewing the new vistas of sun and shade that opened up before him at every turn that he quite forgot his former despondency and was so absorbed that when, quite unexpectedly, the trees stopped and a white cottage with green blinds appeared before him he was quite astounded.