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A Dark Horse by Will Lillibridge

 

Iowa City is not large, nor are the prospects for metropolitan greatness at all flattering. Even her most zealous citizen, the ancient of the market corner, admits that “there ain't been much stirrin' for quite a spell back,” and among the broad fraternity of commercial travellers, the town is a standing joke. Yet, throughout the entire State, no community of equal size is so well known. It is the home of the State University.

In the year '90-something-or-other, there was enrolled in the junior class of the university, one Walter R. Chester, but it is doubtful whether five other students in the same classic seat of learning could have told you his given name. Away back in his freshman year he had been dubbed “Lord” Chester. And as “Lord” Chester alone is his name still preserved, and revered in university annals.

The reasons lying back of this exaltation to the peerage were not very complex, but quite as adequate as those usually inspiring college nicknames. He was known to be country-bred, and the average freshwater school defines the “country” as a region of dense mental darkness, commencing where the campus ends and extending thence in every direction, throughout the unchartered realms of space.

Each Friday afternoon, “Lord” Chester would carefully lock his room and disappear upon a bicycle; this much was plainly visible to everybody. On Monday he would reappear. The hiatus afforded a peg from which much unprofitable speculation was suspended. The argument most plausible was that he went home, while one romantic youth suggested a girl. The accusation was never repeated. What? The “Lord” a ladies' man? Tut! One would as soon expect a statue to drill a minstrel show.

Thus Chester's personal affairs remained a mystery. He never talked reflexively—rare attribute in a college man—and, moreover, curiosity never throve well in his presence. It utterly failed to bear fruit.

Another peculiarity distinguished him from all the rest of the student body: he roomed by himself. Although invariably courteous and polite to visitors, he was never known to extend an invitation for a second visit. He quite obviously wanted to be left alone, and the “fellows” met him more than half-way.

But what, more than anything else, probably helped to designate him “Lord,” was the scrupulous way in which he dressed. There was no hint of the pastoral in his sartorial accomplishments, and it was his one extravagance. Though from the country and therefore presumably poor, no swell son of the Western haute monde made an equally smart appearance.

We have been viewing the youth from the standpoint of his fellow-students. As a matter of fact, they never saw the real man, the man behind the closed door, at all. He was a terrific worker. When he decided to do a thing, he did it. Night was as day at such times, and meals were unthought of. He literally plunged out of sight into his work, and as yet he had never failed.

One reason for this uniform success lay in the fact that he was able to define his limitations, and never attempted the impossible. He was, indeed, poor; that is, relatively so. His earliest recollections were associated with corn rows and grilling suns; which accounted for the present cheerfulness with which he tackled any task, and for his appetite for hard work. When tired, he would think of the weight of a hoe in a boy's hand at six o'clock in the afternoon, and proceed with renewed vigor.

Such was “Lord” Chester: product of work and solitude; a man who knew more about the ideal than the real; a man who would never forget a friend nor forgive an injury; who would fight to the bitter end and die game—hero of “the” Marathon, whose exciting history is impossible to avoid in Iowa City.

By nature, Chester was an athlete, and by way of exercise he was accustomed to indulge in a few turns daily upon the cinder path. One evening in early spring he was jogging along at a steady brisk pace, when two men in training-suits caught up with him. They were puffing when they fell in beside him. Presently they dropped behind, and one, a tall important youth, of the name of Richards, called out:

“I say, me lud, aren't you going to clear the trail?”

Quick as a shot Chester halted and faced around.

“What's that?” he asked quietly.

The other two nearly bumped into him, but managed to come to a standstill, before precipitating that catastrophe. They lurched back upon their heels, nearly toppling backwards, too surprised for the moment to speak. Chester did not stir.

“Jiminy crickets!” Richards' companion exclaimed in a moment. “You're deuced sudden, Chester, I must say.”

And Richards' manner promptly grew conciliatory.

“Old man,” he said, smiling, “you really ought to train. You've got form—by George, you have! Besides, you wouldn't have any opposition to speak of, you know.”

Richards was still smiling; but a smile, however warmly encouraged from within, is apt to take cold in a frost. The casual glance with which Chester took in the young man, from his light sprinting-pumps to his eyes, may be accurately described as frigid. Not until he had held the other's embarrassed look for an appreciable pause did he deign to speak.

“There really ought to be,” he said without emotion, “at least one man in the field. I think I shall train.”

Thus it came about that “Lord” Chester decided to enter athletics. Five minutes previously even the thought had not occurred to him; but he wasn't the man to quail before a bluff.

The track management of this particular university was an oligarchy; was governed by a few absolute individuals. Perhaps such a condition is not as rare as might be supposed. However that may be, it was here a case of being either “in” or “out.” Chester was unpopular, and from the first had been out.

There were only four entries for the running events, the same names appearing in all; so he could not be kept from the field. But he well knew that various ways existed by which favoritism could be shown, and that these preferences, too trifling in themselves to warrant complaint, might prove a serious handicap in a close contest. He knew that, however honors might lie among the other entries, they would hesitate at nothing to prevent him from taking a place. In fact, Richards openly boasted that he would pocket “'is ludship” at the finish.

So Chester shaped his plans accordingly. He had never aimed at the impossible, nor did he now. He withdrew from all short-distance runs and yard dashes, and concentrated his mind upon the Marathon—thus dignified, although the faculty would permit nothing more arduous than two miles.

In saying trained, everything is meant that the word can be made to imply: the sort of hour in, hour out, to-the-limit-of-endurance training which either makes or kills. A fortnight before Field Day Chester was in perfect condition, and had his capabilities gauged to a nicety. He was now entered only in the Marathon; they virtually had forced him from the half-mile, and they should be made to pay the penalty.

One day before the race Chester went to the bank and inquired the amount of his balance. It was shown him: one hundred and six dollars and some odd cents. He drew a cheque for the amount, and thrust the bills into his pocket. From the bank he walked straight up Main Street for three blocks, then turned in at a well-kept brick house.

“Mr. Richards in?” he asked of the servant-girl.

“Yes, sir. Right upstairs—second door to the left. He's got company now.”

The junior nevertheless resolutely mounted the stairs and knocked upon the door. The noise inside resembled a pocket-edition of the Chicago Board of Trade, so Chester hammered again, louder.

“Come!” some one yelled, and the noise subsided.

He opened the door and stepped inside. A half-dozen young fellows were scattered about, but as he knew none of them, except by name, he ignored their presence and walked directly up to Richards.

“I've come on business,” he said; “can I speak with you a moment?”

“Sure!” Richards removed his feet from a chair, kicking it at the same time toward his visitor. “These fellows know more about my business now than I do myself, so get it off of your chest, Chester.”

The company laughed, but Chester remained wholly unmoved.

“All right,” said he, calmly. “You're in the Marathon: want to risk anything on it?”

Up went Richards' feet once more, this time to a table. He winked broadly at his friends, and replied with an air of vast carelessness,

“Why—yes; I don't mind. Guess I can cover you.”

“How much?” demanded Chester. “Odds even, mind.”

“I said I'd cover you, didn't I?” with some warmth. Richards fumbled in his trousers pockets, extracting therefrom a handful of loose change.

Chester advanced to the table. At sight of his roll of bills a sudden silence fell. All eyes were glued upon them while he counted.

“Five—ten—fifteen”—and so on, up to one hundred. He stowed the remaining five back in his pocket, pushed the pile into the middle of the table and looked coolly down at his host. Said he,

“One hundred, even, that I win the Marathon. Cover, or show these fellows the sort of piker you are.”

And Richards came very near to showing them. His face was a study. He hadn't ten dollars to his name; he was painfully aware of the fact, and here were these six boys who would know it too in about two seconds. He was rattled, and sat looking at the pile of bills as though charmed. He racked his brain for some way out of the predicament, but the only thing he could think of was to wonder whether the portrait on the top note was that of Hendricks or Rufus Choate. “It can't be Choate,” suddenly occurred to him. “But then it—”

There was a laugh in the back of the room. Richards stood up. A dozen fire alarms would not have recalled him so quickly. Whatever else might be said of the man he was game, and now his gameness showed.

“Give me an hour; I'll meet you then in front of the postoffice.” While speaking he had gotten into his coat; now he walked toward the door. “Amuse yourselves while I'm gone, fellows,” he said, and disappeared down the stairway.

Chester replaced the notes in his pocket, nodded gravely to the company and followed.

Not a boy spoke, but all sat staring blankly at the doorway.

An hour later, both Richards and Chester appeared at the postoffice. The former, by dint of much persistent circulation among his fellow athletes, had found enough of them who were willing to pool their funds in order to secure the necessary amount. The two young men had witnesses, the wager was properly closed and the money deposited. Neither spoke an unnecessary word during the meeting, but when Chester started to leave, Richards turned facetiously to his friends.

“'Is bloomin' ludship will start training Friday; bet he has his wheel in soak.”

To which remark Chester paid not the slightest attention.

Whatever may be said to the contrary, six boys can no more retain a secret than can six girls, and inside of an hour the story of the big bet had spread over the town. In due course it penetrated to the city: one day a reporter appeared and interviewed the principals, and on the following Sunday their photographs adorned the pink section of a great daily. This was nuts for the university—but it is getting ahead of our own story somewhat.

Chester, naturally, was the centre of curiosity. He had not pawned his “bike,” as was demonstrated when Friday rolled around; but had it been known that the last cent he owned in the world had been staked upon the issue, no doubt the interest would have been greater.

Field Day opened bright and clear, and early in the afternoon Athletic Park began to fill. A rumor had gone abroad that the two principal competitors had actually come to blows, and that each had sworn to die rather than lose the race. Long before the opening event the inclosure was crowded with spectators, all eagerly discussing the Marathon, to the exclusion of every other contest. The opinion was freely expressed that Richards would “put a crimp in that chesty Chester,” and that he would “win in a walk.” They made no bones about playing favorites.

It was a still, hot day, and if there is any advantage in atmospheric conditions each contestant should have been inspired with that absolute confidence of winning, without which the fastest race is but a tame affair. At two o'clock the band commenced playing. The judges tried to follow the programme, but the cries of “Marathon! Marathon!” grew so insistent and clamorous that they finally yielded, and the event was called.

Richards responded first. He was popular, and the grandstand gave him an ovation as he took his position under the wire. It seemed as though the handkerchief of every girl present was in the air. The two figureheads, friends of Richards, came next, and last of all Chester.

A feeble attempt at applause marked his passage in front of the grandstand; but he never looked up, and for any indication he gave to the contrary, he might have been the only person on the grounds. His track suit was hidden by a long black door curtain, in lieu of a bath-robe, and a pretty girl on the front row remarked audibly, “He's all ready for the funeral.”

“Sure thing,” answered her companion. “He knows his obsequies are about to take place.”

“Peels well,” a man by the rail critically commented. “But—rats!—Richards has pocketed this event ever since he's been here; you can't make the pace for him with anything slower than an auto.”

The runners were in line at last, crouching low, tense, finger-tips upon the ground, the starting-pistol above their heads.

“Starters ready?” floated in a sing-song voice from the judges' stand. “Timers r-r-read-y-y?” A sharp crack from the pistol, and they were off.

Then a queer thing happened. Instead of dawdling along behind, as every one expected, Chester, without an instant's hesitation, pushed to the front and set the pace.

And what a pace! It was literally a race from the word go. Chester took the inside and faced the music, Richards and the others close in behind. Sympathy in the grandstand was beginning to turn; everybody appreciates pluck. The spectators, however, knew him to be a novice, and many supposed that he had lost his head; so when he passed the grandstand on the first lap, any amount of contradictory advice was shouted noisily.

“Let them set the pace!” “You're killing yourself!” “Oh, you bally Lord!—go it, kid!” “Don't let 'em nose you out, Chester, old scout!” “Save your air, old top, you'll need it!” and much more of a like kind was hurled at him, which reached his ears through the veil of singing wind, like the roar of distant breakers upon the seashore.

He kept his own counsel. He had followed that pace every day during the last two weeks of his training, and he knew precisely what he could do. Besides the air was quiet, and the disadvantage of being pace-maker was not so great as people thought.

In this formation they came round the half-mile oval the second time, each man working with the nice regularity of well-oiled machinery. Not a sound now from the grandstand; only the soft pat of the runners' feet could be heard. The crowd had caught Chester's idea: but could he hold out?

They had passed the three-quarter pole on the third lap when a yell went up, and everybody rose excitedly to their feet. Space was growing rapidly between the leaders and those behind; it was now resolved to a duel between the principals.

As they dashed past, the crowd examined them closely, scores of field-glasses being trained upon them like so many guns.

Chester was still erect, his head well back, chest forward, arms working piston-like, close down at his sides, while his long, regular tread was as light and springy as an Indian's. His jaw was set grimly, but it was manifest that he was still breathing deep and regularly through his nostrils.

It was equally manifest that his opponent was in distress. The last of his strength and determination was dying away in a desperate effort to keep his pace; his face was colorless, eyes staring, his step irregular. Worst of all, his mouth was open, and his chest could be seen to vibrate as he panted.

[Illustration: He heard a voice ... and glanced back.]

“By Jove!” muttered the man at the rail, as amazed as though the blue canopy of heaven had suddenly fallen, “Chester'll take it, I do believe!” And the crowd was beginning to believe the same.

The rivals maintained their relative positions until, on the last lap, the three-quarter pole was once more reached. The two figureheads had dropped out and mounted a fence where they would not be too far away from the finish.

Every eye was trained upon the racers, the excitement was tense. Chester was pounding grimly away; sweat was pouring down his face until it glistened in the sun; his legs ached as though in a boot of torture. But he had no thought of allowing Richards to close the gap between them by an inch. He was counting the pat-pat-pat! of his feet upon the track. “Seventy-three more, and it's won, old boy,” he muttered. He could hear Richards' every breath. “One, two, three,—” he counted.

He heard a voice, so broken that the words could hardly be distinguished, and he glanced back.

“For God's—sake, Chester—hold—up!” gasped Richards. “I—can't lose—this race—now.”

He was a pitiable figure, his white face drawn in lines of pain, his body swaying uncertainly, as he pressed despairingly on.

For one moment Chester's heart felt a throb of pity. Then he thought of his work in sun and rain; of Richards' contempt in the past; of the cheers for his rival and the open ridicule of his own pretensions; and last of all, but far from being the least consideration, the two hundred dollars absolutely necessary to carry him through his final year to graduation.

Ah, nobody knew about that two hundred dollars, save himself and one little girl, who had driven into town early in the afternoon, and who had slipped timidly into as good a seat as she could find in the stand. She showed one dot of pink among hundreds of fluffy white gowns; Chester was ignorant of her presence, but as he sped round and round the track, her eyes never once left him, nor did she cease praying silently that he might win!

Only for an instant did he hesitate; then his face settled into an expression not pleasant to look upon. He forgot that he was tired, that a grandstand full of howling maniacs was ahead of him. He thought only of the girl in pink—and made his spurt.

Richards tried to follow, but a haze was forming over his eyes. His heart was pounding until he believed that he must suffocate. Then he reeled suddenly, lost his balance and fell into darkness.

“So this is victory!” murmured Chester to himself a moment later, as he swayed unsteadily upon the shoulders of a howling mob. He was thinking of poor Richards lying back there upon the track. But just then he espied the transfigured face of the girl in pink.

“It is! It is!” he shouted joyfully.

 
 
 

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