Ebooks - Fiction, Non-Fiction 1000s of Them - Tons of Free Stories to Read ~ Main Page




Alma Mater by O. F. Lewis


Professor Horace Irving had taught Latin for nearly forty years at Huntington College. Then he had come back to Stuyvesant Square, in New York. Now he lived in a little hall bedroom, four flights up, overlooking the Square.

Habitually he walked from the Square westward to Fourth Avenue, in the afternoon, when the weather permitted. He had been born only three doors from where he now lived. The house of his birth had gone. It was sixty years since he had been a boy and played in this Square. Now he would pause at the corner of Fourth Avenue in his walks, and remember the Goelet's cow and the big garden and the high iron fence at Nineteenth Street and Broadway. Great buildings now towered there.

South along Fourth Avenue he would walk, a little man, scarcely five feet four in height, even with the silk hat and the Prince Albert coat. His white hair grew long over his collar, and people would notice that almost more than anything else about him. He may have weighed between ninety and a hundred pounds. The coat was worn and shiny, but immaculate. The tall hat was of a certain type and year, but carefully smoothed and still glossy.

He would pause often, between Nineteenth Street and Eighteenth Street, peopling the skyscrapers with ghosts of a former day, when houses and green gardens lined the streets. The passers-by watched him casually, perhaps as much as any one notices any one else in New York. He was, in the Fourteenth Street district, a rarer specimen than Hindus or Mexican medicine-men. Through the ten years since he had come, pensioned, from Huntington College, he had become a walking landmark in this region.

He always walked down on the east side of the street, crossing at Fourteenth Street. He was carefully piloted, and saluted, by the traffic policeman. It was a bad crossing. Below Fourteenth Street things looked much more as they had looked when he was young.

The bookstores were an unceasing hobby to the old man. The secondhand dealers never made any objection to his reading books upon the shelves. His purchases were perhaps two books a week, at ten or even five cents each. Now and again he would find one of his own “Irving's Latin Prose Composition” texts in the five-cent pile. Opening the book, he usually would discover strange pencilled pictures drawn scrawlingly over many of the pages. His “Latin Composition” wasn't published after 1882, the year the firm failed. It might have been different for him, with a different publisher.

Late one afternoon in April, Professor Irving stood in his customary niche at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street, watching the traffic from a sheltered spot against the wall of the building. He was becoming exceedingly anxious about the approaching storm. It had come up since he left Stuyvesant Square, and he had no umbrella. He must not get his silk hat wet. His thin overcoat was protecting him but feebly from the wind, which with the disappearance of the sun had grown sharp and biting. It was rapidly becoming dark. Lights were flashing in the windows up and down the Avenue.

The Professor decided to stand in a doorway till the shower had passed over. The chimes in the Metropolitan Tower struck the first quarter after four, the sounds welling in gusts to the old man's ears. A little man came to stand in the doorway beside the Professor. The latter saw that the little man had a big umbrella. Silk hats were so fearfully expensive in these days!

The heavy drops beat against the pavement in torrents. The first flash of lightning of the year was followed by a deep roll of thunder.

“I got to go!” said the little man. “Keep the umbrella! I got another where I work. I'm only fifty-five. You're older than me, a lot. You better start home. You'll get soaked, standing here!” And the little man was gone before the Professor could reply.

“An exceedingly kindly, simple man,” thought the old Professor. He had planned, while standing with his unknown benefactor, that he would go into some store and wait. But now he would chance it, and cross the street. He saw a lull in the traffic. He started and was nearly swept off his feet. He got to the middle of the street. The umbrella grew unwieldy, swinging this way and that, as if tugged by unseen hands. It turned inside out. Blaring noises from the passing cars confused the Professor.

The shaft of the umbrella swung violently around and knocked the silk hat from Professor Irving's head. His white hair was caught by the wind. Lashed in another direction, the shaft now struck the Professor's glasses, and they flew away. Now he could see little or nothing. He became bewildered.

Great glaring headlights broke upon him, passed him, and then immediately other glaring lights flared up toward him out of the sheets of water. He couldn't see because of his lost glasses and because of the stinging rain. He rushed between two cars. He slipped....

The chimes on the Metropolitan Tower rang out, in wails of wild sound, the half-hour after four.

       * * * * *

The attendance that evening at the annual banquet of the New York alumni of Huntington College exceeded all previous records. The drive for two million five hundred thousand dollars was on. It was a small college, but as Daniel Webster said of Dartmouth, there were those who loved it.

The east ballroom of the hotel was well filled with diners. Recollections of college days were shouted across tables and over intervening aisles. There was a million still to raise: but old Huntington would put it across! They'd gotten out more of the older men, the men with money, than had ever been seen before at an alumni dinner.

The income on one million would go into better salaries for the professors and other teachers. They'd been shamefully underpaid—men who'd been on the faculty twenty to thirty years getting two thousand! Well, Huntington College had now a new president, one of the boys of twenty years ago. Yes sir, things were different. It was in the air.

In the midst of the dinner course, the toastmaster rapped loudly with the gavel for attention. It was hard to obtain quiet.

“Men,” said the toastmaster, and there was a curious note in his voice, “I ask your absolute silence. Middleton, whom you all know is one of the editorial staff of the Sphere, has just come in. He can stay only a few minutes. He came especially to tell you something.”

A man standing behind the toastmaster stepped into the toastmaster's place. He was in business clothes, a sharp contrast to the rest of the diners. He was loudly applauded. He raised his right hand and shook his head.

“Boys,” he said, “I've got a tragic piece of news for you—for those of you who were in college any time up to ten years ago.” He paused and looked the diners over.

“Four fifths of you men who are here to-night knew old Hoddy Irving, our 'prof' in Latin. He served old Huntington College for forty years, the longest term any professor ever served. He made no demands—ever. He took us freshmen under his wing. I used to walk now and then with him, miles around the college, when it wasn't so built up as it now is. He loved the fields and the animals and the trees. He taught me a lot of things besides Latin. Don't you remember the funny little walk he had, sort of a hop forward? Don't you remember the way he'd come up to the college dormitories nights, sometimes, from his house down on the Row, and knock timidly at our doors, and come in and visit? Don't you remember that we used to clear some of those tables mighty quickly, of the chips and the bottles?”

There were titters, and some one shouted: “You said it!”

“And then, don't you remember, that some ten years ago they turned the old man off, with a pension—so-called—of half his salary. But what was his salary? Two thousand dollars—two thousand dollars at the end of forty years!! You and I, and old Huntington College, turned old Hoddy out to pasture, this pasture, on a thousand a year! And to-night, right now, he's lying in Bellevue, both legs broken, skull fractured, and not a damn cent in the world except insurance enough to bury him. And to-morrow he'll be ours to bury, boys—old Hoddy Irving!”

A confusion of voices rose in the room, and over them all a “No!” from some one who seemed to cry out in pain.

“Yes!” said Middleton as the murmurs ceased. “Our old Hoddy, starving, loaded up with debt, alone, down in a miserable hall bedroom in Stuyvesant Square. How did I come to know about it? One of our reporters, who covers Bellevue, dug up the story in his day's work. They brought in this old, disheveled, unconscious man—and in his pocket was his name. Kenyon, the reporter, went over to the house on the Square and found there another old fellow that old Hoddy chummed some with, and who knew all the circumstances.

“It seems Hoddy had an invalid old sister—and they hadn't any money except this pension. How the two old souls got along no one will never know. But she died awhile ago, and that put Hoddy into a lot more debt. And this miserable little eighty dollars a month has had to carry him and his debts. And not a whimper that old man utters. Always kindly, Hoddy was, always telling stories from the forty years at Huntington—and we fellows here, a lot of us rotten with money, and not knowing that the old fellow—-”

Middleton's voice broke. It was some time before he proceeded.

“This afternoon, at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street, just as that tornado broke, he tried to cross the street. He got in a jam of cars, and of course the windshields were all mussed up with rain, and the chauffeurs couldn't see anything ahead—and they don't know whose car it was. The police say it was just four thirty-one when they picked him up.

“Well, that's all, except that—I'm going down to Bellevue, and if one or two of you want to come—perhaps old Hoddy will know us—even this late.”

Middleton had finished. From various parts of the room came the words: “I'll go! Let me go!” Men were frankly wiping their eyes.

At a distant table arose Martin Delano. He was reputed to be the wealthiest alumnus of Huntington. He was said to have made almost fabulous millions during the war. In the Street he was known as “Merciless Martin.” They were planning to strike him this evening for at least a hundred thousand.

Martin Delano stood holding the edge of the table with one hand, the other fingering a spoon on the table. He stood there long. Several times he opened his lips as though to speak. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his cheeks and forehead. Evidently he was deeply moved.

“Mr. Toastmaster, may I ask the privilege of going down to Bellevue with Mr. Middleton? I would ask that I be allowed to insist on going down. I have sinned, grievously sinned, in forgetting old Hoddy. Now, when it's too late——Thirty years ago, and more, when I was a green, frightened freshman from Vermont, he took me to his heart. He was known as the Freshman's Friend. That's what Hoddy always did—take the green and frightened freshman to his heart. Probably, if he hadn't done that to me, I'd have gone back home in my lonesomeness. And then——

“Yes, I have sinned—and it might have been so different. I want to go down there! And I'm coming back here, before you men are through to-night, and I'll tell you more.”

At about half-past ten Martin Delano came back. He walked into the room just as one of the speakers had finished. The toastmaster caught his eye and beckoned to him to come to the speaker's table. Delano stood in front of the crowd. He had walked forward, seeing no one on his way.

“Hoddy—Hoddy has gone, boys!”

Then quickly, silently, the three hundred men arose and stood. After a time they heard Delano say: “Sit down, boys.”

He waited till they were seated. “There's a lot that I might tell, men—terrible things—that I won't tell, for it's all over. Just this—and I suppose you're about through now and breaking up. It was the poor old Prof. of ours—shattered, deathly white, a lot older. But will you believe it, the same dear old smile, or almost a smile, on his face! Unconscious, but babbling. And about what? The college—Alma Mater! Those were just the words—Alma Mater! The college that gave him the half pay and forgot him on the very night when we are trying to raise a miserable two million, that things like this sha'n't happen again!”

“And boys, when we bent over him and whispered our names, he seemed after a while to understand that we were there—but in the classroom, the old Number 3 in Holmes Hall! And fellows, he called on—on me to recite——”

Merciless Martin Delano couldn't go on. Finally he spoke.

“And so, Mr. President, I wish, sir, as a slight token of my appreciation of what that simple great man has done for Huntington College to give to our Alma Mater—our Alma Mater, sir—the sum of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to be used for the erection of a suitable building, for whatever purpose is most necessary, and that building to be called after Horace Irving.

“And sir, I also desire to give to the fund for properly providing for the salaries of our professors and other teachers, the sum of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars—those men who teach in our Alma Mater.

“And I ask one word more: I have arranged that Professor Irving is to be buried from my house. If you will permit me, I will leave now.”

The alumni of Huntington College were silent. There was no sound, save the occasional pushing of a chair, or the click of a plate or a glass upon the table, as Martin Delano passed from the room.

It was after one o'clock. Martin Delano was in his library, his arms flung across the table, his face between them.

In the opaque blur of swirling rain, his car had passed the corner of Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street at precisely half-past four that afternoon. He had happened to take out his watch at the moment the Metropolitan clock struck the second quarter.

He would never know whether it had been his car or another!