A Master’s Degree

Author: Margaret Hill McCarter

Chapter V the Storm


THE silence following Dennie’s story was broken by a sudden peal of thunder overhead. At the same instant the blackness of midnight lifted itself above the stone ledges and dropped down upon the Corral, smothering everything in darkness. A rushing whirlwind, a lurid blaze of lightning, and a second peal of thunder threw the camp into blind disorder. In the minute’s lull following the first storm herald, there was a wild scrambling for wraps and lunch baskets. Then the darkness thickened and the storm’s fury burst upon the crowd—a mad lashing of bending tree tops, a blinding whirl of dust filling the air, the thunder’s terrific cannonade, the incessant blaze of lightning, the rattling of the distant rain; and above all these, unlike them all, a steady, dreadful roaring, coming nearer each moment.

Professor Burgess was no coward, but he had little power of generalship. As the crowd huddled together under the swaying trees, Trench called to Burleigh:

"There’s been a cloudburst up stream. The roar I’ve been hearing is a wall of water coming down. We’ve got to get out of this."

Then above all the crashing and booming they heard Vic Burleigh’s voice:

"Every fellow take a girl and run for the ford. Come on!"

In the darkness, each boy caught the arm of the girl nearest him and made a dash for the ford. A flash of lightning showed Burleigh that the white-faced girl clinging to his arm was Elinor Wream. After that, the storm was a plaything for him.

The first to reach the ford were Vincent Burgess and Dennie Saxon. Dennie was sure-footed and she knew by instinct where to find the shallows. But the river was rising rapidly and the waters were black and angry under the lightning’s glitter. As the crowd held back Vic shouted:

"You’ll have to wade. It’s not very deep yet. Professor, you must cross first, and count ’em as they come. Go quick! One at a time. The way is narrow. And for God’s sake, keep to the upper side of the shallows. Stand in the middle, Trench, and don’t let them get down stream below you."

They were all safely across except Vic and Elinor, when Trench cried out:

"Send your girl in quick, Burleigh, and you run west. The flood is at the bend now. Hurry!"

"Run in, Elinor. Trench will take you through, and I’ll follow, for I can swim and he can’t. I’ll be right behind you. Run!"

A vision of the whirlpool and of Swift Elk and The Fawn flashed into Elinor’s mind, filling her with terror. Before Vic could push her forward, Trench shouted:

"It’s too late. Don’t try it. I’ve got to run."

He was strong and sure-footed and he fought his way gallantly to the further side as a great wave swirled around the curve of the river, engulfing the shallows in its mad surge. When he reached the east bank the count of the company numbered all but two.

"It’s Vic and Elinor," Trench declared. "Vic wouldn’t come till the last, and Elinor was too dead scared to trust anybody else, I guess. Nobody could cross there now, Professor. But Vic is as strong as an ox and he’s not afraid of the devil. He’ll keep both their heads above water. He wants to win out in the Thanksgiving game too much to get lost now. Trust him to get up the bluff some way, and back to town by the Main street bridge like as not, before we get there. There’s no shelter between here and Lagonda Ledge. Let’s all cut for it before the rain beats us into the mud."

The deluge was just beginning, so, safe, but wet, and mud-smeared, fighting wind and rain and darkness, taking it all as a jolly lark, although they had slidden into safety but a hand’s breadth in front of death, the couples straggled back to town.

Vincent Burgess, anxious, angry, and jealous, found an unconscious comfort in Dennie Saxon in that homeward struggle. She was so capable and cheery that he forgot a little the girl who had as surely drawn him Kansas-ward as his interest in types and geographical breadth had done. It dimly entered his consciousness, as he told Dennie good-bye, that maybe she had been the most desirable companion of the crowd on such a night as this. He knew, at least, that he would have shown Elinor much more attention than he had shown to Dennie, and he knew that Elinor would have required it of him.

The light from the hall was streaming across the veranda of the Saxon House, a beam as faithful and friendly at the border of the lower campus as the bigger beacon in the college turret up on the lime-stone ridge. As Burgess started away the worst deluge of the night fell out of the sky, so he dropped down on a seat to wait for the downpour to weaken. He was very tired and his mind was feverishly busy. Where could Burleigh and Elinor be now? What dangers might threaten them? What ill might befall Elinor from exposure to this beating storm? He was frantic with the thought. Then he recalled Dennie, the girl who was working her way through college, whom he—Professor Vincent Burgess, A.B., from Harvard—had escorted home. How cheap Kansas was making him. The boys and girls had taken Dennie as one of them today; and truly, she did add to the comfort and pleasure of the outing. It seemed all right down in the woods where all was unconventional. But now, alone, in how common a grade he seemed to have placed himself, to be forced to pay attention to the poorest girl in school. His cheeks grew hot at the very thought of it.

In the shadows, beyond him, a form straightened up stupidly:

"Shay, Profesh Burgush, that you?"

Dennie’s father, half-drunken still! Oh, Shades of classic culture! To what depths in social contact may a college man fall in this wretched land!

"Shay! Is’t you, or ain’t it you? You gonna tell me?" Old Bond queried.

"This is Vincent Burgess," the young man replied.

"Dennie home?" the father asked.

"Yes, sir," came the curt answer.

"Who? Who bring her home? Vic Burleigh?"

"I brought her home. She is a good girl, too."

In spite of himself, Burgess resented the shame of such a father for the capable, happy-spirited daughter.

"Yesh, Dennie’s good girl, all right."

Then a silence fell.

Presently, the old man spoke again.

"Shay, Prof esh, ’d ye mind doin’ somethin’ for me?"

"What is it?" Burgess was by nature courteous.

"If anything sh’d ever happen to me, ’d you take care of Dennie? Shay, would you?"

"If I could do anything for her, I would do it," the young man replied.

"Somethin’ gonna happen to me. I ain’t shafe. I know I’ll go that way. But you’ll be good to Dennie. Now, wouldn’t you? I’d ask Funnybone, but he’s no shafer ’n I am. No shafer! You’ll be good to Dennie, you said so. Shay it again!"

Bond was standing now bending threateningly toward Burgess, who had also risen.

"I’ll do all that a gentleman ought to do." He had only one thought— to pacify the drunken man and get away. And the old man understood.

"Shwear it, I tell you! Lif’ up your right hand an’—an’ shwear to take care of Dennie, or I’ll kill you!" Bond insisted.

He was a large, muscular man, towering over the slender young professor like a very giant, and in his eyes there was a cruel gleam. Vincent Burgess was at the limit of mental resistance. Lifting his shapely right hand in the shadowy light, he said wearily:

"I swear it!"

"One more question, and you may go. You know that little boy Vic Burleigh takes care of here?"

The Professor had heard of him.

"Vic keeps that little boy all right. He don’t complain none. S’pose you help me watch um, Profesh." Then as an afterthought, Saxon added: "Young woman livin’ out north of town. Pretty woman. She don’t know nothing ’bout that little boy. Now, honest, she don’t. Lives all by herself with a big dog."

Jealousy is an ugly, suspicious beast. Vincent Burgess was no worse than many other men would have been, because his mind leaped to the meaning old Saxon’s words might carry. And this was the man with Elinor in the darkness and the storm. Before Burgess could think clearly, Saxon came a step nearer.

"Shay, where’s Vic tonight?"

"Across the river with Miss Wream. They were cut off by the deep water," Vincent answered.

A quick change from drunkenness to sober sense leaped into Bond Saxon’s eyes.

"Across the river! Great God!" Then sternly, with a grim set of jaw, he commanded: "You go home! If you dare to say a word, I’ll kill you. If you try to follow me, he’ll kill you. Go home! I ’m going over there, if I die for it." And the darkness and rain swallowed him as he leaped away to the westward!

Burgess gazed into the blackness into which Bond Saxon had gone until a soft hand touched his, and he looked down to see little Bug Buler, clad in his nightgown, standing barefoot beside him.

"Where’s Vic?" Bug demanded.

"I don’t know," Burgess answered.

"Take me up, I’se told." Bug stretched up his arms appealingly, and Burgess, who knew nothing of babies, awkwardly lifted him up.

"Tuddle me tlose like Vic do," and the little one snuggled lovingly in the Professor’s embrace. "Your toat’s wet. Is Vic wet, too?"

"Yes, little boy. We are all in trouble tonight." Burgess had to say something.

"In twouble? Umph—humph!" Bug shut his lips tightly, puffing out his cheeks, as was his habit. "I was in twouble, and I ist wented to Don Fonnybone. He’s dood for twouble-ness. You go see him. Poor man!" and the little hand stroked Professor Burgess’ feverish cheek.

"If you’ll run right back to bed, I’ll do it," Burgess declared. "We can learn even from children sometimes," he thought, as Bug climbed down obediently and toddled away.

Vincent Burgess went directly to Dr. Lloyd Fenneben, to whom he told the story of the day’s events, including the interview with Bond Saxon. He did not repeat Bond’s words regarding Vic, but only hinted at the suspicion that there was something questionable in the situation in which Vic was placed. Nor did he refer to the old man’s maudlin demand that he should take care of Dennie if she were left fatherless, and of his sworn promise to do so.

Burgess felt as, if the Dean’s black eyes would burn through him, so steady was their gaze while the story was being told. When he had finished, Lloyd Fenneben said quietly:

"You are worn out with the excitement of the day and night. Go home and rest now. I’ve learned through many a struggle, that what I cannot fight to a finish in the darkness, I can safely leave with God till the daylight comes."

The smile that lighted up the stern face and the firm handclasp with which Lloyd Fenneben dismissed the young man were things he remembered long afterward. And above all, he recalled many times a sense of secret shame that he should have felt degraded because of his association with Dennie Saxon on this day. But of this last, the memory was stronger than the present realization.

Meanwhile, as the mad waters surged around the bend in the river, and swept over the shallows, Victor Burleigh flung his arm around Elinor Wream and leaped back from the very edge of doom.

"We must climb the bluff again. Be a good Indian!" he cried, groping for a footing.

Climbing the west bluff by daylight for the sake of adventure was very unlike this struggle in the darkness to escape the widening river, with a wind-driven torrent of rain sweeping down the land behind the first storm-fury, and Elinor Wream clung to her companion’s arm almost helpless with fear.

"Do you think you can ever get us out? she asked, as the limestone ledge blocked the way.

"Do you know what my mother named me?" The carelessness of the tone was surprising.

"Victor!" she replied.

"Then don’t forget it," Burleigh said. "It’s a dreadfully rough way before us, little girl, but we’ll soon be safe from the river. Don’t mind this little bit of a storm, and you’ll get personally conducted into Lagonda Ledge before midnight."

In her sheltered life, Elinor had never known anything half so dreadful as this storm and darkness and booming flood, but the fearlessness of the strong man beside her inspired her to do her best. It was only two hours since they were here before. How could she know that these two hours had marked the crisis of a lifetime for Victor Burleigh. With a friendly little pressure on his arm, she said bravely:

"I’d rather be here with you than over the river with anybody else. I feel safer here."

Vic knew she meant only to be courteous, but the words were comforting. On the crest of the ledge the fierceness of the storm was revealed. Great sheets of wind-blown rain were flung athwart the landscape, and the utter blackness that followed the lightning’s glare, and the roaring of the wind and river were appalling.

In all this tumult, away to the northeast, the beacon light above the Sunrise dome was cutting the darkness with a steady beam.

"See that light, Elinor? We are not lost. We must get up stream a little way. Then we’ll find the bridge, all right. The crowd will get home ahead of us, because this is the rough side of the river."

"Oh, what a comfort a light can be!" Elinor murmured as she looked up and caught the welcome gleam.

As they hurried along, the Sunrise light suddenly disappeared and they found themselves descending a rough downward way. Presently there were rock walls on either side hemming them in a narrow crevice in the ledges. Then the rain ceased and Vic knew they had slidden down into a rock-covered fissure, that they were getting underground. They tried to turn back, but the up-climb was impossible, and in the darkness they could reach nothing but the sharp ledge of the cliff sheer above the raging river. Entrapped and bewildered, Vic felt cautiously about; but the only certain things were the straight bluff overhanging the flood, and the cavernous way leading downward; while the same deluge that was keeping Vincent Burgess storm-staid on the veranda of the Saxon House, was beating mercilessly down on Elinor Wream.

"We can’t stay here and be threshed to pieces," Vic cried. "This crack is drier, anyhow, and it must lead to somewhere."

It did lead to what seemed to Elinor an endless length of hideous uncertainty, until Vic suddenly lost his footing and plunged headlong down somewhere into the blackness of darkness. Elinor shrieked in terror and sank down limply on the stone floor of the crevice.

"All a bluff," Vic called up cheerily, in the same startlingly deep sweet voice that had caught Elinor’s ear on the September afternoon before the door of Sunrise, and out in the edge of her consciousness the thought played in again, "I’d rather be here with you than over the river with anybody else. I feel safer here."

"Slide down, Elinor. I’ll catch you. It is n’t very far, and there’s a little light somewhere."

Elinor slipped blindly down the side of the rock into Vic Burleigh’s outstretched arms. As he set her on her feet, somehow, the little light failed. In all their struggle, this part of the way seemed the darkest, the chillest, the most dangerous, and a sudden sense of a presence hidden nearby possessed them both, as they came against a blind wall. A stouter heart than Vic Burleigh’s might well have quailed now. The two were lost underground. What deeper cavern might yawn beyond them? What length of dead wall might bar their way? And more terrifying still, was the growing sense of a human presence, a human menace, an unseen treachery. As Vic felt his way along the stone, his hand closed over something thrust into a little niche, shoulder-high in the wall. It seemed to be a small pitcher of unique pattern, solid silver by its weight. Was it the booty of some dead and forgotten robber chief, the buried treasure of some old Kickapoo raiding tragedy, or the loot of a living outlaw?

Vic thought he felt the outline of a letter graven in heavy relief on the smooth side, and, for a reason of his own, dropped the thing. Mercifully, he did not cry out at the discovery, but Elinor felt his hand on her arm grow chill.

A dazzling glare, token of the passing of the storm’s fireworks, outlined an irregular opening in the wall before them, revealing at the same time a large room beyond the wall.

"Here’s the hole where we get out of this trap, Elinor Wream. If such a big lightning like that can get in, we can get out," Vic cried.

He crawled through the opening, and pulled her as gently as possible after him. Presently, another blaze lit up the night outside, showing a cavern-like space thirty feet in dimensions, with a rock roof above their heads, and a low doorway through which the light from the outside had come in, and beyond which the rain was beating tremendously. Evidently they had found a rear entrance to this cavern.

"We are past our troubles now, Elinor," Vic said. "There’s the real out-of-doors, and I feel sure of the rest of the way. This seems to be a sort of cave, and we have come in kind of irregularly by the back door or down the chimney. But here we are at the real front door. Shall we go on?"

Elinor leaned wearily against the wall, wet and cold, and almost exhausted.

"Let’s wait a little, till this shower passes," she pleaded.

"You poor girl! This has been an awful night," Vic said gently.

Their eyes were getting accustomed to the darkness and they saw more clearly the outline of the opening to the outside world. Suddenly Elinor shivered as again the nearness of a presence somewhere possessed them both.

"Let’s go! Let’s go!" she whispered, huddling close to her companion, whose grip on her arm tightened.

He was conscious of a light behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he caught a gleam beyond the opening in the rear wall through which they had just crept; and in that gleam, a villainous face, with still black eyes, looking straight at him. The light disappeared, and he heard the faint sound of something creeping toward them. Vic could fight any man living. Nature built him for that. He had no fear for himself. But here was Elinor, and he must think of her first. At that instant, the doorway darkened, and a form slipped into the cavern somewhere. Oh, wind and rain, and forked blue lightning and the thunder’s roar, the river’s mad floods, the steep, slippery rocks, and jagged ledges, all were kind beside this secret human presence, cruelly silent and treacherous.

Victor Burleigh drew Elinor closer to him, and whispered low:

"Don’t be afraid with me to guard you."

Even in that deep gloom, he caught the outline of a white face with star-bright eyes lifted toward his face.

"I’m not afraid with you," she whispered.

Behind them stealthy movements somewhere. Between them and the doorway, stealthy movements somewhere; but all so still and slow, they stretched the listening nerve almost to the breaking point. Suddenly, a big, hard hand gripped Burleigh’s shoulder, and a dead still voice, that Vic could not recognize, breathed into his ear, "Go quick and quiet! I’ll stand for it. Go!"

It was old Bond Saxon.

Vic caught Elinor’s arm, and with one stride they sprang from the cave’s mouth up to the open ground beyond it. Something behind them, it might have been a groan or a smothered oath, reached their ears, as they sped away down a narrow ravine. The rain had ceased and overhead the stars were peeping from the edges of feathery flying clouds; and all the sodden autumn night was still at last, save for the gurgling waters of a little stream down the rocky glen.

The Sunrise bell was striking eleven when they reached the bridge across the Walnut, and the beacon light from the dome began to twinkle a welcome now and then through the dripping branches of the leafless trees. A few minutes later, Victor Burleigh brought Elinor safely to Lloyd Fenneben’s door.

"We made it in before midnight, anyhow," he said carelessly.

Elinor looked up in surprise. The terrors of the night still possessed her.

"What a horrible nightmare it has all been. The storm, the river, the rocks, and the darkness, and that dreadful something behind us in the cave. Was there really anything, or did we just imagine it all? It will seem impossible when the daylight comes."

Victor looked at her with a wonderful light in his wide-open brown eyes.

"Yes," he said in a deep voice. "It will seem impossible when daylight comes. But will it all be as a horrible nightmare?"

"No, no; not all." Elinor’s face was winsomely sweet. "Not all," she repeated. "It is fine to feel one’s self so safeguarded as I have been. I shall always remember you as one with whom I could never again be afraid."

Burleigh turned hastily toward the door, and, having delivered her to the care of her uncle, he bade them both good night.

Dr. Fenneben looked keenly after the young man striding away from the light. His clothes were torn and bedraggled, his cap was gone, and his heavy hair was a mass of rough waves about his forehead. The direct gaze of his golden-brown eyes took away distrust, and yet the face had changed somehow in this day. A hint of a new purpose had crept into it, a purpose not possible for Dr. Fenneben to read.

But he did note the set of the head, the erect form and broad shoulders, and the easy swinging step as the boy went whistling away into the shadows of the night.

"A splendid animal, anyhow," the Dean thought. "Will the soul measure up to that princely body? And what can be the purport of this maudlin mouthing of old Bond Saxon? Bond is really a lovable man when he’s sober; but he’s vindictive and ugly when he’s drunk. I can wait for developments. Whatever the boy’s history may have been, like the courts, it’s my business to hold every man innocent till he’s proven guilty; to build up character, not to undermine and destroy it. And destruction begins in suspicion."


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Chicago: Margaret Hill McCarter, "Chapter V the Storm," A Master’s Degree, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 in A Master’s Degree (New York: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1906), Original Sources, accessed March 29, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LLYRZW62BXAIHPU.

MLA: McCarter, Margaret Hill. "Chapter V the Storm." A Master’s Degree, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, in A Master’s Degree, Vol. 22, New York, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1906, Original Sources. 29 Mar. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LLYRZW62BXAIHPU.

Harvard: McCarter, MH, 'Chapter V the Storm' in A Master’s Degree, ed. . cited in 1906, A Master’s Degree, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 29 March 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LLYRZW62BXAIHPU.