A Conversation in the Dark

Early one February morning a committee of ladies and gentlemen waited on
Colonel Morrell. He saw them come up the drive, and was surprised to
note that the group was made up of a clergyman, two well-known
businessmen, and two ladies whom he knew to be leaders of women’s
activities in Portville. When they had all been seated in his office,
the clergyman, a fine, straight-forward young man who was making good in
the largest church in the town, broached the subject to him.

“Colonel Morrell,” began Dr. Bicknell. “You may be a bit surprised to
see such a formidable gathering bear down on you, but I assure you that
we have good intentions. I don’t know whether you have heard anything
about it or not, but on Washington’s Birthday Portville is to celebrate
its small but honored share in the events of the Revolutionary War. We
are a committee in charge of arrangements and have come to ask you for
you co-operation on that day. The center of attraction will be the old
Gannon House and the picturization of the stirring events that happened
in it.”

“The Gannon House?” asked the colonel. “I’ve heard of it, but I don’t
just recall where it is.”

“It is the house at present occupied by Mr. Melvin Gates and his family.
You know the place now?”

“Oh, yes, surely,” affirmed the colonel. “Now I do remember. That is the
most historic house in Portville, eh?”

“Yes,” replied Dr. Bicknell. “At the time of the Revolution our armies
were harried by one particular spy who seemed to find out every move
that the Continental Army made. At last this spy was run down by two
determined citizens of Portville, and was found to be a young teacher
who lodged at the Gannon House. He was taken from the house by indignant
patriots and hanged just outside the town. The act was most fortunate,
for from that moment there was no more leaking of news to the British.

“On Washington’s Birthday we propose to have a pageant which will show
most of that, all but the actual hanging, which people can dispense
with, I imagine. The events leading up to the capture of the British spy
were highly dramatic, and we wish to show them in the pageant, which
will take place in the daytime. What we want you to do, Colonel Morrell,
is to permit your boys to parade in the morning. There will be a parade
of ex-service men, fraternal organizations and business clubs, to say
nothing of the patriotic organizations, and we feel that the line of
march would not be complete unless your splendid boys marched with us.”

“In the name of the cadet corps, I thank you,” acknowledged the colonel.
“I shall be most happy to have the cadet units march in the parade. The
boys haven’t been in a public parade for a number of years and it would
do them good to get in one. Yes, I shall be very happy to allow the boys
to parade.”

“That is very helpful, and we are grateful to you for your
co-operation,” smiled the pleasant young pastor. “Now, there is one
other thing we would like to request. In the evening there will be a
public inspection of the Gannon House and at that time we would like to
post some of your cadets at various points about the house, to act as
guides or whatever else may come up. Can you see your way clear to let
us use a few of your honor pupils, say one at the front and rear doors,
and one on each side and the staircases? That will add an impressive
tone to the whole thing.”

“Yes, that can be easily done,” promised the colonel. “I shall be glad
to help in any way possible. I shall detail my captains and lieutenants
to take posts in the house and do whatever else you wish them to do.”

The members of the committee once more thanked the colonel, and after a
few plans were made they left him. In due time the news was circulated
among the corps and the cadets looked forward with more or less pleasure
to the event.

“It will be something different,” Terry expressed it. “Won’t I enjoy
marching through town, the center of all eyes.”

“You mean the town will be the center of all eyes?” asked Jim, slyly.

“No, dope! I will be!”

“If I remember correctly, you will be perched on the rear of a gun
carriage,” retorted Jim. “But just think of me, my boy! I’ll be sitting
on a horse, the captain of the cavalry, as proud as you please, bowing
to the ladies.”

“With all due respect to your exalted position,” grinned Terry. “I would
advise you not to bow too much. You might tumble over the neck of the
horse and bump your nose!”

“I guess I’ll be the only one who won’t shine at all,” said Don. “I’m
just a poor, plain little infantry soldier! A lieutenant on foot doesn’t
show up much.”

“I thought that Gates’ house looked like a very old one when we were in
it,” said Don. “But I never guessed that it had such a history. Now that
we know the history we can account for the huge doors, the massive bolts
and the wide, spreading staircase.”

An account in the newspaper interested the boys. It related how, at a
time when the British raided Portville, the Gannon family took their
silver plate and buried it out in the garden. The British had stolen
everything in sight, but the silver was later dug up by the members of
the family and saved.

“I’d like to see the spot where it was buried, sometime,” said Terry.
“That must have been an interesting sight. Imagine the men out in the
garden in the dead of night, burying the boxes of silver plate!”

Parade orders were given two days before Washington’s Birthday and the
cadets found themselves in for a busy time. Dress uniforms were brought
out and cleaned, swords polished and bayonets rubbed down. Rifles were
inspected and the horses well groomed, for the colonel was anxious for
his boys to give a good account of themselves.

Good fortune fell to Jim. As an officer he had received a post inside
the historic house. In high spirits he told Don and Terry of his good
fortune.

“Nice going, kid!” approved Don, generously. “Where is your post to be?”

Jim made a wry face. “I’m not so sure that the post is a good one, for I
am stationed at the back door. I won’t be able to see much of what goes
on there, but at least I’ll be in the house.”

“Maybe we’re luckier than you are, at that,” chuckled the red-headed
boy. “Those of us who are not to be on post in the house will be able to
roam around the town, for the colonel has given us full liberty on that
day. But just the same, I think I’d rather be in the house.”

“So should I,” nodded Don. “At any rate, keep your eyes open, Jim. There
is no telling what you may see.”

“I’ll do that,” Jim promised.

On Washington’s Birthday the school showed the marks of feverish
activity. After breakfast and the school exercises the corps assembled
on the campus. It was indeed a splendid sight. The cavalry, with Captain
Jim and Lieutenant Thompson at the head, assembled on the road in front
of the campus, while the cadet brigade took up the campus. Back of the
infantry the artillery unit stood at attention, the several guns
polished to the last degree. All of the cadets were in dress uniform,
with the tall military hats, the braided coats, and the white gloves.
When the corps was fully formed and the orders of the day read, they
started out to join the other divisions of the parade, the citizen
units.

With the jangle of trappings the cavalry, in perfect formation four
abreast, moved off down the road, and the infantry, also marching four
abreast, with the band playing a lively march and the heels of the young
men ringing out on the pavement, followed. A dull rumble to the rear
marked the progress of the artillery division. When they struck the
center of town they fell into place behind the patriotic clubs. The
parade began at eleven o’clock.

It was a fine parade from start to finish. A number of ex-service men
led the van, with the town organizations following. They made up fully
one-half of the parade and then came the Woodcrest Military Institute
corps. Afterward, everyone gave praise to the young soldiers from the
school up in the hills. The cavalry was superb, the infantry marched
with precision, every foot in step and every white glove swinging with
accuracy, the flags drooping colorfully and the young men erect. The
field guns rolled along looking grim and effective, and when the parade
finally came to an end the colonel was more than satisfied.

In the afternoon the pageant was held and the cadets, no longer under
orders, watched the display. Fortunately, the Gannon House stood back
from the street and was favored with wide lawns, and the people who came
to see the spectacle, and that included practically the entire town,
were all able to see the display. Actors dressed in the costumes of
Revolutionary times took part and it proved to be most entertaining. A
young man came to the door of the Gannon House, dressed in the Colonial
costume, and asked for lodging, explaining that he was a teacher and
wanted to earn his living in the town. He was graciously received by the
Gannon family and installed as one of the family. But no sooner had this
young man settled himself than he began to entertain strange visitors.
Very erect men visited him, listening to his low-spoken talk with great
attention and then going away. At night the teacher left the house,
wrapped in a great cloak, explaining to Mr. Gannon, who asked his
purpose, that he was merely walking for exercise and recreation. Then
came two patriots who pretended great friendship for the young teacher
and watched him at night, crouching beneath the windows to do so. Toward
the end of the pageant they unmasked the spy and Mr. Gannon was the
first to condemn him to the fate of hanging. The last scene showed the
Gannon family hearing from the lips of American officers that no more
information was “leaking” to the British.

The pageant was well given and the spectators enjoyed it. Gates’ house
was then opened to the public for a supper, which was served to the
members of the committee. At eight o’clock the doors were formally
opened to the general public, and Jim took his post at the back door.

Hudson, as senior captain of the corps, occupied the central position at
the front door. Other captains and lieutenants had posts throughout the
house. There were two cadets on the lower floor, one in the center of
the house and another in the huge, Colonial kitchen, a cadet on the
central staircase and one on the landing of the second floor. One cadet
stood post on the third floor, where the quarters of the servants still
stood unchanged since the days of the building of the house. And at the
back door stood Jim.

He was not sure that his post was the best in the world, but he did have
an active one. Early in the evening numbers of townsfolk, some of them
brilliantly dressed, entered the house and were led through it by
members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who were all
dressed in costumes of that period. When they finished inspecting the
house they went to the grounds in the back and kept Jim active. When he
heard a step on the other side of the door he would step quickly to the
door, open it wide and step back, holding it open until the persons had
passed through and then closing it. The yard had been lighted only in
the immediate vicinity of the house. The back gardens remained in
darkness.

Of course much was seen of the Gates family. Melvin Gates, who had
recovered from his accident, was everywhere in evidence, easily the
center of the affair. A few knew that the senior Gates was more than
delighted at the entire circumstance, as it was raising him vastly in
the eyes of the townspeople in general. He had not himself offered his
house for inspection, but had been very willing when the subject had
been broached to him by the leaders of the movement. Arthur Gates was
also much in the public eye as he moved with immense sociability around
the house, his wife beside him, bowing and smiling. When the party
happened to be composed of persons of wealth and distinction in
Portville the bow and the smile became very genial indeed.

However, not only the rich and influential came that night to the old
Gannon House, but also the poor and humble. Many a plain working man,
interested in the history of his country or the structure of the house,
came to look through it and Jim opened the door to such as well as to
the others who swept by him with a swish of costly garments. To all of
them Jim extended the same unfailing courtesy.

Toward nine o’clock in the evening a man who looked to be a laborer
passed out of the back door and went into the garden. Jim noted that the
man looked at his watch and then seemed to be waiting. After a time he
went down to the gardens, losing himself in the blackness beyond the
electric lights.

Not fifteen minutes after he had gone there was another step inside the
kitchen and Jim quickly opened the door. Arthur Gates stepped out,
looked all around him without paying any attention to Jim, and then set
off at a rapid pace for the garden, following the same direction taken
by the man. Jim was curious at once.

“I’d like to know what is going on,” he reflected. “I wonder if I ought
to go down and see? Very few people are coming through any more, and
besides, if I do leave my post, it will be thought I did so to run an
errand. I guess I’ll take a chance on it.”

Seeing that no one was about Jim slipped quickly to the side of the yard
and away from the glare of the lights. Then, following a path which
wound down into the farther reaches of the place he moved forward,
treading with infinite care, avoiding gravelled walks where possible and
fairly creeping over them when they could not be avoided. In a short
time he reached the garden and saw ahead of him in the darkness two
forms.

A screen of bushes loomed between him and the two men and Jim crouched
as he made his way to them. Once in their shelter he was able to hear
plainly what was being said.

“—close against the back wall,” Gates was saying.

“You want me to mark the spot so you’ll know the place?” the man asked.

“No,” replied Gates. “I don’t care if I never see it again.”

“Not valuable, eh?” the man asked, cautiously.

“No, only a trinket I won at school, but I’m sick and tired of having it
around. It is better off buried. But never mind that; all you have to do
is to bury the thing. I don’t want it done by daylight, either. Will you
do it tomorrow night?”

“Sure, around ten o’clock. I got to work up until that time. Right here
will be all right eh?” the laborer said.

“Yes. I’ll pay you well for it, but you are to keep your mouth shut.
Good heavens! this thing you’re to bury isn’t worth a dollar, and yet
I’ve had more trouble with it than if it cost a thousand. Now, let’s get
back and you be sure to go to work tomorrow night.”

With that they separated and Jim could see them going toward the house,
but the laborer branched off and left the grounds while Arthur Gates
went in the back door. Before he went to his post again Jim looked
carefully around the garden where he stood. There was a high wall nearby
and he knew that he was at the end of the property.

Then he went back to his post, taking care to approach it from the side
of the house, casually and as though he was coming from an errand. Once
more he took up his post at the back door.

“So Gates is going to bury the cup?” he reflected. “And it had given as
much trouble as though it cost a thousand dollars. Of course, it may not
be the cup, after all, but I’ll bet it is. Well, we’ll just dig it up as
soon as he gets it planted!”

In another hour all inspection of the Gannon House was over and it once
more became simply the home of the Gates family. The cadets on post
assembled and marched up to the school reporting in from duty, and soon
after that Jim was relating his remarkable story to Don and Terry.