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5. The Man with the Key
Although the four cadets took care to keep their eyes wide open they saw nothing in the succeeding days to help them solve the mystery which they had run across. At times they discussed the subject and made guesses, but these generally ended in nothing, and there were times when they half believed that they might be making a mountain out of a mole hill. No news had been received as to the whereabouts of their missing colonel, and life at Woodcrest drifted on in the same efficient manner.

The arrival of a new cadet gave them something else to think about. One rainy day when the cadets were loitering about the halls waiting for the dinner call, a young fellow in his late teens arrived at the front door of Locke Hall. He was very dark, exceedingly well dressed, and carried himself with a swaggering air. He carried a suitcase plastered with foreign labels, and a cigarette drooped carelessly from one corner of his mouth. Gaining the center of the main hall he looked carelessly around. The cadets were standing in groups laughing and talking, and finally he addressed a third-class man.

“Say, sonny,” called the newcomer. “Where do I find the sign-on-the-dotted-line room?”

Considering the fact that Bertram, the third class cadet, was at least a year older than the newcomer, the term “sonny” was something out of the way. Talk ceased instantly among the cadets and they turned to look. Mr. Bertram answered with easy courtesy.

“That is the door down there,” he said.

The new man nodded easily. “Thanks, kid. Information is appreciated, I assure you. Is the agony man inside?”

“I beg your pardon?” asked Bertram.

“Is the clerk or headmaster or whoever officiates in there?”

“I think you will find someone in there who will take care of you,” returned the upper classman.

“I hope so. Somebody had better. I usually get what I want, you know.”

Mr. Bertram didn’t know anything about it and he looked fixedly at the boy. Totally unabashed at the looks cast in his direction the newcomer walked into the office, where an instructor was sitting behind the information desk.

The instructor looked up as the boy placed his suitcase on the floor. “How do you do?” he said, smiling pleasantly at the visitor. “What can I do for you?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the boy. “Not an awful lot, I guess. My name is Vench, Raoul Vench.” He paused and waited, but Captain Chalmers said nothing.

“My name is Vench,” repeated the newcomer.

“Yes, Mr. Vench. Well, what can I do to help you?”

“Do you mean to say that you didn’t know I was coming?” demanded the new student.

Chalmers shook his head, his glance keen. “I didn’t know it. Perhaps Major Tireson did. Are you going to register with us?”

“I certainly am,” answered the boy. “My father sent your headmaster a letter and told him that I was coming. I should have thought he would tell you, so you could be on the lookout for me. Yes, I’m going to be a member of your cadet corps and I’m here to sign up. Pass over the articles and a pen, already dipped in ink, if you don’t mind.”

Captain Chalmers looked steadily at the boy for an instant and then his gaze wandered to the groups of cadets outside of the door. Suddenly he bit his lips to keep back a smile, a rather grim one, and then reached in the drawer of the desk, to take out some sheets of paper and a pen. With intense seriousness he dipped the pen into the ink and then looked at Vench.

“Not cold, are you?” he asked.

“No,” answered the boy with a stare. “Why?”

“I thought maybe you were,” returned the instructor. “You still have your hat on. And that cigarette, which will be your last for something like four years, is already burned out. As there isn’t anything in that wastebasket you might throw it in there.”

Vench looked closely at the teacher and seemed on the point of saying something, but evidently he changed his mind, for he took off his hat, threw away the cigarette and turned once more to the captain.

“What is your name, please?” asked the instructor.

“Raoul Mulroy Vench, of Murray Bay, Florida, lately from Quebec and points all over the world,” glibly answered the youth. “Age, 18, unmarried, nationality American citizen, though French-Canadian. How is that for a start, general?”

“That is a very good start,” gravely replied the captain. “I’m glad you recognized my rank, Mr. Vench.” He continued to write for a few minutes and then looked up. “Have you any money on you at present?”

Mr. Vench looked knowing. “I’m surprised at you, sir. I only arrive here and you want to borrow from me already! Yes, I have a few odd pennies on me. About two hundred dollars, I think.”

“Hand it over, please, Mr. Vench. At the end of the year it will be returned to you. While you are here you will be allowed just two dollars a week of it, with which you can pay your expenses.”

Vench threw back his head and laughed. “Two dollars!” he exclaimed. “My dear man, I was counting on that two hundred lasting me just for two months, and that would be stretching it. Is it a joke?”

“Not at all, Mr. Vench. Have you read over the rules of the institution? Surely you must have. You didn’t come here without knowing the rules and regulations. The cadets are busy with their studies and athletics and have almost no use for ready money except for cokes and sodas. Transportation to games is furnished free and money is not strictly needed. You see how it is.”

“Yes, I see,” grumbled Vench, handing over the money. “I expected to have a good time in this place, but I see I am quite mistaken.”

Again Chalmers glanced at the groups in the hall. “I think you will have at least an interesting time here, Mr. Vench. Now the next thing for you to do is report at the medical department for examination.”

“The second nuisance, eh?” sighed Vench. “That’ll be a waste of time, officer. I’m in tip-top shape.”

“For the sake of our teams, I am very glad to hear it, Mr. Vench. However, the rules require that you go through with an examination.” Chalmers beckoned to a cadet in the hallway. “Will you step here a moment, Mr. Sears?”

Mr. Sears stepped up and saluted the instructor, who returned it. “Take Mr. Vench to the medical department,” the teacher directed.

“Very good, sir.” Sears turned to Vench. “Right this way, sir.”

Vench grinned and picked up his bag. “Right with you, usher. Thanks a lot, officer.” He followed Cadet Sears down the hall, passing carelessly through the waiting throng. Captain Chalmers looked thoughtfully after him, and then, shaking his head, resumed his work.

The cadets in the hall had remained quiet during the conversation, every word of which they had heard plainly, but now that Vench was out of earshot they began to talk.

“Hey, how do you like that!” chuckled Terry to the group around him.

“Well,” drawled Chipps, rubbing his chin. “I don’t just know what to think. You’ve got to give me time. This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that.”

“I’m afraid he’ll have a whole lot to learn,” smiled Don.

“If he lasts long enough to learn anything,” said Jim.

“All in the line of duty,” added Rhodes. “We’ll have to help him lose some of his flipness and importance. What do you say, Lieutenant Sommers?”

“I’d say that the spirit of the corps will have a hard time sinking into him,” said Sommers, as the bell sounded.

Mr. Vench was fitted out with a uniform that afternoon and little more was seen of him. But on the following day he began his career at Woodcrest, and that career furnished amusement and some annoyance to the cadet body. The boy was thoroughly spoiled and almost unbearable. Two of the seniors and Terry tried to do the right thing by calling on him that evening, in an effort to make him feel at home. Terry returned to his room and reported in high disgust to Don and Jim.

“My gosh, what a sample of misdirected energy!” he exclaimed with a snort. “We tried to be decent to him in spite of what we saw this noon, but it was time wasted. Not that he was rude, but absolutely unbearable! Talks continually of his travels, his girl friends, who seem to swoon with grief if he doesn’t write daily, and his ability to do all of everything on the face of the earth. I’m through. I’m willing to try to be nice to any fellow who will be halfway human, but I draw the line on one who spends all of his time praising his own virtues.”

“Likes himself, eh?” inquired Jim.

“No,” snapped Terry. “Bows down and worships himself. I’m afraid that boy will run aground on trouble hard.”

“And yet,” said Don, slowly. “I imagine he could be a very nice guy if he wanted to be. Maybe he’ll come out of his shell sometime.”

“I’m glad you imagine it,” retorted Terry. “That’s as far as it is likely to go.”

“All right, Terry,” Jim grinned. “Hadn’t you better study your history? Any man that will try and tell his teacher, as you did today, that Blucher wasn’t at the battle of Waterloo, should brush up a bit, I think.”

“Okay, kid, I will. The only thing that surprises me is the fact that Vench wasn’t there, or related to Napoleon or something else. Maybe he was, I don’t know. That fellow is thoroughly spoiled.”

“A little too much money, no doubt,” said Don. “If we give him a chance he’ll get over it.”

“Optimist!” said Terry, beginning to study.

Few if any of the cadets were inclined to take Don’s view of Cadet Vench. During the following days he made himself objectionable in every way. Even in the drill he tried to show his superiority, but Lieutenant Sommers promptly checked him and after due and fair consideration reported his short-comings. Major Tireson rebuked the unruly cadet and he had no more use for the precise lieutenant. But Sommers took great pride in the squads that it was his duty to drill, and the cadets, always inclined to laugh at the dignity of the fussy lieutenant, upheld him in his act.

Vench had few friends, and they were recruited from the weaker element of the fourth class, with whom he was very liberal. It was evident that he had more money than his allowance and it was thought that he had lied to Captain Chalmers or that he was getting it from some outside source. A small group went often to the town and ate plentifully between meals, but as it was not particularly the business of the cadets they commented on it among themselves and let it go at that.

One boast that Vench made was listened to with interest by the entire body of cadets. He was standing with the group of fourth classmen just before the study hall bell rang, and Don and Terry heard it. That morning Major Tireson had made a statement that most of the cadets thought unnecessary. He had told them that with the colonel not there, he didn’t think it was wise to plan on having their mid-term dance that year.

Several times during the year, mid-term, Christmas, and in the spring, the school held a dance. Each class usually sponsored one of these events and kept whatever profit they made. The competition was high among the four classes, each one trying to outdo the next in originality and cleverness. It took a good deal of ingenuity to plan decorations that could disguise the gym for an evening. The year before, the second-class men, who had sponsored the spring prom, had transformed the gym into a carnival. They had even devised a revolving stage resembling a carrousel from which the band played.

Major Tireson, however, was firmly against holding a dance in the colonel’s absence.

“He needn’t worry,” Rhodes had said, briefly. “Until the colonel gets back we aren’t likely to do any of the things we generally do, or have much fun.”

Vench was defiant about it. “Half the fun of going to school is having dances and picnics,” he said, in study hall. “At all the other schools I’ve been to, they have lots of them. But this stuffy old major vetoes it before we even have a chance to suggest it. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to organize the best dance this school’s ever seen. Something that will go down in the unwritten history of this academy.”

“Better wait until the colonel gets back before you do, Vench,” advised Don.

“I will not! I’ll do as I please!”

“Suit yourself,” said Don, turning away.

“I generally do. Want to be in on it, Redhead?”

“Why, I think not,” drawled Terry. “I don’t want to be dismissed from here in my very first year. And referring to the highly disrespectful way in which you speak of my blond locks, don’t you think they might shine out in the darkness and give you and your party away?”

“You guys make me sick!” growled Vench.

“Sorry,” said Terry. “Can I show you the way to the doctor’s office?”

Late in the afternoon Jim and Rhodes got special permission from the Officer of the Day and went to the town to buy some things. Special permission was necessary except on Saturday afternoons, and they lingered in town until the sun had set. The days were growing much shorter and it was dark when they arrived at the gate and walked up the path. None of the cadets were around and they started to cross the lawn when Rhodes pulled Jim suddenly into a clump of high bushes that lined the path.

“What’s up?” asked Jim, quickly.

“Somebody just came around Locke Hall and is going toward Clanhammer!” whispered the senior.

Jim looked in the direction indicated and saw that Rhodes was speaking the truth. A man, his form somewhat indistinct in the twilight, was walking rapidly down the path in the direction of the silent old hall. By peering through the bushes the two cadets could watch him, and they could hear his footsteps on the gravel. The man did not pause or look behind, but walked straight up the stone steps, inserted a key in the lock and opened the door. With a bold and confident step he went inside.

“Wonder who in the world that is?” breathed Jim.

“I couldn’t make out,” replied Rhodes. “But who ever it is, he has the key to Clanhammer Hall. There is no light in the place, so he must know his way around.”

They waited for some time, but no one appeared and the hall remained in total darkness. Rhodes looked at his watch.

“We’ll have to go,” he announced, regretfully. “We have to be in at six, you know, and it is ten of now. We have to wash for supper, so we haven’t any time to spare. I’d surely like to stay here and see who comes out.”

“So would I,” agreed Jim. “But we’ll have to go. If we could only see who it was!”

The two cadets returned to the building, checked in, and went to their rooms. While Jim washed he told the other two of their discovery. Terry went to the window and watched the lawn, but without discovering anything.

“We’ll see if anyone is missing from the dining hall,” Don suggested. But although they took great care to check up they could learn nothing at the evening meal. Every cadet and officer was in his place at the tables.

“That leaves us one theory,” decided Rhodes, a little later, as they talked it over in the boys’ room. “Either the man got back before supper or one of the cooks or the janitor went in there. The question is: who, besides the colonel, has a key to Clanhammer Hall?”

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