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6. Rapid Developments
For the next few days nothing worthy of note happened. It was early one morning the following week that things began to move. The boys had studied until bedtime and had turned in when the lights were put out. Life at the school flowed on as it did when the colonel had been there. Mr. Vench seemed busier than usual and made several trips to town. Clanhammer Hall revealed nothing new.

How long the boys had been asleep on that particular night they did not know, but they were aroused by a sound that was entirely new to them. A furious clanging of gongs sounded throughout the school on every hall and stairs, and the cadets started up in bed with rapidly beating hearts. They had often seen the huge gongs out in the halls but had never heard them in action. Now they were being rung violently.
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Terry was the first to bounce out of his bed. “Come on, you guys,” he called. “The school is on fire!”

Don and Jim lost no time in springing from their beds and reaching for their clothes. “Too bad they don’t turn on the lights,” he grumbled.

As though in answer to his complaint the overhead lights were turned on and the boys could see what they were doing. The sound of the gongs then died down abruptly, but a rushing, scattering sound told them that the cadets were all up and hurrying into their clothes.

“Wonder where it is?” speculated Jim, as he pulled on his shirt. “I don’t see any blaze or smell any smoke.”

“It may only be a very small one,” said Terry, who was now fully dressed. “I suppose we report in assembly, don’t we? Or maybe we march out on the campus. One thing they have neglected to do around here is to give us any fire regulations.”

Terry was right in his statement and the Mercers wondered if the oversight was due to the fact that the colonel was missing. They opened their door and hurried out into the hall. Almost every door was open and cadets were talking and walking toward the stairs.

The cadet captain of the third class hurried down the hall and saw to it that each boy was out of his room. With the rest of the cadets in Locke Hall the three chums went down the stairs and found the biggest gathering in the hall. There was no smoke or fire to be seen anywhere.
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“Well, there may be a fire somewhere,” observed Terry. “But it certainly ran away in a hurry.”

“Whatever it was, it was in the library,” a cadet said. “I just saw the Officer of the Day and Major Tireson go in there in a hurry.”

With one accord the cadets trooped down the lower hall and congregated at the door of the library. They noticed that the door was flung far back and that the lock was still sprung. It was evident that the door had been violently broken open, and as none of the cadets had ever known the library door to be locked, they were surprised.

A number of books had been thrown out of a bookcase near the panelled wall, and the major and Rollins, the appointed Officer of the Day, were looking closely at an old portrait on the wall. Impelled by their growing curiosity the cadets of Locke Hall crowded into the room and around the two officers. Then they saw that the bottom of the picture, along the frame, had been slashed for at least five inches, close to the wood. The picture, an inexpensive one portraying the celebrated “Thin Red Line” in action, was a familiar article to the young men, and they were at a loss to know why it should have been slashed.

“Very singular,” Major Tireson was saying. “Let me have a full account of what happened, Rollins.”
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“I had finished my duties as Officer of the Day,” said Rollins. “And I had returned to my room, unfortunately forgetting to return my report book to the office. I noticed the omission and was going back with the book when I saw the library door closed and a light coming out from beneath. I knew that there should be no light there at this time of night—or morning, and I quietly opened the door. Two men were in the room, one of whom was engaged in slitting the picture, while the other stood near the door in which I was looking. He must have heard me step to the door, for before I could grapple with him he had thrown his weight against the door and pushed me out into the hall. I heard the lock snapped into place and then I rang the gongs to attract attention and get help. As you know, when you and I finally broke in, the men were gone, probably through the window.”

“Did you get any kind of a glance at the faces of the men?” asked the major.

“Only a brief glimpse, sir. The man at the portrait had his face turned away and I didn’t see it at all, but the man here at the door gave me just time to see him. He was tall and quite dark, but as he had a slouch hat pulled down over his eyes I could not altogether make him out. That is all I have to report, sir.”

The major’s eyes wandered back to the slashed picture and a puzzled look spread over his face. “I can’t see what object any outsider could have in our picture,” he observed. “It certainly isn’t a masterpiece or anything of the kind.” He turned and frowned slightly at the cadets who had listened with great attention. “You wouldn’t say it was one of the men of the corps, up to any prank, would you, Rollins?”
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“Oh, no, sir,” promptly reported the cadet. “These were men dressed in business suits and civilian hats.”

“Well,” decided the major, “I suppose the men have gotten away; in fact I heard the motor of an automobile as I came downstairs. This is most puzzling. In the future you had better quietly call me instead of ringing the fire alarm. I see that the cadets from Inslee and Clinton Hall are here, too.”

The major soon after ordered them to their rooms, and the cadets from the other halls, who had turned out when they had heard the clashing gongs in Locke, went back to their dormitories, a confused idea of the whole thing in their minds. The students from Locke Hall went rather reluctantly up to their rooms, but many of them did not attempt to go to sleep at once. Each room held its own conference, and that occupied by the Mercers and Terry was no exception.

“Suppose it all had something to do with what goes on at Clanhammer Hall?” whispered Jim, as they sat on Don’s bed in the darkness.

“I don’t know what to think,” his brother answered. “This happening beats them all, to my way of thinking. You can imagine some sort of an excuse for most actions, but who in the world could explain why two men should start to cut out a cheap picture in our library?”
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They talked it all over and at length, but they arrived nowhere, so at last they went to sleep and slept soundly until morning. It was an excited and interested group of cadets who assembled in the chapel that morning, and they waited impatiently to see if the temporary headmaster would say anything about the events of the past morning. But to their disappointment he did not and they went away to classes, to speculate all day on the mystery.

But just before it was time to report for drill, and just as the last class was about to break up, certain cadets appeared in each classroom and gave instructions to the teacher. In the class where the fourth class men were studying Captain Chalmers rapped for attention.

“Immediately after leaving this classroom you will report to general assembly,” he announced.

There was a buzz and a stir among the cadets, and as soon as books had been put away they hurried to the assembly. An undercurrent of excitement was clearly visible, and they were eager for news of some sort. The major called for order and delivered his message briefly.

“It is not necessary for me to recount the details of what went on here last night,” he stated. “You all know it, I am sure. However, we have learned nothing new, and while I am not inclined to treat the matter as being of any importance, still I do think we may use it for a little military practice. My thought is that for the next few days we will detail certain cadets to do active guard duty around the school all night. That will give you each a touch of true military life. The captains of the classes will tell you when you are to serve, and also give you your position. Any negligence while on duty will not be tolerated. Assembly dismissed.”
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Drill followed, but what followed drill was not part of the schedule, though human and natural. A general buzzing and discussion took place all over the campus and in rooms. Most of the boys welcomed the idea of patrolling the grounds because of the novelty of it, but they were divided as to the major’s reason. Could it be possible that he was really afraid? This question was more than the cadets could answer, and it furnished food for much speculation.

Don hurried into the room soon after supper with a grin on his face. “Well, I got it!” he announced.

“Got what?” asked Jim.

“I got my watch tonight,” Don explained. “From eleven ’til twelve I patrol from the end of the campus to the east gate, up the hill and down.”

“And while you are walking we’ll be blissfully sleeping,” smiled Terry.

“Oh, I don’t mind, tonight,” answered Don. “It looks as though it is going to be a peach of a night, with a big moon. I may be a whole lot luckier than you two, at that. You may get something like two or three in the morning, perhaps on a rainy morning, and I’ll be the one to sleep blissfully.”

“Say,” spoke up Jim. “Your patrol takes you right back of Clanhammer Hall, doesn’t it?”

There was silence for a minute and then Don nodded. “Yes, it does,” he said. “I pass right back of it. From the edge of the campus I walk back of the hall, down the slope near the lake and to the gate. Yes, I’ll pass the old place a good many times, I guess.”
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“Perhaps you’ll see something that may help a bit,” Terry said. “Be careful not to get tangled up in anything, though.”

Don was compelled to go to bed until a quarter of eleven, when the Officer of the Day rapped on his door and in a low tone told him to report for guard duty. Both of the other boys were sound asleep when Don left the room and went to the office. A cadet by the name of Arthurs was due to be relieved, and Don received final instructions. Then, taking his rifle, which the cadets used in drill, Don went out of the side door of Locke Hall to the edge of the campus and waited for Arthurs.

The cadet came across the campus from the direction of the old hall and saluted Don briskly. He said that there was nothing to report.

“I’m a little sorry to have you relieve me,” he smiled. “Although I’m getting tired of tramping up and down. Nice night, isn’t it?”

Don said that it was, and after saying goodnight to Arthurs he commenced his patrol. His way led him across the grassy campus back of the school, back of the gloomy old hall and down the slope near the lake to the iron gate at the east end of the school grounds. He made his first trip and found that it took him a full five minutes from point to point.
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Don rather liked the whole idea. It might be quite useless as far as definite results went, but it was fun and a touch of the life which interested him. All of the boys would have to take turns at it, and he knew as he paced up and down that other cadets were patrolling on the other three sides of the school. He had been very fortunate in the time, for a fine big moon rode overhead, lighting the country up in a yellow splendor. The night was cool, but not unpleasantly so, and he felt exhilarated as he moved along with a swift, snappy stride.

Each time he passed back of the old hall he looked searchingly at it, but it was deserted and black, seemingly wrapped up in its covering of ivy. Down by the east gate he lost sight of it, and it was a minute or more before he once more walked around back of it. Don had been patrolling for almost forty minutes, and was now down near the gate. Reaching it, he swung around and started on his backward patrol.

He once more came in sight of Clanhammer Hall and started to pass by it. His patrol had taken him some fifty feet back of the hall, close to some small trees, and he entered a patch of black shadows. From force of habit he looked at the old building and then came to a swift halt.

A file of seven men, bending low and obviously keeping in the shadows of the old place, was making its way around the corner of the building. Each of these cadets, whose uniforms Don could plainly make out, held something in his hand. Astonishment seized Don, and although he had a faint notion of what might be going on, he could hardly believe it.
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But he knew his duty and he was quite determined to carry that out. It was evident to him that they thought he was still down by the gate. Lowering his rifle he stepped forward and then stopped.

He thought at first that they intended to gather in some corner outside the building, but he found he was mistaken. They had approached a cellar window and the leader raised it and thrust his leg through. Don hurried forward, challenging them sharply.

“Halt! Who goes there?”

The seven cadets, with the leader halfway through the window, started and turned. Don’s suspicions were confirmed. They were all fourth class men and each one of them had tools in his hand. They looked foolish and confused and glanced at each other.

“Hey!” cried Don, as no one spoke. “What’s going on here?”

“We were going in to fix up this old hall for a dance, Mercer,” said a cadet.

Don was bewildered. “On a night like this, when we have guard duty?” he cried. “And almost at twelve o’clock. You guys must be bats!” A sudden suspicion came over him. “Tell me, whose idea was this?”

There was an interval of silence and then the cadet who had answered him at first replied. “Vench’s idea.”

“I thought so,” nodded Don. “Why did he pick out tonight and why this place?”

“Well,” answered the spokesman. “He said he was going to put on a dance that would go down in history, and he wanted to do the decorating tonight, when there were guards out, and we’d have it in Clanhammer Hall, because nobody ever goes in there.”
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“Where is Vench now?” asked Don.

“Inside.”

“Inside Clanhammer Hall!” cried Don sharply.

“Yes. He went in early to look the place over, and we were to join him in there.”

Don was taken aback at the news. If there was anything to be learned in that hall Vench might stumble on it, and he was disappointed to think that someone beside himself had been in Clanhammer first. Well, there was just one thing to do and that was to enter the old school himself. He turned to the waiting cadets.

“You fellows get back to your rooms at once, and do it without being seen by anyone. I won’t report you unless you disobey me. You’ve been a lot of silly fools to listen to Vench at all. Why, if you are caught you will probably be expelled! Have your dance when the colonel returns but not now. Now get back, before I am compelled to turn in a report of this.”

The seven cadets, glad of the chance to escape from an adventure which had begun to worry them, slipped away without a word toward the main hall. Don turned once more to the cellar window, prepared to enter the dark and forbidding place. But he drew back with a slight start.

The cellar window went up and was secured and a head appeared in the half light. Cadet Vench scrambled up and out of the window, his uniform covered with cobwebs and dirt. He looked briefly at Don and would have walked off, but Don grasped him by the arm.
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“Here, Vench,” Don called. “Wait a minute. Let me look at your face. What is the matter?”

He swung the cadet toward him and for a brief instant the other looked at him with wide eyes. Don almost gasped. The ordinarily brown face of Cadet Vench was white, his eyes were big and his hands shook. Don released his hold.

“What did you see in there, Vench?” he asked.

“Nothing,” returned the other, dropping his eyes.

“Yes, you did,” retorted Don. “Out with it. Let’s have it.”

“I didn’t see anything!” snapped Vench, stepping away from him. “You let me go, Mercer. I—I want to get away from this place. You keep your mouth closed about it, too.”

He strode away, and Don was strongly tempted to recall him and make him tell or suffer the consequences. But he was undecided as to what course to follow and he watched the cadet disappear in the direction of Locke Hall. Once more Don looked at the hall so near at hand. There was no sound and he wondered if he should go in or not.

But he did not feel like going in. Vench had seen something in there that had made him turn white. And for another thing, his patrol time was up, a thing for which he was not altogether sorry. So with this new angle to puzzle over Don went back to report his patrol over with and sought his bed, to wonder and speculate until he fell asleep.
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