The Future President

The Future President  (1908) 
by Owen Johnson

From The Century Magazine, Jun 1908. Illustrated by Frederic Dorr Steele. In a grim class-room, the future president writhes under the basilisk's gaze of a pitiless master.

Eight rows of desks, nine deep, were swept by the Argus eye of the master from his raised pulpit. Around the room, immense, vacant blackboards shut them in—dark, hopeless walls over which no convict might clamber. ...
Lucius Cassius Hopkins. "The Roman," man of heroic and consular mold, flunker of boys, sat on the rostrum, pitilessly mowing down the unresisting ranks.


Author of "Beauty's Sister"


" SNORKY" GREEN, at the fourth desk of the middle aisle, gazed dreamily at the forgotten pages of the divine Vergil. The wide windows let in the warm breath of June meadows and the tiny sounds of contented insects roaming in unhuman liberty. Outside were soft banks to loll upon and from which to watch the baseball candidates gamboling over the neat diamond, tennis courts calling to be played upon, and the friendly "jigger" ready to soothe the parched highway to the aching void. And for an hour the tugging souls of forty-two imprisoned little pagans would have to construe, and parse, and decline, secretly cursing the fossils who rediscovered those unnecessary Latin documents.

Eight rows of desks, nine deep, were swept by the Argus eye of the master from his raised pulpit. Around the room, immense, vacant blackboards shut them in—dark, hopeless walls over which no convict might clamber, on which a thousand boys had blundered and guessed and writ in water.

Lucius Cassius Hopkins. "The Roman," man of heroic and consular mold, flunker of boys, and deviser of systems against which even the ingenuity of a Hickey hurled itself in vain, sat on the rostrum, pitilessly mowing down the unresisting ranks.

Snorky's tousled hair was more rumpled than ever, a smudge was on one cheek where his grimy, ball-stained hand had unknowingly left its mark. He was dirty, bored, and unprepared. The dickey at his throat, formed by the junction of a collar and two joined cuffs, saved the proprieties and allowed the body to keep cool. But the spirit of dreams was upon Snorky, and the hard, rectangular room began to recede.

He heard only indistinctly the low, mocking rumble of the Roman as his scythe passed down the rows.

"Anything from the Simpson twins to-day? No, no. Anything from the Davis House combination? Too bad! too bad! Nothing from the illuminating Hicks? Yes? No? Too bad! too bad!"

Snorky did not hear him; his eyes were on the firm torsos of Billy Dibble and Charley De Soto before him—Dibble, wonder of the football field, hero of the touchdown against the Princeton 'varsity, and De Soto the phenomenal shortstop, both Olympian spirits doomed to endure the barbed shafts of Lucius Cassius Hopkins. Snorky, too, would go down in the annals of school history. He remembered the beginning of an out-curve he had developed that morning in the lot back of the Woodbull—a genuine out-curve, "Ginger Pop" Rooker to the contrary, notwithstanding. With a little practice he would master the perplexing in-curve and the drop. And the Woodhull needed a pitcher badly. McCarthy had no courage; the Dickinson would batter him all over the field in the afternoon's game, and then good-by to the championship. In his mind he began the game, trotting hopelessly out into left field. He saw Hickey, first up for the Dickinson, get a base on balls—four wide ones in succession. Slugger Jones, four balls—heavens, to be beaten like that! Turkey Reiter, third man up, hit a two-bagger; two runs. Doc Macnooder knocked the first ball pitched for a clean single; a two-bagger for the Egghead! Again four balls for Butcher Stevens! The Red Dog, of all people in the world, to hit safely! And still they allowed the slaughter to go on! The Dickinson House was shrieking with joy, dancing war-dances, back of third, and singing derisive songs of triumph. "Lovely" Mead went to first on another base on balls, filling the bases. And five runs over the plate! Hickey and Turkey on the line began to dance a cake-walk. From the uproarious Dickinsonians rose the humiliating wail:

"We're on to his curves, we're on to his curves;
Long-legged McCarthy has lost his nerves."

McCarthy had lost his nerves. Five runs, the bases full, and "Wash" Simmons, the Dickinson pitcher, to the bat. The infield, badly rattled, played in to catch the runner at home in approved professional style. Snorky stole in closer and closer until he was almost back of shortstop. Sinunons could n't knock it out of the diamond. But Wash knocked what looked to be a clean single clear over the heads of the near infield. That was what Snorky had been waiting for; on the full run he made a desperate dive, caught the ball one-handed, close to the ground, turned a somersault, scrambled to second base, and shot the ball to first before the runner could even check himself! Nothing like it had ever been seen in Lawrenceville. Even the Dickinsons generously applauded him as he came up happy and flushed.

"Snorky, that's the greatest play I ever saw pulled off. I wish I had made it."

He looked up. The speaker was the dashing De Soto. That from Charley, the greatest ball-player who ever came to Lawrenceville! Snorky's throat swelled with emotion. At last they knew his worth.

One run for the Woodhull. Again the Dickinsons to the bat, and again the rout; one single, a base on balls, two bases on balls—oh, if he only would get his chance! One ball, two balls, three balls. Suddenly McCarthy stopped and clutched his arm with an exclamation of pain. The team gathered about him. Snorky sniffed in disdain; he knew that trick, pretending it was all on account of his arm! What a quitter McCarthy was, after all! Still, what was to be done? The team gathered in grave discussion. No one else had ever pitched.

"Give me a chance," said Snorky to "Rock" Bemis, the captain.

"You!" said Rock, with a laugh; "you, Snorky!"

"Look at me! I can do it," Snorky answered, and met the other's glare. Something of the fire in that look convinced Bemis.

"Why not?" he said. "The game's gone, anyhow. Go into the box, Snorky, and put them over if you can."

The teams lined up, and Snorky with clenched teeth and a cold streak down his spine strode into the box. An insulting yelp went up from the enemy.

Three balls, no strikes, and the bases full! Turkey at the plate stepped back scornfully to wait for the fourth ball.

"Strike one!"

Turkey advanced to the utmost limit of the batter's box, turned his back deliberately on Snorky, and called out:

"You hit me, and I 'll break your neck!"

"Strike two!"

Turkey turned in surprise, looked at him, and deliberated.

"He can't pull it over," yelled the gallery. "Yi, yi, yi!"

Then Turkey seated himself Indian fashion, his back still to Snorky, and gazed up into the face of "Tug" Moffat, the catcher. A furious wrangle ensued, the Woodhull claiming that his position was illegal, the Dickinson insisting that nothing in the rules prohibited it. "Stonewall" Jackson, the umpire, a weak-minded fellow from the Rouse House, allowed the play.

"Strike three!"

Turkey, crestfallen and muttering, arose and dusted himself amid the jeers of the onlookers. Doc Macnooder smote high and low, and then forgot to smite-three strikes and out. The Egghead, despite the entreaties of the Dickinson to bring in his house-mates, could only foul out. Snorky received an ovation. He heard Tug, the catcher, whispering excitedly to De Soto.

"Charley, just watch him! He's got every thing—everything!"

In this inning the Woodhull tied the score on two bases on halls, and Snorky's own two-bagger.

When he walked lightly into the box for the third innings, Stonewall Jackson had been replaced by De Soto with the imperious remark: "Here, get out! I want to watch this."

Snorky gave the great Charley a modest nod.

"When did yon ever pitch?" said De Soto, immediately.

"Oh, now and then," he answered.

"Well, now, Snorky, let yourself out."

"Tug can't hold me," Snorky said impudently. "That's the trouble, Charley."

"Try him."

Tug signaled for an in-shoot. Snorky wound himself up and let fly. Butcher Stevens flung himself from the plate, Moffat threw up his mit in sudden fear, the ball caromed off and went frolicking past the back-stop.

"Strike one!"

Tug, puzzled and apprehensive, came up for a consultation.

"Gee! Snorky, give me warning! What do you think I am—a statue of Liberty?"

"Charley wants me to let myself out. I 'll slow down on the third strike," said Snorky, loftily. "Let the others go if you want."

Tug, like a Roman gladiator, with undying resolve, squatted back of the plate and signaled for an out. No use; no mit of his could ever stop the frightful velocity of that shoot.

"Stri-ike two!"

"Now ease up a bit," cautioned De Soto.

Snorky sent a floating out-drop that seemed headed for Butcher Stevens's head, and finally settled gently over the plate at the waist-line.

"Striker out!"

Moffat no longer tried to hold him, admitting himself outclassed by the blinding speed of ins and outs, jump halls, and cross fire that Snorky hurled unerringly across the plate. The Red Dog and Lovely Mead, plainly unnerved, died like babes in their tracks. Five strike-outs in two innings!

Then De Soto spoke.

"Here, Snorky, you get out of the game."

A cry of protest came from the Woodhull.

"Yell all you like." said De Soto; "Snorky is going with me where he belongs."

And, to the amazement of the two houses, be drew his arm under Snorky's and marched him right over to the 'varsity diamond.

How the school buzzed and chattered about the phenomenal rise of the new pitcher! He saw himself pitching wonderful curves to burly "Cap" Kiefer, the veteran back-stop, built like a mastodon, who had all he could do to hold those frightful balls. He saw the crowds of boys, six deep, who stood reverentially between times to watch the amazing curves. He heard pleasurably the chorus of "Ahs!" and "Ohs!" and "Gees!" which followed each delivery. Then suddenly he was in the box on the great, clean diamond, with the eyes of hundreds of boys fastened prayerfully on him, and the orange-and-black stripes of a Princeton 'varsity man facing him at the plate. To beat the Princeton 'varsity—what a goal!

He saw each striped champion come up gracefully and retire crestfallen to the bench, even as the Dickinson batters had done. Innings after innings passed without a score; not a Princeton man reached for it. Then in the seventh an accident happened. The first Princeton man up deliberately stepped into the ball, and the umpire allowed him to take his base. It was outrageous, but worse was to follow. On the attempt to steal second. Cap lined a beautiful ball to the base, but no one covered it—a mistake in signals! And the runner kept on to third! Snorky settled down and struck out the next two batters. The Lawrenceville bleachers rose en masse and shrieked his praises. then suddenly Kiefer, to catch the runner off third, snapped the ball to Waladoo a trifle, just a trifle wild; but the damage was done. 1 to 0 in favor of Princeton. Even the great Princeton captain, Barrett, said to him:

"Hard luck, Green! Blamed hard luck!"

But Snorky was n't beaten yet. The eighth and ninth innings passed without another Princeton man reaching first. Nine innings without a hit—wonderful!—and yet to be beaten by a fluke. One out for Lawrenceville; two out. The third man up, Cap Kiefer himself, reached first on an error. Then Green to the bat! Snorky looked around, picked up his bat, and calmly strode to the plate. He had no fear; he knew what was going to happen. One ball, one strike, two strikes. He let the drop pass. What he wanted was a swift in-shoot. Two balls—too high. Three balls—wide of the plate. He was not to be tempted by any such. Two strikes and three balls; now he must get what he wanted. He cast one glance at the bleachers, alive with the frantic red-and-black flags; he heard his comrades calling, beseeching, imploring. Then his eye settled on the far green stretch between right and center field and the brown masses of Memorial, where no ball before had ever reached. A home run would drive in Kiefer and win the game! The chance had come. The Princeton pitcher slowly began to wind up for the delivery, Snorky settled into the box, caught his bat with the grip of desperation, gathered together all his sinews and—

"Green!" called the sharp, jeering voice of Lucius Cassius Hopkins.

Snorky sprang to his feet in fright, clutching at his book. The great home run died in the air.


Snorky gazed helplessly at the page, seeking the place. He heard the muffled voice of "Lugs" Mashon behind him whisper:

"The advance, the advance, you chump!"

But to find the place under the hawk eyes of the Roman was an impossibility. He stared at the page in a well-simulated attempt, then shook his head, and sat down.

"A very creditable attempt, Green," said the master, now with a gentle voice. "De Soto?—Nothing from De Soto? Dear, dear! We 'll have to try Macnooder then. What? Studied the wrong lesson? How sad! Mistakes will happen. Don't want to try that, either? No feeling of confidence to-day; no feeling of confidence." He began to call them by rows. "Davis, Dark, Denton, Dibble—nothing in the D's. Farr, Francis, Frey, Frick—nothing from the F's; nothing from the D. F's. Very strange! very strange! Little spring fever—yes? Too bad! too bad! Lesson too long? Yes? Too long to get any of it? Dear! dear! Every one studied the review, I see. Excellent moral idea, conscientious; would n't go on until you have mastered yesterday's lesson. Well, well, so we 'll have a beau-tiful recitation in the review. So we all know the review—yes?"

How absurd it was to be flunking under the Roman! Next year he would show them. He would rise early in the morning and study hours before breakfast; he would master everything, absorb everything—declensions and conjugations, Greek, Roman, and medieval civilization; he would frolic in equations and toy with logarithms; his translation would be the wonder of the faculty. He would crush Red Dog and Bogworthy; he would be valedictorian of his class. They would speak of him as a phenomenon, as a prodigy, like Pascal— was it Pascal? What a tribute the head master would pay him at commencement! There on the Stage before all the people, the fathers and mothers and sisters, before the Red Dog, and Ginger Pop Rooker, and Tug Moffat, and all the rest, sitting open mouthed while he, Snorky Green, the crack pitcher and valedictorian of his class, a scholar such as Lawrenceville had never known—

"Green, Gay, and Hammond go to the board. Take your books."

Snorky went hastily and clumsily, waiting as a gambler waits for his chance.

"Gay, decline hic, haec, hoc; Green, write out the gerundive forms of all the verbs in the first paragraph top of page 163."

Snorky gazed helplessly at the chronicles of Æneas, and then blankly at the inexorable blackboard, where so many gerundives had been inscribed. Then he wrote his name in firm, neat letters at the top:

"Roger Ballinglon Green."

Then he erased it, and wrote it again dashingly—the signature of a remarkable man. Satisfied, he drew a strong line under it, with two short crosses and a dot or two, and returned to his seat.

Once more in the abode of dreams he was transported to college, president of his class, the idol of his mates, the marvel of the faculty. He hesitated on the border-line of a great football victory, where, single-handed, bruised, and suffering, he would win the game for his college, and then he found what he sought. War had been declared swiftly and treacherously by the German Empire. The whole country was rising to the President's call to arms. A great meeting of the University was held, and he spoke with a sudden revelation of a power for oratory he had never before suspected.

That very afternoon a company was formed under his leadership. Twenty-four hours later they marched to the station, and, amid a whirlwind of cheers and godspeeds, embarked for the front. During the night, while others slept, he pored over books of tactics; he studied the campaigns of Cæsar, Napoleon, Grant, and Moltke. In the first disastrous year of the war, when the American army was beaten back at every point and an invading force of Germans was penetrating from the coast in three sections, he rose to the command of his regiment, with the reputation of being the finest disciplinarian in the army. Their corps was always at the front, checking the resistless advance of the enemy, saving their comrades time after time at frightful loss. Then came that dreadful day when it seemed as though the Army of the South was doomed to be surrounded and crushed by the sudden tightening of the enemy's net before the Army of the Center could effect a junction. In the gloomy council he spoke out. One way of escape there was, but it meant the sacrifice of five thousand men. Clearly and quickly he traced his plan, while genera), brigadier-general, and general-in-chief stared in amazement at the new genius that flashed before their minds.

"That is the plan," he said calmly, with the authority of a master mind; "it means the safety of a hundred thousand, and if a junction can be made with the Army of the Center, the Germans can be stopped and driven back at so-and-so. But this means the death of five thousand men. There is only one man who has the right to die so—the man who proposes it. Give me five regiments, and I will hold the enemy for thirty-six hours."

He threw his regiments boldly into the enemy's line of march, and by a sudden rush carried the spur that dominated the valley. The German army, surprised and threatened in its most vulnerable spot, forced to abandon the pursuit, turned to crush the handful of heroes.

All day long the desperate battalions flung themselves in vain against the little band. All day long he walked with drawn sword up and down the thinning ranks, stiffening their courage. Red Dog and Ginger Pop called to him, imploring him not to expose himself—Red Dog and Ginger Pop, whose idol he now was; yes, and Mickey's and Dibble's, too. But carelessly, defiantly, he stood in full view, his clothes pierced and his head bared. Then came the night—the long, fatiguing night, without an instant's cessation. The carnage was frightful. Half of the force gone, and twelve hours more to hold out! That was his promise. And the sickening dawn, with the shrouded clouds and the expectant vultures came stealing out of the east. Until night came again they must cling to the spur-top and manage to live in that hurricane of lead. He went down the line, calling each man by name, rousing them, like a prophet inspired. The fury of sacrifice seized them. They fought on, parched and bleeding, while the sun rose above them and slowly fell. A thousand lives; half that, and half that again. Five o'clock, and still two hours to go. He looked about him. Only a few hundreds remained to meet the next charge. Red Dog and Ginger Pop were cold in death, Hickey was dying. Of all his school friends, only Dibble remained, staggering at his side. And then the great masses of the enemy swept over them like an avalanche, and he fell unconscious but happy with the vision of martyrdom shining above him.

Red Dog, on his way back to his seat, knocked against him, saying angrily:

"Oh, you clumsy!"

Red Dog, of all the world! Red Dog, whom he had just cheered into a hero's death. Snorky, thus rudely brought to earth, decided to resuscitate himself and read the papers, with their big page-broad scare-heads of the fight on the spur. This accomplished, he decided to end the war. The President, driven by public clamor, put him in command of the Army of the South. In three weeks, by a series of rapid Napoleonic marches, he flung the enemy into morasses and wilderness, cut their line of communication, and starved them into surrender; then flinging his army north, he effected a junction with the Army of the Center, sending a laconic message to the President: "I am here. Give me command, and I will feed the sea with the remnants of Germany's glory." Official Washington, intriguing and jealous, cried out for a court-martial; but the voice of the people, echoing from coast to coast, gave him his wish. In one month he swept the middle coast bare of resistance, fought three enormous battles, and annihilated the armies of the invaders, ending the war. What a triumph was his! That wonderful entry into Washington, with the frenzied roars of multitudes that greeted him, as he rode simply and modestly, but greatly, down the Avenue at the head of his old regiment, in their worn and ragged uniforms, with the flag shot to shreds proudly carried by Red Dog and Dibble; and in the crowd he saw again the tear-stained faces of the Roman and the head-master and all his old comrades, who waved their handkerchiefs to him amid the frantic thousands.

At this point Snorky's emotion overmastered him. A lump was in his throat. He controlled himself with difficulty and dignity. He went over the quiet, stately years until a grateful nation carried him in triumph into the Presidential chair, nominated by acclamation and without opposition! He saw the wonderful years of his ascendancy, the wrongs righted, peace and concord returning to all classes, the development of science, the uniting into one system of all the warring branches of education, the amalgamation of Canada and Mexico into the United States, the development of an immense merchant fleet, the consolidation of all laws into one national code, the establishment of free concerts and theaters for the people. Then suddenly there fell a terrible blow: the hand of a maniac struck him down as he passed through the multitudes who loved him. He was carried unconscious to the nearest house, the greatest physicians flocked to him, striving in vain to fight off the inevitable end. He saw the street filled with tan-bark and the faces of the grief-stricken multitude, with Hickey and Red Dog and Ginger Pop sobbing on the steps and refusing to leave all that fateful night, while bulletins of the final struggle were continually sent to every part of the globe. And then he died. He heard the muffled peal of bells, and the sobs that went up from every home in the land; he saw the houses being decked with crape, and the people, with aching hearts, trooping into the churches: for he, the President, the beloved, the great military genius, the wisest of human rulers, was dead—dead.

Suddenly a titter, a horrible, mocking laugh broke through the stately dignity of the universal grief. Snorky, with tears trembling in his eyes, suddenly brought lack to reality, looked up to see Lucius Cassius Hopkins standing over him with a mocking smile. From their desks Red Dog and Ginger Pop were making faces at him, roaring at his discomfiture.

"So Green is dreaming again! Dear, dear! Dreaming again!" said the deliberate voice. "Dreaming of chocolate eclairs and the jigger-shop, eh, Green?"

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1952, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.