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The Girl and the Game and Other College Stories/At the Corner of Lovers' Lane


 

AT THE CORNER OF LOVERS' LANE

 

 

AT THE CORNER OF LOVERS' LANE

One autumn night about a decade ago, in the quiet village of Princeton, a party of bold young men might have been seen wending their way stealthily westward along the broad, though wavering, line that marks the route by which in former days the stage-coaches were wont to rumble back and forth between New York and Philadelphia.

Passing the silent shops, whose blinds had long since been drawn and doors bolted for the night, the little band soon found itself in the neighborhood of homes, some placed at a distance from the street, with shrubbery and dark trees intervening, and others pressing close to the sidewalk—but all of their dark and silent, bespeaking well-earned rest and repose.

Now the midnight travellers proceeded even more stealthily. Ever and anon they might have been seen to pause, listening intently for a moment, only to resume their progress once more as though well assured that their suspicion was unfounded or their expectation unrealized….

They "might have been seen," but the chances are you couldn't have seen them. It was so infernally dark. The lamp posts were black long ago. Those fellows were not there to be seen. They were young Sophomores out on class business, about twenty of them in the gang.

When they reached a point near the edge of town they halted at a dark little lane that led off to the south between two large places with many thick trees in them. Here, after a little whispering, half of the gang sat down on the roadside in the shadow of the thick branches and lighted pipes. The rest of them picked their way on down through this mysterious-looking lane. The darkness was still more dark because the branches met overhead and shut out even the few stars of a very dark night. When they reached the other end and emerged from under the dense foliage, it seemed light by comparison; they no longer trod one another's heels. Here they stopped, close to the corner of another broad road, and stretched out in the shadow on the grassy slope of the lane-side. "Now, then," said one of them, "we have every approach into town guarded. Let 'em come."

"Well, they won't come at all if you talk so loud," said another gathering some dead leaves for a cushion. "Sound carries on a still night like this."

"They" referred, of course, to certain Freshmen for whom this and several similar gangs were lying in wait, stationed like sentries within signalling distance of each other around the whole town. And the Freshmen's object was to smuggle into Princeton a large edition of proclamations, so called, which they would post with great delight on every pastable portion of the borough—to be pulled down with dispatch and indignation as fast as they were found by insulted Sophomores—while similar bands of conscientious Freshmen and vindictive Sophomores were repeating the same performance, not quite so thoroughly, in the neighboring villages, and on freight trains, barns, wagons, bridges, and at Trenton and all over that part of the State: a futile, foolish "stunt" it was, to be sure, and very boyish. But we who were foolish boys, probably, used to take these things pretty seriously in those days, and got a lot of fun out of them, which you modern undergraduates miss, though you have compensations.

These proclamations of ours which we called "procs.," were probably directly descended from the Nassau Rake, an annually outrageous magazine, published when the generation which begot us was in college. Our procs. said about the same thing year after year, generally beginning with a ten or twenty pica line across the top, arrogantly calling the attention of the Freshman class, or of the Sophomores, as the case might be; followed by a number of "whereases" and "therefore be it decreeds," etc., and then a lot of personal characterizations which we thought scathing, beholding them printed in bold type. Even those attacked rather liked it, though they pretended otherwise. The invectives were worded in the old-fashioned, stilted style of sarcasm—perhaps a relic of the Rake—very broad, very unmistakable; nothing subtle about it, so that he who ran (or tore them down) could read. But we thought it very good. The Sophomores annually forbade in their proclamation the carrying of canes, wearing of silk hats, smoking of pipes, etc., which Freshmen wouldn't dream of doing anyway, and printed it in vivid green ink; very cutting. The Freshmen procs. generally came later and said—I've forgotten what, but very much what last year's Freshmen said. Nowadays there are no such things as Rakes or procs.—and yet some old grads. maintain that college life is degenerating.

So much by way of accounting for the presence of these lads at this romantic spot—the name of the place was Lovers' Lane—at this absurd hour when they might well have been in bed. For indeed, most of them badly needed sleep, having lost much in this same cause on previous nights, in vain. But these were of a virulent type of Sophomore, not above violent hazing, it must be confessed, and as they lay there they planned terrific retribution for any Freshman who might fall into their hands this night. He would have to pay up for the night's rest he had cost them. That the Freshmen would finally make their attempt before another dawn, these determined Sophomores did not doubt. There had been many signs, none of which need be mentioned except that two members of the crowd, who had Freshmen brothers, reported the latter absent from their rooms all that day and evening.

But even planning persecution becomes monotonous and so they talked of other things, and that was how the following ghost story happened to be told.

"Did you fellows know that this corner was haunted?" one of the crowd remarked.

"All right, we'll be scared," said one of them. "Go on with your yarn."

"I haven't any faked-up ghost story," the other returned; "in fact, I don't believe in the ghost part of this thing myself, but the story part is true, all right. This very spot, here at this corner, is, I suppose, as much haunted as any haunted place is."

"I never heard of Lovers' Lane being haunted," observed one of the fellows.

"Sounds reasonable, though," said another; "go on with it."

"Well," said the one appealed to, "you never heard of this spot being haunted because no one alive here to-day ever came out here at the right hour and at the proper time of the year to see, and the reason they never came out here to see was that this happened in my family and was never told out of my family before, at least not to my knowledge—and I suppose some of my people would think it sacrilegious of me—some of the older generation, anyway—to tell it even now. But it happened so long ago. The Kid and I always intended to come out here, but I've been so busy every night looking for his class procs. and he looking for our procs. that we never got around to it."

"Oh, shut up and go on!" said one of the others.

"Well, my great-great-grandfather was here in the last century, you know, a little before the Revolution. His name was David, and he was a devil. His father sent him up from Virginia, first with a private tutor to look after him until he got on to the ropes and was used to running alone (I reckon it didn't take him very long to make up his mind he could do without the tutor), and a negro body-servant—they didn't call 'em valets in those days—and a horse, maybe two horses, I don't know; we'll say two horses in the next generation probably. He kept the horse, and his servant, too, at a tavern called the Hudibras. It used to stand at the corner of Nassau Street and College Lane. But there's nothing left of College Lane now except the driveway that leads up by Dickinson Hall. He kept his own wines there at the tavern, too; had 'em brought up from their own cellar in Virginia, his father's own importation—said he couldn't get any gentleman's wine, at least none good enough for him, in New York or Philadelphia—not in the market, anyway. Oh, he was the real thing! and he had a lot of accompaniments to his college course which my people to-day clearly consider unessential for an education. And he wasn't the only one, either. There was quite a little gang of 'em here at the time, though I'm not sure of their names. My ancestor cut every name out of the diary he kept at the time—for reasons I'll explain pretty soon. But one of them came from New York, I know, because my forbear used to go up there on vacations; found a classmate's sister to play with—even as you and I. She is described at length in his diary, by the way. And another of his pals was from Bordentown; lived in one of those queer old houses overlooking the river, don't you know, right near where the old Bonaparte house stands to-day. Then there was a third—we've all heard of him—Aaron Burr; he was here at the time, too, but he wasn't in the same class, I believe. Perhaps he was simply a town boy, the President's son. But he was one of 'em, and I imagine he could hold his own. Say, he was a boy! and what a winner! I 'spose in his day he has led many a fascinating female up this very same Lovers' Lane. He was a boy!

"Well, that was the make-up of one of the gayest gangs that ever cheered for Princeton—only they didn't cheer in those days, did they? They had lots of manner and were great on clothes. They dressed to beat the band—gayly colored clothes with little flubdubs up here—you know what I mean—and a wig and all that, and carried sword-canes. They used them, too, in those days, when they got to scrapping in Whig and Clio Hall—imagine fighting a duel over the outcome of a debate! They used to take it more seriously than we do now in these times of brutal athletics. There's a portrait of my ancestor, as he was as a student, in our dining-room at home, by Peale; went all the way to New York in the stage-coach to pose for it during the Christmas holidays when he was visiting that New York pal I spoke of."

"We can guess at all that," interrupted one of the listeners. "Go on with the story."

"I was just creating the atmosphere—ahem! Well, he was a very naughty boy, I regret to say; sowed enough wild oats to last several centuries; that's why I'm so good. So when he got up to his ears in debt from gambling, he gambled some more. Dice, mostly, wasn't it, in those days?—dice with gin-slings and toddies and all those dopey drinks that give an awful head.

"Now, 'long about Senior year, when he'd been up at New York visiting his classmate, what did he do but get up against it. And she would have none of him. Then, like a fool—if I may say so—he tried a very old-fashioned and also a very modern method of forgetting about it. And so it was no wonder that when Commencement was approaching he saw a dip slipping right out of his hands because he hadn't money enough to pay his debts nor nerve enough to call on the old man for any more. He had to clear his debts or the Faculty wouldn't give him his degree. You may not be aware that there's an old rule to that effect still. Some of you can take that reminder for what it's worth. To Mr. Hyer, who kept the Hudibras, he owed a hundred and fifty pounds alone—or 'mine host' Hyer, I s'pose he called him. At any rate, the innkeeper, having somewhat of a modern Princeton boarding-house instinct, threatened to tell President Witherspoon or to write down home to his father, and here were the final exams. coming and Commencement.

"Now, in those days Commencement was held in the fall, instead of June, and it was a great stunt, even more than it is to-day, comparatively, only it was different, something like fair time in an English county. Not so many relatives of the fellows came, because there weren't so many relatives, and because it was such a job to get here, but the people, the country people, gathered from miles around, as well as the fashion from Trenton and Elizabethtown, and even some from New York and Philadelphia. There were horse-races up and down Nassau Street in front of old North; fakirs had tents, strewn here and there; gypsies told fortunes and played the devil; and—and—there were gambling booths. The college had to put a stop to all this later, but it was not in time to be of use to my great-great-greaty or his 'wicked associates.' He tried the gypsies, and they told him how to win. He bucked up against the red in the gambling booths and they showed him how to lose—after first letting him win enough to get him well hooked, in the usual way.

"Finally, to cut it short, David and two of his pals lost their collar buttons and their shirt studs and all the silver buttons on their funny long coats—though they had a great many coats and heaps of buttons, running up behind as well as down in front. They were cleaned out entirely. And that night they looked each other in the face like shipwrecked sailors and decided to do something about it. My ancestor knew it would never do for this to get to his father's ears. His father was of the English sort of father, very distant and arrogant, but very loving all the same. And the worst of it was, I should have mentioned, his father had entrusted him with some money, a contribution to the Patriotic Sons of Liberty, I think they were called—one of those pre-Revolutionary crowds that he was in. And it had gone, too. In short, they were desperate, and they weren't the sort to do the Prodigal Son act or to take it out in suicide. That night, the night after they lost their coat buttons, one of them said: 'We fellows'—only he said it in long perambulating sentences, of course, with 'damme's' and 'gadzooks' and things—'we fellows are at the end of our rope. We've got to do something, and do it quick, or our names are mud. What's the matter with holding up a stage-coach some of these fine nights? There are lots of people gathering for Commencement festivities, and they're loaded down with jewelry, many of them. We can find out the names of our victims when the news comes out, and can pay them back when we are flush again.'

"Well, at first my ancestor, David, balked and was indignant—at least this is the way he wrote it down in his diary, which was found after his death: 'Sir, I would have you know that I am,' etc., with a pinch of snuff and a bow, and the usual stage directions. (Think of all that sort of thing going on up in quiet-looking old North.)

"But this fellow had a way with him. He was a great talker—I always fancied it was Aaron Burr, but tradition doesn't tell his name, and you may be sure the diary does not—he was a smooth one, anyway—so finally they organized a plot. A very comprehensive, melodramatic plot with masks and horse-pistols, and—this is what happened. The next afternoon one of them rode down the pike to the westward—not my ancestor; he had an examination to attend to. But this other fellow arrived at the old tavern there in Trenton, I forget the name of the street, on the corner of the turnpike, about the time the night coach was expected. There was nothing about this that could excite suspicion, because they often rode down to this tavern and they were well known there. It was a stormy day and the coach was several hours late in arriving. When the passengers got out for supper this chap sized them up—just as you and I might look over a crowd of girls on the campus.

"Meanwhile the storm got so bad that the coach people decided not to push on to Princeton until the next day, but there was one passenger, a fat old bloke—a Major or something—who seemed to be in a great hurry, so, as he couldn't get the coach to take him he hired a wagon—an open wagon was the only thing he could get—and swore that he would push on alone with only his servant with him. And then my ancestor's pal came galloping back to Princeton, covered with mud and sweat, to tell the news.

"'Just our meat,' says my ancestor, or words to that effect.

"'And he has a wallet,' said the other, 'that he watches as closely as a baby.'

"'We'll open it later to-night,' says my ancestor reflectively.

"'And he's coming up the lower road, although it's the muddier, in order to avoid highwaymen.'

"'We're all likely to make mistakes,' said David, who had a quiet way of saying things, and he took down a brace of duelling pistols.

"'I should say,' remarked the other, who was of a practical turn, 'that at this rate he ought to reach town by one o'clock—not earlier.'

"'We'll meet at the little run on the lower road,' said my ancestor, taking out his mask; and with that they separated.

"Each slipped out and got his horse, and stole away at a different time in order to avert suspicion. At just one o'clock they met in the dark hollow where a small stream crossed the lower road that leads into Princeton from Trenton. It has been called Mercer Street since the Revolution."

"Why, that's this street here," put in one of the listeners.

"Yes. I don't know what it was called before General Mercer was killed down there. The little stream back in the hollow is bridged over now. We cross it every time we walk out this way. I always say, 'We'll meet at the little run on the lower road,' when I cross it.

"There weren't any houses near by, you understand, in those days, but they thought it would be better to get a little farther off from the village in case there was any shooting, and besides, they knew enough about these things to know that it is well to do it near a crossways, so as to skip out in different directions. So they moved along up the hill to the first crossing."

"That would be here," interrupted one of the listeners.

"Yes," he went on; "at Lovers' Lane, that's what I said. Two of them stopped in the shadow of some trees over on the other side of the road there, while my ancestor dropped in here on this side where we are. Just about this identical spot, I s'pose."

"Sist! What's that?" asked one of the listeners.

"A twig falling off one of the trees overhead, you ass!" growled another listener.

"Lots of them fall at this time of the year. Go on, Billy."

"It must have been this very time of the year—maybe this very date, though it was a fierce night, not a quiet one—one of our Jersey storms, you know, that make lots of our awful mud and play the deuce with football practice. So the fat old gentleman was stuck several times—you know how bad the road is down there a little ways—and they waited and waited while the wind blew and the rain swept across and the leaves were carried away, and they shivered with cold and excitement until just a little past two o'clock."

"What's that?" said one of the listeners, starting. "Oh," he added laughing, "it's old North strikin' two o'clock; doesn't it sound queer, though?"

"Billy," said one of the others, "you've got this timed well, anyway."

"Yes, I had it all arranged beforehand," he said smiling, though he, too, seemed to be somewhat surprised.

"Well, don't let it happen again," put in one of the others, and they all laughed at this remark rather boisterously.

"To be the real thing," the story teller went on, "it ought to be storming, I suppose. However, at a few minutes past two they heard a pair of tired horses panting and puffing up the grade that leads to this crossing. You fellows have climbed it on bicycles or running hare and hounds, and you know how long and stiff it is even when the ground is hard; so they came nearer and nearer very slowly. My ancestor could dimly see them now. The old bloke carried no lights. My ancestor cocked his pistols. When the wagon reached a point about even with us here out popped the amateur highwaymen from both sides of the road at once, crying, 'Up with your hands or you're a dead man!' Two of them jumped at the horses' heads, according to the arrangement, as the old Major put whip to them, while my ancestor—I reckon he was the most daring of the lot—rushed in and poked his pistol under the old boy's nose. 'Don't kill me!' squealed the servant, and dropped the reins.

"'Cur!' said the old gentleman quite calmly. 'You should never let go the reins when you're driving.' And grabbing them up himself he slashed the horses with all his
 
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Alone to wait for morning with his dead father.

 
might. But they had climbed that hill there in a foot of mud, and besides, two men were holding their heads.

"'Your wallet or your life!' cried my ancestor, leaning over into the wagon. The servant dropped down on his knees to reach for the wallet. David thought it was for a pistol. 'No, you don't,' said he, and let the servant have it in the side of his head, and over he flopped. With the flash of the pistol the old gentleman reached out toward David, crying 'My God!' 'Bang!' went my ancestor's other pistol. 'My son!' finished the old man, rolling out upon the roadside at his murderer's feet. You see the wind had lifted my ancestor's mask. Maybe his voice had given him away, too.

"Then off skipped the rest of the gang, down toward the swamp where the canal now runs, and so up around by Potter's woods to the college, leaving my ancestor alone to wait for morning with his dead father and with the wallet. When the dawn came in all gray and oozy, the wallet was marked, he perceived, 'For my son's graduation.'"

The story teller paused a moment, and they all sat there thinking. It was a theme to appeal to the sons of fathers.

"They say," the story teller added, as he took out his pipe, "that every year on the anniversary—on the anniversary—on the—but it isn't so! it can't be so!" he ended in a low, tremulous whisper.

"Good Heavens, fellows!" exclaimed one of the others; "what's that? Look, coming up the road there! No fooling, what is it?"

"Do you see it, too?" whispered the story teller in a genuinely frightened tone. "Don't have fun with me! Do you swear that you see something?"

They were all looking now, and they saw, coming steadily up the grade and as quietly as though the road was covered with soft mud, which it was not, a bulky white figure seated in an open wagon drawn by two white horses which moved their legs but made no noise. It came nearer. It still made no noise. Beside the big white bulky figure was a smaller white one leaning against it. It was so awfully silent! It was now almost opposite to them. "Ooh!" shuddered one of the fellows, rising to his feet, and then the others all got up too. He started up the lane at a dog-trot holding his body low, then the others ran after him, holding themselves in the same way. Fifty yards up the lane he stopped, then the others stopped. They looked around. It had passed by. They looked at the man who had told the story. He was shaking; he had nothing to say. The others said nothing. He mopped his brow, then several of the others mopped their brows. Then some one said: "Oh, come on, fellows," and started back toward the corner again, and the others followed after.

"How do you account for it?" this calmer man asked the one who had told the story.

"I am cold," was the reply. "Let's get away from here." There was no doubt about his terror.

"What would the others say?" was the rejoinder.

Then they remembered what they were there for and waited and waited for Freshmen until dawn, when, "Hi there! you fellows!" they heard some of their own classmates cry; "the town is full of Freshman procs. and we can't possibly get them all down by chapel time. One of the college watchmen says they got into town by some road or other in a rubber-tired buggy with the horses' feet padded."

"Well," was the uneasy reply, "we didn't see any procs. go by us."

But they had seen them, dozens of them, turned white-side out, fastened on the horses and on the wagon—and a whole bulky bundle of them on the front seat, beside the Freshman who drove.

A week later, it may be added, they saw another proc., a small p. s. proclamation, which was devoted entirely to one episode of one gang of Sophomores.

"Well," remarked one of this same gang; "it is pleasant to send him on errands, and to make him buy matches for the room, but there are disadvantages in having a Freshman brother, all the same."