A Gentleman's Game

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
In the early 1900s, a group of schoolboys hold an election for president of their class. Juvenile tactics and menacing adult intervention ensue. The language conventions hopefully evoke the sentiment of a century ago, a world both familiar and strange to modern ears.

Submitted: December 27, 2015

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Submitted: December 27, 2015

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A Gentleman’s Game

An appalled Jonathan Lantyrne covered his eyes with shame.

Of all the freshly-scrubbed dainties allowed into the prestigious Fairelott Academy, the gangly, bespectacled specimen standing before him took the cake! Was the Headmaster trying to sabotage his Class’s making its mark in the new century? January 1, 1907, came only once in a lifetime.

Peeking between his fingers at the disgraceful example of boyhood before him, the fourteen-year-old attempted to regain his composure. “Say your name again?”

“Horatio…” came the proud reply of one who met his opposition with a full-force glare. That he was outnumbered thirteen to one did not seem to cloud his brow.

Sensing his tactical error, Lantyrne coughed politely. “Are you one-hundred per-cent, gold-plated sure of that?”

I was baptized.” Horatio seemed more determined to demonstrate the mettle behind his rim-horn glasses.

“Too bad,” replied a skeptical Junior Fiver III, even though his own moniker had once prompted double-takes and triple-entendres before Lantyrne told the gang hands-off. As Lantyrne’s loyal bulldog, he turned to his peers as his faux frown gave way to good-natured Fairelott hazing. “Imagine, fellers! An honest-to-goodness Horatio in this day and age!”

Lantyrne couldn’t resist, throwing an arm around their newest initiate’s shoulder. “Alas, Yorick, I suppose your father’s name is ‘Hamlet’?”

“No.” Horatio employed his gloved thumb and forefinger to remove the offensive appendage before the other boy’s grass stained paw soiled his immaculate garment.

Young master Fiver’s unfamiliarity with the Bard rendered him a silent observer. He had thought of Ragged Dick rather than the Prince of Danes and, from a quick glance at his peers, many of them did as well. Trust good ol’ Jack-o-Lantern to elevate the First Formers from common schoolboys to the level of aspiring gentlemen set, whether the obstacle be long division or short suspension. Why, Lantyrne was shoo-in for the Class’s upcoming presidency. And an undertaker’s son, no less! And himself as vice president, as well! From Pa Fiver’s front page scoops to politics! Or any of the fellers! Only in America! Ain’t democracy grand!

Lantyrne studied his discarded hand, as if noticing the uneven fingernails for the first time. With a glimmer of a challenge, he enunciated carefully. “Not Hamlet, you say? This isn’t the Ear Trumpet Appreciation Society. Speak up!”

Horatio looked these commoners in the eye. “My father’s name is ‘Horace’…” He paused, anticipating his audience to howl with puerile delight. Just when the expected grins broke out on their faces, he added with dignity: “Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Doctor Horace Von Gockelbotner.”

A hush fell over the lot.

One of his black-eyed tormentors, “Slugger” Fraydell, gulped audibly. “Say again? Ol’ Gocky gave the league our uniforms!”

Horatio felt his nose elevate slightly at this stereotypical jock’s laziness to pronounce the extra syllables. “The name is ‘Gockelbotner.’”

Junior’s mouth went dry. With begrudging reluctance, he admitted, “He let me in, too…even after the Headmaster tore up my entrance exam.”

Horatio afforded him a glance out of pity, quoting, “‘For pruning the family tree’ or something menial your father did.” He took immense satisfaction at envisioning the thorn-ridden scandal sheet editor reduced to yard labor.

Sensing the change in power, a thunderstruck Jonathan Lantyrne blurted, “No flimflam? You’re the son of the Superintendent?” When he received the affirmative nod, his “Holy Jumping Cats!” caught in his throat. Swearing was a three-point demerit.

Without malice, Horatio said, “I won’t turn you in.”

“Chee…you’re all right.” Junior offered in lieu of an apology.

“More ‘n’ all right,” Lantyrne mused, wheels turning. A quick flip and consultation with his lucky quarter confirmed his inspiration. He nodded in satisfaction. “How’d you like to be captain of the First Form’s baseball team at here Fairelott?”

“I say, Jack-o-lantern!” an incredulous Slugger gasped, stunned over this casual betrayal. “I’m captain of the Fearless Fairelotts!”

“And a fine job you’ve done of it, too!” Jack-o-lantern huffed brutally. “I think we’ve drowned the dugouts with tears twice this season.”

The thought of sliding into previously disturbed dust from these unwashed sportsmen made Horatio’s head spin. “I-I don’t play baseball.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Jack-o-lantern replied, discarding the national pastime with honest sincerity. “Neither does half our team—”

“And I don’t want to play…” Horatio spun around, and, to the astonishment of all, departed from the assemblage without dismissal. The uncompleted phrase “…play with a group of low-down mugwumps” hanged in the air.

Junior took advantage of the stunned silence to take his chum aside. With a stage whisper that echoed like a gramophone, he grated, “Looky here, Jack, as your running mate, I’d take a licking for you any day. Tarred and fathered, drawn and quartered, and all that sort of thing. Boiled alive in—”

Jack-o-lantern coughed, wishing the other boy would can the scandal sheet talk. True, the dirt-digging Fivers had contributed to his family’s trade immeasurably. Why, Mr. Lantyrne could predict his week’s clientele after reading about whomever’s fifteen minutes of infamy made the front page. But still, even a mortician had standards, and Pop raised his head high knowing he sent his boy to a fine institution of higher learning. And he did it through hard work—a default monopoly on his particular brand of trade, notwithstanding—and not uprooting old skeletons on the front page like some other families. If the elder Lantyrne knew his namesake associated with the product of sidewalk society like the Fivers…. He stifled such unchivalrous thoughts. “All right, Pulitzer, take a breath and go on…”

The other boy gestured at Von Gockelbotner’s retreating figure. “Didn’t you even take a gander at our sportly champion there? Him? On our team? Dead ringer for yarn-keeper for my aunt’s knitting committee! Bet he dips pink rose petals in his bath! Doilies in his toilette set! A perfumed two-inch lace dickey strangling the manly virtue from his jugular—”

“Don’t sell me his biography,” said Jack-o-lantern with irritation, envisioning Horatio on the diamond. He clearly had not thought through this scheme of championing this spectacle, but his lucky quarter had spoken and far be it for any mere boy to challenge the wisdom of Lady Liberty’s profile.

“And I’m captain of the class team!” Slugger Fraydell repeated, voice cracking with danger and desperation.

Jack-o-lantern crossed his arms without mercy. “Say here, Slugger. We’re already Dead Last in the district—not on account of management, of course,” he added with belated generously. “But we’re a Fair Lot, not a gang of hoodwinkers. Our ‘on-ra-ble reputation says we’ve got to accept the ‘tendent’s Hoarding. Even if the big soak sinks our load.”

Junior nodded, predictably. “Von Gockey’s the whole league’s sponsor. We gotta, on accounta—account of principle, I mean.”

The shortstop jumped in to support his captain, displaying more energy than he ever did on the green. “Aw, bunk Gocky’s new equipment! The ball’s no good, anyway. Doesn’t roll in a straight line or nothing!”

Lantyrne smiled. “But we need him—”

“Gee jumpin’ willikers, Jack!” Slugger protested, fighting off the definition of the now-loathsome expression “take one for the team.” He gestured violently. “Hor-ai-chee-oh sniffed us a bum steer! And now you want to storm San Juan Hill with ‘im! Did you ever see any such cheek?!”

“No, I haven’t,” Jack-o-lantern replied with the air of the Headmaster during French recitals. “And ten-to-one none of the other teams have taken a gander of our prestigious Gocky, neither.”

Junior’s eyes slowly expanded to the size of the morning’s fried eggs. “It’s starting to dawn.”

“Kee-rect! Now keep dawning, Edison,” Jack-o-lantern encouraged, stroking the nascent intellectual flame lit by this would-be Prometheus.

“It’s noon!” Fiver III beamed, basking in the exalted position of a Genius’s Best Friend. “Boy, have we got the scoop of the century! It’s colossal! Let’s hit the print shop right away!”

Jack-o-lantern’s grin imitated his namesake.
***

“To us, the Fearless Fairelotts!”

The winners toasted each other in grand style in the seniors’ Sporting Commons. Surrounded by the trophies and newspaper clippings of yore, the First Formers basked in the momentous occasion. Why, the Fairelott senior class barely acknowledged their existence but now, after one look at the freshmen’s new star player, one Horatio von Gockelbotner, followed by a glance at the bleachers where the impressive Senior Von Gockelbotner fanned himself with newly printed bills, had sent them into a huddle, followed by newfound friendship. Respect! Glory! A marvelous thing, school unity, mused Junior Fiver III, his mind overflowing with root beer inebriation, and to think the Big Men on Campus were once sore on account of the headmaster slashing the athletic budget. 

“To the player of the year!” crowed “Turncoat” Benedict, always the first to applaud and first to condemn.

Slugger opened his mouth, shut it in the name of sportsmanship, and consoled himself with a nearly empty bottle of ginger ale. He eyed creamy éclairs, crispy crepes, and all the happy words that made the French language worthwhile and his grief deepened. Never had the words “in training” carried such emotional burdens.

The unathletic hero, Horatio Von Gockelbotner, seemed to recognize his teammates’ ethical turmoil. He generously sacrificed his own strict eating habits to dispose of the offensive confections with as much relish as his dignified upbringing allowed.

“Scared my aunt’s pants off ‘em!” Turncoat continued.

“A forfeit isn’t ‘xactly—” Shortstop couldn’t help but mumble.

“One look sent ‘em sobbing wet to Mother!”  Turncoat interrupted. As if by instinct, all eyes followed his to a stack of extra program inserts:

UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT

The Fairelott Fear-less First Form Baseball Team

See STAR PITCHER & BATTING WONDER

Master HORATIO VON GOCKELBOTNER

Son of All-American Superintendent

Master of ceremonies, master of education, master of athletics

*Photographs, Autographs, & Interviews Available at Regulation Rates*

More dangerous than French post cards, Junior realized, suddenly taken with moral piety. He scanned the room for Lantyrne to discuss his sudden erudition.

“Saint George alive,” Turncoat blurted, sitting up. “How’d you like to be football captain? Our team is made up of grandmothers!”

Slugger groaned in bereavement.

Horatio slowly rose from his mahogany Pottier seat and considered his words. The once enthusiastic ball players now gauged him with uncomfortable squirms. Most directed their faces to the floor. Only Benedict, who enjoyed acceptance due to regular deliveries of his father’s generous care packages, glowed with the prospects of athletic fame. None dared speak up. None dared opposed him. As it should be.

Little Horatio Von Gockelbotner felt a jolt course through his body—far different than the butterflies after “the gang” chased him down and, with zealous team spirit, thrust the baseball captaincy upon him.

A first step, he now realized, munching on a crème puff, to a much larger career. One, in true Gockelbotner fashion, which would far out-strip his old man. Hmph! It didn’t take much pep to overtake these penny-ante milksops and their festivities. Ginger ale! Crackerjacks! Peanuts! Kid stuff! And to think, he once was intimidated by these brats whose fathers—or mothers—climbed into the social register by the back pages. Why, they were as tough as buttermilk! He wished he could light a cigarette before this bunch of masked petticoats.

Horatio swallowed his crème crumpet brushing the crumbs from his velvet suit. He quickly thrust his hand through his vest in a manner befitting a famous Corsican. “Football captain? Infant candy!” Horatio scoffed. He savored their gawked expressions, especially that so-called “Slugger” quavering between insult and relief.

Lantyrne silently shook his head. Poor Slugger! To be left behind like Drawinian driftwood in the puerile jungle of education. Who would have suspected Gocky’s ascent would be swift and merciless? He reached for his lucky quarter.

Horatio Gockelbotner directed his voice to the vaulted rafters. “Now, President of the Class….”

The coin hit the floor with an unceremonious dink.

Junior sprang up, ignoring his Moxie cola spilling over his Sunday best. “Of all the cock-eyed…!”

“What a wicked, wicked word,” Horatio observed. “Now, fellas, would you rather I seek my support elsewhere…?”

“The Executive Committee has long since made its nomination,” Junior snarled, coming to life. “And Jack-o-lantern runs a clean campaign...as a future gentleman, he’s a man of the people, the cat’s top—”

“Democracy will be served with my candidacy,” Horatio cut in before Fiver III could warm up his editorial. “How much am I bid?”

“Our incumbent will not be unseated,” Junior insisted,” by a namby-pamby, goo-goo eyed—”

“My reform party will elevate the political discourse,” Horatio smiled carelessly, gazing around the room. “Whom do you think I can carry?”

Junior shut his mouth in embarrassment, recognizing his lone voice in the void. The others glanced around, mentally pacing this dark horse against their house favorite. Already Horatio could line up Fairelott’s bookworms, the plain fellows, the wall flowers, the radical fringe whose campaign tactics involved rotten eggs, mushy apples, and an unfair monopoly on ripened tomatoes, and, most disconcerting, the weak-minded and, therefore, undecided, voters.

Slugger swallowed. As if auditioning for the debate club, he made a motion. “I—I say, the Class looks up to us. Why, I—”

Who singlehandedly delivered your only win this season?” asked von Gockelbotner.

Red-faced Slugger sat down. “Jack-o-lantern gets my vote,” he mumbled.

His teammates, caught in the middle of this backroom political innuendo, ignored the wishes of a has-been superstar. Instead, they instinctively turned to their silent candidate.

Jonathan Lantyrne could not meet their gaze.

Resisting the tinge running up his spine, Junior coughed. “Listen, Hoarding, er, Horatio,” he said, not unkindly, “You’ve a swell head—er, mind. We could use new blood. For vice-president. And, yes sir, I realize I’m sunk. I now kneel before the master. The professional. The expert. We need someone like you. You can have my spot on the ticket, with good cheer—”

Horatio waved aside the unworthy Fiver III, unimpressed with the vice-president’s martyrdom for the flagging Administration.

Junior stamped his foot, forgetting his family’s hard-won ascent into the nouveau riche. “Are you trying to split Jack’s Party?”

“The office or bunk.”

President Jonathan Lantyrne’s eyes snapped up and he set his jaw, shouldering the great weight of the presidency. He resisted the urge to let the United States mint settle this catastrophic turn of politics. No undertaking too small or too great, his father always said while working in pauper’s field. “The Party must and shall preserve,” he began.

“Boy!” Slugger rolled up his sleeves on instinct. “And I’m doin’ the presser-vate-in’!” He trailed off as he saw Jack-o-lantern slump.

“Do you yield?” persisted Horatio.

Jack-o-lantern barely nodded.

“This isn’t the Ear Trumpet Appreciation Society,” the usurper encouraged. “Speak up.”

Junior’s eyes bugged out. “You danged-donged—!”

Young Lantyrne nudged Vice President Fiver the Third with surprising gentleness and shook his head. As the other boy took a breath and settled down, the former Class President, hoping his voice didn’t catch, uttered, “Yes.” Catching the eye of Slugger’s, Lantyne emphasized, “…and you can count on all our support—”

“This ‘Party’ has been in the hands of moneyed interests far too long,” Horatio corrected. “Social upstarts, with no respect for the traditions of the electoral process. I’m running on a reform platform for the independent-thinking voter, not the muckrakers’ club.”

What needs ‘reform’?” Junior demanded. “Jack-o-lantern has—”

“His legacy shall rival Samuel Tilden’s” Horatio replied, enjoying the baffled stares of the ignorami. “But a new dawn has cast over the dirty stains of the electoral season. Respectability will return to the stained office under my patronage, my influence, and my name.”

“Long live the Education Trust,” lauded Turncoat, filled with dreams of empire.

“If Jack-o-lantern leaves the race, your campaign will be bitter,” warned Half a Twin, the left-handed right-fielder and party campaign manager.

“As reg’lar fellers, we frown upon monarchy,” agreed the Other Half from left field.

“Let them eat cake…” the Superintendent’s son answered, privately amazed at the devotion that this Jackal’in-urn inspired without spending a dime, “…should the sheep need to graze. Am I the Nominee?”

I second the motion!” Turncoat snapped loudly, beating Lantyrne.

The vote carried with a reluctant unanimity. With the corrupt backroom deal tainting the atmosphere, the boys felt less like celebrating and more like adults. Eyeing the precious pop bottle caps, Shortstop stooped to gather some for his shoebox.

The newly-sworn Candidate determined to remain all business. “You—the bookie’s boy—Corwright, isn’t it?”

Shortstop paused and looked up, like a jackrabbit in the sights, horrified at the thought of competing against another collector.

“Let Lantyrne gather the garbage.”

The boys gasped at this sacrilege. Bottle caps—garbage? And…give them to Jack-o-Lantern, who preferred stamps?

Von Gockelbotner continued, swallowing a pastry. “Aren’t you treasurer? How much is in the coffers?”

In a manner reminiscent of the team’s athletic skills, Shortstop fumbled in his pocket for a folded arithmetic assignment decorated with the instructor’s red ink slashes. Squinting at his scrawled bookkeeping, he reported with uncertainty: “$2.52 in ready coin, $12.65 in promissory notes, $1.88 in outstanding receipts, two personal IOUs, and one Good Conduct Note from French Lessons for five credit points.” With great reluctance, he added, “…and twenty bottle caps.”

Von Gockelbotner glowered darkly. “The previous administration didn’t inspire sound investments, I see. But that ought to be enough. We will spare no expense. Ring up the collection of leaking poison pens you call a school paper. I hear they’re hard up. This Reform Party stands by the free press as a servant of the people. We will fund their next edition.”

Jack-o-lantern accepted stepping aside in the name of good government, but this was getting personal. “The Faire’s Ground Weekly isn’t for sale and they don’t print dirty yellow scandals,” he objected, not risking a look at Junior’s sharp glance. “This is an uplifting election—”

Banging his empty root beer bottle on the senior quarterback’s prized arm chair, the Candidate asked rhetorically, “Whose father is the Chairman of the Board? Who is the Candidate? Whose name can breach the federal branch of the faculty?”

Jack-o-lantern, less certain, persisted: “The editor is one of us! Don’t take Eagle-eye Inky for some—some—”

“Loose-ankled lizzie?” Junior put in helpfully, admiring his friend’s principles at the expense of humdinger headlines. “Or a bared-thigh burlesque boob—”

That wasn’t the stirring tone Lantyrne was aiming for. A bit flushed, he nodded, if only out for Junior’s feelings. “Yes…precisely.”

Horatio spared the ousted lame ducks pity. Strange that the mortician’s son would so join the ranks of the walking dead and not notice it. As if they never spoken, he continued: “We shall purchase an issue in the name of civic literacy. And the first page will read…”

***

The Faire’s Ground Weekly’s Unpartisan Endorsement

*VOTEHORATIO VON GOCKELBOTNER VOTE*

Liberté Égalité Fraternité

To be Elected

To be Erected

A POOLHALL for the PEOPLE

--Formerly the Faculty Lounge--

For the Relaxation

From the Taxation

Of Rigorous Academia

With complete line of

*COMESTIBLE SERVICES*

Select Gourmet Popular Prices

SUPPORT the PLATFORM

For

A Well-Rounded Citizen

To Enjoy the FULL RIGHTS of Man

*Emancipation from Overzealous Lecturers

*Abolition of the Abominable Latin Recital

*Liberal Views on the Justice System

*Longer Breaks

*Shorter Sessions

*Three Meteorological Holidays Per Annum

Door prizes at select polling booths

~VOTE THE REFORM TICKET~

Von Gockelbotner and Benedict

 

Jack-o-lantern put down the morning edition and managed to regain control of his lower jaw. “T-the teachers’ll roast ‘im alive and spit out the chewy bits.”

Having come a long way to enter the respectable set, Junior had a cherished reputation as a loyal bulldog. He drew his eyes away from the inspirational party platform to his best friend. The pangs of betrayal made him squirm and he stared down at his bratwurst. “It’s not that bad a program, Jack.”

“I didn’t say that,” the other boy said hastily. He set his grapefruit aside. “Say…man to man…”

"…yes, Jack?”

 “You’re on the School Choir Club, aren’t you?” Jack-o-lantern asked slowly, looking around. “You know what the warbling’s all about, don’t you?”

Junior’s face reddened slightly at the entry to a taboo topic. Just as no one mentioned Slugger’s flunking the Poetry Club, all had agreed to stay mum regarding the former Vice President’s humiliation. To trade his Tin Pan Alley for Ma Fiver’s bragging rights over her lyrical son’s belting incomprehensible opera—oh, the price of glory to enter the silver tea set was high! For the sake of familial appearances, he nodded with vigor. “Oh, sure. You betcher. The vest-a-ments. And candles. Yessir. All about it.”

“Good.” With a bit of embarrassment, Jack-o-lantern leaned over, elbows on the table, and asked in hushed tones. “Then where’s the Pandora bit?”

The gig was up. Fiver swallowed to mask his confusion. “The what? Who?”

“You know—the she-wolf who let out the Golem and Gomorrah?”

“Never trust a woman…unless your photog is a notary,” Junior growled savagely, Pa’s blazing headline library in mind. “Pa says, just ‘cause you’re in solitary, it don’t mean they can’t make the effort, right? Lousy dames.”

Jack-o-lantern was determined to stay focused. “But where is the question.”

Junior’s scowl deepened. How unlike Lantyrne to probe into old wounds. “In the Big House. Where else?”

“Not your Pa! I, I mean about Pandora?”

With a performance to drive Sarah Bernhardt to tears, Junior thought hard. “Oh. Of course. That one…her biography is in…Book One. Or Two. Maybe Three, perhaps. Thereabouts.” Dropping the pretense, Junior leaned forward, worried over his friend’s crushed spirits. “Say,” he said quietly, “life ain’t that desperate…you’re not…getting religion, are you?”

Jack-o-lantern looked up in surprise. “My uncle’s eyeteeth!”

“Thank God. Then what’s got you seeing red?”

Jack-o-lantern grimaced. “That day…that first day—he had us pegged.” He backhanded the newspaper in a rare show of ungentlemanly annoyance. His thumb absent-mindedly traced the worn notches on his quarter’s edge. “Alas, Yorick—whillikers! Gold-plated phony! Even before introductions…and that baseball…he knew.”

“Out of the woods, unweaned, friendless, probably supports wimmin’s suffer-age,” Junior added, riling up. “And you want to look ‘er up—this Pan-ora? How they rankled the beasts back in?” He wrinkled his brow in doubt at the Almighty’s power. A practical boy, he clearly preferred the solutions of Alexandre Dumas. The thought of Horatio in leg-irons, sinking in an alligator-infested moat was most inspirational. But any solution Jack proposed was instantly tops in his account and he had the demerits to prove it.

Jack-o-lantern sighed and scandalously slumped in his chair. “It’s too late for that,” he mumbled bleakly. “Hoarding’s going to make President of the United States.”

***

The Vice President for the First Form class, “Turncoat” Benedict, banged an old Pringee shoe on the Louis XIV table. “Hear ye, court is now in session!”

The assembled faculty, in their most tweed-ish glory, sat assembled at the antiquated bench, each affixed with their most severe boy-flunking expressions, although, if a dedicated archaeologist were to brave a closer examination of such wrinkled animosities, the scholar would have unearthed an unmistakable glimmer in each of their eyes. The mass trials and pending executions of the grass-stained, dirt-smudged, paper-collared juveniles was about to begin. The influence of the First Former moneyed-interests who thought they could climb through the exterior barricade of thick green ivy by hook or crook was over. Let education ring unchained!

On the front lines, education and child expert Horace von Gockelbotner rested on his many laurels. Arguably the stiffest adult in the room, the aged specimen of learned manhood surveyed the room with imperial scrutiny. By jove, his son’s first Presidential act, and one sparkling of true Gockelbotner virtue and vim! All for the refined bulwark of Farelott’s reputation, to prevent the noble ivory tower from imitating a monument in Pisa. Oh, if only Vitagraph had come to record the epoch for posterity! Or the Hearst sob sisters, ready to replace “Remember the Maine” with the Song of Von Gockelbotner and Son!

At the head of the administration table, First Form President Horatio von Gockelbotner cracked a knuckle and took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of old books and hallowed oak. With great power comes great corruption, he knew. And, as the leader of the Reform Party, it behooved him to rid Fairelott youngest class of its un-American elements. And no one seemed to fit the bill more than the interlopers of social order. Once they allow the sons of dog catchers, what next? Bolsheviks? Mongrels? Or, worst of all, co-education?

A harrumph echoed from the nearby chair of his vice president. “Bring forth the prisoners!” intoned Turncoat.

Slowly, the aged doors creaked open and shuffled in the class’s athletic team, eyes darting, fingers pulling at starched collars and patched vests. Horatio knew the jurors were not in for the oratory arts of William Jennings Bryan.

“Gentlemen, and prisoners,” the boy president began, “I will be brief.”

An appreciative applause responded.

 “When in the fruits of Bacchus devoured—”

Superintendent Horace von Gockelbotner’s mustache twitched.

 "—we hold these truths to be self-evident,” his son continued with flourish, “that, when in the course of human events, by the people, for the peo—“

  "Yes, enough.” The elder stated firmly. “Let’s get on with it. Tee off is at two.”

“Mister director,” his all-thumbs stenographer objected, blushing, looking up from a severely marked-up crossword puzzle resting on her crossed legs. “Tea time is a private affair, remem—“

“Read the charges!” the elder Von Gockelbotner boomed, his monocle falling.

Turncoat Benedict, aware that the eyes of every individual rested upon his small shoulders, puffed out his chest as best he could. He hoped his voice would not crack. “Conspiracy to incite political revolution! Extortion without a license! Libel against the venerated institutions of this academy! Disorderly conduct in general and slovenly appearance before a magistrate!”

A withered finger rose from the faculty. “Shall we…,” the school historian wheezed, his beard muffling his words, “…add…poor marks…to the list?”

Turncoat scowled. His President had instructed him to list only serious charges, befitting his first duty in safeguarding schoolyard security. “I guess so. Sir. If all else fails. And last one, for now, is thievery from the impoverished hall of academia!”

“Thievery!” Jonathan Lantyrne’s eyes lit up with defiance.

“Yah!” Turncoat resisted the urge to stick out his tongue and give a raspberry. This was, after all, a dignified court of law. “What do you say?”

"What do I say?!” Lantyrne exclaimed. “I say go to hell—o…er, Doctor Von Gockelbotner!” Remembering the hastily-devised plan, he took a deep bow.

 Junior Fiver III chipped in with a broad, generous smile. “Doc Gock, your son won our baseball game.”

 Dr. Von Gockelbotner’s lined face did not seem to regard the national pastime with much favor.

 Slugger Fraydell added mechanically, “And we like our u-nee-forms very much.” He ignored the disappointed looks from his teammates who thought the closet poet would flourish in this flowery recital. “And our new bat and ball. You’re a real phil—“ his brow clouded and he scratched his head—“a real phil—philander-er-er….”

Turncoat Benedict rolled his eyes at this amateurish display of flattery. Why, any third rate son a tenth rate medicine man could ballyhoo better. “Of course he is. Anybody knows that! Now, how do you plead?”

Lantyrne took a step forward. “To what, please?”

Benedict felt his eyebrows rise like a Belasco sideshow. “The charges—you, you hollowed pumpkin!”

Fiver the Third advanced for the defense. “You perfumed ladybug! We ain’t done nuthin’!”

Doctor Von Gockelbotner heard the First Form English instructor shuffle nervously. And the poor bloke was up for tenure review, no less.

Horatio had enough of this mockery. Were they trying to disgrace his Office? He took Benedict’s shoe and pounded it. The footwear slipped from his grasp and flew into a portrait of Lincoln. “You deny you plundered my treasury for your baseball ‘celebration’ the other day?”

Shortstop Corwright took an angry step, fists balled, the boys’ rehearsed script forgotten. “Everything was according to regulations! I put in an IOU to cover the tab, compounded daily! What, you want us to feast on the Mess Hall’s leftover Mystery Stew?”

Horatio felt his father’s moral support and tried to remember the number of baseballs which had lazily rolled between Shortstop’s feet during practice. “So instead you embezzled for an…a feast of chocolate puffs and ginger snaps? And here where the Academy, under my *ahem!* father installed new plumbing pipes! And stenciled wall paper! The tears of the Heavens, the floods of Noah…certainly not fit for your motley lot! The Reform party cannot run on a plundered treasury--”

Lantyrne grabbed Shortstop’s raised fist. The former treasurer took a breath. “If the finances are in sorry shape, then our new administration has not inspired sound investments.” He turned his back manfully, although his shoulders heaved.

Turncoat had by now retrieved his lost shoe, but Doctor Von Gockelbotner interrupted, his voice ringing with the authority of clashing cymbals. “Drunken orgies! Here?! As a supporter of temperance and anti-Saloon laws, may I remind you this Academy is under oath.”

Junior protested, “Hooey! Root beer ain’t Demon Barleycorn!”

Little Von Gockelbotner leaned back, content to let his father carry the reigns.

“Silence, Master Fiver!” Doctor Von Gockelbotner rapped his cast iron gavel, a bit disappointed in his son’s lack of leadership during this affront to the school reputation. “And from this disgrace you claim to uphold civic virtue? This mockery! This insult! This charade demands complete culpability!”

With a rare flash of inspiration, Slugger’s face lit up. Brimming with enthusiasm, the failed wordsmith queried, “Sir, please, my mother grows culla-lillies. If you like, I’ll wire her—”

The English professor coughed with timid politeness. “For the record, I would like to add I strenuously—and valiantly—tried to teach all my students to appreciate the finer points of the Queen’s Tongue—”

Turncoat brazenly waved the instructor aside. “Don’t be a fool—er, that is, don’t be fooled, sir! Forget Fiver! He’s not the ringleader! You!” He nearly threw the show at Lantyrne. “Letting your saps take the blame! You won’t need a chair warmer in Sing Sing, I can tell you that!”

 Lantyrne embarrassed himself in restraining Fiver. “Cheese it, fellers.” He approached the bench, throwing out the script. “So, Your Honors, then what’s the verdict?”
 

The Superintendent raised his gavel and happily saw the more timorous students stumble back on instinct. As if displaying the family bible, he proclaimed, “You’re all under confinement! The strap is none too good for you.”

“The strap!” gasped Half-a-Twin, appalled at this cruel, albeit, regrettably, far-from-unusual, form of medievalism.

“We—we frown upon bruises!” the Other Half stuttered.

The corners of Turncoat’s lips raised in mock sympathy. “Ah, the rigors of a strenuous life.”

The boys started at Benedict, then found they couldn’t meet each other’s gaze. The value of partisan politics sank in, as each regarded his neighbor as a scape-goated lamb to save his own precious hide. Old grievances rose up, friendships ended violently, and unity fractured as accusations and protests of misplaced trust and secret crimes bombarded the teaching staff. Nearby, the twins resembled a mirror as they attempted to out-gesture the other about various instances of mistaken identities. Shortstop all but sat on the floor, wiping his eyes.

Junior Fiver III, witnessing Slugger’s pointing a finger at him while informing the satisfied court of the culprit behind Mystery of the Disfigured Cherub-of-Brussels Fountain Statue, frantically whispered to his hero. “Jack, do something!”

Jack-o-Lantern took in his friend’s distress and his throat went dry. Taking a deep breath, young Lantyrne threw himself into his gang, breaking them apart. Before they could turn their fists toward his misdeeds, Lantynre assumed the appropriate demeanor. “I say, Y-your Honors, we shall all hang together!” He dared not avert his eyes from Von Gockelbotner’s glare. “Won’t we, fellers. Fellers?”

The other boys stared at him dumbfounded. Slowly, like Edison bulbs giving sanctuary in the dim alleys of Old New York, the collective strength of boyhood broke out in a rousing cheer, ready for the glorious final mile to the defiance of Von Gockelbotner tyranny. Friendships were renewed and hands clasped together, brothers unto death. If anything, many realized, their impending slaughter would make the school annals and reverberate through Fairelott history books for generations.

Horatio von Gockelbotner felt his gut lurch, not unlike a spell after a mild carousel spin. He had the premonition his Administration would be short

Lantyrne continued, his voice increasing in tempo, as he felt his best friend’s reassuring clasp on his shoulder. “…but we needn’t queue up at the gallows. We are accused of raiding the coiffures, but all is according to legal regulations. Absolutely kee-reckt, er, correct. Sir.” He swept a respectable gesture to his President’s running mate. “Why, the Administration will vouch for our good conduct.”

Von Gockelbotner sneered. “What do you mean?”

“Only that Master Benedict himself provided the majority of the festivities.”

Turncoat had gone ashen. “He’s mad. What the deuce does he think he’s doing, trying to split the ticket?"

Lantyrne turned toward Shortstop. “Master Corwright, where did all them pastries come from?”

Shortstop had a gleam in his eye and this time it wasn’t from tears. “Our tax on luxury imports.”

Turncoat gasped. “You opened my mail! My care packages! You—”

Little Horatio Von Gockelbotner swallowed uneasily. “This—this Administration stands together, but…but will conduct a thorough investi—”

Turncoat swiveled with violent grace. “Don’t you dare! You hoarded all those crumpets—from my money! My food! Stuffed your cheeks like a hibernating squirrel!”

The elder Von Gockelbotner pounded angrily. With the practiced hand of deferring scandal, he pointed a finger at the defendants, the excess robe flapping dramatically. “Fairelott does not accept credit! This court demands restitution!”

Lantyrne, wary of his shaking palms, shoved them deep into his pockets. His fingers instinctively wrapped around his lucky quarter. Almost without thinking, he pulled the coin out and placed it on the table. “And…and to cover our note for the remaining balance…”

He paused, feeling a burning crimson rise from his neck from the other boys’ scrutiny. Playing down his implied generosity with their money, he stammered, “Er…that is, you-don’t have to…”

Junior Fiver III tried not to shake his had in wonderment and failed. Jack would go down well, his future secured. And himself, the friend of a genius. Wouldn’t Pop be proud to run that headline? He eagerly plopped down his own twenty cents and then regretted it. “What a gyp.”

Lantyrne’s voice rang hollow. “But Pan-or-a couldn’t lick ‘em either.”

The other boys, bound like fraternal lemmings, also contributed their saved fortunes. Shortstop seemed particularly impressed. The former treasurer clearly never considered that his office’s financial obligations would be met.

The Headmaster smiled at the small pile of hard American currency. His fingers twitched at the prospects of collecting a few pieces of silver. “Well, Doctor von Gockelbotner, surely this is a credit to our Academy’s fine instruction?”

Lantyrne cut in. “Oh, yes sir. As gen-gentlemen, we’ve learned our lessons.”

The superintendent’s expression had not changed. “Honor among thieves still makes for unpleasant children.”

Horatio looked at his father and then at the pile of coins. Free silverites, no doubt! Bribery! The revealing of the inside workings of this so-called school continued to appall him. What would they teach their children next? And himself, the last bastion of refined taste and gentility before this democratic mob.

As if sensing his dilemma, Jack-o-lantern bowed low. “President Hoard-atio,” he said magnanimously, “the first deposit is yours.”

Upon this biblical command, the mass of boys parted like the Red Sea. Horatio watched and, with a wrenching gut, knew finding loyal cabinet members would be tough.

Unless he make amends. Yes, reconstruct the First Formers with the forgiving hand of E Pluribus Unum. With mounting confidence, he strode through the corridor of students, looked politely at the First Form treasury donations to his presidential predecessor, and shook hands with the enemy.

Jack-o-lantern grinned. “You’re a good egg, at that.”

The misty-eyed cluster of boyhood knew not to spoil the solemnity with the usual hoots and high-jinks. Mild back-slapping and light banter filled the room as they partook in the makeshift festivities as the adults stared flabbergasted. As the merriment entered full swing, Horatio said, generously, “Say, Lantyrne, not too bad.”

“Thank ye,” replied the other boy, cementing their friendship.

“Your evidence has damned you before the court of law. You are convicted on all counts, in addition to the high crimes of financially corrupting your peers. Do not expect me to put in a good word with the warden.”

The boys stared. A stunned Lantyrne was in no position to stop Junior Fiver the Third from advancing, the latter boy clearly drawing from a lifetime’s accumulation of sordid headlines.

Superintendent Horace von Gockelbotner swung his gavel, reassured in his son’s manly devotion to principle. “That’s my boy! This will go down in your permanent record! The defendants will be immediately expelled!”

The President of the First Form Class exhaled in relief. His father! His father would save him from the unwashed mob! The stinkers! The bums! If only they were Negroes he could—oh, how he relished the sight of their twitching feet moving to the chaos of St. Vitus’s dance!

The superintendent’s announcement jarred the boys from their silence. A howl went up from the convicted defendants. Turncoat, sensing his own jeopardized position, judged the distance to the exit. Finding escape improbable, he then evaluated the rage on his peers’ faces and compared them with the wizened looks on the wrinkled adult visages. His vats experience in deferring bodily harm made his decision an easy one. “Er…Mister President, out of mercy…I move we grant full—”

Turncoat’s words were drowned out by a more primal shriek from his political superior. In dawning horror of his immediate physical vulnerability, President Horatio Von Gockelbotner swung his fist to ward off the gang. His flaying arm hit the table, scattering the coins to the far winds. With the evidence no longer admissible in a court of appeals, he beseeched his elders in self-preservation. “Father! See what they make me do? See what they are?! They’re a disgrace! Call the riot squad! Fill the prisons! Break out the chains and irons! Starting with my fired Vice President!”

“You! I-I elected you!” Vice President Turncoat snarled, now well-versed in the political process. Realizing he now had a legitimate grievance form which he can join the surging tide, he moved in, consciously mimicking Junior’s snarl.

The collective faculty blinked with learned stupefaction.

The Superintendent resisted a double-take at his son’s alienation of the student body. Poor brat. Couldn’t be helped, not even after all he had done on his behalf. Evidently, the Gockelbotner offspring took after their mother. Pity.

The Headmaster, mourning the lost treasure from his sweaty grasp, managed to offer: “For a minimum fee, we, being generous guardians of the learned manly arts…perhaps…perhaps we can chalk this escapade to experience.”

“Experience…? Twenty-three skidoo!” Jack-o-lantern’s eyes perked up at the sudden inspiration. He picked up his government-refunded lucky quarter and gripped it for strength as his shaky voice broke through the din. “Before you banish us, cou-would you grace us with a favor?”

“We do not bargain with culprits!” the Headmaster interjected, spittle flying as several scattered boys picked up their reclaimed savings. “And leave that money alone!”

Lantyrne safely pocketed his quarter. “But this is important to the future of our schoo—”

The elder Von Gockelbotner unleashed his full power. “Begone! I know what meager burial plot your father has assigned me! And I’ll be damned if I allow him to move my final resting place—”

“Sir,” said Jack-o-lantern with forced diplomacy, “As First Formers, we are here on the first steps—”

“To avoid the Road to Ruin!” Junior added helpfully.

 “Yes…” continued Lantyrne. “…to learn moral lessons and be fine citizens like yourselves. Before you suspend us, please allow us to show what we have learned about our country’s parliamentary traditions to Gocky for five full minutes. Alone.”

Gockelbotner Father and Son immediately replied in chorus: “No! Absolutely—” 

Junior had already shed his Prince Albert vest and collar. “Four and a half minutes, even! Or ten rounds! Whatever comes first!”

The elder Von Gockelbotner stood. “This is Fairelott, not the Laughing Academy. I—I refuse to sanction—”

Slugger, throwing his necktie to the floor and rolling his sleeves, growled, “Four rounds!”

Turncoat Benedict took the floor and employed the foundations for civil government. “Before my resignation as Vice President of this Class takes place, I’d like to change my forwarding address for my father’s very generous care packages to another institution. In another district. Luxurious corruption has started all this trouble and I would like the chance to remove all signs of his dirty wealth from your offended sights...and clean it out of your boy. For good.”

Gockelbotner, more an astute politician than his progeny, felt the message sink in. He surveyed the set jaws of tuition-paying public’s offspring and bowed to the wisdom of participatory democracy. “Yes, of-of course. Th-three minutes,” he stammered uncharacteristically, resolving to be back in two. “We’ll be outside.”

Horatio stared, shot to pieces, as the adults filed out and the door shut.

Jack-o-lantern maneuvered his way to the ornate chair, one step ahead of Fraydell’s fists. “Looky here,” he said rapidly, adapting the Queensbury regulations of the manly arts. “You sniveling drip, you can’t fight us all and no one’ll stoop to be your second. So…Take the first swing. Go on.” He placed his hands on the table, feeling his quarter jingle in his pocket. Yes, here comes the lengthy public apology, the humiliation, the cries for leniency and forgiveness. Fool that Lantyrne was, he stood prepared to accept them. For the greater Enemy lurked outside—armed with rulers and straps, not doubt—and the name Gockelbotner still carried weight among the upperclassmen. Yes, he decided, Gocky was invaluable and would make a fine president. Honor will be fulfilled and Fairelott Academy will continue its proud tradition of civic virtue.

Horatio opened his mouth. “I tell you this—you lousy group of muckers! You think you can impeach me? I saved the sorry lot in the ball field! I didn’t stuff the ballot boxes with cheap cola! I won fair, square, and single-handed! And if you try to lay a hand on me, I’ll—”

The boys accepted the challenge.

The End.


© Copyright 2020 pwl. All rights reserved.

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