A College Scene
It was commencement day at college. The people were pouring into the church as I entered. Finding the choice seats already taken, I pressed onward, looking to the right and the left for a vacancy, and on the very front row I found one. Here a little girl moved along to make room for me, looking into my face with large gray eyes, whose brightness was softened by very long lashes. Her face was open and fresh as a newly blown rose. Again and again I found my eyes turning to the rose-like face, and each time the gray eyes moved, half-smiling, to meet mine. Evidently the child was ready to make friends with me. And when, with a bright smile, she returned my dropped handkerchief, we seemed fairly introduced.
“There is going to be a great crowd,” she said to me.
“Yes,” I replied; “people always like to see how schoolboys are made into men.”
Her face beamed with pleasure and pride as she said: “My brother is going to graduate; he’s going to speak. I have brought these flowers to throw at him.”
They were not greenhouse favorites, but just old-fashioned domestic flowers, such as we associate with the dear grandmothers. “But,” I thought, “they will seem sweet and beautiful to him, for his little sister’s sake.”
“That is my brother,” she went on, pointing with her nosegay.
“The one with the light hair?” I asked.
“O, no;” she said, smiling and shaking her head in innocent reproof; “not that homely one with red hair; that handsome one with brown, wavy hair. His eyes look brown, too; but they are not, they are dark blue. There! he’s got his hand up to his head now. You see him, don’t you?”
In an eager way she looked from him to me, as if some important fate depended on my identifying her brother.
“I see him,” I said. “He is a very good-looking brother.”
“Yes, he is beautiful,” she said, with artless delight, “and he’s good, and he studies so hard. He has taken care of me ever since mama died. Here is his name on the program. He is not the valedictorian, but he has an honor for all that.”
I saw in the little creature’s familiarity with these technical college terms that she had closely identified herself with her brother’s studies, hopes, and successes.
“He thought at first,” she continued, “that he would write on ‘The Romance of Monastic Life.'”
What a strange sound these long words had, whispered from her childish lips! Her interest in her brother’s work had stamped them on the child’s memory, and to her they were ordinary things.
“But then,” she went on, “he decided that he would write on ‘Historical Parallels,’ and he has a real good oration, and says it beautifully. He has said it to me a great many times. I almost know it by heart. O, it begins so pretty and so grand! This is the way it begins,” she added, encouraged by the interest she must have seen in my face: “‘Amid the combinations of actors and forces that make up the great kaleidoscope of history, we often find a turn of Destiny’s hand.'”
“Why, bless the baby!” I thought, looking down into her proud face. I cannot describe how very odd and elfish it did seem to have those sonorous words rolling out of the smiling mouth. The band striking up put an end to the quotation and to the confidences. As the exercises progressed and approached nearer and nearer the effort on which all her interest was concentrated, my little friend became excited and restless. Her eyes grew larger and brighter; two deep red spots glowed on her cheek. She touched up the flowers, manifestly making the offering ready for the shrine.
“Now it’s his turn,” she said, turning to me a face in which pride and delight and anxiety seemed equally mingled. But when the overture was played through, and his name was called, the child seemed, in her eagerness, to forget me and all the earth except him. She rose to her feet and leaned forward for a better view of her beloved as he mounted to the speaker’s stand. I knew by her deep breathing that her heart was throbbing in her throat. I knew, too, by the way her brother came to the front, that he was trembling. The hands hung limp: his face was pallid, and the lips blue, as with cold. I felt anxious. The child, too, seemed to discern that things were not well with him. Something like fear showed in her face.
He made an automatic bow. Then a bewildered, struggling look came into his face, then a helpless look, and he stood staring vacantly, like a somnambulist, at the waiting audience. The moments of painful suspense went by, and he still stood as if struck down. I saw how it was; he had been seized with stage fright.
Alas, little sister! She turned her large, dismayed eves on me. “He’s forgotten it,” she said. Then a swift change came over her face, a strong, determined look; and on the funeral-like silence of the room broke the sweet child voice:—
“‘Amid the combinations of actors and forces that make up the great kaleidoscope of history, we often find that a turn of Destiny’s hand—'”
Everybody about us turned and looked. The breathless silence, the sweet, childish voice, the childish face, the long, unchildlike words, produced a weird effect.
But the help had come too late; the unhappy brother was already staggering in humiliation from the stage. The band quickly struck up, and waves of lively music were rolled out to cover the defeat.
I gave the sister a glance in which I meant to show the intense sympathy which I felt, but she did not see. Her eyes, swimming with tears, were on her brother’s face. I put my arm around her. She was too absorbed to feel the caress, and before I could appreciate her purpose she was on her way to the shame-stricken young man, sitting with a face like a statue’s. When he saw her by his side, the set face relaxed, and a quick mist came into his eyes. The young men got closer together to make room for her. She sat down beside him, laid her flowers upon his knee, and slipped her hand into his. I could not keep my eyes from her sweet, pitying face. I saw her whisper to him, he bending a little to catch her word. Later, I found out that she was asking him if he knew his “piece” now, and that he answered yes.
When the young man next on the list had spoken, and the band was playing, the child, to the brother’s great surprise, made her way up the platform steps, and pressed through the throng of professors, trustees, and distinguished visitors, to the president.
“If you please, sir,” she said, with a little courtesy, “will you and the trustees let my brother try again? He knows his ‘piece’ now.”
For a moment, the president stared at her through his gold-bowed spectacles, and then, appreciating the child’s petition, he smiled on her, and went down and spoke to the young man who had failed.
So it happened that when the band had again ceased playing, it was briefly announced that Mr. Duane would now deliver his oration, “Historic Parallels.”
“‘Amid the combinations of actors and forces that——'” This the little sister whispered to him as he arose to answer the summons.
A ripple of heightened and expectant interest passed over the audience, and then all sat stone-still as if fearing to breathe lest the speaker might again take fright. No danger. The hero in the youth was aroused. He went at his “piece” with a set purpose to conquer, to redeem himself, and to bring back the smile into the child’s tear-stained face. I watched the face during the speaking. The wide eyes, the parted lips, the whole rapt being, said the breathless audience was forgotten, that her spirit was moving with his.
And when the address was ended, with the ardent abandon of one who catches enthusiasm, in the realization that he is fighting down a wrong judgment and conquering a sympathy, the effect was really thrilling. That dignified audience broke into rapturous applause; bouquets intended for the valedictorian rained like a tempest. And the child who had helped save the day, that one beaming little face, in its pride and gladness, is something to be forever remembered.
—Our Dumb Animals.