It was a toss-up—the river or Pine Street—and his Alma Mater flipped the coin
RODERICK STUART KENNEDY
YES, that was the quickest way to end it all!
An easy walk down Park Avenue; it stretched away before him, a long bare vista to the harbor; and then,—a quick plunge, a few bubbles on the greasy surface, and a useless failure ended.
He pushed his hands farther into his ragged pockets and hunched his shoulders against the bench; it was a chilly thought and there was a touch of winter in the air. He had sat too long on his lonely seat in Fletcher’s Field.
He slouched forward a few steps and looked down the bleak, gray avenue, past the towering office buildings— the scene of his first failure—to the harbor, where even he could achieve a last success.
The cheery throng passing across towards Pine Avenue exasperated him; they all seemed so young and hopeful, and he retired sullenly to his bench again. It stood in the corner of the great park where Pine Avenue crossed and wound up the mountain past his old Alma Mater, McGill, to the beautiful homes of men who had succeeded: homes where John Chester had once been more than welcome—men who had once been proud to have Jack Chester for a pal.
What triumphs he had achieved on the old campus, where a hard tackle might send one crashing into the noble trees, too closely bordering the touch-line! He wondered that such a prosperous, happy start should lead to this—a bench on Fletcher’s Field. The stages by which he had sunk were so obscure that even now he could not fix upon the crossing where he had taken the wrong road, where he had consciously chosen Park Avenue rather than Pine. The monotonous job in an engineer’s office that had followed his graduation had not been a success, certainly,—the change from activity and
importance to plodding nonentity had been too sudden, but the war had come and saved him from an open failure. And then those four, glorious, heart-breaking years of France and Belgium. No one could say he had failed there. The decorations he had won, the rank he had attained, the love of his men, the respect of his colonel, all testified to high ability and honest endurance.
He thought bitterly of the strain towards the end of those years, and the grit that had been needed for an experience such as few men have had to meet. Four long, unbroken years in the thick of it; four years in the ‘poor bloody infantry’; four years of tension and responsibility as lieutenant, captain and major; four years with never a blessed, peace-bringing wound to save his soul from the rack.
But he had never given in, never even thought of it, never even gone too far—while the war lasted—with the drinks that toward the end had helped to key him up. That was no failure surely! And the years after, with the Soldier Settlement schemes; they had not been wasted,—for the other soldiers at least. Many a poor wreck had deep cause to thank him, many a hard road had been smoothed by his ungrudging efforts and all too straightened means, and many a comfortable bureaucrat had cursed John Chester for a fiery fool who could not ‘let bad enough alone.’ Not wasted years those, surely; though the reaction from the years of war had forced him more and more to seek the stimulus of drink. Still, his
work had never suffered from any of its effects.
And then—disappearance into ordinary civil life, ten years behind in the race, with jobs hard to find and impossible to keep, for a man who felt himself burnt out; vain efforts to re-kindle some zest with drink; a move to the States where his degradation would at least be hidden; poorer and poorer jobs; one more humble attempt to play a man’s part, with a harvesters’ excursion to the West; one more failure; one last, worst bout in Winnipeg; and now, through the charity of a rough pal, back in Montreal — on a bench in Fletcher’s Field.
JOHN CHESTER’S eyes wandered once more to the gray hill stretching down to the harbor; yes, that was the best way out—down Park Avenue. The final humiliation had come only that morning. Coming from the harvesters’ train he had run into Billy Stewart, his best friend and greatest rival in the old days at McGill; Billy Stewart, immaculate, happy, wealthy. They had joined the same regiment in 1924, but the lucky devil had lost a hand at Ypres, right at the beginning, and now was his father’s partner—wealthy, and respected, and successful.
Billy had cornered him in spite of his efforts to slink off, and had forced most of the sordid tale out of him. He had seemed genuinely concerned at his friend’s plight, and had even upbraided him hotly for not giving his old friend a chance to help; had told him of a prospecting party he was sending to Mexico and tried to persuade him to go out as second in command. Billy had insisted that it was just the thing to put him on his feet—out of temptatation for six months, under a first rate man, lots of work, lots of interest—a cure for body and soul. Chester,
goaded by a perverse pride, had only been able to evade him by swearing solemnly that, whatever he might decide, he would stay with his friend while he remained in Montreal.
While he remained in Montreal! Yes, he had promised that; for it had flashed on him how the fulfilment could be avoided. It would be easy to leave Montreal—down Park Avenue.
He smiled sourly and turned his head away, towards Pine Avenue, where successful men lived, —Billy, for instance. The crowd streaming along it was becoming thicker. He wondered where they were all going, until the chance words of some riotous youths enlightened him. McGill and Varsity! the last game of the season. Of course, the new stadium was just back there, but it was since his time; he had never been there, had never even had the heart to see a football game for years.
A sudden eager desire to watch one more game flooded over his apathy. It surprised him, for it was long since he had felt so keen a desire for anything—except a drink. He pulled the few coins out of his pocket. Eighty-seven cents; it ought to be enough, it would have been in the old days—more than enough. He got up and slouching a little less, joined the hurrying crowd.
It was enough—with the aid of thirteen cents supplied by a jovial undergraduate who was touched by his blank dismay at the gate, and spared the time from his girl, his rugs and his cushions to befriend the poor devil in front. He went with the stream until the crowd pouring in the opposite direction from the Pine Avenue entrance brought him up, and there he slumped. The jovial youth and his girl were next to him, but he felt lonelier in that huge sweep of faces than he had on his bench in Fletcher’s Field; a single despondent failure in a sea of eager hope. The murmur of the great crowd surrounding the empty field intensified its stark silence.
A trumpet note sounded from across the stadium, and a patch of white ap5
peared. A band, a brass band, clad in white trousers and red sweaters, was marching round the field.
The garish tunes meant nothing to him—it seemed a childish rig. His thoughts wandered; he was far away in the tumble-down dressing rooms that used to stand beside the old elmencircled campus, waiting with his team mates to trot out on the field. It was not until a swelling roar of cheers heralded another generation of players coming from a new pavilion, that the past faded and became less real than the present.
The red and white clad players of Old McGill were filing down the steps, spreading out, breaking into a run and sweeping down the field with the ball passing quickly from hand to hand. The confused cheering had given place to the old staccato college yell—‘M-C-GI-L-L, McGill.’ This was interrupted in turn, and for a moment drowned, by the frantic efforts of a small but defiantly vociferous band, as the blue jerseys of Varsity followed on to the field, “Toronto, Toronto, Toronto, Varsitee,”—“McGill.” Numbers prevailed, though the crowd was dotted with old Varsity men, red-faced, open-mouthed, frantically yelling the soundless words. Everywhere around him was enthusiasm, good nature and hope.
The band had come to a halt in the centre of the green turf, its strident music stilled; the teams were standing motionless in two long lines of red and blue. Then a deep chord blared across the field. The jovial youth and his girl were hurriedly untucking their rug, everybody was stand-
ing up, and as the first notes of ‘God Save the King’ rang out he remembered, and hitched himself quickly to his feet. There was something of the old war days in the air; the serried ranks of motionless figures, the throb of the great hymn in an ocean of stillness, the sense of coming battle.
John Chester, the waster, the footballer, the soldier, stiffened as the waves of music poured into his veins and a forgotten thrill crept over him. His back slowly straightened, his hands stole rigidly to his sides and as the last note died away he was erect, at attention, staring with misty, unseeing eyes across the city. A tear gathered from some unsuspected reservoir of emotion, overflowed, and rolled unnoticed down his cheek until its tickling brought him back to life. He rubbed his face roughly with a ragged sleeve and slumped angrily into his seat.
The young pair looked at him curiously—the last to rise and the last to sit; something made the boy
warmly glad that he had troubled with that thirteen cents, and the girl warmly pleased with her boy for troubling; her hand slipped under his arm among the rugs and cushions. The shabby figure paid no heed.
The old college yell crashed out again as the ball was placed, and roused him. He could at least cheer too— “M-C-”; no, it was no use, it was too feeble, he had been a stranger to enthusiasm too long, he was ashamed at his efforts. Now they had kicked off at last. His heart beat more quickly and strongly as a Varsity back caught the ball neatly, ran hard and straight and disappeared under a heap of red. The game was on.
"DLAY was surging up and down the field; those Varsity blighters were heavier as usual. How was it they always seemed to have weight on their side? There was only one way to win against that handicap. Many a time he had planned how to beat a heavier team, and won honorable victories—or suffered honorable defeats.
But these boys—what on earth—? “GO LOW.” He had jumped to his feet, shouted his feverish objurgation and sat down again, unconscious that he had moved. They would not tackle right, it took two men in the end to scrag the blue figure off his feet— and the McGill line was perilously close.
He wiped his forehead as the danger vas averted and a fumbled pass gave McGill possession. Everything had dropped from his mind except the battle that was being fought out at his feet. There was something wrong about that team, they lacked some quality his teams had always had—it was hard to say what. They were working hard—doing their best, but their best seemed to lack the touch of inspired fury which was. needed to beat men as good as they—and heavier.
He fumed impatiently as the blue line worked inexorably up the field again. Ah, McGill was holding them at last, and on the third down Varsity sent a kick soaring high and true over the goal line; a back caught it fairly; what the blazes was he waiting for? “RUN STRAIGHT.’’Again he leapt up and shouted. Too late! the half-back’s momentary hesitation and faltering start had lost precious seconds. The blue wings were tearing down upon him. There was no escape, no dodging. A groan went up as he was brought crashing to the ground—behind the line.
Z'-''HESTER leaned back, Y-J limp from the unwonted excitement, and cursing his impotence. If only he could be down there in the pavilion; a little sage advice from an old hand might help the boys, or a bit of inspiring encouragement, such as he had always been able to give his team or com pany, however hopeless the battle might seem. But doubtless he was not needed; there must be plenty of old-timers down there putting their heads together. McGill could hardly Continued on page 70
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win anyhow—they were good men but lacked the touch of inspiration that alone could pull the game out of the fire now; too much drill probably, too much reliance on direction and not enough enthusiastic devotion to a leader—a comI rade. When he was a youngster on the team that was what had made him battle to the last gasp, and when he, himself, was the leader he had relied on the same ! spirit to extract from his team that last, i impossible, dying kick which wrought I victory out of defeat. The boys never really felt licked because they knew that he was never licked—until the final whistle blew. Never licked! His brows knit in a moody frown. What a changed man he must be since those days. For here he was at thirty-five—half time— licked if ever a man was, and admitting it. Well, the team was too heavy, the war and the bottle were too strong a com| bination, he might as well face the facts I —even at half time.
i Suddenly the crowd broke into a roar of
cheers; the teams were coming on again. His mood changed to enthusiasm much more quickly than before. He jumped to his feet with the rest—and stayed there, shouting his loudest, “MCGILL, MCGILL, MCGILL” his self consciousness was gone—anything to buck the fellows up a bit.
They were doing better, playing a more open game, taking chances, and before the third quarter was over an intercepted pass and a brilliant individual run had brought them one point ahead. What marvelous luck. The crowd rocked the stadium with thunderous cheers, and settled down, tense and expectant, to watch the final struggle; the majority hoping for a win, the old hands, the men who had been in the arena, praying for a draw. None knew better than John Chester, whose name still stood for great football leadership, how much Varsity still had in reserve, how little hope there was even for a draw. Luck does not always wear a red jersey.
As Varsity’s kick-off was caught he saw with a painful foreboding how crisply the red back was downed, with never a yard gained. Twice McGill’s attempts to buck the line were thrown back for losses; they would have to kick. Damnation! that was no sort of protection, the line was crumbling, the kicker was blocked and barely got the ball away, low and across the field; a blue half, going at full speed, just caught it and was making the most of the perfect flying start—a beautiful, crafty run, edging away from the McGill wings streaming across to intercept him, yet balanced to swerve in from the touch line when out of their reach. Only two backs to pass. One honest tackle and he would be downed; but the man in red was hesitating, a fatal thing. Without impetus he could never stop that speed and weight; at the last moment he rushed; what a futile attempt, trying to catch the runner round the shoulders, brushed aside, and standing there, like a fool, on his feet. Great heavens above! Didn’t they know how to tackle? Didn’t they know that a man could not have made a whole hearted attempt to tackle unless he finished upon the ground? If only he were down there those hulking blue beggars wouldn’t get by so easily. Ah, the runner was stopped at last, but even then not by a clean tackle; the second half-back had clutched and delayed him just enough for the wings to get up and drag him to the ground—only five yards from the line It would take a miracle to save them now. Varsity in possession, five yards to go, and ten minutes to get there.
Chester was on his feet, though the goal line was immediately below him. Everybody was on their feet; every tense face was strained towards that corner of the field. The play was so near to him that he could see the expressions of the players, almost hear their gasping breath. The Varsity men suddenly became real personalities to him, just such men as he had come to grips with so often. The old fighting spirit surged up, the old special rivalry that had made him battle just a fraction harder against Varsity than against any of the other colleges. If only he could be down there to foil them just once more.
They were going to buck the line of course, it was the obvious thing, and their formation showed it undisguised. Ah, there they went.
Held! By Heaven, held! Hardly a yard gained; the McGill defence seemed to have taken on a different spirit, it had a fierceness that was new. Would they keep it up? And what would Varsity try next? They were taking up a tricky, deceptive formation—an end run maybe, or a buck at the end of the line—not a kick certainly. The Varsity snap-back looked round to see that his men were in position, then crouched over the ball.
John Chester stared down at the straining lines; his face was very pale and looked extraordinarily drawn. The girl beside him, in spite of her excitement, nudged
her boy to draw attention to it; but Chester thought of nothing except those red and blue lines crouching face to face; and there formed in his mind the resolve to abide by the decision of the game; to give life one more trial if the line held, or to confess himself beaten with McGill.
It came from his sub-conscious mind, not for his own sake but for Old McGill— a promise, a bribe to Fate.
The ball shot back. A blue clad player took it on the run and plunged towards the line. Varsity players ran confusingly in different directions crossing the plunger’s path. Red and blue were mixed in a seething tangle, which suddenly took form, out from the end of the line, and knotted into a heap of figures on the ground. Another roar went up from the crowd. Held again; An end run camouflaged by a fake buck—smashed by the furious tackle of an exhausted wing.
The heap of red and blue bodies sorted themselves out; a trainer trotted on from the side-lines with a towel and a pail of water, followed almost immediately by a young doctor with a bag in his hand. There was a delay. The little group of players and officials dispersed—the doctor brushing his knees. The man who tackled hard for Old McGill was carried off by four team-mates and forgotten—by the crowd. The red and blu; lines formed again; the third down and still four yards to go! Would they be content to kick to the dead-line for an almost certain point and a drawn game, or would they hazard everything for a touchdown and a victory?
John Chester, the old football strategist, was not sure, and Varsity was taking care that McGill should not be sure. The blue half-back was coming up as if to take a kick, and the red halves were dropping back in case the kick should really come. Chester frowned angrily.
If Varsity were the old Varsity they would take a sporting chance and gamble for the victory; there would be no kick, and the two halves would be useless to help the vital first line of defence.
The whistle blew, the lines crouched down, the ball shot back, the blue formation melted and re-formed. A tall figure crashed through a gap in the red ranks, stumbled, tore free, and plunged to earth—over the McGill goal line by a yard.
JOHN CHESTER sat motionless; the J crowd thinned and dispersed to form again in two slowly moving masses where the exits at opposite ends of the field led toward Park Avenue or Pine. He stared unseeingly into the distance, his nerves were taut but the drawn pallor of his face had given way to a dull flush. He was angry, and indignant, and mortified. McGill was beaten by Varsity, beaten by their own weak tackling and uninspired tactics; that at least had never happened to him; his teams had been beaten, yes— but not by themselves; he would never have missed that tackle; he would never have left that gap in the line; he might be down and out but Varsity would never have beaten him that day.
Absorbed in his anger, he did not notice a figure approaching across the empty benches. It was the cheerful young undergraduate—peremptorily sent back by a compassionate girl to see if their pale, ragged neighbor had fainted, or was ill or something.
“Hi there, old fellow,” he called up the deserted seats. “What’s the trouble?”
The shabby figure looked up. The youth saw from the red cheeks and fierce frown that he was certainly not in a fainting condition—mad about the game probably, and he didn’t blame him, but why sit there all night?
“Well mister. Varsity beat us. It can’t be helped. Aren’t you going to move along? Which way are you going—Park or Pine?—Park’s nearest.”
John Chester stood up; he was quite calm again as he answered, “Varsity did not beat me, young man. I am going to I Pine Avenue.” 1