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Barclay’s Bonfire by Ralph Henry Barbour


Cobb, 1901, assistant editor of the Daily Quarmazi, left the office, crossed the road and entered the college yard by the simple expedient of placing one hand on the fence and vaulting over upon the forbidden grass. Cobb had a Latin book under one arm—for even if one labors on a college paper to mold undergraduate opinion, he is not exempt from a certain amount of class attendance—and carried an open letter in his hand. His round, good-natured face wore a broad grin; and whenever he looked at the letter the grin increased.

He entered the first entrance to Grays Hall, bounded up two flights of narrow stairway, and pounded at a door. An invitation to enter came faintly through two thicknesses of oak, and Cobb confronted the single occupant of the room.

“How are you, Barclay? Thanks, no, can’t stop! Just dropped ’round to leave this with you. Got it in this morning’s mail at the office. Said to myself, ‘Just one man in college who’ll take interest in this; that’s Barclay.’ So I brought it to you. Might answer it, eh? Good idea, seems to me. Hope you’ll be able to do something about it. ’Bye!” And Cobb, grinning like a jovial satyr, was gone.

Barclay, ’99, laid his pen aside with slow deliberateness, marked his place in the big Greek lexicon beside him, and took up the letter. It was addressed to the editor of the Quarmazi, and was signed “Hiram G. Larkin, Yale, ’99.” The writer asked to be put in communication with some student in the rival college who was interested in checkers. He dwelt enthusiastically on the formation of a dual checker league. He pointed out the fact that although chess, whist and other games of skill and science were recognized and participated in each year by teams representing the two universities, the noble game of checkers had been hitherto wofully neglected. He suggested that teams be formed at each university, and that a tournament be played to decide the championship.

When Barclay laid aside the letter, his long and ascetic face held an expression of enthusiastic delight. The one dissipation and hobby of Barclay’s studious existence was checkers. He held a college-wide reputation as a “grind” of the most pronounced type. Barclay did not look down on the usual pleasures and frolics of the undergraduate; they simply had for him no appeal. He had nothing against football or baseball or track athletics; but he felt no enthusiasm for any of them.

Of course he was always glad when the college teams won; he was “patriotic” to a high degree, and sometimes, when the bonfires burned and the students cheered and sang, he acknowledged a wish, lying deep down in his heart, that he, too, might be able to derive pleasurable emotions from such celebrations. Barclay, in short, loved Xenophanes and Xenophon; and next to them, checkers.

Before he went to bed that night he answered the Yale man’s letter; indorsed the project voluminously; pledged immediate cooperation, and remained fraternally his, Simonides P. Barclay.

I have no intention of specifying in detail the steps which resulted in the formation of the Intercollegiate Checkers Association. Barclay and Larkin wrote to each other at least every other day, and at the end of three weeks the matter was settled—not, perhaps, just as they had hoped for. Barclay had labored heroically to find a membership for the Checkers Club, but without avail. None wanted to join. Many scoffed, and instead of enthusiasm, he awakened only ridicule. And the Yale man reported like results. So when the rival teams met in a private room in Young’s Hotel one December day, they consisted of just Larkin, Yale, ’99, and Barclay.

The tournament was held behind tightly closed doors; consequently I am unable to report the play for the reader’s benefit. Enough that deep silence and undoubted skill held sway until dusk, at which time the two teams passed into the dining-hall and ate a dinner, at which much good feeling was displayed by both, and at which the day’s play was rehearsed scientifically, from oysters to coffee. The teams then shook hands and parted at the entrance.

Barclay boarded a car and returned to college, filled with overwhelming triumph. He had won three out of the seven games and drawn two. The checkers championship rested with Harvard!

Such a spirit of jubilation possessed Barclay that when he reached his unadorned room and had changed his gold-rimmed glasses for his reading spectacles, he found that Greek for once did not satisfy. He tried light reading in the form of a monograph on the origin of Greek drama, but even then his attention wandered continually. He laid down the book, wiped his glasses thoughtfully and frowned at the green lamp-shade. Plainly something was wrong; but what? He pondered deeply for several minutes. Then his brow cleared, and he settled his “specs” over his lean nose again; he had found the trouble.

“The victory,” said Barclay, soberly, to the lamp-shade, “demands a celebration!”

The more he thought of it the more evident it appeared that the day’s triumph over the Yale Checkers Club deserved some sort of a public jubilee. He might, considered Barclay, put his head out of the window and cheer. But he wasn’t sure that he knew how. Or he might shoot off a revolver—if he had one. Or he might start a bonfire—ah, that was it; a bonfire! The idea appealed strongly to him; and he remembered that as a boy on a New Hampshire farm bonfires had ever moved him strangely.

He arose and thrust his feet into a pair of immense overshoes, tied a muffler about his long neck, donned his worn ulster, turned down the lamp, and passed out of the room. Yes, he would celebrate with a bonfire. A victory over Yale at checkers was quite as important in Barclay’s estimation as a triumph over the blue-stockinged football warriors.

Fifteen minutes later a window at the upper end of the college yard was slammed open, and a voice bawled into the frosty night:

“Heads out! All heads out!”

Then up and down the quadrangle, casements were raised and broad beams of light glowed out into the gloom, while dozens of other voices passed on the slogan:

“Heads out, fellows! Heads out!”

“What’s up?” cried a thin voice from an upper window of Thayer.

“Bonfire in front of University!” was the answer.

“Bonfire in the yard! All heads out!” sped the cry.

“Everybody get wood!” shouted a voice from Weld.

“Everybody get wood!” shouted half a hundred other voices.

Then windows were shut and eager youths clattered down-stairs and into the yard, and suddenly the quiet night had become a pandemonium. In front of University Hall a lone figure fed, with shingles and odd bits of wood, a small bonfire, which cast its wan glow against the white front of the sober pile, as if dismayed at its own temerity. For bonfires in the yard are strictly forbidden, and it was many years before that the last one had sent its sparks up in front of University. Barclay knew this, and welcomed the danger of probation or dismissal as adding an appropriate touch of the grand and heroic to his celebration.

“Everybody get wood!” “What’s it for?” “’Rah for the bonfire!” “Who’s doing it?” “Wood, wood, get wood, fellows!”

One of the first to reach the scene was Cobb, 1901. A dozen others were close behind him.

“Hello, what’s up? What we celebrating?” he asked breathlessly; then he caught a glimpse of the thin, bespectacled visage of Barclay, and gasped, “Why, why, it’s old Barclay!”

“’Rah for Barclay, old grind!” shouted another. “He’s the stuff! Everybody get wood!”

At that moment a worn-out hen-coop arrived suddenly on the scene, and a shower of sparks told that the fire was gaining courage.

“But, say, old man, what’s it all about?” asked Cobb.

“We are celebrating a victory over Yale,” answered Barclay, soberly, as he adjusted a plank with his foot. There was no undue excitement exhibited by this tall figure in the long ulster, but underneath his calm the blood raced madly through his veins, and a strange and well-nigh uncontrollable joy possessed him as the flames leaped higher and higher. He stooped and picked a brand from the edge of the fire. He waved it thrice about his head, sending the flaring sparks over the ever-increasing crowd.

“Hooray!” he yelled, in queer, uncanny tones.

“’Rah, ’rah, ’rah!” answered the throng. “Everybody get wood!”

“But what’d we do to ’em?” asked Cobb, wonderingly. “What was the victory?”

“Won the checker championship!” answered Barclay, proudly.

A roar of laughter went up; fellows fell on their neighbors’ necks and giggled hysterically; a football man sat down in the fire and had to be rescued by his friends; Cobb hugged Barclay and patted him on the back.

“Good old Barclay!” he gurgled. “Oh, good old Barclay! Won the checker champ—champ—champ—oh, dear, oh, dear! Somebody hit me before I—I——”

“More wood!” bawled some one. “’Rah for Barclay, the champion checkerist! Everybody cheer for Barclay!”

And everybody did, many, many times. More wood leaped from out the darkness and fell upon the flaming heap, which now rose to the fellows’ shoulders and crackled right merrily. The vicinity of the bonfire was black with yelling, laughing students; and every moment their number grew, as the light was seen at distant dormitories or the shouting was heard across the avenue.

“Speech!” cried the throng. “Speech! Speech!” And Barclay was quickly elevated to the shoulders of Cobb and another, and from there spoke feelingly of the inception and growth of the Checkers Club; of the tournament and of the victory. Very few heard all that speech, for it was cheered incessantly; and those at the edge of the crowd yelled: “Who’s the fellow that’s talking?” “What’d he do?” “It’s Dewey!” “No, it’s——”

At that moment some one started a song, and by common impulse the students formed in line and began the circuit of the yard, Barclay, on the shoulders of the two riotous friends, leading the procession. Thrice around they went, singing the college songs, cheering on every provocation, clasping arms and swinging ecstatically from side to side and raising such an uproar as the old college had not often heard.

“The most gorgeous bonfire since we won the boat-race!” panted a senior, at the end of the parade. “And the biggest celebration; but I’d like jolly well to know what it’s for!”

“Join hands!” was the cry, and soon three great rings of dancing, striding youths were circling the fire, their fantastic shadows leaping grotesquely across the front of the buildings. And just when the frolic was at its height, and the fire was crackling more joyously than ever; just when the quiet winter stars were hearkening for the fiftieth time to the hoarse cheers in honor of Barclay, the dean and three professors walked into the circle of radiance, and the throng melted as if by magic, until Barclay, spectacleless, hatless, but exultant, was left standing alone by his bonfire.

“Ah, Mr. Barclay,” said the dean, pleasantly, “will you kindly call on me to-morrow?”

“I think we will let the matter drop,” said the dean next day, hiding a smile under an affected frown, “if you will promise, Mr. Barclay, to indulge yourself in no more—ah—” the dean’s voice failed him, and he swallowed spasmodically twice before he found it again—“no more celebrations of victory.”

And Barclay, very remorseful and chastened this morning, promised, and hurried off to his beloved Greek.

Both Barclay and the Yale Checkers Club graduated from their respective universities the following spring, and consequently the Intercollegiate Checkers Association died. But although gone, it is not forgotten; and “Barclay’s bonfire” is still spoken of as “the most gorgeous thing that ever happened.”