The Adventures of Michael MacInnes
Roger Legrande rode the train to Stoney Batter one hot September morning in 1924. Hot? It was miserable. Roger had worn his best wool suit, and the car was as sultry as an oven. As the train steamed into the foothills of western Maryland, sweat soaked his stockings and puddled in his shoes. Still, he suffered the heat in silence. He didn't dare make a bad impression on opening day.
"Gosh, I could use a drink," a voice next to him said. The speaker, a boy Roger's age, had spent most of the trip reading a book of poetry with the name Byron on the cover. He snapped the book shut and pulled a silver-plated flask from his trouser leg. "Want some?" he said to Roger.
"Is it cold?"
"Hm." Roger licked the sweat from his upper lip. "Is it wet?"
"I am a bit thirsty," he confessed.
The boy smiled and stuck out his hand.
"Michael MacInnes, class of '26. I'm new this year."
Roger relaxed. He'd been sure he was the only new boy aboard.
"Roger Legrande. Looks like we're in the same class."
They shook hands like reunited friends.
"Here's to a speedy train ride."
MacInnes sipped from the flask and gave it to Roger.
Roger took it, and before he knew what was happening he'd belted down three blistering mouthfuls of what must have been, could only have been—
"Hey!" he gasped. "That's—"
"Keep it down!" MacInnes cut him off. "I thought you knew."
"How would I know?"
"I told you it was wet, didn't I?"
"I thought you meant wet like water, not wet like whiskey."
"Just trying to be a chum."
"Some chum," Roger said. "I could get thrown out of school just for talking to the likes of you. There's a Prohibition on, you know."
MacInnes seemed genuinely surprised.
"Do you think they take all that stuff seriously?"
"Haven't you heard? The Dean Reverend beats lawbreakers with a wooden paddle. I hear he almost killed a fellow once."
MacInnes scratched the stubble on his jaw. He was a handsome enough boy, in a roughshod way, with sharp blue eyes and a shock of auburn hair that splashed over his collar like a Bohemian's.
"Well," he said, "if we're going to be prisoners, we might as well enjoy our last moments of freedom." He returned the flask to his trousers and fished two cigars from his suitcoat. "Join me?"
Roger glanced around. The car was filled with Stoney Batter boys. Some read quietly, some played cards, some talked about the interhouse rivalry between Craxton and Marshall, the two campus dormitories. A handful of masters and their wives occupied the centermost seats, from which they scrutinized the car like vultures. There was no way that Roger and MacInnes would be able to smoke cigars and drink whiskey without getting caught.
"Are you out of your mind?"
"Follow my lead," MacInnes whispered.
He fell into the aisle (overturning a game of checkers) and pretended to have a seizure. His legs jittered, his head pounded the floor, his mouth sprayed glittering foam. The boys closest to him recoiled in horror. Eventually, one of the masters rose with authority and seized command of the situation.
"Ah hem," were his exact words.
Roger's heart pounded. Stoney Batter would not be his first prep school. For reasons he didn't like to think about, he'd been quietly dismissed from two others. Following MacInnes would mean joining the wrong side of the law before he'd even arrived on campus. He would be a charlatan, a gangster, a hoodlum, a thief. It was the worst possible choice he could make.
Naturally, he sprang to his feet.
"My friend has the grippe," he announced, already dragging MacInnes by the armpits to the back of the train. "Should I take him outside for some air?"
Everyone looked at the man who'd taken charge: a master named Woodknight, who sported a heroic mustache that bristled with indecision. No doubt he was pondering three hours in a train that reeked of vomit—or worse.
"Right," Mr. Woodknight said. "See to that, will you?"
Roger opened the door and heaved MacInnes onto a roaring poop deck. He banged the door shut again. Through a grimy porthole, he watched Mr. Woodknight sit down.
They had actually pulled it off!
Roger and MacInnes dropped below the porthole and laughed like idiots above the roar of the wind and the clatter of train wheels. In unison, they loosened their neckties and unfastened their collars.
"I haven't had that much fun since yesterday," MacInnes said.
"I haven't had that much fun since ever!"
"You could've fooled me." MacInnes popped a cigar in Roger's mouth and struck a match on the safety rail. "The way you stood up to that bossy chap? You're a natural."
Roger puffed experimentally and hoped he didn't look like an amateur. He'd sneaked a few cigarettes in his time, but a cigar was something new. The smoke tasted horrible, and his eyes filled with tears. Waves of dizziness surged through his brain. It was a struggle just to follow the conversation.
"It was you who fooled me," he told MacInnes.
"Reading poetry back there."
"So everyone would think you were a schoolmarm."
MacInnes dropped his jaw. "Is that what you thought?"
"It sure was. What a performance!"
"Look here," MacInnes said. "If we're going to be chums, you'll need to understand something. Poetry's my life."
"Oh." Roger blushed. "Well—I didn't mean anything."
"Of course you did," MacInnes persisted. "But it's all right. Our whole generation has forgotten the true meaning of poetry."
"What true meaning? Isn't poetry about flowers and stuff?"
"Hardly. Do you know why Plato wanted all the poets banished from his ideal republic?"
Roger had never even seen a volume of Plato, much less read one. He shook his head in amazement at this boy his own age who seemed much, much older.
"Poetry's dangerous," MacInnes said finally. "It threatens the order of things. It questions authority. It's enough to scare the hell out of you. At least, when it's done right, it is."
"You've scared me already."
MacInnes smiled sheepishly. "Sorry—it's my Romantic nature. I'm going out for The Review, you know."
"The literary rag? They're an exclusive bunch, aren't they?"
"Very. It'll probably take a month before they make me Editor in Chief."
"A whole month?" Roger snorted. "Has anyone ever mentioned how cocky you are?"
"All the time. Don't you like it?"
"I haven't decided."
MacInnes produced his flask and they took turns drinking.
"How about you?" he said. "What's your great passion?"
"Science," Roger said. "Physics and all that. What I'd really like to do is build flying machines. Aeroplanes, dirigibles. Maybe even moon rockets."
"You're joking!" MacInnes said.
"Don't you think it's possible?"
"Oh, it's not that. I just never thought I'd be chums with a bloody scientist, that's all!"
As the train barreled on through haystack hamlets and cornstalk villages, Roger and MacInnes fell asleep. When Roger awoke, MacInnes was snoring beside him. They were still on the poop deck, and the train was resting quietly at the Stoney Batter station. Roger jumped up—and immediately wished he hadn't. His head throbbed, and his mouth tasted like shoe leather. He looked through the porthole. The car was empty. So was the platform. Mr. Woodknight and the others had forgotten them.
That did it, Roger thought. No more tobacco—and definitely no more whiskey.
"Wake up," he said. MacInnes grunted and smacked his lips. Roger kicked him. "Wake up, you lunatic! We're here!"
"Don't tell the Bishop," MacInnes said cryptically. Then he shook off the stupor and sat bolt-upright. "Where?"
"Stoney Batter, where else?"
"Oh." MacInnes shuffled his suitcoat over his head and went back to sleep. Roger wanted to join him, but he figured one of them ought to be responsible. The important thing was getting off the train. The logical plan was to retrace their steps through the car. He tried the door handle. It was locked. He beat the porthole with his fist.
"Hullo!" he cried. "Open this door, someone!"
"Shut up," grumbled MacInnes. "Can't a man sleep in peace?"
Roger was about to crack him in the skull when a whistle blew and the train lurched forward.
"Uh-oh," he said. "Now we've done it."
MacInnes was at his side instantly.
"Adventure!" he said. "What do you suppose we'll find?"
"Utter disaster if we don't get off this train."
By now, the train had left the platform and was making ten miles an hour on its way to Chicago.
"I know what to do!" MacInnes blurted. "I ran across it in a book once. We'll climb this ladder to the top of the car, see? Then we'll hop from one car to the next until we find the engine. Then we'll slide through the window and pull the brakes. Simple."
It was all Roger could do to keep from laughing.
"We'll jump!" he said. He mounted the safety rail and leapt into the sky—hit the ground and rolled into a drainage gully. He brushed the cinders off his clothes and looked around.
MacInnes lay moaning on the embankment. Roger ran to him.
"MacInnes! You all right?"
"I've broken . . . broken . . . oh, no!"
"What is it, MacInnes? Speak to me!"
"I've broken my hip flask!"
He held the flask in the air and shook it. Shards of broken glass rattled within the silver shell. Roger rolled his eyes.
"Forget the whiskey! How are you?"
He pulled some bread from another of his pockets and scraped off a patch of mold.
"Left over from breakfast," he said. "Want some?"
They followed the rails back to the platform, where their luggage waited in a heap. One small trunk was Roger's. The other five crates belonged to MacInnes.
"What the devil do you have in there?" Roger said.
"Not much. Just everything I own."
"Aw, quit fooling."
"Really. I'm an orphan. Stoney Batter's my home now."
"Oh." Roger felt like a jackass. "I didn't . . ."
"Don't worry about it, chum."
"Is your whole family dead?"
"I haven't a clue. Don't care much, either."
Roger pondered this a moment.
"I guess it's hard to miss someone you've never met."
"That's it." MacInnes flashed that winning smile of his.
"So how're we going to get our stuff up to campus?"
"Weren't we supposed to have been met by a fleet of trucks?"
"Yes." Roger fumbled for his pocket watch. "An hour ago."
"Don't fret. We're dealing with intelligent people here. I'm sure that . . . Ah hah! What'd I tell you? They've left us a car."
MacInnes pointed out a green Ford Touring Car parked near the platform stairs. Roger scratched his head uncomfortably.
"Er—MacInnes? I'm not sure that—"
"Bring your trunk! We can do it all in one trip, I think."
In for a penny, in for a pound.
"All right," Roger said. "But let's be quick about it!"