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CHAPTER II THRUST AND RIPOSTE.
That Frank retained all his old-time skill he soon demonstrated. Hodge was not in bad form, but Merry was far and away his superior, and he toyed with Bart.

Morton looked on in some surprise.

“Why, say,” he cried, “both of you chaps know the game all right! You could cut some ice at it.”

Bart smiled.

“I could have told you that Merry knew it,” he said.

“L’Estrange could make an expert of him,” declared Morton.

“Perhaps he might surprise L’Estrange,” said Hodge.

“I think he would,” nodded the host, without detecting Bart’s real meaning.

Frank and Bart went at it again. In the midst of the bout two young men sauntered up and paused, watching them with interest.

“Why,” said one, “they really know how to fence, Fred!”

“That’s right,” nodded the other. “They are not novices.”

Morton quickly stepped to the side of the two.

“These are my guests, gentlemen,” he said.

“Oh,” said the taller and darker chap, “I understand you have Merriwell and his friends in town. Is either of these fellows——”

“Yes, that one there is Frank Merriwell.”

“Introduce me when they are through. I am interested in him as an athlete, although I may not be as a fencer. Evidently he thinks himself pretty clever at this trick, but his form is not correct, and he makes a number of false moves.”

Bart Hodge heard these words distinctly, and he lowered his foil, turning to survey the speaker.

“You see, Darleton!” muttered Morton resentfully. “They have heard you!”

Darleton shrugged his shoulders.

To cover his confusion, Morton hastened to introduce Darleton and his companion, Grant Hardy, to Frank and Bart.

“Mr. Darleton,” said Merry, “glad to know you. I’ve just been hearing about you from your fencing instructor.”

“Have you?” said Darleton, with a quite superior air. “I’m afraid Monsieur L’Estrange has been boasting about me, as usual. Just because I happened to be particularly apt as a pupil, he is inclined to puff me on every occasion. I don’t fancy it, you know, but I can’t seem to prevent it. People will begin to think me quite a wonder if he doesn’t stop overrating me.”

“But he doesn’t overrate you, my dear fellow,” quickly put in Grant Hardy. “I’ve seen you hold L’Estrange himself at something like even play, and he is a wizard.”

Hodge laughed a bit.

“Why do you laugh?” asked Hardy, with a flash of resentment. “Do you think——”

“I laughed over Mr. Darleton’s modesty,” said Hodge. “It is useless for him to seek to conceal the truth from us in that manner. He is quite the wonder of this club.”

Hardy missed the sarcasm hidden in Bart’s words and his face cleared.

Darleton, however, was not so obtuse, and he surveyed Bart searchingly, a flush creeping into his cheeks.

“I observe that you fence after a fashion, Mr. Hodge,” said Darleton, and the passing breath of insult lay in his manner of saying “after a fashion.”

“Oh, not at all!” protested Hodge; “but I assure you that my friend Merriwell can put up something of an argument at it when he is in his best form.”

“Indeed?” smiled Darleton, lifting his eyebrows. “Then I am led to infer that he is not in his best form just now.”

“What leads you to infer that?”

“Oh, your manner of speaking the words, of course. I would not comment on what I have seen him do.”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“No, indeed.”

“Sometimes our ears deceive us,” said Bart; “but I fancied I did hear you—never mind that.”

He broke off abruptly, but he had informed Darleton that his words, spoken when he first appeared on the scene, had been overheard.

Darleton shrugged his shoulders, a gesture he had caught from his French instructor.

“Fancy leads us into grave mistakes at times,” he said. “It should not be permitted to run away with us. Now, I have known fellows who fancied they could fence, but very few of them have been able to make much of a go at it.”

This was a sly thrust at Merry. Frank looked pleasant and nodded.

“I have even known instructors to be deceived in the skill of their pupils,” he remarked, reaching home and scoring heavily.

This reply brought the blood flashing once more to Darleton’s cheeks.

“In case you were the pupil,” said the fencer, instantly, “no instructor could feel the least doubt in regard to your skill.”

His words plainly implied that he meant lack of skill, although he was not that blunt.

“Although you are not inclined to comment on the work of another,” returned Merry; “it is evident that your observation is keen, and with you, one’s back might not be as safe as his face.”

This was a coup, for Darleton lost his temper, showing how sharply he had been hit.

“I’ll not pass words with you, Mr. Merriwell,” he exclaimed, “as I am not inclined to waste my breath uselessly. If at any time while you are here you feel inclined to demonstrate what you can really do—or think you can do—you will find me at your service.”

Hodge stiffened. It was a challenge.

“Thank you for your kindness,” smiled Frank, perfectly at his ease. “I may take you at your word later on.”

Darleton and Hardy turned away.

“He may,” observed Hardy, speaking to his companion, but making sure Frank could not fail to hear, “yet I doubt it.”

Hodge seized Frank’s arm, fairly quivering with excitement.

“You’re challenged, Merry!” he panted. “You must accept! Don’t let him off! Teach the fellow a lesson!”

“Steady, Bart,” said Merriwell softly. “There is plenty of time. Don’t fly up like this. Do you want to see me defeated?”

“No! He can’t defeat you!”

“How do you know?”

Hodge stared at Frank in doubt and astonishment.

“Is it possible you are afraid to face him?” he gasped.

“I don’t think so; but you should remember that he is in perfect form and condition, while I am rusty. In order to meet him and do my best I must practice. That I shall do. Wait. I promise you satisfaction—and Mr. Darleton the same!”


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