A MODEL LETTER TO A FRIEND
On Monday morning Penrod’s faith in the coming of another Saturday was flaccid and lustreless. Those Japanese lovers who were promised a reunion after ten thousand years in separate hells were brighter with hope than he was. On Monday Penrod was virtually an agnostic.
Nowhere upon his shining morning face could have been read any eager anticipation of useful knowledge. Of course he had been told that school was for his own good; in fact, he had been told and told and told, but the words conveying this information, meaningless at first, assumed, with each repetition, more and more the character of dull and unsolicited insult.
He was wholly unable to imagine circumstances, present or future, under which any of the instruction and training he was now receiving could be of the slightest possible use or benefit to himself; and when he was informed that such circumstances would frequently arise in his later life, he but felt the slur upon his coming manhood and its power to prevent any such unpleasantness.
If it were possible to place a romantic young Broadway actor and athlete under hushing supervision for six hours a day, compelling him to bend his unremittent attention upon the city directory of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, he could scarce be expected to respond genially to frequent statements that the compulsion was all for his own good. On the contrary, it might be reasonable to conceive his response as taking the form of action, which is precisely the form that Penrod’s smouldering impulse yearned to take.
To Penrod school was merely a state of confinement, envenomed by mathematics. For interminable periods he was forced to listen to information concerning matters about which he had no curiosity whatever; and he had to read over and over the dullest passages in books that bored him into stupors, while always there overhung the preposterous task of improvising plausible evasions to conceal the fact that he did not know what he had no wish to know. Likewise, he must always be prepared to avoid incriminating replies to questions that he felt nobody had a real and natural right to ask him. And when his gorge rose and his inwards revolted, the hours became a series of ignoble misadventures and petty disgraces strikingly lacking in privacy.
It was usually upon Wednesday that his sufferings culminated; the nervous strength accumulated during the holiday hours at the end of the week would carry him through Monday and Tuesday; but by Wednesday it seemed ultimately proven that the next Saturday actually never was coming, “this time”, and the strained spirit gave way. Wednesday was the day averaging highest in Penrod’s list of absences; but the time came when he felt that the advantages attendant upon his Wednesday “sick headache” did not compensate for its inconveniences.
For one thing, this illness had become so symmetrically recurrent that even the cook felt that he was pushing it too far, and the liveliness of her expression, when he was able to leave his couch and take the air in the backyard at about ten o’clock, became more disagreeable to him with each convalescence. There visibly increased, too, about the whole household, an atmosphere of uncongeniality and suspicion so pronounced that every successive illness was necessarily more severe, and at last the patient felt obliged to remain bedded until almost eleven, from time to time giving forth pathetic little sounds eloquent of anguish triumphing over Stoic endurance, yet lacking a certain conviction of utterance.
Finally, his father enacted, and his mother applied, a new and distinctly special bit of legislation, explaining it with simple candour to the prospective beneficiary.
“Whenever you really ARE sick,” they said, “you can go out and play as soon as you’re well—that is, if it happens on Saturday. But when you’re sick on a school-day, you’ll stay in bed till the next morning. This is going to do you good, Penrod.”
Physically, their opinion appeared to be affirmed, for Wednesday after Wednesday passed without any recurrence of the attack; but the spiritual strain may have been damaging. And it should be added that if Penrod’s higher nature did suffer from the strain, he was not unique. For, confirming the effect of Wednesday upon boys in general, it is probable that, if full statistics concerning cats were available, they would show that cats dread Wednesdays, and that their fear is shared by other animals, and would be shared, to an extent by windows, if windows possessed nervous systems. Nor must this probable apprehension on the part of cats and the like be thought mere superstition. Cats have superstitions, it is true; but certain actions inspired by the sight of a boy with a missile in his hand are better evidence of the workings of logic upon a practical nature than of faith in the supernatural.
Moreover, the attention of family physicians and specialists should be drawn to these significant though obscure phenomena; for the suffering of cats is a barometer of the nerve-pressure of boys, and it may be accepted as sufficiently established that Wednesday—after school-hours—is the worst time for cats.
After the promulgation of that parental edict, “You’ll stay in bed till the next morning”, four weeks went by unflawed by a single absence from the field of duty; but, when the fifth Wednesday came, Penrod held sore debate within himself before he finally rose. In fact, after rising, and while actually engaged with his toilet, he tentatively emitted the series of little moans that was his wonted preliminary to a quiet holiday at home; and the sound was heard (as intended) by Mr. Schofield, who was passing Penrod’s door on his way to breakfast.
“ALL right!” the father said, making use of peculiar and unnecessary emphasis. “Stay in bed till to-morrow morning. Castor-oil, this time, too.”
Penrod had not hoped much for his experiment; nevertheless his rebellious blood was sensibly inflamed by the failure, and he accompanied his dressing with a low murmuring—apparently a bitter dialogue between himself and some unknown but powerful patron.
Thus he muttered:
“Well, they better NOT!” “Well, what can I DO about it?” “Well, I’D show ’em!” “Well, I WILL show ’em!” “Well, you OUGHT to show ’em; that’s the way I do! I just shake ’em around, and say, ‘Here! I guess you don’t know who you’re talkin’ to like that! You better look out!'” “Well, that’s the way I‘m goin’ to do!” “Well, go on and DO it, then!” “Well, I AM goin’—”
The door of the next room was slightly ajar; now it swung wide, and Margaret appeared.
“Penrod, what on earth are you talking about?”
“Nothin’. None o’ your—”
“Well, hurry to breakfast, then; it’s getting late.”
Lightly she went, humming a tune, leaving the door of her room open, and the eyes of Penrod, as he donned his jacket, chanced to fall upon her desk, where she had thoughtlessly left a letter—a private missive just begun, and intended solely for the eyes of Mr. Robert Williams, a senior at a far university.
In such a fashion is coincidence the architect of misfortune. Penrod’s class in English composition had been instructed, the previous day, to concoct at home and bring to class on Wednesday morning, “a model letter to a friend on some subject of general interest.” Penalty for omission to perform this simple task was definite; whosoever brought no letter would inevitably be “kept in” after school, that afternoon, until the letter was written, and it was precisely a premonition of this misfortune that had prompted Penrod to attempt his experimental moaning upon his father, for, alas! he had equipped himself with no model letter, nor any letter whatever.
In stress of this kind, a boy’s creed is that anything is worth a try; but his eye for details is poor. He sees the future too sweepingly and too much as he would have it seldom providing against inconsistencies of evidence that may damage him. For instance, there is a well-known case of two brothers who exhibited to their parents, with pathetic confidence, several imported dried herring on a string, as a proof that the afternoon had been spent, not at a forbidden circus, but with hook and line upon the banks of a neighbouring brook.
So with Penrod. He had vital need of a letter, and there before his eyes, upon Margaret’s desk, was apparently the precise thing he needed!
From below rose the voice of his mother urging him to the breakfast-table, warning him that he stood in danger of tardiness at school; he was pressed for time, and acted upon an inspiration that failed to prompt him even to read the letter.
Hurriedly he wrote “Dear freind” at the top of the page Margaret had partially filled. Then he signed himself “Yours respectfuly, Penrod Schofield” at the bottom, and enclosed the missive within a battered volume entitled, “Principles of English Composition.” With that and other books compacted by a strap, he descended to a breakfast somewhat oppressive but undarkened by any misgivings concerning a “letter to a friend on some subject of general interest.” He felt that a difficulty had been encountered and satisfactorily disposed of; the matter could now be dismissed from his mind. He had plenty of other difficulties to take its place.
No; he had no misgivings, nor was he assailed by anything unpleasant in that line, even when the hour struck for the class in English composition. If he had been two or three years older, experience might have warned him to take at least the precaution of copying his offering, so that it would appear in his own handwriting when he “handed it in”; but Penrod had not even glanced at it.
“I think,” Miss Spence said, “I will ask several of you to read your letters aloud before you hand them in. Clara Raypole, you may read yours.”
Penrod was bored but otherwise comfortable; he had no apprehension that he might be included in the “several,” especially as Miss Spence’s beginning with Clara Raypole, a star performer, indicated that her selection of readers would be made from the conscientious and proficient division at the head of the class. He listened stoically to the beginning of the first letter, though he was conscious of a dull resentment, inspired mainly by the perfect complacency of Miss Raypole’s voice.
“‘Dear Cousin Sadie,'” she began smoothly, “‘I thought I would write you to-day on some subject of general interest, and so I thought I would tell you about the subject of our court-house. It is a very fine building situated in the centre of the city, and a visit to the building after school hours well repays for the visit. Upon entrance we find upon our left the office of the county clerk and upon our right a number of windows affording a view of the street. And so we proceed, finding on both sides much of general interest. The building was begun in 1886 A.D. and it was through in 1887 A.D. It is four stories high and made of stone, pressed brick, wood, and tiles, with a tower, or cupola, one hundred and twenty-seven feet seven inches from the ground. Among other subjects of general interest told by the janitor, we learn that the architect of the building was a man named Flanner, and the foundations extend fifteen feet five inches under the ground.'”
Penrod was unable to fix his attention upon these statistics; he began moodily to twist a button of his jacket and to concentrate a new-born and obscure but lasting hatred upon the court-house. Miss Raypole’s glib voice continued to press upon his ears; but, by keeping his eyes fixed upon the twisting button he had accomplished a kind of self-hypnosis, or mental anaesthesia, and was but dimly aware of what went on about him.
The court-house was finally exhausted by its visitor, who resumed her seat and submitted with beamish grace to praise. Then Miss Spence said, in a favourable manner:
“Georgie Bassett, you may read your letter next.”
The neat Georgie rose, nothing loath, and began: “‘Dear Teacher—'”
There was a slight titter, which Miss Spence suppressed. Georgie was not at all discomfited.
“‘My mother says,'” he continued, reading his manuscript, “‘we should treat our teacher as a friend, and so I will write YOU a letter.'”
This penetrated Penrod’s trance, and he lifted his eyes to fix them upon the back of Georgie Bassett’s head in a long and inscrutable stare. It was inscrutable, and yet if Georgie had been sensitive to thought waves, it is probable that he would have uttered a loud shriek; but he remained placidly unaware, continuing:
“‘I thought I would write you about a subject of general interest, and so I will write you about the flowers. There are many kinds of flowers, spring flowers, and summer flowers, and autumn flowers, but no winter flowers. Wild flowers grow in the woods, and it is nice to hunt them in springtime, and we must remember to give some to the poor and hospitals, also. Flowers can be made to grow in flower-beds and placed in vases in houses. There are many names for flowers, but I call them “nature’s ornaments.—'”
Penrod’s gaze had relaxed, drooped to his button again, and his lethargy was renewed. The outer world grew vaguer; voices seemed to drone at a distance; sluggish time passed heavily—but some of it did pass.
Miss Spence’s searching eye had taken note of the bent head and the twisting button. She found it necessary to speak again.
He came languidly to life.
“You may read your letter.”
And he began to paw clumsily among his books, whereupon Miss Spence’s glance fired with suspicion.
“Have you prepared one?” she demanded.
“Yes’m,” said Penrod dreamily.
“But you’re going to find you forgot to bring it, aren’t you?”
“I got it,” said Penrod, discovering the paper in his “Principles of English Composition.”
“Well, we’ll listen to what you’ve found time to prepare,” she said, adding coldly, “for once!”
The frankest pessimism concerning Penrod permeated the whole room; even the eyes of those whose letters had not met with favour turned upon him with obvious assurance that here was every prospect of a performance that would, by comparison, lend a measure of credit to the worst preceding it. But Penrod was unaffected by the general gaze; he rose, still blinking from his lethargy, and in no true sense wholly alive.
He had one idea: to read as rapidly as possible, so as to be done with the task, and he began in a high-pitched monotone, reading with a blind mind and no sense of the significance of the words.
“‘Dear friend,”‘ he declaimed. “‘You call me beautiful, but I am not really beautiful, and there are times when I doubt if I am even pretty, though perhaps my hair is beautiful, and if it is true that my eyes are like blue stars in heaven—'”
Simultaneously he lost his breath and there burst upon him a perception of the results to which he was being committed by this calamitous reading. And also simultaneous the outbreak of the class into cachinnations of delight, severely repressed by the perplexed but indignant Miss Spence.
“Go on!” she commanded grimly, when she had restored order.
“Ma’am?” he gulped, looking wretchedly upon the rosy faces all about him.
“Go on with the description of yourself,” she said. “We’d like to hear some more about your eyes being like blue stars in heaven.”
Here many of Penrod’s little comrades were forced to clasp their faces tightly in both hands; and his dismayed gaze, in refuge, sought the treacherous paper in his hand.
What it beheld there was horrible.
“Proceed!” Miss Spence said.
“‘I—often think,'” he faltered, “‘and a-a tree-more th-thrills my bein’ when I REcall your last words to me—that last—that last—that—'”
“‘That last evening in the moonlight when you—you—you—'”
“Penrod,” Miss Spence said dangerously, “you go on, and stop that stammering.”
“‘You—you said you would wait for—for years to—to—to—to—”
“‘To win me!'” the miserable Penrod managed to gasp. “‘I should not have pre—premitted—permitted you to speak so until we have our—our parents’ con-consent; but oh, how sweet it—'” He exhaled a sigh of agony, and then concluded briskly, “‘Yours respectfully, Penrod Schofield.'”
But Miss Spence had at last divined something, for she knew the Schofield family.
“Bring me that letter!” she said.
And the scarlet boy passed forward between rows of mystified but immoderately uplifted children.
Miss Spence herself grew rather pink as she examined the missive, and the intensity with which she afterward extended her examination to cover the complete field of Penrod Schofield caused him to find a remote centre of interest whereon to rest his embarrassed gaze. She let him stand before her throughout a silence, equalled, perhaps, by the tenser pauses during trials for murder, and then, containing herself, she sweepingly gestured him to the pillory—a chair upon the platform, facing the school.
Here he suffered for the unusual term of an hour, with many jocular and cunning eyes constantly upon him; and, when he was released at noon, horrid shouts and shrieks pursued him every step of his homeward way. For his laughter-loving little schoolmates spared him not—neither boy nor girl.
“Yay, Penrod!” they shouted. “How’s your beautiful hair?” And, “Hi, Penrod! When you goin’ to get your parents’ consent?” And, “Say, blue stars in heaven, how’s your beautiful eyes?” And, “Say, Penrod, how’s your tree-mores?” “Does your tree-mores thrill your bein’, Penrod?” And many other facetious inquiries, hard to bear in public.
And when he reached the temporary shelter of his home, he experienced no relief upon finding that Margaret was out for lunch. He was as deeply embittered toward her as toward any other, and, considering her largely responsible for his misfortune, he would have welcomed an opportunity to show her what he thought of her.