How long he was “kept in” after school that afternoon is not a matter of record; but it was long. Before he finally appeared upon the street, he had composed an ample letter on a subject of general interest, namely “School Life”, under the supervision of Miss Spencer. He had also received some scorching admonitions in respect to honourable behaviour regarding other people’s letters; and Margaret’s had been returned to him with severe instructions to bear it straight to the original owner accompanied by full confession and apology. As a measure of insurance that these things be done, Miss Spence stated definitely her intention to hold a conversation by telephone with Margaret that evening. Altogether, the day had been unusually awful, even for Wednesday, and Penrod left the school-house with the heart of an anarchist throbbing in his hot bosom. It were more accurate, indeed, to liken him to the anarchist’s characteristic weapon; for as Penrod came out to the street he was, in all inward respects, a bomb, loaded and ticking.
He walked moodily, with a visible aspect of soreness. A murmurous sound was thick about his head, wherefore it is to be surmised that he communed with his familiar, and one vehement, oft-repeated phrase beat like a tocsin of revolt upon the air: “Daw-gone ’em!”
He meant everybody—the universe.
Particularly included, evidently, was a sparrow, offensively cheerful upon a lamp-post. This self-centred little bird allowed a pebble to pass overhead and remained unconcerned, but, a moment later, feeling a jar beneath his feet, and hearing the tinkle of falling glass, he decided to leave. Similarly, and at the same instant, Penrod made the same decision, and the sparrow in flight took note of a boy likewise in flight.
The boy disappeared into the nearest alley and emerged therefrom, breathless, in the peaceful vicinity of his own home. He entered the house, clumped upstairs and down, discovered Margaret reading a book in the library, and flung the accursed letter toward her with loathing.
“You can take the old thing,” he said bitterly. “I don’t want it!”
And before she was able to reply, he was out of the room. The next moment he was out of the house.
“Daw-GONE ’em!” he said.
And then, across the street, his soured eye fell upon his true comrade and best friend leaning against a picket fence and holding desultory converse with Mabel Rorebeck, an attractive member of the Friday Afternoon Dancing Class, that hated organization of which Sam and Penrod were both members. Mabel was a shy little girl; but Penrod had a vague understanding that Sam considered her two brown pig-tails beautiful.
Howbeit, Sam had never told his love; he was, in fact, sensitive about it. This meeting with the lady was by chance, and, although it afforded exquisite moments, his heart was beating in an unaccustomed manner, and he was suffering from embarrassment, being at a loss, also, for subjects of conversation. It is, indeed, no easy matter to chat easily with a person, however lovely and beloved, who keeps her face turned the other way, maintains one foot in rapid and continuous motion through an arc seemingly perilous to her equilibrium, and confines her responses, both affirmative and negative, to “Uh-huh.”
Altogether, Sam was sufficiently nervous without any help from Penrod, and it was with pure horror that he heard his own name and Mabel’s shrieked upon the ambient air with viperish insinuation.
“Sam-my and May-bul! OH, oh!”
Sam started violently. Mabel ceased to swing her foot, and both, encarnadined, looked up and down and everywhere for the invisible but well-known owner of that voice. It came again, in taunting mockery:
“Sammy’s mad, and I am glad,
And I know what will please him:
A bottle o’ wine to make him shine,
And Mabel Rorebeck to squeeze him!”
“Fresh ole thing!” said Miss Rorebeck, becoming articulate. And unreasonably including Sam in her indignation, she tossed her head at him with an unmistakable effect of scorn. She began to walk away.
“Well, Mabel,” Sam said plaintively, following, “it ain’t MY fault. I didn’t do anything. It’s Penrod.”
“I don’t care,” she began pettishly, when the viperish voice was again lifted:
“Oh, oh, oh! Who’s your beau? Guess I know: Mabel and Sammy, oh, oh, oh! I caught you!”
Then Mabel did one of those things that eternally perplex the slower sex. She deliberately made a face, not at the tree behind which Penrod was lurking, but at the innocent and heart-wrung Sam. “You needn’t come limpin’ after me, Sam Williams!” she said, though Sam was approaching upon two perfectly sound legs. And then she ran away at the top of her speed.
“Run, rigger, run!” Penrod began inexcusably. But Sam cut the persecutions short at this point. Stung to fury, he charged upon the sheltering tree in the Schofields’ yard.
Ordinarily, at such a juncture, Penrod would have fled, keeping his own temper and increasing the heat of his pursuer’s by back-flung jeers. But this was Wednesday, and he was in no mood to run from Sam. He stepped away from the tree, awaiting the onset.
“Well, what you goin’ to do so much?” he said.
Sam did not pause to proffer the desired information. “‘Tcha got’ny SENSE!” was the total extent of his vocal preliminaries before flinging himself headlong upon the taunter; and the two boys went to the ground together. Embracing, they rolled, they pommelled, they hammered, they kicked. Alas, this was a fight.
They rose, flailing a while, then renewed their embrace, and, grunting, bestowed themselves anew upon our ever too receptive Mother Earth. Once more upon their feet, they beset each other sorely, dealing many great blows, ofttimes upon the air, but with sufficient frequency upon resentful flesh. Tears were jolted to the rims of eyes, but technically they did not weep. “Got’ny sense,” was repeated chokingly many, many times; also, “Dern ole fool!” and, “I’ll SHOW you!”
The peacemaker who appeared upon the animated scene was Penrod’s great-uncle Slocum. This elderly relative had come to call upon Mrs. Schofield, and he was well upon his way to the front door when the mutterings of war among some shrubberies near the fence caused him to deflect his course in benevolent agitation.
“Boys! Boys! Shame, boys!” he said; but, as the originality of these expressions did not prove striking enough to attract any great attention from the combatants, he felt obliged to assume a share in the proceedings. It was a share entailing greater activity than he had anticipated, and, before he managed to separate the former friends, he intercepted bodily an amount of violence to which he was wholly unaccustomed. Additionally, his attire was disarranged; his hat was no longer upon his head, and his temper was in a bad way. In fact, as his hat flew off, he made use of words that under less extreme circumstances would have caused both boys to feel a much profounder interest than they did in great-uncle Slocum.
“I’ll GET you!” Sam babbled. “Don’t you ever dare to speak to me again, Penrod Schofield, long as you live, or I’ll whip you worse’n I have this time!”
Penrod squawked. For the moment he was incapable of coherent speech, and then, failing in a convulsive attempt to reach his enemy, his fury culminated upon an innocent object that had never done him the slightest harm. Great-uncle Slocum’s hat lay upon the ground close by, and Penrod was in the state of irritation that seeks an outlet too blindly—as people say, he “HAD to do SOMETHING!” He kicked great-uncle Slocum’s hat with such sweep and precision that it rose swiftly, and, breasting the autumn breeze, passed over the fence and out into the street.
Great-uncle Slocum uttered a scream of anguish, and, immediately ceasing to peacemake, ran forth to a more important rescue; but the conflict was not renewed. Sanity had returned to Sam Williams; he was awed by this colossal deed of Penrod’s and filled with horror at the thaught that he might be held as accessory to it. Fleetly he fled, pursued as far as the gate by the whole body of Penrod, and thereafter by Penrod’s voice alone.
“You BETTER run! You wait till I catch you! You’ll see what you get next time! Don’t you ever speak to me again as long as you—”
Here he paused abruptly, for great-uncle Slocum had recovered his hat and was returning toward the gate. After one glance at great-uncle Slocum, Penrod did not linger to attempt any explanation—there are times when even a boy can see that apologies would seem out of place. Penrod ran round the house to the backyard.
Here he was enthusiastically greeted by Duke. “You get away from me!” Penrod said hoarsely, and with terrible gestures he repulsed the faithful animal, who retired philosophically to the stable, while his master let himself out of the back gate. Penrod had decided to absent himself from home for the time being.
The sky was gray, and there were hints of coming dusk in the air; it was an hour suited to his turbulent soul, and he walked with a sombre swagger. “Ran like a c’ardy-calf!” he sniffed, half aloud, alluding to the haste of Sam Williams in departure. “All he is, ole c’ardy-calf!”
Then, as he proceeded up the alley, a hated cry smote his ears: “Hi, Penrod! How’s your tree-mores?” And two jovial schoolboy faces appeared above a high board fence. “How’s your beautiful hair, Penrod?” they vociferated. “When you goin’ to git your parents’ consent? What makes you think you’re only pretty, ole blue stars?”
Penrod looked about feverishly for a missile, and could find none to his hand, but the surface of the alley sufficed; he made mud balls and fiercely bombarded the vociferous fence. Naturally, hostile mud balls presently issued from behind this barricade; and thus a campaign developed that offered a picture not unlike a cartoonist’s sketch of a political campaign, wherein this same material is used for the decoration of opponents. But Penrod had been unwise; he was outnumbered, and the hostile forces held the advantageous side of the fence.
Mud balls can be hard as well as soggy; some of those that reached Penrod were of no inconsiderable weight and substance, and they made him grunt despite himself. Finally, one, at close range, struck him in the pit of the stomach, whereupon he clasped himself about the middle silently, and executed some steps in seeming imitation of a quaint Indian dance.
His plight being observed through a knothole, his enemies climbed upon the fence and regarded him seriously.
“Aw, YOU’RE all right, ain’t you, old tree-mores?” inquired one.
“I’ll SHOW you!” bellowed Penrod, recovering his breath; and he hurled a fat ball—thoughtfully retained in hand throughout his agony—to such effect that his interrogator disappeared backward from the fence without having taken any initiative of his own in the matter. His comrade impulsively joined him upon the ground, and the battle continued.
Through the gathering dusk it went on. It waged but the hotter as darkness made aim more difficult—and still Penrod would not be driven from the field. Panting, grunting, hoarse from returning insults, fighting on and on, an indistinguishable figure in the gloom, he held the back alley against all comers.
For such a combat darkness has one great advantage; but it has an equally important disadvantage—the combatant cannot see to aim; on the other hand, he cannot see to dodge. And all the while Penrod was receiving two for one. He became heavy with mud. Plastered, impressionistic and sculpturesque, there was about him a quality of the tragic, of the magnificent. He resembled a sombre masterpiece by Rodin. No one could have been quite sure what he was meant for.
Dinner bells tinkled in houses. Then they were rung from kitchen doors. Calling voices came urging from the distance, calling boys’ names into the darkness. They called and a note of irritation seemed to mar their beauty.
Then bells were rung again—and the voices renewed appeals more urgent, much more irritated. They called and called and called.
THUD! went the mud balls.
Thud! Thud! Blunk!
“OOF!” said Penrod.
… Sam Williams, having dined with his family at their usual hour, seven, slipped unostentatiously out of the kitchen door, as soon as he could, after the conclusion of the meal, and quietly betook himself to the Schofields’ corner.
Here he stationed himself where he could see all avenues of approach to the house, and waited. Twenty minutes went by, and then Sam became suddenly alert and attentive, for the arc-light revealed a small, grotesque figure slowly approaching along the sidewalk. It was brown in colour, shaggy and indefinite in form; it limped excessively, and paused to rub itself, and to meditate.
Peculiar as the thing was, Sam had no doubt as to its identity. He advanced.
“‘Lo, Penrod,” he said cautiously, and with a shade of formality.
Penrod leaned against the fence, and, lifting one leg, tested the knee-joint by swinging his foot back and forth, a process evidently provocative of a little pain. Then he rubbed the left side of his encrusted face, and, opening his mouth to its whole capacity as an aperture, moved his lower jaw slightly from side to side, thus triumphantly settling a question in his own mind as to whether or no a suspected dislocation had taken place.
Having satisfied himself on these points, he examined both shins delicately by the sense of touch, and carefully tested the capacities of his neck-muscles to move his head in a wonted manner. Then he responded somewhat gruffly: “‘Lo!” “Where you been?” Sam said eagerly, his formality vanishing.
“Havin’ a mud-fight.”
“I guess you did!” Sam exclaimed, in a low voice. “What you goin’ to tell your—”
“Your sister telephoned to our house to see if I knew where you were,” said Sam. “She told me if I saw you before you got home to tell you sumpthing; but not to say anything about it. She said Miss Spence had telephoned to her, but she said for me to tell you it was all right about that letter, and she wasn’t goin’ to tell your mother and father on you, so you needn’t say anything about it to ’em.”
“All right,” said Penrod indifferently.
“She says you’re goin’ to be in enough trouble without that,” Sam went on. “You’re goin’ to catch fits about your Uncle Slocum’s hat, Penrod.”
“Well, I guess I know it.”
“And about not comin’ home to dinner, too. Your mother telephoned twice to Mamma while we were eatin’ to see if you’d come in our house. And when they SEE you—MY, but you’re goin’ to get the DICKENS, Penrod!”
Penrod seemed unimpressed, though he was well aware that Sam’s prophecy was no unreasonable one.
“Well, I guess I know it,” he repeated casually. And he moved slowly toward his own gate.
His friend looked after him curiously—then, as the limping figure fumbled clumsily with bruised fingers at the latch of the gate, there sounded a little solicitude in Sam’s voice.
“Say, Penrod, how—how do you feel?”
“Do you feel pretty bad?”
“No,” said Penrod, and, in spite of what awaited him beyond the lighted portals just ahead, he spoke the truth. His nerves were rested, and his soul was at peace. His Wednesday madness was over.
“No,” said Penrod; “I feel bully!”