PENROD’S BUSY DAY
Although the pressure had thus been relieved and Penrod found peace with himself, nevertheless there were times during the rest of that week when he felt a strong distaste for Margaret. His schoolmates frequently reminded him of such phrases in her letter as they seemed least able to forget, and for hours after each of these experiences he was unable to comport himself with human courtesy when constrained (as at dinner) to remain for any length of time in the same room with her. But by Sunday these moods had seemed to pass; he attended church in her close company, and had no thought of the troubles brought upon him by her correspondence with a person who throughout remained unknown to him.
Penrod slumped far down in the pew with his knees against the back of that in front, and he also languished to one side, so that the people sitting behind were afforded a view of him consisting of a little hair and one bored ear. The sermon—a noble one, searching and eloquent—was but a persistent sound in that ear, though, now and then, Penrod’s attention would be caught by some detached portion of a sentence, when his mind would dwell dully upon the phrases for a little while and lapse into a torpor. At intervals his mother, without turning her head, would whisper, “Sit up, Penrod,” causing him to sigh profoundly and move his shoulders about an inch, this mere gesture of compliance exhausting all the energy that remained to him.
The black backs and gray heads of the elderly men in the congregation oppressed him; they made him lethargic with a sense of long lives of repellent dullness. But he should have been grateful to the lady with the artificial cherries upon her hat. His gaze lingered there, wandered away, and hopelessly returned again and again, to be a little refreshed by the glossy scarlet of the cluster of tiny globes. He was not so fortunate as to be drowsy; that would have brought him some relief—and yet, after a while, his eyes became slightly glazed; he saw dimly, and what he saw was distorted.
The church had been built in the early ‘Seventies, and it contained some naive stained glass of that period. The arch at the top of a window facing Penrod was filled with a gigantic Eye. Of oyster-white and raw blues and reds, inflamed by the pouring sun, it had held an awful place in the infantile life of Penrod Schofield, for in his tenderer years he accepted it without question as the literal Eye of Deity. He had been informed that the church was the divine dwelling—and there was the Eye!
Nowadays, being no longer a little child, he had somehow come to know better without being told, and, though the great flaming Eye was no longer the terrifying thing it had been to him during his childhood, it nevertheless retained something of its ominous character. It made him feel spied upon, and its awful glare still pursued him, sometimes, as he was falling asleep at night. When he faced the window his feeling was one of dull resentment.
His own glazed eyes, becoming slightly crossed with an ennui that was peculiarly intense this morning, rendered the Eye more monstrous than it was. It expanded to horrible size, growing mountainous; it turned into a volcano in the tropics, and yet it stared at him, indubitably an Eye implacably hostile to all rights of privacy forever. Penrod blinked and clinched his eyelids to be rid of this dual image, and he managed to shake off the volcano. Then, lowering the angle of his glance, he saw something most remarkable—and curiously out of place.
An inverted white soup-plate was lying miraculously balanced upon the back of a pew a little distance in front of him, and upon the upturned bottom of the soup-plate was a brown cocoanut. Mildly surprised, Penrod yawned, and, in the effort to straighten his eyes, came to life temporarily. The cocoanut was revealed as Georgie Bassett’s head, and the soup-plate as Georgie’s white collar. Georgie was sitting up straight, as he always did in church, and Penrod found this vertical rectitude unpleasant. He knew that he had more to fear from the Eye than Georgie had, and he was under the impression (a correct one) that Georgie felt on intimate terms with it and was actually fond of it.
Penrod himself would have maintained that he was fond of it, if he had been asked. He would have said so because he feared to say otherwise; and the truth is that he never consciously looked at the Eye disrespectfully. He would have been alarmed if he thought the Eye had any way of finding out how he really felt about it. When not off his guard, he always looked at it placatively.
By and by, he sagged so far to the left that he had symptoms of a “stitch in the side”, and, rousing himself, sat partially straight for several moments. Then he rubbed his shoulders slowly from side to side against the back of the seat, until his mother whispered, “Don’t do that, Penrod.”
Upon this, he allowed himself to slump inwardly till the curve in the back of his neck rested against the curved top of the back of the seat. It was a congenial fit, and Penrod again began to move slowly from side to side, finding the friction soothing. Even so slight a pleasure was denied him by a husky, “Stop that!” from his father.
Penrod sighed, and slid farther down. He scratched his head, his left knee, his right biceps and his left ankle, after which he scratched his right knee, his right ankle and his left biceps. Then he said, “Oh, hum!” unconsciously, but so loudly that there was a reproving stir in the neighbourhood of the Schofield pew, and his father looked at him angrily.
Finally, his nose began to trouble him. It itched, and after scratching it, he rubbed it harshly. Another “Stop that!” from his father proved of no avail, being greeted by a desperate-sounding whisper, “I GOT to!”
And, continuing to rub his nose with his right hand, Penrod began to search his pockets with his left. The quest proving fruitless, he rubbed his nose with his left hand and searched with his right. Then he abandoned his nose and searched feverishly with both hands, going through all of his pockets several times.
“What DO you want?” whispered his mother.
But Margaret had divined his need, and she passed him her own handkerchief. This was both thoughtful and thoughtless—the latter because Margaret was in the habit of thinking that she became faint in crowds, especially at the theatre or in church, and she had just soaked her handkerchief with spirits of ammonia from a small phial she carried in her muff.
Penrod hastily applied the handkerchief to his nose and even more hastily exploded. He sneezed stupendously; he choked, sneezed again, wept, passed into a light convulsion of coughing and sneezing together—a mergence of sound that attracted much attention—and, after a few recurrent spasms, convalesced into a condition marked by silent tears and only sporadic instances of sneezing.
By this time his family were unanimously scarlet—his father and mother with mortification, and Margaret with the effort to control the almost irresistible mirth that the struggles and vociferations of Penrod had inspired within her. And yet her heart misgave her, for his bloodshot and tearful eyes were fixed upon her from the first and remained upon her, even when half-blinded with his agony; and their expression—as terrible as that of the windowed Eye confronting her—was not for an instant to be misunderstood. Absolutely, he believed that she had handed him the ammonia-soaked handkerchief deliberately and with malice, and well she knew that no power on earth could now or at any time henceforth persuade him otherwise.
“Of course I didn’t mean it, Penrod,” she said, at the first opportunity upon their homeward way. “I didn’t notice—that is, I didn’t think—” Unfortunately for the effect of sincerity she hoped to produce, her voice became tremulous and her shoulders moved suspiciously.
“Just you wait! You’ll see!” he prophesied, in a voice now choking, not with ammonia, but with emotion. “Poison a person, and then laugh in his face!”
He spake no more until they had reached their own house, though she made some further futile efforts at explanation and apology.
And after brooding abysmally throughout the meal that followed, he disappeared from the sight of his family, having answered with one frightful look his mother’s timid suggestion that it was almost time for Sunday-school. He retired to his eyry—the sawdust box in the empty stable—and there gave rein to his embittered imaginings, incidentally forming many plans for Margaret.
Most of these were much too elaborate; but one was so alluring that he dwelt upon it, working out the details with gloomy pleasure, even after he had perceived its defects. It involved some postponement—in fact, until Margaret should have become the mother of a boy about Penrod’s present age. This boy would be precisely like Georgie Bassett—Penrod conceived that as inevitable—and, like Georgie, he would be his mother’s idol. Penrod meant to take him to church and force him to blow his nose with an ammonia-soaked handkerchief in the presence of the Eye and all the congregation.
Then Penrod intended to say to this boy, after church, “Well, that’s exackly what your mother did to me, and if you don’t like it, you better look out!”
And the real Penrod in the sawdust box clenched his fists. “Come ahead, then!” he muttered. “You talk too much!” Whereupon, the Penrod of his dream gave Margaret’s puny son a contemptuous thrashing under the eyes of his mother, who besought in vain for mercy. This plan was finally dropped, not because of any lingering nepotism within Penrod, but because his injury called for action less belated.
One after another, he thought of impossible things; one after another, he thought of things merely inane and futile, for he was trying to do something beyond his power. Penrod was never brilliant, or even successful, save by inspiration.
At four o’clock he came into the house, still nebulous, and as he passed the open door of the library he heard a man’s voice, not his father’s.
“To me,” said this voice, “the finest lines in all literature are those in Tennyson’s ‘Maud’—
“Had it lain for a century dead,
My dust would hear her and beat,
And blossom in purple and red,
There somewhere around near her feet.
“I think I have quoted correctly,” continued the voice nervously, “but, at any rate, what I wished to—ah—say was that I often think of those ah—words; but I never think of them without thinking of—of—of YOU. I—ah—”
The nervous voice paused, and Penrod took an oblique survey of the room, himself unobserved. Margaret was seated in an easy chair and her face was turned away from Penrod, so that her expression of the moment remained unknown to him. Facing her, and leaning toward her with perceptible emotion, was Mr. Claude Blakely—a young man with whom Penrod had no acquaintance, though he had seen him, was aware of his identity, and had heard speech between Mrs. Schofield and Margaret which indicated that Mr. Blakely had formed the habit of calling frequently at the house. This was a brilliantly handsome young man; indeed, his face was so beautiful that even Penrod was able to perceive something about it which might be explicably pleasing—at least to women. And Penrod remembered that, on the last evening before Mr. Robert Williams’s departure for college, Margaret had been peevish because Penrod had genially spent the greater portion of the evening with Robert and herself upon the porch. Margaret made it clear, later, that she strongly preferred to conduct her conversations with friends unassisted—and as Penrod listened to the faltering words of Mr. Claude Blakely, he felt instinctively that, in a certain contingency, Margaret’s indignation would be even more severe to-day than on the former occasion.
Mr. Blakely coughed faintly and was able to continue.
“I mean to say that when I say that what Tennyson says—ah—seems to—to apply to—to a feeling about you—”
At this point, finding too little breath in himself to proceed, in spite of the fact that he had spoken in an almost inaudible tone, Mr. Blakely stopped again.
Something about this little scene was making a deep impression upon Penrod. What that impression was, he could not possibly have stated; but he had a sense of the imminence of a tender crisis, and he perceived that the piquancy of affairs in the library had reached a point which would brand an intentional interruption as the act of a cold-blooded ruffian. Suddenly it was as though a strong light shone upon him: he decided that it was Mr. Blakely who had told Margaret that her eyes were like blue stars in heaven—THIS was the person who had caused the hateful letter to be written! That decided Penrod; his inspiration, so long waited for, had come.
“I—I feel that perhaps I am not plain,” said Mr. Blakely, and immediately became red, whereas he had been pale. He was at least modest enough about his looks to fear that Margaret might think he had referred to them. “I mean, not plain in another sense—that is, I mean not that I am not plain in saying what I mean to you—I mean, what you mean to ME! I feel—”
This was the moment selected by Penrod. He walked carelessly into the library, inquiring in a loud, bluff voice:
“Has anybody seen my dog around here anywheres?”
Mr. Blakely had inclined himself so far toward Margaret, and he was sitting so near the edge of the chair, that only a really wonderful bit of instinctive gymnastics landed him upon his feet instead of upon his back. As for Margaret, she said, “Good gracious!” and regarded Penrod blankly.
“Well,” said Penrod breezily, “I guess it’s no use lookin’ for him—he isn’t anywheres around. I guess I’ll sit down.” Herewith, he sank into an easy chair, and remarked, as in comfortable explanation, “I’m kind of tired standin’ up, anyway.”
Even in this crisis, Margaret was a credit to her mother’s training.
“Penrod, have you met Mr. Blakely?”
Margaret primly performed the rite.
“Mr. Blakely, this is my little brother Penrod.”
Mr. Blakely was understood to murmur, “How d’ye do?”
“I’m well,” said Penrod.
Margaret bent a perplexed gaze upon him, and he saw that she had not divined his intentions, though the expression of Mr. Blakely was already beginning to be a little compensation for the ammonia outrage. Then, as the protracted silence which followed the introduction began to be a severe strain upon all parties, Penrod felt called upon to relieve it.
“I didn’t have anything much to do this afternoon, anyway,” he said. And at that there leaped a spark in Margaret’s eye; her expression became severe.
“You should have gone to Sunday-school,” she told him crisply.
“Well, I didn’t!” said Penrod, with a bitterness so significant of sufferings connected with religion, ammonia, and herself, that Margaret, after giving him a thoughtful look, concluded not to urge the point.
Mr. Blakely smiled pleasantly. “I was looking out of the window a minute ago,” he said, “and I saw a dog run across the street and turn the corner.”
“What kind of a lookin’ dog was it?” Penrod inquired, with languor.
“Well,” said Mr. Blakely, “it was a—it was a nice-looking dog.”
“What colour was he?”
“He was—ah—white. That is, I think—”
“It wasn’t Duke,” said Penrod. “Duke’s kind of brownish-gray-like.”
Mr. Blakely brightened.
“Yes, that was it,” he said. “This dog I saw first had another dog with him—a brownish-gray dog.”
“Little or big?” Penrod asked, without interest.
“Why, Duke’s a little dog!” Margaret intervened. “Of COURSE, if it was little, it must have been Duke.”
“It WAS little,” said Mr. Blakely too enthusiastically. “It was a little bit of a dog. I noticed it because it was so little.”
“Couldn’t ‘a’ been Duke, then,” said Penrod. “Duke’s a kind of a middle-sized dog.” He yawned, and added: “I don’t want him now. I want to stay in the house this afternoon, anyway. And it’s better for Duke to be out in the fresh air.”
Mr. Blakely coughed again and sat down, finding little to say. It was evident, also, that Margaret shared his perplexity; and another silence became so embarrassing that Penrod broke it.
“I was out in the sawdust-box,” he said, “but it got kind of chilly.” Neither of his auditors felt called upon to offer any comment, and presently he added, “I thought I better come in here where it’s warmer.”
“It’s too warm,”‘ said Margaret, at once. “Mr. Blakely, would you mind opening a window?”
“By all means!” the young man responded earnestly, as he rose. “Maybe I’d better open two?”
“Yes,” said Margaret; “that would be much better.”
But Penrod watched Mr. Blakely open two windows to their widest, and betrayed no anxiety. His remarks upon the relative temperatures of the sawdust-box and the library had been made merely for the sake of creating sound in a silent place. When the windows had been open for several minutes, Penrod’s placidity, though gloomy, denoted anything but discomfort from the draft, which was powerful, the day being windy.
It was Mr. Blakely’s turn to break a silence, and he did it so unexpectedly that Margaret started. He sneezed.
“Perhaps—” Margaret began, but paused apprehensively. “Perhaps-per-per—” Her apprehensions became more and more poignant; her eyes seemed fixed upon some incredible disaster; she appeared to inflate while the catastrophe she foresaw became more and more imminent. All at once she collapsed, but the power decorum had over her was attested by the mildness of her sneeze after so threatening a prelude.
“Perhaps I’d better put one of the windows down,” Mr. Blakely suggested.
“Both, I believe,” said Margaret. “The room has cooled off, now, I think.”
Mr. Blakely closed the windows, and, returning to a chair near Margaret, did his share in the production of another long period of quiet. Penrod allowed this one to pass without any vocal disturbance on his part. It may be, however, that his gaze was disturbing to Mr. Blakely, upon whose person it was glassily fixed with a self-forgetfulness that was almost morbid.
“Didn’t you enjoy the last meeting of the Cotillion Club?” Margaret said finally.
And upon Mr. Blakely’s answering absently in the affirmative, she suddenly began to be talkative. He seemed to catch a meaning in her fluency, and followed her lead, a conversation ensuing which at first had all the outward signs of eagerness. They talked with warm interest of people and events unknown to Penrod; they laughed enthusiastically about things beyond his ken; they appeared to have arranged a perfect way to enjoy themselves, no matter whether he was with them or elsewhere but presently their briskness began to slacken; the appearance of interest became perfunctory. Within ten minutes the few last scattering semblances of gayety had passed, and they lapsed into the longest and most profound of all their silences indoors that day. Its effect upon Penrod was to make him yawn and settle himself in his chair.
Then Mr. Blakely, coming to the surface out of deep inward communings, snapped his finger against the palm of his hand impulsively.
“By George!” he exclaimed, under his breath.
“What is it?” Margaret asked. “Did you remember something?”
“No, it’s nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all. But, by the way, it seems a pity for you to be missing the fine weather. I wonder if I could persuade you to take a little walk?”
Margaret, somewhat to the surprise of both the gentlemen present, looked uncertain.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Mr. Blakely saw that she missed his point.
“One can talk better in the open, don’t you think?” he urged, with a significant glance toward Penrod.
Margaret also glanced keenly at Penrod. “Well, perhaps.” And then, “I’ll get my hat,” she said.
Penrod was on his feet before she left the room. He stretched himself.
“I’ll get mine, too,” he said.
But he carefully went to find it in a direction different from that taken by his sister, and he joined her and her escort not till they were at the front door, whither Mr. Blakely—with a last flickering of hope had urged a flight in haste.
“I been thinkin’ of takin’ a walk, all afternoon,” said Penrod pompously. “Don’t matter to me which way we go.”
The exquisite oval of Mr. Claude Blakely’s face merged into outlines more rugged than usual; the conformation of his jaw became perceptible, and it could be seen that he had conceived an idea which was crystallizing into a determination.
“I believe it happens that this is our first walk together,” he said to Margaret, as they reached the pavement, “but, from the kind of tennis you play, I judge that you could go a pretty good gait. Do you like walking fast?”
She nodded. “For exercise.”
“Shall we try it then?”
“You set the pace,” said Margaret. “I think I can keep up.”
He took her at her word, and the amazing briskness of their start seemed a little sinister to Penrod, though he was convinced that he could do anything that Margaret could do, and also that neither she nor her comely friend could sustain such a speed for long. On the contrary, they actually increased it with each fleeting block they covered.
“Here!” he panted, when they had thus put something more than a half-mile behind them. “There isn’t anybody has to have a doctor, I guess! What’s the use our walkin’ so fast?”
In truth, Penrod was not walking, for his shorter legs permitted no actual walking at such a speed; his gait was a half-trot.
“Oh, WE’RE out for a WALK!” Mr. Blakely returned, a note of gayety beginning to sound in his voice. “Marg—ah—Miss Schofield, keep your head up and breathe through your nose. That’s it! You’ll find I was right in suggesting this. It’s going to turn out gloriously! Now, let’s make it a little faster.”
Margaret murmured inarticulately, for she would not waste her breath in a more coherent reply. Her cheeks were flushed; her eyes were brimming with the wind, but when she looked at Penrod, they were brimming with something more. Gurgling sounds came from her.
Penrod’s expression had become grim. He offered no second protest, mainly because he, likewise, would not waste his breath, and if he would, he could not. Of breath in the ordinary sense breath, breathed automatically—he had none. He had only gasps to feed his straining lungs, and his half-trot, which had long since become a trot, was changed for a lope when Mr. Blakely reached his own best burst of speed.
And now people stared at the flying three. The gait of Margaret and Mr. Blakely could be called a walk only by courtesy, while Penrod’s was becoming a kind of blind scamper. At times he zigzagged; other times, he fell behind, wabbling. Anon, with elbows flopping and his face sculptured like an antique mask, he would actually forge ahead, and then carom from one to the other of his companions as he fell back again.
Thus the trio sped through the coming of autumn dusk, outflying the fallen leaves that tumbled upon the wind. And still Penrod held to the task that he had set himself. The street lamps flickered into life, but on and on Claude Blakely led the lady, and on and on reeled the grim Penrod. Never once was he so far from them that they could have exchanged a word unchaperoned by his throbbing ear.
“OH!” Margaret cried, and, halting suddenly, she draped herself about a lamp-post like a strip of bunting. “Guh-uh-guh-GOODNESS!” she sobbed.
Penrod immediately drooped to the curb-stone, which he reached, by pure fortune, in a sitting position. Mr. Blakely leaned against a fence, and said nothing, though his breathing was eloquent. “We—we must go—go home,” Margaret gasped. “We must, if—if we can drag ourselves!”
Then Penrod showed them what mettle they he’d tried to crack. A paroxysm of coughing shook him; he spoke through it sobbingly:
“‘Drag!’ ‘S jus’ lul-like a girl! Ha-why I walk—OOF!—faster’n that every day—on my—way to school.” He managed to subjugate a tendency to nausea. “What you—want to go—home for?” he said. “Le’s go on!”
In the darkness Mr. Claude Blakely’s expression could not be seen, nor was his voice heard. For these and other reasons, his opinions and sentiments may not be stated.
… Mrs. Schofield was looking rather anxiously forth from her front door when the two adult figures and the faithful smaller one came up the walk.
“I was getting uneasy,” she said. “Papa and I came in and found the house empty. It’s after seven. Oh, Mr. Blakely, is that you?”
“Good-evening,” he said. “I fear I must be keeping an engagement. Good-night. Good-night, Miss Schofield.”
“Well, good-night,” Penrod called, staring after him. But Mr. Blakely was already too far away to hear him, and a moment later Penrod followed his mother and sister into the house.
“I let Della go to church,” Mrs. Schofield said to Margaret. “You and I might help Katie get supper.”
“Not for a few minutes,” Margaret returned gravely, looking at Penrod. “Come upstairs, mamma; I want to tell you something.”
Penrod cackled hoarse triumph and defiance.
“Go on! Tell! What ‘I care? You try to poison a person in church again, and then laugh in his face, you’ll see what you get!”
But after his mother had retired with Margaret to the latter’s room, he began to feel disturbed in spite of his firm belief that his cause was wholly that of justice victorious. Margaret had insidious ways of stating a case; and her point of view, no matter how absurd or unjust, was almost always adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Schofield in cases of controversy.
Penrod became uneasy. Perceiving himself to be in danger, he decided that certain measures were warranted. Unquestionably, it would be well to know beforehand in what terms Margaret would couch the charges which he supposed he must face in open court—that is to say, at the supper-table. He stole softly up the stairs, and, flattening himself against the wall, approached Margaret’s door, which was about an inch ajar.
He heard his mother making sounds which appalled him—he took them for sobs. And then Margaret’s voice rang out in a peal of insane laughter. Trembling, he crept nearer the door. Within the room Margaret was clinging to her mother, and both were trying to control their hilarity.
“He did it all to get even!” Margaret exclaimed, wiping her eyes. “He came in at just the right time. That GOOSE was beginning to talk his silly, soft talk—the way he does with every girl in town—and he was almost proposing, and I didn’t know how to stop him. And then Penrod came in and did it for me. I could have hugged Penrod, mamma, I actually could! And I saw he meant to stay to get even for that ammonia—and, oh, I worked so hard to make him think I wanted him to GO! Mamma, mamma, if you could have SEEN that walk! That GOOSE kept thinking he could wear Penrod out or drop him behind, but I knew he couldn’t so long as Penrod believed he was worrying us and getting even. And that GOOSE thought I WANTED to get rid of Penrod, too; and the conceited thing said it would turn out ‘gloriously,’ meaning we’d be alone together pretty soon—I’d like to shake him! You see, I pretended so well, in order to make Penrod stick to us, that GOOSE believed I meant it! And if he hadn’t tried to walk Penrod off his legs, he wouldn’t have wilted his own collar and worn himself out, and I think he’d have hung on until you’d have had to invite him to stay to supper, and he’d have stayed on all evening, and I wouldn’t have had a chance to write to Robert Williams. Mamma, there have been lots of times when I haven’t been thankful for Penrod, but to-day I could have got down on my knees to you and papa for giving me such a brother!”
In the darkness of the hall, as a small but crushed and broken form stole away from the crack in the door, a gigantic Eye seemed to form—seemed to glare down upon Penrod—warning him that the way of vengeance is the way of bafflement, and that genius may not prevail against the trickeries of women.
“This has been a NICE day!” Penrod muttered hoarsely.