Penrod and Sam – Chapter 16

16

ON ACCOUNT OF THE WEATHER

There is no boredom (not even an invalid’s) comparable to that of a boy who has nothing to do. When a man says he has nothing to do, he speaks idly; there is always more than he can do. Grown women never say they have nothing to do, and when girls or little girls say they have nothing to do, they are merely airing an affectation. But when a boy has nothing to do, he has actually nothing at all to do; his state is pathetic, and when he complains of it his voice is haunting.

Mrs. Schofield was troubled by this uncomfortable quality in the voice of her son, who came to her thrice, in his search for entertainment or even employment, one Saturday afternoon during the February thaw. Few facts are better established than that the February thaw is the poorest time of year for everybody. But for a boy it is worse than poorest; it is bankrupt. The remnant streaks of old soot-speckled snow left against the north walls of houses have no power to inspire; rather, they are dreary reminders of sports long since carried to satiety. One cares little even to eat such snow, and the eating of icicles, also, has come to be a flaccid and stale diversion. There is no ice to bear a skate, there is only a vast sufficiency of cold mud, practically useless. Sunshine flickers shiftily, coming and going without any honest purpose; snow-squalls blow for five minutes, the flakes disappearing as they touch the earth; half an hour later rain sputters, turns to snow and then turns back to rain—and the sun disingenuously beams out again, only to be shut off like a rogue’s lantern. And all the wretched while, if a boy sets foot out of doors, he must be harassed about his overcoat and rubbers; he is warned against tracking up the plastic lawn and sharply advised to stay inside the house. Saturday might as well be Sunday.

Thus the season. Penrod had sought all possible means to pass the time. A full half-hour of vehement yodelling in the Williams’ yard had failed to bring forth comrade Sam; and at last a coloured woman had opened a window to inform Penrod that her intellect was being unseated by his vocalizations, which surpassed in unpleasantness, she claimed, every sound in her previous experience and, for the sake of definiteness, she stated her age to be fifty-three years and four months. She added that all members of the Williams family had gone out of town to attend the funeral of a relative, but she wished that they might have remained to attend Penrod’s, which she confidently predicted as imminent if the neighbourhood followed its natural impulse.

Penrod listened for a time, but departed before the conclusion of the oration. He sought other comrades, with no success; he even went to the length of yodelling in the yard of that best of boys, Georgie Bassett. Here was failure again, for Georgie signalled to him, through a closed window, that a closeting with dramatic literature was preferable to the society of a playmate; and the book that Georgie exhibited was openly labelled, “300 Choice Declamations.” Georgie also managed to convey another reason for his refusal of Penrod’s companionship, the visitor being conversant with lip-reading through his studies at the “movies.”

“TOO MUDDY!”

Penrod went home.

“Well,” Mrs. Schofield said, having almost exhausted a mother’s powers of suggestion, “well, why don’t you give Duke a bath?” She was that far depleted when Penrod came to her the third time.

Mothers’ suggestions are wonderful for little children but sometimes lack lustre when a boy approaches twelve an age to which the ideas of a Swede farm-hand would usually prove more congenial. However, the dim and melancholy eye of Penrod showed a pale gleam, and he departed. He gave Duke a bath.

The entertainment proved damp and discouraging for both parties. Duke began to tremble even before he was lifted into the water, and after his first immersion he was revealed to be a dog weighing about one-fourth of what an observer of Duke, when Duke was dry, must have guessed his weight to be. His wetness and the disclosure of his extreme fleshly insignificance appeared to mortify him profoundly. He wept. But, presently, under Penrod’s thorough ministrations—for the young master was inclined to make this bath last as long as possible—Duke plucked up a heart and began a series of passionate attempts to close the interview. As this was his first bath since September, the effects were lavish and impressionistic, both upon Penrod and upon the bathroom. However, the imperious boy’s loud remonstrances contributed to bring about the result desired by Duke.

Mrs. Schofield came running, and eloquently put an end to Duke’s winter bath. When she had suggested this cleansing as a pleasant means of passing the time, she assumed that it would take place in a washtub in the cellar; and Penrod’s location of the performance in her own bathroom was far from her intention.

Penrod found her language oppressive, and, having been denied the right to rub Duke dry with a bath-towel—or even with the cover of a table in the next room—the dismal boy, accompanied by his dismal dog, set forth, by way of the kitchen door, into the dismal weather. With no purpose in mind, they mechanically went out to the alley, where Penrod leaned morosely against the fence, and Duke stood shivering close by, his figure still emaciated and his tail absolutely withdrawn from view.

There was a cold, wet wind, however; and before long Duke found his condition unendurable. He was past middle age and cared little for exercise; but he saw that something must be done. Therefore, he made a vigorous attempt to dry himself in a dog’s way. Throwing himself, shoulders first, upon the alley mud, he slid upon it, back downward; he rolled and rolled and rolled. He began to feel lively and rolled the more; in every way he convinced Penrod that dogs have no regard for appearances. Also, having discovered an ex-fish near the Herman and Verman cottage, Duke confirmed an impression of Penrod’s that dogs have a peculiar fancy in the matter of odours that they like to wear.

Growing livelier and livelier, Duke now wished to play with his master. Penrod was anything but fastidious; nevertheless, under the circumstances, he withdrew to the kitchen, leaving Duke to play by himself, outside.

Della, the cook, was comfortably making rolls and entertaining a caller with a cup of tea. Penrod lingered a few moments, but found even his attention to the conversation ill received, while his attempts to take part in it met outright rebuff. His feelings were hurt; he passed broodingly to the front part of the house, and flung himself wearily into an armchair in the library. With glazed eyes he stared at shelves of books that meant to him just what the wallpaper meant, and he sighed from the abyss. His legs tossed and his arms flopped; he got up, scratched himself exhaustively, and shuffled to a window. Ten desolate minutes he stood there, gazing out sluggishly upon a soggy world. During this time two wet delivery-wagons and four elderly women under umbrellas were all that crossed his field of vision. Somewhere in the world, he thought, there was probably a boy who lived across the street from a jail or a fire-engine house, and had windows worth looking out of. Penrod rubbed his nose up and down the pane slowly, continuously, and without the slightest pleasure; and he again scratched himself wherever it was possible to do so, though he did not even itch. There was nothing in his life.

Such boredom as he was suffering can become agony, and an imaginative creature may do wild things to escape it; many a grown person has taken to drink on account of less pressure than was upon Penrod during that intolerable Saturday.

A faint sound in his ear informed him that Della, in the kitchen, had uttered a loud exclamation, and he decided to go back there. However, since his former visit had resulted in a rebuff that still rankled, he paused outside the kitchen door, which was slightly ajar, and listened. He did this idly, and with no hope of hearing anything interesting or helpful.

“Snakes!” Della exclaimed. “Didja say the poor man was seein’ snakes, Mrs. Cullen?”

“No, Della,” Mrs. Cullen returned dolorously; “jist one. Flora says he niver see more th’n one—jist one big, long, ugly-faced horrible black one; the same one comin’ back an’ makin’ a fizzin’ n’ise at um iv’ry time he had the fit on um. ‘Twas alw’ys the same snake; an’ he’d holler at Flora. ‘Here it comes ag’in, oh, me soul!’ he’d holler. ‘The big, black, ugly-faced thing; it’s as long as the front fence!’ he’d holler, ‘an’ it’s makin’ a fizzin’ n’ise at me, an’ breathin’ in me face!’ he’d holler. ‘Fer th’ love o’ hivin’, Flora,’ he’d holler, ‘it’s got a little black man wit’ a gassly white forehead a-pokin’ of it along wit’ a broom-handle, an’ a-sickin’ it on me, the same as a boy sicks a dog on a poor cat. Fer the love o’ hivin’, Flora,’ he’d holler, ‘cantcha fright it away from me before I go out o’ me head?'”

“Poor Tom!” said Della with deep compassion. “An’ the poor man out of his head all the time, an’ not knowin’ it! ‘Twas awful fer Flora to sit there an’ hear such things in the night like that!”

“You may believe yerself whin ye say it!” Mrs. Cullen agreed. “Right the very night the poor soul died, he was hollerin’ how the big black snake and the little black man wit’ the gassly white forehead a-pokin’ it wit’ a broomstick had come fer um. ‘Fright ’em away, Flora!’ he was croakin’, in a v’ice that hoarse an’ husky ’twas hard to make out what he says. ‘Fright ’em away, Flora!’ he says. ”Tis the big, black, ugly-faced snake, as black as a black stockin’ an’ thicker round than me leg at the thigh before I was wasted away!’ he says, poor man. ‘It’s makin’ the fizzin’ n’ise awful to-night,’ he says. ‘An’ the little black man wit’ the gassly white forehead is a-laughin’,’ he says. ‘He’s a-laughin’ an’ a-pokin’ the big, black, fizzin’, ugly-faced snake wit’ his broomstick—”

Della was unable to endure the description.

“Don’t tell me no more, Mrs. Cullen!” she protested. “Poor Tom! I thought Flora was wrong last week whin she hid the whisky. ‘Twas takin’ it away from him that killed him—an’ him already so sick!”

“Well,” said Mrs. Cullen, “he hardly had the strengt’ to drink much, she tells me, after he see the big snake an’ the little black divil the first time. Poor woman, she says he talked so plain she sees ’em both herself, iv’ry time she looks at the poor body where it’s laid out. She says—”

“Don’t tell me!” cried the impressionable Della. “Don’t tell me, Mrs. Cullen! I can most see ’em meself, right here in me own kitchen! Poor Tom! To think whin I bought me new hat, only last week, the first time I’d be wearin’ it’d be to his funeral. To-morrow afternoon, it is?”

“At two o’clock,” said Mrs. Cullen. “Ye’ll be comin’ to th’ house to-night, o’ course, Della?”

“I will,” said Della. “After what I’ve been hearin’ from ye, I’m ‘most afraid to come, but I’ll do it. Poor Tom! I remember the day him an’ Flora was married—”

But the eavesdropper heard no more; he was on his way up the back stairs. Life and light—and purpose had come to his face once more.

Margaret was out for the afternoon. Unostentatiously, he went to her room, and for the next few minutes occupied himself busily therein. He was so quiet that his mother, sewing in her own room, would not have heard him except for the obstinacy of one of the drawers in Margaret’s bureau. Mrs. Schofield went to the door of her daughter’s room.

“What are you doing, Penrod?”

“Nothin’.”

“You’re not disturbing any of Margaret’s things, are you?”

“No, ma’am,” said the meek lad.

“What did you jerk that drawer open for?”

“Ma’am?”

“You heard me, Penrod.”

“Yes, ma’am. I was just lookin’ for sumpthing.”

“For what?” Mrs. Schofield asked. “You know that nothing of yours would be in Margaret’s room, Penrod, don’t you?”

“Ma’am?”

“What was it you wanted?” she asked, rather impatiently.

“I was just lookin’ for some pins.”

“Very well,” she said, and handed him two from the shoulder of her blouse.

“I ought to have more,” he said. “I want about forty.”

“What for?”

“I just want to MAKE sumpthing, Mamma,” he said plaintively. “My goodness! Can’t I even want to have a few pins without everybody makin’ such a fuss about it you’d think I was doin’ a srime!”

“Doing a what, Penrod?”

“A SRIME!” he repeated, with emphasis; and a moment’s reflection enlightened his mother.

“Oh, a crime!” she exclaimed. “You MUST quit reading the murder trials in the newspapers, Penrod. And when you read words you don’t know how to pronounce you ought to ask either your papa or me.”

“Well, I am askin’ you about sumpthing now,” Penrod said. “Can’t I even have a few PINS without stoppin’ to talk about everything in the newspapers, Mamma?”

“Yes,” she said, laughing at his seriousness; and she took him to her room, and bestowed upon him five or six rows torn from a paper of pins. “That ought to be plenty,” she said, “for whatever you want to make.”

And she smiled after his retreating figure, not noting that he looked softly bulky around the body, and held his elbows unnaturally tight to his sides. She was assured of the innocence of anything to be made with pins, and forbore to press investigation. For Penrod to be playing with pins seemed almost girlish. Unhappy woman, it pleased her to have her son seem girlish!

Penrod went out to the stable, tossed his pins into the wheelbarrow, then took from his pocket and unfolded six pairs of long black stockings, indubitably the property of his sister. (Evidently Mrs. Schofield had been a little late in making her appearance at the door of Margaret’s room.)

Penrod worked systematically; he hung the twelve stockings over the sides of the wheelbarrow, and placed the wheelbarrow beside a large packing-box that was half full of excelsior. One after another, he stuffed the stockings with excelsior, till they looked like twelve long black sausages. Then he pinned the top of one stocking securely over the stuffed foot of another, pinning the top of a third to the foot of the second, the top of a fourth to the foot of the third—and continued operations in this fashion until the twelve stockings were the semblance of one long and sinuous black body, sufficiently suggestive to any normal eye.

He tied a string to one end of this unpleasant-looking thing, led it around the stable, and, by vigorous manipulations, succeeded in making it wriggle realistically; but he was not satisfied, and, dropping the string listlessly, sat down in the wheelbarrow to ponder. Penrod sometimes proved that there were within him the makings of an artist; he had become fascinated by an idea, and could not be content until that idea was beautifully realized. He had meant to create a big, long, ugly-faced horrible black snake with which to interest Della and her friend, Mrs. Cullen; but he felt that results, so far, were too crude for exploitation. Merely to lead the pinned stockings by a string was little to fulfill his ambitious vision.

Finally, he rose from the wheelbarrow.

“If I only had a cat!” he said dreamily.

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