Penrod and Sam – Chapter 17

17

CREATIVE ART

He went forth, seeking.

The Schofield household was catless this winter but there was a nice white cat at the Williams’. Penrod strolled thoughtfully over to the Williams’s yard.

He was entirely successful, not even having been seen by the sensitive coloured woman, aged fifty-three years and four months.

But still Penrod was thoughtful. The artist within him was unsatisfied with his materials: and upon his return to the stable he placed the cat beneath an overturned box, and once more sat down in the inspiring wheelbarrow, pondering. His expression, concentrated and yet a little anxious, was like that of a painter at work upon a portrait that may or may not turn out to be a masterpiece. The cat did not disturb him by her purring, though she was, indeed, already purring. She was one of those cozy, youngish cats—plump, even a little full-bodied, perhaps, and rather conscious of the figure—that are entirely conventional and domestic by nature, and will set up a ladylike housekeeping anywhere without making a fuss about it. If there be a fault in these cats, overcomplacency might be the name for it; they err a shade too sure of themselves, and their assumption that the world means to treat them respectfully has just a little taint of the grande dame. Consequently, they are liable to great outbreaks of nervous energy from within, engendered by the extreme surprises that life sometimes holds in store for them. They lack the pessimistic imagination.

Mrs. Williams’s cat was content upon a strange floor and in the confining enclosure of a strange box. She purred for a time, then trustfully fell asleep. ‘Twas well she slumbered; she would need all her powers presently.

She slumbered, and dreamed not that she would wake to mingle with events that were to alter her serene disposition radically and cause her to become hasty-tempered and abnormally suspicious for the rest of her life.

Meanwhile, Penrod appeared to reach a doubtful solution of his problem. His expression was still somewhat clouded as he brought from the storeroom of the stable a small fragment of a broken mirror, two paint brushes and two old cans, one containing black paint and the other white. He regarded himself earnestly in the mirror; then, with some reluctance, he dipped a brush into one of the cans, and slowly painted his nose a midnight black. He was on the point of spreading this decoration to cover the lower part of his face, when he paused, brush halfway between can and chin.

What arrested him was a sound from the alley—a sound of drumming upon tin. The eyes of Penrod became significant of rushing thoughts; his expression cleared and brightened. He ran to the alley doors and flung them open.

“Oh, Verman!” he shouted.

Marching up and down before the cottage across the alley, Verman plainly considered himself to be an army. Hanging from his shoulders by a string was an old tin wash-basin, whereon he beat cheerily with two dry bones, once the chief support of a chicken. Thus he assuaged his ennui.

“Verman, come on in here,” Penrod called. “I got sumpthing for you to do you’ll like awful well.”

Verman halted, ceased to drum, and stared. His gaze was not fixed particularly upon Penrod’s nose, however, and neither now nor later did he make any remark or gesture referring to this casual eccentricity. He expected things like that upon Penrod or Sam Williams. And as for Penrod himself, he had already forgotten that his nose was painted.

“Come on, Verman!”

Verman continued to stare, not moving. He had received such invitations before, and they had not always resulted to his advantage. Within that stable things had happened to him the like of which he was anxious to avoid in the future.

“Oh, come ahead, Verman!” Penrod urged, and, divining logic in the reluctance confronting him, he added, “This ain’t goin’ to be anything like last time, Verman. I got sumpthing just SPLENDUD for you to do!”

Verman’s expression hardened; he shook his head decisively.

“Mo,” he said.

“Oh, COME on, Verman?” Penrod pleaded. “It isn’t anything goin’ to HURT you, is it? I tell you it’s sumpthing you’d give a good deal to GET to do, if you knew what it is.”

“Mo!” said Verman firmly. “I mome maw woo!”

Penrod offered arguments.

“Look, Verman!” he said. “Listen here a minute, can’t you? How d’you know you don’t want to until you know what it is? A person CAN’T know they don’t want to do a thing even before the other person tells ’em what they’re goin’ to get ’em to do, can they? For all you know, this thing I’m goin’ to get you to do might be sumpthing you wouldn’t miss doin’ for anything there is! For all you know, Verman, it might be sumpthing like this: well, f’rinstance, s’pose I was standin’ here, and you were over there, sort of like the way you are now, and I says, ‘Hello, Verman!’ and then I’d go on and tell you there was sumpthing I was goin’ to get you to do; and you’d say you wouldn’t do it, even before you heard what it was, why where’d be any sense to THAT? For all you know, I might of been goin’ to get you to eat a five-cent bag o’ peanuts.”

Verman had listened obdurately until he heard the last few words; but as they fell upon his ear, he relaxed, and advanced to the stable doors, smiling and extending his open right hand.

“Aw wi,” he said. “Gi’m here.”

“Well,” Penrod returned, a trifle embarrassed, “I didn’t say it WAS peanuts, did I? Honest, Verman, it’s sumpthing you’ll like better’n a few old peanuts that most of ’em’d prob’ly have worms in ’em, anyway. All I want you to do is—”

But Verman was not favourably impressed; his face hardened again.

“Mo!” he said, and prepared to depart.

“Look here, Verman,” Penrod urged. “It isn’t goin’ to hurt you just to come in here and see what I got for you, is it? You can do that much, can’t you?”

Surely such an appeal must have appeared reasonable, even to Verman, especially since its effect was aided by the promising words, “See what I got for you.” Certainly Verman yielded to it, though perhaps a little suspiciously. He advanced a few cautious steps into the stable.

“Look!” Penrod cried, and he ran to the stuffed and linked stockings, seized the leading-string, and vigorously illustrated his further remarks. “How’s that for a big, long, ugly-faced horr’ble black ole snake, Verman? Look at her follow me all round anywhere I feel like goin’! Look at her wiggle, will you, though? Look how I make her do anything I tell her to. Lay down, you ole snake, you—See her lay down when I tell her to, Verman? Wiggle, you ole snake, you! See her wiggle, Verman?”

“Hi!” Undoubtedly Verman felt some pleasure.

“Now, listen, Verman!” Penrod continued, hastening to make the most of the opportunity. “Listen! I fixed up this good ole snake just for you. I’m goin’ to give her to you.”

“HI!”

On account of a previous experience not unconnected with cats, and likely to prejudice Verman, Penrod decided to postpone mentioning Mrs. Williams’s pet until he should have secured Verman’s cooperation in the enterprise irretrievably.

“All you got to do,” he went on, “is to chase this good ole snake around, and sort o’ laugh and keep pokin’ it with the handle o’ that rake yonder. I’m goin’ to saw it off just so’s you can poke your good ole snake with it, Verman.”

“Aw wi,” said Verman, and, extending his open hand again, he uttered a hopeful request. “Peamup?”

His host perceived that Verman had misunderstood him. “Peanuts!” he exclaimed. “My goodness! I didn’t say I HAD any peanuts, did I? I only said s’pose f’rinstance I DID have some. My goodness! You don’t expeck me to go round here all day workin’ like a dog to make a good ole snake for you and then give you a bag o’ peanuts to hire you to play with it, do you, Verman? My goodness!”

Verman’s hand fell, with a little disappointment.

“Aw wi,” he said, consenting to accept the snake without the bonus.

“That’s the boy! NOW we’re all right, Verman; and pretty soon I’m goin’ to saw that rake-handle off for you, too; so’s you can kind o’ guide your good ole snake around with it; but first—well, first there’s just one more thing’s got to be done. I’ll show you—it won’t take but a minute.” Then, while Verman watched him wonderingly, he went to the can of white paint and dipped a brush therein. “It won’t get on your clo’es much, or anything, Verman,” he explained. “I only just got to—”

But as he approached, dripping brush in hand, the wondering look was all gone from Verman; determination took its place.

“Mo!” he said, turned his back, and started for outdoors.

“Look here, Verman,” Penrod cried. “I haven’t done anything to you yet, have I? It isn’t goin’ to hurt you, is it? You act like a little teeny bit o’ paint was goin’ to kill you. What’s the matter of you? I only just got to paint the top part of your face; I’m not goin’ to TOUCH the other part of it—nor your hands or anything. All I want—”

“MO!” said Verman from the doorway.

“Oh, my goodness!” moaned Penrod; and in desperation he drew forth from his pocket his entire fortune. “All right, Verman,” he said resignedly. “If you won’t do it any other way, here’s a nickel, and you can go and buy you some peanuts when we get through. But if I give you this money, you got to promise to wait till we ARE through, and you got to promise to do anything I tell you to. You goin’ to promise?”

The eyes of Verman glistened; he returned, gave bond, and, grasping the coin, burst into the rich laughter of a gourmand.

Penrod immediately painted him dead white above the eyes, all round his head and including his hair. It took all the paint in the can.

Then the artist mentioned the presence of Mrs. Williams’s cat, explained in full his ideas concerning the docile animal, and the long black snake, and Della and her friend, Mrs. Cullen, while Verman listened with anxiety, but remained true to his oath.

They removed the stocking at the end of the long black snake, and cut four holes in the foot and ankle of it. They removed the excelsior, placed Mrs. Williams’s cat in the stocking, shook her down into the lower section of it; drew her feet through the four holes there, leaving her head in the toe of the stocking; then packed the excelsior down on top of her, and once more attached the stocking to the rest of the long, black snake.

How shameful is the ease of the historian! He sits in his dressing-gown to write: “The enemy attacked in force—” The tranquil pen, moving in a cloud of tobacco smoke, leaves upon the page its little hieroglyphics, serenely summing up the monstrous deeds and sufferings of men of action. How cold to state merely that Penrod and the painted Verman succeeded in giving the long, black snake a motive power, or tractor, apparently its own but consisting of Mrs. Williams’s cat!

She was drowsy when they lifted her from the box; she was still drowsy when they introduced part of her into the orifice of the stocking; but she woke to full, vigorous young life when she perceived that their purpose was for her to descend into the black depths of that stocking head first.

Verman held the mouth of the stocking stretched, and Penrod manipulated the cat; but she left her hearty mark on both of them before, in a moment of unfortunate inspiration, she humped her back while she was upside down, and Penrod took advantage of the concavity to increase it even more than she desired. The next instant she was assisted downward into the gloomy interior, with excelsior already beginning to block the means of egress.

Gymnastic moments followed; there were times when both boys hurled themselves full-length upon the floor, seizing the animated stocking with far-extended hands; and even when the snake was a complete thing, with legs growing from its unquestionably ugly face, either Penrod or Verman must keep a grasp upon it, for it would not be soothed, and refused, over and over, to calm itself, even when addressed as, “Poor kitty!” and “Nice ‘ittle kitty!”

Finally, they thought they had their good ole snake “about quieted down”, as Penrod said, because the animated head had remained in one place for an unusual length of time, though the legs produced a rather sinister effect of crouching, and a noise like a distant planing-mill came from the interior—and then Duke appeared in the doorway. He was still feeling lively.

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