This little card, delicately engraved, betokened the hospitality incidental to the ninth birthday anniversary of Baby Rennsdale, youngest member of the Friday Afternoon Dancing Class, and, by the same token, it represented the total social activity (during that season) of a certain limited bachelor set consisting of Messrs. Penrod Schofield and Samuel Williams. The truth must be faced: Penrod and Sam were seldom invited to small parties; they were considered too imaginative. But in the case of so large an affair as Miss Rennsdale’s, the feeling that their parents would be sensitive outweighed fears of what Penrod and Sam might do at the party. Reputation is indeed a bubble, but sometimes it is blown of sticky stuff.
The comrades set out for the fete in company, final maternal outpourings upon deportment and the duty of dancing with the hostess evaporating in their freshly cleaned ears. Both boys, however, were in a state of mind, body, and decoration appropriate to the gala scene they were approaching. Their collars were wide and white; inside the pockets of their overcoats were glistening dancing-pumps, wrapped in tissue-paper; inside their jacket pockets were pleasant-smelling new white gloves, and inside their heads solemn timidity commingled with glittering anticipations. Before them, like a Christmas tree glimpsed through lace curtains, they beheld joy shimmering—music, ice-cream, macaroons, tinsel caps, and the starched ladies of their hearts Penrod and Sam walked demurely yet almost boundingly; their faces were shining but grave—they were on their way to the Party!
“Look at there!” said Penrod. “There’s Carlie Chitten!”
“Where?” Sam asked.
“‘Cross the street. Haven’t you got any eyes?”
“Well, whyn’t you say he was ‘cross the street in the first place?” Sam returned plaintively. “Besides, he’s so little you can’t hardly see him.” This was, of course, a violent exaggeration, though Master Chitten, not yet eleven years old, was an inch or two short for his age. “He’s all dressed up,” Sam added. “I guess he must be invited.”
“I bet he does sumpthing,” said Penrod.
“I bet he does, too,” Sam agreed.
This was the extent of their comment upon the small person across the street; but, in spite of its non-committal character, the manner of both commentators seemed to indicate that they had just exchanged views upon an interesting and even curious subject. They walked along in silence for several minutes, staring speculatively at Master Chitten.
His appearance was pleasant and not remarkable. He was a handsome, dark little boy, with quick eyes and a precociously reserved expression; his air was “well-bred”; he was exquisitely neat, and he had a look of manly competence that grown people found attractive and reassuring. In short, he was a boy of whom a timid adult stranger would have inquired the way with confidence. And yet Sam and Penrod had mysterious thoughts about him—obviously there was something subterranean here.
They continued to look at him for the greater part of block, when, their progress bringing them in sight of Miss Amy Rennsdale’s place of residence their attention was directed to a group of men bearing festal burdens—encased violins, a shrouded harp and other beckoning shapes. There were signs, too, that most of “those invited” intended to miss no moment of this party; guests already indoors watched from the windows the approach of the musicians. Washed boys in black and white, and girls in tender colours converged from various directions, making gayly for the thrilling gateway—and the most beautiful little girl in all the world, Marjorie Jones, of the amber curls, jumped from a carriage step to the curbstone as Penrod and Sam came up. She waved to them.
Sam responded heartily; but Penrod, feeling real emotion and seeking to conceal it, muttered, “‘Lo, Marjorie!” gruffly, offering no further demonstration. Marjorie paused a moment, expectant, and then, as he did not seize the opportunity to ask her for the first dance, she tried not to look disappointed and ran into the house ahead of the two boys. Penrod was scarlet; he wished to dance the first dance with Marjorie, and the second and the third and all the other dances, and he strongly desired to sit with her “at refreshments”; but he had been unable to ask for a single one of these privileges. It would have been impossible for him to state why he was thus dumb, although the reason was simple and wholly complimentary to Marjorie: she had looked so overpoweringly pretty that she had produced in the bosom of her admirer a severe case of stage fright. That was “all the matter with him”; but it was the beginning of his troubles, and he did not recover until he and Sam reached the “gentlemen’s dressing-room”, whither they were directed by a polite coloured man.
Here they found a cloud of acquaintances getting into pumps and gloves, and, in a few extreme cases, readjusting hair before a mirror. Some even went so far—after removing their shoes and putting on their pumps—as to wash traces of blacking from their hands in the adjacent bathroom before assuming their gloves. Penrod, being in a strange mood, was one of these, sharing the basin with little Maurice Levy.
“Carrie Chitten’s here,” said Maurice, as they soaped their hands.
“I guess I know it,” Penrod returned. “I bet he does sumpthing, too.”
Maurice shook his head ominously. “Well, I’m gettin’ tired of it. I know he was the one stuck that cold fried egg in P’fesser Bartet’s overcoat pocket at dancin’-school, and ole p’fesser went and blamed it on me. Then, Carlie, he cum up to me, th’ other day, and he says, ‘Smell my buttonhole bokay.’ He had some vi’lets stickin’ in his buttonhole, and I went to smell ’em and water squirted on me out of ’em. I guess I’ve stood about enough, and if he does another thing I don’t like, he better look out!”
Penrod showed some interest, inquiring for details, whereupon Maurice explained that if Master Chitten displeased him further, Master Chitten would receive a blow upon one of his features. Maurice was simple and homely about it, seeking rhetorical vigour rather than elegance; in fact, what he definitely promised Master Chitten was “a bang on the snoot.”
“Well,” said Penrod, “he never bothered ME any. I expect he knows too much for that!”
A cry of pain was heard from the dressing-room at this juncture, and, glancing through the doorway, Maurice and Penrod beheld Sam Williams in the act of sucking his right thumb with vehemence, the while his brow was contorted and his eyes watered. He came into the bathroom and held his thumb under a faucet.
“That darn little Carlie Chitten!” he complained. “He ast me to hold a little tin box he showed me. He told me to hold it between my thumb and fingers and he’d show me sumpthing. Then he pushed the lid, and a big needle came out of a hole and stuck me half through my thumb. That’s a NICE way to act, isn’t it?”
Carlie Chitten’s dark head showed itself cautiously beyond the casing of the door.
“How’s your thumb, Sam?” he asked.
“You wait!” Sam shouted, turning furiously; but the small prestidigitator was gone. With a smothered laugh, Carlie dashed through the groups of boys in the dressing-room and made his way downstairs, his manner reverting to its usual polite gravity before he entered the drawing-room, where his hostess waited. Music sounding at about this time, he was followed by the other boys, who came trooping down, leaving the dressing-room empty.
Penrod, among the tail-enders of the procession, made his dancing-school bow to Miss Rennsdale and her grown-up supporters (two maiden aunts and a governess) then he looked about for Marjorie, discovering her but too easily. Her amber curls were swaying gently in time to the music; she looked never more beautiful, and her partner was Master Chitten!
A pang of great penetrative power and equal unexpectedness found the most vulnerable spot beneath the simple black of Penrod Schofield’s jacket. Straightway he turned his back upon the crash-covered floors where the dancers were, and moved gloomily toward the hall. But one of the maiden aunts Rennsdale waylaid him.
“It’s Penrod Schofield, isn’t it?” she asked. “Or Sammy Williams? I’m not sure which. Is it Penrod?”
“Ma’am?” he said. “Yes’m.”
“Well, Penrod, I can find a partner for you. There are several dear little girls over here, if you’ll come with me.”
“Well—” He paused, shifted from one foot to the other, and looked enigmatic. “I better not,” he said. He meant no offence; his trouble was only that he had not yet learned how to do as he pleased at a party and, at the same time, to seem polite about it. “I guess I don’t want to,” he added.
“Very well!” And Miss Rennsdale instantly left him to his own devices.
He went to lurk in the wide doorway between the hall and the drawing-room—under such conditions the universal refuge of his sex at all ages. There he found several boys of notorious shyness, and stood with them in a mutually protective group. Now and then one of them would lean upon another until repelled by action and a husky “What’s matter ‘th you? Get off o’ me!” They all twisted their slender necks uneasily against the inner bands of their collars, at intervals, and sometimes exchanged facetious blows under cover. In the distance Penrod caught glimpses of amber curls flashing to and fro, and he knew himself to be among the derelicts.
He remained in this questionable sanctuary during the next dance; but, edging along the wall to lean more comfortably in a corner, as the music of the third sounded, he overheard part of a conversation that somewhat concerned him. The participants were the governess of his hostess, Miss Lowe, and that one of the aunts Rennsdale who had offered to provide him with a partner. These two ladies were standing just in front of him, unconscious of his nearness.
“I never,” Miss Rennsdale said, “never saw a more fascinating little boy than that Carlie Chitten. There’ll be some heartaches when he grows up; I can’t keep my eyes off him.”
“Yes; he’s a charming boy,” Miss Lowe said. “His manners are remarkable.”
“He’s a little man of the world,” the enthusiastic Miss Rennsdale went on, “very different from such boys as Penrod Schofield!”
“Oh, PENROD!” Miss Lowe exclaimed. “Good gracious!”
“I don’t see why he came. He declines to dance—rudely, too!”
“I don’t think the little girls will mind that so much!” Miss Lowe said. “If you’d come to the dancing class some Friday with Amy and me, you’d understand why.”
They moved away. Penrod heard his name again mentioned between them as they went, and, though he did not catch the accompanying remark, he was inclined to think it unfavourable. He remained where he was, brooding morbidly.
He understood that the government was against him, nor was his judgment at fault in this conclusion. He was affected, also, by the conduct of Marjorie, who was now dancing gayly with Maurice Levy, a former rival of Penrod’s. The fact that Penrod had not gone near her did not make her culpability seem the less; in his gloomy heart he resolved not to ask her for one single dance. He would not go near her. He would not go near ANY OF ‘EM!
His eyes began to burn, and he swallowed heavily; but he was never one to succumb piteously to such emotion, and it did not even enter his head that he was at liberty to return to his own home. Neither he nor any of his friends had ever left a party until it was officially concluded. What his sufferings demanded of him now for their alleviation was not departure but action!
Underneath the surface, nearly all children’s parties contain a group of outlaws who wait only for a leader to hoist the black flag. The group consists mainly of boys too shy to be at ease with the girls, but who wish to distinguish themselves in some way; and there are others, ordinarily well behaved, whom the mere actuality of a party makes drunken. The effect of music, too, upon children is incalculable, especially when they do not hear it often—and both a snare-drum and a bass drum were in the expensive orchestra at the Rennsdale party.
Nevertheless, the outlawry at any party may remain incipient unless a chieftain appears; but in Penrod’s corner were now gathering into one anarchical mood all the necessary qualifications for leadership. Out of that bitter corner there stepped, not a Penrod Schofield subdued and hoping to win the lost favour of the Authorities, but a hot-hearted rebel determined on an uprising.
Smiling a reckless and challenging smile, he returned to the cluster of boys in the wide doorway and began to push one and another of them about. They responded hopefully with counter-pushes, and presently there was a tumultuous surging and eddying in that quarter, accompanied by noises that began to compete with the music. Then Penrod allowed himself to be shoved out among the circling dancers, so that he collided with Marjorie and Maurice Levy, almost oversetting them.
He made a mock bow and a mock apology, being inspired to invent a jargon phrase.
“Excuse me,” he said, at the same time making vocal his own conception of a taunting laugh. “Excuse me, but I must ‘a’ got your bumpus!”
Marjorie looked grieved and turned away with Maurice; but the boys in the doorway squealed with maniac laughter.
“Gotcher bumpus! Gotcher bumpus!” they shrilled. And they began to push others of their number against the dancing couples, shouting, “‘Scuse me! Gotcher bumpus!”
It became a contagion and then a game. As the dances went on, strings of boys, led by Penrod, pursued one another across the rooms, howling, “Gotcher bumpus!” at the top of their lungs. They dodged and ducked, and seized upon dancers as shields; they caromed from one couple into another, and even into the musicians of the orchestra. Boys who were dancing abandoned their partners and joined the marauders, shrieking, “Gotcher bumpus!” Potted plants went down; a slender gilt chair refused to support the hurled body of Master Roderick Magsworth Bitts, and the sound of splintering wood mingled with other sounds. Dancing became impossible; Miss Amy Rennsdale wept in the midst of the riot, and everybody knew that Penrod Schofield had “started it”.
Under instructions, the leader of the orchestra, clapping his hands for attention, stepped to the centre of the drawing-room, and shouted,
“A moment silence, if you bleace!”
Slowly the hubbub ceased; the virtuous and the wicked paused alike in their courses to listen. Miss Amy Rennsdale was borne away to have her tearful face washed, and Marjorie Jones and Carlie Chitten and Georgie Bassett came forward consciously, escorted by Miss Lowe. The musician waited until the return of the small hostess; then he announced in a loud voice:
“A fency dence called ‘Les Papillons’, denced by Miss Amy Rennstul, Miss Chones, Mister Chorch Passett, ant Mister Jitten. Some young chentlemen haf mate so much noise ant confoosion Miss Lowe wish me to ask bleace no more such a nonsense. Fency dence, ‘Les Papillons’.”
Thereupon, after formal salutations, Mr. Chitten took Marjorie’s hand, Georgie Bassett took Miss Rennsdale’s, and they proceeded to dance “Les Papillons” in a manner that made up in conscientiousness whatever it may have lacked in abandon. The outlaw leader looked on, smiling a smile intended to represent careless contempt, but in reality he was unpleasantly surprised. A fancy dance by Georgie Bassett and Baby Rennsdale was customary at every party attended by members of the Friday Afternoon Dancing Class; but Marjorie and Carlie Chitten were new performers, and Penrod had not heard that they had learned to dance “Les Papillons” together. He was the further embittered.
Carlie made a false step, recovering himself with some difficulty, whereupon a loud, jeering squawk of laughter was heard from the insurgent cluster, which had been awed to temporary quiet but still maintained its base in the drawing-room doorway. There was a general “SH!” followed by a shocked whispering, as well as a general turning of eyes toward Penrod. But it was not Penrod who had laughed, though no one would have credited him with an alibi. The laughter came from two throats that breathed as one with such perfect simultaneousness that only one was credited with the disturbance. These two throats belonged respectively to Samuel Williams and Maurice Levy, who were standing in a strikingly Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern attitude.
“He got me with his ole tin-box needle, too,” Maurice muttered to Sam. “He was goin’ to do it to Marjorie, and I told her to look out, and he says, ‘Here, YOU take it!’ all of a sudden, and he stuck it in my hand so quick I never thought. And then, BIM! his ole needle shot out and perty near went through my thumb-bone or sumpthing. He’ll be sorry before this day’s over!”
“Well,” said Sam darkly, “he’s goin’ to be sorry he stuck ME, anyway!” Neither Sam nor Maurice had even the vaguest plan for causing the desired regret in the breast of Master Chitten; but both derived a little consolation from these prophecies. And they, too, had aligned themselves with the insurgents. Their motives were personal—Carlie Chitten had wronged both of them, and Carlie was conspicuously in high favour with the Authorities. Naturally Sam and Maurice were against the Authorities.
“Les Papillons” came to a conclusion. Carlie and Georgie bowed; Marjorie Jones and Baby Rennsdale curtesied, and there was loud applause. In fact, the demonstration became so uproarious that some measure of it was open to suspicion, especially as hisses of reptilian venomousness were commingled with it, and also a hoarse but vociferous repetition of the dastard words, “Carrie dances ROTTEN!” Again it was the work of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; but the plot was attributed to another.
“SHAME, Penrod Schofield!” said both the aunts Rennsdale publicly, and Penrod, wholly innocent, became scarlet with indignant mortification. Carlie Chitten himself, however, marked the true offenders. A slight flush tinted his cheeks, and then, in his quiet, self-contained way, he slipped through the crowd of girls and boys, unnoticed, into the hall, and ran noiselessly up the stairs and into the “gentlemen’s dressing-room”, now inhabited only by hats, caps, overcoats, and the temporarily discarded shoes of the dancers. Most of the shoes stood in rows against the wall, and Carlie examined these rows attentively, after a time discovering a pair of shoes with patent leather tips. He knew them; they belonged to Maurice Levy, and, picking them up, he went to a corner of the room where four shoes had been left together under a chair. Upon the chair were overcoats and caps that he was able to identify as the property of Penrod Schofield and Samuel Williams; but, as he was not sure which pair of shoes belonged to Penrod and which to Sam, he added both pairs to Maurice’s and carried them into the bathroom. Here he set the plug in the tub, turned the faucets, and, after looking about him and discovering large supplies of all sorts in a wall cabinet, he tossed six cakes of green soap into the tub. He let the soap remain in the water to soften a little, and, returning to the dressing room, whiled away the time in mixing and mismating pairs of shoes along the walls, and also in tying the strings of the mismated shoes together in hard knots.
Throughout all this, his expression was grave and intent; his bright eyes grew brighter, but he did not smile. Carlie Chitten was a singular boy, though not unique: he was an “only child”, lived at a hotel, and found life there favourable to the development of certain peculiarities in his nature. He played a lone hand, and with what precocious diplomacy he played that curious hand was attested by the fact that Carlie was brilliantly esteemed by parents and guardians in general.
It must be said for Carlie that, in one way, his nature was liberal. For instance, having come upstairs to prepare a vengeance upon Sam and Maurice in return for their slurs upon his dancing, he did not confine his efforts to the belongings of those two alone. He provided every boy in the house with something to think about later, when shoes should be resumed; and he was far from stopping at that. Casting about him for some material that he desired, he opened a door of the dressing-room and found himself confronting the apartment of Miss Lowe. Upon a desk he beheld the bottle of mucilage he wanted, and, having taken possession of it, he allowed his eye the privilege of a rapid glance into a dressing table drawer, accidentally left open.
He returned to the dressing-room, five seconds later, carrying not only the mucilage but a “switch” worn by Miss Lowe when her hair was dressed in a fashion different from that which she had favoured for the party. This “switch” he placed in the pocket of a juvenile overcoat unknown to him, and then he took the mucilage into the bathroom. There he rescued from the water the six cakes of soap, placed one in each of the six shoes, pounding it down securely into the toe of the shoe with the handle of a back brush. After that, Carlie poured mucilage into all six shoes impartially until the bottle was empty, then took them back to their former positions in the dressing-room. Finally, with careful forethought, he placed his own shoes in the pockets of his overcoat, and left the overcoat and his cap upon a chair near the outer door of the room. Then he went quietly downstairs, having been absent from the festivities a little less than twelve minutes. He had been energetic—only a boy could have accomplished so much in so short a time. In fact, Carlie had been so busy that his forgetting to turn off the faucets in the bathroom is not at all surprising.
No one had noticed his absence. That infectious pastime, “Gotcher bumpus”, had broken out again, and the general dancing, which had been resumed upon the conclusion of “Les Papillons”, was once more becoming demoralized. Despairingly the aunts Rennsdale and Miss Lowe brought forth from the rear of the house a couple of waiters and commanded them to arrest the ringleaders, whereupon hilarious terror spread among the outlaw band. Shouting tauntingly at their pursuers, they fled—and bellowing, trampling flight swept through every quarter of the house.
Refreshments quelled this outbreak for a time. The orchestra played a march; Carlie Chitten and Georgie Bassett, with Amy Rennsdale and Marjorie, formed the head of a procession, while all the boys who had retained their sense of decorum immediately sought partners and fell in behind. The outlaws, succumbing to ice cream hunger, followed suit, one after the other, until all of the girls were provided with escorts. Then, to the moral strains of “The Stars and Stripes Forever”, the children paraded out to the dining-room. Two and two they marched, except at the extreme tail end of the line, where, since there were three more boys than girls at the party, the three left-over boys were placed. These three were also the last three outlaws to succumb and return to civilization from outlying portions of the house after the pursuit by waiters. They were Messieurs Maurice Levy, Samuel Williams, and Penrod Schofield.
They took their chairs in the capacious dining-room quietly enough, though their expressions were eloquent of bravado, and they jostled one another and their neighbours intentionally, even in the act of sitting. However, it was not long before delectable foods engaged their whole attention and Miss Amy Rennsdale’s party relapsed into etiquette for the following twenty minutes. The refection concluded with the mild explosion of paper “crackers” that erupted bright-coloured, fantastic headgear, and, during the snapping of the “crackers”, Penrod heard the voice of Marjorie calling from somewhere behind him, “Carrie and Amy, will you change chairs with Georgie Bassett and me—just for fun?” The chairs had been placed in rows, back to back, and Penrod would not even turn his head to see if Master Chitten and Miss Rennsdale accepted Marjorie’s proposal, though they were directly behind him and Sam; but he grew red and breathed hard. A moment later, the liberty-cap that he had set upon his head was softly removed, and a little crown of silver paper put in its place.
The whisper was close to his ear, and a gentle breath cooled the back of his neck.