THE BONDED PRISONER
After such rigorous events, every one comprehended that the game of bonded prisoner was over, and there was no suggestion that it should or might be resumed. The fashion of its conclusion had been so consummately enjoyed by all parties (with the natural exception of Roddy Bitts) that a renewal would have been tame; hence, the various minds of the company turned to other matters and became restless. Georgie Bassett withdrew first, remembering that if he expected to be as wonderful as usual, to-morrow, in Sunday-school, it was time to prepare himself, though this was not included in the statement he made alleging the cause of his departure. Being detained bodily and pressed for explanation, he desperately said that he had to go home to tease the cook—which had the rakehelly air he thought would insure his release, but was not considered plausible. However, he was finally allowed to go, and, as first hints of evening were already cooling and darkening the air, the party broke up, its members setting forth, whistling, toward their several homes, though Penrod lingered with Sam. Herman was the last to go from them.
“Well, I got git ‘at stove-wood f’ suppuh,” he said, rising and stretching himself. “I got git ‘at lil’ soap-box wagon, an’ go on ovuh wheres ‘at new house buil’in’ on Secon’ Street; pick up few shingles an’ blocks layin’ roun’.”
He went through the yard toward the alley, and, at the alley gate, remembering something, he paused and called to them. The lot was a deep one, and they were too far away to catch his meaning. Sam shouted, “Can’t HEAR you!” and Herman replied, but still unintelligibly; then, upon Sam’s repetition of “Can’t HEAR you!” Herman waved his arm in farewell, implying that the matter was of little significance, and vanished. But if they had understood him, Penrod and Sam might have considered his inquiry of instant importance, for Herman’s last shout was to ask if either of them had noticed “where Verman went.”
Verman and Verman’s whereabouts were, at this hour, of no more concern to Sam and Penrod than was the other side of the moon. That unfortunate bonded prisoner had been long since utterly effaced from their fields of consciousness, and the dark secret of their Bastille troubled them not—for the main and simple reason that they had forgotten it.
They drifted indoors, and found Sam’s mother’s white cat drowsing on a desk in the library, the which coincidence obviously inspired the experiment of ascertaining how successfully ink could be used in making a clean white cat look like a coach-dog. There was neither malice nor mischief in their idea; simply, a problem presented itself to the biological and artistic questionings beginning to stir within them. They did not mean to do the cat the slightest injury or to cause her any pain. They were above teasing cats, and they merely detained this one and made her feel a little wet—at considerable cost to themselves from both the ink and the cat. However, at the conclusion of their efforts, it was thought safer to drop the cat out of the window before anybody came, and, after some hasty work with blotters, the desk was moved to cover certain sections of the rug, and the two boys repaired to the bathroom for hot water and soap. They knew they had done nothing wrong; but they felt easier when the only traces remaining upon them were the less prominent ones upon their garments.
These precautions taken, it was time for them to make their appearance at Penrod’s house for dinner, for it had been arranged, upon petition earlier in the day, that Sam should be his friend’s guest for the evening meal. Clean to the elbows and with light hearts, they set forth. They marched, whistling—though not producing a distinctly musical effect, since neither had any particular air in mind—and they found nothing wrong with the world; they had not a care. Arrived at their adjacent destination, they found Miss Margaret Schofield just entering the front door.
“Hurry, boys!” she said. “Mamma came home long before I did, and I’m sure dinner is waiting. Run on out to the dining-room and tell them I’ll be right down.”
And, as they obeyed, she mounted the stairs, humming a little tune and unfastening the clasp of the long, light-blue military cape she wore. She went to her own quiet room, lit the gas, removed her hat and placed it and the cape upon the bed; after which she gave her hair a push, subsequent to her scrutiny of a mirror; then, turning out the light, she went as far as the door. Being an orderly girl, she returned to the bed and took the cape and the hat to her clothes-closet. She opened the door of this sanctuary, and, in the dark, hung her cape upon a hook and placed her hat upon the shelf. Then she closed the door again, having noted nothing unusual, though she had an impression that the place needed airing. She descended to the dinner table.
The other members of the family were already occupied with the meal, and the visitor was replying politely, in his non-masticatory intervals, to inquiries concerning the health of his relatives. So sweet and assured was the condition of Sam and Penrod that Margaret’s arrival from her room meant nothing to them. Their memories were not stirred, and they continued eating, their expressions brightly placid.
But from out of doors there came the sound of a calling and questing voice, at first in the distance, then growing louder—coming nearer.
“Oh, Ver-er-man! O-o-o-oh, Ver-er-ma-a-an!”
It was the voice of Herman.
And then two boys sat stricken at that cheerful table and ceased to eat. Recollection awoke with a bang!
“Oh, my!” Sam gasped.
“What’s the matter?” Mr. Schofield said. “Swallow something the wrong way, Sam?”
And now the voice was near the windows of the dining-room.
Penrod, very pale, pushed back his chair and jumped up.
“What’s the matter with YOU?” his father demanded. “Sit down!”
“It’s Herman—that coloured boy lives in the alley,” Penrod said hoarsely. “I expect—I think-”
“Well, what’s the matter?”
“I think his little brother’s maybe got lost, and Sam and I better go help look—”
“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” Mr. Schofield said sharply. “Sit down and eat your dinner.”
In a palsy, the miserable boy resumed his seat. He and Sam exchanged a single dumb glance; then the eyes of both swung fearfully to Margaret. Her appearance was one of sprightly content, and, from a certain point of view, nothing could have been more alarming. If she had opened her closet door without discovering Verman, that must have been because Verman was dead and Margaret had failed to notice the body. (Such were the thoughts of Penrod and Sam.) But she might not have opened the closet door. And whether she had or not, Verman must still be there, alive or dead, for if he had escaped he would have gone home, and their ears would not be ringing with the sinister and melancholy cry that now came from the distance, “Oo-o-oh, Ver-er-ma-an!”
Verman, in his seclusion, did not hear that appeal from his brother; there were too many walls between them. But he was becoming impatient for release, though, all in all, he had not found the confinement intolerable or even very irksome. His character was philosophic, his imagination calm; no bugaboos came to trouble him. When the boys closed the door upon him, he made himself comfortable upon the floor and, for a time, thoughtfully chewed a patent-leather slipper that had come under his hand. He found the patent leather not unpleasant to his palate, though he swallowed only a portion of what he detached, not being hungry at that time. The soul-fabric of Verman was of a fortunate weave; he was not a seeker and questioner. When it happened to him that he was at rest in a shady corner, he did not even think about a place in the sun. Verman took life as it came.
Naturally, he fell asleep. And toward the conclusion of his slumbers, he had this singular adventure: a lady set her foot down within less than half an inch of his nose—and neither of them knew it. Verman slept on, without being wakened by either the closing or the opening of the door. What did rouse him was something ample and soft falling upon him—Margaret’s cape, which slid from the hook after she had gone.
Enveloped in its folds, Verman sat up, corkscrewing his knuckles into the corners of his eyes. Slowly he became aware of two important vacuums—one in time and one in his stomach. Hours had vanished strangely into nowhere; the game of bonded prisoner was something cloudy and remote of the long, long ago, and, although Verman knew where he was, he had partially forgotten how he came there. He perceived, however, that something had gone wrong, for he was certain that he ought not to be where he found himself.
WHITE-FOLKS’ HOUSE! The fact that Verman could not have pronounced these words rendered them no less clear in his mind; they began to stir his apprehension, and nothing becomes more rapidly tumultuous than apprehension once it is stirred. That he might possibly obtain release by making a noise was too daring a thought and not even conceived, much less entertained, by the little and humble Verman. For, with the bewildering gap of his slumber between him and previous events, he did not place the responsibility for his being in White-Folks’ House upon the white folks who had put him there. His state of mind was that of the stable-puppy who knows he MUST not be found in the parlour. Not thrice in his life had Verman been within the doors of White-Folks’ House, and, above all things, he felt that it was in some undefined way vital to him to get out of White-Folks’ House unobserved and unknown. It was in his very blood to be sure of that.
Further than this point, the processes of Verman’s mind become mysterious to the observer. It appears, however, that he had a definite (though somewhat primitive) conception of the usefulness of disguise; and he must have begun his preparations before he heard footsteps in the room outside his closed door.
These footsteps were Margaret’s. Just as Mr. Schofield’s coffee was brought, and just after Penrod had been baffled in another attempt to leave the table, Margaret rose and patted her father impertinently upon the head.
“You can’t bully ME that way!” she said. “I got home too late to dress, and I’m going to a dance. ‘Scuse!”
And she began her dancing on the spot, pirouetting herself swiftly out of the room, and was immediately heard running up the stairs.
“Penrod!” Mr. Schofield shouted. “Sit down! How many times am I going to tell you? What IS the matter with you to-night?”
“I GOT to go,” Penrod gasped. “I got to tell Margaret sumpthing.”
“What have you ‘got’ to tell her?”
“It’s—it’s sumpthing I forgot to tell her.”
“Well, it will keep till she comes downstairs,” Mr. Schofield said grimly. “You sit down till this meal is finished.”
Penrod was becoming frantic.
“I got to tell her—it’s sumpthing Sam’s mother told me to tell her,” he babbled. “Didn’t she, Sam? You heard her tell me to tell her; didn’t you, Sam?”
Sam offered prompt corroboration.
“Yes, sir; she did. She said for us both to tell her. I better go, too, I guess, because she said—”
He was interrupted. Startlingly upon their ears rang shriek on shriek. Mrs. Schofield, recognizing Margaret’s voice, likewise shrieked, and Mr. Schofield uttered various sounds; but Penrod and Sam were incapable of doing anything vocally. All rushed from the table.
Margaret continued to shriek, and it is not to be denied that there was some cause for her agitation. When she opened the closet door, her light-blue military cape, instead of hanging on the hook where she had left it, came out into the room in a manner that she afterward described as “a kind of horrible creep, but faster than a creep.” Nothing was to be seen except the creeping cape, she said, but, of course, she could tell there was some awful thing inside of it. It was too large to be a cat, and too small to be a boy; it was too large to be Duke, Penrod’s little old dog, and, besides, Duke wouldn’t act like that. It crept rapidly out into the upper hall, and then, as she recovered the use of her voice and began to scream, the animated cape abandoned its creeping for a quicker gait—”a weird, heaving flop,” she defined it.
The Thing then decided upon a third style of locomotion, evidently, for when Sam and Penrod reached the front hall, a few steps in advance of Mr. and Mrs. Schofield, it was rolling grandly down the stairs.
Mr. Schofield had only a hurried glimpse of it as it reached the bottom, close by the front door.
“Grab that thing!” he shouted, dashing forward. “Stop it! Hit it!”
It was at this moment that Sam Williams displayed the presence of mind that was his most eminent characteristic. Sam’s wonderful instinct for the right action almost never failed him in a crisis, and it did not fail him now. Leaping to the door, at the very instant when the rolling cape touched it, Sam flung the door open—and the cape rolled on. With incredible rapidity and intelligence, it rolled, indeed, out into the night.
Penrod jumped after it, and the next second reappeared in the doorway holding the cape. He shook out its folds, breathing hard but acquiring confidence. In fact, he was able to look up in his father’s face and say, with bright ingenuousness:
“It was just laying there. Do you know what I think? Well, it couldn’t have acted that way itself. I think there must have been sumpthing kind of inside of it!”
Mr. Schofield shook his head slowly, in marvelling admiration.
“Brilliant—oh, brilliant!” he murmured, while Mrs. Schofield ran to support the enfeebled form of Margaret at the top of the stairs.
… In the library, after Margaret’s departure to her dance, Mr. and Mrs. Schofield were still discussing the visitation, Penrod having accompanied his homeward-bound guest as far as the front gate.
“No; you’re wrong,” Mrs. Schofield said, upholding a theory, earlier developed by Margaret, that the animated behaviour of the cape could be satisfactorily explained on no other ground than the supernatural. “You see, the boys saying they couldn’t remember what Mrs. Williams wanted them to tell Margaret, and that probably she hadn’t told them anything to tell her, because most likely they’d misunderstood something she said—well, of course, all that does sound mixed-up and peculiar; but they sound that way about half the time, anyhow. No; it couldn’t possibly have had a thing to do with it. They were right there at the table with us all the time, and they came straight to the table the minute they entered the house. Before that, they’d been over at Sam’s all afternoon. So, it COULDN’T have been the boys.” Mrs. Schofield paused to ruminate with a little air of pride; then added: “Margaret has often thought—oh, long before this!—that she was a medium. I mean—if she would let her self. So it wasn’t anything the boys did.”
Mr. Schofield grunted.
“I’ll admit this much,” he said. “I’ll admit it wasn’t anything we’ll ever get out of ’em.”
And the remarks of Sam and Penrod, taking leave of each other, one on each side of the gate, appeared to corroborate Mr. Schofield’s opinion.
“Well, g’-night, Penrod,” Sam said. “It was a pretty good Saturday, wasn’t it?”
“Fine!” said Penrod casually. “G’-night, Sam.”