Penrod and Sam – Chapter 8

8

CONSCIENCE

Mrs. Schofield had been away for three days, visiting her sister in Dayton, Illinois, and on the train, coming back, she fell into a reverie. Little dramas of memory were reenacted in her pensive mind, and through all of them moved the figure of Penrod as a principal figure, or star. These little dramas did not present Penrod as he really was, much less did they glow with the uncertain but glamorous light in which Penrod saw himself. No; Mrs. Schofield had indulged herself in absence from her family merely for her own pleasure, and, now that she was homeward bound, her conscience was asserting itself; the fact that she had enjoyed her visit began to take on the aspect of a crime.

She had heard from her family only once during the three days—the message “All well don’t worry enjoy yourself” telegraphed by Mr. Schofield, and she had followed his suggestions to a reasonable extent. Of course she had worried—but only at times; wherefore she now suffered more and more poignant pangs of shame because she had not worried constantly. Naturally, the figure of Penrod, in her railway reverie, was that of an invalid.

She recalled all the illnesses of his babyhood and all those of his boyhood. She reconstructed scene after scene, with the hero always prostrate and the family physician opening the black case of phials. She emphatically renewed her recollection of accidental misfortunes to the body of Penrod Schofield, omitting neither the considerable nor the inconsiderable, forgetting no strain, sprain, cut, bruise or dislocation of which she had knowledge. And running this film in a sequence unrelieved by brighter interludes, she produced a biographical picture of such consistent and unremittent gloom that Penrod’s past appeared to justify disturbing thoughts about his present and future.

She became less and less at ease, reproaching herself for having gone away, wondering how she had brought herself to do such a crazy thing, for it seemed to her that the members of her family were almost helpless without her guidance; they were apt to do anything—anything at all—or to catch anything. The more she thought about her having left these irresponsible harebrains unprotected and undirected for three days, the less she was able to account for her action. It seemed to her that she must have been a little flighty; but, shaking her head grimly, she decided that flightiness was not a good excuse. And she made up her mind that if, upon her arrival, she found poor little neglected Penrod (and Margaret and Mr. Schofield) spared to her, safe and sound, she would make up to them—especially to Penrod—for all her lack of care in the past, and for this present wild folly of spending three whole days and nights with her sister, far away in Dayton, Illinois. Consequently, when Mrs. Schofield descended from that train, she wore the hurried but determined expression that was always the effect upon her of a guilty conscience.

“You’re SURE Penrod is well now?” she repeated, after Mr. Schofield had seated himself at her side in a vehicle known to its driver as a “deepoe hack”.

“‘Well NOW?'” he said. “He’s been well all the time. I’ve told you twice that he’s all right.”

“Men can’t always see.” She shook her head impatiently. “I haven’t been a bit sure he was well lately. I don’t think he’s been really well for two or three months. How has he seemed to-day?”

“In fair health,” Mr. Schofield replied thoughtfully. “Della called me up at the office to tell me that one of the telephone-men had come into the house to say that if that durn boy didn’t quit climbing their poles they’d have him arrested. They said he—”

“That’s it!” Mrs. Schofield interrupted quickly. “He’s nervous. It’s some nervous trouble makes him act like that. He’s not like himself at all.”

“Sometimes,” Mr. Schofield said, “I wish he weren’t.”

“When he’s himself,” Mrs. Schofield went on anxiously, “he’s very quiet and good; he doesn’t go climbing telegraph-poles and reckless things like that. And I noticed before I went away that he was growing twitchy, and seemed to be getting the habit of making unpleasant little noises in his throat.”

“Don’t fret about that,” her husband said. “He was trying to learn Sam Williams’s imitation of a bullfrog’s croak. I used to do that myself when I was a boy. Gl-glump, gallump! No; I can’t do it now. But nearly all boys feel obliged to learn it.”

“You’re entirely mistaken, Henry,” she returned a little sharply. “That isn’t the way he goes in his throat. Penrod is getting to be a VERY nervous boy, and he makes noises because he can’t help it. He works part of his face, too, sometimes, so much that I’ve been afraid it would interfere with his looks.”

“Interfere with his what?” For the moment, Mr. Schofield seemed to be dazed.

“When he’s himself,” she returned crisply, “he’s quite a handsome boy.”

“He is?”

“Handsomer than the average, anyhow,” Mrs. Schofield said firmly. “No wonder you don’t see it—when we’ve let his system get all run down like this!”

“Good heavens!” the mystified Mr. Schofield murmured. “Penrod’s system hasn’t been running down; it’s just the same as it always was. He’s absolutely all right.”

“Indeed he is not!” she said severely. “We’ve got to take better care of him than we have been.”

“Why, how could—”

“I know what I’m talking about,” she interrupted. “Penrod is anything but a strong boy, and it’s all our fault. We haven’t been watchful enough of his health; that’s what’s the matter with him and makes him so nervous.”

Thus she continued, and, as she talked on, Mr. Schofield began, by imperceptible processes, to adopt her views. As for Mrs. Schofield herself, these views became substantial by becoming vocal. This is to say, with all deference, that as soon as she heard herself stating them she was convinced that they accurately represented facts. And the determined look in her eyes deepened when the “deepoe hack” turned the familiar corner and she saw Penrod running to the gate, followed by Duke.

Never had Penrod been so glad to greet his mother. Never was he more boisterous in the expression of happiness of that kind. And the tokens of his appetite at dinner, a little later, were extraordinary. Mr. Schofield began to feel reassured in spite of himself; but Mrs. Schofield shook her head.

“Don’t you see? It’s abnormal!” she said, in a low, decisive voice.

That night Penrod awoke from a sweet, conscienceless slumber—or, rather, he was awakened. A wrappered form lurked over him in the gloom.

“Uff—ow—” he muttered, and turned his face from the dim light that shone through the doorway. He sighed and sought the depths of sleep again.

“Penrod,” his mother said softly, and, while he resisted feebly, she turned him over to face her.

“Gawn lea’ me ‘lone,” he muttered.

Then, as a little sphere touched his lips, he jerked his head away, startled.

“Whassat?”

Mrs. Schofield replied in tones honeysweet and coaxing: “It’s just a nice little pill, Penrod.”

“Doe waw ‘ny!” he protested, keeping his eyes shut, clinging to the sleep from which he was being riven.

“Be a good boy, Penrod,” she whispered. “Here’s a glass of nice cool water to swallow it down with. Come, dear; it’s going to do you lots of good.”

And again the little pill was placed suggestively against his lips; but his head jerked backward, and his hand struck out in blind, instinctive self-defense.

“I’ll BUST that ole pill,” he muttered, still with closed eyes. “Lemme get my han’s on it an’ I will!”

“Penrod!”

“PLEASE go on away, mamma!”

“I will, just as soon as you take this little pill.”

“I DID!”

“No, dear.”

“I did,” Penrod insisted plaintively. “You made me take it just before I went to bed.”

“Oh, yes; THAT one. But, dearie,” Mrs. Schofield explained, “I got to thinking about it after I went to bed, and I decided you’d better have another.”

“I don’t WANT another.”

“Yes, dearie.”

“Please go ‘way and let me sleep.”

“Not till you’ve taken the little pill, dear.”

“Oh, GOLLY!” Groaning, he propped himself upon an elbow and allowed the pill to pass between his lips. (He would have allowed anything whatever to pass between them, if that passing permitted his return to slumber.) Then, detaining the pill in his mouth, he swallowed half a glass of water, and again was recumbent.

“G’-night, Mamma.”

“Good-night, dearie. Sleep well.”

“Yes’m.”

After her departure Penrod drowsily enjoyed the sugar coating of the pill; but this was indeed a brief pleasure. A bitterness that was like a pang suddenly made itself known to his sense of taste, and he realized that he had dallied too confidingly with the product of a manufacturing chemist who should have been indicted for criminal economy. The medicinal portion of the little pill struck the wall with a faint tap, then dropped noiselessly to the floor, and, after a time, Penrod slept.

Some hours later he began to dream; he dreamed that his feet and legs were becoming uncomfortable as a result of Sam Williams’s activities with a red-hot poker.

“You QUIT that!” he said aloud, and awoke indignantly. Again a dark, wrappered figure hovered over the bed.

“It’s only a hot-water bag, dear,” Mrs. Schofield said, still labouring under the covers with an extended arm. “You mustn’t hunch yourself up that way, Penrod. Put your feet down on it.”

And, as he continued to hunch himself, she moved the bag in the direction of his withdrawal.

“Ow, murder!” he exclaimed convulsively. “What you tryin’ to do? Scald me to death?”

“Penrod—”

“My goodness, Mamma,” he wailed; “can’t you let me sleep a MINUTE?”

“It’s very bad for you to let your feet get cold, dear.”

“They WEREN’T cold. I don’t want any ole hot-wat—”

“Penrod,” she said firmly, “you must put your feet against the bag. It isn’t too hot.”

“Oh, isn’t it?” he retorted. “I don’t s’pose you’d care if I burned my feet right off! Mamma, won’t you please, pul-LEEZE let me get some sleep?”

“Not till you—”

She was interrupted by a groan that seemed to come from an abyss.

“All right, I’ll do it! Let ’em burn, then!” Thus spake the desperate Penrod; and Mrs. Schofield was able to ascertain that one heel had been placed in light contact with the bag.

“No; both feet, Penrod.”

With a tragic shiver he obeyed.

“THAT’S right, dear! Now, keep them that way. It’s good for you. Good-night.”

“G’-night!”

The door closed softly behind her, and the body of Penrod, from the hips upward, rose invisibly in the complete darkness of the bedchamber. A moment later the hot-water bag reached the floor in as noiseless a manner as that previously adopted by the remains of the little pill, and Penrod once more bespread his soul with poppies. This time he slept until the breakfast-bell rang.

He was late to school, and at once found himself in difficulties. Government demanded an explanation of the tardiness; but Penrod made no reply of any kind. Taciturnity is seldom more strikingly out of place than under such circumstances, and the penalties imposed took account not only of Penrod’s tardiness but of his supposititious defiance of authority in declining to speak. The truth was that Penrod did not know why he was tardy, and, with mind still lethargic, found it impossible to think of an excuse his continuing silence being due merely to the persistence of his efforts to invent one. Thus were his meek searchings misinterpreted, and the unloved hours of improvement in science and the arts made odious.

“They’ll SEE!” he whispered sorely to himself, as he bent low over his desk, a little later. Some day he would “show ’em”. The picture in his mind was of a vast, vague assembly of people headed by Miss Spence and the superior pupils who were never tardy, and these multitudes, representing persecution and government in general, were all cringing before a Penrod Schofield who rode a grim black horse up and down their miserable ranks, and gave curt orders.

“Make ’em step back there!” he commanded his myrmidons savagely. “Fix it so’s your horses’ll step on their feet if they don’t do what I say!” Then, from his shining saddle, he watched the throngs slinking away. “I guess they know who I am NOW!”

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