Chapter `10: Uncle John
Miss Spence gasped. So did the pupils.
The whole room filled with a swelling conglomerate “O-O-O-O-H!”
As for Penrod himself, the walls reeled with the shock. He sat with his mouth open, a mere lump of stupefaction. For the appalling words that he had hurled at the teacher were as inexplicable to him as to any other who heard them.
Nothing is more treacherous than the human mind; nothing else so loves to play the Iscariot. Even when patiently bullied into a semblance of order and training, it may prove but a base and shifty servant. And Penrod’s mind was not his servant; it was a master, with the April wind’s whims; and it had just played him a diabolical trick. The very jolt with which he came back to the schoolroom in the midst of his fancied flight jarred his day-dream utterly out of him; and he sat, open-mouthed in horror at what he had said.
The unanimous gasp of awe was protracted. Miss Spence, however, finally recovered her breath, and, returning deliberately to the platform, faced the school. “And then for a little while,” as pathetic stories sometimes recount, “everything was very still.” It was so still, in fact, that Penrod’s newborn notoriety could almost be heard growing. This grisly silence was at last broken by the teacher.
“Penrod Schofield, stand up!”
The miserable child obeyed.
“What did you mean by speaking to me in that way?”
He hung his head, raked the floor with the side of his shoe, swayed, swallowed, looked suddenly at his hands with the air of never having seen them before, then clasped them behind him. The school shivered in ecstatic horror, every fascinated eye upon him; yet there was not a soul in the room but was profoundly grateful to him for the sensation–including the offended teacher herself. Unhappily, all this gratitude was unconscious and altogether different from the kind which, results in testimonials and loving-cups. On the contrary!
“Answer me at once! Why did you speak to me like that?”
“I was—-” He choked, unable to continue.
“I was just–thinking,” he managed to stammer.
“That will not do,” she returned sharply. “I wish to know immediately why you spoke as you did.”
The stricken Penrod answered helplessly:
“Because I was just thinking.”
Upon the very rack he could have offered no ampler truthful explanation. It was all he knew about it.
Miss Spence’s expression gave evidence that her power of self-restraint was undergoing a remarkable test. However, after taking counsel with herself, she commanded:
He shuffled forward, and she placed a chair upon the platform near her own.
Then (but not at all as if nothing had happened), she continued the lesson in arithmetic. Spiritually the children may have learned a lesson in very small fractions indeed as they gazed at the fragment of sin before them on the stool of penitence. They all stared at him attentively with hard and passionately interested eyes, in which there was never one trace of pity. It cannot be said with precision that he writhed; his movement was more a slow, continuous squirm, effected with a ghastly assumption of languid indifference; while his gaze, in the effort to escape the marble-hearted glare of his schoolmates, affixed itself with apparent permanence to the waistcoat button of James Russell Lowell just above the “U” in “Russell.”
Classes came and classes went, grilling him with eyes. Newcomers received the story of the crime in darkling whispers; and the outcast sat and sat and sat, and squirmed and squirmed and squirmed. (He did one or two things with his spine which a professional contortionist would have observed with real interest.) And all
this while of freezing suspense was but the criminal’s detention awaiting trial. A known punishment may be anticipated with some measure of equanimity; at least, the prisoner may prepare himself to undergo it; but the unknown looms more monstrous for every attempt to guess it. Penrod’s crime was unique; there were no rules to aid him in estimating the vengeance to fall upon him for it. What seemed most probable was that he would be expelled from the schools in the presence of his family, the mayor, and council, and afterward whipped by his father upon the State House steps, with the entire city as audience by invitation of the authorities.
Noon came. The rows of children filed out, every head turning for a last unpleasingly speculative look at the outlaw. Then Miss Spence closed the door into the cloakroom and that into the big hall, and came and sat at her desk, near Penrod. The tramping of feet outside, the shrill calls and shouting and the changing voices of the older boys ceased to be heard–and there was silence. Penrod, still affecting to be occupied with Lowell, was conscious that Miss Spence looked at him intently.
“Penrod,” she said gravely, “what excuse have you to offer before I report your case to the principal?”
The word “principal” struck him to the vitals. Grand Inquisitor, Grand Khan, Sultan, Emperor, Tsar, Caesar Augustus–these are comparable. He stopped squirming instantly, and sat rigid.
“I want an answer. Why did you shout those words at me?”
“Well,” he murmured, “I was just–thinking.”
“Thinking what?” she asked sharply.
“I don’t know.”
“That won’t do!”
He took his left ankle in his right hand and regarded it helplessly.
“That won’t do, Penrod Schofield,” she repeated severely. “If that is all the excuse you have to offer I shall report your case this instant!”
And she rose with fatal intent.
But Penrod was one of those whom the precipice inspires. “Well, I have got an excuse.”
“Well”–she paused impatiently–“what is it?”
He had not an idea, but he felt one coming, and replied automatically, in a plaintive tone:
“I guess anybody that had been through what I had to go through, last night, would think they had an excuse.”
Miss Spence resumed her seat, though with the air of being ready to leap from it instantly.
“What has last night to do with your insolence to me this morning?”
“Well, I guess you’d see,” he returned, emphasizing the plaintive note, “if you knew what I know.”
“Now, Penrod,” she said, in a kinder voice, “I have a high regard for your mother and father, and it would hurt me to distress them, but you must either tell me what was the matter with you or I’ll have to take you to Mrs. Houston.”
“Well, ain’t I going to?” he cried, spurred by the dread name. “It’s because I didn’t sleep last night.”
“Were you ill?” The question was put with some dryness.
He felt the dryness. “No’m; I wasn’t.”
“Then if someone in your family was so ill that even you were kept up all night, how does it happen they let you come to school this morning?”
“It wasn’t illness,” he returned, shaking his head mournfully. “It was lots worse’n anybody’s being sick. It was–it was–well, it was jest awful.”
“What was?” He remarked with anxiety the incredulity in her tone.
“It was about Aunt Clara,” he said.
“Your Aunt Clara!” she repeated. “Do you mean your mother’s sister who married Mr. Farry of Dayton, Illinois?”
“Yes–Uncle John,” returned Penrod sorrowfully. “The trouble was about him.”
Miss Spence frowned a frown which he rightly interpreted as one of continued suspicion. “She and I were in school together,” she said. “I used to know her very well, and I’ve always heard her married life was entirely happy. I don’t—-”
“Yes, it was,” he interrupted, “until last year when Uncle John took to running with travelling men—-”
“Yes’m.” He nodded solemnly. “That was what started it. At first he was a good, kind husband, but these travelling men would coax him into a saloon on his way home from work, and they got him to drinking beer and then ales, wines, liquors, and cigars—-”
“I’m not inquiring into your Aunt Clara’s private affairs; I’m asking you if you have anything to say which would palliate—-”
“That’s what I’m tryin’ to tell you about, Miss Spence,” he pleaded,–“if you’d jest only let me. When Aunt Clara and her little baby daughter got to our house last night—-”
“You say Mrs. Farry is visiting your mother?”
“Yes’m–not just visiting–you see, she had to come. Well of course, little baby Clara, she was so bruised up and mauled, where he’d been hittin’ her with his cane—-”
“You mean that your uncle had done such a thing as that!” exclaimed Miss Spence, suddenly disarmed by this scandal.
“Yes’m, and mamma and Margaret had to sit up all night nursin’ little Clara–and Aunt Clara was in such a state somebody had to keep talkin’ to her, and there wasn’t anybody but me to do it, so I—-”
“But where was your father?” she cried.
“Where was your father while—-”
“Oh–papa?” Penrod paused, reflected; then brightened. “Why, he was down at the train, waitin’ to see if Uncle John would try to follow ’em and make ’em come home so’s he could persecute ’em some more. I wanted to do that, but they said if he did come I mightn’t be strong enough to hold him and—-” The brave lad paused again, modestly. Miss Spence’s expression was encouraging. Her eyes were wide with astonishment, and there may have been in them, also, the mingled beginnings of admiration and self-reproach. Penrod, warming to his work, felt safer every moment.
“And so,” he continued, “I had to sit up with Aunt Clara. She had some pretty big bruises, too, and I had to—-”
“But why didn’t they send for a doctor?” However, this question was only a flicker of dying incredulity.
“Oh, they didn’t want any doctor,” exclaimed the inspired realist promptly. “They don’t want anybody to hear about it because Uncle John might reform–and then where’d he be if everybody knew he’d been a drunkard and whipped his wife and baby daughter?”
“Oh!” said Miss Spence.
“You see, he used to be upright as anybody,” he went on explanatively. “It all begun—-”
“Yes’m. It all commenced from the first day he let those travelling men coax him into the saloon.” Penrod narrated the downfall of his Uncle John at length. In detail he was nothing short of plethoric; and incident followed incident, sketched with such vividness, such abundance of colour, and such verisimilitude to a drunkard’s life as a drunkard’s life should be, that had Miss Spence possessed the rather chilling attributes of William J. Burns himself, the last trace of skepticism must have vanished from her mind. Besides, there are two things that will be believed of any man whatsoever, and one of them is that he has taken to drink. And in every sense it was a moving picture which, with simple but eloquent words, the virtuous Penrod set before his teacher.
His eloquence increased with what it fed on; and as with the eloquence so with self-reproach in the gentle bosom of the teacher. She cleared her throat with difficulty once or twice, during his description of his ministering night with Aunt Clara. “And I said to her, ‘Why, Aunt Clara, what’s the use of takin’ on so about it?’ And I said, ‘Now, Aunt Clara, all the crying in the world can’t make things any better.’ And then she’d just keep catchin’ hold of me, and sob and kind of holler, and I’d say, ‘Don’t cry, Aunt Clara–please don’t cry.”‘
Then, under the influence of some fragmentary survivals of the respectable portion of his Sunday adventures, his theme became more exalted; and, only partially misquoting a phrase from a psalm, he related how he had made it of comfort to Aunt Clara, and how he had besought her to seek Higher guidance in her trouble.
The surprising thing about a structure such as Penrod was erecting is that the taller it becomes the more ornamentation it will stand. Gifted boys have this faculty of building magnificence upon cobwebs–and Penrod was gifted. Under the spell of his really great performance, Miss Spence gazed more and more sweetly upon the prodigy of spiritual beauty and goodness before her, until at last, when Penrod came to the explanation of his “just thinking,” she was forced to turn her head away.
“You mean, dear,” she said gently, “that you were all worn out and hardly knew what you were saying?”
“And you were thinking about all those dreadful things so hard that you forgot where you were?”
“I was thinking,” he said simply, “how to save Uncle John.”
And the end of it for this mighty boy was that the teacher kissed him!
Chapter 11: Fidelity of a Little Dog
The returning students, that afternoon, observed that Penrod’s desk was vacant–and nothing could have been more impressive than that sinister mere emptiness. The accepted theory was that Penrod had been arrested. How breathtaking, then, the sensation when, at the beginning of the second hour, he strolled–in with inimitable carelessness and, rubbing his eyes, somewhat noticeably in the manner of one who has snatched an hour of much needed sleep, took his place as if nothing in particular had happened. This, at first supposed to be a superhuman exhibition of sheer audacity, became but the more dumfounding when Miss Spence–looking up from her desk–greeted him with a pleasant little nod. Even after school, Penrod gave numerous maddened investigators no relief. All he would consent to say was:
“Oh, I just talked to her.”
A mystification not entirely unconnected with the one thus produced was manifested at his own family. dinner-table the following evening. Aunt Clara had been out rather late, and came to the table after the rest were seated. She wore a puzzled expression.
“Do you ever see Mary Spence nowadays?” she inquired, as she unfolded her napkin, addressing Mrs. Schofield. Penrod abruptly set down his soup-spoon and gazed at his aunt with flattering attention.
“Yes; sometimes,” said Mrs. Schofield. “She’s Penrod’s teacher.”
“Is she?” said Mrs. Farry. “Do you–” She paused. “Do people think her a little–queer, these days?”
“Why, no,” returned her sister. “What makes you say that?”
“She has acquired a very odd manner,” said Mrs. Farry decidedly. “At least, she seemed odd to me. I met her at the corner just before I got to the house, a few minutes ago, and after we’d said howdy-do to each other, she kept hold of my hand and looked as though she was going to cry. She seemed to be trying to say something, and choking—-”
“But I don’t think that’s so very queer, Clara. She knew you in school, didn’t she?”
“And she hadn’t seen you for so many years, I think it’s perfectly natural she—-”
“Wait! She stood there squeezing my hand, and struggling to get her voice–and I got really embarrassed–and then finally she said, in a kind of tearful whisper, ‘Be of good cheer–this trial will pass!'”
“How queer!” exclaimed Margaret.
Penrod sighed, and returned somewhat absently to his soup.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Mrs. Schofield thoughtfully. “Of course she’s heard about the outbreak of measles in Dayton, since they had to close the schools, and she knows you live there—-”
“But doesn’t it seem a very exaggerated way,” suggested Margaret, “to talk about measles?”
“Wait!” begged Aunt Clara. “After she said that, she said something even queerer, and then put her handkerchief to her eyes and hurried away.”
Penrod laid down his spoon again and moved his chair slightly back from the table. A spirit of prophecy was upon him: he knew that someone was going to ask a question which he felt might better remain unspoken.
“What was the other thing she said?” Mr. Schofield inquired, thus immediately fulfilling his son’s premonition.
“She said,” returned Mrs. Farry slowly, looking about the table, “she said, ‘I know that Penrod is a great, great comfort to you!'”
There was a general exclamation of surprise. It was a singular thing, and in no manner may it be considered complimentary to Penrod, that this speech of Miss Spence’s should have immediately confirmed Mrs. Farry’s doubts about her in the minds of all his family.
Mr. Schofield shook his head pityingly.
“I’m afraid she’s a goner,” he went so far as to say.
“Of all the weird ideas!” cried Margaret.
“I never heard anything like it in my life!” Mrs. Schofield exclaimed. “Was that all she said?”
Penrod again resumed attention to his soup. His mother looked at him curiously, and then, struck by a sudden thought, gathered the glances of the adults of the table by a significant movement of the head, and, by another, conveyed an admonition to drop the subject until later. Miss Spence was Penrod’s teacher: it was better, for many reasons, not to discuss the subject of her queerness before him. This was Mrs. Schofield’s thought at the time. Later she had another, and it kept her awake.
The next afternoon, Mr. Schofield, returning at five o’clock from the cares of the day, found the house deserted, and sat down to read his evening paper in what appeared to be an uninhabited apartment known to its own world as the “drawing-room.” A sneeze, unexpected both to him and the owner, informed him of the presence of another person.
“Where are you, Penrod?” the parent asked, looking about.
“Here,” said Penrod meekly.
Stooping, Mr. Schofield discovered his son squatting under the piano, near an open window–his wistful Duke lying beside him.
“What are you doing there?”
“Why under the piano?”
“Well,” the boy returned, with grave sweetness, “I was just kind of sitting here–thinking.”
“All right.” Mr. Schofield, rather touched, returned to the digestion of a murder, his back once more to the piano; and Penrod silently drew from beneath his jacket (where he had slipped it simultaneously with the sneeze) a paper-backed volume entitled: “Slimsy, the Sioux City Squealer, or, ‘Not Guilty, Your Honor.'”
In this manner the reading-club continued in peace, absorbed, contented, the world well forgot–until a sudden, violently irritated slam-bang of the front door startled the members; and Mrs. Schofield burst into the room and threw herself into a chair, moaning.
“What’s the matter, mamma?” asked her husband laying aside his paper.
“Henry Passloe Schofield,” returned the lady, “I don’t know what is to be done with that boy; I do not!”
“You mean Penrod?”
“Who else could I mean?” She sat up, exasperated, to stare at him. “Henry Passloe Schofield, you’ve got to take this matter in your hands–it’s beyond me!”
“Well, what has he—-”
“Last night I got to thinking,” she began rapidly, “about what Clara told us–thank Heaven she and Margaret and little Clara have gone to tea at Cousin Charlotte’s!–but they’ll be home soon–about what she said about Miss Spence—-”
“You mean about Penrod’s being a comfort?”
“Yes, and I kept thinking and thinking and thinking about it till I couldn’t stand it any—-”
“By george!” shouted Mr. Schofield startlingly, stooping to look under the piano. A statement that he had suddenly remembered his son’s presence would be lacking in accuracy, for the highly sensitized Penrod was, in fact, no longer present. No more was Duke, his faithful dog.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” he returned, striding to the open window and looking out. “Go on.”
“Oh,” she moaned, “it must be kept from Clara–and I’ll never hold up my head again if John Farry ever hears of it!”
“Hears of what?”
“Well, I just couldn’t stand it, I got so curious; and I thought of course if Miss Spence had become a little unbalanced it was my duty to know it, as Penrod’s mother and she his teacher; so I thought I would just call on her at her apartment after school and have a chat and see and I did and–oh–”
“I’ve just come from there, and she told me–she told me! Oh, I’ve never known anything like this!”
“What did she tell you?”
Mrs. Schofield, making a great effort, managed to assume a temporary appearance of calm. “Henry,” she said solemnly, “bear this in mind: whatever you do to Penrod, it must be done in some place when Clara won’t hear it. But the first thing to do is to find him.”
Within view of the window from which Mr. Schofield was gazing was the closed door of the storeroom in the stable, and just outside this door Duke was performing a most engaging trick.
His young master had taught Duke to “sit up and beg” when he wanted anything, and if that didn’t get it, to “speak.” Duke was facing the closed door and sitting up and begging, and now he also spoke–in a loud, clear bark.
There was an open transom over the door, and from this descended–hurled by an unseen agency–a can half filled with old paint.
It caught the small besieger of the door on his thoroughly surprised right ear, encouraged him to some remarkable acrobatics, and turned large portions of him a dull blue. Allowing only a moment to perplexity, and deciding, after a single and evidently unappetizing experiment, not to cleanse himself of paint, the loyal animal resumed his quaint, upright posture.
Mr. Schofield seated himself on the window-sill, whence he could keep in view that pathetic picture of unrequited love.
“Go on with your story, mamma,” he said. “I think I can find Penrod when we want him.”
And a few minutes later he added, “And I think I know the place to do it in.”
Again the faithful voice of Duke was heard, pleading outside the bolted door.