Chapter 12: Miss Rennsdale Accepts
“One-two-three; one-two-three–glide!” said Professor Bartet, emphasizing his instructions by a brisk collision of his palms at “glide.” “One-two-three; one-two-three–glide!”
The school week was over, at last, but Penrod’s troubles were not.
Round and round the ballroom went the seventeen struggling little couples of the Friday Afternoon Dancing Class. Round and round went their reflections with them, swimming rhythmically in the polished, dark floor–white and blue and pink for the girls; black, with dabs of white, for the white-collared, white-gloved boys; and sparks and slivers of high light everywhere as the glistening pumps flickered along the surface like a school of flying fish. Every small pink face–with one exception–was painstaking and set for duty. It was a conscientious little merry-go-round.
“One-two-three; one-two-three–glide! One-two-three; one-two-three–glide! One-two-th–Ha! Mister Penrod Schofield, you lose the step. Your left foot! No, no! This is the left! See–like me! Now again! One-two-three; one-two-three–glide! Better! Much better! Again! One-two-three; one-two-three–gl–Stop! Mr. Penrod Schofield, this dancing class is provided by the kind parents of the pupilses as much to learn the mannerss of good societies as to dance. You think you shall ever see a gentleman in good societies to tickle his partner in the dance till she say Ouch? Never! I assure you it is not done. Again! Now then! Piano, please! One-two-three; one-two-three–glide! Mr. Penrod Schofield, your right foot–your right foot! No, no! Stop!”
The merry-go-round came to a standstill.
“Mr. Penrod Schofield and partner”–Professor Bartet wiped his brow–“will you kindly observe me? One-two-three–glide! So! Now then–no; you will please keep your places, ladies and gentlemen. Mr. Penrod Schofield, I would puttickly like your attention, this is for you!”
“Pickin’ on me again!” murmured the smouldering Penrod to his small, unsympathetic partner. “Can’t let me alone a minute!”
“Mister Georgie Bassett, please step to the centre,” said the professor.
Mr. Bassett complied with modest alacrity.
“Teacher’s pet!” whispered Penrod hoarsely. He had nothing but contempt for Georgie Bassett. The parents, guardians, aunts, uncles, cousins, governesses, housemaids, cooks, chauffeurs and coachmen, appertaining to the members of the dancing class, all dwelt in the same part of town and shared certain communal theories; and among the most firmly established was that which maintained Georgie Bassett to be the Best Boy in Town. Contrariwise, the unfortunate Penrod, largely because of his recent dazzling but disastrous attempts to control forces far beyond him, had been given a clear title as the Worst Boy in Town. (Population, 135,000.) To precisely what degree his reputation was the product of his own energies cannot be calculated. It was Marjorie Jones who first applied the description, in its definite simplicity, the day after the “pageant,” and, possibly, her frequent and effusive repetitions of it, even upon wholly irrelevant occasions, had something to do with its prompt and quite perfect acceptance by the community.
“Miss Rennsdale will please do me the fafer to be Mr. Georgie Bassett’s partner for one moment,” said Professor Bartet. “Mr. Penrod Schofield will please give his attention. Miss Rennsdale and Mister Bassett, obliche me, if you please. Others please watch. Piano, please! Now then!”
Miss Rennsdale, aged eight–the youngest lady in the class– and Mr. Georgie Bassett one-two-three–glided with consummate technique for the better education of Penrod Schofield. It is possible that amber-curled, beautiful Marjorie felt that she, rather than Miss Rennsdale, might have been selected as the example of perfection–or perhaps her remark was only woman.
“Stopping everybody for that boy!” said Marjorie.
Penrod, across the circle from her, heard distinctly–nay, he was obviously intended to hear; but over a scorched heart he preserved a stoic front. Whereupon Marjorie whispered derisively in the ear of her partner, Maurice Levy, who wore a pearl pin in his tie.
“Again, please, everybody–ladies and gentlemen!” cried Professor Bartet. “Mister Penrod Schofield, if you please, pay puttickly attention! Piano, please! Now then!”
The lesson proceeded. At the close of the hour Professor Bartet stepped to the centre of the room and clapped his hands for attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you please to seat yourselves quietly,” he said; “I speak to you now about to-morrow. As you all know–Mister Penrod Schofield, I am not sticking up in a tree outside that window! If you do me the fafer to examine I am here, insides of the room. Now then! Piano, pl–no, I do not wish the piano! As you all know, this is the last lesson of the season until next October. Tomorrow is our special afternoon; beginning three o’clock, we dance the cotillon. But this afternoon comes the test of mannerss. You must see if each know how to make a little formal call like a grown-up people in good societies. You have had good, perfect instruction; let us see if we know how to perform like societies ladies and gentlemen twenty-six years of age.
“Now, when you’re dismissed each lady will go to her home and prepare to receive a call. The gentlemen will allow the ladies time to reach their houses and to prepare to receive callers; then each gentleman will call upon a lady and beg the pleasure to engage her for a partner in the cotillon to-morrow. You all know the correct, proper form for these calls, because didn’t I work teaching you last lesson till I thought I would drop dead? Yes! Now each gentleman, if he reach a lady’s house behind some-other gentleman, then he must go somewhere else to a lady’s house, and keep calling until he secures a partner; so, as there are the same number of both, everybody shall have a partner.
“Now please all remember that if in case–Mister Penrod Schofield, when you make your call on a lady I beg you to please remember that gentlemen in good societies do not scratch the back in societies as you appear to attempt; so please allow the hands to rest carelessly in the lap. Now please all remember that if in case–Mister Penrod Schofield, if you please! Gentlemen in societies do not scratch the back by causing frictions between it and the back of your chair, either! Nobody else is itching here! I do not itch! I cannot talk if you must itch! In the name of Heaven, why must you always itch? What was I saying? Where ah! the cotillon–yes! For the cotillon it is important nobody shall fail to be here tomorrow; but if any one should be so very ill he cannot possible come he must write a very polite note of regrets in the form of good societies to his engaged partner to excuse himself–and he must give the reason.
“I do not think anybody is going to be that sick to-morrow–no; and I will find out and report to parents if anybody would try it and not be. But it is important for the cotillon that we have an even number of so many couples, and if it should happen that someone comes and her partner has sent her a polite note that he has genuine reasons why he cannot come, the note must be handed at once to me, so that I arrange some other partner. Is all understood? Yes. The gentlemen will remember now to allow the ladies plenty of time to reach their houses and prepare to receive calls. Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your polite attention.”
It was nine blocks to the house of Marjorie Jones; but Penrod did it in less than seven minutes from a flying start–such was his haste to lay himself and his hand for the cotillon at the feet of one who had so recently spoken unamiably of him in public. He had not yet learned that the only safe male rebuke to a scornful female is to stay away from her–especially if that is what she desires. However, he did not wish to rebuke her; simply and ardently he wished to dance the cotillon with her. Resentment was swallowed up in hope.
The fact that Miss Jones’ feeling for him bore a striking resemblance to that of Simon Legree for Uncle Tom, deterred him not at all. Naturally, he was not wholly unconscious that when he should lay his hand for the cotillon at her feet it would be her inward desire to step on it; but he believed that if he were first in the field Marjorie would have to accept. These things are governed by law.
It was his fond intention to reach her house even in advance of herself, and with grave misgiving he beheld a large automobile at rest before the sainted gate. Forthwith, a sinking feeling became a portent inside him as little Maurice Levy emerged from the front door of the house.
“‘Lo, Penrod!” said Maurice airily.
“What you doin’ in there?” inquired Penrod.
“Well, what shouldn’t I be doin’ in Marjorie’s?” Mr. Levy returned indignantly. “I was inviting her for my partner in the cotillon–what you s’pose?”
“You haven’t got any right to!” Penrod protested hotly. “You can’t do it yet.”
“I did do it yet!” said Maurice.
“You can’t!” insisted Penrod. “You got to allow them time first. He said the ladies had to be allowed time to prepare.”
“Well, ain’t she had time to prepare?”
“When?” Penrod demanded, stepping close to his rival threateningly. “I’d like to know when—-”
“When?” echoed the other with shrill triumph. “When? Why, in mamma’s sixty-horse powder limousine automobile, what Marjorie came home with me in! I guess that’s when!”
An impulse in the direction of violence became visible upon the countenance of Penrod.
“I expect you need some wiping down,” he began dangerously. “I’ll give you sumpthing to remem—-”
“Oh, you will!” Maurice cried with astonishing truculence, contorting himself into what he may have considered a posture of defense. “Let’s see you try it, you–you itcher!”
For the moment, defiance from such a source was dumfounding. Then, luckily, Penrod recollected something and glanced at the automobile.
Perceiving therein not only the alert chauffeur but the magnificent outlines of Mrs. Levy, his enemy’s mother, he manoeuvred his lifted hand so that it seemed he had but meant to scratch his ear.
“Well, I guess I better be goin’,” he said casually. “See you tomorrow!”
Maurice mounted to the lap of luxury, and Penrod strolled away with an assumption of careless ease which was put to a severe strain when, from the rear window of the car, a sudden protuberance in the nature of a small, dark, curly head shrieked scornfully:
“Go on–you big stiff!”
The cotillon loomed dismally before Penrod now; but it was his duty to secure a partner and he set about it with a dreary heart. The delay occasioned by his fruitless attempt on Marjorie and the altercation with his enemy at her gate had allowed other ladies ample time to prepare for callers–and to receive them. Sadly he went from house to house, finding that he had been preceded in one after the other. Altogether his hand for the cotillon was declined eleven times that afternoon on the legitimate ground of previous engagement. This, with Marjorie, scored off all except five of the seventeen possible partners; and four of the five were also sealed away from him, as he learned in chance encounters with other boys upon the street.
One lady alone remained; he bowed to the inevitable and entered this lorn damsel’s gate at twilight with an air of great discouragement. The lorn damsel was Miss Rennsdale, aged eight.
We are apt to forget that there are actually times of life when too much youth is a handicap. Miss Rennsdale was beautiful; she danced like a premiere; she had every charm but age. On that account alone had she been allowed so much time to prepare to receive callers that it was only by the most manful efforts she could keep her lip from trembling.
A decorous maid conducted the long-belated applicant to her where she sat upon a sofa beside a nursery governess. The decorous maid announced him composedly as he made his entrance.
“Mr. Penrod Schofield!”
Miss Rennsdale suddenly burst into loud sobs.
“Oh!” she wailed. “I just knew it would be him!”
The decorous maid’s composure vanished at once–likewise her decorum. She clapped her hand over her mouth and fled, uttering sounds. The governess, however, set herself to comfort her heartbroken charge, and presently succeeded in restoring Miss Rennsdale to a semblance of that poise with which a lady receives callers and accepts invitations to dance cotillons. But she continued to sob at intervals.
Feeling himself at perhaps a disadvantage, Penrod made offer of his hand for the morrow with a little embarrassment. Following the form prescribed by Professor Bartet, he advanced several paces toward the stricken lady and bowed formally.
“I hope,” he said by rote, “you’re well, and your parents also in good health. May I have the pleasure of dancing the cotillon as your partner t’-morrow afternoon?”
The wet eyes of Miss Rennsdale searched his countenance without pleasure, and a shudder wrung her small shoulders; but the governess whispered to her instructively, and she made a great effort.
“I thu-thank you fu-for your polite invu-invu-invutation; and I ac—-” Thus far she progressed when emotion overcame her again. She beat frantically upon the sofa with fists and heels. “Oh, I did want it to be Georgie Bassett!”
“No, no, no!” said the governess, and whispered urgently, whereupon Miss Rennsdale was able to complete her acceptance.
“And I ac-accept wu-with pu-pleasure!” she moaned, and immediately, uttering a loud yell, flung herself face downward upon the sofa, clutching her governess convulsively.
Somewhat disconcerted, Penrod bowed again.
“I thank you for your polite acceptance,” he murmured hurriedly; “and I trust–I trust–I forget. Oh, yes–I trust we shall have a most enjoyable occasion. Pray present my compliments to your parents; and I must now wish you a very good afternoon.”
Concluding these courtly demonstrations with another bow he withdrew in fair order, though thrown into partial confusion in the hall by a final wail from his crushed hostess:
“Oh! Why couldn’t it be anybody but him!”
Chapter 13: The Smallpox Medicine
Next morning Penrod woke in profound depression of spirit, the cotillon ominous before him. He pictured Marjorie Jones and Maurice, graceful and light-hearted, flitting by him fairylike, loosing silvery laughter upon him as he engaged in the struggle to keep step with a partner about four years and two feet his junior. It was hard enough for Penrod to keep step with a girl of his size.
The foreboding vision remained with him, increasing in vividness, throughout the forenoon. He found himself unable to fix his mind upon anything else, and, having bent his gloomy footsteps toward the sawdust-box, after breakfast, presently descended therefrom, abandoning Harold Ramorez where he had left him the preceding Saturday. Then, as he sat communing silently with wistful Duke, in the storeroom, coquettish fortune looked his way.
It was the habit of Penrod’s mother not to throw away anything whatsoever until years of storage conclusively proved there would never be a use for it; but a recent house-cleaning had ejected upon the back porch a great quantity of bottles and other paraphernalia of medicine, left over from illnesses in the family during a period of several years. This debris Della, the cook, had collected in a large market basket, adding to it some bottles of flavouring extracts that had proved unpopular in the household; also, old catsup bottles; a jar or two of preserves gone bad; various rejected dental liquids–and other things. And she carried the basket out to the storeroom in the stable.
Penrod was at first unaware of what lay before him. Chin on palms, he sat upon the iron rim of a former aquarium and stared morbidly through the open door at the checkered departing back of Della. It was another who saw treasure in the basket she had left.
Mr. Samuel Williams, aged eleven, and congenial to Penrod in years, sex, and disposition, appeared in the doorway, shaking into foam a black liquid within a pint bottle, stoppered by a thumb.
“Yay, Penrod!” the visitor gave greeting.
“Yay,” said Penrod with slight enthusiasm. “What you got?”
“Drinkin’s!” demanded Penrod promptly. This is equivalent to the cry of “Biters” when an apple is shown, and establishes unquestionable title.
“Down to there!” stipulated Sam, removing his thumb to affix it firmly as a mark upon the side of the bottle a check upon gormandizing that remained carefully in place while Penrod drank.
This rite concluded, the visitor’s eye fell upon the basket deposited by Della. He emitted tokens of pleasure.
“Looky! Looky! Looky there! That ain’t any good pile o’ stuff–oh, no!”
“Drug store!” shouted Sam. “We’ll be partners—-”
“Or else,” Penrod suggested, “I’ll run the drug store and you be a customer—-”
“No! Partners!” insisted Sam with such conviction that his host yielded; and within ten minutes the drug store was doing a heavy business with imaginary patrons. Improvising counters with boards and boxes, and setting forth a very druggish-looking stock from the basket, each of the partners found occupation to his taste–Penrod as salesman and Sam as prescription clerk.
“Here you are, madam!” said Penrod briskly, offering a vial of Sam’s mixing to an invisible matron. “This will cure your husband in a few minutes. Here’s the camphor, mister. Call again! Fifty cents’ worth of pills? Yes, madam. There you are! Hurry up with that dose for the lady, Bill!”
“I’ll ‘tend to it soon’s I get time, Jim,” replied the prescription clerk. “I’m busy fixin’ the smallpox medicine for the sick policeman downtown.”
Penrod stopped sales to watch this operation. Sam had found an empty pint bottle and, with the pursed lips and measuring eye of a great chemist, was engaged in filling it from other bottles.
First, he poured into it some of the syrup from the condemned preserves; and a quantity of extinct hair oil; next the remaining contents of a dozen small vials cryptically labelled with physicians’ prescriptions; then some remnants of catsup
and essence of beef and what was left in several bottles of mouthwash; after that a quantity of rejected flavouring extract–topping off by shaking into the mouth of the bottle various powders from small pink papers, relics of Mr. Schofield’s influenza of the preceding winter.
Sam examined the combination with concern, appearing unsatisfied. “We got to make that smallpox medicine good and strong!” he remarked; and, his artistic sense growing more powerful than his appetite, he poured about a quarter of the licorice water into the smallpox medicine.
“What you doin’?” protested Penrod. “What you want to waste that lickrish water for? We ought to keep it to drink when we’re tired.”
“I guess I got a right to use my own lickrish water any way I want to,” replied the prescription clerk. “I tell you, you can’t get smallpox medicine too strong. Look at her now!” He held the bottle up admiringly. “She’s as black as lickrish. I bet you she’s strong all right!”
“I wonder how she tastes?” said Penrod thoughtfully.
“Don’t smell so awful much,” observed Sam, sniffing the bottle–“a good deal, though!”
“I wonder if it’d make us sick to drink it?” said Penrod.
Sam looked at the bottle thoughtfully; then his eye, wandering, fell upon Duke, placidly curled up near the door, and lighted with the advent of an idea new to him, but old, old in the world–older than Egypt!
“Let’s give Duke some!” he cried.
That was the spark. They acted immediately; and a minute later Duke, released from custody with a competent potion of the smallpox medicine inside him, settled conclusively their doubts concerning its effect. The patient animal, accustomed to expect the worst at all times, walked out of the door, shaking his head with an air of considerable annoyance, opening and closing his mouth with singular energy–and so repeatedly that they began to count the number of times he did it. Sam thought it was thirty-nine times, but Penrod had counted forty-one before other and more striking symptoms appeared.
All things come from Mother Earth and must return–Duke restored much at this time. Afterward, he ate heartily of grass; and then, over his shoulder, he bent upon his master one inscrutable look and departed feebly to the front yard.
The two boys had watched the process with warm interest. “I told you she was strong!” said Mr. Williams proudly.
“Yes, sir–she is!” Penrod was generous enough to admit. “I expect she’s strong enough—-” He paused in thought, and added:
“We haven’t got a horse any more.”
“I bet you she’d fix him if you had!” said Sam. And it may be that this was no idle boast.
The pharmaceutical game was not resumed; the experiment upon Duke had made the drug store commonplace and stimulated the appetite for stronger meat. Lounging in the doorway, the near- vivisectionists sipped licorice water alternately and conversed.
“I bet some of our smallpox medicine would fix ole P’fessor Bartet all right!” quoth Penrod. “I wish he’d come along and ask us for some.”
“We could tell him it was lickrish water,” added Sam, liking the idea. “The two bottles look almost the same.”
“Then we wouldn’t have to go to his ole cotillon this afternoon,” Penrod sighed. “There wouldn’t be any!”
“Who’s your partner, Pen?”
“Who’s yours? I just ast you.”
“Oh, she’s all right!” And Penrod smiled boastfully.
“I bet you wanted to dance with Marjorie!” said his friend.
“Me? I wouldn’t dance with that girl if she begged me to! I wouldn’t dance with her to save her from drowning! I wouldn’t da—-”
“Oh, no–you wouldn’t!” interrupted Mr. Williams skeptically.
Penrod changed his tone and became persuasive.
“Looky here, Sam,” he said confidentially. “I’ve got ‘a mighty nice partner, but my mother don’t like her mother; and so I’ve been thinking I better not dance with her. I’ll tell you what I’ll do; I’ve got a mighty good sling in the house, and I’ll give it to you if you’ll change partners.”
“You want to change and you don’t even know who mine is!” said Sam, and he made the simple though precocious deduction: “Yours must be a lala! Well, I invited Mabel Rorebeck, and she wouldn’t let me change if I wanted to. Mabel Rorebeck’d rather dance with me,” he continued serenely, “than anybody; and she said she was awful afraid you’d ast her. But I ain’t goin’ to dance with Mabel after all, because this morning she sent me a note about her uncle died last night–and P’fessor Bartet’ll have to find me a partner after I get there. Anyway I bet you haven’t got any sling–and I bet your partner’s Baby Rennsdale!”
“What if she is?” said Penrod. “She’s good enough for me!” This speech held not so much modesty in solution as intended praise of the lady. Taken literally, however, it was an understatement of the facts and wholly insincere.
“Yay!” jeered Mr. Williams, upon whom his friend’s hypocrisy was quite wasted. “How can your mother not like her mother? Baby Rennsdale hasn’t got any mother! You and her’ll be a sight!”
That was Penrod’s own conviction; and with this corroboration of it he grew so spiritless that he could offer no retort. He slid to a despondent sitting posture upon the door sill and gazed wretchedly upon the ground, while his companion went to replenish the licorice water at the hydrant–enfeebling the potency of the liquor no doubt, but making up for that in quantity.
“Your mother goin’ with you to the cotillon?” asked Sam when he returned.
“No. She’s goin’ to meet me there. She’s goin’ somewhere first.”
“So’s mine,” said Sam. “I’ll come by for you.”
“I better go before long. Noon whistles been blowin’.”
“All right,” Penrod repeated dully.
Sam turned to go, but paused. A new straw hat was peregrinating along the fence near the two boys. This hat belonged to someone passing upon the sidewalk of the cross- street; and the someone was Maurice Levy. Even as they stared, he halted and regarded them over the fence with two small, dark eyes.
Fate had brought about this moment and this confrontation.