Chapter 30: The Birthday Party
A dancing floor had been laid upon a platform in the yard, when Mrs. Schofield and her son arrived at their own abode; and a white and scarlet striped canopy was in process of erection overhead, to shelter the dancers from the sun. Workmen were busy everywhere under the direction of Margaret, and the smitten heart of Penrod began to beat rapidly. All this was for him; he was Twelve!
After lunch, he underwent an elaborate toilette and murmured not. For the first time in his life he knew the wish to be sand-papered, waxed, and polished to the highest possible degree. And when the operation was over, he stood before the mirror in new bloom, feeling encouraged to hope that his resemblance to his father was not so strong as Aunt Sarah seemed to think.
The white gloves upon his hands had a pleasant smell, he found; and, as he came down the stairs, he had great content in the twinkling of his new dancing slippers. He stepped twice on each step, the better to enjoy their effect and at the same time he deeply inhaled the odour of the gloves. In spite of everything, Penrod had his social capacities. Already it is to be perceived that there were in him the makings of a cotillon leader.
Then came from the yard a sound of tuning instruments, squeak of fiddle, croon of ‘cello, a falling triangle ringing and tinkling to the floor; and he turned pale.
Chosen guests began to arrive, while Penrod, suffering from stage-fright and perspiration, stood beside his mother, in the “drawing-room,” to receive them. He greeted unfamiliar acquaintances and intimate fellow-criminals with the same frigidity, murmuring: “‘M glad to see y’,” to all alike, largely increasing the embarrassment which always prevails at the beginning of children’s festivities. His unnatural pomp and circumstance had so thoroughly upset him, in truth, that Marjorie Jones received a distinct shock, now to be related. Doctor Thrope, the kind old clergyman who had baptized Penrod, came in for a moment to congratulate the boy, and had just moved away when it was Marjorie’s turn, in the line of children, to speak to Penrod. She gave him what she considered a forgiving look, and, because of the occasion, addressed him in a perfectly courteous manner.
“I wish you many happy returns of the day, Penrod.”
“Thank you, sir!” he returned, following Dr. Thrope with a glassy stare in which there was absolutely no recognition of Marjorie. Then he greeted Maurice Levy, who was next to Marjorie: “‘M glad to see y’!”
Dumfounded, Marjorie turned aside, and stood near, observing Penrod with gravity. It was the first great surprise of her life. Customarily, she had seemed to place his character somewhere between that of the professional rioter and that of the orang-outang; nevertheless, her manner at times just hinted a consciousness that this Caliban was her property. Wherefore, she stared at him incredulously as his head bobbed up and down, in the dancing-school bow, greeting his guests. Then she heard an adult voice, near her, exclaim:
“What an exquisite child!”
Mariorie galanced up–a little consciously, though she was used to it–naturally curious to ascertain who was speaking of her. It was Sam Williams’ mother addressing Mrs. Bassett, both being present to help Mrs. Schofield make the festivities festive.
Here was a second heavy surprise for Marjorie: they were not looking at her. They were looking with beaming approval at a girl she had never seen; a dark and modish stranger of singularly composed and yet modest aspect. Her downcast eyes, becoming in one thus entering a crowded room, were all that produced the effect of modesty, counteracting something about her which might have seemed too assured. She was very slender, very dainty, and her apparel was disheartening to the other girls; it was of a knowing picturesqueness wholly unfamiliar to them. There was a delicate trace of powder upon the lobe of Fanchon’s left ear, and the outlines of her eyelids, if very closely scrutinized, would have revealed successful experimentation with a burnt match.
Marjorie’s lovely eyes dilated: she learned the meaning of hatred at first sight. Observing the stranger with instinctive suspicion, all at once she seemed, to herself, awkward. Poor Marjorie underwent that experience which hearty, healthy, little girls and big girls undergo at one time or another–from heels to head she felt herself, somehow, too thick.
Fanchon leaned close to Penrod and whispered in his ear:
“Don’t you forget!”
Marjorie saw the blush. Her lovely eyes opened even wider, and in them there began to grow a light. It was the light of indignation;–at least, people whose eyes glow with that light always call it indignation.
Roderick Magsworth Bitts, Junior, approached Fanchon, when she had made her courtesy to Mrs. Schofield. Fanchon whispered in Roderick’s ear also.
“Your hair is pretty, Roddy! Don’t forget what you said yesterday!”
Roderick likewise blushed.
Maurice Levy, captivated by the newcomer’s appearance, pressed close to Roderick.
“Give us an intaduction, Roddy?”
Roddy being either reluctant or unable to perform the rite, Fanchon took matters into her own hands, and was presently favourably impressed with Maurice, receiving the information that his tie had been brought to him by his papa from Skoone’s, whereupon she privately informed him that she liked wavy hair, and arranged to dance with him. Fanchon also thought sandy hair attractive, Sam Williams discovered, a few minutes later, and so catholic was her taste that a ring of boys quite encircled her before the musicians in the yard struck up their thrilling march, and Mrs. Schofield brought Penrod to escort the lady from out-of-town to the dancing pavilion.
Headed by this pair, the children sought partners and paraded solemnly out of the front door and round a corner of the house. There they found the gay marquee; the small orchestra seated on the lawn at one side of it, and a punch bowl of lemonade inviting attention, under a tree. Decorously the small couples stepped upon the platform, one after another, and began to dance.
“It’s not much like a children’s party in our day,” Mrs. Williams said to Penrod’s mother. “We’d have been playing ‘Quaker-meeting,’ ‘Clap-in, Clap-out,’ or ‘Going to Jerusalem,’ I suppose.”
“Yes, or ‘Post-office’ and ‘Drop-the-handkerchief,'” said Mrs. Schofield. “Things change so quickly. Imagine asking little Fanchon Gelbraith to play ‘London Bridge’! Penrod seems to be having a difficult time with her, poor boy; he wasn’t a shining light in the dancing class.”
However, Penrod’s difficulty was not precisely of the kind his mother supposed. Fanchon was showing him a new step, which she taught her next partner in turn, continuing instructions during the dancing. The children crowded the floor, and in the kaleidoscopic jumble of bobbing heads and intermingling figures her extremely different style of motion was unobserved by the older people, who looked on, nodding time benevolently.
Fanchon fascinated girls as well as boys. Many of the former eagerly sought her acquaintance and thronged about her between the dances, when, accepting the deference due a cosmopolitan and an oracle of the mode, she gave demonstrations of the new step to succeeding groups, professing astonishment to find it unknown: it had been “all the go,” she explained, at the Long Shore Casino for fully two seasons. She pronounced “slow” a “Fancy Dance” executed during an intermission by Baby Rennsdale and Georgie Bassett, giving it as her opinion that Miss Rennsdale and Mr. Bassett were “dead ones”; and she expressed surprise that the punch bowl contained lemonade and not champagne.
The dancing continued, the new step gaining instantly in popularity, fresh couples adventuring with every number. The word “step” is somewhat misleading, nothing done with the feet being vital to the evolutions introduced by Fanchon. Fanchon’s dance came from the Orient by a roundabout way; pausing in Spain, taking on a Gallic frankness in gallantry at the Bal Bullier in Paris, combining with a relative from the South Seas encountered in San Francisco, flavouring itself with a carefree abandon in New Orleans, and, accumulating, too, something inexpressible from Mexico and South America, it kept, throughout its travels, to the underworld, or to circles where nature is extremely frank and rank, until at last it reached the dives of New York, when it immediately broke out in what is called civilized society. Thereafter it spread, in variously modified forms–some of them disinfected–to watering-places, and thence, carried by hundreds of older male and female Fanchons, over the country, being eagerly adopted everywhere and made wholly pure and respectable by the supreme moral axiom that anything is all right if enough people do it. Everybody was doing it.
Not quite everybody. It was perhaps some test of this dance that earth could furnish no more grotesque sight than that of children doing it.
Earth, assisted by Fanchon, was furnishing this sight at Penrod’s party. By the time ice-cream and cake arrived, about half the guests had either been initiated into the mysteries by Fanchon or were learning by imitation, and the education of the other half was resumed with the dancing, when the attendant ladies, unconscious of what was happening, withdrew into the house for tea.
“That orchestra’s a dead one,” Fanchon remarked to Penrod. “We ought to liven them up a little!”
She approached the musicians.
“Don’t you know,” she asked the leader, “the Slingo Sligo Slide?”
The leader giggled, nodded, rapped with his bow upon his violin; and Penrod, following Fanchon back upon the dancing floor, blindly brushed with his elbow a solitary little figure standing aloof on the lawn at the edge of the platform.
It was Marjorie.
In no mood to approve of anything introduced by Fanchon, she had scornfully refused, from the first, to dance the new “step,” and, because of its bonfire popularity, found herself neglected in a society where she had reigned as beauty and belle. Faithless Penrod, dazed by the sweeping Fanchon, had utterly forgotten the amber curls; he had not once asked Marjorie to dance. All afternoon the light of indignation had been growing brighter in her eyes, though Maurice Levy’s defection to the lady from New York had not fanned this flame. From the moment Fanchon had whispered familiarly in Penrod’s ear, and Penrod had blushed, Marjorie had been occupied exclusively with resentment against that guilty pair. It seemed to her that Penrod had no right to allow a strange girl to whisper in his ear; that his blushing, when the strange girl did it, was atrocious; and that the strange girl, herself, ought to be arrested.
Forgotten by the merrymakers, Marjorie stood alone upon the lawn, clenching her small fists, watching the new dance at its high tide, and hating it with a hatred that made every inch of her tremble. And, perhaps because jealousy is a great awakener of the virtues, she had a perception of something in it worse than lack of dignity–something vaguely but outrageously reprehensible. Finally, when Penrod brushed by her, touched her with his elbow, and, did not even see her, Marjorie’s state of mind (not unmingled with emotion!) became dangerous. In fact, a trained nurse, chancing to observe her at this juncture, would probably have advised that she be taken home and put to bed. Marjorie was on the verge of hysterics.
She saw Fanchon and Penrod assume the double embrace required by the dance; the “Slingo Sligo Slide” burst from the orchestra like the lunatic shriek of a gin-maddened man; and all the little couples began to bob and dip and sway.
Marjorie made a scene. She sprang upon the platform and stamped her foot.
“Penrod Schofield!” she shouted. “You behave yourself!”
The remarkable girl took Penrod by the ear. By his ear she swung him away from Fanchon and faced him toward the lawn.
“You march straight out of here!” she commanded.
He was stunned; obeyed automatically, without question, and had very little realization of what was happening to him. Altogether, and without reason, he was in precisely the condition of an elderly spouse detected in flagrant misbehaviour. Marjorie, similarly, was in precisely the condition of the party who detects such misbehaviour. It may be added that she had acted with a promptness, a decision and a disregard of social consequences all to be commended to the attention of ladies in like predicament.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” she raged, when they reached the lawn. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
“What for?” he inquired, helplessly.
“You be quiet!”
“But what’d I do, Marjorie? I haven’t done anything to you,” he pleaded. “I haven’t even seen you, all aftern—-”
“You be quiet!” she cried, tears filling her eyes. “Keep still! You ugly boy! Shut up!”
She slapped him.
He should have understood from this how much she cared for him. But he rubbed his cheek and declared ruefully:
“I’ll never speak to you again!”
“You will, too!” she sobbed, passionately.
“I will not!”
He turned to leave her, but paused.
His mother, his sister Margaret, and their grownup friends had finished their tea and were approaching from the house. Other parents and guardians were with them, coming for their children; and there were carriages and automobiles waiting in the street. But the “Slingo Slide” went on, regardless.
The group of grown-up people hesitated and came to a halt, gazing at the pavilion.
“What are they doing?” gasped Mrs. Williams, blushing deeply. “What is it? What is it?”
“What is it?” Mrs. Gelbraith echoed in a frightened whisper. “What—-”
“They’re Tangoing!” cried Margaret Schofield. “Or Bunny Hugging or Grizzly Bearing, or—-”
“They’re only Turkey Trotting,” said Robert Williams.
With fearful outcries the mothers, aunts, and sisters rushed upon the pavilion.
“Of course it was dreadful,” said Mrs. Schofield, an hour later, rendering her lord an account of the day, “but it was every bit the fault of that one extraordinary child. And of all the quiet, demur little things–that is, I mean, when she first came. We all spoke of how exquisite she seemed–so well trained, so finished! Eleven years old! I never saw anything like her in my life!”
“I suppose it’s the New Child,” her husband grunted.
“And to think of her saying there ought to have been champagne in the lemonade!”
“Probably she’d forgotten to bring her pocket flask,” he suggested musingly.
“But aren’t you proud of Penrod?” cried Penrod’s mother. “It was just as I told you: he was standing clear outside the pavilion—-”
“I never thought to see the day! And Penrod was the only boy not doing it, the only one to refuse? All the others were—-”
“Every one!” she returned triumphantly. “Even Georgie Bassett!”
“Well,” said Mr. Schofield, patting her on the shoulder. “I guess we can hold up our heads at last.”
Chapter 31: Over the Fence
Penrod was out in the yard, staring at the empty marquee. The sun was on the horizon line, so far behind the back fence, and a western window of the house blazed in gold unbearable to the eye: his day was nearly over. He sighed, and took from the inside pocket of his new jacket the “sling-shot” aunt Sarah Crim had given him that morning.
He snapped the rubbers absently. They held fast; and his next impulse was entirely irresistible. He found a shapely stone, fitted it to the leather, and drew back the ancient catapult for a shot. A sparrow hopped upon a branch between him and the house, and he aimed at the sparrow, but the reflection from the dazzling window struck in his eyes as he loosed the leather.
He missed the sparrow, but not the window. There was a loud crash, and to his horror he caught a glimpse of his father, stricken in mid-shaving, ducking a shower of broken glass, glittering razor flourishing wildly. Words crashed with the glass, stentorian words, fragmentary but collossal.
Penrod stood petrified, a broken sling in his hand. He could hear his parent’s booming descent of the back stairs, instant and furious; and then, red-hot above white lather, Mr. Schofield burst out of the kitchen door and hurtled forth upon his son.
“What do you mean?” he demanded, shaking Penrod by the shoulder. “Ten minutes ago, for the very first time in our lives, your mother and I were saying we were proud of you, and here you go and throw a rock at me through the window when I’m shaving for dinner!”
“I didn’t!” Penrod quavered. “I was shooting at a sparrow, and the sun got in his eyes, and the sling broke—-”
“Where’d you get that devilish thing? Don’t you know I’ve forbidden you a thousand times—-”
“It ain’t mine,” said Penrod. “It’s yours.”
“Yes, sir,” said the boy meekly. “Aunt Sarah Crim gave it to me this morning and told me to give it back to you. She said she took it away from you thirty-five years ago. You killed her hen, she said. She told me some more to tell you, but I’ve forgotten.”
“Oh!” said Mr. Schofield.
He took the broken sling in his hand, looked at it long and thoughtfully–and he looked longer, and quite as thoughtfully, at Penrod. Then he turned away, and walked toward the house.
“I’m sorry, papa,” said Penrod.
Mr. Schofield coughed, and, as he reached the door, called back, but without turning his head.
“Never mind, little boy. A broken window isn’t much harm.”
When he had gone in, Penrod wandered down the yard to the back fence, climbed upon it, and sat in reverie there.
A slight figure appeared, likewise upon a fence, beyond two neighbouring yards.
“Yay, Penrod!” called comrade Sam Williams.
“Yay!” returned Penrod, mechanically.
“I caught Billy Blue Hill!” shouted Sam, describing retribution in a manner perfectly clear to his friend. “You were mighty lucky to get out of it.”
“I know that!”
“You wouldn’t of, if it hadn’t been for Marjorie.”
“Well, don’t I know that?” Penrod shouted, with heat.
“Well, so long!” called Sam, dropping from his fence; and the friendly voice came then, more faintly, “Many happy returns of the day, Penrod!”
And now, a plaintive little whine sounded from below Penrod’s feet, and, looking down, he saw that Duke, his wistful, old, scraggly dog sat in the grass, gazing seekingly up at him.
The last shaft of sunshine of that day fell graciously and like a blessing upon the boy sitting on the fence. Years afterward, a quiet sunset would recall to him sometimes the gentle evening of his twelfth birthday, and bring him the picture of his boy self, sitting in rosy light upon the fence, gazing pensively down upon his wistful, scraggly, little old dog, Duke. But something else, surpassing, he would remember of that hour, for, in the side street, close by, a pink skirt flickered from behind a shade tree to the shelter of the fence, there was a gleam of amber curls, and Penrod started, as something like a tiny white wing fluttered by his head, and there came to his ears the sound of a light laugh and of light footsteps departing, the laughter tremulous, the footsteps fleet.
In the grass, between Duke’s forepaws, there lay a white note, folded in the shape of a cocked hat, and the sun sent forth a final amazing glory as Penrod opened it and read: “Your my bow.”