Chapter 4: Desperation
The Child Sir Lancelot found himself in a large anteroom behind the stage–a room crowded with excited children, all about equally medieval and artistic. Penrod was less conspicuous than he thought himself, but he was so preoccupied with his own shame, steeling his nerves to meet the first inevitable taunting reference to his sister’s stockings, that he failed to perceive there were others present in much of his own unmanned condition. Retiring to a corner, immediately upon his entrance, he managed to unfasten the mantle at the shoulders, and, drawing it round him, pinned it again at his throat so that it concealed the rest of his costume. This permitted a temporary relief, but increased his horror of the moment when, in pursuance of the action of the “pageant,” the sheltering garment must be cast aside.
Some of the other child knights were also keeping their mantles close about them. A few of the envied opulent swung brilliant fabrics from their shoulders, airily, showing off hired splendours from a professional costumer’s stock, while one or two were insulting examples of parental indulgence, particularly little Maurice Levy, the Child Sir Galahad. This shrinking person went clamorously about, making it known everywhere that the best tailor in town had been dazzled by a great sum into constructing his costume. It consisted of blue velvet knickerbockers, a white satin waistcoat, and a beautifully cut little swallow-tailed coat with pearl buttons. The medieval and artistic triumph was completed by a mantle of yellow velvet, and little white boots, sporting gold tassels.
All this radiance paused in a brilliant career and addressed the Child Sir Lancelot, gathering an immediately formed semicircular audience of little girls. Woman was ever the trailer of magnificence.
“What you got on?” inquired Mr. Levy, after dispensing information. “What you got on under that ole golf cape?”
Penrod looked upon him coldly. At other times his questioner would have approached him with deference, even with apprehension. But to-day the Child Sir Galahad was somewhat intoxicated with the power of his own beauty.
“What you got on?” he repeated.
“Oh, nothin’,” said Penrod, with an indifference assumed at great cost to his nervous system.
The elate Maurice was inspired to set up as a wit. “Then you’re nakid!” he shouted exultantly. “Penrod Schofield says he hasn’t got nothin’ on under that ole golf cape! He’s nakid! He’s nakid.”
The indelicate little girls giggled delightedly, and a javelin pierced the inwards of Penrod when he saw that the Child Elaine, amber-curled and beautiful Marjorie Jones, lifted golden laughter to the horrid jest.
Other boys and girls came flocking to the uproar. “He’s nakid, he’s nakid!” shrieked the Child Sir Galahad. “Penrod Schofield’s nakid! He’s na-a-a-kid!”
“Hush, hush!” said Mrs. Lora Rewbush, pushing her way into the group. “Remember, we are all little knights and ladies to-day. Little knights and ladies of the Table Round would not make so much noise. Now children, we must begin to take our places on the stage. Is everybody here?”
Penrod made his escape under cover of this diversion: he slid behind Mrs. Lora Rewbush, and being near a door, opened it unnoticed and went out quickly, closing it behind him. He found himself in a narrow and vacant hallway which led to a door marked “Janitor’s Room.”
Burning with outrage, heart-sick at the sweet, cold-blooded laughter of Marjorie Jones, Penrod rested his elbows upon a window-sill and speculated upon the effects of a leap from the second story. One of the reasons he gave it up was his desire to live on Maurice Levy’s account: already he was forming educational plans for the Child Sir Galahad.
A stout man in blue overalls passed through the hallway muttering to himself petulantly. “I reckon they’ll find that hall hot enough now!” he said, conveying to Penrod an impression that some too feminine women had sent him upon an unreasonable errand to the furnace. He went into the Janitor’s Room and, emerging a moment later, minus the overalls, passed Penrod again with a bass rumble–“Dern ’em!” it seemed he said– and made a gloomy exit by the door at the upper end of the hallway.
The conglomerate and delicate rustle of a large, mannerly audience was heard as the janitor opened and closed the door; and stage-fright seized the boy. The orchestra began an overture, and, at that, Penrod, trembling violently, tiptoed down the hall into the Janitor’s Room. It was a cul-de-sac: There was no outlet save by the way he had come.
Despairingly he doffed his mantle and looked down upon himself for a last sickening assurance that the stockings were as obviously and disgracefully Margaret’s as they had seemed in the mirror at home. For a moment he was encouraged: perhaps he was no worse than some of the other boys. Then he noticed that a safety-pin had opened; one of those connecting the stockings with his trunks. He sat down to fasten it and his eye fell for the first time with particular attention upon the trunks. Until this instant he had been preoccupied with the stockings.
Slowly recognition dawned in his eyes.
The Schofields’ house stood on a corner at the intersection of two main-travelled streets; the fence was low, and the publicity obtained by the washable portion of the family apparel, on Mondays, had often been painful to Penrod; for boys have a peculiar sensitiveness in these matters. A plain, matter-of-fact washerwoman’ employed by Mrs. Schofield, never left anything to the imagination of the passer-by; and of all her calm display the scarlet flaunting of his father’s winter wear had most abashed Penrod. One day Marjorie Jones, all gold and starch, had passed when the dreadful things were on the line: Penrod had hidden himself, shuddering. The whole town, he was convinced, knew these garments intimately and derisively.
And now, as he sat in the janitor’s chair, the horrible and paralyzing recognition came. He had not an instant’s doubt that every fellow actor, as well as every soul in the audience, would recognize what his mother and sister had put upon him. For as the awful truth became plain to himself it seemed blazoned to the world; and far, far louder than the stockings, the trunks did fairly bellow the grisly secret: whose they were and what they were!
Most people have suffered in a dream the experience of finding themselves very inadequately clad in the midst of a crowd of well-dressed people, and such dreamers’ sensations are comparable to Penrod’s, though faintly, because Penrod was awake and in much too full possession of the most active capacities for anguish.
A human male whose dress has been damaged, or reveals some vital lack, suffers from a hideous and shameful loneliness which makes every second absolutely unbearable until he is again as others of his sex and species; and there is no act or sin whatever too desperate for him in his struggle to attain that condition. Also, there is absolutely no embarrassment possible to a woman which is comparable to that of a man under corresponding circumstances and in this a boy is a man. Gazing upon the ghastly trunks, the stricken Penrod felt that he was a degree worse then nude; and a great horror of himself filled his soul.
The door into the hallway opened, and a voice demanded him. He could not be seen from the hallway, but the hue and the cry was up; and he knew he must be taken. It was only a question of seconds. He huddled in his chair.
“Penrod Schofield!” cried Mrs. Lora Rewbush angrily.
The distracted boy rose and, as he did so, a long pin sank deep into his back. He extracted it frenziedly, which brought to his ears a protracted and sonorous ripping, too easily located by a final gesture of horror.
“Penrod Schofield!” Mrs. Lora Rewbush had come out into the hallway.
And now, in this extremity, when all seemed lost indeed, particularly including honour, the dilating eye of the outlaw fell upon the blue overalls which the janitor had left hanging upon a peg.
Inspiration and action were almost simultaneous.
Chapter 5. The Pageant of the Table Round
“Penrod!” Mrs. Lora Rewbush stood in the doorway, indignantly gazing upon a Child Sir Lancelot mantled to the heels. “Do you know that you have kept an audience of five hundred people waiting for ten minutes?” She, also, detained the five hundred while she spake further.
“Well,” said Penrod contentedly, as he followed her toward the buzzing stage, “I was just sitting there thinking.”
Two minutes later the curtain rose on a medieval castle hall richly done in the new stage-craft made in Germany and consisting of pink and blue cheesecloth. The Child King Arthur and the Child Queen Guinevere were disclosed upon thrones, with the Child Elaine and many other celebrities in attendance; while about fifteen Child Knights were seated at a dining-room table round, which was covered with a large Oriental rug, and displayed (for the knights’ refreshment) a banquet service of silver loving-cups and trophies, borrowed from the Country Club and some local automobile manufacturers.
In addition to this splendour, potted plants and palms have seldom been more lavishly used in any castle on the stage or off.
The footlights were aided by a “spot-light” from the rear of the hall; and the children were revealed in a blaze of glory.
A hushed, multitudinous “O-oh” of admiration came from the decorous and delighted audience. Then the children sang feebly:
“Chuldrun of the Tabul Round, Lit-tul knights and ladies we. Let our voy-siz all resound Faith and hope and charitee!”
The Child King Arthur rose, extended his sceptre with the decisive gesture of a semaphore, and spake:
“Each littul knight and lady born Has noble deeds to perform In thee child-world of shivullree, No matter how small his share may be. Let each advance and tell in turn What claim has each to knighthood earn.”
The Child Sir Mordred, the villain of this piece, rose in his place at the table round, and piped the only lines ever written by Mrs. Lora Rewbush which Penrod Schofield could have pronounced without loathing. Georgie Bassett, a really angelic boy, had been selected for the role of Mordred. His perfect conduct had earned for him the sardonic sobriquet, “The Little Gentleman,” among his boy acquaintances. (Naturally he had no friends.) Hence the other boys supposed that he had been selected for the wicked Mordred as a reward of virtue. He declaimed serenely:
“I hight Sir Mordred the Child, and I teach Lessons of selfishest evil, and reach Out into darkness. Thoughtless, unkind, And ruthless is Mordred, and unrefined.”
The Child Mordred was properly rebuked and denied the accolade, though, like the others, he seemed to have assumed the title already. He made a plotter’s exit. Whereupon Maurice Levy rose, bowed, announced that he highted the Child Sir Galahad, and continued with perfect sang-froid:
“I am the purest of the pure. I have but kindest thoughts each day. I give my riches to the poor, And follow in the Master’s way.”
This elicited tokens of approval from the Child King Arthur, and he bade Maurice “stand forth” and come near the throne, a command obeyed with the easy grace of conscious merit.
It was Penrod’s turn. He stepped back from his chair, the table between him and the audience, and began in a high, breathless monotone:
“I hight Sir Lancelot du Lake, the Child, Gentul-hearted, meek, and mild. What though I’m but a littul child, Gentul-heartud, meek, and mild, I do my share though but–though but—-”
Penrod paused and gulped. The voice of Mrs. Lora Rewbush was heard from the wings, prompting irritably, and the Child Sir Lancelot repeated:
“I do my share though but–though but a tot, I pray you knight Sir Lancelot!”
This also met the royal favour, and Penrod was bidden to join Sir Galahad at the throne. As he crossed the stage, Mrs. Schofield whispered to Margaret:
“That boy! He’s unpinned his mantle and fixed it to cover his whole costume. After we worked so hard to make it becoming!”
“Never mind; he’ll have to take the cape off in a minute,” returned Margaret. She leaned forward suddenly, narrowing her eyes to see better. “What is that thing hanging about his left ankle?” she whispered uneasily. “How queer! He must have got tangled in something.”
“Where?” asked Mrs. Schofield, in alarm.
“His left foot. It makes him stumble. Don’t you see? It looks–it looks like an elephant’s foot!”
The Child Sir Lancelot and the Child Sir Galahad clasped hands before their Child King. Penrod was conscious of a great uplift; in a moment he would have to throw aside his mantle, but even so he was protected and sheltered in the human garment of a man. His stage-fright had passed, for the audience was but an indistinguishable blur of darkness beyond the dazzling lights. His most repulsive speech (that in which he proclaimed himself a “tot”) was over and done with; and now at last the small, moist hand of the Child Sir Galahad lay within his own. Craftily his brown fingers stole from Maurice’s palm to the wrist. The two boys declaimed in concert:
“We are two chuldrun of the Tabul Round Strewing kindness all a-round. With love and good deeds striving ever for the best, May our littul efforts e’er be blest. Two littul hearts we offer. See United in love, faith, hope, and char–ow!”
The conclusion of the duet was marred. The Child Sir Galahad suddenly stiffened, and, uttering an irrepressible shriek of anguish, gave a brief exhibition of the contortionist’s art. (“He’s twistin’ my wrist! Dern you, leggo!”)
The voice of Mrs. Lora Rewbush was again heard from the wings; it sounded bloodthirsty. Penrod released his victim; and the Child King Arthur, somewhat disconcerted, extended his sceptre and, with the assistance of the enraged prompter, said:
“Sweet child-friends of the Tabul Round, In brotherly love and kindness abound, Sir Lancelot, you have spoken well, Sir Galahad, too, as clear as bell. So now pray doff your mantles gay. You shall be knighted this very day.”
And Penrod doffed his mantle.
Simultaneously, a thick and vasty gasp came from the audience, as from five hundred bathers in a wholly unexpected surf. This gasp was punctuated irregularly, over the auditorium, by imperfectly subdued screams both of dismay and incredulous joy, and by two dismal shrieks. Altogether it was an extraordinary sound, a sound never to be forgotten by any one who heard it. It was almost as unforgettable as the sight which caused it; the word “sight” being here used in its vernacular sense, for Penrod, standing unmantled and revealed in all the medieval and artistic glory of the janitor’s blue overalls, falls within its meaning.
The janitor was a heavy man, and his overalls, upon Penrod, were merely oceanic. The boy was at once swaddled and lost within their blue gulfs and vast saggings; and the left leg, too hastily rolled up, had descended with a distinctively elephantine effect, as Margaret had observed. Certainly, the Child Sir Lancelot was at least a sight.
It is probable that a great many in that hall must have had, even then, a consciousness that they were looking on at History in the Making. A supreme act is recognizable at sight: it bears the birthmark of immortality. But Penrod, that marvellous boy, had begun to declaim, even with the gesture of flinging off his mantle for the accolade:
“I first, the Child Sir Lancelot du Lake, Will volunteer to knighthood take, And kneeling here before your throne I vow to—-”
He finished his speech unheard. The audience had recovered breath, but had lost self-control, and there ensued something later described by a participant as a sort of cultured riot.
The actors in the “pageant” were not so dumfounded by Penrod’s costume as might have been expected. A few precocious geniuses perceived that the overalls were the Child Lancelot’s own comment on maternal intentions; and these were profoundly impressed: they regarded him with the grisly admiration of young and ambitious criminals for a jail-mate about to be distinguished by hanging. But most of the children simply took it to be the case (a little strange, but not startling) that Penrod’s mother had dressed him like that–which is pathetic. They tried to go on with the “pageant.”
They made a brief, manful effort. But the irrepressible outbursts from the audience bewildered them; every time Sir Lancelot du Lake the Child opened his mouth, the great, shadowy house fell into an uproar, and the children into confusion. Strong women and brave girls in the audience went out into the lobby, shrieking and clinging to one another. Others remained, rocking in their seats, helpless and spent. The neighbourhood of Mrs. Schofield and Margaret became, tactfully, a desert. Friends of the author went behind the scenes and encountered a hitherto unknown phase of Mrs. Lora Rewbush; they said, afterward, that she hardly seemed to know what she was doing. She begged to be left alone somewhere with Penrod Schofield, for just a little while.
They led her away.