Chapter XXV - Tar
When Marjorie and Mitchy-Mitch got their breath, they used it vocally; and seldom have more penetrating sounds issued from human throats. Coincidentally, Marjorie, quite baresark, laid hands upon the largest stick within reach and fell upon Penrod with blind fury. He had the presence of mind to flee, and they went round and round the caldron, while Mitchy-Mitch feebly endeavoured to follow--his appearance, in this pursuit, being pathetically like that of a bug fished out of an ink-well, alive but discouraged.
Attracted by the riot, Samuel Williams made his appearance, vaulting a fence, and was immediately followed by Maurice Levy and Georgie Bassett. They stared incredulously at the extraordinary spectacle before them.
"Little GEN-TIL-MUN!" shrieked Marjorie, with a wild stroke that landed full upon Penrod's tarry cap.
"OOOCH!" bleated Penrod.
"It's Penrod!" shouted Sam Williams, recognizing him by the voice. For an instant he had been in some doubt.
"Penrod Schofield!" exclaimed Georgie Bassett. "WHAT does this mean?" That was Georgie's style, and had helped to win him his title.
Marjorie leaned, panting, upon her stick. "I cu-called--uh-- him--oh!" she sobbed--"I called him a lul-little--oh--gentleman! And oh--lul-look!--oh! lul-look at my du-dress! Lul-look at Mu- mitchy--oh--Mitch--oh!"
Unexpectedly, she smote again--with results--and then, seizing the indistinguishable hand of Mitchy-Mitch, she ran wailing homeward down the street.
"`Little gentleman'?" said Georgie Bassett, with some evidences of disturbed complacency. "Why, that's what they call ME!"
"Yes, and you ARE one, too!" shouted the maddened Penrod. "But you better not let anybody call ME that! I've stood enough around here for one day, and you can't run over ME, Georgie Bassett. Just you put that in your gizzard and smoke it!"
"Anybody has a perfect right," said Georgie, with, dignity, "to call a person a little gentleman. There's lots of names nobody ought to call, but this one's a NICE----"
"You better look out!"
Unavenged bruises were distributed all over Penrod, both upon his body and upon his spirit. Driven by subtle forces, he had dipped his hands in catastrophe and disaster: it was not for a Georgie Bassett to beard him. Penrod was about to run amuck.
"I haven't called you a little gentleman, yet," said Georgie. "I only said it. Anybody's got a right to SAY it."
"Not around ME! You just try it again and----"
"I shall say it," returned Georgie, "all I please. Anybody in this town has a right to SAY `little gentleman'----"
Bellowing insanely, Penrod plunged his right hand into the caldron, rushed upon Georgie and made awful work of his hair and features.
Alas, it was but the beginning! Sam Williams and Maurice Levy screamed with delight, and, simultaneously infected, danced about the struggling pair, shouting frantically:
"Little gentleman! Little gentleman! Sick him, Georgie! Sick him, little gentleman! Little gentleman! Little gentleman!"
The infuriated outlaw turned upon them with blows and more tar, which gave Georgie Bassett his opportunity and later seriously impaired the purity of his fame. Feeling himself hopelessly tarred, he dipped both hands repeatedly into the caldron and applied his gatherings to Penrod. It was bringing coals to Newcastle, but it helped to assuage the just wrath of Georgie.
The four boys gave a fine imitation of the Laocoon group complicated by an extra figure frantic splutterings and chokings, strange cries and stranger words issued from this tangle; hands dipped lavishly into the inexhaustible reservoir of tar, with more and more picturesque results. The caldron had been elevated upon bricks and was not perfectly balanced; and under a heavy impact of the struggling group it lurched and went partly over, pouring forth a Stygian tide which formed a deep pool in the gutter.
It was the fate of Master Roderick Bitts, that exclusive and immaculate person, to make his appearance upon the chaotic scene at this juncture. All in the cool of a white "sailor suit," he turned aside from the path of duty--which led straight to the house of a maiden aunt--and paused to hop with joy upon the sidewalk. A repeated epithet continuously half panted, half squawked, somewhere in the nest of gladiators, caught his ear, and he took it up excitedly, not knowing why.
"Little gentleman!" shouted Roderick, jumping up and down in childish glee. "Little gentleman! Little gentleman! Lit----"
A frightful figure tore itself free from the group, encircled this innocent bystander with a black arm, and hurled him headlong. Full length and flat on his face went Roderick into the Stygian pool. The frightful figure was Penrod.
Instantly, the pack flung themselves upon him again, and, carrying them with him, he went over upon Roderick, who from that instant was as active a belligerent as any there.
Thus began the Great Tar Fight, the origin of which proved, afterward, so difficult for parents to trace, owing to the opposing accounts of the combatants. Marjorie said Penrod began it; Penrod said Mitchy-Mitch began it; Sam Williams said Georgie Bassett began it; Georgie and Maurice Levy said Penrod began it; Roderick Bitts, who had not recognized his first assailant, said Sam Williams began it.
Nobody thought of accusing the barber. But the barber did not begin it; it was the fly on the barber's nose that began it-- though, of course, something else began the fly. Somehow, we never manage to hang the real offender.
The end came only with the arrival of Penrod's mother, who had been having a painful conversation by telephone with Mrs. Jones, the mother of Marjorie, and came forth to seek an errant son. It is a mystery how she was able to pick out her own, for by the time she got there his voice was too hoarse to be recognizable. Mr. Schofield's version of things was that Penrod was insane. "He's a stark, raving lunatic!" declared the father, descending to the library from a before-dinner interview with the outlaw, that evening. "I'd send him to military school, but I don't believe they'd take him. Do you know WHY he says all that awfulness happened?"
"When Margaret and I were trying to scrub him," responded Mrs. Schofield wearily, "he said `everybody' had been calling him names."
"`Names!'" snorted her husband. "`Little gentleman!' THAT'S the vile epithet they called him! And because of it he wrecks the peace of six homes!"
"SH! Yes; he told us about it," said Mrs. Schofield, moaning. "He told us several hundred times, I should guess, though I didn't count. He's got it fixed in his head, and we couldn't get it out. All we could do was to put him in the closet. He'd have gone out again after those boys if we hadn't. I don't know WHAT to make of him!"
"He's a mystery to ME!" said her husband. "And he refuses to explain why he objects to being called `little gentleman.' Says he'd do the same thing--and worse--if anybody dared to call him that again. He said if the President of the United States called him that he'd try to whip him. How long did you have him locked up in the closet?"
"SH!" said Mrs. Schofield warningly. "About two hours; but I don't think it softened his spirit at all, because when I took him to the barber's to get his hair clipped again, on account of the tar in it, Sammy Williams and Maurice Levy were there for the same reason, and they just WHISPERED `little gentleman,' so low you could hardly hear them--and Penrod began fighting with them right before me, and it was really all the barber and I could do to drag him away from them. The barber was very kind about it, but Penrod----"
"I tell you he's a lunatic!" Mr. Schofield would have said the same thing of a Frenchman infuriated by the epithet "camel." The philosophy of insult needs expounding.
"SH!" said Mrs. Schofield. "It does seem a kind of frenzy."
"Why on earth should any sane person mind being called----"
"SH!" said Mrs. Schofield. "It's beyond ME!"
"What are you SH-ing me for?" demanded Mr. Schofield explosively.
"SH!" said Mrs. Schofield. "It's Mr. Kinosling, the new rector of Saint Joseph's."
"SH! On the front porch with Margaret; he's going to stay for dinner. I do hope----"
"Bachelor, isn't he?"
"OUR old minister was speaking of him the other day," said Mr. Schofield, "and he didn't seem so terribly impressed."
"SH! Yes; about thirty, and of course so superior to most of Margaret's friends--boys home from college. She thinks she likes young Robert Williams, I know--but he laughs so much! Of course there isn't any comparison. Mr. Kinosling talks so intellectually; it's a good thing for Margaret to hear that kind of thing, for a change and, of course, he's very spiritual. He seems very much interested in her." She paused to muse. "I think Margaret likes him; he's so different, too. It's the third time he's dropped in this week, and I----"
"Well," said Mr. Schofield grimly, "if you and Margaret want him to come again, you'd better not let him see Penrod."
"But he's asked to see him; he seems interested in meeting all the family. And Penrod nearly always behaves fairly well at table." She paused, and then put to her husband a question referring to his interview with Penrod upstairs. "Did you--did you--do it?"
"No," he answered gloomily. "No, I didn't, but----" He was interrupted by a violent crash of china and metal in the kitchen, a shriek from Della, and the outrageous voice of Penrod. The well-informed Della, ill-inspired to set up for a wit, had ventured to address the scion of the house roguishly as "little gentleman," and Penrod, by means of the rapid elevation of his right foot, had removed from her supporting hands a laden tray. Both parents, started for the kitchen, Mr. Schofield completing his interrupted sentence on the way.
"But I will, now!"
The rite thus promised was hastily but accurately performed in that apartment most distant from the front porch; and, twenty minutes later, Penrod descended to dinner. The Rev. Mr. Kinosling had asked for the pleasure of meeting him, and it had been decided that the only course possible was to cover up the scandal for the present, and to offer an undisturbed and smiling family surface to the gaze of the visitor.
Scorched but not bowed, the smouldering Penrod was led forward for the social formulae simultaneously with the somewhat bleak departure of Robert Williams, who took his guitar with him, this time, and went in forlorn unconsciousness of the powerful forces already set in secret motion to be his allies.
The punishment just undergone had but made the haughty and unyielding soul of Penrod more stalwart in revolt; he was unconquered. Every time the one intolerable insult had been offered him, his resentment had become the hotter, his vengeance the more instant and furious. And, still burning with outrage, but upheld by the conviction of right, he was determined to continue to the last drop of his blood the defense of his honour, whenever it should be assailed, no matter how mighty or august the powers that attacked it. In all ways, he was a very sore boy.
During the brief ceremony of presentation, his usually inscrutable countenance wore an expression interpreted by his father as one of insane obstinacy, while Mrs. Schofield found it an incentive to inward prayer. The fine graciousness of Mr. Kinosling, however, was unimpaired by the glare of virulent suspicion given him by this little brother: Mr. Kinosling mistook it for a natural curiosity concerning one who might possibly become, in time, a member of the family. He patted Penrod upon the head, which was, for many reasons, in no condition to be patted with any pleasure to the patter. Penrod felt himself in the presence of a new enemy.
"How do you do, my little lad," said Mr. Kinosling. "I trust we shall become fast friends."
To the ear of his little lad, it seemed he said, "A trost we shall bick-home fawst frainds." Mr. Kinosling's pronunciation was, in fact, slightly precious; and, the little lad, simply mistaking it for some cryptic form of mockery of himself, assumed a manner and expression which argued so ill for the proposed friendship that Mrs. Schofield hastily interposed the suggestion of dinner, and the small procession went in to the dining-room.
"It has been a delicious day," said Mr. Kinosling, presently; "warm but balmy." With a benevolent smile he addressed Penrod, who sat opposite him. "I suppose, little gentleman, you have been indulging in the usual outdoor sports of vacation?"
Penrod laid down his fork and glared, open-mouthed at Mr. Kinosling.
"You'll have another slice of breast of the chicken?" Mr. Schofield inquired, loudly and quickly.
"A lovely day!" exclaimed Margaret, with equal promptitude and emphasis. "Lovely, oh, lovely! Lovely!"
"Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!" said Mrs. Schofield, and after a glance at Penrod which confirmed her impression that he intended to say something, she continued, "Yes, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful beautiful!"
Penrod closed his mouth and sank back in his chair--and his relatives took breath.
Mr. Kinosling looked pleased. This responsive family, with its ready enthusiasm, made the kind of audience he liked. He passed a delicate white hand gracefully over his tall, pale forehead, and smiled indulgently.
"Youth relaxes in summer," he said. "Boyhood is the age of relaxation; one is playful, light, free, unfettered. One runs and leaps and enjoys one's self with one's companions. It is good for the little lads to play with their friends; they jostle, push, and wrestle, and simulate little, happy struggles with one another in harmless conflict. The young muscles are toughening. It is good. Boyish chivalry develops, enlarges, expands. The young learn quickly, intuitively, spontaneously. They perceive the obligations of noblesse oblige. They begin to comprehend the necessity of caste and its requirements. They learn what birth means--ah,--that is, they learn what it means to be well born. They learn courtesy in their games; they learn politeness, consideration for one another in their pastimes, amusements, lighter occupations. I make it my pleasure to join them often, for I sympathize with them in all their wholesome joys as well as in their little bothers and perplexities. I understand them, you see; and let me tell you it is no easy matter to understand the little lads and lassies." He sent to each listener his beaming glance, and, permitting it to come to rest upon Penrod, inquired:
"And what do you say to that, little gentleman?"
Mr. Schofield uttered a stentorian cough. "More? You'd better have some more chicken! More! Do!"
"More chicken!" urged Margaret simultaneously. "Do please! Please! More! Do! More!"
"Beautiful, beautiful," began Mrs. Schofield. "Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful----"
It is not known in what light Mr. Kinosling viewed the expression of Penrod's face. Perhaps he mistook it for awe; perhaps he received no impression at all of its extraordinary quality. He was a rather self-engrossed young man, just then engaged in a double occupation, for he not only talked, but supplied from his own consciousness a critical though favourable auditor as well, which of course kept him quite busy. Besides, it is oftener than is expected the case that extremely peculiar expressions upon the countenances of boys are entirely overlooked, and suggest nothing to the minds of people staring straight at them. Certainly Penrod's expression--which, to the perception of his family, was perfectly horrible--caused not the faintest perturbation in the breast of Mr. Kinosling.
Mr. Kinosling waived the chicken, and continued to talk. "Yes, I think I may claim to understand boys," he said, smiling thoughtfully. "One has been a boy one's self. Ah, it is not all playtime! I hope our young scholar here does not overwork himself at his Latin, at his classics, as I did, so that at the age of eight years I was compelled to wear glasses. He must be careful not to strain the little eyes at his scholar's tasks, not to let the little shoulders grow round over his scholar's desk. Youth is golden; we should keep it golden, bright, glistening. Youth should frolic, should be sprightly; it should play its cricket, its tennis, its hand-ball. It should run and leap; it should laugh, should sing madrigals and glees, carol with the lark, ring out in chanties, folk-songs, ballads, roundelays----"
He talked on. At any instant Mr. Schofield held himself ready to cough vehemently and shout, "More chicken," to drown out Penrod in case the fatal words again fell from those eloquent lips; and Mrs. Schofield and Margaret kept themselves prepared at all times to assist him. So passed a threatening meal, which Mrs. Schofield hurried, by every means with decency, to its conclusion. She felt that somehow they would all be safer out in the dark of the front porch, and led the way thither as soon as possible.
"No cigar, I thank you." Mr. Kinosling, establishing himself in a wicker chair beside Margaret, waved away her father's proffer. "I do not smoke. I have never tasted tobacco in any form." Mrs. Schofield was confirmed in her opinion that this would be an ideal son-in-law. Mr. Schofield was not so sure.
"No," said Mr. Kinosling. "No tobacco for me. No cigar, no pipe, no cigarette, no cheroot. For me, a book--a volume of poems, perhaps. Verses, rhymes, lines metrical and cadenced-- those are my dissipation. Tennyson by preference: `Maud,' or `Idylls of the King'--poetry of the sound Victorian days; there is none later. Or Longfellow will rest me in a tired hour. Yes; for me, a book, a volume in the hand, held lightly between the fingers."
Mr. Kinosling looked pleasantly at his fingers as he spoke, waving his hand in a curving gesture which brought it into the light of a window faintly illumined from the interior of the house. Then he passed those graceful fingers over his hair, and turned toward Penrod, who was perched upon the railing in a dark corner.
"The evening is touched with a slight coolness," said Mr. Kinosling. "Perhaps I may request the little gentleman----"
"B'gr-r-RUFF!" coughed Mr. Schofield. "You'd better change your mind about a cigar."
"No, I thank you. I was about to request the lit----"
"DO try one," Margaret urged. "I'm sure papa's are nice ones. Do try----"
"No, I thank you. I remarked a slight coolness in the air, and my hat is in the hallway. I was about to request----"
"I'll get it for you," said Penrod suddenly.
"If you will be so good," said Mr. Kinosling. "It is a black bowler hat, little gentleman, and placed upon a table in the hall."
"I know where it is." Penrod entered the door, and a feeling of relief, mutually experienced, carried from one to another of his three relatives their interchanged congratulations that he had recovered his sanity.
"`The day is done, and the darkness,'" began Mr. Kinosling-- and recited that poem entire. He followed it with "The Children's Hour," and after a pause, at the close, to allow his listeners time for a little reflection upon his rendition, he passed his handagain over his head, and called, in the direction of the doorway:
"I believe I will take my hat now, little gentleman."
"Here it is," said Penrod, unexpectedly climbing over the porch railing, in the other direction. His mother and father and Margaret had supposed him to be standing in the hallway out of deference, and because he thought it tactful not to interrupt the recitations. All of them remembered, later, that this supposed thoughtfulness on his part struck them as unnatural.
"Very good, little gentleman!" said Mr. Kinosling, and being somewhat chilled, placed the hat firmly upon his head, pulling it down as far as it would go. It had a pleasant warmth, which he noticed at once. The next instant, he noticed something else, a peculiar sensation of the scalp--a sensation which he was quite unable to define. He lifted his hand to take the hat off, and entered upon a strange experience: his hat seemed to have decided to remain where it was.
"Do you like Tennyson as much as Longfellow, Mr. Kinosling?" inquired Margaret.
"I--ah--I cannot say," he returned absently. "I--ah--each has his own--ugh! flavour and savour, each his--ah--ah----"
Struck by a strangeness in his tone, she peered at him curiously through the dusk. His outlines were indistinct, but she made out that his arms were, uplifted in a singular gesture. He seemed to be wrenching at his head.
"Is--is anything the matter?" she asked anxiously. "Mr. Kinosling, are you ill?"
"Not at--ugh!--all," he replied, in the same odd tone. "I-- ah--I believe--UGH!"
He dropped his hands from his hat, and rose. His manner was slightly agitated. "I fear I may have taken a trifling--ah-- cold. I should--ah--perhaps be--ah--better at home. I will-- ah--say good-night."
At the steps, he instinctively lifted his hand to remove his hat, but did not do so, and, saying "Goodnight," again in a frigid voice, departed with visible stiffness from that house, to return no more.
"Well, of all----!" cried Mrs. Schofield, astounded. "What was the matter? He just went--like that!" She made a flurried gesture. "In heaven's name, Margaret, what DID you say to him?"
"I!" exclaimed Margaret indignantly. "Nothing! He just WENT!"
"Why, he didn't even take off his hat when he said good- night!" said Mrs. Schofield.
Margaret, who had crossed to the doorway, caught the ghost of a whisper behind her, where stood Penrod.
"YOU BET HE DIDN'T!"
He knew not that he was overheard.
A frightful suspicion flashed through Margaret's mind--a suspicion that Mr. Kinosling's hat would have to be either boiled off or shaved off. With growing horror she recalled Penrod's long absence when he went to bring the hat.
"Penrod," she cried, "let me see your hands!"
She had toiled at those hands herself late that afternoon, nearly scalding her own, but at last achieving a lily purity.
"Let me see your hands!"
She seized them.
Again they were tarred!