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.