Once a Penguin Always a Penguin

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Once a Penguin Always a Penguin  (1921) 
by Ellis Parker Butler

From 'the "Editor's Drawer" section of Harper's Magazine, 1921. Illustrated by A. B. Frost

I wrote so late that night that I overslept the next morning and was only awakened by Cousin Clara rapping on my door. "Get up!" she called. "It is nine, and the elopement is almost due. You must not miss the details; you'll need the realism."



MY point is that if you once find a genuine human penguin the best thing to do with it is leave it alone and not try to make it sing like a canary or swoop gayly over the waves like an albatross. You can put a penguin in a gilded cage, but the only way to make it sing satisfactorily is to kill it and stuff it and put a phonograph in it. And it is almost impossible to rig it up for flying purposes; even the most enthusiastic airplane-maker never began the construction of a flying machine by choosing a tub of lard as its base.

I remember quite well that when Cousin Clara suggested that Aunt Eldora might like to join the Ladies' Literary Club a shiver of doubt ran down my spine. My face must have shown plainly my doubts of the appropriateness of Aunt Eldora in literary surroundings, for Cousin Clara said:

"I don't see that at all; in her new black dress Aunt Eldora looks quite as well as any of the ladies—any of the large ones."

I did not answer this; I had not considered it from that angle. Aunt Eldora joined. She always did the things Cousin Clara suggested. When they returned from her first meeting I asked her how she liked it.

"The papers they read was real nice, Edward," she replied. "I couldn't understand much, but I'm new at it yet. Everybody was real nice to me. They had some spice cookies was real nice and tasty. I think I looked as nice as anybody there. I wish you would come up and help me get out of my corset, Clara."

"What were the—ah—papers mostly about?" I asked.

"Books, wasn't they, Clara?" Aunt Eldora asked.

"Our course this year is 'Realistic American Fiction with Side Lights from the Moderns of Russia and Other European Literatures,'" said Clara, hastily. "Come up and I'll unhook you, auntie."

When Aunt Eldora came down I held a brief conversation with her on the meeting she had attended.

"Did you entirely agree with the writers of the papers?" I asked her. "I understand there is quite a violent controversy over the relative merits of ultra-realism, romantic realism, and romance pure and simple."

"Why, nobody seemed to get real mad about it," she said, with surprise. "It all seemed real nice and polite to me, but I wish the meetings wasn't quite so long."

After the third meeting Aunt Eldora told Cousin Clara she guessed she wouldn't go any more. I think some of the Russian-Dutch-Norwegian literature was beginning to filter through into her mind.

"I don't think some of them pieces out of the books is the right things for nice ladies to read—not in open meeting, anyhow," she declared. "I don't believe Brother Potter would approve of it one mite. That Russian story-novelist, now; it looks like he hadn't nothing better to do than waste his time telling about crazy folks and drunken ones except when he goes on about a lot of females that had ought to be run out of town. I don't know as I want to go again, Clara."

Clara, however, persuaded her to attend the next meeting at least. I was there, too, because it was the annual open meeting, with men invited. They had, as a special attraction, a poet from New York, the justly celebrated Rudolph Griggins. I had never heard of him, but he wore spats, so he must have been good. He talked for an hour on "Modern Poesy," and proved that Tennyson and Keats were mere trash compared with Avva Lotta Gall, the free-verse lady of to-day, and Pakrigh Ogh Harragh (otherwise Pat O'Hara), the talented author of "Raagh Mahagn's Lhagmeghnt," and so on. I may not have the names exactly right. Then he read some of his own poems. I remember he had just brushed back his hair and raised thin white hand, reading:

"I hear a sound with my ears;
Do I hear Angel tones?
Cerulean zephyrs whispering.
Bees voicing in honeyed chalices?"

when Aunt Eldora snored long and deep. Nearly everyone looked toward her and frowned. Then the poet continued:

"Nay! A sound more vital is this;
It is modernity;
It is a locomotive letting off steam."

"Agghrah—psst—pfhe—oo—oo," snored Aunt Eldora.

Cousin Clara poked her and she sat up suddenly.

"My goodness! Was I asleep?" Aunt Eldora whispered. "I thought I had the iceman under my arm, running off with him."

Evidently the new literature was seeping into Aunt Eldora. A few weeks earlier she never would have dreamed of eloping with the iceman.

"Hush!" whispered Cousin Clara. "The poet is reading his own poems now; they are beautiful."

"Yes, ain't they?" Aunt Eldora answered. I need not say that before long Aunt Eldora became an addict. Culture is certainly insidious and it became by no means rare to see Aunt Eldora drop the latest European novel and rush to the kitchen to drag her bread from the oven, the crust burned black. When I say "rush" I mean, of course, waddle hastily. I was indeed surprised, however, to have Aunt Eldora say to me quite seriously one day:

"Edward, have you ever took notice how like these here Russian story-novel heroes Sam Cussak is? He don't do a mite of work, and he's drunk most of the time, and they do say he beats his poor wife just awful. I guess maybe he's a hero."

"He's a low brute," I said.

Cussak was the man who brought the ice. I had seen little of him, but Clara had once said she was surprised that he was working. He seldom worked. "I don't think it is right to send such men to nice houses," she said. "The way he swears when the ice won't fit in the ice box is awful. And, do you know, I think he is actually trying to flirt with Aunt Eldora."

"Uncle Edgar would not like that," I said.

"No, the poor little shrimp," said Cousin Clara.

As the weeks passed I became more and more hopeful. I have postponed saying that I was visiting Aunt Eldora and Uncle Edgar because I am a novelist and I hoped to write a novel of small-town life—something to picture the deadening influence of the small town on the more noble faculties, that sort of novel being the rage just then. I had come to study Aunt Eldora and Uncle Edgar. But nothing had happened. Of course, in many modern novels nothing happens but I did not wish to leap from my former romanticist style in one leap. I wanted to taper off gradually. As a matter of fact, gradually is the only way one can taper off.

The reaction of Aunt Eldora to the literature of modern Europe (we novelists are strong for reactions these days) gave me something to put in my novel besides the whatnot and the plush album. (Aunt Eldora had none, but they have to be in a small town novel, so I put them in; the eternal verities must and shall be preserved!)

Still, there was little action. Uncle Edgar, justly characterized by Cousin Clara as a little shrimp, clerked at the bank in the most uninteresting manner, and even Cousin Clara had no heartbreak reactions because she could not turn the City Hall into a lecture rostrum. The Dostoievskization of Aunt Eldora seemed a blessing to me, therefore, and I watched its progress eagerly, making notes in my memoranda book.

My study of Aunt Eldora was most delightful to me. It was worth while. The reluctance of her penguin nature fought the urge she received at the weekly meetings of the Literary Society; her lifelong habit of constancy to Uncle Edgar struggled against the feeling that if she meant to be modern she must elope with Sam Cussak.

"Them ladies of the Literary,"she said to me, one day, "ain't like me. They can skip and scoom over these new truths and not take 'em to heart, but I ain't so made. What I believe, I do. So far as I can see this here Sam Cussak is as nasty and lowdown as anybody a female leaves her husband for in them Dossytevsky's books or any other books. If there was a drunkener or meaner man in town I'd take it to be my duty to elope with him, but there ain't."

"Have you spoken to him yet?" I asked.

"He's makin' advances," said Aunt Eldora.

"Have you spoken to Uncle Edgar?"

"Him!" she scoffed. "He ain't nothing but a husband. What's he got to do with it? A lady that's going to be modern can't take husbands into account."

One day, as spring merged into summer, Aunt Eldora came to me. "I guess, Edward," she said, in her placid way, "I'll break the ties that has bound and start in on my new life next Wednesday about nine thirty a.m. Sam Cussak fetches the ice about then and I can't put this business off no longer, because next Friday the Ladies' Literary starts in a new course and I'm real interested in it. I want to get my past started and over with before then."

"Are you sure this is the right thing to do, Aunt Eldora?" I asked. Some one always has to ask that.

"I don't say I like it," she admitted, "but it has got to be done and got over with. What's the use admiring books unless you go and do what they preach at you? I'm baking up plenty of bread and six pots of beans, and with canned goods and dried beef I guess you and Clara and Edgar can get along until I get back home. I don't know yet whether I'll be a broken-hearted penitent or a silent mystery when I get home, but I dare say I can cook as well as usual."

Monday evening Uncle Edgar came to my bedroom.

"Eldora has told you she's goin' to skip out with Sam Cussak, 'ain't she?" he asked. "I dare say she knows what she's doin'—she mostly does—but I just come in to ask you about it, in case she's got her notions twisted somehow. I don't keep posted up on these new books much. Does everybody's wife run off with everybody else's husband in them? Is that what seems the proper caper?" I told him there was no doubt of that.

"I just wanted to know," he said, meekly. "I'd hate like time for Eldora to do what ain't bein' done in good books. If that's the way it is I won't stop her."

"You adopt the broadly liberal view?" I suggested.

"Seems like," he said, but he did not go. He hesitated.

"Something else. Uncle Edgar?" I asked.

"Well, now, Edward," he said, "I'm a' most ashamed to speak of it, but I 'ain't been readin' these books like Eldory has. She knows what is what, but I don't. I just thought—I just wondered if you could sort of post me up on what sort of clothes a husband had ought to wear as a goin'-away suit when he's runnin' off with another man's wife?"

"Noble of you!" I exclaimed. "You are the true modern novel husband, Uncle Edgar! You are going to outfit Sam Cussak?"

"I'm goin' to outfit myself," said Uncle Edgar, drily. "That Sam Cussak has one of the sweetest little wives that ever walked on shoe leather; weighs one hundred and forty-five—and—well, she wouldn't ever call me a shrimp. I guess, if Eldora gets Sam Cussak out of the way—"

Clara, when I told her, was delighted. The only thing that had worried her in connection with Aunt Eldora's elopement had been the sorrow it might cause Uncle Edgar, but now this had settled itself nicely. She hurried to Aunt Eldora with the glad news. This was about eleven o'clock in the morning, Tuesday.

"Aunt Eldora was so pleased," Cousin Clara told me later in the day. "She said it would be so nice; they could all elope on the same train—the ten o'clock to-morrow morning."

"Has she spoken to Sam Cussak yet?" I asked.

"She'll speak to him to-morrow morning when he comes with the ice," said Cousin Clara. "He will be willing; no doubt of that. Aunt Eldora says he has been flirting violently for several days."

That night I wrote six chapters of my novel; in fact, I completed it except for the last chapter, which I reserved to embody the reactions of Aunt Eldora to the actual fact of elopement with another woman's husband. This I could only secure on her return, if she did indeed return. This I doubted somewhat, for Uncle Edgar owner! the house, and if he brought Mrs. Cussak here Aunt Eldora might prefer to go elsewhere.

I wrote so late that night that I overslept the next morning and was only awakened by Cousin Clara rapping on my door.

"Get up!" she called. "It is nine, and the elopement is almost due. You must not miss the details; you'll need the realism."

I hurried into my garments and down the stairs. I was just in time to hear a most frightful crash in the kitchen. Aunt Eldora had met Sam Cussak and had taken the chunk of ice—eighty pounds, it was, although it claimed to be one hundred—from him, and had thrown it at him with all her might. Luckily it skidded off him and only bashed in the side of the cook stove, but she followed it up with six pots of baked beans, Boston style, three jars of raspberry preserves, and one jar of sweet pickles, the small kind.

Cousin Clara and I collided in the pantry door and rather wedged there, so it was a moment or two before we really entered the kitchen, and by that time Sam Cussak was in the back yard. He was on his hands and knees under the Cottonwood tree, licking himself as a dog does, to get the raspberry-jam and beans off his wrists.

"Auntie! Whatever is the matter?" cried Cousin Clara.

"The scalawag! He tried to kiss me!" Aunt Eldora shouted. "Kiss me, the miserable loafer? I guess not! I showed him!"

"But the elopement?" I cried. "Is it postponed?"

"There ain't going to be none," said Aunt Eldora. "None now and none never. I may be small town and middle class and boojaw, but I hope I've got a little mite of sense left."

After all, it made a satisfactory finale for my novel, I reflected. It was a rousing scene—beans and jam and pickles everywhere, and ice melting in the oven of the stove.

"But Uncle Edgar!" I exclaimed, suddenly. "We must stop Uncle Edgar! Where is he?"

Aunt Eldora smiled grimly. "Don't you fret yourself about that little shrimp," she said, with a grim smile. "He ain't going to elope much. I've got him tied in bed with the clothes line."

As I said in the beginning, it is a waste of time to try to make an albatross or a canary bird out of a penguin. Once a penguin, always a penguin.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1937, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 85 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.