The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 19

The first fireflies of the summer beckoned in the garden beside the Staybridge Mansion. There was a smell of rain-wet rhododendrons, and beside the white gate a girl in a white cloak was waiting.

With muted engine, the car crept through the little street of maples and apple trees, stopped with the engine throbbing, and the horn, thrice sounded, was only a whimpering murmur. Annabel rustled through the gate. The right-hand front door was held open for her, and she crept into the car in silence; in silence they slipped away.

Annabel could see that Howard was driving. In the back seat were Sara, Eugene Silga and her brother, Guy.

‘Got the licence in my pocket,’ muttered Howard.

She patted his arm nervously.

‘You’re of age, anyway, aren’t you, Bell?’ said Sara, leaning forward, hands on the back of the front seat.

‘Just.’

‘Then your father couldn’t do anything.’

Annabel sighed. ‘You never know what that man might do . . . Howard, did you see your father?’

‘Yes. But I didn’t say anything about the marriage. Neither did he. He just looked sort of funny.’

‘“Marriage!” It sounds so solemn and scary,’ said Sara.

‘To me it sounds like whiskers and horsehair sofas and whalebone corsets,’ sniffed Gene.

Annabel seemed to be talking in sleep: ‘Yes. I don’t believe we’re going to do it. We’re putting on an amateur play, and afterwards, pretty soon now, Putnam S. will come back to my dressing-room and say, “Ann, if you had more discipline, if you didn’t let the emotion govern you, you wouldn’t be a bad actress”. Maybe he’s right.’

‘Him? Never!’ from Howard.

‘Wasn’t he right when he thought me up?’

‘Yes, he did have a pretty good idea that time!’

They were coming into the business section, garish with lights from movie theatres. Howard drove scarily, as swiftly as he could, bounding ahead as the lights turned from red to green, till his shaken passengers nodded like Asian gods. Their escape from the stillness beside Putnam Staybridge’s garden enlivened them, and they became hysterical:

‘Don’t forget to stop at the cathedral and pick up the bish and the canon . . .’

‘And the trench mortar . . .’

‘I’ve arranged for a hillbilly choir and six Jugoslav maestri playing twelve pianos . . .’

‘But how can they . . .’

‘With their feet, of course, idiot . . .’

‘We can’t get the bishop. He’s playing poker down at Honest Tom’s, and I heard he picked up his skirts and chased the cop on the beat seven blocks with a bung starter . . .’

‘Annabel can have a choice of a rabbi, a Mormon missionary, and a Kentucky cardinal . . .’

‘That’s a bird, my good fool.’

‘So is he!’

‘Well, all you true-blue Aryan Tories and goyim can have your marriages, but I’d rather learn bezique . . .’

‘Howard, for heaven’s sake, you’re doing fifty-five!’

‘Fifty-seven,’ said Howard.

Guy Staybridge had been looking through the back window. ‘Howard! Ann! I think there’s somebody following us. He’s been making every turn we make and there’s darn little traffic on this Patchin route, so I can pick him out.’

‘The road is free, white and twenty-one,’ said Howard, contentedly — accelerating.

‘The horn sounds to me like my father’s Conqueror — I know that horn,’ said Guy.

‘All right. We’ll ditch him. Not that I’m scared of him or nobody,’ growled Howard and, after thinking it over thoroughly, ‘never!’

But he sped up, turned off on a side street so sharply that they were almost thrown from their seats, missed a station waggon, circled a block and came back on the main road.

‘Have we lost him?’ Howard demanded.

Guy speculated, ‘I think so, but it’s hard to figure out — these headlights.’

‘Do you mind slowing up?’ begged Annabel. ‘I’d hate to have “Arrived at her wedding minus seven ribs” on my tombstone.’

‘Personally, I’m scared to death,’ said Gene.

Guy, still taking sight through the rear window and feeling important in the role of detective on guard, said with fake calm, ‘I don’t think that was his horn just now. These Conquerors got a whale of a lot of power — more’n your Triumph, I believe.’

Annabel hooted hysterically.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ Howard was stolid and disapproving.

‘Oh, darling! Don’t you SEE? A curse on both your supply houses! Howardeo Montague Triumph and Annabel Capulet Conqueror!’

‘I don’t get that. Explain it to me afterwards, when I’m not so busy,’ said Howard.

Annabel, with a small sound like a moan, looked closely at him and, no longer speaking, leaned forward, chin in hand.

The parsonage in Patchin, which was half suburb to Sachem and half country village, was a white box, more porch than house.

Sara had imagined aloud: ‘The preacher will be a sweet old soul with spectacles, and his wife will be a dumpling, and they’ll both be colossal bores. They’ll kiss everybody that doesn’t skip fast, and tell you two idiots to try to stand for each other, which is plainly unreasonable.’

But the minister and his wife, who came worrying out on to the porch as soon as the car hooted, were a timid, awkward pair, nearly as young as Howard and Annabel, though they possessed a pair of twins, whom they introduced as Abner and Bernice and sent protesting up to bed. They seemed more frightened about the marriage than did the brazen principals, and the pastor’s lady begged them all to have ‘just a bite to eat — just a little something — maybe some nice fresh doughnuts.’

She did kiss Annabel, and tenderly, but after looking Sara, Guy and Eugene over with anxiety, dismissed them as one of those accidents that just will happen.

The scanty living-room could not have been changed much since 1890. It still displayed a parlour organ and a brocade table-cover with ball fringes. On hanging shelves were the little pastor’s books, each volume painstakingly covered with oilcloth.

‘This isn’t a wedding! Didn’t I say it was just a play!’ Annabel whispered to Howard, as they lined up.

‘Bell, you must stop and realize that this is a very solemn moment in the lives of both of us,’ he began, and she cut it short with ‘You’re telling ME?’ as the little pastor quavered, ‘If you please now!’

Hearing an entirely illegitimate sound above them, Annabel looked up and discovered that the pastor’s twins were peering down at the enchanted mystery through the hot-air register in the ceiling, vigorously pushing each other and commenting, ‘She’s kind of a nice-looking lady. I bet she paid anyways five dollars for that hat. What do they want to get married for? Hey, quit shoving me!’

She wanted to laugh, but she grew sober as she understood that the pastor was cutting her off from all the white, shy, maiden life she had known, with the timid solemnity of his question, ‘Do you take this man to be your lawful husband?’

After the ceremony, the little pastor said only, ‘Dearly beloved, I am not wise, and I don’t know much about the rich city you come from, and all I can do is hope and pray you two will be as happy as my wife and I have been in our little house, and help each other the way she helps me every day.’

Annabel wanted to cry, then. She looked at Howard. His mouth was open, his eyes beseeching, and on his nose a tear was absurd and beautiful. But the time when she suddenly did cry, whooping like an indignant baby, was when she looked around to find, standing by the door, unexpected, unexplained, Fred and Hazel Cornplow, holding out to her their plain plump hands.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38