The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 34

On the noon train to Sachem there was a celebrated lecturer who beguiled the tedium by analysing the people he saw along the way. He devoted only one glance to Fred Cornplow, sitting in dumpy stiffness in his Pullman chair. There he was, merely a round little man with a round little head and half-round little moustache and round little hands, his fingers tapping with slow regularity on the side of a folded magazine, his glance straight ahead and uncommunicative.

Obviously a petty business man, too unimaginative, too regimented, too incapable of strange sorrows and of fierce achievement, to be worthy the contemplation of a celebrated lecturer who, only eight hours from now, would be explaining to an audience with nice clean shirts and nice earnest smiles that life would be ever so much more amusing if you trained your eyes.

Fred had heard, as something that might happen to people whom you never met, that there had been cases in which entirely sane persons had been forced into private institutions, that were really private insane asylums, by relatives who were grasping or simply stupid. They had been penned in for years, and the more they protested, the more they had been considered dangerous, until they had sunk into the belief that they really were cracked.

He did not know whether these stories were ever true. He did know that Hazel and Annabel, certainly, Dr. Kamerkink and Walter Lindbeck and Lawyer Appletree, probably, would not find anything unsound in his sudden protest at being a combination of mint and treadmill. But he also knew that a whole world of easy-going people can be swayed by such single-track, demanding minds as Sara’s. And he believed, perhaps foolishly, that a week at such a hospital as Janissary’s, with that skilled finger hooking out of him the quirks and crankinesses all of us possess, would really make him unwell. It wouldn’t be anything so melodramatic as padded cells and strait-jackets; it would be just the spying, pitying, incessant care that would turn him feeble-minded.

Didn’t he know, Fred insisted to himself, in terror — at the moment when the skilled lecturer was dismissing him as a human polyp — that sound fellows, competent enough in their professions and their homes, when they were drafted into an army often appeared as clumsy plodders scorned by every boneheaded sergeant, or even as quivering, yelping cowards? Why shouldn’t a sanatorium be as black with magic as an army?

Fred half opened his magazine, closed it and went to tapping it again.

He drove out his nagging thoughts and began swiftly to scheme what he would do. Absorbed though he was in planning, he was sensitive to every smell, every sound, as he had never been since boyhood, when he had gone off to college in a grimy day coach and everything had been new and promising and terrifying and beautiful. His senses were heightened to ecstasy. (Dr. Janissary would probably have smirked and called him ‘hypomanic’.)

This was not a familiar Pullman chair car, such as he took forty times a year; it was a coloured jungle swaying in an earthquake. He smelled the plush of the seat, the metal and leather of his bag beside him, the gasoline-washed gloves of the woman across the way, the cellared grey air from the vestibule. He heard the steady bang of chains between the cars. He was conscious of the dustiness in his throat, and in imagination he tasted the thin, vintage coolness of a glass of ice water which had ripened till the ice had almost melted.

He was emotionally aware of fellow passengers whom normally he would never have seen. He hated the bushy-haired, vellum-faced man with a cord on his eyeglasses. (It was the celebrated lecturer.) He loved the powdery-cheeked old woman who sat so primly, soft old hands quietly folded. He was agitated by the sharp-nosed thin man far down the car . . . Could he be a shadow, sent by Sara to spy on him? Why did the man watch him so? Hell with him!

At a station stop he heard a radio, in a standing taxi, blatting ‘Coming Round the Mountain’, cloying as eggnog, and he wanted to weep. ‘Oh, stop it, you sentimental old hen!’ he jeered at himself, but that liquid oozing sweetness made him yearn over everything tender and banal: church bells on a June morning, babies laughing on a lawn, sunset over a lake, the cottage William Tyler Longwhale, and Hazel polishing glasses.

He was aware of the stream of life on which he was floating, and aware of himself as not being, any longer, merely Our Mr. Cornplow, Sr., a suit of clothes sitting at a desk, but a separate and exciting soul, a little different from any other. He rejoiced in his self, selfishness, self-consciousness. Why, he demanded, shouldn’t he be as gloriously self-conscious as any of the great souls of which he had read: Napoleon or St. Francis or Philip Sidney? Perhaps a part of their greatness had been an unwillingness to be cogs.

He had only this one life to live; on this side Jordan, he still had, at most, some thirty years for seeing all the hills and headlands and bright rivers, and he must hasten about his business of seeing.

Perhaps he would yet walk up the Champs–Elysées.

He was in Sachem Falls a little after four. With no telephoning, he took a taxi to the Triumph agency. He cut short the greetings. He summoned Paul Popple, his aide.

‘Paul, I want you to stick around till you hear from me. It may be about six o’clock. It may not be till late evening. Now send me in Cal and Mac Tillery. When I get through with ’em, give ’em each a month’s salary and make sure, you personally, that they’re out of this place before six.’

Cal and Mac ranged in, looking slyly confident.

‘You boys are fired. You’re no good. You’ll get a month’s pay.’

‘Say, Cousin Freddie, I think you’re making a big mistake. Mac and me are always watching out for your interests. The mechanics you got out there are no good.’

‘For once, I’m not going to argue. I don’t want any long song and dance. Let’s admit you’re related to me. So is Judas Iscariot, if you carry it far enough. You two pose as the simple country boys that get done by the city slickers. Fact is, you’re wolves. They’re rustic, too! Your only idea of a job is that it’s a fight between you and the boss, and every minute you can loaf, every time you can duck a piece of work, is just one skirmish you’ve won. It’s never occurred to you there could ever be anything but hatred between you and the man you’ve consented to work for. You’re fired, and you might write this to your father: When he comes around to ask me, “You can’t let your own relatives starve, can you?” I’ll tell him, “With pleasure.” Now get out!’

They fled.

The grim little round man at the desk was saying within himself, ‘I don’t know how long I can keep up this hard-boiled attitude. I better work quick, while it lasts . . . Don’t it prove Dr. Janissary IS good? One hour with him, this morning, and I’m re-educated already.’

He telephoned to the house, then to a series of half a dozen other numbers, found Hazel at a hat shop, and demanded, ‘Be home in half an hour, could you? Something important I want to tell you’.

He telephoned to a tourist agency in Sachem and to one in Boston.

He telephoned to Lawyer Appletree.

When he left the office, he did not look back.

He took a taxicab home. In it, over and over, without quite knowing it, he repeated:

‘For to admire an’ for to see,

For to be’old this world so wide —

It never done no good to me,

But I can’t drop it if I tried.’

He became conscious of what he was quoting, and laughed at himself — not bitterly, now.

‘Old Freddie, the International Bum! Remember that time we met the tea planter at the Shanghai Club bar and went up the Wing Wang Wong in a catamaran — now what the deuce IS a catamaran, I wonder?’

Hazel was at home. Before he could attack, she kissed him, unexcitedly, and said, ‘Howard has been trying to get you on the phone. I couldn’t quite make out what he wanted: something about Sara telephoning from New York, about how you met a Dr. Janissary and liked him so much, and Sara thinks we ought to get this doctor to come to Sachem and look you over some more. Is anything the matter with you?’

‘Not any more! Not ever again! Hazel, I don’t want to take a lot of time explaining, but Sara is bound and determined to keep me from retiring, or even taking a year’s layoff.’

‘But how could she keep you?’

‘I don’t know. But she’s a smart girl and awfully determined — and if you don’t believe it, look at this doggone inhuman furniture that somehow, I swear I don’t know how, she wished on to me. Hazel, I’m leaving for Europe . . .’

‘EUROPE?’

‘ . . . to-night, and I want . . .’

‘TO-NIGHT?’

‘ . . . you to go with me. I won’t stop to explain why I want to get out and get out quick. Let’s say it’s just for the fun of it. That’s really the best reason, anyway, I’m GOING. To-night. Are you with me or against me?’

‘Why . . .’

‘Are you?’

‘Why, yes, of course, though . . . I’d love to go to Europe with you. I think it would be lovely. But start to-night? It’s crazy.’

‘Certainly. So am I. At least, I’m doggone serious, and seems that’s the same as being insane. Coming?’

‘You’re joking. We’d have to have two weeks, at the very least, to get ready.’

‘What ready?’

‘Clothes.’

‘You’d be surprised, but they sell clothes in Europe, too. And I’ll bet anything, maybe you could buy toothbrushes there.’

‘But why . . .’

‘Because Howard and Sara will gang up on me, on us, and if they get us to delay our leaving — call it our sneaking off like cowards, if you want to — we never will make a break. They’ll put up such an argument about my having to stay here and get them started standing on their own feet — keep on for the next twenty years getting ’em started. Oh, Sara wouldn’t ever let us go.’

‘Don’t be silly! How could she prevent it?’

‘Oh, maybe she couldn’t absolutely prevent it, if we kicked and screamed, but I’ll tell you what she doggone well could do: she’d sneer so and jeer so that she’d spoil the whole thing, same as she spoiled William Tyler Longwhale and our second honeymoon; she’d manage to take all the fun out of it and make us feel we were irresponsible old fools if we ever did anything except sit and knit. KNITTING! We either go quick, and go secret, and go to-night, or we never go at all. And I’m going. Are you going with me? Are you my wife?’

‘I— I think I am, Fred. What time do we leave?’

‘Before midnight.’

‘I’ll start packing . . . Will you want your winter underwear?’

‘Yes — no — I don’t know — and if Howard calls up again, stall him off.’

To Lawyer Appletree’s considerable indignation, Fred insisted that they stop only for a sandwich, instead of dinner, before they set to work, at Appletree’s house.

A bank cashier, who on the telephone had even more indignantly complained, ‘But what’s all the hurry?’ went wearily into the closed bank and met Fred at Appletree’s with twenty-five hundred dollars in travellers’ cheques.

Paul Popple arrived at Appletree’s with Fred’s car, which Paul himself had been greasing and inspecting. To Appletree and Paul, Fred stated, with a refusal to argue:

‘Paul is left in charge of the agency, entirely, for the next three months, possibly much longer. Ed, I want you to draw up some kind of a fancy power of attorney for him, showing he’s the boss. He is to receive his present salary, plus fifteen per cent of all profits. The rest are to be deposited to my account in the Grangers’ National.

‘Against that account, you are to pay Howard fifteen hundred dollars tomorrow, and Sara five hundred, and thereafter, a thousand a year to each of them, except that if Sara marries, which don’t look any too doggone probable, she gets only five hundred. She is to stay in our house, meanwhile, and you are to pay the servants and taxes and insurance — I’ll give you a list of all those items — but if I send you word at the end of three months, you are to let the place furnished.

‘Now you, Ed — you have a complete power of attorney, and all I ask you to do is not follow my example and begin enjoying yourself. Because, as you are about to tell me — I’ll admit it’s a dirty trick to spoil your speech — sane, normal, honest-to-God citizens with a stake in the community don’t do anything so crazy as pull up stakes and hike out for no reason except they merely want to. No indeed! They sit around and think it over and make preparations for going so carefully that when they’re ready to go — they don’t go!’

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