The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 36

‘Poor kid! I know — I know! Howard, the poor kid, he’s never had to take anything seriously, not even his marriage. I guess it does jar him to see us running out on him. I’ve got a hunch it’s been our fault; we never worked much at teaching him to stand on his own feet. Maybe he’ll learn now. And then someday he’ll want to get a little acquainted with himself, too, and maybe he’ll have to run away from Little Nero!’

He had been trying to comfort Hazel, down in their stateroom, but out of all his chatter nothing was distinct except ‘Poor kid’. In a few days, he assured her, they would forget Howard and enjoy being wrecked on the mobile desert island that is a ship.

‘I’m going to hate it! I’ll want to come back the minute we land! I’ll see poor Howard crying there, all the time,’ she bawled, while Fred mechanically tapped her back . . . and, no longer listening much, over her shoulder surveyed their first stateroom . . . He carefully did not tell her that there was such a thing as returning to Boston on the pilot boat.

The room, rather humble, delighted him more than a rosewood-and-tapestry suite on any cruising hotel would have done. Its stripped neatness belonged to ships. There were two beds, as promised by the travel circulars on which he had become such an authority, and between them was a bedside table with electric reading lamp, but the chairs were straight and small, the wash-bowl was of the tricky, delightful, old-fashioned sort that folded up like a shelf, and one side of the stateroom, of white-daubed bolts and steel plates curving up to an honest porthole, was frankly the side of the vessel.

‘I’m sure enough on a ship!’ he exulted.

That moment the ship rolled heavily, and his stomach did not exult.

‘Guess better guppon deck get li’l’ fresh air,’ he panted.

They struggled, step by swaying step, up the forward stairs, and in the beginnings of distress Hazel began to neglect being homesick. Astern they saw a grey bank — she did not know whether it was fog or land, but she decided on land, so that she could agonize over leaving it.

‘Take a last look. Snow and ice. Next land we see — golly, think! — it’ll be foreign land! — a strange country! — and I reckon it’ll be all green,’ he said with false buoyancy.

‘By the way, Fred, where are you going?’

‘How do you mean? I showed you the ticket — all these different countries — whole slew of ’em!’

‘But what port, what country, do we touch first of all? Where are we GOING?’

‘Golly, I was so busy getting away, I forgot to ask!’

It was to Hull, in Yorkshire, that they were going, said the purser.

‘Oh yes, that’s what I thought,’ said Fred.

Never, not even in William Tyler Longwhale, had they been so lured to each other as in the three days, out of a ten-day crossing, when they idled in the stateroom, never getting out of dressing-gowns, always in the not too disagreeable state between seasickness and a bounding health that would have compelled them to go up and be athletic and social. In the Cornplow home, meals had been brought up to bedrooms on trays only in case of definite illnesses, and with increasing sense of power and travelled sophistication they enjoyed ringing for the steward and for tea and toast and orange juice all day long.

‘I just can’t face the thought of leaving our nice little room and meeting a lot of strangers,’ Hazel sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Fred, but I can see now I’m not going to be any good as a traveller. I’m too shy of new people and new ways. But you’ll be grand at it, you old mixer, and I’ll just stick along . . . till you get tired of it and want to trot back home.’

So all day, contentedly, for hours at a time forgetting that they had shamefully deserted their helpless brood, they talked of themselves; recalled, with snorts or giggles, old, far-off, unhappy things and battles long ago, such as the quarrel, comic now but devastating then, when he had been discovered, during a stately ball, shooting craps with a bunch of chauffeurs in the basement, with his dress coat hung on a coal shovel, and on his proud shirt front a skull and bones drawn in lipstick.

Never had Hazel found out what female serpent had drawn it . . . Neither had Fred.

They first emerged from their cave for dinner in the saloon. Hazel wailed, ‘I’m going to be embarrassed to death — all those people staring at me.’ So she was embarrassed by nobody’s staring at all. The company didn’t even cackle at her having failed to show up. They had been sufficiently seasick themselves.

The eighteen passengers were divided among four tables in the saloon. As members of the wholesale-selling, or knightly, caste, Fred and Hazel were seated at the captain’s table, where they found no one more intimidating than a Mr. and Mrs. Alphen, of Joliet, and Miss Pablum, a school teacher from Minneapolis, all three of whom seemed to have no particular reason in going abroad except to inspect things, to be found only in Europe, called Culture, Castles, Napoleon Brandy, and Points of Historical Interest.

The captain was a very good captain, and as such his chief interest was in real-estate investment in Mount Vernon, New York, where he resided. He was tall and thin, he told jokes about nagging wives, and he played the piano.

Mrs. Alphen showed the Cornplows, at the very first meal, pictures of her grandchildren. Miss Pablum lent them a lively book called In the Footsteps of British Bards. As for Mr. Alphen, he was that vestigial remain, a State Patriot. He asserted, touchily, that Illinois air was tastier than Wisconsin air, Illinois taxes lower than New York taxes, Illinois Swedes more Swedish than Minnesota Swedes, and Joliet penitentiary more flourishing than Sing Sing.

‘Why, they’re all nice, friendly people, just like home,’ said Hazel.

There was a good deal of merry jesting between table and table; each insisting that it possessed more wit, more skill in bridge playing, than the others. But, complained Hazel, the other passengers seemed even shyer than herself; they did not ‘get together in social activities’.

It was she who organized them.

In company with the purser, who pleased her very much indeed by insisting that she must have ‘crossed’ at least ten or twelve times, Hazel got up a bridge tournament, a backgammon tournament, a shuffle-board tournament, a masquerade ball, and a Reading, by Miss Pablum, who led them plodding from footstep to footstep of the bards.

On vacations Fred had noticed that Hazel took cheerfully to new people and to those extraordinary games by which adults escaped sitting and thinking, but he had explained it as a few days’ excitement in getting away from domestic chores. He perceived, now, that she had more talent than he for liking strangers and strange ways and for being noisy and jokey with them. She became, indeed, Queen of the Ship, and it was she whom the other passengers asked about the day and hour of their arrival in Hull, the amount to tip, the name of the what-is-it that swings out the boats, the rules for deck tennis and the latitude of Spitzbergen.

Fred was merely her Prince Consort.

He had pictured, as a chief joy of travelling, greater than ancient abbeys and beards on the Boulevard, being intimate with ever so many new wandering gentlemen. Was he not the trained salesman, the jolly good fellow, who could enter an unfamiliar hotel lobby and be calling five men by their first names within ten minutes?

But, released from having to be any particular sort of person, he found that he wanted to get acquainted only with himself. Brother Alphen, he admitted, was a swell fellow; but somehow, he marvelled to Hazel, he didn’t want to hear anything more about the New Deal or the convenience of oil furnaces. He had had to listen to so many hearty citizens, for so many years, at the Triumph Agency, and to Hazel and Sara at home afterward. He thought it queer in himself; he wondered what Dr. Janissary would have said; but he enjoyed silence. Doc Kamerkink would have ridiculed the notion that the breezy and back-slapping Fred was actually an introvert, interested only in the forms and colours of his hidden little soul; and Hazel an extrovert, and not at all the inward-looking sensitive plant that the seclusion of domesticity made her appear. But a great deal of the ten days Fred spent in circling the deck by himself, or in standing at the forward rail, while Hazel was in the lounge, playing contract.

Mrs. Alphen, from her deck-chair, would call at him brightly, ‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, being so selfish and neglecting us ladies and all!’ and she would gesture at the deck-chair beside her, but he would only smile and scuttle away, realizing that he was asocial and a scoundrel.

Hour-long, as the ship rolled, he watched the forward derrick sway against the seas rushing at him. In the power of the waves he felt freedom; in the bows, tenderly swelling to a piercing point, he felt speed; and in the pendulum of the derrick, a rhythm of security . . . Perhaps in wandering he could be minutely great, as in room-bound labour he had, these years, been greatly small.

Toward the end of the passage, Hazel spoke of home and of Howard and Sara barely once a day, as if merely by habit. Her homesickness, and his, was acute only at Christmas, which they spent on the Aranjuna Queen in the English Channel, with a dim sight of Margate and the mouth of the Thames.

‘B-but anyway, we aren’t any homesicker than the others, I guess!’ she sobbed gallantly.

Indeed, the more the Aranjuna’s passengers tried to be festive and bear in the garlands and the Yule log, the more veiled and timid were their eyes. They had a Christmas tree in the lounge, and the captain swore it was a damn fine tree, for hadn’t he brought it himself from Mount Vernon? The head steward rather mechanically produced silver cord and crimson glass balls, and rather mechanically the passengers dressed the tree. They cleared out the cubbyhole which was the ‘souvenir shop’ of the barber-bath-steward, and gave one another souvenir handkerchiefs and tin toy automobiles and ten-cent boxes of candy; they had a large dinner, with goose and turkey and anguished paper hats, and afterwards they danced.

But every time Miss Pablum danced awkwardly past the tree, she looked away. Her mother had died on the first of December.

In mid afternoon they had their Christmas radiogram:

MERRY XMAS HAPPY NEW YEAR EXQUISITE EASTER MUCH LOVE DONT FORGET LOVING KIDS SARA HOWARD ANNABEL LILNERO

Then Hazel wept, and watered the sacred rose of Christmas.

‘They’re grand children. They’ll be perfect, now they see they can’t run over us!’ swore Fred. ‘Say! Do you still feel you want to go right back, soon as we land in Hull — just take couple days in London, maybe, and then sail . . .’

Hazel was judicious:

‘Well, now we’re here, seems to me it ‘d be an awful waste of good money not to take advantage of it. Katie Alphen says we’ll just love the Riviera. But we certainly won’t want to stay long . . . Look, Fred. If we just happened to still be here next summer, just happened to decide to stay on, I mean, do you think we’d enjoy having a country cottage in England? Minnie Pablum says we’d adore Rural England . . . Not that she’s been there.’

‘Well,’ said Fred.

They drank a toast to home, in the smoking-room, which wasn’t a smoking-room but an alcove off the lounge.

‘Let’s drink an extra one to Annabel — best of the lot,’ proposed Fred.

Hazel giggled. ‘You’re so funny! You don’t know yourself one single bit? You’re half in love with that girl, and you have no idea of it!’

‘You think so? Ha, ha!’ he said.

It made his voyage of discovery of himself curiously easier to travel with a pleasant person who did not embarrass him by understanding him.

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