The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 38

Returning from her bland and chatty drive to Bandol, Hazel climbed out of the mildewed limousine, calling to Lady Jaxon, ‘Such a pleasant trip, and indeed I will look into the Cotswolds.’

She revolved and saw, entering the Villa Sophie, a procession consisting of her husband, looking agitated, of Annabel Staybridge Cornplow, who was, of course, not here at all, but in Sachem Falls, U.S.A., of her first grandchild, F. Roosevelt Cornplow, who didn’t exist, except as a sentence in a cablegram and a few gushing pages in a letter, a porter, with bags that seemed familiar, and a furious cocher, who had not received his fare.

‘Good heavens and earth!’ said Hazel.

Her slight jealousy of Annabel vanished in joy of this dear, customary face; she swooped on the girl, kissed her, kissed the baby and babbled, ‘Bell — Bell — and the baby — but only six weeks old — how could you come — where is Howard — what’s it all mean — Bell — I couldn’t believe my eyes — I can’t!’

Fred mumbled, ‘Oh yes you can. It just means Howard has gone to pieces, and I’ve got to sail from Havre tomorrow afternoon and yank him out of it.’

Annabel’s room in the Villa Sophie, where the baby was asleep in a crib improvised from a bureau drawer, a room with clattering composition stone floor, high panelled plastered walls, and frigid pink-and-gilt ceiling, seemed unfriendly to them, these lost Americans, and to Annabel’s sorrows.

‘Now what is it, dear? Where’s Howard?’ said Hazel.

‘Back home. He didn’t want me to come. But he was drunk. He couldn’t prevent my coming. Father gave me the money. But Father wouldn’t go see Howard. He just laughed at me. He talked about giving me a trip to Reno as a belated wedding present, Father did . . . I don’t just know why I came here. I just felt so lonely in our flat, with Howard lying drunk.’

‘Honey, I don’t know what I can say that’s very comforting. But let’s see if there’s anything I can do. What about Howard’s business — Bogey & Cornplow?’ said Fred.

‘Howard said Ben cheated him. Ben said Howard hurt their business — not booze so much as he didn’t keep dates. They quarrelled. At the flat. I grabbed Howard’s arm and kept him from hitting Ben. Ben bought him out — for five hundred dollars. He’s living on that, and the money Judge Appletree sends him from you. But I don’t think it will last. He keeps giving it to Cal Tillery . . .’

‘Cal? Cousin Cal?’ Fred was appalled.

‘Yes. Howard says Cal is his only friend. Cal doesn’t nag him. Cal’s brother, Mac, got fed up with them and actually went to work. He was so surprised to find he liked it! Now, Howard and Cal have bought a garage together — that is, Howard gives Cal the money, and Cal SAYS he’s paying for it, on time. Howard never goes near the place. Mostly he stays in the flat. And Cal brings him in booze. Cal laughed at me.’

‘Cal’s scum! He’s a cousin-by-accident!’

And once Cal tried to kiss me. That’s what made me run away — and I was afraid what might happen to Baby — oh, Howard was always sweet to the baby, even when he was drunk, but he was so shaky — once he almost dropped the baby on the floor, when he was trying to dress it — and I didn’t want it to grow up listening to Howard and Cal sing “The Old Oaken Bucket”!’

‘But Annabel, dear,’ said Hazel, ‘what’s Howard going to do, now he’s out of the firm?’

‘Oh, he has a hundred new plans a day: he’s going to join the army and learn flying. He’s going to Hollywood and be a star — but oh, his face is changing so; it almost seems as if it was getting coarse already . . . Oh, my darlings, I don’t like to talk this way about him!’

‘Go on! You’re as much our child as he is,’ Fred vowed.

Hazel looked only a little doubtful.

‘And then he talks about going to Alaska — he thinks he can get a free farm there — he says it’s the only place where “a young fellow has a chance”. And he talks about making millions selling cotton-stripping machines. And the latest I heard, he was going to be a tree doctor! But no matter what he says, I feel he’s just given up. Completely discouraged. He’s only part to blame, maybe . . .’

Fred groaned, ‘I’m to blame! Me and my insisting on running away.’

‘No. Your going isn’t to blame. But maybe your putting it off so long is. Sara and Howard thought you’d always be there and nurse them.’

‘Annabel! What about Sara? Does she seem happy?’ demanded Hazel.

‘Darling, Sara has now been married to her Walter for fifty years, and she just can’t understand why Howard doesn’t obey me the way Walter has obeyed her, these sixty-seven years they’ve been married . . . She made him put on a sale of surrealist paintings in the store; they already have two pictures in it; one of them was done by a bookkeeper in Schenectady, and one by a Frenchman, who wanted to come over, but they wouldn’t let him out of the asylum.’

Fred interrupted, ‘Sweet child, I love you, but we must get going . . . Hazel, I find I have to take an evening train, to catch the Sovereign at Havre, tomorrow . . . I’ll be in New York in six and a half days!’

‘But you want us to come along — me, anyway?’ said Hazel.

She was a little reluctant.

‘No. Stay here. Show the Riviera to Annabel. Take her to Paris. I want two people in this doggone family to do what they want to do for once. If you can pull THAT off, the Associated Press will put it on the wire, and it’ll go down in history as the one big event of the year!’

He might be fond of Annabel, but he wanted his last half-hour in Belfayol alone with Hazel. He lured her to their best café; not the historic castle cave but the tiny new bar where the wall bench was so bright and red, the iron tables such shining green, the awning over the sidewalk so sunshine-like a yellow. Embedded in the glass of the windows was wire in the shape of stalks and flowers.

‘Lord, I hate to skip off and leave you, girl. Will we ever sit in a foreign saloon again?’

‘Oh, we will, and be so close to each other. I regret every second I’ve spent away from you; like running off to Bandol with those silly women this morning.’

‘No. Less friction, when we don’t tag each other. And now you just forget me for a while.’

‘Maybe.’

‘Well . . . By golly, we pulled it off. Didn’t we!’

‘Yes . . . We did see Europe. Didn’t we!’

‘Yes . . . And I didn’t do so bad. Did I! I wasn’t too bad a greenhorn. Was I!’ Fred seemed not too sure about it.’

‘Never . . . And I was a good sport. The old folks showed they could run off together. And I did learn to like Burgundy. Didn’t I!’

‘Yes, you bet . . . Golly!’

‘Happy?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh, be happy!’

So absorbed was he in Hazel, their last half-hour, that when the young American couple whom he had always wanted to pick up went swinging by, he nodded to them casually and wasn’t even flattered by their pleased bow in answer.

On the R.M.S. Sovereign’s five-day falcon flight to New York, Fred spoke to no one but stewards and the inescapable stranger who interrupted his vigil, again at the forward rail of the promenade deck, by inquiring, ‘Well, how do you like this weather?’

He was a veteran of travel now; he could have produced seasoned remarks to the effect that he ‘liked it a little rough like this; then you know you’re at sea.’ But he barely saw the friendly greeter, for wavering between them were Howard, Sara, Hazel, Annabel, Cal Tillery.

He grunted, ‘All right, I guess,’ and let it go at that. Beyond the bobbing spectral faces he saw, on the midsea horizon, a quivering dark bank that must be the Long Island shore, that must be America.

Standing at the rail, he tried to work out a philosophy of The Family. He saw it in sharp-coloured little motion pictures rather than in definite words, but they might have been translated thus:

Women have for decades been revolting against the restrictions of men and the home. Votes. Jobs. Uniforms in 1914–18. Cocktails they didn’t appreciate enough and cigarettes they appreciated too much. Now the children were revolting; thought their parents were convenient bores at best, tyrants at worst; children not, as for centuries past, claiming merely their own just rights in the household, but domination over it.

Perhaps next would come, perhaps there was already coming, secret and dangerous, the Revolt of the Men; they would admit how sick they were of the soft and scented cushions of women, of women’s nervous reminders that pipe ashes didn’t belong on the floor; perhaps they would go off to monasteries and fishing camps (much the same thing) and leave their wives and children flat.

If the institution of The Family was to survive at all, if it possibly could survive, parents would have to stop expecting children to accept their ideas (but that was a warning even older than Bernard Shaw). Men and women must expect nothing, nothing whatever, from each other as of vested right (but that was an ancient battle, too, though still as little won as when Ibsen was new and shocking). But beginning about 1914, and each year since then more violent, there was a growing revolt of parents against the growing revolt of Youth; a demand that the young Saras and Howards should regard their parents’ houses as something more than places in which to change clothes before dashing off in motor cars (dressing-rooms, clothes and cars all provided free, by the courtesy of the management) to places more interesting.

But Fred didn’t at all advocate the Fascist–Nazi-Bolshevik system, the naively new and wearisomely antiquated system of belief that everybody ought to sacrifice himself for everybody else. He had the opposite faith: that nobody ought to expect any sacrifice from anybody else, and that (in merely another ten thousand years or so, if the luck and weather held good) thus might be ended for ever the old structure, equally practised by small circles of relatives and by monstrously great nations, whereby A sacrificed his honest desires on behalf of B, and B sacrificed for C, and C sacrificed himself violently but complainingly, all day long, for A, and everybody resented the whole business and chanted, ‘How loyal and unselfish we all are — curse it!’

The sight of the Statue of Liberty was not his chief thrill on arriving in New York, but rather his first American ‘cuppacoffee, slabapie, à la mode, please, Sister.’

When he trudged out of the railroad station in Sachem, he was astonished to see that after this lifetime of five months, in which the entire world had been changed, Harriman Square seemed exactly the same. Apparently the cigar stores had unfeelingly gone on selling cigars without his aid; and the familiar corner loafers looked at him without interest.

He had telegraphed to Sara — Mrs. Walter Lindbeck — but not to Howard.

He went up the sandstone steps of what had been his home. But his tread sounded different on the stones; the doorbell sounded different and unwelcoming; and the door was opened by a strange maid who, when he sighed, ‘Is Mrs. Lindbeck in? — I’m Mr. Cornplow,’ snapped at him, ‘Whajah say your name was?’

In the hallway a new and echoing mirror had replaced the reproduction of Whistlers’ ‘Mother’.

But Sara came downstairs affably enough.

‘Well, well! Mrs. Lindbeck, by golly!’

She didn’t frown.

‘Glad to see me, Sara?’

She was placid in her: ‘But of course, dear.’

‘Forgiven me for sneaking off like that?’

‘But you don’t need any forgiveness. You were quite right. We were all getting on your nerves, and your going away was good both for you and for us — I trust. Oh, I’ve settled down, and I hope I’ve acquired some sense, since I married.’

‘Like it?’

‘Immensely. Walter is the Rock of Gibraltar, and what’s more important, he’s amusing. I do think we’re a quite unusually rational and understanding pair . . . Oh, Inga!’ This, sharply and confidently as a section-gang boss, to the maid, lolloping about the adjacent dining-room with some notions about dusting. ‘Will you kindly be more quiet?’

‘Still keeping up your interior-decoration job?’

‘But naturally! . . . I mean: I’ve laid it aside just temporarily.’

‘Now give me the low-down on Howard. I haven’t seen him yet.’

Then did she lose her disciplinary serenity.

‘Father! I never want to see him again! After what we did to get him started! I can’t believe he’s my brother. He’s drunk all the time, and associating with that disgusting clodhopper, Cal Tillery. Walter and I did everything we could for him. We gave him all sorts of good advice, and Walter even offered to take him into the store, if he’d sign a promise not to drink. We’ve had to wash our hands of him. But cheer up, Father dear. You have ONE child who’s quit boiling and begun to set!’

‘Yes — yes — that’s fine — that certainly is — it’s fine to know you’re happy — certainly is fine — but I feel I ought to try my hand with Howard.’

‘Of course.’ She laughed then: ‘The only thing I can’t figure out is who’s who in your new version of the Fable of the Prodigal. You’re Prodigal Son, obviously, with Mother as Assistant Prodigal, and I’m the forgiving parents, and I’m afraid Howard is the swine, with Cal for husks, but who’s the fatted calf, and who’s the elder son that got sore?’

He was wincing at her complacent humour. Trying to be conversational, he interrupted:

‘Ever hear from this fellow Silga?’

‘Silga?’

‘Yes. Sure. You remember. Gene.’

‘Oh, HIM! That rat! I understand he was mixed up in some auto strike in the West and got arrested, and now he’s doing time. Serves him right.’

‘Now, Sara! I don’t think that’s nice! I never had any reason to love him, but you got to admire an enemy that’s got nerve.’

‘Do you? I wouldn’t know. But just as you like, my dear!’

With considerable awkwardness he got himself away from the assured and masterful Mrs. Lindbeck. He refused her invitation to stay at the house — his own house, from which he had fled, to which apparently he could never return — with the lying explanation that he had arranged to sleep on a couch at Howard’s.

Well, he persuaded himself in the taxicab, for good or ill, this one child had been set on the way. But there was another child that needed him, needed him urgently . . . he hoped.

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