The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 40

Howard laughed. Of late he had been more given to laughing. They were making the last portage, about Little Run Rapids, before returning to their permanent camp on the river and to the supper for which they had been longing this past hour. The portage was a gash between thick spruce, close as a closet, hot, lively with mosquitoes which jabbed at the sun-sore backs of their necks. The edges of the upturned canoe bit into their unaccustomed shoulders as they toted it, and their arms ached with the burden of blankets, paddles and cooking kit.

When they came out again on the river bank, with the sun glaring on rippling river, the sand flies pounced on them.

So Howard laughed. ‘Certainly a swell idea to come three hundred miles to get your neck chewed and have your shoulders feel like they’d been through a clothes wringer!’

‘Like it?’ grunted Fred.

‘Sure. As Mother would say: “Happy!”’

Their tent awaited them on the river bank, at the edge of an unknown country of jack pine, spruce and birch, through which the only highway was the Whitefall; it was not three hundred but three thousand miles removed from the clatter and contacts of Sachem. The world well lost, thought Fred. His son was ruddy again, and confident, and for three weeks now had lived in company with a whisky flask, without touching it.

Fred was certain now that the boy was neither an alcoholic nor cruel, but the victim of confused marriage and confused jobs in a confused world.

Fred was camp cook, and he celebrated their return that evening, by not merely frying bacon, with steaks of the lake trout and muskallonge they had caught at Lake Dead Man, but adding the inexpressible luxury of prunes. They gobbled; silent, content.

Howard stretched out luxuriously afterward, his head against a stump, droning:

‘You ought to be head of the Boy Scouts. You sure were a great little inspiration this afternoon.’

‘Well, what’s the daily insult now?’

‘Funny enough, I mean it! Seeing an old coot like you, the way you sweat at paddling and didn’t give up when you looked ready to drop, I got ashamed of how lazy I am.’

‘Thinking about starting in with the Triumph Agency again?’

‘I’d like to. I’d like to really learn it, so some day, possibly, I might succeed you . . . if you thought, then, I’d made good.’

‘Fine. Like to look at my book on internal-combustion engines now?’

‘Be glad to.’

That was all there was of the camp meeting and the mourners’ bench.

In the tent, by candlelight, sitting on his folded sleeping bag with a suit-case on his knees for desk, Fred was trying to answer Hazel’s anxious query from Paris:

Aren’t you coming back to join me, or shall I sail for home, whichever you think best. This is a lovely city, we would enjoy it so much here and Annabel is the nicest companion but not without you. Your loving Hazel.

For half an hour he had been inspired, and he had reached the climactic point in composition where almost everything he had written had been crossed out. He was not used to letters like this. Most of his epistles home, all these years, had confined themselves to: business good, hope you are all well, as is Yrs Truly.

But now he had painfully achieved:

You stay in Europe, see some more of London as well as Paris, etc. etc., as long as you want to. In this family we never did have much compulsion, us over the kids, you and me over each other, and if maybe it has not entirely worked out O.K. always I think children beginning to appreciate it and everything going to be swell. And hope you and I will start off again some day. But now it don’t seem to matter like it did when I used to talk about golden road to Samarkand and when we got near there, Istanbul, etc. etc., wasn’t the smell fierce in that market place! It seems to me now that it isn’t going where you want to that is freedom, but knowing that you can go.

That was all the high creative effort he could endure for the time. He wiped his brow, said, ‘Whew,’ killed a mosquito and crawled out through the netting to squat beside his son.

Howard observed, ‘Do you hear something like an outboard motor, ‘way off down the river? Wonder why they got one. Must be fierce job to tote it round the rapids.’

Yes. Fred could hear, like a rapidly beaten carpet, the exhaust of the motor. What tenderfoot would use it in these waters? He listened nervously. He felt that, unexplainably, it was coming for him.

The canoe, a big nineteen-foot freighter, had rounded a bend. Its small headlight, probably a camp flashlight fastened to the bow, illuminated the wrinkled, tumbling brown water, the wash of current about rocks sticking out of the river like the backs of seals, and ashore, the fallen and rotted log-cabin of a trapper, in a grove of willow and scrub pine. It seemed to be heading for their camp fire.

The two men by the tent muttered, ‘What’s the idea?’ and ‘Don’t believe there’s any bad Indians left along the river, but maybe if they’d got hold of some liquor . . .’

The canoe darted in to shore, well guided. They could make out a tall Indian in the bow, and behind him, nothing but a blurry mass. The blurry mass arose, crawled forward, edged past the Indian, stepped cautiously ashore. And the blurry mass was Hazel Cornplow, plus two blankets and man’s felt hat.

‘But where is Annabel? Where? Where?’ begged Howard.

‘I left her in Paris, dear, to study a little there. She’s such a darling. I’ve become so fond of her. Imagine! Once I was almost jealous of her! Silly. And the baby seems to be thriving. It’s the huskiest little mite you ever saw. My! He grabs your finger and almost breaks it in two. And his smile, I declare, it’s exactly like yours when you were a little tad, Howard.’

‘But Annabel! Is she coming back? I want her!’

‘I thought — it’s hard to say, Howard, but I thought she ought to stay away until you earn her.’

‘Hm. Man earn his own wife? Well, maybe it isn’t such a sour idea. It’ll be something to work for!’

Later Hazel purred, ‘My, I didn’t know we three would all be together again, sitting cosy on a blanket and eating bacon! Isn’t it nice here! No telephones ringing.’

‘Practically never,’ Fred assured her.

‘And Fred: I don’t want to be too light-footed, but some day would you like to go travelling again? I would so like to see Scandinavia, if they don’t manage to have a war in Europe, and — oh, not make a business of wandering, like these silly restless tourists, but just see a FEW places, say like Brazil and Egypt and Cairo and Java and Iceland and so on. What do you think, Fred?’

‘I don’t know yet. Say, here’s a hot one! Right there in the tent I’ve got a letter about it that I was writing to you. Yessir, by golly, just this minute. I’ll tell you, dear. Just now I feel like I ought to stick around a while and . . .’

Then Howard took charge; the Howard of old, cocky and omniscient, yet more affectionate than the old Howard had ever been:

‘Now you’re not looking at it right, Dad. Way I see it, you old codgers ought to get out more and learn how the world is changing. I tell you, you haven’t any idea what the young fellows are doing, these days, Dad. There’s nobody like you for steadiness, but you ought to take a chance once in a while.’

‘Indeed you ought to,’ said Hazel.

‘I see,’ said Frederick William Cornplow. ‘Say! In Brazil we ought to get doggone good coffee. Well, you can sit up and talk till sunrise if you want to, but the old man’s going to turn in. I hear where there’s good coffee in Egypt, too. We’ll see. Good night — good night!’

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