The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 5

The present house of the Frederick Cornplows was a good brick Georgian house, on a good street, with a good little lawn and a good big maple tree, and it proved to their world that they were successful. But it was like fifty other residences on Fenimore Cooper Boulevard, which was like five hundred and fifty other handsome boulevards in America.

The residence of Mr. Putnam Staybridge — he who with seeming indifference bore the honour of being the father of Guy — was a museum piece: a square, white, frame object, with a cupola. It seemed to have been built of ice and icily to have defied the common sun. Every piece of furniture, to the last console table and damask-seated chair, belonged rigidly to the period — had in fact been created by one of the most eminent fakers of antiques.

This was fitting, because Mr. Staybridge was what is technically known as of a ‘better family’ than Fred Cornplow.

A better family is one that has had money or land longer than most; there is nothing more to the trick, and titles and armorial bearings are merely to fool the eye. Nor is it always good taste to ask where the family got the land and money in the first place. The truth about the Norman families of England is that William the Conqueror, a folio edition of Al Capone, stole the country from the Saxons (who had stolen it from the Early English) and divided it among his gang, not yesterday, which would make it criminal, but back around 1100, which is aristocratic, and renders Norman lineage even more important than your golf handicap.

If it had been the Eskimos who had seized England and picked out pretty titles as earls eight hundred years ago, then the Best Families, both British and American, would today be claiming descent from Oley the Blubber.

Just so, a Staybridge ancestor, in Salem in the early 1700’s, a pious man, fond of sermons about hell-fire, was a shipowner who from the West Indies brought molasses which he distilled into rum, which he shipped to Africa, where it was exchanged for kidnapped Negroes, who were taken as slaves to the West Indies, to be exchanged for molasses, with a profit at every corner of the triangle. So his descendants were able to become college founders, cabinet members, and Putnam Staybridges.

Putnam was so aristocratic that he dared, even in 1936, to wear a small beard. Perhaps he had slid down a little from the family standard, in that he was merely a clock manufacturer and a bank director, but he was first or second cousin to an ambassador, a Harvard professor, an Episcopalian bishop, and to the spouse of a Neapolitan duke; and his stamp collection contained a unique hexagonal black Swiss–Guiana specimen.

When Howard Cornplow lumberingly, Sara tensely, and the black-enamel-eyed organizer, Eugene Silga, placidly, came roaring with Guy into the Staybridge mansion, Putnam was artistically seated in the library, holding an Elzevir Apuleius in his lap and tapping the walnut chair arm with his eyeglasses . . . He had owned the Apuleius for ten years and had not, to date, read ten words beyond the title page. And he had been arranged here, tapping the glasses, for half an hour, ever since Guy had telephoned to announce this dreadful visitation.

He arose, for the purpose of bowing to Sara, looking quizzically at Howard, and snubbing Gene Silga, and went back to sitting, to tapping, and to glancing at his book.

Behind him was his daughter, Annabel, and Annabel was, to be brief, a darling. She was a tousled, smiling, shy, sloppy, brown-haired, easygoing, very pretty, happily cynical darling of nineteen or twenty, and Howard looked upon her — she looked upon the Norse god — with young rapture. Years ago they had met, at dances, but since she had been chased off to school at Farmington, they had never said anything more ardent than ‘Mave nexdance?’

Howard was jarred out of his adoration by Mr. Putnam Staybridge’s answer to whatever it was Guy had been babbling:

‘So you intend to inaugurate in Sachem Falls a chapter of the Workers’ International Cohesion — the Coheeze? Delightful name; so suitable to a young man like yourself, Guy, who was brought up to the traditions of Henry Adams. You purpose to start a monthly called Protest & Progress, nicknamed “P. & P.”, to be cheaply printed and to unite the underprivileged of the entire world — no mean feat for three young men, even when abetted by so charming a young lady as Miss Sara Cornplow, considering that all the revolutionists in the world, including the accomplished Mr. Lenin, have hitherto failed to achieve this. And you wish me to contribute a sum which, I should judge from your slightly hysterical exposition, Guy, would be approximately a hundred dollars? . . . Now, Mr. Silga, will you be so good as to tell me whether this Protest & Progress will be definitely communistic?’

‘Not in the least, sir.’ Gene was calm, and Gene’s smile was tender.

‘It will not be under the eventual control of the Party, or whatever you may call the organization that receives orders from Moscow?’

‘Oh no. The purpose of the “P. & P.”, Mr. Staybridge, will be to unite people of all political faiths who believe in scientific control of politics, whether they are Republicans or Reds — except that, I’m sure, the Reds will denounce us as wishy-washy.’

Mr. Staybridge arose quietly. He murmured, ‘In that case, I shall give Guy a cheque for one hundred dollars for your enterprise, on CONDITION that no copy of the blasted sheet shall ever be brought into this house!’

He went beautifully up to his bedroom and read the same detective story that Fred Cornplow was, just then, reading at home.

When his father was safely gone, Guy fretted:

‘But lookit, Gene, of course “P. & P.” WILL be pro-communist.’

‘Of course.’

‘But you told Father it wouldn’t be.’

‘Of course I did.’

‘But that’s a lie.’

‘Of course it is. Do you intend to go down to police headquarters and pin up posters announcing we’re going to take over the constabulary, soon as we get the strength?’

Howard intruded, while the thrushlike Annabel Staybridge admired his copper-shining nobleness:

‘Thunder, no, Guy, you certainly wouldn’t do that?’

‘No, maybe not,’ said Guy, rubbing his large Staybridge nose, wiping his spectacles, in a jittery manner. It was only of late that he had gone from poetry into the lusher fields of communism and Holy Russia.

Gene exulted, ‘With the seven-fifty the New York Coheeze has promised us, that makes eleven hundred and fifty dollars we’ve raised to start Protest & Progress. Think you can get a hundred out of your father, Howard — Sara?’

‘Well, the old man is pretty down on the Reds, but he’s a kindhearted old skate, if you’re patient and let him get his bellyaching over,’ rejoiced Howard.

‘Even without it, we’ll be able to get out one number, anyway — and what a terrible printing job THAT’S going to be!’ said Gene.

Eugene was a year or two younger than the Dianic Sara, a quarter of an inch shorter, and not having, like Sara, studied French at Vassar, he could not speak it. (Neither could Sara.) But so easy was he, so understandingly did those bright dark eyes look into her, that Sara was flattered to be called by her first name, was captivated by Gene’s power — the result of his excellent endocrine glands — and interpreted it as her conversion to communism. She had done a little communism, just as she had done a little tennis, Thomas Wolfe, golf, Bach diving, William Faulkner, biochemistry, Buddhism, vegetarianism, and Buchmanism. Now she plunged deep, and at one end of Putnam Staybridge’s chaste drawing-room Guy and Eugene and she happily agreed that within five years Putnam would be set by the American Soviets to digging canals.

But Annabel and Howard were at the other end of the apartment, and nothing like so revolutionary.

‘Gosh, Miss Staybridge, I’m sorry I never really had a chance to get acquainted with you. You must of been just a kid when you went off to school.’

‘Yes, I was — just a skinny awkward kid. But then I guess I still am, Mr. Cornplow.’

‘You are not! Say, gosh, Miss Staybridge, you got more darn gracefulness and the loveliest lips I ever did see.’

‘Oh, now you’re flattering me, Mr. Cornplow. You college pundits! I’m just another young female, where you’re a regular movie star. You play football at Truxon, don’t you?’

‘Well — that is — course I’m on the scrub team. The captain and the coach ganged up on me. They claim I’m lazy, just because they said I had to live on prunes and bran and go to bed at nine, and I told ’em where they got off! “I’m not going to bed at any nine o’clock and I’m not going to eat any prunes”, I told ’em. No sir! Prunes! Don’t you think so?’

‘Oh, absolutely, Mr. Cornplow . . . Prunes!’

‘I bet you love to dance, Miss Staybridge.’

‘Oh, I adore it, but not with any of these little shrimps — only with tall men — and I’ve noticed that all you golden-haired boys, I don’t know WHY it is, but somehow, you always dance so well.’

‘Me? Golden-haired? It’s just plain, dumb RED— tray ordinary.’

‘Oh, it is not red! It’s gold.’

‘It’s red!’

‘Gold!’

They dived into laughter — Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Mrs. Nickleby and the vegetable marrows.

At the other end of the room, Gene Silga explaining that in Russia — to which he had never been nearer than Fall River — the least skilful workman has a better time than any Detroit foreman: free lectures and a chance to do parachute jumping.

The revolutionary conspirators, the two lovers, could hear from above them an irritable pacing.

‘That’s Father, registering indignation,’ sighed Guy. ‘Don’t it beat the Dutch how unsympathetic all fathers are!’

This beginning of the open season on parents drew the romantics back to the general hunting party, as Sara observed, ‘Doesn’t it! My father, old Freddie, wants to do the right thing by his offspring, sometimes dismayingly so, but he has no imagination; he can’t understand that young people aren’t altogether content to play bridge every evening and go to bed at ten-thirty. Why — why — he still wears a nightshirt instead of pyjamas!’

‘No!’ marvelled Guy.

‘He’s lucky. I usually don’t have on anything at night except an undershirt,’ said Gene.

‘I’ll bet Mr. Cornplow does so have imagination,’ protested Annabel. ‘I mean, I don’t really know your father very well, but I talked to him once about getting a new car — Mr. Putnam Staybridge sure quenched THAT maiden’s dream — and I thought your father was swell. He was so kind and he joked so . . .’

‘Naturally, if he thought he could sell you a car!’ said Sara. ‘Oh, Dad really is kind, or means to be, but he hasn’t got the imagination to see that the younger generation wants something more than being a respected resident of Cooper Boulevard. It’s impossible for him to conceive that we, that Youth, no longer wants anything merely for itself, but demands that the whole world be freed of the bonds of capitalism.’ She looked to Eugene for approval, and got it, from his well-trained professional smile. ‘Why . . . Look, Annabel — I may call you Annabel, mayn’t I? — doesn’t your father travel a lot?’

‘Sure. Comrade Putnam is even worse than the kind of globe-trotter that shows you his snapshots — he’s the kind that sneaks off to Vienna and Rio and then gloats at you and won’t even tell you what he’s seen.’

Sara was relentless: ‘Well, Dad won’t travel one bit. Doesn’t want to travel. And he can perfectly well afford to, the rest of his life. Why, time and again I’ve offered to take him to Paris — think of it, I’ve never been there myself! — and he always says, “We’ll see”, and sneaks out of it. Positively, Freddie ENJOYS being an old horse in a treadmill. I believe, no matter how he kicks about it, he’s secretly pleased when we sponge on him. Shows what a noble, stalwart pillar of society he is! We must see to it that he contributes to the Coheeze.’

‘Yes, we must see to that,’ said Gene.

‘Anyway, this whole business of parents,’ began Guy, the poet, philosopher and pal, ‘is a funny — well, it’s a funny business. I think they ought to appreciate their children for taking the trouble to represent them in the new social movements, the socialization of education and the extension of labour unionism, since they’re too old-fashioned to do it themselves. But say, speaking of your dad, how’s to skip down to your house? There’s Putnam making unfriendly noises upstairs again.’

‘Grand! Come along! It’s only ten-forty. Dad will be glad to see us.’

Howard was buoyant, and Annabel followed him in demure obedience. And Sara hinted no opposition after she had looked at Eugene and found him ready, and after she covered all points by explaining:

‘Well . . . All right.’

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