Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 10

He Goes a-Gipsying

They rode out of London in a third-class compartment, opposite a curate and two stodgy people who were just people and defied you (Istra cheerfully explained to Mr. Wrenn) to make anything of them but just people.

“Wouldn’t they stare if they knew what idiocy we’re up to!” she suggested.

Mr. Wrenn bobbed his head in entire agreement. He was trying, without any slightest success, to make himself believe that Mr. William Wrenn, Our Mr. Wrenn, late of the Souvenir Company, was starting out for a country tramp at midnight with an artist girl.

The night foreman of the station, a person of bedizenment and pride, stared at them as they alighted at Chelmsford and glanced around like strangers. Mr. Wrenn stared back defiantly and marched with Istra from the station, through the sleeping town, past its ragged edges, into the country.

They tramped on, a bit wearily. Mr. Wrenn was beginning to wonder if they’d better go back to Chelmsford. Mist was dripping and blind and silent about them, weaving its heavy gray with the night. Suddenly Istra caught his arm at the gate to a farm-yard, and cried, “Look!”

“Gee! . . . Gee! we’re in England. We’re abroad!”

“Yes — abroad.”

A paved courtyard with farm outbuildings thatched and ancient was lit faintly by a lantern hung from a post that was thumbed to a soft smoothness by centuries.

“That couldn’t be America,” he exulted. “Gee! I’m just gettin’ it! I’m so darn glad we came. . . . Here’s real England. No tourists. It’s what I’ve always wanted — a country that’s old. And different. . . . Thatched houses! . . . And pretty soon it’ll be dawn, summer dawn; with you, with Istra! Gee! It’s the darndest adventure.”

“Yes. . . . Come on. Let’s walk fast or we’ll get sleepy, and then your romantic heroine will be a grouchy Interesting People! . . . Listen! There’s a sleepy dog barking, a million miles away. . . . I feel like telling you about myself. You don’t know me. Or do you?”

“I dunno just how you mean.”

“Oh, it shall have its romance! But some time I’ll tell you — perhaps I will — how I’m not really a clever person at all, but just a savage from outer darkness, who pretends to understand London and Paris and Munich, and gets frightfully scared of them. . . . Wait! Listen! Hear the mist drip from that tree. Are you nice and drowned?”

“Uh — kind of. But I been worrying about you being soaked.”

“Let me see. Why, your sleeve is wet clear through. This khaki of mine keeps out the water better. . . . But I don’t mind getting wet. All I mind is being bored. I’d like to run up this hill without a thing on — just feeling the good healthy real mist on my skin. But I’m afraid it isn’t done.”

Mile after mile. Mostly she talked of the boulevards and Pere Dureon, of Debussy and artichokes, in little laughing sentences that sprang like fire out of the dimness of the mist.

Dawn came. From a hilltop they made out the roofs of a town and stopped to wonder at its silence, as though through long ages past no happy footstep had echoed there. The fog lifted. The morning was new-born and clean, and they fairly sang as they clattered up to an old coaching inn and demanded breakfast of an amazed rustic pottering about the inn yard in a smock. He did not know that to a “thrilling” Mr. Wrenn he — or perhaps it was his smock — was the hero in an English melodrama. Nor, doubtless, did the English crisp bacon and eggs which a sleepy housemaid prepared know that they were theater properties. Why, they were English eggs, served at dawn in an English inn — a stone-floored raftered room with a starling hanging in a little cage of withes outside the latticed window. And there were no trippers to bother them! (Mr. Wrenn really used the word “trippers” in his cogitations; he had it from Istra.)

When he informed her of this occult fact she laughed, “You know mighty well, Mouse, that you have a sneaking wish there were one Yankee stranger here to see our glory.”

“I guess that’s right.”

“But maybe I’m just as bad.”

For once their tones had not been those of teacher and pupil, but of comrades. They set out from the inn through the brightening morning like lively boys on a vacation tramp.

The sun crept out, with the warmth and the dust, and Istra’s steps lagged. As they passed the outlying corner of a farm where a straw-stack was secluded in a clump of willows Istra smiled and sighed: “I’m pretty tired, dear. I’m going to sleep in that straw-stack. I’ve always wanted to sleep in a straw-stack. It’s comme il faut for vagabonds in the best set, you know. And one can burrow. Exciting, eh?”

She made a pillow of her khaki jacket, while he dug down to a dry place for her. He found another den on the other side of the stack.

It was afternoon when he awoke. He sprang up and rushed around the stack. Istra was still asleep, curled in a pathetically small childish heap, her tired face in repose against the brown-yellow of her khaki jacket. Her red hair had come down and shone about her shoulders.

She looked so frail that he was frightened. Surely, too, she’d be very angry with him for letting her come on this jaunt.

He scribbled on a leaf from his address-book — religiously carried for six years, but containing only four addresses — this note:

Gone to get stuff for bxfst be right back. — W. W.

and, softly crawling up the straw, left the note by her head. He hastened to a farm-house. The farm-wife was inclined to be curious. O curious farm-wife, you of the cream-thick Essex speech and the shuffling feet, you were brave indeed to face Bill Wrenn the Great, with his curt self-possession, for he was on a mission for Istra, and he cared not for the goggling eyes of all England. What though he was a bunny-faced man with an innocuous mustache? Istra would be awakening hungry. That was why he bullied you into selling him a stew-pan and a bundle of faggots along with the tea and eggs and a bread loaf and a jar of the marmalade your husband’s farm had been making these two hundred years. And you should have had coffee for him, not tea, woman of Essex.

When he returned to their outdoor inn the late afternoon glow lay along the rich fields that sloped down from their well-concealed nook. Istra was still asleep, but her cheek now lay wistfully on the crook of her thin arm. He looked at the auburn-framed paleness of her face, its lines of thought and ambition, unmasked, unprotected by the swift changes of expression which defended her while she was awake. He sobbed. If he could only make her happy! But he was afraid of her moods.

He built a fire by a brooklet beyond the willows, boiled the eggs and toasted the bread and made the tea, with cream ready in a jar. He remembered boyhood camping days in Parthenon and old camp lore. He returned to the stack and called, “Istra — oh, Is-tra!”

She shook her head, nestled closer into the straw, then sat up, her hair about her shoulders. She smiled and called down: “Good morning. Why, it’s afternoon! Did you sleep well, dear?”

“Yes. Did you? Gee, I hope you did!”

“Never better in my life. I’m so sleepy yet. But comfy. I needed a quiet sleep outdoors, and it’s so peaceful here. Breakfast! I roar for breakfast! Where’s the nearest house?”

“Got breakfast all ready.”

“You’re a dear!”

She went to wash in the brook, and came back with eyes dancing and hair trim, and they laughed over breakfast, glancing down the slope of golden hazy fields. Only once did Istra pass out of the land of their intimacy into some hinterland of analysis — when she looked at him as he drank his tea aloud out of the stew-pan, and wondered: “Is this really you here with me? But you aren’t a boulevardier. I must say I don’t understand what you’re doing here at all. . . . Nor a caveman, either. I don’t understand it. . . . But you sha’n’t be worried by bad Istra. Let’s see; we went to grammar-school together.”

“Yes, and we were in college. Don’t you remember when I was baseball captain? You don’t? Gee, you got a bad memory!”

At which she smiled properly, and they were away for Suffolk again.

“I suppose now it’ll go and rain,” said Istra, viciously, at dusk. It was the first time she had spoken for a mile. Then, after another quarter-mile: “Please don’t mind my being silent. I’m sort of stiff, and my feet hurt most unromantically. You won’t mind, will you?”

Of course he did mind, and of course he said he didn’t. He artfully skirted the field of conversation by very West Sixteenth Street observations on a town through which they passed, while she merely smiled wearily, and at best remarked “Yes, that’s so,” whether it was so or not.

He was reflecting: “Istra’s terrible tired. I ought to take care of her.” He stopped at the wood-pillared entrance of a temperance inn and commanded: “Come! We’ll have something to eat here.” To the astonishment of both of them, she meekly obeyed with “If you wish.”

It cannot be truthfully said that Mr. Wrenn proved himself a person of savoir faire in choosing a temperance hotel for their dinner. Istra didn’t seem so much to mind the fact that the table-cloth was coarse and the water-glasses thick, and that everywhere the elbow ran into a superfluity of greasy pepper and salt castors. But when she raised her head wearily to peer around the room she started, glared at Mr. Wrenn, and accused: “Are you by any chance aware of the fact that this place is crowded with tourists? There are two family parties from Davenport or Omaha; I know they are!”

“Oh, they ain’t such bad-looking people,” protested Mr. Wrenn. . . . Just because he had induced her to stop for dinner the poor man thought his masculine superiority had been recognized.

“Oh, they’re terrible! Can’t you see it? Oh, you’re hopeless.”

“Why, that big guy — that big man with the rimless spectacles looks like he might be a good civil engineer, and I think that lady opposite him —”

“They’re Americans.”

“So’re we!”

“I’m not.”

“I thought — why —”

“Of course I was born there, but —”

“Well, just the same, I think they’re nice people.”

“Now see here. Must I argue with you? Can I have no peace, tired as I am? Those trippers are speaking of ‘quaint English flavor.’ Can you want anything more than that to damn them? And they’ve been touring by motor — seeing every inn on the road.”

“Maybe it’s fun for —”

“Now don’t argue with me. I know what I’m talking about. Why do I have to explain everything? They’re hopeless!”

Mr. Wrenn felt a good wholesome desire to spank her, but he said, most politely: “You’re awful tired. Don’t you want to stay here tonight? Or maybe some other hotel; and I’ll stay here.”

“No. Don’t want to stay any place. Want to get away from myself,” she said, exactly like a naughty child.

So they tramped on again.

Darkness was near. They had plunged into a country which in the night seemed to be a stretch of desolate moorlands. As they were silently plodding up a hill the rain came. It came with a roar, a pitiless drenching against which they fought uselessly, soaking them, slapping their faces, blinding their eyes. He caught her arm and dragged her ahead. She would be furious with him because it rained, of course, but this was no time to think of that; he had to get her to a dry place.

Istra laughed: “Oh, isn’t this great! We’re real vagabonds now.”

“Why! Doesn’t that khaki soak through? Aren’t you wet?”

“To the skin!” she shouted, gleefully. “And I don’t care! We’re doing something. Poor dear, is it worried? I’ll race you to the top of the hill.”

The dark bulk of a building struck their sight at the top, and they ran to it. Just now Mr. Wrenn was ready to devour alive any irate householder who might try to turn them out. He found the building to be a ruined stable — the door off the hinges, the desolate thatch falling in. He struck a match and, holding it up, standing straight, the master, all unconscious for once in his deprecating life of the Wrennishness of Mr. Wrenn, he discovered that the thatch above the horse-manger was fairly waterproof.

“Come on! Up on the edge of the manger, Istra,” he ordered.

“This is a perfectly good place for a murder,” she grinned, as they sat swinging their legs.

He could fancy her grinning. He was sure about it, and well content.

“Have I been so very grouchy, Mouse? Don’t you want to murder me? I’ll try to find you a long pin.”

“Nope; I don’t think so, much. I guess we can get along without it this time.”

“Oh dear, dear! This is very dreadful. You’re so used to me now that you aren’t even scared of me any more.”

“Gee! I guess I’ll be scared of you all right as soon as I get you into a dry place, but I ain’t got time now. Sitting on a manger! Ain’t this the funniest place! . . . Now I must beat it out and find a house. There ought to be one somewheres near here.”

“And leave me here in the darknesses and wetnesses? Not a chance. The rain’ll soon be over, anyway. Really, I don’t mind a bit. I think it’s rather fun.”

Her voice was natural again, natural and companionable and brave. She laughed as she stroked her wet shoulder and held his hand, sitting quietly and bidding him listen to the soft forlorn sound of the rain on the thatch.

But the rain was not soon over, and their dangling position was very much like riding a rail.

“I’m so uncomfortable!” fretted Istra.

“See here, Istra, please, I think I’d better go see if I can’t find a house for you to get dry in.”

“I feel too wretched to go any place. Too wretched to move.”

“Well, then, I’ll make a fire here. There ain’t much danger.”

“The place will catch fire,” she began, querulously.

But he interrupted her. “Oh, let the darn place catch fire! I’m going to make a fire, I tell you!”

“I don’t want to move. It’ll just be another kind of discomfort, that’s all. Why couldn’t you try and take a little bit of care of me, anyway?”

“Oh, hon-ey!” he wailed, in youthful bewilderment. “I did try to get you to stay at that hotel in town and get some rest.”

“Well, you ought to have made me. Don’t you realize that I took you along to take care of me?”

“Uh —”

“Now don’t argue about it. I can’t stand argument all the time.”

He thought instantly of Lee Theresa Zapp quarreling with her mother, but he said nothing. He gathered the driest bits of thatch and wood he could find in the litter on the stable floor and kindled a fire, while she sat sullenly glaring at him, her face wrinkled and tired in the wan firelight. When the blaze was going steadily, a compact and safe little fire, he spread his coat as a seat for her, and called, cheerily, “Come on now, honey; here’s a regular home and hearthstone for you.”

She slipped down from the manger edge and stood in front of him, looking into his eyes — which were level with her own.

“You are good to me,” she half whispered, and smoothed his cheek, then slipped down on the outspread coat, and murmured, “Come; sit here by me, and we’ll both get warm.”

All night the rain dribbled, but no one came to drive them away from the fire, and they dozed side by side, their hands close and their garments steaming. Istra fell asleep, and her head drooped on his shoulder. He straightened to bear its weight, though his back twinged with stiffness, and there he sat unmoving, through an hour of pain and happiness and confused meditation, studying the curious background — the dark roof of broken thatch, the age-corroded walls, the littered earthen floor. His hand pressed lightly the clammy smoothness of the wet khaki of her shoulder; his wet sleeve stuck to his arm, and he wanted to pull it free. His eyes stung. But he sat tight, while his mind ran round in circles, considering that he loved Istra, and that he would not be entirely sorry when he was no longer the slave to her moods; that this adventure was the strangest and most romantic, also the most idiotic and useless, in history.

Toward dawn she stirred, and, slipping stiffly from his position, he moved her so that her back, which was still wet, faced the fire. He built up the fire again, and sat brooding beside her, dozing and starting awake, till morning. Then his head bobbed, and he was dimly awake again, to find her sitting up straight, looking at him in amazement.

“It simply can’t be, that’s all. . . . Did you curl me up? I’m nice and dry all over now. It was very good of you. You’ve been a most commendable person. . . . But I think we’ll take a train for the rest of our pilgrimage. It hasn’t been entirely successful, I’m afraid.”

“Perhaps we’d better.”

For a moment he hated her, with her smooth politeness, after a night when she had been unbearable and human by turns. He hated her bedraggled hair and tired face. Then he could have wept, so deeply did he desire to pull her head down on his shoulder and smooth the wrinkles of weariness out of her dear face, the dearer because they had endured the weariness together. But he said, “Well, let’s try to get some breakfast first, Istra.”

With their garments wrinkled from rain, half asleep and rather cross, they arrived at the esthetic but respectable colony of Aengusmere by the noon train.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/wrenn/chapter10.html

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