Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 11

He Buys an Orange Tie

The Aengusmere Caravanserai is so unyieldingly cheerful and artistic that it makes the ordinary person long for a dingy old-fashioned room in which he can play solitaire and chew gum without being rebuked with exasperating patience by the wall stencils and clever etchings and polished brasses. It is adjectiferous. The common room (which is uncommon for hotel parlor) is all in superlatives and chintzes.

Istra had gone up to her room to sleep, bidding Mr. Wrenn do likewise and avoid the wrong bunch at the Caravanserai; for besides the wrong bunch of Interesting People there were, she explained, a right bunch, of working artists. But he wanted to get some new clothes, to replace his rain-wrinkled ready-mades. He was tottering through the common room, wondering whether he could find a clothing-shop in Aengusmere, when a shrill gurgle from a wing-chair by the rough-brick fireplace halted him.

“Oh-h-h-h, Mister Wrenn; Mr. Wrenn!“ There sat Mrs. Stettinius, the poet-lady of Olympia’s rooms on Great James Street.

“Oh-h-h-h, Mr. Wrenn, you bad man, do come sit down and tell me all about your wonderful trek with Istra Nash. I just met dear Istra in the upper hall. Poor dear, she was so crumpled, but her hair was like a sunset over mountain peaks — you know, as Yeats says:

“A stormy sunset were her lips,
A stormy sunset on doomed ships,

only of course this was her hair and not her lips — and she told me that you had tramped all the way from London. I’ve never heard of anything so romantic — or no, I won’t say ‘romantic’— I do agree with dear Olympia — isn’t she a mag_nificent woman — so fearless and progressive — didn’t you adore meeting her? — she is our modern Joan of Arc — such a noble figure — I do agree with her that romantic love is passe, that we have entered the era of glorious companionship that regards varietism as exactly as romantic as monogamy. But — but — where was I? — I think your gipsying down from London was most exciting. Now do tell us all about it, Mr. Wrenn. First, I want you to meet Miss Saxonby and Mr. Gutch and dear Yilyena Dourschetsky and Mr. Howard Bancock Binch — of course you know his poetry.”

And then she drew a breath and flopped back into the wing-chair’s muffling depths.

During all this Mr. Wrenn had stood, frightened and unprotected and rain-wrinkled, before the gathering by the fireless fireplace, wondering how Mrs. Stettinius could get her nose so blue and yet so powdery. Despite her encouragement he gave no fuller account of the “gipsying” than, “Why — uh — we just tramped down,” till Russian–Jewish Yilyena rolled her ebony eyes at him and insisted, “Yez, you mus’ tale us about it.”

Now, Yilyena had a pretty neck, colored like a cigar of mild flavor, and a trick of smiling. She was accustomed to having men obey her. Mr. Wrenn stammered:

“Why — uh — we just walked, and we got caught in the rain. Say, Miss Nash was a wonder. She never peeped when she got soaked through — she just laughed and beat it like everything. And we saw a lot of quaint English places along the road — got away from all them tourists — trippers — you know.”

A perfectly strange person, a heavy old man with horn spectacles and a soft shirt, who had joined the group unbidden, cleared his throat and interrupted:

“Is it not a strange paradox that in traveling, the most observant of all pursuits, one should have to encounter the eternal bourgeoisie!”

From the Cockney Greek chorus about the unlighted fire:

“Yes!”

“Everywhere.”

“Uh —” began Mr. Gutch. He apparently had something to say. But the chorus went on:

“And just as swelteringly monogamic in Port Said as in Brum.”

“Yes, that’s so.”

“Mr. Wr-r-renn,” thrilled Mrs. Stettinius, the lady poet, “didn’t you notice that they were perfectly oblivious of all economic movements; that their observations never post-dated ruins?”

“I guess they wanted to make sure they were admirin’ the right things,” ventured Mr. Wrenn, with secret terror.

“Yes, that’s so,” came so approvingly from the Greek chorus that the personal pupil of Mittyford, Ph.D., made his first epigram:

“It isn’t so much what you like as what you don’t like that shows if you’re wise.”

“Yes,” they gurgled; and Mr. Wrenn, much pleased with himself, smiled au prince upon his new friends.

Mrs. Stettinius was getting into her stride for a few remarks upon the poetry of industrialism when Mr. Gutch, who had been “Uh —“ing for some moments, trying to get in his remark, winked with sly rudeness at Miss Saxonby and observed:

“I fancy romance isn’t quite dead yet, y’ know. Our friends here seem to have had quite a ro-mantic little journey.” Then he winked again.

“Say, what do you mean?” demanded Bill Wrenn, hot-eyed, fists clenched, but very quiet.

“Oh, I’m not blaming you and Miss Nash — quite the reverse!” tittered the Gutch person, wagging his head sagely.

Then Bill Wrenn, with his fist at Mr. Gutch’s nose, spoke his mind:

“Say, you white-faced unhealthy dirty-minded lump, I ain’t much of a fighter, but I’m going to muss you up so’s you can’t find your ears if you don’t apologize for those insinuations.”

“Oh, Mr. Wrenn —”

“He didn’t mean —”

“I didn’t mean —”

“He was just spoofing —”

“I was just spoofing —”

Bill Wrenn, watching the dramatization of himself as hero, was enjoying the drama. “You apologize, then?”

“Why certainly, Mr. Wrenn. Let me explain —”

“Oh, don’t explain,” snortled Miss Saxonby.

“Yes!” from Mr. Bancock Binch, “explanations are so conventional, old chap.”

Do you see them? — Mr. Wrenn, self-conscious and ready to turn into a blind belligerent Bill Wrenn at the first disrespect; the talkers sitting about and assassinating all the princes and proprieties and, poor things, taking Mr. Wrenn quite seriously because he had uncovered the great truth that the important thing in sight-seeing is not to see sights. He was most unhappy, Mr. Wrenn was, and wanted to be away from there. He darted as from a spring when he heard Istra’s voice, from the edge of the group, calling, “Come here a sec’, Billy.”

She was standing with a chair-back for support, tired but smiling.

“I can’t get to sleep yet. Don’t you want me to show you some of the buildings here?”

“Oh yes!

“If Mrs. Stettinius can spare you!”

This by way of remarking on the fact that the female poet was staring volubly.

“G-g-g-g-g-g —” said Mrs. Stettinius, which seemed to imply perfect consent.

Istra took him to the belvedere on a little slope overlooking the lawns of Aengusmere, scattered with low bungalows and rose-gardens.

“It is beautiful, isn’t it? Perhaps one could be happy here — if one could kill all the people except the architect,” she mused.

“Oh, it is,” he glowed.

Standing there beside her, happiness enveloping them, looking across the marvelous sward, Bill Wrenn was at the climax of his comedy of triumph. Admitted to a world of lawns and bungalows and big studio windows, standing in a belvedere beside Istra Nash as her friend —

“Mouse dear,” she said, hesitatingly, “the reason why I wanted to have you come out here, why I couldn’t sleep, I wanted to tell you how ashamed I am for having been peevish, being petulant, last night. I’m so sorry, because you were very patient with me, you were very good to me. I don’t want you to think of me just as a crochety woman who didn’t appreciate you. You are very kind, and when I hear that you’re married to some nice girl I’ll be as happy as can be.”

“Oh, Istra,” he cried, grasping her arm, “I don’t want any girl in the world — I mean — oh, I just want to be let go ‘round with you when you’ll let me —”

“No, no, dear. You must have seen last night; that’s impossible. Please don’t argue about it now; I’m too tired. I just wanted to tell you I appreciated — And when you get back to America you won’t be any the worse for playing around with poor Istra because she told you about different things from what you’ve played with, about rearing children as individuals and painting in tempera and all those things? And — and I don’t want you to get too fond of me, because we’re — different. . . . But we have had an adventure, even if it was a little moist.” She paused; then, cheerily: “Well, I’m going to beat it back and try to sleep again. Good-by, Mouse dear. No, don’t come back to the Cara-advanced-serai. Play around and see the animiles. G’-by.”

He watched her straight swaying figure swing across the lawn and up the steps of the half-timbered inn. He watched her enter the door before he hastened to the shops which clustered about the railway- station, outside of the poetic preserves of the colony proper.

He noticed, as he went, that the men crossing the green were mostly clad in Norfolk jackets and knickers, so he purchased the first pair of unrespectable un-ankle-concealing trousers he had owned since small boyhood, and a jacket of rough serge, with a gaudy buckle on the belt. Also, he actually dared an orange tie!

He wanted something for Istra at dinner —“a s’prise,” he whispered under his breath, with fond babying. For the first time in his life he entered a florist’s shop. . . . Normally, you know, the poor of the city cannot afford flowers till they are dead, and then for but one day. . . . He came out with a bunch of orchids, and remembered the days when he had envied the people he had seen in florists’ shops actually buying flowers. When he was almost at the Caravanserai he wanted to go back and change the orchids for simpler flowers, roses or carnations, but he got himself not to.

The linen and glassware and silver of the Caravanserai were almost as coarse as those of a temperance hotel, for all the raftered ceiling and the etchings in the dining-room. Hunting up the stewardess of the inn, a bustling young woman who was reading Keats energetically at an office-like desk, Mr. Wrenn begged: “I wonder could I get some special cups and plates and stuff for high tea tonight. I got a kind of party —”

“How many?” The stewardess issued the words as though he had put a penny in the slot.

“Just two. Kind of a birthday party.” Mendacious Mr. Wrenn!

“Certainly. Of course there’s a small extra charge. I have a Royal Satsuma tea-service — practically Royal Satsuma, at least — and some special Limoges.”

“I think Royal Sats’ma would be nice. And some silverware?”

“Surely.”

“And could we get some special stuff to eat?”

“What would you like?”

“Why —”

Mendacious Mr. Wrenn! as we have commented. He put his head on one side, rubbed his chin with nice consideration, and condescended, “What would you suggest?”

“For a party high tea? Why, perhaps consomme and omelet Bergerac and a salad and a sweet and cafe diable. We have a chef who does French eggs rather remarkably. That would be simple, but —”

“Yes, that would be very good,” gravely granted the patron of cuisine. “At six; for two.”

As he walked away he grinned within. “Gee! I talked to that omelet Berg’ rac like I’d known it all my life!”

Other s’prises for Istra’s party he sought. Let’s see; suppose it really were her birthday, wouldn’t she like to have a letter from some important guy? he queried of himself. He’d write her a make-b’lieve letter from a duke. Which he did. Purchasing a stamp, he humped over a desk in the common room and with infinite pains he inked the stamp in imitation of a postmark and addressed the letter to “Lady Istra Nash, Mouse Castle, Suffolk.”

Some one sat down at the desk opposite him, and he jealously carried the task upstairs to his room. He rang for pen and ink as regally as though he had never sat at the wrong end of a buzzer. After half an hour of trying to visualize a duke writing a letter he produced this:

LADY ISTRA NASH,

Mouse Castle.

DEAR MADAM — We hear from our friend Sir William Wrenn that some folks are saying that to-day is not your birthday & want to stop your celebration, so if you should need somebody to make them believe to-day is your birthday we have sent our secretary, Sir Percival Montague. Sir William Wrenn will hide him behind his chair, and if they bother you just call for Sir Percival and he will tell them. Permit us, dear Lady Nash, to wish you all the greetings of the season, and in close we beg to remain, as ever,

Yours sincerely,
DUKE VERE DE VERE.

He was very tired. When he lay down for a minute, with a pillow tucked over his head, he was almost asleep in ten seconds. But he sprang up, washed his prickly eyes with cold water, and began to dress. He was shy of the knickers and golf-stockings, but it was the orange tie that gave him real alarm. He dared it, though, and went downstairs to make sure they were setting the table with glory befitting the party.

As he went through the common room he watched the three or four groups scattered through it. They seemed to take his clothes as a matter of course. He was glad. He wanted so much to be a credit to Istra.

Returning from the dining-room to the common room, he passed a group standing in a window recess and looking away from him. He overheard:

“Who is the remarkable new person with the orange tie and the rococo buckle on his jacket belt — the one that just went through? Did you ever see anything so funny! His collar didn’t come within an inch and a half of fitting his neck. He must be a poet. I wonder if his verses are as jerry-built as his garments!”

Mr. Wrenn stopped.

Another voice:

“And the beautiful lack of development of his legs! It’s like the good old cycling days, when every draper’s assistant went bank-holidaying. . . . I don’t know him, but I suppose he’s some tuppeny-ha’p’ny illustrator.”

“Or perhaps he has convictions about fried bananas, and dines on a bean saute. O Aengusmere! Shades of Aengus!”

“Not at all. When they look as gentle as he they always hate the capitalists as a militant hates a cabinet minister. He probably dines on the left ear of a South–African millionaire every evening before exercise at the barricades. . . . I say, look over there; there’s a real artist going across the green. You can tell he’s a real artist because he’s dressed like a navvy and —”

Mr. Wrenn was walking away, across the common room, quite sure that every one was eying him with amusement. And it was too late to change his clothes. It was six already.

He stuck out his jaw, and remembered that he had planned to hide the “letter from the duke” in Istra’s napkin that it might be the greater surprise. He sat down at their table. He tucked the letter into the napkin folds. He moved the vase of orchids nearer the center of the table, and the table nearer the open window giving on the green. He rebuked himself for not being able to think of something else to change. He forgot his clothes, and was happy.

At six-fifteen he summoned a boy and sent him up with a message that Mr. Wrenn was waiting and high tea ready.

The boy came back muttering, “Miss Nash left this note for you, sir, the stewardess says.”

Mr. Wrenn opened the green-and-white Caravanserai letter excitedly. Perhaps Istra, too, was dressing for the party! He loved all s’prises just then. He read:

Mouse dear, I’m sorrier than I can tell you, but you know I warrned you that bad Istra was a creature of moods, and just now my mood orders me to beat it for Paris, which I’m doing, on the 5.17 train. I won’t say good-by — I hate good-bys, they’re so stupid, don’t you think? Write me some time, better make it care Amer. Express Co., Paris, because I don’t know yet just where I’ll be. And please don’t look me up in Paris, because it’s always better to end up an affair without explanations, don’t you think? You have been wonderfully kind to me, and I’ll send you some good thought-forms, shall I?

I. N.

He walked to the office of the Caravanserai, blindly, quietly. He paid his bill, and found that he had only fifty dollars left. He could not get himself to eat the waiting high tea. There was a seven-fourteen train for London. He took it. Meantime he wrote out a cable to his New York bank for a hundred and fifty dollars. To keep from thinking in the train he talked gravely and gently to an old man about the brave days of England, when men threw quoits. He kept thinking over and over, to the tune set by the rattling of the train trucks: “Friends . . . I got to make friends, now I know what they are. . . . Funny some guys don’t make friends. Mustn’t forget. Got to make lots of ’em in New York. Learn how to make ’em.”

He arrived at his room on Tavistock Place about eleven, and tried to think for the rest of the night of how deeply he was missing Morton of the cattle-boat now that — now that he had no friend in all the hostile world.

In a London A. B. C. restaurant Mr. Wrenn was talking to an American who had a clipped mustache, brisk manners, a Knight-of-Pythias pin, and a mind for duck-shooting, hardware-selling, and cigars.

“No more England for mine,” the American snapped, good-humoredly. “I’m going to get out of this foggy hole and get back to God’s country just as soon as I can. I want to find out what’s doing at the store, and I want to sit down to a plate of flapjacks. I’m good and plenty sick of tea and marmalade. Why, I wouldn’t take this fool country for a gift. No, sir! Me for God’s country — Sleepy Eye, Brown County, Minnesota. You bet!”

“You don’t like England much, then?” Mr. Wrenn carefully reasoned.

“Like it? Like this damp crowded hole, where they can’t talk English, and have a fool coinage — Say, that’s a great system, that metric system they’ve got over in France, but here — why, they don’t know whether Kansas City is in Kansas or Missouri or both. . . . ‘Right as rain’— that’s what a fellow said to me for ‘all right’! Ever hear such nonsense?. . . . And tea for breakfast! Not for me! No, sir! I’m going to take the first steamer!”

With a gigantic smoke-puff of disgust the man from Sleepy Eye stalked out, jingling the keys in his trousers pocket, cocking up his cigar, and looking as though he owned the restaurant.

Mr. Wrenn, picturing him greeting the Singer Tower from an incoming steamer, longed to see the tower.

“Gee! I’ll do it!”

He rose and, from that table in the basement of an A. B. C. restaurant, he fled to America.

He dashed up-stairs, fidgeted while the cashier made his change, rang for a bus, whisked into his room, slammed his things into his suit-case, announced to it wildly that they were going home, and scampered to the Northwestem Station. He walked nervously up and down till the Liverpool train departed. “Suppose Istra wanted to make up, and came back to London?” was a terrifying thought that hounded him. He dashed into the waiting-room and wrote to her, on a souvenir post-card showing the Abbey: “Called back to America — will write. Address care of Souvenir Company, Twenty-eighth Street.” But he didn’t mail the card.

Once settled in a second-class compartment, with the train in motion, he seemed already much nearer America, and, humming, to the great annoyance of a lady with bangs, he planned his new great work — the making of friends; the discovery, some day, if Istra should not relent, of “somebody to go home to.” There was no end to the “societies and lodges and stuff” he was going to join directly he landed.

At Liverpool he suddenly stopped at a post-box and mailed his card to Istra. That ended his debate. Of course after that he had to go back to America.

He sailed exultantly, one month and seventeen days after leaving Portland.

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