Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 12

He Discovers America

In his white-painted steerage berth Mr. Wrenn lay, with a scratch-pad on his raised knees and a small mean pillow doubled under his head, writing sample follow-up letters to present to the Souvenir and Art Novelty Company, interrupting his work at intervals to add to a list of the books which, beginning about five minutes after he landed in New York, he was going to master. He puzzled over Marie Corelli. Morton liked Miss Corelli so much; but would her works appeal to Istra Nash?

He had worked for many hours on a letter to Istra in which he avoided mention of such indecent matters as steerages and immigrants. He was grateful, he told her, for “all you learned me,” and he had thought that Aengusmere was a beautiful place, though he now saw “what you meant about them interesting people,” and his New York address would be the Souvenir Company.

He tore up the several pages that repeated that oldest most melancholy cry of the lover, which rang among the deodars, from viking ships, from the moonlit courtyards of Provence, the cry which always sounded about Mr. Wrenn as he walked the deck: “I want you so much; I miss you so unendingly; I am so lonely for you, dear.” For no more clearly, no more nobly did the golden Aucassin or lean Dante word that cry in their thoughts than did Mr. William Wrenn, Our Mr. Wrenn.

A third-class steward with a mangy mustache and setter-like tan eyes came teetering down-stairs, each step like a nervous pencil tap on a table, and peered over the side of Mr. Wrenn’s berth. He loved Mr. Wrenn, who was proven a scholar by the reading of real bound books — an English history and a second-hand copy of Haunts of Historic English Writers, purchased in Liverpool — and who was willing to listen to the steward’s serial story of how his woman, Mrs. Wargle, faithlessly consorted with Foddle, the cat’s-meat man, when the steward was away, and, when he was home, cooked for him lights and liver that unquestionably were purchased from the same cat’s-meat man. He now leered with a fond and watery gaze upon Mr. Wrenn’s scholarly pursuits, and announced in a whisper:

“They’ve sighted land.”

“Land?”

“Oh aye.”

Mr. Wrenn sat up so vigorously that he bumped his head. He chucked his papers beneath the pillow with his right hand, while the left was feeling for the side of the berth. “Land!” he bellowed to drowsing cabin-mates as he vaulted out.

The steerage promenade-deck, iron-sided, black-floored, ending in the iron approaches to the galley at one end and the iron superstructures about a hatch at the other, was like a grim swart oilily clean machine-shop aisle, so inclosed, so over-roofed, that the side toward the sea seemed merely a long factory window. But he loved it and, except when he had guiltily remembered the books he had to read, he had stayed on deck, worshiping the naive bright attire of immigrants and the dark roll and glory of the sea.

Now, out there was a blue shading, made by a magic pencil; land, his land, where he was going to become the beloved comrade of all the friends whose likenesses he saw in the white-caps flashing before him.

Humming, he paraded down to the buffet, where small beer and smaller tobacco were sold, to buy another pound of striped candy for the offspring of the Russian Jews.

The children knew he was coming. “Fat rascals,” he chuckled, touching their dark cheeks, pretending to be frightened as they pounded soft fists against the iron side of the ship or rolled unregarded in the scuppers. Their shawled mothers knew him, too, and as he shyly handed about the candy the chattering stately line of Jewish elders nodded their beards like the forest primeval in a breeze, saying words of blessing in a strange tongue.

He smiled back and made gestures, and shouted “Land! Land!” with several variations in key, to make it sound foreign.

But he withdrew for the sacred moment of seeing the Land of Promise he was newly discovering — the Long Island shore; the grass-clad redouts at Fort Wadsworth; the vast pile of New York sky-scrapers, standing in a mist like an enormous burned forest.

“Singer Tower. . . . Butterick Building,” he murmured, as they proceeded toward their dock. “That’s something like. . . . Let’s see; yes, sir, by golly, right up there between the Met. Tower and the Times — good old Souvenir Company office. Jiminy! ‘One Dollar to Albany’— something like a sign, that is — good old dollar! To thunder with their darn shillings. Home! . . . Gee! there’s where I used to moon on a wharf! . . . Gosh! the old town looks good.”

And all this was his to conquer, for friendship’s sake.

He went to a hotel. While he had to go back to the Zapps’, of course, he did not wish, by meeting those old friends, to spoil his first day. No, it was cheerfuler to stand at a window of his cheap hotel on Seventh Avenue, watching the “good old American crowd”— Germans, Irishmen, Italians, and Jews. He went to the Nickelorion and grasped the hand of the ticket-taker, the Brass-button Man, ejaculating: “How are you? Well, how’s things going with the old show? . . . I been away couple of months.”

“Fine and dandy! Been away, uh? Well, it’s good to get back to the old town, heh? Summer hotel?”

“Unk?”

“Why, you’re the waiter at Pat Maloney’s, ain’t you?”

Next morning Mr. Wrenn made himself go to the Souvenir and Art Novelty Company. He wanted to get the teasing, due him for staying away so short a time, over as soon as possible. The office girl, addressing circulars, seemed surprised when he stepped from the elevator, and blushed her usual shy gratitude to the men of the office for allowing her to exist and take away six dollars weekly.

Then into the entry-room ran Rabin, one of the traveling salesmen.

“Why, hul-lo, Wrenn! Wondered if that could be you. Back so soon? Thought you were going to Europe.”

“Just got back. Couldn’t stand it away from you, old scout!”

“You must have been learning to sass back real smart, in the Old Country, heh? Going to be with us again? Well, see you again soon. Glad see you back.”

He was not madly excited at seeing Rabin; still, the drummer was part of the good old Souvenir Company, the one place in the world on which he could absolutely depend, the one place where they always wanted him.

He had been absently staring at the sample-tables, noting new novelties. The office girl, speaking sweetly, but as to an outsider, inquired, “Who did you wish to see, Mr. Wrenn?”

“Why! Mr. Guilfogle.”

“He’s busy, but if you’ll sit down I think you can see him in a few minutes.”

Mr. Wrenn felt like the prodigal son, with no calf in sight, at having to wait on the callers’ bench, but he shook with faint excited gurgles of mirth at the thought of the delightful surprise Mr. Mortimer R. Guilfogle, the office manager, was going to have. He kept an eye out for Charley Carpenter. If Charley didn’t come through the entry-room he’d go into the bookkeeping-room, and —“talk about your surprises —”

“Mr. Guilfogle will see you now,” said the office girl.

As he entered the manager’s office Mr. Guilfogle made much of glancing up with busy amazement.

“Well, well, Wrenn! Back so soon? Thought you were going to be gone quite a while.”

“Couldn’t keep away from the office, Mr. Guilfogle,” with an uneasy smile.

“Have a good trip?”

“Yes, a dandy.”

“How’d you happen to get back so soon?”

“Oh, I wanted to — Say, Mr. Guilfogle, I really wanted to get back to the office again. I’m awfully glad to see it again.”

“Glad see you. Well, where did you go? I got the card you sent me from Chesterton with the picture of the old church on it.”

“Why, I went to Liverpool and Oxford and London and — well — Kew and Ealing and places and — And I tramped through Essex and Suffolk — all through — on foot. Aengusmere and them places.”

“Just a moment. (Well, Rabin, what is it? Why certainly. I’ve told you that already about five times. Yes, I said — that’s what I had the samples made up for. I wish you’d be a little more careful, d’ ye hear?) You went to London, did you, Wrenn? Say, did you notice any novelties we could copy?”

“No, I’m afraid I didn’t, Mr. Guilfogle. I’m awfully sorry. I hunted around, but I couldn’t find a thing we could use. I mean I couldn’t find anything that began to come up to our line. Them English are pretty slow.”

“Didn’t, eh? Well, what’s your plans now?”

“Why — uh — I kind of thought — Honestly, Mr. Guilfogle, I’d like to get back on my old job. You remember — it was to be fixed so —”

“Afraid there’s nothing doing just now, Wrenn. Not a thing. Course I can’t tell what may happen, and you want to keep in touch with us, but we’re pretty well filled up just now. Jake is getting along better than we thought. He’s learning —” Not one word regarding Jake’s excellence did Mr. Wrenn hear.

Not get the job back? He sat down and stammered:

“Gee! I hadn’t thought of that. I’d kind of banked on the Souvenir Company, Mr. Guilfogle.”

“Well, you know I told you I thought you were an idiot to go. I warned you.”

He timidly agreed, mourning: “Yes, that so; I know you did. But uh — well —”

“Sorry, Wrenn. That’s the way it goes in business, though. If you will go beating it around — A rolling stone don’t gather any moss. Well, cheer up! Possibly there may be something doing in —”

“Tr-r-r-r-r-r-r,” said the telephone.

Mr. Guilfogle remarked into it: “Hello. Yes, it’s me. Well, who did you think it was? The cat? Yuh. Sure. No. Well, to-morrow, probably. All right. Good-by.”

Then he glanced at his watch and up at Mr. Wrenn impatiently.

“Say, Mr. Guilfogle, you say there’ll be — when will there be likely to be an opening?”

“Now, how can I tell, my boy? We’ll work you in if we can — you ain’t a bad clerk; or at least you wouldn’t be if you’d be a little more careful. By the way, of course you understand that if we try to work you in it’ll take lots of trouble, and we’ll expect you to not go flirting round with other firms, looking for a job. Understand that?”

“Oh yes, sir.”

“All right. We appreciate your work all right, but of course you can ‘t expect us to fire any of our present force just because you take the notion to come back whenever you want to. . . . Hiking off to Europe, leaving a good job! . . . You didn’t get on the Continent, did you?”

“No, I—”

“Well. . . . Oh, say, how’s the grub in London? Cheaper than it is here? The wife was saying this morning we’d have to stop eating if the high cost of living goes on going up.”

“Yes, it’s quite a little cheaper. You can get fine tea for two and three cents a cup. Clothes is cheaper, too. But I don’t care much for the English, though there is all sorts of quaint places with a real flavor. . . . Say, Mr. Guilfogle, you know I inherited a little money, and I can wait awhile, and you’ll kind of keep me in mind for a place if one —”

“Didn’t I say I would?”

“Yes, but —”

“You come around and see me a week from now. And leave your address with Rosey. I don’t know, though, as we can afford to pay you quite the same salary at first, even if we can work you in — the season’s been very slack. But I’ll do what I can for you. Come in and see me in about a week. Goo’ day.”

Rabin, the salesman, waylaid Mr. Wrenn in the corridor.

“You look kind of peeked, Wrenn. Old Goglefogle been lighting into you? Say, I ought to have told you first. I forgot it. The old rat, he’s been planning to stick the knife into you all the while. ‘Bout two weeks ago me and him had a couple of cocktails at Mouquin’s. You know how chummy he always gets after a couple of smiles. Well, he was talking about — I was saying you’re a good man and hoping you were having a good time — and he said, ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘he’s a good man, but he sure did lay himself wide open by taking this trip. I’ve got him dead to rights,’ he says to me. ‘I’ve got a hunch he’ll be back here in three or four months,’ he says to me. ‘And do you think he’ll walk in and get what he wants? Not him. I’ll keep him waiting a month before I give him back his job, and then you watch, Rabin,’ he says to me, ‘you’ll see he’ll be tickled to death to go back to work at less salary than he was getting, and he’ll have sense enough to not try this stunt of getting off the job again after that. And the trip’ll be good for him, anyway — he’ll do better work — vacation at his own expense — save us money all round. I tell you, Rabin,’ he says to me, ‘if any of you boys think you can get the best of the company or me you just want to try it, that’s all.’ Yessir, that’s what the old rat told me. You want to watch out for him.”

“Oh, I will; indeed I will —”

“Did he spring any of this fairy tale just now?”

“Well, kind of. Say, thanks, I’m awful obliged to —”

“Say, for the love of Mike, don’t let him know I told you.”

“No, no, I sure won’t.”

They parted. Eager though he was for the great moment of again seeing his comrade, Charley Carpenter, Mr. Wrenn dribbled toward the bookkeeping-room mournfully, planning to tell Charley of Guilfogle’s wickedness.

The head bookkeeper shook his head at Mr. Wrenn’s inquiry:

“Charley ain’t here any longer.”

“Ain’t here?

“No. He got through. He got to boozing pretty bad, and one morning about three weeks ago, when he had a pretty bad hang-over, he told Guilfogle what he thought of him, so of course Guilfogle fired him.”

“Oh, that’s too bad. Say, you don’t know his address, do you?”

“— East a Hundred and Eighteenth. . . . Well, I’m glad to see you back, Wrenn. Didn’t expect to see you back so soon, but always glad to see you. Going to be with us?”

“I ain’t sure,” said Mr. Wrenn, crabbedly, then shook hands warmly with the bookkeeper, to show there was nothing personal in his snippishness.

For nearly a hundred blocks Mr. Wrenn scowled at an advertisement of Corn Flakes in the Third Avenue Elevated without really seeing it. . . . Should he go back to the Souvenir Company at all?

Yes. He would. That was the best way to start making friends. But he would “get our friend Guilfogle at recess,” he assured himself, with an out-thrust of the jaw like that of the great Bill Wrenn. He knew Guilfogle’s lead now, and he would show that gentleman that he could play the game. He’d take that lower salary and pretend to be frightened, but when he got the chance —

He did not proclaim even to himself what dreadful thing he was going to do, but as he left the Elevated he said over and over, shaking his closed fist inside his coat pocket:

“When I get the chance — when I get it —”

The flat-building where Charley Carpenter lived was one of hundreds of pressed-brick structures, apparently all turned out of the same mold. It was filled with the smells of steamy washing and fried fish. Languid with the heat, Mr. Wrenn crawled up an infinity of iron steps and knocked three times at Charley’s door. No answer. He crawled down again and sought out the janitress, who stopped watching an ice-wagon in the street to say:

“I guess you’ll be finding him asleep up there, sir. He do be lying there drunk most of the day. His wife’s left him. The landlord’s give him notice to quit, end of August. Warm day, sir. Be you a bill-collector? Mostly, it’s bill-collectors that —”

“Yes, it is hot.”

Superior in manner, but deeply dejected, Mr. Wrenn rang the down-stairs bell long enough to wake Charley, pantingly got himself up the interminable stairs, and kicked the door till Charley’s voice quavered inside:

“Who zhat?”

“It’s me, Charley. Wrenn.”

“You’re in Yurp. Can’t fool me. G’ ‘way from there.”

Three other doors on the same landing were now partly open and blocked with the heads of frowsy inquisitive women. The steamy smell was thicker in the darkness. Mr. Wrenn felt prickly, then angry at this curiosity, and again demanded:

“Lemme in, I say.”

“Tell you it ain’t you. I know you!”

Charley Carpenter’s pale face leered out. His tousled hair was stuck to his forehead by perspiration; his eyes were red and vaguely staring. His clothes were badlv wrinkled. He wore a collarless shirt with a frilled bosom of virulent pink, its cuffs grimy and limp.

“It’s ol’ Wrenn. C’m in. C’m in quick. Collectors always hanging around. They can’t catch me. You bet.”

He closed the door and wabbled swiftly down the long drab hall of the “railroad flat,” evidently trying to walk straight. The reeking stifling main room at the end of the hall was terrible as Charley’s eyes. Flies boomed everywhere. The oak table, which Charley and his bride had once spent four happy hours in selecting, was littered with half a dozen empty whisky-flasks, collars, torn sensational newspapers, dirty plates and coffee-cups. The cheap brocade cover, which a bride had once joyed to embroider with red and green roses, was half pulled off and dragged on the floor amid the cigarette butts, Durham tobacco, and bacon rinds which covered the green-and-yellow carpet-rug.

This much Mr. Wrenn saw. Then he set himself to the hard task of listening to Charley, who was muttering:

“Back quick, ain’t you, ol’ Wrenn? You come up to see me, didn’t you? You’re m’ friend, ain’t you, eh? I got an awful hang-over, ain’t I? You don’t care, do you, ol’ Wrenn?”

Mr. Wrenn stared at him weakly, but only for a minute. Perhaps it was his cattle-boat experience which now made him deal directly with such drunkenness as would have nauseated him three months before; perhaps his attendance on a weary Istra.

“Come now, Charley, you got to buck up,” he crooned.

All ri’.”

“What’s the trouble? How did you get going like this?”

“Wife left me. I was drinking. You think I’m drunk, don’t you? But I ain’t. She went off with her sister — always hated me. She took my money out of savings-bank — three hundred; all money I had ‘cept fifty dollars. I’ll fix her. I’ll kill her. Took to hitting the booze. Goglefogle fired me. Don’t care. Drink all I want. Keep young fellows from getting it! Say, go down and get me pint. Just finished up pint. Got to have one-die of thirst. Bourbon. Get —”

“I’ll go and get you a drink, Charley — just one drink, savvy? — if you’ll promise to get cleaned up, like I tell you, afterward.”

All ri’.”

Mr. Wrenn hastened out with a whisky-flask, muttering, feverishly, “Gee! I got to save him.” Returning, he poured out one drink, as though it were medicine for a refractory patient, and said, soothingly:

“Now we’ll take a cold bath, heh? and get cleaned up and sobered up. Then we’ll talk about a job, heh?”

“Aw, don’t want a bath. Say, I feel better now. Let’s go out and have a drink. Gimme that flask. Where j’ yuh put it?”

Mr. Wrenn went to the bathroom, turned on the cold-water tap, returned, and undressed Charley, who struggled and laughed and let his whole inert weight rest against Mr. Wrenn’s shoulder. Though normally Charley could have beaten three Mr. Wrenns, he was run into the bath-room and poked into the tub.

Instantly he began to splash, throwing up water in handfuls, singing. The water poured over the side of the tub. Mr. Wrenn tried to hold him still, but the wet sleek shoulders slipped through his hand like a wet platter. Wholesomely vexed, he turned off the water and slammed the bathroom door.

In the bedroom he found an unwrinkled winter-weight suit and one clean shirt. In the living-room he hung up his coat, covering it with a newspaper, pulled the broom from under the table, and prepared to sweep.

The disorder was so great that he made one of the inevitable discoveries of every housekeeper, and admitted to himself that he “didn’t know where to begin.” He stumblingly lugged a heavy pile of dishes from the center-table to the kitchen, shook and beat and folded the table-cover, stuck the chairs atop the table, and began to sweep.

At the door a shining wet naked figure stood, bellowing:

“Hey! What d’ yuh think you’re doing? Cut it out.”

“Just sweeping, Charley,” from Mr. Wrenn, and an uninterrupted “Tuff, tuff, tuff” from the broom.

“Cut it out, I said. Whose house is this?”

“Gwan back in the bath-tub, Charley.”

“Say, d’ yuh think you can run me? Get out of this, or I’ll throw you out. Got house way I want it.”

Bill Wrenn, the cattleman, rushed at him, smacked him with the broom, drove him back into the tub, and waited. He laughed. It was all a good joke; his friend Charley and he were playing a little game. Charley also laughed and splashed some more. Then he wept and said that the water was cold, and that he was now deserted by his only friend.

“Oh, shut up,” remarked Bill Wrenn, and swept the bathroom floor.

Charley stopped swashing about to sneer:

“Li’l ministering angel, ain’t you? You think you’re awful good, don’t you? Come up here and bother me. When I ain’t well. Salvation Army. You ——. Aw, lemme ‘lone, will you?” Bill Wrenn kept on sweeping. “Get out, you ——.”

There was enough energy in Charley’s voice to indicate that he was getting sober. Bill Wrenn soused him under once more, so thoroughly that his own cuffs were reduced to a state of flabbiness. He dragged Charley out, helped him dry himself, and drove him to bed.

He went out and bought dish-towels, soap, washing-powder, and collars of Charley’s size, which was an inch larger than his own. He finished sweeping and dusting and washing the dishes — all of them. He — who had learned to comfort Istra — he really enjoyed it. His sense of order made it a pleasure to see a plate yellow with dried egg glisten iridescently and flash into shining whiteness; or a room corner filled with dust and tobacco flakes become again a “nice square clean corner with the baseboard shining, gee! just like it was new.”

An irate grocer called with a bill for fifteen dollars. Mr. Wrenn blandly heard his threats all through, pretending to himself that this was his home, whose honor was his honor. He paid the man eight dollars on account and loftily dismissed him. He sat down to wait for Charley, reading a newspaper most of the time, but rising to pursue stray flies furiously, stumbling over chairs, and making murderous flappings with a folded newspaper.

When Charley awoke, after three hours, clear of mind but not at all clear as regards the roof of his mouth, Mr. Wrenn gave him a very little whisky, with considerable coffee, toast, and bacon. The toast was not bad.

“Now, Charley,” he said, cheerfully, “your bat’s over, ain’t it, old man?”

“Say, you been darn’ decent to me, old man. Lord! how you’ve been sweeping up! How was I— was I pretty soused?”

“Honest, you were fierce. You will sober up, now, won’t you?”

“Well, it’s no wonder I had a classy hang-over, Wrenn. I was at the Amusieren Rathskeller till four this morning, and then I had a couple of nips before breakfast, and then I didn’t have any breakfast. But sa-a-a-ay, man, I sure did have some fiesta last night. There was a little peroxide blonde that —”

“Now you look here, Carpenter; you listen to me. You’re sober now. Have you tried to find another job?”

“Yes, I did. But I got down in the mouth. Didn’t feel like I had a friend left.”

“Well, you h —”

“But I guess I have now, old Wrennski.”

“Look here, Charley, you know I don’t want to pull off no Charity Society stunt or talk like I was a preacher. But I like you so darn much I want to see you sober up and get another job. Honestly I do, Charley. Are you broke?”

“Prett’ nearly. Only got about ten dollars to my name. . . . I will take a brace, old man. I know you ain’t no preacher. Course if you came around with any ‘holierthan-thou’ stunt I’d have to go right out and get soused on general principles. . . . Yuh — I’ll try to get a job.”

“Here’s ten dollars. Please take it — aw — please, Charley.”

All right; anything to oblige.”

“What ‘ve you got in sight in the job line?”

“Well, there’s a chance at night clerking in a little hotel where I was a bell-hop long time ago. The night clerk’s going to get through, but I don’t know just when — prob’ly in a week or two.”

“Well, keep after it. And please come down to see me — the old place — West Sixteenth Street.”

“What about the old girl with the ingrowing grouch? What’s her name? She ain’t stuck on me.”

“Mrs. Zapp? Oh — hope she chokes. She can just kick all she wants to. I’m just going to have all the visitors I want to.”

“All right. Say, tell us something about your trip.”

“Oh, I had a great time. Lots of nice fellows on the cattle-boat. I went over on one, you know. Fellow named Morton — awfully nice fellow. Say, Charley, you ought to seen me being butler to the steers. Handing ’em hay. But say, the sea was fine; all kinds of colors. Awful dirty on the cattle-boat, though.”

“Hard work?”

“Yuh — kind of hard. Oh, not so very.”

“What did you see in England?”

“Oh, a lot of different places. Say, I seen some great vaudeville in Liverpool, Charley, with Morton — he’s a slick fellow; works for the Pennsylvania, here in town. I got to look him up. Say, I wish we had an agency for college sofa-pillows and banners and souvenir stuff in Oxford. There’s a whole bunch of colleges there, all right in the same town. I met a prof. there from some American college — he hired an automobubble and took me down to a reg’lar old inn —”

“Well, well!”

“— like you read about; sanded floor!”

“Get to London?”

“Yuh. Gee! it’s a big place. Say, that Westminster Abbey’s a great place. I was in there a couple of times. More darn tombs of kings and stuff. And I see a bishop, with leggins on! But I got kind of lonely. I thought of you a lot of times. Wished we could go out and get an ale together. Maybe pick up a couple of pretty girls.”

“Oh, you sport! . . . Say, didn’t get over to gay Paree, did you?”

“Nope. . . . Well, I guess I’d better beat it now. Got to move in — I’m at a hotel. You will come down and see me to-night, won’t you?”

“So you thought of me, eh? . . . Yuh — sure, old socks. I’ll be down to-night. And I’ll get right after that job.”

It is doubtful whether Mr. Wrenn would ever have returned to the Zapps’ had he not promised to see Charley there. Even while he was carrying his suit-case down West Sixteenth, broiling by degrees in the sunshine, he felt like rushing up to Charley’s and telling him to come to the hotel instead.

Lee Theresa, taking the day off with a headache, answered the bell, and ejaculated:

“Well! So it’s you, is it?”

“I guess it is.”

“What, are you back so soon? Why, you ain’t been gone more than a month and a half, have you?”

Beware, daughter of Southern pride! The little Yankee is regarding your full-blown curves and empty eyes with rebellion, though he says, ever so meekly:

“Yes, I guess it is about that, Miss Theresa.”

“Well, I just knew you couldn’t stand it away from us. I suppose you’ll want your room back. Ma, here’s Mr. Wrenn back again — Mr. Wrenn! Ma!

“Oh-h-h-h!” sounded Goaty Zapp’s voice, in impish disdain, below. “Mr. Wrenn’s back. Hee, hee! Couldn’t stand it. Ain’t that like a Yankee!”

A slap, a wail, then Mrs. Zapp’s elephantine slowness on the stairs from the basement. She appeared, buttoning her collar, smiling almost pleasantly, for she disliked Mr. Wrenn less than she did any other of her lodgers.

“Back already, Mist’ Wrenn? Ah declare, Ah was saying to Lee Theresa just yest’day, Ah just knew you’d be wishing you was back with us. Won’t you come in?”

He edged into the parlor with, “How is the sciatica, Mrs. Zapp?”

“Ah ain’t feeling right smart.”

“My room occupied yet?”

He was surveying the airless parlor rather heavily, and his curt manner was not pleasing to the head of the house of Zapp, who remarked, funereally:

“It ain’t taken just now, Mist’ Wrenn, but Ah dunno. There was a gennulman a-looking at it just yesterday, and he said he’d be permanent if he came. Ah declare, Mist’ Wrenn, Ah dunno’s Ah like to have my gennulmen just get up and go without giving me notice.”

Lee Theresa scowled at her.

Mr. Wrenn retorted, “I did give you notice.”

“Ah know, but — well, Ah reckon Ah can let you have it, but Ah’ll have to have four and a half a week instead of four. Prices is all going up so, Ah declare, Ah was just saying to Lee T’resa Ah dunno what we’re all going to do if the dear Lord don’t look out for us. And, Mist’ Wrenn, Ah dunno’s Ah like to have you coming in so late nights. But Ah reckon Ah can accommodate you.”

“It’s a good deal of a favor, isn’t it, Mrs. Zapp?”

Mr. Wrenn was dangerously polite. Let gentility look out for the sharp practices of the Yankee.

“Yes, but —”

It was our hero, our madman of the seven and seventy seas, our revolutionist friend of Istra, who leaped straight from the salt-incrusted decks of his laboring steamer to the musty parlor and declared, quietly but unmovably-practically unmovably —“Well, then, I guess I’d better not take it at all.”

“So that’s the way you’re going to treat us!” bellowed Mrs. Zapp. “You go off and leave us with an unoccupied room and — Oh! You poor white trash — you —”

Ma! You shut up and go down-stairs-s-s-s-s!” Theresa hissed. “Go on.”

Mrs. Zapp wabbled regally out. Lee Theresa spoke to Mr. Wrenn:

“Ma ain’t feeling a bit well this afternoon. I’m sorry she talked like that. You will come back, won’t you?” She showed all her teeth in a genuine smile, and in her anxiety reached his heart. “Remember, you promised you would.”

“Well, I will, but —”

Bill Wrenn was fading, an affrighted specter. The “but” was the last glimpse of him, and that Theresa overlooked, as she bustlingly chirruped: “I knew you would understand. I’ll skip right up and look at the room and put on fresh sheets.”

One month, one hot New York month, passed before the imperial Mr. Guilfogle gave him back The Job, and then at seventeen dollars and fifty cents a week instead of his former nineteen dollars. Mr. Wrenn refused, upon pretexts, to go out with the manager for a drink, and presented him with twenty suggestions for new novelties and circular letters. He rearranged the unsystematic methods of Jake, the cub, and two days later he was at work as though he had never in his life been farther from the Souvenir Company than Newark.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/wrenn/chapter12.html

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