Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 14

He Enters Society

England, in all its Istra-ness, scarce gave Mr. Wrenn a better thrill for his collection than the thrill he received on the November evening when he saw the white doorway of Mrs. R. T. Ferrard, in a decorous row of houses on Thirtieth Street near Lexington Avenue.

It is a block where the citizens have civic pride. A newspaper has not the least chance of lying about on the asphalt — some householder with a frequently barbered mustache will indignantly pounce upon it inside of an hour. No awe. is caused by the sight of vestibules floored with marble in alternate black and white tiles, scrubbed not by landladies, but by maids. There are dotted Swiss curtains at the basement windows and Irish point curtains on the first floors. There are two polished brass doorplates in a stretch of less than eight houses. Distinctly, it is not a quarter where children fill the street with shouting and little sticks.

Occasionally a taxicab drives up to some door without a crowd of small boys gathering; and young men in evening clothes are not infrequently seen to take out young ladies wearing tight-fitting gowns of black, and light scarfs over their heads. A Middle Western college fraternity has a club-house in the block, and four of the houses are private — one of them belonging to a police inspector and one to a school principal who wears spats.

It is a block that is satisfied with itself; as different from the Zapp district, where landladies in gingham run out to squabble with berry-venders, as the Zapp district is from the Ghetto.

Mrs. Arty Ferrard’s house is a poor relation to most of the residences there. The black areaway rail is broken, and the basement-door grill is rusty. But at the windows are red-and-white-figured chintz curtains, with a $2.98 bisque figurine of an unclothed lady between them; the door is of spotless white, with a bell-pull of polished brass.

Mr. Wrenn yanked this bell-pull with an urbane briskness which, he hoped, would conceal his nervousness and delight in dining out. For he was one of the lonely men in New York. He had dined out four times in eight years.

The woman of thirty-five or thirty-eight who opened the door to him was very fat, two-thirds as fat as Mrs. Zapp, but she had young eyes. Her mouth was small, arched, and quivering in a grin.

“This is Mr. Wrenn, isn’t it?” she gurgled, and leaned against the doorpost, merry, apparently indolent. “I’m Mrs. Ferrard. Mr. Poppins told me you were coming, and he said you were a terribly nice man, and I was to be sure and welcome you. Come right in.”

Her indolence turned to energy as she charged down the hall to the large double door on the right and threw it open, revealing to him a scene of splendor and revelry by night.

Several persons [they seemed dozens, in their liveliness] were singing and shouting to piano music, in the midst of a general redness and brightness of furnishings — red paper and worn red carpet and a high ceiling with circular moldings tinted in pink. Hand-painted pictures of old mills and ladies brooding over salmon sunsets, and an especially hand-painted Christmas scene with snow of inlaid mother-of-pearl, animated the walls. On a golden-oak center-table was a large lamp with a mosaic shade, and through its mingled bits of green and red and pearl glass stormed the brilliance of a mantle-light.

The room was crowded with tufted plush and imitation-leather chairs, side-tables and corner brackets, a couch and a “lady’s desk.” Green and red and yellow vases adorned with figures of youthful lovers crammed the top of the piano at the farther end of the room and the polished black-marble mantel of the fireplace. The glaring gas raced the hearth-fire for snap and glare and excitement. The profusion of furniture was like a tumult; the redness and oakness and polishedness of furniture was a dizzying activity; and it was all overwhelmingly magnified by the laughter and singing about the piano.

Tom Poppins lumbered up from a couch of terrifically new and red leather, and Mr. Wrenn was introduced to the five new people in the room with dismaying swiftness. There seemed to be fifty times five unapproachable and magnificent strangers from whom he wanted to flee. Of them all he was sure of only two — a Miss Nelly somebody and what sounded like Horatio Hood Tem (Teddem it was).

He wished that he had caught Miss Nelly’s last name (which, at dinner, proved to be Croubel), for he was instantly taken by her sweetness as she smiled, held out a well-shaped hand, and said, “So pleased meet you, Mr. Wrenn.”

She returned to the front of the room and went on talking to a lank spinster about ruchings, but Mr. Wrenn felt that he had known her long and as intimately as it was possible to know so clever a young woman.

Nelly Croubel gave him the impression of a delicate prettiness, a superior sort of prettiness, like that of the daughter of the Big White House on the Hill, the Squire’s house, at Parthenon; though Nelly was not unusually pretty. Indeed, her mouth was too large, her hair of somewhat ordinary brown. But her face was always changing with emotions of kindliness and life. Her skin was perfect; her features fine, rather Greek; her smile, quick yet sensitive. She was several inches shorter than Mr. Wrenn, and all curves. Her blouse of white silk lay tenderly along the adorably smooth softness of her young shoulders. A smart patent-leather belt encircled her sleek waist. Thin black lisle stockings showed a modestly arched and rather small foot in a black pump.

She looked as though she were trained for business; awake, self-reliant, self-respecting, expecting to have to get things done, all done, yet she seemed indestructibly gentle, indestructibly good and believing, and just a bit shy.

Nelly Croubel was twenty-four or twenty-five in years, older in business, and far younger in love. She was born in Upton’s Grove, Pennsylvania. There, for eighteen years, she had played Skip to Malue at parties, hid away the notes with which the boys invited her to picnics at Baptist Beach, read much Walter Scott, and occasionally taught Sunday-school. Her parents died when she was beginning her fourth year in high school, and she came to New York to work in Wanamacy’s toy department at six dollars a week during the holiday rush. Her patience with fussy old shoppers and her large sales-totals had gained her a permanent place in the store.

She had loftily climbed to the position of second assistant buyer in the lingerie department, at fourteen dollars and eighty cents a week That was quite all of her history except that she attended a Presbyterian church nearly every Sunday. The only person she hated was Horatio Hood Teddem, the cheap actor who was playing the piano at Mr. Wrenn’s entrance.

Just now Horatio was playing ragtime with amazing rapidity, stamping his foot and turning his head to smirk at the others.

Mrs. Arty led her chattering flock to the basement dining-room, which had pink wall-paper and a mountainous sideboard. Mr. Wrenn was placed between Mrs. Arty and Nelly Croubel. Out of the mist of strangeness presently emerged the personality of Miss Mary Proudfoot, a lively but religious spinster of forty who made doilies for the Dorcas Women’s Exchange and had two hundred dollars a year family income. To the right of the red-glass pickle-dish were the elderly Ebbitts — Samuel Ebbitt, Esq., also Mrs. Ebbitt. Mr. Ebbitt had come from Hartford five years before, but he always seemed just to have come from there. He was in a real-estate office; he was gray, ill-tempered, impatiently honest, and addicted to rheumatism and the newspapers. Mrs. Ebbitt was addicted only to Mr. Ebbitt.

Across the table was felt the presence of James T. Duncan, who looked like a dignified red-mustached Sunday-school superintendent, but who traveled for a cloak and suit house, gambled heavily on poker and auction pinochle, and was esteemed for his straight back and knowledge of trains.

Which is all of them.

As soon as Mrs. Arty had guided Annie, the bashful maid, in serving the vegetable soup, and had coaxed her into bringing Mr. Wrenn a napkin, she took charge of the conversation, a luxury which she would never have intrusted to her flock’s amateurish efforts. Mr. Poppins, said she, had spoken of meeting a friend of Mr. Wrenn’s; Mr. Morton, was it not? A very nice man, she understood. Was it true that Mr. Wrenn and Mr. Morton had gone clear across the Atlantic on a cattle-boat? It really was?

“Oh, how interesting!” contributed pretty Nelly Croubel, beside Mr. Wrenn, her young eyes filled with an admiration which caused him palpitation and difficulty in swallowing his soup. He was confused by hearing old Samuel Ebbitt state:

“Uh-h-h-h — back in 18 — uh — 1872 the vessel Prissie — no, it was 1873; no, it must have been ‘72 —”

“It was 1872, father,” said Mrs. Ebbitt.

“1873. I was on a coasting-vessel, young man. But we didn’t carry cattle.” Mr. Ebbitt inspected Horatio Hood Teddem darkly, clicked his spectacle case sharply shut, and fell to eating, as though he had settled all this nonsense.

With occasional witty interruptions from the actor, Mr. Wrenn told of pitching hay, of the wit of Morton, and the wickedness of Satan, the boss.

“But you haven’t told us about the brave things you did,” cooed Mrs. Arty. She appealed to Nelly Croubel: “I’ll bet he was a cool one. Don’t you think he was, Nelly?”

“I’m sure he was.” Nelly’s voice was like a flute.

Mr. Wrenn knew that there was just one thing in the world that he wanted to do; to persuade Miss Nelly Croubel that (though he was a solid business man, indeed yes, and honorable) he was a cool one, who had chosen, in wandering o’er this world so wide, the most perilous and cattle-boaty places. He tried to think of something modest yet striking to say, while Tom was arguing with Miss Mary Proudfoot, the respectable spinster, about the ethics of giving away street-car transfers.

As they finished their floating custard Mr. Wrenn achieved, “Do you come from New York, Miss Croubel?” and listened to the tale of sleighing-parties in Upton’s Grove, Pennsylvania. He was absolutely happy.

“This is like getting home,” he thought. “And they’re classy folks to get home to — now that I can tell ’em apart. Gee! Miss Croubel is a peach. And brains — golly!”

He had a frightened hope that after dinner he would be able to get into a corner and talk with Nelly, but Tom Poppins conferred with Horatio Hood Teddenm and called Mr. Wrenn aside. Teddem had been acting with a moving-picture company for a week, and had three passes to the celebrated Waldorf Photoplay Theater.

Mr. Wrenn had bloodthirstily disapproved Horatio Hood’s effeminate remarks, such as “Tee hee!“ and “Oh, you naughty man,” but when he heard that this molly-coddle had shared in the glory of making moving pictures he went proudly forth with him and Tom. He had no chance to speak to Mrs. Arty about taking the room to be vacated.

He wished that Charley Carpenter or the Zapps could see him sitting right beside an actor who was shown in the pictures miraculously there before them, asking him how they made movies, just as friendly as though they had known each other always.

He wanted to do something to entertain his friends beyond taking them out for a drink. He invited them down to his room, and they came.

Teddem was in wonderful form; he mimicked every one they saw so amiably that Tom Poppins knew the actor wanted to borrow money. The party were lovingly humming the popular song of the time —“Any Little Girl That’s a Nice Little Girl is the Right Little Girl for Me”— as they frisked up the gloomy steps of the Zapps. Entering, Poppins and Teddem struck attitudes on the inside stairs and sang aloud.

Mr. Wrenn felt enormously conscious of Mrs. Zapp down below. He kept listening, as he led them up-stairs and lighted the gas. But Teddem so imitated Colonel Roosevelt, with two water-glasses for eye-glasses and a small hat-brush for mustache, that Mr. Wrenn was moved wrigglingly to exclaim: “Say, I’m going out and get some beer. Or ‘d you rather have something else? Some cheese sandwiches? How about ’em?”

“Fine,” said Tom and Teddem together.

Not only did Mr. Wrenn buy a large newspaper-covered bundle of bottles of beer and Swiss-cheese sandwiches, but also a small can of caviar and salty crackers. In his room he spread a clean towel, then two clean towels, on the bureau, and arrayed the feast, with two water-glasses and a shaving-mug for cups.

Horatio Hood Teddem, spreading caviar on a sandwich, and loudly singing his masterpiece, “Waal I swan,” stopped short and fixed amazed eyes on the door of the room.

Mr. Wrenn hastily turned. The light fell — as on a cliff of crumbly gray rock — on Mrs. Zapp, in the open door, vast in her ungirdled gray wrapper, her arms folded, glowering speechlessly.

“Mist’ Wrenn,” she began, in a high voice that promised to burst into passion.

But she was addressing the formidable adventurer, Bill Wrenn. He had to protect his friends. He sprang up and walked across to her.

He said, quietly, “I didn’t hear you knock, Mrs. Zapp.”

“Ah didn’t knock, and Ah want you should —”

“Then please do knock, unless you want me to give notice.”

He was quivering. His voice was shrill.

From the hall below Theresa called up, “Ma, come down here. Ma!

But Mrs. Zapp was too well started. “If you think Ah’m going to stand for a lazy sneaking little drunkard keeping the whole street awake, and here it is prett’ nearly midnight —”

Just then Mr. William Wrenn saw and heard the most astounding thing of his life, and became an etemal slave to Tom Poppins.

Tom’s broad face became hard, his voice businesslike. He shouted at Mrs. Zapp:

“Beat it or I’ll run you in. Trouble with you is, you old hag, you don’t appreciate a nice quiet little chap like Wrenn, and you try to bully him — and him here for years. Get out or I’ll put you out. I’m no lamb, and I won’t stand for any of your monkey-shines. Get out. This ain’t your room; he’s rented it — he’s paid the rent — it’s his room. Get out!”

Kindly Tom Poppins worked in a cigar-store and was accustomed to talk back to drunken men six feet tall. His voice was tremendous, and he was fatly immovable; he didn’t a bit mind the fact that Mrs. Zapp was still “glaring speechless.”

But behold an ally to the forlorn lady. When Theresa, in the hall below, heard Tom, she knew that Mr. Wrenn would room here no more. She galloped up-stairs and screeched over her mother’s shoulder:

“You will pick on a lady, will you, you drunken scum — you — you cads — I’ll have you arrested so quick you —”

“Look here, lady,” said Tom, gently. “I’m a plain-clothes man, a detective.” His large voice purred like a tiger-tabby’s. “I don’t want to run you in, but I will if you don’t get out of here and shut that door. Or you might go down and call the cop on this block. He’ll run you in — for breaking Code 2762 of the Penal Law! Trespass and flotsam — that’s what it is!”

Uneasy, frightened, then horrified, Mrs. Zapp swung bulkily about and slammed the door.

Sick, guilty, banished from home though he felt, Mr. Wrenn’s voice quavered, with an attempt at dignity:

“I’m awful sorry she butted in while you fellows was here. I don’t know how to apologize”

“Forget it, old man,” rolled out Tom’s bass. “Come on, let’s go up to Mrs. Arty’s.”

“But, gee! it’s nearly a quarter to eleven.”

“That’s all right. We can get up there by a little after, and Mrs. Arty stays up playing cards till after twelve.”

“Golly!” Mr. Wrenn agitatedly ejaculated under his breath, as they noisily entered Mrs. Arty’s — though not noisily on his part.

The parlor door was open. Mrs. Arty’s broad back was toward them, and she was announcing to James T. Duncan and Miss Proudfoot, with whom she was playing three-handed Five Hundred, “Well, I’ll just bid seven on hearts if you’re going to get so set up.” She glanced back, nodded, said, “Come in, children,” picked up the “widow,” and discarded with quick twitches of the cards. The frightened Mr. Wrenn, feeling like a shipwrecked land-lubber, compared this gaming smoking woman unfavorably with the intense respectability of his dear lost patron, Mrs. Zapp. He sat uneasy till the hand of cards was finished, feeling as though they were only tolerating him. And Nelly Croubel was nowhere in sight.

Suddenly said Mrs. Arty, “And now you would like to look at that room, Mr. Wrenn, unless I’m wrong.”

“Why — uh — yes, I guess I would like to.”

“Come with me, child,” she said, in pretended severity. “Tom, you take my hand in the game, and don’t let me hear you’ve been bidding ten on no suit without the joker.” She led Mr. Wrenn to the settee hat-rack in the hall. “The third-floor-back will be vacant in two weeks, Mr. Wrenn. We can go up and look at it now if you’d like to. The man who has it now works nights — he’s some kind of a head waiter at Rector’s, or something like that, and he’s out till three or four. Come.”

When he saw that third-floor-back, the room that the smart people at Mrs. Arty’s were really willing to let him have, he felt like a man just engaged. It was all in soft green — grass-green matting, pale-green walls, chairs of white wicker with green cushions; the bed, a couch with a denim cover and four sofa pillows. It gave him the impression of being a guest on Fifth Avenue.

“It’s kind of a plain room,” Mrs. Arty said, doubtfully. “The furniture is kind of plain. But my head-waiter man — it was furnished for a friend of his — he says he likes it better than any other room in the house. It is comfortable, and you get lots of sunlight and —”

“I’ll take — How much is it, please, with board?”

She spoke with a take-it-or-leave-it defiance. “Eleven-fifty a week.”

It was a terrible extravagance; much like marrying a sick woman on a salary of ten a week, he reflected; nine-teen minus eleven-fifty left him only seven-fifty for clothes and savings and things and — but —” I’ll take it,” he said, hastily. He was frightened at himself, but glad, very glad. He was to live in this heaven; he was going to be away from that Zapp woman; and Nelly Croubel — Was she engaged to some man? he wondered.

Mrs. Arty was saying: “First, I want to ask you some questions, though. Please sit down.” As she creaked into one of the wicker chairs she suddenly changed from the cigarette-rolling chaffing card-player to a woman dignified, reserved, commanding. “Mr. Wrenn, you see, Miss Proudfoot and Miss Croubel are on this floor. Miss Proudfoot can take care of herself, all right, but Nelly is such a trusting little thing — She’s like my daughter. She’s the only one I’ve ever given a reduced rate to — and I swore I never would to anybody! . . . Do you — uh — drink — drink much, I mean?”

Nelly on this floor! Near him! Now! He had to have this room. He forced himself to speak directly.

“I know how you mean, Mrs. Ferrard. No, I don’t drink much of any — hardly at all; just a glass of beer now and then; sometimes I don’t even touch that a week at a time. And I don’t gamble and — and I do try to keep — er — straight — and all that sort of thing.”

“That’s good.”

“I work for the Souvenir and Art Novelty Company on Twenty-eighth Street. If you want to call them up I guess the manager’ll give me a pretty good recommend.”

“I don’t believe I’ll need it, Mr. Wrenn. It’s my business to find out what sort of animiles men are by just talking to them.” She rose, smiled, plumped out her hand. “You will be nice to Nelly, won’t you! I’m going to fire that Teddem out — don’t tell him, but I am — because he gets too fresh with her.”

“Yes!”

She suddenly broke into laughter, and ejaculated: “Say, that was hard work! Don’t you hate to have to be serious? Let’s trot down, and I’ll make Tom or Duncan rush us a growler of beer to welcome you to our midst. . . . I’ll bet your socks aren’t darned properly. I’m going to sneak in and take a look at them, once I get you caged up here. . . . But I won’t read your love-letters! Now let’s go down by the fire, where it’s comfy.”

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