Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 15

He Studies Five Hundred, Savouir Faire, and Lotsa-Snap Office Mottoes

On a couch of glossy red leather with glossy black buttons and stiff fringes also of glossy red leather, Mr. William Wrenn sat upright and was very confiding to Miss Nelly Croubel, who was curled among the satin pillows with her skirts drawn carefully about her ankles. He had been at Mrs. Arty’s for two weeks now. He wore a new light-blue tie, and his trousers were pressed like sheet steel.

“Yes, I suppose you’re engaged to some one, Miss Nelly, and you’ll go off and leave us — go off to that blamed Upton’s Grove or some place.”

“I am not engaged. I’ve told you so. Who would want to marry me? You stop teasing me — you’re mean as can be; I’ll just have to get Tom to protect me!”

“Course you’re engaged.”

“Ain’t.”

“Are.”

“Ain’t. Who would want to marry poor little me?”

“Why, anybody, of course.”

“You stop teasing me. . . . Besides, probably you’re in love with twenty girls.”

“I am not. Why, I’ve never hardly known but just two girls in my life. One was just a girl I went to theaters with once or twice — she was the daughter of the landlady I used to have before I came here.”

“If you don’t make love to the landlady’s daughter

You won’t get a second piece of pie!”

quoted Nelly, out of the treasure-house of literature.

“Sure. That’s it. But I bet you —”

“Who was the other girl?”

“Oh! She. . . . She was a — an artist. I liked her — a lot. But she was — oh, awful highbrow. Gee! if — But —”

A sympathetic silence, which Nelly broke with:

“Yes, they’re funny people. Artists. . . . Do you have your lesson in Five Hundred tonight? Your very first one?”

“I think so. Say, is it much like this here bridge-whist? Oh say, Miss Nelly, why do they call it Five Hundred?”

“That’s what you have to make to go out. No, I guess it isn’t very much like bridge; though, to tell the truth, I haven’t ever played bridge. . My! it must be a nice game, though.”

“Oh, I thought prob’ly you could play it. You can do ‘most everything. Honest, I’ve never seen nothing like it.”

“Now you stop, Mr. Wrenn. I know I’m a — what was it Mr. Teddem used to call me? A minx. But —”

“Miss Nelly! You aren’t a minx!”

“Well —”

“Or a mink, either. You’re a — let’s see — an antelope.”

“I am not! Even if I can wriggle my nose like a rabbit. Besides, it sounds like a muskmelon. But, anyway, the head buyer said I was crazy to-day.”

“If I heard him say you were crazy —”

“Would you beat him for me?” She cuddled a cushion and smiled gratefully. Her big eyes seemed to fill with light.

He caught himself wanting to kiss the softness of her shoulder, but he said only, “Well, I ain’t much of a scrapper, but I’d try to make it interesting for him.”

“Tell me, did you ever have a fight? When you were a boy? Were you such a bad boy?”

“I never did when I was a boy, but — well — I did have a couple of fights when I was on the cattle-boat and in England. Neither of them amounted to very much, though, I guess. I was scared stiff!”

“Don’t believe it!”

“Sure I was.”

“I don’t believe you’d be scared. You’re too earnest.”

“Me, Miss Nelly? Why, I’m a regular cut-up.”

“You stop making fun of yourself! I like it when you’re earnest — like when you saw that beautiful snowfall last night. . . . Oh dear, isn’t it hard to have to miss so many beautiful things here in the city — there’s just the parks, and even there there aren’t any birds, real wild birds, like we used to have in Pennsylvania.”

“Yes, isn’t it! Isn’t it hard!” Mr. Wrenn drew nearer and looked sympathy.

“I’m afraid I’m getting gushy. Miss Hartenstein — she’s in my department — she’d laugh at me. . . . But I do love birds and squirrels and pussy-willows and all those things. In summer I love to go on picnics on Staten Island or tramp in Van Cortlandt Park.”

“Would you go on a picnic with me some day next spring?” Hastily, “I mean with Miss Proudfoot and Mrs. Arty and me?”

“I should be pleased to.” She was prim but trusting about it. “Oh, listen, Mr. Wrenn; did you ever tramp along the Palisades as far as Englewood? It’s lovely there — the woods and the river and all those funny little tugs puffing along, way way down below you — why, I could lie on the rocks up there and just dream and dream for hours. After I’ve spent Sunday up there”— she was dreaming now, he saw, and his heart was passionately tender toward her —“I don’t hardly mind a bit having to go back to the store Monday morning. . . . You’ve been up along there, haven’t you?”

“Me? Why, I guess I’m the guy that discovered the Palisades! . . . Yes, it is won-derful up there!”

“Oh, you are, are you? I read about that in American history! . . . But honestly, Mr. Wrenn, I do believe you care for tramps and things — not like that Teddem or Mr. Duncan — they always want to just stay in town — or even Tom, though he’s an old dear.”

Mr. Wrenn looked jealous, with a small hot jealousy. She hastened on with: “Of course, I mean he’s just like a big brother. To all of us.”

It was sweet to both of them, to her to declare and to him to hear, that neither Tom nor any other possessed her heart. Their shy glances were like an outreach of tenderly touching hands as she confided, “Mrs. Arty and he get up picnics, and when we’re out on the Palisades he says to me — you know, sometimes he almost makes me think he is sleepy, though I do believe he just sneaks off under a tree and talks to Mrs. Arty or reads a magazine — but I was saying: he always says to me, ‘Well, sister, I suppose you want to mousey round and dream by yourself — you won’t talk to a growly old bear like me. Well, I’m glad of it. I want to sleep. I don’t want to be bothered by you and your everlasting chatter. Get out!’ I b’lieve he just says that ‘cause he knows I wouldn’t want to run off by myself if they didn’t think it was proper.”

As he heard her lively effort to imitate Tom’s bass Mr. Wrenn laughed and pounded his knee and agreed: “Yes, Tom’s an awfully fine fellow, isn’t he! . . . I love to get out some place by myself, too. I like to wander round places and make up the doggondest fool little stories to myself about them; just as bad as a kiddy, that way.”

“And you read such an awful lot, Mr. Wrenn! My! Oh, tell me, have you ever read anything by Harold Bell Wright or Myrtle Reed, Mr. Wrenn? They write such sweet stories.”

He had not, but he expressed an unconquerable resolve so to do, and with immediateness. She went on:

“Mrs. Arty told me you had a real big library — nearly a hundred books and — Do you mind? I went in your room and peeked at them.”

“No, course I don’t mind! If there’s any of them you’d like to borrow any time, Miss Nelly, I would be awful glad to lend them to you. . . . But, rats! Why, I haven’t got hardly any books.”

“That’s why you haven’t wasted any time learning Five Hundred and things, isn’t it? Because you’ve been so busy reading and so on?”

“Yes, kind of.” Mr. Wrenn looked modest.

“Haven’t you always been lots of — oh, haven’t you always ‘magined lots?”

She really seemed to care.

Mr. Wrenn felt excitedly sure of that, and imparted: “Yes, I guess I have. . . . And I’ve always wanted to travel a lot.”

“So have I! Isn’t it wonderful to go around and see new places!”

“Yes, isn’t it!” he breathed. “It was great to be in England — though the people there are kind of chilly some ways. Even when I’m on a wharf here in New York I feel just like I was off in China or somewheres. I’d like to see China. And India. . . . Gee! when I hear the waves down at Coney Island or some place — you know how the waves sound when they come in. Well, sometimes I almost feel like they was talking to a guy — you know — telling about ships. And, oh say, you know the whitecaps — aren’t they just like the waves was motioning at you — they want you to come and beat it with you — over to China and places.”

“Why, Mr. Wrenn, you’re a regular poet!”

He looked doubtful.

“Honest; I’m not teasing you; you are a poet. And I think it’s fine that Mr. Teddem was saying that nobody could be a poet or like that unless they drank an awful lot and — uh — oh, not be honest and be on a job. But you aren’t like that. Are you?”

He looked self-conscious and mumbled, earnestly, “Well, I try not to be.”

“But I am going to make you go to church. You’ll be a socialist or something like that if you get to be too much of a poet and don’t —”

“Miss Nelly, please may I go to church with you?”

“Why —”

“Next Sunday?”

“Why, yes, I should be pleased. Are you a Presbyterian, though?”

“Why — uh — I guess I’m kind of a Congregationalist; but still, they’re all so much alike.”

“Yes, they really are. And besides, what does it matter if we all believe the same and try to do right; and sometimes that’s hard, when you’re poor, and it seems like — like —”

“Seems like what?” Mr. Wrenn insisted.

“Oh — nothing. . . . My, you’ll have to get up awful early Sunday morning if you’d like to go with me. My church starts at ten-thirty.”

“Oh, I’d get up at five to go with you.”

“Stupid! Now you’re just trying to jolly me; you are; because you men aren’t as fond of church as all that, I know you aren’t. You’re real lazy Sunday mornings, and just want to sit around and read the papers and leave the poor women — But please tell me some more about your reading and all that.”

“Well, I’ll be all ready to go at nine-thirty. . . . I don’t know; why, I haven’t done much reading. But I would like to travel and — Say, wouldn’t it be great to — I suppose I’m sort of a kid about it; of course, a guy has to tend right to business, but it would be great — Say a man was in Europe with — with — a friend, and they both knew a lot of history — say, they both knew a lot about Guy Fawkes (he was the guy that tried to blow up the English Parliament), and then when they were there in London they could almost think they saw him, and they could go round together and look at Shelley’s window — he was a poet at Oxford — Oh, it would be great with a — with a friend.”

“Yes, wouldn’t it? . . . I wanted to work in the book department one time. It’s so nice your being —”

“Ready for Five Hundred?” bellowed Tom Poppins in the hall below. “Ready partner — you, Wrenn?”

Tom was to initiate Mr. Wrenn into the game, playing with him against Mrs. Arty and Miss Mary Proudfoot.

Mrs. Arty sounded the occasion’s pitch of high merriment by delivering from the doorway the sacred old saying, “Well, the ladies against the men, eh?”

A general grunt that might be spelled “Hmmmmhm” assented.

“I’m a good suffragette,” she added. “Watch us squat the men, Mary.”

“Like to smash windows? Let’s see — it’s red fours, black fives up?” remarked Tom, as he prepared the pack of cards for playing.

“Yes, I would! It makes me so tired,” asseverated Mrs. Arty, “to think of the old goats that men put up for candidates when they know they’re solemn old fools! I’d just like to get out and vote my head off.”

“Well, I think the woman’s place is in the home,” sniffed Miss Proudfoot, decisively, tucking away a doily she was finishing for the Women’s Exchange and jabbing at her bangs.

They settled themselves about the glowing, glancing, glittering, golden-oak center-table. Miss Proudfoot shuffled sternly. Mr. Wrenn sat still and frightened, like a shipwrecked professor on a raft with two gamblers and a press-agent, though Nelly was smiling encouragingly at him from the couch where she had started her embroidery — a large Christmas lamp mat for the wife of the Presbyterian pastor at Upton’s Grove.

“Don’t you wish your little friend Horatio Hood Teddem was here to play with you?” remarked Tom.

“I do not,” declared Mrs. Arty. “Still, there was one thing about Horatio. I never had to look up his account to find out how much he owed me. He stopped calling me, Little Buttercup, when he owed me ten dollars, and he even stopped slamming the front door when he got up to twenty. O Mr. Wrenn, did I ever tell you about the time I asked him if he wanted to have Annie sweep —”

“Gerty!” protested Miss Proudfoot, while Nelly, on the couch, ejaculated mechanically, “That story!” but Mrs. Arty chuckled fatly, and continued:

“I asked him if he wanted me to have Annie sweep his nightshirt when she swept his room. He changed it next day.”

“Your bid, Mr. Poppins, “said Miss Proudfoot, severely.

“First, I want to tell Wrenn how to play. You see, Wrenn, here’s the schedule. We play Avondale Schedule, you know.”

“Oh yes,” said Mr. Wrenn, timorously. . . . He had once heard of Carbondale — in New Jersey or Pennsylvania or somewhere — but that didn’t seem to help much.

“Well, you see, you either make or go back,” continued Tom. “Plus and minus, you know. Joker is high, then right bower, left, and ace. Then — uh — let’s see; high bid takes the cat — widdie, you know — and discards. Ten tricks. Follow suit like whist, of course. I guess that’s all — that ought to give you the hang of it, anyway. I bid six on no trump.”

As Tom Poppins finished these instructions, given in the card-player’s rapid don’t-ask-me-any-more-fool-questions manner, Mr. Wrenn felt that he was choking. He craned up his neck, trying to ease his stiff collar. So, then, he was a failure, a social outcast already.

So, then, he couldn’t learn Five Hundred! And he had been very proud of knowing one card from another perfectly, having played a number of games of two-handed poker with Tim on the cattle-boat. But what the dickens did “left — cat — follow suit” mean?

And to fail with Nelly watching him! He pulled at his collar again.

Thus he reflected while Mrs. Arty and Tom were carrying on the following brilliant but cryptic society-dialogue:

Mrs. Arty: Well, I don’t know.

Tom: Not failure, but low bid is crime, little one.

Mrs. Arty: Mary, shall I make —

Tom: Hey! No talking ‘cross table!

Mrs. Arty: Um — let — me — see.

Tom: Bid up, bid up! Bid a little seven on hearts?

Mrs. Arty: Just for that I will bid seven on hearts, smarty!

Tom: Oh, how we will squat you! . . . What you bidding, Wrenn?

Behind Mr. Wrenn, Nelly Croubel whispered to him: “Bid seven on no suit. You’ve got the joker.” Her delicate forefinger, its nail shining, was pointing at a curious card in his hand.

“Seven nosut,” he mumbled.

“Eight hearts,” snapped Miss Proudfoot.

Nelly drew up a chair behind Mr. Wrenn’s. He listened to her soft explanations with the desperate respect and affection which a green subaltern would give to a general in battle.

Tom and he won the hand. He glanced back at Nelly with awe, then clutched his new hand, fearfully, dizzily, staring at it as though it might conceal one of those malevolent deceivers of which Nelly had just warned him — a left bower.

“Good! Spades — see,” said Nelly.

Fifteen minutes later Mr. Wrenn felt that Tom was hoping he would lead a club. He played one, and the whole table said: “That’s right. Fine!”

On his shoulder he felt a light tap, and he blushed like a sunset as he peeped back at Nelly.

Mr. Wrenn, the society light, was Our Mr. Wrenn of the Souvenir Company all this time. Indeed, at present he intended to keep on taking The Job seriously until that most mistily distant time, which we all await, “when something turns up.” His fondling of the Southern merchants was showing such results that he had grown from an interest in whatever papers were on his desk to a belief in the divine necessity of The Job as a whole. Not now, as of old, did he keep the personal letters in his desk tied up, ready for a sudden departure for Vienna or Kamchatka. Also, he wished to earn much more money for his new career of luxury. Mr. Guilfogle had assured him that there might be chances ahead — business had been prospering, two new road salesmen and a city-trade man had been added to the staff, and whereas the firm had formerly been jobbers only, buying their novelties from manufacturers, now they were having printed for them their own Lotsa–Snap Cardboard Office Mottoes, which were making a big hit with the trade.

Through his friend Rabin, the salesman, Mr. Wrenn got better acquainted with two great men — Mr. L. J. Glover, the purchasing agent of the Souvenir Company, and John Hensen, the newly engaged head of motto manufacturing. He “wanted to get onto all the different lines of the business so’s he could step right in anywhere”; and from these men he learned the valuable secrets of business wherewith the marts of trade build up prosperity for all of us: how to seat a selling agent facing the light, so you can see his face better than he can see yours. How much ahead of time to telephone the motto-printer that “we’ve simply got to have proof this afternoon; what’s the matter with you, down there? Don’t you want our business any more?” He also learned something of the various kinds of cardboard and ink-well glass, though these, of course, were merely matters of knowledge, not of brilliant business tactics, and far less important than what Tom Poppins and Rabin called “handing out a snappy line of talk.”

“Say, you’re getting quite chummy lately — reg’lar society leader,” Rabin informed him.

Mr. Wrenn’s answer was in itself a proof of the soundness of Rabin’s observation:

“Sure — I’m going to borrow some money from you fellows. Got to make an impression, see?”

A few hours after this commendation came Istra’s second letter:

Mouse dear, I’m so glad to hear about the simpatico boarding- house. Yes indeed I would like to hear about the people in it. And you are reading history? That’s good. I’m getting sick of Paris and some day I’m going to stop an absinthe on the boulevard and slap its face to show I’m a sturdy moving-picture Western Amurrican and then leap to saddle and pursue the bandit. I’m working like the devil but what’s the use. That is I mean unless one is doing the job well, as I’m glad you are. My Dear, keep it up. You know I want you to be real whatever you are. I didn’t mean to preach but you know I hate people who aren’t real — that’s why I haven’t much of a flair for myself.

Au recrire,

I. N.

After he had read her letter for the third time he was horribly shocked and regarded himself as a traitor, because he found that he was only pretending to be enjoyably excited over it. . . . It seemed so detached from himself. “Flair”—”au recrire.” Now, what did those mean? And Istra was always so discontented. “What ‘d she do if she had to be on the job like Nelly? . . . Oh, Istra is wonderful. But — gee! — I dunno —”

And when he who has valorously loved says “But — gee! — I dunno —” love flees in panic.

He walked home thoughtfully.

After dinner he said abruptly to Nelly, “I had a letter from Paris to-day.”

“Honestly? Who is she?”

“G-g-g-g —”

“Oh, it’s always a she.”

“Why — uh — it is from a girl. I started to tell you about her one day. She’s an artist, and once we took a long tramp in the country. I met her — she was staying at the same place as I was in London. But — oh, gee! I dunno; she’s so blame literary. She is a fine person — Do you think you’d like a girl like that?”

“Maybe I would.”

“If she was a man?”

“Oh, yes-s! Artists are so romantic.”

“But they ain’t on the job more ‘n half the time,” he said, jealously.

“Yes, that’s so.”

His hand stole secretly, craftily skirting a cushion, to touch hers — which she withdrew, laughing:

“Hump-a! You go hold your artist’s hand!”

“Oh, Miss Nelly! When I told you about her myself!

“Oh yes, of course.”

She was contrite, and they played Five Hundred animatedly all evening.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/wrenn/chapter15.html

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