Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 16

He Becomes Mildly Religious and Highly Literary

The hero of the one-act play at Hammerstein’s Victoria vaudeville theater on that December evening was, it appeared, a wealthy young mine-owner in disguise. He was working for the “fake mine promoter” because he loved the promoter’s daughter with a love that passed all understanding except that of the girls in the gallery. When the postal authorities were about to arrest the promoter our young hero saved him by giving him a real mine, and the ensuing kiss of the daughter ended the suspense in which Mr. Wrenn and Nelly, Mrs. Arty and Tom had watched the play from the sixth row of the balcony.

Sighing happily, Nelly cried to the group: “Wasn’t that grand? I got so excited! Wasn’t that young miner a dear?”

“Awfully nice,” said Mr. Wrenn. “And, gee! wasn’t that great, that office scene — with that safe and the rest of the stuff — just like you was in a real office. But, say, they wouldn’t have a copying-press in an office like that; those fake mine promoters send out such swell letters; they’d use carbon copies and not muss the letters all up.”

“By gosh, that’s right!” and Tom nodded his chin toward his right shoulder in approval. Nelly cried, “That’s so; they would”; while Mrs. Arty, not knowing what a copying-press was, appeared highly commendatory, and said nothing at all.

During the moving pictures that followed, Mr. Wrenn felt proudly that he was taken seriously, though he had known them but little over a month. He followed up his conversational advantage by leading the chorus in wondering, “which one of them two actors the heroine was married to?” and “how much a week they get for acting in that thing?” It was Tom who invited them to Miggleton’s for coffee and fried oysters. Mr. Wrenn was silent for a while. But as they were stamping through the rivulets of wheel-tracks that crisscrossed on a slushy street-crossing Mr. Wrenn regained his advantage by crying, “Say, don’t you think that play ‘d have been better if the promoter ‘d had an awful grouch on the young miner and ‘d had to crawfish when the miner saved him?”

“Why, yes; it would!” Nelly glowed at him.

“Wouldn’t wonder if it would,” agreed Tom, kicking the December slush off his feet and patting Mr. Wrenn’s back.

“Well, look here,” said Mr. Wrenn, as they left Broadway, with its crowds betokening the approach of Christmas, and stamped to the quieter side of Forty-second, “why wouldn’t this make a slick play: say there’s an awfully rich old guy; say he’s a railway president or something, d’ you see? Well, he’s got a secretary there in the office — on the stage, see? The scene is his office. Well, this guy’s — the rich old guy’s — daughter comes in and says she’s married to a poor man and she won’t tell his name, but she wants some money from her dad. You see, her dad’s been planning for her to marry a marquise or some kind of a lord, and he’s sore as can be, and he won’t listen to her, and he just cusses her out something fierce, see? Course he doesn’t really cuss, but he’s awful sore; and she tells him didn’t he marry her mother when he was a poor young man; but he won’t listen. Then the secretary butts in — my idea is he’s been kind of keeping in the background, see — and he’s the daughter’s husband all the while, see? and he tells the old codger how he’s got some of his — some of the old fellow’s — papers that give it away how he done something that was crooked — some kind of deal — rebates and stuff, see how I mean? — and the secretary’s going to spring this stuff on the newspapers if the old man don’t come through and forgive them; so of course the president has to forgive them, see?”

“You mean the secretary was the daughter’s husband all along, and he heard what the president said right there?” Nelly panted, stopping outside Miggleton’s, in the light from the oyster-filled window.

“Yes; and he heard it all.”

“Why, I think that’s just a fine idea,” declared Nelly, as they entered the restaurant. Though her little manner of dignity and even restraint was evident as ever, she seemed keenly joyous over his genius.

“Say, that’s a corking idea for a play, Wrenn,” exclaimed Tom, at their table, gallantly removing the ladies’ wraps.

“It surely is,” agreed Mrs. Arty.

“Why don’t you write it?” asked Nelly.

“Aw — I couldn’t write it!”

“Why, sure you could, Bill,” insisted Tom. “Straight; you ought to write it. (Hey, waiter! Four fries and coffee!) You ought to write it. Why, it’s a wonder; it ‘d make a dev — ‘Scuse me, ladies. It’d make a howling hit. You might make a lot of money out of it.”

The renewed warmth of their wet feet on the red-tile floor, the scent of fried oysters, the din of “Any Little Girl” on the piano, these added color to this moment of Mr. Wrenn’s great resolve. The four stared at one another excitedly. Mr. Wrenn’s eyelids fluttered. Tom brought his hand down on the table with a soft flat “plob” and declared: “Say, there might be a lot of money in it. Why, I’ve heard that Harry Smith — writes the words for these musical comedies — makes a mint of money.”

“Mr. Poppins ought to help you in it — he’s seen such a lot of plays,” Mrs. Arty anxiously advised.

“That’s a good idea,” said Mr. Wrenn. It had, apparently, been ordained that he was to write it. They were now settling important details. So when Nelly cried, “I think it’s just a fine idea; I knew you had lots of imagination,” Tom interrupted her with:

“No; you write it, Bill. I’ll help you all I can, of course. . . . Tell you what you ought to do: get hold of Teddem — he’s had a lot of stage experience; he’d help you about seeing the managers. That ‘d be the hard part — you can write it, all right, but you’d have to get next to the guys on the inside, and Teddem — Say, you cer_tain_ly ought to write this thing, Bill. Might make a lot of money.”

“Oh, a lot!” breathed Nelly.

“Heard about a fellow,” continued Tom —” fellow named Gene Wolf, I think it was — that was so broke he was sleeping in Bryant Park, and he made a hundred thousand dollars on his first play — or, no; tell you how it was: he sold it outright for ten thousand — something like that, anyway. I got that right from a fellow that’s met him.”

“Still, an author’s got to go to college and stuff like that.” Mr. Wrenn spoke as though he would be pleased to have the objection overruled at once, which it was with a universal:

“Oh, rats!”

Crunching oysters in a brown jacket of flour, whose every lump was a crisp delight, hearing his genius lauded and himself called Bill thrice in a quarter-hour, Mr. Wrenn was beatified. He asked the waiter for some paper, and while the four hotly discussed things which “it would be slick to have the president’s daughter do” he drew up a list of characters on a sheet of paper he still keeps. It is headed, “Miggleton’s Forty-second Street Branch.” At the bottom appear numerous scribblings of the name Nelly.

{the full page is covered with doodling as well}

“I think I’ll call the heroine ‘Nelly,’” he mused.

Nelly Croubel blushed. Mrs. Arty and Tom glanced at each other. Mr. Wrenn realized that he had, even at this moment of social triumph, “made a break.”

He said, hastily; “I always liked that name. I— I had an aunt named that!”

“Oh —” started Nelly.

“She was fine to me when I was a kid, “Mr. Wrenn added, trying to remember whether it was right to lie when in such need.

“Oh, it’s a horrid name,” declared Nelly. “Why don’t you call her something nice, like Hazel — or — oh — Dolores.”

“Nope; Nelly’s an elegant name — an elegant name.”

He walked with Nelly behind the others, along Forty-second Street. To the outsider’s eye he was a small respectable clerk, slightly stooped, with a polite mustache and the dignity that comes from knowing well a narrow world; wearing an overcoat too light for winter; too busily edging out of the way of people and guiding the nice girl beside him into clear spaces by diffidently touching her elbow, too pettily busy to cast a glance out of the crowd and spy the passing poet or king, or the iron night sky. He was as undistinguishable a bit of the evening street life as any of the file of street-cars slashing through the wet snow. Yet, he was the chivalrous squire to the greatest lady of all his realm; he was a society author, and a man of great prospective wealth and power over mankind!

“Say, we’ll have the grandest dinner you ever saw if I get away with the play,” he was saying. “Will you come, Miss Nelly?”

“Indeed I will! Oh, you sha’n’t leave me out! Wasn’t I there when —”

“Indeed you were! Oh, we’ll have a reg’lar feast at the Astor — artichokes and truffles and all sorts of stuff. . . . Would — would you like it if I sold the play?”

Course I would, silly!”

“I’d buy the business and make Rabin manager — the Souvenir Company.

So he came to relate all those intimacies of The Job; and he was overwhelmed at the ease with which she “got onto old Goglefogle.”

His preparations for writing the play were elaborate.

He paced Tom’s room till twelve-thirty, consulting as to whether he had to plan the stage-setting; smoking cigarettes in attitudes on chair arms. Next morning in the office he made numerous plans of the setting on waste half-sheets of paper. At noon he was telephoning at Tom regarding the question of whether there ought to be one desk or two on the stage.

He skipped the evening meal at Mrs. Arty’s, dining with literary pensiveness at the Armenian, for he had subtle problems to meditate. He bought a dollar fountain-pen, which had large gold-like bands and a rather scratchy pen-point, and a box of fairly large sheets of paper. Pressing his literary impedimenta tenderly under his arm, he attended four moving-picture and vaudeville theaters. By eleven he had seen three more one-act plays and a dramatic playlet.

He slipped by the parlor door at Mrs. Arty’s.

His room was quiet. The lamplight on the delicately green walls was like that of a regular author’s den, he was quite sure. He happily tested the fountain-pen by writing the names Nelly and William Wrenn on a bit of wrapping-paper (which he guiltily burned in an ash-tray); washed his face with water which he let run for a minute to cool; sat down before his table with a grunt of content; went back and washed his hands; fiercely threw off the bourgeois encumbrances of coat and collar; sat down again; got up to straighten a picture; picked up his pen; laid it down, and glowed as he thought of Nelly, slumbering there, near at hand, her exquisite cheek nestling silkenly against her arm, perhaps, and her white dreams —

Suddenly he roared at himself, “Get on the job there, will yuh?” He picked up the pen and wrote:

THE MILLIONAIRE’S DAUGHTER
A ONE ACT DRAMATIC PLAYLET
by
WILLIAM WRENN
CHARACTERS

John Warrington, a railway president; quite rich. Nelty Warrington, Mr. Warrington’s daughter. Reginald Thorne, his secretary.

He was jubilant. His pen whined at top speed, scattering a shower of tiny drops of ink.

Stage Scene: An office. Very expensive. Mr. Warrington and Mr. Thorne are sitting there. Miss Warrington comes in. She says:

He stopped. He thought. He held his head. He went over to the stationary bowl and soaked his hair with water. He lay on the bed and kicked his heels, slowly and gravely smoothing his mustache. Fifty minutes later he gave a portentous groan and went to bed.

He hadn’t been able to think of what Miss Warrington says beyond “I have come to tell you that I am married, papa,” and that didn’t sound just right; not for a first line it didn’t, anyway.

At dinner next night — Saturday — Tom was rather inclined to make references to “our author,” and to remark: “Well, I know where somebody was last night, but of course I won’t tell. Say, them authors are a wild lot.”

Mr. Wrenn, who had permitted the teasing of even Tim, the hatter, “wasn’t going to stand for no kidding from nobody — not when Nelly was there,” and he called for a glass of water with the air of a Harvard assistant professor forced to eat in a lunch-wagon and slapped on the back by the cook.

Nelly soothed him. “The play is going well, isn’t it?”

When he had, with a detached grandeur of which he was immediately ashamed, vouchsafed that he was already “getting right down to brass tacks on it,” that he had already investigated four more plays and begun the actual writing, every one looked awed and asked him assorted questions.

At nine-thirty that evening he combed and tightly brushed his hair, which he had been pawing angrily for an hour and a half, went down the hall to Nelly’s hall bedroom, and knocked with: “It’s Mr. Wrenn. May I ask you something about the play?”

“Just a moment,” he heard her say.

He waited, panting softly, his lips apart. This was to be the first time he had ever seen Nelly’s room. She opened the door part way, smiling shyly, timidly, holding her pale-blue dressing-gown close. The pale blueness was a modestly brilliant spot against the whiteness of the room — white bureau, hung with dance programs and a yellow Upton’s Grove High School banner, white tiny rocker, pale-yellow matting, white-and-silver wall-paper, and a glimpse of a white soft bed.

He was dizzy with the exaltation of that purity, but he got himself to say:

“I’m kind of stuck on the first part of the play, Miss Nelly. Please tell me how you think the heroine would speak to her dad. Would she call him ‘papa’ or ‘sir,’ do you think?”

“Why — let me see —”

“They’re such awful high society —”

“Yes, that’s so. Why, I should think she’d say ‘sir.’ Maybe oh, what was it I heard in a play at the Academy of Music? ‘Father, I have come back to you!’”

“Sa-a-ay, that’s a fine line! That’ll get the crowd going right from the first. . . . I told you you’d help me a lot.”

“I’m awfully glad if I have helped you,” she said, earnestly. Good night — and good, “awfully glad, but luck with the play. Good night.”

“Good night. Thank you a lot, Miss Nelly. Church in the morning, remember! Good night.”

“Good night.”

As it is well known that all playwrights labor with toy theaters before them for working models, Mr. Wrenn ran to earth a fine unbroken pasteboard box in which a ninety-eight-cent alarm-clock had recently arrived. He went out for some glue and three small corks. Setting up his box stage, he glued a pill-box and a match-box on the floor — the side of the box it had always been till now — and there he had the mahogany desks. He thrust three matches into the corks, and behold three graceful actors — graceful for corks, at least. There was fascination in having them enter, through holes punched in the back of the box, frisk up to their desks and deliver magic emotional speeches that would cause any audience to weep; speeches regarding which he knew everything but the words; a detail of which he was still quite ignorant after half an hour of playing with his marionettes.

Before he went despairingly to bed that Saturday night he had added to his manuscript:

Mr. Thorne says: Here are the papers, sir. As a great railway president you should —

The rest of that was to be filled in later. How the dickens could he let the public know how truly great his president was?

(Daughter, Miss Nelly, comes in.)

Miss Nelly: Father, I have come back to you, sir.

Mr. Warrington: My Daughter!

Nelly: Father, I have something to tell you; something —

Breakfast at Mrs. Arty’s was always an inspiration. In contrast to the lonely dingy meal at the Hustler Dairy Lunch of his Zapp days, he sat next to a trimly shirtwaisted Nelly, fresh and enthusiastic after nine hours’ sleep. So much for ordinary days. But Sunday morning — that was paradise! The oil-stove glowed and purred like a large tin pussy cat; it toasted their legs into dreamy comfort, while they methodically stuffed themselves with toast and waffles and coffee. Nelly and he always felt gently superior to Tom Poppins, who would be a-sleeping late, as they talked of the joy of not having to go to the office, of approaching Christmas, and of the superiority of Upton’s Grove and Parthenon.

This morning was to be Mr. Wrenn’s first attendance at church with Nelly. The previous time they had planned to go, Mr. Wrenn had spent Sunday morning in unreligious fervor at the Chelsea Dental Parlors with a young man in a white jacket instead of at church with Nelly.

This was also the first time that he had attended a church service in nine years, except for mass at St. Patrick’s, which he regarded not as church, but as beauty. He felt tremendously reformed, set upon new paths of virtue and achievement. He thought slightingly of those lonely bachelors, Morton and Mittyford, Ph. D. They just didn’t know what it meant to a fellow to be going to church with a girl like Miss Nelly, he reflected, as he re brushed his hair after breakfast.

He walked proudly beside her, and made much of the gentility of entering the church, as one of the well-to-do and intensely bathed congregation. He even bowed to an almost painfully washed and brushed young usher with gold-rimmed eye-glasses. He thought scornfully of his salad days, when he had bowed to the Brass-button Man at the Nickelorion.

The church interior was as comfortable as Sunday-morning toast and marmalade — half a block of red carpet in the aisles; shiny solid-oak pews, gorgeous stained-glass windows, and a general polite creaking of ladies’ best stays and gentlemen’s stiff shirt-bosoms, and an odor of the best cologne and moth-balls.

It lacked but six days till Christmas. Mr. Wrenn’s heart was a little garden, and his eyes were moist, and he peeped tenderly at Nelly as he saw the holly and ivy and the frosted Christmas mottoes, “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men,” and the rest, that brightened the spaces between windows.

Christmas — happy homes — laughter. . . . Since, as a boy, he had attended the Christmas festivities of the Old Church Sunday-school at Parthenon, and got highly colored candy in a net bag, his holidays had been celebrated by buying himself plum pudding at lonely Christmas dinners at large cheap restaurants, where there was no one to wish him “Merry Christmas” except his waiter, whom he would quite probably never see again, nor ever wish to see.

But this Christmas — he surprised himself and Nelly suddenly by hotly thrusting out his hand and touching her sleeve with the searching finger-tips of a child comforted from night fears.

During the sermon he had an idea. What was it Nelly had told him about “Peter Pan”? Oh yes; somebody in it had said “Do you believe in fairies?” Say, why wouldn’t it be great to have the millionaire’s daughter say to her father, “Do you believe in love?”

“Gee, I believe in love!” he yearned to himself, as he felt Nelly’s arm unconsciously touch his.

Tom Poppins had Horatio Hood Teddem in that afternoon for a hot toddy. Horatio looked very boyish, very confiding, and borrowed five dollars from Mr. Wrenn almost painlessly, so absorbed was Mr. Wrenn in learning from Horatio how to sell a play. To know the address of the firm of Wendelbaum & Schirtz, play-brokers, located in a Broadway theater building, seemed next door to knowing a Broadway manager.

When Horatio had gone Tom presented an idea which he had ponderously conceived during his Sunday noon-hour at the cigar-store.

“Why not have three of us — say me and you and Mrs. Arty — talk the play, just like we was acting it?”

He enthusiastically forced the plan on Mr. Wrenn. He pounded down-stairs and brought up Mrs. Arty. He dashed about the room, shouting directions. He dragged out his bureau for the railroad-president’s desk, and a table for the secretary, and, after some consideration and much rubbing of his chin, with two slams and a bang he converted his hard green Morris-chair into an office safe.

The play was on. Mr. T. Poppins, in the role of the president, entered, with a stern high expression on his face, threw a “Good morning, Thorne,” at Wrenn, his secretary, and peeled off his gloves. (Mr. Wrenn noted the gloves; they were a Touch.)

Mr. Wrenn approached diffidently, his face expressionless, lest Mrs. Arty laugh at him. “Here —

“Say, what do you think would be a good way for the secretary to tell the crowd that the other guy is the president? Say, how about this: ‘The vice-president of the railway would like to have you sign these, sir, as president’?”

“That’s fine!” exclaimed Mrs. Arty, whose satin dress was carefully spread over her swelling knees, as she sat in the oak rocker, like a cheerful bronze monument to Sunday propriety. “But don’t you think he’d say, ‘when it’s convenient to you, sir’?”

“Gee, that’s dandy!”

The play was on.

It ended at seven. Mr. Wrenn took but fifteen minutes for Sunday supper, and wrote till one of the morning, finishing the first draft of his manuscript.

Revision was delightful, for it demanded many conferences with Nelly, sitting at the parlor table, with shoulders confidentially touching. They were the more intimate because Tom had invited Mr. Wrenn, Nelly, and Mrs. Arty to the Grand Christmas Eve Ball of the Cigar–Makers’ Union at Melpomene Hall. Nelly asked of Mr. Wrenn, almost as urgently as of Mrs. Arty, whether she should wear her new white mull or her older rose-colored China silk.

Two days before Christmas he timidly turned over the play for typing to a haughty public stenographer who looked like Lee Theresa Zapp. She yawned at him when he begged her to be careful of the manuscript. The gloriously pink-bound and red-underlined typed manuscript of the play was mailed to Messrs. Wendelbaum & Schirtz, play-brokers, at 6.15 P.M., Christmas Eve.

The four walked down Sixth Avenue to the Cigar–Makers’ Ball. They made an Indian file through the Christmas shopping crowds, and stopped frequently and noisily before the street-booths’ glamour of tinsel and teddy-bears. They shrieked all with one rotund mad laughter as Tom Poppins capered over and bought for seven cents a pink bisque doll, which he pinned to the lapel of his plaid overcoat. They drank hot chocolate at the Olympic Confectionery Store, pretending to each other that they were shivering with cold.

It was here that Nelly reached up and patted Mr. Wrenn’s pale-blue tie into better lines. In her hair was the scent which he had come to identify as hers. Her white furs brushed against his overcoat.

The cigar-makers, with seven of them in full evening-dress and two in dinner-coats, were already dancing on the waxy floor of Melpomene Hall when they arrived. A full orchestra was pounding and scraping itself into an hysteria of merriment on the platform under the red stucco-fronted balcony, and at the bar behind the balcony there was a spirit of beer and revelry by night.

Mr. Wrenn embarrassedly passed large groups of pretty girls. He felt very light and insecure in his new gun-metal-finish pumps now that he had taken off his rubbers and essayed the slippery floor. He tried desperately not to use his handkerchief too conspicuously, though he had a cold.

It was not till the choosing of partners for the next dance, when Tom Poppins stood up beside Nelly, their arms swaying a little, their feet tapping, that Mr. Wrenn quite got the fact that he could not dance.

He had casually said to the others, a week before, that he knew only the square dances which, as a boy, he had learned at parties at Parthenon. But they had reassured him: “Oh, come on — we’ll teach you how to dance at the ball — it won’t be formal. Besides, we’ll give you some lessons before we go.” Playwriting and playing Five Hundred had prevented their giving him the lessons. So he now sat terrified as a two-step began and he saw what seemed to be thousands of glittering youths and maidens whirling deftly in a most involved course, getting themselves past each other in a way which he was sure he could never imitate. The orchestra yearned over music as rich and smooth as milk chocolate, which made him intensely lonely for Nelly, though she was only across the room from him.

Tom Poppins immediately introduced Nelly to a facetious cigar salesman, who introduced her to three of the beaux in evening clothes, while Tom led out Mrs. Arty. Mr. Wrenn, sitting in a row of persons who were not at all interested in his sorrows, glowered out across the hall, and wished, oh! so bitterly, to flee home. Nelly came up, glowing, laughing, with black-mustached and pearl-waistcoated men, and introduced him to them, but he glanced at them disapprovingly; and always she was carried off to dance again.

She found and hopefully introduced to Mr. Wrenn a wallflower who came from Yonkers and had never heard of Tom Poppins or aeroplanes or Oxford or any other topic upon which Mr. Wrenn uneasily tried to discourse as he watched Nelly waltz and smile up at her partners. Presently the two sat silent. The wallflower excused herself and went back to her mama from Yonkers.

Mr. Wrenn sat sulking, hating his friends for having brought him, hating the sweetness of Nelly Croubel, and saying to himself, “Oh — sure — she dances with all those other men — me, I’m only the poor fool that talks to her when she’s tired and tries to cheer her up.”

He did not answer when Tom came and told him a new story he had just heard in the barroom.

Once Nelly landed beside him and bubblingly insisted on his coming out and trying to learn to dance. He brightened, but shyly remarked, “Oh no, I don’t think I’d better.” Just then the blackest-mustached and pearl-waistcoatedest of all the cigar salesmen came begging for a dance, and she was gone, with only: “Now get up your courage. I’m going to make you dance.”

At the intermission he watched her cross the floor with the hateful cigar salesman, slender in her tight crisp new white mull, flourishing her fan and talking with happy rapidity. She sat down beside him. He said nothing; he still stared out across the glassy floor. She peeped at him curiously several times, and made a low tapping with her fan on the side of her chair.

She sighed a little. Cautiously, but very casually, she said, “Aren’t you going to take me out for some refreshments, Mr. Wrenn?”

“Oh sure — I’m good enough to buy refreshments for her!” he said to himself.

Poor Mr. Wrenn; he had not gone to enough parties in Parthenon, and he hadn’t gone to any in New York. At nearly forty he was just learning the drab sulkiness and churlishness and black jealousy of the lover. . . . To her: “Why didn’t you go out with that guy with the black mustache?” He still stared straight ahead.

She was big-eyed, a tear showing. “Why, Billy —” was all she answered.

He clenched his hands to keep from bursting out with all the pitiful tears which were surging in his eyes. But he said nothing.

“Billy, what —”

He turned shyly around to her; his hand touched hers softly.

“Oh, I’m a beast,” he said, rapidly, low, his undertone trembling to her ears through the laughter of a group next to them. “I didn’t mean that, but I was — I felt like such a mutt — not being able to dance. Oh, Nelly, I’m awfully sorry. You know I didn’t mean — Come on! Let’s go get something to eat!”

As they consumed ice-cream, fudge, doughnuts, and chicken sandwiches at the refreshment counter they were very intimate, resenting the presence of others. Tom and Mrs. Arty joined them. Tom made Nelly light her first cigarette. Mr. Wrenn admired the shy way in which, taking the tiniest of puffs, she kept drawing out her cigarette with little pouts and nose wriggles and pretended sneezes, but he felt a lofty gladness when she threw it away after a minute, declaring that she’d never smoke again, and that she was going to make all three of her companions stop smoking, “now that she knew how horrid and sneezy it was, so there!”

With what he intended to be deep subtlety Mr. Wrenn drew her away to the barroom, and these two children, over two glasses of ginger-ale, looked their innocent and rustic love so plainly that Mrs. Arty and Tom sneaked away. Nelly cut out a dance, which she had promised to a cigar-maker, and started homeward with Mr. Wrenn.

“Let’s not take a car — I want some fresh air after that smoky place,” she said. “But it was grand. . . . Let’s walk up Fifth Avenue.”

“Fine. . . . Tired, Nelly?”

“A little.”

He thought her voice somewhat chilly.

“Nelly — I’m so sorry — I didn’t really have the chance to tell you in there how sorry I was for the way I spoke to you. Gee! it was fierce of me — but I felt — I couldn’t dance, and — oh —”

No answer.

“And you did mind it, didn’t you?”

“Why, I didn’t think you were so very nice about it — when I’d tried so hard to have you have a good time —”

“Oh, Nelly, I’m so sorry —”

There was tragedy in his voice. His shoulders, which he always tried to keep as straight as though they were in a vise when he walked with her, were drooping.

She touched his glove. “Oh don’t, Billy; it’s all right now. I understand. Let’s forget —”

“Oh, you’re too good to me!”

Silence.

As they crossed Twenty-third on Fifth Avenue she took his arm. He squeezed her hand. Suddenly the world was all young and beautiful and wonderful. It was the first time in his life that he had ever walked thus, with the arm of a girl for whom he cared cuddled in his. He glanced down at her cheap white furs. Snowflakes, tremulous on the fur, were turned into diamond dust in the light from a street-lamp which showed as well a tiny place where her collar had been torn and mended ever so carefully. Then, in a millionth of a second, he who had been a wanderer in the lonely gray regions of a detached man’s heart knew the pity of love, all its emotion, and the infinite care for the beloved that makes a man of a rusty sales-clerk. He lifted a face of adoration to the misty wonder of the bare trees, whose tracery of twigs filled Madison Square; to the Metropolitan Tower, with its vast upward stretch toward the ruddy sky of the city’s winter night. All these mysteries he knew and sang. What he said was:

“Gee, those trees look like a reg’lar picture! . . . The Tower just kind of fades away. Don’t it?”

“Yes, it is pretty,” she said, doubtfully, but with a pressure of his arm.

Then they talked like a summer-time brook, planning that he was to buy a Christmas bough of evergreen, which she would smuggle to breakfast in the morning. Through their chatter persisted the new intimacy which had been born in the pain of their misunderstanding.

On January 10th the manuscript of “The Millionaire’s Daughter” was returned by play-brokers Wendelbaum & Schirtz with this letter:

DEAR SIR — We regret to say that we do not find play available. We inclose our reader’s report on the same. Also inclose bill for ten dollars for reading-fee, which kindly remit at early convenience.

He stood in the hall at Mrs. Arty’s just before dinner. He reread the letter and slowly opened the reader’s report, which announced:

“Millionaire’s Daughter.” One-act vlle. Utterly impos. Amateurish to the limit. Dialogue sounds like burlesque of Laura Jean Libbey. Can it.

Nelly was coming down-stairs. He handed her the letter and report, then tried to stick out his jaw. She read them. Her hand slipped into his. He went quickly toward the basement and made himself read the letter — though not the report — to the tableful. He burned the manuscript of his play before going to bed. The next morning he waded into The Job as he never had before. He was gloomily certain that he would never get away from The Job. But he thought of Nelly a hundred times a day and hoped that sometime, some spring night of a burning moon, he might dare the great adventure and kiss her. Istra — Theoretically, he remembered her as a great experience. But what nebulous bodies these theories are!

That slow but absolutely accurate Five–Hundred player, Mr. William Wrenn, known as Billy, glanced triumphantly at Miss Proudfoot, who was his partner against Mrs. Arty and James T. Duncan, the traveling-man, on that night of late February. His was the last bid in the crucial hand of the rubber game. The others waited respectfully. Confidently, he bid “Nine on no trump.”

“Good Lord, Billl” exclaimed James T. Duncan.

“I’ll make it.”

And he did. He arose a victor. There was no uneasiness, but rather all the social polish of Mrs. Arty’s at its best, in his manner, as he crossed to Mrs. Ebbitt’s chair and asked: “How is Mr. Ebbitt to-night? Pretty rheumatic?” Miss Proudfoot offered him a lime tablet, and he accepted it judicially. “I believe these tablets are just about as good as Park & Tilford’s,” he said, cocking his head. “Say, Dunk, I’ll match you to see who rushes a growler of beer. Tom’ll be here pretty soon — store ought to be closed by now. We’ll have some ready for him.”

“Right, Bill,” agreed James T. Duncan.

Mr. Wrenn lost. He departed, after secretively obtaining not one, but two pitchers, in one of which he got a “pint of dark” and in the other a surprise. He bawled upstairs to Nelly, “Come on down, Nelly, can’t you? Got a growler of ice-cream soda for the ladies!”

It is true that when Tom arrived and fell to conversational blows with James T. Duncan over the merits of a Tom Collins Mr. Wrenn was not brilliant, for the reason that he took Tom Collins to be a man instead of the drink he really is.

Yet, as they went up-stairs Miss Proudfoot said to Nelly: “Mr. Wrenn is quiet, but I do think in some ways he’s one of the nicest men I’ve seen in the house for years. And he is so earnest. And I think he’ll make a good pinochle player, besides Five Hundred.”

“Yes,” said Nelly.

“I think he was a little shy at first. . . . I was always shy. . . . But he likes us, and I like folks that like folks.”

Yes!“ said Nelly.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/wrenn/chapter16.html

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