Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 18

And Follows a Wandering Flame Through Perilous Seas

They had picnic dinner early up there on the Palisades:

Nelly and Mr. Wrenn, Mrs. Arty and Tom, Miss Proudfoot and Mrs. Samuel Ebbitt, the last of whom kept ejaculating: “Well! I ain’t run off like this in ten years!” They squatted about a red-cotton table-cloth spread on a rock, broadly discussing the sandwiches and cold chicken and lemonade and stuffed olives, and laughing almost to a point of distress over Tom’s accusation that Miss Proudfoot had secreted about her person a bottle of rye whisky.

Nelly was very pleasant to Mr. Wrenn, but she called him neither Billy nor anything else, and mostly she talked to Miss Proudfoot, smiling at him, but saying nothing when he managed to get out a jest about Mrs. Arty’s chewing-gum. When he moved to her side with a wooden plate of cream-cheese sandwiches (which Tom humorously termed “cold-cream wafers”) Mr. Wrenn started to explain how he had come to enter Istra’s room.

“Why shouldn’t you?” Nelly asked, curtly, and turned to Miss Proudfoot.

“She doesn’t seem to care much,” he reflected, relieved and stabbed in his humble vanity and reattracted to Nelly, all at once. He was anxious about her opinion of Istra and her opinion of himself, and slightly defiant, as she continued to regard him as a respectable person whose name she couldn’t exactly remember.

Hadn’t he the right to love Istra if he wanted to? he desired to know of himself. Besides, what had he done? Just gone out walking with his English hotel acquaintance Istra! He hadn’t been in her room but just a few minutes. Fine reason that was for Nelly to act like a blooming iceberg! Besides, it wasn’t as if he were engaged to Nelly, or anything like that. Besides, of course Istra would never care for him. There were several other besideses with which he harrowed himself while trying to appear picnically agreeable. He was getting very much confused, and was slightly abrupt as he said to Nelly, “Let’s walk over to that high rock on the edge.”

A dusky afterglow filled the sky before them as they silently trudged to the rock and from the top of the sheer cliff contemplated the smooth and steely-gray Hudson below. Nelly squeaked her fear at the drop and clutched his arm, but suddenly let go and drew back without his aid.

He groaned within, “I haven’t the right to help her.” He took her arm as she hesitatingly climbed from the rock down to the ground.

She jerked it free, curtly saying, “No, thank you.”

She was repentant in a moment, and, cheerfully:

“Miss Nash took me in her room yesterday and showed me her things. My, she’s got such be-yoo-ti-ful jewels! La V’lieres and pearls and a swell amethyst brooch. My! She told me all about how the girls used to study in Paris, and how sorry she would be to go back to California and keep house.”

“Keep house?”

Nelly let him suffer for a moment before she relieved him with, “For her father.”

“Oh. . . . Did she say she was going back to California soon?”

“Not till the end of the summer, maybe.”

“Oh. . . . Oh, Nelly —”

For the first time that day he was perfectly sincere. He was trying to confide in her. But the shame of having emotions was on him. He got no farther.

To his amazement, Nelly mused, “She is very nice.”

He tried hard to be gallant. “Yes, she is interesting, but of course she ain’t anywheres near as nice as you are, Nelly, be —”

“Oh, don’t, Billy!”

The quick agony in her voice almost set them both weeping. The shared sorrow of separation drew them together for a moment. Then she started off, with short swift steps, and he tagged after. He found little to say. He tried to comment on the river. He remarked that the apartment-houses across in New York were bright in the sunset; that, in fact, the upper windows looked “like there was a fire in there.” Her sole comment was “Yes.”

When they rejoined the crowd he was surprised to hear her talking volubly to Miss Proudfoot. He rejoiced that she was “game,” but he did not rejoice long. For a frightened feeling that he had to hurry home and see Istra at once was turning him weak and cold. He didn’t want to see her; she was intruding; but he had to go — go at once; and the agony held him all the way home, while he was mechanically playing the part of stern reformer and agreeing with Tom Poppins that the horrors of the recent Triangle shirt-waist-factory fire showed that “something oughta be done — something sure oughta be.”

He trembled on the ferry till Nelly, with a burst of motherly tenderness in her young voice, suddenly asked: “Why, you’re shivering dreadfully! Did you get a chill?”

Naturally, he wanted the credit of being known as an invalid, and pitied and nursed, but he reluctantly smiled and said, “Oh no, it ain’t anything at all.”

Then Istra called him again, and he fumed over the slowness of their landing.

And, at home, Istra was out.

He went resolutely down and found Nelly alone, sitting on a round pale-yellow straw mat on the steps.

He sat by her. He was very quiet; not at all the jovial young man of the picnic properly following the boarding-house-district rule that males should be jocular and show their appreciation of the ladies by “kidding them.” And he spoke with a quiet graciousness that was almost courtly, with a note of weariness and spiritual experience such as seldom comes into the boarding-houses, to slay joy and bring wisdom and give words shyness.

He had, as he sat down, intended to ask her to go with him to a moving-picture show. But inspiration was on him. He merely sat and talked.

When Mr. Wrenn returned from the office, two evenings later, he found this note awaiting him:

DEAR MOUSE — Friend has asked me to join her in studio & have beat it. Sorry not see you & say good-by. Come see me sometime — phone before and see if I’m in — Spring xxx — address xx South Washington Sq. In haste, ISTRA.

He spent the evening in not going to the studio. Several times he broke away from a pinochle game to rush upstairs and see if the note was as chilly as he remembered. It always was.

Then for a week he awaited a more definite invitation from her, which did not come. He was uneasily polite to Nelly these days, and tremulously appreciative of her gentleness. He wanted to brood, but he did not take to his old habit of long solitary walks. Every afternoon he planned one for the evening; every evening found that he “wanted to be around with folks.”

He had a sort of youthful defiant despair, so he jested much at the card-table, by way of practising his new game of keeping people from knowing what he was thinking. He took sophisticated pleasure in noting that Mrs. Arty no longer condescended to him. He managed to imitate Tom’s writing on a card which he left with a bunch of jonquils in Nelly’s room, and nearly persuaded even Tom himself that Tom was the donor. Probably because he didn’t much care what happened he was able to force Mr. Mortimer R. Guilfogle to raise his salary to twenty-three dollars a week. Mr. Guilfogle went out of his way to admit that the letters to the Southern trade had been “a first-rate stunt, son.”

John Henson, the head of the Souvenir Company’s manufacturing department, invited Mr. Wrenn home to dinner, and the account of the cattle-boat was much admired by Mrs. Henson and the three young Hensons.

A few days later, in mid-June, there was an unusually cheerful dinner at the boarding-house. Nelly turned to Mr. Wrenn — yes, he was quite sure about it; she was speaking exclusively to him, with a lengthy and most merry account of the manner in which the floor superintendent had “called down” the unkindest of the aislesmen.

He longed to give his whole self in his answer, to be in the absolute community of thought that lovers know. But the image of Istra was behind his chair. Istra — he had to see her — now, this evening. He rushed out to the corner drug-store and reached her by telephone.

Yes-s, admitted Istra, a little grudgingly, she was going to be at the studio that evening, though she — well, there was going to be a little party — some friends — but — yes, she’d be glad to have him come.

Grimly, Mr. Wrenn set out for Washington Square.

Since this scientific treatise has so exhaustively examined Mr. Wrenn’s reactions toward the esthetic, one need give but three of his impressions of the studio and people he found on Washington Square — namely:

(a) That the big room was bare, ill kept, and not comparable to the red-plush splendor of Mrs. Arty’s, for all its pretension to superiority. Why, a lot of the pictures weren’t framed! And you should have seen the giltness and fruit-borderness of the frames at Mrs. Arty’s!

(b) That the people were brothers-in-talk to the inmates of the flat on Great James Street, London, only far less, and friendly.

(c) That Mr. Wrenn was now a man of friends, and if the “blooming Bohemians,” as he called them, didn’t like him they were permitted to go to the dickens.

Istra was always across the room from him somehow. He found himself glad. It made their parting definite.

He was going back to his own people, he was deciding.

As he rose with elaborate boarding-house apologies to the room at large for going, and a cheerful but not intimate “Good night” to Istra, she followed him to the door and into the dark long hallway without.

“Good night, Mouse dear. I’m glad you got a chance to talk to the Silver Girl. But was Mr. Hargis rude to you? I heard him talking Single Tax — or was it Matisse? — and he’s usually rude when he talks about them.”

“No. He was all right.”

“Then what is worrying you?”

“Oh — nothing. Good ni —”

“You are going off angry. Aren’t you?”

“No, but — oh, there ain’t any use of our — of me being — Is there?”

“N-no —”

“Matisse — the guy you just spoke about — and these artists here tonight in bobtail dress-suits — I wouldn’t know when to wear one of them things, and when a swallow-tail — if I had one, even — or when a Prince Albert or —”

“Oh, not a Prince Albert, Mouse dear. Say, a frock-coat.”

“Sure. That’s what I mean. It’s like that Matisse guy. I don’t know about none of the things you’re interested in. While you’ve been away from Mrs. Arty’s — Lord, I’ve missed you so! But when I try to train with your bunch, or when you spring Matisse” (he seemed peculiarly to resent the unfortunate French artist) “on me I sort of get onto myself — and now it ain’t like it was in England; I’ve got a bunch of my own I can chase around with. Anyway, I got onto myself tonight. I s’pose it’s partly because I been thinking you didn’t care much for my friends.”

“But, Mouse dear, all this isn’t news to me. Surely you, who’ve gipsied with me, aren’t going to be so obvious, so banal, as to blame me because you’ve cared for me, are you, child?”

“Oh no, no, no! I didn’t mean to do that. I just wanted — oh, gee! I dunno — well, I wanted to have things between us definite.”

“I do understand. You’re quite right. And now we’re just friends, aren’t we?”

“Yes.”

“Then good-by. And sometime when I’m back in New York — I’m going to California in a few days — I think I’ll be able to get back here — I certainly hope so — though of course I’ll have to keep house for friend father for a while, and maybe I’ll marry myself with a local magnate in desperation — but, as I was saying, dear, when I get back here we’ll have a good dinner, nicht wahr?

“Yes, and — good-by.”

She stood at the top of the stairs looking down. He slowly clumped down the wooden treads, boiling with the amazing discoveries that he had said good-by to Istra, that he was not sorry, and that now he could offer to Nelly Croubel everything.

Istra suddenly called, “O Mouse, wait just a moment.”

She darted like a swallow. She threw her arm about his shoulder and kissed his cheek. Instantly she was running up-stairs again, and had disappeared into the studio.

Mr. William Wrenn was walking rapidly up Riverside Drive, thinking about his letters to the Southern merchants.

While he was leaving the studio building he had perfectly seen himself as one who was about to go through a tumultuous agony, after which he would be free of all the desire for Istra and ready to serve Nelly sincerely and humbly.

But he found that the agony was all over. Even to save his dignity as one who was being dramatic, he couldn’t keep his thoughts on Istra.

Every time he thought of Nelly his heart was warm and he chuckled softly. Several times out of nothing came pictures of the supercilious persons whom he had heard solving the problems of the world at the studio on Washington Square, and he muttered: “Oh, hope they choke. Istra’s all right, though; she learnt me an awful lot. But — gee! I’m glad she ain’t in the same house; I suppose I’d ag’nize round if she was.”

Suddenly, at no particular street corner on Riverside Drive, just a street, he fled over to Broadway and the Subway. He had to be under the same roof with Nelly. If it were only possible to see her that night! But it was midnight. However, he formulated a plan. The next morning he would leave the office, find her at her department store, and make her go out to Manhattan Beach with him for dinner that night.

He was home. He went happily up the stairs. He would dream of Nelly, and —

Nelly’s door opened, and she peered out, drawing her peignoir about her.

“Oh,” she said, softly, “is it you?”

“Yes. My, you’re up late.”

“Do you — Are you all right?”

He dashed down the hall and stood shyly scratching at the straw of his newest hat.

“Why yes, Nelly, course. Poor — Oh, don’t tell me you have a headache again?”

“No — I was awful foolish, of course, but I saw you when you went out this evening, and you looked so savage, and you didn’t look very well.”

“But now it’s all right.”

“Then good night.”

“Oh no — listen — please do! I went over to the place Miss Nash is living at, because I was pretty sure that I ain’t hipped on her — sort of hypnotized by her — any more. And I found I ain’t! I ain’t! I don’t know what to say, I want to — I want you to know that from going to try and see if I can’t get you to care for me.” He was dreadfully earnest, and rather quiet, with the dignity of the man who has found himself. “I’m scared,” he went on, “about saying this, because maybe you’ll think I’ve got an idea I’m kind of a little tin god, and all I’ve got to do is to say which girl I’ll want and she’ll come a-running, but it isn’t that; it isn’t. It’s just that I want you to know I’m going to give all of me to you now if I can get you to want me. And I am glad I knew Istra — she learnt me a lot about books and all, so I have more to me, or maybe will have, for you. It’s — Nelly — promise you’ll be — my friend — promise — If you knew how I rushed back here tonight to see you!”

“Billy —”

She held out her hand, and he grasped it as though it were the sacred symbol of his dreams.

“To-morrow,” she smiled, with a hint of tears, “I’ll be a reg’lar lady, I guess, and make you explain and explain like everything, but now I’m just glad. Yes,” defiantly, “I will admit it if I want to! I am glad!”

Her door closed.

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