Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 2

He Walks with Miss Theresa

As he left the Souvenir Company building after working late at taking inventory and roamed down toward Fourteenth Street, Mr. Wrenn felt forlornly aimless. The worst of it all was that he could not go to the Nickelorion for moving pictures; not after having been cut by the ticket-taker. Then, there before him was the glaring sign of the Nickelorion tempting him; a bill with “Great Train Robbery Film Tonight” made his heart thump like stair-climbing — and he dashed at the ticket-booth with a nickel doughtily extended. He felt queer about the scalp as the cashier girl slid out a coupon. Why did she seem to be watching him so closely? As he dropped the ticket in the chopper he tried to glance away from the Brass-button Man. For one- nineteenth of a second he kept his head turned. It turned back of itself; he stared full at the man, half bowed — and received a hearty absent-minded nod and a “Fine evenin’.” He sang to himself a monotonous song of great joy. When he stumbled over the feet of a large German in getting to a seat, he apologized as though he were accustomed to laugh easily with many friends.

The train-robbery film was — well, he kept repeating “Gee!” to himself pantingly. How the masked men did sneak, simply sneak and sneak, behind the bushes! Mr. Wrenn shrank as one of them leered out of the picture at him. How gallantly the train dashed toward the robbers, to the spirit-stirring roll of the snare-drum. The rush from the bushes followed; the battle with detectives concealed in the express-car. Mr. Wrenn was standing sturdily and shooting coolly with the slender hawk-faced Pinkerton man in puttees; with him he leaped to horse and followed the robbers through the forest. He stayed through the whole program twice to see the train robbery again.

As he started to go out he found the ticket-taker changing his long light-blue robe of state for a highly commonplace sack-coat without brass buttons. In his astonishment at seeing how a Highness could be transformed into an every-day man, Mr. Wrenn stopped, and, having stopped, spoke:

“Uh — that was quite a — quite a picture — that train robbery. Wasn’t it.”

“Yuh, I guess — Now where’s the devil and his wife flew away to with my hat? Them guys is always swiping it. Picture, mister? Why, I didn’t see it no more ‘n — Say you, Pink Eye, say you crab-footed usher, did you swipe my hat? Ain’t he the cut-up, mister! Ain’t both them ushers the jingling sheepsheads, though! Being cute and hiding my hat in the box-office. Picture? I don’t get no chance to see any of ’em. Funny, ain’t it? — me barking for ’em like I was the grandmother of the guy that invented ’em, and not knowing whether the train robbery — Now who stole my going-home shoes? . . . Why, I don’t know whether the train did any robbing or not!”

He slapped Mr. Wrenn on the back, and the sales clerk’s heart bounded in comradeship. He was surprised into declaring:

“Say — uh — I bowed to you the other night and you — well, honestly, you acted like you never saw me.”

“Well, well, now, and that’s what happens to me for being the dad of five kids and a she-girl and a tom-cat. Sure, I couldn’t ‘ve seen you. Me, I was probably that busy with fambly cares — I was probably thinking who was it et the lemon pie on me — was it Pete or Johnny, or shall I lick ’em both together, or just bite me wife.”

Mr. Wrenn knew that the ticket-taker had never, never really considered biting his wife. He knew! His nod and grin and “That’s the idea!” were urbanely sophisticated. He urged:

“Oh yes, I’m sure you didn’t intend to hand me the icy mitt. Say! I’m thirsty. Come on over to Moje’s and I’ll buy you a drink.”

He was aghast at this abyss of money-spending into which he had leaped, and the Brass-button Man was suspiciously wondering what this person wanted of him; but they crossed to the adjacent saloon, a New York corner saloon, which of course “glittered” with a large mirror, heaped glasses, and a long shining foot-rail on which, in bravado, Mr. Wrenn placed his Cum–Fee-Best shoe.

“Uh?” said the bartender.

“Rye, Jimmy,” said the Brass-button Man.

“Uh-h-h-h-h,” said Mr. Wrenn, in a frightened diminuendo, now that — wealthy citizen though he had become — he was in danger of exposure as a mollycoddle who couldn’t choose his drink properly. “Stummick been hurting me. Guess I’d better just take a lemonade.”

“You’re the brother-in-law to a wise one,” commented the Brass-button Man. “Me, I ain’t never got the sense to do the traffic cop on the booze. The old woman she says to me, ‘Mory,’ she says, ‘if you was in heaven and there was a pail of beer on one side and a gold harp on the other,’ she says, ‘and you was to have your pick, which would you take?’ And what ‘d yuh think I answers her?”

“The beer,” said the bartender. “She had your number, all right.”

“Not on your tin-type,” declared the ticket-taker.

“‘Me?’ I says to her. ‘Me? I’d pinch the harp and pawn it for ten growlers of Dutch beer and some man-sized rum!’”

“Hee, hee hee!” grinned Mr. Wrenn.

“Ha, ha, ha!” grumbled the bartender.

“Well-l-l,” yawned the ticket-taker, “the old woman’ll be chasing me best pants around the flat, if she don’t have me to chase, pretty soon. Guess I’d better beat it. Much obliged for the drink, Mr. Uh. So long, Jimmy.”

Mr. Wrenn set off for home in a high state of exhilaration which, he noticed, exactly resembled driving an aeroplane, and went briskly up the steps of the Zapps’ genteel but unexciting residence. He was much nearer to heaven than West Sixteenth Street appears to be to the outsider. For he was an explorer of the Arctic, a trusted man on the job, an associate of witty Bohemians. He was an army lieutenant who had, with his friend the hawk-faced Pinkerton man, stood off bandits in an attack on a train. He opened and closed the door gaily.

He was an apologetic little Mr. Wrenn. His landlady stood on the bottom step of the hall stairs in a bunchy Mother Hubbard, groaning:

“Mist’ Wrenn, if you got to come in so late, Ah wish you wouldn’t just make all the noise you can. Ah don’t see why Ah should have to be kept awake all night. Ah suppose it’s the will of the Lord that whenever Ah go out to see Mrs. Muzzy and just drink a drop of coffee Ah must get insomina, but Ah don’t see why anybody that tries to be a gennulman should have to go and bang the door and just rack mah nerves.”

He slunk up-stairs behind Mrs. Zapp’s lumbering gloom.

“There’s something I wanted to tell you, Mrs. Zapp — something that’s happened to me. That’s why I was out celebrating last evening and got in so late.” Mr. Wrenn was diffidently sitting in the basement.

“Yes,” dryly, “Ah noticed you was out late, Mist’ Wrenn.”

“You see, Mrs. Zapp, I— uh — my father left me some land, and it’s been sold for about one thousand plunks.”

“ Ah’m awful’ glad, Mist’ Wrenn,” she said, funereally. “Maybe you’d like to take that hall room beside yours now. The two rooms’d make a nice apartment.” (She really said “nahs ‘pahtmun’, “you understand.)

“Why, I hadn’t thought much about that yet.” He felt guilty, and was profusely cordial to Lee Theresa Zapp, the factory forewoman, who had just thumped down-stairs.

Miss Theresa was a large young lady with a bust, much black hair, and a handsome disdainful discontented face. She waited till he had finished greeting her, then sniffed, and at her mother she snarled:

“Ma, they went and kept us late again to-night. I’m getting just about tired of having a bunch of Jews and Yankees think I’m a nigger. Uff! I hate them!”

“T’resa, Mist’ Wrenn’s just inherited two thousand dollars, and he’s going to take that upper hall room.” Mrs. Zapp beamed with maternal fondness at the timid lodger.

But the gallant friend of Pinkertons faced her — for the first time. “Waste his travel-money?” he was inwardly exclaiming as he said:

“But I thought you had some one in that room. I heard som —”

“That fellow! Oh, he ain’t going to be perm’nent. And he promised me — So you can have —”

“I’m awful sorry, Mrs. Zapp, but I’m afraid I can’t take it. Fact is, I may go traveling for a while.”

“Co’se you’ll keep your room if you do, Mist’ Wrenn?”

“Why, I’m afraid I’ll have to give it up, but — Oh, I may not be going for a long long while yet; and of course I’ll be glad to come — I’ll want to come back here when I get back to New York. I won’t be gone for more than, oh, probably not more than a year anyway, and —”

“And Ah thought you said you was going to be perm’nent!” Mrs. Zapp began quietly, prefatory to working herself up into hysterics. “And here Ah’ve gone and had your room fixed up just for you, and new paper put in, and you’ve always been talking such a lot about how you wanted your furniture arranged, and Ah’ve gone and made all mah plans —”

Mr. Wrenn had been a shyly paying guest of the Zapps for four years. That famous new paper had been put up two years before. So he spluttered: “Oh, I’m awfully sorry. I wish — uh — I don’t —”

“Ah’d thank you, Mist’ Wrenn, if you could conveniently let me know before you go running off and leaving me with empty rooms, with the landlord after the rent, and me turning away people that ‘d pay more for the room, because Ah wanted to keep it for you. And people always coming to see you and making me answer the door and —”

Even the rooming-house worm was making small worm-like sounds that presaged turning. Lee Theresa snapped just in time, “Oh, cut it out, Ma, will you!” She had been staring at the worm, for he had suddenly become interesting and adorable and, incidentally, an heir. “I don’t see why Mr. Wrenn ain’t giving us all the notice we can expect. He said he mightn’t be going for a long time.”

“Oh!” grunted Mrs. Zapp. “So mah own flesh and blood is going to turn against me!”

She rose. Her appearance of majesty was somewhat lessened by the creak of stays, but her instinct for unpleasantness was always good. She said nothing as she left them, and she plodded up-stairs with a train of sighs.

Mr. Wrenn looked as though sudden illness had overpowered him. But Theresa laughed, and remarked: “You don’t want to let Ma get on her high horse, Mr. Wrenn. She’s a bluff.”

With much billowing of the lower, less stiff part of her garments, she sailed to the cloudy mirror over the magazine-filled bookcase and inspected her cap of false curls, with many prods of her large firm hands which flashed with Brazilian diamonds. Though he had heard the word “puffs,” he did not know that half her hair was false. He stared at it. Though in disgrace, he felt the honor of knowing so ample and rustling a woman as Miss Lee Theresa.

“But, say, I wish I could ‘ve let her know I was going earlier, Miss Zapp. I didn’t know it myself, but it does seem like a mean trick. I s’pose I ought to pay her something extra.”

“Why, child, you won’t do anything of the sort. Ma hasn’t got a bit of kick coming. You’ve always been awful nice, far as I can see.” She smiled lavishly. “I went for a walk to-night. . . . I wish all those men wouldn’t stare at a girl so. I’m sure I don’t see why they should stare at me.”

Mr. Wrenn nodded, but that didn’t seem to be the right comment, so he shook his head, then looked frightfully embarrassed.

“I went by that Armenian restaurant you were telling me about, Mr. Wrenn. Some time I believe I’ll go dine there.” Again she paused.

He said only, “Yes, it is a nice place.”

Remarking to herself that there was no question about it, after all, he was a little fool, Theresa continued the siege. “Do you dine there often?”

“Oh yes. It is a nice place.”

“Could a lady go there?”

“Why, yes, I—”

“Yes!”

“I should think so,” he finished.

“Oh! . . . I do get so awfully tired of the greasy stuff Ma and Goaty dish up. They think a big stew that tastes like dish-water is a dinner, and if they do have anything I like they keep on having the same thing every day till I throw it in the sink. I wish I could go to a restaurant once in a while for a change, but of course — I dunno’s it would be proper for a lady to go alone even there. What do you think? Oh dear!” She sat brooding sadly.

He had an inspiration. Perhaps Miss Theresa could be persuaded to go out to dinner with him some time. He begged:

“Gee, I wish you’d let me take you up there some evening, Miss Zapp.”

“Now, didn’t I tell you to call me ‘Miss Theresa’? Well, I suppose you just don’t want to be friends with me. Nobody does.” She brooded again.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Honest I didn’t. I’ve always thought you’d think I was fresh if I called you ‘Miss Theresa,’ and so I—”

“Why, I guess I could go up to the Armenian with you, perhaps. When would you like to go? You know I’ve always got lots of dates but I— um — let’s see, I think I could go to-morrow evening.”

“Let’s do it! Shall I call for you, Miss — uh — Theresa?”

“Yes, you may if you’ll be a good boy. Good night.” She departed with an air of intimacy.

Mr. Wrenn scuttled to the Nickelorion, and admitted to the Brass-button Man that he was “feeling pretty good ‘s evening.”

He had never supposed that a handsome creature like Miss Theresa could ever endure such a “slow fellow” as himself. For about one minute he considered with a chill the question of whether she was agreeable because of his new wealth, but reproved the fiend who was making the suggestion; for had he not heard her mention with great scorn a second cousin who had married an old Yankee for his money? That just settled that, he assured himself, and scowled at a passing messenger-boy for having thus hinted, but hastily grimaced as the youngster showed signs of loud displeasure.

The Armenian restaurant is peculiar, for it has foreign food at low prices, and is below Thirtieth Street, yet it has not become Bohemian. Consequently it has no bad music and no crowd of persons from Missouri whose women risk salvation for an evening by smoking cigarettes. Here prosperous Oriental merchants, of mild natures and bandit faces, drink semi-liquid Turkish coffee and discuss rugs and revolutions.

In fact, the place seemed so unartificial that Theresa, facing Mr. Wrenn, was bored. And the menu was foreign without being Society viands. It suggested rats’ tails and birds’ nests, she was quite sure. She would gladly have experimented with pate de foie gras or alligator-pears, but what social prestige was there to be gained at the factory by remarking that she “always did like pahklava“? Mr. Wrenn did not see that she was glancing about discontentedly, for he was delightedly listening to a lanky young man at the next table who was remarking to his vis-a-vis, a pale slithey lady in black, with the lines of a torpedo-boat: “Try some of the stuffed vine-leaves, child of the angels, and some wheat pilaf and some bourma. Your wheat pilaf is a comfortable food and cheering to the stomach of man. Simply won-derful. As for the bourma, he is a merry beast, a brown rose of pastry with honey cunningly secreted between his petals and — Here! Waiter! Stuffed vine-leaves, wheat p’laf, bourm’ — twice on the order and hustle it.”

“When you get through listening to that man — he talks like a bar of soap — tell me what there is on this bill of fare that’s safe to eat,” snorted Theresa.

“I thought he was real funny,” insisted Mr. Wrenn. . . . “I’m sure you’ll like shish kebab and s —”

Shish kibub! Who ever heard of such a thing! Haven’t they any — oh, I thought they’d have stuff they call ‘Turkish Delight’ and things like that.”

“‘Turkish Delights’ is cigarettes, I think.”

“Well, I know it isn’t, because I read about it in a story in a magazine. And they were eating it. On the terrace. . . . What is that shish kibub?”

Kebab. . . . It’s lamb roasted on skewers. I know you’ll like it.”

“Well, I’m not going to trust any heathens to cook my meat. I’ll take some eggs and some of that — what was it the idiot was talking about — berma?”

Bourma. . . . That’s awful nice. With honey. And do try some of the stuffed peppers and rice.”

“All right,” said Theresa, gloomily.

Somehow Mr. Wrenn wasn’t vastly transformed even by the possession of the two thousand dollars her mother had reported. He was still “funny and sort of scary,” not like the overpowering Southern gentlemen she supposed she remembered. Also, she was hungry. She listened with stolid glumness to Mr. Wrenn’s observation that that was “an awful big hat the lady with the funny guy had on.”

He was chilled into quietness till Papa Gouroff, the owner of the restaurant, arrived from above-stairs. Papa Gouroff was a Russian Jew who had been a police spy in Poland and a hotel proprietor in Mogador, where he called himself Turkish and married a renegade Armenian. He had a nose like a sickle and a neck like a blue-gum nigger. He hoped that the place would degenerate into a Bohemian restaurant where liberal clergymen would think they were slumming, and barbers would think they were entering society, so he always wore a fez and talked bad Arabic. He was local color, atmosphere, Bohemian flavor. Mr. Wrenn murmured to Theresa:

“Say, do you see that man? He’s Signor Gouroff, the owner. I’ve talked to him a lot of times. Ain’t he great! Golly! look at that beak of his. Don’t he make you think of kiosks and hyrems and stuff? Gee! What does he make you think —”

“He’s got on a dirty collar. . . . That waiter’s awful slow. . . . Would you please be so kind and pour me another glass of water?”

But when she reached the honied bourma she grew tolerant toward Mr. Wrenn. She had two cups of cocoa and felt fat about the eyes and affectionate. She had mentioned that there were good shows in town. Now she resumed:

“Have you been to ‘The Gold Brick’ yet?”

“No, I— uh — I don’t go to the theater much.”

“Gwendolyn Muzzy was telling me that this was the funniest show she’d ever seen. Tells how two confidence men fooled one of those terrible little jay towns. Shows all the funny people, you know, like they have in jay towns. . . . I wish I could go to it, but of course I have to help out the folks at home, so — Well. . . . Oh dear.”

“Say! I’d like to take you, if I could. Let’s go — this evening!” He quivered with the adventure of it.

“Why, I don’t know; I didn’t tell Ma I was going to be out. But — oh, I guess it would be all right if I was with you.”

“Let’s go right up and get some tickets.”

“All right.” Her assent was too eager, but she immediately corrected that error by yawning, “I don’t suppose I’d ought to go, but if you want to —”

They were a very lively couple as they walked up. He trickled sympathy when she told of the selfishness of the factory girls under her and the meanness of the superintendent over her, and he laughed several times as she remarked that the superintendent “ought to be boiled alive — that’s what all lobsters ought to be,” so she repeated the epigram with such increased jollity that they swung up to the theater in a gale; and, once facing the ennuied ticket-seller, he demanded dollar seats just as though he had not been doing sums all the way up to prove that seventy-five-cent seats were the best he could afford.

The play was a glorification of Yankee smartness. Mr. Wrenn was disturbed by the fact that the swindler heroes robbed quite all the others, but he was stirred by the brisk romance of money-making. The swindlers were supermen — blonde beasts with card indices and options instead of clubs. Not that Mr. Wrenn made any observations regarding supermen. But when, by way of commercial genius, the swindler robbed a young night clerk Mr. Wrenn whispered to Theresa, “Gee! he certainly does know how to jolly them, heh?”

“Sh-h-h-h-h-h!” said Theresa.

Every one made millions, victims and all, in the last act, as a proof of the social value of being a live American business man. As they oozed along with the departing audience Mr. Wrenn gurgled:

“That makes me feel just like I’d been making a million dollars.” Masterfully, he proposed, “Say, let’s go some place and have something to eat.”

“All right.”

“Let’s — I almost feel as if I could afford Rector’s, after that play; but, anyway, let’s go to Allaire’s.”

Though he was ashamed of himself for it afterward, he was almost haughty toward his waiter, and ordered Welsh rabbits and beer quite as though he usually breakfasted on them. He may even have strutted a little as he hailed a car with an imaginary walking-stick. His parting with Miss Theresa was intimate; he shook her hand warmly.

As he undressed he hoped that he had not been too abrupt with the waiter, “poor cuss.” But he lay awake to think of Theresa’s hair and hand-clasp; of polished desks and florid gentlemen who curtly summoned bank-presidents and who had — he tossed the bedclothes about in his struggle to get the word — who had a punch!

He would do that Great Traveling of his in the land of Big Business!

The five thousand princes of New York to protect themselves against the four million ungrateful slaves had devised the sacred symbols of dress-coats, large houses, and automobiles as the outward and visible signs of the virtue of making money, to lure rebels into respectability and teach them the social value of getting a dollar away from that inhuman, socially injurious fiend, Some One Else. That Our Mr. Wrenn should dream for dreaming’s sake was catastrophic; he might do things because he wanted to, not because they were fashionable; whereupon, police forces and the clergy would disband, Wall Street and Fifth Avenue would go thundering down. Hence, for him were provided those Y. M. C. A. night bookkeeping classes administered by solemn earnest men of thirty for solemn credulous youths of twenty-nine; those sermons on content; articles on “building up the rundown store by live advertising”; Kiplingesque stories about playing the game; and correspondence-school advertisements that shrieked, “Mount the ladder to thorough knowledge — the path to power and to the fuller pay-envelope.”

To all these Mr. Wrenn had been indifferent, for they showed no imagination. But when he saw Big Business glorified by a humorous melodrama, then The Job appeared to him as picaresque adventure, and he was in peril of his imagination.

The eight-o’clock sun, which usually found a wildly shaving Mr. Wrenn, discovered him dreaming that he was the manager of the Souvenir Company. But that was a complete misunderstanding of the case. The manager of the Souvenir Company was Mr. Mortimer R. Guilfogle, and he called Mr. Wrenn in to acquaint him with that fact when the new magnate started his career in Big Business by arriving at the office one hour late.

What made it worse, considered Mr. Guilfogle, was that this Wrenn had a higher average of punctuality than any one else in the office, which proved that he knew better. Worst of all, the Guilfogle family eggs had not been scrambled right at breakfast; they had been anemic. Mr. Guilfogle punched the buzzer and set his face toward the door, with a scowl prepared.

Mr. Wrenn seemed weary, and not so intimidated as usual.

“Look here, Wrenn; you were just about two hours late this morning. What do you think this office is? A club or a reading-room for hoboes? Ever occur to you we’d like to have you favor us with a call now and then so’s we can learn how you’re getting along at golf or whatever you’re doing these days?”

There was a sample baby-shoe office pin-cushion on the manager’s desk. Mr. Wrenn eyed this, and said nothing. The manager:

“Hear what I said? D’yuh think I’m talking to give my throat exercise?”

Mr. Wrenn was stubborn. “I couldn’t help it.”

“Couldn’t help —! And you call that an explanation! I know just exactly what you’re thinking, Wrenn; you’re thinking that because I’ve let you have a lot of chances to really work into the business lately you’re necessary to us, and not simply an expense —”

“Oh no, Mr. Guilfogle; honest, I didn’t think —”

“Well, hang it, man, you want to think. What do you suppose we pay you a salary for? And just let me tell you, Wrenn, right here and now, that if you can’t condescend to spare us some of your valuable time, now and then, we can good and plenty get along without you.”

An old tale, oft told and never believed; but it interested Mr. Wrenn just now.

“I’m real glad you can get along without me. I’ve just inherited a big wad of money! I think I’ll resign! Right now!”

Whether he or Mr. Mortimer R. Guilfogle was the more aghast at hearing him bawl this no one knows. The manager was so worried at the thought of breaking in a new man that his eye-glasses slipped off his poor perspiring nose. He begged, in sudden tones of old friendship:

“Why, you can’t be thinking of leaving us! Why, we expect to make a big man of you, Wrenn. I was joking about firing you. You ought to know that, after the talk we had at Mouquin’s the other night. You can’t be thinking of leaving us! There’s no end of possibilities here.”

“Sorry,” said the dogged soldier of dreams.

“Why —” wailed that hurt and astonished victim of ingratitude, Mr. Guilfogle.

“I’ll leave the middle of June. That’s plenty of notice,” chirruped Mr. Wrenn.

At five that evening Mr. Wrenn dashed up to the Brass-button Man at his station before the Nickelorion, crying:

“Say! You come from Ireland, don’t you?”

“Now what would you think? Me — oh no; I’m a Chinaman from Oshkosh!”

“No, honest, straight, tell me. I’ve got a chance to travel. What d’yuh think of that? Ain’t it great! And I’m going right away. What I wanted to ask you was, what’s the best place in Ireland to see?”

“Donegal, o’ course. I was born there.”

Hauling from his pocket a pencil and a worn envelope, Mr. Wrenn joyously added the new point of interest to a list ranging from Delagoa Bay to Denver.

He skipped up-town, looking at the stars. He shouted as he saw the stacks of a big Cunarder bulking up at the end of Fourteenth Street. He stopped to chuckle over a lithograph of the Parthenon at the window of a Greek bootblack’s stand. Stars — steamer — temples, all these were his. He owned them now. He was free.

Lee Theresa sat waiting for him in the basement livingroom till ten-thirty while he was flirting with trainboards at the Grand Central. Then she went to bed, and, though he knew it not, that prince of wealthy suitors, Mr. Wrenn, had entirely lost the heart and hand of Miss Zapp of the F. F. V.

He stood before the manager’s god-like desk on June 14, 1910. Sadly:

“Good-by, Mr. Guilfogle. Leaving to-day. I wish — Gee! I wish I could tell you, you know — about how much I appreciate —”

The manager moved a wire basket of carbon copies of letters from the left side of his desk to the right, staring at them thoughtfully; rearranged his pencils in a pile before his ink-well; glanced at the point of an indelible pencil with a manner of startled examination; tapped his desk-blotter with his knuckles; then raised his eyes. He studied Mr. Wrenn, smiled, put on the look he used when inviting him out for a drink. Mr. Guilfogle was essentially an honest fellow, harshened by The Job; a well-satisfied victim, with the imagination clean gone out of him, so that he took follow-up letters and the celerity of office-boys as the only serious things in the world. He was strong, alive, not at all a bad chap, merely efficient.

“Well, Wrenn, I suppose there’s no use of rubbing it in. Course you know what I think about the whole thing. It strikes me you’re a fool to leave a good job. But, after all, that’s your business, not ours. We like you, and when you get tired of being just a bum, why, come back; we’ll always try to have a job open for you. Meanwhile I hope you’ll have a mighty good time, old man. Where you going? When d’yuh start out?”

“Why, first I’m going to just kind of wander round generally. Lots of things I’d like to do. I think I’ll get away real soon now. . . . Thank you awfully, Mr. Guilfogle, for keeping a place open for me. Course I prob’ly won’t need it, but gee! I sure do appreciate it.”

“Say, I don’t believe you’re so plumb crazy about leaving us, after all, now that the cards are all dole out. Straight now, are you?”

“Yes, sir, it does make me feel a little blue — been here so long. But it’ll be awful good to get out at sea.”

“Yuh, I know, Wrenn. I’d like to go traveling myself — I suppose you fellows think I wouldn’t care to go bumming around like you do and never have to worry about how the firm’s going to break even. But — Well, good-by, old man, and don’t forget us. Drop me a line now and then and let me know how you’re getting along. Oh say, if you happen to see any novelties that look good let us hear about them. But drop me a line, anyway. We’ll always be glad to hear from you. Well, good-by and good luck. Sure and drop me a line.”

In the corner which had been his home for eight years Mr. Wrenn could not devise any new and yet more improved arrangement of the wire baskets and clips and desk reminders, so he cleaned a pen, blew some gray eraser-dust from under his iron ink-well standard, and decided that his desk was in order; reflecting:

He’d been there a long time. Now he could never come back to it, no matter how much he wanted to. . . . How good the manager had been to him. Gee! he hadn’t appreciated how considerut Guilfogle was!

He started down the corridor on a round of farewells to the boys. “Too bad he hadn’t never got better acquainted with them, but it was too late now. Anyway, they were such fine jolly sports; they’d never miss a stupid guy like him.”

Just then he met them in the corridor, all of them except Guilfogle, headed by Rabin, the traveling salesman, and Charley Carpenter, who was bearing a box of handkerchiefs with a large green-and-crimson-paper label.

“Gov’nor Wrenn,” orated Charley, “upon this suspicious occasion we have the pleasure of showing by this small token of our esteem our ‘preciation of your untiring efforts in the investigation of Mortimer R. Gugglegiggle of the Graft Trust and —

“Say, old man, joking aside, we’re mighty sorry you’re going and — uh — well, we’d like to give you something to show we’re — uh — mighty sorry you’re going. We thought of a box of cigars, but you don’t smoke much; anyway, these han’k’chiefs’ll help to show — Three cheers for Wrenn, fellows!”

Afterward, by his desk, alone, holding the box of handkerchiefs with the resplendent red-and-green label, Mr. Wrenn began to cry.

He was lying abed at eight-thirty on a morning of late June, two weeks after leaving the Souvenir Company, deliberately hunting over his pillow for cool spots, very hot and restless in the legs and enormously depressed in the soul. He would have got up had there been anything to get up for. There was nothing, yet he felt uneasily guilty. For two weeks he had been afraid of losing, by neglect, the job he had already voluntarily given up. So there are men whom the fear of death has driven to suicide.

Nearly every morning he had driven himself from bed and had finished shaving before he was quite satisfied that he didn’t have to get to the office on time. As he wandered about during the day he remarked with frequency, “I’m scared as teacher’s pet playing hookey for the first time, like what we used to do in Parthenon.” All proper persons were at work of a week-day afternoon. What, then, was he doing walking along the street when all morality demanded his sitting at a desk at the Souvenir Company, being a little more careful, to win the divine favor of Mortimer R. Guilfogle?

He was sure that if he were already out on the Great Traveling he would be able to “push the buzzer on himself and get up his nerve.” But he did not know where to go. He had planned so many trips these years that now he couldn’t keep any one of them finally decided on for more than an hour. It rather stretched his short arms to embrace at once a gay old dream of seeing Venice and the stern civic duty of hunting abominably dangerous beasts in the Guatemala bush.

The expense bothered him, too. He had through many years so persistently saved money for the Great Traveling that he begrudged money for that Traveling itself. Indeed, he planned to spend not more than $300 of the $1,235.80 he had now accumulated, on his first venture, during which he hoped to learn the trade of wandering.

He was always influenced by a sentence he had read somewhere about “one of those globe-trotters you meet carrying a monkey-wrench in Calcutta, then in raiment and a monocle at the Athenaeum.” He would learn some Kiplingy trade that would teach him the use of astonishingly technical tools, also daring and the location of smugglers’ haunts, copra islands, and whaling-stations with curious names.

He pictured himself shipping as third engineer at the Manihiki Islands or engaged for taking moving pictures of an aeroplane flight in Algiers. He had to get away from Zappism. He had to be out on the iron seas, where the battle-ships and liners went by like a marching military band. But he couldn’t get started.

Once beyond Sandy Hook, he would immediately know all about engines and fighting. It would help, he was certain, to be shanghaied. But no matter how wistfully, no matter how late at night he timorously forced himself to loiter among unwashed English stokers on West Street, he couldn’t get himself molested except by glib persons wishing ten cents “for a place to sleep.”

When he had dallied through breakfast that particular morning he sat about. Once he had pictured sitting about reading travel-books as a perfect occupation. But it concealed no exciting little surprises when he could be a Sunday loafer on any plain Monday. Furthermore, Goaty never made his bed till noon, and the gray-and-brown-patched coverlet seemed to trail all about the disordered room.

Midway in a paragraph he rose, threw One Hundred Ways to See California on the tumbled bed, and ran away from Our Mr. Wrenn. But Our Mr. Wrenn pursued him along the wharves, where the sun glared on oily water. He had seen the wharves twelve times that fortnight. In fact, he even cried viciously that “he had seen too blame much of the blame wharves.”

Early in the afternoon he went to a moving-picture show, but the first sight of the white giant figures bulking against the gray background was wearily unreal; and when the inevitable large-eyed black-braided Indian maiden met the canonical cow-puncher he threshed about in his seat, was irritated by the nervous click of the machine and the hot stuffiness of the room, and ran away just at the exciting moment when the Indian chief dashed into camp and summoned his braves to the war-path.

Perhaps he could hide from thought at home.

As he came into his room he stood at gaze like a kitten of good family beholding a mangy mongrel asleep in its pink basket. For on his bed was Mrs. Zapp, her rotund curves stretching behind her large flat feet, whose soles were toward him. She was noisily somnolent; her stays creaked regularly as she breathed, except when she moved slightly and groaned.

Guiltily he tiptoed down-stairs and went snuffling along the dusty unvaried brick side streets, wondering where in all New York he could go. He read minutely a placard advertising an excursion to the Catskills, to start that evening. For an exhilarated moment he resolved to go, but —” oh, there was a lot of them rich society folks up there.” He bought a morning American and, sitting in Union Square, gravely studied the humorous drawings.

He casually noticed the “Help Wanted” advertisements.

They suggested an uninteresting idea that somehow he might find it economical to go venturing as a waiter or farm-hand.

And so he came to the gate of paradise:

MEN WANTED. Free passage on cattle-boats to Liverpool feeding cattle. Low fee. Easy work. Fast boats. Apply International and Atlantic Employment Bureau — Greenwich Street.

“Gee!” he cried, “I guess Providence has picked out my first hike for me.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/wrenn/chapter2.html

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