Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 3

He Starts for the Land of Elsewhere

The International and Atlantic Employment Bureau is a long dirty room with the plaster cracked like the outlines on a map, hung with steamship posters and the laws of New York regarding employment offices, which are regarded as humorous by the proprietor, M. Baraieff, a short slender ejaculatory person with a nervous black beard, lively blandness, and a knowledge of all the incorrect usages of nine languages. Mr. Wrenn edged into this junk-heap of nationalities with interested wonder. M. Baraieff rubbed his smooth wicked hands together and bowed a number of times.

Confidentially leaning across the counter, Mr. Wrenn murmured: “Say, I read your ad. about wanting cattlemen. I want to make a trip to Europe. How —?”

“Yes, yes, yes, yes, Mistaire. I feex you up right away. Ten dollars pleas-s-s-s.”

“Well, what does that entitle me to?”

“I tole you I feex you up. Ha! Ha! I know it; you are a gentleman; you want a nice leetle trip on Europe. Sure. I feex you right up. I send you off on a nice easy cattleboat where you won’t have to work much hardly any. Right away it goes. Ten dollars pleas-s-s-s.”

“But when does the boat start? Where does it start from?” Mr. Wrenn was a bit confused. He had never met a man who grimaced so politely and so rapidly.

“Next Tuesday I send you right off.”

Mr. Wrenn regretfully exchanged ten dollars for a card informing Trubiggs, Atlantic Avenue, Boston, that Mr. “Ren” was to be “ship 1st poss. catel boat right away and charge my acct. fee paid Baraieff.” Brightly declaring “I geef you a fine ship,” M. Baraieff added, on the margin of the card, in copper-plate script, “Best ship, easy work.” He caroled, “Come early next Tuesday morning, “and bowed out Mr. Wrenn like a Parisian shopkeeper. The row of waiting servant-girls curtsied as though they were a hedge swayed by the wind, while Mr. Wrenn self-consciously hurried to get past them.

He was too excited to worry over the patient and quiet suffering with which Mrs. Zapp heard the announcement that he was going. That Theresa laughed at him for a cattleman, while Goaty, in the kitchen, audibly observed that “nobody but a Yankee would travel in a pig-pen, “merely increased his joy in moving his belongings to a storage warehouse.

Tuesday morning, clad in a sweater-jacket, tennis-shoes, an old felt hat, a khaki shirt and corduroys, carrying a suit-case packed to bursting with clothes and Baedekers, with one hundred and fifty dollars in express-company drafts craftily concealed, he dashed down to Baraieff’s hole. Though it was only eight-thirty, he was afraid he was going to be late.

Till 2 P.M. he sat waiting, then was sent to the Joy Steamship Line wharf with a ticket to Boston and a letter to Trubiggs’s shipping-office: “Give bearer Ren as per inclosed receet one trip England catel boat charge my acct. SYLVESTRE BARAIEFF, N. Y.”

Standing on the hurricane-deck of the Joy Line boat, with his suit-case guardedly beside him, he crooned to himself tuneless chants with the refrain, “Free, free, out to sea. Free, free, that’s me!“ He had persuaded himself that there was practically no danger of the boat’s sinking or catching fire. Anyway, he just wasn’t going to be scared. As the steamer trudged up East River he watched the late afternoon sun brighten the Manhattan factories and make soft the stretches of Westchester fields. (Of course, he “thrilled.”)

He had no state-room, but was entitled to a place in a twelve-berth room in the hold. Here large farmers without their shoes were grumpily talking all at once, so he returned to the deck; and the rest of the night, while the other passengers snored, he sat modestly on a canvas stool, unblinkingly gloating over a sea-fabric of frosty blue that was shot through with golden threads when they passed lighthouses or ships. At dawn he was weary, peppery-eyed, but he viewed the flooding light with approval.

At last, Boston.

The front part of the shipping-office on Atlantic Avenue was a glass-inclosed room littered with chairs, piles of circulars, old pictures of Cunarders, older calendars, and directories to be ranked as antiques. In the midst of these remains a red-headed Yankee of forty, smoking a Pittsburg stogie, sat tilted back in a kitchen chair, reading the Boston American. Mr. Wrenn delivered M. Baraieff’s letter and stood waiting, holding his suit-case, ready to skip out and go aboard a cattle-boat immediately.

The shipping-agent glanced through the letter, then snapped:

“Bryff’s crazy. Always sends ’em too early. Wrenn, you ought to come to me first. What j’yuh go to that Jew first for? Here he goes and sends you a day late — or couple days too early. ‘F you’d got here last night I could ‘ve sent you off this morning on a Dominion Line boat. All I got now is a Leyland boat that starts from Portland Saturday. Le’s see; this is Wednesday. Thursday, Friday — you’ll have to wait three days. Now you want me to fix you up, don’t you? I might not be able to get you off till a week from now, but you’d like to get off on a good boat Saturday instead, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh yes; I would. I—”

“Well, I’ll try to fix it. You can see for yourself; boats ain’t leaving every minute just to please Bryff. And it’s the busy season. Bunches of rah-rah boys wanting to cross, and Canadians wanting to get back to England, and Jews beating it to Poland — to sling bombs at the Czar, I guess. And lemme tell you, them Jews is all right. They’re willing to pay for a man’s time and trouble in getting ’em fixed up, and so —”

With dignity Mr. William Wrenn stated, “Of course I’ll be glad to — uh — make it worth your while.”

“I thought you was a gentleman. Hey, Al! Al!“ An underfed boy with few teeth, dusty and grown out of his trousers, appeared. “Clear off a chair for the gentleman. Stick that valise on top my desk. . . . Sit down, Mr. Wrenn. You see, it’s like this: I’ll tell you in confidence, you understand. This letter from Bryff ain’t worth the paper it’s written on. He ain’t got any right to be sending out men for cattle-boats. Me, I’m running that. I deal direct with all the Boston and Portland lines. If you don’t believe it just go out in the back room and ask any of the cattlemen out there.”

“Yes, I see,” Mr. Wrenn observed, as though he were ill, and toed an old almanac about the floor. “Uh — Mr. — Trubiggs, is it?”

“Yump. Yump, my boy. Trubiggs. Tru by name and true by nature. Heh?”

This last was said quite without conviction. It was evidently a joke which had come down from earlier years. Mr. Wrenn ignored it and declared, as stoutly as he could:

“You see, Mr. Trubiggs, I’d be willing to pay you —”

“I’ll tell you just how it is, Mr. Wrenn. I ain’t one of these Sheeny employment bureaus; I’m an American; I like to look out for Americans. Even if you didn’t come to me first I’ll watch out for your interests, same’s if they was mine. Now, do you want to get fixed up with a nice fast boat that leaves Portland next Saturday, just a couple of days’ wait?”

“Oh yes, I do, Mr. Trubiggs.”

“Well, my list is really full — men waiting, too — but if it ‘d be worth five dollars to you to —”

“Here’s the five dollars.”

The shipping-agent was disgusted. He had estimated from Mr. Wrenn’s cheap sweater-jacket and tennis-shoes that he would be able to squeeze out only three or four dollars, and here he might have made ten. More in sorrow than in anger:

“Of course you understand I may have a lot of trouble working you in on the next boat, you coming as late as this. Course five dollars is less ‘n what I usually get.” He contemptuously tossed the bill on his desk. “If you want me to slip a little something extra to the agents —”

Mr. Wrenn was too head-achy to be customarily timid. “Let’s see that. Did I give you only five dollars?” Receiving the bill, he folded it with much primness, tucked it into the pocket of his shirt, and remarked:

“Now, you said you’d fix me up for five dollars. Besides, that letter from Baraieff is a form with your name printed on it; so I know you do business with him right along. If five dollars ain’t enough, why, then you can just go to hell, Mr. Trubiggs; yes, sir, that’s what you can do. I’m just getting tired of monkeying around. If five is enough I’ll give this back to you Friday, when you send me off to Portland, if you give me a receipt. There!” He almost snarled, so weary and discouraged was he.

Now, Trubiggs was a warm-hearted rogue, and he liked the society of what he called “white people.” He laughed, poked a Pittsburg stogie at Mr. Wrenn, and consented:

“All right. I’ll fix you up. Have a smoke. Pay me the five Friday, or pay it to my foreman when he puts you on the cattle-boat. I don’t care a rap which. You’re all right. Can’t bluff you, eh?”

And, further bluffing Mr. Wrenn, he suggested to him a lodging-house for his two nights in Boston. “Tell the clerk that red-headed Trubiggs sent you, and he’ll give you the best in the house. Tell him you’re a friend of mine.”

When Mr. Wrenn had gone Mr. Trubiggs remarked to some one, by telephone, “‘Nother sucker coming, Blaugeld. Now don’t try to do me out of my bit or I’ll cap for some other joint, understand? Huh? Yuh, stick him for a thirty-five-cent bed. S’ long.”

The caravan of Trubiggs’s cattlemen who left for Portland by night steamer, Friday, was headed by a bulky-shouldered boss, who wore no coat and whose corduroy vest swung cheerfully open. A motley troupe were the cattlemen — Jews with small trunks, large imitation-leather valises and assorted bundles, a stolid prophet-bearded procession of weary men in tattered derbies and sweat-shop clothes.

There were Englishmen with rope-bound pine chests. A lewd-mouthed American named Tim, who said he was a hatter out of work, and a loud-talking tough called Pete mingled with a straggle of hoboes.

The boss counted the group and selected his confidants for the trip to Portland — Mr. Wrenn and a youth named Morton.

Morton was a square heavy-fleshed young man with stubby hands, who, up to his eyes, was stolid and solid as a granite monument, but merry of eye and hinting friendliness in his tousled soft-brown hair. He was always wielding a pipe and artfully blowing smoke through his nostrils.

Mr. Wrenn and he smiled at each other searchingly as the Portland boat pulled out, and a wind swept straight from the Land of Elsewhere.

After dinner Morton, smoking a pipe shaped somewhat like a golf-stick head and somewhat like a toad, at the rail of the steamer, turned to Mr. Wrenn with:

“Classy bunch of cattlemen we’ve got to go with. Not! . . . My name’s Morton.”

“I’m awful glad to meet you, Mr. Morton. My name’s Wrenn.”

“Glad to be off at last, ain’t you?”

“Golly! I should say I am!

“So’m I. Been waiting for this for years. I’m a clerk for the P. R. R. in N’ York.”

“I come from New York, too.”

“So? Lived there long?”

“Uh-huh, I—” began Mr. Wrenn.

“Well, I been working for the Penn. for seven years now. Now I’ve got a vacation of three months. On me. Gives me a chance to travel a little. Got ten plunks and a second-class ticket back from Glasgow. But I’m going to see England and France just the same. Prob’ly Germany, too.”

“Second class? Why don’t you go steerage, and save?”

“Oh, got to come back like a gentleman. You know. You’re from New York, too, eh?”

“Yes, I’m with an art-novelty company on Twenty-eighth Street. I been wanting to get away for quite some time, too. . . . How are you going to travel on ten dollars?”

“Oh, work m’ way. Cinch. Always land on my feet. Not on my uppers, at that. I’m only twenty-eight, but I’ve been on my own, like the English fellow says, since I was twelve. . . . Well, how about you? Traveling or going somewhere?”

“Just traveling. I’m glad we’re going together, Mr. Morton. I don’t think most of these cattlemen are very nice. Except for the old Jews. They seem to be fine old coots. They make you think of — oh — you know — prophets and stuff. Watch ’em, over there, making tea. I suppose the steamer grub ain’t kosher. I seen one on the Joy Line saying his prayers — I suppose he was — in a kind of shawl.”

“Well, well! You don’t say so!”

Distinctly, Mr. Wrenn felt that he was one of the gentlemen who, in Kipling, stand at steamer rails exchanging observations on strange lands. He uttered, cosmopolitanly:

“Gee! Look at that sunset. Ain’t that grand!”

“Holy smoke! it sure is. I don’t see how anybody could believe in religion after looking at that.”

Shocked and confused at such a theory, yet excited at finding that Morton apparently had thoughts, Mr. Wrenn piped: “Honestly, I don’t see that at all. I don’t see how anybody could disbelieve anything after a sunset like that. Makes me believe all sorts of thing — gets me going — I imagine I’m all sorts of places — on the Nile and so on.”

“Sure! That’s just it. Everything’s so peaceful and natural. Just is. Gives the imagination enough to do, even by itself, without having to have religion.”

“Well,” reflected Mr. Wrenn, “I don’t hardly ever go to church. I don’t believe much in all them highbrow sermons that don’t come down to brass tacks — ain’t got nothing to do with real folks. But just the same, I love to go up to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Why, I get real thrilled — I hope you won’t think I’m trying to get high-browed, Mr. Morton.”

“Why, no. Cer’nly not. I understand. Gwan.”

“It gets me going when I look down the aisle at the altar and see the arches and so on. And the priests in their robes — they look so — so way up — oh, I dunno just how to say it — so kind of uplifted.”

“Sure, I know. Just the esthetic end of the game. Esthetic, you know — the beauty part of it.”

“Yuh, sure, that’s the word. ‘Sthetic, that’s what it is. Yes, ‘sthetic. But, just the same, it makes me feel’s though I believed in all sorts of things.”

“Tell you what I believe may happen, though,” exulted Morton. “This socialism, and maybe even these here International Workers of the World, may pan out as a new kind of religion. I don’t know much about it, I got to admit. But looks as though it might be that way. It’s dead certain the old political parties are just gangs — don’t stand for anything except the name. But this comrade business — good stunt. Brotherhood of man — real brotherhood. My idea of religion. One that is because it’s got to be, not just because it always has been. Yessir, me for a religion of guys working together to make things easier for each other.”

“You bet!” commented Mr. Wrenn, and they smote each other upon the shoulder and laughed together in a fine flame of shared hope.

“I wish I knew something about this socialism stuff,” mused Mr. Wrenn, with tilted head, examining the burnt-umber edges of the sunset.

“Great stuff. Not working for some lazy cuss that’s inherited the right to boss you. And international brotherhood, not just neighborhoods. New thing.”

“Gee! I surely would like that, awfully,” sighed Mr. Wrenn.

He saw the processional of world brotherhood tramp steadily through the paling sunset; saffron-vestured Mandarin marching by flax-faced Norseman and languid South Sea Islander — the diverse peoples toward whom he had always yearned.

“But I don’t care so much for some of these ranting street-corner socialists, though,” mused Morton. “The kind that holler ‘Come get saved our way or go to hell! Keep off scab guides to prosperity.’”

“Yuh, sure. Ha! ha! ha!”

“Huh! huh!”

Morton soon had another thought. “Still, same time, us guys that do the work have got to work out something for ourselves. We can’t bank on the rah-rah boys that wear eye-glasses and condescend to like us, cause they think we ain’t entirely too dirty for ’em to associate with, and all these writer guys and so on. That’s where you got to hand it to the street-corner shouters.”

“Yes, that’s so. Y’ right there, I guess, all right.”

They looked at each other and laughed again; initiated friends; tasting each other’s souls. They shared sandwiches and confessions. When the other passengers had gone to bed and the sailors on watch seemed lonely the two men were still declaring, shyly but delightedly, that “things is curious.”

In the damp discomfort of early morning the cattlemen shuffled from the steamer at Portland and were herded to a lunch-room by the boss, who cheerfully smoked his corn-cob and ejaculated to Mr. Wrenn and Morton such interesting facts as:

“Trubiggs is a lobster. You don’t want to let the bosses bluff you aboard the Merian. They’ll try to chase you in where the steers’ll gore you. The grub’ll be —”

“What grub do you get?”

“Scouse and bread. And water.”

“What’s scouse?”

“Beef stew without the beef. Oh, the grub’ll be rotten. Trubiggs is a lobster. He wouldn’t be nowhere if ‘t wa’n’t for me.”

Mr. Wrenn appreciated England’s need of roast beef, but he timidly desired not to be gored by steers, which seemed imminent, before breakfast coffee. The streets were coldly empty, and he was sleepy, and Morton was silent. At the restaurant, sitting on a high stool before a pine counter, he choked over an egg sandwich made with thick crumby slices of a bread that had no personality to it. He roved forlornly about Portland, beside the gloomy pipe-valiant Morton, fighting two fears: the company might not need all of them this trip, and he might have to wait; secondly, if he incredibly did get shipped and started for England the steers might prove dreadfully dangerous. After intense thinking he ejaculated, “Gee! it’s be bored or get gored.” Which was much too good not to tell Morton, so they laughed very much, and at ten o’clock were signed on for the trip and led, whooping, to the deck of the S.S. Merian.

Cattle were still struggling down the chutes from the dock. The dirty decks were confusingly littered with cordage and the cattlemen’s luggage. The Jewish elders stared sepulchrally at the wilderness of open hatches and rude passageways, as though they were prophesying death.

But Mr. Wrenn, standing sturdily beside his suit-case to guard it, fawned with romantic love upon the rusty iron sides of their pilgrims’ caravel; and as the Merian left the wharf with no more handkerchief-waving or tears than attends a ferry’s leaving he mumbled:

“Free, free, out to sea. Free, free, that’s me!

Then, “Gee! . . . Gee whittakers!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/wrenn/chapter3.html

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