Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 4

He Becomes the Great Little Bill Wrenn

When the Merian was three days out from Portland the frightened cattleman stiff known as “Wrennie” wanted to die, for he was now sure that the smell of the fo’c’sle, in which he was lying on a thin mattress of straw covered with damp gunny-sacking, both could and would become daily a thicker smell, a stronger smell, a smell increasingly diverse and deadly.

Though it was so late as eight bells of the evening, Pete, the tough factory hand, and Tim, the down-and-out hatter, were still playing seven-up at the dirty fo’c’sle table, while McGarver, under-boss of the Morris cattle gang, lay in his berth, heavily studying the game and blowing sulphurous fumes of Lunch Pail Plug Cut tobacco up toward Wrennie.

Pete, the tough, was very evil. He sneered. He stole. He bullied. He was a drunkard and a person without cleanliness of speech. Tim, the hatter, was a loud-talking weakling, under Pete’s domination. Tim wore a dirty rubber collar without a tie, and his soul was like his neckware.

McGarver, the under-boss, was a good shepherd among the men, though he had recently lost the head foremanship by a spree complicated with language and violence. He looked like one of the Merian bulls, with broad short neck and short curly hair above a thick-skinned deeply wrinkled low forehead. He never undressed, but was always seen, as now, in heavy shoes and blue-gray woolen socks tucked over the bottoms of his overalls. He was gruff and kind and tyrannical and honest.

Wrennie shook and drew his breath sharply as the foghorn yawped out its “Whawn-n-n-n” again, reminding him that they were still in the Bank fog; that at any moment they were likely to be stunned by a heart-stopping crash as some liner’s bow burst through the fo’c’sle’s walls in a collision. Bow-plates buckling in and shredding, the in-thrust of an enormous black bow, water flooding in, cries and — However, the horn did at least show that They were awake up there on the bridge to steer him through the fog; and weren’t They experienced seamen? Hadn’t They made this trip ever so many times and never got killed? Wouldn’t They take all sorts of pains on Their own account as well as on his?

But — just the same, would he really ever get to England alive? And if he did, would he have to go on holding his breath in terror for nine more days? Would the fo’c’sle always keep heaving up — up — up, like this, then down — down — down, as though it were going to sink?

“How do yuh like de fog-horn, Wrennie?”

Pete, the tough, spit the question up at him from a corner of his mouth. “Hope we don’t run into no ships.”

He winked at Tim, the weakling hatter, who took the cue and mourned:

“I’m kinda afraid we’re going to, ain’t you, Pete? The mate was telling me he was scared we would.”

“Sures’ t’ing you know. Hey, Wrennie, wait till youse have to beat it down-stairs and tie up a bull in a storm. Hully gee! Youse’ll last quick on de game, Birdie!”

“Oh, shut up,” snapped Wrennie’s friend Morton.

But Morton was seasick; and Pete, not heeding him, outlined other dangers which he was happily sure were threatening them. Wrennie shivered to hear that the “grub ‘d git worse.” He writhed under Pete’s loud questions about his loss, in some cattle-pen, of the gray-and-scarlet sweater-jacket which he had proudly and gaily purchased in New York for his work on the ship. And the card-players assured him that his suit-case, which he had intrusted to the Croac ship’s carpenter, would probably be stolen by “Satan.”

Satan! Wrennie shuddered still more. For Satan, the gaunt-jawed hook-nosed rail-faced head foreman, diabolically smiling when angry, sardonically sneering when calm, was a lean human whip-lash. Pete sniggered. He dilated upon Satan’s wrath at Wrennie for not “coming across” with ten dollars for a bribe as he, Pete, had done.

(He lied, of course. And his words have not been given literally. They were not beautiful words.)

McGarver, the straw-boss, would always lie awake to enjoy a good brisk indecent story, but he liked Wrennie’s admiration of him, so, lunging with his bull-like head out of his berth, he snorted:

“Hey, you, Pete, it’s time to pound your ear. Cut it out.”

Wrennie called down, sternly, “I ain’t no theological student, Pete, and I don’t mind profanity, but I wish you wouldn’t talk like a garbage-scow.”

“Hey, Poicy, did yuh bring your dictionary?” Pete bellowed to Tim, two feet distant from him. To Wrennie, “Say, Gladys, ain’t you afraid one of them long woids like, t’eological, will turn around and bite you right on the wrist?”

“Dry up!” irritatedly snapped a Canadian.

“Aw, cut it out, you — ” groaned another.

“Shut up,” added McGarver, the straw-boss. “Both of you.” Raging: “Gwan to bed, Pete, or I’ll beat your block clean off. I mean it, see? Hear me?

Yes, Pete heard him. Doubtless the first officer on the bridge heard, too, and perhaps the inhabitants of Newfoundland. But Pete took his time in scratching the back of his neck and stretching before he crawled into his berth. For half an hour he talked softly to Tim, for Wrennie’s benefit, stating his belief that Satan, the head boss, had once thrown overboard a Jew much like Wrennie, and was likely thus to serve Wrennie, too. Tim pictured the result when, after the capsizing of the steamer which would undoubtedly occur if this long sickening motion kept up, Wrennie had to take to a boat with Satan.

The fingers of Wrennie curled into shape for strangling some one.

When Pete was asleep he worried off into thin slumber.

Then, there was Satan, the head boss, jerking him out of his berth, stirring his cramped joints to another dawn of drudgery — two hours of work and two of waiting before the daily eight-o’clock insult called breakfast. He tugged on his shoes, marveling at Mr. Wrenn’s really being there, at his sitting in cramped stoop on the side of a berth in a dark filthy place that went up and down like a freight elevator, subject to the orders of persons whom he did not in the least like.

Through the damp gray sea-air he staggered hungrily along the gangway to the hatch amidships, and trembled down the iron ladder to McGarver’s crew ‘tween-decks.

First, watering the steers. Sickened by walking backward with pails of water he carried till he could see and think of nothing in the world save the water-butt, the puddle in front of it, and the cattlemen mercilessly dipping out pails there, through centuries that would never end. How those steers did drink!

McGarver’s favorite bull, which he called “the Grenadier,” took ten pails and still persisted in leering with dripping gray mouth beyond the headboard, trying to reach more. As Wrennie was carrying a pail to the heifers beyond, the Grenadier’s horn caught and tore his overalls. The boat lurched. The pail whirled out of his hand. He grasped an iron stanchion and kicked the Grenadier in the jaw till the steer backed off, a reformed character.

McGarver cheered, for such kicks were a rule of the game.

“Good work,” ironically remarked Tim, the weakling hatter.

“You go to hell,” snapped Wrennie, and Tim looked much more respectful.

But Wrennie lost this credit before they had finished feeding out the hay, for he grew too dizzy to resent Tim’s remarks.

Straining to pitch forkfuls into the pens while the boat rolled, slopping along the wet gangway, down by the bunkers of coal, where the heat seemed a close-wound choking shroud and the darkness was made only a little pale by light coming through dust-caked port-holes, he sneezed and coughed and grunted till he was exhausted. The floating bits of hay-dust were a thousand impish hands with poisoned nails scratching at the roof of his mouth. His skin prickled all over. He constantly discovered new and aching muscles. But he wabbled on until he finished the work, fifteen minutes after Tim had given out.

He crawled up to the main deck and huddled in the shelter of a pile of hay-bales where Pete was declaring to Tim and the rest that Satan “couldn’t never get nothing on him.”

Morton broke into Pete’s publicity with the question, “Say, is it straight what they say, Pete, that you’re the guy that owns the Leyland Line and that’s why you know so much more than the rest of us poor lollops? Watson, the needle, quick!” [Applause and laughter.]

Wrennie felt personally grateful to Morton for this, but he went up to the aft top deck, where he could lie alone on a pile of tarpaulins. He made himself observe the sea which, as Kipling and Jack London had specifically promised him in their stories, surrounded him, everywhere shining free; but he glanced at it only once. To the north was a liner bound for home.

Home! Gee! That was rubbing it in! While at work, whether he was sick or not, he could forget — things. But the liner, fleeting on with bright ease, made the cattle-boat seem about as romantic as Mrs. Zapp’s kitchen sink.

Why, he wondered —“why had he been a chump? Him a wanderer? No; he was a hired man on a sea-going dairy-farm. Well, he’d get onto this confounded job before he was through with it, but then — gee! back to God’s Country!”

While the Merian, eleven days out, pleasantly rocked through the Irish Sea, with the moon revealing the coast of Anglesey, one Bill Wrenn lay on the after-deck, condescending to the heavens. It was so warm that they did not need to sleep below, and half a dozen of the cattlemen had brought their mattresses up on deck. Beside Bill Wrenn lay the man who had given him that name — Tim, the hatter, who had become weakly alarmed and admiring as Wrennie learned to rise feeling like a boy in early vacation-time, and to find shouting exhilaration in sending a forkful of hay fifteen good feet.

Morton, who lay near by, had also adopted the name “Bill Wrenn.” Most of the trip Morton had discussed Pete and Tim instead of the fact that “things is curious.” Mr. Wrenn had been jealous at first, but when he learned from Morton the theory that even a Pete was a “victim of ‘vironment” he went out for knowing him quite systematically.

To McGarver he had been “Bill Wrenn” since the fifth day, when he had kept a hay-bale from slipping back into the hold on the boss’s head. Satan and Pete still called him “Wrennie,” but he was not thinking about them just now with Tim listening admiringly to his observations on socialism.

Tim fell asleep. Bill Wrenn lay quiet and let memory color the sky above him. He recalled the gardens of water which had flowered in foam for him, strange ships and nomadic gulls, and the schools of sleekly black porpoises that, for him, had whisked through violet waves. Most of all, he brought back the yesterday’s long excitement and delight of seeing the Irish coast hills — his first foreign land — whose faint sky fresco had seemed magical with the elfin lore of Ireland, a country that had ever been to him the haunt not of potatoes and politicians, but of fays. He had wanted fays. They were not common on the asphalt of West Sixteenth Street. But now he had seen them beckoning in Wanderland.

He was falling asleep under the dancing dome of the sky, a happy Mr. Wrenn, when he was aroused as a furious Bill, the cattleman. Pete was clogging near by, singing hoarsely, “Dey was a skoit and ‘er name was Goity.”

“You shut up!” commanded Bill Wrenn.

“Say, be careful!” the awakened Tim implored of him. Pete snorted: “Who says to ‘shut up,’ hey? Who was it, Satan?”

From the capstan, where he was still smoking, the head foreman muttered: “What’s the odds? The little man won’t say it again.”

Pete stood by Bill Wrenn’s mattress. “Who said ‘shut up’?” sounded ominously.

Bill popped out of bed with what he regarded as a vicious fighting-crouch. For he was too sleepy to be afraid. “I did! What you going to do about it?” More mildly, as a fear of his own courage began to form, “I want to sleep.”

“Oh! You want to sleep. Little mollycoddle wants to sleep, does he? Come here!”

The tough grabbed at Bill’s shirt-collar across the mattress. Bill ducked, stuck out his arm wildly, and struck Pete, half by accident. Roaring, Pete bunted him, and he went down, with Pete kneeling on his stomach and pounding him.

Morton and honest McGarver, the straw-boss, sprang to drag off Pete, while Satan, the panther, with the first interest they had ever seen in his eyes, snarled: “Let ’em fight fair. Rounds. You’re a’ right, Bill.”

“Right,” commended Morton.

Armored with Satan’s praise, firm but fearful in his rubber sneakers, surprised and shocked to find himself here doing this, Bill Wrenn squared at the rowdy. The moon touched sadly the lightly sketched Anglesey coast and the rippling wake, but Bill Wrenn, oblivious of dream moon and headland, faced his fellow-bruiser.

They circled. Pete stuck out his foot gently. Morton sprang in, bawling furiously, “None o’ them rough-and-tumble tricks.”

“Right-o,” added McGarver.

Pete scowled. He was left powerless. He puffed and grew dizzy as Bill Wrenn danced delicately about him, for he could do nothing without back-street tactics. He did bloody the nose of Bill and pummel his ribs, but many cigarettes and much whisky told, and he was ready to laugh foolishly and make peace when, at the end of the sixth round, he felt Bill’s neat little fist in a straight — and entirely accidental — rip to the point of his jaw.

Pete sent his opponent spinning with a back-hander which awoke all the cruelty of the terrible Bill. Silently Bill Wrenn plunged in with a smash! smash! smash! like a murderous savage, using every grain of his strength.

Let us turn from the lamentable luck of Pete. He had now got the idea that his supposed victim could really fight. Dismayed, shocked, disgusted, he stumbled and sought to flee, and was sent flat.

This time it was the great little Bill who had to be dragged off. McGarver held him, kicking and yammering, his mild mustache bristling like a battling cat’s, till the next round, when Pete was knocked out by a clumsy whirlwind of fists.

He lay on the deck, with Bill standing over him and demanding, “What’s my name, heh?

“I t’ink it’s Bill now, all right, Wrennie, old hoss — Bill, old hoss,” groaned Pete.

He was permitted to sneak off into oblivion.

Bill Wrenn went below. In the dark passage by the fidley he fell to tremorous weeping. But the brackish hydrant water that stopped his nose-bleed saved him from hysterics. He climbed to the top deck, and now he could again see his brother pilgrim, the moon.

The stiffs and bosses were talking excitedly of the fight. Tim rushed up to gurgle: “Great, Bill, old man! You done just what I’d ‘a’ done if he’d cussed me. I told you Pete was a bluffer.”

“Git out,” said Satan.

Tim fled.

Morton came up, looked at Bill Wrenn, pounded him on the shoulder, and went off to his mattress. The other stiffs slouched away, but McGarver and Satan were still discussing the fight.

Snuggling on the hard black pile of tarpaulins, Bill talked to them, warmed to them, and became Mr. Wrenn. He announced his determination to wander adown every shining road of Europe.

“Nice work.” “Sure.” “You’ll make a snappy little ole globe-trotter.” “Sure; ought to be able to get the slickest kind of grub for four bits a day.” “Nice work,” Satan interjected from time to time, with smooth irony. “Sure. Go ahead. Like to hear your plans.”

McGarver broke in: “Cut that out, Marvin. You’re a ‘Satan’ all right. Quit your kidding the little man. He’s all right. And he done fine on the job last three-four days.”

Lying on his mattress, Bill stared at the network of the ratlines against the brilliant sky. The crisscross lines made him think of the ruled order-blanks of the Souvenir Company.

“Gee!” he mused, “I’d like to know if Jake is handling my work the way we — they — like it. I’d like to see the old office again, and Charley Carpenter, just for a couple of minutes. Gee! I wish they could have seen me put it all over Pete to-night! That’s what I’m going to do to the blooming Englishmen if they don’t like me.”

The S.S. Merian panted softly beside the landing-stage at Birkenhead, Liverpool’s Jersey City, resting in the sunshine after her voyage, while the cattle were unloaded. They had encountered fog-banks at the mouth of the Mersey River. Mr. Wrenn had ecstatically watched the shores of England — England! — ride at him through the fog, and had panted over the lines of English villas among the dunes. It was like a dream, yet the shore had such amazingly safe solid colors, real red and green and yellow, when contrasted with the fog-wet deck unearthily glancing with mist-lights.

Now he was seeing his first foreign city, and to Morton, stolidly curious beside him, he could say nothing save “Gee!” With church-tower and swarthy dome behind dome, Liverpool lay across the Mersey. Up through the Liverpool streets that ran down to the river, as though through peep-holes slashed straight back into the Middle Ages, his vision plunged, and it wandered unchecked through each street while he hummed:

“Free, free, in Eu-ro-pee, that’s me!

The cattlemen were called to help unload the remaining hay. They made a game of it. Even Satan smiled, even the Jewish elders were lightly affable as they made pretendedly fierce gestures at the squat patient hay-bales. Tim, the hatter, danced a limber foolish jig upon the deck, and McGarver bellowed, “The bon-nee bon-nee banks of Loch Lo-o-o-o-mond.”

The crowd bawled: “Come on, Bill Wrenn; your turn. Hustle up with that bale, Pete, or we’ll sic Bill on you.”

Bill Wrenn, standing very dignified, piped: “I’m Colonel Armour. I own all these cattle, ‘cept the Morris uns, see? Gotta do what I say, savvy? Tim, walk on your ear.”

The hatter laid his head on the deck and waved his anemic legs in accordance with directions from Colonel Armour (late Wrenn).

The hay was off. The Merian tooted and headed across the Mersey to the Huskinson Dock, in Liverpool, while the cattlemen played tag about the deck. Whooping and laughing, they made last splashy toilets at the water-butts, dragged out their luggage, and descended to the dock-house.

As the cattlemen passed Bill Wrenn and Morton, shouting affectionate good-bys in English or courteous Yiddish, Bill commented profanely to Morton on the fact that the solid stone floor of the great shed seemed to have enough sea-motion to “make a guy sick.” It was nearly his last utterance as Bill Wrenn. He became Mr. Wrenn, absolute Mr. Wrenn, on the street, as he saw a real English bobby, a real English carter, and the sign, “Cocoa House. Tea Id.”

England!

“Now for some real grub!” cried Morton. “No more scouse and willow-leaf tea.”

Stretching out their legs under a table glorified with toasted Sally Lunns and Melton Mowbrays, served by a waitress who said “Thank you“ with a rising inflection, they gazed at the line of mirrors running Britishly all around the room over the long lounge seat, and smiled with the triumphant content which comes to him whose hunger for dreams and hunger for meat-pies are satisfied together.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/wrenn/chapter4.html

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