Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 5

He Finds Much Quaint English Flavor

Big wharves, all right. England sure is queen of the sea, heh? Busy town, Liverpool. But, say, there is a quaint English flavor to these shops. . . . Look at that: ‘Red Lion Inn.’ . . . ‘Overhead trams’ they call the elevated. Real flavor, all right. English as can be. . . . I sure like to wander around these little shops. Street crowd. That’s where you get the real quaint flavor.”

Thus Morton, to the glowing Mr. Wrenn, as they turned into St. George’s Square, noting the Lipton’s Tea establishment. Sir Thomas Lipton — wasn’t he a friend of the king? Anyway, he was some kind of a lord, and he owned big society racing-yachts.

In the grandiose square Mr. Wrenn prayerfully remarked, “Gee!”

“Greek temple. Fine,” agreed Morton.

“That’s St. George’s Hall, where they have big organ concerts,” explained Mr. Wrenn. “And there’s the art-gallery across the Square, and here’s the Lime Street Station.” He had studied his Baedeker as club women study the cyclopedia. “Let’s go over and look at the trains.”

“Funny little boxes, ain’t they, Wrenn, them cars! Quaint things. What is it they call ’em — carriages? First, second, third class. . . . ”

“Just like in books.”

“Booking-office. That’s tickets. . . . Funny, eh?”

Mr. Wrenn insisted on paying for both their high teas at the cheap restaurant, timidly but earnestly. Morton was troubled. As they sat on a park bench, smoking those most Anglican cigarettes, “Dainty Bits,” Mr. Wrenn begged:

“What’s the matter, old man?”

“Oh, nothing. Just thinking.” Morton smiled artificially. He added, presently: “Well, old Bill, got to make the break. Can’t go on living on you this way.”

“Aw, thunder! You ain’t living on me. Besides, I want you to. Honest I do. We can have a whole lot better time together, Morty.”

“Yes, but — Nope; I can’t do it. Nice of you. Can’t do it, though. Got to go on my own, like the fellow says.”

“Aw, come on. Look here; it’s my money, ain’t it? I got a right to spend it the way I want to, haven’t I? Aw, come on. We’ll bum along together, and then when the money is gone we’ll get some kind of job together. Honest, I want you to.”

“Hunka. Don’t believe you’d care for the kind of knockabout jobs I’ll have to get.”

“Sure I would. Aw, come on, Morty. I—”

“You’re too level-headed to like to bum around like a fool hobo. You’d dam soon get tired of it.”

“What if I did? Morty, look here. I’ve been learning something on this trip. I’ve always wanted to just do one thing — see foreign places. Well, I want to do that just as much as ever. But there’s something that’s a whole lot more important. Somehow, I ain’t ever had many friends. Some ways you’re about the best friend I’ve ever had — you ain’t neither too highbrow or too lowbrow. And this friendship business — it means such an awful lot. It’s like what I was reading about — something by Elbert Hubbard or — thunder, I can’t remember his name, but, anyway, it’s one of those poet guys that writes for the back page of the Journal — something about a joyous adventure. That’s what being friends is. Course you understand I wouldn’t want to say this to most people, but you’ll understand how I mean. It’s — this friendship business is just like those old crusaders — you know — they’d start out on a fine morning — you know; armor shining, all that stuff. It wouldn’t make any dif. what they met as long as they was fighting together. Rainy nights with folks sneaking through the rain to get at ’em, and all sorts of things — ready for anything, long as they just stuck together. That’s the way this friendship business is, I b’lieve. Just like it said in the Journal. Yump, sure is. Gee! it’s — Chance to tell folks what you think and really get some fun out of seeing places together. And I ain’t ever done it much. Course I don’t mean to say I’ve been living off on any blooming desert island all my life, but, just the same, I’ve always been kind of alone — not knowing many folks. You know how it is in a New York rooming-house. So now — Aw, don’t slip up on me, Morty. Honestly, I don’t care what kind of work we do as long as we can stick together; I don’t care a hang if we don’t get anything better to do than scrub floors!”

Morton patted his arm and did not answer for a while. Then:

“Yuh, I know how you mean. And it’s good of you to like beating it around with me. But you sure got the exaggerated idee of me. And you’d get sick of the holes I’m likely to land in.”

There was a certain pride which seemed dreadfully to shut Mr. Wrenn out as Morton added:

“Why, man, I’m going to do all of Europe. From the Turkish jails to — oh, St. Petersburg. . . . You made good on the Merian, all right. But you do like things shipshape.”

“Oh, I’d —”

“We might stay friends if we busted up now and met in New York again. But not if you get into all sorts of bum places w —”

“Why, look here, Morty —”

“— with me. . . . However, I’ll think it over. Let’s not talk about it till to-morrow.”

“Oh, please do think it over, Morty, old man, won’t you? And to-night you’ll let me take you to a music-hall, won’t you?”

“Uh — yes,” Morton hesitated.

A music-hall — not mere vaudeville! Mr. Wrenn could hardly keep his feet on the pavement as they scampered to it and got ninepenny seats. He would have thought it absurd to pay eighteen cents for a ticket, but pence — They were out at nine-thirty. Happily tired, Mr. Wrenn suggested that they go to a temperance hotel at his expense, for he had read in Baedeker that temperance hotels were respectable — also cheap.

“No, no!” frowned Morton. “Tell you what you do, Bill. You go to a hotel, and I’ll beat it down to a lodging-house on Duke Street. . . . Juke Street! . . . Remember how I ran onto Pete on the street? He told me you could get a cot down there for fourpence.”

“Aw, come on to a hotel. Please do! It ‘d just hurt me to think of you sleeping in one of them holes. I wouldn’t sleep a bit if —”

“Say, for the love of Mike, Wrenn, get wise! Get wise, son! I’m not going to sponge on you, and that’s all there is to it.”

Bill Wrenn strode into their company for a minute, and quoth the terrible Bill:

“Well, you don’t need to get so sore about it. I don’t go around asking folks can I give ’em a meal ticket all the time, let me tell you, and when I do — Oh rats! Say, I didn’t mean to get huffy, Morty. But, doggone you, old man, you can’t shake me this easy. I sye, old top, I’m peeved; yessir. We’ll go Dutch to a lodging-house, or even walk the streets.”

“All right, sir; all right. I’ll take you up on that. We’ll sleep in an areaway some place.”

They walked to the outskirts of Liverpool, questing the desirable dark alley. Awed by the solid quietude and semigrandeur of the large private estates, through narrow streets where dim trees leaned over high walls whose long silent stretches were broken only by mysterious little doors, they tramped bashfully, inspecting, but always rejecting, nooks by lodge gates.

They came to a stone church with a porch easily reached from the street, a large and airy stone porch, just suited, Morton declared, “to a couple of hoboes like us. If a bobby butts in, why, we’ll just slide under them seats. Then the bobby can go soak his head.”

Mr. Wrenn had never so far defied society as to steal a place for sleeping. He felt very uneasy, like a man left naked on the street by robbers, as he rolled up his coat for a pillow and removed his shoes in a place that was perfectly open to the street. The paved floor was cold to his bare feet, and, as he tried to go to sleep, it kept getting colder and colder to his back. Reaching out his hand, he fretfully rubbed the cracks between stones. He scowled up at the ceiling of the porch. He couldn’t bear to look out through the door, for it framed the vicar’s house, with lamplight bodying forth latticed windows, suggesting soft beds and laughter and comfortable books. All the while his chilled back was aching in new places.

He sprang up, put on his shoes, and paced the churchyard. It seemed a great waste of educational advantages not to study the tower of this foreign church, but he thought much more about his aching shoulder-blades.

Morton came from the porch stiff but grinning. “Didn’t like it much, eh, Bill? Afraid you wouldn’t. Must say I didn’t either, though. Well, come on. Let’s beat it around and see if we can’t find a better place.”

In a vacant lot they discovered a pile of hay. Mr. Wrenn hardly winced at the hearty slap Morton gave his back, and he pronounced, “Some Waldorf–Astoria, that stack!” as they sneaked into the lot. They had laid loving hands upon the hay, remarking, “Well, I guess!“ when they heard from a low stable at the very back of the lot:

“I say, you chaps, what are you doing there?”

A reflective carter, who had been twisting two straws, ambled out of the shadow of the stable and prepared to do battle.

“Say, old man, can’t we sleep in your hay just to-night?” argued Morton. “We’re Americans. Came over on a cattle-boat. We ain’t got only enough money to last us for food,” while Mr. Wrenn begged, “Aw, please let us.”

“Oh! You’re Americans, are you? You seem decent enough. I’ve got a brother in the States. He used to own this stable with me. In St. Cloud, Minnesota, he is, you know. Minnesota’s some kind of a shire. Either of you chaps been in Minnesota?”

“Sure,” lied Morton; “I’ve hunted bear there.”

“Oh, I say, bear now! My brother’s never written m —”

“Oh, that was way up in the northern part, in the Big Woods. I’ve had some narrow escapes.”

Then Morton, who had never been west of Pittsburg, sang somewhat in this wise the epic of the hunting he had never done:

Alone. Among the pines. Dead o’ winter. Only one shell in his rifle. Cold of winter. Snow — deep snow. Snow-shoes. Hiking along — reg’lar mushing — packing grub to the lumber-camp. Way up near the Canadian border. Cold, terrible cold. Stars looked like little bits of steel.

Mr. Wrenn thought he remembered the story. He had read it in a magazine. Morton was continuing:

Snow stretched out among the pines. He was wearing a Mackinaw and shoe-packs. Saw a bear loping along. He had — Morton had — a .44-.40 Marlin, but only one shell. Thrust the muzzle of his rifle right into the bear’s mouth. Scared for a minute. Almost fell off his snow-shoes. Hardest thing he ever did, to pull that trigger. Fired. Bear sort of jumped at him, then rolled over, clawing. Great place, those Minnesota Big —

“What’s a shoe-pack?” the Englishman stolidly interjected.

“Kind of a moccasin. . . . Great place, those woods. Hope your brother gets the chance to get up there.”

“I say, I wonder did you ever meet him? Scrabble is his name, Jock Scrabble.”

“Jock Scrabble — no, but say! By golly, there was a fellow up in the Big Woods that came from St. Cl — St. Cloud? Yes, that was it. He was telling us about the town. I remember he said your brother had great chances there.”

The Englishman meditatively accepted a bad cigar from Mr. Wrenn. Suddenly: “You chaps can sleep in the stable-loft if you’d like. But you must blooming well stop smoking.”

So in the dark odorous hay-mow Mr. Wrenn stretched out his legs with an affectionate “good night” to Morton. He slept nine hours. When he awoke, at the sound of a chain clanking in the stable below, Morton was gone. This note was pinned to his sleeve:

DEAR OLD MAN — I still feel sure that you will not enjoy the hiking. Bumming is not much fun for most people, I don’t think, even if they say it is. I do not want to live on you. I always did hate to graft on people. So I am going to beat it off alone. But I hope I will see you in N Y & we will enjoy many a good laugh together over our trip. If you will phone the P. R. R. you can find out when I get back & so on. As I do not know what your address will be. Please look me up & I hope you will have a good trip.

Yours truly,
HARRY P. MORTON.

Mr. Wrenn lay listening to the unfriendly rattling of the chain harness below for a long time. When he crawled languidly down from the hay-loft he glowered in a manner which was decidedly surly even for Bill Wrenn at a middle-aged English stranger who was stooping over a cow’s hoof in a stall facing the ladder.

“Wot you doing here?” asked the Englishman, raising his head and regarding Mr. Wrenn as a housewife does a cockroach in the salad-bowl.

Mr. Wrenn was bored. This seemed a very poor sort of man; a bloated Cockney, with a dirty neck-cloth, vile cuffs of grayish black, and a waistcoat cut foolishly high.

“The owner said I could sleep here,” he snapped.

“Ow. ‘E did, did ‘e? ‘E ayn’t been giving you any of the perishin’ ‘osses, too, ‘as ‘e?”

It was sturdy old Bill Wrenn who snarled, “Oh, shut up!” Bill didn’t feel like standing much just then. He’d punch this fellow as he’d punched Pete, as soon as not — or even sooner.

“Ow. . . . It’s shut up, is it? . . . I’ve ‘arf a mind to set the ‘tecs on you, but I’m lyte. I’ll just ‘it you on the bloody nowse.”

Bill Wrenn stepped off the ladder and squared at him. He was sorry that the Cockney was smaller than Pete.

The Cockney came over, feinted in an absent-minded manner, made swift and confusing circles with his left hand, and hit Bill Wrenn on the aforesaid bloody nose, which immediately became a bleeding nose. Bill Wrenn felt dizzy and, sitting on a grain-sack, listened amazedly to the Cockney’s apologetic:

“I’m sorry I ayn’t got time to ‘ave the law on you, but I could spare time to ‘it you again.”

Bill shook the blood from his nose and staggered at the Cockney, who seized his collar, set him down outside the stable with a jarring bump, and walked away, whistling:

“Come, oh come to our Sunday-school,
Ev-v-v-v-v-v-ry Sunday morn-ing.”

“Gee!” mourned Mr. William Wrenn, “and I thought I was getting this hobo business down pat. . . . Gee! I wonder if Pete was so hard to lick?”

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