Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 6

He is an Orphan

Sadly clinging to the plan of the walking-trip he was to have made with Morton, Mr. Wrenn crossed by ferry to Birkenhead, quite unhappily, for he wanted to be discussing with Morton the quaintness of the uniformed functionaries. He looked for the Merian half the way over. As he walked through Birkenhead, bound for Chester, he pricked himself on to note red-brick house-rows, almost shocking in their lack of high front stoops. Along the country road he reflected: “Wouldn’t Morty enjoy this! Farm-yard all paved. Haystack with a little roof on it. Kitchen stove stuck in a kind of fireplace. Foreign as the deuce.”

But Morton was off some place, in a darkness where there weren’t things to enjoy. Mr. Wrenn had lost him forever. Once he heard himself wishing that even Tim, the hatter, or “good old McGarver” were along. A scene so British that it seemed proper to enjoy it alone he did find in a real garden-party, with what appeared to be a real curate, out of a story in The Strand, passing teacups; but he passed out of that hot glow into a cold plodding that led him to Chester and a dull hotel which might as well have been in Bridgeport or Hoboken.

He somewhat timidly enjoyed Chester the early part of the next day, docilely following a guide about the walls, gaping at the mill on the Dee and asking the guide two intelligent questions about Roman remains. He snooped through the galleried streets, peering up dark stairways set in heavy masonry that spoke of historic sieges, and imagined that he was historically besieging. For a time Mr. Wrenn’s fancies contented him.

He smiled as he addressed glossy red and green postcards to Lee Theresa and Goaty, Cousin John and Mr. Guilfogle, writing on each a variation of “Having a splendid trip. This is a very interesting old town. Wish you were here.” Pantingly, he found a panorama showing the hotel where he was staying — or at least two of its chimneys — and, marking it with a heavy cross and the announcement “This is my hotel where I am staying,” he sent it to Charley Carpenter.

He was at his nearest to greatness at Chester Cathedral. He chuckled aloud as he passed the remains of a refectory of monastic days, in the close, where knights had tied their romantically pawing chargers, “just like he’d read about in a story about the olden times.” He was really there. He glanced about and assured himself of it. He wasn’t in the office. He was in an English cathedral close!

But shortly thereafter he was in an English temperance hotel, sitting still, almost weeping with the longing to see Morton. He walked abroad, feeling like an intruder on the lively night crowd; in a tap-room he drank a glass of English porter and tried to make himself believe that he was acquainted with the others in the room, to which theory they gave but little support. All this while his loneliness shadowed him.

Of that loneliness one could make many books; how it sat down with him; how he crouched in his chair, be-spelled by it, till he violently rose and fled, with loneliness for companion in his flight. He was lonely. He sighed that he was “lonely as fits.” Lonely — the word obsessed him. Doubtless he was a bit mad, as are all the isolated men who sit in distant lands longing for the voices of friendship.

Next morning he hastened to take the train for Oxford to get away from his loneliness, which lolled evilly beside him in the compartment. He tried to convey to a stodgy North Countryman his interest in the way the seats faced each other. The man said “Oh aye?” insultingly and returned to his Manchester newspaper.

Feeling that he was so offensive that it was a matter of honor for him to keep his eyes away, Mr. Wrenn dutifully stared out of the door till they reached Oxford.

There is a calm beauty to New College gardens. There is, Mr. Wrenn observed, “something simply slick about all these old quatrangleses,” crossed by summering students in short flappy gowns. But he always returned to his exile’s room, where he now began to hear the new voice of shapeless nameless Fear — fear of all this alien world that didn’t care whether he loved it or not.

He sat thinking of the cattle-boat as a home which he had loved but which he would never see again. He had to use force on himself to keep from hurrying back to Liverpool while there still was time to return on the same boat.

No! He was going to “stick it out somehow, and get onto the hang of all this highbrow business.”

Then he said: “Oh, darn it all. I feel rotten. I wish I was dead!”

“Those, sir, are the windows of the apartment once occupied by Walter Pater,” said the cultured American after whom he was trailing. Mr. Wrenn viewed them attentively, and with shame remembered that he didn’t know who Walter Pater was. But — oh yes, now he remembered; Walter was the guy that ‘d murdered his whole family. So, aloud, “Well, I guess Oxford’s sorry Walt ever come here, all right.”

“My dear sir, Mr. Pater was the most immaculate genius of the nineteenth century,” lectured Dr. Mittyford, the cultured American, severely.

Mr. Wrenn had met Mittyford, Ph.D., near the barges; had, upon polite request, still more politely lent him a match, and seized the chance to confide in somebody. Mittyford had a bald head, neat eye-glasses, a fair family income, a chatty good-fellowship at the Faculty Club, and a chilly contemptuousness in his rhetoric class-room at Leland Stanford, Jr., University. He wrote poetry, which he filed away under the letter “P” in his letter-file.

Dr. Mittyford grudgingly took Mr. Wrenn about, to teach him what not to enjoy. He pointed at Shelley’s rooms as at a certificated angel’s feather, but Mr. Wrenn writhingly admitted that he had never heard of Shelley, whose name he confused with Max O’Rell’s, which Dr. Mittyford deemed an error. Then, Pater’s window. The doctor shrugged. Oh well, what could you expect of the proletariat! Swinging his stick aloofly, he stalked to the Bodleian and vouchsafed, “That, sir, is the AEschylus Shelley had in his pocket when he was drowned.”

Though he heard with sincere regret the news that his new idol was drowned, Mr. Wrenn found that AEschylus left him cold. It seemed to be printed in a foreign language. But perhaps it was merely a very old book.

Standing before a case in which was an exquisite book in a queer wrigglesome language, bearing the legend that from this volume Fitzgerald had translated the Rubaiyat, Dr. Mittyford waved his hand and looked for thanks.

“Pretty book,” said Mr. Wrenn.

“And did you note who used it?”

“Uh — yes.” He hastily glanced at the placard. “Mr. Fitzgerald. Say, I think I read some of that Rubaiyat. It was something about a Persian kitten — I don’t remember exactly.”

Dr. Mittyford walked bitterly to the other end of the room.

About eight in the evening Mr. Wrenn’s landlady knocked with, “There’s a gentleman below to see you, sir.”

“Me?” blurted Mr. Wrenn.

He galloped down-stairs, panting to himself that Morton had at last found him. He peered out and was overwhelmed by a motor-car, with Dr. Mittyford waiting in awesome fur coat, goggles, and gauntlets, centered in the car-lamplight that loomed in the shivery evening fog.

“Gee! just like a hero in a novel!” reflected Mr. Wrenn.

“Get on your things,” said the pedagogue. “I’m going to give you the time of your life.”

Mr. Wrenn obediently went up and put on his cap. He was excited, yet frightened and resentful at being “dragged into all this highbrow business” which he had resolutely been putting away the past two hours.

As he stole into the car Dr. Mittyford seemed comparatively human, remarking: “I feel bored this evening. I thought I would give you a nuit blanche. How would you like to go to the Red Unicorn at Brempton — one of the few untouched old inns?”

“That would be nice,” said Mr. Wrenn, unenthusiastically.

His chilliness impressed Dr. Mittyford, who promptly told one of the best of his well-known whimsical yet scholarly stories.

“Ha! ha!” remarked Mr. Wrenn.

He had been saying to himself: “By golly! I ain’t going to even try to be a society guy with him no more. I’m just going to be me, and if he don’t like it he can go to the dickens.”

So he was gentle and sympathetic and talked West Sixteenth Street slang, to the rhetorician’s lofty amusement.

The tap-room of the Red Unicorn was lighted by candles and a fireplace. That is a simple thing to say, but it was not a simple thing for Mr. Wrenn to see. As he observed the trembling shadows on the sanded floor he wriggled and excitedly murmured, “Gee! . . . Gee whittakers!”

The shadows slipped in arabesques over the dust-gray floor and scampered as bravely among the rafters as though they were in such a tale as men told in believing days. Rustics in smocks drank ale from tankards; and in a corner was snoring an ear-ringed peddler with his beetle-black head propped on an oilcloth pack.

Stamping in, chilly from the ride, Mr. Wrenn laughed aloud. With a comfortable feeling on the side toward the fire he stuck his slight legs straight out before the old-time settle, looked devil-may-care, made delightful ridges on the sanded floor with his toe, and clapped a pewter pot on his knee with a small emphatic “Wop!” After about two and a quarter tankards he broke out, “Say, that peddler guy there, don’t he look like he was a gipsy — you know — sneaking through the hedges around the manner-house to steal the earl’s daughter, huh?”

“Yes. . . . You’re a romanticist, then, I take it?”

“Yes, I guess I am. Kind of. Like to read romances and stuff.” He stared at Mittyford beseechingly. “But, say — say, I wonder why — Somehow, I haven’t enjoyed Oxford and the rest of the places like I ought to. See, I’d always thought I’d be simply nutty about the quatrangles and stuff, but I’m afraid they’re too highbrow for me. I hate to own up, but sometimes I wonder if I can get away with this traveling stunt.”

Mittyford, the magnificent, had mixed ale and whisky punch. He was mellowly instructive:

“Do you know, I’ve been wondering just what you would get out of all this. You really have a very fine imagination of a sort, you know, but of course you’re lacking in certain factual bases. As I see it, your metier would be to travel with a pleasant wife, the two of you hand in hand, so to speak, looking at the more obvious public buildings and plesaunces — avenues and plesuances. There must be a certain portion of the tripper class which really has the ability ‘for to admire and for to see.’”

Dr. Mittyford finished his second toddy and with a wave of his hand presented to Mr. Wrenn the world and all the plesaunces thereof, for to see, though not, of course, to admire Mittyfordianly.

“But — what are you to do now about Oxford? Well, I’m afraid you’re taken into captivity a bit late to be trained for that sort of thing. Do about Oxford? Why, go back, master the world you understand. By the way, have you seen my book on Saxon Derivatives? Not that I’m prejudiced in its favor, but it might give you a glimmering of what this difficile thing ‘culture’ really is.”

The rustics were droning a church anthem. The glow of the ale was in Mr. Wrenn. He leaned back, entirely happy, and it seemed confusedly to him that what little he had heard of his learned and affectionate friend’s advice gratefully confirmed his own theory that what one wanted was friends — a “nice wife”— folks. “Yes, sir, by golly! It was awfully nice of the Doc.” He pictured a tender girl in golden brown back in the New York he so much desired to see who would await him evenings with a smile that was kept for him. Homey — that was what he was going to be! He happily and thoughtfully ran his finger about the rim of his glass ten times.

“Time to go, I’ m afraid,” Dr. Mittyford was saying. Through the exquisite haze that now filled the room Mr. Wrenn saw him dimly, as a triangle of shirt-front and two gleaming ellipses for eyes. . . . His dear friend, the Doc! . . . As he walked through the room chairs got humorously in his way, but he good-naturedly picked a path among them, and fell asleep in the motor-car. All the ride back he made soft mouse-like sounds of snoring.

When he awoke in the morning with a headache and surveyed his unchangeably dingy room he realized slowly, after smothering his head in the pillow to shut off the light from his scorching eyeballs, that Dr. Mittyford had called him a fool for trying to wander. He protested, but not for long, for he hated to venture out there among the dreadfully learned colleges and try to understand stuff written in letters that look like crow-tracks.

He packed his suit-case slowly, feeling that he was very wicked in leaving Oxford’s opportunities.

Mr. Wrenn rode down on a Tottenham Court Road bus, viewing the quaintness of London. Life was a rosy ringing valiant pursuit, for he was about to ship on a Mediterranean steamer laden chiefly with adventurous friends. The bus passed a victoria containing a man with a real monocle. A newsboy smiled up at him. The Strand roared with lively traffic.

But the gray stonework and curtained windows of the Anglo–Southern Steamship Company’s office did not invite any Mr. Wrenns to come in and ship, nor did the hall porter, a beefy person with a huge collar and sparse painfully sleek hair, whose eyes were like cold boiled mackerel as Mr. Wrenn yearned:

“Please — uh — please will you be so kind and tell me where I can ship as a steward for the Med —”

“None needed.”

“Or Spain? I just want to get any kind of a job at first. Peeling potatoes or — It don’t make any difference —”

“None needed, I said, my man.” The porter examined the hall clock extensively.

Bill Wrenn suddenly popped into being and demanded: “Look here, you; I want to see somebody in authority. I want to know what I can ship as.”

The porter turned round and started. All his faith in mankind was destroyed by the shock of finding the fellow still there. “Nothing, I told you. No one needed.”

“Look here; can I see somebody in authority or not?”

The porter was privately esteemed a wit at his motherin-law’s. Waddling away, he answered, “Or not.”

Mr. Wrenn drooped out of the corridor. He had planned to see the Tate Gallery, but now he hadn’t the courage to face the difficulties of enjoying pictures. He zig-zagged home, mourning: “What’s the use. And I’ll be hung if I’ll try any other offices, either. The icy mitt, that’s what they hand you here. Some day I’ll go down to the docks and try to ship there. Prob’ly. Gee! I feel rotten!”

Out of all this fog of unfriendliness appeared the waitress at the St. Brasten Cocoa House; first, as a human being to whom he could talk, second, as a woman. She was ignorant and vulgar; she misused English cruelly; she wore greasy cotton garments, planted her large feet on the floor with firm clumsiness, and always laughed at the wrong cue in his diffident jests. But she did laugh; she did listen while he stammered his ideas of meat-pies and St. Paul’s and aeroplanes and Shelley and fog and tan shoes. In fact, she supposed him to be a gentleman and scholar, not an American.

He went to the cocoa-house daily.

She let him know that he was a man and she a woman, young and kindly, clear-skinned and joyous-eyed. She touched him with warm elbow and plump hip, leaning against his chair as he gave his order. To that he looked forward from meal to meal, though he never ceased harrowing over what he considered a shameful intrigue.

That opinion of his actions did not keep him from tingling one lunch-time when he suddenly understood that she was expecting to be tempted. He tempted her without the slightest delay, muttering, “Let’s take a walk this evening?”

She accepted. He was shivery and short of breath while he was trying to smile at her during the rest of the meal, and so he remained all afternoon at the Tower of London, though he very well knew that all this history —“kings and gwillotines and stuff”— demanded real Wrenn thrills.

They were to meet on a street-corner at eight. At seven-thirty he was waiting for her. At eight-thirty he indignantly walked away, but he hastily returned, and stood there another half-hour. She did not come.

When he finally fled home he was glad to have escaped the great mystery of life, then distressingly angry at the waitress, and desolate in the desert stillness of his room.

He sat in his cold hygienic uncomfortable room on Tavistock Place trying to keep his attention on the “tick, tick, tick, tick” of his two-dollar watch, but really cowering before the vast shadowy presences that slunk in from the hostile city.

He didn’t in the least know what he was afraid of. The actual Englishman whom he passed on the streets did not seem to threaten his life, yet his friendly watch and familiar suit-case seemed the only things he could trust in all the menacing world as he sat there, so vividly conscious of his fear and loneliness that he dared not move his cramped legs.

The tension could not last. For a time he was able to laugh at himself, and he made pleasant pictures — Charley Carpenter telling him a story at Drubel’s; Morton companionably smoking on the top deck; Lee Theresa flattering him during an evening walk. Most of all he pictured the brown-eyed sweetheart he was going to meet somewhere, sometime. He thought with sophomoric shame of his futile affair with the waitress, then forgot her as he seemed almost to touch the comforting hand of the brown-eyed girl.

“Friends, that’s what I want. You bet!” That was the work he was going to do — make acquaintances. A girl who would understand him, with whom he could trot about, seeing department-store windows and moving-picture shows.

It was then, probably, hunched up in the dowdy chair of faded upholstery, that he created the two phrases which became his formula for happiness. He desired “somebody to go home to evenings”; still more, “some one to work with and work for.”

It seemed to him that he had mapped out his whole life. He sat back, satisfied, and caught the sound of emptiness in his room, emphasized by the stilly tick of his watch.

“Oh — Morton —” he cried.

He leaped up and raised the window. It was raining, but through the slow splash came the night rattle of hostile London. Staring down, he studied the desolate circle of light a street-lamp cast on the wet pavement. A cat gray as dish-water, its fur worn off in spots, lean and horrible, sneaked through the circle of light like the spirit of unhappiness, like London’s sneer at solitary Americans in Russell Square rooms.

Mr. Wrenn gulped. Through the light skipped a man and a girl, so little aware of him that they stopped, laughingly, wrestling for an umbrella, then disappeared, and the street was like a forgotten tomb. A hansom swung by, the hoofbeats sharp and cheerless. The rain dripped. Nothing else. Mr. Wrenn slammed down the window.

He smoothed the sides of his suit-case and reckoned the number of miles it had traveled with him. He spun his watch about on the table, and listened to its rapid mocking speech, “Friends, friends; friends, friends.”

Sobbing, he began to undress, laying down each garment as though he were going to the scaffold. When the room was dark the great shadowy forms of fear thronged unchecked about his narrow dingy bed.

Once during the night he woke. Some sound was threatening him. It was London, coming to get him and torture him. The light in his room was dusty, mottled, gray, lifeless. He saw his door, half ajar, and for some moments lay motionless, watching stark and bodiless heads thrust themselves through the opening and withdraw with sinister alertness till he sprang up and opened the door wide.

But he did not even stop to glance down the hall for the crowd of phantoms that had gathered there. Some hidden manful scorn of weakness made him sneer aloud, “Don’t be a baby even if you are lonely.”

His voice was deeper than usual, and he went to bed to sleep, throwing himself down with a coarse wholesome scorn of his nervousness.

He awoke after dawn, and for a moment curled in happy wriggles of satisfaction over a good sleep. Then he remembered that he was in the cold and friendless prison of England, and lay there panting with desire to get away, to get back to America, where he would be safe.

He wanted to leap out of bed, dash for the Liverpool train, and take passage for America on the first boat. But perhaps the officials in charge of the emigrants and the steerage (and of course a fellow would go steerage to save money) would want to know his religion and the color of his hair — as bad as trying to ship. They might hold him up for a couple of days. There were quarantines and customs and things, of which he had heard. Perhaps for two or even three days more he would have to stay in this nauseating prison-land.

This was the morning of August 3, 1910, two weeks after his arrival in London, and twenty-two days after victoriously reaching England, the land of romance.

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