Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 8

He Tiffins

Mr. Wrenn, chewing and chewing and chewing the cud of thought in his room next evening, after an hour had proved two things; thus:

(a) The only thing he wanted to do was to go back to America at once, because England was a country where every one — native or American — was so unfriendly and so vastly wise that he could never understand them.

(b) The one thing in the world that he wanted to do was to be right here, for the most miraculous event of which he had ever heard was meeting Miss Nash. First one, then the other, these thoughts swashed back and forth like the swinging tides. He got away from them only long enough to rejoice that somehow — he didn’t know how — he was going to be her most intimate friend, because they were both Americans in a strange land and because they both could make-believe.

Then he was proving that Istra would, and would not, be the perfect comrade among women when some one knocked at his door.

Electrified, his cramped body shot up from its crouch, and he darted to the door.

Istra Nash stood there, tapping her foot on the sill with apologetic haste in her manner. Abruptly she said:

“So sorry to bother you. I just wondered if you could let me have a match? I’m all out.”

“Oh yes! Here’s a whole box. Please take ’em. I got plenty more.” [Which was absolutely untrue.]

“Thank you. S’ good o’ you,” she said, hurriedly. “G’ night.”

She turned away, but he followed her into the hall, bashfully urging: “Have you been to another show? Gee! I hope you draw a better one next time ‘n the one about the guy with the nephew.”

“Thank you.”

She glanced back in the half dark hall from her door — some fifteen feet from his. He was scratching at the wall-paper with a diffident finger, hopeful for a talk.

“Won’t you come in?” she said, hesitatingly.

“Oh, thank you, but I guess I hadn’t better.”

Suddenly she flashed out the humanest of smiles, her blue-gray eyes crinkling with cheery friendship. “Come in, come in, child.” As he hesitatingly entered she warbled: “Needn’t both be so lonely all the time, after all, need we? Even if you don’t like poor Istra. You don’t — do you?” Seemingly she didn’t expect an answer to her question, for she was busy lighting a Russian cigarette. It was the first time in his life that he had seen a woman smoke.

With embarrassed politeness he glanced away from her as she threw back her head and inhaled deeply. He blushingly scrutinized the room.

In the farther corner two trunks stood open. One had the tray removed, and out of the lower part hung a confusion of lacey things from which he turned away uncomfortable eyes. He recognized the black-and-gold burnoose, which was tumbled on the bed, with a nightgown of lace insertions and soft wrinkles in the lawn, a green book with a paper label bearing the title Three Plays for Puritans, a red slipper, and an open box of chocolates.

On the plain kitchen-ware table was spread a cloth of Reseda green, like a dull old leaf in color. On it lay a gold-mounted fountain-pen, huge and stub-pointed; a medley of papers and torn envelopes, a bottle of Creme Yvette, and a silver-framed portrait of a lean smiling man with a single eye-glass.

Mr. Wrenn did not really see all these details, but he had an impression of luxury and high artistic success. He considered the Yvette flask the largest bottle of perfume he’d ever seen; and remarked that there was “some guy’s picture on the table.” He had but a moment to reconnoiter, for she was astonishingly saying:

“So you were lonely when I knocked?”

“Why, how —”

“Oh, I could see it. We all get lonely, don’t we? I do, of course. Just now I’m getting sorer and sorer on Interesting People. I think I’ll go back to Paris. There even the Interesting People are — why, they’re interesting. Savvy — you see I am an American — savvy?”

“Why — uh — uh — uh — I d-don’t exactly get what you mean. How do you mean about ‘Interesting People’?”

“My dear child, of course you don’t get me.” She went to the mirror and patted her hair, then curled on the bed, with an offhand “Won’t you sit down?” and smoked elaborately, blowing the blue tendrils toward the ceiling as she continued: “Of course you don’t get it. You’re a nice sensible clerk who’ve had enough real work to do to keep you from being afraid that other people will think you’re commonplace. You don’t have to coddle yourself into working enough to earn a living by talking about temperament.

“Why, these Interesting People — You find ’em in London and New York and San Francisco just the same. They’re convinced they’re the wisest people on earth. There’s a few artists and a bum novelist or two always, and some social workers. The particular bunch that it amuses me to hate just now — and that I apparently can’t do without — they gather around Olympia Johns, who makes a kind of salon out of her rooms on Great James Street, off Theobald’s Road. . . . They might just as well be in New York; but they’re even stodgier. They don’t get sick of the game of being on intellectual heights as soon as New–Yorkers do.

“I’ll have to take you there. It’s a cheery sensation, you know, to find a man who has some imagination, but who has been unspoiled by Interesting People, and take him to hear them wamble. They sit around and growl and rush the growler — I hope you know growler-rushing — and rejoice that they’re free spirits. Being Free, of course, they’re not allowed to go and play with nice people, for when a person is Free, you know, he is never free to be anything but Free. That may seem confusing, but they understand it at Olympia’s.

“Of course there’s different sorts of intellectuals, and each cult despises all the others. Mostly, each cult consists of one person, but sometimes there’s two — a talker and an audience — or even three. For instance, you may be a militant and a vegetarian, but if some one is a militant and has a good figure, why then — oof! . . . That’s what I mean by ‘Interesting People.’ I loathe them! So, of course, being one of them, I go from one bunch to another, and, upon my honor, every single time I think that the new bunch is interesting!”

Then she smoked in gloomy silence, while Mr. Wrenn remarked, after some mental labor, “I guess they’re like cattlemen — the cattle-ier they are, the more romantic they look, and then when you get to know them the chief trouble with them is that they’re cattlemen.”

“Yes, that’s it. They’re — why, they’re — Oh, poor dear, there, there, there! It sha’n’t have so much intellekchool discussion, shall it! . . . I think you’re a very nice person, and I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll have a small fire, shall we? In the fireplace.”

“Yes!”

She pulled the old-fashioned bell-cord, and the old-fashioned North Country landlady came — tall, thin, parchment-faced, musty-looking as though she had been dressed up in Victorian garments in 1880 and left to stand in an unaired parlor ever since. She glowered silent disapproval at the presence of Mr. Wrenn in Istra’s room, but sent a slavey to make the fire —“saxpence uxtry.” Mr. Wrenn felt guilty till the coming of the slavey, a perfect Christmas-story-book slavey, a small and merry lump of soot, who sang out, “Chilly t’-night, ayn’t it?” and made a fire that was soon singing “Chilly t’-night,” like the slavey.

Istra sat on the floor before the fire, Turk-wise, her quick delicate fingers drumming excitedly on her knees.

“Come sit by me. You, with your sense of the romantic, ought to appreciate sitting by the fire. You know it’s always done.”

He slumped down by her, clasping his knees and trying to appear the dignified American business man in his country-house.

She smiled at him intimately, and quizzed:

“Tell me about the last time you sat with a girl by the fire. Tell poor Istra the dark secret. Was she the perfect among pink faces?”

“I’ve — never — sat — before — any — fireplace — with — any — one! Except when I was about nine — one Hallowe’en — at a party in Parthenon — little town up York State.”

“Really? Poor kiddy!”

She reached out her hand and took his. He was terrifically conscious of the warm smoothness of her fingers playing a soft tattoo on the back of his hand, while she said:

“But you have been in love? Drefful in love?”

“I never have.”

“Dear child, you’ve missed so much of the tea and cakes of life, haven’t you? And you have an interest in life. Do you know, when I think of the jaded Interesting People I’ve met — Why do I leave you to be spoiled by some shop-girl in a flowered hat? She’d drag you to moving-picture shows. . . . Oh! You didn’t tell me that you went to moving pictures, did you?”

“No!” he lied, fervently, then, feeling guilty, “I used to, but no more.”

“It shall go to the nice moving pictures if it wants to! It shall take me, too. We’ll forget there are any syndicalists or broken-colorists for a while, won’t we? We’ll let the robins cover us with leaves.”

“You mean like the babes in the woods? But, say, I’m afraid you ain’t just a babe in the woods! You’re the first person with brains I ever met, ‘cept, maybe, Dr. Mittyford; and the Doc never would play games, I don’t believe. The very first one, really.”

“Thank you!” Her warm pressure on his hand tightened. His heart was making the maddest gladdest leaps, and timidly, with a feeling of historic daring, he ventured to explore with his thumb-tip the fine lines of the side of her hand. . . . It actually was he, sitting here with a princess, and he actually did feel the softness of her hand, he pantingly assured himself.

Suddenly she gave his hand a parting pressure and sprang up.

“Come. We’ll have tiffin, and then I’ll send you away, and to-morrow we’ll go see the Tate Gallery.”

While Istra was sending the slavey for cakes and a pint of light wine Mr. Wrenn sat in a chair — just sat in it; he wanted to show that he could be dignified and not take advantage of Miss Nash’s kindness by slouchin’ round. Having read much Kipling, he had an idea that tiffin was some kind of lunch in the afternoon, but of course if Miss Nash used the word for evening supper, then he had been wrong.

Istra whisked the writing-table with the Reseda-green cover over before the fire, chucked its papers on the bed, and placed a bunch of roses on one end, moving the small blue vase two inches to the right, then two inches forward.

The wine she poured into a decanter. Wine was distinctly a problem to him. He was excited over his sudden rise into a society where one took wine as a matter of course. Mrs. Zapp wouldn’t take it as a matter of course. He rejoiced that he wasn’t narrow-minded, like Mrs. Zapp. He worked so hard at not being narrow-minded like Mrs. Zapp that he started when he was called out of his day-dream by a mocking voice:

“But you might look at the cakes. Just once, anyway. They are very nice cakes.”

“Uh —”

“Yes, I know the wine is wine. Beastly of it.”

“Say, Miss Nash, I did get you this time.”

“Oh, don’t tell me that my presiding goddessship is over already.”

“Uh — sure! Now I’m going to be a cruel boss.”

“Dee-lighted! Are you going to be a caveman?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t quite get you on that.”

“That’s too bad, isn’t it. I think I’d rather like to meet a caveman.”

“Oh say, I know about that caveman — Jack London’s guys. I’m afraid I ain’t one. Still — on the cattle-boat — Say, I wish you could of seen it when the gang were tying up the bulls, before starting. Dark close place ‘tween-decks, with the steers bellowin’ and all parked tight together, and the stiffs gettin’ seasick — so seasick we just kind of staggered around; and we’d get hold of a head rope and yank and then let go, and the bosses, d yell, ‘Pull, or I’ll brain you.’ And then the fo’c’sle — men packed in like herrings.”

She was leaning over the table, making a labyrinth with the currants from a cake and listening intently. He stopped politely, feeling that he was talking too much. But, “Go on, please do,” she commanded, and he told simply, seeing it more and more, of Satan and the Grenadier, of the fairies who had beckoned to him from the Irish coast hills, and the comradeship of Morton.

She interrupted only once, murmuring, “My dear, it’s a good thing you’re articulate, anyway —” which didn’t seem to have any bearing on hay-bales.

She sent him away with a light “It’s been a good party, hasn’t it, caveman? (If you are a caveman.) Call for me tomorrow at three. We’ll go to the Tate Gallery.”

She touched his hand in the fleetingest of grasps.

“Yes. Good night, Miss Nash,” he quavered.

A morning of planning his conduct so that in accompanying Istra Nash to the Tate Gallery he might be the faithful shadow and beautiful transcript of Mittyford, Ph.D. As a result, when he stood before the large canvases of Mr. Watts at the Tate he was so heavy and correctly appreciative, so ready not to enjoy the stories in the pictures of Millais, that Istra suddenly demanded:

“Oh, my dear child, I have taken a great deal on my hands. You’ve got to learn to play. You don’t know how to play. Come. I shall teach you. I don’t know why I should, either. But — come.”

She explained as they left the gallery: “First, the art of riding on the buses. Oh, it is an art, you know. You must appreciate the flower-girls and the gr-r-rand young bobbies. You must learn to watch for the blossoms on the restaurant terraces and roll on the grass in the parks. You’re much too respectable to roll on the grass, aren’t you? I’ll try ever so hard to teach you not to be. And we’ll go to tea. How many kinds of tea are there?”

“Oh, Ceylon and English Breakfast and — oh — Chinese.”

“B—”

“And golf tees!” he added, excitedly, as they took a seat in front atop the bus.

“Puns are a beginning at least,” she reflected.

“But how many kinds of tea are there, Istra? . . . Oh say, I hadn’t ought to —”

“Course; call me Istra or anything else. Only, you mustn’t call my bluff. What do I know about tea? All of us who play are bluffers, more or less, and we are ever so polite in pretending not to know the others are bluffing. . . . There’s lots of kinds of tea. In the New York Chinatown I saw once — Do you know Chinatown? Being a New–Yorker, I don’t suppose you do.”

“Oh yes. And Italiantown. I used to wander round there.”

“Well, down at the Seven Flowery Kingdoms Chop Suey and American Cooking there’s tea at five dollars a cup that they advertise is grown on ‘cloud-covered mountain-tops.’ I suppose when the tops aren’t cloud-covered they only charge three dollars a cup. . . . But, serious-like, there’s really only two kinds of teas — those you go to to meet the man you love and ought to hate, and those you give to spite the women you hate but ought to — hate! Isn’t that lovely and complicated? That’s playing. With words. My aged parent calls it ‘talking too much and not saying anything.’ Note that last — not saying anything! It’s one of the rules in playing that mustn’t be broken.”

He understood that better than most of the things she said. “Why,” he exclaimed, “it’s kind of talking sideways.”

“Why, yes. Of course. Talking sideways. Don’t you see now?”

Gallant gentleman as he was, he let her think she had invented the phrase.

She said many other things; things implying such vast learning that he made gigantic resolves to “read like thunder.”

Her great lesson was the art of taking tea. He found, surprisedly, that they weren’t really going to endanger their clothes by rolling on park grass. Instead, she led him to a tea-room behind a candy-shop on Tottenham Court Road, a low room with white wicker chairs, colored tiles set in the wall, and green Sedji-ware jugs with irregular bunches of white roses. A waitress with wild-rose cheeks and a busy step brought Orange Pekoe and lemon for her, Ceylon and Russian Caravan tea and a jug of clotted cream for him, with a pile of cinnamon buns.

“But —” said Istra. “Isn’t this like Alice in Wonderland! But you must learn the buttering of English muffins most of all. If you get to be very good at it the flunkies will let you take tea at the Carleton. They are such hypercritical flunkies, and the one that brings the gold butter-measuring rod to test your skill, why, he always wears knee-breeches of silver gray. So you can see, Billy, how careful you have to be. And eat them without buttering your nose. For if you butter your nose they’ll think you’re a Greek professor. And you wouldn’t like that, would you, honey?” He learned how to pat the butter into the comfortable brown insides of the muffins that looked so cold and floury without. But Istra seemed to have lost interest; and he didn’t in the least follow her when she observed:

“Doubtless it was the best butter. But where, where, dear dormouse, are the hatter and hare? Especially the sweet bunny rabbit that wriggled his ears and loved Gralice, the princesse d’ outre-mer.

“Where, where are the hatter and hare,
And where is the best butter gone?”

Presently: “Come on. Let’s beat it down to Soho for dinner. Or — no! Now you shall lead me. Show me where you’d go for dinner. And you shall take me to a music-hall, and make me enjoy it. Now you teach me to play.”

“Gee! I’m afraid I don’t know a single thing to teach you.”

“Yes, but — See here! We are two lonely Western barbarians in a strange land. We’ll play together for a little while. We’re not used to each other’s sort of play, but that will break up the monotony of life all the more. I don’t know how long we’ll play or — Shall we?”

“Oh yes!”

“Now show me how you play.”

“I don’t believe I ever did much, really.”

“Well, you shall take me to your kind of a restaurant.”

“I don’t believe you’d care much for penny meat-pies.”

“Little meat-pies?”

“Um-huh.”

“Little crispy ones? With flaky covers?”

“Um-huh.”

“Why, course I would! And ha’p’ny tea? Lead me to it, O brave knight! And to a vaudeville.”

He found that this devoted attendant of theaters had never seen the beautiful Italians who pounce upon protesting zylophones with small clubs, or the side-splitting juggler’s assistant who breaks up piles and piles of plates. And as to the top hat that turns into an accordion and produces much melody, she was ecstatic.

At after-theater supper he talked of Theresa and South Beach, of Charley Carpenter and Morton — Morton — Morton.

They sat, at midnight, on the steps of the house in Tavistock Place.

“I do know you now, “she mused. “It’s curious how any two babes in a strange-enough woods get acquainted. You are a lonely child, aren’t you?” Her voice was mother-soft. “We will play just a little —”

“I wish I had some games to teach. But you know so much.”

“And I’m a perfect beauty, too, aren’t I?” she said, gravely.

“Yes, you are!” stoutly.

“You would be loyal. . . . And I need some one’s admiration. . . . Mostly, Paris and London hold their sides laughing at poor Istra.”

He caught her hand. “Oh, don’t! They must ‘preciate you. I’d like to kill anybody that didn’t!”

“Thanks.” She gave his hand a return pressure and hastily withdrew her own. “You’ll be good to some sweet pink face. . . . And I’ll go on being discontented. Oh, isn ‘t life the fiercest proposition! . . . We seem different, you and I, but maybe it’s mostly surface — down deep we’re alike in being desperately unhappy because we never know what we’re unhappy about. Well —”

He wanted to put his head down on her knees and rest there. But he sat still, and presently their cold hands snuggled together.

After a silence, in which they were talking of themselves, he burst out: “But I don’t see how Paris could help ‘preciating you. I’ll bet you’re one of the best artists they ever saw. . . . The way you made up a picture in your mind about that juggler!”

“Nope. Sorry. Can’t paint at all.”

“Ah, stuff!” with a rudeness quite masterful. “I’ll bet your pictures are corkers.”

“Um.”

“Please, would you let me see some of them some time. I suppose it would bother —”

“Come up-stairs. I feel inspired. You are about to hear some great though nasty criticisms on the works of the unfortunate Miss Nash.”

She led the way, laughing to herself over something. She gave him no time to blush and hesitate over the impropriety of entering a lady’s room at midnight, but stalked ahead with a brief “Come in.”

She opened a large portfolio covered with green-veined black paper and yanked out a dozen unframed pastels and wash-drawings which she scornfully tossed on the bed, saying, as she pointed to a mass of Marseilles roofs:

“Do you see this sketch? The only good thing about it is the thing that last art editor, that red-headed youth, probably didn’t like. Don’t you hate red hair? You see these ridiculous glaring purple shadows under the clocher?

She stared down at the picture interestedly, forgetting him, pinching her chin thoughtfully, while she murmured: “They’re rather nice. Rather good. Rather good.”

Then, quickly twisting her shoulders about, she poured out:

“But look at this. Consider this arch. It’s miserably out of drawing. And see how I’ve faked this figure? It isn’t a real person at all. Don’t you notice how I’ve juggled with this stairway? Why, my dear man, every bit of the drawing in this thing would disgrace a seventh-grade drawing-class in Dos Puentes. And regard the bunch of lombardies in this other picture. They look like umbrellas upside down in a silly wash-basin. Uff! It’s terrible. Affreux! Don’t act as though you liked them. You really needn’t, you know. Can’t you see now that they’re hideously out of drawing?”

Mr. Wrenn’s fancy was walking down a green lane of old France toward a white cottage with orange-trees gleaming against its walls. In her pictures he had found the land of all his forsaken dreams.

“I— I— I—” was all he could say, but admiration pulsed in it.

“Thank you. . . . Yes, we will play. Good night. To-morrow!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/wrenn/chapter8.html

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