Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 9

He Encounters the Intellectuals

He wanted to find a cable office, stalk in, and nonchalantly send to his bank for more money. He could see himself doing it. Maybe the cable clerk would think he was a rich American. What did he care if he spent all he had? A guy, he admonished himself, just had to have coin when he was goin’ with a girl like Miss Istra. At least seven times he darted up from the door-step, where he was on watch for her, and briskly trotted as far as the corner. Each time his courage melted, and he slumped back to the door-step. Sending for money — gee, he groaned, that was pretty dangerous.

Besides, he didn’t wish to go away. Istra might come down and play with him.

For three hours he writhed on that door-step, till he came to hate it; it was as much a prison as his room at the Zapps’ had been. He hated the areaway grill, and a big brown spot on the pavement, and, as a truck-driver hates a motorman, so did he hate a pudgy woman across the street who peeped out from a second-story window and watched him with cynical interest. He finally could endure no longer the world’s criticism, as expressed by the woman opposite. He started as though he were going to go right now to some place he had been intending to go to all the time, and stalked away, ignoring the woman.

He caught a bus, then another, then walked a while. Now that he was moving, he was agonizedly considering his problem: What was Istra to him, really? What could he be to her? He was just a clerk. She could never love him. “And of course,” he explained to himself, “you hadn’t oughta love a person without you expected to marry them; you oughtn’t never even touch her hand.” Yet he did want to touch hers. He suddenly threw his chin back, high and firm, in defiance. He didn’t care if he was wicked, he declared. He wanted to shout to Istra across all the city: Let us be great lovers! Let us be mad! Let us stride over the hilltops. Though that was not at all the way he phrased it.

Then he bumped into a knot of people standing on the walk, and came down from the hilltops in one swoop.

A crowd was collecting before Rothsey Hall, which bore the sign:

GLORY— GLORY— GLORY

SPECIAL SALVATION ARMY JUBILEE MEETING

EXPERIENCES OF ADJUTANT CRABBENTHWAITE IN AFRICA

He gaped at the sign. A Salvationist in the crowd, trim and well set up, his red-ribboned Salvation Army cap at a jaunty angle, said, “Won’t you come in, brother?”

Mr. Wrenn meekly followed into the hall. Bill Wrenn was nowhere in sight.

Now it chanced that Adjutant Crabbenthwaite told much of Houssas and the N’Gombi, of saraweks and week-long treks, but Mr. Wrenn’s imagination was not for a second drawn to Africa, nor did he even glance at the sun-bonneted Salvationist women packed in the hall. He was going over and over the Adjutant’s denunciations of the Englishmen and Englishwomen who flirt on the mail-boats.

Suppose it had been himself and his madness over Istra — at the moment he quite called it madness — that the Adjutant had denounced!

A Salvationist near by was staring at him most accusingly. . . .

He walked away from the jubilee reflectively. He ate his dinner with a grave courtesy toward the food and the waiter. He was positively courtly to his fork. For he was just reformed. He was going to “steer clear” of mad artist women — of all but nice good girls whom you could marry. He remembered the Adjutant’s thundered words:

“Flirting you call it — flirting! Look into your hearts. God Himself hath looked into them and found flirtation the gateway to hell. And I tell you that these army officers and the bedizened women, with their wine and cigarettes, with their devil’s calling-cards and their jewels, with their hell-lighted talk of the sacrilegious follies of socialism and art and horse-racing, O my brothers, it was all but a cloak for looking upon one another to lust after one another. Rotten is this empire, and shall fall when our soldiers seek flirtation instead of kneeling in prayer like the iron men of Cromwell.”

Istra. . . . Card-playing. . . . Talk of socialism and art. Mr. Wrenn felt very guilty. Istra. . . . Smoking and drinking wine. . . . But his moral reflections brought the picture of Istra the more clearly before him — the persuasive warmth of her perfect fingers; the curve of her backward-bent throat as she talked in her melodious voice of all the beautiful things made by the wise hands of great men.

He dashed out of the restaurant. No matter what happened, good or bad, he had to see her. While he was climbing to the upper deck of a bus he was trying to invent an excuse for seeing her. . . . Of course one couldn’t “go and call on ladies in their rooms without havin’ some special excuse; they would think that was awful fresh.”

He left the bus midway, at the sign of a periodical shop, and purchased a Blackwood’s and a Nineteenth Century. Morton had told him these were the chief English “highbrow magazines.”

He carried them to his room, rubbed his thumb in the lampblack on the gas-fixture, and smeared the magazine covers, then cut the leaves and ruffled the margins to make the magazines look dog-eared with much reading; not because he wanted to appear to have read them, but because he felt that Istra would not permit him to buy things just for her.

All this business with details so calmed him that he wondered if he really cared to see her at all. Besides, it was so late — after half-past eight.

“Rats! Hang it all! I wish I was dead. I don’t know what I do want to do,” he groaned, and cast himself upon his bed. He was sure of nothing but the fact that he was unhappy. He considered suicide in a dignified manner, but not for long enough to get much frightened about it.

He did not know that he was the toy of forces which, working on him through the strangeness of passionate womanhood, could have made him a great cad or a petty hero as easily as they did make him confusedly sorry for himself. That he wasn’t very much of a cad or anything of a hero is a detail, an accident resulting from his thirty-five or thirty-six years of stodgy environment. Cad or hero, filling scandal columns or histories, he would have been the same William Wrenn.

He was thinking of Istra as he lay on his bed. In a few minutes he dashed to his bureau and brushed his thinning hair so nervously that he had to try three times for a straight parting. While brushing his eyebrows and mustache he solemnly contemplated himself in the mirror.

“I look like a damn rabbit,” he scorned, and marched half-way to Istra’s room. He went back to change his tie to a navy-blue bow which made him appear younger. He was feeling rather resentful at everything, including Istra, as he finally knocked and heard her “Yes? Come in.”

There was in her room a wonderful being lolling in a wing-chair, one leg over the chair-arm; a young young man, with broken brown teeth, always seen in his perpetual grin, but a godlike Grecian nose, a high forehead, and bristly yellow hair. The being wore large round tortoise-shell spectacles, a soft shirt with a gold-plated collar-pin, and delicately gray garments.

Istra was curled on the bed in a leaf-green silk kimono with a great gold-mounted medallion pinned at her breast. Mr. Wrenn tried not to be shocked at the kimono.

She had been frowning as he came in and fingering a long thin green book of verses, but she glowed at Mr. Wrenn as though he were her most familiar friend, murmuring, “Mouse dear, I’m so glad you could come in.”

Mr. Wrenn stood there awkwardly. He hadn’t expected to find another visitor. He seemed to have heard her call him “Mouse.” Yes, but what did Mouse mean? It wasn’t his name at all. This was all very confusing. But how awful glad she was to see him!

“Mouse dear, this is one of our best little indecent poets, Mr. Carson Haggerty. From America — California — too. Mr. Hag’ty, Mr. Wrenn.”

“Pleased meet you,” said both men in the same tone of annoyance.

Mr. Wrenn implored: “I— uh — I thought you might like to look at these magazines. Just dropped in to give them to you.” He was ready to go.

“Thank you — so good of you. Please sit down. Carson and I were only fighting — he’s going pretty soon. We knew each other at art school in Berkeley. Now he knows all the toffs in London.”

“Mr. Wrenn,” said the best little poet, “I hope you’ll back up my contention. Izzy says th —”

“Carson, I have told you just about enough times that I do not intend to stand for ‘Izzy’ any more! I should think that even you would be able to outgrow the standard of wit that obtains in first-year art class at Berkeley.”

Mr. Haggerty showed quite all of his ragged teeth in a noisy joyous grin and went on, unperturbed: “Miss Nash says that the best European thought, personally gathered in the best salons, shows that the Rodin vogue is getting the pickle-eye from all the real yearners. What is your opinion?”

Mr. Wrenn turned to Istra for protection. She promptly announced: “Mr. Wrenn absolutely agrees with me. By the way, he’s doing a big book on the recrudescence of Kipling, after his slump, and —”

“Oh, come off, now! Kipling! Blatant imperialist, anti-Stirner!” cried Carson Haggerty, kicking out each word with the assistance of his swinging left foot.

Much relieved that the storm-center had passed over him, Mr. Wrenn sat on the front edge of a cane-seated chair, with the magazines between his hands, and his hands pressed between his forward-cocked knees. Always, in the hundreds of times he went over the scene in that room afterward, he remembered how cool and smooth the magazine covers felt to the palms of his flattened hands. For he associated the papery surfaces with the apprehension he then had that Istra might give him up to the jag-toothed grin of Carson Haggerty, who would laugh him out of the room and out of Istra’s world.

He hated the poetic youth, and would gladly have broken all of Carson’s teeth short off. Yet the dread of having to try the feat himself made him admire the manner in which Carson tossed about long creepy-sounding words, like a bush-ape playing with scarlet spiders. He talked insultingly of Yeats and the commutation of sex-energy and Isadora Duncan and the poetry of Carson Haggerty.

Istra yawned openly on the bed, kicking a pillow, but she was surprised into energetic discussion now and then, till Haggerty intentionally called her Izzy again, when she sat up and remarked to Mr. Wrenn: “Oh, don’t go yet. You can tell me about the article when Carson goes. Dear Carson said he was only going to stay till ten.”

Mr. Wrenn hadn’t had any intention of going, so he merely smiled and bobbed his head to the room in general, and stammered “Y-yes,” while he tried to remember what he had told her about some article. Article. Perhaps it was a Souvenir Company novelty article. Great idea! Perhaps she wanted to design a motto for them. He decidedly hoped that he could fix it up for her — he’d sure do his best. He’d be glad to write over to Mr. Guilfogle about it. Anyway, she seemed willing to have him stick here.

Yet when dear Carson had jauntily departed, leaving the room still loud with the smack of his grin, Istra seemed to have forgotten that Mr. Wrenn was alive. She was scowling at a book on the bed as though it had said things to her. So he sat quiet and crushed the magazine covers more closely till the silence choked him, and he dared, “Mr. Carson is an awful well-educated man.”

“He’s a bounder,” she snapped. She softened her voice as she continued: “He was in the art school in California when I was there, and he presumes on that. . . . It was good of you to stay and help me get rid of him. . . . I’m getting — I’m sorry I’m so dull to-night. I suppose I’ll get sent off to bed right now, if I can’t be more entertaining. It was sweet of you to come in, Mouse. . . . You don’t mind my calling you ‘Mouse,’ do you? I won’t, if you do mind.”

He awkwardly walked over and laid the magazines on the bed. “Why, it’s all right. . . . What was it about some novelty — some article? If there’s anything I could do — anything —”

“Article?”

“Why, yes. That you wanted to see me about.”

“Oh! Oh, that was just to get rid of Carson. . . . His insufferable familiarity! The penalty for my having been a naive kiddy, hungry for friendship, once. And now, good n —. Oh, Mouse, he says my eyes — even with this green kimono on — Come here, dear. tell me what color my eyes are.”

She moved with a quick swing to the side of her bed. Thrusting out her two arms, she laid ivory hands clutchingly on his shoulder. He stood quaking, forgetting every one of the Wrennish rules by which he had edged a shy polite way through life. He fearfully reached out his hands toward her shoulders in turn, but his arms were shorter than hers, and his hands rested on the sensitive warmth of her upper arms. He peered at those dear gray-blue eyes of hers, but he could not calm himself enough to tell whether they were china-blue or basalt-black.

“Tell me,” she demanded; “aren’t they green?”

“Yes,” he quavered.

“You’re sweet,” she said.

Leaning out from the side of her bed, she kissed him. She sprang up, and hastened to the window, laughing nervously, and deploring: “I shouldn’t have done that! I shouldn’t! Forgive me!” Plaintively, like a child: “Istra was so bad, so bad. Now you must go.” As she turned back to him her eyes had the peace of an old friend’s.

Because he had wished to be kind to people, because he had been pitiful toward Goaty Zapp, Mr. Wrenn was able to understand that she was trying to be a kindly big sister to him, and he said “Good night, Istra,” and smiled in a lively way and walked out. He got out the smile by wrenching his nerves, for which he paid in agony as he knelt by his bed, acknowledging that Istra would never love him and that therefore he was not to love, would be a fool to love, never would love her — and seeing again her white arms softly shadowed by her green kimono sleeves.

No sight of Istra, no scent of her hair, no sound of her always-changing voice for two days. Twice, seeing a sliver of light under her door as he came up the darkened stairs, he knocked, but there was no answer, and he marched into his room with the dignity of fury.

Numbers of times he quite gave her up, decided he wanted never to see her again. But after one of the savagest of these renunciations, while he was stamping defiantly down Tottenham Court Road, he saw in a window a walking-stick that he was sure she would like his carrying. And it cost only two-and-six. Hastily, before he changed his mind, he rushed in and slammed down his money. It was a very beautiful stick indeed, and of a modesty to commend itself to Istra, just a plain straight stick with a cap of metal curiously like silver. He was conscious that the whole world was leering at him, demanding “What’re you carrying a cane for?” but he — the misunderstood — was willing to wait for the reward of this martyrdom in Istra’s approval.

The third night, as he stood at the window watching two children playing in the dusk, there was a knock. It was Istra. She stood at his door, smart and inconspicuous in a black suit with a small toque that hid the flare of her red hair.

“Come,” she said, abruptly. “I want you to take me to Olympia’s — Olympia Johns’ flat. I’ve been reading all the Balzac there is. I want to talk. Can you come?”

“Oh, of course —”

“Hurry, then!”

He seized his small foolishly round hat, and he tucked his new walking-stick under his arm without displaying it too proudly, waiting for her comment.

She led the way down-stairs and across the quiet streets and squares of Bloomsbury to Great James Street. She did not even see the stick.

She said scarce a word beyond:

“I’m sick of Olympia’s bunch — I never want to dine in Soho with an inhibition and a varietistic sex instinct again — jamais de la vie. But one has to play with somebody.”

Then he was so cheered that he tapped the pavements boldly with his stick and delicately touched her arm as they crossed the street. For she added:

“We’ll just run in and see them for a little while, and then you can take me out and buy me a Rhine wine and seltzer. . . . Poor Mouse, it shall have its play!”

Olympia Johns’ residence consisted of four small rooms. When Istra opened the door, after tapping, the living-room was occupied by seven people, all interrupting one another and drinking fourpenny ale; seven people and a fog of cigarette smoke and a tangle of papers and books and hats. A swamp of unwashed dishes appeared on a large table in the room just beyond, divided off from the living-room by a burlap curtain to which were pinned suffrage buttons and medallions. This last he remembered afterward, thinking over the room, for the medals’ glittering points of light relieved his eyes from the intolerable glances of the people as he was hastily introduced to them. He was afraid that he would be dragged into a discussion, and sat looking away from them to the medals, and to the walls, on which were posters, showing mighty fists with hammers and flaming torches, or hog-like men lolling on the chests of workmen, which they seemed to enjoy more than the workmen. By and by he ventured to scan the group.

Carson Haggerty, the American poet, was there. But the center of them all was Olympia Johns herself — spinster, thirty-four, as small and active and excitedly energetic as an ant trying to get around a match. She had much of the ant’s brownness and slimness, too. Her pale hair was always falling from under her fillet of worn black velvet (with the dingy under side of the velvet showing curled up at the edges). A lock would tangle in front of her eyes, and she would impatiently shove it back with a jab of her thin rough hands, never stopping in her machine-gun volley of words.

“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” she would pour out. “Don’t you see? We must do something. I tell you the conditions are intolerable, simply intolerable. We must do something.”

The conditions were, it seemed, intolerable in the several branches of education of female infants, water rates in Bloomsbury, the cutlery industry, and ballad-singing.

And mostly she was right. Only her rightness was so demanding, so restless, that it left Mr. Wrenn gasping.

Olympia depended on Carson Haggerty for most of the “Yes, that’s so’s,” though he seemed to be trying to steal glances at another woman, a young woman, a lazy smiling pretty girl of twenty, who, Istra told Mr. Wrenn, studied Greek archaeology at the Museum. No one knew why she studied it. She seemed peacefully ignorant of everything but her kissable lips, and she adorably poked at things with lazy graceful fingers, and talked the Little Language to Carson Haggerty, at which Olympia shrugged her shoulders and turned to the others.

There were a Mr. and Mrs. Stettinius — she a poet; he a bleached man, with goatish whiskers and a sanctimonious white neck-cloth, who was Puritanically, ethically, gloomily, religiously atheistic. Items in the room were a young man who taught in Mr. Jeney’s Select School and an Established Church mission worker from Whitechapel, who loved to be shocked.

It was Mr. Wrenn who was really shocked, however, not by the noise and odor; not by the smoking of the women; not by the demand that “we” tear down the state; no, not by these was Our Mr. Wrenn of the Souvenir Company shocked, but by his own fascinated interest in the frank talk of sex. He had always had a quite undefined supposition that it was wicked to talk of sex unless one made a joke of it.

Then came the superradicals, to confuse the radicals who confused Mr. Wrenn.

For always there is a greater rebellion; and though you sell your prayer-book to buy Bakunine, and esteem yourself revolutionary to a point of madness, you shall find one who calls you reactionary. The scorners came in together — Moe Tchatzsky, the syndicalist and direct actionist, and Jane Schott, the writer of impressionistic prose — and they sat silently sneering on a couch.

Istra rose, nodded at Mr. Wrenn, and departed, despite Olympia’s hospitable shrieks after them of “Oh stay! It’s only a little after ten. Do stay and have something to eat.”

Istra shut the door resolutely. The hall was dark. It was gratefully quiet. She snatched up Mr. Wrenn’s hand and held it to her breast.

“Oh, Mouse dear, I’m so bored! I want some real things. They talk and talk in there, and every night they settle all the fate of all the nations, always the same way. I don’t suppose there’s ever been a bunch that knew more things incorrectly. You hated them, didn’t you?”

“Why, I don’t think you ought to talk about them so severe,” he implored, as they started down-stairs. “I don’t mean they’re like you. They don’t savvy like you do. I mean it! But I was awful int’rested in what that Miss Johns said about kids in school getting crushed into a mold. Gee! that’s so; ain’t it? Never thought of it before. And that Mrs. Stettinius talked about Yeats so beautiful.”

“Oh, my dear, you make my task so much harder. I want you to be different. Can’t you see your cattle-boat experience is realer than any of the things those half-baked thinkers have done? I know. I’m half-baked myself.”

“Oh, I’ve never done nothing.”

“But you’re ready to. Oh, I don’t know. I want — I wish Jock Seton — the filibuster I met in San Francisco — I wish he were here. Mouse, maybe I can make a filibuster of you. I’ve got to create something. Oh, those people! If you just knew them! That fool Mary Stettinius is mad about that Tchatzsky person, and her husband invites him to teas. Stettinius is mad about Olympia, who’ll probably take Carson out and marry him, and he’ll keep on hanging about the Greek girl. Ungh!”

“I don’t know — I don’t know —”

But as he didn’t know what he didn’t know she merely patted his arm and said, soothingly: “I won’t criticize your first specimens of radicals any more. They are trying to do something, anyway.” Then she added, in an irrelevant tone, “You’re exactly as tall as I am. Mouse dear, you ought to be taller.”

They were entering the drab stretch of Tavistock Place, after a silence as drab, when she exclaimed: “Mouse, I am so sick of everything. I want to get out, away, anywhere, and do something, anything, just so’s it’s different. Even the country. I’d like — Why couldn’t we?”

“Let’s go out on a picnic to-morrow, Istra.”

“A picnic picnic? With pickles and a pillow cushion and several kinds of cake? . . . I’m afraid the Bois Boulogne has spoiled me for that. . . . Let me think.”

She drooped down on the steps of their house. Her head back, her supple strong throat arched with the passion of hating boredom, she devoured the starlight dim over the stale old roofs across the way.

“Stars,” she said. “Out on the moors they would come down by you. . . . What is your adventure — your formula for it? . . . Let’s see; you take common roadside things seriously; you’d be dear and excited over a Red Lion Inn.”

“Are there more than one Red Li —”

“My dear Mouse, England is a menagerie of Red Lions and White Lions and fuzzy Green Unicorns. . . . Why not, why not, why not! Let’s walk to Aengusmere. It’s a fool colony of artists and so on, up in Suffolk; but they have got some beautiful cottages, and they’re more Celt than Dublin. . . . Start right now; take a train to Chelmsford, say, and tramp all night. Take a couple of days or so to get there. Think of it! Tramping through dawn, past English fields. Think of it, Yankee. And not caring what anybody in the world thinks. Gipsies. Shall we?”

“Wh-h-h-h-y —” He was sure she was mad. Tramping all night! He couldn’t let her do this.

She sprang up. She stared down at him in revulsion, her hands clenched. Her voice was hostile as she demanded:

“What? Don’t you want to? With me?

He was up beside her, angry, dignified; a man.

“Look here. You know I want to. You’re the elegantest — I mean you’re — Oh, you ought to know! Can’t you see how I feel about you? Why, I’d rather do this than anything I ever heard of in my life. I just don’t want to do anything that would get people to talking about you.”

“Who would know? Besides, my dear man, I don’t regard it as exactly wicked to walk decently along a country road.”

“Oh, it isn’t that. Oh, please, Istra, don’t look at me like that — like you hated me.”

She calmed at once, drummed on his arm, sat down on the railing, and drew him to a seat beside her.

“Of course, Mouse. It’s silly to be angry. Yes, I do believe you want to take care of me. But don’t worry. . . . Come! Shall we go?”

“But wouldn’t you rather wait till to-morrow?”

“No. The whole thing’s so mad that if I wait till then I’ll never want to do it. And you’ve got to come, so that I’ll have some one to quarrel with. . . . I hate the smugness of London, especially the smugness of the anti-smug anti-bourgeois radicals, so that I have the finest mad mood! Come. We’ll go.”

Even this logical exposition had not convinced him, but he did not gainsay as they entered the hall and Istra rang for the landlady. His knees grew sick and old and quavery as he heard the landlady’s voice loud below-stairs: “Now wot do they want? It’s eleven o’clock. Aren’t they ever done a-ringing and a-ringing?”

The landlady, the tired thin parchment-faced North Countrywoman, whose god was Respectability of Lodgings, listened in a frightened way to Istra’s blandly superior statement: “Mr. Wrenn and I have been invited to join an excursion out of town that leaves to-night. We’ll pay our rent and leave our things here.”

“Going off together —”

“My good woman, we are going to Aengusmere. Here’s two pound. Don’t allow any one in my room. And I may send for my things from out of town. Be ready to pack them in my trunks and send them to me. Do you understand?”

“Yes, miss, but —”

“My good woman, do you realize that your ‘buts’ are insulting?”

“Oh, I didn’t go to be insulting —”

“Then that’s all. . . . Hurry now, Mouse!”

On the stairs, ascending, she whispered, with the excitement not of a tired woman, but of a tennis-and-dancing-mad girl: “We’re off! Just take a tooth-brush. Put on an outing suit — any old thing — and an old cap.”

She darted into her room.

Now Mr. Wrenn had, for any old thing, as well as for afternoon and evening dress, only the sturdy undistinguished clothes he was wearing, so he put on a cap, and hoped she wouldn’t notice. She didn’t. She came knocking in fifteen minutes, trim in a khaki suit, with low thick boots and a jolly tousled blue tam-o’-shanter.

“Come on. There’s a train for Chelmsford in half an hour, my time-table confided to me. I feel like singing.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/wrenn/chapter9.html

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