The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 17

Having had words with the dean on the matter of tooting his horn in front of Henry Ward Beecher Hall at dawn, Howard came down to Sachem and the Coheeze office to have company during the agony of being solitary and rebellious.

It was all off with Annabel; she had told him that she regarded his well-considered plan of studying finger-prints and becoming a G-man as less than practical; love’s labour was lost and Annabel could go to the devil.

There were but two weeks before commencement, but he still had his lamentable senior year to undergo, and he hit on the good new notion that it would be sensible to spend it in Moscow. Gene Silga hadn’t exactly said so, but Howard was fairly sure that he remembered hearing somebody say that, in Russia, university students spent most of their time shooting, leaping out of aeroplanes with absolutely safe parachutes, and bathing with lady students who were crazy about Americans.

At a cost in oil, gasoline, depreciation and sustaining hot dogs — to omit the interest and overhead — of approximately seven times what it would have cost to have the envelopes addressed professionally, Howard had come down from Truxon and was sitting now on a small box in front of a big box, addressing Coheeze letters which informed their ‘friends and loyal supporters’ that if they could just come through once more, Protest & Progress would get along prosperously for ever. Gene was telephoning to the local liberal pastor; Sara was picking out on a portable typewriter an editorial revealing that Kathleen Norris, Andrew Mellon and Dizzy Dean were plotting against the independence of Mexico.

Their happy hour of conspiracy was interrupted by the entrance of a bald but youthful male in spats and a belted coat, who handed to each of them a card:

Saringham & Peters
Optimists Bank Bldg.
‘Homes That Are Nice
At Lowest Price’

‘What would I do with a home?’ said Gene.

‘Too much home already,’ said Sara.

‘Can I sell you a subscription to Protest & Progress?’ said Howard.

‘You bet; I’ll take a subscription right now!’ said Ben.

‘Well, I’ll be darned . . . How much does one cost?’ Howard inquired of Gene.

Ben Bogey cheerfully handed over two dollars and a half, which was more real money than that office had seen for a week; he popped his hat off his head in greeting to Sara; he patted it back on again with a gesture like a vaudeville hoofer’s; he sat on the edge of Sara’s table and went into action:

‘The home I’m thinking of just now isn’t for you folks personally. You can kid me, but I’m sure you’ve got cosy little hideaways of your own. The home I’m thinking about is for your magazine, and your society, this International Workers’ whatever-it-is — I forget. My firm is developing a new development on a new principle of developing. It’s going to be the first addition in the world that’s got culture for a selling point. We don’t want to contact brokers or even bankers, but docs and lawyers and advertising men and radio announcers and real intellectuals like that. I can offer you a whole floor in a fine, made-over, old, ancient house, built back in 1890 but with all necessary modern improvements, including electric ice-water cooler, for a mere two hundred dollars a month.

‘You’ll be taken right into the social and artistic activities of the community. Why, I wouldn’t wonder if you’d be invited to a reception-tea by Mrs. Stotes Emery — and there’s a real author for you — her husband is the big bond house, and she’s had poems published in a bound book that, I know for a fact, has been sent to G. B. Wells and a number of other famous foreign scribes for their criticism, and she’d be tickled to death to advise and inspire you . . .’

‘Comrade Bogey!’ Gene was smiling; Gene sounded affectionate. ‘We’re both working the same side of the avenue! I address street meetings myself. I’m afraid you don’t understand that our little sheet is entirely subversive. We’re what is known as Reds — Radicals — Dangerous Alien Elements; and I’m afraid that Pansy Park . . . You did say, didn’t you, that was the name of your garden suburb?’

‘No; it’s Lilac Lane. Pansy Park would make a swell name to use, though. Excuse me if I jot it down.’

‘Certainly, comrade. What I’m getting at is that your sterling community would throw us out on our ears.’

‘That’s just where you’re off your base. Red Radicalism is the newest, the most fashionable racket there is today. Nothing a banker’s wife likes so much as to hear that her husband may get stuck up before a firing squad. Say, nothing will get publicity and pack his pews for a liberal clergyman, with a wife and seven children and a mortgage, as much as to say at a society dinner party that family life is going to be abolished. No. You boys come in with us and we’ll give you three months’ rent free.’

‘So kind of you, comrade, but we happen to believe in our “racket”. We don’t like rich women that give you tea and advice.’

‘Good God, who does! I’m not talking about liking it; I’m talking about young fellows trying to get along!’

Not for fifteen minutes did Gene make a real effort to get rid of Ben Bogey, for like all people who work in offices, including magazine offices, publishers’ offices and the clangorous offices of latter-day authors, with their lecture and radio and cinema departments, Gene was pleased by anything like an excuse to stop telephoning. When Ben went cheerily out, Howard stuttered, ‘S-s-say, could I see you for just a minute, Mr. Bogey? Let’s go across the street and have a cuppacoffee.’

At Ye Olde Robin’s Egg Rotisserie, Howard confided, ‘I’m finishing up college next year, and I’ve been thinking right along I’d like to go into the real-estate game. Course I’ve been offered chances in developing television and frog farms and all that sort of bunk, but real estate has always been my one ambition.’

Howard was not lying; he was merely being dramatic and self-convinced, as was Howard’s father when he said that he liked writing orders in triplicate.

‘I’m not a communist, you understand, Mr. Bogey; I was just in there because I’ve got a sister works there. Say, I’ve got a swell idea for a new kind of suburb.’

‘Yeah?’ cautiously.

‘Instead of measly little houses, everybody live in one big skyscraper — go call on your neighbours, winter evenings, not have to get your feet wet — and use all the land for playgrounds and great, big, huge gardens. And grottos, maybe.’

‘Yeah?’ wearily. ‘Listen, brother. In the real-estate game you don’t want ideas — you want prospects.’

‘But I was thinking — I’m sure I could get my dad to back me — he don’t know what to do with all the money he makes, he’s such a slave of routine, and with him behind me . . .’

‘Who is your dad?’

‘F. W. Cornplow, the district agent for the Triumph.’

‘Oh yes, sure. I heard him talk once at the Boosters’ Club. Great salesman. Great! Wish I could interest him in a new rental. I’ve got the sweetest proposition for a motor agency in this man’s town . . .’

‘Let’s go and see him. Got your bus here? Shall I give you a lift?’

‘Got my coop parked right across. You go ahead and I’ll trail you.’

‘O.K., Ben.’

‘Swell. What do they call you for short, baby?’

Arm in arm, the two swarmed into Fred’s office.

‘Dad, want you to meet Ben Bogey, the best little real-estate salesman in Sachem, and he’s got the slickest proposition for a motor-agency rental in this man’s town . . .’

Fred considered Ben’s spats, he considered Ben’s belted coat, and he was noticeably uncordial. ‘I’ve got a rental!’

Ben Bogey stepped forward and took the limelight away from Howard. ‘I know what a busy man you are, Mr. Cornplow . . .’

‘I am!’

‘ . . . and I won’t take your time just now, but if you are interested in air, light, space, costs-saving . . .’

‘I am not. I loathe all of ’em.’

‘I see, but . . .’

Howard laughed. ‘You better listen to the old scoundrel, Dad, because Ben and me have just fixed it up to start a real-estate firm.’

‘On who? On Ben?’

‘Not exactly, Dad. I’m sure that when you hear our plans you’ll be able to see your way clear . . .’

‘Come back next year, Howard, and we’ll talk it over, and now — please — go — AWAY!’

Annabel was small and forlorn, at the end of a mahogany couch, pride of the Staybridge Mansion. She peeped at the telephone out in the hall. By now, she thought, the instrument must be so well trained that she would have but to pick up the receiver to be connected with Truxon College.

Why, she thought, did she ever call him up? Howard never said anything on the telephone but ‘Ullo, ullo, ullo’ in what he considered an English accent. But he was so cheerful and knowable, in contrast to her cultured Parent, whose level voice was always a veil, soaked in ice water, between them.

Forlorn and very small. Actually, Annabel was as tall as her father, who sat in elegant flowing lines at the other end of the drawing-room. But so erect was his pride and self-satisfaction that, beside her, he seemed like an obelisk.

He did not pretend to be reading; frankly he was watching her, everything she did, and she became jerky. She looked away from the telephone. She rose and paced toward the fireplace, airily swinging her hands, trying to think of any reason why she should go to the fireplace. She moved the brass Buddha on the mantelpiece two inches to the right; she felt her father’s condemnatory glance scorching her back, and hastily she moved Buddha back again. With a fine fingertip, she smoothed the cool glossy cover of a garden magazine — and peeped at the telephone.

Her fingers wandered through the poems of Yeats; the old edition, with the cross and the mystic rose and falling leaves upon the cover, which her father had brought home from London thirty years ago and which, after her mother’s death, he had been wont to read to her until suddenly she had awakened to the charm of the lines, at which he immediately became impatient of them, said they were sentimental, for milk-sick girls, and threw the book on the floor. She had picked it up and defiantly treasured it.

He was half sneering at her now as she read again:

. . . the land of faery

Where nobody gets old and godly and grave,

Where nobody gets old and crafty and wise,

Where nobody gets old and bitter of tongue;

And she is still there, busied with a dance,

Deep in the dewy shadow of a wood,

Or where stars walk upon a mountain-top.

Again she looked toward the telephone, and he spoke suavely, like a man superior to all emotion:

‘It would be obvious, wouldn’t it, Ann, that you are expecting a telephone call from this bloated young bruiser, Cornplow, this study in the mind of primitive man, whom you have been seeing lately?’

‘He isn’t bloated. But I am expecting him to phone . . .’

‘The word is “telephone”.’

‘ . . . or to drop in.’

‘Drop into what? The speech of youth today is very picturesque. It lacks only one thing that speech normally should have — an intelligible meaning . . .’

She was screaming.

‘Stop, stop, stop, stop! Dear God, I get so sick of your making spider webs of words that choke me! Howard IS simple! That’s one reason I like him! He’s like daylight and fresh air, and this place is like a dungeon!’

‘I trust you like his family, also — they are certainly on the simple, fresh-airish side.’

‘I do! Especially his father. There’s such nice wiggly lines beside his eyes, where he laughs. And you dare to patronize him! Oh, I do hate you!’

‘Are you quite sure, my dear Ann? I suspect that, at least, my superciliousness will keep you from making a fool of yourself . . .’

And then, astonishingly, Howard was ringing the doorbell. After her father’s wry, dark, feline teasing, the young man seemed to Annabel like a jolly St. Bernard. She clasped his solid chunk of a hand and towed him into the drawing-room.

Mr. Putnam Staybridge was a successful experimenter in moods. He had already dropped the venom and honey, the purr of a cat with a mouse, and he barked like a terrier:

‘Good evening, Howard, I daresay you would agree that the weather is warm.’

‘Uh . . .’

‘I see that we are in accord about the weather.’

‘Uh . . .’

‘But there is, perhaps, a weightier topic. I don’t know whether you have the intelligence to perceive it, but it looks to me as though you either had grossly improper intentions, as they call ’em, toward my daughter, or else you are young idiot enough to think that you could marry her. Which, eh? Which?’

‘W-why, I’ll tell you, Mr. Staybridge . . .’

‘Don’t stammer!’

‘Well, golly, springing things like that so suddenly — hard for a fellow to answer, right off the bat . . .’

Light fingers on his arm, Annabel had guided Howard to a stiff Colonial settee, and she perched beside him, like a cowbird chaperoning an ox, while he struggled:

‘Course, maybe I suppose I ought to finish college before I think about getting married, sir, but I certainly am crazy about Bell, and the minute I get out, I hope to land a good job and be able to support her.’

‘It is your notion, then, that all Miss Annabel needs is to be provided with food and lodging? She seems to me to be quite adequately cared for already. Has it occurred to you that it would also be necessary for you to learn her language; the language I’ve reared her to speak?’

‘Her language?’

‘Quite! If you see this as in a glass, darkly, Miss Annabel might be willing to explain.’

Mr. Staybridge did not, as usual, embarrass them by snatching up his toys and going home; he embarrassed them more by sitting in easy indifference, reading Baron Corvo. If in the chill of that dry ice Annabel and Howard were too congealed for speech, their touching hands were voluble, and soundlessly they crept into the hall, out to a stiff white bench beside a stiff red plot of roses.

June, moon, tune — roses red and joybells soon; it should all have been a comedy of boy meets girl; but actually the young people were shaken with fear of Putnam Staybridge’s contempt, fear of a world where the commonplaces of jobs and rent and food had become as difficult as winning an empire; and most of all, fear of their own overwhelming and illogical love, released now by Putnam’s jibes.

Annabel dropped her protective street-corner flipness, all the ‘O.K.s’ and ‘Swells’ she had adopted equally from shopgirls and from the elegant Junior Leaguers. Howard was frightened out of his heavy humour. With his arm desperate about her shoulder, he could feel her tremble, her arm and shoulder tremble, as though every muscle were a shaken cord, and he was trembling himself as he struggled:

‘G-golly, I g-guess we got to do something about it. I can’t stand being away from you any more. All the fellows at Truxon, yellin’ and throwing books around, and even drinking gin, and I’m beginning to think gin is awfully bad for your digestion, and the bums, they come bursting into my room any hour, day or night, in those dirty ole sweaters and grey pants, and I want to throw ’em out — honest, Bell, I guess maybe I’m kind of crazy, but I can see you there standing in the dormitory hall, in a white dress, like a white flower the wind has blown there, and . . . But gosh, I wonder if I’m very intelligent? I don’t know if I really care so much for reading, except the comic strips.’

‘Dear, my dear, your heart is intelligent . . . I think it is! God help me if it isn’t! Oh, it is!’

‘Say, I’ll settle down and read like the dickens — Tolstoi and biology and all those things.’

‘We’ll read together. I don’t really know anything except what I parrot from Father.’

‘You’ll have to stand for keeping after me and making me work — be hard on you, but now we can’t help it — this love business got so hold of me — feel like I was swimming in some rapids. We’ll be married before this week is up!’

‘But don’t they expel students that marry, at Truxon?’


‘But don’t you think you have to finish college?’

‘We can’t go on pretending to be a couple of monks.’

‘No. Perhaps not.’

‘I’ll get a job right away. Dad bellyaches about it, but I can depend on him to find . . .’

‘No! Howard! We mustn’t depend on anybody! And besides! I have a hunch that Father Cornplow, the darling, is getting pretty fed up on having a bunch of grown-up huskies like you and Sara, and maybe me, hanging on to him as if we were babies with the measles. Be nice if he would give you a job, but . . . He’s not like Putnam. That One enjoys having me stick around, so he can nag me and try out all the nifties he heard in Munich and Florence. Father Fred doesn’t owe us a thing, not any longer, and he’s beginning to suspect it . . .’

‘He’s GOT to help us! The world and the government and your own folks owe everybody a living.’

‘You know: my father — sometimes he’s pretty bright, or else he knows what books to steal from — he was saying that there isn’t any government; there’s nothing but a lot of people that are the government only they don’t know it.’

‘Maybe, but a fellow’s own parents . . . I never asked to be born.’

‘I doubt if anybody invited you to, either! No. If Father Fred gets sick of nursing us, I won’t blame him. He’s not asking us to marry — if we do get married . . .’

‘We do!’

‘Looks so, from this side. But I want us to economize. I’m crazy to. Honestly, honey, I’d get more kick out of having the nerve to do without things than I ever would getting them. Live in one room, if necessary. And I really am a pretty good cook — Putnam, the old gourmet, has seen to that. Let’s live on eighteen dollars a week, if we have to . . .’

‘Sure. That’s O.K. by me. But before we start, there’s a few things we’ll have to have, and I’m busted just this minute, so Brother Cornplow will have to come through. We’ll need a new radio — I haven’t anything but my little portable — and the one in the car, of course — but that’s a cinch; I’d be perfectly satisfied with a radio that didn’t cost over fifty bucks.’

‘Howard!’ She was not trembling now, but rigid.

‘Think that’d be too much? Well, all right. We could wait to get that — maybe months. But I’ve simply got to have a new Tuxedo.’

‘My child, my child! Good-bye, Mr. Yeats! Goodbye, dove-grey edge of the sea and stormy sunset on doomed ships!’ Annabel put on again her mask of country-club vulgarity. ‘What a job I went and picked out for myself!’ She kissed him on the lips. ‘Call me ten tomorrow morning, when That One is off to his den,’ and she fled into the gloomy house, while he wailed, ‘But wait — wait — just minute . . . Aw, Bell, please . . . I’ll be doggoned!’

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57