The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 18

Three p.m. A June day. Office of the Triumph Motor Agency, also the Duplex Trailer, the Nation’s Movable Home. Mr. Putnam Staybridge calling on Mr. Frederick William Cornplow.

‘How d’you do, Mr. Staybridge! What can I do for you today? Can I have one of the salesmen show you the mid-year model Triumphs?’

‘Thanks, no. Do you mind if I sit down?’

‘Why, no.’

‘Cornplow, I have ventured on a course, somewhat rare in these complex days — I’m quite old-fashioned, you see — of coming to you and speaking directly. Are you aware that your son and my daughter, mere children both of them, and perhaps neither of them very wise, apparently think they are in love?’

Fred was as angry at the smooth and supercilious tone as he had ever been in his life. Sitting behind his desk, he pressed his fingertips together till his knuckles felt as though they were breaking, but never in his life had he sounded more civil:

‘I’ve noticed something of the kind, Mr. — uh — yes, I have noticed it, Staybridge.’

‘You realize that it would be entirely unsuitable for Miss Annabel to marry your son.’


Mr. Staybridge waited for wrath, but had to carry on the play without it:

‘I suppose your son has no money?’

‘Not unless he’s been holding out on me!’

‘Nor prospects?’

‘He tells me he may play in the college team, next autumn.’

‘I’m being serious, Cornplow.’

Fred grunted.

‘And I think that in other respects they aren’t exactly mated,’ said Putnam.

‘Such as?’

‘Oh, need we go into details, my dear fellow?’

Fred tramped the floor for almost a quarter of a minute before he was able to answer with suavity:

‘Want me to tell you what you’re trying to say, Staybridge? No. I don’t suppose you do. But I’ll be doggoned if I’m not going to. The idea is that you come from an aristocratic family, and me and the boy from a bunch of plain farmers and blacksmiths. That’s the bunk. If it were true, which it doesn’t happen to be . . .’

‘Aren’t you rather assuming . . .’

‘ . . . as I say, it doesn’t happen to BE true, because there’s about six hard-up school teachers or government clerks among the Staybridge gang to one rich one . . .’

‘If you PLEASE!’

‘ . . . but what of it? We’re dealing with today. You’re the kind of snob, Putnam, that thinks a manufacturer is socially ‘way ahead of a wholesaler, and a wholesaler has got it all over a retailer, God knows why, and . . . And it happens that you aren’t even a strictly kosher manufacturer — you own in pretty heavily, as a sleeping partner, on the Conqueror Company, which is engaged in peddling cars, same as I am. Oh, Putnam, how could you, my boy!’

Fred had seated himself again, very red; the pearl-pale Putnam had risen, even redder, and was shrieking, ‘There happens also to be a question of breeding and manners!’

Quite gallantly Putnam took the risk of turning his back to Fred the Terrier and walking out.

Fred was brooding, ‘And now, by golly, I’ll be doggoned if I won’t go and make those doggoned young idiots go and get married even if they doggoned don’t want to! . . . Huh? No, I’m busy. Have Paul Popple talk to him.’

Later: ‘But the little rat was right about one thing. Annabel certainly has got better manners than my brat, and I suspect she can read and write.’

Much later: ‘What can a parent, that isn’t more’n average bright himself, do for his children? Maybe leave them alone? If I only knew! . . . Maybe the poor, conceited little flute player loves his daughter, in his fool fashion. Wants to keep her . . . He’s lost her. Do we always lose the people we love; only keep the people that we don’t plague with loving? I guess those are the real wars — men against women — parents against children — and not all this monkey business in Europe. I’d like an armistice! I’d like to go off someplace to a valley where there’s peace.’

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