The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 25

The hills were not so proud as their own Adirondacks, but softer, more feminine, thought Fred, as they came to Stonefield, a dormered and white-spired hamlet in the Berkshires. The tavern, where Fred again craftily registered as Frederick Williams, N.Y., was no Daisy Dell, but a competent grey-shingled inn, and the annex cottages were isolated on the slope of a hillside dark with pines, light with maples, gleaming with a cleared meadow.

In front, the Cornplows’ cottage looked from a half-screened wide porch, through the columns of a pine grove, to a meadow, and to a pond which would be silver at dawn, blazing in late afternoon, a shield of rose and black just after sunset. At the back, from a minute brick terrace edged with gloxinia, it looked up to the hills, which led the exploring eye from a mountain ridge to ever higher ridges beyond. There were but three rooms: living-room, double bedroom, and kitchen with dining alcove. The cottagers could prepare their own meals or dine at the tavern.

The rooms were ceiled with soft-stained pine; the only pictures were a few sharply coloured prints; the fireplace was of the simplest — brick with a pine mantel; and everything possible had been built in: bookshelves, bureau, dressing-table, couch. The dishes, Hazel found, gently squealing with domestic fervour, were of the best five-and-ten-cent native pottery, made by handmade machinery; there were, incredibly, enough ash trays, and these devised to hold ashes and butts and not to display reproductions of the higher-class barnyard fauna; the screen doors closed tightly without a bang; and there was a shower as well as a smallish tub.

‘It’s swell!’ said Fred, with an idiotic look of bliss.

He paraded around and around the cottage, as proud as once he had been, years ago, when he had first become an owner of property. That had been one lot, with a four-room yellow house, but every foot was miraculously different from all other earth. Why, its one maple tree had roots and branches and a real bird’s-nest, and the sun clung to its trunk, as it never did elsewhere on the block!

He discovered that the name of their cottage was William Tyler Longwhale. Anyway, said Hazel, that was better than naming the cottages Romeo and Portia and Desdemona. They never did find out who the historical William Tyler Longwhale may have been, but Fred insisted on giving their hermitage its full fruity name.

They sat on their porch at dusk. There had been strawberry shortcake for dinner, down at the tavern; they were full of shortcake and humanitarianism. The meadow below them was hysterical with unusually late fireflies; it resembled a still, dark pool reflecting transient stars.

‘D’you realize,’ marvelled Hazel, ‘that this is the first time we’ve had a house that’s entirely our own?’

‘I had some such an idee,’ said Frederick William.

Not even to a sub-agent who might order fifty cars had Fred ever paid such court as he now was paying to Hazel. He had brought his clubs, and Hazel expected him to spend hours a day golfing, during which time she planned to do a little happy, unnecessary cleaning. But he was irritated at having to do anything, even follow the rules of golf. ‘Coupla days, what say we just stroll; not go anywhere in particular,’ he proposed to Hazel, and she pondered, ‘Why, yes, I suppose we COULD!’

Panting a little, very sweaty, observing that Fred’s ‘wind’ had not been improved by cigarettes, carrying extra sweaters and wishing they hadn’t, delighted at the convenience of stopping to see a view without having to find a parking place, they crawled, like two benevolent caterpillars gone vertical, up peaks from which they peered at the placid valley of the Housatonic, into orchards where early apples were afire in the long sweet grass, through pine groves which remembered old German fairy stories. On the multi-coloured stone flagging of the terrace at the King’s Arms, the grand hotel of the region, where Austrian counts, their Chicago countesses, and even proud Amherst and Williams students skied all winter, they lazily drank to each other, not to a nervous gang of Sachem citizens determined to be gay and like it.

But Fred’s favourite goal was the country store in Stonefield Centre, with its back door opening on forty acres of pasture and sugar maples. Amid the overalls, slabs of dried codfish, patent medicines, and country-auction posters, Hazel and he sat on boxes and listened to the storekeeper’s libellous stories about Judge Basser, down the road, of whose housekeeper, who had been with him for twenty-seven years now, people were beginning to suspect the worst.

When they had left this refuge, scented with the molasses sweetness of chewing tobacco, dusty and quiet and serene, Hazel sighed, ‘I like going there. Oh dear, I don’t suppose there’ll be any old-fashioned stores left in ten years — just glass and air-conditioning and telephone.’

‘I thought you were the one that liked all these modern improvements — electric kitchens,’ he jeered.

‘Well, that’s different,’ she answered in her adequate, wifely way.

Their house in Sachem, he perceived, no longer belonged to them except by the artificial convention of deeds and lawbooks. It belonged to Sara, to Howard, to Annabel, to their friends, to the telephone company and the gas-furnace man and the meter reader, to their maid, and to their maid’s sister, sister-inlaw, and sister-inlaw’s sister’s son and his large red toy automobile. But William Tyler Longwhale was theirs alone.

Hazel had so zealously taken to housekeeping that she wanted to prepare not only breakfast but lunch and dinner. He caught her just in time to keep her from putting on the hair shirt of domestic discipline. ‘That’s why we ran away, to avoid fussing.’

‘Well, I just thought I’d fix up a bit for lunch — just some cold meat — no real cooking.’

‘I see. Just cold meat. And a little soup, maybe?’

‘Oh yes, I thought I might make a little hot soup . . .’

‘And a couple hot vegetables?’

‘No, only one. Honestly. Just some nice peas.’

‘And hot potatoes, of course.’

‘Oh, of course, POTATOES!’

‘How about dessert?’

‘Oh, a tiny bit of prune whip — so light — nothing to make . . .’

‘You know, Hazel, you read where women are so much more dependable about bringing up kids and caring for property than men. Fact is, women over-elaborate everything and make life twice as complicated as any normal man ever would, and then they kick because the men don’t jump in and kill themselves taking care of things they never wanted in the first place. You can bet no male ever invented dancing schools for children, or lace collars, or sweet little bows to parents, or eating with forks, or saying “please” and “thank you”. No man ever invented perfume or round flower beds or service plates or doilies or velvet upholstery or dress suits and boiled shirts — and if some tailor invented ’em, well, he didn’t do it; his wife did!’

‘In other words, women have been trying to make life a little pleasant and civilized, while men prefer to live in mud dug-outs and never wash,’ said Hazel, firmly, as she started to make the prune whip.

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