HotFreeBooks.com
Our Mr. Wrenn - The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man
by Sinclair Lewis
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

He crawled up to the main deck and huddled in the shelter of a pile of hay-bales where Pete was declaring to Tim and the rest that Satan "couldn't never get nothing on him."

Morton broke into Pete's publicity with the question, "Say, is it straight what they say, Pete, that you're the guy that owns the Leyland Line and that's why you know so much more than the rest of us poor lollops? Watson, the needle, quick!" [Applause and laughter.]

Wrennie felt personally grateful to Morton for this, but he went up to the aft top deck, where he could lie alone on a pile of tarpaulins. He made himself observe the sea which, as Kipling and Jack London had specifically promised him in their stories, surrounded him, everywhere shining free; but he glanced at it only once. To the north was a liner bound for home.

Home! Gee! That was rubbing it in! While at work, whether he was sick or not, he could forget—things. But the liner, fleeting on with bright ease, made the cattle-boat seem about as romantic as Mrs. Zapp's kitchen sink.

Why, he wondered—"why had he been a chump? Him a wanderer? No; he was a hired man on a sea-going dairy-farm. Well, he'd get onto this confounded job before he was through with it, but then—gee! back to God's Country!"

While the Merian, eleven days out, pleasantly rocked through the Irish Sea, with the moon revealing the coast of Anglesey, one Bill Wrenn lay on the after-deck, condescending to the heavens. It was so warm that they did not need to sleep below, and half a dozen of the cattlemen had brought their mattresses up on deck. Beside Bill Wrenn lay the man who had given him that name—Tim, the hatter, who had become weakly alarmed and admiring as Wrennie learned to rise feeling like a boy in early vacation-time, and to find shouting exhilaration in sending a forkful of hay fifteen good feet.

Morton, who lay near by, had also adopted the name "Bill Wrenn." Most of the trip Morton had discussed Pete and Tim instead of the fact that "things is curious." Mr. Wrenn had been jealous at first, but when he learned from Morton the theory that even a Pete was a "victim of 'vironment" he went out for knowing him quite systematically.

To McGarver he had been "Bill Wrenn" since the fifth day, when he had kept a hay-bale from slipping back into the hold on the boss's head. Satan and Pete still called him "Wrennie," but he was not thinking about them just now with Tim listening admiringly to his observations on socialism.

Tim fell asleep. Bill Wrenn lay quiet and let memory color the sky above him. He recalled the gardens of water which had flowered in foam for him, strange ships and nomadic gulls, and the schools of sleekly black porpoises that, for him, had whisked through violet waves. Most of all, he brought back the yesterday's long excitement and delight of seeing the Irish coast hills—his first foreign land—whose faint sky fresco had seemed magical with the elfin lore of Ireland, a country that had ever been to him the haunt not of potatoes and politicians, but of fays. He had wanted fays. They were not common on the asphalt of West Sixteenth Street. But now he had seen them beckoning in Wanderland.

He was falling asleep under the dancing dome of the sky, a happy Mr. Wrenn, when he was aroused as a furious Bill, the cattleman. Pete was clogging near by, singing hoarsely, "Dey was a skoit and 'er name was Goity."

"You shut up!" commanded Bill Wrenn.

"Say, be careful!" the awakened Tim implored of him. Pete snorted: "Who says to 'shut up,' hey? Who was it, Satan?"

From the capstan, where he was still smoking, the head foreman muttered: "What's the odds? The little man won't say it again."

Pete stood by Bill Wrenn's mattress. "Who said 'shut up'?" sounded ominously.

Bill popped out of bed with what he regarded as a vicious fighting-crouch. For he was too sleepy to be afraid. "I did! What you going to do about it?" More mildly, as a fear of his own courage began to form, "I want to sleep."

"Oh! You want to sleep. Little mollycoddle wants to sleep, does he? Come here!"

The tough grabbed at Bill's shirt-collar across the mattress. Bill ducked, stuck out his arm wildly, and struck Pete, half by accident. Roaring, Pete bunted him, and he went down, with Pete kneeling on his stomach and pounding him.

Morton and honest McGarver, the straw-boss, sprang to drag off Pete, while Satan, the panther, with the first interest they had ever seen in his eyes, snarled: "Let 'em fight fair. Rounds. You're a' right, Bill."

"Right," commended Morton.

Armored with Satan's praise, firm but fearful in his rubber sneakers, surprised and shocked to find himself here doing this, Bill Wrenn squared at the rowdy. The moon touched sadly the lightly sketched Anglesey coast and the rippling wake, but Bill Wrenn, oblivious of dream moon and headland, faced his fellow-bruiser.

They circled. Pete stuck out his foot gently. Morton sprang in, bawling furiously, "None o' them rough-and-tumble tricks."

"Right-o," added McGarver.

Pete scowled. He was left powerless. He puffed and grew dizzy as Bill Wrenn danced delicately about him, for he could do nothing without back-street tactics. He did bloody the nose of Bill and pummel his ribs, but many cigarettes and much whisky told, and he was ready to laugh foolishly and make peace when, at the end of the sixth round, he felt Bill's neat little fist in a straight—and entirely accidental—rip to the point of his jaw.

Pete sent his opponent spinning with a back-hander which awoke all the cruelty of the terrible Bill. Silently Bill Wrenn plunged in with a smash! smash! smash! like a murderous savage, using every grain of his strength.

Let us turn from the lamentable luck of Pete. He had now got the idea that his supposed victim could really fight. Dismayed, shocked, disgusted, he stumbled and sought to flee, and was sent flat.

This time it was the great little Bill who had to be dragged off. McGarver held him, kicking and yammering, his mild mustache bristling like a battling cat's, till the next round, when Pete was knocked out by a clumsy whirlwind of fists.

He lay on the deck, with Bill standing over him and demanding, "What's my name, heh?"

"I t'ink it's Bill now, all right, Wrennie, old hoss—Bill, old hoss," groaned Pete.

He was permitted to sneak off into oblivion.

Bill Wrenn went below. In the dark passage by the fidley he fell to tremorous weeping. But the brackish hydrant water that stopped his nose-bleed saved him from hysterics. He climbed to the top deck, and now he could again see his brother pilgrim, the moon.

The stiffs and bosses were talking excitedly of the fight. Tim rushed up to gurgle: "Great, Bill, old man! You done just what I'd 'a' done if he'd cussed me. I told you Pete was a bluffer."

"Git out," said Satan.

Tim fled.

Morton came up, looked at Bill Wrenn, pounded him on the shoulder, and went off to his mattress. The other stiffs slouched away, but McGarver and Satan were still discussing the fight.

Snuggling on the hard black pile of tarpaulins, Bill talked to them, warmed to them, and became Mr. Wrenn. He announced his determination to wander adown every shining road of Europe.

"Nice work." "Sure." "You'll make a snappy little ole globe-trotter." "Sure; ought to be able to get the slickest kind of grub for four bits a day." "Nice work," Satan interjected from time to time, with smooth irony. "Sure. Go ahead. Like to hear your plans."

McGarver broke in: "Cut that out, Marvin. You're a 'Satan' all right. Quit your kidding the little man. He's all right. And he done fine on the job last three-four days."

Lying on his mattress, Bill stared at the network of the ratlines against the brilliant sky. The crisscross lines made him think of the ruled order-blanks of the Souvenir Company.

"Gee!" he mused, "I'd like to know if Jake is handling my work the way we—they—like it. I'd like to see the old office again, and Charley Carpenter, just for a couple of minutes. Gee! I wish they could have seen me put it all over Pete to-night! That's what I'm going to do to the blooming Englishmen if they don't like me."

The S.S. Merian panted softly beside the landing-stage at Birkenhead, Liverpool's Jersey City, resting in the sunshine after her voyage, while the cattle were unloaded. They had encountered fog-banks at the mouth of the Mersey River. Mr. Wrenn had ecstatically watched the shores of England—England!—ride at him through the fog, and had panted over the lines of English villas among the dunes. It was like a dream, yet the shore had such amazingly safe solid colors, real red and green and yellow, when contrasted with the fog-wet deck unearthily glancing with mist-lights.

Now he was seeing his first foreign city, and to Morton, stolidly curious beside him, he could say nothing save "Gee!" With church-tower and swarthy dome behind dome, Liverpool lay across the Mersey. Up through the Liverpool streets that ran down to the river, as though through peep-holes slashed straight back into the Middle Ages, his vision plunged, and it wandered unchecked through each street while he hummed:

"Free, free, in Eu-ro-pee, that's me!"

The cattlemen were called to help unload the remaining hay. They made a game of it. Even Satan smiled, even the Jewish elders were lightly affable as they made pretendedly fierce gestures at the squat patient hay-bales. Tim, the hatter, danced a limber foolish jig upon the deck, and McGarver bellowed, "The bon-nee bon-nee banks of Loch Lo-o-o-o-mond."

The crowd bawled: "Come on, Bill Wrenn; your turn. Hustle up with that bale, Pete, or we'll sic Bill on you."

Bill Wrenn, standing very dignified, piped: "I'm Colonel Armour. I own all these cattle, 'cept the Morris uns, see? Gotta do what I say, savvy? Tim, walk on your ear."

The hatter laid his head on the deck and waved his anemic legs in accordance with directions from Colonel Armour (late Wrenn).

The hay was off. The Merian tooted and headed across the Mersey to the Huskinson Dock, in Liverpool, while the cattlemen played tag about the deck. Whooping and laughing, they made last splashy toilets at the water-butts, dragged out their luggage, and descended to the dock-house.

As the cattlemen passed Bill Wrenn and Morton, shouting affectionate good-bys in English or courteous Yiddish, Bill commented profanely to Morton on the fact that the solid stone floor of the great shed seemed to have enough sea-motion to "make a guy sick." It was nearly his last utterance as Bill Wrenn. He became Mr. Wrenn, absolute Mr. Wrenn, on the street, as he saw a real English bobby, a real English carter, and the sign, "Cocoa House. Tea Id."

England!

"Now for some real grub!" cried Morton. "No more scouse and willow-leaf tea."

Stretching out their legs under a table glorified with toasted Sally Lunns and Melton Mowbrays, served by a waitress who said "Thank you" with a rising inflection, they gazed at the line of mirrors running Britishly all around the room over the long lounge seat, and smiled with the triumphant content which comes to him whose hunger for dreams and hunger for meat-pies are satisfied together.



CHAPTER V

HE FINDS MUCH QUAINT ENGLISH FLAVOR



Big wharves, all right. England sure is queen of the sea, heh? Busy town, Liverpool. But, say, there is a quaint English flavor to these shops.... Look at that: 'Red Lion Inn.'... 'Overhead trams' they call the elevated. Real flavor, all right. English as can be.... I sure like to wander around these little shops. Street crowd. That's where you get the real quaint flavor."

Thus Morton, to the glowing Mr. Wrenn, as they turned into St. George's Square, noting the Lipton's Tea establishment. Sir Thomas Lipton—wasn't he a friend of the king? Anyway, he was some kind of a lord, and he owned big society racing-yachts.

In the grandiose square Mr. Wrenn prayerfully remarked, "Gee!"

"Greek temple. Fine," agreed Morton.

"That's St. George's Hall, where they have big organ concerts," explained Mr. Wrenn. "And there's the art-gallery across the Square, and here's the Lime Street Station." He had studied his Baedeker as club women study the cyclopedia. "Let's go over and look at the trains."

"Funny little boxes, ain't they, Wrenn, them cars! Quaint things. What is it they call 'em—carriages? First, second, third class...."

"Just like in books."

"Booking-office. That's tickets.... Funny, eh?"

Mr. Wrenn insisted on paying for both their high teas at the cheap restaurant, timidly but earnestly. Morton was troubled. As they sat on a park bench, smoking those most Anglican cigarettes, "Dainty Bits," Mr. Wrenn begged:

"What's the matter, old man?"

"Oh, nothing. Just thinking." Morton smiled artificially. He added, presently: "Well, old Bill, got to make the break. Can't go on living on you this way."

"Aw, thunder! You ain't living on me. Besides, I want you to. Honest I do. We can have a whole lot better time together, Morty."

"Yes, but—Nope; I can't do it. Nice of you. Can't do it, though. Got to go on my own, like the fellow says."

"Aw, come on. Look here; it's my money, ain't it? I got a right to spend it the way I want to, haven't I? Aw, come on. We'll bum along together, and then when the money is gone we'll get some kind of job together. Honest, I want you to."

"Hunka. Don't believe you'd care for the kind of knockabout jobs I'll have to get."

"Sure I would. Aw, come on, Morty. I—"

"You're too level-headed to like to bum around like a fool hobo. You'd dam soon get tired of it."

"What if I did? Morty, look here. I've been learning something on this trip. I've always wanted to just do one thing—see foreign places. Well, I want to do that just as much as ever. But there's something that's a whole lot more important. Somehow, I ain't ever had many friends. Some ways you're about the best friend I've ever had—you ain't neither too highbrow or too lowbrow. And this friendship business—it means such an awful lot. It's like what I was reading about—something by Elbert Hubbard or—thunder, I can't remember his name, but, anyway, it's one of those poet guys that writes for the back page of the Journal—something about a joyous adventure. That's what being friends is. Course you understand I wouldn't want to say this to most people, but you'll understand how I mean. It's—this friendship business is just like those old crusaders— you know—they'd start out on a fine morning—you know; armor shining, all that stuff. It wouldn't make any dif. what they met as long as they was fighting together. Rainy nights with folks sneaking through the rain to get at 'em, and all sorts of things— ready for anything, long as they just stuck together. That's the way this friendship business is, I b'lieve. Just like it said in the Journal. Yump, sure is. Gee! it's—Chance to tell folks what you think and really get some fun out of seeing places together. And I ain't ever done it much. Course I don't mean to say I've been living off on any blooming desert island all my life, but, just the same, I've always been kind of alone—not knowing many folks. You know how it is in a New York rooming-house. So now—Aw, don't slip up on me, Morty. Honestly, I don't care what kind of work we do as long as we can stick together; I don't care a hang if we don't get anything better to do than scrub floors!"

Morton patted his arm and did not answer for a while. Then:

"Yuh, I know how you mean. And it's good of you to like beating it around with me. But you sure got the exaggerated idee of me. And you'd get sick of the holes I'm likely to land in."

There was a certain pride which seemed dreadfully to shut Mr. Wrenn out as Morton added:

"Why, man, I'm going to do all of Europe. From the Turkish jails to—oh, St. Petersburg.... You made good on the Merian, all right. But you do like things shipshape."

"Oh, I'd—"

"We might stay friends if we busted up now and met in New York again. But not if you get into all sorts of bum places w—"

"Why, look here, Morty—"

"—with me.... However, I'll think it over. Let's not talk about it till to-morrow."

"Oh, please do think it over, Morty, old man, won't you? And to-night you'll let me take you to a music-hall, won't you?"

"Uh—yes," Morton hesitated.

A music-hall—not mere vaudeville! Mr. Wrenn could hardly keep his feet on the pavement as they scampered to it and got ninepenny seats. He would have thought it absurd to pay eighteen cents for a ticket, but pence—They were out at nine-thirty. Happily tired, Mr. Wrenn suggested that they go to a temperance hotel at his expense, for he had read in Baedeker that temperance hotels were respectable—also cheap.

"No, no!" frowned Morton. "Tell you what you do, Bill. You go to a hotel, and I'll beat it down to a lodging-house on Duke Street.... Juke Street!... Remember how I ran onto Pete on the street? He told me you could get a cot down there for fourpence."

"Aw, come on to a hotel. Please do! It 'd just hurt me to think of you sleeping in one of them holes. I wouldn't sleep a bit if—"

"Say, for the love of Mike, Wrenn, get wise! Get wise, son! I'm not going to sponge on you, and that's all there is to it."

Bill Wrenn strode into their company for a minute, and quoth the terrible Bill:

"Well, you don't need to get so sore about it. I don't go around asking folks can I give 'em a meal ticket all the time, let me tell you, and when I do—Oh rats! Say, I didn't mean to get huffy, Morty. But, doggone you, old man, you can't shake me this easy. I sye, old top, I'm peeved; yessir. We'll go Dutch to a lodging-house, or even walk the streets."

"All right, sir; all right. I'll take you up on that. We'll sleep in an areaway some place."

They walked to the outskirts of Liverpool, questing the desirable dark alley. Awed by the solid quietude and semigrandeur of the large private estates, through narrow streets where dim trees leaned over high walls whose long silent stretches were broken only by mysterious little doors, they tramped bashfully, inspecting, but always rejecting, nooks by lodge gates.

They came to a stone church with a porch easily reached from the street, a large and airy stone porch, just suited, Morton declared, "to a couple of hoboes like us. If a bobby butts in, why, we'll just slide under them seats. Then the bobby can go soak his head."

Mr. Wrenn had never so far defied society as to steal a place for sleeping. He felt very uneasy, like a man left naked on the street by robbers, as he rolled up his coat for a pillow and removed his shoes in a place that was perfectly open to the street. The paved floor was cold to his bare feet, and, as he tried to go to sleep, it kept getting colder and colder to his back. Reaching out his hand, he fretfully rubbed the cracks between stones. He scowled up at the ceiling of the porch. He couldn't bear to look out through the door, for it framed the vicar's house, with lamplight bodying forth latticed windows, suggesting soft beds and laughter and comfortable books. All the while his chilled back was aching in new places.

He sprang up, put on his shoes, and paced the churchyard. It seemed a great waste of educational advantages not to study the tower of this foreign church, but he thought much more about his aching shoulder-blades.

Morton came from the porch stiff but grinning. "Didn't like it much, eh, Bill? Afraid you wouldn't. Must say I didn't either, though. Well, come on. Let's beat it around and see if we can't find a better place."

In a vacant lot they discovered a pile of hay. Mr. Wrenn hardly winced at the hearty slap Morton gave his back, and he pronounced, "Some Waldorf-Astoria, that stack!" as they sneaked into the lot. They had laid loving hands upon the hay, remarking, "Well, I guess!" when they heard from a low stable at the very back of the lot:

"I say, you chaps, what are you doing there?"

A reflective carter, who had been twisting two straws, ambled out of the shadow of the stable and prepared to do battle.

"Say, old man, can't we sleep in your hay just to-night?" argued Morton. "We're Americans. Came over on a cattle-boat. We ain't got only enough money to last us for food," while Mr. Wrenn begged, "Aw, please let us."

"Oh! You're Americans, are you? You seem decent enough. I've got a brother in the States. He used to own this stable with me. In St. Cloud, Minnesota, he is, you know. Minnesota's some kind of a shire. Either of you chaps been in Minnesota?"

"Sure," lied Morton; "I've hunted bear there."

"Oh, I say, bear now! My brother's never written m—"

"Oh, that was way up in the northern part, in the Big Woods. I've had some narrow escapes."

Then Morton, who had never been west of Pittsburg, sang somewhat in this wise the epic of the hunting he had never done:

Alone. Among the pines. Dead o' winter. Only one shell in his rifle. Cold of winter. Snow—deep snow. Snow-shoes. Hiking along—reg'lar mushing—packing grub to the lumber-camp. Way up near the Canadian border. Cold, terrible cold. Stars looked like little bits of steel.

Mr. Wrenn thought he remembered the story. He had read it in a magazine. Morton was continuing:

Snow stretched out among the pines. He was wearing a Mackinaw and shoe-packs. Saw a bear loping along. He had—Morton had—a .44-.40 Marlin, but only one shell. Thrust the muzzle of his rifle right into the bear's mouth. Scared for a minute. Almost fell off his snow-shoes. Hardest thing he ever did, to pull that trigger. Fired. Bear sort of jumped at him, then rolled over, clawing. Great place, those Minnesota Big—

"What's a shoe-pack?" the Englishman stolidly interjected.

"Kind of a moccasin.... Great place, those woods. Hope your brother gets the chance to get up there."

"I say, I wonder did you ever meet him? Scrabble is his name, Jock Scrabble."

"Jock Scrabble—no, but say! By golly, there was a fellow up in the Big Woods that came from St. Cl—St. Cloud? Yes, that was it. He was telling us about the town. I remember he said your brother had great chances there."

The Englishman meditatively accepted a bad cigar from Mr. Wrenn. Suddenly: "You chaps can sleep in the stable-loft if you'd like. But you must blooming well stop smoking."

So in the dark odorous hay-mow Mr. Wrenn stretched out his legs with an affectionate "good night" to Morton. He slept nine hours. When he awoke, at the sound of a chain clanking in the stable below, Morton was gone. This note was pinned to his sleeve:

DEAR OLD MAN,—I still feel sure that you will not enjoy the hiking. Bumming is not much fun for most people, I don't think, even if they say it is. I do not want to live on you. I always did hate to graft on people. So I am going to beat it off alone. But I hope I will see you in N Y & we will enjoy many a good laugh together over our trip. If you will phone the P. R. R. you can find out when I get back & so on. As I do not know what your address will be. Please look me up & I hope you will have a good trip. Yours truly, HARRY P. MORTON.

Mr. Wrenn lay listening to the unfriendly rattling of the chain harness below for a long time. When he crawled languidly down from the hay-loft he glowered in a manner which was decidedly surly even for Bill Wrenn at a middle-aged English stranger who was stooping over a cow's hoof in a stall facing the ladder.

"Wot you doing here?" asked the Englishman, raising his head and regarding Mr. Wrenn as a housewife does a cockroach in the salad-bowl.

Mr. Wrenn was bored. This seemed a very poor sort of man; a bloated Cockney, with a dirty neck-cloth, vile cuffs of grayish black, and a waistcoat cut foolishly high.

"The owner said I could sleep here," he snapped.

"Ow. 'E did, did 'e? 'E ayn't been giving you any of the perishin' 'osses, too, 'as 'e?"

It was sturdy old Bill Wrenn who snarled, "Oh, shut up!" Bill didn't feel like standing much just then. He'd punch this fellow as he'd punched Pete, as soon as not—or even sooner.

"Ow.... It's shut up, is it?... I've 'arf a mind to set the 'tecs on you, but I'm lyte. I'll just 'it you on the bloody nowse."

Bill Wrenn stepped off the ladder and squared at him. He was sorry that the Cockney was smaller than Pete.

The Cockney came over, feinted in an absent-minded manner, made swift and confusing circles with his left hand, and hit Bill Wrenn on the aforesaid bloody nose, which immediately became a bleeding nose. Bill Wrenn felt dizzy and, sitting on a grain-sack, listened amazedly to the Cockney's apologetic:

"I'm sorry I ayn't got time to 'ave the law on you, but I could spare time to 'it you again."

Bill shook the blood from his nose and staggered at the Cockney, who seized his collar, set him down outside the stable with a jarring bump, and walked away, whistling:

"Come, oh come to our Sunday-school, Ev-v-v-v-v-v-ry Sunday morn-ing."

"Gee!" mourned Mr. William Wrenn, "and I thought I was getting this hobo business down pat.... Gee! I wonder if Pete was so hard to lick?"



CHAPTER VI

HE IS AN ORPHAN



Sadly clinging to the plan of the walking-trip he was to have made with Morton, Mr. Wrenn crossed by ferry to Birkenhead, quite unhappily, for he wanted to be discussing with Morton the quaintness of the uniformed functionaries. He looked for the Merian half the way over. As he walked through Birkenhead, bound for Chester, he pricked himself on to note red-brick house-rows, almost shocking in their lack of high front stoops. Along the country road he reflected: "Wouldn't Morty enjoy this! Farm-yard all paved. Haystack with a little roof on it. Kitchen stove stuck in a kind of fireplace. Foreign as the deuce."

But Morton was off some place, in a darkness where there weren't things to enjoy. Mr. Wrenn had lost him forever. Once he heard himself wishing that even Tim, the hatter, or "good old McGarver" were along. A scene so British that it seemed proper to enjoy it alone he did find in a real garden-party, with what appeared to be a real curate, out of a story in The Strand, passing teacups; but he passed out of that hot glow into a cold plodding that led him to Chester and a dull hotel which might as well have been in Bridgeport or Hoboken.

He somewhat timidly enjoyed Chester the early part of the next day, docilely following a guide about the walls, gaping at the mill on the Dee and asking the guide two intelligent questions about Roman remains. He snooped through the galleried streets, peering up dark stairways set in heavy masonry that spoke of historic sieges, and imagined that he was historically besieging. For a time Mr. Wrenn's fancies contented him.

He smiled as he addressed glossy red and green postcards to Lee Theresa and Goaty, Cousin John and Mr. Guilfogle, writing on each a variation of "Having a splendid trip. This is a very interesting old town. Wish you were here." Pantingly, he found a panorama showing the hotel where he was staying—or at least two of its chimneys—and, marking it with a heavy cross and the announcement "This is my hotel where I am staying," he sent it to Charley Carpenter.

He was at his nearest to greatness at Chester Cathedral. He chuckled aloud as he passed the remains of a refectory of monastic days, in the close, where knights had tied their romantically pawing chargers, "just like he'd read about in a story about the olden times." He was really there. He glanced about and assured himself of it. He wasn't in the office. He was in an English cathedral close!

But shortly thereafter he was in an English temperance hotel, sitting still, almost weeping with the longing to see Morton. He walked abroad, feeling like an intruder on the lively night crowd; in a tap-room he drank a glass of English porter and tried to make himself believe that he was acquainted with the others in the room, to which theory they gave but little support. All this while his loneliness shadowed him.

Of that loneliness one could make many books; how it sat down with him; how he crouched in his chair, be-spelled by it, till he violently rose and fled, with loneliness for companion in his flight. He was lonely. He sighed that he was "lonely as fits." Lonely—the word obsessed him. Doubtless he was a bit mad, as are all the isolated men who sit in distant lands longing for the voices of friendship.

Next morning he hastened to take the train for Oxford to get away from his loneliness, which lolled evilly beside him in the compartment. He tried to convey to a stodgy North Countryman his interest in the way the seats faced each other. The man said "Oh aye?" insultingly and returned to his Manchester newspaper.

Feeling that he was so offensive that it was a matter of honor for him to keep his eyes away, Mr. Wrenn dutifully stared out of the door till they reached Oxford.

There is a calm beauty to New College gardens. There is, Mr. Wrenn observed, "something simply slick about all these old quatrangleses," crossed by summering students in short flappy gowns. But he always returned to his exile's room, where he now began to hear the new voice of shapeless nameless Fear—fear of all this alien world that didn't care whether he loved it or not.

He sat thinking of the cattle-boat as a home which he had loved but which he would never see again. He had to use force on himself to keep from hurrying back to Liverpool while there still was time to return on the same boat.

No! He was going to "stick it out somehow, and get onto the hang of all this highbrow business."

Then he said: "Oh, darn it all. I feel rotten. I wish I was dead!"

"Those, sir, are the windows of the apartment once occupied by Walter Pater," said the cultured American after whom he was trailing. Mr. Wrenn viewed them attentively, and with shame remembered that he didn't know who Walter Pater was. But—oh yes, now he remembered; Walter was the guy that 'd murdered his whole family. So, aloud, "Well, I guess Oxford's sorry Walt ever come here, all right."

"My dear sir, Mr. Pater was the most immaculate genius of the nineteenth century," lectured Dr. Mittyford, the cultured American, severely.

Mr. Wrenn had met Mittyford, Ph.D., near the barges; had, upon polite request, still more politely lent him a match, and seized the chance to confide in somebody. Mittyford had a bald head, neat eye-glasses, a fair family income, a chatty good-fellowship at the Faculty Club, and a chilly contemptuousness in his rhetoric class-room at Leland Stanford, Jr., University. He wrote poetry, which he filed away under the letter "P" in his letter-file.

Dr. Mittyford grudgingly took Mr. Wrenn about, to teach him what not to enjoy. He pointed at Shelley's rooms as at a certificated angel's feather, but Mr. Wrenn writhingly admitted that he had never heard of Shelley, whose name he confused with Max O'Rell's, which Dr. Mittyford deemed an error. Then, Pater's window. The doctor shrugged. Oh well, what could you expect of the proletariat! Swinging his stick aloofly, he stalked to the Bodleian and vouchsafed, "That, sir, is the AEschylus Shelley had in his pocket when he was drowned."

Though he heard with sincere regret the news that his new idol was drowned, Mr. Wrenn found that AEschylus left him cold. It seemed to be printed in a foreign language. But perhaps it was merely a very old book.

Standing before a case in which was an exquisite book in a queer wrigglesome language, bearing the legend that from this volume Fitzgerald had translated the Rubaiyat, Dr. Mittyford waved his hand and looked for thanks.

"Pretty book," said Mr. Wrenn.

"And did you note who used it?"

"Uh—yes." He hastily glanced at the placard. "Mr. Fitzgerald. Say, I think I read some of that Rubaiyat. It was something about a Persian kitten—I don't remember exactly."

Dr. Mittyford walked bitterly to the other end of the room.

About eight in the evening Mr. Wrenn's landlady knocked with, "There's a gentleman below to see you, sir."

"Me?" blurted Mr. Wrenn.

He galloped down-stairs, panting to himself that Morton had at last found him. He peered out and was overwhelmed by a motor-car, with Dr. Mittyford waiting in awesome fur coat, goggles, and gauntlets, centered in the car-lamplight that loomed in the shivery evening fog.

"Gee! just like a hero in a novel!" reflected Mr. Wrenn.

"Get on your things," said the pedagogue. "I'm going to give you the time of your life."

Mr. Wrenn obediently went up and put on his cap. He was excited, yet frightened and resentful at being "dragged into all this highbrow business" which he had resolutely been putting away the past two hours.

As he stole into the car Dr. Mittyford seemed comparatively human, remarking: "I feel bored this evening. I thought I would give you a nuit blanche. How would you like to go to the Red Unicorn at Brempton—one of the few untouched old inns?"

"That would be nice," said Mr. Wrenn, unenthusiastically.

His chilliness impressed Dr. Mittyford, who promptly told one of the best of his well-known whimsical yet scholarly stories.

"Ha! ha!" remarked Mr. Wrenn.

He had been saying to himself: "By golly! I ain't going to even try to be a society guy with him no more. I'm just going to be me, and if he don't like it he can go to the dickens."

So he was gentle and sympathetic and talked West Sixteenth Street slang, to the rhetorician's lofty amusement.

The tap-room of the Red Unicorn was lighted by candles and a fireplace. That is a simple thing to say, but it was not a simple thing for Mr. Wrenn to see. As he observed the trembling shadows on the sanded floor he wriggled and excitedly murmured, "Gee!... Gee whittakers!"

The shadows slipped in arabesques over the dust-gray floor and scampered as bravely among the rafters as though they were in such a tale as men told in believing days. Rustics in smocks drank ale from tankards; and in a corner was snoring an ear-ringed peddler with his beetle-black head propped on an oilcloth pack.

Stamping in, chilly from the ride, Mr. Wrenn laughed aloud. With a comfortable feeling on the side toward the fire he stuck his slight legs straight out before the old-time settle, looked devil-may-care, made delightful ridges on the sanded floor with his toe, and clapped a pewter pot on his knee with a small emphatic "Wop!" After about two and a quarter tankards he broke out, "Say, that peddler guy there, don't he look like he was a gipsy—you know—sneaking through the hedges around the manner-house to steal the earl's daughter, huh?"

"Yes.... You're a romanticist, then, I take it?"

"Yes, I guess I am. Kind of. Like to read romances and stuff." He stared at Mittyford beseechingly. "But, say—say, I wonder why—Somehow, I haven't enjoyed Oxford and the rest of the places like I ought to. See, I'd always thought I'd be simply nutty about the quatrangles and stuff, but I'm afraid they're too highbrow for me. I hate to own up, but sometimes I wonder if I can get away with this traveling stunt."

Mittyford, the magnificent, had mixed ale and whisky punch. He was mellowly instructive:

"Do you know, I've been wondering just what you would get out of all this. You really have a very fine imagination of a sort, you know, but of course you're lacking in certain factual bases. As I see it, your metier would be to travel with a pleasant wife, the two of you hand in hand, so to speak, looking at the more obvious public buildings and plesaunces—avenues and plesuances. There must be a certain portion of the tripper class which really has the ability 'for to admire and for to see.'"

Dr. Mittyford finished his second toddy and with a wave of his hand presented to Mr. Wrenn the world and all the plesaunces thereof, for to see, though not, of course, to admire Mittyfordianly.

"But—what are you to do now about Oxford? Well, I'm afraid you're taken into captivity a bit late to be trained for that sort of thing. Do about Oxford? Why, go back, master the world you understand. By the way, have you seen my book on Saxon Derivatives? Not that I'm prejudiced in its favor, but it might give you a glimmering of what this difficile thing 'culture' really is."

The rustics were droning a church anthem. The glow of the ale was in Mr. Wrenn. He leaned back, entirely happy, and it seemed confusedly to him that what little he had heard of his learned and affectionate friend's advice gratefully confirmed his own theory that what one wanted was friends—a "nice wife"—folks. "Yes, sir, by golly! It was awfully nice of the Doc." He pictured a tender girl in golden brown back in the New York he so much desired to see who would await him evenings with a smile that was kept for him. Homey—that was what he was going to be! He happily and thoughtfully ran his finger about the rim of his glass ten times.

"Time to go, I' m afraid," Dr. Mittyford was saying. Through the exquisite haze that now filled the room Mr. Wrenn saw him dimly, as a triangle of shirt-front and two gleaming ellipses for eyes.... His dear friend, the Doc!... As he walked through the room chairs got humorously in his way, but he good-naturedly picked a path among them, and fell asleep in the motor-car. All the ride back he made soft mouse-like sounds of snoring.

When he awoke in the morning with a headache and surveyed his unchangeably dingy room he realized slowly, after smothering his head in the pillow to shut off the light from his scorching eyeballs, that Dr. Mittyford had called him a fool for trying to wander. He protested, but not for long, for he hated to venture out there among the dreadfully learned colleges and try to understand stuff written in letters that look like crow-tracks.

He packed his suit-case slowly, feeling that he was very wicked in leaving Oxford's opportunities.

Mr. Wrenn rode down on a Tottenham Court Road bus, viewing the quaintness of London. Life was a rosy ringing valiant pursuit, for he was about to ship on a Mediterranean steamer laden chiefly with adventurous friends. The bus passed a victoria containing a man with a real monocle. A newsboy smiled up at him. The Strand roared with lively traffic.

But the gray stonework and curtained windows of the Anglo-Southern Steamship Company's office did not invite any Mr. Wrenns to come in and ship, nor did the hall porter, a beefy person with a huge collar and sparse painfully sleek hair, whose eyes were like cold boiled mackerel as Mr. Wrenn yearned:

"Please—uh—please will you be so kind and tell me where I can ship as a steward for the Med—"

"None needed."

"Or Spain? I just want to get any kind of a job at first. Peeling potatoes or—It don't make any difference—"

"None needed, I said, my man." The porter examined the hall clock extensively.

Bill Wrenn suddenly popped into being and demanded: "Look here, you; I want to see somebody in authority. I want to know what I can ship as."

The porter turned round and started. All his faith in mankind was destroyed by the shock of finding the fellow still there. "Nothing, I told you. No one needed."

"Look here; can I see somebody in authority or not?"

The porter was privately esteemed a wit at his motherin-law's. Waddling away, he answered, "Or not."

Mr. Wrenn drooped out of the corridor. He had planned to see the Tate Gallery, but now he hadn't the courage to face the difficulties of enjoying pictures. He zig-zagged home, mourning: "What's the use. And I'll be hung if I'll try any other offices, either. The icy mitt, that's what they hand you here. Some day I'll go down to the docks and try to ship there. Prob'ly. Gee! I feel rotten!"

Out of all this fog of unfriendliness appeared the waitress at the St. Brasten Cocoa House; first, as a human being to whom he could talk, second, as a woman. She was ignorant and vulgar; she misused English cruelly; she wore greasy cotton garments, planted her large feet on the floor with firm clumsiness, and always laughed at the wrong cue in his diffident jests. But she did laugh; she did listen while he stammered his ideas of meat-pies and St. Paul's and aeroplanes and Shelley and fog and tan shoes. In fact, she supposed him to be a gentleman and scholar, not an American.

He went to the cocoa-house daily.

She let him know that he was a man and she a woman, young and kindly, clear-skinned and joyous-eyed. She touched him with warm elbow and plump hip, leaning against his chair as he gave his order. To that he looked forward from meal to meal, though he never ceased harrowing over what he considered a shameful intrigue.

That opinion of his actions did not keep him from tingling one lunch-time when he suddenly understood that she was expecting to be tempted. He tempted her without the slightest delay, muttering, "Let's take a walk this evening?"

She accepted. He was shivery and short of breath while he was trying to smile at her during the rest of the meal, and so he remained all afternoon at the Tower of London, though he very well knew that all this history—"kings and gwillotines and stuff"—demanded real Wrenn thrills.

They were to meet on a street-corner at eight. At seven-thirty he was waiting for her. At eight-thirty he indignantly walked away, but he hastily returned, and stood there another half-hour. She did not come.

When he finally fled home he was glad to have escaped the great mystery of life, then distressingly angry at the waitress, and desolate in the desert stillness of his room.

He sat in his cold hygienic uncomfortable room on Tavistock Place trying to keep his attention on the "tick, tick, tick, tick" of his two-dollar watch, but really cowering before the vast shadowy presences that slunk in from the hostile city.

He didn't in the least know what he was afraid of. The actual Englishman whom he passed on the streets did not seem to threaten his life, yet his friendly watch and familiar suit-case seemed the only things he could trust in all the menacing world as he sat there, so vividly conscious of his fear and loneliness that he dared not move his cramped legs.

The tension could not last. For a time he was able to laugh at himself, and he made pleasant pictures—Charley Carpenter telling him a story at Drubel's; Morton companionably smoking on the top deck; Lee Theresa flattering him during an evening walk. Most of all he pictured the brown-eyed sweetheart he was going to meet somewhere, sometime. He thought with sophomoric shame of his futile affair with the waitress, then forgot her as he seemed almost to touch the comforting hand of the brown-eyed girl.

"Friends, that's what I want. You bet!" That was the work he was going to do—make acquaintances. A girl who would understand him, with whom he could trot about, seeing department-store windows and moving-picture shows.

It was then, probably, hunched up in the dowdy chair of faded upholstery, that he created the two phrases which became his formula for happiness. He desired "somebody to go home to evenings"; still more, "some one to work with and work for."

It seemed to him that he had mapped out his whole life. He sat back, satisfied, and caught the sound of emptiness in his room, emphasized by the stilly tick of his watch.

"Oh—Morton—" he cried.

He leaped up and raised the window. It was raining, but through the slow splash came the night rattle of hostile London. Staring down, he studied the desolate circle of light a street-lamp cast on the wet pavement. A cat gray as dish-water, its fur worn off in spots, lean and horrible, sneaked through the circle of light like the spirit of unhappiness, like London's sneer at solitary Americans in Russell Square rooms.

Mr. Wrenn gulped. Through the light skipped a man and a girl, so little aware of him that they stopped, laughingly, wrestling for an umbrella, then disappeared, and the street was like a forgotten tomb. A hansom swung by, the hoofbeats sharp and cheerless. The rain dripped. Nothing else. Mr. Wrenn slammed down the window.

He smoothed the sides of his suit-case and reckoned the number of miles it had traveled with him. He spun his watch about on the table, and listened to its rapid mocking speech, "Friends, friends; friends, friends."

Sobbing, he began to undress, laying down each garment as though he were going to the scaffold. When the room was dark the great shadowy forms of fear thronged unchecked about his narrow dingy bed.

Once during the night he woke. Some sound was threatening him. It was London, coming to get him and torture him. The light in his room was dusty, mottled, gray, lifeless. He saw his door, half ajar, and for some moments lay motionless, watching stark and bodiless heads thrust themselves through the opening and withdraw with sinister alertness till he sprang up and opened the door wide.

But he did not even stop to glance down the hall for the crowd of phantoms that had gathered there. Some hidden manful scorn of weakness made him sneer aloud, "Don't be a baby even if you are lonely."

His voice was deeper than usual, and he went to bed to sleep, throwing himself down with a coarse wholesome scorn of his nervousness.

He awoke after dawn, and for a moment curled in happy wriggles of satisfaction over a good sleep. Then he remembered that he was in the cold and friendless prison of England, and lay there panting with desire to get away, to get back to America, where he would be safe.

He wanted to leap out of bed, dash for the Liverpool train, and take passage for America on the first boat. But perhaps the officials in charge of the emigrants and the steerage (and of course a fellow would go steerage to save money) would want to know his religion and the color of his hair—as bad as trying to ship. They might hold him up for a couple of days. There were quarantines and customs and things, of which he had heard. Perhaps for two or even three days more he would have to stay in this nauseating prison-land.

This was the morning of August 3, 1910, two weeks after his arrival in London, and twenty-two days after victoriously reaching England, the land of romance.



CHAPTER VII

HE MEETS A TEMPERAMENT



Mr. Wrenn was sulkily breakfasting at Mrs. Cattermole's Tea House, which Mrs. Cattermole kept in a genteel fashion in a basement three doors from his rooming-house on Tavistock Place. After his night of fear and tragic portents he resented the general flowered-paper-napkin aspect of Mrs. Cattermole's establishment. "Hungh!" he grunted, as he jabbed at the fringed doily under the silly pink-and-white tea-cup on the green-and-white lacquered tray brought him by a fat waitress in a frilly apron which must have been made for a Christmas pantomime fairy who was not fat. "Hurump!" he snorted at the pictures of lambs and radishes and cathedrals and little duckies on Mrs. Cattermole's pink-and-white wall.

He wished it were possible—which, of course, it was not—to go back to the St. Brasten Cocoa House, where he could talk to the honest flat-footed galumping waitress, and cross his feet under his chair. For here he was daintily, yes, daintily, studied by the tea-room habitues—two bouncing and talkative daughters of an American tourist, a slender pale-haired English girl student of Assyriology with large top-barred eye-glasses over her protesting eyes, and a sprinkling of people living along Tavistock Place, who looked as though they wanted to know if your opinions on the National Gallery and abstinence were sound.

His disapproval of the lambiness of Mrs. Cattermole's was turned to a feeling of comradeship with the other patrons as he turned, with the rest, to stare hostilely at a girl just entering. The talk in the room halted, startled.

Mr. Wrenn gasped. With his head solemnly revolving, his eyes followed the young woman about his table to a table opposite. "A freak! Gee, what red hair!" was his private comment.

A slender girl of twenty-eight or twenty-nine, clad in a one-piece gown of sage-green, its lines unbroken by either belt or collar-brooch, fitting her as though it had been pasted on, and showing the long beautiful sweep of her fragile thighs and long-curving breast. Her collar, of the material of the dress, was so high that it touched her delicate jaw, and it was set off only by a fine silver chain, with a La Valliere of silver and carved Burmese jade. Her red hair, red as a poinsettia, parted and drawn severely back, made a sweep about the fair dead-white skin of her bored sensitive face. Bored blue-gray eyes, with pathetic crescents of faintly violet-hued wrinkles beneath them, and a scarce noticeable web of tinier wrinkles at the side. Thin long cheeks, a delicate nose, and a straight strong mouth of thin but startlingly red lips.

Such was the new patron of Mrs. Cattermole.

She stared about the tea-room like an officer inspecting raw recruits, sniffed at the stare of the thin girl student, ordered breakfast in a low voice, then languidly considered her toast and marmalade. Once she glanced about the room. Her heavy brows were drawn close for a second, making a deep-cleft wrinkle of ennui over her nose, and two little indentations, like the impressions of a box corner, in her forehead over her brows.

Mr. Wrenn's gaze ran down the line of her bosom again, and he wondered at her hands, which touched the heavy bread-and-butter knife as though it were a fine-point pen. Long hands, colored like ivory; the joint wrinkles etched into her skin; orange cigarette stains on the second finger; the nails—

He stared at them. To himself he commented, "Gee! I never did see such freak finger-nails in my life." Instead of such smoothly rounded nails as Theresa Zapp displayed, the new young lady had nails narrow and sharp-pointed, the ends like little triangles of stiff white writing-paper.

As she breakfasted she scanned Mr. Wrenn for a second. He was too obviously caught staring to be able to drop his eyes. She studied him all out, with almost as much interest as a policeman gives to a passing trolley-car, yawned delicately, and forgot him.

Though you should penetrate Greenland or talk anarchism to the daughter of a millionaire grocer, never shall you feel a more devouring chill than enveloped Mr. Wrenn as the new young lady glanced away from him, paid her check, rose slithily from her table, and departed. She rounded his table; not stalking out of its way, as Theresa would have done, but bending from the hips. Thus was it revealed to Mr. Wrenn that—

He was almost too horrified to put it into words.... He had noticed that there was something kind of funny in regard to her waist; he had had an impression of remarkably smooth waist curves and an unjagged sweep of back. Now he saw that—It was unheard of; not at all like Lee Theresa Zapp or ladies in the Subway. For—the freak girl wasn't wearing corsets!

When she had passed him he again studied her back, swiftly and covertly. No, sir. No question about it. It couldn't be denied by any one now that the girl was a freak, for, charitable though Our Mr. Wrenn was, he had to admit that there was no sign of the midback ridge and little rounded knobbinesses of corseted respectability. And he had a closer view of the texture of her sage-green crash gown.

"Golly!" he said to himself; "of all the doggone cloth for a dress! Reg'lar gunny-sacking. She's skinny, too. Bright-red hair. She sure is the prize freak. Kind of good-looking, but—get a brick!"

He hated to rule so clever-seeming a woman quite out of court. But he remembered her scissors glance at him, and his soft little heart became very hard.

How brittle are our steel resolves! When Mr. Wrenn walked out of Mrs. Cattermole's excellent establishment and heavily inspected the quiet Bloomsbury Street, with a cat's-meat-man stolidly clopping along the pavement, as loneliness rushed on him and he wondered what in the world he could do, he mused, "Gee! I bet that red-headed lady would be interestin' to know."

A day of furtive darts out from his room to do London, which glumly declined to be done. He went back to the Zoological Gardens and made friends with a tiger which, though it presumably came from an English colony, was the friendliest thing he had seen for a week. It did yawn, but it let him talk to it for a long while. He stood before the bars, peering in, and whenever no one else was about he murmured: "Poor fella, they won't let you go, heh? You got a worse boss 'n Goglefogle, heh? Poor old fella."

He didn't at all mind the disorder and rancid smell of the cage; he had no fear of the tiger's sleek murderous power. But he was somewhat afraid of the sound of his own tremorous voice. He had spoken aloud so little lately.

A man came, an Englishman in a high offensively well-fitting waistcoat, and stood before the cage. Mr. Wrenn slunk away, robbed of his new friend, the tiger, the forlornest person in all London, kicking at pebbles in the path.

As half-dusk made the quiet street even more detached, he sat on the steps of his rooming-house on Tavistock Place, keeping himself from the one definite thing he wanted to do—the thing he keenly imagined a happy Mr. Wrenn doing—dashing over to the Euston Station to find out how soon and where he could get a train for Liverpool and a boat for America.

A girl was approaching the house. He viewed her carelessly, then intently. It was the freak lady of Mrs. Cattermole's Tea House—the corsetless young woman of the tight-fitting crash gown and flame-colored hair. She was coming up the steps of his house.

He made room for her with feverish courtesy. She lived in the same house—He instantly, without a bit of encouragement from the uninterested way in which she snipped the door to, made up a whole novel about her. Gee! She was a French countess, who lived in a reg'lar chateau, and she was staying in Bloomsbury incognito, seeing the sights. She was a noble. She was—

Above him a window opened. He glanced up. The countess incog. was leaning out, scanning the street uncaringly. Why—her windows were next to his! He was living next room to an unusual person—as unusual as Dr. Mittyford.

He hurried up-stairs with a fervid but vague plan to meet her. Maybe she really was a French countess or somepun'. All evening, sitting by the window, he was comforted as he heard her move about her room. He had a friend. He had started that great work of making friends—well, not started, but started starting—then he got confused, but the idea was a flame to warm the fog-chilled spaces of the London street.

At his Cattermole breakfast he waited long. She did not come. Another day—but why paint another day that was but a smear of flat dull slate? Yet another breakfast, and the lady of mystery came. Before he knew he was doing it he had bowed to her, a slight uneasy bend of his neck. She peered at him, unseeing, and sat down with her back to him.

He got much good healthy human vindictive satisfaction in evicting her violently from the French chateau he had given her, and remembering that, of course, she was just a "fool freak Englishwoman—prob'ly a bloomin' stoodent" he scorned, and so settled her! Also he told her, by telepathy, that her new gown was freakier than ever—a pale-green thing, with large white buttons.

As he was coming in that evening he passed her in the hall. She was clad in what he called a bathrobe, and what she called an Arabian burnoose, of black embroidered with dull-gold crescents and stars, showing a V of exquisite flesh at her throat. A shred of tenuous lace straggled loose at the opening of the burnoose. Her radiant hair, tangled over her forehead, shone with a thousand various gleams from the gas-light over her head as she moved back against the wall and stood waiting for him to pass. She smiled very doubtfully, distantly—the smile, he felt, of a great lady from Mayfair. He bobbed his head, lowered his eyes abashedly, and noticed that along the shelf of her forearm, held against her waist, she bore many silver toilet articles, and such a huge heavy fringed Turkish bath-towel as he had never seen before.

He lay awake to picture her brilliant throat and shining hair. He rebuked himself for the lack of dignity in "thinking of that freak, when she wouldn't even return a fellow's bow." But her shimmering hair was the star of his dreams.

Napping in his room in the afternoon, Mr. Wrenn heard slight active sounds from her, next room. He hurried down to the stoop.

She stood behind him on the door-step, glaring up and down the street, as bored and as ready to spring as the Zoo tiger. Mr. Wrenn heard himself saying to the girl, "Please, miss, do you mind telling me—I'm an American; I'm a stranger in London—I want to go to a good play or something and what would I—what would be good—"

"I don't know, reahlly," she said, with much hauteur. "Everything's rather rotten this season, I fancy." Her voice ran fluting up and down the scale. Her a's were very broad.

"Oh—oh—y-you are English, then?"

"Yes!"

"Why—uh—"

"Yes!"

"Oh, I just had a fool idea maybe you might be French."

"Perhaps I am, y' know. I'm not reahlly English," she said, blandly.

"Why—uh—"

"What made you think I was French? Tell me; I'm interested."

"Oh, I guess I was just—well, it was almost make-b'lieve—how you had a castle in France—just a kind of a fool game."

"Oh, don't be ashamed of imagination," she demanded, stamping her foot, while her voice fluttered, low and beautifully controlled, through half a dozen notes. "Tell me the rest of your story about me."

She was sitting on the rail above him now. As he spoke she cupped her chin with the palm of her delicate hand and observed him curiously.

"Oh, nothing much more. You were a countess—"

"Please! Not just 'were.' Please, sir, mayn't I be a countess now?"

"Oh yes, of course you are!" he cried, delight submerging timidity. "And your father was sick with somepun' mysterious, and all the docs shook their heads and said 'Gee! we dunno what it is,' and so you sneaked down to the treasure-chamber—you see, your dad—your father, I should say—he was a cranky old Frenchman—just in the story, you know. He didn't think you could do anything yourself about him being mysteriously sick. So one night you—"

"Oh, was it dark? Very very dark? And silent? And my footsteps rang on the hollow flagstones? And I swiped the gold and went forth into the night?"

"Yes, yes! That's it."

"But why did I swipe it?"

"I'm just coming to that," he said, sternly.

"Oh, please, sir, I'm awful sorry I interrupted."

"It was like this: You wanted to come over here and study medicine so's you could cure your father."

"But please, sir," said the girl, with immense gravity, "mayn't I let him die, and not find out what's ailing him, so I can marry the maire?"

"Nope," firmly, "you got to—Say, gee! I didn't expect to tell you all this make-b'lieve.... I'm afraid you'll think it's awful fresh of me."

"Oh, I loved it—really I did—because you liked to make it up about poor Istra. (My name is Istra Nash.) I'm sorry to say I'm not reahlly"—her two "reallys" were quite different—"a countess, you know. Tell me—you live in this same house, don't you? Please tell me that you're not an interesting Person. Please!"

"I—gee! I guess I don't quite get you."

"Why, stupid, an Interesting Person is a writer or an artist or an editor or a girl who's been in Holloway Jail or Canongate for suffraging, or any one else who depends on an accident to be tolerable."

"No, I'm afraid not; I'm just a kind of clerk."

"Good! Good! My dear sir—whom I've never seen before—have I? By the way, please don't think I usually pick up stray gentlemen and talk to them about my pure white soul. But you, you know, made stories about me.... I was saying: If you could only know how I loathe and hate and despise Interesting People just now! I've seen so much of them. They talk and talk and talk—they're just like Kipling's bandar-log—What is it?

"See us rise in a flung festoon Half-way up to the jealous moon. Don't you wish you—

could know all about art and economics as we do?' That's what they say. Umph!"

Then she wriggled her fingers in the air like white butterflies, shrugged her shoulders elaborately, rose from the rail, and sat down beside him on the steps, quite matter-of-factly.

He gould feel his temple-pulses beat with excitement.

She turned her pale sensitive vivid face slowly toward him.

"When did you see me—to make up the story?"

"Breakfasts. At Mrs. Cattermole's."

"Oh yes.... How is it you aren't out sight-seeing? Or is it blessedly possible that you aren't a tripper—a tourist?"

"Why, I dunno." He hunted uneasily for the right answer. "Not exactly. I tried a stunt—coming over on a cattle-boat."

"That's good. Much better."

She sat silent while, with enormous and self-betraying pains to avoid detection, he studied her firm thin brilliantly red lips. At last he tried:

"Please tell me something about London. Some of you English— Oh, I dunno. I can't get acquainted easily."

"My dear child, I'm not English! I'm quite as American as yourself. I was born in California. I never saw England till two years ago, on my way to Paris. I'm an art student.... That's why my accent is so perishin' English—I can't afford to be just ordinary British, y' know."

Her laugh had an October tang of bitterness in it.

"Well, I'll—say, what do you know about that!" he said, weakly.

"Tell me about yourself—since apparently we're now acquainted.... Unless you want to go to that music-hall?"

"Oh no, no, no! Gee, I was just crazy to have somebody to talk to—somebody nice—I was just about nutty, I was so lonely," all in a burst. He finished, hesitatingly, "I guess the English are kinda hard to get acquainted with."

"Lonely, eh?" she mused, abrupt and bluffly kind as a man, for all her modulating woman's voice. "You don't know any of the people here in the house?"

"No'm. Say, I guess we got rooms next to each other."

"How romantic!" she mocked.

"Wrenn's my name; William Wrenn. I work for—I used to work for the Souvenir and Art Novelty Company. In New York."

"Oh. I see. Novelties? Nice little ash-trays with 'Love from the Erie Station'? And woggly pin-cushions?"

"Yes! And fat pug-dogs with black eyes."

"Oh no-o-o! Please not black! Pale sympathetic blue eyes—nice honest blue eyes!"

"Nope. Black. Awful black.... Say, gee, I ain't talking too nutty, am I?"

"'Nutty'? You mean 'idiotically'? The slang's changed since—Oh yes, of course; you've succeeded in talking quite nice and 'idiotic.'"

"Oh, say, gee, I didn't mean to—When you been so nice and all to me—"

"Don't apologize!" Istra Nash demanded, savagely. "Haven't they taught you that?"

"Yes'm," he mumbled, apologetically.

She sat silent again, apparently not at all satisfied with the architecture of the opposite side of Tavistock Place. Diffidently he edged into speech:

"Honest, I did think you was English. You came from California? Oh, say, I wonder if you've ever heard of Dr. Mittyford. He's some kind of school-teacher. I think he teaches in Leland Stamford College."

"Leland Stanford? You know him?" She dropped into interested familiarity.

"I met him at Oxford."

"Really?... My brother was at Stanford. I think I've heard him speak of—Oh yes. He said that Mittyford was a cultural climber, if you know what I mean; rather—oh, how shall I express it?—oh, shall we put it, finicky about things people have just told him to be finicky about."

"Yes!" glowed Mr. Wrenn.

To the luxury of feeling that he knew the unusual Miss Istra Nash he sacrificed Dr. Mittyford, scholarship and eye-glasses and Shelley and all, without mercy.

"Yes, he was awfully funny. Gee! I didn't care much for him."

"Of course you know he's a great man, however?" Istra was as bland as though she had meant that all along, which left Mr. Wrenn nowhere at all when it came to deciding what she meant.

Without warning she rose from the steps, flung at him "G' night," and was off down the street.

Sitting alone, all excited happiness, Mr. Wrenn muttered: "Ain't she a wonder! Gee! she's striking-lookin'! Gee whittakers!"

Some hours later he said aloud, tossing about in bed: "I wonder if I was too fresh. I hope I wasn't. I ought to be careful."

He was so worried about it that he got up and smoked a cigarette, remembered that he was breaking still another rule by smoking too much, then got angry and snapped defiantly at his suit-case: "Well, what do I care if I am smoking too much? And I'll be as fresh as I want to." He threw a newspaper at the censorious suit-case and, much relieved, went to bed to dream that he was a rabbit making enormously amusing jests, at which he laughed rollickingly in half-dream, till he realized that he was being awakened by the sound of long sobs from the room of Istra Nash.

Afternoon; Mr. Wrenn in his room. Miss Nash was back from tea, but there was not a sound to be heard from her room, though he listened with mouth open, bent forward in his chair, his hands clutching the wooden seat, his finger-tips rubbing nervously back and forth over the rough under-surface of the wood. He wanted to help her—the wonderful lady who had been sobbing in the night. He had a plan, in which he really believed, to say to her, "Please let me help you, princess, jus' like I was a knight."

At last he heard her moving about. He rushed downstairs and waited on the stoop.

When she came out she glanced down and smiled contentedly. He was flutteringly sure that she expected to see him there. But all his plan of proffering assistance vanished as he saw her impatient eyes and her splendors of dress—another tight-fitting gown, of smoky gray, with faint silvery lights gliding along the fabric.

She sat on the rail above him, immediately, unhesitatingly, and answered his "Evenin'" cheerfully.

He wanted so much to sit beside her, to be friends with her. But, he felt, it took courage to sit beside her. She was likely to stare haughtily at him. However, he did go up to the rail and sit, shyly kicking his feet, beside her, and she did not stare haughtily. Instead she moved over an inch or two, glanced at him almost as though they were sharing a secret, and said, quietly:

"I thought quite a bit about you last evening. I believe you really have an imagination, even though you are a salesman—I mean so many don't; you know how it is."

"Oh yes."

You see, Mr. Wrenn didn't know he was commonplace.

"After I left here last night I went over to Olympia Johns', and she dragged me off to a play. I thought of you at it because there was an imaginative butler in it. You don't mind my comparing you to a butler, do you? He was really quite the nicest person in the play, y' know. Most of it was gorgeously rotten. It used to be a French farce, but they sent it to Sunday-school and gave it a nice fresh frock. It seemed that a gentleman-tabby had been trying to make a match between his nephew and his ward. The ward arted. Personally I think it was by tonsorial art. But, anyway, the uncle knew that nothing brings people together so well as hating the same person. You know, like hating the cousin, when you're a kiddy, hating the cousin that always keeps her nails clean?"

"Yes! That's so!"

"So he turned nasty, and of course the nephew and ward clinched till death did them part—which, I'm very sorry to have to tell you, death wasn't decent enough to do on the stage. If the play could only have ended with everybody's funeral I should have called it a real happy ending."

Mr. Wrenn laughed gratefully, though uncertainly. He knew that she had made jokes for him, but he didn't exactly know what they were.

"The imaginative butler, he was rather good. But the rest—Ugh!"

"That must have been a funny play," he said, politely.

She looked at him sidewise and confided, "Will you do me a favor?"

"Oh yes, I—"

"Ever been married?"

He was frightfully startled. His "No" sounded as though he couldn't quite remember.

She seemed much amused. You wouldn't have believed that this superior quizzical woman who tapped her fingers carelessly on her slim exquisite knee had ever sobbed in the night.

"Oh, that wasn't a personal question," she said. "I just wanted to know what you're like. Don't you ever collect people? I do—chloroform 'em quite cruelly and pin their poor little corpses out on nice clean corks.... You live alone in New York, do you?"

"Y-yes."

"Who do you play with—know?"

"Not—not much of anybody. Except maybe Charley Carpenter. He's assistant bookkeeper for the Souvenir Company. "He had wanted to, and immediately decided not to, invent grandes mondes whereof he was an intimate.

"What do—oh, you know—people in New York who don't go to parties or read much—what do they do for amusement? I'm so interested in types."

"Well—" said he.

That was all he could say till he had digested a pair of thoughts: Just what did she mean by "types"? Had it something to do with printing stories? And what could he say about the people, anyway? He observed:

"Oh, I don't know—just talk about—oh, cards and jobs and folks and things and—oh, you know; go to moving pictures and vaudeville and go to Coney Island and—oh, sleep."

"But you—?"

"Well, I read a good deal. Quite a little. Shakespeare and geography and a lot of stuff. I like reading."

"And how do you place Nietzsche?" she gravely desired to know.

"?"

"Nietzsche. You know—the German humorist."

"Oh yes—uh—let me see now; he's—uh—"

"Why, you remember, don't you? Haeckel and he wrote the great musical comedy of the century. And Matisse did the music—Matisse and Rodin."

"I haven't been to it," he said, vaguely. "...I don't know much German. Course I know a few words, like Spricken Sie Dutch and Bitty, sir, that Rabin at the Souvenir Company—he's a German Jew, I guess—learnt me.... But, say, isn't Kipling great! Gee! when I read Kim I can imagine I'm hiking along one of those roads in India just like I was there—you know, all those magicians and so on.... Readin's wonderful, ain't it!"

"Um. Yes."

"I bet you read an awful lot."

"Very little. Oh—D'Annunzio and some Turgenev and a little Tourgenieff.... That last was a joke, you know."

"Oh yes," disconcertedly.

"What sorts of plays do you go to, Mr. Wrenn?"

"Moving pictures mostly," he said, easily, then bitterly wished he hadn't confessed so low-life a habit.

"Well—tell me, my dear—Oh, I didn't mean that; artists use it a good deal; it just means 'old chap.' You don't mind my asking such beastly personal questions, do you? I'm interested in people.... And now I must go up and write a letter. I was going over to Olympia's—she's one of the Interesting People I spoke of—but you see you have been much more amusing. Good night. You're lonely in London, aren't you? We'll have to go sightseeing some day."

"Yes, I am lonely!" he exploded. Then, meekly: "Oh, thank you! I sh'd be awful pleased to.... Have you seen the Tower, Miss Nash?"

"No. Never. Have you?"

"No. You see, I thought it 'd be kind of a gloomy thing to see all alone. Is that why you haven't never been there, too?"

"My dear man, I see I shall have to educate you. Shall I? I've been taken in hand by so many people—it would be a pleasure to pass on the implied slur. Shall I?"

"Please do."

"One simply doesn't go and see the Tower, because that's what trippers do. Don't you understand, my dear? (Pardon the 'my dear' again.) The Tower is the sort of thing school superintendents see and then go back and lecture on in school assembly-room and the G. A. R. hall. I'll take you to the Tate Gallery." Then, very abruptly, "G' night," and she was gone.

He stared after her smooth back, thinking: "Gee! I wonder if she got sore at something I said. I don't think I was fresh this time. But she beat it so quick.... Them lips of hers—I never knew there was such red lips. And an artist—paints pictures!... Read a lot—Nitchy—German musical comedy. Wonder if that's that 'Merry Widow' thing?... That gray dress of hers makes me think of fog. Cur'ous."

In her room Istra Nash inspected her nose in a mirror, powdered, and sat down to write, on thick creamy paper:

Skilly dear, I'm in a fierce Bloomsbury boarding-house—bores —except for a Phe-nomenon—little man of 35 or 40 with embryonic imagination & a virgin soul. I'll try to keep from planting radical thoughts in the virgin soul, but I'm tempted.

Oh Skilly dear I'm lonely as the devil. Would it be too bromid. to say I wish you were here? I put out my hand in the darkness, & yours wasn't there. My dear, my dear, how desolate—Oh you understand it only too well with your supercilious grin & your superior eye-glasses & your beatific Oxonian ignorance of poor eager America.

I suppose I am just a barbarous Californian kiddy. It's just as Pere Dureon said at the atelier, "You haf a' onderstanding of the 'igher immorality, but I 'ope you can cook—paint you cannot."

He wins. I can't sell a single thing to the art editors here or get one single order. One horrid eye-glassed earnest youth who Sees People at a magazine, he vouchsafed that they "didn't use any Outsiders." Outsiders! And his hair was nearly as red as my wretched mop. So I came home & howled & burned Milan tapers before your picture. I did. Though you don't deserve it.

Oh damn it, am I getting sentimental? You'll read this at Petit Monsard over your drip & grin at your poor unnietzschean barbarian. I. N.



CHAPTER VIII

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.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse