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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Innocents: A Story for Lovers By Sinclair Lewis Characters: 13486

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


HE didn't say it. But Father had been knocked breathless by an idea. He was silent all the way home. He made figures on the last leaf of his little pocket account-book. He man[oe]uvered to get Mother alone, and exultantly shot his idea at her.

They were beginning to get old; the city was almost too much for them. They would pick out some pretty, rustic spot and invest their savings in a tea-room. At five-hundred per cent. they would make enough during three months of summer to keep them the rest of the year. If they were located on Cape Cod, perhaps they could spend the winter with the Tubbses. They would have a garden; they would keep chickens, dogs, pussies, yes, a cow; they would buy land, acre by acre; they would have a farm to sustain them when they were too old for work; maybe they would open a whole chain of tea-rooms and ride about supervising them in a motor-car big as a house; they would-

"Now hold your horses, Father," she begged, dizzily. "I never did see such a man for running on. You go on like a house afire. You ought to know more, at your time of life, than to go counting your chickens before-"

"I'm going to hatch them. Don't they tell us in every newspaper and magazine you can lay your hand on that this is the Age of the Man with the Idea? Look here. Two slices of home-made bread, I calc'late, don't cost more than three-fifths of a cent, I shouldn't think, and cream cheese to smear on them about half a cent; there's a little over a cent; and overhead-'course you wouldn't take overhead into account, and then you go and say I ain't practical and hatching chickens, and all, but let me tell you, Sarah Jane Appleby, I'm a business man and I've been trained, and I tell you as Pilkings has often said to me, it's overhead that makes or breaks a business, that's what it is, just like he says, yes, sir, overhead! So say we'll allow-now let me see, ten plus ten is twenty, and one six-hundredth of twenty would be-six in two is-no, two in six is-well, anyway, to make it ab-so-lute-ly safe, we'll allow a cent and a half for each sandwich, to cover overhead and rent and fuel, and then they sell a sandwich at fifteen cents, which is, uh, the way they figure percentage of profit-well, make it, say, seven hundred per cent.! 'Course just estimating roughly like. Now can you beat that? And tea-rooms is a safe, sound, interesting, genteel business if there ever was one. What have you got to say to that?"

Father didn't often thus deluge her with words, but then he didn't often have a Revolutionary Idea. She had never heard of "overhead," and she was impressed; though in some dim confused way she rather associated "overhead" with the rafters of the tea-room. She emerged gasping from the shower, and all she could say was: "Yes: it would be very genteel. And I must say I always did like them hand-painted artistic things. But do you really think it would be safe, Father?"

"Safe? Pooh! Safe's the bank!"

They were in for it. Of course they were going to discuss it back and forth for months, and sit up nights to make figures on the backs of laundry-bills. But they had been fated the moment Father had seen Mother and himself as delightful hosts playing with people in silk sweaters, in a general atmosphere of roses, fresh lobster, and gentility.

They explored the Cape for miles around, looking for a place where they might open a tea-room if they did decide to do so. They said good-by to the Tubbses and returned to New York, to the noisy streets and the thankless drudgery at Pilkings & Son's.

In December they definitely made up their minds to give up the shoe business, take their few hundred dollars from the bank, and, the coming summer, open a tea-room in an old farm-house on the Cliffs at Grimsby Head, Cape Cod.

Out of saving money for the tea-room, that winter, the Applebys had as much fun as they had ever found in spending. They were comrades, partners in getting along without things as they had been partners in working to acquire little luxuries. They went to the movies only once a month-that made the movies only the more thrilling! On the morning before they were to go Father would pound softly on the pillow by Mother's head and sing, "Wake up! It's a fine day and we're going to see a photoplay to-night!"

Mother did without her chocolate peppermints, and Father cut his smoking down to one cigarette after each meal-though occasionally, being but a mortal man, he would fall into sinful ways and smoke up three or four cigarettes while engaged in an enthralling conversation regarding Mr. Pilkings's meanness with fellow-clerks at lunch at the Automat. Afterward he would be very repentant; he would have a severe case of conviction of sin, and Mother would have to comfort him when he accused himself:

"Seems as if I couldn't doggone never learn to control myself. I ain't hopeless, am I? I declare, I'm disgusted with myself when I think of your going without your chocolates and me just making a profane old razorback hog of myself."

There was no sordidness in their minute economy; no chill of poverty; they were saving for an excursion to paradise. They crowed as they thought of the beauty of their discovery: lonely Grimsby Head, where the sea stretched out on one side of their house and moors on the other, with the State road and its motorists only two hundred feet from their door. Though they should live in that sentinel house for years, never would they enjoy it more than they now did in anticipation when they sat of an evening in their brown flat, looking down on a delicatessen, a laundry, and a barber-shop, and planned to invest in their house of accomplished dreams the nickels they were managing to save.

The only thing that worried Father was the fact that their project put upon Mother so great a burden in the way of preparations. At first he took it for granted that only women could know about tea and tea-cups, decorations and paper napkins and art and the disposal of garbage. He determined to learn. By dint of much deep ratiocination while riding in the Elevated between flat and store he evolved the new idea-cheapness.

It was nonsense, he decided, to have egg-shell china and to charge fifteen cents for tea. Why not have neat, inexpensive china, good but not exorbitant tea, and charge only five or ten cents, as did the numerous luncheon-places he knew? Mother eagerly agreed.

Then the man of ideas began to turn his brain to saving Mother the trouble of selecting the tea-room equipment. It was not an easy problem for him. This gallant traveler, who wore his cap so cockily and paid a three-dollar-and-sixty-cent check so nonchalantly when he was traveling, was really an underpaid clerk.

He began by informing himself on all the technicalities of tea-rooms. He lunched at tea-rooms. He prowled in front of tea-rooms. He dreamed about tea-rooms. He became a dabster at tucking paper napkins into his neat little waistcoat without tearing them. He got acquainted with the waitress at the Nickleby Tavern, which was not a tavern, though it was consciously, painstakingly, seriously quaint; and he cautiously made inquiry of her regarding tea and china. During his lunch-hours he frequented auction sales on Sixth Avenue, and became so sophisticated in the matter of second-hand goods that the youngest clerk at Pilkings & Son's, a child of forty who was about to be married, respectfully asked Father about furnishing a flat. He rampaged through department stores without buying a thing, till store detectives secretly followed him. He read the bargain-sale advertisements in his morning paper before he even looked at the war-news head-lines.

Father was no fool, but he had been known to prefer kindliness to convenience. When he could get things for the same price he liked to buy them from small struggling dealers rather than from large and efficient ones-thereby, in his innocent way, helping to perpetuate the old system of weak, unskilled, casual, chaotically competitive businesses. This kindliness moved him when, during his search for information about tea-room accessories, he encountered a feeble but pretentious racket-store which a young Hungarian had established on Twenty-sixth Street, just off Sixth Avenue. The Hungarian and one girl assistant were trying by futile garish window-decorations to draw trade from the great department stores and the five-and-ten-cent stores on one side of them and the smart shops on the other side. But the Hungarian was clever, too clever. He first found out all of Father's plans, then won Father's sympathy. He coughed a little, and with a touching smile which was intended to rouse admiration, declared that his lungs were bad, but never mind, he would fight on, and go away for a rest when he had succeeded. He insinuated that, as he was not busy now, he could do all the buying and get better terms from wholesalers or bankruptcy bargain sales than could Father himself. The Hungarian's best stock in trading with Father was to look young and pathetically threadbare, to smile and shake his head and say playfully, as though he were trying to hide his secret generosity by a pretense of severity, "But of course I'd charge you a commission-you see I'm a hard-hearted fella."

It was January. In a month, now, Mother would be grunting heavily and beginning the labor of buying for the tea-room. So far she had done nothing but crochet two or three million tidies for the tea-room chairs, "to make them look homey."

The Hungarian showed Father tea-cups with huge quantities of gold on them. He assured Father that it was smarter to buy odd cups-also cheaper, as thus they could take advantage of broken lots and closing-out sales. Fascinated, Father kept hanging around, and at last he bolted frantically and authorized the Hungarian to purchase everything for him.

Which the Hungarian had already done, knowing that the fly was on the edge of the web.

You know, the things didn't look so bad, not so very bad-as long as they were new.

Tea-cups and saucers gilded like shaving-mugs and equally thick. Golden-oak chairs of mid-Chautauquan patterns, with backs of saw-mill Heppelwhite; chairs of cane and rattan with fussy scrolls and curlicues of wicker, the backs set askew. Reed tables with gollops of wicker; plain black wooden tables that were like kitchen tables once removed; folding-tables that may have been suitable to card-playing, if you didn't play anything more exciting than casino. Flat silver that was heavily plated except where it was likely to wear. Tea-pots of mottled glaze, and cream-jugs with knobs of gilt, and square china ash-trays on which one instinctively expected to find the legend "Souvenir of Niagara Falls." Too many cake-baskets and too few sugar-bowls. Dark blue plates with warts on the edges and melancholy landscapes painted in the centers. Chintzes and wall-papers of patterns fashionable in 1890. Tea-cartons that had the most inspiring labels; cocoa that was bitter and pepper that was mild; preserves that were generous with hayseed and glucose.

But everything was varnished that could be varnished; everything was tied with pink ribbon that would stand for it; the whole collection looked impressively new to a man accustomed to a shabby flat; the prices seemed reasonable; and Mother was saved practically all the labor of buying.

She had clucked comfortably every time he had worried aloud about her task. Yet she was secretly troubled. It gave her a headache to climb down the four flights of stairs from their flat. The acrid dust of the city streets stung her eyes, the dissonant grumble of a million hurrying noises dizzied her, and she would stand on a street-corner for five minutes before daring to cross. When Father told her that all the buying was done, and awaiting her approval, she gasped. But she went down with him, was impressed by the shininess and newness of things-and the Hungarian was given a good share of the Applebys' life-savings, agitatedly taken out of the savings-bank in specie.

They had purchased freedom. The house at Grimsby Head was eager for them. Mother cried as she ripped up the carpet in their familiar flat and saw the treasured furniture rudely crated for shipment to the unknown. She felt that she was giving up ever so many metropolitan advantages by leaving New York so prematurely. Why, she'd never been inside Grant's Tomb! She'd miss her second cousin-not that she'd seen the cousin for a year or two. And on the desert moors of Grimsby she couldn't run across the street to a delicatessen. But none of the inconveniences of going away so weighed upon her spirit as did the memory of their hours together in this flat.

But when she stood with him on the steamer again, bound for the Cape, when the spring breeze gave life to her faded hair, she straightened her shoulders and stood like a conqueror.

"Gee! we'll be at Grimsby to-morrow," piped Father, throwing his coat open and debonairly sticking his thumbs into his lower waistcoat pockets. "The easy life for me, old lady. I'm going to sit in a chair in the sun and watch you work."

"How you do run on!" she said. "You wait and find out the way you have to wash dishes and all. We'll see what we see, my fine young whiffet."

"Say, James J. Jerusalem but I've got a fine idea. I know what we'll call the tea-room- 'The T Room'-see, not spelling out the T. Great, eh?"

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