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The Innocents: A Story for Lovers By Sinclair Lewis Characters: 18271

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


IT was May in Arcady, and those young-hearted old lovers, Mr. and Mrs. Seth Appleby, were almost ready to open the tea-room. They had leased for a term of two years an ancient and weathered house on the gravel cliffs of Grimsby Head. From the cliffs the ocean seemed more sweepingly vast than when beheld from the beach, and the plain of it was colored like a pearly shell. To the other side of their dream-house were moors that might have been transplanted from Devon, rolling uplands covered with wiry grass that was springy to the feet, dappled with lichens which gave to the spacious land its lovely splashes of color-rose and green and sulphur and quiet gray.

It was a lonely countryside; the nearest signs of human life were a church gauntly silhouetted on the hill above Grimsby Center, two miles away, and a life-saving station, squat and sand-colored, slapped down in a hollow of the cliffs. But near the Applebys' door ran the State road, black and oily and smooth, on which, even at the beginning of the summer season, passed a procession of motors from Boston and Brockton, Newport and New York, all of them unquestionably filled with people who would surely discover that they were famished for tea and preserves and tremendous quantities of sandwiches, as soon as Father and Mother hung out the sign, "The T Room."

They would open in a day or two, now, when Mother had finished the livid chintz window-curtains. The service-room was already crammed with chairs and tables till it resembled a furniture-store. A maid was established, a Cape Verde Portygee girl from Mashpee. All day long Father had been copying the menu upon the florid cards which he had bought from a bankrupt Jersey City printer-thick gilt-edged cards embossed with forget-me-nots in colors which hadn't quite registered.

From their upper rooms, in which Mother had arranged the furniture to make the new home resemble their New York flat, the Applebys came happily down-stairs for the sunset. They were still excited at having country and sea at their door; still felt that all life would be one perpetual vacation. Every day now they would have the wild peace of the Cape, for two weeks of which, each year, they had had to work fifty weeks. Think of stepping out to a view of the sea instead of a view of Brambach's laundry! They were, in fact, as glad to get into the open as the city-seeking youngster is to get away from it.

On the landward side of the bleak house, crimson-rambler roses were luxuriant, and a stiff shell-bordered garden gave charily of small marigolds. Riches were these, by comparison with the two geraniums in a window-box which had been their New York garden. But they had an even greater pride-the rose-arbor. Sheltered by laurel from the sea winds was a whitewashed lattice, covered with crimson ramblers. Through a gap in the laurels they could see the ocean, stabbingly blue in contrast to the white dunes which reared battlements along the top of the gravel cliff. Far out a coasting schooner blossomed on the blue skyline. Bees hummed and the heart was quiet. Already the Applebys had found the place of brooding blossoms for which they had hoped; already they loved the rose-arbor as they had never loved the city. He nuzzled her cheek like an old horse out at pasture, and "Old honey!" he whispered.

Two days more, and they had the tea-room ready for its opening.

Father insisted on giving the evening over to wild ceremonies. He played "Juanita" and "Kelly with the Green Necktie," and other suitable chants upon that stately instrument, the mouth-organ, and marched through the tea-room banging on a dishpan with the wooden salad-spoon. Suddenly he turned into the first customer, and seating himself in a lordly manner, with his legs crossed, his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets and his hands waving fan-wise, he ordered, "Lettuce sandwiches, sody-water, a tenderloin steak, fish-balls, a bottle of champagne, and ice-cream with beef gravy, and hustle my order, young woman."

Mother was usually too shy for make-believe, but this time she was stirred to stand with her fat doll-arms akimbo, and to retort, "You'll get nothing here, young fellow. This is a place for ladies and gents only!"

They squealed and hugged each other. From the kitchen door the Portygee maid viewed her employers with lofty scorn, as Father gave a whole series of imitations of the possible first customer, who, as variously presented, might be Jess Willard, Senator Lodge, General von Hindenburg, or Mary Pickford.

At four next afternoon, with the solemn trembling of an explorer hoisting the flag to take possession of new territory, they hung out their sign, stepped back to admire it as it swung and shone against the crimson ramblers, and watched for the next motor-car.

It was coming! It was a seven-passenger car, filled with women in blanket coats. One of them actually waved, as the car approached the little couple who were standing in the sun, unconsciously arm in arm. Then the car had streaked by, was gone round the bend.

The second car passed them, and the third. A long intense period when the road was vacant. Then the fourth and fifth cars, almost together; and the file of motorists turned from exciting prospects into just motorists, passing strangers, oblivious of the two old people under their hopeful sign.

While they were forlornly re-entering the house the eleventh car suddenly stopped, and five hungry people trooped into the tea-room with demands for tea and muffins and cake. The Applebys didn't have muffins, but they did have sandwiches, and everybody was happy. Mother shooed the maid out into the kitchen, and herself, with awkward eagerness to get orders exactly right, leaned over the tea-table. In the kitchen Father stuffed kindling into the stove to bring the water to a boil again, and pantingly seized the bread-knife and attacked a loaf as though he were going to do it a violence. Mother entered, took the knife away from him, and dramatically drove him out to cut up more kindling.

The customers were served. While they ate and drank, and talked about what they had eaten and drunk at lunch at an inn, they were unconscious of two old pairs of eyes that watched them from the kitchen door, as brightly, as furtively, as excitedly as two birds in a secret thicket. The host paid without remarks what seemed to the Applebys an enormous bill, a dollar and sixty cents, and rambled out to the car, still unknowing that two happy people wanted to follow him with their blessings. This history is unable to give any further data regarding him; when his car went round the bend he disappeared from the fortunes of the Applebys, and he was not to know how much blessing he had scattered. I say, perhaps he was you who read this-you didn't by any chance happen to be motoring between Yarmouth and Truro, May 16, 1915, did you? With five in the party; coffee-colored car with one mud-guard slightly twisted?

The season was not quick in opening. To the Applebys the time between mid-May and mid-June was crawlingly slow. On some days they had two orders; some days, none at all. Of an evening, before they could sink into the sunset-colored peace of the rose-arbor, they had to convince themselves that they couldn't really expect any business till the summerites had begun to take their vacations. There was a curious psychological fact. It had always been Father, the brisk burden-bearer, who had comforted the secluded Mother. He had brought back to the flat the strenuousness of business. But inactivity was hard on his merry heart; he fretted and fussed at having nothing to do; he raged at having to throw away unused bread because it was growing stale. It was Mother who reminded him that they couldn't expect business before the season.

Mid-June came; the stream of cars was almost a solid parade; the Portygee maid brought the news that there were summer boarders at the Nickerson farm-house; and the Applebys, when they were in Grimsby Center buying butter and bread, saw the rocking-chair brigade mobilizing on the long white porches of the Old Harbor Inn.

And trade began!

There was no rival tea-room within ten miles. Father realized with a thumping heart that he had indeed chosen well in selecting Grimsby Head. Ten, twelve, even fifteen orders a day came from the motorists. The chronic summerites, they who came to Grimsby Center each year, walked over to see the new tea-room and to purchase Mother's home-made doughnuts. On June 27th the Applebys made a profit of $4.67, net.

As they rested in the rose-arbor at dusk of that day, Father burst out in desperate seriousness: "Oh my dear, my dear, it is going to go! I was beginning to get scared. I couldn't have forgiven myself if I'd let you in for something that would have been a failure. Golly! I've been realizing that we would have been pretty badly up against it if the tea-room hadn't panned out right. I'd have wanted to shoot myself if I'd been and gone and led you into want, old honey!"

Then, after the first of July, when the Cape Cod season really began, business sudd

enly fell away to nothing. They couldn't understand it. In panic they reduced the price of tea to five cents. No result. They had about one customer a day. They had not looked to Grimsby Center for the cause. That they might personally attend to business they had been sending the maid to the Center for their supplies, while they stuck at home-and wore out their hearts in vain hoping, in terrified wonder as to why the invisible gods had thus smitten them. Not for a week, a week of draining expense without any income to speak of, did they find out.

One July evening they walked to Grimsby Center. Half-way down they came to a new sign, shaped like a tea-pot, declaring in a striking block of print:

MISS MITCHIN OF BROOKLINE ANNOUNCES THE QUAINTEST TEA-ROOM ON THE CAPE. HISTORIC SOULE MANSION, GRIMSBY CENTER. CRUMPETS AND SALLY LUNNS WITH FRESH STRAWBERRY JAM. OPEN JULY 1.

And the Applebys had never heard of crumpets or Sally Lunns.

While the light turned the moors to a wistful lavender, the little old couple stood in a hollow of the road, looking mutely up at the sign that mocked them from its elevation on a bare gravel bank beside the way. Father's shoulders braced; he bit his lips; he reached out for Mother's hand and patted it. He led her on, and it was he who spoke first:

"Oh, that kind of miffle-business won't hurt us any. Girly-girly stuff, that's what it is. Regular autoists would rather have one of your home-made doughnuts than all the crumples in the world, and you can just bet your bottom dollar on that, Sary Jane."

He even chuckled, but it was a feeble chuckle, and he could find no other solace to give as they trudged toward Grimsby Center, two insignificant people, hand in hand, dim in the melancholy light which made mysterious the stretching moors. Presently they and the black highroad disappeared. Only the sandy casual trails and mirror-bright tiny pools stood out in the twilight.

Yet there was light enough for them to see the silhouettes of two more tea-pot signs before they entered Grimsby Center.

The village was gay, comparatively. There was to be a motion-picture show in the town hall, and the sign advertising it was glaring with no less than four incandescent lights. In the Old Harbor Inn the guests were dancing to phonograph music, after their early supper. A man who probably meant well was playing long, yellowish, twilit wails on a cornet, somewhere on the outskirts. Girls in sailor jumpers, with vivid V's of warmly tanned flesh, or in sweaters of green and rose and violet and canary yellow, wandered down to the post-office. To the city-bred Applebys there would have been cheer and excitement in this mild activity, after their farm-house weeks; indeed Father suggested, "We ought to stay and see the movies. Look! Royal X. Snivvles in 'The Lure of the Crimson Cobra'-six reels-that sounds snappy." But his exuberance died in a sigh. A block down Harpoon Street they saw a sign, light-encircled, tea-pot shaped, hung out from a great elm. Without explanations they turned toward it.

They passed a mansion of those proud old days when whalers and China traders and West-Indiamen brought home gold and blacks, Cashmere shawls and sweet sandalwood, Malay oaths and the jawbones of whales. The Applebys could see by the electric lights bowered in the lilac-bushes that a stately grass walk, lined with Madonna lilies and hollyhock and phlox, led to the fanlight-crested white door, above which hung the mocking tea-pot sign. The house was lighted, the windows open. To the right of the hall was the arts-shop where, among walls softened with silky Turkish rugs and paintings of blue dawn amid the dunes, were tables of black-and-white china, sports hats, and Swiss toys, which the Grimsby summer colony meekly bought at the suggestion of the sprightly Miss Mitchin.

To the left was the dining-room, full of small white candle-lighted tables and the sound of laughter.

"Gosh! they even serve supper there!" Father's voice complained. He scarcely knew that he had spoken. Like Mother, he was picturing their own small tea-room and the cardboard-shaded oil-lamp that lighted it.

"Come, don't let's stand here," said Mother, fiercely, and they trailed forlornly past. They were not so much envious as in awe of Miss Mitchin's; it seemed to belong to the same unattainable world as Newport and the giant New York hotels.

The Applebys didn't know it, but Grimsby Center had become artistic. They couldn't know it, but that sharp-nosed genius-hound Miss Mitchin was cashing in on her salon. She came from Brookline, hence Massachusetts Brahmins of almost pure caste could permit themselves to be seen at her tea-room. But nowadays she spent her winters in New York, as an artistic photographer, and she entertained interior decorators, minor fiction-writers, and minus poets with free food every Thursday evening. It may be hard to believe, but in a.d. 1915 she was still calling her grab-bag of talent a "salon." It was really a saloon, with a literary free-lunch counter. In return, whenever they could borrow the price from commercialized friends, the yearners had her take their photographs artistically, which meant throwing the camera out of focus and producing masterpieces which were everything except likenesses.

When Miss Mitchin resolved to come to Grimsby Center her group of writers, who had protected themselves against the rude, crude world of business men and lawyers by living together in Chelsea Village, were left defenseless. They were in danger of becoming human. So they all followed Miss Mitchin to Grimsby, and contentedly went on writing about one another.

There are many such groups, with the same summer watering-places and the same winter beering-places. Some of them drink hard liquor and play cards. But Miss Mitchin's group were very mild in manner, though desperately violent in theory. The young women wore platter-sized tortoise-shell spectacles and smocks that were home-dyed to a pleasing shrimp pink. The young men also wore tortoise-shell spectacles, but not smocks-not usually, at least. One of them had an Albanian costume and a beard that was a cross between the beard of an early Christian martyr on a diet and that of a hobo who merely needed a shave. Elderly ladies loved to have him one-step with them and squeeze their elbows.

All of the yearners read their poetry aloud, very superior, and rising in the inflections. It is probable that they made a living by taking in one another's literary washing. But they were ever so brave about their financial misfortunes, and they could talk about the ballet Russe and also charlotte russes in quite the nicest way. Indeed it was a pretty sight to see them playing there on the lawn before the Mitchin mansion, talking about the novels they were going to write and the revolutions they were going to lead.

Had Miss Mitchin's ballet of hobohemians been tough newspapermen they wouldn't have been drawing-cards for a tea-room. But these literary ewe-lambs were a spectacle to charm the languishing eyes of the spinsters who filled the Old Harbor Inn and the club-women from the yellow water regions who were viewing the marvels of nature as displayed on and adjacent to the ocean. Practically without exception these ladies put vine leaves in their hair-geranium leaves, anyway-and galloped to Miss Mitchin's, to drink tea and discuss Freud and dance the fox-trot in a wild, free, artistic, somewhat unstandardized manner.

Because it was talked about and crowded, ordinary untutored motorists judged Miss Mitchin's the best place to go, and permitted their wives to drag them past the tortoise-shell spectacles and the unprostituted art and the angular young ladies in baggy smocks breaking out in sudden irresponsible imitations of Pavlova.

None of this subtlety, this psycho-analysis and fellowship of the arts, was evident to the Applebys. They didn't understand the problem, "Why is a Miss Mitchin?" All that they knew, as they dragged weary joints down the elm-rustling road and back to the bakery on Main Street, was that Miss Mitchin's caravanserai was intimidatingly grand-and very busy.

They were plodding out of town again when Mother exclaimed, "Why, Father, you forgot to get your cigarettes."

"No, I- Oh, I been smoking too much. Do me good to lay off."

They had gone half a mile farther before she sighed: "Cigarettes don't cost much. 'Twouldn't have hurt you to got 'em. You get 'em the very next time we're in town-or send Katie down. I won't have you denying-"

Her voice droned away. They could think of nothing but mean economies as they trudged the wide and magic night of the moors.

When they were home, and the familiar golden-oak chairs and tidies blurred their memory of Miss Mitchin's crushing competition, Father again declared that no dinky tea-pot inn could permanently rival Mother's home-made doughnuts. But he said it faintly then, and more faintly on the days following, for inactivity again enervated him-made him, for the first time in his life, feel almost old.

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