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   Chapter 18 No.18

The Innocents: A Story for Lovers By Sinclair Lewis Characters: 17685

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


MOTHER had, after an energetic September, succeeded in putting all the furniture to rights and in evoking curtains and linen. Anybody, even the impractical Father, can fill a house with furniture, but it takes two women and at least four weeks to make the furniture look as though it had grown there. She had roamed the fields, and brought home golden-rod and Michaelmas daisies and maple leaves. She no longer panted or felt dizzy when she ran up the stairs. She was a far younger woman than the discreet brown hermit of the dusty New York flat, just as the new Father, who had responsibility and affairs, was younger than the Pilkings clerk of old.

Always she watched for Father's home-coming. He usually came prancing home so happily that, one evening, when Mother saw him slowly plod down the street, his head low, his hands sagging his pockets, she ran out to the porch and greeted him with a despairing, "What is it, Seth?"

"Oh, nothing much." Before he would go on, Father put his arm about her ample waist and led her to the new porch-swing overlooking the raw spaded patch of earth that would be a rose-garden some day-that already, to their imaginations, was brilliant with blossoms and alive with birds.

She observed him mutely, anxiously. He handed a letter to her. It was in their daughter's handwriting:

Dear Papa and Mama:

I don't know if this letter will reach you, but have been reading pieces in Saserkopee & N. Y. papers about your goings-on and hear you are at a town called Lipsittsville, oh how could you run away from the beautiful home Harris & I gave you, I am sure if there was anything we didn't do for y'r comfort & happiness you had only to ask & here you go and make us a laughing stock in Saserkopee, we had told everyone you would be at our party & suddenly you up & disappear & it has taken us months to get in touch with you, such a wicked, untruthful lie about friend sick in Boston & all. Harris heard from a traveling salesman, & he agreed with Harris how thoughtless and wilful you are, & he told Harris that you are at this place Lipsittsville, so I will address you there & try & see if letter reaches you & tell you that though you must be ashamed of your conduct by now, we are willing to forgive & forget, I was never one to hold a grudge. I am sure if you had just stopped and thought you would have realized to what worry and inconvenience you have put us, & if this does reach you, by now I guess you will have had enough of being bums or pedestrians or whatever fancy name you call yourself, and be glad to come back to a good home and see if you can't show a little sense as you ought to at your time of life, & just think of what the effect must be on Harry when his very own grand-parents acts this way! If you will telegraph me, or write me if you have not got enough money for telegraphing, Harris will come for you, & we will see what can be done for you. We think and hope that a place can be found for you in the Cyrus K. Ginn Old People's Home, where you can spend your last days, I guess this time you will want to behave yourselves, and Harris & I will be glad to have you at our home from time to time. After all my love & thoughtfulness for you-but I guess I need not say anything more, by this time you will have learned your lesson.

Your loving daughter,

Lulu.

Father and Mother had sat proudly on their porch the night before, and they had greeted passers-by chattily, like people of substance, people healthy and happy and responsible. Now they shrank on the swing; they saw nothing but Lulu's determined disdain for their youthful naughtiness; heard nothing but her voice, hard, unceasing, commenting, complaining; and the obese and humorless humor of Mr. Harris Hartwig.

"She can't make us go back-confine us in this here home for old folks, can she, legally?" It was Mother who turned to Father for reassurance.

"No, no. Certainly not.... I don't think so." They sat still. They seemed old again.

Just before dinner he started up from the swing, craftily laid his finger beside his nose, and whispered something very exciting and mysterious to Mother, who kept saying: "Yes, yes. Yes, yes. Yes, I'd be willing to. Though it would be hard." Immediately after dinner they walked sedately down the village street, while blackbirds whistled from the pond and children sang ancient chants of play under the arc-lights at corners, and neighbors cried "'Evenin'" to them, from chairs on porches. They called upon the town newspaperman, old Lyman Ford, and there was a conference with much laughter and pounding of knees-also a pitcher of lemonade conjointly prepared by Mrs. S. Appleby and Mrs. L. Ford. Finally the Applebys paraded to the telegraph-office, and to Mr. Harris Hartwig, at Saserkopee, they sent this message:

Come see us when can. Wire at once what day and train. Will meet.

A sodden and pathetic figure, in his notorious blue-flannel shirt, and the suit, or the unsuit, which he had worn into Lipsittsville in the days when he had been a hobo, Father waited for the evening train and for Mr. Harris Hartwig.

Mr. Hartwig descended the car steps like a general entering a conquered province. Father nervously concealed his greasy shirt-front with his left hand, and held out his right hand deprecatingly. Mr. Hartwig took it into his strong, virile, but slightly damp, clasp, and held it (a thing which Father devoutly hated) while he gazed magnanimously into Father's shy eyes and, in a confidential growl which could scarce have been heard farther away than Indianapolis, condescended: "Well, here we are. I'm glad there's an end to all this wickedness and foolishness at last. Where's Mother Appleby?"

"She wasn't feeling jus' like coming," Father mumbled. "I'll take you to her."

"How the devil are you earning a living?"

"Why, the gent that owns the biggest shoe-store here was so kind as to give me sort of work round the store like."

"Yuh, as porter, I'll venture! You might just as well be sensible, for once in your life, Father, and learn that you're past the age where you can insist and demand and get any kind of work, or any kind of a place to live in, that just suits your own sweet-fancy. Business ain't charity, you know, and all these working people that think a business is run just to suit them-! And that's why you ought to have been more appreciative of all Lulu did for you-and then running away and bringing her just about to the verge of nervous prostration worrying over you!"

They had left the station, now, and were passing along Maple Avenue, with its glory of trees and shining lawns, the new Presbyterian church and the Carnegie Library. Mr. Hartwig of Saserkopee was getting far too much satisfaction out of his r?le as sage and counselor to notice Maple Avenue. He never had the chance to play that r?le when the wife of his bosom was about.

"Another thing," Mr. Hartwig was booming, as they approached the row of bungalows where the Applebys lived, "you ought to have understood the hardship you were bringing on Mother by taking her away from our care-and you always pretending to be so fond of her and all. I don't want to rub it in or nothing, but I always did say that I was suspicious of these fellows that are always petting and stewing over their wives in public-you can be dead sure that in private they ain't got any more real consideration 'n' thoughtfulness for 'em than-than anything. And you can see for yourself now- Here you are. Why, just one look at you is enough to show you're a failure! Why, my garbage-man wears a better-looking suit than that!"

Though Father felt an acute desire to climb upon a convenient carriage-block and punch the noble Roman head of Mr. Harris Hartwig, he kept silent and looked as meek as he could and encouraged his dear son-in-law to go on.

"We'll try to find some decent, respectable work for you," said Mr. Hartwig. "You'll be at liberty to be away from the Old People's Home for several hours a day, perfect freedom, and perhaps now and then you can help at a sale at a shoe-store. Saserkopee is, as you probably know, the best town of its size in New York, and if you did feel you had to keep in touch with business, I can't for the life of me see why you came clear out here to the West-little dinky town with no prospects or nothing. Why even you, at your age, could turn a few dollars in Saserkopee. 'Course with my influence there I could throw things your way." Then, bitterly, "Though of course I wouldn't expect any thanks!"

They turned a corner, came to a row of new bungalows.

The whole block was filled with motor-cars, small black village ones, but very comfortable and dependable. In a bungalow at the end of the block a phonograph was being loud and cheery.

"Somebody giving a party," Mr. Hartw

ig oracularly informed Father.

"Why! Sure enough! So somebody is! Yes, yes! It must be my boss. That's where I live. Boss lets us bunk in the dust-bin."

Father's voice was excited, slightly hysterical. Mr. Hartwig looked at him wonderingly. "What do you mean, 'in the dust-bin'?" he asked, in a puzzled way.

"I'll show you," said Father, and in a low, poisonous voice he added certain words which could not be made out, but which sounded curiously like "you great big fat weevily ham!"

"We can't butt into this party," protested Mr. Hartwig, suddenly feeling himself in a strange town, among strangers, as Father took his arm in front of the bungalow where the party was being fearlessly enacted.

"I never knew you to hesitate about butting in before," said Father. "Some day I hope you butt into the Cyrus K. Ginn Home for Old Fossils, but now-"

While Mr. Hartwig followed him in alarm, Father skipped up the steps, jabbed at the push-button. The door opened on the living-room-and on a tableau.

In the center of a group of expensive-looking people stood Mother, gorgeous in a gown like a herald's cloth-of-gold tabard. She was as magnificent as one of the larger chairs in a New York hotel lobby. Her hair was waved. She was coldly staring at Harris through a platinum lorgnon. Round her were the élite of Lipsittsville-the set that wore dinner coats and drove cars. A slim and pretty girl in saffron-colored silk bowed elaborately. A tall man with an imperial chuckled.

"Why, Harris, this is ver', ver' pleasant. I had almost forgotten you were coming," Mother said, languidly.... Harris could not know that the distinguished pedestrian, actor, impresario, and capitalist, Mr. Seth Appleby, had spent two hours and seventeen minutes in training the unwilling Mother to deliver this speech. If Mother stumbled somewhat as she went on, that merely enhanced her manner of delicate languor: "So pleasant to see you. Just a few of our friends dropped in for a little informal gathering. Would you like to wash up and join us? Seth dear, will you ring for Lena and have her take dear Harris's bag to his room? Did you bring your evening clothes, Harris?"

One time in his life, Harris had rented evening clothes, but otherwise-

They didn't give Harris a chance to ask for explanations. When, still in his dusty bulbous gray sack suit, he hesitated out of his pleasant room, he found that Father had changed to dinner coat and a stock, which he was old enough to wear with distinction. Harris was firmly introduced to Mr. Lyman Ford, sole owner and proprietor of the Lipsittsville Ozone. He was backed into a corner, and filled with tidings about the glories of Mr. and Mrs. Seth Appleby, their social position and athletic prowess and financial solidity, and the general surpassing greatness of Lipsittsville. In fact, Mr. Ford overdid it a little, and Mr. Hartwig began to look suspicious-like a man about to sneeze, or one who fears that you are going to try to borrow money from him.

But with an awkward wonder which expressed itself in his growing shyness, his splay-footed awkwardness, his rapidly increasing deference to Father, Mr. Hartwig saw Lena, the maid, spread forth tables for the social and intellectual game of progressive euchre; saw Father combat mightily with that king of euchre-players, Squire Trowbridge; saw the winners presented with expensive-looking prizes. And there were refreshments. The Lipsittsville Ozone would, in next Thursday's issue, be able to say, "Dainty refreshments, consisting of angel's-food, ice-cream, coffee, macaroons, and several kinds of pleasing sandwiches, were served."

Miss Mattie Ford, the society editor of the Ozone, was at her wittiest during the food-consumption, and a discussion of Roosevelt and the co-operative creamery engaged some of the brightest minds in Lipsittsville. Father, listening entranced, whispered to Mother, as he passed her with his tray of ice-cream, "I guess Harris don't hear any bright talk like this in Saserkopee. Look at him. Goggle-eyed. I always said he looked like a frog. Except that he looks more like a hog."

"I won't have you carrying on and being rude," Mother said, most convincingly.

The party did not end till clear after eleven. When the street was loud with the noise of cars starting, and quantities of ladies in silk wraps laughingly took their departure, Mr. Harris Hartwig stood deserted by the fireplace. When the door had closed on the last of the revelers Father returned, glanced once at him, coldly stopped to pick up a chair which had been upset, then stalked up to Harris and faced him, boring him with an accusing glance.

"Well," said Harris, uneasily, "you sure got- Say, I certainly got to hand it to you, Father Appleby." Like a big, blubbery, smear-faced school-boy he complained, "Gee! I don't think it's fair, making a goat of me this way, when I came to do you a service and take you home and all."

He was so meek that Father took pity on him.

"We'll call it square," he said. "I guess maybe you and Lulu will quit worrying, now, at last."

"Yes, I guess we'll have to.... Say, Father, this seems to be a fine, live, prosperous town. Say, I wonder what's the chances for opening a drug-store here? Competition is getting pretty severe in Saserkopee."

For the first time since he had married the lovely Lulu Harris Hartwig seemed to care for his father-in-law's opinion.

Father took one horrified glance at Mother. The prospect of the Hartwigs planted here in Eden, like a whole family of the most highly irritating serpents, seemed to have paralyzed her. It was Father who turned Harris's flank. Said he:

"Well, I'm afraid I can't encourage you. There's three good stores here, and the proprietors of all of them are friends of mine, and I'm afraid I couldn't do a thing about introducing you. In fact, I'd feel like a traitor to them if I was responsible for any competition with them. So- But some time, perhaps, we can have Lulu and Harry here for a visit."

"Thank you, Father. Well-"

"Well, I guess we all better be saying good night."

Father ostentatiously wound up the clock and locked the doors. Harris watched him, his Adam's apple prettily rising and falling as he prepared to speak and hesitated, again and again. Finally, as Father yawned and extended his hand, Harris burst out: "Say, how-the-deuce-did you get this house and all? What's the idea, anyway?"

For this Father had been waiting. He had nineteen large batteries concealed in ambush. And he fired them. He fixed Harris with a glance that was the condensed essence of all the fathers-in-law in the world. "Young man," he snorted, "I don't discuss my business affairs. But I don't mind saying that I am partner in one of the most flourishing mercantile concerns in the State. I knew that Lulu and you would never believe that the poor old folks could actually run their own business unless you came and saw for yourself. I stand ready to refund the railroad fare you spent in coming here. Now are you satisfied?"

"Why-why, yes-"

"Well, then, I guess we'll say good night."

"Good night," said Harris, forlornly.

* * *

It was a proof of their complete recovery from Harris-Hartwigism that, while they were undressing, the Applebys discussed Mr. Hartwig only for a moment, and that Father volunteered: "I actually do hope that Lulu and Harry will come to pay us a visit now. Maybe we can impress her, too. I hope so. I really would like a chance to love our daughter a little. Don't seem natural we should always have to be scared of her. Well, let's forget the Hartwigs. They'll come around now. Catch them not knowing where their bread is buttered. Why, think, maybe Lulu will let me kiss her, some day, without criticizing my necktie while I'm doing it!"

The Innocents, the conquering babes in the wood, put out all the lights except the bedside lamp on the table between their twin beds. These aristocratic beds were close enough together so that they could lie with their out-stretched hands clasped. They had left the door into the living-room open, and the low lights from the coals in the fireplace made a path across the polished floor and the new rugs-a vista of spaciousness and content.

"It's our first real home," murmured Father. "My old honey, we've come home! We'll have the Tubbses here from the Cape, come Christmas-time. Yes, and Crook McKusick, if we ever hear from him! And we'll play cribbage. I bet I can beat Joe Tubbs four games out of five. Say, look here, young woman, don't you go to sleep yet. I'm a hard-working man, and it's Doc Schergan's orders that I got to be played with and hold your hand like this for fourteen minutes every night, before I go to sleep.... My old honey!"

"How you do run on!" said Mother, drowsily.

THE END

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