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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesOur Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures Of A Gentle Man - Chapter IV HE BECOMES THE GREAT LITTLE BILL WRENN
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Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures Of A Gentle Man - Chapter IV HE BECOMES THE GREAT LITTLE BILL WRENN Post by :Brandy Category :Long Stories Author :Sinclair Lewis Date :February 2011 Read :2684

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Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures Of A Gentle Man - Chapter IV HE BECOMES THE GREAT LITTLE BILL WRENN

When the _Merian was three days out from Portland the frightened
cattleman stiff known as "Wrennie" wanted to die, for he was now
sure that the smell of the fo'c'sle, in which he was lying on a
thin mattress of straw covered with damp gunny-sacking, both
could and would become daily a thicker smell, a stronger smell,
a smell increasingly diverse and deadly.

Though it was so late as eight bells of the evening, Pete, the
tough factory hand, and Tim, the down-and-out hatter, were still
playing seven-up at the dirty fo'c'sle table, while McGarver,
under-boss of the Morris cattle gang, lay in his berth, heavily
studying the game and blowing sulphurous fumes of Lunch Pail
Plug Cut tobacco up toward Wrennie.

Pete, the tough, was very evil. He sneered. He stole. He
bullied. He was a drunkard and a person without cleanliness of
speech. Tim, the hatter, was a loud-talking weakling, under
Pete's domination. Tim wore a dirty rubber collar without a
tie, and his soul was like his neckware.

McGarver, the under-boss, was a good shepherd among the men,
though he had recently lost the head foremanship by a spree
complicated with language and violence. He looked like one of
the _Merian bulls, with broad short neck and short curly hair
above a thick-skinned deeply wrinkled low forehead. He never
undressed, but was always seen, as now, in heavy shoes and
blue-gray woolen socks tucked over the bottoms of his overalls.
He was gruff and kind and tyrannical and honest.

Wrennie shook and drew his breath sharply as the foghorn yawped
out its "Whawn-n-n-n" again, reminding him that they were
still in the Bank fog; that at any moment they were likely to be
stunned by a heart-stopping crash as some liner's bow burst
through the fo'c'sle's walls in a collision. Bow-plates
buckling in and shredding, the in-thrust of an enormous black
bow, water flooding in, cries and--However, the horn did at least
show that They were awake up there on the bridge to steer him
through the fog; and weren't They experienced seamen? Hadn't
They made this trip ever so many times and never got killed?
Wouldn't They take all sorts of pains on Their own account as
well as on his?

But--just the same, would he really ever get to England alive?
And if he did, would he have to go on holding his breath in
terror for nine more days? Would the fo'c'sle always keep
heaving up--up--up, like this, then down--down--down, as though
it were going to sink?

"How do yuh like de fog-horn, Wrennie?"

Pete, the tough, spit the question up at him from a corner of
his mouth. "Hope we don't run into no ships."

He winked at Tim, the weakling hatter, who took the cue and

"I'm kinda afraid we're going to, ain't you, Pete? The mate was
telling me he was scared we would."

"Sures' t'ing you know. Hey, Wrennie, wait till youse have to
beat it down-stairs and tie up a bull in a storm. Hully gee!
Youse'll last quick on de game, Birdie!"

"Oh, shut up," snapped Wrennie's friend Morton.

But Morton was seasick; and Pete, not heeding him, outlined
other dangers which he was happily sure were threatening them.
Wrennie shivered to hear that the "grub 'd git worse." He
writhed under Pete's loud questions about his loss, in some
cattle-pen, of the gray-and-scarlet sweater-jacket which he had
proudly and gaily purchased in New York for his work on the
ship. And the card-players assured him that his suit-case,
which he had intrusted to the Croac ship's carpenter, would
probably be stolen by "Satan."

Satan! Wrennie shuddered still more. For Satan, the gaunt-jawed
hook-nosed rail-faced head foreman, diabolically smiling when
angry, sardonically sneering when calm, was a lean human
whip-lash. Pete sniggered. He dilated upon Satan's wrath at
Wrennie for not "coming across" with ten dollars for a bribe
as he, Pete, had done.

(He lied, of course. And his words have not been given
literally. They were not beautiful words.)

McGarver, the straw-boss, would always lie awake to enjoy a good
brisk indecent story, but he liked Wrennie's admiration of him,
so, lunging with his bull-like head out of his berth, he snorted:

"Hey, you, Pete, it's time to pound your ear. Cut it out."

Wrennie called down, sternly, "I ain't no theological student,
Pete, and I don't mind profanity, but I wish you wouldn't talk
like a garbage-scow."

"Hey, Poicy, did yuh bring your dictionary?" Pete bellowed to
Tim, two feet distant from him. To Wrennie, "Say, Gladys, ain't
you afraid one of them long woids like, t'eological, will turn
around and bite you right on the wrist?"

"Dry up!" irritatedly snapped a Canadian.

"Aw, cut it out, you--," groaned another.

"Shut up," added McGarver, the straw-boss. "Both of you."
Raging: "Gwan to bed, Pete, or I'll beat your block clean off.
I mean it, see? _Hear me?_"

Yes, Pete heard him. Doubtless the first officer on the bridge
heard, too, and perhaps the inhabitants of Newfoundland. But
Pete took his time in scratching the back of his neck and
stretching before he crawled into his berth. For half an hour
he talked softly to Tim, for Wrennie's benefit, stating his belief
that Satan, the head boss, had once thrown overboard a Jew much
like Wrennie, and was likely thus to serve Wrennie, too.
Tim pictured the result when, after the capsizing of the steamer
which would undoubtedly occur if this long sickening motion kept up,
Wrennie had to take to a boat with Satan.

The fingers of Wrennie curled into shape for strangling some one.

When Pete was asleep he worried off into thin slumber.

Then, there was Satan, the head boss, jerking him out of his
berth, stirring his cramped joints to another dawn of
drudgery--two hours of work and two of waiting before the daily
eight-o'clock insult called breakfast. He tugged on his shoes,
marveling at Mr. Wrenn's really being there, at his sitting in
cramped stoop on the side of a berth in a dark filthy place that
went up and down like a freight elevator, subject to the orders
of persons whom he did not in the least like.

Through the damp gray sea-air he staggered hungrily along the
gangway to the hatch amidships, and trembled down the iron
ladder to McGarver's crew 'tween-decks.

First, watering the steers. Sickened by walking backward with
pails of water he carried till he could see and think of nothing
in the world save the water-butt, the puddle in front of it, and
the cattlemen mercilessly dipping out pails there, through
centuries that would never end. How those steers did drink!

McGarver's favorite bull, which he called "the Grenadier," took
ten pails and still persisted in leering with dripping gray
mouth beyond the headboard, trying to reach more. As Wrennie
was carrying a pail to the heifers beyond, the Grenadier's horn
caught and tore his overalls. The boat lurched. The pail
whirled out of his hand. He grasped an iron stanchion and
kicked the Grenadier in the jaw till the steer backed off, a
reformed character.

McGarver cheered, for such kicks were a rule of the game.

"Good work," ironically remarked Tim, the weakling hatter.

"You go to hell," snapped Wrennie, and Tim looked much more

But Wrennie lost this credit before they had finished feeding
out the hay, for he grew too dizzy to resent Tim's remarks.

Straining to pitch forkfuls into the pens while the boat rolled,
slopping along the wet gangway, down by the bunkers of coal,
where the heat seemed a close-wound choking shroud and the
darkness was made only a little pale by light coming through
dust-caked port-holes, he sneezed and coughed and grunted till
he was exhausted. The floating bits of hay-dust were a thousand
impish hands with poisoned nails scratching at the roof of his
mouth. His skin prickled all over. He constantly discovered
new and aching muscles. But he wabbled on until he finished the
work, fifteen minutes after Tim had given out.

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

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_."


"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.

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The International and Atlantic Employment Bureau is a long dirtyroom with the plaster cracked like the outlines on a map, hungwith steamship posters and the laws of New York regardingemployment offices, which are regarded as humorous by theproprietor, M. Baraieff, a short slender ejaculatory personwith a nervous black beard, lively blandness, and a knowledge ofall the incorrect usages of nine languages. Mr. Wrenn edgedinto this junk-heap of nationalities with interested wonder.M. Baraieff rubbed his smooth wicked hands together and bowed anumber of times.Confidentially leaning across the counter, Mr. Wrenn murmured:"Say, I read your ad. about wanting cattlemen. I want