Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

XXVIII - The Morning Coat of Mr. Hudson B. Gibbs

MR. HUDSON B. RIGGS now enters the tale—somewhat tardily, and making a quick exit, all in a morning coat too tight about the shoulders, and a smile of festivity too tight about the lips. He looked as improbable as an undertaker's rubber-plant. Yet in his brief course he had a mighty effect upon the progress of civilization as exemplified in the social career of Mr. Milton Daggett.

Mr. Riggs had arrived at a golden position in Alaskan mining engineering by way of the farm, the section gang, the surveyor's chain, and prospecting; and his thick hands showed his evolution. His purpose in life was to please Mrs. Riggs, and he wasn't ever going to achieve his purpose in life. She wore spangles, and her corsets creaked, and she smiled nervously, and could tell in a glance quicker than the 1/100 kodak shutter whether or not a new acquaintance was "worth cultivating." She had made Mr. Riggs thoroughly safe and thoroughly unhappy in the pursuit of society. He stood about keeping from doing anything he might want to, and he was profusely polite to young cubs whom he longed to have in his office—so that he could get even with them.

[291]What Mr. Riggs wanted to do, at the third large tea given by Mrs. Gilson for Miss Claire Boltwood, was to sneak out on the sun-porch and play over the new records on the phonograph; but the things he had heard from Mrs. Riggs the last time he'd done that had convinced him that it was not a wise method of escape. So he stood by the fireplace—safe on one side at least—and ate lettuce sandwiches, which he privately called "cow feed," and listened to a shining, largely feminine crowd rapidly uttering unintelligible epigrams from which he caught only the words, "Ripping hand—trained nurse—whipcord—really worth seeing—lost the ball near the second hole—most absurd person—new maid—thanks so much." He was hoping that some one would come around and let him be agreeable. He knew that he stood the ride home with Mrs. Riggs much better after he had been agreeable to people he didn't like.

What Mr. Riggs did not know was that a young man in uninteresting blue, who looked like a good tennis-player, was watching him. It wasn't because he detected a fellow soul in purgatory but because he always was obsequious outside of his office that Mr. Riggs bowed so profusely that he almost lost his tea-cup, when the young man in blue drifted to him and suggested, "I hear you're in the Alaskan mining-game, Mr. Riggs."

"Oh yes."

[292]"Do you get up there much now?"

"No, not much."

"I hope to hit Alaska some day—I'm taking engineering at the U."

"Do you? Straight?" Mr. Riggs violently set his cup down on a table—Mrs. Riggs would later tell him that he'd put it down in the wrong place, but never mind. He leaned over Milt and snarled, "Offer me a cigarette. I don't know if they smoke here, and I dassn't be the first to try. Say, boy, Alaska—— I wish I was there now! Say, it beats all hell how good tea can taste in a tin cup, and how wishy-washy it is in china. Boy, I don't know anything about you, but you look all right, and when you get ready to go to Alaska, you come to me, and I'll see if I can't give you a chance to go up there. But don't ever come back!"

When the crowd began bubblingly to move toward the door, Milt prepared to move—and bubble—with them. Though Claire's note had sounded as though she was really a little lonely, at the tea she had said nothing to him except, "So glad you came. Do you know Dolly Ransome? Dolly, this is my nice Mr. Daggett. Take him and make him happy."

Dolly hadn't made him in the least happy. She had talked about tennis; she had with some detail described her remarkable luck in beating one Sally Saunders three sets. Now Milt was learning tennis.[293] He was at the present period giving two hours a week to tennis, two to dancing, two to bridge. But he preferred cleaning oil-wells to any of these toilsome accomplishments, and it must sadly be admitted that all the while he was making his face bright at Dolly, he was wondering what would happen if he interrupted Dolly's gurgling, galloping, giggling multitudinousness by shouting, "Oh, shut up!"

When it seemed safe to go, and he tried to look as though he too were oozing out to a Crane-Simplex, Claire slipped beside him, soft as a shadow, and whispered, "Please don't go. I want to talk to you. Please!" There was fluttering wistfulness in her voice, though instantly it was gone as she hastened to the door and was to be heard asserting that she did indeed love Seattle.

Milt looked out into the hall. He studied a console with a curious black and white vase containing a single peacock feather, and a gold mirror shimmering against a gray wall.

"Lovely stuff. I like that mirror. Like a slew in the evening. But it isn't worth being a slave for. I'm not going to be a Mr. Riggs. Poor devil, he's more of a servant than any of these maids. Certainly am sorry for that poor fish. He'll have a chance to take his coat off and sit down and smoke—when he's dead!"

The guests were gone; the Gilsons upstairs. Claire[294] came running, seized Milt's sleeve, coaxed him to the davenport in the drawing-room—then sighed, and rubbed her forehead, and looked so tired that he could say nothing but, "Hope you haven't been overdoing."

"No, just—just talking too much."

He got himself to say, "Miss Ransome—the one that's nuts about tennis—she's darn nice."

"Is she?"

"Yes, she's—she's—— What do you hear from your father?"

"Oh, he's back at work."

"Trip do him good?"

"Oh, a lot."

"Did he——"

"Milt! Tell me about you. What are you doing? What are you studying? How do you live? Do you really cook your own meals? Do you begin to get your teeth into the engineering? Oh, do tell me everything. I want to know, so much!"

"There isn't a whole lot to tell. Mostly I'm getting back into math. Been out of touch with it. I find that I know more about motors than most of the fellows. That helps. And about living—oh, I keep conservative. Did you know I'd sold my garage?"

"Oh, I didn't, I didn't!"

He wondered why she said it with such stooping shame, but he went on mildly, "Well, I got a pretty good price, but of course I don't want to take any[295] chances on running short of coin, so I'm not splurging much. And——" He looked at his nails, and whistled a bar or two, and turned his head away, and looked back with a shy, "And I'm learning to play bridge and tennis and stuff!"

"Oh, my dear!" It was a cry of pain. She beat her hands for a moment before she murmured, "When are we going to have our lessons in dancing—and in making an impression on sun-specks like Dolly Ransome?"

"I don't know," he parried. Then, looking at her honestly, he confessed, "I don't believe we're ever going to. Claire, I can't do it. I'm no good for this tea game. You know how clumsy I was. I spilled some tea, and I darn near tripped over some woman's dress and—— Oh, I'm not afraid of them. Now that I get a good close look at this bunch, they seem pretty much like other folks, except maybe that one old dame says 'cawn't.' But I can't do the manners stunt. I can't get myself to give enough thought to how you ought to hold a tea-cup."

"Oh, those things don't matter—they don't matter! Besides, everybody likes you—only you're so terribly cautious that you never let them see the force and courage and all that wonderful sweet dear goodness that's in you. And as for your manners—heaven knows I'm no P. G. Wodehouse valet. But I'll teach you all I know."

[296]"Claire, I appreciate it a lot but—— I'm not so darn sure I want to learn. I'm getting scared. I watched that bird named Riggs here today. He's a regular fellow, or he was, but now he's simply lost in the shuffle. I don't want to be one of the million ghosts in a city. Seattle is bad enough—it's so big that I feel like a no-see-um in a Norway pine reserve. But New York would be a lot worse. I don't want to be a Mr. Riggs."

"Yes, but—I'm not a Mrs. Riggs!"

"What do you——"

He did not finish asking her what she meant. She was in his arms; she was whispering, "My heart is so lonely;" and the room was still. The low sun flooded the windows, swam in the mirror in the hall, but they did not heed, did not see its gliding glory.

Not till there was a sound of footsteps did she burst from his arms, spring to her reflection in the glass of a picture, and shamefacedly murmur to him over her shoulder, "My hair—it's a terrible giveaway!"

He had followed her; he stood with his arm circling her shoulder.

She begged, "No. Please no. I'm frightened. Let's—oh, let's have a walk or something before you scamper home."

"Look! My dear! Let's run away, and explore the town, and not come back till late evening."

"Yes. Let's."

[297]They walked from Queen Anne Hill through the city to the docks. There was nothing in their excited, childish, "Oh, see that!" and "There's a dandy car!" and "Ohhhhh, that's a Minnesota license—wonder who it is?" to confess that they had been so closely, so hungrily together.

They swung along a high walk overlooking the city wharf. They saw a steamer loading rails and food for the government railroad in Alaska. They exclaimed over a nest of little, tarry fishing-boats. They watched men working late to unload Alaska salmon.

They crossed the city to Jap Town and its writhing streets, its dark alleys and stairways lost up the hillsides. They smiled at black-eyed children, and found a Japanese restaurant, and tried to dine on raw fish and huge shrimps and roots soaked in a very fair grade of light-medium motor oil.

With Milt for guide, Claire discovered a Christianity that was not of candles and shifting lights and insinuating music, nor of carpets and large pews and sound oratory, but of hoboes blinking in rows, and girls in gospel bonnets, and little silver and crimson placards of Bible texts. They stopped on a corner to listen to a Pentecostal brother, to an I. W. W. speaker, to a magnificent negro who boomed in an operatic baritone that the Day of Judgment was coming on April 11, 1923, at three in the morning.

[298]In the streets of Jap Town, in cheap motion-picture theaters, in hotels for transient workmen, she found life, running swift and eager and many-colored; and it seemed to her that back in the house of four-posters and walls of subdued gray, life was smothered in the very best pink cotton-batting. Milt's delight in every picturesque dark corner, and the colloquial eloquence of the street-orators, stirred her. And when she saw a shopgirl caress the hand of a slouching beau in threadbare brown, her own hand slipped into Milt's and clung there.

But they came shyly up to the Gilson hedge, and when Milt chuckled, "Bully walk; let's do it again," she said only, "Oh, yes, I did like it. Very much."

He had abruptly dropped his beautiful new felt hat. He was clutching her arms, demanding, "Can you like me? Oh my God, Claire, I can't play at love. I'm mad—I just live in you. You're my blood and soul. Can I become—the kind of man you like?"

"My dear!" She was fiercely addressing not him alone but the Betzes and Coreys and Gilsons and Jeff Saxtons, "don't you forget for one moment that all these people—here or Brooklyn either—that seem so aloof and amused, are secretly just plain people with enamel on, and you're to have the very best enamel, if it's worth while. I'm not sure that it is——"

"You're going to kiss me!"

"No! Please no! I don't—I don't understand us,[299] even now. Can't we be just playmates a while yet? But—I do like you!"

She fled. When she reached the hall she found her eyelids wet.

It was the next afternoon——

Claire was curled on the embroidered linen counterpane of her bed, thinking about chocolates and Brooklyn and driving through Yellowstone Park and corn fritters and satin petticoats versus crêpe de chine and Mount Rainier and Milt and spiritualism and manicuring, when Mrs. Gilson prowled into her room and demanded "Busy?" so casually that Claire was suspicious.

"No. Not very. Something up?"

"A nice party. Come down and meet an amusing man from Alaska."

Claire took her time powdering her nose, and ambled downstairs and into the drawing-room, to find——

Jeff Saxton, Mr. Geoffrey Saxton, who is the height of Brooklyn Heights, standing by the fireplace, smiling at her.

Return to the Free Air Summary Return to the Sinclair Lewis Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson