Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XXXII - The Cornfield Aristocrat

IT was an innocent little note from Jeff Saxton; a polite, humble little note; it said that Jeff had a card to the Astoria Club, and wouldn't Milt please have lunch with him? But Milt dropped it on the table, and he walked round it as though it were a dictagraph which he'd discovered in the table drawer after happy, happy, hidden hours at counterfeiting.

It seemed more dangerous to refuse than to go. He browned the celebrated new shoes; he pressed the distinguished new trousers, with a light and quite unsatisfactory flatiron; he re-re-retied his best spotted blue bow—it persisted in having the top flaps too short, but the retying gave him spiritual strength—and he modestly clumped into the aloof brick portal of the Astoria Club on time.

He had never been in a club before.

He looked at the red tiled floor of the entrance hall; he stared through the hall into an immense lounge with the largest and softest chairs in the world, with oil portraits of distinguished old bucks, and ninety per cent. of the wealth and power of Seattle pulling its several mustaches, reading the P.I., and ignoring the lone intruder out in the hall.

[332]A small Zulu in blue tights and brass buttons glared at Milt; and a large, soft, suave, insulting young man demanded, "Yes, sir?"

"Mr. G-g-geoffrey Saxton?" ventured Milt.

"Not in, sir." The "sir" sounded like "And you know it." The flaming guardian retired behind a narrow section of a bookkeeper's desk and ignored him.

"I'm to meet him for lunch," Milt forlornly persisted.

The young man looked up, hurt and annoyed at finding that the person was still to be dealt with.

"If you will wait in there?" he groaned.

Milt sat in there, which was a small blue tapestry room with hard chairs intended to discourage bill-collectors. He turned his hat round and round and round, till he saw Jeff Saxton, slim and straight and hard as the stick hooked over his arm, sailing into the hall. He plunged out after him, took refuge with him from the still unconvinced inspection of the hall-man. For twenty seconds, he loved Jeff Saxton.

And Jeff seemed to adore him in turn. He solicitously led Milt to the hat-checking counter. He showed Milt the lounge and the billiard room, through which Milt crept with erect shoulders and easy eyes and a heart simply paralyzed with fear that one of these grizzled clubmen with clipped mustaches would look at him. He coaxed Milt into a grill that was a cross between the Chinese throne-room and a Viennese[333] Weinstube, and he implored his friend Milt to do him the favor of trying the "very fair" English mutton chops and potatoes au gratin.

"I did want to see you again before we go East, Daggett," he said pleasantly.

"Th-thanks. When do you go?"

"I'm trying to get Miss Boltwood to start soon now. The season is opening in the East. She does like your fine sturdy West, as I do, but still, when we think of the exciting new shows opening, and the dances, and the touch with the great world—— Oh, it does make one eager to get back."

"That's so," risked Milt.

"We, uh—— Daggett—— In fact, I'm going to call you Milt, as Claire does. You don't know what a pleasure it has been to have encountered you. There's a fine keen courage about you Western chaps that makes a cautious old fogy like me envious. I shall remember meeting you with a great deal of pleasure."

"Th-thanks. Been pleasure meet you."

"And I know Claire will, too."

Milt felt that he was being dealt with foully. He wanted to object to Saxton's acting as agent for Claire as incompetent, irrelevant, immaterial, and no foundation laid. But he could not see just where he was being led, and with Saxton glowing at him as warmly and greasily as the mutton chops, Milt could only smile[334] wanly, and reflectively feel the table leg to see if it was loose enough to jerk out in case of need.

Saxton was being optimistic:

"In fact, Claire and I both hope that some day when you've finished your engineering course, we'll see you in the East. I wonder—— As I say, my dear fellow, I've taken the greatest fancy to you, and I do hope you won't think I'm too intimate if I say that I imagine that even in your charming friendship with Miss Boltwood, you've probably never learned what important people the Boltwoods are. I thought I'd tell you so that you could realize the privilege both you and I have in knowing them. Henry B. is—while not a man of any enormous wealth—regarded as one of the keenest intellects in New York wholesale circles. But beyond that, he is a scholar, and a man of the broadest interests. Of course the Boltwoods are too modest to speak of it, but he was chiefly instrumental in the establishment of the famous Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra. And his ancestors clear through—his father was a federal judge, and his mother's brother was a general in the Civil War, and afterwards an ambassador. So you can guess something of the position Claire holds in that fine, quiet, solid old Brooklyn set. Henry Ward Beecher himself was complimented at being asked to dine with the Boltwoods of his day, and——"

No, the table leg wouldn't come loose, so it was[335] only verbally that the suddenly recovered Milt attacked:

"Certainly is nice to have one of those old families. It's something like—— As you say, you and I have gotten pretty well acquainted along the line, so I guess I can say it to you—— My father and his folks came from that same kind of family. Father's dad was a judge, back in Maine, and in the war, grand-dad was quite friendly with Grant."

This tribute of Milt to his grandsire was loyal but inaccurate. Judge Daggett, who wasn't a judge at all, but a J. P., had seen General Grant only once, and at the time the judge had been in company with all the other privates in the Fourteenth Maine.

"Dad was a pioneer. He was a doctor. He had to give up all this easy-going stuff in order to help open up the West to civilization, but I guess it was worth it. He used to do the hardest kind of operations, on kitchen tables, with his driver giving the chloroform. I'm mighty proud of him. As you say, it's kind of what you might call inspiring to belong to the old Pilgrim aristocracy."

Never before had Milt claimed relation to a group regarding which his only knowledge was the information derived from the red school-history to the effect that they all carried blunderbusses, put people in the stocks for whistling, and frequently said, "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" But he had made his[336] boast with a clear eye and a pleasant, superior, calm smile.

"Oh! Very interesting," grunted Saxton.

"Would you like to see grandfather's daguerreotype?"

"Oh, yes, yes, uh, thanks, that would be very interesting—— Do let me see it, when—— Uh, as I was saying, Claire doubtless has a tremendous social career before her. So many people expecting her to marry well. Of course she has a rather unusual combination of charm and intelligence and—— In fact I think we may both be glad that——"

"Yes. That's right. And the best thing about her is the way she can shake off all the social stuff and go camping and be a regular human being," Milt caressed.

"Um, uh, no doubt, no doubt, though—— Of course, though, that isn't an inherent part of her. I fancy she's been rather tired by this long trip, poor child. Of course she isn't very strong."

"That's right. Real pluck. And of course she'll get stronger by hiking. You've never seen her bucking a dangerous hill—I kind of feel that a person who hasn't seen her in the wilds doesn't know her."

"I don't want to be contradictory, old man, but I feel on the other hand that no one who has failed to see her at the Junior League Dances, in a Poiret[337] frock, can know her! Come, come! Don't know how we drifted into this chorus of praise of Claire! What I wanted to ask was your opinion of the Pierce-Arrow. I'm thinking of buying one. Do you think that——"

All the way home Milt exulted, "I put it all over him. I wasn't scared by the 'Don't butt into the aristocracy, my young friend' stuff. I lied handsome. But—— Darn it, now I'll have to live up to my New England aristocracy.... Wonder if my grand-dad's dad was a hired man or a wood-sawyer?... Ne' mine; I'm Daggett of Daggett from now on." He bounded up to his room vaingloriously remarking, "I'm there with the ancestors. I was brought up in the handsome city of Schoenstrom, which was founded by a colony of Vermont Yankees, headed by Herman Skumautz. I was never allowed to play with the Dutch kids, and——" He opened the door. "—the Schoenstrom minister taught me Greek and was my bosom frien'——"

He stopped with his heart in his ankles. Lolling on the bed, grinning, waving a cigarette, was Bill McGolwey, proprietor of the Old Home Lunch, of Schoenstrom, Minnesota.

"Wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwhy where the heck did you come from?" stammered the deposed aristocrat to his bosom friend Bill.

"You old lemon-pie-faced, lollygagging, flap-footed,[338] crab-nosed son of misery, gee, but it's good to see you, Milt!"

Bill was off the bed, wringing Milt's hand with simple joy, with perfect faith that in finding his friend all the troubles of life were over. And Milt was gloomily discovering the art of diplomacy. Bill was his friend, yes, but——

It was hard enough to carry his own self.

He pictured Jeff Saxton leering at the door, and while he pounded Bill's shoulder, and called him the name which, west of Chicago, is the token of hatred and of extreme gladness at meeting, he discovered that some one had stolen his stomach and left a piece of ice in its place.

They settled down on bed and chair, Bill's ears red with joy, while Milt demanded:

"How the deuce did you get here?"

"Well, tell you, old hoss. Schoenstrom got so darn lonely after you left, and when Ben and Heinie got your address and bought the garage, think's I, lez go off on a little bum."

Milt was realizing—and hating himself for realizing—that Bill's face was dirty, his hair linty, the bottoms of his trousers frayed masses of mud, while Bill chuckled:

"I figured out maybe I could get a job here in a restaurant, and you and me could room together. I sold out my good will in the Old Home Lunch for a[339] hundred bucks. I was going to travel swell, riding the cushions. But Pete Swanson wanted me to go down to the Cities first, and we run into some pretty swift travelers in Minneapolis, and a couple of girls—saaaaaaay, kid, some class!"

Bill winked, and Milt—Milt was rather sick. He knew Bill's conception of class in young women. Was this the fellow he had liked so well? These the ideas which a few months ago he had taken as natural and extremely amusing?

"And I got held up in an alley off Washington Avenue, and they got the last twenty bones off'n me, and I was flatter 'n a pancake. So I says 'ish kabibble,' and I sneaks onto the blind baggage, and bums my way West. You'd 'a' died laughing to seen me throwing my feet for grub. Oh, I'm some panhandler! There was one Frau sicked her dog onto me, and I kicked him in the jaw and—— Oh, it was one swell hike."

Milt was trying to ignore the voice that was raging, "And now he expects to live on me, after throwing his own money away. The waster! The hobo! He'll expect to meet Claire—— I'd kill him before I'd let him soil her by looking at her. Him and his classy girls!" Milt tried to hear only the other inner voice, which informed him, "He looks at you so trustingly. He'd give you his shirt, if you needed it—and he wouldn't make you ask for it!"

[340]Milt tried to be hearty: "What're you going to do, old kid?"

"Well, the first thing I'm going to do is to borrow ten iron-men and a pair of pants."

"You bet! Here she is. Haven't got any extra pants. Tell you: Here's another five, and you can get the pants at the store in the next block, this side of the street. Hustle along now and get 'em!" He chuckled at Bill; he patted his arm; he sought to hurry him out.... He had to be alone, to think.

But Bill kissed the fifteen dollars, carelessly rammed it into his pocket, crawled back on the bed, yawned, "What's the rush? Gosh, I'm sleepy. Say, Milt, whadyuh think of me and you starting a lunch-room here together? You got enough money out of the garage——"

"Oh no, noooo, gee, I'd like to, Bill, but you see, well, I've got to hold onto what little I've got so I can get through engineering school."

"Sure, but you could cash in on a restaurant—you could work evenings in the dump, and there'd be a lot of city sports hanging around, and we'd have the time of our lives."

"No, I—— I study, evenings. And I—— The fact is, Bill, I've met a lot of nice fellows at the university and I kind of go around with them."

"Aw, how d'you get that way? Rats, you don't want to go tagging after them Willy-boys. Damn[341] dirty snobs. And the girls are worse. I tell you, Milt, these hoop-te-doodle society Janes may look all right to hicks like us, but on the side they raise more hell than any milliner's trimmer from Chi that ever vamped a rube burg."

"What do you know about them?"

"Now don't get sore. I'm telling you. I don't like to see any friend of mine make a fool of himself hanging around with a bunch that despises him because he ain't rich, that's all. Met any of the high-toned skirts?"


"Trot 'em up and lemme give 'em the once-over."

"We—we'll see about it. Now I got to go to a mathematics recitation, Bill. You make yourself comfortable, and I'll be back at five."

Milt did not have to go to a recitation. He marched out with briskness in his step, and a book under his arm; but when he reached the corner, the briskness proved to be spurious, and the mathematics book proved to be William Rose Benét's Merchants of Cathay, which Claire had given him in the Yellowstone, and which he had rescued from the wrecked bug.

He stood staring at it. He opened it with unhappy tenderness. He had been snatched from the world of beautiful words and serene dignity, of soaring mountains and companionship with Claire in the radiant[342] morning, back to the mud and dust of Schoenstrom, from the opera to "city sports" in a lunch-room! He hated Bill McGolwey and his sneering assumption that Milt belonged in the filth with him. And he hated himself for not being enough of a genius to combine Bill McGolwey and Claire Boltwood. But not once, in his maelstrom of worry on that street corner, did he expect Claire to like Bill. Through all his youthful agonizing, he had enough common sense to know that though Claire might conquer a mountain pass, she could never be equal to the social demands of Schoenstrom and Bill McGolwey.

He wandered for an hour and came back to find that, in a "dry" city which he had never seen before, the crafty Bill had obtained a quart of Bourbon, and was in a state of unsteady beatitude. He wanted, he announced, to dance.

Milt got him into the community bathtub, and soused him under, but Bill's wet body was slippery, and Bill's merry soul was all for frolicsome gamboling, and he slid out of Milt's grasp, he sloshed around in the tub, he sprinkled Milt's sacred good suit with soapy water, and escaped, and in the costume of Adam he danced orientally in Milt's room, till he was seized with sleepiness and cosmic grief, and retired to Milt's bed in tears and nothing else.

The room dimmed, grew dark. The street lamps outside sent a wan, wavery gleam into the room.[343] Evening crowds went by, and in a motion-picture theater a banging piano struck up. Bill breathed in choking snorts. Milt sat unmoving, feeling very old, very tired, too dumbly unhappy to be frightened of the dreadful coming hour when Claire and Jeff should hear of Bill, and discover Milt's real world.

He was not so romantically loyal, not so inhumanly heroic, that it can truthfully be reported that he never thought of getting rid of Bill. He did think of it, again and again. But always he was touched by Bill's unsuspecting trust, and shook his head, and sank again into the fog.

What was the use of trying to go ahead? Wasn't he, after all, merely a Bill McGolwey himself?

If he was, he wouldn't inflict himself on Claire.

For several minutes he gave up forever the zest of climbing.

When Bill awoke, brightly solicitous about the rest of the quart of Bourbon, and bouncingly ready to "go out and have a time," Milt loafed about the streets with him, showing him the city. He dully cut his classes, next morning, and took Bill to the wharves.

It was late in the afternoon, when they were lounging in the room, and Bill was admiring his new pants—he boasted of having bought them for three dollars, and pointed out that Milt had been a "galoot" to spend ten dollars for shoes—that some one knocked at the door. Sleepily expectant of his landlady, Milt[344] opened it on Miss Claire Boltwood, Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Gilson, and Mr. Geoffrey Saxton.

Saxton calmly looked past him, at Bill, smiled slightly, and condescended, "I thought we ought to call on you, so we've dropped in to beg for tea."

Bill had stopped midway in scratching his head to gape at Claire. Claire returned the look, stared at Bill's frowsy hair, his red wrists, his wrinkled, grease-stained coat, his expression of impertinent stupidity. Then she glanced questioningly at Milt, who choked:

"Oh yes, yes, sure, glad see you, come in, get some tea, so glad see you, come in——"

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