Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 1

The aristocracy of Zenith were dancing at the Kennepoose Canoe Club. They two-stepped on the wide porch, with its pillars of pine trunks, its bobbing Japanese lanterns; and never were there dance-frocks with wider sleeves nor hair more sensuously piled on little smiling heads, never an August evening more moon-washed and spacious and proper for respectable romance.

Three guests had come in these new-fangled automobiles, for it was now 1903, the climax of civilization. A fourth automobile was approaching, driven by Samuel Dodsworth.

The scene was a sentimental chromo — crisping lake, lovers in canoes singing “Nelly Was a Lady,” all very lugubrious and happy; and Sam Dodsworth enjoyed it. He was a large and formidable young man, with a healthy brown mustache and a chaos of brown hair on a massive head. He was, at twenty-eight, assistant superintendent of that most noisy and unsentimental institution, the Zenith Locomotive Works, and in Yale (class of 1896) he had played better than average football, but he thought well of the most sentimental sorts of moonlight.

Tonight he was particularly uplifted because he was driving his first car. And it was none of your old-fashioned “gasoline buggies,” with the engine under the seat. The engine bulked in front, under a proud hood over two feet long, and the steering column was not straight but rakishly tilted. The car was sporting and rather dangerous, and the lights were powerful affairs fed by acetylene gas. Sam sped on, with a feeling of power, of dominating the universe, at twelve dizzy miles an hour.

At the Canoe Club he was greeted by Tub Pearson, admirable in white kid gloves. Tub — Thomas J. Pearson — round and short and jolly, class-jester and class-dandy at Yale, had been Sam Dodsworth’s roommate and chief admirer throughout college, but now Tub had begun to take on an irritable dignity as teller and future president of his father’s bank in zenith.

“It runs!” Tub marveled, as Sam stepped in triumph from the car. “I’ve got a horse all ready to tow you back!”

Tub had to be witty, whatever happened.

“Certainly it runs! I’ll bet I was up to eighteen miles an hour!”

“Yeh! I’ll bet that some day automobiles’ll run forty!” Tub jeered. “Sure! Why, they’ll just about drive the poor old horse right off the highway!”

“They will! And I’m thinking of tying up with this new Revelation Company to manufacture ’em.”

“Not seriously, you poor chump?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, my Lord!” Tub wailed affectionately. “Don’t be crazy, Sambo! My dad says automobiles are nothing but a fad. Cost too much to run. In five years, he says, they’ll disappear.”

Sam’s answer was not very logical:

“Who’s the young angel on the porch?”

If she was an angel, the girl at whom Sam was pointing, she was an angel of ice; slim, shining, ash-blonde, her self-possessed voice very cool as she parried the complimentary teasing of half a dozen admirers; a crystal candle-stick of a girl among black-and-white lumps of males.

“You remember her — Frances Voelker — Fran Voelker — old Herman’s kid. She’s been abroad for a year, and she was East, in finishing-school, before that. Just a brat — isn’t over nineteen or twenty, I guess. Golly, they say she speaks German and French and Italian and Woof-woof and all known languages.”

Herman Voelker had brewed his way into millions and respectability. His house was almost the largest in Zenith — certainly it had the greatest amount of turrets, colored glass windows, and lace curtains — and he was leader among the German–Americans who were supplanting the New Englanders throughout the state as controllers of finance and merchandising. He entertained German professors when they came lecturing and looking, and it was asserted that one of the genuine hand-painted pictures which he had recently brought back from Nuremberg was worth nearly ten thousand dollars. A worthy citizen, Herman, and his tart beer was admirable, but that this beef-colored burgher should have fathered anything so poised and luminous as Fran was a miracle.

The sight of her made Sam Dodsworth feel clumsy as a St. Bernard looking at a white kitten. While he prophesied triumphs for the motor car, while he danced with other girls, he observed her airy dancing and her laughter. Normally, he was not particularly afraid of young women, but Fran Voelker seemed too fragile for his thick hands. Not till ten did he speak to her, when a partner left her, a flushed Corybant, in a chair near Sam’s.

“Do you remember me — Dodsworth? Years since I’ve seen you.”

“Remember! Heavens! I wondered if you were going to notice me. I used to steal the newspaper from Dad to get the news of your football heroisms. And when I was a nice young devil of eight, you once chased me out of your orchard for stealing apples.”

“Did I? Wouldn’t dare to now! Mavenex’ dance?”

“Well — Let me see. Oh. The next is with Levering Mott, and he’s already ruined three of my two slippers. Yes.”

If he did not dance with any particular neatness, a girl knew where she was, with Sam Dodsworth. He had enough strength and decision to let a young woman understand who was doing the piloting. With Fran Voelker, he was inspired; he waltzed as though he was proud of his shining burden. He held her lightly enough and, after the chaste custom of the era, his hands were gloved. But his finger-tips felt a current from her body. He knew that she was the most exquisite child in the world; he knew that he was going to marry her and keep her forever in a shrine; he knew that after years of puzzled wonder about the purpose of life, he had found it.

“She’s like a lily — no, she’s too lively. She’s like a humming bird — no, too kind of dignified. She’s — oh, she’s a flame!”

They sat talking by the lake at midnight. Out on the dappled water, seen through a cloud of willow leaves, the youngsters in canoes were now singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” Zenith was still in the halcyon William Dean Howells days; not yet had it become the duty of young people to be hard and brisk, and knowing about radios, jazz, and gin.

Fran was a white shadow, in a lace shawl over her thin yellow dancing frock, as she drooped down on a newspaper which he had solemnly spread for her on the long grass. Sam trembled a little, and sounded very pompous, rather boyish:

“I suppose you went everywhere in Europe.”

“More or less. France and Spain and Austria and Switzerland and — Oh, I’ve seen the Matterhorn by moonlight, and Santa Maria della Salute at dawn. And I’ve been almost frozen to death in a mistral at Avignon!”

“I suppose you’ll be bored in Zenith.”

She laughed, in a small competent way. “I know SO much about Europe — I’m no Cook’s tripper! — that I know I don’t know anything! All I can do in French is to order breakfast. Six months from now, all I’ll remember of Germany is the names of nineteen towns, and how the Potsdamer Platz looks when you’re waiting for a droschke. But you’ve DONE things. What are you doing now, by the way?”

“Assistant supe at the Locomotive Works. But I’m going to take a big gamble and — Ever ride in an automobile?”

“Oh yes, several times, in Paris and New York.”

“Well, I believe that in twenty years, say by 1923 or ‘4, they’ll be as common as buggies are now! I’m going in on a new company here — Revelation Automobile Company. I’ll get less salary, but it’s a swell gamble. Wonderful future. I’ve been working on my mechanical drawing lately, and I’ve got the idea that they ought to get away from imitating carriages. Make a — it sounds highbrow, but I mean what you might call a new kind of beauty for autos. Kind of long straight lines. The Revelation boss thinks I’m crazy. What do you think?”

“Oh, splendid!”

“And I’ve bought me an automobile of my own.”

“Oh, really?”

“Let me drive you home tonight!”

“No, sorry; Mama is coming for me.”

“You’ve got to let me take you for a ride. Soon!”

“Perhaps next Sunday. . . . We must go back to the clubhouse, don’t you think?”

He sprang up, meekly. As he lifted her to her feet, as he felt her slim hands, he murmured, “Certainly like to see Europe some day. When I graduated, I thought I’d be a civil engineer and see the Brazil jungle and China and all over. Reg’lar Richard Harding Davis stuff! But — Certainly going to see Europe, anyway. Maybe I might run into you over there, and you might show me some of it.”

“I’d love to!”

Ah, if she desired Europe, he would master it, and give it to her on a platter of polished gold!

There was the telephone call to her when he should have been installing machinery at the Revelation Automobile Company. There was the drive with her in his new car, very careful, though once he ventured on seventeen miles an hour. There was the dinner at the Voelkers’, in the room with carved beams like a Hofbrauhaus, and Sam’s fear that if Fran was kept on food like this, roast goose and stuffed cabbage and soup with Leberknodel, she would lose her race-horse slimness.

And there was even a moment when, recalling his vow made in Massachusetts Tech after graduating from Yale that he would cut loose from America and see the great world, he warned himself that between Fran and tying himself to the urgent new motor industry, he would be caught for life. The vision of himself as a Richard Harding Davis hero returned wistfully . . . . Riding a mountain trail, two thousand sheer feet above a steaming valley; sun-helmet and whipcord breeches; tropical rain on a tin-roofed shack; a shot in the darkness as he sat over a square-face of gin with a ragged tramp of Noble Ancestry. But his mind fled back to the excitement of Fran’s image: her spun-glass hair, her tingling hands, her lips that were forever pursing in fantastic pouts, her chatter that fell suddenly into inexplicable silence, her cool sureness that made him feel foggy and lumbering.

In a slaty November drizzle, they were tramping the cliffs along the Chaloosa River. Fran’s cheeks were alight and she was humming, but when they stopped to look at the wash of torn branches in the flooded river Sam felt that he must be protective. She was too slight and precious for such hardship as an autumnal rain. He drew the edge of his mackintosh over her woolly English topcoat.

“You must be soaked! I’m a brute to let you stay out!”

She smiled at him, very close. “I like it!”

It seemed to him that she had snuggled closer. He kissed her — for the first time, and very badly indeed.

“Oh, please don’t!” she begged, a little shocked, her lively self-possession gone.

“Fran, you’ve got to marry me!”

She slipped from the shelter of his raincoat and, arms akimbo, said impishly, “Oh, really? Is that a new law?”

“It is!”

“The great Yale athlete speaks! The automobile magnate!”

Very gravely: “No, just a scared lump of meat that’s telling you he worships you!”

Still she stared at him, among the autumn-bedraggled weeds on the river bank; she stared impudently, but quite suddenly she broke, covered her eyes with her hands, and while he clumsily dabbled at her cheeks with a huge handkerchief, she sobbed:

“Oh, Sam, my dear, but I’m so grasping! I want the whole world, not just Zenith! I DON’T want to be a good wife and mother and play cribbage prettily! I want splendor! Great horizons! Can we look for them together?”

“We will!” said Sam.

It was not till 1908, when he had been married for five years to Fran Voelker and they had had two babies, Emily and Brent, that Samuel Dodsworth came on his real struggle at the Revelation Automobile Company.

His superiors in the company had equally prized him for his steadiness and industry and fretted at him for being a dreamer. He was crazy as a poet, they said. Not only did he venture to blaspheme against the great Renault–Darracq dogmas of car-designing, not only did he keep on raving about long “stream — lines,” but he insisted that the largest profits would lie in selling automobiles as cheaply as possible to as many customers as possible. He was only assistant manager of production in 1908, but he owned a little stock, and his father-inlaw, portly old Herman Voelker, owned more. It was hard to discharge Sam, even when he growled at the president of the company, “If you keep the Rev looking like the one-horse-shay, we’ll go bankrupt.”

They tried to buy him out, and Sam, who had been absorbed in blue prints and steel castings, had to learn something about the tricks of financing: about bonds, transfer of stock, call loans, discounts to dealers. With Voelker’s money behind him, he secured twenty-three per cent. of the stock, he was made vice president and manager of production, he brought out the first four-door model, and he saw the Revelation become the sensation of America for a season and one of its best-selling cars for a score of years.

And never, these twenty years, did he come nearer to the Brazilian jungle than Wall Street, nearer to the tinkling pagodas than the Revelation agency in Kansas City.

But he was too busy to be discontented; and he managed to believe that Fran loved him.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/dodsworth/chapter1.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38