Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 12

Sam had remained calm amid the frenzy of a Detroit Automobile Show; he had stalked through the crush of a New Year’s Eve on Broadway, merely brushing off the bright young men with horns and feather ticklers; but in the Calais customs-house he was appalled. The porters shrieked ferocious things like “attonshion” as they elbowed past, walking mountains of baggage; the passengers jammed about the low baggage platform; the customs inspectors seemed to Sam cold-eyed and hostile; all of them bawled and bleated and wailed in what sounded to him like no language whatever; and he remembered that he had four hundred cigarettes in his smaller bag.

The porter who had taken their bags on the steamer had shouted something that sounded like “catravan deuce”— Fran said it meant that he was Porter Number Ninety-two. Then Catravan Deuce had malignantly disappeared, with their possessions. Sam knew that it was all right, but he didn’t believe it. He assured himself that a French porter was no more likely to steal their bags than a Grand Central red-cap — only, he was quite certain that Catravan Deuce had stolen them. Of course he could replace everything except Fran’s jewelry without much expense but — Damn it, he’d hate to lose his old red slippers —

He was disappointed at so flabby an ending when he found Catravan Deuce at his elbow in the customs room, beaming in a small bearded way and shouldering aside the most important passengers to plank their baggage down on the platform for examination.

Sam was proud of Fran’s French (of Stratford, Connecticut) when the capped inspector said something quite incomprehensible and she answered with what sounded like “ree-an.” He felt that she was a scholar; he felt that he was untutored and rusty; he depended on her admiringly. And then he opened the smaller bag and the four hundred cigarettes were revealed to the inspector.

The inspector looked startled, he gaped, he spread out his arms, and protested in the name of liberty, equality, fraternity, and indemnities. Fran tried to answer, but her French stumbled and fell, and she turned to Sam, all her airy competence gone, wailing, “I can’t understand what he says! He — he talks patois!”

At her appeal, Sam suddenly became competent, ready to face the entire European Continent, with all appertaining policemen, laws, courts, and penitentiaries.

“Here! I’ll get somebody!” he assured her, and to the customs inspector, who was now giving a French version of the Patrick Henry oration, he remarked, “Just a MO-ment! Keep your shirt on!”

He had a notion of finding the English vicar to whom he had listened on the Channel steamer. “Fellow seems to know European languages.” He wallowed through the crowd as though he were making a touch-down, and saw on a cap the thrice golden words “American Express Company.” The American Express man beamed and leaped forward at something in the manner with which Mr. Samuel Dodsworth of the Revelation Motor Company suggested, “Can you come and do a little job of interpreting for me?” . . . Sam felt that for a moment he was being Mr. Samuel Dodsworth, and not Fran Dodsworth’s husband. . . . And for something less than a moment he admitted that he was possibly being the brash Yankee of Mark Twain and Booth Tarkington. And he could not successfully be sorry for it.

The American Express man saw them on the waiting train (a very bleak and tall and slaty train it seemed to Sam); he prevented Sam from tipping the porter enough to set him up in a shop. And so Sam and Fran were alone in a compartment, safe again till Paris.

Sam chuckled, “Say, I guess I’ll have to learn the French for two phrases: ‘How much?’ and ‘Go to hell.’ But — Sweet! We’re in France — in Europe!”

She smiled at him; she let him off and didn’t even rebuke him for his Americanism. They sat hand in hand, and they were more intimately happy than since the day they had sailed from America. They were pleased by everything: by the battery of red and golden bottles on their table at lunch, by the deftness with which the waiter sliced the cone of ice cream, by the mysterious widow who was trying to pick up the mysterious Frenchman who combined a checked suit and a red tie with a square black beard — such a beard, murmured Fran, as it was worth crossing the Atlantic to behold.

He was stimulated equally by the “foreignness” of the human spectacle flickering past the window of their compartment — women driving ox-carts, towns with sidewalk cafes, and atrocious new houses of yellow brick between lumpy layers of stone picked out in red mortar — and the lack of “foreignness” in the land itself. Somehow it wasn’t quite right that French trees and grass should be of the same green, French earth of the same brown, French sky of the same blue, as in a natural, correct country like America. After the tight little fenced fields of England, the wide Picardy plains, green with approaching April, seemed to him extraordinarily like the prairies of Illinois and Iowa. If it was a little disappointing, not quite right and decent after he had gone and taken so long and expensive a journey, yet he was pleased by that sense of recognition which is one of the most innocent and egotistic of human diversions, that feeling of understanding and of mastering an observation. He was as pleased as a side-street nobody when in his newspaper he sees the name of a man he knows.

“I’m enjoying this!” said Sam.

He had been accustomed to “sizing up” American towns; he could look from a Pullman window at Kalamazoo or Titus Center and guess the population within ten per cent. He could, and with frequency he did; he was fascinated by figures of any sort, and for twenty years he had been trying to persuade Fran that there was nothing essentially ignoble in remembering populations and areas and grade-percentages and the average life of tires. He had been able to guess not too badly at the size of British towns; he had not been too greatly bewildered by anything in England, once he was over the shock of seeing postmen with funny hats, and taxicabs with no apparent speed above neutral. But in Paris, as they bumped and slid and darted from the Gare du Nord to their hotel, he could not be certain just what it was that he was seeing.

Fran was articulate enough about it. She half stood up in the taxi, crying, “Oh, look, Sam, look! Isn’t it adorable! Isn’t it too exciting! Oh, the darling funny little ZINCS! And the Cointreau ads, instead of chewing gum! These bald-faced high white houses! Everybody so noisy, and yet so gay! Oh, I ADORE it!”

But for Sam it was a motion picture produced by an insane asylum; it was an earthquake with a volcano erupting and a telephone bell ringing just after he’d gone to sleep; it was lightning flashes and steam whistles and newspaper extras and war.

Their taxicab, just missing an omnibus, sliding behind its rear platform. A policeman, absurdly little, with an absurd white baton. Two priests over glasses of beer at a cafe. Silver gray everywhere, instead of London’s golden brown. Two exceedingly naked plaster ladies upholding a fifth-story balcony. Piles of shoddy rugs in front of a shop, and beside them a Frenchman looking utterly content with his little business, instead of yearning at the department store opposite and feeling guilty as he would in New York or Chicago or Zenith. Fish. Bread. Beards. Brandy. Artichokes. Apples. Etchings. Fish. A stinking-looking alley. A splendid sweeping boulevard. Circular tin structures whose use he dared not suspect and which gave him a shocking new notion of Latin proprieties and of the apparently respectable and certainly bearded gentlemen who dashed toward them. Many books, bound in paper of a thin-looking yellow. An incessant, nerve-cracking, irritating, exhilarating blat-blat-blat of nervous little motor horns. Buildings which in their blankness seemed somehow higher than American skyscrapers ten times as high. A tiny, frowsy, endearing facade of a house which suggested the French Revolution and crazed women in red caps and kirtled skirts. A real artist (Sam decided), a being in red beard, wide black hat, and a cloak, with a dog-eared marble-paper-covered portfolio under his arm. Gossiping women, laughing, denouncing, forgiving, laughing. Superb public buildings, solid-looking as Gibraltar. Just missing another taxi, and the most admirable cursing by both chauffeurs —

“This certainly is a busy town. But not much traffic control, looks to me,” said Samuel Dodsworth, and his voice was particularly deep and solemn, because he was particularly confused and timid.

It was at the Grand Hotel des Deux Hemispheres et Dijon that he was able to reassume the pleasant mastery with which (he hoped) he had been able to impress Fran at the Calais customs. The assistant manager of the hotel spoke excellent English, and Sam had never been entirely at a loss so long as his opponent would be decent and speak a recognizable language.

Lucile McKelvey, of Zenith, had told Fran that the Hemispheres was “such a nice, quiet hotel,” and Sam had wired for reservations from London. By himself, he would doubtless have registered and taken meekly whatever room was given him. But Fran insisted on seeing their suite, and they found it a damp, streaked apartment looking on a sunless courtyard.

“Oh, this won’t do at all!” wailed Fran. “Haven’t you something decent?”

The assistant manager, a fluent Frenchman from Roumania via Algiers, looked them up and down with that contempt, that incomparable and enfeebling contempt, which assistant managers reserve for foreigners on their first day in Paris.

“We are quite full up,” he sniffed.

“You haven’t anything else at all?” she protested.

“No, Madame.”

Those were the words, but the tune was, “No, you foreign nuisance — jolly lucky you are to be admitted here at all — I wonder if you two really ARE married — well, I’ll overlook that, but I shan’t stand any Yankee impertinence!”

Even the airy Fran was intimidated, and she said only, “Well, I don’t like it —”

And then Samuel Dodsworth appeared again.

His knowledge of Parisian hotels and their assistant managers was limited, but his knowledge of impertinent employees was vast.

“Nope,” he said. “No good. We don’t like it. We’ll look elsewhere.”

“But Monsieur has engaged this suite!”

The internationalist and the provincial looked at each other furiously, and it was the assistant manager whose eyes fell, who looked embarrassed, as Sam’s paws curled, as the back of his neck prickled with unholy wrath.

“Look here! You know this is a rotten hole! Do you want to send for the manager — the boss, whatever you call him?”

The assistant manager shrugged, and left them, coldly and with speed.

Rather silently, Sam lumbered beside Fran down to their taxi. He supervised the reloading of their baggage, and atrociously overtipped every one whom he could coax out of the hotel.

“Grand Universel!” he snapped at the taxi-driver, and the man seemed to understand his French.

In the taxi he grumbled, “I TOLD you I had to learn the French for ‘Go to hell.’”

A silence; then he ruminated, “Glad we got out of there. But I bullied that poor rat of a clerk. Dirty trick! I’m sorry! I’m three times as big as he is. Stealing candy from a kid! Dirty trick! I see why they get sore at Americans like me. Sorry, Fran.”

“I adore you!” she said, and he looked mildly astonished.

At the Grand Universel, on the Rue de Rivoli, they found an agreeable suite overlooking the Tuileries, and twenty times an hour, as she unpacked, Fran skipped to the window to gloat over Paris, the Casanova among cities.

Their sitting-room seemed to him very pert and feminine in its paneled walls covered with silky yellow brocade, its fragile chairs upholstered in stripes of silver and lemon. Even the ponderous boule cabinet was frivolous, and the fireplace was of lively and rather indecorous pink marble. He felt that it was a light-minded room, a room for sinning in evening clothes. All Paris was like that, he decided.

Then he stepped out on the fretted iron balcony and looked to the right, to the Place de la Concorde and the beginning of the Champs Elysees, with the Chamber of Deputies across the Seine. He was suddenly stilled, and he perceived another Paris, stately, aloof, gray with history, eternally quiet at heart for all its superficial clamor.

Beneath the quacking of motor horns he heard the sullen tumbrils. He heard the trumpets of the Napoleon who had saved Europe from petty princes. He heard, without quite knowing that he heard them, the cannon of the Emperor who was a Revolutionist. He heard things that Samuel Dodsworth did not know he had heard or ever could hear.

“Gee, Fran, this town has been here a long time, I guess,” he meditated. “This town knows a lot,” said Samuel Dodsworth of Zenith. “Yes, it knows a lot.”

And, a little sadly, “I wish I did!”

There are many Parises, with as little relation one to another as Lyons to Monte Carlo, as Back Bay to the Dakota wheatfields. There is the trippers’ Paris: a dozen hotels, a dozen bars and restaurants, more American than French; three smutty revues; three railroad stations; the Cafe de la Paix; the Eiffel Tower; the Arc de Triomphe; the Louvre; shops for frocks, perfumes, snake-skin shoes, and silk pajamas; the regrettable manners of Parisian taxi-drivers; and the Montmartre dance-halls where fat, pink-skulled American lingerie-buyers get drunk on imitation but inordinately expensive champagne, to the end that they put on pointed paper hats, scatter confetti, conceive themselves as Great Lovers, and in general forget their unfortunate lot.

The students’ Paris, round about the Sorbonne, very spectacled and steady. The fake artists’ Paris, very literary and drunk and full of theories. The real artists’ Paris, hidden and busy and silent. The cosmopolites’ Paris, given to breakfast in the Bois, to tea at the Ritz, and to reading the social columns announcing who has been seen dining with princesses at Ciro’s — namely, a Paris whose chief joy is in being superior to the trippers.

There is also reported to be a Paris inhabited by no one save three million Frenchmen.

It is said that in this unknown Paris live bookkeepers and electricians and undertakers and journalists and grandfathers and grocers and dogs and other beings as unromantic as people Back Home.

Making up a vast part of all save this last of the Parises are the Americans.

Paris is one of the largest, and certainly it is the pleasantest, of modern American cities. It is a joyous town, and its chief joy is in its jealousies. Every citizen is in rivalry with all the others in his knowledge of French, of museums, of wine, and of restaurants.

The various castes, each looking down its nose at the caste below, are after this order: Americans really domiciled in Paris for years, and connected by marriage with the French noblesse. Americans long domiciled, but unconnected with the noblesse. Americans who have spent a year in Paris — those who have spent three months — two weeks — three days — half a day — just arrived. The American who has spent three days is as derisive toward the half-a-day tripper as the American resident with smart French relatives is toward the poor devil who has lived in Paris for years but who is there merely for business.

And without exception they talk of the Rate of Exchange.

And they are all very alike, and mostly homesick.

They insist that they cannot live in America, but, except for a tenth of them who have really become acclimated in Europe, they are so hungry for American news that they subscribe to the home paper, from Keokuk or New York or Pottsville, and their one great day each week is that of the arrival of the American mail, on which they fall with shouts of “Hey, Mamie, listen to this! They’re going to put a new heating plant in the Lincoln School.” They know quite as well as Sister Louisa, back home, when the Washington Avenue extension will be finished. They may ostentatiously glance daily at Le Matin or Le Journal, but the Paris editions of the New York Herald and the Chicago Tribune they read solemnly, every word, from the front page stories —“Congress to Investigate Election Expenses,” and “Plans Transatlantic Aeroplane Liners” to the “News of Americans in Europe,” with its tidings that Mrs. Witney T. Auerenstein of Scranton entertained Geheimrat and Frau Bopp at dinner at the Bristol, and that Miss Mary Minks Meeton, author and lecturer, has arrived at the Hotel Pedauque.

Each of these castes is subdivided according to one’s preference for smart society or society so lofty that it need not be smart, society given to low bars and earnest drinking, the society of business exploitation, or that most important society of plain loafing. Happy is he who can cleave utterly to one of these cliques; he can find a group of fellow zealots and, drinking or shopping or being artistic, be surrounded with gloriously log-rolling comrades.

But Sam Dodsworth was unfortunate, for his wife panted to combine smartness with an attention to Art, while he himself preferred business and the low bars.

For all of Fran’s superiority to “sight-seeing,” they were at first lonely in Paris, and Sam was able to drag her to all the places mentioned in the guide-books. They danced at Zelli’s; they went up the Eiffel Tower and she came near to being sick in corners; thrice they went to the Louvre; and once he cajoled her into the New York Bar for a whisky and soda and spirited conversation with an unknown man about skiing and the Bronx. She showed even more zest than he in finding new small restaurants — he would have been content to return every night to the places in which he had conquered the waiters and learned the wine-list.

And, curiously, he enjoyed galleries and picture-exhibitions more than she.

Fran had read enough about art; she glanced over the studio magazines monthly, and she knew every gallery on Fifth Avenue. But, to her, painting, like all “culture,” was interesting only as it adorned her socially. In story-books parroting the Mark Twain tradition, the American wife still marches her husband to galleries from which he tries to sneak away; but in reality Sam’s imagination was far more electrified by blue snow and golden shoulders and dynamic triangles than was Fran’s. Probably he would have balked at the blurs of Impressionism and the jazz mathematics of Cubism, but it chanced that the favorite artist just this minute was one Robinoff, who did interiors pierced with hectic sunshine hurled between the slats of Venetian blinds, or startling sun-rays striking into dusky woodlands, and at these (while Fran impatiently wanted to get on to tea) Sam stared long and contentedly, drawing in his breath as though he smelled the hot sun.

In every phase Fran was as incalculable about “sight-seeing” as about liking his business associates. One day she was brazen enough to be discovered with the tourists’ badge, the red Baedeker, unconcealed; the next she wouldn’t even sit with him at a sidewalk cafe — at the Napolitain or the Closerie-des-Lilas.

“But why not?” he protested. “Best place to see the world go by. Everybody goes to ’em.”

“Smart people don’t.”

“Well, I’m not smart!”

“Well, I am!”

“Then you ought to be smart enough to not care what anybody thinks!”

“Perhaps I am. . . . But I don’t care to be seen sitting with a lot of trippers in raincoats.”

“But you sat in a cafe yesterday, and enjoyed it. Don’t you remember the beggar that sang —”

“Exactly! I’ve had enough of it! Oh, if you want to go and yearn over your dear American fellow tourists, by all means go, my dear Samuel! I am going to the Crillon and have a decent tea.”

“And yearn over the dear fellow American tourists that happen to be rich!”

“Is it necessary for you always to quarrel with me because I want to do what I want to do? I’m not keeping you from sitting on your sidewalks. Don’t go to the Crillon! Go to one of your beloved American bars, if you want to, and scrape up acquaintance with a lot of drunken business men —”

They compromised on going to the Crillon.

He puzzled over her feeling that it was a duty to keep herself fashionable in the eyes of the choice people who did not know that she existed. He could understand that back in Zenith she might have a good human satisfaction in being more snobbish than the matron across the street, in the ancient sport of “putting it over on the neighbors.” He had been unrighteously pleased when he had seen her better dressed than her dear friend and resented rival, Lucile McKelvey. “Good girl,” he had crowed; “you were the best-dressed wench in the room!”

But why should it matter to Fran that a strange Parisian aristocrat passing in a carriage might some day see them sitting contentedly at a cafe and arch her brows at them?

He admitted that the serene and classic Place des Vosges with the Carnavalet Museum was perhaps more select than Pat’s Chicago Bar; that caneton presse might be a more elegant food than corn fritters at the Savannah Grill. “But,” he fretted, “why can’t you enjoy both — as long as you DO enjoy ’em? Nobody’s hired us to come here and be stylish! We haven’t got any duty involved! Back home there may have been a law against enjoying ourselves the way we wanted to, but there’s none here!”

“My dear Sam, it’s a matter of keeping one’s self-respect. It’s like the Englishman, all alone in the jungle, who always dresses for dinner.”

“Yes, I’ve read about him! In the first place, he probably didn’t do it, and in the second place, if he did he was a chump! That’s how I’ve always figured it.”

“You would! You couldn’t understand what it meant to him —”

“Well, if all that stood between him and losing his self-respect was a hard-boiled shirt-front, I guess he might as well have let it slide! If I can’t be self-respectful in a flannel shirt, I’m about ready to jump off the dock and —”

“Oh, you simply can’t UNDERSTAND!”

They had never had much time in Zenith for a serious attention to quarreling and being domestically vulgar. All day he had been at the office; most evenings they had seen other people; on Sunday there had been golf and relatives. They had time a-plenty now, equally for quarreling and for intimate and adventurous happiness together. One day they wrangled — and endlessly, because they were not quarreling over any one thing in particular but over the differences in their philosophies of life; the next they went off (and sometimes she was simple and gay enough to let him carry sandwiches somewhat mussily in his pocket) to explore the Forest of Fontainebleau, and they laughed as they walked through groves shivering with April.

He was becoming acquainted with her and, sometimes, slightly, with himself.

He saw little enough of Frenchmen outside of hotel-servants, waiters, shopmen, but what he did see of them, what he saw of the surface of French life, puzzled him. Many travelers in like case take out their confusion in resentment, and damn the whole nation as trivial and mad. But there was in Sam a stubborn wish to get in behind any situation that he came across. He was not one to amuse himself by novelties, by making scenes, by collecting curious people, even overmuch by travel, but once he was dragged into something new he wanted to understand it, and he had a touch of humility, a deep and sturdy recognition of his own ignorance, whenever he could not understand.

And he could not understand these Frenchmen.

He watched them in cafes, at the theater, in shops, in trains to Tours and Versailles. How was it that they could sit, not restless, playing dominoes or chattering, over nothing more beguiling than glasses of coffee (and why was it that they drank coffee in glasses, anyway, instead of in cups)?

They liked talking so much. What the deuce did they find to talk about, hour on hour? How could they stand it without something to DO?

Why were there so few grassy yards about the houses? How was it that the most respectable old couples, silvery old men and crouched little old women, were willing to be seen at ordinary cafes in the evening, when their counterparts back home considered the saloon, the cafe, as the final haunt of the abominable? He saw the French people being gracious in shops, beaming on the babies in the Luxembourg Gardens, laughing together as they paraded the streets, and he decided that they were the soul of kindliness. He saw a Frenchman scowl at American barbarians for daring to enter his quarter-filled railway compartment, he heard Fran being atrociously denounced by a recently smiling, buxom, clean, wholesome shop-woman when Fran insisted that she had been overcharged ten centimes for dry-cleaning a pair of gloves, and he decided that the French were rude and mean to a point of hatefulness . . . and that his Fran showed an enjoyment of squabbling which was a little disturbing to him.

He saw the Louvre, the silks in shops on the Place Vendome, the trimness of their own apartment at the Grand Universel, and he decided that the French had the best taste in the world. He saw the department stores with their atrocious brass-fretted windows, their displays of fish and fowl and Marquise-ina-garden chromos, of buffets carved with wooden blobs, of chairs that were even more violently high-colored than they were uncomfortable; he saw, in the haughty Parc Monceau, the imported ruins; he saw intelligent-seeming Frenchmen snickering over smutty post-cards and the eternal, unchanging pictures of naked young women in Vie Parisienne and Le Rire; and he decided that the French had no taste whatever.

But behind all his decisions was the decision that Sam Dodsworth would never be anything save bewildered by foreign ways, while Fran might, perhaps, take to them so eagerly that their companionship would be smashed forever.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/dodsworth/chapter12.html

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