Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 13

Sam was used enough to New York hotels, and he had spent occasional fortnights at summer inns of Northern Michigan, Maine, the Berkshires. But he had never known the existence of the prosperous refugees from life who cling for years to hotels and pensions, who are mothered by chambermaids, fathered by concierges, befriended only by room-waiters — if they find any waiters kind enough and idle enough to be patient with their longing to gossip.

And he did not like it.

He felt as though he were living in an Old People’s Home. The attention of the servants made him feel old; the elevator man infuriated him by placing a hand under his arm to help him out of an elevator which had stopped a whole inch above the floor; the page boy in the lobby infuriated him by spinning the revolving door — and usually spinning it so artfully that one blade just missed Sam’s nose; the head waiter infuriated him by inquiring, as though Sam had never heard of menus, “A little soup this evening, Mr. Samuels?” and most of all he was infuriated by the room-waiters who were each morning astonished that he should desire eggs in addition to his Continental Breakfast, who fussed over knives and forks, who pushed up chairs and snatched away the pleasant litter of newspapers, and who held out his napkin as though he were too feeble to lift it for himself.

Yet he was dependent on them. Though Fran was making much now of reading the Matin daily and of knowing all about art exhibitions and the hours when theaters began, she had to turn to the tall and patronizing concierge for information about what train to take to Versailles — where to buy slippers — who was the best American dentist — how much one ought to pay for a lacquered Japanese cigarette case — why the deuce Mathilde et Cie. hadn’t delivered the evening scarf they’d promised for this afternoon — and just what WAS the general reputation of Mathilde et Cie. for delivering things and for overcharging?

He sank heavily into accepting the hotel as his natural dwelling, as a prisoner sinks into accepting a jail. Presently he was not bothered by the devious way from the elevator to their suite — to the right, sharp turning right again, turning left by that dusty old trunk with the red and green stripes which had apparently stood there in the corridor forever, then seventh door on the left — the door with the long scratch under the knob. He came to accept it as any other peasant accepts the long way to his hut, dark and meaningless and weary to tired legs. He was no longer annoyed by the too open-work and too generally brassy and light-minded appearance of the French elevator; he learned that the elevator was the “lift” or the “ascenseur” or indeed almost anything except the “elevator”; he learned that the room service-bell never worked and that the best way to get a waiter was to stand in the door and bellow “Gar-song”; and he learned that the Mr. Samuel Dodsworth who once had been received with a certain deference in the General Offices of the Revelation Motor Company in Zenith was fortunate here when the Greek boots nodded to him in the hall.

He even got used to living in a lack of privacy like that of a monkey in a Zoo. After a time he could without self-consciousness sit and read the Paris editions of the American papers in the old-fashioned lounge of the hotel — he went there daily, despite having a drawing-room of his own, in a sneaking, never-admitted hope that some day he would be recognized and picked up by a fellow American exile. The lounge was modern in its small and hideous tables covered with pebbled beaten brass, its fountain, with Neptune undistinguishable from any other marble tombstone, and the number of cocktails gulped daily at five o’clock by young ladies who spoke Chicagoese with a very fair imitation of a French accent. But the modernity of the lounge had not run to new chairs; they were of red and golden plush, made delicate and chaste with antimacassars, and looking rather as though they had been dedicated by Napoleon III.

It had not been easy for Sam to get used to reading in the lounge, to dressing his mind in public. He was accustomed to the communism of clubs, but there, no one paid attention to any one else. In the lounge, no one had very much to do except to pay attention. They stared, and always resentfully. The English mother and daughter who were the most exclusive and the most resentful toward strangers were precisely the people who spent the most time in the lounge being exclusive and resentful. The French provincial magnate who had arrived just that morning was precisely the person who looked with the greatest irritation at a veteran like Sam, now settled here two whole weeks, when Sam annoyed him by taking the next chair and moving it two inches. And there were always elderly, slightly belching, very hairy couples who spent all their time catching his eye and then looking indignant because he had caught their eyes.

But after a fortnight he could enter the lounge, ignore the human furniture, and rustle his newspaper with almost as much relaxation as he had felt in his library in Zenith.

He was becoming accustomed to the home of the homeless.

He discovered slowly, and always with a little astonishment, that the French were human, even according to the standard of the United States of America.

He found that in certain French bathrooms one can have hot water without waiting for a geyser. He found that he needn’t have brought two dozen tubes of his favorite (and very smelly) toothpaste from America — one actually could buy toothpaste, corn-plasters, New York Sunday papers, Bromo–Seltzer, Lucky Strikes, safety-razor blades, and ice cream almost as easily in Paris as in the United States; and a man he met at Luigi’s Bar insisted that if one quested earnestly enough, he could find B.V.D.‘s.

And he discovered that French chauffeurs drove better than Americans.

He meditated on it, alone with a cognac and soda (he had learned to say “Une fine a l’eau de seltz,” and often the waiters understood him) in front of Weber’s, during a not ungrateful hour of freedom when Fran was trying on hats.

“Just what did I expect in France? Oh, I don’t know. Funny! Kind of hard to remember now just how I did picture it. Guess I thought there wouldn’t be any comforts — no bathrooms, and everybody taking red wine and snails for breakfast, and no motor ‘busses or comfortable trains, and no cocktails, and all the men wearing waxed mustaches and funny beards. And saying, ‘Ze hired girl iz vun lofely girl — oo la la —’

“And then these young Frenchmen, in London clothes, driving Hispano–Suizas at a hundred kilometers an hour — And you hear ’em at the Ritz, talking perfect English, talking about English stainless steel and about building bridges in the Argentine and the influence of the Soviets in China and —

“I suppose I felt that the entire known world revolved around the General Offices of the Revelation Motor Company, Constitution Avenue, Zenith, and all the time — Towers and cathedrals and alleys, and Europe not caring what Sam Dodsworth thought about making the 1928 models a Delft blue —

“It seemed so important!

“But, mind you, I am glad I’m an American! But —

“Life was a lot simpler then. We knew we were It! We knew that all of Europe was unbathed and broke, and that America was the world’s only bulwark against Bolshevism and famine. They lie so! These speakers at club meetings, and these writers in the magazines! They tell us that no European has ever played tennis or taught the Ten Commandments to his kids or built a railroad, and that the only thing that keeps Europe from reverting to the caveman is American cash.

“Rot!

“And yet, I’m never going to be European! Fran might — Oh, Fran, my darling, are you going to drift away from me? Every day you get snootier about my poor old provincial Americanism! You’re just waiting for some really slick European to come along — And, by God, there’s one thing I won’t stand — her telling me how inferior I am to some gigolo —

“Fool! Of course the girl — Say! That’s what she still is; she’s still a girl! Little older than Emily, but not so sensible. Of course she gets excited by Europe. She’s done her job, hasn’t she? She’s run the house and brought Emily and Brent up, hasn’t she? I’ve got to be patient.

“But falling for a feather-weight like Lockert —

“Hell! I wish Tub were here. Fran and I haven’t got anybody —

“And you’re still dodging the issue, my lad!

“What is Sam Dodsworth going to do about the fact that he’s as provincial as a prairie-dog, and that he’s only fifty-one, with a chance of another thirty years, and that he’s discovered a world —

“Nothing, I guess! Too late. I’d be a pretty spectacle, now wouldn’t I, as one of these American business-men that come over here and try to hide the fact that they made their coin out of soap or pork — And so they collect first editions and apologize for being themselves! But just now and then I’ll learn to sit still like this, and not feel I have to be efficient and hustle —

“My God! Five o’clock! I’ve got to hustle and meet Fran!”

But he had one comfort, given to him by his wife. He had been uncomfortably impressed by the fact that Mathieu, his customary room-waiter at the Grand Universel, a fat, curly-haired, and unctuous person with fascinatingly different spots on his dress-suit lapels every day, spoke English so perfectly.

According to the good American custom, Sam had said to him at his very first breakfast, “Where’d you learn your English?”

Mathieu chuckled, “I wass fife years in Tchicago.”

Mathieu was rather more colloquially American than Sam in his suggestions for breakfast, or for lunch when it was too rainy for them to go out, or when there was a glorious American mail. “How about a nice little minute steak?” he would say, in the very accent of Chicago; or “Say, boss, there’s some nice caviare just come in from Rooshia.”

Whence it happened that Sam believed Mathieu spoke the American language.

But on the third day, at breakfast, Fran said, “Mathieu! Do you happen to know where these movie theaters are on the Left Bank that are putting on modernistic films?”

Mathieu stared.

“Pardon, Madame!” he said.

“Theaters — modern films — cinemas — oh, whatever you call ’em —!”

Fran slipped across the room to the bottle-green-and-golden dictionary on the flimsy desk.

“Le — cinematograph moderne — est-ce qu’il y a — I mean, are there any on the Left Bank?”

Mathieu looked at her with a most superior intelligence:

“Oh yez. You ask the concierge. He tell you! De veal steak iss fine today — just like Tchicago!”

When Mathieu had gone out to fetch the veal steak that was so fine today, Fran murmured, “I have made a great discovery! Aside from food-vocabulary, the Mathieus speak English no better than we do French! We’re not so bad, my beloved!”

“You’re not, of course. But I’m terrible!”

“Don’t be silly! Yesterday you said ‘A quelle heure est le Louvre ferme?’— as a matter of fact, I think you did say ‘est le Louvre closed?’ but the taxi-driver understood it perfectly, and I know you’d learn to speak a really splendid French, if you gave your mind to it.”

“Honestly?” said Sam.

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