Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 14

They had ventured to the Left Bank for an evening at the Cafe Novgorod, the favorite of the more arty Americans. The cafe seemed to Sam less related to Paris than he was himself. . . . The French street: bourgeois fathers strolling with their brood; dark-eyed men jesting with girls in red kerchiefs; an old woman crawling along muttering to herself. But here, in the Cafe Novgorod, under the awning, a bumble of American voices:

“— get a little Citroen and tour Normandy —”

“— a complete meal for six francs, with lovely roast beef, though prob’ly it’s horse-meat —”

“— that Elliot Paul is the only really distinguished essayist in-”

The young Americans there were so disposive. Sam heard them, at the tables about, dispose of Californian scenery, the institution of marriage, Whistler, corn fritters, President Wilson, cement roads, and the use of catsup. He became gloomier than at the thickest dinner-party in London, and he was thinking of bed when his gloom was interrupted by a voice like that of a female impersonator.

Lycurgus Watts (only he liked to be called “Jerry”) was standing by their table and beaming in fondest affection.

Lycurgus (or Jerry) Watts was the professional amateur of Zenith. He was a large-faced man, as wide as a truck-driver, but he had a whiney, caressing voice, and he giggled at his own jokes, which were incessant and very bad. He was reputed to be fifty years old, and he looked anywhere from twenty-five to a hundred. He came from what was known as a “good family”— anyway, it was a wealthy family. His father had died when he was ten. He had lived and traveled with his widowed mother till he was forty-three, and he told every one that she was the noblest character he had ever known. Compared with her, all young women were such hussies that he would never marry. But he made up for it by a number of highly confidential friendships with men whose voices and matriolatry were like his own.

He wandered much, in Europe and Asia, but always he came back to the flat he kept in Zenith. It was so filled with his collections of lace, wrought-iron keys, and editions of Oscar Wilde, that there was scarcely room for his genuine Russian samovar and his bed with a cover of black and gold. He spent much of his time in Zenith in denouncing the tradesmen who manufactured soap and motor cars instead of collecting lace, and in checking up his profitable holdings in soap and motor cars. He got up the first exhibition of Slavic embroidery in the state, he read poetry aloud, and he talked a good deal about starting a new magazine of the new poetry and the new prose.

Whenever Sam had met Jerry Watts in Zenith, he had grumbled to Fran on the way home, “Why the devil did they invite that white grub? He makes me sick!” But as Jerry had invariably told Fran in three languages that she was the loveliest lady in town, she turned on Sam with “Oh, of course! Just because Jerry is really cultured, because he has brains enough to cultivate a fine leisure instead of grubbing in a dirty office, all you noble captains of industry look down on him as a dray-horse might look down on a fine race-horse!”

She even had Jerry for dinner. In fact, Sam had been led to hate Jerry with considerable heartiness.

But in the oppressive strangeness of Paris, any familiar face would have been exciting, and for five minutes Sam believed that he was glad to see Jerry Watts.

Jerry sat down; he giggled, “I TOLD you you’d escape from that dreadful Middlewest, Fran, and come to a civilized country! Don’t you just ADORE the Novgorod? Such darling roughnecks! Such delectable poses! Oh, my DEARS, I heard the best one here last evening! Tommy Troizka — he’s the dearest Finn boy, and a great water-colorist, speaks English perfectly, oh, too simply divinely, and Tommy said, ‘The trouble with your American intelligentsia is that most of you don’t know how to TELL A GENT when you see him!’ Isn’t that precious! Oh, you’ll adore being here in Paris! Don’t you, Dodsworth?”

“Yeah, great town,” said Sam.

“Have you been to the Lion d’Or yet?”

“Oh yes,” said Fran.

“Have you tried the rognons de la maison at Emil’s?”

“Yes.”

“And of course you’ve been to the L’Ane Rouge and the Rendezvous des Mariniers?”

“Yes.”

“And the Chemise Sale?”

“No, I don’t think —”

“You haven’t been to the Chemise Sale? Oh, Fran! Why, good Heavens! Don’t you realize that the Chemise Sale is the duckiest little restaurant in Paris?”

Fran was annoyed.

It was not that she was given to ducky little restaurants or any other phase of synthetic Bohemianism, but that any other citizen of Zenith should know more about Paris than she was intolerable. She glared slightly when Jerry seized his advantage and laid down the rule that it was vulgar to go to Versailles but that they MUST see the exhibition of the Prismatic Internists. Sam felt patiently that she would presently despatch Jerry. Yet she looked pleased when Jerry piped:

“Have you met Endicott Everett Atkins? He’s coming to tea at my place next Saturday afternoon — I have such a dusky little studio on the Rue des Petits–Champs. You and your husband must come.”

“We’ll be glad to,” said Fran, to Sam’s considerable discouragement.

Sam grunted, in the taxicab, “What do you want to go there for? Who’s Endicott Everett Atkins? Sounds like a business college yell. He another lily like Watts?”

“No, he really is somebody. Dean of the American literary colony here — writes about French novelists and Austrian peasant furniture and Correggio and English hunting and Heaven knows what all.”

“But I don’t have to learn about peasant furniture, too, do I?” Sam said hopefully.

Mr. Endicott Everett Atkins was reputed to resemble Henry James. He had the massive and rather bald head, the portly dignity. He spoke — and he spoke a good deal — in a measured voice, and he had a small bright wife who was believed to adore him. He also was blessed, and furthered in his critical pursuits, by having no sense of humor whatever, though he knew so many sparkling anecdotes that one did not suspect it for hours. He came from South Biddlesford, Connecticut, and his father, to whom he often referred as “that dear and so classical a bibliophile,” had been an excellent hat-manufacturer. He owned a real house in Paris, with an upstairs and down, and he spoke chummily of the Ambassador.

He did actually, against any expectation, keep his promise and appear at the tea in Mr. Jerry Watts’s studio — an apartment with a scarlet-fever of Spanish altar-cloths, embroidered copes, and Mandarin robes. The only apparent reason for calling it a studio was that it had a north window, and that Mr. Jerry Watts naturally would call it a studio. “I just can’t make love except by a north light!” he nickered to Fran.

On the refectory table was a small teapot, a small plate of limp cakes, and an enormous bowl of punch. After every one had had three glasses of the punch, the conversation became very agitated. There were massed about the table, screaming, some thirty people. Sam never remembered any of them, save Endicott Everett Atkins. The rest seemed to him as indistinguishable as separate mosquitoes in a swarm, and rather noisier. But there was nothing noisy about Mr. Endicott Everett Atkins. He had so developed poise, an appalling, reproving, Christian Science sort of poise, that Sam felt toward him as he once had toward the professor of Greek drama at Yale.

Mr. Atkins could purr at the thought of particularly pleasant and beautiful things — a Greek coin, a Javanese dancing girl, a check from his publisher — but in crowds he stood calm and expansive as an observation balloon in windless air. In the quietest corner of the apartment he held forth on the Italian Renaissance, the superiority of Parliament to Congress, the future of Anglo–Catholicism, the letters of Horace Walpole, and the perfection of anarchism as a theory — he had actually attended an anarchist meeting in Milan in 1890, as an ardent young traveler. You never remembered what he had said, but you felt that he had been tremendously sound, and you sighed, uneasily running your forefinger between collar and neck, “He has such a fund of knowledge —”

Mr. Atkins pounced on Fran, and if he did not also exactly pounce on Sam, he tolerated him. He took in Fran’s shining hair, her freshness, her slim quickness. He brought her a cup of punch, bowing like Louis XIV. He won Sam by telling him of meeting Dr. Carl Benz, the father of the motor car, at Mannheim, back in 1885, and of seeing his first horseless carriage — it was, said Atkins, a wire-wheeled tricycle with a chain drive like a bicycle, a handle for steering, and under the seat a mass of machinery as wild-looking as a gutted alarm clock.

“Like to’ve seen it!” murmured Sam. “Happen to know what the horse-power was?”

Mr. Endicott Everett Atkins looked at him benevolently, his glossy baldness rose-hued in the red-shaded lamps. “It was three and a quarter,” he said.

(It was not for sixty hours that, lying awake in the early morning, Sam realized that Atkins hadn’t had the smallest notion what the horse-power of the Benz really was.)

With men, Mr. Endicott Everett Atkins rarely let down, but with slim and glistening women he came near to being human. He indicated to Fran that this was only a merry slumming prank of his to come to the studio of Mr. Lycurgus Watts — normally he moved only in the loftiest circles, among the loveliest ladies, the wittiest and bravest men, the rarest first editions, and he longed to introduce her to all of them.

She loved it.

He told her the delightful anecdote which he had heard from Andre Sorchon, who had it from E. V. Lucas, who had it from Henry James, who had it direct from Swinburne. He told her that her husband (Mr. Samuel Dodsworth) was extraordinarily like the late Duc de Malmaison, but that she was ever and ever so much nicer than the Duchesse. He told her that her ash-blond hair was astonishingly like that of Madame Zelie du Strom, the Swedish tragedienne who, Mr. Atkins agreed with himself, was greater than Bernhardt, Duse, and Modjeska put together —

Sam sat back, as so often he had sat back at directors’ meetings, content to let others do the talking if he could do the plotting, and tried to make out the purposes of Mr. Endicott Everett Atkins.

“This fellow knows a lot. Well, at least he’s read a lot. Well, if he hasn’t read so much, he remembers all he has read. Here he’s making love to Fran — telling her what a wonder she is — and she’s lapping it up. Bless her! Let her have her fling — if the fling ain’t any more dangerous than old Atkins! Wonder if I’ll be as dry a bladder as he is in fifteen years? If I am, I’m going to retire to a log cabin and grow corn!”

“I really can’t tell you,” Mr. Endicott Everett Atkins was moaning at Fran, “how very, very much I admire your wisdom in coming to Europe in a really leisured pilgrimage. And I wonder if you realize you’re doing a patriotic American duty — showing Europe that we have poised and exquisite creatures like yourself, if you’ll permit the familiarity from an aged bookworm, as well as these Yankee tourist women — oh, these dreadful bouncing females, with their shrill voices, their ignorance of all gentle usages — and the way they frequent horrible American bars and dance in dreadful places —”

“Why shouldn’t the ‘Yankee tourist women’ go and dance in Montmartre, if they enjoy it?” Sam meditated. “Does Atkins think the pretty buyer from Detroit comes here to please him? The American highbrow abroad is just like the Puritan back home — the Puritan says that if you drink anything at all, he’ll disapprove of you, and the expatriate here says that if you drink anything but Chateau Haut Something-or-other at just the right temperature, HE’LL disapprove of you and —

“I will get back for my class reunion this June! Thirtieth reunion! Am I that old?

“Think of seeing Tub again and Poodle Smith and Bill Dyers and — Now what the devil was the name of that big fellow with the red hair that played center? Florey — Floreau — Flaherty? Corking fellow!

“And Atkins goes on. I’d better listen and get what wisdom I can, because I think our ‘really leisured pilgrimage to Europe’ is drawing to a close!”

“— though I’m afraid, Mrs. Dodsworth, that you’ll find our house too dreadfully bookish. Beautiful people like you are superior to books. You ought never to read anything — you ought only to live. You ought to exist imperishably on some Grecian isle amid the wine-dark sea, dancing in the sunshine. But if your husband and you will delight us by coming to lunch next Sunday, at least I may be able to show you one or two intaglios —”

At lunch at the Atkinses’, on Sunday, Sam met his first Princess, Madame Maravigliarsi. Not that he knew at first that she was a Princess; in fact he supposed her to be a nice, rather shabby little Poor Relation. But Atkins revealed her princessity in a dramatic aside, and Sam was as impressed as any other proper democratic American.

And she was, Fran carefully ascertained, quite a good, high-ranking Princess, and only one-quarter American.

Sam sat next to her, at lunch in the tall cool room with its Venetian glass and the serene bust of Plato; and while he made a respectable show of not being humble, the boy who had read “Ivanhoe” and Shakespeare and “The Idylls of the King” was gloating, “I’m sitting next to a Princess!”

The Princess prattled of what she had said to Mussolini and what His Eminence the Secretary to the Pope had said to her, and for ten minutes Sam desired to know the renowned of the world. He remembered — what was it? — something that Fran had said to the effect that with his tall dignity and his experience as executive, he might become an ambassador, and be intimate with ever so many people who had said things to Mussolini and had Eminences say things to them —

But he wearied of Princess Maravigliarsi’s chatter. It was SO important that he see Trouville and Biarritz; it was SO important that he properly hate the Bolsheviks; SO important that he go to tea at Lady Ingraham’s.

He dreaded these new obligations.

“So far as I can see,” he brooded, “travel consists in perpetually finding new things that you have to do if you’re going to be respectable.”

Fran was polite to the Princess Maravigliarsi with a cold politeness which indicated to Sam that she was impressed. But it was to a certain Madame de Penable that she gave most of her attention. Madame de Penable was a red-headed, white-skinned, rather plump woman who seemed to specialize on knowing everybody of influence in every land. The Dodsworths never learned whether she was born in Poland, Nebraska, Africa, the Dordogne, or Hungary. They never learned just who Monsieur de Penable was, if there ever had been a Monsieur de Penable. They never learned whether she was in trade, living on alimony, or possessed of a family income. Sam suspected that she was an international spy. She was a pleasant woman, and very clever. She talked about herself constantly, and never told anything whatever about herself. She spoke English, French, German, and Italian perfectly, and at restaurants, with waiters as mysterious as herself, she went off into tongues which might have been Russian, Lancashire, or Modern Greek.

Apparently she fancied the Dodsworths as additions to her circle. Sam heard her inviting Fran and himself to lunch at the Ermitage.

“Fran is launched,” he sighed. “At last we’ll be gay and cosmopolitan! I wonder how much I’ll be able to win from Tub at poker, now that I’ve had my style of playing perfected by European culture?”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/dodsworth/chapter14.html

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