Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 17

But it was a pleasanter and more kindly America that he found the next evening, when he sat with Elon Richards, chairman of the board of the Goodwood National Bank, on the terrace at Willow Marsh, Richards’ place on Long Island.

In the morning, Sam’s son, Brent, telephoned from New Haven that he would finish his examinations in two days and be down for a real bender with his father. In the afternoon Sam labored mightily with Alec Kynance in the New York office of the U.A.C. He was again offered a vice presidency of the U.A.C. and again he refused.

He was vague about his refusal.

“Alec, it’s hard to explain it — just feel that I’ve given most of my life to making motor cars, and now I’d like to sit around and visit with myself and get acquainted. Yes, I was lonely in Paris. I admit it. But it’s a job I’ve started, and I’m not going to give it up yet.”

Kynance was sharp.

“I don’t know’s I can ever make this offer again.”

Sam scarcely heard him. He — of old-time the steadily attentive — was wool-gathering: “I’ll never be good for anything BUT business, but why not have a little fun and try something new — big orange-grove in Florida, or real estate?”

When Sam telephoned to Richards of the Goodwood National, Richards insisted on his coming out to Long Island for the night.

Sam was relaxed and cheered by the drive, in the Hispano–Suiza which Richards’ daughter, Sheila, had invited her father to buy the moment she had read the novels of Michael Arlen. They slipped through the vicious traffic of the Grand Central district, turned up First Avenue with its air of a factory village, crossed the superb arch of the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge, from which they looked down to towers looming over docks for steamers from Rio de Janeiro and Barbados and Africa.

They shot through a huddle of factories and workers’ cottages, and fled along a road which followed the shore-line, with a salt breeze whispering through the open windows of the great car; they came into pleasant suburbs, and turned off on a country lane among real farms. Sam’s slightly battered Americanism rose exultantly as he saw cornfields, pumpkin vines, white farm-houses with piles of poplar stove-wood.

And the talk was good.

Sam had never been such a fool as to assert that virile citizens talked only of bonds and prize-fighting, and that any one who pretended to an interest in Matisse or the Ca’ d’ Oro was an effeminate pretender. Only, he had pled with Fran, he himself had as much right to be interested in bonds and bored by Matisse as a painter had to be interested in Matisse and bored by bonds. Of course bonds had been important enough to Alec Kynance, that afternoon. Yet Alec’s talk had not been good, because the little man could never keep his role of Napoleon of Commerce to himself, but insisted on treating every one he met as either a Faithful Guardsman whose ear he could tweak, or as a Faithful Field Marshal who was gaping to receive (from Alec) a new baton.

But Elon Richards talked of consolidations and investments and golf and the more scandalous divorces of bankers with the simplicity and impersonality of a dairyman discussing cattle-feed. He announced (while the car slipped past the little farms and into a region of great estates) that the K. L. and Z. would be bankrupt within two months, that there really was something to this company that was going to grow 1,000,000 reindeer in Alaska, that Smith Locomotive Common wouldn’t be such a bad buy, and that it was perfectly true that the Antelope Car was going to announce safety windshield glass as a standard accessory.

The great house at Willow Marsh stood on a bluff looking over marshes to Long Island Sound. They dined on a brick terrace, at a little table with quivering candles, round it three wicker chairs with Sam, Richards, and his daughter, Sheila. It was Sheila who six months ago had demanded the Hispano–Suiza, but this summer she was in a socialist stage. Sam was a little annoyed because all through dinner she kept asking why the workers should not take from Sam and her father all their wealth.

Richards, to Sam’s incredulity, encouraged Sheila by teasing her:

“If you can get a really first-class leader, like Lenin, who’s strong enough to take the money away from me in the first place and to construct a practical working state in the second, I shan’t worry — just as soon work for him and his gang as for our stockholders. But if you think, my impudent young daughter, that because a lot of socialist journalists yap that maybe, possibly, some day, the working-class may get educated up to the point of running industry and therefore I ought to join ’em — well, let ’em MAKE me!”

So for an hour.

After twenty-five years of big industry, Sam Dodsworth still believed, in an unformulated and hazy way, that socialism meant the dividing-up of wealth, after which the millionaires would get it all back within ten years. He still half believed that all Bolsheviks were Jews who wore bushy beards, carried bombs, and were hardly to be distinguished from anarchists. He didn’t completely believe it, because in his office he had met suave and beardless Soviet agents who had talked competently about importing Revelation cars. But to take socialism seriously —

It annoyed him.

Why had he ever gone abroad? It had unsettled him. He had been bored in Paris, yet he liked crepes Susette better than flapjacks; he liked leaning over the bridges of the Seine better than walking on Sixth Avenue; and he couldn’t, just now, be very excited about the new fenders for the Revelation car. How was it that this America, which had been so surely and comfortably in his hand, had slipped away?

And here was the daughter of an Elon Richards, most safely conservative of bankers, contaminated with a lot of European socialism. Was life really as complicated as all that?

It was simpler when Sheila had left them. The June twilight was tender, and across the mauve ribbon of Long Island Sound unseen villages sprang to life in soft twinkling. On the cool terrace, after two choked days in New York, Sam relaxed in a wicker chair, shoulders moving with contentment. Richards’ cigars were excellent, his brandy was authentic, and now that Sheila was away, driving her own car off to a dance, his talk was again reasonable.

But it came again —

“Curious, Richards,” Sam pondered aloud. “Since I landed in New York yesterday, I’ve hated the whole rush and zip of it — till this evening, when I’ve had a chance to sit down in the country and feel human. Course it was probably just the hot weather. Only — Do you know, I had a feeling of leisure in France and in England. I felt there as though people made their jobs work for them; they didn’t give up their lives to working for their jobs. And I felt as though there was such a devil of a lot to learn about the world that we’re too busy to learn here.”

Richards puffed comfortably; then:

“Did you know I was reared in Europe, Sam?”

“No! Fact?”

“Yes. My father and mother were devoted to Europe. We wandered. I spent fourteen out of the first sixteen years of my life in schools in France and England and Switzerland, and I went back there every summer while I was in Harvard — except the last vacation, after Junior year. Then my father had a brain-wave, and sent me out to Oregon to work in a lumber camp. I was crazy about it! I was so sick of pensions and cafes and the general European attitude that, for an American, you weren’t such a bad egg. In Oregon I got beaten up by the lumberjacks three times in seven days, but at the end of the summer I was ardently invited to stay on as straw boss of the camp. I loved it! And I’ve gone on loving it ever since. I know that plenty of French financiers are more elegant and leisurely than your flat-footed friend Alec Kynance, but I get more fun out of fighting Alec!

“Sam, it’s a battle here, the way it is in Russia and China.. And you, Sam, you old grizzly, can never be a contemplative gazelle. You’ve got to fight. And think of it! Maybe America will rule the world! Maybe in the end we’ll be broken up by Russia. But isn’t a world-fight like that better than sitting around avoiding conversational errors and meditating on the proper evening waistcoats? Life!”

Sam meditated, silently and long.

“Elon,” said he, “there was a time when I knew my own mind. I didn’t do whatever my latest stenographer suggested. But I’ve seen too many things, recently. If Fran were here — my wife — I’d probably be pro-Europe. You make me pro-America.”

“Why be pro-anything? Why not dive head-first into whatever battle seems most interesting? You can be sure of this: the result won’t mean anything. My girl, Sheila, informs me that a judicious use of eugenics, Karl Marx, and tennis would turn us all into a bunch of beneficent Apollos in five generations. God forbid! I have a sneaking suspicion that none of us poor vertebrates want perfection, really! But I mean: You’re one of these kind-hearted, dutiful Americans who feels apologetic and inferior the moment he retires, and who’ll spend the rest of his life trying to satisfy everybody he meets: his ‘wife and his mistress —”

“Not yet!”

“Wait! — and his friends. Sam, I’m such an idealist that I’d like to start an Association for the Hanging of All Idealists. For Heaven’s sake decide whether you, your own self, are happier in America or in Europe, and then stick there! Me, I’m glad to have European bankers coming to me begging for loans instead of my going to European cafes and begging waiters for a table in the sun! Sam, this American adventure — Because it is an adventure that we have here — the greatest in the world — and not a certainty of manners in an uncertainty of the future, like all of Europe. And say, do you know, our adventure is going to be the bigger because we DO feel that Europe has a lot we need. We’re no longer satisfied with the log cabin and the corn pone. We want everything that Europe has. We’ll take it!”

“Um,” said Sam.

That night he slept child-like, in a breeze from the Sound. He awoke at five, to sit on the edge of his bed, bulky in his rather touseled silk pajamas, meditating while he looked down on the marshlands smoking with morning, and the Sound, like whirls of cobweb over bright steel.

If he were fifty miles farther out on Long Island, perhaps he could see across to the Connecticut shore and New Haven.

He realized that this was grotesquely like a day in spring of his senior year in Yale when from East Rock he had looked across the Sound to Long Island, and in that distant shore beheld romantic harbors. He was separated from the boy who had sat on East Rock only by Long Island Sound, and thirty years, and that boy’s certainty that he would “do something worth while.” Today he could think of things far more interesting to attempt than in those solemn important days when he had been a football star weighed down with the monastic duties of an athlete. It was not, now, ridiculous to consider being a wanderer in Japan, a proponent of Sheila Richards’ socialism or its crusading foe, or, twenty years hence, merely an old man with a pipe, content among apple trees on a hill above the Ohio River. But also it was obvious now that he was chained by people and strengths and weaknesses which he had not recognized in his young hour of vision on East Rock.

He could not return to a completely simple and secure life in America because of Fran’s dislike for it, and without the habitual titillation of Fran’s gaieties and bad temper, life was inconceivable. He could not become an elegantly lounging cosmopolitan because — his thought stumbled and growled — oh, because he was Sam Dodsworth!

He was chained by every friend who had made life agreeable — bound not to shock or lose them. He was chained by every dollar he had made, every automobile he had manufactured — they meant a duty to his caste. He was chained by every hour he had worked — they had left him stiff, spiritually rheumatic.

He still wanted the world . . . but there was nothing specific in the world that he wanted so much as, thirty years ago, he had wanted to be a Richard Harding Davis hero.

Then it came to him.

He marveled, “No, the trouble is that, aside from keeping in with Fran and the children and a few friends, I don’t want anything enough to fight for it much. I’ve done about all I ever imagined — got position, made money, met interesting folks. I’d be a lot luckier if I were a hobo that hadn’t done any of the things he wanted to. Oh, hang it, I don’t much care. Maybe I didn’t hitch my wagon to a high-enough star! This one don’t look very good!

“Rats! When I get out of this crazy New York district and meet real, simple, hearty fellows back in Zenith — yes, sure, and at my re-union — I’ll get over this grouch.

“But what’s it all about, this business of life?

“I’d give my left leg if I could believe what the preachers say. Immortality. Serving Jehovah. But I can’t. Got to face it alone —

“Oh, for God’s sake, quit pitying yourself! You’re as bad as Fran —

“Fran! She’s never bad. Not really. Did I ever happen to remember to tell you that I adore you, Fran?”

Four hours later, at breakfast, he was an unsentimental Captain of Finance, attentive only to waffles.

He stood at a gate in the Grand Central Station watching his son lope up the inclined cement runway from the New Haven train.

“If there’s anything finer than him at Oxford or in France —” he gloated, and “More Fran’s boy than mine, though; got her good looks and quickness.”

Brent was like a young race horse, his pale face and high thin forehead almost too bred-down, too refined. But there was health and buoyancy in his humorous eyes, his shout of “Hello, Dad! Swell to see you again. Good crossing?”

“Yes. Fair. Nice to see you, boy. How long can you stay?”

“Have to be back in the morning. Catch the milk-train.”

“Too bad. Here, give your bag to a red-cap.”

“And pay a quarter? Not a chance — not with corn whisky costing what it does.”

“Um. I wouldn’t drink much of that. But I guess you know that. Where’d you like to dine tonight? Ritz, or some hell-raising place?”

“I’ll show you a real joint with real German beer.”

“Fine. Uh —”

Sam looked shyly down at the shy boy, and blurted, “Mighty proud of you for making both Bones and Phi Beta Kappa.”

“Oh, thanks. Gosh, you’re looking fine, sir.”

He found that though Brent would be in New York for only twelve hours, he had brought dinner clothes.

“Fran’s boy, all right,” he reflected, and somehow he was a bit lonely. He wished that he could give this nervous youngster something more than an allowance — some strength, some stability.

While they dressed, Brent recovered from his filial shyness enough to chatter about the miracles performed by Chick Budlong as a pole-vaulter, about the astounding fact that after being a perfectly good egg for over two years, Ogden Rose had turned literary and heeled the Lit., about the “bum body job” of the new U.A.C. Revelation. He was emerging as the young elegant, slim in dinner clothes, and he belonged to a world which would resent Sam’s intrusion, which desired no strength nor stability . . . even if, Sam considered, he had any to give.

The “German restaurant” to which Brent led him was altogether imitation: beer mugs made in Pennsylvania; beams stained to look old; colored glass windows which, if they could have been opened, would have been found to look on nothing but a plaster wall; and beer that was most deplorably and waterily imitation.

Against this soiled and tawdry background, against the soiled and insolent and rather pathetic Polish waiters, Brent was real as a knife-blade, and as shining.

Sam had had a notion that now, two men together, his son and he could be intimately frank. He would talk to Brent about drinking, gambling, the value of money as a means and its worthlessness as an end, and most of all, about women. Oh, he wouldn’t snoop and paw — he’d just give his own notions of a life neither Puritanical nor licentious; be awfully frank about the danger of the daughters of the street, while admitting, like a man of the world, the compulsion of “sex”; and if Brent should be moved to give any confidences, he would treat them casually, sympathetically —

That warm rejoicing idea had been chilled the moment he saw Brent’s self-confident figure. Why, the boy might think he was in Bad Taste, and next to the affection of Fran and Emily, he wanted Brent’s affection and respect more than that of any one in the world. So, in parental fear, while he would have liked to expose his soul, he droned about Lord Herndon, Gioserro the aviator, the palace at Versailles —

But there was one intimate thing of which he could talk:

“Son, have you decided whether you’ll go to Harvard Law School when you finish Yale?”

“I haven’t quite decided, sir.”

“Don’t call me ‘sir’! Look here, Brent; I have a notion — If your Mother and I are still abroad when you graduate, how would it be for you to come and join us for a year or so? Maybe between us, we could get her to chase off to Africa and India and China and so on. Just now she’s stuck on Paris. I’ve been finding out there’s a devil of a lot to see in this world. There’s no hurry about your getting down to earning money.”

“But you went to work early, sir.”

“Don’t call me ‘sir’— I’m still under the age for it — I hope! And I think that maybe I got to work too early. Rather wish, now, I’d bummed around the world a little first. And after all these years you’ve been studying, to go right on to your law books —”

“Well, you see, sir, I’m not sure I’ll go out for law.”

“Um. What you thinking of? Medicine? Motors?”

“No, I— You know my roommate, Billy Deacon, his dad is president of Deacon, Iffley and Watts, the bond-house; and Billy wants me to come in with him selling bonds. I think probably I could be making twenty-five thousand a year in ten years, and in the law, if I went into a really tophole New York firm, I’d only be a clerk then. And some day I’ll be in the hundred and fifty thousand a year class.”

Brent said it with the modest confidence, the eager eyes, of a young poet announcing that he was going to write an epic.

Sam spoke doubtfully:

“May sound like a funny thing from a man that’s always captured every dollar he could lay his hands on, but — Brent, I’ve always wanted to build things; to leave something besides a bank balance. Afraid you wouldn’t be doing that, just selling bonds. Not that I’ve anything against bonds, you understand! Nice handsome engravings. But are you going to need to make money so fast —”

“Life’s a lot more expensive than when you started, Dad. Fellow has to have so many things. When I was a kid, a man with a limousine was a little tin god, but now a fellow that hasn’t got a yacht simply isn’t in it. If a fellow makes his pile, then he can lay off and have a hobby — see Europe and go out for public spirit and all that stuff. I believe I’ve got a swell chance with Bill Deacon and his bunch.”

“Well. Course you’ve got to decide for yourself. But I wish you’d think it over — about really building things.”

“Sure. I certainly will, sir.”

Brent was bright with compliments about Sam’s knowledge of Europe; he remarked that Sam’s football glories were still remembered at Yale.

And Sam sighed to himself that he had lost the boy forever.

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