Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 18

Sam was packing, to go to New Haven for his thirtieth class reunion, when the mild little knock came at the door. He roared “Come in,” and at first did not look to see who his visitor might be. The silence after the opening of the door made him turn.

Tub Pearson was on the threshold, grinning.

“Well, you fat little runt!” said Sam, which meant, “My dear old friend, I am enchanted to see you!” And Tub gave answer, “You big stiff, so they couldn’t stand you in Yurrup any more, eh? So you had to sneak back here, eh? You big bum!” Which signified, to one knowing the American language, “I have been quite distressingly lonely for you in Zenith, and had you not returned, I should probably have given up the Reunion and gone to Europe to see you — I would, really.”

“Well, you’re looking fine, Tub.” And they patted each other’s arms, curtly.

“So are you. You look ausgezeichnet. I guess Europe agreed with you. Didn’t bring me home a little of that swell French wine, did you?”

“Sure, I’ve got a whole case of it in my collar box.”

“Well, bring it out. Let’s not put off the fatal hour.”

From behind a trunk (where, under the new American dispensation, all hotel guests hide the current bottle of whisky, to make it easier for the hotel servants to find it) Sam produced something, chuckling, “Now this may just look like plain Methodist bootlegged corn to you, Tub, but remember you ain’t traveled expensively and got educated, the way I have. Say when. . . . Oh, say, Tub, I got a bottle of the real thing — pre-war Scotch — taken off me here at the docks.”

“Oh, my God! What a sacrilege! Well now, tell me, what kind of a time d’you really have?”

“Oh, fine, fine! Paris is a fine city. Say, how’s Matey and your kids?”

“Fine!”

“How’s Harry Hazzard?”

“He’s fine. He’s got a grand-daughter. Say, they whoop it up all night long in Paris, don’t they?”

“Yeh, pretty late. Have you seen Emily lately?”

“Just the other day at the country club. Looked fine. Oh, say, Sambo, can you explain one thing to me? Is there any chance the Bolsheviks will pay the Czarist debts to France? And what kind of a buy are French municipals?”

“Well, I didn’t find out much about — Oh, I met some high-class Frogs — fellow named Andillet, stock-broker, pretty well heeled I guess. But it isn’t like with us. Hard to get those fellows down to real serious talk, out of the office. They want to gas about the theater and dancing and horse-racing all the time. But say, I did learn one mighty interesting thing: the Citroen people in France and the Opel people in Germany are putting up low-priced cars that’ll give the Ford and the Chev a mighty hard run for their money in European territory and — Oh! Say! Tub! Can you tell me anything about the rumors that Ford is going to scrap Model T and come out with an entirely new model? My God, I’ve tried and tried and I can’t find out anything about it! I’ve asked Alec Kynance, and I’ve asked Byron Rogers of the Sherman, and I’ve asked Elon Richards, and if they know anything, they won’t let it out and — By golly, I’d like to find out something about it.”

“So would I! So would I! And I can’t find out a thing!”

They both sighed, and refilled.

“They finished the new addition to the country club?” asked Sam.

“Yes, and it’s a beauty. They play much golf in France?”

“I guess so, on the Riviera. Been by my house recently? Everything look all right?”

“You bet. I stopped and spoke to your caretaker. Seems like a good reliable fellow. Say, just what does a fellow DO, evenings in Paris? What kind of hang-outs do you go to? ‘Bout like night-clubs here?”

“Well, a lot better wine — well no, at that, some of the places that are filled with Americans stick you and stick you good for pretty poor fizz. But on the whole — Oh, I don’t know; you get tired of racketing around. All these pretty women, talking all the time!”

“Didn’t pick up a little cutie on the side, did you?”

“Did you say ‘cutie’ or ‘cootie’?”

And they both laughed, and they both sighed, and of Sam’s non-existent amorous affairs they said no more.

And they found that they had nothing else to say.

For years they had shared friends, games, secret business-reports. They had been able to talk actively about the man they had seen the day before, the poker they had played two days ago, the bank scandal that was going on at the moment. But in six months, most of the citizens of Zenith whose scandals and golf handicaps had been important had been dimmed for Sam; he could not visualize them, could think of nothing to ask about them. The two men fell into an uncomfortable playing at catch with questions and answers.

Sam said, mildly, “Kind of wish I’d started going abroad earlier, Tub — kind of interesting to see how differently they do things. But it’s too late now.”

He struggled to make clear what had interested him in England and France — the tiny, unchartable differences of dress, of breakfast bacon, of political parties, of vegetables in market places, of the ministers of God — but Tub was impatient. What he wanted was a gloating vicarious excursion into blazing restaurants full of seductive girls, marvelous food, wine unimaginably good at fifty cents a bottle, superb drunks without a headache, and endless dancing without short breath. Sam tried to oblige but —

“Funny!” He couldn’t somehow picture the dancing rendezvous he had seen only a fortnight ago. He could see the musty cupboard where the patient chambermaid of their hotel floor had sat waiting, apparently all day and all night, knitting, smelling of herring and poverty; but of the Jardin de Ma Soeur he could see nothing but tables, smooth floor, and the too darkly enraptured eyes of Gioserro the aviator, dancing with Fran.

Sam dropped so low conversationally that he asked about the well-being of the Rev. Dr. Willis Fortune Tate of Zenith.

Then Ross Ireland banged in.

“Off to Mexico to do a story on oil, gimme a drink,” he said, and all was liveliness again.

Sam was distressed that he should be relieved to have his confidences with his oldest friend interrupted by this half-stranger, but he was pleased when Tub Pearson took to him. Half an hour later, when Ross had told his celebrated story of Doc Pilvins the veterinarian and the plush horse, the three of them went out to dinner, had cocktails, and became lively and content.

Only once in an evening of different night clubs, none of which were different, did Sam worry again:

“Good Lord, are all of us here in America getting so we can’t be happy, can’t talk, till we’ve had a lot of cocktails? What’s the matter with our lives?”

But on the Yale campus next afternoon, with Tub, he was roaring with delight to see again the comrades of old days; the beloved classmates who stayed so unshakably in his mind that he had forgotten nothing about them save their professions, their present dwelling-places, and their names.

The 1896 division of the procession to the baseball game at Yale Field, in their blue coats and white trousers, was led by Tub Pearson, shaking a rattle and singing:

Good morning, Mr. Zip, Zip, Zip,

Got a hair-cut as short as mine?

Good morning, Mr. Zip, Zip, Zip,

I cer’n’ly am feeling fine.

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,

If the army don’t get you then the navy must —

Sam was moved to sadness and prayer by the sight of his classmates. It was one of the astonishments of the reunion how old many of them had become at fifty or fifty-two — Don Binder, for instance, in college a serious drinker, baby-faced and milky, now an Episcopalian rector who looked as though he were sixty-five and as though he carried the sins of the country on his stooped shoulders. The spectacle made Sam himself feel ancient. But as startling were the classmates who at fifty looked thirty-five, and who irritated a man like Sam, amiable about exercise but no fanatic, by shouting that everybody ought to play eighteen holes of golf a day.

But however sheepish Sam might feel, Tub was radiant, was again the class clown during the procession. He danced across the road from side to side, shaking his rattle, piping on a penny whistle, frightening a child on the sidewalk almost into epilepsy by kneeling down and trying to be chummy.

“He’s fine. He’s funny,” Sam assured himself. “He’s a great goat. Hell, he’s an idiot! WHY am I getting to be such a grouch on life? Better go back to the desk.”

But whatever discomfort he had at playing the hobbledehoy, in the class reunion Sam found balm. They knew who he was! No one in Paris (except Fran, at times) knew that. But his classmates realized that he was Sambo Dodsworth, great tackle, Skull and Bones, creative engineer, president of a corporation, “prince of good fellows.”

Except for a few professional alumni who at fifty could still tell what was the score in last year’s Yale–Brown game, who at fifty had nothing with which to impress the world except the fact that they were Yale Men, the class had drifted far from the cheery loafing and simple-hearted idealism of college days. They were bank presidents and college presidents and surgeons and country school-teachers and diplomats; they were ranchmen and congressmen and ex — convicts and bishops. One was a major general, and one — in college the most mouse-like of bookworms — was the funniest comedian on Broadway. They were fathers and grandfathers, and most of them looked as though they overworked or overdrank. Not one of them had found life quite the amusing and triumphant adventure he had expected; and they came back wistfully, longing to recapture their credulous golden days. They believed (for a week) that their classmates were peculiarly set apart from the crooked and exasperating race of men as a whole.

And all of this Sam Dodsworth believed — for a week.

It was pleasant, on a clam bake at Momauguin, to loll in the sand with the general, a college president, and two steel kings, as though they were all of them nineteen again, to be hailed as “Old Sambo,” to wrestle without thinking of dignity, and for a moment to be so sentimental as to admit that they longed for something greater than their surface successes. It was pleasant, in the rooms to which they were assigned in Harkness, to forget responsibilities as householders and company managers, and to loll puppy-like on window-seats, beside windows fanned by the elms, telling fabulous lies till one, till two of the morning, without thinking of being up early and on the job. It was pleasant at dinner in a private room to sing “Way Down on the Bingo Farm” and to come out with a long, clinging, lugubrious yowl in:

Here’s to good old Yaaaaaaaaaaaale

She’s so hearty and so hale —

Even the men who on the first day he had not been able to remember became clear. Why yes! That was old Mark Derby — always used to be so funny the way he played on a comb and never could remember his necktie.

He was nineteen again; in a world which had seemed barren of companionship he had found two hundred brothers; and he was home, he rejoiced — to stay!

So, with Tub Pearson, he rode westward from New York to Zenith, gratified as the thunderous slots of Manhattan streets gave way to the glowing Hudson, to tranquil orchards and old white houses and resolute hills.

The breakfast-room of Harry McKee, Sam’s new son-inlaw, was a cheery apartment with white walls, canary-yellow curtains at the French windows, and a parrot, not too articulate, in a red enamel cage. The breakfast set was of taffy-like peasant faience from Normandy, and the electrical toaster and percolator on the table were of nickel which flashed in the lively Midwestern morning sunshine.

Sam was exultant. He had arrived late last evening, and as his own house was musty from disuse, he had come to Emily’s. He had slept with a feeling of security, and this morning he was exhilarated at being again with her, his own Emily, gayest and sturdiest of girls. He had brought his presents for them down to breakfast — the Dunhill pipe and the Charvet dressing-gown for Harry, the gold and tortoiseshell dressing-table set and the Guerlain perfumes for Emily. They admired the gifts, they patted him in thanks, they fussed over his having real American porridge with real cream. In a blissful assurance of having come home forever to his own snug isle, after decades amid white-fanged seas, of having brought to his astounded tribe incredible tales of Troy and Circe and men with two heads, he began to expatiate on Paris, smiling at them, reaching out to take Emily’s hand, launching into long-winded details.

“— now what I never understood about Paris,” he was rumbling, “is how much of it is like a series of villages, with narrow streets and little bits of shops that don’t hardly keep the proprietor busy. You always hear of the big boulevards and the wild dance halls, but what struck me was the simple little places —”

“Yes, that was so even in the war, when I was in Paris,” said McKee. “But there must be a lot of difference since then. Say, Dad, I’m afraid I have to hustle to the office. Hope to sell a few million bolts to the Axton Car people today. But I want to hear all about Paris. Be home by six-thirty. Awful’ good to have you back, sir. Good-bye, Emily of Emilies!”

After the kisses and flurry and engine-racings of McKee’s departure, Emily beamed her way back and caroled, “Oh, don’t eat that cold toast! I’ll make you a nice fresh slab. You must try this lovely apricot jam. Now go on and tell me some more about Paris. Oh, it’s perfectly ducky to be with you again! Harry is NEXT to the nicest man living but you’re the — Oh, you MUST eat some more. Now tell me about Paris.”

“Well,” mildly, “I really haven’t much to tell. It’s hard to express how you feel about a foreign place. Something kind of different in the air. I’m afraid I’m not much on analyzing a thing like that. . . . Emily, uh — Harry doing pretty well financially?”

“Oh, splendidly! They’ve raised him another five thousand a year.”

“You don’t need a little check for yourself?”

“Oh, not a thing. Thanks, old darling. Drat him, Harry carried off the Advocate and I know you want to read it.”

Sam did not hear her reference to the Advocate. Flushed, he was reflecting, “Am I trying to pay my daughter to be interested in me? Trying to buy her affection?” He scuttled away from the thought, into a hasty description of Les Halles at dawn, as he had seen them when the De Penable menagerie, with himself as an attendant keeper, had had an all-night round of cafes. He had begun to care for his own narration; he was saying, “Well, I’d never tried white wine and onion soup for breakfast, but I was willing to try anything once,” when the telephone began.

“Excuse me a second, Daddy,” said Emily, and for five minutes she held a lively conversation with one Mona about a tennis tournament, knitted suits, Dick, speed boats, lobster salad, Mrs. Logan, and a Next Thursday mentioned with such italicized awe that Sam felt ignorant in not knowing how it might differ from any other Thursday. He realized, too, that he did not know who Mona, Dick, or Mrs. Logan were.

The importance of having eaten onion soup for breakfast had cooled by the time Emily whisked back to the table. Before Sam had warmed up and begun the story of Captain Gioserro’s hiring a vegetable wagon to drive to the hotel, the sneering telephone called Emily again, and for three minutes she dealt with a tradesman who had apparently been sending bad meat. She dealt with him competently. She seemed to know everything about cuts of steak, the age of ducklings, and the trimming of a crown roast.

She was not his rollicking helpless girl. She was a Competent Young Matron.

“She doesn’t need me any more,” sighed Sam.

The Dodsworths had not rented their house but had left it tenantless, save for a caretaker who maintained a creeping ashen existence in a corner of the basement, spelling out old newspapers from garbage cans all day long. The caretaker, when he had admitted Sam after five minutes of ringing, wanted to show him through the house, but Sam said abruptly, “I’ll go by myself, thanks.”

The hall was dim as a tomb and as airless. His foot-fall on the carpetless floor was so loud that he began to tip-toe. There were presences which threatened him as an intruder in his own house. He stood in the door of the library. The room, once warm and tranquil, was bleakly unwelcoming. It was a dead room in a dead house. The rugs were rolled up, piled in a corner, their exposed under-sides drab and pebbly. The book-shelves were covered with sheets, and the deep chairs, swathed in gray covers, were as shapeless and distasteful as the wrapper of a slovenly housewife. The fireplace had a stingy cleanness. But in a corner of it clung a scrap of paper with Fran’s hectic writing. He stooped slowly to pick it up, and made out the words “— call motor at ten and —” She seemed to dash into the room and flee away, leaving him the lonelier.

He climbed heavily up the stairway, steps clattering flatly, and shouldered into their bedroom. He looked about, silent.

The canopies of their two beds had been taken down, leaving the posts like bare masts; and the surfaces of those once suave and endearing retreats were mounds of pillows and folded blankets covered with coarse sheets.

He went to the drawn window blinds.

“Blinds getting cracked. Need new ones,” he said aloud.

He looked about again, and shivered. He went to the bed in which Fran had always slept, and stood staring at it. He patted the edge of the bed and quickly marched out of the room — out of the house.

Brent was to have returned to Zenith for a fortnight, and Sam had a hundred plans for motoring with him, fishing with him. But Brent telegraphed, “Invited corking yachting party Nova Scotia mind if not return,” and Sam, perfectly expressionless, wrote his answer, “By all means go hope have splendid time.” As he walked out of the Western Union office he sighed a little, and stood with his hands in his pockets, looking up and down the street, a man with nothing to do.

He had thought of himself, when he had been the president of the Revelation Company, as a young man at fifty. To him, then, old age did not begin till seventy, perhaps seventy-five, and he would have another quarter-century of energy. But the completeness with which Emily, at twenty-one, had matured, become competent to run her own life, made Sam feel that he belonged to an unwanted generation; that, amazingly, he was old.

It was the afternoon of Elizabeth Jane’s party which made Sam so conscious that he was a stranger, unable to mix with this brisk, luxurious Young Married Set, that he politely fled from Emily’s house and holed-in at the Tonawanda Country Club.

Elizabeth Jane was Harry McKee’s eleven-year-old niece. Like a surprising number of other successful youngish men of Zenith, hard-surfaced, glossy, ferociously driving in business, and outside of business absorbed only in sports and cocktail-lit dancing, McKee was fanatically interested in children. He was on the Zenith school-board and the Board of Visitors of St. Mark’s Town and Country School. Emily and Harry McKee made Sam blush by the cheery openness with which they informed him that they intended to have only three children, but to have those with celerity and to have them perfect. (They apparently possessed more control of Providence than was understood by such an innocent as Sam.) While they awaited the arrival of the three, they were devoted to Elizabeth Jane, a sedate, bob-haired, bookish child, who reminded Sam of a boy minstrel in a Maxfield Parrish picture. (He had always admired Parrish’s dream castles, despite Fran’s scoffing.)

Sam liked Elizabeth Jane. “Real old-fashioned child,” he said. “So innocent and demure.”

And the next day Elizabeth Jane remarked placidly, when she had invited herself to tea with Sam and Emily, “Aunty, would it be awfully rude of me if I said my teacher is a damn’ fool? Would it? She’s started telling us about sex, and she’s so scared and silly about it, and of course all of us kids know all about it already.”

“My God!” said Samuel Dodsworth to himself.

McKee and Emily celebrated Elizabeth Jane’s twelfth birthday with an afternoon party for forty children. Sam knew that there were to be many dodges of a rich nature; he was aware that a red and white striped pavilion was being erected on the McKee lawn, and orders in for such simple delights as Peche Melba, Biscuit Tortoni, and Bombe Surprise, along with Viennese pastry, loganberry juice, imported ginger ale and lobster salad, and that the caterer was sending half a dozen waiters in dress suits. But he was still antiquated enough to picture the children playing Ring Around a Rosy, and Puss in the Corner, and Hide ‘n’ Go Seek.

He was lunching with Tub Pearson on the day of the party, and after lunch he excitedly went to the five and ten cent store and filled his pockets with dozens of pleasant little foolishnesses — false noses, chocolate cigars, tissue-paper hats — and proceeded to McKee’s, planning to set all the children at the party laughing with his gifts.

He was late. When he arrived the children were decorously sitting in four rows of chairs on the lawn, watching a professional troupe from the Zenith Stock Company perform an act from “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And there was a professional magician afterward — though the young lordlings were bored by such kitchy banalities as rabbits out of silk hats — and a lady teacher from the Montessori School, who with a trained voice-for-children and trained gestures told ever such nice Folk Tales from Czechoslovakia, Serbia, Iceland, and Yucatan. Then, unherded but politely in order, the children filed past a counter at which Harry McKee, disguised as an Arab for no perceptible reason, gave each of them a present.

They each said, “Thank you very much,” tolerantly, and unwrapped their presents, showing their trained social-mindedness by depositing the wrappers in a barrel therefor provided. Sam goggled at the presents. There were French perfume and packets of a thousand stamps, riding crops and portable phonographs, engraved stationery and a pair of love-birds.

He hastily pulled out the flaps of his coat pockets lest some one see the ludicrous little gifts he had bought.

And later, “I’ve got to get out of this. Too rich for my blood.”

It took a week of tactful hinting about needing eight hours of daily golf, but in the end he escaped to one of the chintzy bedrooms at the Tonawanda Country Club and there, in an atmosphere of golf, gin-bottles in the locker room, small dinners followed by poker, and a reading-room full of magazines which on glossy paper portrayed country houses and polo teams, he made out a lotus-eating existence, with cold cauliflower and stringy lamb-chops and bootlegged whisky for lotuses.

He persuaded himself, for minutes at a time, that business affairs demanded his staying in Zenith, and he bleakly knew, for hours at a time, that they didn’t.

His capital was invested in carefully diversified ventures — in U.A.C. stock, railroad and industrial and government bonds. However often he conferred with his bankers and brokers, he couldn’t find anything very absorbing to do in the way of changing investments.

But he also owned, as a more speculative interest, a share of a resort hotel near Zenith, and on his way to America he had persuaded himself that, with his newly educated knowledge of food and decoration and service, he would be able to improve this hotel.

It was quite a bad hotel, and very profitable.

He had a meal there, two days after arriving in Zenith, and it was terrible.

He told the manager that it was terrible.

The manager looked bored and resigned.

When Sam had persuaded him to stay, the manager explained that with the cost of materials and the salaries of cooks, he couldn’t do a better meal at the price. It was all very well, the manager pointed out, to talk about the food in Paris. Only, this wasn’t Paris. And furthermore, did Sam happen to know what chickens cost per pound at the present moment?

That was Sam’s only achievement during his stay in Zenith. But weeks went by before he admitted, rather angrily, that business did not need him . . . just as Brent did not need him, Emily did not need him.

But certainly, he comforted himself, Fran needed him, and such friends as Tub Pearson.

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