Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 2

Samuel Dodsworth discovered that there was a snowstorm, nearly a blizzard, whirling about the house. He closed the windows with a bang and plumped back into bed till the room should be warm. He did not move so swiftly as he once had, and above the frogged silk pajamas which Fran insisted on buying for him, his hair was gray. He was healthy enough, and serene, but he was tired, and he seemed far older than his fifty years.

Fran was asleep in the farther of the twin beds, vast walnut structures with yellow silk draping. Sam looked about the bedroom. He had sometimes caught himself wondering if it wasn’t too elaborate, but usually its floridness pleased him, not only as a sign of success but because it suited the luxurious Fran. Now he noted contentedly the chaise longue, with a green and silver robe across it; the desk, with monogrammed stationery very severe and near-English and snobbish; Fran’s bedside table, with jeweled traveling-clock, cigarettes, and the new novels; the bathroom with its purple tiles.

Fran stirred, sighed and, while he chuckled at her resemblance to a child trying to slip back into dreams, she furiously burrowed her eyes into the little lacy pillow, which was crumpled with her determined sleeping.

“No use,” he said. His rather heavy voice caressed her. “You know you’re awake! Rise and shine! Face the problems of humanity and the grape fruit!”

She sat up, looking at him with the astonishment she had never quite lost at being married, breaking a yawn with a smile, tousling her bobbed hair that was still ash-blond, without gray. If Sam seemed older than his age, she was far younger. She was forty-one now, in 1925, but, rosy with sleeping, she seemed thirty-one.

“I’m going to have breakfast in bed you’re smoking before breakfast again I haven’t had breakfast in bed since yesterday,” she yawned amiably, while he swung his thick legs over the edge of his lilac satin comforter and lighted a cigarette.

“Yes. Stay in bed. Like to, myself. Devil of a snowstorm,” he said, paddling round to stroke her hair, to nuzzle his ruddy cheek against her soft fairness. “By the way, did I ever remember to tell you that I adore you?”

“Why — let me see — no, I don’t believe so.”

“Golly, I’m getting absent-minded! I’ll have my secretary remind me to do it tomorrow.” Seriously: “Realize that we finally wind up the old Revelation Company today? Sort of sorry.”

“No! I’m not a bit sorry! I’m delighted. You’ll be free for the first time in all these years. Let’s run off some place. Oh, don’t let yourself get tied up with anything new! So silly. We have enough money, and you go on stewing —‘must change the design of the carburetor float — simply must sell more cars in the territory between Medicine Hat and Woolawoola.’ So silly! What does it MATTER! Do ring for the maid, darling.”

“Well, no, maybe it doesn’t matter, but fellow likes to do his job. It’s kind of a battle; fun to beat the other fellow and put over a thundering big sale. But I am rather tired. Wouldn’t mind skipping off to Florida or some place.”

“Let’s!”

He had dutifully brought her heavy silver mirror, her brush and comb, her powder, her too-gorgeous lounging robe of Chinese brocade. When she had made herself a bit older by making herself youthful, she sat up in bed to read the Zenith Advocate–Times. If she looked fluffy and agreeably useless, there was nothing fluffy in her sharp comments on the news. She sounded like a woman of many affairs, many committees.

“Humph! That idiot-boy alderman, Klingenger, is going to oppose our playground bill. I’ll wring his neck! . . . The D.A.R. are going to do another pageant. I will NOT be Martha Washington! You might be George. You have his detestable majesticness.”

“Me?” as he came from his bath. “I’m a clown. Wait till you see me in Florida!”

“Yes. Pitching horseshoes. I wouldn’t put it past you, my beloved! . . . Huh! It says here the Candlelight Club expect to have Hugh Walpole lecture, next season. I’ll see our program committee pinches him off ’em.”

He was slowly dressing. He always wore large grave suits, brown or gray or plain blue, expensively tailored and not very interesting, with decorous and uninteresting ties of dull silk and no jewelry save a watch-chain. But though you were not likely to see what he wore, you noted him as a man of importance, as an executive, tall, deep-chested, his kind eyes never truculent, but his mouth serious, with crescents of wrinkles beside it. His gray-threaded brown mustache, trimmed every week by the best barber at the best hotel, was fully as eccentric and showy as a doormat.

He made his toilet like a man who never wasted motions — and who, incidentally, had a perfectly organized household to depend upon. His hand went surely to the tall pile of shirts (Fran ordered them from Jermyn Street) in the huge Flemish armoire, and to the glacial nest of collars, always inspected by the parlor maid and discarded for the slightest fraying. He tied his tie, not swiftly but with the unwasteful and extremely unadventurous precision of a man who has introduced as much “scientific efficiency” into daily domesticity as into his factory.

He kissed her and, while she nibbled at sweetbreads and drank her coffee in bird-like sips and furiously rattled the newspaper in bed, he marched down-stairs to the oak-beamed dining-room. Over a second copy of the Advocate, and a Chicago paper, he ponderously and thoroughly attended to orange juice, porridge and thick cream, bacon, corn cakes and syrup, and coffee in a cup twice as large as the cup which Fran was jiggling in her thin hand as she galloped through the paper up-stairs.

To the maid he said little, and that amiably, as one certain that he would be well served. He was not extraordinarily irritable even when he was informed that Emily, his engaging daughter, had been up late at a dance and would not be down for breakfast. He liked Emily’s morning gossip, but he never dreamed of demanding her presence — of demanding anything from her. He smiled over the letter of his son, Brent, now a junior in Yale.

Samuel Dodsworth was, perfectly, the American Captain of Industry, believing in the Republican Party, high tariff and, so long as they did not annoy him personally, in prohibition and the Episcopal Church. He was the president of the Revelation Motor Company; he was a millionaire, though decidedly not a multimillionaire; his large house was on Ridge Crest, the most fashionable street in Zenith; he had some taste in etchings; he did not split many infinitives; and he sometimes enjoyed Beethoven. He would certainly (so the observer assumed) produce excellent motor cars; he would make impressive speeches to the salesmen; but he would never love passionately, lose tragically, nor sit in contented idleness upon tropic shores.

To define what Sam Dodsworth was, at fifty, it is easiest to state what he was not. He was none of the things which most Europeans and many Americans expect in a leader of American industry. He was not a Babbitt, not a Rotarian, not an Elk, not a deacon. He rarely shouted, never slapped people on the back, and he had attended only six baseball games since 1900. He knew, and thoroughly, the Babbitts and baseball fans, but only in business.

While he was bored by free verse and cubism, he thought rather well of Dreiser, Cabell, and so much of Proust as he had rather laboriously mastered. He played golf reasonably well and did not often talk of his scores. He liked fishing-camps in Ontario, but never made himself believe that he preferred hemlock boughs to a mattress. He was common sense apotheosized, he had the energy and reliability of a dynamo, he liked whisky and poker and pate de foie gras, and all the while he dreamed of motors like thunderbolts, as poets less modern than himself might dream of stars and roses and nymphs by a pool.

A crisis in life had been forced on him, for his Revelation Company was being absorbed by the Unit Automotive Company — the imperial U.A.C., with its seven makes of motors, its body-building works, its billion dollars of capital. Alec Kynance, president of the U.A.C., was in Zenith, and today the final transfer of holdings was to be made.

Sam had wanted to fight the U.A.C., to keep independent this creation to which he had devoted twenty-two years, but his fellow directors were afraid. The U.A.C. could put on the market a car as good as the Revelation at a lower price, and drive them from the market. If necessary, the U.A.C. could sell below cost for a year or two. But they wanted the Revelation label and would pay for it. And the U.A.C. cossacks were good fellows. They did not treat Sam like a captive, but as a fellow warrior, to be welcomed to their larger army, so at the last Sam hid from himself the belief that the U.A.C., with their mass production, would cheapen and ruin the Revelation and turn his thunderbolt into a standardized cigar-lighter, and he had agreed to their generous purchase price.

He was not happy about it, when he let himself think abstractly. But he was extremely well trained, from his first days in Zenith High School, in not letting himself do anything so destructive as abstract thinking.

Sam clumped up-stairs and found Fran, very brisk, fairly cheerful, still in her brocade dressing-gown but crouching over her desk, dashing off notes: suggestions to partisans in her various clubs, orders to the secretaries of the leagues which she supported — leagues for the study of democracy, leagues for the blind, societies for the collection of statistics about the effect of alcohol on plantation-hands in Mississippi. She was interested in every aspect of these leagues except perhaps the purposes for which they had been founded, and no Indiana politician was craftier at soaping enemies, advising friends, and building up a political machine to accomplish nothing in particular.

She shone at Sam as he lumbered in, but she said abruptly, “Sit down, please. I want to talk to you.”

(“Oh, Lord, what have I done now?”) He sat meekly in a chintz-covered overstuffed chair.

“Sam! I’ve been thinking lately. I didn’t want to speak to you about it till you had the U.A.C. business all finished. But I’m afraid you’ll get yourself tied up with some new job, and I want to go to Europe!”

“Well —”

“Wait! This may be our only chance, the only time you’ll be free till we’re so old we won’t enjoy wandering. Let’s take the chance! There’ll be time for you to create a dozen new kinds of cars when we come back. You’ll do it all the better if you have a real rest. A real one! I don’t want to go just for a few months, but for a solid year.”

“Good Heavens!”

“Yes, they are good! Think! Here’s Emily going to be married next month. Then she won’t need us. Brent has enough friends in college. He won’t need us. I can chuck all these beastly clubs and everything. They don’t mean anything; they’re just make-believe, to keep me busy. I’m a very active female, Sam, and I want to do something besides sitting around Zenith. Think what we could do! Spring on the Italian Lakes! Motoring through the Tyrol! London in the Season! And I’ve never seen Europe since I was a girl, and you’ve never seen it at all. Let yourself have a good time for once! Trust me, can’t you, dear?”

“Well, it would be kind of nice to get away from the grind. I’d like to look over the Rolls–Royce and Mercedes plants. And see Paris and the Alps. But a year — That’s a long time. I think we’d get pretty tired of Europe, living around in hotels. But — I really haven’t made any plans. The U.A.C. business was so sudden. I would like to see Italy. Those hill-towns must be very curious. And so old. We’ll talk about it tonight. Auf wiedersehen, old lady.”

He tramped out, apparently as dependable as an old Newfoundland and as little given to worrying about anything more complex than the hiding-places of bones. But he was fretting as he sat erect in his limousine, while Smith drove him into town.

These moments of driving were the only times when he was alone. He was as beset by people — his wife, his daughter, his son, his servants, his office-staff, his friends at lunch and on the golf course — as in his most frenziedly popular days at college, when it had been his “duty to old Yale” to be athletic and agreeable, and never to be alone, certainly never to sit and think. People came to him, swarmed about him, wanted his advice and his money and the spiritual support which they found in his ponderous caution. Yet he liked to be alone, he liked to meditate, and he made up for it on these morning rides.

“She’s right,” he worried. “I’d better not let her know how right she is, or she’ll yank me off to London before I can pack my flask. I wonder — Oh yes, of course, she does care for me, a lot. But sometimes I wish she weren’t quite so good a manager. She just tries to amuse me by playing at being a kitten. She isn’t one, not by a long shot. She’s a greyhound. Sometimes when I’m tired, I wish she just wanted to cuddle up and be lazy with me. She’s quicksilver. And quicksilver is hard, when you try to compress it!

“Oh, that’s unfair. She’s been the best wife — I haven’t given enough time to courting her, what with all this cursed business. And I’m tired of business. Like to sit around and chat and get acquainted with myself. And I’m tired of these streets!”

The limousine was laboring through a gusty snowstorm, skidding a bit on icy asphalt, creaking and lumbering as it climbed over drifts. The windows of the car were frost-emblazoned. Sam impatiently cleared a peep-hole with the heel of his glove.

They were creeping along Conklin Avenue, where the dreary rows of old red brick mansions, decayed into boarding houses, the cheap grocery shops and dirty laundries and gloomy little “undertaking parlors” and lunch-rooms with the blatant sign “Eats,” not very entrancing at any time, were turned by the rags of blown snow into the bleakness of a lumber-camp, while the breadth of the street made it only the more shelterless and unintimate. On either side were streets of signboards advertising oil and cigarettes, of wooden one-story shacks between old-fashioned yellow brick tenement-houses gloomy in the sunless snow; a region of poverty without picturesqueness and of labor without hope.

“Oh, Lord, I’d like to get away from it! Be nice to see the Mediterranean and a little sunshine,” Sam muttered. “Let’s go!”

The General Offices of the Revelation Motor Company were in an immense glass and marble building on Constitution Avenue, North, above Court House Square, opposite the flashing new skyscraper of the Plymouth National Bank. The entrance to the floor given to executive offices was like the lobby of a pretentious hotel — waiting-room in brocade and tapestry and Grand Rapids renaissance; then something like an acre of little tables with typists and typists and typists, very busy, and clerks and clerks and clerks, with rattling papers; and a row of private offices resembling furniture showrooms, distinguished by enormous desks in imitation of refectory tables, covered with enormous sheets of plate glass, and fanatically kept free of papers and all jolly disorder.

The arrival of President Dodsworth was like that of a General Commanding. “Good morning!” rumbled the uniformed doorman, a retired sergeant. “Good MORNING!” chirped the girl at the inquiry desk, a charming girl whose gentleman-friend was said to be uncommonly high up in the fur business. “Good morning!” indicated the typists and clerks, their heads bowing like leaves agitated by a flitting breeze as he strode by them. “GOOD morning!” caroled Sam’s private stenographer as he entered his own office. “GOOD MORNING!” shouted his secretary, an offensively high-pressure young slave-driver. And even the red-beaded Jewish office boy, as he took Sam’s coat and hung it up so that it would not dry, condescended “Mornin’, boss.”

Yet today all this obsequiousness, normally not unpleasant to the Great Man, annoyed him; all this activity, this proof that ever so many people were sending out ever so many letters about things presumably of importance, seemed to him an irritating fussiness. What did it matter whether he had another hundred thousand dollars to leave to Brent? What did it matter whether John B. Johnson of Jonesburg did or did not take the local Revelation agency? Why were all these hundreds of young people willing to be turned into machines for the purposes of rattling papers and bowing to the president?

The Great Man approached his desk, put on his eye-glasses, and graciously received a stock-report, as one accomplishing empires.

But the Great Man was thinking:

“They make me tired — poor devils! Come on, Fran! Let’s go! Let’s drift way round to China!”

Alec Kynance, president of the Unit Automotive Company, with his regiment of officers, lawyers, secretaries, was not coming for half an hour. Sam said impulsively to his stenographer, “Miss Rachman, skip down to the travel bureau at the Thornleigh, won’t you please, and bring me all the steamship folders and European travel information and so on that they have there. And round-the-world.”

While he waited for her he turned over the papers in the wire basket which his secretary had reverently laid on the glass-topped vastness of his desk. These matters had seemed significant a few days ago, like orders given in battle, but now that the Revelation Company was no longer his —

He sighed, he shuffled the papers indifferently: The secret report on the dissipations of the manager of the Northwestern Division. The plans of the advertising agency for notices about the union of the U.A.C. and the Revelation, which was to be announced with glad, gaudy public rejoicing. What did they MATTER, now that he was turned from a bandit captain to a clerk?

For the first time he admitted that if he went to the U.A.C., even as first vice president, he would be nothing more than an office boy. He could make no daring decisions by himself. THEY had taken from him the pride in pioneering which was one of his props in life — and who THEY were, he didn’t quite know. THEY were something more than just Alec Kynance and a few other officers of the U.A.C. THEY were part of a booming industrial flood which was sweeping over him. THEY would give him a larger house, a yacht, but THEY would not give him work that was really his own. He had helped to build a machine which was running away from him. He had no longer the dignity of a craftsman. He made nothing; he meant nothing; he was no longer Samuel Dodsworth, but merely part of a crowd vigorously pushing one another toward nowhere.

He wandered to the window. In that blast of snow, the shaft of the Plymouth National Bank Building was aspiring as a cathedral; twenty gray stories, with unbroken vertical lines swooping up beyond his vision into the snowy fog. It had nobility, but it seemed cruel, as lone and contemptuous of friendly human efforts as a forgotten tower on the Siberian steppes. How indifferently it would watch him starve and freeze!

With relief he looked at the travel brochures when his stenographer brought them in-a lively girl, shaking the snow from her little cloche hat, beaming at him, assuring him that he really did exist and was something of importance still. Then he was lost in the pictures. . . . Titanic walls of the Grand Canyon: scarlet pillars and pyramids of orange. A tawny road in Algiers, the sun baking, nodding camels, and drivers with dusky malign faces under their turbans. St. Moritz, shadowed by the mountains, and a pretty girl on a toboggan. A terrace at Cannes, where through fig-trees and palms and tumbling roses you looked on the sea with a lone felucca. A valley of colored patchwork fields seen from a harsh tor of Dartmoor. Japanese children rollicking among cherry trees beside a tiny temple. Dark wood of carven mediaeval houses looming over the Romerberg at Frankfort. The Grand Canal, with the fantastic columns of the piazzetta and the soft pink and cream of the ducal palace. The old sea-fronted walls of Ragusa. The streets of Paris — kiosks, impudent advertisements, a whisk of skirts, a whirligig of traffic, and little tables at which to loaf all day long.

“Wouldn’t be so bad!” thought Sam. “I’d like to wander around a few months. Only I’m not going to let Fran coax me into being one of these wishy-washy expatriates, homeless, afraid of life, living on the Riviera as though they were in a sanatorium for neurotics. I’m going to go on doing something with life, and my place is here. We’ll go abroad, only I’ll make her fight for it or she’ll feel she’s running the whole show. Then I’ll come back here, and I’ll take Alec Kynance’s show right away from him!”

“Mr. Kynance is here,” announced his secretary.

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