Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 20

Late of a cloudy afternoon, the Paris express slid through the thunderous gloom of the train shed, and Sam was jumpy with the excitement of arrival, looking down at the porters as though they were his friends, smiling at the advertisements of Cointreau and Fernet Branca, of Rouen and Avignon, on the station walls. He marched quickly out of the train, peering for Fran, anxious when he did not see her, and he felt utterly let down as he clumped after the porter with his bags.

She was at the end of the platform.

He saw her afar; he was startled to know how much lovelier she was than he had remembered. In a cool blue coat and skirt, with a white blouse, her hair, pale and light-touched as new straw, her slim legs so silken, her shoulders so confident, she was the American athletic girl, swift to dance, to play tennis, to drive like a cyclone. She was so vital, so YOUNG! His heart caught with admiration. But he was conscious that her face was unhappy, and that she looked at the approaching passengers only mechanically. Didn’t she want him —

He came up to her shyly. He was confused by the rather polite smile that masked her face, but holding her by her shoulders, looming over her, he murmured, “Did I remember to write you that I adore you?”

“Why, no, I don’t believe you did. Do you? That’s very nice, I’m sure.”

Her tone was as light and smooth and passionless, her laugh was as distant, as the banter of an actress in a drawing-room comedy.

They were strangers.

At the hotel she said hesitantly, “Uh, Sam — do you mind — I thought you’d be tired after the journey. I know I am, after coming from Deauville. So I got two single rooms instead of a double. But they’re right next to each other.”

“No, maybe better rest,” he said.

She came with him into his room, but she hovered near the door, saying with a dreadful politeness, “I hope you will find the room all right. It has quite a nice bathroom.”

He hesitated. “I’ll unpack later. Let’s not hang around here now. Let’s skip right out and catch us a good old sidewalk cafe and watch the world go by again!” Wretchedly he noted that she looked relieved. He had given her but a tap of a kiss. She had demanded no further caress.

She was courteous, while he gossiped of Zenith; she laughed at the right moments; and she remained a stranger, forced to entertain the friend of a friend and wanting to get the duty over. She did ask questions about Emily and Brent, but when he talked of Tub, of golfing, she did not listen.

He could not endure it, but he said only, tenderly, “What’s matter, honey? You seem kind of far off. Not feeling well? Glad to see me?”

“Of course! It’s nothing. It’s just — I guess I didn’t sleep very well last night. I’m a little nervy. But of course I’m glad to see you, dear old bear!”

And still they had not talked of Madame de Penable, of Arnold Israel, of Stresa and Deauville. He had kept from it as much as she; he had said only, “Too bad you had your trouble with Mrs. Penable, but I’m glad you had some fun after that. Your letters were great.” He sounded provincial to himself as he maundered about Zenith, sounded rather dull and thick, but his senses were furiously awake. He noted how agitated she seemed. He noted that she drank three cocktails. He noted that he, Sam Dodsworth, was slowly massing for a battle, and that he dreaded it.

When they dressed for dinner, she closed the door between their two rooms.

“Let’s go to Voisin’s, where we can be quiet and talk,” said he, when she came in to announce that she was ready.

“Oh, wouldn’t you rather go some place a little more festive?”

“I would not!”

Then first was he brusque.

“I want to talk!”

She shrugged.

After the soup, he bumbled, “Well, I guess I’ve given you most of the news. Let’s talk about plans. Where would you like to go, this fall? What about a good, long, easy hike through Italy and Spain and maybe over to Greece and Constantinople?”

“Why, I think that would be very nice, a little later on. But just now — After all, I’ve had a dreadfully rustic summer — and of course you have, you poor thing! I think we both deserve a little gaiety here in Paris before we leave. After all, when you go traveling around to assorted places, you’re frightfully detached from people.”

Then, very blandly, as though it wasn’t at all necessary to have his agreement, “I think we might stay here three months or so, and we might take a nice apartment up near the Etoile. I’m so sick of hotels.”

“Well —” He stopped; then it came in a slow tidal wave. “I don’t blame you for being sick of hotels. So am I! But I certainly don’t intend to spend all fall, as I spent all spring, sitting on my rear in Paris —”

“Need you be vulgar?”

“Yes, I guess I need to. I don’t intend to sit around here all fall, waiting for you to go. When we first started out, I was willing either to go on living in Zenith or travel, but if I’m going to travel, I want to TRAVEL— to see things, see different kinds of people and towns. I’d like to see Venice and Madrid; I’d like to have some German beer. I don’t propose to go on being sacrificed to your ambition as a social climber —”

She flared, “That is a lie, and you know it’s a lie! Do you think I have to CLIMB to meet people like Renee de Penable? Climb DOWN, if anything! But I do find it rather more amusing to play with civilized people than to sit and soak at the New York Bar — yes, or go around gaping at ruins with a Baedeker! It’s all very well for you, but I have to do the packing, I have to interpret for you. I have to plan the trip. Heavens, we’ll GO to Venice! But is there any need of our galumphing off like a Cook’s tour when we could have a charming autumn here, with our own flat and servants, and all the friends that I have here now — quite independent of the De Penable person? I’m sorry, Sam, but if you could just occasionally try to catch somebody ELSE’S point of view — I should prefer to remain right here in Paris for —”

“Fran!”

“Well?”

He hesitated. While they talked, round them flowed the amenity of good service, and if they were two volcanoes, they kept their rumblings low, and to any observer they seemed merely a large and impassive man, probably English, and a woman with a quick-changing face who was a little angry but very much in control of her anger.

“Fran! You really would sacrifice me, to stay here?”

“Don’t be so melodramatic! I can’t see that it’s any sacrifice to remain in the loveliest city —”

“Is Arnold Israel here in Paris?”

“Yes, he is! What of it?”

“When did you see him last?”

“This noon.”

“He going to stay here in Paris some time?”

“I don’t know. How should I know? Yes, I suppose he is.”

“He give you any ideas about a flat near the Etoile?”

“See here, my dear Samuel! Have you been reading novels? Just what is the idea of this comic returned-husband-sternly-cross-examining-loose-wife pose —”

“Fran! How far did you go with this Israel?”

“Have you any idea how insulting you are?”

“Have you any idea how insulting I’m going to be, if you don’t stop this injured-innocent business?”

“And have you any idea of how angry I’m going to be if you continue to act like a barroom bully — which is what you are, essentially! I’ve concealed it from myself, for years, but I knew all the time — The great Sam Dodsworth, the football player, the celebrated bruiser, the renowned bully! Why, you belong in the kitchen, with the corner policeman, not among civilized —”

“You haven’t answered! How far did you go with this Israel? I’m doing you the honor of asking you, not of snooping. And you haven’t answered.”

“And I most certainly do not intend to answer! It’s an insult to be expected — And it’s an insult to Mr. Israel! He is a gentleman! I wish he were here! You wouldn’t dare to talk to me as you’ve been talking, if he were here. He’s quite as powerful as you are, my dear Samuel — and he has brains and breeding and manners as well. Aah! ‘How far did you go in sin with your hellish lover!’ After all the years I’ve tried to do something for you, you still have the vocabulary of a Laura Jean Libbey novel! Arnold, you will be shocked to learn, is so unregenerate that he prefers Andre Gide and Paul Morand to Laura Jean Libbey, and of course it’s Black Guilt for me to have found a little pleasure in talking to him instead of discussing poker with your lovely friend Mr. Tub Pearson —”

While she raced on, quietly hysterical, he knew the answer to his question, and he was astonished that he was not more astonished, shocked that he was not more shocked. He did not greatly press her. When she stopped, shaking with muted sobs which he pitied, he said, gently:

“You found him very romantic?”

“Of course! He is!”

“Perhaps I can understand that — more or less.”

“Oh, Sam, please DO be human and understand! You do it so well, when you forget your Stern Man of Granite role and let yourself be sweet. Of COURSE there was nothing wrong between Arnold and me — Isn’t it funny how — I’m just as bad as I accused you of being! Using old cant phrases like that! ‘Nothing wrong between Arnold and me!’ After all, though, perhaps I was unjust to you; perhaps you didn’t mean anything of the kind but merely — You are kind, Sam, but if you don’t mind my saying so, you’re just the least little bit clumsy, now and then —”

She had checked her hysteria, had become amiable and prattling and self-confident again, and all the while he was reflecting, “She’s lying. She never used to lie. She’s changed. This fellow is her lover.”

“— and what I suppose you were really hinting at was that I may have been handsomely kissed by my ardent Jewish friend, before I left Deauville. Well, I was! And I liked it! It doesn’t matter if I never see him again — Oh, Sam, if you could only UNDERSTAND how humiliating and infuriating it was of you to suggest that my desire to stay here had anything whatever to do with Arnold! But he was charming. If you could only have seen him, lolling among the sand dunes as though (I used to tell him) he were a Maharajah among gold cushions, with white flannels, and his hair wild and his shirt open at the throat — It would’ve looked silly and pretentious with any other man, but on him it seemed natural. And all the while, with all his gorgeousness, talking so simply, so confidingly — really, it was touching. But haven’t we talked enough of him? We must still make our plans —”

“Let’s get him settled first. I’ve got —”

“Sam, the thing you never could realize about him, even if you met him, was how TOUCHING he was. Clever and handsome and rich and so on, and yet such a child! He needed some one like me to talk to. Oh, I was just an audience for him — nice old mother confessor. He was condescending enough to say that for a venerable dame of forty-two, I was still an excellent imitation of a pretty wench, and he’d supposed I was five years younger than himself, not two years older. And that I was the best dancer he’d found in Europe. But of course the bouquets were just preliminary to his talking about himself and his unhappy childhood, and you know what a fool I am about children — the least hint that anybody has had an unhappy childhood and I dissolve in tears! Poor Arnold! He suffered as a boy because he WAS clever and strong. Nobody could believe how sensitive he was. And his mother was a grim, relentless old dragon, who hated weakness of any kind, or what she thought was weakness, and when she’d find him daydreaming, she’d accuse him of loafing — Oh, it must have been hell, for so fine a spirit! And then in college, the usual trouble of the too clever and too handsome Jew — high-hatted by the stupidest, drabbest, meanest Yankees and Middle-westerners — they looked down on him, just the way a dray-horse might look down on a fine race-horse. Poor Arnold! Of course I was touched by so proud a person as he CARING to tell me about his real self.”

“Fran! You don’t suppose that this is the first time your Mr. Israel has used the neglected-childhood approach? And apparently successfully!”

“Are you AGAIN hinting that I fell for him?”

“I am! It’s rather important to know! Did you?”

“Well, then — yes. I did.”

“Oh!”

“And I’m proud of it! I couldn’t, once — under your heavy-handed tutelage, my dear Samuel! — have believed it possible to be an ‘erring wife’! What blind hypocrites people are! And when it did happen, it all seemed so right, so natural and sweet —”

While she raced on he was incredulously admitting that this abominable thing, this newspaper-headline, divorce-court, sensational-novel degradation had actually happened to him — to her — to Emily and Brent. He had a fascinated desire to know details. He pictured this Arnold Israel, this black leopard of a man — no, too big for a black leopard, but that sort of gracefulness — returning to her Deauville hotel with her, shirt open at his too smooth throat — no, he’d be coming home with her in evening clothes, probably with a cape thrown back. He’d accompany her to her room at the hotel in Deauville; whisper, “Just let me come in for one good-night kiss.” Then Fran became real. Since he had arrived, Sam’s eyes had seen her but cloudily, his ears had heard her only as a stranger. Now he peered at her, was conscious of her, in black and silver, conscious of the curve from shoulder to breast; and he was raging at the thought of Israel.

All his long thinking and his wrath slid by in five seconds and he had not missed a word as she panted:

“You think it’s an overwhelming attack on Arnold to suggest that he’s used the same tactics before! Of course he has — of course he’s had other affairs — perhaps lots of them! Thank Heaven for that! He’s had some training in the arts of love. He understands women. He doesn’t think they’re merely business partners. Let me tell you, my dear Samuel, it would be better for you, and for me both, if you’d devoted a little of your valuable time to the despised art of rousing a woman to some degree of romantic passion — if you’d given some of the attention you’ve lavished on carburetors to me — and possibly even to other women — I suppose you have been what is called ‘faithful’ to me since our marriage.”

“I have!”

“Well, doubtless I ought to be highly gratified —”

“Fran! Do you want to marry this fellow Israel?”

“Heavens no! . . . Anyway, I don’t think so.”

“And yet you want to see him every day this fall.”

“That’s different. But not marry him. He’s too much like plum cake — wonderful at a Christmas feast, but he’d bring indigestion. For a permanent diet I’d prefer good, honest, dependable bread — which you are — please don’t think that’s insulting; it’s really a great compliment. No! Besides, he doesn’t want to! I doubt if he’d care for any one woman for more than six months. Oh, I believe him when he says that he’s almost morbidly faithful to the one woman while it lasts, but —”

“Has he got a wife some place?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t know! Heavens! Does it matter?”

“It may!”

“Oh, don’t try to be melodramatic! It doesn’t suit your Strong Calm Manly type! Anyway, Arnold wouldn’t marry me, because I’m not a Jew. He’s just as proud of being a Jew as you are of being a Nordic. He ought to be! He’s more or less related to the Mendelssohns and the Rothschilds and all kinds of really significant people. A cousin of his in Vienna —”

“Fran! Have you any idea how serious this business is?”

“Well, rather more than you have, perhaps!”

“I doubt it! Fran, you’ll either marry him or cut him out, absolutely and completely.”

“My dear Samuel, he might have something to say about that! He’s not one of your meek Revelation secretaries. And I won’t be bullied!”

“Yes, you will! For the first time! God knows you’re getting off easy. Oh, I’m not the kind that would grab a shotgun and start off to get you and your lover —”

“Well, I should hope not!”

“Don’t be so sure! I could turn that way, if you just went on long enough! No, I’m not that kind, especially. But, by God, I’m still less of the complaisant husband who’s going to sit around and watch his wife entertain her lover, as you’ve planned to, this fall —”

“I haven’t admitted that I plan to do any —”

“You’ve admitted it and more! Now you’ll either come away and travel with me, and chuck this fellow and forget him, or I’ll divorce you — for adultery!”

“Ridiculous!”

“Worse than that! Horrible! You can imagine how Brent and Emily will feel!”

Very slowly: “Sam, I never till this moment suspected that — I knew you were stupid and heavy and slow and fond of vulgar people, but I never knew you were simply a bullying rotten cad! No one has ever spoken so to me in all my life!”

“I know it. I’ve baby’d you. You regard yourself, young woman, as the modern American, with fancy European improvements. But I’m a lot more modern than you are. I’m a builder. I don’t have to depend on any title or clothes or social class or anything else to be distinctive. And you’ve never seen it! You’ve just lambasted me because I AM slow and clumsy, till you’ve stolen every bit of self-confidence I have. You’ve been the traitor to me in my own home. Criticizing! Not nagging, but just enjoying yourself by being so sweet and superior to me and humbling me. That was worse than your affair with this Israel.”

“Oh, I haven’t done that! Oh, I didn’t mean to! I respect you so!”

“Do you respect me when you want me to sit around and be valet to your lover!”

“Oh no, no, no, I— Oh, I can’t think clearly. I’m all confused. I— Yes, if you want, we’ll leave for Spain tomorrow.”

They did.

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