Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 21

Since the days of Alexander the Great there has been a fashionable belief that travel is agreeable and highly educative. Actually, it is one of the most arduous yet boring of all pastimes and, except in the case of a few experts who go globe-trotting for special purposes, it merely provides the victim with more topics about which to show ignorance. The great traveler of the novelists is tall and hawk-nosed, speaking nine languages, annoying all right-thinking persons by constantly showing drawing-room manners. He has “been everywhere and done everything.” He has shot lions in Siberia and gophers in Minnesota, and played tennis with the King at Stockholm. He can give you a delightful evening discoursing on Tut’s tomb and the ethnology of the Maoris.

Actually, the great traveler is usually a small mussy person in a faded green fuzzy hat, inconspicuous in a corner of the steamer bar. He speaks only one language, and that gloomily. He knows all the facts about nineteen countries, except the home-lives, wage-scales, exports, religions, politics, agriculture, history and languages of those countries. He is as valuable as Baedeker in regard to hotels and railroads, only not so accurate.

He who has seen one cathedral ten times has seen something; he who has seen ten cathedrals once has seen but little; and he who has spent half an hour in each of a hundred cathedrals has seen nothing at all. Four hundred pictures all on a wall are four hundred times less interesting than one picture; and no one knows a cafe till he has gone there often enough to know the names of the waiters.

These are the laws of travel.

If travel were so inspiring and informing a business as the new mode of round-the-world-tour advertisements eloquently sets forth, then the wisest men in the world would be deck hands on tramp steamers, Pullman porters, and Mormon missionaries.

It is the awful toil which is the most distressing phase of travel. If there is anything worse than the aching tedium of staring out of car windows, it is the irritation of getting tickets, packing, finding trains, lying in bouncing berths, washing without water, digging out passports, and fighting through customs. To live in Carlsbad is seemly and to loaf at San Remo healing to the soul, but to get from Carlsbad to San Remo is of the devil.

Actually, most of those afflicted with the habit of traveling merely lie about its pleasures and profits. They do not travel to see anything, but to get away from themselves, which they never do, and away from rowing with their relatives — only to find new relatives with whom to row. They travel to escape thinking, to have something to do, just as they might play solitaire, work cross-word puzzles, look at the cinema, or busy themselves with any other dreadful activity.

These things the Dodsworths discovered, though, like most of the world, they never admitted them.

More than cathedrals or castles, more even than waiters, Sam remembered the Americans he met along the way. Writers speak confidently, usually insultingly, of an animal called “the typical American traveling abroad.” One might as well speak of “a typical human being.” The Americans whom Sam encountered ranged from Bostonian Rhodes scholars to Arkansas farmers, from Riviera tennis players to fertilizer salesmen.

There were Mr. and Mrs. Meece from Ottumwa, Iowa, at a palm-smothered hotel in Italy. Mr. Meece had been a druggist for forty — six years, and his wife looked like two apples set one on top the other. They plodded at sight-seeing all day long; they took things exactly in the order in which the guide-book gave them; and they missed nothing — art galleries, aquariums, the King Ludwig monument in two shades of pink granite, or the site of the house in which Gladstone spent two weeks in 1887. If they enjoyed anything, they did not show it. But neither did they look bored. Their expressions showed precisely nothing. They returned to the hotel at five daily, and always dined in the grill at six, and Mr. Meece was allowed one glass of beer. He was never heard to say anything whatever to his wife except, “Well, getting late.”

In the same hotel with them were the Noisy Pair: two New Yorkers who at all hours were heard, widely heard, observing that all Europeans were inefficient, that they could get no hot water after midnight, that hotel prices were atrocious, that no revue in Europe was as good as Ziegfeld’s Follies, that they couldn’t buy Lucky Strike cigarettes or George Washington coffee in this doggone Wop town, and that lil ole Broadway was good enough for THEM.

They were followed by other Americans: Professor and Mrs. Whittle of Northern Wisconsin Baptist University — Professor Whittle taught Greek and knew more about stained glass and the manufacture of Benedictine than any American living, and Mrs. Whittle had taken her doctorate at Bonn on the philosophy of Spinoza but really preferred fruit-ranching. The Whittles were followed by Percy West, the explorer of Yucatan; by Mr. Roy Hoops, who sold motor tires; by Judge and Mrs. Cady of Massachusetts — the Cadys had lived in the same house for five generations; by Mr. Otto Kretch and Mr. Fred Larabee of Kansas City, two oil men who were on a golfing tour of the world, to take three years; by the brass-bound heel-clicking Colonel Thorne; by Mr. Lawrence Simton, who dressed like a lily and spoke like a lady; by Miss Addy T. Belcher, who was collecting material for a new lecture trip on foreign politics and finance and who, off stage, resembled a chorus girl; and by Miss Rose Love, the musical comedy star, who off stage resembled a short-sighted school teacher.

Typical Americans!

Sam never lost the adventurousness of seeing on a railway car a sign promising that the train was going from Paris to Milan, Venice, Trieste, Zagreb, Vinkovci, Sofia and Stamboul. Though he became weary of wandering, so that one museum was like another, so that when he awoke in the morning it took a minute to remember in what country he was, yet the names of foreign towns always beckoned him.

To Avignon, they wandered, to San Sebastian and Madrid and Toledo and Seville. To Arles, Carcassonne, Marseilles, Monte Carlo. To Genoa, Florence, Sienna, Venice, with two months divided between Naples and Rome and a jaunt to Sicily. To Vienna, Budapest, Munich, Nuremberg. And so, late in April, they came to Berlin.

Sam might not tell of it when he went home, nor years later remember it, but he found that to him the real characteristic of Making a Foreign Tour had nothing to do with towers or native costumes, galleries or mountain scenery. It was the tedium of almost every hotel, almost every evening, when they had completed their chore of sight-seeing. There was “nothing to do in the evening” save occasional movies, or cafes if they were not too far from the hotel in the foreign and menacing darkness.

Every evening the same. Back to the hotel, weary, a grateful cup of tea, and slow dressing. They never dared, after trying it once, to go down to dinner in tweeds and be stared at by the English tourists of the pay-inguineas classes as though they were polluting the dining-room.

A melancholy cocktail in the bar. Dinner, always the same — white and gold dining-room, suavely efficient black-haired captain of waiters pulling out their chairs, a clear soup of parenthetic flavor, a fish not merely white but blanched, chicken with gloomy little carrots, creme caramel, cheese and fruit. The same repressed and whispering fellow-diners: the decayed American mother in silver with the almost equally decayed daughter in gold, staring pitifully at the large lone Englishman; the young intellectual Prussian honeymoon couple, pretending to read and ignore each other, and the fat mature Bavarian couple, wanting to be cheery but not daring. The aged Britons — he with a spurt of eyebrows and positive opinions on artichokes and the rate of exchange; she always glaring over her glasses at you if you laughed or asked the head-waiter about trains to Grasse. The vicar of the local English church, moistly friendly, the one person who came and spoke to you but who, by his manner of inquiring after your health, made you feel guilty because you weren’t going to his service next Sunday.

Then the real tedium.

Sitting till ten in the lounge, listening to an orchestra mildly celebrating the centenary of Verdi, reading an old Tauchnitz, peeping up uneasily as you felt more and more the tightening of personal ties with these too well-known, too closely studied strangers.

It was worse when the hotel was half empty and the desert of waiting chairs in the lounge looked so lonely.

Always the same, except in a few cities with casinos and cabarets and famous restaurants — the same in Florence and Granada, in Hyeres and Dresden.

Every evening after such a siege of boredom Sam guiltily inquired of himself why they hadn’t gone out and looked at what was called the “Native Life” of the city — at the ways of that inconspicuous 99/100 of the population whom tourists ignored. But — Oh, they’d tried it. It wasn’t a matter of dark-alley dangers; he would rather have liked a fight in a low bar. But foreign languages, the need of ordering a drink or asking a taxi fare in Italian or Spanish, was like crawling through a hedge of prickly thorns. And to go anywhere in dress clothes save to tourist-ridden restaurants was to be tormented by stares, comments, laughter. The frankness with which these Italians stared at Fran —

No, easier to stay in the hotel.

Once in a fortnight Sam was able to let himself be picked up in the bar by some American or English blade, and then he glowed and talked beamingly of motors, of Ross Ireland. And Fran welcomed and was gracious with such rescuers . . . whatever she said in the bedroom afterward about manners and vulgarity.

But it thrust them together, this aching tedium of marooned evenings, and they were often tender.

And Fran was getting tired of the isolation of travel. He gloated that before long, now, she would be content to go home with him, to STAY, and at last, fed up on the syrupy marshmallows of what she had considered Romance, to become his wife.

Twilight in Naples, and from their room at Bertolini’s they looked across the bay. The water and the mountains in the water were the color of smoke, and a few little boats, far out, were fleeing home before dark. In the garden below them the fronds of a palm tree waved slowly, and lemon trees exhaled an acrid sweetness. The lights at the foot of Vesuvius were flickering steel points. Her hand slipped into his and she whispered, “I hope the boats get safely home!” They stood there till palms and sea had vanished and they could see only the lights of Naples. Some one afar was singing “Sant Lucia.” Sam Dodsworth did not know the song was hackneyed.

“Tee — ta — tah, tee de dee, tee — ta — tah, taaaa — da,” he hummed. Italy and Fran! The Bay of Naples! And they would go on — to sun-bright isles, to the moon-hushed desert, pagoda bells, and home! “Tee — ta — tah, tee de dee — Santaaaaa Lucia!” He had won her back to be his wife!

“And they still sing that horrible grind-organ garbage! Let’s go eat,” she said.

He startled and sighed.

They were again companions, as they had been in their first days of Paris, and sometimes they had whole afternoons that were gay, trusting, filled with the vigor of laughter and long walks. They had again the sweetness of depending on each other. But Sam was conscious that their relationship had become self-conscious.

Much of the time Fran was straining to be friendly. Getting into a rut of it, they quarreled more often over tinier things.

He knew that he had bruised her, humiliated her, by his bullying in Paris, but he could not, in all his hours of agonizing about it, see what else he could have done. He tried to win her with little gifts of flowers, of odd carved boxes, and he fretted over her being chilly at night, hot at noon, tired in galleries, till she wailed, “Oh, don’t FUSS so! I’m all RIGHT!”

“If I could only do things naturally and easily, the way that fellow Israel probably does,” he sighed to himself . . . and fancied that she was sighing.

He caught himself being critical. For all his “trying to make it up to her,” as he put it, he was testily aware of certain childishnesses in her which he had ignored.

In the matter of money she was a brat. She talked, always, of her thoughtfulness about economy; of jewing down a milliner from a thousand francs to seven hundred, of doing without a personal maid. But she took it for granted that they should have the best suite in the best hotel in every town, and she so used the floor maid and the hair-dresser and so had to tip them that a personal maid would have been cheaper.

Sam would have liked to economize a little. He still brooded on the Sans Souci Gardens — though he never subjected his dream to her brisk ridicule, for he guessed what she would say about the idiocy of Italian palaces in Zenith. If he could ever coax her back, he would try the gamble of building (if she permitted him!), and in it he could use all the capital he had.

But he never spoke to her of money, and she never suggested that an ordinary room would do them as well as the royal suite, and if she made any comment at all it was only on the inferiority of that suite.

For hours at a time he assured himself of Fran’s beauty, gracefulness, wit, and her knowledge of European languages and customs. He convinced himself — except in Venice, when they were with Mrs. Cortright.

Edith Cortright had been born in Michigan, daughter of a banker who became Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. In Washington she had married Cecil R. A. Cortright of the British Embassy, and gone with him to the Argentine, to Portugal, to Rome, to Roumania, where he was minister, and on many vacations home to England. She was about the age of Fran, fortyish, and she had been a widow now for three years, wandering from England to Italy and back. A note from Jack Starling, Tub Pearson’s nephew in London, sent her to call on the Dodsworths at the Danieli in Venice, and she invited them to tea at her flat, a floor of the Ascagni Palace; echoing rooms, stone floored, with tall windows on the Grand Canal, with the light from a marble fireplace on chests of smoky walnut and vast tables worn satiny with age.

Sam was at first not vastly taken with Edith Cortright. She was abrupt as she talked of diplomats, of villas on the Riviera, of Roman society, of painting. She was dressed in soft black, worn a little sloppily, and she was pale. But he saw how lovely her hands were, and realized that her quiet voice was soothing. He guessed that her intense eyes missed nothing.

Fran played up to Mrs. Cortright. She too talked of diplomats, she too had notions about villas and society and painting, and on their way home she informed Sam that her Italian accent was MUCH better than Mrs. Cortright’s. Suddenly, though resenting his own criticism as though some one else were daring to make it, he felt that Fran knew considerably less than he — and she — had always assumed. Her Italian! She knew a hundred words! Villas! They’d never seen a Riviera villa from a more intimate position than the outside wall!

He reflected that Fran had an unsurpassed show-window display but not much on the shelves inside.

Then he was angry with himself; then he pitied her; then loved her for her childish shrillness of make-believe, her eagerness to be noticed and admired.

He wished they were going to see more of Mrs. Cortright. He felt that she really belonged to this puzzling, reticent thing called Europe and that she might make it clear to him.

Sam was surprised, felt rather guilty, to find that he was becoming more a master of the nervous art of travel than Fran. In Paris she had been supreme; had taken to language and manners and food hectically, while he stood outside. And she still insisted that he couldn’t understand Italian waiters and shopping and lace shawls and cathedrals as she could. But while she was daily becoming more uncertain, he was daily developing more of a sure purpose in travel.

He was going back to make some such a “development” as the Sans Souci Gardens, and contemplating it he was becoming conscious that there was such a thing as architecture. Details that once he would never have noticed became alive: hand-wrought iron balconies, baroque altars, tiled roofs, window shutters, copper pans in kitchens seen from the street. He began, shyly keeping it from Fran, to sketch doorways. He began, in the evenings of hotel tedium, to read stray notes on architecture — guide-book introductions, articles in copies of Country Life found in the hotel — instead of news-stand detective stories.

It made him increasingly eager to be out each morning and to see new things, to collect knowledge; and somehow, increasingly, it was he who planned where they should go, he who was willing to confer with concierges and guides, and it was Fran who followed him.

The contrast between Fran and Mrs. Cortright kept annoying him. He was not very well pleased to see that after twenty four years of living with Fran he had not in the least come to know her.

Always, particularly when they had first come abroad, he had considered her clearly superior to other American women. Most of these others, he had grunted to himself, were machines. They sobbed about babies and dressmakers and nothing else. They were either hard-voiced and suspicious, or gushing. Their only emotion was a hatred of their men, with whom they joyously kept up a cat and mouse feud, trying to catch them at flirtation, at poker-playing. But Fran, he had gloated, had imagination and flair and knowledge. She talked of politics and music; she laughed; she told excited stories; she played absurd pleasant games — he was the big brown bear and she the white rabbit; he was the oak and she the west wind who ruffled his foliage — and she did it, too, until he begged mercy. She never entered a drawing-room — she made an entrance. She paused at the door, dramatic, demanding, stately in simple black and white, where other women hesitated into a room, fussy and tawdry. And they glowered, those other women, when Fran gathered in the men and was to be heard talking with derisive gaiety about tennis, Egyptian excavations, Bolshevism — everything in the world.

He had been so proud of her!

And in Paris, at first — how different her devouring of French life from the flatness of the American women whom he heard in restaurants croaking, in tinny, Midwestern voices, “Mabel says she knows a place in Paris where she can buy Ivory Soap, but I’ve found one where I can get Palm Olive Soap for seven cents a cake!”

Ah, he had rejoiced, not of these was his Fran — swift silver huntress, gallant voyager, shrewd critic, jubilant companion!

And now, however he cursed himself for it, he could not down the wonder whether she really was any of these poetic things — whether she didn’t merely play at them. He could never root out suspicion, planted when he had read her letter about Deauville and Arnold Israel, that she was in heart and mind and soul an irresponsible child. And the minute he was pleased with the bright child quality in her, the irresponsibility annoyed him. . . . Bobbing at cherries is not so pretty a sport at forty-three.

A child.

Now she was ecstatic — a little too demandingly ecstatic for his unwieldiness to follow her — over a moonlit sea, a tenor solo, or a masterpiece of artichoke cookery. Half an hour later she was in furious despair over a hard bed, a lukewarm bath, or a missing nail-file; and Sam was always to blame, and decidedly was to be told about it. He was to blame if it rained, or if they could not get a table by the window in a restaurant; it was not her tardy dressing but his clumsiness in ordering a taxi which made them late for the theater.

She was a child in her way of preening herself over every attractive man who looked interestedly at her along the journey — now that she had been converted to salvation by passion. And she was equally a child in laughing at, in forgetting, the older and less glittering men who were kind to them on trains and friendly at hotels. She forgot so easily!

Sam was certain that she had forgotten Arnold Israel. He identified certain Paris letters, with a thick, black, bold script, as Israel’s. At first she was jumpy and secretive about them; then, in a month, she let them lie unopened. And once, apropos of a gesticulating operatic baritone, she began making fun of Israel’s ardors. . . . He would almost have been gladder, Sam sighed, if she had enough loyalty to remember Arnold longer.

She was lovely quicksilver, but quicksilver is hard for a thick hand to hold.

A child!

He noted, too, her pretentiousness when she was with people like Mrs. Cortright. Fran let it be known that she herself was of importance. She rebuked people who — never having seen her before — failed to know that she was an expert at tennis, French and good manners. She didn’t exactly say it, but she spoke as though ruddy old Herman Voelker, her respectable sire, had been at least a baron, and she was forever laughing at this fellow-traveler as being “common” and approving that other as being of “quite a good family — quite decent.” She was like a child boasting to a playmate of her father’s wealth.

But he felt it with a brooding pity that made him the fonder — made it the harder for him to fight his way free from her capricious domination of his life.

So, after months given more to exploring themselves than to exploring Europe, they came in April to Berlin.

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