Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 27

What Tub and Matey and Sam did during their week together may be deduced by studying a newspaper list of “Where to Lunch, Dine, and Dance in Paris,” the advertisements of dressmakers, jewelers, perfumers, furniture-dealers, and of revues; and by reprinting for each evening the more serious features of Tub’s first night in Paris.

It was a fatiguing week, but rather comforting to Sam.

Through it, the pious admonitions of Matey, along with the thought of Minna von Escher and his own original virtue, prepared him to yield to temptation — only he saw no one who was tempting.

The Pearsons begged him to go on to Holland with them, but he said that he had business in Paris; he spoke vaguely of conferences with motor agents. Actually, he wanted a day or two for the luxury of sitting by himself, of walking where he would, of meditating in long undisturbed luxurious hours on what it was all about.

He had two hasty, stammering notes from Fran, in which she said that she missed him, which was all very pleasant and gratifying, but in which she babbled of dancing with Kurt von Obersdorf till three A.M. — of a day with Kurt in the country — of an invitation from Kurt’s friends, the Von Arminals, to spend the next week-end at their place in the Hartz Mountains. “And of course they’d be enchanted to have you also if you get back in time, asked me tell you how sorry they are you aren’t here,” her pen sputtered.

“Hm!” said Sam.

Suddenly he was testy. Oh, of course she had a “right” to be with Kurt as much as she liked. He wasn’t a harem-keeper. And of course it would be puerile to rage, “If she has a right to be loose, then I have the same right.” There was no question of “rights.” It was a question of what he wanted, and whether he was willing to pay for it — whether he wanted new, strange loves, whether he could find them, and whether he was willing to pay in dignity, in the respect that Fran had for him despite her nervous jabbings.

When he had seen the Pearsons off for Amsterdam, with mighty vows to meet them in Zenith within six months, when he had for an hour sat outside the Cafe des Deux Magots, brooding on the Franocentric universe which had cataclysmically replaced the universe of business and creating motors and playing golf, then sharply, gripping the marble top of the little table with his huge hand, he admitted with no more reservations that he was hungry as a barren woman, hungry for a sweetheart who should have Fran’s fastidiousness, Minna von Escher’s sooty warmth, and Matey Pearson’s shrewd earthiness.

He dined alone in a little Montparnasse restaurant filled with eager young couples: a Swedish painter with an Italian girl student, an American globe-trotter with his Polish mistress, pairs of white Russians and Italian anti-fascists. They all twittered like love-birds and frankly held hands over the vin ordinaire and horse-meat. And here, as it was very cheap, there were actually French people, all in couples except when they belonged to enormous noisy family parties, and the couples stroked each other’s hands, unabashedly nuzzled each other’s cheeks, looked into each other’s eyes, the world well lost.

It was spring — spring and Paris — scent of chestnut blossoms, freshness of newly watered pavements, and Sam Dodsworth was almost as lonely as though he were at the Adlon with Kurt and Fran.

When he thought of Fran’s cool, neat politeness to him, he was angry. When he looked about him at youth in love, he was angrier. This passion, ungrudging and unabashed, Fran had never given him. He had been robbed — Or robbed her? All wrong, either way. Had ENOUGH—

Oh, he was lonely, this big friendly man, Sam Dodsworth, and he wanted a man to whom he could talk and boast and lie, he wanted a woman with whom he could be childish and hurt and comforted, and so successful and rich was he that he had neither, and he sought them, helpless, his raw nerves exposed. So searching, he strolled after dinner to the Select, which was rivaling the Cafe du Dome as the resort of the international yearners in Paris.

A man alone at a cafe table in the more intellectual portions of Paris, and not apparently expecting some one, is always a man suspect. At home he may be a prince, a successful pickpocket, or an explorer, but in this city of necessitous and over-friendly strollers, this city where any one above the rank of assassin or professional martyr can so easily find companions, the supposition is that he is alone because he ought to be alone.

But it is also a rule of this city of spiritual adventurers which lies enclosed within the simple and home-loving French city of Paris, this new Vanity Fair, of slimier secrets, gallanter Amelias and more friendly Captain Dobbinses than Thackeray ever conceived, that if such a solitary look prosperous, if he speak quietly to the waiters, not talk uninvited to the people at the next table, and drink his fine a l’eau slowly, he may be merely a well-heeled tourist, who would be gratified to be guided into the citadel of the arts by a really qualified, gently tourist-despising, altogether authentic initiate of the Parisian Hobohemia — a girl who has once had a book-review printed, or a North Dakota ‘cellist who is convinced that every one believes him to be an Hungarian gipsy.

So it happened that when Samuel Dodsworth sat melancholy and detached at a table before the Select, four young people at another table commented upon him — psycho-analytically, biologically, economically; cleverly, penetratingly, devastatingly.

“See that big dumbbell there by himself?” remarked Clinton J. Gillespie, the Bangor miniaturist. “I’ll bet he’s an American lawyer. Been in politics. Fond of making speeches. He’s out of office now, and sore about it.”

“Oh, hell!” said the gentleman next. “In the first place he’s obviously an Englishman, and look at his hands! I don’t suppose you have room for mere hands in your rotten little miniatures! He’s rich and of good family, and yet he has the hands of a man who works. Perfectly simple. He’s the owner of a big country estate in England, crazy about farming, and prob’ly he’s a baronet.”

“Grand!” said the third, smaller, sharper-nosed man. “Perfect — except for the fact that he is obviously a soldier and — I’m not quite sure about this, but I think he’s German!”

“You all,” said the fourth, a bobbed-haired girl of twenty with a cherubic face, rose-bud mouth, demure chin, magazine-cover nose, and the eyes of a bitter and grasping woman of forty, “make me very sick! You know so much that isn’t so! I don’t know what he is, but he looks good for a bottle of champagne, and I’m going over and grab it.”

“What the devil good, Elsa,” complained Clinton J. Gillespie, “is it for you to come to Paris if you always go talking to Babbitts like that fellow? You never WILL become a novelist!”

“Won’t that be fierce — when I think over some of the novelists that hang around this joint!” rasped Elsa, and she tripped to Sam’s table, she stood beside him, warbling, “I BEG your pardon, but aren’t you Mr. Albert Jackson of Chicago?”

Sam looked up. She was so much like the edifying portrait of “Miss Innocence” on the calendar which the grocer sends you at New Year’s that he was not irritated even by this most ancient of strategies. “No, but I wish I were. I am from Chicago, but my name is Pearson, Thomas J. Pearson. Loans and banking. Won’t you sit down? I’m kind of lonely in Paris.”

Elsa did not seat herself precipitately. It was impossible to say just when it was that she did sit down, so modestly did she slip into a chair, looking as though she had never had so unmaidenly an encounter, as though momently she would take fright and wing away. She murmured, “That was TOO silly of me! You must have thought I was a terribly bold little creature to speak to you, but you did look so much like Mr. — Mr. Jackson, who is a gentleman that I met once at my aunt’s house in New Rochelle — my father is the Baptist minister there — and I guess I felt lonely, too, a wee bit — I don’t know many people in Paris myself, though I’ve been here three months. I’m studying novel-writing here. But it was awfully kind of you not to mind.”

“Mind? It was a privilege,” Sam said gallantly . . . and within himself he was resolving, “Yes, you cute little bitch-kitty, you lovely little gold-digger, I’m going to let you work me as much as you want to, and I’m going to spend the night with you!”

And he was triumphant, after so much difficulty, at having been at last able to take the first step toward sin.

“And now, young lady, I hope you’re going to let me buy you a little drink or something, just to show you think I’m as nice and respectable as if you’d met ME in your aunt’s house, too. What would you like?”

“Oh, I— I— I’ve scarcely ever tasted alcohol.” Sam had seen her flip off two brandies at the other table. “What DOES one drink? What would be safe for a young girl?”

“Well — Of course you wouldn’t touch brandy?”

“Oh no!”

“No, of course not. Well, what would you most like?”

“Well — Oh, you won’t think it’s awfully silly of me, Mr. Uh —”

“Mr. Thomas — Pearson J. Thomas.”

“Of course — how silly of me! You wouldn’t think it was awfully silly of me, Mr. Thomas, if I said I’ve often heard people speaking about champagne, and always wanted to taste some?”

“No, I wouldn’t think that was a bit silly. I’m told it’s a very nice innocent drink for young girls.” (“I will! And tonight! She picked on me first!”) “Is there any particular brand of champagne you’d like to try?”

She looked at him suspiciously, but she was reassured by his large and unfanciful face, and she prattled more artlessly than ever:

“Oh, you must think I’m a TERRIBLE little silly — just a regular little GREENHORN— but I don’t know the name of one single brand of any kind of wine! But I did hear a boy that I know here — he’s such a hardworking boy, a student — but he told me that Pol Roger, Quinze, I mean 1915, was one of the nicest vintages.”

“Yes, I’m told it’s quite a nice little wine,” said Sam, and as he ordered it, his seemingly unobservant glance noted that one of Elsa’s young men shrugged in admiration of something and handed another of the three a five-franc note, as though he were paying a bet.

“Am I going to have collaboration in my first seduction?” he wondered. “I may need it! I’ll never go through with it! I’d like to kiss this little imp half to death but — Oh, God, I can’t pick on a kid younger than my daughter!”

While he talked ardently to Elsa for the next half hour — about Berlin and Naples, about Charles Lindbergh, who had just this week flown from New York to Paris, and, inevitably, about Prohibition and the novels that she hadn’t yet quite started to write — his whole effort was to get rid of scruples, to regain his first flaunting resolve to forget the respectable Samuel Dodsworth and be a bandit.

He was helped by jealousy and champagne.

After half an hour, Elsa started, ever so prettily, and cried, “Why! There’s some boys I know at the second table over. As you are alone in Paris — Perhaps they might be willing to take you around a little, and I’m sure they’d be delighted to meet you. They’re SUCH nice boys, and so talented! Do you mind if I call them over?”

“B’ d’lighted —”

She summoned the three young men with whom she had been sitting and introduced them as Mr. Clinton Gillespie, late of Bangor, miniaturist, Mr. Charley Short, of South Bend, now in the advertising business but expecting shortly to start a radical weekly, and Mr. Jack Keipp, the illustrator — just what Mr. Keipp illustrated was forever vague. Unlike Elsa, they did not need to be coaxed to sit down. They sat quickly and tight, and looked thirsty, and exchanged droll sophisticated glances as Sam meekly ordered two more bottles of Pol Roger.

While taking his champagne, they took the conversation away from him. They discussed the most artistic of topics — the hatefulness of all other artists; and now and then condescendingly threw to that Philistine, Mr. Pearson J. Thomas, a bone of explanation about the people of whom they gossiped. After half a bottle each, they forgot that they thought of Elsa only as nice young men should think of a Baptist minister’s daughter. They mauled her. They contradicted her. One of them — the sharp-nosed little man, Mr. Keipp — held her hand. And after an entire bottle, Elsa herself rather forgot. She laughed too loudly at a reference to a story which no Christmas-card cherub would ever have heard.

So jealousy and a very earnest dislike of these supercilious young men came to help kill Sam’s reluctance.

“Hang it,” he informed himself, “you can’t tell me she hasn’t been a little more than intimate with this Keipp rat! In any case, old Granddaddy Sambo would be better for her than this four-flusher. Give her a much better time. I WILL!”

His resolution held. Once he had accomplished the awful struggle of winning himself, once he turned from it to winning her, he began to see her (through a slightly champagne-colored haze) as wondrously desirable.

“Probably I’ll kick myself tomorrow. I don’t care! I’m glad I’m going to have her! Now to get rid of these young brats! Stop brooding, Sam, and speak your little piece! . . . I’ll take her to the Continental, too, by thunder!”

Fran would have marveled to hear her taciturn Samuel chattering. Early he discovered a way of parrying these young geniuses — by admitting, before they hinted it, that he was a lowbrow, but that he ranked higher among the lowbrows than they among the highbrows.

This attack disorganized them, and enabled him to contradict them with cheerful casualness. He heard himself stating that Eddie Guest was the best American poet, and a number of other things which he had heard from Tub Pearson and which he did not believe. His crassness was so complete that they were staggered, being accustomed to having gentlemen as large and as rich as Mr. Pearson J. Thomas deprecate their own richness and largeness, and admire the sophistication of Mr. Gillespie, Mr. Short, and Mr. Keipp.

Elsa agreed with him in everything; made him ardent by taking his side against them; encouraged him till (with a mild astonishment at his own triumphs of asininity) he heard himself asserting that vacuum cleaners were more important than Homer, and that Mr. Mutt, of the comic strips, was a fuller-blooded character than Soames Forsyte.

And meantime, he was buying.

Mr. Gillespie, Mr. Short, and Mr. Keipp never refused another drink. After the champagne, Elsa suggested brandies (she had forgotten that it was a beverage of which she had scarcely heard) and there were many brandies, and the pile of saucers, serving as memoranda of drinks for which he would have to pay, rose and rose in front of Sam, while the innocent pioneer part of the table in front of Mr. Gillespie, Mr. Short, and Mr. Keipp was free of anything save their current brandies.

But Sam was craftily delighted. Could anything better show Elsa that he was a worthier lover than the sharp-nosed Mr. Keipp?

He was talking, now, exclusively to Elsa, ignoring the young men. He was almost beginning to be honest with her, in his desire to have sympathy from this rosy child. He decided that her eyes weren’t hard, really, but intelligent.

He finally dared to grope under the table, and her hand flew to his, so warm, so young, so living, and answered his touch with a pressure which stirred him intolerably. He became very gay, joyous with the thought of the secret they were sharing. But a slight check occurred to the flow of his confidences.

Elsa cooed, “Oh, excuse me just a moment, dear. There’s Van Nuys Rodney over there. Something I have to ask him. ‘Scuse me a moment.”

She flitted to a table at which sat a particularly hairy and blue-shirted man and he saw her drop all her preening in an absorbed conversation.

He sat neglected by his guests at his own table.

In three minutes, Mr. Jack Keipp lounged to his feet, muttered, “Pardon me a moment” and Sam saw him join Elsa and Van Nuys Rodney and plunge into talk. Then Mr. Gillespie yawned, “Well, I think I’ll turn in,” Mr. Short suggested, “Glad met you, Mr. Oh,” and they were gone. Sam watched them stroll down the boulevard. He wished that he had been pleasanter to them — even Shorts and Gillespies would be worth having in this city of gaiety and loneliness.

When he looked back, he saw that Elsa, Mr. Keipp, and Mr. Rodney had vanished, complete.

He waited for Elsa to come back. He waited an hour, with the monstrous pile of saucers before him as his only companion. She did not come. He paid the waiter, he rose slowly, unsmilingly beckoned to a taxicab, and sat in it cold and alone.

Some time in the night — and he was never quite sure whether he had been dreaming or half-awake — he heard Fran saying coldly, “My dear Samuel, don’t you see at last — isn’t it exactly what I told you? — that you have less knowledge of women than a European like Kurt would have at eighteen? You American men! Fussing and fuming and fretting over the obvious question of whether or not you’ll seduce that little harlot! And then unable to accomplish it! What a spectacle! But Kurt — in the first place, of course, Kurt would have taken Elsa away from there, away from her little parasite friends —”

It was Fran’s very voice, and he had nothing to answer.

He awoke again to hear not Fran but himself jeering, “And the rottenest part of the whole thing was the cheap superiority you felt to those three little rats of would-be artists. Poor kids! Of COURSE they have to be conceited and supercilious, to keep their courage up, because they’re failures.”

And again, “Yes, that’s all true, but I’ll find Elsa again, and this time —”

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