Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 29

In the morning he was cool, determined to clear off as soon as possible. She was no less cool. When he unlocked the bedroom door, at eight, she was already dressed, in crisp blue coat and skirt and plain blouse, and she looked at him as though he were a servant whom she had resolved to discharge for insolence. She said quietly:

“Good morning. You know, of course, that your mauling me and threatening me last evening made finally impossible any rapprochement between us.”

“Eh? That’s fine.”

“Oh. Oh, I see. Very well, that makes everything so MUCH easier. At last we know where we are. Now I suppose you’ll return to Paris, at least for a while.”

“I suppose so. I’ll take the evening train.”

“Then you’ll have a lot to do. I’m sorry to trouble you, but I’m afraid we’ll have to make a number of agreements — about our house in Zenith, about finances, and so on — it’s very generous of you to go on sending money, though I certainly should not take it unless I felt that, after all, running your house, entertaining your business acquaintances and all, perhaps I’ve earned it. And you’ll have to pack — be something of a job to divide up the luggage, of course, now our things are all mixed up together in the trunks. So we must get busy. If you’ll be so good as to order breakfast for us — and to shave! — which you decidedly need, if you’ll permit me to say so! — I’ll go down and have the concierge get your wagon lit and ticket. And I’ll telephone to Kurt. I assume you will want to abuse him for a while — oh, he won’t mind! And I think it might be good for my reputation here, so long as I’m in an anomalous position, which I can’t expect you to understand or appreciate, if Kurt and I saw you off together on the train tonight.”

“Fran, I’m not planning to get out any shotgun, but I most certainly will not see Von Obersdorf again, any time, under any considerations. For both my sake and his, I’m afraid you’ll have to give up your idea of having your cake and eating it — of kicking me out and yet of having every one suppose you’re a devoted and deserted wife. That’s flat. UNDERSTAND?”

“Quite. Very well. And I should be glad if you’d find it possible not to yell at me any more, just this last day, so that I’ll have a little pleasanter memory of you! Please order some orange juice for me. I’ll be back by the time breakfast is here. You’ll find your blue suit freshly pressed in the closet — I had it done while you were away.”

At eleven, while Sam was packing and Fran was out buying another suit-case, into the sitting-room, into the bedroom, without knocking, came Kurt von Obersdorf, and Sam looked up to see him standing in the door, his fingers nervous on his palms.

“I know you did not want to see me. Fran telephoned me so. But you do not understand, Sam. I am not a gigolo or a Don Juan. I do love Fran; I would beg her to marry me if she were free. But if I told you how much I like and admire you, you would think I was a sentimental fool. I have kep’ telling her she does not appreciate you. If I could bring you two together — oh, DON’T run off and desert her; she needs your steadiness! If I could bring you two together again, and keep you both for my ver’ dear friends, I would go away, instead — yes, I would go today!”

Sam rose from the wardrobe trunk, dusted his hands, stood gravely in his shirt-sleeves:

“Suppose I just called your bluff, Von Obersdorf? Suppose I said, ‘All right, you leave Berlin today, for good, and I’ll stay.’”

“I would do it! I will! If in turn you promise me to be always more tender with Fran! Oh, I do not mean I can go forever, and hide myself. I am a poor man. I support partly my mother. But I can be called for business to Budapest, for three weeks. We organize now a new branch there. Shall I go?”

He looked the zealot, he said it like a crusader.

But Sam realized hastily, dismayingly, that he wanted to go; that he wanted to be free of Fran’s play-acting; he realized that he was afraid to be left alone with her fury if Kurt should desert them.

“No,” he said. “And I apologize. I believe you. Here’s what we’ve got to do. Of course I have no way of knowing just how fond you are of Fran. But it certainly doesn’t look as if Fran and I could ever get together again. Don’t even know it would be a good thing, for either of us. What we have to do is to do nothing; let things take their course. I’m going. She stays. You stay. You see how you feel, and I’ll see how I feel, and if you do love the girl — as I by God have and as I suppose I still do! — don’t let any consideration for me stand in your way. I wouldn’t, I guess, if the shoe was on the other foot. Not that I’m going to say any ‘Bless you my children.’ I feel more like saying, ‘Damn you both!’ But I can’t see where you’re to blame. No. Now I’ve got to finish packing. Good-bye, Obersdorf. Don’t see me off tonight — definitely don’t want it. And I guess I ought to tell you that I’m afraid she’s right. Guess you can make the girl happier than I can.”

“But YOU— going alone —”

“Now hell’s big bells on a mountain! Don’t worry about me! I’m free, white, and twenty-one! Everybody’s had too much considerateness for everybody else in this business! I figure that maybe it would have been a lot clearer-cut if one of us had been out-and-out hoggish and known what he wanted and just grabbed it. No. I’ll be all right. Good-bye.”

Kurt shook the proffered hand hesitatingly. Sam turned his back. When he looked up, Kurt was gone.

If Fran knew that Kurt had called, she gave no sign. All day she was courteous, brisk, and harder than enamel.

To pack for his journey — the journey to nowhere which might last forever — it was necessary to unpack the rather large number of trunks and bags which these spoiled children of new wealth had found necessary. Their baggage had for months been their only home. To divide it was like the division of property after a funeral.

But she was efficient about it, and horribly kind.

When she came to the shawl he had bought as a surprise for her that exciting day in Seville, she looked at it slowly, stroked it, started to speak, then firmly put it away in a drawer of the bureau. But it was harder when she came to the silly shell-box.

It brought back a day on the Roman Campagna, a windy radiant day of fast walking. They had found a tomb old as the Caesars, forgotten amid long grass, and had lunched in a palm-thatched outdoor booth at a peasant trattoria. A pedler came whining to their table with a tray of preposterous shell-boxes, and Fran seized one, crying, “Oh, DARLING, will you look at this adorably awful thing?” It was a masterpiece; a wooden box with cheap red velvet glued round the sides, and on top a scurf of tiny gilded sea-shells about a small streaky mirror. “Look! All my life — When I was a little girl, we had a maid (only I think we called her a hired girl!) that had a box EXACTLY like this, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world. I used to sneak up to her little room, under the eaves, to worship, it. And I’ve always wanted one like it. And here it is! But of course one couldn’t buy the horrible thing!”

“Why not?”

“Oh, could we? It would make me remember — Oh, of course not! Perfectly silly, with us traveling —”

But he rose to her fancy; he demanded of the old pedler, “How much liras? Eh?” and interrogatively held up five fingers.

After much conversation which neither Sam nor the pedler understood, and at which Fran giggled helplessly, Sam bought the object for seven lire, and that night Fran surrounded it with a pearl necklace and burned a candle in front of it. Then she had forgotten it — but not quite thrown it away. It had made its way into one of those neglected drawers of a wardrobe trunk, one of those old attics of traveling, which contain bathing suits, walking shoes, solid histories intended to make journeying educational, and all the other useful staples which one surely will use, and never will.

Fran dove into this attic drawer busily; she drew out the shell-box, and stood holding it. Her eyes were deep, pitiful, regretful, and all their defense was gone. He looked back at her, helpless. And neither of them found anything to say, and suddenly she had snatched out of the attic drawer a never-used thermos bottle and their moment was gone.

A minute later when, after desperate groping for speech, he felt that it would be an ingratiating thing to say, “If I happen to go to Spain, would you like me to get you any lace or embroidery or anything?” she answered suavely, “Oh, thanks, thanks no. I fancy I may run down to the Balkans before long, and I believe there’s some very decent embroidery there. I say, will you please notice that I’m putting these dress collars not with your day collars but with your evening shirts? Heavens, we must hurry!”

When a man straggles on the short death-walk from his cell through the little green door, into the room where stands the supreme throne, does he, along with his incredulous apprehension, along with trying to believe that this so-living and eternal-seeming center and purpose of the universe, himself — this solid body with its hard biceps, its curiously throbbing heart that ever since his mother’s first worry has in its agonies been so absorbing, this red-brown skin that has glowed after the salt sea at Coney Island and has turned a sullen brick after wild drinking — the astonishment that this image of God and Eternity will in five minutes be still and stiff and muck — is he at that long slow moment nonetheless conscious of a mosquito bite, of a toothache, of the smugness of the messages from Almighty God which the chaplain gives him, of the dampness of the slimy stone corridor and the echo of their solemn march? Is he more conscious of these little abrasions than of the great mystery?

So busy were Sam and Fran at the station — buying magazines, looking over the new Tauchnitzes, seeing that his extra trunks were registered through to Paris — that they had no time to question whether this might be their last parting. They had dined in the crowded bar of the Adlon, too close to others to have the luxury of mourning; she had said nothing more emotional than “If you should decide to go to America, when you see Emily and the boy tell them that I’ll come back and see them in a few months now . . . no matter what happens . . . unless they’d like to come over to Europe. Of course I’d like that . . . I put some new tooth-powder in the bottle in your fitted case.”

She was as attentive as a courier at the station; it was she who with her quick inaccurate German persuaded the conductor to change Sam to a one-berth compartment, who prevented his giving the hotel porter, who met them with their band luggage and registered the trunks through, more than four marks as tip.

By general, it had been he, these months, who had borne the duties of tickets, luggage, reservations, while she sat back in cool elegance and was not shy about criticizing him for his errors. But tonight she led the expedition, she thought of everything, and he felt helpless as a maiden aunt. He had a new respect for her. . . . Perhaps, with Kurt, she wouldn’t be a child any longer, but grasp reality. That made him the more disconsolate, the more hopeless of some future miraculous reconciliation. He saw her a woman reborn. It seemed to him that she was grasping the intricacies of daily life in Europe as deftly as she managed everything from the cook’s salary to the women’s club program in America. He could not imagine her, just now, going back to Zenith. Kurt von Obersdorf and the Princess Drachenthal and Europe had utterly defeated and put in their place Sam Dodsworth and Tub and Matey Pearson and Ross Ireland and the Midwest.

Thus his thoughts blundered and writhed while he ambled after her through the station — to the news-stand, to the cigar-stand, to the train-gate — feeling himself no closer to her polished and metallic briskness than he was to the bundle-lugging third-class passengers who plodded through the echoing immensity of the train-shed; and thus, with everything necessary and unnecessary accomplished and overaccomplished, they stood together beside his sleeper, his luggage stored, his ticket taken by the guard, and suddenly they tumbled like the falling Lucifer from the paradise of keeping busy to the inferno of feeling. She put it off a moment. She sighted the boy trundling his little platform wagon of wine and sandwiches and fruit; she cried, “Oh, you might want something to drink,” and darted off to bring him back a flask of cognac.

There was nothing else.

The train took another diabolic three minutes to start. They walked up and down — a tail, well-tailored pair, obviously complacent and not much interested, not very emotional.

He took her arm, as he had so many times at so many railroad stations, but dropped it with hot guiltiness.

“No, PLEASE,” she said, tucking her arm into his. “It is going to be a little hard to realize, isn’t it, old thing! Oh, Sam darling, you and I can’t get along together. And I do love Kurt. I stand by that! But we have been partners, good partners, in this funny business of life. . . . We’ve had so many happy times, just you and I together!” Her voice lost its confidence. “Shall I ever see you again? And — oh, my blessings, my dear —”

“Eeeeeein-steigen — bitte einsteigen!” cried the mourning voice of the guard.

“That means ‘all aboard’?” croaked Sam.

“Yes. Quick!”

The train was starting as he climbed up to the vestibule. Fran stood alone. He saw her with a strange, impersonal pity. She seemed so slim and young and defenseless, so alone in the gray city. He realized that she was crying.

His heavy mature voice became young and shaky as he cried, “Dear, did I remember to tell you today that I adore you?”

The guard slammed the vestibule door, and as through an open window he craned to look back at her, he saw Kurt von Obersdorf running down the platform, he saw Fran droop into Kurt’s arms, and he walked slowly into the roaring loneliness of his compartment.

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