Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 30

Kaleidoscope. Scarlet triangles and azure squares, crystalline zigzags and sullen black lines. Meaningless beauty and distortions that were the essence of pain. Such were the travels of Samuel Dodsworth, those summer months.

He longed to go home to Zenith, to have the solace of Tub and Matey, of Emily and Brent, of streets and corners and offices that respected him and did not sneer at him as an ignorant tourist. But to face the derision that would be his if he came back without Fran, to hear in every corner the delighted whispering which was the vicarious vengeance of men who wanted to be free of their own wives and took out their timorous hatred in snickering and twilight gossiping about the marital troubles of others — that he could not endure. And to face a gloating, damp, pawing pity, to face the morons who would suppose that he was so little that he would be gratified by their libeling Fran, his Fran, and by cumbersomely congratulating him on losing her, who was his very soul — that was not to be borne.

If he had had a job at home, he would probably have plunged back into it, and in a fury of papers and secretaries and telephone-calls have concealed himself from the scandal. But he hadn’t. Just now the Sans Souci Gardens plan seemed to him as preposterous as his lifelong belief that he was man enough to hold his wife.

Yet twice, in Paris, he reserved passage to America, and twice he frugally went to the Cunard office and got back his passage money.

He crept over to London to hear the one language he knew, and fled from it because he did know the language, because some one might recognize him and pity him. He went on a German tour to the North Cape and the Baltic, got off at Riga, and fled from it because he did not know the language.

He returned to England, rented a motor, and toured along the old Roman road through Kent, stopping in villages of half-timbered houses and cottages covered with red tile shingles; into Sussex villages secret in still wooded valleys beneath the shining downs. He might have been seen, a very large man alone in a rather small car; a lone figure sitting on the sky-cut rim of a hill, hour on hour, clasping his knees, apparently brooding; a man alone in a public bar, listening to everything that was said — surprised and pleasant when some one spoke to him.

He felt the peace and security of the English valleys and farmsteads — and it made him the more restless because he was so definitely an outsider. He returned to Paris, and night after night he sat in American bars, and was put down as one of the beachcombers who have been something once but who have gone bankrupt — financially or nervously or alcoholically — and of whom one must pityingly beware.

He understood. So it came to pass that he spent most of his time alone, in his room in the Grand Universel. (It gave him a curious mean pleasure, now, to have a cheap single bedroom instead of a suite.) He drank a good deal. Sometimes he had a cognac instead of breakfast. But between blurred drowsinesses, he saw with clarity that he was utterly a man alone, that his work, his children, his friends, his habitual routine of life, and at last his wife, all the props and crutches with which he had been enabled to hobble through life as a Good Fellow, were gone, and that he had nothing upon which to depend except such solaces as he might find in his own brain. No one really needed him, and he was a man who had never been able to depend on any one to whom he could not give.

In childish, absurd ways he managed to kill time, day on day, in a fog which now and then mercifully concealed from him the needs of Samuel Dodsworth. Till noon he loafed in his room at the Grand Universel, frowsy in dressing-gown, taking an hour to read the Paris Tribune and Herald, taking half an hour to shave. He managed, once a fortnight, to spend an hour in having his hair cut, and though he tried to give the appearance of being a busy and important man, he was glad when he had to wait at the barber’s; when he could, without looking ridiculous, spend that time in turning over Sketch and the Graphic. He took to having manicures — he had despised the practise. He never admitted it to himself, but he neglected giving a hotel address to the Guaranty Trust, so that he might have a reason to plod to the bank for his mail every day.

He was grateful to the doormen and the mail clerks at the Guaranty Trust for treating him like some one who still mattered; and when he had a letter — they were few now, and most of them were from Fran, who seemed to desire to keep up a sisterly friendship with him — he took it with fatuous dignity and retired to a table in front of a cafe on the Boulevard des Italiens to read it, to re-read it, though the most that he gathered was that she had found a charming new restaurant in Berlin.

Once a man who was asking for his mail at the Guaranty Trust said, “Aren’t you Mr. Dodsworth of the Revelation Company? Met you, sir, at the motor show in New York.”

Sam was so pleased that he asked the man to lunch, and telephoned to him often, to the end that the man, who had regarded Sam as one of his gods, saw that he was merely a solitary and common human being, and despised him and was uninterested.

And always Fran was with him, scolding at his weakness; always he saw her face. At twilight, and at three in the morning, when he could sleep no longer and rose to smoke a cigarette, he heard her saying, “Oh, Sam, I couldn’t have BELIEVED that you could ever become a dirty drunk like this!” He nestled his head on her shoulder and weepingly confessed his failure as a human being and thereafter was racked with pity for her mad and gallant effort to be more than herself, so that he would gladly have done what he could to help Kurt to win her. . . . Samuel Dodsworth, so abnormally flushed that no friend of his hearty triumphant days would have recognized him, sitting on the edge of his bed, his hair wild and his pajamas wrinkled, smoking cigarettes, longing to telephone from Paris to Berlin and tell Fran that he hoped she would be the Countess Obersdorf, and kept from it chiefly by the thought that she wouldn’t like it at all and would be very tart about it if he awoke her at three in the morning.

He had known unhappiness often enough, but never complete suffering like this — a suffering so vague and directionless and unreasonable that he raged at himself for his moody weakness — a suffering so confusing that he would have preferred any definite pain of the body. Fran was to him a madness. Now he cursed her for disloyalty and in long unmoving silences reviewed her superciliousnesses, but the result was no stout resolution to be free, but sudden pity for her — a fear that she would be slighted by Kurt’s family — a picture of her alone and friendless, crying at twilight. He remembered in jagged reminiscences the most grotesquely assorted things — a white fur evening cape she had once had, and how she had prepared a lunch of coffee and salad and cold partridge on the roadside, when they had motored to Detroit; her way of saying “I am a very sleepy young woman,” and a funny slatternly pair of pink wool bedroom slippers which she had loved. He glowed in these relivings and came bolt out of them to ache the more, till she was to him a spiritual virus from which he had to be free.

He found Nande Azeredo; and he was rather completely untrue to Fran, and while he liked Nande, he could not persuade himself to like being untrue.

He had gone back to the Cafe Select, hoping to see Elsa and by some magic to take her away from the sharp-nosed Mr. Keipp. There was no question now of willingness to be what he still called “disloyal,” there was only a question of keeping from going insane. The moralities with which comfortably married clergymen concern themselves did not exist for him now.

He did not see Elsa, and as he sat alone a tall, rather handsome girl, with a face as broad between the cheek bones as a Tartar ambled up, sat down uninvited, and demanded, in an English that sounded as though it were played on a flute, “Vot’s the trouble? You look down in the mout’.”

“I am. What would you like to drink?”

“Grand Marnier. . . . Did she die, or run away from you?”

“I’d rather not talk about it.”

“So bad as that? Good. I talk about this place here. I will give imitations of the people here.”

And she did, merrily, not badly. She seemed to him quite the brightest light he had found since Berlin. His guess was that she was an artists’ model; there were few professional prostitutes to be found at the Dome or the Select, no matter how competent were some of the amateurs.

She told him that she was Nande Azeredo, as though he ought to know who she was.

Fernande Azeredo (he discovered presently) was half Portuguese, half Russian, and altogether French. She was twenty-five and she had lived in nine countries, been married three times, and once shot a Siberian wolf. She had been a chorus girl, a dress mannequin, a masseuse, and now she scratched out a thin living by making wax models for show-window dummies and called herself a sculptress. She boasted that though she had had fifty-seven lovers (“And, my dear, one was a real Prince — well, pretty real”), she had never let one of them give her anything save a few frocks.

And he believed her.

This alley-kitten — or alley-tigress — read him as such geniuses as Elsa and Keipp and Gillespie and Short had never done. She knew by divination that he was an American, a business man, graduate of a university; she knew that he had lost at love; she knew that essentially he was kindly and solid and not to be diverted by the obscenities with which she had amused other traveling Americans.

“You are a nize man. Maybe you buy me a dinner. Or I don’t care a damn — you come to my little flat and I cook you a shop. I have not got no man, now. The last — oh, the dirty hound — I threw him out because he stole my fur coat and pawned it!”

And he believed her.

Her flushed vitality pleased him. Though she said nothing of importance, she uttered her little, profane, sage comments on the warfare between men and women with such vigor, she so assured him that he was large and powerful and real and that she preferred him to all of the limp poetasters about the place, that he was warmed by her companionship. And without mentioning Berlin or Kurt, without making it quite clear whether Fran had been sweetheart or wife, he forgot his “I’d rather not talk about it,” and told her rather frankly of his illness.

Then he returned to his hotel, packed a bag, and spent three nights and days in the flat of Nande Azeredo.

She astonished him by the casual, happy, utterly proud way in which she served her Man. He had not known that any women save spinster secretaries could be happy in serving. She darned his socks and made him drink less cognac, she cooked snails for him so that he actually liked them, she taught him new ways of love, and when she found that he did not know them, she laughed at him, but affectionately. For the first time in his life he began to learn that he need not be ashamed of the body which God had presumably given him but which Fran had considered rather an error. He found in himself a power of intense passion such as, all his life, he had guiltily believed himself to lack; and sometimes Nande’s flat seemed to him the Bower of Eden.

It was an insane little flat: three rooms, just under the roof, looking on a paved courtyard which smelled of slops and worse, and was all day clamorous with quarreling, children playing, delivery of charcoal, and the banging of garbage cans. Her dishes were cracked, her cups were chipped; the plaster walls were rain-streaked and Sam’s roses she set out in a tin can; but on a couch covered with gold brocade lolled horribly a number of powdery-faced dolls, very elongated and expensive. Her clothes were in heaps and there was no concealment of sanitary appliances. And everywhere were instruments for the making of noise: a phonograph which by preference she turned on at three in the morning, rattles and horns left over from the last carnival, a very cheap radio — fortunately out of order — and seven canaries.

He could not, for a time, believe that Nande, whatever her virtues, was not calculating on what she would get out of him. When they were ambling the Rue de la Paix together (that street which Fran had seemed to know so well, but which Nande made living by telling the most scandalous tales about the shop-keepers and their favorites among the women clerks) he buzzed, “What’d you like me to buy you, Nan? Some pearls or —”

She stopped before him, planted her arms akimbo, and spoke furiously. “I am not vot you call a gold-digger! I am not lady enough! If when you get tired of me, you vant to give me a hundred dollars — or fifty — fine. But you must, by God, understand, when Nande Azeredo takes a man, it iss because she likes him! Pearls? What would I do with pearls? Can I eat pearls?”

She worked daily — though not for very many hours daily — at her atrocious modeling, and somehow she managed to bring him in precisely the sorts of English books he wanted: Shelley, for the vanity of remembering that he had been a University Man before he became a beachcomber, and detective stories, which he really read.

“Lord!” he reflected, “what a wife she’d make for a pioneer! She’d chuck this Parisian show like a shot, if she loved somebody. She’d hoe the corn, she’d shoot the Indians, she’d nurse the babies — and if she couldn’t get Paris lingerie, she’d probably spin it.”

But it was just her admirable vigor which after three days wearied him.

It was amusing, the first time, to see Nande, arms akimbo, in a shawl or a chemise, denouncing the grocer’s boy for an overcharge of thirty centimes, denouncing him with so many applications of the epithet “Camel” that he blanched and fled. But it was much less amusing, the twentieth time she quarreled with tradesmen, waiters, taxi-drivers, and motorists — who, she believed, were in a conspiracy to run her down — and with Sam himself, for not eating more. She was so shrill: her conversations started with a shriek and ended with a howl. He longed for a decent quiet. And always he saw Fran watching Nande and himself in mockery.

Whenever he stoutly convinced himself that Nande was beautiful as a young tigress and a miracle of loyal kindness, the cool wraith of Fran appeared, and Nande seemed then a blowsy gutter-looper. To his angry defense of Nande, Fran answered with the look she gave rude servants. She watched while Nande scrubbed the floor, bawling indecent lyrics; she slipped through the room just as Nande cheered Sam by slapping his rear; and he was turned into a schoolboy caught with the kitchen maid.

So he told Nande that business called him to Italy. She pretended to believe him; she begged him to be careful of cognac and women; she casually accepted a present of a hundred dollars; she saw him off.

As the train was starting, she slipped into his hand a little package.

He looked at it an hour or two afterward. It contained a gold cigarette case which must have cost her all of his hundred dollars.

Nande Azeredo!

He never wrote to Nande. He wanted to, but she was not one to whom you could say anything on paper.

She seemed to him a character in a play; a rather fantastic and overacted character; but she had definitely done something to him. She had, along with the glances of Minna von Escher, broken down all the celibacy which had plagued him, and however much he still fretted over Fran, imagined her loneliness in Berlin, let himself be wrung by pity for her self-dramatizing play at romance which was bound to turn into tragedy, he no longer felt himself her prisoner, and he began to see that this world might be a very green and pleasant place.

He was more conscious of the wagon lit than he had ever been, for he was wondering if he might not spend much of his life, now, in those homes for people who flee from life. . . . Blue upholstered seat, rather hard, with hard cylindrical cushions. Above the blue velvet, yellow and brown florid stamped leather, rough to a speculative touch. The Alarm Signal to stop the train, all labeled nicely in four languages for the linguistic instruction of tourists, which he always longed to pull, even if it cost him five hundred lire. The tricky little cabinet in the corner which turned into a wash-stand when one let down the folding shelf. And the detached loneliness of which he rid himself now and then by poking out into the corridor, to lean against the brass rail across the broad low windows, or to sit on the tiny folding seat. And outside, mountains; stations with vacant-faced staring loungers; plains which seemed to him altogether like the American Middlewest till suddenly the sun, revealing a high and distant castle on an abrupt cliff, restored to him the magic of foreignness.

Till now, Sam Dodsworth had never greatly heeded fellow passengers, except Americans who looked as though they might be good fellows with whom to gossip and have a drink. Of most of them, had you demanded a description from him after the journey, he would have said, “Oh, they looked about like anybody else, I guess — why?” He saw them not as trees walking but as clothes sitting.

But the incredible jar of being dismissed by Fran, the opening of his eyes to the possibilities of misery in the world, made him feel the universal pathos of things more sensitively than he had even on the exalted night when he had first beheld the lights of England. He felt — no doubt sentimentally — akin to everything that was human; he saw — no doubt often without reason — a drama, tragic or comic, behind all the face-masks of travelers, behind surly faces, stupid faces, mean faces, common faces. He a little forgot himself — and Fran and Kurt and Nande Azeredo — as he wondered whether that tight-mouthed woman had recently been burying her husband, whether that overdressed young salesman had a nagging wife at home, whether that petulant and snarling old man had lost his fortune. He studied the railroad workmen who stood back to let the train pass, and speculated as to which of them was about to be married, which was an ecstatically religious communist, which was longing to murder his wife.

Thus brooding, hour-long, not having to hasten back to the compartment and entertain Fran. Thus slowly and painfully perceiving a world vaster than he had known. Thus considering whether he was so badly beaten, so enfeebled by Fran’s scorn, that he could never find the Not Impossible She and, with her, experience the not impossible self-confidence and peace.

He poked about Rome for a week, trying to persuade himself that he was studying architecture. It was hot, and he fled to Montreux, with a notion of swimming and cool mountains. Daily he examined schedules of sailings for New York and surmised that one of these days would find him fleeing aboard a steamer. He drifted to Geneva, solemnly viewed the League of Nations building, and in his hotel wondered which of the not very exciting-looking gentlemen with top hats were famous ministers of state. Then, in a small restaurant, he heard, like an angelic trump, the voice of Ross Ireland, the correspondent: “Well, Sam, you old devil, where did you come from!”

They had many drinks.

With Ross he tramped for a week, rucksack on shoulders, through the Bernese Oberland. He felt rather foolish, at first, to be carrying a sack and walking dustily past large hotels, for he had been trained to feel that it was undignified for him to walk, except on a duck pass or a golf course. But he enjoyed seeing a view without the need, as a rich, busy, and motorized tourist, of having to hustle past it; he found himself breathing deeper, sleeping better, brooding less, and drinking beer instead of cognac. In fact he believed that he had discovered walking, and wrote enthusiastic recommendations of it on post cards to Fran, Tub, and Dr. Hazzard. He came to feel superior to large, plushy hotels. Ross and he ate dumplings and pig’s knuckle; they rested at tiny tables in front of inns when they had panted into a village, sweaty and shoulders aching.

Ross insisted that whenever they “saw church-steeples and heard the bright prattle of children,” those were the signs certain and indivisible of the proximity of beer, and however much they enjoyed the mountain-side lanes, they cheered up and hastened their step and began to listen for the bright prattle as soon as they saw a church steeple.

And Sam decided what he would do with the wreckage of his life.

He had not known that wandering could be so satisfying as it was with Ross Ireland, who never complained and became superior like Fran, or felt bound to be funny like Tub, or noisy like Nande; who was interested in everything from pig-pens to cloisters; and who enjoyed erecting theories of life more than anything save tearing them down.

Ross was going to the Orient again, after summer in Europe. He invited Sam to come along and Sam accepted, with more tingling anticipation than he had known since he had first sailed for England. . . . Turkestan, Borneo, Siam, Pekin, Penang and the sight of Java Head!

Ross was called to Paris, but that city meant for Sam, now, only too much loneliness and too much Nande, and he squatted in Gstaad, trying to be very healthy and full of fresh air. And before Ross had been gone forty-eight hours, Sam was thrown back into as much fidgety fretting as he had ever known.

He cursed himself for his weakness; he sought to sink himself in an enormous volume on English Gardens and Domestic Architecture of the Eighteenth Century; he sought to recapture a longing for the Orient; and it was in vain.

Bluntly, he could not go off to the Far East and leave Fran unprotected.

Oh, he told himself she did not need protection. His presence irritated her more than it soothed her, and he was a fool, and a puerile and whining fool, not to be able to cut loose from his mother’s apron strings, now inconveniently worn by a wife. But — If anything went wrong there in Berlin — If Fran wanted to run to him for help, and he should be ten thousand miles away —

He couldn’t do it.

He wondered, occasionally, if he wasn’t confusing the need to serve Fran with the need of women in general, that basic need which he had just consciously discovered; he wondered whether, if it were a woman with some of Ross Ireland’s sportsmanship and inquiring mind who had invited him to come along, he would not have found it possible to go, armored with a good, round, satisfying cliche like “Fran made her bed; let her lie in it.”

No! He swore to himself that his care for Fran was authentic; was to him what prayer was to a hermit, and honor to a soldier; and always he wound up his fretful meditations with, “Oh, hell, I can’t analyse it, but I’m not going to desert her! Only wish I could!”

He wrote Ross not to count on his company this coming autumn, and again fled from himself, but with himself, to Venice, because the current news photographs from the Lido, the pictures of gay companies on the beach, made it seem a place to divert a solitary man. And perhaps one of these exquisite gold and ivory Englishwomen —

No! He didn’t want that sort. He wanted some one with Fran’s fineness but with Nande’s sturdiness, Ross Ireland’s brains.

He was able to laugh at himself: “If there were such a woman anywhere, what would she want with you?”

But as, in the too-familiar blue-velvet and stamped leather wagon lit compartment, he clanked on toward Venice, he was not quite free of the pictures of lovely ladies on Lido beach; not quite sure that he had in life any purpose beyond the quest of the Not Impossible She.

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