Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 31

Sam was not particularly enlivened by the Lido in season. The hotels seemed to him to smack of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 with the added flavor of a Turkish bath; and the intimacy with which two-thirds of this basking, bathing, lunching, dancing society knew one another, whether they were Italian, English, American, or Austrian, made him feel utterly the outsider. He moved back into Venice, to the Bauer–Grunwald which, despite a German atmosphere which too readily reminded him of his Berlin debacle, was more welcoming than the Royal Danieli.

Venice is the friendliest city in the world. There are other cities in which friendlier people may be found, but in Venice it is the city itself, the spectacle of the Piazza San Marco, the cozy little streets, the open-fronted shops of the coppersmiths, the innumerable churches that are always open, the alternately effusive and quarrelsome gondoliers, the greedy but amiable pigeons, the soft sky, the rustling water of the Grand Canal, the cafes thrusting their tables halfway across the Piazza, the palaces so proud in their carved balconies and so cheerfully poverty-stricken in their present inhabitants, the crowd with nothing to do save stroll and wait for the band concerts, which are so amiable that here less than anywhere else in the world does the stranger miss the warm gossip of people whom he knows.

Sam found the waiting into which all his life had turned now more tolerable than it had been at any time save when he had been drugged with fatigue on his walking tour with Ross, or save when that rather soiled Salvationist, Nande Azeredo, had stooped to save him. He lay abed till nine, content with the sound of the Grand Canal outside his windows, the squabbles of gondoliers. He rose to lean placidly on the sill and look at the wonders of Santa Maria della Salute and San Giorgio Maggiore, seeming, on their tiny islands, to be floating out to sea; to watch the panorama of vegetable scows, brick scows, cement scows, wangling their way into side canals, while the bargees quarreled magnificently with the more aristocratic gondoliers and with the uniformed drivers of motor boats belonging to officials. He had a meager cup of coffee, and, buying the latest Paris Daily Mail, Chicago Tribune, and New York Herald on the way, ambled to the Piazza for his real breakfast.

In the afternoon, Florian’s and the Aurora were the accepted haunts, shaded then from the biting sun, but in the morning it was the Quadri and Lavena’s which were sheltered, and at one of these cafes he drank his coffee, nibbled at croissants smeared with clouded honey from Monte Rosa, and read the papers, excited at the news from Washington and New York, excited when he saw that some one he knew, Ross Ireland or Endicott Everett Atkins, had dined with a Celebrity at Ciro’s. . . . And once, in the Berlin news, he saw that Mrs. Samuel Dodsworth had been the guest of honor at a dinner given by the Princess Drachenthal and that among those present had been the Count of Obersdorf, the Baroness de Jeune, Sir Thomas Jenkins of the Allied Commission, and the newly made Geheimrat, Dr. Biedner. He sat for a long time, looking vacantly across the Piazza, at the spate of tourists whose wives were kodaking them in the act of feeding the pigeons of St. Mark.

He worked at his new game of architecture. With Ruskin’s “Stones of Venice” under his arm, he saw daily a new church, a new palace, and now and then he made sketches, not very bad, and was not displeased when loudly commenting tourists mistook him for an authentic artist. He lunched simply; he slept for an hour afterward, and betook himself then to the one real duty of a wise visitor in Venice — to spend most of the afternoon and evening sitting in the Piazza and doing nothing whatever save watch the spectacle.

It had been agreeable in Paris or on Unter den Linden to watch the parade, but there the motors, the horses, the brisk policemen had made it a hard and somewhat nervous spectacle. Here, where there was no traffic, where the marble-walled piazza was like a stage with the chorus of an incredibly elaborate comic opera, there was only a lazy and unharassed contentment. The crowd changed, every second. Now two Fascist officers paced by, trim in black shirts, olive-green uniforms, and gold-badged and tasseled service caps. Now it was two carbinieri with the cocked hats of Napoleon and the solemn manner of judges. Now a tourist steamer vomited a rush of excited novices — inquiring Germans or stolid English, golden-haired Scandinavians, or Americans of whom the women were thrilled and the males cocked up their cigars and announced, very publicly, that if THIS was Venice, they didn’t think it was so doggone much!

The guides, slightly less numerous but much more insistent than the cloud of pigeons, attacked every one who was not entirely engaged in the sacred act of being photographed, and yammered, “Me gide spik fine English, show you San Marco.” The children fell under everybody’s feet. The gatherers of cigarettes swooped on each butt as it fell. The English couples went by amiably contemptuous. And at last the sunset turned the dark leaded glass behind the horses of San Marco into gold.

He was content, by comparison with his active agonizing in Paris. But he was also lonely, despite the show of the Piazza. He had to have some one to talk to, and never did he meet any one whom he knew.

It was not easy for him to pick up acquaintances. Once he sat at a table next to a party of Americans. They did not seem very complex and difficult; they looked like small town merchants and professional men with their wives; and Sam took the chance. He leaned toward the nearest, a spectacled little man, and drawled, “On a tour?”

The little man looked scornfully cautious. HE’D read the papers! HE wasn’t going to be taken in by any of your slick international crooks!

He sniffed “Yes,” and he did not embroider it.

“Uh — enjoying Italy?”

“Yes, thanks!”

The little man turned his back, and Sam was flushed and shamed and much lonelier than before.

He was grateful when he was picked up by a large and lugubrious and green-hatted Bavarian who was apparently even more desolate than himself, and though they had in common only a hundred words of English, twenty of German, and ten of Italian, they were both strong men who could endure a lot of gesturing. They gave each other confidence in battling with gondoliers, and together they lumbered to the Colleoni and SS. Giovanni e Paolo, gaped at the glass-makers at Murano, and visited the Armenian monastery on the peaceful isle of San Lazzaro. Sam saw the Bavarian friend off at the station as regretfully as he had seen Ross Ireland off at Interlaken, and all that evening he clung to his favorite table at Florian’s as though it was his only home.

He heard regularly from Fran, but where once her letters had been festal, now he hesitated to open them.

She complained a good deal. It had been rainy — it had been hot. She had gone to the Tyrol for a week (she did not say that Kurt had come along but he guessed it) and the hotels had been crowded. She had suffered unparalleled misfortune in having to stay at a small hotel where the food was heavy and the guests heavier. She had met a cousin of Kurt, an Austrian ambassador, and though she had showered blessings of wit and courtesy on the fellow, he had not appreciated her.

As to whether Sam himself was any happier, she never inquired.

Her letters left him always a little blue. And they did not suggest that she would like to see him.

He was in the Piazza, meditating on one of these letters, a little after four of a blazing afternoon. He saw a familiar-looking woman pass his table. She was perhaps forty; she was slim, rather pale. She wore black crepe, without ornament, and a wide black hat with a tiny brooch of brilliants. Her hands were as fine as lace.

He remembered. It was Mrs. Cecil R. A. Cortright, Edith Cortright, American-born widow of the British minister to Roumania (or was it Bulgaria?) who, on a hint from Tub’s nephew, had asked them to tea at her flat in the Palace Ascagni in Venice, months ago. He darted up, to welcome the first recognizable face he had seen in weeks; he hesitated — Mrs. Cortright was not the sort of woman one greeted carelessly. He ventured again. He tossed a ten lira note on the table for the waiter, and, circling the square with his long stride, so arranged it that he met her as she was passing through the Piazzetta dei Leoni and entering the Calle di Canonica.

“Oh, how d’you do,” he observed. “Do you remember having my wife and me to tea last spring — friends of Jack Starling —”

“Oh, but of course! Mr. —?”

“Samuel Dodsworth.”

“You and Mrs. Dodsworth HAVE come back here soon.”

“Oh, she’s, uh, she had to stay in Berlin.”

“Really? You’re here alone? You must come to tea again.”

“Be awfully glad to. You walking this way?” Quite fatuously, rather eagerly.

“Just a bit of shopping. There’s a rabbit-warren of a pastry shop down here — Perhaps you’d like to come along, and come home for a cup of tea this afternoon, if you haven’t friends waiting for you.”

“I don’t know a soul in town.”

“In that case, you must come, surely.”

He rolled beside her, bumbling, “Must be an awful lot of people you know at the Lido now, with the season on.”

“Yes. Unfortunately!”

“Don’t you like the rotogravure set?”

“Oh, that is a nice thing to call them!” she said. “I’ve been looking for a phrase. Some of them are extremely agreeable, of course; nice simple people who really like to dance and swim and don’t go to the Lido just to be seen and photographed. But there’s an international, Anglo–American-French set — smart women, just a little ambiguous, and men with titles and tailors and nothing much else, and sharp couples that play bridge too well, and three-necked millionaires that — well, they seem to me like a menagerie. There’s a dreadful woman named Renee de Penable —”

“Oh, you know her?”

“How can any one help it! The woman contrives to be simultaneously in Paris, the Lido, Deauville, Cannes, New York, and on all known trains and steamers! You know her? Do you like her?”

“Hate her,” remarked Sam. “Oh, I don’t know’s I ought to say that. She’s always been awfully decent to us. But I feel she’s a grafter.”

“No, she’s subtler than that. She is quite generous to ninety nine out of a hundred of her group — tramps in goldfoil! — so that she can get the dazzled hundredth to set her up in a gown shop or a charity society or something else that mysteriously collapses in two months. She’s — oh, she’s very amusing, of course.”

“Neither do I!” roared Sam.

They smiled at each other, to the approval of seven youthful Venetians engaged in doing nothing and choosing the dimmest and smelliest Sottoportico to do it in.

Sam rejoiced that Edith Cortright might prove to be human, patient with large lost men. He was surer of it as he heard her bartering with the owner of the minute pastry shop for a dozen cakes. The proprietor demanded five lire, Mrs. Cortright offered two, and they compromised on three, which were their probable value.

Often enough Sam had seen Fran chaffering, but she was likely to lose her temper, more likely to make the shop-keeper lose his. With Mrs. Cortright, the baker shook his fingers, agonized over the insult to his masterpieces, asserted that his nine children and grand-mother would starve, but she only laughed, and all the while he laughed back. He took the three lire with the greatest cheerfulness, and cried after them, “Addio!” as though it were a blessing.

“The good soul!” said Mrs. Cortright as they returned to the Piazza. “We do that every week. That’s really the reason why I go to him myself, instead of sending a maid, who gets them for twenty centesimi less than I do, probably, and pockets ten. But this patissier is an artist, and like all artists, a conservative. He tries to keep up the good old days when buying and selling in Italy really was an adventure, because everybody made a game of bargaining — the days that Baedeker wrote of when he tells you to ‘keep a calm and pleasant demeanor, when haggling.’ But that’s all passing, I’m afraid. Between the regulations of the Fascists, and the efficient business of impressing tourists, the shops are becoming as dependable as Swan and Edgar’s or a Woolworth’s, and about as appealing. I think I’ll go back and end my few declining years on Mulberry Street, in New York. That’s about the only part of Italy, now, that hasn’t been toured and described and painted and guided to death; the only part that hasn’t been made safe for the vicar’s aunt.”

In the presence of Fran and her aggressive smartness, Edith Cortright had been abrupt, hiding her heart behind dutiful courtesy as she hid her taut frailness of body beneath frocks of soft, non-committal black. But now, as they tramped to the Palazzo Ascagni, avoiding the sun in arcades and under vast walls above tiny streets, as they climbed the sepulchral marble stairs to her flat, and sighingly relaxed in the coolness of the vast rooms behind blinds streaked with poisonous sun, she was easy; in a subdued silvery manner, she was gay. It was as though she found everything in life amusing and liked to think about it aloud. And she seemed younger. He had thought her forty-five; now she seemed forty.

The stone floor of her drawing-room, laid in squares waxed to ivory smoothness, the old walnut of a Sixteenth Century armoire, suggested quietness, a feeling of civilization grown secure and placid through generations. The formal monastic chairs which had dignified the room when Sam had seen it in the spring — as well as the shameless over-stuffed Americanized arm-chairs with which Mrs. Cortright had eased the rigor of Venetian stateliness — had been replaced by wicker with chintz cushions.

Sam’s spirit was refreshed here, his hot body was refreshed, and when Mrs. Cortright showed herself so superior to Expatriate Americanism that she dared to be American and to offer iced tea, he rejoiced in her more than in the mosaics of St. Mark’s, which he had taught himself to admire with a quite surprising amount of sincerity. Mrs. Cortright and the room which illustrated her seemed to him quite as traditional as the faded splendors of the Princess Drachenthal at Potsdam; but he could reach Mrs. Cortright, understand her, not feel with her like an inanely smirking boy invited to tea by the schoolmaster’s wife. He was a little afraid of her, a little afraid that behind her pallid restraint there might be comment on such a stumbling tourist as himself. But it was a fear that he could understand and answer, not a bewildering midnight strangeness.

He saw that in an age of universal bobbing, when no Fran would have dared be so eccentric, Mrs. Cortright kept her hair long, parted simply and not too neatly. And he saw again the lovely hands moving like white cats among the cups of taffy-colored majolica.

She did not talk, this time, of diplomats and Riviera villas and painting. She said:

“Tell me — Really, I’m not impertinent; I ask myself the same thing, and perhaps I’m looking for an answer for myself. What do you find in Europe? Why do you stay on?”

“Well, it’s kind of hard to say.” He sipped his iced tea, appreciative of the thin tart taste against his tongue. “Oh, I guess — Well, to be absolutely frank, it’s because of my wife. I’ve enjoyed coming abroad. I’ve learned a lot of things — not only about pictures and all that, but in my own line — I’m a motor manufacturer, if you remember. For instance, I went to the Rolls–Royce works in England, and it was a perfect revelation to me, the way they were willing to lose money by going on having things like polishing done by hand instead of by machinery, as we’d do them, because they felt they were better done by hand. But — oh, I can understand how the artists that hang around places like Florence, and that don’t care whether the government is monarchial or communist as long as the tea and the sunsets are good, can be perfectly content to stay there for years. But me — I’m getting restless at being so much of an outsider. I feel like the small boy that’s never consulted about where the picnic will be held. I suppose I’m awfully lowbrow not to care for any more galleries and ruins but — oh, I want to go home and MAKE something! Even if it’s only a hen-coop!”

“But couldn’t you make that here? In England, for example?”

“No. I’d feel the English chickens wouldn’t understand my speaking American, and probably go and die on me.”

“Then you don’t want to stay? Why do you?”

“Oh, well, my wife still feels —”

Swiftly, as though she were covering a blunder, Mrs. Cortright murmured, “And of course she is lovely. I remember her with such pleasure. She must be an enchanting person to wander with. . . . And please don’t feel that I’m one of those idiots who regard painting as superior to manufacturing — I neither regard it as inferior, as do your Chambers of Commerce who think that all artists are useless unless they’re doing pictures for stocking advertisements, nor do I regard it as superior, as do all the supercilious lady yearners who suppose that a business man with clean nails invariably prefers golf to Beethoven.”

It was not brilliant talk, nor did it dazzle Sam by novelty. In both Europe and America he had encountered all the theories about modern business men: that they were the kings and only creators in the industrial age: that they were dull and hideous despots. He had hacked out his own conclusion: that they were about like other people, as assorted as cobblers, labor leaders, Javanese dancers, throat specialists, whalers, minor canons, or asparagus-growers. Yet in the talk of Edith Cortright there was a sympathy, an apparent respect for him, a suggestion that she had seen many curious lands and known many curious people, which inspirited him. Incredulously, he found himself trying to outline his philosophy of life for her; more incredulously, found himself willing to admit that he hadn’t any. She nodded, as in like confession.

He urged: “I’ve enjoyed talking with you. Look here: Would I be rude if I asked you to go for a gondola ride, now it’s getting cooler, and possibly dine with me on the Lido this evening, if you’re free? I’ve been, uh — kind of lonely.”

“I should be glad to, but I can’t. You see my friends here are mostly the rather stuffy, frightfully proper, very sweet old Italian family sort who haven’t yet got over being shocked by Colleoni. I’m afraid I couldn’t go out in a gondola with you unless I were chaperoned — bedragoned — which would be a frightful bore. But won’t you come here to dinner tomorrow evening — eight-thirty, black tie?”

“Be pleased to. Eight-thirty. . . . But why do you stay in Europe?”

“Oh . . . I suppose America terrifies me. I feel insecure there. I feel everybody watching me, and criticizing me unless I’m buzzing about Doing Something Important — uplifting the cinema or studying Einstein or winning bridge championships or breeding Schnauzers or something. And there’s no privacy, and I’m an extravagant woman when it comes to the luxury of privacy.”

“But look here! In America you could certainly go gondoling — well, motoring — as you liked. Here you have to be chaperoned to avoid criticism!”

“Only with one class — the formal people that I’ve chosen (wisely or foolishly) to live with. My grocer and my dentist and my neighbor on the floor below (amiable-looking person — I rather fancy he’s a gambler)— they don’t feel privileged to help me conduct my affairs, or rather, they wouldn’t if I were so adventurous as to be conducting any! At home, they would. It’s only in Europe that you can have the joy of anonymity, of being lost in the crowd, of being yourself, of having the dignity of privacy!”

“You try New York! Get lost enough there!”

“Oh, but NEW YORK— Self-conscious playing at internationalism! Russian Jews in London clothes going to Italian restaurants with Greek waiters and African music! One hundred per cent. mongrels! No wonder Americans flee back home to Sussex or Somerset! And never, day or night or dawn, any escape from the sound of the Elevated! New York — no. But I am sure that there is still a sturdy, native America — and not Puritanical, either, any more than Lincoln or Franklin were Puritanical — that you know. But tell me (to get away from my lost, expatriate, awfully unoriented and unimportant self), tell me frankly: what have you seen in Europe — I mean that you’ll remember ten years from now?”

He slumped in his chair, he rubbed his chin, and sighed:

“Well, I guess about as much as I’d get out of reading the steamship and hotel ads in a New York Sunday paper! I know a little less than when I started. Then, I knew that all Englishmen were icicles, all Frenchmen chattered, and all Italians sat around in the sun singing. Now I don’t even know that much. I suspect that most Englishmen are friendly, most Frenchmen are silent, and most Italians work like the devil — pardon me!”

“Exactly!”

“I’ve learned to doubt everything. I’ve learned that even a fairly successful executive — and I WAS that, no matter how much of a loafer I seem now —”

“Oh, I know!”

“I’ve learned that even a fairly good garage boss like myself isn’t much good at deciding between Poiret and Lanvin, or between Early English and Decorated. No American business man ought to go abroad, ever, except to a Rotary convention, or on a conducted tour where he’s well insulated from furriners. Upsets him. Spoils his pleasure in his own greatness and knowledge! . . . What have I learned? Let’s see: The names of maybe fifty hotels, of which I’ll remember five, in a few years. The schedules of half a dozen de luxe trains. The names of a few brands of Burgundy. How to tell a Norman doorway from Gothic. How to order from a French menu — providing there’s nothing unusual on the bill. And I can say ‘How much’ and ‘TOO much’ in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. And I think that’s about all I’ve learned here. I guess they caught me too late!”

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