Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 32

With his second drink, at Florian’s, after dinner, he recaptured a rare exhilarating glow at the thought of travel, alone and fast. He could go as he would: North, South — the very names had magic: NORTH and snow-drifts among silent pines; SOUTH and bamboo huts in the jungle; EAST and a cranky steamer jogging up a purple strait; WEST and a bench by a log cabin in the Rockies, with a lake two thousand feet below, and himself, strong and deep-breathing as he had been at thirty, smelling the new-cut chips, the frosty air. Yes! He would see them all! He wouldn’t go back to an office!

He had twenty, perhaps thirty years more. He would have a second life; having been Samuel Dodsworth he would go on and miraculously be some one else, more ruthless, less bound, less sentimental. He could be a poet, a governor, an explorer. He’d learned his faults of commercial-mindedness, of timidity before women. Correct ’em! He’d seen the gaps in his knowledge. Fill ’em!

Twenty years more!

Start right now. Tomorrow he would take up Italian. Tomorrow he would write to Ross Ireland about that jaunt to the Orient. Yes!

After the comfort of tea with Edith Cortright, he had been lonelier than ever. For five minutes he had planned to flee to Fran. But fried scampi and a drink solaced him; a second drink set his imagination dancing. Then he wanted another drink — and didn’t want it.

No! He shook himself. He hated this flabby, easy escape through alcohol into a belief in his own power and freedom. He wasn’t (proudly) one of the weaklings who took refuge from problems in the beautiful peace of the gutter, where the slime covered one’s ears from the nasal voices of the censors who were always demanding of a tired man a little more than he could do.

But was that true? Was anything he had thought true — even this easy disgust at easy escape? Was it possible that he was unable to fall permanently into drunkenness, to disintegrate, to scorn all decent scorn and be content with a Nande Azeredo in a stinking garret, not because he was too strong but because he was too weak — too weakly afraid of what Fran, Tub, Matey, strangers like Mrs. Cortright, would say? Was it possible that it took more courage to be a hobo, deliberate, out and out, than to go on living like a respectable manufacturer while he ached like a Verlaine? Was dry rot really braver than a moist and dripping rage of defiance?

He gave it up.

He was so tired of dragging out his little soul and worrying over it! If he could only be laughing, unthinking, with Tub Pearson. Or if Mrs. Cortright had been willing to dine with him —

Mrs. Cortright. Now there was a woman! As proper as Fran and as worldly, yet as indifferent to titles and luxury as Nande.

“Mighty sweet woman!”

He thought again about that third drink, then vehemently didn’t want it, vehemently retired into the respectability from which for a moment he had thought he might escape. For at the next table was an American party, full of merriment and keeping their brother from falling by setting an edifyingly bad example.

There were three men, three women. Apparently some of them were married to some of the others, but they seemed confused as to who was married to whom.

They noted Sam, and one of the men staggered over to shout, “American, ain’t you? Well, say, why the lone fiesta? Come over and join a live bunch!”

Rather pleased, Sam went over and joined.

“Just arrived?” he asked, as was proper.

“You bet. Landed at Naples, yesterday,” said his host. “Came over on a Wop ship — elegant boat too — and say, boy, that was some trip, too, I’ll tell the cock-eyed world! Say, I’ve heard about wet voyages, but this trip — say, I bet I never went to bed before three G.M. once, the whole way over! And the girls — say, they were just as good as the men. Dorine here, she drank two bols champagne in two hours, and the whole bunch were so crazy about the Italian officers — say, the officers had to brush ’em off the bridge every time they wanted to do any fancy navigating! And that gave us boys a chance to get in a little petting ourselves! Some trip! Say, if you could have seen the nightshirt parade the last night out! Boy! Some trip!”

One of the women — and save for her damp eyes a most spinsterish and unaphrodisiac lady she appeared — cried, “Some trip is right! And I’ve got a date to meet the second officer in Paris. He’s going to lay off one trip. And maybe I’ll just keep him laid off. Maybe I’ll decide to buy me a nice little boy friend. Some baby! Oh, those Or-i-ental eyes! Say, Pete, for the love o’ Gawd, ain’t you going to buy our little friend here”— she pointed at Sam with a thin, chaste, overmanicured, and rather wobbly forefinger —“a lil drink?”

But Sam declined. His vision of the beauties of the gutter had vanished with haste and a ludicrous squawking. He was grimly again the Sam Dodsworth who was proud of keeping in shape. He accepted, with irritating signs of pleasure, a lemonade (it was the first he had tasted in months) and sat wondering about these fellow-countrymen.

He could not place them. In age they seemed to run from thirty to forty. They were not so vulgar nor so vicious as at first they seemed. Once in a while they were betrayed by alcohol into revealing that they did have vocabularies and had perhaps read a book. He suspected that two out of the three men were university graduates; that all six of these loud-mouthed libertines were, at home, worthy deacons and pall-bearers. He had known in Zenith of “young married couples,” theoretically responsible young doctors and lawyers and salesmen, who turned dances at country clubs into a combination of brothel and frontier bar. But he had not gone to such dances. These people were none of his! Then, shocked, he realized that perhaps they were. Were these oafs anything but younger and gayer and slightly more amorous Tub Pearsons?

They were not altogether to blame. They were the products of Prohibition, mass production, and an education dominated by the beliefs that one goes to college to become acquainted with people who will later be useful in business, and that the greatness of a university is in ratio to the number of its students and the number of its athletic victories.

Or so Sam brooded.

He had heard much of the “sexually cold American woman.” Heaven knows, he raged, he had felt it in Fran! Yet with these riotous women, it was the lack of chill which he resented. The amiable lady who was going to “buy her” a second officer had, during Sam’s stay at the table, kissed one of the men, held the hand of another, and was now turning her withered excitement on himself: “Say, you’re some husk! Gee, I bet you hurt the lil ole golf ball’s feelings when you slam it one!”

He smiled bleakly.

He thought of seeing Mrs. Cortright next evening. He had recalled her only as a pleasant, unexciting, worthy person, but now he saw her as a Grecian vase, he saw her as a bowl of alabaster within which a fire could be lighted.

“A finish to her — like a European,” he reflected. “Yet she’s American, thank God! I couldn’t fall for a real European. Has to be somebody that could look at an old gray New England barn with the frost on it, in October, and get a kick out of it, without my having to explain.”

His long, ambling thoughts were interrupted by his original host’s inquiring:

“You been here in Venice some time?”

“Yes. Several times.”

“Well, maybe you can explain — Hope I’m not stepping all over anybody’s feet, but me — Well, this is the first time I’ve ever been abroad, and I’d always thought Venice would be kinda like a musical comedy. But of all the darn’ slow places — Why, there isn’t a first-class cabaret in town! Nothing but a lot of run-down tenements with a lot of carvin’s on ’em and a bunch of Chicago Drainage Ditches in between!”

“Well, I like it!”

“But what do you like about it?”

“Oh, lots of things. Especially the architecture.”

But what his mind saw, as he blurted out something about being tired and took his leave, was no vision of arching bridges, of secret alleys and the quivering reflection of airy towers; it was the memory of Edith Cortright serene in her Venetian palace.

“She couldn’t possibly go out and grab things, like Fran,” he reflected, as he clumped toward the Bauer–Grunwald. “She’s definitely a ‘great lady.’ Yet I’ll bet that at heart she’s lonely. She wouldn’t mind cooking for her man any more than Nande would. Oh, damn it, Sam, why are you so simple? Why do you insist on thinking everybody else is lonely, merely because you are?”

It was a small and placid dinner at Edith Cortright’s, on Thursday evening. The only guests besides Sam were an English couple who were vaguely and politely something important — very politely but very vaguely. If Sam did not find them cheery, he was amused by the pleasant carelessness of Mrs. Cortright’s household.

The Fran who liked to quote poems about Gipsies and Villon and the Brave Days When We Were Twenty-one was, in private life, a sergeant major. Theoretically, she was the mother confessor and breezy confidante of all her servants and of the plumber, the postman, and the bootlegger. Practically she was always furious at their incompetence. She was chummy with them only when they assured her of her beauty and power; when the seamstress gurgled that Fran had the most exquisite figure in Zenith, or when the corner druggist asked her if his new hat was really correct English style.

Or so Sam brooded.

Edith Cortright seemed to have no discipline, no notion as to her servants’ duties. They argued with her. They contradicted her. The butler said that she HAD ordered broccoli; and the maid came in with clacking slippers. They were always chattering. They seemed to be sharing some secret joke with her; and when she smiled at Sam, in her tired way, after a voluble colloquy with the butler, he wished he could be admitted to their tribal companionship.

A stone floor the dining-room had, and walls of hard plaster, with strips of Syrian embroidery. About the walls were chairs, stately, uncomfortable, inhuman. The windows, giving on the Grand Canal, were immensely tall. It was an apartment for giants to live in. Sam felt that into this room had strode men in armor who with gigantic obscene laughter had discussed the torture of pale protestants against the Doge, and that they; not so unlike Edith Cortright for all her gentleness, had guffawed here with servants purple-uniformed, slatternly, and truculent.

The English couple crept away early. After their flutter of good-bye’s, Sam lumbered to his feet and sighed, “I guess I’d —”

“No. Stay half an hour.”

“If you’d really — And how I have come to hate hotels!”

“You really liked having a home.”

“I certainly did!”

“Why do you stay away from it? Isn’t it —”

Then she laughed, lighted a cigarette, held it with arching fingers. “I suppose it’s rather ludicrous, my trying to give advice — and my own life such a mess that I endure it only by getting rid of all ambition, all purpose, and just floating, trying to get along with as little complication as possible.”

They talked slowly, and mostly they talked in silence. It was tranquil in that vast cool room above the Grand Canal. Out on the harbor, bands of singers in gondolas chanted old Italian ballads. They were, actually, rather commercialized, these singers; not for romance and the love of moonlight were they warbling, and between bursts of ecstasy they passed the hat from listening gondola to gondola, and were much rewarded by sentimentalists from Essen, Pittsburgh, and Manchester. The songs were conscientiously banal — “Donna e Mobile” and “Santa Lucia” for choice. Yet the whole theatric setting and the music across the water lured Sam into a still excitement.

“I can’t imagine you in any complications,” he wondered.

“I shouldn’t use that word, perhaps. All the complications are inside myself. It’s just that certain conditions of life have rather taken my confidence in myself away from me, and I’m so afraid of doing the wrong thing that it’s easier to do nothing.”

“That’s how I feel myself! Though with you, I can’t imagine it — you’re sure of yourself.”

“Not really. I’m like a man learning a new language — he can do it beautifully as long as he can introduce the subjects of conversation and use the words he knows — he can talk splendidly about Waiter, bring two more coffees, or What is the next train for Turin, but he’s lost if somebody else asks the questions and insists on talking about anything beyond page sixty in the Hugo Method! Here, in my own flat, with my own people, I’m safely on this side of Page Sixty, but I’d be horribly fluttered if I stepped out on Page Sixty-one! . . . By the way, I shall be very happy if you’re bored by your hotel here and care to come in for tea now and then.”

“Awfully good of —”

Without much consciousness of rising, he had strolled to the open window. “I do appreciate it. . . . Feel rather at loose ends.”

“Why don’t you tell me about it? If you care to. I’m a good confidante!”

“Well —”

He flung out with a suicidal defiance.

“I don’t like to whine — I don’t think I do, much — and I don’t like admitting I’m licked. But I am. And I’m getting a little sick of not being able to sleep nights, brooding about it. Too damn much brooding probably!” He tramped out to the narrow balcony, above the canal and the sound of splashing water. On this balcony once (though Sam did not know it) Lord Byron had stood, snarling to a jet-bright lady a more pitiful and angry tale.

Edith Cortright was beside him, murmuring — oh, her words were a commonplace “Would you like to tell me about it?” but her voice was kind, and curiously honest, curiously free of the barriers between a strange man and a strange woman. And with her Venice murmured, and the songs of love.

“Oh, I suppose it’s a very ordinary story. My wife is younger than I am, and livelier, and she’s found a man in Berlin, and I guess I’ve lost her. For keeps. . . . Oh, I know I oughtn’t to undress in public like this. But I swear I haven’t before! Am I rotten to —”

She said quickly, “Don’t! Of course you’re not. I’d be glad if I could tell my own story.”

“Please!”

“And I haven’t told people, either, not even my friends, though I suppose they guess — Perhaps you and I can be franker with each other because we are strangers. I do understand how you feel, Mr. Dodsworth. I suppose the people I know here and in England and at home believe that I lead such a nun-like existence because I had an idolatrous worship of the late Honorable Cecil R. A. Cortright. Such a charming man! Perfect manners, and too perfect a game of bridge! Wonderful war record — M.C., D.S.O. Actually my husband was — He was a dreadful liar; one of these hand-kissing, smiling, convincing liars. He was a secret drunkard. He humiliated me constantly as a backwoods American; used to apologize to people, oh, so prettily, when I said ‘I guess’ instead of the equally silly ‘I fancy.’ And his dear mother used to congratulate me on my luck in having won her darling. Oh, I’m sorry! Beastly of me! Fatal Venetian night!”

Her quick breath was not a sob but a sound of anger. Her hand gripped the thin fluted railing of the balcony. He patted it shyly and said, as he would to his daughter Emily, “Maybe it’s good for both of us to tell our troubles a little. But — I wish I could HATE my girl. I can’t. And I imagine you can’t hate Cortright. Might be good for us!”

“Yes,” dryly. “It would. But I’m beautifully beginning to be able to. I— Have you ever seen Malapert’s etchings? Let me show you a book of them I received today.”

He dutifully looked at etchings for fifteen minutes, and said farewell rather pompously.

Trudging home, along dark pavements which hung like shelves above swarthily glittering rios, through perilous-looking unlighted archways, he was by turns guilty over having talked of Fran, impatient with himself for having too touchy a conscience, raging at the late Cecil Cortright as a scoundrel, and joyous that behind her fastidious reticence Edith Cortright could be blunt.

It was the guiltiness which persisted when he awoke. Edith would be hating him for having blatted about Fran, for having led her to talk. When for half an hour he had been trying to compose a note of apology, a note came from her:

No, you did not say anything you should not have, and I don’t believe I did. I write this because I think I know how remorseful all Americans are after we have said something we really think. Put it down to Santa Lucia who, though I don’t really know my hagiology, is probably the patroness of sentimentalists like you and me. Would you like to come in for tea at five today?

EDITH CORTRIGHT.

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