Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 33

Daily, for a fortnight, he saw Edith Cortright — at tea, at dinner, at lunch on the Lido. She apparently forgot her discomfort at being unchaperoned, and went architecture-coursing with him, went with him to the summer opera, sailed with him to Torcello and Malamocco — sailing gondola with orange lateen sail, from which they looked back to Venice floating on the dove-colored water.

He talked, of Zenith and Emily, of motors and the virtues of the Revelation car, of mechanics and finance. He had never known another woman who was not bored when he tried to make clear his very definite, not unimportant notions on the use of chromium metal. And she, she talked of many things. She was a reader of thick books, with a curiosity regarding life which drifted all round its circumference. She talked of Bertrand Russell and of insulin; of Stefan Zweig, American skyscrapers, and the Catholic Church. But she was neither priggish nor dogmatic. What interested her in facts and diagrams was the impetus they gave to her own imagination. Essentially she was indifferent whether the world was laboring toward Fascism or Bolshevism, toward Methodism or atheism.

He followed her through all her mazed reflections. He was not rebuffed by her ideas as so often he had been by Fran’s pert little learnings. (For Fran wore her knowledge as showily as she wore her furs.)

Of themselves they talked rarely, and they believed that they talked but little of Fran and Cecil Cortright. Yet, lone sentence by sentence, they told their married lives so completely that Sam began to speak of “Cecil” and Edith of “Fran,” as though they four had always been together. When she realized it, Edith laughed.

“We ought to make an agreement that I shall be allowed to speak of Cecil for just as many minutes as you do of Fran. Or we might compose a sort of litany —

‘Oh, Lord, Cecil was irritable before breakfast, ‘And Lord, Thou knowest Fran did not appreciate streamline bodies’!”

And once she got below the surface and told him that subconsciously he had WANTED to lose Fran to Kurt, or to any other available suitor.

Yet there was always between them a formality, even when they used each other’s first names as well as those of their eternally problematic mates. They did not discuss their souls. They did not discuss why it was that they seemed to like each other. The nearest they came to intimacy was in planning, almost childishly, their “futures.”

He said abruptly, at coffee after dinner in Edith’s flat, “What shall I do? Shall I go back to America, without Fran? And shall I do the job I’ve been trained to, or play with some experiments? Let me tell you of a couple of silly ideas I have.”

He outlined his plans for caravan building, and for venturing on Sans Souci Gardens villages.

“Why not do both?” suggested Edith. She seemed to take his desired experiments more seriously than had Fran. “I like your idea of trying to make a suburb that would be neither stuffy nor too dreadfully arty — no grocery clerks coaxed to dance on the green. And the caravans would be fun. Cecil and I had one for two months in England.”

“Do you mean to say you did the cooking?”

“Of course I did! I’m an excellent cook! I babble of Freud and Einstein, but I know nothing about psycho-analysis, nothing about mathematics. But I do know garlic and taragon vinegar! I really love housekeeping. I should have stayed in Michigan and married a small-town lawyer.”

“Could you like a town like Zenith? After Venice?”

“Yes if I had a place of my own there. Here, everything decays — lovely decay, but I’m tired of being autumnal. I’d like hot summer growing and spring budding for a change — even if the corn-stalks were ugly!”

Then, first, did it occur to him that it was not quite ludicrous to think that Edith and he might some day return together to Zenith, to work and to life. He said little to himself, nothing at all to her, of what seemed dimly to be growing as a secure and healing love, yet a day or two after he seized the impulse and showed Edith the letter from Fran.

Fran’s letter revealed more of herself and of her relation to Kurt than anything she had written:

I haven’t heard from you for a week, old man, I admit I haven’t been much on correspondence either but I haven’t been feeling any too merry and bright, I think too much city I really MUST get out into the country and Kurt and I— you really are an old DARLING and awfully generous I realize it to let me talk so frankly about him and still be friends with me — we’re going to try to go to the Harz Mountains for a week.

It’s been a funny thing — you always think I have no meekness but honestly I have shown quite biblical humility in trying to fit myself to his so-different life. He’s let me fuss over his funny PATHETIC little flat — oh, Sam, it just breaks my heart the way that flat reveals how POOR the poor man is, that ought to be a great nobleman like his ancestors and I suppose would have been if it hadn’t been for the war which after all was not his fault. At first I was irritated by the complete sloppiness etc. etc. of his dear funny old servant then I thought maybe it was because she has such an ELEMENTARY kitchen equipment, honestly it was about what you would expect in Kurt’s native wilds a FRIGHTFUL old coal stove that she has to stoke up all the time and the flues do not draw. I wanted to give him a jolly new electric range and he finally consented, though not readily, honestly — please, pretty please, I hope this won’t hurt your feelings and as I say I know how GENEROUS you are, but you can’t have any idea how proud he is! But it was the cook who balked. No! She wouldn’t have a nice new electric range or an electric dish-washing machine! She PREFERRED their own familiar things! She’s truly feudal — isn’t that almost as hard as “truly rural” that we used to say in school! — and so is Kurt. I think perhaps I realized that with a chauffeur, of course Kurt can’t afford his own chauffeur or even car yet though I do believe with his real genius for finance he will be a very rich man on his own inside another ten years but he can’t afford one now but whenever he can get him he uses an Austrian chauffeur at a hire garage near here that was a private in Kurt’s own regiment during the war and that really is almost practically like Kurt’s own chauffeur.

Well, at first do you know I was shocked by their chumminess. The chauffeur would tell the Herr Graf that the Herr Graf was wearing lovely new gloves today, and Kurt would ask him about his sweetheart and they would joke about it and Kurt would tell him he ought to make his sweetheart an honest woman and the chauffeur would waggle his finger in a knowing way that made me angry, and so one day I jumped on Kurt about it and my dear! the way he turned on me!

He said, “You are a bourgeoise! I am feudal! We who are feudal can be familiar with our servants because we know they cannot ever be impertinent!”

Sam laid down the letter, and it was of Edith and her way with servants that he was thinking.

I find myself settling, dear old man, no matter if we have apparently busted up for keeps and it IS rather tragic if one suffers one’s self to think about it after the many, many happy years we DID have together, DIDN’T we, but if we did break up, I do know you will go on being my FRIEND and be glad to know that I DO find myself settling down to my job of being a European. It hasn’t been easy and I can’t expect you to understand the pains, the almost agony I have given to it. Sometimes I am frankly lonely — for whatever you may say about me to Tub and your DEAR Matey, oh, Sam, I suspect you talked about me to her in Paris far more than you ever admitted — but I mean, whatever you may say about me, perhaps with a lot of justice, at least you must admit that one of my probably few virtues has been a rather rare FRANKNESS and HONESTY, and frankly at times I have been very lonely, have wished you were here so I could tousle your funny old thick hair. And sometimes I have been frightened by the spectacle of one lone femme Americaine facing all of censorious Europe. And sometimes — you know his dear childish enthusiasm without very much discrimination — I have been a little bored by some of Kurt’s Dear Old Friends. Yet I love and I think I am coming to really understand the THICKNESS of European life. Our American life is so thin, so without tradition.

Sam laid down the letter and thought of the tradition of pioneers pushing to the westward, across the Alleghenies, through the forests of Kentucky and Tennessee, on to the bleeding plains of Kansas, on to Oregon and California, a religious procession, sleeping always in danger, never resting, and opening a new home for a hundred million people. But with no comment he read on:

I have learned, and I must say with some surprise which has probably been good for my little ego that Kurt thinks much more of a violinist or a chemist than of the nicest prince with the most quarteriest quarterings living. And — for whatever you may think about me you must admit that I DO understand the Europeans and I really am European! — and do grasp it — I haven’t had too much difficulty following him. Oh, my dear, do forgive me if this hurts you, but he is what the romantic novelists call MY MAN! I have some stunning plans for him. I think I see the way, I can’t of course give away any details even to you, but I think I see a way of getting a certain great American bank to establish a branch in Berlin, and making Kurt the head of it.

You would probably be amused you certainly wouldn’t know your wild Fran how meek she is if you saw her letting Kurt boss her in all sorts of little things yes and I suppose big ones too but still he IS so dear — he always notices what I wear, honestly he bullies me really dreadfully about my clothes but at the same time is always willing to go shopping with me which you must admit, for all your gorgeous bigness you never were. Oh my dear I suppose it is unpardonable to write to YOU about HIM this way and if I stop to think about it and re-read this letter probably I never shall mail this letter that I’m writing in my ducky little coloraturo (or is it coloratura) flat on an evening that if I must confess is a little lonely and makes me feel like a lost lorn tourist AMERICAN but we are friends aren’t we — phone ringing must answer bless you,

F.

He had the letter at ten in the morning. At twelve he was ringing at Edith’s flat. He thrust Fran’s letter at her without a word. When Edith had read it she sighed, and suggested:

“It’s so hot here. I’ve been thinking of going down to Naples — to Posilipo, out on the point, where it’s cool — and taking a little house on the estate of the Ercoles. Baron Ercole has a big place, but he’s frightfully poor. He’s an ex-diplomat; he teaches law in the University of Naples; and the poor darlings live mostly by renting villas on their place. Why don’t you come down with me? I don’t think there’s much more to be said about your Fran, after this letter. It might be good for you to swim and sail at Naples, instead of sitting here brooding. Would you like to come?”

“Decidedly! But what about your friends who are so eager to be scandalized —”

“Oh, not the Ercoles. They’ll believe I’m having an affair with you, and be delighted — they’ve lived in too many countries, in the diplomatic corps, to have many morals. They’ll like you. Edmondo Ercole and you will have such a good time being silent together! Oh, that sounds like Fran, I imagine! I’m sorry!”

In the sunset an Italian hilltown, battlements and a shaggy tower on a rock abrupt amid the sloping plain. The windows of the town took the low sunlight and blazed one after another as the train passed. “As though the houses were full of gay people,” said Edith. He looked at it with still pleasure. He felt that her presence had unlocked his heart; had enabled him, for the first time, to see Italy.

He had, theoretically, been in Naples before, but as they drove from the station to the Villa Ercole he realized that all he had seen — all he had seen anywhere in Europe — had not been the place itself but Fran’s hectic and demanding attitudes; her hysteria of delight over a moonlight, or her hysteria of annoyance over bad service. In Edith’s quiet presence he perceived that Naples was not, as he had remembered it, a rather grim, very modern barricade of tall apartment houses, but a series of connected villages extending for miles along the bay, between blue water and hills into which human beings had burrowed like gophers.

The driver of their taxi, being Neapolitan, was in a rage so long as any vehicle was on the road ahead of him, and as that was always, their journey was a series of escapes from death. Yet even in this chariot race, Sam expanded and nestled into contentment, as in the old days of overwork and brief vacations he had relaxed into delight on his holidays in a canoe.

He patted Edith’s hand in an effort to express his happiness, as he saw Vesuvius roll up, with its trail of smoke — toward Naples, now, promising good weather; saw Capri with the dots of white houses on the lofty plateau between the ruin-dotted mountains; saw sun-washed Sorrento at the foot of its giant promontory; saw the villas of Posilipo below the cliff up which their taxi was racing.

The taxi passed a yellow plaster gatehouse, with a bobbing concierge — a smiling, life-loving, plump Italian woman, with innumerous children about her — and instantly they were free of the roaring thoroughfare, free of banging traffic, ejaculatory drivers, shouldering trains, suicidal children, and cluttered little shops for the sale of charcoal and wine. The park of the Villa Ercole dropped from that high-lying thoroughfare down to the bay, with a roadway twisting and redoubling on itself like a mountain trail. They sped among enormous pines, between whose framing trunks he saw, across the suave bay, the bulk of Vesuvius, as absolute in its loneliness as Fujiyama. They passed half a dozen plaster villas, yellow as old gold, very still, remembering glories not quite past. In a modern stone wall, supporting a stretch of the corkscrew road, was a patch of thin ancient Roman brick set in a herring-bone pattern and above it the fragment of a marble bust, the head of a warrior whose villa may have stood here two thousand years ago.

There was no sound, even of birds, no sound from the street above — a minute away yet inconceivably far.

“Lord, how quiet it is here!” said Sam.

“That’s why I wanted to come here — that and the Ercoles.”

On the last sweeping curve of the driveway, just before it came to an end before the tall chateau in which the Ercoles themselves still dwelt, Edith bade the driver halt at a tiny wooden bridge which led across to what seemed to be the top story of a yellow plaster tower whose lower stages were hidden beneath the cliff beside them.

“There’s our house!” she said. “It’s the funniest house in the world! It’s on three levels. The garden is so steep that you can enter it from any floor. And there are really only about two rooms to a floor.”

She led him, across the bridge and along a toy-house hallway, to the simplest of bedrooms. The floor was of shining stone; on the walls there were no pictures, but only a majolica Virgin and Child. The high narrow bed, with neither headboard nor footboard, had four slender posts at the corners. It was covered with a gold encrusted brocade, rather worn. There was a naked-looking white steel washstand, a fine oval mirror, two heavy brocade chairs, a heavy oak table set out with pens and stationery, a brazier for charcoal, and nothing else whatever — yet there was everything, for outside the French windows was a terrace, apparently the roof of a room below, which gave on the bay, so that the room was filled with the sparkle of southern sun on southern waters and with the image of Mount Vesuvius and its distant indolence of smoke.

“This is your room, I suppose,” said Edith. “But, good heavens, there’s no wardrobe, no place even for your brushes and razor! Bianca — Baroness Ercole — probably hasn’t been able to afford them yet — wrote me she was just refurnishing this house, hoping to rent it.”

“I don’t mind. Keep my stuff in wardrobe trunk,” said Sam. He was glad of the simplicity, glad that the room was free of the stuffiness of much furniture. He could see himself rejuvenated here, in this cool shrine, with the sweet air and the beaming sea outside, and with Edith’s unsentimental friendship to make him believe in himself.

They went on the balcony-terrace and Sam cried out. The shore-line from Posilipo to Naples, which had been below them and hidden from them on their drive to the villa, was romantic enough for a Christmas calendar — and no amount of Fran’s scolding had kept Samuel Dodsworth from liking chromo art. The bay was edged with cliffs, eaten into vast caves. Mysterious stairways climbed from the rocks at the edge of the water, disappearing into holes in the cliffs. Sam reflected how excited he would have been as a boy to find these vanishing stairways, after reading in Stevenson and Walter Scott of secret passageways, of smugglers and underground chambers.

To a tiny beach at the foot of a cliff a fisher-boy, barefoot and singing, was drawing up his unwieldy boat. His skin was golden in the sunlight.

It is true that just then shot into sight a four-oar shell, rowed by members of a club fostered by the Fascists, but this spectacle, contemporary as though it were on the Thames, Sam ignored. It did not suit his romantic private vision of the Bay of Naples.

The villas along the bay were white and imposing upon the cliff-tops, at the head of sloping canyons filled with vines and mulberries, or, set lower, mediaeval palaces of arcaded and yellowed marble with their foundations in the water. It was late in the afternoon, and the mellowed glow lay on distant Naples, vast tawny pyramid rising to the abrupt bastions of Castel Sant’ Elmo, a city enchanted, asleep these hundreds of years in the lazy light.

He muttered, “This place — this place —”

“Yes. Isn’t it!” she said.

For hours they seemed to have been absorbed in the kindly radiance but it was probably three minutes since they had entered the house. No servant had answered her knock on entering, none had disturbed them since. They continued exploring; went down the rough stone staircase of the tower-cottage, found her bedroom, as primitive as his; and down to the ground floor. They came into a drawing-room, floored with waxed and polished tiles of old dark red, a room large enough to tolerate fifteen-foot windows hung with damask, full-blooming camellia trees in tall stone wine-jars, and a long table of rosewood decorated with bronze, a table over-decorated yet curiously elegant. Sam scarcely noticed two women, in calico and dust-caps, who were on their knees finishing the polishing of the floor. He gaped when the younger and more slender sprang up, fled to Edith Cortright, and kissed her.

Edith said, smiling, brisker than he had ever known her, “Bianca, this is my friend Mr. Dodsworth — Sam, your hostess, Baroness Ercole.”

And, altogether unabashed at being caught in the crimes of poverty and work, the Baroness Ercole made him welcome with her smile, gave him her wax-crusted hand to kiss, and invited them to dinner.

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