Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 4

It was late when Sam yawned up to bed, for their poker-game had lasted till after one. The spacious chamber was half lighted from the bathroom. The dusky light caught the yellow silk curtains by her bed, the crystal on her wide dressing-table. She had left the windows closed, and the air was not unpleasantly stuffy with cold cream, powder, and steaminess lingering from a hot bath scented with bath-salts.

He was eager for her breathing presence. His determination to escape with her had made Fran seem nearer and more desirable than in months, but as he felt guilty about awakening her, he did not admit that he was doing anything so unkind — he merely dropped his shoes loudly.

She looked startled when she awoke. How many times she had looked startled, a little incredulous, when she had stirred to discover him beside her! She turned on her bedside light, she looked at him vaguely, as though she wasn’t quite sure who he was, but, after all, one had to be polite. She was incredibly young and unmarked with wrinkles, a girl in a lace nightgown edged at the neck with white fur.

He plumped down on the bed beside her, kissed her shoulder. She suffered it, unresponding, and said, too cheerily, “Please no! Not now. Listen, dear, I want to talk. Ohhhhh, gee, I’m sleepy! I tried to stay awake till you came up, but I dozed off. So ‘shamed! But pull up the big chair and listen.”

“Don’t you want me to kiss you?”

“Why do you always ask that? In that hurt way? You’re so silly! You know you’ve had several drinks. Oh, I don’t mind — though Tub and you, for men that are responsible citizens and don’t really drink at all, always do manage to tuck away a lot too much! I don’t mind. But don’t you think it’s a little icky, this sudden passion for embracing when you’re — well, exhilarated?”

“Don’t you WANT me to kiss you?”

“Good Heavens, my dear man, haven’t I been your wife for twenty-two years? Oh, please, dear, don’t be quarrelsome! Have I done something to hurt you? I’m so, so terribly sorry! I am, truly, dear. Kiss me!”

It was the coolest, most brief of kisses that she gave him and, that chore done, most briskly she rattled, “Now pull up the big chair and listen, dear. Or would you rather wait till tomorrow?”

She added, with the imitation of baby-talk which ordinarily tickled him, “Is mos’ awful’ important!”

He dragged the wing-chair to her bed and decorously sat down, wagging a varnished pump, but he said testily, “Good Lord, you don’t need to coax. Let’s have it.”

“Oh, don’t be such an old grump! Now I ask you: IS that fair? Because I don’t like the reek of whisky? Would you like it on my breath?”

“No. But I didn’t take much. But — Never mind. Listen, Fran. I know what you want. And I’ve decided. Kynance tried to tie me up with a contract to go to work right away, but I refused. So we’ll go to Europe, and maybe for four-five months!”

“Oh. That.”

With all his experience of her zig-zag incalculability, her shreds of knowledge that seemed to have no source, her ambitions and desires that seemed not worth the pains, her veiled resentment of hurts which he had not meant to inflict, her amiability when he had expected her to be angry, he was surprised now at her indifference.

“It’s more fundamental than going to Europe. See here, Sam. Even if I didn’t want to, oh, kiss you — Sorry I don’t seem to be more passionate. I wish I were, for your sake. But apparently I’m not. But even so, we have been happy, haven’t we! We have built something pretty fine!”

“Yes, we have. What’s worrying —”

“Even if we haven’t been wild operatic lovers, I do think we mean something awfully deep and irreplaceable to each other. Don’t we?”

His touchy ardor gave way to affection. He reached his long arm out and patted her slight, nervous fingers. “Yes. We differ on a lot of things, but I guess we’ve got something solid for each other that we can’t find in anybody else.”

“Something really permanent, Sam? Dependable? So we’re like two awfully good friends backing each other in a terrible street fight?”

“Absolutely. But what’s —”

“Listen. We’ve done the first part of our jobs. We’ve made enough money. We’ve brought up the children. You have something to show for your work — this really marvelous car that you’ve created. And yet we’re still young, comparatively. Oh, let’s not settle down into contentment with the dregs of life! Let’s have a new life, all over, and not worry any more about duties (and I’ve had my own, young man — if you think it’s easy to run a house like this, and entertain everybody!). Let’s — oh, it’s hard to express it, but I mean: let’s not tie ourselves down to saying we’ll come back from Europe (but it was sweet of you, dear, to consent without making me beg), but I mean: let’s not insist that we HAVE to be back from Europe in four months — yes, or four years! On the other hand, if we don’t like it, let’s not feel we have to stay; let’s take the first boat back. But let’s — Oh, please now, get this! Let’s start out of this stupid old town without one single solitary plan in our heads beyond landing in Europe, and coming back when we really want to, and going where we please when we please. Maybe we’ll be back after two months on the Riviera, and then again, forty years from now, we may be living in a bamboo shack in Java and thumbing our noses at anybody who doesn’t like it! Why, I’d almost like to sell this house, so we won’t have anything to bind us.”

“You’re not serious? Good Lord, we couldn’t do that! Why, it’s our home! Wouldn’t know what to do if we didn’t have a safe harbor like this to come back to! Why, we’ve built ourselves into this old place, from the Radiola to the new garage doors. I guess I know every dahlia in the garden by its middle name! I love the place the way I do Emily and you and the boy. Only place where we can slam the door and tell everybody to go to hell and be ourselves!”

“But perhaps we’ll get us some new selves, without losing the old ones. You’d — oh, you could be so magnificent, so tall and impressive and fine, if you’d let yourself be, if you didn’t feel you had to be just an accessory to a beastly old medium-priced car, if you’d get over this silly fear that people might think you were affected and snobbish if you demanded the proper respect from them! There ARE great people in the world — dukes and ambassadors and generals and scientists and — And I don’t believe that essentially they’re one bit bigger than we are. It’s just that they’ve been trained to talk of world-affairs, instead of the price of vanadium and what Mrs. Hibbletebibble is going to serve at her Hallowe’en party. I’m going to be one of ’em! I’m not afraid of ’em! If you’d only get over this naive passion for ‘simplicity’ and all those nice peasant virtues and let yourself be the big man that you really are! Not meekly say to His Excellency that though you look like a grand-duke, you’re really only little Sammy Dodsworth of Zenith! He won’t know it unless you insist on telling him! . . . And perhaps an ambassadorship for you, after you’ve been abroad long enough to learn the tricks. . . . Only to do all that, to grab the world, we must NOT be bound by the feeling that we’re tied to this slow-pokey Zenith till death do us part from the fun of adventuring!”

“But to sell the house —”

“Oh, we don’t need to do that, of course, silly — not at first. I just mean it as an example of how free we ought to be. Of course we wouldn’t sell it. Heavens, we may be delighted to slink back here in six months! But don’t let’s plan to, that’s what I mean. Oh, Sam, I’m absolutely not going to let my life be over at forty — well, at forty-one, but no one ever takes me for more than thirty-five or even thirty-three. And life would be over for me if I simply went on forever with the idiotic little activities in this half-baked town! I won’t, that’s all! You can stay here if you insist, but I’m going to take the lovely things that — I have a right to take them, because I understand them! What do I care whether some club of human, or half-human, tabby-cats in eye-glasses study dietetics or Lithuanian art next year? What do I care whether a pretentious bunch of young millionaire manufacturers have an imitation English polo team? . . . when I could have the real thing, in England! And yet if we stay here, we’ll settle down to doing the same things over and over. We’ve drained everything that Zenith can give us — yes, and almost everything that New York and Long Island can give us. And in this beastly country — In Europe, a woman at forty is just getting to the age where important men take a serious interest in her. But here, she’s a grandmother. The flappers think I’m as venerable as the bishop’s wife. And they MAKE me old, with their confounded respectfulness — and their CHARMING rejoicing when I go home from a dance early — I who can dance better, yes, and longer, than any of them —”

“Now, now!”

“Well, I can! And so could you, if you didn’t let business sap every single ounce of energy you have! But at the same time — I only have five or ten more years to continue being young in. It’s the derniere cartouche. And I won’t waste it. Can’t you understand? Can’t you understand? I mean it, desperately! I’m begging for life — no, I’m not! — I’m demanding it! And that means something more than a polite little Cook’s trip to Europe!”

“But see here now! Do you actually mean to tell me, Fran, that you think that just moving from Zenith to Paris is going to change everything in your life and make you a kid again? Don’t you realize that probably most people in Paris are about like most people here, or anywhere else?”

“They aren’t, but even if they were —”

“What do you expect out of Europe? A lot of culture?”

“No! ‘Culture!’ I loathe the word, I loathe the people who use it! I certainly do not intend to collect the names of a lot of painters — and of soups — and come back and air them. Heavens, it isn’t just Europe! We may not stay there at all. It’s being free to wander wherever we like, as long as we like, or to settle down and become part of some community or some set if we like, and not feel that we have a duty to come back here. Oh, I could love you so much more if we weren’t a pair of old horses in a treadmill!”

They sailed for Southampton in February, three weeks after Emily’s wedding.

Sam was absorbed in completing the Revelation Company transfer, and in answering Fran when she complained, “Oh, work’s become a disease with you! You go on with it when there’s no need. Let the underlings finish up. Dear, it’s because I do love you that — Do you think you’ll ever learn to enjoy leisure, to enjoy just being yourself and not an office? You’re not going to make me feel guilty for having dragged you away, are you?”

“By God, I’ll enjoy life if it kills me — and it probably will!” he grumbled. “You’ve got to give me time. I’ve started this business of being ‘free’ about thirty-five years too late. I’m a good citizen. I’ve learned that Life is real and Life is earnest and the presidency of a corporation is its goal. What would I be doing with anything so degenerate as enjoying myself?”

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