Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 5

The S. S. Ultima, thirty-two thousand tons burden, was four hours out of New York. As the winter twilight glowered on the tangle of gloomy waves, Samuel Dodsworth was aware of the domination of the sea, of the insignificance of the great ship and all mankind. He felt lost in the round of ocean, one universal gray except for a golden gash on the western horizon. His only voyaging had been on lakes, or on the New York ferries. He felt uneasy as he stood at the after rail and saw how the rearing mass of the sea loomed over the ship and threatened it when the stern dipped — down, unbelievably down, as though she were sinking. But he felt resolute again, strong and very happy, as he swung about the deck. He had been sickish only for the first hour. The wind filled his chest, exhilarated him. Only now, the messy details of packing and farewells over, and the artificially prolonged waving to friends on the dock endured, did he feel that he was actually delivered from duty, actually going — going to strange-colored, exciting places, to do unknown and heroic things.

He hummed (for Kipling meant something to Sam Dodsworth which no Shelley could, nor Dante)— he hummed “The Gipsy Trail”:

Follow the Romany patteran

North where the blue bergs sail,

And the bows are gray with the frozen spray,

And the masts are shod with mail.

Follow the Romany patteran

West to the sinking sun,

Till the junk-sails lift through the houseless drift,

And the East and the West are one.

Follow the Romany patteran

East where the silence broods

By a purple wave on an opal beach

In the hush of the Mahim woods.

“Free!” he muttered.

He stopped abruptly by the line of windows enclosing the music-room, forward on the promenade deck, as he fumbled for the memory of the first time he had ever sung “The Gipsy Trail.”

It must have been when the poem was first set to music. Anyway, Fran and he had been comparatively poor. The money that old Herman Voelker had lent them had gone into the business. (A sudden, meaningless spatter of snow, out on that cold sea. How serene the lights in the music room! He began to feel the gallant security of the ship, his enduring home.) Yes, it was when they had gone off on a vacation — no chauffeur then, nor suites at the best hotels, but Sam driving all day in their shabby Revelation, with sleep in an earth-scented, wind-stirred tent. They had driven West — west, two thousand miles toward the sunset, till it seemed they must indeed come on the Pacific and junk-sails lifting against the misted sun. They had no responsibilities of position. Together they chanted “The Gipsy Trail,” vowing that some day they would wander together —

And they were doing it!

Such exultation filled him, such overwhelming tenderness, that he wanted to dash down to their cabin and assure himself that he still had the magic of Fran’s companionship. But he remembered with what irritable efficiency she had been unpacking. He had been married for over twenty years. He stayed on deck.

He explored the steamer. It was to him, the mechanic, the most sure and impressive mechanism he had ever seen; more satisfying than a Rolls, a Delauney–Belleville, which to him had been the equivalents of a Velasquez. He marveled at the authoritative steadiness with which the bow mastered the waves; at the powerful sweep of the lines of the deck and the trim stowing of cordage. He admired the first officer, casually pacing the bridge. He wondered that in this craft which was, after all, but a floating iron egg-shell, there should be the roseate music room, the smoking-room with its Tudor fireplace — solid and terrestrial as a castle — and the swimming-pool, green-lighted water washing beneath Roman pillars. He climbed to the boat deck, and some never realized desire for sea-faring was satisfied as he looked along the sweep of gangways, past the huge lifeboats, the ventilators like giant saxophones, past the lofty funnels serenely dribbling black woolly smoke, to the forward mast. The snow-gusts along the deck, the mysteriousness of this new world but half seen in the frosty lights, only stimulated him. He shivered and turned up his collar, but he was pricked to imaginativeness, standing outside the wireless room, by the crackle of messages springing across bleak air-roads ocean-bounded to bright snug cities on distant plains.

“I’m at sea!”

He tramped down to tell Fran — he was not quite sure what it was that he wanted to tell her, save that steamers were very fine things indeed, and that ahead of them, in the murk of the horizon, they could see the lanes of England.

She, in their cabin with its twin brass beds, its finicking imitations of gray-blue French prints on the paneled walls, was amid a litter of shaken-out frocks, heaps of shoes, dressing gowns, Coty powder, three gift copies of “The Perennial Bachelor,” binoculars, steamer letters, steamer telegrams, the candy and the Charles & Company baskets of overgrown fruit and tiny conserves with which they were to help out the steamer’s scanty seven meals a day, his dress-shirts (of which he was to, and certainly would not, put on a fresh one every evening), and French novels (which she was to, and certainly wouldn’t, read in a stately, aloof, genteel manner every day on deck).

“It’s terrible!” she lamented. “I’ll get things put away just about in time for landing. . . . Oh, here’s a wireless from Emily, the darling, from California. Harry and she seem to be standing the honeymoon about as well as most victims.”

“Chuck the stuff. Come out on deck. I love this ship. It’s so — Man certainly has put it over Nature for once! I think I could’ve built ships! Come out and see it.”

“You do sound happy. I’m glad. But I must unpack. You skip along —”

It was not often, these years, that he was kittenish, but now he picked her up, while she kicked and laughed, he lifted her over a pile of sweaters and tennis shoes and bathing-suits and skates, kissed her, and shouted, “Come on! It’s our own honeymoon! Eloping! Have I ever remembered to tell you that I adore you? Come up and see some ocean with me. There’s an awful lot of ocean around this ship. . . . Oh, damn the unpacking!”

He sounded masterful, but it was always a satisfaction, when he was masterful, to have her consent to be mastered. He was pleased now when she stopped being efficient about this business of enjoying life, and consented to do something for no reason except that it was agreeable.

In her shaggy Burberry, color of a dead maple leaf, and her orange tam o’ shanter, she suggested autumn days and brown uplands. She was a girl; certainly no mother of a married daughter. He was cumbersomely proud of her, of the glances which the men passengers snatched at her as they swung round the deck.

“Funny how it comes over a fellow suddenly — I mean — this is almost the first time we’ve ever really started out like lovers — no job to call us back. You were dead right, Fran — done enough work — now we’ll live! Together — always! But I’ll have so much to learn, to keep up with you. You, and Europe! Hell, I’m so sentimental! D’you mind? Just come out of state prison! Did twenty years!”

Round and round the deck. The long stretch on the starboard side, filthy with deck chairs, with rug-wadded passengers turning a pale green as the sea rose, with wind-ruffled magazines, cups left from teatime, and children racing with toy carts. The narrow passage aft, where the wind swooped on them, pushing them back, and the steamer dipped so that they had to labor up-hill, bending forward, their limbs of lead. But, as they toiled, a glimpse of ship mysteries that were stirring to land-bound imaginations. They looked down into a hatchway — some one said there were half a dozen Brazilian cougars being shipped down there — and along a dizzy aerial gangway to the after deck and the wheelhouse and a lone light in the weaving darkness. They saw the last glimmer of the streaky wake stretching back to New York.

Then, blown round the corner, released from climbing upward, a dash along the cold port side, blessedly free of steamer chairs and of lardy staring. Swinging at five miles an hour. The door of the smoking-room, with a whiff of tobacco smoke, a pleasant reek of beer, a sound of vocal Americans. The place where the deck widened into an alcove — thick walls of steel, dotted with lines of rivets smeared with thick white paint — and the door of the stewards’ pantry from which, in the afternoon, came innumerable sandwiches and cakes and cups and pots of tea. The double door to the main stairway, where, somehow, a stewardess in uniform was always talking to a steward. The steel-gripped windows of the music room, with a glimpse of unhappy young-old women, accompanying their mothers abroad, sitting flapping through magazines. Where the deck was unenclosed, the yellow scoured rail and the white stanchions, bright in the deck light, brighter against the dark coil of sea. Always before them, the long straight lines of the decking planks, rigid as bars of music, divided by seams of glistening tar. Deck — ship — at sea!

Then forward, and the people along the rail — bold voyagers facing the midwinter Atlantic through glass windows — honeymooners quickly unclasping as the pestiferous deck-circlers passed — aged and sage gentlemen commenting on the inferiority of the steerage passengers who, on the deck below, altogether innocent of being condescendingly observed by the gentry-by-right-of-passage-money, jigged beside a tarpaulin-covered hatch to the pumping music of an accordion, and blew blithely on frosted fingers.

And round all over again, walking faster, turning from casual pedestrians into competitors in the ocean marathon. Faster. Cutting corners more sharply. Superior to thrusting wind, to tilting deck. Gaining on that lone, lean, athletic girl, and passing her . . . .

“That’s the way to walk! Say, Fran, I wonder if sometime we couldn’t get away from hotels and sort of take a walking-trip along the Riviera — interesting, I should think. . . . Darling!”

Gaining on but never quite passing that monocle-flashing, tweed-coated man whom they detested on sight and who, within three days, was to prove the simplest and heartiest of acquaintances.

A racing view of all their companions of the voyage, their fellow-citizens in this brave village amid the desert of waters: strangers to be hated on sight, to be snubbed lest they snub first, yet presently to be known better and better loved and longer remembered than neighbors seen for a lifetime on the cautious land.

Their permanent home, for a week; to become more familiar, thanks to the accelerated sensitiveness which is the one blessing of travel, than rooms paced for years. Every stippling of soot on the lifeboats, every chair in the smoking-room, every table along one’s own aisle in the dining salon, to be noted and recalled, in an exhilarated and heightened observation.

“I do feel awfully well,” said Sam, and Fran: “So do I. So long since we’ve walked together like this! And we’ll keep it up; we won’t get caught by people. But I must arise now and go to Innisfree and finish the unpacking of the nine bean rows oh WHY did I bring so many clothes! Till dressing-time — MY DEAR!”

He was first dressed for dinner. She had decided, after rather a lot of conversation about it, that the belief that our better people do not dress for dinner on the first night out was a superstition. He sauntered up to the smoking-room for his first cocktail aboard, feeling very glossy and handsome and much-traveled. Then he was feeling very lonely, for the smoking-room was filled with amiable-looking people who apparently all knew one another. And he knew nobody aboard save Fran.

“That’s the one trouble. I’m going to miss Tub and Doc Hazzard and the rest horribly,” he brooded. “I wish they were along! Then it would be about perfect.”

He was occupying an alcove with a semi-circular leather settee, before a massy table. The room was crowded, and a square-rigged Englishman, blown into the room with a damp whiff of sea air, stopped at Sam’s table asking abruptly, “Mind if I sit here?”

The Englishman ordered his cocktail with competence:

“Now be very careful about this, steward. I want half Booth gin and half French vermouth, and just four drops of orange bitters, and no Italian vermouth, remember, no Italian vermouth.” As the Englishman gulped his drink, Sam enjoyed hating him. The man was perfectly expressionless, like a square-headed wooden idol, colored like an idol of cedar wood. “Supercilious as the devil. Never would be friendly, not till he’d known you ten years. Well, he needn’t worry! I’m not going to speak to him! Curious how an Englishman like that can make you feel that you’re small and skinny and your tie’s badly tied without even looking at you! Well, he —”

The Englishman spoke, curtly:

“Decent weather, for a February crossing.”

“Is it? I don’t really know. Never crossed before.”

“Really?”

“You’ve crossed often?”

“Oh, perhaps twenty times. I was with the British War Mission during the late argument. They were always chasing me across. Lockert’s my name. I’m growing cocoa down in British Guiana now. Hot there! Going to stay in London?”

“I think so, for a while. I’m on an indefinite vacation.”

Sam had the American yearning to become acquainted, to tell all about his achievements, not as boasting but to establish himself as a worthy fellow.

“I’ve been manufacturing motor cars — the Revelation — thought it was about time to quit and find out what the world was like. Dodsworth is my name.”

“Pleased to meet you.” (Like most Europeans, Lockert believed that all Americans of all classes always said “Pleased to meet you,” and expected so to be greeted in turn.) “Revelation? Jolly good car. Had one in Kent. My cousin — live with him when I’m home — bouncing old retired general — he’s dotty over motors. Roars around on a shocking old motor bike — mustache and dignity flying in the morning breeze — atrocious bills for all the geese and curates he runs over. He’s insanely pro-American — am myself, except for your appalling ice water. Have another cocktail?”

In twenty minutes, Sam and Major Clyde Lockert had agreed that the “labor turnover” was too high, that driving by night into the brilliance of headlights was undesirable, that Bobby Jones was a player of golf, and that they themselves were men of the world and cheery companions.

“I’ll meet lots of people. And I like this ship. This is the greatest day of my life — next to my marriage, of course,” Sam gloated, as the second dinner gong flooded the ship with waves of hysterical sound and he marched out to rouse Fran from her mysterious activities.

There was awaiting him in his cabin a wireless from Tub Pearson:

BON VOYAGE STOP LONDON SURE SEE MY NEPHEW JACK STARLING AMERICAN EMBASSY LIVING GEORGIAN HOUSE STOP DONT RAISE ON BOBTAILED STRAIGHTS WISH WITH YOU TUB.

He wondered about introducing Major Lockert to Fran.

He was never able to guess how she would receive the people whom he found in the alley and proudly dragged in to her. Business men whom he regarded as upstanding and vigorous, she often pronounced dull; European visitors whom he found elegant, she was likely to call “not quite the real thing”; and men whom he had doubtfully presented to her as worthy but rather mutton-headed, she had been known to consider fine and very sensitive. And for all her theoretical desire to make their house a refuge for him and for whomever he liked to invite, she had never learned to keep her opinions of people to herself. When she was bored by callers, she would beg “Do you mind if I run up to bed now — such a headache,” with a bright friendliness which fooled no one save herself, and which left their guests chilled and awkward.

Would she find Lockert heavy?

While they sat in the music room over after-dinner coffee, with a dance beginning in the cleared space, Lockert came ambling up to them.

“Mr. Lockert — my wife,” Sam mumbled.

Lockert’s stolidity did not change as he bowed, as he sat down in answer to a faint invitation, but Sam noted that his pale blue eyes came quickly alive and searched Fran with approval. . . . Fran’s lovely pallor, in a robe de style such as only her slenderness could bear.

Sam settled back with his cigar and let them talk. To him, always, the best talk was no brilliance of his own, but conversation that amused Fran and drew her out of her silken sulkiness.

“You’ve been long in America, Mr. Lockert?”

“Not this time. I’ve been living in British Guiana — plantation — no soda for your whisky, and always the chance of finding a snake curled up in your chair on the verandah — nice big snakes, all striped, very handsome and friendly — don’t seem to get used to ’em.”

Lockert spoke to her not with such impersonal friendliness as he had for Sam, not with the bored dutifulness which most men in Zenith showed toward any woman over a flapperish eighteen, but a concentration, an eagerness in the presence of attractive women, an authentic need for women, which seemed to flatter Fran and to rouse her, yet make her timid. She had first looked at Lockert with metallic courtesy. “Here was another of those ponderous business men that Sam was always dragging around.” Now she concentrated on him, she forgot Sam, and murmured youthfully:

“It sounds dreadful. And yet so exciting! I think I should be glad of a nice striped snake, for a change! I’m terribly fed up with the sound, safe American cities where you never find anything in your chair more thrilling than the morning paper. I think I’ll go look for snakes!”

“Are you going East?”

“Don’t know. Isn’t it nice! No plans beyond London.”

“You’ll stay in London a bit?”

“Yes, if there aren’t too many Americans there. Why IS it that the travelling American is such a dreadful person? Look at those ghastly people at that second table there — no, just beyond the pillar — father with horn-rimmed spectacles, certain to be talking about either Coolidge or Prohibition — earnest mother in home-made frock out to hunt down Culture and terribly grim about it — daughter with a voice like a file. Why IS it?”

“And why is it that you Americans, the nice ones, are so much more snobbish than the English?”

She gasped, and Sam awaited a thunderbolt, which did not come. Lockert was calm and agreeable, and she astonishingly bent to his domination with a puzzled: “Are we, really?”

“Appallingly! I know only two classes of people who hate their own race — or tribe or nation or whatever you care to call it — who travel principally to get away from their own people, who never speak of them except with loathing, who are pleased not to be taken as belonging to them. That is, the Americans and the Jews!”

“Oh, come now, that’s idiotic! I’m as proud of being — No! That’s so. Partly. You’re right. Why is it?”

“I suppose it’s because your boosters go so much to the other extreme, talking about ‘God’s Country’”

“But that expression is never used any more.”

“It isn’t? Anyway: ‘greatest country on earth’ and ‘we won the war.’ And your ghastly city-boosting tours and Elks’ conventions — people like you hate this bellowing. And then I do think the English have, as you would say, ‘put something over on you’—”

“I’ve NEVER used the phrase!”

“— by sitting back and quietly assuming that we’re the noblest and rightest people on earth. And if any man or any nation has the courage or the magnificent egotism to do that long enough, almost every one will accept it from him. Oh, the English are essentially more insufferable than the Americans —”

“But not so noisy about it,” mused Fran.

Sam was not at all sure that he liked this discussion.

“Perhaps not,” said Lockert; “though if there’s anything noisier than the small even voice with which an Englishman can murmur, ‘Don’t be so noisy, my dear fellow —!’ Physically, it may carry only a yard, but spiritually it rings clear up through the Heavens! And I’ll be hearing it, now that I’ve become a Colownial. Even my cousin — I was speaking to your husband about him — absolute fanatic about motor transport — I’m to stay with him in Kent. And he’ll be pleasant to me, and gently rebuking — And he’s rather a decent old thing — General Herndon.”

“General LORD Herndon? Of the Italian drive?” said Fran.

“Yes. You see, my revered great-grandfather did so well out of cotton that he was rewarded with a peerage.”

“And you’re so proud of it! That’s why you enjoy your mock humility. You had a quite American thrill in admitting that your cousin is a lordship. It’s bunk — I mean, it’s nonsense, the British assertion that only Americans take titles seriously. You have as much satisfaction out of not calling your cousin ‘Lord’ as —”

“As any charming American woman would out of calling him ‘Lord’!”

She seemed helpless against Lockert’s bland impertinence; she seemed to enjoy being bullied; she admitted, “Yes, perhaps,” and they smiled at each other.

“But seriously,” said Lockert, “you’ll be more English than I am, after you’ve lived there a year. I’ve knocked about so much in South America and Colorado and Ceylon that I’m merely a tramp. Jungle rat.”

“You really think so — that I’ll become English?” She was unguardedly frank, she the ever-guarded.

“Quite. . . . I say, may I have this dance?”

Lockert, for all his squareness — he was as solid and ungraceful-looking as his favorite mutton-chop — danced easily. Sam drooped in his chair and watched them.

“Nice she has somebody to play with already,” he insisted.

And within three days she had a dozen men to “play with,” to dance and argue with, and race with around the deck. But always it was Lockert who assumed that he was her patron, who looked over her new acquaintances one by one, and was not at all shy about giving his verdict on them. She became helplessly angry at his assumptions, and he apologized so affably and so insincerely that she enjoyed quarreling with him for hours at a time, snuggled in a steamer robe on deck. And when Lockert and she found that they were both devoted to dogs and they became learned about wire-haired terriers, Sam leaned back listening as though she were his clever daughter.

Between times she was gayer with him and more affectionate than she had been for years; and day by day the casualness suitable to a manufacturer like Sam broke down into surprising, uncharted emotions.

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