Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 6

On their last day out — they were due in Southampton at noon, tomorrow — there was on the Ultima all the kindly excitement, all the anticipation and laughter, of the day before Christmas. When the Dodsworths came up to the smoking-room for their cocktail before dinner they were welcomed by the dozen people whom Lockert, the mixer of the voyage, had attracted to the round table in the center of the room.

What delightful people! Sam glowed; what a pleasure to travel with them: Lockert, the stolidly loquacious English adventurer; the jolly and vulgar little Jewish millinery buyer from Denver, who was quite the cleverest man aboard; Lechintsky, the pianist; Colonel Endersley, American military attache at Constantinople; Sally O’Leary, the satiny movie actress, whose real name was Gwendolyn Alcovar; kindly and ruminating old Professor Deakins, the Assyriologist; Max Ristad, the Norwegian aviator; Pierce Pattison, the New York banker.

“Come on, you’re late!” and “Sit down here; I’ve had mine,” and “We missed you!” they cried. They were as friendly as a college reunion, as free of jealousy, and just as undiscriminating.

The Jewish buyer had two new anecdotes (against his own race, naturally), and they flowed down to dinner in a group.

The Captain’s Dinner on the Ultima occurred on the last night of the voyage, and much was made of it. The dining salon was draped in scarlet, the stewards were in red hunting-coats, champagne was served at the expense of the Line. Even prohibitionists were betrayed into smiles which indicated that they wanted to keep up the friendships of this halcyon week. Toasts were drunk from table to table, with many bows, and the large Seattle contractor, who always overdid everything, threw confetti, and tonight no one minded his alcoholic philanthropy. The Comtesse de Val Montique, who had been born in Chicago, who owned nine million dollars, two chateaux, and part of a beautifully varnished husband, who crossed the ocean regularly twice a year and was so aristocratic that she had for friends only her servants, was moved tonight to look amiable as people passed her table. And the old captain, his beard like a whisk broom, went about the room patting shoulders and chuckling, “You cross again with Papa, eh?”

Sam was raised to a quivering sensitiveness toward all of them. He was not drunk, certainly, but after two cocktails, half a bottle of champagne, and a cognac or two, he was released from his customary caution, his habitual concentration on his own affairs. He was excited by their merriment at first; then it seemed to him pitiful that all of them, and he himself, should so rarely cease thus their indignant assertion of the importance of their own little offices and homes and learnings, and let themselves rejoice in friendliness. They seemed to him like children, excitedly playing now, but soon to be caught by weary maturity. He felt a little the lacrimae rerum of the whole world. He wanted to weep over the pride of the waiters as — the one moment on the voyage when they were important and beautiful and to be noticed — they bore in the platters of flaming ice cream. He wanted to weep over the bedraggled small-town bride who for the moment forgot that she had not found honeymooning quite so glorious, nor the sea so restful. And he saw as pitiful the fact that Fran expected to find youth again merely by changing skies.

All the while he looked as little sentimental as possible, the large, grave man plodding through the courses.

That was the great dance of the trip, with Japanese lanterns making the starboard deck curiously like the verandah of the Kennepoose Canoe Club, years and years ago, when he had found Fran. But he did not explain it to her. He couldn’t. He said, “I adore you! You look mighty well in that gold and ivory dress.” He had, indeed, little chance for sentimental explanations. No flapper aboard had more partners than Fran; certainly none danced so smoothly. Lockert was proprietorially about her, always, and to Sam he snapped, “Want to have you at Lord Herndon’s for a week-end, if you’ll come, and I’d like to show you a bit of London. We’ll dine at Claridge’s.”

Sam was not at all sure that Lockert would do anything of the kind; he suspected that Lockert could forget people as quickly as he picked them up; yet it gave him a feeling of belonging a little to England. And there was Tub Pearson’s nephew at the American Embassy, and of course Hurd, the manager of the London Revelation agency. He belonged!

He was emboldened to ask for a dance with Sally O’Leary, the movie queen who had made seduction famous.

“I’m not much good at this,” he grumbled, as the steamer rolled and they struggled to dance up-hill. “You ought to be dancing with one of these young fellows.”

“Don’t be silly! You’re a lovely partner. You’re a man, not one of these gigolos, or whatever the damn’ word is. If you didn’t have such a lovely wife, I’d probably lay my head on your lovely big chest and ask you to go out to Hollywood and kill a coupla lovely beauty-parlor cowboys for me!”

He was pleased to believe that she meant it. His heightened sensitiveness, his wistful perception of the loneliness of the world, was gone in a boisterous well-being. When he danced with Fran and she dutifully pointed out his roughness, he laughed. Always she had a genius for keeping herself superior to him by just the right comment on his clumsiness, the most delicate and needle-pointed comparison of him with defter men. But tonight he chuckled, “I’m no Nijinsky, but I’m enjoying myself so much that even you can’t make me mad!” He whirled her again, mercilessly; he slid gloatingly down the long deck, and marched her back to their table.

And, when Fran assured him they needed no more wine, there were joyful invasions of the smoking-room, where tablefuls of the shamelessly happy greeted him, “Come sit down!”

They liked him! He was Somebody! Not just as the president of the Revelation but in himself, in whatever surroundings!

He did sit down; he wandered from table to table in an ecstasy of friendliness . . . which became a little blurred, a little dizzy. . . . But they were the best company he’d ever known, everybody on board, all of ’em. . . . But he’d better watch out; he was slightly lit. . . . But they were the BEST folks —

He went out on deck, to clear his head; he swayed up to the boat deck. Then he stood fixed, and all his boisterousness vanished in a high, thin, clear ecstasy.

On the horizon was a light, stationary, ON LAND, after these days of shifting waters and sliding hulls. He waited to be certain. Yes! It was a lighthouse, swinging its blade of flame. They had done it, they had fulfilled the adventure, they had found their way across the blind immensity and, the barren sea miles over, they had come home to England. He did not know (he never knew) whether the light was on Bishop’s Rock or the English mainland, but his released imagination saw the murkiness to northward there as England itself. Mother England! Land of his ancestors; land of the only kings who, to an American schoolboy, had been genuine monarchs — Charles I and Henry VIII and Victoria; not a lot of confusing French and German rulers. Land where still, for the never quite matured Sammy Dodsworth, Coeur de Lion went riding, the Noir Faineant went riding, to rescue Ivanhoe, where Oliver Twist still crept through evil alleys, where Falstaff’s belly-laugh discommoded the godly, where Uncle Ponderevo puffed and mixed, where Jude wavered by dusk across the moorland, where Old Jolyon sat with quiet eyes, in immortality more enduring than human life. And his own people — he had lost track of them, but he had far-off cousins in Wiltshire, in Durham. And all of them there — in a motor boat he could be ashore in half an hour! Perhaps there was a town just off there — He saw it, from pictures in Punch and the Illustrated London News, from Cruikshank illustrations of his childhood.

A seaside town: a crescent of flat-faced houses, the brass-sheathed door of a select pub and, countrywards, a governess-cart creeping among high hedges to a village green, a chalky hill with Roman earthworks up to which panted the bookish vicar beside a white-mustached ex-proconsul who had ruled jungles and maharajahs and lost temples where peacocks screamed.

Mother England! Home!

He dashed down to Fran. He had to share it with her. For all his training in providing suitable company for her and then not interrupting his betters, he burst through her confidences as Lockert and she stood aloof from the dance. He seized her shoulder and rumbled, “Light ahead! We’re there! Come up on the top deck. Oh, hell, never MIND a coat! Just a second, to see it!”

His insistence bore Fran away, and with her alone, unchaperoned by that delightful Major Lockert, he stood huddled by a lifeboat, in his shirtsleeves, his dress coat around her, looking at the cheery wink of the light that welcomed them.

They had full five minutes of romancing and of tenderness before Lockert came along, placidly bumbling that they would catch cold . . . that they would find Kent an estimable county . . . that Dodsworth must never make the mistake of ordering his street-boots and his riding-boots from the same maker.

The smell of London is a foggy smell, a sooty smell, a coal-fire smell, yet to certain wanderers it is more exhilarating, more suggestive of greatness and of stirring life, than springtime hillsides or the chill sweetness of autumnal nights; and that unmistakable smell, which men long for in rotting perfumes along the Orinoco, in the greasy reek of South Chicago, in the hot odor of dusty earth among locust-buzzing Alberta wheatfields, that luring breath of the dark giant among cities, reaches halfway to Southampton to greet the traveler. Sam sniffed at it, uneasily, restlessly, while he considered how strange was the British fashion of having railway compartments instead of an undivided car with a nice long aisle along which you could observe ankles, magazines, Rotary buttons, clerical collars, and all the details that made travel interesting.

And the strangeness of having framed pictures of scenery behind the seats; of having hand straps — the embroidered silk covering so rough to the finger tips, the leather inside so smooth and cool — beside the doors. And the greater strangeness of admitting that these seats were more comfortable than the flinty Pullman chairs of America. And of seeing outside, in the watery February sunshine, not snow-curdled fields but springtime greenness; pollarded willows and thatched roofs and half-timbered facades —

Just like in the pictures! England!

Like most people who have never traveled abroad, Sam had not emotionally believed that these “foreign scenes” veritably existed; that human beings really could live in environments so different from the front yards of Zenith suburbs; that Europe was anything save a fetching myth like the Venusberg. But finding it actually visible, he gave himself up to grasping it as enthusiastically as, these many years, he had given himself to grinding out motor cars.

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