The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 37

The Villa Sophie, at Belfayol, on the Côte d’Azur between Hyères and St. Tropez, was a smart little pension, a respectable pension, a white pension streaked with purple bougainvillaea, on the beach, overlooking the fishing boats, with the tiny casino only two blocks away, and with victorias, in which no one ever seemed to drive, always standing in front of it. It had a tidy salon with Spanish arm-chairs, yellow marble-topped tables, grey marble floor, and gold-coloured curtains. Tea could be had in an arbour in the rose garden. And though the bedrooms were small, their long windows, opening like doors, gave on tiny iron balconies facing the full brilliance of the tideless sea.

At the Villa Sophie, in late April, Frederick William Cornplow & wfe, as it was stated in the pension register, were living the life of international culture de luxe, all modern improvements, lowest rates.

They had seen perhaps one half per cent of London (on the ‘side trip’ from Hull), of Rotterdam and Brest, of a Lisbon hysterical with the waxing Spanish revolution, of Capri by way of Naples, of divine Venice, of Ragusa, Athens and at last of Istanbul. (They blushed that they had ever called it ‘Constantinople’. Which name they went right on calling it, whenever they weren’t careful.)

At Istanbul, Fred was embarrassingly near to the golden road to Samarkand, and at Istanbul he was uncomfortable to a point of terror. He didn’t understand what they sold in these crazy littered shops; he didn’t know how to get a hot bath; he saw no Triumph cars nor ever heard a meaty American voice. He was a Heck Centre pup lost on Hester Street.

Though they had not known there was such a thing as a Jugoslavian steamer, a particularly trim and slim and black-and-nickel Jugoslavian craft had taken them back to Villefranche, whence they timidly drove to Belfayol.

In Ragusa they had received, and in the shadow of its old walls they had re-re-read, the cable from Sara saying that she had just been married to Walter Lindbeck, her boss, and could they rent the Cornplow home?

Yes, they could, Fred cabled, though he felt that with the den of their wolf cubs thus gone, and with Hazel daily more sprightly about the joys of Europe and the Great World, he would never be able to return now to the one place in the world he longed to see.

Early in March they had the cable from Howard that Little Nero had been born, that Little Nero’s name was Franklin R. Cornplow, and that ‘mother son self oke’.

So when they came, weary and eyesore and foot-aching, to the Villa Sophie, in April, they were for a certain time glad to feel they had found a new fixed home.

The guests of the Villa were very cosmopolitan, considered Fred and Hazel. They included a Belgian count, a Russian colonel and lady, a professor who, unlike most professors, looked like a professor, a Swedish sculptor who never seemed to do anything to rocks and whose favourite daily joke was that he was there ‘studying villasophie’, a mysterious lady in black who had nothing to recommend her except her mysteriousness, a fat Englishwoman called Lady Jaxon, five respectable but indistinguishable women, and a fat retired Irish contractor from Omaha, also with lady. The contractor was cheery and became Fred’s best friend and worst pest: his wife spoke of art and was studying French — as, suddenly, amazingly, Hazel seemed also to be doing.

In this international musical comedy troupe Hazel could not star as she had on the steamer, but she fitted, she loved their wan references to ancestral wealth; she became smarter and rosier, and daily keener about the pension’s communal sports: meals, swimming, anticipation of meals, boule at the casino, reminiscences about meals, shopping, and picnics with hot meals and bottles of white Bordeaux, on top of Mont Nid . . . Fred noticed that the fat contractor, the fat Lady Jaxon and his own plump self were invariably favoured with the bills for these picnics.

Hazel had first been awed at the be-titled company but within a month she was muttering to Fred, ‘Oh, these are nothing but small-time pension tramps. I’m looking forward to Monte Carlo and Paris, and then our cottage in England. Lady Jaxon — she really is top-drawer — she says we can get a perfectly ducky cottage near her Place in Devon. Would you like that?’

‘Uh — oh yes — sure — I guess so.’

‘Happy?’

‘Oh yes — sure!’

‘Oh, BE happy!’

But daily he felt more out of it, out of everything. In this alien land, with its funny language, nothing, not politics nor business nor manners nor food, was any of his affair. He was an outsider, merely tolerated, and without very definitely longing for home he wanted to be back where he could exercise the citizen’s precious privilege of kicking about the way everybody ran everything.

It seemed to be one of Fred’s typical mornings in this suburb of Samarkand.

He had successfully begged off from a morning’s motor trip to Bandol with Hazel, Lady Jaxon and the contractress. Hazel was so exceptional among American women that she understood that he might, without viciousness or secret plans of dissipation, want to escape so feminized an expedition. She didn’t suspect him of having an engagement with a Provençal enchantress. In this, unfortunately, she was right.

He sat alone, feeling alone and lost, drinking coffee at a café on the plaza, with the sea in front, the casino on one side, and on the other, the plaster railway station. If on the steamer he had been glad to avoid noisy inquiries about the state of his family, now he would have rejoiced if someone he had known long ago, almost anyone he had ever known, had come up behind him, assaulted his back and bellowed, ‘Well, you old so-and-so! What you doing here?’

He tried to read the last crop of American newspapers.

What was all this about this new labour organization called the Committee on Industrial Organization? He wasn’t sure what he could do about it, but he felt that he ought to dash right over to Michigan and show the boys, on both sides, how to act nicely. He puzzled over the President’s proposal to change the Supreme Court. He could do nothing here in Belfayol; these foreigners, these Frenchman, didn’t seem to think he was an authority on their politics; but if he were back in America, where he belonged, he’d certainly have something to say that would help the President.

In Belfayol, not so far from Spain, there was a backwash of the great rebellion; now and then he saw refugees, bewildered with bundles, but he had already discovered the queer fact of how little a world calamity changes streets and customs.

As he always did, when he was here alone, he studied the tramway passengers debarking at their end of the line. He saw a young couple, American by their voices, and longed to pick them up, but they were too worldly for him: the girl in slacks and sweater, the man in beret, flappy blue trousers, espadrilles. No. Prob’ly they had a villa up the mountain; prob’ly been coming here for years; prob’ly think he was only a vulgar tourist. Well, and maybe he was. But doggone it, in Sachem they didn’t think he was just a tourist.

More dramatic than the tramway was the railway station, at which the Paris train was now due. Sometimes whole squads of Americans got out. Once he had gloriously seen, coming from the train, a Kansas City man he had met at a Triumph convention in Atlantic City! The coachmen before the station were waking up; their horses were shaking off flies. The porters were streaming inside, yelling at one another as though war had started. The sellers of oranges were gathered. From the station straggled the passengers. Suppose there should again be a man from Kansas City! Or even from incomparable Sachem!

Fred watched the doorway like a trysting lover. He noticed a young woman in clothes that he guessed were American. She was carrying a very young baby and looking feverishly back at the porter, ahead at the carriages, shaking her head over the crowd’s volubility, comforting the howling baby — altogether clean flustered.

‘Wonder if I could help her any way?’ thought Fred, not much concerned.

Then he saw that the young woman was his daughter-inlaw, Annabel.

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