World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 1

The traffic policemen and the two detectives from the homicide squad examined the tracks of the car and were convinced that a soft shoulder of the road had given way.

They had been returning from Bison Park, after midnight but quite sober. Hayden Chart was driving the convertible and hating his wife, Caprice, and hating himself for hating her. He was not given to grudges and, despite her glitter of pale-green dinner dress and her glitter of derisive gossip, Caprice was a simpleton who no more deserved hatred than did a noisy child. But she did chatter so. It wore Hayden down like a telephone bell ringing incessantly in an empty house.

She gabbled, “Jesse Bradbin is so dumb! He’s an absolute hick, and he’s about as much of an architect as my left foot. Why couldn’t you get a smarter partner? And IS he a lousy bridge player! Is he ever!”

“He’s not bad.”

“No, it’s his cluck of a wife that really gets me down. In my candid opinion, Mary Eliza Bradbin is the worst dose of vinegar in Newlife; the most hypocritical combination of piousness and secret drinking I ever ran into. And always criticizing some poor bunny. You pretend like you like everybody, but even you got to admit Mary Eliza is a pain in the neck. Isn’t she, huh? Isn’t she?”

“Yes. Stupid. But means well,” said Hayden Chart.

“She means poison, that’s what she means!”

The scolding did not become Caprice, thought Hayden. She was elfin, tiny and quick and rose and pale gold, given to affectionate giggles in between her miaows. If she would only shut up, he sighed, he could go on loving her like a dutiful husband — perhaps.

He longed for silence. Especially on a moony night like this, driving on smooth cement with this suave engine, he liked to look up at the mountains against the moon-pale sky, to look with satisfaction at the houses he himself had planned in these comely new suburbs of Newlife, “the fastest-growing city in Colorado”— Newlife, with its skyscrapers set among flat one-story supply-houses for silver miners and sheep-ranchers; Newlife and its symphony orchestra, with a Spanish conductor, playing in a Renaissance temple where a fiery dance-hall had stood but twenty years before. Newlife had swollen from 30,000 to 300,000 in thirty years, and it expected a million in another thirty.

And in Newlife no firm was more enterprising than Chart, Bradbin & Chart, architects: the heavy-handed Jesse Bradbin, aged sixty, and the thirty-five-year-old Hayden, who was slim and compact and patient, and given to playing tennis and reading biography.

He did not know Caprice. It would always be his fault with women that his imagination darted into their inner minds, thought with and through their minds. He took their side even against himself, and saw to it, thus, that he invariably lost in the war against women.

He could not even be thunderous with a woman client guilty of the most sickening of crimes (except for not paying the bill): wanting what she wanted in a house and not what the architect knew was good for her. He was both maddened and sympathetic now when Caprice, exasperated at not having made him pay more attention to her, started all her little tricks of propaganda, which mutely shrieked, “Notice me — notice me!”

Holding it visibly high, from her lizard-skin evening bag she took out her gold-link purse; out of the purse she took a package in silver paper; out of the silver paper she took the prize she had just won at bridge: a brooch of imitation jade. Then she wrapped up the brooch, put the silver paper in her purse, put the purse in the bag, loudly clicked the bag shut, loudly clicked it open again, took out the purse, took out the silver paper . . .

She was capable of doing this over and over until he testified to her powers of torture by scolding her.

But tonight his anger at her petty bullying was lost in pity that, at slightly over thirty, she should still have the mind of a child delighted by any sort of gift. He made himself say to her, civilly, “That’s a nice jade charm. I’m glad you won it.”

Now that she had made him recognize her presence, she returned to her gabbing, but more spitefully; she did what she gleefully called “needling him a little.”

“But you, big boy, were YOU ever terrible tonight! You played worse than Mary Eliza. You got no more card sense than a zebra. But what amused me, when it didn’t get me sore — oh, you didn’t think I noticed; you think you’re such a smoothie about covering up your sniffing around after women — what had me sunk was the way you kept sneaking in a look at Roxanna’s ankles and Alice’s buz-ZOOM and Jane’s god-awful lipstick. You’d be THE most ridiculous tail-waving cat out on the tiles, if it wasn’t that you’re such a coward!”

His irritation, sparking into wrath at this injustice, may have made his hand twitch on the steering wheel, or it may have been entirely the soft shoulder of the highway caving in. Whichever, the car was suddenly and appallingly shooting off the embanked road, and as he protested, “This can’t be happening to me!” they were turning over and over in air.

There was something comic in that grotesque horror. The roof was below him, then the car upended like a rearing horse, then his head had struck the roof and afterward the windshield, then the whirling cosmos banged down, and the side window was below him, on the earth, then up beside him again, and they were still. The huge noise dissolved into a huge blank silence, and the car shook like a panting animal. They were tilted, but nearly right-side-up.

He thought that his head was bleeding and both his arms broken and he knew that he was very sick and that Caprice was not there beside him.

“Where are you? Darling!” he was screaming — he was trying to scream, while he realized that his voice was choked. He thought he could hear a small shaky answer from her, but he was so dazed that he could not be sure whether it was a moan or a sneer. With agony he managed to turn his head enough to make out their situation. With a freakishness like that of a tornado, Caprice seemed to have been thrown into the shallow back seat, and the light fabric top of the convertible had been so deeply dented that she was imprisoned there, with only an aperture between the two seats large enough for him to hear her sobbing; not large enough for either of them to pass. In any case, he could not move far. He was jammed between the seat and the twisted steering post. The glass had been ripped clear out of the windshield; it seemed to have slashed his scalp.

“Caprice!”

“Ohhhhhh . . .”

“Can you move? Can you reach me?”

“Ohhhhhh . . .”

“Are you hurt badly?”

“I don’t know. . . . Oh, yes, my neck — hurts dreadfully.”

More than the pain which beat in a steady rhythm of agony in an arc that traversed his head, he felt anxiety for her — with her poor, pretty jade charm. For perhaps the first time this past year or so, he felt not just a resigned endurance of her malice, but an active affection, a desire to sacrifice himself to help her.

He was trying to shout for help, expecting to be rescued, to have aid at once. But his voice was a parched trickle, weak as that of an ailing baby. He struggled to raise his head from the cool upholstery against which his cheek rested, and look through the empty windshield frame. He perceived, in a dull, sick way, that they were in a brush-thick hollow far down below the level of the highway, hidden from it. Even were it not night, they would not be seen, be heard, from any of the rushing automobiles whose lights, innumerable and swift, level comet-tracks, were darting above them, with the steady swish of tires on cement.

Caprice and he might lie here, bleeding, stranglingly thirsty, for many nights and days.

He could hear Caprice’s voice, in a tiny angry scolding:

“Inexcusable carelessness, and you always claim to be such a good driver and then practically killing me!”

He agreed with her. He did love her so much! If he had of late thought himself indifferent to her, it had been only the self-absorbed busyness of a craftsman, he told himself.

He was not sure just how conscious she was, back there, as she prattled away more and more spitefully:

“Why don’t you DO something? Get out and get some help, not sit there and wait for somebody to find us! Always so helpless and never, never think about what I may want or need or anything!”

A snigger then of dainty malice, the cat sniggering as it patted the dying mouse:

“Oh, not you! Always so high-and-mighty and cultured, telling everybody about these big thick history books you’re always reading, and you never really finish any of ’em! Ridiculous spectacle of yourself, and everybody laughing at you. Pretending you’re so hot and bothered about classical music and oh yes, of course, just have to have it on the radio when you’re reading, and never hear one note! Oh, I’ve proved it! I’ve switched it to jazz and you never even noticed. Not mind your being so phony if you weren’t so clumsy about it and everybody gets onto you — what a goat!”

In his mind he pleaded with her, “Don’t, oh, please don’t, not now when I’ve turned back to you. Let me go on loving you!”

His head seemed to have stopped bleeding but it was all a thick mass of aching, his throat was dry as a desert water-hole, and he could not make out a word now as she cackled on, delirious and incomprehensible. He was losing account of time. Had he passed out, had he been unconscious?

They could both die here before they were found. Was this the end of everything?

“Is this all I’m going to get from life? I’ve done so little and seen so little out of all I wanted. In college, that Kipling thing, ‘For to admire and for to see, I’ve wandered o’er the world so wide.’ I was going to see everything, everywhere.”

He made a monstrous list of the things he had wanted, now that it was, no doubt, too late ever to do them. To be state tennis champion. To camp in British Columbia and have a winter in the Caribbean. To speak French and live in Paris and know wines and meet dashing actresses and wise old men with spade beards. To live for months overlooking a monastery garden, mystic and contemplative.

(It would have to be an Episcopal monastery, though, wouldn’t it? His great-great-grandfather had been Church of England Bishop of North Carolina.)

And — a familiar dream which he had illustrated with drawings on stray envelopes — now he would never build that prairie village which was to have been all housed in one skyscraper: the first solution in history of rural isolation and loneliness. He could have done it, too! He was amazed that these hands, this aching brain, so hotly alive now, might at a moment crumble in dissolution.

Too late? But if he did get free from this prison, he would renounce his routine provincial life and follow every one of his fantasies.

Surely Caprice would come with him — PERHAPS she would. There were no children to consider, even after their eight years of marriage, nor did Caprice really want any. At thirty-five, with enough money earned by himself or inherited from his father, who had founded their architectural firm, he was freer than at eighteen.

With his even tan, his small mustache, his erect slenderness, Hayden Chart might have been a Scotch major or a Yorkshire man. His face was thin, and people said that his eyes were kind. In a business world where so many hustlers like Jesse Bradbin were inclined to be damply enthusiastic and clammy to the handshake, there was a fine, dry, hard quality about Hayden, the quality of a polished dagger.

The dagger had been too long sheathed.

Caprice was still muttering on, scarcely heard, with a sound like dry leaves shifting in an autumn breeze. His pity for her grew more passionate. She was so youthful, at thirty-one; she had so loved this new automobile and everything in their new Georgian brick house, from the deep-freeze and the red-and-black tiled rumpus-room to her dressing room, all crystal and frilly curtains. With a heartier, blunter, more alcoholic husband, she would have exulted in a life of dancing and risky gambling. He had always hurt her, Hayden sighed, and he hadn’t meant to, he never had meant to.

He was keeping up, this while, an effort to shout which mangled his throat yet seemed no louder than a moan. But he may have been heard.

Near them, a match was lighted and held up, revealing the twisted hood of the car and a scared, bearded, rustic face peering in through the windshield frame. Hayden managed a gasp of “Get help!” The match went out, and his battered consciousness went out with it.

In a shaky dream he saw or thought he saw the car flooded with light from a wrecker, felt himself being eased out from behind the steering wheel and lifted from the car, and swift surgical fingers about his scalp and his arms. His mind faded again, complete, and he never knew whether he had seen or merely thought he had seen the broken, still body of Caprice. For years he seemed to have been protesting, “Such a pretty toy and so frail; they shouldn’t have hurt her.”

He came clearly to in a hospital, with his head bandaged and Dr. Crittenham, their mild indecisive family physician, by the bed. He felt miraculously safe, and not for two days did he know that Caprice had been buried the day before, and that he was desolatingly free to wander in a world too bleakly, too intimidatingly wide.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/world/chapter1.html

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