World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 2

He could feel the strength flowing back into him, like a slow and steady sea tide, and that flowing life, that mysterious busy workmanship of nature, was repairing his broken arms, his contused skull, though it could not yet repair the bruised mind in which, incessantly, he agonized that he had killed his helpless child, Caprice, and with her killed the right to love.

He feebly wanted to get out of this, away from clucking nurses and Dr. Crittenham’s owlish peering and the horrible scrambled eggs and cold toast. He wanted to be working, to be taken seriously again as part of the cheerful world that goes daily to its work. But, hazily forming, more and more resentful, was a realization that for a long while yet he could not endure fussy clients: well-to-do women demanding tiled baths, an assembly-line kitchen, a forty-by-thirty living room and innumerable cedar closets, for the price of a four-room bungalow.

As indignant as though he were still in his office arguing with them, he remembered the mean and cheating determination not to be cheated which was characteristic of women who had never been in business: those tight lips, that smell of rotten carnations, that snarling, “Well, I must SAY, I thought a’ architect was supposed to look after folks’ interests, not try and rob them!”

He recalled whole families of clients: Father standing back, looking anxious, hoping that The Wife wouldn’t run him into too much money. Father himself would be satisfied with anything from a domestic tomb made of cement blocks to a Samoan grass hut, provided they got a good heating plant, but Sistie kept repeating that they must have a place to dance, and Junior had incessant new ideas: a closet for skis, a bowling alley, a swimming pool and, while they were about it, why not a four-car garage instead of a two-car shanty?

“I can’t take it! What they all demand! Now I know how the doctor feels when I complain about the diet here, and the injections!”

Nor could he take the demands of the unions, nor the shiftiness of tough contractors, nor the delays in bank loans nor, least of all, the violently active idleness of his older partner.

Jesse objected to the wages of the draftsmen, to time spent on twice-daily inspections of operations; he tried to wiggle into every new building job in town; and he repeated everything he said to you, repeated it with emphasis, as though — even when he had nothing weightier to communicate than the chance of rain today — he were revealing a message from Heaven.

Between the two sections of his thundering verbal trains, Jesse always put in a “See whatta mean?” He ruled, “Dead certain to be a cold fall, this fall, see whatta mean? Dead certain — whatta mean — a cold fall!”

Life could have been tremulous with noble emotions and cultivated senses — or so the poets informed him, Hayden sighed — and was he to spend its swift flicker in listening to an old miser bellowing, “See whatta mean”? Whenever Hayden had a notion for a warehouse that should be something more than a prison, Jesse protested, “You long-haired artists give me a pain. I’m a practical man!”

It was painful that while Jesse regarded him as an anarchist, the local Modernist and Functionalist and general Impossiblist, Mr. Kivi from Finland — DOCTOR Kivi — considered Hayden “a nize fella personal, but yoost anudder old-fashion architectural tailor, giffing the dumb bourgeois whateffer kind suitings dey tink dey vant.”

“I need, in fact, a year off,” reflected Hayden, “and I’m going to take that year off, and find out whether I can do anything more amusing than being batted over the net by Jesse and batted back by Kivi. I think that I would like to be a self-respecting human being, and even learn to read!”

He could amply afford the year off. As a young architect he had, on speculation, planned a large Merchandise Mart, and his share in that alone would give him a rather tight living. He renewed now his regret, in the prison of the wrecked car, that he had missed so many treasures of learning. Compared with Jesse Bradbin, he was an encyclopedia but, lying in bed, annoyed when the day nurse tried to entertain him with what she thought she remembered of a radio skit, he made lists of the things he did not know.

He knew nothing, very nearly, of Byzantine or Egyptian, Chinese or Hindu architecture. He spoke no foreign language — should not an educated man be able to speak French and German, along with Italian or Spanish? He had only a mail-order smattering of music, painting; he had never read Dante or Goethe nor anything of Shakespeare except the plays on which he had been spoon-fed at Amherst; he was innocent of chemistry and astronomy; and of history before 1776 he was certain only that there had been Gothic and Renaissance churches and that America had been discovered, from time to time, by a lot of Scandinavians and by a gentleman called Christopher Columbus, who had trained for it by continually standing eggs on end.

He had assumed that he would be classed as a Civilized Man. He wondered now if he was not a jungle-dwelling cannibal without even an expert knowledge of how to catch and cook prime human beings. How proud he had been that — to Caprice’s rage — on many evenings, instead of highball parties, he had gone to bed at nine-thirty and “got ten good hours of sleep.” Now he speculated that he had probably been wasting three hours a day of this too-brief life in snoozing like a hobo by the railroad tracks.

Could he make up for all that?

As a starter, he longed for first-hand sight of the Europe which is the mother of most Americans as it is of the Mongolian–Chaldaic-Saracen–Slav races who call themselves European. His nearest step to it had been a wander-month in England with a couple of classmates after their graduation from Amherst. The glory of the English cathedrals had decided him to be an architect, like his father. Before he could go on to the Continent, he had been called home by the illness of his mother. He had gone to a New York school of architecture, and that was the end of Romany Rye.

In World War II, he had been a major, but he had been kept in the United States, constructing miles of huts and warehouses. Before it, he had sat in on the designing of banks, office buildings, churches, but he had become a specialist in “medium-priced housing,” along with an occasional Labrador–Spanish palace for a stockman, or this very hospital that was his detention camp.

He loved Litchfield, Sharon, Williamsburg; he preferred the Georgian, and he had theories about developing a truly American style. He was called a plodder by all the Kivis, and in turn he disliked their bleak blocks of Modernist cement, their glass-fronted hen-houses, their architectural spiders with cantilever claws.

Yet now he wanted to desert his solid American brick and timber and flee to the stone and thatch of the heathen gods of Europe.

With all his dismaying thoughts, he excitedly worked out a philosophy of hope which he called the Doctrine of Recovered Youth.

He meditated upon it through the motionless hours when he awoke at three in the morning and could not sleep again till after breakfast. He heard the small derisive night noises: a policeman plodding down the street, a drunk singing, a wild ambulance screaming, a woman crying, then the banging of the ash cans. He looked for hours at the plaster walls and wished that instead of making this hospital crisp and hygienic, he had created an orgy of Alhambra harem decoration, to entertain sleepless patients suffering through the gray hours. Over and over he sighed about the lost wisdoms he had missed, till from nowhere, sharp, exhilarating, came the faith that he had not missed them, that they could be ahead of him.

The Doctrine of Recovered Youth. He was to spend no time in regretting failures but to concentrate on what he could do in a future that was ready to his hand.

He was not to think back fifteen years to the time when he was twenty, credulous and enthusiastic, when he was strong for walking, for singing, for making love. He was to look fifteen years ahead to the time when he would be fifty — and a fine, sound, competent age that was, too, when he ought to be able to eat and laugh and make love as well as ever. Compared with fifty, he still WAS young, he HAD recovered youth. Ah, the blazing wonders he was going to experience in these fifteen years ahead, with perhaps another twenty-five years on top of that! He was going to see all of the world so wide.

His acquaintances were presently allowed to call on him, and the strange thing, in his fast-recovering strength, was that he did not want to see many of them. He was impatient with the tedious past which these fellow-clansmen so tenderly dragged in, certain that he would be delighted to hear how everything had been going with Dear Old Bill Smith, the celebrated fisherman and drunk, delighted to get all the shivery details of the membership drive of the Bison Park Country Club.

It had been assumed, he himself had half assumed, that he was gregarious, fond of being yelled at by a dozen people in a small room, for this was expected of any competent professional man in Newlife. He discovered in this, his first pious retreat since college, that it had been an enforced habit, and that he preferred the sweetness of silence to even the newest smutty story.

But such treachery to American good-fellowship he kept concealed. He tried to be grateful to all the kind men who, at such inconvenience, during busy days, took off an hour to “run in and cheer up good ole Hay,” by bellowing at him, “Well, well, well, well, you certainly look fine today, you certainly do, you look well on the way to recovery, so take good care yourself, be sure and take care yourself now, and let me know anything I can do for you.”

They would have been shocked, Civic Virtue in Newlife would have rocked, if he had said, “There is one thing you can do: go away and don’t come back.”

The agonizing crisis of these visitations was when they stopped mid-sentence and he knew that, with obscene tact, they were avoiding even a natural mention of the dead Caprice, or when, instead, they dragged in her poor remains and overpraised her. He told himself that the profoundest reason why he wished they would forget Caprice was that he was in love with his purified memory of her. All round her shrine was a cloister where no heathen were allowed to tread.

He felt wan and reedy as he sat up in bed in his coarse hospital nightgown, while Jesse Bradbin, tilting back and forth, back and forth, in a straight chair, looked like a fly-blown leg of beef. Jesse held out his whisky flask with a roar of, “Try a nip of this — Mother’s Knee Bourbon. Your doc would throw a fit, but it’s time for you to get back in harness again, see whatta mean, get back in shape and have a little fun, see whatta mean?”

“Thanks, no. Uh — Jesse, I may take some time off when I’m out of the hospital.”

“What d’ you think you want to do?”

“I might skip out to California — try loafing in the sun, maybe catch up on my reading.”

“Well, I suppose a month of that wouldn’t hurt you, though it’ll be blame inconvenient.”

“Not a month. Maybe I’ll take a year off.”

“A— a YEAR? Great good suffering catfish! That accident knocked all the whatever sense you’ve got clean out of your head, see whatta mean, knocked out all what sense you got! You’re crazy as a loon! A YEAR? With a bunch of new contracts in sight?”

“I’ll find you a good substitute.”

“If you went and found me a Cass Gilbert — at thirty bucks a week — I’d still be dodging my duty toward you, as a partner, as an intimate friend, as a fellow-Coloradan, see whatta mean — dodging my duty. I got a moral responsibility toward you, now that Caprice has passed on. Got to be somebody to take care of you and get you straightened out and direct you and try to put some common sense and dependability into that damn-fool poetical brain of yours. No, sir-ee! The way to forget that poor girl and your own shaking up is to hustle and get back on the job and work harder than ever. You’ll be surprised how you’ll enjoy it, getting away from all this unhealthy THINKING! Back into the fray! You’ll enjoy it, see whatta mean — enjoy it. You always did like chatting and chinning and visiting with the lady clients, you old rogue! Heh, heh?”

“Got to have some sleep now,” muttered Hayden wearily.

But that missionary of manly enterprise, Mr. Bradbin, had not been entirely without moral effect. Hayden reflected, “To go back to the office now would be the most horrible punishment I can think of, and perhaps that’s why I must do it. I must endure a heavy penance to make up, in some tiny degree, for killing Caprice. Oh, she only wanted to dance in the sun! I murdered her, and her revenge is that I have never been so bound to her as now.

“I shall not look at another woman, all my life. I shall never be that romantic wanderer, that troubadour in a ribbon-tied jeep singing through Provence, that I dreamed of. Suffering has made me prosaic. I may just as well go back to the office and sell everybody on attic-insulation. I’m finished. If I were only twenty again, and strong and unafraid . . .”

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