World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 3

The day nurse, who considered Mr. Hayden Chart an edifying but somewhat depressing model of dignity who “will never give any skirt a tumble since his wife had passed away,” was surprised by the vigor with which he demanded, “Show her right in!” when she announced Miss Roxanna Eldritch.

Roxanna Eldritch — Roxy — had been a friend of Caprice, as fond as she of gin-rummy and skiing and aquaplaning, but three or four years younger and altogether a more solid and good-tempered citizeness. She was a reporter on the Newlife Evening Telescope, and she wrote not only of Society and its fabulous orange-flavored weddings (or Nuptials, if the groom made over ten thousand a year) but capably handled general assignments: interviews with lecturers and with remarkably intelligent horses, hardware-association dinners, and even such big news as an alderman’s explanation of how he had just happened to pick up on the street the marked bills found in his desk.

Roxy came in like a shy mouse, but a mouse that will immediately start waltzing if the cat is asleep. She was a smallish, blue-eyed redhead, with the richest deep-copper hair, and the fair skin and jaunty freckles of the redhead. She was not plump, and her ankles were fine-drawn, but she was rounded and appetizing. Even old friends of her father, an unimportant beet-sugar broker, though they feared that Roxy would laugh at them, found it hard to keep their hands off her.

Sometimes, in white flannel at ten in the morning, she looked twenty-two and ready for tennis; sometimes, late in the evening, she looked an old, old, haggard twenty-nine, a veteran who has met too many public men and heard them boasting, for the benefit of Press & Public, of how many extraordinary things they were going to do as soon as this astonishing grand-jury indictment was quashed.

She stood in the doorway, glancing sharply at Hayden as he yanked a red-and-yellow Navajo blanket about his shoulders and smoothed his hair.

“My gracious, you look like a lily!” said Roxy. “How’s everything in Astolat? Elaine back from Camelot yet? But honestly, Hay, you’re in wonderful shape. I am so glad!”

Her voice was warm and kind, though it did have a bit of western flatness, the voice of a bird flying at dun twilight over the western plains.

“I’m getting all right, Roxy. Nice you came.”

“Sit down a minute? Really came to ask you whether you’d like cigarettes or candy or detective stories. I’m sure you’ve had too many flowers.”

“Enough so that they rather horribly suggested a funeral. The steamfitters’ union sent me about half a mile of forget-me-nots. I thought that was rather sinister.”

“When do you think you’ll be ready for some tennis, Hay? I’m your man. You’ll have to be careful, and of course I gambol around the court like a furniture truck, but you’re so much neater than I am that you’ll still lick me every set.”

He had been thinking that she was very like Caprice, that essentially she WAS Caprice, was every dance-mad, cocktail-gulping young female in Newlife, but he reflected that, no, Roxanna had more humor, sympathy, industry than the Caprices. But he was jarred to find, in the zest with which he looked at Roxy’s luscious throat and breast, that he had fallen with ludicrous haste from his mystic worship of Caprice’s wistful and shadowy image.

Roxanna could not have noticed any ruefulness in him. She was too excited about making her announcement:

“I just wanted to say, if we do get in any tennis, it will have to be quick, because as soon as I get my passport and learn how to say ‘Where’s the depot?’ in English English, I’m going to Europe. By myself!”

“No!”

“My managing editor — next year there’ll be a lot of pilgrims from here going to Rome and so on for the Holy Year, and he allowed it might be a good idea to get the lowdown on what makes there now, all over Europe. I’m to do a series for the Telescope and outlying sheets on how you eat and sleep and per combien on good American dollars — or is it par combien? — in the Old Country. Oh, Hay, I try to be flippant about it, but I’m awed to death and scared to death! Think, pal, I’ll be seeing English rose gardens and the midnight sun in Sweden and Paris cafés and the Colosseum!”

It was at that moment that, without knowing it, Hayden started for Europe.

There were hesitations, worries, preparations to be got through. Dr. and Mrs. Windelbank called on him. He was a dentist with a taste for attending lectures, about which he discoursed to patients when he had them racked in the chair with cotton rolls in their mouths, and his lady gave talks on gardening. They came in now to boast that they too were going to Europe, and not on one of your ridiculous three-week tours. No, they would fly across and have an entire month just for sightseeing, with two entire days in Venice, two in Florence, and three in Rome!

For years the Windelbanks had gloried in their annual adventures: their journeys to Mexico, to Alaska, and the Famous Homes of New England, including Coolidge’s, and they implied that Hayden was a stick-inthe-mud, without imagination.

Clearly, he had to go and spend a couple of months abroad in revenge upon these loving neighbors. Yet even this natural human spite may have moved him less than the superiority of Dr. Kivi.

That priest of Modernism in Architecture came in as condescendingly as a duke or a headwaiter, and when Hayden fretted. “Do you think I would get much out of seeing Europe as it is now, Maestro?” the Finnish orchid seemed amused.

He was made up to look the great artist, with bushy hair, bushy mustache, black bow tie with bushy canary-colored waistcoat — a squat man, full of salt herring and energy. He hated his titanic rivals, Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright and Neutra and Saarinen and Van der Rohe; he said “efen a gang of carpenters like Chart–Bradbin are better dan dose swindlers dat mess on de sacred name off Modarnism.” He looked at Hayden not with loathing but with such fondness as one might give to a silky Pekingese — if it stayed out of your armchair. He said blandly, “Vy not go? Even an American bourgeois can look on naked beauty vidout much injury, as my friend Sibelius iss often saying to me. But as you don’t know de t’ree t’ousand years of history, as you neffer had a Kinderstube, don’t expect too much or you vill be ferry lonely and disappointet.”

Afterwards, Hayden grumbled to himself. He recalled rumors that Dr. Kivi had no bracing Finnish blood in him at all, but was actually a German named Hans Schmuck. But to Hayden he was formidable. He had seen Kivi beat the local chess champion who, being named Perkins, could not conceivably rival a master who smelled of beer and gherkins. In Denver, Hayden had heard Kivi publicly affirm his faith:

“I am not going to let my clients haf all the pingpong tables and leetle antique furniture they vant, efen if I go broke and take to honest farming.” That Augustinian creed had set all the Rocky Mountain architects debating, and enabled Kivi to charge an extra thousand dollars on every house.

But Kivi’s discouragement built up in Hayden a stubborn Western–Yankee resentment. Probably, he admitted, he was nearer to the capering Kivi than to the mulish Jess Bradbin. He vowed, “All right, I WILL go abroad! I’ll learn at least one language, and I’ll bring back more of the genius of Rome than this bounding baboon Kivi could ever understand!”

The news enlivened Newlife that Hayden Chart was going abroad. Himself, he was not yet quite sure, and he did not remember having told any one definitely, but in that ardent community, so proud of having transcended the village and become urban and urbane, every one knew your affairs better than you did. His neighbors came to the hospital to give him advice based on affection and a superb ignorance of both Europe and Hayden. In World War II, some hundreds of local young people had campaigned in Italy and France, and the general city belief was now, and for another ten years probably would be, that all through Europe “conditions” were exactly what they had been in a bombed city in 1944.

“Be sure and take along plenty of soap,” they urged him, “and toothbrushes and sugar and toilet paper and aspirin and razor blades, and you better carry plenty of food. I’d advise your taking some nice boxes of crackers and a few cans of pork and beans. And HUNDREDS of rolls of film for your camera.”

“I’m not going to take a camera — if I decide to go at all,” said Hayden.

“You’re — not — going — to take a — CAMERA?” they howled. “Then what are you going to Europe for?”

“Post-card photographs would be better than anything I could take.”

“Good Lord, Hay, I shudder to think what’s going to happen to a poor innocent like you among them pirates! I never been in Europe — PERSONALLY— but I been reading where right in Paris you got to bring your own bed sheets, even in the best hotels!”

Often in any country of Europe, months later, when he stood admiring show windows that were positively a Versailles of soap and toothbrushes and inconceivable millions of razor blades, he sighed to think how unknown this frontier wilderness called Europe was to that ancient home of decorum and conservatism, America, so hoary with outdated wisdom that it could not appreciate the venturesome young barbarians of Rome and London.

Many among these valued neighborhood counselors begged him not to go at all. “Or if for some fool reason you feel you simply got to, don’t go making a fool of yourself blundering around alone,” they implored. “Join some nice conducted tourist party of twenty or thirty, and they’ll tell you what to see and just when to see it, and what hotels to stay at, and you’ll always have some folks from home to visit with, wherever you are, and not go crazy with loneliness, or have to depend on natives with their queer ideas!”

The chief among his guardians was Jesse Bradbin.

“I guess the Old Country was all right in its day, but now we got the world by the tail; we got the bulge on Europe not only in banking and university work and the soft-drink business, but in architecture and even in music and story-writing and all that guff. A European guy that wants to make good in any high-class artistic racket today has got to come to America — hat in hand. But then, you and I are alike. We don’t fall for the arty pose. We know that it’s just another way of making a living and cashing in big — like the chain-grocery game. No, no. Come to your senses and have a nice sensible rest, playing golf in Florida for maybe couple weeks, and get back to work. Then you’ll thank me for having steered you away from your schoolboy notions about going off half-cocked to the Old Country. Yes-sir-ee! You’ll thank me big!”

Hayden lay fuming that Bradbin, after knowing him for thirty-five years — ever since his first day in this surprising and slightly unsatisfactory world — should not know him at all, and yet should often dare to explain him to others. He reflected that he was like Bradbin in being industrious and in always paying his bills on the second of the month, but that otherwise he was less like Bradbin than like the clammiest, dirty-haired Left Bank female pseudo-painter whose only completed designs, year after year, were patterns of wet rings on smoke-dizzy café tables.

He sighed, “And I wonder if Caprice knew me any better? Or anybody else in this town, except maybe Roxy Eldritch? The rest of them think I’m a steady, contented, home-loving man of business. And I’m a tramp that only wants to see new towns and learn to read Plato in the Greek. Or I think I am!

“Do I know myself any better than they do? I must voyage away from everybody who is familiar with the shape of my nose and the contents of my checkbook, find a world where I’ve never seen a soul, and so find some one who knows what I’m really like — and who will tell ME, because I’d be interested to learn!

“What I want is less to voyage in any geographical land than travel in my own self. I may be shocked by what I find there. Maybe I’m not the master of my fate and the captain of my soul. Maybe the real captain is a foul-minded sadist and I’m his scared cabin boy. All right! That’ll be no worse than being the safe and busy Young Mr. Chart, whom you can always count on for a subscription!”

He was, then, planning to take abroad with him something even more important than his folding slippers or a dependable can of pork and beans. In accordance with his own Doctrine of Recovered Youth, he was going to take a defiant young man who was willing to burn his own house, destroy his own city, so that he might in fiery freedom see all of this world so wide.

In college days, the art of reading had given to Hayden prospects of a richer universe but, like most of his classmates thirteen years later, he was sometimes inclined to consider books a genteel way of getting through the desert hours between dictating business letters and playing bridge. But he had not quite lost them; he had followed the novels of Hemingway and Steinbeck and Willa Cather, he had read at history, mostly the history of America since 1776, according to Van Doren, De Voto, Durant, Holbrook — scholars who believed that the purpose of scholarship is to nourish human beings, not professors of pedagogy.

Jesse Bradbin read only an architectural magazine which dealt pontifically with Costs and Accounting and in the newspapers read the murder trials and the national weather reports. Jesse could, and firmly did, tell you what the temperature was yesterday in Abilene, Texas, Butte, Montana, and Trenton, New Jersey, and the comparative snowfall in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, on this same date in 1944, 1934, 1924 and 1870. Caprice had read only the society page, the fashion notes, and those same murder trials. Both of them regarded Hayden as a Francis Bacon, and he had been tempted to that thought himself till now when, in growing horror, he decided that he was an unlettered hillbilly.

“We’ll repair some of that, as soon as we make the voyage and look into who this zero, Chart, really is and whether, with his miraculous new youth, he is worth saving!”

He leapt into an orgy of books, most of them obligingly fetched to him by his friend, the city librarian: Walter Pater, Jacob Burckhardt, Thompson and Johnson’s epic Introduction to Medieval Europe, and the good red guidebooks of the good gray master, Herr Baedeker. Europe came to him not as a heap of abraded stones stenciled with dates, but as a dome filled with the softest chanting, broken by the shout of young warriors.

Before he left the hospital for good, he was able to take a few drives. He avoided even a sight of his own house, but he was in the gang which saw Roxanna Eldritch off for New York and Europe: Miss Roxanna in a flying, mouse-gray cloak, holding a bunch of red roses, herself a red rose, a flushed and rosy American missionary to the gloom of Europe. She waved to them and then her face puckered and she was crying — not the dashing lady journalist, but an affectionate child.

His dreaming in the hospital seemed to him the only reality, and reality an uncomfortable dream, when he unlocked his wide white front door and walked into the hallway with its pictorial wallpaper of beaux and ladies in victorias. He stared at the living room: the chintz chairs, the tall white fireplace, the ruby and emerald and apricot of liqueur bottles pyramided behind his mahogany bar.

He looked at their bedroom: the chaise longue, the tapestry wallpaper, the black and silver desk. Though he had designed it all himself, it seemed to him a dream of luxury fabulous and wasteful and a little vulgar.

The whole house was a dead thing now that it was deserted by Caprice’s yelling and flouncing and running up — and downstairs and telephoning violently and for hours. A dream and a languid, draining dream then was his hasty giving-away of Caprice’s clothes and her poor treasures: the silver-gilt vanity case, the onyx desk-set, her stout little ski boots, the flimsy bathing suits that she had loved. It was a dream of a life in which he had been busy and important and well-bedded and well-fed and had glowingly possessed everything except friends and contentment and any reason for living: a dream, a fable, a caricature of grandeur.

He first awoke from dreaming when he found himself telephoning to a travel agency about sailings for England, and awoke again when he stood on the promenade deck of the steamer, in October, looking wonderingly down at the horde of two classmates who were seeing him off. He tried to remember where he was going and just why he was going there.

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