World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 4

He stared at the gangplank, that awning-covered bridge between the vast black wall of the ship and the surly black wall of the deckhouse. There was time; he could still go back and be a sensible architect, and not go off to a hostile camp where he knew no language, where he had no friends, no way of earning a living.

He watched the gangplank with apprehension. He saw the pier crew at the ropes, and he did not stir. And now the plank was drawn in, and his link to land, to America, to Newlife, to Hayden Chart of Chart, Bradbin & Chart, was cut, and he was in for it — an exile. And he did not feel that he had recovered youth at all. He was a tired man; too tired, surely, to make a new life or do anything but regret the old life that he had known as safe and profitable.

He had seen no one whom he knew coming aboard. The intolerably long lines of the deck planks belonged to a prison corridor. He drifted to his stateroom, but for all its pertness of cretonne bedcover and varnished wardrobe and a mechanical bunch of flowers, it was no place to live in; just big enough to contain him impatiently until it flung him out again, six days from now.

Already he knew what every exile before Dante or since has had to learn: that in the whole world only a few neighborly streets are interested in letting you live, and if you challenge strangers, “But I have the high purpose of exploring and conquering and colonizing my soul,” they yawn, “Oh, yes? But why do it here?”

So this was the joyous venture into the unknown that the novelists loved to talk about!

At the head steward’s window he asked for a table by himself in the dining salon. There, he dabbled at cavalcades of hors d’oeuvres and duck reeking with orange sauce, and went up to the Corinthian Smoking Room and was just as solitary and unspeaking as he had been below. It seemed to him that his fellow passengers were all a vast nonsense, and he could not see why any of them should go abroad.

Except for his hospital sentence, it was the first time in years when he had been alone, day after day, and for four days he felt abused and more misunderstood than ever. He suddenly found that he was enjoying it; that he had resented being alone here on shipboard only because for years all his acquaintances had believed that a man was not successful or even decent unless six people an hour were exulting, “Fine day, isn’t!” and sixteen were telephoning, “Well, we got a fine day all right! May I bother you for a couple minutes?”

It was a luxury more difficult than a great wine vintage to appreciate, to be able, hour by hour, to sit still and not try to sell himself and his charms to anybody — not even to himself. He decided, “I’ll get something out of this trip even if I never see a cathedral but learn to sit still in a café and not feel guilty at not jumping up and rushing around to save America.”

The life that had been flowing back into him became a full, sun-warmed tide; he became so sure of himself and his ability to do anything he wanted that he did not have to do anything to prove it. He spent hours walking the deck, contented with the companionship of beckoning waves and, as they approached land, of the gulls that were less birds than flashes of light.

He discovered that a ship is always the center of the enormous round of sea, the center and purpose of the universe, man’s justification of his skinny insignificance, and he landed at Southampton and climbed up into a compartment of the boat train with the holy peace of the hermit upon him.

He did most of the proper tourist things in London.

He ate roast beef and saw the guard-mounting at Buckingham Palace and viewed the crown jewels in the Tower — he agreed that they really did sparkle more importantly than even a windowful of costume jewelry in a five-and-ten-cent store. He drank bitter beer and admired all the tombs of all the kings in the Abbey. He liked the rows of houses, frowning and supercilious but somberly enduring, indifferent to publicity and the stare of strangers.

He supposed that he ought to be lively here where, any moment on any street, he might encounter Mr. Pickwick or David Copperfield or Sherlock Holmes or Sir John Falstaff or even Winston Churchill, those triumphs of the imagination, more fabulous than Lord Beaverbrook yet more real. But incessantly he remembered how, with his classmates thirteen years ago, he had experimented with these same omnibuses, listened to Cockneys in these same Whitechapel pubs, coursed through Hampstead Heath half the night, singing; and in contrast his solitude made him melancholy. Was it not sacrilegious for an old tragedian of thirty-five to thrust his lumbering gloom into the gay ghost company of two-and-twenty?

He did not consider himself particularly good company for anybody and, as on the steamer, he walked alone and silent. He used none of the letters of introduction which the magnates at home had heaped on him, urging, “Now be sure and look up my friend Bill Brown–Potts; swell guy — for an Englishman; just like you and me, Hay — plain as an old shoe, but a very important guy in the coke business, a good golfer with a lovely wife and kiddies.”

Hayden did not feel that even the most dependable old-shoe-ishness would raise his spirits. He was comfortable in London, particularly well fed, but he planlessly hired a car to go out and search for a flowery England of Anne Hathaway cottages. But he was broodingly unable to see even the most ivied tower as anything but a pile of stones till, inexplicably, the miracle of recovered hope and courage transformed him.

He was on the Cornish coast, looking from the mainland at St. Michael’s Mount: the castled isle, the cherubic little clouds, the gulls, the fishing boats drawn up on the flashing wet sand and, beyond them, in the sun, the sea that rolled down to Spain and Africa. Instantly, on his road to Damascus, the world so wide turned beautiful and free. It was worth taking, and it was his to take. There was no longer a pall of futility between him and the sun; he had truly recovered his youth; he was back in the magic and breathlessness of youth. He cried to himself, “Oh, LET yourself be happy!”

His soul lifted above all the several Hayden Charts that had hitherto trudged the road of indecision, dusty and self-doubting. That crustiest of taskmasters, himself, did let himself be happy.

Again he had that lift, definite as sudden music, on the steamer to Calais when first he left the England on which his other youth had staked out too many claims, and for the first time ventured on the new land that was so old beneath the towers of Eldorado.

At the American Express in Paris, there was a note from Roxanna Eldritch of Newlife:

“Dear Hay, welcome to our instructive little continent. I’ve been working hard, my editor seems to like my pieces explaining how Trouville, Montreux, etc. almost as good as Colorado Sprgs. Going to stay w. old sidekicks Mr & Mrs Solly Evans of Denver — oodles of money (inherited a railroad). They’ve taken a show-place villa at Cannes rite on the shore. They know yr cousin Edgar & heard all about you & be tickled pink if you joined house-party for few days, do come. Your friend, Roxy.”

Northern France was brown and drawn-in with late autumn, and when he descended from his train at Cannes, it was like the surprise of Pasadena: roses and palms and oranges and bamboo after the desert. There was a light, gay quality in the air. It seemed to have a sparkle of its own, and seemingly no one strolling in the streets of the old provincial town had any care more serious than the design to have another apéritif. And out on the Mediterranean, so ancient, so sacred, now first seen by Hayden, there were colored sails.

The Solly Evans villa was a rackety collection of terraces, yellow plaster walls, an old stone tower to which had been tacked a flimsy barracks of bedrooms, and a garden for oleanders and mammoth grape vines, all on the edge of the sea, with a rock-edged inlet for a swimming pool, and airy diving boards and scarlet-cushioned lounge chairs under orange-and-black sunshades. When Hayden crossed the terrace, ushered by a butler like a Chicago undertaker, he first saw his host, a thin, browned young man in a tattered rag for bathing suit, standing out on a diving raft, bouncing a chrome-and-glass cocktail shaker.

“You’re Hay, aren’t you? Hi! I’m Solly!”

And on a rock bench beside the pool Hay saw Roxanna Eldritch, in a French bathing suit which had, by the most skilled hands in Paris, been thoughtfully made to look twice as nude as any American bathing dress of one-half the dimensions. And when she ran to kiss him, though her kiss was a light tap on his cheek, rustic and innocent as Roxy herself had been on the train platform in Newlife, yet he had a dismaying urge to curl his hand about her bare waist.

“Good gracious!” thought the pious hermit.

He was introduced to fellow guests: an American miss with jolly eyes, hard mouth and hair like glass fiber, who had something to do with the radio in Paris, a young Brazilian who seemed to have no identity beyond owning a country house in Switzerland, an Irish aviator, a young man who was something important in an American bank in Brussels but who was English, real or synthetic, an excessively gloomy but rich older American manufacturer, a Spanish countess and a Swedish baron.

Among them the only one whose speech Hay could understand was the Swede, so feverishly did the others scream. When lunch came out from the main house, on wheeled wagons with things in aspic and two-litre flasks of wine, the guests and the host and lean, cheery hostess went off in shrieks in which Hayden could make out only such indigestible bits as, “Actually, it was too, too amusing,” and, “Actually, it was too unutterably foul.”

And with them, as passionately pointless as any of them, chattered Roxanna Eldritch, once of Colorado.

After lunch they all had a siesta which, they said languidly, was enforced by their admirable activity in dancing and gambling till three in the morning. Hayden could not settle down to a siesta. He sat grousing in his bedchamber, in which the white bed and the white wardrobe doors were adorned with carved garlands and indiscreet angels thickly gilded. He thought of Roxy as a dear daughter gone regrettably mad, and then as a very undaughterly girl with silky bare legs.

For the tennis hour, Roxy came out in a thin sweater and the shortest shorts Hayden had ever seen; and for eight-thirty dinner, she had a simple dress which, even to Hayden’s eye, had the simplicity of a masterful Parisian dressmaker; one which, as a cub journalist and daughter of a small beet-sugar exploiter, she certainly could not afford. It was of rather violent green, and could not possibly have gone with her red hair, and did.

He contrived to segregate her from the backgammon players for a talk, and it seemed to him that her slippery new slickness was not borne easily, but was a little defiant and head-tossing, as though she were saying, “I dare you to go back to that supid old Newlife and say that I’ve turned fast!”

The note she had written to him had been full of the colloquialisms of a soda fountain in Newlife, but her speech as she lolled, neat knees showing, among scarlet cushions on the gigantic eight-place davenport, was mostly a rattling imitation of the English bright young things.

“I can see you’re having a good time,” he said paternally.

“I’ve been up to my eyebrows in the most amusing madnesses! My new young man is the most appallingly brilliant young Hungarian writer. He writes plays, verses, novels, criticism, everything. I don’t think any of it has been published yet, but he’ll be another Evelyn Waugh. Actually. And the Baronessa Gabinettaccio, who is THE most beautiful and most immoral femme in Europe. Oh, SAY it, Uncle Hay! But don’t you think Baby has improved over here?”

“No.”

“You don’t?”

“No.”

“You might sugar it a little! Don’t you think these people are frightfully amusing?”

“No. And I liked you natural.”

“My dear man, I am natural now! It was when I thought porridge was something to eat that I wasn’t natural. Besides! As Dicky Floriat says, the post-war gen is too weary to live up to the ardors of being their simple selves. . . . Oh, don’t look so glum, Grampa Hay! You’re so middle-class. You dislike gaiety not because it’s immoral but because it’s gay.”

“I know. I’ve read some Oscar Wilde myself. But isn’t he slightly old-fashioned now? Sixty years ago!”

Solly Evans insisted that the gambling rooms at the Casino, over at Monte Carlo, were “great fun,” and Hayden went to them expecting a cinema circus of exiled grand dukes, with broad ribbons of honor across their shirt fronts, quaffing champagne from goblets and escorting ladies with tiaras and ermine, and, with the barbaric splendid laughter of the steppes, winning and losing millions of roubles. He expected, as guaranteed to him by Hollywood, Greek millionaires and Argentine cattle-kings and ruined princesses, in a somber magnificence rather like the new D. and R. G. Depot, and caviar handed about like paper napkins, and at least one suicide, nightly, at 11:17, of a young Englishman of high family.

He found plenty of magnificence at the Casino, but it was a magnificence in which large plaster lady roustabouts supported baroque pillars, and chilly young women were depicted walking through dewy meadows. Even in the inner gambling room, at the roulette tables there was not so much as one obvious duke, grand or Class B, but only faceless men in unpressed business suits and yellowing-skinned old women of a dozen nationalities, quietly hysterical as they risked, and so often lost, another fifty cents. One of them half rose from her chair each time she wagered, clutching her baggy throat as though she were very sensibly choking herself to death here and now.

These disinterred witches were either frowsy or too elaborately shingled and weather-sheathed; they were either twitchingly agitated or dreadfully still, so intent on play that nothing else existed for them. They were like corpses as the croupier swiftly and callously paid out or raked in the bone chips — dead men’s bones.

As Roxanna looked at these derelict remittance-women she shuddered. “I get what you mean, Hay! Yes. Let’s go have a wholesome banana split and then stay home and see a basketball epic on the television. I’m having a frightful vision! I’m married to a rich old monster over here and he dies and I’m so bored with all the other sensations that I come here to play, every evening. I live in a flat, like these old bags, and I don’t do anything till late afternoon, when it’s time to come and start gambling. Hay! Is Europe all played out?”

“No, no, no! You’d find just as dreary dope-fiends shooting crap in New York or Nevada — I guess. There is a great, stately Europe — I think. I want to find it, to know it, to KNOW!”

“Okay. I’ll go back to Paris and swap my commutation ticket at the Joujou Bar for a library card.”

But Roxanna’s estimable resolutions were sunk next day, when they came on a Sadie Lurcher Big–Name party at the Hotel Concilier, on Cap Attente.

The Concilier is so fashionable and international that it is not merely a luxury hotel — an inn, a boarding-house, though it is that, too, no doubt, with a vulgar balance-sheet and dividends — but a purpose in life. The bath towels are nine feet long, its food is as good as the average village inn, with more parsley, and all the clerks speak six languages, not so much to assist the accepted guests as to keep unwanted applicants away; to snub undesirable persons like American millionaires who cannot read French menus and even earls and countesses if they have been suspected of voting Labor.

To a small rich man like Solly Evans, when he dares to sneak in and buy a drink even in the larger and less exclusive Bayeux Bar of the Concilier, the waiter says “Yes?” as if Solly’s intrusion is an astonishing mistake and, unless he tips three times the amount of his bill, every waiter in the place turns into a revolving electric refrigerator, wheeling toward him and emitting a refreshing blizzard.

Sadie Lurcher was as fin de tout as the Concilier itself. She was a stringy lady, immensely tall and virginal, whose super-ambassadorial function was introducing munition magnates, minor royalty and theatrical comets to one another. She gave the most photographed luncheons in France, and nobody ever quite seemed to know how she financed them. As to her origin, there were different schools. She was variously reported as having been born in America, Scotland, Russia and Smyrna.

She owned a modest castle above Cannes, fifty-six rooms with fourteen habitable, but, for the greater convenience of the press photographers, she gave her more intimate luncheons at the Hotel Concilier pool, with its Petit Trianon Snack Bar, its vast rock-pool of lofty diving boards and a raft made of balsa wood and glass, and the world-renowned Picnic Plateau, up on a sea-fronting cliff, where lunches were served outdoors by a diplomatic corps of waiters in wigs and gold-laced mauve tail-coats. This was to distinguish them from the guests, for the richer, more notorious, oftener-divorced and wittier a male guest was, the more likely he was to wear, at Sadie’s repasts, nothing but shorts, sandals, a revoltingly hairy chest, and a toupée.

Today, Sadie Lurcher was giving one of her nobler luncheons on the Plateau. Her troupe included several ladies, beautiful or titled or rich, and among the men, all in the uniform of hairy chest and the light, easy friendliness that marks the more perfected snob, were some of the world’s most notorious names: an ex-king, an ex-commanding general, an English author so proud of everything British that he lived entirely in France, and two of the most titanic of the Hollywood hierarchy, freshly flown in to make a picture in Italy: a ducal producer, and a movie actor twenty-six times as famous as the President of the United States. You may see him scowling at you from posters startlingly encountered in back alleys in Greece or China, and his brilliant changes from barefacedness to wearing a ferocious beard are pictured in the newspapers of thirty-nine countries.

From their humble distance Roxy looked adoringly up at this Olympus, and snapped at Hayden, “It’s all very well to talk, but actually now, ACTUALLY, the international set like that has a wonderful life!”

“I know,” mused Hayden. “Yes. It was to transfer power from the munition-sellers and the old aristocracy to the airlines and the movies and the radio and oil, from the eugenic to the photogenic, that the young men died in the war and I heroically built a billion cubic feet of hutments. When I look up there at Rupert Osgoswold’s Hemingwayesque bosom in person, I feel rewarded. Roxy! Not so cheap!”

She looked at him irritably, and went off to get a cocktail.

He was to leave for Italy. Probably Roxy would be taking her newly excavated European glitter back to New York and become a streamlined career woman, lively and expensive and elegant, slippery as quicksilver and as hard. Himself, he would have a few weeks in Florence and Rome and Naples, and go home. He thought that now he could endure Jesse Bradbin and the querulous clients who wanted Louis Seize redwood.

He would be missing nothing in Europe. He had not made one friend here, and in Roxanna he had lost the one friend he had.

At the Cannes station, in a limp dawn when the palm trees were too damp to clatter and the sunshine-yellow awnings of the cafés were pulled up and dripping, he said good-bye to Roxanna and Solly Evans, who were mechanical and regretful and very sleepy.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/world/chapter4.html

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