Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 10

There came in for dinner only a neighbor, whose name was Mr. Alls or Mr. Aldys or Mr. Allis or Mr. Hall or Mr. Aw or Mr. Hoss, with his wife and spinster sister. Because of the British fetish of unannotated introductions, Sam never did learn the profession of Mr. Alls (if that was his name) and naturally, to an American, the profession of a stranger is a more important matter than even his income, his opinion of Socialism, his opinion of Prohibition, or the make of his motor car. Listening to the conversation, Sam concluded at various times that Mr. Alls was a lawyer, an investment banker, a theatrical manager, an author, a Member of Parliament, a professor, or a retired merchant whose passions were Roman remains and race-track gambling.

For Mr. Alls was full of topics.

And all through the evening Sam kept confusing Mrs. Alls and Miss Alls.

They were exactly alike. They were both tall, thin, shy, pleasant, silent, and clad in lusterless black evening frocks of no style or epoch whatever. Against their modest dullness, Fran was a rather theatrical star in her white satin with a rope of pearls about her gesticulatory right arm . . . and she was also a little strident and demanding.

When Sam was introduced to Mrs. Alls (or it may have been Miss Alls), she said, “Is this your first visit to England? Are you staying long?”

Contrariwise, when he was introduced to Miss Alls (unless it was Mrs. Alls), she murmured, “How d’you do. How long are you staying in England? I believe this is your first visit.”

So far as he could remember, they said nothing else whatever until they went home.

But Herndon, Lockert, Fran, and Mr. Alls made up for that silence. The General liked an audience, and considered Fran an admirable one. When she thought any one worth the trouble, she could be a clown, a great lady, a flirt, all in one. She was just irreverent enough to rouse Herndon, yet her manner hinted that all the while she really regarded him as greater than Napoleon and more gallant than Casanova. So he thundered out his highly contradictory opinions on Kaiser Wilhelm, the breeding of silver foxes, the improbabilities of Mr. Michael Arien’s “The Green Hat,” the universal and scandalous neglect of the back-hand stroke in tennis, the way to cook trout, the errors of Winston Churchill, the errors of Lloyd George, the errors of Lord Kitchener, the errors of Ramsay MacDonald, the errors of Lord Birkenhead, the errors of Danish butter, and the incomparable errors of Lockert in regard to emigration and dog-feeding. Otherwise, the General said scarcely anything.

“The trouble with this country is,” observed Herndon, “that there’re too many people going about saying: ‘The trouble with this country is —’ And too many of us, who should be ruling the country, are crabbed by being called ‘General’ or ‘Colonel’ or ‘Doctor’ or that sort of thing. If you have a handle to your name, you have to be so jolly and democratic that you can’t control the mob.”

“We’ll try to free you from that if you come to America,” said Fran, “I’ll introduce you as Mr. James Herndon, the pansy-grower, and I’ll tell my butler that you’re so fond of rude garden life that you’d be delighted to have him call you ‘Jimmy.’”

“Am I expected, Ma’am, to say that I’d be charmed by anything that YOUR butler might care to call me? As a matter of fact, I’d ask him not to be so formal, but call me ‘Whiffins.’ However, unfortunately, I am not named James.”

“And unfortunately we haven’t a butler, but only a colored gentleman who condescends to help us with the cocktails at parties, if he isn’t too busy down in Shanty Town, preaching. But honestly — Am I in bad taste? If I’m not, isn’t it really rather pleasant to be known as Your Lordship?”

“Oh — I inherited the handle while a subaltern — no great day of mourning for lost dear ones, you know — I inherited from a most gloomy old uncle. I’d never been able to rebuke my colonel — tried to, in my eager boyish way, but he’d never noticed it. When I inherited, he used to go quite out of his way to rebuke ME, so I knew I’d made an impression. Fact, he was so stiff with me that I became popular with the mess. But of course you Yanks, roving your broad steppes, never dream of such puerile triumphs.”

“Quite. They’re too busy punching cattle,” said Lockert; and Mr. Alls inquired, “Just how does one punch an unfortunate cow?”

“It’s now done with automatic punching-machinery,” explained Lockert. “Neat little hole right through the ear. Mrs. Dodsworth is an expert — punches six cattle simultaneously, while singing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and firing pistols.”

“But my real achievement,” asserted Fran, “is shooting Indians. I’d shot nine before I was five years old.”

“Is it true,” demanded Lord Herndon, “that the smarter American women always have girdles made of scalps?”

“Oh, absolutely — it’s as de rigueur as for an Englishwoman to carry a bouquet of Brussels sprouts at a lawn-party, or —”

“Oh, what a hell of a way to talk!” fretted Sam Dodsworth.

“If they can’t talk sense, why don’t they dry up? What’s the use of talking, anyway, beyond ‘Pass the salt’ and ‘How much do you want a ton?’ Aren’t these folks ever serious?”

Suddenly they were serious, and he was even less comfortable.

“Mr. Dodsworth,” asked Mr. Alls (or Mr. Ross), “why is it that America hasn’t recognized Soviet Russia?”

“Why, uh — we’re against their propaganda.”

“But who is really responsible for the American policy? Congress or the Foreign Department?”

“I’m afraid I don’t exactly remember.”

It occurred to Sam that he hadn’t the smallest information about Russian relations with America; only a thin memory of a conference about selling cars in Russia. He was equally shaky when they questioned him about the American attitudes toward the Allied war debt and toward Japan.

“Am I beginning to get old?” he wondered. “I used to keep up on things. Seems as though this last five years I haven’t thought of anything but selling cars and playing golf.”

He felt old — he felt older and older as Fran and Herndon slid over into a frivolous debate about lion hunting. He had never known that she could be so fantastic. Here she was telling some perfectly silly story about their having had a dear old lion for a pet; about Sam’s kicking it downstairs one frosty night when he was in a bad temper; the poor lion slinking down the street, pursued by a belligerent black kitten, fleeing to the Zoo, and whimpering to be let into a cage. (And there wasn’t even a Zoo in Zenith!)

Old! And out of it. He couldn’t join in their talk, whether it was nonsense or the discussion of nationalization of mines presently set going by Herndon, who announced himself a Socialist as fervently as twenty minutes before he had announced himself a Die–Hard Tory. It was one of the few conversations in years in which Sam had not had an important, perhaps a commanding position. At dinner in Zenith, if he didn’t feel authoritative when they talked of Stravinsky or the Algerian tour, soon or late the talk would return to motors and a mystery known as “business conditions,” and then he would settle all debates.

He suddenly felt insecure.

As they walked to church next morning, he felt for the Kentish village a tenderness as for a shrunken, tender old grandmother. And when he noted a Revelation car parked across from the church, he was certain again that he was Somebody. But amid the politely interested, elegantly pious congregation at Morning Prayer, glancing at him over their celluloid-covered prayer books, he felt insecurity again. He was overgrown, clumsy, untutored. He wanted to flee from this traditional stillness to the anonymity and shielding clamor of London.

They rode, for the hour between church and luncheon, on ragged but sturdy horses from the village stable. Mrs. Alls had lent a wreck of a riding-habit to Fran, who looked disreputable and gay in her orange tam o’ shanter — gayer than in her ordinary taut sleekness. They rode away from the village, through fields and shaggy woods, to the ridge of the North Downs.

For years Fran had ridden twice a week with an English ex-groom, turned gentleman teacher and trainer in America, his Cockney accent accepted in Zenith as the breath of British gentility. With her slim straightness she sat her aged nag like a young cavalry officer. Lockert and Lord Herndon looked at her more admiringly than ever, spoke to her more cheerily, as though she were one of their own.

Sam’s riding had been a boyhood-vacation trifling; he was about as confident on a horse as he would have been in an aeroplane; he had never quite got over feeling, on a horse’s back, that he was appallingly far up from the ground. Herndon had a shaky leg, and Sam and he rode slowly. Suddenly Lockert and Fran left them, in a gallop along the pleasant plateau at the top of the Downs.

“Don’t you want to keep up with ’em? My leg’s not up to much today,” said Herndon.

“No, I’ll trail,” Sam sighed.

In a quarter-hour Fran and Lockert came cantering back. She was laughing. She had taken off her tam, and her hair was wild.

“Sorry we ran away, but the air was so delicious — simply had to have a scamper!” she cried and, to Sam, “Oh, was oo left alone! Poor boy!”

All the way back she insisted on riding beside him, consoling him.

A month ago he had felt that he had to protect her frailness. He was conscious now that his breath was short, that he had a corporation . . . and that Fran, turning to call back to Lockert, was bored by him.

Most insecure of all was Sam that afternoon when they motored for tea to Woughton Hall, the country place of Sir Francis Ouston, the new hope of the Liberals in Parliament. Here — so overwhelmingly that Sam gasped — was one of the great houses of which he had been apprehensive. Up a mile-long driveway of elms they came to a lofty Palladian facade, as stern as a court-house, with a rough stone wing at one end. “That’s the old part, that stone — built about 1480,” said Herndon.

In front was a terrace rimmed with clipped cypresses in the shape of roosters, crescents, pyramids, with old Italian wine-jars of stone. To the right, beyond a pair of tennis-courts, half a mile of lawn slipped in pale winter green toward rough meadows; to the left the stables were a red brick village. There was about the whole monstrous palace a quietness dotted only with the sound of sparrows and distant rooks. To Sam, just now, the millionaire country houses he had seen on Long Island and the North Shore above Chicago — Tudor castles, Italian villas, French chateaux, elephantine Mount Vernons, mansions which he had admired and a little coveted — were raw as new factories beside a soft old pasture.

Through a vast entrance hall with tapestries on walls of carved stucco, and high Italian candle-sticks at the foot of a walnut stairway, they were shepherded to a carved oak drawing-room high as a church, and much noisier. After that Sam knew nothing but confusion and babble. First and last there must have been fifty people popping in for tea, people with gaudy titles and cheery manners, people so amiable to him that he could not hate them as he longed to. What they were all talking about, he never knew. They spoke of Sybil, who seemed to be an actress, and of politicians (he guessed they were politicians) to whom they referred as Nancy and F.E. and Jix and Winston and the P.M. One man mentioned something called the Grand National, and Sam was not sure whether this was the name of a bank, an insurance company, or a hotel.

What could he do when a lady, entirely unidentified, asked, “Have you seen H. G.‘s latest?”

“Not yet,” he answered intelligently, but who or what H. G. might be, he never did learn.

And through the bright-colored maelstrom of people, his heart aching with loneliness, he saw Fran move placidly, shiningly, man-conscious and man-conquering and at home. They were all one family; they took her in; but himself, how to get in he had no notion. He had addressed conventions of bankers; he had dragooned a thousand dancing people at a Union Club ball; but here — these people were so close-knit, so serenely sure, that he was an outsider.

He escaped from the lady who knew about H. G.; he crawled through the mass of suspended tea-cups and struggled to Fran’s side. She was confiding (not very truthfully) to a man with a single eyeglass that she had a high, passionate, unresting interest in polo.

When Sam had the chance, he sighed to her, “Let’s get out. Too darn’ many people for me!”

“They’re darlings! And I’ve made the most terrific hit with Lady Ouston. She wants us to come to dinner in town.”

“Well — I’d just like — Thought we might get a little fresh air before dinner. I feel sort of out of it here. They all chirp so fast.”

“You didn’t seem to be doing so badly. I saw you in the corner with the Countess of Baliol.”

“Was I? Which one? All the women I talked to just looked like women. Why the devil don’t they wear their coronets? Honestly, Fran, this is too rich for my blood. I can stand meeting a couple hundred people at once, but not the entire British aristocracy. They —”

“My dear Sam, you are talking exactly like Mr. A. B. Hurd.”

“I feel exactly like Mr. A. B. Hurd!”

“Are you going to demand that we take Zenith with us every place we go? Are you going to refuse to like anything that’s the least bit different from a poker party at Tub Pearson’s? And are you going to insist that I be scared and old, too, and not reach out for the great life that I can learn to master — oh, I can, I can! I’m doing it! Must I go back with you now and sit at Lord Herndon’s select villa reading the Observer or else be punished by your sulking?”

And it was she who was sulky, though he had doubtfully urged her to stay as long as she liked — or as Herndon liked. She showed a gray sulkiness all evening, but not toward Herndon, decidedly not toward Lockert. They had only a cold ham and beef supper, with no other guests, and publicly Fran was frivolous. She played the piano, played and played, and since Herndon was seized with a passion to discuss motor headlights with Sam, Lockert hung about the piano. Herndon and Sam were at the other end of the drawing-room, before the fireplace, backs to the piano, but in the Venetian mirror over the fireplace Sam could watch the others, and he did, uneasily.

Only then was he certain that Lockert aspired to considerably more than a polite friendliness with Fran.

Lockert turned her music, he kept drawling amiable insults that were apparently more fetching than flattery. His hand touched her sleeve, once rested on her shoulder. She shrugged it off and shook her head, but she was not angry. Once Sam heard her: “— don’t know WHY I like you — your perfectly disconcerting admiration of yourself —”

He felt, Sam, like a worthy parent watching his daughter and a suitor. He felt resigned. Then he began to feel angry.

“Damn it, was that why Lockert got us down here? To make love to Fran? Does he think I’m the kind that’ll stand it? Does she?”

When they were going to bed, his accumulated anger came out in a chilly: “See here, my girl! All this His Lordship, Her Grace, Old England, palatial mansion stuff is fine — I’ve enjoyed it — but you’re letting it dazzle you. You’re letting Lockert be a whole lot too flirtatious. You’re off your track. At home, you’d see that he doesn’t just mean to pay you pretty little compliments —”

“My dear Mr. Dodsworth, do you mean to insinuate —”

“No, I’m saying it straight! Little good home bullying!”

“Do you mean to insinuate that I’d let Major Lockert, or anybody else, make the slightest improper advances toward me? I that never tolerated loose dancing at home, that have never in my life so much as held hands in a taxi? I that — oh, it’s too beautifully ironical! — that you’ve practically accused, time and again, of being too sexless to suit your manly ardors! Oh, it’s too much!”

“Yes, at home that has been so. Though I’ve never accused you of sexlessness — even when I’ve damn’ well suffered from it! I’ve been patient. Waited. Waited a mighty long time. That’s what makes it worse now, when you’ve been so little attracted by me, to see you falling for this man, or at least, I mean, being obviously attracted by him, just because he’s —”

“Oh, SAY it! ‘Just because he’s the cousin of a Lord!’ Say it! Try to make me seem as contemptible a little village greenhorn as you can!”

“I hadn’t intended to say anything of — Well, if I did, what I meant was: I mean, just because he’s wandered enough so that he knows how to handle women by beating them. I can’t. Never could beat you. Wouldn’t if I could. . . . Oh, never mind. I don’t mean anything serious. I just mean — Even though you are naturally something of a European, you’ve got to remember that this is a pretty wise and dangerous old country. But of course you’ve got too much sense. Sorry I said anything.”

She was standing, a little rigid, in her low-necked, lace-trimmed, yellow pajamas. He lumbered toward her, his hands out bumbling, “Sorry! Kiss me!”

She shuddered. She wailed, “No, don’t touch me! Oh, don’t you EVER suggest things like that again! Lockert? I haven’t the slightest interest in him. I’m ashamed of you! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”

She resolutely said nothing more before they went to sleep; and in the morning she was queerly quiet and her eyes looked tired.

Lord Herndon, kindest of hosts and one of the few living men who were cheerful and full of ideas at breakfast, seemed hurt by their aloofness, but Lockert was inquisitive and slightly amused, and at the station (the Dodsworths were to return by train) he searched Fran’s eyes interrogatively . . . most hopefully.

Sam was glad when the train was away, and she tried to pump up a friendly smile for him. But he was all abasement, all savage scorn of himself, that he should have spoiled the happy party of this, his child, by bucolic suspicions. She had been so innocently happy in discovering rural England, in sturdy friendship with Lockert, in chatter with Herndon, in a hair-blown race across the Downs, and then, he groaned, he had spoiled it all for her.

He took her hand, but it was lax — all strength gone out of the hand that yesterday had been so firm on the bridle.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57