Three days of museums, of art galleries, of palaces, of the Zoo. They went to Sans Souci, where Fran talked of Voltaire (she really had read “Candide”) and Sam thought in a homesick way of the Sans Souci Gardens development in Zenith and snapped at himself that it was time to clinch with Fran, to make her come home and begin a new life of “making things.”
They saw nothing of Kurt von Obersdorf — he merely telephoned to them eight or ten times and made them go out and see things. He so insisted that they see Molnar’s “Spiel im Schloss” that they sulkily went, though by now Sam had convinced himself that he was right in thinking he didn’t care greatly for plays in a language he didn’t understand, and though Fran, exhausted by the florid endearments which had been poured upon her at a women’s tea given by Frau Dr. Biedner, for once in her life wanted to go to bed.
She said that she understood every word of “Spiel im Schloss.”
Sam said that he guessed it was pretty fine acting all right, and he thought he’d just slip down-stairs and have a nightcap in the bar.
He fell to talking with an American journalist who knew Ross Ireland; he had several nightcaps; and in general he enjoyed himself. When he slipped into their room, Fran was asleep. So, as he put it, he had got away with it, and he felt as exultant as a boy who has played hooky and discovers afterward that teacher has been sick all day.
In England Fran had learned to say Lift for Elevator, Zed for Zee, La-BOR-atory for LA-boratory, Schenario for Scenario, and Shi for Ski. And before she had ever left America she had been able to point her Europeanism by keeping her fork in her left hand. But now she added to her accomplishments the ability to make a European 7 by crossing it, and ardently she crossed every 7, particularly in letters to friends in Zenith, who were thus prevented from knowing what figure she was using.
The four great mysteries of life in post-war Berlin, not to be explained by the most diligent searching of history and economics and Lutheran theology, are all connected with apartment-houses, and thus are they: Why can no visitor get into an apartment-house after eight in the evening without protocols? Why are the automatic elevators kept locked, so that no visitor can use them? Why does no Berlin landlord provide modern locks, but always compel his tenants to carry a bunch of keys comparable in size to those used in the Middle Ages for closing cathedrals? Why does a landlord who has spent a hundred thousand marks on a marble staircase (with neat gilt edgings and mosaic inserts) refuse to spend a mark a night to provide lights in the hallways? They are dark. They are very dark. A light may be had by pressing a button, which provides illumination for a time, but in all the history of Berlin that time of illumination has never been known to last while a visitor climbed from the ground floor to the top.
On the top floor of an apartment house on the Brucken Allee lived Kurt von Obersdorf, and on the vertiginous way up to it Sam pointed out these four mysteries, and was pleased to have Fran agree with him.
They were received by Kurt’s maid. She was an ancient thing, rusty and feeble and in some doubt as to what to do with Sam’s hat and stick. While she puttered, Sam looked about. The apartment had a narrow corridor, the drab plaster rather flaked, and adorned with a yellow-stained engraving of St. Stefan’s Dom in Vienna. Over a doorway were two crossed swords.
Suddenly Kurt bounced out on them, slimmer and looser than ever in dinner clothes, took Fran’s wrap himself, spoke to the creeping servant with that mixture of scolding and family fondness which only a European can manage, and prattled:
“I am so glad! I was afraid you would be angry with me for my clumsiness about Die Neuste Ehe the other evening and punish me by not coming. Let me tell you who are the other guests. There are your cousins, Dr. and Frau Biedner, and the Baroness Volinsky — she is such a pretty girl, a Hungarian; her husband is a Pole, a terrible fellow; he is not coming, thank God!; and Theodor von Escher, the violinist — he is such a VON-DERFUL violinist! — and his wife, Minna — you will fall in love with her, and Professor and Frau Braut — he is professor of economics in Berlin University, such a brain, he knows more America than ANYBODY— he will prove to you that in two hundred years America will be a wilderness again, you will like him so much! They are a funny mix’ lot, but all speak English, and I wanted you to meet different kinds. Fran, you look like a heaven’s angel in ivory! Kom’ mal”
He ushered them, as though they were royalty, into a small, shabby, friendly apartment in which three people seemed a crowd. The chairs of old brown leather were hollowed and listed; the couch was covered with what Sam viewed as “some kind of yellow silk,” though Fran whispered later that it was “perfectly priceless old damask.” The pictures were largely photographs of friends, officers in Austrian uniform. But there were shelves of wildly disarranged books, and Sam noted later that they were in German, English, Italian, and French. He observed a dozen ponderous and dismaying volumes on American law and banking and history, the sort of tomes which he had always admired in libraries and shunned in the home.
When the door to the right was opened for a moment, Sam saw a narrow bedroom with a mean camp bedstead, racks of gorgeous ties, a picture of a beautiful girl, a crucifix, and nothing much else. That, with the little dining-room and a mysterious kitchen somewhere and a bathroom old enough to be historic, seemed to make up the domain of the head of the house of Obersdorf.
There were cocktails, agitatedly mixed by Kurt in a glass pitcher, and there was dinner (not very good) and conversation (tremendous). Under Kurt’s hectic captaincy, there was none of the timid burgher decorum of dinner at the Biedners’; also there was more to drink, including an Assmannshauser champagne which made Sam determined to explore the Rhine Valley. Any one who didn’t shout from time to time received Kurt’s worried attention. Kurt was convinced that a person who was silent in his house had either ceased to like him — and probably for good reasons, for some hideous sin he had unconsciously committed against them — or else was suffering from a hidden malady which ought to be treated out of hand. But between the shouts, most of the conversation was carried on by Professor Braut.
When he first surveyed that learned man, who left with you the impression that he had whiskers even in his eyes, Sam had decided, “This bearded beauty may know something about economics in Germany, but I’ll bet he doesn’t know anything about the land of the safety-razor!”
Professor Braut turned to him. His accent was much thicker than Kurt’s. “Please,” he said, “I vonder if you coult tell me something I am trying to learn about agrarian movements in America.”
“I don’t know very much about them,” said Sam. “Have you been in America?”
“Oh, a liddle — before the war. I was a professor in Harvard for a year, and in Leland Stanford a year, and I traveled maybe a year, but of course that is nothing to get any real knowledge of your great country.”
Then, at Kurt’s suggestion, Professor Braut gave a minute history of the Non-partisan League in North Dakota.
Through it he turned constantly to Sam for confirmation, and Sam — who knew very little about North Dakota and precisely nothing about the Non-partisan League — nodded blandly. At the end, Sam addressed himself strongly:
“He knows more about your own country than you do! Sambo, you know nothing. Ignorant! I wish I hadn’t given up thirty years to motor-cars. And I haven’t really learned much here in Europe. A tiny bit about architecture and a little less about wine and cooking and a few names of hotels. And that’s all!”
While Kurt chattered of the adventures of Archduke Michael as a chauffeur to a Hungarian Jew, Sam had a vision of learning and of learned men, of men who knew things with precision, without emotional prejudice, and who knew things which really affected the broad stream of human life; who considered the purposes of a thousand statesmen, the function of a thousand bacteria, the significance of a thousand Egyptian inscriptions, or perhaps the pathology of a thousand involved and diseased minds, as closely as he himself had considered the capacities of a hundred salesmen and engineers and clerks in the Revelation Company. He saw groups of such learned men, in Berlin, in Rome, in Basle, in both Cambridges, in Paris, in Chicago. They would not be chatterers. Oh, he pondered, probably some of them would be glib and merry enough over a glass of beer, but when it came to their own subjects, they would speak slowly, for to any given question there would be so many answers among which to select. They would not vastly please Fran; they would not all of them be dancers of elegance, and perhaps they would fail to choose quite the right waistcoats. They would look insignificant and fuzzy, like Professor Braut, or dry and spindling. And he would be proud to have their recognition — beyond all recognitions of wealth or title.
How was it that he had not known more of them? In Yale, teachers had been obstacles which a football-player had to get past in order to carry out his duty of “doing something for old Yale.” New York was to him exclusively a city of bankers, motor dealers, waiters, and theater employees. On this European venture which was to have opened new lives to him, he had seen only more waiters, English spinsters marooned in hotels, and guides with gold teeth.
Scholars. Men who knew. Suddenly he felt that he might have been such a man. What had kept him from it? Oh, he had been cursed by being popular in college, and by having a pretty wife who had to be surrounded with colored lights —
No, he rebuked himself. He couldn’t get away with excuses like that! In the first place, he was a dirty dog to be ungrateful for having been popular and for having had such a glorious girl as his Fran — look at her now, laughing about the sanctity of the sausage in the German social scheme — look at her, reducing the Count of Obersdorf, kin of princesses and maybe kings, to bouncing admiration! No, he’d been lucky.
Besides! A fellow did not become things — anyway not after five or six or seven years of age. He simply was things! If he had had the capacity to be a savant, nothing would have prevented.
Suddenly he felt better about it. Was it possible that in some involved, unelucidated way, he himself was a savant in fields not admitted by the academicians as scholarship? He told himself that in the American motor-world he was certainly not known merely as a pedler and as a financial acrobat, but as the authority on automobile-designing, as the first man to advocate four-wheel brakes. Hm. DID that constitute him a scholar, or —
Or possibly an artist? He had created something! He had no pictures in the academies, no books to be bound in levant, no arias nor flimsy furniture named after him, but every one of the twenty million motors on the roads of America had been influenced by his vision, a quarter of a century ago, of long, clean streamlines!
Yes! And it didn’t hurt a man to be a little proud of some honest thing he had done! It gave him courage to go on. Especially with a wife like Fran, who was always criticizing —
Good God, had he really become confirmed, since the case of Arnold Israel, in this habit of seeing Fran not as his loyal companion but as a dreaded and admired enemy, to placate whom was his object in life? Was this the truth about his wanderings, all his future?
He hastily got out of that torturing wonder by sending his mind back to scholarship, while he looked intelligent and placidly ate Backhuhn and seemed to listen to Theodor von Escher on his own superiority to Kreisler.
Could he ever attain scholarship now? Was it too infantile a fancy to think of becoming the first great historian of motors, historian of something which was, after all, more important in social evolution than twenty Battles of Waterloo? Or could he learn something of architecture? For he really was a little tired of motors. They meant, just now, sitting at a desk in the Revelation offices. Could he really make better Sans Souci Gardens?
Anyway, he wasn’t going on just being a Cook’s tourist, rather less important to Fran than concierges and room-waiters. He’d do SOMETHING—
Or was this inner glow, so exciting and so rare — was it merely a reflection of drinking champagne and being warmed by Kurt’s hospitality? Was his formless determination to “do something” and his belief that he still could “do something” only, in essence, like the vows of a drunkard?
“No, by God,” swore Samuel Dodsworth.
“It isn’t that. A drink or two, and a jolly bunch, do loosen me up. I’m slow at starting — Hm! Very slow! Here I am fifty-two years old, and just this last year or so I’ve wanted to be more than a money-coining machine. . . . To be SOMETHING. Though God knows what! . . . Eh?” (He answered furiously a chorus of accusers.) “I have been a good citizen! And I have brought up my children! And I have paid my debts! And I have done the job that was first at hand! And I have loved my friends! And now I’m not going to stand back the rest of my life and be satisfied and dead — dead on my feet — dead!
“I wish I’d known Kurt before. I’d like to’ve gone off for a few weeks with him and Ross Ireland. Only I ought to’ve done it ten years ago, and now it’s — But I won’t LET it be too late!
“Hm! YOU let! It’s what Fran will let her dear husband do —
“Why is it I always go back to that — as though it was she that cramped my style, instead of my own lack of brains?”
And, annoyed by the way in which thoughts scamper around in circles if you once let them loose, Sam came abruptly out of his meditation and was again the large and prosperous American husband of a lovely American wife, a worthy husband listening with meekness to the conversation of her European friends.
Sam had noted, and been rather surprised at it, that Kurt von Obersdorf did not condescend to a mere university professor, as any American of good family would have done. For all his love of gossiping, Kurt listened humbly when Professor Braut really got going, like a liner towed out through little ripples of talk, tugs yanking at its sulky ponderousness, but finally plunging into the long rollers of conversation.
Braut was lecturing Fran as though she were a rather small seminar. He did violence, while he talked, to the English W and V and T, yet in his earnestness, his was no comic dialect:
“Emotionally, as a Prussian, with the symbols of blood and iron, of Bismarck and Luther and der alte Fritz, I detest the prostituted elegance of Paris and the Italians, like children playing at Empire. Yet all the time I think of myself — most people like me think of themselves — more as Europeans than as German or French or Polish or Hungarian; we think of ourselves, whatever family differences we may have, as standing together against the Russians (who are certainly not European but Asiatic), against the British, the Americans — however we admire them — the Latin Americans, the Asiatics, the colonists. The European culture is aristocratic. I do not mean that boastfully; I do not speak of famous old families, like that of our friend Graf Obersdorf here. I mean that we are aristocratic, as against democratic, in that we believe that the nation is proudest and noblest and most exalted which has the greatest number of really great men — like Einstein and Freud and Thomas Mann — and that ordinary, undistinguished people (who may be, mind you, counts or kings, as well as servant maids) are happier in contributing to produce such great men than in having more automobiles and bath-tubs.
“And by the aristocratic tradition of the real Europe I do not mean any hauteur. I think perhaps I have seen more rudeness to servants — as well, of course, as more rudeness to masters — in America than anywhere in Europe. Servants here are not so well paid, but they have more security and more respect. An American thinks of a good cook as a low person; a European respects him as an artist.
“The European, the aristocrat, feels that he is responsible to past generations to carry on the culture they have formed. He feels that graciousness, agreeable manners, loyalty to his own people, are more important than wealth; and he feels that to carry on his tradition, he must have knowledge — much knowledge. Why, think of what the young European must learn, if he is not to be ashamed of himself!
“He must know at least two languages, and if he does not know them, his friends are sorry that he is so poor a linguist. He must have — even though he may plan to be a stock-broker or an importer, or sell your automobiles, Mr. Dodsworth — he must have some understanding of music, painting, literature, so that he will really enjoy a concert or an exhibition of pictures, and not go there to make an impression. His manners must be so good that he can be careless. He must know the politics of all the great countries — I would bet you, Mrs. Dodsworth, that my four grandsons, though they have never been in America or England, know as much about President Coolidge and Secretary Hoover and Governor Smith as most Americans of their age.
“They must know cooking and wines. They themselves may prefer to live on bread and cheese, but they must be able to give their guests good dinners, and at not much cost — oh, so terribly little cost most of us can afford now since the war! And most of all, they must understand women, and the beginning of that — I t’ink Mrs. Dodsworth will agree — is really to like women, and to like them to BE women, and not imitation men!
“That is a small bit of the required training of the real European — German or Swiss or Dutch or whatefer! And that training helps to keep us together, understanding each other, no matter how foolish we are and suicide with Great Wars! However we may oppose it, we are all at heart Pan–Europeans. We feel that the real Continental Europe is the last refuge of individuality, leisure, privacy, quiet happiness. We think that good talk between intelligent friends in a cafe in Vienna or Paris or Warsaw is more pleasant and important than having septic tanks or electric dish-washing machines.
“America wants to turn us into Good Fellows, all provided with the very best automobiles — and no private place to which we can go in them. When I think of America I always remember a man who made me go out to a golf club and undress in a locker room, where quite uninvited men came up and made little funny jokes about Germany and about my being a professor! And Russia wants to turn us into a machine for the shaving off of all the eccentricities which do not belong to the lowest common denominator. And Asia and Africa do not t’ink that human life and the sweetness of human life matter. But Europe, she believes that a Voltaire, a Beethoven, a Wagner, a Keats, a Leuwenhoeck, a Flaubert, give drama and meaning to life, and that they are worth preserving — they and the people who understand and admire them! Europe! The last refuge, in this Fordized world, of personal dignity. And we believe that is worth fighting for! We are menaced by the whole world. Yet perhaps we shall endure . . . perhaps!
“Some of us think that perhaps we shall prevail even against Americanization — which I may venture to define as a theological belief that it is more important to have your purchases tidily rung up on a cash-register than to purchase what you want. (And mind you — I am not so anti-American as I seem — I quite understand that the mystic process of ‘Americanization’ is being carried on as much by German industrialists and French exporters and English advertising-men as it is by born Yankees!) I think the echt Europe may be able to endure. For I remember always of Greece and Rome. Rome was the America of ancient history; Greece the perhaps over-cultured Continental Europe. Vi et armis, Rome conquered. Yet it was Greek architecture, Greek philosophy, and its gracefulness of body which revivified Europe in the Renaissance, more than Roman law.
“So! I deliver a lecture. Hasslich! Yet I must finish. To be clear, when I speak of the European you must understand that I speak of a very small, select, special class, which is far nearer to other members of that class in foreign nations than it is to most of its own countrymen. The beer-sodden peasant in a Gastzimmer at a country inn, or here in Berlin dancing in masses at Die Neue Welt, is not a European in that special sense. Neither is the bustling young business man on the Friedrichstrasse, or on the Rue de Rivoli, who is trying to sell vulgar porcelain or shoddy silk so fast as he can. Both of them would gladly emigrate to America and change leisure for automobiles. And also there are a few people born in America who DO belong to what I call ‘Europeans’— your author Mrs. Edith Wharton, I imagine, must be so. But wherever they were born, there is this definite class, standing for a definite aristocratic culture — and most Americans who think they have ‘seen Europe’ go home without any idea at all of its existence and what it stands for, and they perceive of Europe just loud-tongued guides, and passengers in trains looking unfriendly and reading Uhu or Le Rire. They have missed only everything that makes Europe!”
Sam was surprised to find himself answering:
“Yes, that’s about true. America thinks of the Europeans as a bunch of restaurant cashiers trying to do us on exchange — thinks of Europe as dead — nothing but pictures by men that lived three hundred years ago. We forget your Freud and Einstein — yes, and European aeroplane constructors, and this Youth movement in Germany, and the French tennis players that beat us. But you have just as untrue an idea of America. All over Berlin, in the book-stores, I see books about America; titles like ‘The Dollar Land.’ Well, I’ll bet the French peasant that sticks the centimes away in the sock, and the German farmer, love the dollar ten times as much as the average American. We love to make money, but we love to spend it. We’re all like sailors on a spree. We have to have every parrot that’s on sale on the waterfront. And —
“Why do you suppose so many hundreds of thousands of Americans come to Europe? Not more than one out of a hundred Europeans who do go to America ever goes there to learn, to see what we have. And after all, a Woolworth Building or a Chicago Tribune Building or a Ford plant or a Grand Canyon or a Sharon, Connecticut — and incidentally a mass of 110,000,000 people — might be worth studying. You of all people, Professor, know that most Europeans go to America just to make money. But why are the Americans here? Oh, a few of ’em to get social credit for it, back home, or to sell machinery, but most of ’em, bless ’em, come here as meekly as school-boys, to admire, to learn!
“What most Europeans think of America! Because we were a pioneer nation, mostly busy with farming and cod-fishing and chewing tobacco, a hundred years ago, Europe thinks we still are. The pictures of Americans in your comic papers indicate to me that Europe sees all Americans as either moneylenders who lie awake nights thinking of how they can cheat Europe, or farmers who want to spit tobacco on the Cathedral of St. Mark, or gunmen murdering Chicagoans in their beds. My guess is that it all comes from the tradition that Europeans started a hundred years ago. Here a few weeks back, when we were in Vienna, I picked up ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ and waded through it. Funny, mind you, his picture of America a hundred years ago. But he shows a bunch of people along the Ohio River and in New York who were too lazy to scratch, who —”
“Sam!” warned Fran, but he strode on unregarding.
“— were ignorant as Hottentots and killed each other with revolvers whenever they felt like it, with no recourse. In fact, every American that Dickens shows in the book is a homicidal idiot, except one — and he wanted to live abroad! Well! You can’t tell me that a degenerate bunch like that could have taken the very river-bottom swamps that Dickens describes, and in three generations have turned ’em into the prosperous cement-paved powerful country that they are today! Yet Europe goes on reading hack authors who still steal their ideas from ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ and saying, ‘There, I told you so!’ Say, do you realize that at the time Dickens described the Middlewest — my own part of the country — as entirely composed of human wet rags, a fellow named Abe Lincoln and another named Grant were living there; and not more than maybe ten years later, a boy called William Dean Howells (I heard him lecture once at Yale, and I notice that they still read his book about Venice IN Venice) had been born? Dickens couldn’t find or see people like that. Perhaps some European observers today are missing a few Lincolns and Howellses!
“The kind of pride that you describe, Professor, as belonging to the real aristocratic Europeans, is fine — I’m all for it. And I want to see just that kind of pride in America. Maybe we’ve gone too fast to get it. But as I wander around Europe, I find a whale of a lot of Americans who are going slow and quiet, and who are thinking — and not all of ’em artists and professors, by a long shot, but retired business men. We are getting a tradition that — Good Lord! You said you’d been lecturing. I’m afraid I have, too!”
Kurt cried “To America!” and adumbrated “Yes, America is THE hope of — And of course the paradise of women.”
“Oh, that is the one most idiotic fallacy about America — and it’s just as much believed in America as in Europe — and it’s just as much mouthed by women as by men — and deep down they don’t believe a word of it! It’s my profound conviction that there’s no woman living, no real normal woman, who doesn’t want a husband who can beat her, if she deserves it — no matter though she may be president of a college or an aviator. Mind you, I don’t say she wants to be beaten, but she wants a man who CAN beat her! He must be a man whom she respects! She must feel that his work, or his beautiful lack of work, is more important than she is.”
Sam looked at her in mild astonishment. If anything had been certain about their controversies, it had been that Fran ought to be more important to him than his work. He tried to remember just where she had got this admirable dissertation on feminism. Certain of the phrases he traced to Renee de Penable.
“And that’s just what you do have in Europe, and what we don’t have in America. Mind you, I’m not speaking of Sam and myself — he’s awfully competent at beating me when I deserve it!”
Her jocular glance at Sam was admiringly observed by all assembled.
“I’m just speaking generally. Oh, the American wife of the prosperous classes — sometimes even among people who have no money visible to the naked eye — has privileges for which the European woman would envy her. She doesn’t have to beg her husband for money. She has a joint bank-account. If she wants to study singing or advocate anti-vivisection or open a tea-room or dance with nasty young men at hotels, it never occurs to him to object. And so she’s supposed to be free and happy. Happy! Do you know why the American husband gives his wife so much freedom? Because he doesn’t CARE what she does — because he isn’t sufficiently interested in her to care! To the American man — except darlings like Sam, here — a wife is only a convenience, like his motor, and if either one of them breaks down, he takes it to a garage and leaves it and goes off whistling!”
This time her glance at Sam told him what she need not have told him, but she went on with an admirable air of impersonality:
“Whereas the European husband, if I understand it, feels that his wife is a part of him — or at least of his family honor — and he would no more permit her this fake ‘freedom’ than he would permit one of his legs to go wandering off cheerfully without the other! He LIKES women! And another thing. Any real woman is quite willing, no matter how clever she is, to give up her own chances of fame for her husband, PROVIDING he is doing something she can admire. She can understand sacrificing herself for the kind of civilized aristocracy that Professor Braut speaks of; she can sacrifice for a great poet or soldier or scholar; but she isn’t willing to give up all her own capabilities for the ideal of industrial America — which is to manufacture more vacuum-cleaners this year than we did last!”
Sam caught her eye. He said, very slowly, “Or more motor cars?”
She laughed. . . . What a jolly, pioneering, affectionate American couple they were!
She said affectionately:
“Yes, or more motors, darling!”
“And you’re probably right, at that!” he said.
Every one laughed.
“When people talk about the American wife and the American husband,” Fran went on, “they always make the mistake of trying to find out which sex is ‘to blame.’ One person will tell you with great impressiveness that the American husband is to blame, because he’s so absorbed in his business and his men friends that he never pays any real attention to his wife. Then the next will explain that it’s the wife’s fault —‘The trouble is that when the American husband comes home all tired out after the awful rush of our business competition, he naturally wants some attention, some love from his wife, but she expects him to hustle and change his clothes and take her out to the theater or a party, because she’s been bored all day with not enough to do.’ And they’re both wrong. There’s no BLAME— it isn’t the fault of either. I am convinced that the fault belongs to our American industrial system, with its ideal of forced selling — which isn’t a big enough ideal to satisfy any really sensitive woman. No! She prefers the European culture and tradition of which you spoke, Professor Braut.”
“That’s kind of hard on me, as one of the promoters of the American industrial system,” said Sam.
“Oh, you, you old darling, you’re not really an industrialist at heart — you’re a researcher.”
And again she looked at him so appreciatively that every one was edified at the sight of one happy American couple.
There was, at table and over coffee in the drawing-room, ever so much more conversation. Sam listened to it heartily, while within he was in a panic of realization that Fran, his one security in life now that work and children and friends were lost, had this evening definitely given the challenge that she was bored by him, that she desired a European husband, that the interlude with Arnold Israel, who was more European than Europe, had not been an accident but a symptom.
He watched her turning toward Kurt. He could not ignore her jealousy of Kurt’s pretty little friend, the Baroness Volinsky.
The Baroness was a slim, slight girl with beautiful ankles and curly shingled hair. She had nothing much to say. Throughout dinner, Kurt had turned to her with a hundred intimate approaches — “Do you remember Colonel Gurtz?” and “Vot a first night that was at ‘The Patriot.’” Fran had concentrated on the Baroness Volinsky that chilling inquiring courtesy which is the perfection of hatred; had asked abrupt questions about Hungary — questions which somehow suggested that Hungary was an inferior land where the women wore wooden shoes — and had not listened to the answers.
When they chattered their way into the drawing-room and Kurt sat on the arm of the Baroness’s chair, Sam noted that within five minutes Fran was sitting on the other arm of the chair, and that she insisted on speaking French, which Kurt spoke admirably and the Baroness not at all. And shortly thereafter the Baroness went home, followed by the Biedners and the Brauts, then by the violinist, Von Escher, who said almost obsequiously to his wife, “Could you possibly find your way home in safety alone? I must go practise with my pianist — tonight is his only free time.”
Minna von Escher, with a snippishness which surprised Sam, remarked to her husband that she had often found her way home alone!
During the agitated German adieux, Sam murmured to Fran, “We better go too, eh?” but she insisted, “Oh, let’s stay a little while — best part of the evening, don’t you think?”
He didn’t think. He merely looked passive.
Thus there were four together, Sam and Fran, Kurt and Minna von Escher, in that pleasant quiet after the gabble of conversation. In a corner of the room Kurt was showing Fran an enormous, very old-fashioned album of pictures of his boyhood home — apparently a castle in the Tyrol. Fran was in a leather chair; Kurt sat on the floor beside her, constantly bolting up to kneel and point out this old servant, that old schoolroom. They were locked in intimacy, forgetful of every one else.
Sam talked to Minna von Escher. She had a clown-like face, a Brownie-face, with a snub nose and too wide a mouth, but her eyes opened in such surprised roundness, there was such vitality in her speech, her hands and her ankles were so fine, that she was more attractive than most pretty women. She lay on the couch, full-length, rather petulant, and Sam sat by her, leaning over with his elbows on his legs, like an old man smoking on a fence rail.
“Your wife — she praises European husbands!” said Minna. “If she had one! Oh, they can be charming; they kuss d’ Hand, they remember your birthday, they send flowers. But I get so very much tired of having my good Theodor make love to every woman he meets! Just now — of course he had to go practise with a man pianist, at midnight — well, he is by this time at the apartment of Elsa Emsberg, and if Elsa is a pianist or a man, she has changed much this past week — and she was MY friend in the first place! Oh, I am a European, but I wish once I had an American husband who would not sacrifice me to music and lof-affairs!”
She looked at him in a lively, appraising way, and suddenly Sam knew that she considered him an interesting big animal, that he could make love to her if he liked, and as much as he liked, and he was frightened by it.
He had always been monogamic. Now and then he had been attracted by some other woman, but he had been as shocked as though he were a priest. Perhaps the fact that his intimate life with Fran had not been very passionate had made him feel that the whole matter of sex stimulation was something rather shameful, to be avoided as far as possible. Certainly, when he tried to think about it, he escaped from thought with a gruff, “Oh, a fellow’s got to be loyal to his wife, and not go getting mixed up in a lot of complications.”
But just now he seemed insufficiently afraid of “getting mixed up.” He caught himself noting that Minna had an exquisite body. He thought, “I ought to give Fran a dose of her own medicine.” He looked away from Minna, and growled, “Oh, I guess most husbands in all countries are ‘bout equally selfish; just take different ways of showing it.” He looked away, but his look was drawn back to her, and he wanted to take her hand.
“Oh no, you would not be selfish!”
“No! I know you better! Big, terrifically strong men like you are always gentle and kind!”
“Hm! I wish you could have met some of the kind, gentle, big fellows from Harvard and Princeton that used to sit on my chest when I played football!”
“Oh, in sports it is different. But with women — You would be so gentle. But brave. Do you go hunting and camping much, and all those thrilling things, in your great American wilderness?”
“Well yes, I used to. I did quite a long canoe trip once, in Canada.”
“Oh, TELL me about it!”
No one since he had left Zenith had shown so comforting an interest in him. He was not looking away from her now; he was swallowed by her expanding, flattering eyes as he labored:
“Well, it was nothing especial. Went with a friend of mine. We made about a thousand miles, with sixty-four portages, and the last five days we lived on tea, without sugar or condensed milk, and fish, and our tent got burnt up, and we slept under the canoe when it rained. Yes, that was good going. Hm! Like to do it again.”
“Why don’t you? Why don’t you? I can imagine you wonderful in that wilderness.”
“Oh, Fran — Mrs. Dodsworth — she doesn’t care much for that kind of hiking.”
“Oh, you know.” He made a vast circular gesture. “Going. Traveling.”
“Oh yes. And she does not like it? Oh, I would!”
“Would you? I’ll have to take you camping!”
“Oh, you must!” She seized his sleeve, excitedly shook it. “Don’t make a joke! Do it!”
And he was certain that he could — and more certain that between Fran and Kurt, so innocently looking at pictures in their corner, was being woven a spider-web of affection. He felt helpless, he felt irritated, and that irritation submerged his rising fascination in Minna von Escher. No! He wasn’t going to encourage Fran by giving her an example!
For a moment, while Minna was sputtering an account of her own courage and ingenuity on a North Sea voyage, Sam checked his suspicions. But he saw Fran blush at some remark of Kurt too low to overhear, saw her glance joined to his, and suddenly Sam was angry.
He grumbled at Minna, “Yes, must have been a mighty nice trip — never done much yachting, myself — say, my Lord, it’s getting late!”
He poured across the room: “Fran! Know what time it is? It’s almost one!”
“Yes? What of it?”
“Well. . . . Pretty late. We were going out to see Brandenburg tomorrow.”
“We don’t HAVE to go tomorrow! Good Heavens! We’re not on a Cook’s tour!”
“Well . . . Kurt has to be on the job.”
“Oh no-o!” begged Kurt. “It does not matter. I shall be so unhappy if you run away early!”
“Of course if you INSIST—” said Fran.
She sounded vicious. Kurt looked at them miserably, as though he was wondering what he could do to reconcile them.
“No, no! Just didn’t want you to tire yourself out. And here’s Mrs. Escher pretty near asleep,” Sam crowed jovially. And everybody laughed, and everybody looked relieved, and everybody said that Yes, wasn’t it much more fun to be together, just the Family, after the others had gone.
But Sam had poisoned their moment. They looked self-conscious, and talked about music. Minna von Escher, not at all pleased by Sam’s coyness, made yawning signs of going home, and the party broke up in fifteen minutes, with effusive announcements of what a good time they had had.
And so, in the taxicab, when they had dropped Minna at a residence which was confoundedly out of their way, Sam and Fran again started the battle.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52