Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 34

He found a new Edith Cortright, a surprisingly vigorous and outdoor Edith, once she was away from Venetian proprieties. She gave up soft black for a linen sailor-blouse and a shocking skirt; she showed a talent for swimming, sailing, tennis, and managing the house. The Ercole estate, with its half a dozen villas, was like a private village, and a hectic village life it was into which Sam had come. The smiling Italian servants walked without warning into any room, at any time — embarrassed him by bouncing into his bedroom when he was shaving, cheerfully conducted the fish-pedler into the drawing-room at tea-time, and at all hours, under all windows, squabbled and laughed and gabbled and made love and sang. And there were so many of them belonging to the various villas. Sam was always discovering some new cottage — half-dug in the cliffs, or atop a coach house, or mysteriously under it with its door opening on another level — filled with gardeners or gatekeepers or maids, with their children, their goats, their puppies, their rabbits, and long-faced Italian cats.

The Baron and Baroness Ercole and their friends — officers who came out from the barracks, navy officers, young professors from the university — were as gay and welcoming as any American country club set priding itself on hospitality. They played tennis, they organized dances, they motored (at appalling speed) to festivals in distant mountain villages, and in everything they made Edith and Sam a part of their own. Half of them did not speak English, but their smiles recognized him as an old friend.

Alone, Edith and Sam explored Capri and Sorrento and Pompeii; were drawn up to the terror and fumes of Vesuvius; crept through the back alleys of old Naples, where one street is given up to fish, one to vegetables, one to the most cheerfully lugubrious artificial funeral wreaths and to votive pictures depicting the escape of pious persons from shipwreck, runaway horses, and falling bricks through the intervention of the saints.

Fran, who insisted that she “despised sight-seeing,” had yet been so ejaculatory, so insistent that he should realize to the full whatever most struck her, that he had had to work hard at travel, and had been conscious only of collecting unrelated impressions. Edith was lazily indifferent to his liking things. With her, he let his mind loaf, and slowly some sense of the real Italy came to him, some feeling that it was not a picturesque show but a normal and eager life.

They came home, dusty from Naples, for tea in the dim huge room looking on the bay. The late-afternoon glow over the piled hill of Naples faded to misty blue. The last high light in the scene was the smoke of Vesuvius, a fabulous flamingo hue in the vanishing sunlight. As the bay turned to a blue fabric woven with silver threads, the lights of braziers came out cheerfully in the little fishing boats. And in the twilight hush, Edith’s voice was quiet, not pricking him with demands for admiration of her cleverness, her singular charms, but assuring him (though actually she talked only of the Ercoles, perhaps, or politics, or antipasto) that she was happy to be with him, that she took strength from him by giving him strength.

He assumed that he was strong and primitive as the west wind, that she was sophisticated and fragile, utterly a creature of indoors, and he was the more startled on the day when they rested on the stone wall by the orange grove. It was an ancient, crumbly, slatternly stone wall, lizards darting from the crevices, moss and tiny weeds like a velvet cushion along the top. Below, in the hollow, was a tile and plaster house of three irregular flat-roofed and terraced stories, apparently not connected, entered by doorways above crazy stone flights of steps, all curiously like a New Mexican pueblo. The grove climbed from the hollow to the highway above — orange trees, lemons, a palmetto or two, with vines stretched upon the elongated branches of mulberry trees. Where a group of boulders intruded on the slope, the earth between rocks had been painfully turned into tiny vineyards, a yard or two square, protected by little stone walls. The grove suggested centuries of minute and patient labor, yet it was disorderly, the ground rough and littered, the trees a tangle, with no straight lines.

“You wondered,” said Edith, perched on the wall, “whether I could stand a canoe trip, sleeping on the ground. What do you think of this orchard?”

“Don’t quite see the connection.”

“What do you think of it? How does it strike you — as an efficient person?”

“Well, the fruit looks all right, but it seems kind of higgledy-piggledy. And it’s darned hot, here on this wall!”

“Exactly! Well, the Italian peasant loves the heat, and he loves just the bare ridged ground — the earth, earthy earth! He loves earth and sun and wind and rain. He’s a mystic, in the highest sense of that badly escorted word. The European is the same everywhere, in that. The Tyrolese love the sharp smell of the glaciers, the ragged mountain-slopes that almost frighten me, so that they die of homesickness abroad. The Prussian loves that thick sandy waste and the bleak little pines. The French villager doesn’t mind the reality of manure piles and mud puddles in front of his house. The English farmer loves his bare downs with their sharp little furze bushes. They love earth and wind and rain and sun. And I’ve learned it from them. You wonder if I could ‘stand’ sleeping on the ground! I’d love it so much more than you! I’m so much more elementary. Here, we may have ruins and painting, but behind them we’re so much closer to the eternal elements than you Americans. You don’t love earth, you don’t love the wind —”

“Oh, look here now! What about our millions of acres of plowed fields? Nothing LIKE it, outside of maybe Russia! What about our most important men, that get out in the fresh air and motor and golf —”

“No. Your farmers want to get away from their wash of acres to the city. Your business men drive out to the golf club in closed sedans, and they don’t want just bare earth — they want the earth of the golf course all neatly concealed by lawn. And I— you think of me as sitting in drawing-rooms, but here you’ve seen me reveling in sea water and running on the beach. And often and often when you think I’m napping in my room, I sneak out to that little bit of walled-off garden just above the house and lie there in the hot sun, in the wind, smelling of the reeking earth, finding life! That’s the strength of Europe — not its so-called ‘culture,’ its galleries and neat voices and knowledge of languages, but its nearness to earth. And that’s the weakness of America — not its noisiness and its cruelty and its cinema vulgarity but the way in which it erects steel-and-glass skyscrapers and miraculous cement-and-glass factories and tiled kitchens and wireless antennae and popular magazines to insulate it from the good vulgarity of earth!”

He wondered about it. He admitted that he had seen only an indoor Europe. With hotel lounges, restaurants, bedrooms, train coupes, even galleries and cathedrals and a few authentic homes, he was familiar enough. But he realized that he had but little sense of the smell of earth in the changing countries. He could remember St. Stefan’s Kirche in Vienna, but he could not remember the colors of the Austrian Alps, the sound of mountain streams, the changing smell of the crowded and musty pines at dawn, at noon, and in the dusk. He had talked with Spanish waiters but he had not been silent with Spanish peasants.

Perhaps, as she said, it was he who was the decadent and ephemeral flower of an imperiled civilization and she who was the root, not to be killed; he saw that she had more essential lustiness than he, more endurance than the lively but glass-encased Fran, vigorous enough in joy but wilting and whimpering under trials. The Ercoles, Kurt von Obersdorf, Lord Herndon, they were not to be crushed. In humility he turned to the eternal earth, and in the earth he found contentment. He had daily less need to “buzz out and look at things,” as Fran put it. He sat for hours with Edith, or alone by the bay, staring at the miraculously involved branches of a cypress, discovering the myriad minute skyscrapers in a patch of moss. And he began to desire to have — with Edith — a farm at home, and not a gentleman’s showplace, to increase social credit, but an authentic farm, smelling of horses and cattle and chickens, with cornfields baking at noon, mysterious in their jungle-like alleys. This simple-hearted ambition stirred him more, gave him more feeling that he had something secret and exciting to live for, than any of the business plans which were rousing him again to self-respect. . . . But it must be with Edith. . . . He smiled a little to think of himself, this bucolic lump, drawn back to earth by her thin unearthen hands. Edith! He understood better the slim starry Virgins before whom sun-black peasants bowed in Italian chapels.

He asked himself, then, “Am I in love with Edith — whatever this ‘being in love’ means?”

He had never so much as kissed her; only three or four times had he even patted her hand. He felt, sometimes, that behind her reticence there could be an honest passion, uncramped by the desire to make an impression, but he drifted on in a curious contented languor, willing to wait for exaltation. He found that when she was away, he missed her — had every moment some idea or observation he desired to share with her. But that was to him a lesser hint of what Edith Cortright had done to him than his increase in self-confidence.

It took him a time to perceive that perhaps he really was accepted by Edith, by the Ercoles and the various Captain Counts and Professores Dottores whom the Ercoles knew, as something more than the provincial, insensitive, Midwestern manufacturer whom Fran had pitied. Baron Ercole did not explain with bored patience when Sam asked elementary questions about Fascismo. Edith was not tart with him when he grumbled that he did not like the Narcissus in the Naples Museum.

They did not expect him to be an authority on sculpture, Chianti, Roman history, or the ranks of Italian nobility. Apparently they not only expected him to be precisely what he was, but admired him for it. He was at first embarrassed, made rather suspicious, by the Baroness Ercole’s admiration of him as a strong oarsman, a kindly companion, a frank talker, a sound financier, but day by day he saw that she meant it. In this most Italian Italy he might without apology still be a most American American. Light seemed to be woven into the very texture of his face that these months past had been heavy and lifeless and unhealthily flushed; and his eyes flickered as of old they had in talk with his daughter Emily.

“You are real,” they all said, in one way or another, and “I AM real!” he began to gloat.

He slept tranquilly, conscious in his sleep of the security of Edith’s presence on the floor below, shielding him against terror. He did not awake now at three, for a cigarette and brooding about Fran.

But once, late at night, he thought that he heard Fran calling, a sharp, beseeching “Sam — oh, SAM!” and he sprang up, stood swaying, bewildered as he realized that she was not with him, probably never would be again.

And the time, which he forgot as soon as possible, when Edith came into the room when he was writing and he raised his head, smiling, with “my Fran!”

Edith’s only effort to correct his provincial ways was in a gentle urging, “Let yourself enjoy life, Sam! You’re typically American in being burdened with a sense of guilt, no matter what you do or you don’t do.”

This may conceivably have had some connection with the fact that when he appeared with Edith, when they went to dinner with one of the Ercoles’ friends or to the Excelsior for tea, more people looked interestedly at him, standing casually beside her, than in the days when he had been anxious to make an impression for Fran’s sake. He no longer minded meeting strangers or having to listen to their foreign accents. He took them as they came.

He awoke one morning to lie looking at the bay and to realize that he was definitely and positively happy.

He had written to Fran a good deal about Edith. Fran was polite in her comments; she sent her greetings to “Mrs. Cortright”; and she was still politer, almost effusively jolly, when she wrote to him from Berlin that she was at last suing for divorce. With the term of residence she already had, the process would take three months. She was very pleasant about the fact that the grounds would be desertion, and the affair free of scandal.

He remembered how excited they had been when they had gone to Chicago together and he had bought her first little string of pearls; how proud she had been of them, and how grateful. . . . Then he felt curiously free.

When he reluctantly brought this decisive letter to Edith, she read it slowly, and ventured, “Do you mind awfully?”

“Oh yes, a little.”

“But it does clear things up, doesn’t it! And — I hope it won’t break your beautiful new calm!”

“I won’t let it!”

“But I’ve seen you so badgered by her letters!”

“Yes, but — I say! Could you ever possibly consider going to a place like Zenith to live?”

“Of course. Do places differ so much?”

“Would it amuse you to work on a plan like these garden suburbs?”

“I don’t know. It might.”

It was an hour afterward, when they had pretended to keep placidly busy with books and writing letters, that Edith burst out:

“Sam! About your suburbs. Something could be done — not just Italian villas and Swiss chalets — for a town with a tradition of Vermont Yankees and Virginians in buckskin. Why shouldn’t one help to create an authentic and unique American domestic architecture? Our skyscrapers are the first really new thing in architecture since the Gothic cathedral, and perhaps just as beautiful! Create something native — and not be afraid to keep in all the plumbing and vacuum-cleaners and electric dish-washers! Dismiss the imitation chateaux. The trouble with the rich American is that he feels uncouth and untraditional, and so he meekly trots to Europe to buy sun-dials and Fifteenth Century mantelpieces and refectory tables — to try to buy aristocracy by buying the aristocrats’ worn-out coats. I like my Europe in Europe; at home I’d like to watch people make something new. For example, your motor cars.”

“Then you would like a place like Zenith, that’s growing?”

“How can I tell? I’d certainly like the adventure of trying it.”

He felt that her hesitation was more promising than the enthusiasms of Fran. Suddenly a horde of Ercoles were trouping in, planning a swim, and no more that day, nor the next, did they speak of Fran, of Zenith, of themselves. But when they said good night, he kissed her hands, and her eyes dwelt upon him.

They were dining at Bertolini’s, high above Naples, looking out toward Capri, and he was talking of possible schemes: a two-story caravan with a canvas-sided collapsible upper floor, so that the caravan could pass under arches en route; a caravan that could turn into a house boat, carrying its own hull along, collapsed; a summer resort entirely for children whose parents were going abroad; a dozen fantastic, probably practical plans. She was amused by them, suggested improvements, and Sam was lustily content.

But after his second cognac the orchestra played selections from the Viennese operettas which Fran loved, and he remembered how happy he had been with Fran in Berlin, at first. It came to him that if Kurt failed to marry her, she would be a bewildered and lonely exile; and through the music, through the darkness beyond the music, he saw her fleeing, a desolate wraith; and while Edith gossiped most amiably, Sam’s heart was heavy with pity for the frightened and bewildered child Fran, who once had laughed so eagerly with him.

But, back at the Villa Ercole, he stood with Edith on the terrace and across the whispering darkness of the bay, he saw the cone of Vesuvius with a thin line of fire.

“Don’t worry it too much!” said Edith suddenly, and he was grateful that she understood his cloudy thoughts without making him wrap them in cloudier words.

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