Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 36

Fran was lovely, very young, in a gray-squirrel mantle.

“I got it for almost NOTHING, at the summer sales in Berlin,” she said. “Why is it most women never can seem to economize? I’ll bet your wonderful flame, Mrs. Cost — Cortright? funny, I never CAN seem to remember her name — she’s frightfully clever, I’m sure, but I’ll bet she’d have paid twice as much for it.”

The late September was cold even for mid-Atlantic. Fran smoothed the fur, draped it closer in her steamer-chair. She seemed to him like a leopard with its taut limbs hidden by a robe.

Now, after tea hour on the S.S. Deutschland, a raging sunset smeared the waves with a frightening crimson. They smelled a storm. The ship ducked before the attacking waves. But Fran was full of liveliness and well-being. As she talked, she nodded every instant to people they had met aboard, the men who were always in a knot about her at the dances, the matrons who talked of “that charming Mrs. Dodsworth — she told me she was much younger than her husband — he’s a little slow, don’t you think — but she’s so fond of him — looks after him like a daughter.”

Fran cuddled down in her richness of fur.

“Oh, it’s nice to be GOING somewhere!” she said. “I bet we’ll both be crazy to start off somewhere, maybe back to Paris, when we’ve been home a few months. (What an ATROCIOUS hat that woman has on and my DEAR, will you regard her shoes! Why they ALLOW people like that in the first cabin?) And you can’t know how tired I got of sticking around Berlin forever ‘n’ ever! Oh, you were so right about Kurt, Sam dear. I don’t know how you guessed it! You’d be the first to admit you aren’t usually so AWFULLY good at judging character, except in the case of business men, but you were right with — Oh, he was so BOSSY! He was furious if I so much as suggested I’d like to run down to Baden–Baden by myself. And where he got the idea that he was so important — Oh, his family may be as old as the Coliseum — the Coliseo — but when I saw his mother, my DEAR, the most awful old country frump —”

“Don’t!” said Sam. “Don’t know why, but I kind of hate to hear you riding Kurt and his mother that way. They were probably hurt, too.”

Most graciously, quite forgivingly, “Yes, you’re right. Sorry, M’sieu! I’ll be a good girl. And of course everything is all right now. After all, it’s such a wonderful Happy Ending to our wild little escapades! We’ve both learned lots, don’t you think? and now I won’t be so flighty and you won’t be so irritable, I’m sure you won’t.”

There was dancing in the verandah cafe. Young Tom Allen, the polo player — young Tom, all black and ivory and grin — came to ask her to dance. She smiled up at him, airily patted Sam’s arm, and scampered away, while Tom seemed to be holding her hand under shelter of her squirrel robe.

The sunset was angry now, the color of port wine.

Sam staggered around and around the slanting deck, alone, and alone he stood aft, looking back in the direction of Europe. But there was only foggy gray.

He awoke, bewildered, at two in the morning. The storm had come; the steamer was pitching abominably. In his half sleep he heard Edith whimpering in her sleep in the twin bed beside him. Smiling, glad to comfort her who had been all comfort to him here in sun-bright Naples, he stretched out his arm, sleepily stroked her thin wrist.

He startled, he sat up and gasped, at the astonishment of hearing the voice of Fran.

“Oh, thank you! Nice of you to wake me up. Having a kind of nightmare. My, it’s rough!”

In his agitation he tightened his fingers on her wrist.

“Oh, Sam, DON’T— Oh, don’t be ARDENT! Not yet. I must get used — And I’m so sleepy!” Very brightly: “You don’t mind, do you? Nighty-night!”

He lay awake. In the watery light from the transom he saw the sheen of her silver toilet things on the dresser. He thought of this tremendous steamer, pounding the waves. He thought of the modern miracle of the radio, up above, of the automatic electric steering apparatus. Yet on the bridge were sailors, unautomatic, human, eternal. The ship, too, was eternal, as a vehicle of man’s old voyaging. Its creaking seemed to him like the creaking of an ancient Greek trireme.

But while his thoughts reached out thus for things heroic, he heard her placid breathing and he smelled not the sea gale but perfume that came from little crystal vials among her silver toilet-things that were vaster than the hull of the steamer, stronger than the storm.

He felt that he would never sleep again.

He closed his great fist, tight. Then it relaxed, and he was asleep.

He roused to hear her bubbling, in a stormy dawn:

“Are you awake? Don’t let me disturb you. Horrid morning! Let’s get up some bridge. We’ll get Mr. Ballard and Tom Allen. He’s a dear boy, isn’t he! Though I feel like a mother toward him. Oh, Sam, if you aren’t too sleepy — Oh. While we’re in New York, I think I’ll see if I can’t pick up a really nice Chinese evening wrap. Tom told me about a shop. Of course I have those others, but they’re getting so shabby, and after all, you don’t expect me to look a fright, like Matey Pearson, do you! I’ll make her eyes start out of her head with the Marcel Rochas frock I got in Paris, and think, I only had two days to get it in! Zenith will simply foam at the mouth! Oh, after all, it IS kind of nice to be going home — for a while — after all we’ve gone through — and Sam, I wonder if you understand that I understand probably you were just as brave and honest as I was, even with the hideous suffering I had to face in Berlin! And — Oh, I don’t know what reminded me of it, but you must be careful with the Ballards. I’m afraid you bored them last evening, talking about Italian motors. You must remember that they have a villa in Florence, and they’re used to the real Italy, and artists and the nobility and so on. But of course it doesn’t matter. And — Do you mind ringing for coffee? That’s an old dear!”

The scent of her perfumes seemed stronger than by night, in the sleep-thickened air of the stateroom.

He slowly raised himself to ring for the steward. He had said nothing whatever.

She blissfully dropped off to sleep again, and he bathed, dressed, swayed out on deck. The open portion of the promenade dock was protected by canvas against which the water crashed, sending streams between the lashings to trickle along the deck. He labored forward, stood solemnly at a window looking ahead at the bow plunging into the waves, at the foam hurled over the forepeak, at a desolate immigrant in a tattered old raincoat trying to keep a footing on the forward deck.

It was black ahead. To a landsman it was menacing. Yet there was strength in the stormy air and, after a long breath, stretching out his great arms, Sam began to plow around the deck.

His eyes seemed turned inward; his lips moved a little in his meditation.

After half an hour, breakfastless, he suddenly climbed the stairs from A Deck to the Boat Deck and, down a narrow corridor, past the tiny florist-shop, came to the wireless bureau — a narrow desk across a small room, like a telegraph office in a minor hotel.

Emotionlessly, he wrote and handed in a message to Edith Cortright: “Will you be Naples three weeks from now?”

He went down to breakfast. All morning and half the afternoon he played bridge, watching Fran flirt with the ebullient Tom Allen.

The answer to his radio came just before tea-time: “No but shall be venice for couple months bless you edith.”

For an hour, while Fran made much of tea with half a dozen men, Sam sat alone in the smoking-room, pretending to read whenever any lone and necessitous drinker came in to look for a drinking companion.

At the dressing-hour, he said mildly to Fran, “I wonder if we mightn’t have dinner here in our stateroom tonight? I want to talk about things. We’ve sort of avoided it.”

“Good Heavens, Sambo, what’s come over you? Do you regard it as particularly cheerful to dine in this beastly little hole of a room on a rough night like this? Besides! I promised the Ballards we’d join them in the grill for dinner — such a common, stupid commercial crowd in the salon.”

“But we must talk.”

“My dear man, I think we’ll manage it, with four full days ahead of us on this steamer! I’m really not going off to the Riviera or any place, you know!”

It was not till late in the evening that he had his chance. As they came down to the stateroom at bedtime, Fran very lively after a session in the smoking-room, he said, without prelude:

“Not much use trying to do it tactfully. Wanted to, but Fran, we can’t make a go of it, and I’m going back and join Edith Cortright.”

“I don’t quite understand. What have I done now? Oh, my God, if you haven’t learned — You haven’t learned anything, not one single thing, out of all our sorrows! Still criticizing me, and such a kind sweet way of springing something beastly cruel on me just when I’ve been happy, as I have tonight!” She faced him, hands clenched. “Will you KINDLY, Mr. Dodsworth, be a little less mysterious and tell me just what it is I’ve done to hurt your tender little feelings THIS time?”

“Nothing. We just can’t make a go of it. You don’t get me. I’m not making a scene. I’m not trying to bully you. I meant just what I said. I’m going back to Italy, from New York, on the first ship. I’m not blaming or criticizing —”

She sat abruptly on the chair before her dressing-table. She said quietly, with fear edging her voice, “And what is to become of me?”

“I don’t know. If I did, I wouldn’t have met you on the ship.”

She moaned. “Oh! You do manage to hurt! I congratulate you! You see, I’ve been flattering myself you really wanted to come back to me!”

He started to say something comforting, then held it back in panic, as if in danger. “I’m not going to be polite, Fran. You know how awfully I’ve loved you, a good many years. You tampered with it. . . . What’s going to become of you? I don’t know. But I guess it’ll be just the same thing that’s been becoming of you this past couple of years. You haven’t needed me. You’ve found people to play with, and plenty of beaux. I suppose you’ll go on finding them —”

“And this is the man that ‘loved me awfully’—”

“Wait! For the first time in all our arguments, I’m going to think of what would become of ME! I can’t help you. I’m just your attendant. But me — you can kill me. I didn’t used to mind your embarrassing me and continually putting me in my place. Didn’t even know you were doing it. But I do now, and I won’t stand it!”

“Was it your dear Mrs. Cortright who taught you that lovely theory? about embarrassing you? After the years when I’ve never allowed one single soul to criticize you —”

“Understand? I’m FINISHED!”

He did not, unfortunately, leave her in any heroic and dignified way. He flounced out of the stateroom like a child in a tantrum. And that was because he knew that only by childish violence could he escape from her logic, and because he knew that he must escape, even over the side of the lurching ship. For she was indeed perfectly logical and sound. She knew what she wanted!

It was misery for him to look out at her from the taxicab which he was taking to the Italian Line dock, after three days in New York; to see her standing in front of the hotel, alone, deserted, her eyes pitiful, and to realize that he might never see her again. The look in her eyes had been the meaning of life for him, and he was deserting it.

They were dining at the Ritz in Paris, Edith and Sam, feeling superior to its pretentiousness, because that evening they had determined to return to America, when his divorce should be complete, and to experiment with caravans. They were gay, well dined and well content.

But after his second cognac the orchestra played selections from Viennese operettas, and he remembered how happy Fran and he had been in Berlin. He remembered the wretchedness of the letter he had received from her that day. She was staying with Emily in Zenith; she said that she was seeing no one; that his “DEAR friends Tub and Matey” were a little too polite; and that she was thinking of going, in a few days, to Italy —

Through the darkness beyond the music, he saw her fleeing, a desolate wraith, and his heart was heavy with pity for the frightened and bewildered child who once had laughed so eagerly with him.

He came out of his silence with a consciousness that Edith was watching him. She said lightly, “You enjoy being sad about her! But hereafter, every time there is a music, I shall also think of Cecil Cortright. How handsome he was! He spoke five languages! How impatient I was with him! How I failed him! How virtuous it makes me feel to flay myself! What a splendid, uncommon grief I have! Dear Sam! . . . What a job it is to give up the superiority of being miserable and self-sacrificing!”

He stared, he pondered, he suddenly laughed, and in that laughter found a youthfulness he had never known in his solemn youth.

He was, indeed, so confidently happy that he completely forgot Fran and he did not again yearn over her, for almost two days.

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The University of Adelaide Library
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57