Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 9

Lockert called for them in a long, sumptuous, two-seater Sunbeam which he drove himself. He insisted that there was plenty of room in the seat for the three of them, but it seemed to Sam that they were crowded, and that Fran, glossy in her gray squirrel coat and her small cloche hat, snuggled too contentedly against Lockert’s shoulder.

He forgot it in the pleasure of driving from the lowering smoke of London to the winter sunshine of the country; gray fields beginning to stir with green, breathing a faint bright mist, above which, in the shining branches of the trees, the rooks were jubilant. Little villages he saw, with homely tea rooms and inn signs —“The Rose and Crown,” “The Green Dragon,” and “The Faithful Friend”; then thatched farmhouses, oasthouses — he could not understand what these domestic lighthouses might be — and on a ridge the splayed ruin of a castle, his first castle!

Knights in tourney; Elaine in white samite, mystic, wonderful — no, it was Guinevere who wore the white samite, wasn’t it? must read some Tennyson again. Dukes riding out to the Crusades with minstrels playing on — what was it? — rebecks? Banners alive, and a thousand swords flashing. And these fairy stories really had happened, and around that wall up there, with its one broken lump of a tower! The cavalcade of knights — following this same road! — became more real to him than the motor, for he was bored by the talk of Fran and Lockert and lost the thread of it in ancient book-colored memories which returned as desirable and somehow tragic. The other two were chattering of cricket at Lord’s, of polo at Hurlingham; they were spitefully recalling the poor old rustic banker on the Ultima who came to dinner every evening in prehistoric dress clothes with the top of his trousers showing like a narrow black scarf above the opening of his baggy white waistcoat. Their superciliousness shut Sam out in the darkness along with the kindly old banker.

He wanted to escape from the hotel-and-theater London of the tourist and see the authentic English — Dorset shepherds — cotton operatives on the dole in Salford — collier captains in Bristol harbor — Cornish tin-miners — Cambridge dons — hop-pickers in Kentish pubs — great houses in the Dukeries. But they were too low or too high for Fran’s attention, and was it probable, he sighed, that he would see anything that she did not choose?

A little incredulously he perceived that Fran was really attracted by Lockert — she who had not been given to even the flimsiest of tea-table flirtations, who had blushed and looked soft-eyed only at the attentions of the very best of visiting celebrities: a lecturing English novelist or a young Italian baron who was studying motor factories; she who had ever been rude with a swift cold rudeness to such flappers as were known to indulge in that midnight pawing known in Zenith as “necking.” But Lockert seemed by his placid bullying to have broken her glistening shell of sexlessness. She, so touchy, so ready to take offense, accepted Lockert as though he were her oldest friend, to wrangle with, to laugh with.

“You drive much too fast,” she said.

“It would be too fast for any one who wasn’t as good a driver as I am.”

“Oh, really! I suppose you’ve won races!”

“I have. With German shells. I was in the motor transport before they sent me to America. I’ve driven at night, on a road full of shell holes, without lights, at thirty miles an hour. . . . As I was saying, you’re too American, Mrs. Dodsworth. Americans understand themselves less and are less understood by the world than any nation that’s ever existed. You’re excellent at all the things in which you’re supposed to be lacking — lyric poetry, formal manners, lack of cupidity. And you’re so timid and incompetent at the things in which you’re supposed to excel — fast motoring, aviation, efficiency in business, pioneering — why, Britain has done more pioneering, in Canada and Africa and Australia and China, in any given ten years, than the States have in twenty. And you, who feel you’re so European, you’re so typically American! You have the most charming and childish misconceptions about yourself. You think you’re an arrogant, self-contained, rational, ambitious woman, whereas actually you’re warm-hearted and easily dazzled — you’re simply an eager young woman, and it’s only your shyness that keeps you going about doing the starry-eyed-wonder and trusting-little-niece sort of thing.”

“My dear Major Lockert, I hope that the combination of your extraordinarily careful driving and your extraordinarily generous mind-reading isn’t tiring you too much!”

But she didn’t, Sam realized, succeed in making it nasty.

She had turned entirely toward Lockert. She no longer noticed Sam when he mumbled, “There’s a lovely old stone church,” or “Guess those are hop poles”; when he wanted to hold her hand and tell her with quick little pressures that they were sharing the English countryside.

“Oh, well —” he reflected.

He recalled “Pickwick Papers,” and the coach with the jovial, well-warmed philosophers swaying down the frosty roads for Christmas in the country.

“Great!” he said.

They stopped for lunch at a village inn. To Sam’s alert gratification they drove under an archway into a courtyard of coaching days. He was delighted by the signs on the low dark doors beneath the archway: Coffee Room, Lounge, Saloon Bar.

They stamped their feet and swung their arms as the Pickwickians had done when they had stopped, perhaps, at this same inn. If Fran had ignored him, she took him in again and warmed him with her smile, with an excited “Isn’t this adorable, Sam! Just what we wanted!” She insisted, despite Lockert’s ruddy and spinsterish protests, on going into the taproom and there, with authentic-looking low rafters, paneling of black oak, floor of cherry-red tiles, they sat at a long wooden table between benches, and Sam and Lockert warmed themselves with whisky while Fran sipped half a pint of bitter out of a pewter mug — Sam secretly bought it from the bar-maid afterward, and lost it in Paris.

The stairs to the dining-room were carpeted in warm dark red; the wall was plastered with Victorian pictures: Wellington at Waterloo, Melrose Abbey by Moonlight, Prince Collars and Cuffs, Rochester Castle; and on the landing was such a Cabinet of Curiosities as Sam had not seen since childhood: a Javanese fan, carved chessmen, Chinese coins, and a nugget of Australian gold.

The dining-room was dominated by a stone fireplace on which were carved the Tudor rose and the high-colored arms of the local Earl. Near it, on the oak buffet, crowned with enormous silver platters, were a noble ham, a brown-crusted veal and ham pie, a dish of gooseberry tart; and at a table two commercial travelers were gorging themselves on roast beef with Yorkshire pudding.

“Great!” Sam rejoiced, and his glow continued even through watery greens and disconsolate Brussels sprouts.

Beyond Sevenoaks, Lockert played a lively tattoo with the horn, and shouted, “Almost there! Welcome to the Stately Homes of England!”

They came to an estate, high-walled, with deer to be seen through grilled gates, and the twisted Tudor chimneys of a great house visible beyond a jungle of pines.

“Oh, Lord, is this the place?” Sam privately wondered. “It’ll be terrible! Ten footmen. I wonder if they do wear plush knee-pants? Whom does one tip?”

But the car raced past this grandeur, dipped into a red-brick hamlet, turned off High Street and into a rough lane gloomy between hedges, and entered a driveway before a quite new, quite unpretentious house of ten or twelve rooms. As with thousands of houses they had passed in crawling out of London, there was a glassed-in porch littered with bicycles, rubbers, and rather consumptive geraniums. At one side of the house was a tennis-court, an arbor, and the skeletons of a rose-garden, but of lawn there was scarcely a quarter-acre.

“I told you it was only a box,” Lockert drawled, as he drew up with a sputter of gravel at the door.

There was a roar within. The door was opened by a maid, very stiff in cap and apron, but past her brushed the source of the roaring — a tiny, very slim image of a man, his cheeks almost too smoothly pink to be real, his mustache too precise and silvery, and his voice a parade-ground bellow too enormous to be credited in so miniature a soldier.

“How d’you do, Mrs. Dodsworth. Most awfully nice of you to come!” he thundered, and Lockert muttered, “This is the General.”

If, in his quest for romance, the exterior of the house was a jar to Sam, the drawing-room was precisely what he had desired, without knowing that he had desired it. Here was definitely Home, with a homeliness which existed no longer in most of the well-to-do houses of Zenith, where, between the great furniture factories and the young female decorators with their select notions about “harmony” and “periods,” any respectable living-room was as shiny and as impersonal as a new safety-razor blade. At Herndon’s, blessedly, no two bits of furniture belonged to the same family or age, yet the chintzes, the fireplace, the brass fire-irons, the white paneling, belonged together. On a round table in a corner were the General’s cups — polo cups, golf cups, the cup given him by his mess in India, a few medals, and a leering Siva; and through low casement windows the gray garden was seen sloping down to meadows and a willow-bordered pond. And the maid was wheeling in a tea-wagon with a tall old silver teapot, old silver slop-jar, mounds of buttered scones, and such thin bread and butter as Sam had never known could exist.

After a tea during which Herndon rumbled rather libelous stories about his fellow soldiers, they walked up the lane, across a common on which donkeys and embattled geese were grazing, past half-timbered shops with tiny windows containing a jar or two of sweets, to the fifteenth-century flint church, in itself a history of all Kent. The tower was square, crenelated, looking as though it would endure forever. In the low stone-paved porch were parish registers, and the names of the vicars of the parish since the Norman Gilles de Pierrefort of 1190. The pillars along the nave were ponderous stone; on the wall were brasses with epitaphs in black and red; in the chancel were the ancient stone shelf of the piscina of Roman Catholic days, and a slab commemorating Thos Siwickley, Kt. — all but the name and the florid arms had been worn away by generations of priestly feet.

While Herndon was lecturing them on the beauties of the church — with rather more than a hint about the iron-bound chest in which tourists, particularly American tourists, were permitted to deposit funds for the restoration of the roof — the vicar came in, a man innocent and enthusiastic at forty-five, tall, stooped, much spectacled, speaking an Oxonian English so thick that Sam could understand nothing beyond “strawdnerly well-proportioned arches,” which did not much enlighten him.

As they ambled home he saw candles in cottage windows.

They stopped to greet a porcelain-cheeked little old woman with a wreck of a black hat, a black bag of a suit, and exquisite gloves and shoes, whom Herndon introduced as Lady Somebody-or-other —

“But,” Sam reflected, “it isn’t real! It’s fiction! The whole thing, village and people and everything, is an English novel — and I’m in it! This is Chapter Two, and it’s lovely. But I wonder about Chapter Twenty. Will there be the deuce to play? . . . Just because life is more easy and human here, I feel more out of it. So accustomed to having my office and the boys to boss around — Now that I’ve quit, I’ve got nothing but myself — and Fran, of course — to keep me busy. These people, Lockert and Lord Herndon, they can live in themselves more. They don’t need a movie palace and a big garage to be content. I’ve got to learn that, but — Oh, I enjoyed seeing that church, and yet I feel lonely for old Tub making a hell of a racket.”

The glow in him faded as he trudged with Lockert, both of them silent, behind the chattering Fran and Herndon.

And he was irritated when Herndon turned back to crow, in the most flattering way, “You know, I should never in the world have taken Mrs. Dodsworth and you for Americans. I should have thought you were an English couple who had lived for some time in the Colonies.”

Sam grumbled within, childishly, “I suppose that’s an Englishman’s notion of the best compliment he can pay you!”

But Herndon was so cordial that he could not hint his resentment. He would, just that moment, have preferred rudeness and the chance of an enlivening row. But his loneliness, his uncharted apprehension, vanished with the whisky and soda which both Herndon and Lockert deemed it necessary for him to take before dinner, to ward off all possible colds and other ills. As he stalked up to their bedroom (the reddest red and the shiniest brass and the most voluble little fire), Sam fretted, “I’m getting to be as touchy and fanciful and changeable as an old maid. Yet I never was cranky in the office . . . never very cranky. Am I too old to learn to loaf? I will!” And he said, as he entered the room and was startled anew at Fran’s shiningness in a combination of white glove silk, “Oh, honey, speaking of old churches, you fitted into that stone aisle as if you were the lady of the manor!”

“And you were so big and straight! Lockert and the General are sweet but — Oh, you old sweet stone statue!”

He remembered for weeks their warm shared affection in the warm red room, as they laughed and dressed. His slight jealousies disappeared at the thought of Lockert off somewhere dressing alone, probably in a room as chill as the drafty corridor.

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