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That Sophistication by Sherwood Anderson

 

Longman was a man I met in Paris some six or eight years ago. With his wife he had an apartment in the Boulevard Raspail. You climbed up to it with difficulty. There was no elevator.

I am not just sure where I first met him. It might have been in the studio of Madam T. Madam T. was an American woman. She came from Indianapolis. Or was it Dayton?

Anyway, she was said to have been the mistress of the Spanish poet, Sarasen. A dozen people had told me about that. It was when Sarasen was an old man.

But who was Sarasen? I had never heard of him before. I told Mabel Cathers about that. Mabel is from Chicago. She was indignant. "How should you?" she asked. "You do not know Spanish."

It was quite true. I didn't.

I suspected that Madam T. had a goiter. She wore a yellow ribbon about her neck. I was frivolous all that Summer. Being with Mabel made me so. When I was in Madam T.'s studio, I was always thinking of a song we used to sing in our Ohio town when I was a boy:

 

"Around her neck, she wore a yellow ribbon,
She wore it all the night and she wore it all the day.
When they asked her why in the hell she wore it,
She wore it for her lover who was far, far away."

 

It is all right even to have a goiter if you have as much money as Madam T. She wore exquisite gowns.

Someone said that when Sarasen was an old man she took tender and loving care of him. The old giant of literature in his dotage. I wished I could get me one like that. I told Mabel so. We were living at the same little hotel. I presume Mabel's husband was at home, in Chicago. "But you are no giant and never will be," she said smiling. She smiled so nicely I didn't mind what she said.

There was another song also in my head a lot, just at that time. It went like this:

 

"There's where she stays all day.
I wonder where she stays all night."

 

That was all I knew of the song.

No chance of keeping track of Mabel. She ran all around Paris, day and night. And she had no French. She was getting culture, sophistication. That was her purpose. She told me so herself. I liked Mabel.

But be that as it may, we will say that I did meet Harry Longman in the studio of Madam T. The house was on the Left Bank. I have forgotten the name of the street. French names never would stick in my head. There was a court, such as you see in old houses in New Orleans. In New Orleans they call them "patios." The studio occupied all the ground floor. Ralph Cook took me there the first time. But you do not know Ralph. Well, never mind.

Madam T. had bought any number of pictures by European painters, the kind that cost a lot of money. Cezannes, Von Goghs, etc. She had a lot of Monets, I remember.

Cook also had some Monets. He was the son of an American rich man.

Cook had been at Oxford, as a student, taking his degree there I think. He brought a young Englishman back with him.

The Englishman was of the healthy rosy-cheeked sort. He laughed all the time. Life was one grand show for him. He was the son of an English lord and had a title of his own but kept it out of sight. "For God's sake don't tell anybody that," he said to me, when I found it out.

He delighted in Americans. He, Cook, Mabel, and I went to Madam T.'s together. In the large room downstairs, with the pictures on the wall, many people were gathered. They were, for the most part, mannish women and womanly men. It was to be an afternoon of poetry.

Through an open window we could see into a little court outside. In a corner there was a small structure built of stone. A stone dove perched on it. Someone told us it was a temple of love.

The Englishman liked that. The idea delighted him. He said he would like to get Cook and Mabel to go with him and worship out there. "Come on," he whispered. "Let's go and fall on our knees together. Everyone will see us. We will declare love has just come to us."

Mabel said it wasn't a subject to be dealt with lightly like that. She did not like the Englishman and told me so afterwards. "He's too frivolous about sacred things," she said. I suspected Mabel would have liked being a Madam T. herself. She hadn't the money.

"Love of what?" growled Cook. He was a big, broad-shouldered young man from somewhere in Texas. At Oxford he had made a record.

The young Englishman was a scholar, too. He seemed to me too light-minded for that, but Cook told me he was all right. "His mind sometimes lights up the whole lecture room over there at Oxford," Cook said.

On the afternoon when we went to Madam T.'s there was some sort of ceremony going on. A woman got up and read a poem. There was a great deal said about the dove and I did not exactly understand the symbolism. "What do doves do?" I asked Mabel, but she did not know. I think she was ashamed, not being better informed. There was, Cook told me afterwards, a good deal of that sort of talk going on among the English upper classes. "Well, it's sophistication, isn't it? That's what you're after, isn't it?" I asked Mabel. She treated my inquiry with scorn.

The young Englishman, Cook had got in with, had told him a good deal about it. He said that at Oxford, after he and Cook got acquainted, they used to walk about and speak of it.

The young Englishman had told Cook he thought such ideas came from living too long at one place--the English living too long in England, the French in France, the Germans in Germany. "The Russians and the Americans are still primitive peoples," he said. That made Mabel sore. It seemed, to Mabel and me, a kind of slur on our native land, the way Cook explained it.

Europeans are too tired, the Englishman had told Cook. He had a notion people are like this--well, they have apparently to believe that if they move to a new place life will go better with them. A horde of people had come out of Europe to America feeling that way. Americans were still always moving about. It was certainly true of people like Mabel and myself.

The Russians too were great wanderers. They believed in the possibility of the salvation of their race through new forms of government--"all that sort of rot," the Englishman had said when he talked to Cook. You understand that Mabel and I got all this from Cook, who had certainly learned a lot since he left Texas.

The young Englishman thought the Americans an altogether primitive people. They could still believe in government. They looked toward Heaven as another and more successful America, he thought. They believed in such things as Prohibition, for example.

And it wasn't, as it sometimes seemed on the surface, merely a matter of a passion for interfering in the lives of others. There was a deep-seated and rather childish belief that all people could be saved.

But what did they mean by "being saved"?

"They meant just what they said when they used the words. They thought vaguely that a good and powerful leader would be found to lead them out of the wilderness of this life."

"Something as Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, eh?"

"But he is not speaking about Jews," Mabel said. Afterwards she spoke several times about what an intellectual afternoon it was. She said she thought it was swell. Just the same there was a lot of--shall I say Krafft-Ebing--talk that got over my head and that I know Mabel didn't get. We had both missed something, not having been enough among the world-weary, I guess.

But I have got a long way from Henry Longman. Now I will come to him.

He came from Cleveland, Ohio. We saw him first, at least I did, that afternoon at Madam T.'s. He was a strange figure there. For one thing he had his wife with him. That, in that place, was strange in itself.

It seemed Cook and the young Englishman had pounced on him. I have already said that he lived in a studio apartment, on the Boulevard Raspail, on the top floor.

It was a six-storied building, six flights of stairs to climb.

Henry's wife was a big blonde and he was a big man with a fat, red face. Cook had in some way got the low-down on him.

He came from Cleveland where he had got his wife. His father was a candy manufacturer out there.

And his wife's father was also rich.

The two fathers had been hard-working young men and had got on, in the American world. They both got rich.

Then their son and daughter had got the culture hunger. Their fathers might have been half proud of them, half ashamed. The woman, when she was in college, won a poetry prize. An American magazine, of the better class, published the poem.

Then she married the young man, the son of her father's friend. They went to live in Paris. They were conducting a salon.

They had taken that top floor, in the old building without an elevator, because it seemed to them artistic.

Their effort was to get the French to come to their place, and they did come, of course. Why not? There was food and drink, an abundance of both.

Longman and his wife spoke little French, about as much as Mabel and I. They couldn't get the hang of it.

Longman wanted us to think him an Englishman of the upper classes.

He hinted vaguely of an English family, of good blood, ruined, I gathered. "How could that be--his having all of that money?" the young Englishman asked Mabel. He, the young Englishman, had taken a fancy to Mabel. "He thinks you primitive and interesting," I kept telling her. I knew how to be nasty too. Longman's father sent him a lot of money and his wife's father sent her some money and--having all of that money--they fancied the idea of seeming poor. "We are dreadfully in debt," Longman's wife was always saying.

As she said it, we sat drinking the most expensive wines to be had in France.

They had a crowd always about--feeding people as they did, wining them.

The wine was brought in. It was opened and a glass poured for the blonde wife. She always made a wry face at the first taste. "Henry," she said sharply to her husband, "I think the wine is slightly corked." Mabel thought it was grand technique. It was a word the blonde had got hold of. When she said it her husband ran to her. We were in a large studio room, built for a painter. There was a glass roof. In the corner there was a cheap sink, such as you see in American small hotels. The husband, with a look of horror on his face, ran and poured the wine down the sink.

Expensive wine going off like that. I could see Mabel shiver. "I'll bet Mabel is a good economical housewife at home," Cook whispered to me.

Longman began to talk. He liked to give the impression that he was in Paris on some important mission, say, for the British government--for Downing Street, say. He didn't exactly say so.

And he referred to a book--one, you were to understand he was writing or had written. I couldn't get that clear. He did not say, "My Life of Napoleon" or "My Secrets of Downing Street." Just how did he get it across? There was the distinct impression left that he had written several important works. He was like an author, too modest really to refer directly to his work.

We got all that, going on day after day, month after month.

The Americans from Cleveland pretending to themselves they were important people, the guests pretending they were important.

They, the guests, pretending they had important reasons for being in Paris. A little string of lies, each telling the other a lie.

Why not? I went there on several occasions with Cook, Mabel and the young Englishman. Every evening the same thing happened.

Mabel, Cook and I got a little tired of the young Englishman sometimes, and Mabel let him know it. It was a little hard on him and Cook. Cook had to decide whether he wanted to stick to the Englishman or to us. He stuck to us--on account of Mabel, of course.

He said it was a fair sight to see the way Mabel could cut people out of our herd. We did make up a small herd, the crowd of us at our cheap Left Bank hotel. Cook came to live there and we got three or four more--males, you may be sure.

We all used to go to Longman's a lot. There was good food and good wine and we all liked to hear Longman's wife say the wine was corked. She always said it at the first taste of the first bottle after we arrived. When someone else came in, she said it again. Mabel said she was sorry we had Prohibition in America. She would have liked, she said, to spring it on the folks at home, but it would cost too much.

She said she had come to Europe, as we all had, to get sophistication and that she thought she was getting it. Cook and I and several others tried to give her some.

She said the trouble was that the more sophistication she got the more she felt like Chicago. She said it was almost like being in Chicago, the sophistication she picked up after four or five other Americans, all of them men, began living with us at our hotel.

"I might have saved my husband all this money and got all this sophistication I'm getting, or anyway all I needed, right in Chicago," she declared several times during that Summer.

 
 
 

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