World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 11

Spring came in with the almonds and cherries and plum trees blossoming in early March, and Olivia and Hayden wandered through Florence. The American Colony delightedly recognized them as potential recruits to matrimony and to the Colony.

From Sir Henry Belfont, whom he had vaguely met at teas, Hayden had a stiff note informing him, somewhat in the manner of a court summons, that Sir Henry had a nephew with Shell Oil who, years ago, had met Hayden in London. The baronet was pleased to command Hayden to luncheon, and would he care to bring some young lady of his acquaintance?

He took Olivia. In the topolino. To the disapproval of the Scotch butler, who preferred a Rolls–Royce.

Sir Henry marched them through his house. Leniently, not expecting them to appreciate such treasures, he showed off his paintings. His Villa Satiro had started out, as a fortified manor house, in 1301. It had three-hundred-year-old dwarf lemon trees, and Dante slept here.

The handsomest room in the villa — it had been the bed chamber of a grand duchess — was Sir Henry’s study. The walls were bookcases of English oak, with a royal ransom in folios and illuminated choir books. The ceiling was a fantasy of little nymphs beckoning to satyrs of no strong moral character, and under this mocking rout, at an oak desk which had belonged to William of Orange, Sir Henry wrote his letters. But his desk chair had nothing of the royal touch about it. It was of the latest ingenuity, with a sponge-rubber cushion, for while Sir Henry’s rear elevation was imposing, it was not suited to oaken hardness. Too many tons of cream sauces had gone to the construction of it.

He was a tall man and portly, and when he was surrounded by women who admired him, or at least listened to him, he would stand with his great head slightly on one side, with a fixed and somewhat silly smile, as though he were shy of his own bulky splendor. In his black jacket and linen collar —“no gentleman makes a racetrack spectacle of himself in soft colored shirts”— Sir Henry’s resemblance to the Rock of Gibraltar would have been remarkable, if it had not been for his untrimmed eyebrows.

These eyebrows drooped in monumental triangles, like the manes of little lions. He had a mustache and a precise small beard as well, but they seemed to be only drippings from the eyebrows. Sometimes, rather wistfully, he experimented with a monocle, but it was lost under an eyebrow and left him looking as nearly foolish as a man so much in love with his own nobility, so admittedly representative of all that was best in the English county families, could ever look.

But his wife was an American.

But his wife was rich.

At the luncheon were the Belfonts, Hayden and Olivia, Prince Ugo Tramontana, and the Marchesa Valdarno, who discomfited the host by snatching the conversation away from him. She was a thin scabbard in her fawn suit and tight white turban. She was American-born, swift, flashing, detestable. Rustically watching her, Hayden comprehended the ageless elegance which Roxanna Eldritch envied, but poor Roxy was an acolyte beside the Marchesa, who suavely jeered not only at America but at Parisian drunkards, English watering-places, old Roman society, and the Sadie Lurcher Riviera set, of which Valdarno was herself a member. Hayden sought the eye of Olivia, shadowed by the snowy peak of Mt. Sir Henry, and they mutely confided that they didn’t like this.

They said practically nothing at lunch. Prince Ugo — fine, lean, courteous — said only that Dr. Lomond was much honored at the Laurentian Library. Olivia glowed, and Sir Henry looked at her for the first time. The Marchesa Valdarno also looked at her — with contempt.

Throughout luncheon, Hayden had his usual discomfort over the European trick of speaking in four languages at once, switching from English to Italian in the one same sentence, with the next in French. He longed for the roar and whattameaning of Jesse Bradbin.

But the soup was good.

But after lunch, as they rode home in the humble topolino, Olivia yelled with unacademic vigor that she hated Sir Henry and his mob and wanted never to meet any of them again.

“I would like to see him again, though,” said Hayden, “because I’d like to get to the bottom of why so many Americans and well-heeled Britishers live permanently in Italy. Most of the Italians don’t much like us. They consider our drinkers too wet and our hermits too chilly and our outmarrying girls, like that Valdarno woman, disloyal to their husbands — some of them, I mean. Yet we cling to this country. Why? I’ll go to the Villa Satiro again, if I get invited, which is not too likely. I don’t think Belfont considers me one of the more tinkling talkers.”

“Me neither. And no more villa. It’s too Satiro!”

At night he was conscious of Olivia, down the hall, and wondered whether he would again meet her in feminine mufti, free of her hard uniform of professorial brown serge. But their next jaunt was considerably less abandoned. In the fashion of Newlife in his father’s era, he took her to church; not to a resounding Roman basilica but to a home-town church, a Main–Street church, in English Gothic but flavored, too, with prairie wild roses.

The St. James American Episcopal Church in Florence has no more Episcopalians than Methodists or Unitarians or plain indifferentists. In the bright stone chancel, the American flag hangs along with the Italian, and for an hour every Sunday morning even the Colonists who seem almost alienated from Home are betrayed into being American again. Social climbing is halted, and girl students kneel beside florid gentlemen who have superbly been in steel.

Most of the Colonists are given to complaining at dinner parties that America has gone to hell, along with lazy and overpaid servants, impertinent children, tasteless food and fiendish labor leaders who will soon be purging all responsible citizens. Yet at St. James’s, as they unite in the old hymns, there rises in them something primitive.

Colonists who have been asserting that they would as soon die as go back to the States and see executives being obsequious to bellboys and subway conductors and their own cooks, now hear through the music at St. James’s the heavy shoes on Plymouth Rock, the barefoot Confederates marching in the wintry Tennessee mountains, the plodding of moccasins on the Oregon Trail. In their flippant unfaith to their lean and bitter mother, America, there is yet more faith than in their zest for Europe, their opulent mistress.

Hayden came in Sabbatically double-breasted blue, with a black Homburg hat, and he was proud of Olivia’s blue silk and her resolutely white gloves and the unexpected prayer-book of celluloid cover painted with forget-me-nots which she must have borrowed at the pensione. Through service, he was content to see how properly she rose and knelt. He remembered the spires of Newlife, and was faintly lonely for home. He knew then that he was unalterably an American; he knew what a special and mystical experience it is, for the American never really emigrates but only travels; perhaps travels for two or three generations but at the end is still marked with the gaunt image of Tecumseh.

After church, they had lunch amid the fine linen of the Hotel Excelsior, and Hayden boasted:

“You did well in church today — for a heathen. I am a correct Episcopalian, and my firm built Holy Cross Pro-cathedral.”

“Not me! I was brought up a Primitive Baptist. ‘It’s the old-time religion!’ How American I still am, even when I pretend to have covered it over with Venetian velvet!”

“It’s a perfect spring day. Let’s wander all afternoon.”

“Not me. I have a lot to read,” said the sturdy girl from Professor Vintner’s class.

So they wandered all afternoon, through the spring-emblazoned city, through dark courtyards lighted up equally by gold-decked shrines to the Virgin and by plaid work-shirts hung up to dry before a fifth-story window, past the Cerchi tower, among the Sunday crowd oozing along the Arno, with a Punch and Judy show in the Piazza Ognissanti. For tea they went not to a bar favored by the Colony but were so bold as to sit out in the Square of the Republic, in front of Gilli’s.

They climbed up the winding driveway of the Viale dei Colli and felt not the grandeur of Florence but its simple pleasantness, under the trees, like the pleasantness of Newlife in June. For dinner, Olivia guided him to a little basement trattoria.

They went down slippery marble stairs into a cellar with small tables of transparent oilcloth over green-and-white table-covers. On the rough walls were very bad landscapes with which art students had paid their board-bills: landscapes with cow and river and a mountain composed of cake icing. The one waiter was guiltless of a white jacket; he wore a sweater and screamed amiably at the patrons and sometimes sat down with them. The room was full of cheerfulness: clerks and shopkeepers and soldiers whirled their strings of spaghetti and acrobatically ate fried potatoes with their knives.

Olivia was an intimate of the place. The waiter beamed and led them through a more solemn dining room where, with white tablecloths, dined the few tourists, on to the delights of the kitchen, and that was a kitchen out of a Christmas story.

The floor was of red tiles and the charcoal broiler lighted up a string of copper stewpans. It glared on the swarthy face of the fat woman cook so that she looked like a lady fiend. But beside the broiler was a modern electric range, crimson enamel and cool steel. On a table, ready to be cooked, were all the varieties of pasta: fat tagliatelli noodles, thin and writhing taglierini, tortellini like snug little white doughnuts, and the sage green of lasagne verdi, made with spinach.

On benches at the long central table five hardy taxi-drivers were dredging their grassy soup, and they looked up to salute Olivia with “Ecco! La Dottoressa!”

“It’s an honor to be allowed to eat in the kitchen,” Olivia explained, as they took places on a bench. “I ate in the outside room for a long while before the Signora would let me join them here. Now I’m part of the family, and you will be.”

“I appreciate it.” And indeed when the drivers nodded to him as though he were not a Foreigner and a Fare but a man, he felt more honored than in any toleration by Sir Henry Belfont. Olivia was hearty with a plate of giant ribbed maccheroni with meaty Bolognese sauce, and they drank red table wine poured out of what looked like a Newlife pop bottle.

Roaring with friendliness, the drivers wanted to know how stood the Dottoressa, and had she dug out of the library any scandals more recent than 1600? She fenced with them in colloquial Italian, and they cackled. Though the sharp career woman is new in Italy, there has always been a tradition of the Learned Lady, like Camilla Rucellai, like Romola, a tradition of honor, and Olivia seemed to wear the laurel crown with ease. Hayden studied her with fond pride. Was he movingly in love with her, a thing to last? With a throb, with sorrow for the shallowness of his tribute to Caprice, he wondered if his heart had forgotten her complete, and her faded little ghost was wandering now forlorn in the Colorado winter, shelterless.

The restaurant was conducted by a family of whom the grandmother was chieftain and chef, the youngish father was the outside waiter in the sweater, his wife was assistant chef, their two small sons were dishwashers and bus boys, and the baby, with its dark eyes and humorous mouth, was the most expansive customer. All evening, it seemed to Hayden, that baby was eating, eating everything, ham and breast of chicken and peas cooked with bacon and rather more red wine than strictly modern mothers give to the hygienic infants of America.

The baby and Olivia found each other delightful and slightly funny. They winked at each other, and the baby went to sleep with its head against Olivia’s arm. She flushed then; her lips were tight and she breathed quickly. Hayden could not tell whether this contact with the flesh of a baby was gratifying or distressing. She fell altogether silent and stared at the baby with a sun-and-shadow alternation of frown and tenderness. He guessed that she was thinking of Professor Leslie Vintner.

When the drivers had gone and the kitchen was somewhat more quiet, Olivia said carelessly, “I’ll have to be leaving Florence this coming week.”

“WHAT?”

“Oh, only for three-four days, and not till Tuesday. I have to go to Venice, which it happens I have never seen, to look up some records in the State Archives.”

“I’ve never been in Venice, either. I’ll drive you up there.”

“Oh, I don’t think we could do that. No, I’m quite sure we couldn’t. Thank you, though.”

“Who’s going to mind? It would be only too innocent. Who would be shocked? Mrs. Manse?”

“I would be!”

“What?”

“I mean . . . We’ve had a lovely day, and I’ve enjoyed it, and all the more reason why I must remember my resolution not to be dominated by any male.”

“Who’s trying to dominate you? Just friends.”

“Not even too lively a friendship with a man, if it could possibly grow into too much importance. I’ve been slack in regard to you. Spring! I must put on my armor again. There! I have! You’re just an amiable gentleman who lives in my pensione.”

He was irritated to ruthlessness by her undependability. She was being a tease, flirtatious and bogus, encouraging him and then drawing back. He expected that of a campus hoyden, not of a devoted scholar. She could, it seemed, be just as phony as Caprice — in the opposite direction: the Caprice who pretended, like a man, to be only a breezy companion, uninterested in love-making, when she was thinking of nothing else.

“So,” he said treacherously, “we’re just amiable acquaintances again; very polite.”

“That seems to be it.”

“With no silly sentiment between us.”

“None whatever.”

“Two careless laddy-boys together. So we CAN go to Venice, without any compromise!”

“Oh, stop it!”

“I won’t argue, but that’s the logic of it.”

He thought she looked disappointed when he talked vigorously, and only, of the Dodsworths’ new car. They returned to the Tre Corone rather silently and, for once, he accompanied her down the hall to her room and, as she opened the door, for the first time he saw the interior.

It was decidedly not dusty and doctoral. Her bed was covered with a fluffy white spread and over it was a cast of smiling little angels. He seized her hand, and urged, “Olivia! Let’s both go to Venice! Let’s not be skittish ingénues. We don’t have too many live joys. Let’s discover the wonder of Venice together!”

“But if we should go — oh then, PLEASE!”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38