World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 12

Olivia was youthful in white linen. “For a scholar, she spends quite a lot on clothes,” he reflected. Like a girl back home, she was not wearing stockings, and there was a glow of bare ivory knees as she tucked herself into the topolino.

“Is it possible that she has chucked her aloofness, that she likes me a good deal?” he wondered.

They were close together in the tiny car on this, their first mammoth excursion. Wisteria was beginning to paint the walls, the mimosa bush was in yellow cataracts, and the daffodils were like shy English visitors. The Tuscan spring was sweet with the smell of plowed fields among the vine rows, where gentle oxen moved in leisure, great white oxen against the brown earth, and the liberated lovers were bound for Venice, city to them enchanted but unknown. They sang together as they crawled, spiraled, sped up on the road across the Apennines that is the highway to Bologna and Venice.

After the Futa Pass, before the high notch of Raticosa, there was a long upland ridge with valleys like unknown kingdoms castle-starred below them. It was flying. The sheep pastures, the pocket vineyards, the dumpy plaster farmhouses, and lone monasteries which were high above the valley floor and yet hundreds of feet below the car could be comfortably reached, said Hayden, by a jump and then a good deal of quiet falling. It was a twisted trail for eagles.

Olivia looked out of the car and directly down. “I’m not much used to mountain driving. Are you good at it?”

“Used to it, at least.”

“You sound confident. Then I am.”

Before Raticosa they were in a mountain-top barren of stunted pine and heather. Up here, it was still late winter, and patches of sandy snow were dark along the road as they went back in time two months behind Florence. The higher peaks beyond them were solid snow.

“This must be frightening, in January. Like your Rockies. I’m a plodding plainsman and marsh-jumper. A lot of my childhood in Southern New Jersey,” said Olivia.

The Italians have been admirable road-engineers since centuries before Julius Caesar, and the car came down fast but securely on the corkscrew road that drops from the pass to Bologna in its valley, brisk red Bologna with its arcades. Then it was all flat land across Emilia and the Veneto, and eight hours from Florence, they left the car at the Piazzale Roma and magically took a gondola up the canals of Venice, past palaces whose doorsteps were washed by the sea channels.

Venice, on the map, resembles one large island (which is really a group of small ones) curved like a heavy thumb and hand, grasping at the head of another island like a timid animal with agitated pointed paws. When Hayden pointed this out, rattling a map in the breeze, Olivia cried, “An architect does get to have an eye! My poet!”

For propriety, they stayed at two different pensioni near the Piazza Morosini. They had cocktails at the Palazzo Gritti, the most luxurious hotel in Italy, and dined at the Colombo on tiny shrimps fresh from the Adriatic, listening to the Venetian citizens standing at the wine counter and peacefully quarreling. Then they walked through Venice till midnight, getting lost and found and more lost than ever among streets that changed their names every two blocks and after eight or ten, ended slap in a courtyard with an ancient wellhead and no exit or else crept up on a bridge over a canal and down under the bulk of a palace, in darkness, to emerge on an astonishing square, vast, empty, palace-walled. They saw arches reflected in the small interior canals and the more exuberant illumination mirrored flickeringly in the wide Grand Canal, caught through alleys that were only three-foot slits between six-story warrens.

Here is the only city without wheeled traffic, the only city dedicated to human beings and not to dictatorial automobiles, and over all of it is unreality. They walked with stilled reverence through the small crowds, free of the horrors of motorcycles and of the bicycles that elsewhere in Italy stalk pedestrians and bring them down.

Venice is not a city. It is one colossal palace on a low rock in the sea. These are not squares and courtyards but roofless halls, and if the stone is worn and the plaster blotched, there is gaudy Renaissance history in balconies and Gothic windows.

These are not streets but corridors of the palace, and these bright bazaars, heaped with figured satin and ivory triptychs and spun iridescent glass, are not shops but the ancient loot of the doges, and this is not stone pavement but the palace floor, polished by centuries of feet that first skipped here, then strode, then shuffled till they were borne to the funeral gondola by sturdier feet; a floor so polished thus that by night light all the granite roughnesses vanish in an even glow.

All round the palace a breeze flickers in from Ragusa and Albania and the Adriatic isles. Fishing smacks with colored lateen sails come in with cargoes of devilfish, and disdainful steamers fresh from Egypt and its musky airs, and the gondolas, with their small prow lights, lurch over the Grand Canal, the gondoliers swinging on the poop.

Here and not elsewhere live Neptune and his daughters, whose hair is spray. They were visible that night to Hayden and his girl, pacing through hollow-sounding piazzas, their arms round each other. He had little to say but “To find all this with YOU!” and reluctantly he kissed her good night at her door.

By working late, Olivia finished her research the next day, and they dined in grandeur at the Gritti and again walked the night half out. All the morning after they spent in the Piazza San Marco.

They sat, in an idleness and contentment so profound that they amounted to activity, at a table outside the Lavena, and watched the operetta of the crowd: the tourists feeding the pigeons which, at the bang of the clock struck by the bronze giants, rose together in a tide of wings; the smoochers — sellers of post cards and coral necklaces and the guide with the red scarf who was always saying hopefully, “Guide? Me spik gud English.”

An American destroyer was in harbor, and the crew and officers had flooded ashore, each with a camera, from executive officer to mess boy. San Marco cathedral must that day have exceeded its quota of being photographed fifty times an hour.

Of these rangy American boys, with the freshness of Salem Harbor or the Iowa hills under their salt glaze, Hayden was proud. “Look at them! And next week, in Greece or Smyrna or Spain! They’ve brought back the tradition of the clipper days when Yankee faces (including a great-something-grandfather of mine) were seen in every port of China and Africa and the Spice Islands!”

He was incredibly contented with the friendly presence of Olivia, the magnificence of the hour and place, where he could see Byzantine and Gothic and Renaissance all together, in a tremendous harmony. He thought that Olivia looked almost like a fond wife when he passed on to her, as a lover’s gift, all the architectural lore he was harvesting.

He dutifully inquired, “But do you think we’d better be starting? It’s going to cloud over.”

“Not yet. I’ve forgotten the responsible Dr. Lomond. Let’s drown in this sun while it lasts. Americans are always so restless to be off; they follow some mental timetable that they’ll probably take with them to Heaven, to the considerable annoyance of the timeless angels, who don’t mind a bit if you’re a couple of thousand years late for choir practice!”

Her complaint was generously illustrated by an American tourist couple at a table near.

They were people of sixty, and prosperous; they looked as though they had retired from the woes of golf and children and could be at leisure now. But while the wife bent her neck forward, enraptured by the glow of the San Marco mosaics, the husband showed his frustration by jiggling his feet, tapping on the table, violently trying to catch flies, looking at his watch, clearing his throat, yawning, and making a sporadic sound halfway between a hum and a band-saw. He blurted at last, “Well, come on, come on, Heaven’s sake, let’s get going!”

“Going WHERE?” his wife sighed. “We’re here!”

“I know, but good God, you can’t just sit around all DAY! Let’s — we can go back to the hotel and write some more letters, can’t we?”

When the man of affairs and efficiency and death was gone, Hayden sighed, “I’ve said that a lot of the Colonists in Florence are too idle, but that’s incomparably better than the restless-footed sightseers like that man. Yes, you and I’ll sit here for seven years.”

But the clouds were coming now, were darkening, and he was dependable enough to make Olivia go.

When they had reached their topolino and started southward, rain was already scouting in a sulky afternoon sky. Olivia looked tired; her youthful white linen, unsuited to motoring, was somewhat mussy; she was half yawning.

He ordered, “Go to sleep. The late hours these two evenings have been too much for you. I’ll drive fast, but with the care due to my learned passenger.”

She dozed off, with that ivory cheek, that sleek blackness of hair, near his shoulder. He wanted to touch her, but in his rigid creed nothing was more enduring than his father’s croaking injunction, “Both hands on the wheel, Son, ESPECIALLY when you’re out with the girls.” And he had a memory of a car whirling off the Bison Park highway, turning over. He remembered, too, that once before, when they had been coming down from Fiesole, he had for a second touched her hand in the car. Out of all this he had now a quite satisfactory nervousness and worry till he made himself forget it.

It was raining before they reached Bologna, and from her quivering he knew that Olivia had awakened and was stiffly uncomfortable.

“It’s all right. Pavement not very slippery. Relax, darling,” he clucked, and he was surprised at the kindness in his own voice.

He made a business of getting them home. They did not talk, and she must again have slid into sleep. As they swung up the steep climb beyond Bologna, up into the mountains, snowflakes began shivering down in front of them; tentative wisps of down, then large, solid-looking flakes against which, he began to imagine, they might bump and be smashed.

Olivia awoke with a nervous “Oh!”

“I’m used to winter driving. And good road. Don’t worry.”

But it was hard to see clearly through the windshield. The blades of the wiper could not do much against the thick grease of wet snow; the glass was streaky and clouded, and on the sharp mounting curves he had to slacken speed, waste the momentum he needed, to see which way the curves were turning.

As she leaned to a curve, Olivia’s shoulder touched his, and he found that she was rigid.

At just over two thousand feet of altitude, they came instantly, without warning, into a belt of fog. He was blind in the fog, and he had to keep going or slide back. It was impossible to see the sides of the road. He opened the window beside him and drove with his head thrust outside, the snow licking his forehead and cheeks and chilled nose, the fog soaking his hair. But moving slowly, sometimes at five miles an hour, he could make out thus the boulder-marked boundaries of the highway.

For all the fog, the wind was loud enough so that not till she had repeated it did he hear Olivia’s distressed, “What would happen if we shot off the road here?”

He drew his head far enough into the car to answer, “Probably wouldn’t hurt a thing. We’d just drop onto a meadow slope and be stopped by the rocks and brush.”

So? To run off the road — again? Was he to crush Olivia as he had crushed Caprice? Was that his ever-revolving fate?

She went on, “And then again we might keep on going — five hundred feet?”

“Could be.”

She laughed. “Oh, its all right. I’m getting used to it. You aren’t scared?”

“This is just routine fog driving. Bus drivers do this regularly, and never even notice it.”

“But you’re not a routine bus driver. You have no idea how I admire your competence. But think of all the fine scenery that must be lavishing itself unnoticed, straight down below us there — on both sides of this ridge. I’m glad I can’t see how far down!”

He was too absorbed to comment. He had never driven in a worse fog, and with a road so steep, so curving, so slippery with snow, he could not save their lives if the car skidded and took charge.

He was back below the Bison Park highway, imprisoned, too late to begin living again — and then he would not let himself be there. He bleakly forced himself to be only here, single-minded. He methodically considered stopping in one of the turnouts, but with boundary lines so blurred by the fog, he might be hit there by another car. It was safer to go on.

He was startled when two sickly car lights were conjured up just in front of him, and he had to swerve, to take the chance of going off the road and down, bottomlessly down.

She shuddered, “Oh! Shouldn’t we stop?”

“We shall, the minute we hit a place, a village or something where there is room for safe parking, and we can get out and have a drink. I remember one or two inns up along here. And we’ve got to begin thinking about holing up for the night. This fog may keep up till morning, and if we stayed in the car, we’d about freeze. But we may find a country inn.”

“You mean we may have to sleep there tonight?”

“Probably.”

“All right.”

He was pleased that she should agree, and a little dubious about his own pleasure in it.

They had now a month, a year, of agony. Snow slid maliciously through the open window beside Hayden, and he could feel Olivia’s shoulder shaking convulsively as she became more wet and chilled. The stone markers were only darker blurs in a general dark drifting gray. But they had to go on.

They were penned in a moving prison for a lifetime sentence, to be ended, perhaps, by sudden and shocking death. But they had to go on.

Only with a tired incredulity did he see and lose and see again a fabulous glow in the smear ahead, and then a cluster of fog-wrapped lights. “Golly!” he said, and not very logically wanted to kiss Olivia but, busy with the clammy wheel, did nothing so reasonable.

They had reached some kind of a fair-sized building, with a blessed wide parking space. He bade her, “Wait in the car till I size the place up.” Both of them breathed long and sighingly with the relief of being, for a moment, safe.

Their refuge, he found, was a mountain-country combination of hotel, grocery shop, wine shop, bar, billiard room and restaurant. At the counter a dozen young mountaineers were drinking, tough but not unfriendly, and they nodded to his greeting. The landlady, in her cascade of striped apron, was a woman of character and considerable poundage. The walls were roughcast, and the three dining tables had cloths worn and darned, but it was all clean enough, and there was a pink terra-cotta stove that shouted warmth.

Yes, the landlady said, she had three bedrooms for rent, two still unoccupied; yes, he could have a fine supper here, with the choicest of veal.

It was toward seven now, with no chance of the fog clearing. He hurried out to assure Olivia, “Warm! Clean! Two rooms! Grub! We’ll stay the night.”

“Yes.” She crawled out of the topolino, a comic figure in the laprobe heaped over her white linen. She tottered with stiffness — wavering, sobbing. He held her to him, not kissing her but laying his warmed cheek against her ghostly cheek, and she clung to him, hands tight about his shoulders, whimpering, “So childish, nothing but a little cold on a good road, fine main highway, and me frightened like that! But I was so lost and scared. But I’m so glad I’m with you!”

“Want a brandy?”

“Si, si, certo! And a room that doesn’t keep sliding over into an abyss!”

“Can do.”

“My mountaineer! My valiant major!”

“Come on.”

In the crowded barroom-restaurant the drinkers looked at Olivia with relish. Her color was Calabrian, but her unmelting eyes convinced them that she was not Italian but English, and from their fathers, who had known the spacious days when all of the English milords took walking trips in the mountains, they had heard that all Englishwomen are beautiful and mad.

The landlady showed them the bedrooms: narrow, stone-floored, cold as outdoors. On each of the narrow beds was one of those Italian country quilts evidently stuffed with steel-filings and geology, which, though they are very heavy, on the other hand induce no warmth at all.

But Olivia said gaily, “You would have your adventure! You’ll have it tonight, sleeping in this Greenland igloo. But there’s a very nice sacred oleograph in each room. Bene!”

As they went back downstairs, through the partly open door of the third bedroom peered an old man with a fall of despondent mustache and an ancient cape gone gray-green.

“Our fellow guest. He looks all right,” Hayden muttered.

(He was in Europe, he actually was in Italy, at an inn, at night, with his girl, with a man of cloaked mystery down the hall, and he was not making it all up in his hospital bed in Newlife, sleepless, looking at the radium dial of his bedside clock!)

Olivia insisted, “Oh, the old man is fine. Possibly just a little homicidal — believes that he is a soldier of Garibaldi and we are Austrians. . . . Of course you noticed that there are no locks on our bedroom doors.”

“You can wedge a chair under the knob.”

“Don’t be silly. I shall depend on you.”

They had with them their bags, packed for Venice, but of any washing save with a can of hot water there was no prospect. In their glaring hunger, they did not care. “I never allow myself bath salts nor a bath thermometer, not even since I inherited the ten million,” she said cheerfully; then: “But if we HAD gone off the road . . .”

He stroked her cheek, and hastened to get into her the spiritual solace of hot noodle soup. The mountaineers had gone home, and the common room became a private dining room and the landlady their private chef. They had spaghetti, veal cooked with mozzarella cheese, pink cake and pink local wine. By moving their table next to the pink terra-cotta stove, into which the landlady kept stuffing brush roots, they were not cold — not intolerably cold — just shivering a little.

The mystery man in the cape came down to have his spaghetti, but he did not seem to be looking at them. He read in a small old leather-bound book.

The dining room was also the lounge, and they sat at their table long after dinner.

“Comfortable?” Hayden said. He meant his voice to be only placid and encouraging, but it sounded tender.

“Very! You know, this place isn’t really strange to me. It’s homelike — something warm and littered and casual about it. Sometimes I get tired of the cold chastity of my room at the Tre Corone. It’s just a hygienic waiting room for tired souls. Your room is better, a bit more disordered and bachelor-slatternly, and yet it’s almost as bitterly neat as mine.”

“What do you know about my room?”

“Oh, I look in every time I pass it. You have a neighborly wild-western way of leaving your door open.”

“I suppose I do.” He laughed at himself. “My pose is the solitary scholar — the devout hermit — Marsilio Ficino — mustn’t be disturbed by anything — chase out the dog and strangle the children. And all the while I guess I want to hear those cheerful domestic noises: the cook smashing dishes and Vito Zenzero bawling out Perpetua for stealing the guests’ perfume and not saving any of it for him. And hoping that you WILL give me a Hello and come in. Why don’t you?”

“I do sometimes — in spirit — and have long grave talks with you.”

“What do we say in those grave talks?”

“I ask your opinion, as an architect, on the merits of fan-vaulting.”

“I see!”

“And sometimes I feel like reading to you my sister’s latest letter — evenings when I’m a little homesick.”

“Why don’t you?”

“I never get THAT homesick! Oh, darling . . .”

“Yes?”

“Let’s not waste this one completely quiet evening — maybe the only one we’ll ever have — waste it in being chatty,” said Olivia. “I get worried about you. It’s impersonal, really, but it rises from such a liking for you, and respect.

“As I heard Mr. Dodsworth say to you once, why do you let Europe get you? For us Americans it’s a drug, a sleeping-draught, all made of poppies and the wonder of old, old civilizations and religions and dreams, so lulling after our brisk, raw climate at home, where we have to face the blizzard, fight through it or freeze. Go home, my dear!”

“Would you go back with me?”

“I can’t. Europe HAS got me. I’m an exile here, but back in America I’ll always be an exile double-distilled.”

The old man in the faded cape sighed to himself, “There is an American couple who are not glib and hustling, but true tender lovers. Darling forgotten, we were like that, THEN!”

He rose, bowed good-night, and left them.

“But you,” Olivia was urging Hayden, “can still go back to America uninfected.”

“I’m not so sure. I love Florence. It’s very much like you. I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever go home. With Caprice gone, I’d be lonely there.”

He realized with a jar that he ought never to speak of Caprice to Olivia. He hastened to cover it with a false-hearty, “In Florence there’s a kind of perpetual excitement; not football-game excitement but a blissful stir. I look in at some new church, or call on Nat Friar and listen to his newest lies about Sir Henry Belfont. He swears that for twenty-two years Belfont was butler for the Duke of Nottingham and sold the household wine and invested the swag in gambling houses. Or I go to the Dodsworths’ for bridge. But most of all, I can talk to you, after dinner — when you’re not being cold and repulsive.”

“Am I cold sometimes?”

“And repulsive.”

“Wonderful! I try to be, so that I won’t get found out as the embarrassed village tomboy I am at heart. And you’re still the village high-school hero: the basketball captain and tenor in your Episcopal choir and valedictorian, with such a thoughtful Commencement essay comparing Columbus and General Grant. That was a good life we knew as kids — so much more than the surface Florence that we see. It was as real as this mountain wind. Go back to it while you can.”

“Would you mind if I left you?”

She looked at him full, ivory softly flushing, and murmured, “It would be very much safer for me if you left me!”

She became warmly sleepy, in relaxation from the cold, the danger. She stretched her arms out on the table and dropped her head on them. She turned her pure, shadowy face toward him for a moment, with a funny, babyish smile, a defenseless smile all unlike her normal dignity, and went confidently off to sleep.

He passed his hand over her head, her shoulders, her good arms, not actually touching them but seeming to follow a delicate invisible integument that sheathed her and kept her inviolate. Then, unmoving, he watched her. Time was abolished, time and space were only in her. And the landlady came heavily clumping and Olivia awoke.

Hayden rather thought that, in her mountain accent, the landlady was saying, “Good night. When you get ready to go to bed, put out the lights in this room. Sleep well.” She leered at Hayden and thumped away and upstairs.

“Uuuuuuuh,” yawned Olivia.

“What did our hostess say?”

Olivia slowly sat straight, murmured slowly, “She said that all pleasant things must come to an end and that it’s time for us to say good-night.”

Suddenly it all came over him.

He bluntly moved his chair toward hers, put his arm round her, pulled her toward him.

“Olivia! I had been planning to make love to you — not planning it all day, not all our journey, but tonight, when you were soft and warm and near me. But something has hit me hard, something too basic to allow any experimental love-making. I don’t know — I think I may be desperately in love with you. And when I think of the dreadful thing I might have done in trying to tempt you, I’m aghast! I’m not fit to love you. I’m a murderer! I murdered Caprice by my carelessness. I AM NOT FIT!”

She sprang up and he agitatedly rose to face her. Her voice was strained and fierce, with not one evasive civilized qualm in it.

“You did not murder her! You’re a fool to say it! You told me about her — you’ve told me much more than you knew — about her and about you. But if you had meant to kill her, I’d be glad!”

“No!”

“I’m glad you did! I hate your damn, curly-headed, curly-minded leech, Caprice! Sucking your blood — living on your kindness and your gentleness!”

“That’s not true! She was plucky and gay . . . .”

“She was a sneak thief of life!”

“Olivia!”

“O-liv-ia! Professoressa Dottoressa Olivia! That frump! That good, safe, cautious doctor of frigidity! She’s dead, too, and you murdered her, too — thank God! The wild highlander in me has come to life again, in this wild, windy highland — thank God. Dearest Hayden, quit blaming yourself, quit smothering yourself! I love you!”

Her arms were round his neck and she was pressed against him before his hands locked behind her shoulders. When he could look at her, all the restraints in her face were loosened, and she was as abandoned as the most feckless highland lass, and breathed as hard.

She said nothing more, and they did not remember to turn off the lights in the dining room.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/world/chapter12.html

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