World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 14

Somewhat less than four weeks after their mountain inn, four weeks during which Hayden had tried to march on in Italian history, Olivia demanded, while they dined at Paoli’s, in their familiar escutcheon-brightened corner, “Darling, there’s one quite important thing you might do for me.”

“It’s done.”

“I want to go to lunch at Sir Henry Belfont’s some more.”

“That pompous old fake? You said you never wanted to see him again. You disliked him even more than I did.”

“I have reasons.”

“But how could I arrange it? I can’t phone him and say we want a change from the Tre Corone boiled tongue and spinach, and how much does he charge?”

“No! Don’t try that. He might take you seriously and take us as boarders and he’d charge enough to ruin us. Whatever the old pot may be, I’m sure he knows how to make it pay. . . . As you’ll make it pay, my ardent young architect, when I’ve looked over your setup in Newlife and probably fired your partner, Bradbin or whatever his silly name is, for cheating you! With Henry, it will be extremely easy. Call him up and invite him and Lady Belfont to lunch at some cheap trattoria — be sure and give him the name of the place. He’d hate it. So he’ll haw a little and then ask if he can’t invite you and Dr. Lomond — you know that lovely Livy? — to his place instead.”

“Do you really want to go there and listen to him tell how well he knows the Queen of Saxony and His Serene Grace, the Sixteenth Duke of Brabant?”

“Well now, Henry knows a lot about Italian painting, at least a quarter as much as Prince Ugo. And he’s very rich and vain. If I could get him interested in our art gallery at my university — I have a not entirely silly hope that when we’re married and I break my university connections, they may make a new post for me: lecturer on history and only have to go there a month or so out of every year, but keep in touch. And they might name the lecturership after me.”

“You’d be away from Newlife that long?”

“You could come along and listen, if you wanted to.”

“Yes — yes . . .”

“Anyway, there’s no sense in your inverted snobbery about Sir Henry. He may come in very useful. Imagine him coming to visit at the university while I’m there, and me introducing the old windbag to the president and the students. They’d be so impressed by his tenth-rate title. And then maybe he’ll give us the art gallery. So run along now and do as I tell you, and don’t argue.”

“Have you such a definite expectation of being bored in Newlife — or rather, with me — that you’re already sketching an emergency exit?”

“I’ll adore every minute with you, and I expect to run our servants like a sergeant major. But you know that with the academic work I’ve done, I do have other interests. After ALL!”

“But Olivia, suppose we don’t have any servants to run and we have to do our own housework, you and I together? You’ve urged me to freelance, and that may not mean much money for quite a while.”

“Then you’ll need my help more than ever, need me making a little money, too. Darling, why are you so difficult today, so argumentative? You aren’t usually.”

“This whole business of catering to a poop like Belfont revolts me. A little while ago you would have scorned the thought of toadying to him. You would have slapped down anybody who suggested that you would ever be willing to introduce him to your president — whom you also despise!”

“My dear, that scrupulous Dr. Lomond — the chilly, opinionated old prig! — is gone, and I’m another woman. You ought to know. You certainly contributed enough to the change. And you can’t have me both the shrinking virgin and the bold earthy lover — you can’t have anything both ways. Now skip in and phone!”

The telephonic swindling worked out as the shrewd new Olivia had planned. Sir Henry shuddered at the thought of meeting normal Italians at a restaurant, and he lavishly invited Hayden and Olivia to the Villa Satiro.

They drove up in the topolino, which again caused an aggravated spasm of agony in the butler, who was a cheap reprint of Sir Henry, not bound in the original eyebrows.

As they descended, out from a taxicab just arrived frisked a stalwart and handsome young man over whom Olivia fluttered, “What a beautiful animal HE is! A Lombard knight, without fear and splendidly without brains. I can place him within a decade or two: 875 A.D., I think.”

He was almost certainly an American, with a look about him of Scandinavian ancestry: an extremely large young man in his early thirties. Over his fresh-looking tweeds a light topcoat was slung from his shoulders like a cape. He was hatless, with an exuberance of flaxen hair. Hayden, who looked upon the fellow with much less exuberance than Olivia, thought that with a show of knighthood he combined a suggestion of a college football star, of a vacuum-cleaner salesman, and of a popular singing evangelist shouting jazz piety.

The stranger waved his wide hand to them and entered the villa after them, in the manner of royalty standing aside for aged peasants.

Sir Henry met them in the hall and said to Olivia, as though nobly amused, “I seem to be specializing today in you streamlined Yankee scholars. You are all so very brisk about cartelizing facts and diagrams that you make a shy old British putterer like me seem incorrigibly provincial.

“This young gentleman who has charged in with you is Professor Lundsgard — Professor LORENZO Lundsgard — till recently the French and Spanish don at Huguenot University, which is somewhere in your Southern states.

“He has resigned, and I understand that he is to devote himself to the study of our wistful Italian culture, which nowadays is so unused to being wooed by anyone so resolute and twittering with dawn as you two acolytes — you three. In his letter introducing Professor Lundsgard, a man who calls himself President Sleman of Huguenot informs me that our youthful friend is a ‘stimulating teacher and an accomplished scholar, who will stir up the sleeping Tuscan lions.’ That is a spectacle that I shall very much enjoy. . . . Dr. Lundsgard, this your rival lion-stirrer, Dr. Olivia Lomond of the University of — Winnemac, I believe it is called. Oh. And Mr. Chart.”

Then he let them go in to lunch. Lady Belfont was also there, though this is noted, like the day’s temperature, only as a matter of record.

As they wavered in to face the butler and the footman, standing like the Sphinx and the largest pyramid, Hayden noted how gallantly Lundsgard smiled at Olivia, and how sharply he sized her up. Her smile in return was warmed by a flirtatiousness which six weeks ago she would have denounced as cheap. He saw, too, how the beige vicuna sweater which Lundsgard wore for waistcoat managed on his hearty torso to get itself to look like chain mail, and how the sun through the lofty windows brought out metallic lights in his rough, corn-colored hair.

The five of them, plus the inescapable Marchesa Valdarno, sat prim about the refectory table of Irish oak, eating their molds of rice with duck livers served on English plates with views of Kent, while Belfont, with what he felt to be gentlemanly but learned humor, pumped Lundsgard, who answered with good-hearted simplicity.

“I’m afraid I can’t claim to be any kind of a real scholar, Sir Henry. Fact, in college, I was more devoted to football, but I had a sneaking worship for learning, especially old history. Like a dumb farmer seeing a vision of chariots in the August sky, and not daring to even try and explain them. Oh, I did get my Phi Beta Kappa key, along with my letter in two sports, but that was an accident.”

(“This fellow is probably my own age, but he seems much fresher and younger,” thought Hayden, and looked anxiously at Olivia, who was fixed on Lundsgard, her lips open.)

“In the War I served in North Africa; a very high-ranking corporal I was, till they demoted me to second looey, and I got laid up with nothing more than a fool machine-gun wound in one foot. While I was convalescing, I got acquainted with French café society there and learned a little of the lingo. Then I got hit again, really awful light, but they invalided me out and I went home and got my Ph.D. in Romance languages — never very good at them, either! But I got a job teaching in that little university and, by coaching football and taking the president’s son out duck-hunting, I got by.

“Then a sort of ridiculous thing happened. I was spending a Christmas vacation with a friend, and right out of the blue, a movie producer offered me a job acting — as a young cop in a Big City picture, and then couple of Westerns. Seemed like preposterously big salary: three-fifty a week. Dollars, not cents! Now here’s the funny thing. It wasn’t at any college but on the lot in Hollywood that I first heard the Gospel of Beauty, from a grand old script writer who had been a playwright in Hungary.

“I started reading about the Middle Ages, and then by chance, which is sometimes so kind to a heavy-handed duffer like me, I was in a Middle Ages costume play, and I was sold on history complete. The actor and halfback scholar!”

Lundsgard thundered with laughter, in which they vaguely joined.

(“Olivia is looking at him like a Fond Mother.”)

“Oh, I’m a fighting fool for study. Sir Henry, I’ve read all your essays on Tuscan Art, and personally I think they’re much more profound than Bernard Berenson. Much!”

Sir Henry looked lavish. That made two people who thought so.

“I have a pretty definite idea in coming here. I want to prepare myself to give the undisciplined people of the United States a Message of the sublime importance of authority, and I want to hand on to them at the same time the lofty philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, the magnificence of Lorenzo, the reverence of Savonarola, and through it all, the superworldly quality of Leadership.”

“Ah,” condescended Sir Henry.

“And in America, where any garageman thinks himself just as good as a bank president, we so lack the phenomenon of sanctified and yet forceful Leadership. And as a pioneer, I may do something to create it.”

(“The man is a fool. But Olivia looks as if she likes him. But cannibal sandwich with laurel trimmings is not my meat.”)

“All of you clever people,” said Lundsgard, “will think I am a ridiculous bumpkin, but I do have some plans that are awfully exciting. My agent is planning a huge lecture tour for me, on six subjects, including Mysticism and Leadership and — and this is something new — the lectures are to be tied in with a feature movie, which I am to script, about the Medicis, with the lead played by Rupert Osgoswold — or possibly by your humble servant!”

Olivia muttered, so softly that it was heard only by Hayden, “Very exciting!”

Lundsgard caroled on, “The president of Cornucopia Films — do you know that outfit, Sir Henry?”

“My boy, I am much too secluded and timid to understand the neologies of the cinema, but it does happen that my Man of Business, in London, has invested some small sums for me in Cornucopia.”

“Well, that’s dandy. Maybe you’ll be interested in the fact that the president of Cornucopia is going to town on this, and he’s advanced a big wad to finance my work here. Being such a stupid guy and having so little time, I have to depend on assistants — photographers and secretaries and researchers and so on. But Cornucopia agrees with me that we must not think of this as a money-making project — though I got to admit that it’ll probably bring me in several thousand bucks a week! But we think of it as a public service, to improve the mental stamina and subtlety of America. A great friend of my father and, I am honored to say, of mine, a United States Senator who carries a lot of weight on the Foreign Relations Committee, believes that my crusade for more authority and leadership might both elevate our restless American morals and improve our standing everywhere abroad. That goes to show there are people who see our crying need!

“Sir Henry, I realize how fortunate I am to be allowed to see the Villa Satiro. I have read a little of its history as well as the book of its present owner. I am honored!”

Lundsgard turned on Sir Henry, on the Marchesa Valdarno, on Olivia a smile full of soul and sunshine, the smile of a brave young ambassador who loves battle and smitings, but also loves little children and quotations from Alice in Wonderland. He chanted, “By myself, I never could learn much of the Middle Ages. I am too much the energetic outdoor man. What I’d like to do, Sir Henry, is to ask an occasional question of a veteran like you, and perhaps of Dr. Lomond, of whose accomplishments I have heard.”

In a quarter-hour of well-padded if not particularly well-turned sentences, Sir Henry said, Yes, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance make clear the horrors of this so-called Democracy. Civilization ended with the Fall of the Bastille. Aristocracy means the Rule of the Best, and how sadly we need that amid the clamorous and greedy herd of Britain, and no doubt of your America.

To all this delirium Lundsgard listened with attention, and Hayden reflected that good listeners are to good talkers as one to ten.

His Olivia listened also.

Hayden had heard her hold forth on the wickedness of the popularizers who condense a five-hundred-page book on Einstein into a two-page article including three racy anecdotes and a thumb-nail drawing of a relativitized cow. She liked her books thick and close-printed and accurate about their geography, and she had demanded that everybody else like them the hard way, too. And she was now looking tenderly at a man who was going to lecture on philosophy in the Rose Bowl.

Sir Henry was bestowing on Lundsgard an invitation to frequent his villa, use his books, come and have lunch with Prince Ugo. “And I shall write to the president of Cornucopia,” said Sir Henry, “my approval of your Crusade.”

Running over with gratitude, Lundsgard took leave. Olivia burst out, “Have you a taxi coming, Mr. Lundsgard? I’m sure Mr. Chart would be glad to give you a lift in his funny little flivver.”

“Splendid, Doctor; much obliged,” said Lundsgard.

But Hayden was thinking, “It isn’t funny and it isn’t a flivver. It has a powerful motor and sweet steering, and how you’re going to get your fat carcass into it, Lundsgard, I don’t know.” But aloud, “Surely. Of course. Thank you for a beautiful lunch — Lady Belfont.”

He remembered how generous to guests Caprice had been with HIS cigarettes, his Scotch, even his fine large linen handkerchiefs; how she would insist to a guest after a party, at three on a winter morning, “Oh, don’t phone — Hay will be GLAD to drive you home!”

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