World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 15

By sitting sidewise in the back of the topolino and not daring to breathe, Lundsgard was perilously carted down into town. Olivia turned her head to discourse with him most of the way, while Hay drove and sulked. She commented:

“I do think your plan is a little wild, Mr. Lundsgard, but . . .”

Lundsgard shouted, “Listen, baby, I hate this formality among us Yanks, even when we’re in Europe. I wish you’d call me Lorenzo, or maybe Lorry. I’m certainly going to call you Livy, even if you are a top-flight history shark, and if your boy friend don’t slap me down for it, I’ll call him Hay. Okay, Doc? Be friendly to the poor cowboy minnesinger.”

She giggled. She said, “Very well.”

Never had Hayden called her anything more loose than Olivia; never, he remembered, even in tenderness, had she called him anything but Mr. Chart and then Hayden.

“But Lorry,” she burst out, “do you actually think you can make ecclesiastical art and thought as simple to Main Street as the rules of croquet?”

“Maybe not, but it’s worth taking a shot. Holy smoke, don’t you think all this deep stuff, even in my bum version of it, will be better for the American hoi pollois than a lot of crime and sex stories? Huh, darling?”

And to Hay’s profound gloom, the tawny lily, the one-time nun of learning, answered, “Yes, I do.”

“Say, folks,” Mr. Lundsgard gurgled, “from all I can learn, the average age of the Anglo–American Colony here must be about sixty-five. Kick me out if I get intrusive, but I do hope I’m going to be friendly with you young brats.

“Say, come see my office at the Excelsior. Maybe it’ll hand you a good laugh. It’s pretty commercial for a highbrow crusader, but if I’m going to collect as many facts about Florence in couple months as that old gasbag, Belfont, has in maybe twenty years, I’ve got to have a regular assembly-belt. I’ve got Rome down cold in my notes and snapshots, and some Venice and Ravenna, and now it’s Florry’s turn. . . . Listen, I sound brash, but I’m awful in earnest. Come on!”

Mr. Lundsgard was extremely appealing, yet all the while his sun-shot basso was extremely dominating. He leaned forward to pat Olivia’s shoulder, and the priestess of the chill twilight let his hand lie there for a minute.

From a second bedroom in Lundsgard’s large suite at the Excelsior, all bedroom furniture had been removed, and he had turned it into one of the briskest offices Hayden had ever seen.

At a typewriter on the newest thing in extra-sized green steel typists’ desks, with a dictation phonograph beside her, a young woman secretary was working. On an oak table in the center were at least fifty books on Italian history, with quarterly reviews in four languages — not looking much perused. An enormous filing-cabinet had on its various drawers such tasty but unexpected labels as “Anecdotes of Famous Dukes,” “Clothing, Houses & Dec.,” “Jewels & Furs,” “Manners, Morals in Med. Courts,” “Beautiful Bits from Poets, Philosophers,” “Hunting Leopards, Falcons, Methods of Execution,” “Horses, Heroism.”

On one wall was a bulletin board to which a youngish Italian with dark hair and a wise, thin face was pinning snapshots of Florentine palaces, city walls, armor from the museums. He looked like an educated cousin of Vito Zenzero, a cousin who could read the telephone book without moving his lips.

“This is Angelo Gazza, my photographer — best photographer in Italy,” said Lundsgard. “Born here in Florry, but lived in England, and chummed with the Yankee troops here. Speaks English by the book. He saves my life. I see a historic bit, or quaint, beautiful or native. I always have Angelo following me and Snap! and he gets the local color for me even better than my notes. . . . Angelo, this is Dr. Lomond and Mr. Chart. They’ll give us a lot of pointers about what to see in Florry. We’ll be plenty grateful to ’em.”

Gazza nodded. If he was grateful now, he did not show it.

Nor was the secretary, when Lundsgard introduced her, particularly cordial. She had a fine face, but it was too varnished, too reminiscent of the Marchesa Valdarno, and her hair was a slide of smooth ash-blond. She seemed hard and competent, but the near-green eyes which sized up Olivia had in them resentment and suffering.

“This is Miss Hoxler, Evelyn Hoxler, or Mrs. Baccio, if you prefer. She’s true-blue American, but she’s lived here for years; married to a fine young Italian businessman, friend of mine, Art Baccio; lives in Rome. She just loves this art work. Hey, Evelyn?”

“Yes,” said Miss Hoxler, and it was as sullen a sound as the cry of a marsh bird.

“She’s unquestionably the finest stenog in Italy, in both Italian and English. She never forgets an engagement — or lets me forget one. Hey, Evelyn?”

“Yes?” said Miss Hoxler, and went back to typing, and the machine sounded profane.

“Well, children, we’ll go in and have a drink.”

Mr. Lundsgard markedly did not include Gazza or Miss Hoxler in his invitation.

He shut the door between the office and his living room. A portable bar had been set up; one rich in bourbon, rye and French brandy. As he mixed a highball, Lundsgard snarled, “That confounded Hoxler woman is a good machine-pounder, but she’s getting altogether too independent for my taste. I guess she misses her husband, though he’s the most wishy-washy excuse for a man you ever saw. I found a job for him, in an office, but do you think he appreciates it? Well, a man who tries to do something for mankind gets to expect ingratitude. The real trouble with most folks is that they haven’t got any insight.”

And Olivia apparently agreed.

Lundsgard was bountiful in suggestions for things they three could do together: excursions to near-by villages; and if Hayden was not enthusiastic about the implication that he and his good little topolino would be at their constant service, Olivia was. None of Lundsgard’s jolly objectives was new to her but she greeted them with apparent surprise and delight.

That night, late, in Hayden’s room, he was as harsh with her as his tenderness would permit. She was tired, her eyes were print-tired, and she stretched out in his deepest chair, relaxed, while he sat primly straight and interrogated her, with an ugly memory of a time when he had investigated a wartime carpenter suspected of sabotage.

“You like this fellow, Lundsgard?”

“Like him, dear? How do you mean? He has so much buoyancy and freshness. They’re really charming to a tired old lady like me, and even his amusing ignorances. He’s so naive.”

“That’s your favorite word.”

“Well, it’s the favorite quality among the few men who are attracted by a dried-up old maid like me.”

“Not noticeably dried-up now!”

They smiled together.

“‘Livy!’ This fellow is a clinker. We may see too much of him,” protested Hayden.

Clinker was one of their private words. It had been an invention of Hayden, along with smoocher, and he had worked out a Doctrine of Clinkers. He may have been thinking of pre-oil-heating days and how hard it was to get a burnt-out coal, a clinker, out of a furnace grate.

Clinkers are those newly arrived persons, not friends or their close kin or people likely to become friends, but acquaintances of twenty years back, or friends of friends of friends, or complete strangers, who come bounding into your particular Florence or your Newlife with letters of introduction, or merely with a telephone call or a note on hotel stationery, announcing, “You’ve probably never heard of me but I know the sister-inlaw of the nephew of a GREAT friend of yours. I’m here only for three days, but I thought I might have the pleasure of shaking your hand and buying you a cocktail.”

Which, in Florence, meant that they expected a free cocktail, a free meal, an escorted tour of the city, and perhaps introductions to Prince Ugo and Sam Dodsworth. They would also accept a trip to Siena and your assistance in all their shopping. As many clinkers came to Newlife as to Florence, but there, at least, they could speak the language and buy their own cigarettes.

It is the supposition of all clinkers that the chief purpose of any Americans in coming all the way to Florence is to spend all his time there with fellow Americans.

In the Doctrine of Clinkers there is no implication that clinkers are persons of low manners. They may be virtuous lodge-members and favorite honorary pall-bearers, soft-voiced and informed about astronomy and the history of West Point. But in quantities of more than one a season, they are appalling nuisances.

Frequently they believe that they are being benefactors to what they call “lonely exiles.” One of them clacked to Hayden on the telephone, “Course I’ve never met you, but I said to myself, ‘What the hell! Hay’ll be tickled to death to see an American face, I guess!’”

Olivia sat up to protest, “That’s unfair. Lorry isn’t a clinker. He’s going to stay here and be one of us — whatever that means — delicate connoisseurs, I suppose!”

“There is nothing delicate about your ‘Lorry.’ Playful he is, powerful he is, and a good drinking-man. He’ll die of apoplexy at fifty. But delicate? No!”

“So much the better! He won’t just dabble in art criticism. He’s going at it with an earnestness and yet a humility that may take him far. He’s really touching. And he doesn’t take himself too seriously; he has a divine, rough humor about his own deficiencies. He may become quite a fair scholar.”

“Maybe — if he isn’t entirely a charlatan.”

“Why are you so intolerant?”

“With this fellow, frankly, I’m a little jealous of him. I didn’t expect you — oh, you say you’re changed, but it wasn’t so long ago that you were the coolest judge of bumptiousness I ever met, and I didn’t expect you to get so girlish over a ham actor playing a professor. A real crush!”

“Oh, pooh!”

“I agree.”

“Honestly, Hayden, you astonish me, being jealous when I’m merely amused by the antics of a good-hearted climber. I take Lorry about as seriously as I do that cocker spaniel we always meet on the Tornabuoni. I probably wouldn’t recognize Lorry if I saw him tomorrow.”

She did protest too much, thought Hayden. Was there a faint stink of treachery? He urged:

“I’d better get my patent on you filed, quick.”

“What am I? An invention?”

“Of the devil! There is a sort of theory that we are engaged to be married, which seems to me a surprisingly good idea, but we have never much discussed when or what afterward. Can’t we be married this summer, and take a look at the Alps and maybe Austria, and then in the fall we’ll decide whether we want to go home or stay on in Europe? What about it?”

“I’m willing, though I do think one of the charms of our friendship has been that we haven’t had a lot of family around to drive us into a marital schedule, so they can order their wedding garments early. Can’t we still just drift, for a while yet?”

“Possibly.”

It was not her evasiveness which dismayed him but the discovery in himself of relief that she was evading fixed terms, and that he was not yet going to be tied down to definiteness.

If it had not been for the threat to Olivia’s unstable emotions, he might have liked Lundsgard for his backwoods humor. The three had comfortable outings at the enticing country restaurants at Maiano and Pratolino and St. Casciano and sat there on outdoor terraces for hours. Olivia mockingly called Lundsgard the “Dazzling Dane” and explained to him that it is not enough to qualify as an authority to know that Italy is a peninsula and that the Medicis were bankers. Lundsgard took it affably, and he danced with Olivia in arbors to the melody of accordions.

He was taken up by the peerage of the American Colony with unexpected speed. He had a way of telling retired gentlemen whose only vocabularies were of the Stock Exchange how profound they were about international politics, and of looking at their wives with reverence and surprise. He had a competent game of bridge, a neatness in mixing drinks, a skill in listening to symptoms, which caused Hayden to wonder if his story of untutored country boyhood was quite truthful.

On his own, Lundsgard gave a party which marked him as not just an acceptable eighth for dinner, but as a social factor of merit. He hired three suites at the Excelsior for the evening; in one, he had the bridge-players, in one the more thoughtful boozers, in the third there was dancing to a Swiss orchestra in Bulgarian costumes playing Brazilian tunes. Even the testiest Colonists advanced from bridge to the bar and a few even to the samba, and Lundsgard was considered a man of the rarest parts.

Thereafter, the juicy seventeen-year-old granddaughters of the exiled bankers, who now and then visited Florence, clamored for the presence of Lundsgard.

Along with the pillars, Lundsgard got in with the dubious and unexplained who make up an interesting part of all the foreign colonies in Florence and of the Italians who are close to them: mysterious owners of villas gorgeous but secluded; ex-officials of the Allied Military Government who had been minor clerks before War II and millionaires afterward; royalty in exile; Italians in whose presence it was not considered tactful to mention dope-running; men sometimes grave and solid seen usually with men young and pretty.

In Florence, even the patently proper British and Americans are often inexplicable. With so many demure ladies you never quite know whether they are widows, divorced or still married and of what sort their husbands’ grandparents had been. And with all these (since he did not, like Hayden, have to stay home evenings and study, having his Miss Evelyn Hoxler to do that for him) Lundsgard cruised, blithe and free, generally popular, and Hayden reflected that there is no more useful pose than that of the honest yokel of whom it would be a shame to take advantage.

However much Hayden doubted Lundsgard, it was a season when clinkers were trooping into town, and any tested permanent acquaintance was a refuge. Olivia and Hayden and Lundsgard escaped from tourists on frequent mountain picnics, and it was on one of these that Hayden’s suspicions of Olivia and Lundsgard forced him to recognize them.

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