World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 16

Lundsgard was a skilled picnic guest. He scrupulously fetched his share of the lunch, paid for his share of the gasoline, and once, when there was a tire to be changed, he pushed Hayden aside and did all the changing. . . . Hayden ungratefully thought that their family Tristan was somewhat too buoyant and powerful about it. Though probably a year older than Hayden, he contrived to look more youthful.

Nowadays he usually called Olivia “Sister,” “Cookie” or “Helena Troy.”

They picknicked today up above Settignano in a grove of olive and apple trees, with a venerable castle nearby, and the towers and low houses of Florence far below. Throughout lunch — cold duck and bread and butter and red wine and cheese with dates and raisins — Lundsgard was jovially teasing Olivia about her feebleness. He insisted that she had studied so much that she was unable now to walk two blocks. She lost all detachment and shouted at Lundsgard, as though he were some one whom it was important to impress, that in college she could have been woman track champion if she had taken the time for training.

“Okay, let’s see how good you are, Cutie!” bellowed Lundsgard. “I’ll race you down to that old olive tree with the trunk rotted through.”

It is not at all certain that Lundsgard let her win the race; he was a little cumbersome and wavering, while the Diana of the Laurentian Library was astonishingly fleet. She did win, and they came back up the hillside laughing, innocently swinging hand in hand. But the uncomfortable Hayden wondered whether it WAS so innocent. There are things other than purloined letters that are most artfully concealed by exposing them. But the two returned to him so clear-eyed and so candidly laughing that he felt rebuked.

He and his suspicions had it out at three o’clock that night. He had awakened in the darkness to a memory which tore at him, of Olivia’s eyes utterly fixed on this lout, the tip of her tongue moving against her upper lip.

He could not sleep again. Could he ever sleep again?

In his old dressing-gown and soft worn Pullman slippers he padded over to the marble-topped table and, with his little Meta stove, he made coffee, served with condensed milk.

No, he thought calmly, he was not the typical suspicious husband, with a vanity which made him surprised that his wife could like any other male at all, when she was so blessed as to have HIS divine favor. There was no suspicion about it; he was coldly and wretchedly sure that Olivia could surrender to this lusty Lundsgard animal; the question was whether she had done so now, and whether she would now go on succumbing to a dreary line of sneak thieves afterward.

“I coaxed her out of the cold tomb and warmed her. Did I do that only for the benefit of Lundsgard and his successors?”

Then, “Oh, what nonsense! To be so sick-jealous you can’t stand her even laughing with a lively acquaintance! She’s as single-minded in love as . . .

“She’s a reckless fool, she’s uncontrollable when she takes a fancy to a man. I’d like to hear Professor Leslie Vintner’s version of their affair! At least, Caprice was dependable that way. She never more than flirted at a dance. . . . I don’t think she did. . . . Of course there are some flabby, whimpering individuals who were born to be cuckolded. . . . Oh, go back to bed, Chart! Can’t you get enough torture without making a hobby of it?”

When the three lunched next, Hayden could not resist probing the campus Casanova about his opinion of this recently discovered world-menace, Sex.

Lundsgard had often confided that he had never been married, and now he was frank and unsparing of himself. He had been fervently engaged, he said, to a “cute little chick and awful smart” at Huguenot University, but he admitted that in his ruthless youth he had been cruel to this young lady. He had scolded her for not rising to the splendor of his ambition to be a lord of learning — at several thousand dollars a week.

“I was kind of raw and unsympathetic, I reckon. I wasn’t a big enough, rich enough soul then to appreciate a gentle little saint like Bessie and be patient with her.”

But his humility quickly ran out, and he hinted that in Hollywood and Rome he had been favored by the handsomest and most befurred women. And Olivia, Hayden marked, was not angered by this rakishness. She listened to Lundsgard’s advertising without one of the crisp comments, flavored with mustard and pepper and ice, for which she had once been dreaded. “I’d better get her out to Newlife quick!” thought Hayden.

At the Tre Corone, now, she did not merely tolerate Vito’s insinuating croons. Hayden heard Vito mutter that they might go out to a night club, and though she refused, she was not haughty.

Even at the Villa Satiro, to which they were often invited for lunch now, along with Lundsgard, she was not above a sly confidence with Sir Henry, who wagged his fat back and leaned over her with the coyness of a distinguished circus elephant.

Hayden was bored by Belfont’s ponderous way of being salacious by referring to the reprehensible doings of the less respectable Grecian gods. Hayden wondered whether Olivia would be spiritually advancing or declining if she switched from Lundsgard’s boisterous salesmanship to Sir Henry’s soggy glory. Yet now, when he was most distressed by her base transmutation, Hayden was most held by her ardent love, and the once simple Tre Corone boarding-house had become for him a splendor of heaven edged with infernal gloom.

Then the cable from his partner, Jesse Bradbin, from Newlife:

“Big deal pending you required stop. Big dough quit being irresponsible come home next boat.”

It tempted him to think of leaving paradise and all the heavy proprieties demanded in an angel, and of being busy and important in Newlife again; of not having to remember historical dates or impress the Dodsworths or shepherd his ewe lamb lest she fall over the most obvious cliffs. He could smell the Rocky Mountain air, heady with sage instead of olives. And he owed something to his fatuous yet devoted partner. But to love Olivia was more important even than to snatch contracts from his worthy rivals in business.

He refreshed his love by reviewing the virtues of Olivia. Remember, he coached himself, what unexampled beauty and courage and knowledge she has. You must be patient while she is getting over her first real fling, which she takes so much the worse because, at nearly thirty, she’s new to it.

Would Jesse Bradbin ever give up anything he greatly wanted for him?

His cabled lie was warm and polite.

It was harder for him to snub Lundsgard because the man, with a breezy humbleness, was always turning to him for advice. And once he said, “I wish you’d get in on some of this movie dough, Hay, by doing a little research for me, in your spare time.”

It was amiably said and amiably refused.

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