World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 19

When the wildfire news ran round the hills that Signore il Professor Friar was paying his debts, he was assaulted by bills a year old, five years old, most of which he had forgotten and some of which he did not owe. In particular, his landlord, long a tolerant friend, once he saw the sheen of ten-thousand-lire notes wanted to be paid to date, and his former intimates, the book-sellers, threatened to cart off his library, beloved and a quarter unpaid-for.

Nat refused to take even a loan from Mrs. Baker, who was little more affluent than himself. He became grim. Now that he had started, he would be businesslike.

He said to Hayden, “I would prefer, of course, to desert Lundsgard, now that the adventure is rusty. I have no complaint about him; he treats me well. He is the only man living who thinks my information about Gubbio and Spoleto is worth listening to, and that, to me, is grateful. Like many people weary with knowledge, I have perhaps unduly esteemed the fresher wisdoms of younger people, but this mental passion has rarely been reciprocated — perhaps only by you and Olivia and Lundsgard. But I have some difficulty in liking the fact that I am now part of a cultural swindle.

“I’m not sure but that Dr. Lundsgard is a very bad man. He is nimble at making historical parallels to prove that the rule of plain unlettered men has always been disastrous, to prove that we need louder-voiced millionaires to guide us. But to prove it, he adulterates all the facts that I go down into the coal pit and shovel up to him.

“I’m not sure but that it’s what you call a racket, I’m not sure but that he is in the soundest tradition of treason — treason to love, to friendship, to patriotism, to religion, for the most sensitive blessings are also the most interesting to betray. In his case, he is making a cheerful activity of treason to learning, like the journalists who trap invalids by praising fraudulent medical discoveries.

“He is even developing prophetic illusions: that all history has been moving toward a moral goal according to a discernible scheme, and that he is the only man who can discern it. I have studied a number of skilled methods of assassination which I might use with him, but otherwise, what am I to do? Place your charming girl, Olivia, under my arm and take to the Abruzzi caves to escape my remaining creditors?

“I can see now where all my quandary started: paying my servant, who is a true Italian peasant and never expected such an insult from an illustrissimo!”

But Nat did nothing. And Hayden did nothing, and suddenly he was sick of Lundsgard and Florence and Europe. It can happen so with exiles. One moment he loved Italy; the next, its ways seemed antiquated and a little silly. He could not even hear the language clearly. It was all an unaccented gabble. When he walked in the evening, a group of sharp young loafers in front of a movie theater — as dangerous as a like group in Concord, Massachusetts — seemed to be his enemies, whispering, “Let’s stab that foreigner or chase him out of the country!”

That week, letters from home, from Jesse and Mary Eliza Bradbin, from classmates whom he had not seen for ten years, letters which had recently bored him by their weather reports and the gossip about people whom he did not remember, were suddenly precious salvation. When he had first come to Florence he had gratefully used the hospitality of the governmental American Library in the Palazzo Strozzi and read the American magazines, the newspapers. He had later become almost indifferent to their bulletins of a land so far off, but now he hastened back to them, and they promised him the refuge of home.

That promised refuge he needed the more because daily he less liked the relationship between Lundsgard and Olivia.

Rich now in what he considered knowledge, in Nat’s anecdotes and Gazza’s photographs, strong in the approval of Sir Henry Belfont and the toleration of Sam Dodsworth, Mr. Lundsgard still considered Hayden a decent fellow, but he no longer considered his counsel of any merit, and when Hayden had an idea, Lundsgard’s attitude was “Yes, yes.” He preferred to see Hayden only in bars but, grimly risking snubs, Hayden frequently marched into the wolf’s den to find out how much of his lamb had been devoured now.

He warned himself that Lundsgard’s office was a busy place, that he had no more right to intrude there than to stroll into an operating-room and suggest having a cigarette with a performing surgeon. They were not snubbing him — no, they were just busy. But all he knew was that he got snubbed.

Nat beamed at him, but even the friendly Gazza seemed annoyed, Lundsgard looked impatient, and Olivia, busy with lists of Umbrian painters, snapped, “Oh, MUST you leave that door open, Hayden dear?”

How patronizing and unlovely was her “Hayden dear” compared with her tender “Dear Hayden”!

But he bullied Lundsgard and her into coming out to tea with him. They were in the Piazza della Republica, outside of Donnini’s at a small table among Italian families prosperous and voluble.

The researchers did not look at Hayden. Olivia was competently answering Lundsgard’s equally competent questions about the wool-carders guild in ancient Florence. Hayden felt like a tolerated younger brother, listening to his betters. And when the interrogation was over — he could imagine it, gilded and magnified and made to sound learned and important, bestowed on a respectful lecture audience in a municipal arena dedicated to wrestling, political conventions, roller skating and Shakespeare — the two of them apparently believed that they were alone in the Forest of Arden, no melancholy Mr. Chart within ten leagues. They creaked happily in their wicker chairs as they teased each other — about punctuality! One would not have chosen that topic as a beguiling link between illicit lovers, and yet Lundsgard and the girl were lyric as he cloyingly bickered, “And you were ten minutes late — you were, you WERE,” and the female conspirator murmured, “Oh, pooh, I— was — NOT!”

It seemed to Hayden that an appalling softness had come over her in her manner toward Lundsgard. When that bounding animal touched her bare elbow, which he did oftener than was quite necessary for emphasis, she, the late inviolable, did not seem annoyed, and she had for him a smile which went beyond the pleased obedience which custom expects from a female office-hand.

Lundsgard was startled to discover some one much like Hayden Chart still with them, and he went out of his way to get in, “You certainly have a grand effect on your girl friend here, Hay. When you aren’t around, she treats me like dirt, but when you’re here, she tries to make you jealous by treating me fairly good. I wish I had your neat touch with the women!” And looked, then, at Olivia in a proprietarial pride which was more betraying than any yelp of passion.

No.

Hayden was coldly certain that this pair of profit-hunting pedants, of ranging sensationalists, were lovers now, beyond charity. Then they deserved each other!

But the stubbornness that had always marched with him, most relentless when it was most quiet, the stubbornness that had fortified him to endure Caprice’s clownish demands and Jesse Bradbin’s witless jesting, rose in Hayden now, and he was the more resolved to save Olivia.

No one else could do it — certainly not the moist-eyed young woman herself, now yearning toward Lundsgard’s ten-bushel of manly beauty. And, reflected Hayden, he himself had guiltily broken through her poor wall of defense. She was “worth saving”— this trained and honest woman, even now when she was demonstrating that she was not in all things so edifyingly honest.

He would save her — if. He had nothing of more importance to do, now. . . . And, with a fascination apparently undiminished by her idiocy, he happened to love her.

Lundsgard was giving himself, and apparently he felt that he was giving them, considerable gratification in letting them know that he now moved on a charming social plane, jammed with Gracious Living. Prince Ugo Tramontana had invited him to come for tea and see some Second Century Roman cameos. . . . He referred to the learned relic as Ugo, and before he rose he lighted a tremendous American cigar, with the Lorenzan band still on it, and extinguished the match with an archducal flourish.

When Lundsgard was gone, Olivia said briskly, “Well, have to start home and wash my face.”

“Sit down again, Olivia. I want to do some scolding. I want you to quit your job with Lundsgard . . . .”

“I shouldn’t think of it.”

“ . . . and at once. You can call him up this evening.”

“Ri-dic-ulous!” She sat down firmly.

“And tell him to hurry up and find that new stenographer — whom he had no intention of finding.”

“Why, I’ve never heard . . .”

“And then, without any tapering off or artful use of drugs, I want you to kick that fellow out, complete.”

“Ab-surd!”

“I don’t know precisely where you stand with Lundsgard now, but I do know it’s just a matter of whether you will or whether you have. WHAT?” She jumped at the unexampled force and roughness of his “What?” He jumped himself.

“What WHAT?”

“Are you two lovers now?”

She quieted down. She looked at him without fear. “Well, we could be, and that’s all I shall tell you.”

“It’s enough. Do you want to get rid of me?”

“No, really, Hay — Hayden, I don’t. I am enormously fond of you. It’s so happy and easy to be with you, and I admire your decency and calm. I would like to hold you, always — no, I INTEND to hold you! And I agree with you that Lorry is a misguided and misguiding truck-driver — in fact, I know it much better than you do! But he is also a knight, a blithe and unconquerable knight. After all, Giovanni delle Bande Nere wasn’t distinguished for his accurate knowledge of dates or his fidelity to the sweet girl at home. Lorry is a fake — good Heavens, don’t you suppose I’m well trained enough to know that! But he is extremely charming in a nasty way. Besides, what could either you or I do to head him off?”

“You really are satisfied to let yourself be tied and hogtied by this gorilla?”

“You still do get very American, don’t you, dear!”

“I hope so! Answer me! You’re satisfied?”

“Maybe not. But what can I do?”

“Do you happen to know that your golden Lorenzo’s real first name is Oley?”

“Is it? That’s good. It sounds strong and honest and yet not puritanical; positively debonair. I was afraid — of course I was reasonably sure that he wasn’t a geborener Lorenzo — I thought probably he was a Hiram or a Jabez.”

“Olivia, I don’t think this hour calls for humor. You must have some notion of how serious it is for me. Leave out jealousy and hurt pride: I can choke those, but you can guess what it means to me to see a well-bred woman in the red hands of that butcher — that cigar-waving fancy gent!”

“That is my battle, or as Lorry AND you would say, ‘That’s MY lookout’!” Olivia was so defiant that she did not even trouble herself to stress it greatly.

“Yes. It isn’t easy. I couldn’t slug that football hero — I would get killed. There’s no use my exposing him as a charlatan — everybody with any scholarship guesses that already. But still, I certainly do not intend to be the complaisant husband. I demand as strict a fidelity of you as I do of myself. And I can’t do the most natural and convenient thing of all: tell you that I am disgusted, that I am not standing any more, that I am through; because I am still almost completely hypnotized by you — just ALMOST, mind you! I don’t know what to do.”

Softly, but with the slippery softness of a false woman, she urged, “Oh, forget it, my dear. It’s the sort of thing that can’t last.”

“Not last — no, merely in the heart and brain and devoted faith, that’s all! Frankly, Olivia, I am trying to coach myself to feel easy in cutting you out as I would any other vice that hurt me too much, and I can’t — not yet!”

With flippant impatience, she piped, “Have you finished now with your fussing and clucking and general sad bewilderment over something that ought to be obvious — that, as I keep telling you but you won’t listen, a flirtation like this just can’t last? Or matter!”

“I’ve given you my warning.”

“And I my warning that you will be extremely sorry, not for any crime I am committing but for your own subhuman, dry-as-dust, school-principal nagging — with no heart in it and no humor. Oh, Hayden, you admire our medieval gallants so much, you say, and then the minute anything touches YOU, you flee from them back to your dry-codfish Maine ancestors!” She was working herself up to the outraged and innocent wrath that is nowhere so splendidly found as among the guilty. “I have never lied to you or about you. Well, I am going now, and you may do exactly whatever you please! Arrivederci!”

She flounced away and, without explanations, she did not come to dinner that evening at the pensione.

So he cut and ran.

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