World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 20

He cut and ran. It was absurd not to have seen Rome; it was intolerable to sit and twiddle his fingers and watch Olivia chase the dragon and be only very annoyed by a St. George.

He drove to Rome through the pleasant hills and, as always, fell in love with Siena almost as with Florence: the square, the cathedral, the Palazzo Chigi. But Rome he found too buxom, too busy, too operatically regal for love, and only fit for wonder, from the Vatican’s sanctuary to the Palatine Hill where he walked through 100 B.C.

He did perceive how grandly Rome was marching back to her ancient throne as Queen of the World. Hard by an arch of the emperors he saw the jeeps parked between the Rolls–Royces and Cadillacs; the traffic was more alarming than Michigan Avenue; overhead were the airplanes which rarely teased demure Florence; and in new and haughty cement buildings breathlessly telephoning were California oilmen, Persian oilmen, British airplane agents, Hungarian cinema producers, French television engineers, Egyptian steamship agents, quiet Russians who loved an evening alone with their pipes and books and one small atomic bomb, Brazilian vendors of coffee and jazz symphonies, and Croat spies spying on Bulgar spies spying on Turkish spies spying on Rome.

Not even the massive haughtiness of the antique temples and the imperial baths more lightened Hayden’s technical eye than the urbanity of avenues like Via Veneto. Yet he was not annoyed that in Rome, with all the Holy Year pilgrims, he had been unable to find a satisfactory hotel room, and had gone with his topolino out to a village inn. After supper there he sat on a bench in an arbor and looked at the green evening sky of Latium and was homesick for the warm buoyancy of a new and terrible Olivia.

He returned to Florence and the Tre Corone late in the afternoon and Olivia was there and unexpectedly welcoming. She tightened her arms round him, she muttered, “So much, missed you so much.”

He shakily tried to be carefree in a cheerful, “Let’s go out and have dinner this evening.”

“Oh, darling, I am so, SO sorry, but I have an invitation to dinner — didn’t know when you were coming back — might have sent a girl a post card.”

He did not ask, she did not say, from whom was her invitation. “I’ll make it up to you later!” she chirruped, with needless sweetness.

He dined alone, except for the table-to-table yells of the newest generation of boarding-house pests, who were not, this time, large like the Grenadier Sisters and were not females and were not American, but three diminutive and aged males from Luxembourg. But it was all the same thing, and they entertained him at dinner by yelping “Haf you seen the Cenacolo in the convent of Sant’ Onofrio? NO?” and “Haf you seen the tomb of Oddo Altoviti by Rovezzano? NO?”

Olivia returned very late, still with no information volunteered about her evening entertainment, and she was not so affectionate in saying good-night to him as she had promised; she was mechanical about it and slightly annoyed; and he went to sleep in a trance of emptiness and futility.

Hayden had been going to one Dr. Stretti to keep watch on the headaches he still had, now and then, from his motor smash, and had become admiring and fond of that round, dumpy, very learned and skillful physician with his mouse of a mustache. He was not only Hayden’s friend and his doctor but, Italian-wise, his doctor BECAUSE he was a subtle and understanding friend. On the morning after his return from Rome, Hayden’s head was one round pain held together by his skull, and he hastened to Stretti, who assured him that this was but eyestrain from the glare of the road from Rome. He bathed Hayden’s eyes and laughed at his tension and generally did medical magic on him.

Said Dr. Stretti, “My brother, who is also an architect, in Turin, and who is very curious about American methods, will be in Florence just for today. Could you come to a very plain supper at my flat this evening and meet him?”

Hayden had made no definite plan with Olivia for dinner this coming evening, and indignantly, with the injustice typical of all particularly fond lovers, he thought, “I’ll teach that young woman a lesson — leaving me flat last evening, my first evening back in Florence,” and he said to the doctor heartily, “Shall be very happy to.”

Dr. Stretti’s apartment was in one of the long, newish, solemn, residence streets out near the Cascine; on a fourth floor reached by a particularly adventurous self-service elevator in which you felt, when you pressed the button for your floor, that the cage would fly to pieces instantly. But the apartment itself was like that of any well-to-do doctor in Newlife or in New York, except that there were rather more upholstered chairs around small tables in the living room, and more poison-green upholstered armchairs with doilies, and books in three languages, and far more paintings by contemporaries.

The architect-brother, whose English was as struggling as Hayden’s Italian, gave him a small homesickness by confessing exactly such struggles with clients and contractors and unions and politicians as Hayden knew at home: the same newly rich who wanted marble bathrooms for the price of tile, and tile bathrooms for the price of linoleum. He glowed at Hayden and took him in. So did the doctor; so did Mrs. Stretti, though she spoke no English at all. But she assured Hayden, with more kindness than strict factualness, that he was now speaking Italian like a professore.

The whole family took him in. In their cordiality and ease with a stranger, they seemed to him more like Americans than any nationals he had met since he had sailed. He felt at home, as after dinner he drank small glasses of vino santo and agreed with them that, yes, they would indeed like Hollywood and the Grand Canyon.

But of them all, one had more importance than just well-mannered amiability, and that was the daughter, Tosca Stretti, a girl of twenty who was all eyes and shine of dark hair and slimness and youth and trustfulness. She was constantly turning to her uncle, her parents, with affection and admiration; she loved life and loved her family. And, without having any English, she could say to Hayden that she looked upon him as a man and a remarkable one.

An aggressive American woman would have jeered of Tosca, “Sure, you men like ’em submissive, like ’em as slaves. This little Italian would clean your shoes and you’d love it!” Yes, Tosca probably WOULD clean them, if there should be need, but devotedly, with dignity, not submissively. Without discussion she would expect to love and ardently to be loved.

That night, abed, Hayden did not think of his colleague, the architect, but of Tosca. It would be fun to be with her, to teach her English, to show her his America. Why hadn’t he such a girl, soft and trusting and yet as sharply capable as her mother, and not an inspiring heartache like Olivia?

Why not? By coaxing Tosca to come home with him, he would have in the stability of home that strangeness and flavor which he had needed in Newlife. All next day he thought of Tosca and the thought was to him a soft comfort which he needed after reading a note which Olivia had left for him when she went off, early, to the Laurentian Library — or to Lundsgard’s boudoir office:

I had assumed we would be having dinner together last evening but you skipped off with no explanations. That is too bad because THIS evening I have a date & shall not see you.

O. L.

His inward comment had all of lovers’ logic. “But you can’t blame her. But I’m not going to stand for being stood up but SHE— oh yes, SHE is to desert me whenever she feels like it but I’m to stand by all the time. But naturally she was miffed — you can’t blame her.”

Olivia and he had, without any special agreement, built up a habit of festival evening together each Saturday, with restaurant dinner and a movie or a concert, but on this warm, resonant Saturday evening in the Italian late spring, he dined drearily, alone, at the Tre Corone, cheered only by the thought of how trustingly Tosca Stretti had smiled at him. He was at his coffee when Perpetua came to inform him that a “Signorina Altici” was there to see him, waiting in the salotto.

Tosca? Why?

He went hurriedly and on a couch, her hat put aside, in a fawn suit that seemed much worn and leather sandals that certainly were worn, tired, defiant, appealing, forlorn, familiar, stranger than any Calabria peasant, pert-nosed and freckled and red-headed, was Miss Roxanna Eldritch of Newlife, Colorado.

But mostly, she was very quiet.

She had sprung up to greet him; he had galloped forward and kissed her. She was a chunk of Home miraculously set down before him: the cheerful, overcrowded streets; cottonwoods and willows by the river bank; swiftly grown skyscrapers; the office and the club where he was not a bookish nonentity studying in an alien and indifferent land, but a man, a boss, a friend, a citizen, a person of heart and welcome, and in it all a jolliness that could never warm an Olivia in her delicate savor of life — nor even a Tosca conceivably so dear. And this home soil was his own, without explanations or working at it. In a jungle he had seen, startling, his own familiar flag, and Roxy and he yelled at each other with fond tribal cries.

The more he looked at her, the more she seemed changed. She was as fetching as ever but she looked down at the floor more than at him, and there was dejection in her shoulders. And, “Might as well get it over,” said Roxy. “I’ve plumb flopped. Been fired.”

“How come?”

“Oh, partly loafing and dissipation, I guess, though I did a lot of work, too. But it has slowly been borne in on me that the bright kid from the home town, who thinks it would just be too cute if she could be the big noise as an authority on Europe and tell the home folks all about the hobbies of the dethroned kings and interview a few prime ministers, and throw in a few explanations of the devaluation of the pound — she isn’t so hot when she gets into competition with the veterans that have been here, off and on, twenty years and speak five languages and actually read a book once.

“Funny but they simply won’t see the light and obligingly hand over their prestige to me and go to work in the jute factory — along with their wives and kids. The old meanies! I sent home oceans of copy and first my managing editor used a lot and even got a few pieces syndicated, but I guess the novelty went bump, and little while ago, he tactfully wrote canning me, with a warm-hearted suggestion — the old sweetheart — that I MIGHT get my old job back if I hustled to Newlife, but quick!

“But now I’m here, I want to see more of Europe, maybe Greece and Spain, and then Israel and Egypt. And I AM going to work — work like a worker and not like a Bohemian amateur lady journalist who gets busy only when the bars are closed and the handsome young vice-consul won’t answer his phone.

“Honestly! Getting bounced was an awful shock to me. I guess most American women, even SOME of those that have been quite a long time on a real job, still think that their sacred womanhood entitles them to do anything they want to, arrive late and loaf on the job they’re paid for, and any boss that kicks is no gentleman — never was brought up at anybody’s mother’s knee. Shock? I’ll say! It made me think, ‘Rox, my man, maybe that managing editor wants to print written writings and not your charming intentions and your sorrel hair!’

“And I guess, even before the assassination, I’d had about enough of the bar-to-bar girlish lady tourists of fifty, the students of singing who never sing anything but ‘Just pickle my bones in alcohol,’ and all the artistic young men from Wyoming and the Bronnix that wear nasty little beards as sandwich boards to advertise their otherwise imperceptible talents, beards like young alley goats and flannel shirts like zoot-suiters.

“While I’m over here, if it’s not too inconvenient, I would still like to meet one French Frenchman and one Italian Italian. You know — quaint but almost as interesting as the sixteenth young American this month to found a Little Magazine dedicated to freedom, the new arts and gin.

“I admit I’ve had me quite a time with these drunks, but still and all, I guess, along with my Uncle Joe, who was the prize drunk in Butte, I’ve got something in me of Gramma O’Larrick, who ran a boarding house and sent seven sons to study for the ministry.

“So I’ve come down here to Florence, partly because it’s not too noisy and partly, I’ll admit, because you were here, and you always were kind. But I don’t intend to sponge on you in any way, Hay, get that clear, money or time or anything. I just want your assurance that I’m still potentially human, even if I am a flop!”

He cried, “HOW human! Now, right away, I’ll take you out for a dinner that would make Reverend Gowelly — remember the Prohibition raider, back home? — throw up his dusty hat and kiss the bartender.”

“Thanks — some night — tomorrow if you’d like — but I’ve had a rick of spaghetti already tonight.”

“Tomorrow we’ll look for a room for you, Roxy — maybe here in this refined junction depot.”

“Thanks, I’ve already found a room in a dump across the river. I asked a tourist agency. Iron cot and a kitchen chair and a nice calico curtain for wardrobe; 327 yards from the bathroom. Honestly, I won’t bother you . . . .”

“You couldn’t, my dear!”

“Oh, couldn’t I! Give me credit! No, all I want is some advice about getting a job here, for a girl that speaks no known language . . . .”

If Hayden was, a moment, inattentive, it was because he knew that Olivia might come in and find him affectionately seated on the couch beside the not inconspicuous charms of Roxy. Would it not be discreet to explain Roxy before Olivia should see her — to take her out, now, to the security of a café? But he turned defiant; he rebuked himself for his sour timidity. Roxy was beyond debate a tempting wench, but he was doing nothing of which to be ashamed — not like Olivia and her bounding Lorry.

“Let’s see, Roxy. There’s a Mrs. Dodsworth here, important in the Colony, and I remember her saying something about being a trustee of an American school for girls that’s just being organized. I’ll phone her this evening. And now — more of you, my dear! Have you lost your heart to any of your young geniuses with the tarred-and-feathered chins?”

“No, not much. A young female wandering around Europe alone learns to be pretty glacial when she gets picked up.”

“That happen often?”

“Continuously! French drugstore-cowboys and Norwegian artists and Swiss professors and American G. I.‘s and American lieutenant colonels. You do get tired of their ‘How about it?’ smirk. We all used to think that it was the funniest thing in the world that our great-grammas, if they could afford it, couldn’t travel without a chaperone in black sateen, but how I would have loved a chaperone, mitts and evil mind and all, in Europe!”

“Why don’t you go home, Roxy?”

“Why should I?”

“It seems natural to be home, where you understand people by instinct, understand why they do the particular things they do do and do say — dumb or dreary or noble and silly.”

“Then why don’t you go, Hay?”

“Oh, I’ve really settled down contentedly to study. And, uh, I have a girl I’m somewhat interested in . . .”

“Oh!”

“Two, in fact: a splendid American scholar, and an adorable Italian girl.”

“Two? Then it’s all right.”

“I want you to . . .”

“Yes, yes, yes, yes, Mr. Chart, and me too, I’m just dying to meet them, both of them, all sixteen of them — there’s nothing I enjoy more than meeting my gemmun-friends’ lovely girl friends, except hearing you rave about them. . . . Over my dead body, Chart!”

“You still haven’t given me much reason for your staying on in Europe.”

“Oh, I’m just another of these American girl sparrows you see hopefully hopping along every road in Europe, afraid to chirp. We don’t know what we want but we all believe that, without doing any special work to get it, we’ll be smitten with glory and suddenly find some romantic peak where we’ll shine. Get on the stage or be what the beginners call ‘penwomen’ or ballet dancers or art-photographers. Or get married, but only to a tall, gently tragic, gray-eyed painter, with black hair gone faintly gray — guy named Peter or Michael or . . .”

“Or Lorenzo?”

“You guessed it. And I suppose I’m typical of all those young women, who won’t be patient, who find it easier to jump on a train and skip on to some new capital than to stick in one place and make solid friends.”

“I don’t think you are, Roxy. You’ve had a fling, but I know you’ll get set. Sufficiently.”

“Thank you, dear. I like to have your approval, more than anybody’s, even if it is a little qualified and stingy.”

He felt that he must go on admitting that he carried an Olivian passport. He was not going to sneak across the frontiers. He did his duty by a pleasantly argumentative, “But I know that not all you American girls in Europe are the vacuous kind you take so much sadistic trouble in beating up. You aren’t. Neither is my — young woman living here at the Tre Corone, a professional historical scholar — Dr. Lomond, Dr. Olivia Lomond.”

Roxy burst. “Dr. Olivia Lomond! Oh, my foot to Dr. Lomond! A vinegary, sexless, flat-chested old maid carting you around to tearooms and reading Ruskin aloud! I knew I should never have let you come to Europe alone! You were quite a lad in Newlife, whenever you got sore on the tennis court. A plague of bot flies and Texas jiggers on Doc-tor Lomond! That dried up arroyo!”

“No, not exactly dried up!” He tenderly took Roxy’s hand; the hand of his dear little sister, his chronic niece, his oldtime enduring friend. “I very much want you to meet her and appreciate her . . . .”

“Neither do I!”

He was stroking her hand, feeling slightly more than avuncular, when a menace trembled in the air and made him look up. Olivia was just inside the room, watching them, and as Hayden saw her Borgia eyes, they said, almost audibly, “Ah, I SEE! And you the species of camel who has been demanding that I give up my innocent colleague, Professor Lundsgard!”

He did have sense enough not to throw Roxy’s hand at Olivia and jump up guiltily; he did have the genius to go on holding that hand comfortably and to purr, “So glad you came, Olivia. This is none other than Roxanna Eldritch that I’ve told you so much about — great friend of Caprice, and I’ve known her, bless her dear neighborly heart, since she was a baby.”

Before Roxy could even get started, Olivia fired:

“That does make quite a long, LONG period of knowing Miss Uh, DOESN’T it!”

But there proved, then, to be nothing wrong with Roxy’s artillery.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/world/chapter20.html

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