World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 21

They were both rare, thought Hayden: Olivia, crystal framed in ivory and silver; Roxanna, rose-crystal rimmed with burnished copper. If they could be friends! He blundered — but perhaps no cardinal secretary of state could have been altogether diplomatic in this crisis: “I hope you two charmers are going to be close friends. You’re certainly the best friends I have!”

Olivia said to him sweetly, “Are we also to be close friends with your dear Tosca Stretti?”

“Now what the devil do you know about Tosca? A delightful girl but HOW . . .”

“You forget Florence is a small town. Lorry Lundsgard went in to see Dr. Stretti today about a lame wrist — he strained it years ago in a great football battle, and the doctor told him that you and his daughter had hit it off wonderfully — I think he is quite hopeful of her having an escorted tour to the wonders of Colorado, some day before long! Congratulations — to you, I mean, not to the poor young lady!”

Just when Hayden was bewildered by this foul attack, Olivia was temporarily reinforced by the enemy, Roxanna, who tittered, “Who is this little number you’ve been keeping up your sleeve, without letting Mother know, Hay? Doing the young Italian wrecks along with the old Italian ruins, are you?”

He stated, with just the ludicrous touchy dignity that both Olivia and Roxy had meant to stir up in him, “Miss Stretti is a young girl I met casually at dinner. She doesn’t even speak English.”

“I SEE!” said Olivia and “I see!” said Roxy, with feminine derision that wiped him out. And so, having punished him for introducing them to each other, the two puritanical and jeeringly righteous ladies turned murderously upon each other.

“You’re not staying long in Florence are you, Miss Eldritch?” Olivia said caressingly.

(“And she pretended first not to remember Roxy’s name!”)

But Roxy snatched off the first skirmish. She put on, not the damning, insinuating cordiality of Olivia but the more dangerous pose of never posing; she was as simple and frank as Satan. “I really don’t know how long I’ll be here, Dr. Lomond. Oh, yes, I know your name so well. Hay was telling me what a fine scholar you are, and how you’ve helped him, the poor darling, helpless amateur, understand something of Florence. But me, I’m simply a sketchy newspaper hack, and I reckon I’ll be lucky if I ever as much as learn Florence’s last name.”

“Last . . .? Oh, yes — yes . . . You’ll be going on to Rome, no doubt. I’m sure you’ll want to take maybe four or five days in Rome. It’s an extremely important focal point.”

“Yes, I think I read that somewhere,” said Roxy, most plain-faced and obedient. “You feel so, too? Then I’ll have to take a quick look at the place, I guess.”

More sweetly than ever, from Olivia: “I suppose you’re staying at the Grand or the Excelsior, here in Florence? A poor student on a scholarship, like me — I confess I do envy you rich journalists.”

Roxy didn’t take it; she didn’t blurt that she was poor and jobless; she said rustically, “I guess I’m just a lucky girl. But I don’t know as I’ll stay on at the Excelsior. My private bathroom is pretty fair there — black marble and a crocus-yellow tub, but I don’t know — they couldn’t give me a dressing-room with a big-enough toilet table to set out all my cosmetic bottles — you do get into such a naughty habit of buying cut-glass flasks in Paris, so amusing to amble along the Rue de la Paix and the dear old Champs and pick up exclusive perfumes. Of course, in my profession, having to meet prime ministers and generals and atomic scientists and handsome movie stars so intimately, and REALLY important historians, I have to have a decent place to chat with them.”

Olivia was not routed. “Naturally, my dear. Such interesting, important work. And you shouldn’t feel especially inferior with them, or so humble.”

“I— DON’T!”

(“Are two women who like the same man, or who have opposite political faiths, always bitches to each other when they meet? Or merely usually?”)

“Quite right, quite right, Miss Eldritch. Perhaps these dignitaries get something of a fresh, breezy point of view from meeting you. And now, Hayden, I must trot off to my room. The Ministry of Education, in Rome, has asked for my opinion on some secret documents about Charles VIII that have just been discovered. I’ll leave you and Miss Eldritch to enjoy talking about your neighbors in Newlife. If I don’t see you again, Miss Eldritch, I hope you will have a very enjoyable journey to Rome. Good night!”

“That woman,” said Roxanna, “that woman — that woman is — she’s a knockout. She knows how to make up that mahogany skin of hers so it looks slick. Even with a crooked nose and too small a mouth and a wrinkly forehead and ears like a rabbit, she manages to look quite beautiful.”

“Now you . . .”

“And without any training except bossing a schoolroom for years and years, she makes like real royalty. The boarding-house queen! What a lucky boy you are! When she gets you back home, the Bradbins will take to her like a duck to water. She has their same stunt of making you feel that if you disagree with them, you’re not only a fool — you ought to see a doctor.”

Hayden was tired of their war; he had seen only too much of such delightful business in Caprice’s opinion of every pretty woman newly arrived in Newlife. He said, affectionately, “Roxy, I appeal to you as an old friend and neighbor . . .”

“Yes?”

“To shut up.”

“Oh!”

“I’m extraordinarily fond of you, and always have been, and I hope to give you a good time seeing Florence — with the assistance of Olivia, who knows more about it than sixteen tourists like you and me put together. So when you and she get the posing and prancing and pawing the earth over, we’ll all be happy and almost grown-up.”

“Okay, Chief!”

“And I’ll introduce you to her friend, and mine, Lorenzo Lundsgard, who’s a scholar and a smart lecturer and a football hero and a Hollywood actor and a big handsome brute and a sophisticated European and a friendly Yankee all put together — and he loves redheads.”

“That vision,” stated Roxanna, “you got out of a book. He’s Abelard and Heloise, that’s who he is, and he’s dead. I’ve seen his tomb in Père-Lachaise.” She rose.

“I’ll take you home, Roxy. I have a little car.”

“No, honestly, sweetie; I told you! I’m not going to sponge on you. I want to walk home and begin to learn this town. All I want is a tip on a job. Will you ask Mrs. What’s-her-name about it tomorrow?”

“Dodsworth? I certainly shall. Roxy, it’s nice to have you here! Extremely!”

“Thanks, dear. And I’ll quit picking on your Mexican sugar pie.”

“Splendid.”

“It was too easy! Good night, Wonderful!”

Olivia came to his room that evening and attacked at once.

“Who is this little fly-by-night Eldritch piece, REALLY, aside from your having known her — as a clerk in the Five-and-Ten, I imagine — in your Colorado wilderness?”

“You know perfectly that she was a friend of my wife and myself, just a little younger, and she is a newspaperman of standing.”

“Have you been keeping her up your sleeve all the time you’ve been in Europe?”

“You know I haven’t.” He was grave, unsquabbling. “I have always liked her and honored her. She is gallant and a little touching in her ambition to be something more than a jolly pirate. No, I do not plan to flirt with her. No, I have not done so in the past — except in that she is so radiant and well rounded and highly touchable that NO normal man could look at her without being a little fatuous and lively. . . . Oh, Olivia, it’s hard enough for us to stay infatuated without asking some outsider to come in and think up good ways of making us miserable!”

“That’s what I SAY! This Eldritch number!”

“I didn’t mean her. I meant Lorenzo — Lancelot. I do worship you — I think. Don’t let’s let ANYBODY come between us! Let’s quit this childish, ‘You broke that engagement so I’ll break this one and teach you a lesson.’ Both of us! Let’s be content with love. Let’s not tamper with the gift of God!”

Instantly she rose to her passionate affection of the past, crying, “No! We mustn’t! We’ve been so close! Oh, people always become traitors to love. It’s so simple and tremendous that their mean little minnows of souls can’t stand the glory!”

Despite the danger of the practically ubiquitous Mrs. Manse, despite the charms of Roxanna and the manly Mr. Lundsgard and Tosca Stretti, they embraced each other with hungry sighing, almost weeping over the perils they had now conquered.

Next morning, less shining of wing and slightly irritable when Perpetua was late bringing in his coffee and rolls and marmalade, Hayden wondered why it might not be an inspired notion to get — to try to get — Olivia to hand over her job in Lundsgard’s office to Roxanna, together with all her rights, privileges and interests in the said Lundsgard.

But that would be a dirty trick to play on Roxy, aside from the fact that Olivia would see them both damned first. So he telephoned to Mrs. Samuel Dodsworth.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/world/chapter21.html

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