World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 22

Mrs. Dodsworth was a woman equally kind and efficient. For Roxanna she could find no school post but she did ferret out a position as chauffeur, reader, masseuse, servant-firer and listener to anecdotes about deceased spouse and successful nephews, to the rich Mrs. Orlando Weepswell, and there Roxanna had a suite and a maid and a slight paralysis of the auditory nerves.

Roxy, with Hayden, met Nat Friar, at a bar, and the two missioners of American irreverence formed a pious alliance. As Roxy expressed it, “Uncle Nat and I sure clicked.”

To Nat, beauty was a dynamic force, culture was more revolutionary than war, the product of the artist (though not the artist himself and his mistresses and bank account) was to be studied with reverence, and the more he held this gospel, the more impatiently did Nat hear the adorers who gabbled or gurgled or wheezed about the arts; who capitalized Beauty and Culture along with their social positions.

If Roxanna could never have Nat Friar’s knowledge nor his gruff reverences, she had even more horrible synonyms for the word “fake,” and Nat was grateful. When Hayden went by himself to Nat’s villa, he often found Roxanna perched there, cross-legged on the couch, being cheery with Nat and Ada Baker.

In Florence, Roxanna, being in a state of repentance and poverty, did not see any of Sadie Lurcher’s international set, glittering like broken glass edges, sharp as broken glass, unpleasant under the teeth as broken glass. They do not find Florence “smart,” nor do they often remain. For the most part, Hayden judged, Roxanna associated with that borderline assortment, the “American Students,” of whom some were frugal and studious, and some were shaggy, drunken, late-walking and floridly abnormal or given to a confusion about private interests in wives.

In general they were less noisy and self-advertising than their cousins in Paris, and Hayden felt that Roxanna was a colt now broken of loco-weed.

His introduction of his quasi-cousin, Roxy, to Lundsgard was operatic and a success.

He had invited Roxy, Lundsgard and Olivia to dine with him at the Cantina de’ Pazzi (you will not find it under that name), in the basement of the venerable Palazzo Suoli. Under massive arches, the basement, clattery with dishes and the delighted chatter of tourists, wanders off into circular stone cubicles which hint of ancient tortures. The walls, scurfy with old blood, are coy now with travel posters, bull-fighter costumes from London sweatshops and paintings of carnivals in Venice — you were never quite sure whether it was Venice, California, or its bawdy older sister. To complete the Cantina’s charm for tourists, the management had ordered that bread sticks and free colored post cards be displayed on the tables nightly before the guests arrived.

As Hayden and Roxanna waited there — she had refused more than one cocktail — they saw Olivia and Lundsgard, coming in from their office work. Roxy’s lips lifted in an arch of delight at Lundsgard, and she crooned, “Oh, buy him for me, will you, Cousin Hay?”

And truly this Viking Lorenzo was something to enchant a maiden: broad-shouldered and his face all one beam of loving intelligence and conscious power and masculine resolution. He was hatless, his heroic head well back and his flaxen hair a coronet. With his sports jacket and gray open shirt, he had a purple and yellow Florentine silk scarf and, as he came near, on one masterful hand Roxy must have seen a vast opal ring.

“Golly, that’s a lot of man in one consignment,” sighed Roxanna.

Olivia was determined to be agreeable. She gurgled to her enemy, “How’s the job going?” and even called her “Roxanna.” And Lundsgard as boisterously greeted her, “Welcome to our nice little city, Miss Eldritch and, speaking as a veteran here, may I announce that it hasn’t seen anything cuter than you since Dante tried to make Be-AT-triss. Roxanna, we moriturus, salute thee!”

(“Olivia is right; he really will popularize learning in the States, though of course he’ll kill it on the way.”)

Roxanna was gushing to Lundsgard, “You don’t look as if Culture and Florence have stunted your boyish growth!”

He smiled on her as though she were a poor but worthy woman to whom he was giving thousands of dollars, dollar by dollar. “Roxy, the sneaking fact is that I’m not cultured. I can teach that stuff, because I like college youngsters and I realize that all they want, or ever need, is to get a smattering of art and history, so when they become docs or lawyers or manufacturers, they won’t look ignorant. But I’m just a funnel, and with all your interviews, you’ve probably got ten times as much real inside dope on these flyblown European countries as I’ll ever get.”

Roxanna answered as benevolently as he.

“Olivia was only too darn kind. I’ve never really done any big interviews — just real-life stories like interviews with Paris bartenders on do Yankee tourists prefer vol au vent or pickled pigs’ feet. No, you’re the goods on the culture — apparently.”

Till now Roxy had been a true woman canvasser for the Lorry Party, and Olivia had difficulty in looking companionable when Lundsgard turned a shoulder on her and leaned into Roxanna. But with noticeably less reverence, Roxanna went on and Hayden thought he smelled malice:

“But you haven’t been a professor all the time, have you, Lorenzo?”

“No, no. Lotta strings to my bow.”

“You were in Hollywood?”

“Don’t know as the L. A. papers raved much about it, but yes, I did a little ham acting.”

“I’ll bet all the girls hounded you for autographs.”

This was pleasing to the great Lorenzo and astonishing to Hayden. He had never thought of that. He had never known any one whose autograph was sought after, who was so beautiful or clever that those fetish-seekers and magnified clinkers and general nuisances called autograph-hounds would ever course after him. But Lorenzo took his own tremendousness for granted, and with genial democracy he admitted:

“Oh, they used to ask for my fist now and then.”

“LITTLE girls, I meant — junior misses’ size — twelve to fourteen.”

Lorenzo was huffy. “No, not just junior misses! I’ve had some doggone beautiful, rich women ask me for an autograph!”

“I’ll bet. Seriously, Lorenzo, I was going to ask you for one myself and please, pretty please, give me one now before I forget it! If it wouldn’t bore you? I want to keep it with Gene Tunney’s and André Gide’s and all those.”

Hayden noted that the sheet which Roxy managed to find in her handbag and present to Lundsgard for his signature was a bill which did not look receipted. Lundsgard signed it with large, rolling L’s and looked delighted. Roxy purred. Olivia looked sour, then tried to look amused, and in a great-lady manner she chuckled “Lorry, I’m afraid I missed something. It never occurred to me to ask for your autograph — except as I do have your initials signed to so many gay little notes.”

“I’ll bet you have!” snarled Roxanna and went over to Lundsgard complete.

They agreed that they were shrewd, generous, swift-moving Americans, with no nonsense. When Olivia tried to be lofty with their lowness and, to keep the debate fair, Hayden joined Olivia, the two hard-riding highwaymen teased them for the “solemncholy way you listen to a lot of snooty French and English and German cranks and fall for it when they claim you can write better with a pen than you can with a typewriter.”

Lundsgard seemed to be expanding with appreciation, and he had a good deal of buoyant hydrogen in his chest to expand. Roxy was his pal. Perhaps he had been bored by Olivia’s elegance of old ivory, and bored even by the fierce, channeled ardor with which she could vary her level coldness; perhaps, for a time, he might find the tartness of the rosy apple that was Roxanna spicier than the richness of Olivia’s pear. So Hayden meditated, but he himself found Roxy’s generous enthusiasm of voice somewhat flat and loud and quacking in competition with Olivia’s deep melodies.

It was when Lundsgard was most admiring himself in Roxy’s mirror and most enjoying an advertisement of his friendliness with Prince Ugo Tramontana that the slippery minx twisted away.

“Oh, yes,” confided Lundsgard, “I’ve become quite a buddy of His Highness and I like . . .”

“A non-royal prince is not a Highness,” Roxy cackled. “Don’t be like that, and let ’em see the patched overalls you still wear under the luscious doctoral robe, dear.”

“Why, you little stinker! Me — overalls? Lissen! I don’t want to boast, but I pay my tailor in Hollywood two hundred and seventeen bucks a suit!” roared the outraged Lorenzo. “And — you and your alleged knowledge of protocol and titles and that junk! Let me tell you Ugo is a mighty good intimate of mine and I hang around that grand old palazzo of his like I would around the Faculty Club and — everything’s worn out and the velvet worn and those gilt mirrors got liver patches on ’em, but he’s got more doggone medieval paintings and manuscripts by Poliziano (I guess it is) and old swords than you can shake a stick at, but he thinks I’m swell, and he says I got what he calls a new vision, and he likes to try his theories out on me. He SAID so!”

Roxanna restored amity and even increased their alliance by bubbling, “And I’ll bet that’s true. He knows you aren’t tied by a lot of bum traditions. Sure. He’s glad to have a smart scholar that at the same time’s husky and HUMAN like you around.”

Nobly pleased, Professor Lundsgard said modestly, “It seems like he does.”

Roxanna did not strike again till after dinner, when Lundsgard flamboyantly lighted a huge Havana, and she muttered, “My, my, what a big man that cigar is smoking! I’ll bet Prince Ugo gets to panting when you smoke those El Imperialses around the palace!”

For once, Olivia giggled and Lundsgard looked wounded, but again it did not take much of Roxy’s gamine art to restore him to self-admiration, to delight in his little pal.

Hayden thought, “What a stupid, humorless, touchy oaf that man is! Once Olivia’s fling is over — and I think perhaps it is now, when she’s seen him tossed around by a crazy juggler like Roxy — I’ll be able to snatch Olivia back from him, and I can hold her — for always? I suppose so.”

He was sorry for Lundsgard, driven in Roxanna’s tinsel reins. Perhaps Olivia could not avenge Evelyn Hoxler, but Roxanna would do so, blithely and tenderly and viciously. Poor Lorenzo, shaking a sceptre hung with jester’s bells!

“I think we should all be going home,” said Olivia, tightly.

“See you to your bachelor digs, Rox?” said Lundsgard, the deft man of the world.

“Uh-huh,” said Roxy.

“HAY-den! Let’s go!” said Olivia.

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