World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 23

Hayden, especially loaned by kindness of Dr. Olivia Lomond for one evening, was dining with Roxanna among the students at Camillo’s. He was not pleased by the contemptuous hardness which Roxanna seemed again to be putting on. She was slightly too showy, in her old green dress with a white turban possibly modeled on the streamlined yet haremlike Marchesa Valdarno and a string of jade beads; she was slightly too harsh and ambition-vaunting as she rattled, “I’m getting my second wind. I think before long I’ll feel like leaving your nice little Florence.”

“What do you mean by ‘little’! It’s even bigger than St. Paul, Minnesota, or Omaha, Nebraska. Why, it’s about as big as Denver!”

“Our Nathan Hale! I am sorry I have but one life to give for studying the predella on the right of the third picture of the altar piece in the third chapel of the left aisle of the sixty-seventh most important ecclesiastical structure in our sacred Flow — rence! You’re as bad a faker as Lorry Lundsgard!”

“Oh. How are you and your Dr. Tarzan progressing?”

“I may give him a tumble, if I don’t get the hell out of this backwater. But as I was saying, pretty soon I may get going now and leave my set of nursing-bottles for Mother Weepswell, and do a lot of freelance stories. Have I got ideas now! A piece about young Italian noblemen, like Roberto Tramontana, who’re busted and who’ve cheerfully gone to work in garages or any other honest labor. Heh? Heh? How about it, Uncle Hayden?”

“Roxy darling, don’t get too enterprising again. I like you more when you’re gentle.”

(“Is this young woman nothing more than Caprice with a passport?”)

“And I like you better when you’re more brash and neighborly, Hay. You’re in danger of becoming another of these erudite old gentlemen living lonely in a villino, so dreadfully mild and well-washed and reticent, knowing all about some old hellhound like Malatesta Baglioni and nothing about President Truman; a reservoir that has all the facts and don’t know what any of them signify. Uncle Nat Friar but wrapped in oiled silk. And worse, you could lose all your democracy here. Oh, you never were a guy to run out and kiss the postman or make the hired girl have her supper with the folks, but you did think the postman and hired girl might get married and have a kid who’d be a better lawyer than YOUR kid — if you’d only had one, you and Caprice, poor darling!

“But here, you talk of contadini, of farmers, as if they couldn’t ever be educated like you and me. And like all Americans, you always overdo. Talk about me overdoing the hustle! You feel you can’t monkey with Italian history at all unless you become a professor of it, which Gott soll behüten, you never will. If you were building bungalows with sweety-pie yellow bathrooms, you’d dream about waffles. If you’re learning Italian, you try to talk same to Heinie tourists and Svensk trippers. Okay — but don’t overdo your underdoing our ole American democracy, pal!

“You’re in MUCH more peril than I am with my play at dissipation, which I can chuck so easy. YOUR danger is virtuous prissiness, and that’s a nastier vice than double martinis. Pete’s sake, Hay, don’t listen to your old Italian gorillas roaring so you can’t hear the big, sweet hell of a roar our Americans have always put up, too:

“Casey Jones at the throttle and the old engine moanin’! Bound away for the Wide Missourai! Banjo on my knee. Frankie and Johnny root-a-toot-tootin’! In the evening by the moonlight, the old folks singing! Boy! Am I proud of our own troubadours! And you forgetting them for English skylarks and some dinky little thin song by Petrarch about a girl he never even made!”

Vigorously, from Hay, “I don’t forget them! Never! Sitting in San Miniato, looking at the altar-screen, I caught myself humming Casey Jones! Besides, you’re a true Westerner; you’ve heard some Old Timers sing hallelujahs. But most American kids today have only learned our ballads, rejoiced in our own tradition, when they’ve heard ’em — if they COULD hear ’em over the smack of their chewing gum, on the radio, rollicked out by some ferocious Nevada thousand-dollar-a-week singing cowboy who was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and learned his Native Western American melodies in the glee club at the Southern New Jersey School of Accountancy. Or the fat man who gets up and sings ’em with the soloist at a New York night club — he’s a Native Cal-y-for-ny-an born in Lithuania!

“Besides — now, for the first time, America belongs to the world, not just to America, and Casey Jones has to take his chance against the skylark and Laura and Roland and Nicolette and all of them, and not complain, as you do FOR him, if François Villon drowns him out! Casey’s been a sensitive plant too long — sheltered by the Wide Missourai!”

“Okay, okay! Slap Walt Whitman up against Gilbert and Sullivan and see if he’s so cute. But if you’re going to be so darned world-conscious, Hay, you got to get out of Florence — I mean, the Limey — Yankee Florence. It’s such a hick village! It gossips worse than Bison Park ever thought of! Tessie Weepswell and Sam Dodsworth and even Mrs. D. gossip about you all day long. Will you marry Olivia? (And may she develop the bots!) If you stop on the Tornabuoni and talk to some old rabbit for two minutes at noon, the Colony has complete details by one-thirty and talks about your new romance all afternoon.

“And then that ratty bunch of American pansies that sit at the same bar, every afternoon, out on the sidewalk, exhibiting their beauties to any visiting firemen fairies that may happen to hit town. Provincial? Good Lord, those serious young men of talent are so busy, just like the gang at the Newlife Bonanza Poolroom, talking all day, that they don’t even get around to see the Uffizi Gallery once a month.

“No, my boy. You either disappear into ITALIAN Florence — I’ve heard there used to be one — or else go on to Paris or Zurich or Newlife, Colorado, or one of those universal cities. And take your O-ly-vya with you. And TRY not to push her off an Alp on the way!”

Hayden said, “Well . . .”

Roxanna might, he thought uncomfortably, be right. He might drift here into a negligent snobbishness in which only persons with art-vocabularies or titles or official posts would seem to master. He ought, he thought, to see more of Roxy and get more actively into soul-saving; save hers from the suave brutality of female careerism — save himself from the fussy brutality of damning Perpetua every time she moved a book on his reading table.

To an ironic Olivia, late that evening, after a good-natured but uncompromising parting with Roxanna, he explained that he really had to be neighborly with his old friend Roxy and not let the poor waif stumble into alien pitfalls alone.

“You mean she’ll land softer if you stumble with her?” said Olivia. “Go ahead. . . . Heavens, Hayden! Do you suppose for one moment I could be jealous of a street Arab like your Roxanna? Don’t insult me! Spend ALL your evenings — and nights, too — with her, if it amuses you.”

Olivia was too willing. He wondered, a thousand times, if the high spirits of Roxanna had not already enticed Lundsgard away from Olivia; if that lady, born to Byzantine courts and trafficking for Hellenic manuscripts in Cyprus, was becoming silkenly double-faced.

As a matter of fact his two or three dinners alone with Roxanna were but mildly devoted to her endangered morals. It proved that Roxy had, as most diners-out had not, as Olivia sniffily had not, his own trick of telling himself exclamatory stories about all of his fellow diners at a restaurant, and that was a trick well shared and inducing common excitement. At the Oliviero, most cosmopolitan restaurant in town, they picked out a French diplomat (he was probably a Milanese manufacturer), a Chinese general (probably Burmese). They looked sidewise, inconspicuously but intensely, at a quarreling young couple, and speculated, “I wonder if we hadn’t better go over and tell him that his girl has too rocky a jaw, for all her funny nose, and he’d better duck before she shackles him for life?”

Always it was what Roxanna called “good fun.” And then she would infuriate him by returning to the charge that he was becoming a frail old scholar-hermit, and she would defend Lorenzo as a good fellow who had antagonized Hayden only by being his own honest, rollicking self.

At the next dinner out of the three, Roxanna said to Lundsgard, derisively, “How’s all your lovely wives keeping, Loraccio?”

“You mean my girl friends here? Why, sweetness, I haven’t got any except you and Livy, who’re both gone on that frozen-faced hermit, Hay.”

“No, Professor, I don’t mean us. WIVES, I said!”

Lundsgard’s “I dunno whacha talking about” was blurred and most unprofessional.

“It’s none of my business and I don’t care a hoot, but I’m a reporter, and don’t ever let them tell you I’m not a good one. Anyway, a busy one. You’re always explaining to everybody that you’ve never slipped into wedlock. You were just mean, when you were a rosy-cheeked young instructor with goldie tresses, to some juicy little cricket named Bessie, and she canned you for your he-man tyranny.

“But I’ve been snooping — pumping some of the American students here that you’ve been chummy with. And I wrote a few letters to a script-writer that I know in Hollywood. And I am now able to inform you — it may be no news to you, Lorry, but it will interest Livy: you were married, bell, book and neon lights, to two different cuties and got divorced by one after two years and by ‘tother after eighteen months — grounds, in both cases, amnesia about who you were really married to. Oh, it’s okay, but I just feel we’ll all be happier, as simple, trusting American girls, if we could expect a consignment of home truth now and then!”

Olivia was rigidly furious.

“I’m sure I don’t know why we should hear all this. Mr. Lundsgard is my employer, and nothing else. I have no slightest interest in his private affairs of any sort!”

It was Lundsgard who was surprisingly undisturbed.

He snorted, “So you took enough interest in poor old Lorry to really get busy and find out about him, heh? Yuh, I guess your yarn is more or less true, Rox. I never could see why I should bother you folks with my troubles, but believe me, I could a tale unfold of a couple of the nastiest little tramps you ever heard of, if I hadn’t made it an iron-clad rule to never yap about my wounds but just bear ’em in silence. But I will say,” and he looked at Roxanna and then at Olivia as fondly as though they were two lovely little breakfast sausages and he a hungry hero, “that an awful lot of women hung around hoping to comfort me, after the obsequies.”

“DID they, big boy!” slashed Roxanna.

“Do you mind if we forget all of this and talk about something more interesting?” grated Olivia.

Curiously, during the rest of that meal, Lundsgard looked most fondly upon Roxanna, and argued down Olivia’s evasive doubts when Roxy announced that the one thing in the world she wanted to do was to get invited to lunch with Sir Henry Belfont.

They all did go, as arranged and tourist-guided by Mr. Hayden Chart.

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