World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 24

They were only six at lunch: Sir Henry and Lady Belfont, Olivia and Roxanna, Hayden and Lundsgard, who had brought Roxanna in a taxicab and who seemed, on landing, to be more gurglingly intimate with Roxy than before her revelations of his multiple marriages.

When Sir Henry found that Roxy was esteemed not only by the unimportant onlooker, Hayden, but by the favorite courtier, Professor Lundsgard, he was markedly attentive to her, and honored her with a portentous discourse on American Womanhood. You gather that he did not think much of it.

Roxy listened pertly; Lady Belfont pointedly did not listen at all but, with small sharp eyes, examined Roxy and apparently passed her.

Yet after Sir Henry had accepted her and she should have put on the manners of a Belgravia governess, Roxanna was very naughty. Sir Henry belched at her, “Gracious little lady, you are fortunate in being able to tarry for a while in the City of the Lilies. Most of your dreadful American females who come here, so uninvited — gauche schoolteachers and librarians and the like — remain only twelve hours or a day or two, and scamper on to Rome.”

But Roxanna was not grateful for this implication of her superiority.

She took from an overdecorated spectacle case of Florentine leather-work, with golden scrolls on blue and sealbrown, and put on a pair of Hollywoodized tinted sun-glasses, huge and aggressive affairs with harlequin frames of pink plastic. Through these insulting portholes she stared at Sir Henry, and blatted, “Maybe the poor darlings of teachers haven’t enough cash to stick it out here any longer, and they got to ‘scamper.’ Maybe they’d stay here for years, too, if they’d inherited a wad of money.”

Every one, but especially Sir Henry and perhaps Roxanna herself, seemed to consider her tone offensive. He gulped; he tried to forgive this curious campfollower of his favorite Lorenzo; and he sailed on:

“Conceivably that may be their melancholy plight, though I cannot understand why middle-class persons, particularly your Americans, should be privileged to come to our Florence at all. Such ecstasy, Miss Eldritch, is no part of our common rights, like bread and beer; it is a delightful good fortune which the prankish gods may bestow or deny at their will, quite unaccountably.

“But all of your vast, marvelous country, Miss Eldritch, is full of false claims and assertions and astounding optimism. Children over there invariably address their fathers not with obedient reverence but — I shudder —‘Hya, Pop’! And THEM, I fancy, even your kind heart could scarcely categorize as ‘poor darlings’! Eh?”

Said Roxy, “In the first place, mostly they don’t say it, and if they did, it would just show they liked their dads enough to want to be chummy with them.”

For a time, then, Roxanna was not offensive. But when Sir Henry had rambled, “When we consider that there once existed a Raphael, the insanities of these contemporary artists become not merely mawkish but blasphemous,” then Roxy struck again. She turned her impertinent Hollywood sun-glasses on Belfont, and she piped, “Maybe that’s what the old boys said about Rafe, too, when he was beginning.”

Sir Henry looked stricken. Lady Belfont, behind the mild harem bars of a tiny lace handkerchief, seemed to be giggling. Hayden was definitely impatient with Roxy for her pointless rudeness; he was definitely sorry for Sir Henry, whom he could see now as a pathetic old actor getting his first hisses and trying to take them gallantly.

Hayden thought, “The man is a bore and a snob. He’s built up a social position to which he has to sacrifice everything. He has built a jail and shut himself up in it. He can never have any fun at all — never can laugh or talk easily or be flippant or go to a movie and dine with poor people, lest he be seen. Poor, timid, wheezing Pekingese in the body of a mastiff! I am extremely annoyed with Roxanna, as much for her pretentious spectacles as for her sauciness — which certainly does no credit to the good manners that we do have in Newlife. A splendid missionary of hate she is! Mark Twain’s bumptious rustic, his Innocent Abroad. Still with us!”

Sir Henry was not enfeebled by Roxy’s impertinence, but angered. It was a long time since any one had dared to make small of such a formidable monument of guineas capped with a baronetcy. This was indeed his notion of blasphemy. But he counterattacked Roxy with stately tolerance for such small female bugs:

“My dear young lady, I agree that had he existed in your America, Raffaello would have been denounced in his own day. I quite understand that — quite. I am not shocked but only grieved by the irreverence and boorishness that is, perhaps, to be expected from such a lusty young giant of a country. For, indeed, some of my own relatives belong to you good American people.”

Then, to the horror of everybody except Lady Belfont, whose lips danced, and of the butler, who slapped a napkin over his mouth and fled from the room, Roxy demanded, “Sir Henry, don’t all of your own relatives belong to us good American people?”

“I beg your pardon!”

“Including your father and mother?”

“I beg your pardon!”

“I heard so many interesting things about you from a newspaperman who used to be your secretary. You fired him — remember? — for laughing when a dinky gilt chair busted under you. He was left stranded — bad. This fellow, the rat, he told me that you never saw England or the Continent till you were fourteen. You were born in Ohio and your Grampa Belfont — if that was the name — started the family fortunes during our American Civil War by selling adulterated drugs and shoddy uniforms to the North and South equally.”

Sir Henry was paralyzed. The thing was so monstrous that even the competent Hayden, the managerial Lundsgard were paralyzed, as Roxy went smilingly on:

“This ex-secretary said it cost you sixteen years of living in Kent and London and getting snubbed practically every hour, and then forty-five thousand pounds in cash, to buy a seat in Parliament and finally an unpaid job as a baronet. But he said, this beast, that he guessed that to the miners who work in your Kentucky coal mines it was worth every shilling. But this tattle-tale couldn’t possibly have been right, now could he!”

Sir Henry with his death pangs just slightly eased, croaked, “He certainly could not.”

“No, indeed. For instance: how could he know exactly how much you paid for your title? Maybe they stuck you much more than forty-five thousand pounds. And I do want to say how wise I think you were to move on to Italy. In England, you must have found it so hard to get away with the pose of being English.”

Sir Henry rose, but it was not Roxanna whom he was denouncing; it was astonishingly his admirer and fellow fraud, Professor Lorenzo Lundsgard:

“Lundsgard, you plotted this outrage, sir. You brought in this woman, whom I shall certainly have the police investigate. And as for YOU, sir, I shall write this very afternoon to the president of Cornucopia Films — of which I happen to own fifty-seven percent — recommending that they give up their plan to make a Medici picture, or any other amateurish nonsense that you may plan, ever, and denounce you to your lecture agents as a half-witted booby. Good day, ladies and gentlemen.”

He marched out, followed by a cattishly smiling Lady Belfont. The butler hurried back in, to take the better silver out with him for safeguarding.

Lundsgard screamed, “My God, we got to do something!”

Roxy said comfortably, “Not me! I’ve always been hankering to blow up that pompous old shyster, after what this kid, my friend, told me about him in London.”

“Be quiet, Roxanna,” Hayden said sharply.

Olivia, with unexpected independence, stated, “Roxanna was inexcusably rude and vulgar, but it is our fault for bringing her here. We should have understood that she would not know even the first duties of being a decent guest.”

Roxanna cried, “Hey, now look here, you!” but Olivia iced her out with, “Although I am quite indifferent to what Mr. Belfont thinks of me. In my group, we consider him an incompetent dilettante.”

Lundsgard was raging, “You’ve all got to put your heads together and help me — and you, Roxy, I’m certainly going to throttle you! I’m ruined, if Cornucopia Films welch on me. Didn’t you realize that, Roxy, you dangerous little fool?”

“Oh yes, Lor-en-zo, I had some idea of it. I’ve just sort of been resenting your idea I would be an easy conquest. I’m not a round-heel like Livy.”

Olivia was a leopard leaping. “You little vixen! And I am not a . . . I don’t even know what the vile word means!”

“How come it makes you so sore then?”

Hayden gravely interposed — though he too was being forced up to a plane of screaming: “I think you’ve done enough harm, Roxanna — and don’t be so smug about your efficiency as a guttersnipe. We are justifying Sir Henry in his hatred of us Americans — of his own countrymen! We must leave this house.”

“You simply got to come to my office and help me fix this thing up,” besought Lundsgard. “You can’t see me busted like this. We’ll all tell Sir Henry that Roxanna is hysterical. We just learned it — we’ve thrown her right smack out on her back, bang, for keeps . . . .”

To point it all up, the butler came back to inform Lundsgard that his taxicab (which Lundsgard had never ordered) was waiting.

As he drove Olivia to Lundsgard’s office in the small car, Hayden imagined from blocks away that he could hear Roxy and Lundsgard quarreling in their cab, but he had little time for imaginings. He was occupied with listening to Olivia, and Olivia had an eloquence she never got out of Machiavelli.

“This whole boresome incident has been a revelation to me, Hayden. I saw what a cowering coward Lorry is — or Lawrence or Oley or whatever he is. I’m not sure but that he’s even worse than your shrieking, hair-pulling young fishwife, Roxanna.”

“Now, now, she isn’t a . . .”

“She is too, and you know it! And I want you to be as honest about this as I am; I want you to admit your blindness, as I certainly admit mine, now. The veil of sensuality has been lifted from before my eyes; that horrible, sooty veil. I see now — I was a fool and an ingrate not to see it before. It’s you, not I, who are the artist-scholar. Hayden dear, you, not Lorry, who are the true Magnificent, without flashy banners.

“For a while I fell into an illusion — it doubtless came from overmuch reading of medieval chronicles and ballads, but still, it was childish and inexcusable — an illusion that a man ought to be obviously splendid: the knight crusader, daring and poetic, the Duke of Urbino, the battle-breaker, the patron of poets and artists; powerful, cloaked in brocade, belted with a great sword, surrounded by medieval color and all the respect of a medieval court.

“I dreamed, in this schoolgirl dream, that he should travel wide and swiftly, have his commands obeyed swiftly; be extravagant and sometimes ruthless, and forever uplift the whole groveling world by his gorgeous example.

“What a sentimental fool I was! I see that that kind of an idea is more likely to produce a pompous fraud like Belfont or a pilfering clown like Lundsgard than a man like YOU, who is strong enough to be willing to be quiet!”

She kissed him tremendously, to his considerable discomfiture while tacking in the topolino among the trucks, cars, motorcycles, vespas — motorcycles with platforms and tin aprons — bicycles, scooters, pedestrians reading the newspapers while suicidally strolling, which so interestingly complicate the traffic of Florence. But these dangers did not dismay him so much as the thought that he was caught for good, and that the world which Olivia would now permit him to see would not be very wide.

“You know, I’m not always so quiet,” he fretted. “And I’m not sure I can ever do much with the Magnificence role, with or without banners. Olivia, I wonder — does it ever occur to you that maybe we’re making a mistake? Perhaps we’re both too stubborn to be married.”

“Nonsense! We’ll both learn.”

“But can we? Just because you ARE so capable, you’ll always be pretty independent.”

“I suppose our hoyden friend Roxanna is your idea of pliability!”

“Oh, she’s a pirate, but same time, she never fools herself, as you and I do. I admire her a lot. Olivia! Let’s not be too sure about our marriage. It scares me a little.”

“Not me. You just do what I tell you to, and you’ll be happy.”

“Maybe!”

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