World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 25

They parked the topolino at the Excelsior just as Roxanna and Lundsgard were leaving their taxicab. They four went up in the elevator, but there were two English ladies in it, making that apartment unsuitable for expert quarreling. Not till they had entered Lundsgard’s office, where Nat Friar sat with his large, dusty boots up on a desk, his rustic straw hat over his eyes, alternately reading a Dorothy Sayers thriller and Monnier’s Le Quattrocento, was Lundsgard able to attack:

“I don’t know which of you two women is the worst slut and the most ungrateful!”

Hayden had achieved only a sharp, “We’ll have no more of . . .” when he was interrupted by Uncle Nat. As his boots banged down on the floor, Nat fussily poked his straw hat into a wastebasket and spoke:

“Lundsgard, I don’t like your manner. Remember there are gentlemen present. By the way, before you discharge me, may I say that I am leaving you for a job in a travel agency? I shall be paid only one-fifth as much, but there I shall be doing nothing more evil than to direct homeless travelers to corrugated beds. It may be that after a month I shall feel somewhat cleansed from the sin of having helped you to corrupt that great lady, Learning.”

Angelo Gazza, the photographer, was just coming in and at him Lundsgard shrieked, “YOU, anyway — you’re FIRED!”

“Oh, no, I’m not! Professor Friar told me his plan to quit, and I’m rat number two. You, the big athlete, that thought he could kick history around like a football! You’re going to feel funny when you get back to teaching schoolboys and tell ’em what a hit you were in Italy with all the princes and the cardinals — and see that not one of your students believes you — ever. Blackboards again, and chalkdust and weekly themes! Addio, tutti! Ciao, Oley!”

The stricken Lundsgard pressed his eyes with his large, beringed hands and stood shaking, and from this spectacle of doom they crept out in pity.

“I hate these renegades like ourselves,” Nat Friar said to Hayden, Olivia, Roxy, Angelo, “who triumph over less virtuous scoundrels like Lundsgard. We are so much less colorful. May I buy you all a last cognac? We shall toast the fallen idol. It will probably be the last toast that anybody will ever drink to Mr. Lundsgard.”

In the Piazza della Republica, shabby small boys were begging and the old scavengers were picking up cigarette butts. All the umbrellas over the outdoor café tables had blossomed in front of Gilli’s; the gentle violet-seller circulated and girls laughed in peace.

“Can Olivia and I EVER leave Florence?” Hayden wondered.

From the café, Hayden and Olivia and Roxanna walked away, but with Roxy only tagging.

Olivia was holding Hayden’s arm. She sighed, “Ohhhh!”— a hungry sound. She mourned, “I don’t know how many kinds of a fool and bully I’ve been, but I think I’ve paid for all of them. Lorry looks at me now with such hatred; he makes me feel loose and compromised. But you, my good angel, you’ll never be treacherous as Lorry is — as I’ve been! You’ll never take your obligations lightly. In your presence, I feel absolved and secure.”

She held his arm the more tightly and as he managed an embarrassed glance at her, he saw that her forehead was serene, her eyes were clear and tender; she was angelic again and splendid and desirable.

He felt manacled by her lovely ivory hand. How could he desert this passionate woman whom he had helped to destroy, whom he must help to restore to her principalities?

But he ached for his solitary room and the sweet drudgery of books and, after certain years of them, to venture onward to the brazen sea of Arabia, the West Indian islands shining at dawn, the high lone whistling passes of the Himalayas. On such unscheduled wandering, Olivia would never accompany him. Her love would encompass him, but bind him.

They were at the Palazzo Spizzi.

Roxanna caught up with them and proposed, “How about a dish of tea?”

With a remarkably chilly, “Not for me, thanks — perhaps Hayden will care for one,” Olivia curtly left them, went into the Palazzo.

“How about you?” Roxy hesitated.

“I’d love some,” said Hayden, and they strolled on to a small tea-shop off the Tornabuoni. As they sat down, Roxy sighed:

“I know I’ve already talked too much today, but one more thing. I used to respect you so, Hay, for your dignity and honesty. Now it kills me to see you turned into Livy’s stooge.”

Hayden was working up to a denial, but Roxy clattered on:

“I loathe seeing you get all silent and intense again the way you used to be with Caprice. But I guess you must have it — you bleating MARTYR! When I get back to Newlife and the mountains — that big, huge place where you look up to the horizon, where there’s freedom to be ignorant of the ruling dynasty of Piacenza, I’ll think of you solemnly grinding away here, trying to satisfy Professor Olivia! But I hope I’ll have your forgiveness for having plagued you, and for having been a pest today.”

Roxy, on the wall-bench beside him, was suddenly crying, a defenseless and bewildered child. She spoke through sobs like the sobs of a child, hurt, broken, bewildered:

“Oh, darling Hay, I thought you’d all be delighted to have me show up that old sergeant-major, Harry Belfont, today, and get him off your necks!”

Hayden was trembling, but he tried to be hard-hearted. “It was needless and cruel of you. The old comedian is perfectly harmless.”

He was glad that a serving-table concealed them from the rest of the tea-shop.

Roxy was still broken with sobbing as she stammered, “Maybe he’s harmless but you all talk so’s you’ll impress him. I wanted to help you, even Livy. But then I saw you all hated me and despised me for bawling him out — shanty Irish, flannel-mouth, nuisance!”

Roxy was crying hard now. He touched her shoulder and she melted against him, she seemed to melt into him, to be one with him. She was a familiar part of him and his own land. There was a sweet wild smell about her, like sagebrush. He cried, “Why, I’m in love with you, Roxy, and I always have been!”

“Didn’t you know that? Did you have to go to Italy and read all about arquebuses and apses, to find that out?”

“Will you go with me to Burma and Brazil and Damascus?”

“Sure!”

He kissed Roxanna, very happily.

It was later, as tea prolonged into dinner, that he said sadly, “But Roxy, I’m no good. I seem to honor women, and yet I help to destroy them — Caprice and now Olivia.”

“Sure you do. You let them use you and tyrannize over you. No woman that ever lived can stand that much privilege. I’m likely to try it on, too, but maybe not, because I’ve been in love with you too many years. You know something? Here’s the real secret of my life:

“When you were an old man of eighteen, very handsome and dignified, like a secretary of state, you were rehearsing your salutatorian’s essay for Commencement exercises, in the empty auditorium of the Kit Carson High School, all by yourself — you thought you were. But I was curled up behind a row of seats in the balcony, making myself very small and silent, sucking my lollypop in the utmost silence. I was an earnest young lady of ten, then. I meant to be a United States Senator, and you were my model. (You were to be President.)

“You carried on something wonderful; all about the International Court and how nice it would be if all the nations would listen to you and learn about justice. It sounded swell! I just knelt there and said to myself, ‘Some day I’m going to marry that man, even if I have to follow him to Denver or even Minneapolis.’ I didn’t count on Italy. That’s how you slipped me! Dear Hay!”

“Dear Roxy!” he said earnestly.

But he had a worry.

“Now, I have to go tell Olivia, I suppose!”

Roxy said brightly, “Want me to do it for you?”

“Oh, no, I THINK I can manage it,” groaned Hayden.

The wedding of Hayden and Roxanna — the civil service in the office of the kindly American Consul, and the religious service at St. James’s church — was an Event, attended by all the Anglo–American Colony except Sir Henry Belfont.

Dr. Olivia Lomond was at the church, looking contented and superior. She was warmly on the arm of the chief foreign official then to be found in Florence: the newly appointed First Assistant American Cultural Commissioner to Peru, a confident, beaming, success-radiating magnifico in morning clothes and Ascot tie. His name was Professor the Hon. Lorenzo O. Lundsgard, Ph. D.

They were in Rapallo.

“All right, we’ll do that then, unless we want to change our minds,” said Roxanna. “Go home by way of Ceylon and India and Japan, if they’ll let us in. Home! But if I ever catch you getting to be successful, I’ll snatch you back here, for a course in humility. Maybe we came to Italy too late. We’ll never speak the lingo so naturally that we won’t even notice we’re speaking it. But there is something great here for us — so great because it is so quiet. The American Colonists in Florence are richer in their hearts than the Men of Distinction back home that take themselves so seriously selling whisky or lawsuits or college-alumni enthusiasm. Oh, darling, am I holding forth?”

“Yes — yes,” amiably.

“Oh, dear! But you never help me. I suppose you have to be born to it, to know how to beat women, and you weren’t.”

“I’ll try.”

“Look. When we get to Rome, are there any more presents we’ll have to buy? Last minute in Florence, I got a leather box for Aunt Tib, and the rosary for Lizzie Edison and the linen luncheon-set for Mrs. Dr. Crittenham and a souvenir deck of cards for Bill and Jean Windelbank (won’t we enjoy talking over Europe with THEM!) and the Venetian glass and the blue-and-gold spectacle case for Mary Eliza Bradbin. It’ll be such fun to see her when she gets it!”

“Such fun”— he realized how often Roxanna said it, as hand in hand they walked through Ravenna. Even King Theodoric’s Arian cathedral and the tomb of the Empress Honoria she found “such fun,” and he wondered if their sculptors had not also considered them “fun.”

“Dear Roxy,” he said, even in the sanctity of Dante’s tomb.

Far up in the mountains behind Salerno, one light persisted while their steamer plodded southward from Naples, bound out for Smyrna and Alexandria.

Was it a light in the hut of a peasant or of some studious hermit-priest, a priest in that sacred land where Hayden had known defeat and glory, where he had begun to know himself?

“Do you think we might have one modest drink before we turn in?” said Roxanna.

“I think that might be possible, if the bartender is kind-hearted.”

“The bartender is Italian,” said Roxy, “and he speaks English, French, German, Spanish, Swedish, Polish, Croatian and some Arabic. His name is Fortunato, and he was born in Reggio Emilia, but his wife was born in Bari. He has two children, a girl of seven and a son, six, and he likes Italian crossword-puzzles — he is such fun. He has a cousin in San Jose, California — Giuseppina Vespi of 1127 Citrus Court. She is married to an upholsterer named Joe Murphy and they have two children. I am to send her a picture post card from Palermo. I’m sleepy. Let’s have that drink and then turn in.”

“Splendid!” said Hayden.

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