World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 5

The railway station at Florence had a fine, flaring Mussolini touch, very spacious and inclined to marble and wood panels, but the piazza in front of it was of a suburban drabness, and the back of the church of S. Maria Novella was a mud-colored bareness, sullen with evening. He would not be staying here long! His taxi-driver was learning English, and was willing to make it a bi — lingual party, but as Hayden’s Italian was limited to bravo, spaghetti, zabaglione and the notations on sheet music, this promising friendship did not get far, and he went to bed blankly at the admirable Hotel Excelsior.

But in the bright morning of late autumn he looked from his hotel and began to fall in love with a city.

He saw the Arno, in full brown tide after recent mountain rains, with old palaces along it and cypress-waving hills beyond. On one side was the tower of Bellosguardo and a fragment of the old city wall, and on the other the marvel of the church of San Miniato, white striped with a dark green that seemed black from afar. Hayden saw a city of ancient reticences and modern energy, with old passageways, crooked and mysterious, arched over with stone that bore carven heraldic shields.

“I like this! Maybe I’ll stay out the week.”

There was then living in Florence a friend and classmate of Hayden’s father: a retired American automobile-manufacturer, competent engineer and man of business, aged seventy-five or so, named Samuel Dodsworth. Hayden sent a letter up to him by hand at his Villa Canterbury on Torre del Gallo Hill, and the Dodsworth chauffeur brought down a note inviting Hayden to cocktails that afternoon.

In between, he trudged the erratic streets of Florence, so unchanged from medieval days that from a secret courtyard you expected to see emerge a lady with peaked headdress and a gallant in satin with a falcon perched on his wrist, and he came full on the Piazza della Signoria, where Savonarola was martyred, where rears the Palazzo Vecchio, with its heaven-high tower.

He was deeply contented as he was driven up the hill to Samuel Dodsworth’s.

Unlike most Italian villas, which show to the passer-by only a plastered wall flush with the street and a small door that opens on the delights of garden and terrace within, the Dodsworths’ Villa Canterbury, which had been built for Lord Chevanier in 1880, was set back from the street, with a lawn and an ilex alley. It was a timbered manor house, half-English and half-Yonkers. The interior was chintz and willow plate and Jacobean oak, and the chief change from his Lordship’s day was that the Paris Herald Tribune had ousted the London Times, and the Yale Alumni Magazine the Fortnightly Review.

Not even yet was Hayden up to an eight-thirty-dinner schedule and, arriving at six, he was half an hour early for cocktails, which gave him a chance to study his hosts. Dodsworth was a tall, portly, gray-mustached man, given to quiet listening, and his wife, to whom he referred as Edith, looked somewhat Italian, though Hayden thought that she might have been born in Canada or Massachusetts.

Dodsworth, in his armchair, was a largeness and a solidity; he looked as though he would not willingly move from it. He asked of Hayden, amiably, “Let’s see: how long is it now since Monty — your father — died?”

“Ten years ago, and my mother just afterward.”

“They were mighty good Americans. Did you know your father used to make applejack in college? Once he gave a party that started at three A.M. and lasted till noon. I lost eleven dollars and a photograph of Sarah Bernhardt, playing penny ante.”

“No! Why, he was a crank, though very gentle about it, on the evils of booze and gambling!”

“Well, he ought to have known! How long you staying in Italy, Hayden?”

“I can’t tell yet. I had a motor smash, and I’m taking a few months off. I may stay in Florence for — for a fortnight.”

“Don’t stay in Italy too long — or anywhere else abroad. It gets you. Since I was fool enough to sell the Revelation Motor Company, Edith and I have drifted through India and China and Austria and God knows where all, and this time, we’ve been back in Italy for three years — course, Edith’s been coming here off and on for many years. Well, we tried to go back and live in the States, in Zenith, but we’re kind of spoiled for it. Everybody is so damn busy making money there that you can’t find anybody to talk with, unless you’re willing to pay for it by busting a gut playing golf. And I got to dislike servants that hate you and hate every part of their job except drawing their pay. I like having the girl here bring me my slippers without feeling so doggone humiliated that she rushes out and joins the Communist Party!

“And back home, this last time, I was bored listening to all the men I used to know talking about hunting and fishing and baseball and same old golf. Fishing! Hell, I used to skip down to Florida, one time, and enjoy yanking in a mean tarpon as much as anybody, but when you hear most of those old, gray-haired galoots, the way they talk about catching a vest-pocket black bass, you’d think the man was a ten-year-old brat that had just hooked his first crappie. Kind of immature, they struck me — even fellows that could swing a big traction deal and skin a board of directors that had cut their first teeth on broken bottles.

“And — when I was still in harness in Zenith, I never was the skittish kind, much. I never did like our brand of humor any too well. I always got kind of sour when a smart banker that was a good friend of mine, nice fellow, too, but he always had to yell at you, ‘Well, you old horse thief!’ After the first twenty-thirty thousand times, I thought that got less original — and every time he saw you, he tried to tickle you. I can get along with awful little tickling! And now I cotton to hearty humor even less than I used to.

“And then I like these hills in Tuscany and the monasteries and villas and the variety of it — get in your car and in an hour or so you’re in San Gimignano, looking at those old towers. Starts your imagination working about the old wars and battles right there where you’re standing. Or you’re in Siena and have lunch out in that old square there and look at that big slender tower and wonder how the devil those old fellows managed to raise those enormous blocks of stone without any of our machinery.

“Afraid I’m not putting up any very good argument about chasing you back home, but I mean — that’s what’s so dangerous here; you do get to like it and hesitate to go back and face responsibilities, and that would be bad for a young fellow like you. Me — I never can learn this cursed Italian language; Edith has an awful time getting me to say acqua fresca when I want a glass of water. But I do like to have food that you can eat and wine that you can drink without paying four and a half bucks at a restaurant for a burnt steak and some fried spuds flavored with penicillin!

“Still, I do get homesick, and I never miss my class reunion in New Haven, never!

“Edith, you better shut me up! I haven’t gassed this long for a year. It’s having Hayden here, and get in the first crack at him and tell him to beat it, go right home and stay there — and then go downtown and sign another two-year lease on this house. In which, Hayden, we may have Italian servants, but you bet your life we got first-class American central heating!”

Guests were beginning to chatter in, but before the cocktails came, Mrs. Dodsworth led Hayden out on the terrace for the View which, by Florence custom, is advertised along with laundry equipment, garage, cost of upkeep and distance from Leland’s Bar.

Although it was masked by the early darkness, Hayden was conscious of power in the aspect of Florence below them in its golden basket, between this hill range of Arcetri and, far across, the Fiesole Hill. Mrs. Dodsworth could point out the scarcely seen tower of the Bargello, Giotto’s bell tower, the spire of Santa Croce while, flaunting, soaring, even more whelming than by day in the floodlights which the mists turned to wreaths of floating rose, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio dominated the world more than any bullying skyscraper of a hundred steel-strapped stories.

As an architect, as a tongueless poet, Hayden was uplifted; as a lonely man on a voyage to find himself, he wondered if down there, in that pattern of sunken stars, he might not find a clue to his lost highway. He was in love, and if only with a city, he knew that he could still move to the magic of love for something.

And then he went in to say Yes, he thought an olive in his dry martini would be fine.

The guests were most of them from the Florentine Anglo–American Colony, which is united only in a firm avoidance of their beloved native lands. There were a few of the scholarly eccentrics for whom Florence has been renowned ever since Dante, but the rest were of the active militia of card players.

Of high rank among the bridge-brigade was Mrs. Orlando Weepswell, a sixty-year-old widow, very rich. She had lived in the handsome Villa Portogallo for twenty years now, and had learned forty-seven words of Italian, most of them meaning “too much” or “too late.” She was the daughter of a country pastor and, as a girl, had in a surprised and doubtful way become the bride of a banker and shipowner who was occasionally a congressman, often a Sunday-school teacher, and always a crook. Her Florentine villa had wine-red brocaded walls and hypothetically antique chairs with tooled-leather seats, but in her bedroom, safe from the jeers of the Colonists, she kept the Hon. Mr. Weepswell’s favorite Morris chair.

She was the first person except the amiable Dodsworths to make Hayden feel so warmly at home that he believed he could live as securely and as naturally in Florence as in Newlife.

When you looked at Tessie Weepswell you did not see a woman of sixty but the glove-soft credulous girl who had been sandbagged by the Honorable Orlando. You saw her pretty fleetness and innocence all unchanged, and her eyes undimmed. Her voice was still quivery with enthusiasms about ice cream and kittens and James Whitcomb Riley. It was just that over her face was a dusty veil of many years’ weaving which, surely, she could twitch away whenever she chose.

“Now you MUST rent a villa and live here, Mr. Chart,” she panted. “Honestly, we need you!” (One likes to hear that, especially a shy and warm-hearted man like Hayden.) “The minute I spotted you here I said to myself, ‘Now there’s a man with sensitive feelings, that ain’t a lotus-eater like the rest of us gilded snobs, and that would be real nice to sit and visit with!’ And I’ll bet you’ll learn Italian like a house afire! Do you know any yet?”

“Well, today I’ve picked up the Italian for ‘where is?’ and ‘veal’ and ‘consommé with noodles.’”

“My, that’s wonderful! In one day! You’re a real linguist! But how well do you know your Ely Culbertson?”

“Perfectly.”

“I KNEW you were a scholar, minute I laid eyes on you. You’re invited to tea at my little shack whenever you feel the least mite lonely.”

Hayden was pounced upon then by Augusta Terby — Gus — a fine, flushed, tennis-leaping English girl of thirty, who looked like a roan horse and who was attended by a mamma who looked like a suspicious pony. Augusta believed that all American males were rich, and willing to be espoused and have some one to send out the laundry. She invited Hayden to play tennis and have a nice cup of tea at their villa. He felt more than ever a citizen of this generous frontier village, the Colony, and Augusta felt, as she had not for nearly a week now, that this time she really had solved her matrimonial puzzle, while Augusta’s mother asked Hayden how he liked London — a sign of recognition with which she favored very few of these strange, loud American Cousins.

With these pawns there were larger chessmen on the Dodsworths’ black-and-white checkered-marble music-room floor. Hayden was privileged to see Sir Henry Belfont, Bart., that mossiest and most moated of British historical monuments, an outsize donjon-tower in morning clothes, with a deerpark of eyebrows, and Lady Belfont, a small and silent American heiress.

Sir Henry welcomed Hayden with what he considered absolute folksiness:

“Ah. An American!”

“Yes.”

“Ah! You are staying for some time?”

“I hope so.”

“I am afraid you will find our Florentia very provincial, after your resplendent Hollywood and New York!”

Nevertheless, Sir Henry had apparently let him in.

Hayden was most taken with a Santa Claus of a man, beard and round belly and kind, discriminating eyes: Professor Nathaniel Friar, who had come here from Boston almost half a century ago. Friar was talking with his friend Prince Ugo Tramontana, shaven and tall and lean, the last of a fabulous but decayed Tuscan family. Mrs. Dodsworth whispered that these two men were the only near-rivals in Florence of Bernard Berenson in knowledge of early Italian art and love for it. They attended the Dodsworths’ clinics because they liked the host and hostess, and because the food was rich and piled high, and neither of them got very much of it at home. They bowed to Hayden amiably, and he felt that he would like such men as neighbors. They were the keepers of the learning that he desired.

All this while, even when he was being bright about backhand shots with Gus Terby, he had been looking past the others at a young woman of twenty-seven or — eight who seemed as out of place as Hayden himself. He thought of ivory as he noted the curious Mediterranean pale-dark hue of her oval face, of her competent hands, which would be smooth to the touch: her cheeks and brow and hands smooth as a horn spoon, as a tortoise-shell box, as an ivory crucifix. Her black hair was parted above the oval ivory face; over her head was a gold-threaded ivory-colored scarf, and her dress was of pure cream-colored wool with no adornment except a broad belt of golden fabric. There was something Latin, something royal in her, something almost holy, free from human vulgarity and all desire except for the perfection of sainthood.

When this paragon joined Professor Friar and Prince Ugo, with whom she seemed to be on terms of familiarity and respect, Hayden asked Mrs. Dodsworth, “Is that girl talking to Mr. Friar an Italian? She could be a principessa.”

“No, she’s a plain Miss, and she’s an American, but she does speak Italian almost well enough for a native. Her name is Olivia Lomond — Dr. Lomond, I suppose it is. She’s a professor, or assistant professor or something, in the history department at the State University of Winnemac, of which my Sam is a trustee. That’s how we happen to know her, because I imagine she looks down on us bridge maniacs. She’s doing research on some manuscript records in the Laurentian Library for a year or so. Would you like to meet her?”

He earnestly would.

Olivia Lomond, when he talked with her, was a little blank; civil enough but not interested. Yes, she was collating some Machiavelli and Guicciardini manuscripts with early official records of Florence; a dusty job, not very rewarding. Yes, she taught at Winnemac: Early European History, especially the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Italy.

Hayden tried, “That’s a period that, just now, I’d like to know more than anything in the world, and I’m as ignorant of it as a Colorado sheepherder. It must have so much more than just sword-and-roses romance.”

She nodded and she said nothing, but her expression said clearly enough, “Yes, of course you would be ignorant of it; you, the American businessman, the tourist!”

He was piqued, and he boasted, “Naturally, as an architect, I suppose I could draw from memory the floor plans of the Riccardi–Medici palace.”

“Oh! Oh, you’re an architect? In the States?”

“Out West. Newlife. Do you know it?”

“I’m afraid not — afraid not.” Nor did she seem very much to want to know it. She was merely paying a conversational rent on her cocktail. “Do you speak any Italian?”

“I’m afraid not — no.” He was determined to be as lofty as this goddess whose ivory veins were filled with ice-cold ink.

“You should speak it.”

“Why?”

“If you ask that, you answer me.”

“It’s not a very important commodity in Newlife. But then, you probably don’t think much of Newlife.”

“How could I? It just hasn’t entered my philosophy of life. I have no doubt it’s a very friendly community, with lovely shade trees — one of the most enterprising spots in Nebraska.”

He let it go. He disliked her; perhaps, with a little attention to it, he could hate her. She seemed indifferent not only to him but, as she glanced about while they talked, to all males. Only when it fell on old Professor Friar, in his shabby sack suit and ill-regimented beard, was her look kindly. She had bartered her soul for trifles of learning that were no more important, in the atomic age, than a list of Assyrian kings. Suave as ivory, passionless as ivory, Olivia Lomond made him suddenly prize the file-rasping fussing of Mary Eliza Bradbin — about bidding and rubber overshoes and sandwich fillings — as fecund and womanly.

Uninterestedly continuing her social duty, Dr. Lomond droned at Hayden, “Are you staying here for some days?”

Astounded by his own news, he heard himself asserting, “I may stay here for some years!”

“No! Really?”

He had aroused her — to at least as much attention as she would give to a donkey cart in the street, and, as she said “Really?” he had perceived that her voice was beautiful: melodious, rather grave, suitable to a woman all of ivory.

She sounded almost half-interested with, “Are you to have an official position here?”

“No. No job. I shall just be studying — go back to school in my senility. I want to master your blasted Italian speech and history.”

But there never was anything so cold as her, “I’m sure that will be amusing,” and she turned to talk to Augusta Terby.

He had meant it — for that moment he had. He would set up shop as a scholar; he would be an Erasmus, a Grosseteste, an Albertus Magnus, if only to SHOW this intellectual snob of a lady professor.

But he did not like her enough to hate her; to want to hurt her. Dr. Lomond fascinated him like a rattlesnake on a putting green. He kept looking at her for the rest of the cocktail hour, while she talked, seemingly on level terms, with that great gentleman, that superior historian, Prince Ugo Tramontana. Her voice came across the room to him like the flowing of small waters, not the flat, provincial quacking of so many vigorous young women at home. Whether or not he would attain it, Dr. Lomond was worthy of a good healthy hating.

He would SHOW her, and in her show the whole wide world.

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