World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 6

His good-night from Dr. Lomond was as curt as though she did not remember ever having seen him. Her eyes were beautiful, and so unmoved, so superior to all the angry, corrupting temptations of life, he reflected, because she did not know that there were any temptations. He thought rudely, “I’m going to get a D Minus in her class and there is no use trying to bluff her. She wouldn’t be angry. She’d just efficiently flunk me.”

But the Dodsworths so warmly invited him to return that he still felt at home in Florence.

He planned to walk down the hill to his hotel, and considered himself rather heroic over a foot journey of half an hour. In Newlife a man, unless he be strengthened by carrying a golf club, has to take out his car for any distance of more than three blocks. He found Professor Nathaniel Friar also intending to walk. Apparently to him, walking was not a new invention, startling and rather risky, but a normal means of getting places. So old-fashioned had this Bostonian become in his four decades abroad. They jogged downhill together, looking at the light-pricked city below and at the road lamps looping up the hill to Fiesole, miles away.

“You had an agreeable time, talking to Miss Lomond?” said Professor Friar.

“She seems intelligent. But a little distant.”

“She’s cool. Women scholars occasionally get like that. They’re dedicated. Frequently they aren’t certain to what they’re dedicated, but clearly it can’t be to such wingless objects in trousers as you and I. This Lomond girl is a really competent and accurate compiler of quite useless facts, so naturally she seems a bit suspect to most men — and to all women. You can’t ask females to ‘burn with a hard, gemlike flame’ and still be obliging about waffles at midnight. Here we are. This is my place. Do come in and see it.”

“Professor” Friar, oftener known as Nat, had never been a regularly enlisted professor of anything beyond Veronese wines and the more acceptable sorts of Italian sausages, nor had he ever written anything more popular than articles in journals of art criticism so learned that just the look of the gray, close pages made your eyes ache. But he had explored every Tuscan and Umbrian church and village, and he could tell you the name and dates of every third-cousin of Domenico Ghirlandaio.

For twenty years he had lived in this five-room wing of the massive Palazzo Gilbercini, sharing the geometric gardens and their cypress alleys ending at coy nude statues. He had never been rich, but the securities left to him by his mother, a Trenchard of Braintree, had provided him with a few casks of wine, a great many books in eight languages, a Perugian altar cloth of 1235, half a dozen chairs, a canister of Earl Grey’s Mixture tea for his friends, and one noble picture: an Annunciation by Getto di Jacopo, a picture reverent and softly human, soft blues and grays against lambent gold, the kneeling angel so exalted, the Madonna so timidly proud, her head bent over the lily in her fragile hand.

As Hayden stared at the Getto, hung against a faded Egyptian rug above a table bristly with old pipes, he began to take hold of the medieval passion for identification with the divine spirit and its longing for authority, earthly and heavenly. He drank his vermouth and lemon juice — Nat Friar considered cocktails as he would a griffin: exciting but not practical — and he looked at the comfortable frowsiness of Nat and felt at home as he never had felt at home at home.

Nat Friar was large and fat and thick-bearded and his eyes were cheerful. There always was pipe-ash on his vest; his rather small living room smelled of tobacco and brandy; and he loved to sit up all night and talk about immortality and Baron Corvo and the Lucca Cathedral.

“Why have you lived here so long?” demanded Hayden. “Or is that impertinent?”

“No, nothing more pertinent. In my case, it might seem to be a self-indulgent escape from reality and the dry-goods business, of which my paternal grandfather was a ferocious pioneer armed with a yardstick. But I think my life has been devoted to proving that one can be just as smugly self-righteous and still do no honest work.

“My occupation and my vice are hoarding useless knowledge, I know more about the history of the Palazzo dei Consoli at Gubbio than any other living man, and nobody cares, including myself. And I like to go on sprees of something new: biology or Sanskrit. Learning, for its own winsome, perverse self — hug it to you but keep a club handy. It is the most entertaining of all mistresses, and the least to be trusted.

“Particularly must one avoid the superstition that there is some mystical virtue in erudition. We all feel that some day we shall be sought after by the pretty girls for our spoken Arabic, our kindness to Cousin Mimosa, or the neatness in which we keep our medicine cabinets. We shan’t! These virtuous doings should be cultivated for their own sake alone.

“I have of late been peeping into the history of the Baglioni family of Perugia, a charming chronicle, all iron and gold clotted with fraternal blood and the tears of ardent young widows. What subject could be more beautiful and useless? Guard your idleness. You are surrounded by barbarians armored with sobriety and punctuality and the Book of 1001 Useful Facts. Be ye watchful in sloth, lest ye be corrupted into industriousness and become a Public Figure, a supporter of all worthy causes, a member of the Elks Club and the Légion d’Honneur, and have five hundred citizens enjoy your funeral — at fifty.”

“I’m safe,” insisted Hayden. “My partner — I’m an architect — thinks I’m poetically impractical. Tell me: how shall I go about learning Italian?”

“Look over the several accredited springs of Tuscan undefiled: the university, the commercial language schools, the highly educated decayed professors who combine Italian grammar with voice-culture and the black-market exchange of dollars. Then forget all of them and get a girl.”

“I might!”

“I don’t mean one like Miss Lomond, who would teach you Dante’s directions to Hell, but one who will teach you IMPORTANT things, like ‘These pair of socks by favor to darn’ and, ‘Bring to me suddenly a plate of anchovies.’”

“Are Dante and anchovies incompatible?”

“Linguistically. I speak an Italian which would thrill the archbishop by its accuracy; I can address a learned academy on the Battle of Cortenuova in Italian, and they will wail with admiration, but when I ask for a pair of shoelaces, the clerk answers me in bad English, and wants to know whether I’m staying in Florence overnight. . . . By the way, if you’d like, I’ll invite you to tea with Miss Lomond. You may find her admirable.”

“Well, she might introduce me to some American students more nearly my own mental age — sixteen!”

He sat in what was to become his favorite room in Florence, the bar of the Hotel Excelsior with its dark mirroring wood and its two bartenders, Enrico and Raffaele, the men in town most worth cultivating, and he contentedly planned to stay in Florence for a week, a month, a season. He would pray for a Biblical miracle: to become again as a little child, and go back to school.

Next morning he again climbed the Torre del Gallo Hill, to have by clear light the view he had seen in twilight enchantment. Below him he saw the bronze-red majesty of the cathedral dome, and Giotto’s tower — as ivory as Olivia Lomond. Fiesole, across the valley, was sharply defined on a hill silver-gray with olive trees. Florence is a thousand years less old than Rome, yet in its medieval reds and yellows and dark passageways, it seems older, as in New England a moldering gingerbread mansion of 1875 seems more venerable than a severe white parsonage of 1675.

“I’ll do it. I’ll stay. I’ll hunt for Michelozzos, not mallards!” said Hayden.

Dr. Olivia Lomond was at Nat Friar’s modest tea, frowning and duskily beautiful in her plain brown dress — that is, all of her was there except her heart and soul and manners. But Hayden was diverted by the presence of Nat’s prim and aged sweetheart, Mrs. Shaliston Baker, whose unbubbling fount had been Boston. She was as small and quiet as a sparrow that has been discreetly reared in the Harvard Yard, and she wore her grandmother’s cameo brooch. She spoke exquisite Italian, even if her English did smack a little of flapping codfish tails and the clatter of lead-foil in chests for China tea. She belonged to the Dante Society, which meets to discuss the longing of Florence to get Dante’s poor exiled corpse back from stubborn Ravenna. It is an up-to-date topic, and has been so since 1320.

Every Sunday for a fifth of a century, these reserved lovers, Ada Baker and Nat, had had tea together.

Nat gave them food as noble as the Samuel Dodsworths’, and Hayden guessed that he would by considerable omission in his own meals make up for this fedora cake, which is the Florentine specialty, with chocolate and whipped cream on it, and for the hot American toast, the honey from Monte Rosa, the tea and blackberry jam and ginger from London.

There were peacefulness and chatter. Nat chronicled his search for a lost altarpiece of Guiduccio Palmerucci through lofty, wind-raked hill towns of Umbria; a tale of sleeping on stone floors, living on bread and olives, and finding that one village was gaily planning to beat him to death as a tax-spy from Rome. Hayden suspected that Nat’s confession of being unable to buy shoelaces in Italian had been a great and gentlemanly lie, and that the old fraud could actually speak an Italian as colloquial, bloodthirsty and beautiful as a Neapolitan taxi-driver’s.

As the talk passed to Dr. Lomond, hers was no glimpse of romantic espionage in mountain passes at twilight, but a complaint about the dusty-eyed, head-cracking drudgery of pawing over a thousand papers in her present investigation of the maternal source of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici — the one who was so wholesomely murdered in 1537. The Duke’s mother, sighed Dr. Lomond, did not seem to have been a lady of doubtful virtue. She just didn’t have any virtue to be doubtful about.

From both of these hygienic ghouls Hayden had clues to an erudition which should not be a smart assemblage of facts to equip a man who should have been an auctioneer or a train-caller to “get a Ph.D.”, nor a putting on of spangled intellectual costumes to impress the dullards, nor a job, nor a gentlemanly way of passing the time, but a gently ruthless, secretly panting, rival-murdering hunt for the facts which are the bones of truth; an unremitting war in which your quick and sympathetic allies are men and women who have themselves been historic facts for five hundred years.

Such scholarship he had never beheld in Newlife, and even in Amherst College and in his school of architecture, it had been rare, and not considered quite well bred, nor useful for grabbing a Full Professorship.

When Jesse Bradbin went in his swift automobile on a sightseeing tour, Jesse explained, “Ah, what the hell, you don’t want to learn too doggone much about all these Beauty Spots and Points of Interest. Just give ’em the once-over and see what they’re like and be able to say you’ve been there. When I’m on a tower, if I can’t kill five hundred miles a day, I figure I’m wasting my time, and if my wife hollers about missing the scenery, I tell her, ‘Oh, we’ll catch that on the way back — maybe!’”

That philosophy of Bradbin, pompously offered at the country-club bar as something new and valuable, caused no riots or harsh cries of offended dignity. “Yuh, that’s so,” agreed the president of the Ranchers and Silver National Bank.

The tyro Hayden was as moved. It was not with hostility or with a flirtatiousness that winked to itself that he petitioned Dr. Lomond, as they tramped together from Nat’s down to the tramline, “I wish you’d do me the favor of having dinner with me this evening, if you are free.”

“I don’t know — uh — Mister — Chart? I’m not sure I can . . . .”

He was sick of all his meekness. “Then you know damn well you can! Come on!”

“But I would prefer . . .”

“If you’re one of these independent females that insist on paying their own share, I don’t mind. We can go dutch.”

“I don’t insist on anything of the kind! I’m delighted to find a man who will buy me a dinner! I’m lucky when I’m out with some wistful young male student — SO sensitive and clever — and don’t have to buy HIS! Italy may be the home of gallantry, but lone lady grinds don’t often get invited to dinner.”

“Not even when they’re beautiful?”

“Not even when they’re VERY beautiful!”

With that, she surprisingly smiled at him, and looked nearly human.

“Where shall we go?” he asked.

“Let’s see — maybe Oliviero’s or the Paoli or Nandina’s. Nandina’s is light and bright and quiet and great food. Usually, when I don’t mournfully stay at my pensione for dinner, I get taken to one of these frantic student hang-outs, the kind they call ‘Bohemian,’ which means noisy and not very clean, tables elbow-to-elbow, filled with American G.I. graduate students and Belgian painters and White Russians whose only profession is being White Russians and English ladies whose only profession is living in small villas back of other villas. They’re all so poor. I hate poor people! I’m so poor myself!”

“Those — uh — Bohemian restaurants sound pretty interesting, though,” confessed the tourist. “But we’ll go to Nandina’s tonight.”

He so far reverted to the meekness which he had sworn to forswear as to chuck masculine pride and ask her to do the ordering of dinner. While she rattled the menu, he was fixed on Dr. Olivia Lomond; he saw that at her neck and the wrists of her sexless workaday brown dress were little edgings of fine Burano lace, somehow touching. Her hands were not small. They had the untiring competence of a workman, of a peasant, but they were extraordinarily smooth, and there was an anxious gesture toward feminineness in the two small, ruby rings that betrayed her strong fingers. And he noticed that her nails were slightly tinted now. They had not been so at the Dodsworths’. Had she put this on for the tea-party — for him?

But his feeling that there might be ardor buried in her was killed by her mechanical questions, neither liking him enough to rejoice in his presence nor yet fearing him enough to be at all wary with him.

“I suppose you have made some progress in your plan to study Florence?”

“No — just wandered around, you know, walked ‘round.”

“Anything you’ve especially liked?”

“No — oh, lot of different things.”

And they fell silent and looked at a family birthday party at a table across the room. There was about the family nothing of the faded gold of aristocracy nor yet of the “quaint and picturesque natives” for whom the three-day tripper seeks. They were all volubly Italian, but in look and dress the father might have been a businessman of London or Glasgow or Pittsburgh. He was the type of tall, busy and competent engineer or salesman who was trying to rebuild Italy after two wars and two million foreign tourists. His wife would have seemed normal in Stockholm or Des Moines. But in their exuberant family affection they did differ from the couples whom Hayden knew. And the grandmother laughed in secret intimacy with the youngest child; the middle-sized small boy burlesqued his bachelor uncle’s flourishing way of eating an artichoke, and the uncle laughed loudest of them all.

“Families! They seem to exist here, still,” wondered Hayden.

“And they did all through Italian history. A brother would either murder his brother — which, I suppose, may be one way of showing keen domestic interest — or else he would go out to a neighboring tower and murder a rival family there, to keep his brother in the Council. All Italian history is made up of layers of families.”

Hayden complained, “Seems to me that at home the children consider the house just a free inn and rental garage. And we older deserters: I have two sisters and a brother who live in four different states and don’t see one another twice in a decade, and I have three nephews — no, four it is now, I guess — that I’ve never seen at all!”

Dr. Lomond sounded regretful, her cold independence betrayed by memory. “Sometimes I’ve thought I’d like to be the founder of a family, like those grand old American women who went West in a Conestoga wagon. Then, maybe, one would never be lonely.”

“Ah! You get lonely here, too!”

She abruptly cloaked her wistfulness again, and said sharply, “Never! Not now, I mean.”

“Didn’t you a little when you first came to Europe?”

She studied her forkful of long ivory-colored strands of tagliatelli; she seemed shyly to be remembering the girl student that had been, and she answered with some March-morning warmth in her voice:

“I’m afraid I was, first. I would tell myself that I was a trained traveler. Hadn’t I gone way off to graduate school at Columbia, with mother’s lunch, deviled-ham sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, in a shoebox? And in EUROPE— oh, I COULDN’T get lonely, all this to see, and I had plenty of resources in myself; I could read and think, couldn’t I? Not like girls who had to have flattery from slobbering men all the while. Besides, I scolded myself, I had been adequately conditioned to loneliness in my first year of teaching at Winnemac; I just corrected papers there and took long walks.

“So I surely couldn’t be anything but cheerful in the panorama of Europe. But I was lonely in Paris, I was lonely in Rome, and when I first came to Florence, nearly two years ago . . . I’m not impressed by these celebrated lonely prisoners who made a pet of a rat. I made a pet of a housefly.”

“But you can’t!”

“I did!”

“How could you tell . . .?’

“There was only one in my room — winter it was, too cold for flies, but this one, really, he was the bravest, most clever little fly. His name was Nicky.”

“How did you know?”

“He told me so.”

“Of course.”

“The minute I’d come back to my room from the library and take off my jacket, he’d be there lighting on it — perhaps barking a welcome in some infinitesimal way. Nights, he slept on the hot-water tap, always. He never touched my breakfast till I had finished it; just walk on the rim of the tray and look at the pot of honey. He would take walks on my hand without tickling me — quite the most refined fly in Florence — and the only person here that I knew well, till I met Professor Friar. Don’t you call that a loneliness of distinction — to be ecstatic over a housefly?”

“Yes, that’s big league. What happened to Nicky?”

“He passed away. From pneumonia. He is now buried, though without a tombstone, in a volume of Mirandola manuscript letters in the Laurentian Library.”

“I understand him, slightly,” said Hayden. “When I first went off to college, there was an imitation oriental rug in my room, and because I was too scared to find one single happy thing to do, the first four-five days, I sat mooning over that rug till it occurred to me that one of the figures in it was like a dancing girl, young and gay, with whirling ballet skirts and gold stockings — darling, rather small face, excited and innocent.

“Her imaginary smile kept me alive all that first week in college. The next fall, she had vanished, sold along with her rug, to some sordid flesh-dealer. But last night, here at my hotel, when I was drearily thinking that, after all, I might drift on to Rome, I saw her again in my bedroom rug: dancing in a different show now, very different costume, silly costume, feather boa and a huge muff and a lively little pillbox cap, but there she was, cheering me again, bidding me stay here, for she would comfort me. . . . Seventeen years later!”

“I would not have supposed you were so imaginative, Mr. Chart.”

“Why not?” (A little huffily.)

“No reason. Just my stupidity. I’m a hermit, in a cell roofed over with books, looking for gallantry in the trecento, and so I miss it when it stands right in front of my cell, I suppose.”

“What did you think I’d be like — Olivia?”

“Oh — efficient, clean, kind, devoted to your wife and children and your friends and your favorite daily paper — though I’m sure you have risen from the sports page to the editorial.”

“Is that a rise? Well, my wife is dead, I have no children, and only very casual friends, and my partner in architecture — at least by preference he would not be an architect at all but a salesman and a penny-grinder: Jesse Bradbin — he’s an illiterate, and yet I like him and admire him and his wife, Mary Eliza, better than anybody else in Newlife. I was as lonely as I am here — only busier there.”

“Oh.”

“But I don’t know that your diagnosis of me as a page with nothing printed on it except dollar signs is so far wrong. I think most of us are simply patterns of clothes and habits of work and the same way of saying good morning, invariably. ‘Mornin’, mornin’, mornin’, well, how are you, this fine beautiful morning!’ Jesse screams, every day, rain, shine, or snow, and then I feel so superior to him, but I’m no better. . . . I just glare, and probably it’s always the same glare. That must be one of the great pleas of religion: that if a man hasn’t a precious soul behind all this unchanging blankness, then he’s a pretty shabby animal!

“I’ve always been busy; busy as a son, busy as a college brat. My specialties then were tennis (gone rusty) and history (forgotten) and draftsmanship (good). Afterwards I was busy as an architect. And as the husband of my popular wife . . . I don’t know that I have any personality at all, really. (Not that you have ever asked me about it!) Maybe I’ll find a personality here.”

“I think you’re probably hard on yourself, Mr. Chart.”

“No. Let’s face it — as people say when they want to be unpleasant.”

“But you seem to be unusually kind and fair — for a MAN!”

“You don’t like men much?”

“Why should I? From my university president, that back-slapping, endowment-hounding old fraud, looking for generals and judges to whom he can give honorary degrees in return for publicity, from him or from the head of my department, that dyspeptic old phonograph — and he thinks Cesare Borgia should have been a Y.M.C.A. secretary — from them to the dumbest young man in my classes — who’s only a bit younger than me, really, and not as good a dancer, but he says he hates being taught by a stringy old maid like me — oh, the whole lot of males that I know best have very successfully combined to keep me an apologetic schoolteacher instead of a hard-boiled scholar who would slap down my academic betters when they’re my worse.”

“But isn’t there — isn’t there something else, some resentment, something personal . . .”

“We won’t go into that!”

“I’m sorry, Olivia — honestly. It was just the intrusion of a lonely pilgrim who considers you splendid and somewhat intimidating. You’ll forgive me, Olivia? I’m so harmless — disgustingly so!”

“It’s all right. Let’s forget it — Hayden.”

“Okay. Olivia, do you plan to stay very long in Italy?”

“Just as long as I can manage it, by swindling or armed robbery.”

“What is your home — I mean, what do you think of as your home? Zenith, like Mr. Dodsworth?”

“Never!”

“Where then? In America, I mean.”

“Nowhere in America! My real home is anywhere, anywhere at all, on the Continent of Europe — except maybe Russia; any place where they drink wine instead of ice water and tomato juice, and where they don’t consider the World’s Series and madam’s new vanity case the most exalted topic of conversation.”

“So you’re that famous scoundrel, the escapist, the expatriate.”

“Escape? Why not escape from a world of gas pumps and canned soup to a world where ‘the wind sets in with the autumn that blows from the region of stories’?”

“Yes. I still like Swinburne.”

“Oh.”

He could but grin at her slight inflation, and something resembling a smile warmed her face, like the sun after cold dawning. She demanded, “You read poetry?”

“Not much. I used to. But there are men who do read it.”

“Oh — MEN! Lumbering, lecherous, jocular animals! But they don’t smell clean, like the animals; they smell of pipes and pork chops and onions and shaving cream. With their grimaces that are supposed to delight a maiden’s heart and that just give away their itch for sly conquest. Men! My dear Mr. Chart! My innocent Hayden!”

No. She was detestable.

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